Or Something Like That
by Ann K. Ryles
“I’ll see you today,” Susan said to her baby
in the shower, rubbing lather over her still flat belly. She hadn’t told anyone she talked to the
baby. Not Marshall. It was a secret. Between her and the baby.
Shhhhhhh, baby, don’t tell on Mommy. Especially not to Daddy, he already thinks I’m a wack job.
Susan smiled as she toweled herself dry,
recalling how she’d announced her pregnancy yesterday to a select group of
her closest female friends. She’d
sent an e-mail including a one-word p.s.:
“Impregnado.” Meredith replied
instantly: “Suggested Names: Roe (for a girl) and Wade (for a
boy).” Susan had laughed and
forwarded Meredith’s reply to a few friends among the select group, the ones
who would get it. We’re just
kidding, baby. Don’t take it
personally. It’s only a joke. Don’t worry. You’re a keeper.
A few hours after she’d talked to her baby
in the shower, Susan was lying on her back in a darkened room of a medical
suite with her pants down, her bladder full, waiting to see her baby for the
first time. A little peanut. That’s what the woman told her the baby
would look like at nine weeks.
According to the plastic name tag pinned to the woman’s smock, the
woman’s name was Tammy. Her cheeks were
dotted with sprays of red pimples, and her frizzy blonde hair was pulled back
into a high, fountained ponytail.
Chatty at first, Tammy congratulated Susan
on her pregnancy. “I’ve got two
myself,” Tammy said. “A girl and a
Two?” Susan said, with
impolite surprise. Tammy seemed too
young to claim possession of a pet dog, let alone children. Susan herself was not young to be a
mother. She was a senile gravida, a
pregnant woman over thirty-five years of age. She had found this label for herself in her fat paperback
women’s health book, in an appendixed glossary of health terminology
offensive to women. Senile at only
thirty-seven, she reflected, continuing to run her finger through the list of
offensive words. Pregnancy
Wastage. Vaginal Atrophy. Habitual
Now, in the dim light of the tiny room,
Tammy ceased her cheerful banter. She
became serious, silent and methodical, swiping a tool resembling a computer
mouse across Susan’s gel-coated stomach.
An ominous medical quiet developed.
Susan looked away from the black-and-white monitor. She stared up at the plastic
glow-in-the-dark stars pasted to the acoustic ceiling tiles. Her head filled with idiotic
thoughts. She pictured the Planter’s
peanut with his top hat, monocle, cane, and spats. Don’t look like that, baby, please don’t look like that.
“I can’t find a heartbeat,” Tammy said,
her words careful, her tone practiced.
What about the peanut? Susan thought, Jesus Christ, Tammy,
you never said anything about a heartbeat, just a peanut. Susan looked towards Tammy’s face for
reassurance--a sense that no heartbeat, though disastrous in every other
context Susan could think of, was fine at this particular moment in
time. But Tammy’s gaze remained glued
to the monitor that displayed the insides of Susan’s uterus, the screen
showing only an empty white circle in a pool of black, everything motionless.
“We’ll have to try the vaginal probe.” Tammy stood up and flicked the light
switch. The fluorescent lights
fluttered and buzzed before snapping on.
“Use the drape to wipe off the gel.
You can pull up your pants and use the bathroom now.”
Left alone in the examining room, Susan mopped the gel
off her belly. Some had seeped into
her pubic hair. She rubbed at the
hair with the stiff paper drape, matting the dark curls flat. She was starting to feel as if she were in
the midst of shameful, regrettable sex.
The kind of sex after which you knew without knowing the guy wouldn’t
ever call. You’d never see him
again. He couldn’t even look at you.
“I didn’t get any pictures,” Susan said after the white
plastic probe had been withdrawn from her vagina, the heartbeat still
missing. Her friends had always
returned from their sonograms bearing small black-and-white pictures,
two-by-two images of cloudy gray baby parts--arm and leg buds, bulbous
antlike heads and torsos--little blobs of forming life. Susan reached out and grabbed Tammy’s pale
freckled arm. “Tell me what’s going
“You need to talk to your doctor.” She gave Susan’s hand a gentle pat. “I can’t say anything.”
her way to the BART station to catch a train into the city, Susan called
Marshall from her car. “Well,” he
said, mulling over what she told him.
“Talk to the doctor. You don’t
know anything for sure. Think positive.”
heartbeat,” Susan repeated. “Did you
get that part, Marshall? Did you hear
what I said?” She cried a little as
she weaved through aisle after aisle of the crowded subway station parking
lot, seeking a vacant space. This
first slight sob to escape her gave her a sense of relief but felt paltry;
inside herself she craved the gasps that had convulsed her as a child after a
long, stormy, tormented cry.
heard you,” Marshall said in his patient, measured way. It was one of the reasons Susan had been
drawn to him. “I agree,” he
said. “It’s concerning.”
bet your fucking ass it’s concerning,” Susan said, spinning the steering
wheel to swerve into a vacant parking space.
“We’re not talking about a goddamn toenail,” she said. “It’s our baby’s heart.”
her office, Susan phoned her doctor.
“Tammy, Tammy the sonographer,” she explained, trying to summon a
voice of authority, “she told me I had to talk to him.” She stood with the phone in her hand and
leaned her head against the cool window.
Her office was on the twenty-second floor of a building on the fringes
of San Francisco’s financial district.
She looked out toward the sunny hills of Potrero Hill in the distance,
the small faraway houses climbing the sloping streets in lines that seemed
like a diorama of houses, an architect’s model of an imagined city. Cloud shadows drifted over the landscape;
Susan’s eyes followed the dark shapes as they rippled across the ground, fast
doctor was distressingly prompt in returning her call. Switching her phone from speaker to
receiver, she put the doctor on hold while she hurried to close her office
door. Her legs shook when she walked
back to her desk to pick up the phone; the floor seemed to sink and rise
beneath her, as if she were walking in a fun house.
need to do some blood tests, but probably, in all likelihood, there’d be no
baby. Susan would miscarry,
eventually, but the doctor preferred she have a D and C. Dilation and curettage, so fetchingly
French. It would be a preemptive
strike. “That way you’ll avoid the
bleeding, the cramps. It can be
pretty bad. And we don’t want you to
have to buy a new mattress. If it
happens at night.”
Susan said. “I like my mattress.”
D and C was nothing. A little scraping,
a little sucking, like a visit to the dentist’s. Or an abortion. Yes, it
was exactly like an abortion! How
could Susan forget the long afternoon at Planned Parenthood the summer she
turned fifteen? Only this time, she wanted the baby that was scraped and
suctioned. And the baby was
dead. Dead in the womb. Or had never been alive. Or never would be. Or something like that.
Baby, Mommy should have never laughed at
that Roe v. Wade joke. Mommy’s
sorry. So, so sorry.
day after the D and C, Susan stayed home from work. Marshall offered to stay with her. “Go in,” she insisted.
When he leaned over her in bed to kiss her good-bye, he asked her yet
again whether she wanted him to take the day off. “Go,” she said.
grabbed his silky tie and yanked him to her, giving him a dry kiss on the
lips, inhaling his shaving cream menthol scent. “I’m fine.”
she called out when he got to the bedroom door. He turned to look at her.
“You smell good,” she said.
“Thanks.” He smiled and rubbed his chin with his
hand, then fiddled with the knot of his tie. “I’ll call you later. Answer the phone. Or I’ll worry. Okay?”
roused herself from bed a few hours after Marshall left. “What’s wrong with you?” she said to her
reflection in the bathroom mirror.
She looked red-eyed and wild-haired, her skin invaded by blotch. Tall and thin, she reminded herself of a
species of crane, a flamingo perhaps, knobby and stilted. When she was tired or upset she knew she
looked unhealthy, skeletal--a potential victim of famine or anorexia.
no baby,” she said to her mirrored self.
She lifted the oversized T-shirt she slept in up to just below her
breasts. The slender arches of her
hip bones framed her stomach; her underwear bulged with one of the fat
sanitary pads from the hospital. “No
baby,” she said again, letting the T-shirt fall down. “Got it?”
Marshall phoned to check on her. He
suggested she shop at the Safeway.
don’t think we need anything,” Susan protested.
buy staples. Flour. Sugar.
Salt. Stock up. It’ll do you good to get out of the
store was stricken with babies.
Slumped, droopy newborns reclined in cushioned carriers with huge
handles that arced over their heads.
Larger infants were strapped to chests in Scandinavian-designed fabric
devices, dark stripes of cloth marking giant Xs across sturdy parental backs.
babies’ mothers chattered at them about yogurt or toilet paper or
apples. “Here we are. Four apples for Charlie. One, two, three, four yummy red apples.”
switched aisles, maneuvering to avoid these smarmy, baby-talking,
apple-buying mothers and their children, the way she might avoid a friend she
wasn’t in the mood to see, or people on street corners holding
clipboards. Subtly changing
course. Never making eye
contact. Staying out of range.
the express checkout line, she placed a package of five thousand Swingline
staples and six bottles of wine on the black conveyor belt. The office supply aisle had been empty of
babies. The wine aisle, too. After all, Susan could drink again. That was the upside. Drink and staple and smoke. She smoked only randomly, bumming
cigarettes at parties or buying a pack of Virginia Slims on vacation,
ignoring Marshall’s lurking disapproval.
But today, the morning after, she wanted to do something mildly
self-destructive, to punish her body a little. If she couldn’t be a good mother, she’d be a bad girl. At the cash register she decided against
the Virginia Slims, recalling the brand’s advertising slogan from her
childhood: You’ve Come A Long Way,
Baby. Her baby hadn’t come a long
way. She asked for a pack of Marlboro
in the kitchen of her own quiet babyless house, she pulled the cellophane
wrapped pack of Marlboro Lights and the grocery store matches from her
purse. In the backyard, she lit a
cigarette and sat down on the cement patio. From behind the solid wooden
fence that surrounded her yard, Susan heard the next-door neighbors’ teenage
daughter outside with some friends listening to music. “Alanis,” Susan said, recognizing the
song, shaking her head and smiling.
I’m not that old, she thought.
girls’ talk and laughter interrupted the music in bursts. “Swallow it down. It feels so good,” Susan whispered along
with the lyrics.
fell silent when she heard the sliding glass door open behind her. She turned toward the house. Marshall stood at the door, briefcase in
hand. She glanced at her watch and
frowned. He was home several hours early.
didn’t marry a smoker,” he said, the hard soles of his black shoes clacking
on the patio.
like you did.” Susan held the
cigarette over her head between two fingers and waved it back and forth
before pulling it to her mouth to inhale again. The Lights tasted good.
Better than the Slims.
knelt on the patio and stroked her back with a circular motion. “Sooz, don’t do this. You’re gonna have a baby.”
was last week,” Susan tapped ash on the cement. “Marsh.”
know what I mean.” He lifted a strand
of her hair, twisted it around his finger, let it fall free. “Another baby.”
baby. Another husband. I get it.
All better.” Susan rubbed her
cigarette out on the cement, leaving a black mark.
keep saying baby.” Marshall stood up
and looked down at her. “Maybe we
“Maybe you’re right.” Susan propped her elbows on her knees, put
her head between her legs, and looked at the ground. When she heard Marshall walk back into the
house, she lit another cigarette.
next week, Susan was back at work, back to lunches with coworkers, phone
calls to friends, the commercial real estate biz. Except for the select friends who’d received the impregnado
e-mail, she’d told no one about her pregnancy, but now she felt compelled to
inform everyone, anyone, of her miscarriage.
She was strident and obnoxious:
I was pregnant and now I’m not.
And for what and why? She
didn’t know why she couldn’t keep it to herself. It forced its way out of her while she waited in line for a
double latte or cash from the Versatel, wherever she was. Yet the very point of concealing the
pregnancy had been to keep the fact of a miscarriage private, unknown, below
far along were you?” she was asked over and over again. Measuring her loss, that was the point of
the question. It turns out if you
miscarried at anything less than twelve weeks, your loss was light, a nothing
loss, a these-things-happen, better-luck-next- time loss. Your loss didn’t have a leg to stand
on. It was a tiny little rice grain
of a loss that mattered to no one, except Susan.
barely,” Susan always said when she answered the question. “Oh, had you been trying for a
while?” And there it was again. Measuring her loss another way. If she’d been trying for a long time, it
might be okay for her to feel the way she did. But she’d become pregnant the second time around the track, in
less than sixty days. She was the
lottery-winning senile gravida. So
the pain that made her cry every three hours (secretly, silently, always in
bathrooms), that made her feel hollow like an echo, that woke her nightly
between two and three a.m., didn’t count.
It was to be swallowed deep inside her, not discussed. She hadn’t earned the right to feel bad.
then there were those who said, “Now you wouldn’t have wanted a baby with
problems.” And what could Susan
possibly say? The baby she’d imagined
was a perfect Gerber baby, cuddly with soft skin, long lashes, blue eyes as
big as nickels, and rolls of baby fat on its wrists and thighs. Your standard-model healthy baby. She hadn’t wanted a dud, a lemon, a
do-over. She hadn’t thought, spina
bifida, retard, clubfoot.
I didn’t want a baby with problems,” Susan told her friends, staring at them
like strangers, though she loved them and knew they loved her. It seemed cruel of them to imply her baby
would have had problems. For so many
years she had admired their children, effusively. She had plastered pictures of them, from birth announcements and
Christmas cards, all over her refrigerator.
She should have never gone to their baby showers. She wanted all those diaper genies
back. They deserved to smell dirty
wondered if she had ever said the things that her friends said to her now. Yes, she probably had. She had vague and now painful memories of
similar conversations in similar circumstances.
what would have been Susan’s second trimester, her most loyal friends grew
tired of listening. So did helpless,
weary Marshall, who watched her smoke and confess, smoke and confess, smoke
and confess. Mommy should shut up, baby.
No one wants to hear about you anymore. They’re sick of you.
They’re sick of me.
her friends refused to eat lunch with her even if she offered to pay for
their Caesar salads and Diet Cokes.
They had a common mantra: you
need to get over it, you need to move on, you need to get help. Mommy needs help, baby, lots and lots
of help. HELP! Susan scheduled an appointment with a
Gerard Reck was the psychiatrist’s name.
He’ll know what I’m talking about, baby, he’ll understand. He’s a professional. Who needs friends when you’ve got
professionals? Or a husband, for
that matter. You probably didn’t need
anyone if you had professionals.
Reck was skinny and old, frail and precarious, a tilted weathered fence post
of a man. His gray hair lay in greasy
stripes across the skin of his scalp.
His attire conjured up Dick Van Dyke somersaulting over a footstool--a
sharply cut navy suit with narrow lapels, a slender maroon tie on top of a
threadbare white shirt.
the walls of his windowless office were impenetrable dark paintings of
landscapes--or were they seascapes?
It was hard to discern from their gloomy muted blackness--was that an
ocean or a field? Glass bowls filled
with rocks, spare change and marbles--Marbles! In case you lost yours!--sat
on his desk and bookcase. The floor
was covered with a trampled gold shag carpet. It smelled of dust and mold, like a dank antique store. I didn’t know my insurance was this
crappy, Susan thought. Still, she
trudged on. She was a trooper. She would give her PPO’s in-network mental
health care provider a chance.
told Dr. Reck about the baby. The
baby that didn’t have a heartbeat.
now,” he started, in a raspy, gargley voice, “Let me just point out, as a
medical doctor, that a miscarriage is a good thing. It disposes of a baby with deformities, birth defects. It’s not a bad thing.” Here a smile for cheerfulness, for the
silver lining of every cloud. “It’s
not like getting your leg amputated.
That’s a bad thing.” Here a
stern glance for emphasis, for the tragedy of limblessness. “What we need to work on, what we need to
discuss next time, is why you feel bad about something good that happened to
was the solitary word that temper-tantrummed in Susan’s brain, breaking
dishes and slamming doors. She
squinted at the framed degrees on the wall behind Dr. Reck, wanting to know
where he’d gone to medical school, to make sure he’d gone to medical
school. Surely he was an imposter, a
fraud, a pretender.
can’t say things like that,” Susan wanted to tell him. “Only my friends
can. And my husband. He can, too. Not you. You’re a
professional.” But she sat meekly and
said nothing, tears running down her face as she made an appointment with him
for the following week. Grabbing wads
of Kleenex for the drive home, she walked out of his office with her arms
swinging, her fists full of tissues, the soft paper of them poking out
between her fingers and flapping like petals.
next day she phoned to cancel her appointment.
I tell the doctor why you’re not coming back?” a woman asked, bright and
having my leg cut off. That’s
why. Tell him that.”
The professionals had failed her so she
turned back to her friends. Who
needed professionals when you had friends, friends who were women? She’d given up on Marshall by now. He was a man. Susan had long known to give up on men first. But friends, female friends, you always
gave them another chance because you might not be able to live without
Female or not, her friends hadn’t
changed. They were the same as
before. Cold, hard friends. Like clumps of ice that needed to be cracked
apart with a pick. The bitter
multiple miscarriers. The infertility
warriors. “At least you got pregnant,
now you know you can get pregnant.”
“At least it’s only happened once.”
“I had three miscarriages and two in-vitros before I had Jacob.” Yes, at least. At least.
I still miss you, baby, Susan would think, sappily and
sentimentally, in a mind voice that reminded her of the flowered Hallmark
cards she’d received from her grandmother as a child. Without fail, her grandmother had taped a
dime inside each card and written in red pencil, “Don’t you forget it,”
meaning that Susan should not forget that she was loved. Susan’s thoughts were just like those
cards, an endless stream of sticky sweetness. I miss you, baby. I
do. I promise. Don’t listen to what they say. It’s not true.
Susan needed a next, she had to have a next, she was a next kind of gal--she
sought a support group for women who’d miscarried. These days there were support groups for everything; surely
there was one for this. She craved
sisterhood, solidarity, the company of like-minded souls, to speak and be
heard by the similarly obsessed. She
wanted a Weight Watchers for women who’d miscarried. Weigh me in! She needed to lose her baby weight, her baby baggage. She inquired at the local hospital.
have SAND,” the social worker told Susan over the phone, “That’s for SIDS and
Neonatal Death. It’s just neonatals
right now. No SIDS. Unless we get one at the next meeting.”
that didn’t happen to me,” Susan said.
“A miscarriage group, that’s what I’m looking for.”
is all we have. But you’re welcome to
come. Miscarriages are okay too.”
hospital where SAND met seemed more a business headquarters than a place of
birth and death and sickness and surgery.
Its glassy atrium lobby was three stories high. Sunlight poured in through a vast expanse
of mirrored windows onto a forest of tall potted trees. Hyatt goes hospital, all floors
SAND meeting had already started when Susan entered the small conference room
on the hospital’s tenth floor. Nine
women and one man sat around an oval-shaped, gray formica table. They glanced at Susan. After the door clicked shut behind her,
Susan took a seat. She was filled
with a pulsing sensation; her eyes and stomach and hands all seemed to be
beating. A vacuum-like sound droned
in her ears. She wanted to leave but
was afraid. What would she say if
they questioned her? Sorry, I thought
this was Weight Watchers?
women were telling their stories in turn.
They spoke with such a tired familiarity that Susan decided they must
be regulars at these meetings. The
social worker Susan had talked with on the phone chimed in with occasional
encouraging comments. The expressions
of the regulars were resigned, like the faces you see in police mug
shots. They looked like they wanted
to punch you, but couldn’t. How else
could they look? They were the
mothers of dead babies.
the regulars had spoken, all heads turned to the woman and lone man who sat
together, looking terrified and supplicating, clearly not regulars. They introduced themselves. Their names were Rosalie and Mike.
had olive skin and black wavy hair that hung down to her shoulders. She had dark purplish spots under her eyes
that resembled inky smudged thumbprints.
Her hands were clasped together on top of the table, long-fingered and
delicate, the rest of her body camouflaged in navy-blue sweats.
was brawny and wore jeans and a T-shirt; Susan pegged him as a construction
worker. He had longish brown hair
that drifted into his eyes and pink skin raindropped with sandpapery acne
was their first SAND meeting. Mike
did all the talking. He spoke of a
perfect pregnancy, a beautiful birth, a first child. A son.
A dead son.
was nursing,” Mike said. “He even had
his first bowel movement.” Mike
stopped talking for a second and beamed.
Susan smiled back at him, wanting him to feel proud of his son, for
breastfeeding and pooping, a newborn’s accomplishments.
our pediatrician came to circumcise him, all normal stuff,” Mike said. “Before the doctor had done anything,
something went wrong with his breathing.
Joseph turned blue. They took
him from our hospital to Children’s in an ambulance right away. I had to leave Rosalie to go with
him. I didn’t know where to be. I wanted to be with them both.”
began to cry, without making a sound, wiping her eyes on her sleeves. Rosalie cried, too, like Susan, without
making a sound. Tears ran down Mike’s
face as he talked. No one else in the
room cried. Not the social
worker. Not the regulars. Looking
around the room at their tearless faces, Susan guessed they had heard too
many dead baby stories. They probably
wished that a brand new dead baby could still hurt enough to pull tears from
Children’s hospital the doctors told me Joseph wouldn’t live,” Mike
said. “I had to go back to the
hospital where Rosalie was and tell her.
One of the doctors drove me.
He was going to help me tell her.”
Mike shook his head back and forth, rubbing his lips together. “I wanted to jump out of the car. I wanted us to crash. After I told Rosalie, they let her leave
the hospital so she could go see Joseph at Children’s before he died. The labor nurses, the ones who were there
when Joseph was born, they cried with us when we told them. It’s not supposed to be like this, they
kept telling us. This isn’t how it’s
supposed to be.
we got back to Children’s, I baptized Joseph. Myself. I couldn’t
believe I could, but I did. I
remembered how. From catechism.” Mike smiled and tapped a gold cross that
hung around his neck.
was so beautiful when he was born.
After they hooked him up to all those machines you couldn’t really see
him anymore. They gave us Polaroids
but he had all those tubes attached.
I wish we had more without the tubes.”
Mike finished talking, words were spoken that Susan did not hear, questions
were asked and answered that Susan did not hear, until the heads turned
again, this time to her. It was her
turn to speak.
shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I
don’t know why I’m here. I only
miscarried at nine weeks.” She put
her elbows on the table, holding her head in her hands, talking to the gray
didn’t even have a heartbeat. But it
was a baby to me.” She laughed
strangely. “I talked to it.”
paused and looked at Mike and Rosalie, unwilling to risk looking at anyone
put her hands on the table and stared down at them, as if the delicate bones
and tendons were paths on a map.
“My baby lived one day,” Rosalie said. “Less.
Joseph’s funeral, these mothers at the church all tell me, oh, he’s a little
angel now, he’s in God’s arms.”
Rosalie raised her eyes from her hands and gave Susan a fierce
look. “He should be in my arms.
other mother at the church, her son died when he was ten, she tells me the
longer you love them the harder it is.”
Rosalie shook her head. She
looked up at the ceiling and dragged her fingers under her eyes. “She didn’t know.”
gaze returned to Susan. “You know.”
reached out for Mike’s hand, giving him a wan look, turning away from Susan
and everyone else.
minute of silence passed. Then the
social worker wrapped up the meeting, gift-like, with neat rehearsed
comments. The regulars pushed back
their chairs from the table and stood and chatted with one another. The social worker approached Rosalie and Mike
with a thin paperback book and a small stack of pamphlets. Unnoticed, Susan left the room, weak from
the listening, the talking, the crying.
She was happy to be ignored, happy to be left alone.
walked down a vacant hallway of the hospital toward the elevator bank and
waited until the elevator arrived with a ding. The stainless steel doors parted to an empty interior. The elevator’s outermost wall was a glass
window with a view of the treeless green hills in the distance. The mossy silhouettes of the bare hills
flowed in smooth green curves that seemed like the shoulders and hips of the
earth. Susan touched the button for
the first floor, a star that lit up yellow, and the doors slid closed. As the elevator descended, Susan thought
about herself and Rosalie and whatever it was they both knew. Most people didn’t know. And you couldn’t explain it to them. No matter how hard you tried. Right,
Ann K. Ryles
is a graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at the University
of San Francisco and UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Her fiction has
appeared in Clare, Edifice Wrecked, and Stirring: A
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