Strength of will got me to Brooklyn on a drizzling Saturday afternoon. Dreadlocked kids in torn, paint-spattered jeans lugged crates of art supplies, rolls of butcher paper and large blank canvases through the oilslicked puddles on the sidewalks between their dorm buildings and their parents’ SUVs. Dutifully following behind, parents carried more practical items: lamps, bundles of shiny plastic hangers, extra long sheet sets and grocery sacks full of enough snack crackers and cereal to last several weeks. Traveling light, I had only a large duffel bursting with clothes, some books, my journal and my laptop. Anything to get away from home as quickly as possible.
When my mom called the following Monday, I told her I had found my people, my place, which wasn’t entirely a lie. I felt more at home amongst these tattooed, tortured artists than I ever did in the cultural wasteland of cow-country western Pennsylvania where I grew up, but still, I knew I didn’t belong here. As a writer at an art school, just like at home, I was an outcast.
Amelia, my roommate, another wannabe novelist, felt similarly. We teamed up—strength in numbers and all that—and quickly became inseparable. We writing majors had very little coursework so we spent many afternoons leaning out our dorm room’s big bay window overlooking the quad, playing a game we made up—Would You Pork Him?—to pass the time. The rules were simple: watch the boys crossing campus below us and announce whether we’d sleep with them or not. Sometimes we’d mix it up and try to guess who the other would choose before she called it. The joke: Amelia and I were both completely inexperienced—the Big V, she called it, and us, V-Queens. She was waiting for marriage and I was waiting for my family’s religiosity and resultant repression and shame to fully wear off so there was no way we’d be porking the guys we claimed we would any time soon. This made it all the more enjoyable: It was safe. We didn’t have to talk to anyone but each other. There was no chance of rejection or damnation or worse. No wondering what goes where and he wants to do what? How does that work, exactly?
We eventually found ourselves giving names and back-stories to the guys we favored, our crushes and stories growing each time we spotted them. There was Lucas, the shy, Nordic blonde with thick Oliver Peoples glasses and a penchant for wearing a navy knit scarf even on the most humid days. As an architecture student, he was going to be spending his winter break interning in Turin and had invited me to join him. And then there was Jacob, the thundercloud-followed auteur whose films were as tormented, bleak and brilliant as he was. He’d come to me with a script written in iambic pentameter about an S&M dance club where patrons paid to die. Telling me I was his muse, he begged me to be his star. How did I inspire such a sordid tale, I wondered, but also, how could I say no? Before we could graduate, we’d be swept off to Cannes, where he’d win the Palme d’Or and I’d be at his side, dressed in Alexander McQueen. My fantasies were all similar to this, quixotic and continental, whereas Amelia’s mostly involved her beaux pinning her by the throat to the wall and ravishing her. Ravishing—her word, not mine. I could only imagine this was a scene pulled directly from a Harlequin romance novel purloined from her mother’s collection, though when I asked, she denied ever reading one.
With my parents back in PA, I shared none of this. My story: When I wasn’t in class or busy with my work-study—reading to kids at a daycare in Bed-Stuy; children were fine in small quantities, as long as after an hour or two I could clock out, say see ya later—I spent my time in the second mezzanine stacks, reading Wittgenstein and Nietzsche and writing. They didn’t know Wittgenstein, but my dad had heard of Nietzsche; he called him godless then began muttering something about the scourge of liberal propaganda within the US education system. My description of Amelia was equally edited. Her heroes were President George W. Bush, of whom she kept a framed photograph on her night stand, Matt Drudge and Tina Fey. “Now there’s a girl with a good head on her shoulders,” my dad had said. I wasn’t sure if he knew who Tina Fey was.
Amelia also enjoyed watching TruTV and Jerry Springer and eating uncooked ramen straight from the cellophane wrapper. If she was feeling spunky, she’d dip the crunchy noodles in cold Chef Boyardee. We lived on the Healthy Choices floor—no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no partying (no fun). Amelia and I were the only people who asked to be roomed there; everyone else was assigned the floor when all the others had filled up. My parents could sleep at night thinking I was safe living in the single bastion of innocence in the Sodom and Gomorrah they viewed art school in Brooklyn as being.
“Have you found a nice church up there?” my mom asked me on the phone a month into the semester while Amelia nudged me and pointed out the window at some guy with unkempt hair and the beginnings of a beer belly stretching his plain white shirt taut.
“Not yet,” I replied as I shook my head at Amelia and repeatedly drew my finger across my throat. No, would not pork. Never. An acre of nevers. Amelia thumbed toward herself and mouthed mine. That was another reason we got along so well. Our tastes were so different, we never competed for anything.
“But you’re looking for one?” My mom continued on, telling me the denomination didn’t matter, whatever was closest. “I went to a Methodist church when I was in school,” she said. “It was two blocks closer than the Lutheran one. Normally, two blocks wouldn’t matter much, but in the snow—and God didn’t want me to freeze, did He?”
Amelia kept gesturing out the window. A class period just ended—prime time for our game, the quad flooded with potential paramours.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m looking, but I’ve got to go to class,” I lied and hung up. If I didn’t cut her off, she’d yammer for an hour about churches and Jesus.
Yet another detail I failed to share with my parents: I was an apostate. From my spending those Sunday morning hours trapped in a pew reading The Confederacy of Dunces or The Fountainhead, they figured out I wasn’t particularly fond of church. They called it a phase I was going through, a period of teenage-rebellion. Once I got it out of my system, I’d return to being the precious, pious daughter who growing up, lying there in the dark, hands actually clasped together, had prayed each night before falling to sleep. So pious that all I ever prayed for was my feet to stop growing or some popular middle-school boy to notice me. Eventually my feet did stop growing, but too little too late, my feet were huge like my grandfather’s, and that boy with the blue eyes and freckles never turned to me in Social Studies and smiled. If I were a more resentful person, that alone would have been enough to make me disavow the Holy Father. But I didn’t. Not then, anyway.
It happened one of those summer days where the sun cracked the sky open and poured gold and azure light over everything, a rarity in Pennsylvania. I was fifteen and my mom and I were taking a drive along some of the back roads veining out from our neighborhood. The windows were down, the sunroof open. It had been a long time since I felt good, but I felt good that day, buzzing, alive. None of the shitty, cosmically petty parts of growing up—best friend betrayals, slinky death thoughts creeping up and making the bottles of generic acetaminophen in the cupboards look so delicious—were sharp enough to penetrate me.
My mom tilted her head up toward the sun. “On days like today, how could anyone not believe that there’s a God who made all of this?” She said this kind of stuff often, and normally my response was a hearty mmhmm! and a tacit, Thanks, G, eyes raised upwards. But that day the thought struck me that if we had to worship something, shouldn’t it be the sky, the trees, the wind, and not some passive-aggressive deity who refused to let me stay in a size six shoe? Just like that, I slipped out of my Christianity like it was a paper gown at the doctor’s office. I balled it up and tossed it away. And like something discarded, I didn’t really think of it again until returning to Brooklyn after my first winter break years later.
Before administration booted us from the dorms for the month of December, Xavier, a film major from down the hall, and I began talking. Talking as such never meant talking. It meant taking the train out to Long Island so I could sit on a lumpy grey microfiber couch reeking of eau de rock n’ roll—beer, cigarette smoke and piss—and watch his hardcore band practice. It meant getting lost in Manhattan while looking for the vaguely Asian restaurant that served the best three-dollar soy burgers that Xavier would pay for with a pocketful of Sacagaweas his grandfather had mailed him in a jangly bubble wrapper. It meant cuddling up in his bed watching Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Rapt, Amelia followed this strange coupling—strange because aside from Amelia, this was my first willful interaction with anyone on campus. She didn’t care about Xavier’s band or the places we discovered on St. Mark’s Place. All she wanted to know: Would I pork him? In the theoretical world of our game, yes. Probably. He was cute enough—dark hair and eyes, looked good in those grey and navy striped sweaters he wore—and funny, but he was originally from New Jersey. I wasn’t a snob, but let’s be honest: how was reality supposed to compete with fantasy? Parsippany or Cannes? No contest. But had I porked him? No. Sorry, Amelia, no lurid tale to tell there, though one time while we sat on my bed watching White Stripes videos on my laptop he did kiss me on the palm of my hand.
Christmas came and went and I hadn’t bled since before Thanksgiving. V-queens didn’t have to worry about that kind of thing so I pushed it to the back of my mind, tucked it away like my copy of Ulysses I kept telling myself I’d read one day. Xavier and I hadn’t progressed beyond the palm-kiss but we still took our trips, catching the G train to the A-C-E and walking for miles to look at pawn shop guitars or visiting the Strand where I’d scavenge for the less popular Kerouacs and he’d come around the corner with an armful of books on the French New Wave.
But when I was still bloodless by the end of January, I retrieved that little tome of worry and cracked its spine. Standing naked in front of the full-length mirror in our bathroom, I swore I saw the beginning of a convex curve of flesh. Running my hands down my waist, I could feel it, that subtle sloping.
“You and Xavier finally did it?” Amelia squealed when I told her I was afraid I was pregnant.
It was the same question I repeated to myself until the Wednesday my mom called to tell me she found some of my Christmas presents I had forgotten in my bedroom. Did I want her to mail them to me? Christmas. Away in the Manger. Baby Jesus.
I hung up and turned to Amelia. “Virgin birth,” I said.
She looked up from her computer. “Like Jesus? I thought you didn’t believe in all that stuff.”
The thing is, I never stopped believing, I just stopped following. Like if you saw on YouTube your favorite celebrity punting a kitten across his kitchen or something. That celebrity didn’t cease to exist, but you’d boycott his films and write angry posts about the incident on your blog that no one read.
“It’s just stress,” she said, swiveling back to The Drudge Report.
“Yeah, I guess I am being crazy.” But if I were crazy, why were my jeans snug? Why did I wake up queasy? Why hadn’t I bled?
God was punishing me. That was, I reasoned, the only explanation. For renouncing Him. For coveting men, for the very thought of all those fucks, zipless, imagined. For constantly lying to my mother about looking for a church. For not attending church. For whatever reason He made up. He had peeled me open and found, buried there, my deepest fear—something parasitic, a child, growing inside me. Smug, he watched the cells bind and grow and asked, Can you ignore me now?
From the violent nausea it caused, the flashes of heat so strong I thought welts would raise from my flesh, I knew this was no normal pregnancy. If other women experienced this kind of torture, word would catch on. The overpopulation crisis would resolve itself in a few generations. No, it wasn’t a normal pregnancy and it wasn’t a normal child. I began to think of it as the Antichrist, and I, the Anti-Mary, God’s stained sacrifice; its birth would be my death and I’d be doomed for all eternity as the woman who brought hell to earth.
An abortion proper was out of the question. I didn’t have any money. Work study paid five taxless dollars per hour and I worked five measly hours a week. Call and ask my parents? Lie and say, Hey mom, I slept with some college guy out of wedlock. Promise I’ll go to communion to save my soul after, but can I get $700 right now to handle this? Because, according to television and books, the cost of an abortion was always $700. Or dare I tell the truth and say, God finally has decided to punish me for joining Team Apostate all those years ago. I need to kill the Antichrist. Some money would help, ‘kay? Thanks. Bye! Or talk to my dad and say, You know all those abortion-is-a-sin emails with the bloody fetus JPEGs you send out to your entire contact list? Define sin—how firm is that, really? Each route, equally awful.
Working under the assumption that a parthenogenetic demon fetus would follow the same biological laws as a human fetus, I decided to take the death into my own hands. Searching the internet for home remedies and herbal concoctions, I ordered ginger-root and pennyroyal teas and popped Vitamin C tablets. No bleeding. I massaged my stomach and visualized the imp shriveling up and dripping out of me while I slept during the full moon. No bleeding. In the morning, a hundred punches to my gut. Before bed, a hundred more. I had a belt of bruises around my waist, but no bleeding. I bargained with God: I’ll go to church if you reverse the curse. I’ll believe, I swear. I’ll tithe, I’ll sling soup at church dinners, I’ll read the Good Book. No bleeding.
My theories and I grew more desperate. My thinking: If I didn’t feed the spawn, it couldn’t grow, so I fasted until I grew dizzy, light-headed with hunger. When I caved and ate half of a lettuce and cucumber sandwich, I’d cross the campus to the library. There, on the third floor, back in the corner, was a single-stall bathroom where I could purge undetected. Late at night beneath starless skies, I ran for hours on those deserted avenues, Dekalb and Classon, the snow crunching beneath my feet for once the only sound in the city. My legs ached and still, no bleeding. The fucker refused to die.
“Are you okay?” Xavier asked when he saw me. “You look like hell.”
Convinced he was staring at my stomach, I wrapped my arms around myself and said I was fine.
Later that night, over AOL instant messenger, I admitted to him, I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant.
Wait, what? came his reply after a few tense, blank moments.
He laughed as though I were joking, a hearty hahahahaha but when I didn’t type j/k!, he wrote back, You’re not pregnant, you’re being insane. Then he added, But if you’re that worried about it, go get a test.
It took half an hour the following afternoon to walk to the Duane Reade on Flatbush and forty-five minutes inside, wandering the aisles, to build up the courage to grab the pink box with the garish yellow swoop across the front. First Response. Like I was calling the police after someone burglarized my house. In a way it was apt, since I did feel robbed. Of my dignity.
As soon as Amelia left for class the next morning, I crept into the bathroom, peed on the tip of the applicator as directed, and waited the five minutes, sitting on the toilet, pressed tightly inside a pulsing panic attack. I double-checked the instructions. Blue line, pregnant. No line, in the clear. Checking made it real, but I had to do it. No line, I prayed, making one last bargain as I peeked. Nothing.
The next morning, I bled. My prayer was answered but I still haven’t been back to church.