“Mama!” her baby cries as she begins readying them both for the bus ride. “Shhh, Wendy, princess,” she soothes the baby with coos and talk. “It’s cold out. We must dress warm. So the snake won’t bite!” With a yellow blanket, the mother swaddles the little form into an almost unrecognizable rigid mass, then covers herself with her own coat, picks up her baby and throws a top blanket over them both, bonding them as one. “I love you!” the baby says with a clearer voice than you’d expect from one so small. So special. The mother smiles at her child and says, “I love you, too, my Wendy. Little Cinderella.”
Right away they notice as she steps up. People in the front seats of the city bus sight the woman with the dangling cloth obscuring the bundle she so watchfully carries. Whatever it is, it doesn’t look heavy. They observe her intently looking for a seat in the front among them. If you see something say something go the signs and announcements all around the public transportation system. The citizens on the bus are seeing something, but aren’t sure if that something needs saying.
And the woman with the bundle sees something right away, too. The eyes cast upon her. She suspects they want to know, as usual, what’s wrapped in the blanket clutched to her chest. A seat second from the first is made available to her, a center seat that causes the woman to have to wriggle her bottom between an obese lady with big bags and an elderly man packed in a puffy down coat. The bus begins to move. The woman holds her load securely so as not to drop it as she splays her legs for support. People still look as she adjusts the blanket at the top, gently folding back the edges. A peek of the side of a baby’s head. The passengers appear to collectively relax. A mother with her baby. Making sure to nestle its blanket around the infant’s head, folks witness a mother protecting her child’s ears and neck from any draft. Conversation in the crowded space livens up, talk about the frigid record-breaking February weather, and pieces of one-sided cell phone chatter erupt as the bus drives on to the next stop.
Still curious, some people keep watching, for after all it is a baby, and the sight of a baby has a habit of breaking deadpan dazes, seems to revive worn out New Yorkers, bringing smiles, or at least some small interest that awakens them from their otherwise ticking-time lives. Sometimes the mother sees other looks, though. Looks of remembrance perhaps. Sometimes mystified expressions. Maybe even jealousy. As if they long for a baby of their own.
At each bus stop bodies get off and new bodies board with brand new glances at the woman, as if they’ve never seen a mother and child before. The looks do make her feel a bit embarrassed, but in a way, also special. Without the baby she more than likely would go unnoticed, could be just anyone on a bus. But with the baby in her arms they know who she is: A good mother. Though after a certain length of constant ogling, she feels uncomfortable. They stare, seem to scrutinize her every move. The gawking, the gawking always makes her self-conscious, and even, well yes, a little angry. Is she doing something wrong? Have they figured it out? It’s not the first time anyone has done this, what are they all glaring at? She knows who she is, what she’s doing. They always do this, this glaring and eyeballing and then someone will whisper, “It looks like…like a doll,” or a comment like that. And then someone else will whisper back a thing like, “Doesn’t it? I think maybe, too. A little baby doll.”
She gets that a lot. She always gets that about her baby. And she knows why.
Little babies. Lined up behind glass, each nearly identical. Each little baby swaddled the same, in the same but separate, plastic cradle. On the maternity ward she’d learned how to swaddle them good and secure, to make them feel as if they were still in the womb.
“Nurse,” she heard, and saw the other faces that peered and longed to touch what they’d made, as they called for her through the glass partition. “Where’s my baby? Which one is mine? Can you hold my baby up so I can see him?” Only she could touch the babies. For now, they were hers. Brand new, unformed, who would have known which was which? Who would have known who they belonged to? She did, though. Nurse Florence.
At this point in their unlived lives, she knew them better than anyone. Their individual sounds became recognizable to her within hours of being born. Nurse Florence knew their needs. And she’d tend to her babies’ needs.
And then they were gone.
Little babies. She saw them everywhere. Saw them behind her eyes in her sleep at night.
For most of those years living with her mother she’d always thought that if she were to die, if her mother got sick or had a heart attack and died, or even had a stroke that left her so bad that she couldn’t speak or think and just lay there like a rotting potato, Florence would never be able to make a decision on her own. She knew in her heart that if Mama were to go she couldn’t possibly go on without her.
Someone had said to her once, “It’s not natural. Not natural to live with your mother at that age, when you’ve been a grownup for so many years.” This someone she thought had maybe taken those words right out of one of those self-help psychology books, or maybe heard a doctor on TV say, “It’s not natural for an adult to live with their parents.” This someone, she also thought, had never known alone.
But still, it wasn’t smooth satin this living together business. She often felt like her mother had no respect for her. None at all. Like her mother owned her, as if Florence were just a piece of property, her own thing she could use as she pleased. And as if that owner, like owners are entitled to do with their own stuff, could handle the merchandise at their own whim.
“Slut,” her mother would call out the second floor window, while Florence tended to the small garden of gladiolas, tomatoes, and herbs in front of their tiny townhouse. “You going out again to that bar to find a man? You’ll never get a man,” her mother would say, and Florence would hope as she bent over the basil and thyme, that none of the neighbors heard, “Who would want you? Why you going there?” But when Florence stood at the gate trimming the hedge, she could see plainly that people passing by looked up at her mother with her head craning on her neck out the window, yelling, “You’re too old,” and she knew they’d never heard their own Mama saying a thing like, “Too old for a man. Too old for having a baby. Nothing but a slut.”
After a long time, Florence’s thoughts changed. She thought now she’d made a mistake. She’d rather have a man upstairs to kiss than her mother, that snake. But for the relief of the burden of cursing love every day, for that reason alone, Florence begged death on, not caring what would become of her without her mother. And now since it happened, since Mama had passed, from that day on Florence could, and does, make every decision on her own. And they are hers, and hers alone.
Everywhere. Little babies. She sees them inside and outside and hidden behind eyes. On crowded streets eyes darting taking in new sights, faces in parks and crying on buses, and peering from car windows that stop and start again at green lights, and she thinks they want out, those unhappy eyes from behind glass, saying to her, take me home with you. And so if she doesn’t take them, take care of her babies, their needs, they’ll be gone— “Maam, why are you running? Oh my God! Is that your baby? Stop! Stop running. Stop that woman! Oh God! She’s got a baby. Stop her now, she’s almost out of the building.” She keeps running, and her mind races…. It’s not like it’s never been done before, it’s not like nobody else has never done this. I have a voice, I can speak. They think I’m out of my mind, but I know what’s happening, and why I’m doing it. I remember the lived pieces….Layers of living, layer upon layer cascade and crash into each other—“Mama!”—moments that have been lived are in moments now forming— Cinderella dressed in yella— all that collected living—kissed a fella— of moments, sights sounds smells tastes tactile touch thoughts ferment—made a mistake—and then fertilize moments of the future…little babies. Wendy— People knock to walls and doors and down side hallways in the hospital, security guards rush to apprehend the woman, and then as they pin the woman to a wall, her head knocks up against a glass case with shelves displaying get-well cards, hospital-logoed coffee mugs, stuffed bears and bunnies, all available in the gift shop in the lobby, “Oh, for Christ’s sakes,” someone else says, “it’s just a goddamn doll.”— 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8— She missed, OUT.
Little babies. Everywhere she saw little babies. Behind plastic windows in boxes all lined up, identical, which one would she choose? There were infant ones. Toddler ones. Which one?
Maybe she would just take the one right here in front of her.
“No, no,” her mother said, “Take it out from under your sweater.” And the girl did, pulling the doll out from under her yellow, two-sizes-too-big, hand-me-down sweater, putting the doll back on the shelf. “You mustn’t steal. It’s not right, Florence. I’ll buy you one. Which one do you want?” But they all looked the same. The ones on this shelf at least. “Here, take this one,” her mother said, reaching to the shelf above where there was one single box. She pulled it down and put it in Florence’s hands. “You’ll have this one.”
The writing on the box declared that Wetting Wendy, not only could wet, but she could speak. A special little doll inside. Florence turned the box over and saw a hole there in the cardboard back and poking out was a plastic ring that begged her to pull. When she drew the plastic ring toward her a long string came out, and then took its time slipping back as Wetting Wendy said, “Mama!” She could speak! Wendy could talk! and she spoke directly to Florence right here and now.
The little girl pulled the string again. “Hold me,” Wendy said, and so Florence put her arms around the box with the little baby inside. She longed to take Wendy out, save her from her isolation and hold her for real. She pulled the string until Wendy told the girl, “I love you!” and Florence whispered close to the cardboard side, “I love you, too, Wendy.” Again she pulled the string and Wendy insisted, “I’m your baby girl! Take me home with you!” And then Florence knew this was her baby. This baby had always been waiting just for Florence to come along so she could take good care of Wendy forever. “This one, Mama. I want this baby. I want Wendy.”
The big girls in the schoolyard had the jump rope going round at a good, fast, rhythmic pace, so that each girl could take their turn hopping in to show off their jump-roping skills. Florence just watched the big girls, always with her mouth hanging open, just watched. And listened. Heard every word the same as she’d mouth them, the words she used to lull herself to sleep at night. Just watched them hop and skip and sing:
Cinderella, dressed in yella
Went upstairs to kiss a fella
Made a mistake
And kissed a snake
How many doctors
Did it take?
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8—you missed, OUT!