She tells me after dinner as we’re walking home under a sun that refuses to set. Sweat streaks her shorn hair, snakes down the thin slope of her neck, and in spite of what she says, I want to stop right here on the hot summer sidewalk and take her narrow hips between my hands. Suck every salty drop. Well, I say instead, Shit.
She starts to cry. I have a sudden, fierce urge to slip my arm around her and draw her close, and I might if panic wasn’t rising to my already flushed face, if I wasn’t confused by the accompanying flurry of excitement in my abdomen. Are you sure? I say.
I should know better than to ask. She’s probably taken a half a dozen tests by now. This isn’t my fault, she sobs, and I rise to the occasion, take her hand in my own and hush and coo her all the way back to the house.
We end up in Joel’s studio. She lets me slip the strap of her tank from her shoulder, cup one small breast. This is weird, she whispers as I wriggle her shorts down around her ankles. I don’t know what she means, if she’s talking about the fact that we’re surrounded by Joel’s half-finished paintings or if she’s talking about the baby. I rest a surreptitious hand on her belly, but she knows what I’m doing even if I don’t, and she draws the line when I move my mouth to her navel.
By the time Joel gets home, she’s asleep. He’s vague about where he’s been, but I have a pretty good idea. At this point, I just wish he’d own up to it. Where’s Elisa? he asks, taking a stray paintbrush between his fingers, and when I tell him she’s gone to bed, he looks at me, quick and sly. No, I say, knowing what he’s thinking, Not now. Why not? he asks. Can’t you give it a rest for one fucking night? I ask. She doesn’t care, James, he says, and I tell him that tonight, I care. He pouts, sucking on the end of his brush like it’s the tit of Mother Earth itself. What about you? he finally asks. No fucking way, I say, but he whines so much that I give in.
Chloe slips her shoes from her swollen feet every time she waddles back to the kitchen. She’s old, thirty at least, with a nose ring and a tattoo of a chain around her neck, which does nothing for me. Fuck me, she sighs, leaning against the counter and keeping one eye on the front in case our manager’s watching. I gaze at her protruding belly with newfound interest. I’ve been dreaming of the baby every night for the past week. Floating, imperceptible, cloaked in the quiet dark. I wake with a thrill then wait for anxiety’s grip as morning light illuminates my bedroom: The computer, the makeshift bookshelves. Beside me, Elisa sleeps like a mental patient, blond hair erratic on the pillow, mouth scrunched. Joel’s drawings don’t do her justice.
Chloe catches me staring, and I blush then gesture stupidly at her stomach. You’re big, I blurt. She rolls her eyes as the cooks snicker. You really know how to make a girl feel pretty, college boy, she says. I mumble my apologies, casting a desperate eye over the counter to see if my enchiladas are almost up. With my attention diverted, she grabs my hand. I try to squirm away, but she presses my palm flat against her stomach, smirking when my eyes widen. You try growing one of these, she says, And we’ll see who’s big.
Beneath my hand, her baby roils.
After work, I take a shower then stand sideways in front of the mirror. Closing my eyes, I spread my fingers below my navel, trying to imagine something tiny in there, growing in spite of what I think. I spread my feet, throw my hips out like Chloe does. Take a few tentative steps forward.
What the hell are you doing? Joel asks, appearing in the doorway. Don’t you knock? I say, springing back. You’re the one who left the door open, he tells me. Raising his arms, he grabs the top of the doorjamb, his tee shirt crawling above his belly. He’s in better shape than I am, could fuck any girl he wanted. I caught him with Paul last spring.
So where’s Elisa? he asks. I shrug. You working again tonight? he wants to know, and I nod; I’ve been working splits all summer. Maybe when you get home then, he allows. I don’t think so, I tell him, but he just grins.
Three o’clock in the morning and he still has me sprawled across the couch. He’s using charcoal, wipes his fingers on his tee shirt like a preschooler. He doesn’t look at me the way he looked at Paul.
I’m allowed to move a little; I can watch TV, read a book. Instead, I think about earlier, about my hand on Chloe’s stomach. About the way her baby rose up to meet me.
Crouched on the floor five feet away, Joel scrawls across sheet after sheet of paper. He didn’t work for a long time after his mom died. Now concentration furrows his brow, and he glances up at me then scowls back down at the paper in front of him. Can you… ? he asks, and without bothering to finish his question, he takes hold of my hip and forces it in his direction. After a while, my thigh starts to cramp.
When he’s finished, he shows me what he’s done. I’m bulbous, my arms and legs puffy, my stomach swollen to twice its normal size. Now that he’s finished he keeps his distance, doesn’t quite meet my eye. I don’t know, he mumbles, shrugging, his fingers smudged with charcoal, You looked kind of full.
She tells me what she wants the following afternoon in between shifts. We’re sitting in the swing on the front porch. I haven’t showered, and every time I move, I catch a whiff of fajitas and refried beans. The day’s hot, devoid of breeze. I feel like I’m rotting in my clothes.
We can’t, she claims. We’re too young; we’re not ready. We don’t have the money. I agree with every one of her excuses. Then why are you looking at me like that? she says. She tells me she feels trapped. She has dreams that she’s being choked by the umbilical cord. I mean what are we supposed to do, James? she says, Get married and live happily ever after? We don’t have to get married, I say, and she looks at me the way Chloe did yesterday: You sure know how to make a girl feel special. Or we could, I amend hastily, and she paints a pathetic little picture for me of the two of us raising a baby right here in this decrepit house in Austin on what I make at the restaurant. I could quit school, I tell her, I could get a better job. And Joel could be our nanny, she snaps.
I hook the arch of my foot on the worn seat of the swing without looking at her. But I can see her from the corner of my eye, gnawing away at her fingernails. I sneak a peek at her stomach, picture the baby spinning in the black. Look, I finally say, I don’t think I’m ready to make a decision here. Well, what are we supposed to do, James? she says, Let it keep growing while we try to figure this out?
That seems like a good plan to me, but she shakes her head. No, she says, No. She reaches for me then thinks better of it and curls her hand into a tight little fist. I made an appointment, she says.
The distance between us swells.
I smoke the better part of a pack of Joel’s Marlboros on the back porch the following afternoon. What’s up? he asks, appearing behind me as I light another, and I shrug. He lowers himself to the top step, careful not to mention the overflowing ashtray at my feet. I watch as he fishes in the pack and extricates the last cigarette. So where’s Elisa? he says.
My moan rises like something primal. Whoa, he says, startled, but I bury my face in my hands and bawl for everything I’m about to lose. Regret plants its seed deep in my gut; I know it will spiral outward, that it won’t wither until I do. Everything in my life will stem from this one decision, which isn’t even mine to make. I tell him Elisa’s plan; he cocks his head at the uncertainty in my voice. I don’t think I have a choice, I say.
Three days later, hunched in the orange plastic chair that cups my sweaty ass, I ache for a cigarette. Elisa’s behind closed doors, and I lean over my knees, my head in my hands. They won’t let me back there again, not since I passed out, a slip for which Elisa will never forgive me. I’d locked my knees at the sound of the aspirator, crumpled to the floor as I heard them suck the baby from the dark. I came to somewhere else and was ushered to the waiting room where I’ve been avoiding the smoldering stares of the women who surround me. They know why I’m here.
When Elisa finally appears, I take her outside without speaking. The air in my shitty car boils. I unroll the windows to release the heat, turn on the air conditioner full-blast. Halfway to her apartment, she tells me we’re through. She says the words as if I didn’t already know. As if I would want it any other way.
That night I let Joel get me drunk. I’d burst into tears the second I saw him, fell into his arms and sobbed like a newborn until he finally extricated himself and reached for the tequila. She doesn’t want to see me anymore! I wail because even in my grief I can’t put a name to what I’ve done. But he knows better, and when I pass out, he helps me into bed.
I let him draw me at the end of the summer just before school starts. I’ve only seen Elisa once across a crowded bar. What’re you using? I ask after he has me arranged in his studio. Pastel board, he says, offering it to me, and I stroke it with tentative fingers. It’s gritty like sandpaper, he explains, Holds the chalk better.
He starts with charcoal, laboring with the board at one angle then another. His fingers fly, fast and furious. I stare into the sun that pours through the windows, doing my best not to calculate: The age of Chloe’s baby, the number of weeks Elisa would be pregnant, the number of months until she’d deliver. The years I have ahead of me. Squinting in the glare, I wonder what in my life will mean as much to me as art matters to Joel. I wonder if I’ll get another chance.
Okay, he finally says, and I take a cautious look.
There I am, all angles, fragmented across the board. He’s sketched me several times, accentuated the one he liked best. Pieces of his lesser attempts appear in the most unlikely places: The faint outline of an arm beside my head, my face reflected in my thigh. I hate what I see. I hate that he’s this fucking good.
Hang on, he’s murmuring, Hang on. I hold my pose and then at his coaxing, his eyes. He takes a piece of chalk between his fingers, a smoky purple that prophesies the night.
Then he colors me in.
Copyright © 2009 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved