MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
IN THE BEGINNING there was the river, wending its way around the top of the suburb, then snaking out protectively toward the south. The water was deep and cold and full of silt, and in the months after I had my baby I would often dream of going down to drown myself in it.
At dusk the river’s parklands were beginning to empty out, the cyclists and joggers wary of the cold and the settling night. Old men who squatted on their heels reeled their fishing lines in, carrying their lures home in scrubbed-out paint buckets. Soon it would be dark; soon a cloistering silence would descend on the leaves and grass, broken only by the rustle of the wind and the steady drone of the highway, as persistent as seawater or the beat of a heart.
I thought of the water as I listened for the baby’s breath, in and out, lightly broken sometimes by a hiccup or a snore. We had made the walk to the river’s banks a hundred times over the summer, Mike sometimes breaking off for a run while I saw how many native grasses I could name. Now, in the deep of winter, it ran through my thoughts nightly, bringing a cool little rush with it, a rush of relief. We kept the heating on at home, trying to fend off the drizzle and damp, and ran it through the night “for the baby’s sake,” though in truth he seemed all right—a hot little furnace running hotter in his sleep.
Through the tide of hormones surging within my body, and the little runnels of blood, and the sour tang of my breasts, I lay awake, listening, and thinking of breath and of water. I had broken my relationship with sleep; it was no longer safe. If I did drift off, the baby’s shrills of noise let down my milk and sent a hot flush of sweat through my body before my brain had a chance to catch up, and I would wake sticky and panicked and sure that something was wrong. The sickening wrench of waking was awful, so I lay in bed playing possum; it was better to be passive, to let the baby suckle me without protest and then settle him down to fall asleep again, his small fists raised above his head. I lay awake and listened to the quality of the silence change.
When I was sure the house was asleep again I rolled to the side of the bed gently, so as not to aggravate the incision site, and maneuvered myself up. It was the same move my midwife had taught me, a kind of slow roll-and-rise that made up for the lack of a core. The rest of the house was dead at night, the only center of breath our stale, fecal bedroom, where the heat coalesced and cushioned us into a relentlessly interrupted stupor. Outside the door, which I gently closed, the air was fresh and cool.
The floorboards sent chills upward as I shuffled down the hall. Through the living room, our paintings and books veiled in shadow; past the dining table, smothered in vases of congratulatory flowers. The tiles of the bathroom floor felt like ice against my skin, and I stripped off my T-shirt, soaked with the night’s flushes of sweat, and pressed my bare back more firmly against them.
Here, in the quiet, there was only my breath and the rustle of leaves outside. The nauseating heat of my skin, the clamminess of it, found its counterpoint; my breath sounds were the noises of one person, not three. In the cold and calm I lay on my back and thought about the river.
It wasn’t hard to draw its coolness around me, its chill. The fog of sleeplessness cohered into a single vision: I would walk out of the house, and cross the highway, leaving no sign behind me. Down the steep hill that led to the river’s banks, my hands would reach out for leaves and flowers, touching all the glossy, dew-specked marks of winter growth. Then I would slip out of my clothes, fold them neatly, and disappear beneath the surface of the water.
In a few hours the sun would come up, glinting off the mineral bits of rocks, and discarded fits, and discarded fishhooks. The oars of boats would shatter the river’s surface into a million green-brown sequins, and the new day of its life would begin. The flowers would open to the sun, starved for light. And Mike would wake, and know that I was gone.
He would grieve; I knew he would grieve, but he would be anchored to the earth by this tiny mewling child I felt no stirring of warmth for. He would find love again, because he was easy to love, and another woman would blossom toward our baby and reveal herself to be the real, true mother—the mother our baby would need.
In the cold rush of water my flesh would loosen, become swollen. My engorged breasts would leak a trail of warm milk into the river, the healing wound below my waist be riven in two again, the stitches dissolved. My hair would wash out like weeds, and my eyes would not turn into pearls, but be perpetually turned to the sky.
I knew that it would not be gentle, that it would be violent and raw, but in the midst of the water filling my burning lungs, and the quick blacking out of vision, I would move sideways, catch myself right before death, exist as the slow play of light on the water and the soft rain spattering my growing child when he came to explore the park. In this way I could keep him forever, watching from the reeds.
In the bathroom, collapsed between clusters of night feeds, the vision was compelling. I would wait, and then I would rise again, this time with purpose, and walk out to greet the night, and walk down the quiet hill, leave my body behind, and gently disappear.
I wanted to do it; I was resolved, I had made up my mind. The only problem was that I couldn’t get up off the floor.
BY THE TIME we move to Footscray, Owen is a secret seed, secret even from me. All the time he is there, as I lug cardboard boxes, and scrub paint from sinks, and paint the rental we are leaving a dingy shade of beige—the same shade that, on moving in, we had painted over in pale, pale celery green. It is too early for a rising tide of nausea to clue me to his existence. He is simply, secretly, there.
Almost from the minute that Mike and I begin seeing each other, we talk about our child, the child we will one day have. It should seem much too soon, but nothing feels more natural than lying in the sun at the park, drinking coffee and eating warm bread rolls from the bakery, sketching out our future plans: running a B&B in rural Hungary if I sort out my citizenship; traveling to Berlin; living on a vast property deep in the mountains. And always with a baby in tow.
Our child will be called Coralie, after my great-aunt, or maybe Ivy; Gabriel for a boy. When we get married the fantasies drop away, but the longing for a child remains. We manage to postpone the craving throughout my honors thesis; Mike enrolls in a master’s; we do everything we can to pace ourselves, to not jump in, not give in to this deep, visceral craving for the milky smell of a newborn’s scalp until, at last, we do give in. It is a surprise to me how much I want a baby, and unbeknownst to me, unpacking boxes in our beautiful new terrace in Footscray, I am hiding the beginnings of one.
* * *
Counting backward, I work out that Owen must have been conceived at or just after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. New Year, new life: it should be an augury, but I am too nervous to invest the pregnancy with any special symbolism or significance. All I want, when I learn the news, is to make it through to Christmas, six weeks away; for this small ball of matter to become robust and staunch and truly embedded in the lining of his small but swelling home, and then I will believe it; then I will breathe out.
I have always wanted to guard the things I find precious, and in this way I am not good at sharing. I am superstitious: believing in it too much, wanting it too much will inevitably mean that I will lose this pregnancy, I think, though to the best of my knowledge I have not lost one before. I have suspected a loss, and that felt aching and raw; and in a small way I grieved it, and it was real grief. I feel like a village woman telling her neighbor their new child is ugly, so as not to draw the attention and jealousy of God.
The morning I suspect I might be pregnant I take a test, and then wipe it clean and carefully bring it into the bedroom, rousing Mike.
“Does this say what I think it says?”
Mike looks at the test and its firm pink declarative line.
“We’re having a baby,” he says groggily, and pulls me into his arms. Somehow, even knowing this, the day continues as usual. It is not until a work trip to Tasmania the next week, on which Mike has accompanied me and where we camp high up in the mountains, that the fact begins to sink in for him with any clarity and brilliance.
“We’re having a baby!” he hollers to the ferns in the fern gully, where we have tramped along a rough dirt track. The air is richly oxygenated from the lush green foliage, the forest floor dense with scuttling creatures in the undergrowth; spiderwebs hold drops of moisture, and the night-dark earth seems fertile enough for anything dropped there to take root. Mike grips my hand tightly when we pick our way down the rocks, promising a steady landing.
He wants to tell people when we return, but I hold to my Christmas deadline, superstitious and self-imposed. I have felt the faint tremors of quickening, but I only let my breath out properly much later, at our second ultrasound, when we first glimpse the shape of our child. The ultrasound technician guides the probe around adeptly, angling it lightly into the small hill of my jellied stomach, leaving out identifying details at first, in case we don’t wish to know them.
“Do you want to find out the gender?” she asks.
Sex, I silently correct, and then, “Yes.”
A slight twist of the probe and then there he is, revealed, tucked up into himself with the small outreaching shadow of his five fingers making a whole hand, a whole hand we can see. The little girl I am half convinced I am carrying floats away and instead, waving from the deep, is this new and unknown thing—a little boy.
* * *
As we inch toward Christmas, and the weather gets hotter and drier, each week of viability feeling like a clandestine accomplishment, the nausea becomes more intense. I find out, for the first time, about food aversions, which are much stronger and more visceral than any of my cravings. The provisions I had thought would carry me through my pregnancy—licorice and pickles and dark chocolate and potato chips—are too oily, too salty, too acidic by turns. The only thing I want to eat is pho.
I lie anchored to the couch, moored against the sticky leather with the dry pages of an Agatha Christie novel rustling in the wind, which comes in sudden rushes through our open windows, while Mike traipses up to our local restaurant, Hien Vuong Pasteur. The main drag of Footscray is lined with Vietnamese restaurants, interspersed with relics of the past, like Cavallaro, the pastry shop, or, farther down, Sudanese and Ethiopian food. The competition for best pho is fierce, but we have found our local and are loyal customers.
“For your wife?” the owner asks when Mike comes in, and Mike nods, and soon he is home with two plastic containers, one full of slightly gelatinous rice noodles topped with thin slices of chicken, and the other of rich chicken broth. A little plastic bag of sliced chili, Vietnamese mint, bean shoots, and lemon rounds out the meal, and I carefully pour out half the broth and noodles into a saucepan, and put the rest in the fridge, a safeguard against the next day’s nausea.
It is nice to be known. Every morning I walk to work past the Little Saigon market, angling past men in aprons and gum boots unloading their trucks from the fish market, and every morning the sight of glossy-eyed trout and snapper and bream brings a wave of muggy heat up beneath my skin.
I think of my growing child, due in July. He will be a Cancer: a cavorting little crab.
* * *
I have never believed in astrology, but now I become avid about the signs, trying to prophesy our future child’s personality. Mike is an Aries, I a Capricorn: private, creative, stubborn, the charts say. An earth sign. It is true that I need to walk into the back garden and plant my feet in the cool grass of an evening, watching the sky change color, from parched blue to an industrially shocking pink and then to a pale apricot gray. I am greedy for the sunset. At dusk, the suburb smells like eucalyptus and fish sauce.
We see in the new year at a writer’s house in Brunswick, newly built upon a tiny patch that she and her partner have bought, requisitioned from someone’s backyard. Though the house is complete the garden is still unfinished, and we stand in a dugout patch among uncovered pipes, as music blares and the sky fills with fireworks. The pregnancy is still hidden, though I think that I can feel my stomach swell, just the smallest bit, beneath the cool and slippery fabric of my dress. Mike puts his hands on my stomach as our friends clamber to the top of our host’s old van, shrieking their midnight exhilaration into the sky.
Dead sober and glowing with sweat, I straggle homeward with Mike at three a.m., losing my favorite lipstick along the way. When we finally find a taxi it first takes us south, then out west. Melbourne is a city split by a river—the Yarra—and people talk of North and South, but now we are heading into a new terrain, demarking a point toward which the compass hadn’t already swung in our three years and four houses together. Home.
I had fallen in love with Footscray years earlier, schlepping out from Brunswick for a contract stint at Lonely Planet, feeling immediately calmer as I walked down to the banks of the Maribyrnong. My grandparents used to have a shop here, schmatte, in the suburb’s first wave of migration, before the Europeans ebbed and the Vietnamese flowed, and then the Sudanese, Ethiopian, Congolese, Somali. My grandparents left when a pig’s head turned up on their doorstep; the meaning was unmistakable. Nonetheless, I came back, and I loved it.
Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt; Mike and I and the friends who begin to move westward cannot avoid that we are the harbingers of change, the crest of a wave of gentrification that will soon firmly crash, driving house prices upward and longtime residents out of their homes, and closing us all out when rents soar beyond our means. I walk around every room of the terrace ritualistically, blessing our books, our paintings, our spoons, our secondhand furniture, the gold metallic fringe we have hung around our low-hanging light fixtures. We call them “disco chandeliers,” and Mike’s head brushes through the fringe if he forgets to look where he is walking, but the long strands glimmer as they move in the afternoon light.
* * *
Owen ripples and flexes. The curve of my stomach is not hidden now; it pushes insistently outward, the only place I carry any weight until my eighth month, when my face suddenly balloons. I order a few maternity skirts early on, a pair of jeans, trying to get through the pregnancy as cheaply as I can.
When my own birthday passes and the nausea drops away, Mike and I wander down to Hien Vuong to sit together in the window and watch the world pass. Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, fills the streets with neon lights, and wild noise, and smells that wind together on the breeze, so that hints of pho are caught up in the doughiness of bao and the oil of Korean Swirl Potato, a newly invented “traditional” snack like a potato cake on a stick. I exult in these smells, which no longer hold the power to upset my balance. It is the Year of the Dragon now: magnanimous, imperious, strong.
I talk to the hospital psychiatrist once a fortnight, trying to gird myself for what might come next. Because I have a history of depression and anxiety, this feels like a sensible step, but I am giddy with joy over the pregnancy, and the shadow side of it doesn’t touch me. These fifty-minute hours feel like homework; virtuously completed, but at base unnecessary. At work a colleague laughs when I suddenly swing around, my stomach appearing like an optical illusion from my otherwise unchanged frame.
* * *
The weather becomes cooler, the days shorter. Mike turns twenty-nine, and we hold a celebration at our favorite Ethiopian joint, Lucy, named after a famed ancestral hominid also known as Dinknesh. Afterward we all retreat to the house, where a list of names is inked up on thick paper on the wall:
and one other name I cannot now remember.
“We should vote!” my friend Juliet crows, and suddenly people are passing around bits of chopped-up paper, folding them and dropping them into a plastic mixing bowl. “Teddy” is my choice—a beautiful little boy. Mike is determined, has held the secret knowledge all along, that our child will be named Owen, and when the papers are returned, “Owen” is the winner. I don’t know whether the votes have been rigged. It is Mike’s birthday, and he gets his wish, and soon I cannot think of our little crab as being anyone else.
The suburb is quieter now in the mornings, the cool air misting over the concrete. A monk stands outside the market, a brass bowl in his hand. In the gray of early hours, he looks like a human marigold, puncturing the gloom with his saffron robe and hi-vis-orange socks.
As the cold creeps in I stew for hours in the bath. Mike comes into the bathroom periodically with a kettle of boiling water to top up the heat, after the gas runs out. Occasionally, he will come in and sit on the floor, playing his guitar and drinking a beer, his jumper sleeve pulled down over his hand when he touches the bottle.
My stomach rises higher and higher over the bathwater, until I can no longer submerge it. My immense breasts float like islands, connected by an atoll beneath the surface. Like Archimedes, I displace more and more water.
Mike is in the kitchen, boiling the kettle.
“Mike. Mike!” I yell.
He runs in, panicked, and then stares in wonder as he sees for the first time our baby’s little foot, kicking against my skin, and making the shape of my smooth stomach buckle and distort.
* * *
Owen arrives in the bowels of the year, the dreary cold that seems to last forever. He arrives on a Wednesday, which the nursery rhyme prophesies will mean a life filled with woe; as the hospital reminds me, I am predisposed to woe.
He is eighteen months old when we pack up the boxes again; when we take the art off the walls and wrap it in bubble wrap and, when the wrap runs out, clean tea towels and faded pillowcases. We take the fringe down from the lights, and soap off the grimy residue that the double-sided tape has left. It is stiflingly hot again, a new January, Janus-faced. I am a January baby, Janus-faced myself.
We turn ourselves around and orient ourselves toward the east, away from the river and toward the salt of the ocean, St. Kilda, where my parents live, and where Mike and I have lived before. This is where my grandparents, and my father, got off the boat, my grandfather declaring that once he stood on dry, unheaving land he wouldn’t go a meter farther. That is the story and it is probably untrue, but I recognize the impulse: to plant yourself firmly in one place and become immovable as stone.
I think of consulting tea leaves, but in truth, they look just like tea. In truth, it is months since I have made up a pot, boiling the water and then letting it cool, rinsing out a cup, sitting in one place long enough to enjoy it. And the magic of augury has waned. I have never believed with more than half a heart in revelations, but I am not sure now whether I am more concerned that they will or will not come true. For the child at my feet, forcing me to sip tea out of a mug over the sink, is not a little crab at all. He is something much stranger and more terrifying and profound, a creature made of my fear and flesh and bone.
Copyright © 2017 by Jessica Friedmann