Birth Stories

Published on January 4th, 2022 | by Ariel McCleese

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Bloody Show

They call it the bloody show. A red flag, a warning, an urgent announcement of what is about to come. It’s significant that the thing you have been terrified of the whole time, finding that spot in your underwear, and then a lumpy red that dyes the smooth white porcelain and never comes out no matter how hard you scrub, that’s the thing you’re waiting for, eager for, now. This is characteristic of the whole nine months, the terrible urgency of presence and absence. You absolutely do not want any blood. Now you do. You felt a kick! Now you don’t. You see no one, shut in your house for days that become weeks, marked only by the little drawings of fruit you put on the calendar on the fridge every Saturday. Some weeks that’s the most excitement you’ll have, deciding whether to use a colored pencil or a yellow highlighter for the pineapple on Week 33. But the absence, the total and all-consuming absence, is a sacrifice you make for the promise of a presence, one whose kicks you feel, and then suddenly don’t.

I had no bloody show. Her growth was quiet, sturdy, like she knew what she was doing. She knew herself and so did not need to make herself known. But inside my mind, the only part of me that she hadn’t pushed and shoved aside, there was blood everywhere. I’m a horror film director. My job is often to tell someone where and how much blood should be poured from buckets onto people, the walls, the floor. But the dreams I had while I was pregnant put Cronenberg to shame. In the one I think of most, I pulled her out of me repeatedly to check on her, to see if she was alright. She was grey and wrinkled, the umbilical cord stretched taught while I conducted my examinations. It wasn’t easy, putting her back in, but it was very quiet. I woke up screaming, sandwiched in the squashy arms of my pregnancy pillow. I went to Japan once and saw pillows shaped like women’s laps, or chests with t-shirts pulled tight across the breasts, for lonely men to rest their heads upon and feel at peace. I thought that the pilling grey fabric closing around me should offer something similar, which it didn’t.

My husband and I had tried to get pregnant for two years. When they did an ultrasound, the cysts blossomed like peonies in spring. On March 17th we were scheduled to begin fertility treatments. On March 16th the office announced that all new procedures were being put on hold. Through tears I wrote an email saying that I completely understood, who knew what the risks could be. A few days later, I peed into a Dixie cup like I always did in the mornings and dipped the tiny ovulation strip inside. The pink line on the right was so much darker than the one on the left. We went for a walk and wondered if we should hold off, decided that we should. Later we said what the hell, it never works anyway. So of course, it did.

I wore gloves and goggles and a thick N95 I’d found in my toolshed. Other women in the waiting room, bellies peeking out from under their shirts, pulled up paisley bandanas to drink Starbucks. I felt insane. I discovered there is no zoom function on FaceTime, desperate to show my husband the swirling gray lines on a screen across the room. He pretended he could see the foot, a kindness. We spent each day and night in front of the TV, or playing Scrabble, or doing blind line drawings of each other. We got into beat ‘em up arcade games for a while. During the lull in a show or a game’s loading screen, like clockwork, my face would fall and I’d go quiet. He usually wouldn’t notice. In a small voice, after a long time, I’d say, “I haven’t felt her. Something’s wrong.”

If the worst had happened, nobody would know. Not the checker at the Italian deli down the street, not the students in my classes, not my friends. I was only ever visible from the shoulders up. Like it never happened, like she was never there, like I had not become this new person I now was. I felt like a girl in a timeworn book, sent to a convent after a night with the boy from town, only to return ashen-faced and gaunt with a hollow look in her eyes. There was no shower, no unsolicited belly touching, no laughs about the awkwardness of hugging through a beach ball. I sat on the couch, the PS4 controller vibrating as I died in the arcade game, counting kicks.

She came on January 4th, squarely between the worst peak recorded and the insurrection. We took a test that would determine if my husband could stay with me for the birth, and nobody told us the results. When they walked us to our room I said, “I guess we passed.” I labored for forty hours before having an emergency c-section. My doctor was on vacation. I asked where he could possibly be going and was told that he’d had a hard year too. As I said, there was no bloody show, no water broken, just a hollow tapping that I can still feel inside my spine when I think too much about the epidural. There was lots of beeping and rushing that I didn’t understand, and my husband was given a second mask to change into that was different because it was blue. My teeth chattered so much that I knew they would break, crack down their centers and choke me as I swallowed them. I couldn’t feel the knife go in but felt an excruciating pain in my shoulder and thought maybe the baby had ended up there somehow. When they pulled her out and brought her to me, I felt nothing. I thought, who is this?

The first few hours are so important, I’d been told. The golden hour, and skin to skin. There’s a chart in the room that says when things are supposed to happen. First bath at 24 hours, a hearing test after 48. For skin to skin it said: 24/7. She couldn’t breastfeed and I asked for help, but all the lactation consultants had been fired. I said I missed my mom, and the nurse started crying and told me to think of the women upstairs, the ones who have COVID and are doing this alone. I felt my mask go wet instantly, which makes them more dangerous than if you aren’t wearing one.

When it was time to go, my husband cried hysterically because he couldn’t figure out the snaps on her PJs. I ignored them, both crying now, stuffing pads that felt like submarine sandwiches into my bag. As we sat in the wheelchair on the sidewalk waiting for him, I realized we’d remembered our face shields but forgotten the car keys. At home I held her up for my mom to see through the glass in my front door. She left a Tupperware and told me to put it outside when we were done, we didn’t have to clean it. I cried and thought over and over again, who is this?

I’m sitting on the carpet smiling at her now as she picks up the blue pitcher from her wooden puzzle, as she always does. I’ve deduced from this that her favorite color is blue, and I think she’s going to be a marine biologist. She’s headstrong and bold, totally herself. She rules over her domain, the oatmeal-colored carpet. And still, nobody knows her or has seen her, despite living in a house made of glass. We could still be at that convent, waiting for a bloody show that would never come.

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About the Author

Ariel McCleese is a feminist horror film director based in Los Angeles. Her work carves out space in the horror genre for women as agentive subjects rather than passive victims. You can check out her website at www.arielmccleese.com or Instagram @arielmccleese



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