BY RACHEL CANN
I canceled my regular Saturday night bridge game with my parents when the pains began coming two minutes apart. My husband drove me to the hospital. Back then, in 1970, there was none of this hand-holding and co-breathing. The hospital didn't even have a waiting room like in the movies. "We'll call you," the nurses told my husband. "You might as well go home and get some sleep." I'd read a dozen articles about childbirth, but none of them mentioned not to get a manicure. The first thing they do is strip your nail polish with a cotton ball so that if your fingertips start turning blue they'll know you're not getting enough oxygen. I got an inkling that someone would be calling for me in a body bag when they asked me to take off my ring and put it in an envelope.
A package of pink, a bundle of joy. That's what I was there for. My mother had said she wanted me to join the Foreign Service just because I could speak Greek, I suppose. I took it the wrong way because the more I tried to get back into the nest, get into her good graces, the more she pushed me away. I practically had to be forced to go to college, a hundred miles away. If I didn't go she would disown me.
My husband wanted me dead. I had a smart mouth, always determined to get the last word: "Just think, dear, you'll have another tax deduction." No wonder he hated me, forcing a dry little peck on my cheek before he left. Even with his good looks, the snappy way he dressed, I thought he was a jerk. I came to this conclusion after he showed his appreciation for my putting him through grad school by falling in love with some dizzy philosophy student on a Rockefeller fellowship. When I got pregnant he wanted me to have an abortion. "I want to marry her," he said. "Nobody should have to work this hard to keep a marriage together." He had a point, but I didn't go to all the trouble having my friend, Phil, get us on that junket to Puerto Rico just so he could win 200 dollars at the tables. The moonlight, the pina coladas, my soft, tender body, baked in the sun to just the right color of caramel, was going to cost him plenty. This was one baby I was keeping.
"Pardon my blue ass, but bastards don't run in my family."
Okay, so I was neurotic and I was vulgar. I wasn't born that way, that's for sure. Other people had a part in it. My grandmother, who raised me from the age of 6, held me in contempt because I was only half Greek, the daughter of an alcoholic. She would lock me in the bathroom to wash my socks and underwear and I would cry in front of the mirror believing God was kind enough to put someone else's face in it to save me from seeing my ugliness. It was the only explanation for why they treated me so mean. Lots of enemas to keep my bowels clean. No birthdays, no Christmas, no friends, no newspapers or books or classical music. Just the Bible. We were Jehovah's Witnesses. "Tune in tomorrow," I would say to the mirror every afternoon after school, for I had nobody else to talk to, "and see who comes to rescue the princess."
So I grew up, never looking in a mirror, still waiting for the prince, sort of, longing for understanding with my whole being. As a shelter for my own irrelevance, I hid my feelings behind an endless stream of what I considered witticisms. Nothing existed for me but the roles a quixotic God placed me in. Reality was a movie where I was the star, the director, the producer. And the audience. It was some kind of mental aberration, the only way I could cope with stress. Before I was out of the labor room, there would be a few nurses with second thoughts about their Hippocratic vows.
"Just a little more, dearie," said a nurse, with a tone of forced cheerfulness, standing there with yet another quart to fill my quivering entrails. I had endured all the humiliating preparations for childbirth without a whimper, but I'd had enough, so I fixed her with a bold, unblinking challenge like a woman who was used to getting her own way, which I wasn't.
"Make a bet?" I croaked from the back of my constricted throat, delighting in the way one of her eyebrows lifted in surprise. I could feel my own eyeballs rolling around in my head as I braced myself for the next wave of pain. I think that's when they decided to treat me mean. They shoved my gurney into a corner and bustled by with padded soles and swishing skirts, averting their eyes, until I was begging shamelessly for medication like a junkie. "When is the doctor coming?"
"When you're four fingers," snapped a nurse over her shoulder.
"Doctor's fingers or nurse's fingers?" Oh, I was hysterical, laughing at the sound of my own laughter, studying the dilation chart on the wall, counting the holes in the tiles on the ceiling the way the doctor had suggested would bring on a hypnotic, painless labor, timing my contractions, and gasping. Pretty soon, I couldn't count, couldn't remember which number came next. I kept starting over at 1.
"Try to sleep between the pains," they said. "Close your eyes."
There was no in-between. Melodrama began to flash before my mind's eye just exactly as if I were dying. "Pregnant," I told my mother, gloating. Everyone knew my husband and were I on the skids. Our bickering, like my bidding in bridge, was so bad my mother always insisted on being his partner. My stepfather at 19, had been through Pearl Harbor, the youngest commissioned officer up until then. He never talked about it. Never talked much, actually, but he was a sweet man. None of my bidding seemed to faze him though a dimple on his right cheek would get sucked in a bit with each bridge convention I violated.
"You're crazy to think of raising a child alone. You're not going to be dropping any baby off with me. I raised mine, you raise yours." This was my mother. I was anxious to explain how I felt, but either she didn't want to know or the time never presented itself for a friendly mother-daughter chat. I think at the bottom of it she was glad the marriage wasn't working.
She'd predicted it and she liked nothing better than to be proven right. You could tell that about my mother, the way she'd bid all the way up to six spades and run through the entire deck, from her ace on down, without a trace of expression on her face, snapping the tricks efficiently against the cardboard of the bridge table, riffling through what she had left in her hand. Leave it to my mother to let me learn in a Reader's Digest that I was supposed to be having orgasms. I found out that babies didn't come from her appendix scar in a Life magazine at my first job at a drugstore. And everything else she told me about sex was a lie, especially how we were all supposed to be the same in the dark and men being like streetcars, another one along any minute.
In the seventh month of my pregnancy, my principal, at the school where I was an unassigned substitute, asked for my resignation. Stints in the army were covered but not childbirth. I didn't want to lose tenure. "What's so ugly about my body? These junior high kids know where babies come from. What's the big deal?" I refused to resign until they gave me a leave of absence. What he didn't tell me was that there were two other teachers suing for discrimination, ultimately winning fifty thousand apiece.
One night, in the parking lot of the then-famous, now-defunct Lennie's on the Pike, I'd asked my husband if I didn't look pretty, fishing for a compliment the way a woman does when she's unsure of herself. "What makes you think you're so special?" he answered, shifting his gaze to the stylish hustlers at the bar. Later, pulling out into the highway, he floored the gas pedal until the speedometer read 90.
Between the whiskey sours and the mink I was wearing, I felt compelled to make a dramatic gesture, tossing both my diamond and my wedding ring into a snow drift. He hadn't worn his since the wedding. "If you won't wear a wedding ring, I won't either." The instant I did it I was sorry. He didn't blink an eye, his face, glowering in the light of the instrument panel, a study in fluorescent green.
Labor pains jolted me out of my reverie. It was like coming out of a black tunnel that was calling me back to a place I'd been before I was born. I was alone, alone to face the terror, willing it to be still. I was at their mercy. It enraged me when they said I must be brave, that nobody had ever found labor fun. I was being what I had to be; I had no alternative.
"You must have come in too early."
The shifts had changed. Other women had been coming and going into delivery all night. Neat little women. Calm women. Women who hadn't gone through all 37 flavors of Baskin and Robbins ice cream like me. Something was definitely wrong. My big hair-do was sopping wet. Every now and then I'd quit screaming long enough to spit bile, brown-green and bitter as seaweed, into a kidney-shaped pan. My tongue kept sticking to the roof of my mouth like Velcro.
"Deep breaths," a nurse said, patting my hand with the first comfort I'd felt in months. Her hand was cool and soft as if she had creamed it and slept with gloves on every night just so she could dispense courage along with kindness. "You're doing just fine," I heard her say from the tunnel which engulfed me again, sucking me down to that brief, small place that was my beginning and end, my very cutthroat soul. The nurse had changed my sheets, taken my pulse, and I could tell by the look on her face, even as she came and went before my eyes, somewhat like heat rising from a desert highway, that she was worried. "We've called your doctor."
I could smell a stall like a filly coming home to the roses. Paranoia set in; it was a diabolical plot. My husband had paid them to stop my dilations. Hadn't he tried to kill himself the night of the shower when he was supposed to be showing his gratitude to his mother's friends for twenty-two identical pieces of Coming ware? Sure death had seemed better at the time than marriage. And the night before the wedding at the rehearsal party, when he'd had enough boiler makers to tell me hated me; lots of men get weak-kneed just before a wedding. We'd been high school sweethearts, the first boy I had ever kissed. Would anyone else ever want me? My mother had already paid for the wedding reception. What a sick puppy I was.
I'm getting out of here, I think I said to myself, now – or for all I remember, I could have screamed it. "I'll have a better chance of meeting a doctor in the parking lot." Someone slid a cold pan under my rump and put up the aluminum sides to the bed. I knew I wouldn't make it far in the elevator dressed in a johnny. The labor room had a tiny window and was on the second floor. Just when I was about to make my move, up and over the bars like a hurdles jumper, a butch of a blonde appeared, a double for Gorgeous George, the wrestler. Her biceps were puckered cellulite, her roots needed bleach, and her hands held leather.
"You're not thinking of leaving us?" she asked, smiling and tying my wrists to the bed.
"Sadistic bitch!" I twisted and flailed at my restraints until I was on my hands and knees, my belly barely lifted off the sheets, rocking back and forth in primordial rhythm. Every now and then a hand would come into my human zoo and feed me an ice chip. I was fading fast. Terrified. I heard voices. I was talking back to them, but nothing I said made sense. I couldn't get my thoughts sorted out.
"The doctor is coming. The baby's heart is beating strong."
The next thing I remember is the face of a doctor I'd never seen before. My strength kept rising to greet the waves of pain. It was as if some territory was being denied and I didn't know how to meet the challenge. "We gave you enough Seconal to drop a horse," he said, releasing my wrists and administering a spinal. "Any more wouldn't be good for the baby."
"The baby. The baby. Is that all you can think of? I'm dying I tell you and I don't care if you have to take this baby out of me piece by piece, but get it out!" Venomous words, I know, from that snake Lucifer who danced in my blood, who couldn't wait for my demise. At this point I'd been in labor 28 hours and as the records would later show, there had been eight different calls to my doctor. By the time I went into the delivery room, every doctor and nurse on the floor went in with me. Because of the scopolamine, I don't remember a thing. It suffices to say they don't give women that drug any more. A woman could spend the rest of her life worrying about what she'd said, trying to make the missing pieces fit.
When I came to, my mother was hovering over my stretcher, rubbing my forehead the way I always hated and my husband had a strange look on his face. Did the man actually have feelings? Even doped up the way I was I could detect an unmistakable change. What was it? Awe? Reverence? Pity? "Did I have a girl?" I asked, hopefully. I'd chosen yellow for the nursery furniture, with a white ruffled canopy for the crib. When I'd found out about the other woman, I'd stolen his Visa to buy the best.
"A boy," he answered. "What do you want to name him?" Nine long months of avoidance. Five long married years of grousing how I'd forced him into marriage, begrudging me the slightest attention. I'll tell you, getting pregnant was no easy chore, what with his nose up in the air since he got his M.B.A. from Harvard. I focused with difficulty on his face and like a second-stringer who's been waiting for a pass, I grabbed the advantage and ran.
"A boy?" I wailed. A groggy brogue for some reason came to my lips as if while I was in the dark unknown I'd had an encounter with Bridie Murphy. "A junior he will never be. Sean is good enough for the likes of you who never wanted to feel him kick or pick out a name!" Robbing him thus, I lapsed into a triumphant sleep. A boy! I'd done the best I could. The fierce demands on my body had ended. The ones on my brain were yet to begin. When I woke again, I found myself in the ward reserved for C-sections along with some nursing mothers. It hurt just to look at the size of their babies. Could I possibly have stretched that much? "Haven't you seen your baby, yet?" one of them asked.
"I haven't even seen my doctor." This provoked an outburst of laughter which I appreciated. I hated it when no one laughed at my jokes. Waiting for the doctor seemed to be a universal truth. Mine would book all of his appointments for 3 o'clock. Sometimes I wouldn't get out of there until 7. Once your turn came, you forced yourself to forget that others were waiting, backs aching, feet swelling, bladders screaming because you didn't want to miss your turn by being in the bathroom if your name were called.
A nurse stopped me from getting out of bed. "Not yet, dear. You had a very tough time. You'll have to wait for the doctor." Then she plumped up my pillows and gave me a shot. I felt the emptiness descend though my stomach was as swollen as if I were still carrying. My obstetrician, holding a clipboard, came and pulled the curtain around us for privacy. He was a half-bald, antiseptically clean-smelling middle-aged man, with hairy forearms. I was so happy to be alive that I didn't say a word about his being late.
"You had a lot of problems," he said. "We would have taken him cesarean, but he was already in the birth canal. Breech too. I had to rotate him. Your hips are very narrow."
"I know. I know," I said, impatiently. I'd had to wear suspenders to keep my skirts from falling until I was twelve. What I was missing on my hips, was added, I thought, quite injudiciously to other places. I longed to have a wasp-like waist and the flat-chestedness of a Radcliffe girl. I had gone to State on scholarship and my foremothers had been tillers of the soil. Simply stated: I saw myself as a peasant and I contented myself with an earthiness Radcliffe girls only dreamed about. "But what about my baby?"
"You're very weak."
"He's alive, isn't he?"
The doctor nodded. His customary smile was missing. "He's got a bit of a birth defect. Nothing major."
"His face. His mouth. A cleft, probably hereditary. Something went wrong in the first 3 three weeks. You're not to blame. It can be fixed." I felt his hand on my knee through the sheets. "I'm very sorry."
He was so crestfallen, so concerned, my immediate thought was to put him at ease. My own feelings had yet to come to the fore, lost, perhaps, in the brooding I'd done about my lot in life, in the sad state of my affairs. "We're going to be fine, doctor. Don't worry." I'd already decided to send my husband packing. We couldn't go on the way it had been going. The break was inevitable. I think I knew that from the very beginning, but it wasn't as if I hadn't tried. Wasn't life absurd? I borrowed a dime from the doctor and went to call the strongest person I knew.
Phil must have been sitting on the phone. "I'm okay," I said, brightly and idiotically. "It's a boy." I think he could tell by my gagging that all was not well.
"You can always have a girl. Don't worry."
"It's not that. I think you should come." And here the fear began pouring out in a dizzying adrenaline rush I didn't think I was capable of spent as I was. With Phil, I could always find the words to express myself because I knew he understood me. There was nothing complicated about me at all and if the others misunderstood me it was because they didn't want to understand. "I need you," I wailed. "There's something wrong with the baby."
I'd been pulling on the phone cord so hard that when I hung up, it whapped me soundly across the face. I wiped my tears with the heel of my hand and tenderly inched my way to the nursery. They had him right up front, the biggest baby of all, with a full head of hair and half a face. When he gave a lusty cry, you could practically see up to his brain. He'd fought his way to life, and me in the process, but I could tell that he had plenty of life left, that he was determined to live. All the other babies seemed puny by comparison. At 9 pounds 2 ounces, he was a croaker. I tapped on the window to get a nurse's attention and said ever so politely so they wouldn't think I was a bitch: "Could you, please, put him up back, sideways, so that if people have to look, they'll see his beautiful profile?"
Then, slipping out of my skimpy satin slippers, as if they could weigh more than a prayer, I stumbled onto the scale stationed in front of the nursery window. By my calculations, I'd lost 40 pounds. Given what the approximate weight loss bad been predicted by all the magazines, I was mystified as to where the remaining pounds had gone. Exactly what went on after they gave me the scopolamine? Could I have perspired that much? I vaguely remembered someone telling me that ping-pong champions often lost as much as 30 pounds during a match much like football players. You never knew when you had to spout details like this.
I shuffled back to bed and painted a smile on my lips to greet well-meaning family and friends who didn't know whether to offer condolences or congratulations. My husband came first, hiding his face in his hands, grief-stricken. It was his distress as much as mine, but I didn't want to share it. "I'll make everything up to you," he said, finally looking up at me. "I'll give up the other woman. I'll come home an hour earlier. I've already given notice to my boss."
I wanted to pull him close, push the lank hair out of his eyes, and kiss them one at a time, but I couldn't forget the night when I'd pulled him close and found scratches on his back. That night, I'd slept on the couch (because he wouldn't) ruing the times I'd taught him to do things a man must do to make a woman passionate enough to scratch. I turned my face to the wall. "Get out," I said. "I don't want to love you anymore."
The polite restraint of my in-laws was hard to take. My mother-in-law's eyes were red-rimmed from crying. "Please," I said, turning my face so that I wouldn't weaken. I would not meet her appeal, setting my heart in unyielding indifference. "I just want to be alone with my son." My son, the words thrilled me just to think them. She was the first person I called the night I'd caught my husband in a motel. If I hadn't been pregnant, I would have driven through what amounted to nothing but a wooden shack, a cabin in the woods, seedy and notorious among those who could afford to pay the price for extra-marital bliss. Lucky for them, I'd been driving a Volkswagen. After giving them decent notice, so they could dress, I broke the cabin window with my arm, cutting myself in the process, climbing in like an avenging angel, dripping blood, only to find that the other woman had locked herself in the bathroom. The cabin was so small that glass lay shattered all over their romping place, the bed. "She's a nice kid," he'd said, reproachfully. "Leave her alone."
His mother must have thought I'd killed him. "What have you done to my son?" she'd asked, tinny voice rising in my ear. I needed stitches, I told her, but her son, the gentleman, had taken the other woman home, protecting her identity with a towel, shielding her from my weak and pregnant pummels with his body, with this amused smile I think I will carry to my grave. Phil made it all better that night when I arrived at his place in tears. He got out the Mercurochrome and ran the tub full of hot soapy water. From the hall closet he brought out a stack of fluffy towels, cleaned up my arm in no time at all. I wouldn't need stitches. "No, no, no," he kept saying, as if the walls had ears, tenderly stripping me of my blood-spattered clothes. "You don't want to have him killed. He doesn't have any insurance." Pretty soon he had me giggling, up to my neck in bubbles, arm hanging down the side of the bathtub, wrapped in gauze.
My room at the hospital had been changed to a private one after visiting hours were over. I'd slept once the others had gone, awaking after a while to see Phil's eyes twinkling behind a gauze mask. Over his bald head, he'd stretched a surgical glove so that the fingers still had air and covered his old-fashioned wing-tip shoes with ugly paper slippers. Instead of a starched white doctor's jacket, he was wearing a blue surgical robe. A nurse scurried to find a vase for his long-stemmed roses.
"How did you get in here?" I asked, breaking out into a giggle. He looked like an insane asylum attendant or a bank robber.
"I came up in the service elevator. There was a truck full of sterilized clothing so I helped myself. I think they think I'm your psychiatrist. I went to the nursery first to take a look at the Eskimo."
"That's what he looks like," he said, chuckling, "with all that black hair. Are you sure you don't have a Puerto Rican boyfriend? You don't think I'm going to call him by the dumb name you chose, do you? Where in hell did you get a name like Sean?"
The nurse interrupted us, then, carrying a small bundle, before I could explain that the name had just come to me unbidden from that dark place where I had been. "This is the first time I've held him," I said, feeling the excitement growing, feeling a look of joy come over my face, in spite of my fears. "My God, I'm a mother!" You'd think there was nothing wrong with the infant at all, I sounded so delighted.
As Phil hovered, I unwrapped the baby, noticing his tiny eyelashes which were to grow in like time lapse photography from feeding to feeding. Except for his face, which I avoided looking at, the baby was perfection itself. Of course, all Phil noticed was the baby's penis, covering him up, at once, so that he wouldn't catch cold or maybe because it embarrassed him. "Is it too small?" I asked him, stupidly.
"When it's time for him to use it like a man, it'll grow," said Phil with quiet assurance. "But why isn't he circumcised?"
"The doctor said he was having enough trouble breathing, that circumcision was old-fashioned now that we had running water."
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," said Phil, shrugging, "but then again, what do I know?" It was the first and only time he admitted not being all-knowing. I could tell he was trying to keep me from feeling sorry for myself. My breasts ached to feed the baby, but the nurse brought me a syringe jury-rigged with a length of rubber tubing and some warm formula. She showed me how to drop it down his gullet like a mother robin.
"Give me the doctor's name," said Phil. "The one who's going to do the surgery. I want to have him checked out. This kid is going to have nothing but the best."
The nurse came to take the baby away, but first she let Phil hold him. "Hey, Eskimo," said Phil, cradling the baby in his arms and jiggling him. "Wake up and look at your godfather." The baby slept soundly, making small little snuffling sounds as he labored to breathe. The smell of the roses was suffocating and I wondered if I shouldn't clear the room of flowers so that the baby could breathe easier. The utility table next to my head was crowded with as many plants, cards and bouquets as it would hold. The window sill held the rest. Phil handed the baby to the nurse and began to take off his surgical garb.
"Don't you dare send me any more roses," I said. "I feel like I'm already laid out." I wasn't used to all this attention. It was almost embarrassing, considering what a failure, what a botched-up job I'd made of the whole thing.
Phil turned to give me an evil wink on his way out. "Don't push your luck. If you want to get along with me, quit telling me what to do."
The second dozen arrived the next day and a third the day after that. I let everybody think whatever they wanted. Phil was old enough to be my father, the most feared man in the whole city of Boston according to the Freedom of Information papers I got from the Justice Department some 30 years later. He was connected. And by being connected to him, I felt safe.
He could even fix my parking tickets. I didn't mind being arm candy even when he would say I couldn't get laid in a men's prison with a handful of pardons.
To this day, I believe it was Kismet. But then nothing mattered. One minute I'd be euphoric, the next, bawling my eyes out. The poor doctor didn't know what kind of medication to give me, so he settled on nothing at all. "You have chutzpah," he said the day he wrote my release slip. How could I explain that watching myself wouldn't stop, that I didn't know what I was going to do next. All I knew for sure was that I had a son and that I wasn't alone anymore.