The Penultimate Scene

My second year of grad school I gave birth to our first baby the second week. I had a teaching fellowship which was the only reason we had health insurance and I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) take a leave. My boss had agreed to let me work in the writing center that semester, instead of teach a class, and all my professors had been advised that I might miss a class. 

We ended up with a pretty tricky labor and a c-section and my husband drove me up to school the first few days. Our now almost nine year old loves to hear the stories of her nursing and her chirping in various seminars and workshops those first weeks. 

It was, of course, exhausting. We lived far from campus and the commute was long and I often missed my stop because I fell asleep. I was pumping every chance I got, between classes, between writing center sessions. On one particularly complicated day, I was reassigned to run my consulting sessions from the library where I did not have a pump room (there were two designated pump rooms on the whole campus and I mostly used generous bosses’ and professors’ offices). I had five minutes between students and was sprinting from librarian to librarian with my pump slung over my shoulder, leaking through two layers of breast pads, trying to explain I needed a clean quiet place. A lovely art historian, also a mother, offered me her cubicle only to have an undergrad lean over the particle wall once the sound of the pump started and have him blanch and run away. 

I did a whole semester mostly without thinking. My husband was still traveling for work. I got mastitis and infections; like most every other newly minted mother, I hardly ever got to sleep. It felt magic, also. I forget this part sometimes. But I read TS Eliot out loud at 2 and 3 and 4 am while nursing. I read our few-week-old Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, not because I’m so precious as to think I should be reading, instead of watching Bravo, with our baby, but because I was assigned these books and if I didn’t read them out loud I’d fall asleep. I talked through the papers and the novel I was writing with her. She was a lump. But, really, mostly, I talked to her non-stop because I had no one else to talk to then. I had friends, but not yet the sort that one could ask to come sit with you while you nursed in the middle of the day. Some of the friends that I have now are the people who came sometimes and did that anyway. 

Anyway. We had our baby in September. The semester ended four months after that. The last night of the semester--I stayed late to work at the writing center one night a week; it was winter in New York so it was dark--my friend had drawn me the most perfect card. I opened it and I started sobbing and I did not stop the whole way home. 

That whole semester, I’d not thought much about how tired I was or how lonely. I’d not thought about the chafing from the breast pump, or the way sometimes I felt like I’d fall over on the subway, the way sometimes, when meeting with a student, helping with a paper on music theory or philosophy, I’d briefly fall asleep. But that day--my friend had drawn a breast, with milk arcing from it, gushing, a lovely note below the arc--I broke a little bit. 

I think, I said to her, I’m just breaking now because I can. We had six weeks off before the beginning of the new semester. We were driving down to Florida where I’d have help. I’d have only to take care of the baby. I’d have my mother in law, cooking for us, weather warm enough that I could strap the baby in the running stroller and go running and be quiet and not think in the middle of the day. 

This whole story sounds silly, reading through it. Just another mother. Just another story that I tell in which nursing features prominently. The world right now feels exponentially more tiring. But the way I’m breaking now, reminds me of that night. 

My husband and I are both vaccinated. We’re relocated again, to Portland, Maine this time, which is vertiginous and strange—it’s very cold—but also, for the first time in months, he is employed. I’m on my own with the kids and remote school again but I have signed them up for so much summer camp my hope is they will come home everyday so tired they can’t speak. 

When I talk to students about endings I often talk to them about how little an ending’s success or failure has to do with the actual last scene. Endings are contingent on beginnings, and on middles; often, with my favorite endings, they’re heavily contingent on the penultimate scene. My favorite ever penultimate scene is Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”: before the joyful ending, and good fucking god who doesn’t crave, right now, a slightly joyful something, there is a moment that undercuts the joy, reminds the reader that it’s transient, just a fleeting instant. It’s the only reason, I would argue, Moore gets away with what she gets away with in that final scene. 

The world feels so profoundly broken I can’t breathe most days and I’ve been crying after I put the kids down each night. I deleted Twitter. I’ve limited my news intake. You know all the reasons that this feels like this. It feels worse than ever, even as we’re getting the first glimpse of relief. Why does the world have so many problems, asked our six year old the other day. 

But this is not about that: it’s about the way the problems hit you at weird moments, how you just put your head down and keep going because what the fuck else are you supposed to do besides put your head down and keep going, until, suddenly, you can’t breathe. It’s about the moment just before the other maybe bigger moment; the moment that you’re close enough to something separate or new or different that you start to look at what the time up until now has been and some part of you breaks. 

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