No Way Out
The dark, uncomfortable world of a pregnant woman
By Margaret Renkl
JUNE 14, 1999: At first it is a scene right out of Hitchcock: dark drizzly rain. Bleeding reds and greens of traffic signals reflected in the slick glare of wet streets. Headlights breaking the blank rain into separate illuminated beads dropping in patternless freefall. Eleven p.m., dwindling traffic, lights off in whole blocks of this Southern city long ago invaded by rushing Yankees but still largely matinal in its rhythms.
A woman is leaving a corner restaurant, the only windows alight on the entire block. The door swings shut behind her, cutting off the last of the kitchen clatter and laughter from the big gathering inside that's only slowly breaking up. She hesitates. Ordinarily her life is bounded by the green lawns and leafy maples of suburbia; this profusion of pavement and hulking buildings makes her nervous. The dark streets are empty. She steps into the dank air and hurries to her car. Because she is uneasy, her step is furtive and uncertain. But it is not quick: She is hugely pregnant and clumsy, heavy with a child due in days.
Though it is only May, the night is already hot, and the night air, too, seems pregnant: weighted and warm and cloying. The air hovers, somehow; it seems almost to be panting in her ear, though she knows the rhythmic pulsing she hears is only her own blood--the pints and pints of extra blood that come with pregnancy--pounding in her head.
She stumbles alone along the uneven sidewalk, glances quickly down an alley, then crosses to her car parked on a silent side street one block away. When she reaches the pale station wagon gleaming like some sort of middle-class beacon in the dark urban night, her keys are already in her hand. She is gripping a key between each two clinched fingers, creating a sort of prosthetic claw that she believes will protect her in the event of an assault. Nobody messes with Mama Keyfingers.
Again she looks around: Awareness, she has read in far too many women's magazines, is the key to a quick escape if danger should arise. She does not consider the absurdity of this notion. Under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine a quick escape from any situation, nor even any quick response. She is alone on a dark street in an unfamiliar part of the city, it is raining, and she is gigantically pregnant. The very idea of quickness is laughable.
Nevertheless, she quickly turns the key in the lock and quickly pulls the car door open. Considering her poor center of gravity and her extreme abdominal protrusion, it ought to be obvious even to her that yanking a car door open is not an action designed to lead to a quick escape from this probably not dangerous--but still unnerving--scene.
Indeed, with this motion of our hapless heroine, the tone of our film shifts abruptly, and she is no longer the star of a film noir from the '50s. Audience, take note: There are no gas lamps flickering on the corner. The lighted end of a cigarette does not signal a smirking Paul Newman leaning in a shadowed doorway. This is a scene featuring a pregnant woman wearing the usual pregnant woman's muumuu and trying to get into her car, a car which is, after all, a station wagon. The camera moves closer to the car, but no copy of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs Du Mal rests on the seat of this relic of suburbia.
Off-balance and still unaccustomed to the additional girth of her pregnant body, the woman in her hurry pulls on the door too quickly. As the car door swings open, the sinister background music of violins gives way without transition to a rollicking ragtime piano, and the ghost of Hitchcock vanishes. The scene is suddenly pure Laurel and Hardy as the heavy door smacks our hero in the belly, and she sprawls on the slick, greasy sidewalk, suddenly upended like a turtle at the end of a child's poking stick.
As she lies there, flailing, a corresponding shove from inside registers her passenger's objection to this unseemly bouncing, and she attempts to right herself. A pregnant woman knocked flat on her back has very few options for rising, and none of them is graceful. Slowly she rolls to one side and cautiously pushes herself up. But when her own foot, a foot she has not personally seen for several weeks, catches on the hem of the muumuu she is wearing in lieu of actual clothes, down she goes again, this time face forward and by now thoroughly wet.
It is some moments before the woman is once again upright, wet but functioning adequately under the influence of gravity. Warily she reaches her right foot into the floorboards of the car. She begins to sink gratefully into the seat, but this motion too is hindered by the fact that only the right half of her body has actually entered the car; the left half is mummified by the wet muumuu and still stranded in the street.
Roughly, awkwardly, she shifts her unwieldy body behind the wheel. Hiking herself up, she attempts to straighten the soggy tent of a dress and unwrap from her lower body the yards of fabric now clinging to it tenaciously. This is a real trick: Hiking up in the driver's seat of a car is not easily accomplished while wearing another human being in your belly, an extended belly which reaches all the way to the steering wheel even before it is shoved forward in the act of pulling a muumuu out of your butt-crack, but huffing breathlessly she does it. Finally her left leg is free to join her right one in the floorboards, and she can pull the door closed behind her, lock it, and turn the key in the ignition.
From the outside, she knows, no one would have a clue that this car is piloted by a drenched and muddy pregnant woman, and it is an immense relief to her to be moving once more with apparent dignity. Carefully she pulls into the street, passes the restaurant where her colleagues are still gathered, laughing, and glides without incident to the interstate ramp a block away. She allows herself the luxury of a relieved sigh: She is 10 minutes from home and a bathroom that by now she badly needs.
It is only when she is actually on the highway ramp itself, accelerating and preparing to merge, that she realizes she has taken the ramp not to the interstate that leads to her own house and familiar life, but to another highway altogether. Anxiously she leans forward--as far forward as she can lean, that is, without jamming herself into the steering wheel and activating the car horn with her own belly--and looks ahead through the rain for any sign of where she is. The road is marked clearly with little blue interstate signs, but the profusion of overlapping numbers and rising and dipping ramps confuses her. It dawns on her that she has no idea where this particular road is going.
"Three more weeks," she mutters out loud to herself as the station wagon hurtles past another unfamiliar exit sign. "Three more weeks and this baby will be here. Three more weeks, and I'll have my body back again. I won't need help getting in and out of a car. I'll go out with friends and drink wine and tell witty stories. I'll laugh at other people's witty stories without peeing in my underpants. I'll remember how to get to my own house from the interstate. I'll have my life back. I'll be myself again."
Shhhh. Don't say a word, all you mothers watching this scene, shaking your heads in the dark. There's no harm in such illusions, and she'll find her way in time. For now, let's all just watch quietly as the red taillights of the Taurus disappear down the highway and the screen fades to black.
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