Mother Pass

The sensation starts on the red-eye, as we hover sleeplessly over the Atlantic: a faint flutter and then a pulse. The creature’s movements have been perceptible for weeks now, but this is different, diffuse and repetitive with no clear beginning or end.


Across the aisle, an older man struggles to breathe, and the flight attendants sweep toward the glow of his overhead light, fasten an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. One stays beside him, her voice a comforting murmur beneath the plane’s vibrations. His face calms, but the hushed aura of emergency will not dissipate.


My phone dings; it’s time to stand again. Zack leans across the seat to massage my calves. We’re vigilant against blood clots, which, I’ve been warned, could gather strength in the murk of my insides and detonate. Not unlike the creature itself.


Until recently, the pregnancy had been mostly an abstraction. I was thicker around the middle with beautiful, engorged boobs but otherwise physically unchanged. Then, over a few weeks, I’d swollen, expanded, inflamed. My hips became tender things, my legs rebellious, their faulty wiring tripping electric shocks of sciatica. For the first time in my life, my body is armed and dangerous.


“Birth is like the ocean,” a midwife friend said. “Don’t turn your back on it.”



The question of children had been the defining fight of my relationship with Zack. More than anything, he wanted to be a father. But I dreaded motherhood, which seemed like a kind of brainwashing. On social media, old friends changed profile pictures to their children’s faces, as if the women themselves no longer existed. In interviews, famous actors declared motherhood the greatest role they’d ever played, as if children obliterated all achievements, took precedence over all desires. Even my own mother, now an accomplished professor with stints in Siberia and Central Asia, had put off work and travel when my brother and I were young, staying behind while my photographer dad spent the month in Tibet or Bosnia.


I, on the other hand, cultivated an unsettled, underpaid life with myself at the center. I bounced from Oregon to Thailand to Western Mass to DC to Philly, following friends and boyfriends, spending whatever extra money I had on parties and clothes. And why shouldn’t I be the center of my own existence? Men have lived selfishly for millennia and been rewarded for it. From what I’d seen, motherhood was womanhood at its least fun and most societally sanctioned: the useful body, the selfless days, the life of service.


But then I met Zack, a steady partner with a wild, artist’s soul, an uncommon combination. We fell in love, moved in together, built a whole universe of jokes and routines. If I refused motherhood, I’d have to start over without him. The thought was unbearable. After nearly a year of arguments, I’d decided our shared world was worth the many risks of having a child. At least I hoped it was.


I was thirty-five, we were newly married, and I got pregnant the first time we tried, as they say. The months of pregnancy stretched ahead of me, birth looming at the end like a ritual sacrifice. And then motherhood, in which I would be eaten alive by hormones and sleeplessness, reduced to a mere zombie of my previous self.


Travel seemed the only possible answer, the way I’d sought escape since I was young: familiarity sloughed away so only my bright, receptive core remained. Adventure.


Or, in this case, a visit to my brother and his family in Berlin.


The midwives said I could fly up to the thirty-fourth week of pregnancy, and I wanted good weather, so I booked our vacation for early May, my thirtieth week.


“Let’s set up the baby’s room before we go,” Zack had said.


“If he comes that early,” I said, “we’ll have bigger problems than a baby room.”


And now this fluttering pulsing in my gut, unlike any sensation I’ve read about online.



At the top of five interminable flights of stairs, we arrive at our Airbnb. A flustered young woman waits for us. Her father has just died, she explains in English. She canceled her other rentals but forgot ours. She needs a minute to collect her things. Torn between empathy and exhaustion, we follow her inside. I’m not about to surrender our rental after all those stairs. Plus, we don’t have anywhere else to go.


Her nondescript apartment is still strewn with belongings: mail on the table, necklaces on hooks, a cardigan over the back of the Ikea couch. There’s a risqué glamour shot of our host above the kitchen table. But a balcony overlooks the German rooftops. We can see the rough, rebuilt streets we wandered on our only other visit to Berlin, almost exactly a year ago. The overgrown parks where we drank beers in the sun. We could live in this city, Zack and I said then. We talked about it all year.


Finally, our host hands over the keys, and the door shuts behind her. We curl up on the hard couch, my belly against Zack’s back, the relief of arrival a near-physical release. But an hour later, the pulses wake me, more insistent this time.


I slide away from Zack without disturbing him. There’s an early spring chill in the apartment, and he’s wearing his black hoodie and knit beanie. He started going bald as a teenager, and he’s had a shaved head and full beard as long as I’ve known him. Zack isn’t a big man—he likes to say he wears size “smedium”—but he’s broad-shouldered and solid. The sight of him sleeping heartens me; nothing bad can happen when he’s nearby.


I begin researching the pulses on my phone. Google points to harmless “false contractions,” otherwise known as Braxton Hicks. Practice contractions, I read. A tightening that comes and goes. Normal, especially in the second and third trimesters. I take a deep breath; this has to be what I’m experiencing. But how will I know the difference between false contractions and real ones?


Unlike labor contractions, Braxton Hicks are not painful, I read. They do not come at regular intervals and do not become more frequent.


I try to time the pulses to see if they’re coming at regular intervals, carefully noting the start of each on a scrap of paper. But they’re slippery. Where is the border between sensation and no sensation? Our host’s digital clock, in military time like all European clocks, won’t cooperate. My list of numbers doesn’t make sense, refuses to attach to the minutes in this unfamiliar room.


But the sensations aren’t painful, I don’t think, just unpleasant, and I don’t want to be one of those uptight pregnant women who rushes to the hospital at the slightest thing.



Representations of birth are everywhere in pop culture, but they rarely include a satisfactory explanation of what labor actually feels like. The real-life movie we’d watched at the midwifery practice where I planned to give birth was no help either. Naked from the waist down, a woman rocked and sighed while her partner massaged her hips and the midwives moved purposefully around her. But her eyes were closed, and she seemed completely oblivious to her surroundings. I was appalled that anyone would let themselves be filmed in such a state.


The mysteries of the body have always frightened me, its unknowable organs and breakable bones. A troublesome shadow self that operates within me, conducting its own secret, perilous business.


In a yoga training, years ago, the teacher instructed us to embody our endocrine system by lying fetus-like on the floor. Then we were to rise slowly, as if through amniotic fluid, exploring movement with the moist, heavy knowledge of our kidneys and adrenals. As the other women wriggled around me, I found myself frozen with anxiety. What were my kidneys doing in there? And what if they stopped doing it? I had no control over their function or disfunction, and that petrified me.


As a child, my blood pressure spiked for routine physicals, though I rarely suffered even minor illness or injury. My doctors, all women, were mostly kind, but I still hated their touch. Cold fingertips searching for something gone wrong inside me. Proof that my body could contain the ultimate betrayal.


But even more than the exam, I dreaded the ride home, when I’d be trapped in the car while my mother talked about serious things. Woman things. For years, I wished not to get my period until I was older, to put off adulthood just one more year. I must have sensed how once my body was a woman’s body, it would cease to be only mine. I would occupy it, but others would regularly lay claim. Sometimes as an object of adoration. Sometimes an orifice. Sometimes a receptacle for a child.



The Braxton Hicks, if that’s what they are, haven’t worsened by dinnertime, so Zack and I walk the few blocks to Caleb’s co-op, passing kebab shops and knick-knack stores, oases of green tucked between imposing post-war apartment buildings. Caleb lives in one of these, and we cross a ramshackle courtyard to find him waiting for us at the door. My little brother, who at six feet tall is much larger than I am. My brilliant, loving brother, who has known me every day since memories began.


This is the first time he’s seen me pregnant, and I’m self-conscious of my conspicuous femaleness, my body-ness. But he doesn’t comment on my belly, just wraps me in a hard hug.


Caleb’s wife, Michele, and their son are in the kitchen they share with eight anarchist-leaning twenty-somethings. A dirty, inviting space packed with mismatched chairs and sundry dishes, recycled jars with no clear use, labels on everything, a chore chart. The cozy chaos of communal life. Nothing can replicate it.


Michele is American, though she grew up in Germany, which is why they are here. She’s warm and self-possessed with a wide, genuine smile. She and Caleb have been together ten years, so she’s known me through multiple cities, jobs, relationships. I would trust her with my life.


Thirteen months old and small for his age, my nephew is all silky blond hair and blue eyes. The last time we were here, he was six weeks old, a compact bundle of incessant need. It was a few months before our wedding, after which I’d agreed to get pregnant. Finding a baby in such close proximity was a shock.


During that visit, Caleb had worn him on his chest in a complicated wrap that appeared to be just a very long piece of fabric. The baby was hot or he was hungry or he had pooped or he was crying, and Caleb was always taking him off or putting him back on, tying and untying the wrap with its ends trailing on the ground.


Love for my nephew was supposed to come naturally, the way loving my brother did, but I could only see an infant like any other. Except this one would not let Caleb finish his sentences. No conversation was satisfying. No excursion went smoothly. Our time together was chopped up by baby cries and baby needs, and my future flashed before my eyes. But the wedding invitations were sent, my committment to parenthood sealed.



Years ago, I spent a night babysitting a friend of a friend’s son. This wasn’t something I did much, not even as a teenager, and I was exquisitely bored while the evening crept by.


As I was taking the little boy up to bed, he ran to the open window and yelled “Mommmmmyyyyyyy” into the darkness. “I can’t stop thinking about my mommy,” he sobbed when I comforted him.


The intensity of his love repelled me. A burden to be on the other end of all that need. I planned to be a successful writer and a world traveler, a woman who lived by her own rules. How could I have the life I wanted while a child cried for me?


Still, when motherhood was a distant fantasy, I assumed I’d have children someday. I let that assumption drift alongside me for years, a hazy possibility that contained a child.


Then women my age began to have kids. The Facebook feed of baby photos. Friends swallowed whole by their love. I’d never liked children, but I started to hate mothers. They canceled plans for nap schedules. Their conversations revolved around breastfeeding and daycare. What had happened to the brilliant, complex women I’d admired, the ones who were the protagonists of their own stories?



Over dinner with Caleb and Michele, I describe the sensations, but Michele didn’t have Braxton Hicks during her pregnancy and doesn’t know what’s normal. No one seems very worried. My due date is ten weeks away. We’re supposed to be on vacation.


But it’s been hours, and the Braxton Hicks, or whatever they are, won’t go away.


“I think I need to go to the hospital,” I say at last.



Michele, Zack, and I take the U-Bahn to the nearest hospital. Caleb stays with the baby, since Michele’s German is better than his. Through three never-ending subway stops, Zack and Michele small talk while I sink into my body. The contractions are suddenly agonizing, and I can barely keep up as we climb the flights and flights of stairs to the exit. It’s past ten p.m. when we finally emerge at the dark hospital grounds, which are sprawling like a college campus. Michele locates the correct building, and a receptionist asks for my passport through a hole in the window.


At first I can’t find it—If they won’t see me, I will refuse to leave—but thankfully it’s still in my bag from the flight.


“And your Mother Pass.”


“What? I don’t have one of those.”


She frowns. “That is not possible.”


I look helplessly at Michele.


“Here pregnant women get a Mother Pass from their doctors,” she says. “It has all your medical history.” She speaks German into the hole.


The receptionist narrows her eyes but waves us past.


We come to a waiting area with a couch and chairs, glass bottles of sparkling and still water. The hospital is clean and quiet with a pervasive sense of order, more like an office building than an American emergency room. No one else is waiting.


Now that we’re here, the contractions seem further apart, like when your car won’t make that strange sound at the mechanic. After what feels like a long time, a nurse brings us to another room for an EKG.


“They’ll be able to monitor the baby and the contractions,” Michele translates.


On my back, with my belly bearing down on my spine, I hope for contractions, so the machine can record them, and soon they gather strength and roll through, beginning low in the bowels, like intense menstrual cramps and radiating outward, down my legs, up my back. I watch the clock, trying to keep track of them, but the minutes have detached from their numbers again.


Zack and Michele are beside me, but it’s like they’re in another room. Here, the world has shrunk to a pinpoint of panic. I don’t tell them about the contractions; they can’t save me.



In my twenties, I spent six months in Thailand, where I regularly rode helmetless on the back of a friend’s motorbike. With his girlfriend between us, we raced down the unlit highways outside Chiang Mai, late at night, after we’d been drinking. That New Year’s Eve, a different friend and I ordered magic mushroom tea at an island bar, then hitched a ride in the back of a stranger’s pick-up, careening over the dark, potholed roads. Airborne as he accelerated, we clutched each other with the grim clarity that this had been a very bad idea.


Another time, in the US, a boyfriend ordered a research drug from the internet, which arrived in a pile of white powder that we eyeballed into doses. We took the drug camping, where we lit a fire, then wandered into the wilderness until we were utterly lost. The hallucinations illuminated the woods, turning the trees brilliant orange. We hadn’t started a forest fire, but I genuinely couldn’t tell.


In those days, my body was co-conspirator, collaborator. A tool for attracting men and converting drugs and withstanding risk, even with fear humming alongside. What could I take, who could I touch, where could I go to get closer to the yearning, seeking, wanting aflame under my skin. A brush with death here and there felt like part of the deal I’d made to be a girl let loose on the world.


Before Zack and I were married, when motherhood seemed unimaginable, I envisioned myself as that girl again. I saw how my parents would grow old and die. I saw how my brother would be absorbed by his new family. And I would have nothing to which to anchor myself. I would float away. But a child could ensure my place in the sequence. I would take my spot in the human cycle of generations. Better to have that mooring than none at all.


Now my body itself is anchor and threat: soft, vulnerable, contracting.



Unhooked from the machine and back in the waiting area, I’m increasingly desperate. The deep, gut-sick feeling expands and obliterates. Like waves of terrible diarrhea combined with a kind of nausea. Only this nausea does not point up to the throat but down. Inside a contraction, stillness is ludicrous, and I squat, stand, squat again. Though movement does not bring relief, it is my only weapon against the roiling pain.


Michele is about to look for help when a woman calls us into an exam room. Her manner is brisk and dismissive, and she must be a decade younger than I am. I instantly dislike her. But she appears to be the doctor, and she speaks English.


“Where is your Mother Pass?” she asks.


“I don’t have one.”


She’s incredulous. “But you must have a Mother Pass.”


“We don’t in the US.”


“That is impossible. You cannot travel without a Mother Pass.”


“I just don’t have one.”


She eyes me suspiciously. “When is your due date?”


“July 9th.” Today is May 1st.


She doesn’t react, consults the EKG results. “The baby is fine,” she says. “He is not under stress.”


“What about the contractions?”


“They don’t mean anything.”


I stare at her, speechless. I will not leave this hospital.


She speaks to Michele in German, practically rolling her eyes, then instructs me to get on the table for an ultrasound. I do as I’m told, helpless and enraged.


On my back again, in exquisite discomfort, the doctor presses the ultrasound wand hard into my belly.


A second young woman has appeared, a nurse or another doctor, and she draws a curtain between us and Zack and Michele. They tell me to strip from the waist down, but do not offer a sheet or a hospital gown. I have no choice but to bare myself.


Instead of an exam table with stirrups, they direct me to a spread-eagle chair. My thighs rest on movable arms that spread up and apart, exposing and restraining me. Tears run down my cheeks into my ears. They poke and prod and swab indifferently, while I writhe in pain and embarrassment, muted by my sore, defenseless body.


“Stay still,” they say over and over.


“I can’t,” I say. “I’m having a contraction.”


At last, they check my cervix.


“You’re two centimeters dilated,” the first doctor says, surprised.


I could have told you that, I want to scream.


“You will stay here with us.” Her voice is gentler now.


I begin to sob uncontrollably, desperate to get out of the spread-eagle chair.


“Can I come over there?” Zack calls from the other side of the curtain.


His alarm is audible, but I don’t want him to see me in that chair.


The doctor explains what they will do. First, a steroid shot to develop the baby’s lungs. Then a magnesium drip to slow the contractions. “You may be here a couple weeks or more,” she says. “But you will eventually need a C-section because the baby is breech. Do you understand?”




I’m allowed to move from the chair.


“You may not be able to have a vaginal birth in the future after a C-section,” the doctor says. “Do you understand?”


“Yes.” I almost laugh at how little this concerns me.


They pull back the curtain, and Zack rushes to the table where I’m curled with the magnesium IV in my arm. He hugs me, his face wet against mine, his worry and love pulsing through me. I matter to this person.


Then the worst contraction hits, and I’m pinned moaning beneath it. They say women don’t remember the pain of labor, but I will. I will replay the experience over and over, so I won’t forget, so I can tell people. But even though my memories will be clear, the words will never be right.


The doctors must be sufficiently alarmed, because they check my cervix again. I’ve gone from two to nine centimeters dilated in twenty minutes, a process that usually takes hours.


“The baby has to come out now,” the first doctor says.



I’m a body on a gurney, wearing only my T-shirt, rolling through hospital hallways. Strange faces speak above me.


“Can I have something to cover me?” I ask.


The faces seem startled. I’m given a sheet, but it’s folded in a tight square.


Soon we’re in the bright operating room.


“Stay still,” is all they say in English.


An impossible request as the contractions rage through me.


Everywhere hands are on me, swabbing, prepping, holding down my legs. These hands are an invasion, and they will save my life.


One of the faces removes its mask, leans close. “I’m the surgeon,” says a woman, calm and serious. “We strongly recommend a C-section, but if you want you can try to birth vaginally.”


I’m confused and horrified. “No. C-section!”


“So you agree?”




Next the anesthesiologist materializes at my side. His eyes are kind. “We don’t have time for an epidural,” he says. “We will use general anesthesia.”


I know this means my situation must be very serious.


He asks questions that seem crucial. Do I have medication allergies? Are there heart conditions in my family?


I search my mind for the right answers. “Caffeine gives me heart palpitations.”


“Has it ever caused you to have a heart attack?”


“No, just anxiety.”


He laughs, a comforting, human noise.


I want to tell him not to let me die, but even saying those words feels like a curse. “Take good care of me.”


“I will,” he says.


Last, a woman grasps my hand. “I’m the midwife,” she says. “I’ll be looking after your baby.”


I had practically forgotten the baby; in this moment it is of no consequence to me.


The anesthesiologist puts the mask over my face. “You may feel warm.”


Instead, cold spreads down my throat, and the world blinks off.



This is when the body becomes just a body. It still wears my jewelry, has my face and unruly hair. They cut it open, take the creature out, sew it back up. The surgeon’s long hands tighten the skin, seal the body closed. Then they dress the body in mesh underwear, an oversized pad for the blood. At last they cover the body and wheel it away.



I wake up in the recovery room, delirious with drugs and gratitude. I’m alive alive alive.  Zack, Michele, and Caleb surround me, laughing; I’ve said something funny. My good fortune is overwhelming, life unbearably sweet. The creature is expelled, my body uninhabited, released from its sentence as vessel, repository, container. The sacrifice has been made and yet here I am, whole on the other side.


But above my pubic bone, a bright wound burns, the skin around it numb.


In a few days, I will leave this hospital, so exhausted that Zack will push me in a wheelchair for a week. But months later, scanning myself critically in the mirror, even I will see that this new body, once cut open and sewn shut, is nearly indistinguishable from the old body, the one that, barely tethered, pitched carelessly through the world. That white line above my pubic bone will seem a small price to pay for this body.


And my son? Red and little and too young to be angry, he’s taken to the NICU, attached to tubes and monitors. For four weeks he will drift there, mostly asleep, a tiny uncertain presence. In six weeks, he will be released from the hospital, and in ten weeks, he’ll be cleared for the long, long-awaited flight home. Will I love him? Slowly, yes. But this is not his story.



My mother calls to tell me she cannot get on the plane. She has had a premonition.


“You’re going to crash?” I sit upright in bed, sheet clutched to my chest. When she says stuff like this, my skin gets crawly.


“Not exactly a premonition.” She sighs. “I can’t say what will happen. A foreboding. Emmy, I’m not thinking straight. I can’t zip up my suitcase. And I wanted to get out of here so badly.”


“Are you sure it’s the plane?” I look to my left where the baby is sleeping in her bassinet. I look to the right where my husband is sleeping in our bed. “Could you be foreboding something else?” I say as I tiptoe out of the room, which is not actually a room. We put up a wall in the studio after the baby was born.


No, says my mother, she’s sure it’s the plane, and of course, I could try to reason with her. I could tell her to go ahead and pack that suitcase, get in a taxi, buy a tea and sit at the airport, see if the foreboding recedes. Until she’s actually on the plane, she has not committed to anything. Instead, I say, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Because really, what should I tell her to do? Get on the plane and then the plane crashes and then she’s gone and then it’s my fault? Because planes do crash. They do.


In the background, at my mother’s house, radio voices are murmuring. “I have to think,” she says. “I’ll call you back.”



As soon as I hang up the phone, the baby is up. By up, I mean that she’s screaming. She’s always screaming and we don’t know why. I don’t know why. My husband comes out of the bedroom and hands her to me. “I have to go,” he says.


“It’s six thirty in the morning.” I follow him into the bathroom. He’s a real estate broker, which means that he works on commission, which means that the more he works the more money he makes, at least in theory. I’m no longer sure I buy this direct correlation. He works seven days a week. Before we had a baby, this wasn’t a problem. But now we do have a baby.


I sit on the toilet, bouncing the baby in my lap, while my husband brushes his teeth. “My mother might not be coming,” I say.


He spits into the sink. “Is she sick?”


“Sick in the head!” I say. “You’d think she’d want to see Eva. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with this delightful creature?” I kiss the top of Eva’s head, which is covered in the silkiest hair, soft and ticklish on my lips. She smells like a baby, like white soap and milk. She likes to be bounced, likes the sound of the water and the echo of our voices in the tiny chamber of the bathroom. She and I spend a lot of time in this bathroom. On the rare occasions when she is content and awake, I adore her so much I want to stuff her whole hand in my mouth. Both hands at once.


My husband is sliding the stroller out of the way to get to the door when my mother calls me back. “I’m in line at security,” she says.


“What changed your mind?”


“I’m a fifty-four-year-old woman. I cannot live my life in fear.”



I spy her on my building’s doorstep, from four stories up. She is covered chin to foot in a camel-colored, fur-trimmed coat. Her bright blond hair spills over the collar. Since the divorce, she has made herself thin and sort of glamorous.


She is also late. More than two hours late. Thirty minutes ago she called from a taxi to say she was on her way but couldn’t talk. Before that, I was very worried. Fear gnawed my stomach from the inside out. I called the airline. The plane had landed safely, on time. So if something had happened, it had happened only to my mother. Baby in my arms, growing heavier by the minute, I paced the apartment. What had she been foreboding? A car accident? A fainting spell?


“I met the pilot,” she says, over coffee, at the cafe around the corner, Broadway and 100, where we have settled ourselves at a cozy table. The baby is asleep in her stroller and I am actually drinking my coffee, my guard down, more relaxed than I’ve felt in weeks. If I need to use the bathroom, my mother can stay with the baby. If the baby wakes unexpectedly, perhaps she can even hold the baby.


“He’s a very nice pilot.” She pauses. “He’s not actually a pilot.”


“What is he?”


“He’s a flight attendant.”


“How did you meet a flight attendant?” I say, pleased by the inanity, the frivolity of this conversation. Really, I am pleased to be having any conversation. I am so happy my mother is here and I am not sitting alone.


“It’s a long story,” she says. “But when I called you from a taxi, it wasn’t really a taxi.”


“What was it?” I say, stupidly, my brain dulled by motherhood, perhaps, which is what happens to you, they say.


“He keeps his car at the airport. He was kind enough to give me a ride.”


“If he gave you a ride, you should have been early. Or at least, not two hours late.” I pause, comprehension forming. “What did you do in his car? Mom?”


“Oh my goodness, nothing like that!” My mother flushes. “But he was very nice. We had a wonderful conversation.”


“That’s great,” I say and I mean it and I would ask for more details, such as whether she’s planning to see him again, but the baby is starting to stir. I watch her like I’m watching a bomb about to explode. Except, if a bomb were about to explode, I’d run. My mother is distracted. She hasn’t noticed yet. I stand from the table. “I’ll be right back. Could you watch her?” I don’t look back.



The last time my mother came to visit, I was very pregnant and my mother was the thinnest I’d ever seen her. She was on a mission. According to her surgeon, you were not supposed to touch your face until you had achieved your ideal weight. This was the reason she hadn’t gotten a mini-facelift years ago. For years, she was a slave to her daily pint of pecan ice cream, until, one day, she wasn’t. One day she realized she could live and thrive on little more than lettuce.


“Don’t lose any more weight,” I told her. “You’re thin enough.”


My mother patted my shoulder. “Don’t take this personally, honey, but your perspective might be a little skewed.” She was very concerned for me and how unwieldy I must feel, how uncomfortable I must be in my swollen body. But I thought I looked fine, maybe better than I’d ever looked. I’d asked her to wait a month before visiting so she could be in town for the birth, but she said she could not push off her trip because she needed to schedule her surgery before the doctor’s schedule was full and she really wanted to get my feedback before she made her final decision. There were so many options, she said—facelift, brow lift, botox. “We could Skype,” I said but she shot that down quickly. She needed me to see her in person, the texture of her skin, the full 360 degrees.


She had not been to the city in a while, since before the divorce. Like a flower, you could see her drinking in the energy; you could see her bloom. Smohio, Ohio, she said, she loved everything about the city, the noise and the streets and the interesting little apartments.


“When you were a baby,” she said, “we lived in an apartment like this.” I knew this story. Living in that apartment as a hopeful young wife was a shining time for her. Dad was gone all day, a low-level administrator, not yet the boss. The days were just us, playing in the complex playground, walking to the mall next door. She loved to tell how there was a hole in the fence between the mall and the complex, two missing boards. The shortcut saved ten minutes walking, a lot in the winter. The geometry of it was tricky, but after many attempts, she figured out how to take me out and angle the stroller through just right.


On that trip, we were both waiting, preparing for a big change. In the mornings, I put on my one pair of dress pants with the stretchy panel and took the train to my boss’s office in midtown East, where I worked as an executive assistant. In the afternoons my mother and I wandered the city in the late September heat, shifting from one café to the next, where I would sit back with my hands on my belly, under which I could feel the baby moving, poking and pushing from inside of my body, and my mind was overtaken with the strangeness of this, I couldn’t really think about anything else, but my mother’s mind was somewhere else. When the waiters came to ask us if we wanted something to drink, she’d be pulling at her face, lifting the skin with her fingers, asking if this was too tight or not tight enough. I wanted to be able to tell her that she looked fine how she was, but the truth was, she looked so much better, younger and fresher, when she lifted up her face.


A week after the baby was born, she backed out of her facelift, paying a steep penalty for the cancellation. She spent her deposit on a peel and fillers instead. “I’d love to come see how you look,” I told her. “But I really can’t leave this baby.”


Now, in the bathroom mirror, I look at my own face, which would look better with a little makeup. I luxuriate in the ease of washing my hands and smoothing out my hair without a baby tucked under my arm. I feel so light and unencumbered I could fly straight up to the sky.



When I get back, the baby is screaming. I hear her before I see her. The sound of her cry is the sound of pure uncomprehending terror. She always sounds like this when she cries. Are these her authentic emotions, I wonder, or is she the girl who cries wolf all day long?


“Where were you?” says my mother, thrusting her into my arms.


People are looking at us. “Let’s go,” I say, as I bounce the baby up and down, bouncing her into oblivion. She quiets and falls asleep. I put her hat on her head and zip her into my coat, which is about three sizes too large for me, chosen because she and I will fit in it together.


On the street, I secure the baby to my body with one hand and push the empty stroller with the other. We trudge uphill and duck our heads against the blustery wind. Snowflakes swirl in the air.


“I think I’m finally ready,” my mother says, “to go back to work.” Now she is skinny and presentable; she has plans to expand her hypnotherapy business, to move from one-on-one sessions to larger seminars on stopping smoking and losing weight. She’s had to stop seeing most of her personal clients because they were getting too personal with her—they told her too much and made her worry at night, made her feel that she should help them in ways that went beyond the scope of hypnotherapy.


I also want to go back to work, but I am only an assistant. By the time we pay a babysitter, we don’t know if it makes any sense. I have the idea that my mother could do it. She could move to the city, watch the baby. In my mind, this is something she ought to do, should want to do, should be asking to do. But she hasn’t asked.


A couple blocks from my apartment, we are brought to a halt. Shouting, brakes screeching, a bicycle tipped over in the street, and a man in sleek spandex clothes standing by, helmet on this head, looking dazed. The driver gets out of the car, a young woman who looks terrified. Her blond hair is sleek and perfect. Her makeup is perfect. She is wearing razor-thin heels and short, wide pants that display her pale, delicate ankles. Her ankles must be freezing. Perhaps she is on her way to an interview? I feel certain that the interview was for the girl’s dream job and that she would have gotten it except that now she will not make the interview. Tears run down her face. “Did I actually hit you?” she says.


“You hit me,” says the man.


We cannot look away. We stay until the police arrive. I bounce to keep the baby asleep. The snow thickens and falls down on our heads and on the scene, obscuring the people and the street and the buildings, obscuring the man on the bicycle and the woman who ran into him, but none of this obscures what my mother and I have seen, by which I mean, the things we have seen in our minds, the more terrible things that could have happened.



We take the baby home. While I am feeding her, my mother dresses for dinner. She puts on a camel-colored dress and a big gold necklace. She looks wonderful. I’ve decided her face looks wonderful, too. The baby presses her soft skin into my skin. Very gently, she pets my shoulder with her chubby baby hand. When she’s done, I put her down on a blanket. I give my mother a hug, and her body feels strange to me, so thin, not at all like the mother I know, a woman who might eat half a cheesecake for dinner then go power-walking through her Ohio neighborhood, at any time of night, arms pumping away, a bullet in white tennis shoes, Walkman tuned to her motivational tape of the moment. She’d come back red-faced and full of ideas. The world is awakening, she might say. Get enlightened or get left behind.


My husband is supposed to be meeting us but he calls to say that he’s running late and we should go on ahead. I don’t have anything to wear and I mean that very literally. The only clothes that fit me are yoga pants, so I put on my nicest yoga pants, the ones that look the most like real pants. I tuck the baby into her stroller and by the time we’re out on the street she’s fallen asleep. My mother and I walk to dinner. We are shown to a table close to the door, presumably because we are saddled with a baby and might need to make a fast escape. Every time someone exits or leaves, we are hit with a blast of cold air, which makes this a terrible table for a baby.


We order a bottle of wine, something my mother and I have never done together. I can’t drink much because of the baby but I assume my husband will take most of my share. I am drinking wine with my mother, who looks like a glamour girl, and she is talking to me about men, how much she wants to meet a man. She orders a salad without any dressing. She takes one tiny sip of wine. I eat all the bread in the basket. I can’t stop drinking the wine or asking my mother questions. I am having a wonderful time. “What about the pilot?” I say. “I mean the flight attendant.”


“Oh,” she says. “Oh, I don’t think so. He’s always traveling all over the place.”


“There’s no reason why you can’t travel,” I say. “Shouldn’t you travel? You’re so free. There’s no reason for you to stay in Ohio. You’re unencumbered. You could travel all the time.” I am getting excited. I keep drinking wine. “You could do your seminars like that,” I say. “You could just travel and give your seminars wherever you travel. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful life? Maybe you should marry the pilot.”


My mother puts down her fork. She is taking a break though she hasn’t eaten anything. “Mark hasn’t called me,” she says. “He said that he would call me but he hasn’t. So I think that we should forget about that.”


“It’s only been a couple of hours,” I say. “Maybe he’ll call you tomorrow.”


“I was hoping that he would meet us for dinner. I was hoping to have a date.”


“Well, I don’t have a date either,” I say. “So I guess we can be each other’s date.” Really, the baby is my date, and I’m worried that my date might be waking up. I watch her like I can hypnotize her with my will to go back to sleep.

“I’m tired,” my mother says.


“Move here!” I say. “There are men everywhere! You’ll get a place near me. You can help with the baby.” As soon as I say this out loud, I realize how badly I want it. “Wouldn’t you like to spend time with the baby? You can help me, I can help you.” I knock over my glass of wine, I am so overwhelmed with the perfection of this idea. As I mop up the mess, I think how this is what I need. This is what she needs. For the first time in many years, my mother and I will fulfill each other’s needs.


My mother shakes her head. “I can’t move here. I don’t like it here. All the people. That accident. I’d be afraid to cross the street.”


“I thought you loved it here,” I say.


“I want to work on my business. I want to work on myself. There are so many years—I really don’t know what I was doing. I need to make up for lost time.”


“The baby’s here,” I say. We both look at the baby, who is starting to stir in her stroller. Her face wrinkles and un-wrinkles. I turn to my mother and I can see that she is unmoved.


Before I can reach her, the baby escalates to a full-on scream. As quick as I can, I lift her out of the stroller, but the crying doesn’t stop. Everyone is looking at us. I bounce and bounce. I look for a nook. The bathroom is tiny. There’s nowhere to go. The screaming gets louder. I am starting to panic. The waiter is approaching. I was silly to bring a baby to this place. In a second, I will get kicked out.


“I’m going outside,” I say to my mother, zipping myself and the baby into my jacket, pulling our hats onto our heads. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ll be back as fast as I can.”


Outside, the snow is falling. It lands gently on our heads while the baby screams. “Don’t cry, baby,” I say. “Don’t cry.” I feel a little woozy, my cheeks flushed and warm from the wine. Despite the crying, I am glad to be outside, where the air is bracing and fresh, where the baby can scream to her heart’s content without disturbing anyone—anyone other than me. This is where we belong.


We walk to the end of the block and come back. The baby is starting to quiet but I can’t quite bring her inside. Through the window, I watch my mother, who is eating her salad, one leaf at a time. She does not touch the bread. She looks lonely to me, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she wants to be lonely. Maybe being lonely is better than the alternatives.


After a couple minutes, my husband shows up with a camel scarf around his neck and ear clips on his ears, huffing from the cold. He is finally here. He is my most familiar person, but I feel like I haven’t seen him in weeks.


“Hey,” he says. “What are you doing out here?” He puts an arm around my shoulder, kisses the top of my head. The baby lets out a sigh and relaxes her body into my body. I relax my body into his body. The snow falls and falls on all of our heads.


“Go in there,” I say. “I’ll be in in a minute. Just sit with her at table, okay?”


“Okay,” says my husband. He opens the door. Warm air rushes out. Cold air rushes in. He greets my mother. He gives her a hug. He takes off his coat and sits in the chair across from her, the chair where I was sitting before. The snow is melting in his dark hair. I can make out the faint sheen of wet. He talks to her, she shows him something in her notebook, and I feel calm, the baby’s body against my body makes me calm, but underneath I am bereft. She starts to smile. He takes a sip of my wine. She takes a bite of her salad.


The Crypt of Civilization

“It’s the size of a swimming pool,” I said, “and locked in stainless steel. Locked for six thousand years, in fact.” I was telling my son about the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule in Atlanta. We were in the basement, sorting his toys into piles. An overdue project, because now he used electric razors; he studied for the driving test. I picked up a tiny plastic mare and her tinier plastic foal. I asked, “Do you want them, your Horse and Baby Joe?”


He shook his head. “Sounds ambitious,” he said, “that thing in Atlanta.” He was burning through the matchbox cars and the doll that looked like a businessman, the Lincoln Logs and the book in which the bear is forever snoring on. Discard, discard, discard.


“These are in there,” I said, holding up a log the size of a finger. “In the Crypt of Civilization.”


“Why save a bunch of sticks?” he said.


I kept talking. Other items in the crypt: recorded birdsong, aluminum foil, ashtrays, the form of a woman’s breast, a “Negro doll,” a piece of soap in the shape of a bull.


“Jesus,” he said, taking a pterosaur from my hands and tossing it with the discards. “Are you kidding me with that list?”


I shrugged. “It was 1940,” I said. “Not a great year for time capsules.” I didn’t say: As if there have been so many other, better years. Our hopes and our hubris, the human experiment laid bare, thanks to the Crypt of Civilization.


His class did a time capsule once, back when he was in the first grade. A moment in time, or, as the principal said, a moment in conversation. “What will we choose?” she’d asked. We were gathered in the gym on parents’ night, the thick heat of September rolling in through the propped-open door. “Will we choose something that says how far our civilization has come, like light bulbs, or will we choose things from today, from here in 2010?”


Later, his dad and I joked. Let’s put in some guns. A bottle of DEET. A white guy billionaire, maybe Jeff Bezos. But our coal hearts burned away when our son chose to add his stuffed lion. Other kids picked the yearbook, mechanical pencils, a photo of Phillip Stanning, the third grader who’d died of leukemia the year before. His parents gave the school their permission.


“Why tell me this now?” my son asked when I reminded him. He glanced at the clock, wanting to go upstairs, but I was thinking of stories unearthed. Of conversations between a dreamed-of future and the best and the worst of our past.


And what of the forgotten capsules? Conversations never had, conversations still in the earth, magnolia roots pushing against old tin boxes, letters in bulldozed attics, bottles left floating eternally at sea, through storms and under scorching skies. A metal ball orbiting the earth, the silence of that, its secrets tucked in like a heart.


“Mom,” he said. “Let’s be done. Let’s give it all away.” It was like this more and more with us. He looked forward, to the car he’d soon drive and the girls he’d soon kiss and to more distant visions—college, roommates, drugs, maybe—while I held his Horse, his Baby Joe and said, let’s build ourselves a capsule.


I scooped the discard pile my way. “I’m saving these,” I said, the Legos and the frog blanket and the board book with a dollop of oatmeal on it, long hardened into milky cement. The toys that came later—the stacking robots, the sticker sheets. He knew it would end this way, and I did too. An hour used or wasted, depending on who you asked.


“Time,” he said, standing up. “You always talk about time.”


As if this was so boring. As if time didn’t start and stop and shift to the left, didn’t corrode and make you whole. Didn’t change little boys who cried as they buried their lions into bigger boys who thought that Lincoln Logs were sticks, discard who they were for who they would become again and again and again.


And what of Phillip Stanning’s parents? Sometimes I wondered, across the hurried years, as the elementary school collected artifacts from one class and then another, moved from one principal to the next. As the Crypt of Civilization sat in its deluded wait. What did time become for them that April afternoon when they put their boy into the ground, when they tucked away that last thing with him, that final conversation, that favorite plushy bird?


A Warning

The water edges closer, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. Nowhere she and her daughters can go.


Once at the very rear of the property, fenced in by sedges and cypress trees, it has risen past its own borders and laps at the ground only a few feet away from the back porch. Funny how the pond itself reminds her of her daughters, neither girl held anymore by the boundaries of childhood, of dollhouses and that insatiable little-girl-need to nurture families of stuffed animals and generations of digital pets, and, yes, occasionally, an actual baby doll with a permanent marker black eye. Now they too have risen, both girls taller than her, their curved bodies full, overflowing jeans that were once baggy, spilling out of bra cups that were once collapsed. It’s time they knew.


On this overcast day of no wind and no fog, the earth has slowed its breakneck spinning to a crawl. Inside the house, the girls are silent as usual. Lately it seems only their bodies belie their presence—the shuffle of bare feet, the hiss of hair and fabric. She calls them now, leads them outside, shows them the water.


“See?” She points. For the first time the water, usually cloudy and a green so dark that it’s a color without a name, is perfectly clear. They can all see it. Past the snails that are close to the shore, past the reedy legs of the wood stork, past the coral rocks and sandy beds of the bluegills, they can all see the dark, see the place where the bottom has given way. It is there that two eyes shimmer at the edge of darkness and rows of teeth as wide as trees, as sharp as razor grass, open and close slowly, and yet the surface of the water is undisturbed, still as death.


“This is here,” she tells them. “Even when the wind blows across the surface and makes glittering waves and swirling eddies and whips your hair across your face and rustles leaves so that all you hear is that seductive call to shhhhh. Even when the sky is bare of clouds, a blue so blue, it penetrates the murk, fools you into seeing some other color. Even when the water is so still and the sun is so bright, you can gaze down and see yourself and the sky together. Even when you are smiling down at your own pretty face and at your very own cloudless sky. Even then.”


She tells them, “Beware.” The girls nod solemnly, and they all go inside. But it’s much later, when the night has come and the winds returned and the earth has gone back to its delirious spin, that she hears them.


They are laughing, giggling, just as they once did and always seemed to do. And yet their laughter is different, and that difference stops her, hands suspended over the fish she has just fileted. She listens, her fingertips on the delicate feather of spine and ribs the knife has exposed.


“Now it’s my turn,” the younger of the two cries out. “You sit here, lie across the floor, and I’ll crawl to you.” And in a moment, there is a roar followed by a scream.


“I am caught, I am being pulled under, there’s no saving me.” The girls’ cries are filled not with terror or sadness but with ecstasy, pure delight.


She takes a deep breath, tries to calm down, tells herself there’s time before the water gets too close, before it sinks down into the earth, undermines the ground beneath them, swallows everything up in one satisfied gulp. But before she can stop herself, she is pounding on the door to the room the two girls share.


The girls go quiet, but she can’t help herself. She is shouting, telling them it’s much too late for screaming or laughing or playing of any sort, crying out that the time for all of that is over, and all that is left for them to do now is go to sleep, even though it is early still, even though she must still cook their dinner and watch them eat the fish she prepared, urging them with each bite to take care not to swallow any bones.



In the night sky, Arabs see al’awa’id,

the Mother Camels, a pattern of stars

that seem to gather around a calf

and protect her from hyenas.


In the life before this one, daughter,

I might have carried you for just over a year,

and delivered you to your first slow,

searing desert breaths.


The camel mare is the only mammal

who does not clean her infant

after birth, nor bite through the umbilical cord.


Another cord binds me to you;

it runs from brainstem

to lumbar region, with nerve roots,

dorsal roots, ventral roots,


the peripheral butterfly columns,

and the cauda equine (horse’s tail),

motor supply for the perineum

that brought you into light in late

September, a desert sunflower,


your eyes dolly-blue, to gift me

my happiest autumn.


A calf is born with eyes open.

Did you know camels always face the sun?


Their lovely long eyelashes

and their tears protect their eyes

from sand and grit and blindness.


We were nomads, in that other life;

maybe that is why I do not see you

as much as I would like, but we are bound

to each other nonetheless.


You’ll find me waiting in al’awa’id

even at the dawn of my next life.



Interview: Ana Castillo



Ana Castillo is a much-celebrated voice in Chicana literature and feminism, or, as she puts it, “xicanisma,” a term she coined to describe a non-binary approach to the issues of gender, class, and race. Her publications include eight novels, one collection of short stories, five collections of poetry, a two-play volume, and a children’s book, and, as well as two books of nonfiction, the latest of which, Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me (Feminist Press, 2016), was recently out when this interview was conducted in November of 2016. She has also edited three collections of Latina/o literature and translated a Spanish-language adaptation of Cherrie Moraga’s The Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, one of the touchstones of efforts to challenge the lack of women of color in the feminist movement. Her novel Sapogonia was named a New York Times Notable Book, and she has received numerous awards, including National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, a Carl Sandburg Award, a Sor Juana Achievement Award, and the American Studies Association’s Gloria Anzaldúa Prize. She holds a B.A. in art from Northwestern Illinois University, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. from the University of Bremen, Germany, and was appointed the first Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Endowed Chair at DePaul University, as well has having taught at numerous other colleges and universities.


An excerpt from Black Dove appears in 41.2 of the print Florida Review, and the book is reviewed here in Aquifer.


Lisa Roney for The Florida Review:

I’ve admired your work for a long time, and the first thing I wanted to say was what a gripping read Black Dove is. Tell me about this book and about how it evolved for you.


Ana Castillo:

It’s a compilation of personal essays and memoir, and I distinguish the two things—the essays were written for a more general audience and with a theme in mind, and the memoir comes from a very much more personal place. The earliest one, which is also the leading one, is called “My Mother’s México,” and I wrote and published it in the early nineties—’94, I think it first came out. I always thought that I would do a collection of essays eventually called “My Mother’s México,” and it would be along the lines of being a daughter and having been my mother’s daughter and so forth, but as time went on my role in life became more as mother than as daughter. My mother passed on over twenty years ago, and I raised my son almost all his life as a single mother.


That’s a really important part of this book—being a single mother, being a brown woman in this country with a brown young man that was growing up. Whether or not a single mother can successfully raise a man is always in question. I think I did a good job as long as he was on my watch. He did well in school, he went straight through university, got his degree, he became a dad and was supporting his family during the recession, but then became very depressed and began to spiral. I didn’t really know what was going on—he’s already an adult at this point, in his mid-twenties, and has his own little family to take care of, so as a mother I’m a little bit more on the outside—and when he hit bottom he committed a senseless robbery—of an institution, unarmed. It felt like he was ejecting himself from the world of society, and that was really the catalyst eventually for much of what I wrote.


His voice is also included in the book from some of the letters we exchanged. We decided to share the story. We are in a country that that supports a multibillion-dollar prison industry. We find all kinds of people becoming felons at the time that my son was arrested—in Chicago, two governors of Illinois were in federal prison at the time!—but whereas those guys will come out and have their friends and their connections and they will have work and will have homes and places to go, many of our incarcerated, when they’re felons, they come out and then they have to face the challenge of not being given jobs that they’re qualified for. They have children, families to support and to house. They are not rented to, they can’t get a home, they can’t get loans. So, we are perpetuating a society in which we continue to castigate individuals, but sort of encourage them some in some cases to continue that cycle.


My story turns out to be a good one. My son came out, he was well, he was ready to take on his life, and he’s an awesome dad with a growing little girl, but he has had those challenges. It was because we wanted to share that story that that I decided to put this collection together.



And there are ways in which that content and theme is supported even from the first word. I found the structure of the of the book quite moving because you set it up as it is a family saga, so right away you acknowledge it goes beyond you individually. There was this sense of family and people and community and the way they all work together.


I want to ask about to what extent that trauma of having your son incarcerated turned you toward the book-length memoir. You’ve been writing these pieces for some time about your mother and so on, but do you think that there was a way that this was a point where you felt, I have to speak as myself, not as a fictional character, about this kind of situation? Was it related to a different type of activism for you than fiction or poetry?



Yes, indeed. I think that it was. A big, big part of my life is having been a mother. It was something I chose to do. When I chose to become a mother, it was just before the precipice of when we begin to get U.S. Latinas recognized in this country as writers, as part of a generation of writers. So, I had to have a vision of myself being a mother—What does that mean? How does that change my life?—but, also, I’m not going to give up this vision of being a writer and being published in a country that has no history of that. Those things have been really important for me—being vocal and being part of this large community of Latinos and people of color in this country. My writing has been my form of activism. But my heart was so broken with my son being broken that ironically initially I couldn’t even write in my journal. I was that broken-hearted. I knew that the gods had given him and given me a second chance because he at least had not been killed and had not killed himself—and there were many opportunities in the society that I’m talking about in which that could happen to a young man of color, not only during his senseless criminal act, but he also as a teenager had been involved in graffiti and lost a lot of friends on the streets of Chicago. There’s “stop and search,” and my son had been beaten up by the police for no reason except getting off at the train station with a couple of guys, and maybe, maybe, if you acted up or responded, that’s what happened. So, this was building up, but I thought by the time he was a young family man in his late twenties, Well, we’re home free, and yet he had become this very angry man, as many males of color have a right to be.


This is where I was losing my voice, so to speak, as far as writing so that initially I couldn’t write at all about it. We came together—and we have some of that in this book—my son and I came together, interestingly enough, through our love of books and writing. There’s an exchange of excerpts of our letters in the book, how I began to reach out to him and bring him back. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance beforehand, no connection. He played cello in high school, but he didn’t talk about music and he didn’t know how or want to play music anymore—just gone. So, how do we begin to have conversations and discussions? We did that through books. He would ask for books, and I sent them to him, and I would read them.


In the process of this we shared Charles Bukowski—he wanted to read Bukowski’s poetry, and I read his prose. It kind of inspired me, and, in the process of this moment, I actually whipped out a novel called Give It to Me, which was published by the Feminist Press, and it was so far away from what I was experiencing—this sort of (I hope) funny, really quirky story where she [the main character] was having a lot of sex in the midst of this crazy, old politics. It was just like, Let me escape. So, I did that. I got the writing going again, the fiction.


Eventually, we decided to share our story because we do have a lot of communities across the board—racially, because of gender or religion, or otherwise demographically—that are made ashamed and are being punished by this culture.



Even often there is that sense of Well, if you’re a well-behaved person of color, this isn’t gonna happen to you. I was very glad and moved that you went out on the limb and said, No, I did everything right, and it didn’t matter. My son was still subject to these forces, and he did everything right—he went to college, he was taking care of his family, and yet there was still this justifiable anger that had to come out somehow.



And at no time does he or do I excuse his behavior. He went out and he committed a senseless robbery, though he did not threaten anybody. It was the accumulation of anger that he had felt toward the system and what was going on—this was during the fallout with the banks and everything else that was happening. It’s not to excuse breaking the law.


By the same token, I talk about the fact that I know that he smoked weed, which I don’t have a moral objection to or anything, and some of this was self-medicating. Again, I’m not making excuses, I’m not saying it’s okay. I had taken him to Amsterdam when he was in college—I did a reading in Germany, and we went off to Amsterdam—so, it’s okay if you’re in Colorado, it’s okay now in California, but if it’s not okay don’t get caught with it. Once again, it’s no excuse if you get caught with it, and that was part of what was going on with him at that time, a resentment over the hypocrisy.


Nevertheless, [as a society] we’re not looking at the constant harassment of people of color. In this case, as a mother of a son, I’m looking at men being harassed and what happens. Again, it’s not to justify some reaction that’s illegal, but this is who you’re forming. I grew up as a brown girl in Chicago, and I had a lot of anger throughout my twenties. I actually went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, so I was a bright, self-motivated woman, but was always getting stopped, even then, by police, with your standard excuse about the taillight to ask you about your papers. It builds up in people.



It does, absolutely. I’ll come back to the social commentary aspects, but I wanted to ask about how, even though there is anger and tragedy woven through this book, and also a kind and also a mystical tone that is quite beautiful and poetic, there’s also the sassy in it as well and little moments of humor. Could you comment about the role of humor in the book and how you see that? Was it something that you worked on or was it just something that came out of you naturally as a sort of antidote or complement to the other emotions that this book so strongly brings?



You know, writing funny is very hard. Writing humor is difficult, and when I when I knocked out Give It to Me, I really needed some levity my life. It was tragic—I was comparing my son in my head to, like, Odysseus, though he’s not a king and not a hero, but the mother ends up in Hell. I often come up with these connections in my head, and so I twist that and find irony—more than funny, I look for irony. That’s important, when you’re telling a story, whether it’s a quote-unquote true story, nonfiction, or you’re making up a story, and you’re giving it to the reader, you’ve got to have some moments of levity to give the reader a respite, a little island, an oasis. I’m happy that the book has some of that, not necessarily always together in the same essay but in other places.


My aunt, my mother’s sister, was always and remains a very colorful character, and certainly because of her joie de vivre, which she was born with, I was able to get a little levity to balance my mother’s somber personality. In the book, I talk about the influence of my aunt in my life and the things that I saw with her—the flirtation, her love of cooking, her flair for dressing, and so on—and all despite her very humble lifestyle. I think that there’s part of that in my personality, and this is how I can get through life—by thinking of the irony of certain situations.


At the same time, as a writer, even as a poet, you have to give your reader a break. If it’s pretty relentless but it has to be told, you have to have a host a little way-station for people so that they can catch their breath and then go on



And maybe for yourself as a writer, too.






Speaking of your Tía Flora’s personality, there is a video of you online, in which you talk about how important Germaine Greer was to you in bringing up for you that challenge of being happy as a woman in our society, and I thought that the portraits of your somber grandmothers and mother contrasted really with the indomitable, lively portrait of Flora. What do you think about the balance of those different influences on you?



Just let me say that my Tía Flora is eighty-six. She’s outliving everybody. This just made me think about it. Maybe there’s something to that ability to laugh through all kinds of hardships. She had by no means an easy childhood in México City. She was orphaned, she married young, her husband was killed, she had two children at that time. She came to Chicago, became a seamstress in a little kind of quasi-sweatshop factory in the Mexican neighborhood there, her second husband became an alcoholic, and by then she had five children. All this time, this lovely person has a flair, as I said, for carrying herself like Queen Nefertiti down the street.


How she influenced me—since I knew her from when I was very small when she came from México City—was having that contrast in her personality. I like clothes and I like fashion, but it wasn’t necessarily encouraged anywhere around me. Dance music. Having a nice margarita. I learned about a margarita from my aunt. [Laughs.] Back in her in her kitchen, she used to make them in martini glasses when I was a kid. While she’s cooking for everybody, she’s happy with the radio on.


I think it’s really important for all of us, but particularly, I would say, for girls to have that balance and to be able know that they are not just lovable but they can embrace all of who they are. That means it’s great to have a brain, which I am happy that I celebrate, and I work at that, but it’s okay to be lovely and enjoy all the other things that I am as a woman.



You mentioned Clarice Lispector, a writer whose works Near to the Wild Heart and Apple in the Dark I’m fond of. My writing teacher Paul West introduced me to her work.



Hour of the Star is my favorite. They made a wonderful movie of it, too, some years ago. It’s really beautiful.



Paul was a great teacher, and he was insistent that we needed to read beyond the borders of the traditional U.S. territory. He inspired us to read widely and internationally. You’ve often spoken about a lack of Chicana role models in your education. I was wondering to what extent you see your work connected to the Latin American literary tradition—the strong tradition of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Amado, Borges, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa—or has it been more about building a new tradition here in the U.S.?



I can only speak for myself—I was a self-taught writer. I didn’t go through an English department program or Spanish department program or literature or MFA program. At the University of Chicago for graduate school, I got into their very new, at that time, Latin American Studies program, but it was seen as political science, so I saw myself doing something else other than writing, even though I was writing. Aside from the political interests that I had, I also did visual art, so I thought, if anything in the arts, I was going to be a painter. I started looking at poetry and literature sort of visually.


The [Spanish-language] literature that was being translated and brought to this country at that time was from the Latin American boom. Before I really saw myself as ever becoming a fiction writer—although on the side I liked to write little stories and wrote my poems—I was reading Jorge Amado, I was reading Cortázar. My first novel is dedicated to Julio Cortázar, so people think that he was my big influence, when actually I was reading everybody, all these guys, and I had this idea to do something like Julio Cortázar had already done [laughs]—because they’re very innovative. They were doing all kinds of things, not just what was later called magical realism, but playing with structure and so on. So, yes, indeed, we, by all means, have that connection—I think of Carlos Fuentes, too. I looked to them also because of the Catholicism, with the history of our families and legacies, there were a lot of connections along those lines.


I do believe, also, that, in time, as U.S.-Latino/a literature start to rise up—and certainly by now it’s made its claim in the world—there was also a reciprocation. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, Chicana feminists were having conversations with Mexican feminists, and so there was initially a very strong, deliberate contact and communication and encouragement going both ways, even though we wrote in English and even though we were considered privileged Yankees. [Laughs.] The irony was that most of us came from working-class backgrounds. We were dark-skinned, dark-haired girls, and these women writers [in México] had European last names, privileged backgrounds and education, and were multi-lingual. They wrote in French and in English [as well as Spanish], and we were just writing our English that we knew from our Chicago Public School System. But there was that connection that we have a history of colonialism, through the history of the conquest of México and South America, so, yes, I do see that. I’m very happy that to some degree at least, even though very few of my books are available in Latin America, that I am seen as having that connection with Latin America and the Caribbean, too.



You’ve also spoken in the past a bit about living life “on the hyphen,” a term, I believe that was coined to describe Cuban-American experience, but that has been used in a variety of ways since then to describe positions that combine nationalities, but also being multi-lingual, bi-sexual, and so on. My sense is that in the literary world this has come, more and more, to be seen as a positive quality that also has influenced our literature with the mixing of boundaries of genre and form and so on, as in the inclusion of the letters you exchanged with your son in Black Dove. Have you experienced any change in attitude, an acknowledgement of the positive nature of hybrid spaces and forms?



It’s a reality. But it depends on who you’re talking to. I’m feeling today [November 20, 2016] a little less optimistic about those views. Particularly with the idea that if there is going to be a tone in this country about people who have quote-unquote immigrated here—whether or not they actually have immigrated—and we begin to do racial profiling, then, no, it will definitely not be seen as a positive. If we’re going to start questioning women’s rights, some of the progress that’s been made for women and our roles as women, and if we’re going to start questioning same-sex rights, then, no, it’s not going to be seen as a positive. Indeed, I think a lot of that negativity is as being brought forth, and if it’s viewed as validated and affirmed by our leaders, then, of course, those people who are in disagreement with our rights are going to feel happy—they are feeling happy—to come to the forefront.


Prior to that feeling, to some degree, yes, I did feel that we have made enormous amount of strides, thankfully, and not just in this country, but in the world, especially when we’re talking about women’s rights and the rights of transgendered, queer-identified individuals, moving away from the binary view, after so long of a very skewed view of what it was to be American. I think that I look as American as anybody can look, since I look very indigenous, and yet, of course, I’m always asked, Where you from? Where you from? Where? I was just asked

here by a writer in the authors’ lounge who came up and introduced himself, and the first or second thing he said to me was, “What country are you from?” I told him, “Chicago.” [Laughs.] He had a Bernie T-shirt on, so I was really surprised.



You are a writer who’s had a long-term activist consciousness, so what can you tell me about our current moment and the role of writers in it? Not that I want to burden you with having all the answers, but I’ve been asking everyone this—what does this time imply for writers? Has the current climate affected your writing?



I’ve been writing and publishing for four decades, and I remember the night that Reagan was elected—I wanted to leave the country then, but I didn’t. Someone brought this up recently and said, “Well, you went through Reagan,” and I said, “Yes but this has been a progression with the Republican party, and Reagan wasn’t an overt misogynist. We all know he adored Nancy, and his son was gay. He was an old-school gentleman, although he was a major imperialist. That speaks for itself, but this is moving in an unprecedented direction.


I feel devastated emotionally, morally. I know that Trump did not win the popular vote. But, it’s all very unbelievable. Some of the Republicans are also in shock that that’s their new leader, so there’s a dream that some people have that this term cannot last. Let’s see how much damage he’ll do before that might happen. With all of that in mind, I’m trying my very best personally to, as Obama said, get over my moodiness, to stop feeling sorry for myself, to get up and do something.


This moment is shocking. It’s shocking when you’re a woman walking around, catching a bus, or your children are in school being harassed. If you’re being protected by the Secret Service or leading a very protected life, maybe you’re not realizing what happens to people in their everyday experience. So, I’m in these past ten days trying to move from that shock, that sucker-punch that the electoral vote gave us and telling myself that I have to remember who I’ve been, why I’ve been writing all these years, and that I cannot be afraid to speak out. If that’s all I do—if I just speak out, if I respond to some of the invitations I get to write for people’s blogs or their zines—I have a zine myself—La Tolteca: Promoting the Advancement of a World without Borders & Censorship—I’ve been doing it for about six, seven years now. I feel like I have to do that. I can’t be afraid, and that’s all I can do. I can do other things—you donate money to organizations you believe in, if you can go march you can go do that, anything at all, including lighting candles and incense and praying to whomever you pray to. Whatever it takes for you to lift yourself up to do it—that’s what I think each of us has to do. And be there for each other.



The Boy

Two down. Two Greyhound days down, and Texas by morning, so Billy figured. Dallas by noon, and then, who could say? Across the bus’s wide aisle from him, Sam slept, her boy tucked into the crook of her back, the both of them curled against the upholstered plastic of two cruddy seats. Sam cropped her hair high and tight, like a boy’s, like her boy’s, but it had grown out of late, pressing up from her scalp in ragged shoots. Messy. Ugly. Billy sprawled himself over two seats of his own, one sneakered leg thrown sideways from his hip into the empty aisle seat, a single sentence writ across his face: “I dare you to sit with me, motherfucker.” Dallas by noon, and then, a new life to last him for good. Girl and girl’s bastard in tow, but a life of unknown newness nonetheless.


Boy and mother turned in dream. The boy woke for a moment and scrambled to his mother’s lap. Lodged against her breasts, the boy folded his feet into the seam of Sam’s legs. Thomas. Small for four, already blessed by thick glasses with brown, gawky frames, the only ones available to the state Medicaid patients. The boy wore a button-up shirt beneath a natty pullover vest, though the temperature had topped eighty the long way across Indiana. Thomas’s wrists were thin. Thin wrists meant a boy would always be small, even when he grew. Like with feet on a kitten, the forever smallness of things betrayed by wrists and feet.


Billy held up his own hands. His wrists were solid, comfortingly so.


Outside, the last, drab Hoosier fields passed by, Michigan long gone. Corn melded on the pane with the boy’s mirrored, blond head.


Billy knew that Thomas would grow up to be an outcast, too weak for sports, too gangly for girls. He pitied the boy, saw how much a problem the boy already was and, from the look of his bones, would always be. High school, where Billy had shined, would be awful for the boy, and there was Billy in that satin-framed future, around to see the whole damn pageant. Unless Thomas someday found the thin-wrested gumption to run away in the steep of night.


Billy bent to Sam, to kiss her, but the smell of her made him stop. She’d not had a good wash, anything more than a splashdown from a tepid faucet in a truck stop restroom outside LaPorte in more than a day. He hated Sam’s smell when she hadn’t washed. She didn’t smell like a woman, so he thought, but more like old milk left out on a counter. And he’d done that once, in a Southfield apartment, gone and left a gallon of milk out behind a pile of dirty dishes after he was done eating a bowl of Corn Flakes. Days passed before he remembered, tracked down the faint hissing sound which had plagued his space for days, the sussurations of the sour milk’s vapors in escape from around the cap. The bottle, swollen fat and pregnant, he’d thrown carefully away.


Billy fancied himself an expert on scent. Scent was the hook, not looks or money, that really attracted one of a pair to another, nothing but scent. Pheromones, the odors a body produced by the natural order of being a body and which really did it for some other poor sack of blind and groping meat. A part of Billy supposed, maybe, that he should love Sam even when dirty, when awake or asleep, but he could only smell what he smelled, only the scents brought to his waiting nose, what came.


Billy also knew that the boy, Thomas, was the real problem between them. Not bad scent. Without Thomas, he and Sam could’ve left D-Town years ago, escaped to warmer nights and better jobs, because Sam wouldn’t have needed her mother for day care and diaper cash. If he’d met Sam before whoever-was-Dad had done, they’d already be gone, years hence, a few short but happy lifetimes ago.


Billy thought of Mary Saunders from his twelfth-grade homeroom. Near on five years had passed since he’d sat next to that crazy Mary. Mary Carrie they’d called her, after the movie. While he waited for the first-period bell, she’d make eyes on the pages of her notebook, scores of them, like laden plates of fish-egg bait. He’d never been close enough to smell her to tell if she had good pheromones, but he’d bet not. Sour for certain, full of salt and old cold cream.


Sam stirred, pushing against the child on her lap.


“My leg’s asleep,” she said, before turning her head to the window.


She revolved her body as far away from Billy as she could, and Thomas’s right leg slipped off her knee. The high-top sneaker hit the underside of the seat in front of them with a metallic ping, bounced off a heater grate, and so many miles rolled by, Billy’s head flushed awash in visions. He became lost among visionaries. He was lost already.

Dallas was hot that June. The temperature reads they passed in the taxi, going from the bus station to the motel, blared 104, 105 in gaudy florescence, like advertisements for the pleasanter coast of Hell. People outside walked briskly with their shoulders squared and their backs erect, moving as though proud that they were here, swarming in the heat and taking it well.


“This is awful,” Sam said. “A hundred and five? Give me a fucking break.”


“Dry heat,” Billy said. “You can feel the difference. Ninety’ll break a back in Michigan because of the humidity. Humidity’s what makes heat rough.”


“We shouldn’t have done this,” she said.


“My great-grandfather,” he said. “You know what he wanted? He wanted to marry a Dutch girl before he came to America. He tried to find the right woman for weeks. Couldn’t do it, but he looked, right up until they loaded his bags on the boat. Still, he wanted a girl from home, so you know what he did?”


“Gave up?” she asked. “Got on the boat by himself like a grown-up?”


“He went to a brothel, right there in Amsterdam, asked if any of the girls would marry him. ‘Somebody wanna marry me?’ he asked. ‘Get up right now and I’ll pay your way to America.’ So my great-gramma, she stood up and said she’d do it. She came with him.”


“Great,” Sam said. “I’m thrilled. It’s still too hot.”


“They were married fifty-seven years,” Billy said, nodding. “We could be like that, you and me, if you got a better attitude.”


“So if I get a better attitude,” Sam said, “I can be a whore. Bought and borne for your stupid ass.”


Though Billy searched her for intent—jest or wrath—he saw only the long lines of her face gaping back at him. Her eyes were closed, her mouth thin-lipped, her arms held close to her chest. Her body braced, all of her an oracle of nothing, a fount of excommunication.

They bought a room for the night, one with a single bed, wood paneling, and no AC. Sam cracked the lone window as far as it would go, three or four inches, before the painted-clogged jamb stopped its slide dead. She craned her neck askance and put her face into the crevice. She grimaced, scrunching her features shut and strained. Billy could swear her face pinched and shrunk, as though trying to slide out between the frames.


Thomas sat on the corner of the bed, rummaging through his tiny, hard plastic suitcase. The contents were limited, only a shirt or two and a pair of swimming trunks. Sam had wanted him to have something to carry, to train him a little with some responsibility, but he had nothing that couldn’t be replaced if he left the bag behind in a gas station bathroom. From somewhere deep within the case, a pocket that Billy couldn’t even see, the boy pulled out a stuffed animal he’d ferreted away on his own, a toy ghost come all the way from Detroit.


Billy frowned. “What the hell is that?”


“Super Banana,” Thomas answered.


“Oh, leave him alone, will you,” Sam said from her window. She lay flat on the sill, fanning her face with a Mexican take-out menu someone had left on the peeling Formica countertop in the ‘kitchen,’ just a nook on the far side of the room that couched a sink and a battered, broken stove.


“He is a boy, isn’t he?” Billy asked.


“He’s four.”


“So he can still be a four-year-old with some balls.”


Thomas ignored them, flying his stuffed, man-shaped banana around the room. The toy had arms and legs made of rainbow shoestrings. Machined, white leather hands and sneakers. As he dragged the toy across the end table beside the bed, which held nothing but a single lamp and an ashtray, one of the toy’s legs caught in the ashtray’s cigarette rest, and, as he flew it by, the boy pulled the ashtray off the table and across the bed, still attached to the banana. Leftover, metal-gray ashes spilled out onto the ivory sheet. Billy stared at the pile, on his side of the bed. He let out a long sigh and stood immobile.


Thomas stopped playing and tried to tug the toy loose, but the leg was wedged in good. A minute and the boy whimpered, then softly cried.


Vacating the window, Sam came to him. She cradled his shoulders and removed the toy from his hands. Gently, she pulled the leg free of the ashtray.


“Maybe I should cry, too,” Billy said. “Until somebody helps me. It’s my money for this palace. My job quit. My ass in the ashpile.”


“Don’t,” Sam said, hugging her boy.


“A place like this won’t change the sheets twice. You know that as good as me.”


“Please,” she said.


“Lucky they were clean in the first place.”


Billy could feel the ashes already. They pasted themselves, cold and slippery, against his back. His night would be a sleep on shoreline dirt, the absent tide gone and not coming back.


He slumped into a tattered armchair in the corner and tried to rub himself free of the slick mess he swore was on him, but he couldn’t.


This was a mistake. His life was a mistake, everything that had followed the doctor’s slap and his first heaving breath.


Even if he brushed the ashes away, they’d have worked their shitty fingers into the cloth, buried themselves in the fibers. They were waiting for him, and him alone, and once they hopped aboard his skin, he would never be rid of them, not of a single mote, and he’d wake up in the morning as dirty as a mule, every morning, ever after.

By Wednesday night, when the travel money was gone, Sam started in on a nonstop cry, one lugged up from a bottomless well in a broken pail, one that slaked the room’s thirst with nothing wetter than a woman’s constant regret. Her eyes were inflamed, the lids pinkeye swollen, the whites tarnished with windshield cracks of red.


Billy pulled off his shirt and tossed it on top of the pile they’d grown in the corner beside the chair, because they hadn’t yet found a laundromat close enough for walking.


Sam gripped the Mexican menu in one hand, fanning herself. Eight in the evening, the temp ninety, more than ninety. She was pallid; she looked boiled. In her other hand, she held a rolled-up Vogue, stained by irregular shapes on its back cover, an ad for a fancy perfume.


“Cockroaches, now, too” she sniffled. “I’ve been after them all day.”


Billy looked closer. Carcasses speckled the wall behind her.


“I would’ve cleaned,” she said. “But, you know. If you turn your back.”


Her skin looked blue with dirt, her hair like a helmet of grease. Billy wondered if she’d been in the shower since they’d arrived.


Thomas dangled off the edge of the bed, at practice in the tying of his shoes, pulling one loop around the other with repeated circles of motion. Billy sat down beside the boy and showed him the right way, once again. Billy’s fingers moved quick and sure, and maybe just a little too angry, so when he pulled too hard as he unknotted the left shoe, Thomas looked ready to tear up again himself.


Billy refused to comfort him. The world was hard. The boy was so different, different like someone else’s child.


“There’s a kitty outside,” Thomas said, watching Billy’s hands as he started on the right shoe. “He eats everything, even pretzels.” The boy giggled, indelibly amused.


Billy nodded, remembering the animal from when he’d gone job hunting that morning, a scrawny stray with orange tiger coloring and two torn, Tom’s ears. The cat looked mangy, and had an unnatural lump on its back the size of a golf ball.


Billy double-knotted the sneaker. “You can’t have pets here,” he said.


“Someone should report us to management, then,” Sam said. “Got us a number of violations racked up.”


She whacked the wall, loud enough to make the neighbor next door pound back and yell in his familiar, throaty Spanish. When she pulled the magazine back, a new squash appeared beneath it on the wall, gleaming brownly in the light of the table lamp.


No comprendo,” she yelled. “No comprendo, la cucaracha.”


“Fine, then,” Billy said. “Five damn days before you gave up.”


He rose from the bed, leaving Thomas with one shoe still untied, and threw open the screen door. A horde of moths flew up towards the square-domed light above the room number—14, with the four hanging upside down.


Billy stood in the doorway, feeling the heat on his chest like the press of stones beneath an unmade plea. The fight was already long over, the field long deserted, the battle lost. Nothing left out here but the maimed and the dead.


He came back in, but left the door open. He fell backwards onto the bed, let himself go limp as he fell so that his weight bounced Thomas off onto the floor. The boy landed somewhere out of sight in a tangle of elbows and knees. Billy could feel the old, flattened ashes beneath him, cool and oily against his skin. He ground hard against them.


Sam unrolled the magazine and pretended to read, sniffling again. They all ignored the open door as though a cloud of mosquitoes wasn’t drifting in, and a crush of heat, and after a minute, the scraggly cat, which appeared in the jamb. It stepped across the threshold. Thomas ran to it and pulled it into his arms. The animal allowed him the expression of love without reservation.


Thomas took the cat to the chintzy corner chair and sat with it crushed against his lap. He petted the cat with a furious hand, petted as a man might sand a board. The lump on its back was a different color than the rest of its back, pinkish and lighter, where soft fur from underneath showed through. A tumor, then, of some sort, but Thomas didn’t care, rubbing the cat’s back and shoulders, squeezing its angry and tolerant face.


Billy got off the bed and brushed at his back. He made the motion a second time, rubbing and scratching and trying so desperately to remove the ashes, but they simply wouldn’t let go. He could feel them, tarnishing the skein of his innermost wants. He walked across to Thomas and swatted the cat out of his arms, stamped his foot once to frighten it, and the animal bounded, jangling claws on the linoleum by the door, absenting itself off into the nightdark.


Billy slung his arm behind his back, felt the sharp blade of his protruding shoulder, and scratched, dug, churned. He could feel the ashes, surely. Surely. He marveled as his arm came back out into the vacuum of space before his eyes. He watched the slow-motion arc of the arm of another man, another man with less patience, another man with less hope left alive inside, with less weight in his pants and his heart. This other man’s arm came flying off from his own dirty back, and the hand, that bad, that bad, that so bad hand, it slapped the boy, once, just a single time, backhanded him across the face.


No one moved in all the room, or spoke, or took in a needed breath, and the all of them remained frozen for minutes that were really hours, hours that presented time enough for thought, and reflection, and the sheer thrill of wonderment.

In the morning, the door still hung open, Sam and Thomas long gone into its sunborne frame.


Billy, woken alone upon the bed, regretted his loss with a vagueness more appropriate to a missing set of keys, and in truth, he couldn’t properly identify the source of all his grief, wasn’t sure, was it the slap, or the dirt, or Dallas itself which had burned away all his possibilities, all those supposedly first-class and everlasting years which his mother had once told him lay ahead of all good boys.


Across the room, the cat slept on the floor beneath the armchair. Beside the cat, a pile of old potato chip crumbs drained oil into the shag carpet at the chair’s foot. Bites, from fleas or mosquitoes he couldn’t say, dotted Billy’s arms and chest. They itched, and he tried not to touch them because he knew that if he let go on them, then the wounds would really want.


The bites stared up at him like myriad eyes, and he thought of Mary Carrie Saunders for the second time in a week, creating an audience in homeroom. Sometimes, she began the eyes with a series of dots, pinpricks of her ballpoint, and she’d come back later and circle them. She always drew them quick, was resolute in moving on, as if she knew that completing an eye gave it the power of true sight. Other times, the circles first, and then the dots, slammed home with vaccination stabs.


Sam had left him the magazine, para las cucarachas.


Billy got up, then sat in the chair where he’d hit the boy. Three cockroaches scurried across the far wall, bold now, running sprints. The cat woke, found Billy, and crawled into his lap. So, then. He was forgiven.


Billy looked down at the cat, a precarious bird perched on his legs, each of its scraggly paws made into a pinpoint of balance. The cat lapped at his arm hair with a long, coarse tongue, a pink fire, living and alive. After finishing with his arms, the cat stayed in his lap, settled and kneading, and then spreading out flat across his thighs. A chorus of fleas squirmed in its fur. The animal cleaned its face, tonguing a front paw and passing the wet limb over the lids of its eyes. He could picture Sam in Southfield, leaning back on a green plaid sofa and telling her mother what a bastard he was, how awful a summer in Texas could be. But that was okay. He knew better. If it weren’t for her boy, she would be with him still, be here, be contented, pulling down a beer from the 7-11. Laughing. If it weren’t for her boy.


The Girl in the Boat

The nurse presents my second daughter, but my eyes are still trained on my first across the room—too silent and large and blue in the hands of the doctors. My boyfriend shakes his head. I say: We’ll get through this. He kisses Lily, sticky and swaddled in my arms, stares at Daisy as she takes her first uncertain breath, and leaves. Two days, the doctors say. Two months. Two years. And then, we honestly don’t know; she could go at any time. The girls and I live with my parents. When Lily comes home from school, she watches TV with her sister, helps feed and change her. Nobody can reach Daisy like she can. Seems to laugh at her funny faces, seems to watch her color and finger paint. Everything is “seems to” because who can be sure? Both girls have my brown-speckled blue eyes but few would see a resemblance beyond that. Daisy’s head is abnormally large as if somebody had stuffed a globe inside, warping her brow, her nose, the space between her eyes. And like a globe, the inside of Daisy’s head is largely empty, occupied by only a small cephalic ocean.

On the girls’ fifth birthday, Daisy is brought to the emergency room in a Koala onesie after seizing during cupcake time. Born with only a brain stem and a hint of the cerebellum. Never to be voted the nicest, the most stylish, the leader of the pack in a yearbook. Never to go to school or fulfill a dream. The doctors say probably a lot. She probably hears but we don’t know if she can understand. Her eyes are fine, but there’s nothing to process images with.


I know she can recognize me, I tell them again.


In the waiting room, Lily eats Funions from the vending machines and builds a Lego pioneer wagon on the ground. Her grandparents buy her an ice cream from the cafeteria and a bear from the gift shop. She asks me if her sister is going to die.

Whenever I bring home Daisy from the hospital, which seems like every week for the first couple of years, I carry her everywhere. Already, we have beaten the odds. There is a fold-up playpen in the bathroom, in the kitchen, and in the basement next to the washing machine. Lily, though the same age as Daisy, has had to grow up fast. She asks me to look at what she did at school—a macaroni necklace, the Valentine’s Day cards she got in her construction-paper mailbox—but I only know about these things because I see them days during a rare moment of rest. My father lumbers to the dining table every morning and gives Lily the comics from the paper while he works on the Jumble. My mother wishes I would let them watch Daisy more, so I could take Lily out. “The poor girl doesn’t know what to do with herself,” my mother says.


“When Daisy gets better,” I say. “When I get a full-time teaching job.”


My mother waddles around the table, trying not to put pressure on her gout, and whispers into my ear: “Andrea, she’s not going to get better. We love her, but you can’t keep living like this. We can find someone to help.”


“She needs me. Besides, where are we going to find the money?” I point to the stack of unopened bills on the table. 2nd notice. 3rd notice. Envelopes from collection agencies. I am afraid if I leave Daisy for too long, what little spark resides in her will disappear entirely.


“She doesn’t even know who you are.” My mother holds her hand to her mouth after the words leave, wishing she could take them back. She picks up her bowl still half full of oatmeal and begins washing dishes.

At school, I set up a playpen in the corner of my first class. Daisy regularly has check-ups at the university children’s medical center, so it saves me the trip back home. I have managed to secure three sections of composition this semester as an adjunct, which means I might be able to pay the minimum for some of the medical bills. I have gotten used to the looks—the “I’m so sorry” look, the “you poor woman” look. One girl says she’s adorable. Another girl asks how old she is. Only one boy directly asks “What’s wrong with her head? Why’s it all big like that?” The girl next to him shoots daggers into his eyes. “What?” he says. “That’s some straight alien shit.” But I’m not angry. And I know it’s true. I haven’t talked about my daughter to anyone outside the family before. And, frankly, I’m sick of hiding. “She was born with a rare condition,” I begin. I want them to understand. Here, unlike the grocery store or the park, they have to stop and listen. And after the first class, I pack up my books and collapse the playpen. I drape a blanket over the stroller without even thinking about why, and rush to the next class to introduce my daughter all over again.

At Lily’s fourth-grade parent/teacher night, Daisy sits on my lap while Mrs. Lee, floating around the room in a floral muumuu, talks about student projects. Daisy is wearing jeans and a My Little Pony sweat shirt a size too small. Her eyes scans the room as if she is seeing for the first time. The other parents smile awkwardly. Daisy’s drool has created a large, dark circle on a shoulder of one of my three decent work blouses.


“Every student completed a portrait of a family member. They had to capture what they believed to be the essence of that person—their job, their personality, their hobbies, their favorite food,” explains Mrs. Lee.


The parents circle the room, browsing the brightly colored bulletin boards for the work of their children. I put Daisy in her wheelchair. Fireman, doctor, someone who likes spaghetti and meatballs, construction worker, and at the far end of the room is a portrait of a girl with a large head wearing a pink dress under a rainbow. The head takes up most of the poster board and inside it, Lily has drawn a stick figure girl in a boat on blue waves. No sail. No oars. Simply adrift.


“She said her sister is lost inside of herself,” says Mrs. Lee, standing behind me. “She’s a special girl, Lily. To think like that. She loves her sister very much.”


“She does,” I say. But I know it’s been hard, that at times Lily wants to hate her sister, the musty fold-out bed she shares with me, the way I rummage through Goodwill bins before the school year and during Christmas.


“And this must be Daisy. I was hoping I would get to meet you.” Mrs. Lee opens her mouth and pauses before leading me to the hall. “A close friend of mine had a daughter years ago. Cancer. She was eight.”


“I’m sorry,” I say.


“The reason I’m telling you this is because I saw what an illness can do to a family. I can see it some days with Lily. Like she’s still processing something that happened. My friend went to a support group down the street at the Lutheran church. She said it helped.” Mrs. Lee hands me a pamphlet for the group, squeezes my hands, and returns to the classroom.


I imagine myself in a dimly lit church activity room, sitting in a circle and saying my name. Hi Andrea, they would say in unison. A few years ago, I would have dismissed the idea without a thought. I examine the pamphlet with a photo of unreasonably happy people holding hands in a circle before putting it in my purse.

“Wish she wouldn’t parade that girl around town. I don’t know how much longer we can survive this. What if something happens to us?” Mom loves to talk dad’s ear off in the kitchen after she thinks everyone has gone to sleep. I tiptoe to the edge of the kitchen door.


“Don’t talk about her like that,” he says.


“You don’t think I care? It’s just that maybe we all would have been better off if she hadn’t beat the odds.”


“But she did.”


I spend most of my day thinking about that girl—how to keep her comfortable and safe and happy. I dream about a life she’ll never live: Daisy is flying a kite. We are fighting and Daisy storms out the door because she can’t go to a concert. She’s kissing a boy I don’t approve of. In this alternate reality, she is lithe and athletic with a competitive streak in contrast to Lily’s bookishness. She wears her hair in a pony tail tied with brightly colored scrunchies. And, oh, how she loves to laugh.


I wake up smiling when I have these dreams, and the weight in my chest suddenly evaporates. I want to believe for a split second that all of it was true. I look at Daisy, hooked up to a monitors and an IV, and think, I want to hear you laugh.

One summer weekend, I drop off Lily to a birthday party. These are the few glimpses I get of the kind of family life I once aspired to. The parents who throw parties live in tony neighborhoods with manicured gardens and joggers in spandex running beside yappy dogs. Before the door opens, I try to straighten my hair, yank out the wrinkles on my shirt with my hands. Usually the invitations include Daisy as a courtesy, but I’ve never taken up the offer. But on this day it is raining hard, so I walk Lily to the door with our lopsided umbrella. “Welcome, welcome.” The parents shuttle Lily into the family room where other kids are playing video games. They see Daisy in the car and insist we come inside.


Around the island in the kitchen, the parents mingle—talking vacations, people I do not know, summer camps that Lily would love. We are sitting down on the periphery and after everyone has introduced themselves, it seems like we are forgotten. Every so often, the hosts checks on us, says they are so glad we could be here. Right. I force a smile, take a sip of a mimosa. When one of the children runs into the kitchen and sees Daisy, she gasps. Her parents mouth a feeble sorry. And this is my cue. I thank the parents for having us, tell them I’ll pick up Lily later in the afternoon, and promptly leave.

Waiting in the dark hall of the Lutheran church, I watch the parents, the single fathers and mothers, file into the only lit room, as anxiety fills my veins. I am alone for the first time in recent memory. They all know each other: How are things? I’m so sorry, I just heard. Let me know if there’s anything we can do. I practice my introduction: My name is Andrea. My ten-year-old daughter Daisy was born without most of her brain. I don’t know if I’m just nervous about being new or speaking, or if it’s having to confront the realities of others on top of my own. Support groups are supposed to help, right?


“The free doughnuts help,” a young Indian woman approaching the room says. “First time?”


“That obvious?” I answer.


“It’s my third month. But I remember lurking in the hall. Marched right back to my car the first time.”


“And you’ve been coming back, so—”


“A lot of us have been going for years. Talking helps. But that doesn’t mean I want to listen to all of it. I come for the doughnuts and just being next to people who understand. I’m Diya, by the way. Shall we?”


I nibble on a cruller the whole hour and choose not to speak. There’s a man who lost his son to leukemia ten years ago, a couple with a daughter with cerebral palsy, and Diya, who talks about her son with autism and how something so seemingly small like asking for orange juice brought her to tears. “It’s the little things,” she says. “When you have children like ours.” Everybody nods. After the session, Diya invites me and the girls to join her and her son at the zoo the next weekend. She is smoking, and I ask for one more out of camaraderie than anything else. “I have these free admission vouchers,” she says. “I know we just met, but it might be nice to see someone from here outside of that Sunday school room.” After I had the girls, most of my friends slowly disappeared (maybe we did). We get birthday cards, a Facebook like. But not much else.


“Fuck ’em,” says Diya, referring to anybody who gawks at us walking down the zoo’s paths. Lily leads the way, skipping far ahead while Diya occasionally has to pull her son, Alok, back to the fold. Daisy, in a lion-shaped stroller, seems to be quietly enjoying the Serengeti. At the giraffe exhibit, Diya hands me a feeding ticket for small bucket of leaves. I struggle to carry Daisy out of the stroller and with Diya and Lily’s help, hold her up against the railing, so I can guide Daisy’s hands to the sky.


“We’re going to feed the giraffes, sweetie,” I say. I place a few leaves in Daisy’s palms and curl my hand over hers. “Look, here it comes!” I tilt Daisy’s head up. The giraffe leans in close, examining us. And for a moment it seems like the giraffe is studying Daisy, like it can sense something just out of human perception. Daisy makes a gurgling sound. And with his long, purple tongue, the giraffe slurps the leaves from our hands. Diya snaps a photo. A few feet away, Alok seems to be having a good time. One leaf, two leaf. The baby giraffe leans in and lingers just long enough for his hands to stroke its face. No leaf. And Alok begins screaming and kicks his bucket across the wooden walkway. Diya pulls away Alok from the exhibit, as people begin to stare and whisper to one another. Lily is still feeding, and I call out to her to catch up.


“I still have leaves,” she says.


“Now,” I say. I see her mumble something before leaving her bucket on the ground.


At the cafeteria, I thank Diya for the day. “We haven’t been able to treat ourselves to something like this in a long time,” I say.


“Same,” Diya says. “But you need to try. Makes you feel normal. Getting you those chicken wings for example. It’s always Alok, Alok, Alok. And that’s fine. But you forget to be decent to everybody else including yourself. Think that’s why my husband left.”


I don’t know what to say to that. Just like most people don’t know how to respond to Daisy.


“You’re lucky you have your parents,” Diya says.


“Sometimes. I don’t think my mother really sees Daisy like I do.”


“Like a person.”


“I don’t want to be that harsh. But, yeah.”


Diya pulls out her phone and shows me the photo of Daisy and the giraffe. It looks like Daisy is laughing, staring right back at the animal as if they are in on a big secret. If I told anybody about this day, about what I thought the picture captured, they wouldn’t believe me. Doctors would say possibly, but really would think I’m seeing things in my daughter that aren’t there. But, for me, the photo is proof that there is a girl on a boat on a tiny ocean inside of her, trying to make it to the shore.

Before I know it, I become one of those people in group who have been there for years. I measure the times I can’t bring myself to talk in the pastries I stuff in my mouth. It’s half-price admission today at one of those hands-on science museums, and we’ve made plans with Diya and Alok. I’m getting Daisy dressed, pulling a sweater over her head, when I feel her tremble. Her seizures usually don’t last longer than a few moments, but this time the shaking continues. I hold her tight as if she would crumble apart if I let go and call out to my father to get the car. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. I’m here. I’m here.


At the hospital, Daisy is sleeping, and I realize that I had dozed off, too, when a nurse walks in. My parents are in the waiting area, but I told Diya to go on to the museum and to take Lily. Outside our room, I see a bald little girl walking around with her family, holding a stuffed bunny rabbit almost as big as her. She waves. I wave back. I’ve become accustomed to the children’s ward here—the hope, the lack of it, the sounds of parents sobbing behind curtains, the fantasy castle wallpaper that is supposed to transport the patients to a happier place. But I need to hope for Daisy. I need to want something for her apart from my need for her to be alive. I flip through the television—another school shooting, a young protestor talking about their student loans and food stamps, a strike at one of the colleges I teach at. Fair wages. Child care. I think about the hospital bill when the nurse comes in and checks the IV.


Support Group Meetings: Bear Claw, Eclair, Sugar Glazed, Cherry Fruit Filling.


Daisy is still in and out of the hospital a month after her last bad seizure, and my parents have taken out a second mortgage to keep us above water. “Just throw our ashes over the Golden Gate Bridge or something,” my dad says. My mom says little, and I’ve learned to be okay with her resentment—I understand it, even. I have only received one class this semester, and have started to apply for other jobs—Target, Starbucks, anything I’m vaguely qualified for on Craigslist. The strike continues at school. Part of me wishes I could march with them, but I can’t afford to lose money. They carry signs that say “Education Not Administration” and “Support Your Teachers.” When I cross the picket line, my coworkers, many who probably know me as the woman with that kid, do not shame me.


When Diya finds out that I need to dress up as a lusty Statue of Liberty for a mattress store as part of their Memorial Day sale, she suggests helping me start a GoFundMe campaign. She comes over one day with a video camera, and helps me and Daisy dress up.


“You want to look good, but, you know, not too good,” Diya says.


“What are we supposed to say?”


“Just talk about Daisy’s condition. And I’ll splice that with some music and pictures of her growing up. Talk about the struggles you have as a mom, the medical bills donations will help with.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “It seems weird asking strangers for money.”


“Lots of people are doing this. If people want to help, let them.”


We shoot the video in our backyard with the sun behind us for angelic effect. Daisy is sitting beside me in her wheelchair. When Diya says action, I begin reciting the lines we rehearsed, but I feel like a carbon copy of Suzanne Sommers in those Save the Children commercials. For only five dollars you can really make a difference. We start over. “Let me tell you about a girl in a boat in the middle of an ocean. She has no oars, no sail, and the sea is calm. On a good day, she can see land, and there’s a glimmer of hope that she’ll make it, although she never will. Let me tell you about my daughter who was born without most of her brain.” I talk for longer than I imagined, as if I were teaching a class on Daisy. This is who she is. This is what she has. This is our life together. This is what the doctors say. And this is what I know to be true.


Within a matter of minutes, a Facebook friend of Diya’s donates twenty-five dollars.


“The first of many,” Diya says.


By the end of the month we have thousands of followers on social media. I’ve connected with other parents dealing with hydranencephaly, a young woman taking care of her older brother with MS, a young man with Down syndrome who lives with his best friend. For them, Daisy is more than just a good cause but a symbol of hope.

When Lily goes off to Oberlin on a full ride, it’s like part of the shore inside of Daisy has broken off. She is less responsive when I talk, smiles less, and is throwing up her food more than usual.


“Stay out of trouble,” Lily tells her sister. “I’ll be back before you know it.”


“You’ve earned this,” I tell Lily. “Look ahead. We’ll be fine here.”


“If anything happens,” she says.


“Go,” I say, starting to cry. She grew up and I missed it.

I hire a part-time home aid with Lily gone, and decide to stay home more, grading tests online. Mom and Dad, of course, are getting older, and I’ve been begging my mother to let me take her to the doctor to check out her fainting spells. She says it’s nothing, but I’m certain she’s lying. My dad thinks so, too.


“I’m old,” she says. “I’m supposed to be cranky and falling apart.”


“Doesn’t mean we can’t put a band-aid on whatever is wrong.” She shrugs me off whenever I prod her and tells me to mind my own business, which honestly pisses me off. And if it were just her being stubborn, maybe I would let it go. But she’s been different with Daisy, too. She rolls her granddaughter next to her while she watches The Bold and the Beautiful. Most of the time, they just sit there. But occasionally, my mother will turn to Daisy and talk to her.


“That one is having two affairs,” she says. “Her husband is a bore, so who can blame her?”

I don’t go to support group nearly as much as I used to. Tonight, Diya isn’t there, and there’s no one else I recognize, but I talk anyway. It’s probably one of only a handful of times I’ve opened my mouth in group: “Daisy has helped a lot of people see their children,” I begin. “And I think my mother has finally seen my daughter.” And maybe that’s all any of us can for hope for: to be seen with clarity. That’s all I’ve wanted for her.

It’s nearly midnight when my father and I hear the crash. I can see my mother’s legs on the floor as I approach the kitchen. A shattered glass kettle, her frail body, the coffee mug Lily painted in the first grade.


“Mom,” I yell. “Mom. Wake up!” But she remains still. My father’s hands are shaking on my shoulders. I rush to her, trying to clear away the shards on the ground. I can feel glass digging into my knees, as I lean over her, trying to remember the CPR training I received as a summer lifeguard when I was a teenager. Tilt head to clear airway, breathe, compress. I turn to look at my father. I hear my mom’s ribs crack beneath my hands.


“I’m here,” he says.


“Call 911,” I say. “Now. Dad, wake up! Mom needs help.”


“Nine-one-one,” he repeats. “Right.” He shuffles into the living room and returns with my phone, offering it to me. “I don’t know how,” he says.


At the hospital, the doctors say it was an aneurysm. Quick, unexpected, supposedly painless. The kind of death Daisy probably won’t have. We’ll have a small memorial over the summer when Lily returns, although I haven’t told her the news yet. This morning, I picked up her urn. Mom sits on the night table next to my father, and for every night after that night at the hospital, Daisy and I have slept at his side.


“She loved her, you know,” my father said after the doctor gave us the news. “Called her a beautiful child.”


A few days after the memorial, Daisy and Lily are in the living room watching movies like old times—Goonies, Mean Girls, Bring It On. It is the eve of their nineteenth birthday, and Daisy is having one of her better days. To date, the longest someone has lived with her condition is until their early thirties, but that’s a rare case, and I’m not necessarily hoping for that. Lily is dating someone but is being mysterious about the details, although she whispers things about a boy named Dave to her sister. We eat cake in the afternoon, and Diya and Alok join us for a trip to the planetarium’s family day. We’re all reclined back, looking at an ancient night sky. Our guide zooms in on a star that goes nova, washing the room in the purples and reds of a nebula. He talks about how this expanse of gas and dust and rock is the birthplace of planets, of new stars, and of us, how the iron in our bodies are remnants of stars. It’s strange how something so bright could flicker out and yet have meaning billions of years later, creating life on a planet so drastically different from another. I turn to Daisy and point her hands to the Little Dipper. “That’s you, Daisy,” I say. “That’s me.”