Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bird on a Wire

It’s summer break, and we take up residence in a crappy little apartment above the dime store in the small town where Steve grew up. The living room, furnished with an old twin bed substituting as a couch, a battered easy chair, and a couple of end tables, overlooks the black asphalt siding of a building about thirty feet away. The bedroom window overlooks an alley. Beneath it, there’s a line of trash bins for the businesses along the street.

The trash gets picked up just about the time Steve gets to sleep after having worked the third shift at the steel forge. “The Trash Family,” has the contract to do this. It’s a seedy-looking bunch: the dad, his wife, and four filthy kids. According to rumor, one of them was born in the trash truck. Not a rumor: once the dad left all four kids in the trash truck, went into a bar and brought out a hamburger cut in four pieces, then returned to the bar and drank into the night. Also not a rumor: every single morning, their beat-up trash truck grinds to a halt beneath our bedroom window and the mom and the kids jump out and crash and bang trash into the truck, all the while screaming obscenities at each other.

The building across the alley is being remodeled and all day long workers drop plate glass windows and other debris into a truck below. In the middle of the night, when Steve’s at work, I wake up to the sound of what I’m sure is a newborn baby crying until someone tells me that feral cats have taken up residence in the empty building.

I’m gargantuanly pregnant, clueless about being a wife, freaked out about being a mother. A guy at work told Steve he heard that I’d rolled out a piecrust with a Campbell soup can—which I might have done, if it had ever occurred to me to try to make a pie. Most days, I lie around on the uncomfortable “couch” in our sweltering apartment, reading and dozing in front of a rickety table fan, until Steve wakes up and we take a drive through the country in his blue MGB convertible. Sunday’s we’re required to hand over the church bulletin as a ticket to the family meal--often fried chicken, which Steve’s mother makes in an electric skillet in the garage so she doesn’t mess up the kitchen. “Garage-fried chicken,” we secretly call it. It’s good, though. And a free meal, which is no small thing, considering.

The high point of my week is driving to Fort Wayne for Steve to take an evening class at the IU campus because he flunked public finance in the spring. I talked him into taking art appreciation so I can read the textbook and follow along. I research and write his final paper, on Picasso, and am mortified when it receives only a C+. I don’t get C’s—well, except for the farmhouse semester, which is how we ended up where we are. I didn’t take any classes in the spring because I was too embarrassed to go to class, pregnant. I so miss being in a classroom, one of the few places in the world I feel like I belong.

But I don’t need to go back to college, according to Steve’s parents. I’m a wife now, a mother. That’s where my responsibilities lie.

“That’s ridiculous,” Steve says. “You’re going back. We’ll figure out a way.”

Meanwhile, I keep…growing. I can no longer see my feet. I’m woefully ignorant about childbirth itself, not to mention actually caring for a newborn—at the same time terrified and resigned. One morning, when I’m standing in the shower, the perfect outline of a little hand crosses my belly. For the first time, the baby is real.

My due date, August 5, arrives. Nothing happens.

We drive to a town just over the Ohio border for dinner with Steve’s parents. The drinking age is 18 there, so there’s a constant stream of cars full of kids heading there from the small Indiana town where we live. Coming back, we get behind a car that’s weaving around, slowing down, then speeding up whenever Steve’s dad tries to pass them. They pull over on the roadside and stop, probably so someone can throw up or take a leak. But rather than taking the opportunity to get past them, Steve’s dad pulls over behind them. He and Steve get out, stride over to the car. One of them drags the driver out, the other takes the car keys and throws them into the cornfield that borders the road.

It is the most exciting thing that has happened all summer, and I lumber out of the car and stand at the side of the road so I don’t miss anything. “Get back in here,” Steve’s mom says. “Get in.” But I don’t. I stay there until Steve and his dad are on the way back, laughing and hooting about what they’ve just done. Before dropping us off at home, Steve’s dad stops at the police station to give them a heads-up that there’s a car needing assistance just this side of the Ohio line.

The next night, we’re at the drive-in, watching a movie adapted from a book I loved, and I’m pissed off, giving a running commentary about what a mess they’ve made of it when I feel the first labor pains. Steve wants to leave for the hospital immediately. But I say, no. The movie is so truly horrible I really have to see it through. The pains aren’t coming that often, maybe every ten minutes or so, and they’re not really pains yet, no more than cramps.

We get to the hospital near midnight. I’m admitted, pushed to the maternity ward in a wheelchair, and installed in a labor room. Nearby, a woman is screaming and moaning and I think, oh shit, that’s me before this is all over. The contractions stop almost immediately, as if my whole body decided, “No!”

I’m released in the morning. We’re back by late afternoon, but the contractions stop again. Early afternoon, the next day, they start up again, but the thought of going back, turning into a moaning, screaming person, freaks me out so badly that I refuse to go. “You saw that movie,” I say to Steve. “You can deliver the baby.” I know I’m acting crazy, but I can’t help it. Of course, I end up going.

This time it’s for real. I’m scared to death, it hurts, and whatever they’re giving me doesn’t help very much. But I don’t scream. I moan sometimes, quietly. Little sounds come from my throat, not quite crying. It’s nearly midnight by the time they take me to the delivery room, where someone places an ether mask on my face and everything goes away.

Morning. There is Steve with a yellow rabbit with blue velvet ears he’s bought for the baby: Jennifer Rebecca. She’s beautiful, perfectly formed, ours. So new her arms and legs still move as if in water.

I can’t wait to get out of the hospital and go back to our apartment, but when I’m released three days later, Steve’s mother insists that we stay at their house for a few days. I’m miserable there—still sore from the birth, weepy with fatigue, depressed because none of the clothes I had before I got pregnant fit me and we don’t have enough money to buy new ones. She doesn’t help, just hovers over me, reminding me of the soft spot on Jenny’s head, critiquing my burping technique, telling me to tip the bottle this way or that. When Jenny wakes up in the middle of the night, crying, I pick her up and stumble through the dark house to the kitchen, where I take a bottle of formula from the refrigerator, put it in a pan of water, turn on the stove. While the bottle warms, I walk back and forth, talking to Jenny in a low voice, trying to soothe her. We won’t be here forever, I tell her. We’re going back to Bloomington the minute we can. She’ll like it better there. I promise.

Finally, when she’s two weeks old, we do. Steve and his dad load up a rental truck with our belongings and some hand-me-down furniture. The day after Jenny was born, his dad taken it upon himself to sell Steve’s MGB and replace it with a red Dodge Dart. “You need a sensible car,” he said. Which was true, but I’m still furious. One of countless reasons I’m so glad to leave is that it just kills me every time I hear the guy who bought it drive past on Main Street, shifting gears. Like somebody has hijacked our real life.

Steve drives the truck, his dad drives the Dodge Dart. Jenny and I ride with his mom in her impeccably clean Thunderbird—well, except for the ashtrays. Those are always filled; she smokes like a chimney. Classy cigarettes: Benson & Hedges. The windows must remain rolled up during the trip, she says firmly, and we don’t dare turn on the air conditioning. Jenny might catch a chill. Apparently, it’s okay to smoke, though, and she does for the three-plus hours it takes us to get to Bloomington.

Steve’s parents help us unload our stuff. Thank God, they don’t linger—and finally, finally we’re alone in our new apartment with no one to answer to but ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, our friends filter back to campus. Some show up at our apartment, but don’t quite know what to say. A nice, childless couple in our building offers to babysit sometimes, so we go to an occasional weekend party. But we don’t really fit in anymore. Steve works at Sears most football Saturdays. In the afternoons, I sit out on our little balcony with Jenny, listen to crackle of the loud speaker, the band playing, the roar of the crowd, and feel a million miles away.

Where were you when this song was playing on the stereo?

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