Hey, what’s up?
Well, I’ve been stung by a bee.
Oh! Are you okay? Is it swelling?
I think I should come home.
You’re coming home?
Yeah I think maybe I should.
He hung up. She pressed the red circle to end the call and felt elated, just as she did in the evenings after his work or on Saturdays when they ate breakfast and did all their mundane things together. She even felt elated when he called in sick to work and she knew he would be napping all day or sitting on the couch drinking tea. He would have to ice the sting. She could put off being alone with the child for a few more minutes.
She reflected on the beginning of this aloneness with the child. It had started three weeks after the child was born when he’d walked out the door with his lunch in a tupperware and his work shoes nestled in the bottom of his bag. Her mother had stayed for another week, helping to interpret the child’s cries, advising naps, buying groceries, and sitting and knitting in a chair they’d saved from the street in Manhattan many years ago. But soon her mother had folded the three blankets she’d knitted, placed them in the crib, and left.
She and the child had spent hours on the couch practicing breastfeeding. Sometimes the child slept on a blanket on the couch, and she would lie down and try to sleep too or read. Facebook friends had bragged about all the reading they’d gotten done while breastfeeding, all the papers they’d written, emails they’d responded to. But all she could do was skim through mommy Facebook groups and breastfeeding blogs or stare off into space wondering who she was now. There were hours and hours she didn’t know how to fill, other than to put the child in the car seat mounted on the stroller and push it around the neighborhood, saying, Look at the trees! Can you see the trees? And telling stories about the history of her life before the child had arrived. How she and the child’s father had met in junior high school, how they’d fallen in love, how they’d lived in New York City, Cambridge, Tokyo, Berkeley.
She’d reflected on how these words meant nothing to the child. They were just differently textured sounds. Nevertheless she’d told of their travels, all of the apartments, the wedding in Hawaii, the jobs, the adoption of their cat. She’d realized that so much of their lives had occurred prior to the child and that the most simple of ideas – oceans, to take one example – were completely foreign. So she’d begun to provide lengthy scientific explanations of things and everyday events and routines as well, feeling as though the child was a tiny exchange student from another planet. She’d been impressed by the vastness of what the child did not know. When she was feeling good she’d put on music and dance the child around the living room.
Often the child had cried. At great length. Mysteriously. She’d cried too. She’d called him, hoping to transfer some of her frustration and loneliness. She’d tried to invoke guilt, then felt guilty about it. Twice, maybe three times, she’d complained harshly to the child, I don’t know what you want! Once she’d smushed the child’s face into her breast, exasperated that it wasn’t latching properly. The child had looked at her with surprise and cried for the first time in response to something she had done. She’d apologized over and over and stroked the child’s small, fuzzy head.
He propped his bike outside the door. He came in sweaty, removed his helmet, took his phone from his pocket and stood at the big front window googling “bee stings.” She could see a small welt on his forehead.
You thought you should come home?
Why? Does it hurt?
She touched it. It was small but hard and dramatically raised and she could feel the pain of it, could remember stings of her own. Minuscule itchy knife cuts, throbbing. She’d been stung twice by wasps while pregnant and hiking on Mt. Fiji, looking out over Los Angeles from its northeast corner. This neighborhood was lush and green. The yard was tangled with flowers, grape vines, night-blooming jasmine, bougainvillea. Bees, wasps, and yellow jackets were everywhere, but also butterflies, moths, coyotes, hawks, crows, opossums, and raccoons. It was a dream house they’d rented just in time, a place where, at dusk before the child, they could sit on the back porch watching the sky turn orange and pink, watching the leaves of trees glow gold. She would remark, You wouldn’t know there’s a drought! He would nod in agreement. Aside from the coyotes and a sliver of palm tree from the neighbor’s yard it could have been their hometown in Virginia.
Think I better sit down.
Ok. Let me get you some ice.
She placed the child on the floor in the kitchen in front of some pots and wooden utensils, filled a kitchen towel with ice, and returned to where he was sitting at the dining room table. She looked nervously at the side of his head, the imprint of his bike helmet visible on the sweaty hair. He was holding the phone but merely stared at the search list without selecting anything.
What did you find?
What? She hovered over his shoulder.
I can’t see, he said conversationally.
What do you mean you can’t see?
She was surprised by the tone of her voice, hysterical enough to make the child look up and begin to cry. It was the calm, off-hand way that he was talking. It was like when he calmly explained the forces involved in a bucking airplane they were on.
Are you there?
Wait, you can’t see?
Are you there?
Can you hear me? You can’t hear me?
She kept her hand on his shoulder. He began tilting and swiveling his head as though to assemble any available shards of light. His voice was becoming more unclear, muddy, words slurred. His chin drooped onto his chest.
Her belly had filled up the space between her spine and the steering wheel, driving west on the 10 for work one day and turning up the radio when a Rolling Stones song came on and keeping it up for the Ozomatli that came next, whispering into her insides, Listen to this! This is music! Can you hear it? And having the strong conviction right then that when the child was born she would not ever want to put her down.
In reality, from the moment the child was born she’d sought opportunities to hand her to someone else. She loved watching him hold her in the hospital and then when he came home at night. Holidays were good opportunities to step away and admire the child from afar. It was her weak back, she told herself and others. But it was really because she’d had enough of being still, enough of sitting on the couch, enough of staring into space when the child nodded off after feeding and slept on her chest for hours. Enough of being pinned down while everyone else seemed to move fast and free. Enough of the responsibility. Enough of the tether. She wanted to be the one to steal out the back door when no one was looking, to wander out into the backyard and have a thought to herself. Maybe she’d even grab the keys and drive out to a bar.
And worse, she’d felt that she was a danger to the child. Early one morning she’d listened to the child moan fitfully in its crib. The child must be dreaming, she’d thought, and dozed. Finally turning to check she saw that the sleeping child was covered in ants. With her tiny hands she was brushing at her face. A dark trail led down the mattress, the leg of the crib, and out the french doors. She’d lifted the child up, crying out in that hysterical voice, waking the child, waking him. They’d been attracted to the breastmilk that lay on the child’s skin, that was dried on her clothes and on the sheets. They’d moved the child into her own room, far from the french doors. From then on the child slept veiled by a cascade of electronic rain.
His arms fell to his sides. Drool seeped from the corner of his mouth and dropped thickly onto his chest. A wet spreading spot bloomed in the crotch of his pants. His chest began to flutter slightly at the bottoms and tops of his breaths. His head bobbed gently over and over, a slight tremor.
Fuck, she whispered.
She grabbed his phone off the table and sat paralyzed for a second, unsure she could remember his password. She could not recall the clever shortcut to bypass the password in case of emergency. Nor did it occur to her that her own phone must be somewhere around. The screen of his phone presented itself like a turned back. The room seemed oddly dim. Her hand shook as she tapped.
She enunciated the address clearly and slowly, like etching the words in stone.
What is happening?
Bee sting. Riding bike. Head. Blind. Slowing breathing. Tremors. Bees. Blind. Can’t hear. Sweating profusely. Sweat pouring down face. Shutting down. Shutting down. Shutting down. Can you hear me? Stay with me! Please come. Oh my god, please come now.
They’re already on their way, ma’am, siren and lights on.
They need to come now. Breath slowing. Please?
Is he lying down, ma’am?
No, he’s in a chair.
It sounds like his blood pressure is dropping. Do you think you can get him on his back, on the ground? Can you do that, ma’am?
She pulled him over into her chest. His weight and the weight of the chair came crashing into her and she rolled him onto the floor.
Although the child had already disappeared from her awareness, there is a small snippet of recollection here. She sees the child’s red and screaming face through the sideways legs of the dining room chair. The child would only fully return to her senses, to her ears, her eyes, her touch, when the paramedics came through the door. In other words, there were perhaps ten minutes of history where the child had ceased to exist for her. During which the child had never been born. During which the child had returned to whatever planet she’d come from.
They had tried for so long. They’d been careless during the cocktail and wine years of Manhattan, tried to be organized about it during the long, cold months and late nights of Boston, remained committed despite the financial desperation of Berkeley, rejoined the battle with determination and ovulation tests in L.A., did what they could while she was away in Philadelphia. They’d seen experts. She’d steeped red clover. She’d done some idiotic things related to the phases of the moon. Been gifted magic bracelets. Drunk red wine. Stopped drinking red wine. Gotten acupuncture. Cried and raged. Accused him of not wanting a child. Got confused about whether she did indeed want one, or if it was instead just the constant parade of friends’ Facebook posts about their kids, some of them already entering college.
Then, they’d given up. They’d returned to each other and to accepting what they did and didn’t have as a kind of whole. Nature seemed to have left them out of its chain. It was okay. They watched movies, drank wine, made plans to travel but didn’t, started making ceramics and thought they might be able to make a living at it. The ceramics were thin white porcelain, glazed only on the inside. They were stark and like bone that’s been sitting in the desert sun. Nature intended for them to travel light.
When at New Years she discovered she was pregnant, she credited their recent bedbug infestation. Just months before they’d turned the apartment upside down, throwing away a third of their possessions, packing everything into black plastic bags and hauling them to the roof of the apartment building to bake in the sun, making trip after trip to the high-powered dryers at the local laundromat, taking apart furniture, suffering a white gloppy liquid to be sprayed at all the corners, between all the cracks, and in their chests of drawers. Twice.
She’d theorized privately that the infestation was a kind of ancient luck that comes disguised as horror. It had forced them to get rid of items they’d possessed for years and the energy had simply shifted. They’d made a little space. She was particularly suspicious of a hamaya they’d acquired at a shrine in Tokyo at New Years thirteen years ago. She’d always wondered if its demon-slaying power was in need of renewal or if the thing was meant to be destroyed at the end of a year lest it reverse itself and invite the demons in. She’d never admitted this embarrassing theory, but she had written a cryptic email to a Japanese friend asking whether insect infestations played any role in Japanese mythology, in fertility, in abundance, in luck, or unluck. The friend had not replied.
They explained that his blood pressure was still dangerously low and they would need to take him in the ambulance to the hospital. She placed the child in the carseat as the ambulance went out of sight around the corner and sat shakily in the driver’s seat. They faced in opposite directions, both of them looking in mirrors to see each other. The child looked at her without emotion. She looked through both the mirrors and the child to the interior of the ambulance blocks ahead, seeing him lying there surrounded by i.v. lines, piles of white towels, blinking machines.
A winter cooling set in after this. It tempered the lacerating blue of the sky, watering it down, bringing everything down a bar. It brought family for the holidays, everyone crowding into the small house, eating at the same table. No one asked her about the incident. No one asked him how he was feeling. No one advised caution when being outdoors. She was the only one who ever reminded him to take his epi-pen with him. He seemed slightly irritated when she did so, like a boy who’s been asked to remember his coat when going outside.
No one said to her, you’ve been through a lot. She wanted someone to say that. It was true that she’d led a charmed and lucky life. It was true that this terror had only lasted for twenty minutes at most. It was true that many people dealt with much worse. But she’d wanted someone to worry those twenty minutes with her. She’d wanted someone to sit and think about them with her, rub those twenty minutes with their fingers.
In particular, where had the child been? More accurately, what had the child been thinking? When he’d revived and spoken her name and answered the paramedics’ questions, establishing that he still had a functioning brain, she’d finally noticed the screaming child in the doorway between the dining room and kitchen where she had presumably been pulling herself up and falling over, screaming, pulling herself up, and falling again. She didn’t know. She hadn’t seen.
o o o o o
Bees? The child began saying the word with upturned questioning intonation in spring. The season came on like a wave that looked small and distant but was so fast and growing that it was drowning her before she could take a breath. Suddenly bees were everywhere tugging blossoms into existence. They described thousands of lazy motorized ellipses, looping out and back on the bushes, vines, and flowers.
Sleep eluded her. For days on end the child cried every few hours in the middle of the night. When the child stopped, the cat would puke, the puke get cleaned up. When they were settled back down in bed again, he would begin to snore. Whereas before the bee sting she would have kicked him gently or rearranged his pillow, she left him alone. The snoring would crescendo and wake him up long enough to turn his head and start snoring again. She watched the trail of stars that peeked out from the trees make its way down the night sky. She began to feel the earth turn beneath them.
She thought of unlocking the pet door and letting the cat come and go as it pleased. The cat was an old friend who had been with them since they’d returned from Japan. They had returned from the hospital with the child to find the cat emaciated. For four days it had not eaten because, though the neighbor had been putting food down, the food had been swarmed by ants. Since then the cat ate badly and threw most things up. It spent its days on the bed, staring out the french doors to the backyard. Maybe the cat wanted to curl up in a corner of the yard and die, the way her dog had done when she was eight years old. She started to plan the cat’s death, the cat’s obituary.
The yard now played host, in addition to the usual suspects, to a number of more exotic plants and animals: Black bumble bees with vivid yellow circles on their backs, feely sun-snatchers, organ grinders, plucky spindle-zooms, brown recluses, purple moon flowers, black widows, fire-starters, tickly hermits, may flies, thrifty peat-scoots, mission figs, lemons, poppies, pale reclining ladies, oranges, lavender, poor old men, sage, topsy turvies, babies death, undertakers, midnight whispers, and strange four-legged shadows that streaked by at night tripping the garage light and then disappearing. Shards of their ceramics lay about the yard, cracked, weeds and poppies growing up through them, looking more than ever like bone.
She would take the child outside to play in the kiddie pool, but she confined their activities to the back porch beyond which was the sea of lush, growing things. The child would point out into the green and ask, Bees? Then cry, No, no, no!
It’s okay. The bees don’t want anything with you. They’re making the flowers grow. They’re making honey.
But when the child approached the bees with a sliver of sage or a cup of water, whispering, Yum yum, she would feel the panic rising through her core again.
No, no, they don’t want to eat that! Be careful!
Now when the child saw even a fly or a gnat and was somehow restrained, as in her highchair or her crib, she would shake and scream, tears rolling down her cheeks. Bees!
It seemed the child’s fear was the acknowledgment of her own fear she’d been hoping for. She was in other words somewhat comforted by the child’s fear. Perhaps that’s what fearful people did. They passed their fear to others so that they wouldn’t be alone with it. This was how fear propagated. She had transformed curiosity into fear. She was an alchemist making something terrible out of something precious.
He grew quiet. On weekends he wanted to sit and listen to the radio, drink coffee, stare into space. He seemed fragile and withdrawn. Work was demanding. He rarely proposed any activities for them. She often asked him how he was feeling and he would always say, tired. She remembered how they used to drop everything and drive into the Santa Monica mountains to stargaze, or to Death Valley to look at the spring blooms, or to the Grand Canyon in the middle of a blizzard. They’d get a hankering for Oaxacan food or donuts or Indian spices or ice cream, and they’d just go. He rode his bike all day back then. He paddled outrigger. He ran marathons. They’d stared into each others’ eyes, fully knowing.
She looked around at all of their possessions that two years of birthday and Christmas tides had deposited, all of the bags of dirty hand-me-downs waiting to be washed and sorted, all of the kitchen utensils they liked to buy but rarely used, all the ceramics that had never been sold. She made weak attempts to frame plans. Just in case. Who would she call? Who would help throw things away? Where would she and the child live? If she had been reading and writing and emailing while breastfeeding she might have a job by now. Maybe they could move to Tucson to live with her parents and sister, and she could learn to bartend or sell books or something.
She made him text her every morning when he arrived at the downtown train, and then again in the evening before he got on his bike to ride home. She kept the phone close, watching the minutes tick by until she heard from him.
She went on the Facebook group that someone had signed her up for and tried to post about how she felt. She wrote, I’m on the Love Boat and I’m the ship’s Cruise Director. And the Captain. And Gopher. And the Doctor too. Only instead of the Love Boat, I feel like it’s the Life and Death Boat. I’m responsible for all life and death around here.
A member responded, You’re being a little melodramatic! 🙂 And then retracted it later, apologizing for being bitchy.
Another member wrote, That’s just what it is to be a mommy! Welcome to the club! 🙂
Another wrote, Let her explore! Take her shoes off! You’re a helicopter parent! Relax! They’re incredibly resilient! Bad stuff’s gonna happen! You just have to let go. Let go, mamma! <3
She thought of a friend who’d told her that giving birth made you realize you’re a mammal, in case you’d forgotten. At the time it had made her mad, as though the friend were suggesting she would never have this remembrance of her mammal self. She thought of Doris Lessing, whose semi-autobiographical Martha Quest, while heavily pregnant, had climbed into a deep hole in the ground in the middle of an African rainstorm to feel part of the earth, part of the chain. Martha Quest and Doris Lessing had both eventually abandoned their children with the fathers and run away.
She asked him, What’s all this stuff with grown women referring to themselves as “mamma” and “mommy.” It’s weird.
Yeah, he responded.
o o o o o
At the end of the summer, they woke one morning to find a jungle in the backyard. They chalked it up to two prior days of rain, peculiar for Los Angeles in the middle of August. More than peculiar. Downright impossible, she said. She opened a door to the backyard and heard a huge mechanical buzzing. A riot of different greens knitted and braided themselves together. The uppermost levels were a yellow green, already burned by the sun. Down below, where once there’d been tufts of grass, sage, dry dirt, corn, and patches of poppies, there now seemed to be cool dark tunnels leading she didn’t know where. She couldn’t make out the far side of the backyard. The child stood twining her arms through her legs and looking out too.
Bees! she said.
It was the child’s second birthday. He kissed her large head with its blond ringlets that lofted out on either side.
She said, Bye bye daddy.
Goodbye my love, he said. He looked up at her and said, I mean my loves.
Text me, she said.
They watched him from the front window as he sped down the hill on his bike. The child turned her head to follow him all the way down, through the stop sign and around the curve. Daddy! she cried. Down down! Bike! Bye bye!
She said to the child, It’s your birthday. What do you want to do?
She dressed the child in a bathing suit and her rubber shoes, brought a towel out of the closet, put her phone in her pocket and opened the door.
Once outside she checked her phone. Still no text.
The child walked into the pool and stood for a moment looking out at the maze of green. Then, she stepped back out of the water again on the far side. She pointed out into the yard. Mommy! Bees! Then turned and seemed to study her face.
She pulled the phone out and checked again. Still no text. A bell chimed somewhere. Where were they in time? How many minutes? How many hours? Days? Months? Years? Decades? The child was two, she knew that.
There was the welling of fear in her chest. The backyard jungle seemed to pulse, to ebb and flow. It was like an ocean that could be crossed, maybe.
Mommy! Bees! The child started to dance up and down in that way she did when she was antsy.
Just a minute, she said. She checked her phone. Still no text. I need a sign, she thought to herself. I need a sign that this will be okay. Where am I in the world? What time is it really?
The child began to cry. Birthday! Bees!
Okay, she said. Okay. Is that what you want?
She walked to the child and wrapped her arms around her. The child squirmed. No mommy!
She let go.
The child turned and jumped down the steps. She paused only briefly before the wall of green, then ducked and stepped into one of the dark tunnels which led she knew not where. The child turned once more just inside and peeked out at her, laughing with delight. Then the child turned again and disappeared into the tunnel.
She whispered, Be careful, and checked her phone again. Still no text.
Sarah Meacham was born in Los Angeles, raised in Arlington, VA, and graduate-schooled at UCLA where she studied linguistic anthropology and Japanese. She is a writer, artist, and adjunct instructor in economics and anthropology. She teaches Radical Economic Thought every spring at Occidental College. She has served as a grant writer for Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park. She lives with her husband, daughter, and cat in Eagle Rock.