Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Day twenty of the handsfree bra— I’ve stopped bothering to remove it. Most days, I don’t even button my cardigan.
C says why don’t I use his office.
He’s finding this transition difficult.
I know what you remind me of, he says. La saraghina from 8 1/2. You know Fellini.
I don’t know why, he says. La saraghina’s the prostitute.
He used a specific verb, which I forgot to write down: screw. With the bottles screwed into your breasts…
It all started with screwing what does he make of that.
First day of spring
You can’t faze L, though. Her name translates to “indigo lustrousness.”
When I mentioned this at her interview, she said, oh right I forgot you people like to know. What’s your name mean?
Then guilt + blushing because I’d never checked.
L searched on her phone—it translates to lamb or white wave or one, depending on the language.
I’d be the wave if I had a choice, but I didn’t say so.
Are you Gaelic or Finnish or Latin? she asked.
She had the grace just to nod.
In case you’re wondering C’s name translates to young dog.
I don’t really leave the Flower Circle anymore. The lady on YouTube recommends pumping every two hours to increase my milk supply. So by the time I’m out, I have to make my way back in.
But the air is filtered here. The walkways lead me to the gym and other mothers. Also the cinema and Rich Bitch mall, as L calls it.
He prefers the bottle now, you see. After the first let-down, the flow starts to diminish; he must suck to stimulate further let-downs.
A bottle always lets down. The flow is instant, unbroken.
I used to count blue sky days but now I mark time in bags of frozen milk.
Usually only prisoners mark time, says L as she lowers Otto into his bassinet.
I want urgently to hold him but I have 10 minutes left on this boob.
The pang loosens more milk from my ducts. I nudge the dial up a notch.
If Otto’s not in the same room, like when L changes his diaper or takes him for a walk to the Emerald Swimming Pool, I look at photos on my phone.
The posture mimics other postures like the shape of C swiping pix of real naked babysitters in his office.
Funny how we both simulate the rawest expressions of life to empty ourselves.
Do you? I ask L.
She’s dipped over the bassinet, whispering in Mandarin.
Today’s no. 1 fear is that he will learn another language before English, and I won’t recognize his first word / he won’t be talking to me anyway.
Do I what? she says.
But she’s not listening. She’s murmuring to my son whose face crinkles and opens and drools.
L grates cheese because C requested macaroni. I have Otto. Am whispering “mama. mama. mama,” into the petal of his ear.
He smells like I’ve taken a muscle relaxer. The lady on YouTube says he hasn’t interpreted his own reality yet. He still thinks he’s a part of me.
L eats tendrils of cheese as she grates. She hums a song I recognize to be Jay-Z.
C’s late and I’m watching more YouTube videos of La Saraghina.
Pulpy eyed saraghina. A woman of so much bursting. Easy to confuse her dirt coloured tank top for breasts. Her dress is shredded at the thighs. I imagine her splitting the fabric with her hands so she can scale the rocks and rumba with God. What is it with God and prostitutes. She walks with her breasts up like they keep her afloat. They do maybe. I never learned to walk with my breasts.
I don’t see the resemblance exactly. The camera asks us to laugh but she is proud and certain and sexier than me. She wears her flesh like a woman.
White supremacy is wrong, says C. But every business trip to Sweden I get the feeling they’re chosen.
I don’t want to say “better,” he says.
Than me too—I know where I stand.
It’s important to know where you stand.
Hey, this macaroni doesn’t suck. One thing I can say is your breasts are bigger now.
Where’s the little Chicken McNugget, anyway?
Did I marry a casual racist, or has he turned into one over time?
Is it reversible?
These questions feel important re: my powers of perception and good judgment. A quiet voice says: marriage is always reversible, even though that’s not what I meant.
At 11 AM on Wall Street, he takes a conference call while L and I bathe Otto in the bathroom sink.
Otto turns pink so quickly. Does that mean it’s too warm? It doesn’t feel too warm. His lips spread around a syllable; from this angle it could be ha.
I have boiled lobsters once. I had this thought one time while bathing Otto, and now it returns like a mean ghost. A lobster weighs less but their size is not dissimilar you see. Its terrible aliveness— claws clamped by a plastic band, C making the shrieking noises. You know those dreams where you can’t stop what is about to happen. So I melted the butter. C dunked the lobsters in the pot. Funny how a lobster pot’s only good for one thing. They don’t scream but air whistles from the stomach through the mouth parts. They wagged their pinchers out of the boiling water until C tamped them down with his tongs.
L hums, her voice pressed and sweet. She wears her hair down always. I’ve never seen spit-up in it. Never seen him yank it either, but maybe in private. When she leans over the sink, the two panels of hair dip into the water. The foam leaves rings that pucker and vanish. Otto feels safe in her hands, I can tell. For one he is laughing.
You’ve held a lot of babies before? I ask.
My last family had twins.
Oh right. Where are they now?
Belgium. Have you held a lot of babies?
Just this one.
The first time I bathed Otto, he clamped around my arm. He looked so at-home in the water. I felt sad for him—the forgetting of this element, his amphibiousness, hardening for land.
You don’t need two women to wash a baby, but she holds him up while I wipe the dried milk from his chin. I guide my hand over his forehead to rinse the shampoo. She spreads a towel on the counter. I lower him, wrap him, take him into my arms.
L’s day off—she will meet her sister for smoothies at the Rich Bitch mall. Big plans for Otto and me: we will walk, on our own, to the Emerald Swimming Pool. We will meet Clarisse from 6605B for lunch. We’ll go to the park. The one with the leaf monkeys.
I’m in the office pumping when I realize L hasn’t left.
I watch from my iPad, which is FaceTiming my phone in lieu of a baby monitor, as L enters the nursery in her off-day clothes—denim shorts, an oversized t-shirt with the number 26 on the sleeve. She should have left an hour ago. She lifts Otto from his moon-shaped rocker and sways with him. At first I think it’s the radio, but she’s humming. My pump pulses and chugs like a fax machine.
On the screen, she lifts her shirt. She wears a wireless cotton bra. I watch, in horror, as she lifts Otto toward her boob. Then I’m running for the door, but I haven’t unhooked myself, and the pump falls to the carpet and tugs the flanges from my nipples, though the cups remain tucked in the bra. I tear off the velcro and charge, breasts dribbling, to the nursery.
Her eyes drop immediately to my chest, her shirt still lifted. My gaze focuses on her pinched stomach, the rhinestone pot leaf glinting from her navel.
I feel repulsed and attracted. The confusion of these two feelings silences me and I stand there dumbly, shaking, breasts moist and catching light.
Then Otto’s eyes crunch like he might start wailing. Instead he reaches for me and giggles.
My rage ebbs into something larger before I’m ready to let go. I try to cling onto it—to feel purified by my anger, righteous. L steps nearer and passes Otto from her arm cradle. I press him to me. His puny sticky hand rests on my sternum.
She doesn’t apologize or explain, and I don’t know how to accuse her.
I thought you were going out for smoothies, I say.
She cancelled, she says. The shirt is somehow smoothed back over her bra. To break the silence, I invite L to the Emerald Swimming Pool. Her eyes brighten. She says she’ll grab her swimsuit.
Emerald Swimming Pool
She perches at the pool’s edge, knees magnified in the water, lacy fingers around my boy’s waist. He faces me, eyes squeezed with mirth. (Can a baby be mirthful? It’s this wisdom he exudes—an old hand in the water, home again, we landlubbers at his mercy.) She “zooms” him toward me. In her mouth, it sounds like “zhoom.” When he reaches me I kiss his nose. He squawks. She reels him in. For this game to work, I have to stand close. Her knees graze my ribs, which tickles. I’m only six years older than her. She has a tattoo I never took in: a vine of flowers on her shoulder. The design is simple, like what a child might draw. When she lifts my baby into the air I notice she doesn’t shave her armpits.
Dream that L and I sit in a patch of dandelions.
She holds toast with both hands. It smells hot yet the butter does not melt.
Nor is the butter, as you may predict, a dandelion.
But I’m disturbed it won’t melt. Like it’s my own dairy that defies science; it must be chemically enhanced—this non-melting butter, which exists here if anywhere.
But why would anyone want non-melting butter? I imagine she asks.
Exactly, I imagine I reply.
She hasn’t read over my shoulder in a week.
When you dream about someone and imagine conversations in your head—
Does it mean—
I can’t bring myself to finish the question.
Blue sky day— a world leader must be visiting. We all walk to the park and watch the leaf monkeys. C has taken the day off. His presence inserts itself upon our unit like an olive pit. He gives L some yuan to buy us coconut water.
She’s not our staff, I tell him, when she crosses the street.
Don’t we pay her?
She helps with Otto. It’s different.
Above us, the leaf monkeys have white patches around their eyes and tiny afros. The babies are flaming butterscotch, like they evolved so their mums wouldn’t lose them.
L returns with the coconut waters and gives him the change. She doesn’t speak with C here, but her eyes are crowded with thought.
He slings his arm around me and says, Let’s take a selfie.
My muscles tense with his contact. He laughs and squeezes my shoulder, as if to say, My funny, skittish wife. Otto is about to cry. Like a sneeze, I feel it coming.
Would you mind? he asks L.
She takes his phone and stands on the other side of the boardwalk.
Say Qié zi, she says—her first words all morning.
Cheese, says C.
Qié zi, she tells me later, means “eggplant.”
So I talked to my mother, says C.
No good has ever come from this sentence.
We’re sitting at the breakfast table, which overlooks the mess of skyscrapers. You can’t deny they’re sublime, these tallest of flowers, which rise overnight. The view feels so precisely imagined—by Philip K. Dick or another brain.
C has made breakfast: banana pancakes, burned, which he tries to hide with decorative splashes of syrup.
Otto wants to writhe on the floor, but I’m not ready to surrender him as a distraction. I offer a morsel of pancake, which he clutches and sucks until there’s more saliva than dough.
C squeezed fresh orange juice too, but we only have a hand juicer. He abandoned the task after 60 millilitres. (Accuracy in judging volumes a corollary new skill.) But the cappuccino is good. He could always make coffee. And he bought daffodils, which have not yet opened. A twinge of fondness spurs me to rest my hand on his. This emboldens him. She thinks I should go on leave, he says, stroking Otto’s head with his free hand. We’ll let go of the nanny. It will be us three again. He smiles and slices his pancake in half, folds it with his fork, stuffs the entire bulk in his mouth.
Nothing has changed yet. I told him let’s sleep on it for a week. He smiled again like, My funny, skittish wife.
But L knows something’s up. We sit on opposite ends of my bed, Otto on his back between my knees. He plays a game where he knocks his caterpillar rattle against my hip.
L’s legs splay out in a triangle. Instead of a baby, she hugs a cutting board between her thighs. And a watermelon. Granules of flesh spray on the duvet when she starts hacking. I find I don’t care about the mess.
She offers me a lump from her carving knife. I take it, eat half, feed half to Otto.
C I could have handled, but none of this matters now. She’s been accepted to university in Santa Barbara, California. Not to be confused with a nearer Santa Barbara, of which there are none.
I am distraught.
I notice they have a college of creative studies, I say.
I don’t think that means what you think, she says.
Teachers always described me as “creative.”
Have I shown you my drawings?
Found old sketch book. The drawings aren’t as good as I remembered, so I don’t show L. I hide it back under the box of Otto’s sleepers.
Trying to calculate when she applied and why she didn’t tell me.
May Day (May Day)
L’s parting gift: a leopard print pump bra, fastened with hooks and eyes down the centre. She’s in the city until August, but will spend summer with her family. She promises to meet me for smoothies at the Rich Bitch Mall.
My parting gift: A hand-carved sandalwood fan. You can smell the sandalwood when you waft it. She unfolds the slats and flips her hair with it, then says: they have air con over there too, you know.
Otto pushes himself up from his belly now. He’s so strong. He reminds me, at times, of a cherubic walrus.
He’s also learning his P sounds. Pah pah pah. As in pah-tato.
C can’t take his eyes off him. He’s come home early all week.
L dropped in for a visit and a wonderful thing happened. Let me start from the beginning. She brought egg tarts and smoothies. A playlist of Beijing hip hop, which she plugged into the speakers. We sat on the carpet in the living room. I felt like a high school student. Like we should be perched on a rail, smoking cigarettes, sneering delicately at strangers. Instead we watched Otto; babies steal the centre of every room. We didn’t have to look at each other because we looked at him. When he said “pah, pah,” we both glowed.
Want your rattle? I asked, reaching for the bright caterpillar.
“Pah, pah,” said L, as I shook it.
Otto reached for his toe and pushed it in his mouth.
L split a tart in half. She passed one crescent to me, her hand cupped under so the pastry didn’t flake on the carpet.
I pulled Otto into my lap and shared a flake of tart. His eyes widened—elated with this new sweetness. That’s when the thing happened. He reached, demonstratively, for my boob.
Even L looked at him with surprise.
I was wearing an oversized white shirt, which I unbuttoned. L held the tart for me. I unclasped the leopard print bra and lifted him. He latched on. He drank. After the first let-down, he continued to suck. The milk quickened. He sipped from the other breast too.
Where the bee sucks, said L. She had been studying Shakespeare.
I laughed but couldn’t control this release and soon I was crying too.
I have been thinking about C—the difference between our vitalest liquids. His, at base, generative. Mine sustaining. How we need both.
More and more, Otto eats what I eat. Banana. Avocado. Our freezer is still crammed with my milk. C suggests ice cream. He ribs, but his eyes spark like he would be up for it.
I don’t wear the bra anymore. Most mornings I just lie with him. His belly on my belly. Our heartbeats merged. Sharing, again, the same breath.
I’ve taken to walking at 5 AM. My babe in his sling. The sun pressing through smog with the intention of pinkness. Not quite a sunrise. And not quite serene—a drill rings out. But there’s a resonant hush. A city of twenty-four million people could never be silent. You hear them sleeping. Waking. On our route back, we stop for a scallion pancake. The pancake man wraps it in brown paper. I take it to the park. Otto has dropped back to sleep. It’s just me and the monkeys, their tails hanging from the boughs like phone cords. An elderly couple practices tai chi on the other side of the pond. The focused ascension of their arms—they could be conductors. The masters of all this. FinalIy, I let my own eyelids down and rest.
Eliza Robertson’s 2014 debut collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the East Anglia Book Award, the Danuta Gleed Short Story Prize, and selected as a New York Times editor’s choice. Her critically acclaimed first novel, Demi-Gods, was published by Penguin Canada and Bloomsbury U.K. in 2017 and was a Globe & Mail and National Post book of the year. She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Scholarship and Curtis Brown Prize. In 2013, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Journey Prize and CBC Short Story Prize. Originally from Vancouver Island, Eliza lives in Montreal.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.