You don’t know it yet. You don’t know what he’ll do to you, and what you’ll do to him.
It goes like this.
You’re seventeen years old. You’ve got a 4.4 GPA, a perfect ACT score, and more going for you than you’d ever thought was possible. You’re in NHS, you’re student body president, and you’re captain of the mock trial and track teams. Your life is perfect, but it comes at a price. You sleep less than five hours every night, you’ve surely thrown up from stress at least three times this week, and on any given night you’ve probably cried for at least an hour. You know it’s worth it, though; one day, it’ll all pay off. This is what you’ll tell yourself at three in the morning on your second cup of coffee, trying to make sense of Calculus and cursing Isaac Newton for getting bored and making more math. I’m just going to tell you flat out— you’re wrong. You’ll start out with little mistakes, but soon enough you’ll go farther than you ever planned.
September. School will have started two weeks ago; you’ll already have six hours of homework assigned to you each evening. You’ll be angry. You’ll be tired. You’ll just want to relax, for once. That’s why, when an old friend named Nate invites you to a party that night, you won’t immediately turn him down. Sitting there, in your small bedroom lit only by a lamp on your desk, staring down at an endless list of limitations, you just won’t be able to fathom sitting there for another minute. You’ll text him back, letting him know you’ll be there, and you’ll wonder whether you could get permission or if you should just sneak out. You’ll think of the last time you’d asked to go out past seven, and the way your parents had taken that to mean you’d run out of productive things to do and had given you extra chores to fill the time. “Sneaking out it is,” you’ll think.
You’ll decide to change into something cuter than your pajamas from seventh grade— something that says, “I know I look good.” Years from now, you won’t remember exactly what you wore that night. I promise you, it won’t matter in the end. You’ll push up your window frame, and a cool breeze will blow over your skin, feeling so damn refreshing after having sat hunched over a desk for the past four hours. You’ll laugh a bit at yourself, and how stupid it is; you’ll know that you could probably just walk out the front door and not get caught, considering how heavy your parents sleep and how new the wood flooring in your house is. But something about climbing down a tree in the middle of the night in that oh-so-typical teenage way will excite you, so you’ll take a deep breath and stick your leg out the window.
It’ll be a weird moment, right before your foot connects with the sturdy tree branch. Suspended over nothing, you’ll feel a weird sense of displacement and apprehension, like your body just knows it shouldn’t be hanging half out of a second story window. You’ll brush this feeling off, reaching just a bit further and placing your foot squarely on the limb. You’ll be scared, climbing down the shaky tree, but you won’t tell your friends that when you recount your daring escape.
You’ll walk slowly to Nate’s house, basking in the odd stillness that only seems to exist in the deep of the night. You’ll take in the sepia landscape you’re walking through, how the streetlamps make it look as if you’ve been thrown into an old-time movie during that short twenty minute walk.
When you walk through the door, you’ll feel more than hear the music. It’ll beat through you in tandem with your heart, or maybe your heart is beating in tandem with the music. No one will notice you when you first walk in, too far gone to care who they’re with. You’ll push through the crowd— in your memory, it’ll seem much bigger than it must have been. There won’t be more than twenty people in that high-ceilinged living room, but when you look back it’ll feel like hundreds.
You’ll find Nate in the kitchen, and the first thing you’ll say to him is, “Dude, where the hell are your pants?”
He’ll be sitting on the counter with his underwear bunched up at his hips, bare thighs against cold marble. He’ll wink at you, but never really let give where those khaki shorts of his have gone. This will be your favorite memory from that night.
One day, you’ll look back on photos from your high school days and you’ll see one from this party. You won’t recognize him right away, but soon Nate’s wavy brown hair and crinkly smile will come back to you. You’ll remember the way he’d held you as you cried the day after your eighteenth birthday, and the way he’d rubbed your back and told you things would all be okay. Told you he’d never leave you. That night, years in your future, will be the first of many that you drink yourself into oblivion, uncaring of the boy in the other room.
Nate will smile at you and slap the empty space next to him, but you’ll hesitate, eying the spilled beer and scattered chips he’s inviting you to sit on. He’ll roll his eyes and say, “Come on, Cathy, lighten up for just one night.”
You won’t really see what lightening up has to do with getting your ass covered in cheap chips and cheaper beer, but you’ll lift yourself onto the counter anyways. Nate will hand you a cup filled with more alcohol than you’d had in your entire life (you won’t ever really know where he got it from) and you’ll take a hesitant sip, and try not to spit it out the moment it hits your tongue. You’ll fail, and everyone will laugh at you, but it won’t feel like you’re out of place. Nate will pat you on the back and tell you with a laugh in his voice, “Don’t worry, you’ll warm up to it.”
He won’t be wrong. Years from now, you’ll find shitty alcohol seeping into your life more often than not.
At some point in the night, a man who’d graduated years ago but hadn’t seemed to move on from the high school party scene will show up with some stronger liquor in tow. You’ll ignore that nagging voice in your head and take shots with Nate and a guy you’ll never know the name of. In some delusional vodka-induced fog you’ll think the guy taking body shots off of you is your soulmate, but the only memory you’ll have of him is a wobbly image of his tongue in your belly button. Romantic.
You’ll end up staggering into a bedroom with a boy you’d never seen before and you won’t bother to turn the lights off. The memories of that night will be burned into your mind. His bruising hands on your hips won’t ever leave you; his boozy breath will always breathe down your neck. Years later, you’ll find yourself wondering in the middle of the night why you never saw his eyes.
You won’t remember it all in the morning. It’ll come back in flashes, when you least expect it. You’ll see his teeth biting down on your inner thigh while taking a shower, and you’ll smell his sweat after practice in the locker room. You’ll feel his hand yanking on your hair the next time you get a haircut. You’ll taste him any time you fuck someone for the rest of your life. I promise you, you’ll never be rid of him.
You’ll be laying in bed, taking your first sick day of the year and the third sick day of your life. You’ll have a bowl of chicken noodle soup in your lap that your mother will make for you after you throw up all over your favorite comforter. She’ll kiss you on the forehead before she leaves, and her long brown hair you’d always been jealous of will brush against your nose. She’ll smile and say, “You make me so proud, honey. You deserve some rest for all the hard work you do.”
For some reason, that won’t sit well for you. You’ll feel like you’ve fooled everyone—your guidance counselor, your friends, your mother— into thinking you’re some genius when you’re not. You’ll lay in your bed and stare blankly at the ceiling. Maybe it could be a time of introspection, but it won’t be. You won’t feel anything for that moment, except for an odd weight in the middle of your chest.
You’ll try and be productive that day, but don’t worry about trying too hard. You won’t get anything done. You’ll sit for hours staring at a half-finished essay about how badly you want to go to Yale University, lazily re-reading the flowery sentences about what a great match this school is for you. You’ll eventually give up, put on some podcast, and sleep the day away. Take this time while you can; it’s one of the last opportunities you’ll have to relax before everything goes to shit.
The next day, you’ll tell your mother you feel better, even though, if anything, you’ll feel worse. She’ll ask you on your way out, “Honey, do you want me to drive you to school?”
You’ll consider it, but end up answering, “No, mom, it’s alright. I feel like getting some fresh air.” You won’t feel like getting any fresh air at all, but you won’t want to force her out of the house on one of her rare days off.
You’ll skip breakfast that morning, praying a silent plea to God above that you won’t throw up in your math class that day. You shouldn’t be too concerned, though, because you won’t. You’ll soon realize that your nausea only hits right after you’ve woken up.
You’ll float through the day and take some half-hearted notes on things you won’t remember in ten years, and skip lunch to work on the assignments you’d missed the day before. It won’t bother you, really, because you won’t have felt like eating anything anyways.
On your third week of vomiting almost daily, you’ll come to terms with the fact that you might actually be sick. Why do you think it’ll take you so long? Maybe you’ll already have an idea of what’s going on. Maybe, while reading this letter, you already feel like you know what’s going to happen— maybe you’re thinking you can fix your future. Give it time, hun. It’ll come to you no matter what you do.
The day of the appointment will come and you’ll be feeling a bit better than usual. It’ll be the first time in a while that you won’t wake up with the taste of vomit on your tongue, and the second day in a row that you won’t have thrown up. You’ll feel weirdly proud of that.
Your mother will drive you to the doctor’s office in her white minivan, and you’ll spend the whole ride toying with the rip in the fabric on the passenger seat. She’ll ask you, “Why didn’t you go get checked out sooner, if you’ve felt like this for so long?”
You’ll just shrug and say, “I dunno, Mom. I just hoped it’d go away on its own. And I didn’t want to take any time off school.”
She’ll shake her head fondly, and you won’t realize at the time that it’s the last time you’ll see that from her. She’ll say, “Oh, Catherine, what are we going to do with you?”
You’ll make some witty joke that you’ll forget over the years as your mother pulls into the parking lot, and you two will be laughing as you step out of the car. The laughing stops soon enough; be prepared that it won’t start up again, not in the same way.
You won’t think very hard about the questions on the preliminary paperwork. It’s not like they’re all that difficult to answer when you hardly do anything with your life. You see, at this point in your life, the party you’ll go to won’t hang so heavily over your head. You won’t think about it daily until later, and the regret of having left your house that night won’t even be realized yet. So, when the paper asks you, “How often do you drink?” you won’t feel more than a twinge of guilt. You’ll think, well, it was only one time. Really, in the grand scheme of things, that one night of release doesn’t mean anything. You won’t have drank since and you think you won’t drink again until you’re legal. So, writing a check mark on ‘never’ won’t feel all that dishonest.
You’ll run through the rest of the questions quickly. How often do you smoke? Never. How often do you drink caffeine? Two to three times a day. How often do you exercise? Three to five times a week. You won’t hesitate on any of them until you see the question, “Have you had sex in the last three months?”
Your hand will still over the paper, and your grip on the blue BIC pen will tighten a little. You’ll be forced to remember that night you’ll have tried your best to forget, the one you’ll have hoped that if you pretended it hadn’t happened, the memory would cease to exist. You won’t know what happened that night, not for sure. You’ll let out a shaky breath through your nose and mark down a hesitant ‘no.’ You’ll tell yourself that, if it comes down to it, you’ll just explain to the doctor that you aren’t sure. That’ll be the end of that.
It won’t be the end of that.
Your mom will stay in the waiting room while you sit in the examination room. It’s fifteen minutes before the doctor comes in, grinning and telling you how happy she is to see you. You’ll wonder how many people she says that to in a day as you shake her hand.
She’ll ask you about school, say it’s great that your studies are going “pretty good.” Everything about her will seem perky— her baby blue painted nails, the sparkly wedding ring on her finger, even her puffy blonde hair will scream, “I love happiness and happiness loves me!” Despite this, she won’t waste much time on the formalities before diving into the heart of the issue, asking how long the nausea has lasted, how often you’re throwing up, if there are any other symptoms you’re experiencing. You’ll answer as best you can, sort of awkwardly, and she’ll seem to sense your apprehension.
She’ll pause for a moment, then ask you, “Is there anything else I should know, Catherine?”
Something in her voice will make you think she knows and you’ll swallow, wishing you could get rid of the memories in your throat. You’ll open and close your mouth a few times, as if the motions could answer the question for you. She’ll wait patiently, knowingly, and you’ll finally spit out the story. You’ll tell her everything, down to the way Nate had clapped you on the back the morning after, as if it were something to celebrate. You’ll tell her that you didn’t plan to go that far. You’ll tell her that you don’t want her to think you’re that kind of girl.
She’ll be calm throughout it all, and when you stop talking she’ll only nod for a few seconds before speaking. She’ll tell you, “Okay. Well, we’re going to start with a pregnancy test today.” You’ll look up at her in a panic, and you’ll want to tell her there’s no way you could be pregnant, no possible way, but she’ll just go on. She’ll keep talking about how this doesn’t change you as a person, and she’ll tell you with her perky voice that you should consider filing a report. She’ll keep talking but you’ll stop listening, only barely aware of what she asks you to do when she hands you the test.
You’ll really start showing just before Christmas. Your mother will offer to drive you to the mall to get some maternity clothing. It’ll be funny; the way she’ll say it will sound like she’s asking if you want to go out for ice cream. You’ll tell her you’d rather go alone, and you’ll give the excuse that you don’t want people to think you’re dating. Your mother will know that’s bullshit (she hasn’t looked young enough to be “dating” in a long time), but she won’t say anything. She’ll just nod, not looking you in the eyes. Never looking you in the eyes.
In the store, there’ll be a moment when you look around and realize you’re the youngest in the store by far. Of course, it won’t really be surprising. From the moment the doctor tells you he’s growing in you, you’ll know how alone you’ll be in this. You’ll catch a woman staring at you across the aisles, scanning you up and down in a way that shows she isn’t even trying to be subtle. You’ll flick her off. As she walks away, you’ll hear her mutter to her friend, “See, this is what I was talking about— stupid teenagers getting pregnant and acting out against others like it’s not their own fault that they got knocked up.”
You’ll start crying next to a stack of compression socks. Everyone will see you, some will even stop in their tracks and stare. You’ll be embarrassed, but you won’t be able to find it in you to leave.
You’ll go over your application one more time before clicking submit, and feel a great surge of relief when you see the little green checkmark next to the word “Submitted.” You’ll sit there, intent on just relaxing for a second with your future in front of you. That’s when he’ll deliver the first kick.
On your eighteenth birthday, you’ll get baby clothes from your grandma.
Your aunt will send you pacifiers and a little blanket.
Your parents will give you all the toys that used to be yours in a little box and say, “We expected to give you these a bit later in life, but…”
They won’t finish the thought.
You’ll know that they all meant well and that you should be grateful, but you won’t be able to help thinking back to your seventeenth birthday. On your seventeenth birthday, you got a new phone. You got books, and candy, and a gift card to your favorite coffee shop. A tiny voice in the back of your head will say that it’s not about you anymore, and you’ll resent that.
You’ll find out you were accepted to Yale University, sitting on the bathroom floor with vomit on your lips. You won’t feel anything at all.
You’ll want to keep him. You’ll know that from the second the doctor tells you he’s there. You won’t waver in that, because you’ll know you’ll love him despite the hardships, and you’ll just know that you’ll be able to juggle college and caring for a child simultaneously. You’ll just know. You’ll be so sure, so goddamn positive, until one day— one day in May you’ll be leaning over the bathroom sink with blood dripping from your nose, an incessant pain in your back, and patches of something your doctor will call ‘colostrum’ seeping from your nipples. You’ll look at your reflection, the bags under your eyes, the dried tears you’ll see on your face more often than not. You’ll be seeing these things for the hundredth time but that time you’ll break. You’ll feel more than hear the scream ripping from your throat, and when you bash your hand into the mirror, you won’t feel the pain right away. You’ll wish you could shatter the glass, wish that you were strong enough to send the shards flying across the room, cutting into your palm, your arms, your chest. You’ll find out later that you picked up a hair straightener and threw it across the room, kicked your foot into the wall and broke a bone. You will pick up a pair of scissors and gauge them into your skin, and it’ll burn like fire, and you’ll wish it would cut deeper and sharper and cleaner. You’ll run to your room and unscrew the blade from a pencil sharpener, and with your right hand press it against your wrist. You’ll take half a second to breathe, then scrape it across, taking shuddering breath after shuddering breath as the blood pumps out in tandem with your heart, or maybe your heart will beat in tandem with the blood— you won’t really know, and you’ll hope that soon you won’t know anything at all.
You’ll live. You’ll wake up alone in a hospital room, and it’ll seem like all the lights are off even though they won’t be. Your head will feel numb, and so will your arm. Your stomach will feel weird, wobbly. Empty.
You’ll find out later that the doctors cut him out, and that your— they called him your son, but it won’t feel real. They won’t notice your struggle, and they’ll tell you he survived. They’ll expect you to care, but by then you’ll be done with expectations and you won’t feel anything when you let them down.
You won’t go to college. Your acceptance will be revoked because of your declining grades in the second half of your senior year, and apparently top colleges aren’t looking for students who may off themselves. You won’t feel sad when you hear this, just angry. Angry at him.
The first time you hurt him will be after he walks into the living room and the man you’d brought home with you leaves because now you are a mother, and suddenly you’re a tainted being, weird, undesirable. He’ll be two, and he won’t look you in the eyes as you yell at him. He won’t speak to you; he won’t even try. You’ll hate him. Everything you’d done for him, everything you’d sacrificed for him, and he won’t even look at you. You’ll start shaking him, back and forth, harder and harder, finally shoving him into the carpet and walking away as his crying echoes in the small apartment.
When they tell you he has autism, you’ll swear at the doctor lying to you and stalk away. You didn’t give up everything to have a defective child. The doctor will try and say something about acceptance and you’ll tell her to accept that you’re leaving, and that you won’t listen to her. You’ll get a phone call saying that your doctor has dropped you a few days later.
When they take him away from you, you’ll be driven to the police station. They’ll sit you down and ask you why, why you did it, and you’ll refuse to answer. You’ll refuse to even speak. You’ll stare at the table and tune them out, until a hand wrinkled with age slams onto the surface. The man will be wearing an old suit, and his shoes will be scuffed. He’ll remind you of yourself.
He’ll say, “You know what? If you won’t talk, you can write.” He’ll throw this yellow legal pad in front of you, drop a pen next to it, and stomp out the door.
You won’t write to him. No one needs to hear your story. No one needs to know why. But maybe, you’ll think, maybe you would have done well to hear this. Maybe you could turn back time. Really, you know you’re being naive. I know I’m being naive.
I can’t change what I’ve done. I can’t change what you’ll do.
I wish I gave a shit.