The Fourth Trimester

Debbie Vance

It was a man who made the discovery. The mothers could’ve put up a fight but didn’t. Whatever is best for the baby, they said, because they believed it, because they knew they should.

My baby is almost three months old, her fourth trimester nearly complete. She smiles and coos and does tiny crunches to pull herself up to sitting. Every day, she needs less of me. The umbilical cord connecting us grows longer.

In the early days, the cord was so short that I couldn’t even pass the girl to the man beside me without a painful tug deep in my belly. She lay on my chest, not nursing, the placenta more of a mother than me. When I had to pee, she came with me. When I had to bathe, she too got wet. Now, the cord is long enough that I can do downward dog in my living room while she sits in her father’s lap at the kitchen table. I can shower while she lies on the other side of the curtain in a bassinet. When my mother-in-law comes to visit, I can turn my back and pretend not to see the way she drapes my cord between her legs, the way she claims my girl as her own.

Sex is still impossible. In addition to the sutures, there’s the pulsing blue-red cord, hot with blood and stem cells, which prevents every imagined intimacy. When I leave the house, I keep the spare length of cord bound with soft ribbon, an accessory that compliments nothing.

There’s no more guessing if the baby is hungry, though. No need to extract a milk-swollen breast in public. No blocked ducts. No cracked nipples. There is also no wine, no beer, no mai tais. Cuban coffee, sugar-dense and dark, is almost entirely off-limits. Sushi, cold cuts, eggs over-easy. The line to the baby is just as direct as when she was in utero; my body is just as much hers.

My friends are planning a cord-cutting ceremony. In six days, when the baby is twelve weeks old, she will chew herself free and I will reach up and in and scrape the placenta from my body and my friends and family will toast us with plastic flutes of champagne and the girl will have her first taste of milk.

My friends are ecstatic. Finally, they say, you can come out with us. They list the places we will go: Barcelona, The Forest Room, Avanti, El Five. Imagine, they say, you’re sitting at a bar, sipping a New Saigon, gin and cucumber and Thai basil and pepper. You’re wearing a black dress, v-cut to show off your newly milk-rich tits, and there’s nothing outside your body that ought to be in. No leash tethering you to whoever has offered to hold your baby, their curious fingers wandering over the cord. Imagine everything you can do without her, they say, nodding toward the girl in my lap, her hands opening and closing around the cord that circulates blood between my body and hers.

I love my baby, I do, but we have been tethered like this for nearly three months, plus the nine before that, and the six days stretching ahead feel like forever.

That night, I soak in the bathtub, the girl in her bassinet beside me, and consider the cord. The water is slick with essential oils, bergamot and myrrh, and my hands slide easily over it. I give it a tug, gentle at first, then harder, but the living organ won’t loose from my body.

There are cuticle scissors—too small—and nail clippers—too brutal—and the heavy-handled cleaver in the kitchen. I would sanitize it, of course. I would prepare the clamp. She wouldn’t feel a thing, and neither would I. So she wouldn’t get to cut her teeth on her own freedom. Babies have suffered worse things.

I wrap myself in a towel. I carry the girl to the kitchen.

But my husband is making vichyssoise, the knife preoccupied with a half dozen potatoes, a handful of leeks, and as generous as he is with the whipping cream, the salt, the thyme, I know he wouldn’t understand.

He wouldn’t blame me, though, if the severance were accidental—if the cord got caught in the car door; if the dog thought it a chew toy—and I collect possible disasters. Garden shears. Bike chain. Disposal. Stove.

The day of the ceremony comes. It is beautiful and bright. We are in our backyard, a long skinny stretch of grass bordered by a fence of pine, the girl and I beneath a red umbrella. Around us, a crowd gathers. They pant in the heat. They cheer.

The girl does her part. She grins, she slobbers, she bares her naked gums. She cuts her teeth on the cord, which dangles from the two of us like twin snakes.

I, too, perform. The internal reach and scrape is not pleasant. It is worse, even, than birth. But no one is thinking of me. There is the father, delighted, carrying his newly independent girl through the crowd, her blood-teeth gleaming, and here is the baby-less mother whose breasts have begun to leak.

Debbie Vance‘s fiction has appeared in Catapult, The Masters Review, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Colorado State University and is at work on a collection of speculative stories.