“Vortex” by Cameron Steele

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

“As soon as I was visibly and clearly pregnant, I felt, for the first time in my adolescent and adult life, not-guilty.” – Adrienne Rich

This is a good Midwestern neighborhood, our realtor tells us when we buy the house. Everyone shovels their sidewalk when it snows. But sometimes in January, the month of my birth, it is not enough; ice still clings in hidden blues along street corners and driveways, freezing the perimeters of the jogging path around the park, and because I know what it’s like for asphalt to bring my bones up in jagged breaks against my skin, I will not run outside for weeks.

Google and my obstetrician have both assured me it is fine to run through pregnancy—some women even run marathons, though I don’t see why, my doctor joked when I last left her office—so I take to the field house at the university gym, running miles in circles on synthetic grass, for weeks picking out bits of rubber caught in my shoe laces and at the bottom of my leggings where they’ve started to pill.

It’s so boring, I hate it, I tell my husband, I hate how it smells like boy. What if we have a boy? He kids me. He won’t be the kind who plays sports, I say, obviously. Obviously, K agrees, and we laugh and press the tips of our pointer fingers against our foreheads and then together, a unicorn kiss, our own made-up little sign for love, for I love you, my impossible weirdo. A relief curls into my chest and sighs furrily. We are quiet as we prepare for an evening of writing and reading on the couch, roasted vegetables and blankets wrapping us in a comfortable, placated warmth.

 

*

 

Motherhood aside, I have never been ambivalent about pregnancy, though this will mostly come as a shock to even my closet friends, whom I’ve lied to for years and am still lying to now. Accusing women of having children for the wrong reasons has been a part of our dominant media storyline since at least the 1970s, when the New York Times published a widely read, if unimaginatively titled, op-ed, “The wrong reasons to have children.” And still today, over a 31st birthday weekend with my college friends, it’s easier to complain about other women’s “narcissistic obsession” with procreation than it is to look at my own desire and what I’m scared it really means. To look at my child self, stuffing my shirts with pillows, chatting with my distorted likeness in the mirror, pretending to be a writer, fertile and famous.

I played with pink-cheeked dolls as a little girl, of course, but what’s weirder is how many of the stories I wrote throughout my childhood featured pregnant protagonists climbing mountains, fording rivers, risking and overcoming impossible bodily danger. And look: as a teenager, I fantasized about living in a beautiful house with a kind man, leaving the kids and dishes with him in the morning while I went off, all sharp pen and cheekbone, on writerly adventures that’d win me fame or, at the very least, my own byline. The ambition would keep me thin and desirable for the man at home, who’d keep me fed and nurtured. The babies would show the world that I, of course, could nurture something, too. And my lifelong suspicion that perhaps I could not—really, really, unequivocally could not—would be squashed, if only for nine months or so, beneath the pillowing tummy, the leaky breasts.

 

*

 

It has snowed again the next morning, our weather apps tell us before we open the black-out curtains in the bedroom, and temperatures will drop as low as they have in some many years, according to my iPhone news alerts. A polar vortex hashtags on Twitter. My elbow, more titanium than bone from when I broke it in the middle of an Alabama heat years ago, weighs heavy with cold. My breasts are less sore, though, and my appetite has returned: there goes an everything bagel with butter and cream cheese along with my usual yogurt, along with the clementine and cashews, the folic acid, the prenatal vitamin from Whole Foods, and I’m still hungry.

It isn’t an easy feeling for me. I’ve tended to my adult hunger, its odd seasons of stuffing full and throwing up the way a child might clutch her teddy bear. A well-worn thing dragged through college boys and newsroom editors, crime scenes and cubicles, the first time I saw a dead boy, and the last, my first stint in rehab, and the last, an acceptance to grad school and an abortion, a Midwestern marriage, this musty house, and now, maybe, a baby.

 

*

 

It’s only recently that I’ve gotten it—understood how my inability to eschew the trappings of the traditional nuclear family is inexorably linked to my inability to get rid of the bulimia. I was raised by an upper middle-class white family who, on my father’s side, trace their roots back to the first Virginia settlers. I did not want for much as a kid, save for my father not to come home angry from work or for my mother not to cry when he did. I hid bags of goldfish and boxes of uncooked spaghetti in my closet and ate through them when the house got doomy. In college, I found feminism and learned how to stick a finger down my throat to bring everything back up again.

“Having it all” wasn’t just some abstract concept to me. I proved to myself I could bodily achieve it, after every meal, or breakup, or phone call from my dad. I grew thin and puffy and thin again, a boyfriend talked marriage, in secrecy I fantasized pregnancy as a way to grant myself something I couldn’t access alone. A way to stay big and to feel not guilty, in my body, in my bones. To signal care, both my capacity, however latent, and my need.

“We wait for love to redeem us,” Jessa Crispin writes in her 2017 feminist manifesto. “For straight girls, that means, despite all of our talk about independence and empowerment, the goals of self-empowerment are often pursued to make ourselves in better competitive shape on the romantic market.” I felt a sense a relief when I read her words a half-year into my marriage to K.

Well, I thought self-consciously, we met and dated and said yes when I was in some of the worst shape of my life. And it’s true, and I love him, and even still, it is hard not to hear my voice echoing the many ghosts of straight, white women across history: He takes care of me, doesn’t he?

 

*

 

I bundle tightly in the 6 a.m. dark, thick leggings, wool skirt, wool turtleneck, wool scarf, sweat and stink already tickling the soft spots beneath my arms, along the low of my back. Downstairs, K pours me coffee in a to-go mug. When we found ourselves pregnant, I forewent the heavy-duty deodorant but kept the caffeine. Threw out all our deli meat but still dabble, now and again, in soft cheese. We were vegetarian for a year, once, in our concern for the planet, but then the last treatment center forced meat on me and it just kind of stuck.

My phone dings just as I leave for campus: 217 days. It’s been 31 weeks since I last purged—the longest break in my adult life. I should set a pregnancy alert, I think, and my metal elbow grinds against the vortex’s sharp freeze.

 

*

 

Once, as a reporter in a hot, unhappy town, I used my phone to keep track of everything—homicides and the number of calories I consumed, meth busts and the number of miles I ran, prison deaths and the locations of gas stations with single-stall restrooms, better for vomiting in private.

People these days like to make a lot of all the dead girls in America—on Netflix, in headlines, in mystery novels—and they should. Of course they should. But in that summer of 2011, as a 20-year drought drained even the red from Alabama’s dirt, I was haunted by the men. How death—by fire, by torture, by gunshot wound to the head—transformed their bodies back into something vulnerable, gave them uglily back to boyhood and to me, to the words I’d have to write, and how my name came on top of theirs and their families, on those front pages, every time. When you Google them now, my name appears beside their deaths, and their mothers are nowhere to be found.

The temperatures peaked, and I ran harder. I ate more. My toilet grew weird rings at night, and in the mornings, I trained for a triathlon, Jonathan, Kevin, Justin, circling my gut with the click of the spokes. When I fell from my bike on a hill at the back of my neighborhood, bulimia had leached enough of the calcium from my bones that my forearm neatly snapped away from elbow and wrist, floating. That’s what the doctor called it, later, after the surgeries, a floating forearm, that dry summer’s wry little miracle.

 

*

 

In Nebraska, there’s no heartbeat at my nine-week ultrasound, not even a little one. What was once alive, it turns out, has stopped being so—stopped being so weeks ago, though my body doesn’t seem to know it. But there’s been no blood, I say and my doctor nods as if she knows, as if this is to be expected, though blood has always been a thing in all the stories I’ve ever heard about women and their pregnancies, all the stories about women and their bodies, really, whether or not a baby gets involved.

Could I have done something differently, I ask her. Meaning, what did I do wrong. It’s not your fault, not because of anything that happened a week ago or two weeks or two years ago, she says. Meaning, I don’t really know. Meaning, kindly, don’t make this about the eating disorder.

 

*

 

My dad didn’t know what a person did with an English degree, and to be honest, I didn’t either. But journalism seemed OK, for a girl who knew how to write and wanted to make a little living for herself. I threw myself into it at school, became a kind of spokesperson for the department, quietly won a poetry award on the side. I drove myself down to the Atlanta Journal Constitution one weekend to take the then-managing editor to lunch. He was an alum from my college and grinned at me a lot. “I could be the greatest writer of my generation,” I told him unironically, cringing years later when I saw Lena Dunham’s character on Girls repeat in earnest those same words.

I ended up, instead, an hour or so west of the city, covering crime in a town with one-fifth the population of where I live now and five times as many murders each year. I went on a ride-along with a white cop my first week on the job, for hours listening to him drawl about “black violence,” his newborn daughter, her pink cheeks, the wife. I rolled my eyes a lot in the dark, sneaked glances at his gun. A few nights later, he went home and used that gun, shot his wife and baby in their heads, killed himself. I’ve tried for years since to write poems about having to cover that story, sit with those three coffins—but there’s that little box for the baby, and there are just some things you can’t put into lines.

Here is what I know: my memories of that time are all elbow—broken, pointy, calcified—and they are indelibly tied to my body, my bulimia, my capacity for care. When you sit with people’s pain, when you have to handle it for them, and when you inevitably make mistakes about how to hold it, well, as my therapist says, all that weight has to go somewhere.

 

*

The doctor sends me home with K, and well wishes, and medicine to “help the tissue along”—pills similar to the ones I took for our abortion, except you insert them vaginally. You push them up inside of yourself, so they’ll dissolve, and your uterus is supposed to clench, cramp, expel, spin out in thickened rings around the toilet. But for hours now, nothing.

K agrees to sleep on the downstairs couch with me, because I cannot bear the thought of our bed, the new king we bought early on when we were thinking about co-sleeping and breast-feeding and extra space for sleepless nights. Too early to be thinking about any of this, I said a month ago, and I meant it, and also, I didn’t.

 

*

I meant to try out different stories in the transition from journalism to academia, leave the bodies of other people out of print for a while, work on my own. I wrote about my abortion for a graduate workshop and didn’t understand the pitying looks I got from another woman in the room. She writes about her womb all the time, I thought, what gives?

Later, reading Terese Marie Mailhot’s remarks in the afterward to Heart Berries, I got it: “My first creative writing professor in nonfiction asked his class not to write about abortions or car-wrecks.”

The story of your abortion is low-hanging fruit, I wrote in my journal that night. And there it was a week later, coolly dangling under the list of “done-to-death tropes I never want to see again” from the deputy editor of a favorite lit mag. But I understand, I really do, wanting to transcend the shock of excess and its attendant release.

 

*

 

I’m still waiting for the blood when K finally falls asleep, our dogs piled on top of his belly, my phone resting on mine, alight with the words of women in a miscarriage chat room. All prayer and holy penance on the Glow app, it seems, though one woman’s comment cuts through the higher-power pleas: it’s like I just couldn’t let go.

Yes, I think, yes, the cramps coming on now, finally, and I, too, feel like an expert in the things a body will collect and hold on to, not knowing they are already lost.

In the downstairs bathroom, stuffy and windowless and unpainted, I huddle and hunch, phone tucked into the crook of my elbow, hands on my stomach. My fingers coax the soft skin there, rolling and unrolling and over again, seeking a rhythm I can finally understand. And there it is, as I guess I knew it would be, first the weight, and then the release.

 

Cameron Steele is a writer in the third year of the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essays and poems have appeared in GRAVEL, Entropy, American Poets, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

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