We’re having the same argument before my sister and her kids come over for a barbecue. I’m running out of reasons he hasn’t heard before, so I tell him, “This morning I saw a woman at Stop & Shop with a bullet on her key chain.”
He doesn’t get it. He looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind, and maybe I have. Our logic is not the same. I talk about soul-searching, global warming, humanity. Rick wants me to say we don’t have enough money, so he can get a second job. He wants me to say our apartment is too small, so he can begin searching for a house.
As we wait for Andrea and the kids, I pick up my pill dispenser to find I’ve already taken that day’s pill. That’s how I keep track of the days, watching my pills change from white to peach to pink to blue.
Rick doesn’t understand subtleties, the things you feel but can’t explain. He doesn’t notice when I leave him and Andrea and the kids at the table outside and watch them from the kitchen. I take my sketch pad out and draw what I see, my perspective a little off, the image on paper showing everything farther away than it really is.
The details emerge, though: my sister’s thin hair, blowing slightly in a warm breeze, and the two smaller heads of her daughters, who both ended up with their father’s thick, curly hair. Rick leans across the table, saying something that makes the girls laugh. An electrician, he wears the same thing on weekends that he wears all week—worn old jeans and T-shirts.
He has a jacket with his company’s logo on it, and he wears this, too, for all occasions. My best friend, Renee, teased him about it when they first met. “Ooh, a man in uniform,” she sighed. She pretended to swoon over the jacket. “Any friends at work you can set me up with?” she said. “I’ve got to date this jacket.”
I never liked the jacket and that night had tried to convince Rick to leave it at home. But he had a habit of doing that—of changing my mind about things.
Sometimes I wonder whether Rick’s rush to start a family is because he suspects I’m attracted to one of my colleagues. Robert is a lawyer in the firm where I’m a paralegal. I’ve worked there for six months; I don’t know him well and am not even sure what I like about him. Perhaps it’s that he’s so different from Rick. The fabric of his uniform—business suits, silk ties—feels soft beneath my fingers. Not that I’ve ever touched him. But sometimes I stroke the shoulders of his coat when he’s left it over the back of a chair in the conference room.
Robert’s not married—he doesn’t wear a ring, anyhow—but he does have pictures of a child in his office—a golden-haired little girl, clearly his daughter, judging from the crayon-scrawled Father’s Day card in a frame on his desk. I’ve never seen her before, nor his wife, so I imagine he’s divorced and his wife has custody.
It’s all imagined—almost everything I know about him. When we do work together, we’re professional and polite, though all the while I picture myself pulling loose his tie, unbuttoning his shirt.
The only reading material in my ob-gyn’s office is Parents magazine and, oddly, Seventeen. I flip through Seventeen, skimming the articles on acne treatments and prom dresses, and try to remember when I thought those things were important.
During the examination, I ask, “Which would be easier, a vasectomy for Rick or me getting my tubes tied?”
She gives me a strange look. “You’re twenty-eight years old. It’s a little early for that, isn’t it?”
“I mean if we decide not to have kids. Or whatever.”
“Women who don’t have children are at greater risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” she tells me. I look up, but I can see only the brown of her hair over the gown between my legs.
She straightens. “Also,” she says, “if you have a baby before you’re thirty-five, you’ll reduce your risk of breast cancer and uterine cancer.”
“I see.” I remove my feet from the stirrups and sit up, gathering the paper gown tightly around me. I watch her write me a new prescription.
After he graduated high school, Rick worked as an EMT in New Jersey. The year we met, on New Year’s Eve, he told a story. “These kids were coming home from a party, probably drunk, not wearing seatbelts,” he told a group of us, still high a couple hours past midnight. “They hit a tree, heads went right into the windshield. We show up, no one’s there. Place is a disaster area. Somehow they survived and fled the scene—and they left all these body parts behind. Seriously, it was bad. So I go to the medical center, and there they are. They said, ‘How’d you find us?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I said, ‘I’ve got your left nostril right here. I’ve got a piece of your earlobe.’”
By our fourth New Year’s Eve together, I never wanted to hear the story again, but it had become his ritual to tell it. But he didn’t tell the story last year, because of Renee. I never thought I’d miss it, but now I do.
“But what will you do,” Andrea asks, “if you don’t have a family?”
I shrug and don’t answer, watching my nieces run up the ladder in the playground. I’m thinking: I will paint. I will finish college. I will go to law school.
“I’d be so lonely without the kids,” my sister continues. The girls begin to shriek as they slip down the wide metal slide. “You get to the point where you just need more in life—more than work and marriage, you know?”
“You’re right about that,” I say, and stop there. My younger sister is far more selfless than I could ever be: she raises her kids and works part-time so she can better afford what they want and need. I went to college for one year, wanting to study art, then dropped out and ended up working in law firms because that’s what pays. Having a child now would feel like replacing one unwanted career with another.
I study all the children in the park, trying to picture any one of them as my own. When I paint the next morning, my flowers resemble their faces—the flushed, red-haired girl in my roses; the plump, round-faced boy in my sunflowers.
When Robert calls me into his office, I leave the door open and sit at one of the chairs near his desk. I glance at the photo of his daughter, then look around for other pictures. But nothing has changed since the last time I was here.
I watch his mouth move as he explains that he wants me to prepare a witness for next week’s trial. He hands me a file, stretching his arm across the desk. As I get up to leave, I ask him what his daughter’s name is. He looks startled but replies: “Annie.” Then the phone rings, and he turns away.
One night last year, Renee came to our apartment for videos, manicures, and jug wine. Rick and her husband were at a bachelor party, and she and I had the place to ourselves.
She hadn’t wanted any wine, even when I said she could get as drunk as she wanted and spend the night. Still she demurred.
“What’s going on?” I sat next to her at the kitchen table.
“I’m pregnant,” she whispered.
I hugged her, too surprised to speak. I had no idea they were trying. And I hate to admit even now that my first thoughts were about how things would change between us: no more happy hours, no more girls’ weekends. I would be replaced by the baby, by other moms who would become closer friends.
“That’s incredible news,” I finally said. “I’m so happy for you.”
I kept my wine glass full and drank enough for both of us that night. Later, I sliced open my finger as I used a kitchen knife to open a stubborn bag of popcorn. It made me feel clumsy, old, inadequate. “Good thing I’m not the one who’s pregnant,” I joked, holding my finger under cold water. “Imagine me with a child.” My finger bled relentlessly.
Renee left around midnight. She never made it home. A drunk driver crossed into her lane and hit her head on.
Her husband never mentioned the baby, and neither did I. And now, a year later, as I find myself wanting to talk about it, I can’t. It feels too late.
I remember the cut on my finger healing too quickly. On the day of her funeral, I scratched the scab open, making it raw again.
I walk into Robert’s office with a brief—the door is partway open, and I push it further to find him leaning over his desk, a hand over his eyes. He doesn’t seem to notice me, so I walk over, wondering if he has a headache and whether I have any aspirin in my desk.
As I stand next to him, I hear a sniffled inhalation and see that one of the photos of his daughter is on the desk, near his hand. I’m not sure what to do, whether he even realizes I’m there. I reach out and touch his shoulder. He flinches a little but doesn’t move. I move my hand to the skin at the back of his neck. It’s cool and a little moist, his hair soft. I rest my hand there, thinking about how often I’d imagined touching him like this and how different I thought it would be.
After a moment, I step away, then turn toward the door. I pause, then slip out, pulling the door until it’s nearly closed.
He’s in court for the next few days, and I don’t see him until the end of the week. He comes into the office and pauses near my desk. It’s lunchtime, and no one else is around. “About the other day—” he begins.
“No need to explain,” I say.
“It’s Annie,” he says.
“Is she okay?”
He looks at me for a long moment. Then he says, “Annie’s dead. You didn’t know?”
I can only shake my head slowly, stunned.
“Leukemia. It was a year ago that day.”
I raise my hand to my mouth, unable to speak.
“I keep thinking it’ll get easier,” he says.
When I meet my mother for lunch, she pulls out her pocket calendar before we sit down. She reminds me of Andrea’s older daughter’s school play, coming up in a week. I dutifully jot it down.
“And she just signed them up for soccer,” my mother adds. “I’ll get you a game schedule.”
My mother lives for her granddaughters. She insists we gather at Andrea’s house for holidays and other family occasions, because she claims it’s easier on the children. I asked Andrea once if it bothered her, if she felt our mother was perhaps a little obsessed. Andrea laughed. She said, “Why do you think I’m dying for you to have kids?”
We order salads, and I wait for one of my mother’s usual lectures. This time, she surprises me.
“I remember the moment you were born like it was yesterday,” she says. “It was so scary, you being the first. No book or advice or instructions can prepare you for childbirth. And back then, fathers didn’t stay with you like they do now. I felt completely alone.”
She takes a sip of iced tea. “But you want to know something, honey? The first person I wanted to see in the delivery room wasn’t your father. I wanted to see my mother. Because the moment you become a mother, your own mother becomes the most beautiful, amazing, important person in the world. Suddenly you understand exactly what she went through for you.” She sighs and reaches across the table. She takes my hand. “I just don’t want you to go through your whole life without knowing that feeling.”
“How did you get this scar?” Robert asks, holding my hand to his lips. We’re lying in his bed, the sheets loosely draped over our bare skin. His tongue on my finger sends a shiver through me.
“Just a cut,” I say.
He lowers my hand and looks at me. “Seems worse than that.”
“I cut it accidentally, the night Renee died,” I say. “It scarred because I kept picking at it. I couldn’t stop.”
He threads his fingers through mine and lets our hands drop onto his chest. “For me, it was a juice box,” he says. “You know, those little portable drinks? It was the last thing she touched at home, before we had to take her back to the hospital. I still have it.”
We lie in silence for a while. Robert lives alone; he rented an apartment when he and his wife separated, about six months after Annie died. “You didn’t want to have another baby?” I asked him earlier, over drinks, after we’d left the office together.
He shook his head. “She thought she did,” he said, “but it seemed a knee-jerk reaction to me. She thought it would help. I knew it wouldn’t.”
I wish I could spend the night with him, but it’s already so late I don’t know what I’ll tell Rick. “I better go.”
I sit up. The sheet falls from my shoulder, down to my lap, exposing me entirely. His eyes don’t trace my body, the way I expect a new lover’s would; instead, they look into my own, as if gazing through a window of shared grief.
I’ve considered leaving Rick. I’ve envisioned the conversation, the packing, the moving, the divorce, the aftermath. It would take so little, just a few words, to set it all into motion. But I can’t do it.
I’ve tried to picture a life with Robert, but he lives with a sense of finality that limits all possibility. Even our lovemaking gives him only temporary pleasure. Our pillow talk is always of Renee and Annie.
“My brother-in-law was the worst,” he says one afternoon, as I lie next to him, my head on his shoulder. “When she died, he told me, ‘Maybe it’s for the best. If she had grown up, she might have gotten into drugs. Or she could have been hit by a bus and maimed for life.’”
I turn and look at him, his face so close it blurs. “You’re kidding.”
Robert shakes his head. “But there’s something about the worst thing happening that frees you,” he says. “I never liked him, and that day I finally said all the things I’d wanted to for years. Everyone blamed it on the grief and the shock. And I never saw him after that.”
“Do you think you’ll ever remarry?” I ask.
“And have a family?”
“No,” he says. “I couldn’t go through that again.”
“But it wouldn’t be the same.”
“But it might.”
I think about that a lot.
I can’t remember ever making love with someone knowing it would be the last time. For me, by the time a relationship verged on breaking up, sex was no longer happening, or it was happening with someone else. Did Renee’s husband remember their last time? Would Rick, if I don’t make it home tonight?
I think Robert will remember; it’s the past he holds dear. And I know that for a long time I’ll close my eyes and see our bodies mingling in his bed. Somehow, this makes giving him up sweeter and almost tolerable.
I don’t tell him about the pregnancy. I haven’t told Rick yet either. I’ve been wondering how it happened, whether that one missed pill revealed a subconscious desire, whether perhaps I’ve wanted this all along. Whether it is Robert’s baby or Rick’s.
I lie next to Robert for as long as I can. Then I get up and dress. He watches from the bed. I sit next to him, turn away, and let him fasten the top button of my blouse, the one at the back of my neck Rick had buttoned for me that morning.
There have been no flowers, no jewelry, no love letters; after today, there will be nothing left. I think of Rick’s story of the kids who crashed their car, leaving parts of themselves behind. As I stand up to leave, I look at Robert, and I feel as though I’m staring at the aftermath of a terrible wreck, offering nothing for him to keep.
This year, we have a white Christmas. Rick, Andrea and her husband, and the girls are outside building a snow family in our new yard. My parents and in-laws sit in the living room, drinking wine by the fire, debating how long it’s been since it snowed on Christmas.
I stir a saucepan of hot chocolate on the stove and ladle it into mugs when everyone comes inside. It’s nearly time for presents. I join everyone in the living room, where the girls run back and forth, distributing gifts, and suddenly I feel flushed. I put my hand to my forehead, which is hot.
I step aside, away from the center of activity, and move toward a window. Outside, a wet, heavy snow is still falling, swirling around the house and sticking to the glass, enveloping us all in the unsettling warmth of a crowded womb.
Midge Raymond’s short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, among others. She was awarded an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship in Literary Arts and is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee.