My apartment's balcony looks out on the balconies of all the other apartments in my building. The building is U-shaped, so I can see a lot of what goes on in other people's lives. This is both good and bad; there's people-watching galore, but not all the people are pleasant to watch.
Several months ago I saw that the young woman who lived across the way on the ground floor was heavily pregnant. She was sweeping her patio, moving a couple of chairs and a table around, and the cast of her shoulders and the sluggishness of her movements told me she was miserable. Maybe she was just tired, but she didn't look tired.
The baby has since been born. Someone's parents - his or hers, I couldn't say - are living in the apartment with the couple and the babe. They smoke on the patio sometimes.
Yesterday I caught sight, through the patio door, of the young dad feeding the baby. He was reclined on the couch, with the baby propped up on his thighs, and he kept switching the hand with which he held the bottle up to the little thing's mouth. It moved its arms and legs, herky-jerky. Intermittently he picked the baby up and patted it against his shoulder. He varied between patting and stroking the baby's back with almost mechanical precision: eight pats, eight seconds of stroking.
I watched this between the arms of the gravity chair I have on my own balcony, between the dowels of my balcony's railing, through two layers of glass doors and a layer of screen. It went on for twenty-five minutes. I was mesmerized. This tiny creature, totally helpless; this reclining human, who, if he was not watching a television located out of frame, was focused completely on his child. I have almost no experience with infants, but I knew what he was doing, and I knew how tired he might be of doing it, and I knew that the baby in his lap will never remember that he did it at all.
Sometimes when I look at infants or toddlers, I imagine them growing to adulthood as if in a sped-up cartoon, ballooning up and out in a goofy time-lapse. Their chubby useless fingers becoming long and skilled; their faces becoming discernible from one another; their skin sprouting hair and their bodies carving themselves into polygons instead of circles and ellipses. I think I do this because my own husband was a preemie (a tiny preemie: 26 weeks) and is now 6'2" with broad shoulders, and it's hard to believe the miniature reddened alien I've seen in family pictures is the huge man who takes up half our bed. Looking at this baby - who finally fell asleep, and when its dad wanted something he couldn't reach, he looked around briefly and then just continued to sit, because oh well, I'm not waking the baby up just because I'm thirsty - I tried to see its future years upon it. I tried to see the world in which it will come to maturity. The experiences that will be available to it when it's a teenager. The things, and the intangible things, it will create.
And I couldn't. It was just a baby, a small creature that knows nothing but the bottle at its mouth, the warmth of its parent's thighs under its pliable back, sleeping and waking and having its needs attended to. It didn't have an identity to me. Its identity right now is Baby, but the potential identity curled up inside it, that might be just about anything, now, mightn't it?