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Winter/Spring 2020

Baby Girl

Auguste Budhram 

 

It would be an adventure, I thought. Complete with all the things I thought an adventure would bring. Twists and turns. Fear and elation. But I’d learned that true adventure also needs time for its contradictions to stretch out and breathe. A true adventure needs time for comparison, for progress to reveal itself and for the next steps to be plotted out. Because without that, there’d be no room for a story. And a would-be adventure would be a mere event.

From a plastic-covered bed, time was running out— its disintegration evident in the quick actions of those in gowns who shone lights into my eyes, held my thawing hands, and pleaded with me. But I had nothing to say. By then, my knees had been pushed to my shoulders. A masked face worked with intent between my legs.

#

The adventure began two days earlier when, in the time of night devoted to sleeping or doing things that people who aren’t sleeping don’t want to know about, everything in me seized and trapped the breath that would’ve let me cry out—a tearing pain to wake me from a version of sleep. I counted—one elephant, two elephants, three elephants —until the agony caught pace with my voice and put a halt to the counting. Or even my thinking. Or so it seemed. That night remains a true lifetime away, though the details of what I try to forget are resilient— details that would serve me best if stored in the part of my memory that I dare not access, clinging tight to what wants attention. I’ve tried to brush the particulars (what might now be considered indicators) to the areas of my mind protected by ignorance. But not enough time has passed for forgetfulness to take hold.

I’d like to forget the force that tore at my lower back or my frantic grab for the pillow next to me. And I’d like to forget counting elephants. Yet memory gets in the way. I got to thirty elephants before I tried to curl my knees to my chest—just before rolling onto my back and turning my face in time to let the vomit hit the space where the pillow (before I wedged it between my knees) had been elephants earlier. I must’ve fallen asleep before the acid stench of the sun-cooked pile of sick woke me. I rubbed at my back. Then my eyes. And I sat on the edge of the bed for just a second before I vomited again—on my feet, this time.

Under different circumstances, I might have been revolted. But the preceding weeks, and maybe months, had raised my threshold for revulsion. On swollen legs, I carried myself to the toilet, just to sit, before stepping into the shower. Under a weak stream, I swayed to get the most coverage while I watched water bead on the tips of my curls. Droplets dangled from what hung on my face before falling to distended body parts, exploding with splendor. I cleaned my hair with shampoo that claimed to smell like coconut, but I’d never smelled a coconut like that. I used the shampoo to wash my face. And feet. And I don’t remember shutting off the water or stepping from the shower, but I do remember drying myself with a too-small towel. I then squatted and used the same towel to clean vomit from the floor. I dragged a black t-shirt over my head and slid into a black elastic-waisted skirt. I didn’t think about undergarments. I paced the room and dug my knuckles into my back before picking- up the phone to call those who are far away.

“Yes. I counted. But it wasn’t regular. Three seconds. Then thirty. Then I don’t know.”

“But I’m not hungry.”

“No, mostly my back.”

“No. Just a pee this morning.”

 “Every five seconds?”

“Ok. I will.”

I hung up and vomited on my clean feet.

#

Maybe the adventure began when he offered me his seat on the crowded bus. A silent and simple gesture—almost lazy, but still kind. Nothing required him to lift the briefcase from his lap, stand, and nod at the empty seat. And nothing required me to offer a tenuous smile in exchange for his slice of vinyl. Hidden glances let us eye each other as the bus stops lurched us forward and backward. Shoulder bags swung at my face, and other standing passengers knocked into him without apology. At my stop, I adjusted my bag, and he reached for the bell above my head. I stayed seated for just a minute more—to prepare, mentally—before pushing through a matchbox of commuters to step out. I knew he’d follow me to the back door and stand behind me. Close. Closer than he’d been when I sat in front of him only moments earlier. From the new distance, I’d smell him. Through the crowd of other smells that overwhelmed the bus—wet wool, liquid-lunches, Jean Naté—I’d smell him. A salt-sourness that made me think of home.

Outside, winter zapped extremes from the air. Muted colors. Stoic faces. Dampened sounds. The snow crunched beneath our feet. And on a night seemingly void of extremes, insulated footsteps behind me preceded a formal but familiar greeting.

“Good evening—I saw you on the bus.” The cold’s quiet framed his words. “We know each other, yes?”

I forced a kind smile to keep from rolling my eyes, wishing his attempt carried more creativity.

“We know each other, I think” he pressed.

I handed him a “No, I’m afraid we don’t,” looking directly at him, to encourage his efforts—mostly, because I appreciated what I saw. Heavy-eyelids which gave the appearance of fatigue or sympathy. Hands clutched behind his back, suggesting thoughtfulness. His was a familiar voice that assuaged something I hadn’t realized was there. Besides, to squash his overtures would be to squash the only conversation I’d had with someone I wasn’t related to since arriving in Montreal.

“But your face," he continued. "Something about it. Do you work in Dominion Square?”

“No. Do you?” I asked, to shift the focus from me.

“I do. On the 10th floor actually. But I used to work in Place Ville Marie- before the transfer. Bank business is messy these days.”

“If you say so.”

He stopped talking. I thought about the space between snowflakes. I’d once heard that snow absorbs sound because the air trapped between the flakes reduces vibrations. For this reason, when surrounded by snow, the world feels quiet. And I thought about the space between the two of us. Turns out, the distance was less than I’d imagined. Through tentative words that passed between sound-dampening ice crystals, we learned that we’d both moved to Montreal from the same place, thousands of miles away. He knew my high school. I knew where his mother worked. We agreed that The Papaya was an over-rated tourist trap, and we both missed black rice and properly grilled fish. We spoke fondly of those we’d left behind. That day, we’d shared enough to want more. That day led to a nervous phone call and an invitation to stroll around Beaver Lake. That day, eventually, led to this day.

#

Above the mask the doctor wore, I saw what there was to see. He looked into me. Through the reflection in his eyeglasses, I looked into myself. Illuminated from the headlight on his forehead, blood poured from the hole between my legs. And I started to shake. My lips were blue, I imagine —like the baby that lay on the table across the room. Around it, anxious people fluttered—tapping, suctioning, poking, pleading, barking words that I didn’t understand. A hive of people dressed in white to work on a blue baby. But I chose instead to watch, through a stranger’s eyes, what flowed from me between my legs.

#

It would have been a different adventure if I’d done what those who said they loved me told me to do. If I’d listened to my mother, I might have ended up in Paris, married to a gynecologist from Lyon living in a row home near St. Germaine. I might have had a daughter first, then a son. And I might have published three novels before my husband was lost to a heart attack and I become a quasi-recluse who would, in my sixties, volunteer at a group home for single mothers. If I’d listened to my father, I might have stayed home and ended up at the Ministry of Education, where I’d have risen to the top in ten short years. I might have become the Minister, eventually. And I might have married an equally ambitious man—a politician who held my hand and smiled for the cameras by day and lay with men at night. There would be no children in this edition of my life. But with the confidence heaved upon me by those who loved me, I trusted that I could forge my own path—one that would bring me exactly to where I needed to be. A path that led me to the point where I could take the seat from a stranger on a bus in Montreal.

It was truly easy in the beginning—when I was ignorant of all the risks. When I didn’t know that lunch dates prevented us from running into those he didn’t want to see. When I didn’t know that what he wanted was not what I wanted. When I didn’t know that he curled up at night with his wife, and his daughter slept down the hall in a room that was decorated like a scene from a beach.

I’ve heard that babies change everything. That they exceed all expectations, both good and bad. But my baby exceeded only the bad. 

“A what?” he said.

“A baby.”

“How? I mean. How?”

He drew his hand from mine. “I already have a child. A daughter,” he said, sharing a part of an equation which, until that moment, had had no connection to me. “With my wife,” he added. That equation would have no solution. “And you. This. This was not supposed to become my life here. I already have a life here. I work in a bank. My life here has a wife and a daughter. My life back home—well, I should have kept the likes of it at home. You—you satisfied the pieces that were best left at home. Here— I have a life.”

I felt sorry for him. And I felt sorry for me.

#

Without ceremony, or sympathy, or thought (at least, that's how I saw it), he left me to fall. It was as simple as ignoring calls. Or having his secretary say he was busy when I popped in at lunch. Or avoiding the # 24—the bus on which we’d met six months earlier. Montreal’s spring (the smell of lilacs, the glimpses of exposed skin, the sun that warmed you when you were directly in its unobstructed path but otherwise left the broader day chilly) brought a type of hope. But a growing belly, a shrinking social circle (of one,) and tearful phone calls to a home that felt nearly imaginary in its distance undid Montreal’s spring. The suggestion came during one of a dozen exorbitantly expensive calls to a place so far away:

“You should leave Montreal. What is left there for you? Shame? A man who chooses another woman’s child over yours? Solitude?"

"Come back here? No!  Not after all you’ve done. You can have a life! There is no need to come home. But, yes. You do need people. With a baby on the way, you need people."

"We have people there—don’t worry. Well, near there. Well, not really near there. In Texas. Yes, Texas. Ok, maybe it’s not near Montreal, but it’s not here.”

#

Maybe the adventure started when, in my third trimester, my silent goodbye was marked by my boarding a bus in Montreal headed to New York City. There was a mixed crowd of passengers, some headed to the Big Apple for a weekend, others, like me, on a longer trajectory. The span between my arrival in Montreal and my departure from it was less than a year—but it was enough time for contradictions to stretch out. It was enough time to plot the next steps. A 12-hour bus-trip would lead to three nights on three different sofas in three different boroughs with distant relatives in New York—which would lead to a flight from La Guardia to Washington DC where I would run to catch a flight to Chicago, where I would sleep in a broken chair for six hours before boarding a plane to Austin, Texas. I had a cousin there. She was a nurse back home. In Texas, she was married.

Stepping up to the worst stereotypes, people in cowboy boots puffed their chests and sauntered through Austin’s airport. This was not Chicago, or Montreal, or home. I waddled through the airport on pumpkin-sized feet—hearing country music—wishing for snow.

#

Nothing about Texas dampened sound. I seemed to hear every little thing— things I didn’t want to hear, or even understand. Yet my people spoke in hushed tones—usually when I wasn’t visible to them. “Well, will she stay here when the baby is born?” and “We had no choice. A cousin is a cousin—no matter how many times removed. And here, we need people.”

But, in addition to needing people, cousins also wanted new lives. And having a new American life meant celebrating things like Thanksgiving, in Killeen, with your American husband while your removed-many-times unwed and pregnant cousin stays in your house because her feet are the size of pumpkins. And she needs bed rest.

#

The suctioning had stopped. The room’s buzz mellowed. Those in masks looked at me sideways, or not at all. Across the room, next to instruments that were supposed to help but didn’t, a baby lay under a blue sheet. It was so small. If you didn’t know a baby was under there, you might have thought nothing was there at all. A range of people, women mostly, some with tears in their eyes, tried to speak to me—maybe console me. And when one wheeled the cart with the baby over to me, I gripped her wrist before she could pull back the sheet. In my hand, her arm felt delicate. Like a child’s. “No,” I muttered and shoved the cart away. I turned my head before any reveal could catch me off guard.

Admittedly, their tears surprised me. I’d not cried. Some have said it was shock, but I don’t know that it was that.  I went into labor almost eight weeks early. Truthfully, I had been more concerned with the cross-country trip and settling into Texas than I was about the baby. As I’d planned it, once I’d settled in, I would be able to think of things like baby names, or maybe buy a new outfit or two for what would be my baby. I thought I had time. My head hadn’t reached the baby-part yet. Pregnancy was a condition—the end of which remained too far away for me to imagine—possibly to protect myself from the pieces of the fairytale that were missing. A baby girl without a father. Or a baby boy without a father. In truth, I didn’t give much, if any, thought to gender. In fact, I wouldn’t know its sex, until the very end.

#

I woke in a room with no instruments. No mound on a cart under a blue sheet. No people hovering. The lights were bright. I closed my eyes—and saw the mango grove in our backyard, and my little brother’s overly white teeth, and the turquoise paint of the walls in my old bedroom, and the perfectly grilled fish waiting for me on the kitchen table.

The opening door returned me to where I lay. A blonde woman with very pink cheeks and quivering skin under her chin smiled as she approached the foot of my bed. She put both hands on the rail to ask her question. I offered a tired grin. She tried again—I could tell, she tried to speak more slowly this time. But I could only give a please-forgive-me smile. She squeezed my hand and left the room—so that I could pick up where I left off—to close my eyes and imagine the flapping edges of palm fronds and the sound of kompa.

The knock pulled me from the place that allowed dreams—returning me to a hospital, in Texas. A petite woman poked her head around the door to give a little wave before stepping into the room. She wore a medical cap on her head but otherwise wasn’t dressed like anyone else who worked in the hospital. She extended her hand to shake mine—gently. My mother would have said she had skin like lait au chocolat, like mine.

She introduced herself—the formal way—before asking if she could sit at the edge of the bed.

“Of course.”

“We’ve not met before, but they asked me to come in here—to talk to you. It seems that there have been some language barriers. You don’t speak English, do you?”

In the few words that we’d exchanged, I’d not noticed we were speaking the same language. And till then, I don’t know that I’d ever been asked—you don’t speak English, do you—in the language I knew. In that moment, there might have been room for shame, but I didn’t feel it. Only relief amidst unrelenting pain. 

“No—well. I try, sometimes. It sounds right in my head, but the words come out—and they don’t understand me. So I don’t say much. At least, not out loud. But, you speak French?”

“A little,” she said, smiling—to encourage me, I imagine.

“I want to learn English—but I have heard that it is very difficult—words spelled differently, but sound the same. And rules that are meant for breaking. I will stick to French—or the English that stays in my head.”

She laughed. It felt good to curl my tongue around words that were familiar. And to do this with a stranger felt as if I were a part of a secret club. In Montreal, I didn’t have to go far to meet French-speakers. One could even meet a married one on the bus. But in Texas, from a hospital bed, it was my first chance to speak comfortably with someone I didn’t know. In hindsight, I imagine my enthusiasm added to her discomfort.

“Listen. They have asked me to come here to discuss something with you. Your baby. I’m sorry for your loss.”

I kept quiet. Not for lack of understanding.

“I want you to know that our team did everything they could to save her. We tried. She was a fighter. But in the end, the conditions were too much.”

To hide confusion, loneliness, fatigue, I let the brightness of the overhead lights distract me.

“I’m sorry for your loss. And if you want, I can help you with her funeral.”

“With HER what?” Here, the woman in the medical cap took a deep breath and looked away when I continued. “SHE. It is not a SHE. It didn’t have a life. What is there to celebrate? What should I cry for? No. You do whatever. No life. No funeral.”

“I understand how you feel, but the hospital. It’s just that. Well, there is a policy.”

“No.”

“I understand. I’m sorry. I wish I could help you.”

I saw her tears before she could turn her back to me and walk out of the room.

#

Maybe the adventure began when an orderly brought me to the fourth floor of the hospital and wheeled me into what looked like a small office. I sat in a wheelchair while a priest (of some variety) said words over a white box—not much bigger than a shoebox.  He looked mostly at the box when he spoke—while he said goodbye to, “Jane.” Someone had named the baby girl Jane (I saw the name when I signed the paper,) maybe only for this event. The same someone might have laid a pink carnation on top of the box.

Though I couldn’t understand, the priest’s words felt automatic—rehearsed. And the thought made me sad. And I wept for the sad thought. And when the priest swirled the air in front of him into the shape of a cross for the last time, he turned and spoke to me in sympathetic tones, for which I offered only another apologetic smile. He squeezed my shoulder before leaving me in the room with the box. I waited for the orderly to wheel me away.

Within a week, I left Texas.

#

Maybe the adventure began when I returned home. Ici, where my words aren’t threatened by translation or lost to irregular rules. Home, to reclaim my room with turquoise walls and eventually find a job at a bank—like him. Home, where I am the Directrice of Operations—a position to allow trips to Petionville, where I cross paths with another adventurer. And for the last three years, our quests have remained aligned.

I collect this story in my turquoise room, while our daughter races cars on the floor of my parents’ kitchen. Here, the briny scent of the perfectly grilled fish on my parents’ kitchen table is real. But the sound of crunching snow and the sight of pink carnations are relegated to the imagination. And time continues to string events into an adventure.

 

[Check out Auguste Budhram's back porch interview]