Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My baby, in the flesh.

“Remember this moment,” my husband wrote today. “Remember this day.”

I told him via IM that the first ARC copies of my novel, Bone Worship, had arrived, brought up to the front door by our perpetually angry looking mail lady. (“Why was she angry?” he asked. “Probably because she’s a mail lady,” I told him.) We had waited so long to see them we had begun to give up hope. It seemed that everyone else had a copy to review, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, but I still had not seen one. It was like in one of those bad movies where a woman gives birth and nurses whisk away the child, never to be seen again. What did my baby even look like? Maybe it wasn’t a book at all. Maybe I had given birth to a fish.

But I saw it, so it was real. It did exist.

The angry mail lady walked briskly, dodging the flower bed, the rain puddles, clutching the package in her hand. The white padded envelope. Probably it was something else, I thought. A forgotten Amazon order. One of those weird, free pseudo-Christian novels you find wedged into your mailbox, the kind proselytizing people leave around at gas stations. “Thank you,” I said, as Sad Mail Lady (the anger now subsided, dampened by the cold rain) handed the envelope to me, along with our cable bill and some other assorted, pedestrian correspondence. Strange how it arrives this way, the end result of seven years of your life, your work, just slipped in like any other thing. No shaft of light, no heavenly music, no friendly UPS man in autumnal brown micro-shorts asking me to sign a form. (Although it did seem to happen in something close to slo-motion.) The mail lady told me to take care and backed away from the door. I didn’t say anything. I stared at the envelope.

I went inside, placed it on the table. It couldn’t have been anything else. I squeezed the envelope, felt three, maybe four copies inside. I could not open it.

Remember this moment, the whole day. All that came before and all after.

Before, what was I doing? I took a break from a full morning of story submissions and article writing to have lunch. A banana, half of a PB&J sandwich. I turned on the television in the background, and there was a show about meth addicts on MTV, people in rehab with blue lips. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer stood in the gilded, technological prison of The Situation Room.

After the envelope? My heart pounded, I paced. I washed the lunch dishes, took the dog out to pee in the rain.

I moved the envelope from room to room, letting it get acquainted with everything. Like a pet.

Recently I read author Mahbod Seraji’s blog about the first moment he opened an envelope containing a copy of his debut novel, Rooftops of Tehran. It was a moving and funny account involving a flight from Iran and the actress Annette Bening. Seraji wrote about weeping when he held his book in his hands, and I wondered if, when my moment came, I would do the same.

Instead, I found myself thinking about babies.

Once I went for a physical, and a nurse asked me a series of questions from a clipboard. Did I have children? “No.” (She glanced up, as if to ascertain my age.) What did I do? (This question, I think, was not on the clipboard, but rather a matter of curiosity, or an attempt to make the general experience of being in the doctor’s office less terrifying.)

“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, like a journalist?”
“No, a novel and short stories. Well, some non-fiction, here and there.”

After this, somehow the subject of children came up again, though I can’t remember how or why. She said something that involved this phrase: “When you have children.” To which I quickly responded, not wanting to be coy when one’s health is under discussion – “Actually, I don’t plan on having children.”

Immediately the nurse asked, almost reflexively: “Is there a problem? Have you been trying?” Images of defective ovaries danced through her head, twisted sperm, ill-fitting plumbing, a general reproductive breakdown. “No, we just don’t want them,” I answered. (Though I have always wanted to say, “like” instead of “want,” but have never been brave enough to do so, mostly because one is looked at like a monster when unmoved by the cuteness of children.)

“Ah, I see,” she said, after what seemed like an inappropriately long pause. She laughed nervously. “Perhaps your books are your children, then.”

She went on with her business, the physical came and went, but those words stayed with me. And the pity behind the words. And believe me when I tell you there was pity. As if one’s creative endeavors, one’s novels and poems and stories, have all become the literary equivalent of the mangy cats that spinsters allegedly keep for company in the drafty attics of their empty houses. Surrogates for families. Poor substitutes for flesh and blood.

Perhaps she was right. It may be that there is something pathetic about me in this moment, standing around, staring in awe at the fresh copies of my novel on our kitchen table. They don’t seem lifeless, even though they’re not crying, not spitting up. There’s a story inside, moving all around. In them, I can see fragments of the writer I was when I began, the writer I became by the end, all of it recorded in their pages.

Four copies. They’re so beautiful, just resting there.

Like a new mother, I hardly know what to do with them.

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