The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Where Detail in the Background is Permissible
[p.145]Upstairs there is half a studio, where I will learn to paint. I can’t stand the exercises in the little book Landers bought me with all the tubes of acrylics; I want light, an impression, not this cold precision-two cowboys wet and dry-brushed into verisimilitude. I want birds that don’t exist, the shadows of birds, a pretty half-bird to hang on my wall or send to my mother with a note that says, like a child’s cry, I made this for you.
This is where Jacqueline comes in. She lies on my couch in the kitchen, in active labor. Her feet brace against the wall just so; close your eyes, you can see her.
“It helps me angle my pelvis the right way,” she tells Landers, my husband, the man in silhouette, the one [p.146]framed in the sliding glass doors. In his hands are two yellow tomatoes and one green tomatillo. A camera hangs around his neck. I’m leaning over the sink, picking sprigs of cilantro out of the herb garden on the window sill. Behind me, on the grill, chilies are roasting.
“Maybe this can wait,” Landers says. He watches Jacqueline intently.
“You have to use the veggies now for maximum impact,” Jacqueline says.
“Oh, right,” he says. “How foolish of me.”
“I want salsa,” Jacqueline says. “Now.”
“Hand them here, Landers,” I say. He does, then returns to the doorway.
Jacqueline curls forward into herself and begins breathing.
“Like a cat, like a cat, like a cat,” she says.
Landers counts under his breath: one and two and three and four and on and on to forty-six, which is when Jacqueline sinks back into the couch.
“Stop counting and take pictures,” Jacqueline says. “I want to remember this.”
“How could you not?” he says. But he lifts the camera, a Nikon N90, to his face and begins to click away.
What I would like to do is paint this, Jacqueline in her cat stretch, Landers in the doorway, maybe even me at the grill, but the brush is a stranger in my hand, my spastic hand—I am only contemplating brush strokes and color. At this point I can’t make anything not too real [p.147]either, no shapes that snag the eyes, colors that question things like four o’clock in the afternoon, tea time, when everything is fine, just fine. So what I would do, if my hands were not my hands, what I would do is draw a line that is Jacqueline on my kitchen couch, a pained sort of line, but also productive, triumphant, and maybe a few lines that brought up words no one else has. For motherhood. I chop tomato and bruise cilantro at the sink, urge Jacqueline on over my shoulder. What I would do is paint myself onto the couch, with Landers holding my hand, blood trickling sweetly down my leg.
Landers holds onto the door. He looks at Jacqueline with the same look men have at times like this, not birth times, necessarily, but women times, what the hell are you doing with that body of yours times. Even though I don’t bleed, this look is on his face often enough. But he’s a good man, not to worry, I tell my mother, and this is the truth, he’s the face across from me, always puzzled, unsure, aware of me when I am not aware. Be careful, my mother says. Be wary.
And variations: Caution. Prudence. Just this side of morality, but what can you do? Chaos, Landers says, love, ought not to have pattern at all. But there you go. Everything, if played out long enough, will disappoint. Or maybe not.
I am Jacqueline’s childless friend, I am the childless friend of friends, and I have stood in the gap before. In intercession. With nurses, and nurse mid-wives, and the [p.148]tungsten light beside the cranked-up bed. I am the woman who follows you until you ask me to be there, to hold your hand, to help you squeeze life out of yourself and onto the blue paper and stainless steel under your hips.
Landers, standing in silhouette, says, “I’ll be damned.”
A small tide of water spills out of Jacqueline and onto my kitchen floor.
“Dumb luck,” she says. “I just got up to pee.”
“Well,” I say. “You’re committed now.”
“Like I wasn’t before,” she says.
“The pains could get stronger now,” I say. She shrugs on the way to the bathroom.
Landers says, “Go on in with her. Who knows what she might do in there.”
This is what I heard at the doctor’s office: that a small percentage of babies are born in the toilet, they fall out and swim for a moment while the mother screams. This is what Landers fears, among other things. I go and stand at the bathroom door.
“Don’t bear down,” I yell.
“I’m not an idiot,” she yells back. “I read the flipping book.”
“Oh, sweet lord,” Landers says.
Something flips inside me, a fish, a tadpole, and I think for a moment of Landers’s face, his father’s face, all responsibility, his hand in mine, but I don’t speak, not [p.149]yet. Not until the paperbacks on my stomach jump, jump. Not until my stomach is larger than my breasts. Not until this hand, a claw, folds around a brush like this, without trying, and draws a sepia line from my navel to my pubic bone.
Landers says, “What about this on the floor? What do we do with this?”
“There’s a mop in the pantry,” I say. He knows this. This is Landers’s house first of all, although he says it is ours now. And he means it, which is one of the reasons why I stay. Landers looks at me, sideways, askance, he would say.
“You want Jacqueline to do it? My hands are all tomatoed,” I say.
He walks to the pantry and pulls out the mop.
“I’m throwing it away after,” he says.
Jacqueline is in the bathroom, going through my makeup. I know what she’s doing because the makeup drawer squeals when you try to open it quietly. Jacqueline never wears anything on her face except sunscreen without paba. Jacqueline is ten years younger than I am. Ten years ago I was bare-faced too. Makeup, I said, is bondage. I came to this conclusion on a camping trip with a friend. We were in the White Mountain wilderness, northern New Mexico. We were near the beaver pond, and I couldn’t stop looking in the rearview mirror, and, once we were out of the car, the side mirror, checking my hair, my mascara. I wanted an escapade [p.150]with a forest ranger, I wanted to look windblown but beautiful. Just this side of carefree. I was the girl who stood in front of the mirror adjusting my feathers, dusting the glitter off my shoulders with my mother’s duster until there was just a casual trace of glitter, like I was born that way.
I want this child, this flutter like a throat tickle.
Jacqueline comes out of the bathroom with my mascara on.
“It’s got eyes,” Landers says. She flips him off.
“Maybe,” she says, “maybe I’ll do it right here. On the poker table.”
“Why? Do you feel something?” Landers says.
“Go get the pail from the garage,” I say. “No. The washtub. We’ll need it to catch the blood.”
“And the placenta,” Jacqueline says.
He says, ‘‘Jacqueline, sit down, I can’t stand this.”
I drop the tomatoes and chilies into the food processor and push chop. Landers says, “I keep looking for maim.” Short bursts, little chopping bursts, then I’m pouring salsa into terra cotta bowls. Jacqueline stands in the middle of the kitchen, dripping.
“I can’t go anywhere without ruining something,” she says. I’ll walk in the backyard for a while.” She leans against the door frame and begins to breathe.
“Or maybe not,” she says. “Get me the hell out of here.”
At the hospital, Landers keeps saying, this is not my [p.151]child, to every new nurse who comes in. Jacqueline folds and unfolds around the room, in and out of chairs, on her knees now, now on her side, breathing through her nose in a whine. I drink the Evian water I have packed in the labor bag and apply counter pressure. I rub lotion into her ankles, I keep the washcloth cool on her face. Landers click clicks at odd moments. The night drains through, and Jacqueline’s vulva blossoms; the baby crowns. I stand to her left, holding up her leg. The child slides out onto the table, onto the blue sterile paper, head angled in an unnatural way, fists clenched. My neck hurts. The blood is vermillion, milky, staining. Landers collapses and rocks in the rocking chair, the Minolta hanging around his neck. The doctor hands the baby up, and Jacqueline turns to me, shaking that post-labor shake.
She says, “Hold her for me.” I ease the child up to Jacqueline’s breasts, holding her gently; Landers stands and clicks away.
There are moments when everything coalesces, when the three notes played vary, stray, and you are back in childhood, lying under your bed, or curled up behind the greasewood in the alley, hiding, listening to the others nearby, looking for you, there are moments like these. You know it. And there are moments you force, like a junkie, times when you can’t stand not being found, these moments, this one right here, Jacqueline’s eyes an inch from the baby, her murmurs choking all of [p.152]us. This is why I come, because I am addicted to struggle, maybe even to blood.
In the morning I stand in front of the mirror and use my mascara, which so recently had bruised around Jacqueline’s eyes when she wept, I use this same mascara hoping for something. I lean towards the mirror and stroke black on black, feathering out my upper lashes, gently tracing the bottom. I know how to create a look with dime-store goods. I know shadow and nuance. I know which way to stand to make the waist appear thin.
This is what Landers says, that if he had the choice, I would never shiver in the shower. What he means, I don’t know. But there you are. It is his way of trying to reach across. For my birthday he bought me paints, acrylics, with white synthetic brushes and cotton canvases. I try to paint, try to see a painting, but it’s difficult to begin when you don’t have the wherewithal, the talent, maybe I should say. If this flutter inside me grows and forces itself into the air, then maybe I’ll paint the ceiling of my craft room like a clouded sky, with a storm rolling in from the west. Maybe I’ll read decorating magazines and spend money on swatches that are big enough to really see, to drape across window sills and chairs. Maybe tapestried pillows, or stripes. But first, the sky, and white gauze curtains in the window. The floor striped Payne’s gray and Titanium white. This I can do.
[p.153]What Landers does is smoke in the darkroom where no one can see him and I won’t wheeze all night because of it. The ceiling fan spinning, the exhaust fan sucking the bad air away, the silver chemicals bitter in his nostrils. Under his hands, faces appearing. This is the way to create a life that lasts.
Only Landers knows what he does with his camera. All the buttons and dials, I get lost. In our refrigerator where there should be eggs and cheese, we have film. And in the bathtub there are prints floating, the vinegar bitter smell through the house, white drip spots drying on the floor. Today Jacqueline spins in the water in various poses of pain. The more graphic shots are already clothes-pinned to the shower rod.
“I need more contrast,” he says.
I look closely. In one, the baby is crowning, Jacqueline’s knee, vulva and hand in sharp focus, the rest—my head—blurred. “I need more paper,” Landers says.
‘‘I’ll go,” I say.
The third store has the right paper and a pregnant woman. She wanders through the laser-disc movies, a humped up woman with baggy knees. The kind of woman with five children at home already, stacked up in what’s left of her backyard like old cars, each one strangely a work of art. This is not the woman for me, I can see that. But still I follow along behind her. At the counter I ask, “When is the baby due?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “This time I didn’t ask.” She [p.154]runs her hand over her belly. In the gesture I read desire, nurture, fear.
At home, Landers takes the paper and heads back into the bathroom.
“Sorry,” his voice says from behind the door.
“I’ll go upstairs,” I say. The radio is back on, and I wander upstairs to where my paints are laid out on the credenza.
The thing is, I don’t paint, have never held a brush in my hand with any real purpose. I read books, I plan in my head but nothing comes of it, nothing I would put on my wall, or show to anyone, including my mother. It’s the smell and the thought that intrigues me. The names of the paints. Alizarin: This sounds to me like a hero in a fairy tale. This is a name.
I call Jacqueline; she has not yet named her child. On the phone she sounds as if she is speaking under water, as if every word floats reluctantly to the top and then bursts-not bursts, hisses into the air.
“Do you want me to come?” I ask. In the dead air that follows I imagine faint baby sounds.
“No,” she says. “What was I thinking, Helen? Why didn’t you stop me?”
“I’m coming down,” I say.
“No,” she says, the o trailing away into her breathing.
“Let me sleep a while.”
“I’ll think up names,” I say, but she has hung up. I decide to go there anyway, then change my mind. If I go [p.155]and she is right, then what do I say? What I do is walk down two blocks to the house where the four women live and stop and pretend to look at their garden, which is magnificent with tiger lilies, but I’m hoping the pregnant one will be outside. I’ve seen her at the grocery store sometimes, but she’s never alone. At least one of the other women tags along. She’s a woman I would love to birth, but she’s already covered. So I settle for these glances as I walk by. Something about the four of them warns me off, no trespassing.
I leave the women’s house and walk down to the hospital and stand at the nursery window, looking in at the babies in their little plastic beds, little dark heads with blue or pink hats. A woman next to me snaps pictures through the glass.
“Which one is yours?” I ask.
“None,” she says. “I’m shooting at the fingerprints on the glass, not the babies.”
“Oh,” I say.
“They’ll be in there, too,” she says, “but in the background, out of focus-to get the fingerprints I’m using a narrow depth of field.”
I can’t stop myself.
“What’s that?” I ask.
She looks annoyed. She wears a blue hat.
“It’s what’s in focus,” she says, which I think is rather minimalistic of her, but I nod. Landers, if asked the same question, would be down on the floor by now, making [p.156]visual aids with the magazines and ashtrays. Maybe not. Maybe he wouldn’t answer at all. It’s the yes and no of him I love, after all, the now you see it, now you think you see it life I have living in the now-our house, lying in bed with him, feeling him move against me.
“As for me,” she says, “never a real baby. You tell me where the fascination is.”
I want to say something profound, something that will convert this woman, but all the answers, coming so soon after Jacqueline’s flat hisses in my ear, all these things seem too narrow to be seriously considered.
“I’ve seen a baby born,” I say. “More than one.”
“Too much blood,” she says, and shoots again at the chicken-wire glass.
“Just the right amount,” I say. She lowers her camera, an Olympus something or other, and stares. I walk back to the elevator.
On the way back up the hill, I walk by the women’s house again. This time she’s there, the pregnant one, standing out front cutting lilies with green-handled scissors, shaking her hand between each cut. Today I feel bold, unafraid of the other women who might be watching from an upstairs window, I’m sated, maybe, from the night before; this woman, swollen, her hair pulled back and twisted up off her neck, she could be a friend, she could read me, she could meet me by the condoms and pregnancy tests and say, here, this one is fast, accurate, this one right here.
[p.157]“Hello,” I say. “Are those canna or calla lilies?”
“They come back every year,” she says. “Is it perennials or annuals that do that?”
“I can never remember,” I say. “I think perennials.”
“But I think these are only day lilies,” she says, “because aren’t those others much bigger-the kind Georgia O’Keeffe painted?”
“I don’t remember,” I say, and she is bending and cutting again as I say this, angling the scissors in an unnatural way.
“Would you like me to do that?” I say.
“Oh, please,” she says.
I reach through the gate and undo the latch. She holds out her hand and shows me where the scissor handles have gouged around her thumb and forefinger.
“Everything swells,” she says. “My liver, my hands, my face. I’m supposed to be in bed. Could you cut this one and that one for me?”
I do so.
She says, ‘Tm not a bird. But I keep changing things, cutting flowers, washing the sheets until my face blows up and the headache starts and I have to lie down. I can’t stop.”
She sits down on the porch steps. Leaning forward the way she is, legs apart, her belly hidden by her knees and baggy green shirt, she looks a little fat, not pregnant.
She says, “I can’t sit still for long.” She eases back [p.158]onto her elbows, then lies back against the other steps, closes her eyes.
“I’m Helen,” I say, but she gestures at her stomach.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes. Anytime at all now.”
“That’s good,” I say.
I’m suddenly afraid the others are watching from the house. I pile the lilies across her belly; her fingers twitch.
“Will you be all right?” I ask. She nods, more a flinch, and I ease away and pull the gate closed behind me. I walk backwards up the block watching the lilies shudder as she breathes or the baby kicks until I can’t see her anymore through the small breaks in the lilies and fence, and then I pivot, model-like, and head home, where Landers sits on the front porch waiting for me.
“Jacqueline called,” he says. “She says come at seven. You can take her down some prints when you go. They’re almost dry.”
“What is depth of field?” I ask.
“Come here,” he says, and leads me up to our bedroom. Between the windows and the kilim and my arms and breasts and his legs he explains it to me, although he knows I already know, and I know he knows, and what this is is an excuse to talk about light and things in the background that do and do not matter, and what to do in both cases.
“Go see Jacqueline,” he says afterwards. I climb out of bed and look around for my underwear. Again I feel it, jump jump flutter, when I bend over.
[p.159]“I’m taking the car this time,” I say. He rolls onto his back and stretches.
This is how it plays out in my mind.
Jacqueline is gone, but she has left the baby for me. Not dead, just gone. She climbed out of bed and dressed and walked down the hall and to the elevator and down to the lobby where she called a cab and disappeared. On her bed she left a note explaining that I am her sister and to give me the baby who has no name. The nurses wring their hands and show me how to hold and bathe this baby. And I take this baby away with me in a rented carseat and I name herJoanCatherineAnnaMaireLindseyNaomeIoneKaelaBette but first I show her to the camera lady who is now hanging around the hospice doors looking to photograph something insignificant with death in the background. And Jacqueline moves into the women’s house with lilies, and lays her hands on another’s swollen belly, and watches me walk up and down the alley with her child hanging around my neck in a sling.
But what happens is this: Jacqueline lies in her bed looking like a queen, beckons me in with her hand, motions gracefully to the plastic bed where her child, Rose Elaine, sleeps. She has me call the nurse and demand a new ice pack. She says, bring me salsa. She leafs through the photographs, looking at them sometimes sideways, out of the corner of her eye, lips pursing.
[p.160]I still like this ending, even though I play a smaller role, even though there is much less crying and handwringing and car seats and I don’t convert the camera woman. I don’t need to. Let her paint trompe l’oeil babies in her dining room and call them putti. Let her pretend. Or maybe not pretend, maybe be happy without this craving for blood and connection to all those other women who have gone before me. Jump, jump, swish like a basketball player beneath my hand, this fear that isn’t real at all, not yet. Not until my blood splashes on the stainless steel and Landers’s hands.
I take Jacqueline’s hand and place it above my pubic bone.
“There,” I say.
“Don’t do it,” she says. “Stop right now.” But when Rose murmurs in her plastic bed, she says, take care, be careful, be full of care.