Nothing makes you feel youthful like walking into your local Rite Aid and asking the pale pimply girl behind the counter where to find the pregnancy tests. Giving her a casual smile, talking fast. Trying to keep your composure, as if you were looking for sunscreen or Q-tips, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to conceal.
Of course the people who work in drugstores deal in all manner of products to treat the humiliations of the body—Wart Remover, Pepto-bismol, Ex-lax, Tampax, Depends, Trojans… At this point in my life I could request condoms without blushing. But their polar opposite? I never thought I‘d need another.
Choose your color—Clear Blue Easy or Disney-Princess pink First Response, which I bought because it was on sale, two for $12.99, and because the name suggested an emergency, and the answer to an emergency. By now I scorned the promises implied on the blue box, knowing there was nothing clear or easy about my situation.
A slinking, adolescent mood came over me as I made my purchase, trying to camouflage the pink tests among neutral items like soap and Ibuprofen. In the makeup aisle I’d caught a glimpse of myself in a face-sized mirror— cheeks flushed with a girlish glow. My skin was bathed in a hormone cocktail more potent than an antioxidant facial or a night of orgasms. Meanwhile my daughters were out in the car listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’d given them gum and strode off into the drugstore, leaving them free to roam the seats and practice blowing bubbles while Harry walked alone into the Forbidden Forest to give himself up to the Dark Lord for the last time.
Did the counter girl assume I was hopeful about the test? She couldn’t know I’d gotten the IUD out after almost six years—the copper Y inside me a foreign body triggering torrential monthly bleeding even while it served its baby-proofing purpose. Goodbye and good riddance, I’d thought. The doctor had tried to coax me onto the pill right then and there but I stood my ground, feet still in the stirrups—no more hormones, no more chemicals.
You see, Doctor, my man promised he’d get a vasectomy and until then we’d use old school methods like Pull Out and Pray. We were practiced at this kind of prayer. Plus, how easy could it be to get pregnant at 40? With the IUD gone I felt light and airy. I floated across the parking lot and ambitiously bought a 20-pack of lambskin condoms, looking the cashier right in the eye.
In Chinese medicine there is a fifth season between summer and fall, and in this late August torpor a window opened, blue and gold and loud with cricket-song. The veil between the worlds parted and I found myself half off the bed, hair grazing the floor.
His mouth on my exposed throat, my mouth on the warm curve of his ear, we moved without thought or effort, fallen gods in a pile of sheets who never paused to peel open foil. Time collapsed into breath and sunlight, arch and abandon, levitation of pleasure.
A few weeks later I found myself in that unwieldy act of peeing on a bright pink stick for “NOT LONGER THAN 5 SECONDS”—counting one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, etc. Then replacing the cap on the absorbent tip and laying the stick with the display window face-up on the bathroom counter and folding laundry, urgently, for the requisite three-minute wait. How many absorbent tips have I wet in my lifetime? How this awkward rite unites me with nameless women everywhere, in our common hopes or fears, our shock, elation or despair.
Driving home from Rite Aid I had to pause Harry Potter, unable to bear the boy’s bravery and sacrifice in the face of my impending choice. In the silence, Ava and Carmen immediately started squabbling over the last piece of bubble gum.
“Girls,” I mused, not for the first time, “what would you do if you had a little brother back there in a baby seat?”
“I’d kick him in the butt!” snarled Carmen.
“I’d HATE him,” said Ava simply. End of discussion.
I approached the pink stick from the side, as if sneaking up on it might change its forecast. My eyes focused on the oval window. One dark pink line, one light pink line. So much pink, like the soft fuzzy gifts that arrived by mail after the babies were born. Two lines. I reviewed the folded instructions to decode the message. Two lines meant Positive. Not as in Good, as in Yes you are.
When I was 19 and saw two lines I stifled a sob and hugged my boyfriend, and then we convinced ourselves it was a mistake. It seemed likely it was a mistake all the way to College Health Services, where they had inconveniently run out of pregnancy tests— then less likely en route to the clinic on Route 129, crying for real this time, riding shotgun in his fast Honda, praying for reprieve.
“This is my first big fuck-up,” I choked through pitiful tears. Good girls who get in Early Decision to an Ivy and race on the varsity ski team don’t get knocked up over Christmas break because they left their diaphragm back in their dorm room. A good, practical girl would make her visiting boyfriend drive to the store through sleet and snow and buy some condoms for god’s sake, not say oh well, what are the chances, throw caution to the winter winds and make love for hours in the spooky guest bedroom. That dark room rasped and murmured in the storm, all heavy wood paneling and pine floorboards, the Victorian wardrobe looming in the corner, gateway to another realm.
No one else in my family believed the guest room was haunted but I liked to suspect some kind of presence. Invisible footsteps trolled the back stairs, windows whistled and latches rattled; houseguests mentioned they had trouble sleeping. I felt a barely contained energy in the empty room, a vibration in the air currents when I crossed the threshold. Whatever ghost dwelled there was benign, and maybe it inhabited me too during that blizzard, if only for seven weeks until Dr. Mahlab suctioned red tissue through a clear tube, and my body braced at its passing. Two decades later, inhabited for the fourth time, I found myself alone in the kitchen, glazed with shock, cleaning the counters and cabinets frenetically.
A heavy, urgent calm came over me like a thunderhead over a lake. My skin felt charged, animated from within; sudden x-ray vision revealed domestic grime I hadn’t seen in years. I reached up to a high shelf and retrieved a dust-coated wine-bottle of vanilla beans, their homemade extract long gone. It seemed essential that I try to pry the beans out of the narrow bottleneck, fragrant precious beans from Madagascar or Tahiti or somewhere exotic. But they would not come out, even though they’d slid in easily, and some urge possessed me to grab a hammer and smash the bottle in the porcelain sink—shattered shards and shriveled beans and my sliced finger blooming clean with a line of new blood.
Diana Whitney’s first book of poetry, WANTING IT, was released in 2014 and became an Indie bestseller. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and many more. Her irreverent parenting column, Spilt Milk, was syndicated in several newspapers, ran as a public radio commentary series, and is currently being collected into a book. A yoga teacher by trade, Diana blogs about the darker side of motherhood for The Huffington Post and runs a yoga studio in Brattleboro, Vermont, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and fourteen chickens. www.diana-whitney.com.
I love the metaphor at the end.
What a gorgeous meditation on age and fertility. So glad this essay found a home.