FALL 2022


Soft Bodies

Illustration by Mayra Tuncel.

Afterward, Lila felt washed clean. Her face was as bare of makeup as a child’s and her insides had a drained, weightless quality, as though wrung of excess moisture. The hospital bed was stacked with so many pillows, pads, and blankets, it was as though she were floating just slightly above the furniture. The pale gray light also had an aura of suspension. It could have signified morning, afternoon, or evening. Time had no force here. There was the vague sense she could stay in this zone of peaceful rest, still as the eternal dark, for as long as she pleased. Then a nurse pushed a wheelchair through the door.

“Good morning, Mommy!” the nurse said, somewhat louder than was necessary.

Lila blinked at the nurse, her face immobile. She wasn’t trying to be rude, she just had no idea how she was supposed to react.

The nurse smiled benevolently and told her it was time.

Already? The baby had been born at 6:21 a.m. That was one of the facts that Lila’s mind had managed to hold. The baby was five pounds, ten ounces and had been born at 6:21, which seemed two seconds ago but also like another lifetime. She stood to wave off the wheelchair. (She’d continued jogging on the streets well into her sixth month, she had no need of such comforts.) But people she had not realized were in the room rushed as though to catch her, and she was guided into the chair against her will. This coddling rankled, but various shames—her helplessness, her inability to track the passage of time—rendered her compliant. Jeremy walked beside her down the hall, pulling the IV. Lila tried to observe the way one corridor led to another, in case she needed to find her way back. But she was soon bewildered and resigned herself to a few more hours of dependence.

Before she had entered the hospital, during those months when she was the unwilling receptacle of birth trivia from almost everyone she encountered, she had formed a mental picture of the NICU as a place where fat, grandmotherly nurses bossed around perinatal moms, greedily clutching infants to their tragic floral scrubs. A place where unnecessary procedures were performed and parents were deprived of their rightful agency. A place basically on the level of an electroshock facility, or wherever Rosemary Kennedy was lobotomized. Of course, Lila hadn’t really thought about it because she hadn’t believed she would ever see the inside of a NICU. She was a woman of her era, she made her own luck. There had seemed to be no reason that hers would not be the vogue birth story—minimal interventions, dreamy rock music,
ecstatic tears.

They passed through two sets of security doors, the kind of doors she associated with space movies, and a high desk where an attendant invisible from Lila’s position instructed them to wash their hands under hot water for two minutes. Then they were in. It was not what Lila had imagined. This place was tranquil as a spa. The nurses were all pretty, they all appeared to be exactly twenty-six with shiny ponytails and poreless, made-up faces. They stood at their stations in slim-fitting uniforms, radiating a brisk and distinctly feminine efficiency, like attendants in a high-end plastic surgery clinic. The nurses in labor and delivery were harried, salty, always snapping latex gloves, always agitated, as though desperate for a cigarette. These nurses were a different species.

Lila attempted to smile for the room, but her mouth wouldn’t cooperate, and she felt a surge of loathing toward the hospital gown she wore. Jeremy was smiling successfully. He was looking at her as though to say, Are you ready for the miracle? Her eyes found a clock. It was nine; the baby was not yet three hours old.

After the baby was born, Jeremy had gone with him while he was cleaned and weighed. They’d bonded while Lila slept. She almost asked Jeremy if she could put on real clothes before she held the baby. But she knew they’d all pretend she’d been trying to make a joke. She didn’t have the energy to explain otherwise, so she remained silent as he pushed her up to the big, clear plastic box. The NICU nurse standing sentry introduced herself as Sadie. Nurse Sadie, who wore her glossy, auburn hair in a ballerina bun, put on new gloves and placed the baby in Lila’s arms.

It didn’t look like any baby she’d ever seen. They said he was jaundiced and that was why they’d put him in the NICU, but Lila thought of jaundice as a yellowing. This creature was red as a fresh-born rodent, blind-seeming, no chub anywhere. Nurse Sadie made gentle exclamations and asked if Lila wanted to try breastfeeding. Lila said maybe later. Nurse Sadie explained what all the monitors were and how the schedule worked—they changed the baby’s diapers and took his temperature and fed him every three hours at six, nine, twelve, etc.—and Lila could come every time. All the procedures were elucidated in a tone of serene logic, but Lila was having trouble following. At last, the baby was returned to the plastic box with the holes you could put your hands through, and the nurse busied herself with the wires that monitored heartbeat, etc., which Lila hoped meant she, Lila, was dismissed.

Back in her own room, Lila was greeted by a massive gift basket that her boss, Simone, had sent over. Dark chocolate-covered almonds, a silk eye mask, crystals, and sage were situated amongst lavender and small vials and tubs labeled with words like cocoa butter, lanolin, fenugreek. Simone was the founder of ClogWitch, a beauty/wellness/style/mommy blog. Beautiful responses to birth were Simone’s specialty. Her own children were impeccably dressed, eye-rolling preteens, and she probably pined for their baby sweetness. Lila hated ClogWitch and even sort of hated Simone (though they were always giddy and cynical together), but the blog was inexplicably popular, and Lila was inexplicably adept at negotiating lucrative partnerships with brands.

“You feeling okay, Mommy?” asked the nurse who came to take her blood pressure and deliver some medication or other. The nurse was an entirely normal-seeming person wearing scrubs and Crocs, hair scraped back from her forehead, last night’s eyeliner smudgy on her upper lids. Relieved by the nurse’s appearance, Lila had a passable blood pressure reading. “Is your pain manageable?”

Lila did have a vague sense that muscle and bone had shifted in the corridor of her pelvis, that that region of her body had been exercised in the night. But pain, no. She felt no pain, she didn’t want the meds she was being offered. She hadn’t wanted the pain medication in labor, either: epidurals did not fit her birth narrative. But then, the wildness, the sensation that had left her weeping for death on the bathroom floor, refusing any vaginal exam until they got her the drugs—this was another thing entirely. It could not truly be summed up by that prissy, one-syllable word pain. Even now, hours after being unhooked from the medication, she felt the pleasant trails of its numbing glitter in her lower back, and her body swayed in its enervating afterglow, and she scoffed inwardly at those who spoke of pain and did not know what she knew.

At noon, she was retrieved by a new orderly. Jeremy had not yet returned from lunch. The IV was gone by then and, for the ride to the NICU, she had managed to get herself out of the hospital gown and into the lavender nursing robe her sister-in-law had insisted she buy. The baby didn’t seem to mind when she held him, and his miniature mouth did close around her absurd nipple, though Lila felt certain this did not qualify as breastfeeding. “You have to keep trying,” one of the lactation consultants said. For some reason, there were two lactation consultants, both hovering in her peripheral vision. A few days ago, all of her had been ample, and she had believed that breastfeeding was the natural, the best, the only, the most beautiful. Now all of her was slack except her breasts, which had inflated, hard and green from the veins compressed under the skin, curious and disgusting. An hour passed, and Nurse Sadie pushed Lila to the front desk, where she called for an orderly to return Lila to recovery. Lila let her eyes lose their focus and thought of nothing.

Hey!” someone called to her, just at the moment of nodding off.

Lila summoned all her powers to lift her eyelids.

A woman—familiar but impossible to place—was approaching from the recovery unit. She was wearing a black, stretchy, expensive-looking wrap sweater and black pants that ballooned in a flattering way and were possibly designed for exercise. Had they gone to college together, worked in the same office at the same time, did they frequent the same yoga studio? The woman might have been a not-famous working actress—Lila’s recognition was touched with that sort of hazy affection. Except she was the one who had acknowledged Lila, so that didn’t make any sense. Lila could produce no more information about this woman from her mental soup and managed only a blank stare.

“You don’t remember?” The woman stopped a few feet away from Lila and looked down at her. “We were in triage at the same time. I felt so sorry for you.”

Lila wasn’t certain whether her eyes narrowed at this expression of pity or at the mention of the triage room where she’d been admitted, which seemed a room she had known some decades ago, when she lived a frivolous life, merry and ignorant of her own good fortune. Lila did kind of remember a woman on the other side of the curtain in the triage room, wearing something smart and office-appropriate, a fitted maternity dress in a grown-up neutral, maybe. That was before Jeremy arrived, when she was still texting him don’t rush I’ll probably be out of here soon. This woman and her husband had been talking about unexpected bleeding, about how angry they were with the hospital for some reason, how they wanted no medical interventions, they had planned a home birth and their doula would be arriving shortly. So they talked, on and on, using terms and theories Lila had come to understand as the pieties of birth amongst women of their ilk—professional, upwardly mobile women who had come to the big city looking for mystery, high-end cocktails, and bad romance but had settled for moon ceremonies and monogamy. It was also possible Lila had imagined all that. She had been trying to keep her own blood pressure low and had closed her eyes, wishing these people and their bleeding would just go away.

“You said ‘but I’m not ready yet.’” The woman had more control of her mouth than Lila did, but the thing she did with it was still not exactly a smile. “Like, a lot.”

“Oh.” Lila’s neck ached from trying to meet the eyes of this woman who was so enviably able to stand. Oh didn’t seem an adequate response, so Lila tried again. “Oh yeah?”

They faced each other, two women in an empty, beige hall with nothing to say. Lila’s temples tingled with panic. She was devoid of the resources necessary to dissolve this sort of social agony. Luckily, Jeremy came then, his face strained with apology, and swooped in to take charge without registering the other woman. Lila lifted her hand in parting. Jeremy piloted her through the flapping security doors and back to her own room without asking about the other woman. They were in a zone of life in which other people did not track.

As he pushed the wheelchair back toward the recovery unit, he asked after the baby and told her bizarre little details about the outside world, where people were still talking about politics, baseball games, and television plot twists. From that ridiculous world, Jeremy had procured lunch. She had eaten half the hamburger before she remembered that she used to be a vegetarian. It was true that her vegetarianism had become mostly a habit—she ordered fish at restaurants, she’d stopped checking food labels years ago—but while she was pregnant, cooked meat had smelled obscene. Not so now. Her body could have held ten hamburgers. She felt pale, bloodless, wanted to suck the wrapper for any traces of fat. She gave him a sheepish smile, and he smiled sheepishly back.

“Oops,” she said.

“They brought you that orange Jell-O stuff while you were in labor, and you actually threw it at me. You told me to get you a fucking hamburger or you’d kill me.”

She wished her face could make the smile she felt in her chest.

“We are a murderous species,” he said. “Other things must die so we may live.”

Illustration by Mayra Tuncel.
Illustration by Mayra Tuncel.

They had met online eighteen months ago, and the day after their first date, she’d texted Simone that he was nice but probably boring. Good on paper, she had carelessly summarized this tall, not-unhandsome man. He did comms for the city, he probably had good benefits, ha ha wink wink. (This was true, thank god. She never wanted to see this NICU bill). His enthusiasms included sneakers and skate videos. His face was fashionably scrubby, a little hound dog-ish in shape. He was losing his hair. Yet here they were. He didn’t seem boring now. All through the two days of her labor, he had watched her with heartrending attention, mostly well-concealed fear, and the concern of a true adult. In the coming weeks, the thought she had just then would recur often, which was that Jeremy was in his element here, his light shone when there was someone to take care of. At first, this inspired resentment, but resentment became relief as she realized that at least the baby would have him to be loved by.

The NICU nurses noticed Jeremy’s qualifications too. “Good job, Daddy,” they whispered through glossed lips. Their gaze would soften when they saw him, they would linger at his side and encourage everything he did. His eyes were starry from the attention, from the wonder of it all. Lila waited to see if she would mind, but she never did. His vanity was harmless; he couldn’t help his self-regard, sustained on nothing but a mama’s praise and the occasional glance in the mirror.

By the day’s final feeding, she had mastered the NICU’s schedule. She had figured out how to put the tiny diaper around the tiny abdomen, how to fit the pump’s suction cups to her weird, giant nipples. When another mother, fresh from Labor and Delivery, was wheeled in for the first time, her face blank and drained of blood and her mouth working in a mechanical way, Lila knew that this was how she had looked in the long-ago morning. Lila was glad to have moved on from that time. She was presenting better, surely, though she still felt wrong when she held the baby and counted down the minutes until she could go back to her own hospital bed.

The doctors—she had given up trying to summon names, specialties, whether she had met a particular doctor before or not—were saying they wanted to monitor her in the hospital for at least another two days. They delivered this information apologetically, as though she would be disappointed by it—you couldn’t be too careful with preeclampsia, blah blah. In fact, she had no desire to leave her small, beige room. Whatever had happened the night before transcended all her intentions, all her assumptions about life. She didn’t want to have to go out there. She didn’t want to have to tell the story. How did that hypnobirthing work out, they would ask with that subtle twist of I told you so on their lips. Hypnobirthing was a hot ticket, she had told their features writer, Clover, who had obediently written a story on the practice for ClogWitch. Clover had interviewed Lila (ClogWitch was not a newspaper, they were not above basing features on the enthusiasms of their own growth manager), and Lila had given a rapturous quote on the beautiful birth she was practically guaranteed.

Back then, in prenatal yoga classes, doing wall sits that mimicked the length of a contraction, Lila had glanced around smugly at the other heaving, flushed mamas-to-be. I know pain, she had thought. She’d been at war with her body her entire life. At her poorly funded public high school, she had been the lone swimmer to master the butterfly’s syncopated beat. For years, she had risen before dawn and charged across the overchlorinated pool, whipping her body up and out of the water, taking in breath after breath, each a desert lungful, dagger-sharp. Those were the years her father had succumbed to alcoholism. He kept stringing thirty days together, and then she’d see his sheepish, bleary face and understand he was that much closer to exiting the world. She knew what it was to grit your teeth and carry on without comfort or hope. In fact, she had ground her molars to stumps and several of her front teeth had been root-canaled and capped. (An unfortunate consequence of the years of her parents’ estrangement, when Lila’s mother had absconded with her back to Poland—crucial developmental years spent listening to her grandmother badmouth her father and drinking nonfluoridated water while her mother traipsed off to ashrams and interesting, dead-end jobs.) Certainly, after all that, Lila could do the thing that women had done for millennia without the benefit of drugs.

Now, remembering the things she’d said to Clover that Clover had dutifully published on ClogWitch—that the problem was that women weren’t educated about birth these days, they just didn’t know how to advocate for themselves in a hospital setting—her face hurt from wincing. She was a born liar, she had lied her way into all she had. The natural mother-to-be had been a pose, just like the red-lipstick-and-heels-wearing working girl. The invincible swimmer, though, she’d believed in her. That tough poser had been her own delusion; Lila had all along been a soft, weak thing. Those two days she had labored—that was how she would say it later, two days, though it had all seemed one endless night—had been a shock. She could not unsee the truth.

Day two, Lila thought when she woke up. Today was the second day of somebody’s life. It was almost 6 a.m.—she had slept through the 3 a.m. feeding. She put her feet on the floor, showed Jeremy her palms so he knew she was determined. No more wheelchair. She entered the NICU upright, beaming with helpless pride at this accomplishment. She smiled down at the desk attendant and swept on to the hand-purifying station.

But her confidence faltered on a strange realization. The room had been rearranged. Where her son had been, there was now another baby and another mother. This mother was familiar to Lila. She was the woman who had stopped Lila in the hall, the woman who had looked directly at Lila and said the words I felt so sorry for you. Yesterday, Lila had not been able to see this woman, she had heard those words through a scrim of vague recognition. Now she saw her anew, the curtain of golden-brown hair framing her handsome features, falling over a vaguely ethnic woven cloth. The elegant way her body encircled the baby. The cloth reminded Lila of a video she’d watched in birth class, in which a Mexican midwife gives birth painlessly in a blue-tiled bathtub after a walk through the jungle with her sculptor husband. Lila tried to make a connection between cultural appropriation and the infantilization of women by the Western medical establishment, but her thoughts were scattered by rage. Was it the memory or the other mother’s posture that enraged her? The woman was so still, so serious, so enraptured and protective, Lila knew with an inner howl that her own mother had never been so competent in love, that she herself was unprepared to love so well.

The woman looked up—their eyes met. Lila had been bloodless, watery, chilled from within, but in a dizzying instant, she was filled with heat. She was determined not to break eye contact with this woman. To look away first would be weak, would erase this morning’s triumphant graduation from the wheelchair. But Lila soon succumbed, lowered her eyes, concentrated on the place where her feet touched the floor.

She had forgotten Jeremy was there until she heard him ask, “What’s the matter?” She couldn’t explain. But when he led her to the baby’s new station, placed the baby in her arms, she found she had not been robbed. The heat had been good for her. It had cleared something. Energy clearing is so important, as Simone might say. A stirring of the elements. Earth, air, water, fire. The fire is also necessary. That kind of musing on ClogWitch always inspired a lot of user engagement. God, she really did hate Simone. Maybe especially when she was partially and more or less accidentally right about something. The anger had jump-started Lila’s body, the deep root system that was her, a lactation thick as raw honey. She could smell herself. That human odor, it fascinated like any bodily intimacy: disgust
inseparable from allure.

That afternoon, her OB popped in and said that everything looked good, that she’d talked to the ped, that the baby was surprisingly hardy for having been born at thirty-five weeks and that it was perfectly normal that he was sleeping all the time. Did he have a name yet? No? Well, it was good to take one’s time with that decision. The doctor was wearing high heels with her white coat. Lila realized it was a Saturday and wondered where she was going for the evening.

A shadow of pity passed over the doctor’s foxlike features. She had noticed Lila staring at her high heels. Before Lila could stop herself, her own expression fell, and she turned her eyes on the lavender cotton nursing gown that did nothing to hide the deflated bouncy castle that was her midsection.

“I didn’t recognize you at first,” the doctor said, as though she sensed a rising emotion and was eager to head it off. It was astonishing how attuned women were to other women’s vanity. “Out of your hospital gown. You look like a guest, not a patient.”

Lila’s first response was a panic that she actually might cry hot, ugly tears at being pandered and lied to in this way. Lavender—what an awful, mealy color. She thought of that woman in the hallway in her luxury yoga clothes and classy woven shawl. That woman would never wear lavender. She had that sophisticated aura of having eschewed color since adolescence. Lila had known such women in college—the kind of women who did not believe they had to make themselves pretty. Lila’s second and much stronger reaction was a surging gratitude for the doctor’s act of kindness. If the doctor was lying to her, saying she looked okay, it meant she might someday look okay.

Illustration by Mayra Tuncel.

That night, there was a new NICU nurse in charge of Lila’s unnamed baby. (She couldn’t get her mouth around my son.) The new nurse’s name was Ashley, and she looked a lot like Sadie: brilliant blue eyes, shiny mouth, bronze hair swept up in a springy ponytail, earlobes twinkling with little diamond studs.

“So I’ll be taking care of the little man until tomorrow morning,” Ashley said, holding Lila’s gaze with a steady, professional friendliness.

“Thanks.” Lila was feeling more herself. She was noticing more. She took a chance. “Are you . . . pregnant?” she asked, gesturing to the little hill under Ashley’s uniform, the only bulbous part of her otherwise-narrow body.

“Yeah, thirty-two weeks. Not long now!”


“Thanks.” Ashley waited for the baby’s temperature reading to come through and smiled privately at all that was ahead of her.

Lila tried to remember what she looked like at thirty-two weeks and couldn’t. “My partner, Jeremy, he says it’s like a cult. Parenthood, I mean.” Lila felt compelled to tell Ashley something, anything, from the other side. This made no sense: Ashley radiated competence, while Lila was a sack of haplessness. And yet Lila persisted, trying to make the nurse see what she had seen. “Like a cult in that all the recent converts are sort of glassy-eyed, and they’re a little too eager, telling you how great it is and that you should join. And the members of longer standing are super serene and knowing, they’re all like, ‘Just you wait and see, kids are the greatest gift.’ Potential grandparents are there with the hard sell and the signing bonus. But everyone is pushing just a little too hard for you to join. Know what I mean?”

Ashley nodded, lightly amused, unruffled. “I can see that. I’ve just always known, though, you know? I was meant to be a mom.”

“Yeah, totally. You must feel really prepared. I mean, you take care of babies all the time.”

“Yeah,” she replied, avoiding Lila’s eye.

Lila watched Ashley return the thermometer to its sanitary case and place the baby on the changing pad. “Wow, and you’re still working. I mean, you’re on your feet all the time.”

“I don’t mind. Got to save those vacation days. Anyway, I hate just sitting around.”

“Yeah. Yeah, totally.” Me too, old Lila would have said. The Lila of this current moment didn’t think she would be believed. Nurse Ashley finished changing the baby, snapped his miniature cotton clothes, and lowered him into Lila’s awkward arms. “Are you scared? About the birth part.”

“Not really.” Ashley smiled at Lila with bland magnanimity and tucked the striped flannel blanket more securely over his small body. “Don’t forget to keep him snuggled. He can’t maintain his body temperature like we can.”

“Right,” Lila said. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” The wattage of Ashley’s smile was undiminished.

Lila couldn’t keep herself from talking. She could feel Ashley withdrawing and wanted to pin her down with talk. She hadn’t been so voluble since the dark night she crouched on the hospital floor, howling in fury and despair. “You know what’s weird? I was awake the whole time, but I’m still not even sure it happened. It’s so extreme, birth—it’s so unlike anything else in life—that it’s hard to really be sure that it went down like they say it goes down.”


“Like, if you told me this was all some big conspiracy and someone had stuck me with something that made my stomach inflate and then deflate nine months later, and then they handed me this guy, and it was all a lie that he used to be inside me—I would believe that. I actually would.”

Ashley laughed gamely.

Lila felt big with energy. She pressed on, not sure what she wanted but seeking some weakness, some astonishment. She wanted to force something new into the world. “They tell you it’s painful, right? But that doesn’t really describe it.”

“Oh, no?”

“Not. At. All. The doulas tell you not to call it pain, to call it intensity. And they’re right, sort of—it is like this super-crazy intensity. But that’s not better than pain. It’s like the most intense sensation you’ve ever felt, and it’s unending, it basically seems like it will never end. Like, the only way this particular agony could possibly end is in death. A very specific death. Like, an explosive death by shitting. Like, only if you die by shitting will you be relieved of that sensation. So, besides everything else—the pain, the intensity or whatever—there is this backbreaking nausea of total mortification. It shouldn’t matter, right? If you’re dead, who cares how you died. But believe me, you know way down in your huevos that if you die by shitting, your life will have been for nothing.”

Lila observed Ashley all the time she was talking, monitored Ashley’s smile for any diminishment. “Wow,” Ashley said, her dainty white teeth precisely as visible as they had been before. Lila wasn’t sure if she was disappointed that her speech had failed to rattle the lovely Ashley or triumphant at having obtained definitive proof that this nurse was not human. Perhaps none of the NICU nurses were.

Soon the doctors were talking about Lila and the baby going home. The pretty nurses had stopped looking quite so nervous when she held the baby, and she had learned to listen in on the fleet of interns who went from crib to crib to discuss the condition of the infants. She noticed the other cribs, the babies who were never visited by parents, their weight in grams posted at the foot of the crib. Her son’s crib was now next to the room where they kept the hard cases, the ones born at thirty or twenty-eight or twenty-five weeks, and whenever anyone came in or out of that door, Lila’s gaze shifted in morbid curiosity. The interns were always hushed then, but Lila listened in anyway and occupied herself by trying to make sense of the words of the attending physician: vertex presentation, perinatal trauma, congenital abnormality. The worst thing she heard was: “Eighteen minutes is a long time without oxygen.”

On day three they said she and the baby might be released that afternoon, and Jeremy rushed home to get the car seat. Lila went to the NICU as usual at six, and nine, and noon. At noon, she passed the woman with whom she’d apparently shared a triage room, although now she walked past Lila without looking up, clutching a tiny, expensive sweater in one hand.

The woman was wearing the same stylishly formless, slate-gray dress, the same askew topknot she’d worn a week ago, and the sight of her clothed for the outside world shook loose in Lila a memory of reclining in the triage room and saying to the person who was trying to get her insurance information that she, Lila, couldn’t be having a baby now, she wasn’t ready, and anyway, she had a meeting that afternoon. For some reason, Lila had believed that if she could only convince the lowly person insisting she find her insurance card of the importance of the marketing meeting, she would be allowed to go home, she wouldn’t have to be a patient in a hospital, she wouldn’t have to give birth.

“I remember,” Lila said, and the muscles of her cheeks sprang into action. She was surprised by the volume of her own voice.

The woman glanced up. She appeared startled, yet her eyes fixed on something over there, something not quite material. Her pale, blank aspect kick-started Lila’s heart.

“In triage, remember? We were both there. I said, ‘I’m not ready’? Over and over, apparently. And you were bleeding. Right? Anyway, doesn’t it seem like another lifetime? I mean, that was some shit, right? Like, now I understand what they mean when they say ‘dark night of the soul.’ Apparently I told my husband that I’d kill him if he didn’t get me a hamburger while I was, you know, laboring. Did you labor long? Or was it natural—the birth?”

“I had surgery,” the woman said.

“Oh, well, I mean what does natural mean, anyway. Anything can be called natural. Like on food labels, you know? I was on antibiotics the whole time, I swore I wouldn’t do that. And something they called mag. And the epidural, come on. It was like being on ecstasy, who would say no to that? You had a baby, anyway, and what’s more natural than that?”

The skin around the woman’s eyes tightened and she turned and walked away down the hall, her steps slow and careful in avoidance of some imminent pain.

In that other life, a person turning away from her babbling would have seemed an unbearable personal insult. But Lila, suddenly full of mothering, felt nothing for herself, only this thudding concern for the woman whose gait suggested that every step was agony.

“Is she coming back?” Lila asked the desk attendant. She meant, Is she coming back soon? Lila was fighting the urge to run after that stranger in the slate-gray dress with whom she had, by chance, shared a tiny room several days ago and tell her she had recalled that ridiculous episode so she would laugh and not seem so solemn.

But the way the attendant at the NICU front desk said, “No, she won’t,” she knew the woman would never, ever be coming back, and that she, Lila, had sinned by asking. The woman in gray had almost made it to the next hall, still holding that tiny sweater, and Lila flinched as she comprehended its meaning.

Wait, Lila almost managed. Come back. She felt loopy and wild. If she could only catch up to her, she could explain that everything would be all right. For though the woman’s baby had been born too early, or without oxygen, or some necessary part, or enough luck, and so would never become any bigger than he was at birth, would never become anything, Lila had a baby to give her, a baby they said would grow and grow. But in the next moment, Lila’s spine shuddered at her own madness and, without waiting for the nurses to come help her, she marched over to her son, plucked him from his plastic crib, and wrapped him inside her lavender robe.

In that endless night, she had been furious with him for being stuck inside her, for proving her so weak. The fury had been forgotten in the morning, along with most other feelings, but she wondered if he knew. His little hand shot into the air. She cradled his translucent head against her heart, which broke open as she whispered, You’re mine, you’re mine, you’re mine.

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