After Sasha told me without saying a word that she was no longer pregnant, I felt disbelief, then hope, then devastation, all in the span of a few seconds. I realized, first, that we’d conceived a kid, an unimaginable thought to me then, at twenty-two. Second, that having a baby might have meant Sasha and I finally had the chance to build a home together. And then third, crushingly, that none of this would ever be.

For the entire duration of our illicit relationship, Sasha had been with another man. She’d been dating him for two years, and things had gone stale. I was a spectator, her sideline, listening from the outside about how she and her boyfriend no longer slept together. Then I was the one who made her feel guilty after she slept with me enough times to negate the excuse of a one-night stand.

Earlier that day I’d found Sasha, whose name I’ve changed here, swinging in the hammock outside my apartment’s front door. She always made me giddy, causing a flutter inside me every time our eyes met. The boxes of books I was holding nearly fell from my hands.

“Hey there,” I said, hoping she’d notice my cool indifference. “Where you been?”

“Oh, I wasn’t feeling well,” she said. “Went home for a little.”

“Yeah?” I asked, walking inside. She sat down on my bed, spread her hands in an arch, feeling the mattress behind her as she leaned back. The fan blades twirled slowly overhead. A chopping breeze settled in place of the air conditioning unit that never worked when I needed it most.

fatherhood_spot01_001

I walked over to her and we kissed. I’d long ago relinquished whatever role love played into this relationship, whatever it was, because I understood what we were not, which was together. She had someone else, and I was alright with that, so long as she pretended to like me, too.

“Other than that, how was the trip home? Or were you too sick to get out?” I smiled and returned to my box of books.

“No, not like that. Just had to go see a doctor, that’s all.”

“Just a doctor?” I asked, growing annoyed that she was holding something back.

“A doctor,” she said. “Just a doctor.”

I clapped my hands free of dust, looked at Sasha and wondered if she and her boyfriend had had a falling out. Was that why she was gloomy? Was this my chance to steal her, to remove the asterisk hanging over us? Sasha and her boyfriend hadn’t slept together in about a year. It would take a few years and more failed relationships of my own to understand how this could happen, that sex was not a direct correlation to love, and that the absence of the act was not necessarily a failure of the relationship.

Suddenly, I understood what she had not told me.

“Whose was it?” I accused, my voice cracking through our silence. The room was still and her stare was precious and tormented.

“Come on, Ken,” she whispered, and looked the other way.

* * *

Since that day I have thought often about the child Sasha and I conceived. I’d never aligned myself with any political bearing on the abortion debate, or any other issue really. Before this I hadn’t ever considered what intense feelings such a scenario could broil inside me. Ask me as a teenager and I would have insensitively said, ‘Get rid of it, I’ve got a life to live.’ Ask me before meeting Sasha, as a young man, and I would have said, ‘Meh, what happens is what happens.’ But in that moment, when I first learned of her abortion, it seemed to me that both parties in such a situation deserved a say. It wasn’t that I wanted a child. I didn’t. But where first I felt the weight of conceiving another life, I now felt the weightlessness of Sasha’s choice: because she’d kept me in tow alongside her more serious relationship, this felt like her way of underscoring her intentions to never follow through with us. By making the decision without telling me, she had decided I wasn’t worth dating, that all I’d ever be was her castaway. And, selfishly, I was thinking only of myself.

I busied my hands, stacking my books along the windowsill, keeping preoccupied through our discomfort. I wanted to yell, but I merely shook my head, over and over, unable to accept the implications of her decision, that she ended us in the most painful of ways. I kept saying, ‘Why? How come? What have I done?’ I felt her discomfort at the bluntness of my questioning. Sasha probably wished she had never told me, that she’d kept it a secret, another facet of her life I might never have been privy to. What else had she kept from me?

Her eyes turned to the sheetrock and she, seated on my bed, became cold and silent. I felt sick. I was only making things worse. What struck me hardest was that I cared so much about something I could not control.

I cried later that day as I thought of Sasha alone, in a sterile doctor’s office, scared and afraid, doing what she believed was right without me by her side. I would have been there regardless of the decision, even though it seemed that she never would have welcomed me.

* * *

Years later, I sat at the breakfast table with Alexa, a new girlfriend whose name I’ve also changed. I was excited: we had nothing planned for the day, and the possibilities were endless. The sun was high. It was the peak of summer. Suddenly, she told me she was pregnant.

We’d grown serious quickly and had already discussed what we’d do in this situation. Alexa had said she was sure she would pursue the pregnancy.

“That’s a crazy thought,” I had said back then. “We’re nowhere near any stability, and don’t you want to travel? You’re always talking about how little time we have and the things we hope to do. We would never be the same.”

Now, confronted with the reality of the pregnancy, I was at first shocked. But then, I consoled Alexa. I harnessed all that I had come to expect of a man’s reaction to this scenario in the years after Sasha, which was to express care and concern, and to cast my own feelings aside.

I was thankful that Alexa had given me a voice. I resorted to being for her the man I’d never been for Sasha. Despite the fact that I knew I was not ready for fatherhood, I started sputtering on about how it was Alexa’s choice and that I’d support her no matter what. I told her I’d always be there for her, even through this. Traveling? We can make it work. Doctor’s appointments, medical bills? I can cover those, just need to shift a few things around.

fatherhood_spot02_001

But she stopped me. And she told me she wasn’t ready either. Instead, Alexa said, she wanted to work on us, on our relationship.

“I don’t want to lose this before we have a chance to grow with each other,” she said. I sat quietly, and suddenly understood her compassion for us as a unit. We talked about our options, whether this was really what we wanted. It was liberating to be a part of the solution. I felt valued and wanted to be supportive rather than succumb to fearful reactions. And so we went to bed later that night, our bodies interlocked, having decided to terminate the pregnancy.

* * *

Alexa scheduled the appointment at a clinic and she asked if I would join her.

Several other men sat in the reception area, a homey room decorated in muted earth tones. I was moved at how perplexed each one seemed when he wasn’t allowed past the waiting room to where the patients sat alone. Perhaps some of them were relieved, even if we’d all come to be there at our woman’s side.

I wanted to be in the room with Alexa. She and I sent text messages to each other, keeping in contact while she went through three hours of tests and, later, the procedure. When she messaged me to say she believed it had been a boy, I smiled, at odds with how I felt: miserably nervous and concerned for her body, and the fate of our relationship.

I understand now that it had been the same for Sasha as it was for Alexa – that any decision either of them made, with or without me, would be the hardest of their lives. Ultimately, my role was to be supportive in whatever way they needed. I understood Sasha’s decision on its face, but at the time wished that it had not severed whatever chance I thought we’d had at becoming something more. And, I realize now, that such reasoning does not justify my faulting her for making the decision without me. But, deep down, I still wish I’d been a part of the process.

After the procedure that night, Alexa and I took a cab home. I thought about the myriad decisions that can so complicate a relationship. And I understood then that the tenderness of our choices, sometimes, if we are lucky, bring us closer.

Kenneth R. Rosen

Kenneth R. Rosen writes and works for the New York Times.
Daniel Fishel is an illustrator based out of Queens, NY. He’s worked with the NY Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, McSweeney’s and is one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30. Follow him on Instagram @o_fishel.