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Mothers photo

I wanted to picture how big my baby was, so I typed in “How big” and the autofill popped up before I could finish. Did I want to know the size of bedbugs or wind turbines, dorm rooms, dust mites, Dobermans, mitochondria, or Minecraft worlds? I did not. A website called Fetal Fruits promised me a week-by-week comparison, though several times the slideshow replaced fruit with the image of a suitably-sized vegetable—I learned that at thirty weeks my baby would reach the length of a bunch of leeks. The final slide was a photo of a newborn. “Congratulations!” the caption read. “Your baby is no longer a piece of fruit.”

But she was none of these things: not a leek nor a living baby. She was twenty weeks. She was the size of a large mango, not a small one—the green mangos with the red blush, not the yellow mangos that I could cover with one hand. Mango, I thought, getting excited. Baby Mango. My Mangosteen Tree. Mangosteen is a different kind of fruit, much smaller than my baby, but I still liked the sound of the name.

* * *

My mother used to call me her dearest dearbug, but one day voice-to-text garbled the message and I became her dearest yearbook. Ever after, when I imagined myself in relation to her, I imagined high school yearbooks stacked on a podium and me standing on the tallest tier—the winner, the one thing she would carry from the burning house. Isn’t that the question you’re supposed to ask when you really want to know a stranger? The boring ones say their passports or their computers or their wedding rings. The vain ones want the framed erotic photo of themselves that they hung above their beds. But the good mothers understand that they are being asked to name what they love most. “I would carry my daughter,” they answer. “She is the dearest yearbook I own, the most beloved bug, the sweetest mango, I would carry my daughter out of the house.”

* * *

Last week I went into the city. It was October, a crisp blue day, and leaves scooted over sidewalks in the wind. The closer I got the rougher the road, asphalt blighted six ways from Sunday, and me trying to miss potholes and somehow running them down. Carrie was away on a work trip. She didn’t have to know unless I brought the car back with a bent rim or some kind of weird vibration, and then there would be hell to pay, but still I drove.

My mom lives in an old brick bungalow between a burndown and an urban farm. It was the home where she grew up, where I was born, where she will die. She gave birth to me in a big plastic trough that my father bought for that very purpose. They wanted to protect their mattress from the blood. They wanted to protect me from the hospital. Carrie assures me that things are better now, but I don’t know. Carrie was born in a hospital.

Squash grew in the garden next door. As I walked up the drive, I could see the fetus delicata, larger than my baby, rubbing their tough yellow curves in the dirt. On the other side of my mother’s property, the burndown tried to pass itself off as an ordinary house. Fire had blacked the brick around the doors and windows, but the exterior was otherwise untouched. I could almost believe that the Arreolas were eating chilaquiles in the kitchen, except that the windows had shattered and the doors had incinerated and I could see straight through to the other side, where the backyard, wild and verdant, had forced its way past the half-fallen fence.

“My dearest yearbook,” said my mother when she opened the door. She was wearing a ripped sweater, mustard-colored, so old it seemed to have shifted its materiality and become a piece of chamois, soft and worn. She hugged me seamlessly, as if my belly hardly mattered. After a few moments, I pulled myself away and went inside to use the bathroom. Baby Mango had been pressing on my bladder for the past five miles, but I hadn’t stopped at any of the corner stores. They were the kind of stores with Snapple on sale for 79 cents and banners promising “Bread – Milk – Beer – Tobacco.” I didn’t like that feeling, rows of cigarettes behind the register and the store clerk staring at my belly like he could pierce through all my layers of protection—coat, shirt, skin, muscle—and rake his eyes across my sacred Mango.

It was cold inside my mother’s house. She always stinted on the heat, even though she knew that Carrie and I would help her with the bills. Sometimes, if my Uncle Mark delivered a cord of wood from his farm up North, she wouldn’t even bother to turn the boiler on. I wondered if it changed the quality of her dreams, those early morning hours when the fire was dying in the grate and she breathed on the couch beneath five woolen blankets. I wondered if she dreamed about black dogs weighing down her chest, about lying underwater with her arms crossed, about a deep and smothering embrace.

She was sitting in her recliner when I came back to the living room. I pulled up a chair and sat across from her. I could hear the click of the radiator—she’d upped the heat while I was in the bathroom. We’d texted a few times about the pregnancy, but she hadn’t seen me in the past five months and her eyes kept drifting towards my belly. She was skating a pair of tweezers over her chin, feeling with the tips of her fingers for the coarse dark hairs. She inspected each hair as she plucked it out, judging how deeply it had rooted in her skin.

“How’ve you been, Mom?”

“Fine, except that Hippie farmer next door is bringing all his Hippie friends to stay.”

“Aw, c’mon, Mom. You’re not exactly mainstream. What do you care if some young person wants to live a quote-unquote alternative lifestyle?”

“They make a racket all night long and I can’t sleep.”  

“He’s an Inoc?”

“Of course he is,” she snapped. “An organic farmer, too. Wants to avoid all of the toxins and pesticides because his parents injected him in utero. Whenever I see him he asks about my dreams. His name is Thom—Thom with an h, but I think the spelling is an affectation.”

“I bet his parents actually named him Thom.”

“What kind of sadists would do that to a child?”

“Like you have the right to criticize.”

“I named you Roya for a reason.”

“Carrie’s friends sure get a kick out of it.”

Carrie’s name hung coolly in the air between us. I broke my mother’s gaze and glanced around the living room. Ever since my dad died her knickknacks had run rampant—ceramic roosters, slender angels, and, because of Halloween, a whole collection of finger puppet monsters with thin plastic arms that waved on the shelf when I moved.

“I guess if you’re here then Carrie must be on a work trip.”

 “She’s in New Orleans. She’s getting back tonight.”

“And the baby’s doing fine?”

“Uh-huh. Everything normal. A girl—I think I told you that. We have a check-up appointment tomorrow.”

“Twenty weeks. That’s an important developmental milestone.”

“Sure, Mom.”

“You’re due in February?”

“Valentine’s Day.”

She grimaced, plucked another hair.

“Due dates are just estimates.”

“Carrie and I would like that, though.”

“Just don’t name your baby Lovella or something dumb like that.”

Carrie and I were considering Rose or Ruby to fit with the Valentine’s theme, but I didn’t think my mother had the right to criticize. Forty years ago, after the discovery of an inoculation that eliminated the biological need for sleep, so-called protest names came into style. I was born a decade later, on the tail end of the resistance movement, but my mother still named me Roya, the Persian word for “dreams.” Now there were no new Royas, just a bunch of thirty- and forty-somethings who had to field awkward questions when baristas scrawled our names onto our coffee cups. “Do you still sleep?” the gape-mouthed Inocs asked, followed, inevitably, by that unanswerable question—“What is it like to dream?”—as if they expected that I could describe an entire world in the time it took to make a macchiato. But it was not so much a question as an emanation of longing. They knew that they had lost the ability to comprehend.

“You’re getting enough rest?” my mother asked.

“Sure, most of the time. I have to sleep on my side now because of the baby and it drives me crazy, but of course Carrie doesn’t understand. She thinks sleep’s just a matter of closing my eyes.”

“And Carrie doesn’t pressure you to inoculate the baby?”

“Carrie supports me, Mom.”

“I’m not just talking about money, sweetheart.”

“I’m not either. We’re making the choice together.”

She tapped her tweezers across her chin as if she were searching for a soft spot, like the bitter rot on the bottom of an apple.

“So where’re you having the baby?”

“St. Luke’s.”

“Be careful, Roya,” said my mother. “They used to steal newborns at the hospitals and inoculate them against the mother’s will.”

“Now everyone inoculates,” I pointed out. “Stealing is unnecessary.”

“Not everyone.” She dragged a hair from her chin. It was as long and dark as an eyelash. Make a wish, I almost said. I thought of the plastic trough, me coming into being in the kitchen. That was thirty years ago, back when the house next door had an interior, back when the sodium lights turned on at 8 o’clock. When I was born my mother decided to refuse the world, and then she decided to never take it back. She thought I was a vassal, not a lover; a patsy, not a partner; an easy mark, not a careful mother. She couldn’t understand that I would make a different wish.

* * *

I spent another hour at my mom’s house. Our conversation never made it past that edge. Afterwards, she narrated in detail the plot of a show I didn’t watch and gave me a finger puppet that I stuffed into the glove box. I knew I would forget about it and that one day it would pop out when Carrie asked me to grab something. I imagined Carrie saying, with a cute little sneer, “What is that?”

I didn’t go home. I drove to the Detroit Institute of Art, ten minutes from my mother’s house. It was Wednesday, 1pm, totally empty. The woman at the coat check was wearing a name tag with my name. She was my age, with a long, glossy sheet of black hair. Another Roya, taking coats and giving tokens. All those righteous and resistant mothers, christening their daughters with righteous and resistant names.

“I’m Roya, too,” I murmured as I leaned over the counter and handed her my coat. It was a coat Carrie liked, soft and maroon with a shearling collar that I clutched around my neck on windy days.

 “Last night I dreamed that an alien was playing the piano and whenever I got too close he would turn yellow and glow,” she said.

“Last night I dreamed that I was in Maui with my wife and Maui had a bear problem and a bear jumped into our pool, but instead of a bear, it was a person,” I answered. It was traditional among Nonocs—non-inoculated people—to greet each other with the telling of our dreams.

“I’m glad to meet you,” she said, except she wasn’t looking at me. She was gazing at my belly. She had hungry eyes.

“What will you name your baby?” she asked.

“Rose or Ruby, we think.”

“Not another Roya?”

“No, we’ve decided not to pass that on.”

She looked up from my belly and into my eyes.

“I understand,” she said, dropping a coat check token into my hand. It was a coin, so cold it felt like water. I stuck it in my pocket and then she nodded, cool and polite, and turned back to the sliver of the world over which she held dominion.

There was a place I always went to in the Institute, ever since I was a little girl. It was in the photography section, a photo by John Dugdale called “The Turbulent Dream.” Sepia. Smaller than a sheet of printer paper. The photo showed a naked woman sitting in a kitchen. She had short hair like mine and a chain around her neck and she was resting her head on a table. Not cheekdown like a tired child, but mashing her face against the wood. There was a vase full of flowers by her head, dogwoods, perhaps—they were frowsy and wilted, spilling petals everywhere like salt. They spilled onto the table and across her head, following her hair where it arrowed neatly on the back of her neck. Because her face was hidden, I could not tell if her eyes were open or closed, if she were smiling or weeping, dreaming or waiting, resting or cursing the world.

I didn’t deny the importance of the waking world. Ten years before my birth, at the advent of inoculation, our leaders proclaimed that we could only save ourselves by ending sleep. People resisted at first. Mothers marched on hospitals and “dream on” graffiti covered the city, but no one could come up with a clear defense of dreams. Perhaps dreams allowed us to express unconscious desires or process information or practice emotional moments in a safe state, or perhaps they were merely a meaningless symptom of sleep. Slowly, slowly, we turned against our dreams. How could we cure cancer, climate change, poverty, partisanship, if first we didn’t cure sleep? Our bodies demanded that we spend eight hours doing nothing every night, even as the world unwound around our beds.

And now the world had stopped unwinding and I had not contributed. I accepted my uselessness as I gazed at the woman in the photo. As a minor, I could have petitioned for court-ordered inoculation; at eighteen, I could have walked into any hospital at any time. Although inoculation worked best when delivered in utero, I could have cut my sleep time down to three or four hours every night. Still, I refused. It wasn’t because I had developed some cogent defense of dreams. Sometimes when Carrie pressed me I would throw up my hands. I only knew—I was thirty, I had spent a third of my life dreaming. Ten years was a world unto itself. I was glad that they had saved this one, this waking world, but I was glad that I had saved that other, too.

I did not stop at the coat check when I left the museum. I hoped Roya would have the chance to take the shearling coat that Carrie loved, to brush her hand to her throat as she clutched the collar close. Her back was turned when I walked past. I felt relief. I tossed my coat check token into the fountain outside and then I drove back to the suburbs—I wanted to have time to neaten the house before I picked up Carrie from the airport. The car made a tink tink tink sound as it cooled in the garage, as pristine as it had been before the city.

* * *

I used to have a friend, another dreaming woman whose mother refused inoculation. She couldn’t find a job, so she performed magic tricks at Eastern Market. She called each of her tricks a dream. Watch my dreams, she would say to passersby. They could never resist—they watched with horror, fascination, longing, greed. One of the dreams she shared was a knot trick. The knot looked sturdy but then it slipped apart. She taught them this—that in dreams the most secure knot can unravel. The knot she used was called a grief knot. When I heard the name, I was sure it held a deeper meaning. No, she said, laughing. Each of her front teeth had a brown stain. She explained that the knot combines the features of a reef knot, a thief knot, and a granny knot. It’s a portmanteau, not a metaphor. Grief has no meaning, she said.

    * * *

I was lying on my side when Carrie nestled next to me, pressing her face close to mine. She licked my nose and I squealed. She kissed my lips and I sighed.

“Miss me?” Carrie asked. The inside of her lips had turned purple from the wine she’d had with dinner. She was still wearing her travelling clothes, including a silk scarf that I disliked. She must have worn it to protect herself from the chill of the airplane, but it was too flouncy—it reminded me of something from my mother’s house. I unknotted it from around her neck.

“You should rest,” I said. “Take a bath or something.”

I knew she would spend the rest of the night in the study, catching up. That was her role in our relationship. Inocs took more classes. Held more degrees. Worked longer hours. Nonocs found it nearly impossible to find high-level jobs. We were janitors, dishwashers, buskers, the takers of coats. We were nothing. We went to school on special scholarships and enrolled for a quarterload of classes. We met beautiful women getting law degrees and surrendered ourselves. Housewives. Homeless. Brown stains on our front teeth or perfect smiles from our wives’ insurance. Inocs married Nonocs all the time. Honestly, I think we kept them sane. Our spouses didn’t have to see us 24-7—many a marriage saved by one of its members going to bed. We cleaned their houses, cooked their meals, carried their babies. We had the time to be domestic. They had the time to work hundred-hour weeks.

“You are the rester,” said Carrie. “And I am the worker bee.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Well, I am growing our child. It does require some effort.”

“Oh, stop. You know I know that.”

“I know.”

She nuzzled me.

“Tell me about our baby.”

“She’s the size of a mango now.”

Carrie purred.

“I thought we could call her Mango Baby.”

“Oh,” said Carrie, widening her eyes with mock disappointment. “But I liked Peanut.”

“Kumquat,” I corrected, one of the Fetal Fruits that I remembered from the slideshow. “But that was weeks ago. She’s growing. I’m growing.”  

She placed her hands on my belly. She always made me feel as if I were just right. I thought of driving into the city, my cold mother curled in her recliner, her angel gewgaws gazing down their noses at her dreams.

“I visited my mom today,” I blurted out.

Carrie leaned back, carrying her purple lips away from mine.

“How’d she seem? I hope she didn’t upset you.”

“Fine. Annoyed at her neighbors, like that’s new. She can’t bear to ask if we’re going to inoculate, so instead she’s spinning stories. She keeps warning me that they’ll steal the baby at the hospital and do it then—that’s what she’ll tell herself when she meets her granddaughter who never sleeps.”

“She’s living in a dream world, Roya. Apropos, I guess.” She brushed her lips against my forehead. “I love you and I chose you. When I take a break from work and peek into the bedroom and I see you sleeping and I see your belly, I never doubt my choice. I don’t want to change you, I’m just asking that you take a step back and consider. We can give our baby a small world with dreams or a big world without them, and I am saying—let’s give our daughter the bigger world.”  

I didn’t have anything to say, and so I lay there silently in Carrie’s arms. She rocked me gently and the baby rocked inside of me, asleep but not dreaming. Dreams came later, at twenty-three weeks. A few minutes passed and I found myself in that space between waking and sleeping where my thoughts warped into strange forms that still felt reasonable. It was a state of being that Carrie didn’t even know existed, that our baby would never know existed, and I wrenched my eyes open and castigated my brain for accepting insanity so easily. I wanted to think longer about the world that we were giving to our baby, so I tried to stay awake. Instead I zipped a horse into a violin case and found nothing amiss in that act.

Our appointment was at nine the next morning. The P.A. called our name and led us down the corridor to the ultrasound room. It was airless, unabashedly beige. The walls were bare. I propped myself up on the examination table and Carrie grabbed a chair. She was wearing that scarf again, the one I did not like.

“So I see this is a bit of an unusual situation,” said Dr. Singh, paging through her notes. “It seems that you, Roya, are a non-inoculated person.”

“That’s correct,” I said. I didn’t think Dr. Singh could discern it, but I could hear the quiver in my voice, like a plastic comb running over a piece of cellophane. “My parents were objectors.”

 “And you understand that while the inoculation is not as effective when administered to adults, it can still be given?”

“I understand that I could still receive it, yes.”

“Actually,” interjected Carrie, “What my wife really understands is her constitutional right to refuse. And not to be coerced, I might add.” She always turned a little pink when she defended me.

“Of course,” said Dr. Singh. “I only want to make sure that she is aware of her options. As the carrying mother, it is also her right to refuse to inoculate the fetus, at which point the non-carrying parent can submit a petition to the court.”

“No, I want to move ahead,” I said. “I want to inoculate my baby.”

Dr. Singh smiled, curt but real.

“I think you’re making a very wise choice. Best to nip it in the bud. There’s something unrelinquishable about dreaming—once a body starts, it never stops.”

I signed my name to a clipboard’s worth of paperwork and the P.A. applied a transdermal patch to my belly, some kind of tranquilizer to keep the baby calm. Then she tucked a sterile drape around the ultrasound site and scooped orange goop onto my stomach. I shivered when the transducer touched my skin. I was staring at the ceiling. It was the only part of the room with any decoration. They had patterned the pages from a calendar up there—garish sunsets, red and gold. I turned my head to see the screen. There was our baby on the ultrasound, grainy and lumpy, with a giant head.

Dr. Singh left the room and returned with the uterine syringe. She removed the safety cap. It was a four-inch needle, so thin it looked like a stiffened piece of silver thread. Carrie squeezed my hand.

“Are you ready?” asked Dr. Singh.

“I am.”

“This is the needle,” said Dr. Singh. “Keep your elbows by your side. This is the insertion—”

It felt like the pinch of two hot fingers. The needle appeared on the screen as a slash of light. It looked like a comet streaking towards my baby.

“One moment,” said Dr. Singh. I felt my belly cramp when the needle entered my uterus. The tip dipped towards the baby. Resist or receive, I didn’t care how she reacted, I only wanted her to show her choice. If she flinched, I would have thrown myself from the exam table. If she moved towards the needle, I would have kissed Carrie’s hand.

“This is the injection—” Dr. Singh depressed the plunger. The inoculation uncoiled inside of me. The needle retracted. The baby remained. My Baby Mango, dreamless as a piece of fruit forevermore. I thought of everything that she could be—a janitor, a dishwasher, a busker, a taker of coats, but also a ballerina, a broker, an actuary, an artist, an engineer. I didn’t care what she was, whether she became the most successful biochemist in Michigan or simply made ends meet with some dumb job. I only wanted everything for her because she was everything to me. I wanted the high and the low. I wanted the world laid out inside her body, and to do that, I had to take away her dreams.

“It’s okay to cry,” said Carrie. “I know it’s bittersweet.” I realized that I was crushing Carrie’s hand. I let her go, then caught her up again and laced her fingers into mine. I thought of the knot as it slid into nothing. Reef, thief, granny, grief. I didn’t care what my friend said—I knew that there was meaning in the name.

* * *

I went to bed early that night, hoping to dream something significant. It was a dumb wish—the kind of thing an Inoc would imagine, that dreamers can summon certain dreams. Many years ago, when my father died, I desperately wanted to see him again. I pictured his face every night before I fell asleep. Every night I dreamed a new inanity. I never understood where my dreams came from, why they happened, what they meant. They poured out from between my fingers like solid rock becoming sand. They unraveled into separateness inside my hands.

Months passed. I recorded my dreams in a journal. I put a child in a box and left her there while I sang karaoke. I saw my mother who was not my mother, but a thin old man. I swallowed a fly that had fallen in a glass of water and gave birth to a human baby with skin that glistened like an insect’s wing. I reached into my mouth and removed a tooth as large as a cauldron. A cake smiled and danced in the air and when I touched it, it became a crown. I pulled hard-boiled eggs from a bucket and with each new egg another branch erupted from my head. I drove off a bridge and awoke instead of dying. I tended a plant that consumed me, and even when I knew it would, I gave it more.

 Then one night I dreamed that the police had surrounded me in a basement and I faced a stone wall with a gate at its center. I had nowhere to go—I thrust myself through the gate and fell into the mountains. I was descending on a narrow, rocky path. All of a sudden I became aware of a presence. I looked to my right, then to my left, and I saw a bear walking on either side of me. I sensed that if I took one wrong step their parallel lines would come to a point and I would die. I was scared. My heart pounded. I walked with my eyes straight ahead and then, farther down the path, I saw another person. It was my father. I hurried to overtake him, but I did not run. I walked beside him and the bears walked beside us, but everything had changed—everything had become all right. “Is it you?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, and he took my hand.

My father had his father’s name, which was also the name of his father’s father. Such silly men, pouring themselves into their patronyms. I knew that what was good in my baby was not the same as what was good in me. Didn’t every mother have to realize that? I was Roya, she was not. When I woke that night I could feel the edge of my dream curling away like a piece of burning paper. I spoke to my belly, but I did not sing. I whispered, though there was no one it was possible to wake.

“Rosie,” I said, with my hands on my belly, and I began to tell her what I dreamed.

 


This piece contains dream images sampled from:

Bell, Vaughan. “The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep.” The Atlantic, 20 Apr. 2016.

Brooks, Stephen, editor. The Oxford Book of Dreams. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Schneider, Adam, and G. William Domhoff. DreamBank, UC Santa Cruz Psychology Department, www.dreambank.net.

image: Dev Murphy


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