Rippled and Split

Finally I broke the silence, though I don’t remember what I said. My mother-in-law, sitting in a chair on the other side of the hospital bed, lifted her head and looked at me as if she hadn’t understood the words. She held my gaze for a pause, her small mouth pursed, and looked away, back down at my wife, her daughter, asleep between us.

Our corner of the room was dimly lit and beyond us was a black curtain of shadow. The bed rails were up. I leaned forward in my chair, my heels against the legs, elbows on thighs, and listened to the sound of breathing. Outside our door, two nurses spoke in a series of sh and sp sounds; one jangled her keys and walked away. Fingers together, I ran my hands back and forth through my hair.

It felt very late, the time of night when being awake was a transgression, some kind of act of defiance. Everything around us slept, including the cars in the parking lot where the pavement had cooled. Occasionally it dribbled rain.

Under the sheets, Abigail twitched and I looked up. Her expression hadn’t changed; her mouth hung open slightly and her head was tilted back and toward her mother. Her skin was yellow and she was swollen all over. Her cheeks, her eyelids.

I looked at my mother-in-law again, but she did not look at me. She kept her gaze fixed on Abigail, nervously, as if afraid that her daughter might wake up. She reached in and stroked the back of her daughter’s hand, her own hands swollen with worry and arthritis. I began to reach in too but stopped. An IV tube ran the length of Abigail’s arm, across her wrist, and disappeared beneath a stitch of tape just below her knuckles. A purplish bruise had formed where the needle irritated the skin. A brown smudge of dried blood was beginning to crack and flake off.

In my mother-in-law’s face I saw the hands of a clock, spinning backward toward the start of the day. She was pale. Her eyes sat upon deep, dark pockets and her black hair fell wearily from behind her ears.

“Alice,” I said to her. “You want to sleep for a while? I’ll wake you if…”

She looked like she was considering it, although I knew she wasn’t. “No,” she said. “I’ll just stay up a little longer. I’d just really like to be here when she wakes up.” She looked up now to see if I’d accepted that much, or if she should go on. I nodded and she nodded, and we both looked back down.

I sat back and scratched at the meat of my thumb. I opened my hand and noticed a spot of dried blood on my palm. I held it close to my face and ran a finger lightly across it. It could be all that’s left, I thought. I touched my tongue with the tip of my finger and rubbed it on my palm in a circular motion like paint on a pallet, trying to make the red spot bigger. After a while I lay my open hand down on my knee and leaned my head forward against the cool rail.

I’m not sure if I slept just then, or if my neurons fired instinctually, flashing random images across my mind, to keep me from collapsing onto the floor. I saw the broad side of our house, where the ivy clings to brick, and our bedroom window. I saw the wooden birdfeeder that hangs by a rope from one of the lower branches of the maple tree twisting slowly in the wind, one way and then the other, empty. I heard wind chimes. The sun shone but the tint was off, casting our house in a dirty yellow light, making it look old, worn, and abandoned. It felt prophetic and wrong.

I saw Abigail contort and stiffen, pulling the IV stand over. I saw one of the nurses lunge for it clumsily. I smelled blood and feces. Tasted panic in the room. I watched the obstetrician pull an arm out of her.

I saw our bedroom from the inside. The sheets and covers kicked into a heap near the footboard. A damp towel, some worn clothes. The dirty yellow light slid across the carpet and over one corner of the bed.

My head bobbed up from the rail and I was awake. In the black glass of the window I saw my reflection blinking at me. I checked my watch.

Abigail was still, and then her chest rose and fell. Under the covers, her stomach was still big. Alice was leaning back in her chair, her head against the wall, resting her eyes. I shuffled my feet and she opened them. She had been holding a book on her lap for hours, which still sat there unopened.

I stood and rubbed my eyes. My contacts had been in too long and felt sandy and stiff. My knee ached. I stretched and my back popped twice. Alice didn’t move, hadn’t moved in hours. Hadn’t slept in probably twenty. Had hardly spoken a word since we last saw the baby. The obstetrician had brought us both into an operating room to see it twenty-five minutes after they wheeled it away from the birthing room. Its naked body was small and gray. I looked at the doctor; he was speaking but there was no sound coming out of his mouth, no sound coming from anywhere. His mustache bobbed and twitched. He made small gestures with his hands that looked almost comic out of context, and a four-fingered smear stretched diagonally across his scrubs. The light above the baby began to brighten and I looked up at it, squinting. Next to me, Alice held her brow and wept, her shoulders bouncing up and down. The doctor’s hands moved faster as he gesticulated and he shifted from one foot to the other like Charlie Chaplin. His mouth jerked around his face recklessly. A flash of tongue and teeth. Alice’s shoulders beat up and down like a paint mixer and the light grew brighter. I held my hand up to it. I looked to the doctor and he stared back at me, his tongue frozen between his lips. He stepped toward me and the room went white.

“Alice,” I whispered across the bed. “Can I get you anything?” She squeezed her face into a taut smile and shook her head no, then let the muscles fall slack.

“You’ve done plenty,” she said finally. Her mouth was a dark crease across the horizon of her face. “Haven’t you.” I could see two squares of light in the lenses of her glasses. She sat perfectly still, one hand tucked underneath Abigail’s forearm. I opened my mouth to speak and she turned her head away.

Along one wall was a table that, much earlier in the day, Abigail’s family had covered with bags of chips, boxes of doughnuts, and a premature bouquet of flowers. I walked over and picked at the doughnuts. That afternoon, finding myself standing next to the table on my way from one place to another, I’d eaten four out of nervousness, with a cup of black coffee. They churned in my stomach. In the dim light, they looked gray and rotted, like wheels of mold. I felt my insides flutter and moved to the bathroom. I squatted in front of the toilet and waited, but nothing happened. I got on my knees, crossed my feet at the ankles, and lifted the seat. I propped my elbow onto the rim of the bowl and nestled my head into the crook of my arm.

It was the sex that saved us. Otherwise, I would have left. Had been leaving, actually, little by little, for months. It was in the kitchen. We hadn’t made love in eight weeks, and I didn’t miss it. I had taken to opening beers but didn’t have the passion to drink them, so I tapped the sweating bottle with my fork instead of eating. The ceiling fan ticked above us.

Abigail sat across from me with her hands in her lap, staring at the floor where the tile had rippled and split, her long, dark hair draped down around her face. Our plates of rice and vegetables had gone cold and lost their smell. Abigail nibbled on the tip of her thumbnail.

“Are you finished?” she asked.

“Hm?”

“I said, are you done?” She looked at me, her mouth ajar. Her mother’s teeth, the bottom two angled in just slightly.

I looked at my plate and back up at her. I swallowed. “Yeah, I think I might be.”

Her lip trembled and she came toward me. I thought she might hit me but she put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me, roughly. Her spit was cold on my lips and chin. She smelled of baby oil and cooking grease. She went right for my pants, undoing the clasp and shoving her hand down inside. Her breath was erratic, her eyes open. With her lips rubbing across mine, her tongue on my teeth, she pulled her T-shirt up above her breasts, her hand still down the front of my pants, squeezing, and undid the clasp on her bra. She pulled me to my feet and slid my jeans and boxers down toward my knees, then did the same with her own jeans and underwear. She wrapped her hand around the back of my neck and dropped backward toward the floor, looking up at me to make sure I was going down with her, and lay back on the dusty tile. The cold floor offered no cushion, no give, and she did her best to look like she was enjoying herself.

I finished quickly, and collapsed on top of her. Neither of us spoke. She wrapped her arm around my neck, put her hand over her eyes, and cried. Warm tears slid down the back of my ear.

I covered the rip in the tile with a strip of duct tape. We ate ice cream and pretended to love each other. Abigail dug in the garden in one corner of the back yard, planted her sweat in the soil. I stopped opening beers. On the couch, she put her hand on the cushion in between us and told me about the baby. The fabric had worn thin but still held together.

The baby.

I lifted my head from my arm and backed away from the toilet. Jesus, the baby. I saw Abigail in the sun, wearing a hat and gardening gloves, talking to our neighbor. We haven’t picked a name yet, she said. We don’t want to name it until we see its face. I saw its face. I saw the obstetrician pull an arm out of her. A head, a blue shoulder. He set it down and the arm flopped heavily. He put his hand on his heart and wiped his glove down diagonally across his torso, and began pumping its heart with his index and middle fingers. I saw Abigail contort and stiffen, her pupils dilate, her face go white. She inhaled deeply. I smelled blood and feces. Tasted panic in the room.

My stomach caved in on all sides. I lurched toward the toilet. My lips curled away from my face and I vomited, once, twice. I held on to the rim of the bowl with both hands, my mouth open, a string of mucus hanging from my bottom lip. My neck tightened and I vomited one last time.

I stood. My hands shook and my legs were unsteady. I leaned on the sink and turned on the hot water, brought some up to my face and into my mouth. I splashed my face again, and looked down at my palms. The red spot of blood was gone. I’d washed it away.

My face in the mirror looked pale, my eyes sunken. I felt hollow and abandoned. It was nearly dawn.

Alice stood over Abigail, her fingers laced together across her stomach. She stood as if at the foot of a grave. I looked at Abigail. Her head had drifted further away from me, her chest rose and fell.

“Are you all right?” I asked. Alice looked at me wearily, her lids half down and puffy, frowning. She lacked the energy to do anything else.

“Why are you here?” she whispered. I moved my lips to speak, but she spoke again. “Why?”

I looked at Abigail for some kind of explanation. She would be waking up soon in pain, confused, wondering what had happened. I looked back up at Alice.

“She did this for you,” she said. “And now look…” She held her palms up and scanned Abigail’s sleeping body. “Look what’s left for you.” She held her brow and wept, just like before. I stood there blinking, my arms at my sides, imagining the devastation beneath the covers. The ragged ends of split flesh pulled together and stitched, already bruised, puckered around the thick black sutures.

Alice put her face in her hands and breathed in, then rubbed her cheek with her shoulder.

“So why are you here? What are you waiting for?”

I looked at Abigail, swollen, yellow, her hair a greasy mat against the stiff hospital pillow. I took a step toward her. I didn’t know what I was doing.

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