By Torrey Bonington
“What are you waiting for?”
“I’m just not ready.”
“But ready for what? It’s been a year and a half.”
“God, how long does it take to make a club sandwich? That’s what I’m really waiting for.”
“Will you forget about the fucking club sandwich and answer my question for once?”
She looked at him then, startled. He didn’t usually swear. The florescent lights cast a soupy glow over everything, rendering his pale, freckly complexion dull and causing his normally kind blue eyes to appear cold and piercing. The diner was crowded and overheated. The tropic temperature fogged the plate glass window behind him. She couldn’t clearly see the people outside, only the blurred colors of their winter coats as they walked by.
“Paul, I’m not ready to go down that road again.” She dropped her gaze and played with the sugar shaker on the chipped Formica table. It didn’t matter if she looked away, she could still feel his stare.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall,” he muttered, his jaw set to the side the way it did when he got really angry. She opened her mouth in the hopes of soothing him, but nothing came out.
Just then their food arrived, but it was too late. Rachel had lost her appetite.
He had always been attentive, but he was especially so during those months. Did she want something to eat or drink? Did she want to lie down? Did she want to go for a walk? Would she like a foot massage? He was always there to do the heavy lifting and reaching for her when she struggled. Always refilling her glass of sparkling cider while everyone else drank wine, just in case she felt left out. It was endearing to see him so keyed up over the fact that she was carrying his child. She would tease him that he was forgetting that she wasn’t a baby, she was only having one, but she loved the special treatment anyway.
But Paul wasn’t the only person taking notice. Not only did their families behave as though suddenly she were a holy vessel, she was amazed at how many strangers flocked to her when she started to show. When was her due date? Was it going to be a boy or a girl? Did she have any names picked out? Could they feel the baby kick? Even the wordless acts of men giving up their seats on the subway and people making way for her as she tottered down the sidewalk were not lost on her. Whereas months before she would have been standing holding the rail while the car jumped and skipped on the track and fighting her way through the crowded streets of New York, now she was the one on the receiving end of an unspoken reverence.
They arrived back at the apartment hours later, fingers frozen and eyes still streaming from the cold. They kept their coats on as Paul headed for the couch to read the paper and Rachel walked into the kitchen to start dinner. They had lived in their place long enough to know that it would take a good half hour before the heat kicked in, so they had come to peeling their outer layers off gradually in the cold months. She grabbed hold to the forefinger of her glove and pulled it off with her teeth as she banged around the pots and pans. After she got the pasta water on the stove to boil, she shuffled across the smooth yellow linoleum and onto the soft, scuffed pine floorboards to join Paul. He was thumbing through the financial section of the Times. She sat beside him and picked up Arts and Leisure.
“I’m sorry about before,” he said, looking up at her.
“It’s okay,” she replied, keeping her eyes on the newsprint.
She had been asleep when the sensation began—so gentle at first that it almost didn’t exist. The smallest of squeezes, each one lasting no longer than the intake of a breath. It was only after several hours of slumber, after the gradient of pain intensified, that she awoke. The familiar wetness between the legs, the low ache of the womb—the female figure’s admonishment for a woman’s monthly failure to provide something other than itself to care for. The heart wants what the heart wants, but so does the body.
In her state of sleepiness Rachel, out of habit, sat up to retrieve a tampon and an old towel to place beneath her when she felt a hot gush and quickly remembered why she shouldn’t. The room was suddenly pungent with the sweet, iron smell of blood and she flicked on the lamp to watch a crimson river bloom on the set of ivory sheets from Pottery Barn—a wedding gift from Paul’s aunt Tilly. Instantly she was wide awake, the fear snapping through her sternum.
She would remember the rest as if it were a film—a reel of old home movies. Jumpy and grainy, people’s fluid movements rendered uncharacteristically jerky and all of it without sound. Shaking Paul awake. The light of the bathroom clicking on, momentarily blinding them as he carried her in his arms and laid her in the tub. Her bloodstained hands holding the sheets in between her shivering legs to stop a flow that refused to clot. The way he dialed the phone and paced. The way he watched her hard, swollen abdomen rise and fall with her sharp, shallow breaths and the sanguine trail determinedly inching its way across the porcelain to the drain.
The hospital was another blur. Bored-looking doctors and nurses wasting time asking Rachel if she had any allergies while she pressed her thighs together and tried in vain to quell the most primitive desire within her. The desire to push. To them it didn’t matter that she and Paul were beside themselves, nor did it matter that it was twelve weeks too soon. Their only directions given as orders: Rachel, you are going to deliver this baby now. Rachel, we need you to lie on this table now. Rachel, put on this mask and start counting back from ten now. Now, now, now. The word rang in their heads like church bells piercing the air at twilight. The tension exorcised from her body as she slipped into semi-consciousness, thanks to a landslide of drugs. They made Paul wait outside so he wouldn’t see that the baby came out in pieces.
Dinner was over and the dishes were done. At this time most couples their age were tied up with getting the kids to bed before collapsing onto their mattress for a few hours of dreamless sleep before starting the whole exhausting process of parenting all over again. For Paul and Rachel there was only silence. The change of a channel on the TV. The flick of the page of a novel being reread before bed. The padding of feet from one room to the next. The kitchen faucet drawing a glass of water. These are the reverberating sounds of emptiness, relentless tones that cannot be drowned out.
The miscarriage itself wasn’t so painful—there was Vicodin for that. What hurt the most were the phone calls they had to make afterward. The explanations given in carefully measured voices, stated matter-of-factly in order to avoid hysteria. The excruciating silences on the other line. The words of loved ones that were repeated so many times they lost all meaning and became a broken record of condolences, spinning constantly around the turnstyle of their grief. Through all of it, Rachel never once cried. Paul urged her to let go, to at least see a therapist if only for a couple of sessions in the hopes she might feel a release, but she didn’t see the point. Tears and counseling wouldn’t bring a dead baby back. She went back to work a few days later. She was catatonic during the meeting she had with her boss as to why she wouldn’t need to take maternity leave in a couple months, as if the fabric of her shirt that had gone slack around her shrunken abdomen wasn’t telling enough. The looks of pity she got from neighbors and coworkers were met with a blank stare.
Rachel always showered before bed. Most of the time she tried to divorce herself from her body whenever she had to be naked: eyes focused straight ahead. Lather, rinse and repeat. Shut off the water, dry off and get dressed. But tonight she examined herself under the spray. Her stomach had returned to its natural shape, only the ghost of a few stretch marks remained—the tiny silver striations the only evidence that she had ever come close to being a mother. She cradled her empty abdomen for a moment before violently running her nails across the skin. She watched five angry red lines etch into her. She ran the water burning hot and did it again.
Twenty minutes later she emerged looking medium rare while Paul sat up in bed perusing a lesson plan he was giving his class tomorrow on the Bronte sisters. She slid in next to him and lay there, the water that beaded around her hairline dribbled onto the pillow.
“Let’s go away for awhile,” Paul suddenly piped up.
“Where should we go?” she asked, studying the crack in the plaster on the ceiling.
“I don’t know. We both have some vacation days saved up. We could go somewhere warm.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said. The crack had grown since they moved in. She had been watching it for some time but hadn’t mentioned anything about getting it fixed. She liked to watch the slowly lengthening black line meander across the white. A river on a map. After a few moments of staring, Rachel leaned over and pulled the sheaf of papers away from Paul.
“Hey, I was working on that,’ he laughed, giving her a perplexed look over his reading glasses.
“You’ve done enough work. Time to relax.” She mounted him, took his head in her hands and gave him a deep, probing kiss. At first he responded in kind, but soon broke away to examine her face, almost as if he were looking for a clue. She pulled him close, forcefully this time, and kissed him hard. She didn’t want him to look at her that way. Again he drove her back.
“Whoa, hold on a second Rach—‘ he said in the voice he used for his students when they misbehaved. A tone that never failed to incense her.
“What? What’s the problem?” Her brow knit in frustration.
“What? You what, Paul?”
“I’m just…not tonight, okay?”
“Fine. I don’t want you to do me any favors,” she spat as she thrashed the covers back and returned to her side of the bed. "Do you want to try again or not? You need to make up your mind."
“I know.” His voice was quiet. His eyes were apologetic. “I know.” He repeated. There was sympathy in his timbre, the one thing Rachel could not tolerate. “That wasn’t right for me to say. I shouldn’t pressure you when you’ve already been through so much.” He stroked her hair.
“What do you want, Rachel?” Paul asked softly, looking at her.
“I want things to go back to the way they were.” She breathed, her eyes fixed away from his. He started to say something, and then stopped.
“I’m going to go turn up the heat,” he finally murmured. He got out of bed and picked up the book from the floor on his way out. Rachel caught the reflection of his face in the mirror of her dresser when he stood back up. She could tell he was crushed. He shuffled out of the room and she slammed her head back onto the pillow in humiliation and rage. She wanted to go back, yes, but what she didn’t tell him is that she also wanted to get what she deserved. If it hadn’t been for her, things would have been the same between them. Better, in fact. They would have had a child with his eyes and her hair.
The clock on their nightstand read three a.m. Both of them were still awake—dreaming was out of the question now. Hours ago Paul had made his way back to bed after enough time had passed for Rachel to cool off. The fight was over. But nothing was resolved. Instead of speaking, they watched the headlights of passing cars paint rectangular splashes on the walls and ceiling of the room they shared. A growing light that overtook the room, receded and disappeared as quickly as it had come. As if it had never existed in the first place. He reached for her. She climbed onto him and breathed a sigh.
The clock read three forty-five. Rachel lay face down with her head turned to the side, her white knuckled hands gripping the edge of the headboard as Paul moved rhythmically on top of her, groaning. In the past Rachel never would have favored this position, but now it was easier this way—there were times when she could not bear to see the look on his face when he was inside her. They both knew that they had reversed from making love to having sex to purely fucking. They fucked without words. Without acknowledgement. To fill a void that could not and would not ever be filled, but they fucked anyway.
She felt a rivulet of sweat drip off his chest and onto her back. She had the feeling that he didn’t particularly like doing things this way, but it no longer mattered. She gnashed her teeth when she reached orgasm and let out a bleak cry that was full of longing and pleasure all at once. Paul finished shortly thereafter and rolled off her.
The start of a work day tended to be hectic around their apartment; Paul and Rachel were not morning people. But on that day it seemed as though everything was running at half speed. She made coffee while he splashed around in the bathroom shaving and concentrated on methodically pouring juice and buttering toast when he walked into the kitchen. He said hello and she murmured one back over her shoulder. It was a good ten minutes of chewing before he said anything.
“Rachel, about last night—‘
“Paul, honestly, it’s fine. I’m fine. It doesn’t matter.” She flashed him a crooked smile.
“We aren’t even going to discuss it?”
“What’s to discuss?" He glanced at the clock, then back at her, a pained expression on his sweet face. He was running late but clearly didn’t want to leave. “Really, Bo Bo.” She hadn’t called him this in a long time. She hoped it would do the trick. To her immense relief, he caved.
"You’re going to be late!” She picked up his plate and brought it to the sink. “What do you want for dinner tonight?”
“I don’t know,” he said, picking up his bag and stuffing some loose papers inside. She had snapped him into teacher mode after reminding him to get to work. “I’ll text you about it later?”
“Sure thing,” she said, giving him a kiss as he shrugged into his coat and walked out.
She sat reading the paper at the table for awhile after he left. Her shift at the library didn’t start until eleven. She drank the dregs of her coffee, placed the mug in the sink and walked into the bedroom to get dressed. She broke her cardinal rule for the second time and stopped before the mirror. A slow scan from the bottom up, pausing now not on her stomach, but her face as hot tears spilled down her cheeks, dripping onto her t-shirt and the floor.
How she wished he would punish her for what she had done to them.
Read more about our staff writer Torrey Bonington here