William and Gabrielle responded to the revelation that Gabrielle was pregnant by immediately dropping out of Laterman Community College. They had just started their second semesters, neither of them had yet declared a major, and neither of them was too disappointed to suddenly be granted a reasonable excuse to drop out.
Both William and Gabrielle still lived with their respective parents, but after it came out that Gabrielle was pregnant, William started spending every night on the couch in Gabrielle’s parents’ basement.
Gabrielle’s parents were disappointed that Gabrielle and William hadn’t been more cautious, but they liked William and they liked how protective he was of Gabrielle. They figured that the damage had already been done, so William might as well be in the house to help take care of Gabrielle as she got bigger, more uncomfortable, moodier, and more demanding.
William worked from noon to 8 p.m. six days a week at a comic book shop. He made minimum wage. Other than stopping by his parents’ place every couple of days to visit and switch out a few t-shirts, William lived at Gabrielle’s place. He didn’t mind. Gabrielle’s mom made better dinners than William’s mom did and the basement couch was only slightly less comfortable than his bed, but had the advantage of not being in the same house as William’s father who, though he was a great guy, got up much earlier than William and spent every morning vacuuming the living room rugs and whistling scraps of songs from his youth at piercing volumes.
William was an exemplary father-to-be. He doted on Gabrielle when it seemed like she wanted it and he stayed out of her hair when he could tell his presence irritated her. He got together to play video games with his old friends for a couple of hours every week, but he was always home before Gabriellle went to bed and he usually brought her some kind of ice cream treat. Sometimes when Gabrielle was too uncomfortable or worried about the future to sleep, she’d text William to see if he was still awake. Even if he wasn’t, the sound of the incoming text would wake him up, he’d text back to tell Gabrielle he’d been having trouble sleeping too, and they’d meet in the family room on the ground floor to watch TV together until they both passed out on the couch. It was not the worst way to live.
Gabrielle was just over four months along in her pregnancy when the intense cravings started. When William was at work, Gabrielle either satisfied the cravings herself or got whichever of her parents was available to help out. But when William was in the house, the responsibility was all his. The doctor said the cravings were perfectly normal, and somewhere William had heard stories about pregnant women having weird cravings, so he wasn’t shocked or astounded. He had expected it. If Gabrielle wanted to dip pickle spears in whipped cream, William made it happen. If Gabrielle wanted to eat a whole bag of barbeque potato chips and wash it down with room temperature lemon juice, William made it happen. If the craving struck Gabrielle before 10 p.m., William could go pick up any necessary items from the Diamond Foods grocery store. Otherwise, he had to try to make do with the limited selection at the 24-hour Value-Witch gas station convenience store a few blocks away. He couldn’t ask Gabrielle to wait until morning. Without satisfying her cravings, she became agitated and had difficulty sleeping, both of which were bad for her and the baby. When the cravings struck, William acted with all possible haste.
The text messages that Gabrielle sent William in the middle of the night were no longer simple inquiries about how awake he was and if he was up for meeting in the family room for a shared TV experience. They had become more frequent and now they contained descriptions of whatever tastes or textures Gabrielle was craving at the time. Ollie, the night shift worker at the Value-Witch, knew William by name and consistently got a kick out of the items he came in to purchase at the most ungodly of hours. “Beef jerky and grape jelly? Your woman is crazy, buddy!” Sometimes he was horrified. “Bubblegum and peanuts? Not to eat together, buddy. No, no, you mustn’t let her. Too gross.”
William never complained. He resented nothing. This was part of the deal. Besides, Gabrielle was appreciative, gracious, apologetic. She didn’t want to crave weird stuff. Even if he had to get up and run around buying strange food pairings when he’d rather be sleeping, William still recognized that he had it easier than Gabrielle did. He wasn’t fat and awkward after nineteen years of being slim and graceful, he didn’t puke every morning, he didn’t get suddenly boiling hot for no reason, and he wasn’t guaranteed to eventually have that whole awful day of pain and straining and exhaustion. The cravings were just another item on the long, long list of unpleasant aspects of bringing a child into the world, and it was up to William to bear up under his share of the burden and keep a positive outlook.
One night when Gabrielle was five months pregnant and William was lying awake on the couch in the basement trying to get used to the idea that the baby might be doomed to have a tough time making friends since he always had, William got a text message from Gabrielle that said, I know how this sounds but I’m craving stale bread maybe with some mold I think there’s some in the kitchen I saw it earlier that’s what got me thinking about it. William sat up and stared down at the text message, the illuminated screen of his phone casting his face in a pale blue light. He didn’t know what to text back. Stale, moldy bread was gross, but he didn’t think it was dangerous. On more than one occasion, he’d heard unfunny people remark that moldy bread just had some “extra penicillin,” which was actually a kind of medicine. If Gabrielle was craving stale, moldy bread and it wouldn’t hurt her, who was William to judge? It was certainly better for her than the crushed-up cheese puffs floating in grape pop she’d requested a week ago.
William went upstairs to the kitchen and turned on the light. Gabrielle’s family kept their bread in a small roll-top box on the kitchen counter. Inside, William found a new loaf of bread with two slices missing. Underneath that loaf were the remains of the old loaf: two stale heels with spots of green and white mold on them. The old bread was still in its original packaging, the end of the plastic bag tied in a knot in the apparent absence of a twist-tie. William wondered if he should dress it up a little. Maybe toast it or put it on a plate. But he didn’t want to mess it up for Gabrielle in a bid to make it more appealing to himself. Gabrielle had asked for stale moldy bread and that’s what she was going to get. He carried the bag containing the two old bread heels up the stairs to Gabrille’s bedroom on the second floor. When he knocked on her door and pushed it open, William found Gabrielle propped up in bed, smiling in the light of the lamp on her nightstand, her arms outstretched. She devoured the two heels of old bread in six bites and was satisfied. She was grateful.
Over the next few nights, Gabrielle requested the ground-up powder at the bottom of a bag of a cereal, a lime peel, several spoonfuls of cumin, and some grass that William had to look up on the internet to make sure wasn’t harmful, dig through six inches of snow in the back yard to retrieve, and then warm up in the microwave. William didn’t like the direction the cravings were taking him and Gabrielle as a couple, but he didn’t know how to apply the brakes.
A few nights after the grass, Gabrielle woke William with a text message requesting a length of yarn of any color. The message suggested that William look in the closet in the basement where Gabrielle’s mother kept craft supplies. Are you going to eat the yarn? William texted to Gabrielle.
No, she texted back. I just want to chew on it.
William supposed there wasn’t any harm in that. He liked to chew on pen caps, so he could even relate, kind of. At least yarn would be easy on Gabrielle’s teeth. William went to the closet and found a tangled mess of blue yarn in a plastic tub on the floor. He cut a foot-long strand with a pair of scissors he found under the yarn. The scissors were not sharp, so it was really more like sawing through the yarn than cutting it. When William delivered the yarn to Gabrielle, she was very appreciative. She clapped her hands and thanked William profusely. Then she popped the yarn into her smiling mouth, chewed it ten times, and swallowed it.
After the yarn incident, William started to worry. Gabrielle claimed that she had never intended to swallow the yarn, but that once it was in her mouth, the impulse to swallow it had been too strong to overcome. She blamed it all on the cravings. She blamed the cravings on the pregnancy hormones, and she seemed to have some support from the medical community on that front. But what would she ask for next? William wasn’t looking forward to the following months leading up to the birth of their child if he was going to have to constantly stress out about what his grown woman of a girlfriend was eating. He was possibly going to have to start putting his foot down, which would mean arguments. Which, if he had to argue, he’d do it, but it was going to be frustrating to argue with Gabrielle about why she shouldn’t eat a bunch of non-food. He’d been indulging her cravings for long enough that she’d grown accustomed to him facilitating her satisfaction without asking questions. This had the potential to be awkward, especially if the cravings had made Gabrielle at least a little insane, for which there was some evidence.
Then, three uneventful nights after she ate the yarn, Gabrielle texted William a request for the leftover black bean soup in the fridge. I’m craving a lot of it said the text. You don’t have to warm it up.
William was relieved. Black bean soup was actual food. Maybe the cravings had hit their strangeness peak at yarn and were now swinging back into more natural territory. William carried the whole pot of black bean soup up the stairs to Gabrielle’s room. When he pushed open the door with his knee, Gabrielle was not in bed. She was standing next to her bed wearing a green bikini and folding her pajamas. Her bare, round stomach stuck out almost rudely. “There you are,” said Gabrielle. “Let’s go to the bathroom.”
“To the bathroom?” asked William. “Why are you wearing your bathing suit?”
Gabrielle waddled past him out of her room and down the hall to the bathroom on swollen feet. William followed with the soup. Gabrielle waited until she had closed the door behind William to turn the light on. Then she opened the shower curtain and stepped into the tub. “Now,” she said, brushing her reddish hair back from her face with both hands. “Pour it over my head.”
“Yes!” said Gabrielle. “The drain will catch the beans, don’t worry.”
As William crossed the bathroom to his pregnant girlfriend with the pot of soup in his hand, he felt as if he was stepping over a threshold, as if he was putting his stamp of approval on something of which he had the right to neither approve nor disapprove. William stood next to the tub, hoisted the pot of cold, black soup, and dumped it over Gabrielle’s head. Not that he’d cared at all, but as far as William could tell, no beans made it down the drain.
And then the cravings really went haywire. No longer content to merely crave tastes, Gabrielle’s supremely pregnant body started to crave sensations of all kinds, and always at the least opportune hours of the night. The cravings didn’t come every night, but William never slept well anymore. The cravings were specific, complex, nuanced, and sometimes they changed course in midstream and William had to scramble to adapt or else Gabrielle would feel like the inside of her skull was itching for hours, and the baby, sensing mom’s unease, would thrash around in the womb like a panicky fish. Gabrielle no longer explained the cravings in the text messages she sent to William. She simply texted I need you and then William would go up to her room and she would explain the craving in person.
Here are some examples of the things William did in order to satisfy Gabrielle’s new breed of craving:
He took Gabrielle on a night-time drive past a hog farm north of Dalcette with the windows in the car just barely cracked and her breathing through a latex glove with holes poked in all the fingertips to allow for the passage of air.
He borrowed his friend Nate’s tarantula, which was super-hard to get at 1:15 in the morning, dipped its feet in strawberry almond milk, and shepherded it around on Gabrielle’s bare lower back for a few minutes.
He bundled Gabrielle up in sweaters and coats, took her out to her dad’s shed, sat her on an overturned five-gallon bucket, and ran junk-mail catalogues through the band saw while she closed her eyes and listened.
He made her an omelet with a tiny pinch of a secret ingredient that she probably couldn’t even taste that he was supposed to keep secret until death no matter how much she begged, although she only begged a little before she seemed satisfied and went to sleep.
There were more. It was exhausting for William and Gabrielle alike. On more than one occasion, when William got the I need you text and went up to Gabrielle’s room, he found her in a terrible state, shaking and wild-eyed from trying to suppress the craving for hours. He appreciated the effort, but he told her not to hesitate to text him as soon as the cravings struck her. It made the whole experience less stressful if she wasn’t already half-crazed before William even got involved.
By this time, Gabrielle was eight months pregnant. William knew he only needed to get through one more month of her cravings. Maybe not even that long if the baby was premature. Maybe slightly more if the baby was late. Whatever the case, it was almost over. He knew that he was probably underestimating the task of minding a baby, but William couldn’t help but feel that it would be significantly less troublesome than tending to his girlfriend’s increasingly bizarre cravings every two or three nights. At least diapers were predictable. You knew you wouldn’t like what you found, but you also knew there were only so many things they could hold. William longed for a hassle that common.
Then one night he got the text – I need you – and when he went up to Gabrielle’s room, he found her sitting up in bed and trembling, her eyes red and frightened.
“What is it?” asked William.
“I don’t know,” said Gabrielle. “I don’t know what I crave.”
“You don’t crave anything?” asked William.
“No!” said Gabrielle. “I do. But I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how to describe it to you. I can’t put it into words.”
“You want to taste something? Touch something? Hear something?”
“I don’t know,” said Gabrielle. “I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t figure it out. William, it’s driving me crazy!”
“I want to help,” said William, standing next to Gabrielle’s bed and placing his hand on her shoulder. “But you have to give me something to go on.”
“Just try something,” said Gabrielle. “Try anything.”
“But,” said William. “But, like what?” He was at a loss. A complete loss.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” said Gabrielle. She just kept saying “I don’t know.”
“All right,” said William over all the I-don’t-knowing. “I’ll do…something. I’ll be back.”
He stepped into the dark hallway and closed the bedroom door behind him. He paused, his hand still resting on the doorknob. He wondered what would happen if he did nothing; if he shut off his phone, drove to his parents’ house, and slept in his own bed. It would be just like he was back in high school. Sure, William’s dad would wake him in the morning with the vacuuming and the whistling, but in what way was that not preferable to chasing the whims of his cravings-insane girlfriend around at all hours of the night? It was not preferable in zero ways. William trotted down the stairs, out the front door to his car, and got inside. He started the car. He backed out of the driveway.
Twenty minutes later, William opened the door to Gabrielle’s bedroom and found her in worse shape than he’d left her. There were beads of sweat on her forehead and she fanned herself with both hands, but her hands moved at different speeds. Her teeth were bared in a rigid grimace and her eyes darted around the room. All of her blankets were twisted around her legs below her knees. When she heard the door open, Gabrielle turned and said, “Oh, thank God, William. What did you think of? What did you bring? Do I need to get up?”
“I couldn’t think of anything,” said William. “So I just got this.” He held up a square, white envelope and crossed the room to hand it to Gabrielle. “I didn’t want to come back empty-handed.”
Gabrielle took the envelope. “What is this? A card?”
“Yeah,” said William. “Sorry. You can open it later if you want.”
Gabrielle tore the envelope open and pulled out the card. She looked at the front of the card and read, “‘You’re a seriously special gal.’”
“Value-Witch has kind of a limited card selection,” said William.
Gabrielle opened the card. “What’s this?”
“Oh yeah,” said William. “I had to scribble out the message on the inside. It was too dirty.”
Gabrielle laughed. It sounded easy, warm. “You signed your name, at least. I see you started to write ‘sincerely’ and then crossed that out and put ‘Love, William.’ Good save.”
“I was in a hurry,” said William. “I had to borrow Ollie’s pen.”
Gabrielle looked at the front of the card again. “It’s weird. With the flowers and clouds and stuff on the front you wouldn’t expect it to be a dirty card.”
“I think that’s part of the joke,” said William.
Gabrielle slipped the card back into the envelope and put it in the drawer of her nightstand.
“What are you doing?” asked William.
“I’m going to keep it for my scrapbook,” said Gabrielle.
“You like it?”
“It’s very ‘you,’” said Gabrielle. She arranged the pillows on her bed and laid back, pulling her blankets up over her enormous stomach. The sweat was drying on her face.
“Is the baby calm?” asked William, edging towards the door.
“Yes,” said Gabrielle, her eyelids drooping. “Want to feel?”
“Nah,” said William. “If it’s calm, it’s just gonna feel like a regular big stomach. Good night.”
He went down to the family room to watch TV by himself. He sprawled across the couch and flipped briefly to the Potential Channel where he saw they were airing an episode of Optimal Settings. He watched for less than a minute before feeling guilty and flipping to a sports highlights show. Gabrielle didn’t like him to watch Optimal Settings because she thought the girl who hosted it was too hot even though William had explained on several occasions that the girl was too toothy and bubbly for his tastes.
Rather than showing sports highlights, the sports highlights show was showing a fat, old man sitting in a chair and talking about performance-enhancing drugs in a way that sounded almost willfully redundant. William put the remote down on the floor and zoned out.
He’d gotten through another night by sheer good fortune. Tomorrow night he might not be so lucky. He might be unable to come up with something to satisfy another of Gabrielle’s mystery craves, or maybe Gabrielle would crave something impossible, like the sensation of having her hair brushed by the claws of a mythical animal or the sensation of knowing how it feels to win a prestigious strongman competition.
Or maybe she’d have the baby tomorrow. And maybe it would be a miracle baby with an in-born preference for long, regular periods of sleep and William would finally be able to slumber stress-free through the night.