Life

It Ended on a California Road Trip

On the horror, false hope, and heartbreak of a lost pregnancy.

A red card drives down a road along the ocean.
Illustration by Slate

The blood began flowing before I arrived in California. I first noticed it on a flight from New York to San Francisco, at the point in my pregnancy when the need to pee was near-constant. In the airplane bathroom, I dragged toilet paper across myself and when I looked down, the paper was brown. I peered into the wad and thought, “Huh.” It seemed weird but explicable—well within the realm of things that can happen in the course of a healthy pregnancy.

But this wasn’t a healthy pregnancy. The slide from “brown when I wipe” to “deluge of blood” followed by the plop of a dead baby took seven days. Which was, incidentally, the exact length of the family road trip down the 101 that my miscarriage derailed.

In sharp contrast to my typical existence, where I can scarcely drink a latte without documenting it, there are few photographs of the week that followed that flight. I think my memory is sharper for it. Photos are so rich that they can crowd out everything else. The photographs become the thing you remember. In their absence, I recall not just a few things about the rental house a few hours south of San Francisco where my miscarriage began, but everything. The way the overhead fan in the room cut the light. The ripples in the wall-to-wall carpet. The thin layer of dust that clung to pearlescent bath beads in a shell-shaped dish next to the bathtub I never used for fear of watching blood spread through the water.

The day after my husband, mom, brothers, and I convened in Cambria in the summer of 2017, the bleeding picked up. It was almost imperceptible at first. Then brown blood turned red. I texted my doctor relentlessly, expecting her to diagnose me from 3,000 miles away. I rested ice packs on my aching stomach and then worried that I shouldn’t. I paused my plan to tell my family the good news that suddenly felt like it was going bad. I retreated to my room, grateful that my husband, Emmett, and I had the master bedroom so I could pace and panic in peace.

Before the trip, I’d planned my outfits carefully. Sandals that evoked Greece. Blue and white stripes reminiscent of the south of France. Flowing dresses that signaled Stevie Nicks. When I unpacked, I hung those dozen or so items in a walk-in closet bigger than my Brooklyn bedroom. I gave every hanger wide berth, at least six inches on each side. Later, when I couldn’t bear to talk, to see anyone, or even to be in my own skin, I lay on the carpeting of that closet and spent hours watching the air conditioning vents gently blow my clothes to and fro. My dresses looked like women who’d hanged themselves. I let them sway, dying.

When the pain didn’t abate, I scheduled an ultrasound 40 minutes inland in San Luis Obispo. The earliest they could see me was noon, but Emmett and I left at 9 a.m., telling my family we were going to the beach. We drove slowly, listening to ’70s soft rock and letting the wind whip through our rental car. We stopped for breakfast at the Madonna Inn, where I drank orange juice from a pink glass goblet and snuck into the men’s bathroom to see its famous urinal. Later, in town, Emmett wretched from the smell of thousands of pieces of gum slowly curing on the walls of Bubblegum Alley while I gulped bottles of water to ensure I’d have a full bladder for my ultrasound. But I drank too much and needed to pee desperately.

And so, in a Rite Aid staff bathroom I’d wheedled my way into by citing my pregnancy, I discovered that my trickle of blood had turned into a torrent. I bought heavy duty pads from the employee I’d just shared my pregnancy news with, and at that moment I felt like she knew more about me than anyone in the whole world.

In spite of it all, we were still early to our appointment. We circled the suburban office park where the imaging center was located, trying to kill time. I cried and chugged water and felt very, very alive. I’d never been more alert or on edge. I could feel my lashes tickle my eyelids every time I blinked. I could see the hair on my arm standing upright. I had the sensation of my heart beating all over my body—pulsating in my ears, my neck, my legs.

“Do you think I’m stealing the baby’s strength?” I asked Emmett. “Like it’s dying and I’m taking its power?”

He looked at me quizzically as I sat hunched and wild-eyed in the passenger seat. “You feel powerful right now?”

When we walked through the doors of the imaging center, it felt, instantly and overwhelmingly, like the kind of place where you go to get bad news. The waiting room was beige and bare, apart from stacks of pamphlets curling in their acrylic stands. We waited for ages to be called, alone except for a young couple. They came in after us—she visibly pregnant, him visibly twitchy—and took two seats as far away from us as possible. It was a completely logical choice—one I employ every day on subways, on park benches, and in restaurants—but at that moment it struck me as significant. They can smell the stench of loss coming off of us, I thought.

But I was wrong. Everything pointed one way—the brusque nurse who eventually summoned us, the ice-cold ultrasound jelly, the drawn blinds, and my own intuition. And yet there, visible on the screen that loomed large overhead, was our baby. Alive. With a heartbeat. The nurse’s mood transformed—she printed us a sonogram photo sweetly titled “My First Picture,” with a bean-shaped thing labeled “Me.” As she sent us on our way, into our future as parents, she said something I’d later replay in my head hundreds of times, about the baby implanting low inside me. But it was an aside, said casually between broad smiles.

Back in the car, I felt stranger than I ever had. Just as, when Emmett asked me to marry him, I’d reflexively repeated “Are you serious?” a few dozen times, now I kept saying, “I can’t believe it.” And I scarcely could. The horrible pit of worry, the blood and cramps, the collective wisdom of the internet—they all pointed to a miscarriage. But a heartbeat said otherwise.

Emmett was elated. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he said, kissing my hands. “It’s all going to be all right.” I was overwhelmed. I cried tears of joy and confusion and then lay down in the backseat of our rental car. I was in too much pain to sit upright.

After hours of ignoring my mom’s inquiring texts, we made plans to meet her and my brothers at a nearby brewery. Emmett resumed driving, slowly this time, stealing happy glances back at me. I watched him through the rearview mirror as each turn and bump brought my head into uncomfortable contact with the door handle. We stopped at a grocery store, where I walked gingerly through over-lit aisles until I found brownie mix and tortilla chips. I forgot to pick them up from the conveyor belt after paying.

My memories of the hours that followed come in snatches. Of telling my family about the pregnancy, my clearest memory is how loud the traffic from the adjacent highway was, how we had to move inside the brewery from the patio to hear on another. Of our meal, I remember only the cool metal of my chair, how it seemed to seep into me, dulling my radiating cramps. Of the drive back to Cambria, I mostly recall my mom’s happy chatter about all the children’s books she’d buy and all the time she’d spend with us in Brooklyn once the baby arrived. I remember suppressing a strong desire to ask her to shut the fuck up.

Back at our rental, the pain continued to worsen. There was so much blood and it was so bright. I soaked through pads in Rorschach patterns. I cried and worried, now mostly alone. My husband’s fears had been assuaged by the ultrasound, and he was now in cheerful vacation mode. While he and my family chased photo-ops along California’s central coast, I stayed in. I put on two pads and waddled around, absorbing the profound strangeness of my palatial, ’70s-key-party-esque surroundings. I cast my eyes upon the sunken living room, an annex containing nothing but a sheet music stand, an empty knife block, and bouquets of dried flowers. I sprawled on a puffy leather couch and Googled endlessly, in search of an explanation for my current situation. I found comforting words to mollify myself.

The next day, we resumed our road trip, driving south toward Los Angeles. By then my pain had calmed and the bleeding had slowed, so when I stopped in Santa Barbara to have my pregnancy hormone levels tested, I was seeking reassurance rather than readying myself for the worst. I hoped that in 48 hours, the clinic would call my doctor who would call me to say that everything was fine. That this baby would somehow come through all of this intact.

My blood, as usual, was hard to draw, and I apologized to the nurse about it. “If you’re always this tough a stick,” she joked, “it’s going to be a long pregnancy.” I wanted to laugh along with her, but I couldn’t. I’d lost the privilege of even half-believing that the worst thing that could happen to me while pregnant was enduring bad blood draws. The test results would later reveal my pregnancy hormone levels had dropped precipitously. It was already over then; I just didn’t know it.

The next morning, in Venice Beach, I woke up early to go to the bathroom. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I peered down into my pad and saw, as if it was materializing before my eyes, a piece of something odd. It was flat, a few inches long, the texture of the inside of my lip, and blue-gray once I rinsed the blood from it. I took a picture and opened a browser window on my phone. The internet was gut-wrenchingly unanimous.

I shook Emmett to wake him, and he later told me that my expression said everything. We slipped wordlessly out of our apartment and into a beautiful day, all chirping birds and vine-covered trellises and sand clinging to our shoes. I called my doctor’s office back in New York to schedule an emergency ultrasound in L.A. and waited on hold while Emmett kissed my hand again, this time in a show of stunned support. I cried behind my Ray-Bans while watching skateboarders do tricks in a smooth sunken pool, its glossy concrete reflecting light like a mirage.

When I hung up the phone, I turned to Emmett: “I have to pee.”

So we returned to our rental, suddenly just as foreboding as the last one. I pushed past my mom, who stood in the kitchen trying to catch my eye, and beelined for the bathroom. I was sitting on the toilet when the baby fell out of me. It was so obvious—a small, balloonlike sac, bright red and kind of perfect-looking. I’d been searching “How do you know if you’ve had a miscarriage?” for a week, and in that instant, I knew.

As I wrapped my dead baby in toilet paper and set it atop a mound of pad wrappers in the wastebasket next to me, I thought back to the nurse’s offhand comment. Had my baby always been riding low in my uterus? Or had we simply seen it as it was inching toward the exit, struggling to cling to life as it was drawn down and out?

An hour later, we had a short, wordless ultrasound, and six hours after that we got a call from my doctor confirming that the pregnancy was, in fact, over. “They didn’t see anything in there,” she said, and something about her tone made me wonder if she doubted the existence of the pregnancy in the first place.

In the time between the barren sonographer’s screen and that call, I saw Los Angeles with a different set of eyes. All the sun-bleached strangeness had come to roost in my head. Emmett and I drove through the city’s less celebrated corridors, saw sites that matched my mood, and barely talked to each other. In Inglewood, I took the typical photo of Randy’s Donuts. In Los Feliz, I sucked down a malted milkshake while trying to unsubscribe from the many pregnancy mailing lists I’d signed up for. In Griffith Park, we oozed uphill through heavy traffic toward the Tesla coil. And in Watts, we stood at the base of 100-foot-tall towers of rebar wrapped in wire mesh and studded with mosaic tiles. It felt right, somehow, to be experiencing this odd and terrible event in this place.

All day I’d imagined myself hearing the words—the baby didn’t make it—on a bluff overlooking the ocean, on the beach, or in the shadows of Laurel Canyon’s rocky roads—but I didn’t have the stamina to keep circling the city. So after a few hours we returned to our rental and curled up in bed. Maybe the news would have been less devastating elsewhere, but here, it ricocheted off the walls, smacking me repeatedly with pangs of fresh pain. Emmett held me, and we cried in unison as the sun set. Then my mom replaced Emmett, and she held me too, crying with me until the room grew cold with night.

Later that evening, I asked Emmett to remove our baby from the wastebasket in the bathroom, to take it to the trash cans outside. He did it without protest or question, but later I wondered if it was the right choice. Maybe it would have been kinder to flush it? Perhaps it would somehow have been possible to keep it? That night, I dreamt of my baby being dredged from a sewage pit, eaten from the garbage by a cat, and floating eerily in a Mason jar full of solution. Sometimes I still do.