Three and a half months before her dip in Hell's Kitchen, in an apartment overlooking this miasma, my mother was up, at two in the morning, cooking herself something to eat. She had been working out feverishly for the last twelve weeks, trying to lose a stubborn little tire that had swelled around her waist. My father, staring at her in the darkness, saw her left hand draped protectively over her belly, and he knew immediately. It was pictured in a thousand frescos and altarpieces, this graceful, natural gesture of maternity.
"Rhonna, you're pregnant. We're having a baby."
Without context, this could seem like a sweet moment, a wonderful development in a relationship between two young lovers perhaps looking forward to starting a family and realizing some picket-fence fantasy. Let me clear up that misunderstanding; my parents were just hot in the eighties. In fact, if we are going to grope around in the dark closet of existential responsibility, I blame the bathtub. A lot of relationships, and probably a lot of eighties babies, can be traced back to the tenement tub.
Allow me to explain: when you walked into a one-bedroom, railroad apartment in an old tenement, you entered directly into the kitchen. Across from you were the stove and a refrigerator, and two inches from your right elbow was an iron bathtub, encased in white porcelain, a shorty, with little lion's-paw feet, from the turn of the century, crafted for a little person. In our apartment, there was a dark bedroom to the left and a sunny living room to the right.
People tend to underestimate the importance of a tub in the kitchen to establishing the sexual tone of a bohemian existence. It adds a whole new spice when friends take a bath while you're cooking dinner. Sensual mayhem.
Carrying an armful of records and a bottle of whiskey, my mother was all legs and skimpy outfits when she showed up on my father's doorstep. He had run into her before, once lying naked in a triangle of sunlight at the center of a cocktail party on the Upper West Side and another time on the street, clutching everything she owned in two plastic bags. Freshly widowed, she was being ravaged by agonies beyond her control and stalked by "friends" turned to suitors. Jailbirds who had started hanging around after the mysterious murder of her husband by the police.
Freshly widowed, she was being ravaged by agonies beyond her control and stalked by "friends" turned to suitors.
A week after their second encounter, my parents were both kicked out of a nightclub for drinking out of their own stashes. Collared by a bouncer who knocked their heads together, they were tossed, laughing, into the street. By this point, my father had seen all he needed to cast her as the unhinged and suicidal Ophelia in an avant-garde film version of Hamlet, which he had been shooting for a few weeks.
At the apartment, "Hamlet" slept under a brown blanket in a corner of the living room among his paintings. He was a young friend of my father's who I would later know as Uncle Crispy—a wiry kid with a wild head of curls, whose long eyelashes beat down over big, soft brown eyes, and who talked shit with the raspy voice of a hustler, like he had a million sentences he had to force through the bottleneck of his mouth before his dime ran out. Crispy spent his time avoiding his duties as leading man, flirting with Rhonna, and darting out of the house.
She, meanwhile, was up every night, howling old torch songs back into blasting speakers and swigging Johnnie Walker in nothing but a China red skintight sweater. This perpetually naked tornado of energy and beauty living in his kitchen caused a great deal of excitement in my father's life. A great deal indeed. One thing leads to another, and they were rapidly entangled.
But over the next three stormy months, my father never really saw Rhonna sleep. As a matter of fact, he can't recall ever seeing her lie down. Just getting her to sit was a feat, because she was the single most up, physically active person he had ever encountered. Her exercise routines were particularly radical and savage, as was her diet, and her devotion was to staying lean, lithe, and skinny as hell.
Her exercise routines were particularly radical and savage, as was her diet, and her devotion was to staying lean, lithe, and skinny as hell.
Lately, she had been especially vigilant in her exertions, because she felt that she was putting on a little extra weight around the middle, and that wouldn't jive with the nightclub act she was rehearsing every day at a theater nearby. Her efforts to remove this bump had been unsuccessful, and so at two A.M. that night, from the darkness of his narrow bed my father watched her standing at the stove, shielding something deep within herself and in a flash he realized that she was protecting something: she was protecting me.
"What the fuck are you talking about? I know my own body. I'm not pregnant. If I was pregnant, don't you think I'd be the first one to know?!"
He insisted, pointing out the evidence, and finally she went out to an all-night pharmacy for a pregnancy test. Within a few hours, they were confronted with an unfathomable truth: they were going to have a baby.
The next morning, shouting and yelping, my father ran straight to the home of his old friend Francesco and his wife, Alba, who had several kids. Alba, seeing that he was terrified, sat him down and in a perfectly relaxed, Italian way, said, "Ilya, this is not something you plan. Babies come with the bread. Each day, the bread is delivered, and one day it comes with a child. There is nothing to do but to ac cept it."
When he protested that he hadn't a clue how to care for an infant, she said, "Don't worry. The child will teach you everything you need to know. The best teacher in the world is about to be born. They have a device called a scream, and they use it when anything is required. You will know exactly what to do, because the baby will tell you. All you have to learn to do is listen. Don't dictate, listen."
My parents never had the intention of being a couple or building any kind of domestic life together, but they made a pact that day: no matter what happened between them, they were going to care for this child, and failing that, they would at least make sure it would be cared for. They agreed: they would respect each other's wildly different styles; they would never fight in front of the kid; and above all, they would never call in the law. No matter how bad it got, no judge would ever dictate what they needed to do with this child.
No matter how bad it got, no judge would ever dictate what they needed to do with this child.
They explored all the options for a healthy birth, finally settling on a midwife and home delivery. My mother shelved the whiskey and focused her considerable energy on having the healthiest final trimester anyone has ever seen.
Which brings us back to that sweltering evening at the end of Au gust. My father was standing on the corner of Third Street and the Bowery, talking to his friend Jean-Michel about his new fold-up bi cycle. The mischievous young painter was wearing a full three-piece tweed suit, sweating profusely, and my father was lecturing him about the dangers of wool in such heat. Dismissing the mothering, Jean-Michel nodded over his shoulder and said, "Maybe you should tend to your own garden."
Turning, Ilya saw Rhonna coming through the traffic on their block. Carrying several bags, she was just slightly less concerned than usual with the cacophony around her, and she looked to be in pain. He rushed to her and, as he helped her upstairs, she told him it was begin ning.
"I need to swim."
By the time she returned from Hell's Kitchen that night, the gigantic moon was bursting from the sky, subjecting the city to its powerful tides. There was no question in her mind that the baby was coming. The scattered contractions confirmed as much.
My father picked up the phone and called the midwife they had been training with. Both of them averse to the concept of giving life surrounded by the sick and dying, they had settled on the most natural birth possible, at home. The nunlike woman they had contracted to help them was allegedly the best midwife in town.
The nunlike woman they had contracted to help them was allegedly the best midwife in town.
Uptight and stroppy, she was someone who liked to play by the rules, so she and my parents had developed a mutual distaste for each other. Regardless, they had confidence in her, and now they were eager for her to come to the rescue. But their worst fears were realized: she told them that she couldn't make it. The full moon apparently had every mother in town popping out their progeny. The midwife inquired about the frequency of the contractions, and when they told her they were few and far between, she said that in the morning, she would send another midwife.
"Someone else? Who? "
My father was distraught, but my mother was cool. Splayed out naked on the hardwood floor, stretching and sweating, she let out a laugh. She heaved herself into the bathtub and said, "I couldn't give a fuck. I never liked that uptight bitch anyway."
Knees jammed into her teeth, she looked into my father's terrified eyes and said, "I'm happy she's busy."
They made it through the night without a birth, and in the morning my father went down and cleared himself a spot in the mayhem to wait for "someone else." He was wracked with worry, sure that they were going to be given a second-rate apprentice, some fool even less knowledgeable about childbirth than himself. They were headed for disaster.
They were headed for disaster.
Through the steaming heat and the crowds of human trash, he saw the shimmering mirage of a jewel. A tiny, elegant woman with a shock of silver hair in a purple silk Saari was making her way through the filthy masses with the graceful strides of a prince. She was holding a piece of paper and checking it against addresses in doorways.
When he saw her his breathing slowed. He sat up straight and watched her navigate the shit show. With perfect authority, she walked straight up to him and said, "You must be Ilya. I am Asoka, your mid wife," and shooed him inside. She followed him up the stairs at a clip, firing questions at him in an Indian-British accent hybrid.
"Where is the mother? How often are the contractions? What are the nature of the contractions? Hurry, hurry, hurry."
She burst into the apartment and proclaimed: "Yes, I am a replacement. We have never met before, and you are probably worried about my qualifications. Let me tell you, I have birthed five thousand children with my bare hands, many of them at the foot of the Himalayan mountains. I know what I'm doing. Let me examine you. Get up! Why are you lying down?"
This is the nature of America, a place where immigrants who were doctors and master surgeons in their own countries come to find streets paved with gold, and end up driving taxis. By some idiotic bureaucratic oversight, my stunned parents had stumbled into the care of this wizard, who was not only first rate, but one of the most masterful midwives in the world. Someone who had birthed children under the most extreme conditions—from elevators to mud huts, from Bombay to Liverpool—who the United States didn't recognize as qualified for a birthing license. They could not have felt safer. They were delighted, in awe, in love.
This is the nature of America, a place where immigrants who were doctors and master surgeons in their own countries come to find streets paved with gold, and end up driving taxis.
Asoka Roy put her hands on my mother's misshapen belly and made a rather sober face. Feeling around, she discovered that I was backward, sitting spine to spine with my mother.
"Get up, get out of bed, grab a rag, and wash the floor! Like this." Asoka dropped to her knees and began to demonstrate what she called "the Rock," a sweeping motion with the arms, dragging a rag back and forth across the floor, an activity that moved my mother's hips
and was meant to reposition the baby correctly in the birth canal. This was her philosophy: A woman giving birth is not sick. You are as healthy as you will ever be. You are doing what you were designed to do, and your body is performing what it was put here to perform, and the last thing you will do is act ill. The best thing you can do is use your body and generate as much activity as possible. This was music to my mother's ears.
Having revolutionized their view of childbirth and assured them that there would be no delivery that night, Asoka went home to sleep. When she returned the next morning, she found my mother in a new state. She was in agony from more frequent contractions, and when Asoka examined her for the second time, naked on the wooden floor, she found that the baby had not yet turned. On top of that, my mother was dilating very slowly, so it was going to be a long haul.
After thirty hours they were all delirious. Rhonna's belly was stretched beyond anything she could imagine, and her formidable vocal cords were shredded from the screams.
At some point, with that much prolonged pain, your mind loosens and your body takes over. Some ancient mechanism kicks in and puts you into autopilot. You have no control. Things are just happening in side of you.
Thirty-five hours in, my mother rolled up her eyes and checked out, leaving my father, nature, and Asoka Roy each with a hand on the reins.
Asoka realized that if someone as powerful as my mother was un able to ride this out, they would need help. She looked into Ilya's belea guered face and said, "We are taking her to the hospital."
The little woman and the skinny boy carried Rhonna, screaming the whole way, down three flights of stairs. As they came to the shat tered glass of the front door, my father looked out and saw the un imaginable: the gigantic men's shelter was having a fire drill. Seven hundred sweating bodies were teeming over the block and pushing their way up his stoop. Seven hundred shirtless, Newport-smoking vagrants, shouting and hurling things, their voices like thunder, shak ing the buildings.
Asoka squawked and my father snapped to, pulling the door open. At that moment, her legs in my father's hands, fingernails digging into her midwife's arms, my mother let out a showstopping scream.
A sea of men, the kind who carried knives in their teeth, went silent. Seven hundred faces turned toward the embattled trio. In awe of the most natural wonder, the sea parted. Hands came out to support them, and slowly, carefully, she was brought down the five concrete steps, bellowing from depths she didn't know she had. Someone brought a taxi from the corner, and they laid her into the backseat, Asoka with Rhonna, Ilya in the front; they drove through the reverent crowd, and as they turned uptown on the Bowery the parting closed behind them and the roar erupted again.
The birthing room would be arranged according to my mother's requirements: lights out, music on—jazz, reggae, and blues. Asoka placed my exhausted, overwhelmed father at my mother's feet and ordered him to hold her leg. She told him to soothe her, help her breathe. She elbowed away the doctors and nurses to ensure that my father was a central part of the arrival. Five thousand births and you learn to take no shit.
There was an enormous amount of pain and screaming. I crowned, but I wasn't going any farther. Asoka gave my mother a little cut, and suddenly, I arrived. I had come out backward, covered in slime and blood, but I was a living, breathing little creature.
I had come out backward, covered in slime and blood, but I was a living, breathing little creature.
They put me on my mother's chest. My parents had made a point of not asking my gender, because they had no preference, it changed nothing for them, and they wanted the surprise.
Wrapped in blankets, breasts stretched so big they felt like cement, my mother looked down into the face of a tiny baby girl. To her, I looked like a mango. To my father, I looked like Winston Churchill crossed with a dried apple.
At that moment, both parents hovering over me, my tourmaline- blue eyes popped open. Bang. Hello. Perhaps my infant intuition was trying to catch a glimpse of what would be a rare sight: the two of them together.
My father had been scribbling potential names on napkins for weeks. He was leaning toward a high and a low sound, a line and a disc, an on and an off, a moon and a demigoddess. Jupiter's moon, iO. The most volcanic object in the solar system. Now it was settled.
Excerpted from Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright. Copyright © 2016 by iO Tillett Wright. Published by Ecco. All rights reserved.
iO Tillett Wright is an artist, activist, actor, speaker, TV host and writer. iO's work deals with identity, be it through photography and the Self Evident Truths Project/We Are You campaign or on television as the co-host of MTV's Suspect. iO has exhibited artwork in New York and Tokyo, was a featured contributor on Underground Culture to T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and has had photography featured in GQ, Elle, New York Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. iO is a regular speaker at universities, discussing expanding one's circle of normalcy and embracing those that are different than you. A native New Yorker, iO is now based in Los Angeles.