Expecting | Ingrid Taylor
The overhead light sucked warmth from every corner. Petra was on her back, spread-eagle, like a dying starfish. Her legs and hands were numb, the wrenching pain already fading. White-gowned figures moved with suppressed urgency as monitors flashed red. An alarm blared and one of the shrouded figures tossed a sheet over her thighs. Her legs felt slick and wet. “Hypoxia” and “arrhythmia” pierced the fog of floating masks. Petra heard a muted clatter and turned her head to follow the sound. A ghostlike form wheeled a cart loaded with syringes and IV bags past her. She became aware of a pressure at her side. Her boyfriend’s hand clamped hers. Jim’s eyes were wide and staring.
She could see her daughter curled up on a shiny metal table. Alien tubes snaked into her little red body. White-gloved hands prodded and pressed her. Time slowed for Petra as the bustle of the room faded. In a bubble of silence her baby’s heartbeat rang clear and true. Skipping like a stone over clanging bells and terse orders, the tiny pulse hovered. It whispered of expectation; that moment of stillness just before a wave crashes on the shore. Petra reached for it. She cupped her hands, holding the pulse over her own chest as if she could bind it to her forever. When she opened her hands nothing was there.
A rustle of white appeared next to her. The nurse asked if she wanted to hold her baby. Petra stared, unable to form words. The nurse patted her shoulder, thin body hunched forward, weighed down by years of explaining the inexplicable. “Some mothers want to see. . . for closure.”
Petra shook her head. The nurse looked helplessly at Jim.
“Petra, are you sure? You should listen to her.” His voice wavered and his hand felt soft
“No.” Her voice was clear and strong. She turned her face away. The gentle pulse still
thrummed in her ears.
The day after she was released from the hospital, Petra packed up the nursery. She waited until the front door closed behind Jim on his way to work. Then she disassembled the oak crib and matching shelves, fitting pieces into carefully marked boxes. She wrapped the starfish mobile in tissue paper and stowed it away.
After the room was emptied, she found white paint in the garage and covered the green and blue turtles and fish that decorated the walls. The smell of paint stung her nose and made her eyes water. She opened the window and let moisture bead onto the floor. When she finished, sterile walls mocked her with unmet possibilities.
Jim returned home and took in the bare space that hours ago had been a nursery. “Hey, Pets, I would have helped you with all that.”
Petra detected a note of relief in his voice as he knelt on the floor next to her. He squeezed her hand. After a moment, he pushed himself up, his knee popping. She heard the TV switch on as he rattled around in the kitchen. The pungent smell of garlic and onions filled the house. She got into bed and pulled the covers over her head. Her breathing under the blanket was heavy, an ocean tide.
For the next several days, Petra stayed in bed until Jim went to work. When she had the house to herself, she cleaned.
When there was nothing left to clean, Petra washed and ironed her white lab coat and took the bus to the medical lab. The bus’s windshield wipers swished as rain washed the buildings in muted silver. Water dripped from boots and raincoats onto a floor littered with candy wrappers and soda cans. Petra held her breath, nauseated by the stale oily smell of the bus. Shoulders bumped together each time the bus stopped and started. No one spoke.
“It’s good to have you back.” Patty rose ponderously, using one hand to brace herself on the desk.
“We’ll start you out on the centrifuge today. That way you can ease back into things.” The buttons of Patty’s white lab coat threatened to burst over her round belly and breasts as her words tumbled out. Petra saw the glint of teeth in her too-wide smile.
Petra fastened her crisp coat and went to her station at the back of the lab. She spun the blood samples, drew off the supernatant, and mixed it with reagents. When the color changed, she recorded the results in a logbook. She repeated this hour after hour.
The crowded waiting room spilled out into the hospital hallway. Tired parents amused children with greasy coloring books and plastic toys. The children’s keening cries as the needle pierced their skin reached Petra’s isolated workspace. When she heard the first cry, she whipped her head around. Her hands, moving so precisely a moment ago, involuntarily clutched her chest. Petra, who quantified all day long, had no idea how to measure this absence.
One evening Petra came home to find boxes stacked in the entryway. Jim stood in the hallway with twitchy eyes and a sheepish grin. She felt no anger, only relief when he carried out the final box. After all, he wasn’t the reason her chest ached and she listened for sounds she would never hear.
That night she dreamed of her daughter playing on the beach. Her small, strong feet were smeared with wet sand. Foam washed over her toes as the tide moved in. Caught in the space between wave and sand, pebbles surrendered their rough edges to the sea. The little girl looked at her mother and spoke, but Petra couldn’t hear her words over the rush of the surf.
Petra woke to the anemic glow of streetlights through open curtains. As she listened to rain plinking like tiny bells against the glass, she decided to leave this place where soggy boots bled thin mud and color drained into concrete. She would go to the ocean and find her daughter’s voice.
Ingrid Taylor is a former emergency room veterinarian who currently works as a freelance science writer in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is working on her first short story collection. Her stories are forthcoming in Red Rock Review and Petite Hound Press.