October 29, 2006

Fiction: Milk of Malie

By: John Farrell

Malie trundled down to the waiting area for Flight 163 to San Diego. There were no attendants at the boarding gate yet, so she picked a seat by the huge windows overlooking the east side of Logan and Boston Harbor, a seat she hoped would remain comfortably far away from other passengers.

It wasn’t far enough. No sooner had she collapsed into the seat, dragged the strap of her laptop across her tender chest, kicked the black vinyl carrying case under her chair and started going through her purse, than she spied the man wandering in her direction.

He emerged from behind one of the pillars, looking like Dan Aykroyd in an old Saturday Night Live skit. He wore a tired herringbone with yellowed lining inside the cuffs. The jacket had been shouldered on over a gray T-shirt, with the name tag from some convention curling upward off his left lapel. Howie something or other. His thinning hair, looking like a thatch of particularly rangy hay, was pulled back into the obligatory pony tail. He looked like he’d been expecting to find her. He waddled over with his carry-on case trailing behind him in a perpetual squeal of grinding wheels and plunked down in the seat directly opposite her.

“Nice not having too much carry-on shit, huh?” Vapors of bourbon drifted over. She spied the clock on the other side of the lounge. It wasn’t even 8 a.m.

Malie made a great show of pulling out her Palm Pilot and going through her schedule.

“Ah,” said Howie Something-Or-Other, as if he got the message right away. His wide head swiveled around, his eyes, a perfect pair lolling in their own slightly slower path, followed an arc around the boarding area, as he waited for them to find something or someone to lock onto. They stopped on the stools stacked upside down on the bar in the far corner of the terminal.

“You don’t know when that Seafood joint opens, do you?”

“Probably not before eleven,” she answered without even looking up. Malie knew a lot of people didn’t like to fly and boozed themselves to make the passage less frightening. She herself didn’t mind a little something just to relax. But this guy reeked. Salesman, probably. She noticed that he had boobs bigger than hers beneath his T-shirt and when he shifted she could see the little Sutra logo undulate over his left breast. Sutra made servers. And he sold them.

Howie’s tank turret of a head suddenly swiveled and his eyes fell on the little black bag at her feet. The pump belonged to her boss, Janet. Malie was still renting

the pump she’d taken home from the Brigham seven months before, but it was huge and weighed about six pounds. Janet’s portable was more manageable, and since Janet’s boys were now two and three years old, she’d given it to Malie to take for the duration.

“Must be tough,” he said. Malie tried to ignore him, but even though she didn’t raise her head, for an instant she instinctively curled the ends of her mouth in acknowledgement, as she often did in public, her default presentation mode, and he must have seen this.

“How old’s your child?” Now he was trying to sound kind, fatherly.

“Excuse me?” she said, sharply, thinking her tone would end his banter.

“Your child,” he said, dropping the kindly manner. “Three, four months old?”

“I don’t have any children. Why do you ask?”

Howie stared at the little black vinyl case.

“That’s for my sister,” she said. “I’m going to visit her.”

He nodded, holding his hands up like the ref on Monday Night Football. My mistake.

The flight attendant came up from the breezeway and announced they would start boarding now. Malie expertly grabbed both of her bags in two hands and all but sprinted toward the doorway, not reaching it before twenty other people from closer seats converged.

Howie kept watching her as the line gathered, standing slightly outside the queue of passengers. Malie could just see him out of the corner of her eye, pretending to read the paper, but standing in a direct line of her sight so he could toss a surreptitious glance her way.

Probably likes my legs, she thought, and she regretted putting on her skirt for the flight. Jeans would have been more comfortable, and she’d need to freshen up at the hotel before the meeting anyway.

She spent the rest of the interim waiting to show her boarding pass and clambering down the breezeway. She stared doggedly at the industrial carpeting as she made her way to the plane, reproving herself for no longer enjoying the attention of strange men. But it was true, and that was another thing that had changed about having a child. Flirt mode was out — even from a purely passive point of view. It almost made her forget the pain swelling in her breasts.

She looked down to the front of the plane where people were still herding in like cattle. Both lavs were already in use. Better to wait until they were in the air and everyone became pre-occupied with their meals before she pumped. Malie slid the pump under the seat in front of her and slipped her copies of In Style and Travel into the pouch. The laptop she packed in the compartment above, snatching an extra pillow — one was just never enough when you leaned your head against the window to sleep.

There was a brief delay before the plane taxied to its take-off position, and Malie watched a couple of the packing crew finish filling the underbelly of the 747. She pulled her eyes from the window and stared at the ad for Absolut, a Caribbean pool emblazoned in the shape of the vodka bottle, on the back of Travel. Early as it was, she had to admit, as she looked up at some third-rate actors on the overhead video going through the motions of flight safety, dorky Howie in the waiting area had the right idea. A couple of vodka and cranberries would make the trip go pretty smoothly.

She thought about it again, once they were up in the air and the stewardesses came wheeling by with the beverage cart. She took an apple juice and a bowl of Rice Krispies. Lunch time would not be far off. She said no to a pair of headphones (the movie was yet another moronic Sandra Bullock vehicle) and settled in to her breakfast, memorizing the curves and steps around that Absolut pool as she ate.

Of course, she had started getting a handle on herself even before the pregnancy. It wasn’t like anyone noticed, like her husband Nick had said something. Nick liked to have a beer himself, almost every evening, weekday or weekend. And she had her glasses of wine with their meals. And on weekends, when they went out with friends, she had her margaritas with salt and her cosmopolitans.

But the weekdays started to bother her. She’d been getting a little too used to the glasses of Cabernet and Chardonnay with supper. She’d also gotten too used to buying the stuff on her weekly jaunts for groceries, swinging by the little Gimbels on Beacon Street on the way home. That and trying to get her weight back down before conceiving encouraged her renewed temperance for a while. It wasn’t like she had developed a serious drinking problem, or even a minor one. She had just taken stock of her lifestyle, the way any healthy individual would, and decided it was time to adjust.

Then Max came along.

But that was all weeks ago, now. And Malie realized she was hankering for a little something. Something to take the sting out of this miserable, inconvenient trip.

No harm, since she wasn’t going to see Max for two days and whatever milk she did get out of her breasts — well, she’d worry about later. Malie imagined herself clutching a mini-stove from the hands of a bewildered hotel porter and plugging it into the outlet on the bathroom sink to boil the alcohol out of her breast milk. She would doggedly purify her milk, a scotch and soda in one hand, and then freeze it in the little cold pockets of the Artic Zone pouch she also brought along in the pump’s carrying case.

Malie giggled, a little forlornly. Her family had long gotten over the precious fascination with her breast milk. Her mother had seemed to think the whole business unsanitary and took offense when Malie snapped that she couldn’t see how a woman could have five children and not breastfeed a single one of them. This made no impression on her mother: “Different times, sweetheart. I had enough to do keeping a house clean for your father and your siblings. As far as I’m concerned, Simulac was the greatest invention since sliced bread.”

Her mother hadn’t been exactly large-chested either. Malie figured she got her own breasts, the largest of the girls in the house, from her father’s mom, long since deceased. She had no memory of the woman but still kept an old photograph of Daisy Fitzsimmons on the bookcase in her bedroom.

Her husband was no more supportive. He’d taken a brief sort of clinical interest in her milk when she first began nursing. But he thought the whole period would be over in a month or so and Max would go on the formula like all the other kids he could remember from his childhood 25 years before. Fine, let the kid suck. But month after month of pumping, bagging, and storing breast milk struck him as grotesque, and he said so (tactlessly).

Nick did have a point, of course. The stuff looked like egg nog initially, but when it sat long enough in the bags, it tended to separate like oil and water. Max was thriving, too, according to the doctor, so it wasn’t really a necessity anymore, but her breasts were cranking out a hell of a lot more than the little guy needed — or wanted. And that fact hung in the background of her mind, like a dull ache: This effusion of her love was being bagged and frozen, and then wasted unused as the new bags displaced the old ones.

Malie finished her cereal and looked up at the ad for Absolut and wished she was going somewhere with a pool and a bar. As the plane climbed to 10,000 feet, she touched her tender right breast again.

The remain seated lights went off, and Malie grabbed the little black bag from under the chair in front of her.

As she did so, Malie didn’t see the bald, herringboned Howie lumber ahead of her in the aisle. Only as she reached the front of the plane did she recognize the sloped back she was trailing behind. He stopped in front of the left-side restroom door and knocked. Before she could think of stopping or returning to her seat, he looked back at her. Just as he turned himself around to back into the lav (he was a big guy), he darted a grinning glance at the black bag slung over her shoulder.

The right side lav door opened and a twelve-year-old sprang out. Malie squeezed in, shut and locked the door with relief.

She plunked down on the toilet. The Gerber pouches were the hardest thing to keep on the pump in cramped quarters. They could be hard to snap onto the suction cups, so she used the spare bottles instead. These she would empty and seal into the bags afterwards.

She opened her blouse and yanked down her bra, pulling off the protective breast pad and pressed the cup over her right nipple. With her right hand, she pulled the pump up onto the sink, wedging it between the faucet and the wall. For an instant she panicked, thinking she had forgotten to charge the batteries, but it turned on promptly. She had to admit the low-watt drone of the pump was soothing, and she took a deep breath as it pulled and pinched at her teat.

She pumped for ten minutes and was just starting to feel the pressure ease when the plane dipped slightly. Malie put her left hand out to the wall to steady herself and caught the pump with the other before it slid off the sink. She heard the pilot announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We are encountering some turbulence that will last for a few minutes. We would appreciate it if you would return to your seats and fasten your seat-belts at this time.” Malie heard the stewardesses asking everyone to return to their seats.

Now her left breast was throbbing for attention. But her right felt eased enough to last at least until the evening when she checked into her hotel room. She’d come back to relieve the left one as soon as they got through this rough patch.

It did get bumpy on the way back to her seat. No sooner was she down than she saw Howie waddle by her again and go to the lav she’d just vacated.

Malie frowned, looking for one of the stewardesses to grab him before he got inside and direct him back to his seat, but nobody did. He ducked in quickly and closed the door.

She stared at the “Occupied” sign above the latch, picturing the sweating hulk behind it now. Not only was he on a second go in less than twenty minutes, but he’d shut himself into the same lav she’d used.

She glanced at the passengers around her. Hadn’t there also been a woman exiting the same lav the first time Howie had gone?

At that moment, he emerged quickly and returned to his seat. She watched him as she approached, expecting some kind of acknowledgement, but Howie kept his eyes straight ahead as he passed. He was about four rows back on the left side of the plane.

From that vantage, he could observe her for the entire flight from his seat. So what? she asked herself. He was already drunk when she’d met him. Probably he’d been puking his brains out every five minutes — turbulence or no turbulence. Nothing unusual about that.

Malie pulled out Travel. But she didn’t open it. The remain seated lights soon went off, but a man and a woman from one of the front rows popped up to use both lavs. Malie glanced back at her magazine. And another thing, she realized, why didn’t old Howie use the lavs at the back of the plane? He was closer to them, after all. Malie had to stop herself from glancing back — but then didn’t have to as the man himself glided by her once again and loitered a few rows up.

Malie looked around for the stewardesses, but they were behind the curtain, cleaning up after the breakfast. The man came out of the lav on the left. Howie didn’t proceed. He suddenly looked at his watch, as though he needed to re-set it.

Then the woman came out of the lav on the right. Howie moved ahead, turned his belly aside for the woman and closed himself into the lav she’d just vacated.

Malie pressed the button on the arm of her chair.

“I’m sorry to make a fuss,” she said to the stewardess who came up from the back of the plane. “And I don’t want to make a big thing out of it, but that man, the pudgy one with the herringbone jacket. He was sort of bothering me in the waiting area before we boarded. And since we’ve got underway, I’ve noticed that he, he sort of follows women into the bathrooms.”

“Excuse me?”

“I know. I don’t mean he tries to go in with them.” She darted a glance at the teenager across the aisle, his skull seized by headphones, bobbing back and forth like a pigeon’s. “But, I have noticed, he’s been up three times since we lifted off. Once he used the lav right after me. And I’ve seen him wait, just now, hanging back just to use the one most recently vacated by that woman up front, the one in the beige cardigan. I mean, it’s always right after a woman has used it.”

The stewardess continued to nod, and raised her eyebrows once. “I tell you what, we’ll keep an eye on him for a while.”

Malie smiled her thanks, already feeling like a paranoid idiot for calling on her.

Two other women then occupied the lavs after Howie emerged. Malie sighed, staring out the window until he made his way by. She grabbed her pump and got up to wait at one of the doors. She glanced back at Howie, as he twisted his head into a pair of plastic headphones he’d just purchased from a stewardess. She could see that he had a couple of empty, shot-sized bottles of scotch on the table-top in front of him. The glass was filled with ice; one cube he had just popped into his mouth to chew on.

Malie shut herself into the same lav and squirmed a bit on the seat. She hated sitting on a warm toilet seat. She whipped out one suction cup, attached a bottle and slid it over her bursting left breast, hoping she could get fifteen minutes undisturbed.

She did. The stewardess knocked once to make sure she was okay. “I’ll be right out,” she yelled, unnecessarily loudly as she fumbled with the casing. She emptied her second bottle into the Gerber pouch and sealed it, hastily washing both bottles and then stuffed them into the Artic cold bag inside the side-pocket as she slung the strap over her shoulder and flushed the toilet (for effect).

As she returned to her seat, the older stewardess came by. “I just wanted to reassure you. My partner chatted with the man you described. He’s on a diuretic. High blood pressure. He’s fine, but it does mean he has to use the lavatory more than normal. I thought that would make you feel a little better.”

“Thank you.” Malie settled down trying to smile through the hot blush she could feel on her face.

She couldn’t look back at the guy. She hoped he wasn’t watching.

Of course, it didn’t really make sense. The guy was inebriated — and she was supposed to believe he was on a diuretic and drinking like that? No way. And besides, it didn’t explain why he waited on the lavs being vacated by women.

Malie stooped to push the pump under the seat, annoyed that she had ever voiced her concerns to the stewardess. At least her breasts finally felt better.

She stopped mid-stoop, froze actually, as she missed her second bag of milk. She pulled the pump bag back out and opened the Artic side bag. There was the first bag she had pumped out of her right breast. She hadn’t put the second one in there. She checked her purse. She hadn’t absently put it there either. She certainly hadn’t forgotten to empty the bottles, they were both in the Artic bag, still beaded with drops of the water that rinsed them. But no sign of the milk.

Malie got up to run back to the lav, but she stopped in the middle of the aisle at the sight of the two “Occupied” signs on the doors. She sank back into her seat.

She tried to recall her actions during the last pump. She couldn’t remember how many passengers had used the lav after she had, she was so flustered. She couldn’t tell the stewardess, she was embarrassed enough as it was. And anyway, what could they do? Announce over the PA that a passenger had misplaced her breast milk and could the jackass who collected it please bring it back?

As soon as a woman slid out of the lav she had used (thank God it was a woman), another man in a lumberjack shirt hauled up and rolled in before Malie could get there. She planted herself by the door and waited.

A little girl in the front seat facing the wall bordering the bathroom stared up at her with wide eyes. Malie smiled, softening her expression when the tot’s lower lip started to tremble in confusion and fear.

Once the lumberjack guy spilled out, she closed herself in.

There was no sign of the Gerber bag. She checked in the little chute to the waste basket. Nope (gross, someone had stanched a nose bleed), and it wasn’t on the floor anywhere. No sign that it had been emptied down the sink, either. She scrubbed her hands quickly.

The only other possibility was someone might have flushed it. But that was nonsense. A woman would’ve known and brought it out (right? she thought desperately). A man just would’ve stared at it. Most men.

Malie realized she had forgotten to check the outer pouch on the other side of the Artic ice bag. She sighed, slid out of the lav and made her way back to her seat. But when she pulled the black carrying case out and opened the side pouch, it too was empty. After a moment, she took a deep breath and closed her eyelids over the bloodshot world in front of her. She rolled her eyeballs skyward and round her sockets until she could feel the pounding behind her forehead. She opened her eyes again over the sight of the bobbing skull of the teenager across the aisle. She rued the circumstances plaguing her now, she rued having to tote frozen milk all over the continental U.S. She rued the business of this silly trip and rued that God gave her the largest breasts in her family.

She looked back and saw what she wanted. The stewardesses pushing the drink cart forward from the back of the plane.

In fact, they had just stopped in front of Howie, who was playing with his plastic cup of ice. The steward placed two bottles of Kahlua in front of him, took his cash, and said something Malie couldn’t quite hear.

“No, thank you,” Howie said. “I’ve got my own.”

Malie turned back, running a mental list of drinks through her mind. A seven-and-seven was what she really felt like. But Howie’s wasn’t a bad choice. She always liked Kahlua. She just couldn’t think of having any drinks with milk at the moment.

Malie drew in a deep breath and instinctively crossed her hands over her chest. Slowly, she turned back to look at the odd, Quasimodo-like bulk of the man in the herringbone jacket. He was stirring his Kahlua into a familiar-looking swirl of egg-nog-colored milk. His big fat hands enveloped the glass and the mixer, working with methodical determination as he stirred the drink.

Malie watched in dumbfounded fascination.

He caught sight of her and with a smile, raised his glass in a toast. Idiotically, she felt herself smiling back.

It wasn’t like she felt violated, although in a way she knew she had been. She knew it. The guy was downing her breast milk. Even her husband hadn’t done that. At the same time, she realized what had really been bugging her and darkening the whole day since she got out of bed and started packing for this trip.

She hated throwing her milk away. But that was what ended up happening throughout her entire nursing period. For all her work pumping, storing, and freezing for little Max, most of her production had been going into the bin when space ran out in the refrigerator freezer. And she hated that.

Malie kept watching the man stir the drink and slowly bring it up and down and up to his sardine-sized lips. So it went to Howie instead of the Marriott freezer.

She could call the stewardess back, of course, she knew that. Make a scene. Confront him, maybe even have him arrested. On the other hand, he was probably on the way to getting so lit, he might not even remember any of this by the time she landed anyway.

Neither would she. As she turned around and settled into her seat, pushing the button to ask the stewardess for a drink, she arched her back slightly and enjoyed that the mild stretching did not irritate her swollen breasts for a change.

John Farrell is a Boston writer whose articles have appeared in Salon, Skeptic, Cosmos, and other journals. His first book, The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, is now out in paperback from Thunder’s Mouth Press.