Here Lies the Body
I am lying in bed, indulging in one of my lurid fantasies of deep rest. I imagine I am being smuggled out of somewhere in a cart piled high with hay and must remain completely inert and immobile, lest I be discovered. I find this, somehow, to be exceedingly relaxing.
When the youngest baby comes, I sleep deeply, desperately, slaking some kind of primal thirst. Children (allegedly mine) wander in and out of the bedroom at all hours, and I engage them in entire conversations without actually waking. Don’t forget to fill your water bottle up for camp! I instruct, from the depths of the beyond.
Soon, however, sleep begins to elude me. I start obsessively bidding online for tiny paintings at 3 a.m. while I feed the baby. I become fixated on a portrait of a Dutch nun. It is no bigger than my palm, and I let out a muffled wail when I’m notified that the princely sum I’ve offered to pay is still not enough. I bid on a small, muddy looking painting of horses where you can’t actually see the horses. I fail to secure this painting as well.
Things I do manage to buy at 3 a.m.: a large faux-fur floor pillow that sleeps multiple adult humans, a slew of Dante-themed postcards from “Zazzle dot com,” a scythe-like tool to scrape the dead skin from my thighs.
In the early mornings, when I’ve finally drifted off atop my bed of hay, the children burrow under the covers. There, they curl up like fossils from a distant seabed, radiating otherworldly heat. I blindly reach a hand out and pat them, distinguishing one from the next with only intermittent success. Slowly they unfurl themselves and press their foreheads together, their fingers moving in unison as they tap tap tap on a screen, conjuring the sonorous opening bars of a cartoon about land mammals who moonlight as undersea explorers. Headphones, please! I shout over my shoulder as I descend deeper into the seven circles of sleep. I’ll send you all a postcard when I arrive.
Behind closed eyes, I can see them cast in perfect relief: the oldest, with the familiar archipelago of freckles across the bridge of his nose; the middle, a golden fleece of soft fuzz still covering his back; the littlest, whose ears stick out like miniature cups on the sides of his head, casting small shadows in the pre-dawn light.
I want to lay with you forever; I never want to be bothered again.
In the evenings, they return like homing pigeons to my nest of pillows. Together, we inspect the baby carefully, seeing what new information we can glean about him today. We still don’t know much about him, the middle one observes, somewhat suspiciously.
We conduct a brief review of what everyone has accomplished in the hours we were apart. I learned to cut fruit, says one. I learned to sew a button on fabric, says the other. They present the baby with their gifts, setting them near his feet as if making an offering: the severed torso of a banana arranged carefully in a bowl, an orphaned plastic button gleaming on a scrap of gingham cloth.
Now tell us a story, they ask. Tell us the one about when there were pay phones. Tell us about how rain works, about what language they speak in Wisconsin, about how everyone used to have to watch the same movie on airplanes, about the time your car got towed. Do bugs have minds? What’s it like to die, what’s it like to be born?
It’s time for everyone to rest, I say, shooing them from the bed. Sleep is calling us with its siren song! Then I hide under the covers and watch YouTube videos about how rain works.
Despite the hours lying prone in my bed, my back begins to hurt. Each time I lift the baby, who seemingly doubles in size each night, a meteor of pain sears across my hip. I wonder if I might be dying and temporarily cut back on my 3 a.m. purchases so that I may surf the dark net, scouring WebMD.
I go to the physical therapist. Hanging on the wall is a diploma of dubious origin, a detailed rendering of a pelvis, and a saccharine Cassatt print of a mother bathing her daughter in a small bowl (her back, I assume, too sore to hoist anyone into a real tub). I lay on the padded table and she stands over me, gently palpating my hip. Beneath her mouth, her chin pours smoothly into her collarbone; any indentation that might have once suggested a neck has been slowly eroded, as if by climate change. Her voice is hushed, her vowels long and low. Breathe into your hip, into your back, she directs, as I continue to breathe into my lungs.
She tells me about her children, grown now, and asks about mine. She looks up at the Cassatt and holds her gaze there. “There’s a special place in heaven for moms with three boys,” she says somberly, as if conveying grave news.
I want to tell her about the oldest, the carefully ferried scraps of paper covered in cuneiform sentences he brings home each afternoon; the middle, bearing a poppyseed presented in a sweaty palm, begging to save it forever; the littlest, with teeth coming in so far apart that he looks like a tiny hippopotamus.
A few weeks pass, and the stabbing sensation in my back has dulled. I now only occasionally wince when I bend over to pick up one of the children, each somehow much heavier than they appear. I imagine uncapping them, like nesting dolls, and finding all of their tiny former selves stashed tidily within.
In the late afternoons, I set up to do the elaborate stretches the physical therapist has prescribed. The baby and I lay next to each other on the yoga mat, scrolling through the newest miniature paintings available on eBay while I bend, flex, and bend my freshly scythed thighs.
Through the window, the sun collects slowly around us on the mat in a warm puddle. When I finish my routine, we lay, inert, until I can feel the edges of sleep lap up against me, tugging me to the place where a thought lazily meanders just out of reach; I catch only the last wisp of its tail before it floats away. The baby tucks in next to me, nursing. I comfortingly pat the top of my breast, which in my solar haze, I’ve mistaken for the soft globe of his head. There, there, I say, tapping above my own heart. There.
Sometimes, the older two make their way to us, joining in on my pantomime of exercise and folding their eight limbs, pretzel-like. They cackle with laughter, competing to arrange themselves into ever smaller shapes. Imagine you are inside me, I say. This is what your body was like. Imagine what it was like when I could contain you.
Years ago, after the first was born, it seemed that there was a portal that had accidentally been left open between the two of us. I felt this most acutely at night when he was about to wake, each time he came to the surface of a dream for air. But it happened other times, too. I’d be me, and then suddenly I wasn’t. There’s no other way to describe it, really. For a moment, I simply was no longer myself—I was him. It was a sense of slippage, of porousness, and I could inhabit him completely.
But time contracts the more it passes; it speeds up and gathers momentum. The scenes flick by too quickly now, compressing the hollow places where I would float, endlessly suspended.
I am laying on my bed, three sleeping passengers jammed tightly alongside me in my hay cart. In the mirror hanging across the room, I can see us all reflected. They are framed in perfect repose, an image small enough for me to hold in the palm of my hand: the most perfect miniature painting in the entire kingdom of eBay. Close your eyes now, I think, tilt your head, hold your breath. Catch a glimpse of them just so, and you’ll find the entrance to that portal. To become them, suspend them, contain them, consume them.
LAURA RUBENSTEIN runs a brand strategy consultancy in Minneapolis, where she lives with her family. She is a graduate of Wellesley College.