kdark 1

My father died courteously a few years ago. We stayed in touch through the period of his decline. I visited as often as I could and he seemed grateful for my company. There was never any particular beef between us; he was mostly absent when I was a kid. Lots of dads hung around the periphery of their children’s lives in the sixties and seventies.  When I told him we should talk about him not living alone any longer, he said he understood. The following day, he told me he was checking into a nursing home to rehabilitate himself. I was baffled, but already had plans to see him in a week.  We’d work it out then. He waited for me, health declining. We both knew no “rehabilitation” would occur. When he saw me, he smiled, said he loved me, everything was good, and then he died. Before the next morning. Done.

My mother won’t be so easy. She’s losing her memory. She’s spent all of her money. She’s in great physical health and just moved into my house last week.  She seems to believe that most things are either my fault for nagging her too much or Barack Obama’s fault. This is, at least in part, because he’s a Black Democrat Muslim. The worst kind of each of those things.

What happens when the mind begins to misfire? And then a relationship begins to misfire? Rewind. What happens when a relationship misfires and then the mind misfires and? Playback. Misfires create misfires create minds. Forward. Where do we go from here?

Cover_HoldingSilvanIn the morning , the phone next to my hospital bed rings. Stepping from the shower, my skin scrubbed of the sweat and blood of yesterday’s triumphant labor, I slip past David to pull on my old robe and head for the phone. I’m not worried. I’m expecting another friend, a relative, more words of congratulation to match my sudden pleasure in my baby – a healthy, full-term boy who waits for me in the nursery – but the woman on the other end of the line is a stranger.

“Hello, darling,” the stranger says in a husky, soothing voice. She is calling from another hospital. She says she needs to clear up some confusion about the spelling of my name before the transfer. I, too, am confused. When I tell the stranger that I don’t understand, that I am about to go down the hall to collect my baby because it’s time to nurse, she says, “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, darling.” 

It is legend: my father left Vietnam
for Okinawa, for the air base where
Medical Corps doctors performed
a vasectomy. Fifteen years later,
in a sleepy Missouri bedroom painted
hydrangea, wrapped and unwrapped
in blankets akin to neon asparagus,
my father makes love to my mother.

Cling

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

I was happy to see a baby at the funeral. It was a big baby, with creamy white skin and lots of baby fat, a docile and calm thing.  When his mother went to put earth on my grandmother’s grave, as part of the Jewish tradition of burial, she didn’t even put him down. She kept him pressed close to her abdomen and heart; he waited silently, wrapped around her waist, while she shoveled big heavy clumps of red earth into the empty space of the grave. I hadn’t been nearly as effective. I took tentative little handfuls of soil and grazed them over the top of the pine box.

Swallows in Midair

By Meg Worden

Memoir

Watching the towers, like two roman candles all lit up and waiting to take flight, we tense for the whistle, the earsplitting boom. The air is a sweltering buzz of fiberglass and dissonance, it’s full of walls that no longer protect anyone from anything and it clings to my skin. I breathe it in and it singes my lungs. Someone says the words asbestos and attack.

The absurdity of our direction is becoming painfully apparent.

Standing at the top of the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we are bookended by two very different sorts of skies. One is so black and the other so very, very blue. It’s a glass marble sky. A circular world sky. We are walking forward with the intention of going into Manhattan to check the office, but the way we are pressed into this crowd it’s just too hard to move. This direction is absurd.

Old stone and new people span the bridge from arch to arch, suspension wire to suspension wire, an exodus of phantoms no longer angry at co-workers, spouses, not thinking about the raise, the stockholder’s meeting, the diet, the myriad of ways they fail themselves. They are now The Great Witnesses Of Gravity, a sea-of-faces, marching on solemn feet this way. Not that way.

The sound is an unearthly roaring – internal, tidal, absolute – and the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise. The-sea-of-faces, masked in white dust and marked with fear, swivel back toward the city in unison like swallows in midair. Swoosh. The collective intake of breath.

Everyone knows someone who is still there. And the marble spins, the sky upends.

A cloud of dust precedes the collapse of the first tower. It crumbles in a sort of slow motion effect. A special effect. A summer blockbuster, alien and unbelievable. It slips and spreads, down and down and down, until it is swallowed by its own insides. Ashes to ashes, and it’s gone. The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding. When the faces reappear they have open, screaming mouths. They are all eyes, throats, tongues, tears.

I have a thick handful of Drew’s jacket as we are backed up to the railing and carried into the current off the bridge, where we spill onto the grass, a little under-the-bridge park scattered with sitting and waiting and seeing. Witnesses telling witnesses where they were when the planes hit, how they got out, where they lived, not here in Brooklyn, but in Long Island, New Jersey, Queens, somewhere where they couldn’t reach their family, get their car out of the  garage because there was no more garage, or car.

Drew and me we make nervous jokes about the grassy knoll, under this strange sky with asphalt-gray clouds punctuated by paperwork liberated from files, desks, inboxes. Pavement clouds. World-turned-upside-down clouds. I still have a handful of jacket, his hand rests on my shoe. But we don’t notice these things. We also don’t say the things we usually say. This chaos is sufficiently trumping our own. And maybe we’re just sick of ourselves and our redundant, self-perpetuating problems. Or we’re scared. Yes, we’re definitely scared. I don’t know whether or not we notice these things. Too stunned to cry, too tight to collapse, we laugh about grassy knolls and their cliched connection to American tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” the interested parties would inquire.

“On the grassy knoll,” we would reply, stifling inappropriate hysterics.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha and we aren’t really as funny as we were hoping. We notice this and become quieter than quiet. Dense quiet. Asphalt cloud quiet. We would have to completely rethink our plan, change direction. Swoosh. Just like that. Swallows in midair.

There is nothing that wouldn’t require a new perspective. The fabric of our reality has been irrevocably unravelled.

“I finally get clean and the world falls apart.” I say, mostly to myself, but loud enough for him to hear. Last night in Brooklyn, in the basement of Grace Church, they were different than before. They asked if my life was unmanageable, which was an entirely different question than, “Are you an addict?” They sat in a circle, drinking the coffee that Hazel I’m an alcoholic made. They were kind of funny. Mostly, they didn’t make me feel like crap and they didn’t annoy the crap out of me.

Swoosh. Just like that.

Hazel with the coffee pot said I should make no major moves, no big changes for the first year. Just don’t use and come back. She said quitting wasn’t the end of the world.

I woke up the next morning to a city on fire.

Drew pretended to ignore my getting clean comment and, instead, was starting a conversation with a man who’s eyebrows hung low over his narrow eyes, who had stopped in front of Drew and I on the grass, set down an armload of books and asked if they were letting anyone into Manhattan. “I have to get in, to school. A test. Important.”

Confusion was pandemic and all directions seemed absurd. Because no one really knows how to go swoosh, just like that. Because we aren’t actually hollow-boned swallows, covered in feathers, light as air. We have bodies, heavy, fleshy, burdened. It takes an act of Congress, God, Terrorists.

We ordered Reubens with extra Russian dressing at a diner a few blocks up on Atlantic Avenue, iced tea to drink. I can see us growing old together, drinking iced tea. Problem solved.

The pastrami sours in my throat when the waitress announces the second collapse. I notice her tired legs in compression stockings, the way her shoulders strain under an invisible burden. I don’t notice her take Drew’s order for a vodka tonic. Worlds ride high on apron strings.

Two days later dust covers unclaimed bicycles and the witnesses wander the streets, chanting the names of the missing and the dead. Two days later, we shield our faces from the smell, sweet and acrid, identified by the Vietnam Vet on the subway as “Burnt flesh, man. I know that smell, I smelled it before and I swear to you it’s burnt flesh.”

Two days later over styrofoam cups of Hazel’s coffee,  someone asks what would you do if you stood between fire and a seventy fifth floor window? Who can imagine a choice like that? To fall or to burn. Opinions split among us, as they were split among the ones that actually had to make that choice. We knew this for certain: too many burned and too many jumped.

And it was two days after the bridge and the grassy knoll and the reuben sandwiches, all of us still trapped under mortar and glass and grief, that I got pregnant. Swoosh. Just like that.

In a class full of oversexed boys, Willie was one of the most bizarre incarnations. He was on the smaller side, like me, scrawny, and usually clad in ill-fitting sweaters and corduroy pants. He wore his hair in a small, unkempt Afro, a stark contrast to the other black kids’ tight box cuts and fades. Willie talked and joked about sex even more than most of the other boys, but his role was more court jester and class clown than king and confident braggart.

His main act was “juggling [his] titties.” He’d cup his dark, spindly fingers under his chest and bounce them up and down slowly, as if each contained a huge overflowing breast that he could barely contain in his hand. Laughing uncontrollably, he’d cry out: “I’m juggling my titties, I’m juggling titties! Watch out, I’m juggling my titties!” Then he’d pantomime one of his “titties” coming off in his hand and pretend to throw it at the nearest kid. “Watch out, I’m going to hit you with my titties!” he’d yell as people screamed and dived away from him in every direction.

This joke never seemed to get old, to him or his victims. At lunchtime and recess, kids were often heard dashing down the hallway, their feet sliding as they careened around the corner, calling out desperate and giddy warnings to the others up ahead: “Watch out! Watch out! Willie’s juggling his titties again!”

Today, however, Willie’s titties were dormant under his lumpy gray sweater, at least for the moment. He sidled up to me where I sat, alone, at the lunch table. “Hey,” he said, “I got a question for you.” His eyes were hungry, his mouth a wide white grin.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t trust Willie. He had two other boys with him, who were both already on the verge of laughter.

“You ever had pussy around your neck?”

I squirmed on my stool—a sickly pale-green disk connected by a metal arm to the lunch table—and picked at a small piece of crud next to my tray. These kinds of questions always made me feel terribly small and uncomfortable. Around us was utter chaos, as usual, boys whooping and burping and punching each other, food flying, screaming, laughter. A combination of burnt pizza and cleaning solution hung in the air. My eyes rested on a large cherry pie stain on the lunchroom wall, and I thought about the question.

Pussy. The word offended me, and certainly made me nervous. Things I don’t understand often make me uncomfortable, especially if I sense they are important. At 11 years old, I didn’t understand “pussy” at all, although I could already tell it was tremendously important. I barely even knew what it was, and I was deeply aware and ashamed of my ignorance. All I knew was that it was a crude term for a woman’s private parts, but I had never seen one, let alone had one around my neck!

It didn’t sound possible. I had the impression that tightness was a virtue in a pussy, at least that’s what all the other boys were always saying. But all things sexual were very mysterious to me. My parents were both shy types who apparently thought sex was something magical, certainly not to be discussed. I gleaned what little understanding I could from the conversations I overheard at school, while trying desperately not to reveal my own ignorance, which I usually ended up doing anyway.

Where pussy was concerned, I knew you could stick fingers in it, or a penis, and probably a lot of other things too. But your whole head? That sounded absurd. And yet … I had also heard that you could “eat” a pussy, though there was fierce debate among the boys about whether one ought to or not. Some boys decried pussy-eating as disgusting or even “gay,” while others claimed it was a source of great pleasure and delight. I struggled with the terminology—surely they didn’t literally mean eating, did they? But at the very least I knew that “eating” a pussy involved the mouth. Perhaps then, I thought, as I wrestled with Willie’s question, if a person were to “eat” a pussy that was too “loose” (as I’d heard many, if not most, of the ones belonging to the girls in our class were), one’s whole head could somehow become lodged in there and one would actually have “pussy around [his] neck.” Still, it seemed unlikely.

“Well …” I said slowly, not wanting to commit myself either way. A small group of onlookers had formed around us. This was agony. What was the answer Willie was looking for? How I hated to be wrong! “No,” I said, “I never have.” It seemed to me that to say I’d ever had pussy around my neck would have been to admit being involved in some bizarre sexual act that I couldn’t even fathom. Since I had no idea what that might be, I couldn’t risk it.

“You haven’t?” Willie said theatrically, with mock surprise. For the benefit of his delighted audience, he repeated the question: “You’ve never had pussy around your neck? Are you sure?”

“No, I never have,” I asserted again, trying to sound more confident about my answer this time. “That’s nasty,” I added, as if to bolster my claim.

“Then how were you born?” Willie said. “What are you an alien or something?”

I still didn’t understand.

“Dummy, you came out of a pussy. Everybody has had pussy around their neck.” He looked smug. His two cohorts snickered at my stupidity. I was flabbergasted. He was right. I hadn’t even thought of that. Then he broke into a smile, cupped his hands under his chest and started bouncing them up and down impishly.

“Watch out!” he yelled, suddenly whirling around and charging toward the group of onlookers that had assembled to hear the answer to his strange and unsettling riddle. “I’m juggling my titties! I’m juggling my titties!”

And then, at last, I was alone again.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that wasn’t the whole story. When I was born, before I could be delivered, my umbilical cord had become twisted around my neck, and I’d actually been born by emergency C-section. I hate to think of my mother being sliced open like that, and part of me wishes Willie had been right, but he was wrong: In fact, I never have had pussy around my neck.

It’s 4:35 AM and I’m running around the house like a chicken with its head cut off. Up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down. Back and forth. All the while the orchestral “William Tell Overture” by Gioachino Antonio Rossini is playing in my head as if plucked from a scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Elmer Fudd is chasing that whaskily wabbit Bugs Bunny through the forest with a double-barrel shotgun.

I shit you not.

Except I have made up impromptu words that go like this:

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

Rewind back a few minutes.

4:30 AM: My wife wakes me and informs me she’s in labor.

Not as in I-am-going-to-work-now labor.

Labor.

Child labor.

I-am-getting-ready-to-have-a-baby labor.

The conversation goes a little something like this.

WIFE: I think I’m going into labor.

ME: You?

You, question mark.

This is what my wife later tells me I say when all is calm and we’re sitting opposite one another in our hospital beds.

“You,” as if someone or something else in the room was getting ready to give birth.

My dog Motzie is fixed, so it’s obviously not her.

The television has no genitals, so it’s definitely not it.

I don’t have a vagina, so it’s definitely not me.

I’m pretty sure I would have recognized if it were me anyway. I hadn’t even bought any cute maternity clothing for work. It’s definitely not me.

And I have a penis.

That always makes giving birth difficult.

Unless you’re Thomas Beatie.

So there I am: 4:30 in the morning.

I wasn’t expecting this even though it’s been nine months coming.

Our first child isn’t due for two-and-a-half more weeks on April 27.

It’s April 11.

And the kid has my genes.

I’ve been determined there’s no way this baby is arriving on time if it has my genes. I’m never anywhere on time. I even have this funny scenario in which following my death—whenever that is—at my funeral, I don’t arrive on time.

It plays out like this: Everyone in church is mourning my loss. Tears are flowing. Family, friends – they’re all sobbing and boohooing their eyes out. The preacher stands in the pulpit at the podium or whatever it’s called in church. He looks out into the crying crowd. In walks a guy from the side door dressed in black. He’s holding a note. He walks over to the preacher and hands him the note. The guy walks back toward the side door and out. The preacher clears his throat and addresses the congregation, delivering the following:

“I’m sorry but I’ve just been informed Jeff is running a few minutes late and will arrive shortly. Until then, he has asked that his friends and family join in a hymn together. Please turn to page 368 in your hymnbooks as we sing, “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys, followed by an a capella rendition of “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag.

I’m putting this in my will. I’ve told my wife that if I die before she does, this has to play out exactly as I have written. If not, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt her. (Not really)

That shit will be hilarious.

Tears go to laughter. Quite the send off. Quite the exit. Just how I want it.

“Oh, that Jeff,” someone will say. “He sure knows how to get a laugh out of someone [pause] — even in death.”

Yet it’s April 11 and my kid is on the move down the birth canal.

I quickly pack a few clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, clean underdrawers, deodorant, cell phone charger, and my bottle of Citalopram, which I call my chill pills because without my chill pills I’m fucking crazy I tell you. Crazy.

Not really.

I take it for depression. Have since about six months after my dad’s death.

Leukemia. Age 59.

I saw my dad die before my eyes over a two-month span, then held his hand as the machines went beep and his soul ascended.

Two years later I still can’t face the fact my dad’s dead.

And here I am, about to become a dad myself.

I run back downstairs, open up my laptop, and type an e-mail to my boss.

“Not gonna be in this week. Having a baby. Not me. My wife. Some proofs will be coming in if you could take a look at them and sign off. They’re good to go. If you need to make any changes (which you shouldn’t), the InDesign files are located in the Comm. Info folder. Here’s my cell number if you need me but don’t call me for the next couple of hours. In labor. Not me. My wife. Holy crap!”

Rewind back again to me sitting in bed, my wife delivering the news she’s in labor.

“Did you call the hospital yet?” I ask.

“No. I will now.”

She does.

“Come in at 7:30,” they tell her. “Come sooner if your body tells you to.”

Flash forward less than two hours later.

6:20 AM: “I think we need to go now,” my wife tells me as I finish up my e-mail to my boss.

“Oh crap, I haven’t eaten anything yet.”

Yes, that’s right. I’m thinking about food at a time like this.

I have no idea what I’ve done over the past hour-and-a-half. Why the hell have I not eaten?

“We can stop by McDonald’s if you want.”

“We can? Are you sure there’s enough time? I’d rather you get to the hospital than me a chicken sandwich and extra hash browns.”

At this point, my wife is freaking me out with her breathing.

“Breathe in and out like they told us at our child birthing classes,” I say, trying to soothe her. But on the inside, me, I’m hyperventilating. On comes the “William Tell Overture” again. Bugs Bunny shoots down a rabbit hole.

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

“Yes. We have time,” she says. “You need to eat.”

See how wonderful wife my wife is? Always looking out for the nourishment of her husband even at times such as this. She continues:

“You can get into a funk when your sugar is low.”

Now the truth comes out.

“I don’t want you in a bad mood with all this about to happen. It could be a long day, a long couple of days in the hospital.”

She’s right. I do get into a funk when I don’t eat on time. And I eat all the time. Like six meals a day. It’s the only way I can balance my sugar. Even when I played basketball in college I was like this. Before the game in the locker room, I’d eat a Snickers and drink a half bottle of orange juice while Coach gave his words of wisdom. At halftime, I’d eat another Snickers and finish off my orange juice. Otherwise, I’d get the shakes – like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

But I’m not diabetic. I’m hypoglycemic.

I put my dog in her crate, tell her to be a good girl, that she’ll have a new best friend soon, and scat.

6:30 AM: We stop by McDonald’s. I pull up to the drive-through window and order a chicken sandwich, two hash browns, and a large Coke.

“$4.29. First window please.”

I pay. Onward to window two.

It’s taking longer than usual to fulfill the order. I’m a very patient person, probably too patient in my day to day life (they say patience is a virtue), but I want to say, “Can you guys please hurry it up? Just this one time. It’s an emergency. My wife is in labor.”

But I imagine the 18-year-old kid who is waiting on me, stop and say rather coldly, “Then why the fuck did you stop for breakfast dickhead?”

And he’d have a point.

A very valid point.

Out comes my combo meal. Peace and chicken grease Mickey Dee’s. We’re off to Martha Jefferson Hospital.

I use this as an excuse to drive like a bat out of a hell down 29, just like in the movies. Then I picture a cop fly up behind me with his siren on to which I stick my arm out of the window and wave for him to pull up along side me. Then I say, “Officer, my wife is having a baby. Can you please escort us to the hospital?”

He nods yes, flashes his lights, and I roll my window back up, turn to my wife and referencing the cop, say, “Sucker.”

We (“we” as in me following behind sucker cop) bolt down the highway, going through red lights like it ain’t nobody’s business. I smile for the asshole traffic camera they just installed at the intersection of Rio Rd. One day I’ll put the photo the Police Department sends me in my baby’s scrapbook.

But none of this happens. Because this isn’t the movies. It’s real life.

But I continue to drive like a bat out of hell, weaving in and out of traffic, beeping my horn at any car in my way and yelling at them, “Get out of the way you slowpoke prick. My wife’s having a baby.” A very cautious, alert bat out of hell I might add. Okay. You got me. You called my bluff. So I’m not really driving like a bat out of hell. I’m going 55 MPH in a 45 (technically, I am breaking the law) and there is hardly anyone on the road. I’m not weaving in and out of traffic. I’m not beeping my horn. I’m not yelling.

6:45 AM: We arrive at Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Avenue. I pull up to the Emergency Room entrance. A security guard approaches and opens the door for my wife. He tells her where to go. I tell him where to go (hell) and to stop looking at my wife’s cleavage (she’s pregnant. Her breasts are full of milk, nourishment for my soon-to-be first child, you stinkin’ perv). Actually, I do none of that either. He isn’t even eyeing my wife. He’s very polite like some child’s nice grandpa.

I park the car, strap on all our bags like I’m some oversized coat rack made of pine, and make my way to the Maternity Ward.

It’s Go Time…

Maybe it’s because I returned from that

ruinless war victorious by

surrendering, having given over

to myself as some do to God,

conquistadora of mind and pain so

that the day was mine, as the blood I shed,

gushing freely down my thighs onto the

bed, as the child delivered to us by

assiduous suffering. Remember,

in those Sisyphean hours, how nearly

her dark head crowned again and again, and

then slipped back behind the lip of labor’s

end, ‘til the midwives suggested mildly

that we should perhaps go, but I said no,

and you took me at my word. I was in

between places, at once within and with-

out, arms outstretched as I stood, legs apart,

touching one wall and the other, possessed.

When our bodies parted, it was without

violence. She slid from me like a sloop

on the crest of that final mighty wave,

the surge sucking her backwards before

spilling over, like breath, like confession,

her arms reaching forward towards the dry

open shore and mine reaching down between

my legs to receive, meeting her, round bright

bud of us combined, her astonishing

glaucous eyes staring steadily,

curiously, seeming to see. It’s because

of this, I think, that later we became

so hungry for each other even with

the bleeding and leaking, I was shining

in your eyes like a fairy queen, and I

too was changed, so that when I came that first

time after the birth, the hot pink lily

that was left and buried in the dirt

unfurled as we fucked, such hunger, such thirst.

Our hips bucked, and the confetti from your

cock burst, a shower, a tickertape parade

celebrating inside, discreetly crying

out victory, rising so high above

you and me and everything we knew.


While in college, I tutored the following subjects for two years: Anatomy & Physiology, Biology (general and Advanced), and Microbiology. Yet there is one area I was never made privy to: the timeline of the umbilical cord. Going into the last weeks of childbirthing class with my wife, I suddenly find it psychologically incommoding I never learned that following labor and delivery, the umbilical cord is not cut all the way down to the bellybutton.

Yes, all the way down to the bellybutton.

Maybe you’re like me and didn’t know this.

Or maybe you aren’t.

Suddenly, I feel like the dumbest person on Planet Earth for not knowing this.

For the last 36 weeks, I have been a bit scared of having the honor of cutting my baby’s umbilical cord.

“Who needs scissors,” I told my wife when she was around 24 weeks. “I’m using my teeth. Look at these incisors.”

Then I grabbed the air with two hands as if I was holding an invisible rope and started gnawing.

Humor comforts me in times of the unknown.

Note to future dads: Your wife probably won’t find this amusing.

What if I didn’t cut far enough and my baby had an outie? I remember back in the summer days of my youth thinking that kids at the pool with outies looked funny.

Or what if I cut too close and my baby has the ultimate innie, a three-inch deep crater that will collect lint for all eternity? All this time, I’ve been terrified I would cut the umbilical cord much too close to my baby’s stomach and cause some nightmarish infection, thus subjecting my first born to weeks of antibiotic treatment and various hypoallergenic ointments 3x a day.

All because I cut the umbilical cord too close to the bellybutton.

And it would be all because of me.

Her dad.

Her hero.

The man she would grow up idolizing and compare all men to who ultimately could never measure up .

Or at least this is what I like to tell myself.

Then I learn the real story: that after I cut the cord—not all of it, just some of it—a clamp is placed on the leftover upright noodle and remains clamped until a week or so later when said umbilical cord dries up and falls off.

“If you’re lucky,” our childbirth instructor said, “You’ll go to pick up your baby after a nice, long rest and you’ll see the umbilical cord lying there in the crib.”

Just lying there?

In the crib?

Like a fat earthworm that has baked in the hot sun?

Shouldn’t someone have sent out a mass e-mail to all expecting parents that along with taking your baby home, you also take home part of the umbilical cord?

Look, I’m not grossed out by this.

Actually, I am slightly.

But why is it I didn’t know this?

When I told my mom that Allison and I were expecting she didn’t tell me about the umbilical cord.

Neither did those Biology textbooks.

Then again, we never did get to the very end.

Science is sort of like history in that regard. You never get to the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, nor do you get to the nitty-gritty in concern to the timeline of the umbilical cord.

Whereas I’m the youngest of two children, my wife is the oldest of four. She knew this already. Maybe all women do. Maybe this tidbit of information is something all women receive when they get their ears pierced.

Allison’s youngest sibling is nine years younger than her.

“I remember when I was a kid, Emily [her sister] and I would go into the nursery each morning to see if Carrington’s umbilical cord had fallen off yet,” she said to me while we were eating some 80/20 Angus Beef hamburgers I’d cooked up.

“What do you mean you’d go in and see if the umbilical cord had fallen off?”

“It dries up.”

“What do you mean by ‘it dries up’?”

“It dries up and falls off.”

“Falls off?”

“Yeah, falls off.”

“The umbilical cord?”

“What did you think happened to it?”

“It stayed at the hospital . . . with the placenta.”

So let this be a lesson to all you expecting first-time fathers out there. When you go in the nursery to snatch up your baby for a good rocking and see what appears to be either a turd or a chewed up cigar in the crib, Red Auerbach has not returned from the dead and been watching over your baby at night. That’s your baby’s dried up umbilical cord stump.

And let this also be a lesson that I am apparently not the right man to talk to in regard to tutoring you for any Biology class, especially Anatomy & Physiology.

As for me, I guess it’s about time I get some shuteye. As the story goes, there isn’t much of that in my near future. But it’s all gravy.

Here’s to first time knowledge and dried up umbilical cord stumps.


Julie Carr’s new collection of poetry takes us on a journey where fragmented thoughts and abbreviated memories exist in varied form. Coffee House Press is known for publishing groundbreaking authors and championing the work of writers who have made a place for themselves in the literary landscape. This work addresses the humanity of death and contemplates what happens when faced with a life-threatening illness, the loss of our faculties, and often times, the spirit of love. These poems also illustrate the joy of new beginnings in exploring the feelings connected to giving birth and pregnancy. The 75 plus pages of poems examine the complex responses that come into play when dealing with health struggles and faded memories; a pastiche of familial responsibility. Fragments, abstracts on death, exhaustion, mothers, and unexpected scenarios are only some of the themes at play in these pages, but Carr gives her full attention to each sentiment expressed in this collection. What’s unique about the writing is the manner in which the narrator attempts to digest her reality. Poems and fragments share titles but shift in their POV. This technique seems to demonstrate the need to digest sentiments from different points of view, thus allowing for multiple perspectives on the same scenario, on the same difficulties we encounter, regardless of where we sit.

So here’s what happened.

I dropped Benjamin at camp up in Temescal Canyon.  Camp drop offs had been getting more and more difficult as he clung to me screaming that he didn’t want to go.  I would carry him in my arms, just able to get him around my 8 months pregnant belly.  I barely had the energy to hold him up.  Seeing him cry, knowing it was because he could probably feel his whole world about to change, left me utterly spent.

So I decided to treat myself to a little “me” time with a mani/pedi.

So off I went to the place I like on Main Street.  I had my eyebrows done, shaped my rather short nails and painted my toes pink, all as the chair massaged my whole body.  It was delightful.  And needed.

And then I stood up and my water broke.

I ran to the bathroom, unsure of what the gush was, then quickly ran out the door, still with the paper between my toes.

I called my husband.  I called my doctor.  I was panicked, but trying to remain calm.  I was only 34 weeks pregnant, not due for 6 more weeks.  At first my OB’s tests didn’t indicate it was my water breaking (perhaps the baby had punched my bladder she thought), but when it kept happening throughout the day, it was clear I would be admitted to the hospital that night.

This was supposed to be my easy pregnancy.  My easy delivery.  My completely different, nobody almost dies, birth.

When Benjamin was born, after I called my mother to tell her she’d had a grandson, I called her back and told her not to get too excited.  I wasn’t sure he was going to make it through the night.  Well he did and he flourished with hard work and I finally felt strong enough to do it again.

I had planned and researched how I wanted this delivery to go, determined that it would be different.  I weighed my options for having a VBAC (a natural delivery) vs. another C-section.  I wanted to experience labor and what everyone talks about, but mostly I was considering a VBAC because I didn’t want anything too similar to the first one.  I didn’t want to look around and feel like it was four years earlier and become full of terror.  I wanted this birth to be normal.

So, that was Tuesday.

I received steroid shots to develop the baby’s lungs and bags full of antibiotics through an IV to help ward off infection.

By Friday the doctors decided to take the baby out.  It was one day before the ten year anniversary of my first date with my husband, which seemed like a lovely way to mark it.

And so, I headed into the operating room.  After months of consideration, I opted for another C-section after deciding with my doctor that the possibility of fetal distress during labor would prove too much for me emotionally.  Upon entering the OR, I announced immediately to the anesthesiologist what I’d been through before and that I was delicate.

Last time, with Benjamin, it all happened so fast, I didn’t really know to be scared.  This time, though I was scared, though I knew that things go wrong, this time, somehow, I knew everything would be alright.  I just did.  Jay said the first thing out of my mouth was, “that was a piece of cake.”

And so on August 20th, 2010, Eli Isaiah Zients Schinderman was born.  And though they took him to the NICU because he was having some respiratory distress, I knew in my gut, he would be fine.  Just as I knew when I discovered I was pregnant with him, after having three miscarriages, that this pregnancy was going to take.  Mother’s intuition.

The next morning, Eli ripped out his intubation tube, announcing to the world that all 6 pounds 9 ounces of him was strong and totally fine.  Just as his mother knew he would be.

He stayed in the NICU for 4 days, but was able to leave with me when I was discharged, which was huge.  We’d had to leave Benjamin in the hospital.  Going home without your child is not a feeling I can even describe.  It is as if a piece of your life is on hold, living elsewhere, outside of you, leaving you leaking.

At first, the fallout from Benjamin’s trauma began to chip away at me.  Though it may not have been clear, I became completely depleted, filled only by worry.  But in the four years since I learned that, even though it is never quite as you imagined, that I can handle this motherhood thing.

We posed for a picture with the NICU nurses and doctors who cared for Eli and headed towards the exit.

I began to weep.

It took me completely by surprise.  It quieted the little voice I carry around that whispers reminders of that terrible day.  I was just so happy as I held Eli, healthy, and headed towards the sun outside, ready to bring him home, bring him to his brother, who himself had come so far from his own NICU stay.  Pure joy bubbled up and washed over the worry and fear, completely disarming me.

And so I wept, proud of my boys.

99 Red Balloons

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.

I am waiting for something.

Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.

Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.

In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.

On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.

Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.

Inked

By Robin Antalek

Essay

Eighteen years ago on the way to the delivery room the feeling of not being able to stop what was about to happen suddenly overwhelmed me.  This baby that had been making me miserable for twenty-four hours had to come out and the passage of egress was not going to be a gentle one.  When my first daughter eventually emerged from her day long battle waged in the birth canal, cone shaped head and bruises on her face the size and shape of peach pits from the last ditch effort emergency forceps, a smudge of pink between the delicate fuzz of her brow that one of the nurses deemed an “angel’s kiss”, I was assured in a week, maybe less, her face would be healed and the trauma of her birth would leave no visible scars, only memories, where I would be able to chart the ghost marks on her face, badges of what she and I had endured in the moments before her birth.

When I was married to my first wife, I kept thinking about having a vasectomy. I had lived in a place where there was a population problem, big-time, and as an undergraduate I’d been taught by Paul Ehrlich, who wore a little broken male symbol on his lapel. I believed that population control should be a priority for everyone, and that by foregoing reproduction, I was doing my part.

My wife agreed, but every time I talked about getting an appointment with the urologist she said, “No, please don’t do it, because it’s going to make me feel as though you’re mutilated,” so I didn’t get snipped and tied off until after we divorced.

This went on until we were both nearly 40 and she said, “I want a baby.”

Surprise! But I’ll skip over everything between that and the first contractions.

It was time to go to the hospital, yes, so we went, but the nurse said, “You’re having contractions yes, but enough dilation no, so go back home.”

Bummer! We went back home for a while, and when we came back, yes, it was clearly underway. So we sat in a little room waiting.

We knew it was a boy. We even had a name for him, no problem there. I did tell a full-of-himself neighbor that we were going to name the kid Lud, and he believed me for a long time, at least until we got back from the hospital with the kid.

“So this is Lud,” he said, and I said, “Nope.”

But although we had decided on his name we had not decided what to do with his little dick. Some said the father and child’s dicks should match, and since I was born the child of middle class WASP parents in the forties I was cut.

On the other hand we had been living in the rain forest with men and boys whose dicks had not been cut, and had gotten used to seeing boys with intact foreskins, and I, at least, had gotten used to seeing grown men with their foreskins, such as when we swam across rivers or had to piss.

One time this old guy died and when the women were washing his body I noticed that he had been circumcised, which surprised me, so I asked how that had happened. They said that during the war with Japan he was up at the American base for a while, and he saw Americans with no foreskins and he liked the look, so he convinced an American doctor to cut his off. If I had heard that story without seeing the guy’s dick I would not have believed it, but there it was. Wasn’t, actually.

So we were in this little room at the hospital waiting, and in came this nurse. I thought she was very pretty and I liked her long hair and she was shapely, too. She reminded me of an R. Crumb woman, except she was normally-sized and not weird.

She hopped right up on the bed next to my wife and said, “What are you going to do about circumcision?”

My wife said, “We haven’t been able to decide one way or another.”

And the nurse said, “Well, I can never predict what anybody’s going to do unless I know they’re Jewish. Otherwise I never know and then sometimes when I think I probably know, I’m wrong. I get a lot of heavy-duty natural people in here and I figure they’re going to leave it alone, but then they say, all surprised that I would ask, ‘Oh no, of course we’re going to have it cut off.’ And I’m polite so I never say ‘What, you’re heavy-duty natural people so you should leave it on, what’s wrong with you?’”

I said, “You asked us.”

She said, “I asked, but I didn’t give my opinion. I never say anything, because it’s none of my business, and I’m only telling you so that you won’t think that just because you look like sort of natural people, you know, long hair, beard, I’m assuming that you’re automatically going to let it stay.”

And we looked at each other, actually all of us, and I was thinking, Well if this isn’t a clusterfuck I don’t know what is. Am I being told I’m a light-duty natural person so it’s OK to circumcise my son, or am I being told that since I’m at least light-duty maybe I shouldn’t, or am I being told I’m not heavy-duty even though I spent years in the rain forest with people who didn’t wear a lot of clothes and only one guy was circumcised, or just what am I being told here? If I do it does that elevate me to heavy-duty? Do I even want to be a heavy-duty natural person?

And I had other questions, too. If it’s my wife’s baby then at least is the kid’s dick mine? Am I being the patriarch by controlling his little wiener or is she being the matriarch and controlling his wiener herself, in which case that’s not a very good thing since it’s not her dick. Of course it’s not mine, either.

It was confusing.

I looked at my wife but I couldn’t judge what she was thinking so I said, “We’ll decide later, but thanks for the tip.”

And then of course everybody started laughing, but I hadn’t meant it to be funny. Even so I pretended I had, so as to be thought of as wittier than I really was.

The labor was long and hard and she went for the epidural block and I had no criticism of that, Lamaze or no Lamaze. But I have to say that when the midwife grabbed these big scissors and made the episiotomy I was a little taken aback. I knew it was likely to happen but it was so matter-of-fact, grab from the tray, open, snip and there’s a huge fat cut, which of course made me think of the foreskin even though I knew it wouldn’t be done like that, since I had at one time held a little Jewish infant while the mohel did his thing.

Then eventually he starts coming out and my most enduring memory of that is looking at my wife’s pudendum and thinking, Oh my God, that’s what it’s really for, which forever changed the way I thought about a woman’s sexual parts.

Then he was out, OK, head first and that was fine, here’s the umbilical cord, fine, and then Jesus Christ here are his genitals, hugely swollen, and I thought, Is that what we men really are, mostly dick?

Then when he was out and lying on her chest and I realized that no matter what I did he would always be more hers than mine, I said to the nurse, “We won’t be circumcising him.”

I’d say my life started at the approximate moment that my identical twin sister died next to me in my mother’s womb.

After that, it moves all over the place.  But that was the key moment, right then.  And it, being the key moment, has peppered every other moment in my life.

Before grade school – kindergarten, I believe:  I took piano lessons with a woman whose age I cannot remember.  She forbade her students to touch the keys of the piano.  We were “dirty little children,” and we could not be trusted to keep her piano, which was not actually her piano, but the school’s piano, clean.  Instead, we played “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” pounding out each note on the wooden plank that covered the keys when the piano was shut.

From this teacher, I learned almost no piano – not a huge shock – but I did learn that I had murdered my twin sister.  After class one day, she pulled me aside.

“No one will tell you the truth, but I will,” she said.  “You are a murderer.  Your twin sister is dead because you made her dead when you sucked the oxygen out of her inside your mother’s belly.”

This, as it turns out, was not true, as one fetus cannot suck oxygen from another fetus.  Because a human fetus is not a feline character in an old wives’ tale.   But what did I know?

I didn’t know much.

I didn’t know what it meant that my twin sister died before she was born.  She was never born.  How could she have died when she was never born?  Doesn’t one invariably come before the other?

On a holiday – some holiday, I can’t remember which one – my mother, frazzled from being the mother of five living children and one dead child, lost focus and dropped me off for school to a locked and empty building.  And she didn’t come back, at least not immediately, so I took a walk.  There was a path lined with Sycamore trees.  There was an illness going around in Sycamore trees that season.  They were all falling ill, and inexplicably dying.  Their leaves withered, and their branches drooped, and as a result, birds’ nests that once comfortably rested in the crooks of the trees, shifted.  Sometimes, the nests would shift enough that an egg would fall from the tree.

That day, wandering alone, I came across an egg – that had fallen from its nest – which had shifted from its position on the tree – which was curling up and dying.  This egg had cracked in half, revealing the fetus of a bird, drooped over the edge of the shell.  The shell, though open, had pieces held together by a clear film.  A string of this clear film was suspended between two large pieces, and on this string rested the baby bird’s crooked head.

I crouched down, hands on the ground, chin between my knees, and stared.  I thought and thought and thought, and I eventually I laid belly down on the cold cement of the pathway, my face no more than a couple of inches from this tiny, dead, fetal bird.

Its skin was transparent beige.  It had no feathers.  Its eyes were closed.  Its beak was closed.  Its veins were dark.  Its wings were bare.  There was no blood.  It just rested, broken, but not damaged, on the edge of the shell.

I thought then, after watching it do nothing, after watching it be dead, I thought: “Ah ha!  Dead without ever having been born.”

And that’s when I noticed just how human this little bird looked.  My God, did it look human!  It was nothing but a tiny little bird-human, and it had died before it was born.

So I rolled over next to it, onto my back, and I smiled and I smiled and I looked up at the sky through the branches of the Sycamore trees that were bending and dying, releasing baby bird-humans to fall to their deaths, before they were able to be born.  And it felt like they were falling all around me, though really, none were falling, not after the first one, but Goddamnit , it felt like they were raining from the sky.

All of these birds.  Dead without ever having been born.  Killed by the Sycamore trees that refused to hold them carefully.

Trees can’t be evil.  They can’t be; they produce oxygen, they give life.  But these Sycamore trees were tossing these baby birds to their deaths, and they were killing them, just like I’d killed my twin sister.  But trees can’t be evil.  And if the trees weren’t evil for killing these birds, then I wasn’t evil for killing my twin sister.

I used my fingernails.  I clawed through the dirt in the ground beneath the Sycamore trees.  I dug a hole, a nice, deep hole, and I buried the baby bird inside.  I put it to rest, telling the tiny bird it had not been murdered, no, it had just died before it was born, and it was okay.

That’s when my mom came back to get me.

Since then, it’s like these baby birds really are raining from the sky – I see them everywhere.   And I dig a hole in the dirt with my fingers, and I lay these not murdered baby birds to rest, and I tell them it’s okay.