Shelter

On the morning of my 28th birthday, I woke up and realized I was pregnant. What else could explain this strange, hot, buzzing feeling? I elbowed my husband, asleep beside me on my brother-in-law’s futon.

“Adam,” I said, “I’m pregnant.”

“Really?” he said dubiously, suddenly wide awake.

The timing was abysmal. We were in an unmoored and uncertain state, having spent the past six weeks moving among the apartments of various friends, bouncing back whenever necessary to Adam’s brother’s place. The $7000 Obama tax credit for first-time homebuyers, coupled with the foreclosure crisis, had suckered us into believing that we (a writer/CUNY adjunct married to an artist/CUNY adjunct) ought to seize this opportunity to become apartment-owners. Assured that we’d close by mid-July on the 650-square-foot Ditmas Park fixer-upper, we gave notice to the beloved landlords of the envy-provokingly cheap and charming Kensington apartment we’d rented for the last five years. It was the affordability of that apartment, paired with money saved from our wedding two years before, that enabled us to get the down payment together.

But now here we were. Late September, and it was starting to look quite likely that we’d never close, the property tied up in all sorts of mysterious red tape. We were waiting (at least, we thought we were—the dealings with the bank were inscrutable) for the paperwork to come through so the foreclosure could be completed so the property could be purchased. We’d already handed over half of the down payment; the fear that we’d never see that money again kept me up at night. Weeks passed without any progress, and meanwhile we wandered from borrowed bedroom to borrowed bedroom.

We kept finding ourselves on street corners waiting for cabs to carry us to the next temporary housing solution, the mess of our life piled around us, suitcases and canvas bags exploding with unopened mail and half-eaten boxes of cereal. So often, it seemed, these transitions took place on rainy nights. And whatever umbrella we had was always busted.

It was a disorienting time, marked by irrationality and mystical thinking. I became convinced that since this was a foreclosure, and thus a sad chapter in the life of the previous owner, we’d been cursed for getting so excited about acquiring the apartment. I developed a superstitious side, walking around Brooklyn with my fingers crossed and asking my parents to send sage sticks from New Mexico.

The most dramatic instance of this irrationality occurred one evening when Adam strode through the door of yet another borrowed apartment and announced that he’d seen an utterly charming baby on the subway and was ready to have one of his own. I was the right audience for this declaration; since we’d started dating at age 21, we’d fantasized about having kids together, I always a step ahead of him in terms of timing.

His delightful spontaneity catapulted the looming problems (So little income! Nowhere to live! And weren’t we, by college-educated standards, too young for parenthood?) into a distant sphere. Ignoring the protests of the sensible voice in my head, I laughed and opened my arms wide. It was impossible to imagine a life growing out of such a capricious moment.

Yet here it was, the blue line on the pregnancy stick confirming that evening what I’d told Adam that morning. We were crouched together on the floor of my brother-in-law’s bathroom. We didn’t seize each other up in a life-affirming hug. Instead, we stared at each other in shock. A sublime feeling of terror and joy split me in half, a feeling that manifested itself as a panicky giggle.

That night on the futon, my heart pounded so hard I couldn’t sleep.

“My heart feels like a tin can being kicked down a street,” I said.

“Yeah,” Adam said, also sleepless. “Tell me about it.”

What surprised me was how passionate I became, and how swiftly. Never mind that it had been a whimsical conception. After that first night of fear, a maternal ferocity overcame me. The ferocity of: I love you, future child, and will do anything that needs to be done for you. Your dad and I will take three buses to an unfamiliar neighborhood on a rainy night to get to an OB/GYN with an open slot who accepts our insurance. We will go out for cheap Thai food to celebrate you and will reassure each other of our scrappiness. After giving up a morning of work to try and find a midwife, I will cup my stomach and think of you and let that brilliant flash of happiness burn away the logistical headache. We will find a home for you.

By then we were staying in Chelsea, in the penthouse of Adam’s former boss, who, unbeknownst to his wife, had given us permission to squat there while they were in Europe. It was by far the finest accommodation we’d had.

Meanwhile, things were looking ever grimmer on the real estate front. Nearly two months had passed and still no closing date. After 60 days we could legally extricate ourselves from the contract. I started to search for rentals. I became obsessed with finding a place to settle, the homing instinct stronger by the day. I was astonished by my resolve, by my ability to take this development in stride, by the protective animal love I already felt.

“It’s incredible to think,” I said to some friends, strolling in Greenwich Village after the dinner at which we’d told them prematurely about the pregnancy, “that one of the most important people in our lives is growing inside me right now.”

On a Friday in October, the 59th day of the contract, the foreclosure paperwork suddenly, inexplicably, came through at last. Now we had to close, even though we were hours away from signing a lease on a rental. The closing was scheduled for Tuesday morning.

That Sunday, I began to bleed. The Internet’s explanations were less alarming than one might expect: “Bleeding can occur frequently in the first trimester of pregnancy and may not be a sign of problems.” Still, my midwife suggested an ultrasound. Much to my relief, I was up all night vomiting. ‘Perfect!’ I thought. ‘Everyone knows pregnant women suffer from nausea!’

“Hey, lookee there!” the ultrasound tech said the next morning. “The pregnancy sac.” The tiny black cloud on the screen filled me with awe.

“You’re fine,” the doctor assured me. “Totally normal for a four-to-five week pregnancy.”

I pretended I wasn’t confident about when I’d gotten pregnant. But I knew it should have looked more like six to eight weeks.

By Monday evening, the bleeding had worsened. Riding the subway home after work, I was scared I might pass out. It seemed obvious that we had indeed been cursed for trying to purchase a home predicated on someone else’s failure.

It was a cold night. My coat was in storage, and I was wearing one of the five summer dresses I’d been cycling through since August. The three blocks between the subway and the penthouse felt insurmountable.

I stepped into a deli, struck by a desperate craving for soup (pregnant women have cravings, don’t they?). Then I limped onward, clinging to the warm container. ‘I’ve got you,’ I told my fetus, ‘and I’m not going to let you go.’ I envisioned myself cupping a candle in the wind.

A few hours later, I was in the bathroom. When I screamed, Adam rushed in. “Are you okay?”

But all I could do was stare and scream. The shrieks rose from some primal place within me, blotting out my capacity for language.

The next morning found us on a street corner yet again, laden with bags and trying to hail a cab that would accept such chaotic cargo. We were fleeing the penthouse in the nick of time; its owners returned that afternoon.

It was a clear, luminous morning, but as we soared over the Brooklyn Bridge, I was numb to the sight of Manhattan’s radiance.

The real estate lawyer’s secretary eyed us warily as we piled all our stuff in the waiting room. Typically I’d have apologized, but as it was I stared her down.

Interminable stacks of paperwork were signed and checks exchanged. I never could have imagined that closing on our first home would feel so dismal.

“I had a miscarriage too,” our real estate lawyer whispered to me on our way out. And the realtor, who’d also had a miscarriage, offered to give us a ride.

In the next weeks, women from all different parts of my life told me about their miscarriages. Considering how common it is to lose a pregnancy (an estimated 30 percent of conceptions end in miscarriage), I was shocked I’d heard so little about it.

Miscarriage is in a strange category of grief—a loss that lies somewhere between death and the mere sloughing off of potential. Perhaps because the feelings of women who miscarry land at many different points along that spectrum, it’s difficult for family and friends to gauge what attitude to take toward the loss, and the miscarrier—confronted by the well-intentioned imperative to move on—can end up feeling solitary in her grief.

Because the experience is so rooted in the woman’s body, it is somewhat more abstract for her partner, or so we found. While Adam was deeply concerned about me, and ever supportive, he did not grieve the loss of the child as I did.

But he held my hand as we stepped into the apartment we’d owned for the past 23 minutes. The kitchen was a wreck, there were no closets, and I’d never been so tired. Yet the sun was glowing across the wooden floorboards, and I had the brief bright ferocious thought: We will be okay here, in our new home. •

Helen Phillips is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College and the author of “And Yet They Were Happy” and “Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Funny, I started reading this and thought to myself, “Wow, she’s so innocent. I remember what that felt like.” And then your story ended where mine did each time but one. I’m so sorry it did.

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