A short story
This story was published online on May 16, 2021.
To those who accuse me of immoderate desire, I say look at the oil executives. Look at the Gold Rush. Look at all the women who want a ring and romance and lifelong commitment, and then look again at me. Me, I just want a person to dance the two-step with on Friday nights, a person who won’t mind if I wear a shirt with maroon sequins or, occasionally, a strap-on pregnancy bump. In return, I offer a woman who can get by on little. I keep myself spotless. My car and my nails and my résumé, I polish. I polish myself until I shine.
The first thing that drew me to Len was that he had worked to be where he was and would work to stay there. Born on a cattle ranch an hour outside Gainesville, he’d made partner at an Atlanta law firm, the firm that had once represented Coca-Cola against the state. He wore a suit and tie to work even on casual Fridays. He had no southern accent. On our first date, I asked him about the accent. He said, “I did away with it.” Like it was nothing, doing away with a whole part of yourself. When I talk about polish, this is what I mean. Representing Coca-Cola is reprehensible, and I’ve told him that, but still, I admire his dedication.
When I told him, on our third date, that I was trans, he said, “That makes no difference.” Another reason I love him. Not like my Nana, who had a conniption, said I was risking my job and her livelihood in the bargain, since she counted on me to take care of her. And I did lose that first job. I made mistakes. I worked a miserable job for six years just for the health insurance. But a year ago I got a part-time job, a better job, and here I am.
Len didn’t care that I was trans. Now I think I should have asked for more than ambivalence, but for three years, I was happy with Len. Friday evenings, we danced the two-step at Dig Down, and he maneuvered me expertly through the crowd. Weekends, when he was feeling ambitious, he cooked crepes. He was devoted to me. His crepes were terrible.
His wife, Melinda, sometimes invited me to the nail salon or for sushi. I was grateful to her for the invitations, though I always declined. We were cordial, Melinda and I. We understood how to fit together, help each other. We both believed it was a good thing, a relief, to divide up the responsibility of caring for a man.
With Len, for the first time in my life, I could honestly say, “I am content.”
That all ended, of course. I trace the decline to one moment four months ago. I was eating lunch with my co-worker Julie, and she asked how I was feeling at the end of my first trimester. I had most definitely not mentioned being pregnant or even wanting to be pregnant, which is something I want quietly, since it is impossible, and there’s something shameful in yearning, concretely—not a whim, but a cold, hard desire—for an impossible thing. Uterine transplants are at least six years down the road. By then I’ll be past childbearing age. I accept this, but there Julie was, acting as if I were carrying a baby, and there I was, to my great surprise, going along with it.
I should have said I wasn’t pregnant, whatever she’d heard, but she smiled at me like we were sharing a new secret. She had been through two pregnancies, the second more difficult than the first. Everyone in the office knew the details. Her smile invited me to put my swollen feet up on conference tables, to send my ultrasounds to the “All” office email. Right down into my abdomen, that smile warmed me, and I said, “I feel better than ever,” and that’s how I’m in the mess I’m in now.
Desire has its own rhythms. It overwhelms and subsides. At the height of my contentment with Len, I’d nearly forgotten the feeling of wanting—the pull and the thrill of it. Two years into our relationship, Len said to me, “We’re pregnant.” For a single, startled moment I thought he meant the two of us, but he was talking of course about his wife, Melinda, about the baby we hadn’t met yet, the baby who would be born to that happy couple five months later with toe-thumbs and a full head of hair. I called that baby the aphid. I cared for the aphid on Saturdays to give Melinda a break, and I enjoyed my relationship with them, which was something like that of an aunt. Melinda was a deliberate mother. She published articles on her blog about cloth diapers and raising children in nontraditional family structures. She didn’t let just anyone watch the aphid, but she let me.
Maybe it was my time with the aphid that got my co-workers talking, some baby pheromone. Maybe the rumor started when I’d complained to another co-worker that I’d been nauseated in the mornings. I’d put the nausea down to starting a new plant-based progesterone or to a habit of breakfasting on Lemoncocco soda, but she’d said, “Are you pregnant?”
“What do you think?” I’d said. That was a real question. Did I seem pregnant? I wanted to know. She’d just pressed her lips together into a private smile and walked away.
After Julie asked about my first trimester, I started thinking about children. For three days, I thought about them. I texted Len, “Would you want to have a child with me?”
“Good morning to you”
I texted, “Not immediately, but one day.”
“Two families is a lot”
“I’m just asking if you’d want to.”
When we met up that evening, I asked him again.
“The logistics would be difficult,” he said. “We’d have to adopt.”
“We wouldn’t have to adopt,” I said, though I couldn’t name an alternative to adoption.
“I don’t think this is a conversation we need to have tonight,” he said. “I think this is a conversation we should have in a year, a few years.”
I said nothing, impressed into silence by his vision of longevity. I don’t know anyone but Len who anticipates conversations they’ll have in a few years.
People think contentment is a gentle thing, like bathwater, that needs only occasional replenishing to keep from turning tepid. In my experience, contentment often requires more ruthless defending. After leaving Len that evening, I defended. I went through Facebook and unfriended the yoga instructor who had posted a photo of herself nursing her 2-year-old while in a forearm stand. I unfriended the mother of two whose account had descended into outraged article shares after her husband had left her for her doula. I wrote a long Facebook post about the insensitivity of self-congratulatory motherhood. I included references to half a dozen recent articles, like “The Peak of Selflessness: Motherhood.”
It wasn’t until Len called that I realized that the article about selflessness had been written by his wife.
“Melinda doesn’t understand. She thought you were getting along,” he said.
“We are getting along. It’s a difference of opinion. It’s not personal.”
“Well, it feels personal to her.”
“At any moment, Melinda could decide she doesn’t want me spending time with the aphid, and I could do nothing. How do you think that feels for me?”
“Don’t call him the aphid.”
“Don’t gender them.”
“Melinda has asked you not to call our baby the aphid.”
“At any moment, she could decide she doesn’t want me around.”
“She’d never decide that.”
“But she could.”
“She likes you,” he said. Len often told me someone liked me. It was reflexive, a way to avoid an argument. “She thinks you’re great,” he said.
“I think she’s great,” I said, which seemed beside the point. “I just need distance.” This wasn’t something I’d planned to say, but it seemed necessary to save face.
He was quiet. I’d surprised him. “We thought you liked spending time with Aster.”
We. A word I hated. A word that declared to the listener, You Are Not One of Us.
“Melinda’s trying. She wants you to feel welcome, like part of the family.”
“I’m not part of your family.”
“Louie, you knew what this was when we started dating. If it’s not what you want—”
“It is what I want,” I said. It wasn’t everything I wanted, but I’d long since stopped imagining that any single person could completely satisfy want in another.
“We can take some time away. Like you said. We can check in next week.”
I could feel the whole thing getting away from me. “Aren’t I watching Aster this Saturday?”
“Do something for yourself on Saturday.”
“So I’m not allowed at your house now on Saturdays?”
“You just said you want distance.”
“I want a family.” I waited for him to respond.
“That’s not on the table, Louie. For us, for now, that’s not on the table.”
So. There it was.
“Let’s check in next week,” he said.
I said, “Two weeks,” and he raised me to three, and I raised him, and he raised me, and then we were saying goodnight, and I was wiping the moisture from the screen of my phone and going to get Nana ready for bed, unsure if I’d see him again.
It’s not easy, polishing yourself. It’s not easy teaching yourself to code or making do with cornstarch as a setting powder or going into debt for a tracheal shave. But there’s comfort in knowing you can do it, in relying only on yourself. I sat down on Saturday, when I should have been watching the aphid, and searched online for pregnancy bumps. The bumps come in a range of prices and sizes. Every one, according to the reviews, causes back pain that you need a professional to relieve. I went with the Pregnant Belly by Spirit, which shipped from South Korea and came complete with shoulder straps and an adjustable back belt. I ordered one for four to six months and one for seven to nine months. I chose express shipping. The Pregnant Belly by Spirit got good reviews for the price, though I’ve since wondered whether I should have spent more, invested in a more durable bump.
When my bumps came, I modeled them for Nana. They were cold and slick against my skin. I could feel the tug of the belt, a squeeze that would escalate over hours to a backache.
“That shape says you’re having a girl,” Nana said into her stew, and I was pleased in spite of myself, cupping the bump, rubbing circles into it, doting on it like people do.
“Are you going to be in a play?”
“People at work think I’m pregnant.” I dabbed Nana’s lips with a napkin, which came away pink with the lipstick she wears daily, even on days she doesn’t leave her bed.
“And you haven’t told them otherwise?”
“I’ll correct them eventually.”
“Pregnancy isn’t like hepatitis. You can’t clear it up so easy. It ends in a baby.”
“I could borrow a baby if I needed one,” I said, thinking about the aphid.
“People will find out, Louie. You’ll embarrass yourself.”
“Len and I have been talking about adoption,” I said, which was technically true. We did talk about it, though at this point we weren’t even talking that much. We sent sporadic texts—new restaurants worth trying, the dissolution of the Atlanta Silverbacks. Neither of us had suggested meeting up. Perhaps he was waiting for me. I was waiting for him. I felt a punch of sadness that Len wouldn’t see me in the bump.
“Takes longer to adopt a kid than to grow one,” Nana said. “If you need an excuse for medical leave, why not hemorrhoids, something nobody’s going to ask you about?”
“This isn’t about leave. It’s a misunderstanding, that’s all. It got out of hand.”
She picked up her bowl and slurped the last of her broth. “Well, you better get it back in hand, Louie. Pregnancy is a temporary condition.”
This is the way we spend our evenings, Nana and I.
I was self-conscious my first day at work in the bump. I worried people would find the bulge at my abdomen too sudden, would sense it was a prosthetic and declare me a fraud. But no one mentioned the bump. In the developers’ meeting, as we worked our way through a demo I’d helped debug, the head developer insisted I take the chair with extra back support. Julie nodded every time I passed her cube, little knowing nods that felt like friendship. She invited me to her Code Like a Mother support group. I declined. I was not a mother-to-be. The bump wasn’t about motherhood. My pregnancy was an end in itself, the enactment of a ritual, and I approached it that way, as something real but apart, without the purpose of a usual pregnancy. I had an urge to explain this to everyone, but I didn’t. They wouldn’t understand.
By the end of my first month with the bump, my backache was chronic, and the bump felt as familiar to me as my own breasts. It looked used, well loved, the silicone at the top-left edge repaired with a patch designed for inflatable pools. Weekly, I cleaned the bump with baby soap, patted it dry. Where the silicone rubbed, my skin blistered like feet in heels, blisters I soothed with Nana’s ointment. This felt like a painful, necessary process, bringing me closer to the bump, opening my insides to it. I wore the bump even to bed, sleeping on my side, curled around it. I felt more at ease wearing it, more myself.
In month five, Julie wanted to throw me a shower. Julie’s a great one for celebrations. She buys cheap soccer trophies, scrounges them from yard sales, and gives them away at staff meetings. Any excuse to fill a Thursday afternoon with cake and reusable bubble letters, and Julie seizes it.
I told her I’d rather not have a shower. She said she understood, but later she emailed me a link to a website with various baby-shower themes. In the subject line, she’d written, “Which one?” I didn’t respond. She sent me an email reminder for the week’s Code Like a Mother gathering, which promised nonalcoholic schnapps and prenatal yoga.
That evening, as I bathed Nana, hunched over the bump, over the tub, I said, “It’s almost like your great-grandbaby.” The bump would have been her great-grandbaby. In the bathtub, Nana made a derisive sound. She dodged the cup of water I attempted to use to rinse her hair. I held the back of her neck to still her while I rinsed. When she climbed out of the tub, she put her hand on the bump. At first, I thought she just needed to steady herself, but it wasn’t a steadying touch. It was a loving one.
I toweled her head, trying to dissuade the thin strands of her hair from twisting into a cowlick. “I’d name it after you,” I said. “If it was a baby.”
She pulled her hand back from the bump. “Don’t you start thinking that way.”
“If,” I said. I thought of the bump only as the bump. I understood the risk, the delusion—and worse, the grief—inherent in thinking of it as anything else.
“I wanted another one,” Nana said, wincing as I patted down her arms, though I was gentle. “After your father, I wanted a second one. We tried and tried.” She touched the bump again.
“Back then, there weren’t so many options. You could eat almonds. You could lie for hours after sex with your pelvis tilted back and a warm compress on your stomach. I did what I could, and that was that.”
“I’m glad. I’m glad we couldn’t try and try like people these days, couldn’t go broke trying, couldn’t give whole years to it.”
I felt a familiar skip of uncertainty, wondering if this was a criticism of me. “There’s nothing wrong with options,” I said.
“I wouldn’t know. I’m just a country Cajun.” This was a line Nana used when she wanted to duck an argument or some responsibility, like she’d been plucked against her will out of Louisiana, dropped into a city she couldn’t possibly understand. She used it to avoid recycling and doctor appointments and public transportation of any sort. “I’m just a country Cajun” seemed self-effacing but in fact worked as a defense, a statement of withdrawal and superiority, implying that we couldn’t understand each other, because I wasn’t a country Cajun. To Nana, I wasn’t Cajun at all.
“We could go back to Louisiana,” Nana said, her voice sly. “That would be one way to escape this pregnancy charade of yours.”
“It’s not a charade.”
“We could go to Louisiana. You could tell everyone you want to bring the baby up around family.”
She wanted to move back. She wanted to visit her husband’s grave. She wanted her funeral service held at the Rose Church, where she’d gone to Mass all her life. She wanted her remains interred in the mausoleum where her mother was interred. I wasn’t moving to Louisiana. If I moved, I was heading to the West Coast, where tech companies have enough trans employees to host their own support groups.
I said to Nana, “I don’t want to leave the city.” I rubbed ointment on her pressure sores. “I have a whole life here—a job, Len, friends at work, opportunities.”
“There’s no opportunity that will turn that bump into a baby.”
I paused, the ointment tube open in my hands. “What if it were true,” I said.
“You can’t get pregnant, Louie. You know that.”
I capped the ointment, took Nana’s nightgown from the hook, and slipped it over her head. “I’ve heard about a man born with a uterus,” I said. “A cis man. It’s not like it never happens.”
“You know you can’t get pregnant,” she said again.
“But if I could, what a thing.”
“You’re caught up,” Nana said. “Preoccupied with what you want.”
“I could be spending my evening in a thousand different ways,” I said, “and here I am taking care of you.” Nana didn’t reply. Nana was preoccupied with what she wanted too.
After Nana’s bath, I texted Len, asking if he’d like to meet up, then I logged on to my work email and accepted Julie’s invitation to Thursday’s Code Like a Mother meeting. I wanted it to be true, what I said to Nana. I wanted to feel I could spend my evening with Nana or on a date or holding downward dog in a line of six women who were my friends.
Julie responded immediately with a GIF of a child jumping up and down, punching the air. Len took 12 hours, but then wrote back, “Saturday?”
Julie’s Code Like a Mother meetings took place at five in a windowless break room, the tables pushed against the walls to make space for yoga mats. The MotherCoders were six cis women in their late 30s and 40s, each recruited by Julie. The woman leading the yoga class had studied for 12 years at an ashram in California, paying for her teacher training by working remotely as a hacker for an American finance company.
I was the only one there with a bump. The hacker-yogi referred to me by saying, “Those who are expecting.” At first this annoyed me, but after a few minutes I started to think about my expectations: Being brought on full-time at work. Dating someone who wasn’t Len, someone who wasn’t married. Living with that person in a house without Nana, after Nana. When the hacker-yogi told us to visualize our intent for the practice, I closed my eyes and tried to really see those things, but the bump rose instead, came up before me like a snow moon on the horizon, huge and luminous, blocking everything else from view.
I opened my eyes to study the real bump in the narrow mirror that the hacker-yogi had brought so we could monitor our form. I watched myself move, and I experienced one of those precious moments in which I felt simply attractive—my clavicles delicate, my eyelashes long. Even my rosacea, which had flared as I sweat, gave me a glow. The bump moved with me, part of me. Not a false thing. A thing that served its own purpose, parallel to pregnancy, not a ghost of it, a different thing altogether.
At the hacker-yogi’s instruction, I bent into a forward fold, and it was then that something popped. At my shoulder, a pop. I expected pain, but there was no pain. Just the pop and a sudden looseness at my abdomen—and certainty, a mother’s certainty, that it was the bump. Sure enough, I felt the silicone peel away from my ribs, my body instinctively sucking in a breath, which caused the silicone to peel away more quickly, sudden air sharp against skin that had been so long covered, and then the bump tipped forward, protruding oddly against my shirt. I clutched it, pressed it flat, and ran for the bathroom. I made it, just, and locked the door behind me. At the sink, one shoulder strap tore away completely, and the bump flapped forward, pocketing itself in my shirt—a sad, separate thing.
I took it off. The bump settled into the concavity of the sink. I envied the sink for so easily cupping it. How long did I stand there, considering the shape of my body, bumpless? Long enough that Julie was worried.
“Louie,” she called, knocking. “Louie, you okay?”
This is the moment I come back to, the moment I’d change. Writing it down like this, I am changing it. I’m walking over to that bathroom door and I’m swinging it open. Julie is looking between me and the bump—me, the bump. I look at Julie’s face.
Sometimes I see confusion there. Sometimes Julie watches me as I collapse in a jumble of pieces. Sometimes Julie takes up the bump without a word and helps me knot the broken shoulder strap to my bra, securing the bump, and when we’ve finished, she says, “Swiss bumps are sturdier.” Sometimes Julie laughs and laughs, and the other MotherCoders come and they laugh, and Julie takes the bump and tosses it up in the air, and the bump, miraculously light, arcs toward the ceiling and down, and then the hacker-yogi volleys it up again, and then the other women, and I run back and forth, trying to grab the bump, because every time they volley it upward, I feel the punch of their knuckles right in my abdomen. Sometimes, looking at my abdomen, Julie begins to scream, and I look down to see my shirt soaked with blood. I lift up my shirt to find a gaping wound, my abdomen skinless and bleeding, as if the bump has been sliced clean away, and I tell Julie to help me, bring me the bump, bring me a needle and thread, I will stitch the bump back to me, but Julie won’t come closer, so I’m left to stem the bleeding with the rough paper towels from the dispenser. I run through the whole roll.
Of course, this didn’t happen. I didn’t open the door. “I’m okay,” I called to Julie.
“Are you sure? Should I phone someone for you?”
I tied the strap of the bump to my bra, the knot obvious beneath my tight shirt. It didn’t need to hold forever, just long enough to thank Julie, get to my car. I exited the bathroom.
Julie immediately pressed me into a hug, which put her up against the bump. I felt it shift, slip a quarter inch against my skin, and I thought Julie would notice, but Julie just said, “You’ll be fine, you know.”
I repeated those words in the front seat of my car, having waved off Julie’s offer to escort me to the parking lot. “You’ll be fine,” I told the bump, cranking up the air conditioner as high as it would go.
I drove home with one hand on the bump, cradling it against my body. The bump clung to me, but not like a child.
I was no seamstress, but I could patch. I could mend the bump. I took Friday off work, borrowed what I needed from Nana’s sewing kit, and retreated to my room. The mending was a private thing—not shameful, but best handled alone, like applying cream to an abdominal rash. Besides, I wanted to spend the day with the bump, just the two of us. The bump wasn’t what people thought, and that made it vulnerable. I wanted to keep the injured bump away from even Nana.
I threaded a size-11 needle and pieced the shoulder strap together with a mattress stitch, the stitch that surgeons use to minimize scarring when they piece together skin. I worked steadily, enjoying the task, and I discovered when I finished that I had done well. The bump was whole, the stitches barely visible.
I was to meet Len on Saturday at seven at a no-frills beer-and-wings joint, within walking distance of his house and a quick drive from mine. A significant choice, this restaurant. By suggesting it, Len had communicated his desire to make the reunion between us a nonevent. I parked on the street and sat, absently rubbing the bump, considering my options.
Impossible. It was impossible that Len didn’t know about the bump. At 10 after, I got out of the car with the bump, walked to the door of the restaurant. I saw Len, seated, waiting for me. I stood on the threshold, but I couldn’t enter the restaurant with the bump. I couldn’t explain the bump to him. He would think it was about Melinda and the aphid, about himself. He would think it was pathetic. I returned to the car.
Len texted, “Where are you?”
I crouched in the seat as if I were engaged in some secret, sneaky behavior, like changing my pants or fucking. I slipped out of the bump’s harness.
Len texted, “You coming?”
I buckled the bump into the back seat. Not to protect it, but because I couldn’t leave it loose in the seat with all the other forgotten, unwanted items collected in transit.
Without the bump, my sweater hung almost to my knees. Agonizing flatness. Barrenness. I nearly climbed back in the car, plastered the bump back to my body, and drove away. But Len, too, needed me, was waiting inside for me like a boy and would feel a boy’s embarrassment if I failed to show.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to the bump. I tapped the window twice in farewell.
Len looked up, relieved, when I paused at his table. “Thought you’d stood me up,” he said.
Dinner was talk of his job and Melinda and the aphid. I tried to tell him about my life, but every story I began led me back to the bump and so had to be left unfinished. After dinner, he suggested we walk along the Beltline. That would mean hours more away from the bump, hours more spent flat in public where anyone, someone from work even, could see me.
I suggested he come back to my place instead. If I was to be without the bump, I would rather be at home, unseen. I led him to my car, walking quickly to arrive before him. I checked on the bump, unclipped the seat belt fastened around it, which seemed, in his presence, to be indefensibly precious. I tossed a blanket over the bump, hiding it from him.
I didn’t expect him to notice the bump. He never noticed anything in the car except the speed I was driving and if the cup holders were full, which would inhibit his drinking of an after-work beer. But on that drive, he decided he needed more legroom, and when he tried to put his seat back, the mechanism jammed, and he insisted over my protestations on taking his seat belt off, while we flew 75 down the highway, to figure out what had jammed it.
I put both hands on the wheel and said, “I slam on the brakes right now for any reason, and you go through the windshield. Is that what you want?”
“What’s this?” He dug around behind his seat until it slid back all the way with a jolt that made him slip sideways onto the center console.
“What’s this?” he said again, sitting back in the passenger seat with the bump, tired and worn as a child’s doll, cradled in his hands. It felt like he had his hands on my belly, inside my belly, like he was mucking around with the organs in there.
“It’s a pregnancy belly,” I said. I didn’t blush.
“Whose else would it be?”
He laughed. “I’ve always wanted to wear one of these. Melinda told me to get one when she was in the thick of it.”
“I don’t want you to try it on,” I said, attempting to head him off, because he was already slipping the patched shoulder strap over his arm.
“She didn’t think I was sufficiently empathetic, Melinda.”
“Don’t try it on.” He was working the old, beloved belt apart, looking at the fuzzy, mashed Velcro.
“You just strap it around your middle?”
“Please don’t put it on.”
“It’s not for you,” I said. I took it from him, tried to shove it under the back seat, out of reach. The car swerved, and he braced himself against the dash and said, “Watch the road.”
He recovered the belly from the back seat.
“It’s broken,” I said.
“That’s okay. We’re just having fun.”
I sat silently, eyes on the road, while he strapped the belly over his button-down shirt. It looked absurd there, bare, cut off from the body.
He stretched and folded his arms behind his head, pleased with himself. When we pulled up to my apartment and stepped out of the car, he said, “Take a photo? For Melinda.” He fished his cellphone from his pocket, reaching awkwardly past the bump.
“It’s dark,” I said, but he posed—leaning against the car sideways, so the bump was visible, flashing a thumbs-up. A couple walking by grinned. Silly. They thought we were being silly the way people infatuated with each other are silly. I nearly reached over and tore the bump off him. Instead, I took his photo for Melinda—the bump, and his grin, and behind him the car and the night, a live photo in which the bump almost seemed to move.
Inside, Nana was playing double solitaire with a neighbor friend. Len, who was exasperated by Nana, who had told me multiple times that I should move her into assisted living, strutted past the women, hamming it up. They paused their game to grin and congratulate him. They wished they’d had a man who’d take turns. And who, they asked, was the father?
In my bedroom, he showed me Melinda’s response to the photo of the bump—three laughing-with-tears emoji.
When the ache of the back belt got to be too much, Len took the bump off and handed it to me. I went to put it away in my closet, but he said, “Don’t you want to wear it? Isn’t the whole point of having it to wear it?”
“I don’t want to wear it tonight.”
“Come on. I want to see you in it.”
Once I, too, had wanted him to see me in it. I remembered wanting that, a remembering so strong I could nearly convince myself that I wanted to wear it tonight, that this whole thing had been my idea.
I put it on in the bathroom, door closed, extra careful with the shoulder strap. When I came out, he whistled, and I almost took it off again, but he put his hands on the bump, and I could feel the vibration of his touch through the silicone, as if my nerves had extended into the bump, as if he were touching me.
I wore it as we watched two episodes of Girls Get Arrested. Downstairs, Nana’s friend ran the disposal, saw Nana to her bedroom, let herself out the front door.
I felt different in the bump—because it was broken or because I was in front of him. It no longer felt a part of me. It was a prop, something to make him laugh, something for him to look at, and I wore it as we had sex, me telling him, “Be careful. It’s fragile,” but still by the time we’d finished, the shoulder strap had popped again and a tear had started in the back belt, and only the adhesive of sweat and silicone kept the bump suctioned against my body, and I got to thinking about the way this all would end.
I’d always known how it would end, but as I lay beside Len, the knowing became definite. I would take a week off in my seventh month. I would return with a flat abdomen and circles under my eyes. No one would ask what happened, ask me to confirm. Julie would circulate a card—something vague and reserved—Our sympathies. I tried to position this as a hopeful scenario.
Still, I felt not hopeful, but overwhelmingly lonely, a loneliness intensified by Len having gone to sleep on his stomach beside me. I stood, holding the bump against me with one hand, and went downstairs, bent, clutching my abdomen in a sort of agony, as though holding on to a limb irreparably hewn from my body, unable yet to admit it was gone for good. I made my way through the quiet house to Nana’s room.
There, I allowed the bump to peel away from my skin, hit the floor with a gentle bounce, inert, useless as a beetle on its back. I said, “Nana? You asleep?”
She hmmed, groggy. “Who’s that?”
“It’s Louie. It’s your grandbaby.”
“My grandbaby. I must be getting old.”
She was always disoriented at night. Her mind returned to her childhood. She scooted to the side and lifted the blanket for me, and I slid in beside her, on top of the crinkly absorbent pads. She said, “Where have you been, Gooch? You’re pretty late getting home, aren’t you? You better have a story or I’ll tell Mama you’ve been with the boys.”
I turned, and I cupped her, and I sobbed three sobs, which she felt in me, and she stroked my arm with her cold, corded hand, and she said, “One of them break your heart?” with the keen interest of a younger sibling.
I shook my head. It wasn’t heartbreak. It was grief.
“Mama told me if you make too many tears at once, your eyeballs will float out of their sockets,” Nana said.
In my sixth month, Julie did throw me a surprise office shower with bubble letters strung together to spell congratulations. I wore the second, larger bump. My co-workers navigated around the bump to hug me. I was happy there, with them. It didn’t feel like pretending. We might have been celebrating anything.