The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Milwaukee. Rust. A Baby.


This is a love story.

They don’t know when my water broke. Did it break, they ask me. How can water break? Is my smooth surface ripped in half as if a fish has breached to breathe the air its not meant to breathe? They asked me again, did your water break? In the heaving trenches of labor I didn’t know. As if mysterious liquids hadn’t been oozing out all day. Which, exactly, is the water they speak of? I can feel the tiny fish demanding to be let out. Causing the greatest pain she will cause me until she is fifteen and slamming doors in my face and is that the smell of pot? Whiskey? Sex? But first, this initial pain. If they don’t know when your water breaks, they can’t determine how long the baby can stay inside you, a part of you, before tearing your belly open and retrieving her.

The sky is ash and charcoal and graphite and the snow is no longer Currier and Ives. Now, only a filthy reminder. Don’t mess with me, Mother Nature says, to Milwaukee in February. I will seep into your boots and chill your bones and turn you to stone.

Blood is never red. Not really.

The rust belt pulls itself tighter as if it’s lost weight. Lookin’ good, rust belt. But not really. It’s the color of something left out in the sun too long. The color of exhaustion. Of time. Of graveyards and abandoned technology and dreams.

Church spires shoot arrows into the sky. Here lies God, they holler. But then they whisper evils or kindnesses to their congregants. Go softly. They say. We hope.

The pain is not soft. It enters into your body, maybe through your ears or your eyes and swims through your veins and capillaries and then it lodges in the juicy pulp of your abdomen and knifes you, again and again and again. I tear at my flesh in the shower, wishing the hot water to dull the pain. Lull it into complacency. Lull is the first part of lullaby. It is a dull knife. Begin now, I beg.

Rust is the color of blood. Not fresh blood. The kind that’s been out in the air for a while. In the elements.

The smokestacks breathe into the air. Plumes of gray on gray on gray. Rusty tracks could take you out of here. But you don’t want to. Or can’t.


Blood is the color of rust.

Rust is also a world-building video game with assault rifles and grenades and crossbows. Is this what happens when a city sits too long on its own? There are chain link fences and prison cell walls. Barricades of sand and concrete and stone. There are bars over the windows.

So, predictably, all is an oppression of gray. Except where the neon of signs stutter their siren song: come this way, weary sailor. PBR and peanuts. New Glarus and Polish sausage. Bitter dreams rife with foreboding and possibly a murmur of promise.

Iron atoms pass electrons to oxygen atoms = oxidation. The atoms are then bound together.

You are supposed to time the contractions. We try. Really, we do. But the onslaught is unending and I vomit water, the remnants of the piece of toast I ate a few hours before. Bodily things spill onto the shower floor, turning it into a slick and vile mess. I steady myself. I fall to my knees, keening and moaning and unable to breathe deeply or count or practice any of the varied and ridiculous calming techniques I’ve been taught.

The breweries are being turned into lofts. Million dollar views for half. For now. The view is of the ocean that is not an ocean that is not an end or a beginning but is both. Crested waves and foam crackle the glacial surface. Lake Michigan will not be ignored even in the doldrums of winter. In summer it is majestic, practically Caribbean. But it isn’t summer now.

Rust only features a multiplayer world; you have to play with others. You cannot just go into the world alone.

In the abandoned city on the outskirts of a larger city, the weeds decide to grow into buildings. Detritus of hope. Big corporate hope and small quotidian hopes. The flowers of the weeds are lovely and as children we collected them to make bracelets and head wreaths as if we were pagan ritualists. We did it because it made us feel a part of the earth. We do this because we aren’t.

Every goddamn bump in the road pushes at my widening canal. The red light is the cruelest thing in the world to a woman in labor. We arrive at the hospital and park and as we hobble towards the entrance, I fall into the crosswalk in the filthy parking garage. Beneath blackened old gum, the white lines are so perfect. Painted an equal distance from each other, they are exquisite rectangles and I rest my cheek there to feel the perfection. Things are spilling out of me, but I don’t know what it is or what color it is and they’ve been leaking all day and I don’t think this is what they mean by water breaking, but maybe it is. But we aren’t there yet and they haven’t yet asked.

RustIn our homes are fires and wood paneling and plaid carpets. We are reluctant to let the paneling go. In the basement are Star Wars relics and gaming consoles long obsolete—the way we spent our childhood hibernation—and the sign from the old tavern and folding tables and chairs for occasional guests and holiday table cloths with reindeer and Santas with alcoholic noses.

If you get really close up, rust can be beautiful. Fissures create abstract shapes and symmetries and if copper, a green-blue that so many women of the seventies wanted in their weddings. Streaks and splotches and cracked paint. None of it is perfect and that’s the beauty. We thought it was black or gray or blue. But in time, it’s orange and red, colors we paint the sun when we are children—though we are wrong. (But don’t tell the kids. It’s important for them to interpret for themselves.)

Like in the movies, I want to shout you did this to me! But really, we both did it.

woman + man = a fucking baby.

4Fe + 3O2 = 2Fe2O

We make cheese here. We do. We are Polish and German and Lutheran and Catholics. And sometimes other things. The dairyland begins out of town. We are the city cousins.

The Statue of Liberty wasn’t always green.

I wasn’t always this revolting. Sweat pastes my hair to my face. I don’t care that everyone can see the privatest of places and the folds and the wild hair and things I haven’t even been privy to. Dope me up, send me home. Don’t care, but the tightness in my knuckles on the bedframe is threatening to destroy the whole damn thing. I am a teetotaler and am loathe to take an aspirin. But. Yes please. I’m ready. String me up, drugs and all.


Down the road, we are more liberal. Sort of. Madison. College town. But also the home of the capitol building, which is beautiful in marble and grotesque in politics. We decamped there when we could. It is the place where we drink and learn and study and grope. It is also the place where laws are made, or broken, or made and broken by the same people.

In the eleventh hour, really the twenty-fifth, they ask if it is okay if a student midwife delivers my baby. She can’t be more than five feet, has incredibly curly hair and a brazenly white smile. She looks to be about twenty-two. As if I have a choice.

My uterus becomes the opposite of a ghost limb. It is there and they’re telling me to push but I can’t feel it. Could it possibly still be there?

We splay our fingers when the rains turn to snow and we dash naked into the frigid lake. The lake that is deepest because it has to hold a lot of our secrets because everyone knows that adults who were children just the night before have many secrets.

Once the baby is here, the mother is ignored. Well, first I am sewn up like a ragdoll. Handed thick pads of ice to heal the vaginal area. The perineum. The parts that will stay swollen and ache for weeks. The parts that you should never ever touch in public, but you just want to hold it constantly, serenade it with love songs from your past, because you’ve injured it in a way you never thought possible and you hope it will forgive you. No sex for a few months they say. No fuckin’ problem. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, I want to say to my new baby. All 8.5 pounds of her. All 19 inches.

A pencil is about 7.5 inches. The Golden Gate Bridge is 107,760 inches. Looks like rust. Shiny, fancy, alive rust.

It’s gruesome and some say, beautiful. By the light of early morning, I am writhing in pain again, the drugs are done. But there is a tiny creature—mammal, female—attached to my breast. That is supposed to make it more bearable.

When iron and water and oxygen consummate their relationship, we have the birth of rust. Rust is constantly forming on the Golden Gate Bridge, so they are always shaving it down and repainting it a color called International Orange, the color of rust.

The placenta. Do you want to see it? Hazardous waste. Do you want to eat it?

The lake that holds our secrets will freeze over by morning. It will stay that way for months. Into the time when we think it should be warming, but we are still dashing about, naked bodies under the same stagnant sky.

Those first ten months are fucking horrible and the tiny creature doesn’t stop crying. They call it colic, but I think she is yelling at me for past transgressions. Things she couldn’t know about, but then again, she’s a part of my own body and always has been there, in a way.

Rust causes that incredible patina that says life was lived here. In the Monet-like verdigris. It looks like a nebula in space. A geode. Lake Michigan in summer.

On the beaches, in the summer, young lithe bodies in bathing suits litter the sand. There is volleyball and sailing and windsurfing on a tropical-colored inland sea. You could forget that just five months ago, this place was a tundra. The old folks are there too. They know it always comes back around, the sun, that is, and the things, like laughter, that go with it.

She is a toddler now. Knows joy the way I know shame. Closely; as if kin. Lake water that splashes against a wall and into her face is the ultimate in the earth’s gifts. She wears no shirt and no shoes and is slathered in the white porcelain shell of sunblock. The deadly rays, the vitalizing rays; we relish in them both. At the same time. She never wants to go home. She puts an arm around me as if she is my grandmother and says “Oh, honey.” As if she is telling me: oh honey, there is so much great stuff ahead. Just you wait; I know these things.


Image credits: 1, 2, and 3. All images licensed under Creative Commons.

Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, More from this author →