Brooklyn, New York
ZIG WAS BORN ON THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE in the backseat of a yellow taxicab. Sheri pushed him from her womb onto the slick vinyl seat, with century-old steel cables, limestone, and a cab driver as her sole witnesses. The small of Sheri’s back bucked against the ashtray of one door; her shoeless left foot dug into the floor of the cab. Her right leg, up on the seat and bent at the knee, banged against the backrest. Blood pooled inside her thighs. The cabbie’s frightened eyes flashed at her in the rearview mirror. She glanced at his ID; the name was long and crammed with consonants.
“Aye, Miss! Please, Miss!” He cussed himself and ran a hand through clumps of oily hair. Sheri’s senses left her, jumping somewhere off the edge of the bridge. She screamed.
The August night air was hot and foul. Around her the city boiled: horns blared, trucks roared, and street hustlers shouted while the cabbie weaved through traffic. The faint lilt of Middle Eastern music wafted to Sheri’s ears. Nothing had prepared her for this moment, not the monotonous Lamaze classes, What to Expect books, or birthing DVDs. All directives from her midwife were forgotten like yesterday’s lunch. Tufts of white fiber hung from a gouge her fingernails had torn in the backseat. Her costly new maternity dress was hiked up under her breasts. The dappled street light revealed a prunelike face and wispy hair pasted to a round head. She quickly cleared his gummy mouth; thread-thin fingers then stretched as Zig wailed. Eyes squeezed shut to the world, tiny arms quivering, he let out a newborn howl that plunged the depths of the East River. It was as intense and unwavering as a tribal call.
A queer feeling of déjà vu came over her. This scene had happened before. Hadn’t she, too, ripped her mother’s insides open in birth, saving herself yet killing her mother? Long-buried nightmares flooded her mind. Born again were all the horrors she had concocted as a child about her mother’s death, images that in no way resembled anything her adoptive parents had ever told her.
The cab raced toward Beth Israel Medical Center. Sheri held Zig’s little trembling body to hers. Blood was everywhere. Jabbing pains crashed inside her, as relentless as a prize fighter. She looked down at the ropey umbilical cord that led from her vagina to Zig’s navel, the precious lifeline that connected them, and wondered what she had passed on to him. Would he live or die? Sheri lowered her son onto her lap, wrapped him in the damp hem of her dress. She wiped his face, feeling the curious, pulsating warmth of a new life in her hands. The earthquake in her body subsided. She wasn’t afraid anymore. All her life she had felt like half a person, the other half shrouded in anonymity. Zig was lithe and small boned, like Sheri. She looked at him and she saw herself.
“Shhh…don’t cry, Zig. Mommy’s here…I’m right here.”
At the sound of her voice, he closed his mouth and opened his eyes. Her toes slid in her lone Stuart Weitzman sandal as the cab lurched onto the hospital’s sidewalk.
“Miss, lady, lady, look—emergency entrance!” The panicked driver stuck his neck out the window and yelled. “Help! Somebody help!”
He leaped from the cab, gesturing wildly to a man and woman in blue uniforms. They rushed over. The man swung open the cab door and reached inside for Sheri. Blood trickled down on his sneakers.
“She’s hemorrhaging,” he said.
The woman turned and ran toward a wheelchair. The man spit some words into a two-way radio. City lights swam in Sheri’s eyes, then went black.
“SHERI…CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
Sheri lifted her eyelids. She saw the hills of her feet at the end of the bed. Her stomach was flat. Confusion gripped her. Through a murky haze, images of a crying baby crossed her mind. Where was he? Her tongue felt like wood. She rubbed it against the roof of her mouth. A hand came into view and put a paper cup to her lips.
“Take a sip.”
The woman had short red hair…stooped shoulders...
Cool water slid down her throat. Sheri dug her elbows into the mattress, struggling with the weight of her arms.
“Easy now. You want to sit up?”
She nodded. The woman pressed a button. The bed hummed; it raised her back as if she were a stiff, inflexible plastic doll. Joanne. That’s her name. Joanne Bergen, her midwife.
“Everything’s fine,” Joanne said, sensing Sheri’s anxiety. “Your son’s fine—he’s asleep in the nursery.”
Joanne’s voice was reassuring but also loud and direct. She took Sheri’s blood pressure, read the monitors behind her head. Sheri’s tongue became a little more pliant, and she finally spoke.
“Where am I?”
“That’s more like it!” But the corners of Joanne’s mouth quickly bent into a frown. “You’re in Beth Israel’s Mother-Baby Unit. You also spent some time in the ICU. How do you feel?”
She was weak. The smallest movement was exhausting.
“Like hell. What happened?”
“The report says your water broke and you went right into labor,” Joanne boomed, shuffling through paperwork on a clipboard. She looked worn, and something else, regretful, like she had failed her in some way. “That boy was in a serious hurry—a whole three weeks ahead of schedule.” Joanne checked the tube attached to the IV drip. “You lost a lot of blood, Sheri.”
Sheri looked up at the plastic bag of fluid. So she didn’t die. Childbirth had not killed her. Both she and Zig were alive. She let her eyes wander around the dingy room she shared with another mother, separated by a thin hospital curtain.
“How long have I been here?”
“Three days. That’s normal, given your circumstances. What do you remember?” Joanne sat down on a stool near the bed. Sheri laid her arm across her forehead and looked out the window. The flat gray sky was as dull as her memory.
“I went into the kitchen to scrape Chinese food into the garbage. I felt a gush on my legs. I thought I spilled something.” She licked her lips. Joanne studied her. “Somehow I left the apartment and got into a cab. The contractions were coming faster and faster. I tried to lie back…the pain was blinding. Then I heard him crying.” Sheri paused. “Where is Zig?”
“That’s his name.”
“Oh! How cute! He’s in the nursery. Is that a family name?”
“No. It’s not associated with anything. No boyfriends, uncles, Hollywood stuntmen…”
Joanne smiled. She glanced at her watch.
“Let me see if Zig is awake.”
She pulled the curtain aside and marched out into the hall. Sheri caught a glimpse of the mother in the bed across from her, a beaming, chubby-cheeked woman surrounded by bouquets of roses and what looked like her mother, two sisters, and a shell-shocked man—probably the father. Silvery blue balloons with It’s a Boy! printed on them bobbed around the ceiling vents. Sheri had little choice but to listen to their joyful banter while she lay spent and weary.
She turned her face away from the curtain. She thought about Rene and his broad, teasing smile, how it squeezed his wandering eyes into slits, a smile full of late-night sex and devoid of commitment. A pleasure-seeker and sought-after percussionist, Rene wanted little from life off center stage. This came as no surprise to her. She had built up a steely resistance to disappointments in love. But despite this Rene was different. With him, Sheri felt a great sense of freedom. She felt alive.
Rene made her laugh and taught her how to waste time, and she dated him on and off when he wasn’t touring outside the country. There would be no divorce or custody battle. No teary scenes. No delinquent child-support payments. Nine months ago, on her thirty-fifth birthday, she got drunk and slept with him, hoping to become pregnant. By the time she knew for sure, he was on tour somewhere in South America with a world music band. It didn’t matter if or when he would ever return. Rene was already married. Music was his first and only love. The night she saw him perform a solo, she knew. The pounding rhythm wrapped its feverish arms around him, swept him away like a sweet, hypnotic lover. She understood, too. She had once felt that way when she took up a paintbrush or charcoal pencil—the thrilling sense of creation, of the unknown making itself known through your own hands. Still, that was in her youth, and unlike Rene, she gave up her first love when she grew older.
Behind the hospital curtain the grinning new father looked proud but also frightened, as if he had just lost something terribly valuable. Sheri couldn’t bear to see that expression on Rene’s face. Why should she be the one to put an end to his happy childhood?
Conceiving alone was a running joke, passed around like salt among soured, unattached girlfriends at lunch. No one would admit the underlying truth—the wish to have a child by any means necessary. For Sheri, it was tangled and deep rooted, a yearning that threw a harsh light on the greatest source of sadness in her life: her adoption.
She had met Rene at a jingle recording session. He wore a black fedora with a long, brilliant green feather in the band, and when he smiled at her it was intimate, as if they were alone in the crowded studio. Months later, in a rare moment outside of music and sex, she heard him say, “I got my chops from my Panamanian grandmother…I love my abuela!” Right then she knew what she wanted.
Her birth story began at JFK airport when a cheerless middle-class couple brought her back from an orphanage in Panama. People said she was lucky. There’s nothing lucky about being abandoned. She started her journey alone. Her son would not. She would hold Zig and imagine what it might have been like for her birth mother to hold her; she would kiss him and feel her mother’s lips on her cheeks. She longed to validate her childhood through a child of her own. Little splinters of dazzling sunlight, of azure water glistened in Rene’s DNA, and she imagined joining them to the unknown threads of her heritage. He was the right choice. A small house of love for her birthright, a child who was tied to her genetically—this was all she hoped for.
On the hospital wall near the door was a large white calendar marked with cryptic nursing notes. Was it Monday or Tuesday? The agency crept into her mind; she had missed an important pre-production meeting. Other than Joanne, no one knew she was in the hospital. Then again, there wasn’t anyone she wanted to call or see. Both her parents were dead. For a moment she pictured their remains, combined like a giant ashtray in a blue and white china urn and stored in the back of her coat closet. The grandmother across the room rattled off exhaustive tips to a daughter who only had ears for her fussy baby. Something about the grandmother’s voice reminded Sheri of the chattering aides who had cared for her mother at the nursing home when she was dying. Their simple powder-room conversations drifted around the vacant eyes and silent lips of the woman who, at the end of her life, didn’t recognize Sheri from a stranger on the street.
She reached for the paper cup on the bed tray and took another drink of water. A plastic ID bracelet dangled from her wrist. She turned her hand over to read the scribbled writing:
LAMBERT, SHERI. BABY BOY. 6 lbs., 4 oz. 21’’ long. Born August 21, 1996. Veintiuno de agosto…
One night she was coming home from work, around seven, and although it was late the subway was packed. Sheri leaned heavily on the metal straps. Books and newspapers covered the closed faces of seated passengers. No one stood up for her. She resisted the urge to rub the spot where a little foot pressed into her side. In a couple of weeks she’d be on maternity leave. Just when the pressure in her stomach got uncomfortable, the train doors opened at Eastern Parkway. Among the commuters who pushed past her to get out was a large, elderly woman in a dirty gray smock. Sheri had not noticed her on the train. Scraps of thin hair pulled tight into a bun matched the color of her dress. The woman’s bloated feet were bursting out of cracked sneakers. When Sheri stepped off the train and walked toward the platform stairs, she felt a heavy hand grip her forearm. She jerked around to see the woman pointing a grimy finger at her belly, whispering in hoarse English and Spanish.
“El veintiuno de agosto you will have a boy. He will save you! Dios lo bendice! God bless you!”
The subway platform quickly emptied out. Deep inside her the baby kicked, sending a parade of tiny flutters to her side. Sheri snatched her arm away and rushed up the cement steps, the stench of urine filling her nostrils. There was a tightening below her navel—Braxton-Hicks cramps—a false alarm. But her heart pounded in her ears. Pregnant women are not public property, she fumed, climbing the steep stairs. People reach out to squeeze your belly like a ripened fruit, gauging its proper time to fall to earth. Construction workers shout genders from sandwich-stuffed mouths based on the size of your girth or nose. Now this, strange predictions from a bag lady. The heat from the woman’s sticky palm lingered on Sheri’s arm. At the top of the steps, she turned to look back at the platform. A crumpled paper bag skipped down the steps. The woman was gone.
“GUESS WHO’S AWAKE and ready to be fed!”
Joanne came back carrying a blanketed bundle and placed it in Sheri’s arms. Zig’s football-shaped body was snugly swaddled in flannel. Below a pale blue knit cap, steady brown eyes pierced her to the core. Sheri took off the cap and pressed her lips to his little forehead. A mottled hand appeared from beneath the blanket and touched her chin. The image of the homeless woman faded away. Joanne presented Sheri with a small, warm bottle of formula. The nurses had been giving Zig formula for several days, she said. It might be hard for her to breast-feed now. Latching on could be painful. She was weak…still recovering…on the IV. The midwife’s strong principles gave way. It was excusable, recommended even, for Sheri to opt out of her first important duty. Sheri looked at Zig’s tiny waiting mouth. She never drank from her own mother’s breast. Long ago in some place where all the babies were motherless she fed on the charity of strangers. She glanced at the manufactured liquid and the rubber nipple, then slowly opened one side of her hospital gown. Joanne caught the IV needle before it slipped out the vein in the back of her hand. Sheri brought Zig to her breast. He immediately latched on and suckled as if he had done it a hundred times before.
Four days later, Sheri left the hospital and headed home alone with her newborn son. It was one in a string of blazing hot afternoons. She took another yellow cab back over the Brooklyn Bridge, this time with Zig strapped to her chest in a navy blue Swedish baby carrier. Seeing the cab’s interior—her crude birthing room—made her instantly nauseated, so she kept her eyes on the world outside the window. A muscle still ached where the ashtray had rammed into her back. Perspiration dripped from her temples down between her swollen breasts. She tried in vain to shield Zig from the city buses belching their gritty exhaust. Zig slept through the ride, limp and burrowing into her armpit. She held his cheek to steady his head, gazing at his sweet face. In the space of a few days, her life had been irreversibly changed. Her body felt ravaged, but excitement pulsed through her veins. It was as if she had transformed into crisp white drawing paper or a taut canvas on a frame, and was about to illustrate her life with new blood and bones. Funny thing was, she couldn’t remember the last time she had touched real drawing paper or a canvas.
She had stumbled into advertising out of art school, wet behind the ears, eager to make a decent salary, and she’d quickly adapted to the culture of consumerism. Success as senior art director at Aeon Worldwide was like a glamorous lover with an infectious disease: the sex was bound to kill you, but not just yet. Not while you could shoot award-winning television commercials in exotic locales, sleep in five-star hotels, and dine in restaurants where celebrities were regular customers. The highs were like a cocaine hit that sent you flying along a moonlit skyline. The lows were more frequent and gutter level. Ball-breaking clients. Caustic executives who amused themselves by manipulating the staff. Long, life-draining hours. Ad agencies were laden with talented addicts stumbling down a gaily lit ditch. Before she knew it she had become one of them.
Gradually she awakened. The glitzy showcase of personalities and possessions could no longer distract her from the utter barrenness she felt inside. Love languished in the back of her mind, on tomorrow’s wish list, and then it was too late. At thirty-three she woke up to find the above-average Joe either already married with kids or recently divorced and not interested in another serious relationship. But she wasn’t the only one in a rut. Some of her most savvy and sophisticated friends were wait-listed and turned desperate: married for marriage’s sake, then soon after divorced—many even before they had a chance to get pregnant. She no longer wanted to be a part of those endless, disheartening conversations. Over time she distanced herself from her girlfriends, migrated to Brooklyn, and took the road less traveled to forge her own happiness. Becoming a single mother was the most frightening, sobering decision Sheri had ever made. She did not regret a minute of it.
The glaring metal street signs seemed to yell out directions. Men and women of myriad colors were like a box of crayons slowly melting down Flatbush Avenue. Prospect Park’s tree limbs hung low to the ground, its leaves curled and pale. At the sight of her building on Eastern Parkway, Sheri breathed a sigh of relief.
Raised in a soulless neighborhood of roller-coaster high-rises and rent-controlled walk-ups on the Upper East Side, she had chosen Brooklyn with its wide vistas as her new home. Here she could start fresh, carve out a new identity or disappear into the woodwork without the cold, condescending looks of Manhattanites. In her seventh-floor apartment her living room windows boasted picturesque green views of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Brooklyn Museum, while her bedroom windows overlooked sparkly stretches of the New York harbor. These were the only things that greeted her daily since moving here six months ago. She knew no one in Brooklyn. That suited her just fine. Once she became pregnant all her old girlfriends slunk away anyhow, the suffering they once shared dried up now that she had left the pack. Even Reyna, her manic, beloved yoga teacher, disappeared. Reyna, who was so fascinated with Sheri’s gestation, who carefully spotted Sheri’s Tree posture and her wide belly in the Cat-Cow pose, Reyna who had had her ovaries taken out when she was thirty. All the same, instant messaging took the place of Sheri’s face time socializing. Virtual became real and vice versa.
Sheri hauled herself and Zig out of the cab and into the lobby. Juan, the doorman and local ballyhooer, looked up from his newspaper. On the front desk a battery-operated fan whirled next to a mountain of balled-up deli napkins.
“Is that you, mamí? You had the baby!” Juan cried, throwing aside the Daily News and dashing to her side. “Awww, look at his little face…qué lindo! He looks like you, mamí! He’s gonna be so lucky!”
Sheri thanked him for the compliments, knowing there was some dirt to come. Alarming residents with the drama of the day was a job Juan took very seriously. He carried her overnight bag to the elevator bank, adding in a low voice, “You didn’t miss nothing—central air is out in the whole building. Three days now! I coulda fixed it but they won’t pay me. Pendejos. They better fix it soon. It’s hot as shit!”
She rolled her eyes. Back to reality, but she was glad to be home. “Thanks for the heads-up, Juan.”
He snorted and put the bag at her feet. When the elevator came, she pressed the button for the seventh floor. The doors opened to thick, humid air and the scent of fried garlic. Someone’s toy dog yapped and a telephone rang on and on. As she neared her door, she heard a recorded voice coming from the apartment. Damn! That’s my phone! She groped for her keys and opened the door.
The apartment was stifling. The living room windows were sealed shut. Her jade plant had dropped half of its leaves on the coffee table. Two boxes of Chinese food, now rancid and pungent, were also on the table. Liane, the Machiavellian media director, was leaving a message on Sheri’s answering machine. She picked up the phone midsentence.
“Sheri Lambert,” she said, forgetting where she was.
“Sheri? Thank God you’re there! Are you okay? Everyone was worried when you missed the pre-pro meeting!”
“I’m fine, Liane.”
“Did you have the baby?”
“Yes, he’s right here with me.” Zig started to squirm.
“Well, congratulations! Aren’t you early? How did everything go?”
Sheri looked around for a place to lay Zig down. The maple wood crib was packed flat in the box by the front door. The bassinet was halfway put together, sheets still in their plastic sleeves. She fumbled with the lock on the baby carrier—how did the darn thing open?
“Good. I had natural childbirth.”
“Really? I didn’t think anyone these days bothered with natural—”
Zig started to holler. She tried to pull him out of the carrier.
“Uh-oh, I better go. You’ve got your hands full.”
“No, it’s okay. I can talk. Any word from JetSet?”
“They absolutely loved the television. I’m pretty sure it’s a go with—hold on a sec.”
Their conversation was interrupted by hip-hop Muzak dotted with a sugary announcer plugging the agency’s awards. By now everyone was over the shock of her being a single mother. Lots of successful women were doing it—even Madonna. Madonna was a gap-toothed woman just like Sheri. Sheri liked to believe she was as cool and self-ruling as the superstar, too.
She flipped the central air switch in the hallway, half hoping the A/C would start up. It didn’t. She was still struggling with the baby carrier when Liane clicked back.
“That was Roland—our three o’clock was moved up. Gotta run, sweetie. Don’t worry, we’ll handle everything till you get back in December.”
“November twenty-second.” Bitch. Zig was turning four-alarm-fire red.
“Anyway, Roland’s aiming to have the JetSet commercials shot and in the can by early November. Take care, Sheri. Motherhood—”
Zig’s shrieks drowned out Liane’s last words. Shit! Sheri slammed the phone on the kitchen counter. They better not shoot my spots before I get back. She pried her arms out of the carrier, wrestling Zig and the whole contraption over her head. Where could she put him? The leather sofa held a sea of teetering toys, baby bottles, bibs, and onesies. Shoving them to the floor, she placed him on the seat. A penetrating, terrifying cry surged from his tiny body. Sheri sat on the edge of the sofa and whipped off her shirt. Her bra was dripping wet—was that milk? Sweat? She pulled the straps down to an alarming sight. Her breasts were stiff and misshapen; her nipples taut and hard. They didn’t look like that in the hospital. Zig’s screams got louder. A stream of milk sprayed out of one breast and across his little face. Sheri scooped up her son, brought his mouth to her leaking nipple. He could barely latch on before milk flooded his nose, mouth, and chin. Zig gagged and coughed, and soon his crying stopped. The silence that followed was almost as deafening as the screaming. Sheri took deep breaths. She was shaking. The clumps in her life softened and dissolved as Zig drank long draughts from her.
DURING THE EARLY WEEKS of Zig’s life there were many days when they saw no one but each other. Ironically, she felt her solitude more acutely now that she had a baby. Bombarded with meetings and phone calls at the office, she had eagerly looked forward to quality time at home. Now that it was here, she felt cut off. The phone seldom rang. At first she tried to keep up with IM’s, e-mail, and phone calls, but every time she turned on her computer or picked up the phone Zig would start crying. Sheri spent hours pacing the floor with him cradled in her arms until all the loud demands of the world slowly died out, like the tin-can clatter of a circus miles and miles away. Their bonding had a soothing, hypnotic effect. One thought remained constant in her mind: He will always know his mother.
No one claimed Sheri after her mother had died during her birth, so she was sent to Cuidad del Niño, a local orphanage in Guabito, a farming town on the border between Panama and Costa Rica. In the summer when she turned three, through a surreptitious adoption, a Jewish couple traveled to the orphanage and brought Sheri back to New York. Well into their fifties, the Lamberts ran a small stock brokerage firm that kept them bickering and drinking when they weren’t buying and selling. If Wall Street had a good year she went to private school. When it was bad she went to public school. In private school she noticed that the handful of honey-colored girls had parents that looked like Sheri’s. In public school there were many more girls that looked like her and they had parents that matched. Obvious signs of her Latin descent became more apparent in the sixth grade. Her eyes were the shade and shape of warm almonds, unlike her father’s, which were heavy lidded and the color of murky water. Her hair was dark and thick with loopy curls, not flat and golden like her mother’s. Sheri’s nose was slightly round, her lips fleshy even when stretched with a smile. And by the end of the summer her olive skin turned the color of sandalwood, while her parents turned blotchy and red.
Her mother and father told her the truth a few days after her eleventh birthday party, mechanically, like it was part of some kind of benchmark guideline in a parenting book. She heard the words halfway through a slice of leftover chocolate birthday cake. She was adopted.
Sheri felt as if she had been thrown off a moving carousel. She knew there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny or tooth fairy. That was nonsense. Anyone could figure that out. But her mother and father were not real? This is what happens when you grow up, lucky girl. Truth is given to you like a birthday gift. It’s the gift that takes your speech and breath away. Takes your known life away. You cry every night and even when you stop, the tears rain down inside but the gift givers never see. They never know your tears have no end.
How stupid she had been! The boys and girls she laughed with as they chased her around at her party—they knew all along. Just like Anna and Leah, the best friends who stared at her and whispered in each other’s ears on Parents’ Visiting Day. The teachers. The neighbors. Everyone knew. Sheri locked herself in the bathroom and vomited, the sweet chocolate cake turning to bitter slime in her mouth. She heaved until her guts were squeezed dry, until her organs pushed against her throat as if she were trying to spit out her heart. Paramedics took her to Lenox Hill Hospital where doctors made her swallow some nasty liquid. She remembered the numbness that came over her legs. It swept up her back to her ears and forced her eyes shut, a deadening that lingered inside for years and had begun to recede only with the birth of her son.
ONE MORNING BEFORE DAWN while Sheri was nursing Zig, she thought she heard a voice. A word was spoken just once.
She glanced around her cluttered bedroom. A torn box of Pampers sat on the floor next to the bassinet. Booties, blankets, and hooded towels were heaped on the end of the changing table. What caught her off guard was Zig. In the ashen stillness his unblinking eyes were locked on hers. That’s weird. She thought about it for a moment, then shrugged it off. Zig exhaled, his tummy full and contented. Sheri lay down in bed with him curled up on her chest and fell asleep.
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