By Kelly Thompson.
The first time. The shock of being punched.
Walking down Nevada Avenue after an afternoon shopping. We look at fish tanks in a pet store. Greg is captivated by the angelfish and chooses two blue ones, a small tank, supplies; all are tucked into the baby stroller with Shawna in it; she reaches fat baby fingers to touch the fish before they are tucked away in the catch-all. The fish stare through big eyes – dart and dash about the plastic bubble. The costliest purchase, a life-like resin castle, causes a brief disagreement. I worry about the groceries it might replace and start to say something, but Greg shoots me a warning glance. Later, when we get home and release the fish into the glass box, their bluish wings will flash like warnings as they weave between the swaying green plants, flit behind the castle turrets, disappear in its corners.
We buy ice cream; a Jimmy cone for me, Greg shares his banana split with the baby. She laughs. He gives her the cherry. We stroll by the park, a warm day. Sunshine. The trees are old and offer what must have been welcome shade on a hot summer day. I am surprised to see someone I was acquainted with in high school walking our way. He recognizes me, nods, and pauses, as if to talk. We say hello, have the briefest of conversations. Yes, this is my baby. My boyfriend Greg. Nice to see you. Take care. It seems there was a breeze blowing, caressing my hair. I always wore it long back then. I imagine I felt beautiful, carefree, the afternoon spent leisurely, my boyfriend and baby with me. A day as good as any I’d enjoyed with Greg. My naive ideas of romance, love, marriage, how to be a grownup, a mother, this must be what it looks like, are tumbling, jigsaw puzzle pieces, in the air.
The blow comes moments, seconds after the high school acquaintance has passed. His fist slams into my face. Who was that? What? Who was that? What? What? Who was he? John! I don’t even know him. From high school. What?
Disbelief. Followed by interrogation. I barely knew the guy who had been politely conversant as he passed us on the street. I might have last seen him in the halls of Palmer High School a year before, maybe less before I dropped out, a teenager displaced by unwed motherhood, to join Greg, a lost boy I met in a bowling alley, who grew up in foster homes, juvenile hall, abandoned by his mother. There is no discussion about our future. As soon as we meet, I’m his.
After the first punch then, the wooing. Remorse. Tenderness, even. Solicitous, he brings aspirin, water, to where I lie, tearful, home now, in the bedroom, prone across the bed, Shawna asleep in the nearby crib. Here, take this. I’m so sorry. I love you. He acted like he was your old boyfriend. I love you so much. So much.
I know this kind of love. An old remembered intimacy. My mother’s remorse. I’m sorry. You have a black eye. To my father: Look what I did to her this time. She hid me in my room. An Eskimo pie for dessert, dinner served on a tray. The taste of ice cream and chocolate mixed in with tears, the tender flesh that swelled around my eye. Tell your teacher you fell down the stairs. I learn that wooing, loving comes after the hurting. First, pain.
A wedding, marriage a year later. Again, the shock. Each time worse than the last, an escalation. Denial. Did he really punch me in the stomach the night before Jennifer was born? Try to hurt her? Our baby? My baby?
I am not surprised then when my water breaks the next morning. Early. It is two weeks before she is due. I know, have known for a while, she is a girl. He doesn’t. It’s a boy he tells me repeatedly. No. But I don’t say it. Jennifer, I whisper to the life in my womb. Your name is Jennifer. She has a heart-shaped face. I can see it already.
Jennifer comes fast. Less than three hours after the IV drip to induce begins, she arrives, screaming, into the world. Greg is in the waiting room. No one expects the baby this quickly. There is no time to anesthetize me, for medication to take effect, but they administer it anyway.
I apologize for yelling, say it helps. It’s ok the nurse clucks you go ahead and scream. And then I hear a companion yell. She howls, not even born, her head emerged from the birth canal. My blood quickens, rushes through my body to hear her protests. She yowls, and then her shoulders are out. Still screaming, she is all the way out. The doctor plops her on my stomach, gooey, messy, and wailing. She is born on October 27 at 10:27 a.m., as if to say don’t forget. This baby announces her arrival.
On my elbows, I watch and marvel, listen to her beautiful yelps. I gaze in awe at her tiny heart-shaped face bright red and angry. Her wail electrifies me. Then the medication kicks in. I begin to fade.
Greg tells me later that in the waiting room, someone tells him Congratulations! You have a baby daughter. No, he says he told them. My wife’s in the other room having a boy.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the nurse awakens me, hands me Jennifer. She fits into the crook of my arm, begins to nurse effortlessly. When the nurse comes back, I am nodding off, groggy.
She snatches her from me. “If you can’t stay awake to feed your baby, I’ll take her to the nursery and feed her myself!”
Confused, I stare at her receding figure. I’m sorry, I meant to stay awake. Please, bring me my baby, I say. Jennifer. I say her name aloud. Then again. Jennifer Lea.
It is three a.m. In the soft light, I stare into the dark window to my right where I see no castles, just the shadowy outline of another institution emerging, the faint shape of my reflection. I can’t see how smooth my face is, how young, see only the quick flash of soft lips, blurred. My breasts are leaking and I push the call button. When the nurse finally comes to see what the matter is, I am falling asleep again. She touches my shoulder, asks what do you need?
My baby I whisper, when will they bring her back?
Kelly Thompson is currently working on a memoir-in-progress entitled “Oh Darling Girl.” Just as the narrator gets sober, one of her two barely adolescent daughters descends into addiction and rebels against her mother’s newfound lifestyle of recovery. The mother daughter bond is stretched, and a transgenerational legacy of violence, addiction, and shame is faced down, as the lives of grandchildren hang in the balance and heartbreaking choices must be made.
Kelly’s work has been published in Manifest Station, Metrosphere, Limp Wrist, 49 Writers, and other literary journals. She is also a psychotherapist who works with soldiers recently returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. Kelly lives in Denver, Colorado in the sunshine of the spirit. You can follow her on Twitter @stareenite.
Thank you for writing, Kelly. Thank you for publishing, Jennifer and team.
Thank you Zoe and Esther for both reading AND commenting. That means everything to me. ❤️
Kelly, this is so powerful. And courageous. Thank you for sharing your story with readers.
Thank you SO much for being so brave and for sharing yourself with us, strangers to you. Merry Christmas every day.
Thank you Nancy and Stacy.
So powerful, Kelly. Thank you for sharing it.
[…] through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Kelly Thompson, whose previous essay on the site went viral! I am so excited that she is joining the Writing + […]
Thanks Cynthia for taking the time to read and comment! Ojai here we come!
Kelly, I so appreciate your honesty and courage in telling your story. And I can’t wait to hear more.
Kelly, so important to tell these stories! Thank you for sharing…
You’re welcome Michelle. It means everything to not only share it, but to hear from readers. xo