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I'll Never Understand
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One Sunday morning I sat up in bed. I felt fluid in my nose, as if I had an allergy or a cold or something. I snuffled, and looked across the room for the Kleenex box, but it wasn't on the bureau, I must have taken it into the bathroom. I put my hand up to my face and felt warm stickiness. I looked at my fingers. Blood. Which dripped and made big, bright red splotches on the front of my white flannel nightgown.

I nudged Mike, hard. He grunted. I nudged him again. "Mike!" I said. He turned, frowned, blinked. Then he rose up on his elbow, mouth open, eyes wide. "Get me a towel," I told him.

Mike didn't move, he just stared. "Mike, for Christ's sake get me a towel, okay?," I said. "I'd get it myself but I don't want to bleed all over the rug."

Finally he climbed out of bed. It annoyed me how he froze up at the slightest thing. So damned sensitive. What in hell would he do if something really bad happened?



The nosebleed was just the beginning. I felt anxious, and my heart beat fast, even if I was lounging around, reading the newspaper. I had to pee all the time. Eventually I got purple stretch marks on my breasts and belly. Also I got a dark line that ran from my belly button to my crotch. In the morning when I looked in the mirror I saw faint, brown blotches on my forehead and cheeks. And most mornings I couldn't keep down any breakfast. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, puking in the toilet. On my knees, embracing that cold porcelain with its network of hairline cracks. I was totally depressed. Tired all the time, no matter how long I'd slept the night before.

When I first knew I was pregnant I didn't even think about getting an abortion, because I remembered what Lois went through. She withdrew the money from her savings account and flew down to Mexico City. She told me she'd ended up in a filthy clinic, run by a fat, filthy so-called doctor who wanted his cash up front, one hundred twenty five American dollars. No, I couldn't do that. But I also wasn't crazy about going through a pregnancy and then giving the baby up for adoption.

Harriet came over one afternoon, and we were sitting on the couch talking when suddenly I just put my hands on my face and began to cry. She pulled me close to her, and told me it was going to be okay. "It's tough, honey," she said. "But you're a tough lady."

Right.

I should have shot myself right then and there.

It occurred to me that what I was going through was really nothing that special. Somewhere I'd read that a woman in a primitive tribe would be out in the fields working right up to the last minute, go off into the bushes to have the baby. Then half an hour later, she'd go right back to work, the baby strapped to her back.

Having a baby was perfectly natural, I knew that. But to me it wasn't natural at all. It felt like I'd been taken over totally, I wouldn't ever again be able to do what I wanted. Instead I had to do what Mike wanted, or his mother wanted, or what the baby wanted.

It dawned on me that in the back seat of that goddamned Ford I gave up my whole life. It wasn't mine anymore. THEY owned it.

I couldn't understand other women. When they got pregnant they glowed and smiled and thought they were in heaven. I never felt that way. Why? What made me so different?

* * *

Roberta was born on April 14, 1940. Doctor Tamarkin was off by only two days; he'd predicted April 16. They say that we quickly forget pain, because if we didn't we'd never have another kid. But I remember the pain. I wanted to die. I was in labor for seventeen hours. And then at the end of all that grunting and screaming and teeth-gnashing, I felt a release, and I looked at Dr. Tamarkin down there between my legs, holding up my slimy, dripping little baby, a twisted bluish-red cord running from her belly, and I felt a warm rushing sensation and I moved my head back and forth and I kept saying, "Oh Dr. Tamarkin, Oh, Dr. Tamarkin!" and it felt like nothing else in the world.

The nurse cleared my baby's nose and mouth of mucus with a rubber syringe, and pretty soon I heard Roberta's first sounds. They clipped off the cord, and sponged her off, and wrapped her in a soft blanket.

I took my daughter in my arms. She looked at me with sparkling intelligent eyes. Those eyes moved about the room, taking everything in. She saw it all: The big overhead light. The doctor and nurses in their scrubs and face masks and funny hats. The clock on the wall, which said two twenty two. The shiny metal and glass incubator they eventually put her in.

That's the most important thing I noticed about my daughter--how wide-awake and alert she was in the very first minutes. Those bright, beautiful blue eyes. You never forget something like that. Ever. Oh, and she weighed eight pounds, one ounce. Twenty-one and a half inches long.

Mike showed up around eight in the morning, red-eyed and shaking. He made a big show of how happy he was but I know he wanted a boy. He wasn't feeling too good, he said, because there had been a lot of celebrating going on most of the night at the Shamrock Bar and Grill.

Mike's mother and his sister, Jane, showed up in the afternoon. When Mrs. Quinn came into the room and saw me nursing Roberta she looked pleased. It was, I think, the very first time I saw that woman smile. Jane was all right, too. She brought me some stuff she'd knitted--yellow booties and a cap and a cute little sweater with a narrow yellow ribbon intertwined in the collar. She'd picked yellow because she didn't know if it would be a girl or a boy, although she said she had a hunch it was a girl.

The Gaelic League Welcome Wagon folks had brought what they called a "Basket of Cheer," which was full of apples, oranges, grapes and a bottle of Guinness. The stout was to keep the breast milk flowing, they said. Mrs. Quinn got a kick out of holding the baby.

Harriet and Lois made a big fuss over the baby, they took turns holding her and making all sorts of cooing and whistling sounds. They brought all sorts of stuff--diapers, little socks, a couple dressing gowns. Also a stack of magazines, a pound box of chocolate covered cherries. "Live a little," Harriet said.

Then dad arrived. He looked at Roberta and wiped his tears with his knuckle. "Ah, what a darlin' child," he said, several times, holding Roberta out a bit and looking into her face. "And she's a bright one, that I can tell you," he said. "Just like her mother."

After everybody left they took Roberta away and I went into a deep sleep, and when I woke up I was very thirsty. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon and I thought that stout would really go down well. I rummaged through the basket, but the bottle was gone. I rang for the nurse and asked her if she knew anything about it, but she looked puzzled and said no. I shook my head and wondered, who would do a thing like that? Steal from a Gaelic League Welcome Wagon's basket of cheer?

At two months Roberta was able to make her legs stiff when I held her in my lap, her first attempts to stand up straight. She'd sleep from about nine at night to six thirty in the morning. I could tell she loved to be held. When I fed her she put her little hand on the side of my breast. I hung a mobile over her crib, and she kept her big blue eyes locked on those little moving horses and stars. She liked holding onto things--either my finger or Mike's finger or soft things like the blanket. And she had a grip, that girl.

On her first visit to Dr. Tamarkin she eyeballed the pictures in the waiting room, and then when I took her into the examining room her eyes were darting all over the place and you should have heard how loud she howled when Dr. Tamarkin looked into her eyes, ears, nose and inspected her bottom. She screamed even louder when he gave her a shot. "Sounds like you've got an opera singer on your hands," he said. Which was a nice way of putting it, I thought.

When Roberta was three and a half months old, Mike decided we should take a weekend trip to Atlantic City. We found an inexpensive, small rental house about six blocks from the beach. The sound of the waves and the salt air made Roberta sleepy, so Mike shoveled out a hole in the sand and put her in there, loosely wrapped in a light blanket, and she just slept until the tide started coming in. We took her out of the hole and moved up the beach a little and watched the water come in, a little bit at a time, until the foamy, lapping waves washed the hole away.

Women who don't have kids can't know what it's like. When I was pregnant I felt Roberta kicking really hard and so I thought it was a boy, and whenever I'd talk about the baby I'd say "he." But then it was okay that she was a girl. It wasn't that I wanted a boy more than a girl. I just couldn't call the baby "it." And it was a peculiar thing, trying to figure out our relationship. I was Roberta's mother but I didn't know what being a mother was supposed to feel like.

Before I got pregnant I thought there would be an intense closeness between us because after all this baby had grown inside and was a part of me, but then I was surprised at how little of that I felt. We were more different than we were alike, if that makes any sense. What I mean is that from the very beginning she was herself more than she was a part of me. A distinct personality. Which was made up a lot of what her father was, and some of what I was. I thought love and closeness would be automatic and unconditional, but it wasn't. Sorry, I'm just trying to be honest here.

When Roberta started teething she cried all the time and nothing I could do would make her feel better. I resented having to get up early to fix breakfast for Mike and when he left having to wash the dishes, and vacuum the rugs, and wash the windows, and change diapers, and everything else.

I couldn't get enough rest, I was just exhausted all the time. Roberta was resisting taking her afternoon naps, either because of the discomfort she was feeling or maybe it was because she was starting to get sick. I don't know. It was hell. But after about a week or two of this, when I got totally fed up and was ready to scream, she calmed down and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes and gurgled and smiled.

About that time she started deliberately wrinkling her nose, which always made me laugh. She charmed everyone we ran into on our perambulator walks. Old men, old women, even young men who happened to look over. All she had to do was wrinkle her nose and gurgle and they'd lean over and say, Oh, aren't you the cutest little thing? Everyone said she was so bright, and alert. Those eyes. Always looking at things. She was precious.

I'd push that perambulator down to Crandall Park and sit on a bench and think a lot about the future, and how Roberta and I might relate to each other. I always thought we'd be more like friends than like mother and daughter, because I thought that mother-daughter stuff was...what? Too much. I wanted something more easy going, and less intense.

I never liked the idea that a mother should just accept everything a kid ever did without question, or that a mother should give up absolutely everything for the sake of a child. I envisioned someday being able to sit down with Roberta and really talking like good friends. About life, about men.

Like I could sit down with Lois, or Harriet. Especially Harriet. I felt closer to Harriet than I did to Mike, because I knew on a lot of important levels Mike didn't have a clue. And as much as Mike said he loved me--with all those love letters and copied-out poems in a notebook--I know he didn't know who I really was. He was in love with his idea of me, which was a sort of combination of the Virgin Mary and his mother, with a French whore mixed in there for when he was looking for a good time.

Mostly he wanted to be taken care of, that was number one on his list. He wanted me to make up for what he didn't get out of life. Poor baby, he always felt like he'd gotten short-changed somewhere.

Anyway, I grew to love Roberta not because she was my daughter, but because she was Roberta. I saw her personality emerge in those first nine, ten months. Her intensity. Her curiosity. Always giving things the once-over, examining everything she could get her hands on. I loved the way her chubby little hand would wave in the air or touch the side of my breast, or grasp onto the edge of the blanket or around my finger, and how she liked to sit up in my lap to get a better look at the world.

When I nursed her she played a game. She'd suck on my nipple until she was full, then she'd pop off, and look at me. Then she'd go back on the nipple, suck hard once or twice, then pop back off. And wrinkle her nose. She knew exactly what she was doing.

Roberta got her first teeth--two narrow little pearly whites on her bottom gum--at seven and a half months. A month and a half earlier she'd said her first word. "Da-da." That made Mike's day.

* * *

It was early January. Lots of cold rain. On the third, which was a Wednesday, the temperature dropped and the rain froze and put a sheen on the roads and covered the black tree branches and telephone wires with a thick crystal coating of ice. Early the next morning the gray clouds moved out and the bright sun sparkled on the ice. People were shuffling along the sidewalk, trying hard not to fall down and cars were spinning their tires and fishtailing on the road.

The apartment was chilly because something was wrong with the furnace, and I called the landlord a couple of times and complained. He said he'd get someone over as soon as he could, but it was hard because everyone was having problems that time of the year.

Roberta was unusually quiet, but I didn't pay much attention. I thought she probably wanted to catch up on some rest, as I most certainly wanted to do, so I left her in her crib. I remember that I spent most of the morning with the radio on. I sat at the kitchen table and read the paper, eating toast with cherry jelly, sipping from a cup of tea. Afterward I took a nap. Woke up in a dreamy mood, looked at the clock. Ten fifty-five. I stared at the ceiling. I heard just the slightest of sounds. The wind rattling the window just a bit. The quiet, warm hum of the electric clock.

I went to the bathroom, peed. I brushed my hair at my dresser, then put on a pair of slacks and a thick cable-knit sweater. I went over to Roberta's crib. She wasn't moving. I put my hand on her face and was startled at how warm she felt.

Three days later she died. Bronchial pneumonia, an extremely severe case. There was nothing they could do. She also had what they called a benign brain abscess, secondary to the pneumonia.

My baby was dead. Mike couldn't stop crying. He'd be okay for a couple of minutes, then he'd sink down, hands on his face, bawling. Oh, God. Oh, God.

They asked me questions. They wanted to know why the apartment was so cold. And when was the last time you fed that baby? Changed its diaper? Why didn't you call the landlord again? Didn't you think it was dangerous for the baby?

Jane wasn't so bad, but Mrs. Quinn made it pretty clear to me that she figured it was all MY fault. She couldn't stop saying how cold the apartment was when she showed up to take the baby to the hospital. All right, the apartment was cold. Yes. Cold. Okay? Yes, I know. I should have done something. I should have called the cops on the landlord, had him hauled off to jail because a cold apartment is dangerous for a baby. I can see how this is all my fault, and I'm so goddamned glad you're pointing it out to me, I would NEVER have realized it.

Mrs. Quinn noticed all the dishes in the sink that I hadn't gotten around to, and she noticed the block of cheese in the fridge that had gotten dried and cracked, and the splotches of spaghetti sauce on the stove, and the film of grease on the cabinet above the stove. She noticed all those things. A hamper full of dirty clothes that I hadn't yet gotten around to washing, too. All the shoes in the closet jumbled up, not sorted out carefully by pairs and in a straight row. She didn't miss one single mistake. Not one.

I don't remember much about the funeral, except that the coffin was so small. A white shoebox almost. A tiny white box lost in all those flowers. All those people talking to me, murmuring. At the cemetery the wind was blowing and the green canvas tent kept flapping. My dad, and Harriet and Lois were there. Harriet more or less took charge, which made Jane give her dirty looks.

All of it was a blur. Afterward we went back to the apartment and I wondered when I'd get around to packing up all that baby stuff and giving it to Goodwill. All those details that I'd have to take care of, since Mike certainly wasn't in any shape to do it.

I wasn't in the mood for Mike anymore. I told him, go away. Go live with your mother for a while. I need some time. Go. Please.

* * *

Finally spring. Lots of green everywhere. Mike wanted to talk. We sat on a bench in Crandall Park near a large bed of crocuses.
"We can't just throw away the marriage," he said.
"You don't have a clue," I said.
"I lost a daughter, too," he said.
"But your mother and sister didn't blame you. Did they?"

I don't know why I sat and listened to him that afternoon. I was sick of him, sick of his family. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to leave town and never come back. But I sat there, listening to him. I don't know why.
"I'm sorry about that. I really am," he said.
"Right. You just stood there while they trashed me. You didn't say a goddamned word, Mike."
"I'm sorry."
"I don't need that kind of pain, Mike. Not ever again. I won't forgive them. Ever."

Mike sighed. He had his hand on the back of the bench, behind me. He looked out over the big lawn, down toward the pond where all the ducks were swimming around.

"Forget my mother and sister," he said. "Forget them. This is between you and me. What I'm trying to tell you is that we had something together. Something important. And it would be a crime to just throw it away. Marriage is a holy sacrament..."
"Stop it," I shouted. "For Christ's sake please don't be such a fucking hypocrite! You don't believe that stuff. You never go to mass."
"Okay, okay! Wait a minute. All right, forget the sacrament. You're right. I don't go to mass and I don't believe in that stuff. But what I mean is that marriage is important, it's worth working on. It's gotta be, you know? You just don't throw it away when things get tough."

I turned. Looked at his earnest face, that mop of dark hair. Those puppy dog eyes.

"You always find the words, don't you, Mike? You always say the right words. It's what you actually DO that bothers me, you know?"
"But I mean the words, Betty. Honest to God."
"You may mean them now, but what about next week? Next month?"
"I can change."
"What's talking now, Mike? The booze? You're lonely, you're horny, that's all. You think I can do something for you, just like your mother always did something for you."
"No, listen. . ."
"But what about me Mike? Did you ever think that I might have needed some comfort? When your mother gave me that crap about what a lousy mother I was, you just stood there, you didn't say a goddamned word. You didn't have the balls to face her down, to stick up for me, your own wife. You abandoned me, Mike. You were thinking only of the pain YOU were feeling. You didn't think of me."
"I'm sorry, Betty. Honest to God."

I listened to that needy bastard all afternoon. And that night I made the second worst mistake of my life. I let him come home with me. I let him back into my bed. It was wrong. I should have told him that it was over, forever.

I'll never understand why I didn't.

* * *