Berkeley Fiction Review | Solstice: Sudden Fiction Contest First Place - 2018
The woman—me, I am the woman— maneuvers the stroller out the front door. It’s red and very expensive, the price of a decent used car. She—I—didn’t have the energy to argue; yes, we will buy the red and very expensive stroller. The white heat of the day is a surprise. Is it summer? How long has it been summer while she’s been in this bedroom, in her bed, all endless day in her bed?
There’s a park several blocks from here, not a place she’d usually go. It’s full of the racket of pre-school kids, playground equipment, sand from the sandboxes everywhere, even on the benches. But here she is.Someone says, “Your baby. It’s crying.” And now she hears it, the baby, who is not an it, but a she. It is a she. It doesn’t seem like it would take too much strength or too much energy to pick up a baby, what is she? Ten pounds? Ten at the most. But the woman’s arms hang there, weighted unweighted. The baby cries, cries and cries, and the others at the park look at her, the woman, the woman who is me. Do something, she knows they are saying, be a mother and do something. It might be the hardest thing she’s done all day, reaching in to that expensive red stroller, reminding herself to take care of its head, her head. At home the father does most of this, the figuring out what it needs, the baby. Is it wet? Hungry? Tired? Bored? The father seems able to tell the difference between these cries, what each one means. How? It’s all just crying—ear-splitting, unbearable noise.
She holds the baby the way she reminds herself to do it and imagines what the father does and how he knows. When she watches them together—the father and the baby—she sees how he looks at it. At her. The love, white-hot as the summer sun, it spills out of him, he overflows with the massiveness of it. It—she—fits in his arms like they were carved from a single slab.
But the woman—me—no matter what she does, she can’t seem to find a comfortable position, a way to hold her arms and the baby in a way that feels like yes, this is it, yes this is right, yes. The baby squirms, arches its back. Who are you, baby? Do I know you? You are a stranger to me, some sort of creature-stranger.
Because she could take not one more minute and because the lure of the bed was like a rare earth magnet, she was pulled home sooner than she was planning. She had wanted to stay out, at the park, long enough that she could say, yes, I did, I went out today, because the father will ask as soon as he gets home. He will ask if she left the house, he will ask what she did all day, he will ask if she held the baby. He will inspect her face, scrutinize it, bore his blue ice into the amber of her eyes. We both know why. He looks for the same thing she does when she can bear to face the mirror. Both of them searching: is there a mother in there?
As usual dinner is wasted on her. The father keeps trying, telling her that she needs to keep up her strength, eat something. The body, her body, my body—it craves nothing but bed and the oblivion of sleep.Waking up, the heart-sink of it. A fresh ambush every day. How is it that even in the heart of summer solstice the mornings are slate gray. Sometimes she thinks if she just doesn’t open her eyes-- just don’t open your eyes. That’s the game she plays. The father wakes up early. She hears him in the kitchen, hears tender tones and fragments of some song.
He stays home longer than he used to. He goes to work later and comes home earlier. Comes home for lunch. She’s grateful, yes. Of course she is. And yet, the father in the kitchen in the morning, the door opening at lunchtime, home again so early—the condemnation of it flattens her each and every time. His presence, his tenderness, his pity, his scorn. The solution, she sometimes thinks, would be for the two of them—the father and the baby—to leave, to go somewhere else and make a beautiful life, a life where the sky is the color it should be and the sun is warm.
The cool air of early fall seeps under the transom, in through the places where the windows need caulking. The baby is so small, lying there on the changing table. If she fell she would surely break, maybe die. The woman repeats this: I cannot let you die, baby. I cannot let you die. The baby lies there, looking right at the woman, looking right at me, maybe also searching. Her eyes are true blue, but here is something she/I have not noticed before. In one there is a small amber streak. Has that always been there? She looks at me. I see that amber streak, baby.