by Vivian Wakefield
Alone here, below the overhang, incessant droppings from icicles barely miss me, falling against my black slip-ons instead. I like to take my cig breaks out here, even when it’s this bitter out. As I exhale, the mix of smoke and cold air makes my breaths appear comical. Head buzzing, I lean back, letting my head rest against the rough brick wall. Across the paved walkway, one of the residents–Ruth, I remember the other staff calling her–is reading on one of those benches. The ones with the name of some sucker who donated to ShadyHills, engraved onto shiny plaques nobody cares to look at. She is lost in a bundle of sweaters, walker at hand, staring at me over the edge of her paperback. I wait for the usual judgment against my smoking, but she isn’t looking at my hands. Oh right, the belly.
When I dress in the mornings now, I turn away from that full-length mirror the previous tenant squeezed onto the cramped bedroom wall, casting my thoughts far from the oversized t-shirt I pull over stretch marks. Sometimes it moves, shifting inside me, reminding me of its presence, forcing me to acknowledge it. Until I turn on Bravo. Or stare blankly into the sea of dishes in my sink. Tear my wet brush through what Sophia at Super Cuts insisted is not a mullet. Blast Paramore, standing in my underwear, while I watch my neighbor try to convince his dog to take a shit. Or prod at my low-fat yogurt with a plastic butter knife in the bath. Some days I’ll do anything to avoid the baby.
After reaching the end of my cigarette, I let it fall, putting out the feeble light with the toe of my shoe. Ruth doesn’t purse her lips at this, as I’ve seen other residents do. She’s gone back to her book and looks perfectly at peace with herself. What is an old lady doing reading in the cold anyway? As I step toward her, the falling water drops under my worn out hoodie and tacky ShadyHills polo, causing me to shudder with my next step which creates a kind of clumsy shuffle. Ruth looks up.
“It…It’s really cold out today, want me to help you get back inside, ma’am?” I ask.
“No, that’s okay dear, the cold’s good company.”
Old people are strange. I’ve had to accept this fact during my few months of working here.
“You sure you’re not too chilly?” I try again, but she has already returned to her book. I’m about to walk back inside to warm up, when Ruth speaks again.
“I used to live in Michigan, with my husband, Ed. Lost him years ago, but winter always reminds me of our time together up north. I liked to read on the freezing docks and wait for him to come home.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I reply, not knowing what else to say.
“Oh that’s okay dear, it was a long time ago. I’m not lonely anymore, I have my books.” She chuckles, then pauses for a moment.
“How far along are you?” Her voice is gentle, not the demeaning tone I’m used to.
I get asked on the bus, in the checkout line, at the bank, you name it. It’s like people can’t help it. Usually I pretend I’m thrilled, make up some name and gender just to get them to walk away. But some part of me just can’t lie to this sweet old lady.
“Eighteen weeks…I think. I’m not sure exactly.” Before I can stop myself the rest of my words come spilling out. “I know I should have quit. I tried to last year, but I was so busy and that idiot left me and the nic gum tasted so awful and…and I don’t want it.”
Ruth sets her book down beside her on the bench and stares up at me with her sunken gray eyes.
I continue, “my mother is so traditional, ‘get married, have kids, settle down’. I never even wanted kids, and I like living alone. I’m used to it…I can take care of myself.”
“Do you have other family besides your mum?”
“Not really,” I say roughly. She has picked at a nerve now. I start to turn away.
A bit of wind picks up. I wrap my arms around my chest, feeling the several rings I wear rest cold against my shoulders through the thin sweatshirt.
“Are you enough for yourself?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone needs someone, something, to be there for them.” She points at the building to her right, where I can just barely make out figures moving about in the ‘socials room’ window. “Harry has his son and cute little granddaughter who visit him every Sunday. Nana still plays Mahjong every waking hour. Leah has her kitties. Your kind boss, Stephanie, has her girlfriend. And I have my books. A baby could be there for you.”
A slobbering, screaming infant is not going to take care of me, I think.
“Yeah…I don’t think so,” I say, shaking my head and rushing inside before she can continue her lecture.
The rest of my workday is filled with blissfully mindless tasks. Fill the ice machine. Wipe down the dozen or so round tables in the dining room and reset them for tomorrow. Take the dirty linens down to the basement in that rickety old service elevator many of my coworkers like to joke is haunted by a particularly nasty resident who died last year. Reassure sweet, stuttery, Mrs. Peters that there is no mouse under her bed, as I do every weekday. Sometimes I wonder if she even sleeps when I’m not here.
Back in my apartment, I prop myself up on the cheap countertop and lay in wait for my frozen mac and cheese to finish heating. Impatient, I pry open family size Cheetos and lick the dust from each of my fingers, then bite my nails down to their usual stubs for good measure. The downstairs tenants must be having a get together, because loud chatter and folk music begin whistling up through the floorboards. Quite inconsiderate of them to have a party so late. I wish I cared enough to march downstairs and tell them to knock it off. Music used to fill my walls too. Tunes he tried to work through till my head hurt. He’d sit me down with an Advil saying, “Lina Bean, if your head were any more sensitive, it’d fall right off when I start strumming.” Used to make me laugh. Now I can’t picture his face. Never talked about kids, he was always busy with shows. He wasn’t special, just another Jason, or Jackson, or Josh. Couldn’t find a reason to tell him after he left.
After I exhaust my list of ways to kill time, I crawl into bed and tangle myself in several of the fleece blankets my mother kept buying me after she found out. “I remember when I was pregnant, I used to get so cold at night that your father had to wrap me in his winter coat. Oh and you’re even thinner than I was. Make sure you keep these by your bed…” I was always a scrawny kid. I think she’s a bit relieved, now that I’ve started showing.
Just as I’m about to drift off, it moves again, thumping on my bladder, keeping me awake, like an annoying roommate who leaves the lights on after coming home.
The next morning, I wake up in a rush. I’m already dragging on my khakis with one hand, brushing teeth with the other, when I see under the cracks on my phone screen that it’s Saturday. Shit. I drop my toothbrush in the cluttered sink and slump onto the stained couch. With my knees curled up against my stomach, hours slip away into the TV screen.
Afternoon light is creeping onto the scratched wooden floor by the time I drag myself up to get something to eat. I fill a bowl with a medley of Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Kix, and honey, then grab a gallon of milk from the fridge. Vaguely wondering what’s happened to the cap, I settle myself back down in front of some old MTV show, where a sniffling blonde woman in a tight fit wedding dress is yelling at her boyfriend. I pour milk over my sugary concoction. It splashes, filling the bowl to the very top, then over. But I keep pouring. I just sit there watching as milk and cereal flood the coffee table and spill out across the floor. A floating shriveled up marshmallow that I guess was supposed to look like a rainbow, clings to the single sock I wear. I stand up, swaying. Suddenly I’m on the bathroom floor on my hands and knees, staring into the pink floral tile, gagging.
“Nice try. But there’s nothing to come back up,” I laugh unevenly. I don’t know when I started crying, but the heaving wails don’t help with my nausea. “How would I take care of a baby in this mess? …I’m a mess, Mom.”
I try to sit up off the floor to rest my back against the wall by the toilet, but the movement causes another lurch in my stomach. “Just…make it stop!” And now I’m screaming this. Loud. So loud I hope the neighbors hear me.
Finally, when the heaving stops, I shakily get to my feet and pause for a moment in front of the mirror. My short dark hair is clinging to my forehead with sweat, yesterday’s makeup smeared onto colorless cheeks. I can hear her, taste the cigarette smoke on her breath, that day she caught me wearing mascara for the first time… “Don’t let the boys catch you wearing that shit. I swear on the Lord, Lina, if you start up this early you won’t finish school.” I was still in middle school then, back before she actually cared about church.
I stumble over to the kitchen and fill a glass with water. I press it to my lips but the water tastes sour in my dry mouth. I can’t stay here. In a daze, I pull on a coat, and slip my half bare feet into my boots. I watch myself, as if I am still behind the TV screen, unlock the door and descend the back steps. I’m out on my driveway, remaining snow glinting from the sunset. My cold hands on the steering wheel, turning left at the light by the train station. Pulling onto Stirling drive, with its watch for children signs, and cracked sidewalk that I learned to ride a bike on… “Can’t you even do this by yourself? I have things to do, too, you know! It’s just a scratch, Lina, suck it up!”
She lets me in the house after the first knock.
“Oh, hi, honey! How good to see you- my goodness! you look dreadful. What is that all over your face?” She points her painted nails at me.
I’m puzzled for a moment before I remember the smudged mascara. “It’s just makeup.”
“Oh, you gave me quite a fright there. I just finished cooking, do you want to stay for
“No, that’s okay, Mom. I think… I need to talk to you for a minute.”
I step inside. Her apartment smells like baked goods gone bad. Tupperwares full of old cookies from forgotten church bake sales litter the kitchen counter next to a steaming pot roast.
“What did you want, sweetheart?” She asks warmly. “I’ve got time, I’m just waiting for your father to come home,” she says, as she sits down in a recliner and picks up a tangle of yarn and knitting needles.
My voice comes out scratchy, “Mom…I don’t think I can keep it.”
“Sorry, Lina, what was that?”
“The baby. I can’t…I can’t keep it.”
Her face falls. She raises the knitting in her lap, a torn expression on her lips. Attached to one of the needles, hangs a tiny purple bootie.
“Caroline, honey, shouldn’t you think about this more before jumping to adoption?”
“No, you don’t get it. I d-don’t want to be pregnant anymore.” I don’t dare look at her face. “I wanted to get rid of it from the beginning, you’re the one who convinced me not to.”
“I don’t support murder,” she says matter-of-factly, in that tone her and her friends like to use.
“It’s not up to you,” I say, and for the first time, I fully believe it.
“Is this about money? Because the church ladies and I put something together for you. We knew you must be worrying about paying for diapers and everything… We were gonna wait for the shower to give this to you, but maybe you should hold onto it now instead.” She reaches into her purse and pulls out an envelope and hands it to me. “For Caroline” is scrawled in loopy handwriting
“Thank you for doing that, but-” she cuts me off.
“And your Father and I will help out when you need it. It’ll be good to have a kid running around in that lonely apartment of yours. You’ll see, once you have the baby, you’ll find your role.
“But I just can’t, Mom. I can’t keep it. Any of it,” I say, setting the envelope down on the counter.
“You get pregnant, you get a baby. That’s how it works.” Her voice is less calm than before.
“I don’t think I can. This was never what I wanted.”
“Oh, yeah?” She gets up from her chair, the knitting slides onto an old tattered rug. “Well, life doesn’t always give you what you want, Caroline!” She is shouting now, screaming at me like she used to when I was little.
She steps closer. “I didn’t want to keep you either! But I was never as self centered as you!” I see her hand raise in an all too familiar motion.
I stumble back, my tired body trembling. I can feel her hands again, that time I tread on her foot by mistake in the grocery store parking lot and she pushed me away, my tiny knees scraping on concrete. Or when she dragged me by my hair, pleading and crying, to summer camp and left me there weeks longer than she said she would. She was always finding reasons to yell at me, to distance herself…
“Guess I won’t make the same mistake, then.”
Without another word, I turn and walk away, retrieving the envelope on my way out. I pull hard on the door and hear it slam behind me, but I don’t look back.
I find myself at the top of the stairs, back at my apartment again. Slowly, I begin to put the pieces of my life back together. I start with the cereal, mopping spoiled milk and soggy bits off the floor. I pick laundry up from the bedroom carpet, where it has been living in a heap in one corner longer than I can remember. Then I carefully wash and dry each dish I’ve neglected these past months. I don’t stop there, though. I clean out the fridge, throwing most of its contents out in the process. I painstakingly organize every inch of my bedroom, discarding old trinkets, and displaying treasures. I scrub at a particularly revolting spot on the shower tile until my stubby nails are chipped and peeling. But still I carry on, because once I have started, it feels so good to keep cleaning up the mess I put myself in.
The day I drive to the clinic is warm, the air misty with melted snow. I had saved enough money for the procedure some time ago, before I had told anyone. My mother’s money still sits in the glove compartment. I feel in some way that she owed me for all the resentment and abuse she inflicted on my younger self. But this procedure, I want to pay without her money. It’s faster than I expected it to be, considering how far along I was. Before I know it, I’m heading back to my now spotless apartment. The nurse said to take it easy for the next week. So, I heat up a hot pack, camp out on the couch, and watch my old favorite movies. I take off work the next couple days. It’s strange, I feel elated, like dancing, or popping open a bottle of fine champagne, only to find I have no one to celebrate with.
I’m on my way to work to pick up last week’s paycheck, when I hear Ruth in my head: “Everyone needs someone.” I turn into the empty parking lot, grab Mom’s envelope, and walk into the musty animal shelter I drive by every day for work but have never bothered to visit. Dozens of crates stand empty under the fluorescent lights. It seems there aren’t many dogs here today. One large crate holds a litter of yipping black and white puppies climbing over each other. Next to them, is a smaller crate with an older, lanky, gray dog who is watching me reproachfully from the back of her cage. I sink down to my knees and reach a hand out to her. Tail wagging at her ankles, she moves closer, then gently licks my fingers through the bars. “Hi, sweety…” Her little blue eyes stare up at me innocently, with the kind of look I used to give my mother as a child, begging for attention. “…Sweetpea.”
I’ll have to tell Ruth about her, I think. As Sweetpea and I head home, together.