She was sitting on the couch facing me when I opened the door to the apartment. In a deep-cut v-neck t-shirt, beaded necklaces dipping into her cleavage, my roommate asked me why I’d put the ironic knick-knack I loved back on top of the stereo speaker.
“Because I think it’s funny,” I said.
“But you know I hate it,” she answered, her fingernails pressing into her thighs.
“I know,” I answered her, clutching my backpack, “but you do a lot of things that I hate, too, and you don’t seem to care. Why should I?”
“So you put it up there for revenge?!” she asked, still sitting. I watched a patch of red begin to creep up from between her breasts into the v of her shirt.
“Basically, I guess?”
“You know,” she said, rubbing her hand along the knee of her jeans, “I sometimes come home at night when you’re sleeping, and I stand outside the door to your bedroom, and I have to force myself not to come in there and beat the shit out of you in your sleep.”
“You’re crazy,” I answered, staring at the french doors to my room, and then at her neck, which has grown crimson to match her chest. “That’s what a crazy person says.”
“I’m not crazy. I just hate you.”
Twenty years later, I am thrust back into this memory as my younger daughter describes the final, friendship-ending fight she has just had with her best friend. At 11, how is it even possible that one girl could say to another, “you’re ruining my life. Stop talking to me. Just never talk to me again. I don’t want to be friends anymore?” My daughter is sobbing, angry and hurt, and my armpits prickle with sweat as my heart races. Get out of there, I think. Stay away from her. She’s dangerous.
I hold my baby girl in a wine-colored, striped sling. She is screaming, so we walk, up and down in the hospital room, back and forth, dragging the IV pole behind us as I take bouncing, marching steps while ssssshhhhhing in her ear and rhythmically patting her bottom. The screams are endless, piercing and panicked. My baby is only four months old, but I try to divine a message from the sound. Is it “help me?” Is it “I hurt?” Is it “I’m dying?”
The smell of the room is foreign and bitter, the smell of discarded plastic wrap and latex bandages and specially-mixed diaper cream for the rug burn on my baby’s bottom from the antibiotics that are ruining her stomach. The nurses bring it to me in tubs still greasy from their mixing it, a combination of maalox and zinc oxide and despair. My hands are oily with it. My fingers smell of it, and later, when I take off the sling to find that my baby’s IV has infiltrated the tissue of her arm, the sling will smell of it. But there is another smell in the hospital: sadness, resignation, anxiety. It is the smell of waiting for hours.
Thirteen years later, I walked through the same hallway with the same girl as a teenager. As I walked out of the elevator, my shoulders dropped involuntarily. It was as though the air had been laced with a sedative, the opposite of the extra-oxygen pumped into casinos. I felt tired, and the light was too dim and too yellow and the temperature was too cold but also oppressively thick, somehow. Run, I thought to myself. Get out.
I was rotating my hips in wide, wide circles as I clutched the side of the hospital bed and moaned, my alto in a warble. A nurse at my side says, “how about a birthing ball?” and my husband says yes, yes, that would be good.
Lowering my behind onto the ball, my hips relaxed. I spread my legs and stretched my toes, my arms still holding the bed. “Perfect,” I told the room, feeling like water beneath me, feeling like this and only this, the softness, the give to the ball, the way it helped as I made circles again with my hips. This and only this, this ball, these surges of energy, this baby ready to exit, today even, the hour growing later, the sky outside dark, this and only this, wide arcs, soft below, this and only this…
Alarms blared. Arms reached for me, drew me away from the cushion of the ball, laid me in the bed on my side, where my back rippled and turned inside out, a vacuum pulling the muscles into it and twisting. And suddenly, the cool air of the room gone, a rubber mask encircling my mouth and nose. “Big deep breaths for the baby,” someone said above me as the beeping of a machine continued. “Take big, deep, slow breaths for your baby.”
When she came, dark and small and smelling like iron, hours and hours and drugs and needles and panic and oxygen and blood pressure cuffs and pushing and painpainpain later, my midwife showed me the placenta shaped like lungs, connected with a single, tiny vein. “Here’s why her heart rate dropped,” she told me.
Three years, two months, and ten days later, I was squatting beside a bed again, my face pressed into the metal bars. Letting out a deep, throaty groan, I switched to “down, baby, down, down down down…” Suddenly I felt hands on my biceps and was lifted and dropped onto the bed, a place I had avoided for hours, preferring the floor, a chair, the wall.
“I need to do an internal exam,” my midwife said from between my legs.
I had been Gaea, rooted and grounded, and suddenly, I was machine bound and resting a leg on her shoulder while her hands probed deep inside me.
“I want to break your bag of waters,” she said urgently. “I want to break it right now. Can I do that? Can I break your bag?”
I noted, somewhere above the pain and panic, the absurdity of deciding anything with someone’s hands inside my vagina. I wanted those hands to go away. I may have screamed that – “take your hands out, take them out take them out oh my g-d take them out” – but I must have also said “yes, yes break the bag.”
There was more trauma but less waiting, more fear but less ambiguity. When they sliced me open and delivered a miniature daughter, they also showed me the matching miniature placenta, white and firm. “Not much supply left,” said the surgeon as he placed it on a table behind the curtain. “She’s better off out here.”
When we remember an experience, we’re not usually remembering the experience itself. “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event — it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” said Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.” And so it stands to reason that remembering trauma gets worse and worse, re-traumatizing, re-re-traumatizing, re-re-re-traumazing, until we are numb with it, until it is all we remember about those moments.
I left the apartment I shared with my roommate, and my daughter found far better friends.
My daughter survived both her hospitalizations.
My daughters were both born alive.
Now, to un-trigger and un-traumatize. Now, to move on.