Throughout my pregnancy, I would read all I could on the do’s and don’ts of parenting, everything from renewable energy clothes brands to historically unethical children’s songs. It was a challenge, with the rate information became obsolete, or contradictory. At the time, Soccer Ball Scalp— the patterned hair loss afflicting newborns across the world— was just becoming a thing. Some doctors were saying no more shampoo, that this baldness was from hair products going down drains then being reconsumed, obscuring our DNA over lifetimes. Other articles maintained that vitamin-fortified shampoos were our only hope of hair recovery. One morning I would read that breast milk was still the purest food for an infant. The next, there’d be an article warning that a woman’s nipple was poison, the human body radioactive.
I also found a lot of blog moms writing about the interrupted sleep from breastfeeding. They spoke of their delirium, veering from things in the road that weren’t there, and re-asking questions they forgot they’d just asked. I remember thinking that this was rather alluring. How for these women, motherhood transported them to upside down worlds, worlds beyond their own. It wasn’t that I thought I’d want to escape my own child, but escape with him, feel like we were living inside a kaleidoscope, the two of us.
Calvin’s father had petty grudges and schemes, none of which amounted to anything. When I started napping more, craving milkshakes and pickles, he got skittish, Googled what was happening. Suddenly he needed to drive back to Utah and patch things up with his dad. He disliked San Francisco anyways, its politics that were so inclusive they were damning, its stance against crime by allowing it. There’s something to be said for simple, he would say. After he left, he texted me some Sunday nights when he and his dad were watching football, levitating off light beer: “I’m enrolling in the fire program here = cash 4 the baby. You kno I got you.” His lineage of this emotional masturbation, my lineage of fucking men like him.
Months after he left, hair grew on my underbelly, organized and thin like an antline, and we were barely speaking anymore. I went up the switchback staircase into the spank of daylight to ride the bus to appointments by myself. I learned what Calvin was doing inside me. He was a raisin, unaged to a grape. He was doing somersaults, then he was growing eye sockets. His fingers were webbed, and he was hiccupping, then his fingers were unwebbed. When I knew he could hear things, I played him guitar at night. Its missing strings hollowed my songs, but Calvin kicked nonetheless, as if wanting to break free to provide harmony.
Then Calvin arrived. His acorn nose and laundry-smell forehead. In those first months, when he beckoned me up in the early mornings, my mind fuzzed, but not necessarily in a detailed or adventurous way like I’d read in the blogs. My thoughts felt trivial like oatmeal and I chose to think this was my intellect draining into him with my other nutrients.
This morning, the city above begins its dull rumble. Calvin is in his blanket, fixated on the push of my breast through my sweater, doing his sign language for it. I reach my hand to him and pry his mouth open, making his eyes go wide.
“Mama,” I say slowly.
He turns his head, a gesture of escape.
“Mama,” I say. “First, try to say mama.”
With my two hands, I shut my son’s jaw on itself. There is the click of his budding teeth.
I enunciate like this is all one big cartoon. His face has gone slack into this eerie look of ventriloquy. I try not to meet his eyes, rather I imagine pushing him in a stroller through a park, feeling the little tremors from the path in my hands. I think of Calvin seeing the sky for the first time, dumbstruck like videos of children’s first taste of sugar. Once when I was a kid, my mom and I were in a sunflower field. I remember being stunned at how they all faced the sun, silent and identical like some cult ceremony. I asked my mom: what do all these flowers do when the sun leaves at night? This was before she started forgetting to make me school lunch, getting on wrong buses, crying lost in intersections, dying. She said maybe they just droop, and wait.
I give up and permit Calvin to feed. As he suckles, he surveys our room, as if making sure it meets his standards. The gluggy watertank. The two stringed guitar, half-buried in our couch like some hungover friend. Our whirring air purifier that may not work. When Calvin finally looks at me, I double-chin down at him. His eyes move on as if I were a piece of data. I smile– hey! I’m your mother!— and prod his neck. When he’s full, he releases, leaves my nipple gummy. The tunnel draft stings and I suck in through my teeth. Calvin gives a look of disappointment, like: what did you expect?
They say KIAMO, where we live, was originally an exclusive place. I know this intrigued my boyfriend when we were looking for a place. Its retro funk. Its minimalism, because he was an environmentalist when it was convenient. Its cheapness.
KIAMO was engineered by a man named Dwight Mason. Everyone knows the story because it’s become fashionable to hate him and all he stood for. Fifty-ish years ago, Dwight Mason worked with data centers. The global dependence on data had become so strong that the centers began to overheat, and Dwight came up with an idea to submerge them in the ocean to keep them cool. Soon, his company and many others were regularly lowering these football-field-sized harddrives to the dark seafloor. For this forward-thinking, Dwight Mason became a global name in tech innovation.
At this time, San Francisco was fearful of an impending earthquake, because there hadn’t been one in so long. It was referred to as The Big One, as though it already existed, dormant like a Roman god. That earthquake hit in 2038 and made the city a puddle of itself. Electrical fires ribboned up against the bay for days, the Golden Gate Bridge bent and groaned in the distance. Seismologists predicted aftershocks, which frenzied the city. Once again, Dwight Mason’s instincts told him to look below, in the cool dark, for the solution. With a team of engineers, he investigated subterranean San Francisco as a possible earthquake bunker, and discovered that its lining of steel from old transit lines was the exoskeleton the city lacked above. Dwight named the settlement KIAMO. Its logo: a mountain with its pristine reflection in a lake, like an arrow pointing down. People paid exorbitantly to bunk there.
Years later, it was found that Dwight’s data centers tampered with the migration of whales, sending hundreds in the wrong direction to die. Insidious large-scale radiation was also suspected to be spreading through the oceans. KIAMO lost its cachet when there stopped being earthquakes in San Francisco. The rich have now moved out, and it has rusted into low income housing. Weak internet, LED lights, cold sweating walls. You can tell a KIAMO resident from their rubbed-penny scent. Now, Dwight Mason is dead, and his name is brought up in ugly arguments against capitalism, inequality. His dedications up above are being vandalized, the “Dwight Mason” scholarship has an interim name like “Better Futures.”
Everyone in KIAMO has their stories for why they wound up here. The holes life dug us. The betrayals. I can tell it makes people feel better to present their lives like none of this could have been prevented. We all have our timetables for getting out.
When I was a kid, there was a stone sculpture of Dwight Mason in the cherry blossoms of Golden Gate Park. He sat in contemplation with circle-rimmed glasses and earbuds. Next to the sculpture, a plaque explained that Dwight would come here at twilight and listen to podcasts.
There was a bench there too, conceivably for people to meditate, or innovate just like he had. I would take boys to this bench after school when I was a teenager. This was my eating disorder phase, when buying food and throwing it away made me lightheaded with triumph. I wanted cheekbones, sleek and viperlike ala the coverwomen of magazines whose names I doubted were real– Hazel, Slanka. Observing my mother taught me life would be a series of men disappearing, and maybe I played these little games because I wanted to find out if it was true, or prove it wrong. So I took boys to the park, away from their family dinners, where I would point to the sculpture and lie.
“Wanna know something? That man right there was my grandfather.”
Some said really? Most didn’t; I went after dim and cruel boys who the world would soon forget. I would sit on their laps like it was something they asked for, slap their faces, speak at them like they were privileged to be in the presence of my invented heritage. When I ran out of ways to feel leverage, and sensed their impatience, I pressed my face on theirs. Their unimaginative tongues. Once, a boy told me my hair looked shampooed with cheese wiz. My response was to unbutton my pants and feel the tightness of his hand stuffed inside the waistband. Afterward, Dwight Mason seemed to be averting his eyes, granting me privacy.
In my third trimester, I was starting to put Calvin on waitlists for above ground daycares when a boy named Solomon was born, the first in KIAMO in some time. I imagined Calvin and Solomon would grow up as companions, skating the half-pipe tunnels. It felt plausible that the friendship could elevate them above resentment for their shitty life; they might even manifest an ironic pride. When Solomon’s bruises started to show up, I mistook them for discoloration from the lighting. But they spread up his arm and throat until he started to take on the look of a storm. On his walks, they started putting a mesh net over the stroller like a beekeeping mask, and I didn’t know if it was to protect him or hide him. I heard from somebody that Solomon began to have nosebleeds, pulpy and relentless. And in the middle of the night, I would hear the fast clank of footsteps up our staircase, his family bound for the emergency room. He passed away the same week I went into labor.
I’ve heard people down here mention their itchy and tight lungs, claim that in mirrors, their skin looks bluish. But they are whispery about it, as if they could get in trouble for noticing. Above ground, San Franciscans have made occasional demands on our behalf: the city needs to install more pipes ushering cross breeze from above; they need to line the tunnels with Nutri-Sun systems, the artificial plant technology which performs real photosynthesis. How is this not a human rights issue, they pose. It feels both empowering and belittling to be the subject of them. These movements ripple across local news then disintegrate, like items checked off a to-do list.
The medical experts believed Solomon perished not from his time spent below, but from his exposure to air above ground on his few occasions at parks, the zoo, medical appointments. Following an investigation, KIAMO was determined to pose a unique threat to infant lungs because the sterile air of the tunnels lacked the microbes needed to toughen our immune systems. If you were born down here, your body was not equipped for life outside, was what they were saying. So San Francisco issued an ordinance that KIAMO children remain below ground until they were mature enough to process above ground air. A child’s first words, they decided, were this benchmark of maturity. They called this ordinance PHASE 1, and Calvin was born into a world where it was illegal for him to leave the underground before his first words were recorded and uploaded to the KIAMO Database for evaluation.
I’m watching a rat move down the tunnel, a black potato in the shadows. I brace for its squeaks until I realize this isn’t one of the graphic novels I hid in as a kid to distract myself from my mom and her men. The rat passes one curtain after another, disappears into the play area of ground up tires, then reappears climbing up a forgotten ladder. It’s gone, presumably onto the streets above through some easy hole, and I feel suddenly claustrophobic at the notion of its freedoms versus Calvin’s. Then Calvin is calling for me.
While he feeds, we listen to “Recuerdas de la Alhambra.” I’m hypnotized by the many guitar strings at once, a melody with tentacles working beneath it. A song about memories makes me a healthy type of sad. After feeding Calvin, I pry his mouth open, then shut it on itself with a new sense of hope.
“Ma-ma” I say.
I know this is as dumb as caveman sorcery. Nevertheless I unhinge his jaw again; he barely fusses. It’s as though his small brain already comprehends the begrudged routines of life. I’m aiming my phone at him with my other hand, giving him encouraging nods behind the camera. Soon I am pinching his mouth open and shut quicker, at the pace of resuscitation, whispering ma-ma, ma-ma through each exhale. Calvin doesn’t make a sound, not even a spittle of protest. He just watches me, like: you done? I set my phone down.
“Mommy’s sorry,” I whisper. “Mommy’s so sorry.”
“Fuhyew,” says Calvin.
A fly whizzes by, and out the curtain into the glow. There is an airy wheeze of a faroff machine, perhaps a truck shifting gears above. Calvin sighs. He squints at me, like he’s trying to decide if I’m lying to him about something. I back away and hear some saliva catch in his breath, and he makes a focused little face at me.
“What?” I ask.
Calvin shuts his eyes, as though the past moments have worn him out. I do not know if I heard what I think I did. Without a recording, it is the falling tree in the forest. Later I change Calvin’s diaper, looking him in the eyes, trying to get a read. I half-expect people to burst through my curtain, point at hidden cameras, and reveal that this has all been a prank, all of it.
The microwave beeps, indicating the top of some hour. Right now, I’m scrolling the local and national news as it gorges on the topic of PHASE 1. Celebrity tweets are comparing it to gulags and internment camps. They say: the eradication of a people is historically incremental, and vague. That a PHASE 1 must imply an eventual PHASE 2, then 3, until all of KIAMO is in some kind of systemic quarantine for their safety, when really they want us out of sight, our incompetency and stink and expensive health problems. I consider this in the stillness. That the city could plan to keep us down here until we’ve rotted out.
I watch a slow motion video of a marshmallow roast in a campfire captioned satisfying burn. And it is. An ad targets me for an all purpose cleaner that fights rust, another for simple recipes for a limited pantry. I encounter a video of an infant in a pink bowtie headband. She wriggles and pounds her little fists, amused by something she sees, perhaps her face-making parents. Through her smile, the girl says “fuck you.” I gasp, drag the bar back to the beginning and rewatch, her delivery so casual. I Google “baby fuck you.” Other videos sparsely exist, one from Russia, another from Lebanon, all from the same day. A few blogs cover it, speaking in tabloid hyperbole, hoping to drive traffic with the latest whatever. But it all dies out without explanation. Probably, people think it was staged, or have seen or heard crazier.
Weeks later, Calvin hasn’t spoken another word, not that I’m sure he ever did. When I think back to that moment, I feel exhilarated and hurt. Today Calvin is two hundred and thirty nine days old, propped up on the couch watching a cartoon fish sing. I can’t help but lean toward him, trying to tug words out telepathically. He pinches his face in focus, and this is one of those moments of babies looking a hundred years old, wrinkled and vacant. I’m sure I resembled him in my childhood, nose in books, or at my recitals, fingers spread across the fret. At my peak, I mastered happy Hungarian waltzes. I would smile with mischief at a particular strum, like I had an inside joke with it. The parents would aim their phones at me almost longingly. The world went smooth until I felt the need to hate myself, like some curfew had been reached in my genealogy.
What age will Calvin be when he realizes he has nothing, that it was my gift to him? He will have spent years wandering to the edges of these tunnels, where on the other side the ocean begins. Bent-backed, malnutritioned, cussing in the glacial beam of video games. His voice will have rasped in a way that crawls across my skin, a familiar tenor of the men I’ve known. I fear the possibility of a PHASE 2, not because of the inhumanity, but because after enough time down here, I might believe in it.
In bed, I watched the rat crawl up the ladder on the back of my eyelids so many times, it was like my very own screensaver to pass my idle eternity. I hemmed Calvin into a pillowcase deep enough that his head poked through. With a free hand, I slapped my face to know I was not in the thick folds of a dream, and climbed up until my shoulder was pushing loose soil. Now through,I fill my lungs with whatever made San Francisco famous for its sourdough. Particles of salt and wharf. It’s a brisk air that glides off my skin, doesn’t stick like down below. I have concerns of my identity being blown: the sun will blind me and I’ll be found walking into poles, or my clothes will be seen as some unmistakably extinct fashion. A PHASE 1 paranoia makes me check on Calvin’s breathing, but he is calmly surveilling this new world.
I pause at McDonalds. Its smell reminds me of middle school, of bile. At a public water fountain, there is no whine from the pipes, just a silent stream into my mouth. Golden Gate Park is blocks away, its strip of treetops above the houses, all these houses and colors. I whisper words to Calvin cautiously, like secrets. Look at the sun moving, like it does each day. That’s the surf, whish whish. I feel my pulse in my neck, hear its pump in my voice. Do you like the trains, I ask him as one goes by, rattling him into alertness. The temperature drops while I feed him on a bench. He’s watching the light change. A sad dove accompaniment. There is a satisfying crunch of gravel behind me, all our senses being called upon. I close my eyes, enjoy its crescendo.
The man standing in front of me gives me a crooked look of amusement. Calvin’s tucked away in the pouch. I shift in a way that could come off casual I think. Like a shrug. He shrugs back. I take it as, come here much? But that’s not what he means, and as he steps closer, I place my hands on the pillow case, warm with my son. He shows me his badge, leads me to his car across from the donut shop where I would go on late start Fridays at school. I am compliant. It is odd to be confined and to not smell steel, but the leather of a car. My nose is pressed up against the window. The gate to KIAMO– its piss smell with vines and juice boxes caught in its teeth– is a five minute drive from here.
“This is a Cypress tree,” I tell Calvin, who is puffy from sleep. “That’s a soccer game.”
I am weeping, I can tell, from how the man considers me in his rearview. I’m watching the trees pass over when my seat belt chokes me, and we’ve stopped. The man gets out of the car, and opens my door, motions me to follow. He takes Calvin from my hands and cradles him in one arm as I step out, then does not hand him back. I follow behind, watching the shape of Calvin in the soft of the man’s arm, out of my reach. In front of us: a children’s play structure.
On top of a slide, the officer looks down at me and smiles white teeth, firmly rooted in his gums. He is unattractive but healthy. I want to shift my hair over my patch of bald. I hate that some long ago instinct is revived by this. To play little games I know I’m better than, tug his belt loop, tempt him at something he wants and doesn’t want. The man delicately lets Calvin down in the pillow case. Calvin slides into my hands. His head pops out, bewildered and alive. I carry Calvin back up to the top, hand him off, and the man proceeds again. Each time it is darker than the last. I feel like an irreparable version of myself even for going along with this, for thinking somehow it could end differently than it will. There is sand between my toes that I want to dig into my skin long after today. The night makes it so I can’t see Calvin anymore. I can only hear the fabric sliding, my hands down here waiting to catch him.
Emil DeAndreis’ novel Tell Me When To Go will be published by Flexible Press in 2022. He has two prior books, Beyond Folly (Blue Cubicle Press, 2013) and Hard To Grip (Schaffner Press, 2017), and short fiction in StoryQuarterly, The Barcelona Review and more. He is an English professor at College of San Mateo, and lives in the Bay Area with his wife and baby.