By Kim Sutton Allouche
I descend the attic steps stopping twice to curl into the bannister at the height of the pain. Once in our bedroom, I press my nose against the chilled, bare window, scouting for signs of life. The street is nearly erased like a sepia postcard, a two-dimensional image, noiseless, but for the crunch of an occasional snow-topped car or the wail of a muted siren crying in the distance. Carefully, I change from my bathrobe into a long-sleeved top, and maternity leggings. I hide the fresh scratch marks on my arm and muffle my cries in a pillow. In Solomon’s presence I vow to subdue my mourning to a hush, as if there is a right way. This is something I will surely hold against him, not that it’s his fault; love is terribly unfair. Bleached light from the window washes out his face, outlining his sculpted nose and long, straight lashes as he sleeps. He looks serious and handsome. I shake him.
“Hurry,” I say, unable to maintain my usual sangfroid, “Otherwise I could die.”
“Of course, love. But pregnancy,” he explains, trying to reassure me, “is not an illness.”
He tries to touch me as I recoil. This is how our arguments go. I want comfort but don’t let on; Solomon offers facts. He is already on his way to becoming an excellent attorney. At thirty-two, he is judicious in the mold of his mother who I both want and hate. Everything between them is calm and measured. An emotional reaction, totally unreasonable for something as natural as childbirth, I imagine her saying. I want to kill them both. On the day I give birth, I am consumed with rage.
In complete silence, Solomon drives me to the hospital. The cold feels permanent, inescapable, like the diagnosis of a terminal illness. It’s a struggle to fasten the seat belt over my enormous belly. Gusts push the tinny car. I brace my left hand on the dash. Solomon strokes it, softly, from my wrist upwards. “No,” I say. He has no idea that underneath my sleeve raised red lines intersect, the convoluted writing of nails on skin, a new perversion born of grief. Even without the scratches I might have refused. His touch is too soft; it requires something. He removes his hand and looks ahead like nothing happened. We sit there, parallel, as the tires roll over a cushion of virgin snow leaving flat, brown zig-zags. Conditions worsen, a total whiteout, which adds to the surreal quality of Mother’s death less than two days ago.
Solomon parks more than a block away from the hospital; I think he could find something closer but don’t say anything. I need a target. Against fierce wind we push the car doors open. Snow, like shards of glass, infiltrates our eyes and noses. It makes no sense to speak. Once inside the hospital, I immediately send Solomon back to the car to get me the pink wrap I’ve left jumbled in the back seat, some sort of misplaced punishment. It was once my own baby blanket, which Mother later used as a shawl.
The hospital seems deserted today as if people don’t get sick on the coldest day of the year or maybe they prefer to endure their pain alone. A robotic orderly wheels me through a long corridor into an antiseptic steel chamber, where another identical looking man hooks me up to devices. He bandages my arm when I tell him I’ve adopted a feral cat. Dr. Lowry, a caustic son of a bitch, finally shows up, nods at me, doesn’t ask even ask about the cuts under the gauze, for which I am grateful. He chooses my right arm for the drip.
According to a machine my contractions have slowed. How strange and intrusive to think that others can bear witness to the ebb and flow of my pain. And how validating for me to track it— to know that what I feel on the inside is measurable and real. Flushed, Solomon appears in the doorway with Mother’s matted shawl folded in a neat square under one arm and scans the icy hospital room. He points to a poster on the wall of two sudsy hands under a faucet; the caption reads: “Be a hero, wash your hands.”
“They sure have lowered the bar on heroism,” he jokes.
No one laughs. Dr. Lowry raises his eyebrows. I’ve despised that man since my first appointment with him and never once considered changing.
“Everything okay, Doc?” Solomon asks, changing tone and tactic.
Patting him on the back, Dr. Lowry says, “Peachy. Now get out of here, son, and let me get this show on the road.”
Solomon likes being told what to do. But I’ve never been good at giving the right instructions. Not like his mother, so sure and explicit. Holding up the shawl, he gives me a perfunctory glance. I motion to put it down. Naturally, he looks confused; I’ve only pretended to want it. I imagine Mother clutching it as she died. It would have been caked in blood if she had.
On his way out I hear Solomon say without a trace of sarcasm, “So sorry to get you out in this weather, Doc.”
Clearly in a hurry to get back home, the doctor doesn’t answer. As soon as Solomon leaves, Dr. Lowry barks at a child-like nurse, “Show-time. Start the Pitocin.” I believe that I am prepared. The lists are checked. We’ve taken birthing classes. And I’ve read all the books.
The doctor then opens a large cardboard box that contains two, foot-long spatulas curved into a giant wishbone.
“Epidural. Now,” Lowry says to the nurse.
“I don’t want it,” I say, but with the next contraction I cry out sharply, my face wet with tears. “I don’t want it.”
“Yes, you do . . . Nurse!” he yells at the confused child who is assisting.
My tears continue to flow but there is no sound, not even a whimper.
Between unbearable contractions, I am given an epidural, the table is shortened, and Dr. Lowry thrusts the tools deep within me. Here’s what I should do: I should protect her by giving her time. I could ask, beg, or fight for what she deserves. Most mothers would. Compliance trumps instinct. Here it is: A first chance to be a good mother. But no, not a single word from me. Silence. Burning in my chest.
Despite the epidural, there is terrible pressure inside me as the forceps close, latching onto something; I can feel the tugging. I’ve got the head, the doctor says. Then, dammit. He tries again, the pressure building and releasing as he grasps, like a guy manipulating a metal claw in one of those machines where, for a quarter, you try to catch a stuffed animal. I’d never seen it work. The young nurse holds my hand. I wish she looked older than me. And I look young for twenty-six.
Next, I hear, the head, the head is out, and an unready, unwilling, perfect baby girl is pulled out into the frigid room. I am completely enamored and intimidated when I see her. She is so complete, so wise looking, with huge, clear eyes, and thick, black hair just like Mother’s. Covered in a white film, she is placed on my chest. I inhale her meaty smell of blood and new life. So specific and rare is the odor, both totally unknown and familiar, like the smell of a first menstruation, blindfolded, I would recognize her as my own. Her smell is glue; it is already the deepest bond I’ve ever experienced, magical —how my mother described the bond between the original Penelope and her Odysseus, her favorite myth. Me, I become Herculean. Without a second thought, I would kill or die for my infant. I know now that this isn’t love. Does a hamster love her young? A shark? A lion? They give birth, then swallow or abandon their own flesh deep in infinite seas or in smothering jungles teaming with quiet, ravenous, predators.
She doesn’t cry. I think, she’s dead. Of course, she’s dead. For a moment I want Solomon—and then I don’t, glad to feel the depth of my despair alone. I press her bloody body close, so desperate for her to be alive that I finally shake her— hard. And it works. She wails a scream of anger and protest. There we are, the two of us, both crying and crying, me unable to console. A second failure. My relief, though enormous, feels in a strange way almost too late. In that fraction of a second, when I thought she had died, I heard a voice in my head that said, idiot, there is no happily ever after.
“Nurse, please take her,” I say.
I am sure about the name. It has to be Penelope. I cannot do otherwise. The nurse hugs her to her chest and says she will wash her off. Instantly, there is an odd tug in my abdomen, an unnatural contraction. I tell myself it’s nothing. Crisscrosses of frost on an adjacent window obscure the relentless snow, and I think, is there no end? The spasm intensifies and finally explodes into a volcano of pain. I moan, “It’s not right!” The rest is unclear. Lowry’s bluish lips shout something I cannot understand.
Hours later, I wake in the recovery room where Solomon and Lowry stand side by side. Good and bad news. The doctor speaks quickly. Solomon already knows whatever it is. I can tell from his slackened jaw. And when my eyes find his, he shifts his gaze to the floor. There is an economy of words I can hardly take in. Something like, there will be no more pregnancies, had to save her.
Then the good news: your daughter has a sister. I’d given birth to twins. Penelope’s larger body completely hid the other in the sonogram. They are identical. Yet one sister made the other invisible.
I am moved to a different room. Penelope sleeps soundly on my chest. It is only when Solomon says, “Don’t you want to see her? Our other baby?” that it hits me— there is another one. Drugged and dazed, I try to focus. What is wrong with me? Have I forgotten the runt? Just a little, motherhood makes me cringe. Then, I realize the twins will always have each other, that a chain might be broken, and in a way, I feel I’ve done something wonderful. Neither will ever be an “only” child, like me.
“We’re blessed, sweetheart,” he says, kissing my forehead. “I’ll go get her. Our second little girl.”
“Wait,” I say.
I tell Solomon about my decision to name our first daughter for Mother. Throughout the pregnancy Solomon, wary and cautious, wanted to cut the ties that bind. The ties that strangle, he’d said, at first, with humor. This time he seems both gentle and fierce. “How could you want that, Claire? How could you?”
I insist. I win the right to name my daughter Penelope, a Phyrric victory. Solomon asks to choose a name for the second one. It is his turn, after all. He names her Hope— a name I’ve never considered— a name that captures the flicker of the feeling in my heart, on my lips, breasts and fingertips— a name that holds a promise for a new future. Hope. She has a large bald spot on the top of her head with fuzz around it like a tonsured monk; people will mistake her for a boy. She looks bloodless, sickly. Her fontanel thumps like a disembodied heart.
Another doctor now stands at the foot of my bed pressing a clipboard into his narrow chest. There’s been what is called Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome, he explains. Inside of my body, Penelope took Hope’s blood supply, leaving her anemic, asthmatic, wrinkled, and translucent. She doesn’t have that waxy coating when the nurse passes her to me; maybe she was already washed, but Hope has no particular smell. My attachment to her will have to come from my heart, not my instinct; the heart is a much cleaner place.
“Sleep,” Solomon says, “it’s okay.” As if I need permission. I wake hours later to overhear his mother whisper to him, “What kind of woman . . .?” I wonder if she looks at me differently now, the daughter of a person who killed herself two days ago. How could she not? Solomon consoles me, “She feels terribly for you.” I don’t respond. I might have said, true, she has pity, but there will never be respect. It would have been worse if I explained that Mother had expected me to rescue her, had begged.
Solomon brushes my matted hair away from my eyes.
“It’s okay,” I say.
“Good job, Claire,” his mother says. “You’re a real trooper.”
“Oh,” I say, suppressing an urge to salute.
Thankfully, she leaves to buy coffee. As I lay there, my body turns against me. Suddenly, it belongs to my children. I become an efficient group of interrelated parts: breasts that instantly fill with milk at the soft sounds of infant stirrings, sore nipples that leak onto bras and harden at the clamping and tugging of hungry mouths, and a distended uterus that contracts painfully at each urgent suck. I finally understand the purpose of my once small breasts, now feverish globes. They will never again be sexual, I think, and it bothers me that they ever had been. I flinch at Solomon’s respectful caresses. Little by little, I take things away from him. I clip my nails until they bleed and chop my hair with kitchen shears. I throw away the make-up I hardly ever use and wear eyeglasses instead of contact lenses, the ones Mother used to insert for me, her sweet-stale breath filling my nostrils. My body screams, first and foremost, you are a mother. A mother, I hope, unlike my own. How could she? But after all, before I became a mother, I had been a daughter. How could mothering stand a chance?
Maybe all mothers have preferences. I try so hard to love them equally. To compensate, I feed Penelope the fuller breast. Laying in the dark, my little family fast asleep, I picture the starlight migration of the indigo bunting and the impossible flight of the thistle butterfly soaring above Saharan sands, leaving scores of dead in their wake. But humans have choice. Please, can’t we choose?
Or, maybe, certain curses block choice. They even block instinct. Solomon was right about Penelope’s name. With every fiber in my body, I try to love her, my firstborn. Like a madwoman, I mutter prayers while scrambling through chaotic days, though I don’t believe in transformation, salvation or redemption. No one else would have guessed. No one would have suspected a thing. But from the earliest age, she knew, Penelope knew.
Copyright Allouche 2020