Love Works Like This

Love Works Like This


Third Trimester. I go to the lab to get my medication levels checked. There is me, wonderfully sane for now, and then there is Eva, who every night soaks in the salt of lithium and other pills. Behind all my marital anxieties, beneath all my pleasures, there is always this question, this image—my daughter in the Dead Sea, a place of too much salt, ragged mountains surrounding her briny body.

So I go to the lab. I sit in a dentist's chair while a technician takes tube after tube of blood. On a bookshelf sits a notebook—"Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane" I read on its binder. "What's that?" I say, nodding toward the notebook.

"That," she says, "is to keep track of the criminals' brood work. We do a lot of criminals here."

"I see," I say. When she leaves the room I look at all the tubes of fresh fluid, mine and others'. Here, I think, is the blood from a murderer, here from a thief, here from me. What separates us, really? We have all acted out of madness, put others at risk for the sake of salvation.

I pick vial, and when I shake it a thin sediment coats the walls of the glass. Fetal cells, I have read, circulate in a mother's blood long, long after the baby is born. Scientists have found fetal cells in sixty-, seventy-year-old females. A woman carries the bodies of every baby she has ever borne for the rest of her life; she is imprinted. She is imprisoned the memory, guilt, and gladness, sitting always side by side. That's the difference. The real criminal dismisses his crime; but the mother, she is inscripted, a literal, cellular conscience.

I care.

We are lying in bed, early morning. "My blood levels came back normal," I say to him. "Now let's just hope the baby's normal too."

"She'll be an interesting mixture of chemicals," Jacob says. "Quite an experiment."

"Look," l say, defensive. "A lot of babies have been born to mothers who have taken the drugs I'm on. The babies are usually fine."

"I know," he says, "but consider my contribution. I've been working in chemistry labs for years, absorbing all those toxins. Who knows what's happened to my DNA."

"So she'll be born with flippers," l say.

"I'd rather wings," he says. "Quick, get the nets, she just flew over the delivery table, she's heading down to X Ray, radio ahead . . ."

We start to laugh, we contract together, it feels good, how much we laugh, how hard and urgent while the black bats fly above.

And yet, I cannot see the bats. As far as I know my daughter does not have wings, and my mind is still intact. We get up. It is Wednesday. The sound of the church bells is remarkably clear. Outside, children ride red bicycles, a policeman holds up a white-gloved hand, and all the traffic stops.

Jacob goes to work. I go to Tara's house. Tara, whom I have never met before, is a new patient with such severe agoraphobia she claims she must be seen at home. The Department of Social Services is threatening to remove her children because of an alcohol problem leading to child abuse.

It takes me over an hour to get there. She lives at the very rim of the city, where skyscraper and ocean meet in a tide of grit.

I am always amazed at how, when the mind is clear, when the mood is good, even the ugliest scenes can seem lovely. This, perhaps, is the danger of health, of happiness, for when I look out my car window at the passing poverty, at the old pouchy men on the seawall, at the bikers in black trading packets of heroin, I perceive an almost romantic Bukowskian poetry to it all, the smells and sights, I on an adventure, the way my mood removes me and relieves me of responsibility for the social hardships all around me. Some claim that depressed individuals have m fact, a more realistic view of the world; it could be true. It could comfort me when I think of what lies ahead. But I don't think about what lies ahead. I speed down the road, ballooned along on my big belly and the sea winds and the salsa music in the air.

Tara lives in a tenement. The road is so narrow my truck won't fit. I have to pee in the urgent, burning way of the pregnant woman. Lately my bladder, not my mind has been the biggest focal point. I think about my bladder all the time. It is a muscular bottle, a blue bowl that passively fills, and fills, as the fluids of fecundity travel down, and in. My bladder is a lake. My bladder aches. My sphincter, that gorgeous ring of pinkish tissue, opens at its urging, and the hot release jets forth. This is what I have become, in the third trimester. A bladder, and I love it. I love it so long as I am home, and near the bathroom, where I can repeat the ritual of release and relief as often as I need.

Now, however, I am not home. I am about to meet a patient. The unfortunate side to the bladder story is this. If I do not give my bladder, which is like a wild horse, its head, it will buck and run off all on its own. Let me put this less poetically. No matter how many Kegels I do, I have started to pee m my pants. I don't mind peeing in my pants, except when there's a patient involved. So Eva disappears. Jacob disappears. The world disappears as I slosh over to the doorway, ring the buzzer, my sphincter squeezed shut.

"Dr. Slater," I say, holding out my hand when a short, stocky woman answers. "Lauren Slater. Are you Tara?"

"Yeah," she says, and we move into the darkness of her apartment' cinder-block walls, a cigarette twinkling like an ulcer at the corner of her lip.

She looks at my stomach, puts out her cigarette, which I appreciate. Nevertheless, what with the smell of smoke in the air, I cough and a little jet of urine spurts out.

"Would you mind," I say, "if I use your bathroom?"

This, I know, is not the optimal way to begin a therapeutic relationship, but when the bladder speaks, it is like a call from God.

"Well," she says, "I don't have any toilet paper. I'm all out."

"That's okay," I say, smiling desperately now, for the little leak is growing more vigorous, drop by fat drop. "That's okay. I can use a paper towel."

"Shit," she says, "I don't have any paper towels either." She goes to her cabinets, flings them open. Inside I see bottles upon bottles of Scotch and vodka, a bong gone gray with smoke, and a mirror with white dust still on it. I see, also, as her sleeves slide up, a tattoo of a snake curled around a cross, a pirate puffing on a pipe. Tara denies having a substance abuse problem, but my bladder-drive method of evaluation seems to be suggesting otherwise.

"No," she says, "no towels here."

"A napkin?" I say, my voice now small and high and hopeful.

Tara sighs, turns her palms up.

"Oh that's okay," I say hurriedly. "Look, forget it, I don't need any paper products, I'll just, I'll just," I want to say "drip dry," but I can practically hear the collective groan of every supervisor I've ever had.

"I've got it," Tara says, snapping her fingers in the air. She rushes to a small balcony, flings open the screen. The tenements across the way are so close we could touch them. "Hey, Donna," she shouts out, hands cupped around her mouth. Everyone on the thronging street below stops what they're doing, looks up. "Hey, Donna, my psychiatrist is here, and she's pregnant, and she's really gotta go. You have any toilet paper over there?"

I never actually see Donna, but after a few moments two rolls of toilet paper get lobbed into the air, one after the other, silently. The first one Tara catches. The second one bounces off the railing and streams into the street.

"One outta two," Tara says, handing me a roll. I clutch it. I look over her railing. Down below the children are screaming with delight, giddy as they wrap themselves in the softest streamers, each one pure white, a present, they twirl and twirl in this monotone maypole. Remember this, I say to myself. Appreciate this, I say to myself, and truly I do, each child a well-wrapped gift, and then my body, all water and rush.

Each day the movements are growing stronger. The third trimester, it seems to me, has less to do, at least so far, with marital difficulties or bonding concerns, and more to do with preparation for the impending physical event. Its not that the other worries have vanished, but I seem to be experiencing them more remotely. I don't think so much about my marriage, or even the baby. Instead, my mind is on this I have fewer than two months to go and my kegels sag, my lower back aches, my heart is inefficient. I've started working out, following the lessons outlined in a book called The Tuppler Technique, Exercise for Maternal Fitness. According to Ms. Tuppler, a pregnant woman should do over one hundred Kegels a day. You should, she says, visualize a penny at the entrance to your vagina. Visualize your vaginal lips picking the penny up, drawing it in, and in, until it reaches your cervix, then the tip of your uterus, then your navel, at which point you push the penny back out— release is the key word here—your cervix unfolding, so says Ms. Tuppler, like a flower.

So today I am sitting cross-legged in my bedroom, picking up pennies with my genitals, vaginally inhaling copper and then expelling in a motion at once forceful and flowery. This is ridiculous. I don't like Ms. Tuppler's images. I don't like the thought of a penny inside me, or the thought of my labia, like some praying mantis plant reaching out for riches.

Sixty years ago Virginia Woolf wrote about the difficulties women have in articulating their own flesh. Since that time the women's movement has come, and gone, and come again; there are far fewer angels in the house, and yet her stance still stands, alarmingly, contemporarily, correct. We have no good poetics of the female body, at least in the mainstream culture, and the language of pregnancy and birth underscores this. When I'm lying like a trussed chicken and the doctor is in me to his elbow, or when I'm squatting, bare-assed and panting, I want a way of imaging myself that is neither shameful nor silly, if only to preserve my own dignity. There is no dignity in catching pennies. And I will not be sweetened like a stupid bloom. I want words that are proud and intelligent, a handsome language of arch and flex.

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Excerpted from Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater. Copyright © 2002 by Lauren Slater. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.