Associate fiction editor Brenna Womer on today’s bonus story: Post-trauma and postpartum, the narrator of “Motor City Slide” is callous and distant, unfeeling but not without thought. She swings at the playground and watches Netflix and sometimes remembers she has a baby. Judy T. Oldfield so beautifully glimpses the mind of a woman cracked, but not completely broken, by tragedy.
Motor City Slide
I said I had had one, but I had had two. Which is technically true. I had had one, two hours ago. But then I’d had another. And one glass of wine seems normal so they didn’t give me a breathalyzer. They wrapped me in a blanket and gave me a bottle of water, which was cold and it was cold outside. I kicked my feet back and forth, rolling the hard soles of my shoes over rock salt, the rest of my body in the police car. So I didn’t drink the water. I opened the cap, to be polite, and then resealed it and set the bottle next to me in the plastic seat and I guess it is still there.
The paramedics asked if I wanted to ride along in the ambulance to the hospital with my husband, Brian, but it had to be a quick decision because they needed to get him going right now and so I said no. No because I had to get home to my baby. I had to pay the babysitter and send her home and check on the baby.
I said it all calmly, but I might as well have said it in raging hysterics, because once the word baby puffed off of my lips, the word turned visible in the January air, I was a bomb or an alien or something with the potential for catastrophe just below the surface and they laid off and I watched the red and white lights of the ambulance fade into the night. I slid back and forth on the plastic seat of the cop car as they took me home. I never knew how wide those seats were.
I paid Hannah the babysitter and told her that Brian had gone to the hospital but no, nothing to worry about, I’m sure, and no, no need to stay, thank you. I paid her and she left.
I was alone in the house. No, that’s not right, because the baby was there, but he was asleep. I meant to check on him, but instead I found myself in the office, in front of the bookcase. I looked at all those books, so many I hadn’t read. Before the baby came we had gotten rid of so much stuff. Nesting. I hate that word, as if I’m going to sprout feathers, which, hey, maybe wouldn’t be so surprising my body already distended and skin stretched over, organs turned into caverns of wonder. But anyways I got rid of the books I had read and kept the ones I hadn’t. I kept meaning to read these leftovers, but I could not make my eyes focus on the pages. “Mommy Brain” or I don’t know. Maybe the Internet ruined my capacity for sustained thought.
There is a story, a family legend, about my grandmother, newly married, newly a mother on the eve of World War II, just twenty years old. Her first was a summer baby. So, one hot day in Northwest Detroit, she put on her lipstick and went out for a hot fudge sundae at Sander’s. Halfway into it, the ice cream melting into a sweet puddle, the spoon almost to her lips, she said, “Oh, I have a baby at home!” and rushed back to her house in her heels.
Being a father, he did not have to fight, but her husband, my grandfather, left his job at Ford’s, kissed his wife and baby, and went off to Europe where he dodged bullets and mines and tripped over the bodies of his fellow soldiers in the mud and shit. He came home from the war with an inability to remember little things too.
I left the office, switched off the light. The house was dark. I turned off my phone, or maybe it died and I just didn’t plug it back in, I don’t know. The moonlight came in through the front window, highlighted the spots on the rug where the green pattern gives way to white.
My parents were back in Florida. They are snowbirds now. They got here before we even brought the baby home from the hospital and were here for the first couple of weeks, and then went back and I only had one day of relief before Brian’s parents drove up from Indiana. They stayed two weeks and made casseroles and completely wiped me out.
Friends keep coming. They bring stuffed animals with no plastic eyes so the baby won’t choke and they bring tiny T-shirts with trucks and footballs and all matter of nonsense.
The baby falls asleep a lot with my nipple in his mouth. Milk—my milk, or was my milk, now I guess it is his milk—crusts at the corners of his lips. He expands, a water balloon, in my lap. I sit, not wanting to disturb him, watching his face. So peaceful, my heart slows to match his, to soothe his dreams and lift his spirit. I try to count each individual eyelash, so blond, so faint, just a whisper of an idea of an eyelash. And I think, I am inside each eyelash. I am inside and so is Brian. Look at this marvel that we created.
And it’s a funny thing. Friends. Family. Strangers at the grocery store. They all see me as an extension of the baby, rather than as him coming from me. As if He is the Godhead and I proceeded from Him.
But now I was alone, or close to it. So I went down into the basement and found a bottle of wine. I brought it up and poured myself a glass and so now I had had three. And then I poured myself another so now I had had four.
All big glasses, full up. Goblet-sized at the party, and at home I just used a juice glass. “Finally you can drink,” my friends all said. They said it like I have been abroad and have just come back. “Pump and dump,” the other mothers advise.
The airbag hit me in the face. I heard a screeching crunch. That metal on metal was so much louder in my ear than Brian’s scream. Blood dark and wet on his face. The winter air was flowing in from the broken passenger window.
I forgot what to do for a moment and then I thought I better put the car in park and then I thought maybe I should put the two-ways on. Someone came up to the window on my side and said they’d called 911 and something about black ice and was I okay.
Brian’s eyes were closed but he was breathing. Up down, his chest in the night, causing a slight flutter of his airbag.
“I’m cold,” I said.
I am on maternity leave still. Which is nice, I guess. The baby and I watch a lot of Netflix together. Well, he can’t really watch yet. The other day I took him to the park in the stroller. We got all bundled up—Egyptian cotton onesie under flannel sleep sack under blankets wedged into stroller; lululemon pants and sweater under boots and parka under scarf—and I pushed the stroller fifteen minutes across the subdivision, past big houses filled with people whose names I do not know. When we got to the park he was asleep and I was disappointed. Then I realized it didn’t matter because he is too small to go down the slide or even hold his head up for more than a second. So he slept in the stroller and I sat in the swing.
I took a picture #babysfirstpark #swingbabyswing #whatacutie #lilpickle and posted it and “aaaws” and “love him” and “so sweet” chirped back at me.
The sky was gray, the snow lay in clumps. I closed my eyes and pumped my legs until my body flew higher and higher like I was no longer tethered to gravity, like my milk-filled boobs were not weighing me down, like I was not drowning under the heft of my own body.
But of course I was tethered to gravity, and each time I went up I came back down, and when I stopped pumping my legs my boots skidded in the snow, and I dragged them back and forth until the snow was dirty with woodchips. I came back to a stop. Sat still. And then I left my swing and I pushed the stroller back home.
He woke up and cried when we went inside.
I drove home from the party because I had had only the two glasses of wine and Brian had had the many whiskeys. And who gets drunk on two glasses? I guess someone who was just pregnant for nine months and breastfeeding for two after that.
Mostly I was tired. Sleepless nights. My crotch still hurt. I dribbled pee in the middle of conversations or in line at the ATM. At least a baby makes a convenient excuse to run to the bathroom.
I felt sick all of the time. I looked in the mirror every morning, pulled at my skin, inspected my gums, examined the whites of my eyes. Whose body was this?
Every night Brian showed me funny videos. Shocking videos. We ate ice cream in bed and watched them on his laptop.
One night he showed me a video of a cat that could hold the beat of hip hop songs, one of an old woman from a mountain village who had never seen the ocean before wading into the waves, one of a high school basketball team doing trick shots. He showed me a video of a car smoothly crossing multiple lanes on an interstate, no turn signal, just one long diagonal move, like a bishop on a chess board. It is something I have a habit of.
“The Motor City Slide,” I said.
Brian didn’t grow up in Metro Detroit. We met in college. He asked me if that was what it was called.
“No, just something I made up. It’s one of those nameless things that so many people around here do it really ought to have a name. You know they don’t do that in New York? When we visited your sister in Los Angeles nobody did it. For all of their traffic. I have never seen anyone in Indiana do it. Or in Florida. Or maybe they do, but if they do then they’re from here. People who got out.”
The car in the video smashed into a semi-truck the driver could not see.
“Don’t do that anymore,” Brian said.
“I’m serious. We have a baby now,” he said and so I said okay, because I wanted to go back to the funny videos.
But I was still thinking about that video days later and probably thinking about it when I slid across three lanes in the Motor City Slide going 80 Eastbound on M-14 back from Ann Arbor to our suburban house after two large glasses of Montepulciano.
Outside, the snow fell thick and wet and the lights of other cars smeared across the windshield. I looked at Brian and thought about the video and then I slid, baby, I slid.
Our house is big, looks more expensive than what it is. We live in the suburbs because deep down, I find everything boring, so we might as well have a large house in a good school district. Detroit still feels barren, forever up-and-coming by which people mean there’s now a Whole Foods there, and after four years as a student and another four as someone who could still pass for a student in Ann Arbor, that became boring too. So we bought the suburban McMansion when the market was favorable.
When everything is boring, what does it matter. Might as well just go all in.
I corked the bottle and put it in the refrigerator. I rinsed the juice glass and tucked it in the dishwasher. A large drop of red wine caught the artificial light pouring in from the street lamp outside. I looked down at it as I walked past the granite counter and out of the kitchen.
Upstairs, I stripped down to my thong and got in bed, stretched out on my stomach, arms and legs wide, and slept the best sleep I’d had in a year.
Judy T. Oldfield’s work has appeared in The Portland Review, JMWW, Gravel, So to Speak, Cleaver, and other magazines. She grew up in the Metro Detroit area and attended Western Michigan University, where she earned her BA in English and comparative religion. Judy lives in Seattle with her husband, but you can find her on Twitter at @J_T_Oldfield.