Rumpus Book Club Excerpt: Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera
An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s April selection,
Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera
published by Two Lines Press May 2022
This morning, in the waiting room, I came across a calendar of astronomical events. There will be a meteor shower this year, a supermoon in December, a partial lunar eclipse in Asia and, in a few months’ time, a partial eclipse of the sun in Mexico.
On the way back home—surprised, excited, disconcerted—I suddenly thought: I’m never going to be alone again. Not really alone. That thought was terrifying and joyful.
Pregnancy is a fruit bowl. The apps tell you which fruit your fetus resembles each week as it grows. But none of the apps are written in Mexico, so they don’t take into account the wide variety of fruit we have here, the many different sizes of mangos and avocados. Alejandro says that Mexican mandarins are the same size as Chilean oranges and Chilean mandarins are the size of Mexican limes. Plus, what I simply call a limón, he calls a limón de pica, and what he calls a limón, is for me a yellow lime.
A few days ago we went for an ultrasound and heard the heartbeat. The nurse said it was very strong. The fetus is the size of a blueberry, and a large part of its body is taken up by that strongly beating heart. It’s hard not to feel affection for a creature the size of a blueberry with a heart, a creature that is almost nothing except a strongly beating heart.
I always used to like the smell of bread; I dreamed up a perfume called Bakery, but now the scent that wafts from the bag, even the idea of bread and jam, produces instant, startling bouts of nausea. I tell Alejandro about this and he advises me to write down everything that is happening to me so I won’t later forget. I don’t tell him that I’ve already started, since the notion of writing a pregnancy diary feels a little hackneyed. In fact, it’s such a cliché that the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting recommends the practice.
I’m also rereading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Today I came to the part where she says that no one talks enough about the darker aspects of pregnancy. She didn’t have an easy time of it: she was very frightened and had to face a number of difficult situations. She felt that she was close to death. The thought that pregnancy could have such harrowing moments had never occurred to me. My mother and the other women around me had only talked about a miraculous transformation, the incredible experience of childbirth, and now it turns out that they had nausea the whole time and felt awful. But they go on saying all that stuff. Of course, there’s joy too, heaps of it; like when we talk about names or imagine the child’s face. But I saw that coming, I expected it; the darkness was a surprise.
I’m having a hard time believing that almost half the human race has gone through this. It’s the most ordinary thing in the world but it seems so different to me, so uncomfortable and unsettling.
The first time my mother’s work received critical recognition—I was three or four years old at the time— was for a series of large format abstract paintings on the theme of the color red. But right in the middle of that moment of success, she decided to start a new series, a tribute to the abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt: a collection of canvases that were impossible to photograph or sell, a treatise on the color black and its limits. Over the years, during visits to galleries and museums, my mother would explain how to look at such paintings as Rothko’s black-on-blacks. She patiently taught me the technique for training one’s vision to see the black within the black: the opaque blacks, the brilliant blacks, the reddish, purplish, and almost gray blacks. Some years after her black series, during an art class I took as a teenager, I began to understand the expertise needed to distinguish, mix, and balance the various tones of black; the difficulty of painting them as she did, without visible brushwork, making those matte blacks absorbent, the black of emptiness. When I think about what the world is like from the perspective of the uterus, I remember those paintings and the lessons she gave me on seeing in the dark.
The discussion about girls’ names is reaching a stalemate. For a start, names ending in S or Z are out because the paternal surname is Zambra (nowadays it’s possible to use the mother’s surname first, but I really don’t like mine). I always thought that Paz, peace, was beautiful; but it’s not to be. We also ruled out the names of former girlfriends (his exes had lovely names) and boyfriends (very few, and all with more or less horrible names). I was trying out names, almost unconsciously speaking them aloud, when I came to Mar. It sounded gorgeous and Alejandro immediately fell in love with it. It’s so original, so simple and beautiful, he said. Why aren’t there more people 11 named Mar? What’s wrong with naming someone after the sea?
But I instantly regretted that utterance. Mar was my closest teenage friend. Her full name is María del Mar, but we all referred to her as Mar. She’s the only Mar I know and I have trouble dissociating the name from the person. It reminds me too much of her, and I want to go on being reminded of her and no one else. Maybe something else. There are hundreds of women’s names I like much better. I say them to Alejandro, try to persuade him that Natalia would be good, or Selva, or Josefina, but his mind is set on Mar. Nothing will change it.
I’m back in the land of the living after days when the nausea left me unable to do anything beyond hugging my heated body pillow, or the nearest cushion, or holding Alejandro’s hand. I convinced myself that it was like being on a three-month cruise and suffering seasickness (Mar-sickness) the whole time. The most intense period of nausea lasts for three months. There were times when I wanted to throw myself overboard; put an end to it all.
Today I had lunch with my friend Uma and for quite some time listened to her talking about the amazing benefits of alternative remedies (acupuncture, Bach flowers) for the misery she was suffering. As she spoke, I was thinking with veneration of Dramamine. Since starting to take it yesterday I haven’t felt nauseous once, and I want to write a thank-you letter to whoever invented it, to say that it has saved my life.
We’re still rearranging the apartment. The pregnancy has knocked many of our plans on their heads. Such as: the just-short-of-a-study. We’d bought a desk and chair and placed them in the bedroom adjoining ours. Then we’d had the modem, the alarm, and the telephone moved in there. But now we need a room for the baby. We have to remove all those cables and don’t know what to do with the desk; we don’t know where we’re going to write.
If I’d been aware that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t have carried all those boxes when we moved in here. There was a reason why I was so exhausted; running on fumes, as my grandmother used to say.
The internet is full of stories about the difficulties of conceiving a child. A number of my friends have been trying without success for ages. Everything I’d read said that after prolonged use of the contraceptive pill, the body needs about a year to readjust. I stopped taking the pill with that in mind. That year was in the plan, in the order of things. Four weeks later, I was pregnant.
Some months ago I applied for a grant that would fund my writing for a year and I’ve just heard that I’ve been awarded it. Forget the exclamation marks. I don’t know if I’m happy or terrified. With a newborn baby, just when am I going to sit down to write? I can’t even remember clearly what the project was.
The book calls it “a sense of unreality.” My belly is only slightly, only very slightly larger. It’s been this size before. If I weren’t certain I was pregnant, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d think that the nausea and tiredness were something else, and that my late period was due to some hormonal irregularity. I remembered that story by Maupassant, “The Horla.” In the early stages, pregnancy is like an invisible being that sucks all your energy and makes you feel ill. When I think about “The Horla” and vampires, I remember this fact: mother’s milk is blood passed through a filter. Blood that used to circulate through the veins and arteries and is then converted into milk. When I explain this to other people, it turns out that almost no one is aware of that fact. But it should be widely known, everyone in the world should know it.
Excerpted with permission from Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney published by Two Lines Press in May 2022.