By Margaret Van Every
Claire La Flamme wasn’t the least flamboyant. From Montreal, she was a plain girl who drifted into the art school in our Mexican village, perhaps in search of finding a few artsy friends as she was passing through. We art students were a cliquish sort disinclined to pay any mind to people passing through. Nonetheless, she sniffed the air and decided this was the place for her, at least until she was ready to launch the next leg of her ill-defined journey. No one could figure out what brought her to our doorstep, why Mexico, and least of all, how she was sustaining herself, there being no visible means of support.
As the only other single woman of about the same age, I conceded to lightly befriend her. I had compassion for the lone woman in need of companionship but dreaded her becoming overly dependent. There was an attractive innocence about her that, though appealing, made me think she could be headed for trouble. What trouble I couldn’t fathom, only that she was a 35-year-old child who could have passed for twenty, waiting for a disaster to find her.
Imagine my surprise when Claire confided to me that she was here for the sole purpose of snagging a man to impregnate her. She wasn’t in search of a husband or someone to father, in the sense of raise, the future child. Quite the contrary, she was looking for a stranger passing through who would never even suspect he had made a child. Her intention was never to see the inseminator again. She had no misgivings about the moral implications of such a deception for the child or the father, nor did she entertain any notions about wanting to conceive her child in love. After a pleasurable one night stand, what happened next was none of his business. She spent her days hanging out in the zocalo, assessing likely specimens for their genetic potential. Germans and Scandinavians were prime candidates. Her prototype was a handsome, virile, intelligent ectomorph.
Several months after her revelation, we reconnoitered over coffee. “I’m happy to announce,” she beamed, “I am with child. Just as I’d hoped, it was with a guy I’ll never see again, a backpacker from Amsterdam named Hans. We don’t even know each other’s last name and there’s no way to get in touch, even if we wanted to. He’s on his way to Patagonia!”
“I’m happy for you,” I pretended, “if having a child is your dream. Motherhood seems an essential part of your sense of fulfillment and you really don’t have time to dally. What will you do now? go back to Canada?”
“Oh, I’ve thought it all through,” she said. “If I go home I’ll be subjected to obstetrical violence—the stirrups, forceps, episiotomy, giving birth flat on my back with brutal lights in my eyes. Who needs all that? I’ve already lined up a birth witch who’ll take care of everything right here. Madre Lupita is from a nearby village and she’s been doing this work for 50 years—learned it from her own mother. You might say she’s given light to the entire pueblo, including several generations. She’s adored, treated like a revered goddess. We don’t speak the same language, but giving birth and assisting in birth transcend language, really. I trust that all her years of experience more than qualify her to do the job.”
“Well, I’m not completely convinced,” I said. “You could have a natural childbirth up north, you know, under a lot safer conditions. I mean, aren’t you worried about sanitation and making sure the water and dressings aren’t contaminated?”
“Oh, relax,” was Claire’s response. “How do you think women have been giving birth since the beginning of time? Birth happens. It just plain happens and there’s no stopping it, whether there’s purified water or water from a nearby stream. Just consider rural China and India! God only knows how newborns survive there. Look, I’m not worried or I wouldn’t be doing this . . . and I don’t want you to worry either.”
“. . . but,” I said, “how will you tell Madre Lupita when you need her? There are no phones where she lives. I bet she doesn’t even wear shoes . . . .”
“Her son lives here and has a car. He even has a phone. It’s really not a problem. He’ll fetch her when I need her.” Long pause. “Well, it’s clear you disapprove but my mind’s made up. I kind of wish now I’d never told you because your negative vibes could be bad for my unborn child. I just needed to tell someone. I probably won’t be getting together with you over the coming months. I need to be preparing myself for the most important event of my life. I’m renting a room at the Jardin de Xochicalco.”
I went on in my self-absorbed pursuit of birthing forms, otherwise known as sculpture, and seldom thought about Claire and her pregnancy. Then several months later I received a message from her inviting me to join her for lunch at the Xochicalco on a given day. I took two buses to get there and didn’t know what to expect, except that by my count she must be at least six months along and would have quite a belly.
She welcomed me with a warmer than usual hug. Her dimpled smile and delight in seeing me belied what I interpreted as an underlying fatigue, maybe even desperation. Dark rings encircled her eyes. Weren’t expectant mothers supposed to exude a special radiance? Maybe she was depressed from sheer isolation.
She ushered me into a room reminiscent of a nun’s cell—clean, basic, spare—and told me how happy she had been awaiting the arrival of her dream. “I don’t crave human companionship,” she explained, “because I’m constantly communicating with the evolving spirit within me. You can’t understand unless you get pregnant yourself,” she winked. She waved her hand at a stack of books on the rustic desk. “The new research claims the fetus thrives on Mozart, poetry, my own voice, and all kinds of other stimuli from outside the womb. That’s why I sing and talk to her.”
At a table on the motel’s grassy lawn, surrounded by tropical flowers and punctuated by the screech of parrots, we shared a lunch of nameless cheese cuts from a huge chunk, served on a baguette, with some grapes and papaya. In this setting Claire disclosed her reason for summoning me. She’d been seeing blood in her underwear and was afraid she was about to miscarry. Madre Lupita had warned her she must now stay in bed until the baby arrived. With two whole months remaining, she didn’t know how she was going to manage that. She had solved the logistics of getting food—Pepe the gardener had befriended her and was bringing her food and necessities during his siesta hour. “Lying in bed is the difficult part,” she moaned. “A body simply has to be moving or all its systems want to shut down.”
A month or so later I received a written note from Claire at the school, asking me to join her in a coffee shop in town. I barely recognized the gaunt young woman who approached the table. She sat down and wasted no time in spilling out her tragedy. “I felt abdominal pain and thought labor was underway so I sent for Madre Lupita. She arrived in a couple of hours with a suitcase full of plastic sheeting, clean linens and towels, and some standard tools of the trade. First she looked inside me to assess how far along I was. Then she took my hand and gently told me the truth—I was not pregnant and it looked like I had not been for a very long time . . . if ever.” Claire burst into a flood of tears. I patted her hand in consolation and disbelief, unable to comprehend how an imaginary pregnancy was even possible!
“Madre Lupita didn’t then just pack up and go,” she continued. “I made us some tea and she sat with me awhile as I recovered from the shock. She said she’s seen other cases like mine, that it happens to women who so desperately want a child that their brain signals the body to release pregnancy hormones. The result is everything a woman might have during a normal pregnancy— morning sickness, swollen belly and breasts, disappearance of the period, and even feeling the fetus moving inside her.”
“So now what?” I managed to ask.
“Back to Canada,” she sighed. “Let’s stay in touch.”
Five years later I was back in Atlanta, having abandoned my own dream. I was a sculptor who could no longer support my addiction to birthing forms. I had become my own collector and had run out of space to display or store my work. Now I’d settled into a mind-numbing job shuffling papers for the State. A holiday card arrived one day from Montreal, which I opened with great interest. Inside was a photo of a radiant young woman with a boy of around three. They were seated on the floor by a Christmas tree surrounded by wrapped and beribboned packages. On the back of the photo the words, “Michael and me. At last.”