Borrowed Division

by Sarah VanGundy

Imagine, for a moment, that the edges of you can relax until they blur. Imagine you blur until you are not you and it is not now. Imagine you are my mother.

It is December 1974, and you are in Europe for the first time. London. Your hair is long and shiny, honey blonde. You wash it in beer and egg yolks and brush it with a boar-bristle brush that was a gift from your mother-in-law. You are twenty-nine years old and in your last year of PhD coursework at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. You are studying psychology. You are smart, smarter than your new husband, who is also finishing a PhD, but you are kind about it. You edit his papers and praise his arguments. You take his side in departmental politics.

You wear leather stacked-heel clogs that beat out an uneven tempo on the sidewalk and a navy polyester maxi-skirt with wooden buttons all the way down. You look pretty good. You have been on every diet: cabbage diets, bacon diets, grapefruit diets. In college you developed a theory that tanning and dieting were complementary activities because the smaller you became, the darker your skin would get. You believed you would become a concentrate of yourself, un-reconstituted, like the orange juice in the cans you slept on, empty, to curl your hair. You were kind of being funny when you explained this to people at parties, but you had really given it some thought.

The streets in London look like the sets of movies to you. You double-majored in literature and history and you can recite the succession of the crown. You can’t believe you are here. You walk out of London’s Heathrow Airport with your baby-blue hard-shell Samsonite suitcase that was a gift from your parents, with your tall handsome husband of two years, with your bickering in-laws who are paying for this trip, and your two young brothers-in-law.

In that moment, you are jet-lagged, but your vision sparks with the clear edges of unfamiliarity and potential. You are living the life you meant to live, it feels like it can all work: your experiences and desires suddenly can settle and click into the schema you’ve been curating. Your in-laws still seem to you like examples of charming upper-ish-class eccentricity, like Salinger’s Glass family, your husband’s dark moods still seem like marks of mercurial sensitivity that just make the bright times brighter. You know that he needs you. And you? You surprise yourself just by being there. Your own parents are schoolteachers, educated, but one generation off the farm in rural northern Indiana. Your family vacations were spent camping in national parks with coolers full of home-canned pickles and a lot of talk about how much better food tastes out of doors, how the rich are the ones missing out. Now here you are, in Europe, visiting London, Paris, and Rome. It is just a package tour, but the “just” part won’t occur to you until much later.

You get to your London hotel and check into your room. You are supposed to sleep off your jet lag. Your father-in-law is a doctor and he has a method for negotiating time zones that he explains to your traveling party, it has to do with exposure to the sun and the rhythms of the body. You are supposed to take a nap, immediately. But you and your husband are too excited for sleep, a little hysterical with exhaustion. He tells surreal jokes about the furniture, makes you laugh until you cry. He first seduced you while you were studying for an exam by acting out fake Latin roots for the words you were memorizing. You don’t remember much about the hotel room, just that the bed was huge and you couldn’t stop laughing. You make love with your husband, still laughing, before you finally fall asleep.

While you are sleeping, the biological processes of my becoming are already taking place. It’s a funny time. I imagine that the pairing of sperm and egg was confident, secure, direct, and fated. Because what else can I think? What if it was hesitant, sideswiped, a close call with nothingness?

In London, you visit all the monuments and buy a cream-colored cashmere sweater at Harrods. In Paris, you eat snails and drink champagne. In Rome, the bread tastes better than any you’ve ever had, but your cigarettes, Winston Lights, start not to taste as good. There is a picture of you in the airport before the flight home, looking nauseous and exhausted, smoking a cigarette, your legs crossed, your hair still bouncing, long and shiny. You go back to Ohio carrying a bottle of duty-free Chanel No. 5 that is so precious it gets saved on top of your dresser until the scent turns. You go back to Ohio carrying me.

Dr. Greentree, your OB-GYN, tells you to eat organ meat for iron. He suggests that you try not to smoke more than one pack a day. He doesn’t know what is going on inside of you, because no one does, but still you take notes and do research. You couldn’t have known then what has taken science forty years to discover, but you suspected, knew intuitively: my cells were crossing over the permeable structures that contained me, fanning out, colonists with plans for your resources, forming their own dynasties, successions of cellular shifting, building me and changing you forever.

You wear smocked cotton maternity dresses embroidered with flowers and switch from stacked-heel clogs to desert boots. You eat liver and quit smoking, for the baby. For me. Scientists call the process in which my little cells sidle up and settle with unavoidable magnetism next to yours fetomaternal microchimerism or fetal chimerism. You make yourself drink sludgy mixtures of brewer’s yeast and egg yolks while you study for your comprehensive exams. Your husband is excited, terribly excited, like he is awaiting the arrival of himself, but perfected.

In genetics, the term chimera refers to a single organism with genetically distinct cells, a hybrid. Your husband jokes that you should name the baby “Doctor” to save me the eventual trouble of graduate school. You don’t find out the sex of the fetus. You wait. In the Iliad, a chimera is a particular monster, “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire.”

We arrive like this, with our boundaries already blurred, always already not entirely ourselves. Cells from older siblings, miscarriages, abortions, cross the placenta and become part of a growing fetus, just as cells from a growing fetus transgress placental walls to become permanent parts of their mother’s body.

Now, let your lines bleed. Imagine you can cross the threshold of your skin and mine. Imagine you are me.

It is August 1997, and you have recently come back to the University of Oklahoma after backpacking around India with your boyfriend, a man twenty-two years your senior, old enough to be your father. At the end of the month you yourself will turn twenty-two years old. Your boyfriend is a naturopathic doctor and he looks so much like David Bowie that people do double takes on the street. Red-brown hair and sharp cheekbones and darkly blue eyes. He employs techniques of natural medicine with a flourish, like magic tricks, adjusting your hip to fix the turnout of your right foot and projecting your chance of thyroid dysfunction by measuring the curve of your ankle with his eyes. You believe him when he talks about optimal health, that there is an ideal, and with just a little more effort you could get there. You want to be ideal.

You’ve recovered from the dysentery you had in India but not from the shrill joy of emptiness it offered you, an emptiness you’ve courted since high school, when you told your mother at dinner that you weren’t hungry, you’d already eaten. Now you are so thin your period skips around, impishly, frightened maybe of your lost hunger or maybe delighted to be set free of the monthliness of its work. The fat pads on the bottoms of your feet have disappeared. It hurts a little to walk barefoot on the wood floors of your college apartment, but this feeling of bones on wood feels pure. The knocking of bone and wood is the sound of doors firmly sealed, the sound of knowing what is inside and what is outside. You think you look sharper, more intense, more concentrated than before you traveled. You think you look like you’ve seen what is out there.

You lie on your back on your futon bed, naked in the afternoon heat, admiring the concave space between your hipbones, the empty bowl of tight skin across your stomach. Your boyfriend is in the kitchen chopping vegetables; after you returned from India together, he sold his naturopathic practice and moved to Oklahoma, moved in with you. You suspect yourself of a strong magic to draw a grown man this way, though already you also suspect that your magic, in this case, is your young body and its magnetically unpoliced thresholds.

Your apartment is on the third floor of a rundown yellow Victorian house near campus, and the August sun streams hot through the high windows into your bedroom. Classes won’t start for another week. You are an English major, but you mostly take classes in cultural studies, not literature. You learn that culture is blurred, its lineages twisted, beyond the point of untangling. You read Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida and Foucault. The ideas you thought were finite, about culture and art and self, are constantly moving and shifting amalgams of acts, thoughts, practices, ideas. When you read, you feel a vertiginous freedom, a spaciousness that is both seductive and terrifying. Still, though, you hope the body, your body, doesn’t work this way. You hope for purity. You are proud of what you don’t let in, wary of what you do.

Years later you will be reminded of this time when you first encounter Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger in graduate school. “Purity is the enemy of change,” Douglas writes. “It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts. When we have them we have to either face the fact that some realities elude them, or else blind ourselves to the inadequacy of the concepts.”

You call to your boyfriend and he walks into the room, shirtless and sculpturally pale. He runs his hands over your body until you are dizzy, and you make love with the windows open. He usually pulls out, but this time he doesn’t. You both think it’s the wrong time of the month for you to get pregnant, that you are too thin, that it’s probably safe. He tells you it’s harder than you think to get pregnant. He tells you not to worry. He tells you, anyway, to imagine what a beautiful baby you would make.

You sleep fitfully in the heat that night, waking up before midnight, sure that there is someone in the closet or maybe the other room. You wake your boyfriend and he goes to check. No one is there.

You go back to sleep, one foot slipped under the sheet because the covering makes you feel safe, even in the heat. You don’t know it yet, but already it is happening inside you, with shifted time and place and particulars, the microscopic processes of your daughter’s beginning, a chimera, always already not entirely me or you. Later, you wonder if the sound of an imagined intruder in the apartment was the sound of your daughter announcing herself to you. Or you announcing yourself to her. Or just a vertiginous echo. You wonder if it was the way you sensed her first arrival in your body, your life. Didn’t there have to be a moment of arrival? A sliver of a time, a threshold, between now and the time before? A fallow pause, imperceptible but crucial, like the moment after an exhalation, before the inhalation creeps in?

You start classes: Modern Poetry, Feminist Film Theory, Philosophy of Logic. You go back to your student job at the university library. You start seeing a midwife, Ronii, who lets you listen to the fetal heartbeat through an ultrasound stethoscope and the hummingbird sound touches and surprises you into tears. Ronii tells you that you need to gain weight. You eat and eat and eat. You would eat even if she hadn’t told you to. You have never been so hungry. You are a vegetarian, but you can’t stop thinking about beef. You imagine eating it raw and bloody, with your hands, feeling the ghost of its metallic tang on the back of your tongue. You start craving the hearts of things. You drive through Carl’s Jr. for Famous Star Burgers. Your boyfriend tells you the meat will be too hard to digest, that you won’t have the right enzymes, but he is wrong. The burgers make you feel strong and light, like you are made of the earth’s molten core and peacock feathers.

The baby grows. You grow. She passes bits of herself into you and you pass yourself into her, lion-fronted and snake behind. You want to protect her, from the world, but especially from the leitmotif of yourself, her inheritance. You want to create a brand-new person, free from the very historical hungers and imagined orders that you are passing to her right now through your blood. You want her to have an ease with the world and its messiness that you have never managed. You want this body growing with you, through you, to know it is always already whole and finished, not a project to perfect. You want her emerge animal, to eat and be unhesitantly fed.

By now, you may not be sure where the boundaries of yourself are. It may be easy, even familiar, to imagine that you are my daughter.

You are in Paris with your mother, staying in a small private room on the top floor of a hostel in Montmartre. You are in Paris with me. The room is dirty and unair-conditioned and Europe is in the middle of a heat wave, but you can see the spires of Sacré Cœur from the small window. It is June 2014. You are sixteen years and six weeks old. You are almost six feet tall and you have your father’s Bowie-esque cheekbones and my habit of talking with my hands. It is your second time in the city. The first time, you were with me and your grandfather and you were only eight; you remember looking between your red tennis shoes as you climbed the openwork metal stairs in the Eiffel Tower and seeing all the way down to the cement, your fingers hooked tightly through the belt loops in my jeans, my weight your first line of defense against gravity.

This time, we walk all the way to the Eiffel Tower from the Montparnasse cemetery, where we were searching for Sartre’s grave but only found Serge Gainsbourg’s. There is construction, or maybe a heightened terrorist threat, and they aren’t letting people climb the stairs. If you want to go up, you have to buy a ticket and wait your turn. Instead, we get gelato scooped into the shape of roses from a street vendor and keep walking. Today you’ve eaten half a croissant from the hostel breakfast table, some strawberries, and now this flower ice cream. You are keeping track. You like the sharp edges of yourself, they are worth the vigilance it takes to maintain them. The women in Paris are so thin. Their nipples press braless through their artfully draped shirts, only partially hidden by the scarves they wear. You study them. You study me studying them.

You shaved your head a month ago, and it is now covered with the softest new dark blond hair. You have a habit of picking at your skin, awake and asleep, catching your fingernails on tiny bumps, real or imagined, until they bleed, until your upper arms and your slender calves are covered in scabs that you never leave alone long enough for them to close. As Parisian souvenirs, I bought you pink-rimmed sunglasses at Carrefour and a long cotton skirt with blue and white flowers that goes all the way down to your ankles, covering the wounds.

You tower over me, birdlike and exotic. You suspect I am judging your picked skin, your shaved head. We walk all over the city. You love Paris, but it overwhelms you. You feel my impatience with your panics. Tunisian men hiss at you in Pigalle and strangers pass anonymous hands over your hips while we jostle through the crowd out of the Metro and into the Louvre.

The World Cup is underway, and the games happen late into the night. The bars and cafes on the street under our hostel stay open, spilling tables out on to the streets, and it all comes up through the window in our room. The French smoking, the English swearing, Brazilians playing samba music, cars full of Argentinians driving slowly, pressing on their horns. The noise and heat keep us awake. You stand on a chair and lean out the window.

Sacré Cœur is illuminated. It glows into the darkness, bleaching the black spaces between the stars gray. I am splayed on one of the narrow cots in the room, drifting in the hypnagogic gray before sleep. You tell me you wish you believed in God. I open my eyes and ask you to get away from the window. You are scaring me. Fetal microchimeric cells can mimic tissues in many parts of the mother’s body. One research group followed the activity of fetal microchimeric cells in a mother rat after her heart was injured and discovered that the fetal cells migrated to the maternal heart, becoming heart cells to help repair the damage.

You lean further out, into the street and the night. You tell me you want to believe in the Sacré Cœur kind of God, a God that sets the rules, draws the lines around you, shoring you up, nesting you back in the syncopated certainty you left when you left the meter of my heartbeat and hip sway, the certainty I left when I left the borrowed division of the rhythms of my own mother, taken from the frugal signature of her mother. The certainty of the last moments before your skin started to matter so much in the shocking first brace of air. You wish you could believe in just one thing so much that you absolutely knew it was true, you tell me, but you don’t, you can’t. I tell you I can’t either. I reach for your scabbed arm. You pull away from the window and away from me too. We pulse together in the room, in Paris, in the heat, in the power of this confused and inarticulate space.

Published on June 1, 2018