Facing the toilet bowl, eyes squeezed shut, my fingers trace the wall to the toilet paper and tear off a thin, white square. The flimsy material sticks as I brush it over wet lips and chin. Can’t get the thicker rolls, plush ply is two dollars more and (as I’ve recently learned) a tighter budget is another symptom of a growing fetus. I pluck the pasted pieces off my face, flick them in the toilet. It’s the second time I’ve thrown up today. It’s not morning sickness. Rick would fall apart if he knew. I flush, pull myself to the sink, and try to avoid the poster on our bathroom wall: a woman with a fountain of springy curls framing round cheekbones. Ebony eyes radiate with an inner light, hands pressed against an enormous belly. The word gorgeous is taped beside it, letters cut from red construction paper like a child’s second-grade school project.
It’s stupid but sweet.
These posters are everywhere – pregnant women besieging our house, plastered with words like beautiful, natural, lovely, powerful, amazing…
Since I first held that pee stick with the positive sign, Rick has worked tirelessly to build my self-esteem. As if words and posters might change brain chemistry, force a self-image to reset. If only it were that simple. If only there were a pill for every ailment; like the formulaic equations in my head that provide the same solution every time. I face the mirror and the reflection curls its lips, wants to hurl again. There’s no inner light in those eyes. No gorgeous, just hooded eyelids that deepen to unfamiliar darkness. No beautiful radiance, just red, blotchy skin. No sexy, just enlarged breasts which sag, despite the supportive bra. I slap my right cheek. My face – flushed from vomiting and hormones – flashes a white hand mark that reddens to scarlet. Ugly. Disgusting. You make me sick. Mom’s voice, the raw undercurrent of my everyday existence, audible as the day she first spat those words. I was four.
And eighteen years later, I’d been fine on my own, had everything under control, a high honors student on a fast track to pharmacy school; my bingeing and purging episodes perfectly strategized.
And then, Rick.
Cute, insistent, blundering, adorable Rick.
He’d asked me five times to move in with him and I used every excuse as quickly as a box of condoms before I acquiesced. And once I was officially living in his secluded country home, a cold realization sloshed over me: how could I keep to my schedule?
“Bella…what are you…” He’d stood there, in the frame of the bathroom door, gaping, like someone shocked-still from images of war. Too late to hide the bottle of ipecac. I could see it in the sunken blue of his unblinking eyes, that bitter mix of who are you and how had I not known. He hadn’t known because I was an expert in secrecy, but he’d taken it as a personal insult.
“Promise me you’ll stop. This has to stop.”
And I promised, never again, cross my heart… like it was that easy. Instead, I upped my game, holding a strict schedule of fastidious intervals. But last year, after too much champagne on New Years’ Eve, I confessed – drunken idiocy. I’m still pissed at myself.
Now, one year of mandatory therapy later, I am cured. Was. Was cured. Only fairy tales have happily-ever-after endings. I can mix and create thousands of prescriptions that alleviate symptoms for hundreds of thousands of people, and not a single formula can solve my “problem.”
Seven months pregnant and a protruding belly and I can’t look at myself without disgust. I could vomit every time someone pokes me or comments on how big I’m getting and how fat my face is or hides an insult in a cheap consolation like, “girls make you ugly, it’s okay, you’ll get your beauty back...”
The real regression starts with an incident at Target, when I’m purchasing an infant car seat and burp cloths.
The woman in line behind me starts chatting incessantly about her daughter’s baby shower – she has a cart brimmed with everything pink because of course, it's a girl. I’m not listening to what she’s saying, only staring at her distracting tic – her round eyes keep blinking out of sync, one eye before the other.
“When are you due?” She nods at my belly, stretching out a hand, fingers glinting with gold rings. I pretend not to see the intrusion, lean away from her, pulling my purse close, and dig for my wallet.
“Oh wow, well, you look about ready to pop now, darlin.’ My daughter’s due April fifth and she’s nowhere near that wide. You having twins?”
“Nope.” I shove my card in the reader. Too rough. The cashier tells me it didn’t take. I try again, scooching further from this pesky gold-fingered thing buzzing in my ear.
“Took my daughter three times before she had a girl. Three boys, can you imagine? But now she’s finally got her girl. Looks like you’re gonna have to try again sweet cause that’s definitely a boy in there. Carrying too low for a girl, too much like a basketball…”
I grab my things, struggling to hold them at my side – the cashier telling me she can send someone to help carry that, Gold-Fingers telling me I shouldn’t carry anything in my condition – and scuttle through the door, blocking the noise, tuning to a high-wire electric hum until they were out of sight. As soon as I’m home, I leave everything in the car, run to the toilet, shove my left index finger down my throat and throw it up, all of it. Wide, pop, basketball. Fat. Ugly. Whale.
It’s been a month now. Rick isn’t suspicious, and though it’s never bothered me before, it’s hard to breathe when I realize what I’ve done. The room suddenly airless, the acrid taste on my tongue, too stubborn for Listerine. It’s not healthy, not for the little girl inside me. And I wish to god I could make it stop. I peek in the nursery on my way to the living room, opening the door just a crack, eye-wide. Rick told me I should avoid it for a little while until the paint has dried and the fumes dissipate… that was weeks ago and he’s already shut the window. I won’t step foot in there, not until I must, but I want to see, connect my brain with the impending reality. The ballerina-pink walls and smells of baby powder are nauseating and spin my head in dizzying circles until my vision blurs. I lie on the couch with a cold compress until Rick comes home.
The technician squirts bluish gel and smooths it over my belly, rubs the probe over my skin. Rick holds my hand, as he always does, and leans close enough for me to smell the cheap cologne on his neck – a scent that’s much too old for him. The glow in his eyes is a harsh contrast to my own fritzed brain; I don’t look directly at him but let him hold my hand and squeeze in response. He will be a good daddy though I can’t share his enthusiasm. I pretend to glance at the screen, even force a smile, and mumble affirmation in response to the tech’s questions: See that? That’s her left foot… No, no I don’t see it. I don’t want to. I’m inept at caring for myself, how can I trust myself to care for another human? It’s wrong. I want to tell Rick the truth, that we’ve made a bad decision, that he should take the baby and find someone else, but my throat’s too dry and my hand is going numb where he squeezes it too hard in excitement.
“She’s the most amazing thing, isn’t she?”
“Beautiful. Just like my Bella.” He winks.
I straighten and wipe the goop off with a hospital rag. Dr. Milton barges in – a rush of air follows her, chilling my exposed skin. I drop my shirt over the bulge.
“Looking good,” she says, smiling from me to Rick, then her head cocks to the screen. “Healthy girl you’ve got growing there. I do have one concern though…” Her fingers delicately pinch and lift a page on her clipboard. “Your weight gain has declined. We’re expecting you to increase about a pound a week but you've dropped some."
Something at the edge of my skull sizzles, sending a quiet hiss in my ears. Rick’s stare burns through the side of my head but I feign ignorance. I also make sure my voice has an extra layer of innocence when I ask,
“What does that mean? What should I do?”
“For now, increase your diet. You could try drinking protein shakes but be careful to avoid the ingredients I gave you on that list from last time.”
She leaves us and I expect Rick to explode, but he doesn’t. Not till we get home.
“You promised. You promised. I thought… I mean for chrissake you were in therapy for months, you had your group, the retreat – remember any of that? Did it make any difference?”
“I’m sorry, okay?” My eyelids throb, but I can’t muster the energy to cry.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. You have a baby inside you. Our baby. You need to think of her too, you know.”
I drop on the couch and lean my head back against the downy cushion. I wish I could sink into it, be swallowed whole, and disappear.
“Are you even listening to me?” His voice softens and suddenly, he’s next to me, caressing the back of my hand. “Bella, I can’t be with you every second. I wish I could but I can’t.”
“What you mean is, you can’t watch me to make sure I’m not throwing up.”
“You know me better than that.” Rick exhales a long and heavy, cheeks-puffed sigh that bores into my gut. His shoulders sag with his posture; this – and the stubble on his face – he looks a decade older. “I wish I could do something to make things better, to support you through this.”
As he places his hand on my oversized belly, instant warmth spans the arc of it. The baby senses it too. She responds with a fervent kick. She’s never done that for me. She's never excited when I talk or place a hand on my stretched, bare skin. How will we connect once the cord severs?
The next morning, I waddle into the kitchen, lured by breakfast aromas. Rick has prepped a feast of scrambled eggs, a chocolate protein banana shake, and a bowl of cereal.
“Promise me you’ll eat as much as you possibly can, and then some.” He presses against me, kissing my forehead, my jutting belly bumping his thin frame. “And you’ll keep it all in there…” He nudges a finger on my belly.
I turn to the side so I can extend my arms around his waist, and like a child, I cross my fingers.
But once he’s gone, I raise my eyes to face the pregnant-lady-poster beaming at me below the word brave, and a wave of nausea floats through my stomach, acid rising in the esophagus, a vague burn at the base of my throat. Avoiding the breakfast spread, I swing open the fridge door and seize the jug of water.
That’s when I see them – bright and orange like a flashing sign in a plastic bag: carrots. My circumvention. It’s a win-win. I get my relief; baby gets her nutrition. I consume half the breakfast, chomp down three large carrot sticks, finish eating, and allow myself to throw up.
When chunks of orange hit the water, I stop.
This is negotiation.
A week passes and I’m gaining weight. It’s afternoon, and while the sunlight slashes through our white curtains, I crank the window panes ajar. April air glides across the floor; I catch a crisp fragrance in the cross breeze. All the windows are open except for the nursery.
I should open the door. Let the room air out some so it’s not stuffy… I turn the knob and the door creaks. Gauzy light filters through the delicate curtains, splashes pink-rose across the white bureau. A trace of wood polish lingers – the scent of new furniture. The unused glider sits still in the corner like a punished child.
Rick bought it after we first learned I was pregnant. I sat in it once to show appreciation.
My bare feet are noiseless as I cross the rug and sink on the glider’s cushions. Slowly, I rock, the rhythm of it tender as a lullaby. I don't know any lullabies. I doubt my mother sang them to me as an infant. Deep-seated guilt springs in my gut and slithers through my lungs until my breaths are asthmatic. You wouldn’t eat as an infant, you wouldn’t listen as a child… I don’t know what’s wrong with you, I don’t know how you’re still alive.
Something warm and wet soaks my pants. I shoot forward, hop off the chair, pat the cushion. It’s damp. Damn. Incontinence happens. That’s what they’d said in the baby class. But it hadn’t felt like I was peeing. My hand tremors as I palm and pat the spot on my pants. It doesn’t smell like urine…
My body sways as little involuntary shivers course down my arms and legs. I jolt to the bedroom, grab a new pair of clean stretchy pants and large underwear. More gobs of thick watery goo are escaping my vagina. Every movement sends another gush.
No need to call the nurse. It’s happening. But it’s barely been eight months. My baby is forcing herself out.
She’s decided it’s time. The magical moment we’ve all been waiting for. I’m scared shitless.
My brain and my body are suddenly out of sync. Before I'm conscious of what I'm doing, the hospital bag is in the trunk, I'm wearing clean pants, a towel placed on the driver's seat, and I'm racing to the hospital. It's an hour away. Forty-five minutes if I speed. Damn this stupid country house in the middle of nowhere. I'm flooring on the gas, pushing the Ford over seventy. Once I hit the main road and my cellphone has service, I call Rick.
“You’re what? Get an ambulance. Get off the road now!” He’s screaming and the baby kicks hard. They’re always in agreement.
“I’m fine, Rick. I’ll make it. The contractions aren’t even that bad.” That’s when I jinx it. A powerful twinge of pain fires into my abdomen. The flutters from before turn violent. I wince, stifling a yelp that springs from my chest and clogs my throat.
“Bella, I swear to god…” I can hear him pacing, slamming a fist on his desk. He’s breathing hard into the phone. “Okay… okayokayokay. I’ll meet you there. Please promise you’ll pull over if anything – I mean anything – happens. You feel any pain or anything just pull the car over. Promise me.”
“Promise.” This time, I’m not crossing any fingers.
He works in the city so he’ll be there before me. I hope. Another shock, another jolt. I let off the accelerator. Deep breath. I’m halfway there. Jabbing pain thrusts me into the steering wheel. I’m inadvertently honking at a passing car. Someone wags a middle finger from the passenger side as they whizz past. I hit the hazards and veer off the road into a clearing. The contractions are faster now. The baby is desperate to leave me. I lift my phone and dial 9-1-1. The call drops. No signal.
I gingerly slide out of the car and raise the phone in the air, hoping, praying for signal. It slips twice in my slick palm. Then, finally, a bar appears. I lean against the hood of the car as another contraction rages.
“Nine one one, what is your emergency?”
“I need to get to the hospital.” Deep breath for another wave of pain. “Water broke, I’m having contractions, and I’m only eight months pregnant.”
“Okay ma’am, we’ll dispatch an ambulance to you immediately. Can you tell me where you are?”
I blink. My mind draws blanks. I don’t know what exit I’m near. I only know I’m somewhere on the main road and there’s an ad for beef jerky on the other side of the six-lane highway. To my right, in the clearing, a group of wilting trees, winter-bruised and naked, the one place that couldn’t bloom for spring.
“I-I don’t know. I’m parked along 138.”
“You heading east or west?”
Deep breath, a moan forces its way through my windpipe. “Toward Lafayette. B-but I don’t know what mile marker.” My heart punches hard and fast behind my left breast until the thrum of it is so loud in my ear that, for a nanosecond, I am deaf. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Warm fluid is falling down my leg and I think, maybe this time, I am pissing myself. The operator is telling me to remain calm but I’m far past that point. I start waving at cars until a small pick-up pulls over. An old man with silver whiskers leans toward the passenger side and cranks his window down.
"Need sum 'elp?" One pocket of his cheek bulges and as I approach, a waft of tobacco assaults my nostrils.
“I-I just need to know. To know where I am.” My voice wobbles on the verge of a sob. I gulp it back hard.
“Um, just… what mile marker is this? I need an ambulance. I’m on the phone with an operator but…they don’t know where I am.”
He glances me up and down.
“Well, I can take you to the hospital. No matter to me. Headin’ that way anyhow.”
“Ambulance is on its way,” I say. “What exit did you just pass?”
“Seventeen,” he says.
I repeat this to the operator who tells me she’s already sent an ambulance in this direction. The guy hesitates, watching me.
“Sure there ain’t nothing I can do to help?”
I try to balance as a convulsion rocks through my core and I shake my head.
“The ambulance will be here soon.”
He spits into the bottle, a dribble rolls to his chin and he wipes it with the back of his hand. Then, finally, the pick-up rumbles on the gravel and takes off. I choke on the dust and grab my side mirror to keep from collapsing. The noise, the lights… the horror of this moment, I want it all to end so badly it cramps in my chest.
Several contractions later – though the seconds move deliberately slow, one sand crystal at a time in a tipped hourglass – they arrive; a thick haze of screeching sirens, garish lights blazing red. I hang up with the operator and text Rick, which takes forever with shaky hands.
Called ambulance. Contractions bad. Car at MM 17. sorry. Thought I could make it.
Green scrubs and white lab coats rush in and out of the maternity ward and patter down the hall: a blur of epileptic colors and lights and questions and sidebar comments I don’t understand. Rick brushes the hair back from my face.
"You okay? God, you made me so nervous. The baby – she okay?” He looks at the screen, at the attending nurse.
“We’ve got it under control.”
“But she’s only eight months along. It’s premature…”
“The baby will be fine,” the nurse says with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Moments later – I say moments because I have no sense of time, there’s no clock or watch and maybe that’s a good thing right now – I’m curling up, squeezing Rick’s hand as a needle is driven into my spine. A rush – like a waterfall – courses down my back. The numbing is instant. I’m paralyzed waist down. I laugh because I don’t know what else to do or say. The doctor is telling me to push. My efforts are weak. I’m ordered to push harder. I don’t know what harder is because I exert all the effort I can. But maybe I did something different because the obstetrician is smiling, nodding, eyes wide.
“Yes,” she says, “Keep it going. Breathe in. Out – push!”
We repeat this mantra a hundred times until my insides wobble and quiver.
“There she is!”
Rick is crying. I rest my head on the pillows and it sinks further than I expected. I’m staring at the square panels on the ceiling, stained with oblong shapes of yellow-white light.
Above the din, a tiny squeak rises. I stretch my neck to see past the blurry group of faceless people in hospital garb as they poke and prod and weigh the newborn, but all I see are flashes of bloody pink skin and a bitty hand flailing before they finally return with the sodden little creature and place her on my stomach.
Her tiny wrinkled face is flushed and wet and she curls her fingers, raises her hands to her chin, and stares at me. Her eyes glow the same dark blue of an evening sky; a mysterious, endless cerulean.
Perfect. It’s all I can think when I see her. She’s perfect.
Destiny Rose Durant.
I count her fingers and toes. Ten each. I rock her slowly, kiss her forehead. Hold her against my nude flesh.
A lactation nurse appears immediately. Rick has already stockpiled formula, despite the fact we’d agreed on breastfeeding. But I’m not naïve; it’s no coincidence he bought the stuff – large canisters of it – after he discovered I was purging again.
I hold one red nipple to her mouth, as instructed, but Destiny turns her head away from it each time.
“Maybe she’s not hungry?”
The petite nurse blinks owlishly.
“She must eat. All infants must eat. The first week is very important and colostrum is necessary for them.”
We tilt Destiny’s head back, open her lips, nudge her awake, shove my breast at her teeny mouth. It feels wrong, like I’m hurting her. It’s as if, straight from the womb, she is stripped of a privilege to refuse. Then I think, maybe this isn’t normal. Maybe it is me. Maybe if she liked me, she would eat. And I wonder if this is why my mother despised me, because I wouldn’t eat, because I hated her first.
Destiny is underweight but we are assured she’s not at risk. We’re sent home within forty-eight hours of her birth, not a second later. It’s all the insurance will cover.
At home, I nurse my wounds. Everything hurts. My body aches and I haven't shit in three days, but I'm told that's normal. I wipe with antiseptic cloths and wash my hands relentlessly. Mostly though, I sleep. Rick is happy that I'm too tired to vomit, even though I desperately want to. He's hung a curtain over the mirror so I don't have to look at my puffy pale face and my stretch-marked belly; a saggy, leftover "fat pocket." He takes down the pregnancy posters but leaves the words. All around the house I'm bombarded with gorgeous, brave, brilliant, lovely.
Rick is sweet to me. Extra sweet. He feeds Destiny at night so I can rest, delivers breakfast in bed, orders the take-out Chinese I am craving, cuddles me at night and whispers his love to me: the stunning, incredible mother of our child.
It is Saturday. Morning sunbeams kiss the bookshelf and a corner of the bassinet where Destiny lies sleeping, everything within its reach turns gold with its Midas touch. The nursery is ready and fully functional, but neither of us could bear to let her sleep alone. Not yet. Rick is scared of SIDS, and the possible residual paint fumes (that really don’t exist at this point), and me, I’m scared of everything. Yet, when she’s near, I’m full of an unfamiliar, soul-deep stillness. It flows to my abdomen like a warm, comforting swallow of hot chocolate. Rick drops a pan in the kitchen, it clatters on the floor and scrapes against the tile when he retrieves it. Then, an egg cracks, and bacon grease sizzles.
Destiny stirs. I pull back the covers and amble to her side. Her face crinkles, tiny lip puckers, then follows the squeaky cry. Soft as I can, I lift her and return to the bed, slouching against propped pillows. She is so fragile that I’m scared to hold her while standing. I draw her close, skin to skin. She moves her lips rapidly and cries louder.
“Hungry?” The formula would need to be warmed. I could call Rick, but I don’t. I position her at my breast, clumsy at first, then place the nipple in her open mouth. The cries stop. She stares up at me with those bottomless eyes. Her hand presses against my sternum and suddenly, she is suckling. My heart jumps against my ribcage but I’m careful not to squeeze her. Her warmth swells in my chest; to call this love is an understatement, it’s purer, a hazy new euphoria, a nameless emotion. The air shifts, there’s a lightness to it. I'm floating and I don't want this high to end.
Finally, I’m doing something right.
“I love you. More than you’ll ever know,” I whisper to her. “I’ll do this right. I swear I’ll be the best mom I can for you. I will. I promise.”
Rick is in the doorway.
“She was hungry,” I say. Tears spill to my chin.
He sits beside me, the contours of his face softening. But when he tilts his head toward mine, his eyes flash from awe to alarm. Rick pats my cheek and forehead with the back of his hand – brusque and cold.
“Honey, you okay?”
“You look…pale and…”
I don’t hear what else he says. I hold Destiny close and fall asleep.
When my eyes open, I’m in a hospital – at least, I think I am. A monitor bleeps monotonously by my ear. A doctor speaks in undertones and Rick – Rick is here at my side, but his eyes are glassy and shrunken, his skin sweat-slick and deathly white.
“Bella? Bella! You with me? Stay with me.” I’ve never heard his voice like that: fraught with high-pitched panic.
“What happened?” Is that even my voice? It’s groggy and faraway.
“They don’t know. The doctor says he thinks it’s internal bleeding and…” His Adam’s apple flutters. The nurse says something I can’t hear, but the doctor’s reply is equally low and somber.
Rick’s focus leaps desperately between the doctor and the nurse. “What do you mean? Is she going to be okay? For fuckssake answer me!”
“Where’s the baby?”
“Why aren’t you doing anything?”
“Where’s my baby…” It’s hard to stay alert, there is a forceful pressure, like a giant hand, constricting my lungs, sealing my eyes shut. I hear Rick’s labored breathing in the dark; he’s drowning with me, sucking one gulp of air at a time before another wave slams over our heads. Something shakes my hand, my arm. I see light through slits in my lead-heavy eyes – it’s papercut thin, but it’s the most I can open them.
“Sweetie, stay awake. Please, Bella, stay with me.” His voice cracks at the edge of terror.
I manage a whispered response: “Where. Is. She?”
“She’s okay. The baby’s okay. Remember Ana was flying in to visit? She’s here. She’s with Destiny…”
I don’t remember, but then again, I don’t remember most things. But I do remember Destiny. The moment I saw her, the little round face, perplexing blue eyes absorbing everything.
“Honey. Bella, please, please…”
Rick’s voice strains, churning into a warbled cry. It’s drumming in my ears. And then, a long, low hum mutes the world. Stay awake. Stay awake. I’m in the nursery, all fuzzy pink and baby’s breath, and I hear Rick calling my name. Over and over, like a chant.
Like a mother rocking her child to sleep. Reciting her name, the words easy on the tongue.
Destiny. My sweet baby girl. It’s all right. It’s going to be all right. I promise.
Christina Hick's work has appeared in three consecutive issues of Bridgewater State University’s “Embracing Writing” book for first-year freshman, the SUSIE Mag, and The Storyteller. Additionally, she’s written informative pieces for the local online newspaper. She lives in Tennessee with her family, their talkative Husky, and a frenetic cat.