Someone else’s baby’s heart was beating down the hall. I heard the Doppler machine pulsing through the warren of exam rooms in the obstetrics unit. My baby’s heart had already been checked. That much was going right at my 32-week checkup. I was twenty years old, still chronically nauseous, single and forced to drop out of college, desperately missing my ex-boyfriend and working 45-50 hours per week on my feet in 80-90 degree heat. Today my temperature was high and my blood pressure low. The doctor had left to consult about me. I rested my elbow on a table of magazines and closed my eyes. Thump-thump, thump-thump. And a woman’s voice; a mother or companion, maybe a hallucination. Her chatter flowed high and melodious. She broke off to laugh, and in other moments to sing ‘On My Own' from Les Miserables. A languid, lonely line or two then more cheery talk, while the baby’s heart sounded. My son liked music even before he was born. At night when I tried to lull myself to sleep with classical symphonies, he moved differently to each tempo. Slithering to waltzes, kicking to marches. Now, he did chin-ups on my ribs in time to a strange heartbeat and I wondered if he’d always be drawn to tunes far beyond me.
I first heard the Schonberg and Boublil show in 1993, at a friend’s birthday party at the start of eighth grade. Everyone there was from the town my family left a few years before, so I didn’t know many of them well anymore and left them to their dramatisations. They enacted every song on the Les Miserables highlights cassette. I sat on the couch in the half-refurbished cellar, watching with my knees hugged to my chest. I liked the smell of sawdust and not having to talk. I liked the music but there was no reason it should move me. I knew I would be dead in three days. Even though we’d moved away, my old classmates such as the ones at the sleepover had sent me Get Well cards a couple months before, while I was hospitalised for my first suicide attempt. I was determined the next would be successful. A petite eleven-year-old pretended to be Eponine dying of a gunshot wound in the arms of the birthday girl as Marius, and I considered the details of my plan. The stash of pills in my father’s drawer, the note I’d leave with the simplest of goodbyes, not to belabour the point, and instructions to look after my goldfish, the only creatures I’d not yet let down. As Eponine took a bullet for her crush, I would down twenty-six pills rather than give a police report against my uncle, no matter how much he’d hurt me. I loved him, even if every day I was learning he could not return my feelings appropriately. My uncle was no Marius, and would probably be glad once I’d eliminated myself. I measured my allegiance against his indifference, and the corresponding massive quantities equalled love, the ultimate sacrifice. ‘On My Own’ confirmed that. Obviously, I did not die. While I was hospitalised again, my aunt sent me a taped copy of her Les Miserables CD and even xeroxed the lyrics. I had them memorised within a month. Time barricaded me from my uncle but every crush throughout my teenage years met the same proportions as Eponine and her Marius. When I became pregnant and my boyfriend dumped me, the fact that I still missed him confirmed my previous suspicions that I was in love.
‘Have you considered anti-depressants?’ The doctor brushed back into the obstetrics office and spoke over the distant heartbeats, the scattered tune. ‘If you’re feeling low, there are some you can take while pregnant.’ Funny, after they’d been preaching Pain With a Purpose and encouraging completely ‘natural’ childbirth. Couldn’t emotional pain also have a purpose? If I let it diminish, it might separate me further from my love. I turned down the offer of medication. I must continue adjusting to rejection, I thought, as I’d probably experience it from my baby one day, too. He’d waltz off to some unheard strain and then I’d really be on my own.
We didn’t have TV in our subsidised apartment. My son got enough of it at daycare. He had a little keyboard which he set to play demo on repeat as he crawled among board books and Duplo. There was always a soundtrack. I bought him a drum for his second birthday, and tacked a photo of him with it to my desk at work. ‘Uh-oh, who got your kid the drum?’ people would ask. ‘I did.’ And I had no regrets. The joy on his face in that photo… When he was thirteen, trying to place himself in the world caused him crippling anxiety. He told me the piano in a school rehearsal room became his best friend. A year older than I was when I tried to take my life, my son played his way through without resorting to drastic action, and kept me updated as he did so. The following year, he arranged his first medley for a 64-piece orchestra. Now, as he prepares to begin university, I contemplate separation from the first person who allowed me to feel requited love. Even when he threatened to run away rather than set the table, or when I was busy in the kitchen and couldn’t play so he shouted, ‘RABBITS!’ at the top of his lungs (I think he was going for ‘rubbish’), we were an unshakable team and I knew he loved me. Strange how uneven my idea of love was before. I would never dream of rejecting my son in order to prove his affections, any more than Eponine could find it in herself to play hard-to-get from Marius. Cruelty and neglect aren’t needed to stretch the boundaries of love. Supporting someone through their own first break-up or listening to hours of chat about favourite video games will do just as nicely. I think his heartbeat will always be the rhythm behind my dreams. I’ve seen my son collapse and then rebuild himself. Without me, his world will go on turning, and for that, in this instance, I’m truly grateful.
Nastasya Parker has been published in two Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies, and the latest Stroud Short Stories anthology. In 2017, she won the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network Prose Prize. Her blog, nastasyaparker.com, celebrates the bits and pieces encountered in daily life which sometimes grow into stories. Twitter: @NastasyaParker.