“You need to be brave now, baby.” Grandma Eva’s words sputtered through the static on Aja’s phone, which she balanced between her ear and shoulder as she stuffed a week’s worth of clothes into her old high school duffle bag.
“Sure. See you soon.” Aja hung up before she could hear more and hid the phone in her purse where it wouldn’t distract her. She eased herself onto the bare mattress in what used to be her bedroom, but now, she postured, was just a room with a bed. Although she hadn’t decided whether to move out yet, she put all of her belongings into cardboard boxes and giant black trash bags and placed them to the left of her bedroom door, just in case.
Staying wasn’t really an option, and Aja had gotten pretty good at moving quickly from one place to the next. She wondered if her grandmother would consider this cowardly — always being ready to leave.
Aja didn’t care much for dichotomies, especially not the cowardly versus brave one her grandmother evoked. Bravery hadn’t gotten her through this pregnancy, after all. She rubbed her expanding stomach fifty-five times every morning with a concoction of honey, rose water, and cinnamon, muttering blessings for the life growing inside of her. She wore only yellow and gold on Saturdays and would walk 2,500 steps along the river near her apartment before turning around and taking the same number of steps back home. Every Sunday she stirred milk, dandelion, olive oil, and parsley in a blue bucket, stood in her apartment’s shared bathtub, and poured it over her body. She picked up extra shifts at the restaurant early on in her pregnancy and purchased pearls and cowrie shells to create a necklace she wore daily and placed against her dark brown tummy during prayer.
Her two roommates — one, a barista and the other, an accountant — shot her strange looks when she’d be busy in the kitchen, lighting candles as she cooked, and mixing concoctions as she sang. She felt it was serendipitous that they would be out of town for the weekend, giving her enough time to pack her things without enduring the awkwardness of financial discussions about the lease, and the greater awkwardness of goodbyes.
I’ve done all I could. Aja repeated the thought until her phone alarm chirped through her empty room: the bus was leaving in fifteen minutes. The twenty-year-old prayed she wouldn’t go into labor on the bus and left her apartment with the few things she could carry.
It was a four hour-long bus ride to her hometown, and the bus station was a mile away from her grandmother’s house. Aja struggled off the bus with her duffle bag slung over her shoulder, walked past the line of taxis at the station, and started on the route home.
She didn’t rest until she hit Patterson Street and saw the community garden on the corner where she and Kay used to crawl around as kids, pretending to be explorers searching for the biggest insects they could find. Rows of old, colorful houses lined the road ahead of her and Aja slowed her stride to admire them. There were a few things she missed about New England: the beautiful, generations-old houses, and how the maple trees looked like lit matches when the leaves started to turn in the Fall. She walked towards her grandmother’s house at the end of the street, occasionally glancing at the sidewalk to make sure she didn’t trip over the large tree roots that had grown into the path.
The house looked a bit older than when she was last there. More red paint had peeled off of the sides and there were several tears in the screen door, but the grass was trimmed and a rose bush bloomed in the front yard. Her grandmother was sitting on the porch in her favorite chair, a familiar figure next to her.
“Aja! Aja, my baby girl. Good glory, baby, look at you!” Grandma Eva’s eyes watered as she hastened down the porch steps towards her granddaughter. Her hands, long, wrinkled, and with flecks of shiny red nail polish, trembled as she reached for Aja’s shoulders. “It’s been too long, baby. You walk all this way? Aja —”
“I’m okay, grandma. Thanks for letting me come.” Aja was stiff as Grandma Eva pulled her into her chest, running her hands over Aja’s buzzcut. Her shoulders slowly relaxed as she breathed in Grandma Eva’s scent: a mixture of black tea, mint, and marijuana.
“Don’t need to thank grandma for nothing. We’ll take care of you good.” Grandma Eva grabbed Aja’s hand as she walked towards the house. In the autumn sun, Grandma Eva’s hair looked like cotton candy spun from silver, and her skin was the color of fertile soil. “Hope you don’t mind that Kay’s over, I didn’t know when you’d be coming. We were pulling herbs out the garden in the back.”
Aja watched Kay pull gardening gloves off of her hands and toss them in a bucket in the corner of the porch. Kay was a large woman with thighs like the trunks of oak trees and long, dark braids that she pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck. Despite not being related, people often remarked how much Aja and Kay resembled each other while they were growing up. Although Aja was as short as Kay was tall, they were both the shade of coffee beans and had long eyelashes, wide hips, and infectious smiles that exposed a gap between their two front teeth. Aja used to see a bit of herself in her friend too, but that was before Ricardo.
“Hey,” Kay mumbled through pressed lips. Aja’s eyes stayed on the ground as she lifted her hand to wave hello.
Grandma Eva ushered the women into her living room as she rattled off the list of things she still needed to get for the birth. “Seven white candles and a ceramic bowl filled with holy water. A fistful of dirt and five drops of lavender in almond oil. White rose petals, raw honey, yams, and three gold necklaces for the offering. But I hope y’all know grandma’s not buying no new necklaces at the store, grandma’s regular old necklaces will have to do.” She rummaged through drawers in the living room and kitchen, occasionally pulling out trinkets and shoving them into the pockets of her blue linen skirt. “I already have things for the baby, but I’m gonna get more Pampers anyway.”
Kay offered to run to the store herself, but no one expected Grandma Eva to agree to it. They knew she had to feel the objects for their energy. She let the screen door slam shut behind her as she disappeared down the street.
Aja sat in her grandmother’s living room and let her toes sink into the dark green carpet. The room was mostly the same as she remembered, except one of the walls had a new layer of patterned burgundy wallpaper, the old piano was gone, and a large metal box with Grandma Eva’s midwife supplies sat on top of the coffee table. Aja put her hand over her stomach, felt a soft kick from her baby, and inhaled as a cramp came and went. When she looked up, she saw Kay staring at her from across the room.
“So, why you here?” Kay said, sitting on an ottoman with her hands folded across her lap.
“Cause I’m having a baby.”
“So? That don’t mean you gotta be here.”
Aja sighed and closed her eyes, counting the colorful dots that danced in the darkness behind her eyelids.
“Hello? Miss Thing?”
“Why you care?”
“Oh, we ain’t cool now? Can’t I care about why you traveling hundreds of miles alone to have a baby in a bathtub?”
Aja knew her grandmother had a hard time keeping secrets, but she couldn’t stop the familiar lump in her throat from growing — that lump of anger and shame. She used everything she had to swallow the feeling, but only tasted bile. “You always judging somebody. Just leave me alone.”
“Nobody judging you. You just don’t tell me nothing.” Kay paused. “It’s been two fucking years, Aja.”
The echo of a headache rang between Aja’s temples. She closed her eyes again, tighter, and imagined her and Kay during some other time. Perhaps before the thing with Ricardo. Perhaps when they first met so many years ago, in Ms. Penny’s class in the third grade. Perhaps right before Aja left the state for college when she was seventeen, or before Kay got married, divorced, and married again. Perhaps when they were in high school and would stay up all night talking about the boys, then the men, Aja was seeing.
There was Tommy K. in eighth grade. Then Caleb in ninth grade, Louis and an older man she didn’t remember the name of in tenth. Kay’s laugh would come down like a thunderstorm when Aja described the unique curvature and shape of their penises or imitated the peculiar noises men made when they came. Aja remembered how Kay held her hand when Louis broke her heart the first time. How Kay rubbed her back when she got the call that her father was found dead in his cell. She remembered rocking Kay’s shaking body on her grandmother’s dark green carpet after Kay’s parents kicked her out because they caught her having sex with a girl.
Sitting with Kay in Grandma Eva’s living room now, too many years later and nearly ten months pregnant, Aja was sure that time couldn’t be linear. How else could memories feel close enough to taste but not matter at all? Something inside of her wanted to shout, but all she could do was bite her bottom lip and run her fingers along the beads in her necklace. Kay sighed and looked down at the carpet.
“Look, I don’t know what to say. I guess I just wanna know you’re okay,” Kay said. “Like, you not running from some nigga trying to hurt you or some shit.” Kay wiped her eye with the back of her hand. “I don’t know.”
“I’m not running from some nigga trying to hurt me.”
A stream of sunlight spilled through the room’s heavily curtained windows while the silence floated like a storm cloud above their heads. Kay cleared her throat and adjusted herself on the ottoman. Aja didn’t want to talk, but the pit of her stomach stirred — it was hard to tell if the baby was moving, if it was guilt, or if she had to vomit. Before long, a question spilled out of her mouth.
“You ever wonder if everyone can see the sadness?” Aja said. “Like, in your eyes?”
Kay was quiet and focused as Aja looked down at her lap, rubbing her pointer finger along a smooth, pale scar that ran just below her knuckles on the back of her right hand.
“Sometimes I feel like people look in my eyes and they see it,” Aja said. “They give me that look that’s like, oh, poor babygirl, like they look at me and they know without me saying nothing.” She paused for a moment, still focused on her hands. “I couldn’t stay there with everybody looking at me like that. That’s why I’m here.”
Aja could tell Kay wanted to respond, but a stabbing pain had grown deep in her pelvis and filled her body with a bright white explosion. A warm liquid pooled between her legs. She instinctively grabbed her stomach, looked up at Kay in panic, and began to cry.
Aja wasn’t sure if Kay had helped her grandmother deliver a baby before, but the deliberateness with which she moved suggested it. Kay shut the curtains and ran to the bathroom to turn on the faucet in the cast-iron clawfoot tub. She grabbed the metal box from the coffee table and five blue towels from the linen closet to lay on the bathroom floor. Kay dipped a washcloth underneath the faucet, walked over to Aja, knelt on the ground, and tenderly placed the cloth behind her neck.
The slamming of the screen door interrupted their routine. Aja slowly turned her head and could barely see Grandma Eva’s face behind the enormous grocery bags she cradled in her arms.
“Oh shit! Good glory, we ‘bout to have a baby.”
How many lives have started in this bathtub? Aja tried to steady her breath as she lay in the lukewarm bathwater, but her throat tightened as the sharpness within her belly swelled. Grandma Eva knelt beside the tub and placed a white sachet the size of a dollar coin in Aja’s palm. The cloth bag was tied together with old rope and smelled of cumin and grits.
“Kiss that bag. Got a lock of your great grandma’s hair in it, so you know it’s strong.” Grandma Eva smirked as she started rubbing Aja’s feet with a yellow oil that warmed her skin. Aja lifted the sachet to her mouth, biting her lip and tasting iron as another cramp surprised her. “Squeeze it,” Grandma Eva said, pointing to the sachet. “It got you.”
Aja dug her nails into the small bag. Grandma Eva stirred the bathwater while Kay pressed a cool washcloth on Aja’s forehead. The water from the cloth flowed down her temples, and Aja imagined the droplets blending with her tears and traveling down her cheeks in tiny rivers.
The power of water had fascinated Aja for some time: how water can build, destroy, and destroy and build at the same time. She recalled learning in school about how glaciers rushed past the land tens of thousands of years ago to form mountains, rivers, and valleys. She remembered her road trip with her grandmother to the shore when she was still a sophomore in high school — how the sand on the beach would be a smooth path one day, and then break into a sharp cliff into the water the next.
Grandma Eva continued to swirl her hands in the water, lapping it occasionally onto Aja’s chest. The slow, rhythmic sound of her grandmother’s waves reminded her of the whooshing sound of the baby’s heartbeat during her last doctor’s exam. She remembered lying in a bed in a windowless, white office as the doctor pushed a cold instrument into her cervix. Hot tears checkered her t-shirt as she counted each heartbeat on the machine, falling into a rhythm and slowing time down until the beats reminded her of the ebb and flow of the sea.
It only takes a moment for a heartbeat to stop. Aja’s chest tightened and she started counting under her breath as she listened to her grandmother chant. Grandma Eva had told her to be brave, but she didn’t understand how — she had read the studies, the articles. Babies of Black women face poorer outcomes. High infant and maternal mortality rates harm the Black community. Cumulative stress affects the health of African-American mothers. Aja missed two weeks of shifts at the restaurant during her second trimester to consume as much information as she could. She’d bring her notes to her doctor’s appointments, and the staff quickly grew frustrated with her interruptions. She went to the doctor for hot flashes when she was nineteen weeks pregnant, and it took ten minutes for the doctor to determine that she would be fine. Her face flushed as she rifled through piles of notes in her reusable grocery bag and pulled a study out for the doctor to read, shoving it in his hands. When she heard the doctor sigh and saw the interns roll their eyes, she knew she wouldn’t go back.
“Aja, you hear me, baby?” Grandma Eva’s voice pulled her back to the bathroom. The stabbing pain returned to the left side of Aja’s pelvis, and she felt pressure towards her bottom.
“I can’t do it, grandma.”
“Do what, baby?”
“Be a good mom.”
Grandma Eva paused for a moment and took a deep breath, resting her hand on her granddaughter’s knee.
“Tell me why you’re here, Aja.”
Another contraction tore through Aja’s gut more intensely than the ones before. She had expected pain, but at the height of it, it felt like her baby’s hands were on fire and twisted her spine in opposite directions. Aja clenched her fists as the contraction subsided, tears streaming down her cheeks. Kay pressed her thumb to Aja’s face to wipe them away.
“I was eighteen,” she said as her grandmother rubbed her back. She felt Kay staring at her. “I’m sorry I stopped hitting you up. I was hurting so bad.” Aja’s face contorted and her fingers reached for the cowrie shells on her necklace. “I was bleeding and hurting. I called an ambulance and got to the hospital and the doctor, he kept saying everything was fine. They shoved that fucking stick inside me, showed me the heartbeat and said my baby was fine.” Aja pressed her lips together and rested her head on the back of the bathtub. “I said it was my first time. I was scared. They just sent me home. I was in pain all night. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. My baby...”
Kay held Aja’s shoulders while Grandma Eva took her granddaughter’s hand and squeezed it between her own.
“I won’t ever be good,” Aja said. “I can’t do it. I’m so sorry.”
Aja sent apologies into the air but couldn’t quite hear herself above her memories. She remembered, two years ago, waking up in the morning and knowing something was growing inside of her. It was so wonderful, how she knew before she took a test, but still pissed on six sticks just to confirm it. She remembered the doctor’s appointments, the prenatal vitamins, the planning. She remembered the man, Ricardo, how sweet his smile was, how she’d trace the freckles along the long brown plain of his back, how tenderly he held her during the first semester of her sophomore year. She remembered his mother, how she had called Aja a lying black bitch, a tramp, a gold-digging slut. She remembered how his mother told him Aja was only pretending to be pregnant — because that’s what whores do — how she called Aja at six in the morning every day for a week to remind her that she was going against God. She remembered how he stayed by her side, until he didn’t. She remembered rinsing vitamins down the sink. She remembered sleeping for days. She remembered waking up in pain, blood streaming between her thighs. She remembered telling herself over the next few weeks it was supposed to be this way — nobody wanted her baby anyway, and nobody really wanted her either, so it was all for the best.
It was a particular kind of shame. And she didn’t have the time to think about it then, because she had classes to take, a job to go to, bills to pay.
“Oh, baby. Grandma’s here. You can cry, it’s alright. You can let go.”
Grandma Eva massaged her scalp with her fingertips, and then put a glass of water up to Aja’s lips, encouraging her to swallow. Kay patted trails of mucus away from Aja’s nose before pressing her lips to Aja’s cheek. Their tenderness made Aja cry more. Warmth radiated from the place where Kay kissed her.
She tried to focus on the warmth, the tenderness, as the next contraction rose from her belly. The aching crashed down on her like rocks in an avalanche, and despite herself, she grabbed the side of the tub so hard that she thought the porcelain would crack beneath her fingers.
“It’s time to push, baby. Push like you about to shit.” Grandma Eva guided Aja’s hands to where the baby’s head was peeking through, and Aja touched the infant’s thick hair with her fingertips. “Your body knows. You gotta feel it.” Grandma Eva gripped Aja’s wrist and looked into her eyes. “You gotta go through to get out.”
Aja felt her womb instinctively flex and soften as the baby worked itself through her body. She wasn’t sure how she would withstand the pain. She groaned, screamed, pushed, tossed, contorted, and imagined crawling out of her body and staring down at herself. Her eyes rolled back and she envisioned herself being ripped open.
How many lives have started in this bathtub? Have any ended? When she opened her eyes, there was a small, pale infant floating in the tub between her legs, bobbing in the water like a buoy. She instinctively reached for the child and held the tiny baby to her chest.
Aja trembled as she looked at her baby’s face for the first time. She then noticed how quiet the room was — weren’t babies supposed to cry? Grandma Eva and Kay were rustling through the metal box, grabbing towels, and praying. Aja wasn’t sure if they were speaking to her, so she sang into the child’s ear a song only she could hear.
We’ve done all we could.
Jordan N. DeLoach is a Maryland born-and-raised writer, artist and organizer. She believes in a world where all oppressed people can be free. You can learn more about her work at jndeloach.com, on Instagram at @j.n.deloach, and on Twitter at @jndeloach.