In the early morning, my daughter’s diaper is always as heavy as a bag of Halloween candy. I change her first, the stench of urine emanating from the diaper’s inner layer, where it’s been locked in for the past six hours. 2008, this is only the beginning of the world’s financial crisis. I know it isn’t a matter of whether I will lose my job, but when.

Tom sleeps like a boar on his stomach, his belly smashed against the sheets, still full from the bucatini and lamb ragu he made last night, the bottle of Barolo we shared. He is a kind partner, a rarity for a man even today, working full-time at an environmental justice center, taking on all of the household responsibility, the cooking and grocery shopping, maintaining our never-ending list of baby gear and cleaning supplies, and he is never resentful, always proud that his wife earns almost three times more money than him. But for some reason – whether because he did not give birth to her or because he is a heavy sleeper or secretly, he feels there are some buckets only I should fill, he moves not even an inch when she screams for milk.

I toss the diaper into the garbage pail a few feet from her crib. I never moved it to a more convenient spot because each time I successfully shoot a diaper inside, a little surge of delight bursts through me, like maybe, in an alternate universe, I am athletically inclined.

There is a fundamental hierarchy among associates at law firms: at the top, the ones glamorized, revered; in the middle, the ones like me, mediocre, unremarkable either way; and at the bottom, those with some unfortunate physical or social trait that causes the other groups to dart sidelong looks, thinking – who hired her?

In that middle group, I estimated myself safe for two years – I did my work, whatever was assigned, as well as I could. But I never sought new clients or other ways to promote myself like the stars did. At a certain point, partners notice that.

The first milk I’d pumped in the middle of the night, four hours after the last of the wine, I had dumped in the kitchen sink. There is no way to know if the wine was in it, if it would affect the baby. Now I empty my right breast into her mouth, and then my left, massaging each breast while she sucks, to break up any hardened milk. The nurse had told me to keep track of which breast I give first, so I could start with the other next time, and in turn continue milk production equally on both sides. I sing to myself. Right first, next time left, next time left, so I will not forget. She makes a puckering, slurping noise, she is so hungry, and I remember the first few months of making love with Tom, how long he would suck on my nipples, as if he were my child and there was milk there for him.

She is exactly four months old today, my daughter. She falls asleep attached to my left breast, eyes half open. With my right hand, I close her eyes completely. Then I press my thumb onto her upper lip to remove her mouth from my skin. The moon is big in the black winter sky, lighting up our bedroom. January, it is night at six a.m., and I feel outside of myself, like I am dead, watching another version of me here.

In the kitchen, I pour a shot of vodka into my college mug while the water heats for coffee. Calm trickles down my throat, settling into my belly as I take a swig. For fun, I pretend it is Gangaajal, the holy water my mother used to give me in tiny glass jars to drink and sprinkle over my pillow the night before exams.

‘Vodka does not smell,’ Tom taught me in law school. This was his liquor. Mine: gin.

I pour another shot and wait for the coffee to gurgle its last beastly breath. I pack my bags for work; my oversized purse containing my suit and pantyhose, makeup; my black, insulated lunch bag containing the empty bottles for breast milk, and the black pumping bag, which looks like a free tote from a department store, except it was much more expensive than any other nondescript canvas tote. I put my gym clothes on. The nanny, Chhaya, knocks lightly at the door.

‘Thank you for coming,’ I say in Hindi.

‘Thank you for the job,’ she replies. She expresses this gratitude every morning she comes. Most people would not hire her because she cannot read, and can only speak a few words of English. I should have felt good about myself, that I was giving her work, but I felt guilty for the disparity between my salary and hers, society’s decision that lawyers at corporate law firms should make more than those holding a newborn’s life in their hands.

Her name is a personification of Saranyu, the goddess of shadow, who was married to Surya, the god of the sun. I consider myself agnostic, and yet, I like to believe that saying her name will bring my family luck or protection.

I walk to the gym, my thighs rubbing against each other. My stomach, like flagellum, from the nine months of stretched skin and the forty-odd pounds of weight gained, jiggles with its own separate life. Pistachio ice cream and salt-and-vinegar potato chips were the only foods the baby allowed me to eat during pregnancy, and I scarfed down both to a point of intentional negligence. It seems as though the excess fat has sealed itself permanently inside my skin. I regret my food choices now that my body is larger than it’s ever been before.

The only people on the street are the homeless man rummaging through garbage bags outside of my apartment building, and other women armed in puffy goose-down coats over spandex leggings, sports bras and tank tops, determined like me, to become thin or stay that way. The sidewalk reeks of thrown-up beer and urine, and I inhale the stench of it: the awful smell reminds me I am alive. I imagine I am a soldier in the dark with this man and my troupe of women, heading to battle at an hour early enough that the street lamps still glow fluorescent light.

I am embarrassed by how much I relish the luxury of my gym: the fancy shampoo, conditioner, soap, the too-expensive brand displayed on the bottles in cursive script, the large eucalyptus-scented towels – the complete opposite of the gym I used when I was single, in law school. At that gym, the towels had been worn, holey, the size of dish rags, large enough to wrap around either my breasts, or my privates down there, a choice I had to make after each work-out, depending on who else was in the locker room, and how their body parts fared in comparison to mine.

I pedal through spin class: panting, groaning, sweating, my groin area the sweatiest of all. My quads and hamstrings burn from the months of inactivity. When I step off the bike, my right leg trembles from fatigue. In the shower, I weep without making a single noise. I dry off and look at myself in the mirror. Buffalo, I think, as I stretch brown stockings over my legs, jumping slightly to raise the fabric over my thighs and butt.

I head to the subway, wearing a midnight-blue skirt suit underneath my coat. Close my eyes at the screeching of the subway car against the tracks, like my eyes hear, and I pray for the weight I gained over the nine months to leave me, or at least, to feel human again.

I wait and wait for lunch, reading contracts, watching words blur on the page. I am going on a recruiting lunch today with a partner. The candidate we are courting graduated from my law school. He is Korean. I rub the silver Ganesh coin my mother gave me, trying to wake up. She mailed it to me the day I passed the bar exam. She killed herself shortly after that. It stays here at work, on my desk, even after I leave. I think that would make her happy. My father did not allow her to work.

Mid-morning, I lock my office door and pump breast milk into two bottles. Five ounces. I transfer the contents of the right bottle into the left, and twist a cap onto the bottle. I store it in my lunch bag, and bring it to the office kitchen. I dump the milk in the sink. I am not sure if the vodka swigs from the morning are in it, but I don’t want to take that chance.

I walk back to my desk and eat a yogurt, a banana and a honey granola bar. I read a contract in ten-point font, pacing back and forth. Concentrate. I close and lock the door. I set up the pump, covering my nipples with the suction cups, holding them in place because even though the company advertised that they’ll stick to your breasts without support, they fall if I let go, and then the milk spills all over my desk. I stare at the calendar from the temple in Queens, goddess Parvati, the Hindu goddess of power, sitting on top of January, as milk spurts from me, through the tubes, into the bottles. After fifteen minutes, I remove the cups from my body.

I cannot help but remember the hospital, after I had just given birth, the nurse advising me – ‘fifteen minutes is the appropriate amount of time to pump’, how she paused after that, and then jovially added, ‘well, you don’t need to kill yourself!’

Three ounces – my milk hasn’t refilled fully. I transfer the contents of the right bottle into the left. I put it in my lunch bag, and bring it to the fridge in the office kitchen, putting the bag next to someone’s fat-free strawberry yogurt, dairy with dairy. I imagine my face on a cow.

12.51 p.m. the partner knocks on my door even though it is open. His suit is the same shade of black-blue as mine, and I wonder if we have some psychic ability to read each other’s minds. ‘Are you ready?’ he asks.

‘I am,’ I say, aware that I don’t have the privilege of using abbreviations and contractions, let alone slang like yup or sure or yeah. All conversations are a test – whether I’ve remembered the unspoken rule minorities are magically supposed to know: even if a partner uses relaxed language with me, I must still reply with formality. A woman of color rising up the ranks.

‘Swell,’ he says.

I feel, as I rise from my chair, aroused, as if we are going dancing. In a way, it is sort of like a date. We’re both on our most proper behavior, pretending there are no problems in our lives. Me: Hi, I’m depressed. Partner: Cool, I work fourteen hours a day, and I have no life.

We sit at a square table, me in-between the partner and the candidate. ‘How does your firm manage diversity?’ the candidate asks. Partner looks to me to respond. Of course, that’s why brown-girl-moi is here. I see my face through the partner’s blue eyes. My brown eyes, almost black. My flat, wide, brown nose. My thick, black curly hair. My wildness as other.

Tom had said my color was sexy, when we first began dating. ‘Like a coconut.’ I’d laughed at his offensive analogy. Coconuts are rough, scratchy. I wonder what fruit the partner would compare me to. A kiwi? An Asian pear? A rotting banana?

The candidate is Asian. Banana. Cantaloupe. Lemon. I feel ashamed by lemon because it is a bitter fruit and it is not right to judge.

The waiter asks what we would like to drink. Candidate orders a Diet Coke; partner, a scotch; I order a gin and tonic. ‘You need to relax,’ I say to candidate. ‘We want to get to know you. We spend a lot of time together at work, on time-sensitive projects. It is important to maintain a friendship so that we can manage under large amounts of stress.’ Partner nods emphatically, and the candidate looks deep into my eyes as if to say, When you are a minority, you have no friends in the corporate world. We both know this.

Candidate’s black eyes crinkle like my daughter’s. He changes his drink to scotch. Partner gestures with his large hands, so clean they look dry, for me to speak. ‘If you hadn’t been a lawyer, what would you have done with your life?’ I ask.

Candidate straightens with the seriousness of a man who is not in a position of power, but knows his only shot at winning requires him to pretend he is. ‘Oh, there was never any doubt. I always wanted to be a lawyer.’

The placation of his response annoys me. ‘Always? Even when you were three?’

‘As a matter of fact . . .’

I stop listening then, and sip the drink the kind waiter has plopped in front of me. Pleasant smile affixed to my round, coconut face. Partner orders us all another round. I catch myself staring at the candidate’s eyes, the thinness of his white-pink eyelid skin, his cheeks stereotypically reddening, puffing. He is drunk at the start of the second scotch.

I think of my daughter’s moon-shaped eyes and hope she is dreaming a nice dream.

The partner orders a third round, and talks about corporate responsibility. Candidate nods, his hands clasped on the table. My belly is full of liquor, bread, sub-par pasta. The vegetarian options are shameful at midtown steakhouses.

‘Oh, are you vegetarian?’ the partners ask, every time, right after we’ve sat down, as the menus are being placed in our hands.

‘How thoughtful of you to remember,’ I remark on occasion, which if they register, they choose either to ignore or to respond with: ‘Oh, phew,’ scanning the menu. ‘They have pasta.’

I remember one time the waiter brought me a plate of ‘ethnic rice’ and steamed lima beans. The rice was sticky and white as chalk, and I’d suspected someone had run across the street to a Chinese restaurant for it.

We stand up, and partner shakes candidate’s hand. I copy. As we walk out, the candidate trips over the carpet by the bar, and stumbles four feet forward, catching himself just before the fall, as if an imaginary force had been hiding beneath his chest, to lift him back up.

I step into my office and close the door behind me. I guess I’m not getting fired today.

I am dizzy from not only the liquor, but also from the lack of protein in my ‘oh, good they have vegetarian food for you’ lunch. I remove my blazer, sit at my desk, crying wet, hot tears for ten minutes – zero noise. I’m proud of that. You don’t need to kill yourself.

I dry my face with a tissue from the box behind the computer. How is my nose runny and stuffed at the same time? I open the door and remove the cap of my red pen, review a contract. My breasts fill and harden, the sensation an instant shock to my system, like a timer pinging when a cake is done, Ping! Ping! Ping! I look down and see two damp circles around the nipple areas of my blouse.

I close the door again, and lock it this time. I pump. Shoo-wish, shoo-wish, shoo-wish. Tom calls. ‘Is someone vacuuming?’

‘I’m pumping.’

‘Oh, good. How are you doing, honey?’ His voice is upbeat and I try to replicate.

‘Pretty good,’ I say.

He tells me he’ll be home early to make dinner. I should be thankful, but I am not. I feel like I’ve fallen into a freshly dug grave. After we hang up, the crying resumes like a hurrah of rain after a brief pause in an afternoon sky. The tears splash on the desk next to drips of breast milk that leaked when I adjusted the suction cups to answer the phone. I am depressed despite my awareness of how lucky I am, to be a lawyer, to have an office on the forty-second floor, to be married to a man who works and cooks and loves me, to have a daughter, a tiny little piece-of-the-moon daughter who came from inside of me.

Ten ounces, a little extra spilling onto my desk it is so much. My body likes gin and fettuccini. I cannot ignore that the milk is unsafe. I drank too much. It is too much to transfer to one bottle, so I cap the two bottles and hide them in my drawer because even though New York state law requires the firm to let me pump, it seems too soon after my fancy lunch to trot to the fridge.

At five o’clock, I go to the kitchen. I take out the breast milk I stored already, and examine the thickness of the milk sticking to the sides of the bottle. For some reason, the richness of my secretion makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something. I pour my alcohol milks in the sink.

By seven, I’ve finished reviewing three contracts, and billed enough hours for the day. In the subway, my man – to be fair, the homeless man is not mine, and I must acknowledge that it is only I who sees an affinity in this imaginary bond, and yes, I recognize that he thinks nothing of me, that I am fortunate even in my ability to eat and live and fantasize in protection – the homeless man who I see often in the morning, steps into my train car. His fingernails are long and shriveled like my grandfather’s when he was alive. He smiles, singing,

‘Oh when the saints, clap clap clap, Oh when the saints, clap clap clap, Oh when the saints go marching in . . .’

I give him a dollar, waiting to see if he will look at me and register my face. He looks, and he does not. The woman across from me gives him a dollar. The doors open and close at Hell’s Kitchen. ‘Welcome to New York City, where the girls are pretty and they all have jobs!’ he says. He makes the closing door noise. Everyone in the car laughs. More people give him money, and he resumes, ‘Oh when the saints . . .’

I survey the train car: attractive women with jobs. He is smart.

I come home to the smell of roasting garlic, Tom sitting on the couch, the baby crying in his lap. Opera blares from the stereo. ‘Where is Chhaya?’

‘I sent her home,’ he says. ‘I can take care of the baby.’

‘Did she say if the baby pooped today?’

‘I didn’t ask.’

I walk to the kitchen, pouring myself a glass of wine, gulp it in one big swig. I wipe the outline of my lower lip from the glass, and refill the glass for Tom. ‘Thank you, baby,’ he says, taking the glass.

He sets the baby down to play on her mat. It is blue, orange, green and black, and has drawings of sea animals on it: octopuses, dolphins, turtles, sharks and fish. She stops crying immediately, smiles and kicks her legs. I walk back to the kitchen to call Chhaya. ‘Did she poop today?’

‘Han ji, kitna bada!’ Yes, how big it was, Chhaya says in Hindi. I can’t help but feel jealous as I hang up: her ability to spend all day with my daughter in her lap, to know if she pooped and how much she drank, to close her eyes for her each time she falls sleep, while I sit in a cube of an office with a hollow door and dim off-colored walls, like they’ve been pressed with old newspapers.

I sit down on the parquet floor, remarking, ‘Don’t you find it funny how I feel so relieved knowing the baby pooped, and you feel nothing at all?’

The baby starts crying again, as if offended by my jab at her father. I remove my shirt and throw it towards the bedroom, unfastening my bra. I pick her up and feed her my left breast, humming to the aria reverberating from the stereo. Tra voi saprò dividere il tempo mio giocondo; Tutto è follia nel mondo ciò che non è piacer.

I saw this opera in Milan with Tom on our honeymoon. I’d worn a gold dress, and he, a black tuxedo. It was the beginning of September, and there was still a strong sun, hot and sticky when we entered the opera house. When the opera finished, we were released to a dark navy sky and a wind had picked up. Tom rubbed the goosebumps on my arms, and they were toned, so toned, my arms. With you I can spend the time in delight; in life, everything is folly which does not bring pleasure. I had translated this aria after we returned to New York, and wondered if it meant that everything is folly and it does not bring pleasure or everything is folly if it doesn’t bring pleasure. I’d decided, in my honeymoon phase, that it must mean the latter.

Now the baby has fallen asleep on the mat, eyes half-open. I close them with my fingers. They stay closed for a few seconds, and flutter to half-mast again. I realize that I fed her right after drinking, and that some of the gin from lunch may have also gotten in. Too little for damage, I repeat to myself, over and over again until it becomes like a rap.

Three-ish, the next morning, the baby is crying for milk. I step on the scale. ‘Just a minute, baby,’ I say. I’ve lost one pound. One pound. I feel like a whale carried by current’s force to sand, beginning to die. And I know the alcohol is doing me in. My supply is decreasing, too, as if my body knows I am throwing away its hard work.

I warm a bottle from the fridge, listening to the baby crying in her crib. Tom is still snoring away, oblivious to the shrill. I pick her up and rock her against my chest. She quiets, squirming towards my breasts, thinking I am going to breastfeed her, sure, but I can’t . . . the wine. I lay her on the side of Tom, and rub his palm with the bottle. ‘Feed her?’

He would never say no, why do I hesitate? I go to my alcove and pump, I decide not to count the ounces, why bother making myself feel worse about the amount of milk I am throwing away?

The sun is rising, and I pull my spandex up over my calves and thighs, girdle my belly, wriggle the sports bra, one size too small, over my shoulders and back. I pack a black pant suit, makeup, heels, and then get back into bed, next to the baby, who is now snoring on top of Tom, who is also snoring. I wait for Chhaya to arrive.

At the gym, I spin. Sweat dripping from my hair, my face, seeping through my T-shirt, I imagine I am biking to heaven. I am light, empty, spinning up through the clouds, lithe, weightless. I pray I’ll get there soon. And get to eat nachos and ice cream, and pizza, beer, cheese fries – without gaining a single pound. Is that what heaven is? Could I hold my baby, and watch a movie while I eat the food? Could someone else clean up the mess?

After, I lie naked in the steam room, the steam covering me like a soft sheet. I close my eyes and try to fall asleep. My breasts harden, the milk shocks through me. Ping! Ping! Ping! I shower, milk spurting out of my breasts as I bend to lather my legs. I go into a bathroom stall and set up my portable pump, eight ounces. From where? How? My breasts like to spin.

After I store everything in my bags, I dress in the black pantsuit, the waist a wide elastic band, from the maternity store. Four months postpartum, I’m still wearing maternity clothes. Pathetic loser gigantic woman buffalo cow alcoholic mother.

My supervising partner knocks on my door. ‘I am going to be away next week. Do you mind if we do your evaluation early?’

‘Not at all,’ I say. I am getting fired today. I am sure of this.

I smooth my pants with the backs of my hands. I wait for the next hour, cleaning my desk, the drawers, throwing away handbooks and instructions on how to get tax-free metro cards, health care, a retirement plan. I email myself as much of my work product as I can, so I’ll have writing samples for job interviews.

At 10.55 a.m. I walk to the conference room. The partner from yesterday’s lunch is there, sitting next to my supervising partner. I sit down, and supervising partner slides my evaluation across the table. ‘Needs improvement.’

‘Typically, we let associates go after the second “Needs improvement”,’ lunch partner says. ‘This is your second one, as you know.’

‘I understand,’ I say.

‘We recognize, though, that some succeed with additional mentorship. Here,’ he continues, pointing to the middle of the first page of the evaluation. ‘Client interaction. None of the clients you’re handling know who you are.’

I am not sure what else I am supposed to say. He is not wrong.

I feel a wetness begin underneath my jacket. I reach inside to feel my breasts as nonchalantly as I can. How did I forget to pump? Unbelievable. They are both hard, full of milk, seeping through my bra, onto my blouse. I forgot to wear breast pads, too.

The partners sit, waiting for me to say something meaningful. Supervising partner’s eyes dart to my blouse. Has he seen the darkened spots? He darts his eyes to lunch partner, who is oblivious to the two damp circles, because he is looking down at my evaluation.

‘Is there something you’d like to explain?’ supervising partner finally asks.

‘I came back from maternity leave two months ago, eight weeks after having my baby. I haven’t slept longer than three hours straight in six months, if you count how uncomfortable I was the last two months of pregnancy. And before that, I was gigantically pregnant, and before that I had miscarried.’ Perhaps, adding that I’d miscarried took it too far, professionally speaking, but still – I am amazed at the authority, where it came from, as if a fairy had been whispering in my ear what to say. Star. You can’t be a rising star if you’re mute.

‘We’re not trying to fire you,’ supervising partner says. ‘If you want to resign, we respect your decision, but we are meeting you now because we want to discuss how to make you a more valuable asset to the firm.’

‘No one’s resigning,’ lunch partner says. ‘We could consider an unpaid medical leave. Do you need time off?’

My mouth opens before my mind even thinks. ‘Yes. I do need time off. I have not felt comfortable to ask for this, but yes. Thank you. I cannot thank you enough.’

Manila folders close. Lunch partner walks me back to my office, and at the door, he hands me a card for his therapist. ‘Don’t worry, there will be a place here for you when you’re ready to come back. Don’t take too long, though.’

In truth, I do not know what I need, whether time off will solve anything at all. Regardless, I am relieved that I am not being fired, that I have a chance to try to drink less, and properly care for my daughter.

I close the door. Lock. Weep. Pump.

Don’t take too long, though.

You don’t need to kill yourself.

Twelve ounces. I cap the two bottles and put them in the lunch bag.

In the subway, a woman gives me her seat because somehow she’s understood I need it. I sit and marvel at the power of the partners, knowing they could have fired me. I wonder how they feel, if their chests are welling with pride at their might, at their decision to empathize with a severely depressed woman of color instead of giving her the axe. Either way, I’m thankful.

Chhaya is sitting on the floor, giving the baby tummy time. She gets up to leave when I come to her. ‘Can you stay?’ I ask.

‘Han ji.’ Yes, she says.

I put the breast milk in the fridge and lie down on the bed. I pretend I am dead, underneath the earth with a bag of Cheetos. When I wake up it is dark, early night, and Tom’s hand is on my shoulder. ‘Are you okay?’

Chhaya is humming a bhajan to the baby.

‘I think so,’ I say.

I pay her to leave, and bring the baby back to the bed, where Tom is now lying down. Her diaper is full, I see from the long blue line indicator and I change her. The soiled diaper chimes nicely into the can. ‘I love you, baby, Mommy loves you so much,’ I say.

‘Do you love me?’ Tom asks, poking my arm.

I cry, my eyes filling, tears flowing outward, dripping down my face, onto the baby’s onesie.

‘Of course,’ I say. ‘I love you.’ Though I am too tired and burdened by the sadness and discomfort that has taken over my body to evoke any sincere emotion in the words. He wipes my wet cheeks, and it is a sense of joy that washes over me, that he does not catch the tone of my voice, or if he does, then still, he is not sick of me, still, he loves me.

My daughter begins to cry, as if she is trying to copy me, and I pick her up and hug her to my chest. I remove my shirt and lay down next to Tom. She latches, sucking noisily, greedily, until she is full, and her eyes half close. I close them with my fingers, and lay, closing my eyes, too, basking in her breath, her beating heart rolling onto mine.

 

Image © Mark Chadwick

Hungerwinter and Liberation
If You Start Breathing