When Sal had her baby, I watched her breastfeed her son in her living room. I asked Sal what it felt like. She looked at me and raised her eyebrows. Has anyone sucked on your nipples before? she asked.
Sal! I screamed.
Sal told me that when she breastfeeds around men she knows, they always ask her if she’s tasted it. They say it in a low whisper, urgent and conspiratorial. Have I tasted it? she asks them incredulously. I like that she makes them repeat it.
I think it’s probably something libidinal, I told her. But I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. Mothers and sons. No thank you.
Sal sniffed the air and said: Do you smell weed?
What are you? I asked her, some sort of TSA dog?
I think I smell it through the window, said Sal. Well good for them. I hope it’s a teenager, experiencing freedom for the first time.
Sal doesn’t really do drugs anymore. She only does them on special occasions, like at weddings or IMAX movies. When the baby was first born she would say to me: Can you do a little molly and I’ll watch? So I know someone is having a nice time. And then she would smile. And then she would say: Just kidding.
But of course when I leave the room she looks down at that baby and grins. And the baby grins back. She told me he had the “cutest little turd” the other day. Those were the words she used: cutest little turd. Okay Sal, I said. We’re done here.
It was solid, she said. That’s different. That’s better. He’s getting older.
That’s a you guys thing, I said.
When she hands the baby over to me I worry that he is too cold, or too hot. Is he breathing normally? She saw me letting him chew a blueberry, and she flinched. His trachea, she said, is exactly blueberry size.
Exactly? I said.
Exactly, she said.
I take the baby for walks. I walk him like a dog. I like to pretend I’m his nanny — that’s what people must think of us, with this little white baby curled up against me. When I walk him Sal can answer emails for a little while, do the laundry. But these walks are concerning to me. The problem is the baby is always facing away from me and protected from the sun. I can never see his face. And he doesn’t talk. So how do I know whether Sal’s baby is suffering? What I do is stop at every car window and stare into our reflection together to make sure we are both real and intact. That’s you! I say. And that’s me! He always looks a little dispirited to see the two of us again, still at it. He holds my fingers in his little hands and sometimes falls asleep like that. I ran into a friend on the street, a young father, and he said to me wryly: That baby is always shrouded. It made me wonder what it was we were actively grieving.
Sometimes Sal’s baby tries to bury his face in my nipple and makes a sound like a truffle-hunting pig. He’s frustrated to discover it’s just my lackluster breast. Like mother, I tell him. Like son.
If you died, I asked Sal, and Jamie too, like both of you died in some tragic freak accident, would I be in charge of your baby?
No, said Sal blankly. First it would be my parents. Then Jamie’s parents. Then my sister. Or Jamie’s sister. Then my brother. Then —
But I cut her off and told her I got the point.
Recently I’ve noticed that the baby cries every time he sees me. The first couple of times we thought it was a fluke. But now we know it’s not. It’s as if it happens in slow motion, the dawning realization that it’s me, ME, looming over him, and then his face just crumples.
Does it hurt your feelings, Sal asked. Her hand was on my shoulder.
Honestly, yes, it does, I said. I love him so much. I know he won’t like me as much as he likes you. But why is he afraid of me?
Yeah, said Jamie, his voice even. I mean did something happen between the two of you when you were watching him? No judgment. These things happen.
Yes, Jamie, I said rudely. I shook him violently, like a bad, bad babysitter.
That’s enough flirting for today, said Sal.
There was that one time, though. When I fed him a bottle and it was like I was waterboarding him with his own mother’s milk. Sal was in the other room. She had pumped earlier that morning. I held a bottle full of Sal, and I shoved it down his throat. And he did cry. He cried until I stopped.
I do love him. I love his cheeks. His heft. I love it when he looks like Sal. Some days he doesn’t look like her and on those days I don’t love him less, but I feel less connected to him. I like it when he looks like her. It’s crazy how every day his face changes. When he looks more like Jamie I worry I am more remote to him, less willing to do things like bury my face in his balloon belly. Sal the other day caught me sitting next to the baby and saying repeatedly: MAA MAA. MAA MAA. So that when the time came, in a couple months, to talk, he would declare what he and I had in common: we loved Sal the most.
Don’t do that, said Sal. Don’t stoke the flames.
What flames? I asked.
Jamie’s already jealous, said Sal. Because I feed him with my humongous breasts, and so he likes me better.
Well feed Jamie too then, I said. You’ve got enough to go around.
And then you’re next? she asked.
I’ve already tasted your breast milk, I said. I did it after you told me that guys are always asking you what it tastes like.
What did it taste like? she asked.
I waited a minute. I narrowed my eyes.
Oh you know, I said. A bloomy rind, or something. Barnyard funk.
You didn’t taste it, she said.
I didn’t taste it, I said. Because I’m not out of my fucking mind.
When we were in college, Sal was a lot more adventurous than me. Adventure — maybe that was what made her dive so willingly into motherhood. I was always grateful that she wanted to be my friend, despite the fact that I was a scaredy-cat. I liked my stubborn little island of reality, I didn’t want to be yanked from it. Everyone else was casting out lines, boarding makeshift rafts, seeking some kind of psychic expedition. They were curious, prone to cuddling. They used to melt little tabs of acid on their tongues three to four times a year and summon an adventure with their minds. They traipsed across the overgrown meadows on the fringes of campus, huddled around an illicit campfire, squeezed themselves into the college’s grimly lit steam room, which sat in a forgotten corner of the athletic center. I liked to follow them, to sit in the presence of their foggy observations and laugh along with them at jokes I could not perceive the shape of. This way, I could excuse myself whenever I wanted and look at my phone with dead eyes while I sat on the toilet.
One of these afternoons, when everyone else was exiting the stratosphere, I went into the kitchen to make a large pot of spaghetti. I planned to adorn it with a hard pellet of pre-grated parmesan cheese I was saving for this occasion. It acted like a stress ball you might find in a waiting room — it cohered to the imprint of your fingers when you crushed it with one hand. As the water boiled, I heard a shriek from the adjoining bedroom and rushed in to see what was the matter. Sal was pressed up against the window, her eyes wide with horror. In the driveway sat a car she hadn’t seen before. Four Mennonite women were gathered around it, inspecting a flat tire.
Why are they wearing bonnets, whispered Sal. Why are they here?
I don’t know, I told her. I guess I could have said something more comforting. I could have explained about the tire, or how they were Mennonites. But at that moment I wanted to keep her in the dark, to make her sit in that space of possibility for just one minute longer.
Maybe you’re an American Girl Doll, I said. And these are other sentient American Girl Dolls.
Then she laughed, and I laughed, and the sound startled the women who were fixing the car, and Sal got scared again when they swung around to make sense of the noise. She had to go into the other room, and I followed her there and petted her hand absentmindedly while we watched television.
In college I was jealous of Sal. She was so at ease. She traveled to all the remote corners of her mind, and wasn’t afraid of what she found. That seemed nice. I wasn’t going to attempt the same. Now all these years later I wonder if Sal is jealous of me, the way I had graciously envied her. Where I was once rigid, and she limitless, the rhythms of her days were now so regulated I could look at the clock and anticipate what it was she was doing: feeding, walking, pumping. I now had a gift that was exclusive to me. Time. It stretched out in front of me like a red carpet. I was practically logrolling down it, getting nauseous from all that freedom. But if Sal wanted what I had, she didn’t show it. She was too busy being in love. In love with a sentient cantaloupe who regarded me with the same apprehension you would a stranger ringing your doorbell in the middle of the night.
He thinks I’m a witch! I shrieked, one morning when he cried and cried and cried while Sal readied him for our walk.
He doesn’t have thoughts like that, Sal said. Really. He’s just a baby. He’s different from us. You can’t take it personally.
I wonder if she worried about him when he was with me. His safety. I don’t think she thought I would intentionally hurt him, but just that I could be careless or distracted. So this was new — the feeling that she didn’t trust me.
I remember when Sal first got pregnant. We were each living in the apartments we live in now, just a fifteen-minute walk from one another. I had come over for breakfast. We were both hung over, and felt like making a real performance of it. I’m hung over, I told her. I’m hung over too, she said. Are you competing with me? I asked. Because don’t. I feel worse than you, I guarantee it. Not possible, she said. I have a baby inside me, and I pickled it last night unknowingly. Just absolutely sauced that sucker. Are you joking with me right now? I asked. No, she said. I took a test this morning because I puked, which is normal, but then I thought about it, and I had missed my period, and my tits are — Sal, I said, I’ve seen a television show before in my life. I know what it’s like when girls think they are pregnant. Right, said Sal. So I’m pregnant. What are you going to do, I said, get a shmomortion? You don’t have to be cute about abortions, said Sal, you can just say them like a regular person. We are libs, remember? We love abortions, said Sal. No, yes, I said. So one abortion for you? Nope, said Sal. Why not? We knew we wanted to have kids eventually. Well, here we are. It helps that your parents have money, I said. Don’t your parents have money too, said Sal. Yeah, I said. But I am not going to have a baby. Okay, well you can have mine, said Sal. We’ll go splitsies. Don’t say that if you don’t mean it, Sal, I said.
Fine, said Sal. I don’t mean it.
I always understood pregnancy as a plot device. Pregnancy was what happened in between a season finale and a season premiere. It was what stitched time together, moved the storyline along. It wasn’t real. It was a matter of convenience — a lazy flick of the wrist from an uninspired writers’ room. Or, it was something else. It was Jamie ejaculating into his wife four months after she decided to go off birth control. A rather ho-hum scenario. But what I respected in Sal’s resolve was the same thing that made me feel distant from her. Sal wasn’t asking me to be excited for her. She didn’t need my approval, my cheerleading enthusiasm. She was off now, winding down her own path, sure-footed, Jamie loping behind her. I stood with my arms crossed, squinting from a distance.
When the baby finally came, I was hiking in the woods with other friends. I didn’t have cell phone service. I tried waving my phone around on top of a big rock but that made me feel ridiculous. No matter, I explained coolly to the group. If something happened that I needed to know, Sal would find a way to tell me. Everyone looked skeptical at this.
How? Like they would send out a helicopter? said Jessica. To tell you she is getting an emergency C-section?
Don’t make me feel like an asshole, Jessica, I said. I crossed her off my list of potential new best friends.
When the baby came I didn’t have to pretend like he was cute. He was cute. I couldn’t believe that Sal had grown him, grown him inside of her like she was one of those goo-filled batteries from The Matrix. It was like I had never heard of sex before, never known anyone on the face of the earth to give birth or be born. It was me who felt new and raw and pink to the world.
He’s basically blind, she explained to me. And he poops seeds. Yellow seeds.
Your mama’s a bitch, I whispered to him that first time I met him, as Sal sat beside us and laughed. But you’re perfect and I love you.
Already? asked Sal.
Yes, I told her, already.
Sal doesn’t need me in the ways I thought she might. She isn’t walking around with her hair unwashed, carrying her baby like an oversized purse, pussy dangling on the floor, milk leaking from her swollen breasts and bleeding through her sweatshirt. I thought motherhood would be harder for her. The sacrifices. The letting go. She won’t concede any of that, and I don’t know if it is because she is being defensive, or because this is how she lives now, and it suits her just fine. I am curious. I haven’t been able to work up the courage to straight up ask her. We are rarely left alone these days. I know the baby can’t understand the words I am saying, the complex thoughts I am putting into motion. But I feel like in front of him, she still might feel compelled to evade the truth. Over the years I had grown dependent on Sal’s honesty, the twitchy look she got when she attempted to fib. Now, I wasn’t sure.
One day though, she told me she hadn’t slept at all the night before. She was tired. She kept craning her neck to the side because she thought she heard the baby rustling.
Do you hear that? she said.
Hear what? I asked.
Maybe he’s awake, she mumbled.
Maybe you’re losing it, I said. All those milky hormones.
You’ll tell me, she said sternly, if I’m losing it, right? You are now an objective observer. I’m going to need that from you.
I thought about the Mennonites. The look of those women blasted from the past, gathered around a broken vehicle. Us beside the television, me stroking Sal’s hand, weighing what we had the right to be afraid of.
Don’t worry, I said. I’ll tell you.
I was lying. I lied about all sorts of things to her during that time. It was one lie after the next. I felt so much love in those lies. I crafted them with great intention. Two weeks before she asked me if I had ever tried her breast milk, I had found myself alone in her kitchen, with the baby on my hip. I was warming his bottle. He was looking at me, his eyes large and glassy. He kept opening his mouth and closing it. Sometimes he would suckle a phantom nipple, floating in the air. I guess he was hungry. I put a drop on the back of my hand to make sure it wasn’t too hot for him. It was slightly yellow. I began to shake the bottle vigorously, like a salt shaker, till more drops appeared on my wrist, and gathered into a small puddle. Then I lapped it up like a cat, the opalescent drops adhering to the tip of my tongue.
The baby was silent, watching. I cleared my throat and passed the bottle over. He took it with both hands, and drank until he was full.
Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a writer and radio producer living in Brooklyn.