by Courtney Young
I got my period two days ago but tell him I’m pregnant anyway. We’re lying half-naked on Tiffany blue sheets, brittle and distant from no sex on a rainy, late Manhattan morning.
Moist-eyed and dry-voiced, the words lift off the tip of my tongue — “I’m pregnant. We’re going to have another baby” — with such ease that, for a moment, I believe it.
Sir doesn’t speak. Rather, he shifts sharply, turning onto his left side with his back to me. I close my eyes, reflecting on the limbo of that precise, fleeting moment between the just before and the just after finding out that your body is no longer yours. As tense as it is spectacular, I wonder if I can replicate that feeling with this lie alone.
Neither of us wants another baby. It’s too soon.
Twice each week, I still wake up in the middle of the night to check on her. I place my pointer finger on the light switch, and — BOOM! It hits me like a scalpel to the gut. Covering my mouth to suppress a rising scream, I realize that my daughter is dead.
Some days, I can hear the ghost echoes of her baby giggles — in the bath, testing new fragrance samples, editing the third draft of my book. She stalks me and I don’t mind. I encourage her persistence. To be honest, I worry that there will come a time soon when her phantom coos and baby aromas stop.
I hear Sir’s mouth open and wait for a slow, labored sigh or venomous words as the pretext to an argument. But he gives me nothing. His mouth closes almost as quickly as it opens, but the energy between us shifts. I place a warm, dry palm on Sir’s back and his muscles tense. He pulls his body away from me and I recoil.
How now to maintain the lie? It will work for awhile. He’d been gone for a solid month after we attended the New York premiere of his latest film. First to Los Angeles, then London, Rome, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo. The non-stop promotions for this film wrapped two days ago. His jet lag is working in my favor. Our sex life is spotty, but there is enough there for a pregnancy to make sense.
He wouldn’t ask me for a pregnancy test. Why would he? Plus, I keep a mental calendar in my head with two dates in mind — the phantom date of conception followed by the “end” of my first trimester. He’ll be in New Orleans then shooting his next film. I’ll call him and tell him I miscarried, if I’m not really pregnant by then. I will dispose of my maxi pads carefully, discreetly, and wear none of my period panties. This will work. It has to.
I knew before Sir did that he would be a star. “He’s a pretty boy,” my mama said when I told her Sir and I were a couple six years ago. “Be careful with those pretty boys.” It’s true, Sir is more beautiful than handsome. His skin is nearly flawless, the color of raw umber, and his face perfectly symmetrical. A falcon nose mellows out a strong jaw, and his eyes are deeply set by a pair of thick eyelashes that could have come straight from a cosmetics ad. There’s a scar no one knows about under his right ear, a relic from his teenage attempts at amateur boxing. I sometimes kiss or massage it before we make love. His body is perfectly chiseled. If he wasn’t an actor, he could have easily been an athlete.
His only physical flaw is a prematurely receding hairline that he masks with a shaved head. I’m not a short woman at 5’8, but Sir towers over me at 6’4. He is a magnificent marvel of a man. Looking directly at him is like looking into the sun.
Trying again, I unlock the front clasp of my bra, gingerly taking it off and dropping it onto the floor next to the bed. I scooch towards him with the anticipation of spooning, mashing my breasts against his back and wrapping my arm around him. My nipples crush against his back like broken lightbulb glass. He winces as if he’s been cut and pushes away from me.
Without turning over or looking at me, he throws back the sheets and leaves our bed. He locks himself in the bathroom. After a few moments, I hear the water from the shower. I sit up on the bed and check my watch. I need to be at work in a couple hours. I’m creating a new perfume that recalls fresh grief. I don’t tell the team this. Instead, I use words that convey this. A very specific scent — heavy, thick, cool. My youngest chemist, Mavis, she understands what I want. She’s never told me that she does. She doesn’t have to. She doesn’t tiptoe around me like the rest. She realizes that the best way to support me is to be direct, concise, prepared, and do good work. She created the closest scent to what I imagine it to be.
But I have to finish it. She doesn’t have the lived experience to complete it. This culture needs a signal for what it means to be in mourning. A type of cloak that will awaken anyone to the weight in your heart, on your shoulders. The price tag will reflect its exclusivity. We’ll only make a limited number of bottles to start. I’ll never say that this is what this scent is supposed to do.
I force myself to get out of the bed and grab one of Sir’s T-shirts off the floor. Putting it on, I make my way to the kitchen, following the smell of burnt coffee and bacon from earlier this morning.
I’ll make us a light lunch, a low-calorie omelette and a mixed salad with a lemon vinaigrette. I line the ingredients up, inhaling the scent of chives, lemon, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, and red wine vinegar. I don’t hear water from the shower anymore. I crack one egg, then two, three … then I hear the bathroom door open and wet footsteps make their way towards me. The sharpness of the vinaigrette hits me harder than I imagine, shuttling me back to a memory from one of our favorite spots and their incredible brunch.
We were sitting in the usual place, in the corner of a Mexican-French fusion restaurant in Park Slope. He liked it for its discretion and efficient service. I liked it for its expertly made vanilla crème brulee.
“I hate the term ‘Sex Symbol.’ What does that mean? I mean, really. Attention is a very strange thing. On the one hand, I’m grateful to be seen, appreciated. And all that brings to our family, but we all know that in about six months, someone else will be the next hot celebrity. This sort of thing gets old after a while.”
I remember. It was spring 2017 and our relationship was at its peak. I was seven months pregnant and we’d just found out that Sir was on the cover of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive annual issue. As he talked, I questioned whether he really meant it. This must be a problem solely for beautiful people — eager to be recognized beyond their looks yet infinitely fearful of losing them. I lightly massaged the small of his hand, smiling and patiently listening to every word he said, though my back and feet were killing me.
Two young, perky women approached our table, asking, “Are you Sir Washington?” Sir immediately snapped into a polished routine, smiling modestly and replying with a soft yet firm, “Yes, I am.” The talkative one exclaimed that his last performance in his last film was his best cinematic performance to date. Sir smiled broadly and thanked them graciously for the compliment. The women giggled and asked for an autograph and a photo. He politely agreed. As they fished for a pen, Sir introduced me to them as his wife.
The women looked at me as if I had magically sprung from the seat, smiling curtly and making only brief eye contact. As Sir signed the autograph, the talkative friend handed me her iPhone and asked if I would take a photo of them. I did. As they walked back to their table, one of the women said to the other: “Y esa es la mujer? ¡Por dios! Es obvio que ella se embarazo intencionalmente. Y que él escogió mal ¡Guacala! No tiene sentido que esta con esa mujer fea!” [So, that’s his wife? Oh my God! Obviously she got pregnant on purpose. I cannot believe he’s with such an ugly woman.]
Her friend nodded in agreement and their voices trailed away. My face must have given me away because Sir asked me what they’d said. I paused. I was used to this reaction. Like a sea of raised middle fingers, I’d grown accustomed to the shocked expressions, the double takes, the stutters and mumbles of a swift hello after he introduced me as his then-girlfriend, now wife. I’d once read about us in a gossip column. The writer had posted a picture of us from the Academy Awards and scribbled “WHAT THE FUCK” over my face in a series about celebrity couples who had beauty differentials. He is the beauty and I am the brain.
I like to think that I have a healthy sense of self-worth. I speak four languages fluently. I have a PhD in Chemistry from Stanford. I started my own company from the ground up. But I married a man in show business and the only thing that matters is how you look. Since that column, I learned to never read about us online. I’m slim, with a larger than average bosom. I keep my hair in long locs. My skin is dark, much darker than Sir’s, russet brown. I’m acceptable by any measurement but Hollywood.
Sir didn’t know it then, but I knew his agent Keyshawn, an old friend of ours from back home, had strongly encouraged him to take another star to the Golden Globes three years ago, right after we were secretly married. “It would just look better.” But Sir refused. To his credit, he never told me, but I overheard a conversation between the two. I knew this kind of stuff happened all the time. We’re in a business where beauty is paramount. I knew this when I signed up to be his wife. “What did they say?” Sir asked again. I told him they were speaking about how lucky they were to meet their first celebrity. He smiled humbly, yet triumphantly. Three months later, I pushed out Violet. As the doctor put her on my chest, I fell in love for the second time.
The day I told Sir I was pregnant for the first time, he was in Los Angeles filming the last season of his now-canceled TV series. We were speaking over FaceTime and the phone shook, then dropped, and I heard screaming in the background. I don’t recall ever smiling so broadly. We were at the cusp of such important points in our professional and personal lives. He was transitioning from modeling and TV to film. I had just broken through the $10 million mark in sales with my fragrance company. I was building an exciting new company experiencing massive growth in only its second year. But he’d reacted so beautifully to the pregnancy, unplanned though it was. We spent hours in bed envisioning what she would look like. Would she have his full lips and fine-boned face, with cheekbones that could cut marble and a deep-throated laugh? Or would the baby favor me, dark-skinned and forever slender with a deep dimple burrowed into the middle of her chin?
We decided early on to give her a name that was normal but not common. Violet. The color was all that we wanted for her — noble, peaceful, spiritual, creative, powerful. Violet May Washington.
I mull over that day in the restaurant when I’m stressed about my relationship with Sir. I regret my inaction to the cruelty of those women but most of all I wonder if it’s true, if we’re meant to be together. I’ve never been a great beauty but I was good. I’m starting to wonder if being good is good enough.
The omelettes are almost done. Salad scooped into the bowl. Deep in thought, I didn’t see Sir walk in. He sits at the table watching me, his cell phone near his ear. I plate the food and walk over to the table, placing his plate in front of him and mine at the place setting next to his. He sets his cell phone on the table and puts it on speaker.
“Okay, Keyshawn, you’re on speaker. Savoy can hear us now.”
“Hey, Savvy. Wassup. I was just touching base with Sir about a few things and wanted you on board.”
“Thanks, Key. What’s going on?”
“I’m down South, back home, and just tying up loose ends. The official report about Violet is that she died of SIDS. It was less challenging, considering that she passed down here rather than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Everyone is on board. There shouldn’t be any problems moving forward. Her death certificate says the same thing. All press will be handled by me and my team members at IMG. Most people are being rather respectful but it’s always possible that someone may ask you about her or try to bring it up when you attend public functions.”
“I know how to handle those people,” Sir snaps.
“Um … yeah … okay. Cuz of hacking and what not, we stick to the plan. No discussions of anything via email, no social media activity for a while. We just need to let some time pass before we do things like we did before. Um … how are you guys doing? Savvy … ? I haven’t talked to you in a bit …”
His voice trails off and I’m not sure how to answer. Lies have become more and more difficult nowadays, especially if you’re as visible as we are. The lie he and Sir are helping me conceal protects me from public judgment, but it’s pulled me further away from the only man I could ever love.
Choking back tears, I say, “I’m hanging in there as best I can. Both Sir and I. Thanks for everything you’re doing for us, Key.”
“Sure. Sure … you know you can call me whenever. I’d do anything for you guys. I’ll let you guys go … I love you both and … and … I’m so sorry again …”
“Thanks, Keyshawn. We’ll talk to you later.”
If guilt had a smell I think it would be of rot. Not strong. Scarcely there, unnoticeable to most. But haunting every step, faintly but determinedly, an imperceptible demon scent that weaves into the body, constrictive. Sir takes a few bites of his lunch and pushes it aside. I move my fork in between the salad and omelette, too stressed and sad to even bring the food to my lips. I don’t even realize my head is hanging low, crying without tears, until Sir pushes my face up with his fingers and plants a kiss on the bottom of my chin. I smile lightly. He grabs my hand and gazes at me with remnants of the love I used to see all the time.
Then, just as suddenly, Sir drops my hand and picks up the remote, turning on the TV. A news reporter talks about Sir’s film, how it’s poised to break records for a summertime action movie release. He’s on the cusp of leading-man stardom. The female reporter beside him remarks how difficult it must be for him, considering the loss of his daughter less than a year ago.
Loss. It was the best word to use in the moment but it’s not adequate. Nothing would ever be. She was six months old when she died. A puddle: small, amorphous, just beginning. How I loved her. I could use words to describe anything, but she left me speechless. I’d never felt a fatigue like that before. Even in my PhD days, I always mustered through the work. But having a baby pushed me into a netherworld unlike any I’d ever experienced before. Sir’s time with Violet was meaningful in every way but intermittent. I was her primary caregiver. She was with me most of the time. Oh, she was such an easy baby, joyful, attentive, social. Like her daddy. Sometimes, I would go to her crib just to make sure that she was okay. And she always would be, playing with her stuffed bear Big Doe Doe or smiling and laughing at nothing in particular.
The day it happened, I was meeting with potential international distributors all day. Violet and I were at our home in Louisiana while Sir was filming in Los Angeles. I hadn’t slept in I don’t remember how long. I’d put the baby to my breast and she had her fill. I could feel her tiny heart beating against mine, her eyes closing, as were mine. I placed her beside me on the bed and set the timer for two hours. If the timer didn’t wake me up, Violet surely would. I fell asleep with my hand across her tiny back, me on my side.
I slept like I hadn’t slept in a long time. Deep. Hard. Complete. I slept through the timer. I slept through her next feeding. When I woke, I was in complete darkness. And for a moment I felt fantastic, joyous that I had finally gotten some sleep. I felt rested and able. And then I felt for the baby and didn’t see her. I fished around for the light switch and turned it on. No Violet. I searched under the bed and called to her, the panic rising in my voice. When I reached the bathroom, I found her floating in the tub, facedown. Her arms and legs were akimbo; her head and neck bent at an unnatural angle, a small pool of blood framing her black curls in the water like a halo. I fished her out of the water, placing my lips on her blue ones. I don’t remember screaming. I don’t remember calling 911. I don’t remember the EMTs. The details of that are fuzzy.
Sir learned of the baby’s death from the doctor at the hospital. Sir, Key and I were taken to a private room where the doctor quietly explained that, despite all efforts, they were unable to save the baby. It’s been a year and I know he loves me but I don’t believe he will ever forgive me.
The first time we made love, Sir had whispered to me that I was beautiful. He’d told me that before but I had never believed him. It was just something men said to make the women they were with feel better. But when he said it then, I knew he meant it. I was beautiful to him and I was loved by him, a man whose beauty was straight from God. Back then, he saw me, loved me like God did. Nowadays, Sir thinks about and speaks to God more than I do. He prays often. Prayer has been more elusive to me. I don’t speak to God. I believe, but I’ve been changed.
The smell of fresh laundry brings me back. Sir is putting on a crisp white tee and blue jeans. I twist the five-carat wedding ring around my finger and look up at my husband, beautiful as ever, but brooding, silent, looking off into the distance. He barely looks at me these days, his grief buried down so deep, to a place I cannot reach. “Sir, what do you think about the pregnancy?” I ask, barely a whisper.
He doesn’t answer, grimaces softly, and walks away from the table as the television flashes in the background.
Courtney Young is a writer and entrepreneur who splits her time between New York City and Southwest Louisiana (where she was born and raised). She is the founder of Think Young Media Group, a boutique technology and media firm that produces narrative, documentary, and television projects. She is a recipient of residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Willapa Bay Air, and Hambidge. She is currently working on her first book, a collection of short stories. She is a graduate of both Spelman College and New York University. She can be found on Instagram: @thinkyoungmedia, Twitter: @cocacy @thinkyoungmedia, & Website: www.thinkyoungmedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of Carolyn Jewel.