They hadn’t meant to have a baby. After the miscarriages early on, they’d settled into what was his second marriage and her first, and she had been happy enough. Life was good, if unexciting. And then they’d gotten pregnant.
“All right everybody, inhale. Tummy up, now fill your midsection, ribcage, all the way to the top and hold. Hold your breath.”
The room was warm and had a familiar smell, precise, clarified, eau de high school gym, which meant it stank of old socks, mildew, eucalyptus, and vinegar. Soft discordant music played as background. Philip Glass? She wasn’t sure. It wasn’t usually her kind of thing, but it worked in this environment. It softened the harsh buzz of fluorescent lighting. It was the Y, after all.
“Now, exhale. Tummy down, down, down. Ribcage down, down. Empty all the old air out. Empty. Empty. Empty. Good. Now, inhale.”
And here she was, on doctor’s orders, advised to “take up her old life, her old habits.” She breathed. In with the new, out with the old. But what was the old? Was it the past year, which felt unreal anyway? Or was it all that had come before?
“Since we’re an evening class, instead of greeting the sun, let’s do a moon salutation,” the instructor said chirpily. She was young and round and glowed with hope. Celeste missed her old teacher, who had seen half a century and looked it, her body whittled down to the essentials. But she’d decided to find an evening class so Chris could spend some time alone with the baby, and Madame Quave did not offer evening classes. It was just as well, she decided. She would have a fresh start.
She was surprised to find that her body still formed the postures; muscle memory must be true. It was like going to bed with an old lover. No matter how much time passed, it was comfortable, a reacquaintance with the known.
“Good. Now, I thought we’d work on strengthening the lower back, so let’s do a pose called the cobra. Everyone on your tummies, palms flat on your mats beside your ears, elbows down. Now I want you to lift your head and chest up off the mat, but don’t use your arms. Let them rest by your sides for balance. Ready? Inhale and lift yourself up.”
The birth had been an assault. Natural childbirth and pitocin should not be uttered in the same sentence, much less tried together, at least not by her. She had felt inadequate; she had felt unsafe with all those expectant faces waiting impatiently around her, and all their instructions. “Push! Harder! Come on, bear down, now, let’s get this baby out!” The voices, unconnected to bodies, pierced unevenly through the bubble that shut her off alone with the pain. And it had been a bubble. Like being underwater. She was alone inside of it. No one could reach her. No one could help her. But they could hurt her, or at least he could and did. She felt the ring of fire as he crowned, and the last of what had once been her self slipped away and she watched as only animal pushed a baby out. It was not the spiritual experience the natural birth proponents had promised.
“Great. Now, it’s always a good idea to counterposture. That means if you stretch your body one way, you want to stretch it in the opposite way, too.”
Just as the old wives said, she forgot most of the particulars immediately, but the sensation of brutality remained. It touched off memory. The body never forgets even if the mind buries, probably especially if the mind buries. Giving birth had been digging where she didn’t want to dig.
“Here’s a posture I really like for balance. It’s called the tree. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and . . . ”
And then, after all the pain, she got nothing. They whisked him away. He was a meconium baby, floating in his own green waste, and they wanted to observe him. For four hours, he was gone, four hours in the small of the night, when everything felt a little unreal anyway. The first four hours, the bonding time. Crucial, really. Her husband, Chris, left her to accompany the baby, and by the time he returned, glowing at “His hands! Just like mine,” she’d felt that none of it was real. There had been no pain. There was no child. She was there, in the hospital, for some minor complaint, which would be taken care of with an elective surgery, and she’d be back to form in no time.
Then they brought him in and handed him over, a burrito with a face. He could be anyone’s baby, how could she know for sure he was hers? Still, when they ordered her to “let him suck,” she did, but he was nothing to her, this bald creature earnestly going at her nipple like an inept lover.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Chris said. He himself looked different, satisfied in a way that she hadn’t seen before.
But the baby? Beautiful? She’d just smiled. Because he wasn’t, really, and she didn’t like to say it, didn’t like the inference that might be drawn — that she didn’t love him.
Because she didn’t.
“Antenatal depression is more common than you’d think. There’s more of a stigma to it, I suppose. No one discusses it. Serotonin levels plummet during pregnancy. Hormones run rampant. I can give you something for it, something safe.” She was seven months along when she developed the almost irresistible urge to pull her Chevy in front of a truck. Her OB scribbled on a prescription pad, and she had taken the little paper like the currency of an unknown country.
“Here’s a wonderful stretch for your lower back. It’s called the pose of the child. Get up on your knees, now sit on your heels and bend forward at the hips until your chest rests on your knees and your forehead rests on your mat and relax. Do you feel the stretch?”
She had found the pregnancy itself to be mostly an annoyance. Compared to the psychological desolation she’d felt, the physical ailments paled. Sometimes she’d even forgotten about the baby until he kicked a reminder.
The depression had not lifted after the birth, as the doctor said it most likely would. It had merely evolved. Like a dried apple, it hardened into a sturdier, more elemental thing. Accompanying it was a strange calm. She felt no love for the baby.
She always took a swim after class, nothing energetic, just a slow crawl, a few laps back and forth. The water felt good after the workout, and she wanted to stretch her time away, these Thursday evenings without a sweating, sucking, fussing little human velcroed to her chest. The swim was her favorite time of the week.
“Our final pose looks the easiest, and yet it’s the hardest to master, some say. It’s called the corpse.”
The corpse. If the corpse was a lifeless thing, the class was a corpse. Her life was a corpse. She was a corpse.
She couldn’t take the pills anymore. They were excreted in breastmilk, and she couldn’t bear to think of her milk — the copious blue whiteness of it, the one maternal thing that she did easily and well — as poison. So she threw the little amber bottle in the trash.
“You are the thing that keeps me sane,” she said to Chris in a joking voice one night, but they both knew she meant it.
“I’m not doing a very good job,” he joked back, and she understood.
The next Thursday, no yoga. Chris had a meeting and couldn’t look after the baby, who was in a growth spurt and sucked at her relentlessly. She cried over her poor nipples, tried to satisfy him, but he wouldn’t be satisfied, and finally, she couldn’t bear being alone with his need.
She parked at the farthest point in the Y’s parking lot. She liked walking through the dark of night, dwarfed by the city’s sleeping but still-lighted buildings. She imagined someone high up looking down, happy to see her, happy to see any human moving below, proof that the world outside the window was real and not the still life it could look like from five stories up on a dark quiet night. But what would they see? What could they see? Maybe that she was a woman pushing a stroller. And that’s as detailed as it would be. She would be too small for individuation. She could be thin or poochy, young or middle-aged. She could be anyone. She could be a mother who loved her baby.
The pool was lighted, the room glowed that secret green glow, as if by merely stepping into it she was already underwater. The air felt heavy and smelled like the inside of a bleach bottle, which added to the illusion — or was it an illusion? — that it was hard to breathe.
She stripped him and he smiled at her, a trick he’d only just learned and that she didn’t trust, and she wondered what, if anything, he was thinking as he watched her step out of her sweatpants and t-shirt.
Getting him in the water was tricky. Finally, she laid him down in front of the ladder, then climbed down and reached up for him. He gasped when the water sloshed over his feet, so much colder than his baths, but he didn’t cry. He just looked at her like, “what now?” So she dipped him in to the waist. She sunk herself to the neck and floated him on her arms until he seemed accustomed. And then, in a moment of unconsidered action, she took him under. A word floated in her left ear, “There.”
She felt like herself once more. Alone. At peace. She lay face down on the surface of the pool, not breathing, not able to breathe, doing the dead man’s float, a true corpse posture.
You’re okay, she told herself. It’s okay. Because she felt such relief. Just close your eyes and don’t think, relax everything from your scalp to your toes. Don’t breathe, just hold your breath and be.
But she couldn’t just be. She looked at the baby. He had stopped his breath, just as he was supposed to at his age, a natural swimmer, and she let him go, and he floated, a starfish, looking like he belonged there anyway — he was so recently a water creature, so what’s the fuss? Her eyes burned. Their gazes locked and she saw him on his first day of school, at a birthday party, in a soccer game, and then he was a sullen teen locked in his room, and, finally, a funny, sweet, self-deprecating adult. He did have Chris’s hands. And then he was gone. His whole life played out.
Her chest hurt. There he was, this tiny, perfect person, floating, waiting, trusting her. And it was this last thing that got to her. His trust. So when he widened his eyes and looked at her, really looked at her, she felt, finally, that he was hers, at least for a time. And it would seem a short time. And she felt a stab of pain at the idea of losing him. And she took him up for air.