Close Encounter

by Rebecca Ackermann

My little orangutan was nine months old when I started looking into childcare. I was late, but I have always been late to everything, even to knowing my own child. When the nurse flopped him on my belly—slippery and purple with a swirl of carrot-peel hair—I asked for my real baby.
A friend of a friend recommended a young ceramicist who was also a nanny when she needed to be. Maybe she would need to be for me, my friend’s friend said. I crafted a note to tell the ceramicist that my baby needed care, and I was the kind of mother she’d have no problems with. She wrote back and we met at a tiny cafe off the C train, without my sunburned cherub, as she requested.
I was late and she was waiting for me at a triangle-shaped table. She wore a large green sack dress and a long necklace with an unglazed clay knot at the end, which banged against her breasts as she stood to shake my hand. We ordered at the counter and I paid. I stuffed dollars into the tip jar twice, the second time because the ceramicist didn’t see the first.
“I try to expose the babies I’m with to the arts. I do painting projects, I show them my work,” the ceramicist said over matcha lattes in mugs without handles. I wondered if she made these mugs, if that’s why she chose this cafe. “Art is a big part of what I bring to your family.” She was warning me. I tilted my head to see myself through her eyes: a tired woman with no wet clay or unruly paints under her control. A blog-reader.
“The arts are very important to me,” I said. So important, I thought, that I wrote stories on the backside of grocery lists. But the ceramicist didn’t inquire. “I work 10 to 3,” she said. “And I don’t do laundry.” When I came home, still jittery from the matcha, my sunny yolk baby ripped out the short hairs at my neck, which had finally grown back after their postpartum shedding.
I called the ceramicist’s references, but I had already decided to hire her. The first reference didn’t answer. The second was a woman who worked executive hours in Manhattan and had employed the ceramicist for two years. “She was very lovely,” this woman sighed. I could hear her weight shifting from side to side in the dance that will be with me long after my hips forget how to hold a clementine boy.
“Mom to mom—” she said, “I needed more help than she could offer.”
“I see,” I said, disappointed that this woman had told me the truth. Mom to mom, I knew I needed more help too.
After I sent the ceramicist an email to tell her we wouldn’t be working together after all and thank you for meeting, and after she’d written me back so quickly with only “Sure,” which made me realize she never needed to be a nanny for me anyway, I looked her up on Instagram while I pumped milk for my sleeping salamander. The ceramicist’s bowls and plates and, yes, the mugs from the café were terracotta-colored and covered in dragon-scale bumps, thumb-print pock-marks, and tide-pool ripples. They were imperfect artifacts from a planet I didn’t belong to anymore, and I cried as I scrolled through the images.

Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, artist, and designer living in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared or will appear in The New York Times, Barren Magazine, Wigleaf, and Rejection Letters. You can find her on Twitter making bad jokes @rebackermann or on Instagram making tiny clay food @rebeccaackermann.

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