The weight in my stomach doesn’t scare me. I always thought I would be afraid of giving birth. Most expectant mothers I have known feel impatient in their third trimester. They are eager for the last few weeks to end. As my stomach grows, my hands instinctively learn to smooth over the hard flesh in little rhythmic circles that I feel return to me in waves. In the very beginning, Eddie held my hands and buried his face in the place where they interlocked. I stared at the back of his head and wondered if our life, our future, would always feel this way—the absolute bliss of normalcy; the unstoppable fluidity of love. I kissed the top of his head, the spot where his dark hair spiraled outwards in a thick cowlick, usually hidden by his Marlins baseball cap.
When I first moved down to Florida to be with him, Eddie drove to pick me up from the airport in his truck. I packed the last of my clothes into two mismatched suitcases and a duffel bag. I don’t really remember the flight or getting off the plane, but I do remember the wave of humidity. I remember recoiling and rethinking how to breathe. Everything felt like swimming. It was a wet heat, a layer that felt like I had been licked from head to toe by some giant dog, suddenly, and without my consent. It was relentless. It is still relentless. I often sit beside the spinning blades of the fan for relief. I let the warm breeze lift my hair from my sweat-glazed face. My skin sticking to everything. Everything sticking to my skin. There are no real seasons in Florida. Winter and summer in equal lengths—all long and steamy and exactly the same.
We had met at a work conference. It was a dead-end job for me. I made sales and hated it, but the conference was a chance for a change of scenery. It happened quickly: we exchanged numbers and found excuses to call each other at work. Weeks turned into months and after almost a year of back-and-forths, Eddie suggested I quit my job and move down to Florida to be with him. He said the word “marriage” like it didn’t scare him. It was almost as if it had already happened. It was inevitable.
Eddie is a Florida boy. He is a weekend fisherman, waking early on his days off to get down to the beach to cast his line out from the pier. He returns late at night with blistering shoulders and stark tan lines from the arms of his sunglasses that rarely leave his face. Some days, those rare South Florida days after a cool and thunderous rainfall, I go with him. I walk the length of the coast from the pier to the lighthouse.
Before the baby, I used to run. The sea air thick with oxygen and salt whipped my face, clearing my sinuses. For once in that perpetual summer, I could breathe deeply and move my limbs, pushing my muscles to their limits. That stretch of beach was three miles but didn’t take me long. My calves strained pleasantly as my feet pounded, pushed, and pulled out of the sand. With my pregnant stomach, now, it takes me over an hour to walk. I watch the horizon on my left as I stroll, eyeing it as though my former life might be somewhere out there watching me in my newfound happiness, and could reach out and snatch me back if I drop my guard.
From his seat at the pier, Eddie watches me leave. I like to think that even though he enjoys his time alone, he feels the ache in his gut for my return. At night, back at our house, we sit on the screened-in porch. I lay my head against his bare chest and he combs his fingers through and untangles my salt-matted hair.
I used to think that Florida was just beaches and Disneyworld and streets lined with palm trees. We explore the state as often as we can. Eddie has always liked to drive, and I like the feeling of waking up so early and restlessly tired in one place but falling asleep in another, a new place, hours away.
Each time we leave, we take the highway north, slicing through cities that I think could pass for New York just from the sheer height of their buildings. I am always surprised by how I feel suddenly tiny, miniscule between them, towering over us in gray. We drive through countryside in the belly of the state that shimmers with an old beauty—an untouched and untouchable quality—as the road narrows and tunnels around us. Spanish moss hangs heavy and doomy above us from the branches of the great Live Oaks. We see manatees in the winter months through early March as they migrate into the springs in search of warmer waters to survive. They are great mermaids—calm, lumbering, gentle—as they brush past us and we float on our kayaks and paddle boards, swatting mosquitos and no-see-ums from our sun-kissed skin.
The further north we travel, the harder the sand is packed on the beaches. On the coast of Jacksonville, at the very top northeast corner of the state, the sand is so hard and compressed underfoot that we can ride bikes along the water’s edge, swerving between walkers, kite-flyers, and sunbathers. There are surfers out there, too. The wind is steady enough for constant waves. They nudge the surface of the ocean in toward us and it ripples as we dip our toes.
As we make our way home from each venture, I recline in the passenger seat. The windshield is a giant movie screen. I try to blur the other cars from my view and watch the endless sky unfold. In South Florida, there is so much sky. We live in a quiet neighborhood, a twenty-minute drive from the beach. We turn the corner onto our street and pull into the dusty driveway. Eddie stretches his arms way up over his head and then twists his back, cracking his spine—one, two. I lock the passenger side of his truck from the inside and close the door. My legs feel tight and healthy from so much sun on these trips.
We end our weekends the same way we end most of our nights: outside in the musky evening air. The trees rustle with life and our screens twang with the blunt force of bugs as they spiral their way toward the light on our porch.
As September arrives, and the heat of the summer begins to wane, storms swirl out over the Atlantic. Their pressure mounts and hurricanes are birthed from the heat. News of the impending storm pops up on our cell phones and runs on loop across the bottom of the television screen. I watch the spaghetti models and sip peppermint tea in my pajamas in the mornings. I curl my feet up under my body and Eddie pats my shoulder, says Bye, babe, and closes the door on his way out to work. I take a shower, but I can’t motivate myself to get dressed. The cling and tug of material against my sweltering skin makes my fingers and toes tingle and cringe in frustration. I sit on the edge of our unmade bed and stare into the open closet for inspiration.
I sit for almost an hour. My bath towel is moist and my hair drips down my shoulders as it dries. I think about the hospital. I know it’s coming, sooner than I would like. I worry about the pierce of the needle in my spine. I fantasize and obsess over the thought of the scalpel slicing my stomach. The fear is cold as it washes over me. Eddie will be there, I tell myself. I don’t ever want to be alone. I try to imagine the face of our child, but my brain creates only a blur. It feels real because I can see my body changing, but unreal because I know I won’t fully believe it until I’m holding him on the outside.
I opt for an old T-shirt and ratty gym shorts, both speckled with white paint from earlier that spring when we had redecorated the kitchen, splattering each other unintentionally as we stretched up and back, rolling a fresh coat on the walls and ceilings. We cramped close in the narrow space between the countertops. I had been determined to be part of the process even though I knew Eddie was much more capable. I focused on precision and perfection and details. I deliberated on colors and patterns for everything. I delayed while Eddie got the job done. But I wanted to contribute to our new home together. I wanted to show him I could.
When he gets home from work, Eddie helps the neighbors put up shutters. I write a grocery list: water, cereal, fruit… and then crumple it up knowing we won’t have the luxury of choice by the time we get to the store anyway. I leave the paper ball on the foldout table in our kitchen. The elastic waistband of my shorts is fraying and stretched beyond salvation.
At the store, we pile the cart with bottled water, bags of chips, cans of beans and vegetables and chili that we would not usually care to eat. There are three overripe watermelons left on the shelf. Eddie takes two of them. I have been craving fruit juices, frozen popsicles—fresh and cold and tart. The shelves are scarce already; the checkout lines are long and winding. I pass a hand over my enlarged stomach and feel the wave inside me as our child cartwheels in its amniotic cocoon. I imagine it’s a boy, tugging on the umbilical cord. I hadn’t wanted to know the sex. Before my brother was born, they had told my mother he was a girl. I had cried when he came out and my dreams of having a sister were crushed.
I wonder if my baby is oblivious to the outside pandemonium. I wonder if he can feel my nerves vibrating through our shared body. Please, I think, not now, as he spins. Eddie swipes our credit card and the machine shuts down. I reach for my purse and scramble for a couple of twenties. The cashier glances at my stomach as we pass.
The storm is set to make landfall on the east coast, just miles from where we had chosen to start our family. In the four days of waiting, we hardly speak about anything else.
“Did you fill the tub with water?” I ask. I spend hours on Google doing my research while Eddie works. He has been through so many storms, but this is my first. I want to be ready and I want him to know I can be prepared.
“It’s too early, but I will.” He replies.
“You should take a break, love,” I tell him, as he leans on the countertop and breathes in the cool, conditioned air. He won’t admit it, but he is exhausted from the heat, from taking care of me—from everything—because I can’t help. If it was any other time or year, I would have been outside with him, passing him tools and screws and shutters. He wants to get this job done.
“We’re almost done with the shutters. I’m fine.”
“Okay, but stay hydrated,” I am a bee, buzzing and buzzing and buzzing.
“I’ll go to the store tonight and see if there’s more…”
But we both know there is no more. If there is anything, it’s people and panic, but it isn’t food or supplies. We know that what we have now is all we have. My head pounds. I notice the flicker of impatience in my husband’s eye.
“No, no. We’ll be fine. I’m fine.” To prove it, I push myself up and out of my chair to carry on with my own preparations. An overnight bag with supplies that I hope we will not have to use until the hurricane is over.
When I am done, I step out onto the porch. I shield my eyes from the sunlight—so ominous, so deceiving—and take a deep breath. I drop into a lawn chair—red, collapsible, portable—and tilt my head back against the mesh of the fabric. I fall asleep.
Eddie circles around to the back of the house to find me. I wake up quickly, momentarily guilty for resting while he works. I watch as he pulls the last shutter—not so much a shutter as an oversized plank of wood—across our sliding glass doors. He pushes it back and forth as if to show me how easy it would be to simultaneously secure our home but still manage to get in and out as we please. I smile and slip inside.
Our neighborhood is emptying out. While we plan to stay and weather the storm, our neighbors flee to Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia. They don’t offer to take us with them. No one wants the burden of a pregnant woman bursting into labor in the back of their car, especially not on I-95 in the middle of a Category-4 storm.
Eddie’s office closed, and the warnings have been issued. There will be no more movement until the storm passes. Although it is morning, the kitchen is dark. The only light to enter is through a crack beneath the frame of the front door, the little glass window obscured by storm shutters. An intangible aura swallows me; a humming beneath my feet. Each time Eddie leaves the house—through the sliding door to the back porch, now—he shifts his body against the panel, creaks his way out, and replaces it again.
“I’ll be back soon,” he tells me. “Only an hour or two at most.”
He reads my mind, knowing that I need an estimate of time, an idea of how long I should stay calm before calling to ask if he’s okay. His mother lives in the next city over and needs help with her preparations, shutters, groceries, too.
“Tell her I said hi,” I reply just before he lets the wood fall back into place. He is a good man. He smiles at me, his wife; puffed-up, swollen, and still ballooning. Each time he leaves, it feels like time is draining away from us, quicker and quicker.
I think about my own mother. She had left me once, too, when I was very young. It was inside a department store, and she had simply dropped my hand, turned to rifle through another rack of clothes, and seemed to melt into the fabrics. I hadn’t been scared initially because I hadn’t noticed she was gone. I was busy lining up all the odd shoes on the next shelf over, fascinated with the blur of my own reflection against the patent leather and the glint of light off the pristine buckles. I couldn’t hold back my desire to touch them, imagine what it would be like to wear them.
By the time I looked up, my mom had vanished; the revolving doors to the parking lot moving slower and slower to a halt. I was suffocated with panic, but of course, it had all been accidental. She hadn’t seen me turn away and thought I had stepped outside to look for her. I sat on the tile floor and cried while the store manager called my mother’s name over the intercom, blasting our misunderstanding to the crowd of shoppers. She hurried back to me, scooped me up and I buried my nose into her hair as we hugged.
I think about this as I wait for him. It’s been twenty years since that afternoon and yet the memory flashes back to me as if I’m still there. As if I’m being left behind all over again. I try not to cry. He’s going to come back, I tell myself. The calm of our house is what keeps me on edge and pushes me into the past. I study and reexamine what feels like every thought I have ever had. He doesn’t want to leave you. I force my blood pressure to lower with big, deep breaths and a long, slow exhale. I need to busy myself, but everything is done except the waiting part. There isn’t much I am capable of doing anyway. I am huge and the storm is still hours away.
I stumble my way back to the bedroom, the only room in the house where comfort is a real possibility. I crawl into bed and pull his pillow to my face, breathing in the scent of him and regulating my heart. He will be home soon, I think, letting myself drift between sleep and dreaming.
In one dream, I am inside the jaws of an alligator. I pull wider, wider, wider open until it cracks to release me. I will not let the creature take my baby. The reptile morphs from beast to man beneath my hands. His eyes, green and glowing, are dark slits that grow rounder, bigger, vulnerable. The skin of the alligator’s head is delicate to the touch. Silky, even. I caress the stretchy scales in the place beneath his chin, under his jaw. When the two halves of his mouth crack, I feel free. But then his eyes beg for forgiveness for holding me hostage. For wanting my baby. As I hold his head, my heart spins with sorrow and guilt for being the one to break him. I had been a prisoner, but now the alligator-man will die from the strength of my pale, cool hands. I wade through swamp-water, heavy on my ankles. I press his body to my middle and carry him out of the darkness to try to save him.
The weight remains upon waking. The blankets and sheets of my bed are wrapped too tightly around my feet. My fingernails dig into the flesh of my palms, fists curled tight, leaving mauve half-moons imprinted just seconds away from breaking skin. It takes my eyes another minute to focus on the room cloaked in a violet darkness; an imaginary dusk. My stomach bulges and crests to obscure my view.
In another dream, I see the face of my grandmother. Her death, years ago now, had been sudden and unexpected and devastating and cleansing all at once. I still feel guilty for that last thought. In the dream, she stands at the top of a large stone staircase and floats eerily down to me—her granddaughter, the pregnant woman—waiting for her like fate on the bottom step. As the gap between us closes—closer, closer—I am struck with the fear that she might speak, but she doesn’t. Instead, she wafts even closer still, to the point our cold lips could almost touch. She pushes her hair from her face, and I see that her skin is particles of sand. She faces me and becomes a tornado. I feel my body as she pulls me inside. I jolt awake. A shooting pain travels my spine and I feel hot tears in the dark.
“Angel, it’s me.”
My husband has returned. It has likely only been hours. It’s not even evening yet. Time means nothing anymore.
When night really does fall, the sirens begin. It would be romantic to say we hold each other through the storm, saving each other from bad dreams, but it is too hot for contact. In the shadows, the only thing we see is the faint silhouette of my bump. Eddie’s arms are too tired to reach for it. He falls back into sweaty sleep. Tornados zip through our neighborhood and spiral into the night.
I wake the next morning to a crashing outside. It moves through my body to sit in the hollow of my throat. My spine tenses. My fists clench handfuls of bedsheets. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up here. Perhaps because I never learned how to prepare for a storm. Perhaps because the clock keeps ticking and the days on my countdown are flying. I reach for Eddie; the pit in my stomach growing sharper.
“What happened? Eddie, what was that?”
“It’s probably debris flying around outside. A fence or something. Some branches. Nothing can hurt us in here. It’s okay, love.”
His voice is calculated. But the crash becomes a groan. I think about the huge, thick trees that line our neighborhood, and Mother Nature tipping them over just for fun. Eddie tells me we are safe, but I am convinced the noise emanates from the framework of the house itself, like old bones creaking under the weight of a body.
I am told, by almost all women who are mothers already, that these things are instinctual: the need to protect, and the overwhelming desire to rid the world of all danger. To clear the path before our children can step in harm’s way. They tell me that I won’t fully understand a mother’s power until my baby is in my arms and exposed to the real world.
I think about this hurricane. Hurricane Dahlia. Her name sounds so peaceful. I can’t help but wonder what we have done to make her so angry—Mother Nature on a war path with each storm surge and each city ravaged and breaking under her winds and rain. This storm is her way of cleansing. I think of the eye wall as her very own eye, watching and observing what we do in the moments of calm. In our house, Eddie and I know that we must wait. The rain dissipates for a short while, almost as if nothing is happening outside. We talk into the night, trying to settle on a name. Jacob, Lucas, Alexander.
After another day of howling winds, the storm begins to fizzle out. One more day and the storm is nothing more than wispy bands of spitting rain showers. Its dregs make their way back, ricocheting off the Florida coastline and spinning out into the wide-open sea. The memory of being cooped up in the sweaty heat in proximity to one another is still fragrant. I can’t shake my dreams.
Eddie steps out of the house first, ripping the plank from the grooves of the doorjamb and holding his hand out to me to take and follow him. He is eager to investigate.
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“It’s over,” he reassures me.
I gulp in the cooler air. The wind is a gentle breeze; the sun obscured in a yellow haze. We emerge from the cave of our home, braced for devastation, like we are the first humans to see our new planet. After the storm, Florida finally looks like fall.
We embrace the break in humidity. For the first time in four years, I feel cool and relieved. Our baby kicks. The roar of generators coughing to life reverberates across town. The beginning of something. An end is in sight. I trail my fingertips down Eddie’s back as we stand and he surveys the damage. There are leaves everywhere. Branches and debris scattered as far down the road as we can see. Fences are torn from yards and splinters litter our neighbors’ lawns. Still, the humming sensation ceases; my panic levels out. Eddie sighs and shrugs beside me.
“We gotta get those branches away from the house.” It isn’t a question.
The trunk of a Black Olive tree leans toward the side of our home. Its branches brush up against the concrete, swinging at unnatural angles. It must be the source of the noise I had heard only a few nights before. My mouth falls open as I turn to see that Eddie means to take down the tree himself.
“You can’t touch that, Eddie. You can’t be serious.”
But he is. He grabs a ladder from the garage. Eddie climbs with swiftness. He takes it down in pieces and I watch the huge branches fall. They tip over and creak until they snap. The big tree leans dangerously close to crushing a window or falling onto the porch.
The ground rumbles at the first branch’s fall, and again with the second. The thuds are dull and heavy, and I feel the sound resonate through my body, my arms, my growing stomach. As Eddie tackles the third giant tree limb, the one closest to our home, I watch the shape of him straining to reach up from the ladder. He had told me to go inside, to call a friend or neighbor to check in and see if anyone had returned home. He wanted me out of the street, but I couldn’t not watch him. The muscles in his arms should burst and rip open his shirt just from the sheer force he expires. When the final branch falls, it does not snap in the same way as the others before it.
Tragedy always happens in slow motion for those of us who watch from the sidelines. The ladder rocks and the lumber swings back. It is supposed to drop to the ground, but it gets caught—not completely disconnected from the tree yet—and its arc connects with the ladder beneath Eddie’s feet. His body is kicked into the air. Ten feet above the ground, his body is a sudden blur. Tossed up, out, and down. Off the ladder, away from the tree. Somehow, in the briefest of moments it all takes to unfold, I have enough time to think of two words: Helpless. Widow.
His body drops and slams into the concrete below.
When I was young, just seven or eight years old, my grandmother—the same one who had passed away but still permeates my dreams—took me and my brother on a long weekend trip on a boat on the river. The first afternoon, while my brother rolled around on the polished deck and pushed a ball back and forth against the cabin wall, my grandmother pulled me aside.
She had a gift for me. I was her only granddaughter and she couldn’t resist surprising me. She had spent weeks following a pattern and she had finally finished stitching me a ragdoll. The doll had beige skin—the closest to a rosy peach fabric she had been able to find at the store at the time—and bright blue button eyes. She had even stitched big black eyelashes around the buttons and embroidered a dark red heart for the doll’s mouth. My grandmother had also sewn the doll an original dress. Red and white striped, but blue and purple when I turned it inside out. I was fascinated with the hook and eye clasps on the dress. They were so intricate and careful, and my fingers had to learn how to undo them without catching and pulling out the doll’s woolen hair. What I had loved most about the doll was that she had brown hair (just like mine), and blue eyes (just like mine), and that red and white dress matched one of mine, too. I named her Annie.
I rarely think about that trip because, when I do, I remember hating everything except Annie and that one moment alone with my grandmother. My brother had been jealous even though I am sure my grandmother had given him his own gift. He tugged at my doll and dangled her body over the edge of the boat, and suddenly she took off and drifted along the river. I watched, devastated, as she turned a deeper and deeper gray as her cotton-stuffed head absorbed the water. I was old enough to know she wasn’t real, but I wasn’t strong enough not to mourn her. She had been made in my image. Even though I had held her for only a day, she became a piece of me.
Eddie’s face is drained of color with the same swiftness the river had taken Annie. My first instinct after his body crashes down is to cry. My next is to vomit. My hands fly to my stomach and I hold our unborn child. I run to my husband, breaking from my daze.
His breath is a low, continuous wheeze. He rolls from his back onto all fours. I am afraid to touch him for the first time in our lives. My hands reach but stop, buzzing with static fear. I scramble inside to find a phone. I hit the numbers on the keypad and fumble to get back outside.
“Don’t—I’m…okay. Don’t call.”
He gets to his feet and staggers into the house. I want to help, but there is nothing I can do. I can’t carry him, I can’t pick him up, I can hardly hold all of my own weight. All I can think about is how helpless I am, how I always feel like a child needing support, needing my partner. My thoughts flash to the baby floundering, unknowing, inside me.
While Eddie sleeps on the couch in the living room, exhaustion and shock catch up to me. My eyes prickle and I hold his hand. His fingers do not grasp mine back like they usually do. I am terrified he won’t wake up. The bruises on his back are livid. One sits above his left kidney; another, a black web creeping toward the dimple to the right of his lower spine. I alternate heat and ice, heat and ice, and when he turns away from me, I glance at his feet to check for swelling. I know this is a sign of internal bleeding and I am convinced it is rippling under the surface already. What if he never walks again? What if he falls asleep and doesn’t wake up?
What if, my cruel brain tells me, this is your test? I have never been pushed off the deep end—I am always choosing when to jump, always asking first and searching for permission to change, to move, to live my life. There has always been a safety net or a hand waiting to catch me. What if he never wakes up and I’m alone, the sole decision-maker? What can I do? A single mother in this giant new country. This swampy wonderland brims with expectation and danger at every turn.
I shiver and lay my head on Eddie’s shoulder. I wait and wait and wait. He shifts and begins to snore lightly. His hand clutches mine, for a second, just a little tighter.
Rebecca L. Jensen received her MFA in creative nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University in 2017, and her BA in English from the University of South Florida in 2014. Her work appears in Entropy, Pacifica Literary Review, West Texas Literary Review, Gravel, and others. Find out more about Rebecca on her website.