KATHY LOU SCHULTZ
Demon on Wheels
When you phoned her yesterday you were going to tell her about a book that you were reading, but when she didn’t pick up, you didn’t leave a message because you didn’t want to be a bother, or, as she said, “high maintenance,” but explaining this to her, you realize, is in fact more of a bother so perhaps you should have left the message, or better yet, not phoned at all.
She didn’t actually call you “high maintenance,” but instead said to you, “Don’t you think you are high maintenance?” so any pronouncements to be made would have to issue forth from your own mouth. Knowing that your future self will recall this two-word label with shame, you carefully embrace the words, two overly ripe tomatoes that you are nonetheless choosing to put on the conveyor belt in the checkout line.
“Yes, I do,” you say, softly forming your lips around the words so as not to be in the mode of aggressively returning a serve with a wicked top spin. Then you say, “and so are you,” and smile in what you feel to be a sweet and accepting manner while her denials spin toward your head, and it is perhaps then when you say, “Would you like me to leave?” which you now realize is a question much in the same mode as, “Don’t you think you are high maintenance?”
In the therapist’s office, your partner describes you as an expensive sports car. He explains that you are finely tuned. He says that when conditions are optimal, there is no one who can pass you. Nothing can slow you down.
You stare at the metaphors falling out of his mouth, as if you’ve never seen this person before. You think of the movie version of Speed Racer in which Christina Ricci plays Trixie, Speed’s girlfriend. You wonder if in this scenario you are to identify with Trixie, Speed, or the Mach 6.
You also recall the one time you rode in the back of a Mercedes in the casual carpool from Oakland across the Bay Bridge into downtown San Francisco, luxuriating in the tactile pleasures of the sumptuous interior despite yourself, and then walked to the law firm where you performed your duties as a proofreader and wrote poems at lunch.
You snap to attention when his tale takes a turn and he begins to describe a scenario involving you and your pregnant body in which conditions were far from optimal. In fact, the road ahead winds higher and higher around a mountain without guardrails and a queasiness arising from bodily memory begins to announce itself.
Just then, you recall that she sold her Mercedes to a neighbor down the street because it was too “high maintenance.” Nonetheless, you dwell on the satisfaction you feel in how appropriately the term “break down” could be employed in the field of metaphors at play in that very moment.
A person in possession of a body that is in labor for 14 hours, given a dose of Pitocin introduced through the IV without advance notice–which causes violent contractions that dangerously reduce the baby’s heartrate, a sharp downward line in the black ink on the paper spilling from the monitor and onto the floor–which thereafter causes an epidural to be required, only to be told that she must now have emergency surgery, might be in a position to “break down.”
The “break” might occur in language, as in the inability to thereafter remember often-used terms such as “epidural,” words which may seem to recall some failure on her part. The failure to control the naturalness of the birth experience. The experience of being acted upon despite being a person.
Or, as soon as the experience is recalled as in the sudden display of a movie being projected onto the side of a building in brightly colored scenes that burst and fade, the person’s consciousness may be dragged below a dark field heavy with exhaustion above which she cannot keep her head.
Or the “break” may occur in the body itself, as when the surgeon’s knife draws itself down from a point just below the belly button to one just above the pubic bone and now that we’re “under the hood,” he says should we go ahead and tie your tubes.
Or that the baby does not cry at first, but later he is booted out of the hospital nursery for the crime of crying too much and you are never allowed to sleep. Or that they fail to dress the baby and he is thereafter carted off to reheat beneath something that you imagine resembles a french-fry lamp.
Or that a doctor you’ve never met rips the bandages off your tender abdomen without warning and declares, “You’re ready to go!”
Such a person may break from a lack of maintenance.
Because the United States of America and the state of Tennessee and the city of Memphis and the University do not offer paid parental leave in 2007 in the year of our lord, or the 21st century, and a search of the faculty handbook for the word “maternity” comes up empty and the United States of America does not offer its citizens universal health care and your health insurance is tied to your job, and if you take unpaid leave you will have to pay for your own health insurance but since you will not be paid you will therefore have to pay for your health coverage with the flowers of your imagination and this is not yet legal currency and the flowers of your imagination can very well conjure the number of zeroes that can attach themselves to the figure at the end of a hospital bill so that losing your house and being homeless with your baby and your PhD could very well attach themselves to the miracle of giving birth, you go back to work immediately after having emergency surgery during the birth of your baby.
Or, rather, the surgery occurred not during the birth exactly which seems to have ended in failure, a baby in the right position, head down, but stuck somehow, so that the surgeon cut your body open vertically, freeing the baby, as with the jaws of life, which one could say was the moment of his birth, and he didn’t cry right away but appeared surprised, it seemed mechanical rather than miraculous.
You failed to bring the birth to completion, unlike your friend who gave birth at home in a pool and felt empowered, you feel acted upon, not a person but a vehicle that carried the baby and once the baby is separated from you via the jaws of life, you disappear from view.
To be clear, by “no maternity leave,” you don’t mean that you only got two weeks or two days off. You mean that right after the surgery, when you were moved from the operating room to a hospital bed, you picked up your laptop and began to answer emails from 70 students before the epidural wore off.
No one wants you to complain about this. When you gather the courage, and though shaking, say the words “no maternity leave,” “no time off,” the listener nods and says “Yes, the same thing happened to me. I only got six weeks off” and you wonder if your words become warped and unintelligible as soon as they hit the air, and you can no longer say anything else. A foot presses down on your throat and pushes out all your breath. Stop acting like a diva. Stop being such a bitch. Stop bothering me with this. Be happy that the baby is healthy. Be happy.
There was a time when you fell into a thick, hot sleep only to be awakened an hour later to nurse the baby. This will become story, re-patched narrative, a leaky hose. The time he recognized your face. The time he matched cause with effect. Flashing lights, music, wanting to move your foot and then watching it move. Awareness of hands and their uses.
You were a vehicle for incubating the baby and you have disappeared from view. Your face is replaced with a smile of gratitude and dedication to hard work. You are a machine that produces milk and e-mails and comments on class assignments and clean laundry. A machine that produces no noise.
When you walk into the interviewing room and realize that the door has locked behind you, that you are now locked in with your hungry, one-month-old infant, you are afraid to nurse the baby in their presence, as this too will be evidence of your “break down.” Whereas before when you asked for help from the lactation consultant who spat condescension at your situation, “Well, maybe you didn’t realize it would be so hard!” and your difficulties of nursing every two hours for an hour while still working were signs of your ridiculous incompetence, now actually nursing the baby will surely be a sign of your insanity.
A doctor is called and a message from this doctor whom you have never seen nor spoken to is relayed: We will only help you if you stop nursing your baby.
Though you have slept only two or three hours a night for the past month and wavering lines like the heat off hot asphalt appear in your peripheral vision and course through your body like terror, this decree along with the snap of the lock on the door as it returned automatically to its place and the lack of experience on the face of the blond woman who leaves the room to make phone calls produce a burst of clarity, a strike of lightning burning the air immediately in front of your eyes.
The husband, who previously had told you to tell them what’s really going on, to tell the truth, now has the look of a cornered antelope who wants you to say whatever is required to ensure that the three of you can leave together.
The burning air cauterizes any impulse toward truth telling. No, you’ve changed your mind. You don’t need any help at all. You are fine. Just fine, thank you, backing away from the table, careful not to trip on the legs of the chair and jostle the baby, cradling his head in one hand and pressing his warm body into your chest so that your hearts match. You resist terror. You project a beam of sanity and competence.
In fact, you’re finely tuned. You’re off and flyin' as you gun the car around the track. You’re jammin' down the pedal like you’re never comin' back. A speed racer. A demon on wheels.