Natural Habitats

by Melody Warnick

The way we did it was the Pill: tiny round tablets, pale pink and delicate. Innocuous as mints, I thought, though Ruth came over just to tell me otherwise. “I can’t believe you’re really going to take that stuff, Megan,” she said. “It tells you right in the package that the Pill is a time bomb waiting to go off. You’re about a hundred percent more likely to get nausea, breast cancer, blood clots—”

Ruth was seven months pregnant and round-bellied like a beetle, standing in my doorway on thin, pale legs.

Ruth said nothing. She smiled, then laughed. Always the baby sister, I thought—like she was seven and just pretending at pregnancy, like she had only a balloon under there.

But she was right about the Pill; I couldn’t think about food for four weeks. I had punched out the third tablet (“Tue” in its neat row of days) and woke up four hours later to dry-heave into the toilet. Afterwards I curled up, cold and damp, on the bathroom rug and envisioned myself pregnant like Ruth: bulbous stomach, blue with veins, smooth like the dome of an egg. A mutant, mutating body. I figured it didn’t get worse than that.

Sometimes I would forget a day and find last night’s tablet sitting on the bathroom counter in the morning. I would choke it down with a fistful of water and a prayer: no babies, please. David started handing me the Pill each night with a glass of kiwi-lime Kool-Aid. “Your pink present,” he would say, and every night I would slip the tablet between my teeth, easing it down my throat until eventually the motion became natural.

Ruth could swallow six vitamins at a time. She drank orange juice, ate leafy greens, and sometimes ran laps at the junior high track. She read everything about pregnancy, all about how the fetus grew with each passing week, how it steadily developed limbs and organs and humanity. “It has eyes now,” she said once, peering at me, herself stunned.

Some Saturdays, while our husbands studied, Ruth and I would blow up her plastic kiddie pool, its sides emblazoned with frolicking yellow octopi and fat-lipped fishes. We would fill it and then set ourselves down in five inches of tepid water from the hose. “It feels good,” Ruth said one day. “Like I’m sitting in my own natural habitat.” She smiled at me. “There’s so much water inside of me. She just swims in it all day, the tadpole.”

“’She?’”

Ruth shrugged, the purple lycra of her bathing suit shimmering on her collarbone. “Maybe not. We don’t really want to know. I guess I just think of her as being such a part of me that she would have to be female, too.”

“A miniature Ruth,” I said. I envisioned her tiny and froglike, brown hair floating as she wriggled an amphibian tail. “I don’t know if we can handle another you.”

“I don’t know if I can, either. But I really wish it were like mitosis. No crankiness or backaches for nine months—you just split in half and boom, another perfect copy.” Ruth slid down into the water, letting her hands sway just beneath the surface. A block away I could hear children yelling and the high ring of the ice cream truck.

“Oh well, Megan,” Ruth said finally, “I think it will be worth it in the end.” As peaceful and translucent as she looked, I could almost believe her.

David and I had already agreed on children—or more specifically, on the absence of children. The first time he saw my sister Marianne with one twin boy lodged on each hip, he said she looked like a packed camel. “The woman’s a beast,” he said. But Marianne carried her burden gracefully. At Christmas she parceled out babies like presents, and everyone but me fought to hold them; I saw them as dogs that would sniff out my fear. But Ruth’s theory was that babies only detect love, that they react to those who want what’s best for them.

In bed that night, David laughed about it. “Ruth’s such a mystic, Megan. If she were born thirty years earlier she could have been a hippie midwife.”

“It wasn’t like that, David.”

“Babies are born with a brain the size of a strawberry. They don’t think to themselves, “Good person, bad person.” They don’t think at all. It’s just cry and sleep and feed and poop. It’s all intrinsic reactions. They know how to suck; they just do it.”‘

“Ruth said that you can show a baby a million pictures—the sun, The Last Supper, whatever—but the thing that a baby wants to see more than anything is a human face. Just one human face smiling at it.”

David crawled into bed and pushed himself against my body. “Don’t worry, Megan,” he said. “You have a human face. When the time comes, you’ll do fine.”

I hadn’t known I was sunburned until his hand on my shoulder felt hot and sharp.

Nights, when Ruth’s husband and mine talked computers in the second bedroom, Ruth taught me about babies: how to hold a baby, for instance, like a loaf of bread. “You scoop in under the length of your arm—yeah, like that, that’s great—and just keep your hand there, ’cause their heads are kind of wobbly.” I was cradling a loaf of blanket-wrapped Wonder Bread in my arms. Somehow, I wanted to coo at it.

“I don’t know why you worry so much about this,” Ruth said, settling her eight-month girth into the sofa. “It’s not like you have to get certified.”

“It’s not like I’m having kids anytime soon.”

“Right,” Ruth said. “Not soon, anyway.” She pressed her hand against her abdomen and sucked in a breath. “Well, anyway, watch: she’s gonna kick.” She pressed herself into the couch and held her breath, urging some invisible being into motion.

I stared. “Is it even visible? Can I even see it?”

“Megan, it’s like having someone beat you with a hammer from the inside. It’s hard to miss.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Yes, when she does it for a long time, or when she’s doing her Tae Bo. Then it hurts.”

We waited in patient silence, like nature-lovers watching for birds. (See, the red-headed woodpecker! So rare in these parts!) Finally Ruth gasped and said, “Did you see it?”

“No, no—where?”

“Right here.” She pressed her palm flat against the side of her abdomen. “You can feel it if you want to.” Ruth lifted up her shirt a little; beneath was pale white flesh stretched out taut on its bilge of fluid. I put my hand on her and instantly felt a muffled thumping beneath. “The baby,” she said, looking at me intently. “That’s her.”

She was swimming, that baby, rolling around in her amniotic sac. “She’s alive and well,” I said. “Welcome to the world, baby Ruth.”

Mid-July, we pulled out the pool every night. We sat among plastic kissing fishes and dangling octopus arms and talked about names and baby furniture and breast-feeding. Evenings were hot, filled with the shrillness of crickets. David pulled out a lawn chair to watch us float. “How’s it coming, Ruth? You going to explode?”

“I’ve never been this bloated in my life.” She rubbed an ankle, its skin swollen over the tiny nub of bone. “The water’s the only place I feel normal. I guess it balances out the pressure.”

“Not much longer to go,” I said. “You’ll be a normal person again. No more stomach.”

She rested her hands on the rim of her belly. “I’ll miss the stomach anyway.”

“So do you have a name for the baby?” David asked. “Wait, don’t tell me—Ruthette.”

“Just maybe, just maybe,” Ruth said, standing up. Water fell from her, dropping way through fourteen hours of labor.

I imagined her little body stretched out on the paper-covered table, moving that solid mass through the uterine tunnel. I could see her smiling, squinting at hospital lights, waiting for her girl to arrive. David said, “We can visit her tomorrow, I suppose. We’ll get some flowers.”

“Some overalls from Baby Gap.”

“We’ll go as soon as you get home from work.”

I sat at the kitchen table, listening to David getting ready for bed: the teeth-brushing, face-washing routine. The windows were open; cool air entered in. I had forgotten to empty the pool water from the other night, and I imagined it stagnating, collecting frogs, then polliwogs. Ruth, empty of her amniotic fluid, wouldn’t need the pool anymore. She had found a new habitat. I would see Ruth tomorrow looking beatific, beaming like the Holy Mother with her newborn, haloed infant.

When David was done, when he had crawled into bed, I filled a glass with water and punched my Pill out of its tinfoil backing. Over the bathroom sink I dropped the Pill into the glass. It floated there, trembling, and after five minutes it dissolved. Inside the glass the water rolled, faintly tainted with a wisp of pink.