I saw her standing in the express line at the grocery store. A woman I had taught with several years ago. Back then, she and her husband were struggling with infertility, and she was always open about that. MB and I were struggling with it, too, and I was never open about that. Never. Not with anyone outside the people I called my “hand people,” meaning, they fit on one hand, the number of people in real life I shared this with. If you weren’t one of my hand people, I talked to you, sure, but only through a small hole in the wall I built around myself. Most of me was hidden away, armored, silent. Too many people just aren’t safe. Emotionally safe. Women, especially, aren’t safe — not on this issue. Too many times in my life I’ve seen the smug gleam of schadenfreude in the narrowed eyes of some nosy woman. Not my hand people, no, never, but random women full of “good intentions” or “godly curiosity.” Those women got nothing from me. Or if they got anything from me, it was flat rudeness and they never spoke to me again which, to be honest, was my goal. I knew how I knew how I knew the caring from the curious, the real from the fake. I still do. It’s a discernment that serves me and cloaks me and frustrates people who deserve to be frustrated. I have no guilt over it. If social marauders have no guilt about trying to breach the tall towers of my life, I have no guilt over defending them.
Still, even though she wasn’t one of my hand people, I liked this woman. Her voice had a disarming baby doll squeak and her smile would go all crinkly-eyed at the corners. It was impossible to see that and not smile back. She talked about their infertility struggles to anyone who would listen. The other teachers listened impassively. I listened intently and tried to seem as detached as the others really were. I was desperate not to give myself away. A couple of times a week, she’d stand in the teachers’ lounge and share with me while I busied myself. I’d nod and shuffle some papers. Glance at her and make some copies. Furrow my brow with her and check my inbox. Anything to distance her plight from mine. Her outcome will not be mine. Her outcome will not be mine. I didn’t want to seem rude, but I didn’t want to seem vulnerable either. I needed to seem vague because it was all too specific. I needed to seem detached because it was all too consequential. I had to. Survival mode. Of course, at some point, this woman asked about us. Women do. It’s just what they do. “Do you want kids?” she asked one day while I stapled papers that didn’t need stapling. “Oh, yeah,” the smooth stone fell from my lips, “I’d love to have kids some day.” If I focused just so on these papers that didn’t need stapling, I could pull it off. Don’t look at her. Do not look at her. Because your face, your naked face, will give it all away. I tugged at a crooked staple and smiled sideways at her, clutching the side of the table, waiting for the searing limbic burn to fade away so I could breathe again. She just smiled her crinkly-eyed smile and said, “Oh, good. You’d be a great mom.”
She never knew.
Some people have basic boundaries. Some have high stone walls.
She may have suspected, but she never knew.
She never knew that we were trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and failing. She never knew that I cried myself to sleep and that I cried myself awake; that I had dreams where I had babies, lots of babies, pink chubby babies. She never knew that even waking up at all was a kind of torture for me. She never knew that I could not bear the sight of any pregnant woman anywhere, even the ones I called friend. Even the ones I called sister. She never knew how many times I sat alone on the edge of our bed loading and unloading my gun. Such pretty little bullets. Tiny silver teeth. I wouldn’t feel a thing. She never knew how one night, in a small voice, I finally told MB to hide my gun far far away from me. She never knew how that man, my mountain, jumped up, white, frantic, so fast, to do as I asked. She never knew any of this because I could not tell her. I just could not. The towers were tall, more stones every day. She never knew how much I understood. She never knew how much I wanted to hug her and lie and say it would all be okay. She never knew how much I wanted her to hug me and lie and say it would all be okay. I listened behind my high stone walls and marveled at her ability to tell anyone who would listen about their struggles. I could never decide if I marveled because I thought it was admirable or if I marveled because I thought it was stupid. To this day, I can’t decide. I just don’t know.
So I saw her standing in the express line at the grocery store, this woman. I know she saw me too, standing in a line several feet away. Our eyes flashed on each other a split second and then we looked away. She stood over there, childless, and I stood over here, childless. Perhaps you could say she had children at home. But I say you recognize your own. You just do. We looked at each other and we looked away and I knew how I knew how I knew the look of emptiness and longing in her eyes mirrored my very own.
You look away out of respect. You look away out of shame.
I stood there still and silent in my tower until the cashier shook me out of it.
“Have a nice day now.”