Jessica Lee Richardson
It was this—he was not only a poet, but compressed. A thin boy from India, young, in his twenties back then, who wrote on sidewalks, taped papers to tables and gallery floors. Who carried himself inside himself like a bomb, a wobbling expansion wrapped in wire.
After spending a day with me he grabbed my hand and told me, "I will make you very rich." I looked up at his vibrating eyes and believed him, despite his occupation. Someone came with news then. He had won a prestigious prize for one of his floor poems. He pushed his glasses to his face in a mimicked move and I loved him free and clear. We made out like writhing smithereens. He kissed like he lived—shaking.
It wasn't until then that the guilt seeped in. I had been otherwise romantically engaged until just the night before when I slipped coins into a slot, sucked my breath in and dialed. I was obligated, wasn't I?, to at least one loyal roll around the sun in somber chastity. "I need time to myself," I had said into the smell of metal and onion on the mouthpiece. The next morning I opened into a new view, alive with the fog. By noon I had succumbed to this odd promise. Wealth from a poet!
My guilt stood no chance against the rattling love between us. It was a love that both shredded the clothes from our warm bodies and inspired me to phone my grandmother. The guilt slid and puddled, a slip for my dancing feet.
He did make me rich, or at least, more rich than I had ever been. By the time he did, the poems were only a snatch at the night for him, a passing train or a solitary walk in the buzz of the city. He had marched, chin up, into the marketplace. By then we were getting to the age when money made a difference. I would have lived in a mail bin with him, but we were ready, by this point, for a fine pillow and a trip to Greece.
We had one of those marriages that shame others. It wasn't perfect, but its proportions of imperfection made it almost so. We consulted each other in a genuine way. I wanted his tight answers. He wanted my fluid ones. We wanted to nod and whisper in the corner. We wanted to fuck, even in middle age. We fought like feral cats, for blood, but quickly. The novelty of the other's face rounded in surprise never wore off. The desire to cradle his soft underbelly, to feed it milk and butter, to crush.
And then we got the big surprise. The one we all know may come, but nonetheless when it does come, it removes the earth floor from beneath the house.
We were having a baby.
I was forty-five.
I had already traded in my youthful body. I had already accepted myself as not who marketers have in mind. I wanted to enjoy my position in this new margin, afire for my thin aging husband. Gardening—I wanted to take it up.
Instead I found myself in a restorative yoga class fingering a hairclip and looking sidelong, as if rounding my gaze might pillow the world into the shamed whisper it deserved. I had not even birthed this child yet and I was already annoyed with it. I resolved to name it Henrietta or Perth, just to get back at it for jeopardizing my health and wellness. Even now I could feel a painful tightness. Of course the story ends with me falling in love with the sweet little swine, but I am not ready to know this yet when you find me at the yoga studio tugging on a small loop in my workout trousers. I am not really old enough to call my Lululemons "trousers," either. It's for effect.
When you find me here with the finger, a gong goes off. Literally. Some yogis in the room are quite serious, and wear all white. A trio of old women and a teenager, though, sit in the back giggling. They are not giggling so much as they are in stitches. The teacher is young and earnest, so when the oldest of the elderly women raises her hand and exclaims that she has a question, the teacher nods politely. The woman points to the shrine in the front of the room, bedecked with bells and framed photos of religious figures from various parts of the world. The teacher looks and shakes her head smiling, as if she is in on the joke but just slightly confused.
The old woman walks up to the shrine and pulls a picture frame up and gestures toward the image of a longhaired man in blue. "Him!" she says. "This guy!"
The teacher continues her slight squint-smile and bobs her chin.
"He looks familiar. Who is he?" The elderly woman insists.
"Well that would be Jesus Christ," says the earnest yoga teacher.
Now the whole class begins to giggle.
I'm still busy rubbing articles uncomfortably attached to my person and regretting my poor attention to birth control. I am not taken in to the laughing at first. Eventually, though, my diaphragm begins to hop. We swivel, the whole room of us, into a frenzy. A fit.
The old women, all three of them, have peed the floor. The teenager is practically hallucinating with laughter, and is uselessly trailing after their hunched frames with feminine wipes. I understand what I'm about to be reduced to and enter into laughter's other side, the place where it becomes fearsome, twisting its clown mouth, lowering its distorted mirror. Tears are streaming down my face. My own dampening panties are surreal to me. The yoga class must be called off for reasons that are practically medical.
To a forty-five year old pregnant woman with no previous children this event feels justifiable. Inevitable, even.
At home the hallway shines and clicks, my feet are an interruption of sunlight. An emptiness defines my space, I see. I notice things while pregnant I didn't notice before and must sit a minute with each of them. My attention is being trained on attention.
I do not want to become obese, but I still relent to the roar that sometimes, at eight months along, threatens to relax into the low whine of nausea if feed it too many crackers. There is a cramping too, and a note on the refrigerator from my husband. His business has taken him to Philadelphia. Instead of upsetting me, this helps me decide instead upon toast and cream cheese. When I've washed it down with some pineapple juice and seltzer, I briefly doze off and something strange happens.
I wake myself up singing.
Not a mild hum, or a throaty half melody. I am practically belting a John Cougar Mellencamp song I remember from my childhood. My voice is a sugar bowl. The apartment shifts. Dusk light volleys with joy. I've gone and filled the place with something.
Then I fill it with something else.
It isn't just me filling space, either.
On the day Roebling was born, New Jersey caught on fire.
It isn't supposed to happen in life that the landscape mirrors you, but oh, it does. A tornado cuts through a city's soul, chasing its own tail. A hurricane can be a map right to a country's dark wet heart.
I entered late stage labor at home alone. It was all quite a surprise on one level. If I'm honest, I had felt the slow seep of a low pinch for two days. Then again it was sudden. At one moment I was not made of seventy-five thousand steaming vise grips and the next moment I was.
It was a long time there with me and the vise grips. The birth was beautiful when it finally arrived, though. She slid right out.
I bathed her in the sink.
I was so tired from pushing and blood loss that I must have momentarily passed out. I fell and when I came to on the floor of the bathroom, she was still in the sink and her little face had submerged.
I saw she was blue.
I pulled her tiny slippery body out and I admit while she was in my hands I asked myself for one moment, what kind of mother am I to fall asleep as my first act of parenthood? Would it be better to just let her go?
There are times in life when you understand terms you've heard all along. This one was "side-splitting" only it had nothing to do with humor. The answer to my question arose from the bottom edges of my ribs, fast and hard. It spread through my whole body. Every atom of me was a blade. No, it would not be better to let her go. The blades carved this mantra into my cells: do not let go. I find it's rare to have such clarity. I blew into her mouth and pressed her chest. It didn't work so I picked her up and beat her back. It worked. She spit water and breathed. She must have just gone under—my little fighter—but her living half emerged like a whale tail breach. I loved her in a way that was lunatic.
I gave her my breast and she latched right on. Smart already. Intelligence distilled for its lack of content, the intelligence beneath intelligence. Clear as anything solid. This is when I named her. I searched and found her name. The easy Fiona I gave her when she grew inside me was wrong. I looked closer and there it was, the Roeblings once had a wire mill, not far from here. They were bridge makers.
Feeding her was joy. I had no care for the world besides feeding her. But it was not our fate to get to relax into our bond yet. New Jersey was on fire and some part of me already knew.
The sun was rising when I heard the sirens. I walked out of the house in my disastrous pajamas. Roebling was with me, would never not be with me, and then I left her at a café.
Mothers are going to judge me on this one. The mother who watched Roebling in her car seat under the outdoor table of the café certainly did. But I had to get close to the fire. I had to see if it would explode or spread. I would fight a block-consuming natural disaster for this daughter of mine. My sides told me that. I was split now. It was spreading, I saw. It was early in the morning, and on one side of the neighborhood all was smoke.
The low-lying flames were just beginning to lick the building next door. Fire is a cat. Allowing its prey the orgasmic love of worship before it consumes. I respected fire. But I had to get us the hell out.
It was my right breast that told me I had left Roebling and I had better freak. The body comes alive in motherhood with the same condensed intelligence of baby eyes. I was still in the fog of exhaustion and bodily brokenness when I pushed her into safety and went off to fight a fire with my eyes. I had left her wisely—with another mother—protecting her from smoke. But I didn't remember doing it. I was a wild thing without future or past or mediating voice. For five minutes I searched, a beleaguered chimp, my face frantically melting into its sub-core, my arms fanning with a fervor so ancient it was almost mineral. I cried out but no one noticed because the sirens screamed right along.
Then there she was, my daughter, just dozing.
She was under the table with the judgey-wudgey mother staring down my disastrous pajamas. I fed her with the breast that had signaled me. Admired her instantaneous instinct again. Our ease. It didn't even hurt. If it had I wouldn't have minded. The way I didn't mind my public blood speckles. I had to walk while I fed her, though. I had to pack.
I called my husband while I stuffed clothes and supplies for the baby into a bag. "Our baby was born," I told him with joy peaking my eyebrows. He was soft and kind despite his fury that he had missed it. He was on a deadline and had fallen asleep in his temporary office in Philadelphia. His business always had him away. Inside he was still a floor poet. We sat in a moment of calm warm breathing. Then I told him New Jersey was on fire and I was leaving. I was coming to him. He snapped on the news and saw that it was true, though not the whole state. He heard the wilderness in my voice. That something had happened to me where I walk right up to emergencies. That I had resuscitated life. Cut an umbilical cord with my teeth. He forced me off the phone with focus coaching. He could hear I was nearly mad with fatigue.
The flames were already stroking the sides of our building, but I couldn't see. If I knew I would not have gone back. Still, there was an urgency in the wall that could be sensed. Will you believe me when I tell you that I thought of not one item besides her baby bag and stroller? Roebling was on my chest and I gave a solitary damn and it was hers. No laptop, no wedding ring, not even a pair of jeans. That clarity. I left with it. I turned the hot knob and walked right out in my disastrous pajamas. It was just in time.
I didn't turn around to see, I heard later.
I arrived at my husband's office smiling, presenting our daughter. He crunched his face muscles and his mouth fell open. All of the faces in his office did this. I didn't have a tit out or anything. I wanted to be feeding her but I hadn't completely forgotten about decorum. These faces were kind of pissing me off. But then I watched something happen to the faces, the faces that saw a bloody fire survivor in disastrous pajamas in their office—a mother. The faces screwed from "how dare she" to "poor thing" as their mediators stepped in. "We are in the midst of a tragedy," said their mediators. "Blood is allowed in the office. Welcome, even." I was given a chair, tea. My husband collapsed into my shoulder. There were tears in eyes. Later he was offered a promotion.
I didn't say much. No one asked me why I had birthed my baby alone at home. They assumed it was because of the fire. If it was because of the fire we haven't given fire enough credit for the quiet of its voice, because I didn't even know I knew about it. The truth is I had been ignoring the contractions. I was holding her in. I wasn't ready. But ready or not, here I come said Roebling. Secretly, I was glad. I wouldn't have wanted anyone disturbing us. Why does birth always have to be so disturbing?
I sat in a conference room sipping tea. I was treated to updates about the fire. No one was getting any work done today. It was gleeful around there. They could barely send a fax. They had a bloody woman to usher to the hospital, a baby, a common interest in fire. This day was different alright.
I began to weep for my husband. In this fluorescent light, he would have nothing to look forward to but disaster. Roebling had her tiny hands wrapped around a pointer finger apiece. On my pajama pants were small stenciled flowers browned by blood. She would grow and my job would be to ready her for this. These rooms lit to deny origin, pants designed to mimic fragile nature. These people desperate for something to go horribly, fascinatingly wrong. The fire, they said, was being contained, but barely.
I was betraying my husband. I felt it already. How the tapeworm that had starved for him would be fed now by a new host. So easily I latched on as she did. I existed perhaps only in the small spaces between the ravenous lock of the body. For a thin gray morning between my last boyfriend ever and my only husband. For the length of a restorative non-class, gone in a puff of smoke. Beneath my hot ribs, Roebling licked her lips.
The stretcher that arrived seemed unnecessary, but there it was, and there was my daughter in my right arm and my husband on my left side as they secured me. For a moment, before they took Roebling to test her heart, I was snug. I was a living line between two halves—right there with all there ever was before me.