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Warm Milk


I'm not accustomed to drinking warm milk. Usually it's icy cold from the refrigerator. This is sweet, rich, but thin, not as soupy as cow's milk. It's yellow-white in a sparkling clean tumbler supplied by the hotel. I let the liquid swirl around in my mouth; let it roll over all the taste buds on my tongue. After nearly two years, I am really curious. I want to know what this tastes like. I want to totally experience the flavor of it. Before, every drop had been like gold; I couldn't waste more than the teensiest dribble licked off my finger. With pride, I decide that I like it.

Satisfied that I am now familiar with the taste, I pour some in my coffee. None of the powdered creamer offered by the hotel for me. What remains in the tumbler goes on the wire rack in the small refrigerator. This is usually how I drink milk--mixed with coffee. I think about offering some to Megan who is sharing the room with me. I am really proud of the quality of this milk. But I decide that we are just not intimate enough. There is something very personal about sharing your milk with someone else--it is a sharing of bodily fluids like mingling the blood drawn from cut fingers in order to become secret sisters.

I had hunted for my breast pump when packing for this trip. Pieces of it were scattered about in kitchen drawers and on my son's changing table. I found all of the parts, but was missing the crucial rubber valve, the size of a dime, that made the whole thing work. My son was now only feeding a few times a day so I hadn't used the gadget in quite a while since the milk was now supplementing other foods. But with three days away from him, I didn't know what would happen to me or to him. It was our first time apart for this long. If the pressure from the milk built up too much, I could try hand expressing.

And that is how I get the milk into the glass. In the privacy of the hotel bathroom, one hand holding the glass, the other pumping, pushing, squeezing, and crushing my breast. The milk just dribbles at first, but once I start the process, it spills wildly. It is hard to keep it directed towards the glass. I step in the combination shower/tub as it becomes difficult to control and milk begins to paint the ceiling, walls, and mirror of the white tiled bathroom. And this is a secret I didn't learn until I first began to lactate: there is more than one hole. The nipple has many holes, like a many-tiered fountain spraying milk. It's an effort thrusting all this milk out. My hand tires and my breast feels sore from mangling, but there is comfort in the release of pressure. I decide I have enough in the glass and the rest just flows down the bath drain. It's hard to watch milk as it swirls down the drainpipe. I have bartered that milk for time: to work, be around adults, do grown-up activities, run errands without worrying about the baby fussing. Now I'm letting it get away.

White rivulets are flowing down the slick surface of the tub. I'm entranced gazing at the milk navigating its unruly way in random ribbons towards the chromed cavity of the drain. There are moments when I get lost in mothering, drown in my fascination. My favorite thing to do is to just watch my son. I observe him run with other children, dig up ants with a stick, and sing to his toys. It's better than any movie. In fact, I don't watch movies anymore--just him.   I can't predict what he will do, so I observe to see what I will learn--learn about him, about me, about how the world works. If he has had a good time at the party, the park, or the zoo then it was all worthwhile. But then out of the blue, shopping at Trader Joe's, my cart stocked with his favorite yogurt, bananas, and pasta, I run into an old friend from college who is childless, and I surface back up and look around confusedly: Where am I? How did I get here?

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So here I am, checked into a hotel in a desert town to attend an academic conference, to deliver an art talk titled "Milkstained". I will stand behind a wooden podium, speak into a microphone, and project slides of my collaborative artwork onto a large screen. It feels strange this world of adults. Even hearing myself talk, hearing mature words. I feel out of sync with the rhythms of the purposeful bodies moving through meeting rooms and hotel passageways with hushed whispers. Gone are the interruptions that a child can make, the disruption of flow, the way things can instantly be out of control and turned on end.

A muffled cough sounds in the dark, crowded meeting room. I sit listening to a flow of carefully chosen words delivered in a professional monotone, an art historian discussing the photo archive at the Kinsey Institute. She flips through her slides: vintage black and white photographs of couples, their bodies entangled in many ways, the naked, full breasts of young women. My mind wanders; thoughts spill in the pensive air, ideas for new projects. In the darkness I jot down notes for later, afraid of forgetting. I'm brimming with ideas that have been squashed in the past by the loud wailing of a cry signaling the end of a nap.

I realize that the bathroom in my room is milk-stained. I do my best to wipe down the tiles and the clear shower door with a thin terry hotel towel, erasing my mess. I wonder if the maid will smell it? Through the stale hotel air, does it smell like milk in here?

Actually, the main thing that I have looked forward to in these three days away is sleep--a full night of good, sound rest, no one to wake me up. But, without my son's prompting, I find I wake up anyways, several times each night. Is it the strange room? Is the mattress too thin? Or is it the noise from the street below? It's hard to remember how I operated in my pre-mother days.

At the end of the weekend, my breasts feel like two taut balloons ready to burst. I'm tired of the work and mess involved in hand expressing. I call my husband and tell him not to send anyone else to meet me at the airport. I need my child. He must park the car and meet me with Kalle the instant I come off the plane. This can't wait any longer.

Obediently, they are lingering by the coffee bar when I de-board the plane. I allow a whole minute to go by as I attempt to make eye contact with Kalle, who won't look at me. But he doesn't refuse the breast, and soon he is sucking and sucking, draining the fluid, releasing the pressure.

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