Cafeteria Plan

“Next!” An average-sized man of medium hue lifted his neutral expression from his clipboard to the never-ending line of anxious, excited, impatient adults. A woman shuffled eagerly past him, and he made a mark on his paper.

I was nearly there. I could read a few words on his data sheet whenever he absently swung the clipboard down to his side. The information wasn’t entirely intelligible to me, but was some distraction from the endless waiting. And this was the Express Line.

Soon, I counted three people in front. Then, two. Then, one. The man didn’t even need to say, “Next,” and I was at his elbow. His face may have finally registered a different expression, but it was almost too fleeting to tell for certain. His right hand pointed to the dark hallway, his left gripped the clipboard, his eyes scanned his list.

I moved forward, finally. The wait felt interminable, though I knew I had only stood for about eight months. I had watched others be directed to the Ten Year Line, or even be turned away with a dismissive, heartless shake of an administrative head. I had reminded myself of these facts whenever impatience had crept in.

The hallway opened into a large room. In here, the walls were bare and curved upwards to meet in a peak high above my head. The floor was a clean, nondescript, waxed laminate reminiscent of the kitchen floor of my childhood home. Glass-fronted serving areas lined the far wall, and the room was full of queuing people. Chattering, shuffling human noises were amplified in the reflective, unadorned space.

At least this line moved more quickly, I noticed. Perhaps that was due to more workers attending to everyone. As I watched, a man at the start of the counters took a carrier from the stack. Pushing it along the grooved metal track, he stopped briefly at each opening and spoke with a helper there. Soon, he had his order complete and was walking away peering closely at it. He had finished in roughly five minutes.

I stepped forward after the woman in front of me did. She kept bobbing up on her toes, though she was only a bit shorter than the man in front of her. Whenever a new person started his order, her eyes followed his progress closely, hungrily. I realized that she had to be at least fifteen years my senior, though I was not always good at guessing age. I did much better guessing which musical instrument someone had played. I studied the back of her head and her bouncing curls. Definitely in orchestra, I decided.

Very soon, it was Curly’s turn. She snatched a carrier and plunked it down eagerly on the metal. She moved as if someone might suddenly cut in front of her; her left hand gripped the handle such that Death himself would have difficulty prising it from her.

I could hear some of the words the workers asked her, but not her responses. Those string players are so soft-spoken! “Boy,” “blessing,” laughter, and something about “energy” was all I caught. She was nearing the end. I suddenly felt panic.

A woman sitting at the first opening turned my way. She looked vaguely like my favorite aunt, though without the sarcastic twist to her mouth. She nodded helpfully at the rack of baby carriers, then smiled warmly as my hands reached forward and removed one. I heard the clunk as I automatically placed it on the stainless steel track before her.

“Now, dear. This is where we decide if you get one or more. Most people get one, but you’ll need another carrier if that’s not the case.” She smiled as a slight concern settled over my features. Then, she looked at the display in front of her. A second later, she looked up and smiled again. “Just one, dear. Congratulations.” She nodded and I moved on to the left.

This space held an older man who didn’t look like anyone I knew, unless I’d seen a frog-sloth hybrid at a zoo in my youth. He smiled as well, his wide mouth nearly reaching his small ears. “Now, we get to see if you’re having a boy or a girl.” He tapped his screen, then added, “Do you have a preference?” I shook my head. I didn’t see the point of having a preference if I couldn’t actually choose. He smiled a smaller smile, then announced, “Boy! Congratulations.” He nodded and I pushed my carrier down the row.

“You get physical attributes here,” barked a woman, before I was even fully in front of her. She tapped her button and drummed the fingers of her left hand. “Small, slight build; brown eyes; brown hair-” She paused to glance up and note my dark eyes and hair, then read, “A bit pigeon-toed, attached earlobes, photoptarmosis, webbed toes, etc.” She ripped off a printed page and handed it to me. I was able to see a gray body outline with mapped notes before she snapped, “Next!”

“Here is your list of other attributes,” an airy voice said, at the next counter. The voice belonged to what had to have been the actress who played Glinda in “The Wizard of Oz.” She waved a dainty hand of sparkly nails toward my left, dismissing me as effectively as her grouchy neighbor -but somehow more politely and regally.

I barely had time to read “Precocious, indifferent, hyperactive, intelligent,” randomly from a long paragraph, before someone clearing his throat interrupted me. I looked up to see an older man, who looked like my husband’s Orthodox Mormon grandfather, looking at me sternly at about the top line of his glasses – just as my husband’s grandfather did.

His left finger ran across his display as he read along:
Congratulations on becoming a parent. Your child will now be assigned random quirks and foibles. 1. He will delight in challenge. 2. He will avoid uncomfortable situations. 3. He will finish a fight. 4. He will leave a trail wherever he goes. 5. He will be responsible. 6. He will get frustrated at correction. 7. He will seek deep relationships. 8. He will not be a picky eater. 9. He will doubt. 10. He will become hyperactive when happy, or after swallowing Benadryl. 11. He will sleep well, never for more than seven hours. 12. He will respond well to reason.

He handed another paper to me, which I numbly added to the first two. I was feeling overwhelmed. He cleared his throat again, dismissing me.

“Did you go ‘natural?'” a voice behind me asked. I turned to see a nurse holding some sort of machine.

“Um.. ” I began, taken aback. I gathered my thoughts, then said, “I was going to go as long as I could and then decide.”

“Right,” the nurse said. She had a sarcastic lift to her mouth.
“Here ya go, then,” she said, then quickly applied the end of her machine to my exposed forearm. I gasped as intense pain flashed across my midsection. Forever later, or maybe a few minutes, I straightened up and hobbled to the last window.

“Here you are, dear!” A nurse enthused, as she briskly deposited a new baby into my unencumbered right arm. “Have a nice day!” She clipped out like a perky robot, then turned to service the next customer.

I looked down at my sleeping child in disbelief.

“Exit’s over here, dear.” Another grandmother-type was pointing to the door beyond her. Sure enough, a green EXIT sign glowed over it.

I gathered my papers, carrier, and child more closely to my body. Stunned at the suddenness of responsibility, I stumbled forward, then out the door.

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