Life is so much more than what we perceive from day to day and moment to moment. Our stories as women are so seldom heard but are passed from generation in our whispers, our dreams, our bodies.
I had call today to recall something I experienced in college. For a brief time, I will never know how long, my mother was alive and she visited me. This story is fictionalized in the sense that Gia is me and Faith is Dovey Dee. That’s it. Everything else is real. Now my daughter’s eyes are brown but when she was born, they were the color of time.
How alone. On the table beside the window a putty-colored jug and a kidney-shaped vomit tray: smooth, dead plastic. Brown sky outside, gray asphalt below. Cars like metal beetles scurrying to and fro along the speckled gray line of the freeway through the glass.
The chill, antiseptic hospital air dries your eyes as it blows fitfully from a vent over your bed; the squeal of the nurses’ rubber shoes echoes in the hall over scrubbed linoleum. The gurneys creak and the wheelchairs whisper and the walkers of the desiccated, hobbled dying cry out.
You close your eyes. You open them. Sticky, crusted eyelashes and inside your mouth another stale stick between your swollen tongue and teeth, inside your belly a flabby emptiness. They said they would bring the baby at six, but the blind white clock says seven and there is no baby. You cannot remember her name.
You had a dream.
The door opens. You are not on the bed. The bed is across the room. You are by the plastic and metal chair and its frigid chrome leg presses against your right calf. There are no sheets and your side is cold. You’ve been sleeping on an ice rink; like when you were twelve years old skating at Blue Jay and you fell and the ice kissed your head. The door opens.
“Mother, I was dreaming,” you say.
Your mother weeps. She has your shoulder. Hurts. Now you’re on your back and your leg hits the chair and she is crying for the nurse. Nurse.
Where were you going? You were not supposed to get out of bed. You have to rest. Why will they not bring the baby? You ask mother to bring the baby and she shakes her head, weeping.
“Too small.” The baby is too small to be held. Incubator.
“I forgot,” you say. “Mother, I was dreaming.”
Nurse comes. She is as tall as your husband; her arms are thicker, her wide starched chest is comforting. Her dress scratches your cheek like your husband’s beard. The bed is warm. The sheets scrape and do not smell right, but it is better than the ice, better than the stabbing chair. Maybe to dream again.
Mother’s hand on yours, tears in her eyes. “What were you dreaming, honey?”
Honey. Sweet. Why sweet mother do you cry?
“Color. The color.” You dreamt of a warm sea and you wanted to swim in it, swim toward it. Now you remember why you were on the floor. The floor was to be crossed and the sea was beyond. It was the color of a green-blue spring sky, the color of a perfect nugget of turquoise pulled straight from the earth. Patina. Oxidized copper. When you were a girl you ate tacos and ran around the birdbath in the garden. Ran and ran and ran under the sky of blue green with the scent of orange blossoms in your nose and then a sudden trip over the hole of the gopher. Tripping, falling. You hit the grass and bit your tongue blood copper in your mouth tight shut eyes then open to see the round green-blue pot amid the violets. The pot: a round egg of copper of the color of the sea and the sky and the turquoise from the earth and the breast of the hummingbird which flies above with a dragonfly’s buzz.
“So warm,” you say, about the color. “Home.”
Mother weeps. Her scent is a misty ghost of orange blossoms, which nearly drives away the antiseptic smell of death.
“The baby is so small,” Mother says. In the voice you have heard since you were an infant: “Oh why oh why did you try to get out of bed?”
You were dying. The ice and the plastic and the metal chased the color away.
“You look like Alice in Wonderland in that dress,” Faith said. Faith in her jeans and flat suede lace-up shoes, with her round wire-rimmed glasses and practical, man’s hair.
Gia ran her hand through her long hair. The tangles were worse than ever. “I do?” How long had Faith been in the studio? She put her brush to the canvas and made a pale scratch. Dry. Bristles as stiff as if she’d left it out all night on the palette. “Did you just come in?” Gia asked.
“Yeah,” Faith said. “You’re almost finished.” Faith pointed at Gia’s canvas where there were dead babies descending through a thicket of flames.
Gia laughed. “No, I just started.”
“It looks finished to me,” Faith said. “Your best yet.”
Three plain brown birds flew past the studio window, high above their heads. Gia wondered if they’d fly inside. The sky was a painful blue. The sun filtered through the window, warming her arms and bare legs.
Gia had been somewhere else and she remembered then, all of it.
“My mother came. It was like she never died,” Gia said. Something stinging and hot slithered down her cheek. She touched her face, then held her fingers up, wondering. They were wet.
Faith frowned to see the tears, then she took Gia’s shoulders, embracing her. Faith was a little taller, sturdier. She smelled like Ivory soap. Her cheek was dry and smooth, a pale color of peach. She wore no makeup.
“I haven’t been drinking,” Gia said. Most days, she was. But not now. They went outside and sat on the adobe seat by the fish pond, near the green lily circles in the water. The fish fed, orange and white glimmerings in the rippling water. Faith took Gia’s hand.
Words came, slowly. Gia did not trust words because she knew what lies were and what made them. The loss and the knowing of the loss was a jagged chunk of ice in her gut. Her mother had come. More than that, for whatever time it was and Gia could no longer remember, she could only guess or imagine, it had been as if she had always been there. Her mother had been proud. Despite Gia’s liquor and men and endless fear, her mother had been proud. Lovelier than any Madonna. Gia had heard her voice and seen her face: almond-shaped green eyes and high cheekbones and kind lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth. They had gone for lunch and walked the campus, down the long oak-lined lawn and through the rose garden with the hummingbirds feeding among the luxurious blooms.
“She wasn’t a ghost,” Gia said.
“It was like she had always been there. I told her things . . .” That Gia had never told. Salt tears stung her lips, hot and unstoppable. Gia was silent for long moments. The fish pond burbled. Faith took her in her arms once more, patting her back. Gia remembered someone telling her that when people patted your back like that you knew you’d gone insane.
“For once in my life,” Gia said, “I’m not crazy or drunk. It was like I had another life and it went on, it was going on until I woke up. Like a dream. Like going toward something . . . I don’t know . . . in a dream and then it was over. But I don’t know exactly when it started or even when it stopped.”
“Your painting is incredible,” Faith said. “Maybe it happened when you were painting. You know, like in the zone.” They always talked about the zone. Faith was good, really good, while Gia knew she was always just playing. Her zone was a haze of alcohol and fantasies, not the real thing. She did not even know if she’d painted the babies in the flames. She couldn’t remember. Her mother was fading now and Gia wished for a cigarette and a beer.
Faith lit two cigarettes and passed one to Gia. The sun went behind the western wall of the courtyard and they were in shadows. Gia shivered.
“I’ll never be able to tell anyone what it was really like,” she told Faith. It was like playing in the sun forever. It was the sun glittering on the birdbath, the warm light on your shoulders, a hummingbird overhead, buzzing, tiny cries coming from its throat. It was like swinging forever, picking violets, pressing them to your nose, eating a warm orange straight from the tree and hot from the sun, sweet juice exploding against the roof of your mouth. It was building forts of moss under the gilded sun, finding a treasure in the earth — a tiny doll with its painted face worn off, a little girl-shaped chunk of ivory like a bit of old carved bone — and beneath the doll, a pot of copper, round and worn, not copper any more at all, but all greenish blue and as old as the sun.
“I don’t know why I used all that red,” Gia said, meaning the burning babies. “Red’s not my favorite color.”
Faith laughed. “I thought black was your favorite color.”
“No,” Gia said, taking a long drag from her cigarette: unfiltered Lucky Strike burning her lips. She blew the bitter white smoke in twin snakes from her nostrils. “Only when I’m out of my mind.” She closed her eyes and the copper pot came.
“You can’t touch a word,” Gia said, looking at David’s books. Maybe if it was like Braille you could. She tried to imagine what it was like feeling words through your fingers. She was looking past David’s shoulder where pale yellow and gold and red sycamore leaves fell. Twisted ivy bordered the window. The ivy leaves were pointed and deep, deep glossy green as if they had been oiled.
“I really liked your paintings,” David said. “They’re better than the poems and the stories.” They were discussing her senior project. Gia wanted to say that the paintings were just playing. She was a play-painter. Only once, that one time, had she ever felt it was real. When her mother had come. She’d never told anyone but Faith about it. Faith knew about David. She’d told Gia to stay away from him, that he was an old bastard, just using her. Gia had stopped mentioning him to Faith.
Gia looked at her glossy pink toenails. What did David know about painting? He was a literature professor. The art professor had liked her stories and poems better than the paintings. Gia could only sit for so long. She didn’t know what he would say next, so she stood and began to look at the books on David’s shelves. The Sorrows of Young Werther and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Crow, by Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes had left Sylvia Plath and Sylvia had knelt in the kitchen and put her head in an oven. Sylvia Plath had been far more beautiful and talented than Gia had ever thought of being. And her husband Ted had left. Now, he was a great poet.
David had a box of books in the corner by the door. Gia bent over and lifted a book. Poems by someone she didn’t know. Another book about myths, by Robert Graves. Fifteen years later, Gia would open an identical copy of the book of myths by Robert Graves and learn with a deep sense of shock, almost as if she had been cheated, that before there were male Greek gods there were female ones, all-powerful ones. It would have made a much greater impression on her at twenty than it had at thirty-five.
David’s hands slipped around her waist, then cupped her breasts. He was heavy, sweaty, and insistent. She closed her eyes. He moved his hips against her bottom.
“You drive me crazy when you bend over like that,” he said.
Her body moved against his. Maybe this was like the painting zone Faith talked about. You were somewhere else while your body was here. She opened her eyes. In the box below, more books. Lattimore’s Odyssey. Manon Lescaut. The Norton edition of Don Quixote. She wondered if David thought that she was anything like Manon.
David unbuttoned her thin cotton blouse and pinched her nipples. They hardened. He unbuttoned her jeans and slipped them down, then her panties. She braced herself against the chair beside his door, her body suspended over the box of books.
“I don’t care if someone hears us,” he said.
Her toenails glittered in the fading light filtering through the window. He entered her. Grunting, moaning. She imagined the leaves falling silently outside as her lips said words they thought he would like. The seat of the chair was dark green leather, the door was brown. Below her were the faded, cracked spines of the books in the box: pale orange Lattimore and bilious yellow-green Joyce and beige Prevost and old brick-red Graves.
He would always and forever be a stranger, his long graying streaks of hair falling across his glasses; blinking mild gray eyes on her, remote and cold like some Canadian sea, a Northwest passage of a man. She left with his semen cold and sticky on her thighs. The late afternoon sun was a dandelion in the sky but she saw no colors at all, only shapes and lines and forms. A jumble of trees and insectile cars and the lines of the bricks beneath her feet intersecting madly as if she were blind and feeling her way home shivering in the warm sun, because she had done this thing of intimacy with a stranger.
Later, a shower. In the mirror-fog: a face she could not recognize, with livid blue eyes.
Her grandmother’s patio was a welter of green. Thick, crisp leaves of creeping charlie mixed with feathery ferns. Gia’s grandmother said that the little nodes at the base of the ferns were babies, and if you planted them, new ferns would grow. Gia ran the hose to the far side of the patio and sprayed the baby carriage which her mother had played with as a child, and which now held a Boston fern in an old copper pot which had a lovely blue-green patina.
Her grandmother came outside.
The sun was brilliant, the light dappling her grandmother’s face. For a moment, Gia thought that it was her mother. Her throat tightened.
Gia turned off the hose. She sat in one of the lacquered patio chairs. Her grandmother had iced tea. Gia had drunk three beers at Faith’s house and smoked half a joint. She put two spoons of sugar in her iced tea and stirred.
“It will make you fat,” her grandmother said.
Gia smiled. She pointed at the baby carriage. “I love it,” she said.
“That was your mother’s,” her grandmother said. She told Gia about the girls running around the birdbath again. A hummingbird darted through the patio then out into the sun.
“It must have been terrible,” Gia said. “When my mother died.”
Grandmother’s lower lip trembled. “He never visited her,” she said, meaning Gia’s father. “I had to drive every day to Los Angeles and he was right there.” More words, bitter, tumbling out. Gia had heard it many times before but she nodded, encouraging her grandmother.
“I was in the incubator,” Gia said.
“You were so tiny and wrinkled, like a little old man.”
Gia had only weighed three pounds. A seven-month baby. Her mother had been too sick to give her a middle name. For her father, “Baby Girl” had been good enough. So, Gia had taken her mother’s name as her own middle name. It seemed like a lie, somehow. You were not supposed to give yourself a name, your mother was supposed to do that. Grandmother was crying. Gia still had her baby bracelet with the three letters of her name on it, all the letters and attention her dying mother could spare. It was tiny enough that grown Gia could have worn it as a ring. She couldn’t imagine how small she must have been to have worn it on her wrist. In the incubator.
“I’ve never told anyone,” her grandmother said, weeping. Gia stood and knelt by her, stroking her arm. The skin so thin, delicate. She was bruising now, all the time. Gia supposed that old people got like that. Her grandfather had gotten like that before he died: bruises the size and color of plums fallen from the tree spotting his sun-browned legs and arms.
“One day, right before the end, I came to the hospital and she was on the floor. They said she couldn’t walk, but she had walked all the way across the room. I couldn’t lift her.” Grandmother was the size of a ten-year old child. She could barely lift a toddler.
“Of course not,” Gia said. Her grandmother had spoken of the hospital many times, but never of any details of her mother’s death.
“I asked her why. She said she was swimming toward such a beautiful color.”
Gia stroked her grandmother’s silky white hair. “Such a beautiful color,” she whispered, looking at the pot in the baby carriage with the fern.
Grandmother continued. She told Gia once more how her mother had been able to care for her at home only a month, just four weeks, and how she was so weak she could hardly hold her. Even frail little three pound Gia had been too much for her. Grandmother was afraid that Gia had gotten cancer from being in her mother’s womb. The doctor had said it wouldn’t happen, but what if it did? She had been all eaten up inside with it, all the time she was pregnant. It was a miracle Gia had survived. Her wrist had been as big around as Grandmother’s finger. Tiny, bald, wrinkled Gia, with blind, tightly-closed eyes of no color at all.
“The color,” Gia said, because she knew all of the other things. She gazed at the copper pot with the fern, the fern-babies spilling out all over. “She was dying.”
“Yes,” Grandmother said. “She didn’t when she fell, though.”
“How long after that?” The pot was round and coated with smooth streaks of blue-green oxidation. Gia knew it. Years earlier she had stumbled over the pot, playing around the birdbath in the garden of the old house.
“A week,” Grandmother said. “Just a week.”
“Was that my mother’s pot?” Gia asked. “The one in the baby carriage?”
“It could be,” Grandmother said.
Gia knew that it was as surely as she had always known the color.
The dull, pulsing ache in Gia’s stomach had grown insistent. Now someone with clever, strong hands was wringing her insides beneath her swollen belly, the skin so taut she could have played a military tattoo on it with her fingers. Her child turned within, kicked, pressing the skin outward, then turned again with a deep, grinding slither. Gia had been walking while Faith watched, her lined face pale and frightened. Then the nurse had broken her water and she had to lie on her back while the pains exploded inside.
“No, you can’t have any medicine now. You’re dilated to eight and we don’t do it this late.”
After a few minutes, Gia turned to Faith. She was in pain, too, because Gia had been squeezing her hand. “I was screaming like a man, wasn’t I?” she asked.
Faith nodded. “Just hang on. Breathe.”
“That doesn’t do any good,” Gia said. For a few black moments she wished that she would die. There is no point in describing the pain except to say that one day, Gia would forget what it had really been like: the forgetting which is the begetter of all multiple pregnancies. The forgetting is a sort of gift, or curse, depending upon how you view it.
Whether her eyes were open or shut all Gia saw was black with flashes of red. “Get the nurse,” she told Faith. Then, screaming: “Nurse!”
The nurse arrived, saying, “oh, but you’re not ready yet.”
Maybe Gia used some profanity. Maybe it was another masculine scream. Then, teeth clenched, she held Faith’s hand as they brought the delivery room gurney at last.
“The baby is coming,” she told the nurse. Faith walked beside the gurney. Gia clasped her warm hand and repeated the word, “coming.” Coming.
The midwife, murmuring calming things. Warm, wet towels between her legs. You know what they say. Push. Push. No one needs to say that. The agony is not as black as it was. It turns bright. You no longer wish to die. Push. Scream. Push. Faith’s white face, wide eyes as you see her for a brief moment, flashing by your head. The green cap of the midwife. You can feel each of the two sharp little elbows, the tiny knees, the clenched hands. The head is far too large to pass through anyone’s body but it passes. It passes.
“Do you want to cut the cord?” The scissors are gold, like sewing scissors. Faith is proud, honored, and gentle. Gia hears the snip of the scissors but can’t feel anything.
Then, on your trembling belly beneath your breasts, the baby. Warm and tiny, squirming. Not bloody. Perfect. Trembling and warm, with thumbnail-sized curls of blondish hair on her head. She looks up at you, between your breasts, with the most exquisite almond-shaped eyes you have ever seen. Perfectly blue-green and clear and knowing as if she has been alive forever; as if she knows all that has ever been and all that will ever be.
These newborn eyes, the color of old copper pots which have been left in the sun. The color of a nugget of turquoise taken straight from the earth, of the sea off Laguna at sunset, of what you are moving toward, of what will be as well as what was. Your eyes. Your child’s eyes. Your mother’s eyes. Shot with time’s arrow, melted, forged into a pot.
First published in Zoetrope All-Story 1999. My website is vaguely updated sometimes.