By Goldberry Long
“My therapist is helping me make friends with my belly,” a fellow student had said back when we were in graduate school. She was beautiful, a former Las Vegas dancer, long-legged and flat-bellied and given to giggling. Once she gave a reading and giggled at the jokes in her story, her hands clasped behind her like a little girl, her chest out, her belly a good friend, flat and beautiful to behold. She rocked back on her heels, giggling. Rocked herself forward, giggling. She had it easy. Easy to be friends with such a friendly belly.
I was not friends with my belly, never had been. We were uneasy acquaintances, eyeing one another in the mirror, my belly a measure of my appetites, swelling; I turned to the side, balefully eyeing my belly, thought: I look pregnant. I was not. I dug in my fingers, Oh loaf of white bread, Oh unwanted blubber, Oh enormous failure. Under the fat I could feel the hard flat muscles of me.
Or the other, friendlier belly, sloping plain of white smooth skin down between the proud bones of my hips, triumph of beauty, exalted hollow, dearest. My belly was not my friend; my belly was my art project, my sculpture, my stubborn failure. It fought me, enemy mine. Eat, eat, eat, it said, and I fought back but in the end it always won, grew, ruined itself.
Thirteen, I stepped on a scale, and my mother said, “You better watch it!” I watched. I watched my mouth and for a month my mouth took in a only a daily egg, a daily orange, round pure foods, holy as communion, and my belly rewarded me, hipbones, the white plain, like Death Valley, the sand there.
Years passed, and I watched it, my belly, watched it wax and wane, exercising its tidal pull on me.
Lying beside my lover, he traced the curve of my waist, laid his hand on the smooth flat sands of my belly. This is my favorite part, he said, possessive. I preened, pleased. My belly growled. Later he called me a black hole. So true, said my belly. I can hold the universe, said my belly. Multitudes, it said. Stay empty, I told it. Stern.
My pregnant belly held a life, and this confused me. It was a stubborn enemy, a soldier for my child within me. My belly said, Eat, Eat, Eat, and I had to eat or be punished, on my knees in the living room, heaving bile. Every two hours I must eat, even up at night writhing with the pain of a starving woman — I won’t I won’t — but then I must; I am force-fed a banana at 3 am until the pain settles, the baby settles, my belly hums it to sleep, satisfied, pleased with itself. Thirty pounds in the first trimester, weeping in my midwife’s office: I’ll be one of those fat ladies who says, I used to be skinny until I had kids. My belly squeezed my liver, compressed my spleen, massaged my heart, pushed acid up my throat. Oh Belly, powerful, stubborn, furious belly.
I contain my belly and my belly contains my baby but it feels the other way around; I am trapped inside them both. There are no choices left to me. How many more months? I count them. How many more days? I count. How many hours? Countless.
And yet I love the baby. The baby inside the belly is the center of the universe. She is the one hot shining point of light from which all else radiates. There is no joy without the baby in my belly. A paradox. My enemy contains my life.
Thirty pounds, second trimester. Thirty pounds, third trimester. Round belly, hard, taut, and the life inside, writhing, kicking, squirming, beloved life—I can’t wait to get you out and hold you and therefore keep you safe, a delusion of grandeur; I know that in my belly you are safer than you ever will be in my arms, my daughter, my own: will you be friends with your belly?
In line at the coffee shop, I rest my palms on the high hard curve of my belly. There is no other sensible place for my hands. Captain, my captain, my belly. The baby kicks. They call it a kick, but it’s a slow turning, a whale, changing direction in the ocean of my belly.
And then I am a pebble, a grain of sand floating on an ocean of pain; I am only my belly and my belly is me and we are pain, and my belly howls at me: You see? You see?
And then they lay my daughter on my belly, my daughter still tethered to my belly, and I am her mother. She squirms and climbs my belly to my breast, and she eats, and eats, and eats.
I strap my daughter to my chest and for a long time no one can see my belly because my daughter is my belly.
My daughter walks at 10 months. Her belly thrust out proud. She giggles. She climbs high curbs. Her belly balances her. She strips herself naked, fondles her bellybutton, laughs. There is nothing in this world more beautiful than her body and its belly, the balance of her, the high fearless climbing that comes from her center, her very self, her belly.
We play bellybutton. That was where your belly was tied to mine, I tell her. Belly to belly. She nods, knowingly. Fingers her bellybutton. Possessive of it.
I run. I deny my body white things. White sugar, white flour, white potatoes, white rice, white pasta. My belly is once again the smooth sands of Death Valley, sloping from the proud bones of my hips. You’re so good, a friend says. I watch you, and you’re so good.
My belly asks why.
I lose the weight, but my belly wins. My belly, stretched, refuses solidity. It is fluid, with its traceries of silver, spilling over my waistband, sloshing to the side, galloping in its own rhythm as I run. My belly contains its multitudes. It doubles itself when I sit, triples when I bend. I cannot contain it.
There is another baby in my belly but that one dies inside me and for weeks I don’t know it until the doctor turns the screen toward me and lets me say it myself: There’s no heartbeat, I say. I ask my belly why. My belly has no answer. My belly, hollow, weeps blood.
My baby died, I tell my friend. My baby died, my baby died, my baby died. And then I feed my belly. Chocolate cake, red wine, potato chips, cookies, all of it. My belly sends it back. On my knees, on the floor, weeping, I think, Not enough. Bottomless pit.
My belly says, try again. My belly says, I have more for you. I contain multitudes. I contain the universe.
My daughter says, Mommy, why is your belly so wrinkly? Why is your belly so droopy? And mindful of the endless battle I wage, hoping to spare her, I say, My belly is beautiful. My belly says that it made you in there. It wrote you on my skin. Lies told to spare her. But my belly nods and jiggles its agreement. So true, it says.
And then there is my son. My belly, once again the fierce guardian. We make our bargain. Bananas at 3 am. Nine months measured in gains: 30 pounds, 35 pounds, 38 pounds, pain. The final gain, the prize, my boy.
My how he grows. He grows and he grows, and he lies beside me, cuddling, his hand on my belly. He sings it a love song: Juggly, juggly, juggly belly! I love your juggly belly! His hand makes it wobble, dance, sway between my hipbones, a sloshing mass, mud not sand, not smooth, wrinkled scars of the babies it bore, juggly belly. I want to be a bug, he says, so I can bounce on your belly! He inserts his finger in my deep hollow of bellybutton. I would live in here, he says. I would be safe and warm in here, in your belly.
I tell a friend, and she is horrified. Juggly! Oh no! Kids say the most terrible things! But no, I say, defending my son. I say, You have to understand. For my son, it is all joy. For him, what he feels is pure and good. My belly is the source of all comfort, all softness and warmth, all mother love. It is good. Saying this, I rest my hand on my belly, possessive. It fits neatly into my palm, as if they are made for each other, hand and belly. And then I know it is my belly I defend. My friend, my self, my belly.
Goldberry Long is the author of the novel, Juniper Tree Burning. Her second novel, O’Keeffe’s Girl, is under contract at Simon and Schuster. She teaches at University of California, Riverside.