Heartbeat
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Heartbeat

I lie in the hospital bed aware of her movements in my womb. A thin wire connects my belly to a machine with a speaker so my daughter’s breathing can be heard and monitored. All day and all night, I wake and sleep listening to her heart thump thump thump. My baby swims and pushes against my inside curves. Her swishing-thumping reminds me she is well and that her heart and limbs are strong.

“Go away, you Puerto Rican.” The woman slammed her back door shut and pulled the frilly white curtains across the glass window.

I stood in the warm sun and contemplated her words. Then I shrugged my shoulders, clenched my clipboard and walked down the driveway to the next house.

That evening turned out to be rough. Only a few people opened their doors to listen to my request for signatures in support of lobbying for the Superfund, and no one signed a check. I was working in the College Hill neighborhood of Providence, RI, and most people were vacationing somewhere else. Those who did open their doors were not interested in environmental waste, especially if it involved criticism of Ronald Reagan. At nine that night, when the station wagon pulled over to pick me up, I jumped in and reported my day to the other college students and the team leader, Bill. We shared tales of an evening of collecting insults, few signatures and even fewer donations—which was the real reason we were walking door-to-door around Rhode Island, a state small enough that we could canvas most of it in one summer.

Things got worse the next evening. Temperatures rose higher, and I trudged from one driveway to the next. No one opened a door, and I was getting more tired and sweaty. Around sunset, as shadows lengthened and the landscape got more blurry, my eyes fell on the swirling lights of a police car. It took me a moment to realize that the car had arrived to escort me out of the neighborhood. When I told the policeman I was canvassing for the Community Labor Action (CLA), he shrugged: “Your people didn’t get permission to work here. I’m not arresting you, but you can’t walk around.”

Lying in the hospital bed I have long hours to ponder about our daughter, and how her early years will be. As she swishes in my stomach, I talk to her and tell her stories in Urdu. She is a fish, floating free.

He walked me to his car, placed his hand on the top of my head—an action I’d seen many times in American movies and TV shows I’d watched in Karachi, but never thought it could happen to me—and closed the door. Once we arrived at the corner where I was to [End Page 235] be picked up, he turned off the engine, sat back, and read his newspaper. I crouched in the back, swallowing the pain that had gathered in my throat, trying to delete the moment so it wouldn’t leave an imprint in my memory. An hour later, when the CLA station wagon rounded the corner, I fumbled for a latch, but there was no such handle; I had to wait for the policeman to let me out. In the car I was bombarded with questions:

“What happened?”

“Why were you arrested?”

“Didn’t he have anything better to do?”

Enjoying the attention—which almost made me forget my fear and humiliation—I unraveled the story slowly, pausing at the right moments to make it more suspenseful. Everyone had tales to share, but no one could match mine; I was the only brown woman in the group. Once we reached our office, we sat around the conference table, cursing the police and strategizing what we’d do next. Late into the night, it was decided that we would take our canvassing further inland and not attempt to work in that neighborhood again.

The lab technician Tina rubs gel on my stomach, and she warms up her ultrasound radar. When she moves it over my skin, there is no...