(Joyce Carol Oates Style)
The summer was hot, the air heavy, sweat dripping down her temples, soaking into the back of her t-shirt even in the car with the air conditioning on high and blasting into her face. Nothing new. It was always so hot here. Her skin always shining and slick, what makeup she wore melting into the wrinkles around her mouth, the corners of her eyes. She had grown up here, a native, but could never get used to the heat. Others did. The women around her at school drop-offs with their bouncing, carefully styled hair, their skinny jeans in the middle of August, their faces cool, imperfections covered up. She couldn’t do anything but pull her hair back in a ponytail, swipe at any flyaway bits like gnats alighting on her skin.
Not just the heat of the summer, but the pace -- so slow. Endless days melting into one another, the sun perpetually alight in the sky, blazing down upon them like the judgment of God. And now, with kids, it moved even slower, each day a thousand lifetimes. Each day bleeding into the next until she couldn’t remember if it was Saturday or Wednesday. She found herself hiding indoors, blasting the air conditioning to frigid temperatures, her kids shivering and asking for blankets to combat against the air billowing from the vents above. Her kids sitting on the couch, blankets curled around them, rolled up over their shoulders and their heads.
It had been the worst when she was pregnant. Never able to cool down, her cheeks always flushed, her body continually sweating. How she had hated leaving the house. Her ankles so swollen she could barely stand to wear even sandals. She would sit at work (before she left to stay at home) with her feet propped up on a chair next to her. Whenever someone would walk in, she would quickly hide them underneath her desk, not wanting them to look at her with disgust, or worse, pity. Sometimes she wasn’t quick enough. The stranger would try to say something kind about the beauty of pregnancy and new life. She would smile and nod and reply to them with things like, “Yes, so beautiful. The body is an amazing thing,” words to appease these strangers only there to meet with others in the office, words that would make these strangers feel like they had done something good, something noble – complimenting a pregnant lady!
They did not realize that she did not believe the things she would say to them, that to her, the whole experience of pregnancy was wholly unsavory, that at night she would stare at her ever-widening and fleshy face and search for the woman she once knew herself to be underneath. And yet, somehow, she had endured it three times. Somehow, she had endured the sharp back pains, the stretching and distorted stomach that refused to lay flat again, the constant, low-grade nausea that had only intensified with each child. She had endured it, and now, she found herself surrounded by three, small strangers. How strange to feel like she didn’t know them. Her body had carried them, she had felt their every movement against her ribs, their every kick into her bladder, and now that they were older (all over two) they had each become their own person. How quickly they had developed personalities, particular likes, and dislikes, particular ways of saying words, of correcting her, of running from her when all she wanted to do was hold them against her body the way she did when they were newborns and needed her so badly.
Even the two-year-old, already so self-sufficient. He refused to let her hold him, or open his packages of snacks, or let her cut up his food. “No! Big! No! I do it! No! No! No!” These were the things he was already saying to her. He had only just begun talking and already, so defiant. To her, it seemed that the others had taken longer, had let her baby them, had let her sing them to sleep and rub their backs and kiss their cheeks well into their preschool years. But no, not the baby. The baby did not want to be the baby. The baby wanted to be big, to take care of himself. Which was why, she found herself bundling him into the emergency room, settling him on her lap, his face bright red and lips swollen and snot running into his mouth and sticking in his hair. His whole body covered in a pin-dot rash, his skin shiny and tight looking like it had been stretched too far across his bones.
The baby had wanted to be big! The baby had found mommy’s granola bars that she kept hidden in the cupboards by the stove, the ones she wouldn’t let him eat. The baby had gotten his stool and climbed up and taken one out while mommy was in the shower. The baby had opened it and eaten half of the thing before mommy had come out and found him, still sitting on the kitchen countertop, half the granola bar in his hand. The baby’s lips had begun to feel funny, tingly, itchy, too big for his face.
The baby did not realize that he was allergic to almonds, that the granola bars were not for him because his body could not process them. Only then, had the baby let her grab him, hold him against her, feed him the sticky pink Benadryl before rushing him out to the car and to the emergency room.