Before getting pregnant I’d looked forward to cravings. What kind of bizarre combinations of food would my body ask for in the middle of the night? I imagined pregnancy would have a similar effect to the miracle berries I’d read about in Adam Leith Gollner’s The Fruit Hunters—a berry that alters your perception of the food you’re eating, making lemons and vinegar sugary sweet. A few weeks into my pregnancy I sat down for dinner, took a forkful of chicken and realized that it didn’t taste right. Was it too dry? I took another experimental bite, but couldn’t muster the energy to keep eating and pushed it away. And then at breakfast, the thought of eggs—runny-yolked, soft, my favourite—made my stomach turn. I went out for Korean barbecue and the bowls of red raw meat waiting to be cooked on the grills in front of us were even more unappealing. Better a bowl of vegetarian bibimbap, hold the yolky egg, but without it to swirl around and bind the rice to the hot stone bowl, the meal was lackluster. Dejected, I realized that instead of cravings, I’d developed aversions.
In those early weeks of pregnancy it was a struggle to figure out which foods I could eat. Peanut butter toast, grilled cheese sandwiches and cereal were fine. While regular, honestly cooked chicken was off limits, McDonald’s Junior Chicken sandwiches provided a modicum of protein. Bananas were safe until I ate one and then immediately threw up in the closest public bathroom; the association lingered. It was a relief, then, when one by one foods regained their appeal and in celebration I made myself a solo dinner of soft scrambled eggs. I kept my hopes up for cravings, but they never quite materialized, and although there were some satisfying drive-out-of-my-way chocolate milkshakes and 3:00 a.m. peanut butter sandwiches, nothing tasted as transcendent as I’d hoped. But as the weeks ticked by I learned that my pregnancy, like most pregnancies, wasn’t going to unfold exactly according to a textbook and that the best course of action would be to just deal with things as they happened rather than anticipate them.
Though sometimes things were predictable. In my last month I was overcome with a maniacal desire to clean. Nesting, it turns out, is a real, intense urge. So I cleaned and I organized, and it seemed better to avoid cooking because of the traces it would leave behind—splotches on the now sparkling stovetop, crumbs on the counter, bowls and pots in the sink requiring another do-over. After I rearranged the cutlery tray and the pantry, they were simply too orderly, too neat to rifle through again. I knew that once the baby was born this level of cleanliness would be impossible to maintain, and that is probably the point of nesting: it’s one last chance of having absolute control over your environment, of getting things just right before they slowly, imperceptibly, spiraled away. It was maybe an exaggeration, but at the time, the baby’s imminent birth felt like an absolute deadline, the delineation between life switching from clean to messy, easy to hard. Either way, not cooking made sense—as my due date approached, people told my husband and me to take advantage of our free nights to eat out.
Go to restaurants, go to the movies, go on vacation. This was the advice given to us most frequently, as if none of these things would be possible post-baby. Rather than question it, we followed the advice gladly. For vacation we went to Charleston, South Carolina in September. We’d passed through the city years ago on a road trip and had always wanted to return, partially for the food (fluffy biscuits, sausage gravy, grits, seafood), partially for the beaches, which would still be welcoming at the tail end of summer. By the time we left for Charleston, I felt like I’d hit my stride in my pregnancy too. I was eating normally and I didn't feel exhausted all the time. I hadn't thrown up in weeks. At the last ultrasound we’d seen the baby in my belly, her round head, her spindly body, and felt reassured. So Charleston was a welcome break: we slept in, we went to those beaches, we ate out.
While the restaurant meals were all wonderful, the one I keep returning to wasn’t actually in a restaurant. We’d driven to Savannah for a day trip, but before heading back to Charleston we stopped at a seafood shop to pick up something to eat. We hadn’t had a Low Country Boil yet, one of South Carolina's well-known seafood dishes, and we’d heard that this shop did a good one. After a short wait the man at the counter handed over a sealed aluminum tray. It looked like a reasonable size until I held it and felt the heft of what was inside: a few pounds of shrimp, crab, sausage, corn and potatoes that had been seasoned and boiled together in one pot. It was too much food for only two of us, but what could we do other than put the tray in the car and drive somewhere to eat it? We went to Tybee Beach, which I remembered as being busy, a little touristy, but since it was now late afternoon and mid-September, the sprawling beach was mostly empty. We laid out the sheet we'd bought from Family Dollar as our picnic blanket, opened up the aluminum tray and started eating. It was all very messy—peeling slippery shrimp, wrestling crab legs. Plastic cutlery wasn’t much use so we used our hands and because we were concentrating too hard on making a dent into the pile of food we didn't speak much.
A few days earlier we’d bought a watermelon from a farm stand, but kept forgetting it in the rental car. It was on the backseat floor and whenever one of us would step too hard on the brake, the sound of it rolling around would alert us to its existence. It got riper and riper in the sun-warmed car until I finally remembered it that day at Tybee Beach. After my fill of the boil, I cut into the watermelon for dessert. It leaked a blood-red sweet syrup onto the sheet, and then, when we ate slices of it, onto our clothes, down our arms and chins.
When we were finally finished we threw out the remains—the shells, the food we simply couldn’t eat, the watermelon rinds. Seagulls shrieked in the distance and slowly circled the garbage bins. They knew it was their turn. Because we hadn’t brought enough napkins, we were a mess, but it was still warm out and the sun was bright, so we put on our bathing suits and went swimming in high tide. The water washed away the dinner stickiness and replaced it with ocean saltiness instead. Every so often a silvery fish would leap up out of the waves right in front of us. Pelicans flew low to the water as well, tracking those fish for their own dinner. Afterward we sat on the sheet until we dried off. We shook the sand off our feet before putting on our shoes, but it was impossible to get rid of all of it so I felt the grittiness against my soles as we walked to the car and then drove back to Charleston at dusk.
I thought of this meal during my nesting phase precisely because it had been such a sloppy one. I was compelled to clean, yes, but I reminded myself that it wasn’t such a big deal if I didn’t have the time to be so detailed later. I’d reassured myself many times throughout my pregnancy that it was okay if things weren’t textbook perfect, if I didn’t experience everything I thought I would or if something unexpected popped up—we would just deal with it, forge on. It would be the same after the baby came, I told myself, even more so since surely unpredictability would be a daily occurrence. But like that meal at the beach in South Carolina, it was often the messy things that I remembered more vividly, after all. The ad hoc cleanup done afterward was not always efficient, but it could still be good enough, and maybe even more than that, better than that. Maybe even kind of perfect.