by Lindy Biller
As soon as we show up, the baby a thick bundle in your mother’s old stroller, the church ladies school toward us like bright-colored fish. They have a sense for babies. They can smell it on us, like blood in the water. You snort at the sight of the ladies, your arm heavy around my shoulders. I want you to protect us, the baby and me—our soft bodies still coming to terms with this new separation, this new otherness. I want you to run interference and make it so that I don’t have to say anything. I want to listen to you make small talk about the traffic and the snow. I want you to know that I want this from you.
Marcella is the first to reach us, eyes bright, face painted in exaggerated colors. “Oh, what a darling,” she says, bending over the stroller. “He’s finally here!”
She is in her sixties and likes to swivel back and forth with her arms spread-eagled during worship. Her nails are glossy magenta talons, which she drags across the baby’s cheek. I feel everything inside me freeze over, harden like bone. Do I say something cheerful? Do I yank the stroller out of her reach and run for the exit? She beams at me, though we’ve never exchanged more than four sentences. “You’re still glowing, Mama,” she says.
Yes, I’m glowing. I am incandescent. I want to duck out into the parking lot behind the church. I want to rub hand sanitizer in small, soothing circles over the baby’s milky, contaminated skin, but what if some of it gets into his mouth, his eyes? What greater damage would that do?
Marcella outstretches a hand again, but this time I wheel the stroller backward, out of her reach, accidentally slamming one of the wheels against a metal folding chair.
“Oh,” she says, her eyes widening.
“He’s cranky today,” I lie, flushing.
The baby coos. Traitor. He looks so small here, surrounded by grown people and gray walls and rows and rows of chairs and all the invisible dangers that want to kill him. My body doesn’t know how to act anymore, without him inside it. Too hot. Too cold. Too soft. Too weak. I want to hide in the back row and barricade the aisle with my body, so nobody can come near, but the church ladies are like birds pecking for seed on frozen ground. Desperate for sustenance. They’re just happy to see a baby, you’ll tell me later, they didn’t mean anything by it. They touch the baby’s tiny-socked feet. They rub his arms and balled-up hands, as though he might heal them. Even in ordinary times, our pediatrician said, it’s a good idea to have people wash before touching a newborn. There’s RSV, croup, influenza. I have already failed him.
“Is he a good baby?” one of the ladies asks.
I don’t know how to answer. What if I say yes and thereby acknowledge that babies can be something other than good? What if I say no?
On stage, the worship leader taps the microphone. The ladies scatter back to their seats and we find a spot in the back, where no one can breathe on us. There’s a young woman, college-age, who keeps glancing over and smiling at us, a little boy complaining about the coloring pages and crayons his mother brought him, that they’re not good enough somehow, and just as everyone bows their heads to pray, our baby starts revving up.
“Shhh,” I whisper, fumbling with the straps holding him in.
Our baby is a Good Cryer. “Nice healthy lungs,” your mother had said, eyes twinkling, as she spent twenty minutes listening placidly to the wild, repetitive keening that reduces me to an animalistic state each night, my breasts engorged with milk, dripping like the faucet you still haven’t fixed, its steady tap-tap-tap. Something must be wrong with me, I’d told you, something must be wrong with him.
There’s nothing wrong with him, you’d told me, leaving the first question unanswered.
“Let us sing to the Lord a new song,” the worship leader says, talking over our baby’s moaning, pretending nothing unusual is happening, because nothing unusual is happening, just church people being church people, just a baby doing what babies do. As you hold the baby and support his head and shhhh him some more, as I free my left breast, which burns as though poison is spreading through it, I feel the eyes of the congregation flicking toward us. Sharp, prickling glances. I try not to feel ashamed. We aren’t here for them, or for the baby, or even for God. I don’t know what I expect will happen. Maybe that revelation will hit me like lightning and turn my body into stained glass, fragile as ever, but beautiful. Maybe that the separate circles of our Venn diagram will collapse back into one, melding like soap bubbles instead of popping. I wish I could remember what it felt like, sharing something with you besides exhaustion. I wish there was more I could give you. There’s that story about the lost coin. How the woman tears her house apart looking, rejoices when she finds it, throws a party and invites all the neighbors. Maybe if I stay still long enough, like a penny stuck between couch cushions, you’ll find me.
The baby latches. He’s a Good Eater, too, once he gets started. The worship band is playing, objectively terrible, Marcella swaying a few rows ahead of us, her feet planted, her arms arrowed like a weathervane. The baby’s eyes are heavy. Good Baby, I whisper, trying it out, but the words taste flat and stale on my tongue. You put your arm around me, and I let my head fall onto your shoulder. I feel the hollow in my abdomen contract, slowly shrinking.