"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My baby grew at the center of me, his cells splitting into flesh, hardening into bone. As he grew, so did his imaginary twin, a baby made not of flesh but of sadness.
Before I even began to show, I was filled with wild pulses of anxiety. At night, I would roam the house in my bathrobe, checking the doors and windows for the twelfth time, the thirteenth, the fourteenth. During the day, unable to concentrate on my work, I would stay in bed, willing my eyes open to the sky outside the window. When I closed them, the nightmares would arrive. My imagination in my normal life runs to the exuberantly surreal, but these nightmares were far too real, the world as I knew it, but suddenly curdled. There were pandemics in these nightmares, people lying down one by one in the streets to die. There were droughts, the green places I love crisped brown, the lakes drying up, the fish beginning to stink. There were hurricanes, my Florida house smashed as if by an enormous fist. There was hunger.
As if to appease the darker twin, I ate; as if to sweeten his bitterness, I ate sweets: puddings and muffins and entire crisper drawers of fruit.
An image of me in those days: standing before the open refrigerator in my underwear on a hot March afternoon, belly only a little extended, sucking down slippery slices of mango, handfuls of grapes, pineapple that made my mouth burst out in constellations of blisters. At my four-month checkup, I weighed twenty pounds more than usual.
Whoa, said the midwife softly, then wrote the number in the folder.
My doctor was a small Greek man who spoke in a Muppet voice. My friend had recommended him, and I liked his bracing crispness, his efficiency when he did the exams. It meant that he saw a million women a day who were pregnant, that my pregnancy was no big deal, a matter of rote. When I was alone at home, this thing happening to my body felt far too horrifyingly specific, and there was comfort in the sea of round bodies in his waiting room, the calm women with the fat ankles and the toddlers gently misbehaving in the corner. I always left the doctor’s office feeling reassured, practically jaunty.
And then the long, lonely walk to the car in the Florida humidity, and the darker twin would awaken and give me a kick, and before I even reached the car I would remember to be afraid.
Everything had slowly become perilous, the chemicals in my carrots, the plastic in my house, the water I drank, the forest fires that filled the air with smoke that spring and summer. Every single car crushed mine in my imagination just before it passed, and then the next one bore ominously down. I stopped driving.
And it is true: This world of ours is a frightening place. There is so much that can kill us suddenly, singly or en masse. We are tender creatures who are physically weak, our bodies easy to smash or bruise, our minds easy to warp. Being human means feeling pain. Having a baby means that you are bringing a person into uncertainty, into life, into an assurance of eventual death. Having a baby is an ethical decision, always. From within such deep sadness, the ethical decision became my moral failure, as if the filter that keeps the real horror of the world at a distance, so that I could function in my normal life, was gone, and the only thing between the baby and certain ruin was my increasingly stretched skin.
At six months, I would get out of bed for breakfast with my husband, wait until he left for work, then give in to the sadder twin and go back to bed. At seven months, I was forty pounds heavier than before pregnancy. At eight months, I sat in the examining room with the midwife for three hours, weeping so hard that I couldn’t speak. She calmly patted my head and suggested drugs. I refused, fearing that they would harm the baby, the good, fleshly one who was already weighing in at eight pounds, with more to go. (A paradox: When I needed chemical intervention, I was in no position to make that decision. Friends, I should have had the drugs.)
By my due date, I was elephantine, seventy pounds overweight, unable to move well. It was a very hot August, the roads buckling, the vegetation dun brown, no hint of absolving rain in the air. I would go to the community pool to be briefly weightless for a few laps and cry in the water, which was almost like not crying at all.
An old man’s sun-spotted hands on my belly in a wet black bathing suit: This is the only image I have of myself then.
The due date passed. My mother, who had come down to take care of us, and who is both the kindest and most anxious human being on the planet, began muttering to herself all over the house. I couldn’t escape the roiling baby within or the thin hum of my mother’s worried voice without. My father and sister came a few days later, having booked the flights with the expectation that there would be a baby to hold. We tried to wipe the strain off our faces when we came upon one another in the hallway.
On the seventh day past my due date, to jostle the baby out of me, I went for a three-mile run, which was more like a three-mile waddle with trotting intermissions. Nothing. On the tenth day, I started feeling queasy over lunch, and realized the queasiness was labor only that night, when my sister and I sat up to watch Labyrinth and I had to run to the bathroom every two minutes to throw up. Even now, an unexpected David Bowie song will make me ill, which seems like a terrible waste. I tried to watch the movie again a year ago, but I felt the black clouds massing above my head with the first song and, in a panic, threw the DVD away.
That night was long and sweaty. I went to the hospital in the early morning, my husband’s face taut with fear. I had been expecting a very localized, very precise pain, and I felt cheated when the pain was instead massive and everywhere: I didn’t know how to fight something that was everywhere. I cried a lot, then grew angry with myself for crying, then angry at my body for not behaving. I was dilated only three centimeters for another fifteen hours. My mother fretted, pacing back and forth in the room. My husband’s breath smelled horrid. I hated them both. I hated the baby. I hated myself. I would have erased the group of us from the world with my palms, like smudging away a drawing on a chalkboard, if I could have.
I had wanted a natural childbirth, but when the anesthesiologist came into the room with the epidural, I kissed his hands.
When, after more than thirty-six hours of active labor, the nurse said it was time to push, I was groggy and grateful and tried to be a good girl, my mom and husband holding my legs. They tell me I pushed for four hours. I can only ascribe my failure to progress as another sign of the bad twin, stopping things up. I vaguely remember my mother peering between my legs, then putting her finger in to feel for the baby’s crown and, when she could barely touch it, shouting at the nurse. My mother became so gloriously angry, this marvel of a woman who will always have my back, that my husband was forced to gently eject her from the room.
That is when the Muppet doctor came in, gave a little clinical feel, and announced that my mother was right; the baby was caught on my hipbones, which never spread the way they were supposed to. He took a long look at the machine monitoring the baby and me.
Here is where things get unforgivable, though I have tried to forgive my doctor. Seen from the flip side, efficiency can also be criminal unkindness.
The baby comes out right now with a C-section, or it comes out in three days, in pieces, the doctor said.
Now! my husband and I shouted, and in a moment, we were in the operating room, and there were fifteen people wavering about like blue ghosts, and bright lights, and the anesthesiologist, and a curtain went up bisecting my torso, and everyone was volleying words like badminton birdies above me, and my body started to shake so hard that my shoulders and head were slamming down on the stainless-steel table, and the nurses, glorious nurses, were saying soft, sweet things to me, and finally my husband came in, crying a little above his mask, and the doctor told me he was making an incision. Everything became a bit more serious then.
There will be a little pressure here, the doctor said, and there was a huge amount of pressure on my midsection. I was sure I would never breathe again. And then there was a slow sucking sound.
They lifted something from inside my body, my child. Miracles are miracles because they are impossible to cage in words. The delivery of the flesh was a deliverance from the darkness; when the doctor lifted my baby out of me, they lifted my sadness with him. I cannot understand it. I bow with gratitude.
There was a gasp. The baby was so blue and his hands and feet so swollen that they looked like adult hands attached to a baby’s body. My Greek Muppet doctor held him over the curtain, this screaming blue goblin, and shouted, He’s perfect.
Then they were bent over the baby, administering his tests, and all I wanted was his small body on my shuddering one so that I could smell him and feel his warmth, suddenly external to mine. Nothing mattered; the world beyond the operating room was still as frightening as ever. There were still wars, there was still hunger, there were sudden invisible diseases everywhere, and no amount of checking the locks would hold them back.
At last, they brought my real baby to me, the puckered purple face, the extraordinary solidity of this person I had made, his searching tiny mouth, the bleeding laceration on his scalp from where it had rubbed against my bones. He still has a scar there, under his hair. It didn’t matter then and still doesn’t. The baby had arrived, and had banished his twin by arriving. He was well, at least for now. He was whole.
Excerpted from “Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers,” edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, published in April 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. All rights reserved.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)