‘Things That Helped’
by Jessica Friedmann

 

By the time we move to Footscray, Owen is a secret seed, secret even from me. All the time he is there, as I lug cardboard boxes, and scrub paint from sinks, and paint the rental we are leaving a dingy shade of beige — the same shade that, on moving in, we had painted over in pale, pale celery-green. It is too early for a rising tide of nausea to clue me to his existence. He is simply, secretly, there.

Almost from the minute that Mike and I begin seeing each other, we talk about our child, the child we will one day have. It should seem much too soon, but nothing feels more natural than lying in the sun at the park, drinking coffee and eating warm bread rolls from the bakery, sketching out our future plans: running a B&B in rural Hungary if I sort out my citizenship; travelling to Berlin; living on a vast property deep in the mountains. And always with a baby in tow.

Our child will be called Coralie, after my great aunt, or maybe Ivy; Gabriel for a boy. When we get married the fantasies drop away, but the longing for a child remains. We manage to postpone the craving throughout my Honours thesis; Mike enrols in a Masters; we do everything we can to pace ourselves, to not jump in, not give in to this deep, visceral craving for the milky smell of a newborn’s scalp until, at last, we do give in. It is a surprise to me how much I want a baby, and unbeknownst to me, unpacking boxes in our beautiful new terrace in Footscray, I am hiding the beginnings of one.

Counting backwards, I work out that Owen must have been conceived at or just after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. New Year, new life: it should be an augury, but I am too nervous to invest the pregnancy with any special symbolism or significance. All I want, when I learn the news, is to make it through to Christmas, six weeks away; for this small ball of matter to become robust and staunch and truly embedded in the lining of his small but swelling home, and then I will believe it; then I will breathe out.

I have always wanted to guard the things I find precious, and in this way I am not good at sharing. I am superstitious: believing in it too much, wanting it too much will inevitably mean that I will lose this pregnancy, I think, though to the best of my knowledge I have not lost one before. I have suspected a loss, and that felt aching and raw; and in a small way I grieved it, and it was real grief. I feel like a village woman telling her neighbour their new child is ugly, so as not to draw the attention and jealousy of God.

The morning I suspect I might be pregnant I take a test, and then wipe it clean and carefully bring it into the bedroom, rousing Mike.

‘Does this say what I think it says?’

Mike looks at the test and its firm pink declarative line.

‘We’re having a baby,’ he says groggily, and pulls me into his arms. Somehow, even knowing this, the day continues as usual. It is not until a work trip to Tasmania the next week, upon which Mike has accompanied me and where we camp high up in the mountains, that the fact begins to sink in for him with any clarity and brilliance.

‘We’re having a baby!’ he hollers to the ferns in the fern gully, where we have tramped along a rough dirt track. The air is richly oxygenated from the lush green foliage, the forest floor dense with scuttling creatures in the undergrowth; spider webs hold drops of moisture, and the night-dark earth seems fertile enough for anything dropped there to take root. Mike grips my hand tightly when we pick our way down the rocks, promising a steady landing.

He wants to tell people when we return, but I hold to my Christmas deadline, superstitious and self-imposed.
I have felt the faint tremors of quickening, but I only let my breath out properly much later, at our second ultrasound, when we first glimpse the shape of our child. The ultrasound technician guides the probe around adeptly, angling it lightly into the small hill of my jellied stomach, leaving out identifying details at first in case we don’t wish to know them.

‘Do you want to find out the gender?’ she asks.

Sex, I silently correct, and then, ‘Yes.’

A slight twist of the probe and then there he is, revealed, tucked up into himself with the small outreaching shadow of his five fingers making a whole hand, a whole hand we can see. The little girl I am half-convinced I am carrying floats away and instead, waving from the deep, is this new and unknown thing — a little boy.

As we inch towards Christmas, and the weather gets hotter and drier, each week of viability feeling like a clandestine accomplishment, the nausea becomes more intense. I find out, for the first time, about food aversions, which are much stronger and more visceral than any of my cravings. The provisions I had thought would carry me through my pregnancy — liquorice and pickles and dark chocolate and potato chips — are too oily, too salty, too acidic by turns. The only thing I want to eat is pho.

I lie anchored to the couch, moored against the sticky leather with the dry pages of an Agatha Christie novel rustling in the wind, which comes in sudden rushes through our open windows, while Mike traipses up to our local, Hien Vuong Pasteur. The main drag of Footscray is lined with Vietnamese restaurants, interspersed with relics of the past, like Cavallero, the pastry shop, or, further down, Sudanese and Ethiopian food. The competition for best pho is fierce, but we have found our local and are loyal customers.

‘For your wife?’ the owner asks when Mike comes in, and Mike nods, and soon he is home with two plastic containers, one full of slightly gelatinous rice noodles topped with thin slices of chicken, and the other of rich chicken broth. A little plastic bag of sliced chilli, Vietnamese mint, bean shoots, and lemon rounds out the meal, and I carefully pour out half the broth and noodles into a saucepan, and put the rest in the fridge, a safeguard against the next day’s nausea.

It is nice to be known. Every morning I walk to work past the Little Saigon market, angling past men in aprons and gumboots unloading their trucks from the fish market, and every morning the sight of glossy-eyed trout and snapper and bream brings a wave of muggy heat up beneath my skin.

I think of my growing child, due in July. He will be a Cancer: a cavorting little crab.

I have never believed in astrology, but now I become avid about the signs, trying to prophesy our future child’s personality. Mike is an Aries, I a Capricorn: private, creative, stubborn, the charts say. An earth sign. It is true that I need to walk into the back garden and plant my feet in the cool grass of an evening, watching the sky change colour, from parched blue to an industrially shocking pink and then to a pale apricot-grey. I am greedy for the sunset. At dusk, the suburb smells like eucalypts and fish sauce.

We see in the New Year at a writer’s house in Brunswick, newly built upon a tiny patch that she and her partner have bought, requisitioned from someone’s backyard. Though the house is complete the garden is still unfinished, and we stand in a dug-out patch amongst uncovered pipes, as music blares and the sky fills with fireworks. The pregnancy is still hidden, though I think that I can feel my stomach swell, just the smallest bit, beneath the cool and slippery fabric of my dress. Mike puts his hands on my stomach as our friends clamber to the top of our host’s old van, shrieking their midnight exhilaration into the sky.

Dead sober and glowing with sweat, I straggle homeward with Mike at 3am, losing my favourite lipstick along the way. When we finally find a taxi it first takes us south, then out west. Melbourne is a city split by a river — the Yarra — and people talk of North and South, but now we are heading into a new terrain, demarking a point towards which the compass hadn’t already swung in our three years and four houses together. Home.

I have fallen in love with Footscray years earlier, schlepping out from Brunswick for a contract stint at Lonely Planet, feeling immediately calmer as I walked down to the banks of the Maribyrnong. My grandparents used to have a shop here, schmatte, in the suburb’s first wave of migration, before the Europeans ebbed and the Vietnamese flowed, and then the Sudanese, Ethiopian, Congolese, Somali. My grandparents left when a pig’s head turned up on their doorstep; the meaning was unmistakable. Nonetheless, I came back, and I loved it.

Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt; Mike and I and the friends who begin to move westwards cannot avoid that we are the harbingers of change, the crest of a wave of gentrification that will soon firmly crash, driving house prices upward and long-time residents out of their homes, and closing us all out when rents soar beyond our means.
I walk around every room of the terrace ritualistically, blessing our books, our paintings, our spoons, our second-hand furniture, the gold metallic fringe we have hung around our low-hanging light-fixtures. We call them ‘disco chandeliers’, and Mike’s head brushes through the fringe if he forgets to look where he is walking, but the long strands glimmer as they move in the afternoon light.

Owen ripples and flexes. The curve of my stomach is not hidden now; it pushes insistently outward, the only place I carry any weight until my eighth month, when my face suddenly balloons. I order a few maternity skirts early on, a pair of jeans, trying to get through the pregnancy as cheaply as I can.

When my own birthday passes and the nausea drops away, Mike and I wander down to Vien Huong to sit together in the window and watch the world pass. Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, fills the streets with neon lights, and wild noise, and smells that wind together on the breeze, so that hints of pho are caught up in the doughiness of bao and the oil of ‘Korean Swirl Potato’, a newly invented ‘traditional’ snack like a potato cake on a stick. I exult in these smells, which no longer hold the power to upset my balance. It is the Year of the Dragon now: magnanimous, imperious, strong.

I talk to the hospital psychiatrist once a fortnight, trying to gird myself for what might come next. Because I have a history of depression and anxiety, this feels like a sensible step, but I am giddy with joy over the pregnancy and the shadow side of it doesn’t touch me. These fifty-minute hours feel like homework; virtuously completed, but at base unnecessary. At work a colleague laughs when I suddenly swing around, my stomach appearing like an optical illusion from my otherwise unchanged frame.

 

Excerpted from ‘Pho’, an essay in the collection Things That Helped.