A Pregnancy Test, a Pack of Condoms, and a Box of Tampons
BY TIERNEY OBERHAMMER
Waiting in a long line at the pharmacy, Kaya can tell she’s going to get her period any minute. Her breasts are tender. Cramps come and go. She is eleven days late. For eleven days, she has anticipated a smudge of red every time she wipes. But her period has never been regular to begin with, so what does “late” even mean? Any second now, she’ll start bleeding. She can tell. All signs point to yes.
Yesterday, standing in her kitchen, Kaya felt a warm drip between her legs. She pulled her jeans down in front of the stove and grinned with relief upon seeing a spot of blood. After inserting a Tampax, she went about her day whistling. She achieved Inbox Zero, mopped the linoleum floors in her kitchen and made plans for a Saturday beach trip with a friend from work. Except later when Kaya pulled the tampon out, it was dry, the cotton mostly white. The drop of red had been a red herring.
Still, she can’t be pregnant. She’d tried for years with Jonathan. Eventually, they’d gone to a fertility doctor. After four weeks of blood work and a test that involved shooting dye into the cavity of her uterus, some of which dribbled down her leg as she climbed off the examination table, the doctor informed the couple that it wasn’t going to happen without hormone injections and, possibly, IVF. Kaya accepted the news.
Their efforts to start a family had been misguided anyway, she decided. It was a cliche. A baby to save a marriage. It might have worked, but it would have been a transference of pressure. While Kaya felt certain Jonathan would have made a good father–he was helpful and kind and genuinely seemed to love her–she had been too hasty, imagining a future with him. He was like water, willing to fill any vessel. No shape of his own, at least none that she could discern. So, she put motherhood out of her mind. It was something she wanted, but only for the right reasons.
Divorce at thirty-two humiliated Kaya. Or, rather, it humiliated her mother, who used the failed marriage to exemplify Kaya’s poor decision-making skills. For a time, it marked Kaya as irresponsible in her mother’s eyes, though Kaya disagreed wholeheartedly with the assessment. She’d graduated college. She worked to earn a living. At least she’d undone her poor decision, Kaya thought. Didn’t that count? She’d apologized, too. She knew her mother had had to take time off to attend the wedding, had spent time getting to know Jonathan. Kaya felt bad.
But now Kaya is meeting new people. Making new friends. She started a job as the project manager for an experience design firm. She loves puzzling together different pieces, color-coding spreadsheets and timelines. She also helps decide what projects the firm will take on–a six-month-long installation about saltwater symbiosis, for example–and the job has decent benefits. It’s shaping up to be a good year. She painted the walls in her living room yellow after Jonathan moved out, and she finally has her weight under control. Cutting out sugar had worked wonders. Just days earlier, her mother wrote an email saying she was proud of Kaya. “Looks like you’re trying to make the most of your last good years.” It had come as a surprise.
“No news is good news,” her mother typically wrote in hastily punctuated emails, responding to Kaya’s checkins about her wellbeing. Sometimes Kaya didn’t get a reply for a week. Motherhood had not been part of her mother’s plan, and so she cherished the return of a child-free life that came when Kaya left home. She taught watercolor lessons and kept busy with book club and her work at the animal shelter. Maybe now Kaya’s mother was finally noticing Kaya’s efforts. The little life she was creating for herself.
A voice crackles over the store’s intercom requesting assistance at checkout. Kaya glances backwards to see that the line is just as long behind her as it is in front of her. A reocurring pang in her lower back returns, and she shifts from one foot to the other. She tossed in bed all night and arrived at the pharmacy so early the staff was unlocking the doors. Now, standing in the checkout line, she feels self-conscious about the items in her basket. A pregnancy test, a pack of condoms and a box of tampons. It looks like the setup for a joke. And it is funny. The trifecta of it all. A pregnancy test for peace of mind. Condoms so she doesn’t slip up again. And, most importantly, tampons for her inevitable period.
She had sex exactly once in the past month and broke things off with the man shortly after. They first met online and exchanged messages for weeks through the app before they advanced to hour-long phone calls about TV shows and current events during which Kaya folded laundry and carefully painted her nails. Although the man was overwhelmingly attractive when they finally met in real life–six-foot-four with dark skin, dimples and a studded leather motorcycle jacket that he somehow pulled off–behind a facade of charm and intellect, he was pushy, and, Kaya suspected, held values that did not align with hers.
Over margaritas in Williamsburg, for example, he’d picked a fight with her about capital punishment, of all things. “Do you have any idea, the taxpayer dollars going to prison lifers?” he demanded. Kaya didn’t, but she noticed that the man wore a gold cross, and execution by the state didn’t seem very Christian. She kept the thought to herself, though. She wasn’t religious, anyway. Kaya believed in science. Overwhelmingly, the man made her feel sexy. Desirable. She took the 2 train with him all the way to 177th Street. Once inside his apartment, she had no will of her own.
“Turn,” he’d said, leaning back on his pillows after undressing her. “Come here.”
When Kaya hesitated, he’d added, “Now.”
Kaya had stepped toward him and struggled with how to hold her face, lips twisted as she tried to maintain composure. She giggled, apologized and giggled again. Meanwhile, the man’s expression remained serious. Focused. Jonathan would have at least laughed along with her, she thought fleetingly, not that it was fair to compare the two. Standing next to the CVS chewing gum display, Kaya can still picture the motorcycle man’s eyes tracking hers as if casting a spell.
And it had worked.
It was a simple and straightforward seduction, and that was OK, wasn’t it? She’d had fun, and more importantly, she was proud of herself for seeing, early on, red flags that she would have typically overlooked for months. The man was overconfident. Controlling. He moved too fast, showering her with compliments and taking her hand in the street. With him, the pendulum swung as far away from Jonathan as possible. It was exhilarating, but at the same time Kaya had felt the man was performing a courtship. Sure, he made her heart thump in her chest, but she wasn’t naive enough to mistake chauvinism for charm. Not after that first night, no matter how dashing the smile or firm the grip. In fact, she never wished to see the man again.
It was true that, caught up in the moment, she hadn’t insisted on a condom. But when he’d asked where he should cum, she pointed to her belly. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t get pregnant even if she wanted to. The doctor had said almost exactly that.
The pharmacy checkout line moves forward a few feet, and Kaya finds herself staring at an image of JonBenét Ramsey. Kaya remembers seeing the same images in the checkout line at the supermarket when she was a kid, the girl’s doll-like face and expectant blue eyes gazing at her from the magazine rack while her mom bagged their groceries. She’s surprised that the tabloids still cover the tragedy decades later.
What, exactly, had the tragedy been, anyway? Kaya had never really known. She gathered that the little girl died. But Kaya had been seven years old at the time. The fascinating part had not been the beauty queen’s death, but rather, how a child could look like that, with those yellow curls and white skin. Her little teeth and glossy, red mouth fixed in a smile. So unlike Kaya, and, really, unlike anyone she had ever seen. Kaya understood that the girl was considered beautiful, but the images made her feel unsettled. And the name—JonBenét—it was a boy’s name, wasn’t it? It didn’t seem like a name at all. JonBenét’s face was everywhere back then. Hers and Princess Diana’s, like mother and daughter. Big blue eyes and a tiara.
The headline exclaims that there is “Chilling New Evidence in Child Abuse Horror.” Kaya takes out her phone and types JonBenét Ramsey into the search bar. JonBenét, a six-year-old child pageant star, was found strangled in her basement on Christmas Day, 1996. Police found a ransom note addressed to the father, John Bennett, that experts described as unusually, and therefore, suspiciously, long. For some time, the mother, Patsy, who had been crowned Miss West Virginia in her youth, was a suspect. Kaya reads that Patsy died at 49 of ovarian cancer. According to Wikipedia, she is buried next to JonBenét in Georgia. Kaya notes that the child’s full name—JonBenét Patricia Ramsey—pays homage to both parents. She had nothing that was her own.
Kaya doesn’t like that Patsy and JonBenét have adjacent cemetery plots. If there’s a chance Patsy committed the murder, it seems wrong they should rest side by side. Patsy was probably jealous of her daughter. Or maybe JonBenét hated all the hairspray and bronzer. Maybe she wanted to quit, and it threw her mother into a rage. There was also the possibility that the little girl wasn’t good enough for Patsy. And if that was her life, dead at six after a short stint as a beauty queen, then what was the point of her life at all? It was hardly a childhood. Kaya shudders. She knows her judgements aren’t fair. She knows that she knows nothing about JonBenét or the case. Her throat feels like it is closing. Who could ever strangle a child? She needs to stop thinking about it. Other headlines from the ‘90s start to surface in her mind. OJ in his white Bronco. Monica Lewinsky with her thick curtain of hair and obsequious smile.
A young woman behind the cash register says, “Next.” Kaya sets her items on the counter and avoids eye contact.
Back at home, in the yellow light of her bathroom, the pregnancy test is hard to read. The second pink line is faint, and, according to the sample image in the instructions, the lines appear out of order. The box contains three tests in total, and when Kaya pees onto a second stick, the result is the same. One line is dark pink, the other barely visible. She emails a photo to her doctor, a white woman who practices reiki on the side, and the doctor writes back within minutes: “Those look positive. I can see you tomorrow first thing.” Kaya checks the time. It’s only 8:45 a.m. How is it only 8:45 a.m? She’s already exhausted and the day has barely begun.
At the doctor’s office the next morning, Kaya pees into a cup and sits in an examination room she’s never been in before. She reads from her news app while she waits and tries not to let her imagination take over. She knows she isn’t pregnant. She isn’t the type of person to be accidentally pregnant. There is a knock, and Kaya calls, “Come in.” The doctor opens the door, shuts the door and takes a breath.
“You’re definitely pregnant,” she says. The doctor’s eyes are light, her lips thin.
Kaya shakes her head, tries to swallow. “I can’t be pregnant.”
“If you don’t like condoms,” the doctor says, forehead creased, “you should get an IUD.”
Kaya feels her eyes prickling and blinks to hold back tears. She takes deep breaths. She is surprised. Is her doctor angry with her? Her doctor has always been warm, like a friend, even. She invited Kaya to go hiking once, hadn’t she? Kaya feels a flash of defensiveness. I do like condoms, she wants to argue, but that’s silly. Nobody likes condoms. She’d just been stupid. She’d made a mistake. Didn’t it happen all the time? Would the doctor have said the same thing to a young, white woman crying in her office? She pushes the thought down. She doesn’t want to be a person who jumps to conclusions. None of it is really happening, anyway. It can’t be. Her shirt feels tight. It’s too bright in the room.
The thought of seeing the man with the leather jacket again brings on a wave of nausea. At the same time, it would be wrong to keep a child from its father. Her own mother had done it, and though Kaya assumes she had her reasons–righteous reasons–she can’t stomach the idea. Certain things Kaya isn’t willing to consider. She wants none of the choices available to her. There is no good decision.
Kaya remains in disbelief when she goes to the clinic the next day and a nurse squeezes cold gel onto a white plastic wand and inserts the wand between her legs. The nurse maneuvers the probe inside Kaya’s body for several minutes while looking at a screen only she can see. “You’re seven weeks,” she finally says. Kaya responds, “That’s impossible.” Kaya knows the exact date she had sex, just over a month ago. It’s marked in the calendar on her phone. She explains this to the nurse, who shrugs and says, “Count from your last period. That’s when we start counting. We measure based on the size of the fetus.” But it doesn’t make sense. Why is the nurse saying the word fetus at all? Kaya types “Seven weeks pregnant” into the search bar on her phone and when she sees, “Your baby’s eyes–” under the first result, puts her phone face down in her lap.
As Kaya presses the elevator’s down button outside the clinic suite, another wave of nausea hits her. Saliva pools under her tongue. Her armpits drip.
Kaya’s feelings don’t match her thoughts. An incongruence between emotion and intellect has been a recurring fact in her life–wanting but not wanting, for example, a second bowl of ice cream–but it’s especially stark now. Of course, JonBenét’s killer and a woman who chooses to end a pregnancy are not one and the same, but it’s where her mind goes. Ashamed, Kaya can hear herself in a highlight reel, every time the topic had come up in conversation.
“Of course, I’m pro-choice,” she’d said, again and again. “It’s just not a choice I would make.”
“Life has to begin at some point. Wouldn’t it start at the very beginning?”
Mixed with the disturbing JonBenét equivalency and her practiced support of reproduction rights, Kaya holds a profound belief that nobody should be the child of someone who doesn’t want them, of someone who didn’t choose motherhood. Had Patricia Ramsey wanted a daughter or had she wanted another chance? And what about Kaya’s own mother? Kaya’s mother had risen to the occasion, certainly, had made a show of it. But what were the effects of the shadow of discontent she cast? Kaya won’t be a mother like her own mother. She will want motherhood.
Most pressing for Kaya is the question of how she will feel after. If she will regret her decision in five years or ten. What if this is her only chance? Kaya wishes she had a mother who would hold her head against her breast and tell her that she is making the right decision. A good decision. The best decision for her and everyone involved.
A week later, when Kaya is shivering in a faded blue hospital gown, avoiding the eyes of the other women sitting in the last of a series of waiting rooms, the waiting room before the operating room, she still can’t believe she’s pregnant. When she’s on the operating table, and the doctor instructs her to scoot her butt all the way down to the edge—more, more, more, OK, that’s good—she still can’t believe it, even though tears stream down her face, and the other doctor, the one who’s doing the anesthesia, tells her that she’s going to taste bitterness, and it’s so bitter that her face contorts, and she’s pulled away from the world toward a dark quiet that she doesn’t want to enter, but it’s out of her hands.
Being under is unlike anything and impossible to hold on to, but it’s not nothing. Kaya sees herself sitting at breakfast eating sugar cereal when her mom comes in with the newspaper. Kaya is young, maybe six years old. Her mother shows her the front page. There is an image in full color of a little girl wearing a flower-print dress and a crude hat. The girl isn’t smiling. “Who’s that?” Kaya’s mom asks her. Kaya looks at the image, but she doesn’t know. Is it a test? “That’s you,” her mother says, pointing. And it is her, Kaya realizes.
There was an Easter pageant for her kindergarten class. The students made spring bonnets out of recycled materials and marched down the school’s cinder block hallway. But Kaya hadn’t made the hat she wore. The night before, her mother had cut apart green egg carton cups and hot glued yellow plastic bags inside them to create budding daffodils. These flowers frame Kaya’s face in the photo. Her fuzzy braids hang down like roots. “Front page and in full color!” Her mom is proud. They won the contest. But it was a strange feeling, Kaya remembers, to not recognize her own face. She’d been embarrassed. When had the photo been taken? She can still see her doe-like eyes and blank expression captured in pixelated ink. The image is burned in her mind.
Kaya is sucked back into the world. No time has passed. She is lifted up and wheeled on a cart through swinging double doors. “I was thinking the whole time,” she says to whoever is wheeling her, denying the gap in her consciousness. She tries to see but can’t. She tries to think of what she was thinking about, but now there is nothing. When she opens her eyes, none of the doctors or nurses from the operating room, or any of the rooms before it, are around. Everyone is new. It occurs to Kaya that since entering the clinic at 7 a.m., she hasn’t seen anybody white. Not a patient, not a doctor or nurse, not a receptionist. She wonders, where do white people go?
In the recovery room, Kaya keeps trying to curl up, and the nurses keep telling her to lay straight. It’s some sort of involuntary reaction, though, and Kaya’s body folds into the fetal position once more. She’s crying again, harder this time, and a nurse tells her that she has to stop.
“If you don’t stop crying,” the nurse says in a Jamaican accent, “We’ll have to send you to psych.” This only makes Kaya cry harder, so the nurse tries a different approach. “You made the right decision,” she murmurs, squeezing Kaya’s hand.
Kaya nods in agreement, but the nurse doesn’t know anything about her or her decision. How could she?
Kaya takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. The nurse brings her a cold apple juice, and she sips it. She collects her things. She leaves the recovery room sooner than the staff instructs her to, but nobody stops her. She doubles over in pain on the elevator, in the street and in the stairwell of her apartment building.
It rains all weekend. When one of the clinic nurses calls to check in, Kaya realizes she hasn’t heard from her regular doctor since the in-office pregnancy test. Kaya had liked her doctor, too. Why had she turned sour so suddenly? But the nurse on the phone is gentle and instructs Kaya to pick up three prescriptions and take them according to the directions on the packages. “Call me back if you have any questions,” she adds. At the pharmacy to fill the prescriptions, Kaya notices that JonBenét is gone from the magazine racks. Now, the Queen of England is being mean to Meghan.
Kaya bleeds for a month, first large, dark clots that tear at her insides, then an easy bright red. It is a daily reminder. Sometimes she imagines holding a tiny baby, brushing her lips against its velvety, sweet-smelling head. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable, given her age and station in life. It would have been an attractive child, too. She feels certain of that. When the man with the leather motorcycle jacket texts her unexpectedly–“Hey Sexy”– she blocks his number. She has nothing to say to him and doesn’t want to change her mind about having nothing to say. What good could come of it, anyway? She’s upset enough on her own.
Except, once the bleeding stops, Kaya is surprised to find that she doesn’t think about the pregnancy as often or with as much grief as she’d worried she might. It is not some great trauma. She’s not JonBenét. She’s not Patricia. She’s not her own mother. She’s not a child. Her life goes on, neither too difficult nor too easy, and she understands that soon it will be simply something that happened. A decision undone. A path doubled back.