Each Covid Test I Take Reminds Me Of My Pregnancy Tests

“That’s negative,” I say, looking over my daughter’s shoulder at her Covid test. “That’s going to be a negative test.”

“It says to wait fifteen minutes,” she says. She has set a timer on her phone. “Don’t even look at it yet.”

“I’m just saying,” I say. “That’s not going to be a positive test.”

And I’m right. Every time. Because I have two children, which means that I have done two separate pregnancy tests.

Bwahahahaha! I’m KIDDING. I do have two children. But I’ve done something upwards of one gazillion pregnancy tests. Which is why I know exactly how to watch that wash of ink slide over the litmus paper and catch and gather up into the hieroglyphs of happiness or disappointment. Or some weird combination of the two.

I’m 16 and doing a pregnancy test in the bathroom at my high school, and I don’t want to be pregnant? But if I am pregnant? At least it will be something. And probably I can lie down in the nurse’s office instead of going back to Chemistry. And I can cry in my boyfriend’s arms. And I can be… pregnant. Something. At least for a little while. But I pee on the stick and on my hand and I consult the instructions unfolded in my lap on the crinkly paper (itself reminiscent of learning to use a tampon, learning to insert a contraceptive sponge — all these girl-bodied rites of passage that happen on the toilet with a piece of paper in your hands) and I compare the stick to the illustration and I’m not pregnant.

“That’s disappointing,” I learned to say, peering at a thermometer when one of my children didn’t have a fever. Because, technically, you don’t want to have a fever? But by the time you’re taking your temperature? You kind of want to have a fever.

“Wait,” my daughter says. “Is C for Covid?” It’s not. C is for control. T, of course, is for Covid. What? Yes. These interpretive exercises are so familiar. I’m 24 and I really can’t have a baby, because I’m in the middle of my graduate coursework, and I’m watching the stick, watching it, and yay, it’s a plus, which means positive, which means good news! You’re not pregnant! Oh, wait. No. It means you are pregnant. It means terminating a pregnancy after the asshole doctor says, with a warning lilt in his voice, “You better hope your body doesn’t punish you for this.”

Three drops, five drops, 10 drops, depending on the card, the brand, the particular flavor of today’s apocalypse.

And then I’m 29, and my body is maybe punishing me. There’s a second line, yes, but it’s faint and getting fainter as the days pass, like the ghost of my babyless Christmas future. Pregnancy test, pregnancy test, pregnancy test — all of our money for groceries invested in this proof of my despair — until the faint line finally disappears completely and there are just thick clots of blood in the toilet and the one line, the flat line, like a death on a hospital TV show. All these clinical symbols of hope and grief.

My daughter’s timer dings and she squints at the test strip. “Is that a second line, there at the bottom?” It’s not. It’s a shadow, cast by the dimensional overhang of the strip’s plastic housing.

“What about that, that bit of red?” That’s just the reservoir where the ink started its original journey.

You swirl the Q-tip in a holeful of liquid or maybe you swish it around in a plastic vial and then eye-dropper it onto a card… three drops, five drops, 10 drops, depending on the card, the brand, the particular flavor of today’s apocalypse. All of the tests require their own skills and expertise. “Does this look blue to you?” I said to my husband, one of the many times I was hoping to be pregnant and wasn’t. And he said, “If white is the same is blue, then yes,” as if we were already experiencing that blue-black dress illusion twenty years before it existed, but with a human baby at stake.

I understand my daughter’s ambivalence about getting Covid. Finally getting it myself made me feel like I could just… stop for a minute. Like I finally had an objective reason to lie in bed with a book, draped in the light shawl of my own self-pity, like lying in bed with a stack of Saltines balanced on your invisible baby bump. Not drama, exactly, but not business as usual either. I understand what a privilege this is — not to have been a first-wave first responder; not to have gotten sick when the sickness was most terrifying; to be basically well and get better. When we lived with our friend Sam she prayed guiltily every day that the court house would burn down so she wouldn’t have to go be a public defender. Just something. Something more or less than everyday life. A bee in your fourth-grade classroom, all the kids up on their desks and screaming for joy.

Friends who lost pregnancies or babies or were lost themselves to years of the turbulent nothingness of the trying-to-conceive nightmare roller coaster to nowhere used the term PTSD, and they were not exaggerating.

I post a picture of my positive Covid test on Facebook, joke that every time I see it I think I’m pregnant, and everybody knows exactly what I’m talking about. Friends who lost pregnancies or babies or were lost themselves to years of the turbulent nothingness of the trying-to-conceive nightmare roller coaster to nowhere used the term PTSD, and they were not exaggerating.

“You don’t have Covid,” I say to my daughter now. “Or not yet. Are you happy or sad?” “Both,” she says honestly. “And I kind of don’t feel so great.”

This is the same person who thought she was having a bad reaction to her second dose of the vaccine, but it turned out she’d really just eaten too many grapes. The same person who suffered last year from a mysterious symptom she described as “possible Covid leg acne.” The same person who will, triumphantly, achieve a second line two days from now after which I will bring her sore-throated, smug self ginger tea and a buttered English muffin on a tray. This is the same beautiful, beloved, entirely necessary person who introduced herself to us as a second line on a pregnancy test nineteen years ago. And I pretended that I had gotten pregnant with her by accident. And I kind of did? But also I didn’t. I never did. However much I didn’t want to be pregnant, I actually always wanted to be pregnant. I want it still, even though I am a ridiculous 53 years old. Even though all I got was Covid.

Catherine Newman is the author of the forthcoming novel We All Want Impossible Things.