The Female Body has many uses. It’s been used a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreathes, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.
—Margaret Atwood, “The Female Body”
I am sure I don’t need another exam, but when they finally have a room for me in triage and the nurse instructs me to put on a scratchy blue and white hospital gown, I obey because I can’t bear to explain again why I am here. Logically, I understand there are legal issues and other patients take priority, but spending two hours alone in a waiting room and another hour alone in a drafty room in a flimsy gown, waiting to chipmunk four pills that will take 30 minutes to dissolve in my mouth, seems excessive.
There is no good reason to go to OB triage, the emergency room for pregnant women, where I have been numerous times as a non-pregnant woman. The last time, I was hemorrhaging, passing massive blood clots that, the day before Thanksgiving, resembled horrific servings of cranberry sauce. No one understood what was happening to me the first time I checked in, a week before that, with inexplicable bleeding. They sent me home, saying that sometimes “blood just pools in a woman’s body”. But on this second occasion, the exam room was crowded with doctors and nurses, all trying to stop the blood escaping from my body. The woman who hooked up my IV whispered to me, “I answered the phone when you called. I’m so glad you came in.” That day I lost 1/5 of the blood I normally carry because three weeks after delivering my son, my uterus was still trying to expel some lingering piece of tissue.
Two years later I am back at triage, waiting. No blood or fanfare this time. The paperwork—a single sheet, really—sits in an envelope beside me. I keep it within arm’s reach, in case the next person who pops into the room doesn’t know why I’m here and I’m again struck dumb and unable to name the dead thing inside me.
“No fetal heart tones detected at todays visit,” it reads. In a way, I’m grateful for the typo because it gives me something concrete to fixate my anger on.
The blame game
Drank too much tea
Went to Zumba
Got too close to cat litter
Moved crib to catch spider
Was too sedentary at work
Accidentally ate feta cheese (twice)
Used non-organic face soap
Got a flu shot
Stressed over election results
I am trying not to have a meltdown at the mall. It’s almost Christmas, so I probably just blend in with all of the craziness: people wrangling unruly children; suave-looking Middle Eastern men at kiosks trying to catch your eye to get you to buy skin cream, hair straighteners, and cell phones; and a woman at J.C. Penney who obnoxiously drawls, “Cómo estás, ya’ll?”. I’m carrying my two-year-old son, searching for a bathroom where I can change his reeking diaper. My dad, who is visiting from back East, is pushing the empty stroller. He gestures to the sweater, toddler shoes, and purple scarf on the seat and says, “I feel like I’m pushing a phantom baby. Look,” he says to my son. “Do you see the baby? Do you see it?”
He has no idea what’s happened to me or why it’s the worst possible thing he could say right now, today, nine days before Christmas, two weeks into the most miserable menstrual period of my life. But I’m just looking for the bathroom and hoping nothing clicks in my son’s head and he remembers that, wait a minute, there was supposed to be a baby.
The bills have started coming in—the ultrasound, the triage visit, the bloodwork, the pills. All told, it cost about $550 to lose a pregnancy. I guess I should be thankful that I have insurance, at least.
Anger is not an emotion I am comfortable with. When I was growing up, my family repressed rage until we were at a full boil. Then spatulas, stereos, and remotes were hurled across the room; dolls and books were beheaded and torn; coffee tables were upended. I wish I could say that I rejected this model, that I can process my emotions in a healthier way. I’ve made progress, but in many ways, I am still a product of that environment.
What do I do with my anger over this loss? Who do I take it out on? Myself? My body? My genes? My husband? God? Society? The newly minted president? Do I just chalk it up to a fluke, bad timing, or statistical inevitability? Maybe I’ll start running again, listening to ’90s female angst rock, like Garbage and Kittie. Maybe I’ll write impassioned letters to Congress, urging for better support of women, minorities, and the poor. Maybe I’ll help my son build massive Lego towers so that we can tear them down together. Maybe I’ll channel Tony Soprano and yell at my therapist. Or my other therapist. Maybe I will withhold all sympathy from my students when they email me, hysterical about their stolen cars, their deathbed grandmas, their pinkeye, their unavoidable weeklong trips without Internet access during midterms. Maybe I’ll write an essay about the men who have called my female narrators “bitchy and bitter” or have referred to my writing about broken families and rape as “another banal walk through suburbia”. Maybe I will go for a drive in the desert, roll the windows down, and scream.
While I wait for the ultrasound tech to bring me the paperwork to take to triage, I ask the nurses at the front desk if they can please cancel my next pre-natal care appointment. They tell me I don’t have to wait, that they already know my name. I still get the reminder phone call a week later.
Melanie writes notes to herself
My son is a miracle.
I feel old.
My husband is being so supportive.
Everyone who knew now knows. Thank God I never told my parents.
So many people have it worse.
Happy Thanksgiving: what I was most thankful for was already dead inside me.
It’s quiet uptown.
“Will we be able to hear the heartbeat today?” I ask the ultrasound tech, too excited to care that the stirrups are cutting off circulation to my feet.
“Not at seven weeks,” she says, her eyes straining at the screen.
I glance at my husband, who is distracted by our son squirming in his lap. We thought I was nine weeks pregnant, but can you really trust a fertility app?
The tech is gone for a few minutes, conferring with the midwife, before I start putting the pieces together. Nothing appeared on the display other than a gray sac she kept referring to as the “fetal pole”. We asked her several times what that meant, and she danced around it to the point that I thought I was crazy, that there was some medical jargon I just didn’t understand.
When the midwife finally appears, I know. Though my body delayed for two weeks, turning me into an unwitting grave for a thing that never was, my heart seizes upon the wound before she can name it.
I have been a fierce pro-choice woman since my early twenties. Part of me thinks that my belief system should make this loss easier. It wasn’t really a baby because life doesn’t begin at conception, I tell myself. Rationally, I know this. But at the same time, though, the thing my womb held was the promise of a baby I desperately wanted.
I’m reminded of the time I went to a children’s writing conference with my YA manuscript about abortion. Honestly, I felt a little ghoulish and reluctant to chat with the picture book writers. Despite this misplaced guilt, as someone who was writing about an important young adult issue, I had every right to be there.
Moments after the midwife broke the news, I said, “Well, at least we don’t live in Texas.” She and my husband stared at me blankly before I added, “Because then we’d have to have a funeral.”
My Facebook feed is lousy with pregnancy
“Little girl is showing herself off!”
“I cant wait to see what our little girl is going to look like.”
“I used a parking spot for expectant mothers today and only felt slightly guilty about it!?”
“Everything looked absolutely perfect at our scan today! No anomalies, baby is gorgeous and healthy and definitely a boy!”
“Making it Facebook official”
“The boys are so excited to announce we are having a girl!!!”
“New year, new adventure!”
I look up fetal pole and find the following: “The fetal pole is a thickening on the margin of the yolk sac of a fetus during pregnancy.” So the amorphous thing we half saw wasn’t a fetus, but a thickening. The only thing that’s thickened is me, though. By now I would have a defined baby bump instead of walking around with what just looks like a sad gut brought on by seasonal affective disorder. I spend the winter indoors eating late night carne asada fries, reading short stories about abuse, and snuggling with an obese, hairy cat that has forgotten how to clean herself.
Sometimes, I tell myself that none of the big stuff matters: politics, religion, culture, entertainment, the environment, and the rest are pointless because we’re all just sacks of meat that will die one day. A curious thing happens when I reduce myself to a meaningless hunk of flesh, though. Without consideration for my passions or intellect, I simply become a vessel, a woman whose sole biological purpose is to bear children. I am now entering the existential death spiral, wherein I tell myself that I have failed at my primary natural task 50% of the time. I flail for a book, a law, a joke, a prayer, a conversation, anything that can serve as a lifeline to draw me back and show me that I am more than just a uterus with legs. But I come up empty.
My son wants us to have another baby, but this desire only seems based on his vague understanding of milk returning to my breasts. He thinks he can reclaim one for himself. He grows. He’s starting to use the toilet instead of diapers and his hair is more like hair and less like duck fuzz. My beautiful boy speaks in full sentences now, saying things like, “I love you, Mama” and “I want to use the weed wacker”. This summer, I will sign him up for swim classes with the city. I will hold his little brown body with ease in the aquamarine pool, my own body unencumbered, weightless.
Melanie Unruh has an MFA in fiction from the University of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Post Road, Sixfold, Philadelphia Stories, and Cutthroat, among others. Her nonfiction received notable mention in Best American Essays 2013.