Last July I sat on the patio of Disney California Adventure’s new Lamplight Lounge, overlooking a roller coaster-rimmed lake erected on the grave of an orange grove. Waiters with trays of frothing, jittering cocktails — drinks already famous on Instagram Stories — weaved their way through tourists wearing plush mouse ears and matching T-shirts. I raised my glass to my own celebration: my good friend Jessica, whose 40th birthday we were celebrating on this over-the-top girl’s weekend.
Jessica was the rare friend I’d held onto since my first job out of college, before I was old enough to drink legally or conceive of what I actually wanted to be when I grew up. Our ferocious love of food, weekend wine tasting, and kitschy print dresses brought us together, but I’d had many similar women fall along the wayside of my life, eventually dropping off altogether until our only tether was the liking of an occasional Facebook status. What bound Jessica and me together was the same reason we could afford this escape to a park that charges guests upwards of $124 a day to enter its gates: a shared decision not to become mothers.
I was 33, earning entry into a club that Jessica had already joined: the Give-Up Zone, where anxious relatives and inappropriate coworkers stop second-guessing every stomach virus or refused coffee. We had finally pushed them to the realization, if sometimes begrudging, that we actually meant it when we said that we had no maternal yearning, had never envisioned ourselves with children, didn’t think the planet needed a single additional human demanding beef for dinner and trans-continental flights and tossing ten thousand plastic straws into a choking sea.
We comprised Disney’s latest target market: a surge of older millennials who refused to give up their favorite place, a childless demographic planning best-friend getaways and couples’ trips, not thinking twice about swiping their cards to buy a purse in the shape and pattern of our favorite childhood princess’ dress or the Dole Whips of our youth, now spiked with rum. I came here to retread long-past family vacations and brush against the stories and characters I loved with an affection that age could not smudge. Here was a place where my history was frozen like a snow globe tableau, perfect and ferociously mine.
“To that sweet, sweet child-free life,” I proclaimed.
“Cheers!” She said with a clink.
That weekend we’d share more cocktails; ride Space, Splash and Big Thunder Mountains three times over; guzzle Diet Cokes in the hundred-degree Anaheim heat, and eat fresh tuna poke too soon after rocketing in upside-down loops.
Each of these acts, committed in ignorance, I will tally up in an abacus to run through again and again until the day I die, each unrealized sin a rosary bead in an apology unneeded and unheard in every space except my heart.
* * *
Where do they even keep the pregnancy tests, I wondered as I stumbled into the Wilsonville Safeway at six in the morning the Friday after flying back from Disneyland. I’d been on the pill since my first semester of college and my period had never been so much as fashionably tardy. I packed a fresh box of tampons in my checked baggage and slipped them in my purse for a routine that failed to materialize as expected in a New Orleans Square bathroom.
The worry was in my brain, and I knew it wouldn’t leave until I was absolutely sure that no, I’m not pregnant and yes, I’m a overreacting drama queen who wasted $12 on a magical pee stick.
I spotted the fluorescent pink boxes crowning the dark, chrome tones of the Magnums and Trojans, on the other side of the wall from “feminine hygiene products” and their otherworldly blue-liquid promises of absorption. The pink of the First Response box was the same shade of the boxes I used to reach for in a Target aisle holding the newest Barbie doll.
99.9% accurate from the first day of your missed period, the box promised. Three minutes to reassurance. I could get to the office five minutes early and clear my mind for the rest of the day and then this could all be a stupid, paranoid story I told Twitter.
It was then that I discovered this Safeway was one that had failed to install self-check machines.
I was the only person in the store, aside from the Pepsi restock man and the cashier, a woman in the vague age region of somewhere between my own and my mother’s. There’s no way she’d lack the social grace to actually offer a commentary about—
“Ooooh, are you so excited?” the woman wanted to know, her eyes like Bambi’s.
“But babies are blessings!”
“Well, not when you don’t want them,” I said. Why didn’t I have the balls to slip the thing in my purse and walk back to my car like a shitty privileged teenager?
“I hope it turns out however you want it to be,” she offered when the Visa chip reader finally freed me.
* * *
On our second day at Disneyland, Jessica and I wore coordinating dresses, designed by a Rockabilly queen in our home of Portland. They were cut in the midcentury swing style you can spot in any candid photo within a decade of the park’s opening day, paired with wrist-length white gloves, cat-eye sunglasses and daisy-specked pill box hats.
We scanned our decidedly 21st century iPhones to cross the main gate, and the silver shimmer of Cinderella’s iconic ball gown lodged its hook in my heart. Game recognizes game.
“I mean, we should get a picture,” I half-apologized. “She’s the only person who’s going to match us today.”
Between two dozen families, we claimed our spot. There is an alchemy here, below the train station designed by a middle-aged man who loved railroads and who almost went bankrupt on a creative hunch, where I am perfectly aware that this princess is a college student in a blonde wig and a makeup schematic dictated by the Disney Costume Department, paid a wage that couldn’t support a shared studio apartment in Orange County to sweat every fluid ounce of her body into a Marie Antoinette knock-off on a day so hot and humid it would eventually send me into the Main Street Clothiers men’s shop for boxers that would alleviate my hellacious thigh-rub.
As we waited in the queue for a few golden minutes of her time, I felt a flutter of nerves—we were going to talk to Cinderella. Maybe she’d like our outfits. Maybe she’d ask about our missing Princes. Maybe she’d think we were clever and whisk us away forever into a castle that could not possibly be a façade for the world’s most successful $10 corn dog and plastic merchandise racket.
Two little girls in duplicate Cinderella dresses reached their chubby hands up to the princess, who knelt to greet them. “Let’s get a picture with the King and Queen too,” she suggested, summoning over Mom and Dad.
“I can’t wait to be an aunt,” I said. “The aunt with the credit card.” My siblings could do the heavy lifting of work and hope. Let them be Kings and Queens; a forever Princess life for me.
Cinderella smiled and waved us forward. She did love our dresses, and it made my 33-year-old cheeks blush with pride that this woman, yes this one, the one I’d been watching since my eyes could focus on a screen, thought I was pretty. “Would you like to dance?” she asked, pulling out a trick she must have learned in the Disney intensive face-character training academy. The answer was — obviously — fuck yes. “You take your hopes in one hand, and your dreams in the other, bring them up to your heart, and twirl!”
In one magnificent burst of tulle and draped cotton underneath the welcome to the lands of Today, Tomorrow and Fantasy, we spun together as perfectly as dancers frozen in a music box. Jessica, Cinderella, me. And, as it turns out, my secret stowaway promise of what I could only conceive of as a daughter.
* * *
Think of how many passages you breach in a day. The driver’s door to your car. The turnstile of your favorite park. The impatient elevators of your building. The generous slide of the grocery store’s glass. Out of the bedroom, into the living room. One side of the tunnel, out the other. Hundreds of transitions switching backdrops, edging us forward in the routine, the occasional fresh adventure.
One in ten thousand will bookend us. We will pass through as one thing and emerge another. It will mark our Before and After. That day at work, I entered the single stall private bathroom as a drama queen clutching her pearls over a period missing for a scant blip of a week to take a test she’d managed to skip for an entire adult lifetime of Match.com horror stories and marriage and college, and then grad school bad jobs and dream vacations, first essay published and first book released, canning and handwriting and Thai cooking lessons, 40 pounds up and down five times over.
I peed on the stick, then set it on the counter while I played a game of Disney Emoji Blitz on my phone. The timer cut in for my three minutes, and I tilted the test toward me to discover the faintest line severing the woman I knew into another.
This was impossible. I took a picture in a haze and sent it to my best friend Charlotte, a parent of two.
Holy shit yeah, that is pregnant, she confirmed.
The same men and women hunched over their desks typing the same emails they had begun when their old coworker was alive and just taking too long in the bathroom tilted as I floated into the HR office in the kind of adrenaline-strung calm that emerges from the undertow of shock, everyone on the surface blurred and muffled but reassured by your distant smile.
“I’m not feeling well this morning,” I said to my boss at a slow, deliberate clip. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
I walked to my car. I sat. I turned the same right out of the parking lot I’ve turned every day for seven years. My tires screamed.
* * *
“Well, was I right?” I half-joked with the Planned Parenthood nurse. I had broken the glass on a drill I’d only run in my mind: get pregnant, get un-pregnant. The North Portland PP facility had moved in the 15 years since my first visit, within a month of moving into my freshman year dorm. Back then it lived in a loft above the Wild Oats grocery store, a local chain for the well-heeled conscientious liberal that has since been bought, pillaged, and Zombie-inhabited by Whole Foods. The women who shopped there were the women I was in university to become: independent, concerned about the earth, but not above a good handbag and house-cured pastrami. My roommate and I broke away from our little Christian college for appointments, leaving with brown bags full of Ortho Tri-Cyclen and a rainbow of condoms we stored in a glass bowl, like our grandmothers and their hard candies before us. We were free and unstoppable and pioneers—the generation to invent sexy sex.
My husband Matt had come with me, itching to punch a pro-life nutter in the teeth. “Let anyone even try to say something,” he threatened the air. I’d called him on the way out of the parking lot, right before the Planned Parenthood appointment line.
“How did this happen?” He wanted to know, absolutely dumbstruck.
“The way it normally does,” I said.
He agreed with my analysis: this was not the plan, this was too expensive, this had to stop. He parked the car amidst nothing but a group of intern volunteers in pussy hat pink t-shirts preparing to canvas. He walked me in and accepted my gift of vasectomy trifolds in English and en Español, and when I was called by the doctor he left to go get soup ingredients.
In the doctor’s office, the nurse didn’t chuckle at my inquiry. “You say you had a positive pregnancy test yesterday? I ran your urine twice, and I couldn’t confirm that you are.”
I shook my head, rattled in my purse for my phone. She took a glance at the two lines: the thick standard, and its faint counterpart. “Yep, that’s positive,” she said.
“Is it normal that you wouldn’t be able to tell?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s normal, but if it’s as early in the pregnancy as you are at four weeks, then it is possible to produce a false-negative. Which means there really isn’t anything we can recommend doing for you right now, since we wouldn’t even be able to see or confirm anything on the ultrasound,” she said, making her final notes on my chart. “I would recommend re-taking the test in a week, and then making another appointment at that time.”
As I exited the clinic, I forgot to take an appointment card. “I’ll call and follow up,” I told the receptionist, which is an empty promise I tell all receptionists. Some part of me knew what my mind had yet to grapple: I wasn’t coming back.
* * *
I am a writer. I write essays. I take the life I live and I package it in ways that try to tell a story about our larger world. I prescribe heaps of meaning to gestures, whispers, shadows. The fleeting. I could tell you about all of the tiny fragments that led me to our house’s backyard, where I clutched a patio chair and told Matt he had to listen. To. Me. Right. Now. The stretched minutes I spent in the Pieces of Eight shop at New Orleans Square holding a baby’s onesie designed to look like Sally from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and wondering, should I get this? Just in case? Maybe someone will have a little girl? Who will be exactly this size next Halloween?
I could tell you about the toddler that Matt and I passed the next morning in the grocery store aisle, running back to her parent’s cart on a high of joy that “I found the ketchup!”
The loving way Matt chuckled and said, “if that isn’t the cutest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen.”
My pause at Costco while I waited for him to find the four-pack of toothpaste and discovered I’d halted next to an end-cap prenatal pill tower. The panic I felt when I thought maybe I should get these, just in case. Maybe give the thing a fighting chance.
Charlotte’s four-year-old daughter running into her mother’s kitchen when I arrived after bolting from work for a batch of “oh shit” scones from my dear friend’s British homeland and the unvarnished sincerity with which the girl told me, “I’m so glad you’re here. You’re my favorite person.”
The nap I took when I was too tired to make it through an afternoon and Matt crawled into bed with me, held me to his chest the same way he had for 13 years, and I realized it was our first family hug.
The voice inside of me that rose as I stood in line for coffee with one simple fact: “This child would be so loved.”
Her instant tenacity.
The truth is, life isn’t a tapestry of important details weaving us into fate. I examine these shards later, trying to understand myself, trying to justify a pivot I never thought possible with news I could not fathom would be mine to receive.
We weave hypotheticals of our lives, speaking over one another to announce what we’d do if it were us. We make lists, connections, promises. For 33 years I ran the simulation in my head of that improbable second line, and decided each time, without fail, that I did not want a child. I believed they were too expensive. I believed my life was already fulfilling and content. I believed that not all women should be mothers. I believed that the capacity and consumption of our species is unsustainable on this planet, and that some flavor of doom is inevitable. I believed that abortion is healthcare, a procedure that does not require an explanation to receive. I believed that a zygote is not a person, and a four-week-old clump of cells is a precursor to human life.
All of these convictions are still accurate. I stand by each one.
But there is the question, what would you do, and there is what happens when a sudden, impending new reality forks your life in two. Our hearts are a vast trove of too many secret reactions and desires to discover in a lifetime. And what I realized about myself is this: that I cannot name a time I have been happier than standing in our backyard gripping the back of the patio chair, demanding that Matt needed to listen to me.
“We have to keep it. I love her already.”
* * *
Think of how many passages you breach in a day. I went in and out of every door I’d been through before: the front and the back to our house, the garage, the Starbucks that made my morning coffee, the Whole Foods that sold my dinner groceries. I let my secret news glint only in flashes: to my thunderstruck parents who had long stopped hoping I’d come around; my sister who thanked me for buying her a few more years from being asked about starting a family; my hairdresser who booked weeks out and who would need to give me something less high-maintenance than my platinum blonde bob.
“She’s already been to Disneyland,” I bragged to the select few I indulged. Already spoiled. Already her mother’s daughter. I imagined the nightlight I’d buy for her nursery, the same Sleeping Beauty Castle from the Sears Outlet Store that my mom brought home for my childhood bedroom. I ordered a set of stuffed snacks from the park to decorate the crib: the cupcake, the ice cream bar, the Minnie macaron.
I imagined winding up the “It’s a Small World” song mobile on her crib, and telling her that this magical dreamland? It was real. If we walked out to the driveway, got into the car and turned out of the house and onto I-5, she’d pass the redwood forest and olive groves and pasturelands that seemed to stretch forever, but this place where Snow White and Ariel and Aurora lived, was right at the end of the road. And you’ve already been there, sweetheart. You’ve spun to the top of the Matterhorn and crashed a ghost’s swinging wake, had dinner on a starlit bayou and wished down the same well that I did when I was a baby. This kingdom is mine, and I’ll show you every square inch.
One in ten thousand will bookend us. We will pass through as one thing and emerge another. It will mark our Before and After. On Tuesday morning at work, I entered the single stall private bathroom as a mother-to-be, and I exited empty. In a painless surge of blood, she vanished.
* * *
When I got home from the doctor, Amazon had delivered a fresh copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” on my doorstep. There was nothing inside that the general practitioner had not impressed on me: that an early miscarriage is a body’s way of ending a pregnancy that would never survive to term. That 10-20 percent of pregnancies end this way, and probably more undetected by women who mistake the cramps and fluid for a belated period. Her existence was exceptional; her departure much less so.
“I don’t understand why this happened,” I said to the woman in a neat white coat who knew me on the most cursory of levels—from my carpal tunnel complaints, asthma claims, that time I was rear-ended by a kid driving an uninsured Mercedes. “I did ride Space Mountain five times last weekend.”
She laughed, not unkindly. “That can’t be why.”
When we are pregnant, we read our bodies like tea leaves. The smear on the toilet paper, the dull distant ache in the abdomen, the dousing of Axe Body Spray we can smell from 50 yards away. When that state suddenly ends, we look just as closely at the details leading up the loss. I tally the drops and screams, the rounds of drinks, the cups of coffee and afternoon Diet Cokes, the pounds I hadn’t lost. The encyclopedia on my doorstep, the black hole of Google, the wives’ tale wisdom you can court from any office lunch room or Jamberry party, all dispenses the same wishy-wash nothing. “There have been some studies… you should avoid that if you can… surely it isn’t your fault… but next time…”
Amidst the numbness and the disappointment and tears that I left in the waiting room and my car and the bedroom at our house and a walk around the neighborhood, I was angry. Your baby is the size of a poppyseed! My new book claimed, in the last chapter before I switched over into fiction. A poppyseed-sized asshole. Coming into my life uninvited, making me lose my mind, betray every conviction I’d ever held about who I was, and then she fucking bailed.
“You’re such a dick,” I cursed the air, myself.
A week later, the ceramic castle nightlight arrived on the same doormat that had held “What to Expect,” now on my nightstand underneath “What to Expect Before You’re Expecting.” The glaze was as perfect and cool to the touch as I remembered it in childhood. You should have known better, I thought to myself, to think that anything could ever be this tidy, this serendipitous, this perfect. The fault I can prescribe is my only claim. I set Sleeping Beauty’s stronghold on the shelf in the room we’d said would be the nursery, its light a beacon home to something that was only ever real to me.
* * *
I have one picture of me and my daughter. I had just entered Disneyland as one of the first through the gate, when the park is untouched by another day and herd. Jessica had wandered away to find coffee and I walked down an empty Main Street with a wonder that has not waned since my first trip here in a time too early for me to remember, except in the ways my mother tells it. One of the women watching from the photography studio came by to see the pattern of my dress, and said, “you just look as pretty as a picture—do you want me to take it?”
At first I stood still in front of the castle, but I couldn’t contain myself. I leapt into the air, and as my toes just brushed Walt’s cobblestones, my phone snapped. She caught me in the middle of a breath, a laugh, an expression I cannot make on command.
On the way to the airport to fly home, I couldn’t stop staring at that one shot. I look like another person, as if I am new. My happiness outshines the castle. And her glow, it’s otherworldly. It’s the glisten in my skin and the excitement in my eyes. It’s in the Space Mountain stardust and Tinkerbell’s fireworks and the pirate’s song and the vanishing ghosts. She is every joy I want to share, to outlive me. I showed her everything I loved here in this place: the memory of the family trips before, the story I keep writing with my friends and husband, the promise that it’s still waiting for another time, for me, for us. Home.
There was so much I could have given her, but it pales in comparison to what she gave me.
She changed my heart. And that changed my mind.
Which changed everything.