The boy wanted to know about the mark on Portia’s neck. Over the course of four days, it had turned from a reddish color into something more clearly defined and purple and, finally, to a softer, although no less alarming, green-blue smudge. It seemed that the boy could no longer bear the grotesque mystery of it.
“What happened to your neck, Mommy?” he asked, running his thumb over it. They were sitting on the futon together, just to sit. The boy, Julian, was seven years old and still very affectionate. He liked to slide his hand up the back of Portia’s shirt, to rub or gently scratch the spot between her shoulder blades. Sometimes he would hum to himself or recite under his breath the prime moments of his fictional inner world, as if broadcasting the score of an imaginary game.
This habit had been adapted from old habits, the first from when he was nearly two, when he would lie with Portia in her bed, squeezing her breast, sometimes rolling the nipple with his finger. The sensation that this yielded, a sickening, unforgiving feeling of frustration, was only tolerated because it was the quickest way to get the boy to sleep. Eventually, and with patience, Portia was able to coax the boy’s hand from her breast to her stomach, where he would mash the flesh of her belly, indulgently, like a cat kneading a cushion. It was not much better, but it felt like progress. Over the years, his hand had migrated to her side, then to her back, where it would return throughout the day, reclaiming this one small need.
Motherhood had proven to be stranger and more intimately compromising than Portia had expected. Her biggest difficulties were not external—the grocery store tantrums, the lack of sleep, the many domestic injustices of the day. Instead they seemed to rise from her gut, like fermentations—wordless burdens, unanticipated sorrows, and all the worrying. She worried about the improbable, mostly, the heavy tree branches that might fall on the child, diseases that he might pick up in the sandbox. When he was a newborn, she had entertained a very brief but horrifying notion that she would go mad and drop him in the fish tank. She had stacked books on the lid, to deter her crazed, hypothetical self. It would take long enough to remove them, she reasoned, that the impulse would pass, the child would be spared. She would come to, like a sleepwalker. There were so many of these morbid, imaginary bargains to be made, now that her son was in the world and she could not stop the world from taking him if it wanted to.
The morning after Julian was born, the doctor who had delivered him came to Portia’s bedside. He was a man with a rounded gray beard and immensely hairy hands. How could those hands catch a baby? Portia thought. Or dip into the tender cavity of a cesarean section? In the end, her own baby’s birth had been a cesarean, and Portia was left bedridden, her battered, swollen stomach stapled together, a catheter bag slung over the side of the hospital bed, filling slowly with urine. The doctor looked at the bag. He said, “Women have it hard.”
Portia thought that he might be talking about the way that she had cried before the surgery, when the feeling in her legs began to fade, as if she were being erased from the bottom up. She would flinch for years afterward when anyone brushed against the small of her back, where the cold epidural needle had touched her spine.
“Since they are little girls,” the doctor continued, “women are taught to hold their bladders. At school, on long car trips—they are too afraid to say, ‘pull over,’ and instead, they watch the exit signs roll by until someone else speaks up.” Portia looked into the man’s brown, close-set eyes, trying to figure out what he meant. His eyes were wet with compassion, warm, fatherly compassion, like a preacher, touched by his own words. She waited for him to arrive at his point, but he only rested those deep eyes on her until they seemed to reach their own private satisfaction.
“Take care,” he said, and he touched the cheek of the sleeping baby on her chest.
Portia pressed the bruise on her neck and thought of her lover, Theo, the tender force of him, the shockwaves that traveled up through her and lodged, like tears, or ecstasy, in her throat. A soft, involuntary sigh escaped her.
“It’s just a waitress mark,” she told her son. “Waitresses get them from carrying large trays on their shoulders. The edges of the trays push into their necks and leave a bruise. We all get them.” The boy studied her face, and Portia saw a sweet, accepting smile appear on his lips, as if it made no difference and all the difference in the world. As if he understood her plight, the complicated burden of what she had to endure. As if to say, “Poor Mommy!”
Excerpted from In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel, copyright © 2023 by Genevieve Plunkett. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.