“Kat, I didn’t know you were pregnant!”

She said it with such joy and enthusiasm, you could tell she was genuinely happy for me. She admired me and thought I was fabulous; having kids would be fabulous, too.

I stole a glance at the 40-year-old woman sitting next to her, a new friend I’d made in the last few days as we were carted around the Dominican Republic to view resorts and excursions where we could send tourists. She had an understanding look in her eyes, wondering what I would do next.

“I’m not,” I replied. “It’s old age. And I’m embracing it.”

The woman who’d blurted out her congratulatory exclamation was mortified, probably more than I was. She was also probably 15 years my junior and had just learned that you never comment on a woman’s belly and whether or not it carries a child inside of it. I felt bad for her in that moment, that she’d just embarrassed herself in front of someone she admired. 

But I also felt bad for me, and as the bus crawled toward the club where we were going to finish our last night in paradise, I tried not to cry. It was a stark contrast from 10 minutes before, when I’d been holding a microphone, singing Whitney Houston to a crowd of enthralled guests and new friends, impressive enough that the hired singer and her piano accompanist asked me to stay for a duet as an encore. And now I was staring out at the dark beyond my window, trying not to let a one-off comment from a near stranger get to me.

When I was in college, my roommate Karen and I named our stomachs. It was mostly a joke, but also partially to address the fact that we had no idea what was going on inside of them. Karen’s stomach, Gilda, was causing her some trouble in those years. My stomach, Hildegard, was just chatty.

I named her Hildegard after a running joke from my Italian class, where a Swiss woman introduced herself as, “Hildegard. Hildegard Schneider.” It was just the name that was on my mind.

Over the years, I’ve talked to Hildegard quite often to ask what, exactly, it is she thinks she’s doing. I’ve always had “good bowel sounds” (as one doctor boyfriend put it), with plenty of noise and activity. In my 30s, I developed a stomach ulcer from a toxic combo of NSAIDS, coffee, and alcohol. I thought I was having a heart attack the first time I felt it. But no, it was just Hildegard, letting me know we were getting older.

I watched Wanda Sykes’s stand up special “Not Normal” with my fiancé last week. I was delighted to see her talk about her paunch, named Ethel, which had developed during menopause. I laughed at how she described Ethel as having a mind of her own, just like Hildegard. Ethel was taking over her body, Wanda explained. I thought, “Aha, this is normal.”

Just like Ethel (although perhaps a few years earlier for me than for Wanda), Hildegard has asserted herself as her own being. No longer content to chatter between meals or pain me when I’ve had too much vodka, she has taken over my body. She is an ever-present being sitting in front of me, bulging out more if I eat or drink anything, and making me, yes, look pregnant after a couple of drinks. She is my constant companion, making me an unwitting participant in the VBO movement as well as extremely self-conscious. I glance at her when I walk past reflective windows on my morning jaunts with the dog. I suck her in for photos, which makes me look even weirder, like my shoulders are too heavy. I hide her behind my napkin at dinner. I am ashamed of her, even though she is probably perfectly normal. 

In the past month, I’ve started taking a new antidepressant. It’s the third one this year for me, and it seems to be working. I’ve seen the sun rise more often in the past three weeks than I have in several years, not because I’ve stayed up all night, but because I’m just waking up. Finally. I’m inspired to write for the first time in I don’t know how long. I can work a full day without needing to nap for three hours. I’ve been running three times a week. I’ve been able to stay up past 10pm and I get up and walk the dog in the morning. I feel like me again.

But I’m also feeling things more. I’m crying a lot. Not inappropriately, but more than I have been able to since I’ve started taking antidepressants this round. I cry at sad scenes in movies. I cry at news of injustices committed against innocent people. I cry during meditations where the recorded voice is telling me to heal.

During the most recent meditation, I felt my hand alight on Hildegard. And I thought about where she came from.

She’s living proof of my grief and my need to feel validated. She’s the wine I turned to after the death of my best friend and my college boyfriend because there was no one to talk to about my sufferings. She’s the food I overate for comfort because I moved to a new city and felt completely alone. She’s the entire box of mac n cheese I ate in the dark watching “Bojack Horseman” when depression first started and I felt I had nowhere to turn. She’s the beer I drank to avoid having to think about things. She’s my genetic nature, too, a reminder that I belong to a line of women who gain weight in our middles when things aren’t going right. She’s perfectly normal, given my situation. 

She’s a guard against an ingrained fear of the unknown future. She’s a stockpile against starvation, the inevitable foe of human existence. She’s a wealth of nutrition in a desert caused by fight or flight. She’s built of cortisol, excess calories, and caution. 

I patted her gently and thanked her for being there for me. I thanked her for being proof that I have needs that I have to address. And I cried as a way to start addressing them, a very productive cry, and certainly not my last.

A week later, I thought of all the things I could have said to the young woman who was so ecstatic I was pregnant.

“Kat, I didn’t know you were pregnant!”
“Neither did I!”

“Kat, I didn’t know you were pregnant!”
“Oh shit, is the alien back? Dammit!”

“Kat, I didn’t know you were pregnant!”
“Shhh, neither does my doctor, she’d be pissed at how much I’m drinking.”

“Kat, I didn’t know you were pregnant!”
“I’m not. That’s just Hildegard. She has her own ideas about things and I just have to let her do them her way.” 

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