“Breaking the Surface” by Jeannette Brown

She has always been the Good Girl, but here she is, breaking all the rules. She wonders why she hasn’t done it before. And why she is doing it now.

She has recently received her punishment, so now she can commit crimes.

The first rule she is breaking is “Don’t go swimming until two months after the baby comes or when you quit bleeding, whichever comes first.” Or maybe second, she’s a little fuzzy on the details of her research. After reading seven or 20 websites filled with conflicting advice, the results all ran together.

She has not quit bleeding, so she’s wearing a tampon and it hasn’t yet been six weeks. Another rule broken.

It has only been three and a half weeks, yet here she is, in the humid, muggy, perhaps haunted basement of the YWCA, about to swim. Breaking another rule: No Swimming Without a Lifeguard. She’s becoming a regular scofflaw.

The air in the basement is damp and dank, fetid. It is ripe for growing fungi and other sordid parasites, but everyone knows the Y washes down the pool and the walkways, the bleachers and probably the walls with chlorine. Nothing can survive chlorine.

She approaches the ladder, turns, and backs down, slowly placing a bare foot solidly on each rung so as not to slip into the deep. She knows better than to dive or jump in. She eases into the familiarity of the water as she assumed she would ease into motherhood.

By wearing her “new mother” underwear—cotton panties and a nursing bra—she’s breaking another rule: Swimsuits Only. Still inhabiting her swollen postpartum body, she did not want to wrestle it into a restrictive, faux-fabric body suit. Her cotton undies float close to her skin. She opens both flaps of the nursing bra, allowing the water to caress her buoyant, lactating, useless breasts.

The fluidity of the water is a loving caress. She lets go of the ladder and pushes off gently, floating on her back. This is probably what being in the womb feels like, surrounded by softness, as soundless, gentle waves bring slow body bounces. The slightest ripples carry the water away before it returns. She imagines a baby curled fetally, smiling with the pleasure of merely being, floating in silence except for the occasional orchestral music or the murmur of parental voices cajoling, cooing for it to come out and join the two who have chosen its name so carefully, so specifically for this particular baby.

Water movement reflects light off the blue walls and dapples the ceiling, giving the effect of surround movement, being in a bubble. A womb bubble.

But as of three weeks ago, she has not spoken the name, will never speak it again. There is no baby. No baby that screamed in anger at being taken from its mother’s warm body bath and jettisoned into the cold antiseptic, fluorescent-lit birth station to the latex-gloved hands of the doctor.

No, she only birthed the silent baby, blue not because of the fluorescent lights but because it had been dead for over 24 hours. The doctors could not explain why or what. Just because. Maybe it couldn’t catch its breath. Maybe it needed gills. Maybe it didn’t want to be a baby.

Maybe she should be swimming in the ocean. Salt water is buoyant. Salt water heals wounds. But it only heals the kind of wounds that bleed, not the real ones. On the other hand, blood draws sharks, so maybe the ocean is a bad idea.

Floating in the warm water of the pool, she imagines being the baby, imagines that it lives and comes into the world screaming and kicking like all real babies do, so she imagines that she hears the baby screaming. She’s floating in the tepid, body-temperature water, her chin resting on the surface so that the motion of her dog-paddling hands sends tiny waves of water across her lips and into her nose when she inhales.

But after she lets the dream baby float away into the air, it continues to cry. Perhaps she’s losing her mind. According to her internet research, women like her often end up in the psych ward. They just cannot accept a stillborn baby. They lose their shit. She imagines seeking refuge away from her well-meaning friends and relatives. Even from her husband who thinks he is being so supportive but only reminds her of her failure. Her punishment for who-knows-what crime.

But still the baby cries. It wails, screams, demands to be comforted. Slowly, she realizes that the screams come not from within her mind but from the south side of the pool area, the bleachers where in all her years of water aerobics class, she has never seen an audience except for the young, inattentive lifeguard studying her homework, certain that no one in the class would distract her by drowning.

The woman gains the ladder and crawls from the water, wondering if she is hallucinating, destined for the psych ward with all the other crazy mothers and almost mothers. She finds her towel and wipes her eyes, pats her arms, and dries her hair a bit just in case the hallucination would like the opportunity to disappear. But no, when she looks toward the bleachers, she sees a plastic carrier. And a pink blanket. And the round squinting face of a baby so furious it has lost its voice.

Instinctively, she reaches for the baby, lifts it out of the carrier and cuddles it, crooning “ Sweet baby, you’ll be fine, sweet baby.” She holds it close enough to inhale its sweet scent of sour milk and burp and poo, its baby newness. The baby smiles at her with unfocused eyes.

She returns the baby to the carrier in case its mother finds her and assumes the wrong thing. Any real Mother would. Any Mother who had delivered a real live baby. She backs away, looking around, wondering when and how the Mother came and went without being noticed. She looks at the floor, searching for footprints to find a direction for the Mother, but all is wet.

She drapes her towel around her body so the Mother won’t be alarmed when she comes upon a woman standing in wet panties and unflapped bra instead of a swimsuit.

Now she’s confused because the baby is crying again and she wants to hold it but that would be awkward when the real Mother comes back, so she squats beside the baby and pats its stomach, cooing, “Sweet baby, don’t cry. Mommy’s on her way.” The baby quiets. She pats and coos for a while longer.

Where is the real Mother? Who would leave their baby alone for so long? The woman pats the baby one last time and goes to search the dressing rooms and showers. She is alone. She’s even checked the tiny men’s dressing room that she’s never seen anyone use. She’s begun to bleed past her tampon, so she lowers herself to the edge of the pool and slips back in. The red stain floats away from her like an aura, and then dissolves.

She can’t be totally psycho because she does understand that the baby doesn’t belong in the basement of a YWCA. But yes. It does. She’s seen the signs outside and in the lobby a hundred times without really seeing them: “Safe Place.” A safe place to drop off a baby that you can’t take care of, that is inconvenient, that isn’t what you thought a baby would be like.

She weighs her loss against this Mother’s gain. For this baby has a Mother and she did gain a child. But now she, too has lost her child. But why the basement, the dank pool basement? Why not leave the baby in the lobby?

Maybe the Mother was afraid of being seen, being traced. Or maybe she, too, knows the pool is the closest thing to the womb.

Here is a baby. A free baby that looks to be about a month old. Just like her baby would be if her baby had continued to be a baby instead of drifting off into the next world, nameless.

A Mother-less baby. A baby-less mother. The equation is impossibly perfect. She wonders whether the baby has a name, or whether the Mother thought that naming the baby would weigh too heavily on them both. Actually, “Baby” isn’t a bad name for the first few months, until you get a feel for the personality. At least that’s what she’s heard.

She understands the rules. If you find a baby, you turn said baby over to the authorities. She knows what a Good Girl would do. But the rules do not apply in this instance. This baby is out of bounds. This baby is beyond the laws of nature or decorum.

This Good Girl has choices.

Jeannette Brown writes poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Southwestern American Literature, New Millennium Writings, Texas Observer, ArtSpace, Mother Earth, Breathing the Same Air–An East Tennessee Anthology, Suddenly IV, Knoxville Bound, and other publications. She is the co-editor of Literary Lunch, a food anthology. She has enjoyed residencies at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.