The Tortoise and the Hare
My grandmother told me 80 million times when I was young that I would be a good mother, and I stupidly believed her, since I had an easy time babysitting. I could always trick kids into distraction, get them to stop fighting, whining, whatever. I was a master with other people’s children. When my own child was born, I fell apart. I forgot everything I’d ever learned about babies except that she could stop breathing at any moment. My husband took to sleeping in the guest room, and I didn’t blame him. If I could have, I’d have slept somewhere else, too. Mostly, my husband didn’t understand why I got angry at my five-years-dead mother all over again, after Shana was born.
“Aren’t you ever going to let it go?” he asked. “Your mother was only human.”
“I was helpless, I was small, as small as Shana. I know now what it’s like to be someone’s mother.”
“She was only nineteen when you were born.”
“So? I’m only twenty-six. What does age have to do with it?”
“It was a different time. Expectations were different.”
“What do you know about it? You come from that fucking Ozzie-and-Harriet background.” He had no idea, none at all. He didn’t get it; he couldn’t get it. You cannot see what you have never seen. Your mind cannot recognize the pattern and identify it. My husband’s parents had not caused him any major trauma, ever. It was like trying to explain the solar system’s position in the Milky Way Galaxy to someone who believed the world was flat, had edges you could fall off, and was centered under God’s hand-held bowl of stars. He sighed.
“You’re right. But I know it’s not healthy to stay angry about things you can’t fix.” It was to become his endless refrain.
His mother stayed home and took care of him, and his brothers and sisters. I was the only child of a divorced and badly-remarried working mom, growing up in the first generation of latch-key kids, addicted to the soaps and the talk shows and Star Trek. I’d turn the air conditioner down icy-cold (against strict instructions to keep it on “Low Cool”), lie stretched out perfectly straight like a contented slug in my purple beanbag chair, and rejoice in the house’s stillness. When my mother and my stepfather got home, the horror movie started. Mostly I’m still mad because my mother was an unrepentant drunk. She didn’t take care of me, she wasn’t my friend: she was the enemy.
My own daughter, Shana, was filled with dancing, and when she was a tiny baby I nicknamed her “the tortoise,” since the image was in such sharp contrast to her true nature. Shana moved as quickly and easily as spring wind blows through tree limbs, her body twirling round and round like fresh green leaves until she would laugh with dizziness. Even when she’d done something she wasn’t supposed to and I was mad, she’d break into some cockamamie imitation of a Broadway show tune and start high-stepping, and despite myself, I’d laugh. I’d bite my lip to keep a straight face, but she always knew. Not once did she ever get spanked.
The worst part is, the entire month before Shana died, I was living in a motel. Things at home had gotten too gruesome. My husband wouldn’t allow Shana to spend any nights with me at the motel, because the kiddie divorce counselor didn’t think it was a good idea. I went along with him because I felt so guilty for leaving. When she was in the hospital, in the coma, I slept with her every night — I had missed her so much at the motel. I’ll never forget the look on her small face when she got hit by the car out in front of the house: she was laughing; she literally didn’t know what hit her.
Funny thing is, it was somehow worse than if she’d seen the car coming at her and gotten scared. Of course, I secretly blamed the accident on my husband. And of course, he secretly blamed it on me. Neither one of us could look the other in the eye after that. He wanted nothing to do with her while she was in the coma, though he cleared out her room afterwards. I took two sleeping pills and when I woke up, it was as if she’d never lived in her room. Everything was bagged. “Don’t throw it out,” I said.
“Put in the attic. Please.”
“We might have another child someday.”
“No,” he said, but he did as I asked. I just wanted him to cry with me. I wanted to try understand what it was like to be our dead daughter’s surviving father; I wanted him to try to understand what it was like to be her mother. I wanted us to make allowances for each other’s frailties. Neither of us knew how.
Shana was born in a brick house, in our king-sized bed, under the supervision of a plump, red-headed midwife who wore the dowdiest clothes I’d ever seen — but that made me trust her. She cared nothing for fashion trends, only for delivering healthy babies. My husband was out of town when my water broke, since we hadn’t expected Shana for another week, but he caught the first flight home. I had wanted him to cut the cord, but I did it instead. I thought of eating the placenta and laughed. The midwife took it away in a Ziploc bag.
“Look at that little rosebud mouth,” the midwife said as she wiped Shana with warm, damp washcloths.
All I could see was my baby’s crushed nose. I didn’t know then that it would unfurl in a matter of hours. She looked like a boxer who’d had a bad fight! Being born is, apparently, no picnic. She’d been stuck in the birth canal for hours. She whimpered quietly when the midwife laid her on my chest. She had no interest in nursing — so of course I immediately worried she’d starve to death.
Despite our physical closeness, Shana was always emotionally closer to her father than me. I was of a piece with the wallpaper, the carpet, the furniture. Finally, after her father and I separated and I wasn’t just part of the wallpaper or the carpet or the furniture any more, she started missing me too. Until then, I truly believed she did not love me. Don’t tell me all children love their mothers — I know it’s not true. I didn’t love mine, for example, not after the age of eight.
As a child, I even dreamed I killed my mother. Years later, my developmental psychology teacher told me I couldn’t possibly have dreamed such a thing, I must be mistaken. But I knew I had. I had stabbed her with a large kitchen knife, then thrown the knife into the lake out back of my old house. Many times I consciously, very consciously, wanted to kill her. I saw the same ferocious glare of death in my tiny daughter’s eyes, too, but unlike a child, I understood and forgave: it was my job.
I’ve been bleeding for three days. I feel like a bad person for hoping it’s a miscarriage. On the other hand, since I’ve already scheduled an abortion, I feel a miscarriage would be the best possible luck. Julie says maybe I should have it. She doesn’t know I’ve already ruled that out. Though I have enough money to raise a kid on my own, I don’t have the energy, mental or physical. I had a hard enough time with Shana, and I only had her for six years, and my ex-husband helped when he wasn’t too busy.
It was stupid, really, really stupid. The kind of mistake that teenagers make, or virgins. See, Benny thought he was sterile. His wife had only gotten pregnant twice the whole time they were married, and both times she’d had miscarriages. He wasn’t even sure the pregnancies were his. She cheated on him a lot. Anyway, he had convinced himself he was sterile. And the funny thing is, I believed him. I am usually a skeptic. But he was always so sure about everything; it blows my mind. My ex-husband, when he found out that I believed Benny to be sterile, asked me how I could be so stupid. I didn’t feel stupid; I felt sheltered. Benny told me he couldn’t get me pregnant, and I thought, how compassionate of him. He seemed like the most considerate man alive. I had sex with such perfect confidence.
The orgasms were the other issue. I’d never had one before that wasn’t self-administered. Everybody thought I was so fucked-up to leave my ex-husband. They didn’t know how bad our sex life was. I had sex with him only because he got so depressed and grouchy otherwise. Irritable and angry. It was awful. I’d give him blow jobs, hand jobs, anything to avoid intercourse. Maybe we did it once a month, on average.
Once, in the car, Benny and I almost came from just kissing. Why is this even remotely interesting? Death, that’s what the real issue is. Death comes too soon, and I’m bringing it to something even sooner. This isn’t a baby mouse we’re casually discussing, you know. Benny and his joints and antique Time magazines. How dumb I was, sitting there getting high with an idiot like that! Benny looked like some kind of young Father Christmas. Even had the belly. Benny sat there, sucking on his joint, sucking on my lips, worried about his random drug tests. God-damned Army shit. Why I didn’t just leave him there, I’ll never know.
I don’t feel good. Blood clots keep slipping out between my legs. I want another child, just not one I’ll have to raise by myself. Not that Benny wouldn’t make an effort — it’s just I don’t know what his effort would consist of. My ex-husband would have at least provided money and some child care. Benny isn’t in a position to help me with a child; he can’t help himself. This is terrible. I wanted another child, and this is terrible. I can’t seem to get a grip on anything, on any part of my life whatsoever. Without Shana here, I feel my head floating off into outer space. I’m waiting for a visitation from God or something. Everything seems so fucking profound. I’m so restless. I’m going to jump out of my skin.
Whether I miscarry or not, I’ll probably have to have surgery anyway, because the “tissue” hasn’t passed out yet, and with that much bleeding, that’s worrisome. The nurse said people differ on this issue, because women have been having “incomplete pregnancies” since the beginning of time. Who am I to make the decision to bring, or not to bring, another person into the world right now? I can’t even tie my own shoes anymore. God help me if I had to earn a living and be a single mother. I’m a rotten speck of humanity. I hate myself. Oh, God, just what Mother used to say. I swore I’d never say it.
God help me. God save me. I want to die. I can’t think of what to do next. Nothing seems appropriate. I have too much responsibility, yet not enough. I am worthless. I am a worthless woman. I am a woman. I wanted to be a boy when I was fourteen. That was twenty years ago, and I’m still not sure what the advantages of being a woman are. I tried to find them. Maybe it is a punishment, like that old Hindu neighbor of mine used to say.
I’m drinking wine, just like Mom. I’m following in her footsteps. Eight years left to live. Then who will find me on the floor? My mother is dead, so is my daughter, so it won’t be them. I’m skating down the slope and cannot stop. Speed attracts more speed. Fools attract only other fools. Benny and his blue-collar ethics, his chain-smoking mother offering to raise this child. I feel so parasitical and Wasp-y in comparison. So effete, so elite. So worthless. Such a stinking piece of garbage. The dogs don’t even love me anymore. What is Benny doing now? Why didn’t I want him here? I wish for some company, yet I’m glad I’m alone. God, oh God.
What men and women like about marriage is the stability. What they don’t like about it is the stability. My first lover was a good introduction to sex. Very few hang-ups. Two or three times a night. He had good muscles. He’s married, but he still calls me occasionally. Is that a good sign, or a bad one? And exactly who is it good, or bad, for? Dude says he would love to have an affair with an ex-girlfriend, specifically me, and his wife doesn’t mind either. He’d like to come over tonight, but he lives 3000 miles away — a bit far. Besides, I’m busy having or not having a miscarriage, or having or not having an abortion, or having or not having a D&C, as the case may be. I’m really just dreaming of a white Christmas. Just like the ones I never, ever, ever knew except from the movies. “May all your Christmases be white,” isn’t that how the song goes?