Sample text for Love and modern medicine : stories / Perri Klass.


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Counter For Women Everywhere

Alison, in her ninth month, finds she can no longer turn over in bed
at night without waking up. The hydraulics of shifting her belly are
just too complex, and to get from her left side to her right, she has
to maneuver herself delicately, tucking her elbow under and using it
as a lever, swinging her abdomen over the top. Turning over the other
way, belly down, is not possible; if she could, she imagines, she
would look like a circus seal balancing on a huge ball.
When her best friend from high school arrives to keep her company and
wait for the birth, Alison hopes to be distracted; lately, she thinks
of nothing but the advent of labor. When will this baby come out,
when will the pains start that will be unmistakably something new,
something she has never felt before? Her obstetrician suggested that
they might feel like bad menstrual cramps, which Alison has never
had. And she is now accustomed to the small tightenings inside her
belly that occur every now and then; Braxton-Hicks contraction, she
tells her friend Doris, who thereafter asks her, if she should happen
to clutch herself, "Another Brixie-Hixie?"
It is very nice to have Doris around. For one thing, unpregnant,
Doris is easily as big as Alison in her ninth month. Doris was big in
high school and she"s bigger now. She buys her clothes in special
stores that sell silk and velvet and linen for the fat working woman,
and all her lingerie is peach. She smells of a perfume named after a
designer, familiar to Alison because of little scented cardboard
samples in a million magazines - open this flap to enjoy the magic -
opposite honey-toned photos of naked bodies arranged like fruit in a
basket. Doris"s possessions fit surprisingly well into what she calls
the tawdry jungle glamour of Alison"s apartment. Among the overgrown
plants with Christmas lights strung through them and the life-size
stuffed animals and the bongo collection, Doris reclines in her
jumpsuits, taking her ease as if waiting for her palanquin. When
Doris and Alison walk down the street together on their way to get
hamburgers and onion rings, Alison feels like they are a phalanx.
Finally she has the nerve to wear a big straw hat with fuchsia
flowers out in public, stealing it off her stuffed giraffe. Hey, big
mamas, she imagines someone shouting (not that anyone ever does).
Together, she and Doris take up their share of the street and of the
hamburger restaurant, where the waitress greets them by saying, The
usual, right?
Alison is by now pretty well used to the rude and stupid and none-of-
their-business things that people say to her. But good old Doris
walked into her apartment, put down her two suitcases and her handbag
and her camera case, and informed Alison, looking narrowly at her
ballooned abdomen, "Alison, you are doing this For Women Everywhere."
Then she gave a Bronx cheer.
"Right," said Alison with relief, wondering how Doris knew. The world
is full of well-meaning people who feel the need to tell Alison how
brave she is, how they admire her. I always wanted a baby, but I
don"t know whether I would dare, they say; or, This is a really great
thing you"re doing. Alison"s mother sends clippings from People
magazine, keeping her up to date on Jodie Foster, Madonna, Rosie
O"Donnell. Even Michael, when he calls up, shyly, to ask does she
really think this baby might be his, and won"t she please tell him
when it"s due, and is she going to find out the gender, and would she
tell him if she knew - even Michael feels a politically correct need
to tell her what a strong woman she is.
"Some people never grow up" is Doris"s comment after Michael"s next
call. At first Alison thinks she is referring to Michael, which is
really unfair; of the three of them, Michael could be considered the
one who most notably has grown up. He has a house and a marriage and
two children and all the correct car seats and coffeemakers. "You,"
says Doris. "Here you are at your age, and the best you can manage is
a friend you went to high school with and a boy you"ve been sleeping
with since high school. Don"t you ever think about moving on to a
later stage?"
There is some justice there, Alison supposes, but if you are thirty-
five and your favorite people are left over from when you were
fifteen, then that"s the way it is. What am I doing, after all, she
thinks, if not moving on to a later stage? Michael"s marriage,
acquired in adulthood, does not make Alison"s mouth water. Neither
does Doris"s legendary liaison with a penthouse-dwelling real estate
tycoon. Doris is mildly, or maybe avidly, curious to know who the
other possible fathers are, and makes some pointed remarks about
people who expect their friends to Tell All and then hold back on
their own juicy details, but Alison is not telling and not willing to
be drawn into the same game of twenty questions that Michael keeps
wanting her to play. Is it anyone I know? Is it anyone you care
about? How many possibilities are there, anyway? "I am not," Alison
says with pregnant dignity, "the kind to kiss and tell."
Alison is consuming something close to four rolls of Tums a day at
this point. Automatically before and after every meal she reaches
into her pocket for the cylinder, pops off three little chalky disks,
and crunches them, feeling the burning go away. Doris tells her this
is somewhat disgusting, and Alison informs her loftily, "My
obstetrician says I have progesterone-induced incompetence of the
lower esophageal sphincter."
"Talk about disgusting," says Doris.
But it is a pleasure to have Doris there to go with her to the
obstetrician, a pleasure not to go alone for the umpteenth time. She
hands Doris the straw hat and steps on the scales unhesitatingly,
watches the nurse move the weight from 150 to 200, then back to 150,
then start messing around with the next smaller weight. One eighty-
two; very good. Smugly, Alison steps off the scale; how educational
for Doris, she thinks, to realize that when you are pregnant you get
on the scale proudly and hear a number like 182 and then a
commendation. But Doris is studying a wall chart, a drawing of a full-
term baby packed into a mother. Note the scrunched-up intestines, the
way the baby"s head presses on the bladder, and so on. "Yich,"
comments Doris, and follows Alison into the examining room, there to
be notably unmoved by the amplified fetal heart.
Alison"s obstetrician, Dr. Beane, is a good five or six years younger
than Alison and Doris, and is such an immaculate and tailored little
thing that it is hard to imagine her elbow-deep in the blood and gore
that Alison envisions in a delivery room. Also, she has such tiny
hands; can she really grab a baby and pull? Is that what an
obstetrician does? Alison started by dutifully attending the classes,
but she dropped out long before they got to the movie; she has never
been one to read instruction booklets. Dr. Beane gives Doris the once-
over, considerately doesn"t ask any questions, and feels around on
Alison"s belly with those small, surprisingly strong hands. "You"re
engaged!" she says, as if offering congratulations.
Alison wonders briefly whether this is some terribly tactful way of
acknowledging Doris"s presence (better than, say, Is this your
significant other?), but it turns out that engaged means the baby"s
head has descended into her pelvis and the baby is in place, ready to
be born.
"Have you thought about anesthesia?" asks the doctor, who then
launches into an educational lecture on spinals and epidurals, both
of which involve having a needle inserted into Alison"s back and
pumping drugs into her spinal column.
"Yich," comments Doris.
"I think I"d rather die," says Alison.
"You won"t die one way or the other. You"ll just have pain. And if
the pain is too bad, you can have Demerol, just to take the edge off
for a while."
"In sorrow shall you bring forth children," says Doris, biblically
enough.
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," says Alison, not
to be outdone.
"Any time now," says Dr. Beane, cheerful and unperturbed.
Twenty years ago, in high school, Doris and Alison and Michael were
the three smartest of their year, Doris and Alison were best friends,
and Michael and Alison eventually fumbled their way into bed. Michael
and Doris, however, were the true co-conspirators of the high school,
the ones who destroyed every sewing machine in the home economics
classroom with a tube of Super Glue and a jar of Vaseline, the ones
who reprogrammed the guidance computer so that every senior received
a printout recommending Notre Dame as the most appropriate college,
the ones who slipped copies of Oui and Penthouse into the heavy
plastic jackets reserved for Life and Smithsonian in the library.
Alison was more or less a chicken. Doris is now the only person in
the whole world who more or less understands how Alison can go on
sleeping with Michael every couple of weeks or so, year in and year
out, and never want either to escalate or to de-escalate. There are
other guys around from time to time, but in a funny way she still
likes Michael best -- even though she doesn"t like him more than once
every couple of weeks. And when Michael got married and they didn"t
miss a beat, Doris was the only one to whom it was perfectly obvious
that his relationship with Alison was covered by a grandfather
clause. Alison knows that Michael called Doris up at the time,
stricken with the kind of moral qualms with which he occasionally
likes to agitate himself, and she knows that Doris told him to shut
up and put out, and she is grateful. Michael"s marriage is a
brilliant success, as far as Alison can see, though she has not
actually met his wife. They are both professors, Michael of math, of
course, and his wife of something with ceramics in it, which is not
art but high-tech semiconductors. Or something; Alison reserves the
right not to be interested and wastes almost no time visualizing the
marriage, two total weirdo science drones trying to be domestic. She
has never imagined that this is what she wants, and she is not going
to be fooled into imagining it now.
Alison and Doris parade themselves to the hamburger joint for the
usual once again. Alison has medium rare with cheddar and onions,
Doris has rare with guacamole on top; both have onion rings. Alison"s
maternity wardrobe has dwindled; nothing fits, and she cannot bring
herself to buy anything, since the whole process should be over in a
week or two. She has one floral drop cloth, contributed by her
mother, who also sent four pairs of support hose that are still
intact in their plastic.Over her one pair of cotton pants with a very
stretched-out elastic waistband she can put either a bright pink,
extra-extra large T-shirt or a breezy little yellow rayon number,
bought at a yard sale, which was meant to be a pajama top for a very
large lady. She has been working at home since her seventh month,
easy enough since much of her work has always been done at home. She
writes the in-house newsletter for a large company that manufactures
communications equipment and works happily on various examples of
their latest technology right in the comfort of her own living room.
She is paid a ridiculous amount for this and has no intention of ever
teaching freshman English again. The only problem, as of the last
week or two, is that she cannot sit up at her desk anymore for long
periods of time. The inhabitant of her uterus starts to do
calisthenics, and to have a full-size baby doing rhythmic jerks in
her belly, it turns out, means she has to lie back on the couch and
give it room.
She lies back, pulls up the pink T-shirt, pulls down the cotton
pants, and she and Doris stare at her stomach, at the road map of
stretch marks. "God, it"s like some kind of earthquake," says Doris,
as the striated skin over Alison"s belly button heaves upward. Today
Doris, in honor of Alison"s apartment, is wearing her leopard-print
jumpsuit and blood-red earrings to match her fingernails.
"Are you quite comfortable?" Alison asks her abdomen. The acute angle
of a little elbow juts out clearly, squirms around, then retreats
into its crowded bath. Actually, Alison finds herself overwhelmed,
reduced to awestruck mush, by the contemplation of her belly, by the
thought that tightly curled up in there is a full-grown sardine of a
baby. How can this possibly be? A fetus was one thing, for all its
hormonal cyclone, the morning sickness and all the rest, but how can
she be carrying around something that properly belongs in a baby
carriage? And something with such a mind of its own; it seems now to
want to put its feet just where Alison believes she keeps her liver.
When Michael calls, Doris takes it upon herself to talk to him. She
describes the action in Alison"s belly, which she refers to as heavy
weather in the Himalayan foothills. Alison, still lying on the couch,
can hear the firm tones in which Doris discourages Michael"s
surreptitious questions. She"s fine, we"re fine, don"t be ridiculous.
Sometime soon, you don"t need the details. No, Michael, you"ll never
know. You"ll take care of your own children, Alison will take care of
hers, and everyone will be just fine.
Alison thinks of Doris in the tenth grade, when she wore only black
and made frequent references to her dabbles in the occult sciences.
Her room, in her parents" pleasant Tudor-style, two-car-garage house,
had been converted into a sanctuary of Satan. Doris had removed the
light bulb from the ceiling fixture and put two white, skull-shaped
candles on either side of an altar, on which the girls" high school
gym teacher was regularly tortured in effigy before being sacrificed.
Doris"s mother had minded the writing on the walls more than anything
else. But after all, once the walls were written on they would have
to be repainted anyway, so why not write on them some more? So Doris
and Alison and Michael decorated them freely with song lyrics that
seemed particularly meaningful at the time. Also poems. The Who,
William Blake, Hermann Hesse, and Leonard Cohen figured prominently
in the graffiti; Doris and Alison and Michael were all smart, but
hardly exceptional. Anyway, lying on the couch, Alison remembers
Doris in her high priestess phase: massive in black, making oracular
pronouncements, suggesting death or disfigurement for those she
disliked, prom-ising the favored that they would prosper.
"Lots of Brixie-Hixies, huh?" says Doris a few minutes later, finding
Alison leaning against the wall in the kitchen, holding her stomach.
"I don"t know, this might be more than that."
"No false alarms now -- you don"t want to go getting me all excited
for nothing."
"Let"s time them," says Alison.
Twenty minutes apart. Fifteen minutes apart. Starting to hurt a
little. Lasting thirty to forty seconds. Doris notes them down
systematically in permanent Magic Marker on Alison"s one clean dish
towel, contributed, needless to say, by her mother. She suggests to
Alison that these numbers will make a humdrum dish towel into a
priceless memento. Alison tries to remember whether they said
anything about breathing back in those first couple of childbirth
classes.
"All right," says Doris, coming to the bottom hem of the dish
towel. "Get that cunning little bag you have all packed and waiting
and let"s get moving."
"You really think it"s time?"
"Do you want to wait for Sherman to take Atlanta? Get into the pony
cart and let"s go."
At the hospital, the nurse puts Alison into two little gowns, one
with the opening in the front, the other in the back. Strangely
enough, all the way over in the car, even as she experi-mented with
panting, with taking big deep breaths, with moaning and groaning,
Alison expected the hospital staff to look at her blankly, to send
her home, to wonder aloud why she was wasting their time. Instead,
along comes this nurse, Madeline, a black woman even larger than
Doris. The three of us, Alison thinks, would make quite a singing
group. The nurse puts an IV into Alison"s left hand and hooks belts
around her waist to connect her to a fetal heart monitor. Doris finds
the monitor quite interesting, and when the nurse leaves the room,
she experiments with the volume control, turning up the gallop-a-trot
of the baby"s heartbeat as loud as it will go.
"Noisy baby you have there," she remarks. "I thought this was
supposed to hurt. Does it hurt yet?"
"Are you looking forward to watching me writhe in pain?"
"Just remember, you will be writhing for women everywhere."
Alison is immeasurably glad to have Doris there. Does this mean, she
finds two seconds to wonder in between contractions, that she is in
fact going to want someone there from now on, that she is going to
find herself alone with this baby and feel bereft? Well, maybe. But
this is a fine time to start worrying about that.
"Don"t worry," she tells Doris. "It"s starting to hurt plenty. Don"t
be deceived by my stoicism and physical bravery." A baby is supposed
to make you less alone, not more alone, she reminds herself, and then
the pain is back.
"When you make a face like you"re constipated and then pant like a
dog, is that when it hurts?"
"I still can"t understand why you didn"t become a psychiatrist," says
Alison, beginning to pant again.
"There"s more money in stockbrokering," says Doris, who is in fact
very rich.
"Well, thanks for coming," says Alison, suddenly not sure she has yet
gotten around to saying that.
"I wouldn"t miss this for the world." Doris looms over the bed, a
great big woman with an auburn permanent and red nails, wearing green
paisley lounging pajamas. What more could anyone want in a labor
room? "Soon the fun will really begin -- don"t you get an enema?"
"I think that"s out of date. Shit, Doris, this isn"t a joke anymore."
"All you girls think you can just play around, and then when you get
caught, you start whining."
Madeline comes bustling in, hears them shouting over the boom of the
monitor. "Who turned this thing up so high?" she demands, turning it
down.
"I want to take this belt off, please," says Alison. "I feel like I
need to change position."
"Why don"t you take a little walk, see some of the scenery?" Madeline
is unstrapping her from the monitor, rather to Alison"s surprise; she
hadn"t expected her request to be granted.
"Is that okay?"
"Honey, you"re moving pretty quick for a first baby, but you"ve got a
ways to go. Just you go strolling with your friend, there"s lots of
corridors."
The people that Alison and Doris pass as they promenade through the
Labor and Delivery hallways look meaningfully at Alison"s belly. Most
are doctors and nurses dressed in green surgical scrubs. There is one
other woman in labor who is also up and walking, but her husband, who
is six feet tall and bearded after the manner of John the Baptist, is
practically carrying her. The walls are hung with nondescript
impressionist landscapes.
"Lovely on the Riviera this time of year," Doris says each time they
pass the French fishing village, and "I hear the stained glass is
simply stunning," when they pass the cathedral at sunset.
Eventually walking begins to feel a little less possible, and Ali-son
climbs back into bed. And along comes Dr. Beane to congratulate her
on already being five centimeters dilated.
"God," says Alison, "this is becoming a real pain in the ass."
"Truer words were never spoken," says Doris.
Alison is no longer able to muster a sense of humor. She is in quite
significant pain, and it is borne in upon her that she does not have
the option of stopping these regular onslaughts. She would like an
hour off, she wants to tell them; she would like to put this on hold
and start again tomorrow. Instead, Madeline comes by every now and
then and tells her to take deep breaths. They have her belted up
again and keep telling her to listen to her baby"s heart, how strong
and regular it is. But this steady lub-a-dubbing seems to Alison to
have very little indeed to do with the strong-willed gymnast who has
been kicking and wriggling so idiosyncratically. Alison wishes, truly
and sincerely, to be back on her couch, watching her stomach heave
and swell. What a good working relationship that was -- why go and
spoil it now?
"I didn"t know when I was well off," she tells Doris and Madeline.
Dr. Beane is somewhere behind them, checking the strips that the
monitor is printing out. An interesting geometrical dynamic, thinks
Alison with perfect clarity, the three very large women and the tiny
little doctor.
In fact, it goes very quickly for a first labor; everyone says so.
Five hours after coming to the hospital, Alison is pronounced ready
to push. Alison is no longer listening to anything that anyone has to
say. This is, she has decided, the most ridiculous method for
propagating the species that she can imagine. In those few precious
seconds when the pain goes away, she thinks back to biology class,
herself and Doris and Michael in the back row, acing every test.
Think of all the alternative methods. Budding. Spore formation. Egg
laying. Binary fission. And back comes the pain; howling, she has
discovered, helps. Madeline does not seem to approve fully; there was
something a little censorious about the way she closed the labor room
door. "Mustn"t let the other women in labor know that it hurts, huh?"
Alison hears Doris say.
Sometimes she squeezes Doris"s hand. Sometimes Doris squeezes hers.
During one particularly unpleasant contraction, Alison gives out with
a loud cry of "Oh, fuckety fuck fuck the fucking fuck," and then her
brain clears enough to hear Doris"s response: "Do any more of that,
darling, and you"ll end up right back here."
What can she mean? Another contraction hits before Alison can
actually think back to those familiar and surprisingly passionate
nights with Michael, or to the nights with the other two men who will
never know about this. Oddly enough, she can remember, as the pain
ebbs, her decision to go ahead and get pregnant, that one
particularly promising and active month when she got herself into
this. It"s time to do this, she remembers thinking, remembers that
daring feeling of dancing on the cliff edge. I will surprise myself,
my life will stretch and grow, she remembers thinking. And now she
has fallen off the cliff. Something is stretching, sure enough, and
surprise is not the word for it. Yes, she can remember deciding to
get pregnant, but her brain cannot quite encompass the how of getting
pregnant. Out of the question. This is no moment to think about the
more pleasant uses to which her lower body can be put. This is a
moment to howl.
Dr. Beane, who has been off doing doctor things, reappears after
Alison has been pushing for half an hour or so. Pushing is a little
better than just contracting, but it is also hard work. "I have had
enough of this," Alison tells her, loud and clear. "There is never
going to be a baby. I want to go home."
"You"re doing very, very well. You"re going to have your baby soon."
"I don"t want a baby. I changed my mind." She is dead serious, she is
enjoying being a bad girl, she is kidding, she is contracting again,
and Madeline is counting at her, ten nine eight seven six five four
three two one, trying to get Alison to prolong the push.
"You heard the lady. She"s changed her mind." Doris almost sounds
dead serious herself.
Dr. Beane puts Doris on one side of Alison, Madeline on the other.
Alison puts one arm around each of them, and each lifts up one of her
legs, pulls it back. Dr. Beane is now a tiny pixie all dressed in
surgical greens, rubber gloves on her hands. She looks at Alison
severely. "You need to push this baby out," she says. "The monitor is
showing poor beat-to-beat variability, and you are ready to do it!"
"What is poor beat-to-beat variability?" asks Doris. Alison doesn"t
care.
"It means she has to push this baby out. Now, pull back on her legs.
Madeline will count, and on the next push I want to see progress."
It takes exactly sixteen more pushes for the baby to be born. Alison
is complaining for the first several pushes; she has suddenly
remembered that she was promised Demerol for pain and is demanding it
loudly. Dr. Beane tells her, somewhat brusquely, that she cannot have
it so close to delivery, and Alison begins to make a speech about how
unfair this is, how she has labored and labored and pushed and
pushed. Then two things happen at once: another contraction begins,
and Doris leans in close to her ear and says loudly, "Stop whining
and push! Something"s going wrong with the baby!"
And, amazingly enough, Alison does care. Or at least responds. Or at
least feels she has to respond. Or something. She stops making
speeches, she grips the two pillars on either side and bears down for
the full count. Dr. Beane encourages her. "I see the head!" she calls
from her little steel stool between Alison"s legs. Toward the end,
Alison loses track of everything. She keeps her eyes fixed on
Madeline"s, since Madeline is the one who tells her, This will be it,
you"ll do it next time. She bears down when Madeline counts,
responding to the authoritative numbers like Pavlov"s dog. And then,
at the end, everything changes. Instead of pure pain and effort and
her body straining and close to exploding, she actually feels it, she
does, she feels something move down, something fall away from her,
something slide out of her, and the next moment everyone is laughing
and cheering.
There is no separating anything out: Dr. Beane"s
triumphantannouncement that she has a girl, the sudden shocking
cries, slightly thin and then outraged, Madeline"s assurances from
across the room that the baby is perfect, ten fingers and ten toes.
Before Alison can even contemplate that information, the baby,
wrapped in a somewhat bloody blanket, is deposited on her chest. Only
then, lying back, does Alison realize the pain has actually stopped.
Dr. Beane and Madeline are still messing around at the bottom of the
bed. Alison and Doris, however, are busy admiring the baby, who has
stopped crying and is scrunched up in her mother"s arms, occasionally
opening her eyes to see if she can see who is responsible for this
outrage. A little stretchy white cap on her head works its way off,
and it turns out she has a great deal of dark hair. To Alison"s
relief, she looks like a newborn, like a monkey; there is no uncanny
resemblance to Michael or any other adult.
"She"s certainly beautiful," Doris says, as if surprised. Actually,
she isn"t particularly beautiful, Alison supposes, but then, on the
other hand, she"s the most miraculously divinely beautiful thing ever.
"I know what you mean."
"What happens now?" Doris asks, after a lull of admiring, during
which Dr. Beane finishes up with the afterbirth and the stitches; a
few twinges and a few ouches from Alison, but she is harder to
impress than she used to be. The baby, eyes closed, nuzzles into her
mother"s neck, seeking warmth, or food, or contact, maybe missing the
close confinement where up to now she has rocked and kicked and
wriggled.
"Now Mother goes on up to the maternity floor and gets a little
rest," says Madeline, "and Baby goes to the nursery and gets weighed
and measured."
"Now I guess I take her home and educate her," says Alison, in
wonderment.
"Well, good," says Doris. "As long as you have a plan."

Copyright © 2001 by Perri Klass


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: United States Social life and customs 20th century Fiction, Women physicians Fiction, Women scientists Fiction, Mother and child Fiction, Domestic fiction, American