YOUR FIRST MESSAGE is from some kid who only just gained the right to drink in bars this past November, and what he writes to you is I like older women. Good lord. You log off.
The next morning you wake up in your new bedroom in a small town on the New Hampshire border, a place full of peace and quiet and thin middle-aged women who jog around the reservoir by the graveyard. The cold is unbearable.
The baby lets out a bloodcurdling scream in her bassinet. She’s hungry, and you’ve been pumping exclusively since you got that infection in your left nipple, so you leave her crying in the bassinet while you waddle into the kitchen and grab the pump, a full bottle from the fridge, and a plastic cup of applesauce.
You empty the applesauce into the milk. She strains at the thick mixture for a few minutes, emptying only part before she nods off again. You’ve been pumping the whole time; you keep pumping for a minute or two after she’s asleep again. You swaddle her in one of those tight velcro wraps the Head Start nurse gave you and then it’s back in the bassinet.
You login again, although you weren’t necessarily planning to do so, and are surprised to see that strange men have left you a total of twenty-five messages overnight. You asked them only to contact you if they lived in town, but you also wrote that you didn’t want to meet them—that you can’t actually meet them, ever. The men appear not to have read that far, because they don’t live in town and they do want to meet you, desperately, as soon as possible. Some of them are from Newburyport, some from Boston, a couple from faraway places like Montreal and Nashville.
The boring ones (there are more than a dozen) all start with Hey or You’re beautiful. The offensive ones include such openers as Wanna fuck? and I love your big tits, which is funny because even now, swollen with milk, your breasts are tiny. One or two of the men are scary: You seem like a real cunt. Why are you even here? I hope someone rapes you. A couple of them want to lecture you. This is just how the world works, kid.
The twenty-third message is the only one that interests you.
I’m Dwayne, and I think I understand where you’re coming from. My son and I moved here in December from Santa Barbara. He’s only twelve but he looks like a fucking lumberjack, beard and all. Maybe it’s something in the water?
His mother passed last year. It’s fine if we just talk.
You do not read the twenty-fourth message, or the twenty-fifth. You just don’t bother. And you’re brief with Dwayne too, because you’re so exhausted: Tell me more please. You put the computer down on the floor near the bed, next to one of the diaper boxes. The baby stirs but doesn’t wake, not completely. You roll onto your stomach and lay there for a moment with the pillow over your head.
You think about going out for a hot chocolate but the nature of time has changed such that each week is indistinguishable and you are forever staring at an infant as she does lots of nothing. It takes another day to leave the house, and then you only go because you realize you absolutely must run errands—you’re almost out of that tea that makes you lactate and the jars of ground carrot that you like to put in your daughter’s bottles to make her sleep better.
You pump before you leave the house. Next, you strap her to your chest and wear your maternity parka over her, so that her head (in a hat, of course) bobbles at the top between your breasts. You grab a wire pushcart from the front hall closet and pull it through the snow, walking down the middle of the street because all the sidewalks are piled high with the stuff that was plowed out of the roads. The snow should thaw soon and then you won’t have to worry, but for now you do. You imagine that someone is going to run you over and think about how you could position yourself to take all the impact, shield her with your body and make sure she lives even if you don’t. It’s what you picture all the way to the overpriced local grocer, just north of the old mill.
On your way to the store you also wonder if you will run into Dwayne, who sent you a picture of himself and his lumberjack son. They both have round eyes, strongly ridged eyebrows, and deep California tans, and it must be true that they live in town because in the picture they’re standing in front of the old mill. Dwayne wears the sort of outfit that normal people only take to job interviews, a crisp button-down and slacks partially covered by a fitted coat. Did he snap that shot just for you, asking his son the lumberjack to pose? Does he always dress like that?
When you get to the store Casey greets you by name. Casey’s interested in everybody, but she’s taken a special interest in you. She likes to talk to you while she rings you out, while you dig through your purse for your EBT card and pack all your stuff into the pushcart.
“How’s your little darlin’ booboo?” Casey coos, poking your daughter’s head a little. Casey’s hand is pretty much resting on your left breast, but you don’t care about personal space lately.
“She’s good,” you tell her. “She sleeps mostly. Like twenty hours a day.”
“Then how come you look like shit?”
“Because she’s never out for more than two hours at a time. The doctor says it’s reflux.”
“Put a little something in the milk to thicken it. Rice cereal. The doctor’s going to tell you she’s too young but that’s a crock.”
“I use a little applesauce, sometimes carrot.”
Casey laughs. “I thought that shit was for you! Is any of this food yours?”
“The Pop-Tarts,” you say, but Casey gives you a look that means she’s concerned about your ability to parent. A good mother would eat more vegetables or something.
“I take vitamins too,” you tell her. Casey shakes her head and says she’ll come by to see you on Saturday, so you ask her when Saturday is again.
“Six days, bitch, I’m seeing you in six days. I’ll steal you some ice cream.” Casey gestures at the cold case with all the Ben and Jerry’s in it, then kisses your cheek and taps your shoulder, making sure not to jostle your daughter too much. You push your cart home and put all your groceries away without removing baby or coat.
Soon your laptop is open again and she’s lying in the crook of your arm, fingering your armpit and smiling at you. Whenever she’s up, whenever she’s not crying at you, she smiles. In fact, you think, her smile is cute enough to make up for how disheveled you both look all the time, so you tilt the laptop’s screen to an almost-flattering angle and take an almost-flattering picture of you and your baby, which you send back to Dwayne.
Lovely, he says right away. He’s online right now. You’re going to have a conversation. You two look like a million bucks. Casey says she’s always sleeping when you come to the store.
That throws you. You don’t respond for a minute, two minutes.
Sorry, he writes. I didn’t ask her about you or anything, but she just started talking about this woman who moved here two months ago with a newborn. You know how she is.
I know how she is, you write. It’s fine. Why did you come to Massachusetts?
So nobody would ever ask me how I’m doing. Aside from Casey, they don’t.
She’s actually from Florida, you write, which is your way of excusing Casey’s aberrant sociability. She didn’t tell you?
She didn’t, but that would explain a few things.
You worry about yourself, for all sorts of reasons. You worry that you’re a deflated bag, that it feels like you have crumpled newspapers under the skin of your stomach, that your hair is falling out and even if you were stupid enough to ever touch a man again no man could possibly want you anymore. You worry that you’re a horrible, crazy old lady just like your mother.
You remember—but in a distant way, as if it all happened to someone else—being beautiful, with a sharp jawline and bright teeth. You remember clear skin, thighs that never rubbed together, and a guy in Chelsea hostel who told you your bottom lip was chewy in the best way. You remember South Beach, Montego Bay, and especially Key West. You used to wear short skirts. You used to work out and eat right, even though back then you didn’t have to. You used to be on the move and untouchable and immune, and when you danced it was sexy; people were watching you and you looked good. Now you’re someone’s mommy and you live in sweatpants.
Is it vain of you to fixate, of all things, on the fact that your belly sags and your good looks are gone forever? Wasn’t motherhood supposed to make you spiritual and whole, a Madonna? Are the other mothers this horrified by what’s happened to their bodies, to their previously interesting lives, or are you just a bad person?
Two weeks in, you and Dwayne decide you like talking to each other so much that you set a regular time each day, like a standing date. His afternoons are unpredictable because the landscaping business he works for also operates a plow, which he uses to clear the snowdrifts out of driveways anywhere between Haverhill and Portsmouth, and because he has to pick up the lumberjack son from school. Nights are best for him, he says. Nights work for you too, so nights it is. Each of you proposes eight o’clock and hits ᴇɴᴛᴇʀ at the same time, then you both remark on that coincidence and hit ᴇɴᴛᴇʀ at the same time again. The computer screen looks like this:
Eight is best for me.
Let’s say eight!
Jinx, you owe me a soda.
Oh that’s funny, we wrote that at the same time.
We did it again.
One night you tell him that your daughter is getting even fussier and that you only get to sleep for an hour at a time. You tell him that sometimes you pick her up and both of you just wail for hours, walking back and forth in the kitchen, and you tell him that she’s smiling less. Everything you tell him is true. Casey, this woman who barely knows you, comes over to help every other day out of some misguided Floridian generosity, and when she’s in your house you don’t even talk to her because you’re too busy pumping and trying to catch a little shut-eye.
You make an appointment with a pediatrician who shrugs at you and says that some kids cry a lot, then another appointment with a pediatric gastroenterologist at the hospital in Newburyport, whom you have to wait a whole week just to meet. You’re losing your mind. You ache everywhere and if you weren’t responsible for a sick infant you’d consider suicide; a part of you is considering it anyway. Your milk comes out in a slow trickle. You go ahead and tell Dwayne all these things, because you know he’ll be patient with you.
He writes, Someday you’ll be okay, even if you don’t believe it now. That’s corny, but it’s what you needed to hear from him. Your conversations are rushed. You’re messaging him when you have no time, when you should be sleeping, sometimes even while you’re filling milk bottles.
Dwayne tells you things about himself, like that his wife died of stomach cancer and his son won some sort of statewide chess championship against a bunch of high-schoolers, and best of all, he doesn’t push you. For example, you can talk about your baby and he never asks you to explain how you ended up raising her alone. He tells you about how much warmer it is in California and how he slipped on ice on the way to his plow truck.
Are you sure you live here? he asks. I never see you out. I keep hoping I’ll run into you when we buy food or something.
What he doesn’t know is you’ve been making sure that doesn’t happen. You only go to Casey’s grocery on weekday afternoons at three-thirty, when you’re sure he’ll be busy driving his kid home from middle school.
I live here, you tell him. I just don’t leave the house much.
Would you, he asks, meet me somewhere if I asked you? Or forget it, I know you’re tired. I could come over with Casey. Does she ever walk to your place after work? My son and I could meet her at the store and just come over for a visit.
You don’t respond.
You still there?
You log off. This wasn’t what you agreed to, and, you tell yourself, it’s not that important to have someone to talk to after all. You won’t message him again. In fact, you delete your profile from the website.
It’s five days after you decide to cut Dwayne off that you finally see the gastroenterologist. Casey drives you over there in a light blue beater with a Florida license plate, and your daughter whimpers for the whole half-hour you’re in the car. Her noises make your milk come in and your chest ache, and you’re glad you pumped before you left the house.
“I’m sorry, thank you, I’m sorry,” you say when Casey pulls into a parking spot at the hospital.
She waves her hand in your face and tells you not to worry about it. “What am I gonna do, let that little booboo die? Let you go crazy?”
“I’m serious. I owe you.”
“You don’t owe me shit.” It’s moments like these when you’re most struck by her leathery skin and gravelly smoker’s voice. She sticks her chin out, puffs up her shoulders, and mugs at you in the frozen parking lot. She’s sincerely offended. “We’re friends, okay?”
“Okay, Casey. We’re friends.”
You two hug and make your way toward the building. Inside, your pediatric gastroenterologist is all business, poking and prodding at your shrieking girl and eventually telling you to give her a little Pepto sometimes. Why didn’t you think to find her some Pepto on your own? Shouldn’t you have tried that already? You’re a failure as a parent. You must be a failure as a parent.
But the Pepto helps. God it makes such a difference. Casey lets you take it right out of the store even though it’s almost the twenty-second of the month, meaning you’ve just about run out the money on your EBT card and can’t afford to purchase the stuff. You give your baby a teeny tiny dosage just like the gastroenterologist said and it’s so beautiful—she sleeps for five hours and once you’ve pumped, you’re also down for the count. She wakes up shitting herself copiously with a black tarry stool and you wipe her with a grin. You feel phenomenal, like a real person who’s had some real sleep, so you pump again and then you decide that you and the baby are going to take a bath.
You lie there with your gorgeous smiling girl until the water’s gone tepid. She reaches out to feel your face, strokes your cheek, sticks an experimental finger up your nose, drools on you. Then you hear someone open your apartment door and walk in. You’re worried at first, until you remember that you’ve given Casey your key and she said she’d come by when the store closed. She’s in your kitchen now.
“What are you doing?” you yell out.
“Making you corn fritters so you stop eating that boxed shit. How’s booboo?”
“She’s really good, but she took a monster dump. I’m cleaning her now. Hold on.”
“Take your time, Mama,” she says, so you do. You kiss the baby several dozen times on her flushed cheeks, then you take her out of the bath, put a diaper on her, and wrap her tight in the velcro swaddle blanket. You sit on your bed and rock her in your lap until she’s asleep again, then you put her in the bassinet.
When you come out of your bedroom the smell of fried food overwhelms you. How is this supposed to be better than Pop-Tarts? But you don’t want to appear ungrateful, so you let Casey feed you her disgusting fritters, and a greasy side salad she appears to be especially proud of.
“It’s just a little vinaigrette dressing,” she tells you. “Don’t make that face! The veggies are good for you, anyway. I bet you haven’t had a fucking carrot since you came to town.” She might be right; you can’t remember.
When you’re three or four forkfuls in, she looks out the kitchen window and says, “So I talked to Dwayne.”
“I really don’t want to hear it, Casey.”
“Yeah, well, too bad.”
“Come on, I thought we were friends.”
“As your friend, I think you’re a wreck and you need to get laid.”
“That’s not fair,” you say. You’re raising your voice now. “We’re doing fine.”
“The fuck you are,” she shoots back. “I’m the only person you talk to and I practically have to force myself on you. Just fucking have lunch with the guy.”
You tell her you’ll think about it through clenched teeth, and then the baby starts crying. You think to yourself that it’s strange for her to wake up again so soon, and you go tearing into the bedroom to check up on her.
When you see your daughter throwing up something that looks like coffee grounds, you think you might faint. “Oh shit,” you say.
“Oh shit,” Casey agrees. “Change her. I’m calling him.”
“Because I am.”
“Fuck you,” you tell her. Then you get to wiping the bloody vomit off your infant, whose eyes, oh god, are rolling back into her head. You remember to pump again before Dwayne shows up.
He’s wearing the same button-down from that one photo by the mill. “Hi,” he says. He’s taller than he looked in the pictures, and he has to hunch over a little to meet your eye. “Casey called me.”
“How does she even have your number?”
Dwayne throws up his hands like he expects you to take a swing at him, and he stares at the ground hard. “I thought maybe she’d pass it along to you.”
So he’s been planning to find you for a while now, despite anything he may have agreed to when you two were talking on that stupid website. You really would slug him, except you’ve got the baby on your arm.
“How is she?” Dwayne asks.
Casey pipes up from behind you. “It’s like she’s puking up scabs,” Casey says. “Poor kid’s too fucked up to even cry about it.”
Dwayne nods. “Let’s go.” The three of you pile into his truck, the baby on your lap.
You race down the back roads, the ones that Dwayne’s gotten to know from driving around plowing everybody’s cars out, and all the shortcuts he takes mean you make it to the hospital in Newburyport in just twenty minutes. He jumps out and opens the door for you and you make a mad dash for the emergency room entrance with your daughter in your arms hacking up black bile, the other two adults trailing you silently.
You are getting her in that door as fast as you humanly can. You are being a good mother. You are yelling and crying and holding a baby and the doctors move fast. The nurses and the EMTs move fast. Everybody’s staring at you and it’s great, it’s really great to finally know you’re being heard.
You get rushed back to the pediatric unit, the critical one, and people in scrubs talk to you about reactions, extremely rare reactions, to certain antacids. Your baby girl has to stay on a tiny baby bed with doctors huddled around her but you get to be in the room. She’s unconscious, not sleeping but well and truly unreachable. You tell a nurse your chest hurts and she brings you one of the pumps they keep in the hospital just in case.
It’s like this all night, doctors rushing in and out and your baby where you can look at her, but you can’t touch. You sit in the corner on a chair with no cushions and you pump milk in the corner with your shirt up, even though the room is full of people. A nurse swoops in to take the milk from you and put it in a fridge near the nurses’ station. You fall asleep on the chair, then you wake up, then you fall asleep again.
You wake up a second time when Casey pats you on the back and says, “I have to go open the store.” It must be morning then. You’re grabbing her sleeve and begging her to stay.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she tells you. “Doctors say she’s out of the woods.”
Your friend squeezes your arm. “Hey, Dwayne had to go take his kid to the middle school. He’ll be back. Don’t be a bitch.” She worms out of your tired grasp, kisses your cheek, and is gone.
You get up and lean over the bed. The light of your life lies there with a miniature IV stuck in her arm. She must have thrown up some more overnight—there’s dark brown crust all over her mouth—but right now she looks okay. Her breath is shallow, but it’s there, the rise and fall of a small chest.
You watch her breathe for ten minutes, until Dwayne knocks on the door. He’s holding a Dunkie’s bag and two to-go cups of coffee. One of them, he points out, is decaf, because he knows you don’t want to pass caffeine on to the baby in your milk.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“For what?” you ask.
“For violating your terms.”
You find yourself responding in a way you couldn’t have predicted even five hours ago. “It was weird anyway though, wasn’t it? Why would I want to just write with somebody?”
“Because that’s all you were ready to do,” he says, and he continues, “That’s okay.” He gives you some song and dance about how you can go back to the way it was, if you want, and he won’t ever bother you about a real-life meeting ever again.
You laugh and kiss him right on the lips—right there in the hospital room, right there in front of your passed-out daughter—just to shut him up. “Give me your number before you go,” you say. “Let me call you sometime when I’m free.”
He straightens his back a little and says, “I’d like that a lot.” Next, he pulls in a chair from the hallway and opens up the bag, which, it turns out, is full of jellied donut holes, and the two of you wait for a doctor, or a nurse, or even a nurse’s aid to show up and tell you everything’s fine.
You hunch over your coffees in the anticipating silence of the early-morning pediatric ER, and for the very first time, you eat breakfast together.