At 120 miles per hour, Vanessa Brown achieved terminal velocity. The wind screamed around her flight-suited body as she sliced open a cloud. But Ness’s breathing was steady in her helmet, and she sailed like an arrow toward a Cessna Skyhawk in a dusty clearing. Once she pulled her ripcord, she’d have only seconds to photograph Viper cartel members loading the plane with uncut cocaine before sailing away over the jungle faster than their machine guns could track. She’d land north of their base and rendezvous with the Blackhawk that would take her back to the capitol. With the evidence she was about to procure, she would finally prove President Dagwood was siphoning taxpayer money to bring drugs over the border. The coup to overthrow him would be bloody—and needed.
The trees below looked like broccoli florets and tripled in size by the second, but Ness maintained full control. The plane appeared below, and she grasped her chest for her ripcord pin. As her hand came away, she braced for the upward jerk of the chute—but she continued to plummet like a stone through water. In her hand was a baby’s pacifier.
“What the shit?” Ness cursed in her helmet. She looked down and saw an infant strapped to her chest in a baby carrier—a girl, judging by the pink onesie, who had dark, wavy hair like hers. The trees were tree-size now and reaching for Ness with their wooden arms. She tore at the bundle at her back, trying to deploy the second chute. All she succeeded in doing was flinging wet wipes and bibs from the diaper bag she could have sworn was tactical gear a second ago. The ground was coming for her huge and fast. The trees were waving goodbye. The baby opened its mouth to wail through droopy pink cheeks, and then—
My eyes flew open as I detonated from my pillow, dragging air into my lungs like a reanimated mummy. To my left was the open door to the unlit bathroom, with its coarse towels and the streaky pink mildew stains clinging to the tub. To the right, the light-polluted charcoal night of Seattle glowed through the window, punctuated by the twinkle of a faraway jet. The alarm clock on the bureau read 4:37 in yellow squared-off numbers. My room, like my life, was orderly, cozy, deliciously mundane. Everything was fine. Except I couldn’t breathe.
“NESS!” My mensch of a husband, Pete, leapt heroically from his own dreams to kneel clumsily next to me in bed, as he had every night for the past three weeks. “IT’S A BAD DREAM, NESS!” He shouted as a thoughtless person would to someone deaf. I barely heard him over the blood galumphing through my brain, flooding it with adrenaline I would hoard and then discard, like Easter candy bought on sale and then unearthed from the pantry three Halloweens later.
“YOU’RE OK!” Pete yelled again, trying to lock me into an awkward embrace from behind that felt more like a high school wrestling hold. “HEAR ME? YOU ARE O! K!”
“Jesus, Pete, I know!” I snapped.
Pete is a grand man with many talents, but knowing when a gal needs more than five millimeters of personal space isn’t one of them. I freed an arm from his grasp and pushed him down onto his pillow. He toppled over like a martial arts dummy, and for a fleeting moment I thought, Serves him right.
Then, just as immediately, I felt like a dick. “Sorry,” I groaned, sitting in bed with my palms pressed to my eyes and my heart softening like butter left on the counter. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“If you keep this up, I’ll have to start wearing a cup to bed,” he quipped, snapping his bedside lamp on. I looked up to see him settle against the headboard in our flannel (everything in the Pacific Northwest is flannel, especially in the winter) sheets, one arm behind his head, his blond sleep-tousled hair sticking out adorably. The other arm was spread across my pillow so I could curl up on his bare chest. And when I did, he arranged the blankets around us and cleared his throat. “Let me guess: another baby nightmare, eh?”
I nodded along his shoulder.
I wasn’t, but still I said, as musically as I could, “Oh, fine. Run-of-the-mill infant-related anxiety. I’m sure it’s perfectly normal to wake up every night screaming at the prospect of procreation.”
He pressed his lips to my forehead. “You’re cute when you mask your terror with jokes.”
We both knew that was my specialty.
Last month Pete had mentioned oh-so casually that he wanted to start thinking about—as he put it—“our having a family,” which was code for me getting pregnant. I was willing to admit his wasn’t an unreasonable request. After all, we were both in our early thirties, married over three years, and animals biologically programmed to pass on genetic material in a bid for immortality. Still I was surprised, because Pete had never until that moment expressed any particular need to nurture something other than me. Exhibit A: We are the only couple in this city that doesn’t have a dog. Exhibit B: Pete does nothing to slow the sad, dry death of every potted herb I’ve ever brought home from the farmers market.
Because of this, I just assumed we’d be childless people who slept late and had brunch and traveled and read quietly and took care of ourselves, which was fine with me because for reasons I didn’t like to remember, my brain wasn’t exactly keen about a baby. My heart even less so. My uterus? Forget about it. But since the infant proposal, I was in a constant state of debate with my organs, negotiating with each of them in turn, trying to bring the whole caucus around to the idea of baby making. “Let’s not talk about this now” was what I said the evening he brought it up, which he’d done in the most gentlemanly way. Hey, Bug, can we talk about having kids? I want to know your thoughts. But my thoughts, generally, were horrible, and I didn’t want him to see.
That night I had the first bad dream, and my subconscious had been going gangbusters ever since.
I craned my head back so I could look into Pete’s face. Growing up in the sunless Pacific Northwest had made him even paler than his Nordic background warranted, but it suited his bookish demeanor and his quick wit. He looked like a man who spent his free time in libraries thinking up puns, which wasn’t too far from the truth. I ran my hand along the scrape of barely reddish stubble clinging to his cheek and said, “Remember that time we went out on Lake Union in someone’s boat with all your work friends—and I drank too much and ended up hurling over the side?”
He smoothed a lock of hair out of my face. “How could I forget? A Duck Tour was going by and everyone on it started taking photos of you puking your heart out.”
“It was all in my hair,” I groaned.
“And you wouldn’t calm down until I gave you a haircut in the boat with a filleting knife.”
“Not even Vidal Sassoon himself could have gotten the barf out.”
Pete fingered the edge of the bob I’d maintained since that day two summers ago. “You never grew it back.”
“I don’t deserve long hair,” I said, pulling a hand up to my face so I could cover it in phantom shame. “God, that was embarrassing.”
Pete cuddled me closer, rubbing his hand up and down my arm. “I’m sure you’re not the first person to drink too much in the sun.”
OK, so Pete didn’t have a great concept of personal space—nor was he exactly savvy to my ambivalence about spawning. But he was loyal and loving at every turn. Even when I embarrassed him in front of his law firm colleagues, he chalked it up as one of my charms: my ability to upchuck at important functions. Through thick and thin, I had no doubt that man would forgive me for anything. Almost anything. After a beat, I took a deep breath, trying to sound nonchalant. “Do you think I’m mom material?”
“Because you threw up in Lake Union?” He pulled back to look at me, and when he saw I was serious, he broke into a smile and said, “Of course I think you’re mom material. You’re just scared about having kids. I bet every human our age shits their pants about the idea.”
But what if my pants were happily shit-free on the no-kids side of this fence Pete thought I was on? And if he was on the yes-kids side, where would that leave us? What if I was wrong? What if my last egg went poof the minute I blew out my candles on my fortieth birthday just as I wished I could return to this moment when I could have said yes?
Here’s the thing: I didn’t necessarily want a baby, but I also didn’t necessarily not want a baby. What I wanted was to be sure, because I never am—about anything. I am a jury the world is constantly tampering with. I think I want something, but then I talk myself into something else. I debate everything forever. You know how they say if you’re ever buried in an avalanche, you’re supposed to spit and use gravity to determine which way to dig, otherwise you could go the wrong way and bury yourself even deeper? That’s what my mind feels like sometimes: completely disoriented. I’m shivering, I don’t know up from down, and I always seem to have a dry mouth.
Pete turned to face me, rubbing his knuckles gently along my cheek. “Do you want to talk about why you’re so scared?”
The pain radiating from temple to jaw suggested I’d been grinding my teeth in my sleep, chewing on the words that threatened to spill from my mouth. Just tell him, a voice in my head said. Tell him why you’re nervous about a baby. Tell him everything. It would have been such a relief to pry my cold, numb fingers off the secret I’d sheltered for more than a decade and hand it over, warm and beating, for Pete to coddle for a while. But that would mean having to look at it, and—
Nope. Just the thought of remembering was enough to set the prickle of panic at the edges of my heart. My diaphragm seized, and my lungs hung limp in my body like empty grocery bags. I inhaled a ragged breath to jump-start my circulatory system and said “I need to get up” through a plastered smile. In the Rembrandt half-light of the lamp on the nightstand, I sprang out of bed and yanked articles of clothing from my bureau without inspecting them, since I wore the same thing every day: black or gray top, black or blue jeans, ankle boots, also black.
“Where are you going?” Pete asked in alarm.
“It’s not even dawn.”
“I know, but I can’t sleep. Which means I’ll just be tired later, so I might as well go into the office now so I can come home early.” This sounded practical and responsible, two things I tried to hone in myself for fear that if I didn’t, I’d fall apart completely.
“I’m worried about you,” I heard Pete say as I ripped a brush through my hair. “Are you coming unglued?”
“No,” I laughed to my cold feet as I pulled on socks. Alarming Pete by having a panic attack in front of him was not the way I wanted to spend my morning. Even after three years of marriage, I was still embarrassed when I farted in his general vicinity, so ugly-crying before the sun came up was completely out of the question. I turned and crawled up the bed to deposit a kiss on his lips. Clawing my way back down the quilt, I tossed “have a good one” over my shoulder, then sprinted for the living room.
“You too,” he echoed. I crossed our apartment in five steps, trying to ignore how forlorn he sounded. I grabbed my backpack and boots and, still in my socks, barreled through the front door and closed it behind me. Crouching on the doormat, I rooted through my backpack in search of my Nikon, trying to think of anything besides that night. But the rum-and-cigarette smell of the recollection punched me in the nose. A memory of a hand clamped over a memory of my mouth, and I mimicked the act in real life so that I wouldn’t scream.
Even in my panic, I was able to attach the lens to the camera methodically, like a marine assembling a rifle. This is my camera. There are many like it, but this one is mine. I forced my eyes open. I forced them to look through the viewfinder at the door of the unit across the hall. It was a basic door—aluminum, hollow, beautifully boring. I squatted there on the industrial carpet with the camera to my face like a sniper’s rifle, willing myself to breathe.
It’s this thing I do when I get overwhelmed: I take pictures. Sometimes I don’t even actually take them, though it’s more profitable when I do (more on that in a moment). What steadies me about photography is that it affords an excuse to study what’s in front of me: not the work stress ghosting around the periphery of my nerves, or the darker memories of my past, but things that are real and present. I look at them. I listen with my eyes to that symphony of light and moment and detail and color and the way it can all come together to turn something boring into something lovely if you wait long enough—for the sun to move, for the stranger to turn, for the flower to bloom, for the perfect shot. I wait, and everything in my life becomes background noise, a car radio on a country road, blipping in and out of stations before settling into static.
Maybe this hobby of mine is a little weird. What’s definitely weird is that Pete doesn’t know about it: not my camera or my pictures or my stress. Sure, he knew I minored in photography in college, but he had no idea I still needed the camera. He also didn’t know I’d made a tidy cottage industry out of my habit by selling pictures to Debby, a Pike Place souvenir monger who printed my moody photos of Seattle sights on T-shirts and hawked them to marketgoers. Her prices were strategically low, her stall cleverly placed at one of the entrances to the market within eyeshot of the bathroom. So when the Floridians and Californians showed up unseasonably dressed for downpours, they always grabbed one of her dry tops to change into.
I’d seen my photos riding the monorail, in line for a Seahawks game, and at Nordstrom. Once I even saw a whole family wearing my photos when Pete and I were at the Seattle Art Museum. I’d wanted to make a joke to him about my being on exhibit at the SAM, but I stopped myself before I could spill the beans. Secrets are Kegel exercises for the mind: they keep your brain sharp, your thoughts tight.
When I was a kid, I wallpapered my bedroom with pages torn from old National Geographic magazines collected from the library when they threw out the back issues. My dream to become a travel photographer is ironic considering I was born in Washington state and never left the country despite being three hours from Canada. Even now during my morning commute I sometimes imagined where I’d go if I got just one trip: Azerbaijan, Morocco, Mumbai. I’d picture the colors. The smoky smells of spice barrels. The bleating of camels. Sometimes when Pete worked late, I’d count the five thousand dollars I’d earned from Debby that I kept in a Doc Martens boot in the wayback of my closet and dreamed of how it would all taste through the lens of a camera.
Why didn’t I tell him about any of this? Because it felt wrong to want something other than him. After all, Pete was borderline perfect in the husband department: he’d given me everything I’d ever asked for save a job at a famous travel magazine and oodles of money to blow gallivanting around the world. Seattle was expensive, my student loans were steep, and my salary wasn’t exactly lavish. Expecting him to fund my wildest dreams didn’t seem like a fair thing to ask, so I didn’t bring it up at all.
When forced to think of a baby in my life, I only saw the pictures I would take of Pete: in his shirtsleeves, administering baths. On weekends at the aquarium. The meals he would cook! The books he would read! Pete would be a tremendous father, just as he was a consummate husband. (His job as a divorce lawyer allowed him to study imploding marriages the way astrophysicists contemplated dying stars.) His energy would compensate for my brokenness. I could birth a baby and literally never touch it again, and that child would grow up loved and treasured, cocooned completely in Pete’s devotion, safe from the sharp corners of my heart. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to give Pete what he wanted, which was a baby and the truth.
The other secret my husband didn’t know? I’d been pregnant once before.
I stared through my camera at the door across the hall like I could see through the fisheye peephole into my neighbor’s apartment—laid out like mine, but decorated more stylishly. In the bedroom slept another Ness unperturbed by bad dreams and worse memories. That Ness wore silk pajamas and slept without blankets like people do in mattress commercials. That Ness still had long hair.
I pictured that Ness through the camera until my breath returned, until my heart resumed its normal ticktock and my palms stopped sweating. And when I felt myself come back, I pressed the shutter. Click. Reviewing the picture was unnecessary. Debby wouldn’t buy it. Tourists didn’t want pictures of doors, because they weren’t beautiful, but not everything was.
And that’s the thing I liked most about taking pictures: the reminder that ugly things are everywhere, and half the time no one cares.