Here we are, back in the doctor’s office. Our home away from home. We’ve come, yet again, to try and see why our unborn party ball has yet to start its descent into humanity.
(When we last left off, we thought Apocalypse was Now. But it turned out to be more teaser pain.) Post-membrane stripping, the last four days, for E, have been divided between dripping blood between her legs and stomach-clutching, seemingly random contractions. Ergo, she is more than ready to go Enola Gay and drop the big one.
“At this point,” my weary perma-cramped girlfriend tells the doctor, “this baby doesn’t need to be born—she needs to be evicted.”
The doctor, rooting in E’s uterus like she’s lost her wallet, just smiles distractedly.
E sighs, talking to the ceiling. “This baby. It’s like—ouch, easy!—it’s like she’s one of those old Manhattan ladies who won’t leave her apartment, even though the wrecking ball’s coming. She’s in there with her canary, twelve cats, and a doily collection. And she’s not going anywhere.”
“Well,” the doctor says, pulling off her gloves, “you’ve got a nice soft cervix. Of course it’s only 2.5 centimeters. So it could be a while.”
The due date’s come and gone. (Which, between us, was fine with me, since she was supposed to be born on Mother’s Day, and the idea of having to conflate this child’s birthday with sullen brunching families for the next twenty years (assuming I’m around for a few of them) is not something I’d regret foregoing. All that faux love and guilt floating around might do something to a girl’s self-esteem. Then again, my own mother, God bless her, liked to spend family vacations throwing up on National Monuments—Oh look, the Liberty Bell! BLEECCCCCH!—and I turned out almost fine.
“How long can this go on?” E asks, keeping the fear I know she harbors out of her voice. She’s one of those raised-by-wolves types who doesn’t parade her emotions at the drop of a bowler. But I know, because she’s told me, she harbors fear of ending up as some News of the Weird item about the mom who carried her child so long it was born a pre-pube.
And so, the decision is made to induce. To kickstart birth. For a few reasons. Mostly, E’s in staggering pain. But also, naturally, the doctor, a rare and tiny combination of competent and bubbly, whom E adores, is going to a medical convention in Cancun, and will be leaving in two days. By the time she comes back with a tan and an International House of Obstetrics gift bag, E could be cruising into Week 42. That, or she will go into labor, and will have to be attended to by one of Dr. Tiny’s partners, who, while doubtless great guys, all have the jocky, golden boy swagger of Texas high school quarterbacks. The kind of dils who would have grabbed me in the gym locker, hung me upside down and tied macaroons to my penis when I was young and Jewy. Which is a whole different story.
“Come in tomorrow morning,” the doctor says—after stripping E’s membrane again. (By now, I imagine, the thing must look like pastrami.) “I’ll inject you with Pitocin. This kicks in the oxytocin.”
Naturally I perk up. “Oxycontin? The body produces that?” Funny thing about being clean for a while—you can be off the hard stuff for decades, and, at mention of a freebie, your brain just kicks right back to junky-think. As in—Wait, women produce hillbilly heroin when they have babies? Why can’t I get pregnant?
“Not Oxycontin, oxytocin,” the doctor quickly corrects me. “It’s a naturally occurring hormone, produced in the brain and released into the bloodstream during labor. It creates feelings of contentment. Reduces anxiety, gives you feeling of security and calm. It’s kind of blissful, actually. When you feel it your uterus contracts.”
“Is it dangerous?” E asks, though not in a way that suggests danger is a bad thing. I can see her fighting off fresh torment from the re-membrane rip. People who risk flying off of 2000 pound animals for a living tend not to make a thing of their own suffering. (Unlike say, my family, who all subscribed to Mel Brooks’s dictum: “Tragedy is I get a hangnail, Comedy is you slip on a banana peel and die.”)
Our little doctor exudes reassurance. “Sometimes inducing does increase the risk of a Caesarian. Which—aside from the fact that it’s, you know, surgery—means the baby won’t get all that good, immune-boosting flora and fauna when it passes through the birth canal vaginally.”
“Flora and fauna. That sounds so rainforesty.”
“I know,” I say, “I get this image of a toddler being dragged on a bobsled through the Amazon.”
“In a way,” the doctor says. “Babies are born with a sterile digestive track. They need this introduction of bacteria and such for digestion, and detoxing heavy metals. And the best way to get it is through their mouth, nose and ears when they’re coming out of mom.”
Somehow, I wonder if this means cunnilingus is a great way to avoid colds. But it seems wrong to ask. E looks at me and shrugs, “let’s hope for vaginal.” Then she turns back to the doctor. “What about the oxy-stuff? What are the risks?”
The question rates a hearty doctor-chuckle. “Oxytocin? Well, some people call it The Love Hormone. I suppose there is a danger you’ll want to kiss the UPS man or something. It’s also released during the stimulation of a woman’s nipples, to help new moms bond with baby.”
I want to know why this shit isn’t bottled and sold on the street, but, again, this is probably not the moment to ask. For now, it’s time to help E haul her ever-expanding self off the table, wait while she gets dressed, then head back to the little waiting room we call home and hang out till tomorrow morning, when we’re supposed to hit the hospital bright and early, at six a.m., and get the show on the road.
Only it doesn’t work out that way. By that afternoon, E is walking around gasping and clutching her stomach. Finally it gets so bad that I break water. It happens when I’m writing on the bed and she staggers out of the bathroom, doubles over and screams, which startles me so much I break the glass of water I’m holding in my hands, soaking my Mac keyboard. At which point, after I wipe it off, the cursor begins to dance crazily around the screen, skittering sideways and up and down, opening and closing files at will. I break computers the way Sinatra broke heads.
But no time to think about that now. E is on the floor, curled up in pain. “Don’t think this is working,” she says, with typical hard-ass blonde understatement.
I see the small pool of blood between her legs and that’s it. “Fuck this. I’m calling the doctor… We’re going in.”
A half hour later, we’re at the hospital, walking into the most soulless, depressing four walls I’ve stepped into since the time I was flown in on the wrong day for a book tour and spent an entire twenty-four hours hunkered in a Milwaukee Days Inn. Except that, unlike my Milwaukee shame motel, this one has a handy medi-nook. In one corner is a table with a glass case on top, stocked with mask, stethoscope, powder blue surgical cab and matching knit baby beanie. It looks like a museum display—or something you break in case of emergency, like a fireman’s axe in the stairwell of a Forties office building.
E changes into an okra-colored hospital gown while the first of what will be a parade of nurses, administrators, anesthesiologists, and doctors paddles in with a stack of papers.
“First off,” says Nurse Number One, a spritely, young, albino-adjacent Texan by the name of Tee-Tee, “we gotta ask y’all some questions.”
Mind you, at this point, E has gone so agony-white herself that translucent is a step up. But, as Tee-Tee explains “I’m sorry, Pregnant Lady, but we can’t do a thing till I get in these forms.”
(She actually says this, “Pregnant Lady,” sounding like Will Farrell doing George W., in blonde wig and blue nurse’s uniform.)
And then it begins. “Social Security?… Birthday?… Age?… Home Phone?… Height… Weight before pregnancy?… Weight now?… College?… Work?… Religious preference?… Allergies?… Special diet?…Skin infection?… Surgery?… Antibiotics?… Rehabs?… HIV?”
By now it’s pouring outside. Thunder, lighting. Pitch black. Branches thrashing against the window. E answers through clenched teeth, like some Civil War wounded, about to have a limb hacked off by a barber holding a glass of whiskey. Half of me wonders, what happens if she says, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am a drug addicted scabies victim with no education, AIDS, an allergy to soap, and a diet of ham hocks?” What are they going to do then? Throw her out? (This being America, probably.)
The session ends with a glass-rattling thunderclap, followed by the appearance of a woman of size named Shareesa who sweeps in wheeling a drug-table on wheels, not a moment too soon.
“I think Miss E’s had enough for now,” she snaps, dismissing the pigment-free L’il Inquisitor, rolling right over and taking my girlfriend’s head in her hands. “Okay, honey, one to ten, how much pain would you say you’re in?”
“I don’t know… six?”
“Oh, look at you,” says Shareesa, “you a hard case, huh? Would you like some relief, sweetie? We have something called Stadol we usually give at this stage.”
“Stay-doll?” I hear myself repeat. What six-figure pharma-genius consultant came up with that name? “Stay Doll” for a drug that keeps women drugged up enough to lie there and not run screaming into the night while undergoing the hell-party necessary to bring life into the world. Why not go all the way and call it Dope-A-Mom? Or just Mommy-junk?
“It’s a synthetic opioid,” Shareesa informs us. “What we do, we give you the painkiller, along with something called Phenergan for the nausea.”
“You sure it’s okay? I don’t want the baby to come out addicted to drugs.”
“The way it looks, you won’t be delivering for a while. They’ll be out of your system by then.”
By now, it’s obvious that E’s in scalding torment. Just watching her talk makes me want to eat my arms. “For Christ’s sake,” I tell her, “take the fucking drugs. If the baby comes out and steals your wallet, I take full responsibility.”
If nothing else, Nurse and patient bond over their complete lack of amusement at my remark. And on we go.
While she loads the syringe, Shareesa makes delivery room small talk. “Now the strangest baby names I ever heard? That would be Orangejello and Lemonjello. What I hear. the mama named ‘em that cause these were her two favorite jellos. You see it all up in here, honey.”
Another Up Periscope uterine moment, after which, while Shareesa takes some vitals and puts them in the computer, she casually lays out the game plan. “Now, sweeite, we’re at an important point in your labor process. Projecting five to ten hours till show time. Once that tiny screamer is out, you all might not get another chance to sleep for more than two hours at a time for the next year. At least. You should take advantage of this lull, and get some rest. Daddy, I already ordered y’all a rollaway.”
As if in cue, an orderly comes in pushing a fold-out cot, blankets and sheets. What our incarcerated friends might refer to as a roll-up. Except, this is a different kind of holding cell. And, in my case, instead of heading off to Quentin, I’m catching the chain to Old Guy Dad Supermax.
While I set up, E raises her head from her bed of pain, smiles crookedly. “Baby,” she croaks, her voice a register or nine lower than normal. “I am fucked up!” *
After Shareesa paddles out, we try to take her advice. Chill out, watch a little TV and doze. (Naturally, I’d meant to bring an Ipod, with speakers, and it’s still sitting on a coffee table with my five spirulina bars.) For some reason every time we stop dozing there’s nothing on the tube but NONO hair removal ads ads. Is it an infomercial? A conspiracy? An alien plot? “TRY NONO!” screams the idiot TV voice. “THIRTY DAYS RISK FREE! REMOVE YOUR HAIR ON THE GO!” At which point, unless I’m hallucinating, the TV shows some grinning douchebag driving a convertible while removing hair from his pecs. E and I both nod off. But whenever we look up, there’s NONO-douche beaming from the screen, shaving his busy exec pecs on the go.
Twenty minutes—or two hours—later, my eyes open on another Nurse, this one a Latina named Luz with weirdly adorable giant ears, come to measure E’s cervix again. As she works between my girlfriend’s legs, she tells us she’s supposed to move this weekend, but her puta fiancé left all her furniture out in the rain. (Did I mention it’s pouring out? I did, right? It’s been a long night.) “From two centimeters to four take forever,” Nurse Luz explains, with a lilting straight-outa-Juarez accent. But from four to ten—ten, basically, being Bouncing Babyhead Circumference—things move about a centimeter an hour
One thing we have going for us, apparently, is barometric pressure. It’s storming like fuck out there. And a big pressure drop supposedly helps kick in the birth process… Which is exactly what it does. Eventually.
At some point—indulge me here—things just begin to swirl. It’s like, E got the drugs, but I got disembodied. Nurse after nurse comes in, each uniformly kind, and each larger than the one before. (What do they feed them in this hospital?) I blink awake in time to hear another RN, wheeling another portable computer monitor combo, lean over the fitfully sleeping E and announce, “Okay, darlin’, Cold Gel alert. I’ve got stubby old fingers, so hang on. Now lean back and spread your legs like a fried chicken.”
On comes the light and, not for the last time that night, I cast around for somewhere to aim my eyes while a medical professional hovers over E’s crotch, armed with everything but a miner’s hat.
“Um-hmm, um-hmm…Very nice. Four centimeters,” the nurse goes on. “Very very nice.”
Then, out of nowhere, E screams, nearly jerks off the table, and the Nurse presses a buzzer. “We’re gonna get you something else to help you relax.”
“Not the Stadol,” E pleads, “I hate that shit.”
“Oh don’t worry, hon, we’ll get you something better than that. It’s still gonna be a while till showtime.”
Fast forward another hour or three, and E is out cold, propped up on the hospital bed, attached to a fetal monitor, blasting sounds from the womb, while I lie on my back on the plasti-wrapped mattress, eying the flailing branches lit by lightning outside… The unborn child’s heartbeat thrums in the dark like some kind of faroff, roiling army, forever approaching. It’s straight out of Poe, The Telltale Heart. Except it’s not the heart of a dead man I can hear, it’s the heart of a not yet living child. This disembodied thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
Louder. Closer. Stronger.
When I close my eyes, it’s almost like the beating is inside my own chest.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.