The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina

This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020. 

The Four Seasons of Longing

content warning for infertility

      If I’d had a baby in the fall, she would have hair the color of autumn leaves—red and gold. And I mean the red and gold of October in Ohio, not the wet yellow and muted orange of the Pacific Northwest where she would grow up, but the kind of hair that, when you see it, you pull off the road to take a picture. Moralovitz hair, which she would grow up disliking because relatives would tell her that her great-grandmother had hair like that and because it would be unruly and she wouldn’t know it looked like fire framing her face when the sun was low in the sky, the way it is after the Equinox.

      You have to choose a name carefully for a baby born in the fall; she will know loss early. Her name can’t be frivolous or playful. It must be strong enough to bear the sudden darkness, the shock of leaves falling to the ground, their wonder now a chore, the speed at which fertility is overtaken by barrenness. But not a hopeless name because she would still be a child.

     By the time I was a teenager, my abdominal cavity had beenovertaken by cells that had rebelled, bolting from my womb and growing into unruly scars. The lining of my uterus, luscious and pink where an embryo would cling and be nourished and become, fled instead, attaching where it didn’t belong, turning me inside out.

     If I’d had a baby in the winter, she would be born deep in darkness. A child who emerges when bear cubs and apples, more in sync with the seasons, wouldn’t dare, is not timid. She would be bold and disregard convention, a child of extremes, of broken collarbones and a voice that wouldn’t be carried off by the wind.

      I would peek in her room while she sleeps and see her body shaped in opposing angles as though I were viewing an excavation of bones that had been lying beneath the earth for decades—maybe centuries—white and hard and fragile. I would feel again the sharpness of a shifting shoulder, an elbow, a heel—long nights when those bones poked at me.

      Her skin would be thin and white, blue veins easily visible, and shiny, like the surface of a frozen pond, cheeks easily flushed by icy air or a gentle scolding.

      I would want to protect her, keep her inside, not expose her to the sharp wind of a school bus stop or the slip of tires on black ice the first winter she could drive. When you come from darkness, your bones know it, welcome it. It can creep easily into the soul of a daring girl born in winter, the way a chill might settle into her after a fevered run down a feathered slope. She will need to learn how to turn her face to the light the way a peony planted in the shade of a ginkgo tree reaches for the sun.

     By the time I was twenty-six, the adhesions reached into every part of my gut. I imagined them like the gauze cobwebs people buy to stretch over their shrubs at Halloween, one strand winding around an ovary then reaching for my colon, another filament choking a fallopian tube, another my vagina, my internal organs pulled out of whack.

     A baby born in spring would be promise and pastels. She would want to be held, to have you brush her hair, even when she is too big and bony to sit on your lap. She is bare legs before the weather changes. She is the dank smell of damp ground. Another child might bring you a broken robin’s egg, the softest blue on earth. She would carry the fledgling who tried to fly too soon, and you would watch her breathe air into its body, mouth to beak, quick bursts, faint whistle.

      If I’d had a baby in the spring, she would laugh from her belly. People would seek her out when they need light and not know the price she pays to be the one they depend on to give them hope. Hope can be heavy, a burden for one so young. And you would not know how much because of her smile. Maybe there are dimples. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Maybe you would see teeth, even if they were wired to one another to pull them straight when they tried to go astray.

      If you see her shoulders start to fall, even a little, you must not tell her to stand up straight. You must go to her, pull her onto your lap, stroke her hair. Don’t be afraid. She will let you. She will curl into you, the way her body remembers. She will even lay her head on your breast.

     By the time I was thirty, everything hurt: my period, my bowel movements, sex, hope.

        If I’d had a baby in the summer, she would come to life in the ocean. Waves would break over her. Sand would come home with her, between her toes, under her fingernails, in the labyrinth of her ears. It would stick to her scalp. The grit of her. She is tide, inching higher and higher, taking up more and more beach, all foam and blue eyes, then receding into herself, leaving rocks exposed, wet, slippery. She is driftwood. Not a bleached white wood, but Pacific madrone, the color of salmon and the flesh of apples, heartwood as red as autumn leaves, grains and roughness smoothed by water.

      A girl born in summer surprises you like a sneaker wave, and you have to hold on because she is stronger than she looks. And she will take you with her.

      You will wonder if you ever really know her, if you ever see the full depth of her, and whether that is because she moves so quickly or because you are afraid of getting caught in her riptide, of being pulled under, because when that happens, you cannot fight, you have to just let go.

     My uterus was a mine that would never deliver any gold. At thirty-two, I begged the gynecologist to take it out. He balked. “You will never be able to have children,” he said, seated between the stirrups cradling my bare feet.

      I answered, trying to keep my voice cool as a frozen pond, my blue eyes an ocean intent on the light above the table, blocked from the doctor’s gaze by the sheet draped over the bones of my knees: “Not everyone wants children.”

Lois Ruskai Melina was raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls. She was an adult before she discovered her love of sports and the outdoors. Melina is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins as well as a book about elite women swimmers training for the 2000 Olympics: By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the 2016 Best of the Net anthology, Colorado Review, Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Sport Literate, among others. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs on a floating house near Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.


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