Identity

Fiction
Brittany Michelson


The Lady in the Park
Photo Credit: Christopher Walker

“Jesus, Julie, drop the baby, why don’t you?” Julie says, catching her foot on the pile of dirty clothes taking over the floor. She’s gotten in the habit of narrating her actions out loud, even though Elliot is much too young for words. She imagines him falling head first onto the hard wood floor, his tiny head bursting open and his brains flying out like Silly String. These thoughts come out of nowhere and it feels there is not a single way to stop them from surfacing.

She sits on the futon and holds Elliot to her chest. She touches her nose to his dark, sweaty head and inhales his scentless sweat, as if she can absorb how to be at peace with him through her nostrils. She fumbles with her blouse and guides his mouth to her nipple, then leans back and puts her feet on the coffee table.

“Hi Elliot,” Julie says with a gust of enthusiasm. Direct acknowledgment in a cheerful voice is one of the most effective methods of bonding. The other day she typed “How to bond with your baby” into Google and there were 55,600,000 results in .14 seconds. She realizes she isn’t the only mother who has asked this question, even though it feels this way when she watches other mothers. They seem to carry themselves as if light is streaming through their veins. She, however, must be missing the gene responsible for bonding.

“God, look at this place,” Julie says, scanning the cluttered living room. She feels panicked when she thinks of the emails she needs to answer and the bills she needs to pay, but it will take a few hours for the cable company to process her late payment and turn her Internet service back on.

“Unfold into the uncertainty of everything,” Kristen said last night in her new, enlightened speech. But Kristen has no one to take care of beside herself. Plus she’s in love, with a yoga teacher of all people. Lately, during phone conversations, Kristen inserts slices of wisdom about being present or thinking with the heart and not the head. Kristen knows about Julie’s propensity for anxiety, yet she makes it sound as if the brain were a machine that could be unplugged. Julie thinks back to the beginning weeks of dating Kenneth. Did little stars come out of her eyes? Was the world a spinning ball of light?

“Embrace each movement through the world,” Kristen said last week, or was it just the other day? Kristen has started sounding like a whole different person and Julie finds herself missing the friend she could be completely herself around. She misses the way the two of them would commiserate, viewing the world through a lens of cynicism.

She can’t bring herself to let Kristen in on the baby thoughts. What would she think if Julie told her how she imagined pushing Elliot’s stroller into oncoming traffic—how she could see her own hand doing it, and then saw herself stand on the sidewalk while his skull cracked open on asphalt?

She can hear Kristen saying, “Breathe deeply and surrender to the moment.”

But for Julie, letting go has always been much more difficult than holding on.

Elliot is overdue for his nap and Julie feels like a change of scenery, so she straps him into his car seat, plunks the stroller in the trunk, and starts driving west from Hollywood. Sometimes she puts him in the car and drives up and down her neighborhood, playing soft music from the classical station until he falls asleep. Back at the apartment she places him in the crib, silently begging for a flawless transition. If he wakes, she rubs his back and tries to sing, but she often resorts to playing the music mobile instead, because the sound of her own voice singing doesn’t sound convincing. Julie tries not to make the driving-around tactic a habit. Gasoline is expensive these days, and she can’t afford the luxury that wealthy mothers have in using a tank of gas to put the baby to sleep.

Elliot has been napping about thirty minutes by the time Julie parks the car in Beverlywood, an upscale neighborhood at the edge of Beverly Hills, but he needs at least an hour-and-a-half, otherwise the entire shape of the day changes. As she transfers the versatile car seat to the base of the stroller, he starts wailing.

“For God’s sakes, the world’s not going to come crashing down,” Julie says, and covers the stroller with two layers of blankets. She feels better when she can’t see his agitation. The sun is a tired baby’s enemy. She does a loop around the block and he doesn’t go back to sleep, but she moves towards the grass anyways, a surge of hunger in her stomach.

The crying blends with the noise of an electric saw, and of welding—of a wood structure being splintered and poked and prodded. His cry is the cry of a searching gull circling the sand; it morphs into the whine of a feral cat. She sits down and pulls the apple and cheese from her insulated lunch bag, then takes a balanced bite of each. The buzz of lawnmower, echo of hammering, and brush of wind through the leaves of the tree they sit under, irritates her. A car alarm goes off and she wants to rip the voice box out of the car. “For Christ’s sake, there’s a baby trying to sleep.”

She takes another bite of apple and cheese, concentrating on the way the two tastes work as a team. When he’s this overtired, it’s a matter of minutes until he falls asleep. The more she focuses on getting the bites just right—a little more apple, a little less cheese, now three-quarters cheese, one-quarter apple—the more she can block out the crying, until it has become an element of everything she can hear but is not attached to. It’s another layer of construction—part of the world’s work, but not her role in it.

“Get up and start strolling again,” she says out loud. But her body feels like the tree rooted in the ground. Oh, the tree never has to move, she thinks. He stays fixed in place, but grows and changes through the seasons, and is only responsible for bearing fruit, which falls from him and in an instant belongs to the world. The power she feels in being able to stay or go—in being able to keep him there, both satisfies and scares her.

A cop car drives by, oblivious to the agitated infant in the stroller. I’m not doing anything wrong, she thinks. I’m letting him cry himself to sleep—sleep he needs for proper functioning. She’s been reading online about the Cry It Out method. The theory claims that it’s perfectly fine and at times absolutely necessary, for a baby to cry itself to sleep, even if it takes awhile.

She has the same feeling with the passing cop car that she does in the presence of mothers in the park, the feeling that they can see through her, that they know—all of them do—that she has this thing inside of her that’s on the verge of snapping. Like a rubber band stretched too tight. Or a balloon filled with too much air—a bomb ticking away.

The baby’s crying often makes her feel crazy, like she wants to tear her hair out or shove a sock in his mouth, but when it stops—the instant it stops—all is right in the world. Everything that was stirred up is restored. It’s like the mounting tickle that’s wiped away in the instant a sneeze happens, or a building orgasm—the kind of agitated pleasure that begs for release and is relieved through climax. There are times, like right now, when his cry goes from full-blown to sudden silence, as if the cry fell off a cliff. Has a baby ever choked from crying? What if he had a heart attack from all the spasms of discontent pumping through his tiny chest?

She leans forward and lifts the edge of the blanket. Peering in at him, she sighs relief at the flutter of closed eyelids and his breath like the swell of a tiny wave. How sweet he is when sleeping. She can hardly contain the sense of responsibility she’s been given for something so tiny and so dependent upon her. The power of small movements and the fear of consequence that could result from making specific choices about this helpless being causes her face to flush and her heart to feel like an engorged burden in her chest. It often feels that choices are outside of her.

She has the restless desire to walk again. Pushing the stroller across the crosswalk, her heartbeat quickens and the handle feels slippery. What if someone plows right through us? What if an impulsive jerk on wheels wipes us out? At night, these thoughts do not rest. Dreams are filled with scenarios in which she is running in slow motion, trying to protect Elliot from a tsunami, a man with a brick, or a rabid tiger. She is unable to run fast enough—is not strong enough, good enough, or smart enough to help him. She lies perfectly still, afraid that her own ragged breath will wake him. She waits for a little sign, a turn, something. If it doesn’t come soon enough, she must go to the crib to check. She leans down and watches for movement, but sometimes his breathing is so faint she has to place a hand on his chest to feel the rise. This often wakes him.

She hears babies crying all the time, sees mothers pointing their fingers. Trees wag their leaves and the sun seers its harsh light into her skin. Even the birds point their beaks with accusation. Everything can see through her bone structure to her inadequacy as a mother.

She misses Scotch with soda. She misses morning runs and long, steaming showers. Mornings spent with silence and the Atlantic Monthly. She misses her old breasts, breasts that required nothing. They might’ve been small, but at least they didn’t ache from needing to be relieved. She wants breasts for sex, not for survival. And before all that, she misses taking a long drag on a Salem on those mornings with the Atlantic Monthly. She had quit smoking five years before she became pregnant, but this role of motherhood makes her pine for things she once had, as if the nature of habits will help reclaim her identity.

pencil

Brittany Michelson’s print work is published in PoemMemoirStory Magazine, If & When Literary Journal, The Poetry Of Yoga Vol. 2, and an anthology by Bona Fide Books. Online work appears in Bartleby Snopes, Glossolalia Fiction, The Whistling Fire, Sleet Magazine, Backhand Stories, Effluvia, and other journals. She is a teacher living in Topanga, CA (in the Los Angeles area.) Email: brittanymichelson[at]yahoo.com