The woman on the screen howls in agony and communion as her partner reaches into the water to grasp their child’s crown and pull him free. They are all three naked, swirling in blood and insides. Sunlight pours in from a round window above the blue-tiled tub. All three cry, the woman and her partner whisper a few words to each other, then the screen cross-fades with a video of the ocean before it turns black.
“Does that bathroom come with the class fee?” jokes the pregnant woman in the multi-colored jumpsuit from the other side of the circle. She has a big black bun balancing on the very top of her head, which dips and recovers like a sleepy passenger when she speaks. “I think we could have a great baby in that tub. Our bathroom is, let’s say, less photogenic.” Her companion rolls her eyes, but the top bun woman only shrugs and looks at the instructor as if she’ll provide a real answer to her question.
“It’s important that you choose a place where you feel comfortable,” the instructor emphasizes, holding up both palms to the jumpsuit woman as if they contain all the precious options. “That may be a hospital bed, that may be your own bathroom, that may be a birthing tub that you can rent from our website.”
I curve my right hand under the weight of my belly, where it rests on the top of my thighs, and try to conjure the feeling of sitting in a kiddie pool in the middle of my living room. The body I now share with a faceless roommate is unpredictable, I cannot soothe it. I have no idea where it would find comfort.
“How long can the baby be in the water? Can it swim around?” a slim man to the left of my husband asks. His mouth folds down on the sides, and his eyebrows meet each other in a grimace. His partner sits very straight in her metal folding chair against a floral pillow she brought to class in a bookstore tote bag. I’m jealous of the woman’s pillow, I’m jealous that her companion thought to ask about the baby’s aquatic skill. Since I learned I’m pregnant, I can’t think ahead, I can’t seem to wonder about the person that’s growing. Sometimes I’m sure this means my future doesn’t have the baby in it. Sometimes I worry I don’t want it to.
“Babies won’t breathe until they’re exposed to air,” the instructor says. “It’s very safe, but did you see in the video how they brought him out of the water quickly? Babies should get air as soon as possible. Air is life.” She raises her arms and lifts her chin as if she’s emerging into the sunlight. Most of the soon-to-be-mothers—but not the jumpsuit woman—tilt their heads to glimpse the imaginary opening. My eyes rest on the little hamsters of armpit hair peeking out from the instructor’s shirt sleeves. They stare back, and I wonder if I should let mine grow too.
“Are you listening to this?” my husband nudges me. “You have that look. Like you hate everyone already.” My face always knows how I feel before I do, and I can’t stop it from sharing the news.
“I’m listening,” I whisper back. “Air is life, water is death.”
“She didn’t say that!” he hisses. I ignore him and let myself examine the jumpsuit woman’s jumpsuit across the circle. The fabric is a pale pink with big cartoonish swashes of bright blue and saturated red and yellow in a pattern that never quite seems to repeat. One long zipper runs the length of her middle, straining as it reaches her belly. The jumpsuit conceals how pregnant the woman is. She could be four months in, she could be ready to go. As I’m watching, the jumpsuit bunches and stretches to allow her to lean forward and launch another question at the instructor.
“Next week, are you going to show a video where something goes wrong with the birth?” she asks. A murmur surfs along the crest of metal chairs. The instructor’s eyes widen and then narrow and reset. I look at my husband, but he doesn’t seem to have heard.
“No,” the instructor says. “If something goes wrong, the doctor or midwife or doula will know how to proceed. In this class, we’re focusing on the birth experiences you each want to create for yourselves.” I can tell the instructor is frustrated, but she is trying to translate it into some other emotion—pity, maybe, disdain.
“I want to create a living baby,” the jumpsuit woman says. The honesty jolts me. She looks serious, but also like she’s trying to tear a seam in the prenatal theater the instructor has labored to build. She wants the truth, even if it’s dangerous. That’s all I want too. Hosting a baby has had the strange effect of erecting a force field around me that no one wants to penetrate with something true. They only lob flowers and sweet wishes at my insulated form, when I’m desperate for a real conversation.
“I understand that, Kyle. I think everyone here understands that. I’ll email you some resources, ok?” I’m grateful the instructor has said the jumpsuit woman’s name again so I have another chance to remember it. Kyle. I didn’t pay attention at the beginning of class when we went around introducing ourselves and our greatest hope for the unborn among us. I was too busy repeating my own name in my head and deciding if I wished more for this imaginary creature’s happiness, health, or bodily autonomy.
“Let’s get back to the experience we just watched,” the instructor refocuses. “What adjectives would you all use to describe the mother’s sensations during the first part of labor?” I think “unbearable” to myself, but I don’t say it because I don’t feel like dealing with my husband’s face.
“I thought it was good,” he says as we walk home from the class. It’s a long walk, but I like walking, now that running with a melon belly turns my diaphragm into a trampoline. The class was his idea, to help me feel closer to the pregnancy. He worries about how I’m not buying anything for the baby, or making a list of names, or even wearing maternity clothes. I stole his shirt and sweatshirt for class today because most of mine don’t fit anymore. As I walk alongside my husband, the metal button of my (his) jeans is attached to its buttonhole with a pink hair tie and a safety pin. I’ve stopped drinking, though, and nothing makes you want a drink more than the daily science experiment that is carrying a child. But I don’t get credit for not doing something.
“It was fine,” I say. “But I don’t really buy that the pain doesn’t feel like pain, the way she said.”
“Take what’s useful from it, babe. Leave what’s not,” he says.
“Take a penny, leave a penny,” I sing.
“You know what I mean,” he says.
My husband is a good guy, a smart guy, a nice guy. I’m hard to be around, a lot to take, more than bargained for. That’s our whole thing, and we’ve both been comfortable with it for the past four years of our relationship. But a mother isn’t hard to be around, is she? A mother is the original good guy. Since my belly has begun its great expansion, I’ve started wishing my husband would vacate the role.
“Maybe next time I should go alone,” I say. “It’s kind of hard to focus with you there, and maybe it would help me feel more….” I don’t want to say connected, I hate saying connected. It makes me feel like an electrical device that needs to be plugged in. But I can’t find another word in my porous pregnancy brain, “…connected.”
“That’s a great idea.”
I don’t tell him that I’m still thinking about Kyle, or that I’m planning to get to the next class not too early and not too late so I can angle for the spot next to her. I don’t tell him that I’m planning to buy a jumpsuit too, a different one, more my style but an echo of hers that might call her towards me. The first piece of clothing I buy since getting pregnant and it’s for her.
The next week I walk to class alone in the jumpsuit. It’s black linen with tortoiseshell buttons from my neck to the place where my pubic hair starts underneath my stretched-out (stressed-out) cotton underwear. I have a striped hand towel in my bag to make the metal chair more tolerable. I’m learning. Kyle is already there, and her partner is standing behind her, rubbing her back. They are each wearing one earbud in one ear and moving their heads almost imperceptibly in rhythm—I say almost because I can perceive it, maybe I’m the only one in the room who can. I hover next to Kyle, arranging my little towel on my chair, and then lower myself down onto it. My back and legs are grateful to be seated, relieved for the half-inch of softness between my tailbone and metal. But the aching doesn’t stop, it only recedes to a hum. This is the way now: more discomfort or less, but never peace. I can hear Kyle breathing, but I won’t look at her. She seems like a person who refuses to be surprised, but still, I don’t want to spook her.
“Five more minutes until class starts!” the instructor projects, her hands folded at her chin. “Today we’ll be talking positions!” She’s pleased with her set up so I can tell what’s coming next. “No, not sexual positions, folks. That’s how many of you got here! I mean laboring positions.” Little groan balloons float up from the circle as the class finds seats and starts to settle.
“You should get to choose jokes or no jokes when you sign up for the class,” I say towards Kyle in the practiced deadpan of the high school girl I was years ago. I haven’t found another way to make friends since then.
“She can tell all the jokes she wants, as long as she quits with the bullshit,” Kyle returns, taking the earbud out of her ear and handing it backwards to her partner, who eyes me before excusing herself to go to the bathroom in the four minutes before we start.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” I say, trying to hide the thrill that my plan is working. “That video had to be staged. Why is she trying so hard to convince us it’s not going to hurt?”
“You know she hasn’t had a baby, right?” Kyle sounds like she holds every secret in the world.
“Are you kidding?”
“No, it’s true. Everyone in this town passes around her name like this class is the key to solving birth, but all her advice is theoretical. That’s the ultimate bullshit. I only want to hear from people who’ve been in the trenches. I don’t know why I let Sharon talk me into coming.”
“I guess you should be allowed to teach something without having done it yourself…” I think out loud.
“Yeah, but you have to disclose that first.”
“Like a disclaimer at the bottom of the class,” I say.
“She should have to wear a sign around her neck that says: ‘I don’t actually know if you can control your birth story because I’ve never had to fucking do it myself.’ ” Kyle almost spits the end of the sentence. I’ve never seen real anger on a pregnant woman before and it looks incandescent.
“It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this,” I say cautiously.
“My last baby died,” Kyle returns, jaw set in stone. I stare at her, but she doesn’t return my gaze.
“Ok, class, let’s begin with positions!” the instructor announces. I sit up straighter and try to digest what Kyle just told me so there’s space left for an hour of optimistic labor lessons. But I don’t think there will ever be space again. I feel sick at the thought that while we were all summoning our future infants, little cherubs hovering over our heads, Kyle was carrying around a death. I could almost see it there on her shoulders, hiding behind her tipsy knot of hair: a warning in the shape of grief. I struggled to take a deep breath under my linen jumpsuit, but my own passenger pressed down on my lungs.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to Kyle.
“Thanks,” she whispers back.
Later that evening while my husband sleeps next to me, I let the light of my phone bathe my face for hours while I look up all the reasons why babies die during delivery. The list is long, infinite it seems, and bursting with enough blame for everyone: mothers, partners, doctors, nurses, medicine, machines, genes, weather, exercise, food, gravity. I can see why Kyle was so angry at the class. The instructor is ignoring an entire solar system of possibilities to focus on a single planet that contains only one outcome: a healthy baby. It feels heretical for the instructor to deny the existence of this other reality. She is just one more person keeping the truth from us. As I fall asleep, phone still bright, limp pillow sandwiched between my thighs, I send thoughts of gratitude and affection to Kyle wherever she is.
“I’m due August 17th,” I tell Kyle when she asks me five weeks later. We’re sharing a walk to the bakery during a break in class, the pregnant equivalent of stepping outside for a smoke. We both had breakfast, we’re both still hungry.
“Ah, a Leo. You’ll have your hands full. I’m a Leo too,” she laughs and fake roars at me. She’s wearing another jumpsuit, this one all purple with silver hand-drawn clouds spread out across her limbs. An electric blue scrunchie holds her hair in its usual knot, and this week her fingernails are bubble gum pink. “Mine’s September 21st, a Virgo.”
“Like me,” I smile, imagining Kyle’s new baby coming out a tight perfectionist. With only a few weeks to go, I’ve finally bought maternity jeans that fit and the tag is rubbing against my back, a sensation like bees in my brain. I resolve to cut it out thread by thread when I get home.
“Oh, that’s funny. Sharon tells me that this baby will teach me a lesson, tame me. But I think I’ll have to show him how to have a good time.” Kyle shakes her wide hips as she walks and I catch an intoxicating glimpse of who she is outside of class, outside of motherhood. I like how I feel next to her, like neither of us is good or bad or too much of anything. Like we are just us.
“It’s a boy! I don’t think you told me that,” I say. I know she hasn’t, but I don’t want to sound like I’ve indexed our conversations over the past weeks of class. She’s told me that she and Sharon live in the Mission, that she grew up in Dallas but went to school in Philadelphia. She’s told me she hopes the baby comes out light brown like her because Sharon always burns when she steps into the sun, even in Northern California. She told me they have a small room ready for the baby—the room that was ready for the other baby—and that she never wants to leave their apartment because she can see the water from their roof. I’ve shared, too: that I’ve started to see my baby in my dreams, that I bought her a crib and a stroller and clothes, and I can finally imagine her in them. That my baby hides from the ultrasound and my husband has to hum on the left side of my belly so she’ll show her face for the picture, that I plan to name her after a flower.
“Yes, it’s a boy,” Kyle says more shyly than I’ve seen on her. “We just went to the doctor yesterday and he says he’s perfectly healthy. That’s what the doctor said: ‘perfectly healthy.’ They never said that about the one before.” I can hear hope in Kyle’s voice, and I’m happy to be the only one to witness it. I’m so happy we’re friends.
The pain starts before the sun, quiet and deep like an underground pool. I lie in bed with my eyes closed, willing it towards a nightmare and away from the reality: this is early labor, not the kind of early in my late-night Google searches exactly, but earlier than I’d wanted. My husband is silent next to me. I have been alone in a sense my entire pregnancy, but as my back burns with ache, I know I am more alone now. I think of Kyle and her grief baby, how heavy it must be for her to carry, invisible to everyone else.
The ache turns sharp for a while, then dull and then sharp again. Our bedroom goes pale yellow, morning diffracted through fog and curtains. I know my husband will wake on his own soon, but I’m suddenly struck by fierce jealousy and shake him hard to come back to me. He arrives drowsy but stiffens when I tell him it’s happening. He sits up and pulls the comforter off us both to announce a beginning. I see there on the sheets what I hadn’t noticed in the dark. There is a circle of blood beneath me, black cherry red in some places and Bing cherry red in others. What I thought was cold is wet, what I thought was safe is not.
The next set of hours enter my mind as colors, smells, sounds. The familiar rumble of our car on the road, the chime of the hospital elevator, the silver of its insides, the monstrous lump of the hospital bed with its levers and cords, the razor sharp scent of disinfectant, and the black black of the inside of my eyelids as I focus on not falling into the pain—I want to scream to the class instructor that it is, in fact, very painful. It is a pain that crosses over into another sensation like breaking glass.
In the darkness, I think again of Kyle’s grief baby, and how it released its grip on her, now that the doctor decreed her baby would be perfectly healthy. Had it jumped onto my back instead, crawled inside me? Was this a grief baby curled up and pushing against me now? I feel infected by Kyle’s story, by her fear, by the anger that lit her up when the instructor ignored the possibility of her own experience. What kind of mother exposes her child to that kind of influence? This is why people won’t allow thoughts of tragedy near our swollen stomachs. I didn’t know that the alchemy of motherhood demands hope above all else. I was too scared of losing myself to understand it before. In the haze of drip drugs and bright lights and the too-cold too-big room, I promise the universe that if it can save her, I will be the good guy for my child. I will shut out the dark solar system of dangerous possibilities and give her only one happy future.
My baby arrives in a hurry, crying, coughing, wriggling, purple but alive, so very alive. They plop her on my bare chest for a moment before taking her away for tests. The nurse who stays with me, checking my heart rate, pulling the blood-soaked linens away from my skin, tells me the baby will be ok and so will I.
“That was a little scary, but she has a good strong cry,” she says. “You did good, mama.” A week ago I would’ve cringed at the word “mama,” property of online forums and customized T-shirts. But now I want to bear hug the nurse and thank her over and over with pure devotion. I sob like my eyes have never done anything else.
I walk by the class building with my 6-week-old, perfectly healthy baby strapped to my chest over my black jumpsuit with the tortoiseshell buttons. It isn’t the right day or time but I wonder what Kyle thinks when I’m not in the metal chair beside her anymore. I wonder if her baby is here now, if he is as the doctor promised, if she and Sharon are with him in the little room that was for the other baby. I have to wonder because we never exchanged numbers or emails; our friendship was forged in one-hour intervals once a week and then it was done. I feel sorry not to have said goodbye. I miss how it felt to be with Kyle, both of us ourselves and no one’s mother just yet. But I stop myself before wondering more, thinking of my hospital promise and how I narrowly escaped the grief baby.
A year later I am at the playground with my husband and my Violet, watching her from a nearby bench. I see another child in the sandbox with a small, sweet rendition of Kyle’s face in a blue jumpsuit dotted with little white stars. Kyle leaps back into my mind and I look for her, keeping one eye on my girl unsteady on her feet.
“That woman from birthing class might be here,” I nudge my husband.
“What woman?” he asks, focused on Violet’s stubby arms.
“The one with the jumpsuits and the bun? The one I talked to all the time.”
“Babe, you wouldn’t talk to anyone in that class. I bugged you about it constantly, remember?”
“Yeah, ok, I hated the class, but I liked her.” I scan along the diameter of the metal fence for Kyle’s top bun, for her smile and her eyes as she shared the best secret, but I can’t see her. I’m vibrating with the memory of our fast friendship, buried under so layers of diapers and milk stains, dreams and fears, guilt because I worried for my baby more than hers.
“I really don’t know who you’re talking about,” my husband sighs and takes my hand as if to still my mind. “I think if you had a friend I would’ve known.”
I hold onto Kyle’s face, pasting it back into every moment we shared with determination. But each time, she blurs a little more, like a copy of a copy until she’s just a greyed-out smudge. I squint to get her back, but then Violet cries out on the playground and my mind snaps to her face instead, so special among the other squished and busy bodies. When I return to my friend’s memory, she’s gone, not even a name. There is only me and my little family, a closed circle with no room for any ghost.
Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer, and artist living in San Francisco. Her essays have been published by MIT Tech Review, The New York Times, and The LA Times, and her short fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, Barren Magazine, Flash Frog, and elsewhere. She’s currently a fiction reader for Okay Donkey. You can find her tweeting strong opinions @rebackermann.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #38.