Issue #13 |

Motherhood

First there was a scrabbling sound from the ceiling. Little nails scraping on wood. Ali heard it while she was breast feeding and shuddered. She reached for the phone on the ottoman without disturbing the baby and called her husband. It went straight to voicemail. She texted him: Think we’ve got a critter problem in the attic. Creepy.

Her husband, Gregg, texted back. Can’t talk. In meeting. Will call later.

Ali palmed her free breast, it was hard as concrete and hurt. She shifted the baby to this breast; after an intense tightening like the squeezing of a blood pressure cuff, she felt relief as the milk was released. Almost immediately the breast started to soften. “Thanks, baby,” she said, leaning down to kiss it on its soft head.

The baby kept looking at her seriously but also raised a rounded hand to bat her own face. The baby’s movements were jerky and uncontrolled, almost comical, especially accompanied by the baby’s serious look. “What’s she thinking?” she would ask her husband. “What’s she pondering?”

“Nothing,” her husband said. “She’s not thinking anything. She’s just taking everything in and letting it go back out. Every experience moves through our baby like she’s an open door. Our baby is so cool. Our baby is so zen, she should have her own followers.”

“She does have followers. She has us,” Ali said, smelling the baby’s soft, warm head.  It smelled like fresh bread. Is that why people were always pretending to eat babies? Because they smelled like delicious, milky bread?

Now Ali said to the baby, “Oh, baby, I think we’ve got tree rats or confused squirrels, definitely something small and easily panicked up there.” She tried to sound      casual,     but she was trembling inside. The thought of rodents in her house would make her anxious at any time, but now with the baby, it was a problem that had to be assessed, attacked, and conquered immediately.

I know, Mom, the baby seemed to say with her steady gaze. I heard it too.

 

Ali did not really want the baby to have followers. She did not want the baby to be exceptional, definitely not a genius. From what she’d seen and read, being a genius didn’t really bring anyone a happy life. It came with a lot of responsibility and was more of a burden. Actually that was not the whole picture. Ali did want her baby to be exceptional but only a little, only a little more than ordinary. She had already told the baby that she would not be one of those parents who pushed her child into ballet or piano or coding camp if she had no interest. If the baby grew up and was passionate about any of those things, why then of course Ali and her husband would support her, encourage her, drive her to rehearsals and performances, buy her the necessary accoutrements, but only if the baby really wanted these things.

Ali was determined to do everything differently from the way she’d been raised. Some of it was easy. She’d never, for example, need to ask the baby to translate for her with others, or write her own notes to school if she was sick, or if they went to a restaurant that wasn’t Korean look through the menu and pick out a dish for her. But she also wouldn’t need or want the baby to live for her, would let her make her own mistakes, enjoy her own successes, feel her own failures. And she’d keep an open mind if the baby wanted to be something wildly impractical like a singer or writer or shaman or a face painter princess like her five-     year-     old niece, Lily. Lily was the product of an unsanctioned union between her older brother, John, and his Black girlfriend, Nancy. Ali’s parents still didn’t know of Lily’s existence.

Ali herself had only met her twice, since she rarely saw her brother even when she was still living in Boston. One visit, Lily was a red-faced crying baby and the next visit, she was a cute little girl with brown pigtails that turned reddish in the sun. She was talkative and affectionate, leaning against Ali as she showed off her painted fingernails, each a different color, each her favorite. And when Ali had asked Lily what she wanted to be when she grew up — what a stupid question to ask a child! — she had said right away in a dead serious voice, Face Painter Princess, like it was already a thing and not some glorious concoction from her fertile brain. Ali had immediately wanted a Lily of her own and had prayed through her whole pregnancy that her baby would be a girl.

She heard the scrabbling sound again, but this time it felt closer, like it was in the walls behind the crib. It angered her. She felt like walking over to the wall and kicking it, scaring whatever was there into fleeing. The kick would say, This is my place. Your place is somewhere else.

The house had been nothing but trouble. That’s what they got for picking such an old one. They’d been fooled by a real estate agent who had convinced them that older houses were better made. He had gone into long, rambling detail about how the wood they used back then was thicker and stronger and joined together in ways that made them less liable to crumble and crush them when the big earthquake hit. Everyone in California knew the Big One was coming, it was only a question of when. A frightening thought, which only made it more amazing that you could get used to living with such a frightening thought. But, you could get used to anything if you had to. Ali remembered the apartment she and her family had lived in for their first decade in America. The building belonged to the cockroaches at night. How many times had she turned on the bathroom light to witness their frantic activity as they raced for the closest dark passage, their panic matching her panic. But she got used to it: the panic, the revulsion, the unchangingness of it.

Ali felt a warm wetness leave her body as she adjusted herself in the rocking chair. She hoped the pad was positioned to catch it. The baby was almost asleep, Ali’s nipple falling out of the baby’s pink open mouth. Ali wondered if she could shift the baby into her crib without waking her. She was rarely successful at this, as the baby almost always woke up before Ali could tiptoe out of the room. Everybody told her to let the baby cry it out, but though Ali felt some shame about this, she could not let the baby cry for longer than a few minutes. Even those few minutes were torture. Whenever the baby cried, alarm bells rang in Ali’s head and breasts and core. Her whole body clanged. Nobody had ever told Ali that this would happen. Nobody had told Ali the important things, some very unpleasant. Like that Ali’s nipples would grow enormous, lengthen, and then crack and bleed when the baby failed to latch on correctly. She had heard one harrowing story of a woman whose nipple had been pulled halfway off by an exuberant sucker. After the first week of breastfeeding, Ali’s nipples were reduced to two big protruding scabs. She had to smear Vaseline on them and wear pads in her bra. Pads in her underwear, pads in her bra: her body felt like a leaking boat. Nobody had told her that she would keep bleeding after the baby was born. Bleeding a full pad every few hours.

The last time she had gone to see the doctor when the baby was three weeks old, he had said, “Hmmm. Well, this much blood is on the far side of normal, but I’m not worried.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Make sure you’re getting plenty of iron in your diet. Go out for a steak dinner. Take it easy. Put your feet up. What is it that they say these days? Netflix and chill? Netflix and chill. Look at that big baby.” And here he put his face close to the baby’s in the stroller. “Bruiser, eh?”

“Isn’t there something I should do?” she asked. “How long should I let this go on, I mean? I’m going through a lot of pads. That can’t be good.”

“Let’s give it a couple of weeks, shall we?” he said. “Have them make you an appointment for three weeks from now.” He walked over to a computer in the corner and typed his notes slowly with two fingers. “We’ll see how you are then.”

That was a few days ago. Afterwards she had talked to an old friend from the East Coast who suggested seeing an acupuncturist. She was surprised Ali had never been to one before. So Ali followed her advice and made an appointment for that afternoon with the best acupuncturist within a five mile radius. Which was why she was trying so hard to get the baby to take a nap. Otherwise she might fuss and cry during the appointment.

Ali sat in the chair and played a word game on her phone while the baby slept with Ali’s nipple still half in her mouth, trying to ignore the shifting, scratching sounds coming from the ceiling and walls.

 

Ali had to change her pad again before she went to see the acupuncturist. It was scary seeing so much blood come out of her. She had always had heavy periods but this was beyond anything she had ever experienced. It was so dark it was almost black and when she sat on the toilet, thick mucusy clots slid out. She watched it, fascinated, as though it was happening to someone else. She wondered how she could lose so much blood and not pass out. She was surprised at how normal she felt. The human body was incredible. Just the fact that the baby was getting bigger everyday solely on her milk still seemed like a prank.

The acupuncturist had an office across town in a small strip mall between a bubble tea place and a Mailbox, Etc. It smelled like lavender and plastic inside. There was a small water feature on a table against a wall, a waterfall made of black pebbles that had a stream of falling water, smoke rising from the bottom. The lavender and plastic smell seemed to be coming from the smoke. A young man sat behind a gleaming white counter and smiled at her.

“Welcome,” he said. “Can I help you?”

Ali told him she had an appointment and was asked to fill out a long medical form. She looked down at the baby sleeping in the stroller. She must have been dreaming because she was making little O’s with her mouth.

There was another woman in the waiting room. She sat looking down at her phone. It was hard to tell how old she was. Probably older than she looked like so many people in Ali’s new town. She wore expensive yoga pants and a soft, flowy tank top that showed off her toned arms. Ali wondered why she was there. She sat down a couple of chairs away from her and started filling out the form.

After a few minutes, the woman looked up from her phone and directed a big sigh toward the receptionist, but he either didn’t see her or was ignoring her. He was typing rapidly on his phone with his thumbs.

“I’ve been here almost twenty minutes,” the woman said, turning toward Ali.

“Oh,” said Ali. “Does it usually take this long?”

“Sometimes longer,” the woman said. “But he’s worth it. Dr. Wong makes miracles happen.”

“Like what?” Ali asked.

“Like I know three people who got pregnant after being treated by him,” the woman said. She glanced at the stroller. “Did you?”

Ali looked down at her baby. “Oh, no. I’m here for another reason.”

“Well, your baby is adorable. Girl, right?”

Ali nodded. “Gennifer with a G,” she said. “Although I’m having second thoughts about that.”

“Gennifer with a G is a lovely name!” the woman said, leaning over to get a closer look at the sleeping baby.

“But she’ll have to say that her whole life. Hi! I’m Gennifer with a G. Ugh. I don’t know what I was thinking. And why did my husband agree with me? At least she’s only four weeks old. We can change her name and she’ll never know the difference.”

“I’m trying to have a baby,” the woman said. “We’ve been at it a little while. Gone to all the doctors but they haven’t found anything wrong with us. We’re a medical mystery. Lucky us.”

“My bleeding hasn’t stopped since having the baby. That’s why I’m here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I once had my period for a whole six months. Turns out there was a fibroid.”

“Wow,” Ali said. “Six months. I think I’d go crazy.”

“I almost did,” the woman said.

Ali laughed. She stopped. She thought about how her baby was a girl, and everything that meant.

“How long have you been coming to Dr. Wong’s?” the woman asked.

Ali shook her head. “My appointment is with Dr. Anderson.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “She’s new. I haven’t seen her yet. Dr. Wong’s practice has really taken off since I first started coming here six years ago.” She gestured around the small room at the water feature and the low pot of purple orchids on the reception desk. “There didn’t use to be any decoration, just a few folding chairs and old People magazines that were years old. My guess is he bought them at a garage sale. There used to be a little TV that played CNN but people complained that the news stressed them out and he took it down. Someone told him to play Enya.” She pointed up at the speaker high up in a corner of the room. Ali only then realized that Sail Away or a song just like it was playing.

“Six years,” Ali said. “Wow.”

“Yeah, sucks,” the woman said.

The receptionist returned and said, “Sonya, Dr. Wong will see you now.” He held the door open for her. He was like a TV host, friendly, remote, and polite.

“Good luck,” the woman said to Ali, “with that beautiful baby.” She paused for a moment, thoughtful. “You know what might be a good name for her? Esme. I was going to keep that for myself, but you can have it.”

“Thank you,” Ali said. She stared at the baby wondering if she was an Esme, but finally decided that while she liked how the name looked, she did not like the way it sounded. She wondered what it would be like to be that woman’s friend, to have lunch with her and talk about their lives. Ali had not made any friends yet in California, not real ones.

Dr. Anderson was a middle-aged woman with short gray hair and flinty blue eyes. She frowned when she saw that Ali had brought the baby. Ali lay down apologetically on the examining table. Her body felt strange lying there. Ever since she’d had the baby, her body didn’t feel like it had edges anymore. She was like a tire with a puncture, deflating slowly, getting wider, softer.

“What seems to be the problem?” Dr. Anderson asked. She opened wide one of Ali’s eyes with her fingers and shined a little flashlight into it, then into the other one. She had Ali open her mouth and say, “Ahhh.” She pressed her fingers into Ali’s neck and skull and along the joints of her wrists and ankles while Ali explained her heavy bleeding.

Finally, Dr. Anderson pulled a wheeled stool from under a desk and sat writing on a clipboard next to Ali’s head. Ali stared at Dr. Anderson’s loose linen blouse and could imagine just what kind of expensive, comfortable leather sandals were on her feet. Ali wondered if she had children.

“Pregnancy and childbirth are traumatic on the body,” Dr. Anderson said. “Not that it isn’t natural, or that our bodies aren’t meant to make and birth babies, because it is. It’s just that we should also recognize what an enormous upheaval it is for the body. It takes a while for the body to get back to normal, so to speak.”

“So will I stop bleeding on my own?” Ali asked.

“Eventually,” Dr. Anderson said. “But we can help with acupuncture and some pills I’m going to have made just for you. I have to warn you, the pills are pretty big and they may be tough to get down, in which case you can break them in half. But make sure you take them all, twice a day for two weeks. It will help to restore your balance and get you back to baseline.”

“Okay,” Ali said. “And then will the bleeding stop?”

“It should,” Dr. Anderson said, standing up. “Now I’m going to do the acupuncture. Just stay relaxed.”

Ali told herself to relax but felt her heart pounding like a hollow drum. In fact, since the baby was born, there were times when all of her felt hollow inside, and other times, it was like all her organs had been rearranged and then squeezed haphazardly back into the wrong places.

Ali kept her eyes open while Dr. Anderson stuck the little needles into her forehead, into her ears, at different points along her arms and legs, and      near her abdomen where her shirt was pulled up to expose her soft, still bulging stomach. She could feel them but they didn’t hurt. She didn’t really think they would do anything, but found herself getting drowsy. At some point the light was turned down. Without realizing it, she fell asleep.

She heard scratching sounds and then a mewling kind of cry. Her baby was in danger! It was being carried off by rats! She sat up abruptly, surprised to find Dr. Anderson gone, the room lights dimmed. The mewling sound was the baby waking up.

“Hello?” she called out in a high-pitched voice. “Hello?” Her heart was pounding so hard that she could barely hear herself.

When no one came, she tried to get up but the needles quivered wildly and pinched her. She lay back down, willing the baby to stop crying. The panicky feeling from the dream was still close. She remembered the call button near her head that Dr. Anderson told her about and pressed it several times. Dr. Anderson came rushing in smelling like salad dressing; Ali felt badly about interrupting her lunch. When she apologized, Dr. Anderson said, “That’s why we don’t allow children at appointments,” in a cold manner that made Ali feel both ashamed and angry.

Before Ali left, the receptionist told her that Dr. Anderson wanted her to come back in a couple of days to pick up her pills and do another session of acupuncture. After that, she should come twice a week for six weeks. Ali was surprised at how often she was expected to return but didn’t see the point of saying so to the receptionist and his blank smiling face, waiting for her to leave.

 

When Ali got home and was feeding the baby again, she turned her phone back on. There were multiple text and voice messages from Gregg, each one sounding more concerned. At least once a day at the hospital someone had talked to them about the possibility of postpartum depression. But she didn’t think she was depressed. It was more that she felt distant from everything she’d cared about before. Even Gregg. She felt sorry for him because he didn’t know this, and she couldn’t explain it. It was simply that from now on everything important would happen inside of her.

“Christ,” Gregg said on the phone. “Totally forgot about the acupuncturist. Sorry about that, how did it go?”

“It was fine, I think,” Ali said. “It was relaxing anyway. I fell asleep.”

“Is that supposed to happen?”

“I don’t know. Probably. Anyway, she’s also making up some pills for me to take. I need to pick them up in a couple of days.”

“What kind of pills?” he asked, doubt creeping into his voice. “Should we run them by the doctor?”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” she said. The baby was falling asleep again so Ali gently tapped her cheek to wake her up. “They’re only herbal.”

“How’s the baby today?”

“Perfect,” she said.

“What’s this about critters in the attic?”

“We’ve got mice, or squirrels, or god forbid, rats up there.”

“Gross,” he said. “I’ll call somebody. Don’t worry about it.” And then he had to run off to another meeting.

Ali shifted the baby to her other breast and when the baby fell asleep again, she didn’t wake her up. She got up slowly, hardly breathing as she held the baby close to her chest, and walked noiselessly toward the crib. Putting the baby down was the hardest part. The baby could feel herself being lowered and would often wake with a start, her arms and legs jerking like Ali’s did when she dreamed she was falling. But perhaps the outing to the acupuncturist had tired the baby out. The baby had cried almost the whole way home, inconsolable. Ali was sweating by the time she pulled into the driveway. But now she was able to put her directly in the middle of the empty crib, no smothering blanket or pillow or stuffed animals in there for her to suffocate on. It looked uncomfortable to Ali but it was best for the baby. But no wonder the baby woke up so easily. It must be like sleeping in the middle of a desert at high noon.

Some days Ali let the baby nap in her bed while Ali sat next to her surfing the internet or watching TV with the captions on and the sound down low. She tried to read, which she used to do for hours every day but she had lost her ability to focus. The baby slept much longer next to her, knowing instinctively that her mother was near. At least that’s what Ali believed. Ali wanted to let the baby sleep with her at night but her husband was too worried about rolling over and crushing the baby. “Only drunks and drug users do that,” she told her husband. “People who can’t be woken up. Besides the baby and I are in sync. I wake when she wakes.” But he said, “I’m not as connected to the baby. Alarm bells don’t ring in my chest when she cries. I wish it did. It sounds kind of cool. All I know is I can’t be the killer of my own baby and go on living a normal life.”

What could Ali say to that?

 

Two days later, as Ali walked out to the car, she saw her husband talking to their neighbor, Mr. Mason, the Baby Bjorn on Gregg’s chest like a warrior’s breastplate. Mr. Mason kept his eyes fixed on Gregg’s face and never once looked at the baby.

Gregg had offered to work from home in the morning so that Ali could drive to the acupuncturist on her own to pick up her pills. She couldn’t believe how freeing it felt to be responsible for only herself. She didn’t have to give herself an hour to get ready, pack a bag for the baby, with diapers and boiled pacifiers and a second set of clothes and tiny BPA-free plastic rattles and hard cardboard books with black and white designs because that’s really all that the baby could see right now.

Instead, her hands were free and she could walk at a normal pace, not weighted down with the car seat and heavy diaper bag. It had only been four weeks but she felt like she hadn’t been this weightless— this free—in a long time. Her body was her body, not someone else’s food or comfort. At the red light she looked around at the other drivers in their cars, wondering how many of them were parents like her. Many of them probably, but did they feel like her? Did they sometimes feel relieved, even happy to be away from their children? Were they frightened of this feeling? Did they feel like a hero and a monster at the same time?

Ali pushed those worrying thoughts aside because she needed to concentrate on where she was going. She and Gregg had only lived in northern California for less than a year. They’d met as law school students in Boston a decade earlier, and stayed without thinking about it. But when Gregg was asked to build up the California office of his law firm, Ali was immediately excited, only then realizing that she’d felt constricted by how conservative Boston was. Difference there was seen as suspicious, automatically with negative intentions. Her gut told her that there was no room for someone like her. She certainly couldn’t see herself rising in the large law firm where she worked, where nearly all the partners had a last name that was familiar in the region since revolutionary times.

Her husband was one of those people, in fact. He even had a piece of paper that testified that one of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmothers, a Mrs. Marion Eaves, had been a passenger on the Mayflower. Every descendent received their copy when they turned eighteen, along with a small inheritance. When Ali’s brother heard about this from their mother, he had sneered, a fucking colonist, the next time he saw Ali. And she had turned red with anger but not said anything. He made fun of her bourgeoisie tendencies, but she was the one who gave their parents money after their video rental store went under, when even Korean dramas started appearing in the U.S. on sleek, shiny discs and VHS tapes followed 8-tracks into the collective memory. Ali remembered long, slow afternoons at the video store after school, filling in for John because yet again he hadn’t shown up, when he was probably smoking a joint with the potheads he hung out with, talking about the music they were never going to make because you can’t have a band with three mediocre lead guitarists. While she rewound tapes of Meatballs 3 and A Nightmare on Elm Street because nobody else could be bothered to, she plotted her way out of her family, out of her small town, out of New Hampshire. There was only ever one way: money.

Now here she was, a housewife who didn’t have to work. Was this the American dream? Ali had been surprised, shocked really at how enthusiastically her parents had reacted to the news that Ali planned on leaving the law career they had worked so hard to help pay for, so that she could stay home with the baby for the foreseeable future. But then Ali remembered how hard her mother had worked at the video store, seven days a week, and how she would always call, always ask them what they ate, and always tell them to do their homework. So that your life is different from this.

 

A block away from the acupuncturist’s, Ali noticed a movie theater with an old fashioned marquee announcing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. She wondered if the movie theater was actually playing the movie, or if the theater had closed years ago and it was the last film they’d played. Ali had once taken a class on Hitchcock’s movies as an undergraduate and she remembered how odd and unresolved the movie was. Why were there so many birds? Where had they come from? Why were they so murderous? Was it some kind of metaphor?

Surprising herself, Ali decided she would not return to the acupuncturist. She was not in the habit of ignoring appointments, but she remembered Dr. Anderson’s chilly manner and Gregg’s voice saying, Who the hell knows what they put in those herbal pills? Besides, who was going to take care of the baby when she went to her appointments twice a week? Gregg had offered to work from home for the couple of hours she would be gone if she scheduled her appointments first thing in the morning, but she had a hard enough time getting going in the mornings to begin with. And there was no family around to help. Ali’s parents had come out for the birth, planning on staying for a couple of weeks while John watched over their small grocery, but they’d had to rush home when it had been robbed.

Ali did not want to go back home just yet. She found a parking spot close by and walked toward the movie theater. There was a ticket window on one side but no one was there. She thought it would be futile, but she walked to the front doors, padded with what looked like real red leather, and pulled on the handle. It opened.

Inside it was warm and smelled like buttery popcorn. A young girl slouched over the lighted counter, picking at her nails. “It’s already started,” she said without looking up.

“When?” Ali asked.

The girl looked up at a big clock on the opposite wall. “Half an hour ago,” she said. “You can go in if you want but it’s still twelve bucks.”

Ali was constantly surprised at how much things cost in her new state but she paid anyway and even asked for a bucket of popcorn and a Coke. She felt like celebrating, but what she wasn’t sure of.

Once inside the darkened theater, she waited for her eyes to get used to the dark. There were a handful of people in the theater, most of them sitting by themselves. Ali turned into an aisle about halfway down, and sank into an ancient seat that had lost most of its stuffing. The popcorn was stale but salty and freshly buttered, slicking her fingers with grease. Ali was ravenous, eating in big handfuls, chewing with her mouth open.

The screen was huge. On a gray, overcast day, Tippi Hedren was in a boat wearing a beautiful gray suit and heels. Who wears heels on a boat? Then, as she waved to a handsome man waiting for her on shore, a seagull suddenly swept in and hit her in the head, messing up her hair, causing a cut on her forehead. It seemed malicious rather than accidental.

For the first few minutes, Ali struggled to try to remember the storyline. Then she stopped trying to make sense of it. Birds descended on a small town for no reason, attacking the people viciously, pecking out their eyes. They blamed Tippi Hedren, the beautiful newcomer. Ali noted Tippi’s blank look, her stiff posture. She was uncomfortable, almost dissociative. Ali didn’t remember that from the last time she’d seen the movie. She thought about leaving the movie theater and calling a friend but when she looked at the time on her phone, she realized her friends were already in the middle of their evening activities — eating dinner with family, or with friends at a restaurant.

Toward the end of the movie, Ali felt her breasts hardening, the ducts filling with liquid, tightening and then suddenly expanding as milk started to leak into her breast pads. She felt urgently that she had to feed the baby so she got up as quietly as she could and walked out. She went into the bathroom. When she pulled her underwear down, the bloated pad streaked the insides of her thighs. She had forgotten to bring extra so she built one with layers of rough toilet paper that would shift and slide as she walked, reminding her of her body’s mysteriousness. She hurried home.

 

Ali’s husband bought some traps on his way home from work. They were the regular kind, the kind that snapped violently closed in order to break a rodent’s neck. He said Mr. Mason had told him not to bother with the “more humane” ways of killing vermin, the traps and boxes that would stand mockingly empty, the devices that emitted a high pitched sound that nobody but rodents could hear but was so awful they couldn’t stand to be near it. Mr. Mason was especially scornful of those and said it was more like music to their ears. After dinner, Gregg looked things up on the internet. He smeared teaspoons of peanut butter on the traps and then set them in various places around the garage. Ali went to bed certain the traps would be empty in the morning, but she was wrong. Gregg woke her up (she was sleeping in, having spent much of the night in the rocking chair holding the baby) to tell her that all the traps had been filled and disposed of. He was excited. He said he would set out more traps that night.

Ali was proud of her husband. She knew he was just as grossed out by the rodents as she was though he pretended to be fascinated by the tree rats when he and the Vector Control guy were looking at them in the traps they’d put in the attic. He said the long drought was the cause of all the infestations, that it was bad everywhere and would only get worse.

Ali had seen how nervous Gregg was around the traps, especially when he released one by accident, almost catching his thumb. Her husband was like other men of their generation. He did not have the same macho, Marlboro man view of manhood as his father’s generation, the sense that some jobs were men’s jobs and others, women’s. Her husband cooked on the weekends and emptied the dishwasher every morning, took care of the baby because he wanted to. When he came home from work, no matter if he’d had a bad day or not, Ali handed him the baby. In fact, she’d been surprised at how quickly he’d bonded with the baby, surprised by the hurt look he sometimes got when the baby stopped crying just because Ali walked into the room.

That night he picked up more traps on his way home. This time he set them with little squares of American cheese. Apparently the mice liked them as much as peanut butter. In the morning they were full. All week he alternated the pieces of cheese with peanut butter until the once vigorous mice family was eradicated and the traps lay empty.

“I think we’ve got them!” Gregg woke her up one morning, his eyes bright. “No more mice!”

Ali was so relieved. He had a business trip coming up which she had been nervously dreading. Not only because she would be alone with the baby for the first time, on her own for five days, but also because she feared that if some mice remained, they would multiply while he was gone. How fast did they multiply? Fast, fast, fast, she bet.

That weekend they did fun things with the baby. They took the baby to the aquarium even though the baby probably couldn’t even make out what was happening behind the thick glass walls that separated the people from the schools of fish and hammerhead sharks and flat rays that swam in endless circles. They had a picnic with the baby at the playground where even though the baby was too small to go on the swings and slides and climby things with ropes, she could hear the other children laughing and screaming and having so much fun. They wanted the baby to know there were so many good things awaiting her.

Good news too on the bleeding front. While it hadn’t stopped completely, it had slowed down considerably. Ali only had to change her pads every five or six hours. She thought she felt her energy returning. Just after she’d had the baby, she couldn’t believe how weak she was. If someone had held a gun to her head and told her to jump, she could not have done it. Her feet were cement bricks; her body a soft mass without muscles. Gradually things had gotten a little better. She still couldn’t jump but she could go up and down on her toes. And if she held onto something, like a wall, she could hop a little.

She felt so good that on Monday morning when her husband kissed her and the baby at the door and left for his business trip to Austin, her heart did not race madly and she did not feel like she was sinking into quicksand. She felt capable, firm like a tree, strong like a mother should be.

“Okay, baby, it’s just us,” Ali said, closing the door and making sure the deadbolt was locked. The baby looked at her and yawned.

The whole day stretched out before them like a long airport runway. The next day she had a walk scheduled with her mother’s group. It had been organized by the hospital in order to stave off the isolation that sometimes came with having a baby. It was true. Things had been different in the old days when people grew up surrounded by family. Ali and her husband didn’t have any around except for a distant cousin of her husband’s whom they never saw. There was no need for a nanny or day care since Ali did not work anymore.

She went to look at the baby. The baby was never still. That had surprised her. The baby’s face was always cycling through different expressions — making a perfect O with its mouth, then making a crying face, then a happy face, then giving a piercing gaze that seemed to look deep into Ali’s soul, and then looking simply placid and peaceful. All the while, her arms and legs jerked and flailed and she even punched her own face.

When Ali’s mother had been there, she’d said, “I could stare at the baby all day. It’s better than watching TV.” Ali’s father seemed able to watch the baby and the TV at the same time. He developed a little routine where he put a pillow on his lap, then the baby on top of that, and watched whatever sports was on while looking down and clucking at the baby every minute or so. It was possibly the only time Ali had seen her anxious father look at peace. She was also sure he had never held her or John that way.

Since the baby was fine, Ali went about her household chores leisurely, doing the laundry, paying the bills, vacuuming, etc. All the while she kept either the TV or the radio on to keep her company. “I wish you could talk, baby,” she said looking down at the baby as she changed her diaper. “Mama’s getting a little lonely.”

At night she FaceTimed with her husband, binge-watched Nurse Jackie (she was such a competent woman! a terrific nurse! but also a drug addict!) and decided to let the baby sleep in the bed with her. It wasn’t a restful night. But neither was it restful to sleep so far from the baby. At least this way she could lay there in the dark with her nose almost touching the baby’s nose, feeling her little breath on her face. It made her feel calm, right with the world order. Had she ever even felt that there was a world order before?

The baby slept great. A solid four hours before she woke up hungry. And then Ali simply rolled over and popped a nipple into the baby’s mouth and after the baby drank, she went right back to sleep and slept another four hours.

Ali dreamed that she was on a subway with her baby, but they were in different cars. There was a job she needed to perform, the reason she had left the baby in the first place. She looked down and saw that she was wearing a large newspaper satchel. She had to hand out some important papers to every person on the train. At the same time she heard the baby crying and felt her breasts leaking until finally she threw the satchel down and ran through the attached cars. But she could not find the baby. She knew with absolute certainty that if she did not feed her baby right away, the baby would die. Ali woke up with her eyes crusted over from crying in her sleep. She felt heavy with grief and panic.

The next day, Ali and the baby went to their outing with the mommy’s group. They met at the reservoir, six women in gym wear with expensive strollers. While they walked they talked about their baby’s sleeping and eating and pooping habits, and everyone felt a great deal of sympathy for the mom of the colicky baby. They expressed amazement but felt annoyed with the woman who announced she was back to having sex every night. Ali could not even imagine wanting to have sex because her body did not feel sexual anymore. Her sexual parts had different functions from before. The few times she was brave enough to look at herself naked, she did not recognize the bloated, pale body with its enormous brown nipples and ruined belly button as her own.

Ali drove home feeling so lucky that her baby wasn’t colicky even if she didn’t sleep through the night yet like a couple of the other babies in the group. “Take your time, baby. There’s no rush,” she said looking into the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, the car seat had to face the back so she couldn’t see the baby’s face as she reassured her.

After they pulled into the garage, while Ali was unhooking the car seat, she saw something blurred and unrecognizable out of the corner of her eye. There was also a faint, yet cloying, smell. Rancid and oily. Well, there were always weird smells, Ali told herself. Maybe motherhood was making her sense of smell more powerful.

As she was shutting the car door, she saw it. Near the bottom of the steel rack that ran along one wall of the garage was something small and bloody. Without thinking, she put the car seat down and took a step toward it. It was too big and overflowed the mouse trap. Once Ali realized what it was, she screamed and stepped back nearly falling over the car seat. Jostled, the baby began to whimper. When Ali did nothing, the baby started to cry for real, her mouth opening and closing, her eyes pinched up in pain. Ali picked up the car seat and hurried into the house.

She unbuckled the baby and held her close, too close because the baby started to cry even harder. Ali did the only thing she could think of and stripped off her shirt, tried to guide a nipple into the baby’s mouth. It made the baby even angrier and she turned her red face this way and that, away from the offending nipple, arching her back to further remove herself. And then all of a sudden, she changed her mind and clamped down hard, causing Ali to jump. She wasn’t latched on correctly and it felt like the nipple might pull away from her breast. Ali decided to bear it and sat down on the couch, legs splayed, naked from the waist up, a baby clamped to her nipple, and began to laugh. She felt ridiculous.

Afterwards, when Ali picked up the baby to burp her, the baby smiled at her in a wry way and then scrunched up her face and farted. Ali could smell and feel the baby’s poop spread up her back. Every couple of days the baby had an explosive poop that overflowed her diaper and clothes. Ali stripped and wiped the baby in the bathroom while she filled the baby’s tub with warm water and then gave her a bath. At first the baby cried and did not like being in the water but then she settled down and kicked and batted, looking surprised when she got water in her face. Ali laughed and played with the baby all the while thinking of what she was going to do with the mess in the garage.

After the bath, Ali threw on a t-shirt, dressed the baby in a clean onesie and fed her again. After the excitement of the explosive poop and bath and more dinner, the baby went directly to sleep. Ali sat on the couch, one breast exposed, the nipple sliding out of the baby’s mouth again, afraid to move and wake her. Luckily, the remote control was close by. With the sound turned down low, she clicked through the channels until she came to a movie with Sissy Spacek. Her finger hovered over the “Channel Down” button but she did not press it. It was Coal Miner’s Daughter. She remembered going to see this movie with John in a movie theater when she was young. How old was she? She must have been twelve because now she remembered that she had just gotten her period for the first time. That would make her twelve and John, fourteen.

It was strange that the two of them had gone to see a movie like that, an adult movie. At the time, Ali had never heard of Loretta Lynn, and she was pretty sure her brother hadn’t either. They didn’t listen to country music. She didn’t even know anybody who did.

But they had been sucked right into the movie, at least Ali had, because Loretta Lynn was so poor. Even poorer than Ali and her brother who had to share a small bedroom. At least their walls weren’t papered over with newspaper the way Loretta’s were. Oh! — Loretta Lynn was so young when she’d married Doolittle — thirteen! Just a year older than Ali. And she loved Doolittle but didn’t really want to have sex with him, her voice rising with upset and outrage as she kept saying no and Doolittle telling her that it’s always rough the first time. She remembered someone laughed at that, a woman. And she remembered feeling that she wished she wasn’t sitting next to John. She wished she could watch the scene by herself because she wanted to understand it.

By the time the movie ended, the room was dark. Ali got up slowly to turn on the overhead lights, holding the baby close to her. Then she walked slowly to her bedroom and laid      the baby in the center of the bed. She removed all the pillows and blankets. She lay down next to the baby so the baby would feel her presence. Ali still felt enveloped by the world of the movie.

Why had she and her brother gone to that movie?

Gregg called, apologizing for the time. They had gone out to dinner and then for drinks; Ali could hear the alcohol and music in Gregg’s excited voice and because she was glad for him she didn’t tell him about the dead rat. Instead she showed him the sleeping baby and told him about her terrible crying fit and then the explosive poop. It felt crazy good to have someone to talk to about the baby’s poop.

After they said goodnight, Ali dimmed the lights and left the baby in a king-sized desert. In the kitchen she picked up a paper grocery bag and continued to the garage. When she turned on the lights, all the clutter in the garage seemed to jump. She pushed the button to open the garage door and grabbed the broom and dustpan set from the corner near the buckets and walked tentatively toward the rounded brown figure, half in and half out from under the bottom of the metal shelf. Above it was a box of old computer cords and their bounty from Costco, bricks of toilet paper and paper towels, cans of soup and Spam, bottles of Mexi-Coke and reams of printer paper.

In order to push the rat into the paper bag, Ali had to bend down close to it. She stared at it. It looked softened, melted, like margarine, the fur matted in places with dried blood. The neck was snapped, the head off at a weird angle. A tiny pink tongue poked out of its mouth. Most of the blood came from the animal’s back end and Ali noticed now that the stomach seemed terribly fat. A horrible thought came to her: perhaps the rat was pregnant? For the first time Ali felt bad for it. After all, it was its own creature, and didn’t it have the right to become a mother like her, didn’t it have a right to its own life just like she did? And yet, it still repulsed her and she knew if she saw another one of its kind she would want to kill it too. Awkwardly, Ali pushed the dead rat into the bag and held it far from her as she carried it out of the garage to the black garbage can.

 

Afterward, she went to the bathroom. She was relieved to see that the bleeding had slowed to a soft pink color. She felt more herself, like she could see her body being hers again someday. Ali poured herself a glass of wine, telling herself later she would pump and dump, that it would be fine for the baby to drink some formula when she woke up. She sat next to the baby with her glass of wine and a magazine. But she didn’t open it because now she remembered why she had gone to see the Sissy Spacek movie with her brother. The theater was like the Rialto, a cheap one that played movies a year or two after they were hits. The movie they wanted to see, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was sold out. Coal Miner’s Daughter was just starting. It was Oscar month. The reason they were late, the reason they were at the movies at all, the two of them, when normally John would not be caught dead at a movie with her, was that their parents were having a fight, one in a series of escalating fights, because yet another business was failing. Their father had driven them to the movie theater, pushed some money into John’s hands and told them he would be back in a few hours. Soon after that he had moved out of the house for half a year. Did they decide to separate that night?

Another thing Ali remembered: sitting in the theater, the smell of blood rising up from her, how she hoped nobody but she could smell it. She knew it was supposed to be disgusting and was shamed by it, though when she was alone she thought the smell not unpleasant, comforting really, the smell of metal and earth and promise.

Photo courtesy of Ruslan Kalnitsky; view more of their work on Shutterstock.

Caroline Kim is the author of a collection of short stories about the Korean diaspora, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, which won the 2020 Drue Heinz Prize in Literature, was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award, the Janet Heidinger Award for Fiction, and was long-listed for both the PEN/Robert W. …

Learn More