“Okay, Maddie. What you want to do is make a C with your hand, like this.”
Barb the hospital lactation nurse grabs my left breast like it’s a sandwich. Maybe not, but I’m thinking a lot about food just now. I haven’t eaten since my water broke in my dad’s old Subaru twenty-nine hours ago, halfway home from my math final. Yesterday, which feels like last year, I put “community college student” under “Mother’s Occupation” on the admissions forms in the maternity ward. Father: unknown. I’m pretty sure it was this kid named Dez who works nights at Denny’s. His mom’s apartment, twin bed, grayish sheets, broken condom. For all I know he’s still playing hacky-sack in the Denny’s parking lot with his loser friends.
Six pounds, seven ounces. A girl with reddish fuzz on her head and a squinched up red face. All the nurses keep calling her “peanut.” When her eyes open they are a very dark blue. They look human but also not. She is mouthing my collarbone. She is in the world. I try to lift her towards me and make my best C. My breast reminds me of a seal lounging on a rock.
“Support the baby’s neck like this,” Barb says and shows me how.
“Like this?” I say. But I end up smooshing the baby’s face into my nipple, which is as big as Barb’s palm.
Barb shakes her head. She smells like ammonia and stale coffee. Her face is freckled and brown like my mom’s is. Was.
My dad sits in the fold-out recliner in the corner by the window. His eyes are closed but he’s chewing his gum, arms folded. He’s still wearing his green Rick the Realtor polo. Yesterday he was in the middle of showing a house when I called him crying from a 7-11 payphone on route 236 while cars flashed by, people staring. “I can’t do this,” I was saying while amniotic fluid pooled in my shoes. “I don’t want to do this.” “It’s all perfectly natural, honey,” he kept saying. He chewed and chewed that gum all last night, his jaw working while he breathed through his nose and let me grip onto his arm, the pain like a hot knife. It’s been just him and me for years, in the same townhouse off Telegraph that we’ve lived in all my life. My mother’s been gone since I was in sixth grade. The last we heard she had been crashing with some friends in Orlando. The few times she did call she’d tell me she had found work singing and dancing on a cruise ship. I used to fantasize she’d show up on my birthday, or graduation, and that the cruise ship story was true. Sometimes I’d imagine her elaborate costumes and her routines. I’d see cruise commercials on TV and look for her. Now I mostly wonder if she’s dead, or homeless. I always try not to stare at homeless women, but maybe one of them could be her.
“No, Maddie, more firmly than that,” Barb says, and shows me how to squeeze. I picture all the layers of a club sandwich, how it is almost too big to hold without falling apart. Day one, hour three—I don’t know yet that holding nothing but a sandwich, eating it bite after bite until it is gone, is going to be out of the question for a while. Soon I’ll be living on granola bars and slurps from the kitchen faucet. I aim the boob at the baby’s mouth. She turns her head into my armpit and pushes against me with her feet. She is full-on crying now.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Barb. “I’m doing it wrong. I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
I want to cover myself. I want to climb back under the covers of my old life.
“Deep breaths, Maddie,” my dad says, pacing now, chewing. “Perfectly natural.”
He raises an eyebrow. I only call him by his name when I’m mad.
Barb frowns and lets go. “It’s all right. You’re learning.”
“Dad,” I say. “Spit out the goddamn gum already please. God. I feel sick.”
“Okay,” he says, holding his hands up in surrender. He spits it into the trashcan and comes up to my bedside holding out the pink kidney shaped bedpan. He looks older than ever. His eyes seem more sunken and I can see the whole of his scalp in this light.
I think of the gray-pink deli turkey they serve in the college cafeteria. I haven’t had lunch meat since last September. Suddenly I need it like my mother needed vodka by eleven AM to keep from shaking.
“You know what, I think I’m just hungry.”
My dad looks at Barb. “Well, can she eat, Barb?”
“I’m sitting right here,” I say. “I can eat!”
But there’s Barb gripping my left breast like any second now she might just toss it in some olive oil and pop it in the oven. “Dad, let’s help Maddie focus here.”
“Focus, Maddie,” my dad says, and tugs on the baby’s tiny wrinkled foot.
I just want to tell Barb and my dad about that extra slice of bread in the middle: You don’t need it, but it wouldn’t be a club sandwich without it. And the bacon. It’s got to be crispy.
My breast bulges in the vice of Barb’s perfect C. “You want to sort of just make a sandwich with your hand,” she’s saying.
“A fucking sandwich.” I can’t be sure if I say this out loud. The drugs make everything cloudy. Or maybe it’s just that everything’s so different now. My brain feels like a paintbrush dipped in dirty water. It will take a long time—months, years—to not feel this way.
The baby doesn’t have a name yet. I don’t know how to love her yet. I look at my dad who has his hands together under his chin, prayer like.
“Do something, Dad,” I say, and I feel the tears in my throat. “Anything.” I don’t know what I want him to do.
He looks hard at me and his mouth convulses a little under his moustache. Then he goes over to the window and looks out at the morning traffic on Gallows Road. I’m so sorry Dad, I want to say, but I don’t know where to begin with what I’m sorry for. I just wish Dez were here instead of him. I don’t even like Dez. He wasn’t even my boyfriend. I just remember how when I lifted my top and tossed it onto the floor, his face was like Indiana Jones discovering that vault of gold. I like that memory and I try and hold onto it while Barb tells me all about colostrum, liquid gold, how it nourishes the baby in ways scientists still don’t entirely understand.
“Wait for baby’s mouth to be wide like a yawn,” Barb opens her own mouth to demonstrate, showing glints of silver. “You need her to get as much of the areola as possible.”
I remember that last summer before my mom left. My parents were working on things, and she was trying not to drink—they kept saying, “Things are going to be okay now, Maddie.” It was not long before she spun the car in an intersection and it turned out she’d been drinking the whole time. But that summer I didn’t know what was about to happen. I remember touch football with the neighbor kids. I remember standing forehead to forehead talking passes and touchdowns with that kid Kevin who lives two doors down. He would trace the play up my sternum, then over each nipple. My mother called them my mosquito bites. I remember her laughing about Kevin trying to cop a feel on my mosquito bites. Her head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth wide open. I remember that pain. And I still can feel Kevin’s fingers on my chest that was as flat as that field of suburban grass. I let him touch me. I was just waiting for when I could run, when I could make the play.
“Okay.” I wipe away tears and try the C again. I grip tight and the nipple bulges. “Like this?”
“Yes, just like that!” Barb does a silent clap with just her palms and her eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Boob sandwich,” I say, and try to smile.
“Boobwich,” my dad says.
Barb and my dad both laugh.
“Good one, Rick,” Barb says.
My mom should be here. I picture her mid-song, draped in silver sparkles with maybe a red feather boa, microphone in hand, singing “Danke Schoen,” the waves rolling against the sides of the cruise ship as it disappears into the black night. But for now, I’ve got the C just right—I’m doing something right. Barb and my dad are smiling at me. It’s almost enough.
Barb says, “Now you want to gently but firmly bring her towards you.”
With her right hand over mine, she shows me how to pull the baby closer, aligned just-so.
“There you go, Maddie,” Barb says, her voice finally gentle. “That’s right. Nose to nipple.”
The baby’s open mouth moves side to side, searching, learning how to grip onto me. I hold her neck steady, my fingers behind her ears, which are covered with soft down. She has eyelashes that are long and curled and blond. Her hands open and close on my chest, tiny fingernails scraping.
Barb turns to my dad. “Look at your girls, Rick.”
My dad leans in, lays a hand on my arm and though it feels too heavy to bear I let him. We all look at the baby. This newly hatched bird, hunger already sharp enough to wound.
Emily Chiles’ fiction recently appeared in Blackbird and Copper Nickel. She is the recipient of the 2006 Sonora Review Short Short Story Award. She holds an MFA from University of Maryland. She teaches writing and literature at Northern Virginia Community College and lives in rural Virginia.