“Face presentation. Deep mentum transverse,” said the doctor.
The baby’s chin was facing the birth canal. There was no way to keep pushing for a natural birth. Carmela was grateful she had planned for this. At least, in her mind she had.
No one dared mention the word “cesarean” at Perla’s baby shower. Carmela was sitting at the round table with the other women of the ladies’ committee. Perla was a celebrated woman in their small city, one of six daughters, a destined entrant into the sacred cult of maternity to which some already belonged and all others aspired. With Perla’s “rite of passage” on the horizon, the women pontificated about orgasmic births and patterned breathing exercises. They spoke as if a cesarean weren’t an option at all. Besides Perla, Carmela was the only other pregnant woman there. She looked at Perla across the table and tried to tap her with her stare—it worked. It usually did. It was one of those things she couldn’t explain, but Carmela was certain that if she stared at someone long and hard enough, she would eventually coax at least a short glance in return.
Perla met her gaze—she was thinking about it too. The other women at the table had forgotten or had no idea what it was like to fear for one’s life in those dark private moments of the night—the few seconds when no one was listening and no one could catch you in the thought-act—What if this creature kills me on its way out?
Carmela found it all so absurd, the world’s perverted obsession with natural birth. Of all things, why was this the singular process that required a woman to proceed without synthetic intervention? She thought of ripping wax, digging girdles, hot combs. But this drug, which allowed for the preservation of a birthing woman’s organs and sanity, which could create some space between the joy and pain, the soul and the body—why not?
Perla yielded first, broke the eye contact. It was a clear message. Whatever her thoughts were about the birthing question, she was not committing them to conversation. Carmela understood. Nevertheless, she had thought deeply about the possibility of a cesarian and had decided that she found it even more natural than the other barbaric mess.
Labor was progressing. The nurses said they couldn’t wait any longer. They began wheeling Carmela to the operating room they had prepared. Carmela reveled in an odd feeling of relief and determination. She was able to take her spirit, commend it into the body of her little baby, and all would be well. Her flesh could be discarded if need be.
The anesthesiologist came into the room with the spinal tap. They sat her up to insert the tube. Everyone waited for a few minutes.
“Can you feel that?” asked the doctor, scalpel in hand.
“Yes!” shrieked Carmela.
“Breathe, sweetie. Breathe.”
He turned to the nurse. “It’s been long enough; the catheter might have disconnected. It could be the scoliosis. Try again.”
Twenty minutes passed. The doctor had been testing Carmela with small cuts. She screamed in agony each time. She was feeling everything, and she could especially feel every slit, stealing that initial resolve. Cut by cut, her screams grew louder and louder, her worry deeper and deeper. This was not as simple as death. This was not a clean sacrifice. She kept herself from pushing for what felt like hours until, with a final scream, her body took over.
“I’m sorry. This is going to hurt, but we have to go now, we have to go, we have to go,” said the doctor.
She could hear all the voices in the room at once: loud, fast, crashing against each other. And then, above it, the most bloodcurdling scream. It went on and on and on. Years later, it hadn’t stopped. Like a beast, it roared, yelling, “No! Please no!” Carmela’s ears were overcome by a high-pitched ringing, and she could feel her body turned inside out—her arms tied to the sides of the bed, her head rolled back in anguish. She saw herself from above—stretched on that table, mouth gaping—yet somehow invisible, inaudible, completely forgotten.
If Carmela didn’t take the girl to get a haircut that Friday morning, it would never happen. The girl miraculously had the day off from school—some teacher’s retreat, some generic excuse. She would use the time, when the other kids were out of the house, to finally go get the fringe cut out of the little girl’s eyes.
There was not much there to begin with. The girl hadn’t completely outgrown her infantile wisps. Clips would slide right off, and hair products seemed like cement against her meadow of a head. She would tell the hairdresser to cut it all off. She’d ask for something short and practical.
Theresa, the housekeeper, had already called her three times about the things they were missing from the cleaning cabinet.
“I can’t be ready unless I have Fabuloso and rubber gloves,” said Theresa.
Carmela really needed the place to be ready for the guests this time. She had to delay her first event by an hour and a half because she had forgotten to move the Christmas boxes out of the shed and the caterers needed the space for drinks and ice. She and Theresa had pulled out the boxes, and Carmela, allowing herself no sentimental attachments, threw out almost everything—old stockings, handmade ornaments, tangled tinsel. The little girl had been sitting on the floor while they cleaned, and she managed to find the dry carcass of a small dead cockroach behind one of the boxes. Carmela stared in horror as the guileless toddler picked up the insect and put it right in her mouth. “No!” she yelled, and frantically slapped the girl’s lips. But she couldn’t bring herself to stick in her fingers and pull the thing out.
Carmela was thrilled with her new business. The children spent most of their time out front anyway. Those enormous backyards were no longer practical. The smaller front yard suited them all better. Besides, the only one who spent any time outside anyway was the little girl. She would spend hours out front, chasing the dog and picking up stunned birds. Most of all, she loved to stand on her head.
“Mamá, look, look, look! Look, look, look, look!”
She would take a few steps back, point one little foot, and throw herself forward and down. Carmela would see her frantically stretch her legs toward the sky before tipping over and landing on the grass with a thump. She would do it again and again with an almost compulsive determination, all the time begging her to witness the awkward attempts.
Turning the backyard into a rental party venue was the best idea Carmela ever had. She would manage the business from home, offer Theresa as a waitress for an extra charge, and eventually buy those used slides from the restaurant that was closing near the highway. This was their third fully rented weekend. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday all booked. Carmela knew that if she wanted the three days to run successfully, she had to make sure she was prepared from the get-go.
Parking was a nightmare. They could say all they wanted that this city was the “San Francisco of Mexico.” But at least they built the houses in San Francisco straight up. These homes were almost perpendicular to the slope of the hills. Every one of the unfashionable old houses had water damage and cracked walls. And it wasn’t easy to parallel-park while on a forty-five-degree incline.
They were asked to sit down as soon as they arrived at the hair salon. It was one of those cheap places. The kind you visit once and never again lest they confuse you for a regular. Once and never again. There were so many cheap salons in the city. You could go to a different one every day of the year if you wanted to.
The little girl was overly excited. Carmela could see her staring at the posters of big-breasted women with neon hair hanging on the walls of the salon. The little girl was probably wondering where in the world people looked like that. Carmela wondered the same thing.
They were finally next. Carmela was already mapping her exit route in her mind: get Fabuloso, pick up the tablecloths from the dry cleaners, bring them home. Everything was within a five-minute drive. It wasn’t going to take long.
Carmela started feeling dizzy—hair-dye fumes. She had become so sensitive to smells, tastes, sounds. It was going to be another thirty minutes, at least, before they sat the girl down. Theresa was calling again. Carmela went up to the hairdresser.
“Look, I just want the girl’s hair to be as manageable as possible. Cut it short and straight across.”
“Yes, okay, we’ll be right with you,” said the woman.
“No, look, I have to run some errands really quickly. It won’t take more than twenty minutes. Let me leave her here with you. I’ll just go drop off a few things, and I’ll pick her up when you’re done. I’ll probably be back before you even start.”
“Umm, okay, sure! But we close early today, so please don’t be late.”
“Oh, no! It will take fifteen minutes at most.”
The woman who had rented the place that day was Perla’s older sister, Maricarmen. She had a five-year-old and a three-year-old and she was throwing her older son a 101 Dalmatians–themed party. The entire space was covered in black-and-white dots, and Maricarmen even paid a local pound to bring puppies for the children to play with. It wasn’t the first time Carmela saw a mother go overboard for the sake of their child’s initiation into the group. It had always been that way, every mother trying to one-up the last kid’s party.
Maricarmen was a mess. She was drunk by the time the party began and had forgotten a handful of the party essentials: napkins, candles, a cake knife. Furthermore, the helium tank they usually used for the balloons, which was included in the rental cost, had run out of gas in the middle of decorating. But even while inebriated, Maricarmen was one of Carmela’s most important clients. Her business ran on word of mouth, and she knew that Maricarmen and her sister were at the very center of the ladies’ network.
Despite the drawbacks, the party was running successfully. Carmela gathered all the children to sing “Happy Birthday” and handed Maricarmen the cake knife. It was when Maricarmen took her son’s hand to help him with the cake, right at the moment of the first cut, that Carmela remembered.
She sprinted to her car and started driving to the hair salon. The rush-hour traffic was always at its worst on Fridays. She sat anxiously, completely surrounded, and honked when the light turned green. She did not make it through the intersection before the light turned red again. She began to blink with its blinking and felt a thorn growing in her throat, her eyes burning with frustration. As she approached the steep hill where her daughter was waiting, the car began to slow down. She came to a stop at the side of the road and saw a second red light blinking on the dashboard.
She got out. There was no time to wait. She turned toward the hill and started toward her baby. She was half jogging at first—a bit desperate. But the incline began to weigh on her. She lengthened her stride as much as she could, but she could feel her thighs tightening, ripping. Her body was heavy, and her breathing disturbed by a clawing in her neck. She could not see in front of her—her eyes filled with sweat and salt. She was dragging her feet on the pavement, tripping on them. She felt a fever rising, but she continued so as not to lose her direction. The hill, the sun, the earth all pulling at her back. She walked and walked—the soles of her feet bloody, knees skinned, lips cracked. For scalding days, she walked a punishing passion, falling once, falling twice, falling three times.
She arrived at the place as the sun was setting. Her daughter was sitting on the curb, her hair half its original length. The hairdresser was talking to a police officer. Carmela apologized profusely, lied about having an emergency, and promised never to do it again. The man let her off with a scolding. She gave the hairdresser a large tip.
Carmela took her daughter’s hand, and they started toward the car. The little girl was entirely silent. One block, two blocks…Carmela fell at her feet and sobbed thick, heavy tears on her baby’s dress.
“Forgive me, my sweet girl…Please forgive me. I am sorry…I am sorry…I am so, so sorry.”
- Anaís Martinez Jimenez is a PhD candidate in comparative literature working on poetics, psychoanalytic theory, and race and gender studies at Princeton University. She is an analyst in training at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis in New York City. She was born and raised in the international border area between Tijuana, Baja California, and San Diego, California, and while growing up in Mexico she crossed the border daily for sixteen years to go to school in the United States.
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