by Kathryn Ionata
Four years into marriage: go to your parents’ house and see that your mother has left a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting on the table where she usually leaves coupons and magazines. “What,” you ask, “is this supposed to be?”
“Oh,” she says. “I bought it when you got married in case you accidentally got pregnant. But you haven’t, and I’m sick of seeing it in my closet.”
In fourth grade, your teacher assigned a project: create a poster divided into thirty boxes of the same size. This was your life calendar, she said. Each box represented one year of your life. You would say what had happened in each previous year of your life, and what you predicted would happen for the next twenty-one.
At age fifteen, you decided, you would get your ears double pierced just like your mom. At age twenty, you and your best girlfriends would rent a beach house together for the summer, like a grownup, childless version of The Babysitters Club. At age twenty-eight, you had yourself get married. Age thirty, you and the imaginary calendar husband would have a baby. The end.
In real life, your mom allowed you to double pierce your ears at age eleven, as long as the pediatrician did it. He used a red felt tip marker but the holes still came out uneven. With these piercings, you became the most punk eleven-year-old to ever have existed, and you had the most body modifications of all your peers until the age of twenty, when you realized that, tattoo-less, you had the least. You only gained one additional piercing since childhood, this time in high school, at the mall. A fellow high schooler lifted the gun to your ear while your secret older boyfriend held your hand.
According to The Calendar, age twenty-three promised a European vacation. In real life, it held marriage to the hand-holder.
Standing in brown-green ocean water with your husband of five years, you think he looks the same as he did at twenty-two, except for his new beard. But this will be the last summer that you look the same, before your body becomes embossed with stretch marks like the lines figure skaters leave on icy lake surfaces. You like the idea of body as sacrifice. Placing a hand on your abdomen, there’s nothing but a coating of sand as you make a memory of its relative flatness.
The next summer, your bikini fits exactly the same. You sit in a beach chair and try to read and not watch all the children covering themselves in sand. A woman with a midsection round as a tanned, greased medicine ball trudges past with plastic and foam beach gear under each arm. There is a little girl in a pink bathing suit, ponytail one thick wet curl, trailing behind her. “Come on,” she says, nicely. The toddler lets out a shriek and propels herself forward.
You and your husband have a game that you play when you sit on the sofa and watch TV: what would it be like if we had a baby here? The baby, you decide, would sit in between you. You have long, involved discussions over the ethics of smushing the plump cheeks of infants. They are people, after all, entitled to body autonomy, but also squishy enough to be irresistible. The two of you become nearly hysterical imagining a baby so fed up with fingers in the face that he or she smacks a tiny, chubby hand against your jaw. Your husband thinks it would be somewhat pleasant to be hit in the face by his baby’s fist. Like being propelled by a marshmallow.
Go on a ten-day vacation to celebrate your tenth wedding anniversary, and miss the baby who lives next door. Go to a fancy dinner on the last night and almost have your meal ruined by the fact that children are allowed into restaurants.
You say a prayer to your grandmother and great-aunt and ask them to send you a sign, something big and obvious to let you know what you should do. Should you have children or not? Will you ever be ready? A week passes and no storks have landed on your doorstep. Again, you say: please. I need a sign.
Hours later, you go outside to work in the vegetable garden. You hear a noise and look up. The little boy next door, the older brother of the baby, has appeared at your fence. He speaks less English than Spanish, but he communicates that he would like to help you pick tomatoes. You unlatch the fence and in he half-walks, half-dances, lost in the carnival of his four-year-old thoughts. With your instruction, he plucks fruit from the vine to drop in the basket. “Green tomato,” he says triumphantly, pointing. “Green tomato,” you agree.
Send up a prayer of thanks to your grandmother and great-aunt. Then go to the pharmacy and buy prenatal vitamins.
You don’t take them that day, or the next.
There has never been an imagined version of your life without children. You feel them waiting like angels and snowflakes in a Christmas pageant whose scene is coming up. It’s your job to give them the signal: go, honey, go. But you leave them twirling in the side stage, getting lost in the curtains.
“How do you know when you’re ready to have kids?” you ask your husband. The steady planes of his face crash, and for the first time, he looks old to you.
“How do you know if you’re in love?” friends used to ask when you were all younger. Secretly, you pitied and judged them, their pale imitations of passion cowering next to the bright flame that was yours. If you have to ask…
But now. Now, you feel for them. Maybe all they needed was someone to give a clear answer to unlock that leap of faith: Yes. No. In a year. Now, now, now.