“Listen, I have to tell you something.”
I almost hung up the phone then because I just didn’t want to hear it. I mean, I knew it already, I knew it in the tone of his voice, but in reality I knew it in his posture—and in his eyes that no longer met mine. I knew it in the distance between calls. And there was the fact that I hadn’t seen him in over a month. Most importantly, our sex life had stopped abruptly that night nine months ago.
“I don’t want to hear it,” I said. There I was being all polite. Isn’t that what had gotten me where I was? Being nice—being agreeable. I was always trying to keep the peace when everyone was angry about something. And everyone was angry about the lack of jobs, the lack of housing, the lack of anything to do—angry about just life.
“It’s just that I’ve been thinking.”
“Of course you have.” My tongue felt venomous. I rolled my eyes and considered laying the phone in its cradle and pulling the plug from the wall. Let him keep talking into a vast nothingness. That’s what it all felt like anyway. Like we were circling in space and whatever it all was meant to be about was consistently being vacuumed away.
I looked down at my twenty-three-month-old baby, Arlo, asleep next to me. His mouth was opened slightly and the blanket beneath his head was wet from his sleep sweats. I stared down at my expanding stomach. Tomorrow I would find out if my little guy’s brother was going to have to be evicted. He seemed reluctant to make his appearance. Who could blame him? There wasn’t much to be coming out to. A single mother, an older brother. No one else in the world who would give a damn about him and I wasn’t even certain what my thoughts were regarding him. I had a lot to think about at the moment. I had arrangements dangling in the shadows on who was going to take care of Arlo if I had to give birth. I really didn’t have time for this shit.
“I know what you want to say.” I waited a beat, but there was no response. “We broke up ages ago, Todd. You might not have said it officially, but I knew. You knew. Fuck, everyone knows!” I wished I had a cigarette. I know, I know. Everyone shakes their head at smoking pregnant women. Yes, it was 1992 and everyone knew better. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I wasn’t going to have one. But I really fucking wanted one.
There was silence on the other end. Was Todd hanging up? I listened for a click. Then I heard him clear his throat. No dice. He was still there.
“I know I shouldn’t have pushed you to go to trial.” His voice was hollow.
I sighed. No, he shouldn’t have—but my usual side was climbing through me. I longed to tell him it was okay, that everything was okay. It didn’t matter. I was doing well despite everything. I bit my lip to keep from talking.
“I really should have stayed out of it.”
“I could have told you what would happen. I wasn’t surprised by the verdict.” There, that was some kind of compromise. I didn’t totally sound like a chump.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.” Oh, I bet you have. I was pretty certain what happened to me went through his mind over and over again when he was with that little redhead I had seen him around Seattle with.
“I think I should tell you what I’ve realized in person,” he said. I closed my eyes and tried to push the thoughts from my mind. I saw a fist. I saw the cigarette butt in the grass. I saw my wrist bent at an odd angle and the red and gray plaid flannel swim into watery view.
“I’d rather you not.” I could hear music blaring— loud and rushing through my head. I remembered what song was playing and I never ever wanted to hear Soundgarden again.
“I think I thought— ”
“You think you thought? What does that even mean?” My throat was dry and my voice sounded raspy.
“Okay, okay. I thought if there was a conviction that it would somehow make me feel better. Make it good, no that’s the wrong word. I’m sorry. I rehearsed this before I called and I still can’t get it fucking right.”
“Did you write it down?”
“What you wanted to say.”
“No, I didn’t think of that.”
“Then, I guess you’ll just have to wing it.”
He went silent. I looked around the small room. I had managed to get a bed from a friend’s mom who felt bad for me. The table next to me was a milk crate with a scarf over it. I had a chest of drawers from a yard sale. That was a good catch. It set me back three dollars that I almost didn’t spend because that could buy milk for Arlo or cigarettes for me. I was glad in the end when I found a twenty-dollar bill curled up in the back of the top drawer.
Arlo’s grandparents had each donated items specifically for him. They didn’t care for their son anymore, had disowned him eight years before when he was sixteen by kicking him out of each of their houses respectively. They didn’t care much for each other as well having divorced seven years before that. That was such a theme of my childhood. Parents divorcing, parents not wanting to be burdened with raising the offspring of their mating, parents kicking their kids out. I guess the eighties was a time, not only of great excess for some but great independence as well. Independence from responsibilities. It seemed like our entire generation was made up of unwanted children who infringed upon our parent’s desire to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Screw that Generation X, Slacker shit. We were Generation Unloved, Unwanted. We were Generation Whatever.
When I was fifteen suffering through biology class, I learned that fair hair and blue eyes were recessive genes and that if two people with these traits came together and reproduced, their children would be blond with blue eyes as well. This struck me because my parents and younger siblings all shared these traits. With my dark brown hair, brown eyes, and permanent tan, I didn’t. It never seemed like a big deal, but there I was learning that dark hair and eyes were dominant traits and that if someone dark made children with someone fair, chances were good that their children would be dark, though like most things biologically, there were exceptions.
I made an ass out myself in class by telling the teacher she was full of shit because I was living proof that two fair people could have a dark child. She didn’t argue with me, but I could tell from her expression that something was up. I immediately pinned my mom down after she got home from work and after some questions and then a lot of screaming back and forth, I learned that I was apparently fathered by some strung out hippie back in the early seventies who my mother met on her journey to find herself in California.
Not too long after that, I ran away. I don’t know why really. No one ever mistreated me at home—but they definitely always seemed off the more and more I thought about it. We lived in a decent little town in Western Massachusetts. I had nice things. But I couldn’t help scrutinizing how my little brother (half) and sister (half) were my parents’ 100 percent children. I remembered my parents talking about following the Grateful Dead and they would sometimes talk about how I was with them when they did so, but I didn’t remember anything too far back from my brother’s (half) birth in the early ’80s.
Sometimes I would catch myself muttering, “I hate my life, I hate my life” over and over under my breath.
My mother often reminded me of all the things she could have been had she not had us kids. An artist, a writer, a rock star, a fucking debutante. Whatever suited her need at the moment. She’d narrow her eyes at me and gesture with her cigarette like she wanted badly to poke me in the chest with it to make her point. Oh, right, and she couldn’t abort me because I came along before Roe v. Wade. Fuck that. I could have exercised that right when I found out I was pregnant the first time—but I believed I had found my forever mate in Jeremy and that our child would be full of unconditional love.
Of course, I still had plenty of time to terminate when Jeremy dumped my ass before I got to announce our imminent parenthood.
I had come back from the clinic ready to tell him the news to find someone had taken my place in his eyes and in my bed. I say my bed because it literally was mine. As was the rest of the furniture. Not to mention that the apartment was in my name because I paid for that too. I had a day job schlepping coffee and a night job stocking shelves. Jeremy was going to be a rock star.
After I got over my shock, I tried to tell Jeremy what was going on, but as soon as the words were out, my replacement hauled off and punched me in the stomach. She pulled her arm back for a second jab, but I ran for the door before she made contact. Jeremy got in the way and pushed me. He had never so much as raised his voice at me, so this caught me off guard and I froze, unsure what to do next.
“Grab her, grab her,” the apple of his eye called, but he only made a half-hearted attempt and I bolted, leaving them my belongings and the apartment.
A few days later, with the help of Jeremy’s mother, I did manage to contact the landlord, who always liked me. He removed my name from the lease and told me not to worry about the rest.
At that point, I moved in with a girl band. They had plans to take over the music industry with their raw, angry feminism. They cooed and cawed over me and tried to talk me into getting an abortion. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.
I didn’t really understand my resistance. I was pro-choice. I had thought I would have been a good abortion candidate upon finding out the story behind my existence. But, night after night, I found myself whispering to my baby that his life would be different. That I would never lie to him. He would grow up in truth. And almost three years later, I was looking at the same choice after that fucking concert. And I was stuck in the same place. I just couldn’t walk through that mob in front of the clinic and open that door.
“I fucking hate my life,” I uttered rubbing my belly.
“What?” Todd was still on the phone. I cradled the receiver on my shoulder.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Mad, angry, disappointed, pissed?”
Why was he still on the phone? “I don’t know.”
“I would be.”
“That’s nice to know.” I was worried I might start humming. That was something I did when I was feeling anxious or angry.
“I’m mad at me.”
“What do you want me to say, Todd?”
“Nothing. I want you to hear me out.”
“I just realize that I wanted you to press charges for me, not you. I didn’t really have your needs at heart.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it anymore.”
“I know. I know it was wrong to keep asking you what happened and putting you through all of that ordeal.”
I sighed heavily, and Arlo shifted in his sleep. I laid my hand on his chest and looked down at his baby cheeks and wispy blond hair. I thought about how he carried Jeremy’s last name and that Jeremy had chosen his first name. I carried him in my body and was raising him on my own and yet, we would forever be separated by names. I thought about the first time Jeremy held him, he turned to me and said, “I feel nothing for him.” And my replacement giggled, her hand rising to her scarlet painted lips.
Somewhere in all of this mess, I longed to feel like a feminist, but every move I made put me under some guy.
“We weren’t together very long, Todd. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not talking about us. I knew we weren’t a thing.”
“Well, I guess we just had a thing.”
“Stop it, Stephanie.”
I cringed. I still wasn’t used to that name. I wasn’t really sure why I chose it when I ran away. I guess I wanted a more normal sounding name than the one I grew up with. Who names their kid, Mable these days? Able Mable. Maybe Mable. For Christ’s sake, my mother told everyone my name was a family name, but my grandmother informed me of the truth. Mable was the name of the tortoiseshell cat my mother had grown up with. I was named after the fucking family pet. And my mother couldn’t even spell it correctly. I shook my head.
“Todd, I’ve got to go. It’s been really nice talking to you, but Arlo is napping and I want some time to myself before he wakes up.”
“Are you really round now?”
“How full are you? You’re at the end, right?”
“Jesus fucking Christ. I’m hanging up now.”
“Wait, Steph—hear me out.”
“Why? You’ve got a problem, Todd. If you like pregnant girls so much, knock up that pig nose chick you’ve been running around with.” And like that, I found my feminism and hung up the fucking phone.
Sybil Wilen’s debut short story collection, Now Look What You’ve Done was published in 2012, followed by Love Sutra a collection of flash fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Dark Sky, The Baltimore Review, Words & Images, Solstice Magazine, and the anthologies The New Dead, Haunted ME, Lovecraft ME, Spirits of Yuletide, and Haunted Love. She has published articles in Carpe Nocturne, Middle Eastern Dance in New England, Casco Bay/Maine Weekly, and anthologies by Llewellyn World Wide. She lives in Maine with her family.