A painting of my miscarriage hangs in The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Watercolor on paper in a square frame on the westernmost wall of the fourth floor in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Hilma af Klint painted my miscarriage seventy years before I was born and four thousand miles East of the final sewage resting place of my neverborn fetus.
The museum was not uncomfortably crowded on that “pay as you wish” evening, yet managed to be intrusively loud. Chatter of the many other on-a-budget art admirers swirled around the bleached institution, refusing to be muffled by the quickly shed winter coats held tight by arms stoically crossed in front of chests. Since I couldn’t blame my companions for sharing my weekend plans, I instead turned their impeding conversations into static and focused on appreciating wide strokes and palette choices as I side-stepped my way around the museum. When I was four rotations from the entrance, beyond Klint’s more pointed pieces and before the shift into R. H. Quaytman’s work, I was stopped by a wall of familiarity. Hung at eye level: the clear image of my miscarriage.
I wanted to be standing a foot away from Klint’s painting for so long that a museum employee politely request that I move along to let others get a clear view. I wanted a stranger to ask me what I was seeing in the floating rose cloud so that I could extend my arm, point my steady finger and say, “that came out of me.” The faint swirling pink was so authoritative up there on the wall, so completely deserving of attention as it stood displayed in its wide frame. If I hadn’t had a miscarriage, the painting could have been of an aerial view of a hurricane that exclusively swept up a field of azaleas, petals only, with the highest concentration making up the eye of the dominating fog. But instead of a natural disaster I only saw myself on the canvas, legs wide open: truly exposed and completely lovely.
I miscarried at work. I clocked my period as a few days later than expected, but chalked the lateness up to stress and thought nothing else of it. I was hunched over in my desk chair, attempting to massage my throbbing uterus by jabbing a finger into my lower abdomen through my jeans, when I noticed the familiar release that could only mean the arrival of one’s expected period.
When you are slumped pathetically in your desk chair at work, defeated by the debilitating cramps that have been the norm for a few days, and you feel your period suddenly arrive, you grab your bag of tampons out of your purse and hurry to the bathroom. Expecting period blood you are instead greeted by— well, you know those push-pops that you would eat in the summertime when you were young? Those cylinder popsicles encased with that flimsy cardboard that you would lick from the top while slowly pushing up the plastic straw on the bottom so that more and more popsicle was exposed, gradually, so that you could really pace yourself? It was like that. Except instead of refreshing myself with cherry or blue raspberry ice, it was as if a tiny construction worker was inside of my lower abdomen, one boot on either side, using all of their strength to shove a push-pop’s worth of clear jelly out from between my legs. Gradual. Consistent.
That’s really gross. But it was gross. It was also creepy. No, I will not dehumanize what was happening. It was startling, but I had spent enough time owning a vagina to recognize it in the moment as natural discharge. I hesitate to even write that word, though I know it is technically accurate: discharge. I can feel you pulling away in anticipation of having to read it again: discharge. But I can’t call it what I am the most comfortable calling it: goo. That feels the most honest. Upon seeing the heavy fluid come out of me I all but shouted, “Ah! Goo!” But I also recognize that as a silly way to describe a remarkably un-silly product. There is nothing innately silly about fear.
I was never told, during my childhood of illustrated chapter books about my changing body being tossed into my lap by an anxious mother followed by my years of public school sex education taught by sweaty gym teachers, that pregnancy announced itself with a toilet full of foggy pink jelly. Not even during any of the giddy teenage sleepovers spent flipping between Cosmopolitan magazine and an open laptop ready to google unfamiliar terminology did my friends and I come to this conclusion. However, considering I had never been pregnant before and I have always contested that human bodies are for the most part a doughy mystery and I was never explicitly told that pregnancies are not signaled by a thickly blushing toilet bowl, I was left to draw the only conclusion my panicked brain deemed logical: pregnancy.
The first time I went to the pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test I bought a Gatorade instead. Light blue. They were out of purple. I did not realize how absolutely impossible the task of buying a pregnancy test would feel. I could not make myself buy it.
During one of my attempts, I called Alyssa while standing in the aisle. Alyssa is my cousin, six years my senior. Being two of the only girls in our expansive generation of the Blasks we were raised, although under different roofs, as sisters. The first summer that I ever had my period we were on our annual family beach vacation, and I was ruining it for myself by refusing to use a tampon and therefore being unable to go in the ocean or pool. When I barred my mother from entering the bathroom with me, she sent in Alyssa, and after what felt like hours of gentle explanation on her part, and “are you sures?” on my part, I finally jumped into the ocean without fear of attracting sharks. Since then Alyssa is my first call when something new happens to or near my vagina.
In the pharmacy, on the phone, I tried to explain to her that there was so much violence inside of me. In the ragged, inconsistent breaths that I could not stop pulling through my front teeth. I felt dangerous, impulsive. I told her that I didn’t recognize myself. I terrorized every pharmacy in Midtown with my pacing of the aisles, dawdling from the razors to the tampons, ill with fear. Just buy a test, Madison. Let yourself be told what is or is not happening inside you.
Eventually I managed to buy one. Then I would not take it. I could not. I was mortified of being told that I was pregnant by a urine-speckled piece of plastic that I bought with cash from a stranger who would not make eye contact with me.
Two minutes is too long to wait in a bathroom to be told if you are growing someone inside you. If those minutes didn’t make me take a running start through my apartment before swan-diving out of my kitchen window, at the very least I would combust. I would poof into a cloud of purple smoke and float up into the bathroom exhaust fans and all that would be left behind would be my sneakers and that damp plastic tool. I wondered if, after I combusted, I would be sentient enough to feel bad for my roommate who would have the great misfortune of finding my sneakers and the used test. By that time the answer to my question would be announcing itself on the plastic stick with she, the sole unlucky audience, there to receive it.
Alyssa reminded me that it is a problem with a solution. Go to the pharmacy. Buy a pregnancy test. Pee on the stick. If it is negative, then I can be relieved at having nothing in my life change. If it is positive, then I can be relieved at having a definitive answer. Regardless: You will have an answer, I tell the harrowed figure in the bathroom mirror. It should be so easy. I have peed so many times before. Unfortunately, I reminded Alyssa, I know myself well enough to say that I am positive that in the two minutes it takes for my urine to turn into ink, I will have pitched myself out of my second story kitchen window. Though I suppose it would be more romantic to throw myself off the Williamsburg bridge and into the East River, luckily for those passengers staring out the window of the traversing M train, my kitchen window is closer to the bathroom and this degree of panic favors haste over theater.
It took getting drunk for me to finally take a test. It was the following Monday, and I was drinking wine. I told a stranger in the cramped bathroom that I might be pregnant and that I had a box of pregnancy tests in my bag that I had been carrying around for three days. She kindly asked me if I wanted to take one right now and I said yes and I walked out of the bar and got on a train to Brooklyn and called Alyssa from my apartment bathroom while I was aiming my pee.
I kept the test flat, as instructed, and walked with it out onto my stoop. My street was uncharacteristically quiet. I set the test down on the top step and backed away from it, down the stairs. I told Alyssa to distract me and she began rambling about how cool it is that the ocean exists. I remember her saying that it is so big, the ocean, and then I knew for certain that the baby inside of me was a boy. And then I looked at the stick and learned that I was not pregnant.
I took another test in the morning when I woke up, to be absolutely sure. When that one showed negative, I barked out a throaty laugh. I had been so scared, but the used test looked so pathetically powerless as it sat there on my bathroom counter. How dare a piece of plastic try to change my life.
An hour later, at my desk at work, I sat straight up in my chair. Something was still missing. I called Alyssa, “What about what happened in the bathroom last week?” If that didn’t mean that I was pregnant, then what did it mean? It was certainly not nothing. With her encouragement I called my gynecologist.
Once in her office, I retold my pregnancy scare. The gynocologist nodded surgically after every detail. When I was done, she examined me and then she asked for my blood. After some waiting time she came back into the examination room where I was patiently perched in my paper gown. She sat down on a low stool and told me that based on everything I told her and my blood work that I was not currently pregnant. However, she told me that my HCG levels were still high. She told me that that meant I had recently been pregnant. She told me that this meant that what I had described as happening in the bathroom had been a miscarriage. I had been a month pregnant.
Later I would read that the fetus had only been the size of a grain of rice, but it had already started forming its eyes, mouth, and throat. I remember thinking that that was a rather silly first three things to develop. I tried to imagine what I would look like now, with only eyes and a mouth and a throat.
As far as miscarriages go, mine would be considered best case scenario. I learned that I had been pregnant and miscarried after I had miscarried. I’m not currently in the process of planning a family. The miscarriages that you read and then whisper about are the ones that happen to happy couples who are trying to start a family and are then left deterred by the news, if not devastated. No one cares to reflect on the miscarriage of the irresponsible, single 23 year old who is ultimately delighted to not be pregnant. One is a tragedy and the other is a cautionary tale, a breathing condom commercial.
My approach to processing the miscarriage was clinical: learn everything there is to know about pregnancy and miscarriage and how and why. Information would keep me safe. I read articles written by gynecologists and blog posts written by mothers. I watched two TED talks. I read that one specific Modern Love essay about the couple who miscarried the day after announcing their pregnancy to their entire extended family. I expected to find comfort in these facts, these stories. In comfort’s place I found guilt, shame. Shame at searching for comfort. All of these women whose voices I was hearing, they all shared the one shred of fact that my miscarriage story was missing: they were all trying to get pregnant. A miniscule detail, really, that separates this league of women from where I sit alone, cross-legged in the middle of my bed. I never found a single article with instructions on how to process the miscarriage of the child you did not want. I never really thought about having children until I learned that I had failed at carrying one. This pink roadsign forced me to think about the future of my uterus. Will I always be halted at one month by crippling cramps and a flush of jelly?
I spoke with Alyssa on the phone every night for a week. After I hung up with her I would call another friend to have the conversation again. These conversations were a momentary comfort, a heating pad to dull the ache. My friends were trying their best to help me and I was trying my best to be helped but I didn’t remember what it felt like to be calm. At ease. “Unfortunately that will probably just come with time,” a friend told me at some point that week. “I just want you to feel whole again.” The issue wasn’t that I felt like a piece of me was missing, my complaint was that I never for one moment felt like I deserved the sympathy that I was receiving. I did not want sympathy. I wanted condoms and a time machine, and since I couldn’t have those I just wanted recognition. I wanted a stranger with soft hands to stop me on the sidewalk and hold my face and look at me and tell me that this confusion, this unnameable desire, is allowed. If she wasn’t able to syphon this fear out of me, fear that I had done something irreparable, with her palms on my cheeks, then all I really want is just to be seen.
I hadn’t been sleeping at all since the miscarriage, and that night was no different. I looked at the clock, got out of bed, and walked out of my apartment. Without a window in my bedroom, I didn’t know it was raining until I stepped out onto my stoop. I was met with a wall of rain pouring all around me and ricocheting off of the tin awning beneath which I stood paralyzed, shocked by the force of the soaking curtain. Then I began to laugh out loud. Of course, while I had been so internally focused the world outside of my body hadn’t stopped moving forward. I stared through the downpour and told myself: Don’t forget the brightness of the droplets reflecting the streetlamp from where they lie on the slick hood of the black car parked on the curb. Perhaps they think that they are stars, reflecting moonlight. Don’t forget the aggression of the rain on the awning, knocking with purpose.
Then all at once and much too suddenly it stopped. The rain. It would be easy to believe I had imagined it fell at all if not for the stars that shone still brighter on the hood of the parked car. What an incredible privilege. To stand under an awning at night. Untouched but not unmoved by the existence of rain.