With the baby came trouble, but not any of the kind the mommy blogs warned Ana about.
Ana hovered over the grill in her white jersey shorts and yellow bikini top, hair up in a sweaty bun. In one hand, she clicked metal tongs. Corn cobs and discs of eggplant browned and crackled on the grill. Crooked in her left arm hung her daughter Olive, head on Ana’s shoulder, fat sticky baby hand sprawled on Ana’s tit. All through her pregnancy, she never stopped wearing bikinis, high heels, crop tops, showed up to pool parties and the beach with her big belly hanging over tiny bottoms, her swollen tits on full display. Her wife Jules thought she looked hot pregnant, and it made Ana feel hot. She liked being wanted by her. She liked the idea of being the two hot dyke moms in the neighborhood. She liked being a family with Jules.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” she asked, and Jules said shhhh, as if she might disturb the baby sleeping in her carrier between them. But Olive was never disturbed, only the cause of disturbing things. Like powerful storms and maybe even human disappearances.
“The name. You . . . you didn’t think about it?” Jules looked at Ana like she couldn’t believe her. “Olive. Olivia. I thought it was on purpose.”
Ana hadn’t thought about it at all.
“Olive isn’t a derivative of Olivia,” she said, on the defensive.
“They sound practically the same,” Jules said.
“Well, I don’t think so, and that’s not why I chose that name,” Ana said.
Jules had sparked something with that conversation, and afterward, people brought it up constantly. People asked if Olive was named after Olivia, and Ana calmly explained over and over again that, while they sounded similar, it was not the same name; it was different. Jules’ mother had said maybe she did it subconsciously, maybe she just missed her mother that much, and Ana held back a laugh.
Ana didn’t miss her mother at all, but she didn’t feel like she could say that to her mother-in-law, or even her own wife. It wasn’t until after Ana’s mother was dead that she’d asked Jules if she wanted to have a baby. They’d talked about it abstractly before, but the general consensus was to wait until Jules was tenured. Jules was the one who maybe wanted to do it sooner, but Ana was the one who said they should wait. After Olivia died, Ana changed her tune, and then Jules was the one who wanted to wait.
“Everyone knows you shouldn’t make major life changes when you’re grieving,” Jules said.
Ana’s mother had only been in the ground for a week.
“I’m fine,” Ana said. “I’m ready. I want to do it now while I’m young. It’s the perfect time, actually,” she said.
Jules eventually agreed. She may not have been tenured yet, but she was on track. Most of her coworkers already had kids. So they began the lengthy process, which was a little more time-consuming and a lot more expensive than either of them anticipated, but never once did they say anything about regretting it, and Ana genuinely did not.
Early on, Jules had assumed that Ana’s mom had just been your regular flavor of homophobic, and Ana didn’t correct her—because the truth, that her mom was just straight-up mean, sounded somehow worse.
Not that Olivia had been a beacon of acceptance when Ana came out to her.
“I guess I won’t be getting grandkids,” Olivia had said. “Shame.”
“Queer people have kids all the time,” Ana had replied, willing herself to stay calm when she actually wanted to say it was absurd for Olivia to suggest she wanted to be a grandmother when she had no interest in being a mother. But by that point in life, Ana knew fighting with Olivia wasn’t worth it.
Olivia shook her head and pursed her lips. “It’s not the same,” she said. “It’s not natural.”
Well, here was Olivia’s granddaughter, plopped on Ana’s lap in the grass now, her hand reaching up to play with the strings of Ana’s bikini top, and the bitch wasn’t here to see for herself.
Ana kept squinting her eyes in the direction of Sara at the grill, wanting to catch her doing something wrong so she could resume cooking duties. She caught Jules watching her watch Sara.
“Relax,” Jules mouthed, which only put Ana more on edge.
Jules, Rey, and the other two friends in their group—Polly and Charlotte—sat in old lawn chairs around Ana and Olive, like the mother and daughter were the center-stage entertainment. Or an offering about to be sacrificed. The backyard was the best thing about the campus apartment, the consolation to a shitty sudden moving situation after the storm. It was even bigger than the one they’d had at the house, and even though they technically shared it with another unit, no one else ever used it. So Ana and Jules and their crew took it over most weekends. It was a nice constant in their lives.
“Look who it is!” Jules said. Ana turned to see her sister Val in a pink sundress walking in from the side gate.
Val waved, swinging a six-pack.
Ana hadn’t been sure if Val would make it. Her sister didn’t really like being around the baby. When Ana told Val about her pregnancy over what should have been celebratory drinks, Val’s reaction had been far from enthusiastic.
“Becoming a mother won’t change the fact that we had a shitty one,” Val said between sips of a gin and tonic. Ana became defensive. She said she wasn’t trying to change anything at all. But she bit her cheek before she could say anything worse, before she could accuse Val of bringing everything back to their mother, of using their upbringing to justify every mistake she made. She just got up and left, back to Jules, the person she could always count on.
But then there was the more recent fight between the sisters. Val called Ana self-obsessed because all she talked about was the baby, and then Ana called Val a cold bitch, and then Val said Ana sounded like mom, and then Ana said she was the one who sounded like Olivia, stomping on people’s joy, and then Val cried, which made Ana cry which made the baby, inexplicably, laugh.
Her sister’s problem was that she thought every choice either of them made had everything to do with their mother. She wasn’t strong like Ana, couldn’t move on and make a new life for herself, was always dating shitty, withholding dudes and going to therapy about it. Ana had furiously swum her way out of Olivia’s wake. And when she found Jules, she knew she’d really made it, someone who loved her and was never hesitant to say it, someone who was always kind—a life raft.
Jules offered Val her seat and went to grab another chair. Val popped open a beer and nodded toward the baby with a half-smile, her version of a greeting, Ana supposed. Polly got up and walked to the cooler behind them and pulled out another beer, rattling the ice, and when she sat back down Charlotte scoffed.
“You didn’t ask if anyone else needed anything,” Charlotte said.
Now Polly scoffed. “It’s right there,” she said.
“You should always ask.”
“Do you want another beer?” Polly asked, already standing up.
“No,” Charlotte said. “I can get it myself now.” She stood. “Does anyone need anything?” she asked, making direct eye contact with Polly.
Ana said no and caught Val, who also declined, stifling a laugh. Polly and Charlotte were technically exes but had been broken up for so long that everyone usually forgot about it until one or both of them had a few too many drinks and bickered. Ana spotted the empties around both their chairs.
Jules and Val both worked at the university, and they chatted about work while Ana stroked Olive’s head and asked Polly and Charlotte questions about their week so they wouldn’t find reasons to argue.
“I’m thinking of quitting at the restaurant and just bartending over where Charlotte’s at,” Polly said. The two had met while working at the same restaurant, but after the breakup Polly left to work at a cocktail bar across the street.
“Who says exes can’t be coworkers?” Charlotte asked, holding up her beer bottle. Polly clinked it with her own.
“Sure,” Ana said. If she were drunker, she might have told them it was a very bad idea. Polly and Charlotte knew well that exes do not make good coworkers.
Ana was trying to keep her wits about her. In case of baby trouble.
Sara flitted between the grill and the group and assured Ana that she had things under control.
“I was gonna say,” Val started, nodding toward Ana, “I’m shocked this control freak is letting anyone else grill.”
Everyone laughed. Sara said she was going to start the burgers soon, and before Ana could say anything Sara said, again, that she had things under control.
“Take a break and let one of us hold her,” Polly said, stretching her arms toward Ana and Olive in the center of the ring.
Why were other people always reaching for her baby before she could even answer them? Ana thought. She looked to Jules for some backup, but her wife’s solution was to grab the baby herself. That was fine enough. Jules holding the baby hadn’t wreaked any havoc yet, at least none that Ana had noticed.
Jules thought all of Ana’s worries stemmed from normal new mom shit. She thought they were already codependent. “What will she be like when she’s older if you keep coddling her now?” she asked when they argued about it.
But Ana wasn’t scared of something bad happening to the baby. She couldn’t shake the thought of Olivia possessing Olive just so she could keep making her miserable. It would be just like her mother to make a precious thing insidious.
“I think my mother’s haunting us, and I think she’s doing it through our kid.”
Ana’s worst fear was that Jules would accuse her of not loving Olive, but that wasn’t it at all. Ana loved their daughter very much. She was relieved that she loved her daughter. It made it even harder to wrap her mind around Olivia going her whole life not liking Ana or Val, treating them like annoying guests in her home instead of her own fucking children. Every insult and bad name Ana and Val learned growing up, they learned from their mother, not from other kids being shitheads on the playground. (Sometimes in bed, Jules got off on calling Ana a slut. Ana never told her that the first person who called her that was her own mother. In truth, Ana got off on it too and didn’t want to kill the mood.)
Ana could never figure out why Olivia even had kids when all she did was complain about them, but she never asked her either. Val wanted more answers, but Ana knew it wasn’t worth it. It wouldn’t change anything. Their mother seemed to like them best when they were gone, so Ana learned early on to just hide herself away. She didn’t have any memories of their mother even holding her hand. The memories she did have of Olivia were already starting to fade. Maybe that’s why she was haunting them.
Ana loved Olive’s little hands. The only hands she’d ever marveled at more were Jules’. She loved seeing Olive in Jules’ lap like she was now in their backyard, surrounded by friends. Jules looked good in her ripped jeans and white v-neck. Ana took out her phone and snapped a photo of her wife and baby. She felt the tickle of sweat slip down her back, and sipped from Jules’ beer bottle, tasting her wife’s spit mixed with cool, easy-drinking beer. She felt good. It was almost enough to forget about the haunting entirely. She set her palms on the grass, leaned back, and watched Jules bounce Olive on her knee. But the image was quickly interrupted by Polly leaning in her chair and scooping up the baby.
“Look at this cutie,” Polly said, wiggling Olive, and Ana jumped to her feet.
You’re crazy. Ana heard her mother’s voice in her head again. There’s something wrong with you.
“It’s okay,” Jules said. She held her hand out as if to tell her: easy now. Her voice was so much softer than Olivia’s. Ana reached for her wife’s hand, but Jules let it drop into her lap.
“A helicopter mom already!” Rey said.
Everyone laughed except for Ana and Val. Their mother had been the opposite of a helicopter mom. Was it really so bad to be protective? To bethere?
“Fuck you,” Ana said, though it came out playful, and everyone just laughed more, which made Olive laugh, which delighted everyone—even Val, this time. Ana looked at her giggly, sun-drunk baby, whose brown tufts of hair looked exactly like her own when she was that age. There weren’t many photos of Ana or Val as babies, but Ana already had thousands of Olive on her phone.
Ana stood awkwardly in the middle of everyone. She crossed her arms, wondering what would go wrong next. Lately, some of her dot-connecting was a bit of a reach, and she knew it. Like when a mall shooting happened fifty miles away but started at the exact time of Olive’s six-month birthday. Ana’s heart lurched when she saw Olive’s birth time on the news report. She tried to explain it to Jules, who just looked at her in a way that told Ana she should keep it locked up—which Ana was used to. She could hide things inside her, no problem. Did it her whole life. So she checked out books at the university library about demonic possession in secret, hid them in a cupboard—another part of her she didn’t want Jules to see.
Polly offered the baby to Val. “Go see your Auntie V.”
Val shook her head and stuffed her hands in her lap as if she was afraid of touching Olive at all. “Oh, no, Auntie V isn’t so good with babies,” she laughed. Polly shrugged and passed Olive to Charlotte, which made Ana pace more and finish the rest of Jules’ beer.
Val had only held the baby once. Olive had started crying as soon as Val took her into her arms. Val immediately tried to hand her back, but before she could, the baby slapped Val’s cheek. She had been so little. Just a flailing baby who wasn’t in control of her limbs yet. But it left a red mark on Val’s cheek, and when Ana saw it, she thought of the time their mother was so sick of Val’s crying that she’d slapped her. It was the first time Ana wondered if Olivia was reaching back to haunt them.
“Is there a cheese slicer?” Sara called from the grill.
“Inside!” Ana answered. “I’ll get it!” She was relieved to have something to do and saw it as an opportunity to get Olive back. She reached for the baby.
“I’ll change her while I’m at it,” Ana said.
Polly lifted Olive, and Ana winced, but once the baby was back in her arms, she eased. Olive tugged at one of Ana’s bikini straps and babbled nonsense.
“Do you need help?” Jules asked.
“I’ve got it,” Ana said, putting immense effort into sounding calm. She smiled at the group and walked toward the apartment’s screen door with the baby.
When she slid the door closed behind her, she exhaled. She shifted the baby so she could look at her face. When Ana was a little girl, she was relieved when people said that she didn’t look anything like her mother, who had long, straight hair and slate-gray eyes. Ana had tight curls, dark brown eyes, curves, and towered over Olivia even as a teenager.
Ana looked out the window at her sister. Val wasn’t so lucky. She was the spitting image of their mother, and people said it all the time. Val dyed her hair pink and then blue and then chopped it off altogether, but it didn’t matter. She was still Olivia’s reflection. It’s what made spending time with Val difficult, and Ana felt bad for that. She knew it wasn’t her sister’s fault.
Ana looked back down at her baby and was relieved all over again that Olive didn’t look like Olivia either. Olive was all Ana, even had traces of Jules in her eyebrows and nose, a magic Ana and Jules marveled over.
“Olivia,” Ana whispered to the baby. “You better not be in there.”
Ana swung Olive back into her left arm and walked to the kitchen, but she kept studying her. She kissed her head, and it smelled sweet. Her little hairs tickled her mouth. Ana rifled around in a drawer for the cheese slicer and felt something sharp tear at her skin.
“Motherfucker!” She shouted, pulling her hand back. It was dripping with blood. She must have caught it on a knife’s blade. She needed to put the baby down, needed to find a rag or a paper towel or something to stop the bleeding.
Before Ana could figure out her next move, Olive grabbed her hand and stuffed Ana’s bleeding finger in her mouth and sucked. Ana froze. She could barely process what she was looking at. Her baby, the one who didn’t latch on her tit for even a second, now latched to her finger, a hunger she never mustered for breastmilk spreading across her baby eyes, making her legs kick against Ana. Her baby was bloodthirsty. She suckled, and Ana let her.
“What happened? Are you okay? I heard you scream,” Jules said, stumbling into the kitchen.
Ana pulled her finger out of Olive’s mouth and looked at her wife. Jules stood silent. Ana looked at their baby, whose mouth was covered in blood, who looked like she had helped herself to an entire jar of strawberry jam. Or a living thing’s heart. Ana looked back at Jules, who stayed on the far side of the kitchen, who was about to say something or scream or pass out when they heard screaming from the yard. Jules turned and bolted out, running away from Ana and the baby or running toward the commotion in the backyard. Ana followed, dripping blood—on the floors, on her white shorts, on the baby.
Outside, Sara was still by the grill. Polly and Charlotte flocked around her and Ana saw flames, a small fire blazing next to the grill. Charlotte asked Jules to get an extinguisher, and Polly emptied a can of seltzer on the flames. In the middle of it all stood Olivia.
No, Ana blinked, it was just Val. She felt woozy.
“I’m not sure how it happened!” Sara shouted. “I was watching the grill the whole time!”
Ana knew exactly what caused it, but she couldn’t say it out loud. She couldn’t move. She just watched as her wife and friends frantically tried to put out the fire. Olive’s fire, Ana thought. No, she corrected herself, Olivia’s.
“Olivia,” Ana heard someone say. Or had she said it herself? She looked down at the baby, face still bloodied, hiccupy with giggles. Her tiny teeth screamed red with Ana’s blood. She was babbling her little baby babble between giggles. Then Ana heard it.
“Olive,” the baby said. “Olive Olive Olive.” Her tongue was lazy on the L, but there was no mistaking it. Her first word. No mama, no hi, no doggy. Her own name. Repeated like a chant. “Olive, Olive, Olive.” Blood dripped down her chin.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, fiction, and pop culture criticism. She is an upcoming fellow for Lambda Literary's Writer's Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. Her work appears or is forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Cut, Vice, Autostraddle, and Catapult.