Sterile Fields

by Karen Carr

            They had wheeled her in here hours ago-hours ago, when she had told them it was time. They had wheeled her into this green tiled room, pushed her into the cold metal stirrups, pushed her legs apart, pushed their fingers up into her, and decided that it was not time to stop that pushing. Now, in the same room, they stood above her, all wearing green tile-matching masks, muttering in voices that seemed to her like voices on a long distance phone line. They stood around her in a semicircle, her body underneath their eyes, laid out flat-sacrificial. She saw the man who she recognized by his glasses and the red, broken-blood-vesselled nose. He smiled through his mask and put his hand on her shoulder.

            “It’s alright honey. We’re just gonna go get that little slugger.”

            She saw him walk behind a wall and emerge wearing tall fireman’s rubber boots. Then they told her to start counting. She drifted away before she could remember to tell them that she was afraid.

*   *   *

            I awake, alive. The room is empty, screaming white. White covers me, surrounds me, is me. My hand, as I pull it to my face, has no color but white. The flesh has been pulled from it. I reach to touch my lips, which feel like someone has put sandpaper on the bottom of a roller-skate and skated across them. They are still my lips. I am aware now of the pain further down. Sear­ing, burning, blowtorch pain. I go to sit up, forgetting-desiring somewhere for this not to be true. But I am forced down, defeated, done with that fantasy.

 

            They come stand above her again. This time, in a white room, their white coats on. They pull the white sheet back and start speaking again to her stomach, about her stomach.

            “Good work Steve. Boy, I admire your stuff.”

            “Well thank you John. Hey Larry, how long’ve you been here?”

            “Since early this morning. Had an emergency section.”

            “Well, we’re all set here.”

            He patted her shoulder again.

            “Doin’ great honey.”

            They forgot to tell her, and she forgot to ask them about her baby.

*   *   *

          I am lost in here. I am only aware of this whitened, this searing hot blinding white pain, body rage. I am sure that I am alive but I feel alive somewhere different than where I used to feel, be alive. I try to pull myself from this, out of this groggy un-place, but it is like trying to pull a bandage from a blood soaked wound slowly. I look around for a button and find one above my head, caught in the rails of the bed. I twist until I reach it, and feel like I have just separated my body into halves. I imagine the blood pouring from me like maple syrup from a newly tapped tree. I imagine filling a bucket with it and splashing it all over these white walls.

*   *   *

            They come this time to wheel her out. But first, they are pushing her up on her side, slopping water on her back. They dry her off and flip her to her other side. She looks down now, naked for the first time. All she can see is the patch of cel­lophane covering her stomach, and the blood that has hardened un­derneath. She looks up and this time sees women who are wearing no masks, no coats. They tell her to wiggle, but she starts to and tells them that she is splitting again, and hasn’t she al­ready lost enough blood? They laugh, and tell her that she is in one piece and hasn’t lost any blood. She refuses to move.

*   *   *

            I feel myself bleeding. It is cold, like someone has turned a faucet on in my veins. I remember now. I remember enough to be afraid to ask. I close my eyes so they will think I’m asleep, so they will not tell me before I ask. I awake, and nurses are on either side of me.

            “Cold, . . . cold.” I can barely speak.

            They bring me a blanket,

            “No. Inside. Veins. My veins are cold. It’s the bleeding.”

            “Oh no honey. That’s just your IV. It’s a little cold.”

            She smiles at me and holds the IV up for me to see. But it is blood, bleeding that makes me cold. I am halved, with an ocean-a red gaping ocean dividing me. I will never be com­pletely land, completely solid again.            

*   *   *

            They pull and push until she is on the narrow stretcher. They wheel quickly through the halls, through doors, around cor­ners. They pass other stretchers. They speak to each other. They laugh. They move her onto a bed, pushing the rails up af­terwards. She hears them wheel out. She turns her head. Blue this time. Blue sky and dazzling sunshine paint themselves on, and behind the city buildings. The sunlight scatters itself on the white walls. She begins to feel new pain underneath, deeper inside. Pain that makes her remember. Pain that feels like the pain of hours, days. She calls for the nurse. The nurse comes quickly, immediately closing the drapes. She gives her a shot, quickly, in her ass.

 

            In my body lies the truth. I know this now, even as they move me around, push needles into me, tell me to wiggle my toes, mop the blood from my belly button. After they do all these things to help my body, to force me to be well, I know that I will never be, because I am broken now. My uterus is a broken, torn, spent muscle. Life giver, life taker. Womb tomb. I see them hover around me but they don’t speak to me, nor I to them. It is as if we have all decided to pretend that there is nothing wrong, by pretending that nothing, no one, even ex­ists. I lie motionless in this bed, my intestines ripping at each other, forcing gas into a hole from which it cannot escape. I ask for more drugs, more needles. I look at my toes, so far away from the rest of me. They cannot be mine.

*   *   *

            She awakes, and they stand above her again. She feels them pulling the gown above her breasts. She keeps her eyes closed. They push their fingers into the soft sagging skin of her ab­domen. She bites down on her tongue. The pain moves there. The broken-blood-vesselled nosed one is shaking his head. He is pushing the flesh again. She feels for the first time in her life as though she is capable of murder. He mumbles to the others.  She hears her voice asking them what it is, what the trouble is. She screams inside “what have you done with my baby” but she cannot move those words up past her lips. He looks at her and pats her shoulder.

            “The incision just looks a little infected. We’re just going to try some antibiotics. Nothing to worry about really. Just get some rest, Jan.”

            My name isn’t Jan, she starts to tell them, but they have already left the room.

 

            I want to die now. I want to die because I will be dead from now on anyway. They will mend my body, send me home hunched and dragging my sagging, empty coffin-belly. They will say just try again sweetie. Have another honey. They will tell me to just look ahead, that maybe this was all for a reason. They will tell me whatever they can as long as they don’t really have to tell me anything. As long as they really don’t have to tell me that my body has killed. That my body has been killed; chopped up and delivered of death. I can see it in their faces when they come confer, murmur, over my body. “Why hasn’t she asked us about her baby. Why doesn’t she want to know.” But I already do know. No one needs to tell me this.

            I have not seen him in all the hours, day?, that I have been here. I remember him last standing over me, stroking my sweating wet hair from my eyes. And now, he is gone too. But I cannot ask. I cannot force all this loss down into me because I will choke on it and vomit it up as I used to choke on liver; okra. He would not want to see me now. He would find it all too dis­tasteful. And he would never forgive me. He would stroke my hair, and rub my feet but he would not let me see his eyes. They would tell me everything.

I feel more blood gushing from me. My breasts fill up with pain. I push on them with my hands, hoping to somehow beat them back, make them take their life milk away. But they get larger, despite the shots they give me, despite the bandages they wrap around me. They are like a school of spawning salmon-deter­mined to jump and swim over everything in their way. Determined to give life.

*   *   *

            They are coming again-coming to pull the sheets back, coming to press down hard on the massive flesh that lies open and dripping. She has stopped trying to catch their eyes. Stopped trying to find something worth catching. She closes her eyes. She uses the breathing she was taught in classes to keep her body from reacting when they press and tug. But even this does not make them leave her alone.

            “How’s that feel in there, Jan? Pretty painful still. Jan?”

            He shakes her gently, gripping her shoulder.

            I was sleeping. Sleeping. she wants to scream out, but doesn’t because she knows that it will not matter.

            “Yes. It hurts.” Yes it hurts. And you are making it all worse by playing with it, by pretending that I have just had a rotted tooth pulled from me instead of a dead baby.

            “My breasts. My breasts need to be emptied. They are full of milk.”

            “Well, a little milk is to be expected, but those shots should start working very soon.”

            “They are full. Overflowing. Is there someone . . .a baby . . . who I could give it to?”

            “Oh, I don’t think that would be such a good idea, Jan. I’ll have the nurse come in and pump you, and give you another shot. That should take care of it. Now try to rest a little. We’re going to be giving you more antibiotics to clear up this infec­tion. You should be able to go home in a few more days.”

*   *   *

            I see the nurse coming, and she wheels in a big machine with a bottle and suction cup attached to a tube attached to a see through motorized thing. She pulls the wrapping from my breasts and they spring loose. The suction starts and I see the milk flowing steadily in a blue-white stream into the bottle. I want to taste this milk, but don’t, because everything I do here is so watched, judged. My breasts feel relieved, as though they were a too full bladder just emptied. They pull all the remaining drops from me, just as they mop up any drops of blood from my belly. Clear the body of all evidence. Make believe that nothing has ever happened. Resume white-clean sterile safe white-as quickly as possible. The nurse smiles at me. She tries to look sympathetic but ends up looking angry and worn instead. She thinks that I am living. She thinks that I will jump from this bed and run around the room as soon as my broken body heals. She thinks that I will be glad to go home. Happy to start fresh. Glad to put “this thing” behind me. She thinks that I will just continue from this point. She dumps my milk down the sink.

*   *   *

            A woman comes and stands by her bed. She is wearing a bright, multicolored skirt and a sweater almost as blinding as the sun. She leans down and taps her on the shoulder.

            “Jan? . . Mrs. Hodges? . . .are you awake?”

            “Yes. I’m not Mrs. Hodges. Not Jan.”

            “Oh. I’m terribly sorry. Aren’t you the woman who just had a csec Friday?”

            “I don’t know. Am I?”

            “Well, according to your chart, you are.”

            Then I am, I am, I am. She screamed it inside her head un­til it forced her to open her eyes.

            “I suppose I did have a csec. Just look at my stomach. That should tell you. My name isn’t Jan. I am not Mrs. anyone. I have no husband and I don’t want one so you can leave now.”

            She felt the walls screaming again, and she moved her head so that the white would be facing her eyes. Every time she turned, bright flowers popped out from the woman’s skirt. White. Yellow. White. Yellow. She kept turning back and forth and finally settled for good on the side that was all white.

*   *   *

            They have painted these walls with my milk. Taken it from me and thrown it against these walls, spread it out so that it will never resemble anything more than white screaming walls. I envision the colors of my body splattered over the walls. Prob­ably close to the colors of the hideously bright skirt that this woman wears. Red and yellow and blue. Thrown against the wall with my milk they would represent the true state of my body if these doctors would stop trying to put back together what waits to burst open. I still cannot ask a question. Funny that I don’t want to…. But I am willing to suspend my disbelief for as long as I must in order to let my body die, my uterus shrivel back into its pear sized self. I cannot ask these people about him either. I know that he is gone. And I remember too much about him to think that it matters. We danced always on an is­land. Danced with our dreams. Danced with ourselves dancing with each other. Separate from anything else except the water that would come and touch the sand just enough to warn us to step back. And we would always step back and continue dancing-lost in the narcissism that we called love. Lost in the simple truth that nothing else mattered. The more my belly grew, the farther back we kept having to move, because the water came closer and more often. I hold his face inside of me like the face of a ser­pent. Tempting me. Tempting me to believe that everything ex­ists only within itself.

*   *   *

            The brightly clothed woman stands to leave, not having got­ten what she had come for. She had corrected the name on the chart, and kept smiling a smile that said I feel so sorry for you. Thank God it didn’t happen to me. After she left, they came again to pull her out of bed. To walk her around the room. She told them to leave, that she did not want to walk anywhere, but they just cranked up her bed until she was scrunched over like a dead starfish. They made her hold on and wiggle herself off the bed. When she got to the floor, she could not straighten her body out. Caught in a net of pain, she could not move. She imagined this time that the pus and blood were pouring from her. When she looked to the floor, she saw it was covered with blood, as though a blood cloud had just burst right above where she was standing. She told the nurse that she was bleeding again. Bleeding again from a place that she thought had dried up by now, for all the blood she had spilled. But the nurses smiled. Nor­mal discharge. Six weeks of it. Happens to all new mothers. Then they looked at each other and pulled their lips apart and raised their eyebrows the way people do when they know they have just said the wrong thing. She pretends that she didn’t hear, and shuffles to the toilet where she plants herself until the blood stops pouring from her. As she sits on the toilet, an or­derly brings a mop and begins wiping away the pool of blood. She wonders if that’s what they have done with her baby.

            At night, she hears the babies being wheeled back and forth in bassinets that sound like rollerskates. As one wheels past her door, she wakes and realizes that she has made a mistake and that she has been dreaming all of this. But the sound fades and she hears the bassinet going into a room down the hall. All night long she wakes as the babies go back and forth. She dreams of infants on rollerskates. She dreams of hers skating into her room and crashing.

 

            I awake with the sound of crying stuck inside me. I will need to ask soon. I will need to find my baby. I will need to make them get my baby and bring it, he? she?, to me. There are flowers on my table. Flowers that block my view of the white breast-painted walls. They are bright and smell like spring. I wonder if it is spring really. I have forgotten. I open the card. It says I’m sorry. I recognize his initials and wonder why he didn’t write his full name-why he is speaking to me as though we needed to use secret codes to communicate. Maybe he doesn’t want the world to know. Maybe he doesn’t really want to know himself, so he is pretending that we are playing some game. Maybe he is just . . .sorry.

            The nurse comes in to plump my pillows and I tell her that I want to see my baby. She looks at me, puzzled, as though I were a previously dead person who has just wiggled a toe. She smiles and says that she doesn’t think that that would be possible, and she leaves the room. I hear her returning, and with her soft footsteps I hear the clicking Italian leather shod footsteps of the doctor. He smiles at me, and lifts the sheet to perform his usual pressing. I tell him that I want my baby. I tell the nurse again. They look at each other as though I cannot see them. He leans over to inspect the incision more closely and says again that it is not possible, as though my womb had just given him an answer. And maybe it did. I have begun to believe that I have never had a baby-was only brought in here because I had some terrible tumor that they wanted to cut out of me.

            I have died over and over in my dreams. In each one, I can see the ground above me, can smell the fresh weed and dirt spring ground smell of the newly dug hole. And I can see women and men standing above the hole, distorted, as though I am looking through a fun house mirror. I do not know most of the people, but their faces are all drained, and bloated red from crying. I always see my mother and sisters, standing at the front of the pack, their black cotton dresses blowing around their calves, their heels sinking in the mud. Lately, I see my baby too-held in my mother’s arms, asleep against her breast. I watch them all until they toss the dirt over me and I awake, dead.

*   *   *

            She hears them coming down the hall again-the doctor, the nurse, and someone with quiet, indistinguishable footsteps. It is the woman with the bright skirt, this time in black pants and sandals. She sits beside the bed and looks.

            “Allegra, open your eyes. I need to talk with you.”

            Allegra lies motionless.

            “Allegra, please. I’m very worried about you. I need to talk with you.”

            The doctor leans over and takes her pulse with his cold, bony fingers. Allegra loosens her eyelids, then opens them.

            “Thank you. Don’t worry. I’ll be leaving in just a few minutes. I just need to ask you a few questions before you’re discharged.”

            Discharged. Sent home. Away from this bed. These walls.

            “How are you feeling? Experiencing any mood swings or crying jags? Just part of the normal post mortem, I mean post partum experience.”

Allegra laughs and turns away.

            “Look, Allegra. You’re going to have to confront all of this. You can’t just stare at the walls all day. What’re you going to do when you get home? Is there someone there to help you? Now, you know you can’t do any lifting or climbing stairs for six weeks.”

            The woman scribbles on her pad as Allegra speaks silence. The doctor shakes his head as he leaves the room.

           

            I walk past the nursery, taking shuffling steps, pulling my belly along behind me. The babies lie in their metal carts, propped on their sides. I look down the row of them, searching for the one that might have my name stenciled on the plexiglass. But of course, my name does not appear. The mothers stand around the glass, comparing hair, noses, fingers. I shuffle away before they can ask me which one is mine. Down the hall, I drift toward the smell of cigarette smoke. I bum a cigarette and in­hale until I feel kicked in the lungs. Long forbidden, the cigarette has suddenly become the only thing that links me to who I once was, before all of this. I am struck by the disjunction I feel, as though I myself were viewing myself as a stranger. I no longer make sense. I no longer just know who I am.

            When Jason and I would make love, I always clung so hard to him, always tried to crawl inside of him. I would ache because I could never get any closer than I had always been. During the last month when my body was too big to move very far, I would sit on the porch and wait for the breezes to come lift my hair off my back. I would rub my stomach until I felt the sweet dance begin. I would imagine the dark, warm wet ocean womb and wish that I could get inside there too, that even though I was sharing my body with this baby, I was still not completely with the baby. That this was the closest that I would ever get to being inside of someone, sharing someone, was frustrating to me, but at the same time, gratifying. I would hug my belly, and whisper to the life inside not to be afraid because it lived in­side of me, and being able to be curled up inside someone was the best that life would ever be.

            I wash myself with memories. I wash myself constantly be­cause the dirt of this present will not rub off. The memories do not seem strong enough. I search for more, but I am jailed here until I am able to turn this from present into memory.

 

            This time the nurses bring a wheelchair. They crank her bed up until it spits her out. They help her thump herself down into the chair. They hand her the flowers. She makes them put them back. She takes the card from them and shoves it in her pocket. She is wearing the pants she wore when she came in. She feels skinny now, the pants gaping out at her waist, looking as though they have air in them. They make her call a taxi. They wheel her through the hall. She hears the babies being wheeled out for lunch. They hand her papers to sign, papers to take home. A nurse starts to give her the formula package but stops when she sees that her lap is empty. They wheel her outside where the sun is high and hot. She remembers now that it is summer. The taxi comes and they help her into the backseat. She looks at them and smiles because she will not have to see them again. They think she is being nice, and smile back. One leans in and pats her shoulder and says, Take care honey.

*   *   *

            I dream of time stopping. It stops the moment that I am bending down to touch a flower and feel the first pain deep in my belly. The baby knocking. The baby ready. Time stops there-the last moment that I felt like myself. The last moment that I was alive and whole. I dream that time takes and parks me right in front of the bright rows of flowers, my belly hanging toward the soft ground, my body warm-tingling with excitement-ready to bear its own new flower.

            Each time I awake, I realize that time has not stopped. Time has brought me with it, forced me to view all that has been robbed from me, forced me to carry my dead body around and around, forced me to move on feet that do not even feel like my own.

The cat rubs across my legs-hungry and needing affection. I brush it away with my foot. Its cries burn a hole inside me. I imagine her, crying, hungry. I imagine her curling to my breast; a sweet body song of flesh into flesh into milk into flesh. I imagine her fingers curling themselves into tight fists, uncurling themselves, resting on my skin. I imagine her breath-sweet, almost no smell at all. Just enough sweet to remind me of an early, tentative spring breeze. I imagine. I imagine. I imagine and dream and shove this baby crying cat from my ankles. I follow the dreams. They are all that is right.

*   *   *

            The nurse knocks at the door of the small red bungalow. Knocks again and again. Knocks louder this time and she sees the woman come towards her.

            “Ah, hello. Are you Allegra?”

            “Yes. I am.”

            “Visiting nurse. Abby. Just here to check up on you-see how you’re progressing.”

            “Fine. Fine. I’m progressing.”

            “Can I come in?”

            Allegra pulls the door wide open. The sun hurts her eyes. She leads the nurse into her bedroom, lays down so that she can be inspected one more time. Abby’s hands are warm on her stomach; they move gently over the oozing line of her incision-push carefully on her shrinking uterus. The eyes are warm-not like the others who all turned away each time they caught her own. She tells her to keep pouring hydrogen peroxide on the wound. It will heal. She asks about her breasts. Full still? Less full? Empty? She tells her that they are not empty at all-that they are leaking all the time and she must stuff pads in­side her bra all day just to mop it all up. She asks for another shot to dry it up once and for all. Abby shakes her head. Doesn’t always work that way. It might not just go away this fast. Might take a bit more time. A bit more time. A bit more time to remember that there is no one there to take the milk that flows from her.

            Abby gets ready to leave. She writes things on a chart. She leaves a piece of paper with Allegra. No stairs. No sex. She crosses out the others. When nursing your baby. Try to have someone there to help you with the baby. Rest with the baby as much as possible. Bathing your baby. She crosses them out effi­ciently and with a look on her face that makes Allegra like her. Abby picks up her things and leaves. On the bottom of Allegra’s instructions, she has written, I lost one too. Open your shades.

*   *   *

            Her father had always referred to people he didn’t like, or wanted to be like, as hunks of flesh. He always said it in a way that made him look and seem powerful, as though his ability to reduce people to what could be pinched between two fingers gave him some unique mastery over his world. Allegra wondered what he would call her baby. A hunk of flesh? A child sent to teach? A child sent to show them all that they had no mastery at all; that only nature had the power that humans sought? She realized that they hadn’t even known that she had gone into labor, all those hours, days, weeks ago. She realized that they didn’t know that they had had a granddaughter, for one silent second between birth canal and burial. She thought of telling them, and wondered in­stead why her mother’s bi-weekly phone calls had stopped. Had someone else told her? Or had she heard the phone ringing, softly, muted in the background as though a vacuum cleaner were running?

            Allegra moved through the dim rooms and tipped the metal blinds until small shafts of light bent toward the floor. Her plants sagged in their pots, their soil dry and dusty. She went to water them and could almost feel their shoots lifting as the water reached them. But she realized that what she felt was her­self lifting-herself trying to move the cold boulder that had been crushing her inside.

*   *   *

            She dreamt of her baby’s fingers wrapped tightly around the cord which was wrapped tightly around her neck. Life cord, pulsing with blood. She hanging on even as it choked the life it had sustained. She hanging on as though hanging onto a vine, a branch. She covered with the blood of her mother. She hanging on, in silence, as it wrapped her neck with dying birth.

*   *   *

            The phone woke her. Her mother, desperate, on the other end. Her voice, still groggy, shook as she mentioned that she was no longer pregnant; no longer bearing the gift that they had all finally decided her pregnancy was. Her mother’s silence woke her fully. Her mother’s voiceless words made her tremble as she realized that her mother could give her nothing, except a need to be comforted herself. She hung up the phone as her mother cried on.

            She remembered how they had reacted at first. Her father had stormed from the room, calling Jason a no good hunk of flesh. She had laughed then, and run after him, thinking that he had been joking. When she found him, he was sitting in his big recliner in his study. She had pleaded with him to accept her, to accept him, but all he had said was what a waste what a waste. Her mother had stood in the doorway and listened, but never said a word. She didn’t speak to them again until they had showed up at her house, five months later, with stuffed animals and baby clothes stuffed into their suitcases. She had left Jason by then, and reluctantly accepted their gesture of acceptance. They had stayed three weeks; taken her to dinner, to the movies, to plays; they had even bought her groceries even though she in­sisted that she had plenty of money. Her mother had told her all about her own birth; an easy, seven hour labor. She started to believe that everything might really work out. By the time they left, she had forgiven them.

            Now, the phone rang again. She let it ring until the sound drifted around her like a song in the distance.

*   *   *

            She dreamt, awake. She dreamt of night, of stars jamming the sky. She dreamt of swirls of clouds. She dreamt of children’s faces; of her own face, her child’s face. She saw her child’s face cover her own; not her, but somehow belonging to her anyway. She dreamt of the ocean. She dreamt of her womb, floating among the waves in darkness.

*   *   *

            Allegra watched as her breathing forced her abdomen up and down. Smaller now, her uterus had almost returned to its normal size, shrunk almost enough so that she could begin to recognize her own body again. The scar hovered above her pubic hair, curved like the silhouette of a slim moon. A presence now. Always.

 

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Karen Carr lives in Providence, RI, where she teaches literary studies at The Rhode Island School of Design and Rhode Island College.

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