The human placenta weighs about 1-2 lbs — considerably more than the adult human heart — and belongs to neither mother nor child. It is a transitional organ, tossed into the medical waste bin after the birth. It has two separate circulatory systems and both of your blood. Who is it? It’s both of you, and no one. It’s the bastard offspring of your parent/child union. What is it? It is the opposite of a condom.
Some pregnant women claim to have seen the shape of their child’s foot pressing through the skin of their belly as it kicks, clear enough to make out the nailbeds of the toes. Some report seeing little fists, pounding to get out. During my son’s time inside, I saw nothing, and felt nothing. As far as I know, my child never kicked or punched me from within. I did sense he was there from a taste in my mouth I’d never experienced before: sweet and foul, like a rancid pastry, but with a bright valence of gasoline. I further believed in his presence because a doctor had rolled a device like a wired Ouija planchette over my gelled belly and pointed to an image on a screen.
As a child, I was convinced that things never really touched — that there was always, always a gap between things, however infinitesimal. Because (I reasoned) their molecules, their atoms, remained intact. (I was 8 or so.) As long as their atoms remained intact, they weren’t really touching. For things to truly touch, they would need to puncture the barriers of the others’ atoms. In order to really touch, they would need to become each other, or probably something else entirely, even if only in one very small place. When I held my mother’s hand, our molecules were very, very close, but they did not touch. This made it safe to hold her hand.
When you are “with child,” and a fetal creature is slurping sustenance and excreting waste within the core of your body, mediated by that transitional organ that this self-same fetus has planted (and your body welcomed by installing a circulatory system of its own) any comfortable conceptions of self and other dissolve. You forget altogether about atoms. You are in the realm of things that people can see, even if you can’t see them because they are hidden inside you. They are seeable by the naked eye. (If a magician sliced you in two, the front row of the audience would be able to see them provided you are far enough along.)
Women who have miscarriages lose their fetus, but they also lose that little bit of themselves, the placenta, every time. When a woman has a healthy baby, and when that healthy baby is had, you and baby both lose a little bit of yourselves, that 1-2 lbs. Every time. Into the waste bin it goes.
The Guggenheim show Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video (which I saw back in 2010, when I still leaked milk and my child barely toddled) promised to “[examine] myriad ways photographic imagery is incorporated into recent practice and in the process [underscore] the unique power of reproductive media while documenting a widespread contemporary obsession, both collective and individual, with accessing the past.” I seized upon “reproductive media” and blurred the rest out as I chased my child up the ramp.
I am a woman who didn’t love her fetus the way she was supposed to. I knew better than to reveal this dispassion to anyone, and smiled inanely during examinations at the thumping of the fetal heart monitor (all fetal heartbeats sound alike, so . . . so what? thump thump thump). I was suitably impressed by the machines themselves, however — the technology that allowed everyone in the room to explore my underworld, that let a team of roving residents inside my uterus for a glimpse of the pulsing kidney bean attached therein. I looked at the machines more than I did the screen, and asked questions about their functionality.
I’d tried once to get it right, and had pointed with curiosity to the distinct round patch at the center of the blob on the screen and said “is that its eye?” and the nurse said “no, that’s his heart,” even though no one knew the sex yet. And then a few weeks went by and the bean sprouted legs and arms, and I thought, ok, maybe that’s an insect of some sort, but it doesn’t look at all like a baby, so stop calling it my baby until it is my baby and stop trying to make me say the words “my baby.” I was suspicious of the creature (the cause of my ceaseless vomiting), lacking any kind of good feeling for it until about week 12, when the ultrasound machine revealed him shielding himself from the probing vibrations with his arm. Could he actually feel these sounds? I couldn’t feel them. But in the image, he holds his arm up against the prying medical paparazzi. Get away, you! It is the picture of someone I like, and whom I therefore might be able to love.
Many months later, sometime before my little son toddled across the earth and into the Guggenheim, I read a newspaper article about 33 Chilean miners trapped half a mile underground in a space the size of a small apartment. Authorities had just found that the extent of the collapse meant a rescue likely could not be achieved for 4 months or more. The miners were able to communicate with the outside world through video images taken with a camera that was dropped down a borehole attached to a drill. Apparently, the authorities above were also sending down antidepressants and a home theater system to project films against the wall of the mine. A team of psychologists trained to help submarine crews deal with close quarters had been called in to help determine which films could safely be projected down there, which ones would not incite riots or lust or unbearable loneliness or claustrophobia or, worse, unpredictable underground emotions you don’t want in a mine the size of a small apartment filled with Chilean miners.
This article, these miners, came with me to the Haunted show. My child stumbled up the slow incline of the lazy corkscrew ramp, just out of my reach, ignoring altogether the artwork in favor of the terrain of the architecture leading up toward the aperture of skylight at the top. I was tired, and conflated news items, exhibition, wobbly son, and disinterested self with the hauntings of pregnancy, childbirth, and all that had led there.
33 Chilean miners were living inside my uterus, and my toddler was trapped beneath the earth of the Atacama desert with pharmaceuticals and movies. Paul Chan’s 6th Light projected its falling (or maybe rising) shadow objects through a parallelogram of light onto the floor of my uterus below its corresponding projected green parallelogram on the wall. Andy Warhol’s 8-hour and 5 minute film of the Empire State Building just standing there being the Empire State Building for 8 hours and 5 minutes flickered inside the Chilean mine, while my toddler watched. (Would the submarine psychologists approve?) The floor of my uterus, relined, with Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #167: a photographic image of dirt barely covering bits of the plastic woman buried, dismembered, beneath. She, it, was in me, for the miners to contemplate. This, lit up on the screen display in an examination room, exclaimed upon by excited nurses and roving residents with clip boards while my child, bored in the mine with the Warhol flickering for hours, wondered what had happened.
Meanwhile, the many other humans crowded into the space of the Guggenheim herded each other down and down and down the ramp. What they were thinking, I have no idea.
I have bought and still do buy the sappy Summer’s Eve douche statement that everything changes when you become a mother. I do. When I was a child, my mother told me that, after she had me, she was never the same. I’m sure that I was never the same after she had me either. It’s hard being had.
Immediately following the mine collapse, the airwaves were alive with the fear that the miners were either dead or, if living, unfindable. Anchormen and women repeated the unthinkable: the miners would slowly starve to death half a mile underground, unseen and unknown to us up above. The global repetition of this fear made it almost seem like a prayer — benevolent (almost), as it would spell a quick end to the tragedy by offering no more than the status quo: the miners’ burial at the behest of the earth itself. The twin of this hope, however, and indeed the force that tinged it with that fleeting benevolence, was an unspoken fear: that the miners would be found and contacted, alive but unreachable, in full communication for the duration of their slow starvations. And then there was a tertiary whisper, an unheard ripple in the air that was almost not there at all: the wish that this is exactly what would happen.
(I cannot be the only one who is bothered by the kinky friendship between gestate and digest and the questions it raises about who does which to whom . . .)
Some of these fears fell away and others were buttressed when the miners taped a note, written in bold red letters, to an exploratory drill bit on its way up: “We are in the shelter, the 33 of us.”
The mining disaster had occurred because of greed. The men were trapped because the mining company didn’t want to have to close the notoriously unstable mine, even though there was ample evidence the day of the collapse that the mine wouldn’t hold. There was a visible crack in the wall of the mine. Anyone could look and see this crack.
A year after their rescue, many of the Copiapó miners reported difficulties returning to their normal lives. “I cry at the drop of a handkerchief. I don’t talk to my old friends anymore, because they treat me differently. Nothing is the same.” Some have anxiety attacks. Others, depression. They have been given a clean bill of health.
Picture: preparing to spend the rest of your forever suffocating or starving under the earth in sweltering darkness, your body swallowed by time. Then picture: after 17 days of being buried alive with no contact from the world above, pretty sure you would suffocate or starve unfound, rescuers locate you, but tell you it will be four months until you’re out. So picture: four months under the earth. 120 days or so (or possibly still forever, if those rescuers are wrong).
That the miners were rescued early, after only 69 days — including the first terrifying 17 — doesn’t change the fact that for the time they thought it would be 120 days (or possibly forever) it was 120 days (or possibly forever). That is what they pictured. Their bodies’ experience of time adjusted to this picture.
When you gain 75 lbs. during three months of pregnancy bed rest and cannot see the underside of your belly without the assistance of two precisely positioned hand mirrors, how many atoms has the discrete package known as “you” gained? Since atoms are neither created nor destroyed, where do they come from, if “you” can’t seem to keep any food down?
2,300 feet is almost half a mile, which is almost as tall two Empire State Buildings on top of each other. Almost half a mile of rock with twice the density of granite lay between the miners and the surface. The miners were congregated in a little pool of space beneath all that rock.
Although Warhol shot Empire at 24 frames per second, it is projected much more slowly, at 16 frames per second. So although the building on the screen stands there for 8 hours and 5 minutes, in real life the building only stood there for 6 hours and 36 minutes. Warhol deliberately de-synched live experience and reproduced image.
At the beginning of the collapse, before contact with the surface on day 17, there were enough emergency rations to feed 33 men normal meals for 2 days. The miners stretched their hope of rescue into the thinnest thread and rationed this food to maximize their chances. Each miner received 2 teaspoons of tuna, 1 biscuit, and 1 cup of milk every 2 days, up until day 14, when they ran out of biscuits and milk and halved the tuna ration. During those first 17 days, every man understood that, soon enough, some other man would die, and his sad flesh would remain underground with them. At some point, this would go the way these things go.
Picture: a day, any day, before day 69 of what the miners thought would be 120 days living in 90 degrees and 90% humidity under half a mile of rock two times the density of granite in 540 square feet filled with the atoms associated with 33 other men: the atoms of their bodies, of their exhalations, of their excrements, and the exhalations of their excrements. This is the image the media conjured, an image reinforced by the video feed up from the mine to the surface: the men’s experience underground was captured in black and white and broadcast around the world at the top of every news program: shirtless, sweating, dirty, hairy men, buried under rock, talking to the underground camera.
540 square feet divided by 33 is 16. For a second, 16 square feet per man doesn’t sound so bad. But then you have to figure that each man himself occupies some of that space, which is space into which no one can move. An average person, standing up, occupies 2.5 square feet. 33 x 2.5 = 82.5 feet taken up by standing bodies. This leaves 457.5 square feet left for moving around: 13.8 square feet per man. That still doesn’t sound so bad.
Except: a king-sized bed is 80 square feet. A typical modern prison cell is 48 square feet. A full-sized mattress is 28 square feet. A twin-sized mattress is 20.41 square feet. If they were in 540 square feet of space, the miners had 13.8 square feet in which to move.
Even confined to bed rest on a twin-sized bed, a pregnant woman has more room than that. (But only on the outside.)
The average Chilean man is 5.4 feet tall.
The Internet says that an average adult human is made up of 7 x 10 24 atoms.
A woman contains about 3 ½ cups of amniotic fluid by the time she gives birth.
Undoubtedly, there are more approaches to counting what’s countable here. And then there are other things, too.
Luckily, there were tunnels connected to this main space that the miners could walk around in, so they weren’t really as crowded as the media reports of 540 square feet makes it sound. They could roam, a little. But they couldn’t roam anywhere that wasn’t underground with a bunch of other men.
Sixty-nine days is a long time for a man to go without sexual release, even if he is somewhat preoccupied with worry about suffocating or starving inside an underground space the size of a small apartment with tunnels off to the sides. It is even longer for 33 men sharing this space together with limited food and entertainment. Recognizing this, and the value of endorphins as natural calming agents, doctors sent down pin-up posters and pornography. Quickly thereafter, the miners sent up a request for blow-up plastic sex dolls. An anonymous donor graciously offered to supply them with 10. The doctor in charge rebuffed this: “I said ‘33 or none.’ Otherwise they would be fighting for inflatable dolls: whose turn is it? Who was seen with whose fiancée? You are flirting with my inflatable doll.”
So the miners are in my uterus, looking at the pornography and pinups on the wall. Is the porn more exciting when attached to the flesh of a real live woman? Would being inside me, completely enveloped by a real, live woman, wholly in her hole, offer its own pleasures?
The blow-up dolls go to my son down in the mine and crowd around him. Warhol’s Empire plays and plays to its captive, bewildered, teething audience.
The doctor and residents look at the screen into me and see the porn on the walls of my uterus, female interior leading to further female interiors, chasm upon chasm upon chasm, the floor lit by Paul Chan’s shadow-objects seeming to fall or rise.
The plastic-women simulacra, with their many holes, terrify my sweet little son, and he holds up his arm to block their view. I want to save him.
The great deception of matter, of course, is that it seems solid when in fact it mostly isn’t. The only really solid part of the atom is the nucleus, tinier than any mind can truly fathom. But the nucleus is not the entire atom. The atom is much, much larger, though still tinier than the human mind can fathom. The atom as a whole is the nucleus and what surrounds it, and what surrounds it is space. Or more precisely: what surrounds it is one or more electrons that orbit the nucleus, creating, through their charged motion, a discrete space around it. That space is part of what the atom is. But the electron itself is nothing but a point — it has no underlying structure, and is zero-dimensional. It is almost nothing. (For comparison, a human ovum is about the size of a pencil dot on a paper. You can see it by looking, and it has dimension.) An atom, then, is comprised of an infinitesimal kernel surrounded by a much bigger (but still infinitesimal) area of almost-nothing.
The magic of things feeling solid, and seeming to touch, when atoms are mostly empty space is that the emptiness is filled with force: with an electric charge, physics’ version of a feeling. When two atoms come very close together, their electron fields begin to repel one another. It is in this way that our sense of solid matter is created: through repulsion. The electrons of me and the electrons of you, all of them making each other seem solid through mutual repulsion.
The problem with being faithful to the conviction that nothing ever touches, obviously, is that we feel things touch us all the time. We feel the heat of a hand not our own and think we have been touched. We taste someone else’s tongue lingering between our lips and become certain of this. Our pleasure, if that is what we feel, cements this notion as our cells send molecular messages. It is cause and effect, albeit unseen. Oxytocin, a hormone molecule so important in the neuroanatomy of sex, flows from the hypothalamus during arousal and orgasm. It is also discharged during the second and third stages of labor, to dilate the cervix and stimulate uterine contractions, and, postpartum, it triggers lactation. It is the hormone of release. So, when the infant stimulates the maternal nipple in search of food, and the hypothalamus tells the breast to release milk, the hypothalamus sometimes also tells the uterus to painfully contract and the cervix to dilate and an orgasm to begin its undulations. Are you being touched when this occurs? Has your infant touched you?
The hand, the tongue, our pleasure, our pain, our infant giving us orgasms — the atoms don’t care one way or the other. If you are an atom, a rape is a meal is a jog through the park, unless it happens to be taking place in the interior of a star, or the large Hadron collider. And even then, nothing touches. As you get closer, the space between things only grows.
I once, long ago, in a heartlessly calculated experiment, dated a man named Adam. He was tall and sort of handsome and had a very lazy eye and so always seemed to be looking just over my shoulder at someone standing behind me and to the left. One night, on top and mid-thrust, he said to me, “I think I’m only attracted to Asian women.” His body was in the very act of defying this declaration, pushing me away while pushing inside, impossibly conflicted.
As I lay beneath him, looking over his shoulder and to the left, I hardly noticed he’d spoken because I was wondering idly what it felt like to be him and to never be able to really look anyone in the eye. I wondered this often with him. It was one of his only charms, that he took me pleasantly inside myself in this way. I also wondered what it felt like to be inside and on top of me there on the kitchen floor, and to be looking down at the square of light on the linoleum rather than (as I was) up and out the window at the world that made that light. I wondered, too, what it felt like to say something like that to someone you were on top of and inside. I could feel his body, but nothing else, and that was fine: it was, in fact, an essential part of the experiment.
We were conjoined in our mutual ambivalence.
Was it that I (literally) overcame this aura of indifference, this mutual nothing-much that we felt? Is that how I managed to come with such concussing force and velocity that I pushed him out of my body, startling him to the degree that his eyes seemed to momentarily align, looking into mine in surprise and something like terror as he came, too? Or was it the indifference itself that so aroused us, that caused our bodies to react so massively, so solidly?
(The space between things only grows.)
It isn’t actually true that every single placenta is tossed into the waste bin after the birth. Some wind up in freezers, or smoothies, or freeze-dried, in pill form. Some women engage in placentophagy, eating their placentas after the birth in the belief that this organ will provide protection against a slew of post-partum maladies, preventing depression, imparting energy, or increasing breast size and milk production. The prevailing thought among these women has been that it is something natural that women did long ago, before the modern world made it disgusting, and that they are returning to old, wise ways. However, no scientific research supports this theory, or any advantage from consumption of the placenta, other than the nutritional benefits derived from eating any kind of meat. Indeed, research suggests that most recorded historical accounts of women eating placentas could be linked to famine rather than improved maternal outcomes: “given sufficient motivation, mankind will eat anything.”
But it is true that cultures across the world and throughout history have regarded this organ as special: as a spiritual sibling to the child, as a second body that could experience the illness of the child on its behalf, as a thing not forgotten but buried carefully and thoughtfully lest it take its revenge.
Could the miners smell the earth at all down there? Or with so many men in such close quarters, so many exhalations and excrements and excretions and ejaculations, could they only smell each other? In smelling, they were taking parts of each other, bits of skin and hair and the vapor produced by their living cells, inside themselves. How much did they comingle down there? How much did they change? How much do they have with them, still?
And how many Guggenheim visitors did I take home in my nostrils? And where did their nostrils take me? Into what handkerchiefs did they finally sneeze me, repelling me at last?
When the rescue crew first made contact with the miners, they ordered them to dig toilet facilities. The miners, by then 17 days underground, had obviously already worked out a system for disposal of their bodily waste. They had indeed already developed a sort of government half a mile underground, or at least a philosophy of staying alive. They knew that, although the drilling efforts of those up above would ultimately determine whether they made it to the surface, and that those surface workers would doubtless be hailed as their saviors, they themselves were individually and collectively responsible for not losing their shit over the situation and killing themselves or everyone else down below. They had to observe each other and themselves closely to keep their collective shit together. This was their first rule of government.
When you are a woman of advanced maternal age, or even if you aren’t, your physician (who is also your fetus’ physician) is likely to persuade you at about week 16 to allow a 5-inch-long hollow needle to be pressed with some force through the strata of your belly: your skin, your abdominal wall, your uterus, and finally the amniotic sac, the fetus’ watery mobile home. It is from this sac that the needle will draw its liquid chromosomal information. The progress of the needle through each layer is slow and deliberate, with each layer presenting a different level of resistance. The uterus is the toughest, requiring both the greatest force and the greatest delicacy, lest the needle nick or slice the fetus or cut it fully in half. The importance of holding completely, utterly, perfectly still, is pressed upon you. It is also literally pressed upon you by wide straps across your upper and lower belly, and by the physician’s assistant, who holds your legs still lest some reflex cause you to thrash. You are also encouraged to bring a partner to grasp onto with both hands.
The physician doesn’t know that it isn’t pain you feel, but vertigo. That your chief sensation upon insertion of the needle is that you are sliding down into this slender hole they have made, down into your own womb. That you are holding on for purchase against this descent into yourself.
(Gestate and Gestalt taste and feel almost exactly the same inside my mouth.)
I read a letter to the editor in the New Yorker many years ago in which a woman, in response to some article about vegetarianism or animal rights, told the story of her deep love for the pet cow she had raised from birth. She saw him take his first steps, slept next to him in the stall with heat lamps and wool blankets when it was dangerously cold outside, and brushed his tawny hide until it shone. She loved him, she explained, from infancy until adulthood. And then she described the rare, special intimacy she felt when she took this cow into her body, eating him piece by piece from the freezer over the course of the following winter.
When my son was an infant but no longer a newborn, I dreamed, not of this woman or this cow, but of my experience reading this letter to the editor. My son was large enough now that I was no longer afraid of rolling over and smothering him in the night, so I could sleep soundly with him in bed with me. This served both his seemingly constant need for food and my seemingly constant need for sleep in order have the energy to produce that food.
I would lie on my side, sow-like, shirtless, with him pressed along the curve of my arm, his head in my armpit, my breasts available for whenever he turned toward me to suck. Rather than waking and feeding and sleeping a little and waking and feeding and sleeping a little (and thereby never really sleeping, and never really waking, but only feeding and feeding between unsatisfying naps), we slept and fed/ate continuously, switching sides periodically to keep both breasts adequately drained. He would often stay half-latched, suckling, with neither of us even stirring. And in my blissful newfound sleep, I dreamed of myself reading this letter to the editor. I dreamed of my repulsion at the woman’s self-righteous farmland delusion that taking another creature’s flesh into her body as food could be an act of intimacy, and I dreamed that I was still the woman I had been, reading the letter back then, rather than the woman I was now, dreaming of that woman I had been but wasn’t any longer, before I intimately understood the intimacy of food.
Is it completely satisfying for anyone, to conceive of the universe and oneself and everyone and everything else atomically? Does this constancy soothe? Do thoughts of atoms and more atoms, atoms sharing electrons, still separate but forming bonds, covalent bonds and metallic bonds and ionic bonds and van der Waals bonds, varying in densities, weights, and orbital speeds. . . does this trigger release of oxytocin or endorphins or dopamine for anyone? The atoms of you and the atoms of me and the atoms of the photographic print that is Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #167, as well as the atoms of what the photograph represents, the dirt and the plastic nose and mouth of the woman barely visible beneath the dirt, and the plastic ear that is at the wrong angle to still be attached to her face, and those horrible teeth just poking through? Do thoughts of every thing’s eventual diffusion and osmosis, their collisions, their thoughtless attractions and repulsions, satisfy? Do they fill anyone up? Do they give comfort? Isn’t it monstrous to imagine that they might?
I glimpsed a brief headline on the Internet not long ago about a 19-day-old infant whose body was found in the cab of a truck, dead from the rippings of her father’s rape. This tore at me instantly, and it seemed, for a short while, that it would disrupt my life, that I would forever be locked in the women’s bathroom at work mourning this barely-born girl treated as a pleasure wrapper, mourning her as if she were my own body or my own child. This girl, rather than some older girl, rather than some older boy, or some adult, all the ripped-apart people I read about every day, and I wondered momentarily at being duped by her youth, but there it was. I was sickened deep inside my body, in a fathomless place unreachable by news of other terrible things. It didn’t matter that her matter was as old as the rest of us, until I convinced myself that it did. And the barest solace came at minute 9, thinking that she wasn’t actually touched, still, and that she wasn’t even she, and her father not even he, their parts not even parts, at least not long enough to matter. As anatomic dissolved into atomic in my mind, a calm settled over me, and I opened the door and reentered the working world as if nothing had ever, ever happened.
But it’s true: medical practitioners encourage pregnant women to continue sexual activity for as long as they can find a comfortable position. As the gestating body grows and contorts, the woman’s awareness that an internal creature accompanies her sexual adventures grows (and possibly contorts) as well. Concerned women are reassured by doctors and books that the fetus (note how my baby has transformed, for these conversations, into a fetus) doesn’t know what’s happening. The fetus merely experiences the swelling warmth of the maternal body as pleasant, and goes along for the ride of the body’s gross topographic adjustments, its rockings and rollings, and the proximate trembling when (if all goes well) the vagina contracts madly nearby and (if all goes extremely well) the uterus tightens all around it in a full-fetal hug. The fetus’ heart responds with wild fluctuations, and afterwards relaxes, bathed in second-hand endorphins. The kickers cease their kicking, for a time. All parties may find themselves napping, sated, together.
Picture 9 months inside, but really a lot longer: 42 years and 9 months = 514 months, inside one of my ovaries through my childhood, as I’m holding (but not touching) my mother’s hand, as I’m suffering the plate tectonics of puberty, and then deep inside me while Adam is shallowly inside me, coming close to being touched when I read of the consumed pet cow, coming closer when I read of various ripped-apart people. Part of the discrete set of atoms known as “me” until a big bang occurred, or really a long, drawn-out bang, since it takes 20 minutes for a sperm to penetrate the ovum, and then: not “me” any more. A different thing. But still deep inside.
Before the digging of the Copiapó mine, 121 years before its collapse, the land was indistinguishable from the land around it: dry mountains and flat scrub. Although humans crawled around on the outside starting at around 15,000 BC, and had dug shallowly for agricultural purposes for centuries, the Copiapó mine was a new thing: a long spiraling space, down and down and down, into the earth, but not really that far: fairly shallow, as far as the earth is concerned. And then: drilling and drilling and digging to unearth the copper and silver inside.
But long, long before all this, it was a desert. Parts of the Atacama have been a desert continuously for 200 million years, since back when dinosaurs left their heavy footprints and the first mammals were born: tiny shrewish creatures that burrowed belowground during the day.
When the cervix of a woman in labor is 4 cm dilated, it is called “ripe.” If labor is stalled after the cervix is ripe enough, and if a woman’s water doesn’t break of its own accord, her obstetrician may insert a tool called an amniohook to break the amniotic sac and stimulate labor. The amniohook looks almost exactly like a crochet hook. (You could, in fact, crochet with it.) Sometimes the obstetrician will instead use his finger encased in something called an amniocot: a single finger of a rubber glove with a hook built into the tip. The hook looks like a tiny cat’s claw or the thorn on a miniature rose.
The doctor will spread you open and reach inside. It will feel like his whole hand and arm are inside you as he grapples to find the part of the sac he wants to rip. You may, if you are me, feel more violated than you have ever felt in your life. You may scream with such terror and repeated sobbing no’s that the security guard is summoned. (And this on the floor of the hospital that is used to the sounds of women screaming.) The resident may ask you later if you have ever been sexually assaulted, because he is interested in the way that women who have been assaulted react to the commonplaces of childbirth. It will occur to you that perhaps you have been experiencing something like sexual assault for months now: the probes, the eyes, the hands and fingers, the holding down, the piercing.
You won’t realize, then, that this feeling — that something was done to you even as you were doing something wholly your own — will haunt your new forever.
Repulsion is not enough for things to feel solid. We know this is true, intuitively: that no matter how strong a repulsive force is, there is a countervailing attraction somewhere that is also involved in making things cohere. Molecules are proof of this: combinations of atoms that, through their partial attractions to one another, are bonded despite the simultaneous repulsive force. The repellant force is still there — the electrons still force the atoms apart — but sometimes the electrons of one atom are attracted to the protons inside the nucleus of the other atom. You might say that these atoms nearly become each other, that they nearly touch. Or you might say that they don’t, but do share characteristics, even if all they share is mutual attraction, mutual repulsion, or some non-mutual combination of the two.
This is true of all atoms: of the atoms of the woman and her cow and The New Yorker, of the woman I was and the woman I became and the parts of me that became my baby and the parts of me that fed it. The atoms of Adam and his eye and his other eye, and the raped newborn and her father and the truck, and the men in the mine and the mine itself. The atoms of the Atacama desert over 200 million years. The atoms of me and you and the unnamed placenta in the waste bin.
All of us equal in the great ambivalence of matter.
There are these things, and then there are other things.
I was once internally disrupted simply by the sound of a woman’s voice. The woman, on the other side of a large room, wasn’t even talking to me, but I felt her voice — low and piercingly articulate — rumbling deep inside my body. It seemed that this sound could read my insides. This frightened me, so I carefully stayed away from this woman and her voice.
I encountered this woman and her voice again months later, and was similarly disrupted, and similarly frightened. But I was also curious, now, about this phenomenon, and braver, so I contrived to spend time with this woman. She didn’t necessarily like me, or respect me, and seemed, at times, to barely tolerate my brooding, boring quietness during which I listened, vibrating like a drum next to her. She was understandably bewildered. I surely seemed vacant, taking up adjacent seats in dark movie theaters and later staring, dumbly, as words emerged from her mouth. But I was listening to what was happening inside me, to the sound of her voice, reading my insides.
What it read was part pleasure, part pain, and part growing, echoing emptiness. At some point, I realized the name for this feeling was desire.
I wasn’t sure if I desired this woman, or desired to be this woman and to have this voice, or simply desired to be around this woman so I could be aware of the possibility of desire.
So I kept listening.
She spoke of a bad love and its bad treatment and the distrust it had honed within her. Her words reverberated with my own experiences but also resonated simply in their own right, the air between us dense with its sadness and its anger and its loss. (It is hard being had. It is hard being tossed away.)
I began to think I could feel what it felt like to be her, to be strong and proud and to suffer the humiliating love she had suffered, its emotional rippings. I invited that feeling of her suffering and pressed it into my emptiness: the opposite of an embrace. Her suffering reproduced in me and took up the space where my own might otherwise grow. It was filling, like a large meal that I ate selfishly. I heard the heart of this suffering thumping inside me.
Soon, inevitably, I felt humiliating love — for her.
It pressed open a new landscape inside me, and my desire and her suffering and my own swelling, humiliating love flourished within it. My interest in this desire and suffering and love grew and grew, until I became as interested in them as I was with their cause. I listened to her voice, and heard what it said, but all I felt now were my own feelings, my own interest, my own desire, my own love.
Unrequited love causes an ache. Unrequited desire creates a feeling of emptiness. Unrequited empathy creates an echo: you feel yourself feeling. It only masquerades as kindness. You feel less lonely inside, but you aren’t really. Yet you aren’t vacant either.
The space between things grows, its massless elemental amplitude as essential as a breath.
You aren’t supposed to watch Rosemary’s Baby while you’re pregnant, but I did. You’re also probably not supposed to watch Dawn of the Dead while you’re in labor, but I did.
Sometimes, the existing female holes are not sufficient to birth a child and new ones must be made.
On day 69, the miners were rescued, one by one, to great media fanfare, in a tight escape pod called the Phoenix pulled up through a tubular hole 26 inches in diameter, through nearly a half mile of rock until it burst out at the surface. The men had been dieting and wore girdles around their midsections so they could fit into this pod. Doctors were publicly concerned that the miners, after so many days of close human fellowship, would feel their privacy, their aloneness, so acutely and suddenly in this pod that they might, while being pulled up, suffer panic attacks or worse: the equal inverse of their claustrophobia. The trip up took 15 minutes, and that 15 minutes of aloneness might undo them in ways that 69 days underground had not.
One by one the men emerged into the sun. One by one they choked the dust from their throats and breathed in clean air. One by one their bodies settled outward into the space now allotted them. With their compensation money (and money from the sale of their story) some bought new homes, more capacious than their old ones. They dispersed across the upper crust of the planet, though most remained in Chile.
Sometimes, surgeons need to nearly slice a woman in two to get her baby out.
I had forgotten what I was there to do, so focused was I on trying not to die. I was surprised, then, when the nurse showed me a blue-wrapped pupal bundle with a scrunched pink face: “Here is your baby.” I murmured “happy birthday” to him and then he was taken to the ICU so my torso cavity could be stapled and sewn back together.
Years later, when he asked me about when he was born, I told my son about this first moment I saw him. My story cut from the taxi to the nurse handing him to me in a bundle and my wishing him happy birthday. It is the story of meeting someone important and permanent. He loves this story, and my happy birthday wish, and he wants to hear it again and again, and in telling it I have come to believe (almost) that this is the way it happened, and that I am lying when I tell people the other story: about the epidural wearing off during the C-section, about feeling myself being cut laterally and pulled open and then feeling I was splitting in two along my spine, about my brain and mind being ripped with the certainty I was dying. About being surprised that I didn’t, and that the nurse was showing me this baby. It occurs to me, every time I tell him the other version of the story, that this is one reason why we have children: so we can believe the stories we tell them and so that their belief can make them feel true. So the ways they picture things will transmit themselves into us and shore us up, and keep us from collapsing under the weight of our own understandings.
When I returned home after more than a week in the hospital, I cried because my cat was looking me in the eye, and she was the first one to seem to look at me — to seem to see me — since my baby had been removed. She meowed her straightforward hello, and I cried, straightforward tears.
My son levitated imperceptibly in my arms as I held him.
I was depressed for weeks, or maybe months, or maybe years after giving birth. Maybe I am still depressed about this. Maybe I will never, ever get over my sense that, although the bond between me and my child is covalent, neither of us will ever be whole again.
Everything has changed. I am empty where I had been full, and full where I had been empty.
Or maybe everything hasn’t changed. Maybe everything is as it always, always, has been, throughout time. I have simply made a new thing and am feeling its constant presence. The new thing isn’t the baby crying for me or the toddler wandering off or the child sitting next to me writing me misspelled love letters. I haven’t merely rearranged atoms into a new position, but have made a new thing, a thing that has no atomic presence but is there nonetheless, and grows and grows. The space between things only grows.
The books Deep Dark Down: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar and 33 Men: Inside the Miraculous Survival and Dramatic Rescue of the Chilean Miners by Jonathan Franklin provided essential source material for this essay.