In Medias Res
It is the end of May, and the Goat-baby (the bubble, the little being—all these nicknames that help us both be fond and keep our distance) is eleven weeks old. Poppy dust rained in my veins this past month, and I fell asleep in lecture, blinked at my students as if I could barely see them through a thick haze. The fetus is willful, at peak intelligence before it ever speaks. Maybe we are already resisting each other.
I dipped into my previous life this morning, swallowed lovely brown coffee and jumped off the bridge of exhaustion into the traffic of words. The jagged edges and angular lines of an unfinished master’s thesis shot past. I looked up to see that an hour had passed. I deleted what I’d written, ruthless with the razors of logic. A revered fiction teacher’s mantra played in my head: “Kill your darlings.” Hunched over the computer screen, biting my cuticles, I am the antinurturer.
I come up for air and remember that I’m pregnant. Two and a half feet down from this brain is a defenseless flesh-comma. Have I been cheating? Could I somehow make myself unpregnant? Could I break the shallow membrane between biology and fiction, inadvertently end this fragile life as I toss around the sharp-edged tools and girders needed to build hypothetical worlds? If I stop thinking about the baby, does it die? If I turn my mind toward lines of text, who reminds the baby’s cells to divide, and who keeps it from getting lonely?
It’s week sixteen, happy sweet sixteen, Goat-baby. I’ll stop calling you “Goat” when we find out next month what you are.
I wedge the visits to my OB-GYN between classes. I struggle to finish an oral presentation in a graduate seminar, winded as if I’ve climbed a flight
of stairs. I’m supposed to be spinning cogent thoughts about Wordsworth. “I’m pregnant,” I blurt, news that leaves my classmates slack-jawed, unsure what to do with this information that has no theoretical relevance.
Goat-baby, I love you but I’m glad you’re not here yet. Rather than counting down the weeks, I am banking against them, hoping for the full forty. In the coffee shop, I meet with an accomplished writer who’s also the mother of an eight-year-old. “Look, you can do it,” she says about my thesis and book manuscript. She glances down at her watch, timing the minutes until she has to pick up her daughter. “Just make sure you have a draft of the book done before the baby comes. You think you’ll have time afterward, people always say, ‘Oh, I’ll write when the baby sleeps,’ but that’s bullshit. You’re going to be sleeping or staring at the baby. So get to work and have the most productive summer of your life.”
When friends ask me how I’m doing, I am honest only if I know them well. I say, “I’m panicked. I haven’t ever had this kind of a deadline before.” To one friend who is also a writer thinking about getting pregnant this year, I say, “You know, it feels like somehow December 2 is the date I’m going to die.” Then the disclaimers: “I mean, I know that’s sick, and of course I don’t really think that. . .”
But she nods. “I know exactly what you mean. It’s like, good-bye to everything.”
Of course this is the opposite of a death. Even having that argument with myself makes me suspect. These are thoughts the mommy on the cover of the pregnancy manual would never entertain.
I’ve heard the urge for domestic completion described as a nesting instinct, a burst of furious activity before giving birth. I’m writing today in an office that’s going to become your bedroom, while my future writing space waits: a tiny alcove off the bedroom, just big enough for a desk. When we looked at our limited floor plan and figured out the allotment of rooms, I had an undignified hormonal crash and spent an afternoon crying. I got up and washed off my face, feeling selfish and confused; I thought the maternal instinct would suck all of those feelings away like poison from a snakebite.
So this will become your nest, but there’s no sign of a nursery. It’s disgusting, actually: paper everywhere, some of it in drifts so that it’s hard to tell that this room isn’t rounded at the bottom like a bowl. That corner is
the classes I’ll be teaching, this half of the desk and the floor below it is the book, behind me is the political work I won’t have time for anymore. I wonder if I’m embezzling from my maternal wellspring, burning the energy that is supposed to be used for picking out wallpaper with bunnies and lambs.
I am grateful for the blood barrier of the placenta that keeps some of my fluids separate from yours, because my mental soup is no place for a baby. I know you will develop tastes for what I ate during pregnancy, and you can have buckets of chicken tikka masala if you want. But don’t soak in my thoughts.
While my belly reaches outward, my brain and my hands—resting against my swollen lap—stitch together a book about the rise of the Third Reich. Sweetheart, I hope you never read this and figure out I spent your gestation trying to close the empathy gap, to feel the fear that a German Marxist had in his throat for Hitler’s brownshirts. I should be knitting booties, and instead I throw myself back in time toward horror. Do I leave you alone or take you with me? Either option sounds unforgivable.
I divert blood and nutrients from the uterus to the brain. I squirm as I listen to comments from strangers and friends about enjoying my pregnancy. Without maternity benefits, I have calculated my earning potential and academic calendar down to the day. To take three months off from teaching after giving birth, I will spend the entire pregnancy teaching at two colleges, tutoring, freelance editing, and writing for a magazine. I huff and lumber across campus, constantly late, lugging my belly along. And you in there, Sweet Pea: if you are high-strung, we will know it is because you were grown on a diet of coffee, carrot sticks, saltines, and adrenaline.
At week twenty-one, a friend tells me about a thrift store for maternity and baby clothes. Cruising the aisles, I pile up three-dollar shorts and five – dollar dresses that fit my girth. I pause in front of a huge bin filled with tiny socks and feel temporarily at rest. Moms flip through racks of T-shirts and pilot strollers through the aisles, and a clenching within my chest releases its tightened spring. Welcome to thrifting, Baby. I hope you like the pride of something twice used and comfortably broken in.
I touch a Winnie-the-Pooh lamp, a sweet swirl of color I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford. The price tag, four dollars, eases a pent-up panic
about all the things I realize I want to give you. I feel the edges of a real life open up for us. Baby, you will have to meet us, and to know your dad is an artist, your mom a writer and student. We make our living as freelancers. We have flexible schedules and decidedly unimpressive incomes. You will know, as we know, the wonders of the Dollar Store, the binges at the library. I knew this—I knew all along this was how it would be.
Hanging my brand-name, slightly used dresses on hangers, I realize I’ve been so intimidated by you, Baby. I had this weird idea you were going to pop out of me judging and dissatisfied, like a prefab suburban child expecting a stay-at-home mom and a Lexus SUV to take her to playgroup. Baby, I have been putting myself through a revisitation of high school in my head, feeling like I’m about to transfer to a new campus where I don’t know my way to class, where everyone calls me a nerd again and I don’t fit in with the other moms.
I have been already ducking in shame, imagining the sneer in your liquid brown eyes when you bury your face in a receiving blanket and come up for air with the distinctive smell and imprint on your face, knowing this blankie is garage-sale worn.
It’s twice loved, Baby. And it was only a dollar, I would explain. But maybe you’d already be hating me, following the North Star of your compass, waiting to escape to the life you knew you came here for, the life every Gerber baby was promised.
The thrift store—real, concrete, with helpful and harried women behind the counter not ashamed to be pushing the economical and the shared— shows me, with a surge of greedy pride and calculation, that we will get you first. Before you’re able to narrow your eyes at Daddy’s backyard full of sculptures and at Mommy’s chaotic office and piles of books, you will be spoiled with rescued treasures, homemade toys, and the best games and on-the-spot stories two parents can invent. If we can’t give you the moon and can’t guarantee you much saved for college, we can at least show you the wide world, the one that exists beyond traditional opportunity. You are not even a five-month-old fetus, and you’ve already come along to ten demonstrations and felt the sun outside your warm womb at a New York beach where tattooed gay boys romped naked in the waves. You will be loved, but never shackled with the blinders that make real life seem frightening.
We bought your baby book on clearance, dear. It’s a blank journal with a beaded cover. The pictures and collages and memories and stories that will go inside will, you can be sure, be yours alone.
Walking near the river tonight, I watch a father push a two-year-old on a swing. The boy tips back his head in ecstasy, in flagrant display of his own personality. I imagine you, Baby, and the ways you will have. We will see your twenty-one-week-old body tomorrow in ghostly grays on the ultrasound screen, and we will learn only hints about you, but I am hungry for every clue: any arch of an eyebrow or curve of a foot will be outrageous and specific. In this moment, my curiosity has eclipsed my anxiety.
My skin expands around you. It’s interesting but not entirely unfamiliar to be inhabited by a strange character, to think about the spaces inside me that I don’t own. This stage feels like the pre-writing of a story, that tentative, intuitive brooding where I flip through gestures and looks, searching not for a logical composite but for a foreign and fascinating whole.
Writing is the only way to replicate the feeling and privilege of being in love; those are the only two moments when staring is not impolite, when we are allowed to revel in the skin-landscape, the minute gestures, the smell and dastardly contradictions of another person. I needle together letters; I have many imaginary friends; I get lost in time. These skills, I think, will serve me well. The world out here is scary, Baby, but I want to talk with you about it. I want to see what and how you think. Last time we saw you, you were soap bubbles, semi-transparent globes scattered around a hummingbird’s beating heart. I want to see you; I am hungry for the plot, for the tiny details of your story contained in the pads of your fingers, and your plans for rebellion and creation.