by Aida Zilelian
“I hope that when you have a daughter she is as horrible to you as you are to me!”
I shift in my seat on the living room couch and stare blankly at my mother. If I love her I don’t feel it. I am thirteen. I stare at her bulging belly; she is pregnant with my soon-to-be sister Ani. I can never remember what had transpired between us that afternoon, why she had said what she did, but I am convinced that hearing her utter those words somehow altered the future. The arguments that would erupt between us in the ten years that followed would be venomous, malevolent, and would leave me completely shaken.
I always make decisions with my gut.
“I’m going to start looking for an apartment,” I told my mother one quiet evening after dinner. I was twenty-three. I wanted a life I had tried forcing her to give me - a life that demanded unconditional freedom. She still ransacked my room, opened my mail, and eavesdropped on phone conversation until I had a private phone line installed in my bedroom. Not surprisingly, we fought. She accused me of abandoning her and disrupting the family unit. I moved out and she disowned me for a year, but I knew all along how necessary it was. I had also heard that a mother’s love is boundless.
“The embryo is intact,” my obgyn tells me.
I spent my 20’s trying to recapture a childhood I didn’t have; I had slumber parties with my girlfriends, stayed out late until dawn sometimes, I threw parties at my apartment - the thrill of freedom so exhilarating that it felt unreal. Strangely, I felt an innocence that accompanied the newness of my life, and I wasn’t willing to give it up until I met Brian. And then I realized I didn’t have to give up anything. He loved me and accepted me for who I was; he was warm and passionate, playful and at the same time responsible. When I married him I shook off the creeping sensation of adulthood by spinning it into my own new reality - I had found a playmate who wanted to share my carousing lifestyle with me. Even when we bought our apartment - an experience that Brian jokingly claimed “drained the adolescence right out” of him - it felt less that I was an adult, and more that we had a secure place to live and have dinner parties.
“I’m worried for you,” my mother told me when I was married after four years and not pregnant. “I’m worried that if you don’t have a baby you will regret it when it’s too late. Think of all your friends with babies and how you two will feel going to baby birthday parties with no baby of your own. It’s a sad thing.”
To me, a sad thing has always been not doing something out of fear when I know it’s what I want. It is why I left my mother’s apartment and why I married Brian. I had to stick my fingers in my ears and chant loudly, “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA,” to really know that I wanted a baby. Not because my mother wanted one, or because when we went over our friends Randy and Laura’s house their son Logan was precocious and alarmingly entertaining. When the decision came whether or not to have a baby, both Brian and I were perplexed.
“We couldn’t travel,” I told him grimly as I sipped my glass of wine.
“You’re not wrong,” he said, holding the same serious expression as mine.
“I don’t get how people just do it!” I said, feeling something akin to anger. “You can do your very best job and they could still turn out to be a crack addict.” I realized how cliché my argument seemed, but it was one of many on a long list that truly frightened me……
Magically, I was pregnant after one month. The exhilaration of that felt unreal as well; it had happened too easily.
It was right before my thirty-sixth birthday when my doctor confirmed the news. I had friends coming over that night and had taken the day off from work to cook for my dinner party.
“I’m bringing over a special treat,” one of my girlfriends told me, referring to the bottle of Patron tequila she always brought over for special occasions. I didn’t feel right telling her yet, or anyone else for that matter. I wanted a birthday party, not an “Aida’s pregnant” party.
“I’m actually on antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection,” I told her. “I can’t really drink.”
Everyone who came that night seemed to believe my lie, and they all crowded into the kitchen with their cigarettes because Brian had stressed to them how the smoke really affected my breathing. But I had a secret and I relished keeping it for the time being. Yes, I was sitting on my couch alone nursing a glass of club soda - but who cared? I already had fantasies of our son or daughter, three or four years old, sitting in bed with Brian on a Sunday morning, both of them engrossed in whatever cartoon they were watching on T.V. I had an image of what our child would look like, taking the best features of both Brian and I and synthesizing them into a little human being. He would have Brian’s big brown eyes, his graceful feet, his ability to not take everything seriously; he would have my passion for cooking, my thick brown hair and mischievousness. Admittedly, I wished for a boy. The idea of having a girl scared me. As the years had passed I remembered that afternoon with my mother when I was sitting on the couch, and felt cursed by the inevitability of her wish.
“You’re going to have to go get a sonogram. The bleeding could be nothing, but you should double-check.” Click.
My mother’s care for me seemed inspired by a checklist of responsibilities that she had conjured up - perhaps from her own mother: daily baths, packed lunches, nice clothes, pocket money, and maybe things that I was still unaware of. I knew the two traps that most mothers fell into: they either did the exact opposite of what their mothers had done, or they fatefully turned into what they feared the most - their own mother. I vacillated between this haunting anxiety and an extreme optimism where I reassured myself that I would take what I admired about my mother and practice it accordingly.
“You can still have a life after having a baby,” one of my girlfriends told me. “It’s what you make of it. Of course you can still have dinner parties and still do your writing. Everything just needs to be modified a little bit.” After my thirteen-year emancipation, I was worried that I would resent not having the freedom I had grown accustomed to. And although I was a woman I still didn’t feel like one. In my mind, I was a responsible pregnant teenager, who abstained from cigarettes and drinking during her pregnancy because she loved herself and her baby enough to keep both healthy. The reality was that I was in my mid-thirties, happily married, owned an apartment, worked a full-time job and was five weeks pregnant.
“Let me check the book,” my cousin Jacqueline told me. She had two young daughters and had miscarried once after they were born. “Would you be having your period right now if you weren’t pregnant?”
“No,” I said, cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder as I got dressed in the women’s locker room at my gym.
“Have you been overdoing the exercising?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ve been very careful. Just walking and lifting low weights.”
“Hmmm,” she said, and then paused. “What did your gynecologist say?”
“That I have to wait until Monday to get a sonogram.”
As I walked on the treadmill I saw an Indian woman sitting across from me, pedaling on a bike energetically, her pregnant belly bulging under her t-shirt. I approached her and asked her how many months along she was.
“Eight!” she said, wiping the sweat off her face with a towel. Hesitantly, I told her I was five weeks pregnant.
“That’s great!” she said. “Just keep at it with the gym. Go slow, though. And congratulations!” I suddenly felt renewed. It was just spotting, that’s all. I knew it was very common.
By the next morning I knew to call into work to say I wasn’t coming in. I made an emergency appointment with another gynecologist, since mine had not been very helpful about seeing me as soon as possible.
My mother called early afternoon. “What did the doctor say?”
“She said the embryo is still there, but that I have to rest.”
I laid in bed watching cooking shows, feeling the tugging sensation below my stomach turn into severe cramps. I sat on the toilet, trying to shake the draining feeling that began to overwhelm me. I sat, crying, not wanting to get up because I knew I would only have to return. I called Brian and told him to stay at work.
My mother called again. “What’s going on?” She was infamous for her follow-up phone calls - anything ranging from a new recipe I was trying out for dinner to whether or not I had remembered to rsvp for a relative’s wedding.
“What’s going on is that I’m having a fucking miscarriage!” I screamed into the phone. “And I want you to do me the goddam favor of not calling every half hour so I can tell you about it!” I hung up the phone sobbing.
“Are you happy?” I screamed at the phone. “Now we don’t get to find out if she’ll be as terrible to me as I was to you. Are you happy?” I knew I was yelling not at the mother I had now, but the other mother I was scared to forgive.
At least I had the weekend to recover. There was no baby. No little boy or girl sitting in bed with Brian. Neither of them would look at me with the same large brown eyes.
A week later Brian and I went to a nearby park where we took our dog Champ for long walks. We sat on a bench that overlooked the lake. Although it was April, we could still see our breath form little clouds in the air. I watched the geese padding around the edge of the grass. I grew quiet.
“Are you okay?” Brian asked. “What are you thinking?”
Now I knew what it felt like to want to hold onto something so desperately that it was consuming. I wondered if that was how my mother felt all those years fighting with me - if it was her way of trying to hold onto me for her own reasons that I could not understand.
“I’m thinking how strange it is. I’m thinking how I feel so changed, that I’m not the same person. I feel,” I said, trying to find the words, “that I have lost something. Not a baby only. It may sound terribly foolish coming from a grown woman, but I think that somehow I have lost my innocence.” He took my hand and squeezed it.
Prophetically, a little girl came towards us, wobbling on her bicycle. She looked behind her where a young man was standing, most likely her father. “You’re doing great!” he called out waving. “Keep going! I’m right behind you. I’m watching.”
I watched her as she pedaled away, her father following her with his eyes. It all seemed too easy. And I knew then that everything I had so desperately wanted in my life I had struggled for. I am waiting to find out if I am still willing for this struggle.
Aida Zilelian is a NYC teacher. Her work has been featured in Pen Pusher (UK), SN Review, Visions, Slushpile Magazine, Suss: Another Literary Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review, and the upcoming issue of Halfway Down the Stairs. She has written two novels and is currently looking for representation.