The first time Heather sees the Mother undressing, she shuts the shade quickly. The houses are too close together. Heather could toss a ball out the window and it would bounce, roll under the dogwoods through the shared yard, onto the Mother’s back step. The children would pick it up and gaze at Heather’s window to find the source of the unexpected gift.
It is a Tuesday night in October, Month Six of the pregnancy. The air feels cool. Heather has taken one last look around the nursery, assessing (she still needs a diaper pail). She has her fingertips on the window sash, she is pushing the pane back into place — and there, through the bare branches of the dogwood, is the Mother undressing.
The light from the lamp casts shadows up the wall, forming pools of darkness in the Mother’s armpits as she pulls her sweater up over her head. Heather slams the window shut, pulls down the shade, stares at the blankness. In her mind, the figure of the Mother is silhouetted there, arms stretching above her, her bra a white outline. God, thinks Heather, a hand on her own swelling abdomen, “Will I look like that?” She’d seen the Mother’s stomach, loose, like bread dough. Heather runs her fingers in a line from her hips until they meet at her belly-button: firm, taut skin.
The Mother has three children. Heather sees them sometimes in the late afternoon when she comes home from work at the bank. They run around the yard with sticks and hula hoops and bright plastic trucks. Last summer the two smallest threw off their clothes and danced around in the sprinkler. The Mother appears often at the back door, tissues falling out of her jean pocket, feet in flip flops or slippers depending on the season. Her hair is always in a braid, pulled straight back. No makeup. The smallest boy on her hip or clinging to her leg. She looks nice, Heather thinks. Often she waves. But she does not know the Mother’s name. Once she’d heard the Dad calling her from somewhere inside the house, but she hadn’t been able to make sense of the sounds. Two syllables, maybe. A hard first sound. Candice or Carla or Kristy, she couldn’t figure it out.
“Come see the baby’s room,” Heather says to Graham that night. “I put up another picture. I bought a few more books.”
Graham looks up from his book, Deconstructing the American Dream. “You bought more books?” he asks.
“Anne of Green Gables.” Heather eases her body onto the edge of the bed.
Graham shuts the book, one finger hooked in the pages to keep his place. “The baby should love that.”
“Well, it’s for later. She’ll see it there on her bookcase, it’ll become part of her landscape, and then in a few years or so we’ll be reading it to her. The time will go by like that.” Heather snaps her fingers and massages her foot with the other hand. “That’s what all the women at work tell me. We’ve got to plan ahead.”
“The baby might be a boy,” says Graham, flipping his book open. Silence fills the room again, broken by the sound of a page scraping, rustling, falling into place.
They sit in the kitchen. A late November evening, Month Seven of the pregnancy. Heather is wearing thick wooly socks and a robe, an old thing with stains on the collar. Between them on the table: a frying pan, orange juice, bowl of apples. A lamp shines down on them like a spotlight.
The baby in utero kicks Heather firmly in the ribs. Is it the tip of a tiny elbow, a toe, a forefinger?
Graham plucks an apple from the bowl and begins to cut it. “So in my com class, this fool wrote: I took off all her cloths and entered her.” He laughs, and the seeds, as they hit his knife, scatter across the table.
Heather pushes her chair back and shuffles over to turn on the kettle. She hates shuffling like a destitute woman dressed in too many clothes, but tonight . . . tonight she is thinking of the dream she had: Graham’s fingers around the nape of another graduate student’s neck. Wisps of her hair curled around his fingernails. They were framed in the lit windows of the English department.
“Want some tea?” Heather asks, slipping an Earl Grey decaf. bag from its sleeve.
Graham is looking out the window at the house next door, a slice of apple poised above his chin. “I wish those people next door would take a little more pride in their house. Our property value’s got to be plummeting. Don’t you think they could at least fix that back step or repaint or something?”
Heather wraps the tea bag string around and around her finger, pulling it until her skin turns white and strange.
Month Eight. Heather sits in the glider rocker at the window. She has been folding cloth diapers and stacking them in the drawers of the nursery.
Graham does not want any gender-specific colors — just greens and yellows, enlightened colors. But on the sly, Heather bought a frilly diaper cover the color of Pepto-bismol. She is ashamed of herself now, oddly sad as she shoves it to the back of the top drawer. If the baby is a boy, she’ll slip it into the trash. If it’s a girl, she may do the same.
Earlier today, she sat at her office in the bank, a small room in a block of nondescript concrete close to the highway. During her third trimester, her desk started to reek of tunafish. It’s all in your mind, she kept telling herself, anointing the slick drawers with essential oils, tucking scented candles in between stacks of papers. But the smell of tunafish prevailed, turning her stomach as soon as she walked through the office’s door. This morning it had been worse than ever, and as she sat in her black swivel chair, going over endless stacks of financial records (mere numbers that weighed and measured the futures of strangers), Baby somersaulted and stretched. Baby pushed her fingers and toes and shoulders all along Heather’s body, mapping out the parameters of her small existence. Is it loud inside the uterus? Heather wondered, as she typed out letters to customers, people who could lose their houses, their businesses, their lives. Is it like being at the ocean, sleeping with the windows open, listening to the waves, imagining an expanse of water. . . . Suddenly, sitting in her chair, her feet planted wide as she typed, she wanted to climb in too, opening her own womb, squeezing in her weary body, curling up beside the baby, eyes open in that warm swoosh, thumb in mouth.
She wants to be carried to the end of her pregnancy, gush out in one last push, be born with her own little one, start lives new together. Instead she feels so tired.
In a 1980s kitchen with dark cabinets, a garish swag-lamp hangs over table. The lighting is friendly and warm, mostly from a lamp on the kitchen counter where Young Heather and her mother are kneading dough. The woman in the apron is trim, well-dressed. Young Heather stands on a kitchen chair, her hands in the dough; the woman has one hand on her back and one on the counter.
“Too gentle, Heather. You’ve got to work the dough. I mean . . .” she puts her hands over Heather’s and rubs in her knuckles, flinging it to the counter, folding it, pounding again. “You’ve got to really knead the flour in.”
The flour streaks Young Heather’s cheeks and forehead and settles in her hair. Later, after her mother disappears, she will remember this moment as if it is a television commercial she once watched. Heather will receive one postcard from her, from a small town far away. The postcard will picture a statue with outstretched arms; tulips will grow at the statue’s toes.
They washed the flour off together as the water rushed over every stitch and line of Heather’s fingers, swirling away into the drain, and always there was the scent of her mother behind her: lemons, faint perspiration, the smell of home.
Month Nine. Across the yard in the other house, a light floods the room. Heather sees a bed, the edge of a door, a full laundry basket on a chair. The Mother enters. She holds the smallest child, a boy, whom she plops on the floor. The child begins to unload the laundry basket, pulling out socks, a shirt, underwear. The Mother does not seem to care. She turns to the mirror, pulls off her shirt, studies her right arm, scratching at something Heather cannot see, a scab maybe. She reaches behind her and unfastens her bra, letting her breasts fall, long and worn. The child on the floor looks up at her breasts, opens his hand and closes it, recognizing, wanting to nurse.
Heather thinks of the day she walked home last summer from the bank; that spring afternoon in when a late snow fell like an unwanted blanket. Tree branches, their leaves weighed down with heavy flakes, lay severed from their trunks on the sidewalk. A woman was gathering irises in her garden, piling them in huge stacks on her grass. Take some, she’d told Heather, lifting an armful over her fence. Poor things, they couldn’t hold the snow.
The irises had lain full and heavy in the crook of Heather’s arm. Their petals were wet with melting snow, leaves bruised. Heather breathed deeply — their high, sweet smell — she’d felt so lucky to be carrying them. The Mother’s breasts, Heather realizes, remind her of the irises. She reaches down, touches her own, full and firm. She tries to imagine a turning head, an opening mouth drawing in milk. But it is hard to see the baby’s face — it is only a blur, a conglomeration of every baby she has seen.
Instead she looks across the yard at the Mother, who moves the laundry from the chair, sits down half naked, and feeds the small boy. He fingers the Mother’s hair, grips, pulls. Gently, the Mother reaches up, strokes the back of his fist, eases his grip. Then she raises her head and suddenly Heather feels as if she is staring at her. It’s impossible, she knows — the nursery is dark as the night outside. The Mother is looking at the dogwood branches glowing in the porch light. Or she is looking at something Heather can’t see.
Heather tips her head back, closes her eyes. Graham is grading papers in bed; he’ll have the light on in the bedroom for a few hours yet. The baby inside her wakes suddenly, begins to hiccup. Heather whispers names: Caroline, Catherine, Eloise, Elizabeth. The baby continues hiccupping, evidences no preference for any of Heather’s offerings. They’ve decided not to find out the baby’s sex, but Heather is beginning to know.
In her half-sleep, she sees the baby walking, glowing in strong sunshine like an overexposed photograph. Heather keeps waiting for the child to turn, so she can see the details of eyes, nose, lips. Suddenly the child drops the bowl, leans over to pick it up. Heather sees a miniature version of her own hand: tapering fingers, nails ragged and bitten. Then the child is gone.