“We do artificial insemination here,” says Neal, the rancher whose cow-calf operation I’m visiting for the day. Cow-calf operations are what they sound like: a rancher keeps a herd of mostly heifers whose only job is to crank out calves. My company, King Beef Packing Co., buys these calves when they’re ready for slaughter. I’m here to make sure everything is up to code and to see if we can create any efficiencies, my boss’s favorite phrase. “We call artificial insemination AI for short,” Neal goes on. “Not to be confused with artificial intelligence.” He chuckles. Neal has a face like a potato: wide, chinless, unremarkable.
We’re standing at the end of a long pole barn, where Rosie, the heifer about to be inseminated, stands between a red metal head gate. Her irises, so dark they appear pupil-less, stare straight ahead. It makes her look vacant, hopeless. Or maybe I’m only assigning such human emotions to the cow because the other night my husband, Derek, asked me if I thought it was time we start trying. The question echoed in my ears like it had fallen into a dry well. Trying. It seems antithetical to use that word, when you spend most of your life trying not to get pregnant. And it just sounds so arduous, like having sex without birth control might make us pull a muscle. You know what I’d like to try? All sixteen flavors at the frozen yogurt place. I don’t want to try to have a baby, then try to lose the baby weight, then try to make VP at work after I just took two months off, then try to have pleasurable sex with Derek when my vagina is stretched out like the waist of some decade-old gray sweatpants.
The rest of the cows are out grazing in the field. A group of them line the edge of a circular man-made pond. Their colors remind me of a spice rack: turmeric, cinnamon, clove, black sesame. A group of exclusively cinnamon-colored cows cluster underneath a small tree, and I wonder if they know they’re all the same color. If they’re the cinnamon clique. It’s a sunny, warm day, and I’d like to ask Neal for a refill of my now-empty lemonade, but I haven’t been able to find a break in his steady stream of cowversation. I don’t think he gets many visitors, much less visitors who are interested in all the details of a cow-calf operation.
“A lot of places still use bulls, but I’ve found a better success rate with AI. We get our semen from this distributor called Select Sires. It’s virile stuff,” he says, winking. The most ironic thing about artificial insemination is that it all starts with a male-on-male sexual encounter. Semen distributors use a steer “teaser” to arouse the bull—they don’t use female teasers because they don’t want to risk actual intercourse and the spread of venereal disease. The bull will mount the steer but before it can get too far, an actual person has to insert the bull’s penis into an artificial vagina to collect the semen that eventually impregnates heifers like Rosie.
Neal pulls on a breeder’s sleeve, a plastic glove that extends to the armpit, and rubs mineral oil over it. “We’re about to get to the unladylike part,” he says. “There’s a bucket of pears up there next to Rosie. You can go feed her one so you don’t have to watch.”
“It’s my job to be here, learning about this operation, and that includes watching you put your arm up that cow’s ass,” I say. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I agreed to come to Big Burr, Kansas, to turn around their failing beef-packing plant. I’ve been here for a year and a half, and have another year and a half to go before I can return to Austin and civilization at large.
Neal raises Rosie’s tail with one hand, and with the other, he begins to reach inside. Rosie first steps from side to side in the small amount of space within her head gate, then stays still as Neal’s hand disappears up there. When he moves his hand to the side, shit starts shooting out with surprising force. Neal steps back so it doesn’t hit him.
“Got to clean the feces out so I can feel what I’m doing in there,” he says, grinning, and I wonder what kind of person signs up for this job. I try to breathe out of my mouth. He continues pulling out more feces than I would have thought could be contained in one animal, even one that size. A friend back home has a one-year-old son, and the other day she posted on Facebook about how diapers couldn’t contain his “BMs,” how poop would spill out and pour down his legs. Other mothers commented about how this had happened to their kids, too. The joys of motherhood! they wrote, followed by the laughing and crying emoji. Only the latter seems appropriate to me.
I notice something else coming out of the cow, a strand of clear, shiny liquid streaming out of her vagina. Like water, but thicker.
“That’s the slick,” says Neal. “That’s a good sign.”
I turn away, trying to focus on how idyllic the cows look scattered throughout the field, eating grass and flicking their tails. But now I can only picture this being done to all of them, over and over again, for their whole predictable lives. Neal is still rooting around, his hand making suction sounds, the shit splatting onto the ground below.
“You want to go feed Rosie that pear now?” he says with an “I told you so” overtone.
“I’m fine,” I say. I swallow hard and force myself to look back.
He takes a wad of paper towels out of his pocket and wipes at the cow’s crap-covered vagina. Then he pulls the AI gun out of his overalls, where he had been keeping the “business end” body temperature. He inserts it, making a face of intense concentration.
“Now I’m feeling through the wall of the rectum to make sure the tip of the gun has reached the cervix,” he says. “Bingo.” He depresses the plunger.
Only then do I walk around to the front of the head gate and pick up a pear from the bucket. I hold it out to Rosie. She sniffs it, then turns away. She blinks slowly, her long, pale lashes swooping over her dark iris. I reach out my other hand and let her sniff it before scratching the brown tuft of hair on top of her head. I hold the pear out to her again, and this time she swings her head to the side and knocks it out of my hand. I kneel down and peer into her eye, searching for something behind the black inertia, but all I can see is my own eye reflected back at me.
“Babies are little dictators,” says Tegan, whom I’ve met for lunch at Panera to discuss the Baby Freak Out.
“I’m picturing a baby wearing Kim Jong-il glasses,” I say.
“Oh my God, yes, and that khaki safari suit he always wears.” Tegan cracks up, spitting iced tea back into her glass. “I’d have a baby if I could just perpetually dress it up like a dog on Halloween.”
“And that’s a thing a person who doesn’t want a baby would say.” Am I like Tegan now? A person who doesn’t want a baby? I always thought I wanted kids. It’s not really something you question when everyone around you is doing it and has been doing it for like five million years. What was it we sang on the playground, passing fruit snacks back and forth between our dirt-rimmed fingers? First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.
On cue, a mom walks in with a screaming baby bjorned to her and a preschooler on a scooter. The kid on the scooter bumps into someone in line, and when his mom tells him to apologize, he says, “Why don’t you apologize!”
I throw my head in my hands.
“Aw, Lizzie, you need to relax,” says Tegan. “You’re twenty-eight. You have plenty of time to figure it out.”
“But thirty-one was the age I said I’d have my first kid when I made my five-year plan five years ago,” I say.
Tegan reaches across the table and takes some of my chips. She crunches them, openmouthed. “This is part of your problem, the lists and the expectations and the constant ‘shoulds.’”
“It’s not just my expectations this time,” I say. “I think Derek really wants this. The other day we were unloading groceries from the car, and the neighbor’s kid wandered into the road with his ball. His parents weren’t paying attention at all. Derek made this judgy face and said, ‘Our kids will never play in the road.’ He sounded so confident when he said ‘our kids,’ like it was this foregone conclusion. What do I tell him?”
“Tell him the truth. You need time to think about it.” Tegan looks around the restaurant and grimaces. “Honestly, I wouldn’t make any life-changing decisions while you’re living in Big Burr. This place has a way of messing with your head.” Tegan is in nowhere, Kansas, in temporary circumstances similar to my own. She’s here for two years with an LGBT nonprofit called Acceptance Across America, trying to make the most homophobic town in the nation (that’s Big Burr) more accepting. We met almost a year ago, in the peanut butter and jelly section of Dillons. I was looking for tahini; Tegan was looking for almond butter. They had neither. We started commiserating about all the things Big Burr didn’t have: bougie food items, nice restaurants, Target, a cute café where you could get a cup of overpriced, delicious pour-over coffee, clothing stores like Uniqlo and H&M or even The Gap, a trendy bar covered in subway tile that could make a perfect Old Fashioned with an oversized ice cube in it—the list went on, and so did our friendship.
Scooter kid and the worst mom ever sit down at a table near us. He takes a bite of his sandwich and does a happy wiggle. He holds the sandwich in front of his mom’s face. She leans down and takes a bite, then she does a happy wiggle too. They laugh together, a happy family once again.
Back at work, I meet with an employee who lost her index finger while putting a beef shoulder through the saw blade. Something we don’t tell new hires is that people who work at a meat-packing plant for five years have a nearly fifty-fifty chance of suffering a serious injury, and Carla has been here for four and a half. I know it’s the company’s fault, with the quotas for production lines—we’re up to four hundred cows an hour now—but the chain cannot, and will not, stop. Not if our workers can’t keep up, not if they lose a finger or even an arm, not if we see cow shit smeared all over the place. It’s my responsibility to keep the plant “cost-effective,” and that means more cows and fewer workers.
“I’m sorry this happened to you, Carla,” I say. We’re instructed to apologize in the vaguest way possible, so it doesn’t seem like we’re admitting fault. If we can, we should try to turn it back around on the employee. It wasn’t our quota, but their negligence.
She nods. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“You know how important it is to stay alert while on the line,” I say, hating myself.
She nods. “I know, ma’am.”
I wait for her to say something about the increased quotas, the impossible speed with which they have to move, but her mouth stays closed. She must need this job. She must need it desperately.
“On a separate note, I thought you could use some good news. Your five-year anniversary is coming up, and the company is prepared to offer you a 5 percent raise.” This is far less than we owe her, even if she hadn’t lost her finger.
Carla’s eyes widen; the corners of her mouth rise. “Really?”
“Yes.” Ask for more! Ask for more, you dummy! I scream at her telepathically.
She lets out a sigh, not of resignation but of relief. “That’s great news, ma’am. I really appreciate it.” She looks down at her watch. “Is that all? My break is almost over. I should get back to it.”
The diligent employee, even as she’s getting screwed. “That’s all,” I say. “But go ahead and take an extra fifteen minutes today. Maybe you could step outside and enjoy the sunshine. If anyone asks, tell them I said it’s okay.” A scrap I can toss her.
She presses her lips together. “Maybe I will,” she says, and I know she won’t.
After she walks out of my office, I feel so guilty that I watch cat videos for half an hour. In a compilation called “Kitties Vs. Kiddies,” a toddler tries to throw a cat in a pool, but the cat whips around and the kid ends up falling in the pool instead. I laugh out loud and am about to send the link to Derek when I realize its anti-kid implications. So I send it to Tegan instead. “Cats > kids always & forever,” she writes back.
“What do you want to do tonight?” Derek asks when I get home. Derek works remotely, editing medical textbooks, and sometimes goes days without talking to another human besides me. I know he must be desperate to get out, but after a year and a half in Big Burr, the “what do you want to do” question always plays out the same way.
“We could see a movie.”
“We’ve seen all the movies that got decent ratings.”
“We could see a bad movie. What about that one with Jennifer Lopez—”
“I’m going to stop you right there.”
“Okay, we could…” I open the dishwasher and start loading in dirty dishes. “Babe, remember what I said about the coffee cups? You have to soak them, otherwise the brown ring won’t come out.”
“We could go to Applebee’s again,” he says.
“Do you want to go to Applebee’s?”
Derek throws himself onto the couch and pulls down the skin below his eyes, making a zombie face. “See, this is why we should have a kid, so we won’t care that there’s nothing to do.”
“That’s why we should have a kid?”
He shrugs. “I think that’s why most people do it.”
“You can hear yourself, right?”
“At least I’m talking about it. You haven’t said a word since I brought it up last week.”
I hold a knife encased in peanut butter under the hot stream of water and wait for it to melt off. “That’s because I don’t really know how I feel about it.”
“I don’t understand where this uncertainty is coming from. Our whole relationship we’ve said we want kids. I’ve always meant it. Did you?”
“It’s easy to say it when it’s hypothetical, Derek. When it’s far away.” I think about the part in our vows that said, “I take you as you are now, and who you are yet to become.” It was so easy to say when we were who we were then. We got married nine years ago, right after college. We were both twenty-two. We’ve been together for fourteen years total, since junior year of high school, when we both said “I love you” for the first time. We lost our virginity to each other. Got our acceptance to UT Austin on the same day. We’ve always moved in tandem—until now.
Some part of me assumed that if I was feeling like I didn’t want kids, Derek must have been feeling the same way. Maybe because Derek has always deferred to me on the big decisions, like moving in together, getting married, then moving here for my job. If I put my foot down and say I don’t want kids, does that mean Derek won’t want me? Would he actually leave? A cold lump of dread snakes through my intestines. No, he wouldn’t leave. I’m almost sure he wouldn’t. It’s hard to know if he’d stay because he loves me, or because he’s afraid of change. Or both—love as a form of stasis. Who you are yet to become. Except Derek hasn’t become anyone else. He still wants the life we planned when we were teenagers. He sits on the couch, pulling on his earlobe. The skin turns bright red between his thumb and forefinger.
“So, you don’t want to, then?” His voice is sharp, accusatory.
The knife is still slick with peanut butter. I drop it back into the sink and it clangs loudly. “I literally just said I’m not sure. That doesn’t mean no.”
“Okay,” he says. “Just let me know whenever you’ve made up your mind, I guess.” He goes into his office and shuts the door.
We stay in, steaming on opposite sides of the couch with our individual Stouffer’s lasagnas while watching NCIS. I imagine myself floating above the living room, taking in the scene like an outsider. Who are these people, living in a blip of a town, fighting about having a baby, eating microwaveable dinners and watching the most formulaic show on TV? My stomach drops as if we’re sliding down a steep incline into a ravine of small-town life. Won’t a baby just send us even deeper into the ravine? Until we’re lost, our faces covered in muck, our clothes torn from brambles, the cliff sides too eroded to climb?
“Derek, look at us,” I say.
“What?” he says.
“This!” I yell. I gesture wildly at the TV; I throw my empty lasagna container across the room; I pick up a Good Housekeeping magazine from the coffee table and wave it in front of his face. The address label reads my name, even though I never subscribed. Like they just knew. Instead of throwing it in the trash, I hate-read the whole thing, rolling my eyes at articles like “10 Crazy Cute Ways to Organize Your Coffee Cups” and “11 Surprising Uses for Dental Floss.” A few days later, I found myself using a piece of floss to slice a cake I had just baked.
Derek looks at me blankly. “Lizzie, what are you talking about? What is this?”
“It doesn’t bother you at all? The feeling that our lives have been pre-planned for us, and all we have to do is follow the steps? Like a fucking paint by number?”
“What do you mean, preplanned? What part?”
“All of it! You meet someone, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a house with three bedrooms and a nice yard, you get a golden lab, you have the first baby, you have the second baby, you shuttle them around for eighteen years, you drop them off at a very expensive college, you remodel your kitchen or your bathroom, then you die.”
“That sounds like a nice life to me,” he says. “Plus, that’s just an outline. The details will be ours.” He laughs at a GEICO commercial. “This is a good one.”
I try to picture Derek as an old man, but in my mind he looks exactly the same, just in a sweater vest and orthopedic shoes. Even right now, he looks identical to when I met him: his hair parted on the left side, his lower lip sticking out due to his overcrowded teeth and his refusal to ever get braces, the gray polo shirt he buys in bulk at Old Navy. A human version of a time capsule some kid buried in their backyard. “I know you’re upset because I might be changing my mind about a baby,” I say. “But what if you never change? Isn’t that a bad thing, too?”
“Why do I need to change?” he asks, incredulous. He reaches for his earlobe, then stops himself. He clasps his hands in his lap, pressing his fingertips into the spaces between his knuckles. “If we didn’t have a baby, what would you want to do that’s so different?”
I let out a long sigh. I open my mouth, then close it.
“Right,” he says. “That’s what I thought.”
We go to a party at Tegan’s boss’s house the next night. When we step into the house, it’s like we’ve stepped out of Big Burr. Midcentury-modern furniture is carefully placed around the living room. Synthy electronic music pulses from bamboo speakers. Somehow, it smells like the beach: salt water, coconut sunscreen. An aerial photograph of color-coordinated beach umbrellas reinforces the coastal feeling. On the opposite wall, a photo of a vintage orange beetle next to a squat palm tree hangs over a polished chrome dining table. Tegan’s boss lived in Los Angeles before coming to Big Burr, and the house feels like an homage to the place.
Derek and I are the only people who aren’t part of the task force, and we huddle around the hummus while Tegan makes the rounds.
“It’s a little… chichi in here,” Derek says, squinting at the photo of the beetle.
“Oh,” I say. “I think it’s nice.”
Derek scoops a mountain of hummus onto a pita chip. “This is really good,” he says. “Tastes homemade.”
I nod and dip in another cucumber slice. “We could make our own too. It wouldn’t be that hard, if we used canned chickpeas.” When we woke up, we agreed to let the fight go, but all day we’ve been making small talk like we’re coworkers in a break room waiting to use the microwave.
“Okay, we’ve gotta stop,” says Derek, dipping in one last pita chip. “It’s really rude to show up to a party and eat all their homemade hummus.”
We move to the couch and eavesdrop on a conversation-in-progress between Jamal, Tegan’s coworker with the two corgis; Jamal’s husband, Andres; and Karen, Tegan’s boss.
“We told the adoption agent we wanted a black baby,” says Jamal. “And she says, ‘Well, at least it’ll be cheaper.’”
“At least,” says Andres. “Like some kind of consolation prize. Like she didn’t hear us say we want a black baby.”
Karen grimaces. “So I take it you’re still looking for an agency, then?”
“It’s impossible,” says Jamal. “Some agencies are too racist or homophobic, some want you to be married for five years, some want you to wait six months after you’ve mailed in your inquiry form. And finding an agency is just the beginning. Then there’s home study meetings, waiting to get matched with a birth mother, crossing your fingers she doesn’t change her mind… It’s hard when every single thing is out of your hands.”
I take a long drink of my gin and tonic so I won’t have to make eye contact with Derek. If we had to go through all that to have a baby, would we? It makes me feel like I’m wasting some gift I’ve been given but didn’t ask for.
“And I thought choosing a sperm donor was hard,” says Karen. “You guys really do have it the worst.”
“What’s this, more baby talk?” says Jeff, one of Tegan’s best friends at work. He wanders into the living room and drapes himself across an armchair, clearly a little drunk. “Babies babies babies. I can’t meet a man these days who doesn’t want one. I need a time machine back to the days when guys were sucking each other off in back rooms, not painting their picket fence white like straight people.” He looks at me and Derek. “No offense.”
“What makes you think I want a picket fence?” I say.
“You don’t?” he says. “Tell me more.”
Derek stands up. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom,” he announces.
I wait until he’s disappeared down the hall, then words fall out of my mouth. “I don’t know what I want,” I say. “But it seems like that doesn’t matter. If I don’t have a baby, life will pull the rug out from under me.”
“Yeah, that’s some straight-people bullshit,” says Jeff. “No one really expects gay people to have babies.”
“That’s the problem,” Jamal says. “Anyone who doesn’t fall in line feels that pushback. You’re straight? Have a baby already. You’re gay? Who said you could have a baby? You can’t win.”
At the plant, I run into Carla in the break room. She stands in front of the microwave, watching a plastic-covered tray rotate in the white light.
“How are you, Carla?” I say.
“Fine,” she says. “Another day, ya know. How are you?”
“Fine, I guess.” I pour a cup of coffee and take a sip: burned, as usual.
“I heard you visited my uncle’s cow-calf operation the other day,” Carla says.
“Neal is your uncle?” I search her face for potato-y resemblance.
She nods. “What did you think?”
“It was something,” I say, and almost leave it at that, but for some reason I go on. “Honestly, it was a little depressing. All those heifers cranking out babies that are just going to come here to be slaughtered.”
She shrugs. “The circle of life. We’re not so different.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s why it’s so depressing.”
“What can ya do?” She takes her tray out of the microwave and pulls off the plastic film, steam billowing out. Her meal looks like some kind of Alfredo pasta with cubes of chicken. She lowers her hand over it like she’s going to poke her index finger in the middle, then stops. A thick square of gauze covers the stub where her finger used to be. “It’s the darndest thing. I keep forgetting it’s gone,” she says.
“Carla,” I say, lowering my voice. “If you had pushed, I could have given you more than 5 percent.”
“Oh.” She dips her pinky in the food, then licks her finger. “Well, it still really helped out.”
“I could get you more. I could tell them you reconsidered.”
“It’s alright, ma’am,” she says. “I was glad for the 5 percent.” She sits down at the plastic folding table and flips through an Us Weekly. She takes a bite of her Alfredo, her mouth moving in small, efficient circles.
“I don’t know how you do your job,” Tegan says after I tell her about my day at the farm. We’re at Applebee’s for happy hour, and I’m drinking my third Blue Agave ‘Rita.
“Being a vegetarian helps,” I say.
“Yeah, I’m thinking about it, after hearing all your stories,” says Tegan.
I let out a long sigh and signal to the waitress for another round of drinks. “Tell me something terrible from your day.”
“We presented, like, the twentieth option for the new billboard,” she says. “To replace the one that was partially burned down last summer. It’s literally just a picture of a circle of people holding hands. But the town council still thinks it’s too divisive.”
“I don’t know how you do your job, either,” I say.
The bar bursts into a loud cheer after the Jayhawks score a run. Guys in KU baseball hats high-five and start chanting “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk.”
“Do you like your job?” Tegan says after it quiets down.
“You say that like you’re asking if I like diarrhea.”
She laughs. “Sorry. Do you like your job?” she asks again, brightly.
“I’m really good at it,” I say.
“That’s not what I asked.”
I wave my hand in the air. “Same thing.”
“It’s not, but okay.”
“What the fuck, ump!” yells a guy at the table next to us. He has a line of blue face paint under one eye, a line of red paint under the other.
I take a long drink and try to think about if I like my job. “Climbing the corporate ladder is kind of fun,” I say. I mime climbing a ladder.
“You’re so Type A,” says Tegan. “And so drunk.”
“What about you?” I say, pointing my finger in Tegan’s face. “Do you like your job?”
“Uh oh, the finger’s coming out,” says Tegan. “I’m cutting you off.”
“Answer the question.” I guzzle my ’Rita until the straw sucks at the bottom, just to spite her.
“I don’t like it, but it’s important,” she says. “Is that the same thing?”
I shrug. “Maybe liking things is overrated. Maybe I don’t have to like the idea of being a mother. I know I’d be really good at it.”
“You would be,” says Tegan. “Your kid would, like, grow up to be the president. Or at least secretary of state.”
“That’s probably nice,” I say, “watching your kid grow up and achieve things, and knowing you had a part in it.” My head spins, a carousel of images flitting by: reading The Giving Tree before bed, helping build a winning science project, sitting in the stands at the debate championships, ripping open the acceptance letter from their first-choice college. My heart swells, then I burp, sour ’Rita rising in my throat.
“Where have you been?” Derek asks when I stumble in. He’s sitting on the couch with his arms crossed, a repeat of Seinfeld on mute.
“Out with Tegan,” I say. I stand in the hallway between the living room and the bathroom, trying not to hiccup. I hiccup.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time with her lately.”
“Yup.” I hiccup, then take a big breath and hold it in. By the time I’ve let it out, Derek hasn’t said anything else, so I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth.
He follows me and stands in the doorway, watching me squeeze an inordinate amount of Colgate onto my toothbrush.
“What?” I say.
“I just wonder if Tegan’s been putting this no-kids idea into your head.”
“Why?” I say through a mouthful of foam. “Because I couldn’t possibly have put it into my own head?”
“No, because she talks about it all the time. How kids are life-ruiners and shit machines and all that.” He makes air quotes around “life-ruiners” and “shit machines.”
I spit. “So, she has strong opinions about it. That doesn’t mean she’s influenced me. If anyone’s trying to influence me, it’s you.”
“Jesus Christ, I’m not trying to influence you. I’m just trying to follow through on what we’ve talked about for years. I want a kid, and if it’s not going to be with you—”
I grab his mouth and press his lips closed with my fingernails. “Do you want to do it right now?” I pull him into the bedroom, my fingers still locked around his lips. I let go to whip off my clothes, then jump on the bed and lie on my back, legs splayed. “Come on, honey, let’s see how fast your little guys can swim!”
“Come on, I’m serious. All my doubts are gone now. I’m so ready. I’m wet just thinking about making a baby with you.”
His face goes from annoyed to angry to scary as he unbuckles his belt and looms above me. He grabs my hands and holds them above my head, the bones of his wrists pressing into the soft skin of my inner forearm. His mouth is a flat line. In the half-light of the room, his dark brown eyes look pupil-less, like the cow’s. I stare into the depth of them, and all at once, I understand that this is it. Unless I agree to this baby, he will leave. His desire for a certain kind of life will trump his love for me, and he’ll change. Just not in the way I expected or hoped. A car drives by outside, sending a beam of light across the room. Derek blinks and lets go of my wrists. He sits back on his haunches and covers his face with his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I never would have—
“It’s okay,” I say. “We were upset. We didn’t mean it.”
I spend all night in the bathroom puking, and when I wake up in the morning, my face indented with lines from the tile floor, I feel cleansed. Derek and I make eggs and never talk about that night again.
Tegan and I meet up for lunch at Panera, like the old days. It’s not like I’ve been avoiding her, but I knew I wouldn’t go through with it if I talked to her about it, and if I saw her, I wouldn’t be able to not talk about it.
“Holy shit,” she says as I approach the table. “You’re pregnant.”
I nod and sit down, pulling my cardigan across my stomach, finally rounded at fourteen weeks.
“I knew it,” she says, shaking her head. “I knew that’s why you disappeared.”
I wait a few seconds. “Don’t say congratulations or anything.” Everyone else I’ve told has gotten so excited, like a few weeks of lying with my legs in the air after sex is some huge accomplishment.
Tegan smacks my arm lightly. “You know, I’m happy for you.” She picks up a piece of straw wrapper and rolls it between her thumb and pointer finger until it forms a pea-sized ball. At my first ultrasound, my doctor told me the baby was the size of a pea. “A little sweet pea!” she said, giving me a saccharine smile. She stood there, holding the lubed-up wand, waiting for me to coo at the adorable analogy or squeal in excitement. Instead, I said, “Don’t you think it’s weird we compare the baby’s size to fruits and vegetables? It makes me feel like I should chop it up and put it in a salad.”
“Are you happy?” Tegan asks.
“I am,” I say. “I really am.”
“Good,” she says. “Because I’ve already planned its first Halloween costume.”
“I’m leaning more toward Steve Buscemi, with the bug eyes and jowls and receding hairline.”
“So my future kid is fugly.”
She shrugs. “Some would say Steve Buscemi is the male ideal.”
I laugh. Outside, a tree in the parking lot blazes yellow at the top. I can’t tell if it’s because the leaves are turning with the early fall weather or if it’s just the sun hitting the leaves on its way down. “I’ve missed you,” I say. “I’m sorry I was MIA. I just needed some time to figure things out.”
“I get it,” she says.
“I really am happy,” I say. I blink and a hot tear snakes out the corner of my eye, rolls down my cheek, and falls in a perfect darkened dot onto my rounded stomach. I wonder which part of the baby the teardrop landed on. Its ear? Its big toe? Its spine, like a string of delicate pearls? Or maybe the teardrop didn’t hit the baby at all, but the echoing negative space around it.