from "Forced Labor"
Margaret Hurley had trained her receptionist to treat each patient like a royal guest. That training had included the cultivation of a hushed voice that evoked associations of lullabies, a peaceful nursery, and a dream mother, all at once. “Oh, isn’t he splendid?” she said of napping Jasper. Peg wheeled the stroller forward and back a few times and then ushered me to the scale, where she doubled as a quasi medical assistant, weighing me and measuring my blood pressure. “Wonderful,” she sang in a voice so sublimely soothing that I believed she might be an angel in human form.
Peg kept an eye on Jasper while I submitted to a routine exam inside one of the floral, rock-a-bye rooms. “You’re getting big,” Margaret said, a rather obvious observation, I thought, for someone in her profession. I may have fallen asleep during the two minutes when she was manually examining me inside and out, but I instantly came awake when Margaret, armed with a stethoscope, said matter-of-factly, “I’m not getting a heartbeat,” and my own, I’m sure, stopped too.
Margaret rolled out the ultrasound machine and deftly unveiled my body, lubricated the sensor, and began voyaging across the expanse of my distended womb, watching the underground on the screen. She nodded, pressed down on a button, and then I heard the amplification of a rapid lifebeat.
“There it is,” she declared, the first tinge of emotion in her voice. Margaret’s evenness in the pit of this little crisis had probably kept me from panicking, I realized now.
“What was that about?” I wanted to know.
She shrugged. “Hard to say. Looks like your baby’s cuddling pretty close to herself. And maybe she turned.” A previous ultrasound had revealed that my baby was a girl. Clifford would have rather we not know in advance the gender of our child, but I wanted to add some specificity to my fantasies.
Then, rather casually, Margaret told me that the baby was small and that I’d have to be monitored more closely. “I’d like you in here every week,” she said.
At each appointment, as I left whichever of the flowery rooms I’d been in, I belatedly wondered at the scent of flowers, which couldn’t have been coming from the wallpaper. But from where, then? Margaret herself? She seemed as elemental as the blue sky and the rain and the ancient dirt. I would have liked to deliver the baby right there, in one of those rooms. I’d even thought of giving birth at home, an improvement over the institutional setting that had dominated Jasper’s birth. Margaret had cautioned me, though, that any emergencies that came up would have to be handled at the hospital; in fact, at the least indication of extraordinary leanings, she would call for an ambulance and have me moved to Brigham and Women’s, where every conceivable piece of medical apparatus would be a reach away.
As I rolled Jasper in his stroller homeward to the promise of snack food and, eventually, more TV, I imagined that we’d switched places and that my growing boy was pushing me, compressed into the seat of the stroller, up the hill.
“Mama, do I have to give my food with my sister?” Jasper asked me one day soon after.
“You mean share?”
I was slouched in an armchair in the living room, too inert to stand up and go turn on the window fan. Although Clifford and I had informed Jasper again and again that I would be having a baby, that he could see how it was getting big inside me, that it was a girl, none of our explanations seemed to approach reality for him. He absorbed these fantastic prophesies as if they were part of a tale being read to him at bedtime. But now, finally, he was starting to understand, and his first reaction was a fear of having to give up some of his ravioli and frozen peas.
“No, of course not, dear boy. We’ll have enough food for everyone.” Was my son aware, as I was, that we were really talking about love, and only secondarily about food? He seemed satisfied with my answer, and in fact slowed his hand-to-mouth intake of crackers, assured that he didn’t need to stock up for a famine ahead.
The bold, warrior summer seemed to be everywhere at once: inside my lungs, clogging up my breathing, close against my skin and beyond, insistently infinite, so there was nowhere left to go, nowhere to imagine. Sometimes Jasper, unbothered by the scorching summer, would pound on my belly, trying to activate me but only receiving my wrath. The television was on constantly, assaulting us with random programming at a volume that irritated me but seemed to boost Jasper’s energy.
“Nap time,” I’d announce just two hours into the morning. I was more than ready for a nap. Jasper was not.
Clifford called to check in now and then during the day. I always felt as though he was calling from halfway around the world, from a culture as different from mine as it could possibly be. My single two-year-old seemed equivalent in disruptive potential to Clifford’s entire school building full of early adolescents.
“Why don’t you take Jasper to the park?’ he suggested on a day so humid that my vision was bleared with sweat collecting along the rims of my eyes.
“Because I’m tired, and it’s hot. Plus I’ve had this pain in my side all morning.”
“What kind of pain?”
“The kind that hurts.”
“No, really, Pauline, don’t you think you should phone Margaret?”
Clifford’s alarm prompted me to call Margaret’s office as soon as I’d hung up with him. When Peg said, “She’s with a patient. Is this an emergency?” I instantly answered “No,” convincing myself that I had no cause to worry. But once I explained why I was calling, Peg asked me to hold and soon returned to the phone, saying, “Can you come in now, dear?” She added, “Don’t drive yourself, though.”
I groaned in answer to her question and acknowledgement of her advice. Only twice in my life had I taken a cab, once as a child with my mother on a shopping excursion, and once when I was stranded late at night somewhere near West Philly. My memories were of a smell not quite like smoke, of seats not quite leather, of furtive drivers remote and menacing at the same time. I chose one of the dozen or so companies listed and was told, when I explained that I needed to get to a medical office right away, “We’ll do our best, but this ain’t no ambulance service.”
The cab driver sounded exactly like the dispatcher, making me wonder if this were a one-man operation. Not until I’d pressed through the clinging air into the strange space of the backseat did I remember Jasper’s car seat. But I was frightened and in a rush and knew that this driver wasn’t going to enforce the car-seat law. In fact, he acted as if conveying a dilapidated pregnant woman and a hyper-verbal boy recapping hours of TV shows was pretty normal for him. “Please forgive me,” I mouthed to an anonymous deity or legislator as I bound myself, my son, and my unborn baby all within the safety of my arms.
I overtipped the driver, incapable of waiting in the heat for my change. I’m sure that if he’d known in advance I’d be such a generous donor, he would have behaved a little more kindly to me, perhaps opened the door and helped me up onto the curb, or remarked on how cute my son was.
Margaret and Peg nearly jumped me as I entered the waiting room, where one placid woman stared ahead, a magazine in her lap. They hurried me into an exam room, and then Peg spirited Jasper away with her cultish voice. “Let’s take a look,” Margaret said, standing by attentively as I took off my underpants. First she applied her stethoscope to different places on my body and listened to my inner murmurings. Next her latex fingers probed inside of me, her face, meanwhile, betraying nothing of her findings. Finally Margaret rolled out the ultrasound machine and positioned it, I noticed, so the screen faced away from me. What irregularity did she expect to discover?
“Having some cramping, you said?”
“Cramping? No, I wouldn’t call it that. It feels more like a gas pain. I just figured…” But I hadn’t really thought it out.
Margaret breathed in enough air to supply her with oxygen for at least five minutes. She switched off the ultrasound machine and said, “I want to transfer you to the hospital.”
“The hospital?” My due date was three weeks into the future, and though I knew that such predictions were far from exact, I didn’t think that this change of plans was based on a miscalculation.
Margaret leaned out into the reception area and instructed Peg to call an ambulance.
“An ambulance?” I struggled against my front-end bulk to sit up. My heart was a bird I’d swallowed, its wings beating futilely inside my throat. .
“Pauline, your baby isn’t getting enough oxygen. We have to get in there.”
“We’ve got to deliver her right away.”
Jasper incongruously laughed. He crouched just beyond the doorway, dangling a cloth clown by one arm. “This clown is so so happy,” he squealed.
“What about Jasper?” I asked in a small voice coming from my most powerless self.
“He can ride along with you in the ambulance. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
“Clifford!” I suddenly remembered.
“Peg will get a hold of him.”
In a strobed sequence of movements, Margaret shut down the ultrasound and slid it away. I waited for her to switch the lights back on but then realized that they’d been on all along in the dreary cave that the room had become.
* * *