? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 6

Fiction

Debra Nicholson

If Things Hold Up


My husband and I are on the tram heading toward Harvard
Square. We pass Mount Auburn Cemetery, where the trees behind the iron fence are bare and gray.
“This is too hard,” I say to Lucas. “I want to go back to the apartment.” Linking my arm through his, I move closer and lean my head on his shoulder. He is reading Murdoch’s Existentialists and Mystics. He struggles to keep from dropping the book.
“It’s better to go out. To do things,” he says. “It’s Friday evening—we haven’t been out for two months.”
“To try to forget, you mean.” I pull my jacked down over my belly.
He doesn’t raise his eyes from the book. “Linda,” he says.
A few passengers board at the hospital stop. A man and a woman sit down in front of us. She is pregnant. He puts his arm around her and whispers in her ear. I feel sick. I look down at my feet and study my dirty, scuffed sneakers. The door squeaks shut and the tram glides into traffic.
Lucas and I are older graduate students: he studies philosophy; I study English literature. We have been married, long enough to disagree about almost everything. But we both wanted a baby. For two years, there had been lovemaking dictated by thermometer readings, surgery, tears, pregnancy
tests, monthly bleeding. One afternoon, after an appointment,
I phoned Lucas, saying, “Hi, daddy, it’s mommy calling,” names we had feared would never be ours. Names I’m afraid we’ll never use again.
The tram turns into the Harvard Square terminal. Lucas puts his book in his knapsack. He holds my hand as we disembark.
The square is crowded. I stare at babies in strollers and backpack carriers. We walk past the Out of Town News kiosk. Shiny family magazines glint in the streetlights. We stop to watch a juggler listen to a jazz trumpet player.
“Bookstore?” Lucas says as he touches my arm. I nod, and we walk back to Wordsworth.
Lucas hurries over to the philosophy section. I feel uneasy standing at the entrance alone. The bright light hurts my eyes, and I feel weak. I walk with unsteady steps to Lucas. He already
has two books under his arm.
“You look pale,” he says. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“I want to leave everything in the nursery like it is,” I say. The nursery has been ready for months, decorated with curtains and a matching quilt sewn by my mother. Neatly arranged diapers
and creams and folded sleepers trim the changing table. Goodnight Moon waits on the rocking chair and the stroller in the closet.
“It’s too painful to see every day.” He stares at the book in his hands. I have never seen him cry.
“We’ll keep the door shut.”
Lucas closes the book. “Why don’t you find some books to look at.” He points over to the travel area. “Maybe we could take a trip,” he says.I want to hurt him. “Stop trying to solve the problem,” I say.
He looks pained, but I don’t feel any better.
I turn around and see pregnancy and childbirth books. I can’t help myself; I must go there. I walk over and pull a book off the shelf. I look up stillbirth in the index. I turn the page and read, “Spontaneous abortion after twenty weeks gestation; occurs in one out of one hundred pregnancies. Also, fetal death during labor and delivery.” My vision blurs as I look for a more detailed description, such as the paragraph that explains the imperceptible decline of fetal movement, the panicked visit to the obstetrician, the ultrasound detecting no heartbeat, the induced labor and delivery, and the silent birth of Elizabeth, four pounds two-and-a-half ounces. There is nothing about these things, nor is there anything about the nurse asking for the baby’s body to deliver to the hospital morgue, or the swollen leaking breasts, or the surreal new-mother-without-a-newborn wheelchair ride upon discharge, or the stunned drive around town searching for a cemetery with an infant section. There is nothing about the friend who offers to purchase a “preemie” christening gown for burial, or the shocked reaction of family and friends when they are informed
of the funeral. “At eight-and-a-half months?” they say in disbelief. “My God.”
I am startled when a bookstore assistant speaks to me. “Can I help you find something?” she asks.
“No thanks,” I look away. “I’m fine.”
“Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
I clutch the book and turn the page. This page doesn’t mention sympathy cards. It doesn’t mention six weeks of bleeding afterwards or the autopsy report finding no cause of death.
I look around. I’m alone. I return to the page with the brief stillbirth definition. I lick my finger and thumb, take hold of the page corner and pull it over and down, slowly ripping the page out of the book. I shove the book back onto the shelf, sit down in the aisle, and begin to tear the page into small pieces.
Lucas walks towards me.
I stand up and stuff the pieces of paper into my pants pocket. “I want to start trying,” I say.
“We’ve talked about this before.” He wants to use birth control for six months, the obstetrician’s recommendation.
“You don’t want one as badly as I do,” I say.
“That’s not fair.” Lucas moves away from me. “It’s not like buying a new bicycle.”
I say, “It’s my body.” I cross my arms. His face reddens, and I wonder if he is secretly thinking it was my womb that killed our baby.
“Let’s go home,” he says.
We read all the time. In our first-floor duplex, books are stacked on nightstands, on cement-block-and-board shelves, and on the floor next to the sofa. We have books in the bathroom
and books on the kitchen table.
Lucas prefers history, economics, sociology, and philosophy.
Until two months ago, I read books about pregnancy. Before that, I read books about infertility. Now, I should read books about stages of grief and pregnancy loss. I know this, and yet I pull one book off my nightstand to reread almost every
night. I remember we consulted this book together, hoping
that what I felt was typical, that the baby simply had little room to move.
For these two months now, I study the chapter describing
normal, slower fetal movement in late pregnancy. I look at each sentence, trying to find the clue, the word, just one bold declaration that the sloshing of a dead fetus in amniotic fluid can almost, but not quite, mimic the little kicks of a living one.
Later that evening, I lock myself in the bathroom and change into an outfit I wore on our honeymoon: a black lace teddy, hose, and high heels. I put on makeup, curl my hair, and spritz perfume behind my ears and knees. I pull the little pieces of paper from the stillbirth book out of my pants pocket and push them into my bodice. I leave the diaphragm in its case on the bathroom counter, and walk into the bedroom.
Lucas is lying there, reading. Books are stacked on his nightstand. I pose at the end of the bed, showgirl style.
After a moment, he looks up and stares. “I really don’t think this is appropriate,” he says in that calm voice of his.
I move around the bed and stand next to him. I pull out the bits of paper from my bodice and sprinkle them over his body.
He throws back the sheet, rolls out of bed, and says, “What the . . . ?”
I lean toward the nightstand. With both hands, I sweep the pile of books off onto the floor.
“Linda.” he stands between the books and me. “Linda.”
I lean over and whisper in his ear. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a bookstore.”
Lucas pulls me close and cradles my head against his chest. “It’s going to be all right,” he murmurs.
I want to believe him, but I don’t know how.
“Shhh . . . ” he says.
I write letters; I make appointments. I want a piece of paper.
An acknowledgement that I am a mother and Lucas is a father. I want to know why the Bureau of Vital Statistics won’t issue either a birth certificate or a death certificate for our baby.
Babies born weighing four pounds two-and-a-half ounces often live. Their parents get birth certificates. Sometimes they die after birth, and the parents get death certificates.
For us, there was a body, which was buried. There is a tombstone with a brass nameplate.
Our baby, it seems, is an in-between baby. There are no in-between certificates for parents.
Elizabeth does not count.
Bundling up in my coat and hat, I go to the library. I research
medical journals, obstetrical books, trade magazines. Money is spent on genetic research, I discover, but not on the causes of stillbirth. I record my sources on note cards, put them in a little brown plastic box. Experts do not know. It is one of those things.
Later, in our duplex, Lucas and I sit across from each other in the kitchen. The yellow Formica tabletop reflects the glare from the overhead light. Lucas reads a book while I search for bits of chicken in my noodles soup. There is no sound except the little whisk of turning pages and the heavy tread of our landlord upstairs.
“Maybe the fireworks caused it,” I say. “Or the cannon.” Lucas looks up from the book. He knows what I am talking about.
“Maybe tap water.” He squints. “Maybe fumes from the oil tank. Anything. Everything.”
I touch his hand. The windows are dark. The painted green cabinets, the stove, refrigerator, the sink, the beige and black linoleum squares, are all clear-cut, distinct, firm, tenable, while we sit like jagged shadows wavering in firelight.
Lucas is talking with his grandfather on the speakerphone. “I wish you had saved the name for the next baby,” the old man says. “Your grandmother would have lived on through her.”
I pinch Lucas’s arm until he looks at me.
“What would you have called her, anyway?” demands his grandfather. “Liz? Betty? Beth?”
I answer for Lucas. “We call her Elizabeth.”
Later, I find Lucas in the bathroom. He leans against the counter, his arms shaking, head bowed, the shower steaming behind him.
“He’s an old coot,” I say.
“Maybe he’s right.”
“Don’t do that,” I say. “She was always going to be Elizabeth.”
Lucas’s voice cracks. “Elizabeth.” He lifts up his head and moans. “Elizabeth.”
I stand with my hands pressed against the doorway. Water
vapor billows around us. I don’t know what to do or say. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. I try to touch him but he shakes me off. I close the door and walk into the nursery. I pick up Goodnight Moon and sit on the rocking chair.
I am terrified. Lucas is supposed to be the strong one. I strain to hear him, clasping my hands in my lap. The floorboards creak under the rocker. My heart thuds, and I’m wonderingif things will hold up.