The baby, a girl, was low in Leah’s uterus and two weeks late. Three years before, she had carried her son high, a sweet rising bun comfortably nestled beneath her ribcage. Now she felt as though her daughter hung between her legs, the little girl curled up tight and resolute inside of her, and becoming uncomfortably plump. Leah didn’t blame her for wanting to stay, for wanting to put it off.
Leah needed to ask her husband to tie her shoes. She waddled out to the shop where he stood, quiet and blinking, covered in sawdust, and said her husband’s name four times to extract him from his thoughts, Jim, Jim, Jim, Jim, and then, leaning on the door frame, waited 12 minutes while he finished a job with his tape measure. It was late August and the heat was sharp in Leah’s nose. A V of sweat had seeped from her back onto her dress by the time Jim stooped to tie her shoes. Leah reached an arm behind herself to pull the damp fabric from her skin, and, extending her stomach as she did so, watched her husband almost entirely eclipsed beneath her belly.
In the end the shoes were too tight anyway because Leah’s feet had grown half a size beneath the colossal weight of her pregnancy. Before leaving for church she hoisted herself on the arm of the couch, grunting, kicked off the shoes, and slipped into a loose pair of gardening sandals. They were filthy and the straps on the left sandal were broken.
Uncomfortable as Leah felt, it was the only time this lovely life would exist inside of her, the only time her little girl would belong entirely to her, and, already, she was so in love, so in love.
Leah and Jim maneuvered down the center aisle of the church. Their son hurried ahead, making Leah nervous when she looked down and saw nothing but floral-print stomach beneath her. She knew her son was weaving somewhere among the forest of adult legs. He was about three feet tall, and extremely troublesome these days, crawling up the kitchen cabinets, fascinated by the steep basement stairs, even poking around in the litter box. Usually Leah brought a box of crayons and paper for him to use if he got antsy during the sermon. Last week though, she had discovered him contentedly drawing a large multicolored penis. This week she left the crayons home.
Women smiled knowingly, patting Leah on the back and asking how much longer now, it has to be time, hasn’t it? Men scuttled nervously out of the way, eyeing her belly sideways, (too ripe now for comfort) as she made her slow waddling way between the pews. She was like an oversize barge, clearing everything in her path. Small children stared open-mouthed. At this point, she didn’t care who was eyeing her bursting belly, only that her belly was bursting, and her flesh, her flesh was threatening to rip and split off of her body.
Leah’s bottom fell into the seat and her body followed. Slippery sweat had accumulated in what seemed like every possible nook of her body: her armpits, her back, behind her knees, between her legs, under her breasts, just above her tail bone and trickling downward. She’d washed her dress the night before because it was the only thing left that fit her — a garish muumuu splashed with flamboyant, tropical blooms on a teal background, and a trio of parakeets lurking from various folds in the material. Leah’s sister had lent her the muumuu, and they had guffawed over the tent of fabric till Leah had balled it up and lobbed it into the corner of her closet.
Sitting in church, Leah suddenly felt so sympathetic towards obese people that she suffered a terrible clamping in her throat, and ached to go home and crawl into her closet and where she could cry in private beneath the hangers dangling with coats. It was awful being too large for chairs, too wide to squeeze down an aisle. Until this pregnancy, Leah had never noticed how specifically the world was made for a certain size person. Now she maneuvered around objects and through spaces constantly aware of their inadequacy to accommodate her.
Please let my water break, Leah prayed, please let my water break, let my water break, let it gush down my thighs in the middle of church, I don’t care. She grasped her son’s small hand. It twitched with life. Even as he rested his palm in hers, she could feel the vitality — his thin finger bones involuntarily, almost spastically, pressing her skin. He wiggled in his seat.
Please let my son behave, she added to her prayer.
Jim sat beside her. “Go see Daddy,” she whispered in her little boy’s ear. His eyes gleamed. They always twinkled and sparkled like that, and for a moment, half a second of ecstasy, Leah forgot the eight-and-a-half-pound-and-growing human being inside her body. Her son wiggled over to her husband and put his tiny hand on his father’s knee. The bulky, crevassed shape of Jim’s knee pushed against the fabric of his pants. How well Leah knew the shape of those knees. Jim lowered his eyes toward their son for a moment and put his hand on the boy’s forehead, a funny affectionate gesture he had, as if he were checking the child’s temperature.
Then Jim looked away, thinking about something. Always thinking about something . . .
Half way through the service, Leah started having contractions. She’d been having contractions on and off for a week. They’d gone to the hospital once already, waited around, and gone home again. “Braxton Hicks,” her doctor had said, nodding, “Shouldn’t be painful, just uncomfortable.”
While Leah’s uterus was tightening and squeezing and pulsing, her son had crawled beneath the pew. She bent forward as far as she could, about three inches, to see where his tiny bum was headed. She caught a glimpse of his ankle; he was crawling away fast.
“Stop him,” Leah whispered to Jim.
Her jaw set. A muscle twinged above her lip.
Jim stared blankly in the direction of a stained glass window where Mary held the baby Jesus in one arm. The infant appeared weightless.
“Jim, please, stop him,” Leah whispered.
Jim’s elbow lounged over the back of the pew.
Leah tried to set her husband on fire with her eyes. How nice it must be for him, Leah thought, to be somewhere else all the time. How nice it must be to watch her chase their son around all the time without really seeing it. Her idea of what kind of father he’d be was so unshakable, even now she was still disbelieving.
At this point, Leah’s son could be as many as ten aisles away crawling through a throng of leg-trunks rooted to the floor in their good church shoes. Leah thought about her own ugly gardening sandals, the only shoes into which she could stuff her expanding feet, which were spreading like spoonfuls of pancake batter on a skillet.
A few people had noticed her son, looked down, and then up again as he made his way past, maybe even parting their legs to wriggle through. It must have been a fantastic adventure for him. So far, Leah’s son had caused only a subdued ripple through the pews. Old ladies murmured. Their husbands frowned and furtively craned their necks. But within 30 seconds, nearly six rows of church patrons were looking anxiously around their feet.
Leah tried to move. She couldn’t. She couldn’t bend over. She could hardly turn.
Someone giggled. A bible dropped. “Is it a rat?” a man said, and cracked a grin. “Hoo, hoo, hoo,” his wife tittered and pushed his shoulder.
The minister, aware of something more worthy of attention than himself, shifted uncomfortably in the pulpit and continued preaching.
Mrs. Hermann, five rows ahead and seven people to the left, who had, up until this point, been so fervently engrossed in praying to the Lord God her savior that she had been oblivious to the commotion, stood up and shrieked. Her cherry-lipsticked mouth parted. She grasped her rear end with two sets of fuchsia acrylic nails and looked wildly about her feet.
Jim noticed now. The very last person in the entire church it seemed. Leah watched the discovery on his face. Welcome back, she thought. He smirked, then exhaled in contented boredom and adjusted his body, leaning his other arm over the back of the pew.
Leah elbowed him sharply in the ribs. This time she watched the startled on his face, his bewildered reaction. The surprised expression was just enough to mask the vacancy. Everything behind that surprise was unavailable to her, to anyone.
“You,” Leah said, out loud, in church, for everyone to hear including the Lord God Mrs. Hermann’s savoir, “ass!”
Everyone was still.
The minister hesitated for half a second and continued preaching.
Leah stood up and swayed between the pews, bumping church patrons with her belly, knocking the Sunday school teacher’s hat off with her behind, helping herself to people’s shoulders to heft her body forward, and, when Leah finally squeezed her body out of the pew, she walked down the aisle and quietly let herself out, holding the door so it wouldn’t slam. Then she ran.
Leah couldn’t believe she was running — couldn’t believe she was capable of running. Tears had already made their way down her cheeks and were hanging precariously from her jaw when she exited the church’s front doors. Leah ran down the grass-lined sidewalk on Main Street, past the post office and past the hardware store.
The contractions seized and clutched Leah’s belly, fresh tears and fresh tears blurring her sight. She was making noises she didn’t recognize, huffing and puffing and a sort of moaning, singing. The broken sandal flapped wildly on her foot, but if she sort of skipped and limped it would stay on. She had the vague presence of mind to be aware of how she might appear to the few passing cars, this hugely pregnant bus of a woman tearing down the sidewalk in a floral circus tent, sweat seeping through the fabric. In her peripheral vision, she saw a face in a car window turn towards her, mouth open.
Leah reached the park and didn’t stop. She wasn’t running anymore, but hobbling and shuffling. She swayed on her pancake feet across the basketball court. One of her sandals fell off and she left it. She waddled past the playground, past the swings, across the grass to the furthest spot in the park and heaved her body on to the ground beneath the shade of an oak tree. The shadow of the leaves reached and sprawled across the grass. Pockets of hot, sparkling light and cool darkness intermingled as though a curtain of lace had been hung across the sun.
Leah lay, belly up, for about 15 minutes, her arm thrown over her eyes. She didn’t think about the pain. She didn’t think about the kind of father her husband had turned out to be. She didn’t think about Mrs. Hermann jumping up like someone had just skewered her bottom with a red-hot poker. It was possibly the most peaceful moment Leah had experienced in 27 years.
Leah heard an engine rumbling, and without looking, she knew it wasn’t her husband. She didn’t look up until the car was idling by the oak tree and she heard the door open and shut. The police officer had driven all the way across the park, over the basketball court, onto the grass, past the playground, and past the swings.
Leah saw his leather boots first, then the badge pinned to his chest, and finally his nostrils. His head was backlit by the sun, obscuring his face. All she could see in the blinding ray of light were the miniature dark ovals of his nostrils.
The nostrils flickered and disappeared as he tilted his head towards Leah, and then she saw the wide panes of his sunglasses. They were mirrored, and her shiny metallic reflection looked back at her in horror. There was her belly, looking like the hump of a camel. There her crimson face, puffy and clammy with sweat. And her hair sprouting wildly, except for the stringy bits smeared across her forehead.
“Are you all right, Ma’am?”
Leah didn’t move except to cover her eyes again with her arm.
“I’m fine,” she said.
She heard the police officer take off his sunglasses and click them shut.
“Sure I can’t give you a ride somewhere? Would you like me to call someone?”
“Please,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
He stepped back, nodding his head slightly, got in his car, and rumbled back across the park.
“My girl, my girl, my girl,” Leah whispered. She rubbed the underside of her stomach, gathered the muumuu in a fist above her crotch. Her daughter — reluctant, pink and curled like shrimp — did not budge.