Midwives Under a Sky of Milk

I’m in Cayucos for the weekend, the small seaside town where Luke and his family used to come in the summers when he was young and still got in big trouble and had privileges like crab fishing taken away. I had planned to be here with Luke and his parents since this is the marathon he and his dad chose to run together this year. But instead, I am here with just Luke’s parents in a house a few doors down from where they made their family memories in a flat house with a deck overlooking the sea. Instead of walking on the sand with Luke, he sends pictures of 40,000 pounds of black cod spilling from a brimming tin bucket on a giant hook. I think I would rather be here. Unlike a lot of coastal California towns, Cayucos has an authentic dilapidation to it, the town sitting on a stretch of Highway 1 often bypassed by those trying to get to the bigger ones faster—Morrow Bay or Cambria or San Luis Obispo. There’s an abandoned welding factory on a slope of fuzzy yellow flowers, and metal swingsets in the sand near the pier—big swingsets, the kind they would remove today in a newer park and replace with plastic. The grocery store has tiny buggies like the ones at the Jack ‘n’ Jill market in the rural Illinois town where my dad grew up. There are flies in the store and brown bananas and simple, delicious sandwiches you order from an old man behind the deli counter. I had a whole milk latte from the coffeeshop on Main Street, peopled only by a young girl steaming milk in a plaid shirt, an old man wearing small glasses, and a bassett hound with bloodshot eyes and a wobbly head.

This morning, the fog is so thick, the water disappears into a froth of white just past the black rocks topped with pairs of white birds. Inside the place we are staying, there are two rows of books. Most of them are the kind my dad read when I was little—Robert Ludlums and Clive Cusslers–fat-spined books with gold-rimmed letters and adventure titles. But there’s also another book here called Midwives that I remember seeing when it was popular, right around the time, I think when I read The Red Tent—a time when I felt like I was first becoming a part of a secret, widespread community of people who are deep and happy-sad and relational: the community of women.

This morning, Willis started a fire in the living room and I am tucked in here by the lingering fog and a blanket woven with Lighthouses. I know I should read the books I brought, not a book about a midwife who is charged with murder after the death of a client. I can feel myself, already within the first 20 pages, steeling myself against the parts of labor I will not—or refuse to—experience. I will not be having a home birth, so I can disregard all of the charming advantages and terrifying risks associated with it. I will not be having a midwife, so I can forget learning first-hand all of their myths and stories (that blue cohosh tea stimulates labor, that babies come when it rains). To learn it from fiction protects me from believing that there is one way and one way only to have a baby, which so many people wish to believe (and wish for me to believe) now that I’m in this body of women who make decisions about the best way to burst out new lives.

Maybe I shouldn’t be reading this book right now, with the mentions already of morbidity and fatalities and stillborns, but if you picked up a book, and for the first time, felt that you were a main character in it, a main character in a history that has been going on since the beginning of time, and not just a character in a vague way, but a participant in something that splits open a world every time it happens, would you put it down?

As the baby grows, pushing against my protective walls with its tiny hands, I try to narrate silently everything the life inside me cannot see. A striped cat is slinking through the petunias on the cliff out back. The birds are trading places and switching legs on jagged black stones. The fog is still stubborn even though the morning is waning. The sky is like evaporated milk poured over a heaving bowl of sea.