I’ll be posting short stories on Wednesdays in 2012. One of the things I want to change this year is that I will consistently call myself a writer and behave as such. Fiction writers write stories, so I’ll be doing more of that. You, blog readers, are my accountability partners. Hopefully you’ll like these stories.
I was looking through my hard drive, finding things to delete as I yearn for a 2012 fresh start. The first 6-8 will be stories from my undergraduate thesis, so they are all 6-8 years old.
This one is called “Mistaken.” I was reading a lot of Lorrie Moore when I wrote it.
My favorite anecdote about this piece is that when Chuck Kinder (famously, the guy on whom Michael Douglas’s character was based in the movie Wonder Boys, which was first a book by Michael Chabon of the same name) called me to welcome me into the MFA program at Pitt (which I did not finish), he said, “I just love those second-person sex stories.” So there’s your spoiler. This is a second-person sex story.
It is Halloween. You are both drunk on pumpkin beer and tequila. His huge hands are like warm wash cloths on your hips and you sit up with him inside, rocking, rocking. You feel him begin to shudder under you, and know you can come too. And you do. Then the sensation you will deny for weeks: beyond the threshold of plausible deniability and then some. A flutter deeper under your organs than any cramp, any ovulation. It spreads out across your limbs like a thousand spiders parade along each vein. You smile. Your hand settles involuntarily on the sticky skin below your navel and you start. He is beside you, so you can’t say, “Shit.” You can’t say, “Oh my god.” You shove your hand under his butt and pretend to be invulnerable. You roll over and kiss the skin beneath his armpit hair. It is the softest, best-smelling skin in the world. He sighs and fingers your hair. He pulls you close in his safe, safe arms.
You can feel it. Feel it like nobody ever told you you would, like nothing in a text book. A freeze dried marshmallow floats in the hot cocoa of your womb. You suck, frantic, at your Camel Wide and you wish for any reality but this one.
You go back to your town, away from him. Think about how uncomplicated is a synonym for non-monogamy. Regret the conversation before the first time.
“What do you say we go back to your place, smoke a joint, get naked and see what happens,” he said.
“On one condition,” you said. “You won’t go back to New Hampshire and try to make me your long distance girlfriend.”
“Uncomplicated: good,” he said, and you got turned on by his caveman diction.
It’s the day you get back from visiting your parents for Thanksgiving. You are at Wal-Mart with your roommate. She picks up the pink boxes, you favor the blue. You think blue is a more sensible color in general. You trust blue. You do not trust pink. You wonder why pregnancy tests come in boxes the colors of babies. You think they should be black. You think Sam’s Choice is a bad choice. You wonder how it’s possible that Sam’s costs $3.41, and the least costly brand above that is $9.93. You settle on a middle-of-the-road brand. It comes in a blue box. You would prefer it have a blue strip, too, but its strip is pink. You start to think about gender issues and tell yourself to shut up.
You remember how you got feisty about the condom. How he didn’t want to wear one. How that time you broke four before one finally made half-time. How you wish you could parade these instructional leaflets and plastic pieces and incomprehensible pink-or-blue-lines to his bathroom. Make him see, make him participate. But the truth is you’ve done it to yourself. The truth is you’re scared to death. The truth is you’ve known him for two months, spent twelve hours with him, and the only thing you know about him is that he is a sweet, energetic boy with a beautiful penis. And that you’re not sure if this pull in your gut when you think of him is because you love him or because you’re pretty sure you’re carrying his child.
You think about not smoking on the way home. But you roll down the window and drag deep. Deep and long. You’re still officially ignorant. Ignorance is bliss. You finish it in two blocks and light another. Your roommate bites at the tips of her fingers. She reaches over and touches your arm. Says, “It’ll be okay. No matter what, okay? I’m here for you.” You blink away the sting in your nose and smile with half your mouth. A patronizing smile you’ve only seen on mothers before. You squeeze her fingers and say, “Thanks.”
You pee in a plastic cup you have from your last STD test at Planned Parenthood. The instructions say pee in a cup or on the test stick. You think the cup is safer. You think about how you catch things. You catch ideas in journals. You catch sentiment in e-mail. You caught bugs in jars when you were small. Then you think about how catching things makes them elusive. How bugs are elusive. How colds are elusive. How it seems that this is less elusive than you hoped.
Your roommate holds the test for three minutes. She makes you leave the bathroom. You feel like throwing up. You boil water for tea. You think about decaf, how what’s happening in the bathroom will change what you think about decaf. You think about what you will do, imagine tiny limbs spiraling down the toilet. Think about pro-lifers’ picket signs with their graphic masses of clotty, discarded fetus. Abortion’s what you always said you’d do. But you feel it. You know it’s there. It’s changed the way you think. You can smell everything. It is your job to protect it.
“What’s it say?” you yell through the bathroom door.
“Come in here. I can’t tell.”
You see two pink lines: one much darker than the other. You ask her which appeared first.
“The darker one. The instructions say the lighter one’s supposed to show up first, to prove it’s working. But that dark one came first and fast. The lighter one just came.”
“Well, there are two visible lines. I think that means positive,” you say. Sigh. Sit on the side of the tub.
“Are you going to tell him?”
“What are you going to do?”
Without warning or sense, you want monogamy. You don’t want to ask. You don’t want to hear him say, “You’re a great girl, but…” like others before him. And you laugh because it is so ridiculous. You are somebody’s mom. You feel assertive and tired. You understand why you’re supposed to have a husband for this. And you, you can only blame yourself.
You try to concentrate on finals, and you don’t do any Christmas shopping. You write your papers, but they end up being illogical and bad. You turn them in anyway. You pretend you’re strong and go home to your mom. Your Pollyanna mom.
You say, “I have some bad news.”
“What?” she says.
“You’re going to be mad.”
“I won’t know that until you tell me, now will I?”
You pause a moment, look for better words. “I’m pregnant.”
She gets a look that twists her face like a Picasso: some amalgam of horror, joy, anger, love. It is an impossible look. You think about how someday you’ll know how to make looks like that. Because your child will hurt you as much as you hurt your mom.
“How did this happen?” she asks.
“Well, usually this happens when people have sex.” You know it’s hard for her, but you suspect she’ll highjack this and make herself a martyr somehow. It is her pattern.
“I know that. Who were you having sex with?” Your mother and father both assume you are a virgin. They think this because you never talk about a boyfriend. You never talk about a boyfriend because you never have one. Because you like to skip all the squishy stuff and just do it. You know the last names of less than half the men you’ve slept with.
“So I guess marriage is out of the question, then?”
She starts to cry and you are helpless. You don’t want to hug her because she is angry. You don’t want to cry in front of her. She doesn’t want to hug you. She sputters through her tears, “Your father will not handle this well. I think I should tell him.”
You leave the room.
But your father does handle it well. He comes to you while you are looking through sheet music at the piano. He scoops you up like you are a little girl again. He hugs you a long time. He rubs your back in slow, solid circles. You cry, wail. Like you did when you were scared of cows as a child. You pull away from him and say, “Thanks, dad.” His eyes are wet, too. You have soiled his t-shirt. You paw at it and blubber. He says, “Don’t worry, I was gonna take a shower anyway.” Later, he will ask you a lot of questions about your sex life. He will wonder how many partners you have had. He will ask you about birth control and STDs. He will seem a little too curious. But you will be relieved to hear him say, “Honey, you’re twenty-four. I would be worried if you weren’t having sex.”
You have lunch with your mom and let her take you baby shopping. She is happy. Then you go back to college. You make appointments to see doctors. You cry at one Kenny Loggins song and all Johnny Cash songs. You only want to eat Peanut Butter ‘n Jelly and Ramen. You do your school work rambunctiously.
Finally, you call him. You say, “I have something to tell you. It is important.”
He says, “What?”
“I bet you could guess if you thought real hard.”
He says, “Well, I think I know.”
“What do you think you know?” You feel like a cheater because you are making him say it even though you can’t.
“What are you going to do?”
“Shit. What have I done to you?”
“You didn’t do anything to me. I was there, too. You didn’t do this by yourself.” You have repeated this line over and over. Your parents want you to be a victim, to blame. You tell them there is no blame to hang. You were using two forms of birth control. Sometimes things like this just happen.
“Is there anything I can do?” he asks.
You wish you could blame him, be hurt, hang up. You wish you knew something, anything. It gets clear to you that you know nothing. “Decide what you will do. Tell me I’m pretty.”
“You know you’re pretty. Shut up.”
“Wow. This hurts.”
“Yeah.” You say, “It does,”
“I don’t think I can talk about this right now,” he says, lets out a nervous giggle. You are relieved that he does not yell. That he did not hang up. “Can I call you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” you say. You doubt he will.
But he does call. He calls and you are surprised. You are elated. You are an excited terrier. You want to jump through the phone and lick his face. And you want to talk. But he does not want to talk about what you want to talk about. He wants to wax-questionable-taste about poor films and poorer books. He wants to talk to you about his job. He wants to pretend that you have been friends for a long time. And you let him, you let him because you should: because you want to.
So you talk. About nothing. You listen. About less. He tells you about all the beer he’s been drinking, and you are jealous. He tells you about his stupid roommates and their stupid animals that they don’t take care of. You tell him about school, though he acts disinterested. You visit him. You think maybe he will want to talk about this thing, this big thing in your body, if he can see you. But it is worse. You understand, for the first time, the expression “there’s an elephant in the room.”
You identify in yourself a need to talk, you realize talking is how you survive. But you also need sex. So you decide that you will use this visit productively, and you notice – though you try not to analyze too much – how he is more violent with you. How he leaves the kind of bruises you like, and you try to draw only the obvious conclusion. But it sticks there like foreshadowing, and you think about how your life has become literature.
So you decide that you must talk. You decide that if he is not ready to talk, he doesn’t have to, but you are, and you need to. And you do. You do because waiting for him to be ready makes you feel helpless. You call him and talk. You write him long, insecure e-mails. When he talks, he talks in as few syllables as possible, and always seems to agree. He sometimes answers your e-mails, in courteous, respectful sentences. Short ones. You feel more secure, and you bring up nuances.
“What will happen when the baby’s five?” you ask.
“I will visit on his birthday,” he says, and you know that you’ve been doing all this talking, and he has not been listening. He’s been blatantly ignoring you. And you brace yourself for the emotional tsunami that is about to strike.
You feel yourself begin to cry, and you say, “I gotta go.”
He asks, “Is everything all right?”
You say, “I just gotta go. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
And you do. And he does not answer his phone. He doesn’t answer the next or the next day. When he finally answers, he has to go right away. “Bill’s coming over. Bringing beer. I have to go.”
You hang up the phone. You cry. You write more e-mails, though you know he hasn’t been reading them. When you ask him why he never writes back, he says, “I’m busy.” When you ask him if he’s reading the e-mails, he says, “Of course.” You tell him you won’t send them if he’s not reading them. That you have to talk about it, but you will only talk on the phone or visit more if he doesn’t read the e-mails. He insists that he does read them. So you insist to yourself that he has no reason to lie. That you will continue to write them, and you will consider this a misunderstanding.
But he does not get any better at talking, or answering e-mails, and you are beginning to show. His reluctance to talk confuses you, confounds you, renders you speechless. You realize that it was never okay, that he was never ready to talk. That his silence will not get any better if you continue to indulge it. It may not get better if you don’t indulge it, but at least you will know where you stand. And so you drive to his house. You appear, unannounced, on a Friday night. And he hugs you, holds you, pushes your hair behind your ears. He wonders why it looks like you’ve been crying, and you begin to think that he is an idiot.
And so you tell him that you have not come for sex, that you are completely prepared to make the three-hour-drive back tonight, and that he must talk to you about this. That this is big and hard, and you understand that. And you assume, since he hasn’t said otherwise, that whatever fears he has are okay. That they are probably your fears, too.
But the truth is, he erupts. He blames you. He tells you you should have had an abortion. He asks you why you didn’t, why you had to put him through this. He tells you that he has rights. That he has the right to keep you close to him, because you have mentioned grad school out west. That he does not have to send you child support if it means he has to go on welfare. And you can barely see. You can barely breathe. You can barely stand up. You ask him why he didn’t say any of this sooner. He doesn’t hear you. He keeps ranting about his rights.
You interject with an “I statement,” something you learned about in a junior-high health text book. It doesn’t matter what it is, because he screams, “Stop saying I! I wish you’d stop saying I! This isn’t about you anymore. You have a kid!” And you crumple. You crumple inside, outside, you realize that he is a lost cause. That he has been storing all this up. That he has been stringing you along. That you have no idea why he would or how he could do that. You realize the boys in your grammar class are more sensitive to your pregnancy than he is.
The water in your eye sockets has broken. You will not stop crying for weeks. For now, though, you turn around while he is mid-scream. You say “Goodbye.” You are not sure he has heard you. You don’t care. You remember how you have been asking him to talk, and squash your protestant guilt. You regret your hesitancy to blame. You will not hear from him for months.
You stop at a late-night drive-thru McDonald’s and get three large orders of fries. You get a huge coke. You drive seven hours to your parents’ house. It is 5 in the morning when you get there. Your dad is awake and getting ready for work. He is surprised to see you. Your eyes are swollen and the front of your shirt has two large wet spots.
Your dad says, “Please move home, honey. Move home and stay until this is all over.”
You hug him. Later, you ask your mom what your dad meant by “until this is all over.” You’re sure he doesn’t think parenthood is finite. Your mom says, “I think he meant until your kid is eighteen and can move out.” You laugh. She laughs.