January 21: “And One Blue Pussy” by Jennifer Pashley

Let’s start today’s post with a public service announcement. New parents-to-be: If they (doctors, birthing classes, books) tell you to watch the videos, watch the videos. Non-parents might be wondering what I mean by “videos,” and in a nutshell, when you’re pregnant for the first time, you’re supposed to watch videos of real people giving actual birth. It’s to prepare you for what’s going to happen in that delivery room, so there’s no surprises at a time when you don’t want surprises. You can think you know what birth is—you at least know what got you into that situation—but until you see a woman, lying on a table, her legs spread wide, panting, sweating, screaming in pain, strangers barking orders at her, all of this just a lead-in to the purple-blue human pushing its way out and suddenly existing, you don’t know shit. There’s a lot of blood and other fluids, impossibly loud crying, cord-cutting, and immediate, jet-black excrement. This is, ideally, followed by relief and joy, but that’s where the video ends, the part you don’t get to see.

Karen and I went through birthing classes when our first son was coming along and we watched the videos. I was one of those people who thought they knew what birth was, but when we put the tape in the VCR—I think we made popcorn—my consciousness was taken to an entirely new level. At first I felt embarrassed for the woman in the video, spreading her legs, in the name of science, for this cameraperson, for thousands of people like me to watch—I’ve never seen a person so vulnerable before. The woman was in her late thirties, was not concerned about her physical appearance, and did not hesitate. Not even my forays into pornography showed honesty and bravery like this woman was displaying here. Within moments, though, the birthing process began—these movies don’t offer a lot of set-up or backstory—and minutes later (with some cuts, I’m guessing), the gray, wet, shiny mess was crying in the mother’s arms. Roll credits.

I won’t go into the video we watched later, the Caesarian. That experience took us to yet another level, a prologue to our second son’s birth seven years later.

Why am I relaying this to you in a short story blog? Today’s selection, “And One Blue Pussy” by Jennifer Pashley, from her 2013 collection The Conjurer from Standing Stone Books, begins with such a scene. Not a birth, but of a couple watching a birth video, the same assignment Karen and I completed back in 2006.

The comparison between my life and this story’s protagonist, Jan, slips away pretty quickly. Jan is the non-birthing mom in a lesbian relationship, her partner, Wendy, the one carrying the child. As someone who hasn’t given birth, my advice stays firm: WATCH THE VIDEOS, but otherwise, Jan’s experiences veer in other directions. Men don’t get to have that experience, for obvious reasons, but neither does Jan, and she’s a woman. Jan has the expected resentment over this, making her a less-than-perfect partner (more advice: give back and foot rubs almost constantly). At one point, Jan wanders from the Lamaze group, with some of the dads, to get a beer. The videos, the breathing, the pillows, they’re not her thing. Maybe parenthood isn’t, either.

As much as Jan’s story is unique to my experience, similarities to the everyday new dad creep in. It’s not just that she’s a female parent left out of the birth—she’s feels the same inhibitions, fears, and trepidations as any new father, any parent. Doubts creeps in, doubts that might be forming regret. For me, it was fear of failing this new little human, combined with the fact that my days of drinking beer, playing pool, and sleeping in were over. Jan is more complex than I was, and Pashley eloquently captures her angst in a series of scenes that are both beautifully rendered and suspenseful in their plotting.

The stories I’ve read in The Conjurer—three of them—all have one thing in common, infidelity. One story, clearly titled “How to Have an Affair in 1962,” chronicles the life of a single young woman, venturing into a relationship with a married father of four. The title story, “The Conjurer,” is more complex, my favorite story of the three, and deals with the other side, a married woman longing to step out. Is this what Pashley means by conjuring? I noticed that all three stories used the word “conjure” in them, too, a word I don’t think I use in any of my books. “Conjure,” in my experience, means to create something out of nothing. Maybe that’s what Pashley’s hinting at, like alchemy or usury, these wayward folks cobbling together something that isn’t there, that shouldn’t be, but suddenly is.

Jennifer Pashley published her first novel, The Scamp, this past August, and if this book has a fraction of the soul, the tenderness, and the craft of The Conjurer, it’s a book well worth investigating. I thank her for her writing, plus the opportunity to talk about birth from my experiences, and Karen’s, whose birthday is today as well. Happy birthday, Karen! Thanks for giving birth, each way, so I could blog about it years later.

Jennifer Pashley

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