I awoke in the middle of the night with an intense craving. I had been warned about the pickles and ice cream, about the strange, non-food items like chalk and laundry detergent that some pregnant women are moved to consume. This particular craving wasn’t for anything found in the freezer or pantry, however. It wasn’t for the kind of thing I could sink my teeth into at all. I had awoken with a deep and urgent hunger for a story.
Out in the living room, under the light of a moon whose three o’clock glow I would come to know well after my baby’s arrival, I searched the bookshelf for my copy of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Collected Stories. I turned to the story the words of which I could already taste: the tale of three men who fumble around, hand-in-hand, after their eyes have been pecked out by long-billed birds during a night of drinking. I read the story’s six surreal pages, and then I read them again. I felt the hunger subsiding, the belly of my spirit filling up.
That was weird, I thought. And with my first literary craving satisfied, I returned to bed and slept well.
For years I had curated my nightstand book stack according to what I thought I was supposed to be reading. Nobody (except for certain professors during grad school) had been explicitly telling me what to read, it’s just that I was letting recommendations and book reviews do the selecting for me. It wasn’t a bad way of doing things, since I encountered any number of books I was glad to have read. It just wasn’t intuitive, until now.
Now I had a voracious appetite to consume certain books I’d read long ago, revisiting passages that had always been especially moving. Or — and this was fun and also eerie in its accuracy — I found myself submitting to cravings for books I had never before read but the combined language, plot, and characters of which turned out to produce the perfect meal of prose for this pregnant bibliophile.
For instance, somewhere around the time that an email alerted me to the fact that my unborn son or daughter was now the size of a sweet potato (that’s around 18 weeks of gestation for the uninitiated), I found myself at the library, practically drooling as I checked out Jami Attenberg’s novel The Middlesteins. I devoured this book.
In the same way that we’re cautioned against grocery shopping on an empty stomach, The Middlesteins — a novel as much about food as anything else — is best consumed alongside a meal, ideally something hot and greasy that’s served to you in the dark corner booth of a strip mall dining establishment. That is to say, the book paired well with my second trimester penchant for shame-snacking.
But the story of the over-eating Edie Middlestein and her mess of a family fulfilled me in another way as well. They say that when you crave a particular food, you are responding to your body’s need for certain nutrients. This, I discovered, holds true for literary cravings as well. With a child on the way, I had become preoccupied by thoughts of family life, and although The Middlesteins was in many ways a perfect lesson on how not to do things, it was also the kind of story about a mother’s imperfect love that I hungered for: funny, messy, often heartbreaking, and ultimately redeeming. Just as my body had for weeks been craving endless clementine oranges, my mind had craved the very vitamins and nutrients — the sentences and language — that this book was made of. It was delicious.
I had always imagined that, as a pregnant woman, I would adopt a sort of Earth Mother persona: confident, innately nurturing, glowing from the inside out. It turned out that, in reality, I handled pregnancy with all the grace of George Costanza at a cocktail party. I was clumsy in my changing body and nervous about the safety of the baby who was changing it. And although I was already tremendously in love with the person forming inside of me, when faced with the impending responsibility of bringing up this new life in the world, it seemed very obvious how easy it would be to screw things up. From feeding to diapering to the general task of keeping a small human alive, parenthood is no small venture. And on top of that you have to make sure you’re not raising an asshole.
These anxieties accompanied me day and night, and even followed me to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When I was six months pregnant (that’s a cantaloupe on the produce-to-baby conversion chart), my husband and I took a trip to French Polynesia. While I had always considered myself a fearless traveler, this trip was fraught with anxiety from the start. There was the tiny island’s fresh Dengue Fever outbreak to consider, the constant worry over the availability of pasteurized dairy, and the inevitable neurosis of negotiating a bikini with said cantaloupe rearranging the shape of my entire body.
I tried to relax with the books I had brought to read, the Serious Literature that had been in my queue for a while. Stoner was too slow for my racing mind, however, and for similar reasons I had no patience for The Sense of an Ending. Lying on the deck of our overwater bungalow, I remembered that I had brought along a copy of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. I had grabbed it from the library at the same time as the other books. Something about it had called to me, and I figured that something had been its title: while I didn’t feel particularly bad about my own neck at the time (that would come in the third trimester), I did feel bad about my butt. So I’d checked it out, thinking that a Nora Ephron book was the sort of light reading I might like to flip through in the last lazy days of vacation.
Now I could feel myself craving Ephron’s essays the way I had come to crave so many other stories over the past several months. I could already taste her wit, her vulnerability, her heart. I set the other books aside for the time and opened the Ephron essay collection. It only took a few pages to discover how wrong I had been to believe that her writing, while deliciously accessible, was anything less than commanding. In the essay titled “Blind as a Bat,” she writes, “Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”
On the island of Moorea, slathered in worry and useless mosquito-repelling essential oils, it was by making contact with Nora Ephron’s imagination that I was finally able to relax and appreciate the paradise surrounding me. Once again, through the peculiarity of my literary cravings, I had found the right book to feed me, to settle my stomach and my anxiety.
Reading had always been emotional for me, viscerally felt, but while I continued to indulge these literary cravings over the following months, the act of reading began to more closely resemble the satisfaction of slurping up spaghetti noodles than anything involving intellect. The cravings came most often in the middle of the night, often for stories that featured people doing what they do best: messing up. Late one night I read a story from Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise three times in a row. The narrator of “Yesterday’s Whales” faces an unplanned pregnancy and asks her “vegetarian epicure” boyfriend to go buy saltines and Gatorade for her nausea. “Don’t come back with any organic stuff,” she tells him, “I need the real thing.” This I understood. Don’t come back with what I should be reading, I told myself over and over again, come back with what will nourish me: the real thing.
On Bastille Day 2013, our baby was born: a big beautiful boy, who we named Jude. The joy of Jude’s arrival was soon smudged with fear, however, when he was taken to the NICU due to complications.
During the eight days that my son was in the NICU — connected to a fistful of colorful wires, his fidgeting limbs setting off a constant commotion of alarms, his nearly nine-pound body awkwardly large compared with those of his two-pound neighbors — I stayed just down the hall in a room with a single, unreliable mechanical bed and a bathroom the dimensions of which recalled the European budget hostels of my early travel days.
In a gesture of solidarity with Jude, who had yet to take in his first breath of fresh California air, I chose to remain indoors as well, going days without wandering further than the jaundiced tile corridor between my room and the NICU. My vision blurred under legion fluorescent light boxes, my uniform was a rotation of unflattering sweatpants. During one of my many walks down this hall, a passage came to mind from “The Night of the Curlews,” the Gabriel Garcia Márquez story I had inexplicably craved early on in my pregnancy. “We felt the prolonged emptiness of the hallway before us,” says the narrator, one of three men trying to navigate his way home after having abruptly lost his sight in a wild bird attack. “Around us, surrounding us, there was always a wall,” he says.
All that worry about what could go wrong while I was pregnant, about the many potential ways I might mess up as a new mother, and it turned out that when my child was in danger there was nothing I could do about it but wait. He would be healthy soon — the doctors were clear about that — and I understood even then how fortunate we were compared with many other NICU parents. Still, it was the most painful and disorienting time of my life. It felt like drowning, but worse: it felt like Jude and I were both drowning and I could do nothing to save either of us. My family — the three of us — were supposed to be alone at home, skin-to-skin, blissed-out, and sleep-deprived together in bed, with a dog sighing in the sun-drenched corner. Not here in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where in order to hold my baby I had to watch a clock while scrubbing my skin raw, unfold a privacy screen beside the plastic cot marked “Gibson — Baby Boy,” and negotiate the wires, monitors, and IV that weighed him down. We were trying to get home, but around us, surrounding us, there was always a wall.
I had always thought of “The Night of the Curlews” as a hopeless story. I fixated on the random violence of it, on the savage way the men had been blinded. They were lost and hopeless and the sadness of their story would linger with me after every reading. In fact, I was sort of disgusted with myself when I’d felt such a strong urge to read it while pregnant; it was the one literary craving I couldn’t rationalize. Now that I had been blindsided by my own version of a curlew attack, it made sense that such a bleak story would come to mind. But I didn’t want to be hopeless. I couldn’t drown, I was a mother now.
After five days and repeated suggestions that it would be restorative for both my sanity and my physical recovery to at least get some fresh air in the hospital’s outdoor courtyard, I finally relented and stepped outside. I did not change out of my sweatpants. As I ate an In ‘N Out grilled cheese sandwich beside my husband at a picnic table, the setting summer sun warmed my face and I remembered the ending of the Garcia Márquez story.
The three men also find themselves in what seems to be a courtyard. They’ve lost all sense of time and direction. They are waiting for something or someone familiar to lead them back home. One of them suggests going back toward the wall — the wall that is a constant wherever they go — but the other two know that another wall, or another maze of halls, however familiar, is not what they need. They sit still, their heads lifted, and say, “Let’s just wait till the sun begins to burn us on the face.” I finished my dinner outside and thought of those three blind men in mid-century South America, their arms linked, their faces turned to the sun’s heat and invisible light.
It is a hopeful story: theirs, mine. In the confusion that follows random tragedy, while we hope and pray and wait to be led back home, sometimes we just need to sit still for a moment and turn our faces to the sun. If it burns us, fine, that’s how we know we’re alive. If we’re alive, our story isn’t over.
While I was pregnant, I learned to follow my instincts — my hunger — to lead me to stories that would nourish me. And, as I learned from that first 3 a.m. craving for “The Night of the Curlews,” certain stories are meant to be savored so that the words continue to nourish long after the last sentence has been swallowed. The best stories leave an aftertaste.