by Emily Myles
Owen texts me don’t look at the news so of course it's the first thing I do. I have not told him yet that the pit of my stomach has been open for weeks now, that I have been toeing it wider each day. It reminds me of the weeks before the baby came, Owen slathering Vaseline on his pointer and middle fingers before applying downward pressure to my perineum. How, to prepare for the baby, I had to make myself pliant.
In the next room I can hear the baby scratching his too long fingernails against the plastic clamshell of muffins. On his tiptoes, he is nearly a boy—unintentionally expansive, the limits of his body not yet discovered—although I am clinging to calling him baby, as if his name will usher in a breeze that slams shut a door I can’t walk back through.
“Mama. Do you want to hear a joke?”
He has a reedy voice, a wind rustling through autumn's bare branches, and when he says joke in the singular he really means it.
“Yes,” I say, and really mean it.
“Rude interrupting cow.”
There is no beat stretched enough for him to pounce on the punchline as it wriggles away from him but he shouts MOO and dissolves into peals of laughter close enough to hiccuping, and I think: he really means it.
On the screen Thomas the Tank Engine is unblinking, his lidless eyes shifting back and forth in their sockets. Owen texts me that the baby’s going to be late for daycare, and I say it’s friday. I thought we’d play hooky
. I hear a phone chime behind the closed office door, three dots appearing, then dissolving. The skin under my eyes feels already tired and heavy from crying. Increasingly, I imagine it as a piece of drenched paper held aloft. At any moment gravity might rip it down the middle.
We fight more these days and because I have not told him about the pit I pretend it is about sex, or money, or who spent too much time on their phone that day. Issues of too little and much. If I were to tell him about the pit he might suggest I call my therapist. He might suggest we take a trip to the coast, which is not the beach, and besides, I’m afraid of the ocean. He might suggest I call my sister, though we both know it will not help. I’m afraid of the ocean.
Next to me the baby’s face is slack, sucking the collar of his shirt until it is stiff with his spit. If his face is paper, it must be linen or soft wood pulp, that he is too young for it to feel tired, that water will bead off it as down a dolphin's back. His hand finds its way to my leg with no intention, his body continuing to gravitate towards mine. I remind myself to savor it. More and more often he is separate, running away instead of to.
“Mama, do you want to hear a joke?” He asks. I say knock knock without really meaning it, wondering if I should teach him the one about the chicken, but he’s too young to get the punchline and his dad forbids us from teaching him about things like Heaven and Santa. For now he doesn’t realize the comfort he is missing. In twenty years, maybe, he will tell his therapists about the small escapes we never gave him. In twenty years, my friend Margot once told me, the entire West Coast will be underwater.
“Are you sure?” I asked, even if I knew it mostly to be true. My own jokes had a tenor of apocalypse to them—the ones about the state falling into the ocean, or being trapped on the wrong side of the bridge. When the big one comes, I laughed once, I hope I’m on the east side.
“Yes. Probably.” Margot's face was flushed up to her hairline, eyes cast wildly behind me, as if the ocean were now beginning to spill into the street and swallow us at that very moment. She thinks if she is aware at the end, it won’t hurt so much when it happens.
We share a Reiki practitioner, who hovers her hands over the planes of my body and tells me where the hurt lives. There’s a spot on my spine where the nurse threaded a needle while numbness light as ink in water bloomed down my legs. The Reiki woman is named Caroline and her hands, cool and dry, stay there a long time.
Still—I hope that in the water wars, he has someone to talk to.
Owen comes out for lunch and we don’t speak. He crosses the kitchen in three strides, acknowledging only the baby, ruffling his hair while the other hand fishes a package of boutique instant ramen from the cupboard. I feel a hot gush behind my eyes, the dam loosing as it prepares to flood, and I push my fingers into the corners like a makeup artist taught me on our wedding day.
“If you feel like you’re going to cry,” She advised me, dabbing a clear gloss over my mouth, “Just press your tear duct and it’ll stop it.” In my bustier she tucked three miniature q-tips to insert into the tender exit of my eye, but I didn’t need it. When the man pronounced us married, I only felt relieved.
Owen tries to be understanding with my crying, but there is a frugality to his patience, and the budget has mostly gone to the baby. He stretches each penny through bathtime, through the shoving of flailing limbs into fleece pajamas and multiple readings of Sheep in a Jeep
so that when it is done we can stare at each other beneath unflattering overhead light, our kind words already spent. It is not that he is lazy or unsympathetic—he is an arguably good dad who doesn’t refer to watching his own child as babysitting. When we brought the baby home, my abdomen torn with scalpels and mended with surgical thread, Owen walked our newborn up and down the halls until his wailing turned into hiccups and eventually, only snores.
It is more that, upon the baby’s arrival, I realized there was not enough of us to go around. Every divvy left someone else wanting.
He is afraid of the pit, that someday I will submerge myself fully, that there will be nothing, not even scraps of me to offer him and he is not wrong. Some days the pit seems less like an abyss and more like a jetted tub. Come on in, it says, the water is fine.
The baby and I sit at the table and I open Facebook to make myself feel worse, wanting to press on the bruise of these feelings until it is white from my thumb. My college roommate has posted a picture of Mr. Rogers, smiling in a soft sweater. Look for the helpers
, she writes.
There’s a joke my father used to tell me about a clown with depression. But doctor
, I think, I am the helper
Owen puts a bowl of gummy noodles in front of me, fragrant and hot. The pit has a gullet that they slide easily down. We keep it fed, so it does not collapse, so that the light can get out.
“Mama. Have I told you my joke?”
The baby fends off sleep. With butterfly kisses, with multiple readings of Runaway Bunny
. His mouth bears a sheen of orange, powdered cheese and butter forming a sticky mask across his face. I did not have the wherewithal to draw a bath. The wriggling and screeching when water meets hair, followed by a sudden and fervent fealty to the water, refusing to get out until his teeth chatter and the blood is drawn away from his lips.
We read until his breath is shallow, eyelashes resting on the knoll of his cheeks. They are so long I imagine they will one day be a nuisance but for now I lean close, let them tickle my face.
“Mama,” he murmurs, barely behind the veil of consciousness, “Do you want to hear my joke?”
I say yes, but he is asleep before the punchline.
In bed, Owen’s back is to me, a wall I am afraid to throw a rock over. Sleep will tangle our legs close as seaweed on shore, and we will forget our argument until one of us does the wrong thing, but for now we are separate. I pretend to read, listening to his breath and wishing I was holding my phone. It is important to only me that I maintain at least the appearance of sleep hygiene. Then, I reason, I can’t be blamed for my nightmares, the insomnia that leaves me staring at our pockmarked ceiling until just before the sun creeps over the mountain. I fantasize about all the ways the world could be bad. When I was pregnant, my mother had promised me having a child meant your heart lived on the outside of your body, but I still felt it. Only, it was closer to rubbing against the business end of a cheese grater when I saw him. I often thought about how, if the baby were my heart, if something happened, there would be no need for me to keep going. Who walks around without a heart anyways?
How, if the muscle were still in my chest I would have to. How good it might feel, to not, anymore.
The door creaks open, barely, and I see the baby crouched in the way only babies do, with their knees high and butt touching the floor. At this age their bones are mainly pipecleaner and well wishes. When our eyes meet he shuffles wordlessly to the bed and I scoot slightly so his body can tuck next to mine.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
He doesn’t answer, toying instead with the cord to my bedside lamp. I reach over him and click it off. Darkness wraps us in its chenille arms, but the baby and I are not afraid. With his body so close to mine the pit of my stomach crusts over as magma meeting winter air, hot underneath but almost hidden, almost quiet. The thing about the baby is I can only breathe when I can hear him doing it first. The thing about breathing is I don’t need it anymore. When he was new, a nub of cord still crowning his round belly, I would hover my hand above his chest and wait for it to rise and touch my palm. I would sneak into his room, put my face close to his, and wait for him to inhale, even as Owen hissed at my retreating back.
“I’m not going to help if you wake him up.” He grumbled, until one day I stepped out of the shower to find our door open, and down the hall Owen, his face so close to the baby’s it looked like a blessing.
Sleep tugs its fingers across my eyelids and I am in its grasp when the baby turns around and puts his arms around my neck, his breath hot and milky on my face.
“Mama. Can you tell me a joke?”
Emily Myles is a writer, parent and Scorpio moon living in Portland, Oregon. You can find their work elsewhere at Peatsmoke Journal and Fatal Flaw.