The Shape Love Takes
This is the shape love takes. I am going to see you again. The trains take three hours each way, from my Brooklyn apartment to your home in Jersey and back again, but the journey is worth it. I have my routine now: get to Penn Station in time to grab a coffee and the morning Times and find a window seat. Once we’re out of the tunnel, New York fades to Jersey, but my mind’s on only you. I have never felt this way before. It’s both funny and awful to think that. You know, you get to be certain ages and you think you’ve felt it all, but you’re wrong every time. Remember that.
I sip at the coffee and lay the bundled newspaper across the aisle seat, and I wait. We’re at Newark—Newark International Airport, Newark now, next stop North Elizabeth. I could work for New Jersey Transit, I know the conductor’s spiel so well. Next up North Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, Metropark, Metuchen, Edison, New Brunswick, Jersey Avenue, and Princeton Junction. After that, Hamilton. You’ll be there, waiting, and I will give you everything I have to give.
Of course, you won’t remember any of this. You’re only a few months old. Your eyes don’t focus yet, so these weeks and my presence and most of the rest of it are a blur. All you know is the soft chest against which you nestle and the calming voice attached to it, a voice you’ve known as long as you’ve been her missed period. I believe it, the tiny zygote of you, a cluster of cells swimming through primordial goo, you without even eardrums could still hear her. You know this, her, and you know that other—rumpled shirt, stubbled chin, the fond-foolish constant touching. They are unable to believe you are here, you are theirs, you live—they hold their own breaths to hear you breathe. She is mother and he is father, but you’re many months from having the words. It’ll be years before you understand who I am. It’ll be years before I understand it either.
Car’s starting to fill up. I’m careful not to meet the eyes of the people seeking seats and encourage my sprawl: coffee cup, rifled-through Times, bottle of water, page proofs, blue pens—I lay it all out. I begin to page through the headlines, hiding behind the paper’s large spread. President-elect Obama on clean-air technology. Violence in the Congo. Somali pirates—now there’s a thing I can’t quite wrap my head around, real live pirates, today. Rough open seas…the night map of stars…following the whim of one’s gut…But this is the American in me, weaned on pop culture. The anthropologist in me is disgusted because pirates in any age make fine sense. As long as there are formal power consolidations, there will be alterity to them. If we believe in anything as unifying as a “human culture,” that’s what it would share. For there is no center without a fringe; never a self without an Other.
There is nothing to do but obsess. Tommy’s mouth is intent, a gaping red maw, although he misses at first, gumming her breast’s undercurve. She takes his neck in her firm grasp and settles him on her left side. She sits and she waits and the noticing is inescapable. They used to be toys. They had been apples, boobies, breastsesses, chichis, fun bags, knobs, maracas, peaks, pompoms, second base, tatas, the twins, titties, umlauts, and yayas. But now they are teats. Udders. Ziploc bags but without the patented watertight seal. The cry of any infant soaks her nursing pad, making her grasp at herself in public to check for leaks. She now wears only patterned clothing in order to camouflage.
When she isn’t obsessing about overheavy breasts or chapped nipples, she is hating the rolls of flesh of her now body, all warm and risen from the oven of her womb. She can do nothing but sit here, emptying first this breast, then the other, while all of it splays before her, a cornucopia of excess. She has mommyarms now. She used to say that word unkindly, before it was her flesh jiggling, as beside the point as wings on a chicken when faced with the size of the breast. How can she have mommyarms? She lifts things all day, every day, things like a baby and groceries and diaper bags and baskets full of laundry ripe for the washing. But nothing has been spared. Once-thin thighs now brush each other as she walks. The jawline is no longer defined, the sunken cheeks filled, even her lips feel fat. She has produced not one but two new bodies, one a miracle and one less so. She is all yeast and grain, vitamin and fiber. A vending machine of necessities.
Tommy squirms, pulling her nipple with him as he detaches. “Fuck!” says Hana, then “sorry, sorry, you didn’t hear that,” cradling him with one hand and pressing the other, a flat palm, to her ache. He sounds a pterodactyl cry, then attaches fiercely to her bicep. And she just lets him suck. After a few moments, though, she pulls up the right side of her shirt and coaxes him close. “C’mon, I know you’re hungry. You barely ate. C’mon, Tommy. Take it.” His head bobbles, his unfocused eyes moving from her nipple to her eyes to the green ottoman to the window and back to her nipple again. Back to her eyes. “Be a good boy, Tommy,” she jostles him, “and eat your freakin’ breakfast.” And then there it is, the smacking of lips closing, the slippery inside of her son’s mouth, the pinch of milk starting to flow. She sighs and tries to wiggle the pillow behind her into a better position without unhinging his mouth.
Hana checks her watch. She can’t lose track of the time. Mattie is coming today, and days go more smoothly with Mattie around. And once they move, she’ll lose Mattie—so she’s got to enjoy the help while she has it. But there is still time before the train, so Hana places her bare feet up on the coffee table. The tugging at her nipple is insistent, and the slurping, noisy. A mother who doesn’t want to be one. How fucking original. That woman down in Houston, Andrea Something, drowned her five kids in the bathtub. A San Antonio mother actually ate her baby’s brain, and three of his toes, and some other unspecified parts in a crime the police dubbed “too heinous to describe further.” Hana agrees with this assessment but can’t help wondering: ingesting the brain seemed somewhat logical—like that New Guinea tribe Mattie had told her about, the ones who eat their dead kinsmen’s brains out of respect. But what was up with the toes? And why only three of them? And what were those other parts that couldn’t be specified? And what the heck was in the drinking water down in Texas? All those parents, quite literally outside of their minds, and yet all people think to ask is why, if they are so depressed, they don’t just kill themselves. To be fair, people were missing the point. The point was not ending one’s life but, rather, being given a different one—or merely recovering the one you had before.
But, fuck, what was she going on about? “Too heinous to describe further” just about covers it. It’s this endless sitting and waiting that allows her brain to go on these benders. Hana massages fingers to temple. She isn’t interested in this shit, she definitely does not sit around contemplating her child’s death, no need to call CPS. She smoothes the wispy top of Tommy’s head. But she can’t help it. It’s all over the news. She isn’t interested in these cases; or, okay, maybe she is but morbidly so, engrossed with the horrific details because she needs to understand how one gets to that point.
Tommy detaches again, more gently this time, and turns the steel of his gaze up at her. For a brief, horrible moment it’s as if he can hear her thoughts. Not too long ago they had been connected in that deep, most intuitive way. But no, now he is scanning the room and drooling. Hana covers herself and slings him up toward her shoulder, patting his back with a cupped hand. Small noises catch in his chest, but he doesn’t burp. He isn’t fussing, so Hana simply settles him into the spoon of her so they can together gaze out the window.
And suddenly it’s like she’s outside, striding up the walk and past the porch swing and looking in. She sees a dim room, a single lamp in the corner lights it, but it beams onto a young woman with an infant on her lap. Her feet are up. The TV is off. The baby cannot hold up his own head. His hair is coming in slowly, but his eyebrows are already thick and wild. The Hana in the room peers over Tommy’s head and uses a spit-wet pointer to smooth each wayward brow. It is a tender scene that the Hana on the porch observes.
Then again, all those mothers in the news were described as mild, even “non-descript,” and then one day some synapse does or doesn’t fire, some thread is snapped, and the boundary between being in one’s right mind and one’s wrong mind is revealed to be mere filigree. Was it all post-partum depression? And if so, why did the body and mind disconnect so abruptly at the emptying of a womb? Or was it something more sinister, that these individuals, or even all individuals, carried around in them a whisper of violence, the possibility looming silent and large, like a secret identity, like Clark Kent whipping off his stupid glasses to reveal superhuman capabilities? What mild mothers are capable of terrifies her.
Besides she loves her son. She does, but she never knew how complicated love was. That you could feel brisk in its grasp. She is not one of those women who melts at the sight of a baby’s face. And now, presented with her own, she does not coo or bill at him. She does not search his body for signs of herself or Jimmy. No, she perches Tommy on her hip, she belts him into seat after seat, she sits quietly with him on the couch, and in this she can be grateful: even she, impatient with it all, can see that he is a good baby.
Elizabeth, Elizabeth now. Eight stops to go. I swig at the coffee, which is going lukewarm. Citigroup to lay off employees. Detroit auto industry seeking government bailout. God, this stuff is depressing.
I do let them pay me. Just a little, mind you, and barely enough to cover what I spend on train tickets, coming and going once a week, and ingredients for the meals I freeze into individual servings so that Hana doesn’t have to cook. So, yes, I let them give a little because I understand the importance of appearances. It’s important to Jimmy that they don’t appear to be a charity case, just as it’s important to me to appear to be offering a service, rather than the entire pulp of my heart. What’s important to Hana? I don’t know, even though I grew up alongside her and have been in love with her about that long, too. Ask the whys of my love for her all you want. She laughs harder than anyone I’ve known. She can’t pretend what she doesn’t feel. She is beautiful; this is stupid. I love her because she is herself. You may as well ask why moths are drawn to the light.
And I go to her every week because I don’t want her to feel alone. She never has been; I’ve always hovered near. I go, and we put away groceries and gather laundry and she asks me what’s what in anthropology these days. Just last week I had come out; we went to the Farmer’s Market and I held the baby while she shopped. Tommy leaned against my chest in his carrier, and his eyes were on me the whole time. I gazed back at him and we moved so slow down that dairy aisle that thirty minutes passed between eggs and ice cream. Each time I saw Tommy, he had changed again. I wanted to sit and watch it all happen: the caterpillar closing into a chrysalis and then emerging, its veins filling with blood and unfurling the wings, that tentative first flight, then the soaring. Hana was…I don’t know where, in the canned-food aisle or maybe amongst the produce. We were planning that afternoon to make Bolognese from scratch. “What a gorgeous child you have,” an older couple murmured, stopping our slow progress, wanting to stroke the peachy fuzz of his head. And I there was, next to the milk, stammering that he wasn’t mine, exactly. Hana chose that moment to materialize, depositing into our cart canned tomatoes, fresh herbs, and a Styrofoam slab of ground meat. “He’s not giving you any trouble, is he, sweets?” she asked, ignoring the older couple. She circled her arms around me, resting the point of her chin on my shoulder, and ruffling Tommy’s hair before exclaiming, “Oh, motherfucker, I forgot the damned pasta.” Off she whirled while the older couple stood still and staring. Whether they were appalled by the idea of us three as a family or Hana’s ferocious mouth, I don’t know, but without another word, they left. Hana wasn’t there to hear me lie to the next woman who stopped me for a better look at the baby. Hana didn’t see me claim Tommy as mine—because it was easier; because I wanted it to be true.
The doors chime a warning, then close, as the train pulls out of Metuchen Station. A voice startles me, booming into the relative silence of the car. “A-l-l-y-s-o-n? I’d never name a child with a misspelling like that.” The woman in the aisle has a thick Jersey Italian accent. “Are you kidding me?” Her companion is male and quiet—compared to the woman. I wish they’d keep their voices down or move to another car, but they pick the seats across the aisle from me.
“Rex?” suggests the man.
“No. Just no. That’s a dog’s name.” The man actually slaps his knee as they laugh—a caricature of how to react to funny. “What else,” says the woman, “what else?”
“Ex-cuuu-say-mwa, we’re not French, are we? I don’t think so.” The woman laughs hard enough for both of them. “And as for Micaela?” says the woman. “I don’t even know what language that is. What is that, it’s just Michael, isn’t it? A girl version of Michael? Why don’t you just name her Lesbo and get it over with?” Both erupt into loud laughter, despite the fact that what she has said lacks any logic. How does giving a “boy” name to a girl, or vice versa, determine their sexuality? Does she really believe there is that much power in a word? Am I being overly sensitive or are they looking at me? Do I look like I have a boy name? My hair is long and ponytailed, femme; I’m wearing jeans and a hemley, a tomboyish look, maybe, but not butch; I don’t wear makeup, but that’s because I like to look fresh faced. Anyway, I don’t have a boy name; my full name is Matilda.
I prop myself again behind the paper, trying to tune them out. Jimmy thinks I come for the money. Hana thinks I come because I’m a good friend. I tell them, why do I work from home if I cannot help out—“and put a few more bucks in your wallet,” Jimmy assures us all, winking. “Yeah,” I answer. “A few more bucks.” What nobody sees is that I show up for me. That all of this is like playing house, like pretending to belong. I come because Hana is everything her name implies: Arabic bliss; a Japanese flower; the Czech conception of God’s graciousness; the Hebrew notion of favor; and the Hawaiian word for work. And, of course, I come for you, Tommy, our son. That’s how I’ve come to see you—as all of ours. You are always Hana’s. You are Jimmy’s when he comes home from work and a silent Hana passes you to him and leaves the room. But you are mine, too, baby, and I can love you out loud as I cannot your mother. I can stroke your head, exclaim over your thick fan of dark lashes, study the sharp little nails on all ten fingers, all ten toes. I can look for where Hana begins and where Jimmy ends—find the places where you are neither her nor him but only you. I can kiss your fat cheeks till your dimples appear, your tummy till your fists flail, and your small and perfect feet till your toes curl. It is around you and your mother that I mold my life. I bend it to fit her whim and your need until the dream of the three of us seems more real than my real life.
I crumple the empty coffee cup. Edison now. New Brunswick, next.
She knows she has to get going, but Hana cannot hear herself think. Tommy just keeps crying. What time was the train, and did she need to change the baby first? Could she afford not to, when there seemed to be a definite sour odor to him? She had put him down in the carrier next to the couch so she could stretch out and finish her cup of rooibos tea. Herbal tea was bullshit; it tricked neither her mind nor body into accepting it as replacement for caffeine; but she had been shivering and wanted something to warm her up. By now, the tea is cold, but the microwave in the kitchen seems a marathon away.
She needs to think, too. A few weeks ago, Jimmy had gotten a better offer, but it would take them to Portland.
“Portland—what the fuck am I supposed to do in Portland?”
“The same things you do in Jersey? Hate to break it to you, babe, but it’s not like our lives are so bright lights, big city here. Anyway, if you don’t move in advertising every few years, you can kiss your career goodbye. Companies like movement. You know. Still waters—stagnate, or however the saying goes.”
“Still waters run deep, jackass.”
“Whatever. This can’t be a surprise, Hana. I’ve told you all of this before.”
“I just didn’t think we’d have to move so soon. What about Mattie?”
“Indeed.” Jimmy said softly. “What about Mattie.”
“Well, what will I do without her?”
“The grocery shopping, the cooking, and a lot more dishes and laundry, I’d guess.”
“Ha, ha. I married a fucking comedian.”
“Seriously, Hana. You’re going to be a mother. And at the new salary I’m at, we can afford to hire a nanny. Or maid. Both. Whatever.”
But after a few weeks, she’d been no closer to breaking the news. If she didn’t talk about the move out loud, perhaps it wouldn’t happen, but there was Jimmy, bringing it up at every turn, his voice constantly showing his excitement. Just last night, he’d done it again. “You better tell her tomorrow, Hana.”
“Why don’t you do it,” she had pouted.
Cutely, she thought, but he had snapped at her.
“Just tell her already! God!” He sighed. “Sorry. For raising my voice. But just…be honest with her. It’s gonna happen fast, Hana, and you’re gonna wish you’d given her more time.”
And she knows he’s right. She’s got to tell Mattie today. In fact, she’ll make herself do it when she picks Mattie up from the station. Get it over with. Hana abandons the tea and scoops Tommy from the chair. She sniffs at his diaper. Maybe he needs to be burped again. She maneuvers him over her shoulder, anchoring a burp cloth in place with the other hand. She cups her hand and thuds his back, but all she hears is the hiccupy, sobbing breaths he takes between larger swaths of sound. Perhaps he wasn’t gassy; perhaps it really was the diaper. She should just change him, but that might upset him further. The air itself smells a little sour, a little saccharine, like what else but spilled milk, left sitting too long and then wiped up with the nearest item: a burp cloth, an orphaned infant sock, a mother’s shirt. Laundry piles in various rooms, as if conspiring behind her back. The baby was crying, yes, but where were the car keys, her bra, a hairbrush? She was running late. She was forever running late now. Nine-eleven is the train, she remembers, nine-eleven, a number one always remembers. She has to get going, or she has to make him stop, or she has to reach the right position on this couch so she no longer sees or hears him. Maybe she should try meditation. Zen stuff. Emptying the mind. Might be good for her. Or might be impossible. He can’t possibly still be hungry, can he? She could feed him again, but how could he be hungry? It had only been twenty minutes. Thirty at most, she thinks but isn’t sure.
The sound of a baby crying was a form of torture in some countries. She read this somewhere. They pipe it—like music, like airborne disease—straight into the cells. Just hour upon hour of a baby wailing, inconsolable, like it has been left alone, or is scared, or is being hurt. A cry without an answering shush. No rush of adult feet down a hallway. And no baby that anyone could see or help. It was enough to make hardened criminals break. Hana wonders, though. It seems worse to be looking right at him—the wail, embodied—and see that he isn’t, in fact, alone, scared, or being hurt and still not know how to just make him stop.
Tommy cries the whole way to the train station. The sound has escalated to furious, inconsolable keening by the time she pulls into the parking lot. Once she parks, Hana reaches back and replugs him with the pacifier, around which he manages a few more indignant howls. She rubs his tummy softly but can’t look at him. He finally falls asleep, and in the ringing silence all she hears are the slight smacking noises of his mouth at the pacifier. She can almost pretend he doesn’t exist.
She could be living a very different kind of life. Perhaps she was a successful businesswoman with a second home in the country so that when she could, she slipped the confines of her city life, indulging her longing for open space and starry night skies, for miles on the highway flanked only by trees, bursting like fireworks with vibrant autumn leaves. Or maybe she was a beloved novelist, whose naked talent excused—even explained—her reclusiveness. Or maybe she was a wife fresh from the altar, such a very young woman, still unaware of how hard it will all be, being a wife, being just a wife, keeping all those vows and expected to have no more secrets. She was any of these women, and each of them, and sitting in the short-term parking lot waiting for the train to arrive. Perhaps it was time to return to her apartment in the financial district before work on Monday. Or maybe she had to make her annual and detested few public appearances to promote her newest book, doorstoppingly thick with brilliance. Or she was meeting her young husband for a date in the city, that being their job right now, everyone had said so, the time for fattening their love on these rich first years, wining and dining that love and escorting it out to Broadway musicals and exhibits of strange art both would be too embarrassed to admit they didn’t understand.
But the baby stirs.
My loud neighbors get off Jersey Avenue, thank god. With only two stops left, I turn to the Science and Technology section. NASA seeks possible new planet in solar system. Scientists discover new method of erasing memories without using drugs. Sulphur dioxide plume of Ethiopian volcano travels halfway around world to dissipate over the Pacific. I’m intrigued by this last article, until I see the photo of four corpses being unearthed—which of course reminds me that I haven’t gotten any of my work done. I feel guilty, but I quiet myself with the promise to proofread on the ride home. For now, though, I am drawn into this story. The corresponding article is about how archaeologists have recently uncovered a new cache of Paleolithic graves. It takes me right back to the old sense of wonder. I majored in archaeology because I saw it as a mystery that could be solved. You dug through the past and then used your most objective reasoning to interpret it. Things checked out: DNA confirmed that we descended from primates. A copper headdress found in a grave revealed the date of interment and provenance of the headdress based on trade patterns of copper in the region. There was a tidiness to the logic. And I still deal in tidiness, I guess, but now it’s the dotting of i’s and the crossing of t’s. Proofreading is pouring meaning into a particular template, making it fit, but I miss the mystery of science. There is no magic of interpretation to punctuation or grammar.
It seems Grave 99 is the one scientists and the media are interested in, taking that familiar matrix of adult male, adult female, and two skeletal youths. “Buried in Each Other’s Arms,” proclaims the headline. “Scientists discover remains of world’s most ancient nuclear family.” But what of Grave 90, with its single adult female and small child? And Grave 93, with its adult male and two related children? And what, finally, to make of Grave 98, with its adult female and three unrelated youth? These graves merit only a single sentence, clauses separated by semicolons, a dutiful listing of contents before returning to the meat of the matter: Proof! Of the nuclear family! Goes back to the Paleolithic!! I page forward and back to the pages around the article, hoping for a “continued on page…” or a sidebar. There is nothing. There is absolutely no speculation on whether those other graves formed variations of what constitutes a family.
As we pull out of Princeton Junction, I wonder: Who is to say we even have the equipment to discern what these graves mean? Can science discover irrefutable evidence of the nature of family? Can an equation mathematically prove what shape it should take?
Hana is waiting when I arrive. I see the car and wave, but she sits near motionless. The car is off, and there are no sounds coming from within. For no reason I can put a finger on, I speed my steps to the car. When I open the car door, Hana startles. “Geezus, you fucking scared me,” she says.
“Hana dear, we’re going to have to clean your mouth out with soap before Tommy’s first word is a swear word,” I say. “Anyway. What—dozing off on the job?” I place my tote bags and the small cooler of food at my feet.
“Spacing out, I guess.” Her voice is soft and wispy, as if waking from a dream. Her tone sharpens as she adds, “Anyway, he’s sleeping. He’s fine.”
“Hana. Honey. I was just kidding.” She lets me hug her.
Hana starts up the ignition and rolls slowly through the parking lot. I am belted in, but I turn to look at Tommy. His pacifier has fallen to the side of his car seat, and sweet drool crusts a path down his right cheek. I lick my thumb and use it to wipe the whiteness away. His mouth puckers and unpuckers and those long lashes flutter, but after a big sigh shudders through his chest, he is back to soundly sleeping. I can’t help the smile that breaks across my face. Those lashes, that pout of lips, that sigh, these are things I have loved about Hana, but they are somehow even more precious in miniature. We roll up to the longest stop light in all of New Jersey—we’ve sat at enough of them, all around the state, to believe this—and wait.
How will they one day interpret us, I wonder. It could happen in seconds. I could be sitting here in this passenger seat, gazing back at the baby, while Hana keeps her eyes on the road. The light could hold red, and hold red, and hold red, and as our attention wanders, it would come to rest on a secret stratovolcano of central New Jersey, one that had successfully passed as a mountain for so many years that people forgot it was only dormant, not defunct. And today, it would show how it wasn’t sleeping at all; it is capable of real violence, spewing forth a cloud of ash and pumice that spreads like a blanket over us, fossilizing this day exactly as it is. Pompeii, New Jersey. But the volcano could only reach so far, so life outside this area would go on and someday someone would dig us up. Our bones would long be bleached dry in their sarcophagus of ash and perhaps when exposed to air they would crumble, but I am sure my marrow would still be thick with love.