I was intrigued by irregular birthing stories in my family, and there seemed to be a lot of them.
"When you were born," my father would tell my brother Nathaniel, "You didn't want to come out."
"And I grabbed the scissors out of the doctor's hand," Nathaniel would howl excitedly, an active participant in a story we all loved.
"You grabbed the doctor's hand as he went to cut the umbilical cord," Dad would agree. "You did not want to come out of your mom. And while she was in labor your father—" he had a self-deprecating way of talking about himself when he was in the story, a way that made Nat and I giggle appreciably. Our father, the clown of the story? Our father, make a mistake? It made us laugh. "While she was in labor, I went across the street to the 7/11 and bought myself a hot dog, came back, and a few hours later I had you."
"And he tried to take the scissors from the doctor's hands," Sam, my younger brother, would interject excitedly, getting the hang of being in the story.
"Shut up, Sam," I'd cry, "We already did that part." Even at age five, linear narrative was very important to me. The way the story was told mattered. Each line had to be the same, or it changed the color, subtly, but immutably.
"Bailey, be nice to your brother," Dad would say as Sam, the baby of the family and a very sensitive child, began to tear up.
"But we did already do that part," Nathaniel would say, reasonably. Nat found logic and order at a very young age. When we were still small enough to share a room, we spent many hours poring over his mental catalog of Favorite Things, neat memorized lists of his Favorite animal (turtles) Favorite color (blue) dinosaur (triceratops); he had his least favorite of everything too. If there were competitors in the category, he would carefully mete them out before establishing a nuanced hierarchy: French toast is my second favorite food, because you can only have it for breakfast, but spaghetti is my first favorite food, because you can have it for dinner and then dad eats the leftovers for lunch. It's more versatile. His logic always made perfect sense to me. Things in the world could always be loved with good reason, to my brother Nathaniel, and his love of the composed and orderly extended from his childhood lists to his ultimate career as a plasma physicist several decades later.
"Still," Dad would say gravely, "We are nice to your brother Sam. When I was in elementary school, your uncle Nathaniel—"
"Who I'm named after—"
"—who you're named after—said hi to me in the cafeteria, and I didn't say hi back because I was a cool fifth-grader, and he was just a kindergarten baby. That remains one of the saddest recollections in my life."
I fell deliciously into the picturesque drama, overwhelmed with sorrow for the lost friendship between my dad and his youngest brother, who died before I was born, and Nathaniel looked eager to prove he would be a better brother, and Sam looked properly mollified, and Dad returned to his story.
"So when Bailey was born, I thought I had the routine down. Melissa went into labor, I strolled across the street to the same 7/11 to get myself a hot dog. We seemed to get lucky with Child Number 1," he would laugh, putting his hand on my brother's dark curls, so much like my mother's, "So I thought maybe it would help with No.2."
Number 2 was me. I would sit up straighter, eager to hear my grand entrance into the family cannon.
"But then I got back to the hospital, Melissa was gone!" Nathaniel started to giggle, in anticipation of our favorite joke. My dad would throw his arms wide, raise his eyebrows, and emphatically gasp, "Where's my wife?" And we laughed along with my dad. Of course he would get there in time, so his pantomimed panic was amusing.
"And she was already having Bailey," Nat said calmly. "Because Bailey was impatient."
"I was excited," I said defensively, because impatient didn't sound like a thing my dad would approve of, and I would wait anxiously for my dad's line, the reassurance of "Oh, you were excited. You were so eager to be part of the world you shot right out, slid through the doctor's hands—"
"Because babies are slimy," Nathaniel said authoritatively. My dad had forgotten a line.
"They're slimy?" Sam would ask in awe, setting up the story so dad could do his part again.
"Yup," Dad confirmed, "Covered in snot." We giggled at the obscenity of it, hardly believing my dad would talk about the nasty, anatomical parts of the world. Our mother, always, in these stories sort of stayed motionless on the operating table. I thought of her as a faceless and certainly otherwise featureless character. Our birth stories were about how we came to be with our father, not how we came to be with our mother, who anyway we didn't know and only Nathaniel remembered.
"Babies are slimy," Dad would say, "And Bailey was eager to come out—"
"—excited to come out into the world, and she shot through the doctor's hands like a slimy torpedo and—"
Nathaniel and I would no longer be able to contain ourselves. "And I went bungee jumping on the umbilical cord," I screamed happily, and we laughed at the absurdity of it.
"Really?" Sam would ask, wide-eyed. He always waited for my dad's confirmation, as he would in all things.
"Yes," Dad agreed, "Your sister went bungee jumping on the umbilical cord."
I would grin triumphantly at my brother Nathaniel, and he would look momentarily uncertain at the order of things, trying to decide which was his Favorite: His story, because it was His, or mine, because I did the exciting, weird, and probably dangerous thing (we assumed our infant characters had exercised absolute free will). Of course, he realized, his measured, contemplative entry into the world probably had moral superiority, so he would stop worrying and smile. But he always did me the kindness of pretending that maybe my way was pretty good, too.
"What about mine?" Sam said eagerly.
Sam probably had a birth story, but I don't remember it. Like most of my childhood memories, I can never quite place Sam, at least for the first few years. Poor Sam was always tied in the middle—not quite the original unit, Nathaniel and I, veterans of Dad's marriage to Melissa, born in Austin, while my dad finished his doctorate (and my mother, I assume, marinated in the southern heat with Nathaniel and me)—but he wasn't quite one of the West Virginia boys, either, because David and Jason's mother most definitely was not faceless.
We had a great time after my mom went away.
I don't remember a lot of that time, but I remember watching sadly as the reign of Shawna instituted strict reforms. I wore my Indian headdress—a headband made of yellowing construction paper, staples, and a real turkey feather I'd found in the wilds of West Virginia—and watched with the imagined despair of an American Indian at the arrival of the White Woman, at least until I was informed my medicine man headdress was no longer allowed at the dinner table.
Under the reign of Shawna, Risk and all Legos had to be off the kitchen table by dinner. It was a harsh law, but the braves eagerly complied, willing the new White Squaw to like us.
She was horrified by my Sunday habit of shedding my itchy dress after church and peeling off the godawful panty hose that were always torn anyway and stripping into just my slip, which I righteously insisted was my right to wear on Sundays as a sort of entitlement after three hours of suffocating clothing hell. She shuddered, calling the practice immodest, effectively removing the sole redeeming factor of Sundays.
Little by little, as she was met with no resistance, and, indeed, smiling compliance, the wild feudal battles amongst neighborhood kids were curfew-ed, caveated, forbidden altogether. Flashlight tag was out ("Do you think the Holy Spirit is going to be out after dark?") and our days-long campaigns of Cowboys vs Indians (in which I played the fierce but just Big Medicine Man, administrating comfort and aid to Braves and Cowboys alike, with grim world-weariness and my turkey feather headdress) were truncated to Shawna's sudden need to clean the house, again. We were forever subject to a never-ending list of things around the house. Her cleaning regime was both methodical and arbitrary, and ruthless. Before Shawna, childhood smelled like oak trees and pine needles tangled in my hair and dirt under my fingernails and hollering ceasefire truces so someone could gulp down some water from the garden hose. Under the new White Chieftain, childhood smelled like Windex and Soft Scrub, which was a deceptive name because after several hours that stuff scoured the skin right off my hands.
I think Shawna and I had fundamentally different ideas of what being a girl meant, alien ideas of sitting with my legs together and walking as if, she informed me tediously, one had a penny in one's behind one was trying to keep up there, somewhere. She was a little vague on the anatomy.
"Why the heck would you want to walk like that," I asked, amazed, while my brothers giggled. It sounded damned uncomfortable.
"It's what my ballet teacher used to tell me," Shawna replied stiffly, "Don't laugh. Do you want to be all stooped over like my mom?" Shawna's mother, a crotechy old woman who scared the living hell out of me, had arthritis. "And don't say 'heck'. If you wouldn't say the swear word, don't use one of the stepping stones to swear words. It means the same thing. Would Jesus say heck?"
"Jesus said hell," Nathaniel said, reasonably.
"Exactly!" I cried triumphantly, but Shawna waved me off.
"You know that's different," she said sarcastically. She paused. Shawna was always on the verge of a great philosophical theory. She thought we were making fun of her when we looked at her blankly after she passionately delivered a non-sequitur sermon that wandered all over the place. "Would the prophet say heck?" she amended.
"He says hell too," I growled, because I delighted in saying it. If I was really lucky, when we did our nightly Bible readings that bored the ever-living-afore-mentioned-profanity out of me, my turn to read would fall on some really juicy verses, full of lots of hells and smiting and if I was truly lucky, some damns and damnations, too. I would triumphantly annunciate them with the passion of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai, with as much gusto as possible, because Shawna couldn't reasonably tell me to read the Holy Bible with less enthusiasm.
It was one of my earliest battlegrounds. We learned quickly, our tribe of three abandoned Braves, that the White Woman could not be satiated.
We attacked school and sports and musical instruments and everything in between with the drive of kamikazes: anything to make Dad proud, proved Shawna at least partly wrong. Our quest for knowledge in all fields made us hungry.
But we paled in comparison to my brother Sam.
Sam, the oft-persecuted middle child who always sort of fell between the cracks in the family story: Sam outshone us all. He outshone us in everything.
After slaving away on the piano for five miserable years under my father's cheerfully sadistic tutelage, I was no closer to deciphering the little black tadpoles on the page to anything resembling music than I was of understanding trigonometry.
I still remember Sam's first piano composition, because it was pretty, and lovely, and moved like a river. I sort of gave up any musical aspirations after that. Sam had a talent that I simply did not. He became so good at the piano he was sometimes exempt from Shawna's rampages.
"Get Sam," she'd hiss.
"But he's practicing the pianooooooo," Nathaniel and I would say defensively, loyally. It was such a categorically Good Thing to Do, and Dad would not be happy to hear "I wanted to practice more, Dad, but Mom had to talk to me." She had to excuse him, but only as long as he was practicing the piano. So he'd play the piano all day, until the house rang with his improvisations. It was an act of defiance.
Anyway, through talent, stubbornness, or from the most demonic competitive streak that ever took ahold of a young boy, Sam was the best at everything. I was an easy defeat—I'd play croquet until I was tired and wanted to go inside and read Trixie Belden; Sam would play croquet to the death. He was violently, fiercely competitive, and the world was his competitor. I started a chess club at our elementary school—Sam studied Bobbie Fisher Teaches Chess until he could whip me in four moves and most adults in half a dozen. If someone beat him once, they never beat him again. For some reason, yo-yos were popular in our elementary school one year. Sam found the fanciest, most advanced yo-yo and steadily became the Liberace of yo-yos. I couldn't even put it to sleep, and Sam could do three at once. He decided to learn how to juggle and started with fruit, then eggs, and finally he terrorized Shawna by chucking knifes around the kitchen, perfectly timing it so as far as I know he never cut his face open. If there was a thing at which he could obtain mastery, he would do it. He was a force of nature in all things athletic, fearless and power hungry as a rampaging rhinoceros.
It wasn't until years later that a therapist pointed out my competitive brother Sam, mellowed out by that point into an almost unrecognizably cheerful, friendly adult, was probably trying to figure out where he fit into our family, too.
"I don't know," I said seriously. "Chinese checkers was pretty damn important in those days."
In the wedding photographs, 15 months after our mother died, Sam looks impossibly young and complicit in his tiny tuxedo, like a toy child. Nathaniel looks grim—Nathaniel never smiled in photographs until, as far as I can recall it, a transformative summer in impossibly cool California with our mother's brother, Kerry, and that wasn't until high school, when he came back with long hair and expressions like, "It's all good," and "Make like a penguin and chillax, dude," sentiments of rebellion that shook the very nature of my perception of him. Anyway, until then, he preferred the formality of a strict expressionless face.
And in the photograph my hair is every which way and the bow on the front of my itchy dress is damn near sideways from my frantic running around the fancy hotel and trying to slide down the bannister, which I recall distinctly. It was polished wood and a thing of beauty, truly designed to slide down energetically while hollering, but one of my new aunts—one of Shawna's sisters—shook me and told my behavior was immodest. The ominous and badly-explained declaration of 'immodesty' was the great scourge of my girlhood.
Later, Shawna will pull out the picture in anger. "Look at Lori," she will scold. "Look at Margaret and Katie. Look how all your cousins sit up nice and neat in pictures. Look at their posture. They look like little dancers."
I will consider this, the delicacy of my new cousins. I do not look delicate, in this or any other picture I will ever appear in, until I'm 23 and anorexic and weigh less than I did age 5 in the wedding picture.
Shawna, of course, looks sleek and blonde and perfect, which is why that is the picture we have of the wedding, even though my dad is blinking.
The wedding pictures from their December matrimony in Utah will move in and slowly replace any of my mom. The portrait in the library of my mother when she was young, with short hair and a California tan, was timed out. Pictures of Shawna and her new remarkably bald-headed baby, my brother David, went up in its place. By the time my youngest brother, Jason, was born, the family unit was surgically sliced and grafted in, until the residual memory of the existence of another mother was left only in our bones.