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Authors: Joseph McElroy

Women and Men

BOOK: Women and Men
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Joseph McElroy

Women and Men




My thanks to Alice Quinn, my editor at Knopf, for hours, weeks, and months she spent on this book. Thanks also to Margaret Cheney, the copy editor, who has followed every parenthesis and sentence with the most exacting attention. And thanks to my friend Robert Walsh, a young writer and editor of great gifts, who has read the book several times and encouraged me at every turn to believe in the American heart of its common sense and heartfelt and humorous extremities. And thanks to Chris Carroll for help when I needed it.

My thanks also to the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for grants, and to Queens College of The City University of New York for paid time-off from teaching, and to the University of New Mexico for the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship in San Cristobal, New Mexico.




I always think of the child as a girl. What if it’s a boy?
Oh, it couldn’t be . . .
Martha Martin
Revelations, Diaries of Women
Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is matter of profound wonder.
A. Lincoln
Letter to a fellow lawyer







division of labor unknown



After all she was not so sure what had happened, or when it had started. Which was probably not a correct state to be in, because what had happened made the biggest difference in her life so far. Hours of life that worked her back full to breaking of pain and drained it of its work when the back of her child’s head with a slick of dark hair and its rounded shoulders gave her that last extra push to free its arms still held inside her. She would tell her husband later—she knew she would—and she did tell him. She told her husband and he told others for weeks afterward. Also he had his own side to tell. She loved his excitement.

Pain all in her back worked free of her at the end, dropping away into a void below, and it could almost not be recalled. This pain had been new and undreamt of. As new as the height of the young obstetrician whom she had never seen until she arrived at the hospital, he stood in surgical green against the ceiling above her head, then at her feet, at a distance down there between the stirrups tilting his head this way and that way between her thighs, and the green cap on his head was as far away as the bright, fairly unmetallic room she was giving birth to her child in, and the young obstetrician’s words were the talk that went almost and sharply along with the pain her husband Shay —she was thinking of him as Shay—also in surgical green, could not draw off into the ten-buck pocket watch he’d timed her with (where was it? in a pocket? mislaid? she didn’t care where it was). Her husband Shay’s chin hung close to her; I will always be here, his chin might have said, and his hand out of sight somewhere gripped hers, his hand might have been invisible for all she knew; but then he had to see for himself what was going on at the other end and he moved down to the foot of the delivery table and he peered over the doctor’s shoulder as if they were both in it together, and then Shay half looked up from that end against his better judgment she was sure and frowned at her but with love smiled the old smile. He needed a shave, his tan had grown seedy. The doctor stood up between her thighs and said they were getting there.

She was just with it enough to be embarrassed and so she didn’t say she didn’t want Shay down there looking. He was already there. Her baby had changed. It had felt older last week, older than their marriage. One night he had told her with his tongue just what he would do to her when the head began to show, and she didn’t think he meant it but she didn’t tell him. Now he heard her pain. He couldn’t see it. She could see it on the blank ceiling, oh God oh blank, and it was coming to birth, that pain, and would always be there like a steady supply of marrow-to-burn mashed out of her from her skull downward.

The men there between her thighs said, "Hey" and "Oh" at the same time (doctor, husband, respectively). They spoke at once, like song.

What’s she look like down there? Oh God oh God. What’s she sucking spitting look like down sucking splitting there? Look like? Well, she never really had known, so why should she know now? A saddle of well-worked mutton? A new dimension of Her. Later she was encouraged to recall it all. As if she did.

Afterward she did recall a thought about being an invalid that had escaped her during the pain, the labor, and came back at a later moment of the pain when she was not really trying very hard to recall another, different thing that she couldn’t at that moment even refer to (so how did she know there was anything
recall?), it suddenly quite naturally during the pain took the place of the invalid insight and it had to do with Shay moving the way he moved when they were at last in the delivery room and he’d been at her side holding her hand. He moved then slowly away from her head to the foot of the delivery table to look at the very top of the baby’s head (girl head or boy head). But also at the part of her he said opened like an animal looking to be a flower. But now with the baby coming down, she was pushing against what Shay would be seeing, whatever that was, and the thing that had come to her had to do with his moving from one end of her to the other, from the upper part where her eyes were, downward—the way he did it, walked to the foot of the table, and the way this turned her into something but she lost it—had it, lost it, a wrinkle in her mind somewhere stirred like the start of a laugh— and later she found herself recalling this thing about being an invalid: that, here she was perfectly healthy, never more, and healthier than Shay with his sinus; and in order to have this baby she had to become an invalid, and she got the picture again of her recurrent dream she’d never told Shay, of gazing out the endless window of her lab and seeing a man led to execution who she learned had been in the hospital getting better for several weeks until he was able to have the punishment executed on him which then she saw was a thousand and one strokes; then he was to crawl back to the infirmary he had just walked out of: but she saw that her thinking was incorrect and she was not an invalid at all, she was using herself, that was what she was doing, being fruitful. Her husband had hated his first name when he was eleven and had been Dave for a while and then, of all things, Shay, he hadn’t gotten over it, she called him Shay sometimes, hadn’t gotten over what? it sounded like a movie actor. What is the fruit of a cross between an animal and a flower?

The men looking her over, head to toe, were glad to be there and so was she to have them, and so was the nurse and so was she to have the nurse and so were they to have the nurse, and so were they glad to have her and her pain and the baby that she could remember looking ahead to: the truth was not head to toe, it was the men looking when they couldn’t see in, until they saw what was coming out to meet them, which was nice, wasn’t it.

How did you feel?

It was (she sips the last of her daiquiri which now is not so chilled) the most beautiful experience of my life. No, it was rough, it was painful, but I couldn’t remember all the pain. It was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.

Have another?


She was glad it was ending, glad Shay wanted to be there with her, she was alone with her pain whittling at her, but no, we are not alone.

Shay and the chin he was hitched to moved away but down and near the foot of the delivery table in the bright delivery room, and he moved politely as if he didn’t want to notice himself moving. She found on his face a pursed-lip fixity sharing her pain, she knew he shared it. It was love. She was glad, so glad. She couldn’t have done it without him, later that was what she was telling everyone again. Having apparently already told them. For how else could there be an again? She heard herself.

And recalled the word for what Shay had made her into when he respectfully moved with a Sunday museum-goer’s slowness, from her higher to her lower, from her eyes and dry mouth that he’d kissed and that hadn’t changed, to the action down there—she thought of him as Shay during the labor—and he mustn’t look back at her, this was what she felt, or felt he felt, as if he could share her labor only by not looking back at her. Well, it wasn’t as if she couldn’t have had a mirror to follow the action. But he, who had been impatient for the baby to come and who had said the time had never gone faster, had looked along her length so that by his slowness she had become a model.

Of what? A model of a woman on a scale not to be sniffed at.

Still, a model. A model woman? In the mouths of others. Scientist, lover, mother of a fetus nearing term, nutritionist at the bar of the breakfast nook, creator soft and trim who’d give you a hand and a thigh, demonstrate relative acceleration, share a birth with you, be tracked by your pocket clock through space to the next contraction (breathing quick and regular, hhh—hhh—hhh —hhh, as she and Shay had been shown at the natural childbirth sessions), while she’d often said (knowing she will often later say) that she must have (later had
to have) you there, it must follow as the timer her and she the timer that she must have you there in that time between the looking forward full of love, hope, content (and looking forward itself), and the looking backward full of love, content, tiredness, blab, work, and looking forward. Well obviously he went down there to that end of her to see what was happening; the baby was more slowly downward bound than he; and her pain was bound to her until it dropped downward with no speed at all or
dropped through it—its bind—into a void like the death which, she always thought, wasn’t like relief for the doer of the dying, because the doer unlike the really relieved was unfeelingly dead. It wasn’t a child she had in her hands, for if she had had one, the grip would have crunched the little beautiful child who was inside her still while her hands gripped whatever they gripped, gripped the bright hospital room she was in, all by herself, except for Shay, the nurse (but there were two nurses then), the doctor, and the baby who was getting the fuck out since there was no room in.

Her husband would describe her pain, she was sure. He had heard enough about it even though she didn’t so much recall it as hold on to its weight. He could look back better than she and see the glazed, willful eyes of their three-minute-old child, a tube (he said, but she didn’t remember) in a nostril, the fluid draining out, the amniotic fluid (he said), which doesn’t touch her because saying "amniotic fluid" was not recalling anything, not looking back (at her or whatever he looked back at); but what, then, did he lose in that looking back?

He had his hands clasped behind his back at some point she was sure as he moved to the foot of the delivery table. Museum, or lab, one like hers, and a model was on view, and you walked along it and around it, looked through its windows and its valves and if there was an equals sign looked through the equals sign to what it led to, but to this model there was more than met the eye, and it was a gap between last night’s lipstick and this morning’s extra-careful shave—at least
did not sport a five-o’clock shadow!—or you had balls with rods sticking out of them from ball to ball, and then another cluster of balls with rods, but between the clusters nothing, and you put the two parts of the one model together but without doing anything to them, for you put them together in mind.

And she was in that gap there in the middle which was still an empty gap no matter how much of her was in it, she was what was in that gap in the middle, but she was there just for a moment, and it was the thought looking either way that she and no one else caused him to get that hard-on, she was what had done it, but then also that, well, he got it, a hard-on, he got his hard-on regardless, and having gotten it he would get it into an available cunt. So long as he did not look at the ceiling. She had looked at the ceiling and didn’t know herself any more, knew only her baby inside her and God like a blank perfectly painted.

Push. She had no choice but to.

He came back to her, held her hand in his, he knew when to grip harder when she pushed. She had worked hard enough but her work went on. She couldn’t have done it without him there. She actually believed that. So push. She had no choice but to.

The hand went away and she had hold of something else but it was the ceiling he’d never looked at that she wanted to grip though it was beyond the birth of her baby which was happening and happening.

BOOK: Women and Men
7.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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