Meg got back up at midnight, unable to sleep. She’d gone to bed at ten, barely able to keep her eyes open, but once the lights were out her thoughts jangled around like a broken toaster. She tried counting–sheep, elephants, iguanas. She rearranged her half dozen pillows two dozen ways, propping each part of her unwieldy, too-heavy body into a careful posture of repose, only to have an itch or a cramp or a simple desire to move that required a complete reengineering of her nest. She tried singing to herself. The baby kicked and rolled, a porpoise on a midday beach, a creature without even an inkling of a suitable hour for exercise. Finally it just made more sense to get out of bed. Perhaps she could work, get some reading out of the way, correct some quizzes. Maybe there was something bearable on TV. She wanted an orange.
The kitchen table held a ten-pound bargain bag of oranges. Nutrition books be damned, she was building this baby out of oranges and chocolate. She’d never had such a powerful sweet tooth before, though she’d always loved fruit. Oranges reminded Meg of her father, something about the pocky skin recalling his stubbled face, or the fragrant residue of the oil on her hands echoing the way he used to come in from the garden smelling of plants, tomatoes especially, but also garlic, lemon thyme, rosemary. Even after he’d washed, the scent would linger, as if he’d ground the leaves into his skin. And she remembered the globes he used to carve for Meg and her brothers, picking away the peel in little crescents, scooping out the oceans until the neatly formed continents were left behind. “This is Africa,” he’d say, “down here is the Cape of Good Hope. And here,” with a last flick of his nail to carve out the Mediterranean, “is the Iberian Peninsula–Portugal and Spain.”
She picked up an orange, wondering if she could do it herself. It was time she learned some clever tricks to impress the baby. Her grandmother had caught flies out of the air with one hand and found four-leaf clovers nearly every time she looked at the ground. Her other grandmother played the harmonica. Her own mother had known a thousand rhymes and finger games, none of which Meg could properly remember. They came back in flits and scraps, two verses with no punch line, just fingers wagging aimlessly in the air. The orange seemed her only hope.
And it seemed more than that, somehow proof of worthiness if she could only pull it off. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually looked at a globe. Plenty of borders and names had changed since her father’s last performance, but the continents had more or less stayed put. Even with her father’s years of practice, there was only so much detail you could manage with a fingernail and an orange.
Still, her first attempt was a disaster. She dug right in and carved out an ocean. But soon the ocean was too big, a pan-Pacific sea of such immense proportions that the globe held little room for land. Perhaps an ocean of the future, once global warming melted the glaciers. Meg consoled herself that she had wanted a snack, anyway. That had been the excuse for getting out of bed. She finished peeling the orange, then arranged the individual sections in a careful row before eating them fast, hardly chewing, packing the fruit into her mouth. No chocolate in the house, she didn’t bother to look. She had looked several times earlier in the day.
She waddled over to the sink to wash her hands. Oranges now reminded her of Seville as well, the municipal workers in their blue jumpsuits loading the inedible fruit into burlap sacks. Her own ridiculous body now had the shape of an orange. The path between table and sink seemed a long walk. Some tall women, thin like Meg before their pregnancies, seemed to tack on their growing bellies like a separate organ, a basketball stuffed under their shirts. She, however, had simply spread, all of her growing more cumbersome, her hips and thighs stretched as much as her abdomen. She wondered if from now on she would be a tall, fat woman, or if the excess bulk might disappear as quickly and mysteriously as it had come.
Deep breath. Swallow. The oranges, the globe, could wait. She needn’t master it tonight. She could practice bit by bit.
Only it couldn’t wait. It was after midnight and with work tomorrow and little chance of enough sleep, it was terribly important that she get it right. She would be more careful this time. She would plan. She thought of going for a pencil, just this once, sketching an outline onto the peel before she began. But that would be cheating. The thing was to get it right as if by chance, as if she were inventing the globe as she went along, and yet have it be accurate all the same. Her father had made it seem magical, as if he himself were devising the map even as he explained it.
It was one of her father’s few deliberate lessons. Though affectionate, Meg’s father had always been on the distant side, present to his family but a little eccentric, wrapped up in his tomatoes and other esoteric interests they didn’t quite understand. But the globes were something all three kids shared. She knew if she called them both Matt and Joel would remember the ritual, their father picking out the continents bit by bit until he had a mountain of rind on the table and a fairly detailed map of the world in his hand. Once, as a twist, he made a backwards one for Joel, with the oceans raised and the continents scraped away. They couldn’t ask for it. It wasn’t something that happened every time oranges appeared on the counter. But they’d linger at the table, almost aimlessly rolling their oranges around in their hands, delaying the moment when it would be too late, when the orange would irrevocably become a simple fruit, its peel holding no more potential than that of being removed on the way to the flesh. Often their father would take the hint without seeming to notice their snare, would sit down across from one of them and pick up his own orange, or quietly hold out his hand. “Let me show you something,” he’d say, each time as if it were the first, and he would begin to work on his world.
Her father’s oceans were naturally the pale orangey white of the pith, so that Meg was surprised, on first seeing the ocean, to find it shades of blue and gray and green. At first she hadn’t thought they were the same, the ocean she waded in when they drove to the coast and the Pacific her father would point out on the orange. Somehow the conventional colors of maps, the countries tinted yellow or green or pink, were easier to reconcile to the actual world than the contrast between the orange and the water it had come to represent. The sea foam was a relief, different but related to the color she had imagined, its peachy beige clumps skittering over the sand like mobile continents or islands in their own right.
So she tried again. And again. After a while she was too stuffed to eat her mistakes. The inadequate globes, maps to some world still undiscovered, piled up in a pyramid by her elbow. It was an assembly line, the gradually emptying net bag to her left, the pile of peelings in front of her, the mound of discards at the end.
By now Meg was crying with frustration and fatigue. She even said it aloud: “I can’t do it.” The orange oil stung her eyes when she wiped them with the back of her hand, which made her cry more, until she sank her head onto the table. There was no possible way she could be a good mother to this child. No possible way she could, in herself, be an adequate family. Look at how dismally her one attempt to carry on her father’s care had failed. It would only get worse. Perhaps she should put the child up for adoption after all. It probably wasn’t too late. Just the day before, in her compulsive perusal of the daily paper, she’d read several ads from loving, prosperous, in every way ideal couples who longed for a child. Maybe they would want hers.
But even as she reached something resembling a decision, Meg knew she wouldn’t follow through. This pregnancy, bizarre souvenir of her directing a semester abroad, might be her only chance. Glumly, she rearranged the battered oranges. She should get them into plastic bags or they’d be brittle and unappetizing by morning.
Some of her attempts held a certain appeal. One looked like Theodore Roosevelt. Another resembled a family of cranes. She considered studding it with cloves and hanging it in a closet, then wondered if it wouldn’t simply rot, if another curing process was required. Perhaps she needed a model, maybe she should look for a real globe at a thrift store and work from that.
Before she left for Spain, she had been untroubled by her relatively solitary state. She had wished she wasn’t single, but she hadn’t obsessed over it. Now she found herself wondering how the baby would affect her loneliness. She wouldn’t be trapped at home, far from adult companionship, because she would have to go back to work after her leave ran out. Perhaps she’d meet people through her daughter’s day care, other harried parents picking up their charges at the end of the day. She could take her to the park in the afternoons–even a baby might enjoy an outing to the playground, the chance to gaze at other kids and moving objects, the stimulation. Meg was reading a lot of parenting books. Proper stimulation and plenty of it seemed the key.
She needed to get back to bed. Her flannel robe no longer met across her belly, but she wore it anyway, unwilling to spring for a new one so close to the end. She kept the heat higher than she used to.
Being publicly pregnant had been detestable and she was relieved that classes were over for the term. She hated the exposure. One student declared he’d finally seen the famous “pregnant glow” and she had to resist snapping back that he was about to see the less famous punitive F. It humanized her too absolutely, this now incontrovertible proof of her existence beyond the classroom. She felt hijacked, waylaid, as if she no longer fully belonged to herself. The bigger she got, the more possessive others became. Strangers in the bathroom would smile knowingly at her as she washed her hands. Their eyes would be kind, and they would be almost bursting in their eagerness to say something, usually about themselves. Any woman who had ever had a thought about pregnancy or children wanted to share. It was supposed to be communal, but it felt like an invasion.
Norah kicked at that moment, hard, and Meg jumped a little in her chair. Just what she needed, a mind-reading baby crowding her guts. Irritation jostled against joy and disbelief. The notion of herself as a parent was laughable, but at the same time welcome. Motherhood would be like reinventing herself. Perhaps it would be her true calling.
That would be the worst, though, the worst she could offer either child or self. She saw it absolute and all at once, plain as plain, the haggard, over-burdened mother finishing the science projects late at night, baking cookies before an early meeting, grading papers on the sidelines of her daughter’s soccer games. Perfecting her orange globes until she made one every day for Norah’s lunch, but she’d go beyond globes, and oranges. Each day she’d create a lovely yet educational work of art, portraits of famous women done in raisins on the peanut butter sandwiches, the dark, wrinkled fruit achieving the evocative air of a fine woodcut. Carrot sticks carved into miniature, historically accurate swords, perhaps with quotes from Shakespeare or other relevant literature inked on a napkin. Don Quixote and Sancho molded out of paté, perfect radish roses, a yogurt volcano, a Jello iceberg with a whipped cream polar bear reaching its paw down after a pineapple fish.
Better no calling at all. Better a decent mother and a competent Spanish professor and the occasional week at the beach. She could already imagine her toes in the sand, even the cold, storm buttered sand of December. She was spending far too much time indoors and she wished, again, that she shared her neighbors’ confidence in the safety of the streets, she’d go for a walk right now.
Instead she tried again with the oranges. No more cranes, not even a credible FDR, but one of the attempts did begin to resemble an actual globe, provided one wasn’t too fussy about the continuity of the Americas. There was a canal, after all, breaking them up. No one could really ask for unbroken land from north to south.
She imagined the baby lying sideways across her midriff like the bubble in a carpenter’s level. An east-west axis, an equator. She imagined showing the child one of her distorted globes, making it up as she went along. How old would she be before she knew the difference? How much older before she forgave her mother the deception? Understood, if only partially, how one could spend hours peeling oranges for a child not yet born.
© Amalia Gladhart 2004, 2011