“I am a ticking time bomb,” Penny announced earnestly at dinner.
“That is what the doctor said?” her husband asked, “He literally told you that you were like a bomb, ready to explode at any time?” He stirred his mashed potatoes. She had made them the way she liked: clumpy and with skin. He hated them that way.
She ignored his question. She was not going to answer if it destroyed her narrative. “I am ripe, is what I mean. I could conceive at any moment. We need to be prepared.” She fashioned a few mountains of potatoes onto her plate, adding rivulets of gravy. She topped the potatoes with several large pieces of fried chicken. “I just wish my health were important to you.”
He eyed her plate but said nothing.
She loved to eat. Always had. She ate until it hurt, and she craved that painfully full feeling more than she craved food. If she weren’t in pain from overeating, she felt empty.
“Empty” might be extreme. She was often accused of being dramatic, of exaggerating. It was just that she believed in telling her story, her truth. Once she had a narrative, she stuck to it. The current narrative was that, at nearly 320 pounds, every ounce of her ached with love. And she wanted to give that love to something that was hers. Something that belonged to her.
Her own marriage did not belong to her. It had been constructed by her mother. Penny and her boyfriend had been at a flea market with her mother who had spied a jewelry stand. “This one is perfect, don’t you agree?” Her mother had pointed to a small diamond ring. “And you won’t find another like it for that price,” she continued, putting him on the spot. There had been no proposal, no celebration, only a pre-worn ring thrust onto her finger, witnessed by tables of tchotchkes, unwanted dolls, and fabrics.
But a baby would be hers by choice and by design. She would lavish affection; she would nurture. She would give this baby the attention she had never received. Her mother could not celebrate others because she was the star of her own movie. While Penny craved food, her mother craved notice. Her mother had been a child actress, scoring a national commercial with a tagline that had been reproduced on t-shirts. She had been the picky eater whose parents found magical pancakes fortified with vitamins and minerals. The girl had eaten so many pancakes she exclaimed (with a syrup-lined mouth), “Imma ‘bout to explode!”
Sometimes people still recognized Penny’s mother. She went to conventions and sat at a table, waiting to autograph old shirts and pancake boxes for $5.00 a pop. She had always told Penny that her career had been about to hit a resurgence when she had become pregnant. She never failed to remind Penny that she was the reason she was seated at folded tables instead of being paraded across red carpets.
Penny knew this was not true and it certainly was not part of her narrative. What was true was she wanted a baby. That had been the impetus for the appointments with teams of doctors. And while she was not conceiving, her waist expanded. Her narrative told her that she was in the second trimester based on the last time her husband had managed to remain sober enough to finish.
“You are not pregnant,” her husband said.
“You are not pregnant,” the doctor confirmed. But her body told a different story. Something was definitely growing inside her. This was proven by an internal ultrasound that showed tiny, glowing specks orbiting her uterus.
“He said they look like stars,” she told her mom proudly.
“What did you expect” her mom asked, bored. “You were on the pill forever and that causes all kinds of problems.” She knew her mother was jealous because Penny had taken some control over her reproductive life.
“Stars are bad?”
“Anything that was not there originally is bad,” her mother sneered, “even a baby. Will the doctor be removing these ‘stars’ and how much will that cost? You know I was planning a cruise.”
Penny’s face burned with anger, a burn slightly less intense than the one she had begun feeling in her lower abdomen. “We have money.”
Her mother scoffed and Penny attributed this to more jealousy.
Tests could not determine the nature of the stars, nor could they ascertain where the distressing abdominal cramps were coming from. “Imma ‘bout to explode,” Penny murmured. She found it difficult to take more than a few steps without having to sit and wait, in agony, for the pain to pass.
When she could no longer pull her elastic-waist pants over her growing abdomen, Penny returned to the doctor.
“Are there more stars?” she asked as he scanned her latest ultrasounds.
“Penny, there is something…a tumor. I am going to take a biopsy and have it sent to pathology.”
“A tumor? Not a baby?” She couldn’t understand what the doctor was saying as it did not support her narrative.
“Penny, we discussed that your difficulty conceiving may be attributed to your weight, which increases each time we see you. At your size it would be dangerous and irresponsible…” she didn’t listen to the rest of his words and instead reminded herself that she would be finishing her third trimester and ready to give birth at any time, like a ticking time bomb.
The pain inside of her made Penny truly feel like a ticking time bomb. She felt full all the time even though her appetite was nonexistent. Despite eating limited bites of food here and there, the scale continued to herald higher and higher numbers. This feeling of fullness was less pleasurable than the one derived from a surplus of food. She reminded herself that there was a growing person inside of her and that the pain was worth it.
She spent most of her time in bed until she was called back to the doctor to discuss the results from pathology. She was to report to the hospital instead of the medical offices and when she arrived there were two doctors in the room. She knew this was unusual but assumed the new doctor would oversee delivery.
Her regular doctor sat on a stool that allowed for sustained eye contact. He spoke slowly and asked her to verify that she understood that the tumor was not made from her tissue or cells, that it was completely foreign.
She repeated the words obediently but had no concept of what they meant, and they were not what she wanted to hear.
The doctors nodded at each other as if working up the courage to continue. “We will be keeping you here. We want to remove the tumor surgically.”
“A c-section?” she gasped.
“No, Penny.” The other doctor approached her and laid a gentle hand on her arm. “There is no baby, only a tumor. I am afraid it is dangerous to your health to not remove it immediately.”
“You’re saying the baby is in danger, or I am in danger, or both?” she asked incredulously.
The doctors exchanged equally incredulous glances. “No baby, Penny. It is only you and you are in danger.”
She allowed them to admit her to the hospital and had them call her mother and husband to see if someone could keep her company. They found a gown large enough to cover her and left her lying on a very narrow bed, waiting for the baby that she knew to be there.
Her pain escalated. “This must be contractions,” she whispered, “the baby may come before the c-section can be performed.” The pain moved down into her bowels, and she hoisted herself out of the bed to enter the very tiny bathroom. She crouched over the toilet, feeling the worst cramps of her life. She simultaneously wanted to push and wanted to avoid the pain of pushing. She groaned and pushed as that aligned with her narrative.
Something wet slid from inside her and she looked down to see a great blob, the size of a pancake, stuck to her thigh. It was bloody and pulsating and it looked to be riddled with stars.
“Oh my…” Penny lifted the blob to her chest and cradled it. She wept and rocked the shimmering sphere in her arms. She carried it with her back to the bed, snuggling it and murmuring to it until it cracked open.
“This isn’t…what is this?” she asked the empty room, as the shell of the sphere crumbled away, exposing tiny, moving spider-like creatures.
Penny reached for her purse and retrieved the magnifying glass she had purchased at the flea market when her husband had been strong-armed into proposing. The creatures crawled over her lap and appeared to be trying to burrow into her flesh.
She heard a gasp and looked up to see her mother. “I am nursing,” Penny said proudly, while the creatures’ miniscule jaws tore into a roll of abdominal flesh.
Her mother screamed and once Penny’s condition was noted, her room became packed with medical personnel. They talked to Penny and took notes and photographs of the strange phenomenon. Penny saw her mother, backed into the corner, red with anger that Penny was now the center of attention.
And this was Penny’s new, happy narrative.
∼ Elaine Pascale
© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.