Chapter OneEight Months Earlier
That was when the worlds split.
When she was open on the table, paralyzed from the waist down. When they held her child up for her to see.
You, she thought, but the sight of him, twisted rigid in a howl that never came, cut off the thought.
Then he was gone. Someone had taken him.
Instead of his cry, there was the tinny hospital PA paging one neonatal team and then another.
Instead of his cry, the voices of competent, confident people creeping toward alarm.
A doctor’s narrow head was bent in concentration, sewing her back into a body.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“They’re trying,” Adam said, from somewhere behind. Then he was just above and kissed her forehead. His lips felt dry and chapped.
The room was small, too small for all these people. She didn’t know the situation but understood that it was dire. Someone had held her child up, then taken him away, and he hadn’t made a sound yet, and the room kept filling with more people.
“It’s cold in here,” she said. “They need to wrap him.”
“It’s warm, Hannahbelle,” said Adam’s voice, but not from near her ear where she expected. “They’ve got him warm, don’t worry, they’re doing everything correctly.”
He must have been straining to see, must have been craning, she could hear it in his voice. It was happening near the door, she was almost certain, somewhere past her feet, whatever they were trying, and the door was letting in a draft; she felt it blowing over her.
She didn’t try to see. She wouldn’t have been able to, her view partially blocked by the paper draping meant to shield her from an eyeful of her insides. But also seeing had never been a part of what they shared, she and this child. In their nine months together, she had only ever seen him for an instant: tiny body twisted rigid in a silent howl, eyes not yet open. That was seconds ago or minutes or hours and every second without oxygen killed more of him, the tiny brain that had been growing all along inside her, the one she somehow felt she knew, so much so that the unfamiliar look of him surprised her. The situation seemed to her quite obviously, quite awesomely a bad one, but also somehow muted, in the way that time mutes even the worst pain. It felt to her this had been going on for longer than the life she’d lived until now.
In the corner of her vision, something moved. She tilted up her chin and caught the blur as it moved past her. Held cradled in a nurse’s arms—the blue-smudged lips, the way one tiny arm trailed as a doll’s would. The clipped, efficient sorrow in the way the nurse grabbed at the arm and tucked it in. The clipped, efficient sorrow of the quiet that descended.
Then she was looking at the obstetrician’s narrow head still bent behind the curtain, the hair so glossy black it cast its own strange dulled reflection of the overhead fluorescents.
“Is he OK?” she asked.
“Is he going to be OK?”
There was no answer.Chapter Two
Eight months later, I stood on the top level of an open parking structure, watching fog roll in from the Oakland Hills and longing for a cigarette.
Jack was regarding me through heavy eyes. He looked like he could sleep.
I smiled at him, and then, unable to resist, though I knew it would perk him up and make a car seat nap less likely, I bent and nuzzled the top of his small head. The silky brown waves that tightened into ringlets near the base of his neck smelled of absurdly expensive baby shampoo mixed with a musk like a cat’s just-licked fur. The smell soothed my nerve endings like nicotine.
Well, not quite like nicotine. It made no sense to stand outside a car, contemplating the view from the top level of an open parking garage, if you weren’t smoking a cigarette. But so many of my habits were like this, obsolete cocoons of pre-baby behavior, the butterfly long gone.
“Get in the car, Hannah,” I said out loud because when a day has already beaten you down before nine a.m., it’s nice to have someone give you clear directions, even if it’s yourself.
But I kept on standing there. The air was the perfect cool of one foot stuck out from sweaty blankets, and with the fog now burning off in the morning glare, I felt outside of time, outside of space in the best possible way, like at the airport. Just standing there was luxurious because there was no purpose to it. I was ignoring everything I had to face about this day. I was standing there simply because I wanted to and that felt better than sex, better than drugs. Slightly less good than a massage. Nowhere near as good as four solid hours of sleep.
But Jack was fiddling with his ear now. It was one of his more urgent Tired Signs and meant I had to get him in that car seat pronto to seize the glinting, flickering portal to a better dimension known in baby-sleep literature as the Tired Window. Reluctantly, I slipped the diaper backpack off my shoulder and started rooting for the car key.
I could tell right away it wasn’t there. There was only one place I ever put it, in the side pocket that was a little too narrow to hold my phone, but still my hand kept rooting, hopefully, now in the main compartment, past clean diapers, hand wipes, spare onesies (always damp for reasons I had not pinned down), down into the substrate of loose Cheerios.
Jack had started mewling experimentally.
I trilled, “Mommy forgot the car key! Silly Mommy!”
My voice was pitched halfway between fun and seriously weird because I was trying to fend off an internal chorus of f**kety f*** f***. I was imagining lugging the stroller all the way up and then back down four flights of stairs again. The parking structure extended only three floors up the low-rise, my therapist’s office was on the seventh, and the elevator was broken because of course it was. It almost had to be on a day like this.
I felt in the diaper bag one last time, probing the refrigerated pocket where an empty, unwashed bottle festered, a relic of a time when I still hoped to convince Jack to accept something other than my breast. I did this even though I now knew exactly where the car key was: on the small side table in Dr. Goodman’s office. I’d taken it out of the pocket in order to fish for the parking ticket, then put it down while handing the ticket over to be validated. I remembered this all very precisely, so precisely I almost felt I should be able to slip a hand into that memory and pluck the key right out.
I forced myself to picture instead the viable next steps. Up and down the concrete stairs again, four flights. Was there any way around this? I wasn’t lazy, but Jack was a beast of a child, still 99th percentile in height and weight as of his last doctor’s appointment, almost a different species from me; I very much doubted I’d ever in my life broken the 20th percentile. Jack’s stroller added another fifteen pounds at least.
Options: I could try to take him out of it, risk his wrath. But he was so calm right now, still maybe looking drowsy. Like one of those magical creatures I saw in coffee shops, napping strapped to their mother’s chests, as though caring for a baby might be as simple as starting to wear silk scarves, just a matter of getting the knots right.
“Right,” I said aloud now. “Right,” I tried again in a more cheerful voice. And then to Jack, “Mommy made an uh-oh.”
Jack gurgled happily at this, recognizing the word. He didn’t seem drowsy anymore, and this was mildly dismaying. It meant no car seat nap. The Tired Window flickering shut, a portal winked out of existence. No chance to start making phone calls, sending emails, sorting out the practicalities of the bombshell Adam had dropped on me that morning. But any frustration was mostly overwhelmed by my delight at Jack’s sweet gurgle, at recognizing the great joy he took in discovering that within the buzzing, blooming noise always surrounding him there were patterns, little packets of sound that picked out little pieces of the world. It knocked my socks off, still, that babies ever managed to learn this, that he was learning it and I could actually see it happening.
“Right,” I said again, and for a moment actually managed to feel fantastic.
But there was still the problem of the car key and the broken elevator, of my exhausted, aching body. The C-section scar that still felt raw and angry eight months on. And my giant baby who might at any moment become a writhing, wriggling, shrieking torque of impressive force, frighteningly uncontainable on four flights of concrete stairs.
Without him, I could knock discreetly at the heavy door, whisper “Left my keys,” grab them through the tiny crack that Dr. Goodman would surely open—no wider—to protect the confidentiality of her next patient, then slip away almost as though it hadn’t happened.