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American Bird

I was 18 and a half weeks pregnant and it might have been twins and I didn’t know the gender but I knew that my belly was full and rounded and had lots of purple stretch marks and I still took the stairs even though I would get to her office too winded to talk for the first five minutes after plopping in her office chair. It was my independent study the Wednesday before Spring Break, and just after we talked about Foucault and my breathless poem and the creation of a story about a mother and daughter, and just before we peeled ourselves from the orange chairs in her office to wander to other classes, and other people, and other days, she pulled from her shelf Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I said I liked the simple cover. She said I would like what was underneath.

After classes, I went to the chiropractor where he shoved my bones into place with his little adjuster-tool that I thought looked too similar to a toy-syringe to be useful. He kept it in a little holster on his belt loop. I found the holster a little ridiculous, pretentious like a Bluetooth accessory for a middle aged man, but it felt like my leg was trying to split away from my body so I went to his office three times a week because I was going to be healthy and I was scared that the doctor was going to tell me and the baby that it was bed-rest time and I had things to do, things to do.

He lowered the table and the nurse sent me to the back room where I had to lay on the machine that made my back feel like the ocean and I asked if her if I could read the book that I brought, and she instead wanted to talk about the tattoos on my chest and arms. I told her the book was called Birds of America, she said she didn’t want to commit to anything that would be permanent. I told her it was a collection of short stories and that I had only read the first ten pages but I could already tell that it would be one of my favorites. She said that she liked my chest tattoo but she would never get a skull on her breast, she didn’t want the symbol of death that near.

My purse, carrying Moore, and I went to work the next morning thinking that the café would open groggily like other Saturday mornings, and I would get a chance to read at least two of the stories out loud to my baby and the empty coffee mugs. Except customers were waiting outside, their faces pressed against the glass waiting with the newspapers in their hands like they were auditioning for roles in a Clockwork Orange. They wanted their coffee fast, fast, fast, and I had an eye exam to go to, so I needed out by noon. But Randy’s dog died and he wouldn’t be in and Chelsea wasn’t responding to her text messages, and the Boss called me on her cell phone to tell me that I was irresponsible in not reminding everyone about my doctor’s appointments and the world doesn’t stop in its turning because one girl got pregnant. I told her it wasn’t a baby-doc exam, it was for my glasses because I could feel the strain in my left eye pulling my prescription and sometimes it would go lazy and tear up and I would wake up feeling like I got elbowed in the temple.

She hung up angry. I cried into a customer’s coffee.

After my eye exam, we zoomed to my father’s house to eat hog fries and ice cream cake that a 15-year-old made and messed up, but that was okay because she gave me a discount and smiled while doing it. After the first horror movie my father asked me what book was peeking out of my purse and I told him it was Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. He asked if I liked it. I told him I hadn’t even really started, but I read the first ten pages and could tell that she and I were really going to hit it off. I told him I planned to read it aloud to my large belly during spring break because I imagined that the baby/babies had the same taste in books that I did. He said that we should probably put in the next horror movie.

It might have been the cheese fries, it might have been the ice cream cake, but my stomach started to clench and unclench and I decided it was time to lose the jeans I was wearing and trade them for my step mother’s soft pajama pants in a soft shade of vertically striped blue. I made a joke about a pregnant woman’s fashion, and we all laughed because we were full of ice cream, you scream, horror movie screams.

My doctor told me that the baby’s movement would feel like wings on the inside, and that’s exactly what woke me up from the nap I had not intended to take on my father’s loveseat. A soft sparrow’s flutter on my insides, a sensation of movement, a sensation of not being alone in my body.

But pain followed—a sharp pain that echoed up into my rib cage and down into my pelvis. I wanted to go home. I felt I needed some sleep. I needed our big bed and our nest of blankets. I needed to wake up and rub my fingers across the embossed cover of Birds of America and delicately flip to the eleventh page and read out loud to my belly and the sleeping orange cats.

Monster, my fiancé, led me to our new car, the car we bought with four doors for the baby, because the cramps hurt and I felt a little dizzy and I didn’t feel like I could drive. I said I just needed some sleep, he asked why my purse was so heavy. I told him it was Birds of America, he said I should empty it out.

A block away from our house I felt a pop on the inside, a great release. I gushed, and gushed, and I was scared, and didn’t realize that my face was as wet as my new car seats. Monster said that I needed to go upstairs and make sure that I wasn’t bleeding. He said I needed to calm down and breathe. I remember clutching the bottom of my belly, the legs of my borrowed pants wet and sticking to my calves and there was blood, blood, blood all over me, and I was walking back to the car before Monster caught me and sat me back into the dark wet puddle of the passenger seat and drove too fast, fast, fast to the hospital.

The nurses told me they would call the doctor and he would be in. The nurses told me that they would call the ultrasound technician and she would be in. The nurses told me to relax and helped me undress and that I shouldn’t be worried about the blood, blood, blood. I asked if I had time to read because I brought a book. I brought a book with a soft ivory color with an embossed sparrow on the front in mid-graceful flight. The sparrow’s chest was strong and crimson and all I wanted was to trace the indents of that American bird’s tail feathers through the title and to my bed where needles, and sanitizer, and nurses, nurses, nurses didn’t exist. She said I should wait for the doctor and not focus on the pain that felt like the breaking of a novel’s spine down my stomach, down to my knees.

The family waited beside me with hopeful faces and caresses and soft murmurs and they only looked at my face because no one wanted to acknowledge that I was bleeding through the nest of white blankets on the maternity ward bed. I wanted someone to pull out the book. I wanted my father’s voice to preach Lorrie Moore to the waiting and the silence, but as he reached his dark welder’s fingers towards the mouth of my bag, as he was about to touch the spine of what I needed most—a nurse walked in, and his fingers curled up and away, away from my salvation, so he could listen completely with his hands in his pockets, with my book-whim forgotten.

The ultrasound nurse came in and rubbed the cold jelly over my stomach so we could see the baby, the baby that I knew would be okay and would grow up to love the exact same stories that resonant so true, so true, as me. I asked her how many babies were in there, I asked how long and healthy he was, I told her that my ultrasound was going to be next week but she could leak the secret of the gender to me, because I was going to be okay and the baby was going to be okay as long as I didn’t look down, didn’t look down. She said nothing. I asked her if the sound was turned off because I couldn’t hear any heartbeat, and she said nothing. She preached silence all of the way out of the room, taking the huge machine with the pictures of my baby with her.

Monster got angry because of the quiet and the unanswered questions and it was too hot in the room and we were all too close to the blood, the blood that was still coming. I said that we should just stay calm and focus on other things. I asked him if he wanted to read to me because I still had Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America in my purse, and I wanted to read it with the baby during spring break, and I would like something comforting and warm like words from page eleven. I told him that he would like the sparrow on the front soft cover, and the pages would be a warm, home-smell in the frightening silence, and we would all be comforted by something from not-here, not-here. Monster started to cry.

Hours passed, eternities passed, and the nurses came in and out, in and out, and turned down the lights so no one could see the blood-nest I laid in, and no one could read because the nurses had taken all of the lights. The television above me became my only source of light, my only source of time. My family became quiet and blended into the shadowed corners of the room, and I was alone to watch exercise and turkey-cooking infomercials hopscotch over one another for the duration of one life-time in hell.

The lights turn on too fast, too fast, and my left eye tears up and I don’t know what day it is, but I knew that if someone called within ten minutes they could get a CD collection of soulful blues for only $19.95. The doctor came in, and I rubbed my eyes to get the light out, rubbed my eyes to make them focus on his white coat—and without introduction, he told me that my baby was dead, right before he dropped his pen on the floor. I remember the click-clack-click because it was so loud, so loud. The room was so silent, so unused to sound for so long, I must have been holding my breath because I don’t remember my lungs moving in or out as the doctor bent over in his white coat to pick the pen off the floor like it was just a normal Sunday morning, and he was talking about which book he was casually reading on the weekends.

I felt a shift, a lowering of my insides, so I told my family to leave the room so the nurse would come in and I could squeeze her hand tight and whisper that it was time. I gave birth alone, with a strange nurse holding my hand, while I stared at my purse sitting on the bedside table, too far, too far out of reach. As I pushed and screamed, I dug my fingernails into a stranger’s palm and stared at the ivory spine sticking out of my bag, stared at the embossed tail feathers that barely showed above the zipper’s teeth. The Doctor showed me my son’s perfect body, showed me the silent, beautiful person that Monster and I made—just as a raw, new baby’s cries were heard from the room next door.

The Doctor asked if I wanted Monster to come and see him, I said no, it wasn’t fair if we both had to share the same nightmare.

The nurse asked if I wanted to hold him and all I could think of was that it was the first day of my spring break and I was going to read Lorrie Moore out loud to my son who should still be in my belly and I couldn’t possibly hold him because he should not be out of the belly where he belonged.

Medication came next. I was groggy and couldn’t focus my left eye because I didn’t get those new glasses, and I would stare up at the light of the television, but it would slowly dim to darkness until I would wake up again. Days passed, and the sleep was dreamless, and Birds of America went unread.

The nurse gave me disposable scrubs to wear out because the yellow shirt and the striped cardigan and the clashing blue pajama pants were covered in fluid, and blood, and a joke that I made a lifetime ago. She put me in a wheel chair with a box full of footprints and teddy bears and small toys for a boy who I should have been able to take home with me, and placed my heavy purse on top, the memorized spine of Moore’s Birds of America peeking between the zipper teeth. I did not pull the book out. I wanted to get into the car and not go home, and I wanted Monster to stop at the gas station for a pack of cigarettes, and I did not care about things like countries or things that flew. I did not want to look at the box, I did not want to change out of the disposable clothes—I wanted to sleep for years because I was too, too tired, to stay awake.

I wake up to sharp pain in my stomach and my mother is in town and she is telling me a story about watching her brother sitting on the ground with the skin on his head flopped down because he was flung out of a red convertible into a barbed wire fence. I don’t like the mirrors in my house and I don’t want to brush my hair. I don’t like the feel of my body on me; I feel it’s betrayed me. Joined the other team. My stomach is too flat, too stretch marked to have nothing to show for it. But that isn’t true: I have the box that Monster tucked away in the chest with all of the baby onesies and stuffed animals that they must have carefully put away before I came home.

The sun comes up, the sun goes down and I paint grief flowers and play board games and no one lets me be by myself or tells me what day it is because I can see reflected off of their eyes my own fragility. I cannot be trusted with things with spines and pages and I understand why: I destroy things.

I go to the WIC office where teenagers bounce toddlers on their knees and there is red clear plastic in little cups that show parents how much juice to give their children. I sit in Diana’s office and hand her my checks and tell her I don’t need them anymore because I am too empty, too empty, and I’m never going to eat again. She hands me a book called How to Deal with the Loss of your Baby. I put it in my purse next to Lorrie Moore before leaving the WIC office and drive to the Pancake house where my mother is telling Monster that the bone chips in her neck are moving and she is probably going to die. Monster asks what I brought back. I show him the two books. He says that I only have room in my purse for one paperback at a time. He says that he would prefer I choose Birds of America.

The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and I have to say goodbye to my mother who is telling me about how perfect her first pregnancy went, and how I was such a good baby who never cried. I tell her my baby didn’t cry either, and she gets into the shuttle van to go to the airport. I go home and am allowed homework and my laptop and paper and pencils. I don’t remember how any of these things work.

Monster asks if I want that Morsey-Mo-Moore? bird book that’s still in my purse. I tell him I’ve forgotten how to read.

Monster takes me to a bookstore to make me feel better. He says I should leave Moore in my glove box so no one thinks I’m pocketing products. He doesn’t question why I’m still carrying it. We go inside and he leaves me alone to wander around and look at people, touching the books they just touched to feel their fingerprints. The pregnant women avoid me. They can smell my poison. I want to touch them, touch their bellies and tell them I too once felt those little sparrow wings flutter in my insides. But I know that the one and only time that I felt the little boy inside me move was the struggle of his umbilical cord wrapping around his neck, and Monster finds me in the fiction section crying on a hardback copy of Birds of America.

I am at the University Center and the other students have carefully asked why I was gone, and I fake smile so big it hurts the inside of my cheeks and tell them I lost my baby. I make it sound like I put him down somewhere and walked away without thinking. They try to look sad, but cannot understand, because they have to go write a paper and update their statuses and change for softball practice. I go to my car to smoke, to fill my empty air balloon skin back up with nicotine and cancer. I turn on the key because I’m going to go home, but the car that I bought to fit a child’s car seat doesn’t turn on, doesn’t turn on, and I’ve broken another thing and forgotten to put on my seatbelt.

The professor asks how I like Birds of America, but I have to admit that I have only read ten pages before my life fell apart and I am still picking up the pieces and the book is in my glove box in a mechanic’s garage too far away to walk. Our meeting ends early. She doesn’t lean over to her bookcase to pick up another novel to hand me. I don’t remember where I am when she tells me to have a nice day.

I am outside of my university, two or five or twelve days after spring break ended and I walk off campus because I need a cigarette and I don’t want the golf cart security women to round me up and scoot me off the steps. It is cold, and the wind hurts the bottom of my ears, and I understand that stupid cliché about people who feel like they have holes inside of them. The wind sweeps through me, tearing the scab off of my wound, my wound, until my air balloon self deflates and I am sitting on the sidewalk, because I am not strong enough to hold myself up. I stare up at the wintered dead trees on University Avenue and see them as alone, and leafless, and lifeless as I am. I fill my lungs with nicotine and search the empty branches for a sign, a symbol, a sparrow.

And I cry because the only thing I want at this moment is to see an American bird, but the wind still stings the bottom of my ears and the cold, dead, branches remain empty.