The Case of the Stolen Breast Pump

Can tracking down a missing purse transform someone into a mother?


The breast pump went missing one cold February night in Washington, D.C. at a party filled with writers. There were other things in my purse of course—cell phone, wallet, social security card, driver’s license. But it was the pump that mattered at one in the morning with no stores open, breasts pounding for their release. It was when the writers all started to gather their things, when the end of the party was evident and I started to search for my bag that the gravity of the situation filtered in slowly, past the buzz of wine—the first consumed in a year—and the lateness of the hour. In the corner, where all the belongings were stowed, a single purse remained. The thief’s.

My friend Lizzie remained by my side after the others left. “We’ll find this person,” she announced, rifling through a bag that looked nothing like mine, a tote where mine was leather, perhaps the same shine of brown, spots of metal hardware.

Parsing through the thief’s belongings in search of identification, we discovered notebooks filled with poetry, most of it on the subject of alienation, on the despair and self-doubt that consumes an artist at a writers’ conference swarmed with thousands of one’s peers.

“This explains it,” Lizzie sighed, a lapsed poet herself. “The idiot who took your bag is a poet.”

“I need that pump.” I could feel the ducts of my breasts coiling like rope. The panic was rising to my throat, narrowing it, squeezing it. There was the threat of mastitis, of course, but also something else. Something larger, even more frightening. “Right. Now.”

I tried not to think of my fifteen-week-old baby, last nursed two days ago at five in the morning before I jumped into the car. During the entire ride to Washington DC, there had been a feeling of wrongness, of regret, but I still believed this was owed me, this normality: a party, adult conversation, wine and literary shoptalk. I believed that I was still the person I was before the baby, and it was up to me to draw the boundaries, to reinforce that wholeness.

“We’ll find it,” Lizzie said, with the conviction of a superhero. “This city’s not that big.”

I think it’s fair to say that I approached the baby thing with some trepidation. I was not a person hugely tolerant of change, which is either surprising or completely expected considering that I was an immigrant who spent my childhood changing schools roughly every three years. As soon as I acclimated to any environment, it was time to resettle until old friends floated away and new friendships had to be tackled. What resulted was a life of pleasant nowhereness, through which people and places drifted, touched me and dissolved.

I floated through pregnancy under a similar haze of denial. In this state, I was able to pretend that nothing of any real consequence was about to happen. My body shifted, morphed, but that too could be seen through a veil of benign indulgence—a few pounds here, a few pounds there. Nothing out of the ordinary. At certain times, it was even possible to forget I was pregnant. When people started to offer me their seats on the subway, I would be seriously taken aback, as if to say, “Why? Do I look pregnant to you?”

“Aren’t you getting ready for the baby?” friends would ask upon learning that I had bought no crib, no onesies, no diapers just weeks away from the due date.

“Oh, a baby needs so little,” would be my response. Or “Jews don’t buy stuff before a baby’s born.”

“I hope you don’t feel we should always be talking about the baby, because I’m not going to let this baby run my life,” I told my child-free friends at brunch when they asked basic facts like gender or due date.

They would switch the topic, and I would be proud of the ways I skirted clichés, refused to put myself at the center of a well-honed pregnancy narrative.

I would not give in to the minutiae of mommy reviews and fears swirling around baby gear. The aisles of Buy Buy Baby terrified me, the foreign items that could invade your home, each one weighed down by the consequences of one’s choices. Swings imprinted with farm animals, exersaucers the size of entire rooms, cryptic items I had no idea had concrete functions: mirrors angled to monitor the backseat, jumbo lap pads, bottle coolers, pacifier holders shaped like canvas clutches, coiling bits of velcroed fabric meant to keep toys attached to strollers. The whole enterprise felt complex, codependent. Things tightly fastened to other things.

It was easier to push the sight of it away, to leave the labyrinth of goods, to enlist an experienced mother to complete the registry for me. Because when I started researching cribs, their safety ratings and conversion kits, my head would become fuzzy and vague and an online search for “swaddle blanket” easily turned to “Stalin biography.” When a friend offered me her daughter’s hand-me-downs she was surprised that I demurred, saying that I could not even imagine dealing with stuff my child would not need for at least a year. Plus, I said, the kid would never play with plastic toys or toys that cluttered the living room or more than two stuffed animals. My friend looked at me like I was crazy, and plopped the box of stuff in the foyer on her way out. “You’ll see,” she said over her shoulder, “you’ll see.”

In my head, the baby was a philosophical entity that required no earthly things like onesies or diapers. At night, when I dreamed of the creature, it was either a cotton ball and a balloon or a wizened man with a British accent and top hat, airy or cracking wise.

“Cheerio, old chap,” the baby leaned on his cane. “I’m afraid I must be turning in.”

Outside, we were faced with the chill of February, and a dark residential street. A cab has been called for us but twenty minutes have passed and there was only the sound of a distant siren. It was a Saturday night, the sense that elsewhere existed, full of freedom and heedless merriment. I realized I was already forgetting the sensation of an unfettered weekend, the expansive possibility that a night like this would have provided in the past. Now, like a phantom limb, it all came rushing back. I wanted to be among them again, the revelers, the trawlers of the night, hopers for the future. But there were the breasts, hardening into something unchippable like a pair of Medusas.

“We call your phone,” Lizzie said, punching numbers into her old-school flip phone. “When the poet picks up, we’ll find her.”

The phone rang and rang. There was no answer.

Of course I will go to the conference, I decided. It was the plan before the baby was born. I was to be on two panels and the conference was only a four-hour drive away. At the previous year’s conference, I was having cocktails with a nursing mother who said it was the best decision she ever made. She had two nights all to herself, caught up on essential sleep, and left the experience with a temporary regaining of personhood. At the bar, she wore a red dress with stilettoed boots, the breast pump discretely tucked away out of sight. Once in a while, she would rise to go to the bathroom and return twenty minutes later to resume her glass of wine. She had the look of a Raymond Chandler villainess, legs crossed, secrets hidden behind her lashes.

“Do it,” she said, when I called her in last-minute panic two weeks before the conference. “You won’t regret it.”

Online, all the forums devoted to the topic of travel without one’s child were started by mothers worrying about leaving children of all ages. I found few who admitted to leaving a fifteen-week baby. Once in a while, a bold responder chirped in, “Go for it. It’ll be fine,” but the majority intoned, ominously, “I wouldn’t do it. A baby needs her mother. You’re going to have major attachment issues on your hands.” “Don’t do it. The baby will wean herself while you’re gone. He’ll have no interest in the breast when you get home.” “How could you even think about it? I would never do it.” Mothers who had no choice but take a business trip while breastfeeding a baby sought help from strangers in the dead of night and the advice was always in favor of canceling plans. “I would tell my boss I can’t go,” the mothers replied, mostly in unison. “At the very least, contact TSA about transporting your milk home.”

I resolved to ignore them all.

I was pacing in the hall, my usual solution to crisis. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m getting us that cab,” Lizzie said, flinging herself outside into the cold before I could stop her. She stood in the middle of the street waving her arms, and miraculously the street became illuminated with the dazzle of headlights, the slumbering houses, the snow, all scanned with yellow. Lizzie jumped onto the street, practically throwing her body before it.

The cabbie rolled down his window. “Where you going?”

“We’re looking for a poet,” she told the driver, ushering me inside the back seat as though on the way to the hospital for a cinematic birth.

“Fine, get in,” he said, resigned. It was a Saturday night, what else could he expect? Just in case, he glanced at us warily from his mirror. We headed in the direction of Adams Morgan. “Pick up, please pick up,” I intoned into Lizzie’s phone as if the poet could hear me across town, summoning her, witch-like, into being.

In the meantime, my breasts were completing their cycle, throbbing to stone. In their pain, they were leaving the rest of me behind.

When I think of the liminal space between life and death, I think of the struggle to comprehend that this known life is over and something incomprehensible is on the horizon. I think of the inability to let go of life, to face head on whatever must come.

No one told me that becoming a parent would be a dissolution of the self, and during the first six months after my daughter was born, I would be waging a fruitless struggle for the former soul. Only now do I realize— in all the luck and comfort of a few passed years— how desperately I was clutching the past, stubbornly pawing at the shreds of a gone life.

The poet picked up the phone, her voice slurred and uncertain. Even the cabbie was thrilled at the connection, and idled the cab at a corner. The meter ticked red with meaningless numbers.

“Where are you?” Lizzie screamed into the phone like a Jewish mother to her teenage daughter. “We’ve got your purse.”

I felt numb with bodily panic, but glanced over at my friend with admiration. This was the first time in our friendship this role has been foisted on her, to take charge in the face of my paralysis. If a friendship never reaches this point, the hand pulling the other out of quicksand, I suppose a friendship will always bob on the surface.

“Somewhere, in the city,” the poet said, vaguely. “I’m not sure.” She was either drunk or high, we decided, the kind of obliterated college students become in their first days on campus. “I’m alone. I don’t know where anybody is. They left me.”

“Jesus,” Lizzie said, yanking the phone out of my hand. “Can you walk to a corner, look up and tell us what you see? You know, K street and 17th or M street and 2nd street. You know what? Just look up and tell us what words are printed on the sign.”

The poet paused, seemed to gather her senses. We could hear her steps, the labored exhale of her breath. “I don’t know,” she murmured, an existential cry. We were parked on a busy street, bars expunging groups of bundled youth, walking with purpose in tight-knit constellations.

To be honest, the conference was not offering the kind of high-minded escape from early motherhood that I had hoped. Sleep-deprived and barely stirred from the netherland of conjoined day and night, I saw the people around me as if through a gauzy veil. There were so many of them, weren’t there? So many business cards passing hands, so many literary magazines, the polite bursts of reluctant reunions. In the past, I had enjoyed the inspiration certain craft panels provided me but now what I saw were heads on a dais, and what they were saying felt pointless and otherworldly. In my unfocused mind, they were wearing wings, smiling with Chiclet teeth, turning too many pages of impossibly long lectures.

In between all of it, I pumped. I pumped in bathroom stalls at parties, the suction sound melding with the bass of thumping music. I pumped after late gatherings and woke myself between collapse and morning for one more pump. At one party, in a bathroom with no lock, I had to simultaneously pump and wedge the door shut with a foot, until an angry line gathered pounding for entry. The romance was quickly ebbing.

“What are you reading?” writer colleagues asked. Bleary, but determined to be the old me, I referred to the same Stalin biography I bought instead of swaddle blankets. For months now, my bookmark remained stationary on page twenty-six, when young pre-Stalin Sosa began the Gori Church School and his mother took in washing for local merchants.

“So what are you writing?” writers asked, and that question was even more incomprehensible. The idea of it, stringing sentences along to no tangible result, seemed absurd. The whole enterprise of my existence in this place with all these awake, driven people was taking on a hollow, scooped-out feel. The night before the breast pump theft, I considered giving up on this conference entirely. I would flee back home early, proffer the baby a breast, and be done with the whole charade. But the party tempted me too, a remembered tug that stayed me in place.

It would be my last party in so long, I decided, thinking of home: the baby, the attic, the nights of holding and rocking and feeding and changing. A month or two left to winter, to dark, endless days of caretaking. I thought of my body that felt like packaged chicken, all the parts disassociated from one another. In one cellophane container, the breasts, in another, thighs. In a third, the head and all its slowing, exhausted parts. I thought of the same stretchy leggings, the same pilling sweater.

For the night of the breast pump theft, I put on a dress, swabbed makeup across my eyes. I was far from a femme fatale in a sexy red dress like my friend. But in the mirror, I saw myself as a person, a woman, for the first time in three months.

They were no longer mere rocks, but pounding mountains of clay. I was stunned into silence by the pain and its basic primal quality (What did women do before pumps? My previous attempts at manual extraction were complete failures.). We drove in search of a poet and the night was smeared with neon. I had been ambitious once, I thought with a faint palpitating ache, as Lizzie followed the thread of a voice ambling down anonymous city blocks. I had imagined a life organized by the mind. After so much struggle and unmooring, I had had a coherent sense of my goals.

All those years of single-minded passion may as well have been encapsulated in the Stalin biography I no longer had any desire to read. I had pre-ordered it after reading a particularly enticing review, “This haunting book gets us as close as we are likely to come to the man who believed that ‘the solution to every human problem was death.’”

“There she is,” Lizzie said, the cab screeching before a lone woman wobbling on a corner, clutching my purse, my phone. My precious pump. She slid in between us, a girl of no more than twenty-four, not looking particularly pleased to be reunited with her bag, with her journal filled with the poetics of solitude.

“You want to go back to the hotel, right?” Lizzie prompted.

“Sure,” she said, with the kind of shrug that implied that it has nothing to do with her; it was the night making decisions about her fate.

I thought I would be overjoyed with the purse safely tucked in my lap, yet I wanted to weep the entire ride back. Was it then I understood that it was over, this myth of a former life? It rushed at me all at once: that I would never finish the Stalin biography and there would be other “nevers,” too, “nevers” I would forget to miss. That in a matter of weeks, I would start the process of letting go, finger by finger, and a time would come when that person, formed over thirty-six years, will no longer be accessed and another will take her place.

And I couldn’t wait to be in the car as soon as light broke, to return to the baby who knew me only as mammal, to return to a house already crammed with swings and overflowing clothes hampers and monkey-footed onesies and bath spout covers and stuffed animals that played lullabies when you pulled a plastic string between their legs.

In the hotel bathroom, with trembling hands, I unzipped the pump from its black vinyl shroud. Quickly, expertly, I assembled all the delicate parts: the valves, the connectors, the membranes, the shields.

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