Kate Levin

Ghost of a Leaf

  1. “Your due date,” the website instructs, “is calculated by adding 40 weeks to the first day of your last menstrual period. Note that your menstrual period and ovulation are counted as the first two weeks of pregnancy.” You found this bizarre during your first pregnancy, almost six years ago, and reading it now, having just tested positive on a pregnancy test (well, four of the them—redundancy never felt so satisfying), you are puzzled all over again. Officially, gestation predates conception. The first two weeks are ghost weeks, nothing growing except possibility.
  1. Just three weeks earlier, you’d visited a doctor to have your IUD removed. This doctor was new to you, stylish and about your own age, which seemed to take you both by surprise. Perhaps this is why she shared that she was new to Los Angeles, having moved here after a breakup. Perhaps this is why you offered that you are divorced; that you feel lucky to have settled, with your five-year-old son and new husband, into a period of happiness and relative ease. After you reclined on the table and she removed the IUD from the cavern of your middle, she’d asked you if you want to see it. Why not? And there between her gloved index finger and thumb: a tiny, pert copper “T,” a few delicate strings dangling from its lower point, just a glint of a blood betraying where it once nestled.
  1. And now, pregnant? The timing means you conceived just days after removing the little “T.” Bewildered, you return to the same doctor, whose demeanor has shifted a bit. “You are testing positive here in our clinic,” she tells you with a new formality. Abuzz with anticipation, you drive home. “I’m pretty sure you’re the father,” you joke to your husband, the father. You curl into his ribs, stroke his beard with the back of your fingers.
  1. Because it’s no longer just your own, you start to treat your body with reverence. You hydrate. You eat breakfast, go to sleep early. Sometimes you decline to carry your forty-five-pound pre-kindergartener up the stairs to bed, in deference to your tender breasts, your sore lower back. Attending to your (plural) needs feels good, even if you occasionally panic that you have set something in motion that can’t be undone. Even if you sometimes feel pangs of loss for the autonomy, the integrity, of a body that is yours alone.
  1. Just when you thought you weren’t a vessel, you think.
  1. But: mainly joy. Your smile spreads into the darkness after you turn off the lights at night.
  1. The obstetrician who delivered your son retired, so you choose a new one, more or less at random. You pick a woman whose office is nearby, whose last name is hyphenated, like your husband’s. From her website, she looks a little like a younger Penny Marshall. One of the site’s featured post-delivery photos shows her in blue scrubs, cradling twins. Twins! Can you imagine? Too late, your fantasy’s been catalyzed: at your first appointment, the doctor’s eyes will widen at the ultrasound screen. “Double trouble!” you imagine her whooping. “Are you guys ready for this?” And you won’t be, but you will be.
  1. The first prenatal appointment won’t take place until the eighth week of pregnancy, so you wait it out anxiously. Traces of blood appear in your underwear, but you remind yourself that this happened while pregnant with your son, too. Remember how upset you’d been. Remember torturing yourself with worry. Remember the relief of the ultrasound showing him swimming contentedly inside of you, oblivious to your fears.
  1. You start to fetishize the ultrasound machine. If you could buy one for home use, you surely would. A week early, you call to confirm your appointment with the obstetrician and ask if there are any protocols you should follow the morning of your visit. Should you drink water, not drink water? Truly, you just want to hear the assistant say out loud that you will, in fact, be given an ultrasound. “Oh yes,” she says, unaware that she’s speaking to a junkie. “But no need to do anything special, you’ll just empty your bladder here beforehand.” As if it were the most routine thing in the world, and not magic. As if the contraption didn’t consist of an actual wand. As if the wand weren’t the only instrument capable of revealing the invisible, the inaudible.
  1. The Sunday before your appointment, you drive to a friend’s baby shower. Your husband—sweet, eager—has been listening to pregnancy podcasts. You scan his phone for the list of available episodes. “Play the miscarriage one,” you say. You can’t help it. “No,” he says, “really?” “Sure,” you say.
  1. He assents, and you listen to the episode, learning nothing you don’t already know. At the baby shower, you marvel at your friend’s beautifully protuberant belly, at the contrast between her body and yours.
  1. Your new obstetrician indeed looks like a middle-aged Penny Marshall—handsome, ironic. She enters the examination room trailed by a much younger woman in a white coat, whose face is kind. “She’s a medical student,” the doctor explains. “She’ll be observing.” The doctor’s manner is surprisingly brusque, or maybe you experience her that way simply because you exist, at this moment, on a different planet entirely, its atmosphere composed of hope and vulnerability. A thin paper blanket covers your naked lower half. The doctor asks you a few questions. Upon learning how quickly you conceived, she turns to fist-bump your husband. You soften towards her. The chit-chat ends. The ultrasound machine occupies the center of the room; the machine is why we are here. You recline, and the doctor slides the wand inside of you. You can’t see the screen, so you watch her face.
  1. In her London Review of Books essay recounting the day she received her diagnosis of terminal cancer, the writer Jenny Diski characterizes the moment in the doctor’s office—the moment of revelation—as one defined not mainly by shock or sadness, but a sort of wearying familiarity: “The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality,” she writes. “Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings.”
  1. It’s plain from the blankness of the doctor’s face that the ultrasound screen is blank, too. Well, not blank—but lacking what is essential. “I’m not getting a heartbeat,” she says. She probes a bit with the w