I back into this woman inside the coffee shop, trying to maneuver my stroller out of the way of a man in a suit.
"Sorry," I say, turning around, and she laughs, and lifts up her palms to brush away my imagined offense. It's then I find myself staring at the fine red seams at her wrist creases. Seams that glisten and then split as her hands tip backward, split through the bone until her hands topple, like two people falling in unison over two peaks, and then hang loosely behind the upheld stumps.
The flesh inside the stumps is beautiful. It's quivering, like the bunched up petals of a peony shaking on a wet bush. The bone is a piece of polished ivory set among jewels.
'Wow,' I think. 'Is she truly avant-garde?'
There are others who are nearly like her at this café. Janet the barista, an artist who sometimes attaches labium made of bubble gum to her bare arms and face á la Hannah Hoch; Jessie the cashier, whose ear lobes have been stretched so far that for work, Bob, the manager makes him tuck them over the tops of his ears, as if they are locks of hair. There are the street kids outside. All blond dreadlocks and metal faces, and the constantly shifting shapes of the homeless.
Yet I've been mixing things up. Not sleeping well, so it seems that my dreams, having no place to express themselves, appear in the daylight.
Standing in front of this woman, blood rushes to my cheeks. An erection of the face Freud called this, helpfully.
"These coffee shops aren't built for strollers," the woman says, her face soft, my age.
"I like your wrists," I tell her, because there they are, and I can't help it, I do like them.
Luckily, my baby is still asleep. I push my stroller up to the bar where Janet is holding out my Americano, a labia nestled into the crook of her collarbone.
The café is full of the usual slumpy intellectuals, people looking for work, students and hesitant light. I sit at a long table and when the woman is done ordering she comes and sits down at the far end where a stack of books are piled. She smiles and nods again, opens up a computer and begins to type. The seams are barely visible now, but I still see them, slim, red and glistening.
Though I'm generally reserved, I suddenly want to tell her about my life as an explanation for bumping into her. I want to tell her that it's been six months and I'm still afraid she will stop breathing. My baby, that is.
I lie awake at night and the protocol from the class I took on infant CPR rolls through my head. The pumping of the rubber baby chest with two fingers, the horrible hollow collapse. I think, 'What if I should be doing this for my baby right now?' In the dark, leaning over her crib I hold my finger under her nose, but her nostrils are the tiniest orifices, so small they seem merely decorative. The whorl on the door of a seashell. Two holes in a button. So I lean further over her crib, to hear the whisper of her breath or to see the rise and fall of her chest. Often I can't detect either. So I brush her cheek with the tip of my finger, one, twice, just enough to make her stir. And when she stirs I run before she opens her eyes and sees me. For often she'll cry out and I'll be up for another hour, rocking her back to sleep.
I want this woman to say, "It will get better." I want this woman to be grand and all knowing, elevated like a therapist, or a scholar of female experience but not necessarily to have had any experience of her own. I imagine she will squint her eyes at something in the air, an abstraction too fine and filmy for anyone else to see. She'll say, "Women are like Isis and Osiris, dismembered and resurrected. You have to celebrate the mutability, the disorientation of mind and body—have your read Cixous, or Kristeva?" And I will say, "Yes! But can you explain them to me?"
I look at the woman. She's wearing vivid red lipstick, and has a scarf tied around her neck in a way that I imagine is very French.
And then she turns to me.
"How old is your baby?" she asks.
"Six months," I say, and wait for her to break into profundity.
After a long pause in which I probably look disappointed by the commonness of her question, yet can't think of anything interesting to say myself, she asks, "Are you wondering about my wrists?"
I shake my head and she holds one up.
"They won't fall off, if that's what your wondering, but it does make it harder to hold things." She extends her arm across the table, and holds her wrist out for me to touch.
"They're hooked on here with this piece of skin. It's like a mitten clip," she says.
I run my finger over the hinge, this small bridge of flesh.
When they pulled my baby out with the forceps she was grey and rubbery, and took a long time to get pink again, and when they laid her down on my chest, only one of her eyes was open, the other swollen shut. Her mouth moved over my nipple, open close, open close, nuzzling, and testing, but she couldn't make the proper latch. She couldn't find her own bridge of flesh.
The woman looks at me kindly, in a way that makes me want to check my blouse for splotches of food. She says, "Are you new to the city?"
"We've been here one year," I say.
"Well, don't worry if you don't exactly feel grounded yet."
And I want to say, "I don't, this city is full of romantics! Look at all these millions of people crammed on this tiny piece of land with all its fault lines. Any day now we could fall into the ocean, but what's a little risk of dying when your art, or science, or activism is going to save the world, when you're a self important little person, with your big world inside your head. Can't you just see everyone's interior monologues bobbing along like cartoon bubbles, sucking up all the air?"
But I just stare at her, and she clears her throat and goes back to work.
I imagine it's good I didn't say this, because truthfully, when we arrived in San Francisco we were these people. I'd just finished my Ph.D., I was ready to lecture at the university, and to plunge into my writing career. And my husband Daniel, well, he certainly still is one of these people. He's off right now with his colleagues consulting and interacting, stimulating his brain. He's studying genes and growing cell lines, which are his babies outside of marriage. Often in the middle of the night he has to go into the lab to check on their progress. He wonders, 'are they warm enough, are they being jiggled properly by the centrifuge?'
"Have you made many friends," the woman suddenly asks me.
"Oh, the baristas." I say, and she laughs. And I laugh too even though I didn't mean it as a joke.
"You haven't met other mothers?" the woman continues, a little sheepishly.
I watch her carefully because now she's lifting her arm, pushing her chair out and motioning to the side of the table toward the handles of a small umbrella stroller, handles which have been concealed by her books and the bulk of her jacket.
"I don't think you noticed," she said, "but I have a baby too."
"You have a baby too?" I exclaim, and fear for my face, which is turning red, revealing itself.
'Have I met other mothers?' she asked. How could I avoid them? They were everywhere in this city with their small and large strollers, their babies concealed under jackets and in backpacks, rounding corners and heading toward me on the sidewalks of my neighborhood where I go to walk off the scary baby thoughts.
There I'd be, pushing my baby down the street, free for a moment among the yellow green bay leaves, the flower boxes dripping with fuchsia, when another mother would barrel toward me with a baby strapped tight to her belly in carrier like huge bandage with no breathing hole.
Sometimes a baby facing out in a front pack would approach like a prisoner strapped to the front of a ship, it's head bobbing forward and back. It's brain, I imagined, sloshing dangerously against its skull. Next, a woman might walk by with a carriage, and I'd have to avoid eye contact, because once I'd paused, looked into a carriage and found a baby wearing a neck brace—her mother had looked away for one moment and she'd rolled off the bed! And then there's the issue of mixing things up. Creating composites or superimposing—so that a baby from a distance might appear to have a black eye, or look small and sick like the preemie from the poster that hung in my OB's waiting room.
Still, I lean over the table to look at the baby, afraid my face is Dr. Frankenstein's on his first fearful peek at the living monster that desperately needed his love.
But this woman's baby isn't wearing a neck brace. She has no bruises. Her cheeks are fat, and incandescent. A little raw in spots, as if the skin cells haven't decided whether to adhere, could possibly loosen and dissolve into the air. She has those blind soothsayer eyes that see nothing and everything. Yet she looks like my baby, so strangely content with the world. Content despite being a sensual creature who has such little control of her senses. She is smiling faintly, holding her arms up and jerking them a-rhythmically, as if jamming out to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."
The woman is tapping her fingers on the café table.
"She's cute," I say.
But then I see that the woman's eyes are bulging, and tiny nearly invisible words in Helvetica are moving across the whites of her eyes—slipping behind the irises as if across a computer screen. I see that she has an interior monologue of the worried sort too.
Her face hangs in that blank look I catch myself having when Daniel knocks on my head like a high school bully and asks if there's anyone home.
"Home?" I asked him the last time he did this. "I'm always at home. Why do you think my brain needs to be somewhere else?"
"You want to make me feel guilty," he said.
And I said, "Yes, I do."
I've tried to explain to him about the thoughts and images. I've tried to explain that I'm afraid I'm not a good influence, that when I gaze at our baby I see the beginning of my own furrow appear on her forehead, as if the pressure of my gaze has imprinted it there.
I have even suggested I start working at the café so we can have enough money to start daycare. But he reminded me about my Ph.D., and that I hated working in cafés, and he is right about the working in cafes part. He tickled me and said, "It's only six more months before you can go back to teaching."
Six more months.
I think that soon I'll have to tell him about the large bay windows that take up most of the wall in the two front rooms of our apartment above the Laundromat. The windows don't have screens, but I have to open them around three in the afternoon anyway. When the October heat is too much, when the machines down below have been running all day, churning, and thumping, thickening up the air.
I'll just tell him how it started with a simple image: me tripping over a red toy truck, and then evolved into me stretched out through the air as if diving for a football, except the football was the baby, knocked from my arms and sailing out through the window, where I stumble to the sill and look down on the crowd of people gathered around her on the sidewalk. There is a man looking back up at me, shaking his fist.
I'll tell him how I decided to stand closer and closer to the window with the baby, to challenge the image, to step right into my shadow in order to make it move further away.
This in fact worked, until last week, when the scene changed into a flash of an image, in which I leaned out the same window, over the same sidewalk, cradling my baby in both arms. And then I opened them.
I should probably tell him I've been avoiding the windows altogether now. That the baby and I play mostly in the back room. That even when we're safely down on the sidewalk I feel as if I'm leaning out of a window, knees locked, thighs straining against the sill, and that the effort to hold her, to keep her safe and to keep my balance makes me nauseous, makes me feel as if San Francisco has shrunk to the size of a plank, and I'm standing on it, leaning, vertiginous, above the pacific.
Back in the cafe a sadness passes over the woman's face, a blue half shadow, a San Francisco, Humphrey Bogart shadow, the kind that cuts the face in half, confuses it like a shadow cast by the brim of a hat.
"It happened when I had my baby," she said. "That's when my wrists split."
And then it makes sense. This woman isn't avant-garde. She isn't a French feminist. She's just a mother.
"We had the baby proofers come in their white van," she said. "They installed foam padding on the tops of furniture in case I drop her. They put locks on all the cabinets and got rid of our steak knives. They collected and disposed of anything small enough to be a chocking hazard. Safety pins, buttons."
"Buttons?" I ask.
She looks at me suspiciously. "Haven't you read The Educated Woman's Guide to Infants: Preventing Death, Dismemberment, and Delayed Development?"
And I say, "I've just flipped through."
"Well, buttons are instruments of death," she says, eying the buttons running up and down my blouse.
"They can lodge in your baby's throat and the Heimlich maneuver won't work. The air from the pumps will just pass through the tiny holes so you won't be able to create enough pressure to pop them out."
She hunches toward her baby, her eyes bugging. She doesn't notice when the baby reaches its tiny hand out of the stroller to drag its fingers through her hair. Turning to me, she sighs, and says, "I mean, I know it's all overboard. How do you have time to love your baby, if you're constantly preventing it from dying?"
"Yes!" I say.
I want to tell her that for me it all began with death. With my babies' heart beat slowing inside of me. After two days of labor and six hours of pushing the nurses began to bend their heads together and murmur, to look at the monitors in a worried way. I think it was in those moments that I lost touch, floated up above myself with terror, and haven't yet been able to get fully back inside.
I want to tell her how it all happened then from a distance, through Daniel, the rotating doctors, midwives and nurses and interns, the separate team of specialists hovering in the corner of the room, ready to whisk me or the baby away in the now likely event that something went terribly wrong. I wanted to tell her that even with all the drugs, and I'd had plenty of them, I couldn't escape this crowd of faces, half quiet and concerned, half yelling or cheering me on as if I were a sporting event.
I couldn't get to that primal place, that place of good sex, and good yoga, a place of grunting and moaning, beyond caring what anybody thought. The place where my yoga teacher told me I'd shed my vanity, where I imagined I'd turn animal, and porn star, turn into my mom and my sister and all the other mothers, turn common, and incredible.
Instead I asked for a C-section.
I said "Wouldn't it be better, if her heart is slowing?" And the doctor with the forceps propped over her shoulder said, "We don't do that here. This is San Francisco."
Later my husband told me the forceps ripped me open like jaws-of-life tearing open a car. He said the young doctor pulled so hard on the forceps that she braced herself by placing one foot in front of the other and leaning back. Another doctor came in behind her, braced herself, wrapped her arms around the first doctor, and pulled in this manner too.
And she was not breathing at first.
And she was not breathing.
Sometimes now I'll imagine I see one the faces from the delivery room, a doctor or intern, displaced onto someone else's body on a crowded street. I suppose I want to know what would happen if I ran right into one of them, one of my strange witnesses. Would they smile and say hello? Would they feel ashamed or embarrassed and avert their eyes? Most likely, I think, they wouldn't recognize me at all.
I almost tell her this, but I don't.
"Maybe we can go for a walk sometime," she says as I put on my jacket and grab the handles of my stroller, my baby still miraculously asleep.
She scribbles her number down on a piece of paper. And holds it out before I can leave. She says, "The worst of it is that I can't swim anymore." She holds up her hands again, now, like a supplicant, and a drip of watery pink blood falls on the table, for which I hesitate. I dig in my bag and offer her a baby wipe.
I've always been a swimmer—love that wonderful feeling of being underwater in a crystal womb you can look up through and see out of, see the world all bent, and different (I felt) from the way anyone else saw it. When I was younger, the world was all my dream, and I alone owned the key to its logic. I could swim entire laps underwater—push off from the wall, arms in front of me, pull the water toward my chest, kick, dart my arms up again, pull the water, cup it like a heart.
"I really do like your wrists," I tell her as I head for the café door, "I think you can work it—if you want to keep them that way."
And just before I turn away, I see that her baby is looking in my vicinity, smiling, as if she's read my thoughts. She jerks her hand up and holds it over one eye, disappearing herself, like magic—'I know how to survive, I've got skills,' she is saying. And for a moment she is buoyant as a balloon, floating free of her mother, rising up into the sky.
My hope, with this story, was to capture the surreal nature of giving birth and caring for a newborn, a state in which the boundaries between dream and waking, life and death felt very slippery. It seemed right to set the story in San Francisco, this hubristic place that had always been my "dream city," a place I imagined I'd find fulfillment at the highest point of Maslow's pyramid of self actualization, but were I instead found myself worrying about eating, pooping and sleeping (mine and the baby's). And, yes, as I wrote the story I was teaching "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's great story about post partum depression. In fact, the husband of my story is pretty much the patronizing "John" of Gilman's story—my own supportive partner, would need a story of his own.