May 18th, 2000
Cleo has been expecting the call for a few weeks, and so when her phone rings at two a. m., she's instantly, completely alert. It takes her less than five minutes to brush her teeth, put on deodorant, dress, and grab the bag that she and Mandalay had prepared. She's only delayed a couple of minutes, because she realizes as she's getting into her car that she's forgotten her phone and wallet, and has to go back for them. And then Cliff is awake and wants to come along, and she thinks that through for thirty seconds and then says yes.
She really doesn't like hospitals. Too many bad associations from childhood, she guesses. She'd have thought that those would have been superseded by the occasions of the births of her own two children, now aged three and six, but even walking through the main entrance, she stiffens.
She dispatches Cliff to find some coffee, makes her way up in the elevator. Finds her sister in the labour room, following the nurse just in time to catch Mandalay in the middle of a contraction - eyes squeezed shut, face scarlet, panting.
Cleo is sucked into some vortex of fear that she didn't know she'd been carrying around inside of her. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be here. But then the contraction ends, and Mandalay opens her eyes.
The doula can't make it, Mandalay gasps. She's got the flu. Her sub has another birth going on. Different hospital.
The sense of her purpose trickles back, now. What she needs to do. What she and Mandalay have rehearsed. She pulls herself together. It's her job. She has the bag with the back rollers and the music and the sugar-free suckers and the organic lavender wipes.
I'm here, Mandalay, she says. We can do this.
Now the hours of contractions. It's like watching someone overtaken by a violent storm. Cleo is dragged back to the memory of the birth of her daughter Olivia, and after hours of agonizing contractions, the nurse saying, Cleo, a way to go yet.
She watches the two fetal monitors, holding her breath when one heart rate dips repeatedly. She gives Mandalay her hand to squeeze, and then, when it starts to hurt, the rubber ball they've bought for the purpose.
Around five, Mandalay begins to cry, rather than breathe herself back to some sort of stable ground, between the contractions.
Cleo says to the nurse in charge: That's enough. Give her some Demerol.
Do you want Demerol, Mandalay? the nurse asks.
No, no, Mandalay insists.
You should take a break now, Cleo, the nurse says. Go get something to drink. Sit down for a few minutes.
Cleo leaves. She takes off her gown and cap and goes down to the cafeteria, where Cliff is helplessly waiting, orders coffee and a muffin, leaves most of the muffin in crumbs on the tray.
When she comes back and re-gowns, things have shifted. Mandalay has surfaced from wherever she has been, and has taken on animal form. She moves onto all fours, crouching on the bed, rocking.
Another wave coming, Cleo says, watching the monitor. They'd decided on wave; Mandalay has practised visualizing the rollers on the beach near Phuket, where she had once flung herself into the bright aquamarine surf.
The gap between the spike beginning to grow on the monitor and the clamping of her spine and stomach is just long enough for a wild hope to surface that it won't be so painful this time.
It's not a wave. It's a tsunami.
Starting to subside, Cleo says, and the deluge of pain briefly abates.
I can't do this, Mandalay says.
A guttural howl like nothing she's heard before erupts from her innards. Is that her?
Breathe, Cleo says, steadily. Breathe, Mandalay. Breathe.
I can't I can't, she says.
But then she can. Mandalay finds her breath; she pins her attention to it. Her body begins to do what it needs to do. There is much pain, but the pain is not her.
She visualizes diving and rolling in the warm waves, at Phuket. The waves had tumbled her over, but she'd learned to give herself over to them, and she would find herself lying in the shallow ebbing water, laughing, after they retreated.
She'd been with Benedict, then. Her last boyfriend before Duane.
Duane isn't here, now. She can't imagine him being here, wanting him here. God, no, she'd said, when Cleo had wondered.
She rides the waves and rides them, but then it's too much, she's being beaten up, there's no space to catch her breath. A vortex. Roll with it, she tries to remember, but her body isn't hers now. She's lost her tether to it.
And now the first twin's emergence. There's a sudden cessation of violence. Mandalay feels an astonishing calm.
Cleo's nephew slides out head first in a rush of blood and water, a fish, an otter, a wet, red human. He takes a breath.
They let Cleo hold him in a warmed towel for a few seconds, after they suction his nose and mouth. He looks like one of my own children, like Olivia, Cleo says. The nurse takes him from Cleo's arms and puts him on Mandalay's chest.
When the nurse puts her son on her chest, Mandalay feels this: that she and he have been travelling towards each other for all time, and have finally arrived.
She's able to hold to that sweet, calm feeling even when they tell her that the other twin is in trouble, that they can't wait any longer. It's not what she wanted, but she understands. Someone lifts her firstborn son from her arms, and Cleo is signing a form, and cold disinfectant is being swiped across her belly and she knows that she is going to be anesthetized and cut and it was not supposed to go this way.
But she knows it will be okay.
It is like a bakery, Cliff thinks, except for the blood on the bed. Too many people, and he couldn't tell them apart, in their puffy blue caps and their long aprons. Then he recognizes the one on the bed as his sister Mandalay. He's stayed by the door, out of the paths of the others, who were not actually moving erratically, as he'd thought, but working at their business in a couple of quiet little clusters. One group around Mandalay's bed, and one around a clear plastic tub sitting on a high wheeled cart.
One of the figures by the bed turns and he sees that it is Cleo. Cliff, she says. There you are. Come and see the baby.
The nurse who has fetched him wraps him in a gown, pale yellow, and pulls a hat on him. She hands him a surgical mask, as well, and does it up behind Cliff's head. He hasn't seen a newborn before, to his recollection. Cleo's babies had been a few weeks old before he'd got up the courage to go visit. He's thinking, somehow, that it'll be like a pup or kitten - he saw plenty of those, growing up - wet, blunt-muzzled, blind. But what's in the tub, though wrapped up like a loaf of bread, is clearly a person. It looks at him. Its eyes focus on his face. There's a passage of energy between them, like when you recognize someone you haven't seen for a while or see someone you know in a place you don't expect.
It makes him dizzy, that glance.
Do you want to hold him? Cleo asks, but he doesn't want to, yet.
Then there's a flurry of activity near Mandalay's bed, and more people in the room, a gurney, and Mandalay being lifted onto it on the count of three, and a woman speaking brusquely at him to stand back as they began pushing the gurney very quickly toward the door, several people with their hands on it, pushing, running, and the sound of it moving very quickly down the corridor.
Then the bassinette with the baby in it is taken away, and Cliff is left standing in the empty room, by the bed with its bloodstained sheets.
He'd been woken so early this morning, and had come upstairs to the kitchen, from his basement room at his sister's house, to find Cleo dressed and rushing out the door. Then she'd run back in and up the stairs, saying, wallet, phone, keys, the way she did when she was overwhelmed and in a rush.
He'd grabbed that chance to go along. Had thrown on a T-shirt and jeans, shoved his feet into his crushed, laceless running shoes, scooped his jacket from the hook in the hallway.
Good, Cleo said, when she'd emerged from the house and seen him leaning against her vehicle. Good; you might be useful. But jeez, Cliff, have some breath mints.
He hadn't been able to be very useful. He'd sat in a waiting room. Cleo had asked him to get her coffee, a couple of times, and he'd done that, but there wasn't much else to do.
Someone comes into the empty delivery room, and tells him nicely where he can go. And now he is sitting and waiting again, in a different place.
He's been in this hospital before. He'd had an accident, eight months ago - had fallen down a flight of stairs, fractured his skull. Well, was pushed, but it was easier to say, fell. People didn't ask so many questions.
He recognizes the scent of the hospital, which is the scent of his waking up and finding himself safe, cared for. It will be okay, he tells himself. It will be okay.
He's in a hallway, an alcove of a hallway, with chairs upholstered in blue plastic and a painting of ocean waves on the wall, and there are swinging metal doors with small windows, at one end, and a sign that says Surgery, no unauthorized persons beyond this point.
It's very quiet. Should it be so quiet? He doesn't really want to be here. It's very early in the morning. He hasn't had breakfast and he would like to go find Cleo. But he sits. Someone has brought him here, said, you can wait here, Mr. Lund.
And then, sooner than he would have expected, the swinging doors with their small windows open and Cleo, gowned and capped and masked, walks through, carrying the swaddled baby.
No, it's a different baby, wrapped differently, more loosely, and as it's offered to him he sees that its head is kind of sticky, wet, as if it's just come out of the sea. This one is paler, its head rounder, its eyes squashed shut in anger or repulsion. He recognizes that expression: it's a look of being unpleasantly surprised. Cleo says, look, Cliff, and puts the baby into his arms. It's a little smaller and lighter than his cat.
Cliff, Cleo says. We have two new nephews. What do you think of that? It's the Lund brothers, second generation.