Grace was their miracle baby. Susan had picked Grace’s name because she felt sure, one-hundred percent, bone-deep sure, that she was a miracle.
After four miscarriages in five years, Pete had wanted them to stop. The toll it was taking on them was too much, he’d said. The elation they’d felt the first time Susan told Pete she was pregnant was overwhelming. He had dropped instantly down to his knees and hugged her, his ear pressed against her still-unswollen stomach as if he could hear little baby Parsons in there doing back flips. They’d wake up with smiles on their mouths. Brush their teeth still grinning. Go to work giddy.
Pete was not, by nature, an effusive man. People who didn’t know him well found him gruff: a combination of his taciturn ways and the fact that, when he did finally speak, his voice sounded like the product of a decades-long two-pack-a-day habit. Even with Susan, he moderated not his love, but his displays of love. He didn’t believe in showering praise or endlessly saying “I love you.” Pete, down on one knee and with a small diamond ring in hand, told Susan he loved her for the first time when he’d proposed. He’d said it again on their wedding day. That seemed enough to him. In Pete’s experience, people who needed to be told the same thing over and over again were pure-blooded idiots. Susan was not an idiot, so hearing it once and then having it confirmed a second time sufficed, he thought.
Susan wouldn’t have minded a little more repetition of that particular sentence, but she accepted Pete’s actions as proof of his love. His manner of being with her, the myriad ways he proved his thoughtfulness without drawing attention to it, tiny self-sacrifices he made for her comfort: these, she knew, were more valuable than endless words. When Susan told Pete she loved him, as she did often, he usually responded with a grunt. Very often he didn’t even look up to meet her eye. So when Pete pressed the words, “I love you,” into her cotton shirt that day, Susan nearly swooned. She didn’t know, nor did she care, whether Pete was talking to her or the tiny cluster of cells that would grow into their son or daughter. She just knew that her heart was full and she was grateful for her life.
Seven weeks later, the spotting and cramping started.
“It just happens sometimes,” her OB/GYN told her with what Susan considered a shameful lack of tenderness.
She had loved this baby so much. No matter that it was so early that it was neither boy nor girl, or that there was no baby to hold in her arms even once. Or bury. The unnamed child had been theirs, hers and Pete’s, and it (it killed her to say “it,” so she finally decided it was going to be a boy, just so she could think “him” when she idled in the murky space between waking and sleeping) had been part of their tiny family.
Pete held her long and hard right after it happened, and from inside his arms, she heard him sniffle. When finally they broke away his eyes were shining but his cheeks were dry. She never saw him cry. He was infinitely patient with her but retreated immediately back to his stoic ways.
They waited the recommended amount of time and then began trying again. Susan paid attention to her cycle and asked Pete to stop wasting good sperm in the shower. She flushed with embarrassment asking him, but he nodded once and that was that.
Inside of four months, Susan was pregnant again. She forced herself to wait until her period was four days late, then took three home pregnancy tests while Pete was at work. When all three glowed with little plus signs, she did a jig in the bathroom. She wondered if she ought to wait until she was further along to tell Pete—she didn’t want to set him up for disappointment again—but in the end she was able to keep the secret for about twelve seconds after he got home. He hugged her tight (but not too tight!) but did not whisper into her belly.
With the first pregnancy, Susan had been elated. Smiling before she even woke up. With the second she was still excited, but it was tempered with a touch of sadness, a dash of anxiety. She pushed her fears away. The doctor had told her what had happened was a fluke—there was nothing wrong with her, and there was no reason she should miscarry again. And she didn’t want the baby’s formation infected with anxiety. Was that even a thing? Could she sentence Baby Boy or Baby Girl Parsons to a lifetime of therapy with her worrying? She didn’t know, but better not to risk it. She focused on the positive and looked at her belly daily to see if it had started to swell.
Still, it didn’t pay to take unnecessary risks. She told Gita that she wouldn’t play on the office’s softball team that spring.
“You won’t play? You always play.” Gita said. “Last year we only had enough players because you strong-armed that klutz from accounting.”
“Yeah, and he was terrible.” Susan rolled her eyes at the memory of the clueless right fielder who—along with the rest of the team—prayed no one hit a fly ball in his direction. Susan loved softball. She was their most reliable hitter, getting on base nearly every time. And what joy she found in sliding—the abandon of just letting her body go, being okay with getting dirty. Her shins were pockmarked and scraped, the result of too many rocks and twigs left on their amateur field, and she loved them.
“I just don’t feel like playing this year.” From her expression, Susan knew Gita wanted to dig deeper, but she put her off.
“Ok. We’ll find someone else to pitch,” Gita finally said. Susan felt a pinch of sadness, the anticipation of regret over missing the season, but she swallowed the feeling. What was softball? Softball was nothing. Their baby was everything.
Susan drank a smoothie every morning. Counted down the days to her third trimester. She couldn’t quell her nerves in week seven, though. If she could only get through week seven, she’d have crossed some invisible divide between not-safe and safe. She checked for spots of red on her underwear every time she went to the bathroom. Sometimes she went to the bathroom even if she didn’t have to pee, just so she could check. And each time she sighed with relief. No blood.
She started her eighth week feeling calm and positive. She started thinking about names again, which she hadn’t let herself do yet during this second pregnancy. Maybe Harmony, if she was a girl, Susan thought. In fact, she thought, smiling, this one does feel like a girl.
Then, one night half way through her ninth week, she woke up with a cramping in her abdomen. She clutched at the sheets and begged God to let her be wrong. Let what she feared was happening not be happening. Pete, always attentive and even more so of late, woke quickly, sensing tension in the bed. He shushed her, kissed her gently, and told her not to worry. Maybe it was nothing.
But it was something. She lost the baby.
The doctor suggested they take a little time before trying again. Medically, Susan was fine, the doctor assured her. They still had every reason to believe that she could carry a baby to term. But emotionally, well, perhaps she needed a rest. Pete thought it was a good idea, but Susan resisted. She wanted to try again immediately. She wanted a baby now. If their first baby had made it, she’d be holding him right now—or very nearly. She didn’t want to wait six months before even trying to get pregnant.
She started to hate other pregnant women.
“I know I shouldn’t,” she confessed to her mother one day, sitting in the older woman’s worn kitchen. “But I do. I hate them. Why should they get to have a baby when I can’t?” Her mother pushed her cooling mug of tea out of the way and grasped Susan’s hand across the table. Her skin was turning papery and soft, which only brought more tears to Susan’s eyes. These were grandmothers’ hands. They were supposed to be, anyway. Her mother snapped her back to the present with her standard mix of tenderness and get-real-ness.
“It’s just not your time, honey. It will happen. Those women’s pregnancies have nothing to do with you.”
“Yes, maybe they do. What if there are only so many babies allotted for any given year, and they’re taking up all the spots?” She knew she made no sense. She didn’t believe there was a grand plan complete with columns of figures, all scheming against her. Her mother tutted, equally un-swayed. Suddenly Susan couldn’t take the confines of her childhood home anymore. She squeezed her mom’s hand and made an excuse to dash. She knew her mother was right. Whether a total stranger had a baby was nothing to her.
Except that it was everything.
She started tallying up these mothers-to-be’s crimes: that one didn’t look both ways before she crossed the street—was she responsible enough to be a mother?
That one was buying nothing but junk food. Was that what she was feeding her child in utero?!
That one had a pinched and hateful face; surely she could never truly comfort a child.
And THAT one was smoking a cigarette! A goddamned cigarette! And she got to have a baby while Susan didn’t?
Pete took Susan’s fury as a sign that the doctor was right—Susan was paying too steep an emotional price. He insisted they take a six-month break. No talk of babies. No discussion of when they’d start trying again.
Ok, so maybe they didn’t talk about babies. But no one could stop Susan from thinking (all the time) about them. And no one could stop her from calculating her cycle, even if she didn’t mention it to Pete and just happened to feel amorous those days. Once, when Pete had a raging poker game with his buddies and came home too inebriated to have sex, Susan locked herself in the bathroom and cried for half an hour. Pete, drunk but still Pete, called to her amid the spinning bedroom.
“You’ve been in there a long time, Suze. You OK?”
“Yeah, fine. My stomach’s just upset,” she feigned embarrassment at her fictional diarrhea. A few minutes later she returned to the bedroom, dim enough that Pete couldn’t see her puffy red eyes. He moaned as she climbed in bed next to him.
“Don’t jiggle the bed,” he said. Stillness was tantamount if he was going to keep from hurling. Staring at the ceiling, Susan felt equal parts annoyed and grateful that he was too out of it to notice that she was despondent. Their hands found each other, and they lay, perfectly still, holding hands.
There was no baby that month.
Or the next month.
It was seven months later before the damning red spots failed to show on her underwear. This time she did wait to tell Pete. She knew for a solid week before finally confessing. She wasn’t sure what he’d say—they’d taken no precautions, but they also hadn’t talked about trying again (Again: ha! As if she’d ever stopped). She told him after work on a Thursday night, as he sat at their scarred and second-hand kitchen table drinking a Bud.
“You’re sure?” He asked quietly. She nodded, her eyes never leaving his. He sat stone-faced for another moment; “Are you feeling ok?” He asked her, still not moving.
She nodded again, unable to stop herself from smiling. When he saw her expression, his lips widened into a grin of pure happiness. They abandoned the dried pasta and jarred sauce and went out to eat instead.
Five weeks later, she lost the baby.
By the fourth pregnancy, they didn’t whoop and hug or go out for celebratory meals. Susan silently accepted that more pain was likely coming their way, even while a seed of hope took root in her heart. And when she lost the baby, she broke like it was the first time. Like she hadn’t known how it would end. Pete retreated into the comfort of not speaking, quietly rubbing her back when she cried and making soft shushing noises that only promised he’d make a great dad, if only she could carry a baby to term—which just made her cry all the more.
Six months after the fourth miscarriage, she reached for him across the dinner table one night, their plates empty but not yet cleared, and she maneuvered through the mess of napkins and cutlery and drinking glasses to grip his stained fingers. He squeezed back, thinking a moment’s affection was all she wanted, but she didn’t loosen her grip when he did, and he looked up in surprise.
“Can we adopt a baby?” She asked, voicing the question that had been bouncing inside her head for long enough now that it felt inevitable. Pete looked at her, then looked away, his eyes lighting on various parts of their familiar kitchen but landing nowhere. She had long ago learned to read his silences, but this one was a mystery to her. She tried to wait him out: she knew that her patience was occasionally rewarded with some kind of response. After a minute, though, she gave in. She didn’t have patience right now—she’d been waiting long enough.
“Pete?” She drew his eyes back to her and held his gaze. “Can we adopt a baby?”
“I don’t know,” he said. What did that mean? For the first time, she wished he was a different kind of man. A more “modern” man, willing to share his feelings. Pete stood.
“Pete.” She called after him quietly, but she knew that if he wasn’t ready to talk, he wouldn’t. When her next period came, she broached the subject again.
“Ok,” was all he said, and she told herself she saw a spark of excitement in his eyes, though she knew it was a lie.
Her days were filled with anger. She hated her misery. She hated her period and the cramps that told her she was a failure as a woman. Maybe most of all, she hated that it made her feel estranged from Pete. She knew he was going along with the idea of adoption only because she’d asked him to. She considered the possibility that he just didn’t want a baby enough warrant the hassle; Pete hated paperwork and formality and other people’s judgment, all of which would come with adoption.
But he said OK, and she took him at his word. She met alone with the adoption counselor, afraid that Pete not being there would signal something untoward about their fitness as parents, but she didn’t want him to get scared off by how much there would be to do. When asked, she blamed his work schedule. The counselor tutted. Susan prayed to a god she’d begun doubting that there wasn’t a black mark in her file.
The adoption process was like a second full-time job. She let her actual work pile up while she calculated the daunting costs of international adoptions and Googled adoption strategies, quickly minimizing her browser every time her boss walked past. She felt like she was always behind on something, and, in her haze, she ignored the fact that her period was a couple days late. It’ll come tomorrow. The thought half-surfaced in her frantic brain in between working on their please-give-us-your-baby website and trying to determine where they could scrounge together more savings to make them look like better potential parents. She forced herself not to feel hopeful when the tell-tale red didn’t appear again the next day. When her period was five days late, she couldn’t ignore it anymore.
She and Pete had stopped thinking too hard about when they were supposed to be copulating. (Who was she kidding? She had stopped. Pete always just took her at her word that it was a good time for sex. He thought all the time was the right time for sex.) She stopped taking her temperature first thing every morning and tracking her ovulation. She gave herself over completely to the idea of adoption. Somewhere out there was a baby girl from China or a newborn birthed by a scared fifteen-year-old: that would be their baby. She just had to find it.
But now, on her hands and knees in the bathroom, she dug the last remaining pee stick out from the back of the vanity. Squatting over it, she didn’t dare get her hopes up, even while her heart raced with possibilities. She forced herself to leave the room for the endless ten-minute wait. She wandered their drafty farmhouse. She washed the coffee mugs left over from that morning. She stared pointlessly out the window.
When ten minutes was up, she went back in and saw it.
A plus sign.
That night she suggested they go out to eat, something they rarely did because of the expense.
“I’m feeling a little celebratory,” Susan said. She didn’t ask for much, and Pete knew it, so he went and scrubbed his hands again and changed into a plaid button-down shirt to look more presentable.
“Just what is it we’re celebrating?” He asked after they ordered their chicken parmesan and ribeye.
Susan didn’t want to name what she was hopeful about, even to herself. There had been no particular milestone achieved on their quest to adopt, and she’d been this pregnant four times before and still had no baby. She simply wanted to exist in a world in which good things could happen, even if they didn’t seem to very much. She allowed herself to enjoy her chicken and the view of the man she loved across from her.
But then she didn’t tell Pete the next day, either. Or the day after. For a full week, she thought that she’d find the perfect moment, but every time she opened her mouth, her fear flew in and gagged her. He would start worrying immediately. He’d watch her with hawk’s eyes, studying her movement, the changes to her body, her trips to the bathroom and the expression she wore when she came out. She didn’t want him to live strung like a high-tension wire, and she didn’t want to live under scrutiny. This baby probably wouldn’t last, so what was the point of getting his hopes up and making him worry? Better to just deal with the loss when it happened. Because it would. She knew that.
And in the meantime, she would keep forging ahead on the adoption front, waiting for her little miss or mister to come through the meandering halls of bureaucracy instead of the wonder of her body.
Pete believed himself to be a closed book, and Susan supposed that to many people he was. His gruffness intimidated people, and if he ever wanted to confide his feelings, which he didn’t, he’d have admitted that he liked it that way—he preferred minding his own business and having those around him do the same. But his business was her business, and Susan found him easy to read.
The sighs he swallowed whenever she mentioned adoption paperwork (and honestly, she wasn’t even asking him to do it. She merely asked that he sign a couple documents), the anxiety that flitted across his eyes whenever she expressed weariness or impatience, the frustration he stifled when she told him about another hurdle they had to clear—it was obvious how Pete felt.
Adopting a baby was the very opposite of people staying out of your business. They had to share their bank account information, their mortgage documentation, health records, family health histories, employment verification, and more. She hadn’t told him yet about the home visit or drug screening. In the past, both she and Pete had occasionally used what her father had referred to as “the devil’s lettuce.” It had been a while, and she’d make sure they didn’t do any more now, but that wasn’t even the point. Pete wouldn’t mind giving it up, she thought. But he would hate the idea of strangers analyzing his pee. Fear gnawed at Susan: if she told Pete that she was pregnant, he would put all his eggs in that basket. He’d be excited and so, so relieved to avoid the hassles that came with adoption. So she didn’t tell him.
Each day that she didn’t tell him, the secret became easier to keep. Susan knowing and Pete not knowing became the new normal. It was easy to keep the secret in some ways: She had always been a healthier eater than Pete. He only knew what cauliflower tasted like because of her—though after he’d moaned about eating too much “rabbit food,” she’d moved to secretly pureeing it into mashed potatoes, a trick she assumed would work well for a child, too. So when she switched back to her morning health smoothie and took care with their meals, he sighed but didn’t question her motives. But giving up their Friday night cold one—that he would notice. Throughout their marriage, whenever she hadn’t been pregnant, they’d start the weekend with a cold beer on their deck—or in their living room when the New England winters proved too frigid. They’d toast each other and the freedom of the weekend, the neck of her Corona Light tapping the lip of his Bud can. She’d stretch up on her toes to kiss him on the lips, which he enjoyed when they were alone and suffered through when they had friends over. PDA made him uncomfortable, but she insisted on this one moment each week.
The first Friday after she discovered she was pregnant for the fifth time, she toasted him with a bottle of water, saying that she was a bit dehydrated. The second week, she simply said she didn’t feel like drinking. The third week, after visiting her OB/GYN and hearing “so far, so good,” she considered confessing, but instead opened a Corona and toasted. She tipped the glass bottle up, holding her lips tightly together against the liquid. When Pete’s attention was elsewhere, she poured half the bottle over the side of the deck.
Then Pete came into their bathroom one morning as Susan was stepping out of the shower. He saw her in profile. Or the way she stretched to reach the towel accentuated her new roundness. Or it was simply three and a half months into a pregnancy, no other explanation needed. Pete pulled the towel away from her body, and Susan stood there, straight backed and naked, letting him look. She had stared at herself in the mirror many times and knew that he was seeing the new bulge at her midsection—different than fat: smoother, more perfect. Her breasts were fuller. She had moved beyond the point of hiding the truth.
He held the towel limply, letting it graze the tiled floor. His eyes swept down her body, lingering here, then there.
“Susan?” Her name was a question in his mouth. She nodded. He dropped the towel and took a step toward her, took both her hands, still damp, in his. They stood there, fingers intertwined, and he just looked at her. In his eyes she saw his happiness, his apprehension, his confusion.
“You could have told me.” His voice was choked as he wrapped his arms around her, his flannel shirt soft against her bare skin, his belt buckle cold against her protruding belly.
“How far along?” It was the only question he asked her, and when she answered, his expression changed.
“You’re sure?” She nodded, trying and failing to hold onto her 105 days of stoicism. It was the only time they’d ever made it to the second trimester. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and he kissed them.
At four months, they told her mom and his parents.
At five months, Susan told Gita, who she suspected already knew.
At six months, they told everyone, and Susan, with no small amount of fear, sidelined her adoption project.
She didn’t stop fearfully checking her underwear for blood, but at a certain point she started to relax, confident that even if the baby came early, it would survive.
When she was overdue and they had to induce labor, they laughed a bittersweet laugh at the irony. All those other babies couldn’t hang on; this one wouldn’t let go.
After, the nurse placed their swaddled daughter into Susan’s arms and left the three of them alone.
“You,” Pete said, cupping the back of Susan’s head with his rough hand. She knew that single word, you, contained Pete’s whole heart. All the I love yous he didn’t say. All the ways he was sorry for her pain—now, as her body was literally torn, but also throughout the process that brought them to this moment.
“You,” she said back. She held his gaze.
In her arms, the baby yawned. A new pattern emerged: their attention shifted immediately to Grace. They were not a twosome anymore. That life was over.
They were too happy to know they should also be sad.
Victoria Fullard has over fifteen years of experience as a professional writer and editor. Her work has appeared in such places as Chicago Literati and Short Fiction Break, and she is currently revising her first novel. She lives in New York City with her partner and their dog, and she hasn’t left the apartment without a book in over a decade. Learn more about her at www.victoriafullard.com and connect with her on Twitter at @VictoriaReads.