When I woke up I knew I was pregnant with Coco. It was raining and my window was open. While I was sleeping, droplets of water had pushed through the screen holes and ricocheted off of the windowsill’s chipping, white paint in unlikely trajectories. The drops landed in an uneven spray across the blanket covering my body. I could not feel the wetness yet – it was still too delicate. I could only smell it. Coco would not be able to feel or smell raindrops for another nine months. Coco was still just a cluster of a cells; she was difficult to feel in a physical sense. But I knew she was there. Some new energy lay deep within me beneath my own cell layers. I remembered a schematic from my Bio textbook and mentally dissected through the layers: epithelial, adipose, muscle – and then, there she was. I gently pressed my right index finger into the skin in the spot just below my umbilical scar. I was pointing at Coco.
Coco’s cells, although furiously multiplying, had enough energy to inform my finger that their product would be finished in January. This was, of course, an unnecessary announcement. I already knew that Coco would be born in the pre-dawn hours of January 2nd while Christmas lights still clung to snowy tree branches and the fumes of a collective hangover floated across the town as my neighbors expelled champagne and last year’s wishes. She would be born with black hair and green eyes. I kept these facts in my brain and did not share them with her cells. I did not want to ruin the surprise.
I also knew when and how Coco would die. She will die at the age of forty-two. She will drown in the Aegean Sea. I tried not to smile sadly at how her fate reinforced certain etymological explanations of the water body’s name. I began to imagine Coco’s first inhalation of water, the moment when her primal brain overpowered her logic and her lungs sucked in fluid rather than air. At that moment Coco will know that the death process has begun. I squeezed my eyes closed against her struggle. I forced myself to stop thinking about it. I didn’t want the thoughts to somehow trickle out of my mind, flow through my bloodstream, and taint Coco with an irrational fear of water – or worse, of breathing.
I decided to do something nice for Coco, so I rose from my bed, shut the window, and walked into the kitchen. “I will feed us,” I thought. It seemed like a motherly thing to do. I looked deep into the cool darkness of the refrigerator. The light bulb had burned out months ago – or maybe it was never there at all. I meditated on the numerous condiments and liquids, hardly noticing the lack of substantial foodstuff. My hand withdrew a jar of blackberry jam. I wanted something sweet. The outside of the jar was sticky, but I didn’t wipe it off. When I licked the residue from my ring finger it was sweet and metallic. I suddenly felt an urge to spread the jam onto crackers. I had never eaten jam in this way before. I opened a box of Saltines and spread globs of deep purple onto cracker after cracker. They disappeared into me in a methodical, mechanical way. My hands and mouth conducted the work while my eyes stared ahead, unfocused. Occasionally crumbs cascaded from my lips to the kitchen floor. I left them there. My hands continued unphased: dip, spread, lift, dip, spread, lift.
My knife clanked loudly against the bottom of the glass jar. I looked up, startled, as if someone else had done it. I could not remember how full the jar was when I began. I was not sure how long I had been eating. Things around me took shape again. The splattering of rain outside the windows returned. I swiped sugary remnants from the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand. I turned on the kitchen faucet and washed it all away. I didn’t know if Coco had caused this strange feeding or if I somehow slipped into it because I thought that I was expected to crave and act strangely. At what point in pregnancy are cravings supposed to start? Am I supposed to be having morning sickness instead?
I didn’t have time to take a shower. It was already seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Dad leaves for work at five in the morning; he’s a mailman. I pulled on some jeans that were lying on the floor and pushed my head through the neck hole of a clean shirt. Usually the friction causes some strands of hair to stand on end, but this time they all stayed flat. My hair looked a little darker today the way that dirty blonde hair does when it is a little dirty. I pulled it back into a ponytail and I remembered that sometimes pregnancy changes hair color or texture. Maybe tomorrow it will be darker still, or maybe it will sprout out spontaneous curls.
By the time I closed and locked my front door the rain had stopped. Lazy clouds still hung in the sky, but the sun was already starting to push through. I was too late to catch the school bus, so I walked to the end of our neighborhood to wait for the Ride On. It’s supposed to come by every ten minutes, but I was prepared to wait for thirty. Hardly anyone in my town uses the local bus because nearly everyone has a car. Poor people are expected to develop efficient time management skills and to be patient.
When I was about ten I asked my mother if I could ride the bus into town (this was when mom still lived with us). She said “Alone? Absolutely not.” I asked her when I would be allowed to. She said, “When you’re old enough to tell people to mind their own beeswax.” I squinted my eyes, looked up at her, dropped my voice an octave, and said, “Mind your own beeswax.” She didn’t even laugh; she just shook her head and said, “No way.”
This conversation led me to believe that the bus was dirty and dangerous. When I finally did ride it alone, I was disappointed to find it moderately clean and boring. There were a few black folks on it, but they looked too sleepy to pose much of a threat. Some time after I was ten and some time before I rode the bus alone, it occurred to me that when Mom had said, “Mind your beeswax” what she meant was “Fuck off.” I appreciate that she had toned down the language for me as a child, but I wish she also toned down her insinuation of danger rather than escalating the violent revelation of the pathetic ennui of the Ride On. There is no need for words like beeswax on these buses.
When the bus finally arrived it was fairly empty as usual. Even so, I chose to sit in one of the priority seats up front that are reserved for handicapped or pregnant people. I wanted to show Coco that I’d never be embarrassed of her; here I was showing everyone. No one really seemed to look up or notice though.
We drove north towards the center of town. The sun streamed in through the east windows and reflected off of the glass to my left so that when I attempted to look out the window I wound up looking back at myself. Even though the window was covered with the gritty film of street-level smog and dotted with the old wounds of raindrop collisions, my face was still not as smooth as the surface it was reflected upon. All of the ridges and crevices were harshly exposed. I stared into them; I was both fascinated and horrified by my mottled skin. I sucked in my breath and I looked like a fish gasping for air.
As I hopped down the stairs of the bus I turned to the bus driver, smiled, and said “Thank you.” I was setting a good example for Coco. It is never too early to learn manners. The bus stop is two blocks away from my high school. My watch told me that it was already eight o’clock. School starts at 7:30. I was late enough that there was no reason to rush the last few steps. Instead I leisurely enjoyed the spring morning as I tried to think of a reason to write next to “tardy” on the secretary’s sign-in sheet.
“Personal family issue.” That’s what I wrote down as my reason. The secretary asked if I cared to elaborate. I said that I would not feel comfortable telling her. She asked if I would be more comfortable telling the school therapist. I wondered about her interpretation of the word “personal,” but I agreed that this would be fine as I figured this would keep me out of trouble, out of detention, and, if I was lucky, out of Trigonometry. After this verbal commitment, the secretary sent me to class with a pink slip of paper bearing her signature and said that someone would retrieve me at some point today to talk about my “issue.” She told me she hoped that everything would turn out alright. I smiled as I thought about Coco’s dividing cells and said, “I think it will.”
The morning went by as it always did. I wrote my name and the date on the tops of lined papers, unclipped and clipped the rings of my binder, whispered about who had a crush on whom, and let facts float by my eyes and ears, catching only a few with my pen in indistinct scribbles that I would need to decipher in a month’s time. It wasn’t until after lunch that a student aide knocked on the door of my 6th period English class and handed a yellow slip of paper to Mr. Higgins. Everyone in the class stared intently at Mr. Higgins’ face as he read the note and then turned and looked at each other, wondering who and what the note referred to. I covered Coco with my left hand and stared down at my notes. I had already suffered through Trigonometry. I didn’t necessarily want to leave English. I wondered if this was the reason we had to fill out silly questionnaires about our favorite color and our favorite subject in school. Maybe the office keeps them on file in order to subtlely inflict maximum punishment in times like these. Maybe they have a special pink detention room for kids who say their favorite color is black. They must also know that Mr. Higgins does not like to have his lectures interrupted.
Mr. Higgins said “Thank you” to the girl in a pleasant way, but I knew that he was not pleased with the intruding yellow note. When he is frustrated I can tell by his hands. He never slaps the palm on a table or clenches the fingers into a fist. His hands remain loose and spread, except for the middle finger of his left hand, which jabs up slightly as though in another life he was used to shoving it forcefully into people’s faces and it is now struggling to behave itself in school. Pete Marshall told me that Mr. Higgins still frequents a particular bar twelve miles outside of our town limits. He said that one time he and the boys went up there to shoulder-tap for a six pack but they ran away when they spotted Mr. Higgins through the window. I wonder if Mr. Higgins’ finger is still active on those nights at the bar after he has wrapped it around a few pints and the man next to him is rooting for the opposing football team, or if he has trained it so well that the slight tick is all it ever musters anymore.
I gathered my things before Mr. Higgins had a chance to call my name. There was no sense in making a scene. He passed the note to me with a nod and I murmured “Thanks” and opened the door.
Walking down school hallways while class is in session always evokes an eerie peacefulness: the lockers standing perfectly straight in solemn attention, the fluorescent lights gleaming off of the white, waxed floors. It is silent like a church, or maybe like a graveyard – the quiet landscape teeming with inaccessible bodies tucked just out of view. It also elicits wild chills of freedom. Coco and I could just keep on walking toward the red exit sign, push open the door, and burst out into the world on our own. I didn’t do that, though. I moved almost automatically. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to the school therapist’s office.
Mom left us one week before I started my freshman year of high school. I would say that she moved out, but she hardly took anything with her. It made it harder to believe that she was really gone. I kept on looking at her things – they were all around us – and it didn’t seem possible that their owner would just leave them like that. I remember that I had to fold a load of her clothes that were still in the dryer. My face glistened in the summer heat of the laundry room and when my eyes began to leak angry tears, it was even more insulting that they stung with dirty sweat.
Dad takes the whole “neither rain nor sleet nor snow” thing pretty seriously, so when he missed his route two days in a row, the neighbors were concerned. I thought that they would have appreciated the lack of junk mail to deal with, but maybe people like having things with their name on them no matter what the things are.
The fourth night after my mother left, my dad and I were balancing bowls of warmed canned soup in our laps in front of the TV. I can’t remember what we were watching. During a commercial break he turned to me and said that he had called the high school that afternoon and told them what had happened. He said that they thought it would be best if I met with the school therapist a few times. He said that lots of freshmen do it anyway while they’re getting adjusted. He stared into his soup bowl, but it wasn’t the alphabet kind so it wasn’t going to spell out the answer. I told him that it was fine; that I would go. I didn’t want him to feel like he was being a bad single parent already.
So, I went a couple of times. The therapist’s name is Dr. Rauschenberg. She’s not a medical doctor – she’s one of those PhDs who insist upon being called Dr. to show off how much they supposedly know. Coco will achieve a PhD in archaeology at the age of twenty-nine, but she will never insist that people refer to her as a doctor – I intend to raise her properly.
I think that Dad may have needed the therapy more than I did. When Mom first moved out, Dad wrote her letters. On the outside of the envelope he would write her name and below it he would write the address to our house. He was hoping that he would find out her new address when the letters arrived at the post office and someone stuck a forwarding label on them. I’m not even sure if the envelopes contained pieces of paper with words on them; I think he just wanted to know where she’d gone. Unfortunately, Mom had guessed that this might happen, so she gave everyone at the post office explicit instructions to keep her information confidential from my father. She said that if he found out her new address she would go to court to get him fired on grounds of using his government position to secure her personal information. Everyone at the post office likes Dad; they didn’t want him to lose his job. I’m assuming that the employees increased their vigilance and intercepted any mail addressed to my mother before Dad had a chance to see it. I’m surprised that they’ve managed to keep it up this long. I know he still sends the letters sometimes. Not like he did in the beginning, but a few months ago I noticed one in a pile of mail he had forgotten on the kitchen counter one morning. Our post office is probably the most efficient in the country solely due to the workers’ efforts to keep my father from receiving the letters he writes to his own address.
I knocked on Dr. Rauschenberg’s door and heard her tell me to come in. I opened the door and she was sitting at her desk. I wondered what she did all day. I wondered if there were really enough troubled students at my high school to keep her employed. She smiled at me and told me to have a seat. Her teeth always look like she’s just finished a tall glass of whole milk. They are chalky, not translucent at all. I wonder if they are fake or if, perhaps, she guzzles cartons of milk behind the dumpsters on her lunch break.
She went through her usual questions: she asked me how I’d been, how school was going, what classes I was enjoying the best, if I was participating in any extra-curricular activities. I told her that I was fine, I liked English (I didn’t mention that I was missing it to talk to her) and I reminded her that I have a job at the supermarket in town, so I can’t really participate in after-school activities. She asked me how the supermarket was and I told her it was fine. I also told her that we were having a special on limes that week – eight for a dollar – in case she was interested. She showed me her milky teeth again and said that maybe she’d stop by and pick some up; maybe she’d make a key lime pie. I smiled back at her, but not because I thought this gesture made Dr. Rauschenberg a good person. I smiled because I was thinking about Coco’s eighth birthday. Coco told me that she didn’t want a chocolate or a vanilla cake like everyone always got. She wanted something different. And so I made her a key lime pie. The other kids at the party hated it; they thought it was too sour. Coco’s fork claimed the lingering pieces off of her party guests’ plates and she smiled up at me. “Mommy, I love it.”
Then Dr. Rauschenberg was asking me what was wrong at home. She asked if my father was still upset about my mother. I said “Yeah” and left it at that. I didn’t tell her about the letters; it was none of her beeswax. She asked if anything else was new at home. For a moment I thought about telling her about Coco. But she’s not a medical doctor, so I decided that it wasn’t within her field of interest. When I left the room I told her that her talk really helped me. I’m not sure if she believed that or not, but she told me that she would give me a note so that I could leave school early. There were only twenty minutes left anyway; there was no point in returning to class.
I had nowhere to go except for the supermarket, so I just walked over there. I went around to the back where they unload the cartons of food. I didn’t want to go in through the front entrance because Karen would see me and ask me why I wasn’t still in school. Karen is technically retired, but she has a part-time job bagging groceries. She loves it. Her ultimate desire is to know everything about everyone at all times. Everyone needs food and everyone needs a bag to transport the food home, so Karen is steadily achieving her goal.
I sat down on the cool concrete and dangled my feet over the edge of the platform. It smelled like wet cardboard and cabbage, but it wasn’t overly offensive. I decided to read to Coco to kill the time. I pulled a book out of my backpack. It was called “My Old Bailiwick” and it was written by Owen Kildare. The main reason that I checked it out of the library was that it was published in 1906 and it still had its original cover and binding. I flipped it open to a page about halfway through and the smell of its old pages wafted up towards me. I love that smell. I wonder why books today don’t smell as good.
I didn’t need to read aloud because Coco was inside of me. I imagined the words adhering to glucose molecules and feeding the story to Coco through the placenta. Kildare told me and I told my glucose molecules and the glucose told Coco this:
Not long ago I beheld an “extraordinary bargain” in the window of a shop that did threefold duty as stationary, tobacco, and candy store. A pile of multi-coloured cards had been spoiled by fire and water and were “almost given away.” A few minutes later I had twenty-five of those cards and twenty-five newly coined pennies. I have a number of acquaintances among “the kiddies,” and ere long the usual crowd got around me. Without comment I gave each one of my friends his or her choice: brand-new penny or damaged holiday card. After offering my tempting wares to twenty-five children I found that I had twenty-three pennies and only two cards left.
Yes, I know, the ape will always reach for the brightest object, and the cannibal is jollied into a preparatory state of civilisation by gay beads and buttons. But let me ask you in what state do we find the children of the slums?
A legacy of ugliness seemed to have been unburdened on one little girl who stood in the circle around me that day. Sins of fathers and mothers could easily be traced in the repulsive little phiz. Yet when she turned from the pennies to the damaged works of art in my other hand and chose a pink moonrise, trimmed with blue snow, she looked very much like a mere child- a child whom anybody could have loved.
I closed the book because it was time for work. I stuffed it into my backpack and stood up from the concrete platform and walked around to the front of the store.
When I started working at the grocery store I thought that it would be somewhat interesting to observe what different types of people buy, but everyone proved to be so stereotypical in their food choices that it wasn’t fun for long. In fact, it became a little depressing. Mothers buy produce, things in bulk, and juice boxes. Fathers, stopping in around six on their way home from work, pick up the gallon of milk or loaf of bread that their wives had phoned them to buy. Bachelors distractedly throw a few frozen dinners and a candy bar on the conveyor belt and ask for a pack of Marlboros.
As I stared at the food passing by, my mind wandered back to Coco. I started to worry. Not that I would be a bad mother or not know what to do (I will buy baby food and diapers in bulk at first and later I will switch to produce and juice boxes). I guess I was worried because Coco was starting to scare me a little. Because even though I liked having her with me, I still felt alone. I told myself that this feeling would pass as Coco grew, but what if it didn’t? What would I do if I still felt the loneliness even with another heart beating inside of me?
Dad picked me up after work at 8 pm. The parking lot was deserted and dark. As we pulled away he asked me how my day was. I said, “Fine.” I didn’t tell him about missing the bus, or Mr. Higgins, or Dr. Rauschenberg, or the child whom anybody could have loved.
When I got home I sat down at my desk to do my homework. But instead of heading my paper with my name and the date I wrote: Dear Mom. I began by telling her how angry I was about having to fold her stupid laundry after she left. After that everything I’d been thinking about for the past few years leaked out of my pen and white paper turned black with fury and love.
When I was finished, I threw my pen down on the floor and massaged my cramped hand. I looked up at the clock and it read 10:56. I couldn’t believe how much time had gone by. I pushed the letter into an envelope. I had to secure it with tape it was so thick. I wrote my mother’s name on the outside with my address underneath. Although I mimicked Dad’s style, I did not share his intent. I didn’t care about knowing where Mom was living. I just wanted her to receive the letter and the only address I had for her was my own.
I opened my bedroom door and I could hear Dad’s soft snores rumbling from down the hall. I slipped out the back door and set off running. The air was damp again. With each breath I consumed both air and water. I propelled myself through the sleeping streets; the envelope flashing white as I pumped my arms. I ran past the corner where I had once tried to turn too quickly on my first bike without training wheels, which had caused me to tip over and skid into the asphalt. Mom had washed tiny pieces of gravel out of my wrist and knee and told me not to cry.
Just before I reached the end of the neighborhood I stopped running. I stood there for a moment, catching my breath in the glow of a dull street lamp. I looked up at a little red house with black shutters. Mrs. Parnell lives there. Mrs. Parnell is 84 years old. She used to be a neighborhood fixture – we would often see her on her afternoon walks, sometimes with a youngster in tow whom she’d volunteered to baby-sit, sometimes going door to door reminding the adults that it was a night for bridge playing and gin and tonic drinking. But these patterns ceased two years ago when Mr. Parnell died. She hardly ever leaves the house anymore. Karen at the grocery store told me that Mrs. Parnell had been married to her husband for sixty-one years. Karen supposed that Mrs. Parnell was trying to die just so that she could see him again.
I opened Mrs. Parnell’s mailbox, slid the letter to my mother inside, and raised the little red flag. I knew that Mrs. Parnell would never notice. After all of Dad’s letters, I thought that it would be better to mail the letter from a mailbox other than our own. I guess that mailing the letter from a mailbox in our neighborhood might still raise a postal worker’s suspicions. Really I knew that I should have kept running. I should have run beyond the boundary of our zip code. But, here I was, the letter was already inside and the flag was raised. I just had to hope that this one would get through to her.
I turned away from Mrs. Parnell’s mailbox and slowly walked back through the circuitous grey streets of my neighborhood. By the time I reached my house, my breathing was normal. I cut across our front yard and the bottoms of my jeans turned wet and blades of grass stuck to the sides of my shoes. I left my shoes outside, slid in through the back door, and tip-toed through the house to the beat of the living room clock’s ticks. Dad’s snores continued to rise and fall to their own time, completely ignoring the clock’s measured rhythm. Back in my room I took off my jeans and left them in the middle of the floor. I climbed under the covers of my bed and pushed my nose into the smell of my clean pillowcase. As I descended towards sleep, I wondered if Coco would still be with me when I woke up the next morning.