BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Zig was born on the Brooklyn Bridge in the backseat of a yellow taxicab. Sheri pushed him from her womb onto the slick vinyl seat, with century-old steel cables, limestone, and a cab driver as her sole witnesses. The small of Sheri’s back bucked against the ashtray of one door; her shoeless left foot dug into the floor of the cab. Her right leg, up on the seat and bent at the knee, banged against the backrest. Blood pooled inside her thighs. The cabbie’s frightened eyes flashed at her in the rearview mirror. She glanced at his ID; the name was long and crammed with consonants.
5:21 Audiobook Sample Clip – Read by Annette V. Leach
“Aye, Miss! Please, Miss!” He cussed himself and ran a hand through clumps of oily hair. Sheri’s senses left her, jumping somewhere off the edge of the bridge. She screamed.
The August night air was hot and foul. Around her the city boiled: horns blared, trucks roared, and street hustlers shouted while the cabbie weaved through traffic. The faint lilt of Middle Eastern music wafted to Sheri’s ears. Nothing had prepared her for this moment, not the monotonous Lamaze classes, What to Expect books, or birthing DVDs. All directives from her midwife were forgotten like yesterday’s lunch. Tufts of white fiber hung from a gouge her fingernails had torn in the backseat. Her costly new maternity dress was hiked up under her breasts. The dappled street light revealed a prunelike face and wispy hair pasted to a round head. She quickly cleared his gummy mouth; thread-thin fingers then stretched as Zig wailed. Eyes squeezed shut to the world, tiny arms quivering, he let out a newborn howl that plunged the depths of the East River. It was as intense and unwavering as a tribal call.
A queer feeling of déjà vu came over her. This scene had happened before. Hadn’t she, too, ripped her mother’s insides open in birth, saving herself yet killing her mother? Long-buried nightmares flooded her mind. Born again were all the horrors she had concocted as a child about her mother’s death, images that in no way resembled anything her adoptive parents had ever told her.
The cab raced toward Beth Israel Medical Center. Sheri held Zig’s little trembling body to hers. Blood was everywhere. Jabbing pains crashed inside her, as relentless as a prize fighter. She looked down at the ropey umbilical cord that led from her vagina to Zig’s navel, the precious lifeline that connected them, and wondered what she had passed on to him. Would he live or die? Sheri lowered her son onto her lap, wrapped him in the damp hem of her dress. She wiped his face, feeling the curious, pulsating warmth of a new life in her hands. The earthquake in her body subsided. She wasn’t afraid anymore. All her life she had felt like half a person, the other half shrouded in anonymity. Zig was lithe and small boned, like Sheri. She looked at him and she saw herself.
“Shhh…don’t cry, Zig. Mommy’s here…I’m right here.”
At the sound of her voice, he closed his mouth and opened his eyes. Her toes slid in her lone Stuart Weitzman sandal as the cab lurched onto the hospital’s sidewalk.
“Miss, lady, lady, look—emergency entrance!” The panicked driver stuck his neck out the window and yelled. “Help! Somebody help!”
He leaped from the cab, gesturing wildly to a man and woman in blue uniforms. They rushed over. The man swung open the cab door and reached inside for Sheri. Blood trickled down on his sneakers.
“She’s hemorrhaging,” he said.
The woman turned and ran toward a wheelchair. The man spit some words into a two-way radio. City lights swam in Sheri’s eyes, then went black.
“Sheri…can you hear me?
Sheri lifted her eyelids. She saw the hills of her feet at the end of the bed. Her stomach was flat. Confusion gripped her. Through a murky haze, images of a crying baby crossed her mind. Where was he? Her tongue felt like wood. She rubbed it against the roof of her mouth. A hand came into view and put a paper cup to her lips.
“Take a sip.”
The woman had short red hair…stooped shoulders…
Cool water slid down her throat. Sheri dug her elbows into the mattress, struggling with the weight of her arms.
“Easy now. You want to sit up?”
She nodded. The woman pressed a button. The bed hummed; it raised her back as if she were a stiff, inflexible plastic doll. Joanne. That’s her name. Joanne Bergen, her midwife.
“Everything’s fine,” Joanne said, sensing Sheri’s anxiety. “Your son’s fine—he’s asleep in the nursery.”
Joanne’s voice was reassuring but also loud and direct. She took Sheri’s blood pressure, read the monitors behind her head. Sheri’s tongue became a little more pliant, and she finally spoke.
“Where am I?”
“That’s more like it!” But the corners of Joanne’s mouth quickly bent into a frown. “You’re in Beth Israel’s Mother-Baby Unit. You also spent some time in the ICU. How do you feel?”
She was weak. The smallest movement was exhausting.
“Like hell. What happened?”
“The report says your water broke and you went right into labor,” Joanne boomed, shuffling through paperwork on a clipboard. She looked worn, and something else, regretful, like she had failed her in some way. “That boy was in a serious hurry—a whole three weeks ahead of schedule.” Joanne checked the tube attached to the IV drip. “You lost a lot of blood, Sheri.”
Sheri looked up at the plastic bag of fluid. So she didn’t die. Childbirth had not killed her. Both she and Zig were alive. She let her eyes wander around the dingy room she shared with another mother, separated by a thin hospital curtain.
“How long have I been here?”
“Three days. That’s normal, given your circumstances. What do you remember?” Joanne sat down on a stool near the bed. Sheri laid her arm across her forehead and looked out the window. The flat gray sky was as dull as her memory.
“I went into the kitchen to scrape Chinese food into the garbage. I felt a gush on my legs. I thought I spilled something.” She licked her lips. Joanne studied her. “Somehow I left the apartment and got into a cab. The contractions were coming faster and faster. I tried to lie back…the pain was blinding. Then I heard him crying.” Sheri paused. “Where is Zig?”
“That’s his name.”
“Oh! How cute! He’s in the nursery. Is that a family name?”
“No. It’s not associated with anything. No boyfriends, uncles, Hollywood stuntmen…”
Joanne smiled. She glanced at her watch.
“Let me see if Zig is awake.”
She pulled the curtain aside and marched out into the hall. Sheri caught a glimpse of the mother in the bed across from her, a beaming, chubby-cheeked woman surrounded by bouquets of roses and what looked like her mother, two sisters, and a shell-shocked man—probably the father. Silvery blue balloons with It’s a Boy! printed on them bobbed around the ceiling vents. Sheri had little choice but to listen to their joyful banter while she lay spent and weary.
She turned her face away from the curtain. She thought about Rene and his broad, teasing smile, how it squeezed his wandering eyes into slits, a smile full of late-night sex and devoid of commitment. A pleasure-seeker and sought-after percussionist, Rene wanted little from life off center stage. This came as no surprise to her. She had built up a steely resistance to disappointments in love. But despite this Rene was different. With him, Sheri felt a great sense of freedom. She felt alive.
Rene made her laugh and taught her how to waste time, and she dated him on and off when he wasn’t touring outside the country. There would be no divorce or custody battle. No teary scenes. No delinquent child-support payments. Nine months ago, on her thirty-fifth birthday, she got drunk and slept with him, hoping to become pregnant. By the time she knew for sure, he was on tour somewhere in South America with a world music band. It didn’t matter if or when he would ever return. Rene was already married. Music was his first and only love. The night she saw him perform a solo, she knew. The pounding rhythm wrapped its feverish arms around him, swept him away like a sweet, hypnotic lover. She understood, too. She had once felt that way when she took up a paintbrush or charcoal pencil—the thrilling sense of creation, of the unknown making itself known through your own hands. Still, that was in her youth, and unlike Rene, she gave up her first love when she grew older.
Behind the hospital curtain the grinning new father looked proud but also frightened, as if he had just lost something terribly valuable. Sheri couldn’t bear to see that expression on Rene’s face. Why should she be the one to put an end to his happy childhood?
Conceiving alone was a running joke, passed around like salt among soured, unattached girlfriends at lunch. No one would admit the underlying truth—the wish to have a child by any means necessary. For Sheri, it was tangled and deep rooted, a yearning that threw a harsh light on the greatest source of sadness in her life: her adoption.
Copyright 2013 Annette Vendryes Leach