At the coffee shop, I sit on my phone to avoid feeling stupid. There are women talking around a long table adjacent to my own. Their hair sits on their shoulders. Their words, however various, repeat—these I can’t remember. I made a note on a piece of scratch paper, thinking I’d be able to trace the condensed record back to the entire moment, as if empathy were not spontaneous but conjurable, always designed. “Oh motherhood.” “Oh fixable body.” Not that but something like it, words that make joy feel tangible. But the moment is gone, the empathy with it.
What was I thinking? Sometimes it’s a genuine question, not criticism but memory. Striving to locate a previous intensity, pulled in some direction by a body that didn’t ask for much. Why would I say that? Bodies aren’t born out of their own desire, and there’s something about this fact that I forgot to write down, sitting on my phone, listening to the women around me.
What does intimacy look like? This one’s more loaded.
I just mean it’s hard to be a person. What is our responsibility toward each other in this regard? Our production and our repetition, our differences in tone and desire.
My desire to have a baby and to not have a baby are what make me feel sorry for Donald Trump.
Babies do the best they can because first, more than any other fact of their identity, all they care about is survival. They learn to survive and then, much later, they learn to care. They’re trying.
Donald Trump the baby survived and for that I am grateful. No, that’s not true. But in some fleeting moment I can achieve at least a passive, observational stance on Donald Trump the baby’s survival.
When my period comes, I tell myself to appreciate this pain: that my body, already emotionally and mentally tripled and quadrupled, will not double. But I almost always immediately forget my gratitude, curled up like a newborn, the Hollywood version of a little baby body on its happy side, anxious to come out and see the world. Me on the bed, perfectly sideways as if on cue. Anxious for nothing, curled into myself and trying to forget about my pain by thinking about Donald Trump, and then trying to forget about Donald Trump and succeeding only by the thin membrane of my hallucinations of Donald Trump the baby.
His problem is singular and so is mine.
Why do we pretend that the opposite of not having a baby is having a baby?
I do not have a baby because of a sense of responsibility.
I do not have a baby because of a sense of social and personal and generational insanity.
I do not have a baby because of a lot of hungry sad people, even those held in my aloof imagination.
I do not have a baby because of privilege that isn’t acknowledged.
I do not have a baby because of privilege even now, safe uterus.
I wish my uterus was at least made of paper money.
I wish my uterus had a better exchange rate.
I wish I could exchange my uterus for a baby and then back again.
I thought if I wrote down the original sentence, even just one note, one correct use of punctuation, I could retrace my thoughts back to their empathetic creation. But even now, I can’t get away from the word, “retract.” I have always assumed, as a smart and capable person, that I could follow my way back to something so long as I wanted to. It feels so far away from me now, that moment when my stomach started filling up with not-baby ideals, when I saw the outline of my belly pointed at everyone other than the duplication of me.
I guess my not-baby has something to do with expanses.
And I guess my not-baby has something to do with agriculture.
And I guess my not-baby is itself a fertile landscape, so long as I remember the sadness of my own mother, and remember how angry I can sometimes be, and remember my small unwanted body turned bigger, and remember my mother’s sadness throughout the whole act of turning; only to remember, in a culmination of memories, that people are probably a lot alike.
Why can’t I carry these words with me everywhere I go, put them to better use, bear them, as leverage, for hoisting up a better public space? Or hold them in the frame through which I encounter every person, so that I may find myself wondering about the circumstances of their own cells and making. I could even baby them—the words, the person—I could help them be more or less like me.
I cannot trace my original sentence back to its initial point of empathy, can’t remember why I trusted that I would, but I know I once believed it possible. Is motherhood its own stark line? Would I be different? I scatter notes all over my house: in purses, on nightstands, under rocks on dirty counters. I never remember what I meant by the short words and phrases, can never retrace that initial moment of desire. And yet I made it: here are the words, haunting me. With their need and their confidence. With their longing to make something new: how words hold possibilities that can be sown into scratch paper, marinating until ready for the world. I return to the seed and find miracles or junk. Mostly junk.
Had I been feeling empathy for mothers? For my own? For the irresponsible choices women do and don’t make? Women, who first began as bodies, out of control, born into or at least from a desire not of their own making.
I can hardly believe that bodies come from each other, one after another; that there was a time where I may have been fastened to another person’s body, outside their head.
I used to tell my mother where my body went, where it came from, all the various places a hand might linger or escape.
Did my mother ask to be born? Did she confuse my tiny growing limbs with something medicinal? Was my mother born a mother?
Made and unmade—my mother had no preferences between singular and doubling. Here I am perpetuating a familial lack of control, just by existing.
That feeling at the edge of your ribcage, in the center of your stomach—pure, tumbling weight. I used to tell my mother about every single feeling that passed through me, and I thought myself a good daughter through confession and revelation, through clean words and limited intrusions. Through small defined bubbles that I could see wholly and define entirely at any given moment, the clear translucent space of girl desire. Some of my feelings revolved around intimacy. I defined my feelings against each other, sure of their potential for excess. I was the clear translucent space of a girlbody, parroting the outside world.
Sometimes survival means defining yourself against the very stuff you came from.
People used to tell us, over and over again, how much we looked alike, and this was understood as a compliment for my mother. How we must be sisters, born not of each other but from the same source. Words make the difference sound smaller than it felt.
I carried the feelings and the words until I couldn’t, until they’d grown large enough to exist outside the privacy of my womb. I mean brain. The writer’s dilemma—where do our babies come from?
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but of what?
There are so many people alive that I take them all for granted, invisibility born of too-much-ness. There are so many songs on Spotify that I never know how to handle myself.
I repeat the same things because I know the comfort of familiarity. Isn’t there some semblance of danger in imagining that my not-baby would become a baby and would be, through the act of my own body discharging itself forward into my arms, my arms in which I tell myself only good things will end up, that my not-baby turned baby would be, somehow, a familiar thing?
And what of treating an unfamiliar thing as something you already know?
And what of treating a familiar thing with unfamiliarity? (most people, certain kinds)
And what of the moment when one’s familiar grasp is challenged and you give up?
What is the relationship between giving up and baby <—-> not-baby?
I worry about my not-baby because of my own instability as a person, my fluid desires, my complicated feelings, my highs and middles and lows. I worry about my not-baby because I secretly mean that I’m worried about myself. What if my not-baby became a baby during a high and then was followed by a middle? What if my not-baby became a baby and I became low?
I care so much about my not-baby, openly and otherwise. Just imagine this care turned real (all care). I strum my not-baby like an air guitar melting into a song that goes, baby, oh baby. Just imagine if the song made real sound. These are the questions I never let myself ask outright, my body slowly beginning to wonder why it has never been beach-ready, baby-ready.
When I imagine following the desire to have a baby—already such a fleeting and limp thing in me, only in parts of me, close to my skin but never quite landing on it—my imagination floods with all the real bodies I see and turn away from and drive past angrily and order food from resentfully and sympathetically and in turns: miserable, then ok, then miserable, then ok. Me, or you? From where are such lines habitually drawn? How long ago were you just a baby, too?
And why shouldn’t I till the landscape of my own dirt, as a way to reproduce something more contained, something less damaging? If I plant my not-baby in the ground of me, if I refuse to be afraid of letting things g/r/o/w in me.
And the swelling of my heart as it imagines life, even the life of my not-baby, how my heart bubbles out it swells it gets big and bumpy, why aren’t more strangers asking if they can hold her?
If I can remember that people sometimes want to have babies, I can remember, too, that those people already exist.
For years, neither my mother nor I could turn toward each other with any kind of consistency, with any sense of a shared perimeter. And though my focus and my patience toward my not-baby is more resolved and more consistent, my not-baby, in some sense, barely exists.
I am naked in front of my mother every time I am in front of my mother, do you know what I mean?
It’s hard to have a baby though I admit I have never tried.
My not-baby gets to listen to all the music that I love, and learn all my idiosyncrasies, and see my face the way I hold it, and curl her body in the tunnel of my own turn.
My not-baby pretends to be everyone else and I, on my best days, take such good care of her. Not even a train could replicate our spilling.