"Baby’s Breath" by Christina Hicks
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.”