Sunday, September 14, 2008

Chapter 4: Beach Blanket Ballistic

They know something is odd. My mother can smell it like a bloodhound smells tracks. She sneaks incendiary glances in my direction from the make-up mirror on her sun visor. I imagine that my father is just taking her word for it, though not believing that things might be as bad as she is making them out to be. So here I sit, hunched in the back of the car, knees pressing into the back of my father’s seat like I’ve done on every other family trip since the beginning of memorable time, only this time I’m trying desperately to ignore the roller coaster in my stomach.

“When will Nathan make it down?” My mother is quizzing me from the mirror again.

“He said sometime tomorrow.” I reply, and then, “What!”

“What do you mean, what?” she asks incredulously.

“You keep staring at me from the mirror is what.” I shoot back.

“Now, now,” my father breaks in with an ultimatum, “who’s ready to stop for breakfast?”

“No, why do you keep looking at me?” I ask her again, ignoring the sigh coming from the driver seat.

“Are you feeling alright?” she says.

“Fine, just hungry.” I reply, a tight line slashed across the pale skin where my lips usually rest. I’m trying boldly to keep it together until we reach a place to stop.

“You shouldn’t let your blood sugar get too low. You know I used to have blood sugar problems. You need to eat something when you get up in the morning…orange juice, crackers, something.” My mother seems temporarily satisfied. She continues, “We’ll stop up here. There’s a diner at the next exit.”

My stomach flops and I take a deep breath. “Well, hurry. I feel sick because I haven’t eaten anything.”

She shoots me a look again, but just then my father pulls off the highway and into the parking lot of a greasy spoon.

“Here we are,” he sings. I loathe his happy oblivion. If he only knew he wouldn’t be so fucking happy. And my mother! I’m not going to be able to stand this for an entire week with her looking worried and my father in a state of denial.

“Great.” I hop out of the car and rush ahead to the restaurant. The smell of pork fat and eggs mingled with dry toast explodes as I swing open the door. This is too much! Too many scents waft in my direction and my stomach lurches into a double back handspring. I sprint for the bathroom as my parents reach the door.

I sit in the stall, mulling over my predicament. Nathan and I decided that we would tell my parents about the pregnancy together once the vacation neared its end. Now I’m not sure how we can do that. I can still hide my growing belly below baggy shirts and sweats, but I can’t conceal the morning sickness claiming bouts of indigestion and bad seafood. Not for an entire week.

As I am pondering this I hear the door open and smell a mixture of cigarette smoke and White Diamonds.

“Honey, are you alright?” My mother calls into the room.

“Yes, fine,” I fake exasperation.

“Well, you’ve been gone a while and we were wondering what you’d like to drink.” Then, after a moment and with more severity, “I sure hope your attitude changes this week. I know going on a vacation with your parents is not the most exciting thing for someone your age, but you could act a little bit more mature. We tried to make it nicer for you by inviting Nathan, and I sure hope he acts a little better than you have so far on this trip.”

She thinks I’m acting like a brat. For god’s sake, even without the extenuating circumstances, isn’t a person allowed to have a bad day without being labeled spoiled and getting a lecture about how to act at the age of twenty? I soften though, thinking about how short I’ve been with my parents since I returned from school. It’s been nearly impossible to keep my secret from them, and especially from my mother since we are very close.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just tired and hungry. You know how I get.”

“Well, eat something.” She says, but softer, “what do you want to drink, so I can tell the waitress?”

“Milk would be good.” I say without thinking.

“Milk? Since when do you drink milk?” My mother is instantly suspicious again. I don’t think I’ve ordered milk since I was in diapers.

“Oh, I just thought it would be good to start drinking more of it, you know, for the calcium.” I will my voice to sound steady and nonchalant.

“Hmm.” She murmurs. I hear her crumple a paper towel and open the door to leave.

(To Be Continued)

Chapter 3: The Reluctant Knight

I drive home in a kind of stupor, the mantra “I’m pregnant” streaming through my mind. I am on autopilot at this point. Some part of my body is willing itself to get back to my apartment and crawl under the covers. When I reach the parking lot, I snap out of my trance and my brain starts humming. I have to call Nathan, right away. I can’t tell my parents, not yet. I need to plan.

I rush up the three flights of stairs to my apartment and struggle with the key in the lock. Fatso, my cat, runs at the sound of the key and tangles himself between my feet as I rush in from the hallway. Shoving him down the hall to many protesting mews, I throw my purse down onto the sofa bed in the living room and grab the phone.

My heart is hammering, and the apartment seems eerily quiet. What am I going to say? Should I tell Nathan on the phone? Maybe I should tell him I have to talk to him about something in person and I need for him to drive the three hours from home tonight. I hate the thought of withholding the information, and I know he would badger me until I tell him anyway. Better to just tell him over the phone and see how he reacts. But I really want him to be here with me when I tell him. I am feeling much more upset than I imagined I would when the pregnancy was a hypothetical scenario.

I dial Nathan’s number so fast that I make a mistake. The operator comes on saying, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up…” Shit. I try again. This time there is ringing from the other side of the communications universe. Ringing, and more ringing. Damn it, Nathan, pick up. I glance at the clock, five fifteen. He is probably at work.

I call the restaurant where Nathan works and hear the perky voice of one of the waitresses on the other end. The one who answers is named Bethany.

“Frederick’s, how may I help you.” She chirps.

“Yeah, hi, is Nathan there?” I ask.

“Hold on.” Her chipper tone drops immediately and I can hear her walking away from the phone, calling out, “Anyone seen Nathan, is he here yet?” Mumblings in the background blend with the syncopated pop music playing over the restaurant’s loud system. I can hear Bethany’s laughter approaching the phone, and then her tone changes to indifference again.

“Um, nope, he’s not here yet. Should be here soon. You want to leave a message?” she asks.

“Yeah, sure. Could you tell him that his girlfriend called and it’s really very important that he calls me back right when he arrives? Thanks.”

“Yep, call his girlfriend. Hey, I didn’t know Nathan had a girlfriend. How long you guy’s been going out?” she asks incredulously.

“Um, about a year…could you please just tell him to call me? I’m down at school.” I ask again.

“Sure, sure.” She says, hanging up the phone.

I sit down on the couch and imagine what I am going to say to Nathan when he calls.

Hi honey, you know that night a few weeks ago when you were visiting and that condom broke? Well, guess what!

No, it’s serious, I can’t joke around about it. I can feel the sizzling peptic acid in my stomach as the muscles twist into tight knots.

Hi, Nathan, I’ve got something important to talk to you about and I need you to be here with me tonight. I’m pregnant.

Gurgling noises emit from my gut.

Nathan, I’m pregnant.

That’s direct and to the point. A long sloshing sigh rises from my intestines. I lay down and close my eyes.

Noises rise from the haze of my unconsciousness: car doors, voices, and laughter; a knocking at the door of the apartment downstairs. Groggily, I sit up and peer into the evening darkness that envelops the living room. My stomach rumbles, and I jolt into awareness. What time is it! Jumping off the couch, I check the clock over the stove…almost eight thirty. Did I sleep through Nathan’s return call? The message light is not blinking on the answering machine. He hasn’t called.

New insecurities arise in my mind, like why didn’t he call when I said it was important to do so. I don’t make a habit of calling him at work. Maybe he didn’t get the message. Maybe that ditz on the phone didn’t write it down and then became busy and forgot.

I pick up the phone and glance at my phone book for Nathan’s work number. Punching in the numbers, I notice that I’m not breathing very deeply and that I need to inhale. The first thing I hear is a grating pop beat.

“Frederick’s, how can I help you?” It’s a man’s tinny voice this time. I can imagine him with a pencil thin mustache and slicked back hair.

“Yes, is Nathan there?”

“He’s waiting tables right now, can I take a message?” I consider leaving one again, but don’t.

“No, it’s very important. I’ll wait,” I tell him.

“’K. It’ll be a minute,” he says, putting me on hold.

The phone relays an advertisement about two for one hot wings on Wednesday nights. It then loops into “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”. Just as I am becoming mesmerized by Jerry Lewis’ peppy rhythm, a new voice breaks in.

“This is Nathan,” he says quickly.

“Nathan, it’s me. Hi.” Now that he is on the phone, I’m at a loss.

“Hi there,” he says, “it’s good to hear from you, but we’re really slammed right now. Sherry called in sick and I’m working half of her tables. Can I call you back?”

“Did you get my message from before,” I ask meekly.

“No, what message?” He sounds sincere. I knew that bitch wasn’t reliable.

“I left a message saying it was important.”

This is not how I had imagined telling him, in the middle of a busy shift at work; but I need to see him so badly right now, to have him hold me and tell me it will be alright, to know what he wants to do.

“OK, what’s up,” he asks, sounding a bit miffed.

“It’s really serious, I hate to tell you right now,” I say.

“Well, I can call you back later or tomorrow because I don’t get off until one,” he suggests, sounding hopeful. I can hear a low baratone voice calling his name from a few feet away.

“No, can you have someone take your shift for a minute and go to a phone in the back,” I ask him.

He must have heard the pleading tone in my voice because he says, “Well, we’re really busy right now, but hang on.” I can hear him speaking to someone nearby.

“OK, hang on a minute, I’m switching to Tyrell’s office in the back.” He puts me on hold, left to the endless loop of hot wings and Jerry Lewis again.

“Hey, back,” he says. “Now what’s so important? Are you okay? What’s the emergency?” Now he sounds more like himself, more concerned and relaxed, ready to tackle any situation.

“I’m pregnant.” I say it with firmness and conviction. It feels good to say it, feels like the truth.

He says nothing for a long moment; stagnant silence hangs between us over the landline.

“Nathan…hello,” I say softly.

“Yeah,” he says, “still here.”

“Um, did you hear me, I said I’m pregnant?”

I don’t know what else to say, he isn’t responding and that doesn’t seem like a good sign. My mind suddenly shifts into planning overdrive. Nathan wants nothing to do with me, I will have to get a handle on this thing by myself, tell my parents in a couple of weeks after I visit the doctor and make sure the pregnancy sticks.

“I heard you.” Nathan’s voice rips into my thoughts. “Are you sure? I mean, how can you…how do you know for sure?

“I went to the Women’s Center and took a test.”

“By yourself,” he mutters, his words trailing away as he speaks.

“Yeah, I really need you down here tonight. We need to talk about this. I need you.” I know I sound whinny, hate to sound that way, but I’m terrified.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll talk to Tyrell. It may be a little while, but I’ll come down as soon as I can get off from work.”

“Try to get off soon,” my voice hitches in my throat, “I just need…”

“Yeah, as soon as I can get off, I promise.” He hangs up the phone and I stand staring at the receiver in my hand.

Chapter 2: In the Company of Many

A nondescript tinted glass door with block letters reading Blacksburg Women’s Center lies between me and an uncertain future. I have come to the Center between classes, but I’m not thinking about Margaret Sanger or women’s liberation right now. I’m not pondering the ranks of women I am about to join in the awesome tradition of pregnancy testing. Somewhere in my mind I appreciate the fact that I am able to enter this clinic, very privately take a pregnancy test, and talk to a counselor; but the thought that is at the forefront of my mind is whether I drank enough water before coming here to be able to pee into the sterilized cup

“Please sign in.”

Without looking up, a technician sitting behind a glass partition beckons me to the desk in front of her and hands me a clipboard. The list on the paper is short, so maybe I won’t have to wait too long to be seen. I sign my name and phone number, and hand the clipboard back to the woman behind the glass.

“Have you visited us before,” she asks while entering something into the computer. Her highly glossed fingers rap across the keyboard like rain.


“And what are you here for today,” she continues, her fingers expertly executing the punctuated dance on the keyboard. She has not bothered to make eye contact.

“Um,” I clear my throat, “I want to take a pregnancy test.”

I can barely get this out, attempting to make my voice inaudible even though there are only two other women in the office.

“I see.” She finally raises her head and a smile reaches her eyes, “Well, that’s eight dollars then.” I notice she has fine laugh lines around the outer corners of her bold mouth.

I slide the money through the hole in the glass and finger the receipt that she hands back to me.

“You may sit in the waiting area. We’re not very busy today, so it won’t be too long.” Her smile reaches into the depths of her eyes now, as she motions to the chairs behind me.

The other women glance up as I cross the room. Neither appears nervous with crossed legs and magazines flipping. The receipt remains in my hand and I notice its bounce as I sit still in the boxy chair. My hands are trembling now. I’m probably pregnant. Calm down, I tell myself. It’s nothing. Everyone is right and you’re going to feel stupid for freaking out about this whole thing when the doctor tells you the test is negative. My breath is coming in shallow snuffs now, and I’m going to burst out of my skin. I am alone here, truly alone with no advocate other than myself. Am I strong enough to hear this? Am I strong enough to do this?

The technician is saying something through the glass.

“Miss...Miss? You can come back now.” She gives me that smile as the final stages of my meltdown manifest in my posture, “It’s going to be okay.”

I cross through the threshold and she hands me the cup on the other side, pointing me down the hall to the bathroom on the left.

“When you are finished you just put the cup in the rotating cubby and slide it over to the lab, okay sweetie?”

“Okay,” I choke.

I close the bathroom door on what seems like the last comfort available. After following the procedural protocol for giving a urine sample, I rotate my fate over to the lab and wash my hands, desperately trying to alleviate their trembling by running them under cold water from the tap.

The amiable receptionist sees me exit the bathroom and says, “You can just have a seat in the waiting room. They will call you back in about ten minutes.”

Back to the stiff chair and the glossy rags; the two women who were formerly in the waiting room have left and I am alone. My leg jerks tellingly up and down on my knee as time behaves like a scrawny kid climbing up the rope in gym class.

“Miss, the counselor will see you now.”

A square, portly woman approaches me briskly, stretching her hand, then ushering me into a private room with walls covered in advertising for various contraceptive devices and hotline numbers. We sit opposite each other at a cavernous desk, she with pamphlets lined up like a game of blackjack, and I with my eyes on their gleaming covers.

She begins, “Well, your test came back positive.” She pauses for a moment, possibly due to the audible inhalation of breath from somewhere deep within my chest. “You were expecting this, or no?”

Now I am feeling insecure, sheepish even, “Well, I kind of thought…”

“It will be okay,” she starts. Everyone keeps trying to tell me this. “Have you thought about your options? Are you in a position to keep the baby, or have you considered aborting the pregnancy? Or adoption, there are many families out there who wish to have an infant to love and raise.”

My mind is reeling. Phrases like “unwed mother”, “abortion”, and “adoption” cartwheel through my psyche. This is as real as it gets. I mean, I was just going with the logical conclusion all these weeks, the worst case scenario, if you will; but now the truth has me in a vice.

The counselor is staring at me.

“Um, I am going to keep the baby,” I say, forcing myself to look at her, to show some kind of conviction. A slight sigh escapes her, and do I detect a rolling of the eyes?

She recovers, saying, “Of course. Well, let me just give you some information to take with you to look over. You don’t have to make up your mind today, there is time for that.”

She grabs a Technicolor array of pamphlets and offers each accordingly.

“This pamphlet will give you some information about Medicaid and tell you a little bit about visiting a doctor. This pamphlet gives you a list of adoption agencies. And this one,” she taps the one with a purple cover, “gives you some information pertaining to abortion.” She hands the last pamphlet to me pointedly.

“Do you have any questions about any of these options?”

Questions? My mind seems to have split in two. One side is abuzz with noise and static, while the other side seems to have slipped into stasis. It is from the void that clarity surfaces and I muster the response, “No, no questions right now,” and then, “thank you.”

“Well, okay then, just sign these forms stating that we talked about your options and if you have any questions, please call the number on this card. You may pick up your test results at the front counter. You will need to take them to the doctor on your first visit, or they will bill you for another test and it will be more expensive through the doctor’s office.” She escorts me to the front of the building and pauses before turning around.

“Good luck.”

I pick up the test results from the receptionist, searching for that reassuring smile. She, however, is deep in conversation and doesn’t look up as I take the paper and leave through the gleaming, glass door.

Chapter 1: When Bad Condoms Happen to Good People

O.K. I am not freaking out. I mean, I am freaking out, but not totally. Yes, I am totally freaking out. I'm late. Eight days to be exact. But I know, I just know, without a doubt that I am pregnant. I bought the book What to Expect When You're Expecting, and I have all the symptoms, the most obvious one being a late period.

Three weeks ago, my boyfriend was visiting for the weekend. We hadn't seen each other since May when the spring semester ended; and though it appeared that we were both still devoted to the relationship, there was an odd lack of comfort between us. In our case, this tension equated to having sex...a lot. During one particularly raucous night of avoidance, the condom we were using snapped at the crucial moment. Nathan sprang off of me faster than a needle hides in a haystack, and we looked at one another, speechless, as he gingerly pulled the devestated condom off.

"Shit." His face buckled as he stared down at the broken remnants of security in his hand and then tossed it onto the bedside table. It lay there like a soggy second skin.

"Yeah...I'm ovulating, ohmygod...oh shit," I said. It didn't take long before the realization of what had happened floored me like lead safe.

"Maaaannnnnn," he said, scooping the sopping hair out of his eyes. He rose slightly and swung out of bed to move to the bathroom and I crumpled back onto the bed. I became the water pouring into the sink, my pounding heart, the air conditioning unit whirring to life below my bedroom window, the ticking of my alarm clock on the table beside my head.

Nathan padded, naked and shivering, back over to the bed and snuggled under the sheets. He was damp and musky next to me. When I looked at him, his eyes were lightly closed and his face serene as he breathed into my shoulder with his arm draped lazily across my rib cage. He showed no visible signs of worry, not even the fluttering wrinkle of a frown. Only the deep, meditative consciousness of his breath gave away any duress.

"I'm ovulating," I fumed, throwing him off of me and bolting into a sitting position.

"Hey!" Nathan yelled, alert now, "What the hell?"

I shot him a look to split him in half.

"Oh, nothing! I just thought that the fact that a condom broke inside of me containing thousands of your sperm during the exact peak of my ovulation cycle might concern you slightly. It's highly likely that I could become pregnant from this encounter, changing the course of my life and yours, and you seem to want to go to sleep!" My eyes stalked his face with the intensity of a nocturnal hunter.

"Okay, okay," he said, placating me by putting his hands on my shoulders and coaxing me back down, "it's a little freaky."

He pulled my head over to his shoulder and brushed stray hairs from my face, "But really, what are the chances that you will get pregnant from this one time? We've had sex almost every day for the past year and you don't honestly believe that this one time is going to be it, do you?"

I knew he was trying to reassure himself as much as he was attempting to assuage me. Nathan is a lucky person. He takes risks and usually ends up benefiting from them. In fact, I've never met anyone else with such divine intervention; but when I looked into his eyes I saw uncertainty. He wanted me to tell him it was going to be okay, but I lay down instead.

"We'll be okay," he said dismissively, "whatever, it'll be okay. But you're not pregnant, so don't stress." Cocooned in the humidity of the wilted sheets, Nathan rolled away from me.

I stared at the ceiling and thought about what I would do if I was pregnant. I was in my last year of college, living alone off campus. I didn't have a job because my parents had generously offered to pay for my apartment and tuition for the summer so that I could concentrate on school. How would I manage? I wanted to finish school. Would it work out so that I could finish if I was pregnant? Would Nathan stay with me?

My hands worked their way down to my stomach and I lightly rubbed my belly. I stopped when I became conscious of it, but thought that I would rather enjoy having a baby. Granted, I had next to no experience with children of any kind. I am an only child, so I never had any younger siblings for whom to care. In fact, the one time in my life that I was asked to babysit, the youngest sibling pulled a large clever on his older sibling, resulting in a call to the police and a missing preteen. So I couldn't really go by experience.

Despite that, I decided to explore the idea, and I lay there thinking that I was open to the possibility of being a mother. I was suddenly excited by the chance that I might have a connection to Nathan for as long as we were both alive. Studying Nathan's boyish face in the soft light, I felt more for him than I'd ever felt at any time during our relationship. I fell asleep thinking about Nathan and our possible baby and happily ever after.

Twenty-one days later, I'm sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for my friend Alyson, eight days late and reading What to Expect. To be honest, I am at a loss. I want to take a test, but I'm positive that I really don't want to know for sure. I'm worried about the repercussions of a pregnancy at this point in my life, but a small part of me is also afraid the test might be negative.

"Hey, sorry I am late," Alyson exhales, breezing up to the fifty's style Formica topped table where I'm sitting. She glides into an empty chair, plopping her psych texts onto the floor. Stretching her coltish legs long, she leans back and swings a waterfall of chestnut hair behind her. She glances at my book and back at me, asking quizzically, "What are you reading?"

"Um...well," I show her the book.

"Fuck off, you are not!" Alyson's chair scrapes the floor and her face opens in surprise. She quickly grabs the chair next to me and scoots it closer. "What happened? Are you sure?"

I relate the weekend visit from Nathan as Alyson nods, the details of my story visibly reflected in her changing face.

"So, what does he say?"

"Not a whole lot. I mean, we haven't really talked about it much. I tried to get him to address it before he left, but he kept saying not to worry about it and that we would deal with it if it really happens. I don't think he believes there is a real possibility that it could happen. But I am positive. I know my body, and something is definitely different."

Alyson begins to speak while shaking her head, but my eyes stop any nay saying. Instead, she tries the roundabout route.

"What do you mean, different? Are you sick already? Stress can cause you to miss your period, you know?"

Sick, I thought. No, not sick. I don't feel morning sickness yet and I don't want to eat pickles with frosting. My body just feels off. For one thing, I feel like a dirigible, ready to lift off the ground at any moment; and my breasts are hot and sore.

"I don't know, it's just different. It's hard to explain."

Alyson looks at me cynically and says, "Well, I don't think you should worry about it. Nathan is right. I mean, what are the odds?"

She starts to peruse the menu that is meaningfully stuck between an aluminum napkin holder and the salt and pepper shakers. Seconds later, she flings the menu on the tabletop.

"But really, what are you going to do?"

I had thought about this one.

"I'm going over to the Women's Center today to take a test."

"Will they give you a test this early?" she asks.

"I know they tell you to wait until you are at least a couple of weeks late, but something is going on. It's only eight bucks to take the test anyway. That's cheaper than a drugstore test. If it's negative, we can go celebrate at The Loft tonight."

With this I give Alyson the brightest smile I can muster. It's a small joke between us, because I just turned legal last month. She doesn't laugh.

"Are you going to keep it, you know, if you are?" Her question is tentative.

I have thought about this question as well, quite a bit in fact. Yes, I will keep the baby even if Nathan wants nothing to do with it, or me, when he finds out. You know, I have always wanted to be a mother and I know I'll be a loving one when it happens. I've had a fortuitous life where my parents told me I could do or be anything I put my mind toward. It will be near graduation when the baby is due and if I take eighteen hours during the fall semester and eighteen in the spring, then I will graduation on time. Most of the courses I have to finish are in literature or writing, so I won't have anything terribly unfamiliar to learn. If Nathan wants nothing to do with this enterprise, then after graduation I will go back home and get a job. I will have to place the baby in daycare, but I think I can make this work.

"Yes," I answer, "I'm going to keep it."

"Wow," she pauses, “I would go with you today, but I have a class this afternoon."

She says this convincingly enough, but the slight hitch in her voice suggests that she is glad to have an excuse not to go with me.

"No, that's okay. I mean, I'd feel like I wasted your time anyway, you know, if I'm not."

That is the truth. I'm in this by myself until I know with all certainty that I am pregnant. If I am, things can start happening, but until that point it's all up in the air.