Choose This Now
by Nicole Haroutunian
I puke the whole plane ride to Pittsburgh, a lethal combination of morning and motion sickness. Dramamine—like whiskey, runny eggs, and smoked fish—is off-limits to the pregnant, at least per my particular doctor. As Marc secures the rental car—a toaster-shaped Nissan—and we load in for the drive to his grandmother’s assisted living facility, I’m crunching on ice from the airport coffee shop, trying to rehydrate. The cubes squeak between my teeth. Marc suggests I dip some napkins in the cold water at the bottom of the cup and apply compresses to my eyes for the ride.
“They’re that puffy?” I ask.
“Just red,” he says. He reaches over to squeeze my knee. “Thanks for doing this with me.”
“Hands on the wheel, please,” I say, although Marc is a driver at home in any situation. He’s maneuvering with no problem. I’m the one who takes weeks to adapt.
“Sorry, sweetie,” he says, adjusting his grip at ten and two.
For the past two months, Marc has been truly solicitous, fetching green grapes when that was all I could eat, then plain bagels when carbs became the only thing that didn’t sit funny in my gut. The other day, during my eight-week obstetrician appointment, he clutched my hand between his as the impossible heartbeat flickered on the technician’s screen, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. So much of pregnancy is a mystery, but there is no mystery to Marc. There was his love, his excitement, his fear, right on his face.
It never would have crossed my mind to invite him to the appointment. But after my friend Susie got over the shock of discovering she was the first person to hear about that little plus sign materializing on the pregnancy test, she’d said, “He better be the first one to see the heartbeat, then.”
“I don’t know what to think about things unless we talk them out first,” I’d told her. “That’s why I dialed you instead of him.”
“If you’re having a baby with him, he’s got to start being the first one you go to,” she said. So I brought him to the exam, and she was right about that, but I still don’t know if she’s right about the other piece of it. Does your partner always have to be the one dearest to you?
We’ve been instructed to let Grandma Dinah know when we’re leaving the airport. Marc tried when we landed and again when we loaded up the car; the phone was busy each time. I redial every five minutes as we merge from one unfamiliar road to the next, finally pulling into the parking lot of the Gershwin Senior Living Apartments. We find Dinah’s spot, number seventeen; she still pays for it even though Marc’s mother convinced her to give up her car. It wasn’t long after Dinah relinquished her Lincoln that she had her fall. Now she’s using a wheelchair and relocating from the second floor of Gershwin to a more accessible apartment on the first. We’re here to help her with the move, although why all the housing in a place like this isn’t accessible is beyond me.
As Marc climbs out of the car, I flip down the mirror. My cheeks are gaunt from the weeks of vomiting, there is a fine network of busted capillaries around my eyes, and my hair is stringy with sweat at the temples. At that eight-week ultrasound, as the technician squirted gel on her wand and had me scoot to the end of the exam table, she assured me that my symptoms would pass “really soon.” She wasn’t a doctor, but she did have a certain level of expertise, so I believed her. It was the promise of relief I felt then that made seeing the pulsing spot of the interloper inside of me, that blip on her screen, all the more shocking. We hadn’t been trying to get pregnant and, although we weren’t not trying either, I wasn’t prepared for the prospect of sharing the real estate of my body. I recoiled in the way I do when I feel an uninvited hand glance across my breast in the subway. Thinking I was cold, Marc helped me pull the industrial green sheet, soft from being washed so many times, to cover my knees. I’m working on coming around—we’d always planned on children, eventually—but the havoc the pregnancy is wreaking on my body doesn’t make it easy.
Climbing out of the car, the air feels cool and still. “This is the part of the country least prone to natural disasters,” Marc says. “There are vaults in the mountains filled with film archives, artwork. It’s the safest possible place to be.”
We’ve only just moved back to New York after being in Texas for graduate school, but now Marc seems ready to buy a house in the suburbs to “raise our family.” I’ve let it slide when he’s brought up New Jersey, which is barely a half hour from where we live, but now that he seems to be hinting at a move to Pittsburgh, of all places, I can’t help but roll my eyes. The last time I followed someone out of New York City, it was Susie. By the time I enrolled at the University of Austin—thinking the two of us would spend our days passing novels back and forth, taking taco breaks together as we worked on brilliant papers—she’d abandoned her PhD and headed out west to live with a girlfriend I’d never met. She didn’t tell me until the last second because she said she didn’t want to dissuade me from pursuing my academic dreams just because it hadn’t worked out for her. In her absence I had to make other friends. All three of us know that if Susie had been around, I wouldn’t have met Marc, that none of this would be happening. What would happen to me if I left the city again?
“Here’s another fun fact,” I say. “New York is the country’s safest big city. And if I’m having a baby, I’m having a New Yorker.”
“If,” he says, appled cheeks going slack. I don’t know what is wrong with me, always being the one to make his face fall.
“When,” I correct. “What’s that smell?”
“Sugar and cinnamon,” Marc says, sniffing. “Blintzes, maybe. Or kugel. Apparently the cafeteria here is pretty good.”
Kugel, I think. I could maybe stomach that.
The attendant at the building’s entrance ushers us in—“She’s been talking about your visit for weeks!”—and guides us to a first floor apartment, already equipped with welcome mat, mezuzah, and decorative wreath. Dinah flings open the door a moment later, four foot ten and scowling. “You said you’d call first!” she says, impeccably penciled eyebrows raised. “I’m still a mess.”
“The phone was busy!” Marc bends to kiss her on the cheek. “You look great.”
“Psh,” she scoffs, gesturing at the cloud of grey-blue hair frosting her head. She bats him away, grabs me by the wrist, and pulls me inside. “Valerie! Skinny, skinny,” she says, smacking me on the rear. We follow her into an apartment that appears as if it’s been lived in for decades. There are islands of plush area rugs spreading across the parquet floor, tasteful botanical wallpaper, elaborate treatments above the windows, sideboards heavily populated by bric-a-brac. Canisters of flour, tins of tea, and Tupperware containers of cookies are stacked on the galley kitchen’s counters. Not a moving box in sight.
“Did we get it backwards?” I whisper to Marc. “Is she moving upstairs?”
“Grandma, is this your new apartment already?” Marc asks.
“Oh, yes,” she responds. “It’s wonderful. Been here for weeks.” When he issues a follow-up question—but how?—she shoots me a conspiratorial look, poking her thumb at him. “He’s a city slicker now that you’re living in New York? We have luxuries like movers in Pennsylvania, too, you know. How was your flight?”
“Quick,” Marc says.
“Easy trip,” Dinah says, ferrying a cut glass platter piled with cookies to the coffee table in the living room. “You could visit more.”
Marc winks at me. “I’m sure we will,” he says. “It was harder when we were in Texas.”
“Texas,” she grunts, sliding into a large wicker chair, a flea market throne. She gestures to the blue and white couch across from her and we take a seat. “That I never understood. Cowboys, idiots, and the Shrub.”
“The Shrub?” I ask.
“That’s what she calls Bush,” Marc says. “Luckily, both grad school and the Bush presidency are almost a thing of the past.”
Dinah nods. “But Hillary? Or Obama? The speeches he gives—that’s what I call presidential. Your grandfather would have had other thoughts, but…have a mandelbrot.”
Marc and I reach for our cookies. I take a tiny mouse-bite, letting the dry crumbs dissolve on my tongue. Before any of it even reaches my stomach, I feel my system mounting a protest, but what can I do—not take Grandma’s cookies?
Something hard is poking me from between the couch cushions. I reach down and pull out a cordless phone, beeping off the hook now that it isn’t muffled by the pillows. “Here’s why your phone was busy,” I say, looking for the cradle on the end table.
Dinah shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I’ve been here all along.”
Feeling leaden, I beg a nap and Dinah directs us to her bedroom. The floral chintz comforter crackles with static each time I move. I say, “I can’t believe she is planning to sleep on the couch tonight.”
“You heard her,” Marc says. He’s dozing next to me, although he has never been good at naps. “The conviction! I truly don’t know how we could have gotten her to change her mind.”
“Honestly, this bed is so uncomfortable that maybe she prefers the couch,” I say. Even if Marc and I wanted to be closer to each other, the tented shape of the mattress would make it impossible. We move to the middle but slide to our respective outer edges of the bed before long.
“Should I tell her we’re already pregnant?” he asks. “That if her plan was to keep us apart on this thing, it failed miserably?”
At first, Marc didn’t understand why we couldn’t tell people right away—he wanted to call our parents, our friends, throw a parade. He thought I was being unnecessarily pessimistic when I explained that everyone we told we would have to un-tell if something happened. Conventional wisdom says that the time to start sharing the news is at the end of the first trimester—twelve to fourteen weeks—but sixteen seems like a safer bet. That’s where my friend Isabel was when her doctor couldn’t find what had been, initially, a robust heartbeat. We’re on the young side of new parenthood by New York standards, but in Texas plenty of our friends had kids. And while the men didn’t sit around swapping miscarriage stories over beers and the Longhorn game, the women did.
Part of me would be relieved if it happened that way.
After Marc proposed—just eighteen months after we met—and I, in shock, accepted, Susie said to me, “Marriage is just you saying, I choose this person now. You can un-choose him at any time, right? We’ve got this great thing called divorce.” Pregnancy, so far, is full body nausea and the realization that there can be no un-choosing now. This person’s life and mine, this man and me, we can uncouple, but I can no longer opt out of his life.
In college, Susie and I went to DC with the rest of the Feminist Alliance to march on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Until recently, the most memorable part of that trip was the beginning, how the senior piloting the campus van got us stuck by driving the wrong way down a one way street and a police officer had to come help us back out. I was mortified along with everyone else—we were supposed to be strong women who could drive a van!—but Susie couldn’t stop laughing. She’s always been a step ahead, knowing what part of a situation actually matters. She was the one the police officer handed the keys to when he sent us on our way again. Thinking about the protest now, though, it is the march itself that comes into focus. Thousands of women, and some men, holding our Planned Parenthood signs, chanting with one voice. I know we were marching for people in many different situations—people whose pregnancies were unintended or unwanted, not viable or not at the right time, and for people like Isabel, who had trouble accessing her necessary D&C in Texas after that dismal sixteen-week appointment—but I’m not sure if we were marching for people like me. And who are people like me exactly? My problems can be boiled down to an upset tummy and a kind husband who always seems to want a little more of me.
Marc props his head up on a stack of decorative white eyelet pillows so he can see me from his side of the bed. “If we knew that the move was already fait accompli, we could have come out here in a month or two,” he says. “When you felt better and we could tell her. My grandma conned us.”
“I think she had to,” I say, closing my eyes, exhaustion tugging me under. “If she’d just asked us out for a visit, would we really have come?”
After our nap, we spend the afternoon going through a shoebox of old family photographs. Marc tries to convince Dinah to let us take the pictures with us to digitize, but she won’t hear of it. “What if you lose them? What if you lose the disc you put them on?”
Marc loves all the glossy images of him as a baby. I know he’s wondering if ours will look like him, blond hair swooping up in a cowlick, chin full of drool. We pass around a photo of Marc, ten months old or so, a fistful of spaghetti in one hand, a fork in the other, his face smeared with red sauce.
Marc is so sweet and dutiful now, so scholarly and attentive, but from what I’ve heard, those qualities translated as a kid into weird. He didn’t latch on to the traditional nerdy boy signposts—Star Wars, dinosaurs, comic books—but instead got into classical music, epic poetry, golf. The poetry persisted, which is how we wound up toiling after PhDs in literature at the same time, but a six-year-old asking for golf clubs! As a girl, I was so middle-of-the-road, so normal, that I bored myself. It wasn’t until I got to college that I veered into literary studiousness and feminism, an unrequited obsession with a long-haired goth, an ambivalence toward pop culture, a friendship with wise, wry Susie. But have I circled back to super-normal after all that? Married to Marc and expecting. I don’t want our baby to be like either of us. Is that a normal thing to wish?
I accept a photo Marc passes me. “It was her first time going on an airplane,” he says. Dinah is wearing a white—or light-colored, who can tell for sure with these black-and-white photographs—skirt suit cinched with a belt at her trim waist, a neat, narrow-brimmed hat tilted just so on her head.
“That’s just how I looked boarding the plane at LaGuardia this morning, right?” I ask.
Dinah tries to throw this photo out, as she does each and every one of herself—“What do I need a picture of me for?”—just to hear us argue back.
“Because you look like a movie star!”
“So we know where Marc gets his dimples from!”
“Because you look so happy!”
This last one gets a big eye roll. “Believe me when I say I have never been happier than I am right now,” Dinah says. “Now I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Then? Psh.”
All the photos go back in the box.
We head out for dinner at 5:15 p.m. Marc and I are fascinated by the idea of eating in the on-site cafeteria, but Dinah is adamant we don’t even peek in through the glass doors on our way to the parking lot. “It is brisket night,” she says, “which is always good. But, my old table would want us to sit there so they could meet you—they’ve been hearing about you for years, Marc. And I passed around all the pictures from your wedding. They didn’t understand your dress, Valerie—you know, why it was short and blue, but I told them to never mind. I don’t sit there anymore, though, because of how Lucille acts when we play canasta. They had different rules at the place she used to live and she won’t adapt to how we do things here. We had a fight about it so now I have to sit with Sol and them.”
“Who is Sol?” I ask, but Dinah shakes her head at me, pressing her lips together. As we pass a line of elderly women sitting on benches on the patch of greenery between the building and the parking lot, they smile and nod at us, trying to slow us down. One of them even calls, “Is that your grandson, Dinah?” as Dinah waves her off and keeps walking to the car, besting both of us with her speed. I wonder whether Marc or I will bring up the fact that she’s supposed to be in a wheelchair.
Marc helps Dinah into the front seat and pulls out a length of seat belt for her. “Are those friends from the old cafeteria table?” he asks.
“They talk too much,” she says. “They’d want to ask a million questions that aren’t their business. If we’d stopped, you would still be over there answering about why you haven’t given me any great-grandbabies yet.” Marc meets my eyes in the rearview. “I’m the only one who gets to ask you questions like that,” Dinah says, tilting her head back with her dry, nearly soundless laugh. “But I won’t, I won’t.”
Dinah directs us to a deli a few minutes’ drive away. It has a cornflower blue roof, OPEN glowing in pink neon over the swinging front door.
“I remember this place,” Marc says. “I think. Would we have gone here when I was a kid, Grandma?”
“Of course,” she says. “You used to eat piles of tongue until one day, maybe you were ten, you stopped and asked, mouth full, ‘tongue is not real tongues, right?’ and then you leaned forward and spit it all out. A big wet pile of chewed up tongue on the table. I thought it was funny but your mom did not.”
Marc and I bring down the average age of the deli clientele by decades. The waitress, herself not a young woman, seems to be delivering food to her tables without taking their orders. After we’re seated, she hands us two menus and a chocolate egg cream appears in front of Dinah.
“What can I get you?” she asks Marc and me.
“I think we need a minute with the menus,” Marc says. “Are we the only ones in here who aren’t regulars?”
She winks. “There’s family and then there’s family,” she says.
Marc can’t help himself; he beams across the table at me. He’s fond of saying, now, that we’re a family. He was always one for we, for us. He’s been waiting since he was a kid, sitting with his plate of tongue, for this moment. I try to breathe through it, the desire to recoil, to retreat outside to call Susie. What is it that makes me want to reach for her when Marc reaches for me?
The air is swirling with Jewish deli smells. A wave of onion hits me as a platter flies by to another table and I have to excuse myself to the bathroom, hustling to get there in time. After I throw up the few crumbs of cookie I managed earlier, throat raw and head throbbing, I feel diminished by at least fifty percent. Clenching my hands over my stomach, I wish I could feel the baby in there already instead of having to wait for something like ten more weeks. If evolution could have accomplished a concretization of this abstract future-child from the start, all-day every-day sickness would be easier to accept.
Leaning against the cool tile wall, I think back to that other dizzy day in a bathroom, pregnancy test in one hand, my phone and Susie’s reassuring voice in the other. She’d told me I need to go to Marc, yes, but she also said, “You do know what to think, you know. I never tell you. All I do is pick up the phone so you can hear yourself.”
When I return to the table, Marc looks anguished but Dinah is placid, clearly at home here at the deli. “I ordered you an egg cream,” she says. “Bubbles settle the stomach.” She winks at me and my mouth sours again; what does she know? I glance at Marc, who looks down, immersed in his platter of stuffed cabbage.
Dinah is right, though: chocolate egg creams are magic. The stomach-coating dairy, the soothing bubbles, the caloric temptation—I have two, leaving the kugel Marc chose for me mostly untouched on my plate. Dinah takes an eternity to finish one cheese-filled blintz. As she savors each bite, she tells us about Sol. “He got an electric wheelchair, but—typical—he didn’t learn how to use it right,” she says. “The day he brings it home, he rides into the lobby and—boom—he runs over two women. The next day, after they took his chair away, he was walking fine.”
I kick Marc under the table. He swallows his cabbage and kasha. “Grandma, we actually thought you were using a wheelchair now. That’s why you moved to the first floor?”
Dinah puts down her fork. “Your mother told you that?” She taps a long, gel-manicured pink nail on the table. “Let me ask you this. Do I seem like I need to use a wheelchair?”
We are silent, shaking our heads.
“When you get old,” she says, “people stop listening to you. If they ever did to begin with. I was in a marriage for fifty-six years where I could have been delivering the Gettysburg Address and no one would have known it.”
I nudge my straw around in my empty, milky glass.
“My kids learned from their father. I don’t know how I could have done it differently, maybe it was just the time, but I wonder.” She picks up her fork again, then puts it down and gestures for me to come closer. I scoot my chair and hold out my hand, but she reaches past it, reaches to touch my stomach. Her hand is cool, gentle, immovable. Marc blinks, his eyes flitting to mine. He must have let the news slip, or at least confirmed her suspicion. He looks pale; terrified that I found him out.
“I’ve never been wrong,” Dinah says. “All the rushing to the bathroom, that glassy look in your eyes? Don’t be mad at him for telling me. I knew, I knew the moment I saw you.”
I am faint for a moment, reorienting to the room, to a world in which this information is on the outside, not a small, internal blinking, a heartbeat pulsing for only me, Susie, Marc, and our doctor.
Hand still on my belly, she turns to Marc. “You tell your daughter,” she says. “You tell her to listen when her mother talks, okay?”
Maybe she’s right about this, too. Maybe we will have a daughter. Maybe she’ll be blonde when she’s born, like Marc. Maybe she’ll be quick and sharp, like Dinah. Maybe she’ll be, somehow, like me.
“You’ll tell her that?” I ask Marc, although as soon as I ask, I know he will. There is no mystery to Marc. I poke at the food on my plate. What would I lose if he were to know, at any given moment, what I might say? What could I let myself gain by throwing myself into normalcy? I try another bite of kugel.
Dinah’s palm is still on my stomach and along with the sick, with the scared, another feeling starts to swell somewhere beneath my surface: anticipation. I want to meet this new person. She is growing as we sit at this table together: eyes, a spine, a beating heart. In just a few weeks, she’ll be able to hear. I’ll say to her, baby, there is so much you already know.
Published January 20th, 2019
Nicole Haroutunian is the author of the short story collection SPEED DREAMING (Little A, 2015) and a literary editor of the anthology SILENT BEACHES, UNTOLD STORIES: NEW YORK CITY'S FORGOTTEN WATERFRONT (Damiani, 2016). Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Post Road, Tin House's Open Bar, the Literarian, Day One, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She is an editor of the digital arts platform Underwater New York and cofounder of the reading series Halfway There. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Woodside, Queens.
Miriam Schapiro earned her master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa in 1949 and in 1952 moved to New York City with her husband, the artist Paul Brach. In Manhattan, Schapiro discovered that women artists were not taken seriously by the male-dominated abstract expressionist movement. Schapiro’s abstract paintings of the 1950s won her some recognition by museums and galleries, but she struggled for decades with her identities as a wife, mother, and professional painter. In the 1970s she collaborated with the artist Judy Chicago on Womanhouse, the mansion famously transformed by a women’s art cooperative into a gigantic installation of feminist art. Schapiro’s “femmages,” her assemblages of scraps of fabric, buttons, lace, and other “feminine” tokens, appear in major American museums. The artist has been awarded fellowships and grants from many institutions, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.