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At ten and twenty

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1997

Shit shit fuck shit shit.

She thinks she might be pregnant -- might be -- and she’s suspected it for some time. Lateness of her period, nauseous at odd times, and is it her imagination or are her breasts a little swollen? After conferring with her friend Keysha she’s almost sure she could be pregnant, and as she reaches her apartment she knows she has to face James with her suspicion. She gives herself just a second to lean her head against the door before unlocking it and entering her home. Fuck.

“Hey babe,” James says absently, greeting her with a quick wave, a flick of his wrist. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

She shucks her jacket and dumps her purse, kicking off her shoes. “What’s on the menu?”

“Curry, rice, salad. By the way, I managed to get over to Times Square -- which is getting more and more horribly homogenized and sanitized every day, I can’t wait to vote that homeless-hating asshole out of office -- and I went to the TKTS booth. I was going to get A Doll’s House, but I think we’re already depressed enough as is. Somehow I managed to get Chicago. There’s murder but it’s happy, right? We should also go see Last Night of Ballyhoo. And wait, holy shit, I saw Lisa P.”

Hearing that name is jarring. “Wow. Really?” Em hops up on the counter. “What, was she working on Eighth Avenue?”

“Cute. No, she was in line for tickets, too.”

Thinking of Lisa P. brings up everything she’d tried to repress from that summer, from a time when she had been cruel and broken. She doesn’t harbor any ill will for Lisa; in fact, it’s the ill she feels for herself that brings tension into her current body. She purses her lips and stares down at the tile, and can’t help herself when she asks humorlessly and emotionlessly, “Did she still look fuckable?”

James pauses his dinner preparation to look at her, then turns back to the stove. “Em, what the hell?”

“You heard me,” she says, quiet, looking at James’s back. His shoulders look tight.

James looks incredibly uncomfortable. “She looks about the same, and that is to say she looks fine and not horrible. She has kids, they’re tiny terrors, and her husband is huge and loutish.” He takes the curry off the stove and sets it on a trivet, then turns to Em, opening her knees to make room for himself between her legs. “Call me old fashioned, but I think my wife is the one who’s fuckable,” he says, sliding his hands up her thighs to her hips.

She licks her lips and looks away, but she smiles when she looks back and puts her hands to his cheeks. “What? On this block? In this zip code?”

“Any zip code,” he says before kissing her.

She takes it. After 10 years their kisses are comfortable, and it’s exactly what she needs right now. “Speaking of fuckable,” she says against his lips.

He pulls back slightly and smiles that little smile that appears when he’s amused. “You have my full attention.”

She lets out a short sigh to steel herself. “I have to tell you something. I might be knocked up.”

James pulls back even more, his expression deeply confused. He looks at her with abundant concern but goes back to confused quickly. “Don’t say it like that.”

“What?”

“‘Knocked up.’ Knocked up is for 17-year-old girls.”

“Which I’m certainly not, but here I am. Knocked up.”

He gives her his weird half-shrug. “So let’s get a test.”

“No,” she says shaking her head. “After the show.”

“God, Em, just go get it and take it while--”

“We have to have dinner and get uptown before eight, we don’t have time.” She closes her legs, effectively squeezing James out.

“Intermission, then,” he insists.

“No, that’s so fucking weird. And you’ve seen the lines for the women’s bathroom at intermission.”

“You’re being purposefully obstinate.”

Sometimes she hates being married to an aspiring writer. She hops off the counter and crosses her arms, stalking towards the bathroom. “James, fuck, just make dinner, I don’t want to talk about it,” she says over her shoulder.

During their very quiet meal she wipes curry from the corner of his mouth with a paper towel. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to be pregnant.”

He kisses her. “I know. It’s okay.”

They grab a cab uptown and on the way, James stops the driver at a Duane Reade. “I don’t care what you say,” he says before jumping out.

She crosses her arms and contemplates leaving him here, but before she can make that final decision, he’s back and thrusts the bag into her lap. “Cool. We’re ready now, thank you,” he says to the driver.

They end up being those people ushered in after the show begins, which is embarrassing. At intermission, Em waits in line and causes a mutinous back up as she pees on the stick and waits, waits, waits.

She goes back to her seat, triumphant. Not pregnant.

James puts his arm around her and she slumps against his side. “I’m a little sad,” he says. “I mean, I know it would be really inconvenient, but there was this, like, ten percent of me that wanted it to be positive.” He stops and doesn’t say anything else, and squeezes her shoulder before the lights go down.

She is only relieved, one hundred percent. If the test had gone the other way, she would have been in her doctor’s office within the week to terminate the pregnancy, but she keeps this fact to herself given his melancholy.

After the show they head home, and as they settle in for bed -- teeth brushing, lights out, turning the ringer off on the cordless phone -- Em suddenly pounces on James, straddling him, her hair brushing against his face as she leans down to kiss him.

“What’s this?” He asks dumbly, and it makes her smile.

“This is ‘congratulations that we’re not parents’ sex,” she whispers into his ear, pulling his threadbare Oberlin t-shirt up and off, and his hungry hands surge up to her breasts.

Years ago she was worried, concerned that he’d never slept with anyone else. Her concern took two forms: 1. What if he ever wanted to find out what it was like to be with another woman to see what he’s missing out on? Despite her past sexual history she has very strict ideas about fidelity. 2. Secretly she wondered if she was missing out, being with someone so inexperienced. All he knows about sex was learned from her and 9 ½ Weeks.

Then again: 3. His inexperience was made almost null by being a fast learner and eager to please. In this way it’s almost like James was made to have sex with her only, and parts of her took great pleasure in this.

When she told him about the debate in her head, specifically #1 and #3 and omitting #2, he shook his head.

“First of all, I want to refute what you said about my exper -- I mean, first of all, I have been with other women.” She shrugged, trying to humor him. “Sex, like penetrative sex, is not the only kind, you know? You’re not the only woman I’ve -- okay. But getting beyond this, you are, Em, you are...”

She remembers that he sat up and pulled her into his lap.

“I can’t speak for the rest of my life, but I know that you are the only woman I want to see everyday. I want to belong to you, always, because you just, like, continue to unravel and reveal, this mystery that I’ll never tire of.”

He didn’t intend on proposing, but he did, about 20 seconds later, climbing off the bed and sinking to one knee. He holds onto her hips now, in the present, as she rides him, and she fixes her eyes on his beautiful face, that face that once sort of interested her but for the last ten years has held her steady gaze. She reaches down to touch herself and they do it together, and when she comes it’s like a grateful sigh rips through her body.

2007

They sit on the floor among boxes in their new condo in Brooklyn Heights wearing not a lot of clothes -- James in sweatpants and Em in his boxers and her bra. They wait for their pregnancy test to turn, testing not for the results of the spontaneous sex they just had on the floor, but testing instead for the very deliberate sex they had weeks ago at the right time in Em’s cycle.

“This experience is very different at 40 than 30, isn’t it?” James asks rhetorically.

“Shut up,” she says, staring at the test and silently begging for it to be positive, finally, after months of failed attempts. She wills a piece of plastic to hurry along her future, but she’s more than conflicted about being a mother. Having a baby is more his thing than hers, ever since he lost his dad last year. She’s let him cry, and be mean, and sullen, and overly affectionate. She’s even gone back into therapy to support him, if only to repay him for the strength he loaned her to get help so many years ago. And, yes, she subjects herself to infertility specialists and needles and regulated sex schedules, if only to give the love of her life what he needs.

“I never -- got to -- I never told him what I needed him to know,” James had said. “And there’s so much left undone. I’m 40, Em. I have to be a father. We have to be parents. Now,” he’d said.

Despite her own misgivings -- mostly deeply complicated issues around maternity having to do with the loss of her mom at a young age -- James was born to be a dad. He is so nurturing and sensitive and thoughtful, with intuition and kindness dotting most of his interactions with other people. He was born to be a dad, and he can teach her how to be good. She’s counting on it.

She stares at the framed Neil Young tour poster leaning against the wall, thinking not of Neil Young or anything else except Please take, please take this time, finally. Please. She’s not appealing to anyone in particular, but she’s just hoping her body can give this to James. To help fix him. To help fix his sadness.

Next to Neil Young is a photo from their wedding, them in dorky mid-dance. Why did they frame it? It’s terrible. She should have tried to break it and blame it on the move. She looks at the photo and can see James’s mother hovering in the distance, which reminds her:

“By the way, your mom called. Again.”

James says, “Huh?” And she knows he’s been lost in his thoughts, too. She repeats herself and he nods. “I don’t know what to say to her anymore, you know? She’s relieved, I think, because he was just so sick and now she’s not taking care of him, but she’s so -- lost.” He reaches forward and hugs her. “Never die, Em, I won’t be able to manage.” She rolls her eyes but clutches him, her chin hooked over his bare shoulder.

“Okay,” she promises.

They sit like this until the timer on her cell phone goes off, and reluctantly she peels away from him to look at the stick.

Positive.

All of a sudden she feels trapped -- and for good reason because she is trapped. She’s wedded in matrimony, has a gigantically stupid mortgage, and a fetus growing in her gut. She feels like she sees her life fast forwarded through kids and marital unhappiness to the end of her life, and her breathing grows erratic. If she could, she’d write an SOS sign and hold it up for planes flying overhead.

When she lets a deep breath and rational thought come back into her body, she closes her eyes and tries to relax as James attempts to squeeze her to death. “Too tight, babe,” she eeks out and when he lets go she sees tears welling in his eyes.

“Oh my god,” is all he says and she tries her best to smile brightly at him. “Are you okay?” She nods, and he furrows his brow. “Are you -- having some sort of reaction? Shock, delayed emotion?”

She’ll blame hormones for what she says next.

“What do we know about taking care of anything? We take care of each other but we’ve never had an animal and we kill plants. We’re crazy for bringing a child into a world where there’s nothing but war and nuclear threats, in a city where people fucking flew planes into buildings. And that’s the big stuff, the uncontrollable stuff, never mind the everyday stuff that I see at work.”

“You’re a social worker. You don’t see people at their best.”

Her only reaction is to burst out crying, which she does with gusto, and she can’t even stand to be held by him. She gets up and rushes to the shower, water sluicing over her body. James knocks on the door. “Hi. Um. Can we talk, for a second? Because you went insane and I’d really like to know more about it,” he calls through the door.

She squeezes her eyes shut. “I’m fine. It’s extreme, I know, and I know I wrecked a really nice moment but,” she spits water towards the drain, “it’s just a lot to take in.”

He parts the shower curtain and she has no choice but to look at him. “I was led to believe you thought having a baby was a good thing.”

She looks at his confused face and thinks about the appeal she made, to give James what he wants and needs. With her reaction, she might as well have taken it away, because his confusion looks like it’s giving way to hurt.

“I do. Come in here?” She asks and he strips. They stand under the spray together and don’t speak until she wraps her arms around him, the water pooling weirdly between their bodies. She backs up and the water falls, and she picks words as diplomatically as possible. “I’m really happy to do this with you, but for awhile it’s just me baking this baby and getting ready. And so, it’s, like, a little daunting. Right?”

He nods. “I accept that premise.” And then he smiles as widely as she’s ever seen him smile. “I can’t believe it.” She can’t believe it either. One hand strays to her stomach, where something is growing but she can’t feel or see it yet. “I think you’re going to be a great mother,” he says with incredible conviction.

If James believes in her, then maybe it’s possible. Maybe.

When they get out, she slips on James’s Oberlin tee and her yoga pants, and they settle into bed. She keeps tracing her belly with her fingers and James joins her. “I can’t believe it,” he says again, and she looks at his face, stars in his eyes. She can’t believe that she gets this whole life, with a man who loves her and the promise of a family. She can’t believe that she even wants this, but she does, she wants comfort and love and everything he has to offer her.

His fingers swipe her lower belly for the umpteenth time, and hers trace the curls at his forehead. “I like being an adult,” she says. “You can fuck on the floor and no one walks in on you.”

He laughs, and kisses the skin below her belly button and lays his cheek there. He is going to be exhausting in these next nine or so months, she can just tell. “We better do it now,” he says. “Soon there will be someone to walk in on us.”

Right.

She strokes his hair and hears the crack of a thunderstorm in the distance.

+

Later

At the hospital, gowned and roomed and settled in with ice chips, she waits for James to arrive from Boston. She is really shitty at waiting. She texts him: still no go.

He calls almost immediately. "Why are you texting? Don't text, just call, you know my phone's always on now."

"I didn't know if you were in the air."

"No, I just checked out of the hotel and I’m waiting for a cab. A flight, I guess, is faster? Should I rent a car?"

She bites her lip to keep from a loud expression of her pain. "Can't tell you, babe. Can you just get here, please, as fast as possible." It's not so much a question as a demand, and she hangs up on him, moaning through her pain.

She calls her dad and he kind of -- yelps. Or whoops. Or both. He says they'll be there tomorrow to meet his granddaughter and she starts to cry. She tells him she loves him, and revels in the feeling of progress between them.

She has to deliver by herself and it sucks about as much as she thought it would. James has been her cheerleader and to not have him when she's in this much pain, and so scared -- it makes it doubly worse. She pants through it and responds poorly to encouragement and sweats and stretches and shits herself and yells until her throat is raw. After hours -- though it feels like days -- Olive Abigail Brennan is officially born, screaming her head off. Em had asked for Olive to be placed immediately on her chest after birth, skin to skin like the books suggest, and they almost forgot, but she makes a commotion and her newborn baby is placed into her arms, her tiny body against Em's chest.

Em breathes in shakily, aghast at her arrival, and Em marvels at her little red face and scrunched up eyes. Her tiny nose. She doesn't really feel it but she knows she's sobbing now, so overcome by this seemingly healthy and perfect child. Emily Brennan is the luckiest woman on the planet.

The nurse helps her breast feed for the first time, and at first Olive won't latch, and Em is so unbelievably frustrated, from zero to a million, but Olive finds her nipple and it's weird to have someone other than James there, but Em feels relief flood her body as Olive starts to nurse. The nurse squeezes Em's shoulder and says she'll have about two minutes with the baby before she'll be taken to get cleaned up and Apgar'd.

Olive's eyes are closed as she drinks, and Em takes a deep breath. She feels so -- powerful. She just gave birth to a human being and is now feeding said human being with her own body. She feels limitless.

She smiles at her daughter, and stays still, holding her just a little tighter.

"I love you," she says, and it's the easiest those words have ever come out. "I am your mom and I love you and I will take care of you. I will. I will protect the shit out of you."

She sounds pretty crazy but she doesn't care, just sits there with Olive and doesn't take her eyes off her for a second.

When the nurse takes her away, Em feels the loss in her limbs. She watches her go and then stares out the window to the East River. She must drift off at some point because she wakes up to see James standing at her side with Olive in his arms.

"Look at what we did," he says, his face bright and shiny.

She nods slowly and runs a hand through her hair. "She is the best thing that's ever happened in the history of the world."

James cracks a smile. "Completely unbiased."

“How was your reading? And the interview?”

He keeps looking at Olive. “God, Em, who the fuck cares.”

"Do I look like shit, by the way? Like you'll never want to fuck me again?" She asks, crass on purpose to get a reaction out of him.

He doesn't take the bait and his eyes slide from Olive to Em. "No, you look beautiful. And, to answer your second question, I don't think anything could make me feel that way."

She looks at her husband, this skinny goon who has made her life incredible, and their baby who is made of the best of her and James.

She smiles at her family, and at everything that’s amazing in her life.

/end.