It’s been a hard morning, struggling to get the baby up, changed and dressed before walking to the bus stop. She needs to be carried and she is almost too big for it. It’s stinking hot too. Sweat is trickling down by back by the time we pass the corner shop and I wish I’d thought to bring myself a hat. With each step my arms ache and the heat makes it worse, my baby’s body has always been loved but heavy burden. Some days, like today, I wake to her crying and I almost leave her there. My bones feel brittle and I wish I could lift the doona over my head and drown out her cries. Some days I do, for just a few minutes. The crying goes on and on. The pitch rising to knife me in the gut. If I can just wait it out for another minute, like I used to do with my old alarm clock, maybe I’ll finally get some sleep. Get rid of the grey clouds that fog my brain.
The baby chatters in her made up language as we walk. She squints upward and points a fat fist at the beating blue of the sky. The buildings on either side of us are silent, shimmering in the heat. This neighborhood always feels like a retirement village, perfectly manicured gardens and no soul. I count the steps and make soft noises back, small ‘oh really’s’ as though the two of us are in conversation already. When she was born I hated baby talk, so I spoke to her as one adult to another. When I started reading into her facial expressions I decided baby talk was easier. There is less judgment in a ‘coochie-coo’.
As we walk I try not to think about how much longer I can do this. Waking up, making my way to the University across town, the hour on public transport with her in my arms. It’s a waking nightmare, capped with a three-hour lecture and the same trip back home.
I started taking medication when I kept losing weight after she was born, but aside from keeping me awake, it’s not working. I should eat more. ‘Keep my strength up’ the nurse said. But deep down I like how the skin wraps so tightly around my bones. I gave birth barely eight months ago and already my stomach is flat and tight again. The other mother’s tittered at first and by the last session they glared when I walked in. I don’t need more judgmental bitches in my life. Flappy cows with their milk and their fat buoyant children. I didn’t go back.
We wait for the bus next to an old woman. There’s scrunched paddle-pop wrappers stuffed between the gaps in the seat. She holds a battered leather handbag and sits beside a small market bag on wheels. I wonder if I could get one to put the baby in. Much cheaper than a stroller. The woman catches me looking. ‘It’s market day’ she looks at the baby and tilts her head as though she’s talking to a small animal ‘and where are you off too?’ when people first stopped speaking to me and started directing their questions at the baby, it threw me. Suddenly, I was a non-entity next to this small parasitic bundle of joy. She looks at the woman with big eyes, her small fist bangs against my collarbone. The woman makes a sympathetic face. I wonder what response she expected and turn my face away. I’ve found that fussing with the baby is a good way to avoid conversation.
The bus trundles around the corner, it’s five minutes late and belches a dark puff of carbon dioxide as it pulls up. More pollutants to worry about. As if there isn’t enough to try and protect the next generation from. I stand unsteadily and balance her on my hip, grabbing my backpack and the baby bag. Sometimes I see families on public transport and the idea of an extra pair of hands is the sexiest thing I can imagine right now. My hair sticks to the back of my neck where it’s fallen out of its bun. I must look a wreck. At least I have an adorable accessory. Who doesn’t love a small fat child with a fluff of blonde hair?
I take a seat. Small mercies, our stop is at the start of the route and we get one every time. If we had to stand, there’s no way I could do this. I can’t carry her for that long. She’s cuddled to my chest, her head peeping over my shoulder. Already I can feel my t-shirt soaking where her warm body is pressed against me. The tiny window above us is cracked just enough to stir the stagnant air. The back of my legs stick to the plastic seat and I wish I had something to fan my face with.
The bus jolts with each stop and I feel her wiggling against me but she’s quiet. ‘A well behaved kid’ my mother says. Not that Marion has seen her much since she was born. Too busy with her garden, some bullshit about having to pull the bulbs up. Marion. World’s Worst Mother turned World’s Least Interested Grandmother. The rage is so old its dull. I accepted a long time ago that I’d forever feel the fool for hoping. The baby is busy looking into the faces behind us. She’s giggling, in that adorable way that children do. I want to turn to see who is playing peek-a-boo, but we’re sitting awkwardly. There’s a small pleasure in a stranger telling me what a cute child I have. Sometimes, when I wonder if it was worth it, hearing that she’s a beautiful child seems to matter. My own mother would point out that I’ve always loved attention from strangers. I know there’s some dark joke there about my baby’s father but I let it lie.
The giggles haven’t stopped and I move her to my other shoulder so I can turn. She’s pointing a chubby finger into the face of the man seated behind us. Something about him makes me start forward, pulling her away. There’s something wrong with his mouth. The bus is quiet and my baby’s giggles turn into high, girlish laughter. It goes on and on and I realise that everyone is watching us. My eyes water, it hurts me to look at him. His face has been broken from some illness or disorder and for some inane reason my child thinks he is hysterical. She jabs her finger at his disfigured nose and joyful peals shake her little body. I panic, squeezing her fat little legs with my nails. Stop that. Stop Laughing.
The shame burns into my stomach and bile rises in my throat, I can’t speak. I want to slap her, at this point crying would be preferable to the awful laughter. I pinch her harder and she starts to scream. Everyone is watching and the judgment on their faces is too much to bear. My daughter’s mirth has given them the chance to stare openly and they relish it. I hate them all with a rage I never knew I had inside me before she was born. She continues to scream, wriggling away from me. I’m hurting her. I know this and release my grip. My shirt is soaked through. Maybe its sweat or maybe the baby has wet herself. The bus jolts again and the man stands up, he reaches down to collect his bag and our eyes meet. They are bright, light blue, the same colour of the water when you open your eyes at the pool.
He walks slowly, straight backed, to the front of the bus and nods to the driver before hopping off. I allow myself to take a breath and then, out of the window, I see that he is still standing there. Go. Please go away. I want to tell him. Stop making it worse. He raises a hand as the bus pulls away from the curb, I burn, waiting for the rude gesture, the words that will hit my face like a brick. My baby looks out of the window at him, tears pearled on her thick lashes. She has stopped sobbing. He waves at her and his face transformed by a smile. It hits me harder than any slur. I put her down on the seat beside me as she shakes her chubby fist and I clutch at my sweaty shirt overwhelmed by wretchedness that is no one else’s but my own.