“Doula” by Josh White

The weather app showed the storm veering down into Ohio, which I doubted because Michigan always got hit with the big ones. I’d just got off the phone with Lori who said she could feel him coming, her storm baby, my son. The doctors were telling her it was okay to stay home, but she had the feeling it could happen any minute; Arnie, her new boyfriend, was hovering so oppressively with his car keys clutched she told him to go sit down. We hadn’t been expecting her to go into labor for another week and after it started that morning I planned to drive up after work, maybe leave a little early; I emailed my manager that I had to leave immediately to make the eight-hour drive up to Traverse City before the storm made the roads impassable. By the time I had my coat on and I was out the door the world had been repainted white with new snow.

I spent the first hour of the trip arguing on the phone with Lori about naming the child; it was an ongoing argument for us: she wanted to wait, keeping our minds clear of name-clutter until he came out, so we could look him in the eye and let his soul speak his name into our hearts. I thought this overly woo-woo, and fought to have the discussion beforehand. She must have been exhausted by her labor because this time she relented and let me run through my list of suggestions: Werner, Kaden, Prince, Billy, Forest, Kale, and so on. And she was like: no, no, no, no, no, and again no, not yet, I’m not ready yet to pick a name. “I’m not asking you to pick a name now, just pre-approve the list,” I said.

“That’s why I had to move away from you; I can’t deal with your argumentative nature; you keep pushing and pushing your points and you always have to be right.”

“I don’t have to always be right.”

“See what I mean?”

“No.” I knew she was right, at least about my personality, but didn’t want to admit it just yet, typically waiting for her to get mad enough to cry before I gave in and started the apology train. So, yeah, it was best we didn’t live together anymore. “You could at least tell me if I’m on the right track with these, right? Like, no, too this or too that.”

“Nope, not gonna.” She could be equally pertinacious—with me, not so much with Arnie; she didn’t have to be: being emotionally apolitical, he seldom fought for his ideas. Lori and I, though, fought with a hate as assiduous as our love had been when we first fell for one another.

The snow grew thick and slick on the road so I got off the phone to grasp the steering wheel with both hands, putting a stop to our back-and-forth about naming the baby. The wind picked up and blew the car around the road, the sky operatic with towering cathedrals of clouds, the snow falling heavily, compelling me to drive eight miles per hour, the world nearly blotted out with falling white, my head reaching over the steering wheel to look out for the muted eyes of oncoming headlights.

Arnie was a decent guy; and—according to Lori—a better fit for her; he was more willing to go down her rabbit holes. When things got bad between us she moved back to Traverse City to help out on her family’s organic cherry farm, and that’s where she met Arnie, her parents’s handyman. Despite being an environmental science major Arnie was kind of an idiot, once telling me that rocks and trees had feelings and were sentient; when I challenged him on this he responded with a stream of gibberish that gave me a headache. When Lori told me she was pregnant she was kind of seeing both of us; while I was driving up from Detroit on weekends to work things out, she was fucking Arnie during the week. So there was a question of paternity, but she insisted it was mine, said she could sense when it happened. I told her that sounded iffy, just like her insistence on the rhythm method. She offered to do a DNA test (I would have to pay) and I dropped the topic, afraid the result could take the child away from me. Arnie believed her, and that was good enough.

As the winds blew the whiteout alternated between complete and partial, and the mounting drifts narrowed the road to a single lane. I’d been cranking Wilco to hold down my vibe but I switched it off to give one-hundred percent to the road, cracking the windows to hear the sound of the tires on the snow, employing every sense to maximize speed without flying off the road, turning the steering wheel like the dial of a safe, feeding the vain hope that I’d get to see my son’s birth by dint of my spectacular storm-driving skill. I imagined his wet head emerging into the world, those first hairs smeared to his pate, the doctor with her gloved hands giving the child to Lori, and Lori crying and kissing its cheeks. The thought of missing that moment made me angry, a throbbing heat at my temples, a procession of rough stones descending through my esophagus.

We didn’t fall out of love all at once, but bit-by-bit. We laid siege to one another in the booth of the 24-hour pizza joint at the end of the block where our apartment building sat like a grumpy, brick behemoth. We argued for hours, slice by slice, about how we’d drifted apart, enumerating the micro-aggressions, debating the finer points, until it was only our fighting, and the pizza, that held us together. If asked at a party, I could recount how we’d fallen in love—I knew the place (at a music festival), and the circumstances (lying under the stars and watching the Perseids)—but I could no longer summon the feeling or the frame of mind, nor could I look at her and recognize the face of my beloved; there was no more the jolt, the tug of the heart. Lori said she felt the same way, that we’d fought too much, that she’d planned to leave and go live with her parents for a while. She threatened to do it, week after week, pizza by pizza, until she finally got the cardboard boxes from the grocery store down the street and did it. She said I could  keep the cat as it clearly preferred me over her.

Briefly the snow relented and the deeply-covered landscape stretched flat and white in all directions for miles, leafless trees black and half-buried. Drifts battled the idea of a thoroughfare and infrequent cars reimpressed civilization amid the storm, carving a slender lane between the growing walls of snow.

Arnie was literally a tool: the first time I saw him he was on a stepladder, wearing a worn leather carpenter’s belt, repairing the gutter to an outbuilding on the farm. I compared my indie-rocker-pale skin to his honest ruddy glow, and imagined his body having sprung naturally from the fertile cherry orchards skirting the placid bay. As he was unfailingly affable, parrying my passive-aggressive barbs and sneers, we eased into an amicable relationship over the months I traveled up to Traverse City trying to win Lori back. When Lori had to run errands for her parents Arnie and I would hang out and play Xbox and smoke pot. Often the three of us would get dinner in town and I would try to argue with Arnie the same way I would argue with Lori, battling him over some woo-woo thing or another, and both he and Lori would look at me with the same expression, like they were already married.

The drifts were now as tall as my car, and when an oncoming vehicle approached we slowed to a crawl to eyeball the margins, edging slowly by, but my front bumper scraped her back panel—she waved it off, “Don’t worry about it!”

I called Lori to check on her status; maybe all this rush through the snow was pointless. Maybe she would have my son tomorrow.

Arnie answered. “Hey, bud.”

“How is she? What’s the time between contractions?”

He swallowed, his voice constricted, “I’m not sure. But she keeps saying it’s going to be soon. The roads are so bad she’s afraid to go to the hospital, so she’s calling her neighbor over who’s a doula.”

“What the fuck? Is that safe? Has she worked with this doula before?”

“I don’t know man, I’m just the messenger, okay?”

“Sorry. But do you even know this person?”

“Hey, if Lori thinks it’s safe then it’s safe, right? Just trust the process, you know, the universe.”

“Oh, Christ.”

“You okay? You on your way up? The roads have to be bad, right?”

“Horrible; I might get stranded out here.”

“Then you’d miss the little guy coming into our plane of existence. Bummer. I’m sorry, bro.”

“Yeah, it’s got me stressed.”

He stammered for a second. “I—I wish there was something I could do. I could ask if Lori could maybe delay it, you know?”

I was so angry I wanted to hang up the phone, I wanted to scream at him, but I knew it was just me being monkey-brained. “Hey, put Lori on.”

“She’s napping, man.”

“No she’s not, don’t lie to me. She can’t be napping between contractions.”

“Okay, it’s just that she said she doesn’t want to argue with you right now.”

“Just fucking put her on.”

“Okay, okay. No need to swear.”

I saw the blurry, muted eyes of oncoming headlights.

Lori’s voice was tired and raspy. “Hey, where are you?”

“I’m still like six hours away, depending on things. Are you going to the hospital or staying home?”

“They said they’d send an ambulance but I don’t want to pay for it, and I don’t trust that it won’t get stuck or slide off the road.”

I stopped the car as the oncoming vehicle slowed and stopped. “So you’re having your neighbor deliver our child?”

“Yeah, she’s here now, getting things ready.”

The oncoming car had stopped several lengths in front of me and flashed its lights. “This decision of yours is stressing me out. Have you worked with this woman before?”

“No, not really, but I have a good feeling about her; we met at a farm fundraiser during harvest season and we talked for hours. Thank the universe she happened to be available today.”

The woman in the other car got out to motion for me to come out and talk. “Sorry, I have to go. I’m stopped on the road; it’s so drifted there isn’t room for cars to pass each other so I don’t know what the hell we are going to do.”

“Okay. Just get here, all right?”

“It’s all I want to do in the world right now.”

I got out and the woman stood in front of my car, arms flexed by her side, legs apart and bent, lips pressed in a grim frown. “You got a shovel?” she said.

I shrugged my scrawny shoulders.

“What kind of Michigander are you?” she said, going to her trunk and producing a snow shovel, which she gave to me. “Here, you’re the man, you make a path, all right?” 

I took the shovel and pointed at the sixty-inch drifts, “You expect me to shovel through this?”

“You’d rather we stand here staring at each other? I got to be in Lansing; my mother has no one to take care of her.”

Pitching the snow up and over the high wall rapidly debilitated my spindly arms, and seeing my flailing, the woman took the shovel and made quick work of widening the gap. When it seemed we could get around one another, I thanked her and wished her well with her mother. She grimaced, waving quickly, and she and her car vanished in the rear view, engulfed by the blowing snow. Somewhere high above the sun shown down, but there was no indication of it now, only a landscape of low heavy clouds, blowing torrents of snow, and terrifying drifts, while in Traverse City my son lay in Lori’s womb like a leaf bud, every feeling he’d ever feel, every feeling we’d feel for him, curled up tightly and yet to unravel.

The next stretch was long and lonely, the blizzard keeping all but the most desperate, such as myself, off the road. After not seeing another car for an hour, I put Wilco back on and minute by minute I turned it up until it was full volume and I was singing along. The road had widened and the drifts were no longer as threatening, with room for oncoming cars to pass, but no cars came. I stopped at a Travel Center where the highway met the interstate, the parking lot crammed with idling semi-trailers, their lights pitching wedges of glowing snowfall into the storm dark. I saw a Hyundai half-embedded in a drift by the side of the highway and I walked over to check in, carrying my bag of sodas and jerky. I brushed away the snow with my elbow and was relieved to see it was empty, except for half-eaten fast food on the passenger seat.

I called Lori.

“Hey, the roads are shit,” she said, sounding drained. “Doris is here—she’s going to help me bring him into the world: Arnie’s inflating the birthing pool in the living room.”

“Fantastic, that’s great. Are you okay?”

“I mean, yeah; except I feel like I have a raccoon in my belly scratching to get out every time I have a contraction.”

“A raccoon? Is that normal?”

“Doris says so. Ow.”


“He’s a fucker, you know? He got that from you.”

“Ha ha.”

“I hope he doesn’t fight with me all the time like you do.”

“No, he won’t. He’ll be a sweet boy, nothing like me.”

“I hope so. Oh, hey, I gotta go; mom and dad just got here and I have to talk with them. Be careful, okay? I can’t really tell you not to drive up in this, but…yeah. Just be careful.”

My route headed northward, finally, after Grand Rapids, passing the plows fighting their fight, the freeway treacherous but marginally navigable as Wilco shifted to Coldplay, my passenger seat loaded with ripped-open bags of jerky, trail mix, powdered mini-donuts and several Red Bulls. A ball of excitement welled in my gut: whether or not I saw the birth in-person, I would soon be a father. While we hadn’t planned to have a kid, we hadn’t planned to not have a kid, either. We’d long talked about becoming parents, both of us onboard with the idea, neither of us very upset if we got a little careless with the timing of the rhythm method, if she forgot to check her chart before we made love, if (I once in a while) forgot to pull out. In fact, on the night she alleges we conceived, while we were coming together, I shouted that I wanted to marry her and get her pregnant. Weeks later, after we knew she was pregnant, during our long fights in the small hours, she said wanting to have a child with me was different than wanting to have a life with me. I pushed back at her on this, and in that pushback I realized it was I who was trying to keep the relationship alive. “How could you want to have my child but not want to be with me?” I said. She told me that it was just that way, and there was no other way to explain it, other than the feeling of it. I fought with her about this week after week until she told me to chill out and became exclusive with Arnie.

Arnie called me, breathless. “It’s happening, man. She’s not in the tub yet, but the contractions are getting close together. Where are you?”

I was devastated; I’d tried to set my expectations, prepare myself for the fact that I would miss the moment, but my emotions did not comply. “Are you kidding me? I just got north of Grand Rapids; I’m still really far off.”

“Oh, shit, man. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, it sucks. At least she’s got you there with her, and everyone else.”

Arnie let me go and I was left feeling pointless, unneeded, extraneous, just some idiot driving in a blizzard. A self-pitying tear burgeoned in the corner of my eye. No crying! Only tears of joy for my son. I wiped it away and promised to not make this about me, as was my tendency. Yet anger at the thought of missing the moment still pressed against the inside of my forehead, heat and sweat pouring forth as I struggled to manage my feelings and simultaneously fight the road conditions. I pressed the accelerator and went faster than I thought I should, telling myself it was for my son, to see him in his first moment on this side of things. The curves were gradual and I took them at greater and greater speeds, my car sliding, the knots in my shoulders hard as ball bearings. The Cold Play slid into Old Crow Medicine Show and the music and the snow and the craze of the quest all cemented into this vibe I’d never forget. I’ve tried to convey all this to Ira, my son, over the years, but he just rolls his eyes whenever I tell the story, accusing me of making it all about my experience, to which I respond, valid, but still, it was a real thing that was amazing and beautiful in itself.

For no reason at all, under my own watchful eye, I made an error, carrying too much speed into a curve, and when I tried to turn, the car did not turn, instead plowing explosively through a drift, crashing down the ditch and landing in an empty field. The wheels spun in place as the chassis was lofted off the ground by a mound of packed snow. I searched through the emergency kit Lori had bought for me after she first moved up to Traverse City, near the end of last winter; it was a thoughtful gift, and the fact of it touched me as I unzipped it, but I found no flares, just a plastic triangle with reflectors that seemed puny and ineffectual compared to the scale of what was going on around me, so I hiked through the drift into the middle of the road, whipped by the wind, waves of snowflakes crisp on my bare cheeks, and waited and hoped for some oncoming help to flag down with desperate flailing arms. As the snow crusted on my eyelashes I stared into the distance, hoping for the pale eyes of an oncoming vehicle bleeding through the blowing white haze. In my stress and hurry I had neglected to turn off the car, so the wipers still beat their path across the windshield, the headlights peered into the darkening distance, and the music played in muffled strains. Standing in the road exposed to the elements was painful and I wanted to head back into the warm bubble of my car’s interior, but that was not an option, so I blew into my hands, shoved them into my pockets, put them into my armpits, danced in place, paced, jumped up and down, waved my arms not to flag traffic but to get the blood flowing. My phone rang and I had trouble getting the glass to recognize my frozen, ice-wet fingerprint, and I missed the call. They called back and I’d stuck my finger in my mouth to warm it and enable it to interact with the screen to answer. Arnie’s voice quivered on the other side. “He’s here, man.”

Everything went silent for a second. The wind blew fierce but made no sound. “Who’s here?”

“Your son, man,” he whispered. He might have been crying. “He’s beautiful, man, you have to see him.”

I kicked a boot-full snow into the air. “Let me talk to Lori.”

I’d never heard her sound happier, or more tired, as if someone had taken apart her house, and dug under it, and found a lost city of gold. “Rob, he’s beautiful. You have to see him.”

“Switch to video!” She tried, but it froze, the signal wasn’t strong enough. The cold wind was making me tear up, but there were actual tears, too. “Describe him to me.”

“Well, he’s very small and red, with dark hair stuck to his head, hair softer than corn silk, and his eyes are mostly closed, and his skin is warmer and softer than dough rising in the oven. He’s a little angel.”

“I—I. That’s.” I couldn’t speak. Her words built the bridge into the moment and I lost my own words to add onto that. I heard a thin, piercing wail; the first time I’d heard my son’s voice.

“Hey, I gotta go. I think he’s ready to feed. Be careful, okay? Get a hotel if you need to.”

“Tell him I’m coming, okay?”

“All right, I will.”

A hulking yellow municipal plow truck approached, I waved my arms frantically against the glare of the high-powered lights, the driver slowed and listened to my chattering speech, something about the screams of my son and the hurry I was in as the snow piled on my shoulders.

Josh White is an emerging writer with work appearing in Bandit Fiction, LitMag, and The Headlight Review. He lives in Brooklyn.