“Post-partum depression,” my doctor says, “affects up to 25 percent of new mothers.” A grinning woman on the folic acid poster looms behind him and I wonder if she knows the spawn she’s so excited about has a one in four chance of making her crazy.
His stool squeaks as he swivels back and forth. “Therapy can help. Medication. Even having a friend take you out to a movie.”
He’s trying to make eye contact, but I’m caught in the teeth of the folic acid lady. They’ve been Photoshopped so shiny they look wet, and I want to run my finger along the gloss of the poster to check.
He clears his throat and winds up for the main event. “The lump,” he says, and he’s got my attention again, just like that, “is something we need to take a closer look at.”
The lump. I found it four days ago. Roughly the size and shape of a walnut that’s supposed to be terrifying, but feels like a beacon of hope. Like physical proof of something wrong. Something tangible.
He unties the gown and folds it away from my body so gently. My mind flicks to Chris and Chris’s hands on my shoulders and my mind goes: titillating. It sounds like tits and I don’t want to laugh in front of this doctor who is not Chris.
The doctor frowns and tells me to lean forward.
He tells me to shake back and forth. Titillating.
He pauses his hands before they make contact. A quick rub and a blow to warm them up for me, for my titillating lumpy breasts, and I don’t want him to touch them. I don’t want anyone to touch them, not this doctor, not Chris, and especially not Jay, the vulture baby. My vulture baby.
I try not to flinch from the doctor’s admittedly warm fingers. The last time Chris went for my titillating tits, I jerked away and the expression on his face told me he didn’t believe it was because my new cow-like abilities left them tender and aching all the time. This was the truth, but it was also a lie, and he knew it.
The doctor and I both ignore the dribble of milk worming its way down the right breast and over my bare, floppy, stretched out stomach. I want to drop to the floor and hold a plank for three minutes straight, like I used to. My leg twitches with the idea of activity.
“I hate breastfeeding,” I say.
That makes him pause. How titillating. “After three months?”
“Most new mothers get past the initial difficulties within the first few weeks.”
“Is it a pain issue? A latching issue?”
I shake my head. “It’s just that I feel like a goddamn gas station, you know?”
He gives my left breast an extra squeeze and I want to die just a little bit more when the milk pops out like a joke from a clown’s flower.
In the end, the doctor is unable to tell me anything certain. “You’ll have a biopsy next Tuesday, and they should have the results for you a day or two after.”
“Do you think it’s cancer?”
“I can’t really say.” But he’s looking past me again, and I know it is: mutating, extending its gnarled branches through my breast, curling around my ribs, and prying gently into my lungs.
I never wanted kids. Chris and I discussed it over and over, while we were dating and after we were married. The first time he brought it up, we’d only known each other for a week.
“You can still be a cool, independent person if you’re a parent.”
It’s apparent you’re a parent. The Family Circus, circa my childhood, a.k.a., the only phrase I can ever think of when I hear either word. And why not. It was difficult to take Chris seriously, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter, pantsless.
I wanted to lean forward and sink my fingers into his long hair. Nothing could touch his Fabio hair.
Back then, we were in the first stage of our infatuation, when we loved everything about each other and laughed at every joke, and I didn’t think he needed to know how many more races I thought I could win. How much further I wanted to run the next time out. How many more pushups I thought I could force myself to do. How I live-streamed the Boston Marathon every year, picturing myself collapsing across the finish line in just under 3 hours, my last bit of energy pushing my arms above my head in triumph.
This man who I’d known for a week stretched his legs out in front of him, his balls pressed on my Formica, and grabbed the flesh of my thigh between his bare toes. “Your body is hot and it will be even after you have a baby. Not to mention, you would be the most beautiful pregnant woman ever.”
I would be, I thought, and flexed my quad, trying to eliminate the flesh he’d found to pinch.
I shit you not, a week—one fucking week—after the wedding, he started e-mailing me articles from Runner’s World. “Pregnant Running.” “My Mommy is So Fast.” “Post Partum Training.” “Olympic Mommas.” E-mailed them to me enough that Gmail started targeting all its ads to baby gear, the best sports bras for nursing mothers, ovulation thermometers. A digital campaign of terror.
Coming home from the doctor, standing on the broken concrete steps leading down to our basement apartment, I can hear the baby shrieking.
When my mother was in town helping us out in the month after Jay was born, Chris tried to get me to go to dinner and a movie. When I couldn’t pick up my head from the pillow long enough to tell him no, to tell him how awful I felt, to tell him how I just wanted to die, and the idea of bending over to tie my shoes seemed more exhausting than ten marathons, he said, “We won’t have this kind of help for very long,” and walked away.
It’s apparent you’re a parent when…
(a) your husband hates you
(b) your baby sucks
(c) … Not as easy to come up with these as the Family Fuckfest makes it look.
But God, the crying. Each cry penetrates to a quiet, soft place deep inside my brain where it stabs me over and over.
The last time I talked to my mother, she asked me if I’d lost the baby weight yet, if I was running again, and then sniffed—I could hear the sniff through the phone line—and said, “You were colicky. All I had to do was keep you moving. Swinging, rocking, rides in the car. It wasn’t that bad.” When I didn’t answer her, she added, “Rhonda said all she had to do was sing to her grandson. Just sing to him!”
I don’t want to enter the apartment, and I touch my lump gently at first, then more viciously, trying to pinch the walnut between my fingers, wanting to move it around inside me, but it won’t budge.
I want to stay here for a while. I know I should feel guilty, but I just feel so, so tired. It’s difficult to remember the last time I had more than thirty seconds alone. Even going to the bathroom is impossible without Jay crying from the next room. Just five minutes alone. Ten more seconds.
I force myself to walk into the cry zone. I must be walking slanted, tilted to the right, weighted down by the lump growing inside me, but my reflection in the glass looks upright as ever.
It was snowing the day Jay was born. That made me happy. I liked the idea of him starting his life in the harshest possible conditions so everything from that point forward would be easier. Steel may be forged in the heat, but in Kansas the cold is the true test of one’s character. I said this to Chris on the way to the hospital while he drove the car, slowly sliding over the frozen streets. “How titillating,” he should have said. “How apparent you are soon to be a parent.”
When they put Jay on my chest for the first time, he frightened me so much that I forgot to fall in love. He was covered with fluids, slippery, smelling like me, musty and earthy, not at all like a separate human being. I tried to look in his eyes, but his didn’t seem to be able to focus on me. I didn’t know what to make of him. He was me, but not me; Chris, but not Chris.
Chris took him from me, and helped the nurses wash him, gently, touching him with such care and love. He had cut his ponytail just the day before I went into labor, his signal to the world that he was ready to take responsibility. It was quite apparent he was a parent.
I was terrified.
When Chris comes home from closing the bar, sweating despite the chill outside, I’m bursting with the urge to tell him about the lump. But my mouth stays closed, perhaps out of superstition or maybe to punish him in some vague way. When we lie down in bed, I don’t sleep. I never sleep anymore. I feel electrified. Shoots of colors run across the stippled, white ceiling of our bedroom, and if they become too much, I roll over and watch Chris sleep. It’s tempting to touch the soft creases below his eyes that never quite disappear no matter how well rested he is. His breathing sounds gentle and quick, his mouth relaxed, soft in a way that it never is anymore when he’s awake.
We used to have tender moments together. We used to hold each other, face to face. In bed on our one-year anniversary, his eyes focused and locked onto a fine-tipped Sharpie resting on the night table. He leaned over me to pick it up, pinning me to the bed in the process, and then ordered me to draw on him.
“Whatever you want. Wherever you want. Mark me.”
It felt like a test. “Lie on your stomach,” I said. His back was smooth and endless, tinted a light golden brown. My finger ran along his spine and he shivered. He was too beautiful to draw on.
“Do it. I want to know how you would mark me as yours.”
I touched the tip of the marker to the small of his back, the place where his spine dipped down into a curve. His skin was dry, grabbing up the ink from the marker too quickly. A dark stain spread unevenly around the tip of the marker.
“Is it something beautiful?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I lied.
Right on schedule, Jay’s screams rattle the walls, louder than the wind blowing outside, louder than the thunder that’s sure to follow. Chris’s eyes flicker under the lids, his body desperate to keep him asleep.
I’m tired and angry, a walnut tree is growing in my breast, and I want to wake Chris up. He’s cut his ponytail and can smile when he talks about his son, and the world is thrilled that he’s father of the year, a clearly apparent parent. “If I could just breastfeed him, I would,” he says, and every woman in the Midwest swoons. But he’s still sleeping and I’m not, so I get up and put my breast into my son’s mouth.
Jay takes it violently, as if he’s trying to eat me alive. I make him use the left one. The right is mine, now. Mine and the cancer’s.
The breast cancer websites say: write a letter to your son, just in case you don’t make it. How titillating.
Finally asleep in his crib, Jay is peaceful, his soft eyelids—the same ones his father has—shifting back and forth. A notebook sits open on my lap, with hundreds of blank pages. I should probably buy fancier stationery; my baby deserves a letter from his mother without crinkled, frayed edges.
I feel like an impostor every time I call him my baby.
Now, not knowing what to say, I write, “I love you,” but it feels wrong. Do I love him? I don’t know. I’m not sure I even like him most of the time.
His eyelids, though. Those I like.
He kicks his legs gently and they look like fish under the light blue blanket my husband’s mother crocheted.
I know I’m supposed to love him. I know I’m not supposed to resent him for my aching breasts, for the races I could have run, for the sleep I’ve never had, for the cancer that’s taken over. I know, more or less, what the letter should say. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe it’s too difficult to fake a lifetime of love, but one page seems manageable. He’ll never know or remember me. I’ll look at him, every remaining day of my life, wishing he hadn’t been born, but at least there won’t be so many days left anymore.
At least I blame Chris more than Jay. That’s something. That feels like something, anyway.
“I love you,” I write again. “I remember the day you were born.”
Days later the doctor’s office calls with the results. I stand by the refrigerator while Jay cries across the room in his high chair. I scold him: “Can’t you just be quiet for a little while? It’s not always all about you. This is about me.”
Jay keeps screaming. I balance the phone between my shoulder and ear and pick him up. “Mrs. Larssen,” a nasal voice says.
“This is Dr. Franklin’s office calling with the results of your…” Papers shuffle. “Your left breast biopsy.”
“Right breast.” Jay tangles his fingers in my hair. I shake my head so it falls out of his reach.
The papers shuffle some more. “Yes, right breast.”
My throat feels dry. Will I drop him when they tell me it’s cancer?
“The biopsy was negative.”
I pause, unsure how to react. “Um.”
The kitchen feels hot.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
The voice sounds irritated. “Your growth is not malignant.”
I blink. “It’s not cancer?”
“No. This is great news,” the voice says. “I hope you have a wonderful day.”
“Wait, it’s not cancer?”
“What about the lump? Is Dr. Franklin going to tell me what to do with it? Does it need to come out?” The idea that absolutely nothing is wrong is making me panic.
She sounds irritated. “I’m not sure. If you want, I can leave a message with him that you’d like him to call you personally. This is good news.”
I hang up without saying goodbye.
As Jay whines and reaches for my hair again, I put him back in his high chair, strapping him in before walking away.
I’m unanchored, removed, disconnected from the cluttered kitchen. When Jay was born, I thought it would be obvious exactly how I was supposed to think and feel, how a new mother was supposed to act. I thought it would be apparent. Now I can’t do anything.
I don’t remember walking out to the garage. The lump gave me a new role to play, a perfectly valid excuse to be terrified. It’s just a lump. A benign, boring cyst, not growing or changing into anything. I can hear Jay crying from inside the house. My breasts hurt. My body wants to feed him, but I want to escape. It’s the only idea I have left.
As I back out of the driveway, my vision is blurry. I poke the lump viciously and gasp with the pain. Pausing in front of the house, I can still hear Jay crying. I cry with him before speeding off.
I only make it three blocks before turning around in the drizzle of rain. My sweatshirt, soaking wet with now-freezing milk, is plastered to my throbbing breasts. Now that I’ve finally started crying, I can’t stop, my throat a bundle of rusty chains scraping together, metal on metal, and I try to breathe through my tears. My car shudders and weaves through our neighborhood’s narrow streets as I rush to get back.
When I burst through the front door, Jay’s screams are louder than ever. His arms are flailing against the sides of the bouncer chair, the belt barely holding him down.
Picking him up and holding him to my chest, I squeeze him tightly, not sure what to say. I don’t know how to explain myself to him. I don’t have a job. I can’t put together a coherent sentence. I can’t run down the block, let alone the marathons I dream about. I feel like I don’t even have a husband anymore.
Jay and I are covered in cold, smeared milk, his tears and mine, the snot that we can’t hold together. I’m clutching him, rocking him, dimly aware that I’m probably terrifying him more than I’m comforting him, but that at least seems fair, at least it’s going both ways. I want to throw him through the window and I want to hold him to me forever. No one has ever needed me like this before.
I stop crying before Jay does, and I close my eyes, holding him. His cotton onesie is glued to my chest with our mess of dried milk and snot and I don’t peel it away. Jay’s cries slow to small, soft gasps, and the last thought I remember before drifting into sleep is that maybe, just maybe, when I awake he will be gone.
Michelle Richards has served in AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from Pacific University. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in the New Ohio Review, and her fiction has appeared in ARDOR. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two cats, and spends more time than she probably should racing in triathlons.