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couldn't stand to see these new young faces, these
children swollen as myself. my roommate, snotty,
bragging about how she didn't give a damn about the
kid and was going back to her boyfriend and be a
cheerleader in high school. could we ever "go back"?
would our bodies be the same? could we hide among the
childless? she always reminded me of a lady at the bridge
club in her mother's shoes, playing her mother's hand.
i tried to get along, be silent, stay in my own corner.
i only had a month to go—too short to get to know them.
but being drawn to the room down the hall, the t.v. room
where, at night, we sat in our cuddly cotton robes and
fleece-lined slippers—like college freshmen, joking
about the nuns and laughing about due dates—jailbirds
waiting to be sprung.
one girl, taller and older, twenty-six or twenty-seven, kept
to herself, talked with a funny accent, the pain on her face
seemed worse than ours. . .
and a lovely, gentle girl with flat small bones. the
great round hump seemed to carry her around! she never
said an unkind word to anyone, went to church every morning
with her rosary and prayed each night alone in her room.
she was seventeen, diabetic, fearful that she or the baby
or both would die in childbirth. she wanted the baby, yet
knew that to keep it would be wrong. but what if the child
did live? what if she gave it up and could never have another?
i couldn't believe the fear, the knowledge she had of
death walking with her. i never felt stronger, eating
right, doing my exercises. i was holding on to the core,
the center of strength; death seemed remote, i could not
imagine it walking in our midst, death in the midst of
all that blooming. she seemed sincere, but maybe she
was lying. . .
she went down two weeks late. induced. she had decided
to keep the baby. the night i went down, she had just
gone into labor so the girls had two of us to cheer about.
the next morning when i awoke, i went to see her. she
smiled from her hospital bed with tubes in her arms. it
had been a boy. her baby was dead in the womb for two
weeks. i remembered she had complained no kicking. we
had reassured her everything was fine.
meanwhile i worked in the laundry, folded the hospital
fresh sheets flat three hours a day. but never alone.
stepping off the elevator, going up, feeling something,
a spark catch. i would put my hand there and smile with
such a luminous smile, the whole world must be happy.
or out with those crazy girls, those teenagers, laughing,
on a christmas shopping spree, free (the only day they
let us out in two months), feet wet and cold from snow.
i felt pretty, body wide and still in black beatnik
leotards, washed out at night. my shapely legs and
young body like iron.
i ate well, wanted lamaze (painless childbirth)—i
didn't need a husband or a trained doctor—i'd do it
myself, book propped open on the floor, puffing and
counting while all the sixteen-year-old unwed children
smiled like i was crazy.
one day i got a letter from my cousin, said:
don't give your baby up—
you'll never be complete again
you'll always worry where and how it is
she knew! the people in my family knew! nobody died
of grief and shame!
i would keep the child. i was sturdy. would be a better
mother than my mother. i would still be a doctor,
study, finish school at night. when the time came, i
would not hurt like all those women who screamed and
took drugs. i would squat down and deliver just like the
peasants in the field, shift my baby to my back, and
when my water broke, when i saw that stain of pink blood
on the toilet paper and felt the first thing i could not
feel, had no control of, dripping down my leg, i heard
them singing mitch miller xmas songs and came from the
bathroom in my own pink song—down the long hall, down
the long moment when no one knew but me. it was time.
all the girls were cheering when i went downstairs. i was
the one who told them to be tough, to stop believing
in their mother's pain, that poison. our minds were
like telescopes looking through fear. it wouldn't hurt
like we'd been told. birth was beautiful if we believed
that it was beautiful and right and good!
maternity—i had never seen inside those doors.
all night i pictured the girls up there, at first hanging
out of the windows, trying to get a glimpse of me. . .
when the pain was worst, i thought of their sleeping faces,
like the shining faces of children in the nursery. i held
onto that image of innocence like one light in the darkness.
Copyright © 2000 by Toi Derricotte. Reprinted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Toi Derricotte's many books include I: New and Selected Poems (Pitt, 2021). She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and is the recipient of the 2021 Wallace Stevens Award, among other honors. Derricotte is cofounder of Cave Canem, professor emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
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