I look up from the notice of pool opening hours suspiciously. The lady behind the ticket desk absently strokes a pair of Speedo goggles in the lost-and-found box next to the till. Her manicured fingers are long and clean. The grey gum in her mouth goes round and round like my knickers in the wash. She means no harm. I try to lighten up, attempt a comic double-take behind me. My weak joke meets a blank wall.
“Yes, just one,” I sigh.
Often when life is good, unwanted ideas grow in my head like bacteria. An old projector housed in a dank corner of my brain, clicks into action and I see all the ways my happiness might be crushed. In the weeks before my wedding I saw car accidents, plane crashes, explosions. I made Clay fasten his seatbelt or I unfastened mine so that whatever happened, it happened to both of us. Strange, when my personal disaster did strike, the thought of it hadn’t even crossed my mind.
Copper light slanted through the apartment’s dormer windows. Clay lay sprawled out on our double bed, his broad tanned back soaked in sunshine. I quietly slid open my bedside drawer and took out the test kit.
Cold air wound itself around my bare legs as I peed on the plastic stick.
Following the instructions, I pointed it downwards and cocked my head to watch the result window. A single line appeared showing the test had worked. I waited, trying not to expect anything. As the fuzzy blue cross became emphatic, I grabbled around my feet for the leaflet, double-checking then triple checking it really meant positive.
“I’m pregnant!” I screamed, hoisting up my pants and leaping into the bedroom. I flung myself onto Clay. He let out a whoop of joy and hugged me tightly.
“We’re going to have a baby! We’re going to have a baby!” he sang. Then we jumped up and down on the bed like kids.
Later, I tucked the stick next to an ovulation test packet in my bedside drawer, knowing I’d want to examine it again and again. Then I lay back on our bed, one hand on my stomach, the other holding Clay’s and looked at the glow stars scattered across the inclined attic ceiling. Clay had brought them after he’d proposed, before I gave up my shared flat and moved in with him. Two were stuck up side by side.
“Me and you,” he had said, pointing up at them one balmy night, as we lay naked and entangled. “If we were stars, you’d be the closest one to me in all the galaxies. That’s why we belong together.” I uncurled my head from under his chin and gazed at his long dark lashes.
“When we have children,” I said, “we’ll buy baby stars and put them next to us.”
The changing room is cramped and there’s only one peg to hang things on. I stand in a chlorine puddle and contemplate removing my tight jeans without getting them wet. Flesh bulges over the blue waistline. How I squeezed my thighs and bum into them this morning is anybody’s guess. Why, is more to the point? Suddenly, I fear the two extra kilos wobbling out of my swimsuit for everyone to remark.
As I pass through a corridor of toilet cubicles and sinks to get the showers, I feel vulnerable, too easily seen and at the same time not really there. I am a shadow net. I am a scratch on the strip of film running through my internal projector. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I have forgotten to wash my hair. It hangs in limp, colorless strands about my shoulders. Beneath my blood-shot eyes it looks like my mascara’s smudged, but I’m not wearing any. Clay’s right, I think. I need to pull it together. Not that he’s said so directly. But I’ve read it in the wary glances he casts at me every time my voice begins to crack and my vision blurs.
“You think too much babe,” Clay said, the morning we were booked in for the twelve-week scan. I was standing in front of our bedroom mirror, pushing out my belly and sucking it in again. His nonchalance made me bristle up defensively.
“I’m a woman, that’s what we’re like.” I heard what I was saying; I knew it sounded ridiculous. I was readily personifying Clay’s idea of me as erratic and melodramatic. What I meant was: You’re a man. That’s what men are like. You have no idea what it feels like to carry a child and then watch yourself bleed day after day and the blood turn viscid and fleshy.
In the car, my belly swooned and leapt with every bump and curve. I wondered what physiological occurrence had turned my stomach into a butterfly sanctuary.
“We’re going to see our poppet honey!” Clay said, grabbing my hand as we strode towards the clinic. I glanced at him skeptically. It suddenly struck me that of the two of us he was the ungrounded one. Propping myself against his broad shoulder, I squeezed his hand, desperately hoping he was right.
A woman with a bright, pink complexion and matching swimsuit, appears behind me in the mirror, tying up her wavy chestnut hair. She smiles at my reflection. I pretend not to notice. When she leaves I glance after her and am stung by her heavily pregnant bulge. Self-consciously, I twist my hands over my sagging, empty stomach. Just get on with it, I tell myself as I plod over to the showers.
Tepid water dribbles down my back. Shivering, I close my eyes. A week ago at the clinic, a chill crawled under my skin and I haven’t felt warm since. “One in four pregnancies end like this,” the doctor told me. “You’ll be back here in a couple of months. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly ordinary.” Hadn’t he said the same thing when I’d phoned him in a panic because I’d started to bleed?
I open my eyes and flinch back in horror. Expectant mothers are everywhere – beside me in the shower; washing their hands in the sink; slipping in and out of toilet cubicles. They have swarmed up to the surface where I am flailing to stay afloat, like jellyfish in a storm. This has got to be a nightmare, I think. I can’t do this.
Head down, I scurry back towards the changing room.
The green fluorescent glow stars above our bed faded into blackness. I thought I was lying still, until Clay moaned that every time he was just about to fall asleep I wriggled and tossed and woke him up. So I threw off the duvet and draped my hand along the floor like a punting pole. It was too dark to see the half-dozen books haphazardly stacked on the carpet by my side of the bed. None of them felt right.
“What are you doing?” Clay groaned. I didn’t answer. Thankfully, I’d remembered my wooden side-table. I reached out and touched a novel that had a smooth cover and was as thick as the wedges of cake I’d been cutting myself recently, thinking I could get away with the extra weight.
Standing on tiptoes, the hallway tiles chilly underfoot, I searched the airing cupboard for a blanket to cover my bareness. But they were all in the bedroom.
So I lay on the living room sofa with a coat over my legs. Pain shot through my teeth, forked through my eye sockets and stabbed at my brain. The headache had been hanging around for days, but the crying, which hadn’t let up since I’d left the clinic that morning, was making it worse. All I wanted was a hot flannel to wrap around my head and stop me from seeing the emptiness. But I kept staring up at nothing, as though there was something there.
When the alarm screeched, I woke instantly. I was back in bed next to Clay. He silenced the jarring beep and effortlessly carried on sleeping. My eyes were swollen. Rising emotion caused my face to scrunch, dragged like sand on an incoming tide. When would the loss stop being the first thing that struck me in that morning-thump back from oblivion?
I am sprawled on a narrow changing room bench, jeans straggled half way up my wet thighs. There’s nothing for it. I have to go swimming or I’ll never get back into them.
Towel wrapped around my waist, I plod past screaming children towards the unreserved lanes. They are doing tag races. A slight girl, who looks more like she’s drowning than swimming, is losing dismally. A hollow beat kicks up from a ghetto blaster by the leisure pool to my left. Arms rise uniformly into the air. I’m not the only one that could do with a bit of toning. The aqua aerobics class is full of big bottoms and flabby biceps. They turn sideways. I almost choke, which muffles my cry. Goose bumps break out over my pale limbs. My bottom lip quivers and the edge of the pool smudges. I cannot advance or retreat. I am stuck, riveted to the score of women, some vibrant, some down-right frumpy, bobbing up and down in time to Whitney Houston. Seconds pass slowly. Move, I think. Move! You’re drawing attention to yourself. But I can’t move. I am mesmerized by the firm round bellies bouncing in and out of the water, these objects of my envy, my longing and my sense of failure.
Whitney fizzles out and I recognize the intro of Madonna’s “True Blue.” For a brief moment, Nathan Hazel, my first boyfriend, skims through my mind. He is wearing a sparkling blue shirt, and spinning about on a gymnasium dance floor mouthing at me “true blue baby I love you.” His slicked hair and hammed up sincerity make me wince, but at the time I thought he was cooler than Bros. This almost makes me smile. Funny now, but you thought it was the end of the world when he dumped you.
Right, I think, sooner or later, one way or another, I’m going to have to get into the pool. Slowly, I unwrap my towel and let it dangle on the wet tiles. The water saturates the fluffy triangular tip of cotton and begins to seep upwards. I raise my foot and turn my shoulders. Once I’ve made it through the first step, the next is easier. Within moments I am poolside, wondering how the simplest things can get so complicated. I never thought having a baby would entail more than just deciding the time was right.
In the silky water I push forward with long smooth strokes. The eighties pop music and children’s screams are muffled now. I no longer feel my jelly bottom and flabby tummy quiver every time I move; their dragging weight has been stripped from me. I glide, each stroke like a fork-prod pricking the filmy vagueness. Approaching the end of the pool, I notice sunlight glittering on the aquamarine tiles. It flashes like yellow gold. I dive towards it, tingling as the warm rays permeate my skin.