by Andromeda Romano-Lax
Excerpt from Chapter 21
Seven and a half months later, they handed him to me: Albert William Rayner Watson. Billy. But not Billy yet. Only, for now, a red-faced, puffy-eyed worm, with little threads of dark hair plastered against a wrinkly scalp. I was still fighting my way out of the ether clouds when they put him in my arms, wrapped up tight in a striped hospital blanket. I remember looking around and thinking, “Is this grip strength or vision we’re testing today? Where’s the nurse who’s supposed to be setting things up?”
I was lost. I would be lost for weeks and for years. Because I had not intended to be a mother, certainly not so soon. Possibly not ever.
When I’d informed John about the pregnancy, he’d been magnanimous. These things happened. Make the best of it. While I suffered through a hot New York summer, waddling to our apartment and the corner store and the laundry and back—John gone, most of the time, working his way up the ad-man ladder—he grew increasingly comfortable with the idea. Excited, even. There was nothing better than a blank slate.
I needed that reassurance, since my own family had taken the pregnancy news badly. My parents, I now believe, had thought the marriage would discreetly dissolve if we had no children in the first two or three years, and now that such an easy exit wasn’t possible, my father went into a prolonged funk, attended by my mother, who had said, the only time she came to New York, “You’ll have to give him time. He doesn’t know what to make of all this now.”
At the moment, in the hospital bed, I didn’t know what to make of it all either. Not the distance of my family, and not the high expectations upheld by John, who seemed certain I’d be a better mother than Mary had been, though he disregarded mothering in general. It was like saying my temporary maternal condition was a disease that could be contained. I’d be the better kind of disease: the manageable, treatable kind. Not a chronic condition.
When I’d informed John about the pregnancy, he’d been magnanimous. These things happened. Make the best of it.The baby was out of me, and that was a start. My distended abdomen was a pillowy mess of floating organs, rearranged by the trauma of expulsion. My backside ached, and I was glad I hadn’t the strength to pull down the covers and peel away the absorbent cloths wadded up between my legs, to see what damage had been wrought. I was still bleeding, though the nurses said it was normal. But here was something new: my breasts had ballooned and were hot to the touch, so full they seemed ready to split the thin, mottled skin barely encasing them. The left in particular was rock hard and pulsing uncomfortably, a delta of thin, blue veins visible on the stretched skin.
A nurse entered the room with the two-day-old infant in her arms and lowered him, for the moment, into a bassinet in the corner. Good. Keep him there. Silent, sleeping, attended by a nurse who knew what she was doing.
Where was John? He’d been in the room the last time I’d opened my eyes.
“I’m afraid there might be infection,” I said to the nurse, who was standing at the far side of the room, studying a clipboard.
She didn’t look up. “Vaginal?”
“No. My breasts. One more than the other. But maybe both.”
“Why do you think they’re infected?”
“They feel . . . different.”
“Well, they should.”
She came closer, and I could read her name badge: Rebecca.
Familiar. My mother’s name. Was that the only reason?
“It’s only your milk coming in,” she said.
It’s strange to say, but there was some confusion about this. There’d been so much to sort out during the last few weeks, and John and I had danced around the issue of breast-feeding, both of us preferring to avoid the topic. It was much easier to use our limited time together to debate baby names. It was easier to study classifieds for the various houses John was considering renting for us; I wanted to be as close to an urban center as possible, while he wanted trees and a good yard. It was easier to flip-flop on whether we should hire some kind of home nurse or helper, and how, and when. We wouldn’t accept just anyone, of course. John’s firm ideas made for some high and particular standards not easy to spell out in twenty words or less.
“I hadn’t decided whether I would breast-feed,” I told the nurse, who finally looked up from her chart.
“Well, your body isn’t interested in waiting for a decision. It’s gone ahead and started making the milk.”
“One part cow, nine parts devil—is that how you’re feeling now?”She came closer and stood alongside my bed. “One part cow, nine parts devil—is that how you’re feeling now?” Rebecca.
John had been the one to make that disparaging comment about wet nurses, during one of our Albert sessions more than a year earlier.
Rebecca had been a new nurse standing in the corner: face grim, especially once Albert started sobbing. Yes, I did feel like one part cow, now. Never mind about the devil.
I said, “You worked at Hopkins?”
“That’s right. And now you have your very own baby to experiment with. How interesting.”
She didn’t sound interested. She sounded darkly amused, glad to see me uncomfortable, unable to escape my own biology, and paying for something I’d done.
“Isn’t there something I can take, to make the milk go away?”
“Here’s a curious thing,” she said. “The baby himself can make some of the milk go away, if it’s being over full with milk that’s giving you pain now.”
“But then what?”
“Then your body will make more milk. But things will even out.”
I shrank away from her, my arms tight against my sides, chest throbbing.
She crossed her arms loosely over her own chest. “We’ll try some compresses later. Crushed cabbage leaves are helpful.”
Cabbage? I wanted my mother, and at the same time didn’t want her to see me like this, unknowing and uncertain, and using old folk remedies suitable to the nineteenth century.
Rebecca crossed the room and picked up the baby. “Here’s the big boy. William, you’ve decided to call him?”
“Billy,” I said, surrendering only after she pressed the blanketed bundle within an inch of me. My arms reacting in delayed fashion, closing around his blanket-bound body only at the last moment.
“Look, he recognized his own name. He turned toward you as soon as you said it.”
“That isn’t recognition,” I insisted.
“Well, he heard a familiar voice. And he smelled you. He’s hungry.”
“Here . . . I can’t . . .” I stammered, but she was already at work, pushing back my pillow, rearranging the sheet, unbuttoning the top of my nightgown. I turned him—“That’s right,” said Rebecca—and pulled him toward my aching breast, feeling his surprising strength as he rooted around, pushing his face into me, deciding for us both.
He seemed both powerfully determined and horribly fragile, likely to suffocate or shatter, likely to die in my incompetent care. In a flash I had a vision of him rolling out of my arms, off the side of the bed, an image so terrible I squeezed him closer to my chest, despite the ache.But he didn’t know anything a baby was supposed to know. His mouth failed to grasp the nipple immediately. His tongue worked at it, and seemed to reject it, as if he’d tasted something bitter. He pulled away and redoubled his strength and charged against my breast again. I was sure he couldn’t breathe, the way his mouth and tiny nostrils were buried in my skin. He seemed both powerfully determined and horribly fragile, likely to suffocate or shatter, likely to die in my incompetent care. In a flash I had a vision of him rolling out of my arms, off the side of the bed, an image so terrible I squeezed him closer to my chest, despite the ache.
“Billy,” I said again, more surely this time. And to the nurse, Rebecca: “He’s not getting it. There’s something wrong with him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” she said. “He’ll get it.”
I felt the heat of frustration as the baby raised one clenched red fist, which had broken free of the blanket, and beat it against the taut white drum of my breast. Then, for a moment, he managed to latch on and suck. A moment of relief spread in radiant waves, only to be pierced, in that briefly rosy bull’s-eye, by a sharp thin arrow of pain that ran from nipple to spine. All my muscles tensed, and down in my uterus there was a deep postpartum contraction, a ripple that rolled up and over me like an enormous wake created by some distant passing ship, or something bigger, a tidal wave. I reared back into the pillow, squirming away from him, and the baby lost his suction. His head waggled back and forth in a fit of frustration.
“Stop fighting,” Rebecca said, and I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or the baby or both of us. “Calm down, Mrs. Watson. Take a deep breath.”
I tried, puffing in and out, flooded by sensations and memories of sensations: of holding slippery baby bodies; of watching the strain of a newborn as it clung to an iron rod, about to fall; of feeling the hot tears of little Albert, desperately pressing into my chest; and of other babies, too, rooting and twisting and flailing and seeking, but none with as much determination as this one. This one, who was intent on mastering this situation, mastering me, and yet feeble and easily snuffed out.
“He’s going to starve,” I said, unable to contain the shrill melodrama in my own voice. “Bring something for him. Get some . . . get some help.”
“He isn’t starving,” she said. “You don’t need help.”
“Tell me what to do. Get a doctor.”
“You certainly don’t need a doctor.”
“Find someone who knows.”
“You know—a good deal more than you think.”
“I don’t,” I said, near tears.
“You only need some time and a little dose of common sense. He’s a beautiful, healthy baby boy, Mrs. Watson. You’ll be careful. You’ll do fine. And he’s strong.”
She paused a moment, her voice shifting, in a way I didn’t care for at all, from a tone of comfort to one of command. “Listen to me and get ahold of yourself. You won’t hurt him.”
* * *
Copyright 2016 by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Used with permission from Soho Press.