After my swim, I enjoy a steam, though only for a short while, as I don’t want to be featured on the Channel 5 News for crock-potting my baby in utero. I expect a naked older lady in there with me, clucking, groaning, exfoliating, rubbing her wilting muscles impatiently. Today I find a Queen Bee on the tiled riser sighing with intention. My arrival disrupts her diaphragmatic calisthenics. She gestures at me to pull the door shut before I’m fully inside. This wordless order gives the impression she’s adopted the tacit rule of not talking to others while steaming. Her silky butt, spreading underneath her like a buttermilk pancake, is baking on the communal tile. But as I enter, my naked, unmistakably pregnant belly registers in her line of sight. Her eyes lock on mine, and she isn’t polite enough to break off her stare. This is how highway bottlenecks occur.
Queen Bee: “Soon?” (Eyebrows at my belly.)
Me: “July.” (That is, two full months from now, Queenie).
Queen Bee: “Twins?”
Me: “One — I think.” (You’ve heard those stories about the surprise multiples, right?)
Queen Bee: “You’re big!” (Those eyebrows. Those goddamn tape-measuring eyebrows.)
And there we go, evaluation: BIG. She couldn’t not.
Why is that one word, “big,” so irritating? I haven’t been body-conscious about the weight gain that comes with, well, growing a person inside you. But still. Before my pregnancy, people superfluously told me I was “so little!” Like I didn’t know my own tallness, or weight, or how it might compare.
What are you really saying? I always wanted to ask, but never did. Are you wondering if I take care of myself? Have an undiagnosed disease you might be the first to intuit?
And now, I get “big” — a different judgment, one thrown so casually at pregnant people you’d think you were supposed to house a creature in your belly with complete discretion.
Pregnancy definitively shows you that you are not separate from your body. Your body, in fact, swallows you.
The pregnant body is that monstrous, beautiful eye-sore of architecture. Luxury buildings built in haste wind up with structural problems. Pregnancy is made very slowly, and often winds up with structural problems. Pregnancy definitively shows you that you are not separate from your body. Your body, in fact, swallows you. You become the terrain of others. And sometimes, you feel the urge to correct their appraisals.
Me: “Hmmm... no. I’m actually measuring small. Maybe I’m stretched out because it’s my second baby?”
WHY AM I TELLING YOU THIS? WHY?
She doesn’t acknowledge. But hey, even I listen to myself with disinterest. My words buzz by like the drone of public radio my mom would play in our car on hot summer drives with the windows half rolled down.
And trust me, you do not want to hear you are “small” either: my caregivers had sent me down that rabbit-hole already, and the bevy of tests that follow. What you want to hear is “just right. You are just right.” Those in their advanced decades are sometimes lauded for their perspective. Queen Bee had clearly yet to yield to that Royal Jelly.
Queen Bee is still staring at me, her irises eclipsing further conversation. Big is relative. I am not huge. I am more like a catamaran in a bathtub.
I’m sure the churning I feel inside is my unborn child, also offended, rolling its unopened eyes, attempting to tune out the meddling. I rub my belly, thought-beaming the baby: your time is limited in your watery cave, and then you will really have to hear this garbage. SO ENJOY IT IN THERE, Pipsqueak. ON THE OUTSIDE, PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS.
Pregnancy robs me of the word I’m looking for, but it doesn’t rob me of exhaustive overthinking.
Why did I even dignify her with a reply?
Why don’t we know better than to say shit about each other’s bodies — uninvited?
Does respect for elders mean engaging with their insensitivity?
Is that something you earn the right to, as if your passing decades shred your decorum?
Queen Bee and I are trapped in a humid closet with sweat rolling down our butt cracks. Even the moisture suddenly feels inappropriate. I mean, even god probably would want to give us our personal space. But Queen Bee doesn’t seem to understand that that is a thing.
Queen Bee rises, and her skin follows: “Well, dear, good luck.” Her tone implies that in my case good luck would be as likely as an ice cube not melting on this same riser.
When she leaves, the springy door thwaps as hard as her commentary, before I can revise my comebacks, or ask her to inquire again so I can say something more in line with what I really think. My wit is tempered by hormones, and further clouded by the steam.
I’m already crafting my shoulda’s in my head, because what else can I do but rewrite reality?
QB: Baby coming soon?
Me: OMG, Right now! Right this minute! Do you have plastic gloves? This is either labor or I’m about to take a huge poop, god, I really hope it’s labor!
QB: (furrowing her brows) Twins?
Me: No, octoplets! But my medical team said they would probably only be able to save two. Can you help me pick which? Maybe the cutest of the batch?
I really advise this coping method, the creative but fatally delayed comeback.
The air outside the steam room feels cool as kisses when I exit. The baby curlicues, maybe from the temperature change, or maybe to remind me that there is still space for change, period.
Later, when Queen Bee passes me, I do not tell her that she has toilet paper shreds stuck to her naked ass. In retaliation, or to protect her from humiliation? She meanders around the locker room in her bling and birthday suit, from the hair dryer to the sink to the paper towel stacks, now more like the worker bee visiting clover, finding none of it good enough.
There’s something equalizing in the toilet paper bits.
That frees me up to imagine a different, kinder, more redeeming exchange.
Queen Bee: “It looks like you’re pregnant, dear. Since I’m retired, might I offer you some free childcare so you can swim more than once each week?”
YES! YOU CAN YOU REALLY REALLY ABSOLUTELY WITH GLUCOSE ON TOP CAN. I HOPE MY ENTHUSIASM IS NOT MISTAKEN FOR DESPERATION.
My life’s philosophy? I would never say anything (aloud!) that had a chance in hell of making someone feel ugly, bad or ashamed of themselves. The messages of this world cripples each of us enough. We don’t need to rehearse or replicate those messages.
How can we be aware that what comes out of our mouths just might skewer another person’s sense of worth?
I don’t know the identity or character of the baby inside me, and no woo-woo uploads from the womb have clued me into what aspects of being a person in the world my kid might struggle with or triumph over. But I do know part of my job is to be an unrelenting steward of its dignity.
And what about mine? I have to start there, model an insistence that my body is not open for superfluous critique, nor is yours, nor is anyone’s.
How can we let each other be ourselves? With the honey of actual lovingkindness on top? How can we be aware that what comes out of our mouths just might skewer another person’s sense of worth? Can we pause our buzzing and, in the nick of time, not say that thing?
A pregnant woman especially needs reassurance as her body makes room for another, makes another from scritchety-scratch. Try: You are just right. It is not my place, furthermore, to tell you what you are.
Just then, as I am lost in these thoughts, the health club’s female manager with her all-seasons tan enters the locker room, and stops when she sees me dressing: “How are you feeling, sweetheart? You look beautiful!!!”
WELL DESERVING OF TRIPLE EXCLAMATION MARKS.
Now, that is more like it. But please don’t get me started on how I am feeling.