Joyland

The South |

Feast

by Dantiel W. Moniz

edited by Laura Chow Reeve

There is only moonlight, a spill of it across Heath’s shoulders, illuminating how he lies on his side, turned from me. Above the curtain rod floats a pair of hands, the fingers small as the tines of a doll’s silver fork. When I call my husband’s name, my voice is a splinter plucked from my throat and Heath wakes immediately, turns on the bedside lamp, and leans in so close I can smell the sleep on his breath. He rolls my eyelids back with his steady thumb, then lays the cool back of his hand against my forehead.

“Do you have any pain?” he asks, and I want to swallow my mouth, to fold in the soft brown lips and chew until they burst, to keep myself from laughing. I place my hands on my stomach and nod. Heath reaches underneath my sleeping shirt to test the tenderness of my skin.

“Anything hurt?” His fingers keep pressing, like I’m clay.

“Everything,” I say.

He looks at me then, and in the look I can see him envisioning how I will be at some point in the future, ten years from now or twenty. I am a thin, brittle imprint of the girl he thought I’d been when we married, my mouth a black cave, ugly and square.

“Rayna, you’re fine,” Heath says. “Everything’s ok. It was just a nightmare.” He turns back out the light. I don’t correct him, don’t mention the tiny hands that are still climbing up and down the drapes. We are both pretending. It’s the only way we sleep.

***

This thing with the body parts makes sense; I blame all those baby tracker apps for that, showing me the growth of my child as compared to produce, kumquats and Brussel sprouts, pomegranate seeds and blueberries, things I’d pick wild and gobble by the handful, except it was growing a brain and tongue, eyebrows, a thumb to suck. I was in love with it.

Heath and I had been married for three years, and he already had this other child, this ex-wife, a past life that had nothing to do with me. I had my friends’ questions (when y’all having kids of your own?) and my mother’s proclamations (that baby’s gonna have good hair!). I had two hands held out, waiting to receive my due. I’d wanted honeymoon babies, my curly-haired kid with golden skin and Heath’s hazel eyes. Out together in public getting Italian ice after dinner, I would practice with his child. I’d wind a strand of Nila’s hair behind her ear, tell her not to eat so fast, introduce her as our daughter.

Nine months ago, when I missed my period, when I confirmed with the pee-stick and the doctor, when I told Heath with a bottle of good champagne and a card that said Daddy, I was glowing from the inside out. This baby validated me in the same way as my Master’s degree, my good credit. Heath’s getting down on one knee, his white hand asking for my brown one in marriage. I bought the baby books, browsed the best cribs, shunned the million things expecting mothers shouldn’t do. Rule-by-rule, I was everything I was supposed to be, twice as good for half as much.

The baby was the size of a Washington cherry, with miniature sex organs even a skilled technician couldn’t see, when I lost it. There’d been no symptoms, it was too small for fluttering, and when I went to the appointment, the milestone when embryo became fetus, the doctor told me she was sorry, her face solemn and practiced. There was no heartbeat. It was, and then it wasn’t.

“This is common in early pregnancy,” she’d told me. “It happens all the time. Once the fetus is out, and you begin ovulating, you can try again.” The fetus, she’d said, and the word, one I’d been so excited about minutes earlier, rankled and soured.

I opted out of the D&C and the pill, waiting for things to proceed “naturally.” There was still hope inside of me. Doctors were wrong all the time. I prodded my slim belly, shook it, willing my baby to move. “Wake up, baby,” I said, but the next day, the bleeding started and didn’t stop. The doctor said, It’s beginning, and there was nothing to do but wait. Heath kissed my forehead, tried to fold me into his arms, but I couldn’t let him hold me. I locked myself in the bathroom with the baby books, flipping through them slowly, and nowhere was there written how to reverse time or spark a heartbeat. How to make a womb worthy. I tore the pages out in handfuls and flushed them down the toilet, watched as they swirled back up in soggy clumps and came to rest at my feet. My baby would come out that way, too.

I saw the first baby part in a bouquet of marigolds Heath brought home that night, the small slit of sex resting among the petals, a girl. I didn’t tell Heath; I knew I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t need to visit a psychiatrist to know what these visions were, a reminder of how the baby would have developed if it were still at home, safe inside of me.

***

The moon has been replaced by the buttery glow of mid-afternoon sun when I’m woken by my phone ringing. I know who it will be without looking; by now, no one else bothers to call. On Heath’s side of the bed, the covers are rumpled, his pillow flat with the absence of him. He’s been at work for hours already.

“Hello.”

“You’re still in bed.”

“Yes.”

The college has been kind, allowing me to stretch the interpretation of “sick leave” these last few months. I’ve covered my bases diligently: all accounts manned, no client left untended. Mostly I work from home, running formulaic programs that allow financial aid to go through so students can buy their textbooks and birth control, stock their shelves with Top Ramen. But Heath knows my new primary residence is my bed, my real work the practice of forgetting through sleep.

“You have to pick up Nila from school today.”

I bring my free hand to my face and examine the fingers, the half-moon whites of my nails, the frayed cuticles holding them in place. I bring my fingers to my mouth and bite away the excess skin.

“Are you there?” Heath asks, and I hear an edge of worry in his voice, expertly mixed with a dash of irritation, our most common cocktail these days.

“Yes,” I say, gnawing at my rough edges. My stomach rumbles.

“Rayna…you promised you would spend the day with her.” He pauses, and the space between us crawls with static, his wishes and mine distorted through the phones lines. “Please,” Heath says, and I sigh. Being pitiful myself, I’m now a sucker for beggars.

“I’m getting up,” I tell him. I let my mouth fill with spit until it warms. I swish the shorn-off skin and swallow.

***

I park on the street, outside the circle of mothers and fathers corralled along the drive marked for child pick-up. The children are hazy with movement, erratic bits of color as they sprint from the cement building, waving papers, some carrying retro plastic lunch boxes, the kind I used to beg my mother for. Everything always comes back. The children screech like seabirds and collide with their parents with the same ecstatic energy as waves meeting the shore. I shield my eyes and search for Nila in the crowd.

Then, I see her among all the others at the edge of the curb, frozen, looking for me. Her tongue is poked out in concentration, a furrow crinkling her brow. She is a calm in the center of chaos. My hand is on the keys and the gas tank marked full. It would be so easy to slip away before I’m spotted; I could vanish, follow the wet summery air down an unfamiliar highway, where I won’t be plagued by little legs dancing on my kitchen counter or eyelids blinking from the ceiling; where I will no longer be haunted by lungs spinning across the room, small as kidney beans. I imagine dusty roads and I, the sole traveler; saguaro cacti with their prickly salute; the hot air drying the farther west I ride. Out there, I would track viper trails on the bleached desert sand, lie across gray rocks under the moon’s cool regard, my belly full and swaying with meat. The coyotes would sing my lullaby.

I pull the keys from the ignition and get out of the car, cross the street and hold my hand high. I wave. It’s been almost four weeks since I’ve seen her, and already I’ve forgotten her six-year-old’s exuberance, the cherub shape of her lips, the way her hair is silky to the touch, like water. She throws her arms around my waist, her stomach, soft and plump, pushes against me. I hold her away from my body at the shoulders, look into her small blameless face, and feel nothing but appetite.

“Let’s get some food,” I say, trying on a smile, a stretched thing. At the car, I buckle her into the backseat and Nila tells me about Jupiter’s moons and clouds of space-dust and gas where stars are born. She tells me about gravity, how it keeps us pinned to Earth and makes apples fall from trees. I am familiar with gravity, I tell her, but leave out the sensation of falling, the concrete end.

“We did drawings today,” she says, and promises to show me later. I am a steel gray rod underneath my skin, a dead satellite, picking up information, but relaying nothing back. She’s a smart kid, she senses this. She tells me she missed me, and because I’m trying, I lie.

“I missed you, too.”

Heath and the ex-wife have agreed Nila must eat vegetables with every meal, a helping of fresh fruit and whole grains, a sprinkling each from the pyramid boxes with little allowances for artificial ingredients or processed junk. I order bacon cheeseburgers and large fries at Wendy’s and we eat them in the parking lot, sharing a chocolate frosty between us, dipping our fries into the soft mass, getting brain-freeze as the cold saturates the roots of our teeth. I let her gulp down my orange soda between sloppy, open-mouthed bites, flick the bit of hamburger and bread left on the straw away like a flea.

“Our secret,” I tell her with a cartoon wink.

“Can we go to the toy store after?”

I recognize the hard-bargain, the first experiment with parental blackmail, and don’t resist. From the early childhood development books I’d devoured, I know this type of thing is natural. A sign of normal growth. At the toy store, I give her a quarter, watch her insert it into the crank of a dilapidated gumball machine and grin as the ball spirals down the shoot into her waiting hand. I watch her mouth become a red ruin as she chews, her small, perfect teeth smeared with candy blood.

***

We do Nila’s homework at the table; she’s still babbling about everything, her mind a constant river, surging forward, changing course. She tells me that the only place as strange as space is the sea. Unlike her father, she requires only modest participation. Heath will be home in an hour, no more than two, and I can escape this, shuck off my clothes and lie naked as a newborn in my bed. I scribble gray spirals in the margins of her papers with one of her fat school pencils. I imagine myself gliding along inside of them, disappearing into their tight centers.

“Look,” Nila says, fetching a construction paper-cube from her backpack, pride glowing in the focused point of her face. The cube is only slightly smushed. “I made this.” Its six sides are different colored paper taped together and each one holds a face drawn in magic marker and Crayola.

“Here’s mommy and daddy and me,” she says, rotating it so I can see. Heath’s side is the blue of robin’s egg and his eyebrows hover like two airborne hyphens above his squiggle hair. He seems surprised to find himself rendered in his daughter’s careful hand. There’s Maui, her French bulldog, with a happy lolling tongue. I’m there too, depicted on yellow, my mouth a u-bend shape, a seedless watermelon slice. I could be laughing or screaming.

Nila holds the last side out like a gift, and there on pink another body part. She’s drawn a generic baby’s head: there’s a halo and bird’s wings where a neck should be. She drew its eyes closed, as if in peace, but all I can think is dead. I can sense her expectancy, her need for me to smile, to say Thank you or Nice work. She’s waiting for me to be the mother.

I run to the hallway bathroom and vomit into the sink. I do it again, and again until I am empty, until there is only bile, seething and yellow, the same cautionary shade as my stick-figure face. I can hear Nila outside the door, the fear in her voice as she calls to me and flutters against the knob. “Don’t come in!” I say.

I know I should go to her, should comfort her and tell her I’m fine, but I can’t see her right now. I’m tired of smiling when Heath sides with the doctors, says we can try again soon, as if life is interchangeable, one indistinguishable from another. Right now I can’t pretend that I’m okay or that Nila is mine. There is no make-believe that makes me less horrible, that changes that all day I have wondered why Nila is here, her living, breathing, tangible form, while my baby is not.

***

Heath’s home. His deep voice reaches me through the bathroom door, rolling across the tops of my shoulders in short, comforting bursts. In the pauses between his rumblings, I know Nila is filling him in on our day, directing him to my presence behind the door. He pokes his head in and when he sees me stretched out in the tub, his face clouds. I feel bad for him, but not bad enough to speak. When he leaves, he closes the door behind him. I can hear him pacing, gathering Nila’s things before packing her into his car to take her home.

When he comes back, half an hour later, moving with the heaviness of a much larger man, I’m ready for him. “Did you tell her I was fine before you dropped her off?”

“When will you be able to let this go? When can we go back to normal?”

“Let this go?” I spark like a star in the night, all my insides roiling, suddenly full to brim. “I’m glad this is so easy for you.”

“Jesus, Rayna! I don’t know what to do. It’s been eight months.” He grips the bridge of his nose. “I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying what everyone’s told you already. It’s common! It happens all the time. It wasn’t even…” He stops. Looks like he wishes he hadn’t come back. “We didn’t even know what it was.”

But I knew, soft petals shimmering gold, my baby girl. And I wanted my common pain.

“Bet your parents were happy. Bet they never wanted me to have it. No little mutt to tarnish the family blood.” Heath’s face twists and I can feel the thin line I’m towing, about to spin head over heels, but this anger is delicious, satisfying as a last meal, and I can’t stop eating of myself. “Maybe you’re happy. You already have a daughter, after all.”

“That’s enough!” Heath roars, and his pain washes over me, startles me, folds me back. He steps forward, grabs me at the wrists. “How dare you,” he whispers, and something cracks, the anger leaking out of both of us through the spaces we haven’t yet allowed the light to shine through. I know it’s not his fault or his parents’. Maybe it’s not even my own. I wish I could pin this loss on Nila’s idea of gravity, a fall I took that burst the world apart. But there’s nothing, no explanation, no one to blame.

I lean my forehead against Heath’s. “I’m sorry,” I say, kissing him until he kisses me back, until we’re undressing and he’s breathing close against my skin. We’ve needed this; missed it. There are so many ways to be filled. “Please please please,” I beg over and over, like it’s the only word I know.

I say it the way I did when the baby slipped out, warmed by body heat and shower steam, the color of raw life. Red globules, liver streaks, clots the size of champagne grapes. And then a slippery, silvery sac, small as a coin. My baby in pieces, fig-dark and glistening. Before I hunched empty under the showerhead, letting the water grow cold; before I slid the sac in a Ziploc and wrapped it in newspaper; before I told Heath it was over, I picked up my baby and cradled it, tried to see if I could make out an ear or a miniscule knee in the alien landscape of my insides. I rocked my baby in my hands, sung to it. I told it everything was going to be fine. I knew already what a mother should do.

Hours after we’ve gone to sleep, I wake to a warm gushing against my inner thigh. I throw back the covers and creep from the bed to our bathroom, being careful not to wake Heath. In the seat of my underwear glistens a mess of wet, dark as burgundy wine. I stir my finger though it, searching for signs of life, but it’s only blood, menstruation, my body’s mode of reset . There’s a lesson here, surely. Something about ashes and rebirth, Ouroboros eating his own tail. I pretend I understand it, and clean away the blood.

***

Nila said, The only place as strange as space is the sea. I drive to the city aquarium, buy a ticket, and slip into the cool, shimmering halls filled with a dense, amphibious quality of silence. Here it’s safe to wander, driftless, pretending to goggle at the flitting of fluorescent fish, to be consumed with nothing more than the rhythmic wavering of sea kelp, translucent green tongues reaching up towards artificial light. At the tide pools I trail my finger along an urchin’s purple spines and watch it shudder, blindly grasping until I still my finger in the middle of it, let it hold me.

The aquarium is teeming with the presence of children, their squirmy delight. They rush in, eyes wide and hands reaching, grasping as the urchin. At once I want to hold them, press their small chests against mine and feel their vital thump and flutter. They awe at the boneless creatures resting at the bottom of the shallow tank, and I fade away to seek out darker, more solitary spaces.

In a dim room where the weight of water seems heaviest, I slip inside and rest, my forehead pressed to cool glass. I close my eyes and can almost remember what it is to be unborn, this darkness, this weight, a comfort. In a corner of the tank, partially hidden by living rock, I spot an octopus, iridescent purple changing to blue, white spots spiraling up the trunk of its body. Slowly, golden eye unblinking and calm, it feeds a tentacle into the black of its mouth. Its other arms wave, two or three of them shortened, partially eaten already. I can feel its stolid regard.

“Hey!” someone says next to me, a middle-aged father in thick glasses towing two struggling children in each hand. He gathers the attention of a nearby worker, “Something’s wrong with this squid!”

Nosey, ignorant man; he can’t even tell the difference. I press closer to the glass. My pale reflection superimposes over the animal, my eyes a dark glinting on its body. The man is panicking, perceiving some bit of madness, an invisible, toxic signal radiating across the current to infect every other living thing.

But I know this want is natural. This truth muscled and gleaming. Sometimes you must consume the damaged body, digest it cell by cell, to taste a new beginning. I lean in close, before the onlookers come to gawk, before the workers come to interrupt this godly process, and look into the eye.

“Good,” I tell the octopus. “Like that. One bite at a time.”