You notice it first at work, rising from a chair. A sharp pain on the right side of your lower abdomen immediately makes you sit down. The third or fourth time it happens that morning, you call your doctor. They have an opening during your lunch hour.
A nurse takes your blood pressure. She counts your pulse while looking at her tiny gold watch. You stare at a calendar, trying to find the start date of your last menstrual period, but you tell her you spotted last week. She orders a pregnancy test. Annoyed, you walk to the bathroom and fill the clear, flimsy cup.
Back in the examining room, you sit on the chair instead of the paper-covered table. You wonder if you’ll have time to run to the post office. The nurse knocks before coming back in. She says, “Well, it’s positive.” Her smile fades when she looks at your face. The doctor, concerned about the pain, thinks it might be an ectopic pregnancy—the egg implanted in the fallopian tube. You don’t think of it as a pregnancy yet, but a possible medical emergency. That’s what you tell your boyfriend when he finally calls from somewhere in the Redwoods. He says “Okay” and hangs up.
A week later, you’re speeding down I-5 with fifteen hours until you reach Manteca, California, the Garden State soundtrack blaring, smoking a few cigarettes you’d rolled. The pain disappears by the time you pick up your boyfriend. He turns attentive, affectionate, and soft–the way you need. You have a little wine with dinner. Soon you feel fine. Normal even, but something has taken residence in your body, dividing and feeding and growing.
On the drive home he tells you his thoughts, like a declaration or final statement. “We’re not in love,” he says. “We’re planning to move to different states.” His hand rests on your leg, thumb gently moving across your bare thigh, when he tells you to get an abortion. You nod, but say nothing. You’re twenty-eight. You work two jobs, waiting to settle down to begin your life as a writer. You’ve traveled in Europe for a couple of months. You’ve done the college thing. But you glance down at that thumb, moving across your thigh.
Only three months ago, when you were walking home from the bar a little buzzed, he was this lonely-looking boy sitting on a park bench with a music player. You’d taken a seat next to him out of curiosity. “What are you listening to?” you’d asked. When he’d answered “John Prine,” in your fuzzy state of mind he’d become your soul mate. You didn’t go home with him that night, but agreed to have a date the next day. Summer Solstice.
Just before sunset, you’d met him on a bluff over the beach. He’d brought a couple of stout beers and last Sunday’s New York Times. You’d watched sailboats go by between glances at him and the Book Review. He’s a little shorter than you, with bad teeth. Not really your type, but he’d admitted to making the tiramisu at your favorite restaurant. This was the reason you’d gone to bed with him.
He’d turned tender and soft, not like what you’d expected. That first night, you’d kissed for hours, completely encased in white goose down, then disappeared into his bed for the entire weekend. He’d told you to stay while he went to work, and you’d said okay because of his bookshelves full of Bukowski.
At his suggestion, you’d found yourself moving in to his tiny trailer, bringing only a backpack full of clothes, books, notebooks, and toiletries. The rest of your stuff he’d put into a storage unit. Your share of rent dropped to $150 a month. You’d called the college of your dreams, announcing you’d been ready to apply as if they’d been waiting for it.
From the beginning, he’d called you his girlfriend. Even while talking to his mom on the phone. You’d turned your head away, hiding your smile and flushed cheeks. He’d held your hand when you walked. Don’t allow yourself to get attached, you’d said.
But now, another blood test shows that hormone levels have almost tripled. At five weeks, the doctor orders an ultrasound. Your boyfriend stays in the waiting room while an awkward technician administers the ultrasound vaginally after asking you to insert the probe yourself. The screen shows grainy white sand splashed across a black screen while the cold, metal rod, slimy from lubricant, pushes from side to side. “There it is,” the technician mumbles and points at a pulsating dot on the screen. “Looks like it’s a healthy pregnancy. There’s the heartbeat already.”
A blip. A little lentil with its own heartbeat. A baby that suddenly makes you a mother. A rush of love rolls over you. It’s claustrophobic. Also, you’re terrified.
You get dressed and walk out of the room, passing the brown-haired boy with the crooked teeth, flipping through a magazine much faster than he can possibly read. He gets up to follow, hands deep in his pockets and eyes on the floor. When you’re both in the car and buckled, you tell him it’s healthy, but nothing else. He puts a hand on your shoulder, but you stare straight ahead. At home, you sit on the couch while he stands a few feet away, facing you, waiting. You look up, meet his eyes and tell him you’re keeping it. He walks out, slamming the door. You hear him screaming “FUCK!” over and over. You move the worn yellow curtain to look out the window. He’s kicking the storage unit.
When your daughter turns eight months old, you’ll look back on this time while sitting in a hard, wooden chair in a courthouse, at the end of a five-hour interview from a Family Court Facilitator, appointed by a judge to determine if you’re fit for sole custody. She has grilled you about your medical history, values, morals, and the events that took place from the time you conceived to when a no-contact order was put in place. You’ll tell her that you never thought you’d be in a situation like this when you found out you were pregnant.
She’ll look at you with compassion for the first time and remove her glasses. She’ll say, “You didn’t just choose to have a baby; you chose to have a baby with him.” You’ll lower your eyes for a second, and then look back to see her almost smiling, but she’ll shake it off and resume her writing, mumbling that you really know how to pick them.
After your “keeping it” announcement, your boyfriend’s demeanor changes. For the following weeks, he only sneers at you. Morning sickness begins to set in. He orders you to get an abortion. A finger, pointed in your face, reminds you he doesn’t love you and never will. He screams that you’re ruining his life (the finger points at him) and this kid’s life (the finger points at your stomach). He blames you for convincing him to not wear condoms. One day he’ll demand his name be excluded from the birth certificate while still wanting the baby to have his last name. On another he’ll accuse you of getting pregnant on purpose because you wanted to be with him forever. He tells the same to anyone willing to listen, then reports back what they said in agreement. “See,” he says. “Everyone knows you’re crazy.” This small town suffocates you.
Determined not to exclude the father of your child from its life, you tell him about every appointment. It comes at the demise of a happy pregnancy. At twelve weeks, you call him from the midwife’s office when she turns up the volume on a device used to listen to the fetal heartbeat. In your excitement you exclaim, “That’s your baby, honey!” more for show than out of sincerity. He says “Yup” and ends the call. You say nothing to the midwife. She leaves the room while you collect your things.
Your body begins to change in odd ways. If anything brushes one of your breasts, which have almost doubled in size, the pain makes you clamp your jaw. Ten pounds disappear from the stress but your pants no longer button. Every morning you wake up feeling like you have a terrible hangover. Then the nightmares begin. While your body attempts to waken you to go pee, you dream you’re already there, sitting in the bathroom, squinting in the harsh light. But something feels different. When you look to investigate, in your dream, you see a steady stream of blood, your body rejecting the task of nurturing this life. The water changes to a clotted crimson.
His rants grow more heated. He breaks up with you, ordering you to move out. Not wanting to bother your friends with this drama, you stay in the trailer while searching for options. A couple of weeks before your first housesitting gig, he starts going out almost every night until three or four in the morning. Sometimes headlights wake you up and you peek out the window. A girl drops him off. He gives her a long kiss. It’s a different girl every time.
Housesitting brings expansive rooms with comfy beds. You’re fortunate enough to find a few gigs in a row. With the risk of miscarriage now passed, you send out cards to friends and family, announcing the pregnancy. A few people send emails with “congratulations” in the subject line. You’re the loneliest you’ve ever been.
One night a little after Christmas, he calls to invite you out for dinner. Always hoping he’s had a change of heart, you agree. He takes you to a diner for cheeseburgers and milkshakes. You sit at a tiny table, surrounded by a few other families. While you try to eat, he says, “I know it’s too late to get an abortion,” and goes into his speech. The one about him not loving you and not being attracted to you and that you’re ruining the kid’s life. He tells you to find someone to adopt the baby, because the kid will grow up to hate you. When you softly tell him no, he calls you a stupid bitch. At a table only a couple of feet away, a teenaged girl stares at you.
The family you work for goes out of town for a month and asks you to stay at their house. Their internet access brings “Mommy Groups” and women who send you long emails about pregnancy, giving birth, and breastfeeding. You start to focus on what you want, and switch to a midwife who only does home births. By this point you’ve saved up a few thousand dollars. You find a cottage in town. It’s perfect. Your rounded belly grows and you stare at it in fascination at night, watching it ripple in movements completely out of your control. At the end of each day, you write lists only containing good things. Some days you record “decaf coffee and a chocolate, cream-filled donut this morning.”
On Valentine’s Day, he calls to ask if he can come over and make you dinner. He brings food but no apologies. He makes you pasta with a red sauce from scratch and sautéed veggies. You have a sip of wine and smile at him. Soon he’s over three or four nights a week, to cook you a nice dinner and hang out for a few hours. Eventually he stops going home. He sleeps with an arm around your swollen stomach and you flatten his hand on its center. The baby, who’d been bumping around for the last hour, suddenly becomes still.
Your need to be with him on a biological level unnerves you. “We’re not back together,” he says, but asks you to join him on a road trip to visit his family. An ultrasound appointment takes up part of the morning on the day you leave.
When the technician moves a wand over your slick stomach, he stares in awe with you at the grainy screen. Shapes begin to form. Legs. Hands. A head. “Do you want to know the sex?” He glances at you and says yes. She moves from the hollow-looking head to the rump and mumbles, “Oh, the cord’s in the way, let’s see if we can get it to move a bit.” While waiting for a better view, she explains that we’re looking for “a turtle or a taco.” He leans in, squinting. The cord moves. “Well, you’ve got yourself a taco! It’s a girl.”
She points out the little girl parts and you see, indeed, a girl.
She prints out photos. When you leave the hospital and walk down the street together, he stops complete strangers to put the images of your fetus directly in their faces. He shows every passing person the pictures of his “little girl.” Finally, you begin to see the father in him. It remains through breakfast, when he can’t seem to stay in his seat because he needs to get up and show people at every table the first pictures of her. That morning, you sort of fall in love.
Driving down to California for the second time, you stop in Portland to stay the night with a friend of his. He leaves you to sleep in her filthy bedroom with a smelly cat box hidden in the closet while they go to the bar. When they return, you hear her giggle in the other room, then you hear her moan. Her roommate’s alarm goes off for some reason at three in the morning. All of you get up to turn it off, only to face each other in the hallway. He sneers at you, brushes past, and goes in the room with the stinky litter box. She turns off the alarm and says she guesses she’ll have to sleep on the couch.
Of course, you share a bed with him. It happens on the second night. He turns off the light, gets under the sheets, and keeps going down, until you feel his hand lift your shirt. Lips kiss your swollen belly. You let out a small sort of noise. Tears pool in your ears. He comes up to kiss your neck, your chin, and finally your lips, all tender and soft, and you forget everything from the last six months. It’s just him. Touching you.
You expect everything to be different the next day, but he acts as if nothing had happened. But it happens again a few days after you return home and once more the following week. Finally you ask, “Are we back together?” He looks at you like you’re nuts, and takes a trip to visit the girl with the smelly kitty litter because he needs “to get it out of my system.” He has sex with her and returns home in shame. When you sniffle to a friend about this, she tells you that the girl has chlamydia. Disgusted with him, but more with yourself, at eight months pregnant, you get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The doctor gives you a lecture. She goes on for twenty minutes. You cry in her office. She seems satisfied.
He agrees to couples counseling. This brown-haired boy, no longer angry, finally seems to get it. He fully commits to you, and your daughter. He steps up to the plate, as your dad had hoped. Birthing classes begin, and you watch videos together, and go to weekly meetings with the midwife and doula. At thirty-six weeks, you see a John Prine concert together. From your seats three rows from the back, you put your head on his shoulder and his hand on your moving belly through “The Great Compromise.”
She arrives on her due date.
Just after five in the morning, you awake feeling like your body has turned itself at the waist so your legs face backwards. Contractions are a minute apart. You shake the sleeping boy and say, “Call these numbers! Call them now!” Amber, your doula and close friend, is first on the list and then Kathy, the midwife. When Amber arrives, she puts you in the birthing tub you’d set up the night before.
At your request, Amber opens the bottle of beer to help calm you during labor. Then your water breaks, a wave hits and you push with everything you have, knees digging in to the floor of the tub. Kathy calls her assistant, telling her to come immediately. His nose remains only two inches away from yours, reminding you to breathe. The assistant places her hand between your legs, feeling you push through a contraction. “You are so strong!” she says.
Suddenly, you are strong as you sweat, clench, strain, and do exactly what your body was made to do. Kathy suggests that you reach down between contractions and feel the baby’s head. It’s a spongy thing with wispy hair in a space where nothing had been before. You push again, the burning nearly unbearable. Kathy suggests you hold back. Like hell you’re holding back.
After two more contractions, you scream as your skin tears, and she emerges into the water. She’s turning blue. Your baby’s face tightens as you smile at her euphorically. Somehow you know she’ll breathe. She coughs, gives out a little cry, her color darkening to a purplish-pink.
He’s a proud father, in the moment you’d fought for him to have. Through all the months of hatred, you knew he’d see this needed to happen. This child, his child, needed to be born.
After a while, you all move in to a small place just outside of town. Your days revolve around breastfeeding every couple of hours. It’s fine for a few months. Then he starts criticizing your housekeeping and cooking and parenting and the way you dress and the way you act and the way you talk. He tells you you’re too fat and too tall and that he’s attracted to other women. He only has sex with you in his sleep, grabbing you from behind while you lie on your side, waking up the infant cradled in your arms.
One day he gets angry and yells in your face while sitting next to you on the couch. You’re holding your five-month-old baby tight when he punches the springy fabric next to your head. The threats begin. “If you leave I’ll take that baby so fast it’ll make your head spin,” he says. He punches out the window in the front door and leaves. You call the cops. A judge puts a no-contact order in place and the custody battle goes on for the next year.
He hires a lawyer. You get a volunteer and do most of the paperwork yourself. You relearn the word “share.” In court, you ask for the no-contact order to be lifted. The judge asks you to see a domestic violence advocate and fill out a safety plan. Visitations commence when your daughter is ten months old. A friend has to transport her.
This father who only watched his daughter once for a few hours while you went out to lunch suddenly has her alone a few evenings a week and all day Saturday. In your back-and-forth notebook, he complains that you didn’t pack baby food or enough diapers. You wonder why this is your responsibility.
Your friends urge you to leave town and never look back.
It takes six years, but you do. You’re a single mother, on your own, 500 miles away from family or friends. But you make new ones. You enroll in the creative writing program at that university you called years ago. You get published. Every weekend one summer, you both go camping, hiking, or rock climbing. She starts kindergarten. You’re in school full time and clean houses. There’s not a lot of money, but you make it work. And a little girl watches your every move.