A carer’s life is boring. Working day in and day out for months, years. Watching over their employers like collies, ever hopeful to spring into action at the first sign of trouble, to be useful, to be heroic. Only this was not Newton or Littleton or Boston. This was the Evergreen Gardens, an aspirational name if there ever was one, a sixty-five and over apartment complex located in the outer reaches of the San Bernardino Valley. There were eight of them in the courtyard by the fishpond this morning—four carers and four employers. They were neighbors, occupying the entire bottom floor, and while there were two more floors above, also fully occupied by senior citizens and their live-in carers, nobody was friends with anybody else. Such was human nature.
Raina was the newest carer and the youngest by a couple of decades. At ten in the morning, the wind which ricocheted off the Santa Jacinto, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Mountains before swirling into the Valley was uncomfortably hot, and she wished she was wearing anything other than the white button down shirt that Mrs. Thom expected her to. Mrs. Thom wore a cardigan over a sweater and had styled her hair with palm oil.
“It’s thirty-nine in Sao Paulo today,” said the carer who spoke with a lisp.
“That’s nothing. Guadalajara got up to forty-five last week.”
“It’ll be a hundred and eight in Fuzhou by noon.”
“What’s that in Celsius?”
They stood in parallel and spoke over their employers’ heads. They either didn’t care if their employers heard what they were saying or didn’t think they could hear at all. Raina wondered if this was a habit cultivated from a lifetime of domestic work.
Mrs. Thom wasn’t wearing her false teeth. Her lower lip protruded over her top, giving her the marmosetan look that make young people feel sorry for the old. Her fingers clawed at her lap. Other carers probably wouldn’t have noticed, but Raina could tell she preferred to be alone. Whether it was people in general that made her tense or these in particular, though, she’d yet to figure out. She directed Mrs. Thom’s attention toward the fish and adjusted the blanket over her knees.
“Would you like something to eat, Mama?” Mrs. Thom raised her hand, swatting the air.
“Or I could make you a cup of tea,” she said.
The carers stared ahead, stony. The one with the lisp had grown up on a tea plantation and said as much, igniting another round of comparisons.
“All that work. What for? It’s water only for Babi and me.”
“It’d be no trouble,” Raina said. The others—carers and employer both—inhaled sharply. So they could hear after all. Or were they simply breathing?
“I’ve got an idea.” She leaned into Mrs. Thom and whispered. “How about we go inside? Just you and me and the tea makes three?”
Mrs. Thom nodded, the tip of her ear brushing against Raina’s chin. The hairs were as soft and wispy as a newborn.
There are two kinds of carers: ones who’ve never had children and ones who have. Of the former, a perceived advantage is that they come to the job unentangled and, because of it, tend to stay for the life of their employers. Of the carers who’ve had children, the argument goes that they’re better prepared for the job because they possess a particular life experience that has no parallel. Some even go so far as to call them more nurturing. Raina thought otherwise. She wouldn’t disagree that having a child can affect how you treat others, especially those most vulnerable and needy, but whether it was for the better or worse was circumstantial.
A week ago she’d met Mrs. Thom’s daughter, Sue, at the apartment for an interview. Right off the bat, Sue wanted to know which category she fell into. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a simple yes or no answer.
“Tell me more.” Sue surveyed Raina’s torso, imagining the possibilities.
“I did have children. But they weren’t mine.” Outside a crow announced his arrival. Sue nodded for her to continue.
“I carried babies to term and I gave birth to them. Then the babies were given to their intended parents.”
“You were a surrogate mother?”
“The term is carrier. The babies were not genetically related to me.” A second crow joined its compatriot and started squawking.
“And you found this easy? Hard?”
“If what you’re asking is what it was like to give up the baby, it wasn’t easy or hard. It was part of the job.”
“Did you like it?”
“I liked being good at my job.”
“And you were a good carrier?”
“I was. I took care of myself and I took care of my responsibilities, be they the very young or merely the young old.”
Raina had rehearsed this line beforehand and hoped it would generate its intended effect. Sue’s look suggested confidence, admiration, efficiency.
“Well, I’ve never had children myself,” Sue said. “I find them more trouble than they’re worth, to be honest. I was just curious where you stood.” Then she asked for a cup of tea, which she drank immediately. And that was when Raina knew she had the job.
Raina and Mrs. Thom returned to the courtyard after lunch. This time there was no one else around, the other carers and employers recovering from their morning sunning. The white plastic chairs were still in the shade and she lowered Mrs. Thom into one of them, but her employer gestured to be pushed closer to the pond. Raina worried she’d be too hot in her sweater and cardigan, but soon something else caught her attention. Mrs. Thom was fumbling to open a round container the size of a can of tuna fish. She reached in and with a shaky hand dropped several white flecks into the fishpond. The flecks floated on the surface, mixing with algae and scum. She pulled out another fingerful and dropped them in. After a few more rounds the flecks started pulling together, clouding over the fish.
“What are you feeding them, Mama?”
Mrs. Thom shook her head.
“Don’t give them too much. They’ll overeat and get sick.”
Mrs. Thom cleared her throat and made a sound that could’ve been “duh” or “da” or something equally ephemeral. Her mouth was a pink cavern. She licked her finger and wiped it on her cheek.
Raina took the container from her. It didn’t have a smell. She knew fish food was supposed to smell like fish. She stuck her nose in again. Mrs. Thom clapped her hands and grunted with such derision that the fish swimming closest to her jumped out of the water. It opened his mouth on its way back in and swallowed a cloud.
“It’s salt,” Raina gambled.
Mrs. Thom smiled for the first time that day. Raina handed her the empty can, which went back into her pocket. Mrs. Thom pointed to the exit sign.
“You want to go for a walk?”
Mrs. Thom nodded. It was heatstroke weather. In addition her employer had a bad hip and an even worse relationship with her walker. Raina told her all this to dissuade her from the idea.
Fifteen minutes later they were out on the street. Between the oppressive heat and the government issued wheelchair, movement was between laborious and slow. It didn’t help that Mrs. Thom herself added significant weight. Underneath all those layers of clothing was a substantial woman. Big-boned, was how a previous society would’ve described her, but really—incredibly—she was solid the way an oak tree is solid. This gave Raina confidence. She knew that she’d have nothing to worry about, that her job would be to go through the motions, but that the business of living—the acts of survival, the will to meet each day anew, no matter how bleak or bothersome those days were—had already been determined.
They pushed along the empty streets. Not even the crows came here. The winds blowing off the mountains had died down, and from the stillness a new landscape emerged. To understand the Valley was to accept all the things it was not. Not the desert, the wilderness of the west, free spirited, at once stuck in time and stubbornly refusing to change. Not the city, its cultural opposite, excited by a constant negotiation with development and decline. The Valley was to this part of Southern California what a middle child was to his family. Unjustly or not, it was almost always forgotten about, its presence remarkable only by the fact that it wasn’t anything special at all.
Then again, the Valley was the true avatar of the West. This was where you went to pioneer your future, to settle on your own terms, to die alone. Raina thought of her mother’s death not long ago and how over a hundred people had attended her service and continued to show up for weeks afterward—aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, the doctor who’d given her last shot of morphine bringing sweets, his authority stripped by grief. During that time Raina had never once been alone. That was the point. In Penang, the belief was that in death, as in life, it was better to have relationships. How fitting, then, that the Evergreen Gardens existed here in this Valley, an existential ecotone, hundreds of miles away from where its residents were born, giving them one last shot at integration.
Mrs. Thom had fallen asleep. Asleep, she didn’t look much different than awake. Her head lolled to one side and her mouth hung open. Her right hand dangled by the spokes of the wheel. Raina picked it up and placed it back on her lap. It was reassuringly cool to the touch.
“She can come across as cold and uncaring but my mother is really a nice person,” Sue said. This was the first time she’d been back since the interview, three months prior.
“The other carers before you—I’m sure you’ve heard about them from the neighbors—all had personal matters that they had to attend to. Family business back home. That’s why they left. Their leaving had nothing to do with us.”
Sue had a teacher’s way of talking, using short compact sentences that only revealed what she thought you needed to know. This didn’t bother Raina as much as her habit of lowering her voice whenever she was talking about Mrs. Thom, as if discretion was the same as compassion. She was no different than parents who talked about their children as if they weren’t in the room, as if they couldn’t understand. Only with children, perhaps anticipating their hidden potential, adults learned to code their conversation, whereas senior citizens were rarely given the same consideration. They’d already past all the major milestones and, as such, there was no distinction for most people between the old, the aged, the merely infirmed and the completely senile. All geriatrics were, by definition, a lost cause.
Raina continued preparations for lunch, a process she’d started just before Sue’s arrival. She tasted the soup a final time before taking it off the heat, then poured oil into the frying pan. Mrs. Thom liked dark meat, but Raina guessed her daughter was more health conscious, so she’d gotten both thighs and breasts at the market. The resulting dish would be lacking in consistency, but she aimed to please. The chicken began to sizzle and she gave it a clumsy toss. She was glad neither Mrs. Thom nor Sue, who had moved toward the couch and was massaging Mrs. Thom’s shoulders, were watching.
“How are you feeling today, Mommy?” Mrs. Thom didn’t answer. Her head tilted more upright and her neck stiffened. Sue continued applying pressure.
“There’s a new fish in the pond. At least I think he’s new. He’s bigger than the others. He looks kind of swollen. Have you seen him?”
“We don’t go to the fishpond anymore,” Raina said.
“I could take you after lunch. We’ll sit in the shade.” She lifted her index fingers and pressed them against Mrs. Thom’s temples. “It’d be nice to get some fresh air. What do you think?”
Mrs. Thom swatted at Sue. Raina could tell she was gearing up for something, but Sue continued unabated.
“The pond is such a nice feature of this complex. Really adds an exotic air to the place. And the management do a good job of keeping it clean. You’d think with all those fish, a dead one is bound to turn up—over—every once in a while. Then again, I heard somewhere that koi can live up to a hundred years if properly cared for.”
Mrs. Thom reached up and pressed her daughter’s hand against her head. Then she grabbled a hold of Sue’s fingers and twisted. Raina had seen her do the same to a facecloth. Sue howled and crossed her arms, wedging her fingers into her armpits.
“Lunch is ready.” Raina set the rice, soup, and chicken on the table, along with a pitcher of carrot juice.
Sue approached first. She pulled out her chair and slinked in. Raina invited her to start, then wished she hadn’t. Mrs. Thom wouldn’t approve of her playing host. Fortunately she was still watching television. Raina decided to leave it on as she carefully lifted Mrs. Thom off the couch and half-carried, half-walked her to the dining table. Sue sat with her hands in her lap, still wounded.
Usually lunch was quick and unceremonious, an act of survival rather than pleasure. Raina and Mrs. Thom ate in silence, which didn’t feel awkward as they were used to each others’ company. However, with Sue sitting there, unwilling to eat, it seemed to Raina that she expected conversation, so she pointed out all the changes that she’d made around the apartment: the couch that used to be closer to the window, sitting in the direct sun, which she’d moved about a foot to the left. The balcony that’d badly needed a rinsing; she hoses it down twice a week now. And did you notice the new pictures here? She pointed to a shelf in Sue’s direct line of vision.
“They keep us company. Mama never feels lonely anymore.”
Mrs. Thom looked up from her soup and followed Raina’s finger to a picture of a shiny pig cut out from a magazine ad for nail polish. She reached out and rubbed its snout.
“She loves pigs especially.” Then added, “I looked for family photos, but I couldn’t find any.”
Raina cleared the table. She wet Mrs. Thom’s facecloth under the kitchen faucet and wiped her face clean. She helped her up and settled her back on the couch so she could sweep under the table. She returned to the couch, lifted Mrs. Thom up again and half-carried, half-walked her to the bedroom. She put her down for a nap. She closed the bedroom door.
Sue hadn’t moved from the dining table. She was checking her phone but sometimes people did that as a defensive maneuver, to appear occupied when they were unsure how to engage with others. This seemed to be one of those times.
Raina pushed her mop toward Sue. They spoke at the same time.
“Cup of tea?”
“How are you really?”
The false concern in Sue’s voice made Raina realize that Sue thought of her not as an employee but as an extension of her mother. In fact the two women were about the same age, but this wouldn’t stop Sue from seeing Raina as less capable.
Sue rose from the dining table and guided Raina past the living room to the front porch. Two white plastic chairs borrowed from the courtyard leaned against the rail. Raina had cleaned them earlier in the morning and tipped them over to dry. Sue righted the chairs and arranged them facing each other. They sat down, Raina still holding onto the mop. Their knees touched.
“I’d like to us to be friends,” Sue said. “Tell me something about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I already know you’re a saint for being in this business, and for your previous career.” She paused, searching for a reaction.
“I wouldn’t call it a career. No more than you’d call friendship an obligation.”
Sue smiled. “That’s just what fascinates me about you. You seem to genuinely like being a carer.”
“Which is why you want to know how I became a carer. And why I stopped being a carrier.”
“Sounds like a mouthful when you put it that way!” Sue took the mop out of Raina’s hand and laid it on the ground. “Don’t you think this is something I should know about?”
It was destiny, I began (imagine my voice: it’s the one closest to you), which is another way to say that the choice I made was far easier than the ones most people account for. In the same way that the sons of senators go into politics, or the Gates children would be foolish to forsake the family business, I always knew that my future was tied to childbirth. You’ve heard the expression “child-bearing hips.” Child-bearing was in my genes. My mother gave birth to eight children in sixteen years; my grandmother, thirteen. Not a single one of them died. And this was in the 1800s! So when it came down to choosing a profession, becoming a carrier was obvious.
Fate agreed with me. On my very first go around, I was successfully carrying after just one injection. The pregnancy followed a similar trajectory. Straightforward. Uneventful. Most days I didn’t even think about it. My body didn’t change much. Of course my stomach got bigger, but up until the last couple of weeks it could’ve been anything—a bad case of gas, premenstrual bloating, a multi-course meal (if I were the kind of person who ate that way). Not until I looked at pictures of myself after the fact did I see it: pregnant. It’s like how short people always think they’re taller? The point is that my self-conception never matched with reality and throughout those forty weeks, if anyone had asked me what’s new, I would’ve replied, “Nothing much at all.”
As for the intended parents: I had to pick them out of a binder, which made it a bit of a crapshoot. Then there’s the pressure to get it right. There are no comparisons, except maybe it’s like having to decide on one person to be your lover, parent, and boss. It was undoubtedly the most stressful part of the job.
The first time I played it safe by stereotype and went with an older, lesbian couple who lived in Brooklyn. They were nice if not a little spasmodic, but they drew up papers and flew to Los Angeles for all the important doctor’s appointments. During the ten-week scan they held onto each other tightly and at the first glimpse of the fetus they whooped cheerleader-style and kissed me, one on each cheek. Afterwards they took me out for cocktails and told me all the stories of how they met, fell in love, got married, etc.
They came again for the twenty-week scan, the one where they test for downs syndrome and tell you the sex. Sitting in the ob’s office, again they repeated the kinds of affirmations you see knitted on pillows. I tried to calm them, whispering my reassurances because I’d been told by the nurse earlier that week that the baby was now able to identify voices outside the womb and I’d decided then and there not to confuse it by speaking too loudly. I was trying to be respectful, but the precaution only alarmed the couple more.
Then, on the evening before their third scheduled visit, I got a call from one of the mothers. They’d decided that they didn’t want to see me again until the baby was born. They said, “While we’re extremely grateful for your help and are very excited about becoming parents, it’s frankly too hard on us to witness your pregnancy.”
My pregnancy? What was the point of being a professional when a little thing like biology could so easily discredit me? Still, there was nothing I could say or do to change the facts until, naturally, the time came when they did.
I learned my lesson and when I became a carrier a second, then a third time, I wasted no words telling the intended parents that I neither expected or needed them to hold my hand. They took the long view and skillfully left me alone. For my part, I delivered on the due date and, after all the newborn tests and screenings came back with good results and the babies were released to their intended parents, felt what could only be described as total job satisfaction.
For my fourth time as a carrier I chose a single dad. Rob was upbeat and informal. I became less stiff, softened by his charm. We were horoscope compatible. Opposites.
The experience of pregnancy was also unlike any of the others. From the very beginning Rob insisted on a time schedule that wasn’t just about doctor’s appointments and baby talk, but gave us time to get to know each other as individuals. Maybe partnership works better when there are only two people involved. Maybe we were being traditional in this regard. Whatever the reason, we became friends and even if I didn’t feel as physically fit this time around—there was some slight bleeding which the doctor said was “normal, nothing to worry about,” but, along with everything else, I knew wasn’t, really—for the first time I felt like, and thought of myself as, a pregnant woman.
A month before my due date, Rob invited me to a weekend on Catalina Island. He was insistent. “Oh come on! It’ll be fun! We’ll watch bad t.v. Drink juice.”
He framed the trip as a babymoon, which doesn’t make much sense since its derivative comes after a marriage whereas a babymoon doesn’t come after a birth (at which point you might be more inclined to call it a babyswoon or a babyloon). But I did love the water and at that time especially loved being in the water, which gave me relief from all of the extra weight I was carrying. I agreed to the trip as long as we could spend all our time at the beach.
However, on the day we were supposed to set sail, I had terrible nausea. There was no way I could get on a boat. I called Rob to tell him, but instead of calling the whole trip off, he suggested I come over to his place. I only managed the half hour drive to his apartment by rolling down all the windows and, still, when he greeted me at the door, I immediately vomited on his shoulder.
“I guess I better get used to this,” he said.
I’d never been inside Rob’s apartment before, but knew that it doubled as his art studio. Covering the floor were cans of paint, rolls of canvas, telephone wire, small buttons, cardboard boxes, old swivel chairs, typewriters, plastic bags, and a host of other objects, none of which looked baby friendly. He’d once told me that all artists were driven by negative ambition; in his case, he became an artist to avoid getting a job. Looking around I thought this theory could apply to other areas of his life as well. On the other hand, perhaps all these fragments which at first glance appeared completely unimpressive actually converged on a deeper truth—the evidence everywhere of his creative starts and stops revealing a man with an inestimable, even compulsive, devotion.
I bookmarked these thoughts for another time because at this particular moment I was focused only on finding a place to sleep, the nausea having been replaced by head-to-toe exhaustion. My choices were a dusty futon or an upturned paint can. Neither seemed a viable option, so I slumped down in the middle of the living room. There was a large fish tank behind me, an oasis of calm. I turned and pressed my face into the glass. A school of fish glided across my cheek.
I closed my eyes, imagined floating in the tank, supported by an algal embrace. I hadn’t been allowed to have pets as a child—my parents didn’t believe in caging animals—then as an adult I’d lost the enthusiasm for it. But now a fish tank seemed an ideal environment. Protected. Celebrated. Revered. When I opened my eyes again Rob had moved to the kitchen and was standing behind the counter. His mouth hung open, as if about to speak, though he didn’t for several minutes.
“So I was thinking. That after the birth we could continue seeing each other.”
“Sure.” A piece of seaweed floated in the tank. I traced my finger along its wavy outline. “But you know it wouldn’t be the same since you’ll have a baby to take care of.”
“I know,” he said. “But you could, too. Help. Because you want to.”
“Why would I want to?”
“Because you feel a responsibility.”
“I do?” I rubbed my stomach. At the same time I felt a stab of pain in my back. My face crushed into glass.
Rob tapped his fingers against the counter. “Okay, fine. You don’t. But couldn’t you fake it?”
“It’s not something you fake.” There was another stab, this one almost vengeful. “I’m not his mother.”
I knew it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. And even as I hoped he wouldn’t think less of me, part of me wished he would. From the cupboard Rob pulled out a bottle and filled two glasses. I accepted one, then turned back to the fish.
“What are they called?”
“They’ve been around since before the dinosaurs.”
Rob shrugged. “You can buy them online.”
I must’ve fallen asleep soon after, though I don’t remember doing so. When I woke up, I was sliding, boneless, my muscles so unhinged it felt like I was held together by only a few tentative ligaments, until finally I collapsed in a puddle. The tank hovered above, but the fish had disappeared. It was dark inside and outside the apartment. There was water everywhere except for where it should be. I blinked several times until the Arowana re-appeared: a single purple and gold fish, its mouth opening and closing in stop motion karaoke. I listened for the music. It was something I would’ve liked a decade before: plaintive, nostalgic, a little cruel.
Oh man, what are we seeing here?
We share a similar firehead
So there’s nowhere to go
Silhouetted in the distance, someone walked toward me. It might have been Rob, but the closer he came, the less he looked like a human being and more like a fighter, a shadow on the screen, nameless, and when it spoke it was commanding, merciless, no friend at all.
“It was a stillbirth,” Raina explained. “The doctor wasn’t entirely certain of the cause.”
Sue nodded. It’s what anyone would do. “It’s a terrible loss. I’m sorry.” There was a sentimental pause, and then: “You understand that you cannot continue working here anymore. Please go now.”
Mrs. Thom was still sleeping in the next room. Raina knew she’d be curled up on her side, hands warming between her knees. After her nap, she’d let Sue take her to the pond. She’d want to sit in the sun, near the fish, where she could quietly work out Raina’s absence until, eventually, she might even think she was made up. As for the other carers, the story of her sudden departure would be absorbed into their story, and she didn’t begrudge them their fiction because she knew they needed it to break up the monotony of their days, where the most important thing that could happen was the passing of a person they barely knew and didn’t love.
Sabrina Tom received her M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis in 2005. She’s a recipient of the Hawthornden Castle International Fellowship for Writers and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Venice.
Illustration by Katherine Villeneuve