Creative Nonfiction: The Weight You Knowingly Carry by Katie Gutierrez

Photo by Jason D.

The quartz is made to resemble marble: thick dove gray veins, their edges blurred, snaking through a background of spilled cream. You look through other samples, small heavy squares excavated from wire shelving, but you return to the first.

I prefer these thicker lines, you say, running your fingertips across the veining. Your husband agrees, and the discussion shifts to the edges and corners of your future kitchen island—straight is more modern, but with a toddler and a baby on the way, perhaps curved is best—and then you hold blue glass subway tile above the countertop, talking about texture and movement. This house you’re building: the land is still unmarred, the roots of live oaks tangled beneath hard Texas soil. But you’re starting to see it. Imagining it to life, walls conjured around the family you’re building, too.

There’s something you don’t tell your husband about the quartz, though. It’s about the veining. How you don’t like the thin veins because they are too eerily human, a glimpse into a future of skin sagging like laundry off a line, threaded with brittle blue-veined webs whose work of sweeping blood back toward the heart is almost finished.

The thick veins, though, are like the unexpected glimmer of eels through a stream. They’re how you envision the pain running through you. The way it started, its clear origin point where pelvis meets thigh, and eventually spread, snaking up across your pubic bone and down your inner thigh. Pain like bones splintering, or—and this is how you like to imagine it—like a corded tendon, once pink and pliable, hardening slowly until it crystallizes. A hidden piece of you turned suddenly breakable. But also—maybe—stronger.

The first fight after he slipped the pear-shaped diamond onto your finger was at Joshua Tree National Park. A company adventure retreat, significant others invited, sleeping in tents beneath dense constellations of stars. Rock climbing and navigation exercises by day, fireside wine and storytelling by night.

The fight started as your group traipsed, hot and disoriented, across boulders that glow orange in memory. The sun like a heavy hand on your backs, following a guide whose job was less to guide than to simply ensure the group’s safety throughout the exercise. He sprang over rocks agile as a mountain goat while everyone else grunted and strained, examining a map and compass, glancing behind and squinting ahead at the boulders strewn like giant marbles dropped from an unseen hand. The videographer your company had hired was struggling with her equipment. Here, you said, pass me something. She gave you a grateful smile and two heavy bags, then reached for the hand extended to help her climb onto a higher boulder.

Give them to me, your fiancé said, hands at the straps on your shoulders. His tone sharpened by the heat and the rocks and the pointlessness of the mission.

I’ve got it, you said, jerking away. Annoyed at how put-out he sounded, offering this help you hadn’t asked for, didn’t need. People often thought you softer, weaker, than you knew yourself to be. It seemed that he, who should know better, was doing the same. Assuming you couldn’t carry the weight you’d knowingly taken on.

And so your voices raised and the embarrassed tears came and it felt as though the cracks in your intimacy were exposed, as though water might seep into them and the two of you, who had recently felt so connected, might break apart into new formations, separate and hard beneath the sun.

***

At eleven weeks pregnant, you gripped the horizontal metal poles of a Pilates Cadillac, your feet tucked into fuzzy black straps, your legs splayed into an almost-split. You’d joked, when you first saw this machine, that it looked like a BDSM bed with all its shiny chrome and incomprehensible attachments. Two weeks later, you felt the pain in your groin for the first time. You were on a run, training for an upcoming half marathon. It was one of your stubborn ideas, that you might be able to run thirteen miles while five months pregnant, you and your invisible child whom you would soon see smiling in her 3D ultrasound. Maybe, you thought, remembering the Cadillac, you’d accidentally hurt yourself after all.

Weeks passed. There were tests, bones luminous on dark screens, and tables where men and women with different expertise manipulated the limbs that seemed suddenly to have betrayed you. There was ice and heat, hours lost to fruitless research, message boards and pregnancy forums. There was your husband lifting you from bed, then taking one warm hand to each hip and holding your shifting bones together as you braced against the shatter of your own weight on the ground, and finally there was your sister’s old crutch from when she’d fractured her foot and your grandfather’s old cane from after his cancer surgeries, both resurrected from your parents’ garage over Thanksgiving weekend, and there was no half-marathon and no Pilates and you became a bitter stranger in your own body, the same body in which your invisible child grew, her movements shifting the landscape of your belly, boulders rising, and you feared you might disappear into the pain forever.

***

It has a name, but the names of things don’t always matter. This is strange for a writer to admit, that the word intended to give a thing meaning is itself meaningless, does not change the thing’s essential thingness. This is especially true for diagnoses, the names of which often only describe the symptoms.

Your body is not functioning as it should, as it used to, as you had no reason to expect it not to continue? Ah, yes. We call that “dysfunction.”

 Your pelvic bones feel as though they’re coming apart? That’s because they are. The pubic symphysis, the cartilaginous joint that connects the left and right superior rami of the pubic bones, has been loosened by the pregnancy hormone relaxin. It’s now like a rusty hinge shivering on a doorframe, the door itself wobbly, unable to shut properly, swinging open and banging the wall without warning, denting, becoming dented.

So, yes. You are experiencing a dysfunction of your pubic symphysis. The diagnosis, ergo, is symphysis pubis dysfunction.

The fundamental mystery was not, then, the diagnosis, and perhaps it rarely is, but what would fix it, what would allow you to re-inhabit your own body.

SPD is very common in pregnancy. It usually resolves after delivery.

***

You rent stylish maternity clothes from a subscription service. You curl your hair and apply makeup and take weekly bump photos, using an app to compare your invisible baby to fruits you’ve never tasted: kumquat, rutabaga, durian. You make jokes about your crutch and accept compliments about being “all belly” and brush paint swatches onto the nursery walls.

You nearly scream trying to roll over in bed. You think, Fuck if I’ll let this beat me, but it is beating you, it’s diminishing you each day. You fantasize about pills you can’t take, wine you can’t drink, anything to stop feeling. You wonder if it will really go away. You wonder if you could continue to live with it if it stays. You understand, for the first time, why someone might choose not to.

***

The baby is born.

No. That is too passive. You birth your baby, your daughter. You tell the nurses not to touch your legs because you’re terrified of being stretched beyond your range of motion, the (maybe) temporary damage becoming permanent. You count the ceiling tiles and stare at the air conditioning vent and feel your husband’s hand on your right knee and hear the nurse’s voice in your left ear, and you push, and you push, and you push until your lungs are flat, and you suck in another breath, and you push, and you push, and you push, and you scream, feeling as though you are being ripped apart, and for the first time in your life you sob these words: I can’t do it!

It seems the work of the pain is done—you have lost the belief in your capacity to endure.

And yet. There is that baby, that dark head slipping past your pubic bone and tucking back in, an endless inch, that head that has already resisted the vacuum, and you wonder what will happen if you truly can’t do this, if you truly give up. One more time, the nurse says, fervent in your ear. You can do it, your husband says, and you hear his conviction but also his fear, and you are afraid, too, and so you push, and you push, and you scream, and then finally she is warm and slick on your chest, and you no longer feel any pain.

***

Compared to the pregnancy, recovery was easy. You greeted guests at the door with the baby swaddled tight in the crook of your elbow. You grinned, shot through with ecstasy even through the bleeding and cramps and lack of sleep. No crutch! you exclaimed. Everyone asked if the pain was gone, just like that, and no, it wasn’t, but what remained was an echo, a shadow, a stain. What remained was possible to bear.

That’s how it seemed, anyway, in those first months of learning how to be a mother. But as time passed, the stain darkened in your mind, a haunting. You remembered how stubborn you’d been on those boulders, refusing your soon-to-be husband’s help, and how later you’d been strapped into a harness and climbed a seventy-foot rock face, but then, unexpectedly, you’d frozen at the top, unable to bring yourself to turn your back to the void, to trust the rope and the hands that held it. Do you need help? the instructors called from below. You shook your head. I can do it! And, eventually, you did.

You remembered the pregnancy, how completely you came to rely on your husband. How, without resentment or complaint, he’d taken over the shared chores, doing all the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry. He’d supported your weight. He’d held your bones together. He’d kept you from falling completely apart.

You wondered which version of yourself was truer: the brash, able-bodied girl who refused to admit her limitations, or the debilitated woman who had no choice but to accept help, who reached for gratitude but felt mostly defeat. You wondered which version you were now that you were more physically able than during the pregnancy but more timid, more doubtful and afraid, than before. In your body you were like a person whose house has been robbed and who, despite installing an alarm system, never quite feels safe in bed again.

***

SPD is statistically likely to return in subsequent pregnancies.

You rolled your eyes when people insisted you’d forget the pain. But your daughter: her wild chestnut curls and wide almond eyes, the same dark amber as the sunburnt leaves at the park by your house. The way she runs with hands waving by her ears and dances to Post Malone in her car seat and exclaims, Nook! as she points to birds in the sky and Oh, no! as she hurls a toy to the ground. The way she insists it is you, only you, who reads her a story at night, curling into your chest with delicate fingers stroking yours. The vast, impossible love that has broken you open and remade you. The equation is simple, the results the same every time: the pain was worth it.

So, as your daughter grew, you began to think of a sibling playing beside her, the bond that might grow between them, sustaining them later—much later, you hope—after you and your husband are gone.

You began trying. It wasn’t easy with your daughter, and you didn’t expect it to be easy this time. Spring lengthened into summer and then fall into winter. You were secretly relieved.

Your family signed up for the annual half-marathon, the one for which you’d been training when the pain first began. There were only four weeks until the race, but suddenly it felt important, even necessary, to try training for it. As if there might be some reclamation there, as if soon it might be too late.

You ran a mile that first day, just to see. You’d jogged in uncomfortable fits and starts before, but this was your first full mile in more than two years. The sky was gemstone blue, fences draped in ivy and bougainvillea. You pushed your daughter, now eighteen months old, in the stroller, laughing at your body’s boldness, the freedom of the rise and fall.

And so the training began. You ran every other day, with long runs on Sundays. But that first easy mile was a fluke. Your stride was short, legs heavy, jaw clenched. You felt that warning pinch in your groin and envisioned the corded tendon, that thick vein of pink shifting to gray as you ran, mineralizing below the surface of your skin. Sometimes you stopped to walk, but walking hurt more, so you kept running. You paid close attention to your body after each run, ready to stop if the pain lingered or worsened, but it never did.

When the training called for a seven-mile run, you said to your mother, who was also training, This one will tell me if I’m ready. Afterward you hobbled straight-legged, limping, the rest of the afternoon. But you did it.

You said, the following week, The nine-mile run will tell me.

Then, the week before the race, The eleven-mile run will tell me.

And then, the day before the race, you finally signed up. You collected your bib and sensor and went to bed later than you should have and rose before the sun.

It was still dark when you and your parents and brother edged into your corral. You lifted your knees and squatted low to the pavement, shivering in the December chill. You took photos together, grinning and flexing your biceps.

Then you ran. You ran, it felt, toward the pain, as though you were chasing it, daring it, as though you had set a trap and were lying in wait. Within a few miles it was there, your grim companion, and if you slowed down it would win, so you kept pushing forward. You can do it, you hissed to yourself a few times, and you realized that this was the reclamation, right here, not the running, not your body, but your belief in your capacity to endure.

Two weeks after the race, you were pregnant.

***

You made mood boards for the house you were building, the rooms different each time because the dream was still taking shape. But the quartz countertops with the thick dove gray veining were constant. You designed around them every time.

What would you say if I told you everything that is to come? The virus, the isolation, the overwhelmed hospitals and refrigeration trucks, the death count rising every day? The decision to sell that lot, because when will it be safe to build, and to buy a house instead. The way you carry your daughter through the pain, and carry moving boxes, and carry a baby boy inside you who tumbles through the silent predawn hours—but also how your husband carries you from bed, hands on your hips, and your arms linked around his neck, and how you are grateful, so grateful, to lean your weight against him.

What would you say if I told you to imagine the pain as the molten magma from which quartz is formed? Quartz, hardy and resistant to weathering, the primary component of both mountaintops and sand, its forms and uses boundless, the way it can be eventually ground up and sealed with resin, resulting in something even stronger than when it began. What would you say if I told you the pain is part of that, though not all of it, not by far?

What I mean is: your strength is not simple. It is not binary. It lies neither in stubbornness nor submission, ability nor disability, but in your capacity to endure. To carry the weight when you can and to share it when you can’t. One unforeseeable day into the next.

What I’m saying is: You will not disappear this time. You will emerge.

You have to.

Katie Gutierrez has an MFA from Texas State University, and her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Longreads, Catapult, Electric Lit, LitHub, and more. She is currently revising a novel while preparing to give birth any day now (maybe today!). You can see more of her work here: katiegutierrez.net.

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