I left my hotel in downtown Atlanta on Saturday morning and drove to Fernbank Museum. After a night of following trays of free wine from one reception room to the next at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual conference, I needed to decompress. I’d spent the evening without anyone to talk to, resting my hip against the polished oak rail of a hotel balcony, watching PhD students fan out their plumes of tweed and corduroy. It made me feel small, to be alone among so many people, so I left to be alone among fossils instead.
As I clicked across the natural history museum’s entryway tile, the first thing I saw was a stuffed weasel on a pedestal, flanked by her four kits, encircled by a laurel of fescue grass. When I reached her, I stopped. “What, like a weasel can’t live a meaningful, fulfilling life without being a mother?” I thought, smirking even as I lingered a little too long.
It had been one week since my long-term boyfriend, Mark, had confessed to wanting children and broken up with me. Since then, I’d felt stalked by motherhood: text updates from nine of my pregnant friends; an Instagram feed burdened by the bulging silhouettes of women I’d known in high school and college; and now this weasel, maternal even in death.
My friends had become parents in droves that year, and though it wasn’t exactly true that they’d deserted me, it felt that way. To conceal my hurt, I’d rehearsed my reaction to their pregnancy news—contorting my face into shapes that might, if you weren’t looking too closely, pass for excitement. It was the same expression I’d struggled to master, as a child, when relatives I saw once a year gave me baby dolls for Christmas. I forced my eyes to become rounder, my mouth to open in a smile that was almost aghast. When I got home, the dolls were forgotten, sinking to the bottom of huge, hairy piles of stuffed animals.
I outlined my position to Mark early in our relationship, and the reason I gave was simple: babies had never stirred feelings of tenderness or longing in me. On my best days, I found them expensive, demanding, isolating, and strange.
Mark said he was fine with this. It became clear that he might not be telling the truth, however, the night a friend brought her newborn to a birthday dinner. Mark stood up so quickly that the table shook. He held the baby eagerly, rocked her with ease, looked at her in a way that filled me with terror—like he wanted to take her home and smell her head and send her to private school. It took him another year to admit what I already knew.
As I moved deeper into the museum, to the center of an echoing brick atrium, I encountered a cast replica of an Argentinosaurus—a two-story memorial to extinction, surrounded by children swinging from handrails and scrambling past Do Not Climb signs. To gain distance, I followed a curved staircase around the dinosaur’s skeleton to a diorama of Georgia’s old-growth forests. The exhibit, “A Walk Through Time in Georgia,” was a channel of galleries meant to recreate Georgia’s natural history with painted swamps, taxidermied turkeys, and a soundtrack of chickadees playing on a loop. I already knew the story: nature’s one-way current of adrenaline and testosterone, whose tide has carried us, spattering and coughing, for eons. Survival as the highest good. A dusty shrine to the whole world’s urge to spawn.
The barrier islands gallery was last, and as I moved inside to see a case of seashells, a little boy ran out in front of me. Blond hair, chapped lips, no taller than my kneecaps—his feet slapped the floor in my direction, and I stopped, afraid I would topple him with my shins. Instead of passing me, he also stopped, steadied himself against my legs, and looked up at me. “Mommy?”
His dad scooped him up before I could respond. “Mommy’s in the bathroom,” he said. “That’s somebody else’s mommy.” Then they turned and walked toward the star gallery, leaving me frozen beside a row of bay scallops.
My mouth hung open. I wanted to call out, “Hey, pal. Christy Lynch is nobody else’s mommy! Why not somebody else’s CFO? Or somebody else’s gastroenterologist?” But I was too stunned to speak.
Instead, I ducked into a jellyfish exhibit and pressed my forehead against the glass. A silvery helix of tentacles floated by, and when I looked up, there was another, and another, and three more, pulsing sideways. I watched their graceful multiplication, blooming in all directions, and felt myself shrink. I stood alone, a smudge in the evolutionary template, swallowed whole by purple light.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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