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Life

Lit Thursday: Baby Fever

Gregg Kulick

A baby was the thing we were trying to keep out. A baby was a consequence. A fuckup. Or it had been until recently, when, like a joke that slowly becomes sincere, I started imagining myself pregnant in a nightgown. Strangely, I never imagined the baby. Only me, a mother. How it might change me or wake me up. Make me better.

I had a hunch I was pregnant when we rode our bikes to the book fair on a Sunday in mid-September. We were taking wide turns through backstreets — the air perfect, the sun just out — and suddenly I stopped in the middle of the road, unable to keep pedaling. “Hey!” I called after Dustin and he looked back from his bike and gestured over his shoulder for me to keep going.

“We’re almost there,” he said, “come on,” and rode off without asking me if I was okay. I hated him. I got off my bike, shaking my head, and spite-walked beside it along the side of the road. I’d just agreed to marry Dustin the week before, which made every interaction between us extra-meaningful. I wasn’t just calling after him on my bike today, I was facing a lifetime of it. And now I had this hunch, a feeling — call it a woman’s intuition — centered in my tits, which at first simply ached and now were full-on itching, like an allergic reaction to all of this. I was sure, scared of how sure I was.

He came back. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know,” I lied, really crying then. “It’s fine.” But I knew. I had no proof, no test, just this body that I’d presided over for 29 years, a mystery still.

***

That night, after the book fair and a day of avoiding the subject, I walked to meet my friends at a bar in the neighborhood. I found Halle and Sara and Lindsay at the end of the bar. We’d all been friends since our early twenties, and had coached each other through countless bad jobs and disappointing non-relationships. I couldn’t wait to freak out at them.

“So, guys,” I said, once we all had our drinks. “I don’t know really when my period was due but I think it’s late…I think I’m pregnant.” I had an imaginary flashlight under my chin. “And my boobs hurt!” I expected a chorus of gasps but they seemed unfazed.

“Well, did you take a test?” Halle asked now, a fair question.

“No,” I said. “I will.” I knew she understood why I hadn’t done it yet. There was something appealing about the not-knowing, about living in suspense, trading worst-case scenarios, watching our friends react, watching ourselves react. How many nights had we spent huddled in the corner of this same bar, convinced we were pregnant even when it wasn’t possible? “I mean, yeah, he wore a condom but you never know—” Was there some excitement there underneath the performance of panic? “I’d have to get a new job. Or move home and live with my mom?” It was a way of checking in on your life, on what you’d be willing to lose if everything changed. Didn’t everything changing hold some appeal?

I’d been with Dustin for three years then, and the subject of babies felt more dangerous than ever. We rarely broached the subject directly but more and more I would do things like hand him my phone in the dark of our bedroom with a daring “Look at this baby!” Secretly wishing that one of them would be so cute that he’d sit up in bed, look into my eyes, and say, Let’s do it. Let’s have a child together.

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Instead this possible future — “maybe someday” — became a private preoccupation, one I would ruminate on when he was on the other side of our railroad apartment and I could secretly read the birth stories of strangers on the internet. I’d send the scarier ones to my friend Halle. Subject: harrowing!

Oh my Godddddddd, she’d reply, then she’d send me a link to the personal blog of someone with eight kids.

“I’m sure you’re not pregnant,” Lindsay said in the bar, waving her hand like she was waving away the possibility. “I’m sure it’s just stress.”

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly feeling stupid for bringing it up. And also oddly motivated to prove her wrong.

“Take a test, dude!” Halle shouted after me when we said goodbye.

***

The next afternoon, after another day of googling instead of working, I stood up from my desk and went out the door, crossing the street to the drugstore. I went through the automatic doors, down the fluorescently lit aisles, and grabbed the most expensive test I could find — $23.99 and digital, advertised as error-proof.

PREGNANT

NOT PREGNANT

It wasn’t just the phrasing that made me want it to say yes. Pregnant meant new and different, pregnant meant we were fucked but maybe in a redeeming way. Pregnant meant throwing up our hands, giving ourselves over to fate, doing something crazy. It seemed romantic, reckless, wild, like packing up all our stuff and going on a long trip with no itinerary. For twenty years. No, for forever.

When Dustin got home from work I gestured toward the pink box then walked away, embarrassed, feeling a sort of pregnancy-test impostor syndrome. Like, Who am I to be taking this? It looked like a set piece in someone else’s life.

“Ooh, hoo, hoo,” he said, kissing me hello.

I tried not to smile. I tried to conjure some dread. “I’ll take it in the morning,” I announced. “Supposedly that’s when it’s most accurate.”

Dustin gave me a funny look and shrugged. I wanted to prolong the ambiguity for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate, like when you want dessert but don’t order it at a restaurant — self-denial as reflex. I was dying to know but also wanting to spend one more night as not-a-mother.

***

When Dustin woke up to pee the next morning, I told him to check the test that I’d peed on and left on the back of the toilet without looking at it.

“It says pregnant,” he called from the bathroom.

No!” I shouted.

“Well, that’s what it says.” He was standing there in American Apparel underwear, shirtless, leaning in the doorway, holding it with a strange casualness, like it was a cigarette or his toothbrush and not a harbinger of things to come.

He came over to me, pulled off the blankets, and kissed me hard. Before we let the news settle in, he pulled off my underwear and then his and we had rushed, crazed sex. He didn’t stop to rustle around for a condom, didn’t pull out and come on my stomach. I was pregnant. We came at the same time and then collapsed. We both stared at the ceiling.

Breakfast was quiet. I was in his T-shirt feeling a brand-new sort of bodily vulnerability, like what if a spider crawled up my leg and up my birth canal and bit the baby?

“Are you freaking out?” I asked.

“No,” he said, and he gestured for me to come sit in his lap. Quiet tears streamed down my face.

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“Don’t freak out!” I said when he left for work. Then I got back in bed, took out my laptop, and immediately chatted Halle.

Hiiiiiiii.

Did you take a test?

Yep.

?????

YEP.

We met on the corner of my block ten minutes later. She held out her arms as I walked up to her. “Congratulations, dude! You’re going to be a great mom.”

I pulled away. “Ha, no, I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”

“Okay,” she said, stopping on the sidewalk on our way to grab breakfast. “Obviously you are going to have the baby but I am totally willing to humor you by having this debate.”

An hour later, after we had talked about money, about health care, about changing Dustin’s and my wedding date, we were back on the sidewalk in search of prenatal vitamins. “But if we do have the baby, we want it to have a spine, right?” Halle and I giggled in the aisles of Duane Reade. Part of me loved this feeling of being steamrolled by life, of being totally fucked. It was funny, wasn’t it, to go through with something that was so clearly a bad idea?

“I should go work,” I declared to Halle when we were out on the street, my contraband in a plastic bag around my wrist. “I need to get some writing done today.” As if I weren’t going to go sit in the library and panic-Google for the next five hours.

How much do babies cost per year

“I regret having my child”

abortion new york city

best time to have a baby

baby age 29

writing career, baby

cost of birth without health insurance new york city

***

I met Dustin in a church basement after he got off work that night. Not to pray but to pick up our CSA share. I thought of us lugging a newborn down the steps, tried to imagine carrying all these vegetables and a baby too.

“I talked to Amy today,” I said. “She says she got an abortion on the Upper East Side.”

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “And you had this talk out of nowhere, huh?”

I rolled my eyes, threw tomatoes in a tote bag. “Anyway, she said they put her to sleep and when she woke up, she was sitting in a big armchair. Then she ate cookies. Then she left.”

“Cookies, eh? That doesn’t sound so bad. Were they good cookies?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “What do you mean?”

“What?”

Without saying anything I fled, rushing through pears and flowers and up the steps of the church basement until I was back out in the September air. Here I was, the hysterical pregnant woman already. I had been trying to appear reasonable, to be (or appear to be) open to his preferences, as if having a baby were like choosing where to order takeout from. Whatever you want!

When Dustin caught up to me he had a tote bag over each arm, bayonets of kale poking out from under his armpits. “Well, for me,” he finally said, as we walked home in stride, “to me, and of course my opinion only counts so much, but I just don’t know why we would do it when we aren’t ready.”

Something sank in me. His reaction was logical but somehow I hadn’t anticipated it — it seemed impossible that we could love each other and yet feel so different, want such different things. I had told myself that I was willing to get an abortion for him. Of course I was. Right? That’s what a reasonable person would say. I don’t want to have a baby with you if you don’t want one. Wasn’t that what people said on TV?

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“We know we want a kid eventually,” he said. “In a couple of years we can have one.”

“But isn’t that kind of dumb? To be like, Well, we want you but not yet. Sorry, the timing is off. I mean, isn’t this bigger than that?”

“Come on. We can have this baby again in a couple of years.”

“This baby?” My voice broke. He was a stranger to me now, my mortal enemy with pesticide-free produce slung over his shoulder. How had I ever loved him at all?

“Yes. This baby. Our baby. In a couple of years. After we travel. When we have more money. Once we are married. We can do it again! It will be the same baby.”

I laughed out loud. “Dustin,” I said. “That’s literally what it won’t be, this particular baby.” This was weirdly unlike him; he was normally correcting my magical thinking. I felt like he was being deliberately stupid when he needed to be exactly the opposite. Life was calling for a degree of seriousness we hadn’t summoned before. We walked the rest of the way home without talking. I hung back just behind him, not wanting to fall apart on the street.

When we finally got home, I unlocked the door, dropped my tote bag full of produce, and sobbed, standing in the middle of the room on the peeling linoleum. Dustin was trying to take away my baby, the one I’d tried to be so cool about. The one I’d been afraid to say I wanted. The one we could decidedly not have “again” in a couple of years. He came up behind me and tried to hold me, I think.

My truest feelings about the baby began and ended with I want it. It was inside of me and I wanted it, and I knew I could take care of it, but for some reason that counted for only so much. I tried to shut out that part of me. That was the hysterical woman in me. That was the baby fever — purely hormonal; ridiculous. The sort of thing you were supposed to ignore when you were a smart woman. When you were a woman in New York City. When you were a woman with ambitions that ran as deep as your feelings, you were supposed to trust the ambitions, not the feelings. Most of us swore we were not interested in having children, and those who might be were supposed to act blasé about the idea. The only acceptable response, other than “God, no,” to the question of wanting children, was “Oh, maybe someday.” A baby is never a particularly good idea, and a baby was an especially bad idea for us.

That could have — should have, maybe — been the end of it, but now that it might be taken from me, I c¬ouldn’t deny it: I wanted Dustin to hold my hand and tell me what a good mother I’d be, how beautiful I’d be when I blew up like a balloon, how he couldn’t wait.

I came out of the bathroom and gripped the door of the refrigerator, staring straight ahead. “If we don’t have this baby,” I said, through snotty tears, “and I won’t do it if you don’t want to, but if we don’t, then I can’t…guarantee anything.”

“What do you mean, guarantee?” Dustin said, scared.

“I just, I don’t know what that would do to us,” I managed. “I don’t know if I would be able to forgive you. I can’t promise you I would.”

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“Well, that’s it, then,” he said. “Then we’re going to do it.” He was breathless. “I need a minute,” he said and went to the other side of the apartment. He sat on the couch in the dark. We were silent. I took a shower just to be able to close a door.

Excerpted from the book And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Copyright © 2018 by Meaghan O’Connell. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.