It was the last day of my old life. The third week of October 2017. The year I was forty.
Jo was at school. Iris was at daycare. I didn’t know where my husband, Tony, was.
It’s peculiar what I can’t forget. Our bathroom held the sickeningly sweet smell of geranium-scented cleaner. I wore a too-tight blouse. Unwashed hair pinned in a bun above my neck. I sat against a wall, where the taupe paint was scratched, an uncapped pregnancy test developing in my grip. I held the test upside down. I couldn’t bear to watch. A gap beneath the door set a rectangle of yellow light across the tub. Two minutes to know what would become of me. Time passed, a whole life. I flipped the test over when waiting got harder than knowing. Two red lines on a white strip stared at me. A second test lay in the box. I ripped its foil package open with my teeth. Right between the sink and the commode, I crouched down, swearing in disbelief. I was still breastfeeding twelve-month-old Iris, still recovering from pregnancy and birth, still lonely the way a mother is when she can’t find the person she used to be.
I knew when it happened. The deaths of our fathers had brought us close. Tony and I had fumbled to find each other in our unlit bedroom. He’d reached for me and I held him. I’d been careless and stupid.
Two more red lines.
I threw the test across the room. Of course, it hit the tile over the bathtub, flying back at me. Our situation was hard to admit. We couldn’t afford another baby. We were like most Americans. No savings, no emergency fund, lots of debt. Lots and lots. Professors at West Virginia University, Tony and I held the exact same position, only he made more than I did. And he didn’t even want the job. He was always trying to quit, looking for shinier work. Hollywood writing work. Like so many women, my money was earmarked to look after the children. Seventy percent of what I took home went to childcare, if we could find it, which I didn’t think we could if we had another baby. It had taken a year and a half for a spot to open in a good daycare for Iris, not an uncommon thing in small towns. Demand exceeds supply. There were so few options. I’d placed Iris on several waiting lists six weeks into my first trimester. Each one was the same; write your name on a line and pray.
Most household tasks and chores fell on me. Night feedings. Bills. Boring paperwork. Someone always needed to be fed or rocked or talked off the ledge of a tantrum. I didn’t have time to be pregnant. I divvied minutes. The night before I took the pregnancy test, Tony stood in the living room and lifted our upright Dyson by its handle, looking it over as if it were some rare thing. He tried to unlock the detachable hose, squeezing it. Seven years we’d owned that vacuum cleaner. And then Tony asked me how to turn it on.
Our marriage—like all marriages, I assume—is complex, its own country. In our country, we were fighting most days. We were broke. We were overextended. We rarely touched. Talk was tense even about the good things, anger clipping our voices. We argued so much we forgot the original argument. Our marriage was hung on fantasy. But my marriage is part of the story; it isn’t the point of this story. Had my husband been a financially stable and faithful, kind hero, the cost of daycare would have been the same, the potential loss of my career the same, the distance and barriers to reasonable health care the same. In my tiny windowless bathroom, positive pregnancy test in hand, I thought, this is why women opt out of work. I’d worked so hard. College, though my family couldn’t afford it. Years and years in graduate school. Now a tenure track job. I was the stable earner in our household. A third baby at forty and my professional life was over.
Moments like these, I want my Mom. I tell her most things first. Telling Mom is like telling myself. I called, crying. I didn’t want another baby. I wanted an abortion.
“Oh, Christa.” Mom sounded disappointed in me. Mom gave up every dream of her own for me. She’d worked two jobs or more my whole childhood, never any help. A long pause.
Mom said if I wanted another baby, I could do it. If I wanted to focus on the children I already had, I could do that. Maybe Mom was right, though I was leery. I’d called her crying and panicked the morning Trump won, too. It had been tense between us; Mom insisted the country would be fine, don’t be dramatic. Nothing would change. It’s always been a man’s place. Four years later we still remind each other how correct I’d been. But never mind. Mom reassured me we live in a free country. Choice is a given.
“You’re right, Mom. I’ll call you later. After work.” I pressed the red disconnect call button at the bottom of my phone. For the first time in my adult life, I longed to live at home again. To have the care of Mom’s meals, and the electric bill paid.
I went back to the bathroom. I held my phone above the double-red striped viewing window, snapped a photo, and texted the image to Tony without comment. I didn’t want him to see the picture. I wanted him to feel it. A big fat positive like a kick to the gut.
A NURSE CALLED my name at Cheat Lake Physicians. We walked down a pictureless white hall. No small talk, though I usually would make some. She opened the door into a windowless, cubicle-size exam room, the middle one in a row of side-by-side built offices. Its thin walls carried sound. Brochures for pharmaceuticals and illustrations of the body tacked against plaster. I was told to undress, to slip on a paper drape.
“I’m pregnant,” I blurted, “or I think I am.” Before the nurse would congratulate me, I told her I didn’t want to be. “What are my next steps?” The nurse didn’t answer. She left the room.
“Lie back,” the West Virginia doctor instructed. I would feel something cold, a little pressure. The ultrasound’s monitor crackled, a black-and-white screen resembling poor television reception.
“There it is. See?” The doctor put his finger beside a blinking white speck on the display, a flashing star. “The heart.”
“A heartbeat already?”
To call that blinking speck a heartbeat is a misnomer, it turns out; or, as I have come to see it, an outright lie. Implantation occurs about twenty-one days after the start of a woman’s last period. At six weeks, there is an undifferentiated embryo the size of a small pebble, and a detectable rhythmic pulsing from that cluster of cells transforms into a kind of pacemaker, which mimics a heartbeat. Over the next four to six weeks, what we come to think of as a heart, though even that is not yet a heart, is semi-formed. The muscle continues to develop and grow. But I didn’t know all of that then.
Nor did I know that “heartbeat bills” were on the rise in many states, and if enacted, that they would ban abortion with the detection of a “heartbeat,” the faux kind, even in the extreme conditions of rape, incest, pregnancy endangering a mother’s life, and fetal abnormality. Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws. The law criminalizes abortion after a detectable “heartbeat”; doctors who carry out such a procedure could be jailed for up to ninety-nine years.
“I want an abortion,” I told the doctor flat, matter-of-fact, heartbeat-like star notwithstanding.
I shifted my weight. The paper over the exam table crackled like a candy wrapper.
The doctor looked at the floor. He was sorry, he said, he couldn’t help. That’s just the way it was. Was he looking at me with pity? I’ve not been able to forget the look on his face. He tilted his head to the side and half smiled, which I mistook as an apology. My pants and undergarments lay rumpled on a chair in a far corner of the room. The young doctor stood up from his little wheelie stool, wished me well, asked me to dress, and then closed the door. I stared at the door, bargaining. Someone would return to that sterile room and take a second look at me. Another doctor would sort this through. I remained on the table until a nurse knocked. A new patient needed the space.
I gathered myself and walked from the building and to my car. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I dialed a good friend in California. I needed someone outside of West Virginia to know what had just happened, to believe it myself.
It was the first brisk autumn day. I was forty years old, with a kindergartener and a one-year-old at home. I was an accidentally pregnant, progressive woman in the reddest state in America.
Adapted from Christa Parravani’s Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood, to be published November 10 by Henry Holt.