Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.
When I get home Johnny is cooking. Lean stalks of celery and uncoiled white onions decorate the wet, wooden cutting board. Olive oil and garlic hit my nose in a wave of heavy grease smoke. You always use too much oil, I want to scold, but I don’t. I feel numb from the alcohol. So numb, the doctor and the trouble don’t feel real; my stomach has always been empty.
“I’m sorry.” The doctor said, uneasy. “One in five.” He gave me brochures and numbers to call. I hold my stomach. “When did her heart stop beating?” I ask. “How could I not feel this?”
He smiles delicately. I think he’ll do a cesarean section right away but his brow cinches up like a corset between narrow-set eyes, no. It is safest to deliver her tomorrow at the hospital.
“Better if your husband drives.”
The doctor wears a gold wedding ring but unlike my new unscathed band his is dented, scratched, groomed by decades. I nod yes, trying to remember the last time she kicked. I see the trash can and my blood on his used rubber gloves. Then nothing, numbness. I am watching this scene from a great distance, some other loss happening to some other woman. Not me, not this late, not after six months of pregnancy. I squeeze my muscles hard, keep her warm, safe. I squeeze everything. I hold my baby tight.
Across the parking lot the cars look like hot silver Christmas ornaments. My eyes can’t adjust to the brightness. I get in and start my car, listen to the am talk station, some self-help show. The ocean looms large. I grab one of the doctor’s brochures at a red light. It says under the bold header: “It’s not your fault!” that every year 900,000 pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth in the United States. A car pulls up next to me. A young couple laugh and eat hoagies from wax paper sheaths. Their window’s all the way down, the girl has her feet on the dash. She’s young, wearing an orange tank top, blonde curls, a mirage of tan skin. Then I’m crying hot, fast, tears. No sunglasses. The blonde looks at me--I’ve been staring. I throw the tiny brochure out the window. Just drive, I tell myself, drive far.
Oxnard ten miles, the sign reads. I’ve moved past blood-pumping L.A. traffic, past circular, suburban, track homes; their spider-like beige tentacles. A pungent onion field crops up along either side of me. I am cradled by mountains, on an empty two lane highway. I could live here, surrounded by green fields and vinegar air. My husband calls. The phone rings, vibrates like an angry dog. I bang the wheel with my fist. There is dead musk inside me, dried up veins in a soft nest. How can I explain to him, on this open road, that I am the mud, dry, hard, unyielding? I’ve driven past compromise, commitment, I obey only my bones.
At a stop light I see a chipped-paint sign for a taqueria. I look for parking, go in and take the first booth. The restaurant is empty. I’m doubting if it’s open, maybe forgotten. But then I hear some action in the kitchen, dish washing, and a woman comes out wearing a tube top and jeans. Her fat sizzles like bacon around the seam. I order a cerveza using my best Spanish. I am six months pregnant. I look it. I start laughing, giggling aloud. I remember all those shiny colorful brochures given to resurrect me. Maybe the doctor is right, “one in five” is all you need to hear to loose your mind. The waitress comes back with a glass and a can of Modelo. She pops the can open. “Pour,” she instructs. Making gestures with her small, childlike hands.
The roads are almost empty and the flanking mass of beaches are too. I am heading home along the Pacific Coast Highway, back to L.A. The windows are down and the sand and surf smell salty and good.
I park somewhere in Malibu and walk along the beach. There are no seagulls out. A toss of surfers bob up and down past the breakers and a few homeless men sleep on wool Army blankets. Two teenagers smoke cigarettes in bikinis. The fog never really burned off today but the girls give off the sheen of oil anyway. I sit on the sand, lacing my fingers in it, forming gentle mounds, and patting them flat. The girls are laughing now and it feels too close. They stand up and fold their towels; I notice the sun slipping away and know Johnny will be wondering. The sky turns from clove honey to lead. Don’t narrate this, I scold myself. Don’t make this beautiful. I brush sand off my jeans and leave.
Rachel Eloise Boudinot. I have dreamed of you, Rachel. Bought you a crib, blankets, a car seat. Where did I go wrong? Thinking of you as a small me? More like my sister with her curls and arched brow? Molding you around what my memory can hold? But you’ve always been more than my imagination. You’ve always been inside. What did you take when you left me? What did you keep that was mine?
“It started raining,” I say. The kitchen smells like onions turning translucent in thick puddles of olive oil. Johnny smiles over his shoulder; a strand of hair slips in front of his eyes. His eyes are dark brown and I love them, I wanted the baby to have them. Do I tell him now? No. I rake up the sounds that drop from my open mouth. I remember the beers and feel a chill and think about her nursery. How can I explain this new selfishness? I know something you don’t, I want to say, and it’s the saddest news in the world.
Ever since the baby, our weekends are spent like this: we go to the farmer’s market at The Grove and we buy apples, pears, sage, whole chickens. We come home and cook. We spend hours with the shades up and the sun beating in. We pour our excitement into the stews Johnny’s grandmother made; stews I inherited, stews the baby gets, that’s our contract: you will be one of us. We are people of soulful meals; beef bourgonion, croque monsieur, pear and honey glazed pork chops, maple roasted almonds, ice cream sundaes, this is our legacy. Look how classic you’ve made us, baby: like cutouts of some happiness I never fully believed.
Johnny is really cooking tonight. He has the recipe cards his grandmother mailed, wilting like yellow petals, littering the counter next to the stove. Then his hands are on them, glassy with oil, butter, and wet vegetable shreds. They remind me of the doctor. I smell like beer. “I’m going to lay down.” I tell him, disappearing into the house.
My eyes are puffy. The toothbrush grinds against my lips. I feel achy, nauseous. What should I do? Collapse into his arms? Make love? Form a delicate intimacy: our dead daughter curled between us. But maybe she’s alive. Her heartbeat is hiding behind my kidney. I lift my shirt, put my hands on my belly, and stroke the balloon mass that is her cradle, her casket, everything.
“How long have I been out?” I ask, half-asleep, leaning against the kitchen doorway. I woke up and she was still here. I woke up so happy, she kicked! But I don’t open my big mouth, it was a dream anyway. Instead I set the table. Johnny comes up behind, kisses me. “You look beautiful.”
I don’t know what to say and smile helplessly. He gives me a strange look.
“Everything ok? Do you feel sick? We can eat in front of the TV.”
I lift up his shirt and put my hands on his stomach feeling his muscles and the thin hairs that coil around his belly button. I kiss his neck hard, press my breasts against him, and pretend we are the same: all three of us, but I can’t. He pushes me at arms length, puts a hand against my sweaty forehead. “I’m fine.” I tell him. “You promise?” He asks. I can do this, I tell myself over and over, I nod. “I’m fine.” Johnny kisses my cheek and walks away.
“How is she?” He asks, eyeing my belly.
“It’s next week.”
“I thought you were seeing your doctor today.” He takes meat off the burner and stuffs steak, bread, and salad on plates. Our wedding china is so silly, decorative, fragile. “They changed it to next week.” I sit down at the table and pour wine in Johnny’s glass. How easy it is to lie. My brain swirls around defenses, am I evil? My mind anchors on her. We eat.
“I like this sauce, did you change it?” I ask.
“I added more Shiraz, I usually use Merlot or that one Bordeaux.”
“The one from Trader Joe’s?”
“Yeah, but the good one, not the Two Buck Chuck.” He smiles. “Molly called yesterday, I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you.”
My sister’s condo comes to mind the way it looked last Christmas. Her roommates out of town, she’d invited us over. Her doctor had her on new medication. She said she felt spirited, alive.
I remember her sweet attempts at decorating. Her Christmas tree that curved against the stucco and hit the ceiling, a prop from a holiday movie she’d been an extra in. The Gift of Christmas CD she played, eggnog. That stupid Santa hat she wore.
In my memory I see Johnny and I, hopeful, standing in the doorway, taking our shoes off like she asked and shuffling around in socks. Feeling our way through conversations. The car ride to her house, rehearsing, clinging to the belief that if we knew the things to avoid saying, knew the language not to use, we’d be safe from late night phone calls, her babbling into the receiver, stories about mom, dad, things I don’t remember. If we took our shoes off, smiled, laughed at every joke, would we be spared her marching hatred? Her incomprehensible mind?
Sure, there are good times, there always are. Nights we’ve spent drunk, laughing wickedly, and sharing dagger-like looks of understanding. Making fun of mom, dad, each other. But it wasn’t until the baby that things really changed. All those socks and onsies she bought, gift wrapped stuffed animals, blankets. I love this baby, she told me in a recent email. I love this baby more than I’ve ever loved anything.
“What did she say?” I ask.
“She has something for the baby.” Johnny left the TV on in the living room and Monday Night Football cheers in the background.
“I’ll call her tomorrow.” I listen to the plays. I want to be out there with the TV. They want to rub their shoulders with you, say you’re the biggest player out here tonight.
“I love you,” He smiles, takes a bite out of his roll.
“I love you, too.” He looks at my stomach and grins. There is a sharp pain in my abdomen. I take a few sips of water until the cramp passes and reach for the bottle of wine. Johnny looks up from his plate, surprised, he reaches for my hand and the glass. “What are you doing?”
“I’ve got this shitty headache. You’re mom said she sipped wine, maybe it helps.”
Johnny stops eating, his brow wrinkles deeply as he struggles to understand. I go on. “There’s all these new studies, medical reports...it helps.” Fear replaces the weight of anger, I am floating.
“I don’t see what it could help, Gillian.”
My body won’t stop screaming. “I’m going to try.” I pour wine in my empty water cup, sip, swallow. John watches me through this disgusting confession without understanding that I’m holding her, crushed, screaming, this is my foreboding. The wine forms a strong shape in my throat then down in my belly, up against Rachel who is gone. Chris Tucker takes off flying in the end zone! Football, our living room, our house, now it feels so strange. When the phone rings I see the mantle; our fake California fireplace, a fireplace that doesn’t even work, that can’t start a fire. I’m decorating the mantle with pictures, my hands are full of frames, pictures of Rachel, our baby, then a wave of nausea.
“Don’t answer.” I lean back in my chair. Blindness washes over me. I am empty. I say it over and over but it’s not true. I am full. Light plays on Johnny’s face, he looks like the most amazing man.
I move to take another sip but he strips the glass from my hand and tosses the wine in the sink. Red liquid dances on stainless steel and moves down in slow metallic drips. “What the hell is wrong with you, Gillian? You’re freaking me out.”
“I’m sorry.” My eyes relax, I put my elbows on the table and cry.
“Hey, hey.” He comes to me, his hands on my back, my belly. “What’s wrong baby? You’re acting really fucking weird.”
“It’s hormones.” I reach for his face, pull him into a kiss.
The first months are hell, tired all the time. You carry weight everywhere: little centimeters line your face, thighs, ass. Morning sickness; mine came at four-thirty or five. Rush hour sickness; we kept plastic bags in the car.
But I was proud. My breasts, always small, rose to round, apple-peaks on my chest. My cheeks looked defined, blushed. My hair grew thick and lustrous. I had the glow. “I am born for you.” I’d tell Rachel in the bathtub, soaking in vitamin E oil, petting my stomach with a wet washcloth, steam rising around us.
I try to keep my mind off the baby. Johnny touches me all over, kisses my neck, my breasts, I slid my hand down his side until I feel him pulsing. I lead him into the bedroom and take off his pants. He strokes my hair and kisses my neck gently. I push him down on the bed. He falls soft, willing, scared. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” I take my husband in my mouth, the lights are off completely.
When I wake up, the sun is hitting my back. My body moved out of the covers. Johnny is at work. My teeth feel grimy, an acidic wash hits the back of my throat. Wine has taken root in the ravines of my dry lips. Was it a dream? No. When I shower my stomach feels bloated, distended. I know looking in the mirror, in the early morning light, that she’s gone. She’s really, really gone.
I climb back in bed. My appointment is in three hours. It isn’t too late for Johnny to leave work, come home, come with me. Am I a monster? I hear our neighbors outside yelling and laughing at their dogs. I smell oranges through the open window. It is going to be a hot day, I can tell by the moisture and the fog in the air.
I take a cab to the hospital. There is a car accident on the 405, a Jeep turned over and a young couple are standing near by, holding each other. The cab driver tells me God creates life and God takes life away and I ask, are you joking? Then we are there.
The nurse escorts me in. We go up the elevator and get off on the fourth floor and walk down a hallway to a wing of the hospital I’ve never seen before. There are some procedural matters and the procedure is this: they need to confirm my address so they knew where to mail her ashes.
The doctor asks me if I want to do this awake or asleep. I asked him if I can do it dead but he doesn’t get my joke. “Try to relax.” I start breathing in general anesthesia. I close my eyes and try to imagine a beach in the Bahamas but see only the flickering white ceiling and florescent stars skating across my eyelids. Johnny is asking, “why?” Tears roll down my cheeks. When I wake up I see my daughter, my baby doll, she is small and translucent, she can fit in the palm of my hand.
I show the cab driver three hundred dollars so he knows I’m good for it, and tell him to drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway. He drives for one hour before I say pull over here. We are beyond Malibu parked on a rocky coast. I ask him to wait.
The sand is hard in places where the tide washed up this morning and the sky is perfect blue. I think about California as a discovery: young, gold-thirsty, stepping through the Rockies, Utah’s dry desert heat, Nevada waste, then you make it here. Your skin rises to kiss the elements: sun, salt, sand. You take in the smells: orchids, lemons, oranges. You’re in heaven’s playground.
I walk along the sandy coast until my skirt is wet. I have a headache, on heavy medication. Further and further into the ocean I go until the cold blue tide is kissing my thighs with chapped-lip, open-mouth kisses. I smell between salt and seaweed Johnny’s scent. Will he forgive me? Will he understand? Will he love me after swallowing our daughter whole and digesting her completely? Not a bone left to pick cartilage from with precise, ivory teeth?
I sit down, stretch my arms high above my head and listen to the seagulls and do not cry. I smile when I see my baby girl building a sandcastle wearing a blue and white stripped bathing suit. Older now, she’s learning how to surf, telling me about a boy, we’re laughing together in the sand. The cab driver honks three times, slow droning pulses. I closed my eyes and think about Johnny, where he will go.