by Rebecca Keller
1 The Mother, 1996
Yolanda fussed in her playpen, working up to a howl. Maria launched herself out of the chair like an awkward pole-vaulter. Her belly was heavy, and the sweat trickling between her breasts felt like an insect in her bra. Being pregnant the first time had been easy. Yolanda had been small and light, floating easily in her middle, light and calm.
Not this time. This baby had absorbed August itself. Maria was swollen with the humidity, weighed down with heat, moving with lava slowness. All her energy was sucked into the world growing in her belly. She rubbed her side and felt the baby swim over in response. Her body wasn’t hers anymore, and wouldn’t be for some weeks yet. She carried Yolanda to the door, grunting as she snagged her car keys. In the garage, Greg’s project– refinishing a cradle for the nursery–took up half the space, the newspapers yellowing around it like weird doilies. But the project had stalled: the sides were sanded down to honey-colored oak, but the spindles remained dark with old varnish.
“Shh” Maria cooed, buckling Yoli into the car seat. She backed out of the garage, cranking the minivan’s air conditioning, with the radio tuned to soothing jazz. In the cooling car Yoli’s cries faded to mewling, then stopped. Maria glanced in the rearview mirror. Yoli was asleep.
On a whim Maria headed for her old neighborhood, meandering her way through streets she hadn’t driven in months, past the panaderia, past Cucha’s. She and Greg used to get their carnitas to eat in the park. She thought about getting some before she remembered that now they gave him heartburn.
She ran out of road at Lake Michigan and parked above the beach. This close to the water there was a breeze, and the elms that fringed the place offered dense shade. She opened all the windows, cantilevered herself out of the car and stood in the open door, inhaling delicious coolness, listening to Yoli’s easy breathing. She rubbed her belly.
She smiled at Lupe’s bar, just across the park and over the street, where she and Greg used to spend every Saturday night. Back in those days they needed nothing more than to be together. In nice weather they’d go down to the beach and make out till she had to go home. In fact… she looked around. Yoli had probably been conceived within fifty feet of where she stood. Maybe after the new baby came she and Greg could make a date. Have some fun, just the two of them.
She looked back at Lupe’s. There was something about that car. No, it couldn’t be. She blinked to clear her eyes.
The car was his–she knew that dented bumper. And the man standing next to it looked just like Greg. But the woman he had just finished kissing and whose face he was looking at with such hunger, was not her.
It couldn’t be, but it was. Pregnancy hadn’t made her blind. She bent over and retched. Nothing came, but her stomach convulsed again.
She had to get home. Now. It was essential to get to her own house, as quickly as possible. If she stayed, she might scream, or faint, and then what would happen to Yoli? She gripped the wheel till her hands were white. She drove too fast, desperately trying to blot out the picture of Greg and that woman, even as the image was burning into her brain. A bus loomed, filling the windshield. She stomped the brake. Tires squealed. People stared. Yoli woke, crying “Mommy? Mommy?” She realized she was shaking, and pulled over. A man at the bus stop said, “Lady, you alright?”
When they finally made it home, she put Yoli in front of the television. Mr. Rogers said, “Boys and girls, have you ever seen a spider? They seem scary, don’t they? But can you imagine how scary we are to the spider?”
Maria paced, hugging her belly. Her mind had split in two. One half was frozen into dullness: Change Yoli. Wipe that spill. Did I eat lunch? The doctor said to watch my blood sugar. But the other half was racing: How am I supposed to start the conversation? “Oh, by the way, I saw you at Lupe’s with your girlfriend?”
Her eyes fell on the photo magnet-stuck to the fridge. She and Greg, floating on an air mattress at the pool. Her legs were thrown across his body, his hand on her ankle. She was laughing into the camera, and he was looking at her with adoration. Yes, adoration. What had happened?
Greg opened the door at the usual time. He called, as he always did, “Honeys, I’m home…” She was in the kitchen. She’d been there for half an hour, staring at the pantry, trying to focus on making dinner, paralyzed at the idea of sitting across from him and watching his jaw move as he chewed.
He kissed her forehead. “How was your day?” and leaned into the fridge to grab a beer. She stared at his fingers around the bottle, wondering where those hands had been. When had he started drinking at night? He never used to. He used to play with Yoli or go for a walk with her. Now when Maria came downstairs in the morning there were three, four, even five bottles in the recycling.
Greg reached out to wiggle Yoli’s nose, and Maria’s heart pounded. She turned, so quickly Yoli startled. “I–I need to lie down.”
He stroked her hair off her forehead., “Go, lie down. You need your rest.”
She resisted the urge to slam the bedroom door behind her, and curled into a ball to ease her back. What could she do? Where could she go?
He came into their room after midnight. She pretended to be asleep, and stared into the dark as he settled under the sheets. They’d gotten a king sized bed so there would be room for the kids to climb in and snuggle. Now he was on one side and she was as far as possible to the other, clinging to the edge. Making room for the other woman. A great silence stretched between them.
In the morning, she kept to the required paces. Get Yoli dressed, make lunch, do laundry. She stood in front of the washer, mechanically lifting the clothes from the hamper like a wind-up toy. And then she was holding his boxer shorts and shaking, trembling with the effort it took to resist the disgusting urge to stick her face into them, and the ghastly, humiliating realization she could weep uncontrollably into his dirty underwear.
That night, Greg returned home late. He leaned in and barely pecked her cheek, leaving a whiff of his aftershave– and she wondered, maybe perfume too? He offered a perfunctory, “How was your day?” as he walked past the basket of clean laundry waiting to be carried upstairs, and the emptiness in his voice told her he wouldn’t know if she answered.
She fed Yoli, and again went right to bed.
How could she say it? Your hand was in the pocket of her jeans, and your eyes had that hooded look they used to get when you were really hot, the way you used to look at me. The knot in her stomach grew tighter, and she hugged her belly. Just a few more weeks. Then, maybe her head wouldn’t be so foggy. Then she’d figure things out.
2 The Wife
Some instinct, some fight bubbled up through the exhaustion. She wouldn’t just let her marriage end. She reserved a table where they’d had their first fancy dinner and called Rosa to babysit. She pulled on the prettiest dress she had that still stretched around her middle. Despite the heat she applied mascara. She coaxed her swollen feet into high heels, and took the train downtown. She would make him see her. They would talk. Calmly. Non-hysterically. She could do this.
Trying not to look sweaty and rumpled, she perched on a bench in the lobby of his office. When the elevator opened a woman was smiling at him, her face tilted upward. His hand was on her back. Maria inhaled sharply and stood. Greg’s head swiveled. For one awful moment they locked eyes as he stepped away and slightly in front of the other woman, as if to hide her. Or protect her.
Fluorescent light soaked through Maria’s skin, like she was stretched to transparency. Time was somehow stuck. The familiar voice curled through her middle, but it took her a second to understand the words. “You want to go someplace?” Greg repeated.
Maria exhaled. “Is that all you have to say?”
“You’d rather talk here?”
They walked across the bright lobby and into the parking garage. She struggled to match his gait, lumbering in her heels. Had she expected him to come back to her, to somehow be tempted by her swollen body, her blue-veined breasts, her frumpy maternity bra? A few feet from the car, the baby launched a barrage of kicks, and Maria bent forward and pressed her hand on the spot where she felt a tiny foot. When Greg turned she saw something so sad flicker across his expression it stilled her anger. “What?”
Greg’s face collapsed on itself. Instead of answering, he curled his fingers around her arm, helping her to the minivan. When he touched she struggled not to cry. He got behind the wheel and glanced at her hand, still pressed against her belly.
The corner of his mouth trembled. “I don’t think I can handle another baby” he whispered.
Maria’s breath pulled right out of her. “I–I thought you wanted three.”
“I did.” He looked out his window. “I just….” He rubbed the steering wheel. “I guess I don’t know what I want.”
So, here it was. The beginning of the end. She snapped, “It’s a bit late to change your mind, wouldn’t you say?” He looked straight ahead and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.
He began driving. Maria stared out the window, relieved that at least they didn’t have to pretend anymore. Odd, but in that moment she felt closer to him than she had in months. Like mourners at a funeral, the same sad rain was washing over them both. She was surprised to taste salt, and found tears were leaking down her face. Her hand was lying on the seat. There was warmth, and she realized that Greg’s fingers had closed around hers.
After they got home, Maria sat on the edge of their bed. She listened as Greg tucked Yoli in, and closed her eyes. If things could just freeze this way forever, she wouldn’t have to do anything. She wouldn’t have to say anything. She crossed her legs to take off her shoes, and he was standing in the door, watching her.
He sat next to her, and reached for her shoe. “Your feet are swollen.” He lifted her legs onto his lap. “Lay down.” She leaned against the pillows. He began rubbing her feet, kneading her arches and smoothing the puffiness out of her calves. She didn’t want it to, but it was like heaven. She floated. God help her, it felt so good to be cared for.
The floating was becoming something else, a sharper ache. His hands were moving higher up her leg. He put his cheek against her mounding belly, his hands smoothing her body.
She swam up from where she’d been floating and pushed him away. “What are you doing?”
He swallowed. “Maria…”
“You think I’ll let you touch me?”
“When was the last time, Maria? When was the last time we did anything together? Much less make love…”
She opened her arms wide. “I’m pregnant, for God’s sake. I’m exhausted. I hold a cranky toddler all day and feel the baby kick all night. Excuse the hell out of me if I don’t feel like letting someone else sweat on top of me.”
“Sweat on you? Is that how you feel?”
He glared at her till she turned away, her face burning. After a few moments, he spoke to her back, “Nothing happened, I swear. I couldn’t go through with it.” His voice was dull.
“Why should I believe that?”
His face was pleading. “It’s true. We were like stupid teenagers, sneaking around, finding places to make out. It just happened.…”
Make out? The words hit Maria like a fist.
Then her clueless husband looked at her face. He lifted his arms in a gesture that acknowledged the ridiculousness of it all, and let them drop. Those sagging shoulders made her furious. A choking gag leaked from her throat, and she back-handed him with a pillow. “You bastard.” She smacked him again. “How could you?” Then he was holding her and she twisted, struggling against him, weeping. Finally she shoved him away, wiping her snotty face on the pillow.
He said “Please. Maria. Please. It was just … a stupid game. That’s all.”
“A game?” She stared him down, her unfaithful asshole husband.
“Maria…” he reached for her, but she spun away, pulling the sheet around her like a shroud. She could feel him behind her, waiting. Finally he grabbed his pillow and left the room.
The next morning, her eyes were crusty and her throat was sore. Greg was gone, but the first sticky-note was stuck to the coffee maker. “There’s a croissant in the fridge.” it said. A bright green note was pasted on the bathroom mirror: “I love you.” No points for originality.
But every morning there’d be more notes. “Thinking of you…” and an article about her favorite band. “I’ll get dinner,” and he’d bring home Chinese or Thai, or even attempt to cook, running through his repertoire of hamburgers and spaghetti and eggs.
She continued to go to bed early. In the morning she’d find the laundry done, or the bathroom cleaned. Yoli’s hair brushed into an inept braid she’d have to re-do. He was saying See what a good husband I am? At least that’s how she interpreted it.
Three weeks later she woke him at six in the morning. He caught her hands and pulled her toward him, drowsy joy on his face.
“Greg, no,” she said sharply. “It’s time.”
Eva was born that afternoon.
3 The Widow, 2014
The first six months after Greg died, Maria drove everywhere. Grief ambushed her more easily if she was on foot. Walking, she was vulnerable: out in the open with nowhere to hide. But she was a fifty-year old widow, with teenagers and bills. How was she supposed to not cry, sometimes?
Even now, two years after Greg’s funeral, a sudden ache could catch her by surprise. The grocery store was especially treacherous. Just last week, she turned down an aisle and saw Patsi Mendez, who could always be counted on to remind her how terrible it was that Greg had died so young, and how lucky Maria was to have her daughters, and how lovely the thank you cards they’d sent were.
It was Yoli who’d suggested that she and Eva write the notes after the funeral, during those long weeks when Maria had hidden herself in her living room, a recluse from the pity of her neighbors. “C’mon Mom,” Yoli argued, her foot tapping a thousand beats a minute. Like a hummingbird stuck in a cage. “We can’t just sit around and do nothing.”
So Yoli and Eva wrote the notes. Thank you for your condolences. Thanks for your donation to the American Cancer society; thank you for your prayers, your sympathy, the flowers. Maria was happy to do nothing, moving from the couch to the chair in an old sweater, drifting through her days as if encased in a grey, fuzzy cocoon.
She never knew what would summon it, a lightning stab of memory. Today she was passing two women waiting for the light when a snippet of conversation floated by.
“How’s your dad handling the chemo?”
And that was it. Some dormant seed burst open. Burst her open, and the smells of the doctor’s office and the perfume of the hospice nurse enveloped her. The nurse’s cologne had made Greg nauseous, but he told Maria not to say anything because, “Can you imagine her job? It must help cover the smell. ” He didn’t say ‘the smell of dying’, but that’s what he meant.
She sped up. Moving fast was the best strategy. She plowed right past the post office, but her steps slowed at the middle school soccer field. She remembered years before, pushing Eva’s stroller, Yolanda peddling next to her on her training bike, when they stopped to watch the teenagers practicing. Yoli had said, “Can I play that someday, Mama, when I’m a big girl?” Maria had laughed at her daughter’s small face, avid under her crooked helmet, because she was so big already–almost ready for kindergarten. She told Greg about it after dinner. Behind the kitchen door he cupped her breast and whispered, “Well, we’d finally have time alone.” That was after they’d knit themselves back together.
The post-it notes were just the beginning. When she finally let him touch her he was sweet, slow, whispering her name over and over, like ‘Maria’ was the most precious thing. Then she saw the depths of his regret, and his gratitude. That was when she set her foot on the long path toward trusting him again.
Who would touch her now? She wiped her eyes with the linty Kleenex she found wadded in her pocket, and walked faster, but she was trapped in a web of memory, and everywhere she turned she saw ghosts: The swings that squeaked when Greg pushed Yolanda too high. The deli where Eva spilled the olive oil. The softball field where she and Greg cheered middle-aged men playing against each other, their jerseys emblazoned with the names of bars or car repair shops. He’d never joined a team, but that one season he’d wanted to play for Lupe’s.
How could he? the old anger rose up again, surprising her.
No. She shook her head.
Hard to believe how the years had blown by–like snow drifting across a field. First defining the cracks and imperfections, then blurring, and finally hiding them. Eva would graduate high school soon. Yoli was already away at college. Just this morning, God help her, as Maria made yet another peanut butter and jelly she’d thought, “One thing I will not miss is making these lunches.” But that was a lie. She missed it already. She missed being young, she missed having a man, she missed everything she used to have and didn’t appreciate until now. She tried to think how Greg would make her feel better, but she couldn’t hear his voice so easily anymore. She slid her fingers under her glasses, covering her eyes.
Her tissue was in shreds. School must have ended, since kids in shin guards were filing into the field in front of her. It was time to go home and get dinner ready. She hadn’t made it to the store, but that was okay. She’d make Eva grilled cheese.
After dinner, she evaluated herself in the mirror. She put on lipstick. She dug out her dangly earrings. Tucked in the corner of her jewelry box sat a bundle of neon sticky notes. She stroked the silver cord that tied them together.
Eva bent over her homework at the dining room table. Maria kissed the top of her head. “I’m going out.” Eva had questions in her eyes, but Maria shook her head, smiling. Eva didn’t need to know. It might not amount to anything.
Up the street, her local coffee shop had the door propped open. She tried to stroll past nonchalantly, but couldn’t resist glancing in. He wasn’t there. That’s okay she thought. It’s just as well. In the park she watched kids play frisbee. Teenaged girls flirted with the boys at the corner. She tried to remember those moves, those days. She strolled around the block, and headed home.
The coffee shop door was still open, and when she looked in, there he was, his eyes watching the door. He called her name and hurried to her, like he’d been waiting just for her.
He said, “Have a cappuccino?” and guided her to his table. The owner, who she knew from some long ago PTA committee, smiled. “How about a brownie?”
She hesitated, but the man ordered, “One brownie. Two forks.” He smiled, holding her eyes.
They ate the brownie. He walked her home. He was a perfect gentleman. Thank goodness, because she’d decided she wasn’t really ready for this. Which is why it was surprising when they got to her house and he asked again for her phone number, and a kiss– this time, she gave them.
Rebecca Keller is an artist, writer and professor. Her fiction has appeared in New Fairy Tales; Calyx; Public Historian; Great Lakes Review, Alimentum and other journals, as well as in anthologies from MainStreet Rag Press and KY Stories. She’s been honored with Fulbright and NEA grants, the Betty Gabehart award, the Richard M Sirota Prize from the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, two Pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2013 Chicago Literary Guild Prose Award.