First Third Infant

Oh, this piece is beautiful. This story came as a whole while I laid on my bed with a fever today, listening to a piano playlist and drifting. I am glad this story is here now.


Everything in the city was thin. The walls of their apartment were thin, and the young men wore thin suits. The floors and ceilings of the apartment were thin, and the women were thin. Pants cropped at the ankle revealed thin ankles. The glass of their drying room was thin, the caulk at the pane was just thinly separated to allow wisps of polluted air into their home. In the center of the bedroom an air purifier whirred, and another sat whirring in the hall at the door of the children’s room. On the seventh day of bad air, the view of high rises and mountains obscured, the view as a dense fog she might see on a summer country road when the early morning land and air couldn’t find hot or cold, Norah went out for packing tape and ran that around each window frame. On the eighth day she was ill. Ethan took the children to school, and Norah shivered in bed. Her body ached, her skin was warm, her feet cold. At the side of her bed she set a glass of water to drink when she woke.

Norah drifted but did not sleep. She thought of the young mothers with infants snug at their chests, or balanced on hip carriers. She thought of her own two children, boys who were now four and six, and the conversation she and Ethan opened occasionally, about conceiving a third child or adopting a third child and her reasons why – because it was her reasons why a third child might round out the family. Norah rose and turned on the bluetooth speaker, put on a piano playlist to drift to. Ethan was wanted a third child for the delight of holding a baby again, the fun of toddling and first words, the marvel of watching a son or daughter become more who they are one day to the next. He was just thirty-eight, and Norah thirty-seven so it was possible they might conceive. The first two were a thought and then conception. Ethan felt lucky at that, to duck out of wringing fertility issues, and lucky at Norah’s easy carriage of both pregnancies, and lucky at simple births and infants who gained on the percentile. He wasn’t certain luck would hold for a third pregnancy, third delivery, third baby.

Just under the piano music Norah could hear rustling like fabric. She thought is was her ears being louder because she was ill, the way her eyes sometimes went glassy and sharp with tears so she could see clearly without squinting. She thought it was an auditory trick of her duvet when she shifted slightly. She drifted. She remembered the birth of her firstborn, the warm gush of her last push to bring her son to light and air, the way he did not cry but only looked at her like he had waited to meet this mother whose voice sang in the car, whose hips swayed a dance down the halls. The rustling was not her ears. There was something wrong with the bluetooth. Thin ceilings and floors. It was connected to another device, under her own piano music.

She recognized the sounds then. A baby monitor. Norah lay still to listen better to the soft rustle of blankets or kicking feet, waving arms. A tiny infant voice trailed just over a measure of steady notes. Norah held her body through its shiver to not move at all.

They had a third baby. Ethan and Norah met spring of their sophomore year of college and both stayed on campus through the summer to run freshman orientation programs. By Christmas of their junior year they introduced one another to parents, siblings, best friends from hometowns. A year after they met, she was pregnant. They were only sporadically careful about sex, as sporadic as Norah’s periods were. Norah felt the tiniest shift in her person, the making of a second person, but she didn’t say anything for a week because it seemed too early to know for sure. She felt that same identifying shift in her womb at each of her sons’ conceptions. A clear signal to her breasts and brain that a baby was now alive in secret. When Norah told Ethan on a walk from the dining hall to the dorm where they worked as residential advisors, Ethan was silent and then said he didn’t think that was really possible. Don’t I usually pull out? he asked. Sure, but not all the time, she said, Listen, I just think something is different. He asked was she going to take a test.

When Norah remembers her first baby she counts how old this baby would be. Now, wrapped in a down duvet, her whole body aching, she whispers, Sixteen. What an amazing thought, to be raising a teenager in a tiny Seoul apartment, to likely have one or two more older children because it would have made sense to give the first a close sibling. She might not know the four year old or six year old. They might be gone from her life. Or Ethan might be gone from her, and from the first child they made. She might be on her own in Guatemala or Kenya or Hungary with a teenager learning a second and third languages. Ethan might fly to meet them a couple of weeks at a time, or their son or daughter (she thinks daughter) might fly to join his family for the summers, a lovely illustration of errant college decisions.

The infant sounds continue. The baby is not distressed, only murmuring or sighing to soothe him or herself. Norah sighs. She imagines a third infant at her breast, her breast full again. She imagines tucking a baby into a stretchy wrap at her torso, kissing the fontanelle. Norah’s whole body burns and shivers. For the rest of her years this first infant will come to her as the third following the two boys, as though she might again conceive the very baby implanted on her twenty-one year old uterus. Or this first infant will come to her as an entirely different life because she would be a mother to a teenager now instead of practicing single digit addition or cutting crusts off sandwiches.

Ethan was relieved when Norah got her period. She told him only that, and he said, I didn’t think you were pregnant. But she was. For three days she cramped and bled as she hadn’t before, and worried if she should make an appointment with student health. She had a low fever, like the fever she had now in bed, and she knew her body was letting go a tiny person who would now be sixteen years old. Norah was relieved and sad then, and at the start of her second pregnancy she recognized that quiet signal her invisible fertilized egg zigged up her belly to her heart, and told Ethan, I was pregnant before.

What? When? Me?
Yes, you. Remember junior year, second semester when my period was late, really late? I was pregnant.
Did you take a test?
No. I was going to and then my period came. I miscarried. It was a lot of blood.

Ethan was quiet for a time at this revelation. He tried to remember did Norah say anything at the time, was there a clue he’d missed? He only remembered their first year of dating as fun. They didn’t fight or argue even silly matters. Norah was quick to laugh, he remembered, and go along with his ideas for a date or weekend. Ethan didn’t talk with Norah about this first, miscarried baby he could not remember until one afternoon when Norah’s uterus cramped and she began crying. They called the doctor, took a cab to the hospital and had an ultrasound, listened to the whoosh of the baby’s rapid heartbeat. The uterus expands like cramps, the doctor said, and Norah confessed to Ethan on the cab ride home that was what it felt like when she miscarried.

He didn’t want her to miscarry. He didn’t want her to have miscarried his child. He didn’t understand why this event wasn’t also burned on his mind. I told you I thought I was, Norah said, And you said I probably wasn’t. To herself then and now, Norah supposes Ethan did not want to put a potential baby into words when they were still in college, unmarried, when he was raised Catholic and she Evangelical, when everyone would know their shared life began out of order. Probably it was okay that she miscarried, Norah decided. A baby might have rushed their marriage which was not vowed for another seven years. A baby might have broken them apart. A baby might have curbed his business career, or cut her education short.

Yet after the first boy was born, Norah thought what she missed too. She looked at girls who where at the edge of adolescence and wondered how she would raise a girl. And at the second pregnancy she pleaded to carry, healthy, because she was afraid what she might lose, knowing how precious the first son was to hold and nurse and nurture. All of this was private wondering and grief.

Norah’s brain is just warm enough to give the sense the thin wail of the infant from the monitor is her own child and she turns to the other side as she did cosleeping with her sons, and keeping her eyes closed, unbuttons the four buttons of her nightgown to give way to her deflated breast and soft nipple. She shushes her first third infant and feels the sensation of let down at her nipples, up her neck, and it is the fever gift to nurse the baby she lost.


Story thirteen of thirty-nine. About two hours to draft these 1634 words.

Winter’s End: That Saturday And This

That Saturday mid morning I am propped in my bed, my left knee again elevated. I once diligently tracked my miles, injuries, twinges. Now I cannot say how many times this knee has waylaid a day’s plans. Enough. The night before I prayed because I still believe there are miracles even for those of us whose needs are comparatively small. When I ask for my own healing, I also plead provision for Syrians, Yemenis, North Koreans, and when I wake with my knee to swollen to walk, I wonder if there was a choice at the front desk and it just made sense to nourish a child instead. For an hour or so, I think and write about the distribution of miracles, the needs of our world, the fear I have that I am blind to the good I have, the fear I have that I cannot hear what I must, in my heart, to live. And then I use crutches to go from one room of our apartment to the next, to see the children who are just fine, and perhaps glad, at not having to rise and dress for the day, or do anything at all.

The children are sunk in beanbag chairs with their little screens close to their little faces. I ask my girl to help make egg for breakfast. Egg and avocado. Egg and hash browns. Egg and ketchup. Scrambled or fried. Orange juice or milk. Their little faces look up, my girl gets up and she is helpful in the kitchen. My kids know I am broken today but my girl is tender in a way that surprises me, asking can she get this for me, or that, do I need anything, am I okay? My boy remains slouched in his beanbag chair. Unless I say otherwise, he will stay in underwear the entire weekend. My girl too. I look at them both, with their plates balanced on pale legs, screens blinking and singing, and return to my bed.

I make a heat pack from my husband’s sock and two cups of dry rice. I microwave the sock for four or five minutes. Ice does nothing for my knee. The heat feels so good. I arrange pillows to elevate my knee again. I have water within reach. I have a chocolate bar. I have my laptop and earbuds and a ranked list of the Oscar nominated movies.

For three days we eat rice and seaweed for dinner. There is a little restaurant on the block that sells bap for a thousand won and I send the kids to get three bowls. We sit in a line on our sofa and watch Isle Of Dogs, Apollo 13, Castaway. I send them to bed with kisses and lopsided snuggles, and heat my rice sock, prop my knee and watch another movie in bed. The pattern works in a way I don’t like.

That Saturday I was supposed to rise and run, return and make breakfast. Perhaps bacon and eggs, or crepes with whipped cream and strawberries. I was supposed to bike to a French cafe for lunch, a monte cristo or mushroom risotto. I was supposed to return home and make a coffee, write at the table while my children play outside or build a fort inside. That Saturday mid morning I think what is the point of being extra miserable when I am already miserable, and I eat two chocolate bars fast, and a lot of popcorn while watching Can You Ever Forgive Me, which is a truly terrific movie. Then I watch The Wife (Glenn Close is great, but the book is better). I read Moo by Jane Smiley. I write. I read Ephesians. I start a series I heard was good. Before the weekend is over I finish eight hours of an HBO series and one more movie. I cannot remember a more concentrated time of television watching. The last time I might have consumed so much of a screen was thirteen years ago when Justin and I bought the first two seasons of The Office, binged on a hot day with the curtains closed and ac cranked. Then we took a break to pick up pizza. Now I break to rewarm my rice sock.

On Sunday I sit on the couch and look at the smog. The air purifiers are both running high and the apartment hovers at an AQI of forty-seven. I hobble to the door of our drying room and feel a tiny slip of air at the jamb, find packing tape and tape the door sealed. Our AQI drops thirty points. I think about taking a picture of the smog. I cannot. For the same reason I cannot take a photo of my grossly swollen knee. I can remember both well enough, without proof. Years ago I read a blog post by a woman recounting her car accident while on vacation in Costa Rica. She included a photo of herself sobbing on the roadside. The equivalent for me is staring at the middle distance of our view, a forested hill made invisible by smog, and wondering how to write a sentence to explain the fear knotting my belly at the thought of staying in Korea for another two years of bad air, and all the tangential thoughts that follow: the utter selfishness of corporations banking their dirty, under(or un)regulated industry on China’s east coast, the impotence of regional governments to cut coal in favor of renewable or nuclear power energy options, my own careless use of plastic.

I briefly consider another fast, for the sense of control. To show I am doing something to heal my body, in petition. I tell the children we need to tidy the apartment. The girl helps. The boy helps, but grumbles. I say to him, I would like to be able to do all of this by myself but I need your help. That is it, that I need your help. My husband is away, my body is broken, my mind is tired. When my husband messages me from Cuba I hate him just a little.

A friend and her son visit and for an hour or so we talk about the air and our fortune (we can monitor and control the air we breathe, while much of the world cannot), and about books or movies. Our boys play nicely. I tell her I’ve decided to quit drinking coffee and alcohol. I read that both cause inflammation. What I will miss is the ritual of an afternoon latte and open notebook, a glass of wine while I cook, or two glasses with a friend. I can do anything for a time. I can quit caffeine and alcohol. My body will heal. I cannot be inflamed forever.

Can I. There is a flame in my body. If I might have some oxygen to burn. When I do fast, I feel my body burn. I go warm at night, wake with sweat. It’s delicious to be warm of my own burning body.

I want to run. This thought is not far from any other thought. Between that Saturday and this the swelling leaves my knee and I learn to walk again. I watch my ankle and foot through the motion. Heel roll up outside ball big toe heel roll up outside ball big toe. I watch to keep my knee over my ankle. I watch to keep my ankle steady. I watch to keep my toes awake. My foot is tired after one day. Between that Saturday and this my husband returns from travel, marvels at the smog, unpacks souvenirs from Cuba. I want to run. He turns forty and I promise to celebrate better when the air is clean and we can go for an afternoon bike ride along the river, and we will. But also, this year I did not I want to run have the energy I want to run to go out with the kids to let them I want to run choose a gift or decorate the apartment for his birthday with I want to run a banner or balloons. I bake a cake, make a promise and the next morning he is sick.

This Saturday my husband lays on the couch, unmoving. Drink water, I say, and he does. He takes medicine. He sleeps. I take the kids on a bike ride, what we might have done last Saturday if, and I go slow behind my boy and girl, watch my knee when I drive the pedal down, watch my ankle when I drive the pedal down, watch my knee and ankle through the motion to keep the joints aligned. And it is perhaps too much work to heal at all. I am mildly annoyed my husband traveled to clean air and warm climate with health and returned to be sick so that my run of solo parenting extends to the small interventions of a Saturday afternoon. The children squabble while we are out. I speak loudly so they can hear all the way down their bodies that love is a choice. And you cannot control the other. Love between two is never equal. Sometimes you give more. Sometimes your brother or sister gives more. You love without supposing to earn anything. Be nice even if you don’t have to be nice. Be kind. Generous. I am loud enough I see a woman turn to look at me. I am loud enough to hear all the way down my body.

The kids apologize to one another, and to me, and I say what I say, that I love them very much. My girl is put in her own thoughts on our ride home, hopping off her bike to walk for a stretch before resuming at racing speed. My boy asks if his sister is okay when she stops again to walk and we continue on, and I say, She knows the way home.

Sometimes I am afraid I am too honest about how much work it is to be a person, to love at all, to follow Jesus. I am afraid I discourage my children. Or I am afraid that what they might take on as natural and easy, I turn to a hard way because for me being a person, loving, following Jesus is hard.

When I am home again I balance on one leg, and then the other. I do this because I want to run. Yet this Saturday I am made to be slow. We eat two dozen strawberries. I finish reading a book. My boy kicks a soccer ball with a friend. My girl rearranges her room again. My husband rests his body on the couch. I feel how my belly and thighs go soft now. I see the middle distance return to our view. Before the children go to bed they come to me to snuggle and we lay together in my bed. I am glad for my children. They are lights. They tell little jokes they have between themselves or the three of us. We tickle and nuzzle. We sigh because sleep is near, and they leave to their separate rooms to dream. I stay awake a little longer to do this, to remember that Saturday and this Saturday at the smoggy end of winter.


Twelve of thirty-nine. 1894 words.