Plankton (A Body of Stars)

By

1.

The way I remember it, Peter pushed the front door open and stumbled into the hall with my friend and I behind him. We were intoxicated, laughing, expecting the night to live on. It can’t have happened like that, because the baby was asleep in her crib and I wouldn’t have left her home alone.’’

We must have been drinking in the apartment. Peter must’ve reached into his wallet and dumped a gram or two of white powder on the coffee table. Maybe I offered my friend a rolled dollar bill and said, “Here, take this.” Later, I’d catch her giving me a look; nothing sinister, just curious, the way you might stare at someone you recognize but cannot place. Only much later would I realize she was looking at someone she placed but couldn’t recognize.

The last time I’d seen my friend it was in another country at a university bar. We’d been sitting in the beer garden talking about literary theory as if our lives depended on one of us being right. I left Australia soon after. I didn’t call to say goodbye. I just left, wedging time and space between myself and my past, so quick to hurry forward. I was never still enough to examine my motives or map out a plan.

Now, in this small lower Fillmore apartment, buzzing from cocaine, I was keenly aware of my surroundings. I saw myself through her lens. Her look said: “You came all the way to America for this?”

I hadn’t been smug about leaving. I’d extricated myself the same way I used to tug on my jeans after a one-night stand and slide out the door while my lover was sleeping. The morning I left Australia, I watched my on again-off again lover sleep while the digital alarm clock pushed numbers through time towards our final moment together. Was I high? Maybe. That’s not what I remember. I remember the pump of his chest against my ear, and his room being so hot I pressed my naked body against the wall to stay cool, and then, how the sun seared the driveway white-hot at dawn’s first light. I remember feeling like that big sun was inside me, and that my own chest might burst from it. I don’t remember saying goodbye. I was young and filled with expectation. I was twenty; I came to America expecting things to work out.

The life I clung to, in a small apartment where mold blossomed on the walls above my bed in winter, and cockroaches pushed up from the cracks in the floorboards during summer, was the only life my friend could see. I had no Green Card, no driver’s license, no bank account. My name wasn’t on the lease. My existence with Peter in the lower Fillmore district of San Francisco was a life meant for someone transient; the person I’d been before I gave birth to a baby girl, pink and vital, and ready for me to become her mother.

Late into the evening, I poured my friend a glass of water and made her a bed on our couch. She made her way to the bathroom and stayed there. Peter caressed my thigh and suggested we make bedtime a three-way. In the bathroom my friend was throwing up. Through my haze I found her a towel and a washcloth. I knocked on the bathroom door: tap, tap.

“We’re going to bed,” I said. “You can join us if you want.” Had I really said that? It’s difficult to recall at exactly what point in the evening the fun had stopped being fun. I climbed into bed and he nudged me playfully.

“She’s sick,” I said and turned my back to him.

When I closed my eyes I was sitting in a university bar in Southport, Australia. My friends were there. People who valued my opinion were listening to my twenty-something conviction. Someone placed a pitcher of beer on the table. Someone else lit a cigarette. Someone said something which sounded right, or important or both. The sun beat down on our heads and burned my shoulders. Palm trees rustled in the wind. My professor, who was drunk way ahead of us, made a sweeping gesture towards his peers who were sitting nearby.

“Get a PhD,” he said. “We’ve all done it. You should have one.”

*

Your friend is in the process of getting her PhD. She is in California to visit iconic bookstores and rub shoulders with important people in her field. You hear her open and close the bathroom door. Lights turn off. Peter is snoring next to you. Then there’s the tiniest whimper and your body flicks on. You remember the crib and the baby in the crib. The baby belonging to you. She is barely three months old. She is still waking in the night to breastfeed. Your milk lets down as you think about this. You realize you forgot about her. You forgot long enough to get fucked up on cocaine and pretend it didn’t matter—long enough to be high and afraid now she is awake.

*

Somewhere in the kitchen you have hidden formula. You study the packet, but have trouble focusing on the instructions. At some point you had the good sense to buy a baby bottle. You open up the bottle and pour in the white powder. Your hands are shaky because you are more fucked up than you realized. You add the water to the white powder. Congealed globs of formula rise to the top. If you were in your right mind you would shake it, but you aren’t. The baby begins to cry in earnest and you hurry to the bedroom and lift her.

Her body is small and fragile.

“Shhhhhh,” you say. “Shhhh. Shhhh.”

She nudges her face against your chest searching for your breast. You take her to the kitchen and crouch on the floor while you hold her. The linoleum tile is cold against the back of your thighs. You press the teat of the bottle to her lips, but she gags and pulls away.

“There,” you say. “There. Shhhhhhh.”

You try it again. She sucks hungrily, but spits out the teat a second time. The clock on the kitchen wall clicks loudly through the minutes you spend on the floor in the dark trying to feed your baby. You try the bottle again. You try again and again and again until she takes it.

bodyofa

In the morning, sun breaks through the blinds, wiping clean the night. Everyone has slept. You were last to bed and the first to wake. You have squeezed ounces of breast milk into the toilet, terrified that you might poison your child. There is another bottle made. This time you have figured out how to mix the formula.

You lift the baby from her crib and change her diaper and her clothes. You kiss her soft, bald head and inhale. She smells like baby.

Days earlier you’d planned to tour your friend through Napa Valley with Peter driving because you don’t have an American driver’s license. Your friend is standing next to Peter in the hallway by the front door.

“Here,” you say, and pass your child to your friend. “Smell her head,” Dutifully the friend presses her nose against your daughter’s head and inhales.

“Gross,” she says, and hands your baby back to you.

“I’m sorry you got sick,” you say. “I wonder what it could’ve been.”

“I wonder,” says your friend, and gives you a look. The look says, I cannot understand why you have done this to yourself.

 

2.

There’s a name for babies like Ami. They’re called anchor babies. An anchor baby is a child who is born in the US to an illegal immigrant. The concept behind the term is that the child anchors its mother to the US by its origin of birth. Technically, this isn’t true. A child born in the US to an illegal immigrant makes absolutely no legal impact on the parent’s immigration status, but culturally, the baby has anchored the parent in the United States. Hypothetically, the baby acts as a deterrent to law enforcement. Immigration is a federal issue, not a state issue. This gives police and healthcare workers the ability to turn a blind eye to a person’s immigration status. No one, a lawyer once told me, wants to separate a parent from her child. This statement is sometimes, but not always true.

*

In motherhood—my internal world—I’d felt the quality of my femaleness change. In America—my external world—I felt my foreignness. Foreignness meant difference: a dislocation from Americanness; a lack of knowledge, both implied and inherent, on what it was to be born and raised here. I had a cultural identity that was different to being an Italian-American or a Chinese-American, or an Irish-American, where the two words were synonymous (the first informing the second: a type of American, originating from a country other than America). This was the cultural identity of the second-generation immigrant. I had to earn the word America before I could inhabit it.

 

3.

Here is the truth: I manipulated Peter into falling in love with me. I didn’t wriggle into my jeans at daybreak and leave. I moved into his room in his apartment above his brother’s bar, so I no longer had to live in a residential hotel filled with vagrants and druggies. I thought I was better than them. I deliberately got pregnant so that I could stay in America and eventually get my Green Card.

 

4.

I am living in my parent’s house in Los Angeles. My daughter is twenty months old. She is walking and talking and dumping her food out on the dining room floor just for fun. She loves my parents. She sits on my father’s lap while he works on his computer. She toddles behind my mother while she waters her roses. Here, I begin to learn how to become a parent. When my daughter wakes before I do, my father doesn’t lift her from her crib. Instead, he comes to me and puts his hand on my arm.

bodyofb“The baby is crying,” he says.

I try to live normally, but nothing is normal. I am living under water. I drift like plankton, sustained by sunlight, moved by the tide. From my room, I hear my parents talking on the phone to their parents. Between muffled sentences, I hear my name surface to the top of the conversation over and over. They take turns repeating their version of my story like a Greek chorus. This is their truth. The word “plankton” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning, drifter or wanderer.

My mother opens a bank account in my name using her own social security number. I don’t know until she returns home and tells me it’s done. She purses her lips as if deciding whether to speak or not. Finally, she says, “Your pin is the baby’s birth year.” She hands me an ATM card. My mother is the kind of woman who wears nautical-striped tee shirts and white linen. Illegal activity is well out of her comfort zone, but she did it anyway. She did it so that I can function like a whole person. I have been living a half-life. I am a shadow person. Nothing I have belongs to me. Even my name is barely mine. There is no legal record of my married or maiden name in the United States. I am a half-ling. Immigrant. Fuck up.

I find an office job and get paid using my mother’s social security number. When I get my first paycheck I stand in my parents’ living room and sob like a child when I realize more than thirty percent has gone to taxes.

I imagine living in my parent’s guest room with my child for the rest of my life. Plankton either grows into something other than plankton—a strong swimming non-planktonic adult, like a crab or a fish, or it stays the same—forever drifting with the shifting tides. I am beginning to understand that I am stuck, drifting. This idea shocks me, but in a slow moving way—the way hypothermia sets in: you know you have it, but you are hoping for a miracle. As each extremity turns black, it is a fresh reminder that your situation is dire.

*

My father goes away on business and my mother babysits while I go on a date. My date is some guy I meet in a bar on Sunset Strip. He drives a royal blue Lexus. He has recently moved to Los Angeles from San Diego. He winds his car through the Hollywood hills with the top down before taking me to his place. I am thrilled to find he has some literature on his bookshelf, and I deconstruct his book collection until he decides to fuck me. After sex, I notice a picture of his girlfriend on his nightstand. I pull on my jeans in the early hours of the morning and sneak out while he sleeps.

At my parent’s house, my mother holds in her anger. She holds it all day until, at dinnertime, several glasses of wine dislodge the emotion from her tongue. She calls me a slut.

“You are a fuck-up,” she says. “Your father feels guilty because we moved here without you, but I’m sick of your bullshit.”

My mother is speaking her darkest truth. My mother wants me to be the girl she raised with the long blonde hair and a private school education. I cannot be a druggie, or a single mother, or an illegal immigrant. I understand. My baby is bright and ready; her words and thoughts—just forming—are unadulterated. I want no such labels for her.

My parents moved to America for my father’s job after I turned eighteen. I was too old to qualify for a Green Card through him. It has never, once, before this moment, occurred to me that my parents would feel responsible for my situation. In my mind, I did this of my own volition. I cannot stand to think of myself through my parent’s lens. I promise myself to stop being a fuck-up.

 

5.

Within a year, Peter and I are back together and living in a tiny Los Angeles apartment but almost immediately I begin to wane. I know, the way I knew on my wedding night, that Peter will stay Peter and I cannot change him. For some reason, I am unable to tell myself this truth. I am trying to swim against the current, to put down roots. Against all odds, I am trying to make something from nothing.

Now, I have a job and a bank account and a temporary work permit, the precursor to my Green Card. Peter has blown through several construction jobs. We are broke. I pay the electricity first, the childcare second, the phone bill third, gas and groceries next, rent is last. We never have enough money for rent.

We have been living in this apartment for about six months, but it has only been a month or so since he was out drinking and then missing until late the next day. It is still a mystery where he goes when he does this, but asking is useless, because every excuse sounds like a lie, and I have come to realize that most likely, he doesn’t remember.

Peter’s belly distends out, leading the way when he walks. It is difficult to imagine any woman wanting to take him into her bed, but I wish someone would. At least then I’d have a reason. I want a thing, something tangible to blame, something I can touch, a genuine excuse. It is easier to imagine him drawn away by someone shiny, with breasts and teeth, than by a pint of stout and a corner stool in some anonymous bar.

 

6.

Around the seven-month mark, about a month before you decide to leave, the landline rings. It’s your ex-lover. Three years have passed, but his voice is instantly familiar. He is calling from Australia, wading through the time and space to find you.

“How’s it going, Chief?” he asks. You don’t know why he calls you Chief. Perhaps it’s because he knows you, and how easily you disappear. Maybe he is letting you know that it’s okay; you are still in control.

You cast yourself way back, to a night one New Year’s Eve. You are dancing together in a small bar, on a mountain, in a forest of Eucalypts. The bar is alive with music. A band is covering Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. You dance all night into the morning, until sweat runs from the nape of your neck down your back and your fast hearts beat in sync. You laugh about everything and nothing, and although you are surrounded by friends, the two of you only orbit each other.

Here is how the memory turns in your mind: You are dancing outside in the moonlight. Above you, Magellan’s clouds smear the sky—a purple smudge of light against inky blackness. You are submerged in a body of stars named after an explorer who, without evidence, trusted he could find a whole world if he just pushed forward.

But this is an old memory; a capsule arrested by time and space. Like a planet orbiting the sun, its place in your story is a tiny pinprick of light in the night sky. The word “planet” comes from the ancient Greek meaning, “wandering star.”

Your ex-lover doesn’t ask why you never came home. He clears his throat the way he sometimes used to.

“Tell me it’s not true,” he says finally.

“What do you mean?” you ask, but you know what he means.

“I saw your friend,” he says. “She told me a crazy story about you.” You picture her sitting around the table of a university bar telling her version of your story. You can guess what she has said; you don’t need to know. It is her story, not yours. You mumble something noncommittal.

“How’s your baby?” he asks.

“She’s good,” you say. “Sweet.”

A long pause travels between you. It comes from some faraway place. Somewhere you’ve been trying to forget. It says everything that’s been left unsaid.

He sighs. “As long as you’re doing all right, mate.”

“I am,” you tell him, and will yourself to believe it.

 

8.

Soon after, I am sitting in the basement room of a church, surrounded by women. We talk about our loved ones who are addicts and alcoholics. We tell different versions of the same story over and over again. We are all caught up inside our own stories.

Peter looks after Ami while I attend these meetings. I have explained to him what the meetings are for. Peter tells me he’s not an alcoholic, he’s just Irish, and he likes to drink. I tell myself this is Peter’s problem, not mine, but really it is Ami’s problem. It is a convoluted problem, because the truth is, sometimes Peter is fine and also, sometimes Peter is a blackout drunk. The truth is, I am still waiting for my Green Card.

bodyofcIn my meeting, a woman has just finished talking about her son who has been on a psychiatric hold for over a week. The son tried to kill himself and threatened to take her and her two other children with him. This woman, wearing a linen dress and sandals, is incongruous in this room. There is nothing she can wear, and nowhere she can go, to make sense of her story. She is bereft. She is adrift like plankton, floating somewhere in deep water.

After her, it is someone else’s turn to share: someone’s daughter, someone sister, someone’s mother. That’s when you realize it. All of these people are tethered to the alcoholics in their lives by familial blood. They carry the weight of their loved ones. They carry their sick and their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They carry it like a length of rope tied to their necks. Like an anchor weighing them to the depths of an ocean floor.

The truth is, I now have a work permit and I am so close to getting my Green Card, I am ready to stop being afraid. The truth is I am a strong swimmer. From some dark place inside me, a seed begins to germinate. Without any evidence, I start to believe that if I just push forward I can find a whole world. In less than a month, Peter will leave to go back to San Francisco and expect me to follow, and I will let him think I am coming. Meanwhile, the seed inside me is growing. Eventually, I will vomit up a sapling, and it will put down roots, and become a tree.

***

Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.


Charlotte O'Brien lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, a teenager, a toddler, and a scruffy dog. Her writing has appeared in Mutha Magazine, Cider Press Review, and Apercus Quarterly, among others. She graduated from Pacific University’s MFA program in 2013. Charlotte writes poetry and nonfiction. She is currently writing a memoir about living in America as an illegal immigrant. You can find out more about her at www.charlotteobrien.org/. More from this author →