An Excerpt from Recognition, the Opening Story in Both Sides of My Skin
“The day I brought you home from the hospital,” my mother says, crossing one leg over the other and letting it bob lightly in the air, “was cold. There were flurries, and that was May seventeenth. All I had on was this loose yellow sundress with straps because I wanted something pretty for your first day at home.” She hunches her shoulders to click up a light for her cigarette, then waves the smoke away from me. “Will the smoke bother the baby?”
“No, Mom, it’s fine.” The baby, still tucked away under layers of skin and fat and fluid, is safe for now, although I don’t know how to tell my mother that she won’t be able to visit her granddaughter if she’s going to smoke. She probably won’t need to as long as her visits are in the afternoon. When I was about six or seven, I remember hearing her side of a phone conversation with my grandmother, and feeling funny to hear her call someone “Mom.” They talked about ulcers, which I thought sounded like a bad stomachache. Later she explained that they came from worrying about things. I didn’t understand why she would be afraid of getting ulcers when all she did was play with me and my sister during the day while my father was at work, but soon after that she gave up coffee and switched to tea with a cigarette first thing in the morning. As far as I know, her digestive system is fine, but gathering up her energy to face the day is a ritual she still observes, even though my sister and I have long since moved out of the house and don’t require any special vigor from her anymore.
She leans back into the metal café chair and holds the cigarette as far away from me as she can, careful to let the wisps of smoke rise into the air beyond the umbrella over our table so it won’t somehow be trapped in my breathing space. She exhales. “Well, anyway, your father forgot to bring me a coat, but I don’t remember being cold at all. I just remember holding you tight in your hospital blanket, watching your face watching the snow somewhere over my shoulder. You didn’t blink the whole ride home.”
It’s hard to imagine my parents as young as Rick and I are now, wrapped in joy and expectation. I’ve seen pictures, but the gold and browns of the furniture and clothes, the wide ties and polyester sheen on everything, the glasses that darkened in the burnt-smelling glare of the flash cube all take away from their faces, make them seem like strangers.
The effeminate young waiter delivers our lunch with a flourish and a smile. He’s awfully cheerful for Sunday brunch, working for a tip, and I will slip him some extra to make up for the embarrassing twelve percent my mother will add to the bill she insists on paying. This morning all I could think about was eggs, but now that an enormous ham and cheese omelet is in front of me, I know I’ll only be able to pick at it. There’s not much room left for my stomach inside me, so even though I am hungry all the time I can’t eat much anymore.
“So, do you think that you’re ready for the delivery? I mean, is the baby’s room ready? And you packed a little overnight bag for yourself?”
“Yes and yes. I think we’re all set. Birthing class is done, so I practice the relaxation and meditation techniques every night now, and Rick guides me through this glove-relaxation thing where I practice touching parts of my body to numb them.”
“Does that work? I mean, I don’t really know…the C-section was so easy with you that I just signed right up for another one for your sister.”
I take my time chewing. The way I was born is the exact opposite of how I plan to have my baby. No interventions, no drugs, no men in white coats telling me what to do without me asking some serious questions first. This is mine. Mine and Rick’s, not some guy’s lunch break between rounds of golf. My mother has no idea what giving birth felt like, so it’s hard for us to talk about. She can’t tell me what I want to know.
“But I know, you want to do it natural. I think it’s good to try, to go as far as you can. But if you are in pain, you should let them give you something. It’s all so different now, you know, how they even let you have people in the room…”
So this is what it’s really about, why she got up early on a Sunday, when I know she fell asleep in her reclining chair the night before while watching tapes of the week’s talk shows. I try to navigate this lightly but quickly, like hurrying over a patch of ice: the less contact, the better.
“Yeah, well, it will just be Rick and me. Kind of private and calm, something we need to do together.” I press on past the circled day on the calendar in my mind. “We want some time to be together as a family for a while, the three of us, before any visitors. Probably a week or two.”
“Oh. Oh, I figured that. I think you had said that. But if you feel like you need help—not with the baby or anything, but with cooking or cleaning up, then I can come and stay for a few days. Whenever you decide.”
I don’t remind my mother that Rick does all the cooking, and that we split the cleaning. I have trouble picturing her doing these things that she hasn’t done for years. Rick says I have her trained to be the ideal laissez-faire mom, but I remember when, in a burst of frustration with a wad of tulle, I asked her for help making my wedding veil. She was ready with an idea right then, and I realized that she had been watching, either waiting or wishing for me to need her. She smiled a lot that night, and it ended up being fun, but when she told me how glad she was that we got to do this together, the sharing ideas and the solving problems and the mindless chatter about flowers and food, I felt like a teenager who doesn’t let her little sister watch her get ready for a date.
Suddenly the air in my lungs is pressed out of me, from within. I shift and stretch in my seat, trying to somehow make myself taller so the baby’s feet aren’t jammed so far into my airspace. I imagine the baby curling her toes to get a foothold between my ribs and using the muscles in between them as a springboard, trying to get leverage to push her head toward the light. Not yet, I think.
“Not so much room left after eight months, huh?” My mother puts down her fork and slides her chair around the small table. She reaches a hand toward my belly. “Is she kicking?”
When was the last time my mother touched my stomach? When she tickled me as a toddler? When I was nine and made myself sick over a detention for leaving my viola in the coat rack? Or was it involuntary, a lightning stab across the car as she jammed on the brakes, even though I was already old enough to drive myself wherever we were going?
My mother’s hand on my stomach doesn’t feel any different than the hands of all the other people, strangers or friends, who have reached out to touch me since I started to show back in the spring. I’m not quite used to this, my body being available for anyone who needs contact: patted from the outside, kicked from the inside.
“Oh, now that she knows I want her to move, she’s not going to. That reminds me of you.” She takes her hand back to rest on her own stomach, the soft mound of menopausal fat an echo of what she is feeling for in her memory. “But enjoy it now, because soon you won’t be able to keep her from moving. Even though you love her more than anything else.”
“Her and Rick, you mean.”
“No, just her. The way I love both you and your sister more than I love your father.” I feel a squirmy flutter at the point of my breastbone, and it’s not the baby this time. I have never been comfortable with the things my mother was so willing to share after my father divorced her. There are things that I know about them, about my mother and all her feelings, that I don’t want to know. Things that I pretend I don’t know, even though she seems to want to tell me, the way you suddenly gush everything out at a slumber party to girls who, in their pajamas in the dark, seem just like you, and you hope that it doesn’t come back as something ugly and misunderstood in the fluorescence of a junior high hallway.
“Yeah, but you and dad aren’t married anymore. Rick and I…are.”
“It doesn’t matter. This is something I realized long before. Your father forgot my coat, but I didn’t need it. Dogwood petals were curling up under the snow and dropping, but I didn’t feel the cold. I felt you.”
This is an excerpt of Recognition, the opening story in Both Sides of My Skin, a collection of short stories about pregnancy and motherhood by Elizabeth Trach.