The baby howled at 3 a.m. and jerked Cynthia awake for the fifth time that night. Pain stabbed her abdomen as she rolled over. Recovering from a C-section and soothing a colicky newborn as a single parent was so exhausting that she wanted to cry right along with the baby. Dozens of student reports crowded her nightstand, and she needed to be lucid to correct them. But after weeks of sleepless nights, her thoughts had only become more jumbled. And now the grades were due. Frustrated, she swatted the papers off the table and let them crash to the floor. The nursing baby startled and bit down hard on her nipple, and now, Cynthia really did cry along with her infant. She couldn’t ignore the phone calls from work, the taps at the front door, or the essays any longer, or she wouldn’t have a teaching job to return to—but if she didn’t get a few more hours of sleep, she knew she’d lose her mind entirely. Once the baby fell back to sleep, Cynthia climbed out of bed and scrawled a note to a fellow teacher, begging her to finish her grading for her. Nobody at work was supportive of her having a child on her own at forty, but this one colleague might help. She crammed the papers into an envelope, slapped on stamps and, clutching her belly so as not to rupture the stitches, hobbled outside to the mailbox. On her return to the front door, she picked up the garden trowel lying by the mat, shoved its triangular tip under the doorbell, and wrenched the whole mechanism off in one pop. Then she went back to her bedroom, yanked down the blinds, dug out some earplugs, stuffed the phone in a drawer, dialed the fan up, and dropped into a deep sleep. Standing at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes and shelling peas late at night three months later, Cynthia had adjusted to the blurry feelings and isolation that arose from sleeping whenever the baby slept. It wasn’t a relaxing sabbatical, but she enjoyed being free from an entirely cerebral life. She didn’t miss the pressure of writing new lectures or the long hours of grading. Being needed in this primal and fleshy way made her feel mysteriously connected to the deepest waters of humanity. Her daughter was already fed and happily lying on a quilt, kicking her feet under the musical mobile as Cynthia popped apples in the oven to bake, mashed yams, and spooned the skinned potatoes into the boiling water. In this kitchen, fragrant with cinnamon, she mused on the ways mothers for thousands of years have fed their children. She and her baby both ate only soft foods now. It made things simpler. Cynthia stirred the peas on the stove top, sipped her tea, and then suddenly spit it out. Too bitter, she decided and switched to milk instead. Two months later, Cynthia was still padding around in her bedroom slippers with her hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail. She folded a pile of laundry while her daughter gurgled from her windup swing. Cynthia liked wiggling her fingers in the terry cloth towels and feeling the silky bumps of the fabric. She sunk her nose into a towel and inhaled its scent. Her white sweats had shrunk and turned so pink in the wash that they now nearly matched her daughter’s onesies. She chuckled. Both mother and daughter were putting on weight and needed roomy clothes. Cynthia didn’t mind her flabby belly; it was a secure shelf to put the baby on as she transported her from room to room. Needing lotion, she wandered into the bathroom. She enjoyed using the same sweet-smelling salve as her baby, but no sooner did she open the medicine cabinet, she got distracted. She stacked a pink jar on top of a green one and then placed them both on top of a yellow one. Then she reached for a bottle full of pills and when she shook it, the rattling noise made her giggle. She grabbed another bottle from the shelf, unscrewed its cap, and poked at the soft cotton inside it. The best thing on the shelf, however, was the ChapStick. Cynthia seized it, flicked off its cap, and smeared the peach-colored stick over and around her mouth, not caring as she made her chin shine with wax. The next morning Cynthia dumped things in a box because the Goodwill truck was coming by. She tossed in suede pumps, travel guides to Europe, CDs, a snake-skin belt, beach reads, nail polish—stuff that seemed to belong to another person’s life. She needed to make room for the packages that arrived in the mail: the baby gates, toilet locks, and cabinet fasteners. There really wasn’t much need to go out at all. Things arrived so conveniently on her doorstep; besides, she didn’t like the chaos of playgrounds with toddlers bouncing off one another like bumper cars. Interrupted by the baby’s hungry cry, Cynthia scooped her daughter up and plopped into the glider. She rocked slowly at first and then more swiftly. Soon she was rocking so fast that her face flushed and air whipped through her hair; she raced along so wildly that she slammed the rocking chair into the bookshelf behind her. Books catapulted across the room or banged into the rocker, making the baby wail with fright. Cynthia released a long ribbon of laughter and then continued guffawing so much she hiccupped and finally wet herself while her daughter clung to her, whimpering. Later Cynthia decided to light a candle to create a calm feeling in the house. She screwed one into a candlestick, placed it on the kitchen table, struck a match, and lit the wick. The colors twirled prettily in the flame. She stared at it, and then stuck her finger directly into the dancing light. Silly Cynthia! She sucked her throbbing finger and reminded herself to pinch only the waxy drips instead. Shaking her head, she went into the bathroom and ran her burned finger under cold water. Scissors sitting in a jar behind the toilet caught her attention and awakened an urge in her to hear the little snip-snip noise. She snatched them up and held them close to her ear. Suddenly her hair was all over the sink! No matter, she fixed her lopsided hairstyle by giving herself a pixie. When she had finished, she liked what she saw: her eyes seem bigger and rounder, her cheeks more full and rosy. When the baby cried out again, Cynthia gathered her up on her lap and opened up a board book. She bounced her daughter and pointed out the jolly pigs, cows, hens, and horses, dressed up and dancing around the colorful barnyard. The baby cooed. The board book felt solid in Cynthia’s hands. The pages were smooth to her touch and slick under her tongue. Cynthia licked the glossy pages, one after the next, and buried her nose in the gluey bindings. Gnawing at the back cover, she relished the moistened cardboard; it was pulpy and satisfying. The baby fussed again, so Cynthia took her out on the redwood porch. The puffiness of the clouds sailing by made her chortle. Blue jay caws startled her, and squirrels clambering down trees gave her goose bumps. Cynthia sat down next to the planter box and sniffed the flowers. She deadheaded the daisies and pulled out weeds. She patted down the soil and popped a fistful of dirt into her mouth. The texture of it was gritty on her tongue, the flavor meaty and delicious. Some days Cynthia felt so tired she could barely make herself go out on the porch. Today, while her daughter still napped in the house, she crawled on her hands and knees onto the deck to lean against the planter box. Tiny green worms nibbled at the pansies. Cynthia wished to see bigger worms and maybe tank bugs too. She put both feet on the wooden planter box and shoved. Over it toppled with a bang. It splintered, sending dirt, petals, and roots flying. Earthworms wriggled on the deck. Centipedes uncoiled and clambered around. Ants scampered over dirt piles, snail shells rolled about, tank bugs darted in every direction, beetles flipped over on their backs and flailed their legs helplessly in the air. Cynthia clapped her hands in delight. The pandemonium of it all! She tossed handfuls of dirt twitching with bugs in the air, and centipedes, ants, and beetles rained down on her. They tickled her skin and crawled through her hair. She cackled with pleasure. Rushing and volatile, Cynthia’s blood coursed in a new way. Unable to quell this surge of giddy delirium, she threw her head back and squealed. Her whole body shook, and she knocked a bottle of dish soap into a nearby plastic bucket filled with water. Miniature bubbles dotted the surface of the water and winked at her. She plunged her hands into it and splashed them around. The bucket overflowed with frothing white foam. Cynthia reached for the plastic wand with the round hoop and dipped it in the water. As she blew on it, an enormous bubble emerged. The bubble grew into a gleaming balloon, broke free, and lifted off. Trembling in the breeze, sunlight glinting off its rainbow skin, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She wanted to be that shimmering orb, or climb inside it, roll in its soapy film, and sail off into the sky. Cynthia sat transfixed, filled with wonder and amazement. Suddenly, it popped. All gone! In one wet snap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. She lifted her chin, yelled, and pounded her heels on the deck. Soon she felt the need to push from below. She straightened her back, pressed her lips together, grunted a bit, and let it come out in a sloppy whoosh. The heaviness in her pants was familiar and smelly. It bothered her to have the mushy load beneath her, and shifting around only made it worse. She wanted to do something about it, but somehow she couldn’t get up. She rocked stickily from side to side. Her legs had forgotten how to stand. She tried to call for help but words failed her. Only a long, mournful wail rose up from her rounded belly. She lifted her pudgy arms to the sky and sobbed loudly, hoping that someone would hear her—that someone would come pick her up.
-- Mollie McNeil lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She studied art and literature as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and the Sorbonne and as a doctoral student the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Crack the Spine, Diverse Arts Project, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Penmen Review, Ragazine and Hawaii Pacific Review.