by Brittany Micka-Foos
We’re in the hospital again, me and my wayward womb. My daughter Nora, the birthday girl, was born four years ago. Once more, I wait and I watch the clock. The second hand slices through time—sick, sick, sick—a mean little knife. In a few hours, they will cut out a chunk of me, cut the whole damn thing out. This thing lies just below my belly button, swelling under the thin skin of my stomach. It’s the size of a lime now. And it’s growing.
Just thinking about it makes me hysterical. Four years ago to the day. At least Levi has help this time. My mom flew in from Sarasota. Really, she said. I want to be there. So, we decided to kill two birds with one stone: a birthday party and a surgical biopsy.
“They’re here,” Levi says brightly. He saunters into the hospital room, arms full of impeccably wrapped presents. “And your mom brought more gifts.” My husband is relentlessly chipper. He sets the packages down, arranging them in neat piles under a silvery banner: Happy 4th Birthday, Nora!
“Nora was hungry, so they stopped by the cafeteria,” he continues, as he unties an oversized mermaid balloon from around his wrist.
“It’s a little over the top, don’t you think?” I gesture at the balloon. “And she’s an hour late.”
“C’mon, Ash, she’s doing her best,” he says, releasing the balloon to the ceiling.
The purple-haired mermaid bobs up and down with the exhaust flow of the vent. She’s shiny, with clear, unblemished skin, her taut stomach unmarked except for a pinprick of a belly button. No stitches or keloid scars. I want to tear her tiny body apart with my teeth.
When I sit up, the IV digs into my arm, so I lie prone against the hospital bed. Levi tapes a slew of unnaturally colored ocean animals to the beige walls. Party decorations overwhelm the small hospital room; when the nurse enters to check my vitals, she has to maneuver around the presents stacked precariously by the door-side table.
“Sorry,” I say. “I guess my mom went a little overboard this year.”
“That’s what grandmas are for,” the nurse chirps, as she wraps the blood pressure cuff tight around my arm.
“It’s her only grandchild,” I say to the nurse, who smiles approvingly.
Everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. The nurse nods and notes my blood pressure—“a touch too high, we’ll keep an eye on it.” The grandmother is overly doting, her concern manifesting in extra boxes and bigger balloons. The husband dutifully wrangles crêpe paper into little waves, assuming the role that should be mine, a faint suggestion of worry imprinted on his face. The only one off script is me. I’m growing a second uterus.
I had barely wanted the first one. Not after what it put me through four years ago. I know it’s bad form and all, to disparage a perfectly good uterus, but I am so sick and tired of all this growing, growing, growing. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this or not, but I don’t want to grow anything anymore.
In childbirth class, they tell you that pain is instructive. It lets you know something’s wrong in your body. Unless you’re giving birth, of course: then, the pain is productive. That’s actually what they tell you. Of course, it was a lie. I labored quite unproductively for thirty-six hours before they cut my stomach open, tore Nora out, left me only with that grim and smiling scar. Another untruth: that you’ll be in so much pain during labor, you’ll forget to be polite. That even the most timid of women becomes a lioness, feral and raging. They say you’ll lose all sense of propriety. Not me. When I whined for an epidural, an elderly, severe-looking nurse snapped, “Just breathe!” and that shut me up quick. She turned back to her computer while I waited for the anesthesiologist, crying mute tears, swollen and shallow-breathed. There was no heroic rage, no raw and powerful display. Whatever sound I made was a whimper turned inward.
By now, the IV has wedged itself deep into my forearm, nearing bone. The hospital bed is indifferent, and the machines encircling me beep and whirl on cue. I hear the rhythmic steps of hospital personnel in the hall, shadows passing under the door. The squeak of nurses’ orthopedic footwear on linoleum floors. Clipboards clacking to rest on the backs of doors. All the natural cadences of the hospital. But the thing inside me continues to throb of its own accord.
Levi has finished the crêpe-paper waves and is unrolling a life-sized mermaid poster. The mermaid is nothing from the waist down. All blank space.
“Is she on straight?” he asks, holding it against the wall.
“I don’t think Nora even likes mermaids,” I say. Nora likes jellyfish, amorphous, clear, and fleshy. Mermaids must have been my mom’s idea.
“You aren’t even looking.”
I wave my hand around theatrically at the four corners of the room. “Good job! Now you can’t tell we’re in a hospital—oh wait, never mind.” I had meant to sound airy, but I just sound bitter. Levi frowns and says nothing.
“What time is it?” I smile because I feel guilty about my bad attitude.
“Almost noon,” he says, still fiddling with the poster.
“Nora and my mom should be here by now. They’ll be thrilled.”
Levi starts rummaging through the brown paper bag of party supplies from my mom.
“They’re coming to get me for surgery at one,” I add.
Levi pulls out three long pins from a mesh bag. Metal pins with pearlized round tops, the kind old ladies use for sewing projects. They glint under the fluorescent lights. Punitive little things.
Levi laughs. “Jesus, are these to pin on the mermaid tails?”
I shrug. “Style over safety. That’s my mom.”
“I think we’ll skip the party games,” he says, gently placing the needles back in the bag.
“Did I ever tell you how she’d dress me in a bikini and heels for the pool?”
“Well, you look good in heels.”
“Levi, I was eight.”
He squints at me, like he can’t quite see my face. A phone vibrates on the table, and I feel the edges of the small room shake. “They’re coming up,” Levi says. “Do you need anything? Are you comfortable?”
I shake my head and smile like a wild thing.
But I need plenty. I need to know: what the hell is this thing inside me? At my CT scan, with my veins lit up, burning with liquid neon solution, I caught a glimpse of it. In the center of my body, an abdominal mass, about four centimeters long. At first, they thought it was cancer. Eventually, tests showed invasive uterine tissue. I had a strange desire to see an excised sample, behold it with my own eyes. I imagined it bloody and aching, like a newborn.
The thing inside me continues to pulse, a rhythmic pounding now in time with the beeping of the machines, or maybe I’m just imagining it. Yeah, I’m a medical marvel alright: no one can tell me how this happened. Maybe the obstetrician didn’t rinse out the abdominal cavity thoroughly after the c-section, allowing microscopic tissue to root into the fibers of my abdomen. Maybe I have some sort of rare disease that makes my uterus grow in places it shouldn’t. Maybe it’ll come back again. Maybe I won’t. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
The hospital room door is cracked open. I hear Nora skipping down the hall. The soft soles of her shoes make a hollow sound, echoing after her.
“Slow down, Nora! Don’t run into anything.” My mom sounds far away.
“Grandma, what’s this?”
“That’s a gurney.”
“What’s a gurney?”
“It’s a bed with wheels.”
“Can I sleep on a gurney?”
“No, it’s for sick people.”
“Oh. Is that mom’s gurney?”
They enter the room. My mom carries a large, pink cake covered with candy shells and glittering sprinkles. Levi whisks Nora up, spins her around the room, dislodging a couple of stray balloons. Nora howls with delight. I stare at the snaking wires that tether me to the IV pole, too close to Nora’s swinging feet.
“Happy birthday, big kid!” Levi says, releasing her to the floor.
“What’s this?” Nora asks, pointing to the pin-the-tail poster.
“It’s a mermaid, silly!” my mom says. “You love mermaids!”
“But where’s her fish tail?” Nora’s head tilts horizontal.
“It’s a game—you close your eyes and try to pin the tail on. It’s fun!”
“She looks weird like that,” Nora says, taking a step back.
My mom chews her bottom lip into a smile, but says nothing. I think of those long, thin pins. I think of all the sharp and dangerous objects around us. How soft and fragile a body is.
When Nora was born, I felt for the first time the close presence of my own death. I didn’t see it right away. I failed to notice it looming over me, leering at my big, pregnant body as I dragged it into the Hospital of the Holy Cross, practically splitting at the seams with all of the life I was about to give.
I didn’t notice it when I passed the statute of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard, cradling her miracle child, stoic and unsmiling. I was forty-three weeks along; my mom joked that Nora would have stayed inside me forever if I let her.
Seven days later, I left the hospital, hollowed out. I clutched my baby like a shell-shocked veteran grips their gun, scanning the horizon for nothing. The orderly pushing my wheelchair droned on about car seats and legal liabilities, as he parked me next to an old woman waiting for the bus. She had yellow teeth and was smoking a stubby cigarette; she looked like she had been waiting outside for a very long time. The old woman glanced at me, then Nora, and said, “Oh, a fresh one! They smell nice when they’re new.” Her long, bony finger peeled back Nora’s swaddling clothes. “Looks good enough to eat,” she coughed, breathing smoke into my face, pinching my daughter’s jaundiced cheek. As Levi drove up with the car, I continued to clutch, staring straight ahead into the parking lot. I pictured the operating room, bright and cold, the red glint of metal reflecting blood. Heard the doctors counting in far-off voices. I knew then my body didn’t belong to me anymore. That something had been taken from me.
Nora creeps back up to the disembodied mermaid torso, which hovers just above the crest of a wave. The mermaid’s placid smile is maddening.
“Dad, are mermaids monsters?” Nora asks.
“Not really,” he says.
“Of course not, honey,” my mom says. “They’re very friendly.”
“They’re only pretend,” I say.
A nurse pops her head in the door. “It’s almost one—time for the main event,” she says.
This is the nurse I like: the only one who doesn’t hold it against me when I cry about old scars; who’s never said, “at least the baby was healthy” or “all’s well that ends well.”
“I’ll be back in a few minutes to prep you for surgery,” she says. “This’ll all be over soon.”
She closes the door, it seems, in slow motion.
Nora is bouncing on a chair, reaching to pull a strand of streamers off the wall. She is unfazed by the nurses and their squeaky shoes, the machines with their infinite wires and red blinking lights. She looks over to Levi, face full of unrelenting joy and says, “Daddy! Look! Shine!” Taking a handful of glitter from the table, she throws it into the air. It rains down over everything, iridescent greens and blues against the beige of the room.
My mom clutches her neck, gasps, “Oh Nora! What a terrible mess!” Nora laughs unfettered as Levi looks around for a broom. I hold tight to the frame of the hospital bed as if the room is about to be swallowed whole.
“Okay, kiddo, mom’s getting ready for her big surgery. We can open up the rest of the presents at home.” They push Nora over in my direction. Her feet shuffle against the linoleum.
“Feel better soon, mama.” She picks at the glitter on the hospital blanket.
“Happy birthday, love bug.”
She looks up at me. Her immense blue eyes aren’t mine or my husband’s. They are something else entirely. “Can I see it?” she asks, out of the corner of her mouth.
“See what?” At first, I think she means the large wrapped box Levi is struggling to fit into a grocery bag.
“The thing inside you.”
I’m suddenly struck by a heavy feeling, a desire to shield her from some nameless terror. My mom stands behind Nora, sharpening her nails with an emery board, honing the tips with sullen, deliberate strokes. She stares intently out the window at something in the distance. From my bedridden angle, it looks like nothing but empty sky.
“Can I see it?” Nora asks again. Her eyes are fixed on me.
“Sure, kiddo,” I say as I pull up my hospital gown, revealing the papery skin of my stomach. The area under my belly button is circled in black ink in preparation for surgery and branded with the surgeon’s initials: KM. “See, it’s just a weird little bump.”
“Weird little bump,” she says, singsong, to my stomach. “That’s what it’s called?”
“Well, it’s called an abdominal mass, I guess. Maybe, a growth?”
“What’s a growth?”
I breathe out. “Just a thing that happens sometimes. I don’t know why.”
Nora’s eyes narrow, two tiny blue pools ebbing.
Levi is stuffing discarded wrapping paper into a bag. “Are you sure you don’t need me to stick around?” he asks. I glance at my mom, silent at the window, arms folded into her body as if nursing a wound.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Don’t worry about me.”
Then I watch the three of them disappear out the hospital door, down the long hallway.
My therapist always tells me to listen to my body. Where do you feel that anger? Where does your fear live? I finally know: it has crept into my core. And today they will cut it out entirely, carve away a piece of muscle with it, dissect this thing and name it. This thing: is it a piece of me, or isn’t it? Did I—could I have—willed it into existence? All those bad thoughts balled up tight inside me, unresolved and left to fester.
Everyone agrees: this thing must go. Whatever I am growing is hideous. Freakish. Yet, as I sit here alone, surrounded by half-eaten cake and glitter settling into the folds of my hospital blanket, it occurs to me: this thing inside me is its own sort of dark miracle. A tenderness and a violence—celebrating a birthday of its own. If I cradle my hand over it, I can almost feel it kicking.
Brittany Micka-Foos is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her short stories and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Typehouse Magazine, Briar Cliff Review, Variant Literature, and other publications.