You and I

by L.A. Clark

We could have had some fun together, you and I. I can admit that to myself now. At least when you were little, I think it would have been good times. I have a way with babies and toddlers. I love them, and they love me in return. Mostly what it takes is joy, an appreciation of silliness, and a good bosom they can cozy up to for a feeling of security and protection. They kick up some mirth and then relax in my arms and fall asleep easily. I was never worried about that part of things.

Of course, you could have been colicky and miserable and then I would have suffered with you. Either way, you would not have stayed a baby forever. I had no faith in my ability to help you, as you grew up, to face the greater realities of this world. Its questions, pain, and problems are a plague for which I have learned no reliable remedy. My nieces and nephews—your potential cousins—are teenagers now, and this phase is as hard and sad as I feared. Their angst stokes my own pessimism, my most self-defeating stories about humankind, and the feeling I had at their age that I wished I had never been born. If you had had an adolescence, I would have been trying to heal myself in the face of your pain so I could help you through it. My sister seems to be drowning in her children’s needs and sorrows. If I had brought you into this world, and it was you and I? I could see all the way down that road, before you were even the size of a walnut, and I knew I could not bear it.

You were obvious to me within a few days after my period was due. Breast soreness and abdominal swell build each month like a wave appears in the ocean, cresting after a day or two, and then breaking, blood washing me clean. One month—fourteen years ago, now—two days passed, then three, then more. The wave had crested. But the wave did not break.

As I attempted to accept this surreal turn of events, your would-be cousin Evi turned two. Wherever I appear in her birthday party pictures from that year, I am holding her baby brother Owen, just three months old. Searching those photos now, I see no evidence of how I felt that day: too full, and slightly panicked. Knowing, already, that unless I did something to derail it, I would be attending Evi’s next birthday party with my own three-month-old baby in my arms.

When relentless nausea set in a few days later, I finally bought a home pregnancy test. It showed positive nearly the instant I peed on it. I began sobbing and did not even wait for myself to stop before googling Planned Parenthood’s abortion services to find out how far I would have to travel to make my life possible again. That is the bald truth: having a baby seemed absolutely, completely impossible to me. I was thirty-one, a very reasonable age for motherhood, and my family would have been supportive—even excited. But the idea of me raising a child felt as absurd as the idea of me piloting a space shuttle to Mars. For starters, there were logistical concerns. Such as knowing that I would be expected to see a doctor regularly throughout a pregnancy, during your birth, and then with you throughout your childhood, but I suffer from intense medical anxiety. I imagined how my uncontrolled mistrust, even rage, at each interaction would poison my blood and therefore yours, damaging the neurological wiring in your developing brain. I would certainly be the first person to do you harm. For that, I would have hated myself.

Also: how could I afford you? I worked in a low-paying field with no real passion for my job. I lived for my few weeks of annual vacation, when I could travel and feel fully alive in a way I never did during the nine-to-five grind. I was saving half of every paycheck so I could eventually quit and travel for at least two years before having to work again. You would have unwittingly destroyed that dream of mine, and I probably would have resented you for it. I wish children were built for international adventure travel, but I am told they thrive on stability. I would have had to keep working, and working, and working, at a draining job I did not care about, just to pay the staggering costs of child care and try to scrape by on what remained. Then there was the aforementioned issue of your teenage years and how poorly I would handle them. I know many people become parents with some or all of these concerns and just hope for the best. They imagine how cute their baby is going to be, tap some inner delusion that they will not make the same mistakes their own parents did, and assume they will figure it all out as they go. But I have long-range anxieties and am not a wishful thinker.

What about your father, you could wonder? 

Your father. The phrase sounds strange to me. I never thought of him in those terms. I never had to. I had known him for six months before the pregnancy, and we had agreed to keep things casual. He was extremely emotionally withdrawn; we rarely had conversations about anything substantial, and so I could not take him seriously as a partner beyond the physical. I told him before we began sleeping together that if I ever got pregnant I would be getting an abortion. He agreed so readily that I managed to be slightly offended in the moment, and then (later) annoyed that he seemed to consider birth control to be completely my responsibility. I tracked my cycles closely, taking my temperature each morning so I would know when we needed to use condoms. He grumbled each time I interrupted his momentum to tear open a little square packet for the latex within.

I waited for days after I knew for sure, wanting to give him the news of you at the least distressing moment possible. We were lingering in his bed on a Saturday morning, sun streaming through the windows. He was unusually talkative, describing some random thing that had surprised him, so I took the opportunity. I told him: I have a surprise for you. For a heart-breaking moment he looked happily anticipatory, so I quickly blurted out: I’m pregnant, and in the same sentence explained that I already had an appointment for an abortion. He only had to feel panicked for a split second before he could feel relieved. Somehow, I felt I owed him that. And somehow, I did not feel angry when he asked: How did this happen? I thought you were keeping track. Now, I am shocked at his entitlement. Then, I took it all on my own shoulders as if his were not strong enough.
He offered to pay for the abortion. He offered to go with me. I accepted the money, reasoning to myself that he made far more than I did and I was the one who had to go through the physical experience. But since I was going to ask for a medication abortion, I did not feel I would need him at the clinic on the Friday morning when the staff confirmed the pregnancy by ultrasound and I took the first pill to start the process. I asked him instead to come to my apartment that evening, when I would take the second pill, the one that would really make things happen. As soon as he arrived, I swallowed the medicine. We stretched out on my bed and began binge-watching sitcoms while we waited.

The cramping began relatively quickly, and for the next several hours, I rushed to the bathroom every 20-30 minutes with a vague feeling of needing to let something go. I could have tried to pretend I just had an intestinal parasite. But I could not stop myself from looking at the toilet paper when I wiped and then into the toilet bowl before I flushed. I think part of me needed reassurance that this was working, and another part of me was struggling to grasp the reality of what was happening. I was pregnant. And I was having an abortion. These had always been distant, strange things that happened to other people.

After what felt like the most significant purging, I stared at the pulpy red tissue floating in the bowl and thought: that would have been a baby. That would have been you. I do not believe in these sorts of hunches, but for some reason I thought of you as a boy.

Your father treated me gently throughout the night, until he left the next afternoon, and when I saw him the following weekend. Then we never spoke of any of it again. The girlfriends I confided in seemed to expect that it would be too difficult for him and I to stay together after such an experience. This surprised me; I did not expect our relationship to last in the long term, but the abortion did not give me the urge to break up with him right then. All I felt was relief that my life could still be mine and deep gratitude to live in a time and place where I had that choice.

For what it is worth, I have made good use of the past fourteen years. I did not think better of you and then settle in for a life of eating Cheetos in my pjs while watching reruns of The Simpsons. Instead of taking you to your first day of kindergarten, I picked berries in a vast open field in Alaska while watching out for brown boulders that might actually be napping grizzlies. Instead of driving carpools to soccer practices and swimming lessons and orthodontic appointments, I lived and worked for more than two years in the stark, blue-and-white beauty of Antarctica. Instead of taking you to Disney World, I skirted the edges of the Panamanian jungle in a fiberglass boat, sleeping at night in hammocks on palm-fringed, uninhabited islands.

I am sorry, though, if you would have wanted to live. I am sorry I could not give you my body for a year so that you could have one for a lifetime, and that I was not willing to give you my thirties and forties (or the entire remainder of my time on the planet, if you perhaps happened to be missing a chromosome) so you could have yours. I am not even sure if it is okay that I am talking to you as if you are a person. You could have been, but I do not believe that you were, yet. You were a glob of cells preparing to do insane things to my existence. After you physically ripped me apart, you would have broken my heart again and again, in joy and in pain, and I am just not strong enough for that. I feel everything in my heart. Lately I have been noticing how much it aches when I am sad, which is too much of the time, and I feel certain that my sadness is quite literally damaging my heart tissue. I suspect I will die at a youngish age of cardiac disease. If you were here, I would be worried about that, too. It would hurt to think I would leave you too soon, that I would cause you pain, and that I might have passed my weak heart along to you.

Also, I have always felt there are too many people on this planet and only those who really, really want kids should have them. When I found out about you, part of me felt a responsibility to stand up for my convictions. I never had a strong desire to have a baby or raise a child, so by my own standards, I should not have one. I know there are many people who believe that because I do not have children, I am selfish and will never experience pure, profound love. But here is the thing: sometimes I feel joy welling up in me so intensely it feels like a gathering explosion, and the flip side of that is an equally intense despair. To whatever extent I deprived us both of potential joy, I also saved us from great pain. Maybe that seems strange; mostly I love my life, and I have been so, so lucky. But I could not guarantee you the same luck, and I could not bring you here and then watch the world beat you up. Life spares none of us. Lots of people in the world get mostly suffering.

Then there is global warming. Nobody wants to hear it, but I do not believe human civilization is going to survive climate change. I understand those who argue it is essential to have hope, but since no adequate mitigating action is being taken, I do not feel any. So what would I be bequeathing you? Charred lands, rising oceans? I would have loved you too much to bring you here, only to have you become a direct victim of the sixth extinction. This way meant much less suffering for us both, and the only real meaning or purpose I feel for my life at this point is to reduce as much suffering as possible for myself and others.

Plus, what kind of mother sees humankind as a pointless cycle of people sacrificing their lives to raise kids who grow up to do the same? That is another ugly truth about me: I cannot see a reason for any of it except flashes of ego, blind surrender to biological impulse, and some fleeting moments of joy in lives that are primarily frightening, precarious, and (still, somehow) tedious. I have no sense of individual destiny. Things do not happen for some cosmic, future-based reason; they just happen, and we do our best to find positive meaning in them once they do. I think it would have been fine if I had never existed. I would not have known the difference and do not think you do either.

If you had come to be, you would have deserved better than being the child of someone who thinks such thoughts. I hope to find a higher plane of enlightenment, and maybe someday I will. But it would have been too late for you. That I was self-aware enough at least to realize and act on that knowledge rather than saddling you with the burden of my worldview is my soul’s salve.

As for your father, I stayed with him far longer than I should have. That is a story for another day. But I can tell you that shortly before I broke up with him for good, he asked me about you. In the death throes of our relationship, he began really talking with me for the first time, sharing thoughts and feelings and asking about mine. It was too late to save us, but it was still beautiful. For eight years, he had never spoken a word about the abortion. And then, one evening, he asked me if I ever thought about it. Realizing that he was not sure I did was one of the loneliest moments of my life. Of course I thought of you. I thought of you in quiet moments, driving my car alone, occasionally longing for your company. I thought of you when I had amazing travel experiences that I would never have had the time or money to make possible if you had been born, but that made me glad to be alive. I thought of you every time your would-be cousin Owen had a birthday, acutely aware that your due date would have been a few weeks shy of him turning one. I felt a sense of wonder at some parallel universe where you would have played together for hours and a strange intuition that the two of you would have been strong shelters for each other’s storms.

I told your father: yes, I thought about you. He asked if I regretted the abortion and I told him no, which was the simplest answer and mostly true. I asked him the same questions. He said he did think about you, mostly when we were with Owen and the other kids, because he realized then what a wonderful mother I would have made, how lucky our kid would have been. It was a kind thing to say, and yet, I thought, more romantic than true. (I like to think the intensity of my love would have meant something to you, but there is no guarantee of that. And I am not so arrogant that I think I could have done a better job parenting than anyone else manages to do.) I suspected he knew the end was near for us and that he knew a shared child would have bound us together forever—or at least would have motivated me to stay in unhappiness with him even longer than I already had, rather than leave him alone with his demons.

I miss him and his flashes of tenderness in the same vague way I miss you. The way you miss something you never exactly had.

I am writing this to you on a Tuesday night in February.

Tonight, you and I could be together in a kitchen, I making dinner while you sit at the table doing your homework, a soft snow falling across the Midwest. Maybe you are a whiz at math and the darling of the seventh grade, and I watch you with affection through rising steam while I fluff rice with a fork and vegetables roast in the oven. Or maybe you hate math and are being bullied at school and I hate my boss but cannot quit because we have to pay the rent and I am reheating yesterday’s leftovers that you did not like then and will not like now. It could be so many things.

Instead: tonight I am staying in a windswept beach town on the west coast of Portugal. I watched the sun set from a lighthouse facing the Atlantic: vast ocean shimmering, magentas and corals dancing on the horizon, a soundtrack of waves rhythmically rushing the rocks below. As the celestial show transitioned day to night, I wandered along the edge of the cliff, taking pictures of the town below, where white-washed walls and orange-tiled roofs turned pastel under a periwinkle sky. I strolled past a man about my age doing the same. He sported an old-school film camera on a strap around his neck, a black leather jacket, black jeans, black shoes, and sandy-colored, unkempt hair. Brooklyn? Paris? Montreal? I could not tell.

Further along the walkway, I stopped to take pictures and he walked past me. When I ambled further, he paused again, gazing at the vista. There were dozens of other people around, but for some reason he drew my attention. As I continued along the walkway, the remaining light in the sky was reflected in the glass wind-break along the patio seating of a cervejaria. I watched him as I approached, seeing only the side of his face. Crossing behind him, I felt an energy flow between us, baseless, inexplicable, and possibly all in my mind. As soon as I could no longer see him without turning my head, I cut my eyes to the pane of glass. We existed there as well, in reflection, him contemplating the view, me in motion away from him. Then I saw it in the glass: when I was three steps past him, he turned his head and watched me walk away.

At forty-four, I realize there might not be many more times a man will follow me down the street with his eyes. I am still too young to be enormously flattered by it. And I am already too old to throw all caution to the wind, knowing how hard it can be to recollect my pieces afterward, some bits lost forever. But I am exactly old enough to understand that true connection is rare and mysterious and should not be taken for granted. I continued walking, stopping at one more good viewpoint, and from the corner of my eye I could see him approach. He, too, stopped again, a stone’s throw from me. Darkness was falling. After a final photo I reversed my stroll and began walking toward him. I felt an energetic tension grow. Maybe he was trying to catch my eye, but I kept my gaze trained forward as I approached him, walked past, and then carried on through the loud cocktailers drinking their vinho verde. I went down the many stairs from the top of the cliff to the town below and returned to my little rental apartment, alone.

Life could be so many things. I could have chosen to find out who that man was and what he could become to me, but it would have been at the expense of my sweetheart back home, so I walked on. I could have chosen fourteen years ago to find out who you would be, but it would have been at the expense of so much of what I knew myself to be and think and want. We, too—you and I—encountered each other at a precipice one evening at sunset, looking out over the vast and shimmering ocean. We were nothing to each other yet, nothing but a possibility.

I walked on.

Post-Covidia 12

by Michael Thompson

L.A. Clark’s writing has previously been published in magazines such as Quarterly West, The Ear, Ghost Parachute, and West Trade Review. Her piece in Defunkt Magazine has been selected for inclusion in their second printed anthology, and she is also the author of a travel memoir, “Land of Dark and Sun.”

Michael Thompson is a Chicago-based artist who works in a variety of mediums including collage, fake postage stamps, assemblage, sculpture, kite-making and memory jugs. His work can be viewed at

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