In my dream, it had green eyes and light-brown skin. I couldn’t make out a gender, and none of the doctors in the white room I stood in spoke of one. It looked up at me with those big green eyes, almost reptilian. I was terrified. It was mine, I was sure, but its skin was lighter than mine and closer to Whitney’s, which disturbed me. The doctors treated me as if I were not the child’s father. They stared at me and pointed in my direction. Laughing. I felt like I’d been institutionalized again. The baby was separated from me by a wall of glass. It was as contained as I had been. Through the glass, I could see the baby raise a small hand. High. Higher. Reaching out for me.
When I woke up, Whitney wasn’t in bed. I found her in the kitchen, eating a banana.
“I’ve been getting hungry in the middle of the night,” she said. “Even hungrier than when I was anorexic.” She threw the banana peel into the trash. “Why are you up?”
“I had a dream,” I said.
“I saw a baby.”
She bit her lip; her eyes narrowed. “Ours? Do you think I’m finally pregnant?”
“I don’t know,” I said, reaching for her hand. “But sometimes I can hear your womb speaking to me.”
“Can you hear it now?” she asked.
“No,” I said, loosening my grip.
“Tell me when you hear it,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I need to know.”
Weeks before I had the dream, Whitney and I went to see the doctor, Joanie. Whitney sat on a couch beside me. The room was full of photographs of happy patients holding tiny closed-eyed babies. It didn’t feel like a doctor’s office at all. There wasn’t even an examination table. Whitney and I sat on a couch facing Joanie. Joanie sat in a cushioned chair, her legs crossed and her red hair wrapped in a purple cloth high up on her head like an African goddess. White people dressing like this bothered me. I wondered if it bothered Whitney too. Or if she noticed.
Joanie wanted to know what our questions and concerns were. I didn’t understand the point of the appointment, but Whitney was set on it. She said her close friends recommended Joanie to anyone thinking about having children. So I thought of the only real question I had.
“If we have a baby, will it have what we have?” I said.
“What do you mean?” Joanie said.
“I have schizophrenia,” I said. “And she had anorexia when she was younger. So will the baby have those things?”
Joanie swallowed. “Well, it’s hard to say. There’s a higher chance, yes, on both counts. If you’re worried, I recommend seeing a geneticist.”
“So our son—,” I said, but Whitney sighed and I stopped myself. She hated how I gendered our nonexistent baby male.
Faggot, no-good, I’ll leave you.
Whitney’s voice interrupted me in my head. I blinked and mentally swatted away at it like a fly before continuing. “Our child. We won’t know?”
“Right, you can’t know for sure. A lot of these things are environmentally triggered. I think if you have children, you’ll be able to control a lot just by being good parents.”
Whitney smiled at me, her cheeks flushed. I worried that my facial expression didn’t match hers and that she and Joanie noticed. At parties, Whitney would tap my shoulder and ask if I was okay. I always looked sad to others.
“I hope the baby will be okay,” I said now, knowing I couldn’t match anyone else’s hopefulness.
“My womb! Anthony, there’s something wrong with my womb!” Whitney said.
“How do you know?” I asked. Whitney lay beside me, her face tucked in between my chest and my arm. She was so light in the dark that it almost looked like she was glowing.
“I can feel it: a force,” Whitney said. “I’ve felt it since I was young. I’ll be just like my mother, two abortions, and then a long fertility struggle. It’s because I starved myself. I know it.”
“Didn’t you say lots of women feel this way? We only just started trying.”
“I know. But I can feel it. Just like you say you can feel God. I can feel this.” She grabbed her belly, dug her fingers into her loose skin.
I felt myself slipping away from her, the Clozapine kicking in fast. It would be another night of many dreams. I’d wander somewhere post-apocalyptic, fighting demons. I’d wake up and find my sketchbook, turning those dreams into comics. I’d been drawing monsters and superheroes from comic books since I was a kid, but lately I’d started to draw myself as a character in another world.
“I’m sorry,” I said, knowing I’d soon be snoring, leaving Whitney to her anxieties.
“I want to try a few things. Some spiritual things I’ve been reading up on. We should burn sage and do a ceremony. Maybe in the nearby cemetery.”
“Witchcraft?” I said. “Why would you want to talk to the dead?”
Fucking penis. Can’t even fuck right. Think you’re a man?
Sandra’s voice from work was in my head. Other co-workers were in there too, watching Whitney and me in bed.
“Why not?” Whitney said. “Just because I’m not Christian doesn’t mean I can’t try something spiritual.” She rolled her eyes.
“So if the afterlife involves spirits and ceremonies, you’re all for it, but when it involves God it’s too oppressive for you?” Proselytizing wasn’t God’s true way, so I never tried to force God on Whitney. Nevertheless, it bothered me how she believed in so many conflicting things at once. Spirits without heaven. Healing without faith.
“No one’s talking about an afterlife,” she said, yawning. “Just a little ceremony with sage is all.”
“Fine, if you want to, but I’m staying out of it.” I looked at her and noticed the bags under her eyes. Her need to believe in something. I brushed the hair out of her face. “Just be careful,” I said. “I’ll pray for your womb.”
“Thanks,” she said softly. She was off, drifting into some easy, dreamless, and natural sleep, her flat belly soft against mine.
For a long time, I thought Whitney would leave me for a woman. I’d been with queer women before—women who did, in fact, leave me for other women. I never felt bad about it; it felt natural, commonplace, a thing of my era. But for the first year or two we were together, Whitney would have bouts of anxiety about her sexuality. She had a phobia of things perceived as conventional, especially when it came to relationships. Since my first episode, it never crossed my mind that I’d be close to conventional again. But Whitney—smart, adept at social interactions, white in that “all-American” way she hated, recovered from anorexia—was fearful of turning into her parents and living a “normal” life. Even as she worried over the baby, even as she pretend-proposed to me (“Marry me! Marry me, I’m hysterical!” she laughed), she was always pushing us to resist some unspoken path of normalcy full of certain dread and misery.
She’d sit me down with a book she ordered online about polyamory and read me her favorite passages. She made an online dating profile and listed herself as “seeing someone,” and “heteroflexible,’ though she never went on any dates. At first I was hurt, but I never protested. By nature I’m not a close-minded person, and I admired her tenacity. Most of what she said made me stop and reconsider things I took for granted. When I’d admit some vulnerability, a childhood fantasy about marriage, or the haunting regret I had at having almost been too forceful with a woman— a shame that didn’t go away after apologizing—she wouldn’t berate me. She’d listen. Sometimes, she’d even relate. Of course she had her political convictions, and I admired that too. Marriage was an oppressive tool of male ownership, and she opposed it on principle. “Fuck the state!” we’d joke together. Fuck the racist cops in our city, fuck our underpaid food-service jobs. In those moments, everything between us had a bridge.
“I don’t want it to be like it was in my family. I never want to be a cheater,” I said after she read one of the polyamory passages.
“Open relationships aren’t cheating. You make an agreement. You talk about it, allow it, adjust, re-imagine.” She was dreamy-eyed, sitting upright on our couch beside me. “I think it might bring us closer, to have that kind of trust. To not have to be afraid of forever. It’s all in the book.” She shoved the book into my lap.
“I don’t know, Whitney. Maybe you need to try being with a woman. I tried it once, with a man. And I knew even just at a kiss that it wasn’t for me, but I had to test myself. It’s no use questioning yourself forever, you get crazy and stuck in your head. Of course I’ll be jealous. But if we agree on it, just a date or something, maybe it’s not cheating. If it helps you feel better, I’ll try to be okay with it.”
She was quiet; she looked away from me. “It’s just too cruel,” she said finally. “I’m finally in love, really in love, and it frees me up to want something different I didn’t want before. Sometimes I think I want too much.” Her eyes tinged red.
“Don’t cry,” I said. “I thought this is what you wanted.”
“Don’t tell me not to cry,” she said, her face in her hands. “I’m just scared of myself.”
“I love you,” I said, touching her cheeks, trying to stop her from receding into herself.
“I love you too,” she said before kissing me, her tears wetting my face. Our mouths met for a long time. I was thankful that her voice, for the moment, wasn’t in my head.
“Don’t be so quiet, Anthony.” Whitney whispered in my ear as we sat at a table with the other wedding guests. “Can you try to engage? These are my friends. You know them.”
My hand shook. I knew her friends. I knew the bride, Tara, with her funny laugh and cute bangs, and the lesbian Jackie who sat beside Whitney and loved anime like me. But no matter how well I got to know Whitney’s friends, I was always on the outside of their circle—too quiet and awkward, unaware of the radical lingo they used with ease. Their talk of queer-positivity, fat-phobia, doulas, mixed-gender militias, radical parenting, collectives, and benchmark rallies. Things I had heard about, some more than others, but mostly just in passing. I only learned about these things once I was in my late twenties, educating myself at libraries and cafés when I was hungry and briefly homeless. For Whitney and Whitney’s highly educated friends, revolution was life, and lifestyle was revolution.
“I’m going to smoke a cigarette,” I said.
“Are you hearing a voice?” Whitney said.
“No,” I lied.
Do you love me enough to give me life? What are you made of? Are you really a man?
No mouth could be associated with the words. No vocal recognition struck me, and in this way it felt as if God himself (or themselves, as Whitney would correct me) spoke.
You idiot. You don’t know anything.
The voice boomed. Before I was diagnosed as schizophrenic, there was a time when I thought I could talk to God. And God talked back. In those days, when I slept on the roofs of garages or on stranger’s couches, the voices didn’t frustrate me or make me anxious like they did now. Rather, they commanded me, filling me with a purpose I sought with a manic, bottomless energy. Talking to God was like falling in love. All that mattered was what we said to one another, and the visions that voice birthed in me compelled me infinitely as I walked down deserted city streets, following magical lights.
You’re incompetent, incapable, useless.
The voice was hollow, speaking from the depths of Whitney’s body, which stood like a wall in front of me. Whitney reached her arm out to me, her fingers spread wide and wing-like. I grabbed, slipped, blinked before my legs followed me out towards her as we started to dance.
When Whitney and I first met, I’d been re-building my life for a few years since finally becoming stable after my first episode. I nearly canceled our first date because I didn’t have the money to take her anywhere. She’d asked me out at the café she worked at. I was standing outside smoking a cigarette, listening to the music in my headphones. She walked right up to me and tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention.
“Hi, my name’s Whitney.”
“H-hey,” I stuttered, putting my hand out. “I’m Anthony.”
“You come here all the time but never order food, only coffee, so I never have an excuse to ask your name,” she said. “And I think you’re cute,” her voice dipped. It felt like a scene out of middle school, but she was nearly thirty at the time and I was thirty-three.
Startled, I paused before saying, “Your eyes are very beautiful.” I blushed.
“Thanks,” she said quickly. “If you want to get coffee at some place I don’t work, you know where to find me,” she added before walking off in a hurry.
Later, she said she’d dared herself to ask me out. Some guy she’d had a falling out with had been in the café earlier that day. “I ran into the kitchen, had trouble breathing,” she said. “I told myself: this is ridiculous. I’m my own woman. I can get what I want.”
She was so honest. Usually, it was me who was honest: too honest for women. Too strange. Eventually, we exchanged numbers and she asked me out via text. When I messaged her that I was waiting on a paycheck and didn’t want to start out on the wrong foot (“Let’s go out next week?” I texted), she texted: “I can take you to a bar. Or we can just go to your place.” We ended up in my tiny room with only one chair, the walls plastered with my drawings. She sat on the bed, reclined back onto her forearms, and started talking. Her legs were long and smooth in her tights and her thick hair fell like clouds around her pale, oval face.
“These are good. You’re talented, in an imaginative way,” she said, pointing to a drawing of two superheroes flying through the air. “I used to draw. But from photos or still lives.”
“You don’t draw now?” I hid my hands in my pockets; they were trembling again. I sat in the one chair in my room facing her.
“No, now I’m a writer,” she said. “It’s too hard to practice two art forms at once.”
“What do you write about?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. I’m writing this story about these two girls in a mental institution. They’re in there for eating disorders, but the mental institution is a cover for a socialization project. The doctors are brainwashing the girls into shitty gender and race roles.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said. “I can see that as a comic. Are they both white?”
“One of the girls is black. But I feel weird writing about her. There’s a lot of argument amongst radical writers about if white people should be writing black characters.”
“But if they don’t, all the characters stay white,” I said. “The superheroes in comics are almost always white. Or there’s one black character who’s the bad guy. I’m tired of it.”
We went on like that, talking about art, politics, our families, the city, and our jobs. Schizophrenia came up when she asked me why I hadn’t enrolled in the military despite wanting to in my early twenties. Lying didn’t seem worth it. So I took the plunge, said the thing, squinted my eyes, and waited for the inevitable fall out. But she just listened and nodded, her worry showed only when she cut me off after I began responding to her question about my symptoms.
“I’m sorry to make you explain,” she said. “I’ll never know what that’s like.”
When she said she should probably go, I got up and said: “You’re welcome to sleep here if you want to. It’s late. Or I can walk you home.”
Some floodgate inside her seemed to fall. Her face lost its composure. She got up from the bed, wrapped an arm around my back, and kissed me. We grabbed at one another in the dark, boundaries of skin and shape dissolving, and my hands steadied against her. In that moment, everything was in reach: material, believable, and so quietly beautiful.
“Why can’t you get the pronoun right?” Whitney said. Though she still wasn’t pregnant, we’d been practicing using gender-neutral pronouns to discuss the future of our nonexistent child.
“I’m trying,” I said. “It’s hard. I didn’t grow up using they, them, or their pronouns.”
“No one does!”
“You and your radical friends are so politically correct, but not everyone lives like that.”
“Every sentence I have to remind you!” she said. “If you cared more, you’d be able to.”
“You think I don’t care?” I yelled. “All I do is learn about this shit for you!”
She put her hand up as if holding a stop sign. “You have to do better.”
She got up and walked out of the kitchen to the bedroom, shoving open the bedroom window. She crept out on the fire escape and sat, her nightgown swaying fiercely with the wind. I worried that the cloth would tear, and Whitney would unravel along with it. I felt for the first time a fragment of the dread she’d described to me. Only, for me, the dread was in her leaving me. In our bodies failing at this task even dysfunctional couples—even cheaters—got right.
Stop patronizing me. I don’t need to be taken care of.
Whitney’s voice. My anger embarrassed me. I sat with it, resisting the urge to yell.
Shut up, you toad.
I croaked quietly, and from my vantage point in the kitchen, I could see the roofs and windows of a great many buildings out the living room window. It was the season again in which Whitney and I had first started dating. The gray buildings that once felt as if they bore down on me as I walked to work had then felt less concrete. I saw the sky through the cracks of those structures, I had visions of other cities I’d always wanted to visit that suddenly felt not so far away. To find love like that, a love that took form within and around me, I knew would only happen once in a lifetime. I could never inhabit its entrancing infancy again.
In our kitchen, Whitney stood in her nightgown. She sat down on the floor and ran her hands over her body. Cheeks, arms, breasts, belly. Womb. It was her womb that her hands couldn’t stop touching. I thought of how she must have been when she was anorexic, trying to control everything around her with her body. Her womb spoke to me then, undecipherable, about some other world in which the rules of this one that governed her body and mine were broken.
The witchcraft commenced just as the leaves on the trees had started to fall. Things had begun to die, but still, Whitney and I pushed onward, trying to force a life. None of our parents or friends knew. We were sure they would think that we —in our thirties, still working in food service—were too poor. I’d made my way through that kind of terrain, a son of a single mom with five kids from three different men, and in it I had found what I needed to carry on, but for Whitney the lack of money constituted something rebellious. When I tried to caution her, she listened. But I could feel a tension in her; everything from her own childhood had to be reworked. This was her chance to practice something truly radical.
Whitney became obsessed with the cemetery near our apartment. One evening before I dreamt of the baby, she convinced me to go with her despite my initial reluctance. We walked through the pathways that parted the gravestones and stopped at different tombs.
“I’m going home,” I said abruptly. My head was throbbing.
“Voices?” she said.
“Makes sense.” She was crouched by two gravestones. “Are these voices scary?”
“Just unpleasant. Let’s go,” I said.
“Wait, I need you to come here. Sit.”
I sighed and sat by her. She rubbed my arms. “What?” I said. “Come on, I need to go.”
“I don’t want to make you feel studied,” she said. “I know you hate that. But I think your voices could be important for us.”
“For the baby. What if you could access whatever it is that’s holding us back?”
The earth below me was cold. I felt the dirt stain the palms of my hands, the back of my jeans. I felt used up. My God didn’t manipulate, but her easy spirituality, her righteousness, did.
“I’m going to lose my mind.” I got up.
“What?” She scrambled to her feet.
“This has got to end. It’s not supposed to happen.”
She opened her mouth. Closed it. Our entire walk home she trailed behind me, reluctant, dragging. There was nothing to say to one another. I had crushed it.
It was a few days after the cemetery incident that I dreamt about the baby. That night, I told Whitney about my dream, claiming that I could hear her womb, and everything changed. She wanted witchcraft. She wanted magic. And I gave it to her. I made up a voice that I said came from her womb, hiding the one I feared was too vague and strange to move her.
She was hungry all the time. I came home from work, and no matter the time, she’d be eating. We had sex every night, which was mechanical and exhausting. In the past, we’d freed ourselves of that particular pressure. But now sex was obligatory, and my medication made it hard to ejaculate. Some nights I couldn’t. In those instances, we were stunned into wordlessness. I felt almost as if, in the rattling failure inside of me that I, too, had a womb, and that that womb was, as Whitney bemoaned, cursed. Only my womb was not in my stomach but instead occupied my brain space. The voices had emptied my head of the assurances of reality, even the assurance of firing semen.
We had a follow-up with Joanie. Both of us dragged ourselves to her house.
“I’ve given up,” Whitney said.
Joanie frowned. “Do you want to check? You do look different. Your face is fuller.”
“A pregnancy test? It’s useless. My face? It’s because I’m eating too much, out of spite.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Joanie. “I know it’s been difficult. I can look at the test for you. I have ones right here. Let me? I have a feeling. And a ritual we can try.”
We were in a different room of the house than the last appointment. A huge, gallery-like room full of small, cluttered objects and overwhelmed by bold wall colors: purples, oranges, and blues. Staring at all the decoration and hearing Joanie refer to a ritual, something clicked. Joanie was behind Whitney’s newfound spirituality, and only now was I realizing it. Whitney had hid it by calling her a doctor, but she wasn’t a doctor at all. She was some sort of New-Age witch.
“I don’t know. Anthony, what do you think?” Whitney looked at me with wide eyes.
“No rituals,” I said. “Just the test.”
Joanie looked at Whitney, who shrugged. Joanie quickly retrieved a test, and Whitney went to the bathroom with it. Joanie didn’t say anything to me. She sat at her desk, pretending to do paperwork from behind a big notebook. I observed the room, full of crystals, charts, curtains, and dusty books. I could feel Joanie’s eyes on me as I walked around, looking at images that depicted a great many women with children. Men were absent from this space; from these pictures. I found one that held my focus: a tiny drawing of a women with her child cradled in her arms, her black hair wrapped around her breasts like a serpent. Her baby’s form and the entire image was a serene blue, the baby’s outline drawn with simple, swooping, silver lines. The image was Eastern—Buddhist perhaps. Something Whitney would like.
I thought about my drawings of myself as a muscled superhero surrounded by snarling monsters; how perverse they felt in comparison to these feminine images. My palms grew moist. The voice began, that voice I never fully explained to Whitney. It was distant, a low, quiet moan, as if echoing across a large expanse of flat land, or a body of water, traveling toward me like a weightless thing with wings, oscillating between what was close and what was far, what was known and unknown, real and unreal.
“Anthony!” Whitney shrieked.
Joanie dropped her notebook. I chucked a big purple crystal back into its display.
“It’s positive!” She pointed at the device in her hand, needing that proof. “I’m pregnant!”
“I knew it!” Joanie said, hugging her before I could.
Whitney approached me. I touched her face and her belly. She cried. My eyes watered as I held her. I wanted to hold her forever. My chest expanded as if my body was preparing to take flight. I noticed the light in the room, bits reflected in her hair. The voice in my head laughed like a child; it was different than before. I thought of telling her right then about it. Instead, I kissed her all over her face, and she laughed in that way I loved—with her whole body.
Later that night, I asked her to wait in the bedroom. When I was done, I brought her into our living room, the lights out, to a display of candles on the floor. I asked her to sit with me on the ground and showed her the picture of mother and child I’d taken from Joanie’s, in which I had drawn myself, comic-book style. I melded the images so they looked almost natural together.
Motioning at the image, I said: “I’ll always be different. Is it all right?”
She looked at me, alarmed, and touched that place between my eyes where she knew the voices lived. “Of course it’s all right,” she said.
I held her in the dark, the lights flickering. I pressed my ear to her belly and listened.
“It’s too soon for that,” she said.
But of course it wasn’t too soon for me, and I heard all the same.
Chelsea Gleason is a feminist writer living and working in Baltimore. Her writing has been published in Viewpoint Magazine, King’s Review, End of ’83, and Hoax Feminist Compilation Zine. She’s a worker-owner at Red Emma’s café and bookstore where she makes vegan mega nachos, orders feminist fiction, and organizes a creative writing group begun at the Baltimore Free School. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries about her work. Selected by Ahsan Butt.
Image © Pepa Barril via Flickr Creative Commons.