Wednesday, March 20
54 Cedar Lane, Teaneck, NJ
I don’t know where Teaneck is, but John drives me here twice a week. Doctor Berger’s house is on the residential side of a park, opposite the stretch of strip malls with glatt kosher delis. It’s cold today, even for March in New Jersey. Doctor Berger places the space heater close to the couch and pointed toward me in her basement office.
I can talk to Dr. Berger. The crisis counselor at the hospital made me nervous. Her name was Claudia, and she was on call that Friday morning. She was sent to my room, the one closest to the secured doors of the maternity ward. She looked fresh out of school and scared to sit by my bed. She tapped her pad with her pen instead of taking notes. New babies cried further down the hall, but Claudia never shut the door to my room.
Claudia didn’t know what to say. She hesitated even when asking easy things like my name. She never said the words stillbirth or baby, but we both knew that’s why we were there. I had arrived to the hospital in labor, and waddled into the emergency room like I was about to claim a lottery prize. Instead, I got Claudia in my room. My baby Liam died before I delivered him.
“The way she looked at me, like I was a monster,” I tell Dr. Berger again. “She didn’t want to be in the room with the woman whose baby was in the morgue.”
“Did she ever say anything to indicate that?”
“She didn’t have to. I saw it. I didn’t want to be there either.”
I couldn’t tell Claudia about the Rubic’s cube. Today is my fourth session with Dr. Berger, but I told her about it at our first meeting. I watched her record my words. Doctor Berger is a professional and can do something with my words. She doesn’t take notes as I tell her again today.
“My cousin gave me a Rubic’s cube when I was twelve years old because it was a good gift for smart kids.” I look at Dr. Berger. She nods at me to continue.
“I was smart but couldn’t solve the cube. I’d get the red, white and green sides, but the blue, orange and red would be mixed up, and I couldn’t solve those without messing up the sides that were already solid. There was this book called “Conquer the Cube in 45 Seconds”, and the guy who wrote it held the record for solving it in 20 seconds. He said anyone could learn to solve the cube in under five minutes. I believed it. I followed the diagrams, step-by-step, but I couldn’t get it. I spent that whole year turning a cube and feeling stupid.”
“Your expectations of yourself at that age seem unforgiving.”
Doctor Berger has pointed this out in past sessions. I look at the framed diploma on the wall behind her, still askew. It’s embarrassing to retell how I took the cube apart and reassembled it so it was solid on all sides. It remained solved and untouched on a bookshelf until I tossed it out during a summer visit home from college.
“Did you feel satisfied when you looked at the solved cube?”
“Yes, but that’s not how I feel today.”
“I feel the same as when I was in the hospital. There’s something wrong with my mind. It’s scrambled, the core is off track like it got pounded by a brick. There’s cubelets missing. The ones that are still attached don’t turn smoothly. No, they just don’t turn at all. Here, right here.” I tap above my eyebrows with the fingertips of both hands. “My head. It feels like that, like someone kicked me right here.” Tap. Tap. Tap. “Right here. It’s broken.”
“This is not unusual,” Dr. Berger reassures.
I ask her again if I’m losing my mind. John brings me tea in bed many mornings, and I think how nice he is but don’t recognize him as my husband. I don’t leave home alone. I forget where I am. It’s like I suddenly wake up, but I wasn’t sleeping.
I look at my cuticles, picked and gnawed raw. Doctor Berger hands me “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”. She asks me to look at the bold letters on page 463 again: 309.81, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
“You’re reacting to cues that remind you of the event or something that creates anxiety. At those moments, yes, you do lose touch with reality. Visualize the happy place in your mind. You can stay there until you feel safe.”
She forgets I’ve asked her to call it a safe space. Happy place sounds like a drug-induced fantasy where trees turn to lollipops. It makes me feel defeated and pathetic. She asks how I feel about my trip to Puerto Rico. I’m leaving in the morning to spend ten days with my family. I’m afraid to interrupt my treatment, but I can’t stay in New Jersey.
“Can I call you, please, if it’s necessary?” I ask.
“Of course. Remember what we’ve been working on: recognize the signals. Breathe before you react. Think of the happy place. You’re safe now, Nancy. You’re not in the hospital.”
Doctor Berger reminds me to be patient. It’s only been six weeks since I left the hospital. I don’t know if six weeks is just yesterday or another lifetime. Our session is up after 45 minutes, and she walks me to the door. I see my truck at the curb with John waiting in the driver’s seat.
“I’ll see you in two weeks,” she says. “Have a safe and restful trip.”
Thursday, March 21
5 Liberty Avenue, Jersey City, NJ
Everyone says going away to Puerto Rico will be good for me. I will surrender to the intensive care of the Marreros, my family, for ten days. I might rest. John and I have not slept since I was released from University Medical Center. No one warned us empty cribs keep you awake at night. John is afraid I’m not resting enough. He watches me as I keep my eyes closed and pretend. Hours pass every night, both of us suspended in silent darkness. We’re raw, edgy, and confined to our condo by this bitter winter.
John returned to work two weeks after my release. I still have six weeks of what was originally supposed to be maternity leave. I don’t think it’s good to be by myself. I got lost in our building. Right in our building. The hallways didn’t look familiar. The man who owns Freddy, the grey schnauzer, found me on the second floor and accompanied me back to the fourth. I didn’t recognize him but I recognized Freddy, and felt I could trust someone with such a nice dog.
I need to get away from the highway overpass being built yards from our windows. The traffic improvement project began before I was even pregnant. It continues every day, day and night, through this snowless winter. The construction crew started up again about 30 minutes ago. The pile drivers thud and unsettle the inside of my head. I squeeze my head between my hands and pace our bedroom, but I still hear the pounding. I want to tear at my skin with each pound. Some days I feel the bathroom tile tremble beneath my feet. That’s why I had called my Aunt Cruza in Puerto Rico. I needed to tell somebody to take me away.
“Mi amor, what do you need? I’ll come to you. I’ll book a flight right now,” she had said.
“No. Please. I need to be with you. I need you.”
I begged her repeatedly until I wasn’t sure if I meant Cruza, all the Marreros or someone else entirely. John and my family made the arrangements. Electronic communications between New Jersey and the island must have crashed networks worldwide. I had an itinerary within 36 hours: Nancy Marrero-Twomey; one adult passenger; Continental Airlines flight 527; departs Thursday, March 21 at 11:57 a.m.; non-stop to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
I shouldn’t have believed Slim Cognito’s promises. The body shaping undergarment looks like a pair of black cycling shorts for a circus monkey. The packaging claims the super-duper body shaper is a luxe wardrobe solution, ideal for every occasion when you want to wow. I write marketing copy for a living, and know bullshit when I read it. My family won’t be wowed when I land in Puerto Rico in a few hours. Things might get ugly when I bloat in the plane’s pressurized cabin, and compromise Slim Cognito’s compression technology. I gyrate and try to pull the elastic fabric to below my breasts. I’m sweating from the effort.
I don’t hear John enter our bedroom and he startles me. The waistband slips from my grip and snaps my lower belly.
“I’m not sure you can.” I grab the fabric in my fists again, determined.
The mirror reflects John standing behind me. He keeps his distance, confused by my hopping, the Slim Cognito, or both.
“It’s called a body shaper. It’s fat-girl underwear to make me look smooth.”
“You’re not fat.”
“I look like I’m still pregnant.”
“It’s only been six weeks, Nan.”
“I’ll die if anyone asks if I’m pregnant.”
John pauses, as he does before he questions a volatile witness. “Do you think anyone would?”
“I don’t want to find out. People say stupid things.”
“They mean well.”
“Whatever they mean, it makes me feel like shit. I wish they’d shut up.”
Our eyes meet in the mirror. I look at myself to break our gaze. I’m a wreck. My breasts hang like empty sock-puppets against my stomach. At another time, I would have looked at John in invitation to reach from behind. Any touch reminds me that I’m not looking good, but I’ve been able to hide under winter layers.
It’s eighty-two degrees in Puerto Rico. I’ll be there in less than seven hours, in shorts and a tee shirt. The last time I dressed so lightly was September. I was pregnant. John and I hadn’t told anyone we were still trying to conceive. We wouldn’t need to deliver bad news again to family and friends if no one knew. But this pregnancy was different. I made it past the first trimester.
See ya, I thought when I exited the waiting room of the fertility clinic for the last time. Let other women sit in that limbo. My nipples were as prominent as my belly button in the thin tee shirts I wore past Labor Day.
That was September. I still carry a belly that makes me look pregnant. It rests on my lap when I sit. There’s no baby in that space. Our baby died in my body. At thirty-nine weeks of pregnancy.
I had looked perfect. I held my belly like a jewel set between my hands. Our baby was perfect. John and I kept the ultrasound images tucked into the mirror. I could see right into him, his vertebrae a string of impossibly miniature pearls against the dark backdrop of my womb. I stored those images in the box with the sympathy cards, in what was to be Liam’s room.
I look at me and John in the mirror this morning.
What a pair.
“Could you give these things a hike in the back as I pull up the front?” I ask him.
John steps forward, the master of unsexy tasks for the past six weeks: stuffing ice packs into my sports bra to numb my engorged post-partum breasts. Rinsing my vaginal stitches. Carrying the life-preserver orange circle cushion, the only thing that makes sitting tolerable.
“Damn, these things are tight. How do you breathe?”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to.” I wiggle my hips and hop. “I just need one last tug. Pull like you’re giving me the mother of all wedgies.”
“It doesn’t have to be that much.”
“Yes it does. Now get ready. On three.” I hold the front of the waistband in my fists. John grabs the back and leans over me. Our eyes meet in the mirror. He gives a small nod.
“Okay,” I say. “One. Two. Three.”
We hoist simultaneously with a force that almost sends me into the mirror.
My carry-on and toiletries are the last things to pack this morning. The medicine cabinet is overwhelming. Do I need antibacterial bandages? There’s floss, a supply of contact lenses. Will I need extra pairs of contact lenses?
John enters the bathroom. Before I can ask him why I’m standing by the sink, he begins to put toiletries into clear Ziploc baggies.
“That’s my stuff, silly,” I say as he dries my toothbrush before bagging it.
“I’m helping you pack. You’re going away, Nan. Your flight’s this morning.”
“I remember.” I turn away. I can’t watch him packing my cosmetics like an aide.
A woman’s face looks at me from the mirror above the sink. Her forehead is aged. I recognize the Marrero crease between her eyebrows. Her nose, full cheeks, and unsmiling lips are familiar. I saw them on Liam’s face. Those features were beautiful on him.
I forget why John and I are in the bathroom.
Parking Lot C
Newark Liberty International Airport, NJ
I agreed with John that leaving for the airport after 10 a.m. would leave time to catch my flight. It took 15 minutes just to get through the construction outside of our building. Take-off is in less than two hours. We’re still in the airport parking lot. The web sites for Newark Airport and Continental Airlines both strongly recommend checking-in two hours before domestic flights. We should have left earlier. We’d already be inside the terminal. I might already be sitting at the gate with a coffee.
John takes my wheeled carry-on from the back of our truck. He rests one hand on the rear gate and pats his coat with the other.
“Yes, the keys are in your pocket. Hurry up,” I want to yell, but it’s too cold to uncover my face. My hat and hood muffle the slam of the truck’s rear gate. John reaches out his hand to me. I hold his arm like an anxious elderly aunt. I watch my feet and the ground. Pebbles of Ice Melt crunch under our treads.
The flat landscape of the parking lot is alien. I see three men in the distance. They’re sexless in thick coveralls, insulated from the 18 degree temperature. They push Ice Melt spreaders around the lot. I’m afraid they’ll spatter me. John guides me past the parking lot barricades, assures me it’s okay to cross the three car lanes, and we continue into Terminal C.
The terminal lower levels are dim. The escalators are slow and catch as we ascend. I remind John to stand on the right side of the escalator so others can pass. I don’t laugh at his comment that I’m usually one of those left-side sprinters.
“It’s a joke, Nan. It’s good you’re standing still.”
The concourse level opens around us at the top of the third escalator. Light comes through the walls of windows and the ceiling soars three levels above us. The sounds of wheels, on luggage and clinking carts, slip inside my hood and into my ears. I hear beeps, pages and soft-toned announcements. There are monitors and directional signs to show where you are and where you need to go. I see an airline employee, a young man, smiling and chit-chatting with the woman in the wheelchair he pushes. She’s white, very heavy, spilling over the edges of the seat, and holding a tote on her lap. She’s smiling, too. She looks nothing like me. I had been giggly with anticipation when the young Filipino man wheeled me to the maternity and delivery ward. I put my mitten over the scarf covering my mouth.
“Are you okay?” John asks. “Are you going to be sick?”
I shake my head. Port Authority officers walk through the terminal, carrying semiautomatic weapons. The back of my throat tastes sour. I hope silently that they won’t notice me, just continue walking.
There is no safe place for terrible mothers. Only a monster leaves her baby in the ground on a February morning. Officers on motorcycles escorted us to Holy Name Cemetery that day. They held traffic at intersections. The morning was flash-explosion bright. I saw the cops’ faces through my reflection in the limo window. One looked so young, his boy face red from the cold. The windows were tinted, but he knew I was in there. Baby killer, I read on his face. Only monsters give birth to dead babies.
“This is too much.”
John lowers my hand and scarf from my mouth, pulls back my hood, and takes off my hat. I’m puffy as a marshmallow in my coat, like a theme-park character without the oversized head. “There. Maybe now I can hear you.”
“It’s almost eleven o’clock. I can’t miss my plane.”
“It’s only 10:40,” John begins, but I’m already approaching the Continental Airlines kiosk.
The screen blinks. “Please wait as your boarding pass is printed”. I pull at the pass as soon as an edge appears.
“Okay, check the departures,” I announce and walk to my right.
“Nan, this way.”
“I know!” I turn to the left.
“Departs to San Juan, 11:57 a.m. Status is on time. I need to be at Gate 36.”
“Did you want to get a coffee?”
I inhale, and look over my shoulder.
“There’s no time now, John. Please. I need to go through security to get to my gate.”
There is only one ticket agent checking boarding passes and IDs by the sign that reads “Only ticketed passengers allowed beyond this point.” The line of travelers snakes around repeatedly. John and I stand four deep from the entry. I sweat like I’m already in the tropics.
“I told you we should have left earlier. There’s not enough time.”
“You have plenty of time.”
“No, I don’t. Can’t you see?”
John pauses before he answers. “Don’t start.”
“What? Don’t start what?”
John glances around, then looks at me with his swollen eyes. They’re just like Liam’s. “Get in line if you’re worried about time.”
I step into line before an approaching clump of women. John and I stand behind four spring break types, female undergrads in Montclair State University sweatshirts and shorts with “Juicy” and “Pink” printed across their butts. The group immediately behind us doesn’t sound like they’re from the Northeast. They are excited about their first trip to “Perderico.”
“It could become the fifty-second state,” one of the women announces.
John looks distant, standing right next to me and holding my luggage. We’re silent, just as we were on the drive to the airport. That’s the thing about losing a child: There are no words. I get angry when John speaks about Liam’s death. I talk about “being in the hospital.” It makes other people less uncomfortable. No one has to say, “When Liam died.” Those words don’t make sense.
The line barely moves. A man to my left talks on his cell phone to his administrative assistant. He guides her step-by-step through his computer’s directories and folders to find his urgent presentation. I want to tear out of my skin.
“Aren’t you hot?” John asks.
“No,” I answer, shivering. “How can they only have one person up there? How can they not be prepared?”
“They’re professionals. They can handle it, I’m sure.”
It’s ridiculous. The agent greets each passenger individually. She looks at the face, the boarding pass, the ID, then the face again. I can’t believe she’s allowed to waste time like this. She should concentrate on her job as intently as I’m staring at her. The sign states clearly everyone must be prepared for their turn with documents already in hand. If John wasn’t with me, I’d tap the shoulders of those undergrads ahead of me and tell them to be prepared.
John interrupts my thoughts. “Was that you as a kid?”
He points toward a boy, maybe middle-school-aged, standing ahead of us. A minor traveling alone, wearing a lanyard with an ID around his neck like I did every summer when I was growing up.
“Kind of. Except my parents would hover till the last minute when they had to hand me off to the stewardess. They would have escorted me onto the plane and buckled my seat belt if they could.”
John snorts. I’m almost forty years old, but my family will be waiting on the other side. They’ll stand right in front, where I can see them, like they’ve done since I was little Nancy. I envy that kid. He’s as casual as if he’s on line at McDonald’s, engrossed in his texting, and backpack straps hanging off his bent elbows. He looks Puerto Rican, honey colored and curly haired like me. I imagine there’s family on la isla preparing for his arrival, too: an uncle grumbling about traffic to the airport; an aunt preparing arroz con gandules frescos to keep warm on a stove top. I’ve joked with John that my childhood summer visits to the island were the family sponsored Fresh Air Fund, coordinated so little Nancy could escape the projects and inner city.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“You have time.”
“Could you just tell me what time it is?”
John looks at me. It is not gentle. His eyes are red. I don’t know when or if he’s slept.
“I just don’t want to miss my plane.”
“Nancy,” he says and takes his hand from his pocket. I barely feel his touch through the sleeve of my coat. “Believe me. I’ll get you on that plane.”
I don’t ask for the time again. I can see the watch of the woman to my left, a full line length ahead of us.
“Any big plans while the wife is gone?” I ask to make conversation and ignore that it’s past eleven o’clock.
John shrugs. “Just work.”
“Will it be busy?”
“How’s the trial going?” I ask, though I know. John and his client were on the front page of The Hudson Journal just last week when the judge denied the multipersonality defense. The man faced capital punishment until it was repealed in New Jersey. Now he faces life. I know John will visit his client at the jail as he does twice every week. He’ll speak with his client’s doctors, make sure the man is taking his medications, and provide the only genuine interest the man gets. It’s typically the calm personality who’s present during John’s visits, but I worry. The man has a very violent side. I insist John call me at the end of every visit.
“The work just keeps going. You know how it is. It’ll be going for a while.”
Two additional employees join the original agent. The line stirs, and the momentum worries me, like a current might sweep my feet from under me. I remember the advice the guide gave me and John when we went white-water rafting a few years ago.
“Keep your feet up.”
“What was that?” John leans toward me.
“Nothing. I was just thinking of when we went rafting that time in Frenchtown.”
“That was a while ago.”
“Yeah.” I remind myself I’m not in a river. My feet won’t get caught in a tree limb nor my body weighted by my down coat.
“You’re almost up,” John says. “Got your¼”
“Yeah,” I answer, pulling my driver’s license from my wallet.
John looks at the photo on my license. “Your hair was so long.”
I don’t recognize the woman in the photo. Everything is different about her. The photo isn’t even two years old. I don’t answer John and don’t want to engage in small talk. We’re approaching the checkpoint, and one of those agents might decide I’m not the woman in the photo. I have to remain calm and focused.
The original agent is still all smiles. The male agent to her right squints at the snaking line, and the woman to her left is humorless.
“Excuse me. Excuse me,” says the male agent, too weakly to get anyone’s attention.
“Attention!” barks the humorless woman. “Everyone should have their boarding pass and ID in hand. Do not wait until it is your turn. Be. Ready. Now.”
I do not want to take my turn with that woman. I count the number of people ahead of me, but there is no way to predict which agent will check my ID. The woman whose wristwatch I’ve been watching gets through the male agent without incident. I look again at my license, then at John, who’s staring ahead.
The minor traveling alone is attended by the smiling woman. He waits to the side for another agent to accompany him through the metal detectors to the gate. I’m getting closer. My tee shirt sticks to my back. I don’t ask John how well-trained these front-line workers are in identifying unusual behavior. It’s better if one of us can remain calm and natural.
The undergrads each take their turn. I stand behind “Juicy”, and she gets waved forward by the male. The smiley woman is still wasting time grinning at everyone. I stand at the head of the line and hope she calls for me. The humorless one becomes free and stares right at me.
“Next!” she yells.
I wonder if I should let the women behind me, the ones who’ve never been to the future fifty-second state, go ahead.
“It’s you, Nan.”
“I know! Don’t rush me.” I try to act normal as I approach. John walks behind me with my wheeled carry-on. The agent’s name is on the ID on the lanyard around her neck: Lorraine. Her photo is dated but the penciled eyebrows and hard-set jaw are clearly hers. I can smell the cigarettes on her clothes. I hold the boarding pass over my license.
“I need your, oh, you have it already. Hmm. Nancy Marrero-Twomey.” She glances at the boarding pass, my license, me, the license again.
I’ll be taken out of line if she notes a discrepancy, escorted to a room and questioned. I don’t know why that woman in the photo is not me. John is an attorney, but he can’t defend me if he doesn’t know why I’m not that woman.
Lorraine hands everything back to me. “Okay. Will it just be you traveling today?”
"Did anyone pack your bag or give you anything to carry?”
A lump lodges in my chest. It’s a trick question. I watched John bag my eyelash curler and eczema lotion this morning. Lorraine won’t believe I’m incapable of packing my own toothbrush. The woman in my license photo can pack her own bag, but I’m not her. I stand in front of Lorraine, with John by my side, afraid she will ask more questions.
Lorraine breathes out loudly through her nose and looks upward. "Did anyone..."
"Yo no se," I blurt.
Lorraine places both hands on the stand before her and leans toward me. "Excuse me?"
She could unravel everything, keep me from getting on the plane, keep me in New Jersey. I begin to pant, shallow, like a dog sensing thunder. Why did I let John pack my bags? He prepares his clients for questioning, why didn't he prepare me? If I had more time, I'd know what to do.
"My wife has trouble with English," John lies.
"Well, does she understand the question? Can she answer?"
I know John can't repeat any of this in Spanish. I grab his sleeve and say the few words I know he understands. "Si. Si entiendo."
"Okay, muy bien," he answers with the few words he knows and pats my hand.
"She understands. Yes, it's her bag."
“That’s not what I asked. Does she understand the question?”
John steps forward. “She understands English. She doesn’t feel comfortable speaking it.”
I steady myself with John’s arm. My tee is sopped under my coat, and my tongue is stuck in my mouth. I pucker for saliva and repeat, “Si. Si entiendo.”
“Is she talking to me or to you?”
I am suffocating. My face quakes even though my molars clench the inside of my cheeks. “Por favor,” I plead. “John, me tengo que ir. I need to go. Por favor, Dios mio.”
“My wife is indicating yes, she understands. It’s her bag, which she packed. She’s very upset. She’s very afraid of flying.”
I squeeze John’s arm, and he keeps his hand on mine. The metal detectors are yards away, like time counters at the finish line of a race. Other people are getting through and continuing to Gate 36. I inhale audibly to expand my chest and fill my stomach, like Dr. Berger has taught me.
Lorraine doesn’t even look toward me. "Jesus Christ. Always on my line. She’s traveling alone, right?"
“Tell her she needs to get to Gate 36, straight ahead after the metal detectors.” Lorraine jerks her head as she gestures for the next people on line to hurry and approach.
John and I step aside. My heartbeats throb in my ears. My hands fumble as I unwind my scarf, slip off the ankle length coat with its hood and the zip-up wool sweater. I stuff the random small articles into the sleeves of my coat. John rubs my upper arm, cups my shoulder, and squeezes as gently as if it were my cheek.
“Ah, there you are. Tropical Nancy.” He leans in, and adds, “We know you’re not afraid to fly. Lovely Lorraine back there wouldn’t understand. I can tell these things about people.”
I nod to play along. I’ll be in Puerto Rico in less than four hours. A new woman. I collapse at the joints like a spring-loaded toy. Tears run down my cheeks before I can get a tissue. I’ve cried so much over the past six weeks, but these tears come fast. I tremble and look down at my exposed knees.
John places my coat on the ground, and gathers me to him. “Hey,” he repeats into my hair, my ear, my cheek and neck.
My nose swells and I clutch his coat. “I’m okay,” I say, muffled by the wool.
“This is good for you. Everyone’s waiting for you.”
“I love you,” I say and it makes me want to cry more, so I think about making it to my gate in time. The delays of going through the metal detector, of standing behind people who have to unlace shoes. I need to make one last trip to a normal-sized bathroom before boarding the plane.
“I love you too, Nan.”
I lift my chin and close my eyes. Even without sight, our lips find each other. I kiss him as if I’d not seen him for weeks. We look like lovers whose rendezvous is ending too soon: Me, the small brown woman returning to my island; John, the white man, staying behind. The image of us is more romantic than the truth. We are long-married. We lost our baby boy. This is breaking me. I am afraid.
I take the handle of my carry-on and pull it behind me as I walk past the rope barrier. I turn one last time to wave to John. He raises an arm in uncertain response. My quilted coat is draped over his other arm. The stuffed sleeves hang down stiffly. It looks like a small woman John has caught just as she fell back in a faint.
Wednesday, April 11
54 Cedar Lane, Teaneck, NJ
It got warmer in New Jersey while I was away. I sit on Dr. Berger’s couch and tell her I don’t need the space heater. She comments on how tan I look. I wore as little as possible in Puerto Rico. I would have walked around naked to feel the sun on every inch of me.
“But I don’t think my family would have been into my being naked. They think I’m still little Nancy.”
“Is that how they view you?”
I say yes and laugh, realizing Dr. Berger doesn’t know the Marreros. Years pass so quickly on the mainland, but time is suspended on the island. The Marreros are always the first Puerto Ricans I see when I get off the plane. They must camp out at the airport the minute I book my flight. They were waiting right in front at the arrival gate, crying, and seeing them like that unhinged me. I stumbled and thought I’d have to crawl on the rough airport carpet to reach them, but my Uncle Pedro ran and caught me. I was nested in their arms, and we were all one shuddering, wet mess, but that’s what Puerto Ricans do at airports: We cry whether we’re arriving or departing. Me and my Marreros looked like a normal boricua reunion. My family drove me everywhere during those ten days and hovered over me like I was just learning to walk.
“Did you enjoy that?”
“It was nice to have everything taken care of,” I admit. “It’s okay when it’s temporary. I haven’t been little Nancy for a very, very long time.
We’re silent, but that’s okay with Dr. Berger.
“Doctor Berger, what I’m saying sounds crazy.”
“What does, exactly?”
“It’s okay, Nancy. Just say it.”
“I sound like I’m talking about different Nancies. I feel like I’ve been away for longer than ten days. I recognize New Jersey. The diploma on your wall is always slightly crooked. Everything is familiar, but it doesn’t feel mine. This is the life of someone else. I recognize the lives of little Nancy and the old Nancy, but none of those are mine.”
“What experience is your own?” Dr. Berger asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“Let me ask another way. What Nancy are you now?”
I look at her in the arm chair across from me, legs crossed under her, and notepad on the side table. She waits. I know I can talk to her.
“I don’t know, Dr. Berger. I’m not any of those Nancies.”
“Are you a new Nancy?”
“No. New means never scrambled. The old experiences are too familiar. I’m different.”
“Can you describe how?”
“I tried to do things I used to do, but nothing feels the same. I started running again. I ran every day while I was in Puerto Rico.”
“It must have felt good to do something you enjoy.”
I tell Dr. Berger it wasn’t the same. I expected running to feel different after being pregnant for 39 weeks and delivering a baby, but my limbs were reluctant. Doctor Berger knows about the mind, but I’ve learned about the body. The body is not faithful; it can only be counted on for betrayal. All those tens of thousands of miles I’ve run over the years should have earned interest like a bank deposit. I felt ripped off as I lumbered and gasped around the track in Puerto Rico.
My Aunt Cruza went with me every morning. She’s the other runner in the family, the one who remembers my marathon finishing times. We would arrive at the track before sun rise but were never the first ones there. The temperature in San Juan hits eighty degrees before 8:00 a.m., so runners complete their daily miles predawn. We’d go round and around the track. I’d think about the years when I competed and my running was fluid. I had transcended the barrier between the mental and physical. I didn’t wear a watch when I trained or raced because I could feel my pace and knew I was running seven-minute miles.
It wasn’t anything like that in Puerto Rico. I felt like I was pushing through Jell-O. I did three frustrating miles in the dark every morning with Cruza. My breathing was too labored for chit-chat and Cruza is a silent runner. The white lane lines of the track were barely visible. The sound of other runners approaching and passing guided us.
Every morning, I wondered if I still had it in me to reach the post that marked the end of our last lap. We’d be on our final laps when the line of pink appeared above the treeline, grew wider and split the sky open like a papaya. The other early morning runners ahead of us became visible. Past races played in my mind, and I willed my legs to turn over faster. My arms pumped faster, hands open, as if there was a winner’s tape at the finish, and I anticipated the snap against my hips as I burst through. I ran like there was still a medal for me. I cursed God, my body, and my life as I grunted through those final early morning sprints. I ran as if I heard the crowds from past races instead of my lone aunt, calling after me and asking if I should be running so fast.
I’m breathless as I recall this and tell Dr. Berger. She asks if I completed the final laps, and I tell her I did. I reached that post every morning and slapped it, knowing I can never run fast or far enough.
About The Author
Nancy Méndez-Booth was born and raised in Queens, New York. After receiving her BA from Amherst College, she relocated to New Jersey, where she received her MA and MFA from Rutgers. Nancy's work has appeared in phat'titude, Jersey City magazine and The Packinghouse Review. She has been a featured blogger on mamapedia.com and also blogs at http://www.nancymendezbooth.com. Nancy teaches writing, Latina/o literature and cultural studies in the New York City area. She lives in Jersey City with her husband, John.