Still Life

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

She was not prepared for the violence. She did not consent. No one asked, simply forced her legs apart, inserted a finger. She was not wet; it pinched. Later, she would bleed. Seep red and open like a heart, a wound.
      She tried to look past the face above her to the ceiling, the wall, imagine herself somewhere, someone else. They scolded when she forgot to breathe, afraid she’d pass out, so she focused on the movement of her chest in, out, up, down. She did not know if her heart was intact.
      When she could not will her body to halve like a tender peach, afraid of the bruise and pulp, of splitting in two, they slit her belly to bowel, placed her entrails on a table beside her like so much fruit, still attached to the bowl of her womb via the tether of arteries and yellow fat. The room was anesthetized, silent despite the chaos. A still life.
      After, she does not say much of the experience, though she is exhausted and hollow-eyed. It is as if the story has been stitched shut like the rest of her—the red scar angry across her abdomen. If she is lucky, the doctor says, it will shrink to fit inside her bikini. “Ever hear of the husband stitch?” folks joke. Even when she is silent, motionless, the scar aches, pulses like a star, like sex, want and longing.
      At night she dreams of surgeons and scalpels and the squelching sound of her own body. She hears the squeal of an animal and realizes she is crying.
      Sometimes, like when she shops for groceries or sees her reflection in the mirror, she can feel the blade once more, feels herself disassembling. She is puzzled because now shouldn’t she feel happiest?
      She says nothing of her pain or fear, distraction or regret, but when the baby cries, she feels her heart tighten, her breasts loosen until she is wet and sour.

      Growing up, no one spoke to me of the pain of childbirth or the lonely, confusing after months and years. What I knew, I gathered from movies, perfectly made-up women clutching men’s hands, able, only in childbirth, to hurt men without retribution. They screamed for just a few frenzied moments before the swaddled prop was at their breast alongside a cooing studio audience.
      I knew little of the pain of childbirth from the photos in my mother’s book, A Child is Born, which featured a close-up image of a fetus sucking its thumb on the cover, seemingly lit from behind, orange as an apricot, translucent, covered in soft fuzz. In the book, which I would sneak from time to time off my mother’s bookshelf, the fetus appears at all stages. But where, I wondered, was the mother? We never saw her face, nor her soft lap, and because I could not see her eyes, I did not know if she was happy or scared. I did not learn it was possible to be both.
      Mothers existed, I learned, to house the fetus, to be a vessel for that fruit. The only time I saw the mother was in delivery photos, her vagina stretched wide and thin like a great mouth, blood caught in pubic hair, breasts swollen like melons, nipples cracked like the skin of a cantaloupe. Her face never seemed to be in frame, though I knew by the way my parents took the book from my hands each time I lingered on these photos rather than the ones of the child, that a mother’s body was shameful.
      I saw pain written on the bodies of women around me. My mother braced herself each time she bent to pick up a child. As a mother of eight and preschool teacher for forty years, she has torn her rotator cuff, required multiple surgeries, broken toes, strained her hip, back, and neck bending over. My aunts, cousins, family friends, speak of pained hips, aching joints, burdened feet. After children they could not even walk upon the ground the same. My mother’s mother had chronic aches and leg pains and my father’s mother stooped even smaller than her five-foot-one frame after mothering four boys.
      I think of my grandmothers, so proper in their discussions of their bodies it was almost as if they did not have bodies at all. They willingly erased themselves. What childbirth must have been like for them, expected to lay with their feet in the stirrups, splayed open like a fish, pulsing and wounded, the brutality of the epidural rendering them motionless, like the roofies they warned me about years later when I entered college. I can see them, heavy limbed like dead, all dread throb and bone, their minds trapped inside the cages of their bodies. We used to drug women in the 1950s and ’60s, make them so high they could be happy; now we cut babies away from mothers behind a curtain so women cannot see what we have done.
      Other pains go silent. While postnatal care exists in other countries, the United States focuses nearly exclusively on infant care after delivery, despite a new mother’s increased risk of infection, excessive bleeding, perineal and pelvic floor pain, prolapse, diastasis recti, infected or clogged breast ducts, and incontinence. There is little discussion of postpartum depression and anxiety, which impact one in seven women. The silence surrounding maternal pain breeds increased pain—maternal death rates in the United States are steadily increasing, higher than in some developing countries. Over 60% of pregnancy-related deaths in the US are preventable, and marginalized women, primarily women of color, are more likely to die. Delivery for many women is a bodily trauma with longstanding disabilities, one for which they are unprepared for and unsupported afterward.
      Pain is forever intertwined with motherhood, as though to have one means accepting the other. A friend who recently had her first child admitted she felt as though she had not had a “real” delivery because she’d been ushered into C-section so quickly. “I didn’t even really feel anything,” she said. “It was like the doctors delivered the baby, not me.” She hadn’t hurt enough, she said, to feel as though she’d earned the right to be a mother. But even still, she clutched at her scar and braced herself before standing.
      As a child, physical pain by way of motherhood seemed inheritance as much as the role itself, but while I was taught how to dress and diaper my dolls, how to make fake apple pie in my play kitchen, no one taught me what to do when my back ached or my head pained. There were no instructions for malaise or melancholy or misogyny. I doubt the women knew themselves.

      When you have experienced sex tinged with violence it is difficult to imagine it free from the specter. The acts of conception and delivery, for many, are those of love, joy, promise. But for others, to carry a child can feel like carrying a trauma.
      Delivery stories often sound like stories of trauma, even if new mothers rarely express this, reluctant to express the fear, the pain, the lingering anxiety. Remaking the self after trauma is a challenge, people erased and rewritten by the act, unsure how to navigate the new story of their lives.
      I find it difficult to enjoy sex in the decade since my rape. When I was twenty-one, a boy broke into my college room late one night and forced himself on me, purpling my back with blackberry bruises that spread in the days after, wrapping his hands around my neck like an embrace when I cried, holding me tight, tight until I faded to black.
      When I came to, he had done the same and slipped away. I told no one because along with being taught how to hold a baby doll and set a table for tea, I’d been taught that girls are quiet and clean, that they follow the rules, that they marry a man and make a baby, and do not bleed bright pain into the toilet or feel the insides of them falling out like flashing static. I had nightmares after, but unlike those I’d had as a child—fire or falling, my father rushing to save me when I cried out in the night—they could not be soothed. My father could not fix everything after I learned to fear men.
      Because I knew the boy, saw him frequently, because I nursed blame, swaddled shame close to my skittish heart, the rapes continued for months. He broke into my apartment, shredded the screen on my window, tapped on the glass late at night. He followed me in his car when I walked to school, revved his engine as if to run me down if I did not get in with him. He drove me out to the beach, the mountains, beyond cell service and threatened to leave me there before spitting on me, choking me to black. He slapped me, threw me against walls, forced me to my knees on concrete and sand—my body covered in blueberry, raspberry bruises, seeping sickly like jam. Sex, I learned, was panic, the body seizing up rather than letting go, and always blood.
      Before my rape, I only had a handful of sexual encounters, a shy romantic who did not believe herself beautiful or capable of desire. I had never seen women in my family express sexual desire. I’d seen them cater to their husbands, say they loved their families, flinching when their husbands got too passionate about football or politics. I did not yet know how little sex is tied to fidelity or safety, how instead it skirts danger and deception. After my rape, sex was a violent loss, a gaping wound, a pulsing reminder of what had happened. The rapes stopped after six months, when I moved away, though his threats came via phone call, text, email. He would come, he said. He would hunt me down.
      It is difficult for me to imagine motherhood apart from sexual trauma because the tearing, the red wound, seems an echo. I would like to ask my dear friend, who just had her first child, if she feels the same pain when her child weighs heavy on her heart, suckles hungry without regard for her consent. She, too, was a hesitant mother, but her husband so wanted a child.
      I would like to ask her if being pressured to carry a child felt like an abuse of consent, if her changing body felt like punishment—which she sometimes said early in the pregnancy, her fear written on her face and the way she described throwing the pregnancy test at her husband and muttering, “Look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined my life.” I want to ask if the hospital, her legs spread without her consent, the thrashing, heaving, gasping, so much blood, begging for it to stop, the sure inevitability of what was to come and the way it would rewrite her, felt the same.
      I do not think I can ask this. I have felt the shift since she became a mother—one where I’m afraid to ask if she is unhappy because I fear she might be and I do not want to injure her further, or I fear she is not and I would insult her with the suggestion. Regardless, because so many friends have had children while I linger in indecision, I fear my perspective is seen as limited, biased, unimportant. The mothers around me are lonely heroes, navigating personal and professional spaces while dodging the endless scrutiny lobbied at mothers—I will not add to this.
      I also do not think I can ask this because, like mine, we do not speak of her rapes. She was assaulted by a stranger a few weeks after we arrived at college, and after a few years, raped by the man she was dating, the one who raped me weeks later. I waited nearly five years before I told her what he’d done, my shame a kind of protection for me, for her. She waited another five before telling me he’d done the same to her.
      I remember when she told me about the new boy she’d slept with on a university trip. Both engineering students, he pulled her aside one night, snuck back to the jobsite, pulled down her pants and bent her over until she was staring out the empty window frame. He was cruel and condescending, she’d said earlier, exasperated she’d been assigned to work with him on a project, for he corrected her constantly, did not do his fair share though he claimed the role as project lead. He fucked her in an empty building’s blown out skeleton.
      “I don’t really know how I feel about it,” she’d said and poured herself a drink. I had not yet learned how men can hurt women, how women can silence that shame, so I saw her as sexual and powerful and free in a way I could never imagine for myself. She did not stop drinking the rest of the semester.
      She is glad to have a son, she says now of her infant boy, and while she never elaborates, we both know what this means.
      But we also don’t acknowledge that this means her son might be the one who is feared. She conceives during the #MeToo movement, as women are sharing how common our stories are. She finishes her first trimester during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, watching the television while holding her breath like so many other women in the nation, because she knows that Kavanaugh is linked to the legislation of motherhood in ways we don’t even know yet. And though the baby should not yet be moving, at least this is what the doctors tell her, she can feel him shifting inside.
      Aching and nauseated, she rushes from the engineering jobsite. She manages to puke in the outhouse, overhearing the men she oversees conduct their own debates about “college behavior” and “witch hunts” and the damage women’s accusations—even if they are true—can do to a husband and father.
      Our rapist is a husband and a father now. The hands he used to cover my mouth so I wouldn’t scream now hold his infant girl. The palms he used to leave red prints across my ass, my thighs, my cheek, red and stinging, capillaries exploding electric, soothe her to sleep. The voice that used to whisper “tell anyone and it’s goodbye” now lullaby.
      When he changes his daughter’s diaper, I wonder if he remembers that after our encounters, I shit blood.

      As a child, I used to bring food from my play kitchen to the men in my family. I did not know a single man who prepared food for his family. Some relatives even insisted the men eat first, then the children. The women ate last if there was food left, scraping bits into their mouths before beginning the cleaning.
      My mother hates to cook. After twelve-hour workdays looking after day care children, it is hard to muster the strength to stand over the stove, harder still when her eight children are dissatisfied—one doesn’t eat peanut butter, one doesn’t eat sour cream, one doesn’t eat cheese, one doesn’t eat corn, two don’t eat meat, and so on. She has learned to cook and then retreat to the other room to avoid the complaints. She learned this from her mother, who cooked each night for her alcoholic husband, hoping it would be enough to satisfy him into whiskey sleep, and her mother-in-law, who watched her husband crack open bones, suck at the sweet marrow, demanded meat so rare he could sop up the blood with bread, then shouted at her with a red- stained smile.
      I am happy then, that the four sisters in my family demand to eat first. We know the four boys will take their portions and ours, will not ask us what we hunger for, what would satisfy. We see our brothers’ cruelty towards women and girls, the way they make rape jokes before
      calling our mother a bitch, a word they learned from my father, who said the same of his female boss, Hillary Clinton. Their cruelty reminds us of the violence we have seen, regardless of our birth or adoptive families, the many years between us. All four of the sisters in my family have been raped.
      My adopted siblings have seen women forced into sex work to feed their families, beaten over a bag of weed, a line of blow. They have seen their mothers shield children with their bodies. The twins’ mother, the story says, was raped in the hospital by their birth father just after she delivered. This is all we know of him; other than this, he is a ghost.
      So we take ours first; it is our right, after all, for ruling the kitchen.
      As a young girl, I was already training to be a mother, bringing cookies and cakes to the men I did not realize made my grandmothers afraid. I heaped plastic treats upon plastic platters to satisfy their wild appetites. When I brought plastic peas or carrots, they tossed them aside, asking, “Don’t you have something better for grandpa?” And while they were kind to me, snuck me butterscotch candies and birthday checks in return for my compliance, I now know they only did this because I behaved.
      The women in my family clustered in the kitchen, hot, sweaty, sometimes bruised. They shuffled heavy from the stove to the table with bowls of mashed potatoes and plates of fried chicken, glistening and dripping from the bleached bone beneath. They spoke to each other in whispers and euphemisms I tried to make sense of as I stirred the Jell-O and Cool Whip salad, bright and pastel, sweet, I thought, in childhood, now far too saccharine.
      I spooned salad onto the men’s plates, watched their wives wipe the shining chicken grease shining on their loud mouths. I did not know these men hit these women, knocked them to floors, spit on them. My mother and I shroud her childhood in silence. In this way, we try and protect each other. “I’ve made peace with it,” she says, but it seems like chaos rather than calm, for she adds, “It could have been so much worse.”
      The women were afraid. This was apparent. But they did not let other emotions show. Where, I wonder(ed), was the grief? The rage?
      My uncle raped a woman.
      My uncles had children and disappeared.
      The men in our family molested the children.
      An elderly uncle punched a young woman in a bar, video circulating online.
      An uncle ran over his ex-wife with a car during a custody argument, crushed her body. Another uncle drank like his father, shouted at his mother much the same, shamed her
into sending him money though he traveled across the world and she lived in a mobile home park. When she died, he did the same to my mother, moving into my family home after my mother would not send him more money. One day he simply showed up and would not leave, my mother heartless, he said, while he ate the dinner she prepared, took swigs from his wine bottle.
      My male cousin used to straddle me, hold me down to tickle me despite my protests. He was a number of years older, often put in charge of my care, taking me into his room and locking the door, pushing me down, sitting on my face, his acid-washed thighs sexual, scary, as he began. The adults outside heard me laugh and laugh. Sometimes it was fast and fierce, his fingertips boring into my skin so I thought I might bruise, other times slow, like a perverse caress. I do not remember if he ever tickled my breasts, between my legs, but I remember the fear of being alone with him, can feel, still, his hand on my body like a dirty secret.
      I’ve seen the men who raised me disrespect their wives, shush them into compliance, correct them into silence, call women bitches and sluts and whores enough to know they would say the same of me if I were not the dutiful daughter. If I were not a good girl who—even in my thirties, a doctor—brings them snacks and drinks, directs the conversation towards fishing or golf or their work rather than my own. I learned this from my many mothers.
      In my childhood memories, the men I love are in the living room, the women in the kitchen with the smell of fragrant things like apple pie and banana bread. But the memory grows sick because I know underneath their aprons and smiles, the women are bruised, soft purple pulp.
      This, too, sharp in my memory: my grandfathers sucking the flesh off of cherries, spitting the useless pits on the ground.
      That’s what they thought of us.

      One of my sister Natalie’s dolls had a hole from her mouth to the backpack she carried. You could push food through her lips, watch her rubber cheeks move as though to chew, and hear the clunk of the plastic in the backpack, a reminder that while girls could wet themselves—like we did when we had bad dreams, or our mothers did when they laughed, or scared dogs—they did not go number two, which was reserved for dads and brothers who chose to go right as we were leaving the house, took coffee and newspapers and made a social event of our waiting.
      I loved watching this doll, her greedy mouth, the way she ate eagerly, unlike the women I knew who deprived themselves because they were dieting or morning sick or afraid to sit at the table with the men. She was not still. Her mouth moved as if to speak, insatiable.
      Over and over I fed this doll. She ate the peas that I gave her and never asked for anything better. I was a good mother for feeding her. She was a good daughter for taking what she got.
      She had a pink cookie and a green stick of celery, but my favorite was the banana, which she pulled right from the peel. She ate it eagerly. It never bruised.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She is an assistant professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery