LA BALEINE by Claire Rudy Foster
by Claire Rudy Foster
I did not know anything about whales until I became one. In the first trimester of my pregnancy, I transitioned, changing into a creature that was part meat and part ocean. My pregnant body was flush with proteins, ions, and nutrients for the first time since my childhood. Like a whale’s, my body produced massive amounts of progesterone, a hormone that blasted through me like tropical waves. My twenty-three-year-old heart refilled my capillaries, deadened from heavy drinking and drug use. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that I was actually glowing, the way pregnancy is said to imbue a halo around you while you’re gestating. My cheeks were pink all the time, as though I was permanently post-coital. I sweated more. My body felt like it was filling out, as though my cells were plumping up like pillows of sweet ricotta-filled ravioli immersed in hot water. I floated, swollen, into the next phase of my life.
At the time, I was working in a bakery. I woke up every morning at three to go turn on the ovens and start rolling out pie dough. I could barely stand at the counter, and prepping food, baking, and buttering sandwiches made me dry heave. My hands had become awkward flippers, and the smell of cinnamon stuck to me like a barnacle. I measured sour cream, streusel, crystallized ginger, and berries while my body expanded, making room for my son.
Weighing a whale is nauseating business. No scale on earth is big enough. Weighing a whale requires transgression; it makes the assumption that the human question “how big is it?” is more important than the sanctity of the whale, which carries the answer to that question in its very name. How big is the whale? Very.
Long ago, the only way to guess one’s size was to wait until it washed up, dead, on a beach. Whoever found its bloated, gaseous carcass cut it into pieces and loaded them individually onto a balance. Chunks of whale were dragged by horses or loaded onto trucks and heaved onto weighted platforms that were quickly stained with whatever chemicals leak from a corpse that has been preserved in salt water and then roasted in the sun. The stink and blood must have been unimaginable. Yet, whoever was doing the measuring must have been willing to breathe it. Some days, I sagged against the pastry counter, struggling to breathe. I was out of my element. My own body was too oppressive on land. It was only getting worse.
In most mammals, blood content more than doubles in the first weeks of pregnancy, increasing from twenty percent to 100 percent. In the beginning, each vein blossoms with plasma and grows luscious as the placenta forms against the budding embryo. Plasma is what you sell to pay your rent at the end of the month; back then, I didn’t know that there was more than one part to my blood. Platelets and blood cells and plasma rushed through me and into the miniscule veins that connected me to the growing dot that would one day be my son.
At least I wasn’t doing it alone, in the beginning. I didn’t wear my plain silver wedding band in the kitchen but left it at home so it wouldn’t be ruined. If I said that I was married, nobody believed me. I was too young, too surly, and too wild. Nothing about me suggested I could be a wife or mother. I wasn’t feminine in that way; what I was, was sexy.
I lost my job in the first month of the pregnancy because of my morning sickness. When he fired me, my boss said, “That’s what you get.”
“What did I do?” I asked.
He looked at my chest and trailed his eyes down my front, “You did it.”
I thought pregnancy protected mothers from the awfulness of men. Naive, I believed that marriage was an exchange: you chose one man’s bad behavior, and it absolved you of having to deal with any of the others. Wedding rings, too, were supposed to repel negative attention. They signaled respectability. I’m not available. I blushed when my boss pointed out my condition. Desire was always the blood in the water. When his eyes lodged in my cleavage, I knew what he was seeing: a barely-legal sexpot who was playing at being an adult. He stuffed a few bills into a plain white envelope. Taking it, I felt as though he had paid me for a trick. I put the money in my purse, conscious of the way my shirt buttons stretched over my new, expanding body.
Fuck you, I thought, though I didn’t say it.
Fucking was how I got into this mess.
Pregnancy is the only period when the mother and child are the same. One body. One conjoined system of nerves and veins. The baby moves, and the mother senses its vibration. The mother eats, breathes, sleeps, and rides the waves of hormonal change, and the baby responds to it. They are linked in every way. There was a brief window in my life between when I stopped being part of the “we” of my family and entered the “we” of my marriage and then straight into the “we” of my pregnancy. I was rarely myself; I was always part of some other family, chosen or biological. I didn’t question this or even notice it. I simply accepted it as natural. The whale who lives does not wonder, why me? Wondering is for people; we are born to second-guess ourselves. So many facts we know about whales are the outcomes of fantastical theories. We cut them, thinking we will find their secrets inside. In fact, we’ve learned most about whales by studying them without interfering. Because we watched, we learned the position of the calf inside its mother, tailfirst, the way they are born backwards so they will be saved from drowning. The mother’s body goes to great lengths to deliver them, healthy, into the sea.
I called my mother to tell her about the baby, like I was supposed to. I didn’t mention the lost job or the morning sickness that engulfed me in waves of bile.
“Mom, I have good news,” I said, “I’m going to be a mother.”
The longest pause in the world, so long I thought my phone had dropped the call.
“Are you still there?”
“I went and sat down,” she said. Her voice was flat and bleak.
“I guess we can skip the champagne,” I joked weakly. She didn’t laugh. Within two weeks, she and my father came to visit us in Portland, Oregon. On their second day in town, they took Matthew and me to lunch. I was more than a little green around the gills and exhausted, too sick to eat. Matt and I fought constantly, but we put things on hold in front of my parents. I picked at my food, we managed to sit side-by-side in the restaurant’s plastic booth without touching, and then we walked home.
Matt and my father stayed out on the sidewalk while my mother, under some pretext, went upstairs with me. I slumped on the carcass of the linen-upholstered loveseat that was a gift from our decadent San Francisco cousins. The unmade Murphy bed was still pulled out from the wall with my grandmother’s double wedding ring quilt on it, covering a wad of stale sheets and wool blankets. Matt’s school papers and our tabby’s kitty litter mingled on the floor. Folded laundry covered our only chair. The trash hadn’t been taken out. The apartment was less than 400 square feet, but I couldn’t muster the energy to care about cleaning. I was too tired to do more than limp from the bed to the bathroom.
I was struggling out of my coat when my mother leaned toward me from her seat on the bed. Her hands were clasped together, and her face looked earnest. I couldn’t follow what she was saying. My stomach hurt. I wanted her to leave so I could go back to sleep. She told me that it wasn’t too late for me to change my mind, and that I had so many good things going for me. My education, my future, all that they’d worked to give me, these gifts would work in my favor. I listened, trying to understand what she meant, when suddenly, Matt burst in like a fist and slammed himself into the seat next to me. To my surprise, he took my hand. On the day I told him I was pregnant, he’d thrown our mattress at me because I had slept with another man weeks before our wedding, lied about it, and then all of a sudden I was pregnant. I was an animal to him, not a person. We hadn’t stopped fighting since my positive test; he refused to touch me. Facing off with my mother, though, he was suddenly protective. His hand enfolded my fingers and for a moment, I felt safe because I thought that he might love me again.
“I think you should go,” he said to my mother.
Her mouth snapped shut. She frowned, then said, “We are having a private conversation. It’s between Claire and me.”
“No, it’s between all of us. I think you should leave before any of us say things that can’t be unsaid,” he told her.
She was angry when she stood up and gathered her purse. She gave me a rough kiss and a squeeze on the shoulder and left in a huff. As soon as the door closed, Matt let go of my hand and got up. My sense of security evaporated. He went into the kitchen and ran some water into the kettle. It was almost time for him to go to work, or else school: I can’t remember; he was always leaving for one or the other.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Your dad and I were standing on the sidewalk, and I asked him what you two were talking about inside, and he said, ‘Susy is going to tell Claire to get an abortion.’”
“She didn’t say that.”
“She was about to. You saw her face. If I hadn’t come in and said something, she would have talked you into it.”
“I could never,” I said. But I’d broken a lot of promises to Matt by then, and we both knew my word was worthless. “Thank you for what you did,” I said.
“I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know,” I told him. “I’m still grateful, though.”
He didn’t love me, but he loved me. He didn’t want to stay with me, but he stayed. He didn’t want to be married, but he married me. I was his second wife, younger than the first one; gangly, blonde, clueless, and wise. I would have killed myself to have this baby, and my rift with my parents was the result of putting my own desires first for a change. I could not continue being their child at the expense of having my own. When they asked me to pick up the ax or chainsaw or stick of dynamite and carve into my own flesh, cut myself into manageable pieces, I could not do it. I would have lost my power; the corpse of a whale is the husk of a planet that used to be like ours. In pieces, it ceases to be the muscle that churns the waves and dives into darkness holding its breath.
I didn’t call home for a while after my parents’ visit. I let myself drift out on the waves of my pregnancy. I was lonely and in pain, and I swam in circles, reorienting myself around the possibilities represented by my son.
My pregnancy made me feel massive and invincible; I would never give it up. Having experienced a love of this size, how could I cut it out, slice it into inferior proportions, and rob myself of its wholeness? From the first moment of my transformation, I accepted the consequences and dove in without hesitation. By the end of the first trimester, I was fully cetacean. I was a whale, not a woman.
If you’d put me on a scale, you would see that my body was more than simply meat and bones. For the first time, I contained potential. Anyone who has seen a real whale, swimming in the ocean or maybe as a distance flume that spouts up a few miles off the coast, knows that whales are more than meat; they are incarnations. Although I was alone and scared, I was finally connected to an inland sea. It made me lighter, somehow. With an ecosystem of water and air inside me, I was growing to be more than myself.
I felt my son rocking inside me and, beneath my fear, I sensed a certain kind of peace. There were people, and there were whales; both of us relied on the unpredictable balance of luck to keep us alive, still moving, and making babies. I cradled my body and the growing fetus inside it and sang in the soft moans that whales sing deep in the sea—as though that would raise the dead or change the tide, as though wishing was enough to make it so.
Claire Rudy Foster is an award-winning queer, nonbinary trans author from Portland, Oregon. Foster’s critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever was an O: The Oprah Magazine pick for 2019. Their essays, fiction, reporting, book reviews, and other writing appear in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Allure, on NPR, and many other places. Foster is Senior Features Editor at The Rumpus. They still believe in the power of well-written sentences.