I gave birth to a flame-retardant baby. Born on Ash Wednesday, her hair is gray frizz; her eyes, mini briquettes; her skin crackles, crisp. I named her Poly Di, short for polybrominated diphenyl ethers. I can’t call her the light of my life; she’s inflammable. Candles blow out when she enters the room, crawling, gumming the end of an unlit cigar. The doctors say her cells eat oxygen. To that, I say she’s insatiable. Spend just five minutes with Poly Di, and you’ll be gasping for air. Our first sign that something was awry was the stench—forget Tupperware, forget Glad Wrap, nothing could contain it. The food on our plates changed color and rotted, rapid speed, before our eyes. Our plants turned fluorescent fuchsia, flourishing before falling slack, leaves abandoning their stems. Peek-a-boo, our pet parrot, was dead within a week. It was Poly Di who found him floating on his back in the toilet bowl, feet clenched skyward like two tiny fists raised to the Gods of toxicity. One wonders, assisted suicide?
My husband and I got wise and attached ourselves to mobile oxygen tanks. Deep sea divers living on land, we’d pass each other in the hallway between feedings and changings, grimacing behind our scuba masks.
She gets it from me, my Poly Di, literally—PBTs unwittingly passed in utero, and now via my breast milk. Poisons once lodged in my fat cells are her lethal inheritance. She hooks up and sucks away like I’m her battery, her positive and negative charge. She performs the function of sucking it out of me with miraculous efficiency. My baby, my persistent bioaccumulative toxic time bomb. She has a collapsed attention span, an enlarged thyroid, eczema, and a fondness for smokestacks. Her version of a happy afternoon is to watch industrial incinerators dispersing particulates. Should you wish to see her giggle and clap, shatter a fluorescent light bulb; she’s especially excited by the aftermath. One bright morning, just days after she was born, I swear I heard her whisper the word mercury.
I’ve been referring to Poly Di as a “she,” but, in truth, we’re not entirely sure she’s a girl. Her secret is her undescended testicles, occupying the place where her ovaries would be, deep between her petite hips. Weirdly, doctors have found a clenched uterus waiting in the wings. Like those beluga whales who lost their ability to procreate and swam around in sexless circles in Quebec, our Poly Di may very well be intersexual, deviant beyond our wildest dreams.
My Poly Di, she’s terrible to be sure, but she’s part of me I can’t dismiss. I pray to our Lady of the Great Lakes—mother of PCBs, goddess of the zebra muscle—for our scientific salvation. Ask Mrs. Polar Bear, ask the Inuit, the future’s face is grim. And here’s my Poly Di, oblivious, emitting invisible vapors, her shedding skin turning to noxious household dust that, like lead paint particles, someone will inevitably breathe.
And that’s what’s so persistent about our Poly Di, she doesn’t break down; nature can’t rid us of her. She’s got staying power, our Poly Di; she never really leaves.
Maria McLeod writes poetry, fiction, monologues, and plays—three of which have been performed on stage. Honors include three Pushcart Prize nominations and the Indiana Review Poetry Prize. Originally from the Detroit area, she resides in Bellingham, Wash., where she teaches journalism and public relations at Western Washington University.