“I had one of these done when I was younger,” I tell the doctor, hating the way I can hear my voice shake. I clear my throat. “They were checking my appendix, or something. I was really young.”
“This will be cold,” he says.
Peter squeezes my hand.
“Probably only six or seven years—shit! Sorry. It is cold. I pretended I was pregnant, back then. When I was a kid. I was obsessed with babies.”
Peter laughs. “She’s a little nervous. We haven’t told anyone we’re pregnant yet.” His jaw tenses.
“Well, there’s nothing to be nervous about,” the doctor says. “Look there. Hear that? That’s the heartbeat. There’s your little baby.”
“Oh, my God.” Peter squeezes my hand again, tighter. “Babe, there it is.”
I stare at the screen, at the smudge that we’ve tried time after time again for, the smudge I was hoping to finally see this time. For the first time since seeing those two lines on the test, I don’t feel sick.
“Babe?” Peter repeats.
“Y-Yeah,” I say. “Sorry, I just… wow.”
The doctor begins to wipe the goo from my stomach. “Everything is perfect so far.”
“Is it a boy or a g—”
“Oh, it’s far too early to tell,” he says, pulling my shirt back over my stomach. He didn’t get all of the goo; some of it sticks to my shirt. “However,” he begins, noticing the look on my face, “it is perfectly fine to tell people.”
Peter says something, looking at me for approval, but I’m not hearing him. The sick feeling has returned.
The day Dad left, I came home from school to find my mom and Aunt Kelly smoking cigarettes in the kitchen and drinking red wine. Their teeth were stained from it. I thought they were drinking Kool-Aid at first.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked them later that night, emerging from my room for the first time all evening. My stomach was growling loudly.
Mom sighed and I saw her mascara-streaked, bloated face, and before she could come up with a lie, Aunt Kelly said, “He left. It’s just us now.”
Then Mom told me to go to my room, and I heard her yell at Aunt Kelly, but the next morning I woke up to the two of them asleep on the couch, Mom’s head in Aunt Kelly’s lap, a bottle of whiskey empty on the coffee table. I knew Mom couldn’t have been that mad at her.
She was like that for a while—always crying, always drinking something, always staring out the kitchen window. I rarely saw her out of her bathrobe back then. I began to wonder if she was going to die. I’d read Where the Red Fern Grows, so I knew it was possible to die from a broken heart.
After six months of never wearing anything but sweatpants, she began to go out. She’d strut through the living room, in a pair of glitzy heels and a dress no ten-year-old should see her mother in, and she’d ask me how she looked.
“Pretty, Mom,” I would always say, because I knew I had to say it. I knew she needed to be pretty.
Then I’d be alone. I’d microwave a TV dinner and eat in front of the TV, watching Law and Order and Friends and waiting to hear the key in front door. I’d always fall asleep on the couch, and she’d always leave me there. Sometimes she’d fall asleep in front of the couch, one heel still on, lipstick leaving a burgundy stain on the carpet. Other times she’d go into her bedroom, lock the door, and I’d wake up alone.
Peter is scrolling through Amazon, adding blankies and toys and bottles to the cart, months too soon. I tell him he’s jumping the gun.
“You heard the doctor,” he says. “It’s okay to tell people. That means it’s okay to spend three hundred dollars on baby clothes. All gender neutral clothing, of course,” he adds.
“Liz, we’re going to be parents.”
I remember back to when I took that test. It was noon, I was home on my lunch break, and I’d been feeling nauseated all week. My period was late. I knew, but I had to be sure.
“It’s still early,” I tell him.
I sat on the bathroom floor, clutching the stick and watching the timer on my cell phone tick down to zero.
“You’re being paranoid,” he tells me.
And when I saw those two little lines, even though we’d been trying, even though we’d already been through it once before, I remember thinking, I need to schedule an abortion.
Mom met Karl on one of those nights. I was awake when she stumbled home, a rarity, and he stumbled in with her. Karl had a thick mustache and wore white, cotton shirts that he kept unbuttoned just enough to show his chest hair and his gold chain. He reminded me of a pirate. Karl told me he loved the earth and that, one day, we were going to ruin it.
“Climate change is coming, Elizabeth,” he told me.
“It’s Liz,” I reminded him several times.
Karl got Mom to start wearing longer dresses again, which I silently thanked him for. She burned tofu on the stove and drank bitter tea and told me that makeup was full of chemicals that would give me cancer.
“You won’t let me wear makeup until I’m thirteen anyway,” I said, thinking of the Cover Girl blush I had hidden in my pencil case.
“Then you should thank me for saving you from cancer.”
When she and Karl broke up, she ditched the tofu but kept the long skirts. She showed me how to do my mascara when I turned thirteen, and we forgot all about the oncoming climate change.
“Remember in college how you said you never wanted children?” Peter says later that night. We’re lying in bed, my head on his chest. One of his hands plays with my hair, the other is scrolling through parenting blogs on his phone.
“Well I wanted to work.”
“Now look at you. Mom-to-be.”
“I’m going to get so fat,” I say.
“You’ll still be you,” he says, still scrolling through his phone. “So you’ll still be beautiful.”
I wonder if that’s true. Ever since the doctor said we could tell people, I feel as though I’ve been thinking of myself as different, not me. Like I’m some weird, temporary version of myself. Pregnant Liz. Mom Liz. Liz. I can’t help but feel that we’re all very different people.
Throughout high school I saw my mother become, and eventually leave, what felt like hundreds of different people. There was her gym phase, where she only drank protein shakes and ate raw vegetables and talked about caloric intake. She lost twenty pounds in three months but eventually gained it all back as soon as she moved onto being part of a book club. Those were a peaceful few months. She read The Bell Jar and Pride and Prejudice, and she began to wonder if she was meant to be a writer. Of course she wasn’t, because as soon as she bought a laptop to begin her novel, she met Rich, who was a local politician, and she declared herself a staunch democrat and forgot all about her romance novel.
“Should we call your mom tonight?” Peter asks as he sips his lemonade. He’s vowed to not drink for the duration of my pregnancy, a show of support. I think it’s the first time we’ve ever been to dinner and he hasn’t ordered a beer, and even though I’m without my usual glass of Merlot, it feels stranger on him.
“She’s on that church trip to Trinidad,” I say, spitting out a piece of chicken fat. “I told you that, didn’t I?”
“Your Mom is going to church now?” he asks. “I thought she was an atheist.”
“Evangelical, it seems.”
“When does she get back?” he asks.
When we get home, I stare at my belly in the mirror. It doesn’t look any different, yet I touch it gentler than I normally would, and I take extra care when walking around the house so that I don’t bump into a countertop or trip up the stairs.
My mom didn’t come to my high school graduation. She was on a couple’s retreat in Aspen. She’d return from this trip single. She’d never apologize for missing graduation, and I’d never ask her to.
I always wondered who she would have been had he stayed. I always wonder who I would have been had he stayed. I wouldn’t have been ten-years-old and waiting for my drunken mother to return home. I wouldn’t have been terrified of makeup before I could even wear it. I wouldn’t have known about Sylvia Plath’s suicide until college.
I guess it doesn’t matter who we would’ve been with him. Maybe who she was was just a constant reinvention of who she had been. Maybe who I am is just the collective memory of it all.
Hannah Gordon is a recent grad stumbling her way through “real life.” She is the assistant editor of CHEAP POP. Her work can be found in Burrow Press Review, WhiskeyPaper, Synaesthesia Magazine, and more. You can follow her on Twitter at @_hannahnicole.