Plan B will not work if you are already pregnant.
I dressed quietly by the light cast from the streetlamps outside my window, careful not to wake my three-and-half-year-old son, who was in his bed only a few feet away. From the back of my top drawer I pulled out a pair of old black underwear, and as I stepped into them I caught sight of the tag: Motherhood Maternity. As my son stirred I thought to myself, I’ve got to get rid of this underwear. Irony is fine for jokes, but it can be a real bitch when it kicks you in the gut at 5:30 a.m.
I ovulated 12 days ago. I know that I ovulated because I have an ovarian cyst that hurts like hell when I do. There was an accident that evening, the result of a poorly communicated act of unprotected sex where I did not alert my boyfriend to the presence of the egg traveling in my fallopian tube, as I normally would; nor did he ask if it was okay to finish before withdrawing, which he normally does. The next morning, I took an expensive generic over-the-counter pill. We had no plan to begin with, but after a volley of morning-after texting from work, we moved directly to Plan B.
It is not actually that easy to get pregnant. All the right conditions have to be aligned just so. The window can be quite small. We all know the story of a friend or a friend of a friend with a strange or seemingly impossible unintended pregnancy. But even in those cases, things were aligned just so. This I learned over the two and half years it took me to get pregnant. I was married during that time. In the beginning my husband and I joked that it was in God’s hands, though neither of us was religious. For my part, I’d assumed that He’d grant me the coveted conception the moment I stopped trying to do everything in my power to prevent pregnancy. Not so. I’d been a no exceptions condom user from the time I’d lost my virginity as a young wayward teen over a decade before. But once married, my then-husband and I practiced the pullout method for years, which I learned in college can be a more effective form of birth control than we are led to believe. Its opposite, however, failed to garner results. The women who get pregnant the easiest tend do so because they have a shorter follicular phase, or they ovulate more often than woman with longer menstrual cycles. This I know from reading a handful of books, the ones I picked up while desperately seeking conception, during which time everyone around me seemed to be pregnant and I experienced the small death of my hopes each time I menstruated. Women who get pregnant easily also tend to actually have sex, an activity transformed by month after month of unsuccessful attempts from an indulgent pleasure to a chore that one or both parties begins to dread and avoid; the decreasing checkboxes on a fertility chart, the smudged pencil lines and dates and numbers drawn in circles, a document of certain doom.
Loose around the legs where my thighs join my hips, this old worn out underwear lays across my backside, where it is not baggy but rests gently. The waistband curves and dips at the front to accommodate the protruding belly of a woman with child. Post-partum, beyond the months it took to shed the baby weight, I added them to the gang of old ugly cozy panties, the work horses with tears in the waistbands and runs at the seams of the crotch, to wear on days when I feel fat, or when the dirty laundry in the hamper had outgrown my supply of good ones, or when my period was imminent. Dressing by the streetlight that morning, all three reasons were in play, though the latter was more of a hope.
Under a microscope, you can see the moment when sperm meets egg. In eighth grade my class watched The Miracle of Life. There was a collective sense of cheer among the boys, who longed already to be men, when one little tadpole penetrated the egg. I do not recall any such audible display of emotion when the film showed a live birth.
A typical woman of childbearing age will have a cycle between 28 and 32 days long. Me, I oscillate with no discernible pattern between 30 and 38. I took the morning-after pill on day 16 of my November cycle. I’d taken Plan B once before, in my early twenties after a condom break, and what I remembered was that I’d felt awful for a couple of days, bled early, and then all was back to normal. System flush and reset. This time around, there were no quick results. After the first week passed, I fished the box out the wastebasket by my bed and read the insert, which informed me that I can expect to get my period a week early or on time; but if I am a week late, it advises getting tested because you may be pregnant. I already have a child, the one who was sleeping as I pulled into an old pair of underwear I purchased while he was, finally, in utero. My boyfriend does not have a child, and although it’s still unclear to me whether or not he will ever want to get married, I am fairly certain that he wants a child of his own.
I am not old, per se, but I’m not so young either. Thirty-five. When I got divorced I felt as though I’d been cheated out of the chance to decide whether or not to have a second kid, being that I was older and my son was still an infant. How on earth would it be possible to meet someone new, fall in love, and have a baby before I did become too old? It’s not as if it is now or never, though I recognize the approach of that horizon. Was this the hand of God?
Plan B dosed my body with high levels of a hormone called levonorgestrel, which is found in most birth control pills, and when taken in such a high dose within 72 hours of unprotected sex should either stop ovulation, prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg they encounter, or prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine lining. It does not work if you are already pregnant. My body was hijacked, gummy and bloated, disrupted, overthrown. Within a day of taking it, my left breast became tender to the touch of my clothes, like it did during the first month I was pregnant. By the fourth day, nausea. The sensation arose in heated rooms or outdoors in the cold, when I was hungry and when I ate, much like it did the entire first trimester of my pregnancy, though not as strong. Under such conditions, I was not interested in sex.
It had been 12 days since my boyfriend and I had sex, which, for us, is not normal. It had been too long; I decided to break it. I showered, changed into a pair of panties that I felt good in, and climbed into bed. Once we turned out the lights I gave the signal, rubbing my foot along his calf. No response. We settled in a bit more, and this time I ran my foot more slowly across his, around his ankles, his shin. He responded in kind, and so we began.
I won’t bore or excite you with the details, but all was well and good until his fingers brushed against my body through the lace of my panties; a tremble rose from within that was not a good tremble, but a breaking one. At first I tried to bite my lip, to stifle my tears, but I could only hold them in for a fraction of time, so small as to be immeasurable. I burrowed my head into his bare chest, then under his arm. I reached for his hand and pulled it gently away from between my legs and toward my chest, my heart. And sobbed. He held his breath, slowly exhaled and pulled his boxers back up, the elastic snapping around his waist. “What just happened?” he asked, his voice stiff.
I knew right away that I had to name it, to account for what was pulsing through my body. Remembering that he’d kept a respectful distance since I took the pill, at my request, and that I’d initiated sex made me cry harder.
“I’m really afraid that I’m pregnant.”
He couldn’t console me. But he did the next best thing and stayed by my side, listening as I explained how much I was craving intimacy, and how without knowing it I’d wandered away from my body, disassociated, how his touch brought me right back into the room, face to face with that fear, and shame.
I turned away, slithered back to my side of the bed. The fear made sense, seemed logical to me. I was afraid that Plan B hadn’t worked, and that even though I took it within 14 hours, I was already pregnant. We were not ready for this. Babies are exhausting; kids are harder. They arrive with strange conditions, like tongue ties that need to be clipped by a specialist with an eight-week backlog, and even though they have difficulty latching, they never seem to let go. Then they get older and demand apples with the skin peeled off, and that you read Santa’s Toyshop, again, even though it is the middle of July. But what really caught me was lurking below the surface of my tears: a red-hot and ripe shame. The shock of reentry was a quick-burning fuse that led straight into the heart of the worst of what my three and half decades had to offer — my mother leaving when I was three, being molested as a child and during adolescence, a deeply rooted alcoholic family tree, teenage promiscuity, menstruating all those times I’d hoped I was pregnant, my husband’s refusal to have sex when I was finally pregnant, a failed home birth resulting in an assisted hospital birth, that same husband leaving when our son was four months old, and finally, becoming a single mom. That moment, unguarded, struck the well of shame that lives inside us all.
The next morning my boyfriend and I made love like animals, in a way that might be crude between strangers, but that between lovers beguiles an intimacy like nothing else. I let the wild in and in doing so let go of the fear, the shame. It was closeness I needed then, in the barest of terms. I came first.
Day 32, still no outward flow. I have no microscope, just the tenderness now embedded in both my breasts, the nausea persistent. Getting ready to pick up my son from his grandparents, I pack an apple into my bag and take a mental inventory of the house I am renting. Sans the roommates it could suit us just fine, I think, this new little family — my son, my boyfriend, and the new life budding inside.
I drive southeast through thick clouds of fog, past the core of the city and its tarmac-lined industrial fringes, and into the country. As the road ascends out of the valley, the fog disperses and the sun shines, bright and golden. My car tires turn in and scrape against the gravel driveway as my son and his grandfather totter out of the pasture, each eating a late autumn carrot fresh from the ground. After hugs, I help my son fill and empty his dump truck a few times before he parks it under the table on the porch. Inside I help him clean up his train set. I use the bathroom before we leave, and there I glimpse the contrast between the unmistakable darkness of my shedding insides against the soft white of the toilet paper. Before relief, sadness.