Joyland

Toronto |

Prenatal

by Hal Niedzviecki

edited by Emily Schultz

Hey! it blurts. Hey! Charlie looks around. A voice in her head. She’s alone in the bedroom. Hey! In here! She feels it, a rumbling deep in the cavern of her swollen belly. Hey! She puts her hands over her tummy. In here!

Charlie’s not the first girl in the high school to get pregnant. She’s just the first anyone can remember to stay in school while pregnant. Winnie, a twelfth-grader, was rumored to have been knocked up by her uncle, but she stopped attending soon after word got around. Charlie shows up everyday, homework as neatly completed as ever. Who’s the father? the other teens whisper to each other as Charlie lumps by them in the hall. The top candidate is Mr. Bradley, Honors and Advanced Placement History teacher. Charlie sits in the front. Charlie does well on tests and reports. She is, in all likelihood, getting an A in Honors Ancient History. While Mr. Bradley lectures on the Romans, the Greeks and the Hebrews, the kids in the class glance from student to teacher and back again. They ponder the slight puffiness of the girl’s lightly freckled fresh face, the impressive expansion of her chest, the looming belly the desk no longer contains. Then on to Mr. Bradley, with his thick head of blond hair, his tortoiseshell glasses, his golf shirts, his khakis. Did he just look at her? Let his gaze linger? Is that a bulge in his pocket or just a piece of chalk? Only forty percent of teenage mothers graduate high school, the fetus says. Charlie keeps her head down, opens and closes the rings of her three-ring binder, takes copious notes.

After homework and supper, Charlie lies on her bed cradling a soft peach-fuzz pillow against her chest. How can you talk to me? she (says) thinks. I just can. Are you a boy or a girl? Neither. Nothing. That doesn’t make any sense. There’s still time to change your mind, Charlie. You shouldn’t be able to talk to me! Charlie — Stop it! You’re just a kid, Charlie. No, I’m not! You want to have a baby? Charlie doesn’t answer. She’s suddenly tired. Exhausted. She has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Then school. She pulls the covers over.

At the obstetrician’s, Charlie lies on her back, her shirt bunched under her ballooning breasts. If she craned her neck down, she would see how her expanded straining abdomen blocks every other view, a white hump eliminating her sex, her hips, her thighs, her small feet topped with fast fading Jenny brand “Wine-on-Ice” nail polish. Instead, she stares up at the florescent light, at the flaking spot where the green wall meets the white ceiling. Doctor Franks feels around with his cold stethoscope. There it is, he says. He listens. Good healthy heartbeat. Do you want to hear the heartbeat? the nurse asks. Charlie inspects the remains of a corner spider web. She wonders if she should tell Doctor Franks: That she doesn’t need to hear the heartbeat. That what happened was an accident. That the last thing she wants is it — the baby — talking to her. Am I crazy? Charlie wonders. You can pull your shirt down now, Doctor Franks says. I want you to do it. And if I want you to do it, then you have to do it. It’s my decision, isn’t it Charlie? Charlie closes her eyes. She should be doing her homework. But the fetus won’t stop. There are one-million and three-hundred thousand abortions a year in this country. Quit it! 46 million a year worldwide. How do you know this stuff? It’s no big deal, Charlie. Charlie pulls her legs to her belly. When she was a kid, she would do this: tuck herself into a little ball. She tries to put her arms around her knees. She can’t quite reach. The fetus kicks. Charlie’s belly jiggles. Are you listening to me, Charlie? It is a big deal. You think the dad will be mad? He’ll be happy. He doesn’t want to end up in jail. You’re only fifteen. Better to get rid of the evidence. You don’t want him mixed up in this, do you? No! So let’s get it over with. Fifty percent of all teen mothers go on welfare. Do you want to end up on welfare, Charlie? Charlie opens her eyes. Her bedroom, all shimmering pink and peach. Charlie wants to close her eyes, wake up, and have everything be the way it used to be. She reaches for the bottle on her nightstand. She sprays her wrists and neck. Jenny’s Allure Sensuelle, The Perfume for Women, rises in an invisible cloud. It doesn’t help. She can still smell it. Like sour milk, she thinks. She brings her wrist to her nose and inhales deeply.

It’s flex period, the fifteen minute morning break between classes. Charlie keeps her head down, slowly makes her way to her locker. Slut, assistant captain cheerleader Lawanda hisses. Want some more? Ian, top soccer player, calls out, grabbing his denim clad crotch. The Christian girls are waiting for her around the next bend. They shouldn’t call you those names, Becky says, breathing strawberry bubblegum in Charlie’s face. You just made a mistake is all, chirps Mandy. Jesus forgives our mistakes, Annie notes. Becky, popping a bubble: It’s not like you got an abortion. Mandy: They, like, kill your baby. Annie: Come to after-school church group with us today. Becky: What are you hoping for? Annie: Boy or girl? The bell rings. Flex is over. She’ll be late for chemistry. Becky leans in close. With a waft of sugared pink air, she presses a note into Charlie’s palm. If you need to talk, the note says in purple pen cursive, key words underlined, Becky’s number rendered in swirls decorated with hearts, flowers and crucifixes. There’s only one person Charlie needs to talk to. But they’ve agreed — he said that she shouldn’t — and now Charlie doesn’t know who to talk to. For some reason she thinks of Helen Keller. They learned about her the year before in Honors Contemporary History: Heroes of the 20th Century. When Mr. Bradley played the recording of her weird moaning voice, everyone wanted to laugh. But Mr. Bradley looked so cute and serious up there, his face scrunched up in sympathetic reflection. Nobody laughed.

Charlie sits quietly in the passenger seat on the way to prenatal class. Charlie’s dad abruptly turns down the Jenny CD — Come Feel the Passion — Charlie’s been blaring since he helped her into the SUV. Charlie, he says, pulling into the dim grey expanse of the community center parking lot. Charlie contemplates her hands, surprisingly delicate appendages that set off her swollen wrists. You know I’ve been...her dad says slowly, groping for words...angry with you about the... — the — Sons of teenage mothers are thirteen percent more likely to go to prison, notes the fetus conversationally. Oh! Charlie cries. What? What is it? I…I felt a kick. Are you okay? Charlie’s dad awkwardly fumbles in her lap, finally grabs her small hand in his. Charlie nods, smiles nervously. Her dad’s big hand is dry and smooth. Charlie, listen, her Dad says. I just...I want you to know, me and your mother, we — I know I — but, what’s done is done, and so, we — we can convert the guest room into a nursery. Paint it. Decorate it. Whatever you want. The guest room’s a closet, Charlie! There’s not even a window. Anyway, he doesn’t mean it. Just listen to him. Say baby, grandpa. Just say it once. Charlie? Do you understand what I’m trying to—? We — I — we...love you...we want what’s best for you...and your...the... — Baby! Fetus! Neonate! Newborn! Suckling! Charlie’s dad releases her hand. Charlie feels cool air over her damp pink knuckles.

In prenatal class, the instructor, Martin, a registered nurse with awkwardly tight trousers and a vaguely English accent, discusses sex. Charlie is the only teenager in a group of ardent women. She sits mutely while all the other mothers-to-be — silently supported by their visibly embarrassed husbands — take turns talking about their ongoing experiences with doulas, mood swings, cravings. Dads, Nurse Martin announces, will be happy to hear that it’s not dangerous at all. It won’t harm the mum or the baby, even in the ninth month. So feel free to have the normal kind of sexual relations you may be used to. Really, you can have any kind of sex you want. Mums dubiously write this down in their notebooks. Oral is okay, Nurse Martin says enthusiastically. Anal is fine. And of course it’s also fine to do vaginal intercourse. Teenage mothers have lower levels of sexual satisfaction long term, warns the fetus. Charlie presses on her belly hard. Any questions? Mums? Dads? Twenty-five percent of teenage mothers are likely to become pregnant again within five years. Charlie shifts uncomfortably in her seat. Charlie, did you have a question? Charlie blushes. There’s an awkward silence. The dads ponder their laps. The moms virginally clasp their swelling abdomens. Well perhaps you’ll recall it later, Nurse Martin says hopefully, his skinny frame bordered by a poster depicting the many gruesome stages of labor. It hurt, going in. But it also felt good.

At the next checkup, Charlie climbs carefully onto the scale. Her balance is off, she stumbles when she climbs stairs, when she lifts herself out of bed in the morning. She’s been dizzy before: Ferris wheels, getting hit in the stomach with the soccer ball, contemplating the overflowing white dresses in Weddingbells Magazine; this is different: inherent; immanent. That’s strange, Dr. Franks says.

Charlie looks down at the distended expanse. Strange. You could call it that. An inverted dark side, like she somehow managed to swallow a spaceship complete with alien life-form. Doctor Franks has Charlie step off, then back on, the scale. Hmmm, he mutters, his gaze glancing from chart to scale to chart. He looks at the nurse. Her weight is exactly the same as four weeks ago, he says. The nurse makes a concerned face and a tsking noise. Well, Doctor Franks says, come lie down and we’ll take a look. Charlie slowly settles herself on the examination table. The nurse pulls her shirt up, exposes her belly to the room’s glare. Doctor Franks fingers his stethoscope. Stares down at her, his face a looming grimace. Have you been eating? he demands. Charlie nods. You’re sure? Charlie nods again. No crazy diets? No fasting? No making yourself throw up? Charlie shakes her head. No. The doctor frowns, sighs medicinal breath. What did you have for breakfast? he snaps. Scrambled eggs, she says quietly. And a fruit cup. And toast. And yogurt. And cottage cheese. And— Alright, the doctor interrupts. I believe you. He chuckles, his jowls withdrawing to reveal the ceiling. Well, he says, his avuncular voice once again congenial, nothing to worry about. Let’s just get a listen to the heartbeat and see if we can’t figure out what’s happening. The fetal heartbeat is strong, steady. Doctor Franks orders blood tests, ultrasounds. Probably nothing to worry about, Charlie hears him say. Children born to teenage mothers are more likely to have permanent disabilities, Fetus suddenly pronounces. Hey! You’re okay! There’s no answer.

The blood work comes back normal. The ultrasounds show a healthy fetus stuck in its twenty-fifth week. The baby just, as Dr. Franks puts it, refuses to grow. You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you? Charlie demands (thinks), lying on her side on the canopy bed, hugging a pink tattered bear missing an eye. Abortion is perfectly safe and viable up to the thirtieth week, notes Fetus. You’re not growing on purpose. Just keeping our options open. So you, like, stopped eating? Like, yes, I did. You can do that? Well...it’s all I can do. I can’t, like, kill myself. You can’t? Your body won’t let me. But aren’t you...—? I’m on a diet. Not forever. Just until you decide to do what’s right for both of us. You won’t die? Technically I’m not even alive. Don’t say that. Why not? Charlie doesn’t answer. She buries her face in her old teddy, inhales dried drool and balding fabric. It’s a boy, she thinks. She closes her eyes and imagines him. She pictures a short stumpy balding midget chomping on a cigar. She pictures a golden haired tow-headed Mr. Bradley, blue concerned eyes shining gently in the darkness. It’s not like you’re Catholic, Charlie. And speaking of Catholics, twenty-seven percent of the women worldwide who get abortions are of that faith. So.... I can’t. One-and-a-half million women do it every day. Stop it! Charlie squeezes her belly until it hurts and she can’t breathe. Why is this happening to her? Is there a reason? There must be a reason. It’s like — a test or something. Charlie looks down at the one-eyed bear she’s cradling in her arms. She drops the stuffed toy and awkwardly climbs to her feet. Charlie finds Becky’s note folded up in her jewelry box.

They meet at the mall. Becky is tanned, lean. She smells faintly of chlorine. She’s on the swim team. So, uh, Charlie says, do you really believe in, like, you know, the Bible? Without her friends, Becky seems less like a girl from a TV show. What was it like? Becky asks. Did it hurt? I...guess. Who was the—? Charlie looks down at the plastic food court tabletop. She sucks Diet Coke through a straw. That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. Becky contemplatively chews a fry. It’s not like everyone thinks it is, she finally says. What isn’t? Like, believing and everything. I mean, I still think about...you know. Doing it. You do? I’ve done...some stuff. Like, with my boyfriend. What did you do? I, like...let him touch me...and stuff. Becky’s eyes are wide open, her face flushed as she bites her bottom lip. If you got pregnant, Charlie says, would you, I mean, would you have an—? No! Becky states emphatically. But, I mean, what if.... Charlie trails off. She doesn’t know what she wants to ask. What if the creature inside you says it’s okay? What if your fetus keeps telling you about the miserable life it would have? What if you’re going completely freaking crazy and to make it stop all you have to do is— Uh...Charlie? Yes? Did you, like, like it? Charlie sucks through straw, slurps hard to get at the liquid pooling in the bottom corners of the cup. Oh-kay, Becky says, as if slightly miffed.

Charlie watches TV. Top Model, Superstar Idol, Fear Stunt Challenge. Her, her and her, fetus points out. They’ve all done it. No big deal. It hurts less than getting a needle. Charlie quickly turns the channel. On Emergency Rescue 911 a teenage girl squeezes a perfectly healthy baby into the street. Tears in the eyes of the hardened paramedic. Fetus kicks angrily. Statistically, that baby has very little chance for a healthy happy life. Stop it, Charlie says (thinks). I’m watching this. What did you say, dear? her mother calls from the kitchen. Nothing, Mom, Charlie says, pulling a thick afghan over her hot pulsing belly. Her mother comes in, looks around. School’s almost over, she notes casually. Any plans for the summer? Charlie’s hand stalls in the chip bag. Charlie’s mom crouches, perches awkwardly in front of her. Are you okay? she half whispers. Daughters of teenage mothers are twenty-two percent more likely to be teenage mothers themselves, the fetus points out. Shut up! Charlie yells (thinks). She heaves herself off the couch and stomps to her bedroom. She makes to throw herself on the bed before gingerly lowering herself onto the plush pink duvet.

First period. There’s less than a month left of grade ten. Charlie’s late for Honors Ancient History. She wears a giant sweatshirt. She walks hunched over, slowed by the spherical wobble of her partially occupied body. Mr. Bradley stops mid-sentence when Charlie enters the classroom two full minutes after the bell rings. Charlie heads for her customary seat, center front, directly in front of the teacher. Ian, Mr. Bradley snaps, his cheeks reddening as Charlie heaves toward the front row. The soccer captain pulls himself out of an insolent back row loll. Switch seats with Charlie right away. Freak…Ian mouths, contorting to avoid Charlie’s belly as they pass each other in the narrow aisle. From the back of the room Charlie can barely see the blackboard. Her eyesight has gone slightly fuzzy; which is normal, Nurse Martin assured the mums what seems like twenty years ago. Charlie gamely tries to transfer blackboard text into neat notebook notes. But everything seems so far away — distant and unimportant. She puts her pen down. She props her head up with her hands.

Final exams are next week. For the first time in her life Charlie’s having trouble studying. Pink show, colostrum, postpartum depression. By the fifth month the fetus has a fully formed brain and sucks its thumb. Her grades have been slipping. Bs, Cs, even a D on the last geometry quiz. Charlie takes longer and longer breaks. She watches Dr. Phil, Tyra, Montel, Oprah. She’s had two, the fetus says, kicking the placenta. Charlie pops popcorn, turns up the air conditioning. It’s only May, and already getting hot. Her parents head to work before the sun comes up. They leave her lunch money on the kitchen table. They don’t come back until seven or eight at night. Someone sticks something in the microwave and everyone gobbles their unevenly heated food, eyes on their plates. The fetus is quiet during these dinners. Concentrating, Charlie imagines, on rejecting the prodigious helpings of pre-made meal she dutifully forks into her cavernous center. After dinner, Charlie goes back to her bedroom. She sits in the corner with a heavy textbook on her lap. She fans herself with a protractor. Sweat beads where her flesh folds. She heaves herself up, opens her bedroom window. The air is turgid, trapped in a changing season. She inhales as much as she can. Then she breathes out into the backyard below — a dark grassy expanse of shadow. It’ll be summer soon, Charlie says (thinks) softly. She feels her hot belly push against the slick, soft, Just-The-Way-You-Are Jenny chiffon bathrobe for plus-sized teens. It’ll be your first summer. Her words drift into the night through the veil of the window screen grid. Fetus rolls over, as if settling in for sleep. Charlie gently strokes the soft fabric covering her bulge. You tired, baby? It’s so quiet. Just the tree’s new leaves drifting in the breeze.