A short story by Jeff Bowles
I can’t cry. The worst thing to ever happen to us and I can’t cry about it. I’m tired. My mind is shot. Jagged black spots flutter in my peripherals, my bowels gurgle, loud noises make me wince. I tell myself that sleep deprivation must be keeping the pain at bay. I still feel ashamed.
I hate the hospital, hate the emergency room. I cuss every time I have to come. Before I met Stephanie, I’d only been here once. This is my sixth visit, and it’s all because of her. Abscessed teeth, Bronchitis, stuff you usually go to a doctor’s office for. The only good thing about the hospital is that they accept Stephanie’s crap insurance, worthless coverage that the state of Colorado hands out like “How was your visit?” questionnaire cards.
I glance at Steph. She’s curled up on a double-wide chair. Her bare feet dig into the light-blue vinyl cushion, causing it to pucker and stutter and hiccup rudely. She rocks uncontrollably, twirling her red hair with a finger, breathing as if she were in a Lamaze class.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I say. “I shouldn’t have stayed up all night. I do it too often. Maybe every weekend is too much-”
“It’s okay.” It’s more of a coarse grunt than fluid speech.
The cramps had begun in the afternoon, just before I was about to go to bed. We worried, began to panic as they intensified. I called a nurse hotline. The woman told us it was okay, that light cramps and a bit of spotting were normal. Then Stephanie started to bleed, and the cramps grew until her face paled and she had to bite her lip to keep from moaning.
She’s not the only one in pain here, of course. A family huddles around a kid with a broken arm over by the soda machines. A woman in a neck brace behind us cries and wails. An obese man with an oxygen tank and wheelchair is being led past the security guard. If I weren’t so tired, all the pain and suffering gathered in this waiting room might really get to me. I usually have a hard time dealing with this kind of stuff. For an instant, I’m glad I haven’t slept.
Calm, pulsing tones sound from the hospital’s speaker system. Another ambulance coming in; we’ll have to wait even longer. The sound forces my mind to sharpen. I glance at Steph.
“You doin’ okay, baby?” Somehow I feel like I’m only pretending to care. “Do you need anything?”
“I know it does.”
“I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I didn’t eat…right or I got too wound up about…work.”
I can’t tell if I’m imagining the faint sting behind my eyes. “It’s not your fault. Maybe it was me. I read that smoking does something to men genetically, you know, reproductively. Maybe that’s what did it.”
She touches my hand, almost speaks, but her face suddenly contorts. She whimpers and her hand presses into her abdomen. It’s another two hours before we’re taken to a room.
Finding a good ER doctor is like playing a game of Go Fish. You keep asking for hospitality or a bit of humanity and they keep sending you back to the deck. Sure, occasionally you’ll get a decent one. They’ll speak to you like you’re a human being instead of trying to rush you out the door. Still haven’t pegged our doctor tonight. He gave Steph pain killers, said comforting things. He said Steph might see some tissue but that it wouldn’t be the fetus. He let her wear her coat over the hospital gown when she said she was cold. He tried to comfort, but it didn’t seem to register in him that we might have actually wanted a baby.
The doctor ordered a vaginal ultrasound because Steph wasn’t far enough along for the other kind. A nurse led her from our room ten minutes ago. I wasn’t allowed to come with.
I have no hope, no illusions. I know it’s over and done with. It’s been a weird two months. Stephanie had time to come to terms with it. It was in her body; it was a part of her. I was just the guy being asked to rub feet and prepare meals. It was never real. That’s it. I can’t cry because it was never real. It was a game of pretend, like playing dress-up. I was never going to be a father. It’s time to take off our mommy and daddy clothes and go home.
This notion is comforting. My mind tosses it back and forth, allowing it to strengthen and fade along with the waves of fatigue. There’s no shame in feeling nothing if you were never attached to begin with.
The curtain parts to reveal the nurse. She says something I don’t catch. Steph follows and replies, “Thank you.”
She doesn’t seem sad. She looks at me and gives a bitter smile. She still clutches her abdomen, but I think she might actually be okay. I think that maybe neither of us will be in much pain.
Then the nurse lets go of the curtain, leaves, and Stephanie’s face changes. Her smile vanishes, trembling slightly before it does. Her eyebrows lift, her free hand passes through her hair. She starts to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” she whimpers. “I couldn’t leave it there on the floor. It was ours. I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”
She climbs into the hospital bed, won’t stop repeating herself. I slide my chair closer and wrap my arms around her. She lays her head against my chest.
“It isn’t your fault,” I say. “These things happen. Maybe…maybe it was just a bad pregnancy. Maybe it never really had a chance.”
“I know I did it. I ate wrong, too many sweets. I forgot my thyroid pill for a couple nights. I didn’t take my prenatals as much as I should have.”
“Babe, please stop.”
She sobs for a time. I can feel that stinging behind my eyes again, but that’s all. She speaks again.
“I couldn’t leave it on the floor.”
“Couldn’t leave what on the floor, baby?”
Steph wipes her eyes. “She put that thing inside me. It was so cold. It hurt. There was nothing left. I didn’t see the monitor, but she said there was nothing left. She pulled it out and went to get me some pads. I looked on the floor and…”
She begins to cry again. She tries to speak through it, but I can’t understand her.
“Slow down,” I say. “What happened?”
“It was on the floor. Just lying there. Bloody. Small. I wrapped it in a napkin and stuffed it in my coat before she came back. I didn’t know what else to do. They would have just mopped it up.”
I suddenly feel so tired, like I’ve been awake for weeks.
I brush her cheek. “Baby, he said you might see some things, but that it wouldn’t be-”
“It was our baby. I know it was. It’s still in my pocket. I don’t know what to do with it.”
The stinging intensifies, but still, nothing. I want so badly to feel and to let that feeling out. I want to be miserable with her. I want a connection. A jagged black spot flutters in the corner of my vision, my bowels gurgle, I just want to sleep.
“What do we do with it?” she asks.
I’m silent for a moment, but I don’t need the time to think.
“Throw it away.”
She raises her head. “What?”
“Throw it away. It’s not the baby. It isn’t anything. Don’t do this to yourself.”
She stares at me. She isn’t angry or offended. She isn’t accepting and she doesn’t say no. She stares long, unblinking.
I shrug. “What are we going to do with it, Steph? We can’t take it home. That’s not good. That’s not healthy. Throw it away.”
She finally blinks, reaches into her coat pocket and pulls out the waded napkin.
I don’t look at it. I take it, stand, and walk to the garbage can. I don’t pause or think or let it bother me. I let it fall, hear the light rasp as it makes contact with the plastic bag. I move back to my seat and don’t feel any different. Still tired, still pent up, still ashamed of both.
Stephanie’s stopped crying. I can’t tell if she’s angry. Can’t tell if she ever will be, if she’ll ever resent me, if she’ll ever forgive me. For now, at least, she isn’t crying. I take comfort in that.
The doctor enters. We tie up the loose ends. Follow up information is given and discharge papers are filled out. Stephanie asks if she should see her doctor, have a pelvic exam. He says she could, but that he doesn’t think there’s any danger. It’s all gone. He’s sure of it.
Steph changes back into her clothes and we stand to leave. As I make my way to the curtain, I look at the garbage can. I start to wonder if Stephanie was right. I start to wonder what kind of boy or girl it would’ve been, what kind of man or woman. I think of all that potential nestled against the plastic sack, cradled next to Styrofoam cups and discarded Kleenex. I think these things to force the tears, but I’m not surprised when they don’t come. Maybe that’s the good part of not sleeping. I don’t have the choice to feel or not to feel. I’ll cry. Tomorrow I’ll cry. Tonight I’m that man who rubs feet and prepares meals. Tonight I’ll sleep.