I had a hard time falling asleep because I knew I couldn’t possibly be pregnant with his baby. And yet I was four days late, according to the app on my phone, and there was a gnawing in my stomach, like she already had a mouth.
Everything gets caught up with everything else. This fall was an echo of every fall that came before, and this him, the one that might have gotten me pregnant, was more or less an echo of the first him. And the first him was more or less an echo of certain men in my family. People for whom when I was obedient, I was the world, but the rest of the time, most of time … well.
I didn’t want to take a test. I had taken tests before and they never really told you anything. Besides, it was just four days. Four days was a blip, it was nothing, but when I fell asleep behind my eyes I could see us becoming a new family.
In the morning, I lay on my bed and tried to forget my past or to remember it as something true, re-remember it as honorable suffering. I imagined everything I’d ever done had been leading up to this moment. My bad decisions were not bad decisions; they were something fated and filled with the tenderness that I contained. What was happening with this baby inside me, it meant something. She was important. She would be everything I couldn’t, everyone would love her, she would change the world and fix all of the things that were wrong with everyone. I would no longer rage out or get into a dark place. She was meant to happen.
The reason why I wasn’t on the pill had to do with the first him. Being on the pill made my breasts grow, and my stomach. Also I just wasn’t seventeen anymore. Also I was filled with a strange flatness of thought that made me need too much food and to sleep for twelve-hour intervals. I used to be smart, but then I couldn’t speak, at least not without complaining. When we stopped having sex, his dick a floppy nothing in my hand, I’d cried. “Is it because I got bigger? Is it because I gained weight?”
He thought for a second. “You know, maybe. That probably does have something to do with it.” So I quit the pill. But then when I stopped it, I looked at him and he was still him, so I quit him too. I moved to the city, where everything glows, and I lost weight, but not the upset. That’s what twisted and grew.
Sometimes I dreamt of people rubbing off my skin with sand. They said my name as they did it, the way the new him did during sex. “Paulie, Paulie, Paulina.” I still hadn’t had the heart to tell him everyone just called me Paul, although he should have realized with all the mutual friends we had. For some reason, I thought he’d get weirded out. He once ranted about names that were ambiguous, not hinting towards a gender. He hated Taylor and Aidan and even Lesley. He liked to call me Paulina because it meant I could have a baby and that every time we had sex it was a risk. Especially since like most men I’ve met since leaving the first him, he hated the tight, latex second skin of condoms.
We had a pack of the same friends, and after a while I started noticing him, or he noticed me. Everyone else was in couples anyway, and it seemed the most natural thing for him to walk me home as everyone was hopping into cabs and then sleeping together. And then I didn’t hear from him until the next time everyone got together for drinks. But it’s not like it mattered. I was well versed in the one-night stand, and at least this wasn’t a one-night stand. Or maybe it was just a series of one-night stands. We couldn’t get along, which was a problem, and we were getting to the age where people didn’t just want sex, they also wanted to find the perfect companion. It wasn’t enough to find the person interesting. They also had to be funny, and kind. They had to not make you angry and not get too angry with you. Especially when all the couples were composed of best friends, people with similar interests and perspectives on life. And several times when I started talking, he’d just walk away and be by himself at the bar.
I don’t want you to think life was empty. I valued those friendships. There was a spark of something I’d been missing before. I taught children art in an afterschool program. About color and expression and shape. They showed promise, a peculiar way of looking at the world. It gave me hope for them, the way they’d grow, even if I didn’t have much hope for anything else. During the summer, I grew a garden in a plot of land at the back of my shared house. I read all day sometimes when I wasn’t working. Things that had happened to me before moving to the city had left me raw. And reading, just like when I was a child, along with my friendships, seemed to be the way to fix it. I was learning. I could feel myself growing every day into a woman. And it was maybe not an easy thing. But it was a special thing.
We were hanging out with my friends, and I kept ordering soda water, saying I had program prep to do that night after I got home. Everyone always commented when anyone didn’t drink, as if they were playing it safe or were a borderline alcoholic, or hated all of their friends.
I was a good friend. It was the only thing I really knew how to do. It was why I was good at the afterschool program, the same skills. It wasn’t very hard. When they wanted to hang out, I was available. When they had secrets, I was there to listen. When they needed help, I was there to lend a hand. I offered them surprisingly little of my personal life—none of what had happened with the first him, what my scars were from, the problem with The Cousin. People only saw my smile and the wild golden hair he liked to gather in his hands and lift from my neck. I wasn’t quiet—the opposite. But I had rules about what was okay to talk about.
It was the end of the night, the moon was shining its pretty face on down at me, and we were alone on the back patio. Our friends were all inside buying drinks, he wanted to smoke, and I wrapped my coat around my body making a little bundle of self. He wasn’t talking to me, even though we were alone, and finally I said, “You know, you’re the one who’s always stressing me out!”
And he didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to get in another fight, but I felt his baby knee me from the inside.
“Look at that moon,” I finally said, and I was sick of doing all the talking even though that was the way it always was and what he said was one of the biggest problems with me. Along with my lack of honesty. Along with how loud I was. Along with my pushy nature. Along with my moodiness. But he was moody too, just maybe in a different way. I was able to laugh in the middle of anger. He was able to be angry in the middle of laughter. Was there a way for me to keep the switch flipped on? Stuck on love? It never quite got there—flicked from hate to strong like then back to hate. I wanted him to put those big hands on my stomach and then on my face. But we all want impossible things.
“It shouldn’t be this hard,” he said, and that wasn’t like him at all, caught up in the quiet defeatism of the world.
And of course, that made me snappy. “How else would you figure it all out?” Part of me said, You’re making a bad decision again. You’re provoking him. But my scalp was on fire and more than anything I felt I deserved to be alone.
Our friends came back outside to the patio, but the bar owner flicked off the outdoor lights to let us know it was last call. All I could see was his ember in the dark, glowing as he smoked. And the moon. My friend sat beside me, and she started crying quietly. I just held her hand because I knew her mom had died, and my mom was alive and my friend was drunk and who cared that this baby was growing in me—his baby—belonging to him who didn’t give a fuck.
I never was the kind of girl to be direct. I was too shy about my own feelings, although I was so full of feelings and sometimes they all spilled out of my mouth. I knew girls who would blow up the phones of their boyfriends or girlfriends with texts, girls who would follow their infatuation around, girls who would drop by his or her work, girls who screamed outside of their houses. I never did those things. I respected boundaries. And my intensity already branded me a crazy girl, so I had to keep my distance. But I thought, If this is a baby, if she’s really alive, then I should be able to go to his house. I ate four slices of leftover pizza so I wouldn’t have to eat in front of him, and I walked from my neighborhood to his in the early afternoon, the leaves coming down and getting stuck in my hair. How romantic, I thought, and then I had the intention of telling him. That it was now a week late, and we were going to have a kid because I wasn’t so sure about an abortion. Also this would mean that we’d have to figure things out.
He answered the door. “Oh. Why are you here?” He was wearing sweats and had obviously been working on writing. He smelt like coffee and pulled me into a hug.
“I have the day off. I wanted to see if you wanted to come for a walk.”
“You know you can call me ahead of time, right?”
“I was in the area.”
Calling him made me scared. Sometimes I texted and he didn’t answer, so I didn’t text much. I expected him to shut the door and say, I’ve got work to do. Don’t bother me at home. But instead he said, “Were you, now?” and picked me up and carried me over to his futon where he pulled off my clothes and pulled me on top of him, and once again I didn’t ask about protection. Afterwards, he dressed quickly and walked on over to his fridge, pulled out a beer. I trailed behind him, buttoning my shirt, my favorite one, with rows and rows of stars.
Beside his sink were several half-drunk glasses of milk. “My roommate,” he said. “Sorry.” I opened the cupboard looking for a glass for water, but there were none. “Don’t you want a beer or something?”
“It’s early,” I said.
“Well, wash a glass then.” I dumped glass after glass of milk down the sink. The yellow white clumps hugged the holes in the drain before getting rinsed down. I washed all the glasses, as a present. I tried not to think too hard about the milk. “Did you actually want to go for a walk? Or did you get what you came for?”
I filled a glass with water and drank it, then filled it again. “Well, with all this free water, your house seems the ideal place to be. But I thought a walk would be nice.”
“I offered you a drink. I have more than water.”
“I’m joking.” I walked over to his bookshelf and examined his books, Hemingway lined up beside Hemingway. “Hills Like White Elephants.”
“What about it?”
I shrugged. He kept looking at me and sipped his drink. I chugged another whole glass of water.
I stopped looking at his books eventually, and we spent time walking around his neighborhood, admiring the old trees, and I wanted to just bawl and kick at him and run down the street without ever looking back. I knew he’d think that made me childish, but what else was I supposed to do? Everything was so easy and perfect between us this day, but the next day he’d hate me again, and all I’d be able to think about for a week would be his baby and his hands. I grabbed one of them, and he pulled it away. “Come on, we’re outside,” he said.
“Hills Like White Elephants,” I said.
And a change came over his face. “Why don’t you just go home?”
“What.” I knew he knew.
“Go home and get out of my life. You’re constantly pushing. Showing up at my house, playing your games. Stop whatever you’re doing.”
“But.” And I started to gag, it was rising up in me, the baby and the pizza and the glasses of water. I thought about milk, the disgustingness of milk.
“Are you really going to throw up right now?”
“No.” I took a deep breath, the way my therapist suggested to do when my scalp started to tingle, so I wouldn’t start yelling or punching things; my knuckles already had too many scars. But he never gave me time to calm down. He was already walking away, he wasn’t looking back. My hand was still warm from where it’d tried to hold his, but soon, walking home with the skin bare, it burned with cold.
Something was wet between my legs. I climbed the steps to my apartment, and I hated him. And autumn. God, the stupid moldy leaves. The hallway inside my house was dark. I imagined an ember floating in front of me, lighting the way. My love’s cigarette. It was the first time I’d ever thought of him as that—my love. But he didn’t love me—who could?—not even full of his DNA.
My apartment was too cold. The radiators hadn’t been turned on. I went to the bathroom, pulled down my pants, my underwear. Oh, red. Moist and red. On the toilet, drops of me fell in. I leaned my head against the tiled wall, my hand tearing toilet paper into strips. They littered the floor, like pieces of rice thrown at a wedding. I listened to the drips.