The Navel Gazer

Gayle Brandeis

Isabel set down her bowl of popcorn—dinner for the third night in a row—and picked up her phone to re-read the Groupon listing for The Navel Gazer: “Navel gazing gets a bad rap—the term has come to mean ‘self-absorbed’, but it’s an ancient meditation and divination practice. Come let one of our certified omphalopsychics read your future by peering into the hole your mama left.” 

         The hole your mama left. Isabel read that phrase a few more times.

         Her mom had left more of an abyss.

         She pinched her nose to stop the prick of tears and called her friend Tegan. “This is probably the weirdest Groupon you’ve sent yet,” she said, trying to sound chipper. “Seriously, navel gazing?”

         “Anything to help you forget That Awful Week, my love,” Tegan said.

         Isabel looked over at the circle her cocker spaniel’s bowl had drilled into the carpet, the one she couldn’t bring herself to vacuum away. The hole Honey left.

         “I miss them,” Isabel couldn’t keep the waver from her voice.

         “No,” said Tegan. “You don’t miss your husband. Any asshole who leaves three days after your mom dies—and takes your fucking dog!—doesn’t deserve to be missed.”

         “I know.” Isabel tried to fish out a popcorn skin between two molars with a fingernail, but only drove it in deeper. “Maybe I miss the idea of him more than the actual him. I just don’t know how to picture my future anymore.”

         “Then let them scry your dang belly button,” said Tegan, so Isabel made an appointment for what would be her first time out of the house in months. The Navel Gazer was a few blocks away, and, on the appointed day, she walked, even though she felt skittish in the open air, as tender and exposed as a shucked oyster, stricken by the sight of Honey’s favorite places to pee.

         When she arrived at the brick storefront in Hillcrest, its windows shrouded in burgundy velvet, Isabel realized she had forgotten to put on deodorant; her black t-shirt glommed to her skin. On the double doors to the establishment hung two signs in gold script: the word “Innie” on the right door, and the word “Outie” on the left. Isabel snapped a pic for Tegan.

         You’re doing it???? Tegan texted back.

         I’m not sure, texted Isabel.

         !!! <3<3<3

         My armpits smell like onions tho

         <3 the hole your mama gave you!!!

         A head of short pale pink hair peeked out from the “Outie” door. “Isabel Rodgers?” the person asked, and Isabel, distracted, said “Yes?”

         The walls and ceilings of the reception area were draped with more burgundy fabric and the floors carpeted in a similar color, but the settees were upholstered in more of a pinot noir. The person with pale pink hair, who had introduced themself as “Min, short for Minnow, they/them,” parked themself behind a baroquely carved wooden counter. Isabel loved how the ‘they’ pronoun made her think of Whitman’s “I contain multitudes.” She felt distressingly singular inside her own skin.

         “I feel like I’m in a heart or something,” said Isabel, arms tight against her body to contain the stench of her pits, her own heart claustrophobic in her chest.

         “It’s a womb,” said Min. “We’re setting the stage for your return.”

         “Return?” Isabel felt ready to bolt, but Min put a clipboard of paperwork in her hands and this anchored her. She signed the papers without really reading them, then looked around at the close-up paintings of all shapes and sizes and skin colors of belly buttons spaced along the soft walls in ornate gold frames. Magnified, the navels looked like vulvas, like mushrooms, like sink holes.

         Min took the clipboard and ushered Isabel through more curtains, then down a hallway lined in satiny deep pink cloth, corrugated into horizontal folds.

         “We’re traveling down the birth canal,” said Min. “We’re traveling back to you.”

         “I don’t think I can do this,” Isabel said. The hall went hazy. Min didn’t seem to hear her, just kept walking, and Isabel, stuck in her slipstream, kept following until Min opened a door swathed in the same fabric. The doorknob protruded like a genital wart. Inside the candlelit room waited a woman in a toga. The white garment incandescent against her olive skin; her dark hair swept into an updo dotted with golden leaves.

         “This is Hermia,” said Min. “She’ll be your omphalopsychic today.”

         Hermia smelled like rosemary and honey. Don’t think of Honey, don’t think of Honey, Isabel told herself. Briefly, she recalled the way the spaniel begged for belly rubs, legs wide open, squirming around on her back. Why don’t you beg for it like that anymore, is what her husband said before he left.

         Hermia swept out an arm and led Isabel past the red velvet hammock in the center of the space to a small bathroom.

         “You can leave your bra and chonies on, if you want,” said her omphalopsychic, a touch of Jersey in her voice. She handed her a silky sea green garment. “Just make sure you keep the opening in the front.”

         Isabel flashed on her mom wearing a paper gown that opened in the front before the mammogram that changed everything. She was glad to be able to close herself into the bathroom and heave a few quiet sobs as she peeled off her reeking tee and bra. With lavender hand soap, she lathered her armpits, then her whole torso. She felt better being clean. She stood around for a while in just her panties, letting the air conditioner stipple her with gooseflesh, letting her tears slow. She decided not to put her bra back on—it was still damp, plus she hadn’t worn a bra in all her months as a grief hermit, and when she had wrenched herself into it that morning, she felt like she was taking herself hostage.

         The filmy garment Hermia had given her was nothing like the paper gown at the imaging center—it was more like something from a Jane Austen novel—empire-waisted, with puffy, short sleeves and a hem that came close to brushing the ground. Isabel doubted any of Austen’s characters would have abided an oval cut from the center of their gowns, exposing their bellies. Isabel didn’t normally like to see the gentle folds of her belly, but she found the look surprisingly sexy, like crotchless panties, not that she ever wore those. Not that she ever wore anything silky and sheer like this gown. Her husband’s new girlfriend must wear sexy lingere, she thought. Her husband’s new girlfriend must wear thongs and lace and shave her pussy and squirm around on her back begging for it. Stop it, she told herself. In the mirror, her nipples peered back at her through the green nylon, unblinking owl eyes.

         “Are you ready?” Hermia cracked open the door before Isabel could respond. Isabel jumped back, crossing her arms over her chest.

         “Don’t worry,” said Hermia, as she led Isabel to the hammock. “I’ve seen it all.” 

         Isabel had forgotten how much she loved hammocks, how weightless she felt in them, how held, and this one had the added bonus of being plush, like she was in the lap of a giant teddy bear. “Think of it as a cradle,” said Hermia, “or your mother’s placenta. Or both.”

         The tears started to leak down Isabel’s face again; soon she was weeping.

         “I’m sorry,” she told Hermia, who stood patiently over her. “My mom died almost a year ago.”

         “I know,” said Hermia, and Isabel wondered if she had looked Isabel up online before the appointment, or if everyone who cried in this hammock had recently lost a mother, or if maybe, just maybe, Hermia really was an oompa loompa psychic, or whatever Min had called her.

         “I’m going to clean your belly button first,” said Hermia, “so I can look into it properly.”

         Isabel felt her belly tighten as Hermia swept what looked like a paint brush into a pot of minty unguent.

         “This is going to feel a little cold,” said Hermia, and the brush entered Isabel’s belly button like a blade of ice, a stab that seemed to go all the way to her spine; after the initial shock, a strange warmth spread through her body. Hermia moved the brush through the folds of her belly button, casting sharp tugs at Isabel’s core, like orgasms without the release.

         “You have a lot of black in there,” Hermia told her, inspecting the brush.

         “Is that, like, spiritual gunk?” asked Isabel, remembering videos she had seen of “psychic surgery” where a guy in Brazil pulled all sorts of gory detritus from his clients’ bodies. As much as she knew it was a scam, Isabel wondered what he would yank from her body; perhaps the same shadowy goo Hermia was wiping onto a tissue.

         “No,” laughed Hermia. “Just lint. You must wear a lot of black.”

         Hermia pulled a short stool with gold filigree legs and a round purple velvet cushion next to the hammock. She slipped on gold-framed glasses fitted with a jeweler’s eye loupe that snapped down over the right lens, torqued a gooseneck lamp so the gold cone hovered over Isabel’s belly. When she flipped on the light, Isabel imagined her belly as a closed eyelid in the sun, glowing orange inside, warmed all the way through.

         “This is an ancient art,” said Hermia. “People used to look into their own bellybuttons to meditate and see the future, but they went to omphalopsychics for guidance, too,” she said. “Mostly to find out how many children they were going to have.”

         “I know the answer to that,” said Isabel. She didn’t say ‘Zero’ out loud, but could feel the shape of it inside her body, sharp and clean beneath a mess of memories—her husband saying, “If you won’t have my baby, I’ll find someone who will.” Her mother saying, “Maybe if I had grandchildren, I’d have something to live for.” In her months at home alone, Isabel had wrestled with her decision to not have kids, something she’d committed to in junior high. If only she had stopped being so stubborn, so selfish, she told herself; if only she’d gritted her teeth and got pregnant for him, for her, they’d both still be here. “If you can’t handle a baby, you sure as hell can’t handle a dog,” her husband had said before he left with Honey.

         “I’m going to pour in some warm olive oil now—it helps with the seeing,” said Hermia.

         The oil pooled in Isabel’s navel, some tickling as it spilled out and down her side. Hermia wiped the excess with a soft towel, then peered in, a serious look on her face.

         “What do you see?” Isabel asked.

         “Loss,” Hermia said.

         No shit, Sherlock, Isabel thought, but couldn’t stop the tears from leaking out again, gathering in her ears, dripping down onto the hammock. Her belly button started to twitch, like it wanted to cry, too.

         “Interesting,” said Hermia, leaning so close that Isabel could feel the woman’s breath ripple across her stomach.

         Then Isabel’s belly button started to move more, started to open and close like tiny lips.

         She thought of the first time she and her husband had sex, how she wasn’t able to sleep afterwards, her pussy opening and closing like a koi fish’s mouth, saying wow wow wow wow.

         “What’s happening?” Isabel lifted her head, but Hermia blocked her view.

         “I don’t know.” Hermia peered even closer, her breath wetting Isabel’s skin. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. This wasn’t in the training.”

         Isabel tried to sit up, but the hammock swayed and pushed her back into its embrace. Her belly button was moving faster now, opening wider, her belly cramping with each new pucker.

         “Min!” shouted Hermia.

         Isabel thought she might throw up, but all that came out was a deep, guttural moan.

         “Oh, my goddess.” Hermia stumbled back as Isabel’s belly button started to bulge, shifting from an innie to an outie. It rose from her body, a fleshy bubble; two dark spots on it seemed to be staring at her.

         Min stepped into the room. “Maybe a hernia?” they asked. “I’ve never seen one grow like that, but…”

         Isabel writhed as much as the hammock would allow. The pressure built and built inside her belly, until she felt herself split, a tear that seemed to go from her pubic bone all the way to her throat. She let out a scream that filled the room with so much force, it pressed Hermia and Min to the wall.

         And then it stopped—the pain, the scream.

         A quiet filled Isabel’s body, a strange peace. Isabel looked down, expecting a gory mess, but her skin was unbroken, her belly button back to its normal divot. Something was rising from it, though, something that looked like a streamer, a pearly, diaphanous gauze that snaked up into the air. She tried to touch it, but her hands passed through like smoke. She glanced over at Hermia and Min; they had slid down to the floor, gape-mouthed, looking up. She followed the path of their eyes, and every hair on her body, every organ inside her body, lifted.

         “Mom?” she whispered.

         Isabel’s mother floated above her like a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon, naked and translucent, the cord from Isabel’s belly disappearing into the cleft between her substantial, substanceless thighs. She gazed down at Isabel; her head was still bald and her breasts still gone—the ropy, red scars that marked her chest were now streaks of shimmer.

         “Baby,” Isabel’s mother said, beaming. “It’s so good to see you.”

         “Mom,” Isabel tried to get up, reaching toward her mother, but the hammock swung in response and pushed her back. “I thought I’d never see you again,” she said. “I thought…”

         “I know, sweetheart, I know,” her mother said, an iridescent belly button spinning onto her body, a pearly swirl that started to widen, then contract, faster and faster, until it bulged the way Isabel’s had.

         “Mom!” Isabel cried out, alarmed, but it didn’t seem to cause her mom the same distress it had caused her. The same beatific smile remained on her mother’s face, one Isabel had never seen in life. Her mother’s belly rose and rose like a soap bubble, until out popped another transparent nude body, curled in the air fetus-style, tethered to another pearly cord, clear vertebrae poking out like knuckles on a fist. The form unfurled, stretched its knobby limbs, long glassy hair streaming.

         Isabel said “Nana?” at the same time her mother said “Ma?” Isabel hadn’t seen her grandmother since she was nine years old. Aside from her pellucid state, she looked just as Isabel remembered—alarmingly thin, hands bulky with arthritis—though she had never seen her grandmother naked before. She was surprisingly stacked.

         “Bubbeleh!!” her grandmother shouted down to Isabel. “What’s that get up you’re wearing? Your husband must love it!”

         Isabel wrapped her arms over her exposed belly as the sudden memory of her grandmother reached out and squeezed the side of her young body, saying “I can pinch more than an inch, Izzie. You need to reduce.”

         Isabel was shivering now, making the hammock shudder. “My husband left me,” she said.

         “Oh, baby.” Isabel’s mom drifted down and settled into the hammock next to her. Isabel tried to rest her head on her mom’s flat chest, tried to snuggle up to her, but she fell right through. Isabel’s grandmother drifted down, too, and Isabel braced herself, worried her grandmother would tell her she could have kept her husband if she had paid more attention to her figure, but her grandmother just said “That farshtinkener…” and leaned over to hug Isabel, encasing Isabel’s head in one of her transparent breasts like an astronaut’s helmet. The air felt different inside her grandmother’s bosom; it had a thick buzz to it, like static electricity. She wondered why her mother’s ghost didn’t have the same kind of hum.

         “Are you okay?” asked Min, and Isabel’s grandmother jumped back, releasing Isabel from her breast. Isabel didn’t know how to answer. Her mother put her arms around her, and while Isabel couldn’t feel her skin or muscle, she did feel a bit of heat from her mother’s arms, the kind that radiates from an old television, and let it seep into her like melted butter.

         “He took my dog, too,” Isabel said.

         “That fucker,” her mom said, and Isabel couldn’t help but laugh. She’d never heard her mother swear before.

         “Oy vey ist mir,” her grandmother chortled. “Look at my pupik!” A sparkly whirlpool, like a small galaxy, pulsed at her grandmother’s center, then rose into a dome, and out popped Isabel’s great grandmother, a woman she had never met, had never even seen a photo of before, but once the woman unfolded herself in the air, Isabel could see her own dimpled knees in the woman’s filmy body, her own sloped shoulders.

         “Mameleh?” her grandmother asked in wonder.   

         Min stepped toward the hammock. “We’ve opened a portal,” they said softly to Isabel, kindness and determination in their eyes. “I didn’t know this was possible.”

         “What do we do?” asked Isabel, melty in her mother’s arms, watching as one matriarch after another popped out, faster and faster now, until they crowded the room, connected navel to womb by silvery cords, some ancestors floating, some standing, some who died young, some who died ancient, a din of Yiddish and other languages in the air. Isabel saw herself everywhere—the folds of her upper back, her slight double chin, her full bottom lip, her broad cheekbones, even her slightly larger left breast, mirrored in ghost after ghost after ghost.

         “It depends,” said Min. “Do you want them to stick around? We could bind them here or we could help them return.”

         Isabel imagined her house filled with all these bubbes. She imagined the scent of chicken soup in the air, Jewish penicillin, the cure for all ills, her mother’s soup, her grandmother’s soup, soup that probably went back through so many mothers, imagined them chattering, swapping recipes. What would she do with them all day? She looked around the room, trying to follow the string of cords like Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth. Would the cords keep going until they reached apes, or even older mammalian ancestors? Would they go all the way back to gilled creatures that didn’t have umbilical cords, maybe even to amoebas? Was there enough room for them all? She found herself longing for the spacious silence of the house she had just rued earlier that day.

         “They’ll be inside you, no matter what,” Min reminded her gently. Hermia had gotten up, and was standing on the other side of Isabel now, looking shaken but ready to help. A couple of golden leaves in her hair were askew, sticking out like pointy animal ears.

         “Can I just keep my mom?” she whispered. She felt the vibration of her mother’s invisible embrace grow stronger, warmer. She pictured sitting with her mother on her couch at home, pictured her mother puttering around the way she used to, sweeping up months of dust, the tangles of Honey’s fur beneath the bed.

         “This is new to us,” said Hermia, “but we can try.”

         More olive oil didn’t work. Extra unguent didn’t work. Min chanted in a language that Isabel didn’t recognize, which also didn’t work. Isabel, thinking some Jewish ritual might help, recited what she could remember of the Kaddish, and some of her ancestors joined in, making her feel like she was at a women’s shul, part of a matriarchal minyan, things that wouldn’t have existed in her matriarchs’ time. Shivers ran through her as their voices melded in chorus, but this didn’t work, either.

         Isabel’s ancestors continued to multiply, continued to mill around the room, occasionally coming up to her to touch her cheek or her hair with invisible hands. “Shayna punim,” they would say. “Shayna maidel.” Isabel had never thought of herself as beautiful, especially not lately, but hearing this from them, seeing the beauty of their faces that looked so much like her own, Isabel let the word wash over her. When her grandmother wasn’t busy kibitzing, she would give introductions, translations—“This is your great great grandmother, Esther. She was killed in a pogrom in Kiev,” or “This is your great great great great grandmother, Rivka. She was known for her beet kvass.” Isabel’s mother stayed with her on the hammock, surprisingly quiet, her arms never breaking their embrace.

         “I’m so sorry, Mom.” The words Isabel needed to say geysered out of her before she could stop them. “I’m so sorry I didn’t give you grandchildren.”

         “You have nothing to apologize for, my darling.” Her mother’s words flowed into Isabel’s veins like honey. “You gave me you.”

         Then, from the bathroom came the ring of Isabel’s phone—probably Tegan calling—and her ancestors startled like birds flushed out of a tree; they poured back into Isabel’s navel, oldest generation first, sucked inside her like the reverse of a magician pulling scarves from her mouth. They felt like a wind blowing into her center, gusting through her body, filing in until only her grandmother and mother remained with the living.

         “Bubbeleh,” said her grandmother, love in her eyes. “Zei gezunt.” She blew a kiss as she slid into Isabel’s belly.

         “I don’t remember what that means,” Isabel said, suddenly teeming with all the questions she wished she had asked her ancestors, words she could feel rising in her throat. Why hadn’t she asked any questions?

         “It means ‘be healthy,” said her mother. “It means ‘goodbye.’” Her mother’s features began to stretch, distort.

         “No!” yelled Isabel. “Mom!”

         “Love you, baby. I’m always with you.” She slipped into Isabel’s belly, warm wind that reached every last one of her cells.

         After a moment, Min asked “Can I get you anything? Water? Wine?”

         Hermia plunked down onto the ground. Isabel shook her head, the cyclone in her body calming.

         “You can stay here as long as you like,” said Min.

         “Thanks,” said Isabel, “but I think I need to go home.” She swung her legs off the hammock, shocked to feel the hardness of the laminate floor against her bare feet, to remember her own body was solid.

         “You don’t want to talk about it?” asked Min. “We can help you process.”

         “I definitely need to process,” said Hermia from the floor.

         “Can I keep this?” Isabel gestured down to the sea green gown. She couldnt bear the thought of getting back into her stinky clothes, shed skins she couldn’t re-inhabit.

         “It’s yours,” said Min.

         “It’s a little sheer for outside,” said Hermia, rising. “We could give you one of our belly shirts.”

         Isabel nodded and followed Hermia and Min down the hall; she felt like she was floating now, the hem of the gown brushing the carpet as she hovered. In the reception area, Hermia handed her a pink Navel Gazer crop top. The poofed sleeves of the gown bunched uncomfortably beneath it, but otherwise, the shirt fit, the hem hitting mid-rib.

         “Please keep in touch,” said Hermia. “Let us know how you’re doing.”

         Min gave Isabel a short, intense hug, the first she’d had in months.

         Isabel nodded and stepped through the Outie door, Min’s hug still zinging through her as the sun warmed her belly. The gown swished around Isabel’s shaky legs, making her feel like a queen. She was the end of her family’s long line of women, the knot at the end of their shimmering cord, but she didn’t feel guilty. It was her choice to not have children, a choice most of her women ancestors never had. She could feel the multitudes crowding behind the porthole that was her navel to see what she would make of the rest of her life. A final genetic rally, a kaffeeklatsch, a promise.

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis (Beacon Press), and the novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns (Black Lawrence Press), shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award. Earlier books include the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press), the craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne) and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt BYR). Her essay collection Drawing Breath will be released by Overcup Press in 2023.

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