It’s just us now, baby.
The nurse lays the baby in your arms, adjusts your elbow to cradle the head. She fluffs the pillow at your back and leaves without a word. Your room is finally quiet after a steady stream of nurses walking you through your day. A cold breakfast tray, your first shower this week, clean sheets. The baby, pink and fleshy and warm.
You hold her close, put your ear to her chest. She wheezes gently in her sleep. Her heart purrs behind her soft little ribs. Her limbs twitch and stretch against the thin cotton wrapper. You remember how those arms and legs flailed naked when the doctor first brought her to you, like a discombobulated swimmer.
You watch the door for visitors.
Other mothers are being wheeled to the lobby, balloons tied to their wheelchairs, fathers trailing behind with armloads of flowers and toys. Your nightstand is bare except for the pitcher of water the nurses refresh every few hours. Yesterday, one of them slipped you some ginger ale and winked on her way out the door.
Your last visitor was the lactation consultant. She sat with you for nearly two hours this morning. Her smile was firm and insistent, more a grimace than a true grin.
Think of what’s best for your baby.
When she left, you cried until your stomach ached. The skin along your suture taut and throbbing.
She means well, the nurse tells you when she delivers lunch. She takes the baby and lays her in the nursery crib, the standard issue plastic bin with a pink name tag. Baby Girl.
The nurse takes the cloche off your tray. The dank smell of steam table burgers floods the room. You close your eyes and can almost hear the cafeteria – chatter and crinkling paper bags, the smack of plastic trays on laminate tables. The hush that falls as you walk by with your hands crammed in your sweatshirt pockets, fingers wandering over your stomach in search of that flutter. It was early. You were small and not quite sure where to press.
You peel the gummy white cheese off your burger and eat it first. It is oily and creamy at once, coating your mouth until your tongue is sticky. The taste insulates you from the tinny peas and syrupy fruit. You slip the pudding cup and spoon into your nightstand drawer for later.
The nurse lets the baby stay with you today. She sleeps on top of a thin white blanket with pink stars, striped mittens and socks to keep her from scratching herself as she paddles the air. No one told you that a baby’s nails are like claws, fine and sharp and too delicate to cut.
You search her face for something familiar, anything that looks like you or him. Anything you can tell him over the phone, anything that will make him want to come and see her. See you. There is a telephone by your bed, local calls free.
If you call – when you call – it will be perfectly timed, after he gets home and before his mother does. He will not pick up. You will leave a message that he will erase.
You cannot remember the last time he spoke to you. He did not yell when you told him. There were glances in the hall. Slammed lockers. Unreturned phone calls.
His mother yelled. At him first, then you. Then your mother. When his mother yelled, yours sat stone-faced across the kitchen table. When his mother left, yours lobbed a coffee mug at the back of her head.
Your mother never yelled. You can count on one hand the times she cried. When you told her. When she signed off on your caesarean. When the doctor announced it was a girl.
But she never yelled.
She stopped going to Rotary Club. Booster Club. She left work at two o’clock and watched for your bus from her new desk in the living room. She drove you to doctor’s appointments, lips pursed, knuckles white on the steering wheel. She stayed in the waiting room, as though distancing herself from you made it less real. You have not seen your mother since it was no longer an it, since it became a she.
You lift the baby out of her crib and roll her stretchy cap over her translucent red ears. You prop her up on your knees and lean into her. Breathe deeply. The plastic smell of a clean diaper, airy laundry detergent, and skin. Sweet and salty skin. Your skin. Hers has not been in the world long enough to acquire a smell.
The afternoon nurse comes in to check your suture. She swabs you with antiseptic goo and marks your chart to show that she has visited. You hate this nurse. She does not look you in the eye. You have grown accustomed to not being looked in the eye.
Baby Girl blinks herself awake. She yawns and then stares, her dark eyes meeting yours. The doctor says babies see without understanding, But they always manage to figure out Mama. The doctor says her eyes will change someday and you hope they will be blue like yours. But today, her gaze – intent and unfocused – unsettles you. As though she is not just figuring out Mama, but scrutinizing her.
When word crept around school, people studied you up and down to see if it was true. You had avoided bathing suits all summer. By the time the new semester began, your shirts strained against your chest and belly.
Of all the girls…
You stole flannel button-downs from your brother’s room. A few girls, your closest friends, walked with you between classes, shot dirty glares at the whisperers. They brought you home after school, to their houses so you didn’t have to face your mother.
Suzanne offered to babysit for free, forgetting that you both had to be in school at the same time.
Kelly’s brother’s baby was already two. His wife had kept everything, as long as you didn’t mind boy clothes. You didn’t know what your baby would be yet, but you minded.
Lindsay cornered you in her mother’s kitchen one afternoon when you went to get another soda. Her sister knew a guy. She could loan you the $500, but you had to get there by yourself.
It was too late for the guy to help, but you could have used that kind of money.
You could still use that kind of money.
There is a knock on the open door. A woman in a raincoat, bearing a pink and yellow gift bag, waves and tiptoes into the room. A woman you have always known as Auntie. She pulls the chair from the corner and settles herself next to your bed. She scoops the baby from your lap and nuzzles her greedily. You tear into the gift, the first and only gift. A boxed set of Beatrix Potters no bigger than your palm, and a stack of books with dust jackets and library discard stamps across the endpapers. You recognize these books, culled from Auntie’s guest room, your room during weekend visits. She read them aloud to you at bedtime. Tales of mice and adventure.
So tiny, so brave.
The first book creaks slightly as you open it. You inhale the dusty vanilla of the paper. A sweet and salty smell emerges, the smell of hundreds of little hands turning the pages over the years.
Auntie moves from the chair to the bed and runs her fingers through your hair. She wraps a curl around one finger and gives it a gentle tug. The curl springs back to life, joins the wild brown mass. She pulls you close and kisses your forehead.
She has your nose. I’d know that nose anywhere.
You instinctively touch your nose and try to imagine the baby’s rounded features growing, refining, becoming a girl’s and eventually a woman’s. You begin to laugh at the hours spent in front of the mirror prodding at your nose, wrinkling it, trying to wiggle it like Samantha Stephens.
Auntie returns the baby to her crib and helps you clean up the tissue paper and giftwrap. She kisses you again and pinches your cheeks the way she has done since you were young. Small. You are still young.
You strain to reach Auntie’s shoulders and hug her ferociously. She takes the wads of paper with her when she leaves. You put the Beatrix Potter set back in the gift bag and stack the library books on your nightstand. There is still one open in your lap. The vanilla and human perfumes have dissipated. The paper is aged and porous, gritty under your fingers.
You nestle under the blanket and begin to read. You have always moved your lips slightly when you read and now find yourself reading aloud. The baby yawns and mushes her lips hungrily.
You offer her your breast, but her rosy face slackens with sleep. You balance her in one arm, making sure to cradle the head, the book in your other hand. You feel yourself nodding off. The book drops to the floor. The rustle of pages jerks you awake. You peer over the edge of the bed and see that the book landed flat on its back. A white mouse, the heroine, looks back at you from the yellow cover.
So tiny, so brave.
You lay the baby in the crib. She squirms and settles back to sleep. You take the name tag off the crib and pull the clipboard off the foot of your bed. The doctor left a blank birth certificate for you to complete when you decided on a name.
You buzz the nurse and ask for a pen.