The Human Breast Pump

an excerpt from Return on Invesetment by Magdalena Waz

Her Tuesday morning appointment is a simple one. A mother of three who just doesn’t have much interest in the process anymore. She walks around in a perpetual state of pregnant: palms on the small of her back, fingers facing down, a bulge of a stomach artificially extended forward. Every morning, she opens the door for her breast pump, and she’s got eyes that ask, “How much longer?” There’s a gentle cooing coming from her infant’s crib by the large picture window.

“Is the canister ready or do you need me to wash it?” she asks the mom, who makes room on the wool couch, scratchy later on their shins.

“Wash it, but you can use the tub if it’s easier.”

Laurie locates the canister in the kitchen. It’s just like all the others. They’ve become popular items at farmers markets both as kitschy vases and as sterile containers which look great in glass door refrigerators. When empty, they’re light like aluminum, but filled with milk, they expose the flimsiest wire handle; the spout is not so great for pouring. It’ll fit better in the tub than in the sink overflowing with yesterday’s dishes. Maybe it would be polite to offer to stack them neatly in the dishwasher. Laurie doesn’t know if her duties can include light housekeeping. She’s technically scheduled for the hour, but this mom hasn’t required the whole time in weeks.

In the bathroom, the lighting fixtures are new and modern, matching the view of Chicago’s skyline out the little window. Trump Tower gleams a little too sharply against its matte neighbors. If she turns her head, the whole building disappears in a collage of clouds. Before she begins the work of rinsing out the canister in steaming hot water, she looks in the mirror to adjust her expression into one of pleasant acceptance. They say online that a bad attitude around the mother changes the milk, so she pulls the corners of her lips up and softens the creases around her eyes by rubbing her temples. Usual imperfections catch her eye: the pores on her nose, the unplucked light eyebrows, and blonde hair tinged green and parted down the middle. The top of her smock has a few milk spots on it, and she considers doing some spot cleaning. Every minute she wastes in the bathroom, though, is a minute wasted from the mom’s perspective. Now, that kind of thinking will get her good Yelp reviews if they ever let her business onto Yelp. Productivity is key here. Laurie is not a slacker.

Back in the living room, Laurie sits down opposite Flora and watches her unsnap the buttons of her cardigan and then the hooks of her shirt. It happens in slow-motion for Laurie each time because she is both eager to begin work and disturbed by how many women are willing to expose their breasts to a near stranger for the sake of making sure they’re getting it right. Maybe it’s not so cynical; maybe Laurie is a companion. Or maybe that’s not right either.

When they’re exposed, round and breast-like, she stretches her arms over her head, tries to work the stiffness out of her back, and leans in to do her job. She has to remember to hide her teeth and not leave bite marks. Breasts bruise easily, and sometimes, they stay that way. It’s something she needs to incorporate into her new ad outlining her now sizable experience. This mom likes to stabilize herself by grabbing the pump’s shoulders and trying to make small talk, but it doesn’t come in the form of questions anymore. Now, Flora only speaks of her friends, where they had lunch the other day, where the good sales are, how the older kids are doing at school. When she wanted to know about Laurie the first few times, they got spills when Laurie tried to speak. It’s a relief for the mom to not have to hook up pumps and corks and cups and flanges once a week, no matter the mess and the initial discomfort. Laurie can feel it in the way Flora’s back curves into a natural slump. But this time is a little different. Laurie sucks hard enough that her teeth and her cheeks meet painfully.

“It’s not really working,” Laurie says.

“Try clamping down harder. I’m not feeling any suction.”

“I tried. It didn’t work.” Laurie lifts her face, brushes some limp hair away, and looks up. “Is this the end?”

“It might be.”

“Well,” Laurie says, taking her smock off. “You’ll have to call me if anything changes.” She pauses. “I mean. It’s a little early for you to run dry.” She notes the panic in the mom’s face and adjusts, “but nothing totally unexpected.” As she climbs down from the couch, and walks barefoot to the door, she adds, “Say hello (and goodbye) to the children and your husband when they’re back home.”

“My husband was never too excited to talk about you. Thought this was crossing some sort of line.” The mom has her bra back on and is wrapping herself in a blanket.

“I know that game,” Laurie laughs, thinking of the relief and dread that will cross Mark’s face when she tells him she lost another client.

“I’ve got some more pregnant friends. Sylvia is due in a month, and Annie the month after that. You’ve met them.”

“Didn’t one of them…walk in on us?” It sounds so silly to Laurie when she puts it like that, as if this was somehow illicit.

“Yeah. That was Sylvia.”

By now, they’re both standing at the door.

“It was good getting to know you,” Laurie says not knowing how else to indicate an exit.

“We might see each other again. It’s just a hiccup. Here, let me write you a check.” In the note section, the mom writes “lactation expenses.”

Excerpted from Return on Investment, by Magdalena Waz. Winner of the Fiction Attic Press Debut Novel Prize.

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“A coming-of-age tale unlike any I have ever read. A quartet of unlikely friends massively in debt and interminably adrift in the post-collegiate, post-recession, start-up economy. The wild scheme that joins them together somehow manages to both satirize and sympathetically explore that wobbling time between youth and adulthood. Swiftly told, at turns hilarious and poignant, Return on Investment is worth every second you put into it.” David McGlynn, author of A Door in the Ocean

“Reads like the birth of a brand new genre…and ambitious, audacious debut.” Joseph Bates, author of Tomorrowland: Stories