Winner, 2014 Creative Nonfiction Award
It’s early April, and my tummy is still a valley. By the summer, it will be a bunny hill. By mid-fall, a mountain.
It’s not so much the stretching or the puking of it, or even the labor, or the end of my life. I mostly just don’t want to have to tell anyone, ever.
But. I’ve decided. I can’t, won’t, absolutely will not erase this.
I did that already, only last summer. And here I am, not even a year later, and no better off. Worse, even. In a lot of ways it would have been better to have kept the first. But I didn’t, and now I’m crying quietly through lit class.
My soft-spoken professor keeps me after dismissing the others. I assume because she saw tears, or because, for the second time this week, I’ve fallen asleep on my arm during her lecture.
“Yes, just tired.” I push out a smile.
She smile-frowns, tilts her head. “Okay,” she says. I’m looking down at my toes, actively avoiding her concern. “Well…try and get some rest.”
I nod as the waves start. She touches my shoulder and lets me go.
I stop in the hall to breathe until the storm passes.
I haven’t thrown up yet. And I don’t plan to.
I lie on my back, place a hand on my middle, try to feel what’s going on. Out here everything’s perfect and still, like maybe this isn’t happening. But it is. Microscopic body parts are quickly materializing. Now she’s only a ball of cells, but soon, she’ll be everything: brain and knees and hands and mouth and heart. A spec I’ll love forever without measure. A meteor coming straight for my life.
One day, being a mommy will be amazing. We’ll have rainy summer days baking cookies, reading Frog and Toad cuddled under a fort. Feeding ducks stale bread and spinning in the living room, catching stories out of the air like fish, reading the stars. Long days ending with a chubby cheek smashed against my shoulder, warm arms woven around my neck.
But first, I have to catch a bus home and tell my parents. First, I have to figure out how the hell to get from this point to that.
A month before this baby’s birth, I’ll celebrate my 21st. Legally, I’ll be an adult, but that’s the only way. I have two more years of college in Chicago, but no job or close friends or apartment here, so I guess I’ll go home. My boyfriend may or, more likely, may not stick around.
But my mind’s set, I’m doing this.
No more concerts, trying to get invited backstage. No more aspiring to be seen next to an important man on a red carpet or a screen. No more chasing and falling.
If I’m lucky, she’ll be a girl. Then it won’t matter if I’m single forever, if soul mates don’t even exist, anyway. I’ll just want something else. We’ll be more girly than I’ve ever been on my own, matching clothes and playing tea party, shopping to cure our achy blues. She’ll be my tiny sidekick, and I’ll grow up alongside her.
Two days pass, and I stare across the table at my father sipping coffee and reading the funnies, convulsing with laughter that makes him take off his glasses and reread the punch line out loud to the room, and I think about just telling them next time, or the next, or the next. Maybe waiting for my belly to say it, for them to ask me after they know.
But I couldn’t stand the agony of waiting for impact.
Sunday, when my dad slips out to the hardware store, I stand in the hall that leads to where my mom stands in the kitchen, psyche myself up like a boxer, take three big breaths in a row.
When I was 11, I was too embarrassed to tell her I got my period, so I hid it for over a year, rolling up toilet paper to make my own pads, stuffing the evidence deep down into our kitchen garbage, covering it with food wrappers and paper towels placed just so.
I wonder now if in me the baby can feel this nervousness, if I’m causing tsunamis or some kind of chaos in her world.
“Mom, can I talk to you real quick?”
Inside my old bedroom, we sit a foot apart.
“What’s up?” she asks, her face reddening fast.
I’m already crying. “Nothing,” I say, wiping my cheeks hard. “Except I’m pregnant!” I practically scream at her.
She closes her eyes, and all she says is a sigh, long and deep.
The worst is over. A little relief trickles through me. It’s out there, filling the house, getting away from me and into every corner and crack. Now, I can’t change my mind.
She watches me for a while, says she’s very sorry, sighs some more. She tries to look into me, but I don’t let her. This is probably the first time she’s seen me like this since I was a kid who wore big glasses and bawled about everything.
She asks about my plan, but I can’t answer. I’m too upset. And I don’t have one.
“Okay,” she says firmly, like some kind of pact. She agrees to be the one to tell my father after I’m gone.
Already, she’s grown from nothing into something the size of a kidney bean. But still I can’t feel her.
I have a Black History class that meets in a basement across campus. I look forward to the escape of four-hour classes, especially this one, the past opening its arms like a big-bosomed grandma, embracing me and my entire Tuesday afternoon.
My professor has a radio-voice and thicker than ever glasses. He doesn’t remind me of my father but does seem like someone who would be my father’s friend. I can picture him in our living room, leaned in, passionately dissecting religion and philosophies, sipping coffee, shaking the walls with his laugh.
I had him last semester and by this one, he’s decided I have potential. For exactly what I don’t know or ask. His class fulfills a requirement, but I love it anyway. I speed-walk to get there on time. Outside it is a hot spring, and the thick air is juicy with the scent of Demon Dogs. Inside it is cool and dark, even with all the lights on, as we carefully revisit old tortures. My teacher and half of me are the only black people for blocks and blocks. The other students nod off and ask questions you’d expect from fifth graders, and I want to drink a glass of his patience.
I tear through Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and thirst for more. He hands me Frederick Douglass, a book that’s not assigned. The weekly quiz is failed by most of the class again and again. He starts grading on the curve, but my 100 percent ruins it for everyone. My hand stays raised. But I’m not like this in other classes.
“You have so much potential,” he says.
He keeps me behind after class to pump me up. He suggests I apply for an internship for black students who excel in intellect. I don’t know if anyone has ever called me black before. Not mixed, or a minority, but black, so casually, as if he didn’t think about it twice. It makes me want to fall into his arms.
Another teacher wrote on my paper, “We prefer to be called African-Americans,” and I didn’t know how to tell her, “But I’m part of you.”
“Are you interested?” he asks.
My nod isn’t a lie. But he doesn’t know that this semester is it for me. By the fall, I’ll be someone else.
“I’ll get you the information by next week,” he promises.
I can’t look right at him so I scan the empty room. His heavy hand clasps my shoulder and squeezes like I make him proud.
Henry “Box” Brown sealed himself in a wooden package and sent himself to freedom, wadded up for 300 miles like a fetus.
Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, snuck back into it 13 times to rescue her whole family and dozens of others, led them all those miles with her head condition giving her constant pain and making her faint at random.
It is amazing how much some people have done and how little I even try to do.
Quick as an eclipse it’s coming over me, this feeling of regret. I’ve blown so many years. All the books I could have devoured, the languages I might have mastered, the cooking and playing and dancing and swimming, the talking and listening I could have done.
I regret only pretending to read the Iliad, settling for a C in high school chemistry, quitting horses. I was supposed to be an Olympic medalist by now.
For years, I’ve given everything to boys I loved, sometimes to just the hopes of invisible ones. I should have been filling myself to the brim but instead I’ve been gushing.
He thinks I’m full of potential, intelligence and maturity and good sense. But he has no idea. If he shook me, he’d hear all the emptiness.
He couldn’t guess what’s in me, going through the stages of evolution, webbed fingers, even shedding a tail. Soon I will be filled up, literally. Taken over by this baby.
I stop feeling sorry for myself, stop crying all the damn time.
Some windy evenings, I walk off campus, imagine myself in a tall softly-lit bungalow with a husband and a hoard of kids. Just for a few minutes, I let myself want it. Then, I shake those hopes off, leave them writhing on the sidewalk looking for another host.
I get a smoothie and roam a children’s bookstore, noting titles that look promising. Back in my room, I make lists of daycares close to campus, in case we ever get to come back.
I window-shop for tiny clothes and sleek strollers. I eat better, sleep less. I pass my finals, end up with two Bs and three As.
“I’m just very proud of you,” my mother croaks over the phone.
I will not be brought down by this baby. I will be the best single 21-year-old mother ever made. A depression was peeking over my horizon. But I took a big breath, and I blew it away.
She’s three inches long now, has finger prints, and we’re headed home.
Both parents come to get me. My dad makes the trips up and down the elevator, tells me not to lift anything. The two-hour drive home to Rockford is silent, so I sleep.
I settle in. Maybe I’ll never feel settled. But I unpack and fill up my old dusty room again.
I tread as lightly as I can with my new weight. I don’t want to make noise, be too much of a presence. They have new hardwood floors, a new refrigerator. A new air in the house. I miss the ugly brown carpet with all our memories stained into it. For the first time since I outgrew them, I find time to miss everything: Nickelodeon shows back-to-back on a Saturday, burning my stomach on our Slip n’ Slide, bubblegum like tape measures. Having crushes on boys and never telling them.
My mom told her parents, and they asked a lot of questions. They sighed.
My dad called his after we visited for Mother’s Day. My grandpa probably just laughed it off with his tongue out. I think he’s probably never been serious for more than a minute of his life. But I don’t know what my grandma said. She must be used to her granddaughters knocking themselves up like it’s the latest craze. There are only four of us, and now, three of us will be mothers and unwed.
We aren’t close; I’m not sure what she could really say. But I guess she’s surprised. Growing up, our dad put a two-hour distance between us, afraid of too much influence from the city, something that made her cry.
Once when everyone was in the other room eating, my grandma told me that the biggest regret of her life was marrying my grandpa. My first thought was that, by default, she regretted that we all existed. But I nodded and waited for more. She rubbed her knees for a minute, got up and walked away.
She didn’t tell me, but I’ve heard her story thirdhand. She wanted to be a lawyer. Her daddy was a sharecropper and sometimes kept his five kids out of school because he needed their extra hands.
They rode in the back of his truck, standing to make room for the other families he picked up on the way to the field. He didn’t allow his wife, my great-grandma Franklin, to ride in the cab with him. Once he hit a corner going too fast and the crowd in back all fell on top of each other. My great-grandma came out of the pile-up with a broken collarbone. He wouldn’t or couldn’t pay for a doctor. So she had to suck it up and heal herself.
One morning when my grandma was thirteen she hopped down out of the truck bed and told him that she was going to school instead of picking. He told her to get her ass back in. He was a big man, the spitting image of my towering uncle. He hit my grandma, put her back in the truck bleeding. But she jumped out again. He hit her harder, threw her in. But before he could take off, she was back on the ground. It went on and on until he gave up, the sun rising too high, maybe, and, I like to think, tired of hurting her. He drove off as she walked towards the schoolhouse.
For so long I was swollen up with the heroic part of her story and never bothered to ask what happened, why she wasn’t a lawyer already.
Now that I’m older, pregnant and disenchanted enough, my mom tells me why.
She was raped by a gynecologist during an exam. Afterwards she couldn’t stand life in her tiny hometown where she had to relentlessly see his face. She wanted to escape so badly that she took the first rope she was thrown: my silly, sweet, drinking, gambling grandpa offering her his hand and a life in Chicago.
They married and lived in the Veteran’s Public Housing on 39th and Lake Park, and she became a housekeeper for lawyers on the North Shore. She put my grandpa on an allowance so he wouldn’t drink or gamble everything away. Once, after he came home from a card game she found a deed he didn’t realize he’d won. She sold that land, bought a tiny house in the western suburbs. My grandpa drove a school bus. She worked at a television factory. By the time she was 23 she had three sons, and that was that.
If someone determined enough to take beatings for a chance at her dream was worn down by motherhood, who can say what will happen to me, who has never really fought for anything?
She’s the size of an onion, her soft rubbery cartilage skeleton is hardening into bone, her hair and eyelashes are filling in, and I really miss Chicago.
I miss its nighttime, color contrasts and sharp sounds. I miss bikers in the middle of traffic, hot peppers on hot dogs. Chicagoans who always know where they’re going and how to maneuver through traffic you think is impossible. Looking in from the outside, knowing I may never find a way back, the city seems sacred. I can barely recall that sewer smell that used to hit us walking downtown. It only smells like fudge and caramel corn and pizza and perfumes. There’s no rapists, no crying limbless men asking for change, no darkness. From this distance it only shimmers and shines.
I threw up twice, back in my dorm. Once a chicken sandwich I’d walked a mile for, once a cafeteria salad I finished just before spewing it as green soup back into the bowl. When my stomach started to wave during class, I’d slip out to the vending machine for the saving salt of pretzels. Nobody knew what was going on. But here in my hometown, showing and steadily growing, everyone does.
I run into my ex at a gas station. By now, all I can fit are men’s wife-beaters and stretchy pants. He touches my stomach with a finger. We had a baby, last year. But it never even stretched me out. I made that decision, without his permission, but waiting up until the very last second for him to stop me, for even the slightest protest.
He shakes his head. “What is you doing?” he asks, so softly. “You keep this one…‘cause it wasn’t mine?”
He wants to know. But I look down and lie to him.
His compliments were always the kind that fell between flattering and offensive, but today he tells me I look beautiful pregnant. It makes my nose sting but I suck it up. His eyes are kind of wet, but I know he won’t cry either. He looks really, really good. He has the best skin, like polished bronze. He has this smile.
I stopped by his house in May, just for torture, just for five minutes. We went to his room where a picture of a blonde had taken my place in the mirror frame. I asked if he still had the cards and photos that I’d sent him from school. He said yes, but when I challenged him to, he couldn’t find them. We sat on his bed, and there was almost nothing left of that feeling that not long ago made me feel so insane.
Today, he tells me that a lot of times he falls asleep watching TV and wakes up to the local commercial for the restaurant that shares my name, a deep-voice with a heavy accent draws me out to him. And he thinks of me and wonders where I am and with who.
Now, standing against the warm wind, I feel that old feeling crawling up, past the baby, headed right where I don’t want it to.
He says, “I knew you was pregnant. That day I saw you.”
“Yeah right,” I say. “How?”
“I just did,” he tells me, standing straighter. “I have feelings about you sometimes.”
I have an appointment to find out just who is in there, 10 inches long, the size of a pomegranate, with eyelids and eyebrows in their proper places. Genitals fully formed.
My mom comes, my best friends and their boyfriends. The cubicle-size room isn’t made for this many. The technician says, “You came with an entourage, girl!” which makes me conscious that it must look like I tried to fill the room with people to make up for the missing one. She never asks which one is the dad, or addresses either of the guys as if they could be him. I hate that she might feel sorry for me. But I smile and say, “Everyone’s excited to see if it’s a boy or girl.”
She says, “Can’t always tell; let’s see if we have luck today.”
I don’t think I could handle not finding out today. I just need to know as much as possible so I can plan. The months ahead, the decades. I need to know us in a hurry.
She squirts cold blue gel on the slope of my mountain and presses the thingy to it, and we get the first image of feet. The crowd gets tighter around me. There’s a spine, nice and connected. There’s the head, the working brain. A profile. A straight-on face shot of eye and nose sockets, a little skeleton. She lingers on each part, pointing out details, allowing everyone to lean over me to see.
“So you’re sure you want to know?” Her smirk tells me she already does.
I sit up on my elbows.
“Should I tell you?” she teases.
“Oh my God, it’s killing me!” my friend Jenny whines.
I hold on tight.
Jenny’s squealing into my mom’s shoulder, getting louder by the second, like tea.
The room releases a breath. I don’t want to cry.
“A boy! Congrats!”
I nod and keep my mouth firm so that nothing will spill.
She points to it. A little white penis on the black screen. She types “boy” next to it. She prints the pictures and hands them to me warm.
“So, are you happy?” my mom asks on the way out.
I’ve never told anyone I wanted a girl. The way I’m forecasting, there’s little to no chance of me ever having one now. It’s healthier for me to think this way, to keep myself sane and functioning.
“Yep,” I say. “I’m happy.”
They were all babies. Coldhearted hotties who’ve crushed me, even serial killers, even pedophiles. Their tiny hands once grabbed aimlessly at empty air, at everything that came into reach, trying to grasp and hold something. And my great-grandpa, before he’d use his huge hands to pull up cotton and count coins that never equaled enough and crush cheekbones, those hands must have been sucked on for comfort, pushed a toy truck in and out of mud. Clung tightly to his mom.
He did amazing things with the same hands, hired to repair the broken things other people couldn’t begin to. He took apart radios, built them again, built one from scratch with things he found. He wasn’t educated past the third grade, but he figured it out. Just put it together, one part at a time.
With barely any fat to stretch his wrinkled skin smooth and billowy, he’d have no leg clouds, but if he came now, there’d be a possibility they could save him.
Now, when I re-read the slave narratives from my long-lost teacher and that far off Black History class, they make me tremble.
A mother was carrying her newborn on the chained walk from St. Louis to New Orleans. When he started crying the trader shouted to shut him up. When she couldn’t, he grabbed the baby by the ankle like a rabbit in a snare, walked up to a random house, and gave him to the stranger who answered the door. His mother begged and fell down and had to be dragged away by her wrists. In a way, I bet she wished he were just dead, so she’d know it was over for him, so she wouldn’t spend every night of her life awake wondering if he was bleeding or hungry or cold or sad about something, if there was anyone at all to love him even a little.
That’s why the mother smothered her ninth baby. She couldn’t bear to love another knowing that any moment the master would come and rip them apart like it was nothing, like their hearts were zippered, not welded together.
How can I ever regret mine, or yell at him, or want him to be a girl, or make him sleep alone, or hold back kisses, or let him out of my sight?
He’s four pounds, the weight I was when I came out early and fit into my white grandpa’s giant palm. He can open and close his eyes now, he can recognize light, and follow it.
I’m huge, and hands can no longer help themselves. Old hands, little half-grown grubby hands, even strange hands at the grocery store, fondling me on top of my ugly knit maternity sweater from Sears.
I’m getting uncomfortable. But not scared. I should be. But I feel this calm. I don’t know if you already know this, but the center of a tornado, the eye of it, is perfectly still. I’m nearly 21 and had no idea about this until recently, eating a bowl of Fruit Loops and watching a cartoon on PBS Kids, revving up. There’s so much I don’t know that I need to.
He’s ready already. I’m not ready, but a few weeks isn’t going to fix that. So let’s go.
I’m bleeding when I pee at my chubby friend John’s house. I drive myself to the hospital. I don’t feel any pain, but when they hook me up to a belt that knows better they tell me I’m contracting and they’ll keep me.
My womb walls tighten until I can’t stand to hear a word, not to me and not to each other and not even in a whisper. They turn off the lights except the glowing green and yellow on the machines. I refuse to scream or moan or take medicine. I tell myself this is nothing. I tell myself I’m lucky, I think of other people, of history. Mary Turner was my age and eight months pregnant when she spoke out about the mob who lynched her husband. They hung her upside-down and doused her in gasoline and set her on fire. While she was still alive, a man sliced her open, her baby fell out and cried before hundreds of feet stomped it to death.
I make my own mantra and focus hard on it: “Soon it will be over and you never have to do it again, soon it will be over and you never….”
Anyone could be in the room, anything could be happening, I couldn’t care less. I just want to wrestle with this until morning.
Suddenly, a nurse’s hand is on my shoulder, telling me they have to check. It’s bright outside. She feels his head. “Lots of hair,” she whispers, cheesing at someone, maybe my mom, across the room. “Time to meet your guy!”
I bear down hard when they tell me I can. The pressure is enormous. I thought it would be unbearable, but it’s really more momentum than pain. I’m going with it, have to, already peaking at the top of the drop. Finally, at the end, it hurts colossally. The ring of fire. But still I stifle the screams. As soon as his head pops free there’s relief, they turn him sideways, and the rest of him slips out after.
He’s wailing, a mad red-brown boy with a dark mohawk of curls. He poops, black and tarry, all over the scale. The nurses are cooing to him and my mom is crying, taking pictures, and I let myself fall back and breathe. Probably this feeling is similar to finishing a marathon, or surfacing after almost drowning deep.
They place him on my chest and his gooey eyes lock on mine. Maybe he can’t really see me yet, but we’re in love.
At night when everyone but the nurses are gone and the room is hushed and he’s sleeping in his little yellow hat knit by an old volunteer, breathing in small healthy gulps, everything, everything is right.
I stay up watching New Parent TV and staring down at his lips. He stirs and nurses, sleeps sweaty in the crook of my arm. A grinning big-boobed mother on screen shows me different possibilities – the classic, the football hold. She shows me how to swaddle so he’ll feel safe like he did inside.
I’ll never be my regular old selfish self again. There’s no way I could have guessed what this would be. There’s no going back from it, ever. No do-overs. No fucking up.
I want this night with this exact me, 21 and smitten, and this exact him, 12-hours of life lived, warm, full and content, to go on and on and on and on and on.
It’s not hard to stay awake until the sky starts to lighten again, smelling and drinking him, whispering in the teeny tunnels of his ears how much, how strong, how crazy we’re gonna love each other, all through our current poverty and my come-back to college and nightmares and broken bones and too-coolness and back-talk and whatever tries coming our way.
There’s nothing that says he has to be the sum of the mistakes and missteps that made him.
He’s going to be articulate. He’s going to know how and when to shut up. He’s going to be kind. He’s going to be everything a woman in her right mind could want, every good thing I’ve felt and glimpsed and almost had and wished for. He’s going to walk away when he can. He’s going to be able to knock someone out cold when he has to. He’s going to be loyal. A mender and a healer. He’s nothing but potential, and if it takes every second of every hour of every day, I’m going to mold him. He isn’t going to run or hide. He won’t take what isn’t his. He won’t leave messes. Whatever he is or he isn’t will be to my credit or fault. If I do nothing else meaningful, I’m going to make a man out of this soft sweet lump in my lap. Put him together, part by part.
Bahiyyih El-Shabbaz is a former Fiction Writing student at Columbia College Chicago. Her fiction and creative nonfiction has been published in Toska Magazine, The Bronx Bi-Annual, and Hair Trigger, among others. She was awarded a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Award for creative nonfiction. She lives with her husband and four kids and is currently working on a novel.
You’ll find biographies for all contributors to Phoebe 43.2 here.
This is an amazing piece of writing – but why am I amazed? You have always been a writer. Congratulations.
It is crystal clear to me why this piece was the winner. Your writing sings and soars, leaving behind it a true sense of how you evolved from a frightened young adult to a full-grown Mommy in nine short months. Congratulations!
I love this beyond my ability to say so. It is rich and deep and so thickly woven…a tapestry of exquisitely felt and keenly described threads. I remember feeling so much of this, without the layers of being a very young mom. THe ending made me cry. I remember staying up with my girl the first evening and dawn after her birth. Never the same…this is a transformative piece of writing. Love it. Congratulations indeed.
Wonderful in every way. I had my son at 19yo and I felt I was back there thirty years ago, your writing is exceptional. Best to you in all things.
Beautiful. Such rich, yet edited language. I can see why you won the award!! I can’t wait to read more of your writing. Congratulations!
This is a wonderful piece. Shows how beautiful, fresh writing can make a simple story absolutely captivating. Congratulations on winning the contest!