After the final throes of the relationship—the aimless arguments about the future, the listless waiting for his circular non–decision making, the studying of feminist tracts to recondition herself—she did not come away with nothing. She came away with a baby, which was still forming. It had been a surprise; she’d thought herself past childbearing age. That, and her IUD, which had become so deeply embedded in her uterine lining that only the uninsured process of surgical extraction could remove it, had created a false narrative of childlessness. She had not counted on the device to actually expire.
Because she was estranged from her body, she did not confirm the pregnancy until it became too risky to reverse anything. A boy. She notified the father. In light of their breakup, it was up to her, he emphasized, what she wanted to do. She didn’t know, she barely had time to think. “Well, you need some time to think. Treat yourself to a weekend away. When was the last time you left DC?” he’d asked, and she realized that it had been eleven years. On impulse, she bought a flight to Miami.
She used up some vacation days and ate imitation crabmeat by the sea. The tides ebbed and flowed. The baby moved in concert with them. She knew she would keep it. This realization was not met with celebratory feeling so much as obsessive accounting of her financial health. Could she even afford a baby? These were the liquefiable assets at hand: a drawerful of family jewelry, a 401(k), an IRA, and a one-bedroom condo purchased with inheritance money after her parents’ passing.
At the beach, a floating island of trash washed ashore, the frothing waves spewing plastic debris, bottles, tampon applicators, dental floss across the sand. The beachgoers gathered up their personal items and scattered, complaining about how long it would take the park staff to clean up. She took her towel and retreated to the hotel.
This was a different, if not an inevitable, time. The US was no longer number one. The “recyclable” waste of other nations was shipped here instead. Migrants no longer rushed its borders. Countries had begun programs of de-Americanizing, severing ties with US companies and businesses, and levying fines and taxes in trade. Its most significant cultural artifacts, including the Constitution, the Declaration, were on loan to foreign museums, displayed in clumsily curated exhibitions that lumped them with British curios.
The question of how to raise a child in this time and place.
If the baby’s father were here, he would have said, “Is this a local issue or a global issue?” A local issue, according to his definition, was a contained problem with an identifiable solution. A global issue was a problem created by a complex, undefined causal network, and therefore had no definitive solution. For that reason, a global issue was not worth worrying about. “If you just ask yourself, Local or global?, half your problems will disappear.” Was it a wilted salad or was it climate change? Was it a poorly developed war movie or was it our colonial mindset?
It was unfortunate that during her only vacation in years, she continued to think about him. She wished he would contact her; her grief was such that she looked for him in dreams. Was this local or global?
In the hotel lobby, the speakers played a languid folk song covered by Nina Simone, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” The music flowed over her. Yes, I love the ground on where he goes. And still I hope… Only then did she realize she had always misheard the lyrics as “Black is the color of my true love’s heart.”
It was in the bathroom of her hotel room that, while undressing, she made a puzzling discovery. Removing the oversized T-shirt that covered her bathing suit, she noticed a protrusion between her legs. She took off the suit and looked at her body in the large mirror.
“Oh my god.” She heard herself saying this as if from afar.
It was an appendage of ruddy flesh. It was coming out of her vagina. She touched it. It seemed to shrink from her touch, though it did not completely dart back inside. It was, well, an arm. No larger than the size of a Sharpie. The skin was pink. No, the skin was translucent, and the flesh underneath was pink, marbled with tiny, fragile veins that looked like they would bruise if she so much as sneezed. There were…fingers, somewhat webbed. It was a baby arm.
Was she going into labor? But her water had not broken. Moving carefully, she began to dial 911, but then stopped herself. Was this local or global? She was not in pain. She would have to dip into her savings to call an ambulance to the ER, since most ambulance providers didn’t take insurance. She examined the arm again, flexing it at the elbow. (Should she have washed her hands first?) It shivered a little, as if cold. It was alive. It did not, to the best of her assessment, appear to be in pain. And if she herself was not in pain (was she?), then it must not be an emergency. An emergency was an emergency only if you called it that by name.
At the immediate-care clinic, she filled out a form with her personal info. A kindly nurse examined her, then transmitted the findings to the doctor, who stepped into the room only after the exam was over. “So, Eve,” the doctor said, studying her chart, “the good news is that you’re not going into labor. Your water hasn’t broken. The arm seems to be stopping it.”
She swallowed. “Will the baby be okay?”
“Well, geriatric pregnancies in general are higher risk. But the ultrasound shows no irregularities. Its heart rate is normal—very robust, actually.” He paused. “I know this is an unusual situation. But I’ve seen this before, and the situation is relatively safe for the baby, just delicate. You’ll want to restrict your movements.”
“Yes, but…the arm is just sticking out.” Eve gestured vaguely to her nether region, covered by the paper gown. It took effort not to feel embarrassed. It was only her body, one of many he looked at every day.
“I’m aware,” he said. He did not wish to look at it. Pregnancy deformities were not as uncommon as patients seemed to think. Some said it was from the water, from discontinued feminine-hygiene products, from asbestos-laced talcum powder. All lawsuits had been settled out of court. “For the remainder of the pregnancy,” he explained, “one part of the baby will grow outside the womb rather than inside. It’s not ideal, but I’ve seen worse.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “But will the arm develop like the rest of the body if it’s, you know, outside the womb?”
“You say it’s his right arm?” He consulted the file. “Yes.”
“Well, he might not grow up to be a pitcher.” He looked up from the files. “Are you a baseball fan?”
“Um, not really.”
“Ha, yeah.” He smiled noncommittally. “Well, it’s an American thing. Maybe you have to grow up with it.”
Eve nodded blankly. Why would he assume she had not grown up with it? Why wouldn’t he assume that she was a second- or third-generation immigrant? Already she was giving this more thought than he had. She changed the subject. “So will his arm be okay?”
“Yes, probably.” He explained the mechanics. The arm would continue to grow, but at a slower rate than the wombed body. It would always be underdeveloped, a forever-convalescent limb. “There aren’t a lot of studies done on this. I would say the best thing to do is just to observe its movements. Often it will hang limp as the fetus is resting. But as you enter the second and third trimesters, the arm will begin to show more movement. If it’s uncomfortable or perturbed, you’ll know. Don’t be afraid to engage with it. If it’s doing something you don’t like, don’t be afraid to correct its positioning. Gently, of course.”
She nodded again. “So how do I take care of this arm with…synthetic measures?”
“Let me just check.” He looked at some things on the desktop, pulling up what looked like WebMD. “So it says here: Just make sure the arm is comfortable, not twisted at odd angles. Be careful how you sit. Keep it warm. You can put oil on it. There’s a website that sells fetal-limb warmers for this, and lotions too.” He looked around for his prescription pad to write down the URL.
“Is there anything else?” She was worried she would forget everything.
“Actually, yes!” As if he’d just remembered. “With this type of complication, the pregnancy often extends past full term. It’s unclear why. You’ll likely carry longer than forty weeks, could be fifty, even. We don’t have effective methods of giving an estimate. You should follow up with your obstetrician.”
“Do you have a pamphlet or something?” Her focus was dissolving. “I’m sorry, I’m not going to remember all this.” She wanted to cry. Searching for further questions, she asked, “What about when I have to pee?”
His flinch was so slight that it could only have been imagined. “Yes, we haven’t gotten to the part about bodily logistics, have we?” He smiled. “When you urinate, make sure to wipe the arm down afterward. Urine is a sterile substance, so it shouldn’t become infected if you take care of it correctly.” He consulted the clock on the wall. “I’ll let you get dressed. The front desk will take your co-pay.”
“Okay.” Instead of crying, she sneezed. When she sneezed, she could feel the arm shake, its jiggly, vibrational energy. “At least it’s only the arm,” she said, as if to herself.
“Atta girl,” the doctor said, which was an insane thing to say. She must’ve misheard. It was probably something like There you go instead.
She put on a long, billowy dress and strolled down Ocean Drive, swaying a little to music emitted by nightclubs across the street. The baby arm swung lightly, a cherubic pendulum. She slowed her gait, not wanting to jostle it further. Along the beach walk, people played volleyball, even at this late hour. Older women seemed to smile at her as they walked past. Her first instinct was to check whether the baby arm was visible, but she realized they were just smiling at her belly. She was identifiably pregnant.
When friends used to ask her if she wanted to start a family, she would eschew the question by saying, “The economy doesn’t support it.” Which wasn’t entirely justifiable. People with lesser means had children. Everyone expected to die in debt, and had learned not to mind. It was just a fact of living in a country on the decline.
For the last eleven years, Eve had worked for the Image and Reputation Office of the US government. The office monitored the country’s standing in other places, compiling reports based on foreign news articles, blog posts, and social media mentions into one big-data document every quarter. They alerted the Pentagon to extremist threats.
As protocol for any government job, she’d had to submit to an FBI background check and questioning before the official hire. An agent had asked about her relationship to her home country. “Please describe,” he’d instructed, reading from a form, “the loyalties, if any, that you feel toward your non-US place of origin.”
“I feel sympathy and goodwill toward its people and its culture,” she’d said carefully, “but not toward its government.”
“Okay, great.” The FBI agent had written something down, then moved on to more-detailed questions. She had disclosed all the facts: That she had immigrated to the US when she was six. That the last time she had visited her home country was in college, when her parents were still alive. “But you still have family there?” he’d asked.
“Well, most of my family back home have moved away to other countries.” Maybe she shouldn’t have referred to it as “home.” She added, “There’s no reason to visit now.”
“You must miss them,” he’d surmised, the empathy in his voice a mislead. He was deducing her loyalties.
She deferred his probing by offering more facts. “There’s a great-aunt who still lives there. I didn’t know her very well. I don’t have many memories of her.” The great-aunt was the last of the older generation who had stayed.
She remembered the last time she had visited her home city, sitting around in various relatives’ living rooms and socializing at big family banquets. She had mostly kept to herself, except when her grandmother addressed her with edicts about marrying before she turned into a “leftover” at twenty-seven, and how she needed to have a child before thirty. Her father didn’t like to leave her alone with relatives. She had thought he was being protective before realizing, some years after his death, that he had been ashamed—of her faulty language skills and colloquialisms, her blunt American mannerisms, her lack of cultural savvy, the way she dressed. So American.
She had blabbed some of this to the FBI agent, amplifying her ambivalence. In the end, she had been hired.
It was dark by the time Eve reached the southernmost end of Miami Beach. Past the beach, there was a long concrete pier that extended into the ocean. She walked out onto it. The tip of America, though not the limit of its once-empiric sweep. In the dark, the ocean was a self-vomiting mass that could be heard but not seen. The waves emitted a thirsty slurp. Floating in oceans beyond, America’s countless former territories: Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Saipan….
I should just leave, she thought, staring out into the dark. What she meant by that, she wasn’t sure. She needed to put some distance between herself and the baby’s father, that was for sure. But something else, something unspoken.
When her parents died a few years ago, she had felt relief at finally being freed of their expectations. They were her only family living in the States. Yet by that point she could no longer conceive of a life beyond the one they had envisioned for her. Her habits had already calcified. So she continued on as they had wished, holding her job as a government functionary. Even having a baby would have been in keeping with what they had wanted.
If there was one deviation she could allow herself, it was that she wanted to leave this country, a place her parents had idolized. Coming here, for them, had been the grand ambition, the only dream. But now their only child had the thought of returning, of a homecoming.
In that moment, a gust of wind swept across the pier, a breeze at first, until it grew more insistent. The baby arm contracted. It felt as if it were trying to pull itself out of her. This hurt wildly, a foreshadowing of contractions. When the wind died down, she lifted up the hem of her dress, and she saw that the arm was pointing, its index finger extended toward the ocean. She took that as a sign.
She petted the vibrating limb through the fabric of her skirt, trying to steady its tense, frantic energy. “Okay,” she conceded, and it was a long moment before the arm relaxed.
On the red-eye return flight to DC, she looked out the window as the plane prepared for landing, at all the usual landmarks: the Washington Monument, the Pentagon, the BioPark. DC was basically a company town, flanked by other company towns. On the Virginia side was the defense industry, on the Maryland side, the pharmaceutical industry. She was often very lonely. As the plane lowered, the geography became more defined, more inescapable.
She went straight from the airport to the office. It was like any Monday morning. Adjusting her skirt as she sat down at her desk, she was careful not to sit on the baby arm. From the messages in her inbox, it seemed that most coworkers were not even aware she had been on vacation.
“Eve, can you come with me?” It was her boss, standing at the entry to her cubicle.
Inside his office, she did not sit down. She stood there, looking out the window behind his desk. The view overlooked Lafayette Square, and beyond that, the back of the White House. From behind, it looked like any other building.
He did not sit either, but leaned against his desk, facing her. “How was your vacation?” he asked carefully.
“Fine. It gave me time to reflect.” She paused. “I’ve decided that it would probably be best if I no longer worked here.”
He tsked. “Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
He clasped his hands. He was a deliberate man, lean and business-casual handsome. “This isn’t the first time you’ve wanted to quit.”
“Ben.” She spoke slowly. “I don’t want the complications of working in the same office as my ex-boyfriend, who also happens to be my boss.” Although ex-boyfriend was a stretch for their noncommittal, on-off relationship.
“Have you thought that, given your situation, this would be the worst time to lose a job?”
“I have reserves,” she said, with too much dignity.
“What about health insurance?”
She almost rolled her eyes. “Look, you can either lay me off or I can quit.”
“But I don’t have any reason to let you go.”
“Isn’t there always a budgetary issue at this time of the year?” she hinted.
“Let’s just…slow down here.” He looked tired, older than his years. They were the same age, had started at this department at the same time, though he had advanced more quickly. He was not a natural manager; being forced to make decisions that affected others made him break out in hives. For Secret Santa two years before, she had gifted him a bottle of calamine lotion. Though it had been a joke, his gratitude had taken her aback. They’d started dating in the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, if a lunch break in a deserted office qualified as a date.
She sat down on the sofa. “It’s going to be a lot of childcare. All I see in front of me is work and more work.” She did not look at him as she said these things. “If I don’t take a break now, I won’t have the chance to do so again for a while.”
“So what you want is not necessarily to quit. You want to take a leave, maybe an extended vacation.” He was always willfully misinterpreting her. “We were supposed to take a vacation together,” he said, almost to himself.
“Sure.” Eve didn’t want to rehash their broken plans. At one point, they had planned on traveling overseas together, for a tour through parts of Asia. But since his idea of a good time was touring Civil War battlefields, she should have seen that he would eventually back out. Someone who found eating pad thai too “challenging” probably wouldn’t adapt to traveling so far afield.
Things made sense when Eve met his new girlfriend, who had once stopped by the office to pick Ben up. They were on their way to a clambake, a Friday night with friends at the marina. Wearing a kelly-green tennis dress with white espadrilles, she was carrying a sheet cake resembling a flag, blueberries and strawberries as the stars and stripes arranged across a layer of whipped cream. Seeing the two of them together in the doorway of his office, she understood that they came from the same background, the same type of family.
This was not to discount certain things about him. Like the fact that no one had ever said anything close to the things he had said to her, in their warmth and depth of feeling. The problem was that he could express those feelings only when he thought she was asleep. The problem was that to access the warmest, most human part of him, she would always have to be partly unconscious.
In Ben’s office, they were quiet for a long time. She could hear other employees shuffling out to lunch. She wanted to join them. The conversation was going nowhere. She would have to shock him.
She unzipped her skirt. “What are you doing?” he asked uneasily, glancing at the door. And then: “What is that?”
“An arm.” She explained what the doctor had told her, how this was not uncommon.
“I’ve heard about this on the news.” He was staring at it, transfixed. “I’ve just…never seen it.”
“It’s real,” she confirmed. “Do you want to touch it?”
As if on cue, the baby arm began to contract. It was no longer pink, but a mangled red color. It had grown a bit of peach fuzz. Even she felt taken aback, looking at it again.
“Not right now.” He was polite in his repulsion.
“What are you afraid of?” It wasn’t until this moment that she realized this was what she wanted, to be an aberration to him.
“Look, I know what you’re doing,” he snapped. “I’m not going to let you quit your job. Please, zip yourself up.” He paced back and forth, irritated. “Here’s what we’re going to do.” He outlined a plan that would enable her to use up all her vacation days at once. “You currently have six months of unused days. So take six months off.”
“I thought the policy prohibits taking more than two weeks of vacation at once.”
“I’ll find a way around it,” he said wearily. “But I have a condition. At the end of this, you have to come back. I’m serious about this. You need to return.”
Why he needed this, she did not ask. “Well, I have a condition too,” she said quickly, before he could change her mind. “I want to leave tomorrow.”
It was Eve’s first trip back to her home country alone, unchaperoned by her parents. She wanted a homecoming, whatever that meant. Maybe it was to be overwhelmed by déjà vu, a staggering tsunami wave. A first cousin once removed, who now lived in what was formerly England and with whom she traded holiday emails, had helped her get in touch with her great-aunt and to arrange a stay at her home. The great-aunt was a widow who lived alone, off her late husband’s pension.
Eve was surprised to find, upon arriving from the airport, that her aunt’s apartment was in a new-construction building modeled after a prewar New York residence, and, until she encountered the interior, wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Upper East Side.
The marble-tiled lobby consisted of a mishmash of European architectural styles—crown moldings in the shape of ivy leaves, a Tudor-style chandelier, and a set of trompe l’oeil paintings of Venetian windows. A mechanical baby grand played “Tiny Dancer” next to a koi pond. She kept circling, trying to find the elevator bank. There was no elevator in the entire place, it turned out. A maintenance worker pointed to the door leading to the stairs. The stairwell lights flickered precariously as, panting, she clambered up to the sixteenth floor, her hidden baby arm flapping beneath her dress.
The apartment’s double doors opened to the dining room, its table set with a wild tangle of food. Arranged around a pyramid of tangerines, there was sugarcane stuffed with sausage, a steamed fish covered with a mound of julienned ginger and scallions, a soup flecked with lotus roots, a shrimp and lychee dish, wilted spinach. Those were what she could see, all garnished with little dishes of various nuts and foil-wrapped toffee candies. Her great-aunt, a small, tidy woman in her seventies, stood next to the large table. She patted Eve’s cheek shyly in greeting, then embraced her.
They no longer shared a common language, but cobbled together a rudimentary conversation as well as they could, with gesturing and pointing. When in doubt, they used the translation app on Eve’s phone, and a disembodied British voice offered the linguistic bridge: That sauce goes with the fish, or Be careful, you have a stain on your shirt.
When they grew tired of trying to communicate, they took little bites from the oversized spread, so bounteous and sprawling that her aunt must have been expecting ghosts. She bit off a piece of tangerine, stinging with almond-soaked sugar. It turned out to be made of marzipan, garnished with gold leaf and filled with chocolate and nuts. She remembered, suddenly, New Year parties with her grandmother, her aunt’s wedding, her own going-away party when she’d moved to the States. When the déjà vu came, it was like drowning.
The air-conditioning turned on and off periodically, without warning, blasting the room with cold. Same with the lights, which flickered as if in a haunted house. The electricity in the building, her aunt indicated, was finicky and haphazard in the evenings. Suddenly, all the minor discomforts of jet lag, of pregnancy, of varied and rich foods, of fluctuating temperatures, of unreliable lighting, snowballed into a disorienting avalanche of dizziness, of fatigue. She felt woozy.
Next thing Eve knew, she was lying on the sofa, the ceiling lights blinking above, and her aunt was taking off her shoes. Eve murmured that she was sorry for forgetting to take them off before entering, what a faux pas. The aunt laughed, said something Eve didn’t catch, as her nimble fingers undid the shoelaces with slow, purposeful care. This aunt was essentially a stranger; they did not share the conflicts that Eve shared with her parents and others in the family. She had not been wounded by her in the same way. The idea of a beginning.
She was drowsy after overeating. As her aunt stroked her forehead, she thought that, yes, finally she understood what a homecoming was supposed to be. It was to be comfortable in a way you couldn’t be elsewhere. It was to be mothered into an oblivious ooze.
Even still. When she felt the baby arm move, she shrank away from her aunt’s touch.
Over the next few days, her aunt took her around her birth city. These were the sights she recognized from childhood: the stone bridge over a pond of lily pads; the sculpture park with a stone tiger she’d once posed beside as an uncle (divorced out of the family now) took her photo; the outdoor street market where her grandma used to buy morning groceries.
Aside from these sites, so much of the city had been knocked down and replaced with new developments. This was at least partly due to the effects of the de-Americanizing program, a state initiative to “reclaim” the country’s true heritage and reverse undue Western influence. All American-owned businesses had been banned and replaced, often by imitative domestic counterparts. There was not a familiar chain or franchise in sight, though she spotted a few empty storefronts with ghost signage: a KFC, a pair of dismantled golden arches in an alley.
Yet America as a subliminal presence remained everywhere, if not more strongly than before. An ideology defined only by what it opposes is doomed to be defined by that exact thing. Even if there were no more KFCs, the CFCs looked pretty much the same. And so America could be felt in the layouts and fluorescent lights of the supermarkets; the familiar, loud graphic designs of billboards, advertisements, product packaging; the gleaming surfaces of malls; housing developments modeled after the suburbs of Orange County; a White House–like building that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a prison.
Even though English had been banned, kids liked to illicitly mouth “cool” and “okay” before being smacked upside their heads by their mothers. As for Eve, she kept her mouth shut in public. This was what she had done on previous trips back with her parents, who pointed out that her accent was obvious when she spoke, more like baby-talked, in her native tongue.
One evening, they were walking through an outdoor market when her aunt suddenly became animated and began to gesture in a certain direction. She pulled Eve’s arm, quickening her pace through the crowded street. They zigzagged past vendor stalls, eateries with plastic dining sets, and open storefronts pumping pop music. Her aunt didn’t have any problem jaywalking, playing chicken with intercepting motorists—everyone did it here—but she was surprised by her aunt’s brazenness, the quick, loud snap of her plastic sandals against concrete. Her grip was surprisingly strong.
They went across an overpass. Below, motorists whizzed down the freeway, coursing at breakneck speed around other vehicles.
Across the freeway was an older, less-developed part of the city. The busy commercial district gave way to residential housing, cloistered by ungroomed foliage and trees waving unhurriedly in the breeze. The sound of traffic became distant, replaced by the din of ambient noise: buzzing insects, a garbage-can lid closing. The streetlights were few and far between.
Her aunt slowed down and stopped in front of a nondescript building in a concrete courtyard, lit up under a fluorescent streetlamp. It was shabbier and more squat than the new construction she kept seeing. People lived here, behind the faded floral curtains. Her aunt pointed to one of the windows in the building, said something.
“What?” Eve was still out of breath.
Her aunt repeated the word insistently. Then again.
Eve took her phone out and recorded the word and ran it through her translation app. The automated voice rose from the ether, filling the space between them: Birth. The app repeated the translation: Birth.
She looked at the building again, at the corner window on the second floor. The place of birth, she understood. Her birth.
Her aunt asked something to the effect of “Do you remember?” An absurd question, but she did not strain when she answered, “Yes. I remember.” Even though it was impossible, she did remember.
A shadow moved behind the curtains, someone passing by to retrieve something in the front room, maybe a cup of tea grown cold, a pair of house slippers in need of a wash. In the courtyard bloomed a thicket of magnolia trees. They reminded her of the magnolias in Lafayette Square, where she and Ben used to take lunchtime walks. He didn’t like even his shadow to publicly touch hers. Beneath the leaves, he would study the ground instead. The great-aunt said something else. Too tired to cobble together her meaning, Eve ran it through the app again. The voice, in Eton-trained English, emanated from the ether again: Isn’t it better to be back?
“Yes,” she responded in her native language. “Yes, it is.”
In the middle of the night, Ben wrote her an email. He had woken up from a dream about her. He was walking with Eve through Lafayette Square during lunch hour, something that they actually used to do. It was mostly the feeling of her presence that stayed with him, the scenery of the flowers all around them, and his anxiety about things left unsaid.
That was how the message began. It was uncharacteristic of him to refer to his dreams, much less feelings, which he once explained he viewed as natural phenomena, like tides lapping the shore. Then the tone became a bit more clipped, more brisk, lapsing back into himself. He asked her about her health, and how things were. He updated her on things at the office, and then he assured her that if she had any trouble, whatever it was, he would help.
The email, sent from his work address, turned out to be a functionary piece of correspondence. He reminded her that her six months of vacation days were almost up, and they really should iron out a plan for how to proceed when she returned. He included the date when she would be required back at work, as if she might’ve forgotten, then signed off with “Warmly.”
He hit send before he could spend too long finessing his words.
Her nighttime ritual after her shower was to dress the baby arm. She stored its caretaking materials in a canvas sachet, wrapped with a string. After drying the arm with a muslin cloth, she would warm up a dollop of protective pink ointment in her palm, then spread it across its skin. Then she distributed a few drops of an oil blend and lightly patted it here and there. The arm looked fat and big now, the flesh firmer than before. She gave it a little massage. Every week, she trimmed its nails.
In the streetlight coming through the bathroom window, she liked to look at the baby arm before she put on its warmer, a tiny weighted sleeve that restricted its movements and calmed its occasional nervous trembling, like a ThunderShirt. It seemed to respond to her attention and care, to exhibit enjoyment. What had at first seemed grotesque was now just lovable. Whatever misgivings she had had about being a mother seemed moot when confronted with this pudge of appendage, no less chonk in its flesh rolls than those sported by most “normal” babies.
This was what she was doing when her aunt, bearing a stack of folded towels, walked into the bathroom. There was silence. Her aunt was taking it all in. It seemed plausible that the revelation of the baby arm could be met with sympathy, or at least acceptance. But the towels dropped to the floor. The aunt’s frozen smile held as she slowly backed out of the bathroom into the darkened hallway, the electricity having switched off.
Retreating into the hallway shadows, her aunt began shaking her head, her eyes darting around before settling again on her great-niece in disbelief, then disapproval. There it was. This expression was familiar to Eve, reminiscent of the way her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had all, at one time or another, looked at her. It was a look of dismay and confusion, as if they didn’t know what to do with her, couldn’t quite claim her as their own.
The shadows fell over her aunt, enshrouding her until she was no longer visible. All Eve could hear was her voice— some cries, unintelligible things. No translation app needed.
Why did she feel so galvanized into pleading her own case? Still naked, not even having tucked a towel around herself, she took a few steps into the hallway. To the darkness, she explained that she had seen a doctor, that this prenatal “defect” was, if not normal, then at least not a cause for alarm. It was very common in America. Other pregnant women suffered this too.
There was no answer. She was not sure if her aunt was still there, or if she had slipped away to somewhere else in the apartment.
As Eve stepped into the hallway, an arm shot out of the dark, grabbing her by the neck. It was a small, ancient arm, wiry and wizened, but strong. It tightened around her, and would not give as she attempted to pry its fingers off. She struggled to take in air. The baby arm flailed around helplessly, a flopping fish, setting off a series of contractions.
A seething voice came out of the dark, associated with no one, no one that she could see. Get out. Get out.
She thought she was going to black out, but then realized it was her own panic, her raspy breathing, that had seized her throat. The hand had eased its grip around her neck. Its strength was firm but not life-threatening, not deadening. Her family would only wound her, nothing more, so that she went through this life maimed, but still she went through life.
Eve finally stepped out of its grip, convulsing with humiliation, rippling with contractions. She could feel the baby arm shaking. Retreating into the safety of the bathroom, she soothed and petted the little arm, cooing to it. Its fingers curled around hers. They had just been warm-up contractions, not real ones.
The humiliation she felt was followed by anger. This doesn’t matter, she thought. None of this mattered because she would return to the US, where she would give birth to her baby, the first in the family to be born an American citizen. He would be free from his lineage of demanding ancestors, free from their restrictive traditions and expectations. She could withstand the brutality of this moment for the lucidity it brought her: She would never return. She would never come here again.
She glared out into the darkened hallway.
Get out. Get out.
Right, and what else was new? Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough.
When her reply arrived, weeks after his email, it too came in the middle of the night. It was a brief message. She apologized for not responding sooner, but she had been traveling. She said that her health was fine, and that she had been staying at a relative’s, and was now staying in a hostel. That was it.
In reply, he asked her, Are you planning on returning? He reminded her once again of the date she was expected back in the office. He was deciding, he added, how to delegate a few upcoming projects, and was counting on her return.
There was no immediate response. And then, a few days later, a response that was barely a sentence: Yeah, of course.
Her assigned gate at the airport was still boarding another flight. There were three hours to kill before her return to DC, but she didn’t want to pay for another night at the hostel just to stay a few extra hours. This is how she found herself in the boarding area close to midnight, on a weeknight, watching local news programs play across multiple screens.
The current flight boarding at her departing gate was to Chicago. The passengers had mostly been processed, their boarding passes scanned, with only a few stragglers rushing with luggage as the gate was closing.
On the TV, the newscaster kept referring to the imperialists, as translated in the closed captions. During her time here, she had learned that the term was virtually synonymous with Americans. The current segment, presented with a somewhat triumphant flourish, was about how the birth rate in the US was down from previous years. But then, Eve thought, wasn’t that the trend in almost every developed nation? She dozed off to the broadcaster’s descriptions of imperial decline, trying to remember where she had read that.
She woke to the sound of a man’s voice yelling, “Wait! Hold on!” It had been so long since she had heard any form of American English that she automatically roused. It was a siren call of the familiar, but shrill and stressed. A middle-aged couple rushed toward the gate, wheeling their squeaky carry-on suitcases.
“That’s our flight!” the woman yelled at the attendant.
“I’m sorry,” the attendant told them, as they neared. “We closed five minutes ago.”
Outside, the plane had disconnected from the Jetway. The couple looked back and forth between the attendant and the plane, the attendant and the plane.
“No, no, no. We need to get on,” the man said decisively. Midwestern, Eve could tell from their accents. But maybe from the more liberal bastions of the Midwest, at least based on their bearing. The silver-haired, bespectacled husband wore a white button-up under a navy blazer, and the wife was in a light-gray dress of natural fibers and dyes, accessorized with a delicate, probably responsibly sourced gold necklace.
“Gate is closed,” the attendant answered calmly. “We rebook.”
The couple was quiet, nodding. But the silence, it turned out, was less acceptance than recalibration. They erupted.
“For God’s sake, it’s right there!” The husband gestured to the plane outside the window, its doors fully closed. “They can just open the door again. You can just let us through.”
“We’ve been here for two weeks!” the wife said, squinting, almost accusatory. “We can’t stay another day. I’m allergic to the heat. The water is full of bacteria. I can’t eat the food here!”
In the boarding area, there were other passengers sitting around, likely waiting for the next flight too, young expats who had scored cheap flights at inconvenient hours. They watched this exchange with unease and morbid curiosity.
One of the travelers tried to intervene. Walking up to the couple, the stranger offered assistance. “Do you need help getting to the ticket counter? You can get another ticket at the counter upstairs, and I’m sure they’ll book you on the next flight.”
The wife didn’t seem to hear. She might’ve been talking to herself when she cried out, “I miss our house, our friends, our—our children, for God’s sake. And the dog!” She was crying now, her bracelets jangling as she moved her hands to her face.
“You people are known for your hospitality?” the husband added. “This isn’t hospitable!”
Eve looked around. Was this a joke? She would not have been surprised to find a camera crew filming for a prank show. Or perhaps they allowed themselves to behave this way precisely because they did not think anyone was watching. Outside of the US, they were finally free.
That’s when she felt a contraction, a real one this time, red and laser-focused, moving from the top of her uterus down to her pelvis, body horror in a sci-fi movie. She stiffened, afraid to move. It lasted less than a minute, but it was a focused pain this time, a kind that she hadn’t felt before.
“You can’t go on the plane. The door is closed.” The attendant’s obligatory smile was fading. “Door closes, no boarding.” The wife looked out the window pleadingly. “But the plane is right there!”
Eve felt the baby arm move, scraping at her skin. “Not now,” she muttered. “Please, not now. Any other time but this.” She crossed her legs, gently pinning the arm between her thighs.
“C’mon,” the husband persisted. “Just use your walkie-talkie and tell the pilot there are two passengers they missed.” He paused. “The plane is right there!”
“Reschedule.” The attendant was now quiet in his authority. He picked up the phone and called someone. “Security,” he requested.
“We just want to go home. We just want to go home,” the woman said, weeping. The sound of her sobs seemed to echo around the terminal, bouncing off the window that reflected the scene back to everyone watching. The baby arm had freed itself from her crossed legs, was flailing once more. In the moment before Eve felt another contraction, the plane turned and headed out. She watched, dully, as it glided down the runway, speeding toward liftoff.