Fading Like a Flower
I had a boyfriend once who used to hear Roxette’s “Dressed for Success” as “Dressed for Some Sex.” This was funny because of the spectacle it called up of him, aged ten, singing along, ebullient and unaware, in the car with his, no doubt, horrified parents. It was funny because, unlike many people I have loved, he rarely misheard lyrics. But, ultimately, it was funny because there is very little about Roxette that brings to mind sex: the wanting it, the dressing for it, the having of it.
Now it is 2019, and I have had sex with another man and, in ways that Roxette’s songs will never warn you of, this has led to me being pregnant. I am three months gone (from where?) and, so far, my pregnancy has unfurled in a miasma of nausea, stricken desires for potato-based products, a destabilising aversion to reading and writing, and a kind of undulating ambivalence that I still don’t know what to do with. I watch a lot of Glee. I eat melons, then cherries, then feta by the block. I go to my favourite reiki healer who tells me my dead grandma wants me to eat more apples, so I buy a bag of Granny Smiths and then forget to eat them. I start to understand the particular indignities of big-breasted friends. I dream of giving birth to kittens and ducklings that are resentful of me. I do not try to quantify the size of my foetus by fruit and I avoid all pregnancy manuals, particularly those that insist on male pronouns. I wonder whether I will be a neglectful mother, or a smothering one, or both. With my partner, I Google “baby names of 1819.” Pregnancy feels banal and overwrought and numbing and too intense, all at once.
One Sunday evening, alone and in between episodes of Glee, I see some blood. There has not been blood before and I telescope, instantly, out of my body. Over the next three days, filled with doctors’ visits, an early scan, swabs, search engine cursors and NHS Direct calls, with shocks of realisation at how many people have been told already, how many abject encounters might be ahead, I find myself listening—seemingly without conscious choice—to Roxette and especially to “Fading Like A Flower.”
Roxette released “Fading Like A Flower (Every Time You Leave)” in 1991. It was a Number One in Poland and charted well elsewhere, although it wasn’t as successful as their previous “Joyride.” Like Roxette’s other two most famous ballads, “It Must Have Been Love” and “Listen To Your Heart,” it is simultaneously glacial and impassioned, controlled (The New York Times once, rather snidely, described Roxette’s music as “a matter of efficiency and control”) yet diffusely intense. (Fun fact: “It Must Have Been Love” was originally a Christmas song). The opening triplet of “Fading”—In a time where the sun descends alone/I ran a long long way from home/To find a heart that's made of stone—does not mean anything really but, like another great power ballad from 1991, Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” with whom it shares more than a passing melodic resemblance, the former’s impact comes from this combination of large gestures to time, planets, weather, and its appeal to the personal. Unlike “Wind of Change,” though, there is no utopian sentiment in “Fading Like A Flower.” Instead, lead singer Marie Fredriksson is, to some extent, the classic melancholic (in the Freudian mode, at least)—unable to let go of her lost love, displaying “a profoundly painful dejection, a cessation of interest in the outside world” (n.b: this is Freud, not Roxette). It’s a song about being sustained and horribly unsustained by an attachment all at once—a sustainment by ongoing and repeated loss, in other words, signalled by the refrain Every time you leave the room/I feel I’m fading like a flower.
I am not a flower, or even like one, much, but there’s something about Roxette’s torquing of presence and loss in “Fading Like A Flower” that speaks to the dynamics of pregnancy, for me, in these liminal days of wondering where on the line I am between pregnant and not pregnant (am I fading out of pregnancy? Can you become less pregnant? Can I make myself more pregnant? These are just a few of the questions that become too loud, in between the playing of Roxette). The idea of fading in this song figures as one of its comforts in all of this—suggesting more of a spectrum of diminishing (which might also mean a spectrum of growing) rather than the yes/no moment I know is coming, as I await an early emergency scan. Another of the song’s comforts is the fact that Marie Fredriksson doesn’t ever sound like she’s fading—opening up the possibility that she is drawing some kind of strength from her love’s constant departures, or that her sense of herself as fading is its own source of power. (Sure, we can also hear it as a model of unhealthy codependency—or at least, dependency, on Fredriksson’s part—where Fredriksson’s vitality needs her lover’s presence, but maybe we don’t need to look to Roxette for evolved relationship models). As David Metzer has identified, power ballads promise to “deliver feelings of intensity rather than one intense feeling” (2012). The music movements of “Fading like a Flower” allow for a range of emotions (mostly loss, despair and yearning but all delivered by Fredriksson in a way to suggest these modes’ capacity to vitalise, rather than diminish) whilst not funnelling you towards one in particular. This, it turns out, is what I need when I am wondering if I am having a miscarriage—a soundscape that will match my internal state, without commenting on it with any kind of nuance. Roxette are not a band that trade in nuance, really, and that is good when your whole body feels like a twitchy divining rod for the worst-possible future.
To be pregnant is always to be dwelling in the possibility that, at any given moment, you might suddenly, horribly, be not pregnant. Bearing in mind that it’s an embodiment so precipitously shadowed by its potential loss, it is hard (or, at least, I find it hard) to be ongoingly sustained by being pregnant, especially given its range of possible discomforts: physical, psychological, cultural. And yet, the repeated appellation of “blooming” to pregnant women’s bodies suggests a need to experience pregnant women’s bodies as endless potential—always blossoming, never fading. Ongoing encounters with this word “blooming” and its attendant phrases—as in: “oh, you’re blooming,” or “I bet you’re blooming,” or the meant-as-consoling “you’ll be blooming soon”—quickly manifest for me as a source of anticipatory anxiety in case someone should use them to describe my pregnant body. In encounters, particularly with people I haven’t seen for a while, or don’t know well, I find myself steeled, clenched, very unfloral, against the possibility of this word and its attendants, its implication that I can or, more likely, should only be experiencing pregnancy in one way: as the apex of healthiness, vigour, self-realisation. The phrase’s banality, its violence, its condensation of the range of feelings and experiences that could accompany pregnancy into one insipid troped femininity, speaks to culture’s need for pregnant women to experience their pregnancy as the peak of their vitality, not to mention their personal meaning. In this way, culture’s injunction that pregnancy be a constant blooming is like a power ballad that is only ever swelling—intensifying, intensifying, and intensifying but only on a single note.
Underneath the “blooming” response to pregnant bodies lies the fear of miscarriage. Is this why we want women to bloom so much? Because we are frightened or, at least, discomforted by the possibility of their pregnancies “fading”? And yet, so many of my encounters, whilst I have been pregnant, have been characterised by being told stories of loss/abjection/foreboding—all by female friends and relatives and some strangers too. I want, especially, to extend sensitivity and sometimes love to the women who, when they find out I am pregnant, immediately tell me about their miscarriages. Something powerful is happening in these divulgences that I recognise is not really or, at least, not mostly, about me—something about the way in which women’s stories about miscarriages (and, we might add to this, about pregnancy more broadly, outside of the circumscribed narratives) are not told or not heard or, likely, both. Yet my body (and not just mine—I know other pregnant or once-pregnant women who have had similar encounters) feels uncomfortably hailed—cursed, even. After one such encounter, I feel the urge to sage-smudge my stomach, to repeat incantations that will unstick this woman’s story from having any implications for my pregnancy. I also feel like this when a woman, who I’ve only met twice, opens with “so, was your pregnancy planned?” and proceeds to tell me how horrifying she’s always found the idea of childbirth to be, and when relatives ask me “how’s mummy today?” to which I feel the urge to reply “I don’t know—how’s your mummy today?” Pregnancy, it turns out, can be very difficult to stomach. Maybe this is some of what Lauren Berlant is talking about when she describes the “paranoia” of pregnant women. Within a cultural regime determined to subordinate women’s particular experiences of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth and post-partum life, it is hard to language the specificities of what you feel when you are already interpellated into a culture determined to view you as a flower/about to become one/fading like one.
Many of these thoughts, experiences and feelings have already become a familiar part of my embodied landscape by these few days of wondering whether I am having a miscarriage or not. During this time, I am not parsing lyrics to Roxette songs or doing anything much other than willing life onto the scan screen to come. That Wednesday morning, for the first time, I see my child’s legs waggle, green and black, out of the ultrasound gloam. I watch its fist pump into the top of my womb like a tiny stadium rocker. I find out my baby is going to be an Aquarian, which seems right. I leave the hospital, go home, turn on Roxette, lay down with the scan pictures on the pillow next to me, and notice that the opening chords sound a little bit like a nursery rhyme, but not really. I wonder why there aren’t many songs about pregnancy. I listen as Marie loses and gains, loses and gains, until the song fades out.