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Josh Wetjen


Stuck There

I stood at our kitchen window lining up carrots and celery on a cutting board. The heat of June hung in the kitchen. My wife, pregnant and exhausted in the next room, muttered the answers along with an episode of Jeopardy.

Earlier I had proposed a long simmering pot of Bolognese sauce for a pasta dinner. I anticipated the warm, slightly sweet meatiness. The involved preparation, the meticulous dicing, seemed appealing. Tessa humored me and agreed to the plan, despite the bad omen of my running off to buy ingredients in the midst of rush hour. She understood how, three weeks into vacation, I still struggled to shake off my “teacher self” and loosen up.

“Okay,” she had said. “It would be nice to eat before eight, though.”

I had accomplished the shopping. I had managed things pretty well so far. I readied my knife.

Then I recalled the linguine on the stovetop. Oh no. Cooked too early. Rubbery. I drained the pot. Perhaps later on I could bring the noodles back to life with a little more water. As I sliced through the celery I lingered on the evening I hoped for. A gentle, candlelit moment. The steaming pasta. My gaze catching my wife’s. A bottle of wine from our basement stash. Tessa could have at least a taste. We could ease into the night, really relax. Summer might finally make its drowsy, freeing appearance. My mood lifted.

I started mincing, rocking the knife with precision, finding my groove. After the carrots, I chopped an onion in half and peeled it, then laid it its side and made the perpendicular cuts you see on T.V. Eyes stinging at the odor, a surge of pride hit me. I thought of the pasta, of the daring compromises any artist makes under pressure.

After a couple minutes Tessa walked in. I roused from my labor. The oven clock said I had already been working for half an hour.

“Not to be pushy” she said, “but should I snack now?”

I paused, considering the consequences. After getting cooked down, the meat and vegetables would have to simmer, simmer for a while for the flavors to meld. “We’ve got at least an hour, probably more,” I said. I gave a weak grin.

As birth loomed, so many things had taken on new meaning. Consider raw almonds. Having had the typically nauseated first trimester, Tessa now endured regular bouts of acid reflux. She learned to hold the burning in check by nibbling what seemed like a half-a-pound-a-day ration of them. Other than the almonds, she lacked the odd food cravings of sitcom pregnancies. Yet the nature of eating itself had changed. Tessa pined for relief at all hours, almost always hungry. We kept Wheat Thins and cheese sticks by our bedside. At times she had, upon the advice of her sister-in-law, left herself lunch meat or a piece of sautéed chicken breast for a hit of late night protein.

Other previously mundane aspects of life grew a feverish relevance. Clothing had to be strategized. Trips to the bathroom were frequent and ended without relief. Perhaps most alarming to us were Tessa’s feet, central to the unfolding drama of the pregnancy.

Swelling at the tops of the feet and in her toes made anything other than loose sandals absurd. Tessa’s sister was shocked to see them. Her eyebrows drew up, her face unable to feign comfort. “Those do not look good,” she had said. Our midwives prodded at the feet regularly to make us feel better. They took their usual low-key approach, only recommending Tessa try eating more cucumbers and watermelon. They said it was all a part of the body’s natural preparation. The feet, however, remained obstinate.

I did what I could, daily refining the techniques of foot-massage. I experimented with grips, attempting to push the swelling back up into Tessa’s body. Together we fought the good fight, building towers of pillows on couches and chairs to let the feet rest, the fluid drain. At times they shrunk, but inevitably re-filled. Always boisterous and remarkable, the feet seemed to remind us we were in for more than we had bargained.

In the heat, the day of the Bolognese, I noticed as Tessa looked down with a grimace. She was of course barefoot. “Something’s stuck there,” she said, exerting herself, lifting her leg, trying to show me. With her heel only about two feet from the ground I couldn’t see what it was, not without crouching onto the kitchen floor.

“Here. Let me see this better.” I tried to pull her leg up.

“Ow,” she said. Along with other now impossible tasks—bending over to retrieve dropped pens, lifting boxes, reaching up into cupboards—Tessa just couldn’t lift her leg very far. I set her foot down.

“Sorry honey,” I said, “but I need a better angle. Could you turn around?”

She turned and bent her leg at the knee. I paused, caught. The gestational meal I had started glared me down, bowls and pots cluttering the sink and stove top. It seemed pretty knuckleheaded of me to do what I was doing—self-involved in complicated meal, cold to my wife’s suffering. I held Tessa’s foot, lifting it a little further. I bent down and picked at a yellowish smear, a thin, telling band.

“It’s linguini,” I said.

“Eww,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “A noodle.” And then, swollen foot in hand, I felt a release, like air hissing. I began laughing and couldn’t stop, my eyes tearing up.

Tessa smiled, bemused. I laughed again. The haze of school, my “teacher self” was irrelevant, evaporated. Before me was my wife, enduring the tiring days and nights of pregnancy, again hungry. The anticipation of birth, the stress of it, was real and yet at that moment perhaps simply because the heaviness had to dissipate, the weight had disappeared.
And I believe my daughter was there, unborn but very present all the same: there in the swelling, tossing and turning, in my wife’s painful acid reflux, there in all of it, chipping away at our lives to find space. The hassles of pregnancy were as gnawing and pointed, as brazen, as life itself.Already, she was more than a concept. The noodle seemed to be her joke.

“I’m glad you’re finally able to blow off some steam,” Tessa said, finding the Wheat Thins and sitting on a chair to watch me finish in the kitchen. I turned to light the stove. I dropped the vegetables into sputtering yellow butter.

When dinner was ready at last, I lit candles and brought the filled plates in from the kitchen, restaurant style. We probably ate close to eight o’clock. I can’t remember what time it was exactly.