Jennette popped awake, rolling her head to look at the alarm clock, it was 4:39am, almost an hour before the alarm was set to wake. A feeling of discomfort brewed in her gut. Thirty seconds later her insides felt like a pile of snakes writhing on hot coals. Putting a hand over her mouth, she bounced out of bed and ran for the bathroom. Sliding on knees, she flipped up the seat on the toilet. The puke splattered into the bowl, the taste of bile forcing a couple more dry heaves.
Standing up Jennette twisted the wobbly chrome handle on the vanity faucet and filled the flimsy plastic cup used to rinse her mouth after brushing teeth. Swishing and spitting, she tried to get the vomit taste out of her mouth. Splashing water on her face, she rubbed the crust from her eyelids and pulled the towel from the rack to dry herself.
Looking in the mirror, framed by a slightly rusted medicine cabinet, she paused. God I look old. Crows feet were creeping from the hair line to an edge of sky blue eyes. Wisps of gray were sprinkled in dishwater blonde hair. Craning her head up, the skin on her neck was starting to sag and wrinkle. She smiled at the reflection. Not sure if she was actually happy, it felt forced, like she was trying to will herself to be happy.
Sliding open the cabinet she grabbed a bottle of multicolored wafers and tapped a few into the palm and tossed them in her mouth. Crunching them as she tousled her hair, she inched in close to the mirror. My pores look like craters! Aging was freaking her out. It felt like the four years she spent in prison had made her ten years older.
After a shower, she dressed in her freshly washed uniform and pinned a name tag on the front of her blouse. It was morning shift on a Monday. Lou's Diner would be full of blue collars needing to fuel up before doing the digging, sawing and pounding that kept their sleepy Midwest town humming along.
A dented blue Chevy creaked when she pulled open the door. The worn key felt loose in the ignition. If she didn't wiggle the gearshift a little it wouldn't turn over. The four cylinder grumbled to life and pulled her to work.
“You have the four tops over by the door.” Lou was the owner/manager/cook. “Natalie has the bar and other tables.”
Jennette forced a grin at Lou and started wiping down the tables. Her stomach wasn't done aggravating. An hour into the shift she excused herself, pulled off her apron and hurried to the bathroom. After retching in the stall for a bit, she tried to clean up in the tiny sink.
“Sorry Lou, my belly has been bugging me all morning.” Lou gave her the 'toughen up' look as he slid a full breakfast plate with a side of pancakes towards her.
The morning shift stretched until 3pm, by then her nausea had subsided. Pulling tips from the apron she counted, 67 dollars and 13 cents. She waved to Lou and Natalie and headed for the glass exit door. Looking up she saw the Norman Rockwell calendar on the wall and noticed the day. It was July 11. Oh shit! My last period was six weeks ago.
Later that night, she kept her eyes closed and her hand tingled with nerves holding the plastic wand. Opening them, there it was, two blue lines. I'm pregnant.
“Breaking news, the supreme court has reversed Roe vs. Wade. Any states with trigger laws on abortion have outlawed the procedure effective immediately.” The newscaster droned on from the television in the background. Jennette lived in a deep red state, one where people spray painted 'God, Guns and Guts' on the tailgates of their rusty pickups. What are the chances of ending up preggers the day your state outlawed abortion? She needed to call her mom.
“I don't know what to do Mom. I'm pregnant.”
“What?!? Oh Jen, don't tell me that. How?”
“I don't know. Well, I know how, I just can't believe it. I always take precautions.”
“Aren't you on the pill?”
“No, I can't afford it. I can barely make rent Mom.”
“Well I can't help you Jen. Since I moved into assisted housing there isn't much left over after I pay my bills.”
“What about Uncle Rob and Auntie Faye?”
“What are you gonna do, ask them for money?”
“I can get an abortion in Illinois. I'll tell them it is for a car repair or something.” Her aunt and uncle were deeply religious and regulars at church. Jen's mom always said they were rich. Jennette felt the tug of her old ways, 'A bitch has to do what she can to get by,' was one of her sayings from back in the day.
“I don't know hun. If they ask me, I'll have to lie about it.” Her mom was getting distraught. “I'll talk to you later.”
Jennette stared at the motel wall, finally able to hold down a job, her paycheck put a roof over her head. Her car ran well enough to keep her from having to walk to work, now this. She couldn't tell what's his name, he was sleeping on his brother-in-law's back porch on a couch, still begging her for cigarette money after they had sex.
Having stayed clean for her first six months of parole, a shiver shot through her body. She looked down at her arm. The thought of puncturing herself with a needle made her smile. Her body ached to feel the ice water course through her veins, and the blissful moment when one started to nod as the opioids massaged the pleasure centers in the brain. What the hell am I thinking?
Four years in prison for dealing dope hadn't erased the yearning for a high. Like an invisible demon it was always lurking just out of sight, waiting for moments of weakness to remind you how it would all disappear, if only for awhile, if you just gave in to the urge.
Jennette pulled a frozen dinner from the tiny fridge and slapped it in the microwave. As she chewed on the rubbery breaded chicken, she tried to imagine what she could say to her Aunt and Uncle. 'My car broke down and I can't get to work. I'm behind on my rent and I'm going to be homeless. I only need $500.00 dollars this time, I promise I'll pay you back when I can.'
They had heard it before. Before she was incarcerated she had made up every lie imaginable to keep dope in her needle. They cut her off when she was arrested for dealing heroin. The words stung, 'I can't believe your a junkie.' Faye's face loomed in her mind, wiping at tears with a tissue seated behind her in the courtroom. She remembered looking at her family as the officer led her out of the room in handcuffs and felt nothing. After a year in lockup a counselor said something that broke through her selfish façade. 'You're not just hurting yourself, you're hurting the ones you love.'
Laying on the bed, staring at the flatscreen watching the news, her old and new self wrestled for control. She couldn't be a mother. She could barely take care of herself. Picturing herself bloated and waddling around waiting tables at the restaurant, she cringed. I can't even afford to take a day off work.
Sleep was fitful that night, hot flashes came, forcing her to throw off the covers. At 3am Jennette retrieved the quart tub of store brand chocolate ice cream from the cramped freezer and sat in the dark, eating spoon after spoon, till she was scraping the waxy paper at the bottom of the tub and sucking on the spoon.
The next day work flew by, she planned on driving over past the next town to her Aunt and Uncle's house after her shift. It would be better to ask in person. They hadn't talked in a few months. The summer sun scorched the blacktop road. Rains of June had dried up leaving the woods and fields cracked and broken. She pushed the dial on the FM radio. 'Papa Don't Preach' by Madonna crackled over the car stereo. Tapping on the steering wheel, she suddenly noticed the vivid green of the leaves on the trees as they swayed in the hot summer wind.
Humming along, Jen sang the chorus, “Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep, Papa don't preach, I've been losing sleep, But I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby.” Realizing what she just sang, she pushed the button and turned it off. That was weird.
Corn fields whizzed by, anchored above by puffy white clouds and brilliant blue skies. Old barns hinted at simpler times, when everyone around tried to farm their way out of poverty. Uncle Rob sold most of the farm years ago. They kept the house and a few acres for the garden, the long driveway and red brick of the seventy year old single story ranch house loomed in the distance. Jennette started rehearsing. Car repair and rent, car repair and rent.
“Oh dear, you look wonderful.” Aunt Faye gripped her in a hug and smooched her cheek.
“Thank you Auntie.” She had showered and changed into nice clothes.
“Who goes there?”
Jen looked over at the easy chair that Uncle Rob was always dutifully holding down and was greeted with the likeness of a hairy, goat troll in bib overalls.
“Oh Robert take that silly mask off.” Faye rolled her eyes at her husband and shooed Jen in past the foyer. “I made fresh tea, would you like a drink? It's hot today.”
“How's my niece, still working at Lou's Diner?” Like most old men, Uncle Rob went right for a person's job situation. He stood up slowly and pulled off his mask, giving Jen a typical uncle side hug.
“You bet Uncle Rob. I'll be there until people find something better to do with their money than spending it on food.” Jen sat on the leather love seat, placing her keys next to her, where she knew they expected a husband to be.
“What brings you over on this steamy summer evening dear?” Aunt Faye handed Jen a tall glass full of ice cubes and unsweetened Lipton tea.
“I hate coming over under these circumstances, but I've hit a rough patch.” Jennette looked at the floor and took in a slow deep breath. “I need money.”
“Please tell me you're not using again,” Faye avoided looking at her and glanced over at Rob who was nervously fumbling with his eyeglasses.
“It's not that, I just...” Jen paused, thinking of her rehearsal. Her eyes searched for a distraction on the walls and stopped at the crucifix over the piano where she had sat many times on her Aunt's lap as she rehearsed for church. Below it a plaque read in bold letters 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.' Jen put her hand across her stomach and had a sudden memory from biology class, 'At six weeks the head and face are forming.' Her plan was falling apart. Her Aunt and Uncle had no children. Faye had endometriosis and couldn't conceive. “I'm pregnant.” The words fell out of her mouth. She kept her eyes to the floor, feeling the tears welling up.
Faye walked over and sat next to Jennette, hooking an arm around her as they both cried. “It's a miracle dear, you've been blessed.”
“It's a curse. I can't do this now. Not where I am in life. I don't have the ability to raise a child.” Her thoughts drifted to yesterday when she was wanting a fix.
“Your Uncle and I have talked about this. We would like to adopt your child. You just have to take care of yourself and bring the pregnancy to term.” Faye stroked Jen's hair trying to look at her face.
The words sunk in. Give up your baby. Nurture and grow a life inside of your body for nine months and give them to someone else. Them, the words seemed strange in her mind, just a few hours ago she had convinced herself the thing inside her was no more than a cluster of cells, now she was assigning it a pronoun.
“We can help with the finances dear. You need proper prenatal care, regular visits with an OBGYN.” Uncle Rob piped up from his usually quiet self.
“You can come over whenever you want. If the time is right we will tell them you are their mother.” Faye's gentle green eyes twinkled with hope.
“I don't know. I guess I have a decision to make.”
“We all love you Jen, just remember that.”
Jen stood up to leave, she felt numb and hollow. She had a weight on her now, an unbearable force. She now felt a responsibility beyond herself. A potential new life depended on her.
The drive home was full of nerves. Watch out for deer. Self preservation had boiled to the front of her brain. The thought of stopping for some junk food at the convenience store hit her. But what about...it.
The next few weeks were painful, Jennette agonized over simple choices everyday. Should she drink tap water, soda, anything with sugar? She googled every food choice, buying things at the grocery store became a field of landmines. Her first visit, the doctor insisted on a sonogram and gave her a prescription for prenatal vitamins.
She started feeling flutters in her womb, a primordial mammal was flipping and swimming inside a sack of fluid between her hip bones. She watched Alien, the movie again, Ridley Scott's adaptation of 'you gave birth to the worst critter ever.' Maybe natural childbirth wasn't so bad.
Her call to Auntie Faye went well, “I've decided to accept your offer. I will go through with the pregnancy.”
“Oh, Jenny! This is the best decision. You won't be disappointed,” Faye invited her over and explained the legal aspects of the arrangement. Adoption and abortion, the words were so close yet not.
Each ultrasound revealed a little more. All parties decided to not divulge the sex of the child until birth. A healthy human was not easy to construct. After the morning sickness subsided the perpetual hunger started. The weight gain that ensued was eventually recognized as a pregnancy by Jennette's customers. She tried to deflect the dad and due date questions.
Fall passed and Christmas came, she was through the second trimester. They would wake when she slept and sleep while she was awake. It was a 24/7 job with no paycheck. She had thrown the bathroom scale in a closet after so much weight gain. How could a five pound baby make you weigh forty more pounds? Then came cankles and the days of 'I only wear long dresses and loose tops.'
At some point buying clothes became farcical. Her nipples were always sore and tender, her hips expanded into celestial dimensions. The nightly ritual of this giant thing pressed into her skin, shifting and squirming inside her made horror films mild by comparison. The trips to the bathroom became so frequent she wanted a port-a-potty in the bedroom. How they knew how to kick her bladder over and over for a little extra room for themselves was a mystery.
Yet the due date approached, it was near Easter and Mom and Auntie insisted on a little baby shower.
“Have you thought of names Auntie?”
“Don't you want to name them?”
“No, if anything we should decide together.”
“How about Madison. It can be a boy or girl's name and means 'Son of Matthew' with Matthew meaning 'Gift from God.'”
“I like Madison.” Jen wrapped an arm around her bulbous belly as the baby shifted inside her. She finished a second piece of fudge cake and ice cream.
The last sonogram signaled that cervical ripening was imminent. The nurse said, “When the contractions are less than ten minutes apart, head to the emergency room.”
The following Saturday, Jennette had been off work most of the week. Uncle Rob offered to help with her bills.
When her Aunt and Uncle picked her up it was late, but her contractions had started and were getting closer together. “You know tomorrow is Palm Sunday?”
“What does that mean.” Jen was tensed up from the pain. Her body was preparing for birth on its own. She was merely a vessel now.
“It's the day Jerusalem welcomes Jesus. The people laid down palm fronds so his donkey would not have to step on the ground.”
“I need an epidural not palm leaves.” Jen laid back in the bucket seat until they reached the hospital.
“Oh wow! You are fully dilated, we don't have time to administer an epidural, you're going to have to tough this one out sister.” The nurse finished her exam in the emergency room and said, “Natural child birth.”
Later in the birthing room after an hour of pushing, Jen laying there in her birthday suit, lifted up and exclaimed, “Somebody better help me!”
The doctor sat up and said, “Cavalry is on the way!" and performed an episiotomy with his shears.
One push later, Madison was born to this world.