The room is dark and hushed. I lie on the table and crane my neck to watch the screen. It looks like static. “Your bladder is full,” the student tells me, gliding the transducer over my stomach. She is young enough to be my student, I think. I’m still wearing my teaching clothes, a buttoned up shirt, my nicest jeans. My messenger bag, heavy with books and papers, slumps on a chair by the door.
I did not expect to be here, in this darkened room. At the obstetrician’s office, I cheerfully answered questions—“Yes, I’m taking my vitamins. No, no morning sickness.” At the end of the appointment, my obstetrician wheeled in a portable sonogram, gazed at the murky image, and sent me to this teaching hospital. “Try not to worry,” she said as I left.
The student glides the transducer over my stomach, her eyes on the screen. “The real technician might come in,” she tells me. “She might take over.” Despite the student’s discomfort or maybe because of it, I like her. I can tell she feels responsible for me.
She clicks to make an X. She clicks again, making another X. Then she measures the distance between the two. I’m curious how it all works. I have only seen sonograms on television, accompanied by reassuring swishing and a blurry fetus. What the student is doing looks more like someone’s geometry homework.
“Do you see anything?” I ask. I feel intrusive, as if the content of my uterus is her secret.
“I’m not allowed to tell you,” she says. “Your doctor will let you know.”
“My doctor said I should only come back to her office if there’s a problem. Otherwise, I can go home.” The implication lingers.
“I’ll ask the technician,” she says.
My husband Bryan jokingly referred to me as the sacred vessel, knowing it would provoke. “How is the sacred vessel today?” he would say, all honey.
When we were roughhousing, and I was losing, I would shout: “Sacred vessel! Sacred vessel!”
“It’s going to be a long nine months,” he said.
The student returns with the technician who is young and blond and pregnant. I’ve always been appalled that strangers will reach toward a pregnant woman’s stomach. Now I understand the impulse. I wonder how it feels to be so definitively with child. The technician looks at the marks the student has made. “Ovary,” she says about one. “Fibroid,” she says about another. She picks up the transducer and runs it over my stomach.
Come on, kid. Where are you?
I took two pregnancy tests. The first was a pale blue cross. The second more assertive. “I think I’m pregnant,” I said. I smiled. Bryan smiled. “Wow, we’re really going to do this.” The next day, the doctor confirmed it.
Still, we were cautious. I was cautious. We only told immediate family. When discussing the future, I would say awkwardly, “If we have a baby.” A caveat.
“Twenty-five percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage,” I told my sister breezily. An incorrect statistic, it turns out. The number is actually between 15 and 20 percent. In any case, I was no sentimental pregnant lady.
“We need a better image,” the technician says. She directs me to the bathroom and tells me that after I’ve emptied my bladder, I should return, strip from the waist down, and wait. “You can cover with this,” she says, handing me a white sheet.
Transvaginal ultrasounds have been in the news lately. State lawmakers, mostly men, are deciding whether or not they will force women to get one before an abortion. These laws will require doctors to describe the fetus, the heartbeat, information the woman is not requesting.
I have been watching the news angrily, hand over my stomach.
“Do you ever want kids?” Bryan asked me. We weren’t dating yet. We were just two friends, canoeing and talking about life. I dipped my paddle into the lake and pulled on the handle, feeling the water’s resistance.
I was a certified spinster. Thirty-four and never married. My sister Sonja was going through a divorce and considering what it meant to be single again. At her lawyer’s office, she chatted with the receptionist about how I was single and happy. But no kids. Sonja had two sons. The receptionist had a daughter. They agreed that while a man was optional, children weren’t. “Your sister needs to get pregnant before it’s too late,” the receptionist had advised.
I laughed when Sonja called to tell me. “Oh, goodness,” I said. “I’m fine.”
If I had children, would I even be canoeing? I taught in California, and in the summer, I was free to travel and to be on this Minnesota lake. The wind was kicking up the water, and we could hear loons calling in the distance. On the sandbar, mothers sat with their babies, taking pebbles from their hands, applying sunscreen. I didn’t even own a pet because of the responsibility.
“Kids? I don’t know,” I told Bryan. “I’ll see what happens.”
I’m back quickly from the bathroom and it doesn’t take long to slide out of my jeans. I sit on the papery table as primly as I can without pants, without anything. I arrange and rearrange the sheet, and then, I wait. My phone is in my messenger bag. I wonder if I have time to hop off the table, cross the room, and get it before they return. Bryan will be wondering about the appointment. I had called him from the hospital parking lot, anxious.
Do I text him? What would I even say?
A polite knock on the door and the technician and the student return. The student picks up a probe. It is nearly two feet long and it looks like a plastic curling iron. “It doesn’t go all the way in,” she says helpfully.
After my sister’s divorce, I drove to Tucson on all my school breaks. Sonja was raising her children alone and getting her PhD and teaching. She needed all the help she could get, and when I visited, she would leave before breakfast and return after the children were in bed. Aidan and Avery were five and two. In the mornings, they would jump on me and shout, “You’re a T-Rex.”
We would hatch dinosaur eggs, make play-doh, build trains. It sounds like a lot more fun than it actually was. “Don’t feel bad,” Sonja would tell me late in the evening. “I get bored, too. Kids can be boring.”
When I visited, I would listen to children’s music, change diapers, settle fights, put the offender in timeout, make lunch, wipe jam off faces, wrestle small bodies into and out of car seats, walk in the park, sing the same songs, read the same books. Only once did I have the nerve to go with them alone to the grocery store. We must have needed something vital like ketchup or coffee. By 3 p.m., I was exhausted. By their bedtime, I was catatonic.
How did Sonja do this day in and day out?
The next day, Aidan would be at my elbow: “Read me a book, mommy.”
“I’m not your mommy,” I would gently remind him.
The transvaginal ultrasound is intrusive. I have always been so modest. My mother used to tell me, “good grief, you don’t have anything special.” Here on this table, I’m without shame. I’m interested only in the screen, the clicking, the silent communication between student and teacher. I am waiting for someone to say: Don’t worry. We can’t tell you anything officially, but stress isn’t good for the baby.
The room is dark and hushed. Like church.
Over Christmas, Bryan and I drove to Tucson to visit my family. We had seven hours to choose a name.
“Sycamore,” I said. “Rain,” I said. “Here’s a good one. What about Marilla?”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not,” he said.
“Oh, I’m not.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
We settled on a name for each gender. They were unusual enough for me, normal enough for him. We said them over and over as we passed chollas and saguaros. We agreed not to tell anyone. They were our secret.
I’m dressed, finally, and sitting on a chair. The ultrasound machine has been turned off, but the room is still dark. Outside, the technician and the student are discussing my uterus. I’m today’s lesson, but what is it?
I pull out my phone and move my fingers across the buttons. I am careful to capitalize correctly.
I think I miscarried.
When my friends tell me I will only understand love when I become a mother, I want to roll my eyes. A baby doesn’t make a woman complete, I want to say. Your kids are cute, but you’re a person, too. They mean well, these friends. They love their babies and cannot imagine being childless, and they’re curious, I’m sure, how I would navigate my vocal feminism and motherhood. “Not every woman wants a baby,” I say.
“A baby is not necessary,” I later tell my sister, and I do believe it. I’m frustrated that there is only one acceptable life, that women who choose not to have children are looked at with pity. If they are young, they are told that they will change their minds, and if they are old, people will whisper—Oh, it’s too late for her now. Men’s self-worth is not linked as directly to procreation.
But here is my secret, I am not matter of fact. Despite my belief that babies don’t make women complete, despite my tough talk, I have always wanted children. When I was a happy spinster, I would sometimes stand in the shower and think about babies and my heart would tighten in panic. I’m never having kids! I would think. Then I would try to shake it off like a basketball injury. I would try to think about something else—papers I had to grade, lessons to plan.
The technician knocks. She crosses the room and faces me; her pregnant belly presses against the metal table between us. “You should go back and see your doctor,” she says. “I’ve sent her the results.”
As she pushes the box of tissue toward me, I vow to tell no one about this moment, about how lonely I feel, how hollowed out.
Sari Fordham teaches creative writing at La Sierra University. Her work has been published in Brevity, Best of the Net Anthology 2011, Cerise Press, Sideways, and American Writers, Supplement XXIII edited by Jay Parini. Two years after her miscarriage, Sari and her husband Bryan had a daughter, Kai Juniper.