We’d only been dating a few months on the night we threw caution (and condoms) to the wind. It was the kind of frigid winter night where you want to be in love and singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to one another. We preferred hip-hop to Christmas carols. Somewhere in the middle of a Notorious B.I.G. song, we unintentionally conceived the little life I came to call Baby X.
I got a positive on the home pregnancy test on Christmas Day. Really, at thirty-eight, getting pregnant from one careless night? I had scores of friends in my age range who tried for months with no luck, even when resorting to elaborate fertility interventions.
Why had it been me the fertility gods smiled upon, the one who was the least prepared? I had chosen a freelance journalism life instead of a stable job in large part because the late-night music and dance scene in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for fifteen years, had been more vital to me than a 401k. Most of the significant relationships of my adult life began on hip-hop and salsa dance floors. My body has gravitated toward those who transport me to an ecstatic, Dervish-like state in the pocket of the beat.
But it has also betrayed me. I’ve often mistaken this physical, kinesthetic connection for something much deeper and favored it over more “sensible” criteria for a mate, like shared values, goals, emotional compatibility, sanity. What’s good on the dance floor — excitement, rhythm, intensity — is often not built to last. A conventional life of marriage, home, and family has eluded me. Often painfully.
But then I met Dion (not his real name) at a Latin reggae night. He fit the usual seductive part with his kinetic dance energy and six-foot-tall runner’s body. He was a drum enthusiast with a rasta spirit and a strong cannabis affinity, but he had a steady day job and was a devoted (divorced) dad. Our dance floor chemistry was unquestionably electric. Yet at the same time, we shared a compatible balance between stable adult life and after-hours music worship. He wooed me with his tenderness, wide-eyed enthusiasm and reliability. It felt like I’d finally found a dance partner who could also be a life partner.
I was really falling for Dion, even if our connection was still fledgling. So when that pregnancy test lit up positive, a feeling of irrational happiness gripped me. I fantasized that we could have a joyous family life that included lots of music and love. I didn’t know how everything would work out, but in that moment when I sat with the test stick alone in the bathroom, I felt a sense of oneness with the cosmos, giddy with the possibilities of new life.
On some level I have always wanted a child. This seemed like a miracle. Or at the very least super sperm. Dion’s sperm could probably jump hurdles — when not stoned.
When I broke the news to Dion, however, reality settled in. He told me he wasn’t ready for a baby with me. It made sense: We were still in the early dating stages; he’d moved out of his ex-wife’s place only six months prior and was not prepared to start a new family. He said we would figure it out. Then he suggested I consider getting an abortion.
* * *
I was crestfallen. A part of me wished that he would show a glimmer of excitement, or at the very least that he would assure me he would take care of me no matter what happened. I had never felt so vulnerable.
Abortion would be a pragmatic choice, yet I didn’t know if I could bring myself to do it. Keeping the baby without Dion’s endorsement, however, seemed bad for all involved. Single motherhood on my unpredictable freelance journalism salary sounded exceptionally stressful. Or maybe I was just too used to being selfish — being a mom would put quite a crimp in my single-girl, dance-crazed lifestyle. Living somewhat irresponsibly for myself was one thing; imposing chaos on a baby’s life seemed entirely unfair. Even if Dion stuck around, though, things could be a little chaotic. He was having a hard time rounding up enough dough to fix the timing belt on his car.
Despite my advanced age, this was, essentially, a teenage pregnancy: unplanned and guided by careless passion. Like a thirteen-year-old, I’d probably have to rely on my parents for financial assistance.
Yet everything in me told me I should keep the baby. I woke up excited each morning at the thought of life growing inside of me, even though it felt like armies of tiny soldiers were practicing archery inside my breasts and I was generating enough gas to fuel a small North Dakota town through the winter. I couldn’t help letting my love for the tiny thing bloom. With a month until my first prenatal appointment, I decided that I would delay any decision about whether to have the baby or consider abortion until that point.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten an assignment from a local city guide to write a feature story on all the best places to go dancing in Los Angeles, a task that seemed incongruous in my pregnant state. I had to hit a different club almost every night for several weeks. One evening I ended up at the gritty Airliner club in East Los Angeles, where experimental hip-hop vibrated through the massive sound system.
The second-floor space, where the mass of beat heads crammed in front of the stage, was so full that I had to surrender to the undulations of the crowd. I was hemmed in by young men bobbing their heads to the beat, conscious that if they decided to body slam, Baby X and I would get swept up in the melee. I scanned the room for exits, all of which seemed to be blocked. What would the fire marshal think of this? For the first time ever in a club environment, I felt scared. I sensed the heavy bass vibrating in my abdomen and fretted. Wasn’t this too much oscillation for Baby X’s tender cluster of cells?
Just a few weeks before, the crush of sweaty bodies worshipping at the altar of a soul-reverberating beat would have enchanted me. But suddenly, it asphyxiated me. I couldn’t breathe. I felt a cramp in my womb, and my maternal instincts kicked in. All I wanted was to protect that little bean from harm. I darted through the maze of dancers, down the stairs and out into the cool night.
Passing hot dog street grillers and homeless men on the way to my car, I wondered what would become of me, of us. I wanted to mother this child, but what kind of life could I provide for it? And who was I if I couldn’t be the free-spirited dancing queen, the intrepid reporter who blazed trails to the coolest cultural experiences?
As my first prenatal appointment approached, Dion’s presence in my life became spotty. He had always followed through on his word before the pregnancy, but now he became evasive. I could no longer rely on him to call if he said he was going to call. He seemed to get busier with drum practice and would disappear for days. When I confronted him about it, he apologized and said he was in a “fog,” which I translated as “fearful pot haze.”
I despaired. I wanted him to make everything O.K. I wanted everything to go back to the way it had been at the beginning. I wondered if an abortion was a way to press the reset button.
One day I was putting my new Kendrick Lamar CD into my stereo, and it somehow got stuck in the wrong position. It wouldn’t play, nor would it eject. The mechanism was completely jammed. I tried several electronic repair shops, but no one could figure out how to repair it or fish out the CD.
I started to feel like Baby X was that stuck CD. I’d managed to get it (him? her?) in there but could not figure out a way to fully enjoy the experience, nor was I ready or willing to press “eject.” Kendrick Lamar, the fresh-faced wunderkind rapper from Compton, represented everything I loved about hip-hop — searing poetry and raw emotion over haunting beats. But I couldn’t access his music, stuck as it was in my dinosaur of a stereo. And now, pregnant, I couldn’t fully access the “hip-hop” part of myself either: my sensuality. My beat addiction. The internal fire of my youth that had driven me to the wrong parts of town at the wrong times of night for the sweetest of adventures. Kendrick said it best: “good kid, m.A.A.d city.”
* * *
In the ultrasound room at my first prenatal appointment, Dion didn’t hold my hand; he chose to stand at the foot of the exam bed. He looked a bit like a kid who has been called into the principal’s office: trying to be good, but scared out of his gourd.
And then there was Baby X on the screen! A grainy little tadpole with a heartbeat I could see and hear. Oh, X! I was overwhelmed with awe at witnessing this teaspoon of tissue thumping away in my womb. This was unquestionably the best beat I’d ever heard. I looked hopefully at Dion but he smiled back nervously.
“The baby is six weeks, but it is small,” the technician told us.
“What do you mean it’s small?” I asked. Weren’t six-week old fetuses supposed to be small?
Apparently, X fell a couple of millimeters short for a fetus of this age.
“And the heartbeat…” the technician said. “It’s slower than we would like to hear.”
I thought of the night at the Airliner club and wondered about the booming bass I had subjected Baby X to. Had I somehow damaged its fragile heart? On the other hand, what was wrong with a little slow? Maybe X was just a relaxed soul.
“These are hallmark signs that the baby is not growing properly,” the doctor said. “Small size and slow heartbeat make it likely that you will have a miscarriage. We’ll see at the next ultrasound. I want you back in a week.”
I was concerned but brushed off my fears because in the week that ensued, I felt more pregnant than I’d felt the whole pregnancy. My breasts stung with pain. My abdomen cramped. My food cravings and fatigue intensified. My love expanded. I was convinced that Baby X was having a growth spurt and would prove the doctor wrong.
Dion was scarce. I thought he was just waiting it out. No point in having a discussion about whether to keep the baby or not when we didn’t even know if there would be a baby to keep.
But I had come to a decision of my own. With or without him, if this baby survived I was going to have it. I felt what Lauryn Hill described when she decided to have her son Zion: “Unsure of what the balance held / I touched my belly overwhelmed / by what I had been chosen to perform.”
Baby X died in my womb a week later. At the next ultrasound, there was no heartbeat.
Alone in the exam room, I wept. I wasn’t prepared for there to be an end to this rhythm. X had opened me to something so much deeper than the music that moved me so profoundly since childhood. Now there was radio silence.
After the D&C procedure in the hospital, Dion and I drifted apart. Our relationship was like Baby X’s cluster of cells — new and tenuous, not able to withstand major stressors. We miscarried. In every way.
* * *
Weeks later, I finally found an electronics shop that agreed to fix my stereo and liberate my Kendrick Lamar CD. It cost me more than the stereo was worth, but at the time, the repair seemed priceless.
Alone in my apartment, without Dion and without Baby X for the first time in weeks and months, I turned on the stereo and found myself in front of a mirror, kicking out the jams to Kendrick’s raps like I was an eleven-year-old dancing with gusto in my childhood bedroom.
I was reminded that mortality itself threatens my love affair with dance, tied as the activity is to youth culture. But maybe that’s part of why dance has always been so powerful for me. When death hovers tangibly, life is lived with more intensity. Dance drips with sensual surfeit. It’s immediate, raw, and of the moment. It is how I experience life’s marrow.
Being pregnant, however briefly, made me so keenly aware of how my youth is slipping away, and losing Baby X set off alarms that my fertility is, too. There will come a day in the not-so-distant future when I am too old to enjoy the clubs, too old to keep up with new music, too old to be noticed by dance-floor lotharios. And the day will soon arrive as well when I am no longer able to conceive and nurture life in my womb, when the price for all of my running around with bad boys will be a childless future. Will I be sitting in my wheelchair at the old folks’ home bobbing my head to Ol’ Dirty Bastard…alone?
But dancing in my room to Kendrick, I felt that fire rise once again within me, that life force that propels me to move my body to a beat that resonates, to identify through lyrics with another who has struggled.
I let the beat reverberate in my belly. My empty belly. I will always have the music.
I can feel the changes, I can feel a new life
I always knew life can be dangerous
I can say that I like a challenge and you tell me it’s painless
You don’t know what pain is.
− Kendrick Lamar, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”