Human Life – Maya Chang Matunis
November 17, 2022
I’ve stockpiled eight boxes, sixteen pregnancy tests in total. They sit on the shelf behind the toilet next to the abandoned tampons and sanitary pads, decorated by dust. Moving through the room from the door to the toilet, I rearrange empty cardboard tubes and used tissues into little sculptures with my feet. I haven’t cleaned Jacob’s bathroom in weeks. It’s nice, in a way, to dissolve into grossness now that I’m here without him. Jacob hated mess almost as much as he enjoyed watching me clean it. I wonder what he would think of the disaster I’ve made of my life and his apartment. My fingertip makes a little trench as it drags through the dust on top of the tests, and I admit that today isn’t the day I’ll use them. I just need a little more time.
I bike down the icy driveway to the corner store behind the gas station to buy potato chips and another box of pregnancy tests. I know the route well, but the trip is harder with an extra rider. My anxiety is a particularly unwieldy passenger, balancing on my pegs, clinging tightly to my midsection. I can feel the neighbors watching me from behind their windows, chewing slowly, their heavy chests tormented by the effort of breathing like plastic blow-up dolls.
Signs advertise a nativity play at the local middle school, and the pavilion in the town square drips with blinking rainbow Christmas lights. This is the kind of place where each holiday is announced in anonymous decorations for ‘Halloween!’ then ‘Thanksgiving!’ then ‘Christmas!’ and so on. Dad stands proudly in the doorway of his beige shotgun house, surveying the snow-covered lawn, pulling up the zipper on his fleece. Mom is visible through the fogged-up kitchen window, showing her son how to decorate sugar cookies. Signs caution you to drive carefully, like your children live here.
Their roads aren’t made for bicycles, though, and my front wheel hits a pebble nestled in a pothole full of rocks. I land bare-palms down on the grimey asphalt in the gas station parking lot. Blood mixes with loose gravel. If something is stuck inside of me, I hope the impact was enough to dislodge it.
When I get up and walk through the door, I lock eyes with the pale girl behind the counter. She wears a red uniform polo shirt the color of the aggressive acne pocking her jaw and neck. It’s bad, and it makes her look like a leper. I beeline for the snack aisle, single minded. Choosing potato chips is my main pleasure. My stomach is a subaltern altar, its votives made of vegetable grease, the sound of my chewing ringing in my ears like prayer bells. I imagine that this is what Om feels like to the bald-headed monks sitting cross-legged atop Tibetan mountains. For me, the breath of life.
Today I select a new ridged sour cream variety because maybe novelty will kickstart my body into motion. Barbeque too. I bring them to the counter. They keep the pregnancy tests behind the register to keep girls from stealing them, since each one must be logged with the Department. They also won’t let you buy more than one box at a time. Smart, I guess, because if I could, I would buy out the whole store, the whole town, the whole country. I ask The Leper for a pack of tests and when she extends her arms to retrieve it from the shelf behind her, I can see the white of her soft belly beneath her shirt. I look away, feeling aroused and disgusted. She doesn’t offer me a bag and when I look down at the pregnancy tests in my hands as I leave, they are covered in blood from my shredded palms.
* * *
I am feeling things in my stomach that I cannot possibly be feeling. Warped things, taken from the Department manuals stuffed in my mailbox about how it feels to have a baby inside. How wonderful and sacred and correct it feels. Fingernails digging into the plush velvet walls of my uterus like a cat scratching at an overstuffed armchair. Hair sprouting from pores littering a clementine-sized scalp, pressing against my bladder. These accessories, nails and hair, form and then fall away, leaving a clump of matter as small and red and shapeless as warm jello. Then, when I’m not paying attention, they come again. Blood stretches the walls of my arteries, pounding like a mallet against the thin skin of a kick drum. The intangible pain in my uterus laughs on springs, like a manic cuckoo bird. I am worried sick, and hope that each time I force myself to vomit, another piece of it comes up, mixed in with the chips. Even if I were pregnant, I wouldn’t be feeling these things so intensely, so soon. Right? I have nobody to ask.
Sometimes when I look down at myself I am transparent, and I can see the outline of each of my organs with perfect clarity. On these days, I bike in laps around town and peek into windows, wondering how long past Christmas the decorated trees will stay standing in the living rooms. Sometimes, though, I look down and my body isn’t my body at all, but a tangle of cells as dense and hard as a peach pit. I throw myself against the interior walls of the apartment, attempting to break the stone into a thousand shards. I start smoking cigarettes again outside of the convenience store, the radio bleeding through the window, playing the hits from a decade I didn’t live through. I drop the butts on the ground and watch as the red light snuffs out against the white snow.
I make my way to the corner store behind the gas station while a Subaru Outback that might once have been khaki green honks languidly at me for a mile. The Leper takes her time ringing me up, as if she knows something I don’t. She hands me the box of pregnancy tests and the family-sized bag of Lays I’ve just bought and tugs at her polo. My insides tremble and I wonder if it’s a baby or nerves. Something is threatening to break my abdomen open and I feel like a hermit crab who has overgrown its shell. Except there’s no easy escape from this house, though.
I’m not sure if The Leper recognizes me after so many trips. I know that it is dangerous for me to keep coming back to the same place to buy the tests, that she could easily and probably should tell the authorities that I’m alone and possibly hiding a pregnancy. But I want to see her. I like to think about what she could be like. Maybe she’s nice. Maybe she writes music on the side, on the electric guitar. Secret songs. Maybe she’s maintaining some unfounded belief in the Proactiv 3-Step Acne Solution System, which makes her seem trustworthy to me. Maybe she and her friends gossip on the weekends over cans of hard seltzer, sitting on coolers in the parking lot behind the movie theater. She says judgemental things, but never too mean. “Gosh, that poor girl,” she says between gulps, “comes in every day like clockwork, buys a pregnancy test and a bag of chips, like, bitch, you’re not going to be any more or less pregnant today than you were yesterday! I should tell the Department but I figure someone else will and I just can’t make myself do it.” “Ugh, some people,” they all agree, “so sad.” I wonder if she is in a registered relationship. I wonder if she has ever been scared that maybe she was pregnant, too. I’ve noticed that the red of her skin makes the blue of her eyes emerge like geodes embedded in volcanic rock.
“The barbecue ones are so good,” she says, “if you crush them up and use them to bread chicken. Like, with an egg. I know it sounds weird but it works.”
I nod, mute, and grab the chips from her hands. Suddenly, I want nothing more than to devour the leper’s chip-crusted chicken. I have never been hungrier in my life.
“Mm, well, see you again soon,” she says, smiling. I look up above her head and see a fuzzy image of myself staring back. I am mirrored in the staticy security footage above the register, as if trapped within an ultrasound. “Thank you,” I say into that space. I want to stay there forever, with her and me reflected together in the TV’s liquid, undulating womb like conjoined twins mended together at some membrane. Somehow, deludedly, I feel that I am safe with her.
I leave the convenience store and smoke a cigarette outside, shaking. I lean my back on a rusted gas pump. I think about the leper rubbing the sleeves of her polo over her stringy, goose-pimpled biceps. I imagine her asking what I am doing at the store again and again and again, why I won’t give myself an answer to the question that is eating me alive, stomach first. I kick a beer can, crunched in the middle, with the tip of my shoe and realize, numbly, that I am unsure what I’d say. Steadying myself, I get onto my bike. Then, when I’m nearly home, I realize I’ve forgotten to buy today’s pack of pregnancy tests. That’s alright, I think to myself, I won’t be needing another one.
The first time I saw Jacob, I was relieved. The friend who set us up assured me that he was fine, an assessment that was confirmed when he sat down across from me at the trendy Chinese-Polish fusion restaurant he had picked for our first date. He was handsome in a minor-character-in-a-
Mostly, I had been giddy with the thought of officially registering our relationship. Of course, I pretended that it meant nothing to me, in keeping with my self-proclaimed authority problems. Jacob was clear that we weren’t going to be like the couples who threw themselves indulgent registration parties, who made a big deal out of the whole thing. Jacob and I, like all of our mutual friends, said that we were only registering for tax reasons. Really, though, like all of our mutual friends, we were terrified of being caught together without the right papers. It was becoming clear in those early days just how seriously the Department took offenses of that nature. So, just a few weeks after our first date, Jacob and I registered our relationship with the Department of Heartbeat and Human Life without much fanfare or foresight.
Soon, though, I started noticing things about Jacob that made me wish we hadn’t. Like, he wore a lot of thick flannel shirts in the summer, announcing that he didn’t overheat like normal, weaker people. And he sometimes started talking with an Irish accent when he was drunk even though he was only a quarter Irish and nobody in his family had lived there since before the famine. And sometimes he was violent. Whenever this happened, though, my bruises healed quickly. My body knew exactly what to do.
The official report, when I open the Relationship History tab on my personal government profile, says that Jacob died when his tour bus skidded off a frozen highway somewhere in Rhode Island en route to the band’s next gig, which is true. I heard later from the band’s sole survivor, the drummer, that the bus burst into flames and Jacob was last seen crawling, immolated, into the scruff at the bottom of the hill. What the report doesn’t say is that I was alone a long time before he died, waiting for, which is to say, fearing his return, sitting alone in our dark little apartment trying not to breathe too hard. My Relationship History page says nothing about the relief I felt when the Department called to say he was dead, or the laughter I stifled into my hand while I was on the phone with the drummer. It also says nothing about the horror I felt when I discovered that my period was two weeks late. No record of the control that this not knowing has had over my body, my life. All it says is Status: Single. Which is to say, watched.
I won’t make it so easy for the Department anymore, I decide. No matter what happens next, I will find a way to go undetected for as long as I can. I can find people to help me. It’s time to take the test.
I’ve stockpiled eight boxes, sixteen tests in total. I haven’t registered a single one, and apparently, neither has The Leper. I take one of the boxes off the dusty shelf over the toilet and run my fingernail along its glued-shut flap. There are instructions in the box but I don’t bother consulting them.
I’m not sure how to piss on the tiny paper strip at the end of the pregnancy test without getting it all over my hand, too, but I hardly even notice. I turn off the tap and sit down on the toilet to wait for the little pink scratches to develop. The urine wicked up along the length of the plastic stick is hot enough to produce steam. This moment is as long as I thought it would be. A bead of water drips from the faucet. I don’t move from the toilet for the obligatory five minutes, holding the test as still as I possibly can on my shaking thigh. My eyes inventory everything in the garbage-strewn bathroom, the arbitrary chaos the only salve for the anxiety tightlacing my middle. I catch a reflection in the mirror, flecked with toothpaste and streaked with dust, and see a hunched, cowering figure. Its back straightens, and I realize that this means I am straightening my own back. It smiles and I recognize that I am smiling. I stare into two eyes and feel that they are mine, mine alone.
When it is finally time, I look down at my thigh to read the results.
At the convenience store, nobody is behind the register. This is unusual. I check out back, on the other side of the store, facing the pines away from the gas station. I see that The Leper is smoking a cigarette. She’s wearing a purple men’s puffer coat over her polo and has it criss-crossed tightly around her, stuffed under her armpits instead of zipped, with a bare arm emerging from the neckline. She must have just stepped out for a quick break, but she is smoking leisurely, eyes closing for a half-second longer than necessary with each blink. It’s very hard to tell how old she is – the cigarette between her chapped lips looks juvenile, between her slender fingers looks glamorous. Her nails are short and bitten but lovely.
“Can I have one?” My voice surprises me. I don’t seem to have startled her. She turns her whole body when she looks at me and her gaze makes me feel opaque and legible, somehow.
“Are you pregnant?” She asks plainly.
I hesitate. “No,” I reply. I immediately worry that I’ve hesitated too long and that she won’t believe me. I’m worried that my “no” sounded like a question. I’m worried…
‘Okay,’ she hands me a cigarette. Her coat slips down on her shoulders when she pulls a lighter from her pocket. She readjusts and for a short moment I think she’s moving to light me up but she just drops it into my hand. Light green. I light my cigarette and hand it back, sensing disappointment in my chest.
“You know, I’m glad you’re not. I really didn’t want to have to tell the authorities at the Department,” she says, kicking the snow.
“Would you have?” I ask.
“No, probably not,” she responds, “but they would have found out eventually. Fucking persistent. I do think it’s wrong, though, what the Department or whatever does. I have a cousin they found; she turned herself in, actually. Crazy, she thought they would take such good care of her. And I don’t even feel like that’s her fault. They say it’s all safe and whatever but I know that’s bullshit. I’m just glad you’re not…you know”.
“Fuck…me too. Me too,” I take a pull of my cigarette and look at her. The Leper is smiling brightly and I can’t tell why. I recoil for a moment and start to look around anxiously. I don’t know what I’m expecting, that some government agent will emerge from the treeline and throw a bag over my head and abduct me, maybe. I haven’t talked like this with anyone in weeks, maybe even years. She’s beautiful. I’m horrified. Then, her hand is on my arm.
“I fucking bet you are! You know, we sell things other than chips and pregnancy tests here. Like, we sell beer,” she adds mischievously, “if you want one. Come on, let’s go inside, it’s fucking freezing out here.”
I can feel my own heartbeat accelerating as I move my head in a small nod and stamp out my cigarette with my boot. The Leper takes me by the elbow and drags me in the direction of the entrance. My blood is throwing itself against the interior walls of my veins and I feel that they, and I, are threatening collapse. I instinctually press my smoke-stained fingers to my abdomen, feeling for a tiny, parasitic movement to bite me right where my excitement is starting to grow.
It doesn’t. In this moment, and from now on, the heartbeat I feel in my chest is mine. This human life, mine. I follow The Leper to the store.