Motes and Beams.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? — Matthew 7:3

Last night, a woman cradled her abdomen and revealed the life growing there, as vibrant and as certain as the crimson of her Lanvin gown. You are too young to know her, but she is an icon for my generation, in much the same way that the triumvirate of divas–Aretha, Diana, and Tina*–are for your grandmother’s. Her husband is similarly eminent and, as they took to yet another of what, for them, must be an endless strait of red carpets, the radiant woman basked in the rarefied air that only exists under an arc of flashbulbs.

It was a seminal moment, not at all spontaneous but with just the right amount of coyness, delight, and pride. Responses were immediate–and as polar as they were predictable. Opinions were divided along moral lines. The couple was applauded for being married before deciding to procreate: “They did it the way God intended.” and “They did it the ‘right way.'” Many offered up their hope that this would “start a trend” in the black community, of valuing marriage (as though the reason black women and men remain unwed is because they thumb their nose at nuptials). By extension, unmarried mothers were inundated with presumptuous gloating: “This is what you should’ve done.” and “Never have a child with a man who doesn’t even offer to marry you.” and “You’ll never have this moment.”

But even the couple, so lauded for their pristine ordering of life events, did not escape the critical gaze of their public. They were blasted for releasing their news in as public a way as possible; some detractors went as far as suggesting the news was meant to boost their respective album sales. Others still wanted it known that they would not be engaging in any excited, celebratory antics “over a couple they didn’t know” and wondered aloud if they were the only ones who “didn’t care” about this announcement.

Darling, there is something I should tell you.

Every decision carries with it a value judgment; every action is first magnified then dissected. This is true of the famed and the civilian, of the leader as well as the follower. There is always someone watching, always someone desperate to compare, and to come away from that comparison looking superior. As much as I will teach you that the language of “better than” is dangerous, this language is unavoidable.

There is no sense in defending yourself against people who are certain they are better than you are. That is the worst kind of futility; it not only leaves you spent, but also unnerved and inadequate. But it is no better to seek solace in your own “better” circumstances. This renders you dispassionate and smug in ways that never fail to mortify you during life’s inevitable reversals of fortune. These are slopes that descend into hells; it would behoove you not to slide down them.

I spent much of your first year of life, and the nine months before your birth building an immunity to Better Than. I am still susceptible to the lesser of its side effects, but there are some nerves I have protected from its paralysis. There are some criticisms that I will just not allow to bring me low.

I am a third generation single mother. In high school, I was lauded for escaping teen pregnancy. In college, the voices grew louder, the compliments more flowery. By grad school, I’d “escaped a generational curse” and “broken a cycle.” I was half of an “upstanding couple”–a fine Christian man and a wholesome, Proverbs 31 woman; it was only a matter of time before we married, before someone suggested that we become youth leaders, before we were asked to educate others on purity. I didn’t protest; that wouldn’t have done much good. There was no baby then, to confirm what we weren’t. But I didn’t chime in, singing solo in a chorus of my own praises, either. I knew who your father and I were to each other, and it wasn’t husband and wife. And there were few days we would’ve described ourselves as “wholesome.”

You will find that people love their narratives. They need for your life to have meaning; it must provide them a teachable moment, whether cautionary or aspirational.

But you will never be who they think you are. The more you allow their expectations to dictate to you what you should be, the more unfamiliar you’ll become with your own reflection in a mirror. You must know, even as a grade school girl—and perhaps particularly then, as children can be cruel—that you are not pitiable because your parents are not married. You shouldn’t feel excess pressure to excel because “the odds are against you,” nor does my marital status require you to defend me or yourself against the assumptions of your peers. But it also does not give you license to exalt yourself over other children whose circumstances are different than your own. You will find soon enough that all homes, whether married or single-parent, are not created equal. There is no greater example of this than this red carpet couple whose little one will be swaddled in cashmere receiving blankets, with diamond pins fastening its handwoven diapers.

We are ourselves. That is all that we are, and that is enough.

There will be days—like this one—where I will feel like I am everything others assume I am: jilted, irresponsible, and unworthy of a man’s unerring commitment. And then I will remember that I am the woman who writes to you. I am wise and intuitive; artful and accomplished; nurturing and nourishing; strong enough to tear apart and reassemble myself for you; and beautiful in ways the naked eye cannot observe—particularly if its gaze is obstructed with beams.

What Should Be Told.

By the time I spin you a tale about the first time I heard your heartbeat, there will be several pains so far receded, they’ll seem glitter on the fronds of talking trees. Do not worry; all my hurt will be myth, when you’re old enough to hear about it. I will sail us to a safe harbor. I will insulate you from the fire-tongued darts I’m never quite quick enough to duck and not absorb.

But now, these wounds are open, the sinew and nerve exposed, and nowhere seems entirely safe from the salted sentiments being poured into them.

I can’t find you a story here.

I have tried, over days, to begin one: in the nurse’s office, where the girl in aqua scrubs with the pink stoned ring asked me questions about your father. I told her as little as I could, to keep the levees from breaking and the tears from seeping through their cracks, and I thought it strange how willing I am to protect him, how incapable I am of protecting myself.

There, I remembered a hollow joke I told, two weeks before he was gone, about what I’d do after he left. I said that I’d tell you he was noble and courageous, off in some wild, avenging an evil too large to conquer, if he divided his time between us and its towering darkness.

He laughed and said this was why I wasn’t ready to have you. I was still too dreamy, too many parts little girl.

I didn’t tell the nurse any of this. I just told her how long he’d been here and how easily he’d gone. When she asked his name, I concealed it.

I’ll omit the indignity of pee in a plastic cup, of writing first initial and last name on the lid and sliding the specimen into a wooden cubby so a cubicled technician could deem me fit enough to feed you.

I’ll omit the thick, dark blood siphoned into five vials and how I looked at the harsh flourescents in the ceiling and forgot all the things I was told to remember.

I’ll omit the anxiety, the doubt that you even existed. I thought you might be an elaborate ruse, a parlor trick my body had played for its own amusement. I readied myself to hear that you were hysterical. I nearly expected them to tell me you were ectopic.

I won’t tell you how often I wondered whether you were alive or imagined.

Instead, I’ll talk about the static and how it sounded alien, how I felt like I was listening to a broadcast from outer space. I’ll tell you I pretended you were skipping rocks across Saturn’s rings. I thought of you scooping cheese from lunar craters. I thought of the red tint of your skin or your hair and how I’d tell you it came from Mars.

I’ll tell you about the wand gliding along my waist and how desperately silent you were, till we found you, just above my right hip, with a heart like the charge of a thousand tiny colts. You were a miniature stampede. You were the sound of every dream my own heart houses.

This is the part of the tale we will preserve.

Congratulations! … Or Something Like It.

This isn’t noble, this pregnancy. You aren’t at all saccharine about the sanctity of human life. This embryo is matter-of-fact, with its bulbous head, translucent eye-coverings, webbed feet and pre-hands. Its growth: an inevitability, your refusal to squelch it, a foregone conclusion.

You were startled when your family suggested you have it removed, startled and frightened and offended.

The child is not a goiter.

But for those first few days, they convinced you to imagine it. You Googled clinics, read up on procedures, tried to envision yourself, tilted horizontally alone, in a room where the only sound is the deafening whir of eradication. Could you close your ears to it? Could you stare at the ceiling and will your eyes to roll two overlapping circles there, a Venn Diagram of options to list the practical pros people had offered you (freedom being chief among them) and to ignore the giant Con:

You want a child, this child.

Perhaps not now and, now, not with him. But the child itself has been a latent and long-held desire.

You didn’t know you wanted children until you turned 25 and suddenly had the urge to brush your fingers along every freshly cut head of boy-toddler hair you encountered. You didn’t know until you were strolling through Target and found yourself involuntarily fondling the fabric of navy blue onesies. You didn’t know until you called your mother one day, after teaching an insolent class of freshmen, and you were crying when you told her that your need to nurture something had staggered you, that every few steps across campus that day, a wave of debilitating maternal longing accosted you.

You asked her what to do if this happened again.

Let yourself feel it. Then let it pass.

You did this. Of course you did this. Because being in a long-distance relationship, with little intention of relocating, is a lot like being involved with an inmate. The sporadicity with which you see each other trains you not to plan for a family. You live independently, shouldering your own burdens, until those small respites where you find yourselves together: helpful, willing, hastily amorous.

This has always been fine, in varying degrees, for both of you. Now you wonder if it’s because you never loved each other all that much to begin with, not enough to be unselfish for one another on a daily basis. But that’s not an idea you can spend much time entertaining now.

What you always held firm, in the back of  your mind, was that if you ever wound up unexpectedly with child, you’d accept your lot with aplomb. You’d absorb whatever judgment, however loud or silent, and you’d gestate that life. It seemed a resolve you could afford. You’re educated and old, by childbearing standards (five more years and you’d be classified as of “advanced maternal age,” all your pregnancies doomed to “high risk). You own things: furniture, a small personal library, a car; you have your own housing. You possess the beginnings of a career, however tenuous and uninsured.

You are well on your way to feeling entirely adult.

These days, you wonder why you let anyone insist you that you could very well be doomed (to pennilessness or public assistance or post-partum depression–perhaps all). From the vantage of a month, you marvel that you even imagined other options.

This thing inside you, twinging and pulsing, is yours. The only option you ever thought you’d need to consider, at this point in life, was how to help your body hold onto it, all nine months, and expel it healthily.

Of course, when this was all just matter in the back of your mind, you never imagined how you might feel. Sure, you’ve openly wept scrolling people’s shower registries at Babies R Us. And yes, your heart has literally skipped beats when a child with uncertain footing absently touched his tiny palm to your leg to steady himself.

But these things happen, on average, once or twice a year. They do not mother-readiness make. And in all your sentimentality about eventual child-rearing–someday, in the sweet by and by–you did not believe you’d be alone from the very outset.

Now, you simply feel rejected and unwanted. When you pass children’s clothes, toddlers’ haircuts, seven-year-olds, your heart sinks. When a commercial for Pull-Ups bleeds onto your television screen, you want to vomit. When people congratulate you, your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, rather than responding with thanks.

These are sensations you try urgently to quell, before they’re passed on, like so much vitamin B or folic acid, to the embryo. You can’t escape your loved ones’ immediate skepticism. You can’t forget how easily your erstwhile love refused to father. You still marvel that he doesn’t call.

You’re terrified of your first prenatal appointment. You’re worried something’s wrong with it–and if something is, it’s because you’re so unprepared. It’s because you don’t understand love. It’s because you eat so poorly. It’s because of those days you absorbed others’ doubts. It’s because you Googled abortion clinics. It’s because you imagined a life without it. It’s because your heart keeps calling your ex an asshole. It’s because you should’ve chosen a more secure line of work.

It’s because you weren’t happy, when people congratulated you.

You should’ve waited the requisite three months before telling anyone. Perhaps by then, you’d have worked through these cold and dark caverns. Maybe then, you’d be smiling, well past your preoccupation with people’s opinions, far beyond any unhappiness at all.

But you know that isn’t your nature. Your life has always been about measured melancholy; your pregnancy will not be much different. Even so, you are slowly finding it in yourself to evenly say, “Thank you,” when you are congratulated.

You are capable. You know you will not likely fail. You know that your capacity to love is an iceberg, and because most only see its tip, they are entitled to their concerns–both for you and your unborn.

But you are a wondrous well, of beauty and fury and caprice. When anyone is gracious enough to congratulate you, remember that.

Residue.

It isn’t the absence that bothers me; it’s the silence.

Before last summer, you were the one who took responsibility for our conversations. I was allowed to be blasé. I could put work first; I could screen your calls. You’d call again. You averaged three calls a day, nearly every day, all eight years.

There were rare lapses. I learned that you could be inattentive when you were editing the first short film you shot, after we started dating. You were planning two local screenings. You were designing the DVD cover. You were collecting actors’ bios. I had to tag along on shoot days, if I wanted to see you. I helped you write and edit blurbs and bios. I calmed you, when you wondered if people would understand your cinematic vision.

The days leading up to the first premiere were the days of our first break-up. That one was childish, I’ll admit. I felt neglected. Even when I told you it was “over,” your shrug was audible through the phone. I could hear the rabid clicking of a mouse in the background. If that’s what you need to do… your voice trailed.

We were back together by the time the curtain went up in College Park and a cluster of a 200 viewers watched your thirty-minute production. “I’m so nervous,” you confided. “Me too!” I exclaimed, rushing behind you, clutching fliers and cords.

“Why? What did you do?”

*  *  *

Even with those notable exceptions, you were clearly the emotionally vocal one, quick to proclaim love (and lust), always the first to admit that the distance between us made you edgy and irritable. I miss you, you’d repeat with something akin to venom in your voice.

This is ironic, since I was the first to say I love you. I said it our third week of dating, right before hanging up the phone. You waited a while, until we saw each other in person again, waited until the very end of a date, when I’d already closed the passenger door of your car. “Hey,” you called through the cracked window. “Love you, too, girl.”

I floated up the steps to home.

*  *  *

Most of my family warned me that too much attention could be a sign of a control-bent partner. If you had to know where I was, who I was with, what I was doing, when I’d be home, what time I’d be able to call you back (and talk at length), then maybe you were treating me more like a barebacked colt in need of wrangling than a woman growing into her depths.

Or maybe you were a cheater, projecting.

As a girl who very unaccustomed to consistent male attention, I preferred to think you just cared.

I still think you cared.

*  *  *

The only other time you’ve been this detached is when we returned from Paris. With glittering eyes, I scoured the internet looking for a way to get back there. I found one: an ESL training program in Tournan-en-Brie. I could fly back to France in less than a season for a one-month intensive that’d earn me a certification that’d greatly broaden my career skill set.

You were opposed. And I was already writing a deposit check.

You kept insisting that it wasn’t safe for me to go to a foreign country for a whole month without you; it was the same fear tactic you’d used to convince me you needed to take that first trip to Paris with me, even though you couldn’t afford it.

I don’t think we were in love then. Before I’d decided to spend my spring break overseas, you’d been pressing me to spend that week with you, in California. Part of why I booked a ticket to France in the first place was to avoid another trip to your apartment. You’d tried very genuinely to make amends for the unintentional air of imprisonment my first stay with you had created. But I’d never been able to remember your place as anything other than Solitary.

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Separation Anxiety.

I don’t know what I was expecting.

My only certainty, as I spent my first post-semester week alone in my apartment with an unringing phone, a constantly muttering television, and a mounting reluctance to leave the house–even for food–was that I shouldn’t spend the holidays there by myself.

I thought I could, though at this point, I’m not sure why. I do spend a lot of time alone; I always have. I value quiet. I grow irritable when there’s too much artificial light and noise in a room or when people interrupt my reading or thinking or television-watching with loud, dissonant conversation.

This is one of the minor things that worries me about having a child, how dogged I can be about preserving an atmosphere of quiet.

Once, when I was about fifteen, I babysat a one-and-a-half-year-old with separation anxiety who wailed incessantly for four hours after his parents’ departure. I only tried once to comfort him. When he wrenched himself away from the front door (which he’d slid down in agony, planting himself at its base for a while), he trudged past me up a small flight of stairs and into the master bedroom.

I followed him–out of curiosity, more than concern. As an only child with no concept or memory of being this distraught over a parent’s night on the town without me, I really just wanted to see what would happen next.

“Are you okay?” I asked impassively, standing in the frame of the bedroom door.

He looked at me like I’d been stricken with lunacy. “Noooooo!” he warbled, hurling the old pager he’d found on the nightstand and barely missing me.

“Do you want to eat?”

“Nooooooo!”

“Can I get you anything?”

“GET OUT!”

Getting out was the first part of this exchange that made any sense to me. Yes, I thought to myself. We’ll both feel better if we’re left alone.

“You sure?” I stupidly offered, even though I was already in the hallway.

He flung himself into his parents’ perfumed pillows and let his snot and tears soak into their 600-thread count. I shrugged and went down to the basement, where their only television was, flicked on some cable program and tuned the distraught toddler out.

This isn’t the only time I’ve done this. I have this occasional capacity for dulling undesirable noise until it’s no longer audible. It isn’t selective hearing, so much as very deliberate oblivion. For seconds at a time, I can also do this with pain, training my mind in a direction opposite the throb or the ache. I suppose we all can.

Eventually, the toddler exhausted himself and fell asleep. When his parents came home and asked how things had gone, I told them he’d cried for quite a while, but things were fine.

Ever since then, I’ve wondered if I’m some kind of selective sociopath, at least as it relates to children.

But none of that was the point of this essay.

This was about my decision not to be alone during winter break. I don’t know what I hoped to achieve. Though my mother, grandmother, and I always celebrate Christmas together (I’ve never missed one with them; this would’ve been my first.), we haven’t been particularly festive about it for several years now. We vary between having no tree or holiday markers at all, to one or two decorations–a glittering snowman lantern here, a greeting card tree on the far wall there. Sometimes, we don’t even wrap each other’s gifts, just deliver them matter-of-factly in their original store bag (receipt withheld, of course).

This year, Nana, Mom, and I went to the mall on the 23rd. Before we went, I wrote Mom a check.

“Merry Christmas,” I deadpanned.

When we got there, Nana fished two folds of bills out of her purse and handed five twenties to Mom and five twenties to me. “Buy yourselves something useful with this,” she implored.

It was a scary mandate. I was grateful, of course, for the gift, but teeming with anxiety about what I should produce. It was obvious she wanted to see the manifestation of our shopping at the end of the two hours we’d spend milling through the mall apart. I haven’t told her I’m pregnant yet. And I didn’t want to break it to her by returning with a bag from A Pea in the Pod.

It’s an unspoken rule that when Nana gives you money as a gift and asks you to buy something “useful,” you’re supposed to purchase a minimum of one clothing item. And you’re supposed to wear it–at least once–in her presence, so that she can give you a head-to-toe appraisal, then pass sartorial judgment. A small smile and an, “Mm-hmm” meant you chose well; an “Umph” and pursed lips meant she didn’t approve.

The second thing I did when the three of us split up, after a brief stop in Baby Gap* (which I never realized also housed their in-store maternity section, because I never had to), was head to the food court. I’ve had no pregnancy symptoms so far, except occasional pelvic pain and a voracious appetite. Hiding the latter has been tricky during this visit; I don’t really eat much when I’m home, lest someone semi-jokingly admonish me about how fat I’m going to get in my 30s.

I grabbed a slice of pizza from Sbarro and, upon finishing it, realized it had barely taken the edge off. Then I dashed off to Five Guys for handcut fries and a Minute Maid Light Lemonade. The food court was bedlam: clusters of unsupervised kids standing in long lines, trying to figure out if their parents had given them enough money for every sibling to Super-Size; teenage couples trying to conceal their last-minute gifts to each other, by stuffing small bags into larger ones.

And then there were the mothers: a West Indian couple with twin little girls, pushing a complicated double-stroller, overflowing with bags; a single mother, every two minutes, hefting a child on her hip and using the stroller seat for additional purchase-storage; the woman with the seven-year-old boy she’s half-ignoring, who keeps pressing into her leg and hip and lifting his face up to her, hoping for attention.

By the time a teen girl with no arms below the elbows stopped in front of my table to talk to a friend she hadn’t seen in a while, my eyes were veiled in water.

I detest strollers, from the doll-sized cloth ones that sag under the weight of a child who’s outgrown them to the $500 designer ones with two cupholders and a mesh basket on every side. I don’t want my seven-year-old son to be clingy; I also don’t want him to ever feel ignored. I don’t want my seventeen-year-old to be out here two days before Christmas spending his hard-earned McDonald’s salary on a Kay Jeweler pendant for a fast little girl who plans to dump him right after New Year’s. Will I build the arm strength to carry a two-year-old, so I don’t have to shove her into a pushing contraption her legs are too long for? Do I have the patience to let my child walk with me, without wanting to rush on without him? What if she’s super-materialistic and, despite my best efforts, I can’t break her of it? What if she has no arms? Can I afford the assistance we’ll need to prepare ourselves for managing a lifelong disability? What will I tell her about Christmas? Do I even want to celebrate this frenetic, grossly commercial, emotionally isolating holiday with my child? Can’t she learn to revere the birth of Jesus some other time of year? Will she hate me for bringing her into a family that doesn’t even bother with a tree or wrapping paper? ARE WE GOING TO HATE EACH OTHER?!

By the time my heart began to palpitate, I threw away what was left of the fries, headed into Sears, and purchased the digital photo frame I knew my grandmother wanted.

Just before meeting back up with her, I found a Nine West sweater dress in extra large that cost exactly half of the cash she’d given me. I had no idea how relieved that would make me feel until I bought it. I felt oddly accomplished. I’d talked myself down from yet another of what have become my semi-regular fear-of-the-future attacks.  I could put off thoughts of outgrown ugly, pre-fab maternity wear a while longer and I wouldn’t have to endure a guilt-evoking speech about not buying a Christmas gift under two hours of pressure at the mall.

Maybe this was why I had come home for the holidays. For all my love of quiet and the bravado that worked to convince me I could handle a family-less Christmas, I know well that people are welcome distractions from the tireless churnings of my mind.

There’s something primal about coming home to this apartment three times a year. My grandmother has lived here since I was six. It’s a crumbling empire. The plaster is unsealed at several intersections of ceiling and wall. In the room my mother and I share, with its parallel twin beds, twenty feet apart, there are large brown water stains blooming on the eggshell paint overhead. Every fixture shows signs of decades’ wear.

But when I’m here, and I can hear my mother and grandmother tromping around with purpose, from kitchen to bathroom to piano to computer, I feel like a lioness safe in her cave.

Christmas itself was brutal. The day before, my mother had spent most of the evening out with her new boyfriend (a subject for its own essay, to be sure). But on the holiday proper, the three of us stayed here all day, ceaselessly together. I was characteristically quiet, working on a convoluted blog entry I decided not to publish and trying to stave off the expectation of a ringing phone.

Despite all signs to the contrary, I fully expected my ex to call me yesterday. For all our breaking up, we’ve never been on silent terms for holidays. Even when we’re feuding, one of us caves and calls the other, just to see how we’re faring, just to see where in time and space we are. The past few Christmases, I’ve baked his family tins of these cookies they love (a “Ranger Cookie” variant) and a day or two after receiving them, his mother calls me with a new story about how she, my ex, and his father fought over equal division of the confections and surreptitiously cheated each other out of one or two treats from their rightful share. We laugh and I say something geeky about being glad I was able to facilitate such mischief. We wish each other a great new year.

My mother’s phone rang practically nonstop yesterday, extended family from Michigan or her boyfriend on the other line. She laughed all day. Nana confined herself to the kitchen from sunup to sundown, taking her share of family and friend calls, too, while producing very little food for all her effort and none of her usual, hotly anticipated baked goods.

Around 10 pm, my mother asked to use my laptop and I responded passive-aggressively, even though I told her she could. She muttered once she’d taken it to the other side of the room, “… Funny-actin’ self.”

I lost it.

I’ve been here a week. I’ve another week yet to survive. The whole time, I’ve been managing my ex’s rejection. The whole time, I’ve been weighing the best time to break the news to my grandmother (whose years of mortifying bragging to extended family about my talents and degrees will finally prove as ill-advised as it always was and for her embarrassment at having to renege on her claims about how “responsible” and “mistake-proof” I seem to be, I’ll have to absorb criticism and blame). The whole time, I’ve been reading Mama, PhD and The Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion in abject terror.

And with just three hours left on the clock before I have to concede just how crappy a choice of partner I chose (… and chose and chose), my mother decides to mutter that I’m “funny-acting,” after taking away one of my few instruments of distraction, on a day where every elapsed hour has reinforced the loneliness of the path I’m selecting.

That did it. I flopped on my side, pulled the covers over my head and cried.

I try not to cry in front of my mother. Neither of us cry in front of Nana, if we can help it. We were raised in minimally touchy, minimally emotive environments. We are allowed our notable exceptions. But for the most part, decorum or the appearance thereof has always been a priority in this family.

Mom tried to coax me out of the covers with laughter and light teasing. She didn’t get it. I just tugged at the comforter tighter and tried to catch my breath. Nana, on the phone in another room, called out, “What are y’all doing in there?” And Mom quickly brisked, “Nothing. Nothing,” and and returned the seat where she’d taken my laptop. Luckily, my sobs weren’t audible. I was back to myself within the hour.

In retrospect, I realize how diametrically that moment mirrors my babysitting experience: all I could do in the face of inadequate comfort was pull myself into a cocoon of sheets and cry, while the person I’d hoped would know what to do in this situation decided the best recourse was to wait it out, while otherwise occupying herself.

Eventually, I fell asleep.

*There are few things in retail more annoying than Baby Gap, especially when you’re pregnant and haven’t quite found a way to be grateful or joyous about it yet.

Insanity.

Everything here was new but you. You must’ve felt inundated with the unfamiliar.

You’d never seen my car, a vintage burgundy two-seater purchased outright just two months before you arrived. Your legs were too long for it, but your luggage was a perfect fit. I felt you tense when I swerved too sharply, around the airport exit lane.

I paid the parking toll. This is an annoying habit of mine, keeping track of the things I pay for. I wasn’t always this way. This is your doing.

We decided to eat before heading to my apartment, also new, rented just two weeks after I bought the car. We went to Red Lobster and both ordered Endless Shrimp. You drank a Long Island. I had a margarita, with an extra sidecar of tequila. I didn’t drink it like a shot, just poured it onto the surface of my tall, frozen cocktail when it began to water. I paid for this also. But you drove home.

In the parking lot, before we left, you smoked a Newport and I watched your eyes crease against the cold. Your two years in LA had weakened your tolerance for frigidity. You would need that tolerance here. I looked at your faded blue corduroy coat, half-open, even as dusk drew the temperature down. I shook my head.

Back at my apartment building, you parked in my assigned spot, under the carport. I traipsed confidently ahead of you, proud of my place and its security access card. You’ve always been vigilant about things like that: “It’s dangerous,” you used to say, “a woman living alone.” You’d pressed me to get a roommate or, on fewer occasions, to live with you. I’d always declined.

Once inside, you looked around, refusing to be impressed with the warm, autumnal paints adorning the walls; my bookcases–one in the living room, one in the bedroom; the queen-sized bed and its dust ruffle, shams, pillows; the large TV and cable with its 170 channels. You didn’t compliment the olive green futon, even though olive is your favorite color. You didn’t smile at my shelved lamp and the small black globe and black dancer statue nestled on it. You just dropped your tattered suitcase and began to unpack your laptop.

I had to prod you. “Do you like the place?” You shrugged. “It’s nice.”

It’s nicer than yours was, I thought to myself, because your indifference draws out my thorns and sharp edges.

You’d given up your own apartment days before visiting me here. Your lease had ended and, for reasons you wouldn’t fully disclose, you didn’t want to renew it. I had my ideas. It was a one-room efficiency. I’d stayed there, years ago, when you first got it. I bought your dishes. I stayed for three weeks and you never cut me a key. You were gone, nearly every day of my stay, until after dark. “Working,” you’d grit. Always working.

I didn’t mind that you were an aspiring filmmaker, even if I didn’t always “get” your work. I loved that you were creative, dreamy, aspirational. I loved that you wanted lofty things. I loved how you pined for a job on a major production and, often, I believed you’d get it. Then, I figured, we could work on a life together. Finally. We would both have achieved enough of our personal success to start weaving each other into a long-term tapestry.

I was supportive, even though on occasion, you’d swing into some low mood and insist that I wasn’t.

We had the same arguments, year in and out. I was constantly accusing you of a neanderthaline chauvinism–the kind of male entitlement and inequity that begins sentences with, “No woman of mine will…” The kind of strange logic that keeps the woman you claim to love locked in a depressing one-room apartment for three weeks, with no means of letting herself back in, if she ever went out without you.

We broke up after that. At my behest. Before, all of our breakups were at my behest. All six of them–from the one that was the result of your anger that I moved out of town for grad school (“What about me? I guess you don’t care about us.”) to the one that followed the email from your coworker with its incriminating photos of the two of you together.

This visit, your first and probably last, to my apartment, began as all our visits do: distantly. We always had to work hard to close the space so many months apart would carve between us. We’d stare intently at each other, then off at something else for an hour. We’d touch sparingly. We’d say little.

Then, by the end of a night or a second day or a full weekend, we would know each other again. The small, vital changes our absence from one another wrought seemed to bare themselves, in bed or over dinner or in the small enclosure of my two-seat car.

We said I love you. We might’ve meant it.

During the first week, we had an argument about my toilet. Its base seal cracked, flooding the bathroom. This raised our age-old debate about chauvinism, since you insisted that the issue, which required the extensive involvement of maintenance, was one that you should handle alone. “Strange men shouldn’t be coming in and out of your apartment at all hours.” “… Strange men, like maintenance?!” You asked me to stay in the bedroom while you talked to the repairman.

I scoffed and refused and immediately wanted you gone.

But two days later, we got past it. The problem was fixed while I was at work and you were “at home,” overseeing the job and likely feeling quite authoritative about it. You scrubbed every inch of the work surface and by the time I arrived at home, the place smelled of bleach, orange-scented Pine Sol, and safety.

We began cooking together. Meal upon complex meal. You pitted and mashed avocados for guacamole; I cut the tomatoes and onions. I baked rosemary chicken and macaroni and cheese. We fried green tomatoes. Those first mornings, I made you omelets. I had this thing about cooking you eggs, even though I don’t eat them. Practice, I told myself, for our future. You ate well, for perhaps the first time in months.

Purchasing groceries with you in mind and smiling at the sizzle of oil in a pan or the scent of a fresh-cut herb were the most traditionally nurturing things I’ve ever done.

By week two or three, when things had become quite domestic and peaceful between us, I was already expecting. Neither of us knew, but my paranoia had already begun to nudge me toward a pharmacy.

As far as I can tell, we conceived your first weekend here, likely before we were even fully reacquainted.

This is, of course, an irony. I’ve always viewed our relationship as per annum. Chronologically, we’ve been together since April 2001. Eight years and eight months. Until you left, whenever anyone asked how long we’d been a couple, I’d give them a measurement in years (which was typically greeted with a low whistle and a quip: “That’s a lot of time. When y’all gettin’ married?”).

I viewed those years as a structure. Brick by brick, a pyramid, a marvel. Something fixed and ancient and admirable. I never considered that our relationship should never have been viewed through the lens of linear time. This relationship, with its broad gaps of long distance and its biannual breakups, its buildups of distrust and foregone conclusion, its reserves of emotional reflex and also of emotional atrophy, is simply incalculable.

You sat mutely in my living room for three hours that night. The kitchen still smelled of garlic and lime. I’m not sure what I expected of you. Tenderness, for certain and at least. Communication, both rational and careful, at best. A touch, however small, by way of comfort.

Even by virtue of this three weeks alone, without taking the previous eight years into account, I deserved that.

My ears perked when your lips finally parted. I was stupid enough to be hopeful, naive enough to believe you that, by giving you three quiet hours, you’d give me words I could use as a balm.

“I think you need to get rid of it,” you said. “I do not want kids right now.”

I looked around, listening to the water steaming in the radiator. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Shocked, in fact, and shattered. But why? Did I even have a right?

Insanity is repeating the same thing for 8.8 years and expecting different results.

Blastocysts.

At first, not much changes, other than people’s perceptions of you.

Whatever you were before the second line bled through that pregnancy test window—intelligent, respectable, ambitious, in a stable relationship—is irrelevant, quickly (if not instantly) forgotten.

Now you’re a poor unwed soul. And your capacity for sound decision-making has been greatly diminished. It’s almost as if you haven’t been teaching college for two and a half years, as if you weren’t an online newsletter editor for four years before that, as if you hadn’t once collected unemployment for six months, rationing the limited benefits well enough to feed and shelter two people on them. It’s as if you’ve been tumbling carelessly into and out of tons of men’s beds, instead of just the one’s.

It’s like you’ve been a burden to self-respecting taxpayers and real God-fearers all your life.

You may as well be in rollers with four other toddlers in sagging Pull-Ups, tugging at your maternity skirt hem and wielding empty bottles. Now, when people look at you, they’re already judging you for the red watercolored ring around your unborn’s mouth, the residue of all the Kool-Aid you’ll inevitably force that poor baby to ingest.

Mind you, this is months before you’ll begin to show. Showing will bring its own compound stigma.

For now, you deal with the unseen and try not to think about the fact that five out of the six loved ones you’ve told are still trying to talk you into terminating.

There are lots of things not to think about, this early on. Like the necessity of changing careers or how cripplingly alone you feel, how terrifying a boy would be or whether or not he’ll be healthy.  Like the aspersions being cast on your future or whether or not you’ve been prepared for this by any part of your past.

What’s important, right now, is avoiding delusion. You cannot think people care more than they do. You cannot expect comfort, where condemnation is quick and plentiful. It’s imperative not to let yourself forget that your life is different, that your body will become unfamiliar, even though it’s still easy to recognize your reflection in a mirror. You must remember who called you stupid. You mustn’t forget who assured you they wouldn’t help.

It will spare you future grief to absorb the full weight of these rejections now.

You don’t want to be the type of parent whose child feels insecure and isolated just because you do. You want to be the parent who spends the first years of your firstborn’s life on a reservation or a commune, teaching him to read by age two, teaching him to swim and flip and dance so he feels freer than he should. You want to be the parent with the costume trunk full of tulle and wands and cap gun holsters and the tradition of opening it every Saturday morning. You want to make sure he has a passport before the age of five, because you still want a Fulbright someday or a literature PhD from overseas and you see no reason why he can’t come along.

Some things are just resolved, despite everyone being convinced that your life must assume a monochromatic course and your emotions will largely consist of anger, depression and frustration.

Who are these people, who’ve known you lifelong and so easily write such grim life sentences? How hard is joy, even for a woman like you, who trades in melancholy and pragmatism? Don’t they know that things weren’t so wonderful before that you have no choice but to mourn this change? Don’t they know that intellect and hope and desire rarely wane when a child is conceived?

If anything, they become blastocysts.

Make Him a Balloon, Not a Ball and Chain.

It’s jolting how easily a desired ideal becomes delusion in the face of reality. My mother says my life has been, comparatively, charmed. I was an only child with a father who was only semi-absentee. My extended family was instrumental in helping to raise me, which meant I began to fly at the age of four and saw city and country and interstate early and often, whenever my mother needed the space to inhale an “un-tandem” breath.

This kept her from wholly resenting me and made me feel both exponential love and fierce independence.

When I went off to college, I incurred about $40,000 of debt, because the scholarship my father’s employment was supposed to secure for me fell through when he quit his job in a huff of ego and indignation. Neither of my parents helped me finance my education. But during my senior year, when my student loans wouldn’t cover the total cost of my degree, my grandmother took out a $7,000 private loan to insure that I was able to graduate in four years.

I was the product of a very healthy village.

At graduation, so many people from my father’s family showed up that, had it rained and I had been forced to use the four tickets I’d been allotted, rather than the unlimited standing room our sunny outdoor ceremony provided, at least five people would’ve been unable to watch me walk.

I know the singular joy of making those closest to me proud. I know how it feels to be encouraged to succeed, from birth to adulthood. I suppose this means that my mother’s right. My life has been, comparatively, charmed.

Things derailed a little after I got my BA. I’ve always been a little adrift. I’m a writer. I’m morose and meandering. Definitely not a Type A personality. Not particularly ambitious. Certainly don’t kowtow in order to insulate myself from demotion or downsizing; I usually don’t care enough about where I am to be sad about leaving, when the time comes. I pursue and maintain employment because it’s important for me not to have to ask other people for money.

People I’ve loved ask me for money, a lot. I almost always have it. I almost always give it. Occasionally, this bothers me–but usually only in cases where I feel like I’m being treated like a solution instead of a person.

Anyway, after my BA, I moved home to help my mother financially recover from a divorce. I spent four years on that and during that time I learned what it was like to financially and emotionally defer to someone’s needs other than my own. Twenty-one was a good and fair age at which to learn this lesson.

Some girls have to learn it in the womb.

Then, at 25, I started a master’s program. In creative writing. At one of the most esteemed arts schools in the country. That was the kind of whim that would’ve needed to wait, had I prioritized a family then. I didn’t think seriously of beginning a family then. In fact, the low rumbling of wanting had only just begun to surface. It had no shape or direction, only a distinct pang to attend it, every time another friend or cousin or acquaintance married or began to thicken with new life.

I incurred another $32,000 of debt for that endeavor. Just as I’m not particularly ambitious, I’m also not particularly practical or forward-thinking. I don’t plan very far into the future. This is not to say that I’m entirely short-sighted; I’m not.

But you should know that thinking far ahead has always been pretty difficult for me, as my life has been a series of unexpected, unforeseeable events I couldn’t have insulated myself from if I’d tried.

So I don’t really try.

Which brings me to this: there are some decisions that erode the supposed “charm” from the lives of those fortunate enough not to be touched by true calamity or affliction.

I made one such decision when I made you.

Listen: because I was a mistake, I know better than to call you one. You absolutely weren’t. You were no happy accident. You were no accident at all. You were, quite simply, a spectacular outcome. I want you to hear that, even now, even before you grow ears. You were a hope that burgeoned early.

I didn’t plan for you. But God knows I dreamed of you. Like I used to dream about an MFA, when it seemed I’d never be able to earn one. Like I dreamed of hitting all the milestones I somehow deferred, because I depended on the wrong people or believed the wrong things or thought myself unfit or incompetent to achieve them. You, like everything I’ve ever pursued but never truly envisioned myself attaining, were an iridescent abstraction, something beautiful in the background of a life I thought, maybe, someday, I’d be fortunate enough to attain.

Sometimes, you felt like an impossibility. I wept for you, longed for you from a pit so empty and echoing I was certain you’d never come and fill it.

When you were only a wanton hope, I romanticized you. I thought of making your bedroom a castle and taking you to grocery stores in a tiara and tulle skirt and purple galoshes or a cape, with a scepter, and cowboy boots. I thought of reading you Goodnight, Moon and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Then, I thought of all the years you’d say you hated me, of all the desperate prayers that whatever you were doing behind your slammed bedroom door would be healthy and normal, not destructive and unconquerable.

Because I’ve known your father my whole adult life, he flitted through the foreground of every dream I ever had of you. I dreamed a two-parent home for you–as most women do–filled with money, teeming with love.

On the day I discovered you, growing–just days after my 30th birthday–this fortuitous wonder, this prospect whose depths my mind seems entirely incapable of plumbing–I began to name you. You were here, as certainly as I and your father are here. You are a part of the world, because you’ve been created.

I couldn’t bring myself to even entertain the idea of not bringing you from one precipice of being to the next. I couldn’t–I still can’t–see you as anything other than a beginning.

But for the first time ever, in my erstwhile “charmed” life, I have come to realize that I’ve always been right to assume that I’m not like other people. I am not strong and determined like all my single cousins who parent, or practical and wise like my cousin who chose another practical, wise person with whom to parent and partner. I’m not hopeful and happy and of a sound temperament, like the friends I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, who find the necessary grace to maintain relatively decent and workable relationships with difficult partners, for the sake of their children.

I’m not much of anything, except a woman who waits too long to do most things and not long enough to do others.

I don’t feel particularly cherished. I’m constantly paranoid about being someone’s burden. I feel resented, even by those who declare their undying love. I am this way because I’m a reader–of actions and deeds, as well as words.

I am not the type of person who would be able to keep your father’s sudden and utter unwillingness to raise you a secret until you’re old enough to handle it. And, because you are part me, you’d sense it even if I hid it with the stealth of a host of illusionists.

I am not the type of person who can guarantee you I’ll be industrious enough to earn enough as a single mother to avoid subjecting you to the world’s (and the government’s) crueler indignities.

I’m not even the type of person who knew, after nine years, what kind of man your father was, before I literally opened myself, to the possibility and the reality of you.

Even at 30 and even with a terminal degree, I am entirely unfit. Uninsured. Impractical. Immoral. Vaguely depressive.

Your life may not be as insulated from harm as mine.

And what worries me most, for you, is that none of this ever occurred to me when I longed for you here, in this home, in this life.

This barely occurs to me now, as you are here and I still want you so, though I know it would cost us both so much emotional deficit, so many rejections, so few days of light, in these first years.

It’s strange, to float about, untouched by much of anything at all, vaguely happy and only superficially sad, until making the one choice that has abruptly tethered me to a surface so hard and coarse and cold, so crumbling and concrete, that I wonder if we’ll ever know floating again.