“You know,” Alisha says, “you’re being a little too healthy about this.” Slouched in a coffee-shop armchair, she’s a belly with a head and limbs stuck on as afterthoughts. A kick ripples the stripes of her t-shirt, and her face locks into a grimace.
I rattle an ice cube into my mouth and crunch it. The brick in my throat matches the brick in my lower abdomen. I gulp a couple of times before I can swallow the ice shards. “I’m OK,” I say, my tongue thick with cold. “I’m having a baby or I’m having a miscarriage. You know?”
“It’s fine.” I slurp loudly at my straw. “I can deal, once I know what’s happening.”
Being six weeks pregnant doesn’t feel like anything. Or it feels like a sinus infection that trails waves of dizziness and gagging. Or it feels like the day after a 24-hour bug, the appetite capricious, the body heavy but functional. It feels like an elaborate lie incorporating the objects at hand a la Keyser Soze, a dream that folds the alarm clock into its narrative. It feels like an unspeakable fetish: scrutinizing toilet paper for blood, recoiling from my own grossness. Until there’s blood. Then, it feels like terror.
I somehow keep my voice level when I tell my husband about the blood.
“What does that mean?” Park asks, carefully calm. “Could this be completely normal?”
Afraid I’ve run out of vocal control, I nod.
“Is there anything we can do about it if it’s not?”
I shake my head. Swallow hard. “The nurse said to call if there was any bleeding. I’ll call as soon as they open.”
“OK, good. Let’s get some sleep, then. It’ll be all right either way.” He folds his arms around me, his beard prickling my hairline, and rubs between my shoulder blades. “I promise, we’ll be OK.”
In bed, Park picks up the cheap copy of The Hobbit he bought when the spine of his 1965 edition disintegrated. He began reading it to me the day of the positive test. He wants our child to have Tolkien in its bones. That first happy evening, the sweetness of our new ritual was almost too much to bear. “Do you want me to read a chapter tonight, or should we skip it?”
This is the last time he asks about the book.
After he falls asleep with the lamp on, I look up every index entry on “bleeding,” “spotting,” and “miscarriage” in the patronizing, alarmist, riveting pregnancy book I bought on Amazon. Then I carry the book into the spare room and shove it spine-in into the corner of a little-used bookshelf.
After a long time on hold with a 90-second loop of aggressively smooth jazz, I am told to go to a walk-in lab to be tested for hCG, the pregnancy hormone. During the next ten days, Kanye West becomes my blood-test ritual. The drive to the lab is exactly the length of two plays of “Monster.” I shout along in my car, stiff and stilted. The strut, the rat-a-tat of consonants, the casual misogyny–I’m hard, sharp, I don’t give a fuck. I boast along with Kanye:
Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?
I put the pussy in a sarcophagus.
In the lab’s waiting room, I grip my phone and catalog the other patients. On my second visit, it’s mostly older people with swollen hands, canes propped beside their chairs, cracked black purses with fat straps. One woman about my age tries to corral a little boy before giving up and letting him play with the water cooler. I glance at her stomach, but her sweatshirt puffs out, obscuring it. I blink hard, pinch the skin of my thigh between two fingernails, tell myself, Stop crying. Half these people probably have cancer. Stop it.
According to the phone app I downloaded the day of my positive test, today my baby is the size of a “sweet pea.” It means simply “pea”—vegetable, not flower. Gestation is only described in edible terms: seeds to berries to stone fruits to melons. The roundness burgeoning, the juice pooling, the sweetness deepening. I delete the app. The next day, I reinstall it.
After calling the OB/GYN clinic for the results of three blood tests, I can sing along with their hold music, all but the soprano-sax squeal I always mistake for the beep of an answering machine. I wonder what the nurse, Julie, looks like and if her voice would sound so warm and kind if I didn’t associate it with deliverance from endlessly repeating smooth jazz.
“The good news,” Julie tells me, “is that your hCG level is high enough that we can schedule you for an ultrasound to see what’s going on.”
She leaves the bad news unspoken: If the level were unambiguously OK, they wouldn’t bother with an ultrasound.
The discovery that I can’t stand the smell or sight or thought of Chef Boyardee ravioli launches a dangerous burst of hope. I talk myself out of it, but I keep sticking my head into the kitchen and inhaling, just to feel my stomach lurch.
The stone-faced ultrasound tech dents my abdomen so deep I can feel my desperately full bladder change shape.
“What do you see?”
“I’m not allowed to tell you.” She scowls at the screen, which faces away from Park and me.
I regroup, ask brightly, “Do pregnant women ever pee on your table?” Park laughs.
“No.” She swipes at me with a paper towel, missing half the gel. The waistband of my skirt oozes sideways when I pull it up.
The transvaginal ultrasound wand is a smooth cylinder, but inside me it has sharp, distinct corners. Park holds my hand as the tech digs and pries. I lay my free arm across my breasts, which might or might not be less sore than a day earlier. I trace my eyes along the right angles of the waffle-weave wallpaper that resembles Triscuits.
He leans down to kiss my forehead. “Are you OK?”
By the time I call for the results of my second ultrasound, I’ve developed a fight-or-flight response to the hold music. Soprano sax starts my heart hammering. Julie, whose kind, warm voice I now resent, tells me that the ultrasounds—like the series of blood tests showing a glacial increase of hCG, like every halfhearted twinge of nausea that could be allergies or imagination or anxiety—offer no firm answers. There’s a gestational sac. There might or might not be anything happening inside it. My potential baby is simultaneously alive and dead, like Schrödinger’s cat. That makes me the box the cat is in. The double entendre pleases me in a bitter way.
Like Kanye says: put the pussy in a sarcophagus. And, it occurs to me, vice versa.
“I can’t believe you’re still waiting,” Alisha says, deftly assembling a syringe. “It’s been weeks, hasn’t it? That’s so cruel.” She glances up: “Do you mind if I do this here?”
“Sure.” I peel the paper off my muffin and watch her draw insulin from a clear bulb, then casually slip the needle into the pale flesh above her elbow. “Wow. That looks like fun.”
Alisha zips the pouch and stows it in her purse.. “I don’t know how I can stand much more of this.” She massages one side of her belly, her face intent on some internal signal. “I’m miserable. I can’t do this anymore.”
While I’ve been chanting “I’m a motherfucking monster!” on the way to tests and ultrasounds, she’s landed in the hospital again and again—gestational diabetes, anemia, preterm labor, medical bills to be paid on what she calls “the ‘every month until the end of time’ plan.” There’s no room to resent her. Well, not much.
“Pregnancy is a bag of dicks, huh?” I say.
She grins. “God, yes.”
Physics doesn’t allow for a happy ending for Schrödinger’s cat—for the box’s lid to be lifted off; for the cat to clamber out, shaking its tufted ears, and curl into a sun-gilded disc on the floor of the lab. The death ray in the box either has fired already or is about to.
After three weeks of limbo, I go for one last ultrasound. Park has a seminar paper to write, and I tell him I don’t mind going alone. We both know that if there were good news, we’d have gotten it already. My breasts aren’t sore anymore.
I blast “Monster” on repeat on the way to the imaging center. I don’t have any jokes to make at the stone-faced tech, who softens enough to ask whether I had a nice weekend. I don’t answer.
The tech sends me to the OB/GYN clinic, where I’ve only been once before. During my annual exam the previous fall, I told the doctor we’d been trying to conceive for three months, and she said, “I see you’re 31. Do you want a prescription for fertility drugs?” She is why I asked to work with a midwife instead of an obstetrician. Today, I finally meet that midwife, whose name I’ve had to give at check-in desks six times. She is gray-haired and direct and apparently willing to answer my questions all day if that’s what I need. For the first time, I can imagine receiving obstetric care while not suppressing tears of dread.
I arrive home with two prescriptions: one for Cytotec, which is four pills you drip water onto and then shove as far as you can into your sarcophagus, and one for painkillers. I decide not to use the painkillers, but when the cramps really get going, I change my mind.
I lie on my back on the futon in a hydrocodone haze, waiting for the tiny, empty sac that’s caused such disproportionate trouble to release its hold on my insides. The pain is hard and sharp with merciless corners, but around it I am softening. I want to say something profound to Park as he eats pizza and tries to focus on the paper that’s due in twelve hours. Instead, my brain—limp, swaying, underwater—produces Tolkien:
There is an inn, a merry old inn,
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.
Nine days later, my bleeding is winding down, and Alisha goes into labor. As planned, she drops off her five-year-old son on the way to the hospital.
“What are you going to do when you meet your new sister tomorrow?” I ask him.
He grins at me, his dark eyes and round cheeks exactly Alisha’s, then, to demonstrate, hugs his teddy bear to his chest and covers it with noisy kisses.
While the brother-to-be sleeps in a ring of action figures on the futon, Park and I split a bottle of wine. Drinking feels like making up for lost time, for the weeks of ordering cranberry juice at bars and never tasting cookie dough, all the while suspecting it was for nothing.
In the morning, Alisha posts pictures on Facebook of a tiny new face–squashed, purplish, disgruntled–with an instantly familiar brow. I click through them again and again.
Early miscarriages are incredibly common. Having one doesn’t make me special or doomed or anything but modestly unlucky, as if my new car is a lemon, as if I’ve been rejected for a great apartment and the landlord is keeping the fee. It shouldn’t be more than that. It’s an inconvenience and a loss of potential.
So I can’t be sad, not consistently. It has to happen in bursts that leave me disgusted at my weakness and cataloguing worse options: miscarry later, have a stillbirth, have a sick baby, have a healthy baby who dies anyway. Lose Park, lose a parent, lose an arm. In comparison to other griefs, this is nothing.
But surely having a baby is even less remarkable than losing one. Every person who has ever existed was born. So add to the sadness of lost potential the shame of yearning for something so rudimentary, something most people blunder into.
At the moment, I think of pregnancy the way I thought about sex before I got to have it: a lightning strike, unlikely and implausible, that nonetheless hit everyone I knew. And my brief and unsuccessful pregnancy did echo the brief and unsuccessful first time I had sex: painful, scary, depressing, and (I fear) with a very long wait before a second occurrence.
Odds are, though, I’ll get pregnant again within the next year. Odds are, Park and I will have all the kids we want, and the spring of 2013 will be nothing but a bruised spot in our memories.
For now, we’re in limbo again. As I sew bee-shaped buttons on a sweater for Alisha’s month-old baby (who I still haven’t met), as I click “Like” on set after set of angelic maternity photos of Facebook friends, as I offer warm congratulations to an underemployed twenty-one-year-old whose fetus snuck by a brand-new IUD, I wonder whether my cycle will ever start back up. I wonder how exactly you make it through a process that’s so out of your control, so haphazard. Clearly, the lesson of limbo is learning to cope with uncertainty.
What a bag of dicks that truly is.