The following story by Brenda Peynado originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Volume XXXV, No. 1 of Mid-American Review.
When Nikita was born all blue and purple, wet and scrunched like a raisin, they told us she wouldn’t survive for very long, that she had aspirated amniotic fluid. We lived off Cheetos and PopTarts and Pepsi in the NICU and pushed the waiting room chairs together to sleep, and it seemed like floating, counting the seconds our baby would live. Then, in the middle of the night, they told us she was choking and she couldn’t breathe and she would be dead in two minutes unless they transferred her to a hospital across the city that could do the operation; that is, if they could make it across the city in two minutes. So we ran to the ambulance. The driver flew, blew every red light, although they kept saying that she would never make it, and Jaime and I held her tiny feet as if that would help, while the one EMT woman pumped her small chest with two fingers and the EMT driver melted his gas foot to the floor, honking and honking and honking.
If we could only freeze time, I said.
If we could only freeze her, Jaime said, so we could make it in time.
We hit a bump and then the ambulance sprung off the road and stuck high in the air like a plane.
The driver said, Fantastic, now we’ll never get there.
We had lost our momentum. All that gas and we were only moving as fast as the turning of the earth. The rubber of the wheels spun and peeled and burned and created vortexes of air but we went nowhere. The city moved at exactly the same speed underneath us, the same traffic lights, the same towers we would memorize forever.
She’s stopped coding, said the EMT woman with her fingers on Nikita’s pulse. It appears she’ll survive until we get there. As long as we’re up here, she’ll live without breathing.
We exhaled and we rejoiced.
I have a family down there, said the EMT woman, who resumed pumping our blue baby’s chest with her fingers.
They’ll have to wait, I said. You’re ours now.
Years passed. The air was thin. Old buildings blew up, crashed down, were erected again along with still taller ones. From the back window of the ambulance, we could see into the 117th floor of an insurance company that rose like the tower of Babel. We waved to the occupants. Every fifteenth day, someone in a corner office held out a sign and plastered it to the window that said, Keep Fighting the Good Fight, and then that night someone took it back down. Everyone else on that 117th floor continued their work, as if we were merely an ambulance-shaped cloud.
Meanwhile Nikita still had not breathed. She learned to talk, but because there was no air passing over her vocal chords, we had to read her lips, her beautiful blue lips. Her eyes were electric navy from her dad, and her skin was ashen cerulean. The only thing that wasn’t blue was her hair, jet black, which once a month the EMS driver cut with scissors made for slicing bandages and clothes. But she grew.
Father, what does breathing feel like? she mouthed.
And Jaime, because he was a percussion major in college, answered, It hurts and it rasps and when you scream the little hairs in your ears vibrate and then the whole world wants to close like a clam.
Mother, why are you so pale? she mouthed.
Because we’re dying with love for you, I said.
Nurse, what is love? she asked.
And Nurse said, It hurts and its rasps and it makes you want to scream and the whole world opens like an oyster.
Father, what is an oyster?
So he explained to her about pearls and how women string them around their necks, their scientific categorization, but she had stopped listening he realized, so he said, Never mind, it’s another word for a clam.
What are words? she asked.
I said, They’re like oysters with murky pearls, and then the person that hears swallows the pearl and coats it in meaning and spits them out again on their tongue, and the next person swallows and coats it and so forth.
Jaime tickled her. While she squirmed, he said, Or they’re like little ambulances, sirens blaring with meaning, the person’s experiences inside. Nothing will ever mean the same to you as to us, and nothing will ever mean as much to us as you. And you’re a little ambulance too, holding tinier ambulances in you. Isn’t that funny?
But we could not hear the gasp of her laughter. She only trembled and smiled, her black hair waving with her mirth.
Mother Father, she mouthed, I want all these things.
One day, we said, when we get there.
She is fifteen when the driver announces, I think we’ve moved an inch!
We all look out. The sky is a sunset and it makes us shiver with the contrast between its salmon-colored reds and our blue daughter, for whom we would die if it would save her. The skyline is different now. We do not remember it. In the insurance building, the occupants are all looking our way as if they’ve finally noticed the ambulance hovering in the sunset outside their windows, their eyes bug-eyed and naked and strange. We know something terrible, awful, will happen if they’ve seen our beautiful blue daughter. They will drag us all out and make us come down, they will eat her, they will skin her for a startling pelt.
Stay away from the windows, we beg Nikita, and we clothe her in gauze and bandages from the medic’s kit.
For the most part she listens, except we sometimes catch her sticking her head in the driver’s armpit to peek at the horizon, so it looks like a blue, round plum is growing from his armpit hair like a vine.
What if I die when we get there? Nikita asks.
Nurse says, You very well may. I always thought this whole endeavor was very tricky.
Jaime and I confer that night when Nikita is sleeping. We want to push Nurse out of the ambulance, but in the end decide against it, because she’s been pumping Nikita’s heart with two fingers and her hands for fifteen years, and has to keep on doing it while we work on raising our child in the ambulance, even though she’d probably be grateful so she could go down and see her own children who by now barely remember her.
When the driver cuts Nikita’s hair with the surgical scissors, slipping its silk through his fingers while he separates each and every strand—one million and five he counted once—we wash each strand of hair after him with hydrogen peroxide and alcohol from the disinfectant cabinet. He watches her mouth while he works so he can know if she says something. All of us spend our days watching her lips for her words, for the slightest exhalation if it ever came.
Driver, Nikita mouths. Are we there yet? Can you see the ocean?
Oh, yes, the driver says putting down the scissors. To the right is the Hudson Bay, as beautiful as you, the color of your blue.
He turns on the radio, and he sings, and she puckers her lips into a silent O and tries to push out the fluid in her lungs, the fluid which fed her and kept her warm in my womb. We realize the driver has fallen in love with Nikita. Even Nurse disapproves. So when Nikita turns eighteen, we have a birthday party and give her all the candies in our pockets from the hospital’s vending machine that we’ve saved almost two decades for the occasion, but we’ve forgotten that because she cannot breathe, she cannot taste, to her they are just hard little nuggets that dissolve smaller until they are gone. Either way, she gets sugar drunk, and while she’s sleeping we push the driver out the door of the ambulance.
The next day we wake before Nikita. Jaime and I are horrified to find that Driver has been hired as an accountant on the 117th floor, and he holds out signs to Nikita from his office, saying Jump and Trust Me and then finally just NIKITA, and when she turns her face to the sunrise we scream at her, Stay away from the windows!
To distract her from the driver and the windows, we tell her stories about the most outrageous things: HoHos, and Poptarts and Pepsi, and how we survived on them for weeks, and it works, because she asks us for months, What is a Cheeto? What is Vick’s Vap-o-Rub and how can you smell coolness in mint, which is a sensation in a taste in a smell? Is it a donut because of absence? What is Haiti? What is camping? We salivate with the memory of carbonation bubbles tickling our tongues and descending in a sweet elevator down our throats, and we taste the sour salt of the ocean and we remember the rancid deliciousness of cheese, the oily crunch of a potato chip, the awfulness of TV, and the air! The open, full air in the mountains, the green and animal smell.
After she exhausts herself with questions and we exhaust ourselves with the scenes of our lives, we sleep for weeks while Nurse pumps hard at Nikita’s chest, beating at her ribcage. We dream of bruises we can never see blooming on her blue, smooth skin.
When we wake, Nikita asks, If you were never happy, how would you ever know you were sad?
We don’t answer but we look outside, and while we’ve been sleeping, the inhabitants of the 117th floor have exited their building and are busy constructing a human ladder to reach us, like the tallest cheerleading pyramid. Driver is the top man, rising and rising towards us, bobbing on the shoulders of suits. They hold signs and placards, so that plastered like paper-mâché around them are the words: Blue Baby! Look at me! Keep fighting the good fight! and so on. But really they want to smell her, they want to taste her, they think her blue skin would smell like cool mint and they could be washed of their sins in that blueness, baptized, their horribleness hidden beneath her skin that they will wear if they can take it off her, and they pretend to be redeemed by love.
Nikita says, What if I roll down the windows for fresh air? Maybe that’s been my problem all along.
And we scream, No!
I want to look outside, she insists. I want to see how much closer we are.
So we strap her down to the gurney in the middle of the ambulance.
Nurse pats her hair with one hand and pounds her chest with the other and tells her, You’re such a good girl.
Don’t worry, we whisper to her, one day we will get there. We sing her childhood songs. Finally she calms down.
Then she asks, Mother Father, if I’ve never seen the world, am I real?
She is at the peak of her beauty at nineteen. She can name everything in the world that we’ve explained, all the math and science that we can remember, but she has seen only rainbows from the windows of the ambulance, only the people like ants underneath us, and touched none of it. Her lungs are still the size of a baby’s. She glows blue with youth unsullied, untouched, like a cosmos, like a priestess for how our lives could have gone if we’d never lived them. In response, we smell the salt crystals in her eyes, we kiss her skin which tastes like pistachios, we taste the toes on her feet, which we have not stopped holding all these years. Underneath her toenails we still taste amniotic fluid like cake and iron, we breathe in her black hair like rippled silk which reaches down to the floor in our little van now that it is no longer cut by the driver, and still we cannot believe her, this miracle that came out of us.
You’re very, very real, we cry, but we hide our eyes in shame.
Brenda Peynado’s stories have been selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories 2015 and won prizes from the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, Writers at Work, and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review Online, The Threepenny Review, Ecotone, EPOCH, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, and others. She received her MFA from Florida State University, lived in the Dominican Republic on a Fulbright Grant. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.
Image: Flickr / Nick Page