by Helen Phillips, recommended by Lauren Groff
AN INTRODUCTION BY LAUREN GROFF
Childbearing is an act of radical transformation. Like all women’s work, it is radically undervalued.
You sail through your days prow-first like a battleship, your body made public, strangers placing their hands on your belly. You face an intensifying sequence of lightning bolts that splits you and turns you inside out. In the end, someone hands you a real, live human being that you have made out of nothing, out of two dense cells.
(Whenever a man assumes physical superiority, I think: Oh, honey-bear, oh, sweetness, you’re no stronger than me. Strong is making a whole person in your body.)
Childbearing is undervalued because it’s women’s work, but also because it’s animal work, and how special can it be if the squirrels and the whales can do it, and so dumbly, too? It is also true that complexity is frightening and we take comfort in the Manichean. So, brain-work: important! Body-work: trifling.
Yet because we are the thinking animals, any act of radical transformation will change us intellectually. Bearing a child and being its exhausted flesh-and-blood shell for the first few months, watching that spark leap and kindle behind the new eyes, can turn any raw mother into a philosopher, an existentialist, a metaphysician, an ethicist, an epistemologist. Nobody can touch and taste and smell such new skin and not understand aesthetics.
This is only one of the reasons why I love the work of Helen Phillips so damn much. What we persist in seeing as the domestic, boring, and everyday, are in fact some of the weirdest things on the planet. Helen Phillips insists on this weirdness, she looks harder at it, she bores deeper into it, and she makes us see anew the things we often take for granted.
For instance, in this story, “The Doppelgängers,” Phillips shows the blistering world of new motherhood to be personal and intimate and inherently terrifying. It is also, and equally, a strange collective act, lived alongside other new mothers who exist in the same shadowy, eerie world, who are undergoing the same torments and feeling both anchored by and separate from the body. Phillips knows that a parent makes us always Other.
I read Helen Phillips because she is wise and she is funny. She is a writer on whom nothing is lost. Best of all, she is a quiet subversive. In Helen Phillips’s world, everything appears as vast and rich as it truly is.
Enjoy the story.
Author of Fates and Furies
by Helen Phillips
The Queen always looked profound when she pooped. Her eyes solemn, as though regarding the void. That was why they had taken to calling her The Queen, even though she was only a month old. Also, the way she sat enthroned in her car seat in the over-packed car as they drove to the new town. And the regal purple stars on her blanket, beneath which her absurdly tiny legs jerked this way and that.
“It’ll be better here,” Sam assured Mimosa that night in the new house. She was standing in the new kitchen beside the new window looking out into the new backyard. She was holding The Queen close to her. She — Mimosa, not The Queen — was crying. The Queen was sleeping. The Queen’s head fit flawlessly beneath Mimosa’s chin. She wondered if all babies’ heads fit so flawlessly beneath their mothers’ chins, if it was a biological thing. Who were those women, those women who had cautioned her, “Don’t worry if you don’t love your baby right away; it takes a while”?
“It’ll be better here,” Sam said again, or maybe he didn’t. She was too tired to know. Everything was a blur — the red numbers on the digital clock, the black hole of The Queen’s mouth.
Sam came up behind Mimosa and did something, the bite on the back of her neck, his vampire move. It was a trick he’d discovered by accident, one night many years ago; they’d been rolling around in bed and somehow his teeth had found the skin there. He’d immediately let go and apologized. “No,” she’d said firmly, giddily, realizing that now she could love him. “I mean, please. Do it again.”
Since this was the first time he had done it since the birth of The Queen, Mimosa was particularly sensitive to it. The touch of his teeth traveled silken down her spine, like an epidural in the seconds before it begins to numb. She turned to him, opening her mouth. The Queen awoke with a howl.
While Sam was at work, Mimosa ran her fingers from the top of The Queen’s head all the way down her spine, again and again, an addiction. It was too much, this beauty, this responsibility. The Queen burped. The Queen stared wide-eyed at the corner of the room as though watching a ghost emerge from the wall. The Queen farted. Mimosa couldn’t bear the softness like a piece of overripe fruit where The Queen’s skull had yet to fuse. It seemed that The Queen could vanish or disintegrate in an instant, that it would take almost nothing to destroy her.
“Are you there?” Sam said, standing in the doorway. A heat wave had begun. The bedroom was hot and dark. The whole house was hot and dark. He couldn’t see who was crying and who was sleeping.
Over the weekend they did things. Nice things, together, as a family. Sam insisted. It felt strange to Mimosa to be out and about, strolling down the sidewalk, sitting on a bench, eating ice cream. She was so accustomed to being inside the house. She was so accustomed to sitting on the bed with The Queen on her knees. Her armpits were damp and her sundress smelled. Her breasts were leaking.
On the other bench, another couple ate ice cream and gazed into a stroller. The woman wore the same sandals as Mimosa.
“Let’s go,” Mimosa said, standing abruptly.
Sam looked up, surprised.
“Come on,” she said.
The labor had been so long. She hadn’t slept more than three hours at a stretch since then. He rose and gripped the handlebar of the stroller. She stormed down the sidewalk toward a quieter street. Small, sensible houses, not unlike their own. She allowed Sam and The Queen to catch up with her. At the end of the block, a woman was watering a row of sagging stargazer lilies with a long hose. Mimosa, who liked stargazers, very nearly smiled as they approached the yard.
But this woman, the woman with the hose; she was wearing the same sundress as Mimosa. And, arcing outward from the small house: the wail of a newborn.
In the middle of the middle of the night, The Queen was screaming for milk, and Mimosa’s breasts were dripping, but the screaming interfered with the latch. The Queen was sticky with milk. Mimosa was sticky with milk. Mimosa wrestled The Queen’s confused, damp body closer to her nipple. Milk plastered them together at their stomachs.
On Monday, the heat was worse than ever. Something was happening to The Queen: hundreds if not thousands of small bumps had arisen on her skin. Mimosa noticed the rash when The Queen woke her at 4:57 in the morning (Sam slept through the crying, could always sleep through, and this was troubling to Mimosa, and at times filled her with queasy hatred, as though she had married a Frisbee or a spoon rather than a man).
Mimosa stepped around the moving boxes and turned on the overhead light in The Queen’s room. She removed The Queen’s onesie and diaper. She stood at the changing table for far too long, staring at The Queen’s skin. The Queen kicked and twisted and reached, oblivious to her mother’s hard gaze. Only when The Queen’s flailing arm had a little heart-wrenching spasm (overexcitement? agitation?) did Mimosa finally pick her up.
She went back into the other room and watched Sam sleep. Then she shoved The Queen at his face.
“Look!” she commanded.
“Oh,” Sam cooed sleepily, taking the baby, pressing her into his chest hair. “I am looking! I am looking at this beautiful, perfect baby! Oh my!”
The Queen smiled at her father, or so it seemed.
Mimosa pulled The Queen away from him and held her close, as close as close could be, the baby’s head in its nook beneath Mimosa’s chin, but she wished there was some way to hold her even closer.
The house felt small, small and hot. Mimosa could smell herself more strongly by the minute. Her body odor had intensified since The Queen’s birth. Sam had read somewhere that newborns can recognize only one person in the entire world, and the way they recognize that person is by scent alone. She wondered when her stink would begin to offend The Queen, or if The Queen liked it more as it grew stronger.
In the car on the way to the park she felt victorious (having packed the diaper bag, located the car keys) and rolled down all the windows. She wanted to sit on a bench by the pond and hold The Queen in her lap and gaze at the swans. This was something she had imagined doing when she was pregnant.
But today even the birds terrified her. The swans and the pigeons were preparing for a face-off. They surrounded the most desirable bench, the pigeons viciously iridescent, the swans viciously white, ready for some kind of reckoning.
She spun the stroller around, away from the battlefield. The Queen began to fuss. Only a witch would dare stroll her infant in such indecent heat.
“You’re my best friend,” she said to soothe The Queen, but it just sounded plaintive.
Mimosa drove home slowly. She wished The Queen could be up front in the passenger seat beside her. She narrated the sights they passed: that’s a church, that’s a school, that’s a gas station. Soon the backseat was swathed in the hush of The Queen’s sleep. They said it was good to talk to your baby, but sometimes it was hard to know what to say, even when your baby was The Queen.
If Mimosa had been alone, truly alone, as she had so often been as of five weeks ago, she would have turned on the radio. But now the hush enveloped the car as Mimosa pulled up to a stop sign.
There were four cars at the four-way stop, three in addition to Mimosa’s.
First the car to Mimosa’s left passed through the intersection, driven by a woman with a dark bob, a tired face, a car seat in the back. Next the car to Mimosa’s right passed through the intersection, driven by a woman with a dark bob, a tired face, a car seat in the back. Then the car across from Mimosa passed through the intersection, driven by a woman with a dark bob, a tired face, a car seat in the back. Now it was Mimosa’s turn. She was horrified, paralyzed.
Yet it was her turn, and so she drove.
Early evening, and Sam was driving. A deep blue summer night, birdsong paired with silence. Stopped at a red light, they watched a woman push a stroller across the gleaming crosswalk.
“This town,” Mimosa said bitterly as the light turned green.
“What?” Sam said.
There was a row of dark trees, the kind of trees that ought to be Christmas trees. They looked strange here, in the heart of the summer, standing upright against the heat.
“Filled with doppelgängers of me,” Mimosa said. As she said it, she could see them — furrowing their brows the same way over the list of ingredients on a jar of tomato sauce, struggling the same way to wipe the shit out of the rolls of fat on their babies’ thighs.
Sam gave half a laugh. Mimosa glanced back to check on The Queen. The backseat was dim, but she sensed that the baby was awake.
“Yeah,” Sam said in that flat way of his. “That’s why I love you. ’Cause you’re just like everyone else.”
She craned her neck further, caught a glimpse of her accomplice’s dark alert eye.
Mimosa had been very organized, before all this. She’d had plans to start a small business. Somewhere on her computer there were spreadsheets.
“Just because they, what, have the same stroller we have?” Sam said as he pulled into their driveway.
He got out and opened the door to the backseat and unlatched The Queen. The Queen spat up on him, just as so many babies all over town were spitting up on their fathers.
It was eerie, more than eerie, it was nauseating, to see them standing at the gas station, their hair wilting in the heat just like hers, their bodies at the same stage of post-birth flab.
There was a doppelgänger in the produce section. Perched in the woman’s shopping cart, a sleeping infant in a handy detachable car seat identical to the handy detachable car seat of The Queen. Mimosa hid behind the bananas and watched. The woman held a real lemon in one hand and a lemon-shaped container of lemon juice in the other. She dropped the lemon into her cart, put the container back on the shelf, and began to walk away. Then she turned around to swap the lemon for the container. Then, she changed her mind again, put the container on the shelf once more, and returned the lemon to her cart.
Mimosa recognized the indecision born of exhaustion, that familiar fuzziness. This sizzle of recognition propelled her toward the woman.
“I did that just last week,” Mimosa found herself saying.
The doppelgänger, now studying the nutrition information on the container of lemon juice, didn’t react. Boldly, Mimosa raised her voice a second time.
“I have a hard time choosing between them,” she said. Her voice seemed an intrusion in the cool, tranquil supermarket.
The doppelgänger turned to her with a radiant smile, and Mimosa reacted with a radiant smile of her own.
“I know!” the doppelgänger said, as though they were in the middle of a conversation. “It’s like, convenience versus authenticity. I can’t believe that squeezing a lemon sounds like too much of a hassle, but that’s just where I am in my life right now, you know?”
So much did Mimosa know that she had to blink back a pair of tears.
“How old?” the doppelgänger asked, turning her smile on The Queen.
“Six weeks,” Mimosa said.
“Mine too!” the doppelgänger exclaimed. “Well, six and a half. Just started smiling for non-gas reasons last week. Look, you’ve got to join my moms’ group for babies born in June.”
“Oh,” Mimosa said, revolted and fascinated.
“Mary Rogers,” the doppelgänger said, sticking out her hand.
“Mimosa Smith,” Mimosa said.
“Mimosa!” Mary Rogers said. “That’s quite a name.”
“My mom’s favorite drink,” Mimosa explained, as usual. Mary Rogers didn’t yet know that, aside from her name, Mimosa was just like any other plain Jane.
It was there, damp with sweat, in the pocket of her sundress. She reached down and squeezed it during dinner. She’d made pasta and now she didn’t know why she’d made something that required water to boil. The night was already devastatingly hot.
“Want me to hold her?” Sam said across the small breakfast table. They had a dining room with a dining table, but they had yet to use it. Mimosa held The Queen with one arm and with the opposite hand clenched the piece of paper torn magnanimously from Mary Rogers’s shopping list. On one side, Mary Rogers had scrawled the name of the café where the moms’ group was meeting this week; on the other side, brown rice, prune juice, paper towels, oli-. It felt so intimate to have this scrap from another woman’s list, her items jotted just as messily as Mimosa’s always were.
Mimosa insisted on holding The Queen, even though the baby’s warmth was increasing her own temperature by a degree or two.
“You need to eat your food,” Sam said.
The Queen is my food.
“It was stupid to make pasta in this heat,” she said.
Sam shrugged, pressed a forkful into his mouth. She could tell he agreed.
“Let me take the baby,” Sam said, “so you can eat.”
She pitied him, and willed herself to pass the baby. The Queen kept it together for twenty seconds before starting to shriek. He stood up, bounced her, didn’t do it quite right. Mimosa refrained from critiquing his technique. They couldn’t be put into words, anyhow, The Queen’s particular needs. After a few minutes he was forced to return the baby to her mother. The Queen quieted instantly, offensively. Sam carried the plates to the sink and put them down hard.
The women threatened to overwhelm the café, these women with their strollers and sandals and sundresses, staked out at two large tables and encroaching upon a third. Mimosa struggled through the doorway with her stroller. She was stuck halfway in, halfway out, when it occurred to her that she could still escape. It could still be just her and The Queen, alone together.
“Hi! Welcome!” one of the doppelgängers cried out — Mary Rogers, she assumed, though it was impossible to know. “Come on over!”
And they all turned their heads, their tired faces reflecting her tired face. They were gesturing to her, they were scooting aside to make room.
For the first time in a long time, Mimosa knew exactly what was required of her. She glided across the café and took her place among them. She was given a seat and an iced tea. She pulled The Queen out of the stroller and began to nurse her, idly, as the others were. So this was all she had to do: sit here, nurse her baby, blend in.
But then the questions began. How many weeks? Where’d you deliver? Pounds, ounces? How’d you pick the name? When do you go back to work? Have you figured out child care? What’s the nap schedule? Sleeping much at night yet? So flustered did she become that she said the wrong birth date, the tenth instead of the twelfth, but was too embarrassed to correct the mistake, because one of the doppelgängers had already gone into raptures about the fact that her baby had been born on the same day.
Mimosa took shelter in the sight of The Queen — until she observed that the rash had now spread to the scalp. She hoped none of the other mothers would notice.
“We were just saying how much wet wipe dispensers suck,” someone said. “We can go to the moon, but we can’t create something that makes it easy to get those fucking wipes out?”
She’d had this same thought two days ago, struggling to yank them out while holding The Queen’s kicking legs high above her gooey diaper.
“So,” someone said to Mimosa. “How’ve you been holding up?”
They were all looking at her. The answer was on the tip of her tongue: Oh, just fine. She gazed around the table, at all these other infants in various stages of sleep and wakefulness, of dissatisfaction and contentment. She had to admit that each of them was as beautiful as The Queen, and as repugnant.
“I cry two to four times a day,” Mimosa said.
Her confession was met with silence. She shriveled. It was wrong to bare one’s soul.
“Only four?” someone said.
“Try six!” someone yelled.
“Every time I go walking with the baby in the park, it’s like someone turned on a fucking faucet.”
“The other day this old lady in a wheelchair rolled up to me and was like, ‘Are you okay? Can I help you?’”
“Oh my god, there’s poop on my dress.”
“Want half of my croissant?”
“Hey, please don’t look too close at my baby, ladies! His rash is disgusting!”
“What are you doing?” Sam said one morning, coming up behind her. Mimosa was standing at the mirror in the bathroom, gazing at herself, searching for the doppelgängers’ faces in her own.
“Getting ready,” she said. “Brushing my teeth.”
But she was not brushing her teeth.
“Ready for what?” he said.
“To go and see the — ” Mimosa stopped herself, then chose her word: “moms.”
She regarded him coolly in the mirror, the same way she knew the doppelgängers regarded their husbands when asked what went on at all of those endless meet-ups.
In the nursery, The Queen coughed, whimpered. Mimosa felt as though her own arm was coughing, whimpering. She smiled to herself.
“Didn’t you see them yesterday?”
Mimosa reached around him to pull her sundress off the hanger dangling from the hook on the bathroom door.
Yes, she had seen them yesterday, had sat with them in a circle, their assorted tears falling onto small heads encrusted with yellowish cradle cap. How precious they were, these women who believed their babies were tiny pieces of cosmic fluff the universe had blown their way for safekeeping, who despised themselves for being unfit for the endeavor of motherhood. There among the doppelgängers, you could come right out and say it: “I think I’m a witch.” And they would echo you word for word. You could confess that in a recent dream you were turning into a geode, and the doppelgängers would list all the things they’d dreamed they were turning into. They knew the feeling — love enwrapped in dread — that made it difficult to push the stroller down the street without being overwhelmed by dark daydreams of garbage trucks rearing up onto the sidewalk.
She hummed a lullaby as she buckled her sandals. Sam watched her. He had gotten The Queen out of her crib, but The Queen wanted her mother.
Mimosa stood up and spread her arms wide.
Sam, again. Across the table. Nighttime now. Hair unruly, unshaven: a stranger. They were eating summer squash but it tasted mealy, as though the summer had gone on far too long.
“I feel bad for us,” Sam said.
Mimosa stayed quiet, as she so often did nowadays, except when she was among them. At tables all around town, weren’t the other mothers also feeling the weight of their own little lives? She was addicted to eating dinner with The Queen in her lap, but it was difficult to wield the forkfuls of squash so that no chunks fell down onto The Queen’s painfully soft hair.
The Queen wiggled her legs, unrolled her crooked little sidelong smile.
Mimosa willed herself to reach across the table and touch Sam’s forearm. She stroked his veins with all the tenderness she could muster. He stared down at her hand as though it was five worms rather than five fingers.
The Queen’s smile flipped; a wail began deep inside her and shot upward.
“What’s her problem?” he said. The question sounded harsh, but he was asking it the way a little boy would — scared, and truly wanting to know the answer.
In the black of the night, Mimosa reached out toward Sam’s silhouette, but there was nothing there. She could see his outline in the darkness, very dimly, his head on the pillow, but there was no body to touch.
Waking up sometime later to nurse The Queen, she saw that Sam was back, his outline and his body both — relieved, tender, she ran her fingers from the top of his head down his spine.
They were lounging on blankets in the park, the doppelgängers and their babies; the mothers were eating grapes, they were tossing grapes, they were laughing, their minds were loose and hazy, their babies had awoken them at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., and what could be more hilarious than that? Now the babies were crying, now pooping, now wanting milk, milk, milk, and out came the luminous breasts, and who wouldn’t want to place lips on breasts so full, and the mothers grinned at each other like a bunch of teenagers on the same high, and the heat wave painted an extra shimmer over it all, and the grapes were radiant in the grass and The Queen smiled her wide milky smile and motherhood (the doppelgängers agreed) was underrated, everything so dazzling, Mimosa had diamonds for eyes. A universe away from the grim dinner table in her quiet home, from the version of herself that had sat on a beat-up brown couch with Sam a decade back, both of them stock-still and united in secrecy when his ex-girlfriend entered the room; now it was she and The Queen who froze when he entered the room.
“Isn’t it funny,” one of the doppelgängers murmured lazily, “that we never talk about our so-called better halves?”
It was explosive, the chorus of agreement; it always was, with the doppelgängers. And Mimosa joined in; hadn’t she just been marveling at her distance from him?
Yet amid the sharing that followed, the echoes upon echoes upon echoes, the dark amusement at their collective indifference to their partners, Mimosa found herself wanting Sam, she found herself standing up, drunkenly gathering The Queen’s scattered belongings.
She dumped The Queen into the stroller, moving more hastily by the second, and set off across the grass toward the path, putting distance between herself and the smell of their laundered and spat-up-upon sundresses, fleeing the perfect alignment of their thoughts and her own. She glanced back; the doppelgängers were all packing up and dispersing.
Back from the park, navigating through the screen door into the kitchen, Mimosa felt weak, awkward. The car seat banged hard against the door frame and The Queen awoke with a shriek, her body rigid in its devotion to the screams.
She clutched the writhing baby and ran down the hallway to the bathroom and hit the switch and stared at the mirror. The Queen’s rash was worse than ever, spreading across her face; Mimosa felt it pressing upward as though through her own pores.
But meanwhile The Queen’s screeching self was warm and strong, tried and true, and Mimosa couldn’t contain all these sensations, the overlapping positive and negative and positive and negative. There was no room in her for such love; it was explosive, almost identical to panic.
She slammed the light switch downward. In the darkness, The Queen quieted. The desolate evening twined itself around them. Mimosa wondered what they looked like in the black mirror.
“I’m beat,” she confessed.
“I’ll take the baby,” he said. “You take a nap.”
“What about dinner?” she said.
The Queen was limp, gentle, in his arms. Mimosa walked to the bedroom and plummeted into sleep.
When Mimosa awoke, she felt strangely refreshed, as though she had slept for years. The bedroom was cool, the heat wave broken. She couldn’t wait to see them.
The house was dark. The car was gone. Outside, the last of the day was draining away swiftly, as it does in late August — or, wait, had September arrived?
She called out for them, even used The Queen’s given name, but the words felt foreign on her lips.
The kitchen was invisible, silent.
It was no wonder that he had left her. She had been awful to him, hadn’t she? Yet she couldn’t remember how she’d been. All she remembered from the entire summer was The Queen’s face, its thousand different expressions.
She didn’t want to have to survive without him, but she could.
The other, though — that she could not survive.
There was only one place she could think of to go. In the ever-weakening light, she hurried down sidewalks no one ever walked. She couldn’t tell where the night ended and she began.
Approaching the house, Mimosa anticipated a scene identical to the one she’d fled: Mary Rogers standing alone in her own unlit kitchen, orphaned. But when she looked through the screen door, she saw that Mary Rogers’s kitchen was all Technicolor — the brilliant red of the tablecloth, the intense white gleam of the refrigerator. There sat Mary Rogers, glorious, at the small breakfast table in the corner, beneath the glow of an orange plastic shade, with her husband and her baby. They were just finishing dessert. Mary Rogers held the baby — almost but not quite as beautiful as The Queen. Mary Rogers’s husband’s back faced Mimosa. It could have been Sam’s back — the post-work slump, the hair just beginning to dull.
Mimosa wanted, more than she had ever wanted anything, to slip into Mary Rogers’s body, hold her baby, eat her last spoonful of ice cream.
Mary Rogers stood and passed the baby to the husband. As she turned to walk out of the kitchen into the hallway, Mimosa noticed the mouth-shaped marks on the back of her neck.
When Mimosa pressed, the screen door into Mary Rogers’s kitchen opened with a squeak she recognized from her own screen door.
“Well hello,” said Mary Rogers’s husband with an odd matter-of-factness. He twisted around to smile at her.
He looked just like Sam.
The baby on his lap began to whimper. She felt her milk come down. Her fingertips went electric with desire. She rushed across the kitchen and seized the baby. The man’s only protest was a wry half-laugh.
“Oh baby,” she said. “Where’d your mama go?”
She sat down across from him and unbuttoned her sundress. The baby latched. That ecstatic buzz of oxytocin; she could feel it spreading through her blood, making her toes and fingers tingle, opening the valves of her heart and the ducts in her breasts, a downpour of milk and sympathy.
He watched her in that flat, cool way of his. She enjoyed his gaze. She felt grand, maternal, untouchable, like a woman from before human history.
When the baby had taken its fill, she buttoned her sundress and stood up, holding the baby close, its head in the nook beneath her chin. He too stood and they stepped away from the breakfast table, out of the circle cast by the hanging lamp.
He placed his forehead against her forehead.
“What if she comes back?” she said.
“Who?” he said. His breath on her eyelid. “Who are you talking about?”