I first met Adlai spring semester of sophomore year while I was working at the lending desk of my university’s library. I had just gotten back from studying abroad in Wales and said goodbye to my boyfriend, who was leaving for Rome for the semester. I was feeling lonely, out of touch, and friendless when she checked out Pride and Prejudice for her Lectures in Lit course and asked me my name. I told her Roxane and when she sang “Roxaaane” just like it sounds in that Police song, I felt suddenly better, like I was right where I needed to be.
She told me she’d seen me around, haunting the halls of the English Department, reading in small nooks and at tiny, hard desks. I’d never seen her before, but I told her I had because it felt more polite somehow. She leaned against the lending desk and looked at me with a boyish enthusiasm I had never experienced in my teens, but recognized as an observer of my friends and the other girls I envied. I laughed nervously when she looked at me, afraid I was coming off as too girlish to potentially be her friend. She whipped her messenger bag around her small frame and placed the book inside. When she asked me if I wanted to hang out sometime, I said, “Yeah, sure!” uncertain why I felt a small thrill rise up inside me unlike ever before.
We met two days later at a Lebanese restaurant only a few blocks from campus. She was dressed in jeans and a baggy V-neck t-shirt, but I could tell she had put chapstick on and maybe even a little bit of mascara. I counted the freckles on her face this time, entranced by their varying shape and the way they made her eyes seem slightly too big for her face, in a dreamy sort of way. I counted six before stopping, afraid I was making her uncomfortable. She told me I looked really pretty. When we got inside she pulled out a chair for me, but I didn’t notice until I was already sitting in the other one. She sat down quickly before either of us could say anything.
I was twenty-one and had only ever been on one first date before (my boyfriend), so I can’t explain how wonderful it was to have a woman order me a bottle of wine. She played with the ends of her long blond hair and asked me the usual questions. Where I grew up—Toronto. What I was studying—Film and British Literature. Did I speak any languages other than English—un peu français. She went on and on like that so I barely had a chance to learn about her, except for the way her body moved when she laughed and how she relaxed into herself when I said something that made her thoughtful or curious.
I found myself feeling a little guilty as we continued to eat and drink. I hadn’t spoken to my boyfriend since he left for Rome and here I was, imagining my mouth on this woman in places I had barely seen or touched on myself. I felt ashamed and excited and sick.
We finished the bottle of wine and stood outside, each of us holding our jacket tightly around ourselves. The sun had gone down hours before. I watched Adlai unlock her bike and fix the strap of her messenger bag between her small breasts. She told me she was tired but still had a bunch of work to do before morning. I lived close, didn’t I? Could she maybe come over for some coffee and we could work together the rest of the night? Suddenly I felt alert and even more nervously present than I had in hours. I looked away, trying to hide my face, because of course she could.
“My mother is a pastor, but we don’t talk much anymore,” I said. We were sitting at the kitchen table drinking whiskey instead of the coffee I promised.
Adlai asked me why. Her pale face was rosy now, but her hands were cold. She had made me feel them only moments before. She said it always happened when she was drunk.
“She used to hit me a lot,” I said. “My mother. I think she has a personality disorder or something, but who am I to say?”
Adlai’s face remained neutral, unfeeling. “And your father?”
“Dead,” I said. “Bar fight. That’s not a joke. I don’t remember meeting him, even when I was little. And to be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to.”
“Why’s that?” she said.
“Well, mostly because he slept with my mother.”
We looked at each other stone-faced until Adlai laughed and then I laughed and we were both laughing so hard we were crying until I fell halfway out of my chair onto the floor. She helped me up and put her hand on my thigh, and when she did, everything stopped for a moment. I told her it was late and we were drunk and the couch was uncomfortable, but she could sleep on one side of my bed if she wanted to.
I closed the door to my room and Adlai got serious.
“Take your clothes off,” she said.
“What?” I said. She repeated herself, but I hesitated.
“Take your clothes off. Now.” She said it sweetly, smiling, looking at me searchingly like something I’d never seen, and I wondered if this is what desire looks like on a woman.
I lifted my dress, but then I became nervous and let it fall. She began to repeat herself again until I lifted it and held the skirt above my head, letting it cover my face so she could get a good look at me—the way my black tights dug into the fat around my hips, the stretch marks encircling my belly button from the summer my whole body grew too fast and too much, and the birthmark below my left breast. “Look,” I said, becoming tearful, overwhelmed by the freedom of it. “Look.”
“Take it off,” she said.
I stood there in my black tights and boots, wishing I wasn’t wearing a sports bra while also wondering if she liked it, if she even knew I was a runner, tried to be a runner when I was feeling sad, and I was the kind of girl who would go for a run shortly before I met up with someone new so I’d be more tired than I was nervous. We stared at one another from across the room, daring, drunk, and lost in each other.
I wasn’t prepared for any of this and I had no idea what to do next. Adlai walked towards me and when she touched my face I stepped away, my body tingling with guilt and desire and frustration. “I have a boyfriend,” I said.
“Oh.” She looked at me as if she was suddenly seeing me for the first time, and then at the wall as if it held a tiny door through which she could quickly escape.
“I’m sorry. I should have said something.”
Her eyes looked glassy and uninterested, unlike before. “Why didn’t you?” It was the first time I saw her look even close to uncertain of herself.
“I didn’t really know it was a date?” I said. “Until now,” I added stupidly.
Her face pushed in on itself, perplexed and embarrassed, I assumed for herself, but then wondered if it was for me.
“That seems really dumb now,” I said. I picked my dress up from the floor.
“Can I still stay here tonight?” she said.
I took her hand and led her to my bed. We lay down and after awhile she pressed herself against my back and put her hand on my ass until we fell asleep like that.
In the morning I was alone and my dress was back on. Perhaps it had all been a very vivid, drunken dream prompted by loneliness, horniness, and latent homoerotic desires I had previously repressed. I had taken Intro to Psychology last year, after all. But then I saw the note.
Sorry I had to leave. Early class. Hope to see ya around. — A
See ya around? Who was this person? Maybe she did this kind of thing all the time. But it hadn’t felt like it. I hated her for leaving without saying goodbye, even though I knew it wasn’t fair. I spent the rest of that morning lying in bed staring at the ceiling, feeling guilty for not studying and for not missing my boyfriend, but missing Adlai instead.
When I went to campus later that day, I hoped I’d see her at the library. I stayed there all afternoon and night changing spots, moving from floor to floor every hour, trying to stand out so she’d inevitably spot me. I could have called her, but I felt too pathetic and confused. When, hours later, I finally called Adlai, she didn’t answer. The empty library hallway echoed with the sound of her automated response, telling me she wasn’t there, and I wasn’t sure if she’d ever be again.
A week went by without a call back or a spotting of her. I became convinced she was a figment of my lonely imagination or I was schizophrenic. I chose the first option, since I’d only taken Intro to Psychology after all and was obviously not qualified to self-diagnose.
In the meantime, my boyfriend finally called me from Rome–only a month too late after a few lazily written emails with typos like I mosh you and Can’t wait to sew you–and acted like he was doing me a favor. I told him I couldn’t date him anymore. I met someone else. He let out a sigh of relief and I felt grateful (we could part peacefully, couldn’t we?). That was, until he told me he’d been cheating on me with a fellow traveler since he first arrived in Italy. I said nothing, letting him sweat it out until I screamed, “I never wanted your disgusting penis inside of me anyway!” before I hung up.
I cried the rest of that night in my room, in the shower, on the toilet, standing at the kitchen sink, and most of all, at the sight of the empty fridge when I realized I’d eaten all the leftover pizza the night before. I knew I wasn’t crying over my boyfriend so much as the fact that I was still a virgin, and I did at one point want his disgusting penis inside of me as much as I now wanted Adlai to touch every part of my body. But what could I do?
Three weeks later and there was still no sign of Adlai. I tried finding her online and even asked classmates if they knew her, but she was nowhere to be found. I’d resigned myself to her disappearance as I walked from class to class, running into passersby like a truculent child, annoyed by the mere existence of anyone else going about their day normally without excessive emotion or desire, when here I was, lovesick and pregnant.
I’d been throwing up for days. It took another week of being sick and retching across campus, causing me to walk strangely and bob my head like a flamingo, before I went to the drugstore to buy a pregnancy test. I felt genuinely insane even considering such a thing, and I got as far as the checkout line before I returned the test to its shelf. The condoms, lube, and yeast infection treatments mocked me and my lack of experience before I got the hell out of there and bought an ice cream cone on the way home instead.
The doctor was a ruddy-faced, thin man in his thirties who somehow looked friendly and ghoulish, which I found at once completely comforting and terrifying. Was this man also an illusion like Adlai? Everything around me had begun to look fuzzy on the edges and slightly unreal.
I told him about my recurring illness, and he eventually asked me if I’d taken a pregnancy test. I told him that it was impossible and found myself whispering that I’d never quite had sex before, as if the walls would betray me at any moment and share the news with the National Enquirer. He smiled sympathetically and nodded, as though he heard this all the time and was wholeheartedly convinced I was full of shit.
“What about oral sex?” he said.
“Well, once. But it was weird.”
He nodded professionally again and continued to take notes. What could they have been? Awkward fellatio cause of severe distress and vomiting? I shouldn’t have come. I should have downed a bottle of Pepto Bismol and called it a day. If I somehow overdosed or drained my body of all fluids—what did I know about the effects of too much salicylic acid—surely it would look like an accident.
“Have you ever had a man’s ejaculate or erect penis near your own genitals?”
I felt like I was going to vomit, but before I yelled, “Trash! Trash!” I muttered “yes.” I remembered my boyfriend dry humping me while we were naked—although it wasn’t always very dry—and I lay there uncertain of what to do besides not let him slip it in. This much I was sure of because I was convinced—like my very fertile mother and grandmother and great-grandmother—that I would invariably be impregnated and miserable. It was the maternal destiny of my clan.
“Poor girl,” the doctor said. “Let’s get some urine and blood from you. You can never be too sure.”
The urine test was positive. “The impossible is fucking possible after all!” I yelled as I left the doctor’s office. Not a head turned. It was as if they heard other women shout the very same thing in this very same office before.
I was so tired I couldn’t do anything except create a taxonomy of tiredness in my head as the bus bounced me home, the fetus surely becoming brain damaged due to my inability to provide it some sort of smoother transit experience. I had never felt like more of a failure or a cliché. What was I going to do now? Drop out of college, move back to Syracuse to my mom’s tiny house, get a minimum wage job, and raise the little shit with my dejected, overworked, unloved ass?
I felt as though my veins would stop transporting blood at any moment. I felt so tired I actually fell asleep while thinking we should have never moved to the States, staying in Toronto instead. Why was Mom so dumb to think our chances would be any better here than if we were dead? I suppose it’s because she got pregnant and followed my father, the first ghost I never met.
I woke up at the last stop downtown near the Amtrak station to the sound of the driver tapping her nails on the window next to me saying, “Yo, sweetie. You need to get your ass up.”
I stood in front of the station and let the city sink in as I woke. I never really loved Pittsburgh until now as I contemplated leaving it, jumping on the next train to Syracuse and crying for my unfeeling mother to take care of me as if that would turn her into the warm puddle of butter I always wanted, needed.
I had to figure out how to get back home, but then I saw her. Adlai. Walking out of the train station, her messenger bag slung over her chest just like it was the month before, when I thought I had created her. I began to cry wildly, grossly, snorting and heaving like some deranged pig, and when she spotted me I turned to hide. Once she was standing in front of me I held back my tears, only to replace them with a freakish, cubist contortion of every muscle of my face.
“Oh, no. What’s wrong?” she said. I let her hug me, and when she did, I keened again.
We were sitting in my apartment drinking chamomile tea by the time I stopped crying. Adlai told me she lost her phone, which is why she hadn’t returned any of my calls, and her grandmother died, which is why I stopped seeing her around. She exists! Adlai is real! The relief I felt was inexplicable and staggering.
Her eyes darted over her cup of tea when I told her about me being pregnant.
“Does your boyfriend know?” she asked.
“He’s not my boyfriend anymore,” I said. She nodded casually in response. “Also, this whole thing is impossible. It doesn’t make sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is really embarrassing,” I said. I took a deep breath. “I’m pretty much a virgin. I mean, like mostly a virgin.”
“How are you mostly a virgin?”
“I mean, he was never inside me. He was just around me, you know?”
Adlai laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just that—you’re adorable.”
“I don’t feel adorable!” I said, secretly relishing the compliment.
Suddenly, Adlai looked mournfully over her crossed legs at the kitchen’s once white but now almost gray tile floor.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
Her laugh belied what she was about to say next, but this was before I knew she would always let a little laugh out before sharing bad news or a sad story as if it would add a layer of bubble wrap to the blow.
“This has happened before,” she said.
“I don’t understand.” I smiled, searching for the joke.
“My ex-girlfriend, she got pregnant when we were together a few years ago. I assumed she cheated on me, but she’s always denied it.”
I set down my tea. My chest began to hurt. My hands tightened into small fists. “What happened to the baby?”
“She got rid of it.” Adlai stared into her cup of tea.
“I don’t understand.”
She twisted the ends of her hair vigorously. Her face looked sullen, then obtuse, before it lit up again and she laughed. “What are we thinking!” she said. “That’s crazy! I’m a woman, you’re a woman. It’s impossible.”
“Right,” I said. “I mean, we didn’t even really do anything.”
“But then how?” Adlai moved to take a sip of tea, but the cup slipped from her hand and shattered onto the tile into a spatter of glass.
Adlai took me to the doctor and held my hand on the bus and on the sidewalk and in the doctor’s office, as if to ensure no one would view me as a scorned woman on the edges of society, an outcast, deformed, wretched, and unlucky. The thing is, my body began to expand into what felt like an obese flamingo. Not only did I dry heave openly and lavishly on the streets, but my swollen belly hung over my unbuttoned jeans, and I waddled as if I had defecated in my pants, uncertain how to move stealthily with the suddenness of this new weight hanging on my once unburdened spine.
I had not been given enough time to adjust to all the changes. Life had never been so cruel. I began skipping classes and Adlai lied to my professors, telling them I had mono so I could keep up with the work at home.
She also began to go a little crazy, fully convinced she was responsible for impregnating me. Within the time between my test and first follow-up appointment, she bought and constructed a crib that sat next to my bed. She stocked up on diapers and baby wipes and talc-free baby powder, filling every empty space in my closet.
When I told Adlai she had to stop because it was upsetting me (I was wholly convinced I was not pregnant, but riddled with a cancerous tumor that was growing exponentially by the second), Adlai wept and said she couldn’t lose another child. She couldn’t let that be her fault again. She wanted to be a good mom. She knew I’d be a good mom, and she knew it might be crazy, but she was in love with me, and just maybe the impossible was possible and we could be a family.
I said nothing. I left the apartment only to sit outside on the stoop for three hours before going back in and straight to bed.
Adlai held my belly that night as we fell asleep. I imagined her as a mother, her long blond hair swaying among all the daily drudgery and chores, and I wept softly as she slept because I realized wanting to love and raise her child was the first thing I’d ever really wanted with my whole heart, with some kind of unflappable love that was unknowable to me until that very moment. It was the kind of love that could break the dense carapace constructed after your first childhood experience of pain, abuse, or neglect. It was the kind of love that left you suddenly shattered, but somehow more whole, with nothing but the precipitant desire to give the kind of love you once needed and now only received through the giving. This was Adlai. She was that kind of love.
The next morning, I told her I knew I loved her. I knew the first time she sang my name. I told her, let’s be a family.
Weeks later my doctor was on vacation, so this time I was fortunate enough to see a beautiful, shapely female doctor whose words all felt and sounded like small pieces of chocolate. Adlai held my hand and smiled. We had been making plans. We stayed up nights talking about our baby, the jobs we’d have someday, the places we’d travel together, the way we’d make it work. We were happy and foolish and, more than anything, hopeful.
The doctor began the ultrasound and everything felt and looked exactly how I imagined it from the medical dramas I sometimes watched on TV. Even her furrowed, worried brow.
“What is it?” I asked her. Then I saw it.
The quiet consumed me.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. Her voice was soft. She was mournful. She may have even said the words again, but I remember little shortly after this moment besides Adlai’s hand gripping mine.
It was gone. The heartbeat. Neither Adlai nor I would get to be a mom after all—our baby just another ghost I’d never get to meet.
When we finally left the doctor, I found myself embarrassingly struck with despair but unable to cry. A small part of me still believed the ghost baby had a fighting chance to will itself to life and allow me to love it until the end of my uncertain, potentially always-virginal days. I had been so hopeful only moments before.
There was a lot of crying and fighting. Adlai would switch back and forth between believing the seemingly impossible and accusing me of sleeping with various men she saw me talking to on campus. Classmates and professors. Friends of friends. Strangers.
Yet, we clung to one another.
It would be many months before we learned to deal with the loss through jokes, naming our immaculately conceived child Phil Spector because the conjured image of him terrified us both and the pun made us laugh in a way that disguised the real desire to bear children together someday, somehow, perhaps immaculately again, it being the most imaginative option.
We’d spend afternoons lying on the lawn outside the Cathedral after class, drinking Adlai’s cold-brewed coffee, giggling at ridiculous, life-threatening things our young Phil Spector could have done. Electrocute himself in the bathroom via a plug-in vibrator! Choke on a butt plug! The cruder, the better.
I see now how we needed to retain his absence, his tragic death as the memento mori that once brought us together, or everything would fall apart. If we didn’t cry from laughter, we’d only cry.
Adlai and I broke up after three years in that boring, unidentifiable kind of way that many do in their mid-twenties. There was a lot of blame and crying and sleeping together and breaking up again before we finally let go of one another. Mostly we wanted to sleep with other people who would demand nothing of us, but we wanted to be polite about it, and that meant overtures of love and despondency. We were bored and jobless and when she finally left Pittsburgh for Asheville, I stayed, no longer unsullied. And I missed her.
It would be another five years before I saw Adlai at a farmer’s market in Durham while I was visiting a friend. I spotted her standing in front of a table laden with Swiss chard and purple cauliflower, her small hands and thin fingers tousling the thick golden curls of a little girl riveted to her leg. She looked older, her hair cropped, but she was still beautiful, and I recognized her at once.
When I finally said hello and met her daughter and, the next day, her wife at the dinner they ceremoniously invited me to, I believed in fate for the first time, and was reminded that if I didn’t laugh I’d cry while I drank too much wine, my teeth stained burgundy when I finally said goodbye, I hoped, in an endearing way.
I wouldn’t have known this at the time, but I know now that I will never have children, even though my body retains the dull ache for the one I lost with Adlai. I still think of it sometimes at night when I fall asleep alone or next to the man or woman I’m attached to at the moment. I lay my hand on the small bulge of my belly and I say a little prayer to take away the preterition, the specter, even though I always tell myself I don’t believe in God and never will.