Fiction

Some Agonies Over and Over

Can you be a mother and an artist?

Olivia Clare
Dishes in a sink full of suds
Adapted from a photograph by Lyn Lomasi / Creative Commons

There’s a reason I move fast. Josie’s been born, and I think in terms of weeks. She’s twelve weeks old tomorrow. Weeks are long, though, and days are too.

I have more reasons. I’m one thousand, nine hundred, sixty-­eight weeks. At this age, if you check your body for mumpy lumps, it might be something. But I don’t fool myself: that’s any age, including Josie’s, and I wait and watch and worry.

Rich says I go too fast. I leave stove burners on, forget to shut doors, fall down the stairs, spraining my ankle once. Rich says I have dreamy ankles, clean as marble, especially in the dark. Rich, of course, goes slow. Before Josie, waking up took him whole minutes. Each eye must come alive. Then there was reading the news, making coffee, the bathroom, his detailed shower—if he could have, that would have been his day.

But I’ve got no time for slow. I barely have time for fast. Before the baby came, everyone told me I’d lose time. You’ll wonder what you did with it. But I know what I did. Now I make less chit-­chat, I cut out static and how are yous. Some big things I have time for—in the morning, I let Rich tell me the world news. He says things that make my body hurt with the world, make me stand and think a second, but then I’m off, back to our home-­world, doing the laundry, scrubbing caked milk from the insides of bottles, or writing things down.

I write in my head when the baby’s awake and on paper when she’s asleep. What I hope is the words will keep coming. I’m writing a family history for Josie, and there’s too much I don’t know, too much I want to tell her that I can’t because those relatives are gone, buried deep, and I wasn’t wise or brave enough to ask.

Don’t say anything to scare her. Not what my mother did, telling me bedtime stories of kidnapped kids. At first, they were stories of girls who went missing but came back. Safe at last.

People tell me a horrifying thing: my brain will change; I’ll forget things because the brain makes room for the baby. So I write before I’ll forget. I give her the bottle and compose in my head: Your mommy had two dogs growing up, Jack and Tuesday. Jack and Tuesday were mean motherfuckers. I can’t write motherfucker. Now things are divided—what I’d say before the baby and what after. I put her in the crib and rush to my desk and write it all down, but I leave that part out. Jack and Tuesday loved your mommy very much and sometimes they didn’t. If I don’t go faster, no words will come, and then she’ll wake up.

It gets to where I can’t watch the local news. I don’t have time. I zip through chores. I’m changing her crib sheet, washing pilled, pee-­stained swaddles. Last night I made my first mistake, going so fast. I clipped her nail too close to the skin and it bled hard. I cried more than she did, but at least that mistake was done. I remember the story of the man who tried to save time. This was a children’s book but might have been true. Before bed, he showered and shaved, and for dinner, he ate breakfast. For breakfast, he ate lunch. For lunch, he ate dinner.

“Look at these poor creatures,” Rich says. He shows me his phone with a picture of starving dogs in Canada. Chains around their scruffy necks, and their ribs like combs about to crumble. “Police found them,” Rich says. “They were tortured, left for dead. Isn’t it awful?”

Every day he laments the world.

“Don’t show me,” I say. “I’m about to nap.” He knows I worry about images lodged in my dreams, because that’s the place where what I see goes.

“we’re bombing them,” Rich says. “I can’t believe this is the world now.”

Josie’s fourteen weeks. He’s feeding her on the couch in front of the TV, watching the Sunday news, propping her bottle on his chin to scratch his ear. That’s my breast milk in her bottle. I pump since she won’t latch to me. We tried in those first days, and her tiny mouth would not hook on. So I pump my breasts with an electric breast pump. Me, the barn animal. Me, with fleshy udders sucked by a machine.

“Oh my god,” I say, mid-­zoom. I’m walking through on my way to the kitchen.

“So this is how we respond,” Rich says. “Bombs? Jesus. Okay.”

They show as much destruction on TV as they think we’ll take, and then a little more. We see distant cities wrecked, a man and woman holding each other, weeping, and then they’re not so distant.

“Change the channel,” I say. “For the baby. A game show or soap.”

“She doesn’t know what’s going on,” Rich says. He cups his hand over Josie’s cheek so she won’t watch the screen. “She can’t focus yet. And we need to see this.” She’s busy with the bottle, eyes on Rich and a serious suck. She is a tireless eater, rhythmic and clean.

I write everything in two places: on the computer and by hand in a leather journal. Backups are worth the extra time. The journal’s stored with our expired passports and my mother’s scraps of jewelry. That thought I hate comes in again—paper might not exist when Josie’s my age and reads this.

“Somewhere in her head,” I say, “she knows what’s going on.”

“I wish it worked that way,” says Rich. “Like I wish there were ghosts.”

This is another thing we disagree on. He knows I’ve met a ghost.

“That’s what we do,” says Rich. “We’re fuckers who bomb people and make the world ours. Take that! You’re ours! Unbelievable.”

“You’ll upset her,” I say.

“She looks happy to me.”

Jack and Tuesday were mean motherfuckers. It was personal. The more they knew you, the meaner they were. My mother and I fed them well, loved them even. We were the only people who did. But one day Tuesday bit my mother’s hand so hard she lost the finger. First, it was infected, then it wouldn’t move the way she told it to, then it had to come off. She forgave him, she said, but I watched her and knew better. She’d put a little less food in his bowl, or make him stay longer in the rain, and some days forget to feed him. Jack was mean, but he had it better. Jack was smart, not going for blood.

“they just convicted a man for hundreds of rapes,” says Rich. “Hundreds! He’s in Cambridge. They put him away for thirty years.”

“Thirty years, that’s all?” I say.

I’m feeding Josie her bottle at 2 a.m. while Rich scrolls through the news. She’s sucking clean again, no milk escaping. She’s less alert at night, ready to slip back to downy folds of sleep. Her eyes are closed, her eyelids new and thin as tissue.

“Unbelievable,” Rich says.

“Don’t talk about these things in front of her,” I say.

“She can’t hear anything,” he says.

“Pretend for later.”

“We should talk about things now, while we can,” he says. “Before she knows language.”

“It’s not just words,” I say. “It’s voices. We’re so serious. We need practice.”

I’m saying something he already knows, what I started telling him when I got pregnant. Don’t say anything to scare her. Not what my mother did, telling me bedtime stories of kidnapped kids. At first, they were stories of girls who went missing but came back. Safe at last. A happy ending! Good night, my sweet girl. But I got older. Nights got darker; I could know more. My mother wouldn’t quit. When she lost her finger, that did it. Now the girls in the stories didn’t return, and they weren’t just stories. There was Polly and JonBenet. Mindy and Amber. I knew their lives, like friends who’d vanished. This was my mother’s way of warning, a reminder about lurking wolves. Never, ever open the door. Stay out of the basement. Check your closet. This was how we lived.

My breast pump is in full rhythm now, a tick-­tock metronome, a seesaw scale, and I turn up the suction.

In the family history I’m writing, I leave out my mother’s stories. I write more about Jack and Tuesday. About my mother’s finger I write, It was just a finger, not a bomb.

Such things spill into dreams, is what I tell Rich. And my dreaming’s even stranger, with no real sleep. Or else it’s more mundane. I’ll dream I’m washing bottles or bathing Josie, and then I wake up and wash bottles and bathe Josie, and there’s dead Tuesday coming at me in my mind’s eye if I blink.

composing in your head has tricks. You have to remember the rhythm, the order of things. Repetition makes the engine go. While I’m staring into Josie’s eyes, I chant sentences in my birdsong brain. She stares back at me with eyes puckered from sleep.

Jack and Tuesday were motherfuckers. It’s just a finger, not a bomb. Once, a grown man hid in a little girl’s closet, and I won’t tell you the rest, because I can’t, and when you start going outside in this world—when I let you—I’ll be right where I should, waiting at the bus stop, and you’ll step into my arms and tell me all the things that happen to you. I don’t want anything to happen to you.

“remember the lost scuba diving couple in Belize?” says Rich. “On their honeymoon and lost at sea?” It’s 5 a.m., and he’s scrolling on his phone with one hand and feeding Josie her bottle with the other. I’m pumping milk with a machine hooked up to my breasts. This machine and I—we’re connected by tubing and breast shields, valves and membranes. We’re a force, a monstrous frenzied feeding love, an industrial operation.

“Well, there’s more information now,” Rich says.

“They found them?”

“Didn’t find them. Found something they think was theirs.”

“Stop,” I say. And he knows what I mean. I can’t take it. I want to know, but I don’t know how to know.

“You can’t just—” Rich starts.

“I’ll read about it in the morning,” I say. “In the light of day.”

“God,” he says.

“What?” I say. “What?”

He likes to delay, to have my reaction first, and I always give it away.

“There’s this new documentary,” he says, “on all the websites collecting our info.”

“We’ve seen that one.”

“A new one,” he says.

Josie releases herself from the bottle nipple and takes a breath. A great sigh and smile up at the whirling ceiling fan. We call the fan her friend. Then she’s back on the nipple, looking into Rich’s eyes, absorbing. She’s starting to recognize us, really know us, we believe, and so begins our three-­body existence, our three-­chambered heart, open to the air and cunning strangers and ticking along.

“Our girl,” I say.

“World’s best baby,” Rich says.

This is an exchange we like, words we’ve found for her pre-­language happiness. My breast pump is in full rhythm now, a tick-­tock metronome, a seesaw scale, and I turn up the suction. Morning milk is the fastest; at the end of the day it won’t come so easy.

“Have you seen the new one with David Attenborough? Our Planet?” Rich asks. “We should watch it.”

“Tell me,” I say. He knows this means I want a summary, a small story to keep me going while I pump.

He’s scrolling, scrolling, skimming, skimming. I don’t know how he feeds the baby with one hand. “Oh, shit,” he says.

“What?”

But I don’t have to ask. I already know.

You remember stories differently when you don’t sleep. But you don’t need to remember. It’s all here when you wake up. Missiles in the Middle East, fires in Australia, starving Canadian dogs, and Josie learning to hold up her silky head. It bobs around on her neck, a flowering bud on a skinny stalk. You’re doing it, I tell her. You’re living in the world. We’ve brought you here. Hold your head so you can see. This is the place where we’ve all been, where you were born, where you live now.

Olivia Clare is the author of a book of short stories, Disasters in the First World, and a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021

Featured

Essays

Race Off

The fantasy of race transformation
Namwali Serpell

Essays

Suicide in Fiction, Reconsidered

Why we need stories about living after a suicide attempt
Morgan Thomas

Conversations

Discipline and Abolish

Writing, power, and mass incarceration
Rachel Kushner,
Caleb Smith

You Might Also Like

Fiction

The Reason Why

Yiyun Li

Fiction

Short Swoop, Long Line

Andrew Martin

Fiction

Love (3 Excerpts)

Hanne Ørstavik,
Martin Aitken

Newsletter

Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.