At the hospital two nurses, a doctor, and Dave all stand and watch as I transform into animal. My body expels fluids, feces, and finally a human baby. I grip the bed, howl, grunt, and writhe. Outside the window the trees are sunlit, and the leaves stutter in the breeze. I try to forget that I took a shit in front of Dave.
They call this experience “beautiful.” Best day of your life, they say.
I wait for the nurse named Jennifer to disappear. When I arrived at the hospital, Jennifer didn’t trust me. She walked me to the delivery room, a clipboard in her hand. “What’s your address again?” she asked.
I told her I’d filled out the paperwork online.
There was a problem with the form. “I don’t see your name in the system,” she said. She told me to sit on the hospital bed and waited until I was supine to say that women are frequently wrong. She said often they think it’s their water breaking when really it’s just piss. She doesn’t say the word piss, though I want her to. She says urine. My body has given up decorum. My body will say piss whether I want it to or not.
Just say it, I think.
She does a test to make sure it’s not urine, and it’s not.
It’s only after I’ve left the hospital that I begin to think about life’s animal moments: An orgasm. A shit. The way a sneeze overtakes us, destroying any sense of composure. On the bus a woman sneezes, and I fixate on the way her face contorts before returning to calm. Someone says, “Bless you.” I enjoy the way we forgive each other for this, making room for instinct.
In the weeks after giving birth, I sit in our dark den and drink Diet Coke, even though I know it’s not good for the baby. I think, Haven’t I done enough that’s good for the baby? I went to all the appointments, tracked all the sizes of fruit the baby was growing into. Now that the baby is here, maybe I’m all out of good for the baby. I take one of the Zoloft the doctor gave me and swallow it with the Coke, then bring the baby to my breast.
Dave is the same person he was before. He gains five pounds, then loses it. He goes to the gym and comes home with a Butterfinger in his pocket. “Felt like I deserved it,” he says. I want to set the candy bar atop his head and smash it with my fist.
“You deserve the world,” I tell him.
“You’re the best, babe,” he says.
He didn’t even bring me one.
I text Kathleen: Go out to a bar with me. I’m craving some unlit, dirty place, a burrito full of meat and grease.
Kathleen meets me at a dive bar on Macadam, wearing chunky gold earrings and a necklace with a shiny, glowing octopus dangling from it. Her sweater is ocean blue. I wonder if she picked an aquarium outfit on purpose. “Traffic was a shit show,” she says, hovering over the booth.
“You can sit,” I say, a harshness to my voice.
She sits down on the ripped vinyl.
I order whiskey straight up. Kathleen orders a shot and a beer. My stomach aches. A burrito doesn’t sound good anymore. I ask if she wants to split an order of fried pickles.
Kathleen stares at me, confused. Did I say fried pickles, or something else? Dried rickles? Prickle fries? Ever since the hospital, my brain has been hazy. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation. I order the pickles and a burrito.
Kathleen asks how the baby is after our food arrives.
“He’s sleeping a lot,” I say, “but not at night.” I pick up the burrito, feel the weight of it in my hand, then set it down. “What’s new with you guys?”
“Greg got a promotion. We’re thinking of taking that trip to Naples.”
“Wouldn’t that be lovely.” The whiskey burns in my throat. Before, it felt easy and smooth, like everything else.
Kathleen finishes her shot and the beer. She looks good doing it, too. Her cheeks flush in a cute way. She brings a fried pickle delicately to her mouth. I remember how she told me about that singer in Reno, the way she’d sucked his dick in the club bathroom. “What?” Kathleen says because I’m staring at her, thinking about the pickle in her mouth.
I say, “I love your necklace.”
As she tells me where she got the necklace, I try to decide if she’s getting more beautiful or if I’m getting uglier. My face is pockmarked. I have new white spots that won’t go away, forehead lines deep enough to hide a penny in. My body feels like a mine shaft on the verge of collapse. Her skin is fresh and shiny, like morning after a full night’s sleep.
“Have another,” I say, gesturing to her empty glass. “It’s our night out.”
“You don’t have to get home?”
“Dave said to take my time.”
We order another round, the bartender glaring like he knows I’m an unfit mother. I touch the cool metal of my wedding ring, thinking of an old man I once saw on an airplane. His finger skin had sagged so much it had grown around his wedding ring, like weeds overtaking a garden. His wife was across the aisle, snoring. It was obvious to anyone he would die with that stupid ring on his finger, after listening to that snoring for the rest of his life. I felt so uncomfortable it ruined my flight.
Before I know it, Kathleen is at the bar again, ordering another. She doesn’t drink often, but when she does, she drinks. She slumps back into her seat and sips her whiskey as the music plays. I don’t order another, and she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. The clock on the wall has racehorses on it. As the hand goes round, I try to remember what time I told Dave I’d be home.
By the end of the hour Kathleen’s face is wet with sweat. I can’t help but enjoy the way she goes from shiny to slick, like sea life in an oil spill.
“I don’t like this song,” she groans. She’s drunker than I realized. “Too many curse words.” Kathleen goes to church every Sunday. I worry she’s going to complain to the manager, and I’m relieved when instead she points to the empty spot on the table in front of me and says, “Bitch, no drink? Bitch, what? Ahh, that’s right, you’re done ’cause you’re a mom now.” The word mom sounds coarse in her mouth. I’m feeling like the night should end, but when Kathleen asks if she should order another drink herself, I say yes for some reason.
As the night wears on, I say it again and again: yes, yes, yes.
“Drink,” I say. “Enjoy yourself,” I say. “It’s our night out,” I say.
Finally she says, “I’m feeling sick.”
I follow her to the bathroom and stand outside the open stall, waiting for her to vomit. I think of how in the movies a woman always holds back a friend’s hair, but Kathleen has a ponytail. She’s not even giving me the chance to be a good friend. She drops to her knees on the tile. The ponytail swings. Her blue sweater looks to be cashmere. When she bends over, her crack shows.
Her retching sounds like a garbage truck. It reminds me of the terrible endings to all the dumb parties I used to enjoy in high school. As she heaves, I think, This is what I wanted, isn’t it? To watch something beautiful become grotesque?
After she’s done, she tilts her head up at me. A crumb of puke clings to the side of her mouth. The smell should bother me, but it doesn’t. The octopus necklace hangs in the toilet, swirling in the vomit.
“Maybe you are a bitch,” she says, “but I’m no saint. I cheated on Greg last week.”
I laugh. Then we’re both laughing. It’s so funny. She flushes the toilet to make the vomit disappear.
Dave asks how my night was as soon as I walk in the door. He kisses my cheek.
“Kathleen’s a drunk,” I say. “And she cheated on Greg.”
“I want to see the baby.” I know this is what a mother should say.
I tiptoe into the bedroom. It’s dark, the streetlight through the shades drawing slashes on the baby’s sleeping form. I lean over the crib, peering in. His face is smooth like glass, his mouth a perfect, puckered thing. He’s glowing. And I can’t stand it. The sight of him.
I knew it wasn’t piss. Amniotic fluid burst from me like a river. After, it was a slow leak for hours, like a dripping faucet. Nothing like urine. Other women are idiots.
I search the Internet for stories that repulse me, all the terrible tragedies that can happen to babies. I find a story about a monkey tearing off an eight-month-old’s testicles then eating them. I read the story three times, trying to imagine what it must have been like for the baby but also the monkey, so hungry and full of misguided need. I’m disappointed when there isn’t a video of the encounter.
Dave walks in on me while I’m doing this. “Babe,” he says, and I quickly close the tab. I wait for Dave to accuse me of cheating or to tease me about watching porn the way he used to, but instead he says, “He’s asleep.”
“But it’s been months. The doctor said it’s fine now.”
“The doctor didn’t push a human out of her body.”
“She did, though. She has three kids.”
“Well,” I say, “you have her number.”
I make an acupuncture appointment for Saturday, but I don’t tell Dave about it. He doesn’t believe in alternative medicine. Instead I tell him I’m going to lunch with Kathleen.
The tiny needles enter my skin. I tense my body. I hold my breath, wanting to cry.
“How does this feel?” the acupuncturist asks.
I want to say that it feels like there’s a new hole inside me into which all the sentimentality flows. Ever since the hospital, I’ve wanted to be touched by women only: nurses, masseuses, lactation consultants. As if now that I’m a mother, I crave a mother’s touch. Instead I say nothing, and she leaves the room, and I lie in the dark, eyes closed, unmoving.
After the appointment I go to the grocery store, where I look for animal moments. I want it all — bloody noses, toddlers throwing tantrums, grand mal seizures — but there’s nothing for me here. Only the bright overhead lights. Only the too-shiny floor. Only the cans all perfectly turned, facing out. Even the children are well behaved and pleasant. I buy a box of Pop-Tarts and leave.
I walk in the door expecting Dave to ask me about lunch with Kathleen, but he’s distracted, holding the baby, loosely swaddled in a hospital blanket. Dave tries, but he can never get the swaddle right. “Babe,” he says. His face is red, and he’s wearing a white tank top. He’s full of energy, jostling the baby too quickly. “I did one of those mom-and-baby workouts. It was arm day. You lift the kid up and down. It’s not just for women. It’s bonding and— Hey, are those Pop-Tarts?”
“That’s great,” I say. “About the workout.”
“Strawberry’s my favorite, but that’s OK, I like the brown sugar.”
I hand him the Pop-Tarts as the baby opens his eyes.
“You good if I take a shower?” he asks, tearing open the wrapper.
“A cold one.” He takes a bite of the Pop-Tart. “It’s this method I’ve been trying: Wim Hof. They say you take cold showers and never get sick.”
“Hey, you mind taking Max this afternoon? I was thinking I’d go on a hike with Brent and Audrey. It’s so nice out.” He gestures to the window. He’s right. It is a nice day.
I take the baby and whisper into his ear, “Forever is a long time.”
The breastfeeding isn’t working. A specialist comes to the house and tells me about the football hold, shows me how to position the baby. She peers in the baby’s mouth, examines my nipples, mentions a tongue-tie, mentions oatmeal, asks if it’s OK if she touches my breasts.
“Tits,” I say.
She looks blankly at me. I’ll bet she eats granola for breakfast.
“Call them tits. They’re just tits. You can say it. You people don’t have to make it all mystical.”
Later that night she emails me an invoice for two hundred dollars. The baby still doesn’t eat. I fall asleep and dream of gauze filling my throat. I pull it out and out, like a circus performer. As it piles up on the bed, I notice the baby trapped beneath the gauze. I try to pull the gauze away, but it’s stuck. The baby cries until its mouth fills with the stuff, and then it doesn’t cry.
In the morning I get a text from Kathleen: Greg knows. I’m so f-ed!!!!
She loves Jesus so much she won’t type the word fuck. I’m surprised she even remembers telling me about her affair.
I write back, I’m sorry, that’s fucked up. I’ll pray for you, sweetie.
“I could use another night out,” I say.
We’re in the kitchen, and Dave is staring at me like I’ve asked for the world. Nine months, and now this.
“What?” I say. I have to steady my shaking hands on the counter.
He pauses, then says quietly, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” The kitchen counter is cold. My hands tremble against it. “I know this wasn’t what you wanted, but it’s turned out fine.” Even though I haven’t said anything, he puts out his hand as if to stop me. “Max is fine. You’re fine. I’m sure the birth was scary for you. Jesus, it was scary for me, and I wasn’t even—”
“That’s enough,” I say, my voice sharp.
“Max is fine,” he says. “I’m just saying.”
“I know,” I say. “I know he’s fine.” The room is blurry. His face through the gauze.
“I know you love him. And the doctor said—”
“I know what the doctor said.”
“Of course you can go out. I don’t control you. But if you need help, there’s no shame in going back. Maybe you could try a new medication if this one isn’t working. You know the doctor—”
I say, “I know what the doctor said.”
By the time I get to the bar, my stomach aches. Everything is wrong. Sweat sticks my thighs together. My tits sag, heavy because the baby still won’t nurse: a betrayal. I head to the bathroom, pop another pill, lean over the faucet to drink, and wander back into the bar. It’s almost empty. Then I remember it’s a Tuesday.
At the far end sits a man with a round, unsightly nose, his skin pockmarked like mine. He stares into his drink like it’s a crystal ball. Perfect. I like people who look for answers in the wrong places.
I get my beer and sit down near him, but not too close. In case he’s some kind of freak.
After a few minutes I lean over and say, “You know, I used to come here all the time, but I don’t anymore.”
He lifts his head. “Well, looks like you made it here now.”
“I’m a new mom. Which is why I don’t go out anymore.” I lift my beer, sipping the froth.
“Well, that’s probably for the best.”
“Moms are very busy. They keep the household running, you know. This is my first night out since becoming a mom.”
“That’s great. It’s important to do that for yourself.”
“Do you have kids?”
“No,” he says. “A scare once, but it never happened.”
“Then how would you know?”
“What?” He shifts in his seat.
“How would you know it’s important to do that for yourself if you don’t even have kids?”
“Look, I was just making conversation.”
“My kid is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” When I pick up my beer, the napkin sticks to the bottom. I peel it off and crumple it into a wet ball. “But you wouldn’t understand that, would you? I think anyone who doesn’t have kids is living a sad life.”
“My life’s about as sad as anyone’s, I suppose,” he says.
I squeeze the napkin, and the condensation drips on the counter. “You know.” I clear my throat. “I had a threesome once.” I don’t know why I’m telling him this. “Years ago. Best time of my life. What I’m saying is: I’m not just a mom. You can’t just see a mom on the street and think you know everything about her. I’m sure you’ve seen a mom with a stroller and thought you knew her. Judged her. We all do it. I’m guilty of it, too. . . . So what about you? You ever had a threesome?”
He laughs. His nostrils flare. I have the urge to tell him that his nose is probably why he’s at this dumb bar on a Tuesday night, talking to the likes of me.
“I have not,” he says. “Biggest regret of my life.”
“Cheers to that,” I say. I raise my glass. When his hits mine, it feels like a real celebration, like everything is clear and easy.
We sit for a minute as I take a few sips of my beer. Then I say, “By the way, I’m not even really a mom. I was lying to you before.”
As soon as I get home, my phone buzzes. It’s Kathleen.
Greg is leaving me. I need you. Please please please respond.
I put my phone facedown on the kitchen counter and find Dave in the living room, watching a show about weight lifting. The men are grunting and flexing. They look like they would eat a baby testicle if someone told them it had enough protein. Dave becomes aware I’m standing there. “What?” he asks.
Maybe it’s the booze, but I have a sudden urge to tell him about the gauze dream and the vomit and the burrito that sounded good and then wasn’t. I want to tell him how, after the birth, the nurses in the hospital wouldn’t stop talking about my body like it was some postmortem, using words I didn’t understand. How they took Max away before I even had a chance to touch the smoothness of his face. I want to tell Dave I’ve shared everything of my body with him, and that he has shared nothing of his.
Instead I say, “Turn off the TV.”
“Turn off the television.”
He does, then stares at me. “Everything OK?”
I could say anything now. For once, I have the floor. I could lie and tell him I cheated on him tonight with a man with an enormous nose. I could say the man stuck his nose inside me. That I liked it best when he inhaled. I could say I’m in love with Kathleen. That I’ve been sleeping with her for the past year. That the second I got pregnant, I knew it was her I wanted and not him. That she touches me in ways I never knew I needed. That when she puts her mouth to my skin, I understand a pleasure he could never provide.
Instead I ask him if he wants to masturbate.
“While I watch,” I add, already hating myself for saying it.
“I mean, yeah, babe,” he says. “Sure, whatever you want. Whatever makes you happy.” He’s eager and confused, like a little kid. I’ve never asked him to do this before, and I’m amazed at how simple it is, like asking him to run to the corner store for bread.
Our house is small, and our son is asleep, so we sneak into our bedroom like thieves. Dave takes off his shirt and throws it on the floor. His body is all meat and terror. He sits on the bed, and I sit beside him. The room is half lit and shadowy.
“Well. Go ahead,” I say. I cross my legs.
I wait for him to crack a joke, but he doesn’t. He pulls his pants down and takes his hand to himself like he’s been waiting for this moment our entire marriage. He closes his eyes and quickly goes from soft to hard. I can’t take my eyes off him. I wonder what he’s thinking. I hope it’s about another woman, someone with big, perky porn tits, someone who isn’t me, who isn’t a mother, who will never become one. I hope he’s thinking about Kathleen or someone like her. Someone who hates children and loves sucking dick and has cheated on every partner she’s ever had. I hope he’s imagining another life. I’m humiliated on his behalf. What a fantasy, buddy.
“Like this?” he says.
“Yes,” I say. “But slower.”
“Yeah?” he says. “Like that?”
He becomes an animal. I’m disgusted and in awe. I refuse to look away. This is the most important thing he’ll ever do with his body. It’s so absurd I want to laugh.
“You like that?” he says again.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes.”
Suddenly I can imagine a world where I’ll love him again, where my body craves what it used to.
I slide under the covers, bringing my hand to my stomach, which is soft like dough. I imagine if I pull hard enough, I might stretch it out to where it used to be, when the baby was still inside me and I thought I understood something of the world. I bring my hand lower, where everything is the same, yet different. Dave is looking at me now. I’m prepared for him to say, Let me see, and I’m prepared to say no, but he doesn’t, and for a second it’s like for once he understands. The way it is with most things in life, I know what’s going to happen next: Dave will finish, I’ll finish, and I’ll hand him a tissue. And then?
I’ll walk into the other room, pick up my son, and hold him in my arms. I’ll turn his face toward mine. His eyes will blink open.