Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

“Come again?” I say. I pull the phone from my ear and eying the number on the screen. It’s my obstetrician, but maybe she thinks she’s called her boyfriend by mistake.

She clears her throat. “The genetic testing suggests 69 triple-X triploidy,” and I swear her voice is husky.

I write this down on the back of an envelope, even though I won’t forget. I speak it under my breath and it rolls off the tongue like dirty talk. A follow-up appointment is made and I end the call.

My husband, Tom, is draped across the couch looking at me expectantly. He’s managed to change out of his pajamas and it’s not even noon. He hasn’t done more than eat a bag of Cheetos, but I’ll take it. Anything is better than that crumpled look he’d taken on at the hospital. How can this keep happening? He’d said. When can we try again? And I’d said That’s just how it goes sometimes and My body needs time. He still looks that way most of the time, like a wadded-up ball of paper hiding a piece of chewing gum. Once I’d come home from work to find him crying in bed and almost said, venom pooling in my mouth, get over it, it didn’t even happen to you.

This is not the sort of thing a grieving unmother should have to Google. I make the mistake of typing “69 XXX” into an image search. There are dicks and tits in neatly spaced rows, and I contort my face in disgust, even as I linger over each boxy image. Maybe I’d come here on purpose. Maybe I’d wanted to see people whose main objective in sex was fun and not babies. I’m not sure they’re having fun, though. Maybe they’re only pretending, like me, but with bigger tits and bigger mouths.

I add “triploidy” to the search, and Google realizes I’m not looking for porn, but for fetuses and karyotypes. I learn that babies with triploidy never live, at least not long. Three full sets of chromosomes, a real fuck up of nature. I could beat myself up for knowing that this would happen, for trying again and expecting a different outcome, but I won’t. The knowing wouldn’t have changed anything, it never does, and so when Tom says “Was that the doctor? What did she say?” I tell him.

“Some sort of chromosome thing. 69 triple X.”

His face is pinched. “That sounds like a strip club.”

I shrug. “Technical thing, I guess.”

“But it’s not my fault?”

“No. Not mine either.”

I look away so I don’t have to see this conversation play out again. I have been this player and said these lines before; I am well-rehearsed. Next Tom will say “Mel, I’ve never said it was,” and I will say “You don’t have to say it.”

But instead he turns from me and pulls his laptop to himself to begin his own investigation. We sit across from each other without speaking; the sound of fingers pecking at keyboards the only music between us. I hear him let out a small sigh, wondering what stage of grief he must be in now, but don’t meet his gaze because I know we’re never in the same one.

I’d woken to a shock of pink in my underwear at the end of November.

Seventeen weeks and six days, a new record. I crept from the bathroom past a still sleeping Tom to grab the hospital bag we’d packed over a year ago. I took out the diapers and the clothes so small that you could fold them like origami and slid them as far under the bed as I could. The bag looked deflated once mine and Tom’s clothes were the only things left in it.

I’m not sure how long I sat there on the floor next to the bed. Long enough for the sky to give way to gray and the street lights to blink off. I watched Tom sleep, his chest rising and falling in smooth waves, and wondered how long to wait. My hand rested against my belly, and I felt nothing but my own rhythm. Let him sleep, what did it matter?

His alarm sliced through the quiet and after a moment in which he searched for me on the bed, he finally spied me on the floor. “What are you doing? Come back to bed, Mel.”

“We need to go to the ER.”

“Again?” He sighed, falling back against his pillow. “Are you sure?”

“It could be nothing,” I lied. Hope is addicting.

The ultrasound tech was the same as last time; a pretty blonde woman with large breasts and hair pulled tight into a ponytail. I read her badge: Karen.

“Take it easy on the gel this time, Karen,” I joked, smiling flirtatiously. Her smile was as tight as her ponytail, and I knew she didn’t remember me. Of course, she didn’t. How many women like me must she see in a day? I wondered if there was a limit on miracles, because she looked at me as if she’d already reached her quota for the month. If only I’d held on until December.

My stomach twisted into knots. Tom hadn’t let go of my hand the whole time we’d been there. I kept waiting for Karen to turn the screen towards me and loosen her smile. I waited for the pizzicato rhythm of the baby’s heart to fill the room. I waited for the light to come into Tom’s eyes, the one that said I see her swimming in there! Oh, I wish you could see this little flicker on the screen; you wouldn’t believe what she’s doing. She waved at me! My God, aren’t we magnificent? I waited, shifting uncomfortably with each lingering moment, but Karen’s smiled only flat-lined as she eyed the screen, no music filled the room, and Tom remained silent, his face dim and unreadable. They wheeled me away, and I knew without knowing that it was over.

“There’s no heartbeat and the baby is two weeks behind,” the doctor said.

“So, what can we do?” Tom asked.

“Nothing,” I spat. “There’s nothing to do.”

The doctor looked away and Tom looked at me. I quickly lowered my forehead to my knees and pretended that I was hiding with the words that had been said. Someone, maybe both of them, left the room, but I didn’t look up. I’d needed to keep the words in this little cave of blanket and breath until I found the place within me to tuck them so that I’d still be able to balance myself with the new weight.

When I lifted my face from my knees, a nurse, he said his name was Ivan, hovered beside me. “This happened to me and my wife once,” he said with a smile. “Right after that we had our daughter and she’s thirteen now, you’ll be fine.” He paused to glance at my hospital bracelet. “You’re young, plenty of time.”

Clearly a medical opinion. I looked over my shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief to see Tom in the chair next to my bed. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed. He nodded. I rolled my eyes in the direction of Ivan. Tom grabbed my hand and squeezed.

When Ivan left I ordered Tom to turn the TV to the stupidest thing he could find. It was a reality show about swamp people. They lived in the Florida Everglades, not too far from here, and I wondered if their women ever come to hospitals to have or not have babies, and whether the swamp air prevents chromosomal abnormalities or not. Either way, I thought about getting an airboat and packing my things and living out there for a little while, but I looked over at Tom, with his neatly trimmed nails and clean-shaven face, with his khakis and button-up shirt, the sleeves rolled just so, and knew he’d never go for such a wild scheme.

“I’m not angry, you know,” I said to him, and I realized it was true. Maybe it was because I knew without knowing that this would happen, or because I had been here so often that it was almost routine. Tom didn’t look at me or say anything. “I’m sad, of course,” I added, “but I’m okay. I don’t blame God or anyone. I don’t blame you.”

He continued looking at the swamp people who had moved on to double-fisting baby gators from the water, laughing gleefully through their scummy beards and rotten teeth and didn’t respond.

“What about you?” I asked.

“I’m all of the above.”

No, he would never live with me in the swamp.

When Ivan returned it was to take me to the operating wing of the hospital. He guided me from the bed and into a wheelchair. Tom walked at Ivan’s heels, and I feared that he’d move on to assault if Ivan made another wrong move. Which, of course, he did. Under the glaring artificial lights, as he wheeled me away for yet another D&C, he began to sing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” bouncing on his heels as he went. Swamp people had better manners than this, I was sure.

I could sense Tom bristling behind us, so I gave him my best “let it slide” look, and he backed down. He might never go live with me in the swamp, but he would wrestle an alligator or even a crappy nurse to rescue me, and I think that’s enough.

We arrived at the operating wing, and the nurses whispered at the circulation desk. I heard one say, “she’s only twenty-three.” She said it like each syllable was dough popped out from a cookie cutter; all softness and edges, all tongue and teeth. Twen-tee-thu-ree. Twen-tee-thu-ree.

The anesthesia ran cold up my arm and straight to my head. A weight pressed on my consciousness and I numbly felt Tom’s hand slide off mine as they wheeled me away. There was the sound of feet on hospital linoleum, linoleum, lin-ole-ee-um. My eyes protested sleep. I refused to count down from ten. The ceiling above me changed, and my last thought before dark was that this was a strange closet I’d been put in. I laughed and asked how they kept their closets so clean, but before anyone could answer, I was out.

They say you don’t dream while you’re under, but I can’t help what I remember.

I am ankle deep in dark water. The muck is sucking at my feet and the tall wind-whining pines are stretched out into the last rays of sunshine. I strain my ears and think I can hear the last airboat far away, returning to civilization. The odor of earth and water fills my lungs and I am afraid of what will happen after dark, because I am alone except for the songs of swamp frogs and herons.

There are what appear to be hundreds of logs at my feet and hundreds of small white orbs on the few dry patches of land. I lean down to touch one of the orbs, and it wiggles. My heart stutters and I jerk my hand away. I am surrounded by hundreds of alligators and their eggs. They burst forth from their shells and come crawling towards me. I try to turn around and run away, but the muck has glued me to the spot. The adult alligators are mating nearby. There are pairs of alligators everywhere I look. More and more eggs come rolling from them, from which more and more baby alligators hatch and crawl in towards me.

The egg at my feet finally hatches and the baby gator stumbles towards me, touches my feet, shudders and dies. The same happens to the next, and the next. I begin to cry, to wail loudly as the last drops of light finally fade and the heap of baby alligators piles up, drowning me. I am a sinking ship, I am the bearer of death itself, I am —

Awake — and yet, I still feel the weight of them at my feet.

I drifted through the following weeks feeling like I’d been scooped out with a melon-baller, which wasn’t far from the truth. I sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a glass of whiskey next to me as I scrubbed at the tub, the toilet, each little tile in the bathroom with undiluted bleach. It drove Tom mad as he watched from the bed, alternating between sleep and quiet watchfulness. I pretended that the yellow we’d painted the nursery was really the perfect color for an office. I straightened my hair and applied my make-up; people said I’d never looked better. I laughed on my lunch break and ignored the secretary when she complained about all she had to do for her daughter’s baby shower.

More than once I thought I saw Karen’s ponytail whipping around the corner of a grocery store aisle. I tried to look her up on Facebook without any luck. I bought a Groupon for an airboat trip out to the Everglades and let it expire. And every night I dreamed, and then my obstetrician called and the dream changes.

I am ankle deep in dark water. The muck is sucking at my feet and flood lights blind me, making it hard to see. I strain my ears and think I can hear Tom screaming my name, far away. The odor of sweat and semen fills my lungs and I am afraid of what will happen when my eyes adjust, because I can hear moaning and I’m not sure if it’s from pleasure or pain.

When my vision clears it’s greeted by dozens of camera crews slugging their equipment through the mud. I try to make out what they’re filming and my heart stutters as I make out the porn stars coupling on every inch of dry land. Each woman’s belly swells and deflates alarmingly as, one by one, babies tumble from their mothers and come crawling in my direction. I try to turn around and run away, but the muck has glued me to the spot and there are only more porn stars behind me. I look down and I am naked, my breasts small, my stomach flat, my breathing heavy. More and more babies come rolling my way and I try to shout, to warn them and wave them away, but they are undeterred.

Some nights I am the director, and some nights I am a cameraman, but most nights I am just a bystander. The dream ends the same way every time, though, with hundreds of little porn star babies collapsing at my feet. I name each one as they pile up around me. Not porn star names like Ginger or Cherry; I stick with the classics. This one’s Maria, that’s Tom Jr., and here is Sophia. I name them until I run out of names, and that is always when I wake up.

This is how I glide through my days: with the naming of things. Breakfast, lunch, dinner; morning, noon, night; everything christened, although I’d never noticed before. It helps me go to work, come home, cook dinner, prod Tom out of bed and into the shower.

“How can you be okay?” Tom asks me hours after we get the call. I’m on my knees scrubbing the floors again, and I laugh because no matter how much bleach I use, all I smell is swamp.

Check out my debut novel: Love, Lists, and Fancy Ships, out November 23rd, 2021 with Berkley Romance. Learn More at sarahruizwrites.com

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