Note: this is a short fiction story I published in Evocations in January 2022. I was thinking about the impact of the gig economy on the body, and specifically on women’s bodies, and I was also thinking about hypocrisy I’ve seen among men who count themselves as revolutionaries and feminists. I was also thinking about the power of friendship, and about how uncertain and hungry those first years after college can feel. I wanted to poke gentle fun and be a little humorous, but also be real about loneliness and despair.
The Revolutionary Class
The same month I gave birth, my roommate quit her internship at the art gallery to become a hypnotherapist. “There is just more opportunity for career growth,” she told me. We were occupying the uncertain eddy of life after graduation, living on top of each other in the smallest studio apartment in Santa Cruz. During the day, we tried to make money scraping paint and pulling weeds on TaskRabbit. In the evenings, she hypnotized me. She wanted the practice, she said. And hadn’t she proofread my entire dissertation, though she had no interest in Trotskyism?
Emma was with me in the hospital when I gave birth. She told everyone she was the father and I told her she could put her name on the birth certificate, which the hospital staff didn’t appreciate. It’s not like it mattered. I gave birth by accident. It was something I meant to take care of, the way I meant to get an oil change. But it turns out that a delayed abortion is more expensive than an early abortion, which I objected to on principle. And then it was just too late.
“If you want to keep the baby, we can turn the closet into a nursery. I’ll paint it blue,” Emma offered. But I knew it wouldn’t work. Probably anybody would be better at raising this baby than me.
So it was mostly a joke when I applied to be a wet nurse. I mean, I applied to pretty much everything. I’d applied to be a zookeeper’s assistant, an English teacher in Japan, a docent at a museum, and my father put my resume in at the CIA because, he said, they’ve got great benefits. I just needed money.
Joanne called me minutes after I applied, and her voice on the phone was a feminine staccato. She asked me how much milk I was producing, which I couldn’t answer. When she found out I’d given birth only days before, she asked me to come over immediately. “If we’re lucky, there’s still colostrum. That’s the ticket.”
Trotsky said, “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.” And Joanne promised me $400 cash if I could get there that day.
Joanne lived in a mid-century modern house that was half-buried into the side of a green hill with views out over the Pacific. She’d embraced minimalist decor with touches of African art, like oversized painted face masks fringed with rope and a hand carved spear that looked like it has probably been used to kill something. She came to the door barefoot, blonde hair twisted into a clever bun and impaled on lacquered sticks, linen slacks and an off-the-shoulder sweater. Somewhere, a baby was crying. “Let’s sit by the pool,” Joanne suggested, as if I were there for a visit and not a job interview. She offered me cool mint tea which actually had a sprig of mint in it, floating around in brilliant green water. I sat gingerly on a wicker chair, my body still radiating unexpected jolts of pain with quick movement, and handed her a crumpled printout showing I didn’t have any sexually transmitted diseases, at least as of a month ago.
I thought she’d ask me a bunch of questions, but instead she just told me about herself. About her appreciation for alternative medicine, her birthing experience, her decision to change doulas only two weeks before the birth. How she couldn’t nurse the baby herself because of her anxiety medication, sleep training, her thoughts on the environmental impact of disposable diapers, and her thoughts on the environmental impact of having a child at all. Joanne had decided to have only one child. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get my pre-pregnancy body back,” she said, leaning forward over her mint tea as if she were telling me a secret.
My own body was like a mound of mashed potatoes. And I had melasma, which is when pregnant women get dark splotches on their face. My melasma had given me a splotchy discoloration between my upper lip and nose, and it looked like a mustache. Even sitting with Joanne on her stone patio with the fountain tinkling beside us, I kept a hand over my mouth. We seemed to be in totally different orbits: she seemed accomplished, self-contained, and elegant, and I was whatever the opposite of all that was. I chided the part of me that stabbed with envy at her matching pool furniture and self-assurance.
Joanne wanted me to download an app called Nurture. While I signed up for an account, Joanne ordered the Nurture-brand pump. “We can get it delivered today, if you can believe that,” Joanne reported happily.
I went to a bathroom with a toilet that hummed when I stepped close to it and peed into a cup for a drug test. Later, Joanne texted a woman named Claudia, who brought an infant with arms flailing out the French doors and handed it over to Joanne. I blinked back the kaleidoscope of emotions that crept up as she put the baby in my arms and then hiked up my t-shirt and pulled down my ragged bra and felt so embarrassed—I should have worn a button-up shirt, and a better bra—and nuzzled my nipple at this baby I’d never met before.
Driving home, I called Josiah. He was working with a legal clinic on tribal lands and there’d been action with the police the day before. He’d posted photos of protesters in gas masks, the beetle helmets of riot cops framed in plastic shields. The call went to voicemail, and I left a message. I pitched my voice to be casual, and told him about Joanne as if it were a joke we shared. I told him that Emma and I were planning a trip to Cuba when she finished her hypnotherapy exam, which I knew he would like because he loved everything about Cuba. I was still leaving a message when I parked the car in our hot garage. I didn’t tell him about giving birth. We’d texted about it, and it didn’t seem like the right thing for a voicemail. I didn’t want him to think there was some hidden meaning in me bringing it up.
When I came in, Emma was listening to Frank Zappa and wearing her blue gypsy pants. “There’s a ping pong table for $30 at Goodwill. If we shared a bed, we’d have room,” she said.
I dropped my bag and pulled out the money. “Ask me how I got this $400,” I said, grinning. She leapt up and threw her arms around me and we danced around while I described Joanne’s house in careful detail. We walked down to El Zerape and sat under the twisted oak tree in the park looking at flights to Cuba on our phones.
Afterward, I let her hypnotize me. “I need a prompt,” she said, “Something you want more than anything, and I’ll use the hypnosis to lay a framework for it in your mind. It’ll remove all the subconscious barriers that have been preventing you from letting yourself have your true desires.”
“Ok,” I said, “Then I want to end capitalism.”
“Brett! That’s not the right kind of thing.” Emma always blew out her cheeks when she was exasperated.
“What? You said it had to be something I truly wanted. Wage slavery is a scourge we should eradicate, and the bourgeois is the breeding ground of fascism,” I replied.
“Ugh you sound like Josiah is what you sound like. I mean something personal. Something about yourself. Isn’t there anything you want for yourself?”
We’d gotten one of those star projectors for free on Craigslist and it was spinning along the ceiling, creating slow-moving constellations shot through with green and blue hazy color ribbons that were supposed to look like the aurora borealis.
“I don’t know what I want,” I said. “I can’t afford a PhD, and what would a PhD even get me? There’s no point to it. I should take that job teaching English in Japan.”
“I thought you were excited about this new gig with the lady in the mansion? You don’t think that’ll work out?”
“I am. It’s a good job. I just sit there and I don’t have to do anything other than, you know, drink water sometimes. But, she said it might not work. A lot of women have a hard time producing milk at all with a first pregnancy. She said not to get my hopes up.”
“There. That’s perfect,” Emma said, snagging the old bronze pendant she liked to use for hypnotizing me. I sat cross legged on the couch, back straight, facing her. “You just need to tell your subconscious to produce lots of milk so you can keep this good job. That’s perfect for hypnosis.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a good job.”
I drove to Joanne’s every day and needed to be there when the baby, Seamus, woke up from his mid-morning nap. I’d change his diaper and tuck him against my breast and sit in the cushioned rocking chair smelling the fine curls on the top of his head and whispering to him all the secrets of the world, my heart twanging over the shadowed impression of what might have been my own life. I’d hang around for his feeding two hours later, often lounging by the pool or sitting in the den reading Hegel or talking to Claudia while she folded baby clothes and washed bottles.
I was never certain how I felt about suckling. It hurt at first, like he was chomping down toothlessly, his frustrated pink fists pummeling weakly into my breasts. My nipples became tender and chapped, and they turned purple as bruises. My breasts felt swollen all the time. I read through dozens of articles extolling the virtues of nursing, all lined with comments from frustrated women who couldn’t seem to get it right.
When I went home, I’d pump and store greyish milk in these special plastic baggies on the top shelf of the fridge. I wondered if this is what honeybees felt like. The pump was electric and made a sort of soothing hum that reminded me of the window air conditioner at my dad’s house. The app on my phone tracked how often I pumped and how much milk I produced, and made encouraging chirps when I produced more milk than the prior day. Joanne could also see everything on her phone. When I came over with my tray of milk baggies, she’d often comment on it. “Those late-night sessions produce almost twice as much as the morning sessions,” she’d say. Or: “Did you try those lactation cookies yet? Your volume is up 20% from this time last week.”
By week three, I was producing enough that Seamus didn’t need any formula to supplement, and it didn’t hurt anymore. And I felt proud. Like it was a real accomplishment.
Emma was ebullient. “I knew the hypnosis would work.”
Two months after I started my job with Joanne, I did a Skype interview for the job teaching English in Hokkaido, Japan and Emma started an unpaid internship with another hypnotherapist. The idea was that she would offer free hypnotherapy through the school for a while. Then, some of the people coming for free would transition into paying clients once she was certified.
I was skeptical. I thought if someone went to hypnotherapy for the free sessions, they’d probably get their problem solved and then stop needing hypnosis. But Emma said that wasn’t true. “People can be hypnotized for years,” she said, “Sometimes their whole lives.”
I told Emma we should invite Josiah on our trip to Cuba. She was drinking rum from a chipped coffee mug while I drank hot water mixed with Hershey’s chocolate syrup, and we were working on a fanciful description of our studio apartment to post on Airbnb. Our plan was to rent our place out while we were traveling, to cover the costs of the trip.
“Josiah?” Emma asked. She got the look on her face that she always had when I mentioned him, like she was holding something back.
“It’s just that he loves Cuba. He’ll be heartbroken if we don’t invite him. Hey, maybe you could invite someone too. Then we’d each be bringing someone.”
“But I’m bringing you, Brett, that’s the point,” Emma said, not looking at me. “How about we call it Cozy nest in Santa Cruz?”
I bent over her laptop to look at the description of our apartment. “Maybe mention that it’s minutes from the beach? Oh, and bohemian. Bohemian retreat in Santa Cruz,” I said.
“Bohemian! That’s perfect. Hey, let’s start listing it soon, like this weekend. It’s already cleaned up, and we can go up to Big Basin. More money, more time in Cuba.”
“Do we have to worry about all the stuff, though? Like in the closets?”
Emma waved a hand expansively, then typed on her laptop as if playing a grand piano, describing our 600 square foot abode with dramatic flourish. “I’ll deal with the closets. It’s easy.”
“Ok.” I nodded. “Because if you don’t want me to ask him, I won’t ask him. He probably wouldn’t even say yes. He’s doing some training with the NLG and I don’t even think he’s available.”
“If you don’t think he can come, then it’s not really worth it to ask him, is it?”
“I thought you liked Josiah,” I said.
“It’s not that I don’t like him,” she replied quietly, noting that our apartment had WIFI and a kitchen, noting that we had heat and two single beds.
I wasn’t trying to argue so much as to explain. “He’s different from other guys. He’s a feminist. He’s politically active. I know he can be a downer sometimes, but he’s got worldly perspectives. And he was really supportive about everything. I know you think he wasn’t, but he really was. A lot of other guys would have pressured me.”
I knew what Emma was thinking: a lot of other guys would have been there, in person, while I was giving birth. Would have gone to prenatal appointments, maybe suggested we move in together. Would at least have given me a key to their apartment. But Emma didn’t say any of that. “You can invite him,” she said, “If that’s what you want to do.”
“Look, it’s fine,” I said. “But I don’t want to go camping this weekend. I’m supposed to go to Joanne’s and I don’t want to lose this job.”
According to the Internet, you can nurse babies for years. I often scrolled through articles about it while I was nursing Seamus, even though Joanne didn’t like me to look at screens when I was with him. I would count it up in my head: I could nurse Seamus for 3 years, then travel the world for 6 months, and start teaching abroad if I still hadn’t landed a decent job. I’d gotten the offer to teach English in Japan. Maybe I could defer it, just like I deferred the PhD program. The truth was, the wet nurse gig was too good to give up. It was easy money, and Joanne was so happy with me.
Except when she wasn’t. I was sitting under the sun umbrella by the pool on a Wednesday. I’d just dropped my phone and the screen was cracked. Joanne walked up just as I was trying to figure out whether taking my phone to the repair kiosk at the mall would void some kind of warranty. She told me she’d done everything in her power to be supportive but she was at the end of her rope.
“You mean, supportive of me?” I asked, tucking my phone away.
Deep lines edged the sides of her mouth and her eyes were shining, and I felt bad because I thought maybe she was about to cry. “You’ve been coming in late every day this week. Yesterday Seamus was crying after his morning nap, and where were you? His diaper was soaked and the whole bed was soaked. I’ve checked the app and you’re pumping almost half as often as you were two weeks ago, and now your volume is down. And what, you’re just eating anything you want out of the fridge? Brett, this is a real job. Maybe you haven’t had a job before.”
“I’m sorry about the yogurt. I meant to eat, before, but I was running late. I won’t do it again,” I offered, lamely, and then clammed up because it was obvious from her face I was making things worse.
“Of course you were running late. You’re always running late. I don’t understand what it is you do all day.”
Joanne told me to go home and I left, humiliated. I sat in the car and checked the app for the pump and saw she was right: I was producing less milk than the prior week. I drove home engulfed by fear, imagining my breasts drying up and then suddenly I’d be job hunting again on TaskRabbit. I imagined running into people who had been in my classes at school, and them asking me what I was doing.
The studio was empty when I got home. Dinner was a breakfast burrito with hunks of freezer burn and discount frozen yogurt from the cardboard container. I went to bed watching a show about Mary Queen of Scotts on Netflix, scrolling through jobs I wasn’t qualified for on my phone.
Emma was at her hypnotherapy class and they often went out afterwards. I had the lights off when she got home and I didn’t say anything as she came in, dropped her keys on the table, opened and closed drawers in the kitchen, and took a shower, all without turning on any lights except the glowing star projector I’d left on slowly spinning an artificial galaxy.
I lay staring at the ceiling, sliding in and out of sleep, my body rigid. In the sparkling dark, I heard a baby crying, as if it were on the floor near my bed. I didn’t turn to look. The sound terrified me.
It was my fault I got pregnant. Josiah and I were friends first, and even that night we both said we didn’t want to do anything that would ruin our friendship. His apartment was like something from an East Coast professor, all heavy wood and matching coffee tables, and he had that army bomber jacket he wore every day that winter. He was a grad student and teaching assistant in the poly sci department and I was, and maybe I’d always been, in love with him.
We acted like we hadn’t seen it coming, like the idea of taking off our clothes and rubbing together had just suddenly occurred to us after a night wandering around the dew-strewn velvet lawns of UC Berkeley after midnight. We went to his apartment and even then, 2 AM, our bodies inches from each other, we acted like we didn’t know what was happening. We started kissing with such deflection that it’s impossible to pin purposeful intent on either of us. And at the same time, I was soaring. Heart cacophonous, every breath shaky, and staring at his face to see if it all meant the same for him. And then at the last minute he said, pained, that he didn’t have a condom. And I told him it was fine. I’m on the pill, I told him. And even as the words tumbled out, I knew it was foolish. Because I wasn’t on the pill. And because I did, in fact, have several condoms in my backpack.
But what was I supposed to do, stop everything? Tell him that I had lied?
Instead of confessing, I laughed. A nervous, choked laugh, and I was humiliated at the sound, like a horse whinnying, and then we were both laughing and even when the laughter subsided it kept burbling up in nervous giggles as he touched my body. We slept together seven times total over the course of a year, and I never brought up condoms again.
Trotsky never thought that revolution could be contained by geography. He said that “The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable,” and argued that the workers seizing power in Russia could kickstart a global, permanent revolution. And I guess on some level I thought that sleeping with Josiah would have a similar cascading effect in our relationship: that it would be impossible to contain our romantic interactions to impromptu, alcohol-hazed couplings. That sex itself would catalyze our relationship and transform how we fit together, the way he looked at me when our eyes caught over our laptops, the words he used to introduce me to friends, the shape of our future, of my future.
The only doctoral program I applied to was at Berkeley, my application written after I’d spent the night at Josiah’s. I’d taken one of his black sweatshirts and I stayed wrapped in it all day, smelling him, writing essays for the application while water dripped down from the sky outside my window and I couldn’t stop smiling.
The day after Joanne asked me to leave, I dropped onto Emma’s bed at 7 AM. “Wake up Emma,” I said urgently. “I need you to hypnotize me.”
Emma creaked an eye open and then promptly shut it again. “Later,” she said.
I put a hand on her shoulder. “No, I need you to do it now. Right now, Emma.”
Emma pulled herself up and squinted into the morning light cascading through the dust on our windows. “What’s wrong? You’re not crying?”
“Joanne threw me out. She said I was showing up late, that I wasn’t producing enough milk,” my throat was so tight I could barely get the words out. “She said I was lazy. She said I was worthless. And, she’s right. The app says that I’m not producing nearly the same amount, and I tried to do it last night and I couldn’t.”
Emma wrapped arms around me and I didn’t hug her back, just put a hand to my head in self-loathing. She smelled like nutmeg, weed, and sweat, and I hiccupped into her hair, saying “And what am I going to do without this job? I’ve applied literally everywhere. Nobody wants to be your first job. And now it’s been months since I graduated and it just looks weird, like there’s something wrong with me, and I can’t even get an interview anywhere. And Josiah hasn’t texted me in four days, and he said he’d be in town this week but I haven’t heard anything. And I don’t even know if I want to see him because my body-” I stuttered for the words, gulped and kept going, “And then yesterday I got a survey from the hospital and they wanted me to rate my experience. Like, 5 stars, would totally abandon a baby there again.”
“Oh my sweet Brett, you didn’t abandon him. You gave him up for adoption,” Emma said. I leaned down and placed my head into her pillow and she dragged the blanket over us both. “And you’ll get a better job, I know it. The economy is just weird right now.”
“It’s not weird,” I sniffed. “Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in our lifetime. This is because nobody wants me.”
“Of course they want you, they just don’t know it. They’re just idiots who don’t know anything.”
“Hypnotize me,” I begged her, swiping tears away only to have them well up and spill down onto the pillow again. “I need you to.”
“Ok,” she said. “Just let me go to the bathroom, get coffee.”
“No, Emma, now.” I rolled over and reached down to the shoeboxes by her bed where she kept books and phone chargers and Chapstick and the pendant. I yanked it up. “Now. I can’t stand it.”
She sat up and took the pendant, looking from its soft bronze curves to my face. “You want to produce more milk? Like before.”
“No,” I shook my head violently, closing my eyes, feeling like the star projector was still spinning on the back of my eyelids. “I want you to remove this sense of wanting. This sense of always needing something, of needing someone. This horrible empty wanting sense inside of me. I want it gone. And then it doesn’t matter if Joanne doesn’t want me, or Josiah, or any other men on that stupid dating app, or any of those other jobs, or anything. I just want to stop wanting so much. So that whatever happens, it doesn’t affect me, I just don’t care.” I looked at her. “Can you do that?”
Emma thought about it. “Yeah, I think so,” she said at last. “Though I haven’t finished my internship yet. But I think I’ve got the basics.”
I arrived at Joanne’s house at 9:30 AM, in clean clothes, carrying a tray of milk baggies. I didn’t let myself in, but instead just knocked at the door. Claudia answered, and if she could tell I’d been crying she didn’t say anything. In the succulent garden lining Joanne’s walkway, there was a concrete statue of a fat Buddha, smiling, the cheekbone chipped.
“I brought these for Seamus,” I said.
Claudia took them and said, “She’s going to want you to do another drug test. She said if you came by, to make sure you did a drug test.”
I stepped past her and walked to the bathroom.
The weeks after that dribbled out in painful increments. I wasn’t late to Joanne’s anymore, and in between feedings I played with Seamus or helped Claudia. But it seemed like nothing I did mattered. I rehearsed apologies in my car but somehow didn’t manage to say them.
And over the next three weeks, my milk production decreased. Whatever had convinced my mammary glands to produce prodigious amounts of milk for the first several months of my employment had waned, and I could see clearly that I was drying up. My body was betraying me, and it was happening in awful slow motion. I ate oatmeal three times a day and held the pump to my deflated breasts for an hour at the time in the evenings, waking up all hours of the night to pump again and keeping the pump in the car so I could attach it to my breasts underneath my hoodie when I was driving. And then, on a Friday morning, when I’d arrived with a meager handful of milk baggies only half-full, Joanne met me at the door. She passed me an envelope, her body vibrating. “It’s just not working out,” she said. And I knew that I had no value left for her.
Ashamed, I went back to my car. I pressed down on my breasts through my hoodie and soft-cupped bra. “What will we do now, if you won’t produce enough milk for this job?” I asked them, hatefully. In the passenger seat next to me, the Internet-enabled pump observed me. I shuddered at the sight of it, my body repulsed.
My body, my breasts, had gone on strike. I drove home, a strange buzzing in my ears like voices in another room.
Emma met me at the door of our apartment. “It’s not like I was going through your mail. I was just opening things and I thought it was for me,” she said.
I blinked at her. “What is it?” I asked.
She handed me the letter, already unfolded, and I looked it over. It was an invoice from the hospital. It was as if a hole had opened up below me and I’d fallen in. “I can’t afford this. This is almost as much as a year of tuition. This is more than my student loans.”
“It says you need to provide insurance information. Don’t you still have insurance?”
I fell back onto my bed without taking off my shoes, stared at the dark stains over the bed that looked like continents I’d never visited. “I was supposed to get on California’s insurance but then I missed the deadline. And they said at the hospital I could deal with it, and then there was some problem with the system. They said the whole thing was down. So I just left. I don’t even know if I’m on my dad’s insurance.”
“You didn’t find out before you went to the hospital?”
“I meant to. I was going to. But also I didn’t want it going on his insurance. It was my fault. I wanted to pay for it myself. But there’s no way I could pay this.”
Emma stood by the door. “What about Josiah?” she said, her voice filled with conviction I didn’t share. “He has a job. He should cover part of this.”
I shook my head. There was no way. Trotsky died by ice ax. A cleaver to his skull. He died in exile, a foreigner, his friends already dead. A two-inch gash in his skull.
“Joanne fired me. And even if she didn’t, I’m all dried up,” I said. “My body has gone on strike.”
“Brett, what can I do?”
“I have to get out of here.” I stood up, and saw my keys and bag were still in my hand. “I have to get out.”
“I know. We both do. We’ll find a way through.”
“No, I mean I have to go now. I have to leave.” And then I stood and I was already outside, my feet flying down the stairs.
I didn’t know where I was going, but maybe it was inevitable. There was no other possible place I could go once I’d started driving, no future that didn’t have me parking my car on that suburban Berkeley street with sedate colonial houses with their tidy yards and freshly-washed Priuses. I parked across the street, where I could look out the driver’s window and see the white brick building, the metal fire escape outside his window. He would sit by his desk at that window and work on his computer in the evenings.
I suddenly thought about my appearance, and I flipped the visor down and stared at the two-inch mirrored image of myself. I dashed a hand at my swollen face, peered at the melasma above my upper lip, and patted my hair. Fresh tears welled up from my red-rimmed eyes and dripped from my nose, and I closed the visor, thinking: I’ll just wait until I’m not crying anymore, then I’ll go up there. I thought: he’s not even here. He’s still in North Dakota. I thought: I’ll just say I was in the neighborhood and wanted to drop by, to see if he was in town.
And then again, like a mantra in my mind, a distant drumbeat: he’s not here.
Because the alternative was impossible to contemplate.
I sat in the car, swallowing, thirsty, hungry, needing a bathroom, unable to drive away and unable to step out of the car and go knock on the door. And I remembered going to the hospital. I thought it was just back pain, maybe I’d thrown out my back when I’d taken that gardening gig, and I laid in bed feeling miserable, like someone had kicked me in the back. And when my water broke, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. Like an unspooling, I thought I’d wet myself, and instead it was all over Emma’s Indonesian rug. I’d texted her: I think the baby is coming early! Self-consciously, I’d taken the blue leopard-print duffel bag that we’d started packing and began throwing other things into it: toothpaste, slippers, a billowy dress, the new issue of Jacobin that I still hadn’t read, the whole time texting madly with Emma as she raced home in an Uber. And even as she crashed through the front door, frantic, I’d been paralyzed, my cell phone in my hand, a text written and unsent to Josiah. Even then, I was afraid to let him think I needed something from him.
It was dusk when I saw him. His head was bent over his phone and he had air pods in his ears, and his wire-frame shoulders were bent awkwardly forward. His mop of dark curls was longer, and on his chin the stubble had gathered force into something approximating a goatee. That scuffed bomber jacket, black biker boots, a metal studded belt, and the wide forehead of an Athenian patriarch. My stomach plummeted and I froze. He walked straight to the front door of his building, not carrying anything in his arms, and glanced up just as he walked through the door. His eyes took in the world around him for just a moment, as if to briefly register that time had passed and he’d arrived at his destination. His eyes met mine through the driver’s side window, and the air in my lungs stilled.
This was not how I wanted him to see me. He must have known instantly that I was there waiting for him. My threadbare t-shirt, mouth trembling, my face swollen from hours of crying. Gone was the carefully orchestrated persona of the casual and competent scholar I’d wrapped myself in to earn his affection. And maybe, I thought, it was for the best. He was seeing me now as I truly was. Whatever happened next at least it would be based on the truth. I steeled myself and put a hand on the door handle.
But, his eyes flicked down again, and he stepped into the recesses of his building. I sat unmoving, disbelieving.
He hadn’t recognized me.
I was driving away before the lights flicked on in his window.
They say the first time you hold your own baby, it’s like magic. But when the doctor had placed the baby against me, its skin purple and coated in a milky white substance, I’d shuddered in terror. There wasn’t a question anymore. I felt unadulterated certainty, clear as a scream. The baby was heavy with the weight of a lifetime’s worth of demands on me.
If overwhelmed were a physical sensation, like a crushing weight of stones piled across your body, that is what I felt. I looked down at the dewy crescents of this small child’s closed eyes and felt utterly incapable of defending it against the world.
“Take him,” I told the nurse. “Take him, I don’t want him. Please, just take him.”
I stayed in the hospital for two sleepless, aching nights. Every hour or so, the nurses brought the unnamed baby in to sit on my abdomen and make these soft, barely-audible little grunting sounds. I’d touch my hand to the baby’s hot back and let him suckle at my breast, and then send him back to the nursery so I could huddle miserably with my thoughts.
My father arrived on the second day, pacing around the hospital room close-mouthed while Emma petted my hand. He said we’d “find a way,” but I refused. The nurses made cooing noises and told me that this thing I felt was normal. But how could that be? I was so undeserving, so inadequate, that I felt as if I were a crater, the blown-apart bits of hollowed-out earth after a meteor had struck.
In California, they don’t call it abandoning a baby. It’s called surrendering. The word kept resonating through my mind when they clipped a bracelet to my wrist and a matching one to the child’s. The last time I held him, I didn’t look at his face. I stared instead at his tiny hands with the whorls of fingerprints and the breathtaking perfection of fingernails already formed. Surrendering. Like an army defeated.
The hospital gives you a pamphlet that says you have 14 days to reclaim the baby before it would be “adopted by a loving family.” I just needed to come back with the bracelet. But the thought of surviving 14 days with that possibility looming over me was somehow itself unbearable. So I yanked and wiggled my wrist out of the plastic bracelet and stuffed it out the car window as soon as we hit the highway, my chest heaving, knowing it was better this way. Emma kept her eyes pinned to the road in front of her and said nothing.
After I left Josiah’s, I found myself at the ocean in Santa Cruz, and parked to look out at the sea. A bohemian retreat, minutes from the beach, I thought. It wasn’t just a fanciful description of our apartment, it was everything we were trying to create: a time-out-of-time, the life of artist-philosophers, of revolutionaries. But what was I retreating from, living in a beach town with no job prospects, no future? It felt unbearably hollow, an idyllic image of a seascape that I’d peeled back to expose the stained wall behind it. In the silence of the airless car, I navigated the cracked screen of my phone to find the email from the teach abroad job in Japan.
It was dark when I stepped out onto the sand, and it was cold the way it always was in the summertime at the beach in Santa Cruz after dark. I kicked off my battered sneakers and carried them in my hand as I walked across an empty beach and then stepped my bare feet into the black water. Behind me, cars with yellow headlights carved pathways along the road. There were vans parked along the roadway, probably folks sleeping there. The Pacific Ocean was so cold my feet felt burned by the sensation.
I took out my phone and texted Emma: I love you. I accepted that teaching job in Japan. I know that puts you in a bad spot with the rent, but I’ll do whatever I can to help with that. But I need a break from California. And I just need to stop waiting for life to happen to me.
She wrote back: What about that PhD program?
I closed my eyes and texted: Maybe I’ll apply again next year to a different program. One with funding.
I called Josiah. It went to voicemail, so I cancelled and called again. He picked up on the third ring. “Hey, Brett,” he said, his voice edged in caution. “I have been wanting to check in with you. What’s up?”
“I’m fine Josiah,” I said, even though he hadn’t asked. I sucked in a lungful of Pacific night air, the cold bracing. Courage, I told myself. “I guess I’m calling to break up with you.”
The phone was quiet on the other end, and in that silence I smiled. He started to speak and I cut him off: “I know you’re probably thinking that we weren’t dating, and maybe we weren’t. Maybe you think we were just friends. But we were having sex sometimes, and we were texting a lot, and we were talking on the phone. So, I’m calling to break up from whatever that was.”
I looked up and saw that all around me, stars were appearing over the ocean, each pinprick of light emerging from a field of black. I felt small. “I guess I also want to say that I think you’re wrong about Trotsky. You always said that his philosophy anchored a movement, and you excused everything he ever did as being the price he paid for revolution. And I believed you, maybe because I wanted to believe you. But the truth is that he led armies that killed thousands of people in Ukrainian villages. Just regular people who wanted nothing to do with the war. And how can you say that he was a defender of the people, that he stood up for workers?”
There was a beat of silence, and then Josiah cleared his throat. “Well, let’s slow down a second there, Brett. You have to recognize-” And I could hear him inhaling the way he did whenever he was gearing up to get into one of his professorial moments.
“No, don’t stop me. I know what you’ll say. You’ll say that all revolutions are violent. That we can admire a man for his ideas without condoning all of his actions. That Trotsky mellowed with age. But I think it’s all bullshit. Because we have to judge a man by his actions. And I’m so sick of putting men on pedestals based on their words alone. Because our actions during a crisis, like a revolution, show our true character. Which is a long way of saying this is over, Josiah, it’s over.” And as the words tumbled out, I realized I was talking about my own life, my own actions, as much as Josiah’s.
“Brett, you’re not making sense. And this is just a lot to lay on me. I know you’ve been through a lot.” Through the phone, his voice was reedy.
“Goodbye, Josiah.” I said, and ended the call.
I stared at the phone, wondering if he’d call back, or text, or anything, and hating the part of me that hoped he would. At last the phone buzzed, and this time it was Emma. I love you too. I think you’ll make a great teacher.
I smiled and looked up at the night sky, feeling lighter than I’d felt in a year, a hollow emptiness that felt like possibility spreading inside of me.
My phone buzzed again, and it was another message from Emma. Also, I know you’re a skeptic, but this time you have to admit the hypnosis worked.
I shook my head, smiling. I texted back: I think this is the opposite of hypnosis.