It is at my family’s little wooden cabin in rural northwest Wisconsin, one August Wednesday of my 29th year, that I wake up all alone and feeling funny. This particular day is the 29th of my cycle. I feel tired. I feel distracted. The novel I’m supposed to be writing won’t write. I don’t bleed. I need an answer. Braless, with unwashed hair, in jean shorts, I haul myself 27 miles in my mother’s car to the Ladysmith, WI Super Walmart, a major destination in the surrounding lake and farmland, and the only place I can think of where a pregnancy test can definitely be obtained. (I left the Midwest after high school to live in places where you can walk to the nearest drugstore — New York, San Francisco.) I scan the rack of EPTs and Clearblue Easys. I briefly consider stealing a pregnancy test so as not to have to face the cashier; then, I remember I am no longer 16. I pay and trot off to the restroom, faking casual confidence with my stride. Nothing to see here, folks.
In the empty Super Walmart bathroom, I tear open the package. I pee on the stick. I hyperventilate for 90 seconds, awaiting the result. It materializes in one bold, all-caps word, telegrammatic and unmistakable: PREGNANT. I scream out loud, my yowl echoing off the bathroom tiles. I drop the stick with a clatter. How many times had we even had unprotected sex? Shouldn’t it take longer than the two months I’ve been off the Pill for my body to refertilize? Am I actually prepared to gestate and raise a baby? I feel somehow betrayed by this situation I have so obviously manifested. I’ve never felt like more of a big-city sinner than in this moment, pregnant and alone in a small-town Walmart. And yet, a seed of excitement.
It materializes in one bold, all-caps word, telegrammatic and unmistakable: PREGNANT.
But then, back to dumbfounded: Can the principles of reproduction be this unapologetically simple? In a hormonal haze of shock and anxiety, I wander out of Walmart feeling bizarrely compelled to confirm this discovery with a medical professional immediately. Surely a Walmart test could be wrong. I spot a free pregnancy counseling clinic right across the street. Is it located adjacent to Walmart for exactly this purpose? I register the Christian connotation of the term “pregnancy counseling clinic” only when I reach a sign adorned by an angelic, soft-focus fetus. I gulp. Here I am, pro-choice to the core (regular donor to Planned Parenthood, organizer of my university’s delegation to the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, foaming-at-the-mouth liberal who hightailed it out of the deep Midwest to join the ranks of the urban left at the earliest possible opportunity), about to avail myself of the kind of Christian-right clinic that intimidates vulnerable preggos out of abortions. In other words, about to walk into exactly what I’ve been protesting for years. Can I do this? A bilious anxiety rises in my throat again. The only thing I want, so viscerally in this moment, is not to be alone. The clinic is free, I reassure myself, blind with emotional need, and they’ll be nice, since I’m not looking for an abortion. (At least, I don't think I am. Am I?) This is all happening so fast. Desperation acquaints a woman with strange bedfellows. Sometimes that’s where babies come from. Driven onward by that anxious loneliness — and some extremely Midwestern instinct, like not wanting to be impolite — I knock on the door and am met by a smiling, extremely perky, late-middle-aged woman. “Can you tell me if I’m really pregnant?” I ask breathlessly. “I sure can,” she says. “I mean, I already took a test at Walmart, and it was positive,” I ramble on. “But I guess I just wanted to confirm.” “You bet, honey,” the nice lady says. “Come on in.” She takes me into a pleasant room and gives me a test almost identical to the one I’ve just taken at Walmart. Obedient in my farce, I pee again, presenting the stick: PREGNANT. “Congratulations!” she says, hugging me, beaming. “Were you trying?” “Um,” I say, unsure how to answer this question honestly. “I guess it’s more like God’s sent my husband and me a happy surprise.” These are carefully chosen words, meant to convey that I’m already married and saved and not currently in need of recommendations from her on either issue. “Doesn’t He just do that?” the lady replies evenly, beaming again. “You can keep this,” she hands the test back, wrapped in a Kleenex, and tells me a story of a woman she knows who stuck her positive test in her husband’s French fries. You know, to surprise him. I laugh, but that’s disgusting.
They’ll be nice since I’m not looking for an abortion. (At least, I don't think I am. Am I?)
“Do you have kids?” I ask. “Four.” “Do you like them?” “A lot,” she nods emphatically. I am powerfully grateful for her effervescent Midwestern assurance. She reminds me of my aunties: their lilting accents, their maternal gravitas, their frank, hearty laughs. I can’t explain what it is I need in this moment, or why I need it, but whatever it is, any greater regional or political framework feels momentarily irrelevant to it. My choice in this moment happens to be one she supports — and certainly this interaction could have been very different, had I been seeking another option. But it’s also true that right now, I need someone to bear witness to me, and she does. She is kind to me. She treats me like kin, and for a moment, we coincide. She is my adversary and my family. Something in that simultaneity moves me. There seems no symbolism in it; I am, for a moment, overtaken by oceanic feeling. That, or it could be the progesterone surge. The woman chatters on, taking out a calendar wheel — it is incredible to me that medical science has not yet advanced past this gestational slide rule — to determine my conception and due dates: May 15. My baby is due May 15. I giggle. She giggles. I still can’t believe I’m here, but the Midwesterner in me loves this woman. I love her for being with me at this surreal, bewildering crossroads. I love her for making sweet-tempered small talk and, in doing so, taking me out of my own swirling, keeling, pregnant brain. Only in retrospect does something else clarify to me: This was the moment I chose to keep my baby. Nine months later, I give birth to a healthy baby boy, three weeks before his due date. We name him Josiah, called Jed. The Bible, and The West Wing. The intersection I have always lived. The next July, I find myself driving again to Walmart for a few groceries, with the baby in the back seat, and I spot the clinic. It’s a weekday; I’d bet anything the same woman is there. Before I can reconsider, I pull into the gravel driveway, angelic soft-focus fetus still supervising it all, like T.J. Eckleburg in utero. “Do you remember me?” I ask, smiling shyly as the baby wriggles on my hip, three months old, ripe and tender and beautiful. “Oh, honey,” she says, her hands flying up to her mouth as she gasps. “Of course.”