Guidebook to Relative Strangers by Camille T. Dungy

 Camille T. Dungy reads an excerpt from her new essay collection, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, published in June by Norton.

from Lap Child

If I keep the baby with me when I go to the bathroom, I have to struggle into the airplane lavatory, nudging my upper body over the commode far enough so I can turn around and lock the door, ignoring the crazed fear that the Baby Björn securing Callie to my stomach might fail and force me to watch her slide past the flap at the bottom of the toilet. If I manage to turn the front of my body back toward the door without knocking the baby’s head against the lavatory walls or running her feet through the sink area’s standing pools of water, I have to balance myself over the commode despite my altered center of gravity. I push the BabyBjörn up and away from my belly to undo my pants, and then lower myself over the toilet. All the while, turbulence works to unsteady me. There is the awkward negotiation of toilet paper to contend with. Then I have to squat, jutting my tailbone out and dropping my chest, thus allowing the BabyBjörn-bound baby to fall away from my torso so I can pull my pants back up. Buttons always prove my final foil. More than once I have walked out of the lavatory unbuttoned, returning to my seat before I can take Callie out of the BabyBjörn and finally fasten my pants. Like so much of motherhood, going to the bathroom while wearing a baby demands equal parts acrobatic prowess, fear management, and sublimation of shame. So, when a grandmother returning from Florida said, “I’ll be happy to help you,” and meant, I would love to hold your baby, as we boarded our flight from Logan to the Northern Maine Regional Airport, I said she could hold her as soon as we took off, hoping I could pee in peace.

As it turned out, using the bathroom, with or without the baby, was not an option on this flight. The moment the propellers began their one-and-a-half-hour sound show, Callie resorted to the infant’s best defense against chaos: deep slumber a mother dares not disturb.

We were in our final descent when the man sitting next to me leaned closer so I could hear him over the noise of the propellers. “I have to admit,” he admitted, “I was worried when you two sat down. Babies, you know.” He placed his earplugs in a carrying case he then placed in his backpack. “I commute every couple weeks. Three weeks on, two weeks off. Been doing that since I took a job with Exxon eighteen months ago.” Jobs were, he told me, scarce in the part of Aroostook County he called home, and though the travel could be hard, the pay was good and the work steady. “I don’t usually like flying with babies,” he said. “These planes are loud enough as it is.” I nodded. I don’t usually like flying with babies, either. “But she’s a good one, isn’t she?” Yes, I said. She was. And then he told me about his girlfriend and how he wondered what their house would look like when he got back, seeing as the dog he’d bought her for Christmas took advantage when he was away. “You know how it is,” he said, because the baby provided him with a way to connect with me. 

 It was nine-thirty p.m. and nineteen degrees when we landed in the northeasternmost county of the contiguous United States. Before heading out across the tarmac, I wrapped Callie’s blanket over the BabyBjörn, and around this bundle I pulled the over- sized parka my husband lends me when I visit cold places. The oil rig worker carried Callie’s diaper bag down the airstairs. A businessman carried our backpack. I didn’t ask for any of this. Everyone just seemed to understand what needed to be done.

In baggage claim, I gave the baby to the woman whose grandchildren were in Florida so I could haul our luggage off the carousel. Immediately she plowed her nose into Callie’s hair. “If I could bottle that smell,” she said, because babies are simultaneously astounding and mundane and so are the things people do around them.

When I returned for the baby, she took one last deep breath, smiled as if she was genuinely glad for the opportunity to fly on a prop plane with us, gathered her own bags, and disappeared.

“This is the baby I was telling you about,” a man told his wife as he moved to fill the departed grandmother’s space. I’d noticed this man watching us in the waiting area at Logan. We’d smiled the smile of acknowledgment passed between black people countrywide, but he hadn’t approached us until now, with his innocuous-looking wife by his side. I was putting Callie back in the BabyBjörn to free my hands to move our luggage toward the cabstand. This process stalled as the man told me he lived nearby in Caribou, described Caribou (the second-largest city in the least populous county of the state), and shrugged off my query about the cold. “I’ve been in Maine such a long time I hardly notice the climate anymore,” he said, looking around the room to make sure I understood.

In the same way that we both understood our silent greeting in Logan meant, It’s nice to see another black person, he figured I understood what he meant about the climate. He was a black man, a big one at that, living in cold, white, northern Maine. I gathered people often eyed him with suspicion. People use foils to help them express their desires. They use excuses. They try to hold their tongues. They speak poetically, working through con- notation and association. “I’d be happy to help while you carry your luggage to the cab,” he said. He wasn’t offering to help me haul the luggage. What he wanted was to hold the baby. Perhaps had wanted to do so since he first laid eyes on us, but to openly admit a desire to hold a stranger’s child can be risky.

Excerpted from Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille Dungy. Copyright © 2017 Camille Dungy. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.