*This story has content that some might find difficult
Kelly bats her eyes at little Maeve as she pulls the empty bottle out of her daughter’s mouth. “We were hungry, sweet baby, weren’t we?” Maeve smacks her lips and Kelly dabs spots of milk around her mouth. “Time for burpies.” Kelly hoists the baby to her shoulder. Maeve’s breathing is gurgly and damp and Kelly pats her back, sighing. Tap, tap, tap.
Mom stands up with baby and walks to the living room window. Snow covers the yard and the sidewalks and streets are empty. The sky is grey with billowy clouds and Kelly wonders if there will be another storm. If Xavier will make it home in time for supper. If it will be just her and Maeve and the looming silence she’s lived with day after day since Maeve was born three months ago.
She wonders if she’ll sleep more than three hours in a row tonight.
The baby burps and Kelly feels warm spitup on her shoulder. “Nice job,” she says, stroking the back of Maeve’s neck, the tiny straight-as-a-pin black hairs soft like corn silk.
Maeve starts fussing so Kelly walks into the kitchen, doing a little dance and humming. Her belly cramp feels better today, maybe because she talked with an actual human being when her mom’s package arrived. The deliveryman had been so nice, asking her how she was, noticing Maeve’s dimple, wishing them both a good day. The visit was like a blend of Ecstasy and Ativan, without breaking sobriety.
But that was nearly an hour ago and Maeve’s fussing is getting worse. Kelly sits down and pulls the baby from her shoulder to a sitting position on her lap. Maeve’s head tips to the side and her tiny fingers flex and curl. “What’s wrong sweetie? You got another burp?” Kelly’s cheeks flush and her heart rate quickens. She gets up and puts Maeve back on her shoulder. She opens the front door for a whiff of fresh January air, too cold to go out in but warm for Montreal. “How’s the air, baby girl?”
Maeve’s breathing changes. Kelly feels her tiny muscles stiffen and her back arch. “Ok, not a good idea,” Kelly says, closing the door.
Maeve begins to cry.
“Whatsa matter sweet baby,” sings Kelly. She bobs Maeve up and down and starts bending her legs like her sister had taught her. She looks at the clock. It’s 9:30 in Alberta. She glances at the coffee table, scanning the room for her phone. Baby things cover every surface, the bouncy seat, several piles of clean diapers, a playpen, the gated off area in the kitchen with fabric books, painted blocks, rattles. Should she try Lindsay in Alberta? Her little sister, mother of three, was so confident, so competent. Kelly finds her phone on the floor next to the coffee table. She kneels down with the baby, grabs her cell, and pushes Lindsay’s number.
Kelly drops the phone and wonders if Maeve is tired. She grabs a glass of water, feeling lightheaded. If only she could sleep. A four-hour stretch was what she needed to stay sane, to stay home with Maeve and the silence for eight hours plus, five days in a row, but Maeve couldn’t go that long without a bottle. Xavier offered to take a feeding but Kelly knows he’s even worse without sleep than she is, and he has to keep his job.
Kelly presses Maeve against her as she cries, feeling the baby’s drool on her neck. “It’s ok, sweetie, you can trust Mommy, everything’s fine.” Kelly wonders if everything actually is fine and if not, how she would know. What if Maeve is sick? What if she’s having appendicitis? Or bird flu? Kelly pats Maeve’s back and feels her forehead. Warm and damp with sweat.
Still bouncing Maeve who is still crying, now more insistently, Kelly glides into the living room and gently brings Maeve down onto the couch. She unzips her yellow onesie with the purple stars and pulls out Maeve’s arms and legs. Other than her cloth diaper, the baby is naked. Kelly leans in and sniffs the diaper. Feels it. Nothing. She sits next to Maeve whose arms and legs flail around like an octopus out of water. “Tell Mommy what’s wrong, honey,” says Kelly. She wonders if she should call Xavier, ask if he’ll come home. She picks up the naked Maeve and offers her a finger. Maeve wraps her gums around it for a second and then, as if realizing she’d been tricked, begins screaming.
Kelly picks up her daughter. A bead of sweat drops from the mother’s forehead onto the baby.
Kelly grabs the chair, steadying herself. It’s been over and hour and Maeve, now lying alone in her crib in the nursery, is still crying. I can’t do it, Kelly thinks, tearing off her sweaty tee shirt and grabbing Xavier’s clean one on top of the dryer.
Should I try another bottle? Should I pick her up again? Rock her? Sing her a different song? Kelly picks up a baby book but her mind is too jangly, too full of fog to read the words.
Kelly’s ears are buzzing and she plugs and unplugs them with her pointer fingers. Shakes her head. Closes her eyes. Maybe I’m actually sleeping. Opens them. There is a baby in my house and it won’t stop crying. Closes them again.
She remembers her first baby doll. She sees Jillie in her mind, her shiny plastic peach-colored skin, glass-blue eyes. When Nana gave her Jillie, she showed Kelly how special the doll was because she could suck a bottle and wet a diaper. Kelly remembers sneaking her mother’s white cloth napkins from the kitchen, tucking them under her shirt, bringing them into her room. She folded and fastened one onto Jillie’s hard behind with safety pins. “Now you’re ready for the tea party.” Kelly sees herself holding Jillie out in front of her, bursting with love for her little plastic girl.
Jillie was so quiet.
Kelly checks her watch. Four and a half hours to go, if Xavier doesn’t have to stay late. She tries her sister again. Voice mail.
She opens the cabinet door and looks at the five bottles of wine. Her hand is trembling.
She closes the door, goes to the coffee table, picks up the phone, and dials Xavier’s office. His secretary picks up. Kelly tries to speak but only a little puff of air comes out. “Kelly? Is that you? He’s still in the meeting…” Kelly moves the phone away from her ear and presses end.
Maeve cries and cries and cries.
Kelly perches on the couch and prays for a miracle. Maybe she should go outside with the stroller. She remembers spring walks with Jillie. She would wrap the doll in her pink receiving blanket, set her in the baby carriage her mom found at a garage sale, and push her to the corner and back, waving hello to Mrs. Franklin and the twins, to the crossing-guard, and to Mr. McKenzie rocking on his front porch. If temperatures were brisk, she would wrap Jillie in a sweatshirt so she wouldn’t catch a cold.
Kelly shivers, gets up, looks around the bedroom for a sweatshirt. Does sleep deprivation make you cold? She calculates: three hours last night, two hours the night before. Before that…was there a before that? What day is it today? Did I eat lunch?
She slips into Xavier’s faded brown Concordia sweatshirt and tries her yoga breathing.
Sweat. Relentlessly pounding heart. I don’t want to go in there. I just want…I want…
Screams pour out of the nursery.
What’s wrong with me?
Kelly checks her watch again. 1:12. She opens the cabinet again. Studies one creamy label, its charcoal grey letters. Grabs the bottle and hugs it tightly. Sways.
She picks up the phone again and tries Lindsay. Voice mail.
Kelly goes into the kitchen, pulls open the drawer where the bottle opener is. Slams it shut. The baby is raging and Kelly knows she has to try again. Her brow is wet. Her breath is shallow, her abdominals tight. She pulls open the drawer again. Snags the bottle opener.
The phone rings.
She drops the opener on the countertop. Brushes away sweat from her temples. Checks caller ID. It’s Ronit, her sponsor.
“Hey it’s me. How’s it going?” The grandfather clock chimes. Maeve is getting hoarse. For a second Kelly thinks about telling Ronit about the bottle, asking her to come, telling her she’s falling apart …
“Things are great,” Kelly says, phone tucked in the crook of her neck, her voice full and melodic. She picks up the bottle opener. Drops it. “What’s up?” She picks up the opener again. Stabs the cork. Turn. Turn. Turn.
“Maeve is crying. Do you need to go?” She hears Ronit’s partner laughing in the background with their five-year-old, who is not crying.
Kelly struggles with the bottle. Turn. Turn. Almost there.
“It’s just colic. She’ll settle down eventually.”
Kelly secures the bottle with her left hand and pulls with her right. It won’t open.
“Actually, can you hang on a minute? I want to check her.” She drops the phone on the kitchen counter, Ronit’s voice becoming small and faint. Kelly grabs the bottle and opener, lodged in the cork like a hatchet, and runs to the bathroom. She closes the door softly and stands in front of the sink.
She holds the bottle between her thighs and pulls.
I can’t do it, can’t do it, can’t do it.
The cork pops. She looks in the mirror, searching for something familiar, something of her old competent self. The self who sobered up at 25. The self who, after sleeping with the entire soccer team and half the basketball team in high school, had been single for five years. The self who passed her TENS exam and who was supposed to start University as a business major before she got pregnant. The self who could assemble a desk from Ikea, rewire a fixture, lay a new cork floor.
And now the self who had created another human being.
I’m a mother. She stares into her bloodshot eyes.
Her own mother’s eyes look back at her. Kelly’s mom started drinking after her father disappeared, right before she started high school, leaving 13-year-old Kelly to take care of Lindsay. She would make her little sister’s lunch for school, a peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich with purple grapes in a baggie. She’d check Lindsay’s homework, braid her hair, sit with her at night when the younger girl had bad dreams.
Then Zachary started calling. Kelly began wearing lipstick and low-cut tee shirts and jeans so tight she had to lie down on her bed to zip them. Zachary started picking Kelly up for school each morning, so she didn’t have time to deal with Lindsay’s lunch or her braids.
“Do it yourself,” she said to her sister one day, fussing with her own hair. She pretended not to hear Lindsay’s sobs as Zachary pulled out of the driveway.
Sobs. What’s wrong with my baby? Why don’t I know what to do?
Kelly sets the wine bottle down on the vanity and walks into the living room. The baby is still crying and Kelly knows she has to do something. She glances at the shelf above the fireplace, at all the congratulations cards, bright pinks and purples, pictures of balloons, dogs, bottles, and blankets. Her eyes rest on the card from Lindsay and her nieces and nephew. “Now we can commiserate together!” she had written next to a smiley-face with a pair of glasses drawn on.
Kelly looks at her wedding band. Remembers the pregnancy stick. Xavier’s excitement. Her own less-than-thrilled reaction. “Maybe it’s a good thing, honey. A good thing.” Adjusting her plans.
Adjusting, adjusting, and adjusting.
Kelly pivots and heads back down the hall toward the nursery.
Maeve’s little voice is raspy now, her cries scratchy, like Xavier’s stubble. Kelly slows her pace, stops outside of the nursery, her palm rubbing on the textured wallpaper, bare feet warm on the worn carpet, the heat vent blowing the white curtains in and out, in and out. The bathroom is on the left and she slips inside, promising Maeve that she’ll be just a minute.
The bottle is next to the sink, where she left it.
Crying, crying, and more crying. Kelly looks in the mirror again, at her long bangs, greasy from two weeks without showering, at her green eyes that, despite dark lines, are still startling, her triple pierced left ear, the starfish tattoo on her left shoulder, her pale skin.
A good thing.
The woman in the mirror isn’t convinced.
Something inside breaks open.
Kelly drops to her knees, hands against her ears, and screams. She screams and screams and screams. Blocks out her daughter’s cries. Collapses on the plush bath mat. Her body heaves and shudders as tears, saliva, and mucous form a wet spot on the mat around her face.
She lies there for what feels like hours, thighs cold on ceramic tiles.
Kelly pushes herself upright, tuning into Maeve’s cries. She turns toward the bathtub. Starts the water. Takes off Xavier’s sweatshirt and her jeans. Her body, her skin, her breasts are all there, but possessed.
She wants herself back.
She looks in the mirror. Picks up the bottle. Looks inside.
It’s mahogany colored. Just like the wine she drank in high school. Wine at parties with her drunk and wasted friends. Wine with best friend Emilie in the bathroom, cutting class.
Wine before the accident. Turning and seeing Emilie’s body in the passenger seat, the side of her blue mini-dress soaked in blood, a gash on her temple, eyes frozen and staring, mouth locked open.
Wine, beautiful wine.
Maeve’s voice is far away.
Kelly looks inside the bottle. Smells it. Brings it to her mouth.
With the decision, her body seems to inflate, the edges of her skin becoming padded, like a membrane. She takes the bottle, floats into the kitchen, and dumps the wine down the drain.
She returns to the bathroom humming “The Wheels on the Bus.” Fills the tub until the water is close to the edge. Checks the temperature on the plastic floating duck.
She walks out of the bathroom and down to the nursery, still naked. She sees Maeve, sobbing, wet, wet from urine, from tears, from sweat covering her tiny wiry body. Her mouth gapes wide, a pursing o.
But Kelly’s face is light, her energy spacious, the anguish far away.
She smiles. Picks up her crying baby. Removes the diaper and tosses it in the crib. Holds Maeve gently against her chest. Pats her back.
It’s ok now, Maeve, it’s ok. Everything’s going to be ok.
Her feet and fingers start tingling and she pats the baby as she carries her down the hall to the bathroom. Maeve is still crying but hoarse from the hours of strain on her vocal chords. A tiny tangle of baby hair lies matted and wet on top of her head.
Kelly pats her daughter’s back and steps into the tub.
She sits down in the tub with Maeve on her chest.
Leans back against the tiles. Her limbs are weightless, her mind clear.
She lifts the baby from her body.
Lowers her into the water.
First her toes.
Maeve is sobbing.
Kelly reassures her. Coos.
Kelly starts whisper-singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
Tears on Kelly’s cheeks but her breath is steady and she kisses Maeve’s head.
Frantic knocking at the front door.
Kelly hears her name. Maybe it’s God, welcoming me back.
Footsteps, running down the hall.
The baby is completely submerged.
The bathroom door bursts open. Ronit flies in, a flurry of copper curls, and scoops Maeve out of the tub. The baby is still. Ronit’s back is to Kelly but Kelly can see them in the mirror.
Then Kelly remembers. She had never returned the key from housesitting.
Ronit is hitting Maeve on the back and eventually the baby starts to sputter and scream and her face becomes red and ordinary again.
Kelly sits alone in the tub. Shivers.
Ronit takes the baby out of the bathroom and down to the nursery. Kelly isn’t sure what they’re doing but she can’t seem to move in the bathtub. She hears Maeve crying, some shuffling and then a can opening. Drip-drip-drip; Ronit’s filling a bottle.
Kelly wonders briefly if Ronit saw the wine bottle in the kitchen, empty in the sink.
Quiet, Kelly waits, teeth chattering. She stands up. Slowly. Wraps herself in a towel.
She gingerly steps out of the tub, careful not to slip on wet tiles. Trudges down the hall. Stops in the doorway to the nursery. Ronit’s round form fills the glider, her hand-knitted fisherman’s sweater, Maeve in the crook of her arm, sucking on the bottle. They’re snuggled together in the green blanket Lindsey had crocheted. Ronit’s normally pale complexion is ruddy and the late afternoon light catches the auburn tone of her hair.
Kelly looks at Maeve, then down at her feet.
“Come here,” whispers Ronit. Kelly looks up. Ronit’s face isn’t twisted in anger. Her eyes aren’t steely and cold. Her mouth isn’t a hard line.
“Kelly,” Ronit says, and then she looks away. Kelly notices tears on Ronit’s cheeks. Maeve slurps her bottle.
Kelly shuffles over to the glider and slumps to the floor, still shivering, and leans her wet head against Ronit’s leg. The denim fabric is warm and Kelly sighs. Ronit takes the bottle out of the sleeping baby’s mouth, sets it down on the ottoman, takes another blanket and drapes it around Kelly’s shoulders. Ronit strokes Kelly’s wet hair. They sit and breathe together as the sunbeams stream into the nursery through the criss-cross of the windowpane, warming a square patch on the nursery’s ocean-blue shag rug.
Gail Marlene Schwartz is a homeschooling mom, a tenor, and an immigrant. Her short story, “Chosen,” won third place in Lilith Magazine’s 2017 fiction contest, and “Loving Benjamin” received Honorable Mention from Room Magazine. Gail’s work has appeared in literary magazines including The New Quarterly, Poetica Magazine, and Crack the Spine, and in anthologies Swelling with Pride (Caitlin Press), Breaking Boundaries (Rebel Mountain Press), Queer Families (Qommunicate Media) and more. Gail is Fiction Editor at Cobalt Press and is currently working on her first novel. She lives with her wife and son in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec.