“Our Father who art in Heaven…”
I stop listening and start counting. The population of India is one billion, two hundred and ten million, one hundred and ninety-three thousand, four hundred and twenty-two. China’s is one billion, three hundred and fifty-three million, eight hundred and twenty-one thousand, two hundred and fifty-three. That’s two billion, five hundred sixty-four million, fourteen thousand, six hundred seventy-five people I’ve never met and probably never will. When you think about it like that, shouldn’t never meeting one person seem trivial?
“. . . grow up strong and healthy . . .”
Adam isn’t next to me. He’s up by the pulpit with nine of his friends giving a blessing to Tess’s brand-new baby boy.
“. . . discern good from evil . . .”
I’m alone in the last of the thirteen pews, the short one where no one ever sits. I told Adam this is where I wanted to sit from now on. Not with Tess, not with her husband David or their new child. Sometimes Adam is asked to pass the sacrament, and I get to sit completely alone, adding the hymn numbers, multiplying the people in the cold chapel by the seconds on the synchronized clocks.
In the hallway after sacrament meeting, Tess is holding her child, rocking him. “Hey, are you doing okay?” she asks me and runs her fingers through her child’s hair. “I’m fine.”
“Are you coming to Relief Society?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m tired.”
“Come on,” she says. “You haven’t been in three weeks.”
“Four,” I say. “Okay.”
Adam is talking to David. They are smiling. I can see the particles of light dance from their white teeth to their white shirts and drown in their ridiculous ties. The American flag, the twenty-three and one half trombones.
In Relief Society meeting, twenty percent of the women have babies, and half of them are crying.
How can we be better sisters? How can we be better wives and mothers? This is the lesson. Tess is sitting next to me. With one hand she shakes a toy in front of her baby who lies on the floor. The other is on my leg.
After the meeting I am a star floating aimlessly in this frigid universe. The other sisters come like comets and asteroids. Do you need anything? I can always ask Lehi to come give you a blessing. Others are like planets, slowly falling into me. Read the second page in the ninth chapter of L. Tom Perry’s book. I was praying last night and I thought the first verse of the sixth chapter of Third Nephi might really help you.
We get home and Adam kisses me on the forehead. “Are you all right?”
“I’m going to go for a walk,” I say.
“Don’t you want to eat,” he says and embraces me.
I spring away. “I’m just going to campus.”
The dry Utah heat is radiating off the asphalt of the bike trail, and the sprinklers are making their wide sweeps across it. Every time I walk to campus it takes thirty-seven minutes. I’ve made this walk forty times. That’s one thousand, four hundred and eighty minutes, or twenty-four and two-thirds hours, barely more than one day. To reach one month, I will have to walk it one thousand, one hundred and sixty more times, but that is what I’m going to do.
On campus I go to the small observatory on the seventh floor of BYU’s ESC building, climbing the one hundred and fifty-eight steps to get there. I am no longer a student, but my old professor and thesis advisor Dr. Graham gave me a key.
In the observatory, I just sit until the sun goes down. I think about the millions of pathetic sperm Adam released into me and the chances in percentages that the weak one made it first, the one that couldn’t hold out just another month. The decimal goes out for pages. I calculate the trillions of miles between this galaxy and the next, the incredible emptiness between even the closest stars. Then I find the number of miles the earth must travel in thirty days, and it is so small that it sometimes makes me weep.
When the sun finally does go down, I open the roof and peer out the telescope at unbreathing, sleepless space. I search for the planet that twirls somewhere out there, the one where my miscarried child should be waiting. So many people have assured me this is the case, pointed at the sky with their fingers. The gospel doctrine teacher said she would be right on the other side of the veil when I get to Kolob.
It is easy for them to think this could be comforting when their babies are breathing and smiling and riding this useless planet around the sun. None of them knows that this galaxy alone contains one hundred million stars all swarmed by planets, and in this hundred-billion-galaxy universe, I could visit one a day and never see them all before everything collapses in its whimpering end. I hate them all for it. I hate their homemade cookies and their cards. I hate their puking babies that they can so carelessly rest on one hip, not knowing the microscopic points of balance keeping them from death, handing me printouts of conference talks and invites to Relief Society activities.
I am twenty-two years, five months and eighteen days old. I am exactly sixty-five point three four inches tall. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I have three freckles on my throat that form a scalene triangle and a scar on my left knee that is thirty-six millimeters long.
I graduated from BYU seventy-three days ago with a Bachelor of Science in physics and math with a minor in astronomy. I had two honors recognitions and the highest GPA in my department at a solid four point zero. I was published once in the Utah Journal of Astrophysics for my research concerning the orbits of planets in trinary star systems. I have a perfect one-seventy on both sections of the GRE.
I married Adam last August, eleven days before the start of the semester. He is twenty-two years, nine months and two days old. He returned from a mission to Taiwan in May of last year, and that is also the month we started dating. Exactly fifteen days, four hours and ten minutes afterward, we had our first kiss. He is a rising junior at BYU and has two years left before he will graduate with a degree in information systems with a minor in Chinese. He has a slightly above average GPA of three point zero nine. He told me his Chinese advisor said he “kind of has a knack for languages.”
He proposed twenty-nine days after we kissed at eleven thousand, seven hundred and fifty-two feet above Provo on top of Mt. Timpanogos. I knew he thought it was romantic, but at least thirty-one other returned missionaries had done the same thing that year. While the earth turned its back slowly to the sun and Adam built up the awkward courage to get down on one knee, I counted all the excited announcements in the summit’s log-in notebook.
“Wait,” I said when he kneeled down. He was struggling to get the ring out of his pocket, and I said, “Wait, stop.”
His face flushed. “There’s just something you should know before you ask,” I said.
“I can’t have children,” I said.
“You can’t have children?” he said as if those four words made no sense together. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “They told me when I was fourteen years old.”
“What do you mean? They told you what?”
“The doctor told me something is wrong with me. I can’t get pregnant.”
“There’s no chance?”
“He said I can’t have children,” I said. “Do you still want to marry me?”
He kneeled in silence, and I stood there. “I want a family,” he said finally. “And I know Heavenly Father wants me to have a family,” he said. “I’ve fasted and prayed, and I also know he wants me to marry you. He has a plan for us.”
“Adam,” I said. “You can’t be waiting for a miracle. Do you still want to marry me?”
He dug the ring out of his pocket. It gleamed like star. In Provo every street corner has an outlet where you can go in and promise to pay ten, twenty, thirty percent extra if they give one to you on credit, or they’ll fit them into your grandpa’s old band. It’s just a rock, but I could see what it meant to him, to become sealed to a woman in the temple, to bring her through the veil and speak the sacred names. “Of course,” he said. “I love you.”
It took just forty-one days before Adam asked if he could give me a blessing.
“Please don’t do this,” I said.
“What’s the harm,” he said. “I know Heavenly Father will bless us with a family,” he said. “My patriarchal blessing says my seed will number great in the Kingdom of the Lord.”
Six months and three days after he gave me that blessing, after he poured the olive oil into my hair and laid his hands on my head, after he called upon the Spirit of God to heal my womb, my urine caused a home pregnancy test to read positive. It was the day after the spring equinox, and the northern hemisphere was beginning to tilt toward the sun.
Adam had lied and waited for a miracle, and now he had it. I knelt before the toilet and vomited over and over again, eleven times, then twelve, and when it seemed everything inside of me had been expelled, my body just kept trying. I lurched and heaved like that with my eyes red and bulging for three hours and twenty-seven minutes until Adam came home from classes.
When I told him why I myself was not in class, he cried with joy and threw his arms around me. “I knew it,” he said. “The power of faith.” That evening we read the scriptures and Adam prayed. Afterward we made love. I felt how he and I met together, and the cells inside me that we’d created, how they divided and multiplied out to what I thought would be forever. Our closeness had accomplished the impossible.
When I told Tess over the phone, she cried. “Let me introduce you to my obstetrician,” she said. “Want to come baby clothes shopping with me this weekend? This is just incredible. I can hardly believe it.”
The four months of my pregnancy passed this way. Everyone in the ward saw me as a miracle and a blessing. Everyone stood up in testimony meeting and said I was how they knew the power of the Priesthood was real. After Relief Society meetings I had an orbit of women. Let me know if you need a ride to the doctor. When I was pregnant, ginger really helped with the morning sickness.
A month before she died we had an ultrasound. The doctor waved the bursts of energy across my belly, and the monitor erupted with the image of a human girl. In the center pulsed her rhythmic heart.
“Would you like to hear?” the doctor asked us, and Adam and I listened to it thump its measured beat. The sound was full, and it echoed through my ears. Nothing found a place in my mind but that sound, so loud I wondered if the bounds of this universe could really contain it. We listened until the doctor smiled and said, “I’m sorry, but I do have another appointment soon.”
We named her right then, “Noel.” I went home and threw away my applications for MIT and CalTech. I bought baby books. I measured fabric for a blanket and footy pajamas. I got a little mobile to hang above her crib, one with planets and rocketships and a tiny sun in the center. At night, after Adam fell asleep, I would lie awake and try to blank my mind again, fill it with nothing but that sound again.
I walk home. The sprinklers are still on. On the sidewalk just a little past Cougar Stadium, a cat scurries in between the streams of water. When she finally gets away from one, she takes three confident steps before the next one hits her. Finally, she makes it to a bush.
I crouch down to look at her. “It’s okay,” I say. “It’s not really raining. It’s okay.”
“Come one,” I say. “It’s okay. Let’s get you dry.” I reach in, and she doesn’t resist as I lift her out.
It takes another eighteen minutes to walk home, and her tail begins to brush across my arm. She is maybe seven pounds and a few ounces. She is black with two white splotches above her eyes like constellations.
At home Adam is working on homework, and I say nothing. I take the cat into the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” I say to her. “We’re going to have to get you wet again.”
Adam comes in and laughs out loud. “What are you doing?”
“Giving her a bath.”
“Who is she?” he says.
“‘Pleiades,’” I say. “Like the stars? Her eyes just kind of sparkle like that. And it’s pretty, right?”
“Honey, what are you doing?”
“Giving Pleiades a bath.”
“What, are you planning on keeping this cat?” he says.
Pleiades is struggling and growling in the sink. “Can you use human soap on cats?” I say. “I don’t think you can. Shampoo?”
“We can’t keep a cat.”
“Watch her right quick,” I say. I go and get shampoo from the bathroom.
I lather it into Pleiades’s skin. She squirms in my hands.
Adam touches my arm. “I know what this is about.”
I turn on the water to rinse Pleiades, and she starts to thrash. “You don’t know anything,” I say.
“We just can’t have pets in the apartment,” he says. “We’ll get kicked out.”
“She has to stay here,” I say. I shake his hand off my wrist. “I wish she could,” he says.
“Yeah, right,” I say.
“Please,” he says. “Maybe when we move we can get a cat, but just not right now. It’s not up to me.”
“It’s never your fault,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s staying,” I say. “Okay?”
“This is about Noel, isn’t it?”
I cringe when he says her name, his tongue pronouncing all four distinct sounds. “I said you don’t know anything.” I dry off Pleiades with the dish towel and take her back to the bedroom.
Adam comes in without knocking. “Please,” he says. “If we need to talk about Noel, let’s talk about her, but we can’t keep this cat.”
Pleiades is exploring the bed, but as he comes closer, I pick her up. She leaves three red streaks down my arm. “Look,” I say. “You startled her.”
“You need to let her go,” Adam says.
His skin flushes and his pupils shrink and expand in the light. I can tell he thinks he’s smart. He thinks he’s said something profound, maybe even poetic, like his cliché, boring proposal. I hate him too, hate the sum of his thoughts. They do nothing but subtract from everything I am.
“Adam,” I say. “You don’t know anything about this. You don’t know anything about my baby. You don’t know anything.”
“You can’t blame me,” he says. “It wasn’t my fault.”
Pleiades is digging into the blankets. “It was your fault,” I say. “I never even wanted her.”
“I didn’t know that could happen,” he says.
“Right,” I say. “Yeah, we need some food for Pleiades,” I say. “Do we have any sliced meat? Milk? Or that’s not actually good for cats.” I pick Pleiades up and walk back to the kitchen.
Adam follows me. “If you didn’t want her anyway, then why are you even upset?”
“Then why do you want to sit in the back of the chapel? You haven’t been going to Relief Society. Tess says you haven’t let her come visiting teaching in a month. You’re demanding we keep stray cats.”
I put Pleiades on the floor. She wanders around looking in cupboards. “Tuna,” I say. “Cats love tuna. Hand me the can opener.”
Adam picks her up and walks to the front door. “No,” I scream. I chase after him as he descends the twenty-four steps to the lobby door. “Stop.” I grab his arm.
“We are not keeping this cat,” he says. “We can’t, okay? That’s just the way it is, okay? Just like Noel. It’s just the way it is. It’s no one’s fault.” He opens the door and sets Pleiades on the ground. She doesn’t look back but instead runs off into the city.
I fall to my knees. “It is your fault,” I scream. “It’s all your fault. I didn’t even want her. Four months? All you could give me was four miserable months? They could’ve cut her out of me at five. I don’t care. Kept her plugged in in one of those glass cubes. Thirty days? Seven hundred and twenty hours? Forty-three thousand, two hundred minutes? That’s nothing, and it’s all I’m asking. I didn’t even want her, just one single more month with her, and it’s all your fault.”
He kneels down beside me, eclipsing me in the pale student housing light. He says something about her waiting for us beyond the veil. He says something about eternity. I stand up and run out the door. I walk the path I always walk. There are no cars on the road or lights on in any of the buildings. I call for Pleiades, but of course she doesn’t respond.
I check under bushes and under cars, but she is nowhere. It takes me twenty-seven extra minutes to get to the observatory, or sixty-four altogether.
Inside I think about the meaningless word people keep saying to me. “Eternity.” They treat it like a number, but it isn’t one. I cannot find the derivative of eternity. I cannot insert eternity into an equation and make it make sense. And most of all, I cannot put my eye against the telescope, look out into eternity and see anything but the inherent stillness, the ultimate pause of everything.
I was fourteen when I found out I couldn’t have children. I’d begun menstruating some time before my thirteenth birthday, and each month it was unbearable. Of course my mother told me that was just part of being a woman. She didn’t realize it was any different for me than it was for her. When I passed out from pain during seminary one day, though, she finally took me to a doctor.
“The problem is certainly reproductive,” he told me. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said. “It’s unlikely you’ll ever have children.”
For many days I held this in my mind and tried to figure out what it meant to me, until that Sunday at church, when the lesson in Mia Maids was about the blessings of motherhood. Nobody knew about me, and on the chalkboard the teacher drew a big Venn diagram. One circle was for the blessings men receive.
“The Priesthood,” said a voice up front. “Leadership.”
The teacher then pointed to the other circle. I was sitting in the back. That was the first time I remember numbers running through my head like they do.
One tear rolled down my cheek and fell onto my knee. I felt the splash on my leg.
“…caring for children and the home…”
A second tear fell off my face.
A third tear came, then a fourth, a fifth. I counted each of them and the seconds they clung to my chin before dropping. No one could see, and no one noticed. I ran out of the room, down the hall and out into the churchyard. I stared at the sun and felt how it stood motionless while I spun helplessly around it. I stood there measuring the turn of the earth and counting my tears.
That night I don’t go home. I push five chairs together and sleep in the observatory. I leave the roof open and watch as meteors come crashing through the layers of my planet, the one I’m stuck to.
The sun comes up, and it wakes me. It’s Pioneer Day, so there will be no classes. Tonight there will be fireworks, and Adam and I were supposed to meet Tess and David over by the stadium to lie on a blanket and watch the show.
“Is that okay for the baby?” I’d said to Tess.
“I don’t know,” she’d said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Adam has called several times in the night. I delete each voicemail without listening. It is a long time before the fireworks, and I don’t want to go home. Instead, I go to the university library. I print off one hundred and twenty fliers. They read, in size seventy-two font, “Missing Cat! Black with two white spots above her eyes. Responds to ‘Pleiades.’”
By the time I’m finished hanging them, the sun is setting and people are beginning to shoot off fireworks and bottle rockets. The streets are lined with people in their geometric blanket formations, on lawn chairs, their coolers opened. They’re facing the stadium waiting for the show. I’m walking in between the blankets when I see a cat running from the explosions in an apartment parking lot. I follow her and find Pleiades again trembling underneath a truck. I take her to the observatory.
When I get there, Venus has showed herself, and Adam calls again. He’s with Tess and David, and they’re still expecting me to meet them. I’m sure Tess is talking in a pointlessly high-pitched voice to her baby, waving toys in front of his face. I’m sure if I go, she’ll have had decided on the most delicate way to tell me he grinned for the first time or held a rattle. I let it ring its full eight rings and go to voicemail.
The fireworks show starts, and we are close enough that the shock waves shake the building. Pleiades cowers under a chair. I pick her up and rock her till she purrs. “It’s okay,” I say. “You know, people think these fireworks are special, but they’re not. They can’t even leave the atmosphere. They can’t even reach escape velocity, which is basically nothing.”
Pleiades rubs her head on my hand, and I keep talking to her. “The fast- est manmade object is the Voyager One,” I say. “It’s going so fast that it’s about to leave the solar system. It’s going eleven miles every second. Still,” I say, “if it were headed straight for Andromeda, the nearest major galaxy to ours, it wouldn’t make it before the universe ends in sixty billion years.” She is warm in my arms, and I can feel her vibrations in my own chest. “That,” I say, “is what eternity means.”
The night everything went wrong and Adam rushed me to the hospital, they delivered my dead daughter and brought her all stiff and elephant-like to where I lay immeasurably emptied. I guess some women need to feel the matter finished or even try to breathe life back into it, but I just held her and counted things. The doctors came in to console me and explain, but I did not listen.
“…along the uterine wall…”
I counted her ten fingers, her ten toes.
“…possibility that after another month…”
I counted her two eyes and how they lay at perfect distances from her two ears. I counted her four limbs, her two hands and her two feet.
“…never come to full term…”
I counted her one eternally muted heart.