Two days after Christmas, realize your period is late. Triple-check the calendar, just to be sure. Ask a friend to drive you to the Planned Parenthood. When you get there, keep your head down, hoping no one you know sees you. You don’t want to explain that you’re neurotic about your flow and too poor to buy an eight-dollar pregnancy test.
When the doctor comes in and confirms that you’re pregnant, hide your smile. Try to appear appropriately distressed because you’re not married. Nod along to everything she says. Pretend that you are interested in “Options.” Accept every pamphlet gratefully and solemnly, as if each one contains a sacred promise.
When your friend drives you home, share the news with her. Allow her to see your joy, but don’t tell anyone else. You know how hard your life has been lately. Your rent is way overdue. You’ve received two disconnection notices from the power company. You don’t want people telling you that your baby is a mistake. You don’t want it to be a problem people tell you to fix. Rationalize that you have eight more months to be in a better apartment in a better neighborhood. Your boyfriend, X, has a new job. If you watch your budget carefully, you can save enough to get a nicer place.
Write in your journal about how excited you are. You know this baby will be a boy. Name him Caleb. Picture him with black hair and gray-blue eyes. See him in your mind as a voracious reader with a contemplative nature. He will be a poet. He will have a strong will. He will speak softly, but firmly, and use literary quotes in everyday conversation.
Decide that you are unwilling to allow X any say in this pregnancy, because he will tell you to get rid of it. He’ll tell you that you are financially unstable, barely able to take care of yourself, not ready. Write in your journal that you will wait until your second trimester, when you can’t legally terminate the pregnancy. It’s only two months away. You can keep your mouth shut for that long.
Call yourself an idiot for leaving your journal open on the kitchen table while you were cooking dinner. Curse your stupidity at not putting it away in your nightstand, where it belonged, instead of letting X find it. Now he knows you’re pregnant. He tells you exactly what you thought he would, and is even angrier because he knows you were planning to lie to him.
X tells you to “do what’s right.” He reminds you that you have always been Pro- Choice. Curse yourself again for not having strong enough faith in your religion to hide behind. You have no argument other than that you’ve already come up with a name. The moment you rolled the syllables around in your mouth and felt them on your tongue, pregnancy ceased to be an abstract concept. Caleb is no longer a scientific term— embryo, zygote—he’s a person to you.
Listen to X’s argument. Let him pace around the living room as he rants on and on that you can barely put food in your own mouths, let alone a child’s. In a self-satisfied, fuck-you tone of voice, tell him that you are planning to breastfeed, which negates his argument. Casually add that he was the one who didn’t put on a condom. This is his fault as much as yours. He ignores this. You always forget to take your pill on time. One simple thing and you can’t even do that. Mutter something about subconscious intentions.
Tell X he can choose to be a father or choose to be a deadbeat dad. You can be a parent by yourself. You don’t need him.
This isn’t entirely true. You don’t know if you can live on your own, because you never have. You’ve always depended on someone to help you. But you figure your mother raised you by herself, and even though you grew up on welfare, your mother always made sure you had dance lessons and decent clothes. Promise yourself that you can do that too.
Say it again: you don’t need him. Try to mean it.
After resolving to ignore X’s constant berating, put up with three days of him telling you you’re wrong. Remind him that it’s your decision, not his. It’s your body, not his. Wish that you could also tell him the baby wasn’t his, but you’ve already tried lying about this. There’s no use. Besides, you’ve never cheated on him. You wouldn’t know who to sleep with even if you wanted to cheat.
On New Year’s Eve, have another argument, following the same script, but this time, cry. Cry because you are frustrated. Cry because X refuses to imagine holding his son for the first time, refuses to think about the wondrous moment when Caleb will wrap his pudgy hand around his pinky finger, making him beam with pride. After two hours, he walks away, drowns you out with the radio in the bedroom.
You’re drained. You’re hungry.
Go to the kitchen.
Turn on the light. Catch a brown flutter of movement in the corner of your eye. Turn the light off.
Inhale sharply. Feel your heart pound inside your chest so hard that you’re sure it’s trying to escape. Stand still.
Count to ten, as slowly as possible.
One, one thousand. Two, one thousand.
Turn the light back on.
This time, you have an extra moment to see what is in the corner, because you know where to look. The brown mass is shiny, moving in a swift, smooth way. Its disappearance is quick, but you’ve seen enough. Cockroaches. It doesn’t matter how many. The clicking of their hard bodies rubbing against each other rings in your ears. Each tlik-tlik blends with another, forming a sick slithering sound.
Stare at the crack in the wall they escaped into. As the bile of disgust rises in your throat, grab the closest thing to you and hurl it across the kitchen. Your journal, still open to the same page X read. You’re too exhausted to smirk at the irony.
Turn off the light. You’re not hungry anymore. Go into the living room and lay on the couch.
As other people begin to cheer in the apartment above you, realize it’s midnight. It’s the New Year. Wish you had a television so you could see the party in Times Square.
Start thinking of all the things you don’t have. No television. No dependable heat; your radiator wasn’t working so the landlord gave you three space heaters to keep warm. Your electric bill was more than your rent last month. No money to pay the electric company. No way to do laundry; you never save enough quarters for the Laundromat. You washed your work clothes in the shower last week. No bathtub.
Lay in the dark, thinking about how awful your apartment is. You had convinced yourself that it was temporary, not so bad for an in-between place. Think to yourself that, maybe, X is right. If you have this baby, you’ll never leave this place. You’ll be forcing yourself into permanent poverty.
Any baby you raise here will never forgive you for being poor. He won’t forgive you when the crack in the window finally gives way and lets the bitter wind in. Won’t forgive you when a cockroach scuttles across his face one night. Won’t forgive you for such squalor that you once found a crack pipe when you tried to fix a tile in the drop- ceiling.
Let your body rack with sobs as you apologize over and over to Caleb. Shake so violently that you break into a sweat. When you cry so hard that mucus runs from your nose into your mouth and chokes you, don’t notice.
Exist for an hour in the thunderous rush of silence that your decision has brought. Hear nothing but your own guilt. Taste nothing but hiccups as you struggle to breathe normally. Feel nothing but the twist in your stomach, as it tries to wring the blame out of itself.
You are more alone in this moment than you have ever been.
Go to the bathroom. Run the water as cold as you can. Put the stopper in the drain so the bowl fills. Someone once told you that it always helps when you need to calm down. The cold shocks you. The skin on your face tightens immediately. Feel tempted to drown yourself. Realize you wouldn’t be able to stand over the sink long enough for it to work.
On January 2nd, dig into the bottom of your purse for the pamphlets the doctor gave you at Planned Parenthood. Find the number for Danbury Women’s Clinic. It’s one of only two clinics in the state that perform the Procedure. The lady who picks up the phone sounds bored. Resist the urge to blurt out that this is your first and only time. Really, you just made a mistake.
Wake up at five-thirty on January 13th. It’s a Saturday, the traffic won’t be too bad. Your appointment is eight.
X drives. He passes the clinic three times before you finally see it. It’s a small cube with a little parking lot behind it. There’s no sign on the building.
Sign in. The receptionist tells you that you will meet with a counselor first. They have to make sure that you’re doing this for the “right reasons.”
Wait a half hour for the counselor. She has a generic, upbeat name—Sandy, Cindy, Katie—and an even smile, her eyes and voice equally concerned. She asks, “Are you being forced to make this decision?”
You want to tell her yes. You don’t want this. You hate being here. You’ll figure it out somehow.
Lose your nerve. It was only fifty degrees in your apartment last night.
While she rambles about life choices and methods of support, fix your eyes on a basket of stones on her desk. Pick up a bright purple one. It’s the perfect shade, not too pink, not flirting with being magenta. Roll it between your thumb and forefinger.
“You can keep it.”
Look up at her, confused.
“The stone,” she says. “You can keep it.”
After another twenty minutes, the counselor says it’s okay for you have the Procedure. Feel like you passed a psychiatric evaluation. Realize that’s exactly what you did.
Wait another hour in the lobby. Try to read. You brought a book of 19th Century poetry so people would think you were smart. You tried reading it, but you couldn’t concentrate. You can barely focus on Good Housekeeping’s “24 Ways to Maximize Your Space”.
Stare at the girl across from you. She’s about your age, reading Seventeen and chatting happily with her boyfriend. You were the second person to arrive this morning, but the waiting room is steadily filling with more girls. Some barely look old enough to be in high school. You and the happy girl are the only two with men. One of the younger girls has a wild look in her eyes. Her mother’s lips are pressed together so tightly that only a thin white line suggests her mouth. She’s reading a pamphlet. Wonder if it’s the same one the counselor gave you about how to take care of yourself afterwards.
A head pokes out from behind a door next to the reception area, calls your name. Look at X. Plead with your eyes, “Don’t let me do this.”
He squeezes your hand. Stand up. Walk slowly.
Follow the nurse down a short hallway. Close your fingers around the purple stone. Press your thumb into its small grooves. Breathe. Pass a lounge filled with large, plush armchairs and two televisions tuned to MTV.
“That’s the recovery area,” the nurse tells you. Nod once to signal you understand.
Walk into the room she indicates with her clipboard. She closes the door behind you. Undress from the waist down.
Glimpse a hint of silver behind a blue curtain at the end of the room. Wonder if that’s it. The Machine. Do they use a machine? You always thought so. You imagined a vacuum with a long, thin tube and a suction cup at the end.
Decide that you don’t want to pull the curtain back. You don’t want to know how they do it.
The doctor walks in. He shakes your hand, tells you his name. You don’t hear him explain what’s going to happen. Nod when it feels right. Hope he doesn’t take too long. You’ve been here almost three hours.
He tells you to lie back on the table. Lie back. Scoot down. A little more. Just a little further. He needs to examine you first.
When the ice-cold metal of the speculum slips in, cry out. Begin bawling. The doctor hesitates.
“We don’t have to do this. I can’t do this if you don’t want me to.”
Explain that the cold hurt. It caught on the walls inside, felt like it scratched you. The arm of a nurse appears, offering you a tissue. Blow your nose. Feel pathetic having to hand back a dirty Kleenex so they can throw it out for you.
The doctor says he’s ready. The same hand holds a mask to your mouth, secures rubber straps over your ears. The air coming through the mask tastes like plastic. The room gets warmer. The edges of the doctor’s face begin to blur together. Feel like you’re falling. Try to grasp the edges of the table. Realize that your hands have gone numb. Do you even have hands? Darkness crowds your field of vision. The light shrinks. The room is getting smaller. It’s almost the size of a pin; you can see it like it’s at the end of a long tunnel. Voices come from farther and farther away.
Wake up in one of the armchairs you passed on your way into the operating room. Silently thank whoever decided to give you anesthesia. Look around. There’s a juice box and some crackers on a tray pulled up next to you. The nurse sees you reach for it.
“We find it helps with any nausea or dizziness,” she says, almost like an apology.
As you nibble a Saltine, peer at the other girls lying in armchairs. The happy girl from the waiting room is slowly moving her head back and forth, as if trying to shake away a bad dream. She is coming to. Realize she also had the Procedure.
The girl with the tight-lipped mother is still asleep.
The nurse sees you looking, tells you that you can go in the bathroom and change back into your street clothes. She helps you out of the recliner, guides you to a door opposite the operating room. She offers to help you dress. Tell her you’re okay. You can do it.
When she closes the door behind you, collapse on the toilet seat. Your legs feel like rubber. You really do need help. Even partially. Pull your pants over your feet and knees. Use the handicapped bar to gain your balance as you stand up to slide your feet into your shoes. Fold the gown into a neat square and place it in the hamper.
Open the door. X is waiting for you in the hall. He tells you he pulled the car up to the back entrance. You didn’t know the building had a back entrance. The nurse hands you a folder of the same pamphlets that the counselor gave you, along with a list of doctors and numbers you can call in case of emergency.
Smirk at the condom taped to the inside pocket of the folder. It’s the only smile you’ve cracked in two weeks.
X puts an arm around your shoulder, guides you through a thick metal door into an alley. He left the car running. He opens the door for you. Helps you into the seat. Closes the door behind you. He never does that.
As you past the front door, see a bunch of people carrying signs and shouting at the happy girl as she covers her face and hurries past them.
Whisper, “Thank you, X.”
He gives a slight nod. Keeps his eyes on the road.
Wake up around three a.m. with cramps so bad you feel as if your stomach has burst. Writhe on the bed. Roll onto your stomach. Onto your back. Onto your stomach. Your side. Curl into a ball. As you do this, remember the name for this pose. The fetal position.
Moan. Regret. Searing pain.
X brings you some pills and a glass of water.
Ask him for an extra blanket. Feel comforted as he places the heavy quilt from the living room over you. The weight of it hushes you like a warm mother. Know that you go can’t back now. You can’t take it back. Repeat “Our Father” over and over in your head as if it were a lullaby. It’s the only prayer you know.
Pray-cry yourself to sleep.
Find moments of forgiveness.
Driving home one day, feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for no reason. Clouds are parting after a summer rainstorm. There’s a double rainbow, brighter than anything you’ve ever seen.
A few years later, write your story. Feel as if the words are clawing their way from your heart, out through your fingertips.
Wonder if you’re going too far.
Wonder if this is really something you want to share.
Realize you have no choice.
Know that this must be what novelists mean when they say, “The story wrote itself.”
Your two-year-old son clambers onto your lap and hugs you. Kisses you for no reason. Squeaks, “Wuv-yu, Mommy,” before running down the hall to play with his trucks.
Jillian M. Phillips is a poet from Northwestern Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Silver Apples Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, Cellar Door Anthology, and others. Her chapbook, Pretty the Ugly, was published by ELJ Publications. Jillian holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska and is currently editing an anthology of poetry on the body.