The Eighteenth Week

by Monica Berlin, Winner of the 2009 Thomas Hrushka Nonfiction Prize

The morning after they find out something is wrong, the house fills up with strangers. It’s just bad timing, really, that they’d scheduled all the maintenance and repair men to come on the same Wednesday—after all, why not get everything taken care of at once—but when the doorbell starts ringing just after eight o’clock, just after her husband has left for the office, she’s startled by how much care this old house needs. By noon, eleven men are working in different rooms on separate tasks. If she weren’t so devastated, she knows she could find humor here; she’d imagine an episode of I Love Lucy, the small Ricardo apartment filling with coveralls. But these high ceilings do not echo with Cuban song, and her sudden grief carries too much weight.

She barely shows yet unless you know her well enough to have noticed the slightest curve at her waist, the tightening fabric across her chest, the graying skin just below her eyes, so when she answers the door she cannot quite say, My baby might be dying. Cannot quite say, It could be so bad I might have to wish the baby dead. Cannot announce to any of these men, I want to die. Instead she says, Of course, this way.

They all know each other, have always worked together. At the screen door no one remembers not to let slam, they chat about business, their wives, plans for lunch. The plumbers joke about which of their grand-fathers would have installed the toilet. The first time the door snaps shut, the carpenter announces, You just can’t get a door like this any more. Even as he’s the one who lets it go the hardest, he promises to bring a plane tomorrow to ease the banging. These men, she thinks, these men know heartache. The carpenter—now sanding down plaster in the first floor bathroom, tracking dust in and out, that carpenter, retired fifteen years from the factory, now just a shell of a building on the west side of town, the one that had boarded up windows and doors when it packed up, the one that only left on a light so everyone could find their way out—is listening to the electrician talk about his sons in the desert, how one of their jobs is to sweep for improvisational roadside bombs, how the other stands at a checkpoint where civilians wait to pass. She thinks about this man’s children keeping track, looking carefully, and all those ordinary people fidgeting with documentation, going in and coming out, every hour of the day, their eyes focused on nothing, their heads turned down.

* * *
Back in bed, pretending the house is just hers again, she turns on her left side, curled away, practicing words she isn’t sure she’ll be able to say. Words like, We lost the baby, even though it might be a lie. It might have to be more accurate to say, We had to lose the baby. But the construction is awkward, she knows. Nothing fits. She tries each phrase on, over and over, the way a month ago in the overpriced maternity boutique she had velcroed that round pillow around her waist before pulling on shirts too wide, too swingy, over her head. She couldn’t imagine how her body would fill them.

She hears the men chattering to each other. One patches an old plaster wall. Another services the water heater, with its slow dribble, its too-small basin. Ashamed now, she remembers, months ago, how she had hoped for a flood so they could afford to replace everything. Who wishes for a flood? Someone changes the air filter on the furnace. Someone measures the length of the floor between pipes. If she didn’t know better, everything they said would sound like a euphemism: their plumbing problems, their troubled wiring, the sloppy mistakes made before they knew better.

The day before this invasion, she and her husband had seen the bridge of the baby’s nose, the long line of its spine—perfectly arched—and she had counted its ribs. Her husband asked the sonographer questions. Between answers—Yes, two ears. Yes, two eyes. Yes—she held her breath. When they had heard its heartbeat they forgot to ask anything else, and although the room filled with what they thought was wonder, she knows now that the technician had seen something wrong, had willed them silent by turning on the machine’s sound, had distracted them while she looked closely at something they wouldn’t have been able to decipher. They were sent back into the waiting room, clutching their foggy, strange pictures.

Again, then, they were sounding out names, playing a game that had been theirs longer than they talked with any seriousness about having a child. The last few weeks, her husband started calling the baby Time. He laughed about it, this acronym for Thing: It Must Eat, but it had stuck. Because she had never been someone to eat more than once a day and now she was packing sandwiches to take to the office, small plastic bags with carrots for an afternoon snack, saltines wrapped in her purse, he thought it would make her feel better about the hunger, blaming it on this little speck of a body, making it not about her. At first, it seemed funny. He would ask, What’s Time doing? Where’s Time now? One morning just before this eighteenth week, half asleep, she had said, What if Time isn’t right? She had said, What if Time disappears?

* * *
The men ring the bell out of politeness, despite the front door being wide open for them to come in and out, bang in and out, traipsing mud in from last night’s rain. Between the metallic ring and the sound their boots make along the pine floors, she can’t sleep. Instead, she keeps replaying her midwife explaining, If the specialist says we need to terminate—. She wonders at the pronoun, the verb, this woman’s calm. She thinks about after, the word terminate choking in her throat, her husband holding her hand, and how the midwife had shown them out a back door—to give them privacy, she had said—but how they had passed through a large room where she’d never been before, a chair lowered to the floor and everything newly scrubbed clean. Weren’t they supposed to see that room, supposed to be reassured that sometimes procedures have to happen and that they happen in the same place and with the same people with whom you also share these other kinds of days, these other turning points, everything becoming routine? Maybe, too, the midwife hadn’t wanted to scare the others, all those women flipping through magazines, full, hopeful, waiting their turn.

Someone trips the breaker, and for a minute, the house is dead still. When the power comes back, she’s holding her breath, listening for the men, waiting for something to catch. She wonders why she heeded the recommendation to wait on the first ultrasound. Why had they waited until after she’d packed up her smaller clothes, after she’d wrapped her more delicate bras in tissue, after they’d picked out a rocking chair? She had just told her colleagues she’d be taking some time off, practiced the words maternity and leave and expecting for weeks before she said them aloud. How would she walk it back? Would she be expected to? They had told their families at week twelve, her sister whispering between clenched teeth, Don’t say anything else until the ultrasound, until you see it—there, again, the pronoun inexact, imprecise, unavoidable. To reassure her, she had told her sister then that she’d felt its heartbeat weeks ago, lying still on her back—which she wouldn’t be able to do much longer—in the deepest quite of the night, her husband beside her. On the other end of the line, her sister stayed quiet. Maybe she had been wrong, swearing she felt its heart. Why had they waited until the eighteenth week? What was safer about it? Christ, they had fallen in love with each other all over again, every day suddenly playful, secret. They had even let themselves fall in love with the baby, the idea of the baby. It had just started its fluttering, too. She knew that much wasn’t imagined. It was moving inside her, like thin wings flapping against the walls of her, so slight, still half abstraction.

* * *
They don’t make ‘em like this any more, each of them says, clomping along the floorboards. She’s sure they say this every time, in every home that lines the northern streets of town. It’s endearing, really, their admiration for houses. She’s still awed, too, after all these years: the craftsmanship, each curve, the character upheld in the integrity of each building, in the fingerprints left over time. So much personality, each of them says as they let slam the wooden door, their necks craning up, their eyes surveying. Funny little house, another says. What a quirky place. In bed, listening, she nods.

The woman who had the house built, apparently, held so firmly to superstition that she demanded the house believe it too. Afraid of ghosts, certain they’d come to the front door and ask to be invited in, she had the builder make the foyer a spirit room, a small trapezoid with a near-floor-to-ceiling mirror facing the street, so that if a ghost did come to the front glass door to knock, it would see its reflection in the mirror and be scared away. Framed by windows on either side of the door, a wall of beveled glass, and on the two smaller sides of the room, matching wooden doors that hid the twin living rooms—one a sitting-room and the other a parlor—that room, that small room, convinced her this had to be the house where they’d grow old together. She couldn’t have known the sound that screen door would make, or that in winter the spirit room would frost over, or that bad luck wouldn’t always stand on the porch, facing itself, to ring the bell.

Still, she had never loved anywhere more. The house’s symmetry, how it repeated itself on either side, was a marvel to her. Sometimes she imagined folding the house in half and pressing one side against the other, flattening it out, matching up its edges, unfolding it another way. Today, waiting for the men to finish, she starts counting doors and thresholds, windows, considers the few places where the pattern of the house breaks. She wonders why such inconsistencies might have been acceptable for the woman who believed, so strongly, in the fact of repetition.

She remembers hearing that when spinning a web, some spiders use their legs as a way to measure the silken threads, to make it even. She wonders why all spiders didn’t do this. She wonders if the woman who had this house built watched those orb spiders in the garden stretch out a limb to make their perfect webs. She thinks about her body making this baby, about how her body knows what to do but sometimes doesn’t. And she thinks about the symmetry of parts, the body trying to replicate itself in miniature. Behind her bedroom wall, where the roofline curves, the electrician talks to someone else about circuitry—such a beautiful word—even though this morning, there is only their purposefulness. To fix the things that can be fixed and replace what cannot.

Monica Berlin’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth LetterThe Southeast ReviewThird CoastDislocateArtful DodgeThe Missouri ReviewAfter Hours, Diagram, Fourteen Hills, New Orleans Review, RhinoMemoir (and), and Passages North, where she was awarded the 2009 Thomas R. Hruska Memorial Prize in nonfiction. Her critically work has been published with MLA’s Professions, in Black Warrior Review, and with Dalkey Archive Press. Currently, an Associate Professor at Knox College in Galesburg, IL, Berlin teaches creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, focuses on late 20th and 21st century American literature, and serves as the Associate Director for the Program in Creative Writing. She is the creative nonfiction editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal, and the project director for The Knox Writers’ House, a digital audio archives of contemporary literature.

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