Please don’t, over time, had come to assume multiple meanings in the lives of the Harrises. First and foremost was the original: a pleading or urging from Rebecca that Kenny not explode, as he did often, though never at her. Then there was a softer version: as in No more tickling, or Maybe it’s not a good idea to buy that cheesecake, or I don’t really need that birthday present we can’t afford. Finally, on those rare occasions when the two of them were on the verge of a argument, a spat, or some kind of squabble, it became their safe phrase, whose invocation or utterance was enough to turn a potential dispute into a moment of shared laughter.
In the eyes of their friends, the Harrises were not simply an unlikely couple. They were almost separate species. Rebecca was calm, soft-spoken, and understanding, albeit with a kind of patrician New England remove that some mistook for aloofness. Kenny, in contrast, was loud, gregarious, and upbeat, yet capable of the kind of volatility that quickly revealed his blue collar New Jersey roots.
When confronted by a wrong or an injustice – something as insignificant as a driver cutting him off, or a jerk ignoring the wait-your-turn code at their favorite LA burger joint; or worse, something as heinous as racial prejudice or bullying – Kenny turned into a man possessed. With words or with fists, he became fearless, relentless, indomitable.
Kenny’s outbursts were a frequent sore point early in his relationship with Rebecca –one that failed to diminish as days turned to months, then months to years. Though she appreciated his willingness to fight for his rights, or theirs, plus his readiness to stick up for an underdog, Rebecca, was, and probably always would remain, uncomfortable with controversy or confrontation. More importantly, in a world where far too many hotheads were armed, she felt there was valid reason to fear for Kenny’s life.
As different as they were in background and temperament, Rebecca and Kenny shared a surprising number of loves and interests. Food, from haute cuisine to pastrami, and from pizza to treats from Burma, Ethiopia, and far-off provinces of China, provided a never-ending source of adventure and joy. As did films, whether by Godard, Bertolucci, Sergio Leone, Sam Fuller, or some new auteur from North Africa or Finland. Add to that their affection for offbeat novels and travel, plus music ranging from John Lee Hooker to Thelonious Monk to the Chambers Brothers, Southside Johnny, Sharon Jones & the DapKings, and even obscure hip-hop, and there was a common ground that was ever changing and seemingly inexhaustible.
With each of them hailing from 3,000 miles away, the two spent considerable time exploring their new environment simply as friends, with Kenny, all the while, enjoying flings not merely with locals, but also with old flames who passed through Southern California.
Inevitably, though, what started as platonic became less so. Then, what was still noncommittal evolved into something deeper and more meaningful, with the two of them ultimately searching for an apartment to share.
The notion of marriage, however, remained not just unspoken, but seemingly far-fetched, until a day when Kenny, about to light up a Montecristo cigar smuggled out of Cuba by a friend, playfully tried to place the band on Rebecca’s ring finger.
“Don’t do it unless you mean it,” she said softly.
“What makes you think I don’t?”
“Am I sensing something?”
“The C word,” she replied.
“You mean crazy?”
“Try again –”
“You don’t possibly mean commitment –”
Kenny gazed deeply into Rebecca’s eyes. “Well, I’m game if you are,” he then said, surprising not just her, but himself as well. If either of them had been a believer in omens, the events leading up to their wedding might have made the future seem far too unlikely. Scheduled to take place in a bucolic spot overlooking Rebecca’s cherished coast of Maine, the first sign of trouble came with the arrival of the Matron of Honor, who showed up inconsolable, her husband having dumped her for a Swedish exchange student. Carla’s rage seemed tame, however, once war broke out between two other key figures: Rebecca’s mother and Kenny’s.
Determined to remain above the fray, the bride and groom took to enumerating what they playfully termed their blessings. “At least there’s no hail storm,” Rebecca said at one point. “At least there are no locusts”, Kenny stated at another. Then came, “At least W won’t be President .” And, “At least the Russians haven’t invaded.”
All that, however, was before the area was struck by a hurricane whose devastation caused the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Yet despite the number of invitees who found themselves turned away by highway patrolmen, plus the fact that a grandparent on each side was inadvertently left at a nearby motel, and above all the increased hostility between the two sets of parents, who progressed from exchanging epithets to cold-shouldering each other, the wedding proceeded without setting off nuclear warfare. As did a brief honeymoon in Montreal.
Laden with presents, many of which had little relevance to their lifestyle, the newlyweds then set off on a cross-country drive with the hope of a fresh start.
That lasted until somewhere in Wyoming, when their aged Volvo’s water pump
Undaunted, they had the car towed into Laramie. There, thanks to Rebecca’s whispered pleas of Please don’t, slights and looks that might otherwise have resulted in explosions passed without serious incident. Thus what might have seemed like three days of interminable waiting instead became a second honeymoon, complete with a rodeo, country music, and loads of chicken-fried steaks.
Reaffirmation that their luck might be changing for the better came shortly after the newlyweds finally returned to Los Angeles. Having dreamed aloud about relocating to a nicer part of town, Rebecca and Kenny unloaded their presents, grabbed some much appreciated Thai food, then drove up to the Hollywood Hills. Certain that its rustic feel and scenic views were perfect for them, they were scouring the area in search of rentals when they came upon a guy putting up a For Rent sign.
Within minutes, the newlyweds found themselves paying first and last month’s rent on a small but cozy house that seemed perfect for them.
Kenny’s dealings as an up-and-coming producer in the music business, a world infinitely more volatile than Rebecca’s realm of children’s books, provided a measure of satisfaction, as well as a non-stop source of agitation. That, not surprisingly, upped his level of combustibility to the point where Please don’ts came with ever-increasing frequency during their first awkward but never dull year of married life.
Yet despite the constant tension, it was Kenny who remained a much-needed source of positive energy when attempts to have a baby turned their bedroom into a science lab. He was the one who buoyed Rebecca’s spirits each time the arrival of her period risked becoming a cataclysmic setback. And who refused to accept as definitive the ominous reports given to them by fertility specialists. And, most significantly, who engendered Please don’ts from his wife whenever someone dared broach the subject of settling for adoption.
“Conventional wisdom,” Kenny stated after a session with a particularly vexing physician, “is nothing more than accepted ignorance.”
“Which means?” Rebecca asked.
Not only would the two of them neither give up nor give in, Kenny insisted not once, not twice, but so enough that it became a mantra – they would ultimately, without any question or doubt, prevail.
When, at last, Rebecca became pregnant, Kenny did not pop the cork from a bottle of Dom Perignon, nor did he gloat. “Now comes the real work,” he announced. So began a program in which he squeezed fresh grapefruit juice daily once it was found to be the only valid antidote to Rebecca’s morning sickness. And smoked a turkey breast each week to guarantee a tasty and ever-ready source of protein. And, once it was time, made
their weekly Natural Childbirth class a highlight, rather than a chore, by discovering a tasty and affordable Persian restaurant on their way.
In keeping with their due diligence, with only six weeks left before the expected day of delivery, Rebecca and Kenny, having conferred with both their Ob/Gyn and their pediatrician, took a tour of the hospital where the birth would presumably take place.
What they found pleased them immensely. Aside from being friendly, uncrowded, and wonderfully calm, the maternity ward had a blissful spirit of cooperation. Rebecca, they were assured, would be able to keep the baby with her at all times. Plus, Kenny would be completely welcome to remain with mom and child twenty-four hours a day. Despite the uncertainty ahead, the parents-to-be were beyond comforted. Rebecca and Kenny, in fact, were aglow.
The remaining time leading up to the expected delivery date was charted and planned in greater detail, as Kenny often joked, than the invasion of Normandy. Nothing, no matter how large or small, went ignored or unscheduled – from the acquisition of a crib, to the food that would be on hand, to the commencement of a diaper service, since, for both ecological reasons and comfort, their newborn would only be touched by cotton.
Everything imaginable would be taken care of, acquired, or attended to, in due time. Or so they thought.
It was while headed to a business dinner that Kenny first got a hint that their carefully orchestrated plans might find a way to go awry. Seeing Rebecca’s number come up on his cell phone, he answered quickly thanks to Bluetooth.
“How’s my favorite mom-to-be?”
“I t-think I had a contraction,” Rebecca announced nervously.
“But we’re close to four weeks away.”
“I know, but –”
“Want me to come home?”
“Just be on stand-by,” Rebecca said.
“You need me, I’m yours.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll call Dr. Roth.”
Having checked in a couple of times during the course of the evening, Kenny phoned again once seated behind the wheel of his car. Reassured that there was no need to break land and sea speed records, he arrived home in time to find Rebecca filling a cupboard with what looked like a year’s supply of recently purchased rolls of paper towels.
“Somebody nesting?” Kenny asked.
“Don’t be silly.”
“So what did Roth say?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s out of town.”
“But I spoke to the doctor filling in, and he said it was probably just the baby moving.”
“Or that it might have been a twitch.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“In any event, I feel fine. Get you something?”
“A good night’s sleep after all the yak-yak over dinner.”
“Plus maybe a little too much wine?”
“Me?” Kenny asked guiltily before yanking off his clothes and tumbling tipsily into bed.
Despite barely being able to touch the rim, Kenny was dreaming that he was dunking one-handed over Kobe Bryant when suddenly he was awakened by a hand rubbing his head.
“I think my water broke,” Rebecca said sheepishly as Kenny sat up.
“H-how can you tell?” he mumbled.
“The bathroom’s a swamp.”
With Kenny having done his best to fight off drowsiness by running water over his head, he and Rebecca burst forth moments later from their hillside lair to head toward the hospital.
“Everything’ll be fine,” Kenny said as he navigated his way through streets that were blissfully free of traffic after midnight.
“Everything’ll be just fine.”
“You trying to convince me, or yourself?” Rebecca couldn’t help asking.
In contrast to the serenity during their exploratory visit, what they found at the hospital’s maternity ward was bedlam.
“What’s going on?” asked Kenny once they made their way through the crowd at Admissions.
“Happens every year at this time,” replied the harried staffer.
“It’s September 26th.”
“Nine months and a day after Christmas. So where do things stand?”
“My water broke,” explained Rebecca.
“Your doctor in the know?”
“I wish,” Kenny interjected none too happily.
“He’s out of town,” Rebecca added. “But the fill-in’s on his way, and so’s the pediatrician.”
“Hopefully things’ll go easily,” said the staffer despite the chaos around her.
Any hope for easily disappeared once the substitute obstetrician, a rumpled but affable guy who introduced himself as Dr. Kornblau, arrived.
“I guess you know we’re talking about footling breech,” he said upon examining Rebecca.
“We know nothing of the sort,” Rebecca mumbled.
“But what’s that mean?” demanded Kenny.
“That the baby’s trying to come out one foot first,” replied Kornblau.
“I know that,” Kenny protested. “I mean for natural childbirth.”
“Well, we can try to turn him.”
“Him?” asked Rebecca.”
“You didn’t have amnio?” queried Kornblau.
“Only to check for birth defects,” Kenny explained. “We want to be surprised.”
“Then him or her,” Kornblau responded.
“And if turning doesn’t do –” Rebecca said haltingly.
“What we hope it’ll do?” said Kornblau, finishing her sentence. “If it seems there’s insufficient dilation –”
“Then?” asked Kenny.
“We’re looking at a C-section,” stated Kornblau without joy.
Once it became clear that despite their hopes and dreams, plus weeks of Persian food followed by natural childbirth classes, their baby would have to enter the world surgically, Rebecca was crestfallen.
“I’m sorry, too,” Kenny whispered as they prepared her for the operation. “But what matters most –”
“Is a healthy baby,” Rebecca affirmed, squeezing her husband’s hand.
“But I can still keep it with me, can’t I?”
Kenny turned to the nurse who was doing the prep.
“No problem with that, is there?”
“Not that I know of,” the nurse replied.
Shell-shocked from watching Rebecca’s belly sliced open, Kenny was nonetheless thrilled when into the world, peeing in every possible direction, came the newest member of his family.
“Guess it’s the boys’ list of names,” he said to Rebecca, all the while girding himself to cut the umbilical chord.
A nurse carefully cleaned the baby, then handed him to Rebecca to nurse.
Watching with a pride the likes of which he’d never before experienced, Kenny studied his wife, who looked radiant.
But the mood was shattered abruptly when into the room came an officious hospital
employee determined to assert her authority.
“Time for the baby to go to the nursery,” the blustery woman announced.
“Beg your pardon?” replied Kenny.
“Off to the nursery,” she chirped.
“We were told the baby could stay with us,” Kenny said forcefully.
“And it could if we had enough rooms. But guess what. We don’t.”
“That’s not acceptable,” Kenny declared.
“Acceptable or not, that’s the way it is.”
“Kenny?” said Rebecca firmly, while making no move to relinquish the baby.
“Know how I’m always saying Please don’t?”
“Well, Please do.”
Kenny smiled at words he never thought he’d hear from Rebecca, then turned all business as he again faced the bossy woman.
“Time for you and me to step out into the hall,” Kenny said forcefully.
“We were promised the baby could stay with us,” Kenny stated in no uncertain terms once he and the woman were face-to-face in the hall.
“And he could if we had a room in the maternity ward.”
“Then find us a room elsewhere.”
“I’m afraid that’s against the rules.”
“Want to show me where that’s written?”
“Sir, it’s against hospital policy.”
“But it’s within hospital policy to make a promise, then break it?”
“Sir, you’re being difficult.”
“Actually, I’m only warming up. Who do I have to talk to in order to make this right?”
“Whose name is?”
“Please call her.”
“At 3 A.M.? I’m sure she’s fast asleep.”
“Then give me her number so that I can call.”
“Sir, I don’t think you understand!”
“No, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve got five minutes to make this right.”
“Y-you can’t d-do that,” stammered the woman.
“Wanna bet? Five minutes, then mom, baby, and I are out of here.”
“B-but if anything h-happens –”
“My lawyers will hold you, your absentee supervisor Miss Sullivan, and the whole damn hospital responsible.”
Rebecca beamed as she, her new baby, and Kenny were taken to a bright, cheerful new room where they were suddenly allowed to stay together.
Aware that much remained to be done – they still owned no crib, no baby blankets,no baby undershirts, and had no diapers – they found comfort in that what they did have was each other.
The days ahead, like those that preceded them, would certainly not be easy. But the life that awaited, despite the bumps that they would clearly encounter, would be of their choosing. In other words, as often as was humanly possible, it would be in keeping with their own personal Please do’s and Please don’ts.
Alan Swyer makes his living as a filmmaker — of late, mainly documentaries. Though American, he also writes regularly for a British music magazine called “Blues & Rhythm.” His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, India, and in several American publications.