I don’t know how to write about Lily. She exists in two worlds — the world in which I imagine her as the son he wanted, and the world in which she exists as my daughter, dark haired and quick-witted, a little shy, with her father’s blue eyes and my habit of scrunching my nose when I laugh. Her name is, of course, the tell. It’s the second, more fully-realised image that unfolds when I occasionally count the years back to what might have been her birthday.
What remains of Lily now can be inventoried on one hand. Her name. My irrational and conflicted certainty about her sex. The small plastic square with the two pink lines tucked into my jewelry box. An unmarked grave at the top of a scrubby hill in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The pink lines — two of them for “fuck, this is really happening” — appeared five weeks before I turned 40. I had no functioning indoor toilet, so I peed on the stick under a piñon tree one late November morning, squatting like the half-wild thing I’d become over the past six months living alone in a yurt in the Santa Fe National Forest.
I called him that night, while trying unsuccessfully to start a fire in the stove with green, wet wood. I remember telling him about the pregnancy and my plan to abort it in the same breath and for the same reason that when I asked my high school crush to go to prom, I immediately added, “But you can totally say no, because you probably don’t want to go with me.” (My high school crush did indeed say no, and went to prom with a French girl named Amelie who didn’t wear underwear and enjoyed teaching her female classmates how to masturbate. Amelie was somewhat ahead of her time.)
I remember him pointing out that I wasn’t in much of a position to mother a child, which was a fair point that neatly sidestepped whether or not he was in a position to father one.
I made the appointment, and a week later, I met him at the airport, where he’d flown in from Los Angeles on the pretext of a business trip. He’d never seen the yurt before, and I wanted him to like it, wanted him to feel at home on the land that had enchanted me into staying past the original two months I’d planned on, wanted him to be able to imagine staying, too, in spite of the wife and a child and a second, pending child he had waiting back in LA.
We stopped at a Jack in the Box before going to the clinic. I wasn’t allowed to eat for 12 hours before the appointment, so I sat across from him at the table and watched as he ate a green chili chicken sandwich and cracked jokes about being able to hear my stomach growl.
At the clinic, the receptionist handed me a form to fill out. Under “next of kin,” I put his name and wrote “father.” Before handing the clipboard back to the nurse at the desk, he changed it to “friend.” For confidentiality, he said.
In a little room, I undressed and lay on the table while he sat in a plastic chair and held my hand and the doctor and his assistant came in and I counted back from ten and seconds later, I woke up in the recovery room and I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I’m not short stroking, that’s how it was. He held my hand again while a nurse brought me cookies and orange juice like I’d just donated blood, which I suppose in a way I had.
On the way back to the yurt, we stopped at Trader Joe’s and bought dinner, something to microwave since neither of us felt like cooking and for some reason I still can’t wrap my mind around, a bottle of champagne. I waited to feel something.
The following day, I did. The psychic pain came like a flash flood down an arroyo bed — dry and quiet one minute, and a tidal wave that threatened to wipe away my entire inner landscape the next.
I needed a ritual. Closure. A fucking time machine. Something.
On my knees in the early December snow, I dug bare fingers down to the frozen ground below, searching for something still living, but everything beneath the snow was brittle and brown and the little bouquet I assembled was laughingly insubstantial compared to the grief that tore through me.
On top of the overlook, with a view of Santa Fe sprawled below, we folded handwritten letters to the child that would never be into a soft cloth stained with the blood I was still bleeding, and buried it… her… him… us…. beneath a tree with a heart-shaped scar worn into the bark.
We went back to the yurt and opened the champagne.
He left and the blizzards came. Like Demeter after the abduction of Persephone, I wandered the barren woods surrounding the yurt, my world stripped fallow by the loss, the child I mourned forever out of reach in the Underworld. But unlike Demeter, the gods declined to intervene and I had neither energy nor courage nor the will to heal myself. I thought only of the little grave at the top of the hill, now buried in snow, and of the blood decomposing in the earth, food for whatever had the fortitude to survive in the frozen ground of a New Mexico winter. And I thought of him, back in Los Angeles with his wife and child and their newly adopted baby son.
It was the beginning of the end for us, though we didn’t know it then. The anonymous grave on the hill tangled itself into the fabric of our life together, like roots pulling up the stones of a foundation, quietly making the whole thing structurally unstable.
I never wanted children, I still don’t, and I didn’t then, not really. I don’t even really like children, as a general concept. So perhaps my reaction was hypocritical, a way to claim the sanctity of motherhood without the hard work of doing the actual mothering. Which is probably just as well. Good mothering is not a family trait.
The photo is of my mother leaning over me, a few days or weeks old. I’m laying on a blanket, my face contorted into what looks like a wail, and she’s not touching me. She has her hands on either side as though she’s either just let go or is avoiding contact. We both look utterly miserable at the fix we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Years later, she would confess to me that she didn’t and had never wanted to be a mother. That I was born of a moment of weakness that was almost certainly —although she left out this part — alcohol induced. She told me she regretted the impulse the morning after.
Lily would be almost ten years old now. Maybe she’d be good with her hands and driven and mercurial and a little bit cruel like him, and maybe she’d love wild places and animals and the Beatles and be a little bit feral like me. Maybe my grieving for her was my grieving for what had almost been between her father and me, and maybe Lily, that tiny bundle of dividing cells whose blood soaked into the frozen red ground of the Sangre de Cristos, was simply that sorrow made flesh.
I don’t think of Lily much anymore. I still don’t have kids, still don’t want kids, still don’t particularly like kids. This isn’t a tragic story of thwarted motherhood and lost opportunities.
But whenever I return to Santa Fe, I make it a point to drive the twisting mountain road up to the yurt, and then on past it, to the overlook and the grove of piñon trees, where I park and get out and look for the one with the heart-shaped scar. It’s not obvious and sometimes I can’t find it. The times when I do, I squat in the red dirt and touch my palm to the ground and offer a prayer for the little girl with dark hair and blue eyes, and a nose that crinkles when she laughs.