Here she is, on the porch, all straw-hair and slumpy joints and a crack that passes through her lip like she is dirt that has never known rain. In her arms is a baby: genderless, red, not making any sort of noise.
—Bad, I say.
She kisses the baby on the ear and then hands it to me. I flinch when she extends her arms, but take the infant just the same.
Babies are heavier than you’d think.
—She’s yours, Bad says.
I look down at the baby, who stares at me with wide eyes that shimmer like Japanese beetles. Her fingers curl around invisible locks of hair, and her sharp little nails dig into her skin. A feeling settles over me—a one-beer deep feeling, a no-more-skittering-feet-after-the-trap-snaps feeling. I look back at Bad.
—What do you mean, she’s mine?
Bad looks at me as if I am unfathomably stupid, or possibly fucking with her, or both.
—I was pregnant. Now there’s a baby. She’s yours.
My brain doubles back on the sentence. My head has been so fuzzy for months that mail is stacked unread on my kitchen table, my clothes are a giant mound on my once-immaculate floor, but I feel like despite this, I would have remembered having a baby. My uterus—or something—inside of me contracts in protest, confused.
—Look, Bad says. There’s only so much that I can do. I can’t do any more than that. Right?
I agree, but something feels wrong about following her down this line of reasoning. Dangerous.
—You can only do as much as you can do, I repeat anyway.
—Good, Bad says. When the baby cries, she could be hungry or thirsty or angry or cranky or sick or sleepy or paranoid or jealous or she has planned something but it went horribly awry. So you’ll need to take care of that, when it happens.
I look down at the baby, who is not crying now. She blinks her eyes sleepily, and I find myself wondering if dinosaurs ever blinked in the same way, before they were incinerated into dust. The baby relaxes—putting even more weight into her body than I thought possible—and curls her head against my breasts. She even purses her lips a little, as if she thinks she might be able to nurse.
—I am not your mother, baby, I say. I can’t feed you.
I am so hypnotized by her that I miss the receding footsteps, the crack of the slamming car door. But then Bad is gone, and for once, I am not alone, after.
When the door shuts behind me, I realize I don’t even know the baby’s name. Next to my leg is a small cloth bag that I don’t remember receiving. I go into the kitchen, where I sit down on a sagging wooden chair. Then I imagine the chair breaking beneath me with the baby in my arms, and I stand and lean against the counter.
—Hello, baby, I say to the baby.
Her lids swing open again, and she fixes my face in her gaze.
—Hello, baby. What’s your name?
The baby doesn’t respond, but she also doesn’t cry, which surprises me. I am a stranger. She has never seen me before. If she cries, it is to be expected, there are reasons. But what does it mean that she doesn’t cry? Is she afraid? She doesn’t look afraid. Plus, babies are not capable of adult-like silent terror. Right?
She looks like she is working something out.
She smells like—something clean, but chemical. And behind it, an edge of milk, something bodily and sour, something tipped askance. Her nose leaks a little, and she does not move to wipe it.
I am holding someone’s baby. I am holding someone’s baby. Bad’s—hopefully—and someone else’s. But Bad and I have only been broken up for three months. Three. Definitely three. Was she—? My brain is indeed tired, very tired, but I would remember being pregnant, and I would also remember my girlfriend being pregnant. I think. Could she have gotten someone else pregnant? Think, think. Math. Biology.
There is a crash, a shrill wail. I jump. The baby has reached out her hand and caught a banana in the fruit bowl, and taken down a half-a-dozen pears. The hard pears roll, and the overripe ones splat. For the first time, the baby now looks terrified. She howls. I kiss the soft point on her baby skull and carry her into the next room.
Her mouth is an endless cavern, a black hole into which light and thought and sound descend, never to return. Shhhh, baby. Why did Bad not tell me her name?
—Shhhh, little thing, shhhh. My head throbs with the sound. Twin tears slide down her face, one in each direction, like a picture of a baby crying and not a baby at all. Shhh, little thing. Shhhh.
A brisk breeze whisks through the dust outside, and the screen door slams open. I jump. She screams.
When David and Cara were married, they had a full Latin mass. Cara’s veil covered her face and the hem bumped over the floor as she walked down the aisle. A sea of hats and veils covered up women’s up-dos, as per the request of the couple. The service was beautiful and old, connected them to millennia.
At the reception, a woman in a cummerbund swept by me. I became very conscious of the way I chewed. I almost hadn’t noticed her—she’d played into the background of relatives and friends like a very slight man—but no, her high cheekbones and feminine way of crossing her feet on an invisible line that ran on the floor gave her away. I watched her as the party wore on—through the toasts, through the chicken dance, through Cara’s twelve year old cousin doing a scandalous descent to the floor, butt-first, upsetting her father—and when the dance floor cleared a bit the woman stepped out beneath the white Christmas lights wrapped in muslin, popped out her collar, rolled up her starched sleeves, and began to dance.
I’d always heard that weddings were supposed to make women horny, and for the first time, I understood. She sauntered with a flinty, masculine cool, such confidence, and I found myself unable to focus on anything else in the room. I looked at her and everything expanded into the past and the future. I got wet. I felt inadequate, too-warm, inexplicably hungry.
When she approached me, my heart slowed. She spun me around like a good swing partner—assured, in control. I let myself go and laughed involuntarily. Gravity was gone.
Later, we danced so slowly we might as well have been standing. She leaned her mouth against my ear.
—You have the most beautiful hands I’ve ever seen, she said.
I called her two days later, having never believed more firmly in love at first sight, in destiny. When she laughed on the other end of the line, something inside of me cracked open, and I let her step inside.
This baby’s head is bothering me because it’s like a piece of fruit gone bad. I understand that, now, in the middle of this endless desert of sound. It’s like the soft spot on the peach that you can just plunge your thumb into, with no questions asked, with no so much as a how-do-you-do. I’m not going to, but I want to, and the urge is so serious that I put her down. She screams louder. I pick her up and lean her against me, whispering I love you, baby, and I am not going to hurt you, but the first thing is a lie and the second thing might be a lie, but I’m just not sure. I should have the urge to protect her, but all I can think about is that soft spot, that place where I could hurt her if I tried, where I could hurt her if I wanted to.
A month after we met, Bad was packing a glass bowl as she straddled me, poking the weed gently with her finger. When she tipped the lighter to it and inhaled, her body shuddered along an invisible curve, and the smoke crawled out of her mouth one limb at a time; an animal.
—I haven’t done this before, I told her.
She handed me the pipe, cupped her hand around the bowl, and lit. I inhaled; something flew into my windpipe and I coughed so hard I was certain there’d be blood.
—Let’s try this, she said. She took a hit and put her mouth on mine, filling my lungs with heady smoke. I took it in, all of it, desire shooting straight through me. As we languished there, her mouth hovering over mine, I felt my whole self loosening, my mind retreating to a place somewhere around my left ear.
She took me around her old neighborhood, and I was so high that I let her take my hand and guide me like a child, and then we were in the Brooklyn Museum, and there was a long table that never seemed to end, suggestive and flowering plates for the Primordial Goddess, for Virginia Woolf. We were somewhere in Little Russia, and then a drugstore, and then a beach, and all I could feel was her hand and the warm hug of sand around my feet.
—I want to show you something, she said, and she walked me across the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun fell away.
We took some days. We drove into Wisconsin to see the Jellyman, who as it turned out was dead. We turned and drove to the ocean, an island off the coast of Georgia. We drifted in water warm as soup. I held her, and in the levity of the water, she held me.
—The ocean, she said, is a big lez. I can tell.
—But not one of history, I said.
—No, she agreed. Of space and time.
I considered this. My legs gently scissored through the water. My lips tasted like salt.
—Yes, I said.
In the distance, grey humps rolled out of the sea. I imagined sharks, and the mincemeat of our bodies.
—Dolphins, she breathed, and made it so.
We sunk. She was so much older than I was, but rarely reminded me. She slid her hands high up my thighs in public places and told me her darkest story and asked about mine. I felt like she was seared into my timeline, unchangeable as Pompeii.
She would shove me down onto the bed and hold herself upright with my pelvis. And I would let her be there, want her to be there, feel the weight of her, the clarity that settled over me. We’d peel off our clothes because they didn’t belong between us. I would look over her smooth, pale skin, the pink shock of her labia, and kiss her mouth in a way that sent quakes straight to my faultlines, and think, Thank god we cannot make a baby. Because she seized something inside of me that delivered me straight from her bed, from her mouth, from her cunt and her angles and low voice and dropped me down in The Uptown Café on Twelfth, wiping soft little gnocchi pieces from the gabbling chin of a baby, of our baby, who we joke and call Ada. Back in Bad’s bed, in the good bed, as she slid her hand into me, and I pulled and she gave and I opened and she came without touching herself, and I responded by losing all speech, I thought, Thank god we cannot make a baby. We can fuck senselessly and endlessly and come into each other, no condoms or pills or fear or negotiating days of the month or slumping against bathroom counters holding that stupid white stick up for inspection, Thank god we cannot make a baby. And when she said, Come for me, come in me, Thank god we cannot make a baby.
We made a baby. Here she is.
We were in love, and I dreamed of our future. The home in the middle of the Indiana woods. An old chapel that once housed a cloister of nuns, nuns who prayed with their shoulders pressed against each other, and who took vows and called each other Sister. A stone exterior, dried mortar pinched and oozing. Narrow paths winding through old gardens, a new garden where we have turned the earth and put things into it, things that will grow if we care for them. A large circle of stained glass, as tall as me, depicting a pouting bleeding-heart in slender slivers of smoky rose glass, two of the panels cracked from age.
Beyond, a kitchen with dark wood cabinets that open to reveal long-stemmed wine glasses, teak boxes full of cloudy silverware, a stove littered with 20-gallon pots and pans, a collection of six dozen mugs that we have found beautiful or ironic over the years, stacks of plates with chipped edges, a good set for company the we never have. Nearby, a small table with an empty wicker basket, an assortment of solid, unpainted chairs, and catching the light from the window, a collection of glass jars, the labels peeled away, bands of glue rubbed off with a persistent finger, all with the intent of reuse.
Beyond the table, there is an old podium that once held a Bible, on which we have repurposed an old Chemistry Handbook as the Book of Lilith. In its pages is our own liturgical calendar: St. Clementine and All Wayfarers; Saints Lorena Hickock and Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated in the summer with blueberries to symbolize the sapphire ring; The Vigil of Saint Juliette, complete with mints and dark chocolate; Feast of the Poets, during which Mary Oliver is recited over beds of lettuce, Kay Ryan over a dish of vinegar and oil, Elizabeth Bishop over some carrots. Some of them with their own books; the major and minor arcana of our little religion.
In the fridge: pickled cucumbers and green beans crowding ridged jars, two glass containers of milk, one good, one sour, a carton of half-and-half, birth control from the age of men that I still haven’t thrown away, an eggplant, almost black, a pitcher of chilled water, a jar of horseradish the shape of a bar of soap, olives, sweet Italian peppers tense as hearts, soy sauce, bloody steaks hidden away in the dry fold of paper, leaking shamefully, a cheese drawer with balls of fresh mozzarella floating in their own milky-water broth, and salami with a dusty white tubing that smells, Bad swears, like semen, rotting leeks that will be added to the compost pile, candy onions, shallots the size of fists. In the freezer, cracked plastic ice trays with cubes swollen past their banks, pesto made from the basil plants in the garden, coffee, cookie dough that will be eaten raw despite health warnings. The cupboards, when opened, are cluttered as both our heads: extra virgin olive oil, half a dozen bottles, some full of forests of rosemary and fat bulbs of peeled garlic, sesame oil whose glass bottle never seems to lose the greasy sheen on its outside, no matter how many times it is wiped clean, coconut oil half a waxy white solid, half like plasma, cans of blackeyed peas, refried beans, and vegetable stock, cream of mushroom soup, boxes of almonds, a small sack of raw organic pine nuts, stale oyster crackers. Eggs on the counter, brown and irregular in size. One of them has gone bad, but you’ll only figure it out if you put it in a glass of water, and it floats.
In the bedroom there is a queen sized bed, a raft in the middle of a great stone ocean. On the dresser rolls a lightbulb that, if held close to the ear and agitated, would reveal the broken filament rattling in the glass. Jewelry rope old wine bottles like nooses, frosted stoppers silence glass decanters. A nightstand that, when opened, reveals—shut that, please. In the bathroom, a mirror flecked with mascara from when Bad leans in close, the amoeba of her breath growing and shrinking. You never live with a woman, you live inside of her, I overheard my father once said to my brother once, and it was, indeed, as if, when peering into the mirror, you were blinking out through her thickly fringed eyes.
And out the door, nature. The spinning, breathtaking cathedral of the sky arches above the trees, trees that bend lush and neon green in spring—all buds, then bloom. Sudden rain breaks the tender leaves from their stems and lays the floor thick with a bright carpet. In the tangle of branches, baby birds—the gray and pink of half-cooked shrimp and with bones like dried spaghetti—scream for their mothers.
Then the hazy buzz of summer saunters in, and the air screeches and hums. Cicada-killing wasps catch the weakest and stab them motionless, hauling the weight of their bodies and their glass wings up and up and somewhere else. Fireflies drunkenly dazzle the dark. The leaves are full, dark green, the trees dense and folded on into themselves, catching secrets, and only the violent tear of thunder and the bleach-burn of lightning can pull the grove apart.
And then autumn, the first autumn, our first autumn, the first squash dish, the sweaters, the burning smell of the space heater, never leaving the heavy blankets, the scent of smoke that reminds me of being a Girl Scout and being twelve and camping with girls who hate me. The leaves catch fire, color burning away green like a disease. More rain, another carpet of leaves, these as yellow as dandelions, red as pomegranate skin, orange as carrot peels. There are strange evenings when the sun sets but it rains anyway, and the sky is gold and peach and also gray and purple like a bruise. Every morning, a fine mist coats the grove. Some nights, a bloody harvest moon rises over the horizon and stains the clouds like an alien sunrise.
And then the dry and curl, the slow approach of death on trillions of radial feet, peristalsis-perfect winterbeast, the ground more exposed than we thought possible, the trees alone, the howlgroan of the wind, the coming of snow that we can smell. Blizzard throughout the night, illuminated by nothing out here in the woods and in the darkness, except for a flashlight beam from the other side of the window, which catches the fat flakes descending before they vanish beyond its reach. Inside, parched and itchy skin, cool lotion whorled onto backs. Fucking, muffling the cries, holding each other in a pocket of warmth beneath the quilts. And in the morning, we shove open the door, two bodies wrapped and huffing to free themselves into a world where they do not want to go. Snowdrifts turning the nuances of nature into bumps, reminding us to keep perspective, reminding us that everything has a season, reminding us that time passes and so will we, one day. And at the edge of the clearing, mittens turn Ada’s tiny hands into cartoons, her puffy jacket is zipped up to her small nose, and a woolen hat protects her fine red hair, and we are reminded that we are alive, we love each other all of the time and like each other most of the time, and that women can turn children into this world like breathing. Ada reaches out and up, not for us but for some unseen presence, a voice, the shadow of a once-nun, un-ghosts of a future civilization that will populate this forest with a city long after we are dead. Ada reaches up, and we go over to her and take her hand.
We have made a baby.
The baby cries. I hold her up to me. She is too small for food, I think. Too small for—balancing her on my hip, I tear through my half-empty fridge, shoving aside Tupperware with velvety leftovers, a can wrapped in tin foil. I find a jar of applesauce, but none of my spoons are small enough for her mouth. I dip my finger in the applesauce and offer it to her; she sucks hard. I rest my hand against the crown of her skull; kiss her skin delicate with baby oil. She snuffles and sobs, bits of applesauce bubbling out of her mouth.
—Egg? I ask her.
—Apple? Dog? Girl? Boy?
The baby does look like me, and Bad—my pointy nose and red hair, my sulky pout, her round chin and detached earlobes. The open, sobbing mouth—that’s all Bad. I stop, this joke still firing in my brain even as I realize that Bad isn’t here to hear it, to pause whatever she is doing to raise an eyebrow at me, maybe scold me for saying such a thing in front of our daughter, or maybe throw a glass at my head.
I pull my phone out of my pocket with my free hand and dial. Bad’s voice echoes mechanically on other end and carves new spaces into me. Beep. I leave a message.
—Bad. Who is she? Whose is she?
What I want to say: This almost broke me, but it didn’t. It made me stronger than before. You have made me better. Thank you. I will love you until the end of time.
We fell apart because you cannot plan things out the way we did. There is an audacity to such thorough planning. You cannot grow organically if you’re crawling up a trellis. We were growing into something that did not fit on our plan, and so the plan buckled beneath us. I wanted too much from her, I think. I demanded too much.
—I love you, I murmured from sleep, in wake, into her hair, into her neck.
—Please don’t call me that, I reminded her. I would never talk like that to you.
—I only want you, I said, when cold paranoia crept into her voice like an infection.
I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can overcome biology, nature. Where love can overcome suffering. Where love can overcome brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Somewhere, two women who love each other can give birth to the other’s baby.
And people? People can change. I know that they can.
The baby nurses. I don’t know on what. But she suckles just the same. Her gums catch and it hurts but I don’t want her to stop, because I am her mother and she needs what she needs, even if it’s not a true thing. She bites, and I cry out, but she is so small, and I cannot put her down.
—Ada, I whisper. She looks at me, directly at me, as if she recognizes her name. I press my lips to her forehead and rock her back and forth, quietly gasping for air. She is real, she is real, she is solid in my arms, she smells clean and new. No mistakes. She is not yet a girl or a monster or anything. She is just a baby. She is ours.
I make Ada a crib by shoving my bed into a corner. I build walls with small, embroidered pillows. I lay her down.
She starts to scream again. It comes from nowhere and goes on, endless and even as horizon at sea. It doesn’t taper, she doesn’t inhale for breath, her flailing hands catch my face, cut it a little. I lay her down on the bed.
—Ada, I say. Ada, please, please don’t, and she doesn’t stop, it goes on and on. For hours I bounce next to her on the bed, and the howling has filled the room and I cannot unhear it, and the clean smell of baby is replaced by something red-hot, like the burner of an electric stove with nothing on it. I touch her little feet and she screams and I blow raspberries on her belly and she screams and something inside of me is breaking, I am a continent but I will not hold.
A teacher overheard Bad screaming at me on the phone from the next bathroom stall. I knew she was there, I saw her high-heeled feet splayed on the tile, I heard her take in a breath as Bad’s dropped voice dropped low and cold and leaked through the receiver like gas. She waited until I was gone to leave. She awkwardly addressed it in the hallway that afternoon, her hands twisting around the cap of a ballpoint pen.
—I guess, she said, all I am saying is that it’s just not normal. I’m just worried for you.
—You are so kind to reach out, I said, though I did not mean it.
—I’m just saying that if it always sounds like that, then even if you think something is there, nothing is there. She accidentally flipped the cap out of her hands, and it went skittering down the long hallway.
—You are so kind to reach out, I said. I did not mean it even more.
Ada pauses for breath. So much time has passed that light streaks the sky outside of the window. She takes me in again, my whole self into her eyes, all of my shames and pain and the truth of her mothers, the honest truth of them. I feel a jolt, my secrets slipping from me, unwilling. Then the screaming begins again, but I can endure it because of that precious moment, that break. My tolerance is fresh again, my love renewed. If she gives me one of those every day or so, I should be fine. I can do this. I can be a good mother.
I brush my finger along her curls and sing her a song from my childhood.
—He always sings, rocking back and forth in the saddle as he swings—
My voice cracks and fades into silence. She pedals her feet in the air and howls and my ears are ringing and I crawl onto the bed next to her, my pleas swallowed by her voice.
I don’t want to leave the room. I don’t want to sleep. I am afraid that if I sleep, I will wake and Ada will be gone, and in the silence entropy will take over, and my cells will expand and I will become one with the air. If I turn away, even for a second, I will look back and this will just be a mass of blankets and pillows, as empty a bed as it ever has been. If I blink, her form could dissolve beneath my fingers, and once again, I will be just me: undeserving, alone.
She is still here when I wake up. It feels like a sign. If she cried in the night I did not hear it. I slept the kind of sleep where you wake up and know that you didn’t flop around like a fucking hooked fish, you didn’t keep me up all goddamned night with your sleep-weeping, Jesus Christ, you know that you were good and still. So my joints feel like the fat rubber bands used to bind broccoli, and my face is lined where I’d stupidly slept sleep-pressed against the seams of the quilt’s patchwork. Ada is not crying. She’s pumping her arms and legs around like pistons. Like she wants to go running. Her eyes are opening and closing: morning glories screwing up tightly in the midday sun, venus flytraps yawning wide to vibrations and heat.
I stand up and squint into the morning. Ada makes a squeaking noise. I pick her up. She seems heavier than yesterday. Is that possible?
As soon as I step out of the bedroom, she begins to scream again.
We take a bus to Indianapolis, transfer in a daze. She sleeps in my arms and does not stir, except to scream, decibels swallowing all conscious thought. The bodies around me, rumpled and stale, do not react appreciatively to the silence or angrily to the sound, for which I am grateful.
When we get off the bus in Bloomington, I realize—I remember—that it is spring. I find a ride with a kind woman who reminds me of someone I have forgotten. We drive along a long highway until I ask her to stop.
—There’s nothing here, she says. Her body language is almost purposefully relaxed.
The leaves rustle, as if in answer.
—Let me take you downtown, she says. Or is there someone I can call for you?
I get out, Ada in the crook of my arm.
It has rained recently. The mud is caking around my sneakers, more and more with each step. I walk like a cartoon monster, ready to level a city.
There, up the slope of a hill, is a house. Our house. I recognize the stained glass, the smoke curling from the chimney and lacing up through the canopy of the trees. The picnic table outside needs a fresh coat of paint. An aging German Shepard, all bones and skin, is draped over the edge of a porch, his tail thumping in happiness as we approach.
—Otto, I say, and he lets me squeeze the ruff of his neck. He taps his jowls against my palm, and then licks it clean.
The door is unlocked because Bad and I trust our neighbors, the birds. Inside, the floors are stone.
I recognize the cabinets, the bed. Ada is silent in my arms. She does not even squirm. Perhaps she has been crying so much because she hasn’t been home, but now she is home and now she is quiet. I sit down at a desk and roll a heavy pen across the wood. I run my fingers over the row of books alongside the wall. Behind the bookcase, a thin crack meanders through the plaster, deliberate. I touch it with my fingertip, trace it up, up, up until it is past my height. Part of me wants to move the bookshelf, look behind it, but there is no need. I know what’s there.
In the fridge, I unwrap cured salmon and examine it. The meat is drawn back from the forgotten pin-bones like diseased gum from teeth. I make a mark deep in the flesh with my finger, and something inside of me is sated.
I recognize the shape of the windows. I press my cheek against the glass. Otto has followed us inside and is trailing behind me, bumping his cold nose into Ada’s foot. I pull a cookbook off the counter and flip it open. The cover thuds. Aunt Julia’s Bean Salad, I read. So much dill.
The last night of us, Bad threw me into a wall. I wish I could remember why. It seems like context would matter. She was all bone and muscle and skin and light and laughter one minute and then a tornado the next, a shadow passing over her face like a solar eclipse. My head cracked the plaster. Light sparked behind my eyes.
She screamed, You cunt. I hate you. I fucking hate you.
I crawled to the bathroom and locked the door. From the outside, she rained punches into the wall like a hailstorm, and I turned on the shower and undressed and stepped inside. I’m a Cancer. A water baby, always. For a moment I was there, the Indiana woods, the rain striking the leaves, the gentle Sunday morning drizzle during which we slept, only waking to see a sleepy, pre-teen Ada come in, complain about a nightmare, and curl into our arms. This will not always last, one day she will be too big for this, and for us, her old mothers. Then the not-memory washed away like a wet painting in a storm, and I was in the shower, shaking, and she was outside, losing me, and there was no way for me to tell her not to. There was no way for me to tell her that we are so close, we are so close, please don’t do this now, we are so fucking close.
—What do you think, Ada? I ask her, spinning around a few times before coming to rest against a wall. I lay her down on the heirloom quilt that is snapped smartly over the big bed. One day I want to teach Ada to quilt like this, the way her grandmother did and the way that I am learning. We could start small. Baby quilts. You can do one of those in a night.
The door opens, and around it curves a skinny arm. Then a face, and a bright yellow backpack. A little girl of ten or eleven. It is Ada, old enough to walk, old enough to speak, and behind her, another child, a boy—her baby brother. Benjamin. I remember his birth like it happened last week, like it is happening now, he was all blood and sideways, he was up in my ribs and refused the midwife’s advances. Even now my stomach is still not the same, the walls once severed and pulled apart. Ada and Benjamin, red-haired children. Red like—someone’s grandmother. Maybe mine. Red like me. A man behind them, a woman. Both staring at me.
The woman tells Ada to stay away, the man clutches Baby Benjamin across his chest. They ask me who I am, and I answer them. Otto barks. The woman calls him away, but he barks at her and at me.
Ada, remember how you kicked sand into that neighbor child’s eyes? I yelled at you and made you apologize in your best dress, and that night I cried by myself in the bathroom because you are Bad’s child as much as you are mine. Remember when you ran into the plate glass window and cut your arms so badly we had to drive you to the nearest hospital in the pickup truck, and when it was over Bad begged me to replace the back seat because of all the blood? Or when Benjamin told us that he wanted to invite a boy to prom and you put your arm around him like this? Ada, remember? Your own babies? Your husband with his Captain Ahab beard and calloused hands and the house you bought in Vermont? Ada? Why are you crying, don’t cry, don’t. You cried a lot as a baby but you’ve been so stoic ever since.
Inside of me, a voice: There was nothing tying you to her and you made it anyway, you made them anyway, fuck you, you made them anyway.
To Ada and her brother, I say: stop running, you’ll fall, stop running, you’ll break something, stop running, your mother will see, she will see and she will be so angry and we cannot, we cannot, I cannot.
I say: don’t leave the faucet on. You’ll flood the house, don’t do it, you promised it would never happen again. Don’t flood the house, the bills, don’t flood the house, the rugs, don’t flood the house, my love, or we could lose you both. We’ve been bad mothers and have not taught you how to swim.
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, AGNI, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Richard Yates Short Story Prize in 2011 and a Millay Colony for the Arts residency in 2014, and she is the 2014 – 2015 CINTAS Foundation Fellow. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Dean’s Graduate Fellow, and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.