Aurora Borealis — Ginny Fite
My left hand, raised above me holding a paperback novel, is missing my wedding ring. An indentation remains, ghost-like, on my skin, a reminder of allegiance and duty. My hands swelled at eight months, and by the ninth, the ring’s gold edge cut into my flesh. I smeared my finger with butter and tugged off the ring. It sits safely in its box in my top drawer waiting for my body to return to a normal state.
I’ve given up pacing the labor room corridor, bent in half, clinging to the handrail until each new pain subsides. Reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot between contractions, I realize I’ve lost my sense of irony. Words are dots I follow across the page. They lead nowhere and mean nothing. I shake my head at my own lunacy.
I’m alone here. The nurse, in her mid-forties, short, round, and with abrupt hands, has gone on her break. “You’re not going anywhere for a while,” she says before she leaves me imprisoned by her callousness.
Barred windows ride high on the two-toned walls in this old Newark hospital’s below-ground labor room—gray below the sturdy hand rail and light yellow above. Florescent lights buzz overhead. Cement floors are cold on my feet. There’s a drain in the middle of my floor. I won’t think about what they wash away here in this dungeon of my childhood nightmares.
Draped in a flowing green hospital gown, I can see only my head and shoulders in the bathroom mirror. I’m surprised I still look like me. I was expecting a transformation—that I would have grown wings, become six inches taller and impossibly beautiful. My hair, washed in the shower when contractions were an easy-to-bear twenty minutes apart and two minutes long, is shoulder length. My brown eyes are raven fierce. My skin, normally what my father calls ruddy, is unusually pale, leached by pain. I close my eyes, avoiding my own image.
Instead, I see the view from my mother’s vintage 1953 blue Kaiser Manhattan on the drive along California’s coast highway to the beach. Strangers passing me in current squarer models wave as if I’m somebody. I wave back, grinning, delighted by momentary celebrity, and pretend I’m Elizabeth Taylor.
Constant sunshine and palm trees unsettle me. On this visit, it’s hard to be on guard, to remember my mother is manipulating me. I remind myself about the possibility of tsunamis and earthquakes, thousand-acre forest fires, and mudslides—the suddenness of natural disasters that plague the state—but sunny days glide by. I check out UCLA and consider transferring, swim in someone’s backyard pool in the moonlight, go on a date with my mother’s friend’s son. My mother plots a future I don’t want over coffee with her friend in the kitchen.
But I’m beguiled until we go to Catalina Island for a weekend and my mother disappears for a day and night without a word, leaving me stranded alone on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no money and no way of getting home. In the morning, she fetches me, her body shimmering with delight, and takes me to the yacht where she spent the night. The yacht owner tells me to smile. I remember why I ran away from her.
The day I leave, she dresses me in her persimmon-colored silk suit and does my hair in a beehive. Wearing the red high heels that match her suit, I look ten years older than when I arrived two weeks before and she got me into Disneyland for the price of a twelve-year-old. We pose for a photo together.
“We could be sisters,” she says. I need a mother.
Pain hits and I would rather be anywhere but here. I grip the sides of the bathroom sink and tell myself, I won’t die from this. When I can breathe normally, I shuffle back to the bed and the novel but my mind drifts. Telling myself not to cry, I lay the book down on my belly and close my eyes.
I’m suddenly fifteen and reading Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo as if nothing else in the world mattered. A train could have come through the wall of my bedroom and I wouldn’t have moved. Transported out of my mind by delight, I called my best friend Ann to tell her what I’d discovered. Pacing the kitchen, wrapping the phone cord around my body first one way and then the other, I raved about the writing, the words, the phrasing. Pausing for breath, I tried to explain I wasn’t talking about the plot but about the method the writer used. I grasped for words I’d never said before, words I didn’t know I knew, inventing language that would contain wonder.
“This feeling I have, this must be like love,” I explained to Ann.
I imagined her shaking her head, her blonde curls bobbing, rolling her blue eyes in disbelief. She listened, as she always did, but I suspected she thought I was a little cracked. She was right. Dumas split my world open and possibilities leaked out. I would never be able to put myself back together and was glad of it. I talked for twenty minutes nonstop about the words, how he used them, how they made me feel.
Ann sighed. “It’s a translation,” she said. “Maybe those aren’t the words he used.”
She was a good friend, trying to tether my feet to the ground. She didn’t need a story to transport her somewhere else. Her world made sense. Her life was bound by her parents’ expectations. She’d go to college, get married, have children, and make a home for her family. Her life had a structure divided into chapters with a narrative she already knew. She had only to look around her to see her future.
I was plotless with a vague idea of what I was supposed to do but no one had ever made it clear—except to indicate they expected disaster, at any minute. Each day, I wondered, is this it? Is this what I’m meant to do? Or is this the wrong thing? My father always said, “Look before you leap.” My mother said, “He who hesitates is lost.” I balanced on the brink. Now there were these words vibrating on a page. It’s not about the plot, I kept telling myself, as if those words were the magic open sesame. Even I didn’t understand what I was saying.
I didn’t tell anyone else about my love affair with a book until years later when I gave my husband a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo.
“This will open your eyes,” I said.
He read it nonstop and grinned at me when he reached the end. The story thrilled him. “What a plot,” he said. “Revenge is very satisfying.”
You won’t die from this, I tell myself as pain wells up, nudging aside all thought. You won’t die from this. My distended belly is the height of my bent knees as I lie on my back on the narrow bed. There’s no one’s hand to hold, no one to console me.
My husband is at his mother’s enjoying first night Seder. The nurse sent him away, saying it would be hours and she’d call him. It’s the late sixties and she’s in charge. Husbands aren’t allowed in the labor room. I gird myself for the fight with the nurse about breastfeeding. I’ve memorized the words from the Lamaze book: “Don’t give me that shot. I’m going to breastfeed.” I practice, speaking the words out loud into the empty room.
This night, unlike all other nights, my husband is breaking matzo and dipping it into wine. His family is reading from the Haggadah and talking about walking out of Egypt. They say prayers and fill their cups. They taste the bitter and the sweet. Their theme is freedom from slavery and affliction. I skip over prayers and remember hard boiled eggs, apples mixed with honey and cinnamon, brisket, noodle kugel. My stomach gurgles. I haven’t eaten for a day.
The phone in the nurse’s station rings endlessly. When I can’t bear the sound another minute, I roll off the bed, slip bare feet into loafers, lumber into the office and pick up the black receiver. On the other end, a male voice says to bring me to X-ray immediately.
Standing where the technician tells me, shaking with the effort to remain upright, I feel water gush down my legs. It puddles on the floor beneath me. “I’m sorry,” I say, through a clogged throat, embarrassed at the mess.
We live in a second-floor apartment of a house immediately behind the playing field of my old high school. Just out of college, we have more books than furniture. An old Dodge Dart, a bed, a bureau, a bookcase, a round table and chairs, my easel, his guitar, and a trundle bed that serves as our sofa are our only possessions, plus the wedding gifts. No television. No stereo. It took an hour to move in.
Our landlord, whose mottled forearm is tattooed with numbers, mutters, “You move like Boy Scouts,” when he unlocks the door and hands us the keys. He must know what it’s like to leave his home with nothing, to start a new life empty-handed. Later we learn he doesn’t like the sound of two typewriters pounding away in the middle of the night. When his wife yells at me the next morning, I notice her arm is stamped too. My breath turns sharp-edged inside me. I look at her face, guess her age. They must have been teenagers when they were in the camps. Blue numbers seared into human flesh change everything.
We have so little money that by Friday of each week we count out change to make sure we have dimes to call each other from phone booths if there’s an emergency. After work, there’s nothing to distract us except books. We read, play cards, and take turns beating each other at scrabble. We write words one letter at a time on each other’s backs and guess the messages. We sing in the car, off key, as loud as we can.
We wake on Saturday mornings to the banging of drums and the out-of-tune warm-up of the high-school brass band marching in the football field ahead of the game. My husband walks to the deli and comes back with salt bagels and translucent slices of lox—“On sale for only thirty-nine cents for a quarter pound,” he explains—and a square of cream cheese. This is heaven, I think. This is everything.
When my stomach takes on epic proportions, we acquire a crib, a basinet, a chest of drawers, a baby seat. It takes four hours but we assemble the crib, twice—the first time upside down—and place it in our bedroom. We stand looking at the crib as if we’ve accomplished something important, our arms around each other.
An orderly rushes me from X-ray to the labor room in a wheel chair. A different nurse helps me up onto the table. The pain changes and I must push. All my focus is on the pressure in my pelvis. I want to groan and then remind myself I won’t die from this. Then I hear a woman screaming in the corridor. All my senses alert. I change my mind. Suddenly death is a possibility. “What’s happening to her? What’s wrong?”
The nurse has her fingers on my pulse. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “She’s okay. She’s a nurse.” Her voice carries disdain. She removes the blood pressure cuff from my arm. “This is her third child. She should know better.”
Her words don’t reassure me. The woman’s screams follow her down the corridor to the delivery room and it’s silent again except for my labored breathing.
“I’m in transition,” I say, remembering the signs I read in the Lamaze book.
The nurse is skeptical but lifts my gown and says, with some surprise, “Oh, yes, I see the baby’s head. I’ll call the doctor. Hold on till she gets here.”
She runs out of the room. I put my knees together and pant, dizzy with pain and think about something else.
Riding my bicycle in the park, my legs pushed me along in a steady rhythm. Trees were in full green. I stood for the hills to keep a steady pace and sat on the way down, letting gravity pull me. The road curved and I leaned into it. This was the closest I ever got to flying. This is how I learned about freedom.
I closed my eyes and felt air brush my cheeks. My hair lifted on the breeze and my heart expanded into the universe. I took my hands off the handles and held my arms out like wings. All the world floated below me. I opened my mouth and sound rose from it.
When contractions are two minutes apart and last ten minutes each, I discover pain has no boundaries. It doesn’t stop at my skin. It fills the room. I pant faster. Sweat pours off me. Pain is my entire world. I close my eyes, grip the bars the nurse has put up on either side of the bed, and try to obey her instructions.
They move me to the delivery room and buckle my wrists to the table and my ankles to the stirrups. The doctor gives me a shot of Demerol. She says something about it being too late that I don’t understand. The pain continues but now I’m distant from it as if it’s happening to someone else.
“Wait for me to tell you to push,” she says. “Wait. Wait. Wait. Now.”
I stand on soft white sand at the beach, my toes in the ocean, my arms stretched out as wide as I can. The ocean sucks in its breath and sighs. Stars whirl above me in the dark sky. Water goes on forever. The horizon curves. This is the first time I believe the earth is round. I close my eyes. I want to embrace everything, to fill my body with it, to be it—the sound, the heaving water, the tiniest grain of sand under my feet.
I open my eyes and in the distance, ribbons of color undulate across the night sky. I look around at my family and friends. We’re all seeing this. We stand stock still, our eyes wide, mouths open, watching the sky folding itself into green, blue, and yellow lights.
“It’s the Aurora Borealis,” someone says.
Everyone says, “Shush.” We don’t want an explanation. We would rather die from awe, our feet in the ocean, watching the sky change colors.
The doctor says, “That’s it. You did it.”
I wait, breathless, depleted.
“It’s a boy,” she says. “A boy!” as if this is the first time in the universe’s history that anyone has ever done something this astounding.
She places the baby on my deflated belly to cut the cord. My son is covered in iridescent goo. My son, I think. He squalls. I touch his head, his face, and something like God moves down inside me, filling every pore with light, changing every cell in my body. Light bursts from me, filling the room, the entire world, exiling pain. My heart expands to hold the light.
In the corridor, on the way to my room, the nurse uses the wall phone to call my husband. She asks me the number, dials, and holds the receiver to my ear.
It’s morning now. He answers on the first ring. “You have a son,” I say and promptly fall asleep.
When I wake in a hospital bed with clean sheets, spring sunlight glows through the window next to me. A vase of yellow daffodils, purple tulips, and blue crocuses sits on the bedside table. My husband, holding our sleeping baby now swaddled in a blue blanket, looks at me and beams. Light folds in waves around him. For some time, I am plotless, standing in the moment, flying, willing to die from awe.
A graduate of Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins University, Ginny Fite’s stories have appeared in Fluent Magazine, Delmarva Review, Temenos, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, Heartwood Literary Magazine, Coffin Bell, The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, and the Spy Newspapers. She is the author of the thriller No End of Bad and the Detective Sam Lagarde mysteries Cromwell’s Folly, No Good Deed Left Undone, and Lying, Cheating & Occasionally Murder, and the genre-blurring novel Blue Girl on a Night Dream Sea, to be released in late July 2019.