We’re folding laundry on our bed.
What do you call a pregnancy scare without the “scare” in it? Thomas asks. Close call? Nope. Still sounds negative.
He means, what phrase exists for thinking you’re pregnant when it turns out you’re not but wish you were. We are no longer afraid of pregnancy, having answered for ourselves what I call THE ONLY QUESTION.
Near miss? Near hit?
A near hit would mean, what, a “missile” (sperm) nearly and accidentally hit a mistaken “target” (ovum)? There are no mistakes in our “strategy.” A near miss would imply the “target” was almost missed but ultimately struck.
We laugh for having parsed the analogy. The language of war has the wrong valence, but searching for better words just yields metaphors from sports, the stock market, marketing, and hunting.
Thomas asks if I fold my underwear. He knows I don’t; they live in a heap in a drawer next to his neatly rolled underpants.
THE ONLY QUESTION.
Would you regret it if—having had the chance to bear children—you found yourself past childbearing years without them?
I crafted this question around age twenty-eight when my friends began to give birth, and I began spontaneously crying. I wanted a family, and by twenty-nine, a relationship I thought would turn into a family fell apart instead. I began crying out of envy, yes—but not simply for babies. Envy for what I perceived was the faith two people had in each other expressed in the new body of their child. Whether the faith lasts or doesn’t—what constitutes that faith? Long full of myself, I am prepared now to be full of something else.
The question’s rhetoric is unequivocally an ultimatum.
The question asks me to be unequivocal.
The answer since age twenty-eight has always been the same.
This time last fall, Thomas flew to Windhoek, Namibia for a conference on empathy and technology. I was both envious and anxious (he is a capable and yet nervous traveler). Before he left, I repeated Be careful, okay? over and over—as if by saying it, I was doing my part to keep him safe. I think it’s fair to be nervous when your partner flies so far south and east, you must spin the globe halfway to locate even the static idea of their person. If I remember correctly, the flight was sixteen hours, each minute of which was a dead radio signal or the image of a black box adrift in icy waters.
His flights occupied the better part of twenty-four hours. I barely slept during his trek from JFK to Johannesburg to Windhoek, tossing in bed atop my cell phone, which I intermittently peeked at with one squinty eye, awaiting dispatches. In the absence of control, I control with alertness, watchfulness.
His hotel had shitty internet service, he reported in a text message, which arrived many hours after it was sent. The signal failed when he tried to phone me, so I just waited and watched. In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes says, Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this:
I am the one who waits.
Finally, another message: I am sick.
Then after twenty-four hours, during which he knelt on the floor of his tiny hotel bathroom alone, retching and vomiting, another message: All I want is to get home to you.
Meanwhile, ten countries north of the idea of Thomas—in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone—an Ebola epidemic gained momentum. White western media proliferated its contagious fear on every platform—so compellingly that even University of Georgia’s campus clinic began screening patients with an Ebola questionnaire before they were allowed to walk beyond the foyer of the facility. Check the box that applies: 1. I have NOT visited West Africa in the last three months. 2. I HAVE visited West Africa in the last three months.
I know because I visited the women’s clinic with severe pelvic pain while Thomas was away, afraid for the tenth or twentieth time that the copper intrauterine device in my cervix was puncturing my uterus or causing infection or would, in some unknowable way, lead to an inability to become pregnant in the future. In the waiting room, I checked my phone incessantly, hoping to hear news from Thomas, but also to escape the lobby’s TV, which played Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. His timely tribunal that day was about the sin of unmarried mothers.
If I remember correctly, the doctor, as usual, did a lot of shrugging, only to say, “How old are you? Thirty-one? Maybe time to pull it out and get cracking anyway, huh?”
Some time that week, Dallas-Forth Worth reported one confirmed case of Ebola. Suddenly, America-bound flight passengers demonstrating any flu-like symptoms were quarantined in airports all over the globe.
When his stomach and the hotel internet stabilized, Thomas Skyped from a gravel courtyard maybe forty-eight hours before he would attempt to fly home. As I recall, he wore a black scarf in the warm sub-Saharan air. He was pale and spoke slowly, and the only other thing I recall is the feeling that if I could hold him there in my fifteen-inch screen, I could keep him breathing and alive.
Thomas would have to either spontaneously feel well or perform health in order to get home. Against his stomach’s wishes, he embarked on yet another sixteen-hour flight. And I waited through another eerie passage through thunderous silence. I thought about the doctor’s playful admonition. Julie once told me, Men live with this myth that they have so much time.
If my life is a glass, I was neither out of time nor full of it then—just anticipating thirst.
I think I was reading in the dim, claustrophobic room I rented that year when Thomas called from JFK. From the top of my head, my body slackened joint by joint. I took a series of deep breaths through my mouth.
He was watching a couple from his flight whom he said had traveled across a continent, then over an ocean, to bring their newly adopted baby son home. He narrated the father’s face, his wide, unblinking eyes, his quick, nervous gestures. Thomas’s voice choked. His words becoming sparse, halting.
Sara, it’s as if he’s carrying water in the middle of a drought.
I have worn my mind threadbare with doubt, but I still have every faith in Thomas. Thomas, who dreams of taking his nephew out to the park in a jogging stroller. Thomas, who sends me unsolicited photos of other people’s babies dressed in lion costumes.
There is labor in this: remembering what would be so critical to remember. It involves a cheap form of regression therapy in which I look closely at images in my memory for clues—as if they were crime scene photographs.
I lost a child once. The loss, a decade ago now, still jangles the present.
First, in dreams, I hung from a bridge by one arm to catch a child floating past on the foam of a wave. And later, I walked around at a junior high choir concert dangling my baby from her umbilical cord, both of us naked but for the shine of some fluid.
Then, in real life, I was a twenty-three year old so in love, my body ached. Even more so when I found myself suddenly alone. And alone, in a cramped bathroom in the Japanese countryside, I lost a real tatter of viscera, though, not admitting to her existence—and so not believing in it—I understood her as a sloughed scrap of myself. Myself, finite, not regenerative, a little smaller ever since.
Whatever I felt then, a decade later, has reduced to texture, sound, and material. My shirt, my futon, the wood floor between the bathroom and bed in that shoebox of an apartment—they were all soaked in tears. But it is important to be silent in Japan. I listened to Neko Case’s Fox Confessor through headphones on a Discman on the floor. My true love drowned in a dirty old pan of oil that did run from the block of a Falcon Sedan, 1969. The paper said ’75. There were no survivors. None found alive.
At this moment, I am sneaking glances at an online article called “Your Pregnancy Week by Week” in a busy hive of cubicles. A primitive placenta is burrowing in your uterus, I read. Your baby has attached. The article describes discrete processes that, remaining so abstracted from view, must manifest as strums, flutters, twinges of pain, waves rising and crashing in a small inner sea. Your baby begins its life.
Many women spend much of their lives terrified of pregnancy and simultaneously certain that it lurks around every corner, at every dim-lit party, in the furtive glances of men at dingy bars. But if a woman chooses to have a baby, particularly in her thirties, the possibility suddenly recedes into a thin layer of gold light blinking vaguely at horizon.
A plagiarizing student appears at the corner of my desk to plead her case, performing her sudden-onset cough. When she’s gone, a colleague talks at me, I think, about her doctor’s appointment. My eyes can’t seem to perform interest. A series of passersby say their hellos, and I remain unavailable, remote, still attached to the unfolding story of “my baby.” Each time I return to the article, I look over my shoulder, standing sentry against eavesdroppers.
Your baby is two layers of cells.
Having watched enough movies, it’s easy to imagine the translucent, swimmy little embryo, her eyes like flecks of bark caught in sap.
I say “I am sneaking” because I am not actually pregnant; I feel fraudulent. My only baby resides here in idea—in future and absentia.
Your baby’s organs are developing. Your baby now has unique fingerprints.
Okay, not fraudulent, exactly. In this new fragile era, I am afraid someone will congratulate me for something I want but do not yet have.
A few months ago, after seven years of unexplained abdominal hives and colossal blood loss and shrugging physicians and shoddy online research, I discovered my body was so-called copper toxic. The primary cause: the copper coil intrauterine device installed in my cervix seven years ago and consequent zinc deficiency, an element that balances copper in the body. I was zinc deficient, in part, from being a vegetarian, incidentally, for the last seven years.
Your baby buds arms and legs; its heart beats nearly twice as fast as yours.
When I explained my suspicions to my physician here in Athens, I told her about my physical symptoms: poor circulation, pelvic pain, rosacea, unexplained hives, crippling exhaustion, twenty-three-day menstrual cycles, and so on. She replied, You know we can’t help you with all of that, right?
Thomas said simply, Fuck that. It’s time to yank that thing out.
But if I removed the IUD, it wasn’t only about salvaging my health; I would remove a major barrier to pregnancy. Even if there are other means of birth control, they’re decidedly less sure-fire. Our minds, our lives, our pocket books would need to be prepared for this slight but real margin of error. If I didn’t remove the IUD, I risked major health problems and continued daily suffering. The imperative was clear, but the choice carried with it doubled gravity.
Your baby is a luminous cluster of pink-orange tissue. Your baby is the size of a kidney bean.
Despite the doctor’s hints, I don’t feel old, exactly. I still race around Athens on a speedy road bike, and I still brim with energy most mornings. But lately, I feel decidedly not young.
My friend Shamala and I laugh at how—when asked our age—we round up. She says we must need to mentally prepare ourselves for the next number. Last year, I said thirty-two, and nearing the final days of thirty-two, I suppose it’s about time to report thirty-three.
In truth, I round up to begin inhabiting a future I want but do not yet have.
My appointment day arrives. Dr. Glasser, a GYN at my university’s clinic, is forced by protocol to list options and success rates of various birth control methods, all after a mandatory seven-day abstinence in advance of removing the copper ParaGard IUD. He tells me about other, slightly less dreadful birth control devices I could get instead.
Before deciding with Thomas to remove the ParaGard, I searched my insurance policy for prescription coverage information. A few birth control pills were covered, one of which caused me crippling migraines when I was in college. I was determined never to return to those pills. So, I searched for manufacturer names of devices referred to as LARCs (Long-Acting Reversible Contraception) on the coverage list: Mirena, Implanon, Nexplanon, and even the Depo-Provera (an injection). Not a single one was covered. Out-of-pocket costs ranged from $900-1200, which does not include removal of the old IUD and insertion of the new one—two additional costs of around $200 each that, like the devices they involve, were not covered by my insurance.
Do you know not a single one of those is listed in my insurance’s prescription coverage, but Viagra is? I tell Dr. Glasser.
Dr. Glasser shakes his curly head. Don’t get me started on the evils of insurance.
Still following protocol, he asks which method of birth control we intend to use, and I answer, Condoms, I guess?
He says, Are you sure? Wouldn’t you like a bit more confidence?
Not in particular, no, I answer. I’m 32.
In less than thirty seconds, a small, blood-tinged “T” drops into the trash. Simultaneously, new air, more air, a plush room full of air unfolds around me. I only suspect it now, but I will never suffer hives again.
After what would be a “near-hit,” we rushed to a pharmacy for a pregnancy test, only to stare blankly in our kitchen at a single pink line. The symptoms were not false but their presumed conclusion was. All day, we had spiraled into frenzy—not for fear but total excitement, even embrace of the idea of a baby.
Thomas asks, Am I crazy to think we should stop playing roulette and just give it a real shot?
He is not. I have long waited to be granted and to grant myself this permission, which, in this case, is another word for faith.
So, I wake at 6:30am, I weigh myself, and I take my temperature, just like the day before. I take Saint Francis out to pee, I feed him, then I feed myself; I take all four of my vitamins while it’s still dark in the house. I search for a new concern: Which allergy medications are safe to take while trying to conceive? I peek at and try to dismiss the forums, where I could wade endlessly through gushing support (MrsMama3010: I took Zyrtec everyday my doctor said it’s fine! Sprinkling baby dust in your direction!) and apocalyptic warnings (NurseMommyTTC: During our second try, I took Allegra and miscarried at 11 weeks, so…). I take nothing and suffer and continue to worry the violent force of my sneezes will also jostle my uterus.
I pee in a cup and dip an ovulation prediction stick into the urine for ten rather than five seconds. Two lines means a surge in luteinizing hormone, which precedes ovulation. I count three days since intercourse and one more until I will likely ovulate. Too many days, I think. Thomas is away.
Your baby is a horizon.
Your baby already has hands like tiny paddles, which meet over their beating heart.
Day after day, I enter every detail of my bodily state into an app called Ovia.
If my basal body temperature remains high, as it has these 10 days post-ovulation, it will add to a list of promising signs that this time is the time. Each bodily sign has begun to feel like a badge.
As it is with suspended desire, desire unfulfilled, the promise lingering in futurity is as delicious as it is unremitting. My body is now the site of both promise and punishment, and each month, the likelihood of both is born anew. Time is cut up into segments separated by two critical hinges: roughly two weeks from the first drop of blood to ovulation (a junction) and roughly two weeks to await the next drop of blood, or better yet, its absence (a junction).
The hinges swing open shallow spaces dense with pining and fear, and as such, equally thick with doubt. The spells between junctions rattle, droop, angle off, and stall like dreaded swaths of night for the insomniac.
And in sleeplessness, I have become familiar with the jet-black hours between 2am and 6am to which I am usually blind. These hours are like a wall I cannot topple but rather must wait to collapse, as with aging concrete—becoming porous from the inside out. When daylight returns, when I tutor or teach, each hour is an exercise in surrender and survival.
It is the ninth consecutive day of continued waiting. A pile of pink and blue piss tests accumulates on our dryer—faint lines followed by no lines, dead-end signals. They are dated, and they act as a chronology of our uncertainty. Misplaced days and nights lugged toward the empty cavity of a single question.
In this duration, I have so far reported: cramping, worry, hair loss, left pelvic pain, heightened sense of smell, headache, right pelvic pain, worry, nausea, bloating, aching hip flexor, lower back pain, swollen breasts, insomnia, worry.
With barely a foot outside, I am smacked by the cherry smoke of the neighbor’s pipe across the street and two doors down. Camellias in the yard stink of pepper.
There is a little breeze pushing the flowering bushes around. I ride my scooter to work, and against each bump in the railroad tracks, my body feels fragile and unwieldy. An intrusive fantasy plays on loop the whole ride: as if I have no agency, I split and spill liquidly to the left and the scooter crashes to the right. There are no witnesses.
Recently, I read Thomas our horoscopes religiously in the mornings—often over the oatmeal and coffee I prepare, while he’s calm and fed. Chani Nicholas says, “Horoscopes are meant to be read for inspiration,” but I think I read for clues. When a horoscope says “baby” or “pregnancy”, I feel comforted, even validated, although it’s best when those buzz words appear in Thomas’s horoscope. For a moment, I feel relieved when the call to parenting comes from elsewhere, not from me, who desires so desperately. Not from a privately imploring woman.
Your baby can distinguish between light and dark.
Yesterday, his horoscope says: These planetary aspects could be auspicious for fertility. It’s important to tamp my affect while I read this, to appear as though its account is apolitical, surprising, compelling.
Another day. There is a general feeling of last chance. That’s a speculative story. I sleep fitfully, wake with the word neverness on my tongue—something issued from a dream in which a mother calls her local war the interrupter of names.
For the first time in days, my stomach feels empty.
By evening, my light flags. I’m trying to read from my phone, but my head starts to nod and the phone drops on my face.
In this stage, your baby’s mind and heart become infinitely more complicated.
A text from Thomas says he sent an email to some design guy he met at the conference in The Hague—that he inquired about a residency next summer.
Wouldn’t that be great? Summer in Rotterdam?
My chest fevers. I can only say, If there’s no baby.
He says, Of course. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.
Each day I listen to any legible sign my body utters, even those it withholds. I record them dutifully, as if the process of recording itself might manifest a child. It’s all I can do: a set of concrete operations done with hope for something largely up to chance.
I decline yet again to meet a friend at a bar. A bar, so drafty with others’ desires, is barren.
The train blows my weight an inch.
It helps to have an animal at home whose needs, so urgent, blare above other noise.
I confessed to Shamala a month ago I thought I was pregnant (a test said so). And then I confessed that the test was wrong. Not wrong, exactly, but so temporarily true that the event’s ontology itself is called into question. The first part, the positive, still felt thrilling to say aloud to my friend, as if I was a finalist for pregnancy, as if I almost won. That’s the unfathomable thing about desiring a child: I feel unlucky when my body fails to be nauseated, fails to swell or ache. I am beckoning hardship.
Everything is different in movies; one single test communicates certain news. But sometimes a pregnancy begins but ends in tatters—or many pregnancies do. And some women wait years, and some women wait so long they must give up on waiting. The instability of my odds is what made trying so simple, actually. What if we tried and we found ourselves among the lovers—as Barthes also says, performing lunatic chores—waiting and waiting?
I tell Shamala we’re in the same boat—last month and this month—what they call, rather coldly, a chemical pregnancy: faint blue crosses and two pink parallel lines, followed by a second test with only one line, one line pointing forward like an arrow toward future where another chance lies—another chance for enchantment, another chance for disenchantment.
Shamala says, You could have a baby!—her eyebrows raised, eyes electric.
And I say, I know! But I will have to be pregnant first.
She says, Oh yeah, and that part’s hard. Like, it might mean a lot of physical difficulty.
I tell her—and I can’t remember how—that nothing else now glows for me as brightly as longing for that specific pain, its tenuous body, its promising beginning here in a sentence.
Image: Emma McNally
Sara Renee Marshall's writing has appeared in jubilat, Colorado Review, OmniVerse, chapbooks, and elsewhere. With Thomas and their baby, Rosa, she lives in Georgia.