By the time the EMTs arrived, Clea was propped on her ruined towels with the baby on her chest, the pulsing purple cord still running between them. She didn’t want to cut it. She’d read studies, not that she could quote them just then, but she snarled at the EMTs like a feral raccoon and they agreed to wrap mother and child up together and carry them out on one stretcher. When she got the bill for two ambulance rides (really!), Clea used the fact of live cord to dispute the charge. We were one, she hissed into her phone at the customer service rep, head turned toward the shoulder that did not hold a sleeping Amaryllis, she was plugged in like a damn cell phone.
We all like Clea.
* * *
Monica hosted the potlucks at her apartment, once a month or more. They were a godsend. You can’t imagine how we longed for one another’s company, even though motherhood had rusted our conversational mechanism to the point where it was not unpleasant just to compare methods of combatting diaper rash. Most of us had advanced degrees. This was New Haven.
Monica was on her third child, and she knew best of all what we needed. She put out wine and plastic tumblers, a large bowl of rotini in oily walnut pesto. We all brought what we had time to grab: store-bought pies, cheeses, a half bag of clementines. The events of the day were discussed, of course, but some configuration of the women always ended up on the second-floor porch that overlooked the neighborhood, telling birth stories.
* * *
Jill had the hospital play the theme from Rocky in the delivery room. The nurse gave her a high-five moments before Easton emerged.
* * *
Weston was stubbornly breech, and Paula would swim to the bottom of the pool at the JCC and hold onto the grate for as long as she could, hoping to convince him that down was up. The silence of the deep end was a roar, and she found herself praying, though she had never been to church.
* * *
When Paula told us about the underwater prayers we snuck a look at Casey, the downstairs neighbor Monica had gathered into the fold. She seemed so young to be married. Her husband was in a graduate program and her days seemed whimsically open. She’d taken on some babysitting around the neighborhood, was reportedly great with Monica’s small wild things.
When Casey went to the kitchen for more pie, Monica lowered her voice reverentially and announced that Casey had “pulled the goalie,” that she was trying. We all expressed approval: motherhood was the gravitational center of this group. But most of us were not imagining children when we were her age. Perhaps she was religious. Perhaps she would like Paula best. Casey had that kind of beauty that made you long for her friendship, the kind of maddening niceness that made you hope she would choose you.
* * *
Lisa got teary after a tumbler of wine: I feel like I didn’t have my baby. And she hadn’t. They had put up a curtain to hide her body from her, sliced her open, set aside her guts, and pulled the baby out themselves.
Worse: her husband had peeked around the curtain and seen her guts.
* * *
I hadn’t told them much about how I had Philip. I was saving it, polishing it really, because I fancied myself a writer. I wanted to prove that something profound had happened to me as I’d waited for this baby, my only but not my first. I wanted it to mean as much to the others as it did to me. I’d tried to put the experience in a poem but it wasn’t there yet.
* * *
It’s like that at the widow group, said my grandmother, I sit through all these stories of men I don’t care about. Then I get to talk about Henry.
It’s not like that at all, I said. When I held baby Victoria, I lifted her head to my nose as if inhaling my own daughter. We were all in this together.
* * *
Violet had been so inspired by the birth of Victoria that she quit volunteering in galleries and declared herself a doula. She had a surprising number of clients. This meant she had the most stories. They were all the same story really: the doctor was being ridiculous and she stood up for the mother. This is her birth, she would say, and we are doing it her way. On the walk home, my husband said, Technically, isn’t it the baby’s birth? Smiling for him felt treacherous.
* * *
We weren’t always a unit, not like a sitcom where six friends combine in predictable pairings. Monica and Violet’s families went camping together, just them. Clea had yoga friends we never met. A couple of times a year, Jill and I would go for a martini (two at the very most) and rip everyone apart like a couple momsy Dorothy Parkers. But the potlucks were undeniably our core. We were far from the places and people that raised us. We needed structure and ritual. We needed to understand the dislocations we’d experienced.
* * *
When Casey was seven or eight months along, Monica hosted a women-only potluck, an embarrassment of sweets: homemade fudge, ice cream from the best place. A sack of gummy worms.
Casey lay on Monica’s vast estate-sale table, naked belly at the center where the Thanksgiving turkey would go. As we recited the things we had learned, we lay strips of paper-mache over her convexity. A neighborhood tradition: we all had a cast of our fecund bellies hanging somewhere in our homes. Some included the breasts.
Casey was so beautiful with her golden hair fanned out around her glowing face. Unflappable. And some of us were trying to flap her a bit with our stories: the pain, the indignity of Yale being a teaching hospital, the uncontrollable emptying of the bowel (but how casual the nurse was as she changed the paper mat beneath you—Let’s get a fresh one, hon, as though it hardly mattered). Casey closed her eyes and smiled. It was this peace she brought to babysitting Monica’s children, who were wilder every year: we dreaded them in our homes even as we complimented her on their feisty spirits.
Your heart on the outside, we said.
Blood and feces and vomit, we said.
But baby effusions, they were really just slightly processed milk. Like ricotta.
Hold still until it dries. And she held very still. At one point she may have drifted off to sleep on the haze of our happy horror stories. But a child, I was sure, could destroy even this level of peace. This destruction, we hope, is the start of something new.
* * *
In the background, there was a mechanical sucking sound: wuh-whirr, wuh-whirr. This was Francois. Under her sweater she was harnessed to a pump. Her Micah was adopted and she hoped to bring in milk for him (It! Is! Possible! According to The League). So far it was only her eyes that leaked. She listened to our stories so earnestly, the only girl at the lunch table not invited to the slumber party, the one who thinks that being herself will get their attention.
* * *
We had the names down to Dahlia and Cedar and Amaryllis, Clea told us. Had to be something from the natural world: she was conceived on a hike. Sometimes I feel like Dahlia and Cedar are still out there, waiting for me to summon them. But I never seem to want sex. Or hiking.
Few of us could resist giving a full exegesis of our carefully chosen names. We liked literary and historical resonance. We dreaded the commonplace. We theorized what high school bullies would do with the raw material of these names; we imagined what they’d sound like in a history book, a profile in the Times, an obituary. These names would survive us when we weren’t around to tell the story of their birth. These names were the portion of destiny we got to choose.
* * *
Skin to skin was the big thing, we said. We were painting Casey’s cast now: suns and stars and a tree growing from a heart. You had to make sure the doctor knew you wanted skin to skin, we said. Put that slimy baby right on my chest. Oh, they usually wiped it off first. Weighed it. Made sure it was breathing. You couldn’t blame them for that. But you did. Precious seconds were lost and by the time you could reconnect with the baby it had already been given a score.
* * *
We laughed at how it was in movies. An actress with a basketball suddenly leaking water, screaming a few expletives, and boom: an actor baby, several months old and smeared with strawberry jam. It’s never fast. Once labor starts, time stretches, stops, doubles back. Refuses to align into the five-minute intervals you promised your doctor you’d wait for before you called.
The most useful thing the midwife said was not to shut our eyes at the height of the contraction. You’ll only close yourself in with the pain.
When Leticia’s contractions hit, she looked wildly around the room for something to read: labels, signs, the spines of medical texts. Then she read them backwards because it required more focus. Gave herself a kind of post-partum dyslexia, she told us, laughing. Couldn’t anymore see “alert” without thinking “trela.” When she saw an EXIT sign she almost heard a voice whisper: “tixe” It rhymed with pixie.
* * *
Monica gave Casey a baby necklace of magic stones to relieve teething pain. Some of us would roll our eyes together later, but remained solemn as the homeopathic properties were described.
* * *
Everyone was doing things wrong with birth and babies. But our friends were the ones doing the fewest wrong things.
* * *
Cora (easily confused with Clea, but you mustn’t) was angry they forgot to offer her the mirror. We’d all been offered the mirror when the crowning began. Hell yeah, I wanted the mirror. The freaking interns get the show and not me?
* * *
Casey still had a month to go, six weeks by some calculations, when she abandoned a mug of tea on the porch rail and drove herself to the hospital. Violet got the first text and rushed to meet her. Clea watched Violet’s kids. Casey’s husband was too deep in the stacks for cell phone reception, so it was Violet who rushed in bearing love, who was pushed from the bedside by an aggressive neonatologist, was hissed at by the expert’s pet nurses like rival geese. Violet expected to relay all this to us later; this was how her stories usually went right before their happy ending. Instead, she sent us erratic texts from that one corridor of the hospital that has reception. Monica was the one who called me with the real news: Casey’s baby would not come home to the apartment downstairs with its borrowed bassinet. Was cold. Was blue. Was maybe already incinerated into a pile of ashes with no clear place to rest.
What is there to say? It’s the kind of thing that makes empathy seem like a morbid little game.
* * *
Casey stayed in bed for a week or so. Monica linked us all to an app that assigned meals. It was both embarrassing and reassuring to deliver these vats of pasta, because she had to leave her bed to meet us at the door. She stood there in her nightgown and offered us tea. Her face was like raw dough. Still, she managed a colorless smile for our feeble jokes.
It wasn’t long before she was back tending our children. We all had gaps. We all needed coverage. Monica’s little ones couldn’t be stopped from running downstairs and demanding Casey’s attention for one of their dance routines. She came to the potlucks and never made us feel bad by looking unhappy or longing. She had the same pleasant way about her, the old easy laugh. She’s from the Midwest, we said.
Of course, none of us was from New Haven. But we were all enthusiastic adopters of East Coast mores.
Except the Californians. You’d see them in the produce aisle, the avocado pyramid, squeezing one rock-hard fruit after another with impotent disbelief.
Except the Southerners, who still painted their toenails and wore heels.
The Caribbeans complained of cold and bland food.
The Canadians complained of healthcare and litter.
Mariana from Colombia cringed when people said Columbia.
So we all had our things. Time passed. We shared potluck and grew together. When the election came, we all had the same signs in our yards
* * *
When he was five weeks old I had a vision of his little fat hand in the juicer. My mouth and throat felt how the juice would be. Like a pulpy V-8.
Not all the stories were happy.
But I got help. I told the doctor.
Did they make you take the test?
Oh, of course. I got the high score!
We laughed. A lot of us had had to take the test: do you have this thought and that? The questions measured our potential for lasting harm vs. the run-of-the-mill ruination of a child’s first months. Your duty was to accept that your life had been ruined. Sometimes this required pills.
Honestly, we were proud of these less flattering stories. We had accepted the destruction of our selves, but we did not have to pretend that nothing had been lost.
* * *
Francois never did lactate. But she learned to accept her imperfection. This is how fairy tales really end: someone must admit that she has come to the end of the tale. It’s like claiming a seat in musical chairs. You can still have a moral, but the moral of all stories is compromise. Despite the door the doctors had already put in her belly, Lisa tried to push her second baby out the traditional canal. It didn’t work. But this time she didn’t cry and say, I didn’t have my baby. She was learning an insomniac stupor that passed for Zen.
* * *
The neighborhood children multiplied. They stood up and ran different directions. With their burgeoning personalities came alliances that did not always align with parental ones. The time between potlucks stretched. Still, Monica always had a gathering on Election Day and this year was no exception.
There were American flag cookies, and the bolder children ran immediately to the table and snatched them up before anyone could remind them of their manners. There were tears from the smaller children and from Mariana, who’d spent a lot of time pulling clumpy icing into thin red stripes.
My son did not get a cookie. I saw his eyes level with the tabletop, searching through the crumbs, and I felt a peevishness with other people’s parenting that I was disinclined to rise above.
Yet. The evening promised history. We were there to celebrate. There were the usual bottles of price-club reds on the buffet table, but behind the desserts waited real champagne, or at least sparkling wine with a double-digit price point. We eyed it greedily, but…manners, restraint. Keeping cart and horse in proper order, if just barely. There will be other cookies, I told Philip.
So good! Who made this? Heaven! Our mouths were full and our heads already spinning. Children ran everywhere, laughing and crying and catching each other. Their mouths were purpled with frosting.
I can’t eat until we get more results.
I can’t eat at all. This from Casey. We were surprised to find her with us in the kitchen, not off charming our children and steering them away from fatal games. Though the apartment was overheated, she wore her coat. Her face was flushed.
No, said Casey. I believe in Ohio. Where she was from.
* * *
Usually, the potlucks were unbeautiful. We professed not to care whether you brought a three-tier pavlova or a plate of brown apple slices carved with a blunt knife. But this party had inspired a frenzy of domestic arts, ironic I suppose, though the goods were as sweet as any produced by unironic bakers on the other side.
We ate stripes of roast pepper, stars cut from eggplant. Brownies appeared and we seized them two at a time. Our nerves were starving.
Monica passed the time learning to knit. She poured her attainable-goddess energy into an expanding square on her lap, clickety-click. I’ll have to go forever, she told us, I haven’t learned to bind off. If I stop it’ll all unravel. Imagine the neighborhood asleep beneath a giant child’s blanket.
We poured more price-club red. No one was holding back that night. We spread the known facts of the election before us and it was not difficult to arrange them into a story we could believe. These twinkling facts formed a picture far more legible than constellations, so why did we need to read our stars again and again? We’d been doing this for months. How long it had been since we told a birth story.
I feel unwell, said Casey, her face twisted. She just managed a smile before she went out for air, no, fine, nothing, but I longed to follow her out. I was thinking of Monica’s fine balcony, high in the air over the neighborhood with its matching signs. A perfect place to survey the world before it changed.
Before I could move a shock ran through the room. We turned to the television. They were calling Florida. Cora was from Orlando, and this was when she began to cry. Melodramatic, I thought. I filled my cup and made my way toward the door. I have always loved a balcony. The child I did not have was called Juliet.
On my way past the couch, they called Wisconsin and someone’s sudden hand gesture upset my drink. I looked away from the TV to the stricken faces. Letitia’s eyes moved frantically back and forth; having found no sense in the words as they were arranged on the screen, she was reading them backwards.
I grabbed her arm. Do you remember when Philip was born? And you brought me those cookies with brewer’s yeast, and we had a whole conversation when I didn’t know my breasts were out?
Her voice was vague: You had a C-section.
I certainly did not, heat in my cheeks, I pushed for five hours. After I’d been in labor for forty-eight. The first time I went to the hospital they sent me home. Trust me, the doctor said, it gets a lot worse. I wanted to punch him. Then I get home and I’m on the birthing ball, and I want something stupid to watch, you know? Sometimes you just want something stupid in front of you, like a famous person or a dog. Only the morning show was taken up with news: people shot in a movie theater…and I thought, I’m bringing a kid into this world…
She wasn’t even fucking listening.
My God, said Leticia, Iowa. Tears spilled.
On the porch, Casey was curled up on a lawn chair. Her coat was off. Her belly…it was like we’d gone back in time to that other night.
I’m pregnant, she whispered. Then quickly sucked in air, her eyes shutting her in with the pain. They say you’re not supposed to close your eyes.
I’m sorry, she said, when it had subsided. I didn’t want to tell you guys.
I’ll call the hospital, I said. Your midwife? Who should I call?
No, she hissed. It’s Braxton-Hicks.
Like hell, I said, Let me at least get Violet.
She opened her eyes then: Let me be clear: no.
Where is Todd?
All of her features suddenly rushed to the middle of her face, compressing her nose. This pain had come far too quickly after the last one.
I need you to look, said Casey. I realized she was hiking up her skirt. And tell me nothing’s there.
The top of the head between her legs.
Oh, I said. When it was me, I had refused the mirror.
There was a pop of a champagne cork released inside the apartment and then a fuss: It’s all that’s left to drink and I want to get drunk!
Bad luck, said someone.
Our luck’s already gone.
We would be fighting about that bottle of champagne for a long time. The outrage of and at the opener refused to die. The unlucky pop hung over every potluck thereafter, even after Monica taught the rest of us to knit. Even after we learned to find a measure of solace in the final stitch of a hat. We gorged on cookies but the chocolaty cud could not choke out a voice you didn’t want to admit was one of your own, your lesser self hissing: you hate their blowhard husbands and feral brats. You would close your eyes and Dorothy-Gale back to your own past if it hadn’t been blown away. If there were any place to feel peace, you would leave them behind.
* * *
On the porch that night, Casey shouted a single expletive and propelled the head into the night air. I caught it. Her. She was wet and tethered, but breathing. There was an eternal stillness, lasting perhaps three or four seconds. I don’t know what Casey suffered then, in the seconds before she summoned the courage to look. Those seconds were the first of a year when my own feelings incinerated any phrase in which I tried to contain them.
I think I said: She’s perfect, but she’ll freeze out here. Maybe the communication was telepathic. Somehow we got the baby to Casey’s chest, skin to skin, put the coat over them. My breath came in clouds but I could not speak. I couldn’t run inside to tell the others.
I don’t know your name, Casey said to the tiny alien. I’m so sorry I don’t know your name.
Sarah Harris Wallman is from Nashville, TN, but now lives in New Haven where she co-directs the MFA in Writing at Albertus Magnus College. Her writing has been recognized by Prada and the Tucson Festival of Books. Other stories can be read online at storySouth and Hobart. She has an MFA and two children.