Four Pink Plus Signs
They weren’t all pink or plus signs. Some were blue, and lines, or black and gray, a word spelled out in sans-serif. And there were more than four, because of the backups, the no-please-nos, the holy-shit-is-this-for-reals? Like one week-late, grad-school splurge that turned into two, then three plastic-wrapped boxes bought at three different CVSs. What does plus + plus + minus equal? Nothing, it turns out. Or rather, a lot more than usual of something familiar two days later, and a thousand tiny chains around my chest falling sweetly away with a metallic sigh, and a gulf I wasn’t tempted then to swim or even contemplate rippling off to my left in the place where all my lost things bobbed and sank but never disappeared completely.
That one time, I left the little sticks, identical twins, balanced carefully on paper towels back on my duplex desk, before going out for reinforcements. Before I could have become a mom, I was a daughter. Calling between drugstores, I told my mother, “It’s a bad time in general, but especially with him,” because he believed in spanking, among other intolerable things. Being a proponent of choices—and each woman’s right to make her own—I leaned already toward the practical with the only surprise being part of me that had begun to remake the future, to at least entertain it, bulldozers clearing land I would have sworn did not exist as I stood small and rapt before some intricate machine as its gears met tooth to gleaming tooth.
I told the right person, “It could take a while.” Before I wanted to become a mom, I was a daughter, and my mother had tried ten years before I took, then four more before my baby brother with his pretty sea-glass eyes. I remember him warm, round, bugling, happy, but his most notable feature was hidden from my sight: the thrumming red organ behind his ribs and the supermassive black hole it harbored, unpatchable, sucking air straight from his circulating cells. The day he hitched his last half-breath, I wore red gingham as the lips around his breakfast bottle went blue.
We knew there were other routes, if someday we could afford them. After their loss, my parents had been too mature, too ripe, too stubborn for America’s standards, so they looked further south. A lawyer’s five fingers palmed five figures and made them disappear, poof, along with any trace of him and too many precious years in a house I tried to cheer with cookie dough and straight As. Then the year I turned ten, a phone call during a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert told my parents, “Be in Santiago by next week,” and fourteen days later our foursome began to heal around the hole at our center, but not over it.
My own wait ended three weeks after ditching my pills. The crisscross shape was faint as a mirage, but another test days later proved darker, and then to be sure, we sprung for the twenty-dollar digital. My husband read it silently then slipped off his hat to rake fingers through his hair, a way of saying, “Our life is going to change.” I kept those sticks, rattling bouquet, in my bedside drawer until the son they foretold lay swaddled next to me instead, and for a long time after.
Soon after turning 37, I tore purple wrappers from test sticks each morning on waking. A blinking smiley meant, “Almost.” A steady grin meant, “Now!” And the empty circle, a child’s idea of the moon, meant nothing more or less than the thin black line and the nothing it contained.
Months waned and waxed until mid-July. In the house we’d owned a month, I brought proof positive to the breakfast table. The triangle may be the strongest shape in nature but the news spun like a star at our center, imploded us with light. As a square, we’d need a mini-van. Double the daycare. Two more possible names. We scrolled through “unconventional” and “vintage” and “literary” options over coffee. Willa. Rueben. Thea. Lennox. Gideon. Rosalyn. Quinn.
Weeks later, during a visit to my childhood house, red streaked tissue, but no cramps. No pain. Too early to have had an ultrasound. When my mother was pregnant with me, she bled a few weeks in. No trickle or drip, but a red sea. “You know what it was for me,” she said as I stumbled from the bathroom, reminding me that long before I became a mom, I was her daughter, and would always, always be. She’d rushed to her doctor, bargaining with the God she’d once joined a convent to serve, and learned of my almost twin snuffed like a flame between two licked fingers. Her loss, but mine too, one that left me to become what I am, and whatever I will be.
My red retreated, but another week and it was back. Nothing to do until I was home again, silent on the ride to the sonogram. On the screen in the dim room where my son had hid his face with a hand two years before, my insides appeared: a grayscale pool surrounding one dark island, onyx oval, a still, still stone. We had options. One drug or another. One hospital or another. Or waiting the way we had waited before, the way we hoped we would someday wait again.
That same night the cramps began. Two fists squeezing and releasing, hand-cranked coffee grinder, dull knife pressing in and in. Since I had to know how I’d failed—not enough water; too much tuna; flying too early; quitting yoga; nitrate; nitrites; caffeine—I stashed a plastic container in the bathroom cupboard alongside a long, shallow spoon. I did not believe myself capable of collecting the “products of conception,” but it’s amazing what the mind can bear, and the body too. After twenty-four hours of dizzying, muted labor, it arrived. She/him/ours, curled and concise, mummied in membrane. I cradled the creature in the bowl of my spoon. “I love you,” I said. “Safe journey,” I said. Then I stored it in with the rest.
Last November brought another plus sign three months after our minus. I told my mother because my father was sleeping off a cough, and because I tell her everything first, and because I wanted to hear her happy-cry, and because I wanted to say the words out loud, even though, I said, it was early. Even though, I didn’t have to say, who knows.
The day before we left for winter break with a gills-packed car, we returned to the same room with the same screen where we’d seen one child rub his nose with a rosebud fist, then another calcified into a dark, still jewel. Trisomy 16, the tests had revealed. A condition “incompatible with life.” This time, as the year whittled to nil, the technician’s wand revealed a jellybean small as the last. She clicked and typed, zooming in. It was early, she said, zooming in, for a heartbeat, she stalled, zooming in, but we shouldn’t worry, in and in, until at last we caught in that dense black sea a distant lighthouse, flickering beacon, a little light tiny, white, and alive.
We planned Christmas in New Mexico and New Years in Mass., like always. Cash-strapped, I’d framed the sonogram and wrapped one up for each parental pair to toast our final puzzle piece. My mother called on the first leg of our trip. “Dad’s cough could be pneumonia,” she said as my husband guided us through Ruidoso’s mountainous streets. More pressing, though, was the cancer in his kidney, the cancer in his liver, the cancer in his pancreas, the cancer in his lung. She said, but didn’t have to: “Come home.”
Days later, we woke in my parents’ bedroom where no one had slept for a week, and I drove us in my father’s truck to a hospital where I’d never been. We’d told my son Nonno would be in bed, but we were all unprepared for the way he’d halved himself, shrunk to the essentials, skin hanging the bones of the strongest man I knew. “Hi, Daddy,” I said. He heaved, hand to chest, lips just the right side of a smile, no room in his crowded lungs for both oxygen and joy.
It wasn’t until my mother asked if I had anything to share that I knew she hadn’t told him. “We’re going to have,” I started, “in August—” I whispered. He couldn’t hear me. I wasn’t sure he’d want to. “A baby,” I said. “Next year.” And though he wouldn’t make it past Christmas, though the hospice rep was striding toward us down the hall, my father raised his heavy hands to clap them once, twice, three times, four.
The new baby is moving these days, landing slippery jabs on the curving edge of the only universe he’s ever known. With every staccato limb-kiss, every foreign flutter, every assertion of each plus and minus still to come, I’m reminded that before I became a mom, I was a daughter, part of something bigger, not owed my life, but still lucky to get to become.
About the Author: Katie Cortese is the author of two story collections, most recently Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Her work recently appeared in Indiana Review, Animal, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She teaches at Texas Tech and serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.