Just Before Elena

Blue Eyes When by Sara Pedigo (detail)
Blue Eyes When by Sara Pedigo (detail)

There’s not going to be a baby shower, because there’s no one to plan it. Everyone thinks someone else, someone closer to me, is taking care of it, but they aren’t. And I’m sure as hell not going to ask people to come over and throw party for me.

I ran into Jenny Blitz at the Laundromat.

“When’s the baby shower?”

Even if I were having one, I wouldn’t invite her.[private]

My midwife says I should look at my pregnancy as an opportunity to get closer to my women friends. But I figure they’ve had their chance. Ten years of punk shows, basement parties, and having sex with all the same people should have been enough to break the ice.

“Don’t you have any female friends?” she asked.

“None I’d let near a child.”

“People change. Who were you hanging out with five years ago?”

“Lisa Mayal.”

“Does she still live here?”

“I fucking hope not.”

Lisa took me in when I first came to town. For three weeks we hung out day and night, locked in a contest to see who could last the longest on nothing but plain rice and red wine. Kind of like how the Musketeers met—only with eating disorders and alcoholism instead of swords. Every time I brought up paying rent, she told me to save my money. As soon as I started having sex with someone, though, I was late on rent. One day I left her espresso pot on the stove and burned the rings. She woke me up screaming, espresso pot in one hand, burnt rubber rings in the other, naked, with her legs covered in menstrual blood. “Get out!” she shrieked, her blue Mohawk an azure fountain, her pink skin red under the black ink of her tattoos. Fine, then. I’m gone. Suddenly, I was new to town all over again.

My midwife thinks differences are to be celebrated. “Strong women are sometimes tough,” she says. “There’s often a period of testing.”

But when she talks about strong women she’s imagining New Age tarot decks with acrylics of large women blending into the earth—a few potlucks, some chocolate—whereas I think of a secret language that no one ever bothers to teach you. The smell of burnt rubber and blood. Anyway, I’m not going to go trailing after some random woman like a panhandler just because I’m pregnant. Like I said, they’ve had their chance.


My midwife’s name is Julie. Julie likes to talk about balance. She has pictures of rainforests on her wall and is convinced that rituals are important.

“They help us make transitions. Having a baby is about as big as it gets transition-wise.”

I tell her about a girl who had a baby shower at a strip joint and played nothing but heavy metal and everyone had to tease their hair.

“Well, why don’t you invite them? They sound like fun.”

“Because we don’t actually know each other.”

“What about other mothers? What about your mother?”

TVs, bullet holes, diets, and each a pilgrim to Bald Mountain.

“I don’t think that will work.”

Julie takes the blood-pressure cuff off. She makes notes on my chart and asks if I have a spiritual practice. Do I believe in God, for instance? Or feel close to nature or something like that? What about meditation? But I don’t have anything for her.

“Well, you’ll just have to create that nurturing energy in yourself. Maybe there’s a mother goddess calling you. See what resonates.”

I’m supposed to find pictures of women archetypes and put them up where I can see them every day. And, because I’m trying even though it doesn’t seem like it, I do. I tore some pages out of an old Mexican calendar and taped them to the wall. Our Lady of Guadalupe went up in the bathroom. I put the one of the Aztec woman fainting into the arms of a Spanish conquistador in the hall.

When Silas came home I told him the midwife made me do it. He shrugged. He wasn’t asking. We’re going to a birthing class. It’s been a disaster. Silas gets freaked out by the films. The woman teaching said that sometimes, if you have very white Irish skin, your vagina turns blue in the later stages of pregnancy. I told Silas mine has been blue for months and he believed me. Which says a lot about how things are going between us.


Outside my work is a silver burrito cart with a crown of thorns painted on the side. It shuts up like a transformer lunch box and when the back panels close they create a turquoise and red Guadalupe latched at the hands. I used to eat their carne asada, but it makes me sick now. We don’t get much time to eat, so I bring ramen and hide in the break room for the fresh air. It’s the only place where the windows open. State policy for facilities like ours. Recently, we’ve had to be very careful because someone got in and jumped out the window. It was a mess in about a million ways. Fortunately, I wasn’t working when it happened so the room is still sort of a refuge for me. I go in and spread out with my saltines and my ramen, unbutton my shirt feel the outside air on my skin. Everything in my body is changing but I’m supposed to act like it isn’t or celebrate it someway I don’t know how. If anyone knocks on the door I pretend I’m not there.

Over the sink is a kitschy picture of the Madonna from back when the place was still a Catholic charity. I never paid much attention to it before, but now she’s the first thing I see. Sometimes I try to imagine believing in her. I don’t really mind Catholics. They don’t grow up into scary fundamentalists—Satanists and alcoholics, maybe, but not someone who would call your kid a fag or bomb a city for no reason. I wonder if it is because of Mary and that maybe faith is like a guided meditation where you ignore whatever distracts you and fill your head with a story. And if it is like that, you could train yourself into it even if you aren’t the type.

One day on lunch, I got the phone book out of a drawer and started looking up Catholic churches. I found the main number for the Archdiocese of Portland and was about to dial when one of the residents knocked on the door. I ignored him. They know they’re not allowed in the break room. He kept knocking like it was important.

“Find Sandy,” I said, finally. “I’m on break.”

He knocked louder.

“I forgot my pen in there,” he yelled.

“You don’t have a pen.”

“I forgot my jacket.”

Every three months, we have a case review with our facility coordinator to see if anyone is ready to move into unmonitored outpatient. It’s just for show. Officially, we’re a transitional-care unit, but none of these guys are getting out. Most of mine think they are ex-special forces or some kind of Jesus. There’s also a fifty-year-old David Cassidy who hangs out in the TV room combing his hair and singing to reruns. I take him to get his hair done sometimes so he can keep it feathered and if he could stop hitting on preteens, he’d be back at home in a week, but he can’t, and that’s what I mean about these guys. They’re here to stay.

I asked David Cassidy if he is Catholic. He said he isn’t.

“But do you believe in Jesus?”

“I’m cool with Jesus,” he said.

He didn’t sound too hung up on it, though. I polled the rest of the floor. Not one “client” was Catholic, which made me think I was on the right track. I even checked the file on the guy who jumped out the window last month.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

I started having dreams about Catholicism. In one, I dreamt the baby would be born on the day of the Immaculate Conception. She’ll nearly be a virgin birth, anyway, so that made a certain kind of sense. In a weak moment, I told Silas. He suggested I check in with the Oracle of Delphi while I was at it. He’s like me. He doesn’t believe in anything. The difference between us is that he doesn’t want to. We aren’t much more than roommates now and my pregnancy feels more like coordinating a CSA share than having a child. You take the carrots and onions. I’ll take the kale and beets. You do the grocery store runs. I’ll go to the bank. I’ll take all the radiologist visits. You read at least one book on what’s happening with my body. Both of us have to go to the birthing classes and we split the Yukon Gold potatoes.

At the radiologist’s, I saw her in the haze. I know it’s a her now. And I wasn’t as scared about that as I might have been before I started thinking about Mary. In fact, it seems right. The radiologist leaned over me and her crucifix dangled inches from my face. I think I prefer the crucifix to the cross. One tells you the myth of Christ and the other warns you that you might be next. As she leaned over to point at the screen so that I could see that it’s a girl, the grey windshield-wiper view reminded me of driving in a thunderstorm, and her crucifix was a charm dangling from the rearview mirror.

I told the radiologist about my dream that she would be born on the day of the Immaculate Conception and the whole irony of the virgin birth and Silas and me. She told me the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with virgin birth. That it is about Mary being born, not Jesus. It means Mary was the first human ever to be born totally clean. Apparently, it’s one of those weird places where the Catholic Church gets superlogical after the fact. The thinking is that for Jesus to be Jesus he can’t have come from a woman stained by sin, so she had to be free of it originally. But I just tune out when they start talking about Jesus, because I don’t care about anything like that.

I began seeing Madonna and Guadalupe everywhere. On T-shirts, soup kitchen walls, and tattoos. It was like she was a dialect and I heard her whispering underneath, the feminine subtext of all the stupid shit you hear when people open their mouths. My midwife finds this encouraging, but it doesn’t make me feel any closer to women. It feels like a kind of privacy. A cloister of my own.

Jenny Blitz called Silas because she couldn’t get through to me. She wanted to know how things are going. A year ago we were talking trash about doing an all-girl Bauhaus cover band and she has this stupid idea that that is still going to happen. Like I’m somehow going to work, pump breast milk thirteen hours a day, and be Daniel Ash on the weekend. If people at work donate their sick leave, I can get six weeks off. But they won’t, because no one stays around long enough to accrue PTO, and I’m not going to waste a second on spending time with people like Jenny Blitz.

The first time I felt the baby kick I was on the phone with the archdiocese. Turns out, Catholics have a whole program for people who want to convert called RCIA. I’m thinking about taking it, not for real, because I can’t make myself believe in anything for more than a month or two, but for her, and I was trying to find someone who could tell me how literally Catholics take the Bible. The secretary at the archdiocese finally passed me on to an old priest.

“So do you see Adam and Eve as a myth?”

“I think most priests do.”

“What about the Resurrection?”

“Well, that one not so much.”

“So what is the bottom-line stuff you have to believe to become Catholic?”

He was probably going to say something about Jesus but right then the girl child kicked me like a mad pony and I hung up on him and called Silas.

“Silas! The baby moved.”

“I can’t talk—”

Because he works at a print shop and his boss is a Nazi who keeps Help Wanted signs in the window year-round so you know where you stand

“I don’t care about your boss. The baby moved.”

“That’s great,” he whispered. “Call someone.”

“Like who?”

“I don’t know. I got to go.”

I thought about calling Jenny Blitz, but then she would know I didn’t have anybody to call. I thought about asking my midwife if she wanted to come over and play cards, but I was afraid she would think I was trying to get free advice. I went for a drive. The whole time, the baby girl was kicking and turning inside me and right when it was the strongest I saw the burrito truck with the Guadalupe. It turned in front of me, a flash of silver fish in a river. I crossed myself just to see what it felt like, but it felt unnatural and I looked around quickly to see if anyone had seen. I don’t want my girl to grow up afraid like I am. I’ll bathe her in rose water, wrap her in turquoise, pierce her ears with gold when she turns two, and teach her to light candles to the saints. Then it will be real for her and she’ll have something. Even if it’s just something to cast off.

I made a list of all the churches with Spanish-speaking masses. I figured if I didn’t understand what was said I might be able to believe. I went to a church by a freeway on-ramp. The pews were filled with girls sweating in pastel dresses and crying babies. I took Communion and felt nothing. The mass finished and the parking lot emptied. Lines of dented minivans and shiny pickup trucks backed up along the frontage road. The priest got into his Toyota Camry and drove away. I thought about going back into the church to see if it felt more mystical without people in it but I didn’t because I knew it would just make it worse. I think you have to have faith from the beginning. It’s not something you can make on your own unless your whole family gets killed or you flip out on meth or something. I want to give my girl a fighting chance. I want her to have a choice. But it’s too late for that. I can hear it in the trees and vacant lots and traffic noise. No matter what I do, I’ve already lost her to the world. Tiny starfish hands wrapping around my fingers as if they were channel rocks—it’s already like that for her. I’m what she’s got to hold on to. I hope she likes me. It’s okay if she doesn’t. It won’t change how I feel.


They’re taking my blood pressure all the time now, but Julie says my blood pressure isn’t the problem. I cry about the strangest things. I can’t read a newspaper or watch TV. She tells me I’m the type they worry about. The type that needs a good plan for after. She gave me a book about pregnancy, but it’s filled with pictures of women I don’t want to know. Pencil sketches of pregnant ladies on quilts.

Thursday mornings I go to a new mothers group my midwife recommended. The idea is that you bond when you’re pregnant so that you have built-in support later. It’s not working. We sit in a circle and talk about having weird cravings for things like liver or parsley or dirt, but all I want is a job where people don’t jump out of break room windows when you’re not looking and maybe a sense that this will all work out. They talk about prenatal massage and attachment parenting, which, as far as I can tell, means your husband makes $80,000 and you get to take three years off to stay home with your kid. Then someone breaks out a book of quotes by Rumi or Hafiz. They read a passage and everyone nods and we close. They put on their shoes and chatter about breast milk to goat’s milk to Waldorf, and I can’t stand listening to them talk. I would pay not to go to the group. There’s only one woman there I don’t mind. Her name is Elena and that’s what I’m going to name my girl. Elena.

I took down the women from the Mexican calendar because they make me want something I can’t have and I have other things to think about. I put a real calendar up in the kitchen. One I got free from my bank, with photos of regional wildlife. There are only a couple of months left, which is fine by me, because after that time stops.

I ran into Jenny Blitz again.

“Oh my God! You’re so big!”

Like the Death Star, I wanted to say. But really, I don’t want to say anything. I just want it to be quiet so I can hear her heartbeat in my body, even if that’s not possible, like Silas says, and no one’s hearing is that good. Even if it’s just my imagination, I don’t care.

On the regional wildlife calendar I wrote “Elena” in Sharpie on the day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

My midwife says first babies almost never come early.

Silas thinks I’m setting myself up.

“Why would you even want her to be born on a day immortalizing virginity?”

“It’s got nothing to do with virginity. It’s about Mary’s birth.”

“Whatever,” he said. “Remind me, I’ll put a cross over the door so the beasts of the underworld pass us by.”

“It’s just an idea I like.”

“I know a guy at work who sells Jesus bumper stickers. Should I get you one?”

“It’s not about Jesus.”

“Good, I’ll let him know you want some stickers.”

“It’s about Mary!” I yelled, kicking the kitchen cabinet door because I’m such an adult.

But Silas was already in the hallway.

“It means Mary was born pure. Mary!”

The bedroom door shut.

I knocked the cabinet again with my foot and went out the kitchen door. I slammed the screen but it sounded tinny and pathetic.

Across the driveway, the woman next door was doing yoga in her living room. There was blue masking tape on the window glass. They own their house and have been remodelling for months. They replaced the old siding with custom-milled cedar shingles over the summer. Now they are going to paint. I sat on the steps. If Jenny Blitz had been there I might have let her touch my belly. But maybe not, and that’s what I mean. Decisions like these aren’t going to matter, anyway. That’s what makes it all so immaculate. The second she is born, everything gets wiped clean, everything that came from someone else. It’s got nothing to do with us at all.[/private]

‘Just Before Elena’ originally appeared in Tin House magazine, issue #53.

Vanessa Veselka

About Vanessa Veselka

Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel, Zazen, which was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories appear in Tin House, YETI, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction is found in GQ, The Atlantic, The American Reader, Salon, and is included in the 2013 Best American Essays.

Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel, Zazen, which was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories appear in Tin House, YETI, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction is found in GQ, The Atlantic, The American Reader, Salon, and is included in the 2013 Best American Essays.

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