The room was small and windowless. The nurse led Gabrielle in, in one breath apologizing for the frozen TV and instructing where to set her baby’s car seat. Gabrielle could tell she had been through this same routine hundreds of times, which both reassured and terrified her. Were mistakes more likely to happen the more confident one was in their capabilities? She avoided the temptation to recite the steps to the circumcision procedure that she’d read online. She didn’t want to be “that mom” but she was also just so tired. Scheduling the procedure had been a source of drama in the days after her son’s birth. She and her husband had fought more than once about it. Their doctors didn’t seem to care that they were frustrated at learning the circumcision didn’t happen in the hospital after birth, but instead weeks later at an outpatient center, so they took their frustration out on each other instead.
Having been informed that the circumcision needed to happen within the first month of their son’s life, Gabrielle burst into tears when she was met with a “we’ll return your call within seventy two hours” outgoing message when she called to schedule, berating herself for waiting until the fourth day of her son’s young life to call. Why hadn’t she taken initiative immediately after receiving the pamphlet for the outpatient center in the hospital? The doctor had to practically scream to be heard over the wails of her hungry son and, if she had had her wits about her at the time, she would have said can’t you see we’re in the middle of something right now? Reality had become slippery in the hours and days after her son’s birth and she had begun to prepare for an uncircumcised future, although she had no way of grasping what that actually meant or if it was even a bad thing.
But now here they were, her son tiny and clueless, Gabrielle bloated and exhausted. Her son was three weeks exactly and wearing a onesie that dwarfed him, the arm and leg holes enormous. Her husband had joked he’d grow up to be one of those teenagers that exclusively wore baggy shirts and she found herself wanting to laugh, but the sound was trapped.
“…and then we’ll bring him back here and show you how to diaper him and then you can feed him.” Gabrielle blinked and realized the nurse had been talking this entire time.
“Sounds good,” Gabrielle said, because what else does one say right before your newborn is about to be whisked away for surgery? She longed for the coffee she’d left in her car, abandoning it at the last minute because it was nearly impossible to carry with the car seat, but also because she wasn’t yet confident enough in her answer as to why she had decided to drink coffee while breastfeeding. Avoiding the possibility of the conversation altogether had seemed like the wiser choice.
“OK, so?” The nurse paused and then held out her arms, expectantly. Only then did Gabrielle realize that, at some point, she’d clutched her son even tighter to her chest. She kissed his forehead and then delicately repositioned him. What a strange feeling, willingly handing your child over to a stranger.
The nurse confidently tucked him against her body, his face squished against her shoulder. Keeping one hand on his back, she used the other to readjust her face mask, which had drooped, revealing her nose, which was freckled and pierced. It felt almost salacious, seeing a body part Gabrielle had become accustomed to seeing only on herself and close family, and she found herself looking away.
“Do you want to watch TV?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle looked back as she answered, the nurse’s face once again hidden.
“It’s not working.”
“It should though. It’s been doing that all morning.” The nurse gestured vaguely to the screen, where it was frozen on what looked like the president speaking, blue drapes on either side, but the fuzzy quality of the picture made it impossible to make out anything else. By the time she looked back to ask how long the procedure should take, the nurse and her baby were gone.
Since her son had been born, Gabrielle had become increasingly convinced she was no longer living in the same reality she’d occupied before. Of course, there was the obvious newness that was her son’s sudden existence, her huge pregnant belly already practically forgotten. But it was more than that. While she was living in the same house, wearing the same clothes, driving the same car, it seemed the world around her had changed. The sun shone brighter. There was an expansiveness to the sky she hadn’t quite noticed before. Sounds of her city life reverberated every nook and cranny of her apartment in a way that was almost debilitating. When she took her son for a walk, the sidewalks were familiar, but the faces were not. She’d never noticed so many people blatantly staring at her before and she found herself constantly touching her face, readjusting the face mask that had basically become another appendage, tugging at the uncomfortable nursing bra that never fit quite right.
Once, she’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and pointed to the sky, asking, “What is that?”
Her husband followed her finger, then asked, “What?”
“Those things. The streaks in the sky.” She pointed her finger harder, as if that would help her husband understand. In the stroller, her son cooed, and Gabrielle found herself automatically making noises back at him, her face stretching into a smile, a reflex she was unaware she possessed.
“You mean the contrails?”
“The—the contrails.” Her husband repeated the word as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s the condensation that follows airplanes.” Gabrielle continued staring, offering up no recognition. Her husband scoffed and then laughed. “Come on, Gab, you know this.”
He’d been saying things this way since the baby had been born, as if whatever Gabrielle couldn’t remember was tucked away in her mind, just out of reach. But try as she might, Gabrielle conjured nothing of familiarity.
“I’ve never seen them before.” She was clutching her son’s tiny hand, his fingers squished inside her palm as she craned her neck to the sky.
“Of course you have.”
A flare of irritation fired in Gabrielle’s chest, but she didn’t avert her gaze from the thin white streak marking the sky. She could lie and agree with her husband, but something about new parenthood had made her more determined to speak up for herself, even though she was less confident about anything then she’d ever been in her life. The overwhelming amount of decisions they’d had to make in the first few weeks alone had been crushing and she frequently felt, despite being surrounded by plenty of onlookers, like she’d been left alone to drown. So, when she sensed an opportunity to confidently assert herself, she did it, even though she was often patently lying.
In this case, however, she had no sense of the truth. Her memory seemed devoid of anything, which was unsettling in its own right. She was sure there was some ordinary explanation. Sleep deprivation, memory lapse, the “Mom brain” her female family members kept mentioning, chuckling knowingly as they did. But to Gabrielle, it was more evidence that her reality was not the same as before. The longer she stared at the thin white strip, the more she felt the dizzying sensation that, without realizing, she had ended up somewhere entirely unfamiliar.
It was as if she had blinked and shifted her reality. Blink, now her home office was a nursery. Blink, a baby was suddenly attached to her breast at inexplicable hours. Blink, her husband sleeping in their hospital room, using his face mask to cover his eyes. Ever since the hospital, the question would pop into her mind, whose baby is this? She never could recollect actually thinking this, only that the question was suddenly there, like it had been abandoned by someone in a hurry. Each time it appeared she was unsettled, guilty at the thought. She knew if given the choice, she would choose the reality with her new son in it, whichever one that was, but this realization didn’t change the fact that everything felt slightly off. Like Dorothy surviving the tornado only to find that everything’s now in color.
“I’m telling you, I’ve never seen these before in my life.” Her son started to fuss, and she realized her grip had grown stronger. She loosened it but kept her eyes on the sky, where more of the white tails had appeared, as if by magic. Now that she had noticed one, she couldn’t help but notice dozens more, cluttering the blue expanse. She watched as one grew longer, stretching out behind a plane that moved quickly across the sky. By the time the plane vanished, it had left a long white trail behind it, slicing the sky in half. Where am I? she wondered. Have I been here before?
Once alone in the room, she was momentarily dizzy from the sudden silence and the separation from the baby who had spent more of his life attached to her than not. She opened the book she’d been reading since before her son was born and stared at the page. She thought about what the nurse and doctor might be talking about as they performed the operation, hoping they didn’t notice that his eyes were two different sizes, feeling inexplicably responsible for this small quirk of his otherwise perfect face. On the television screen, the president was still frozen, evidently speaking at what looked like a press conference, and Gabrielle tried to figure out what it was about before remembering she hadn’t watched the news in a month. She vaguely remembered some of her colleagues making plans to protest on the day the new Supreme Court justice was sworn in, but she couldn’t remember if the ceremony had already taken place or not. In the last few years, her office had been overwhelmed by initiatives to embrace social movements in an effort to appear as welcoming and forward-thinking as possible, but open discussions of political beliefs were discouraged and often outright prohibited. She knew all of her colleague’s preferred pronouns, but not who they had voted for in the most recent election, and she found herself momentarily puzzled by how others somehow knew enough to plan a group protest when they weren’t even allowed to share what political party they were a member of.
She eyed the screen for a few more moments, looking away when she felt drowsiness settling in. Sleep was such a rarity that she couldn’t sit still anymore for fear of passing out from exhaustion. She pushed the book off her lap and stood, doing a few paces of the small room. There were two chairs and, with the car seat on the floor, she only had a few feet to move freely, which she did until she felt some of the exhaustion drain away. She pulled her phone out to text her husband. His job had deemed him essential, and they were reluctant to give him the two weeks off he’d requested, as if having a baby was an inconvenience that could simply be dealt with in spare time. She wrote “all going OK, he’s getting the procedure done now” and attached a picture she had taken of him in his car seat earlier, clutching his fists to his face and looking slightly terrified as if he knew something was amiss. She pressed send and watched the status bar idle slowly, only then noticing that she had no signal.
“Shoot,” she muttered. She leaned against the wall by the door frame and checked for a wi-fi network, clicking on the one labeled “TRG Guest.” She quickly entered her email and name and felt her eyes cross as she waited to connect. She groaned when her screen returned an “Unable to connect” and re-entered her information a second time. She lowered her phone and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. Blue skies, a river stretching out, the inside of an empty theater. She wasn’t sure where these images came from, but they were there each time she closed her eyes. She felt that she was viewing someone else’s memories, which had made sleep even more problematic than it already was, simultaneously battling exhaustion and the notion that she was somehow stepping inside someone else’s mind. Mist hovering over a grassy lawn, flowers drooping over a balcony, a single cappuccino on a green patio table.
Voices in conversation. The words sounded familiar so she opened her eyes and listened as an unfamiliar voice recited the same instructions she had received earlier. The footsteps grew in volume and then faded as they passed her room and moved further down the hallway. She wondered who the other parents were. A mom, alone, like her? In her struggle to maneuver the car seat through the lobby and into their designated room she’d noticed virtually nothing else about the clinic. How many other rooms, how many other parents bringing their sons, the tiny patients, for the same procedure? She closed her eyes, waiting for one of the images from before to return, but was quickly brought back by her watch buzzing. The wi-fi must have finally connected and she looked at the small screen but, instead of finding a message from her husband, she was met with one of the condescending alerts from her fitness tracker: There’s still time, Gabrielle. You can reach your move goal with just a brisk 34 minute walk. Gabrielle scoffed. She wasn’t sure what her watch constituted as “brisk.” She walked practically every day while pregnant and her watch still prodded her to do more. During those many months, she’d meant to look to see if there was a way to indicate pregnancy so her watch would bully her less; now, she kept meaning to see if there was a way to turn the alerts off altogether but never managed to keep the thought in her mind long enough to actually act on it. She went to look at her phone when, suddenly, the TV started working.
Gabrielle startled. She looked at the screen but the press conference from earlier was gone and was instead replaced by a young woman staring at the camera. Her hair was disheveled, her collar askew, her gaze unrelenting. Her hair was dark, like Gabrielle’s, and Gabrielle found she couldn’t look away, locked into one-sided eye contact. The woman’s face was stoic except for her eyes, which were wide and terrified. Get me out of here, Gabrielle thought. Or heard? She moved closer to the screen and only then did she make out the scene unfolding behind the woman, who she now realized was a reporter, a mic held loosely in her right hand.
Dozens—no, hundreds—of individuals were streaming past the woman. She stood still as the crowd surrounded and moved past her, in and out of the camera’s image. Every few seconds, the picture wobbled, the reporter looking more distressed each time this happened. At one point, she reached forward as the picture jerked, capturing the camera, and a voice broke through: “Sonya? Sonya, are you alright? What’s happening? Can you describe what’s happening right now?”
The camera angle readjusted, Sonya’s gaze now so piercing that Gabrielle felt it through the screen, gripping her arms tightly to herself. “Can I describe—are you serious? Do I really need to describe what’s happening right now? Do you not see?”
Sonya coughed and kept speaking, her voice now more level, but the camera had already veered away, now fully capturing the chaos erupting. People running, faces screaming, children crying. Signs suspended in the air, signs being used as weapons, some deflecting the blows, some cowering under their impact. A woman red-faced and screaming, dragging a child by the hand behind her as she ran. Another woman, her body a dome around her child, arms held tight. Move, move, Gabrielle thought. A man charged toward them and Gabrielle sucked in air, bracing for impact, but he ran by and then the camera angle jolted again, throwing the scene into even more chaos before resettling. The woman was gone but now Gabrielle could just barely make out the location, a nondescript government building somewhere in the capital. They barely went downtown anymore, but when they did, Gabrielle was always strangely mesmerized by the string of gray buildings, so similar that they blurred together. After drinking too much one night years ago, Gabrielle remembered staring at the buildings agape, convinced that she had been sucked into some kind of vortex where time didn’t exist and these buildings stretched on indefinitely, no way to escape. Now, the feeling returned. What was she looking at? Where were these people?
A thwack, followed by a crunching noise. The picture was no longer clear, instead a blur of bodies and feet and voices. The person holding the camera seemed to be running, and she could just barely make out Sonya’s voice, interspersed with footsteps. “Shit, shit, fuck, shit. I knew this was going to happen. I didn’t want this assignment, I told them I didn’t want it.”
“Does that matter now?” Gabrielle wondered if they didn’t realize their recording was still going, or if they just didn’t care. The camera angle steadied, providing a full picture of the scene unfolding. Gabrielle tried to take it all in and suddenly found herself gasping for breath. It was like coming up for air too quickly; her body physically couldn’t handle it, and she braced her hands on her knees until she no longer felt like she was going to pass out.
Punches thrown. Pepper spray released. Someone using a barrier rope as a weapon. A spew of blood. A guttural moan. Sonya was talking into the screen, but Gabrielle didn’t register anything she said. Even if she did, would it matter? What could be said that would explain what was happening?
“They all need to pay.” This comment, said by one of her cubicle mates, appeared in her mind, like a trap door that revealed she’d been holding what she needed all along. “Fucking outlandish. This whole city needs to burn.”
“Hmm?” Gabrielle remembered asking, distractedly. This specific colleague had a habit of muttering indecipherably as she scrolled through articles and social media on her computer, but, this time, her voice was loud enough that she turned heads on the other side of the office.
“This—” The colleague gestured aggressively at her computer screen. “Have you not seen the news?”
“I’m working,” Gabrielle answered robotically, even though that was a lie. She knew the consequences of talking politics at work and wanted to avoid her file being flagged, or worse, being pulled aside for a “retraining” session. She’d only heard vague descriptions of these sessions from co-workers—recorded powerpoint videos, quizzes to show you understood the rules—and even though it came with coffee and pastries, she wanted to avoid anything that might put her leave in jeopardy right when she needed it most.
Her colleague kept ranting, but Gabrielle tuned her out, focusing on the articles and forums she was clicking through about the pros and cons of induction, having just been told at her appointment that morning that she might have to be induced if she didn’t get her blood pressure under control. She spent hours clicking through different medical websites and mommy blogs, familiarizing herself with terms like “foley balloon” and “cervix ripening”, and learning the potential risks of water breaking too soon in labor, compared to the potential risks of doctors breaking one’s water if labor wasn’t progressing fast enough. She spiraled down forums of women sharing their horror stories of reacting negatively to Cytotec, to their baby’s heart rate skyrocketing, to sudden C-sections, and for what? She’d ended up going into labor naturally and now had this useless information cluttering her mind that did nothing to help her label what she was now witnessing unfolding on television. She could recite the risks and benefits of Cytotec v. Cervidil, yet had nothing to offer as she watched full-grown adults pummel each other on screen, teeth gnashing. It was so raw that it was easier for Gabrielle to pretend it was fake, a scuffle put on to make a point, draw attention. The threat of Cytotec causing harm to her and her baby somehow still felt more pressing than whatever the pandemonium on the television was about, regardless of the fact that her baby was already here, or that she was still wearing the underwear given at the hospital because the bleeding was still too consistent to justify normal underwear.
Gabrielle jumped; her phone had buzzed. She fumbled as she moved to look at the screen, her hands shaking. Where are you, from her husband, no question mark, as if the phrase alone carried all the necessary urgency. She went to respond but found her thumbs frozen on the screen. She was in an unfamiliar part of town and somehow couldn’t remember how far she’d traveled to get here. Why couldn’t she remember? She looked back at the screen, hoping the camera frame would reveal enough that she could determine the location, determine the proximity of the threat. But what even was the threat? Before she could respond, another message appeared: are you ok? Gabrielle’s face flushed, feeling exposed. How did she answer? Did he know what was happening? Was he able to name it in a way that made sense? Or was he more simply concerned with how the appointment was going? Both left Gabrielle feeling speechless, caught out. Deciphering their son’s cues had been a slow process; most of the time, she had no idea what he felt or wanted, which was a particular type of bewilderment that left Gabrielle feeling totally lost. But now, she legitimately had no idea. She’d handed her son over for what was only supposed to be a short period of time and, in the interim, the world had somehow caught on fire.
In the three weeks since her life had changed, it had become difficult, at times, to remember which memories were real and which were the images that appeared when she closed her eyes. Her memory had begun blurring to an uncomfortable degree and she often found herself asking her husband things like do you remember this happening and did you see what I just saw? But one memory she couldn’t place, try as she might, was a conversation she’d had with a co-worker soon after announcing her pregnancy. The memory was clear, down to what they both had been wearing, but the problem was that she didn’t actually remember it happening. It was as if the memory had just appeared, fully formed, and it was now her responsibility to decipher its legitimacy.
They were in the staff kitchen. Gabrielle was pulling her lunch out of the fridge when one of her co-workers appeared next to her, reaching into the fridge simultaneously.
“That’s mine,” she stated bluntly, as the man’s fingers stumbled over different food containers, as if he was letting the extremity decide what he was looking for.
“Of course,” he responded. His hand then confidently grabbed a plastic-wrapped sandwich. “I’m sure you’re picky about what you’re eating these days, huh?”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, unsure how to respond. Or, rather, she knew exactly how to respond—So if I wasn’t pregnant, it’d be okay to eat my lunch?—but swallowed the words.
She took the lid off her Tupperware and placed it in the microwave. The co-worker, now unwrapping his sandwich by the trash can, commented, “Not worried about plastic in your food?”
“What?” The baby had recently started kicking and she instinctively placed her hand on her stomach as she felt a few small somersaults. Her co-worker noticed and pointed at her stomach before responding.
“The baby. You know, heating that plastic can’t be good for it. Or you.” He took a large bite of his sandwich and Gabrielle looked away, the sound alone of the chewing turning her stomach over.
“Hadn’t thought about it,” she lied, because of course she had.
“Oh, well,” the co-worker said, his mouth full. “You should. Good to be educated on these things.”
“Sure.” She watched the microwave rotate until it dinged and she grabbed her lunch quickly, ignoring the flash of heat on her palm.
“So, I mean, have you thought about it, the choice you’re making?” The co-worker had now situated himself in the doorway. Gabrielle noticed crumbs in his beard.
“You know, your choice. To bring a baby into this world.”
Gabrielle opened her mouth, but no words came. Her heart was suddenly racing.
“Because, you know, it’s a big decision.”
“It shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
“What?” The response shot out of her mouth so fast she was sure someone else had responded for her. She thought of the fertility tracking bracelet she’d worn for months, the ovulation strips she’d cycled through. The visits to the doctor after strange cramping, to which they’d assured her, you’re just a woman experiencing normal ovulation.So where is my baby, she’d wanted to respond. And now, finally, here he was, tucked safely in her belly. At the last ultrasound, she’d watched in amazement as he’d opened and closed his fist and thought of that visual anytime she felt her anxiety mounting. What did she have to offer to a child who had already mastered this most basic skill?
“This world is going to shit.” He’d stuffed the last of his sandwich in his mouth before he said this and Gabrielle watched the glue of bread, ham, and cheese dissolve and fought the urge to laugh. She’d barely spoken to this man in the past. She wasn’t even sure she knew his name.
“Can I please—I just—” Gabrielle wasn’t sure what she was even trying to say as she squeezed her body in the small space between him and the doorframe, tucking her lunch against the round of her belly.
“I’m just saying,” he said, still chewing. “We don’t even know what the world will look like when he’s our age. You should really think about that.”
A wildfire in Arizona, a school shooting in Utah, a woman arrested after giving birth to a stillborn baby. She’d disabled her news alerts in the early hours after her son’s birth, unable to hold space for both the events of a single twenty four hour news cycle and the exigent need to keep her son alive, which had proven not as straightforward as she’d imagined. The different holding positions to get him to latch, the tracking of his input and output, the nurse who’d felt his diaper to confirm he had urinated, even though the line hadn’t turned blue. How was she supposed to grapple with historic flooding when she wasn’t even sure her son was breastfeeding properly?
Those early hours now felt like a distant memory, a lifetime ago. Several lifetimes ago. Her phone buzzed again. Gab, I need to know where you are. Had he forgotten about the appointment? Or was he trying to collect known information in the face of so many variables? Sonya had disappeared from the screen altogether. It was now just legs running, mouths screaming, arms swinging, red red red everywhere. Either the crowd had thinned or was on the move, the camera angle not comprehensive enough to capture it all, a tiny pinprick in a massive universe.
She heard screams but couldn’t tell where they were coming from. A baby crying. How long had her baby been gone? She hadn’t looked at her watch when the nurse took her son and she had no idea how much time had passed. Now, she looked frantically at her phone, as if it would reveal the answer, her thumb hovering over the news icon before she slid her phone in her pocket and opened the door instead.
The hallway was clinically bright. She squinted, making out three other doors like hers, all closed, the same undecipherable noise of other televisions filtering into the hallway. She took a few steps in one direction, then the next, unsure where the nurse had taken her son. She tried to decipher the direction of the lobby, but the closed doors made it difficult to discern what direction she had entered from. She heard coughing, low voices, but saw no one. The contrast was disorienting, and Gabrielle momentarily steadied herself against the stark white wall.
Eyes closed, a car burning on the side of the highway. A black cat in the middle of a field of snow. A thunderstorm rolling in, lightning in the distance. Leaning forward, hands on knees, breathing through another contraction, the blue hospital gown bright against the white wall.
Gabrielle’s eyes popped open. She hadn’t thought much of her labor since it happened, but now—had her contractions really been that bad? Hadn’t her hospital gown been another color? She focused on the space where the wall met the hallway, trying to calm herself, and then jumped when she noticed a few specks of blood, barely visible, just next to her feet. She blinked a few times, but the blood remained.
From the closed rooms, she could still hear the televisions, the noise indistinguishable, a blur.
Her phone buzzed again and, in her shock, she dropped it. She knelt to pick it up and, when she rose, she saw the nurse from before, walking toward her, her baby nestled in her arms. The nurse was smiling. “He did great, Ms. Gabrielle! If you come with me back to the room, I’ll let you feed him and then we can change his diaper.”
The nurse walked past her. Her son didn’t look in her direction. Gabrielle didn’t move. Don’t you know? Gabrielle wanted to ask, wanted to scream. Can you tell me what’s happened? But how could she? Up until thirty seconds prior, she’d been holding her son’s arms down so he wouldn’t flail too much during the circumcision.
The nurse stopped just outside the door. “Ms. Gabrielle, are you okay?” She then laughed. “Oh my gosh, of course. You’re probably desperate to get him back into your arms. Here you go.” The nurse handed him over, Gabrielle fumbling as she accepted him, her arms made of glue. Sometimes, holding him felt like the most natural thing in the world, and other times, she couldn’t get the hang of it at all. Like tinker toys trying to bend in the wrong direction to support something it was never meant to carry in the first place.
Gabrielle’s body was inexplicably heavy from his practical weightlessness. “There you go. I’m sure you missed him.” The nurse smiled. Gabrielle didn’t say I don’t know what’s true anymore. Her son started to cry.
“It’s okay, my guy, you’ll be back to normal in no time.” But what was normal? The television noise rose to a high pitch. The nurse put her hand on the doorknob. Gabrielle screamed, but it was too late.