The first time it happened, I was at my first real job, Curves Fitness, a women’s circuit gym. I was 16. She was 71.
She looked relieved when I wasn’t angry, but she grew uncomfortable when I began talking about the unflattering cut of my jacket. She needed me to forget her transgression. To transition faster. To be less self-effacing.
When she left, she left without her towel, inside shoes carrying her quickly to her Civic. She left me standing alone in the middle of the circle of isometric machines.
The instructions for isometric machines are as follows: push and pull the handles for your best workout, working against your own body weight.
Around me, a hollow, droning, tinny bass swelled as my body was hit by the cool, intermittent blasts of a second-hand fan.
I watched her headlights blend into the river of passing traffic. Hurting me was painful for her. She was a trapped bird. She had spotted a window.
That summer, I stopped eating bagels before school in the mornings.
The second time, I had to ask the cashier to repeat herself. I didn’t hear the question the first time. The timbre of her voice had been too closely matched to the shuffle of paper bags, the ding and zip of her till flinging open and shut.
She said it a second time.
When are you due?
I blinked. My face hardened into a smile I had not consented to. For a moment, she looked frightened. She doubled down on her smile, raising her eyebrows higher in anticipation of my response.
November, I lied.
She handed me my groceries and offered a robotic congratulations.
I walked to my car, tilting my pelvis backwards and forwards, like a small, confused terrier thrusting into the open space where another dog has recently stood.
The third time, I had just brought her the bill. It was split the way she wanted, with the cocktails on her friend’s bill, and the entrees on her own.
The server whose shift I was covering had been hit by a taxi while riding her bike down Arbutus Street. It was only a hairline fracture but she would need to take the week off, the doctor’s note had said.
I’d already been working for ten hours. My deodorant had stopped working after seven. My hair was dishevelled. I ran a hand through my bangs and pressed my bobby pin tighter to my scalp.
I’m not pregnant, I said. The words felt like an apology.
Her mouth formed the shape of an “o”. I turned on my heel, striding slowly to the counter. I took a sip of water from the glass I’d set behind the register. The ice had melted, but the glass was still cool and frosted against the clammy pads of my fingertips.
I turned to the hostess next to me.
I’ll need you to take payment for table three, I said.
We looked at each other, and she nodded. She grabbed the Interac machine and bobbed away towards the two women still staring at me, mouths agape.
I went into the staff washroom. I sat down on the toilet and locked the door. I locked eyes with the wallpaper. It was a map of France. Someone had written “I had sex here” in sharpie, with an arrow pointing to a small city on the Mediterranean coast. I sat very still and chewed the side of my cheek.
A few minutes later, I went back to the dining room. The women were gone. Their doggy bags still sat on the table next to the plates. The hostess handed me the bill.
The woman’s friend had tipped me fifty percent. She left nothing.
The fourth time, I was sitting on the stiff cotton of hospital sheets. A half-written text to my college roommate faded as my iPhone switched itself off. I had been waiting several hours. The battery was dead.
A nurse poked her head into the curtained-off area I was sitting in. I’d been able to hear them for a while, their quippy, overnight shift banter.
What’s she doing here, anyways?
Doesn’t she know the hospital is for emergencies?
Everyone is nervous when they have their first.
Young people today are so fragile.
Tax dollars. That’s all I’ll say.
I looked at the nurse whose head was poking in at me. She repeated herself, louder this time.
So when are you going to be due?
I shrugged. No one had told me anything. She left. I thought about calling my mother.
When the doctor came in, she placed a hand on my wrist. Her fingers were cool and moist.
Was this planned?
I shook my head and stared down at my bouncing left foot.
She handed me a pamphlet for a women’s clinic and gave me the number for a social worker.
On my way out, one of the nurses rolled her eyes.
The fifth time took place four months after the abortion. She was well meaning. We stood in line together at the IGA. Her arms were filled with fresh tulips. Water dripped down one of her arms and pooled on the floor beside her coral leather espadrilles.
She had a baby in the stroller next to her. She fiddled with the infant’s blanket without breaking eye contact.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t a part of it, this sisterhood of women who smile knowingly at each other as they pass in the soup aisle. Who nod slowly at one another on couches at parties, comparing notes on swollen feet and the newest trends in gender neutral baby names. Her smile was an invitation.
I thought of the sharp pinch of the nurse’s needle, the moment, seconds later, when I’d become alone again in my body. The moment when the feeling of two-ness, as intangible as the sound of a ticking clock in another room, vanished, as faintly as it had arrived. For a few nights I lay awake listening for it, but it was gone. The next week I had walked through the hallways of my own life, carrying a fetus in suspended animation. A vessel of death, smiling at strangers, still declining wine with dinner.
I looked back at her.
Not anytime soon, I began to say.
The baby started to cry. She bent over, her voice now high and soft. She had forgotten I was there. I watched as she approached the till, handed her credit card to the cashier without even a glance at the total owing.
I smiled at the man behind me in line and ducked back to the cereal aisle. I began reading the French ingredients on a box of muesli. L’avoine. Canneberges séchées. Amandes tranchées.
Through the window at the end of the aisle, I watched the woman push the stroller down the sidewalk, dodging puddles, shedding stray tulips every few feet. Behind her, an elderly woman bent over, collecting the discarded flowers into her own makeshift bouquet.
The seventh time it happened, I was leaving a 7/11 at 2am with a friend. I was carrying a bag containing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked, artisan potato chips, and pulp-free coconut water for the next morning. I was ranting about the sixth time, which had happened only hours prior. My elderly neighbour, a small woman on a fixed income, had asked me when my baby was due in a halting, staccato English.
I placed my tote bag, filled with high fructose and saturated fats, on the dank carpet of the apartment hallway. I explained that I was not pregnant. I had to repeat myself three times before she understood. Each time I tested out a new inflection, hoping to see a spark of understanding brighten her face. My voice got quieter and slower with each repetition. I began to feel angry. I motioned to my stomach.
I’m so full, I said, rubbing my torso in deliberate circles.
She looked confused. I mimed stuffing scoops of imaginary food into my mouth. I rubbed my abdomen again.
Too much food, I said, just fat.
The words felt sticky in my throat. I saw myself from the outside and felt bile rise in my stomach. A grotesque mime in homemade denim shorts, performing a kind of self-effacing dance. I pulled at my cropped sweater, suddenly aware of my exposed, freckled midriff, my shortly cropped pixie cut.
She looked up at me for a moment and asked another question.
Why no babies?
Outside the 7/11, a woman sat hunched in a wheelchair, holding the door open for customers. She greeted each customer and asked if they had change to spare. As I approached the door, an excited look began to blossom across her face.
Congratulations, she whispered, as I crossed the threshold.
I walked to the garbage can and placed the bag of junk food inside. My friend and I didn’t speak much on the walk to her place.
When I got home, my neighbour from earlier had slid a fertility pamphlet under my door. The words were in Mandarin. The picture on the front was of a young, straight couple beaming over an expertly swaddled infant. I left it in the hallway. A week went by. I don’t know who picked it up.
The eighth time, she does not ask.
It’s 4:15. School has ended, and my students have kept me later than usual, regaling me with stories about their foster parents’ new cars, their brothers’ penchant for eating insects, their fear of not passing earth science exams. I am a new teacher, and I am always rushing.
On my way down the stairs towards the staff parking lot, she emerges from the career centre. I have not spoken to her before. She is a counsellor of some kind. I know her face, but not her name.
Our eyes meet, and I smile. As I turn my head, I hear her voice.
Another one? So many of you girls with your cute little bumps!
I continue walking. I am looking for other explanations. I imagine that another teacher, visibly pregnant, has caught her eye. I turn a corner.
Her footsteps quicken.
Congratulations, she calls after me.
I press my hands against the firm, cool metal of the school doors, exiting into the staff parking lot. Another teacher waves goodbye to me from the front seat of his CRV. Before I buckle my seat belt, I turn the car to accessory mode.
Call Cara, I say, slowly, as I watch other teachers fumbling with their keys and waving goodbye to one another as they exit the lot.
The Bluetooth dances on the dial of my stereo.
Calling Cara, it confirms.
When I tell my friend what happened, she tells me I should shame the woman, that I should confront her the following day.
I laugh, and pause. A red light turns green in front of me. I forget to press the gas. The car behind me honks tentatively. It has not occurred to me that the woman deserves to be confronted. I laugh again. I have apologized so many times for my body that I have lost count.
◊ ◊ ◊
Later, when the sun has started to set, I begin a short hike with my partner. We arrive at the base of the trail as the mosquitoes emerge, hovering up, drone-like from the damp earth to swarm our ears and nostrils as we climb.
Ahead of us, two young girls walk alongside a boy that I believe to be their brother. They have been running up the steep incline ahead of us and have now slowed to a walk. Their bare calves are chalky with dust kicked up from the gravel path. The boy removes his shirt. Even in the dimming light, the heat continues to press down on the hillside.
The smaller girl turns to her sister. She motions to her shirt and her older sister nods. She begins to lift the edge of her tank top. Her small belly protrudes, round and sweet like a kitten’s, recently filled with milk.
Mom bought me a sports bra, she begins to say. Her shirt is near her ears now, caught on a barrette. She trails off as she struggles to free the fabric from her hair.
Put your shirt down, her brother says. His words slice through the hot, thick air. Their tone is definitive.
The little girl sighs audibly. She pulls her shirt back down. The back of her shirt is damp with sweat.
◊ ◊ ◊
On the drive home, my mind drifts back in time. It’s summer. I’m thirteen. I have braces. I dream of the coming months when my teeth will be hardware-free. I’ve doodled lists of the boys and girls I will kiss once my teeth are no longer carrying weapons.
I am with friends at a Starbucks in a local strip mall. We sit along one wall with our empty Frappuccino cups. We occupy space in a collective, extended cackle.
A pregnant woman enters through the front doors. She looks tired. She wipes sweat from her brow and shifts her weight back and forth as she scans the case for something to order.
Behind her, two older women join the line. The first woman squeals and points to the pregnant woman’s belly. She reaches out a hand to touch her swollen stomach.
Baby, she says, baby!
The pregnant woman looks down at the other woman’s hands as they grip and rub her belly in a buffing motion. She looks around the room awkwardly and locks eyes with a barista, who laughs and shuffles away.
The second woman joins the first. She pats the woman’s belly, and begins to slide her hand beneath the loose maternity shirt. The pregnant woman’s face is frozen in horror. The teeth are bared, the eyebrows raised.
Sorry, she says, backing away from the women. She tugs at her blouse. I’m in a rush.
The two women nod vigorously. The pregnant woman looks at the barista, and then at her cellphone.
I’m late, she says, turning to leave, sorry.
She apologizes again as she presses open the door. I watch her as she pauses at the sidewalk’s edge and scans the parking lot.
The two women move to the front of the cue. They are happy for the pregnant woman. They wave at her retreating form through the glass doors. They turn to the barista.
How nice, the first woman says, how nice.
The nurse repeats her question. When is your due date?
I look to my partner and back to the nurse’s impatient face.
I don’t know, I say.
How many weeks along is she? The nurse directs this question to my partner. She glances at my chart and back at me.
My partner shrugs. He looks at me.
I don’t know, I say again.
The nurse looks at the chart again.
You’re about three months along, she says. She begins writing on her clipboard.
I shift my weight, accidentally jarring the IV needle. I feel another rushing sensation as the morphine enters my bloodstream. I picture the inside of my chest as the universe, sprawling and dark, the drugs an icy milky way coursing across the expansive blackness.
My partner asks the nurse to repeat herself.
About three months, give or take, she repeats.
I begin to laugh. Then I begin to cough.
The nurse leaves and we are left alone. I squeeze his hand so tightly that I begin to worry I’m cutting off blood to his fingers. My thoughts return to my students, to my final practicum observation.
I can’t afford to wait another year to finish this program, I say.
Don’t think about that right now, he says, it will all be fine.
How did I not know? I ask.
My mother comes back, arms filled with bottles of various liquids: cranberry cocktail, tropical medley, an off-brand diet cola. She sits down on my other side, patting my leg softly.
Has the doctor come by yet?
I shake my head. I close my eyes. My partner leaves to move his car and top up the parking meter.
My mother and I sit in silence for a while, eavesdropping on my emergency room neighbours. An elderly man down the hall makes a fourth attempt to escape his hospital bed. A frustrated nurse confronts him. We listen as she asks him to lay back down.
We don’t want to have to restrain you, she pleads.
My mind drifts. I remember the upcoming road trip that will need to be rescheduled, the employer I should text about this week’s shifts, the dog at home needing to be walked and fed.
When the doctor returns, he brings the results of my ultrasound.
It’s inconclusive, he explains, the uterus is empty, but this doesn’t tell us anything for certain.
What does that mean? My mother asks.
I inhale and pause. The morphine begins its crescendo again. I feel as though I am being inflated like a balloon animal. I raise my arms up and down.
It means it could be ectopic and it could be a healthy pregnancy, he says.
Oh? I ask. I let my arms fall.
He continues, We should wait for a few days to be sure, before we start any sort of treatment.
Okay, I say.
My mother frowns. She shifts her weight. What’s the logic here? In waiting, I mean?
Well, if it’s a healthy baby and it just isn’t showing up on the ultrasound, treatment would be a bad idea.
Why? I ask. Now I frown.
The treatment would likely terminate the pregnancy if it’s non-surgical, he says.
My partner returns, closing the curtain behind him.
The doctor rephrases his explanation. If we start treatment now, we run the risk of damaging a healthy fetus. If we wait a few days, maybe a week, we can do another ultrasound and be sure.
My mother’s frown deepens, the creases between her eyes growing darker. She looks to me and back to the doctor again.
So, you’re concerned about the fetus? And she’s supposed to sit around in pain, waiting for this thing to rupture and possibly send her back to emergency? My mother looks at me, incredulous. I look back and sigh.
My partner begins to laugh. I look at the doctor again.
We don’t want to have a baby, I say, slowly. Like, at all. Even if it turns out to be viable, I’m not planning to keep it.
The doctor stands up and straightens his shirt collar.
Oh, he says. He pauses. This is an unwanted pregnancy then?
Absolutely, I respond. I’m not interested in having a baby whether it’s inside my uterus or not.
The doctor fidgets with his glasses. I’m sorry, he says, fumbling with his clipboard now. I’m used to working with a certain demographic of women. A smaller community.
My mother stares at him as he continues to mumble something about churches and farms. I study his face, the ruddy pink mounds of his cheeks, the way his glasses sit, wedged into the fleshy bridge of his nose.
I’m sorry, were you not going to ask whether I wanted to be pregnant? I ask. I do not disguise my anger. But I do not say everything I want to say, either. I do not tell him of the years it has taken me to feel safe within my body, to feel I have a right to claim a home within the boundaries of my own skin. I do not tell him that saying no to motherhood feels like an act of kindness, of quiet mercy.
The doctor makes another excuse, begins explaining something about protocols and normal lines of questioning.
I cut him off. I’d like to start the treatment right away, please.
Yes, in that case, we should, he responds.
Great, my mother says. She turns away to text my sister, to tell her I’m okay, that the pain is under control and the treatment starting soon.
The doctor leaves, pulling the curtain partially closed behind him. I turn to my partner and he squeezes my hand. He does not know what to say. I watch from a morphine-induced distance as he struggles to find the right words.
Are you okay, he asks?
I nod. Down the hall, a baby begins to cry. I look to my mother.
Mom? I ask.
Silently, my mother nods. She closes the curtain.
Erin Stainsby is a bisexual writer and educator currently living in the traditional territories of the Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations. She holds a BFA from UBC in Creative Writing and is currently completing a Master of Arts in Educational Psychology from SFU. After a multi-year, millennial angst-fuelled hiatus, Erin has recently returned to writing. When she isn’t teaching middle school or listening to true crime podcasts, she can be found wandering the wilds of Maple Ridge with her dog, Winston, in search of good sticks.