What to Expect When You’re Expecting

David Saltzman


I didn’t want my kid to be born, but that doesn’t really matter. That’s not to say it’s irrelevant—it’s not, not ever—only that regardless of what I wanted, he was: in the early hours of May 4, 1999, without my presence or knowledge, my son Robert was born.

I found out two days later. I’d been out drinking at The Pool Barn, this degenerate townie bar with surprisingly reasonable tables and nobody to check IDs and cheap beer served up in an actual barn, the sort of place one goes to get impressively wasted as a matter of course, and so I was, shooting some pool with the cue I’d bought with my first paycheck from the tech job I’d gotten after dropping out of college, when my cell vibrated and it was this girl I hadn’t talked to in, what, like six months, but I knew I had to answer.

Hey Alice, I said, what’s up? And she was like Hey, do you want to see your son? And I was like, my what? And she’s like, your son, and I’m like, yes, because what was I supposed to say? I couldn’t even breathe. And then: I don’t know where to go. And so she told me. And so I went.

If not technically sobering, a certain sort of news does have a way of focusing one’s attentions, so while I certainly had my share of problems on the way to the hospital, driving wasn’t one of them. My first problem was that I was nineteen and had only dated Alice for a couple weeks the previous year, while Bobby, her current boyfriend and recent namesake of my child—which, I mean, what the fuck—had been in jail, which provides some useful context for the second problem, that being how this son of mine apparently existed. Over the course of the six months since Alice and I had stopped talking, I’d managed to convince myself this kid wasn’t actually going to be born and that, if he were, maybe nobody would ever actually have to know. a feat of frankly superhuman compartmentalization which had, in the very-slow-then-all-at-once manner of bankruptcies and pancreatic cancer, led to the third and most concrete of my problems: the progressively less hypothetical fact that, once I got home from the hospital, I’d have to tell my parents both 1) that Alice had been pregnant in the first place, and 2) as of last Tuesday, she no longer was.

Look, it wasn’t supposed to go like this. Sure, I might’ve been taking a brief, unbecoming detour on my slog toward postgraduate respectability, but that’s still the path I thought I was on—my failures to that point had been the sort my parents had hoped would build character, not, thank god, the sort that required it.

I’d bailed on college after a disastrous freshman year, spent the ensuing summer hanging out along Madison’s main shopping drag with a bunch of kids who proudly self-identified as gutterpunks, kids with names like John-O and Pugsley, and we’d smoke cigarettes and mill about as they’d accost passers-by for change—spanging, they called it, as in the present progressive form of spare + change—and I’d justify my presence as a kind of disaster anthropology, never pushing too deep into the validation I felt at being the smartest, most educated of them all, a scholar among gutterpunks, having found myself a place where I didn’t have to get better to be enough.

And it worked, whatever that means, because Alice later told me that what piqued her curiosity was how, lives falling apart all around us, I’d sit on a bench and quietly read my books. She was short and compact, with shockingly dense black hair and a quick, inquisitive, perceptive mind, if one harboring some pretty severe psychological issues. But I didn’t know that then, and red flags were kind of my thing anyway, so when she said hi I put down my book and said hello and we hit it off and, when she dumped Bobby (again) a few weeks later for getting sent to jail (again), we started…well, I don’t know if I’d call it dating, exactly, but I did meet her parents, and she met mine, and we certainly, for a couple weeks, spent quite a bit of time together.

We had sex three times: in the back of my parents’ minivan, on the living-room couch, and on the bed in her parents’ house, and of those three times we used a condom twice, and when Bobby got out of jail they got back together, because that’s how those things go, and I got ready to move on with the rest of my life.

It was maybe six weeks later that she told me she was pregnant.

I thought you were on birth control, I said, dumbly. She’d shown me receipts from Walgreens.

When did I say I was on birth control? she said.

You showed me receipts, I said. They were from Walgreens.

I’m going to name him Bobby, she said.

I was so sure it would go wrong. For Robert, for me, for everyone. I couldn’t have known he’d grow up affluent and supported, afforded a thousand opportunities he never quite managed to seize; couldn’t have known he’d end up living with my parents, neither bereft and unsupported nor shuttled between two immature, unprepared, underfunded households; that they’d do the early work of raising him, far more than their reasonable share, compromising on their careers so I could take another crack at school; could never have imagined how the decadelong process of raising him on my own after law school would raise me up, too, or that teaching him to be a good man would make me a better one. I couldn’t have anticipated he’d go seventeen years without seeing his mom.

Once I learned Alice was pregnant, I didn’t feel comfortable downtown anymore. Still, through channels I heard that she’d been going around telling people the kid was Bobby’s. Which was fine, except as she was telling people this we kept on having a kind of running battle around the question of whether to keep the baby, which struck me as distinctly inconsistent with it not being mine. It’s not like she was just asking my opinion.

For the record, if you were to tell me that an extremely reasonable step for any young man in my position would’ve been to talk to his parents (if only to, you know, maybe give them a friendly heads-up), I wouldn’t argue with you. Totally the reasonable choice. Stipulated, counsel. But I didn’t. I didn’t tell them the day I found out, or the next day, or the next, and as the days turned to weeks it became both more impossible and, weirdly, somehow less pressing to inform them, as if how well they’d manage to cope with not knowing for so long meant they’d probably be alright a while longer.

Taken to its logical extreme, my thinking apparently went, why did they ever have to know at all?

And it almost worked out! Alice and I had eventually agreed it’d be best for everyone if she either had an abortion or gave the baby up for adoption. Not that I had a clue how either of those things worked. The important part was that, after weeks of discussion, the matter was settled.

Except it wasn’t. Because once we’d made our decision, such as it was, her mom took it upon herself to fly out from West Virginia and convince Alice to keep the baby, and once Linda got her hooks into Alice, I couldn’t even talk to her anymore. And so I didn’t. For six months. We’ve covered this.

Let me tell you about Linda. Alice lived with her dad and stepmom in Madison, but her actual mom, Linda, lived in Tunnelton, West Virginia, this awful little coal town where she ran an incredibly unlikely Cajun bistro with her partner, Dawn, who always wore plaid and was never anything but kind to me. Linda was even shorter than Alice, barely five feet in heels I never saw her wear, with the same thick, black hair and the same relentless judgment, the sort of woman who, later, would call me a rapist to my father’s face and who, a few years after that, once Alice had exited Robert’s life, would reach out to ask if she could still stay in touch, send gifts on his birthday, maybe even, if it was alright with us, come visit once in a while, a grandmother who remained an unlikely presence long after her daughter had left the scene.

If I’d known she’d be at the hospital, I—well, what? I would’ve gone, of course.

It takes about fifteen minutes to drive from The Pool Barn down to Meriter, but in memory, I skip right from hanging up the phone—looking down, then up, then at my friend David, saying I gotta go, man—to leaning against a desk in the hospital lobby, reeking of smoke, still half-drunk as I asked the on-duty nurse for directions, then there’s the sound of my sneakers against linoleum, that hospital smell, powerwalking across a skybridge, and an impossibly long moment outside a door. A whole future on the other side.

Then I pushed it open and there he was, tiny and red and sleeping on Alice’s chest, his eyes scrunched shut, swaddled in a light-blue blanket with a little knit Packers cap hugging his head. Alice gave me an odd little smile, Linda lurking silently behind her in the corner, glaring right through me.

The cliché goes that you fall in love with your child the moment you see them, but the person I fell in love with was Alice. I loved her immediately, irrevocably, with the weight of biological compulsion. Twenty-odd years later, I still do. Suffused with love—for her, for him, for the whole damn world—I took Robert awkwardly in my arms and gazed into that strange familiar little face for the first of a million times and, fuck, he was perfect. He was so perfect that, for a moment, it felt like everything would be okay.

But eventually I had to go home, which killed that feeling pretty quick.

Along the way, still I found myself searching for some way my parents wouldn’t have to find out. Maybe I could raise him as a sort of free-range child, I thought, let him roam the broad midwestern plains. Or just keep him in a closet or something. Maybe even get my own place.

The irony here is staggering: eight years of their lives they would give to him and, by extension, to me, the entire rest on loan. It is a generosity of incomprehensible, geological proportions. What they sacrificed, without ever holding any of it over my head, was literally invaluable. It cannot be returned, or recovered, or repaid. I would not even know how, were I ever to try.

And to think that, back at the beginning, I thought I’d rather do it without them. That I thought I even could. That I thought they wouldn’t care to know their grandson.

To this day, I’m not sure whether I legitimately believed he wasn’t going to be born, or if I’d only convinced myself I believed it. It doesn’t matter. The two mindsets are functionally identical, and, either way, I’ve never understood how I maintained that level of delusion for so long. Maybe I just wanted to keep living what felt like a normal life a little while longer.

Driving home, the question of telling them had been reduced to matters of phrasing. I have never found truth simple, have always sought to wrap it up in whatever precise combination of words could best dampen the impact of my honesty—before I could say anything, I needed to know how. By the time I reached our neighborhood, I’d managed to eliminate the words father, dad, parent, son, child, baby, kid, and all related variations thereon. None of those first-order terms would do—they offered too direct a view, their angle not oblique enough to deflect a blow.

I arrived home without a solution. It was very late, but I could tell by the distribution of lights in the windows that my parents were still up. After idling in our driveway for what felt like a very long time, the right phrasing finally slotted into place, so I gathered the words together like bread crumbs I could lay before my feet and stepped out of the car. Emotions already at a boil, I went inside.

When my dad yelled hello, I remember that being the first straw and the last; I completely melted down, no half-measures or preamble. Dissolving into catastrophic sobbing, I hurled myself onto the living-room couch and lay there, shoulders heaving, well beyond language although still rehearsing what I was going to say. My parents flowed into the room, my mom asking what’s wrong, what’s wrong, kneeling at my side and stroking my hair, my dad standing across the room looking almost comically concerned, eyes gleaming behind his bifocals. After a few moments of shared incoherence, my dad spoke up.

Dave, he said quietly, what’s going on? He remains the only person who calls me that.

My shame was a waking sunflower turning to face him, unfurling its petals before the kindest man I’ve ever known, a man who judges every person from first principles and who always said he’d be proud of me no matter what, who never expected me to be anything other than myself, who only ever asked of me as a son that I not make any mistakes I couldn’t undo.

It’s not so far from undoing a mistake, I suppose, to pretend it never happened, but there’s a definite difference in kind, and to rely on their similarity is like trying to ice skate on steam.

You’re going to be grandparents, I managed to say, barely getting the words out before I fell apart again.

We’ll always be there for you, my mom said without missing a beat. She went on, my dad nodding in solemn agreement. We’ll always support you, We’ll always love you, and we are so proud of you for telling us. Whatever we can do to help, we will. Everything will be okay. We’ll get through this together.  

And then, bless her heart, she just held me like a child because, god, I was.

Had she known exactly what would be asked of her, would she have spoken so easily? I suspect she would have, and the entirety of my life as a parent has, in a sense, been one long attempt to live up to the person she was in that moment. To have her see me as then, I saw her. She hadn’t even missed a beat.

When Robert was maybe ten, I promised him that, once he was a little older, I’d tell him the story of his early life. So, when he was thirteen, a few days after his Bar Mitzvah, I sat him down on the stoop outside my parents’ house and told him the story of his early life, start to finish, as objectively as I could. After I finished, I waited for his response. A thirteen-year-old boy, my heart in his hands.

I have to hear her side before I can decide, he said.

What do you mean, her side? I said. There aren’t really sides here.

He considered this. Maybe, he said. But I still want to hear hers.

Always he has been like this, immune to reason until it meets his self-appointed threshold, which makes him immune to any argument with which he initially disagrees. He is, in other words, very much like me, which has defined my experience of parenting as a continual presentation of my self to another version of myself, the necessary reframing of the person I’d expected to be into the person I’ve had to become.

A few months before I wrote this, Robert passed the exact age I’d been when he was born, which is both clearly impossible and also a thing that happened. I know if he got someone pregnant, he’d tell me. I know this because he almost did, several times, but he hadn’t had to turn it over in his head, alone, until the world forced his hand. He’d expected his dad to understand, and I had, and we got through it together, the way we always do.

As I’m about to dig into this, my phone rings, and it is Robert, and I pick it up.

What’s up? I say. I was just writing about you.

He’s just calling me back to figure out some logistics, work out a schedule for him to come visit Boston.

That’s dope, he says, referring to the writing. How so?

It’s for a class I’m taking, I say.

I don’t offer to elaborate and, being somewhat uncurious by nature, he does not ask, and we chat for another minute before I sense he’d rather be doing something else and wrap up the conversation.

Talk to you soon, he says. Love you.

I love you too, I say, and I’ll be in touch, and that’s that, because one cannot end every conversation, no matter how perfect its timing, by telling someone they have been the light of your life.


David Saltzman is a writer living in Seattle with his dog, Hank. He received his MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers in 2017, and his fiction and nonfiction has been published in, among others, Two Sisters, Parhelion Literary Review, CRAFT, ANMLY, the Northern New England Review, and the 2021 Orison Anthology. He won the 2020 Orison Anthology Prize in Nonfiction, and has received recognition from CRAFT, Glimmer Train, and American Short Fiction. You can find him at davidsaltzman.com or @davids2844 across social media.



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