In addition to being a magnificent storyteller, my friend Jordan has a gift for language that knocks the wind right out me. She's also a talented nonfiction writer. And the host of a literary radio show, Word by Word. She makes jewelry, too. And she's young and pretty and has a great, big, generous heart. Okay, I'll stop now and let her writing speak for itself.
That, Not This
By Jordan Rosenfeld
It seemed natural to April to be drawn toward foods slightly fetal in quality: halves of tomatoes, primal and slimy; smooth, slightly gelatinous eggs with runny yolks; artichoke hearts emerging from the womb of their leaves. Her pregnancy itself, however, did not seem so terribly natural, despite all she'd been told of a woman's inborn urge and instinct for mothering. Her body had begun to take on the qualities of a temperamental teenage girl. It bloated, ached and drew her emotions into conspiratorial crescendos, blasting her like a small sailboat through hormone driven surf.
She probed inside a small tangelo for its seeds at breakfast. The pulp and juice of the tiny citrus seemed like little internal organs splayed open under the halogen light of a science class. For one anthropomorphic moment, she didn't want to eat it. That finger, her right index, was swollen along with its fellows full of ambient water, a side effect of gestation. Since reaching the plateau and "safety" of the second trimester just two weeks ago, she had been drawn to the insides of things with a fascination that made her feel conspicuous. Hal caught her yesterday peering up into the pipes under the bathroom sink, a large plastic U of piping at her side.
"Fixing a clog?" he joked.
April blushed and stuttered and left the sink undone like that without an explanation. She had just wanted to look inside, see what couldn't otherwise be seen, as if there might have been some parallel understanding to the creature (she couldn't quite see it as a person yet) growing inside her.
Hal weathered her moods and strange behavior quite tolerantly for a man who was not genetic contributor to her expected child. She had stopped having the nightmare too, in which Hal was a gorilla smothering all her baby gorillas and trying to seed her with one of his own.
With her hands smeared in tangelo juice, the phone rang — as it did much more often, she discovered, in the life of a pregnant woman. She wiped her fingers on the side of her pajama top and leapt to answer it.
"Hey girl," Bonnie's voice chirped.
"Bon-bon. It's Saturday, make me feel like a normal person again, O.K.? People act like I might hurt myself by lifting paper."
"County fair," Bonnie said.
"Oh." April tried to hide her lack of interest.
"I promised Ethan. You'd be good company for me, if you're feeling up to it."
"Well I can't really use nausea as an excuse."
Bonnie arrived twenty minutes later in "The Behemoth" as Hal referred to it, a vehicle so big and red that it made eyebrows rise even in SUV circles, according to Bonnie, who drove it because her husband insisted on the BMW for himself. Eight year-old Ethan, as red-headed and freckled as they came, sat in the backseat looking sullen.
Bonnie kissed April and attempted to open her door for her.
"Don't do that! I'm pregnant, not disabled."
Bonnie walked back to her side and got in.
"Hey moppet," April said to Ethan, who didn't even crack a smile. "Who's got crumbs in his pants?" April teased.
"We're negotiating needs," Bonnie said to which Ethan thumped the back of her seat with a Nike-clad foot. "He believes he needs more time in front of the television, I believe I need a child who can form a complete sentence."
The fairground teemed with people, many of whom had managed to become sunburned before noon. The chaos of odors and the roar of rides made April feel overwhelmed, though she kept it to herself. Bonnie procured a handful of tickets for Ethan and set him off on The Zipper.
"I want a caramel apple," April declared, drawn by the prospect of something with seeds in its heart.
"Ugh," Bonnie clutched her stomach. "The last time I had one of those it didn't stay down."
They wandered past the booths full of cheap glasses in a crowded bay of other glassware; white, egg-like Ping Pong balls floated embryonic in the belly of ashtrays and bowls too small to be of much use.
"You want to try?" Bonnie pointed. The hawker smiled at the ladies.
"Ten balls for two dollars," he said.
"No thanks," Bonnie said, flipping her hair in an unconscious mode of flirtation. "We have more than enough balls in our lives."
The hawker grinned. "You can never have enough," he said.
The chemistry of strangers trading pheromones irritated April. There were days she loved Bonnie like a sister and days she wished she'd never met her.
April pushed her on.
"He was cute!" Bonnie protested.
"You're married," April reminded.
"We'll see how long that lasts," Bonnie replied, glancing up at The Zipper to locate her son, swirling in centrifugal motion.
"Don't let Ethan hear you say that. This is the stuff that scars children for life."
"No, the permanent damage comes from the name-calling that goes on in his presence."
"Is that why he watches so much television?"
They soon moved Ethan on to the Tilt O' Whirl, where he was piled into a cab containing three boys much bigger than him who looked pained to have him in their midst. Despite having defied gravity three ways to Sunday, Ethan didn't show the slightest trace of an upset stomach.
"He called, you know," Bonnie said, reaching for April's half-gnawed caramel apple despite her earlier grimaces.
"Don't eat the last of the caramel," April said.
"You don't want to talk about the call?"
"What's to say Bon? We made a deal. My autonomy for his disappearance."
"There's no such thing as no strings attached, you know."
April grabbed the apple from her friend's hand mid-bite. Bonnie narrowed her eyes.
"If this is your idea of an intervention, you can forget it," April said, purposely licking off the remains of the caramel. Behind them a caricature of a carnie, all greased hair and pock marked skin, beckoned to them with promise of stuffed zebras at his game.
"That ride makes me sick just to look at it," Bonnie said watching her son's blurred face whiz by. Then she fell silent or as close to it as possible inside the parabola of carnival noise. The nearest simulation of silence was the whoosh of the water gun filling up behind their heads where sunburned men won their girlfriends stuffed jungle animals.
"So what did he want?" April acquiesced.
"Just to know how you are."
"And how am I?"
"Fine, I guess. You seem fine. Hal seems fine. Everyone is peachy."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look, I'm going to be an aunt to my best friend's baby and yet my own brother is out of the loop. It's just, it feels weird, you know? It feels…"
"He didn't want it."
"And you did. The quintessential dilemma of procreation," said Bonnie with a sigh.
"How'd you feel when you got pregnant with Ethan?"
"Ha-ha. I'm serious."
"Ecstatic, honestly. I was a walking ovary basically just waiting to pop out an egg.”
"Did you feel ecstatic right away?"
Bonnie bit her fingernail and glanced back at the cute ping pong ball hawker who waved.
"Yeah, from the second that other pink line appeared."
"I'm still hungry," April said, shoving off mid conversation toward the speckled yellow and red stand that sold cornballs. Bonnie, distracted by eye contact with the cute guy, finally chased after her.
"You're avoiding something," she said when she caught up. Mouth full of popcorn ball, April shrugged.
"You were excited when you found out, right? You would have been more excited if Cole had been too… right? "
Bonnie pressed on, as if afraid to hear what April might really have to say.
"But Hal's a good guy and you love him, I know."
"No, it's not just that."
"And he is a good guy to father someone else's baby." Bonnie sounded bitter.
"Hal is… he pays attention, he wants to be…"
"I mean, it's not something just any guy would do… they always want to plant their own seed…"
The gorilla nightmare rose like acid reflux in April.
"Stop it, Bonnie. Enough. "
Bonnie glanced over April's shoulder at the ping pong guy. April followed her gaze.
"If you get his phone number I'm going to kill you." April said.
"Who should leave whom alone?"
"Ethan's Tilt O' Whirled out," April said pointing. Bonnie shot her a glance full of irritation and they trudged off to rescue the teetering boy.
Another five rides later and a chatty conversation with ping pong guy that fortunately did not lead to potential extramarital concerns, April was done with her day at the carnival.
"Can we just look at the animals before we go?" Ethan begged his mother. Bonnie pleaded through eye contact with April. The look said, he doesn't ask me for anything anymore… just give me this.
So they meandered through manure scented rows of pigs and cows and proud handlers. Ethan ran ahead, kicking up sawdust. April tucked the top of her shirt over her nose and mouth in case any wayward particles should filter in. Ethan stopped, transfixed in front of one stall. The women lingered behind so they could continue their conversation.
"Apey… can I ask you something?"
"You just did," April said, wishing she had a soda to wash the heat out of her throat.
"Ha-ha. Now I'm serious."
"You'll ask even if I say no; why do you even bother?"
"Do you really want this baby? I mean, you're not having second thoughts are you?"
April became suddenly fascinated with the gargantuan pig in the stall at their feet.
"It's nebulous right now. It's not a person or anything, just kind of an idea; an idea that makes me feel like shit every morning and makes a lot of people feel sorry for me. Come to think of it, it's a little bit like being disabled."
"What kind of an answer is that?"
"I guess not the one you were hoping for."
"I just… I have a genetic investment in this, you know?"
"Yeah, I know."
"And you know if you had second thoughts… I just want you to know that you have options."
April brushed sweaty blades of hair from her face.
"Are you saying you'd adopt this baby if I didn't want it?"
"I'm just putting it out there."
April shook her head. What was there to say to that? Something about it made her angry and she felt like taking off in a gallop away from the stinking carnival air and the fawning interest of her friend. Just then, Ethan shouted and waved to the two women frantically, a look of desperation stretched across his face. "Come here! It's dying, Mom. It's dying."
They rushed over to the stall where a very fat cow was lying on her back, lowing.
"Oh my God!" Bonnie said. "She's not dying, honey. She's in labor, look." She pointed to the cow's vagina where two tiny hooves were emerging inside a voluminous watery sac.
Their commotion brought the owner over and April, on shaky legs, and Bonnie and Ethan on bended knee witnessed Burma the Jersey cow bringing her baby into the world. April had to resist the urge to vomit.
"I told Betsy we shouldn't have brought her," the owner said, getting down on his hands and knees. "But she tried to tell me she has women's intuition. This baby wasn't coming for another week, she says!"
"Wasn’t that amazing?" Bonnie prodded as they left. April wished she could agree.
“Is that how I was born?” Ethan demanded, looking partially fascinated and disgusted, kicking dust at his feet into clouds that April had to avert her face from. Bonnie guffawed. “It did sort of feel like you had hooves… ”
Bonnie drove April home silently. Even Ethan refrained from acting out, sucking happily on a lollypop nearly as large as his head. When Bonnie pulled into April’s driveway she shut off the engine and stayed facing the garage door a moment without speaking.
“Look, I’m sorry if I… if I went too far today. I’m sorry if I seem to want more than is my place.”
April felt sorry for her friend, whom she’d known since high school and had once spent a whole night discussing the mysteries of losing their virginity. Bonnie was caught between her own troubled blood and her best friend.
“You just might want something for me that I don’t even want for myself.”
Bonnie raised an eyebrow and snagged her lip between her teeth in what April thought was an overly dramatic gesture.
“What do you mean?”
April felt tired. “I don’t even know. Chalk it up to hormones.”
Bonnie opened her mouth as if to protest the easy answer, but stopped herself. They bid each other goodbye and April shuffled into the house feeling as tired as in her old marathon training days.
Hal was asleep on the couch with a baby-naming book fallen onto the floor, spread open to boys' names. Theodore. Thomas. Trevor. April stood watching the soft rise and fall of his hairy chest and felt momentarily like Hal’s return to her life was a conspiracy in effect, possibly by God, to stop her from doing foolish things. If Hal hadn’t turned up a week after Cole had retreated from a future life shackled by wife and eventual child, April would have done one of two things: thrown herself desperately on Cole with the same historical results or run off to Mexico.
How Hal had known she was single again, if one could call it that, was something they had simply not discussed. Hal was content to be the permanent “in-betweener” more permanent now than ever. In the history of their fourteen-year friendship, they’d dated more than six separate times. He’d called it dating, at least, she’d thought of it merely as screwing until now.
Whether it was her stare or the sound of her breathing that did it, Hal woke.
“Back already?” he said, stretching.
She laughed, “I think so,” she said, then walked to the window, placed a hand unconsciously on her stomach, and wondered if a fetus was capable of caring for its own future yet.
Her nose recreated the acrid smell of sweating children and synthetic popcorn and sugar commingled into one top note. She grimaced.
“Not exactly fun. More like distraction.”
She could almost hear him thinking behind her. Hal seemed perpetually on the edge of speaking a sentence; one that April often felt would reveal a truth that would shed some needed light on their situation.
“No, I’m full of carnival food.”
Hal got up and came around behind her, put his arms around her. She wanted to shrug him off. It wasn’t out of spite or loathing; she loved the feel of his construction-worker arms, his smell like baby powder left in the sun. She didn’t want his love though, until she could promise him that all shards of her feelings for Cole were pulled free from the sinews of her being… and that seemed so impossibly far away. If he wanted to stay, he could stay. If he wanted to be the male presence in her child’s life, she couldn’t see any reason not to give him that. But every caress of his recalled a gesture of Cole’s, even if it was Cole’s pale, slender hand pulling away from her, or gripping the meat of her arm too tightly in an argument. Though he had been hard to get close to, and often mean, she'd gotten used to his brand of love. Hal’s was too easy, too available.
“What do you think about Tiberius as a name for a boy?” Hal whispered in her ear, digging for a laugh.
She smiled. “I think Tiberius is actually kind of interesting,” she said, and then excused herself to lie down.
Total erasure of her lifelong insomnia was the one beauty of pregnancy. All her body required was the placement of her head against any surface remotely horizontal. She’d nearly fallen asleep standing up in the supermarket as she’d craned her head sideways to read a label.
She fell fast into the dark, tight desert of sleep, bumped only occasionally by a scattering of dreams that were more like someone else’s vacation slides accidentally shoved into her unconscious. Jars of wet cocktail onions and bowls of slimy spaghetti were set upon a table. Larvae and fish swam through soupy lagoons. Cole strode in and out of these dark, primal dream spaces, as if searching for something he’d left. She woke startled by a cramp in her abdomen, the smell of Hal’s eggplant parmesan creeping up the stairs into the bedroom.
She sat up, reassured that the cramp was not repeating, soothed her belly with her hand and forced herself to go downstairs. Once, Cole had pushed her across the room over an argument about something whose topic she could not remember. A bill? A glance she’d made at another man? The way she’d parked his car? She had fallen hard onto her tailbone, spraining her sacroiliac joint and bruising her lumbar ribs. He hadn’t even said he was sorry. Since entering her fourth month, the sacroiliac joint that had almost healed completely had started to throb again, especially when going downstairs, as if to remind her constantly how she’d gotten into this state.
She hobbled on aching leg down to the kitchen and pulled up a chair to the table.
Hal, who had been married twice already, moved about the kitchen with grace, familiar with rituals of comfort. Cole often came home so late that she’d simply make dinners for one, bearing his anger when he’d somehow expected her to know, psychically - she presumed - that she should have prepared something for him.
She still remembered the day when she had to tell Bonnie the truth about her brother. Bonnie had been contemplating running off with the young butcher at her market and had been difficult to corral into conversations that had anything to do with anything else.
They’d been sitting in Bonnie’s backyard catching the fast forming drips off lime popsicles.
“Why do you look so glum?” Bonnie asked, after revealing what the butcher boy had said he wanted to do to her. A fat drop of green goo had splashed her white summer dress and she’d begun wiping it, only making the stain worse.
“Cole hasn’t been home in two nights,” April said.
“He loves to go fishing, doesn’t he?” Bonnie said, turning the hose on to get the green out of her dress.
“No, Bon… he just doesn’t come home. He hasn't gone fucking fishing.”
Bonnie looked up then.
“He isn’t always very nice to me, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
April had put her face in her hands or possibly even gotten up and strode across the lawn. Bonnie had shut completely up about her potential infidelity.
“He’s hard on me.”
Bonnie had coaxed the truth out of her, but had been reluctant to believe it. For a week the two friends didn’t speak while Bonnie sorted out the details for herself and finally came to admit that she had known her brother to be a “rough guy” on some level. He used to chase her and beat her up when they were kids. He'd murdered the guinea pig when she was ten, and he was twelve. Bonnie had bolstered her output of friendship from there, as if trying to make up for the failings of her brother.
Now, soothed by the smell of food cooking, April had a hard time placing Hal in her home, her life. The dream images of Cole walking through rooms stuck with her. Hal seemed like a borrowed thing, on loan from some service that helped single mothers. She had the good man in her life and the seed of the bad boy growing inside her but an anxiety pervaded, as if Cole was going to show up and tell her he’d changed his mind, that she and the baby belonged to him. Part of her was horrified by the idea, but another part of her, as she looked at Hal readying her meal, liked the idea more than she could admit to anyone. And guilt then followed. She was a cliché, one of those women on Jerry Springer who falls for the bad boy because she had an unavailable father, who craves torture over tenderness because it confirms her low self-esteem.
“Soda or water with dinner?” Hal asked, herding vegetables around in a skillet of oil.
“Water. I can get it myself.”
“You can, but don’t,” Hal said, moving toward the water purifier before she could as much as push out her chair.
The summer evening was light and hot.
“Let’s eat on the porch,” she suggested. Hal nodded. “But after dinner I want to take you somewhere.”
“Oh Hal, I’m not up for much.”
“Trust me… it’s just another… .distraction. You’ll have fun.”
They ate his delicious eggplant parmesan and stirred veggies outside. When they finished, Hal cleared everything away.
“Digest for a half hour, and then you’re coming with me.”
As she lay against the sofa staring out at the tall, slightly withered pink and purple heads of the Cosmos she’d planted in spring, there came another twinge in her uterus, sharp enough to make her catch her breath.
She almost called out for Hal but instead hobbled to the bathroom. A few drops of blood marred her underwear. Spotting and cramping were both normal signs. It happened to women, especially women who were closer to thirty-five. She put a maxi pad into her panties and wondered if she should call the doctor. She didn’t want to tell Hal, to raise his anxieties unnecessarily. She returned to the couch and rested as he had suggested and took three Tylenol just in case, before Hal shepherded her off to his truck.
“Where are we going?”
“Surprise,” Hal said.
She wanted to tell him that she didn’t care for surprises just now, but every time she thought of thwarting his efforts to be sweet to her, something stopped her.
The drive out to Drake's Beach, though longer than she wanted to sit in a car, had the effect of lulling her. Her whole body felt swollen with a sedative bloat, like she had turned into a large round sphere instead of a person, the food and the comforting monotony of the road ahead acting like an analgesic.
Hal had no children, and April was worried that he had more invested in her own child than she did, that he would love this baby not only more than her, but more than she could love her own baby.
Would she spend the rest of her life looking at a simulacrum of Cole? Hear an inflection reminiscent of that sharp vocal punctuation of his, watch tiny demonstrations by her child of his big, lively gestures that had won her over when she was sixteen? She had known both men for too long. Should she make a break now, go back and suffer the oppressive supervision of her parent's house and end ties with Hal for good? Because he couldn't love her if not for this shiny slice of promising future in her belly, could he?
She had fallen asleep to the lullaby of the car on the road and the sudden halt of motion woke her as Hal pulled into the parking lot at the beach.
"Wake up, babe," he said, resting a warm, large hand on her thigh. Another tiny cramp squeezed her uterus. She got out of the car and felt a rush of well-being at the smell of ocean.
"It's pretty," she said. "Water looks icy, though."
"We're not going in the water… unless you want to?" Hal smiled.
"I forgot my wet suit," she said.
Hal rummaged in the back of the truck and returned with something large and vaguely triangular in shape.
"What is that?"
He took her hand. "C'mon out here, I'll show you."
They pushed out onto the sand, littered with dead kelp and water-smoothed wood and stone. A handful of people dotted the beach, and one crazy surfer paddled, belly on his board, out to catch a wave.
Hal unfurled the item in his hands and April realized, finally, what it was.
"Yup. Made it myself."
It was built like a miniature hang glider with two rope spindles instead of one and looked almost like something that required a pilot.
The wind was gentle, but enough to get the kite off the ground and once in the air, Hal maneuvered it deftly with tiny manipulations of his fingers and hands, sometimes it looked like the kite was simply holding him up.
"Now you try," Hal said. April looked at the ungainly thing. Her hands felt clumsy and swollen.
"I don't know if I can."
"You can," Hal said.
He handed her the spindles then took the end of the kite and moved away from her, jogging a little until April could feel the place where wind and her own body were at an exact tension. But the kite was big and heavy and she felt suddenly so small and incapable. It would rise into the air for a few seconds and then plummet back to earth.
It reminded April of a time when Cole took her to the long stretch of green down by the Marina in San Francisco to watch the kites. She had been mesmerized by the airy dance of all those brightly colored flags and had begun to follow one in particular held by a good looking man, following its dip and swirl with patient eyes. Cole had dragged her from the park finally, his thin sharp fingers carving a string of bruises into her arm. In the car he had accused her of wanting to go home with the man holding the kite she'd been watching.
As she thought about this, the kite under Hal's instruction nosed down into the sand again and April shook her head and dropped the spindles at her sides feeling discouraged. Like somehow this was a test for her future and she was failing. Hal came toward her. "Don't give up," he said.
Another pinch tore through her uterus and this one was sharp enough to make her wince aloud. Hal noticed.
"What is it, sweetie?"
April breathed in deeply, the way she used to through the three-hundredth sit-up. When she let go of the chord of air a long, snaky sob slid out past her guard.
Hal stared at her, looking helpless, but his gaze wasn't the judgmental glare of Cole's who used to feel manipulated by her crying.
"I… I can't fly this stupid thing."
"It takes practice. That's what you're doing. Practicing."
"I don't want to do it. I don't want to learn."
Hal looked at his red and yellow kite, lovingly cut and sewed to the light frame, April imagined. She felt suddenly guilty again, like she was rejecting him by failing to fly his creation.
"Hal… I… Ow!"
This cramp was bigger and more fierce than any other she'd felt yet. She put her hands on her belly then, to support it or hold it. Hal looked alarmed.
"You're in pain!"
"I'm having these cramps," she said. "I don't think this is a good sign."
As she said the words, she became aware of a shivery fear rising from her spine, a sense that if something happened with her pregnancy she was giving Hal permission to leave her.
"We should get you home then, call the doctor."
"No. Not yet," she said. "Let me just go to the bathroom. I want to try the kite again. I'm O.K."
Hal looked unconvinced, but he rarely pushed his agenda on her. He walked her to the bathroom and April sat down on the toilet afraid of what she would find. A series of smaller cramps began to course through her, the kind she used to get before her period began.
She pulled her underwear down and saw that the pad she had installed there was heavily spotted with blood. It was happening. She had read the literature. Miscarriages could happen at any time, even in the second trimester. It was normal; it just happened to some women.
April washed her hands in the cold water and dried them under the warm air device. She hobbled outside where Hal stood, clutching his kite like a child.
"Let's fly the kite again. I'm O.K.," she said.
"Are you sure?"
He stared at her a moment before agreeing.
She let Hal unfurl the triangular bird again and held onto the spindles like they were the controls to an airplane. Like they could hold much more than that tiny cloth creature aloft.
"Don't try to control it so much as just follow it, just feel where the tension picks up and then try to keep it riding the current," Hal instructed.
He moved a step away and the kite lifted up in the air but quickly fell back to earth. A cramp rippled her uterus. She breathed in, motioned for Hal to try again. This time she would feel the place where the kite grabbed the sky, where it wanted to ascend and meet the wind. And though it was only for a few seconds, the feeling was enough to urge her to do it again. Suddenly the kite was not just another ungainly object she had to magically put into the air; it was a living thing hungry to stay alive.
The kite finally rose and stayed up. April took steps backward, keeping the tension of the string taut, breathing, following, not controlling, and it occurred to her for the first time that maybe Hal was here because he wanted to be.
She could have stayed there all day, through the night until her arms grew numb. The dance of kite and her body made a sense her mind couldn't name. She and the kite had been one solid line. When the airborne craft finally hit a pocket of dead air and drifted lazily to the ground, Hal ran up to her, his cheeks wind-reddened, laughing. "Seven minutes!" he said. It had felt like hours to April.
Her belly quivered, she felt slightly feverish and elated.
"I guess I should get back… should call the doctor," she said, but felt no alarm.
"Is it… ?"
"I think so."
"Are you sad?" he asked.
"Are you?" she said.
Hal smiled and put his arm around her. "It's hard to be sad when I've got my arm around the woman I love."
* * *
This story first appeared in Summerset Review
To learn more about Jordan, visit her blog, Write Livelihood.