A & I

Most people, when they remember the film Alien, remember the dinner scene. When it was filmed, the director Ridley Scott refused to tell the actors exactly what was going to happen; they knew that the character of Kane, played by John Hurt, had been impregnated by an alien, and that an alien would explode from his chest when, choking, he was laid out on the table—but they did not know it would happen with exploding bags of blood. It all happens very quickly. First red swells on his shirt, then there is a tearing of fabric. The actors scream, stepping back; blood spattering their faces and the room. Their looks of shock aren’t feigned. The alien sticking out of Hurt’s chest looks like an erect bloody penis; it has an exaggerated cranium and sharp little teeth, and looks very aware, even comically so. It turns, slowly and deliberately from side to side, surveying the room—then darts out of Hurt’s body and off the table as if it’s late for an appointment. Even if the scene mimics a birth, this baby is a prick in more ways than one.

When I was younger, and had the luxury of ambivalence about whether I would have child or not, my go-to analogy for pregnancy and birth was Alien. I’d remember the look of stunned shock on Hurt’s face, and the creature’s mewling cry of triumph, and think, Yup. Here is a creature that is not you, inside of you, growing. Its birth is a death—at least for the way you lived before. But I didn’t say any of this out loud. I knew I was wrong: society told me so. Giving birth was supposed to be magical. It was natural. My body would know what to do. If there was ever a time to tap into a wellspring of female instinct, this was it—and I certainly shouldn’t think that a horror film made by a bunch of men offered anything more than a reflection of their own anxiety about impregnation.

After all, there is considerable evidence of such “horrors” throughout the film. The alien that hatches (the Chestbuster) grows inside the human host after introduction via the esophagus by the Facehugger: a skeletal flesh-colored hand-cum-horseshoe-crab, with a long, whipping tail. It scuttles with terrifying speed and when turned over, looks like nothing more so than a vagina, with fluttering folds of whitish pinkish flesh and a touch of grey. But this vagina is not a soft, delicate flower. It is a tough monster looking to rape you by mouth. In two separate films, there are shots of men delicately probing dead Facehuggers’ undersides with surgical instruments, pulling the folds away like curtains. The innards glisten like oysters. The men are obviously both fascinated and grossed out.

Alien has some mixed signals to send about women. On the one hand, signs of the female dominate in the film: the operating system of the ship is called Mother and the men in the crew aren’t macho at all. Nor are the women particularly feminine. The sole survivor is a woman called Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who is tall, striking and very capable. She’s often cited as one of the first female action heroes in twentieth century cinema. ((The proof? Even when she is struck still by the horror of the alien, she keeps on strategizing. Her dash for the ship at the end is panic-stricken, but also calculated.) Ripley’s gender is such an exception that that Alien is often understood as upending the casual misogyny and gender dynamics in many horror and action films. And yet Weaver’s casting was a last minute choice; writers, producers and Scott had all thought she would be male. The aliens’ physiology was also a decision after the fact; the Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger had been drawing their eroticized shapes for years before filming began, and Scott’s genius was in importing Giger’s creepy grace rather than creating it from scratch.

Rather than Scott deliberately undermining a rather narrow definition of hetero-normative gender function (which seems a tad too conscious), what seems more central to the film’s horror is how the alien contains and absorbs any sexuality at all. In Alien, sex isn’t a function of gender. Penetration is an alien thing; the fully mature grown creatures contain a head of teeth within a head of larger teeth, which, extending at the moment of imminent death, are both dick and dentata. They contain all the tumescence the film needs. All told, if Scott had any explicitly radical ideology of his own, it seems more accurately located in the class dynamics of the Nostromo’s crew. Space isn’t a place for knight errants; when the crew wake prematurely from hyper-sleep, they are mostly concerned by what it means for their paycheck. Their employer also considers them utterly expendable. There is more than one kind of alienation at work here.

In other words, it’s difficult to spin Alien as a feminist film, even if many (myself included) want to. And though there are a few women who have described their fetus as an alien in prose, they do so in passing. They do not linger on the analogy. It would appear they feel guilty for doing so.

****

Then I actually fell pregnant. Falling is not the right verb for it. I crawled, or climbed, or inched my way into pregnancy. And because I live in the United States and it is 2016, I googled every step of the way.

The online celebration of the mystery of life is very amiable. You don’t even have to mention the word “pregnancy” in the search bar for the algorithm to guess that when you write n weeks (13 weeks, 26 weeks), you are talking about growing a human being. There are seemingly hundreds of websites each giving you weekly updates on your fetus’s development. She is as big as a blueberry, cherry, apricot, melon. She has fingerprints. She is hiccuping. She is learning to swallow, to open her eyes, to clench and unclench her fingers. She is learning how to suck, to latch, to breathe. She can recognize your voice over the pounding of your heart and the rushing of your organs, which must sound like the incessant white noise of a plane’s cabin.

If you select “images” with the same search terms, you’ll see photos that hundreds of mothers have posted of their baby bump. This is what sixteen weeks looks like on another body. This is what thirty-two does. They pose side-on, excited and alarmed, in front of chalkboards and poster paper that list fun facts. They are generally white, and often dressed in yoga gear. They have to-do lists and can’t wait to meet their little one. I did not realize you could be this upbeat and organized about pregnancy until the internet taught me. The illustrations of fetuses I saw were inevitably done in soft shades of pink. The fetus always floated very calmly in space. It did not thrash or tumble, it was not squished or covered in goo, it was not fish-like or primate-like or alien-like. It did not remind me of anything other than a baby: cleaned and camera ready. It appeared my fetus was a fruit, and the only gestures it would make were neotenous ones.

Yet as she grew, I also grew less sure. When she was about twenty-four or twenty-five weeks old, I started to see her movements beneath my skin. My stomach would look visibly lopsided when she settled to the right or the left. Sometimes she moved in two different directions, stretching her legs and arms or head, arching her back—and everything on the surface twisted, like a cloth is being wrung out, or a wave deep in the ocean, far from shore. I couldn’t stop recalling the bulging movements in Alien. Other times, there were short, soft knocks. She moved as people do in bed, sleeping, strangely intent on a world even further in, inside of her. She was looking at her own big bang, and I was on the outskirts of her universe, moving further and further away. I went to work, meet friends, watched films, and waited for her to hatch.

I did not recognize this as cuteness.  She did not feel like “my” daughter. I knew from the sonogram that she had hair on her back, that she was covered with a thick layer of vernix and encased in a caul, squashed and held close by my body—crammed in the same way that Giger’s drawings are, body parts and organs penetrated and penetrating each other without end. I didn’t like it his images, but I couldn’t deny his obsessive skill. He was interested in an ecstatic agony I found embarrassing.

Her heartbeat was eerily regular at my weekly appointments at the hospital, and the nurse regularly had to poke my stomach to get her to move. She was in her own time zone. I drank cold water and listened to the amplified thwack of her heart in the room, the jostling noises as she turned left or right. It was not that I was scared of her or birth, but she was definitely other, and that was no small thing. She felt like an animal, which shouldn’t have been surprising. The beginning of John Ashbery’s poem “At North Farm” kept on coming to mind:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Inside of me, there was a being I didn’t know that was traveling toward me, growing week by week. She was in hyperspace. She was going to change the civilization of my life, but this was all in the future. Despite the belly, pregnancy was, on some level, an abstraction. This baby was a long-awaited stranger, a relative I had never met. I kept on waiting for the cat-mother-gut-wisdom that so many women talked about to show up. It never really did. I did not feel more female. I felt mortal.

****

In each Alien film, there is always a moment when an unsuspecting human steps on a bit of alien goo, and, as they slowly lift their feet or hands away, the camera lingers on the slow stretch of mucus, the way it glistens in the light. It is both liquid and solid, a transitive property in the flesh. The person looks down in horror, but also with a kind of ignorance that makes you hit your forehead with your hand. This is the equivalent of hesitating at the top of the basement stairs in other horror films. The alien is near; it is so near, it has already been where you are. And it might choose to turn around.

In film in general, mucus is treated as a metonym for grossness. It is biological byproduct of the stage of being alive, a sign of the monster that you have yet to kill. It shows the creature is thriving. It is a symbol of desire, of excessive embodiment, because we are used to controlling and hiding our own mucus secretions. It’s no surprise that although a different director made each of the four Alien films—Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, each with a different idea of what the alien meant or wanted—none could resist this mucous money shot. The stuff is employed with wanton abandon throughout all the films; it drips from alien jaws and air vents, cocoons unfortunate human hosts, and festoons the parting lips of alien egg pods. On each of the Alien shoots, someone had to have become a mucus aficionado, had to have examined the feel and look of bulldog spittle, insect traps or novelty toys.

This mucus was often made of methocel, which is short for methylcellulose, a powder made from wood pulp to which you simply add water and coloring. It can mimic all kinds of liquids—slime, oil, blood, saliva and sweat—and can be ingested with no ill effect. It even turns up in foods like ice cream as an emulsifier. It is a beloved substance for special effects designers, because it is often far more effective to add methocel rather than rely on digital post-production; the patterns of light on the liquid are much more complex than what could be added digitally. Methocel is analogue otherness—except for the fact that it is also so privately human. Any pregnant woman, for example, knows that her vaginal discharge increases throughout pregnancy, and not in a pornographic welcoming wetness, but in an animal-kingdom binding protein kind-of way. Women might talk about it furtively online, but not necessarily with their friends or their partners.

Slightly better known—but still taboo—is the loss in pre-labor of what’s called the mucus plug. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it forms when you’re first pregnant to block the cervix from bacteria that might enter through the vagina. When the cervix starts dilating, slowly expanding to eventually accommodate the baby’s head, the plug is dislodged, and it can either come out in one piece or in multiple pieces, appearing on the toilet paper when you wipe in glue-like long trails, tinted pink with a little blood. My plug appeared five days before I gave birth, and when I wiped, I felt like one of those characters in Alien. The movement of mucus itself mimics the dawning realization, a slow Oh. The baby is near; it is so near that my body had started to shed parts of itself. But I did not report this in the way that I reported sonogram statistics or the fetus’s movements to others. It seemed unnecessary—though that was hardly the case in the Alien films.

****

In those last few weeks of pregnancy, I re-watched all four films. If Scott sets up the cosmology of the Alien films—Ripley’s tenaciousness, the alien’s physiological transformations, the alignment of science and state indifference to human suffering—it was Cameron, directing the second film, who turned Weaver’s casting into a more explicitly feminist mythology. Her compadres in his film are a group of comically hyper-masculine marines, who cradle their guns and spit and swear—and who are promptly decimated by the aliens. The only beings to survive are women, androids, and the single marine who listens to Ripley and spends the least time flexing his biceps.

It is also Cameron’s film that embroiders upon maternal authority. One of the first scenes in the film is of Ripley in a hospital bed, waking up from fifty-eight years of hyper sleep. Jones, her tabby cat, who she went to great lengths to rescue in the first film, has survived. When he starts hissing at her, we know she’s in trouble—and sure enough, as she bolts upright in bed, clutching at her chest, an alien bursts forth. She wakes up. Ripley isn’t dreaming of dismemberment or the other deaths of the crew that dominated the first film, but of her own alien pregnancy. Her fear directs ours, as does her desire.

When she returns to the alien planet, she quickly focuses with obsessive attention on the sole survivor of a human colony, a young girl called Newt. Weaver’s face softens. She tenderly washes the girl’s face, offers her hot chocolate, cuddles her. (Newt mothers her own doll (Charley) in turn.) The last twenty minutes of the film is a standoff between Ripley and an alien queen who is laying eggs by the dozen through a gigantic, tent-like abdomen. It’s this scene that cements, very clearly, the sense that Ripley is not an accidental survivor, partly because it’s the first time in the two films we have a POV shot from the alien. We see Ripley from the alien’s vast height, looking up, clutching Newt to her. The alien understands Ripley as a mother. She also understands that Ripley sees her as a mother; when male drones begin to advance, Ripley threatens the eggs with a flamethrower, and the alien queen has them back off.

This is the first exchange between the two species that isn’t about consumption, but the moment quickly passes. Ripley, for no rational reason, reneges on the deal, and goes to town with her machine gun/flame thrower/grenade launcher, destroying not only the field of eggs but the queen’s abdomen. When the queen pursues her through the colony complex, freed from her reproductive burden (it rips away, a little like a velcro ad-on), we know that things have suddenly gotten personal. This alien wants Ripley, very particularly, dead. She wants to kill Newt. She understands revenge. In the final face-off, she issues little grunts of rage. This is quite different from the alien’s motivation in Scott’s film, which is pure efficiency of procreation and death. The alien has become more emotional, and Ripley in turn becomes less human, strapping herself into a large mechanical moving suit for the final face-off.

I don’t remember these scenes as well as Hurt’s death, but they do more to recast the maternal impulse as violent and anti-human than most other films I’ve seen. When I was younger, and uneasy about giving birth, I was uneasy about how I would be destroyed. Cameron’s film proposes a view of motherhood that is both nurturing and enormously aggressive. Ripley and the alien queen are creators and destroyers of worlds. I didn’t see it as a child, but I saw it decades later, eight months pregnant, huge and sweating in the early New York summer. It was weirdly comforting that men made the Alien films because it spoke to a shared anxiety rather than one that only women could understand or recreate. Scott had set up a series of ideological mad libs, and the subsequent directors had found themselves confronting the question of progeny in ways they might never have directly addressed otherwise.

****

My due date came and went. One day, two days. Three days. This baby showed no sign of descending or arriving. It was only at 4am on the fifth day that I woke to feel my insides pulling in and twisting quite convulsively, but also quite bearably. The movement was reflexive in the same way an orgasm is; you cannot help but let go. I had breakfast with a friend, went for a walk, sat in a terrible café reading a good novel. But toward the evening and after a second walk, the contractions became closer together, and more painful. They developed peaks and valleys of intensity, and at their height, I began to moan involuntarily from the pain. By ten in the evening, as I lay on the sofa, it hurt enough that each time, I started to instinctively reach my arm up to the sky, as if grabbing for a rope that would pull me out of my body.  Three hours later, when we drove to the hospital, I was groaning constantly, hanging over the back seat, looking at the empty Manhattan Bridge receding behind me. My vision was slowly closing down; by the time we made it into the hot tub at the hospital’s birthing center, I opened my eyes only for brief moments, could not stand or sit, and had devolved to a crouch, slow rocking motions, and loud groaning. Now that I have a baby, I see how all of these movements and behaviors are those of an infant.

It was absurdly comforting to hold my partner and doula’s hands. I lost track of many things, but I knew instinctively whose hands they were, and that I was not alone. I don’t think I let go of more than one hand for hours. Every so often, the midwife would inspect my cervix to see how much it had dilated, and when they did, I could feel hands wiping liquids away from me. They spotted dark green meconium (her feces), which indicated she was in distress, and so they inserted an IV into my arm, and started a constant monitoring of her heartbeat

By five a.m., the terror was not in the pain of one convulsion, but in the knowledge that I would have to do this for an unspecified period of time; this could last one, two, even three hours, but as it became seven and eight, panic set in. I began to shake uncontrollably. My contractions were about a minute apart, and had been that way for hours. As each one arrived, I would moan and writhe, holding onto the bars of the bed with such force that my arms ached for two days afterward. Looking back, I cannot resurrect the actual sensation of the pain, but I can construct the image of my body on the bed in my mind, even though my eyes were closed. I remember thinking that this was the closest I was going to come to dying before death itself. I was skating close to the cessation of consciousness. I now think of John Hurt on the Nostromo’s dining table. When I was told to push, the pain increased to the point where I felt flesh tearing. It didn’t feel right or natural to hurt myself that way; the sensation was akin to trying to break one arm with the other. Yes, my body wanted to push, but not with an almost audible ripping sound.

Then I was fully dilated, and it was time to actually push. I had not reflected on what it would feel like to lie on your back, bend and open your legs as wide as they could go, and be asked to hold onto the back of your own thighs—in other words, to be primarily responsible for a humiliating vulnerability. (There is a very similar yoga pose called Happy Baby, which now seems like a very bad joke.) Multiple people hovered over me, chanting, cheering me on. Decades of bladder control and social training were pushed aside with one brusque shove. With each contraction, I squeezed with all my energy. “Harder!” they cried. “Harder!” I could not go harder.

And then it happened very quickly—a slithering feeling that could have been a noise or a sensation, a long string of something passing through me, and they called for me to open my eyes. “You have a baby,” they said. “You did it.” They took her away immediately to aspirate her, to remove the meconium from her mouth and nose, but she was yelling before they even reached the table. I saw her grey body being carried aloft, all head and a long torso like a tadpole, and I thought that is a baby. That is my baby.

****

They cleaned her up before giving her to me. I wished I had seen her as she was inside my body, covered in my liquids. She had a little hat on. She lay on my chest and fell asleep almost immediately, exhausted. I looked at her face. It was true that I did not recognize her, but I could not stop looking at her, trying to engrave her face in my neural cortex. While all of this was happening I birthed the placenta, which simply felt like a mass of material moving through me. Then the midwife began to stitch me up. I could feel pain from the needle passing through me, the tug of the thread against my skin, but it felt like nothing next to what had come before.

Of the four Alien films, the French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s take in Alien: Resurrection has been most roundly criticized. It’s probably because he is more interested in the conditions of Ripley’s resurrection than in creating an action film. Backstory predominates: it’s two hundred years later, and socially awkward scientists have cloned Ripley from blood taken during the third film.

The Ripley of the fourth film is not Ripley; her DNA, altered by her impregnation by an alien queen (in the third film), has been fundamentally changed. We watch the birth of the alien queen from her, as well as Ripley’s own birth—or at least, her growing awareness of what she is: she learns to speak, to reason, to tolerate her captors. Birth is figured as a horror, as a vacuum of meaning. The scientists see her as part meat-byproduct, part pet, a curiosity that should’ve died when her daughter was harvested. Weaver is not entirely human; she is incredibly strong, has acidic blood, and some kind of empathic ESP with the aliens (particularly her alien daughter queen). It’s not clear for some time whether Ripley will pledge loyalty to the humans when the aliens start running amok.

The action sequences, when they come, are inventive enough (underwater aliens!), but fans felt cheated by the last twenty minutes of the film, which seem baroquely fixated on a seemingly unnecessary plot point. We are told that Ripley’s alien queen, initially giving birth to 12 eggs (which, hosted by twelve humans, produced twelve aliens) is now giving birth like a mammal for her second cycle, growing an alien inside her that hatches from her giant abdomen fully-formed, a seven foot adolescent. This creature is called the Newborn. Just as Ripley is part alien, this alien is part human, a throwback to Ripley’s own DNA, made of gelatinous white bone, with rounded eyes-sockets and a snub nose. Its skull is recognizably hominoid. It is horrified by its own “purely” alien mother, and within seconds, rips her face off. But it loves Ripley, and pursues her, through the ship, imprinting like a duckling.

All of this makes no sense, even by the film’s internal logic. The Newborn is not scary in the way the aliens are. It is grotesque rather than terrifying; we are repelled by its need, rather than its aggression.  It is also barely alive for ten minutes before it is sucked, piece-by-piece, out of a hole in a window that Ripley has made with her own blood. It squeals piteously, clearly shocked by its (grand)mother’s betrayal. The gulf between human and alien in Scott’s first film has collapsed, inverted. The Newborn’s death is the negative of Ripley’s original nightmare; rather than death by addition through the chest, this is death by subtraction, the hole beginning at its back, then expanding outward. Its innards collapse with a terrible sucking sound, its body disappearing into space like a scarf pulled backwards until finally, it is just a face—and then with a whoompf, even its skull vanishes.

This reverse symmetry appears to have been an irritant to many rather than a pleasure. Jeunet has turned the basic horror of the franchise inside out, and now we see the lining of our own initial fascination, which was to be penetrated by something profoundly non-human. Our disappointment is revealing. The Newborn is too much like a newborn—or at least, like the newborns we have come to idealize. The horror it invokes is the excessive truth of an ideal stretched beyond our implicit expectation.

After I gave birth, I was wheeled to the recovery ward and my nurse, Gigi, explained how to assemble a pad to absorb all of the blood I was about to dispel from my body. It was the sanitary pad system to end all menstrual events, a battleship composed of disposable mesh panties, a liner sheet folded in half, three fat menstrual pads, and witch-hazel circles of cloth that soothe and cool. My body was so confused that I could not actually will myself to piss, and Gigi had to stand and watch me squirt water onto my labia with a squeeze bottle. In sympathetic response, I urinated—a little, then a little more. I was told to use a pain relief spray that settled like a white dusting of snow. I walked as if I’d been kicked more than once in the crotch. Climbing up onto the bed took effort. I felt beaten up.

Eating my first solid food since the labor began, more twenty-four hours ago, I started to realize I had passed through the eye of the needle. I had survived. Being fit and strong, I had not realized it would be such a debatable matter. Any euphoria came from pure relief. I did not feel like a hero, but a survivor. We both dozed, exhausted. I was still seeing double from tiredness.

Later, Gigi came and took my breast in hand and squeezed. Bright yellow drops oozed out of the nipple. “Good,” she said approvingly. This was colostrum, high protein power food for my baby, designed to hold her over until my milk arrived in a day or two. Gigi held my breast, molding it, showing me how to direct the nipple and areole into my baby’s mouth. When the baby began to suck, and the latch was good, it felt as if she was pulling on strings anchored deep in my breastbone.

I felt intensely grateful for Gigi, and asked her question after question. How do you burp? How do you hold the head up? How warm does she need to be? How does this car seat work? I may have been all instinct, but I was also no training. Gigi patiently answered everything. Every day bought another set of dazed women into her ward. Each one had just crested a peak and was now fast sliding down the other side into motherhood. Some must have known what they were doing—they were on their second or third child, or had younger siblings to look after when they were young. But this was also New York. There were a lot of women who had put off having children until they were well into their thirties. In the lactation class the next morning, we all sat in stunned silence, all first-time parents, our babies in Plexiglas basinets at our sides. The consultant squeezed a knitted woolen breast she had bought on Etsy. It was no longer cute. Our progeny lay beside us, caught fish, occasionally twitching, running nowhere.

Days later, we visited the pediatrician for the first time. When asked to undress her and put her on the scales, we discovered an almighty shit in her diaper. We cheered. This was evidence that her digestive system was working well; it was literally a shit for the record books. Shahzad went about wiping her ass, and as he methodically made his way frontward, he eventually reached the labial folds, and the tiny slit inside. A new wipe was needed—and what came out of her vagina was a long white string of viscous mucous, gel-white and unmistakably whole. If you had flung it like a piece of spaghetti against the fridge, it would have stuck fast.

“What is that,” Shahzad said, and we all watched it stretch, impossibly large for that tiny entrance. “It’s just discharge,” I said casually, amazed that he didn’t know. He had watched the whole birth, had seen her inch her way out of me—had seen more even than I would ever know—but I hadn’t talked to him about mucus. My hormones, via the colostrum, were entering her body. Our doula mentioned that she might even have a tiny period. We could see her nipples were inflamed. All of my living in her: all of my desire embodied in this excess. My own reproductive patterning was already showing up in her and she wasn’t even a week old. I felt ashamed. Up until now, I had felt her growing in me as an imposition. Now I could see the reverse was also true.

My internal organs had to migrate back to their pre-pregnancy dimensions and positions; my abdomen, which had felt as tight and as firm as a basketball, was now a squishy, obviously partially filled sac. As a friend put it, I had an Off Track Betting belly. It subsided almost visibly with each day. When I breastfed, I felt a dull cramping, which turned out to be my uterus shrinking; it needed to descend from my bellybutton into my pelvis, dropping in weight from 1kg to about 50g. This whole process was called autolysis and involution, which sounded like two characters in a sci-fi apocalyptic novel. As the uterus sank, it shed blood cells and tissue, and pinched off blood vessels at the site where the placenta had been, which was essentially a dinner-plate sized open wound. The blood changed hue according to which cells were self-digesting or shedding.

I was disintegrating, piece-by-piece, back towards my old body, the cells absorbing what they could, sending the rest out into space. When I walked to the corner store three days later, I marveled that no one seemed to notice. I was Jeunet’s Newborn, which appears to be decomposing even ten minutes after birth, its flesh not smooth or taut, but composed of chunks of gelatinous white bone. I could not stop the liquids seeping, could not hold myself back, or draw a distinction between myself and the world around me. I felt some panic. I was melting. My stomach jostled with each movement. I spent hours everyday trying to pour myself into another human being. Her little jaw worked furiously as she took in the milk.

No one had told me that my body odor would suddenly increase, all the better for my daughter to recognize me. In the weeks after, she learned to clutch at me, to hold on. I learned to hold her, to gauge the bobbing weight of her head against my hand as we walk. I clean her of fluids, give her new ones, learn to live with the nightmare of dissolving boundaries. We named her Anika. A& I. We are two characters spinning through space, living far beyond the civilization of my life before. When she sleeps, she sometimes shivers, trembles as if she is dreaming: her own internal big bang receding, receding, in her mind.

–Jenni Quilter teaches at NYU. Her most recent book is New York School Painters and Poets (Rizzoli)