Kate and I often joked about ranking friends’ baby pictures from cutest to ugliest. The only reason to bring forth new life in the age of arctic fissures and transatlantic fascism, we agreed, was to see how many likes your photos could get on social media. Why not make the contest literal, take away the hypocrisy? Now Kate is gone and I finally have the courage to follow through. Viewed a certain way, this contest is something that Kate and I have created, something that is crowning.
“Happy rainy Tuesday, everyone,” I post. “I’m excited to announce that Maryanne Jameson is the cutest baby on my feed!!! Congratulations, Maryanne!!!!” This baby has triumphed over a great deal of competition, so a total of seven exclamation points seems appropriate. Within seconds, thirteen people have liked this post: Joanna, five of our friends from college, Joanna’s husband, four people whose names I don’t recognize who I assume are friends of Joanna, and two people I’m friends with who I’m pretty sure don’t know Joanna but who automatically like every baby-related post.
It’s unlikely that I will ever again feel as good as I did on the night when Joanna and I snuck into the stacks and I thrust into her against the collected works of Borges in the original Spanish. “Maryanne” was my suggestion for what we should name a daughter when we had one—we said “when,” though I already knew I would soon break up with her—because Joanna and I both loved George Eliot, whose birth name was Mary Ann, and also because we both loved to watch Gilligan’s Island while we were high. Also, Maryanne is my mother’s name. But it’s not the fault of this sometimes bewildered, sometimes adorably bored, always monkey-clutching Maryanne that her name was snatched from my soul. Besides, her big chestnut eyes are her father’s, and though they look a bit silly in him, it’s unlikely that my genes would have resulted in a child so beautiful. So, kudos to Joanna for making the right decision, and grand prize to Maryanne.
Among the people who have liked this status is another girl—okay, woman now—who recently had a baby of her own, and who has posted many, many pictures of that baby. She probably liked my post thinking that my naming Joanna’s baby cuter than her own is careless hyperbole. I mean what I say, so that pisses me off, and I’m tempted to put her baby near the bottom of the list, but the baby looks very cute as she rests her head against a turquoise stuffed elephant. I remind myself once again that, though it is one of the deepest desires of the human race to punish people for who their parents are, it is one that must be repressed. Punishing people for having children, on the other hand: that is a desire to be cultivated.
“Autumn Winter is the second-cutest baby on my Facebook feed.” I don’t even deduct points for the name. Laura marries a guy named Winter, acquiesces to a patrilineal surname, and they name their daughter “Autumn”? Atrocious, but names don’t settle into faces until children are at least three or four. And these rankings are not supposed to be predictive; they reflect only the scrolling present of my screen, the magic mirror through which I judge the fairest of them all.
“HEY!” Laura comments almost immediately, attaching a frowning emoticon, followed by a smiling one. This confuses me, but so do many things.
“A lot of my friends have babies,” I replied. “Number two is a huge compliment!”
This does not receive a response.
“FYI,” I write, “‘Baby’ is a somewhat elastic term, so for convenience I’m using eighteen months as a cutoff. Coming in at number three: Steven Pinder.”
“Not funny, dude,” replies Steven’s dad.
“Please get the help we’ve been telling you you need,” writes Steven’s other dad.
“Three is very good!” I write. “Bronze in a crowded field is something to celebrate!”
I post the results for fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh. The two people who like everything baby-related have defriended me.
“This is NOT FUNNY, Martin,” writes Julia, who was once a good friend, though we have not spoken in years outside the odd like of a joke or a drunken photo. “This is PATHETIC and you are coming across as a LOSER.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” I reply. “I’m trying to give my honest opinion about the relative cuteness of babies.”
“Nobody. Asked. You.” Julia does not have a kid as far as I know, but we were friends mostly because we have both always enjoyed inserting ourselves into arguments for no good reason. I probably should have made a move on her at some point, but there are pictures of her in a wedding dress that I must have missed when she first posted them.
“Putting a period after every word is a cheap, trendy way of conveying emphasis,” I write. “Also, they did ask me. People post pictures of their babies because they want to be told how cute their babies are. Well, I’m telling them exactly how cute their babies are.”
“Oh. Wow. Such. A. Truth. Teller. Brav. Fucking. O. I can’t believe you’re turning into a fucking run-of-the-mill piece-of-shit TROLL, though in retrospect maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Keep doing this and I’m going to defriend you.”
I report Julia for abusive language and then I make myself a peanut butter sandwich. The roof of my mouth is still sticky when I sit down again, so I open a bottle of Oregon pinot noir. This morning I had seven hundred and sixty-five friends; now I have seven hundred and twenty-three. After another fifteen rankings, I am down to six hundred and two. No more Julia.
Kate is still my friend. She hasn’t written anything on any of my posts, though I see on the sidebar that she is liking things her friends are posting.
“So far,” I write, “all the babies I’ve listed have been cute, though obviously some have been cuter than others. The babies I’m going to list now are, in an absolute sense, not cute.”
I list the baby of Kate’s best friend. I do this to get a response, sure, but also, that baby has a head shaped like a parking meter.
“ASSHOLE,” writes Kate’s best friend. “GUESS WHAT? I HAVE ZERO FUCKS TO GIVE.”
“Anybody who spends time on social media has a lot of fucks to give. Like, a whole warehouse of fucks. To be sold at a steep bulk discount.”
“Don’t pay attention,” Kate writes. “Martin is just in a lot of pain.”
“Dude, I can’t believe you’re drunk at one in the afternoon on a Tuesday.” This is Kate’s fiancé.
“I’m not drunk,” I write. This is true. I’ve only had two or three glasses of pinot, depending on how you classify the pour, and they haven’t really taken effect yet.
“That makes this even worse!” he replies.
“Worse than what? Is it worse than being a barista who hits on a woman who comes in to buy coffee for her meetings? Is it worse than not keeping a respectful distance from a woman who tells you she’s in ‘recovery,’ even though she was fine the way she was?”
“I asked you to come to meetings with me, Martin,” Kate writes. “I begged you. You should go to one tonight. I can help you find a meeting.”
I look at a few photos of Kate’s soft, ballooning belly. Some are taken at a beach at sunset—really, Kate?—others in front of the fireplace at Kate’s parents’ house. In all of them, her fiancé is pointing at her belly like it’s a store he’s trying to wave you into from the street.
Kate’s smile, which always seemed to have a private joke for me—that’s still there, though now it has a private joke for everyone who has ever sent Kate a friend request.
The reduction of children to compliment-flypaper might not be new, but Kate and I both once agreed that it has become so pervasive that it is no longer possible to procreate authentically. We used to spend many nights making fun of friends’ baby pictures, saying things much meaner than what I was saying now. “People should have as much fun as possible and then let humanity die out,” she said once, “so the world can heal itself.” And if the world really must be peopled, I added, there were plenty of other people to people it.
“Hey, Kate,” I write. “Remember when you called babies ‘the backwash of jizz’?”
I’m in the middle of typing about how Kate has betrayed her principles when Kate, her fiancée, and her best friend all defriend me. Not fair, and it’s not going to stop me. I open another bottle of pinot noir and keep going.
“Next up, a baby whose uncle really should steal its repulsive wrinkled nose, is Addison Wright.”
Addison’s dad, my boss at the college where I teach four sections of freshman composition, responds immediately.
“Martin, have you been drinking again? Don’t you have classes to teach later?”
“Not for a few hours. I might be sober by then. Although the thought of your daughter’s face makes me want to keep drinking.”
A pause, then: “I’m afraid we need to have a conversation in a more official setting. Please check your university email.”
Uh oh. Looks like I’ll never again teach uninterested and disinterested students the difference between the words “uninterested” and “disinterested.”
I list the baby of another ex-girlfriend, who responds: “YOU’RE JUST BITTER.”
“The baby I named the cutest is the daughter of a different ex,” I reply. “I’m entirely capable of being objective.”
She and her baby vanish from my feed.
“Bro, what you’re doing is hilarious!” somebody posts. I defriend this guy; a man of any taste draws a line at the word “bro.”
The more babies I list, the more not-yet-listed babies disappear, plucked from the path of the marauding ogre. One of these—the son of a girl I met once at a party five years ago and was somehow still friends with—was unambiguously the ugliest child on my feed, with a forehead like a zit in the middle of being popped. That he is gone means that the title of Ugliest Child is going to go to someone I don’t want it to go to. But when standards give way to sentiment, both are ruined.
“The ugliest baby on my feed,” I write, “is Paul Vogel.”
“Come on, bro,” writes the kid’s dad. “Bro” is okay here, since Paul is my nephew and his dad is actually my brother. “Look,” my brother writes, “I know things are tough for you right now, but you don’t need to lash out like this. We can help you.”
“It’s not my fault that your kid looks like he’s already figured out how terrible the world is and is trying to collapse in on himself before he gets old enough to understand how fucked he is by global warming. A wise kid, maybe, but still an ugly one.”
No immediate response, so I switch tabs to CNN.com and find the expected catastrophes. When I return, my brother has written: “It’s not my fault that Mom has always loved me more.”
“Mom does NOT love you more,” I write.
“I DO NOW,” writes my mom. “Martin, I’ve given you my life, I’ve given you every opportunity to go into rehab, but I refuse to let you break my heart any longer. I simply cannot abide what you have written about my grandson.”
I pour some more pinot. I think about a gray afternoon when I was six or seven, walking the dog with my mother. I asked her what the point of life was, and she told me that it was raising the next generation. It’s important, she said, to go to work every day, and do the laundry, and cook dinner, so that your children are safe and loved and provided for until they are old enough to do the same thing for their children. I remember thinking that if the only point of something was to pass it to somebody else, then it had no point at all.
“You had us before these Internet popularity contests,” I reply to my mother, “but I don’t think you would have done very well. Ben looks like a misshapen potato in his baby pictures. Now Paul looks like one, too. At least we know Rachel isn’t cheating. Probably.”
My brother and my mother both defriend me.
I still have more friends than I anticipated—three hundred and twenty-two—maybe because they aren’t checking the site, which seems unlikely, maybe because they’re entertained, either by my project or by my self-destruction, maybe because they’re focused on more important things than me. None of them tell me what I already know—that I’m wrong, that people post pictures of their babies not because it’s a popularity contest, but simply because they are so astonished at how much joy they feel that documentation, that proof, feels necessary. They need to be told that these marvelous things they have created are not delusions.
And they post photos because they want to share with the world this person they’re sharing the world with—and the world, though it does not have to be peopled, certainly must be shared.
The baby of someone whose name I don’t recognize pops into my feed. She’s pushing herself up off the floor, looking up at something, smiling. The desire to form new life is suddenly so strong I think it might burst forth from my body.
Nothing to do but wash it down.
Fifteen minutes after my last post, I am defriended by Joanna, Maryanne’s mom. I guess being the mother of the cutest baby was just such a huge honor that she got embarrassed. Then a couple of other people from college defriend me. Soon, perhaps, I will have no friends—no friends, no family, no job, no girlfriend, no baby—and for all I know this might prove a barrenness so complete that something will have to grow out of it.
David Burr Gerrard is the author of the novels The Epiphany Machine (forthcoming from Putnam in July 2017) and Short Century (Rare Bird, 2014) . He teaches fiction writing at The New School, The 92nd Street Y, and the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.