It Was the Summer

Madeline McDonnell

It was the summer I thought I was pregnant. The summer we moved to the city.

Some people hoe their hair into crop lines and say, “Why would you bring a child into this world?” I was not then, and I am not now, one of those people. We had moved to the city, to a high pile of brick that blocked the sunshine. I was afraid to go outside. “Come on,” my fiancé said. “Is it the doorman?” he said, “Are you really afraid of the doorman?”

The doorman’s name was Rudolf. He was as thin as I’d been once, at sixteen, twelve maybe. He smiled at me like he’d read my mail.

“I’m not afraid of Rudolf,” I said to my fiancé. “I’m afraid I’m pregnant.”

My fiancé hoed his hair. I hate that word, fiancé. “It just wouldn’t be a good time,” he said. “Do you know what I mean?”

I’m not sure why I worried; I never got mail that summer, anyway.

It was the summer I was afraid to leave the bedroom. I was afraid of the singing toilet, of the other windows trapped inside our windows, of the flies that came in through the grate. I was afraid of the soft hallway, the umbrellas that leaned against the doors, leaned and pushed and leaned some more as if they just wanted to get inside and stay.

I was afraid of everything but the elevator. The doors were gold on the outside. Inside there were mirrors I didn’t mind. We fell from floor to floor to floor. I leaned into my fiancé. I just wanted to get inside. Doesn’t everyone?

The doors opened and we walked past Rudolf and into the city. Men lay on the sidewalks, treated doorways like seashells. They curled.

On 17th Street we bought bagels. My fiancé took the paper bag, handed me the change. For blocks I rolled the quarters around my palm, deliberating. There was a boy in a wheelchair on 14th, his hair like a duck’s feathers, a duck stuck in an oilslick. His sign said he’d been to war, seen things. But there was a man across the street, too. He didn’t have a sign, was too polite to ask. He was sitting on the sidewalk, wearing shoes made of the news. They looked like paper boats built by children.

I watched my fiancé. We were crossing 10th, then 9th. I kept expecting him to say that thing people say, “Why would you bring a child,” but he didn’t. Instead he said the same thing again, about time.

This is what he meant. We were too young to love it, too young to want to give it all our money. But we were finally too old to get rid of it.

“Are you sure?” he said then.

“Not really.”

I didn’t like his face so I kept talking.

“Look at my breasts,” I said. “Feel my breasts.”

First it was my breasts. Then I tasted metal—a symptom, I’d heard. The bagels were pennies, dimes.

We went away for the weekend, to my fiancé’s parents’ house. We needed to distract ourselves—we were so worried! How could we bring a child into this bad world at this bad time, when we were both too young and too old? But when my almost-mother-in-law made me a turkey sandwich I tasted quarters.

In the end I hadn’t given mine to anyone. Not the man with the slick ducky hair. Not the man with the newspaper shoes.

“Do you want another sandwich, Amy?” my almost mother-in-law asked.

“No thanks,” I said, knowing it would hurt her. Soon she was offering cherries, plums. I knew they would taste like pocket change. “No,” I said. It was a word I could say to her and nobody else. That weekend, I said it as much as I could.

Still she offered crackers, cookies, the plums she’d mentioned already. She was outraged, undeterred. I was impressed. When she went into the kitchen for biscotti I leaned toward my fiancé. “Feel my breasts,” I whispered. “They’re crazy.”

I was never the kind of person who’d say “How can you bring a child into this.” I was never the kind of person who’d protest. I was the kind of person who’d had a dollhouse in her eleventh-grade bedroom, who’d gotten splinters, even then, from reaching in and messing with the furniture. I was the kind of person who knew she’d be a mother, and a good one.

In the city, I was a good mother. I made my fiancé lunch, folded his T-shirts, shut his drawers. I smoothed his furrowed hair. I wasn’t quite as good as his own mother yet, but I thought I might be, in time.

Sometimes now, in drugstores, I’m nostalgic. I stand in the aisle. I think of that summer when sandwiches tasted like copper, when my fiancé was always twisting his hands and staring, awed, at my breasts.

One morning I got up before he did. “What are you doing?” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Outside,” I said. I didn’t have to look back. I knew I’d astonished him.

We lived in a pile of brick. There was a movie theater on our block, a dry cleaner, two groceries, a drug store. I bought a pregnancy test, and then I bought another.

Sometimes now I stand in the aisle and imagine leaning into the shelves—leaning, pushing, leaning—knocking boxes every which way.

I bought one test and then another and then another. Soon it wasn’t summer. “I think the swelling’s gone down,” my fiancé said. “Don’t you?”

I’d had my period twice, but I took another test. There was something sweet in knowing what I’d see, in hearing that same silent word again, a word that even now I seldom say.

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