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Mother’s Milk (excerpt)
In one arm you clasp onto your infant daughter, pressing her against your chest. With the other hand your toddler son clutches you. You bust through the doors of the supermarket sideways and you’re hit with the reprieve of air conditioning alleviating you from the heat of the sun and the blanket of humidity you waded through in the parking lot.
Calvin squirms alerting you of the full bladder and minimal time you have to get him to the bathroom. And even though this isn’t a shopping trip he doesn’t hesitate to say, “Oh, can we get crispies?” while you weave through the aisles.
Past the dry goods and the refrigerated section, through the produce and the area where meat is butchered, the rawness of hide extremely pungent the closer you get to it. You and your children swerve by aisles trying to get to the other side. Sidestepping consumers free of children or with ones hanging on to them as well you say “excuse me” and whisper “move.”
The bathrooms are tucked into a corner of the market, hidden for those who aren’t searching for them. You drag Calvin into the women’s room when he hedges.
“What’s wrong?” Alarmed you crouch down and search his overalls for wet spots in the front. “Did you already go?”
“I wanna use the big boys.”
“Big boy.” The words he’s used regularly since the countdown began for his fifth birthday. Twenty-five days and counting.
“Calvin,” you sigh. You shift Kayla, squeeze her so your arms press her more into your body, already sweat-soaked because of the lack of air from the fan in the car and the increasing temperature outside. You unbuckle one of Calvin’s loops. He in turn sways tapping his feet to a beat only he knows but translates universally to the “pee pee dance.”
“I have to go with you,” you tell him. “Please.”
“Why now of all times do you have to go to the bathroom by yourself?”
“I do it at home.” Already he sounds like his father, building an argument for himself, already able to reason. Amazing. His eyes enlarge in that way that pleads and projects cuteness. Damn, you think, he’ll get anything he wants when he’s older.
Undoing the other buckle you hold his gaze and tell him slowly, carefully, not so much talking down but being assertive, “You go in and you come out, understand? And what about strangers?”
“Strangers are dangers.” “Go, quick!”
He smiles then hustles inside pushing the door back and giving you one last grin before heading in.
It’s when one worry is gone that another arises, you feel your own bladder full and not willing to wait. You clench your whole body in the hope this will pass, but apparently it cannot.
You push in the doorway and yell for your son. “Stay inside okay? I’ll be right back.”
What sounds like a “‘kay” sends you to the ladies room.
Kayla’s head swivels all over in new places. She likes lights, she likes sparkly things. She smiles, all gums, when you jiggle her not so much for her amusement but because you have to maneuver in the stall and quick. You hang your purse up and switch baby-holding arms. Lift your skirt with one hand then lower your panties with the other. And hover over the already sprinkled upon toilet seat. The smell is not that of a restroom but not one of cleanliness either and you make a point not to let anything that isn’t clad in shoes touch the floor.
The move to shuffle your underwear up your legs is reminiscent of The Twist. Kayla enjoys it. She bites onto your shoulder and sucks dampening the short sleeve of your dress.
Teething, you remember and try to think if you have one of her pacifiers in your purse as you wash your hands with Kayla between your arms, her butt on the water-soaked sink. Now she looks like she made a mess. Any coolness that alleviated your perspiration is gone due to bathroom choreography. Your underarms are wet and Kayla’s heat raises yours. Your brow is beaded and you get out in record time but don’t see Calvin.
Pushing in the door you spy a man doing his own jiggle at the urinal and gasp an apology as you duck outside.
“Calvin, you in here?” you ask but there’s no response from a child, instead it’s a man, startled and baritone that responds, “Lady, this is a men’s room!”
“Well aware of that! Is there a little boy in there?” “Lady, I don’t—”
“Can you just check please?”
The sound of a buckle latching and a grunt from this man. Knocking on stalls and doors rattling in response.
“No one else in here,” he calls. “Thanks,” you mumble.
“Calvin?” You’re frantic. “He has to be here. Has to.” In this moment you’re unsure who you’re madder at, him or yourself.
Your daughter fidgets more feeling your tension, hearing the fear in your voice, and she starts to whimper. An undercurrent at first before she opens her mouth and her whine rings through the supermarket along with your own cries.
“Calvin!” your voice is rough and scratchy. You rush through more rows. There are too damn many. Past Ghostbusters cereal, past Mott’s applesauce, past kalamata olives, and Velveeta mac. So much food, who the hell would eat all of this? The blockades hinder your search, seeming more like a maze than a place to attain goods to feed your family. You continue up and down until you see the overalls, the checkered blue and red shirt, and the woman who has his sleeve scrunched under her grip.
“Calvin!” You rush at them. The woman surveys you.
“Mommy!” Calvin cries edging away from the person holding onto him. “That’s my mommy!” he repeats pointing at you.
Your daughter joins in. “Mommy!” she says to you or the woman or anyone in her direct vicinity.
You try to cancel out the rage in your voice, put on the ‘in public’ tone because you don’t want to be one of those mothers. “Didn’t I tell you to stay put? Huh?”
Calvin dips his head. “Yeah.”
“You left this child unattended?” The woman says, and the way she asks it is not a polite question or even accusatory it’s as though you’re one of the stupidest women on the face of the Earth.
“He had to go. So did I. Thank you for finding him.” You reach for him but Calvin is seized by this lady.
“You’re aware this child was left alone?” Her amazement at your actions is all over her tone. Her face has the demeanor of someone sucking on a lemon. Half her body covers Calvin as if she’s doing her duty as a good citizen to protect him from you. This woman attempts to admonish you with a look. Like you haven’t pulled that before.
A standoff begins. Your son is in-between, trembling, shifting, reaching out but also holding back not knowing what is expected of him. He’s a tiny thing barely coming up to your hip but on this squat woman he reaches higher. He’s been trained to listen to adults and stands by idly waiting. While your daughter continues to fidget in your arms and your son fidgets in the woman’s you remember Kayla’s tone, lighter, but matching yours and Calvin being the one that does not sync with your announcement that you see what she sees.
The row you’re in is canned goods up and down. Sturdy items fermented and sealed that would last forever and could make a mean dent if you simply tilted your body over, used the hand that isn’t adhering one child to your person, and decided to toss it.
You like to consider yourself the calm sort, reasonable, not overly emotional. It’s why you fit in with your in-laws. You’re not that uppity Negro, that all out diva that sets worlds on fire with a glance so wicked it’s on par with Medusa herself. The point at hand is that you were cut from vagina to anus to give birth to Calvin and Kayla. You couldn’t piss straight let alone sit down for a week after childbirth. You were in a postpartum funk that engulfed you in darkness for days. A depression so heavy it was like wool across your body initiating fluctuating moods that included panic attacks inciting thrashing in bed leading to your husband sleeping on the floor. Gradually you woke up, to your humanity and to motherhood and the appreciation that you carried a child to term, finally.
You’ve had losses. Bled out children that were not yet fully formed before achieving success. So who the fuck does this woman think she is trying to discount what you’ve earned? To dismiss with a flick of the eye what your body, which was once an hourglass gone pear- shaped, has brought unto the world as not yours. When you look at your son he is pale, he is pointy-nosed, he is freckled and smiley and Joel to the bone. In taking all of this in more than anything, he is yours.
“Fuck this.” You bring Kayla closer to you; the shoulder of the top of your dress clinging to your skin as she sucks. You rush at the woman. Her eyes turn to saucers when you duck down, swoop up your son—heavy—and make your exit. Calvin clasps his arms around your neck but his lower half slides down your torso.
You’re rushing, eyes focused on the door, waiting for the woman to chase you down. For some reason you expect dogs, flashing lights, police intervention. At the doorway one of the men you’ve seen before holds a platter of cold cuts with toothpicks sticking out. Kayla breaks from your shoulder to lunge for it. You turn knocking her head against your breasts. You’re already using your backside to open the door letting it shut behind you but your daughter is too quick,
too curious, and too willing to thrust out fingers so that when she separates from your body again, albeit briefly, her face, her cheeks so chubby and consistently commented on by those who peer at her, is smacked by the metallic rim of the door.
Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional with 13 years experience, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, panels organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story collection Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books. And she has contributed articles and reviews to Forbes.com, The Billfold, and Bustle as well as other online publications.
Image: Flickr / Francesco Tolu