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Running on Empty
By Julia Borcherts

So, by the time I discovered I was pregnant, it was too late for a legal abortion and even as self-absorbed as I was, it occurred to me that there was no good reason for a married couple, even Greg and me, to give up their kid for adoption. To my credit, I did give up drinking and drugs and signed up for Lamaze classes as soon as I got the news, but I spent most of the pregnancy smearing my belly with cocoa butter and examining my hips for stretch marks. All I cared about was when I could start drinking again, and how I was going to get my figure back. Greg responded to my badgering about how we were going to afford to raise a child by picking up roofing jobs in Southern Illinois, where it was warmer, making additional runs for the Hell's Angels, and smoking a lot of weed.

But since he was now gone approximately all the time, and I was stone-cold sober and getting fatter by the minute, we did nothing but fight. By the time I was seven months pregnant, I was sick of waddling around with a forty-two-inch belly and he was sick of hearing me complain about how the baby bruised the inside of my ribs and smashed my internal organs flat with her kicking. But still, that was no reason for him to out me to the Lamaze instructor, Martha, a fidgety redheaded nurse in her mid-thirties with plastic glasses and three chins, who was a rabid fan of breastfeeding.

"Does anyone have questions?" she'd asked the eight couples assembled around the long, Formica-topped table with the "Breast is Best" signs hovering over us. I almost stabbed Greg in the neck when he raised his hand.

"My wife drinks a six-pack of Coke a day and I can tell the baby has hiccups," he said to everyone, ignoring my kick on his shin. "And I think that all that caffeine is probably making it nervous and all that carbonation is probably giving it gas."

It was this exact attitude in Lamaze class that led to our eventual divorce, but he had a point. I wasn't about to admit this in front of Martha, though, or the other couples, all of whom were at least ten years older than I was and who had already, I could tell, begun to judge me because they saw me lighting up a cigarette every week as we pulled out of the parking lot. I was a little ashamed that they'd pegged me as trailer trash, but I quietly judged them, too, and their eagerness to join the club of dull moms whose conversation revolved around the feeding, sleeping, and pooping habits of their kids. I was only twenty-two by then, and I'd decided that I wasn't going to change anything about myself just because I was about to be a mother, and that I would never, EVER, use the phrase "going down" to refer to my kid's nap rather than my husband's activity around my vagina.

"You JERK!" I snarled in a whisper that he pretended not to hear. How dare he complain about me when he's out snorting coke with the Hell's Angels?

All of Martha's chins began to wobble as she nodded at me. "You should give up cola now," she said. "You certainly won't want that in your system when you're breastfeeding."

I was debating whether or not to ask Martha if that would be better or worse than the kid getting a contact buzz from her dad's rampant weed-smoking when Greg popped in with, "Well, she's not breastfeeding. She wants to wear a bikini this summer and she's afraid it will ruin her tits."

Martha began zipping and unzipping her sweater as the other couples collectively swiveled their necks to stare at me and my rampant selfishness. "I can't believe you don't realize how much more nutritious mother's milk is for the baby than" -- Martha paused for emphasis -- "CANNED formula."

"She eats Doritos for breakfast," Greg continued, glaring at me, his dark eyes narrowing. "I don't think that's so healthy for the baby."

"And she smokes," chimed in one of the nebbishy dads-to-be from the end of the table.

Martha made eye contact with everyone in the group except for me. "Well, maybe," she said, "in THIS case, formula might be a better choice." It was, I am sure, the first and last time she ever made that statement.

So I was going to get to keep my tits, but as Martha moved on to the next question, I could see the other parents sneaking sidelong glances at me and I knew they already felt sorry for my kid.

I wondered, a week after Bebop was born, what Martha and those other couples would say if they'd seen me almost drop her on her head at three in the morning when I fell asleep on the couch while feeding her a bottle of, yes, formula. And I thought about them again and how they'd judge me the night that my husband and I split up.

Greg had just returned home from Mexico, where he'd brought back something like ten kilograms of heroin, most of which was shoved into our freezer. He had smoked a joint while I unpacked his suitcase and we'd gone to bed at ten, but I'd had to get up at midnight with Bebop, who was nine months old by then and teething. I was crabby because it was my mother's birthday and even though I missed her, my feelings were still too hurt to call her or send her a card. I was also exhausted because while Greg enjoyed playing with Bebop and never lost his temper with her, he was the kind of dad who passed her right back to me as soon as she got fussy. I gave her a teething biscuit to gnaw on, but she just kept whining, so I finally rubbed some Jack Daniels onto her gums, poured a few shots for myself and brought her into bed with us. I passed out and didn't feel her climbing up onto my back like a little possum, where she fell asleep, too. Everything was fine until I rolled over and Bebop flew off my back, screaming through the air till she hit the wood floor.

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