The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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My husband, John, calls me a good mother. He says this with a glint of unease in his eyes, as though he is telling a lie or working a charm. He calls during his coffee breaks — he doesn’t drink coffee, so he has time to talk — and asks, “How is Clint?” and when I say, “Fine,” or, “Sleeping,” or, “Alive,” he asks, “And how are you, sweetie?” He’s learned that sweetie is a potent word. Still, my answers vary.
I know if he dared, he’d go next door to Humpback Ales after work and drink until I became bearable, which would be at least two hours for him, because he’s a slow drinker. But he’s home every day at 5:07 because he loves Clint, who is named after the ideal country lane where my husband grew up. He wants a similar childhood for his son, who may not be getting it.
Sometimes I answer my husband in what he calls a “truthful” way. I tell him what the baby and I did, how long his naps were, how much he ate. John likes me to be precise: three tablespoons of apricots, a bowl of rice cereal (that smelled of paste), one teething biscuit — nothing too small, nothing requiring teeth. John is very concerned about choking. Once, Clint did choke. I was feeding him, and suddenly he was gagging and turning blue, and his eyes were watering all down his messy cheeks. John was home and swooped him from his highchair and turned him upside down before I could blink. Then he yelled at me — as he was crying and clutching Clint — for not reacting quickly enough. Like I don’t save that baby from death twenty times a day when he’s not around. John says I’m careless with sharp objects; he probably thinks I’ll let Clint run with scissors as soon as he becomes self-propelling. It’s not really carelessness, though. More a curiosity about the properties of the knife’s edge. When Clint was born, I cut the umbilical cord: it was strange to sever the thing that tethered us and to feel nothing.
But sometimes I answer my husband in a different way. I tell him what I’m really thinking, which doesn’t have much to do with diapers and dusting and what to cook for dinner. I’m thinking: What if I fall down the basement stairs? What if John just left for work and won’t be home for nine hours? There I lie, head smashed to a bloody yolk on the concrete floor, breasts mindlessly leaking milk as the baby screams. Or sometimes I’m thinking: What if I just leave? What if I take a bus ride with dirty strangers into gray twilight and get a hotel room whose door opens only onto endless hallways? I would wake every night to a phantom baby’s cries, in a hot tangle of gritty sheets.
On days when I answer him that way, John walks around the house with the rabbity look in his eyes — twitchy, startled, dull — and pleads with me to tell him the truth. He doesn’t understand that those are the days when I am.
Today when John calls, Clint is sitting in his blue bouncy chair on the kitchen floor. His eyes are dark, welling pools, and he shudders with the hiccups that follow a long cry. I’m glad John can’t hear this, because he doesn’t understand that sometimes babies just cry. They haven’t necessarily been poked with a diaper pin or shaken or dropped.
“Hi, sweetie,” he says. “How’s your morning?”
I can hear voices in the background, the bell jangling on the front door, the photocopier’s racket.
“Fine,” I say from my perch on the kitchen stool. Out the window and across the field is a thin line of spruce trees, and through their branches the ocean glitters. We live on a small Maine island that tugs at its narrow bridge as if it longs to drift into the deeper Atlantic.
“What’s Clint up to?”
“Where?” I hear a sharpness in his question, like he thinks I’ve kept the baby in a cupboard all morning or balanced him on the brink of some household precipice.
“In his bouncy seat on the floor next to me.”
“Oh, good. Got any plans today?”
“Let’s see. Nursing, napping, changing. Maybe a little crying.” That last one is a jab to get back at him for thinking I put the baby in a cupboard.
“You should go for a walk. Maybe go see Jana at the store.” Jana is my sister-in-law.
“Do I have to take the baby?”
“Kidding. Maybe we will later. It’s nap time.” Is there any time that isn’t nap time, or just before nap time, or just after nap time? Is there any space that is not occupied by Clint or my thoughts of him?
“OK, sweetie. Call me if you need anything.”
“We’ll be fine. See you.”
I say that every day: We’ll be fine. But I don’t believe it.
John sells insurance — and buys a lot of it, too. He works down by the harbor for a paunchy man named Joe, who took over the business from his father, also named Joe, who took over from his father named Joe. People whose insurance needs have spanned the careers of two Joes hardly blinked when one was carried out and the next took over. John sells safety to those who have too much to lose. His sales pitch skates the thin line between setting his clients at ease and reminding them of the forces of chaos that yearn to destroy their boats, houses, wives. I think this is how his clients see him: a steady young man who knows the price tag of their fears. (“She’s priceless,” they say of the boat, the house, the wife, but eventually they settle on a number.) If I worked there, I would tell them the worst things in the world are already inside the house, behind shut and locked doors.
It’s like a drug, the adrenaline of disaster. I picture falling down the basement steps so clearly that it can’t be a dream: My body is heavy and falls faster than thought, and the sixth stair, edged with splinters, comes toward my cheek like a board someone is swinging at me. I hear my baby cry from a long way off, but I am trapped in something wet and thick and can’t reach him. The basement steps lead down into my future — dim, cobwebby, and uneven — where I lie, twisted, taking my last breath through shards of bone in my lungs. John will marry minty-mouthed Rosemary Nadeau (rhymes with meadow), who works in his office and sings soprano in the church choir. She’ll wipe Clint’s drool and clean the cheese paste from his crevices. Already she stands in a pool of sun at the top of the stairs, holding my baby on her hip. His tiny hand pats her hair.
“Just hold on to the railing,” John tells me. And I do, usually.
Because we grew up in the same town, John thought he knew me. My mother and I moved to Maine when I was a girl. She was running north, as if what was chasing her could be left behind. Nobody brought casseroles to welcome us or stopped by with the name of the local pediatrician or the most reliable mechanic. In Maine you can live next door to someone for decades and never do anything but lift your fingers off the steering wheel in a casual wave when passing on the street. You can live on properties separated by a scraggly spruce tree and forty feet of weeds and know nothing of what goes on inside each other’s houses. People here keep warm by holding their tongues.
Because I was pretty and well-behaved, John thought I was good. But I was simply in the habit of doing what I was told: Stand still. Shut up. Stop crying. My mother said college for me would be a waste of money, since she’d already gotten me a job at the gas station — and where were her cigarettes? I wouldn’t need a car, and she could use my employee discount. So I walked a half mile down broken asphalt to the gas station, to be embalmed in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. I rang up bruised apples, corn chips, and five gallons of unleaded without thinking I had a choice. Though what else I might have chosen remains unclear to me.
John didn’t whistle at me or try to get me to laugh about how bad he’d been on the weekend or brush against me behind the rack of Slim Jims. Instead he bought orange juice and a pastry and asked me about the books I kept stashed under the newspapers by the cash register. His eyes were brown and calm.
“Hi, Hannah,” he’d say in his kind voice. “Dostoyevsky, huh?” Or sometimes just, “Beautiful day.”
He thought I was cute and as sweet as a Danish in a cellophane pouch. I think he also found me mildly alarming, though the rabbity look was less pronounced then.
“You’re not like anyone I know,” he said, with just a ghost of reproach.
I was ten years old and walking home from school. A squirrel zipped into the road, paused, then darted under the wheel of a passing car. The driver — the mother of one of my classmates — covered her mouth in mock apology, then waved to me and drove on. The squirrel’s head was crushed, one eye popped whole from its socket, attached only by a twisted red thread. The eye looked at me, and I stared back until my mother stalked up the street, slapped me out of my trance, and shoved me home.
I told John that story on our twenty-fifth date, the one before the twenty-sixth, when he asked me to marry him. There was a long hiatus between those two dates, as if he was thinking about the implications for his future happiness.
On date number twenty-six we ate cake with plastic forks on a splintery bench by the pond. The gravel at our feet was green with algae and slick with goose droppings, and the geese cruised the water’s dull surface, tracing out menacing patterns. John led me down a trail that wound around the pond. I didn’t know quite what to expect, as our previous dates had all been indoors: the bowling alley, the pizza parlor, the movie theater, where he wouldn’t stop kissing me. As we walked by the spot where the brown water sluiced over the dam, I thought, He is going to push me in. I heard my mother’s voice singing a murderous ballad, her kind of lullaby: He threw her in deep water, where he knew that she would drown. All that kissing was leading somewhere.
But instead John went down on one knee in a mud puddle. I said yes quickly and pulled him to his feet. Our lips were dark with bittersweet chocolate, and the mud on his knee left a stain on my white sundress.
He wanted to have babies right away, so he bought a house for us, and I painted every room yellow. I don’t know what I wanted — a little quiet, some fresh air, to get rid of my ugly and unpronounceable surname, a strong shoulder to lay my head on in the evenings, new dish towels that didn’t belong to my mother. Every morning I drank my coffee with my left hand while John held my right.
As far back as I can recall, where memories are ragged and dreamlike, my mother pinched me black-and-blue in places that didn’t show. Her voice droned furiously, like a television playing reruns at an unbearable volume. Now I swam in a stillness I’d never imagined could exist between two people in the same house.
I thought, I will never need to speak above a whisper.
John asked me if I wanted to go to college. Probably his older sister, Jana, had put him up to it. She — and the rest of his large, well-educated family — seemed friendly, but I knew what they said to each other: He married that girl from the gas station. You’ve seen her mother, right?
I didn’t know what I should study, and John was no help. “Whatever you’re interested in,” he said, as though it was no struggle at all to imagine a different future.
“Maybe,” I said, shrugging.
“Only if you want to, Hannah,” he said with a smile.
I took a part-time job at the fabric store and put off applying to college until each semester’s deadline had passed. The hours in that quiet place felt like a gift. I learned to sew. The bedroom next to ours, which was supposed to be a nursery, filled up with a cutting table, a sewing machine, and baskets of fabric. I sat there in the late afternoon with the warm, thick sun shining on me, my hands turning bright pieces of fabric into quilts, pillows, and wall hangings almost without a thought.
Every month the blood would come with a rush of something that felt a little like relief, a little like fear.
John is tall enough to stand behind me and rest his chin on my head. He likes to do this. I do not know how I feel about it: cherished or pinned down.
Once, when he was standing that way, I asked him, “What if I never get pregnant?”
“What?” he asked, as though he hadn’t heard me.
“What if I never get pregnant?”
“You will,” he said.
“But what if I don’t?”
He just walked away, and the top of my head was suddenly cold and untethered.
I was pregnant the next month, wretched and sick and wondering what could be growing inside me to make me feel so terrible. It couldn’t be good. As the weeks passed, my belly swelled, but the rest of me seemed to shrivel around it, my tiny arms and legs waving. “I look like a tick,” I said.
John smoothed my pale hair and told me I was more beautiful than he’d thought possible — which, when you think about it, is a weaselly sort of compliment.
When Clint was born, I screamed in a voice that had never come out of my throat before, though it sounded familiar. It was my mother’s scream, identical in pitch, timbre, and volume. Apparently the entirety of my childhood had been as painful to her as giving birth.
After Clint was born, I couldn’t seem to stop screaming. Everything plagued me: my own tears, the smallness and squirminess of the baby, the number of objects in my house that were perfect for bashing in his tiny melon head.
Yesterday Clint fussed from dawn to dusk. He whimpered. He made mewling coughs. He stiffened and sobbed.
When John got home, he lingered on the porch, as usual, arranged his shoes and briefcase in the entryway, hung up his coat and brushed off obscure hairs and particles of dust, studied the loose doorknob as if deciding how to fix it.
“Why do you just stand out there?” I yelled when he finally came inside.
He kissed me on the cheek and took the baby.
I long for my husband so desperately all day; then when he comes home, I am immediately furious with him.
“Go for a walk, Hannah,” he said gently, “before it gets dark.”
Go for a walk. That’s his solution to every problem. I made a face at him, through my tears.
“Well, tell me, then,” he said. “What do you want to do?”
He actually wants to know, I thought as he stood there, holding the baby in the crook of his arm, his eyebrows drawn together not in anger but concern.
“I don’t know,” I said.
But I went for a walk, even though what I think I really wanted was for John to put that baby in a bureau and quiet me with his hands and lick the salty tears from my lips. House lights winked on as dusk fell. I walked quickly, trying not to think. My mind, left to itself, is untrustworthy. That’s what makes days with a wordless baby so perilous.
I walked to the end of our road and back. When I came in, John was feeding Clint applesauce. Slushy globs splattered the floor around the highchair. The baby was smiling and kicking his bare feet. John looked up, his expression hopeful, and said, “Feel better?” I began to cook dinner. Both of them stared sidelong at me all evening, like I was something that might disappear if you looked directly at it.
John always tells me he loves me just before he falls asleep: a nightly ritual. For a long time that night, I watched the rise and fall of his chest, thinking what a small raft are the words I love you.
This morning starts in the milky light just after dawn. John brings me the baby, who wiggles for a while, then settles into my arms. At the sharp tug of his mouth on my breast, the milk flows out, prickling. We doze until John leaves for work. Clint wakes dazed, sweaty, and fretful. I distract him with brightly colored toys, books, bananas, a bath, but nothing soothes him for long. I spend the next few hours trying to get him to sleep for more than twenty minutes, a span of time in which I can hardly muster the strength to do anything but breathe shallow, inaudible breaths. Whenever he wakes, I am hostage to his shattering voice, which seems like the same one I’ve heard all my life. There’s no way to reason with that voice. I stand at the kitchen counter with a knife, wondering what I should cut: myself, my baby, or the loaf of bread on the board.
At one o’clock I buckle Clint into his jogging stroller and flee. Gravity pulls us down the hill at a run, stones sliding under my feet. The stroller veers sideways for a heart-clutching second. When the hill levels out, I push the panic down with slow breaths.
From here I can see the narrow channel winding through the mud flats as the tide creeps in. Above, the fall sky is the flat color of forgetting: a blue so thick it’s impossible to picture the bitter months ahead, when each day is just a dim pall of gray light on snow.
The baby has calmed, too, and is making wet noises as he investigates his cheeks. Farther off I hear the whir of tires on the metal grating of the bridge, the drone of a lobster-boat engine, the high calls of gulls. Through the branches along the road, I glimpse a clearing like a green room, with sun-dappled walls of leaves and a moss-carpeted floor. I could step through the trees and lay Clint on the moss. He would touch its unfamiliar texture, and his laughter would bubble up as clear as a spring. But I continue down this hard road and don’t turn aside.
A mile later we clatter across the bridge. Below the grating the water is green-black and ropy. Every time I drive over the bridge, I imagine the great, wallowing splash the car would make as it landed in the channel, how I would wrench Clint from his car seat and swim with him gripped under one arm toward the distant glimmer of the surface. The current would seize my legs, and my lungs would fill with frigid water. All buoyancy lost, we would sink into gray-green depths. Sometimes, though, I would escape through the broken windshield and crawl ashore alone.
Over the bridge is the general store, cobbled into a corner of the old sardine cannery. The door thumps shut behind me. John’s sister Jana arranges a pile of receipts near the register. Her smooth brown hair is pulled into a knot; she looks a lot nicer from behind.
“Hi, Jana,” I say.
She turns, a paper clip between her lips, the skin around her mouth crosshatched with lines. John says she never smoked; she’s just addicted to a smoldering irritation. If he was here, she would steer him into an aisle to talk, but she only nods and waves a receipt at me.
There’s just one other customer, a vaguely familiar woman who wanders the narrow aisles, looking up at me with a half-startled expression, as if trying to remember the fifth item from the list she left on her kitchen table. She’s pretty in a pale, remote sort of way. She raises her hand to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, and I realize I’m doing it, too. We turn away from each other at the same time.
The store smells faintly of bait, fryer grease, and fir sachets. Everything is twice the price and twice as old as in the supermarket down the road.
The pale, quiet woman disappears, but a minute later we spot each other again. She stops, as though she is going to speak. Then I realize I am staring into a mirror on the back wall. There is nobody else here. I didn’t even recognize myself.
I buy an apple and a small bit of rope looped into a cloverleaf.
“They’re coasters,” Jana says. “People usually buy two or four.”
I am planning to let Clint chew on it, but I don’t tell her that.
“Maybe I’ll have a bottle of water, too.”
My maybe seems to annoy her. “Yes or no?” she asks, tapping a bottle on the counter.
Clint starts to twist and fuss in his seat, and I hand him the coaster as I fish in the pocket of the stroller for my wallet. Jana comes around the counter and crouches in front of him, tickling the underside of his chin until he laughs.
“I could keep him here with me for a while,” she says without looking up. “It’s pretty dead. Two people came in for lunch, and you and Clint make four. I’d like the company.”
For a minute I think about saying yes. I think about the things I should cook, clean, and organize, and about the material in my sewing machine: blue canvas and silk. The needle is down, impaling them, and the seam has been an inch long for months. I’m not sure I remember how to work the levers, buttons, and dials. I think about the silence and how it would press against me. What if I don’t want him back?
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe next time.”
“OK.” She stands up. “You two have a good afternoon. Got any plans?”
“No, just a nap. It’s been a rough morning.” I feel my voice catch. I am naked in front of her. She knows how I watched the dust fall through the sunlight as the baby turned red with anguish.
“Bye, then,” she says in a tired voice.
Near the door I say it, as quiet as dawn: “Help.”
There’s no reply. Did she hear me?
I push the stroller outside and maneuver Clint out of the straps and buckles to check his diaper. He kicks his legs and chews determinedly on the rope.
Walking home is almost more than I can bear. The stroller is like a block of stone on greased skids. It would be such a relief to let it slide away.
Clouds thicken in the west until the blue sky becomes a thin sliver on the horizon, then vanishes. Wind gusts across the road, blowing the blanket off the baby’s lap. He falls asleep on the last hill and startles awake as the thunder begins.
The rest of the afternoon is the same: thunder, wind, rain, crying. The five-minute nap he took while I pushed him up the hill tricks him out of any more sleep. Eventually I cry, too, and Clint looks at me with saucer eyes and answers back with a flat, panicked wail.
I pick him up and open the kitchen door. Within a minute rain is dripping from my nose, along with snot and tears, and my bare legs are papered with wet, windblown leaves. Clint looks somewhat calmer outside, where other, less-alarming, noises drown out the ones I am making.
Across the road is a hayfield, mowed into a giant spiral of golden stubble. It winds around to a flat-topped granite boulder at the center. I walk through the field, and the rough grass scratches my legs. The rock is a pedestal, a frame, an altar: a place to put something important. Clint’s eyes shift from my face to the rock and back. At first I am afraid to do it. Then I lay the baby there, carefully, into a hollow on the top of the boulder. It holds him like a cradle. I don’t want him to roll off and land with his soft cheeks in the brittle stubble of the field, to scrabble on his stomach until his face is torn and he breathes in dirt. I just want him away.
I watch him look up into the rain, twitching and blinking every time a drop hits his eyes. He never turns his head toward me. I walk away and leave him there on the rock, and I think I will die.
A small cry floats to me on the wind. Back in the yellow house, I sleep.
I wake up and remember. Oh, God, how long has it been? How long has my baby been lying outside in the storm? I struggle out of the quilt, which has glued itself to my wet clothes and muddy shoes. The kitchen door is still open, and the rain has slowed. I stumble across gravel, over weeds and grass. The sky is violet, edging toward dusk. The leaves of the birches flicker in the wind. Alive, alive. Let him be alive.
What I see on the boulder is this: two curves of eyelashes against pale cheeks, lips the same purple as the sky, a blue-tinged arm escaped from its wet blanket. I whisper his name, then, “Please” — hardly a word, just a pinch of air. When I lift him in my arms, I feel a tiny, warm breath on my neck.
Headlights sweep up the hill and across the field. My husband’s car turns in to our driveway.
There is no place to hide a soaking baby.
The adrenaline doesn’t drive me to action. My legs are slow and heavy as cement. The front door is standing open, and John will walk in and see puddles of water and wet leaves on the kitchen floor; our bed, muddy and littered with weeds; and an empty crib. He may think at first that someone has stolen our beautiful, dark-eyed baby — Who wouldn’t want him? John might say — and that I rushed out into the storm to save him at great peril to myself. But that story will fall apart, and we will be left with the truth. Whatever way I tell it, it is the same. John stands at the open kitchen door.
I call, “Help! Help!” as I walk toward him. He lifts his arms. I think he is reaching out to take Clint from me, but he puts his arms around us both.
I read Laura Freudig’s story “Mother and Child” [April 2018] while nursing my three-week-old daughter at two in the morning. I was in pain from having had a C-section, exhausted from nearly constant breast-feeding, and emotionally raw from hormonal changes. Being a new mom has challenged me in more ways than I ever imagined. Freudig’s story is one of the few that dares to tell the truth about just how difficult motherhood can be.
My daughter is almost two months old now, and I bask in the smiles and coos she is beginning to share with me, but the days can still be long and hard in the most mundane ways. I appreciate that Freudig’s story conveys the more painful facets of the love between mother and child.