When I find out I am pregnant my first words are fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Ben is getting ready for work, toast in one hand, coffee in the other. He squints at the test stick. (It is the second one of the morning; I was certain the first one was wrong.) Then he sinks into the doorframe between the bathroom and living room of our Brooklyn apartment.
“It says two blue lines makes a positive, and the second line is really faint,” I argue. “It could be false.”
My younger sister, also our roommate, slowly backs away from the living room and towards the front door, a messenger bag over her shoulder. “These things are pretty…accurate,” she says carefully. I pace up and down the center of our hand-me-down rug, the hems of my dress pants dragging across its woolen nubs.
“Go get more—a whole box,” I order. The door shuts loudly behind her, sealing Ben and me in solitude. Outside, it is just another Tuesday morning in October. The sun bathes the brick-and-stone apartment building across the street. Young women with damp hair bound toward the subway. Chicken bones and cigarette butts mark the sidewalk like cairns. Inside, our paintings hang on their hooks; last night’s beers crowd the coffee table. I keep pacing, and cursing.
Louise Erdrich writes in The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, “Conception is often something of a by-product of sex, a candle in a one-room studio, pure brute chance, a wonder.” For Ben and me, conception was a careless mistake. We were 28, two years and a few months into our marriage and the experiment of trying to make it in New York City. Rent was finally affordable now that we had moved to a different neighborhood and taken on my sister as a roommate. Ben had landed an entry-level position at an international nonprofit he liked. I had finally found an antidepressant that worked. Soon I would quit my job at a local newspaper and attempt my long-held dream of getting a master’s degree. After what seemed like years of grasping for a life I could be proud of, the string of the balloon seemed to have slipped out of my hand.
For Ben and me, conception was a careless mistake. We were 28, two years and a few months into our marriage. Rent was finally affordable.Two more positive pregnancy tests and one positive blood test later, I understand that I am pregnant. But I still can’t accept it. I emerge from the doctor’s basement-level office on a brownstone-lined street, a bloodied cotton ball still taped to my inner elbow. Early fall in New York. The stiff leaves of the London planes are beginning to turn; squirrels dart across the street with precarious loads in their mouths. I’ve called in sick to work—“I have a stomach bug,” I say, which is sort of true. I consider ducking into the multiplex on Court Street and spending a few hours in the dark, munching popcorn and getting caught up in someone else’s drama. But a nagging voice insists I do something, anything, to acknowledge the fact that I am going to have a baby.
Going into the bookstore with its kid-friendly reading area and sizeable parenthood section seems like the responsible thing to do. What to Expect When You’re Expecting—”Over 12 Million Copies Sold!”—is as thick as the Oxford American Dictionary and promises advice on everything from the effects of a laptop computer on your baby to the signs of early labor. Oh god, labor. The thought of a baby coming out between these two legs sends me into a mild panic. The titles of the parenting handbooks suggest that it doesn’t get any easier: The Better Way to Breastfeed, Generation Text, My Baby Rides the Short Bus. I slink out of the store and flee to Starbucks.
If I were 10 years younger, an abortion might have been a possibility. Instead I am nearly 30, married and college educated. Getting rid of this pregnancy seems just as life altering as going through with it. I remind myself that Ben and I were open to the idea of maybe having a baby someday. When our lives were different. When we came to that hoped-for place in which we had a little more space, a little more money, a little bit more of a grip.
Right away I take to wearing oversize cardigans to avert eyes from my stomach, which truthfully, hasn’t changed at all yet. I just can’t bear walking down the street, sitting at my desk at work, certain that my secrets are protruding in plain sight. In the evenings, Ben and I have somber discussions at a Thai restaurant a few blocks from our apartment.
“Where will this kid go to school?” I wonder. “The ones in our neighborhood probably suck.”
“I should go to law school,” he says dejectedly. “We need money.”
Two weeks later, Ben and I go to our first appointment with an obstetrician. I have already had my head in the toilet a few times. I feel so tired after work that I can barely climb the stairs to our apartment. I wake up with a metallic taste in my mouth as if I have been sucking on nickels in my sleep. I’ve given up caffeine, alcohol, sushi and what was left of my marijuana habit from college, in addition to the medication that helped me feel more optimistic about the world and myself. I leave my snowboard in storage and let my best friend know that I may not make it to her wedding in the spring. I see this pregnancy as a never-ending series of inconveniences; I mourn the ways my life has been diminished without my consent.
The doctor shakes our hands and spreads a cold slick lubricant on my abdomen. She is an elf of a woman with white tufts of hair and a lilting Haitian accent. “It’s time for twins,” she remarks as she turns on the imaging computer next to me. “I haven’t had any in a while but maybe you will be next!”
I leave my snowboard in storage and let my best friend know I may not make it to her wedding. I see this pregnancy as a series of inconveniences; I mourn the ways my life has been diminished without my consent.“Surely not,” I stutter, staring at Ben with absolute terror. He grips my hand until my knuckles turn white. She presses the dull end of the wand into my stomach, pausing near my left hipbone. The room is small and stuffy, with barely enough room for the three of us. A black-and-white photograph of a cherubic infant hangs on the wall across from me. The caption reads: “Babies are such a nice way to start people.” Sure, I think, but somewhere along the line we find a way to screw them up.
“Ah, only one baby,” says the doctor. “See?”
On the monitor is a dim gray funnel and inside of it is a black circle the size of a fist. Resting at the upper part of the circle is an inch-long glowworm with a pulsating center. “You seem to be about eight,” she pauses, “no, nine weeks along.”
I raise my head up to get a better look. The tiny shape is blurry along the edges, but the center is firm. It throbs like a strobe light, incessantly flashing its bright light, over and over and over.
“What is that?” I ask.
The doctor moves the wand slightly inward and down and hits a few buttons on a calculator-like instrument in her other hand. Suddenly an alarming sound fills the room—THRUMP, THRUMP, THRUMP, THRUMP, THRUMP. “It’s the heartbeat,” she replies, raising her voice so we can hear her. “136, 142, 148, 140, that’s beats per minute, very good.” Ben goes pale and leans back against the wall.
I stare in wonder at the monitor. I can’t believe this huge, glittery, diamond of a heart is beating inside of me. And the sound of it—so loud! It is as if I have opened the heavy doors of a theater, or a church, and have been knocked over by the power of the voices singing inside.
I wish I could have kept that heartbeat in a place where I could see it. I wish I could have recorded its sound and played it back to me when nausea struck me on the subway (always at rush hour), when I outgrew yet another pair of maternity pants, when my husband lost his job, when I stopped sleeping through the night.
But in that cramped examining room, I experienced true awe. Even though it was brief. Even though, at the time, it was mine alone to feel. The voice of that heartbeat, that glittery, flashing diamond, would never strike me in the same way again. But many (so many) months later, when my daughter was born, I would recognize its sound.