“Someone’s father is dying in there! We cannot call her names. We have to be nice to her,” I overhear Mrs. Valencia tell our small sixth grade class. I am in the adjoining room, alone with Mrs. Hammond, who is waiting for Julia’s mom to pick up the phone. Mrs. Hammond holds the note in her hand that says I’m a c-word. Julia, my new best friend, my neighbor, wrote it and passed it to Jenny who passed it to Melissa who passed it around until it got to Brice who told the teacher.
I am eleven years old and a cunt.
My father is dying. All he can do is shit himself and lay in bed all day. He vacantly collects bed sores and painfully swallows blended meals. While I stand at the door of his hospital room, he drools like a dumb baby. His eyes can’t focus on anything, so I shouldn’t be offended that he can’t look at me. The metal screws placed around his head to keep him aligned make him look like a zoo bird. The screws in his bones make him like an Ikea bookcase.
The week my father dies, I stay home from school. My mother goes to work. My sister sleeps in late and when she finally wakes up, we play Mario Bros. and Crash Bandicoot on her bed. Our neighbor stops by with aluminum trays of cheese-smothered carbs.
When I return to school, I ask my history teacher for makeup work. “Back so soon?” she asks. “I was bored,” I say. A parent volunteer is in the classroom during Nutrition. The teacher says to the parent, “Her father just passed away. Isn’t that awful?” They look at each other, then at me as she hands me a stack of stapled worksheets. I am embarrassed by my father’s death.
I fucking hate this house. It’s so busy. That’s what everyone says. Wow, so much to look at, they say. There are trinkets from my mother’s trip to Nepal: walking sticks and photographs and tapestries. There’s more, everywhere. Kenya and Tanzania and South Africa and India and Guatemala. Everywhere is everywhere.
There are no pictures of us.
The summer I turn fifteen, my sister moves out so I finally have my own bedroom. I paint my dresser white. I buy white bed sheets, scrape off the cottage cheese ceiling. My mother walks in. I am covered in white dusk. “You know, that stuff causes cancer,” she says. I look in the mirror, dust off the powder. I can see bits of white in my nose, my hair. It’s probably already in my lungs.
My new friend, Anna, and I meet at the gym and for some reason, this tiny, beautiful thing likes me. We go to dinner, work out, drink, shop. We do everything together and soon enough get a cute apartment. Over one weekend, we decorate it entirely with chic things: an oversized and unnecessary clock; a leather couch and loveseat set; cliche prints of abstract flowers in flimsy compressed wooden frames.
A boy I know from high school Spanish sees my post about moving in with Anna. “RNT u a little young 4 ur own place sweety?” He is in my doorway within days, Anna and I on the couch watching TV. He looks at her and I know my chances are over. She is a beauty queen, and I am not. I take a long time in the bathroom, looking at my face, reapplying my sticky pink lip gloss, brushing my eyebrows back into shape.
They are laughing and touching and I say I’m going to bed. “Yeah, me too,” my roommate says. He asks if he can follow her. She giggles and gives him a childish, drawn out, “Noooooo. Silly.” “Can I at least get a hug goodbye?” She glances my way, like she’s doing me a favor, leaves, and then I feel his jagged teeth on my lips pushing me toward my bedroom.
When he is done, he wipes his sweat from his forehead onto me. “You think she heard us?” I don’t bother to lock the front door after him.
My freshman year of college I take a nutrition class. One unit is on pregnancy health, though it could serve as a course in abstinence. The number of things that can go wrong during a pregnancy is unbelievable. Even if you do everything perfectly, eat the right things, don’t eat the wrong things, and move the right amount. The actual birthing process has risks too. Some things in your control, but most things out of your control. And after nine months, once you have an actual beating heart in your hands, everything will be your fault: you let the baby’s neck fall back too hard, you fed it too much, too little, you didn’t dress it warmly enough or too much. Maybe the crib sheets you chose are flame retardant but the chemical which makes that true makes the baby sick. Or, miraculously, everything could be totally fine.
They say parenting styles vary greatly. They say every generation strives, mostly, to not be like their parents so as to not fuck up their children: to have enough money, to not marry an abusive prick. It’s good to actually be around and not off on some spiritual journey when your daughter is in first grade, and not tell her you wished you had the abortion when you had the chance.
I am twenty-three. It is a boring summer. I am bored. Tinder seems fun and I match with Dave, who is so good looking that I think he must be a catfish. Something has to be wrong with him.
Dave sends texts and Snaps throughout his day. He’s weird and maybe legitimately neurotic, but makes me laugh in a legitimate way. We also talk on the phone. Long, sweet conversations into the sweet long night. We end up texting the entire summer without meeting.
It is fall. I leave a bad date during which the guy doesn’t even try to take out his wallet, so I call Dave to vent. “I’m coming over,” I say.
When he opens the door, I am perplexed how different he looks in person. Is he wearing glasses? He has a lot of energy, as if I am the first person he’s interacted with IRL in months, and maybe I am. He makes us shitty drinks and nervously touches my hand, my hair, my face. I like it.
At 11:38pm, I’m collecting my bra and dress and underwear. As I put on my shoes, he strokes my hair. “You can sleep over,” he says. I reply, “I’ve got an early morning.” He knows I am unemployed.
He tells me he’s worried that the condom broke or leaked and that somehow I am creating our baby right that minute, holding on to his sticky, slippery sperm, like I really want to have his stupid hairy baby. He insists that we get the morning after pill. I insist that it is hard on my body, that nothing leaked or broke, that there isn’t a “we” because he won’t be taking it, too.
“Just take it anyway,” he says. “Don’t be a cunt.”
There are lots of drugstores in Los Angeles. After our first stop, we discover they are all out of Plan B, the generic too. Dave is wild-eyed. He finally lets me go home after I promise I will check the stores by my house and take the pills.
I wake up slowly in the afternoon sun. Dave has called eight times. Texted fifteen times. Did you find some? Did you take it? Seriously. 60 hours left. Tick tock. He’s Snapchatted photos of his face looking sad, then worried, then annoyed. The last pic, he is flipping me off. He messages me through Facebook: Are you even alive? And on my timeline, a public cry: 57 hours… In a Tweet: #53hours…
It feels cruel to not respond to him. But I can’t decide which app to use to reply. Is one more intimate than the other?
I debate this over cereal.
Twenty four hours later, I get another text: Open your front door. I pause the movie on my laptop, blood thudding in my ears. I open my front door in a dramatically slow way and find a plastic bag hanging from my door knob. Inside: a pale pink box of morning after pills (generic), a lilac box of pregnancy tests (generic), the receipt.
Ellie is my best friend. I don’t tell her about Dave until I want to laugh at him. “How is it even possible that he’s that nuts?” She laughs along with me, then asks: “But why didn’t you just take it? What if it really did leak?”
I need a nap.
When my grandmother, Mimi, dies, my mother guilts me into lending a hand. Being of service, as she frames it. I drive out. In the garage, I find Mimi’s diary. Flipping through, I find an entry from 1949: Gerry and I tried again. No luck. Am I eating the wrong foods? Dr. Pender told me to take iron pills. Maybe this will help. And another from 1952: We’d been foolish to pick out a name. We cursed ourselves. I was stupid to name her after Mother.
There’s a dream catcher over Mimi’s bed. Its fluffy feathers, deeply brown leather, and turquoise stones clash with the floral duvet and palm tree wallpaper. My mother put this up to help with Mimi’s nightmares. They were vivid and horrific. Sometimes she’d end up on the floor, covers kicked off in a fury, screaming no, no, no, no, no, so violently that her voice was hoarse the next day. “What did you see?” we’d ask her. “Nothing. Never mind,” she’d reply.
My mother takes down the dream catcher, strokes the feathers. “I always wanted you. Always. It just wasn’t a good time in my life. What do you do when you have a small child to care for but you can’t even take care of yourself? It was exhausting. But I always loved you. I love you now, kiddo.”
My throat hurts. It’s thick with a latent sadness, years of hatred and angst and sorrow. A stinging passes through me as I swallow. “Yeah, I know. Love you, too.” It feels strange to hear my voice say this.
What I remember the most about sex ed are the stages of a fetus and the graphic details of STDs.
At forty, I resign any desire to have a baby. Because, what a hassle. Because how exhausting to think about someone all the time, chop up their food, arrange playdates and pretend to be interested in the other mom’s contrived story about her Instagram career as an Influencer. No more going out for drinks unless there’s money for a babysitter because all paychecks go to that child. Need a new sexy bra? Can’t, gotta pay for that kid’s swimming lessons. Also, global warming and all.
Jeff takes me to a fancy bar, the type where cocktails are made by mixologists, not ordinary bartenders. They flick sprigs of herbs on top of drinks in glasses delicate as spun gold that cost over twenty dollars. Jeff holds my hand, says, “I can’t believe how fucking gorgeous you are. How did I get so lucky? My God.” He orders several rounds. I let the chilled liquid glide down my throat as he smooths my hair, his words—fucking gorgeous—pulsing in my brain.
At my place, in my bed, he spits on my back, calls me his dirty fucking whore, says it’s his pussy.
My mother wants to be a grandmother. She clips out articles, writes notes, puts them in the mail. “Something to keep in mind…” “Isn’t this adorable?” “I could make this!” Her handwriting looks like a delicate love song for babies, a lullaby. When they start coming in weekly, I stop opening them.
There’s a quote: don’t sleep with people who don’t own books. I am at a house party when I walk into Eddy’s windowless room and think of that line. He has three books. One by Junot Diaz. “You like Junot?” I ask. “Yeah, he’s dope.” Eddy looks like a boy I had a crush on in elementary school. A boy who gloriously liked me back, but was too shy to kiss me. Eddy looks enough like him for me to ignore how much of an idiot he is. And I am too drunk to say yes or no. When I wake up, I feel the condom wrapper by my head. How considerate, I think. Maybe he’s not so dumb. After I dress slowly, quietly, I turn to look at this man, wondering if he is a good person when he is sober. Praying that I am.
Christina Berke is a writer and educator. Previous fiction appears in Literary Orphans, The Hunger, and The Haven, among other publications. Nonfiction pieces are, or forthcoming, in Pithead Chapel, NPR’s Desert Companion, Pop Sugar, and elsewhere. Her writing has been supported by the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and she was an Author Fellow with the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, a Norma Watkins Fellow with the Mendocino Coast Writers' Conference (2021), and a Writing Fellow with the National Writing Project. She is currently working on an intergenerational memoir about her Chilean heritage, including the 1973 coup.