The headlights glided over a gravel driveway emerging from between two overgrown hedges. MJ turned onto the driveway, her car bouncing with the ruts rainwater had run through the road. The night was quiet on the outskirts of Salem; the sound of the tires crunching over gravel and the tossed up pebbles bouncing off the underside of the car felt deafening. At the end of the driveway was a modest log cabin. MJ parked beside the red pickup truck. It seemed like everyone who lived out in the country drove a red pickup truck.
Already this was much different than her memories of visiting Nana as a child. Back then, Nana had lived in an apartment downtown over a bar. She’d always been an energetic woman who never seemed to sit still. It was hard to believe that a one-bedroom apartment could contain her as she tidied up the small messes people made as a sign of their existence, a symbol of their contentedness with the living space.
MJ could hear dogs barking from inside the house. A light was turned on in the front room, glowing through the blinds. As they walked up to the front door, it opened. “Thom, do you need money for the cab?” Her petite, hunched frame filled the doorway. A dog sat on either side of her.
“I didn’t take a cab,” Thom said. “MJ drove me.” They looked up at her from the bottom of the steps.
“Mary Jane? Your granddaughter?”
“Hi, Nana,” MJ said, offering a slight wave. Her other hand held the plastic bag with the pregnancy test.
“How’d you manage that?” Nana asked Thom.
“We met up in town, like we do every Friday. She was kind enough to be my designated driver this evening.”
“Are you just dropping him off?” Nana asked.
MJ just stared at her.
“MJ needs to take a pregnancy test, Nana. Hopefully you’ll let her use the bathroom?” He clasped MJ’s shoulder, staring straight ahead at Nana.
MJ sighed. It felt like a stand-off. She wished the alcohol hadn’t made Thom so loose-lipped. She could have just excused herself to the bathroom, claiming she’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with her. Her first interaction with her grandmother following the twelve-year break didn’t need to make it seem like she’d become promiscuous and reckless in the intermission.
Nana moved out of the doorway.
“Thanks,” MJ said in an almost whisper, stepping inside past Nana.
Nana nodded. “The bathroom is through the living room and to the left.” She disappeared into the kitchen, Thom following her.
MJ nodded and paused to bend down and pet the two dogs who now greeted her, their tails wagging. “Oh, hello, hello,” she said to them in the higher pitch she reserved for dogs. As she scratched their chests, she found their tags and read the information on them. The border collie was named Josh and the chocolate lab was named Esther. After giving each of them a pat on the head, MJ stood back up and headed for the bathroom.
The light flickered on, illuminating the rose-colored walls. The white porcelain sink was cracked and there was a ring of rust around the drain. The shower curtain and toilet lid cover were pink and frilly, some doily hybrid that seemed to appear in every grandmother’s house.
MJ dumped the pregnancy test kit onto the counter. She picked it up, and ripped open the cardboard flaps. The test and instructions clattered onto the counter. She picked up the instructions, unfolded it, and read them over. The process was still fresh in her mind from this morning. As she squatted over the toilet, holding the pregnancy test under her, she felt slutty, dirty. If this one showed a plus sign, she might as well appliqué it on to all her clothes, her own scarlet letter. This morning in the coffee shop she hadn’t felt like this. Coffee shops were places of relative anonymity; she felt like she could be anyone in its mocha-colored bathroom. The pregnancy test couldn’t stigmatize her.
She set the test on the counter and then set the timer on her phone. She flushed the toilet and washed her hands. She held her gaze on the test, waiting for the minutes to pass. It was starting to feel like forever. The bathroom felt small and stuffy. She opened the door to let some air in. Josh and Esther jumped to their feet; they’d been camped out in the hallway. She sat down on the linoleum bathroom floor, leaning against the cabinets. The dogs crowded around her, their tails knocking at the towels on the rack. MJ rubbed them behind their ears, talking to them in an almost whisper. Esther licked her face.
It was like she was a kid again. This had always been her move at whatever strange social situation she’d found herself in: a work party for her mother; a birthday party for a classmate; a visit to a distant relative’s house. She’d always wandered off to some corner of a vacant room, hunkering down near a dust-covered piano (growing up, everyone seemed to have one), and petting the dogs. When she was younger, it felt like she was part of some secret club made up of all the dogs in the world and her. She was part of their pack–born a human by mistake–and she knew they would always welcome her with wagging tails.
Her phone’s alarm went off and she pulled herself up. Taking a deep breath, she looked at the pregnancy test. It was one of the nice ones that was blunt about it; no more of those lines or plus signs. MJ needed to see the words. All that she saw was the word: Pregnant.
“Got a verdict yet?” Thom appeared in the doorway.
“Yeah,” MJ said, her voice wobbling.
“Still says you’re pregnant, huh?”
MJ hung her head in defeat before scooping the test, its box, and the directions back into the blue plastic bag. “I should probably get going.”
“Maybe you should talk to Nana first.” His frame filled the doorway.
“Why would I do that?”
Thom shrugged, but she could tell he knew something she didn’t. “She might be able to help. With age comes wisdom.”
MJ gave him a skeptical look.
“I might be the outlier for that statement.”
MJ sighed and followed him out into the living room. The room had acquired a pungent smell, like an animal had died in her absence. To her right was a floral-print loveseat with an afghan over the back tucked catty-corner between the archway to the hall and the fireplace on the adjacent wall. The fireplace was covered in red brick with a slate hearth and curved, wooden mantel lined with picture frames. Two large, plaid dog beds were parked on either side of the fireplace, a wicker toy basket tucked in the corner. There was an armchair by the door. On the wall opposite the fireplace, Thom had sat down on the aboriginal-print couch beside Nana who was smoking a blunt.
MJ gave her a concerned look. “Is it okay for your health?”
“I’m eighty. I can damn well do what I please. And you’re welcome to a brownie, if you’d like.” She motioned to a plate on the table.
Thom stopped her. “You probably shouldn’t. You’re pregnant after all.” He took one for himself.
“Bullshit. Your mom turned out… well, me being fourteen and having a toke now and again isn’t what’s to blame.”
MJ exhaled sharply. “Whatever. You guys can do whatever. I don’t care. Thank you for letting me use your bathroom. I’m gonna go now.” MJ headed for the door.
“Hold it, missy,” Nana’s voice called out. “We need to talk first. Have a seat.”
MJ sat in the armchair by the door. It was covered in blue corduroy and accented with a pillow that in faded cross-stitch read Grandmas give the best advice. She felt like she was being scolded, living out the rebellious teen years her God-fearing mother had scared out of her.
Nana took another hit before continuing. “I understand you’re with child.”
“And you haven’t slept with anyone lately, yes?”
“Yeah…” MJ wasn’t sure why she why she was bothering to answer or why Nana was even asking, as Thom had most likely filled her in already.
“You remember when your mom and I had that fight on your fourteenth birthday?”
“It was about this happening.” She paused for a moment. “It’s a genetic thing. We had a doctor confirm it when you were just a tyke. But the family history is a bit murky.” She looked at Thom who had sunk into the couch cushions, his eyes closed, somehow peaceful amidst their family’s turbulence.
“Getting pregnant? A genetic thing? Isn’t that a living creature thing?” MJ didn’t want to believe this WebMD-like response had any grounds in reality. Besides, she didn’t remember seeing any doctor other than her pediatrician.
“No. The Virgin Mary Syndrome.”
“The Virgin Mary Syndrome?” MJ thought it sounded like the title of a religious film made in response to one of those horror movies about giving birth to the devil.
“It was easier before my time. Most women got married and had kids starting in their teens. The Second World War disrupted that. I wanted to be a working girl, like Rosie the Riveter. I didn’t want to get married just yet. I still liked to have a good time, I just wasn’t going steady with anyone. But I became pregnant anyways. As you know, I was fourteen.” Nana stared off across the room.
Nana thought of her teenage self looking at her reflection in the mirror over the dresser. She’d aged exponentially in those months, acquiring the curves and glow of a woman. The dresser was tall enough that it blocked her from below the chest. She wished everyone else could only see this much of her. But they could see it all. They could even see her feet, which she was losing sight of more and more each day. She wished she could say that the baby had a father, that the war was what left her to raise this child alone. She’d even dreamed up the story: a handsome soldier and his plane shot down over Europe. That fantasy of her girlhood seemed impossible, foolish though. Growing up didn’t work that way; there was nothing fair about it. She’d only ever been kissed once and it was lackluster, neither of them had known exactly what to do nor were they confident enough in their abilities to keep trying until it felt right. She’d never felt a man run his hand along the inside of her thigh, tug at her panties, fill her with his fingers nestled in the wet and warmth and musk. She wanted a man to fuck her. Even if it was the worst thing she’d felt, she wanted to feel it just so the baby had been earned. She stared back at her reflection in the mirror, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear before adjusting her posture. She hoped she wouldn’t lose her breasts with the baby. But no matter what, once the baby was born, she would go about earning it.
“So you’re saying Mom having me at forty was the same thing? It just happened?” MJ prodded her.
Nana nodded slowly. “Yes, ma’am.”
MJ laughed loudly, breaking the lull that had fallen over the room. “Right.”
“It’s true. I knew it would happen to you too. Fourteen. Forty. Somewhere in-between.”
MJ didn’t want to believe it. Nana would have sought her out before this, regardless of her mother’s wishes. Her body would have given her more signs, made her hallucinate an angel delivering the diagnosis, not let her pothead estranged grandmother share the news. “Nana, this is absolute horseshit. You are fucking stoned. And it sounds like you’ve smoked enough that your memory must have plenty of potholes.” MJ stood up and headed for the door.
“Maybe I am some senile druggie grandma who’s got one foot in the grave, but I know what I know to be true.” Her voice came out raspy, her tone dulled.
MJ let out an exasperated sigh. “Whatever, Nana. Maybe Mom had a point keeping you from me.” She let the door slam behind her as she walked briskly to her car.
A mile down the road, MJ pulled over. She slammed her fist into the steering wheel, her jaw clenched. Her mother, and now her grandmother, seemed to keep truth at arm’s length. The only explanation they seemed to think was worth giving was one wrapped in religion. MJ began to scream. She wanted the noise to fill her, fill the car, fill the road around her. She could hear her mother’s mantra: God won’t give you more than you can handle. This is all part of God’s plan. She let the screams rip through her, wanting them to illuminate what was ahead of her, strike what was behind her. She wanted the sound to blanket her, wrap her, hold her, cradle her. She wanted to purge herself of those words, every last one of them.
She stopped to catch her breath. Feeling dizzy and overheated, she got out of the car. She retched into the grass. Leaning against the car, she began to take slow, deep breaths. The cool air stung her cheeks, but each breath felt richer than the last. Another of her mother’s mantras floated into her head: God willed it, so be it. This is your cross, so carry it. MJ stood up slowly and got back in her car.