“Your mother’s going to hate me now,” he said. I retreated farther into my corner of the porch swing and hugged my knees close to my chest, withholding all the reasons my mother already hated him. She hated him because of the miles and decades which separated his birth from mine. She hated him because he had consumed marriageable years of my life. She hated him because long before we were born, his ancestors nestled high in the peeks above the famed gardens of Tabriz had begun referring to God by a new, singular name, while our ancestors, settled along the banks of the Indus and the Jhelum, continued to use the ancient names they always had. But most of all, she hated him because of a late summer day in 1947, when people using the new name for God forced her to leave those fertile river lands amid flashes of gleaming steel and streams of red.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, pushing the swing back and forth with his toes, allowing its rusting springs to squeak out the mantra he had revealed to me long ago: I don’t believe in marriage. What’s the point unless you are going to have kids? And I don’t want kids. I don’t want kids… I don’t want kids… I don’t want kids…
“What do you mean?” I asked, quickly spitting the accusation as if it were a question. “I’m going to take care of myself and take the vitamins and do whatever I can to be healthy. You know I don’t believe in that.” I shook my head with self-righteous vigor. “I would never … I could never….”
“It’s your choice,” he said. His long ebony lashes turned towards the cracked tiles beneath his loafers, which had suddenly become still, bringing the swing to a silent halt.
I turned my gaze towards the edge of the woods, where the cool, green oak leaves would soon warm to ruby-tinged shades of brown. “You know you don’t have to be involved if you don’t want to. I can do everything on my own. There are lots of women who….”
He looked up at me. “Oh, come on. What are you talking about? Have you been to the doctor yet?”
“No, I wanted to tell you first and now I think I should tell Mom.”
“Why don’t you go to the doctor first?”
“But she’s my mom and she deserves to ….”
“But are you sure? How do you know if…?”
“But I know. I took the home test and… I just know.”
“But why worry her? What if …? Never mind. Just go to the doctor and be sure before you tell her.”
I turned to look at the house, where the volume of my mother’s giant flat screen was turned up to a deafening level, the cacophony of voices from Hindi serial dramas and commercials for money transfer services and frozen paranthas fiercely competing with the deep mechanical exhalations of the oxygen concentrator at her bedside. Somewhere in between the tear stained pleadings of kohl-eyed heroines and the frigid hiss of manufactured air, a prayer from my childhood emerged: I’ll accept any one you love… even a black. But if you bring home a Muslim… Anyone but a Muslim… Anyone but a Muslim … Anyone but a Muslim….
“OK,” I said. “I’ll make an appointment.”
He is beige and I am brown, but here in the lobby of the Middle Tennessee Women’s Health Group, the two of us coalesce into a single dark spot in a sea of pink. Heads had turned when we entered and navigated the crowded waiting room before eventually finding our way to two empty seats near the door. Most of the other chairs are occupied by women, most of whom seem to be younger than me. Many are visibly swollen beneath their clothes. Some are accompanied by their mothers. A few sit next to fresh faced young men in jeans and baseball caps.
The back wall of the waiting area is decorated with a mural of a rosy cheeked girl with sky blue eyes. It begins underneath the small TV mounted to the upper- left corner of the room, where she is a tightly swaddled infant in her mother’s arms. Next, she is depicted in a black cap and gown, a neat bob of brown hair peeking out from beneath her tasseled mortar board as she clutches a scroll in one hand. Near the magazine rack, she wears a white lacy dress with a matching veil — this time holding a bouquet in one hand as doves float above her head. And finally, as the painting reaches the door, she stands cradling a swaddled newborn. The last portrait is identical to the first, except for the presence of her now spectacled mother peering over her shoulder.
When I pulled up to the building, he had been waiting in the parking lot. “You could have gone in,” I said.
He looked up at the clinic entrance and shook his head. “I wasn’t going in there without you.”
“OK,” I said. “Come on.”
As we were climbing the concrete steps, he stopped and looked back at me, pushing his brows together.
“What?” I said.
“Your face … It looks so small.”
My hand instinctively reached back to straighten my hair only to my find it gathered into an unruly black mass behind my head. “Oh…” I looked up at him. “You’re just not used to seeing me with my hair pulled back.”
Now, as the two of us sit side by side underneath the sterile glare of fluorescent lights with the little TV droning above us, I notice that his gaze is fixed on a heavily wrinkled man in dark blue denim overalls. I lean closer to him and whisper, “I wonder who he knocked up?” His laughter is only partially stifled. I giggle under my breath while fingering the hem of my dress, attempting to re-arrange the material to cover the lower portion of my thighs, which are covered in goosebumps. It’s a sleeveless summer dress from Target — thin black polyester with multi-colored flowers — hastily purchased the day I had to spend an extra night with my mother in the hospital. “It’s cold in here,” I whisper.
I continue surveying the waiting area to see faces turned up towards the little TV, which is tuned to the local news. There has been a bomb threat in Nashville. I look down at the clipboard in my lap and begin to fill out the information form. I carefully print my name and begin to write the date: September… September … September what? I glance up at the small tear away calendar on the ledge of the receptionist’s window to see the number eleven stamped in heavy black print. Around the room, eyes have widened, foreheads have creases, and some lips are beginning to part. The air conditioner kicks on with a boom that resonates within the pit of my stomach as the vent behind my chair releases a fresh blast of chilled air. I drop the pen and hug myself tightly, warming my bare shoulders and arms with both hands.
As the anchorwoman continues to describe the threat taking place less than fifty miles north of us a heavyset woman dressed in pink and blue scrubs emerges from an inner door with a file folder in her arms. “Pry- ya?” she calls out hesitantly. Pry- ya?”
I begin to get up, but he doesn’t stir. His face is relaxed, his eyes casually glancing around the room, but I know that his ears are fixed, held captive by the details emerging from the screen: The threat was called in early this morning. Authorities are still searching for the device. Viewers with information should call….
I nudge him softly. “That’s me,” I whisper. “Come on.”
As the nurse holds the door open for us and ushers us into the hallway, she gives me a nervous smile. “Did I get that right, hun?”
“Umm… actually it’s Pree-ya.”
“Oh, I just….”
“It’s OK,” I say, interrupting her apology with well-practiced nonchalance. “It happens all the time. It looks like it should be pronounced that way because of the i.”
She leads us to two chairs near the ultrasound room. He stops me before I can sit down. “Wait, let me sit here. You sit there,” he says, motioning to the chair directly across from the ultrasound room door. “I don’t want people to think I’m trying to peek inside.”
I sigh. “OK. No one thinks that, but OK.”
I feel at ease lying on the ultrasound table with a hospital gown covering my shoulders and a clean cotton sheet to protect my legs, basking in the semi-blackness of the tiny room, lit only by the glow of the projector. He sits stiffly on a chair near the door. I try to make eye contact with him, resisting the urge to giggle, as the technician slips a condom onto the ultrasound wand. But he is frozen in discomfort — his pupils rigid and stretched in the dim light. Together we stare at the image projected onto the wall in front of us. The dark shape is undefined and ambiguous, it’s boundaries soft and seemingly malleable as it floats within the glowing white light—a fuzzy Gestalt test. The room is silent save for the low hum of the machine as the tech continues to stare blankly at her laptop screen.
She finally speaks as I sit up. “There’s maxi pads in the dressing room in case you need them,” she says. He is not listening or perhaps pretending not to hear, but I nod with understanding and as I undress behind the curtain, I discover that the handful of pale specks I noticed on my panties last week—mere tinges of disappointment quickly washed away by the heaviness of my abdomen and the stinging in breasts—have developed into a steady current of deep red. It was only last night that the staccato dots lengthened into a trickle and morphed from drab brown to bright pink. That was when I grabbed the iPhone from my purse and the cordless phone from the kitchen counter and sank down into the sofa cushion with both devices spread in front of me.
First I picked up the landline phone and began composing lines: Yes…. Hi…. Yes, I’m a little over seven weeks pregnant and I’ve started bleeding…. Yes, I was spotting before, but now it’s changed… and …. What would the response be at the other end of the line? Maybe silence. Maybe I would be reprimanded. Maybe a few streaks of pink weren’t worthy of 911.
I thought of waking my mother and helping her to sit in the car with the portable oxygen tank so that we could make the forty-five-minute drive to the emergency room together. I could hear her gasping for air as she looked at me with wide questioning eyes, her graying pupils struggling to hold long ago recorded images of hooves on dusty paths and raven-haired girls being thrown to the ground. And once we made it to the hospital, what would they do? What could be done for one who was yet to be seen or heard?
I thought of calling him again. “I don’t know how this is going to work,” he had said earlier that day, after I told him about the brown spots. “You’re out there alone carrying baby and mom is sick…. Maybe you have to come and stay here—I don’t know. I was up all night reading on the computer and calling to my sister in Tehran. I mean if it comes to your health or….” I released the kitchen phone and reached for the iPhone, picturing him in front of his kitchen table, staring at the laptop next to a rapidly cooling cup of black tea, sucking on a sugar cube and typing with one finger as I had seen him do on so many nights before.
In the days before my mom started having accidents—when she could still drive to her office and take a handful of pills twice a day without being prompted—we would sit together at his table. After finishing a meal of beef and potato cutlets or a pot of homemade chili, I would inch my chair closer to his as we searched YouTube for videos in Turkish, Farsi, Hindi, and Punjabi, intermittently exchanging stories like the time when I was twenty and watched my father die in a hospital bed or the time when he was twelve and heard that his seventy something-year-old father was dead. “I never really knew my dad,” he told me one evening. “He was just an old man to me.”
Now the chair beside him would be empty, as his index finger painstakingly tapped phrases into the Google search box: pregnancy, early pregnancy, bleeding, cost of raising a child… and what else? What else would he be searching for?
I looked at his number on the glowing screen and kept scrolling, staring intently at each number I passed. My sister? No, her reaction could only be a lesser version of my mother’s. The friendly aunt? No, best not to involve relatives at this point. A girlfriend from college who was now a mother? No, we hadn’t been close lately. Not close enough, anyway, for her to understand. I could hear her response: Why don’t you just tell your mom? Why don’t you call him again? He should be there with you. I exhaled deeply, allowing another set of digits to surface—a number I had seen in ink. I went to my purse again and weeded through crumpled dollar bills and old receipts before pulling out an appointment card from the Women’s Health Group, on which the practice’s after-hours number was printed.
After dialing, I was quickly transferred to the on-call doctor, who listened patiently as I recited the words I had prepared. Her voice came back calm and detached. “Well, any time there’s bleeding, it’s considered to be a threatened pregnancy. The color doesn’t change anything. Since you already have the first ultrasound scheduled for tomorrow, you can wait and go to your appointment as planned.”
After I finish changing, we re-enter the brightness of the waiting room. The TV is still on. It turns out the bomb threat was just that—a scare and nothing more. No bomb was found and the perpetrators of the call are in now custody. I sense his muscles relaxing beside me, as their stunned mahogany faces—several shades darker than his and at least one hue beyond my own—are flashed on the screen. He turns to me and whispers, “Hey, I think I saw something in there… like a little blob or something. I think it’s going to be ok.”
“Yeah I saw it to…. But did you hear anything?”
“Me neither. Maybe they didn’t have the sound turned on.”
The nurse appears at the door once again and this time we both rise immediately as she confidently enunciates, “Pree-ya.” She shows us to a familiar exam room that smells of rubbing alcohol and brown paper towels, pointing out a chair for him, as I climb onto the edge of the table. I allow my legs to dangle as we wait, gently swinging my feet back and forth and luxuriating in the sound of the crisp white paper crinkling behind my knees. There’s a gentle knock at the door before my nurse practitioner enters carrying her tablet and wearing an empathetic smile. She is close to my age and has a habit of introducing herself as “Priya’s friend” when she calls our house to deliver test results. She raises the tablet slightly as she speaks. “So… Priya, I’ve had a chance to look at your ultrasound here and I’m sorry there was no heartbeat.”
Her hand lands lightly on top of mine at the same time I feel his arm fall across my shoulders. Both gestures seem unwarranted, as I hear my voice pronouncing syllables that are unplanned and unrehearsed. “But maybe I’m not really eight weeks…. Maybe it’s too early for the heartbeat. “What if we miscalculated and this is only week seven? What if I come back next week?” My cheeks feel moist as I watch her nod, compassionately pretending that she is listening to a logical argument.
“Well … that is a very good point, Priya. But we’re sure. I’m sorry.” She hugs me before helping me down from the table to sit beside him, and she begins to describe the days ahead. She tells me about the pain, how much blood I should expect to lose, and the risk of depression.
“But she is strong,” he quickly interjects.
“Yes, she is. But even the strongest need some help sometimes. You call us if you need anything, okay?”
There is a lightness in his gait as we descend the concrete steps into the parking lot. As we approach my truck, the high mid-day sun reveals no more than two randomly placed silver strands peeking out from the head of jet black hair which he swears has never been dyed.
“I have to get bloodwork,” I say, waving a thin stack of stapled white pages in front of him, allowing the sheets to flutter, flag-like, in the burgeoning Autumn breeze.
His voice regains its familiar cadence as he says, “Ok, but aren’t you hungry? I thought we could go to lunch.”
“Yeah, but I want to get this over with first. Let’s take two cars and we can go from there.”
“OK, I’ll follow you.”
We are the only two in the waiting room of the outpatient lab down the street. I stand alone when the phlebotomist emerges in a clean white coat. His pale, bare head shines underneath the ceiling lights as he looks down at the clipboard in his hands. “Well, I recognize that name,” he says. “Are you related to …?”
I am already nodding and smiling tightly. “Yes, he’s my uncle—my dad’s little brother.”
“Well, how about that? I worked with him over at the hospital for years. How’s old Di doing?”
“Good. He’s good.”
“So, then your dad was…?”
“Yup, that was my dad,” I confirm, still nodding as I feel the corners of my mouth soften and spread farther apart.
His smile also broadens as he shakes his head. “Boy, I’ve heard some stories about him.” he says, the sizeable belly beneath his lab coat moving up and down each time he chuckles. “Come on back, dear.”
I follow the smiling phlebotomist into a small room tiled with pale green linoleum squares. “Have a seat right there, dear” he says, pointing towards a chair with a little table attached to it like an old- fashioned school desk before rolling his stool in front of me. “OK. Let’s see what we got here.” I offer him both arms, resting them on the table so that the delicate underside of each forearm is exposed. He grabs a rubber tie from the cart beside him and begins to tap the inside of my right elbow. “Not much here… Let’s take a look at your other arm.” He taps the crook of my left arm and knits his brows. “Well, you ain’t got no veins, girl.” He keeps looking. “OK. Maybe this one. Let’s try this one,” he says as he begins to tie the rubber snugly around my left bicep. “OK, just a little stick now….” I nod and look away, holding my breath as the surgical steel plunges beneath my skin. When the burning ends, a grey-blue amoeba like bruise is spreading beneath my skin, while the two vials lying on the table remain empty.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. Let’s try another one,” he says, scanning the same area for another target. Then tap, tap, stab and burn—another bruise. “Well that one blew too.” He sighs as he continues to inspect my arms, turning them over one after the other. “Have you had much to eat or drink today?”
“No, I guess not,” I answer weakly then hesitate for a few seconds before making another offer. “Sometimes they can get it in my hands….” He carefully lifts my right hand to take a closer look at the faint threads of green and blue running across its surface before gazing at my face. I wonder if there are black mascara streaks beneath my eyes. He releases my hand and intently study his clipboard. When he finally looks up, his expression is changed. “Well, I don’t want to keep hurting you. Maybe you can come back when you’re having a little bit of a better day.”
At the restaurant, he asks for chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. I order the vegetable plate with green beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. When our food arrives, he peers across the wide glossy tabletop between us to stare at my plate with mild disgust. “That’s what you ordered? I thought you should have some good, strong food. Maybe some protein….”
I jab into the little bowl of elbow macaroni with the sharp points of my fork, spearing several pieces and shoveling them into my mouth. “But I like all this stuff,” I say, after managing to swallow an oversized mouthful of macaroni that is overcooked and smothered in watery powered cheese.
I watch him eat, blissfully scooping up heaps of potatoes with bits of steak dipped in gravy, as the stainless-steel tines of his fork repeatedly hit the white ceramic plate in an easily recognizable rhythm: What are you going to do? I don’t want kids… I don’t want kids… I don’t want kids…. The gently rounded counters of his face, remarkably smooth for a man old enough to be my father, exude peace and vulnerability.
“Are you relieved?” I ask suddenly, expertly launching the explosive question-accusation from my side of the table. There is a brief silence as his fork becomes still and his eyes grow large to absorb the shock.
His voice is low when he begins to speak. “You know it hurts me too, Priya…. You know that empty bedroom upstairs?”
I remain silent. I know the room—an extra guest bedroom with a small window that has been unfurnished for all the eight years I have known him—but I wait, unsure if he is gathering his defenses or preparing a mercy plea. Then his voice becomes softer, raspier—almost a whisper. “I thought maybe…. I was thinking maybe it was for the baby.”
I carefully study his face again. An ashy black cloud has settled beneath his eyes, casting craggy downward looking shadows, which make his features appear almost as small and dark as my own.
He feels soft and warm when I hug him in the parking lot, the steady heartbeat emanating from beneath his cotton shirt speaking tones of surrender. But I am still wounded and on the lookout for possible threats. And as his arms tighten around me, I feel eyes watching us. I turn my head to see a group of men making their way into the restaurant. They are wearing jeans and work boots, flashing conspiratory smiles at each other, as they stare in our direction. I reach down to adjust my dress, once again pulling at the hem, trying to make the fabric longer as I free myself from his embrace.
“Go home and get some rest, girl. I’ll call you later,” he says, kissing me lightly on the lips and then on the top of my head. I say nothing before turning away from him and driving home to shed our blood.
Dhwanie Priya is a graduate of Belmont University and The Writers’ Loft at Middle Tennessee State University. She currently lives in middle Tennessee, where she writes and teaches yoga.