Hannah gasps as she pushes one last time. A baby’s hollering follows. I take a deep breath and prepare myself for umbilical cutting duties.
“No need,” says Doctor Naismith.
I blink. “Huh?”
Hannah’s panting as if she’s just run a marathon, which, in some way, I suppose she has. Our newborn child—as new as newborn gets—squirms and squeals in the doctor’s arms, his little body creaking every time he moves.
“It snaps right off,” Naismith explains. He pinches the shiny, blood-speckled umbilicus between two gloved fingers and tugs gently. The cord pops right out of our son’s distended belly. “Isn’t that neat?”
The umbilical cord narrows into a small cube-shaped peg. On our baby’s stomach, where a belly button should be, is a shallow opening that matches the peg’s diameter.
I begin to notice the other details: the unnatural smoothness of his skin even for a baby; the way the overhead fluorescents catch in his flesh—if you can call it that; his eyes—green, but hard and unmoving. I reach out and cradle his head in my hand. Nowhere near soft. More bowling ball than human.
My hand recoils. I stand before Doctor Naismith, trembling and unsure what to say.
“What?” Hannah whimpers. “What’s wrong?”
Doctor Naismith smiles beneath his surgical mask. He pats our baby on the back. A hollow sound follows. “All plastic. I can’t believe it.”
In Naismith’s office, the doctor shrugs and tosses his hands in the air. He smiles warmly to show he empathizes with me, but he’s just as perplexed—maybe a little relieved he isn’t the only one dumbfounded by all this.
Hannah’s passed out up in the maternity ward, done in by the fatigue of childbirth and the shock of delivering a plastic child. We named our new son Asa, after my grandfather, who wasn’t plastic as far as I know. Asa twitches in my arms, dreaming whatever it is plastic boys dream of. Water bottles? Single use straws?
I try not to, but I keep manipulating Asa’s rigid fingers into different poses. He looks like an oversized action figure, the fancy kind that comic book dorks shell out big bucks for, with over a hundred points of articulation.
“We gave birth to fucking Pinocchio,” I croak.
Naismith folds his hands on his desk and leans forward. “Look, it’s basic science.”
I swallow. “Is it?”
“Of course,” says Naismith. “Human fetuses have contained traces of microplastics for years. It was only a matter of time til somebody gave birth to a 100% plastic kid. That somebody just happened to be your lovely wife.”
I blink and a few tears chase down my cheek. “Basic science? Are you sure about that?”
Doctor Naismith smiles, big and bright. “I’m the doctor, aren’t I?”
Thing is, Asa is nothing like Pinocchio. I regret saying that when I did. Pinocchio was cobbled together in an old woodcarver’s workshop, not by two parents deeply in love on a night after a little too much wine. Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy and spent his life searching for that realness. Asa, he doesn’t have to do any searching. He was born real. Just a little different from what your concept of real might be.
In the coming weeks, Hannah and I catch ourselves forgetting about Asa’s unique genetic makeup. He’s our son, after all, and that’s all that matters—plastic or not. But when he latches onto Hannah to breastfeed her face flushes with an expression that’s a cousin to pain.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she says. “It just feels…weird.” A glimmer in her eyes lets me know she feels guilty admitting that. “He’s not cold,” she explains, “but he isn’t warm either.”
For Asa’s 4th birthday we buy him one of those toy kitchen sets parents are so fond of buying for their kids. A little fake oven, sink, and refrigerator. Plastic chicken legs and imitation cereal boxes. Asa squeals when he tears off the wrapping paper and claps his hands together excitedly. He’s so big now. He hardly resembles that little plastic baby we brought home from the hospital, swaddled so tight in a bundle of blankets even though his poreless flesh was impervious to cold. Small ridges have formed across his scalp, in the vague shape of a hairdo—colored a reddish hue, like Hannah’s hair.
We don’t think much about Asa being plastic anymore. How can we? We have lives to lead, a child to raise. And we love him. Very much.
Later that night, cleaning up the detritus of the birthday party, Hannah and I scour our apartment for the fake chicken legs that came with Asa’s kitchen set. After 20 minutes of searching I ask Asa if he’s seen them.
Asa grins, a finger balanced on his bottom lip, and confesses, “I ate.”
“I suppose it’s only natural,” says Doctor Naismith. “You know, basic science.” That’s Naismith’s most cherished phrase when talking about Asa, basic science. As if anything regarding Asa is basic. Naismith and I meet at a playground a week after the birthday party incident, chatting on a bench while Asa attempts to summit a jungle gym. Naismith isn’t Asa’s doctor but he’s taken a fascination in him. When you’re the guy that delivers the first ever plastic child, you form a unique kind of bond. He elaborates, “We’re meat—” pinching the flab on his forearm— “and we eat meat. Asa’s plastic—so, you know. Makes sense. Price of food these days, he might be doing your bank account some favors.”
Asa reaches the top of the jungle gym. His arms shoot over his head, triumphant. Edmund Hillary atop Everest. He turns to make sure I’ve witnessed his conquest. I smile and clap loudly, which Doctor Naismith joins in on. Promptly, Asa teeters backward and falls right off the jungle gym. He crashes into the wood chips below. The other kids go still and quiet. Parents shoot upright from their conversations and phones, like wolves detecting an intruder, making sure it wasn’t their rugrat that took the tumble. Their gazes magnetize to me, judging me for not rushing to Asa’s aid. But then Asa stands up, still smiling. A plastic child with plastic bones. He doesn’t break so easily.
Asa is silent en route to his first day of kindergarten.
“You all right, little man?” I say, glancing at him in the rearview mirror. Hannah’s driving. Asa squirms in his car seat, looking down at his feet in order to keep his face hidden. Asa hasn’t cried once since he was born. Sure, he’s made all the noises associated with crying, but he’s never shed any actual tears.
“They won’t like me,” he says in his soft, squeaky voice. “Other kids never do.”
Hannah cuts her eyes over at me. Her bottom lip quivers. Problem is, Asa isn’t wrong. He plays solo on the playground. The only “friend” that shows up at his birthday parties is Doctor Naismith. Whatever lame, encouraging thing I think to say lodges in my throat and stays there. I turn up the podcast we’re listening to. Two hosts discuss microplastics in our water and seafood, the first all plastic tiger cub born in Nepal.
On his second day of 3rd grade, Asa comes home with QUIN BITCH scribbled in wonky, childish script on the back of his head. It takes two hours to scrub off the permanent marker. Asa goes to bed without dinner. He said he wasn’t hungry.
I collapse into bed and sigh. I don’t feel so hungry myself. Hannah, I can tell she’s been crying.
“Do 3rd graders actually talk like that?” she says. “They actually know the word bitch?”
“The bad ones do,” I say.
“And quin. What’s that?”
“Like mannequin. I’ve read on the support boards about other kids like Asa getting called that.”
Asa isn’t the only plastic child anymore. Parents congregate on internet message boards to vent, commiserate, air our anxieties, and share our children’s achievements. Asa might not be alone in the world, but he’s the only plastic kid where we live. And for him, that’s all that counts.
I fall asleep wondering if Pinocchio was ever bullied. Then I remember he was hanged.
One night, when Asa’s in 8th grade, while we’re sitting at the dinner table—Hannah and I with plates of risotto and Asa with a polyethylene steak—he says, “There’s a new girl at school. She’s like me.”
Hannah’s fork clatters against her plate.
The girl’s name is Josephine. A week later, she comes over for dinner. Two weeks after that I’m yelling at Asa to keep his bedroom door open while Josephine’s in there. Hannah and I drop them off at the movies, knowing full well their plans for making out in the dark. Their freshman year of high school they take each other to prom. Asa even buys her a gaudy corsage.
By 10th grade Josephine is a memory—a girl I sometimes pass in the grocery store when she’s helping her mom shop. We silently agree to avoid eye contact at all costs.
Asa emerges from the bathroom one day, a bucket of bright purple paint in his hand. He’s slathered the paint over his head, across every ridge of simulated hair. Asa shrugs when he registers my and Hannah’s stunned expressions.
“Hair dye doesn’t really work for me. So…”
Asa listens to punk rock now. He wears Black Flag and Crass t-shirts, accompanied by a thrift store motorcycle jacket that he’s decorated with handmade pins emblazoned with slogans like PLASTIC RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS and ABOLISH FLESH BASED SUPREMACY. He spends weekends in dingy clubs clouded with cigarette smoke, circle pitting to ear blistering bands.
When Hannah tells him she doesn’t like the new kids he’s hanging out with, Asa says, “Punx don’t care if I’m plastic, mom.”
That’s how he says it—punx. With an X. Like real punx do, I suppose.
Pretty soon he starts his own band, Quin Bitch & the Flesh Sacks. Hannah screeches when she finds out.
“That’s disgusting, Asa. How can you use that word?”
Asa shakes his head, rolls his plastic eyes—a hamfisted performance to drive home his disinterest in the conversation. “I’m reclaiming my trauma, mom.”
When Asa comes home on his first college break he’s exchanged the purple hair (repainted his natural reddish brown) for dark, muted clothes and a stack of books written by Emma Goldman.
“In a way,” he tells me one morning over a piece of pretend toast, “PBPs are the next step in evolution. Like an apex human. We don’t have to worry about the environment collapsing or anything. We don’t get hot—or cold. I mean, sure, fire will melt us. But it’ll melt you too.”
I look up from my phone. “PBPs?”
“Plastic based people, dad.”
“So you’re not saying quin anymore?”
Asa’s eyebrows shoot up. “I can if I want to. But you can’t.”
I take a bite of my own toast. Crumbs rain down on the plate below. Asa’s food hasn’t left a particle of evidence behind. “Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Asa shakes his head, scoffs. “That’s every fleshie’s excuse.”
Asa marries a girl named Beth. They met during their senior year of college. She’s plastic like Asa, holds similar convictions, but personality wise she’s a little less abrasive than he is. Beth helps mellow Asa out in the right ways. I like her. Hannah likes her. Despite telling myself I won’t cry at their wedding, I bawl like a baby. The plastic folks in attendance stare at me like I’m something strange, an alien.
Beth and Asa work at the same nonprofit, an organization called Peace For Plastic. The name’s a little hokey, but I suppose it’s better than Quin Bitch & the Flesh Sacks. They do admirable work, fighting for the civil liberties of plastic based people. Last time I saw them, Beth told me she was eyeing a position at the ACLU, looking to push her cause even further.
Every parent hopes for the best when it comes to their child. You love them unconditionally, but there’s a strange kind of parental clairvoyance that signals if they’re destined for tremendous things. I always sensed I’d be proud of Asa. But it’s overwhelming just how proud I am.
Hannah died last spring. She was old, she was tired, so her body finally decided enough was enough. I was sad, of course, but the older you get the more you make terms with the inevitability of the future, whether you want to or not.
I went willingly into a nursing home. Every day it’s a little more difficult to take care of myself. I didn’t want to unload that burden on Asa and Beth. They’ve got two kids of their own now, twins named Henry and Milo. I can’t keep them straight. They’ll be 16 next month, ready to drive.
My body is old. It’s breaking down. Pretty soon I’ll join Hannah wherever she is. I wonder if Asa’s body will wither like this as he ages. Will a plastic based person know the curse of arthritis and weak lungs? It’s hard to say. Asa was the first PBP; enough time hasn’t passed for us to know. But I’m glad I won’t be around to find out.
I can see fear in Asa’s face every time he brings the family to visit. I tell him not to worry, but it warms my heart in a weird kind of way, knowing he’ll miss me.
“I love you, dad,” he says as he readies to leave, his plastic hand in mine. I hate to admit it, but the feel of his hand still takes me by surprise. Not cold. Not warm. But I miss it when it’s not there.
Watching Asa walk out of the room, I try to remember how Pinocchio’s story ended but it doesn’t come to me. It’s possible I never actually read that story, just picked up bits and pieces along the way. I hope Pinocchio ended up getting all he wanted, the way Asa has—the way I did.
The plastic based news anchor on the TV mounted to the wall tells me in ten more years there will be more plastic based people in the world than whatever I am. It makes me smile, just knowing there’s still a future to discuss. A plastic nurse brings me my dinner on a little tray. When I remove the metal cover the usual cloud of steam doesn’t shoot out at me. A pile of plastic food crowds the plate. Fake corn on the cob, little green beads meant to represent peas, a lump of pink plastic I believe is a pork chop.
“Excuse me,” I call to the nurse. She turns around in the doorway.
I point at the plastic food. “I don’t think this is for me.”
It takes a while for it to register. Her eyes track from the plate, to me, back to the plate, then me again. I see realization dawn in her eyes.