Short Fiction

In “Waiting,” originally published in Issue 22 of the Snake Nation Review, a young wife, Angel, rejoices over the high risk pregnancy her husband fears. Readers sometimes ask if this story is autobiographical. It’s not, though there are parallels: I’m married to a surgeon and the husband here is a surgical resident. Like Angel, I suffered a miscarriage, though mine was the common first trimester-type and hers, more devastating, came in her seventh month. I’d say as with most writers, actual people and events inform my fiction. Here, I drew from personal experience but more so from true stories I’d heard about other women whose lives and marriages were changed forever by the loss of a child–the neighbor who when I was pregnant with my second baby suffered a ruptured uterus, the friend whose toddler was killed in a car accident, and my mother, who lost a baby (and nearly her own life) when she suffered a placental abruption late in her seventh pregnancy. 

I hope I haven’t scared you off! Though dark, I like to think this story is at times funny, too, and touched with hope. 

 

Waiting

For one surreal moment, Angel imagines conceding. If she could give way, sink into deeper slumber or else come full awake, she would happily surrender this battle with the hurricane of her mind. But the hysteria of her dream sweeps her along, binding her to this bizarre land of her own invention. Besides, conceding would mean to lose hope and that is the worst of it. Hope sustains her, guides her through her somnolent paces, taunts her with the notion that this time, things might turn out differently.

heartscopeAgain, the grass underfoot is familiar yet strange—cold and crusty as a winter lawn yet shrouded with daisies and buttercups. Pausing to gaze at her pallid feet, Angel re-engages, lifting her face to the biting wind to resume her journey across the endless meadow. She lugs one leaden leg, then the other, making her inevitable way toward the tombstone ahead. It isn’t a proper tombstone. From this distance it resembles a giant tongue thrusting out of the cold hard earth. The shape she recognizes—a rectangle set on end and curved across the top—but the colors are out of whack, fire engine red and covered with Swiss dots, absolutely crawling with tiny white dots like the magnified surface of a tongue.

In an eye blink, Angel has made the crossing. The long gap of grass lies behind her and she sits on her heels by the grave arranging her own flowers, periwinkles, zinnias, poppies, brilliant flowers unrivaled in their potential for bringing joy. Yet Angel frowns. The poppies clash with the red of the tombstone and too, she should have brought a vase, something that could hold water, give the flowers a fighting chance. She sings as she arranges, that old sappy song, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Funny, Angel has blue eyes already. Don’t it make my brown eyes, don’t it make my brown eyes … Over and over, the chorus runs circles through her mind. Somebody punch a button, CD’s stuck. Don’t it make my brown eyes, brown eyes, brown … Then, not eyes but Dr. Brown! Dr. Brown, Dr. Brow, Dr. Brau …

“Dr. Brauer, please report to Room Two.”

Angel pops open her eyes, grateful to be jolted from her nightmare. Her skin feels clammy and exposed and for a moment, she can’t get her bearings. She pulls herself to a sit, taking care not to strain her tummy muscles, and studies the diplomas hanging on the opposite wall: Robert Brauer, Esteemed Alumni … Robert Brauer, Honor Fellow in the Study of High Risk Obstetrics, Johns Hopkins … There are so many, and this of course, is the reason Angel is here.

On the counter lies a tube of K-Y jelly, open, a large glob dangling over the paper towel folded beneath. Buddied close by are a box of rubber gloves, a fat tongue depressor with a wire loop attached, and a speculum, that cold instrument that looks too big to fit. Angel shivers. Nothing but a silly paper gown protects her thighs from the metal table where she sits, waiting. She turns and with one hand tries to smooth away the imprint of her head from the paper pillowcase behind her, much as she’d like to smooth out the crease in her sub-conscious that controls dreams. She’s dreamed the tongue tombstone dream so many times now she can run the full reel even when wide awake. But she may have drifted off in fact. This wouldn’t surprise Angel a bit. She sleeps poorly these days, not only on account of the dream playing over and over but because she’s worried. About the baby. About Gil. About what Gil will do, now that he knows.

Yesterday, he met her at home for lunch, something he hadn’t done in years, not since he started his surgical residency. But a case had cancelled and he called to say he was “starving for one of her ham salad sandwiches.” He whispered it so soft Angel could feel the lacy fingers of his voice tickling her ear. She works as a teller three blocks from their house, a one-story brick ranch painted pale yellow with dark blue shutters. She loves going home at noon, loves how the sun falls hot through the branches of the tall long-needle pine in their front yard, sprinkled this time of year with crepe myrtle like bits of purple confetti.

Right way, Gil nailed two sandwiches on white bread and ate a bag of chips.

“Mighty good,” he said, patting Angel’s tush as she cleared his plate at their small breakfast table. Then he leaned over and pulled his glasses and a journal from his briefcase while Angel dumped their crusts into each of two dog bowls. Jostling her calves, her retrievers slurped up the crusts in a second flat and turned grateful faces to lick crumbs from the paper plates she held low for them. Almost playfully, Gil flipped the pages of the August issue of The Journal of Surgery. He seemed relaxed, not a bit troubled by hospital affairs, which gave Angel an idea. Tossing the plates in the trash, she took a cleansing breath.

“I’m thinking we should try and get pregnant again,” she said just as natural, as if this were one more trivial domestic subject.

Gil’s eyes never left the black and white photograph of some poor soul’s gall bladder, slashed open for the world to see.

“Thought we decided to adopt.”

“You decided.”

“Seems best.”

“I don’t see how.”

Hands on her slender hips, Angel stepped within inches of Gil’s knee. She would shame him into looking up.

“I will have my own baby, Gilbert Peters.”

Finally, Gil met her gaze. “I’ve told you I’m not ready to take that risk, Angel. Don’t you ever listen?”

“Oh, I listen. But it’s not like anything’s going to change. Nothing will change even one iota and all those eggs are down there, just, just, rotting or something.”

Gil stared, his dark eyes inert and hard, as Angel continued. “Besides, Doctor Brauer says there’s only the tiniest chance something could go wrong again.”

Gil took off his glasses, carefully laid them on the table, and stood. His warm breath puffed at Angel’s left temple.

“I can’t take that chance,” he said, his voice growing tender as with two fingers he grasped a wayward lock of her hair and tucked it behind her ear. Lord, now she might lose her nerve.

“Why risk it?” Gil went on, big brown eyes all motion now, swirling like tiny pots of melted chocolate. Angel turned away, lifted a recently rinsed wine glass from the counter and stepped into their excuse for a dining room, really an arched-off square of living area.

Gil followed, stopping just behind where she stood near their dark chestnut hutch, her fingers still curled around the stem of the glass, her gaze on the regiment of teacups and salad plates poised on the shelf above.

“I can’t bear to think of losing you, Angie,” he said. He ran a finger down her bare arm, closed his hand gently around her slight wrist. Angel squeezed shut her eyes and turned to face him, her wrist twisting in his hand.

“Well, what if I’m already pregnant?” she asked.

The corners of Gil’s mouth went horizontal, then sagged. His eyes turned opaque and dull as a pair of tiddlywinks. Angel’s spine quivered.

“How did this happen?” Gil asked, tightening his grip on her wrist. “Why haven’t you told me?”

“I reckon I just did.” Angel smiled and tightening again, Gil pressed her wrist against his hip.

“Let go,” Angel said, tears rising.

Gil held on a tick longer then turned her loose, his hand snapping to his side. Angel walked to the living room window, leaving him alone in the archway where they hung mistletoe each Christmas. He should correct her for using reckon. He was always on her about refining her language, but he didn’t say a word. Outside, little Taylor Meyer from next door crashed his Big Wheel into the long needle pine and tipped out, laughing.

“How far along?” Gil asked.

“Coming up on three months.” Angel was a day shy of fifteen weeks but thought it best to change the subject. “Dr. Brauer scheduled my first ultrasound for tomorrow, at eleven …”

“Three months?” Gil asked, staring intently at something to the left of Angel’s shoulder.

“Yes, three months.”

“Can you make it, for the ultrasound?” Angel raised her voice.

“I’ll do my best.” With a quick shake of his head, Gil returned to the kitchen.

“What does that mean?” Angel followed.

“It means I’ll try and be there.” Pausing, Gil stretched out his arm and squinting one eye, checked his watch. And they hadn’t resolved a thing.

“I’ve gotta get back.”

“Yes, go.”

Gil fetched his briefcase and patted the pockets of his scrubs. “Where are my keys?” He walked back through the living room to the bookshelf by the door.

Spotting the keys on the coffee table, Angel tossed them—too hard, too close to Gil’s face. Ducking, he let them hit the wall and slide to the floor before retrieving them and walking out, leaving Angel no choice but to gather an arsenal of pillows off the sofa to throw in his wake. There, on the bookshelf was the ugly ashtray someone had given them as a wedding gift and she threw that, too, breaking it into pieces against the doorframe. Why couldn’t he just go ahead and get good and angry like a normal person? She would never understand it. Her wrist hurt. Rubbing it, she saw that a deep pink ring had risen on her pale bluish skin. By the time Gil returned for his morning shower after working all night, the imprint of his thumb and forefinger had all but faded away.

 

Perched on her metal table, Angel sings along with an instrumental version of Mandy over the intercom. At least it’s something to do. The song bridges into a number by Karen Carpenter and she leans back on her hands. Her paper gown puckers and she smiles to see her breasts, round and firm and already a size and a half larger. Below them, her belly rises like a gentle dune on a silken beach. She lays a hand below her navel and holds it there.

How was it, she wondered, that men, even very good men, could focus and go on, work, work, work, no matter how distracting life grew in the larger sense? It was beyond Angel, who for months after their baby died, retreated into silent lethargy. She forgot how to live, talk. Words she once could call up without a thought receded like a slack tide, sucked back into her brain where they blended with memories and dreams and snippets of lullabies that had set up camp there. It sapped her energy, this tangle of memory. The house got to be a wreck. For a while her mother stayed with them. She cooked and cleaned for Gil like she’d planned to all along, but Angel wouldn’t let her touch the bedroom. While scummy dishes and soiled socks and underwear piled up in giant anthills around her, Angel stayed there alone for two weeks, drifting in and out of sleep. Only the dogs were allowed. They were her best company.

By the end of July, Lily left to tend Angel’s father and Gil’s mother hired them a maid. Her very first day, while dusting the bedroom, the maid got after Angel, saying everybody has troubles and might as well pull yourself up, get on with life. Angel yanked the dust rag out of her hand and told her she’d just as soon clean her own house, thank you very much. Not long after, it cooled off and Angel healed up. Her doctor gave the okay to resume normal activity, day and night. The night part took a little longer, but she did manage to sweep up the dog hair and wash the toilet.

She couldn’t resist the nursery, which she refused to dismantle for months. This worried Gil, so Angel was careful to clear out before he came home each day. In December she set up a little plastic Christmas tree on the changing table, decorated it with white garland and miniature booties and bottles and rattles, powder blue every one. During the holiday season, she’d sneak in and hum carols, maybe rock, not holding a baby doll or anything crazy like that, just rocking and thinking about her dead son. One Thursday, mid-January, Gil came home early and found her sitting on the floor, her legs curled beneath her, with the tree beside her. In the glow of the Winnie the Pooh nightlight, Angel was removing ornaments, one by one, and wrapping them in colored tissue before placing them in a box next to a pile of baby linens. Bare nails stood out around the yellow walls where used to hang cutouts of red and blue circus animals.

“Maybe you can take apart the bed and table, put them in the attic …” she murmured when Gil walked through the door. “This weekend.”

She plucked at a flannel blanket, breathed in its baby-store scent, then let her hands fall into her lap, one gripped to a scrap of orange tissue. Gil came to her, lifted her up. Her legs had gone to sleep and collapsed, making her body go limp the same way it had on the day Gil rushed home and found her sitting in a pool of blood on their kitchen floor. Now he sat her in the nursery rocker and knelt before her. For the first time in months, Angel could see his face clearly—his nose a hint too big, lips too thin and serious, but eyes soft and warm as a teddy bear’s, eyes she’d always dreamed of. She smiled. Maybe she could go on, she felt strong even though her eyes ached the way they did when the ragweed was up. But wouldn’t you know, just then something lurched inside Gil. He laid his face in her lap and wept and snorted, bawled in that way men have that can be embarrassing. Angel stroked his hair until he slowed up and caught his breath.

In bed one night a month later, Angel brought up the idea of trying for another baby. She felt a little guilty, like maybe it gave her an unfair advantage to talk about something so vital after making love. But that was the time it could seem she and Gil were floating far above the lonely nights and unpaid bills, and the kinks in her brain would unravel. She nearly talked him into it, too. She could tell by his easy smile and the way he rolled up on his side and went to kissing her all over. But then his lips made their way down the smooth surface of her belly and over to her scar, so small but rough and ugly, and he pulled away. The next morning he was pushing to adopt.

Angel can never quite make sense of Gil’s fears. She could be prostrate in the bed, sweating with fever and writhing about, throwing up even, and he’d brush it off. “Oh, you’ll be fine. Nothing serious.” In his mind, she never has anything really bad, not compared to the vast miseries of the general population. Yet the idea of Angel carrying another baby, an idea Dr. Brauer has approved, makes Gil freak. It’s hard to figure, though of course she can see him being upset about her having tricked him. That was a matter of survival. She was meant to have another child. The certainty Angel feels about this is imprinted in her as deeply as the sensation of her first baby kicking and somersaulting, rapping on her insides, chaotic with energy. Then to come to briefly to the sounds of nick and snip, to hear them cutting away at her core, to fade away again even while feeling the baby so cold and still beneath their brittle instruments …

Angel figures the OB on call touched him first. Then maybe Gil. And her mother. Angel herself touches him in the dream, every time. Once she finishes singing about her brown eyes turning blue, he calls to her: Mommy, I’m ready to come up now! Playful, not afraid. Then the earth under that red tongue opens enough to give her a glimpse of his perfect cherub face. He’s always about two in the dream and has Gil’s face in miniature, his moody eyes. Angel reaches down and his soft, spongy fingers curl around hers but when she pulls, there’s no give. She lies flat, nuzzling the loamy soil, and tries to get a grip on his forearm.

It’s okay, Mommy, he says because she has begun to cry. Pull harder! When she does, her arm stretches out like Elastic-man while his voice recedes into the grave …

A familiar rap on the door. Dr. Brauer, just in time.

“Good morning, Angel.”

“Hi, Doc.” He’s in scrubs, wrinkled. His thick sandy hair looks a mess. “Did you have a delivery this morning?”

“A C-section, at 4:30!” He studies her chart. “Didn’t delay me too much,” he continues with a smile. “How are we doing here? Weight looks good, blood pressure normal … Who said you were high risk anyway?”

Angel grins, noticing how wet she feels in the armpits. “I felt him move the other day.” It had been just a flutter, almost like gas, but she knows the difference. The flutter evolves into tiny taps, then kicks, then those full-body-slams.

“Excellent! I guess it’s getting to be that time.” He gently kicks away a low stool, pushes the exam light to the side and moves in close. “Let’s see if we can hear the little guy.”

Angel lies back, Dr. Brauer helping her scoot down so her head rests on the pillow. On the ceiling hangs a poster, a cocker spaniel puppy lying on a fringed rug, head between its paws and forlorn eyes open wide. Be nice to me. I’ve had a long day.

Dr. Brauer stretches a measuring tape lengthwise down Angel’s belly. He reads then snaps it shut, jots something on her chart.

“Now this may feel a little cold.”

Jelly on the belly time, and somehow, Dr. Brauer’s hand ends up covering Angel’s wrist. She flinches, then remembers the red welts have grown faint. She feels glad for the weight of his touch. While he moves the electronic scope over the small mound of her uterus, she sneaks a look at Dr. Brauer’s face. He stares ahead, listening.

Nothing there. Or there. He squeezes Angels’ wrist, still sore enough that her eyes sting. He shifts his weight to one side and sweeps the stethoscope over, around, up. Angel’s face goes hot. She holds her breath. Be nice to me, she reads again.

“Shoong, SHOONG … shoong, SHOONG …”

“There it is!” cries Dr. Brauer.

Angel unclenches her teeth, relaxes lavishly into the sound of life gushing inside her.

“Sounds good and strong, too.”

Dr. Brauer helps her up, his hand now in the small of her back. Angel smooths her gown around her thighs.

“Okay, you know the ultrasound room, down the hall?” Angel nods. He closes her file. “Any questions?”

“No, that’ll do it.”

“We’ll see you in two weeks then. Watch that blood pressure and keep up the good work.”

He pats Angel on the knee as he goes and she feels a surge of uncontrollable love. Smothering it, she gathers her belongings, pulls on her jeans and shirt, and punches Gil’s number into her cell.

“Hello! Dr. Peters’ phone?”

Foreign accent. Angel rolls her eyes. “How much longer will he be?”

“Excuse me. Who this is please?”

“This is his wife. How much longer will he be in the O.R.?”

“I am sorry, Mrs. Peters. Hold on, I’ll check for you.”

In the background, Gil’s faint voice—Forty-five minutes, maybe an hour.

“He says close to an hour, Mrs. Peters. Want me to have him call you?”

“No, just remind him about my ultrasound. In twenty minutes.” Angel hangs up and chucks her phone in her purse. You’d think eventually she’d learn.

She waits in the room down the hall, time standing still the way it does in her dream once she finally falls into the grave and stands on the slippery mud holding her son. No longer a cute toddler, he has his own gray, premature face and fingers like the stems of leaves. He wears the white gown her mother picked for his burial, the sleeves torn off. His arms are white and spindly. His skin, dry and papery, peels around the joints.

Angel never actually touched him. She came out of her coma the night before the funeral, but when her mother and Gil brought the baby in the next morning, things didn’t go well.

“Here he is, Honey. Doesn’t he look sweet?” Lily tilted up the baby’s head where Angel could get a good look. He looked like a preemie doll with all the air sucked out of it.

“I think they’ve done such a good job preparing him,” her mother went on. His eyes glassy and sheepish, Gil glanced at Angel then turned away. So ill at ease in this, his home territory, he fingered the card on one of the dozens of flower arrangements that littered Angel’s breakfast cart.

An arm cocked at her hip, Lily smiled as if posing, her featherweight grandson crooked snugly into her elbow, his burial gown cascading over her hand.

“You want to hold him?”

Unable to bear a second longer the bright sheen of her mother’s glance, the strange feeble presence of this creature on her arm, Angel turned away like her husband, their twin gazes riveted to the blank antiseptic wall.

“Oh Honey.” Lily reached over and brushed Angel’s hair out of her face, felt her cheek for fever. “Why don’t you get some rest and we’ll be back to check on you, right after the service. We’ll just take care of everything, won’t we Gil?”

Lily patted Angel’s arm. Gil nodded, and as his mother-in-law walked to the door, stepped close, leaned down from what seemed an impossible height, and kissed Angel. His cheek felt warm and damp. Angel lay still. Even though Gil and her mother had explained everything several times over, it wasn’t until days after that she could remember, and only in flashes then—the headache that kept getting worse, her vision blurring, mostly the blood. Hot rivers of blood. Blood that came in thick putrid clumps, clogging, thrusting, ramming its way out of her body, splashing into the toilet. Would the baby be next? She’d fought the urge to push, somehow found the phone, shrieked for Gil to come home. So much blood but the baby seemed all right. She could still feel him. Come home.

Then she was lying on the kitchen floor, glad for the cool tile against her hot cheek. Gil’s familiar arms wrapped her up, lifted her, and next thing she knew was the touch of a starched hospital sheet, the blip-blip of monitors, the smell of death. But on that morning of the funeral, Angel couldn’t remember a thing. She knew only the crushing weight where her baby had been, the echo of his life still inside her like a phantom limb.

To complete her dream, Angel tries to nurse, but her stick baby won’t suck. She takes his head, turns it to her breast, pushes the tiny cracked mouth over her nipple, but the lips go limp and he falls away, again and again. Her longest nights, the dream goes on and on like this, the two of them standing in the muddy grave, hardly moving, him not sucking until poof! The baby’s gone and Gil stands at the top of the grave looking in, their baby dead at his feet.

 

Now Angel lies propped on yet another metal table, baring her middle again, her gaze on a dark screen. If only Gil could see this. Dazzling lines pulse and crease across the monitor, now like a huge moving thumbprint, now a marching band in jazzy formation. The tech points out details of the baby’s anatomy as she pushes a probe over and across and back up Angel’s belly. Angel doesn’t hear. Her senses are on high alert, latched to the image of the baby’s heart. Enfolded in a dance of organs and limbs, it flashes in rhythm, keeping perfect time with the heavy pumping of her own blood.

 

[End]

 

 

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