Authors: Amanda Eyre Ward
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary, #General
As I made pancakes on Sunday, my husband said, “Shouldn't you have gotten your period by now?” He was reading the “Week in Review” section
of The New York Times
I looked at the griddle. “Don't say anything else,” I said. I flipped a pancake. Leo pressed his lips together, but could not stop the edges of his mouth from grinning. I ate so many pancakes, thinking that I was eating for two. Thinking that my little boy would love my pancakes, the way I mix butter and syrup together in a pan.
• • •
After the Monday Editorial Meeting, I went for a walk. I needed exercise, not caffeine.
was in a dangerous part of town. We had no sign on our door, and an amazing alarm system to protect all the iMacs the artists used.
The street we were on, Bryant, was a busy street in disrepair. It was foggy as hell, and I shuffled along, past all the Mexican restaurants and the body shops. I passed Karry's Collision Center and the Chair Place. A teenage girl with bags of groceries got off a bus, followed by two little boys wearing baseball caps. The girl yelled at her sons in Spanish, and they each took a bag from her. In the doorway of a liquor store, a man with a sunburn drank from a paper cup. The marquee above Jovita's Restaurante y Cantina read: POINTY BONE TUES.
At the corner of Second and Bryant was Margarita the Psychic. I guess I had been walking toward her all along. A sandwich board on the sidewalk featured a giant hand and a picture of Margarita (a buxom babe with flowers in her hair). The building was green, and heavy curtains covered the windows. I walked over the cracked pathway. My face was damp, and I could smell my BO rising from my armpits. I had begun to sweat a Windexy smell since drinking Dr. Zhong's tea.
I could hear
on the television from behind the door. I knocked, and a little girl's voice said something in Spanish. I had to learn Spanish! Just thinking of the lives I was missing, the rivers of conversation around me, all that I was excluded from due to my inability to sit down with some damn vocabulary book—well, it made me want to cry.
The door opened. In front of me stood an old woman, very old. I mean, she was leaning on a walker. “Eh?” she said.
“Is Margarita here?” I said. This lady looked nothing like the sign.
“Margarita inside, Margarita inside,” said the old lady. Despite the heat, she wore a blue electric blanket over her shoulders, the cord trailing, unplugged, behind her. Her hair was matted on one side, and she did not appear to have teeth.
“I think I'll come back another time,” I said. I nodded, trying to be encouraging, trying to ignore the sour fear that had shot from my feet to my scalp.
The woman grabbed my hand. Her fingers were dry and cold. I pulled away. There was a smell of something burning. “Inside, inside,” said the old lady, reaching for me again. I felt weak. I wanted to leave, but did not know what to say, what neurons to fire to move my limbs in such a way that would result in me sitting at home, in my husband's lap, hearing him say, “Hey.”
The lady got a grip on my arm. She pulled me in.
The front room was filled with shitty furniture and a million cats. The place smelled like urine. Good God. The woman shoved me into a Barcalounger. “Here, here,” she said, and she held her hands flat in front of her, as if to push me down if I tried to rise.
“I've got to get back to work,” I said.
“No, no,” she said. “No, no.” She seemed alarmed, and although my adrenaline rush had ebbed to a nice fatigue in my arms, a nugget of nausea remained. The woman disappeared into a back room, and I could hear her speaking rapidly. I looked around at the velvet paintings on the wall, the batch of Virgin Mary candles on the mantel.
had been switched off, but a cup of juice and a half-eaten bag of pork rinds remained on the floor.
The old woman shuffled back into the room. “Margarita, Margarita!” she said, her eyes shining with excitement, her face flushed. I could have used a margarita, alrighty. The lady lifted a bony arm and extended a finger toward the door.
It opened, and with a flourish, a middle-aged woman with a turban on her head walked in. “I am Margarita,” she said. “Welcome, my dear.” The turban was fashioned from a towel; I could see San Francisco Giants insignias on it. Margarita wore a green T-shirt and Jordache jeans.
“Uh,” I said.
Margarita sat on the floor in front of my Barcalounger, crossing her legs Indian style. Her feet were bare, and her toenails were painted a light pink. “How are you?” said Margarita.
“I'm fine,” I said.
“Ah,” said Margarita, deciding to pick up the pace. “I see a man, a man for you.” I sighed. She pinched her eyelids shut and began to nod. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, now I can see it.” The old lady nodded approvingly, reaching for the pork rinds.
“What?” I said.
“You and this man,” she said. “You and this tall man. You will fall in love.”
In spite of myself, I became intrigued. Leo
tall, after all. Margarita was moving her arms around in front of her, making humming noises. Her T-shirt was tight across her chest; she wore no bra. She writhed around as if in rapture. Finally, she pressed her fingers to her eyes. After a moment, she dropped her hands to her lap and looked at me.
“Well?” I said.
“I see red,” she said. “Red, the color of roses.”
Hmmm. Well, if I press my eyelids, I see red too, but I took two fives from my pocket and gave them to her. She and the old lady bid me farewell and switched that TV right back on before I was even down the walkway. I could hear Montel pontificating all the way down the block.
On the way back to the office, I stopped at the Happy Mexican Gas Mart. There was a man talking on a cell phone behind the counter. Next to him, a thuggy teen ate a Dove bar, the ice cream melting down his wrist. Periodically, the man on the cell phone grabbed the Dove bar and took a bite.
I wandered the aisles of the Happy Mexican, looking for a pregnancy test. I thought about how I would tell my husband the news. I could take him out to dinner, and call for a toast to our baby. I could buy some cheesy Hallmark card, or hang a banner in our doorway. I could buy a tiny pair of shoes and wrap them up. Tiny sneakers? Tiny moccasins?
I decided that I would bring Dr. Zhong some flowers. Daisies, maybe, or lucky palm stalks. I would walk right past that unstable woman and her jars, and Dr. Zhong would light up at the sight of me, the mother-to-be.
I bought the test and a Snickers in the Happy Mexican. I ate the candy bar on the way back to the office, and the chocolate on my teeth was hot and wonderful. My headache almost went away. I decided to tell my husband in bed. I would pull the covers over our heads and whisper the news. He would hug me, and I would hear his breath become ragged.
Back in the office, the stray dog was chewing on my computer cord. It was a little black thing, with a tail that curled around like a pig. I took it into my arms, and it was just the right weight, and warm.
When an anorexic artist left the bathroom, I went inside. I opened the cardboard box and tried not to look at the blond woman smiling ear to ear on its cover, holding up her pregnancy test with a big plus sign, her wedding band flashing. I looked at my own wedding band—a silver one we had bought in Mexico. The directions seemed simple: pee on the stick, and wait.
The Russian men next door were yelling, and I unbuttoned my jeans. I closed my eyes and prayed, to what I don't know, to something. To Dr. Zhong. To Margarita. I unwrapped the plastic stick. But before I could begin, I looked down.
Just as Margarita had foreseen, my underwear was red as roses. I think I cried out, but there was no one there to listen. Everyone at
had gathered in the conference room for the big announcement. When I came out of the bathroom, Betty told me the news. Seven million dollars of funding had come through, and Brendan had bought fifty boxes of Girl Scout cookies to celebrate. I ate Thin Mints for a while, and then I ate Tagalongs.
When I told Leo, over dinner, that I was only eating for one, he looked down quickly at the napkin in his lap. His eyelashes were long and dark—they shielded his eyes from me.
On Monday, Brendan sent an e-mail saying, “Dear Mimi, Please stop by my office at your convenience. Yours truly, Brendan.” I stood and walked the ten feet to where he sat behind a big IKEA desk. Brendan made a pyramid of his fingertips. “Don't take this wrong,” he said, “but I've heard about your troubles.” I blinked. “My sister adopted,” he continued, “a little baby from Romania. A boy, Jack.” Brendan looked at me pointedly.
“Word travels fast,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “it is a small office. Anyway, I told her about you, and she'd be happy to meet you for lunch, if you're interested.” He wrote a phone number on an envelope and pushed it across his desk. He stood. “Well, then,” he said, smoothing his Dockers.
I took the number. “I thought you were going to fire me,” I said.
Brendan laughed, but not in a very reassuring manner.
“Look at him,” said Brendan's sister. We were sitting in Sombrero's and there was a baby on the table, between our empanadas. It was a beautiful baby, with brown wisps of hair and fat cheeks.
“You'd never even know he was Romanian,” said Brendan's sister, a very thin woman with lipstick the color of cherry tomatoes. Jack, in his baby seat, slept peacefully, despite the jangling Mexican music. “I don't see the need to tell anyone he's Romanian,” said Brendan's sister.
“What?” I said.
“He looks just like an American boy. He looks like he could be mine. Well, he is mine, isn't he!” she said. Brendan's sister gave me a videotape with a label that read
in pink script. “You can pick a baby from the video,” said Brendan's sister.
“It's so easy,” I said.
“That's what I'm saying,” she said. She told me not to be upset by the babies in the tape who swayed back and forth. “If nobody rocks a baby, they rock themselves,” she explained.
That night, my husband and I opened a bottle of wine. We slipped underneath our cotton comforter, resting bowls of pasta on our laps, and when the light in the bedroom was silver, we put the tape in the VCR. Between us, there was a warm space for a baby.
On the television, a man with gray hair and a long mustache walked around a dim room packed with children. From giant, slatted cribs, he picked up infants. For the camera, he held the babies aloft, turning them around, so that people like me could see they were unblemished. He did not stop for the larger children, and just as Brendan's sister had warned, they lined up in rows, their fingers wrapped around the crib slats, rocking themselves back and forth. The tape went on, the man picking up baby after baby.
I watched the faces of the children who were not chosen by the man. When he came near them, some reached up, but did not look surprised when they were passed over. They stared with a dull hatred at the camera, as if they could see into my bedroom: blue coverlet, leafy trees outside large windows, warm bowls of linguine, a bottle of wine on a hardwood floor.
When I looked at my husband, he was completely still, watching the video intently. I turned back to the screen, and I wondered if the dinosaurs had felt anything as the asteroid headed toward them, if they had known it was coming.
The Way the Sky Changed
I had heard about the rib, of course, but did not expect it to be at the Smiths' Christmas party. Yet there it was, on the mantel, sandwiched between a bowl of cinnamon-scented potpourri and a holly sprig. Merry Christmas! Here's our daughter's rib.
There were pictures of her all over the house. Maybe they had always been there, I don't know. But the one of me and Helen, before our senior prom—it was too much. I stood in the kitchen and drank Scotch fast. My husband would have told me to take it easy, pardner, but he was gone too, and not even a rib to show for himself. My mother came into the kitchen and took in the scene: me, a ham sandwich, an empty glass.
“How are you?” she said.
“The ham is delicious,” I noted.
“From Harrington's in Greenwich,” she said.
“Same as last year,” said my mother. I nodded. “Same as the year before that,” she said.
“Is that right?” I said.
“Yes,” said my mother.
In the dining room, I found my sister, Jennifer. She was pregnant and miserable. She wore a Burberry headband and her roots were showing. “I've never been sober at one of these before,” she said. “It's hell.”
I laughed. “You might have a husband, but at least I can drink,” I said. Jennifer turned those brown eyes on me.
“Why do you go and say things like that?” she said. I shrugged. “Did you call my therapist?” she said. “I'm going to keep asking, Casey, till you make an appointment.”
“I made an appointment,” I said. “I'm going next Thursday.”
“Really?” said Jennifer.
“Yes, really,” I said. “What am I, a four-year-old?”
“I'm glad,” said Jennifer, touching my arm. “Alexa has really helped me with my panic disorder. Alexa and the Zoloft.”
“I wonder why a rib,” I mused.
Jennifer sighed. “What?”
“It's just so … random. Why a rib? Why not a collarbone?” Jennifer looked intently at the wallpaper behind me, a melange of African animals. “How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I mean with the morning sickness and all. Do you feel crummy?”
“Yes,” said Jennifer.
“Me too,” I said. “But I'm not pregnant.”
“No,” said Jennifer. “You're not.”
We had thought about it, Paul and I. There had always been a reason to believe the next year would be a better year to become parents. Paul's bonus, my big new writer. Fucking Hal Underson, whose novel,
A Kiss in Kandahar
, finally went to a lousy little press in St. Louis. I'd had big plans for Hal, maybe even a movie deal. My 15 percent of Hal was about a thousand dollars. So we'd waited.
“No,” I said to my sister. “I'm not.”
Jennifer's husband, Lawrence, came up behind her, holding out a mini quiche. “Yummy,” he said, pushing the morsel toward Jennifer's mouth.
“Get it away from me,” said Jennifer.
“Suit yourself,” said Lawrence.
“Suit yourself?” I said. “Are we really old enough to say 'Suit yourself?” I laughed, but then realized that both Jennifer and Lawrence were sober.
“Casey,” said Jennifer, “Lawrence has a friend you should meet. He's in arbitrage, a really nice guy. Skidmore BA, Harvard MBA.”
“Jen,” said Lawrence, “perhaps this isn't the best of times?”
“Are you quoting Dickens?” said Jennifer.
“I'm trying to be thoughtful,” said Lawrence.
“What's this guy's name?” I interrupted.
“Kent,” said my sister.
“Oh,” I said. “Kent? Are you sure?”
“He is nice,” admitted Lawrence.
“Nice dull?” I said.
“No, nice like he's not an asshole,” said Jennifer.
“Is he my type?” I said.
Jennifer and Lawrence looked uncomfortable. “I have a type,” I said. “And it's tall and blond. Ponytailed, actually.”
Lawrence cleared his throat. “But Paul is … I mean Paul was …”
“Just because I married a short Jew doesn't mean I can't have a different type,” I said. I laughed, but it came out strangled. “I'm not crying,” I explained, “I'm just very tired.”
“I'll give him your number,” said Jennifer. “Kent.”
“Well, I'm off to the bar,” I said. I left my sister feeling sorry for me and worried about me. She had enough to worry about, and I wished she'd just ignore me, just treat me like a rib in the corner of the room.
My mother gave me a ride after the party. She asked if I'd like to stay over at home. “I have a home,” I said.
“I meant my home,” she said.
“Spend the night in my old room, like I'm fifteen?” I said. “No spank you.”
“You should really watch it with the booze,” said my mother. She put on her blinker and we took a left, out of Indian Village. Underneath the train tracks, some rich kids dressed as poor kids were skateboarding. “Watch it, yo!” yelled a redhead with his pants so low his boxer shorts were showing.
“You know something?” said my mother.
“No,” I said. “I don't know anything.”
“Well, I'll tell you,” said my mother. “You were difficult until the day Paul found you, and then you sweetened for a while. I thought you had changed. But it was just Paul, all along.”
I closed my eyes, and things seemed spinny. When I forced them open, my mother was watching me. “It's been over a year,” she said. “Now it's up to you to save yourself.”
I nodded. “I hear you,” I said, and then I threw up.
I had nightmares about Paul's bones coming to find me. I didn't want them, though I had brought his green plastic hairbrush to the police station in a fit of sentimentality. The word around town was that once they matched the DNA, the police would knock on your door with the news. In my town, that fall, we waited.
I guess I hadn't really believed that Helen was gone until the rib arrived. Helen, who had walked hand in hand with me to kindergarten, her brown hair swinging, who had taught me to kiss, pressing her own dry lips to mine. Helen!
Kent called the following week. My assistant, Cindy, came into my office. “Kent Hornbeck on Line Two,” she said.
“Take a message,” I said.
She shrugged pertly. Cindy. This gal was all about pert. She came back not a minute later. “He says he's made reservations at Caroline's Comedy Club for Thursday,” said Cindy.
“Yuck,” I said.
“It's fun,” said Cindy.
“You've been to Caroline's Comedy Club?”
“This guy I dated? Thomas Drury? He was big into comedy. It's fun, really.”
“Give me that number,” I said. I called Kent in arbitrage. I'll be honest: I don't know what arbitrage is. Paul was a lawyer and I'm in publishing. Arbitrage has just never factored in.
Kent answered the phone. I explained that I would not be able to go to Caroline's Comedy Club. “Lawrence told me this might be difficult,” said Kent.
“Listen, I've already bought the tickets. It's just a comedy show. I'll meet you there at seven?”
“Fine,” I said.
But first there was Alexa, the therapist. She told me to let go of regrets. I told her my mother said I had never been a very nice person. She told me to let go of fear. I told her about the comedy club, and she thought it was a good idea.
Caroline's was crowded and smoky. Kent held my arm as we wound our way to our seats. One table leg must have been shorter than the rest; the table kept tipping all around. I was tired before our drinks arrived. “So what did your husband do?” asked Kent. I thought this was a strange way to begin a date.
“Lawyer,” I said.
“My wife sold software,” said Kent.
“Your wife?” I said.
“Wendy,” said Kent. “She was on Flight 11.”
“I didn't know,” I said. What did I want with some widower, I thought. “Jesus, I'm sorry,” I said. The waitress returned with our order. She was a bit sour, but I guess you don't have to be funny to serve the drinks.
“Where was he?” asked Kent. “Your husband?”
“The North Tower,” I said.
His eyes were dull. “Wendy was in business class,” he said. I nodded. “Did he … did you talk to him?” asked Kent.
“No,” I said. He nodded, and drank his martini quickly. We ordered another round.
The first comedian had bad skin. He told a bunch of jokes about his mother, and then a bunch of jokes about how dumb Cajuns are. I had never met a Cajun, so these jokes were wasted on me. It seemed that Cajuns ate catfish sandwiches and kept alligators as pets. We sipped our drinks sadly, and after the first comedian had finished, I told Kent I was exhausted, went outside, and hailed a cab.
Paul and I used to watch the news after work. One night, a reporter in a blue windbreaker stood in a Kansas parking lot, where a plane had just crashed. “If you were on a plane going down,” I said to my husband, “I would not want you to call me. I would rather remember all the good times. Not one last crummy phone call, you know?”
“I don't know,” said Paul. “I might want you to call me.” “Well, don't call me,” I said. “I'm not interested.” In my memory, I say the words so blithely—
I'm not interested
. I was a different person, then.
I think about Paul, trapped in the searing building. I did try his cell phone, but there was no answer. I know that he wanted to dial my number, to say good-bye. I know he didn't jump. Well, I don't officially know, but that's what I think. Maybe he fainted. Maybe it wasn't as bad as I am pretty sure it was. I wish he had called me. I wish I could say to him,
. I wish he had taken a sick day. But his car was parked at the station when I finally got home from the city. There was his coffee mug. There was his napkin from his English muffin, marked with a butter stain.
Kent called me at work the next morning. “I thought the comedy club would be a good idea,” he said, “but I guess maybe it wasn't.”
“It was fine,” I said.
“I'd like to see you again,” said Kent. This surprised me.
“How about cheeseburgers?” I said.
cheeseburgers?” said Kent.
He took the train out, and we went to the Rye Grille and Bar. “I've never been to Rye,” said Kent. “Scarsdale, yes, but not Rye.”
“It's a nice place,” I said, though I had begun to wonder if it was the place for me, single and suburbs being a grim combination. When Jan came to take our order, she looked surprised to see me with a date, then angry, then sad.
“What do you recommend?” Kent asked Jan.
“Oh, get a cheeseburger,” I said. Paul and I always ordered cheeseburgers.
“The tuna steak sandwich is good,” said Jan. She looked Kent up and down. He was cute in a preppy way: the tousled hair, ruddy skin. If you watched him, you could see how he'd looked at five, chasing after frogs or tadpoles with a little net.
“The cheeseburgers are really the best,” I insisted.
“I think I'll try the tuna steak sandwich,” said Kent. He looked at me with a smile, but he must have seen something in my face. He blinked, and I looked down at my menu. “Wait,” said Kent, reaching out and touching his fingers to Jan's arm. “I've changed my mind.”
She wheeled around and raised an eyebrow.
“I'll have the cheeseburger after all,” said Kent.
“You might even want to try the fried onions on top,” I said.
“Oh,” said Kent, “okay.”
The following Saturday, Kent asked me to go antiquing with him in Connecticut. “There's a great diner in Roxbury,” he said, “and then we can go for a hike along this lake.” I preferred to spend my Saturdays lying on the lawn and staring at the overgrown patch where I had once tended a garden, but I agreed. Kent brought a pair of ladies' hiking boots. They fit me perfectly, and this seemed to make Kent very happy. I wore my own socks, however. We drove up to Connecticut in Kent's Volvo station wagon. He played tapes of Nina Simone and held my hand when he was not shifting the gears. “I packed a picnic lunch,” he confided. “Pate and grapes and even that pinot noir.”
“What pinot noir?” I said.
He looked flustered. “Oh, you'll like it,” he said. He squeezed my fingers.
The scenery grew beautiful. Barns and cows and men selling peaches. Kent pulled into the parking lot of an antique store called Mason's. He opened my door and took my hand. “Come on,” he said, “I have a surprise for you.”
I followed Kent into Mason's. It was a dusty old store filled with junk. Lots of nautical-themed stuff, and a bunch of that Fiestaware. Kent hustled me toward the back, and I pretended to be interested in some old cough medicine bottles. There was music in the store, Billie Holiday. I liked that.
It wasn't long before Kent came back. “It's all arranged,” he said, his eyes shining. He took my hand, and led me into a back room. Once there, he gestured to a huge mirror. It was surrounded by an ornate frame. It was unwieldy and ugly.
“Sweetheart,” said Kent, “it's yours.”
“The mirror?” I said.
He nodded, tears in his hazel eyes.
“Oh, Kent,” I said, “it's just what I've always wanted.”
“I know,” said Kent. He took me in his arms, and whispered, “Sweetheart, I know.” After this exchange, we went to a lakeside spot and ate the pate and drank the pinot noir. Kent did not kiss me.
My mother came over the next day. “What on earth is that?” she said, pointing to the mirror, which was propped up in the front hallway.
“A mirror,” I said. “Kent gave it to me.”
“My God,” she said. “It's hideous.”
“Well, okay,” I said.
“What are you making?”
“Oh sweetie,” said my mother. I stirred the pot, and added salt.
“Would you like some pinot noir?” I asked my mother.
“I only drink pinot grigio and you know it.”
“People can change,” I said.
“Did you hear about the femur?” said my mother.
“Oh God,” I said. I closed my eyes. “You know what?” I said. “I don't want to hear about any femur.”
“This isn't any femur, Casey,” said my mother. “It's Doug Greenberg's femur.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. I had once given Doug a blow job in the back of his father's Porsche.
My mother shook her head. “Tragic,” she said, “just tragic. But they're burying theirs, not putting it on the mantel.”
I kept stirring. “That smell,” said my mother. “That smell makes me think of your father.”