With abject, slavish desire, with offhand, sloppy curiosity, with gratitude, with sedation, I was accidentally engendered. Never say the word rid around me. My mother tried to get rid of me. My face to this day is deformed, my forehead bumpy, puffy, and white as mold. Her attempt was halfhearted; her method unknown. Where do I feel it? In the lungs. It comes back in winter when I wheeze. It comes back when I feel cowardly. There’s pressure, slight at first, and frontal, then heavier and from all sides, as if I’m in a crushing machine that will reduce my mass to a minus number. Through it all, I’m hyperventilating, sucking oxygen as hard as I can, turning and twisting in my close, red space, inhaling all the Os I can find. Oxygen, that cool, sweet, slender thread of life I love. Oooooooooooooooo.
She failed. She let me live. With my big head softened up like that, I tried to go easy on her when I was born. Now, I failed. She pushed me out to the tune of a thousand and one blue curses. Given a choice, I would have stayed inside. She was glad I was out of her life and on my own. She put on lipstick and left the hospital.
It was an unpleasant interval. Where was her smell? I missed the sound of her voice echoing down through her innards to me. I’d grown used to its tone, its twang. Sometimes she sang. I missed our drugs, whatever they were. The rubber nipple held begrudgingly by the nurse delivered squeaky-clean nutrition. I refused it at first, looking for whatever it was I was used to. The nurse felt miffed and cut me off. Lacking our tranquilizers, disgusted by formula, I could have used a cigarette. No luck there either. People to the right and left of me were bawling. I gave it a try. Out came half a coo. I didn’t have the lungs for bellowing, thanks to you-know-who. I gave up wanting anything. That seemed to work. My first successful approach to life! I would remember it always.
Sunlight was entrancing. Neither too simple nor too complex. It was substanceless, yet it filled up the four pink nursery walls, entering the room in shafts, structures it accepted from the windows interspersed along the wall. Motes and flecks suspended in the air were illuminated by it as if they were valuable.There seemed to be more than enough of it outside the window. Sunlight: warm, silky, intelligent, unlimited, impartial, kind, unfathomable. I waved my fist in it, stirring it up, introducing a new smell that wrinkled my nose, the smell of bleach. All around me, people were wailing. I blew one bubble. I felt inadequate, envying their freedom, wondering what it would be like to throw back your head and let loose, test-driving a pair of healthy, new, red-blooded lungs.
Lying in the nursery, busy with its light, sniffing the air for any hint of lipstick, my ears ringing with the racket around me, a part of me loses heart. An institution is colder and emptier than a person, even if that person is sick of you.
I assume things. X is out there. I want her in here. I may not get what I want. I might get Y, the nurse I don’t want. The greatest question underlying all of this is time, the time between wanting and getting, between X and Y. I wait. Waiting means becoming sidelong in time so it carries you along without shearing off something you might need later. It works: I feel loved by the light. The womb was dark. I could never tell if I was dreaming my dream in there or hers.
Outside of the hospital entrance, parked at the curb, is a bluecar. My mother in her red dress must have descended to the lobby in the elevator in a state of intolerable withdrawal. She must have settled her beautiful bottom down into the soft front seat of the roadster at the curb. She’s counting the minutes. She must have turned to the man at the wheel with something of a promise, something of a plea. She sends the two children in the backseat up the hospital steps for me.
My brother is seven, my sister five. He’s comfortable in his skin, she’s ashamed of hers. Douglas Cavanaugh, Jr., that’s his given name. They call him Little Duck. He has that kind of beauty that’s startling in a man. I don’t mean the baby-face cuteness. I mean beauty, the Jesus kind, that makes people want to follow you and devour you.
My sister Jima wears a yellow dress. Buttons are missing. Her shoulders twist in place as she tries not to take up space. Her sweetness and allure are sidelong. Her long, brown, dusty ponytail is half out of the clasp. Her teeth are crooked, turninga corner suddenly in the middle of her smile, like Big Duck’s before the dentures. Her pale gray eyes can see for miles. Her eyebrows are dusty; her elbows and forearms are dusty. Her knees, her feet. Everything about her is dusty. Where we live, the wind blows grit from the played-out gravel mine into our pores. The air sifts fine black silt from the cornfields into our hair. Silent, dusty and barefooted, they stand there looking very much like children who don’t belong in public. The dirt and their bare feet erase how good-looking they are. This is the first public building they’ve seen. It’s quiet for its size and solidity. The unnatural hush in the halls seems to help along the doctors and nurses with the importance of their jobs. Little Duck and Jima are used to a floor that’s soft and pliant, built of hand-sawn planks of pine. This floor’s hard and cold, gleaming granite, rank with disinfectant. Little Duck lopes across it. Jima moves forward uncertainly, step by step, looking down at her feet so she doesn’t make a mistake.
They pass a row of chairs, somber, upholstered things meant for visitors. A man is sitting in one, reading a magazine, smoking, flicking ashes into a large, strong, freestanding steel ashtray. There’s the whooshing sound of a great weight falling evenly through the air, accompanied by a humming that gets louder and louder. The humming terminates abruptly in a hydraulic sigh. A pair of steel doors glides apart, disappearing into the lobby wall. Large, clean, well-dressed people are standing there, trapped inside a steel box recessed in the wall, though they don’t seem upset. In fact, they seem bored. My brother and sister jump out of their path as they walk into the lobby. “Goin’ up?” The black man in the green suit who’s driving this thing is talking to Little Duck. The man sits on a half stool that unfolds from the elevator wall. His right hand holds half a steering wheel, his left hand holds a knob that opens and shuts the big steel doors with folding Xs. His white hair is tightly curled like pubic hair. Little Duck and Jima stare at the pink skin of the man’s gums and palms, wondering if the black color will eventually wear off the rest of him too. The man begins to laugh merrily, a skittering laugh full of “K” sounds as air is scraped against the roof of his mouth. His shoulders jump up and down with joy. “James is you fust niggah!” he says. “Y’all ain’t nevah seena niggah befo’. Doan be ’fray. Step in-sigh.” They slip inside the elevator car quick, afraid of the doors. “What flo?” he says. They don’t know. “Who y’all heah fo to see?”
“A baby,” Little Duck says.
“Thas three.” As James slides the knob, the Xs flatten into horizontals, closing the doors with the heavy, rolling sound of oiled steel. A whorling feeling inside their stomachs tells my brother and sister they’re moving, but they can’t tell if they’re going up or down. They cling to the wall to steady themselves. When James opens the doors at the pink walls of Pediatrics, Little Duck and Jima won’t get off. They’re afraid of falling through the dark, inchwide gap of nothingness between the elevator car and the granite floor.
“Doan look down,” James says. “Look straight and fly over.”They do. The floor they land on doesn’t move. They watch gratefully as James pulls the steel doors shut again, locking himself in. They find their way to the newborns, surprising the nurse. She’s snickering now, pointing out ugly me to Dr. Prescott as he makes his rounds with his cold metal stethoscope, checking our hearts. I’m lying there in my hospital bassinet, wrapped in my white flannel blanket, wearing my white cotton infant gown, not knowing what to expect, when I smell our dirt. Hoo-ray! Little Duck and Jima are standing in the doorway. They watch as the nurse flirtatiously removes the doctor’s authoritative, horn-rimmed eyeglasses and places them on my soft, newborn, disfigured face. I look about forty. The nurse laughs hard. A mean laugh that excludes everyone but herself and Dr. Prescott.
The doctor is taken aback. He is a literal man and can’t see all that well without his glasses. The nurse is rough as she picks me up with the doctor’s huge horn-rims balancing precariously on my small, soft bump of a nose. She thinks I’m inanimate—Ican tell by the jerky shove of her thumbs on my ribs. I’d like to shove her back some day. She uses me as a puppet to poke a little innocent fun at the doctor. “Give the bitch more gas—I want peace and quiet around here,” she says, imitating his voice exactly. That sends him into hysterics, a frightening sound, the sound of a controlled person finally letting loose. She laughs with him, following the up-and-down of his voice in an intimate, explicit way that tries to draw the attention back to her.
Bravery makes Jima defiant. When she’s angry, her pale gray eyes grow dark and speckled. Her sidelong approach is cast aside for a direct one, born of conviction. She walks straight up to the nurse. Little Duck is right behind her. “What are you two doing here?” the nurse says, reversing the blame. She gives Dr. Prescott his glasses back. “You’re to wait at the nurse’s station,” she says. But my brother and sister don’t move. He’s beautiful and calm with his deep-eyed stare. She’s mad and insistent. Nobody makes fun of their little sister. Jima holds out her arms to take me. The nurse hands me over. In the lightness of the touch of Jima’s hands, the careful, tender placement of the palms, in the protective crook of the elbow, in the lub-dub whisper of the heart through her yellow dress, I feel important. I feel love. I am a new little me that my sister wants. Whatever I have is yours, her heart says to me through her dress. The nurse presents the clipboard to my brother. He signs me out with anX. Off we go. Jima steadies me against the topsy-turvy flying motion of the elevator. She carries me through the hush of the lobby. She braces me against the smell of lipstick in the front seat of the blue car. My dangerous mother is near. I’m thrilled, though I react by holding my breath. I will have to get used to the tinny, distant sound of her voice in the air outside of the womb. Big Duck is at the wheel in his white hat. The sight of me rankles him. It comes across as a single, sludgy green wave of hate issued from his jaw. His lips curl with pleasure at the sight of my disfiguration. It serves me right. He smells like whisky and cigarettes. I need one, but I don’t know how to ask.
He drives away, making my brain spin, my insides queasy. Jima steadies me against the flying motion of the road. There are careening twists and turns that throw our bodies left and right. There are dips and bumps that send our stomachs into flips. There is the taste and smell and weight of dust, Iowa dust, dust rising in funnels that jet forth from our tires where the tread bites into the dirt, rising, rising up into the air, sifting down, down through the top of the open window, settling ever so gently and companionably on our skins. The road home. It’s a much wilder ride than when I was inside.