After the Almost End of the World
By Tara Stillions Whitehead
All Rights Reserved.
First, wash your hands with chlorhexidine-based hand disinfectant. Second—
—wait…stop. There are precursors. There is no perceptible beginning, but there are precursors, perforations. Damages.
First, cry your eyes out in your car in the mostly empty overnight parking garage that is free until 7 a.m. Let the A/C hit you in the face at full blast, as this will help dry the tears impairing your vision. It will help dry the sweat basting you as the estrogen evacuates your body, as you slowly repossess yourself in fragments. You must hold your husband’s hand during the crying. Hold both of his hands. They are the only two things left intact since the night she was pulled out of you. They are the only two things more forceful than the stainless steel forceps that left spade-shaped bruises on her ears, her cheekbones, her—
You didn’t want to damage her. Looking back, you struggle to find the line separating your selfishness from her wellbeing. Your vision is obscured by guilt. She is being medicated intravenously, receiving CT Scans, an ultrasound for a massive subdural hemorrhage. Her skull is bruised. Her face is bruised. The nerves in her face are bruised. You, however, did not so much as tear. You were the elastic one. The durable one. You search for some Divine explication in the incubator Plexiglass, but your reflection is warped. You instead end up evaluating her shade of jaundice—13.4? 14?— then search for signs of resilience.
“You did not damage her.”
Your husband tells you this without looking at you, while watching her respiration and heart rates illuminate the monitor. Do not watch the monitor. Do not react to the alarms. Leave when the nurses give the steroid injections. Leave when they remove the IV line from her hand and put in the one foot without the surgical tape residue and bruising. Drink the cold coffee in the waiting area. It is free.
Wait—go back. We’ve slipped again. These rituals are slippery.
First, cry until you go blind. Second, enter the cement, steel ribcage where you had to leave her. Flash your wristband at the night security and veer right. Do not stop. The wristband with the dancing teddy bears is enough. The guards do not need to know your name or her ID number. It is redundant. You will recite these over the phone to the admitting nurse once you arrive at the staging area outside the ward. It’s confusing at first, but by this time next week, the routine will be old hat to you. You will be able to execute this choreography in your sleep. You will, in fact, be asleep when you visit her. Most of the time. Oh, and Time. Time is cruel nonsense now. It is conceptual. Ethereal like the sleep you used to know. Divest yourself from it as soon as possible.
So, after crying in the car and squeezing your husband’s hand, after flashing your teddy bear wristband to security, then you must wash your hands with the chlorohexidine-based disinfectant. Be sure you wash up to the elbows. Use the nailbrush to sterilize your nail beds and try not to think about how the soap looks like old blood running through your fingers. Like you’re washing your hands of her. Put on the thin, yellow polyurethane gown with the opening in the back. Because you are still shaking from the car and the hormones and the botched epidural, have your husband use his steady hands to tie the thin, yellow belt for you. Try not to think about how ghostly you both look in the yellow gossamer. Think about your husband’s steady hands.
Always use the restroom before entering the ward; otherwise, you will have to leave and take the elevator downstairs to the postpartum floor where you recovered alone, weeping, and without her. Where you cried because she did not cry when they pulled her out of you. If you have to go downstairs, you will have to go back upstairs. You will have to weep yourself through the sterilization process all over again. Ultimately, once inside the ward, you do not want to leave if you can help it. It is painful to leave. You have a physical reaction to leaving. When you leave, you will contract and you will bleed. This is biological. You will never want to leave, not even for grand rounds, for which you must leave. You will be more tired than you have ever been. Your tiredness will deactivate your rational thinking. You will grow suspicious of the night nurses. Accuse them of supplementation—of treason. You will writhe and you will sweat measurable liters of despair into the bed sheets, the car upholstery, the thin, yellow, polyurethane gown. It is biological. You cannot describe the tumult in your stomach. Not exactly. It is not an entirely foreign sensation. You decide not to tell your husband it reminds you of morning sickness.
Nights will be agony, but none more agonizing than the first night you leave her. You will never forget the car ride home or how you whimper up the flagstone walk, wallowing into the kitchen through the French doors, conscience macerated by guilt, body vacant as a windowpane. You are a broken windowpane.
Once inside your home, what little awareness you have registers only those artifacts that torture you. Ultrasound printouts on the refrigerator door. The carefully folded layette and the unopened jars of salve. The totemic and miniature inventory hallowed inside the bedroom closet—a sacristy for you and your husband’s new religion: Self synthesis. It is an empty religion worshipping a now fraudulent prophecy: Progeny.
Empty. There is a lot of emptiness in the unused artifacts in your living room. They are the illusion of provision. Their disuse, a senseless void.
After several days of timeless incubation—you are all incubating, all assimilating into the heat-lamp-assisted, nurse-attended life inside the ward—you begin to see some faint resemblance. Everyone has been saying it. The nurses. Other parents. Your mother-in-law. Until now, however, you have been blind to these claims. Doubt, ever irrational doubt, and dreams lacking the fantasticalness of dreams, of infidelities for which you have yet to receive your due punishment have, until now, estranged her from you.
She looks like her father. You do not refute this anymore.
You cannot fathom what life will be like outside of this place because to be outside of it is so desirable.
You hold her naked body to your naked chest and try to tune out the monitors and the cries of other babies. You unplug her leads, which makes the overhead screen go black. It is okay. They tell you it is okay. She feels like she is yours now. For some reason, you are alone. Your husband has gone somewhere. He is calling someone or perusing the cafeteria. You don’t remember the last time you ate, but you are almost never hungry anyway. You are alone with her behind what looks like a shower screen. Another illusion of possession. But she does feel like she is yours, so you run your index finger from the tip of her forehead down the slope of her father’s nose, over the sharp cleave of your upper lip. Your upper lip. Down her very own chin. She slowly opens her eyes, as if to reassure you. I am yours. I belong to you. You believe her, and you can hardly remember a time when you were separate, autonomous. You like this forgetting the most.
Without being prompted, she latches onto your breast and fingers at the loose bra strap that has somehow liberated itself from the thin, yellow polyurethane gown. She is so warm, she feels real. And as she nurses from you for the first time without feeding tubes or strange, gloved hands squeezing and manipulating and forcing her upon you, you are overcome with your first vision of the future. It is foreign and undulating and disappears into the horizon. She falls asleep on you, your milk warm in her acorn-sized belly. The weight of her absence in your arms that night threatens to drown you in a reality that you cannot perceive anymore. As you collide with sleep, you convince yourself that you have never fallen in love before. Not until now.
It will be early morning when you surface into consciousness again. Your husband will still be sleeping. Clinging, no doubt, to the copacetic inconsequence of a dream far removed.
He looks like his daughter.
You retract your previous conviction. You have fallen in love before.
Sitting on your side porch in the near dawn, you practice breathing and admire the kaleidoscope sky. You assign milestones and anniversaries and affections to each ripple, every sprawling basin of color. Despite the guilt you feel over the luxury of fresh air, you are able to suck down some coffee. You decide against the Klonopin you keep in your change purse in case of emergencies. You decide against whiskey in your second cup of coffee. You realize that, suddenly, you have no means of escape. Suddenly everything is a potential contaminate.
Your husband wakes from a child’s terror, and you spend the rest of the morning consoling him. He clutches at the sack that was once your stomach and tells you that he loves you, that he cannot live without you.
He does love you. He is a good husband.
You hold each other in the shower, letting the hot water burn the backs of your unfamiliar bodies. You embrace and kiss and mumble affirmations that make the length of day before you seem more bearable. It is the closest you have come to sincerity since finding out you had conceived her. You almost know one another again.
It isn’t until later that you stumble over some vestige of that evacuated reality, and the infidelities for which you have yet to receive your due punishment threaten to actualize.
Sometime around 2am, it is your turn to attempt sleep in the cluttered back seat of the Yukon, where you will play music loud enough to deafen your anxiety and use your husband’s UPenn sweatshirt for a pillow. You leave him in the ward, entrust him with some bottles of your breast milk. You hope that, perhaps, this will help her become real to him, too.
You are thinking about the carefully folded layette and the unopened jars of salve when you find him standing near the empty tollbooth, brows bound together in a tight V, ginger hair the color of spoiled wheat under the fluorescence of the parking garage. He is trying to look anonymous in a blue windbreaker and jeans, but his hair gives him away. You don’t know it yet, but he has been tracking you all week, waiting for a time when he can catch you alone. While you have just been contemplating the carefully folded layette and unopened jars of salve, he has watched you slowly descend the seemingly endless staircase into the hollow belly of the garage.
His being there doesn’t surprise you, even though you have not seen or spoken to him in months. You cannot forget him. You cannot change the past. But you can pretend it precedes some other existence on some other strip of time parallel to the newly unrecognizable present. The world may not have ended as the now unmentionable Norwegian astrophysicist predicted, but the spidery reality of the Multiverse is unshakable. Because the math is unshakable, and you have done the math. As you approach the boy in the windbreaker, you feel empowered by these calculations and your life experience. You feel invulnerable. You believe you may never have to endure consequences ever again. Not in this existence. And you silently thank good math for that.
Tara Stillions Whitehead’s fiction has appeared in Red Rock Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and Oulipo Pornobongo: An Anthology of Erotic Wordplay. Her short story “General and the Tornado” received the Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers. She teaches Literature in the virtual and real world and lives in Mt. Helix, CA.
This story is included in Issue #46: Real Time/Virtual. Copyright © 2013 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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