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Non-Stress Test.

In a room marked “Triage,” on the Labor & Delivery floor at St. Mary’s, the nurse led us to an alcove, behind a blue curtain.

I was told to sit in a wide leather chair, the color of caramel, and asked a number of questions in quick succession: why did your doctor send you here? What is your height? What was your pre-baby weight? What is your current weight? Allergies? Medications? Due date? Have you felt the baby move today? I answered them all as quickly as they were asked.

I was there as a precaution. My obstetrician sent me, immediately following my prenatal appointment, where she diagnosed me with gestational hypertension and ticked off a litany of possible outcomes and procedures I might need to undergo in the two weeks left until my due date. She’d tossed around terms like induction (“which could take days, if your body’s resistant to the process…”) and “brewing” and preeclampsia. She also mentioned that, because I was measuring one centimeter smaller than I should, she was ordering an ultrasound in nine days—that is, of course, if I don’t go into labor before then.

There were other instructions: go to the lab and have blood drawn each week. Head over to Labor & Delivery twice a week, starting that day, for exactly the exercise this nurse was prepping me for.

I kept most of this to myself, limiting my discussion with the nurse to one-word responses. Neither of us seemed game for small talk.

I was too busy imagining labor and how most of it would occur on this very floor—sooner than later, if results were unfavorable here.

She took my blood pressure with an electric machine and as the cuff loosened around my biceps, we read the red numbers together: 121/81. “Well, it’s normal now,” she said, wryly. “I’ve cured you.”

I smiled, as she placed two tranducers on my abdomen: one to monitor your heart, the other to seek out contractions. A wide white band of elastic held each in place, as the nurse reclined the chair, elevating my feet.

She told me she’d return in twenty minutes, before ducking out and into the larger ward.

I stared at the machine to our left, with its running scroll of paper filled with crimson grids and crinkling black lines, searching for drastic dips or spikes, as though I could decipher their meaning. The orange numbers on the LCD screen fluctuated as a heart icon flickered, then disappeared beside them. I placed a hand just under my diaphragm and nestled further into the comfortable chair, basking in the room’s sterile chill. The coldness provided quite the contrast from the impermeable heat of my apartment, with its constantly, yet futilely whirring box fans. I think we were both giddy at the cooling-off of my skin.

Behind another curtain, a different nurse began to prep another mother. This was her third child. Her blood pressure was quite a bit higher than mine, but she seemed in rather good spirits.

After her test began, I realized that the sound of your heartbeat was indistinguishable from the sound of her child’s. The only distinctions were the scratchy asides of your movements, which were frequent and amusingly frisky.

I’ll miss that when you’re born, all the time I spend guessing at what your jutting appendages are saying about your personality and all the calm I feel when I touch any bit of skin and you push up from underneath it.

Non-stress tests, as my obstetrician explained them, are to ensure that the baby’s still happy in her environment. “If you don’t pass the test, we may have to get her out of there.”

The idea that my uterus could become a menacing place is alarming. But what’s worse is the knowledge that there are no non-stress tests that can so concretely gauge your happiness on the outside of my womb.

I will have to tend to that myself.

At the end of twenty minutes, the nurse returned to tell me things looked fine. She unhooked the elastic band, removed the sensors, and handed me a napkin to wipe away gel.

For now, my warm, round body’s still a happy place for you. For now, I’ll savor the sensors and squiggles, reassuring me you’re well.

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Fiction

A Fiction Attempt.

Isla

That was the only night I ever spent in Nathan’s arms. I gave the full heft of myself to that embrace, just went limp and made my spine an outward arc so I could gaze up at the ceiling. Never once felt in danger of falling.

Spanish moss dangled from the rafters; the whole club felt like a jungle aflutter with beastly gyration. The band, who’d come down all the way from  Chicago, played with a fervor their cool, smirking faces didn’t betray. Their congas fed pulsations to the floorboards. We felt the quaking rise up through our feet. That band and the sweat and the waggle of hips only inches apart, on every side, sent my husband and the two noisy babies I’d borne him deep into the back of my mind—not long and not for good, just for seconds at a time. Glorious, airy seconds at a time.

Now and then, Nathan leaned forward and let his lips graze my collarbone. Each time, my face flushed, cheeks aflame, and heat prickled every pore on my body. I’d recall his grin and how hungry it was, when he first spotted me in my black dress, looking for all the world like a sexy, sequined fish, the way the skirt hugged my hips and bloomed out at the knee. It was a risk, waiting for him out front, my hand poised to open the latch on our gate, before the sun even had a chance to go all the way down. But I was alone, for once—completely alone. I couldn’t help but make the best of it.

He hadn’t waited for the gate to open. He hopped it, eyes tearing straight down from my marceled hair to my scarlet toenails, and pulled us down, practically to our knees, to steal a kiss beyond the prying eyes of my neighbors. It was the only time we ever kissed square on the mouth. He told me, lifting me back to my feet, that I smelled like lilacs and home. He smelled like talcum and conquest. But I kept that to myself.

On the dance floor, what little there was of it, folks were watching. But folks were always watching, then holding forth on all the things they’d watched, days later, huddled over washbasins or whiling away a few minutes in line at the butcher’s.

I knew my name would burn up the telephone wires come the next day, but I let Nate kiss on me that night, every time he tried. I couldn’t help it. His lips had this way of humming a song against my skin, and all I wanted to do was hear it.

I should’ve known something wicked was coming. My Grandma Jo always used to say: you lose your shame, your death ain’t far behind.



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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Beautiful… and Ugly, Too.

We have been together for 25 weeks; by now, you have discovered the bulges and sprouts of your body. I know this, because I can feel you, testing its limits. At least twice a day, you knead a tender spot of flesh, just above my pelvis, or else I feel you nuzzling a space against my navel. I can only imagine your activity: the rubbing of an eyelid with a closed little fist; the wide-armed sprawl of a yawn; a casual crossing of legs after meals; an elbow jab to clear a favored uterine space. For some reason, I rarely imagine you kicking.

You have likely noticed your size—just over one pound and one foot—and how your bones have begun to gather weight and roundness. There are new discoveries to seize in each moment, intimate observations, to which I am not privy. I know you are marking all your fine hairs and appendages, each nostril and elbow and knee, and under the gums, the buds of what will be teeth. You don’t yet know the names of these things, have not learned all the uses of a tongue, beyond taste, and how powerful and painful its lashes. But they are present to you now, these delicate and crude protrusions you will own every day of your life.

I’m sure it thrills you now as, of course, it should. But there may come a time, when you will touch your tiny nose and you will frown as its flatness or point. You will pinch at the fat ’round your hips, and blush at how much of it bunches between thumb and forefinger. You will tilt your head and lament that your eyes are not a comelier color. You will wish your breasts were larger or smaller or less prone to the slight imbalance in size you will likely inherit from me. You will accrue scars that tell stories of mishaps you’d rather forget. You’ll grow wistful of ganglier days, before newfound curves began drawing unwanted attention.

Then one day, just before you’re ready, blood will begin to seep from a sacred orifice, pulling with it a pain as acute as it is indescribable. And slowly, you’ll forget how it felt to be carefree, when just a bath full of toys and bubbles left you feeling fresh and scrubbed, when you didn’t need an arsenal of puffs and pads and antiperspirants to prep for each new day.

It’s possible there will come a time when you’ll worry over why you were created woman, why you were trusted with such power, without being afforded the series of secret codes required to successfully mine it.

Sometimes, I’ll find you crying over woes you can’t articulate. And then there will be other times you’ll catch me at the same.

I hope you won’t inherit my catalog of insecurities, and I will bear the onus of buffering your esteem.

But as a woman, little, stray laments over looks and dreams and talents will always find their way to your core. You are thinking outwardly, anticipating the expectations of others, and often unwittingly shaping yourself in ways that meet them. Even if I make you feel like Supergirl or She-Ra, you’ll still squint in the mirror at the faintest sign of acne and you’ll wish you didn’t have to face the world, wearing the shine and scar of it. Even enveloped in love, you will find some small moment to doubt yourself.

We women are different this way, ever conscious of our beauties and our ugliness, too.

I’m just glad you didn’t know me at twelve, when my skin was mottled and pocked, my hair full of poofs and unpermed. I did not believe myself capable of outward beauty—and prettiness was a coveted commodity for me. I’d just had a growth spurt, but still bore the chubbiness of childhood. I walked among a group of girls more confident than I and wondered after the wells from which they drew their worth. (It would take me fifteen years to find my own.)

I wouldn’t have been very good company for the girl I hope you’ll be.

It’s best that you’re inheriting me now, after I’ve discovered how to look at myself and see only the potential for praise or improvement. Even as I sink into fits of insecurity over the uneven heft of my breasts, the tent and the tarp of my shirts, the incremental creeping up of pounds on hospital scales, the broadness and the widening of my face and feet and thighs, I can force myself into proper perspective and see the weight and weirdness as talismans of power.

I will teach you to embrace each part, the gorgeous and the ghoulish. And you will be a force, a gale, a woman who’s mastered her weaponry.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Out My Mind, Just in Time.

You had an emergency. First you called, four minutes before the start of my last class, without leaving a message. I didn’t intend to call back. I’d made progress this week; I could feel it. I was laying the groundwork for indifference.

It started Monday, when I talked while you regurgitated rationales, things I’m certain it’s become necessary for you to repeat to yourself, a battery of reasons why you’re perfectly within your rights, withholding your interest, your assistance, your presence. I listened to you, for about twenty minutes, reminding me that this—this menagerie of isolation and worry and loneliness I’d written to you about, the day before—was exactly why you suggested that I terminate the pregnancy in the first place: I told you I wouldn’t be there. I knew you’d want a partner in this. Wasn’t I upfront with you? Didn’t I tell you it would be this way? You didn’t listen.

I was listening, then—struck dumb, as is becoming typical now. My mental synapses aren’t as quick to fire; a cognitive sluggishness seems to have settled somewhere in my cerebrum. Maybe our daughter isn’t just siphoning nutrients; maybe she’s sloughing off parts of my intellect, too. It’s a thought I would’ve liked to run by you, one of many I’d only raise just to hear you refute.

Before I knew it, I was crying. I hate how often you make me cry. Just last Tuesday, it happened in a hospital, where I was waiting for an uncle to recover from surgery. I was on a grief-bender, having just attended a great-aunt’s funeral, not 72 hours before, where I cried for the better part of a day, over all the things I should’ve done for her and didn’t. I called you about it, foolishly, stubbornly, clinging to the memories that tethered you to other family funerals, ones that awkwardly arose during your infrequent visits, ones for extended family you’d not only met, but spent time with, ones you’d driven me to, with patience, in silence.

I wanted your ear, then. I wanted your ear, at the hospital, too, even though I already knew, by the time you bothered to call back, that my uncle would be fine. I wanted your voice—the one you use when I’m wrung dry, the one that falls left of condescension and melts the tension in my shoulders till I’m calm.

But you withheld it. Even when you called back, too late, you just held the phone and let the reception crackle between us. You’d offer a question in an affect so flat it was impossible for me to pretend that you cared. And I’d answer it, like an idiot, waiting, even as I began to know that nothing I’d say would close the space you’d opened between us.

I hung up, after two minutes that day, rushed away from the waiting room full of my family, and locked myself into a single-stall bathroom nearby. I sobbed, until I had to stuff the wrists of my sweatshirt into my mouth, to muffle myself.

By the end of our call this Monday, where you pressed and pressed for my agreement that yes, you’d told me if I kept the child, I’d bear her alone… and maybe you’d come around later, I’d grown weary of the cow-like tears, sliding from some unbidden space, for the third time in under two weeks.

The next morning, I wrote you again (it takes this long, these days, for me to defend myself). I explained that, in April, I didn’t need to be reminded of anything you’d said to me in November. It’s irrelevant now; my daughter is 24 weeks grown. She fidgets at 4 am. She likes ice cream and hearing me talk loudly into phones. She has tastebuds. We’ve moved on. I told you that these things you say aren’t helpful. (If I were sharper, I would’ve used the word “counterproductive,” but I worked with what I had.) “Every time we talk,” I typed, “I feel like you’re blaming me.”At the end of this message, I asked you: “Can’t you try a different approach?”

You wrote back. It was quick, something you dashed off on your Blackberry. “I am not blaming you,” you said, “and I will try.”

That was the day the indifference began. I’d been here before, with you, at some cliff’s edge about to shrug and take a dive. I didn’t want you anymore. We’d make do, I was telling myself. Maybe I’ll even love someone else, and my daughter won’t have to watch me beg her father for an inkling of his attention. A distant ache drained out of me and, left cold, I knew I’d no longer rush to take your calls. I wouldn’t ask you again to involve yourself. I wouldn’t expect you here for her birth or her birthdays. I wouldn’t want you here, the way you’ve been, these last months.

I was ready, yesterday, to ignore the call you’d left me before my class. Ready to wait days or weeks on end, like you do, to see what you wanted, if I decided to look into your needs at all.

But then there was a text two hours later. You had an emergency. It had to do with your mother, who’d called me twice this week and left ebullient messages, asking after “me and the baby,” calls I hadn’t yet returned, in part because of this burgeoning resolve I’d begun to build against you. I needed a day or two, to be sure it would stick. I needed to compartmentalize what I was feeling for you. She needn’t know, when we talked, that I was slowly hatching a plan to cut you out of my expectations, like an unwanted guest in a photograph. I needed to be sure my voice wouldn’t reveal this.

I needed a day not to think about you at all.

And now you were telling me, via text, that she’d taken ill. I wrote back immediately, said I was sorry to hear it, asked if you were okay, and when we talked soon after, I fell into my old habit of looking up flights home for you. Like a travel agent.

You thanked me for looking into it, but ultimately decided to hold off on purchasing the flight. When we hung up, I talked to my mother, who admonished me not to get too involved: “This is a family situation. And you are not a part of their family.”

She was right; of course, she was right. Hadn’t you spent the last five months reinforcing that for me?

But we talked again last night, and I asked you if you were worried. I was thinking about my own hospital trip and the funeral that had preceded it and how amplified my anxieties would’ve been if either instance had involved my own mother. You should’ve be home, seeing after her health, yourself; it was the only way to alleviate the panic you must’ve been feeling.

We talked about other things: television and work and the content of the voicemail your mother left me. Distractions. You asked if I’d gained a lot of weight. I asked if you wake up angry at me every day. You asked if I think of you. I told you how big the girl has gotten: “Right now, she’s a foot long and weighs about a pound.” “How do you know that?” “I have books and three websites.”

We spoke of other things, too, things about myself, things I knew were falling on closed ears, but I didn’t care. I needed to say them aloud, and I was too used to saying them to you.

This morning, you texted to say that you’d found your own flight. You’d gone to LAX and purchased it there. I still marvel at the profound difference in our approaches to problems. I never would’ve gone directly to an airport and asked for flight rates for the same day I expected to depart. I would’ve been too afraid they’d quote me some exorbitant fee and I’d have no back-up or bargaining chip. But you managed to find a flight you could afford, departing one half-hour after your inquiry.

It occurred to me, then, how accustomed I’ve been to making myself seem indispensable. Over time, leaping to your aid has been less about being a good partner and more about being a necessary one. Even now, I’m willing to wager that a part of me with which I’m not ready to contend just yet, sprang to action for you last night, because it misses the old reflex of need, the muscle memory of our relationship at full function.

There is part of me that wants you to need me, simply because there is part of me—especially now—that needs you.

But as I type, you’re flying toward the coast that raised you, probably remembering a time far before us, when it was you and your mother, a duo with an unspoken understanding about what would necessary to give and to withhold. Maybe you’re thinking of her sacrifices for you; maybe you’re thinking of yours for her. Maybe you’re thinking of how much you value you her, and how it’s unlikely she knows it.

I am.

And on this plane of thought, I’m neither needed nor wished for nor known.

I’m beginning to be okay with that.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

The Chart.

Your doctor’s appointment this week was the first that felt less than magical, the first where the nurse and the third new obstetrician you’ve met told you little you didn’t already know.

You stepped on the scale, as you always do, and looked down to find that you’ve gained another eight pounds. At this rate, you’ll gain eight-to-ten pounds a month, until July. You try push down the bits of body dysmorphia that plague you, the parts of yourself that sometimes keep you from eating until twenty minutes after the intensity of your stomach’s growling has become too difficult to bear.

You can’t imagine yourself forty pounds heavier. You can’t imagine your daughter occupying that much more space. She seems large enough, larger than anything you’ve known, at the one-pound she weighs right now.

After the weigh-in, you waited. You sat, slightly longer than usual, as the nurse hunted down a less staticky Doppler, as she pushed the wand into your skin with a bit more pressure than you or your daughter liked. The girl hid her heart; she’s already learning. You both heard her moving away from the weight baring down on her, and now, you know to chuckle when you hear the swish, the record-skip.

“That’s movement,” the nurse needlessly informed you. You pursed your lips and smiled fakely in response.

“She’s testy,” the nurse frowned, and you bristled. You’re already taking offense on your daughter’s behalf. “She’s active,” you contested. “Very active…”

Because you’ve already decided you don’t like this nurse, with her loud-talking, her flitting in and out of the exam room door, leaving it open while you lie there with your shirt up, your gel-slathered abdomen exposed, and her complaints that your daughter’s moving too much, you know not to tell her the things you’ve learned about the girl since your last visit: that she likes Dairy Queen; that an Oreo Blizzard elicited her first swift kick; that she’s a night owl; that when she begins to move, you imagine her squaring her shoulders and wiggling her fingers and knocking her knees, fascinated at all these new gangly appendages and her ability to control them; that the larger she gets, the more she scares you.

And then you wonder why you’d ever consider telling a nurse any of this at all. These seem revelations reserved for her other parent. But you know, having talked to him again the night before, that he still isn’t ready to hear them.

When the doctor comes in, she seems detached and hurried. She’s holding your chart and the sight of it makes you cringe, because you know what’s in it. You hope she won’t do what your other secondary physicians have done: regurgitate the facts you gave about the father, three months ago, on your initial visit.

The last time you were here, the doctor you saw was male and kindly, with warm hands he made a show of sanitizing as soon as he walked in the room. He wore a bowtie under his white coat and one of the first things he did was look down that at that chart and say, “I understand the father’s no longer in the picture? And you… broke up as a result of the pregnancy?”

You sighed, because if you’d known this would bear so much repetition, you may have spun some less hurtful yarn. But that was the thing: this narrative sounded just as manufactured as any other: a nameless partner, ostensibly living in California and working in film, began to believe the relationship wasn’t worth it, the moment he discovered you’d decided to keep his child.

During that visit, your aunt was present. “They were together almost nine years,” she added, though I’m pretty sure that information was already there.

I never bother repeating it; it seems the most implausible detail of all.

The doctor furrowed his brow and said, “Really.” He looked back at the chart, with an almost imperceptible nod. “That is an odd response.” He smiled up at us. “These men,” he mused, “they always run, don’t they? In one way or another…”

You wanted to be cynical then. He was being condescending, wasn’t he? Pandering. This was faux-empathic mockery. This was him telling you what he’d already decided you needed to hear.

But it didn’t matter one whit whether he meant it. It was what you needed to hear—and you needed an impartial male to say it, perhaps even one of a different race and class, a different generation and marital status. You needed reassurance that you weren’t the only one being held accountable for the girl growing inside you, that there could be a universality to abandonment, dating back decades, centuries, civilizations, that occasionally, rejection just might be unpreventable.

It was comforting.

He’s different, you tell yourself, than the other male doctor you met, who was slightly older, far more detached, and firmly conservative, when he’d told you, after reading the same notes on your single status, that keeping the child was commendable. “We don’t really believe in abortion here….”

Now, you think you may prefer them both to the woman before you now, firmly pressing into your left side, swathing the Doppler wand in her other hand, rushing. “There,” she said, listening to the heartbeat she found near your pelvis for all of three seconds. She charted the heart rate at 158 and told you your uterus had stretched past your navel, without taking an exact measurement. She made a generic observation about the unseasonable weather, then asked if the nurse had given you paperwork for the glucose test you’d need to take in three weeks. After this, she said you were free to go, if you didn’t have questions. You didn’t.

You hopped off the table, feeling empty in the absence of the requisite reassurances you’d come to expect from these appointments. She’d been perfectly professional: efficient and quick, but entirely unconcerned. You felt faceless, herded and hustled, and because she’d failed to reference it, you were also without history.

This is when you began to worry about that thing your initial prenatal nurse told you: this was a physicians’ partnership; anyone obstetrician whose name was on the door could potentially deliver your child. This was the first time that statement had caused you panic.

It’d been months since you’d met with your primary ob/gyn, a young, petite, cherub-faced Black woman with shoulder-length hair, owlish spectacles, and blush slightly rosier than her plump and darling cheeks required. You’d forced yourself to make your subsequent appointments with the other partners, so that if theirs were the hands reaching into you, those hands would be familiar.

Now there was a hole in your plan. You and this doctor were as strange to one another as you were before you met, when she was a thumbnail brochure photograph and you were scrawled notes in a chart. What if she’d missed something? What if you never saw her again, between now and the day she’s paged to coax your kid into the world?

In the end, you know it won’t really matter, as long as the doctor at the helm ferries you and your daughter safely to shore. But it’s all so very odd, entrusting this sacred at task to any of four physicians who only know the parts of you that appear in the margins of their carbon parchment.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Stronger Than Pride.

Monday night, we talked for over two hours.  Just months ago, such conversation lengths were rote. Now, it seems the height of unlikeliness. I had to make myself available to you, which is a process. Mostly because of your absence, I rarely turn my ringer on anymore. I miss many calls this way, although many calls these days are just from hapless telemarketers and well-intentioned family who either inquire after you in ways I don’t wish to answer or take pains to avoid the simple utterance of your name.

I still remember rather vividly when a cursory glance at my call log would turn up no fewer than four mentions of you per day. You called so much, before, I used to screen you. You called so much, before, you used to complain about how little I answered.

I know now, what you felt.

This began on Sunday. I dreamt of you, somehow. This was rare during the near-decade we were together, but now you strut around my dreams at least twice a month, like you’re poised to take them over. I imagine my subconscious is angry; I’ve incurred its wrath on account of this child and her promised disruption of our circadian rhythms. This girl is a pebble impeding our cogs and, as punishment, my psyche has taken your side.

When I woke, I began to call you, like a zombie motivated by some force beyond my own will.  These were blank-minded calls. I didn’t know what I’d say if you answered; I never do now. All our communiques are curt and carved hollow, the phone calls particularly brutal.

It’d been weeks since I’d dialed your number; the last time, you emptied a clip of one-word answers and, absorbing the slugs, I said I had to go. That day, I learned the perils of calling unprepared, and yet here I was again, dialing without aim.

We hadn’t really spoken, not with our true voices, in months.

You didn’t answer the first time. Or the second. Or the third.

On the fourth, I left you a message: Call back, please, I bleated like a broken automaton.

You didn’t.

So that night, I wrote you one of my text-tirades, only this time, I avoided all expletives and focused on evenness of tone. I told you, as I have before, that these attempts to correspond are not for my health or your annoyance; they’re for the girl. I told you I’ve far less tolerance for suffering ambiguity; I needed clearness and closure. I needed you to deny her or deign to know details about her; this silence solves little, helps nothing, and prolonging it is an undeserved cruelty.

As I slept Sunday, I felt expectation slip out of me. You didn’t appear in my dream; my subconscious was merciful. It convinced me the words I’d written you had tumbled to your wayside and landed atop a burgeoning pile, with all the others.

After all, hadn’t I stated these same sentiments, with far superior eloquence, just weeks before? “You’ve become a closed fist, rather than an open palm,” I’d mused, “I wish I were angrier about it. I’d be less sad, less worried about the possibility of her growing up fatherless or with an antagonistic stepfather or with a general distrust of men. Like I did.” I ended that letter with familiar lament: “I hate the futility of wishing.”

All that garnered was voicemail. I got your note, you stated, also like an automaton, only after shoddy repair.

Then, in the morning, I saw that you’d called after midnight and, later, you texted to ask if I could talk.

No, I punched back, happy to have reason to reject you for once. I’m busy.

Then the girl began to flip and I felt guilty. I remembered the words I’d read her, days before, in The Lorax.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

I sighed and touched the warm, convex skin under which our daughter fluttered and recalled the things I’d told her, about the very last truffula seed and the stark grey of sky, the wizened old Once-ler and the wide-eyed boy left to rebuild the world, alone.

I am teaching her to care. How could I tell her how easy it’s been for you not to?

My hopes for her drain my grudge against you, even though it’s fairly foolish to grant you so many immunities, foolish to absorb your willful ignorance, foolish to coax you toward us in this painful, patient way, and foolish to believe the remnants of the you I used to know will disallow you to push this pregnancy to the recesses of your mind forever.

But it was this foolishness that allowed for the phone call Monday night, the first in a series of months that didn’t involve barely veiled resentment or audible tears or voices raised octaves in anger.

I listened, as you told me you “hadn’t had your phone for a few days.”

And I listened, when you said you’d been angry at yourself—and angry at me—for a while now. Angry, you said, that you’d “put me in this position.” Angry, you said, that you’d made decisions which cast you as The Bad Guy.

I listened, as you repeated with earnestness and urgency, the significance of the choices you’re making, to live in California and to continue pursuing unreliable work in the field for which you’ve been trained.

I said that I understood, parroting a line we’d bandied about in these kinds of conversations before: LA is the film capital of the world.

You couldn’t see me shrugging; I was glad.

I could hear the resignation in every small confession:

I haven’t called because I thought we’d only argue, and you should be keeping calm now.

I haven’t called because I’m unclear on what you want me to say.

I haven’t called because I really don’t know what kind of support you’re looking for.

I bit back the urge to indict you with the obvious, “You never asked.” Instead, we talked about less complicated things: the first-name I’ve chosen, the patterns of her movement, the freakishly full-grown-looking size of her hands and feet.

You whispered, at one point, I’m still having a hard time with this whole situation.

And, for once, I didn’t yell back, “How you think I feel?”

I didn’t tell you, like I wanted, how annoyed I am when you ask what I want from you. I didn’t tell you how irritating it is to have to first imagine then describe how a grown man should respond to the impending arrival of his firstborn.

I didn’t ask for the things I desire, though you insisted that you wanted to know.

That seemed too large a weight for one phone call to carry.

These types of wants are ineffable.

I want the warmth of your hand and the weight of your tenor on my torso when the girl kicks at night. I want you to talk to her and read to her and sing to her, like I do. Tell her you’ll be waiting when she gets here. Tell her that you’re glad that she’s your daughter.

I want tea when I’m too tired to make it, reassurance that I look lovely when I feel like livestock, equal distribution of worry and burden. I want daily discussion of fears and hourly infusions of courage.

I want you to plan visits without being prompted. I want you there to hold her at the hospital.

I want you to think of your daughter as more than a dollar sign.

I shouldn’t have to ask these things. But I suppose, before she gets here, I will.

The ditches of my own wayside are filled with mislaid pride. This baby has nudged me toward compassion and ebbed all my filmy deposits of contempt. She makes me remember the best of you, even though your recent self has been your worst.

She reminds me that the wounds I’ve licked aren’t the only ones that matter. This interweave of incidents has left you battered, too.

We all deserve better than we’ve been to one another.

Now we need to mend ourselves and, for her sake, move forward.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction

Cartography.

When you’ve been here a while, when you’re at least four feet tall and you’ve got one viewing of Roots under your belt, I’ll take your slender wrist between my thumb and forefinger, turn your arm palm-up, and tell you to sit.

There’s something I want to show you, I’ll say.

We’ll look at your veins, winding greenish and blue under what I predict will be maize-colored skin.

Every vein is a storyline.
I’ll trace them with my index finger for emphasis. Every story belongs to a woman who’s come before you. These are your grandmothers’. This one’s your aunt’s. And this is mine.

I will tell you that, just as some parts of the vein are visible and close to the skin, and others are buried deeper, toward the bone, so also are the stories of your ancestresses: some portions are knowable; others will be forever hidden from view.

These days, my own veins have become far more prominent. Beneath my shoulder blades, dozens of greenish paths are writhing and converging in a race toward the center of my breasts. As if overnight, my body has become its own cartographer, my veins a series of routes spread out, as if drawn on an interstate map.

They are paving a way for you.

Though my stomach is darker than my chest, its veins are also emerging, wider and thicker than the ones above.

I am filling with proteins and fats and stories. Years from now, when I hold your wrist and trace its risen lines, I will repeat the words my body is whispering daily.

We will start with the tale of the teenage girl who creeps off to a bar on a corner, with a few of her older siblings. Terribly shy, she feels scandalized there. The walls are sweating liqour; the moisture accosting her skin has no respect for the painstaking work of her hotcomb. She wants a stool in a corner, a quiet place to shrink away and wait for the music to swell. Her siblings have scattered, like ants in bakery littered with crumbs. The brazen suggestions of sailors, the broad, jutting shoulders of bricklayers, the bony, jabbing elbows of wire-rimmed junior collegiates are bruising her body, all over. She considers leaving, obedient as she usually is, and self-conscious enough to know that she’s too young for this scene, full of porters and rail workers and factory men, full of women she’d heard her mama whisper about at first ladies’ luncheons.

But then the band began to kick up, a trumpeter at the fore, beckoning offstage, and out came pompadoured Bobby Bland, in slacks tailored slim and suggestive. The women’s knees buckled before he even neared the microphone. The men cussed their approval, raising glasses of whiskey and gin. But the girl’s own heart didn’t quicken till he leaned in, grinning almost evilly as he crooned: I went down to St. James Infirmary—and I heard my baby groan….

Her body shuddered before she could temper it, and she pulled the collar of her green wool sweater tighter around her narrow neck. She wanted to cast sidelong glances, to make sure no one had noticed, but before she could, an arm snaked its way around her waist and the heat of a gravelly, honeyed voice singed her ear.

“Slow down now, girl.” He rested his chin on her shoulder, then moved before she could shrug him away.

But she wouldn’t have.

Now she’s gone, she’s gone and may God bless her, wherever she may be. She has searched this wide world over, but she’s never found a man like me….

She watched him pretend not to be aware he was being watched. He took a long drag off a short cigarette and narrowed his eyes at the stage. He wasn’t tall, but he was dark and handsome, with eyes at once kind and menacing, and though he wore civilian clothes, she knew he was a soldier long before he told her. She fancied herself intuitive, then.

They sipped watery gin from a clouded glass. She cringed, her entire face a pucker, and his throaty laugh carried, over the somber blues and the raucous chants of the crowd.

She loved him. She was certain of this, at sixteen, even after she found out he was already husband and father to another brown and burgeoning family, even after it became clear he’d never leave them for her and the girl he’d left growing inside her.

Your lips will part, dewy with eager inquiry, but I’ll let my finger flit to another vein and begin anew.

You needn’t investigate these tales for accuracy. Fact, uttered hastily and under cautious breath, is often imparted sparingly in families. Much of what I’ll tell you will be imaginative meat added to bare, brittle bone.

But it’s important that you know what the women who made you are capable of. We are, generation upon generation, fierce and earnest lovers of the absolute wrong men. We are women who tend to breed babies with ghosts. So you must listen beneath the fiction, beneath the fact. You must listen for the throb of the pulse, and find yourself a frequency that frees you from this unkindly inheritance.

I will hunt for new veins till I’ve exhausted our family’s stories. I will never, ever mention that the blood flowing through them is your father’s.

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