A Multiplication of Tensions
There are two babies.
One is big. The other small. One is loud. The other mild. One sleeps. The other does not. The wakeful baby stirs the sleepy baby. So both babies never sleep. Soon, the sleepless mother can’t remember if the babies ever slept.
One baby weeps molasses. The other leaves a trail of yolk. One is a darling. The other pellucid. One has a hangnail. The other a scar. One baby orates. The other demands.
One baby curses. The other transgresses. One baby flips. The other trapezes. Both babies like to draw on the walls.
One baby writes. The other reviews. One baby texts. The other tweets. Both babies are followed. They share a Tumblr account. The babies read Buzzfeed too often.
One baby measures a length of rope. The other aims a rusty knife. Both babies eye the other’s neck if the unwitting sibling sleeps.
One baby hurts.
Now both babies hurt.
The babies hurt each other.
See how the mother hurts too?
Sleepless, she can’t explain how the hurt feels. Her sentences only have beginnings. On good days, if she’s lucky, the beginnings chain together and sound like the complete sentences she’s lost.
The mother knows she loves both babies. She can’t unlove either baby.
So the mother watches how other mothers behave. At the park. On the metro. At playdates and parties. The mothers hug all the children, kiss every wet cheek. They even kiss children who are not their own children. So many unaccountable kisses. So many strained cheeks. The room raptures with licks, smacks, and puckers. Unfiltered, lip-twisted teething.
The mother bites the insides of her cheeks.
Then one baby dies.
And the other baby endures.
The mother loves and loved both babies.
Babies, she now understands, occur as a matter of a tense.
Because the mother loves the present baby. And also loves the absent baby.
She loves the baby who is.
The baby who was.
The babies who once had been. The babies who could be. She even loves the baby who, if she’s lucky, will one day be a baby no more.
She wonders: how many babies does that make?
The baby who sat. The baby who listened. The baby who jerked. The baby who screamed. The baby who cut. The baby who coded. The baby who leapt from the walls.
The baby who drank. The baby who blogged. The baby who sang. The baby who sank. The baby who gorged. The baby who stole. The baby who dumped trash on the floor.
The baby who vaulted. The baby who villained. The baby who cooked. The baby who cranked.
The baby who drooled. The baby who farted. The baby who hid. The baby who found.
The baby who was scared of the dark.
All the babies who trembled by light.
Christina Milletti’s novel Choke Box: a Fem-Noir won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in March 2019. Her fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, such as Harcourt’s Best New American Voices, the Iowa Review, The Master’s Review: Best Emerging Writers, Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, and Alaska Quarterly (among other places). Her first book, The Religious & Other Fictions (a collection of stories) was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and she has recently completed a new collection, Now You See Her, with the help of a fellowship from UB’s Humanities Institute and a residency at the Marble House Project. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo where she is the Director of the Creative Writing Program and co-curates the Exhibit X Fiction Series.