Letitia L Moffitt

That’s Nothing

I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard a voice coming from the middle of my womb.

“Get up. We need to have a chat.”

I clapped a hand over my abdomen and sat up, careful not to bounce. Our mattress was like a trampoline—you couldn’t twitch without rocking the other person—and even though Marc was a fairly heavy sleeper, the writhing fits I had during sleep tended to keep both of us up. Three of us up, apparently. Sleep terrified me. Dozing and dreaming I savored when I could, but the complete collapse of time and space, the heavy coldness, the submitting and dissolving there into—I fought that as though it were a tangible foe. Maybe that’s why I like living just two stories over 14th and B, police sirens and car alarms and hollering DT drunks to help fight off the enemy. This is why being awakened by a disgruntled fetus at three in the morning wasn’t an entirely unwelcome event.

I slid off the bed and tiptoed out into the living room. The voice had been surprisingly clear, with a distinctly female pitch. Of course it was female. Delilah wanted a girl. Originally, before I’d found out about my pregnancy and proposed the deal to her, she had considered adopting one from China because, as she put it, “I’d love to take a girl away from a culture that devalues femaleness and raise her to be proud of her identity.” Delilah loved causes—mostly, I suspect, because she loved drama. Last week, cooperative farms; this week, female identity empowerment; every week a struggle. On the other hand, at least she had clearly thought this thing through. Delilah wanted a baby, and would do whatever it took to get one. I didn’t, and would choose the path of least resistance to get out of it.

I seated myself on the sofa and said, “Hi.” I felt foolish at once, talking with my head ducked down like a penitent. I looked up toward the bedroom; Marc was still snoring softly within and hadn’t heard, so I bowed again. “Yes, um—how are you?”

“Cut the small talk,” she snapped. “You are on the verge of handing me over to a woman who is insane. Explain yourself.”

“Oh. That. Well … if it’s any consolation, maybe it turns out that nature beats nurture. So you’ll take after me and not her.”

She was not to be won over with gentle sociogenetic humor. “Yeah, that’s some consolation coming from someone who’s addressing her navel right now. Come on. You know the woman is unfit for raising a child. You’ve said so yourself! Bad tempered, mentally unstable, financially ruinous—those are the exact terms you used. Remember the conversation you had with daddy dearest?”

“Oh. Right.” That conversation, as I remembered, came after he found out about the agreement I made with Delilah, only days after he found out about the accidental conception we’d achieved. “I can’t believe you’d give a baby to her, Annabelle,” was all he said. Interesting, I thought at the time. Not “our” or “the,” or even “it.” A baby. And he seemed far less concerned about the baby-giving part than the her. Funny thing, though, that was exactly the word choice I wanted to hear. Marc and I had shared a cluttered apartment and an uncomplicated companionship for six years without any possessive pronoun issues. We liked the same things (indie films, Indian food, abstract expressionism, jazz—the kinds of things that make New Yorkers think they’re special, just like everyone else); we split the bills, shared the chores, gave each other as much room as we could and discussed the future the same way we discussed the past—as though there wasn’t much point in dwelling on either for too long. I’d figured the arrangement I made with Delilah would make or break the one I had with Marc. He’d either be appalled and leave, or indifferent and shrug shoulders. At the moment he was still shrugging, though appalled-and-leaving could still happen. I felt prepared in either case.

Anyway, that was the point in the conversation when I brought up all that bad temper, mentally unstable, financially ruinous business to Marc, but then quickly added, “Despite that, though, Delilah really wants a child, and I really, really don’t. Seems clear cut to me.” I waited for him to jump in with “what about me,” which would point toward him leaving, but he simply shook his head with a wry grin.

“Can you see her doing Mom things? Even something simple like trying to teach the kid to ride a bike, she’d be throwing fits, screaming her head off till the neighbors called the cops.”

“Yeah, well, the devil you know,” was all I said. I half believed it; there were certainly far worse people out there than Delilah.

But Marc had a good point. When Delilah screamed, she did more than just raise the volume of her voice. The voice raised and curled over and burst, a wave edged with rabid foam. She cried easily and often, not a self-pitying cry that invited sympathy but a murderous, raging cry boiling with tears that made you fear for your safety. She excelled in making things more difficult than they ever needed to be. As Marc put it, you were never bored when Delilah was around. He didn’t mean it entirely as a compliment.

I leaned back on the sofa, trying to get comfortable; my vertebrae already ached and I wasn’t even carrying any extra weight yet. Still, what there was of it seemed pretty pissed off at the moment. “Look, I know Delilah’s difficult,” I said cautiously. “But—”

Difficult?”

“—I also know she means well and wants to do the best thing for everybody involved.” I did believe this, though I also knew that Delilah’s idea of the best thing to do seldom was. I also knew that Delilah believed the same things about me—that I meant well, that I had everyone’s best interests in mind—only she was much more charitable to me. She always put a positive spin on everything I did, and I guiltily allowed her to. She wept wildly when I explained the agreement to her, bawling because we wouldn’t see each other for a long time, but also in awe of how self-sacrificing she thought I was being. Finally, of course, she sobbed that everything was just so overwhelming for her—as it always was.

When we were in college, my friends and I used to play a little game called That’s Nothing. It was always played in Delilah’s absence. Basically one of us would start by describing what a terrible day she just had—as in, “Oh my god, my boss has made me work late every single day this month. And we’re not talking like half an hour late, we’re talking like I didn’t even get home until about twenty minutes ago.” And then another person would chime in, “That’s nothing! Why, Delilah’s boss made her stay at work for two weeks without ever letting her go home! In fact, her boss even wrote the post office to have Delilah’s mail delivered to her at work, since Delilah wouldn’t be going back to her apartment for some time.”

Or, “I’m so tired. I just couldn’t fall asleep last night. If I got 15 minutes of REM, I was lucky.”

That's nothing! Delilah once went sleepless for 200 hours straight. Talk about insomnia! She’d grind up two dozen melatonin tablets every evening and sprinkle it in her milk but it just didn’t do any good. It was one for the medical books, all right.”

We would laugh until our sides hurt, then feel mildly guilty, and so one of us would say something like, “We’re terrible,” and the others would agree, shaking our heads and grinning, but it wasn’t guilt over Delilah, it was guilt over ourselves for our own cattiness. Nobody felt truly bad for Delilah in the That’s Nothing game. Nobody needed to. Anyone, the unspoken reasoning went, who suffered as much as she claimed to have suffered—and that was more than any human being on earth—hardly had need for the useless sympathies of pathetic creatures like us.

I started feeling a lot guiltier about the game than the others, though, because I learned more of the truth. Delilah had had a terrible life. She had been molested by multiple family members, kicked out of her home, lived on the streets, all pretty much before I’d even been taught how babies were made. (I’d finally learned from a nun at my Catholic high school, which might account for something of the predicament I was in now.)

At first I’d felt terribly sorry for Delilah, but even more than that, I was impressed that such an upbringing hadn’t left her wallowing in self-pity. Delilah didn’t wallow. At the same time, Delilah didn’t exactly put those things behind her.

Several times a year one of her family members would call her just to tell her what a bitch and a whore and a traitor to the family she was, and she’d go storming out the door, onto the M train, over to Queens to have it out. Then a month later the same thing would happen in reverse: she would initiate the call, they would come banging on her door. This was something I could never understand. Why did Delilah feel the constant need to stir things up? If she hated her family, if they hated her, why cut their faces out of photographs and then carefully frame and display those damaged pictures on bookshelves and end tables? Why call them up just to say, “I called you up just to say,” and end the sentence thirty minutes and a thousand invectives later?

I had smoothly worked out my relationship with my own parents: so long as we lived on opposite coasts from each other at all times and phoned only on major holidays (two Christian, three secular), we didn’t have to dredge any unpleasantness up ever again. We got along just fine that way; why bother burying the hatchet when you can simply move 2,000 miles away from it?

And yet for all that, Delilah and I had stayed friends for nearly a decade. I attribute that almost entirely to her efforts; obviously Delilah didn’t give up on people easily. She liked that I listened. She respected my pragmatic nature, praised my even temper. She laughed at all of my jokes, never at me, though she easily could have and perhaps should have, given our polarities, given the way I must have seemed so complacent to her—really, so dull. She often even wished that she could be more like me – me. Most of the time I didn’t even want to be like me.

And no, I was never bored around Delilah. But we really were opposites after all; I did give up on people easily.

“Listen to me!” That shrill little voice again, shimmying up and down my internal organs. “I want to know what’s up with that ‘agreement’ of yours.”

I winced. I’d hoped she wouldn’t bring up the agreement. “Er, what do you mean? What else is there to know about it?”

“How can you contemplate going through all those years knowing what I’ll be going through, without even once checking to see how I’m doing?”

The agreement was that I would have nothing to do with the baby, nothing whatsoever, for as long as it was Delilah’s dependent. But the agreement went both ways: Delilah was not to send baby pictures, glowing e-mails, newsletters at Christmas, or even call just to say hi and nothing else. “It’s something like an amicable divorce with an 18-year restraining order; she gets the kid, I get off on child support,” I joked once to Marc. He just looked at me. Delilah and Marc didn’t exactly get along, not surprisingly, the few times they’d been in each other’s presence; she thought he was snooty because he hardly ever spoke to her, he found her irritating because she kept trying to provoke him into speaking. Each time after these encounters, he would wonder aloud why in the world I kept being friends with her. And yet, at that particular moment, I knew Marc was wondering how I could stop.

Well?”

If she’d had fingers long enough to drum with impatience, she would have. I cleared my throat. “Well … the agreement … it keeps things clear. I won’t interfere in her relationship with you, won’t make it harder for her to establish herself as mom. Meanwhile she won’t torture me by contacting me to let me know how things are going. No regrets, no wondering endlessly ‘what if.’ It’s really for everyone’s benefit.”

“Well, it seems to be working out quite well for you.” Her scorn could’ve ripped my skin off from the inside. “You’ve only known her for a few years; can you imagine a lifetime with her?”

I didn’t want to, but my little bundle of in potentia joy gave me no choice. I could hear it already, Delilah screaming out of nowhere, out of nothing. Screaming. For things that weren’t exactly criminal acts. For a coat left on the floor instead of being hung up, you’d think the house was in flames. And then would she spew forth tales from her own abused childhood, the moral of the story always the same. “My parents were shit. You don’t know how lucky you are,” each syllable punctuated with a smack of right fist to left palm. Ever since her quest for adopted offspring began, she started bringing up her lousy rotten childhood again and again: her selfish whorey mother and evil bastard father and every fucked-up sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle who made it their business to find some way to screw her over. I didn’t know which was the chicken and which the egg, so to speak—whether rummaging through that baggage made her want a child to right the wrongs, or whether wanting a child made her reopen it all once again.

But I knew the problem really wasn’t Delilah. It was me. It was just too easy for me to make that agreement, to cut off offspring and old friend just like that. It was too easy to have the sort of relationship with Marc wherein we made our own decisions by ourselves, consulting each other occasionally for advice but never facing mutual consequences. Too easy being a long-distance daughter, making contact only when different garish decorations at department stores reminded me that another phone call was imminent. Way too easy to just slip through everything like this. Then one day slipping away, giving it all up, and that’s it. No knots or tangles or webs to struggle against, no tearful scenes or shouting matches. It shouldn’t be that easy.

“You obviously have no ethical conscience; why didn’t you consider terminating the pregnancy?”

Twisted little creature, wasn’t she. I sucked in a sharp breath as though I’d been kicked in the stomach, even though that wasn’t possible from her either at only four weeks along. “I did consider it. This just made more sense.”

“In what way?”

She was going to make me say it. I didn’t want to, the way some people don’t even like to think the word “cancer” in the off chance that word might become flesh. But then there were also those people who told everyone of their fears that their airplane was going to crash. Bad things liked to sneak up on you; they couldn’t this way, and besides, accurate clairvoyance was probably an even longer shot than death by plane crash. Which way to go, then: cancer or plane crash? I took another breath, prolonged this time, as much as I could. “OK, here it is: I did it because I’m afraid of death.”

Silence, then a faint snort. My innards gurgled on top of that, as though siding with her in mocking me. “Wait, hear me out. See, I thought that it really might help having a piece of me walking around in the world, as they say. At a very literal level, I wouldn’t be completely dead.”

“I don’t buy it.”

I sighed. I didn’t think she would. “Well, your mother-to-be probably agrees with you. Delilah would say that’s a male way of thinking. But it’s really more something a very intelligent single-celled creature would understand. The marvels of mitosis! Envy the amoeba, who simply squirts off parts of itself endlessly, unto immortality.”

“Oh, so you wanted to be less afraid of death. Did you ever consider my feelings? What about me?”

“No offense, dear, but what about you? Where were you when I had to make the big decision? Oh, that’s right, mutely sucking away nutrients from my bloodstream. Would you have preferred I listened to you and did absolutely nothing?”

“Maybe.” She sounded sulky now. “How do you know you’d be a worse mother than Delilah? Maybe you’d be a much better one.”

“Impossible. I could put on a good act for a while, but the cracks would show, I just know it. At least with Delilah, it’s all out in the open.”

“Like a gaping chest wound.”

Minus eight months old and already a smart-ass. “Look, Miss Sarcastic … oh, now, see that? Miss Sarcastic. I know insults that could send a teamster crying home to mama, and you’ve already got me reduced to this. A sit-com mother. Not going to happen. I won’t become a cliché.”

“You’re already a cliché. Everyone’s afraid of death.”

“That, my dear, is no consolation.” Sweat was matting my hair into damp clumps. I said nothing for a moment, then quietly added, “Delilah isn’t afraid.”

This was undeniably true; Delilah had never been afraid of death or anything else. We’d had long arguments about the subject, with me unable to grasp how she couldn’t be completely freaked out at the thought of life going on—carnivals, school science fairs, laundry, war and peace, day after day, year after year—while she wasn’t going on with it. Forever. Of course she took the opposite view, passionately and tearfully. Eternal oblivion seemed a treat to her, and I couldn’t understand that because (I sensed That’s Nothing material approaching) I hadn’t suffered the way she had. She was right, of course—I hadn’t. Nor did I wish to. Suffering never struck me as noble, but neither did endless nothingness appeal to me as a rewarding afterlife, even if Delilah vehemently believed so. As incomprehensible as her viewpoint was to me, it was perhaps the one thing of hers I truly envied.

“Sorry, but not being afraid of the grim reaper isn’t going to make her mother of the year.”

I struggled to keep from shouting. “Don’t you see? Maybe I’m actually sparing you one of the worst things in life, worse than having Delilah as a mother, at least as I see it. It’s like—it’s like I can’t ever enjoy anything because I keep thinking of all the people who have just died who are missing this and everything else that’s happening and continues to happen. And one day that’ll be me. And what choice do I have? I can’t fight it. I never fight anything. But it’s been making me nuts – to the point where I’m talking to my own uterus at three in the morning.”

She was silent for a while, and then her voice went all quiet and creepy. “You know something, you’re wrong about the nature/nurture thing. Perhaps it turns out I take after Delilah – and I’m not afraid of death either.”

“I’m thrilled you think so, but how the hell would you know? You haven’t even been born yet.”

I sensed her smiling at some private joke all her own. What a hell of a teenager she’d be. “You’ll see,” she said smugly.

* * * * *

So I miscarried almost painlessly, and how’s that for irony – normally, without the deal Delilah and I were working out, this might have been the most ideal ending of all. No unpleasant trips to the clinic past picketers and potential assassins, everything taken care of naturally. Plus there’s the added implication that my womb might simply not be a habitable place, which to someone who doesn’t want children couldn’t be much more than mildly disconcerting at worst, incidentally beneficial at best.

I had imagined being eaten up by loneliness after it was all over, but instead now I mostly feel a sour sort of chagrin. Someone, either me or her, had decided that the whole thing wasn’t worth the bother. Anyway, Delilah has started looking seriously into adoption again; now some anonymous woman will be getting what I don’t. If Delilah goes through with it, I have half a mind to track down the mother and force her to go through the same mental mayhem I had. But what will she care. A piece of her will continue after her death, whether she knows it or not. After all our deaths.

Of course, Marc and Delilah have both rallied around me—in their own separate, polar-opposite ways. Marc doesn’t complain about my agitated insomnia any more—pretends, with laborious breathing and limbs akimbo, to be undisturbed, deep in slumber, each time I inadvertently jostle him, at the same time nonchalantly throwing an arm over me, burying nose in nape, a tangible presence against the unseen enemy, so he believes. And Delilah comes over all the time, tearfully glad we can still be friends, even humbly asking that I act as godparent (if she decides to go with “that particular line of spirituality,” that is, not having ruled out Pagan or Wiccan yet, with Buddhism still in the running). And here I had thought I’d end up cut off from them both for good. Even my parents, who didn’t hear a single word about the grandchild they’d never get to spoil, called on a Tuesday that was no holiday I know of, just to say hi. Almost literally just “hi,” and maybe a line about the weather or the local sports team. But none of this has helped to change the whole death business one bit. If anything, now I feel a lot worse about it. Something’s always slipping away: skin cells, toenails, eyelash; appendix and tonsils; baby teeth; baby. Father, mother, partner, friend. Somewhere in there, me.

Or perhaps I’m making things more difficult than they need to be. Rather Delilah-like of me, I’d say. Isn’t that something.

Letitia L. Moffitt's work – fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction – has been published in literary journals including Black Warrior Review, Aux Arc Review, Jabberwock Review, Coe Review, The MacGuffin, and Dos Passos Review, and her recently completed short story collection has been a finalist for prizes from both Livingston Press and Black Lawrence Press. She received a doctoral degree in English and creative writing from Binghamton University in New York, and currently teaches creative writing as an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University.