“I need to figure out my own life before starting one with another person,” he’d say.
He was the struggling artist type, speaking fondly of songwriting and performing for crowds, but his drinking and video games were always a distraction. Even though it was too late, Sean wasn’t giving up on his dream, and as a result, my aspirations for a family, a house, and nights around the dinner table were going by the wayside. I had to leave before my clock timed out.
I started crying before I spoke.
“Do you hate me, Lindsey?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “but I need what comes next, and you only want to stay where we are.”
“I want to go places; I just need more time.”
“Well, I’m done waiting for you.”
He leaned his face into his palms as he sat cross-legged on the couch cushion. The tears on his ruddy cheeks invalidated all the aesthetic choices he made to look cool. The consciously messy hair, the gothic tattoos up his forearms, and the thrift store flannel – all things I loved about his “look” – were nullified by the sobbing pussy’s watering eyes.
“I’ve already talked with Kelli, and she told me I can stay at her place,” I said. “I’ll come back in a few days for my stuff.”
“Don’t go,” he said, begged.
“I can’t stay.”
I took the metro out of the city into the Virginia suburbs. When the train emerged from the tunnel, we passed where I was supposed to be: standalone houses, rusting trees, and rushing cars. Christ, I missed the cars. Seriously, did he expect me to send the kids to school on a bus? In a car, I could ask them about their homework and that day’s test without being interrupted by the stop signal’s chime or the music crackling from someone’s phone. We could be to ourselves; we could be alone.
Kelli was lucky in that she fell in love with someone who embraced the natural evolution of relationships. She met her husband, Dara, during our last year of undergrad, and he proposed to her less than two years later. Dara not only worked as a financial consultant, but he enjoyed it and already planned out a lifelong career path. He was steadily building a resume and a retirement fund so he and Kelli could comfortably grow old together while their three children could go to college debt-free. The first baby was on the way, and it already had its own room in the townhouse Dara recently purchased.
I knocked at the door and stared up at the towering homestead with red shutters. Kelli answered the door. Her belly appeared before her face did, and although she exaggerated a frown, the taut shirt over her bump eluded nothing but happiness and expectancy.
“I’m so sorry,” she outstretched her arms for a hug.
“I should’ve seen it sooner,” I said.
“Come in,” she replied before turning inside. “Dara, come help Lindsey with her things.”
Dara approached the hallway looking the part of a suitable father-to-be. He had yet to change out of the suit he wore for his day of work, and he greeted me with a congenial smile and a loose hug. There was a vague hint of cologne on his shirt, a nice change from Sean’s booze-induced musk.
“Please, make yourself at home,” Dara said. “Anything you need at all, really.”
Sean would’ve bitched about company staying.
“Mind if I take a shower?” I wanted the last of Sean’s stench off of me.
“Sure,” Dara took my bag, “I’ll show you right up.”
Dara and I ascended the staircase of normality together, one foot in front of the other, minding the ninety-degree turn before reaching the overhang that looked down on their picturesque home. The hardwood floors shone on both the bottom and top levels, illuminated by the crystal chandelier Kelli’s parents gave them as a housewarming gift. Although they hadn’t finished decorating yet, I could pick out the wall Kelli had saved for presumed baby pictures. It stood bare, next to an unpainted room with an eager crib in the center.
“I’ll start painting once we hear from the doctor tomorrow,” Dara caught me peering in. “I think having the oldest being a boy, you know, so he could watch out for the younger ones, would be a good way to start, but I’ll be excited no matter what.”
Dara lugged my bags into the guest room, and I was envious of his enthusiasm. I never figured out how Kelli hit the mark so easily. She was always the one the wingmen went after when we were freshmen and sophomores in college, yet, lo and behold, she snagged a man with dimpled cheeks and the ambition and wherewithal to spend his life raising a family. Of course I was happy for her; she was my best friend, but out of all the ways I pictured it panning out, I always thought I’d cross the finish line before her.
“There are towels on the bed,” Dara said, “and there’s a robe behind the door if you want it.”
“Thanks,” I started unzipping my suitcase, “and thanks for letting me stay.”
“Hey, you’re family to us.”
Dara shut the door behind him.
The bathroom, like everything else, was impeccably clean. So much so that I sat on the edge of the tub and cleaned the bottoms of my feet before stepping in for my shower. I worried I’d leave dirt prints on the porcelain. Also, I made sure to adequately close the shower curtain as to not get any spatter on the recently retiled floors. I kept the rinse short and dried most of myself within the tub. I had no intention of marring the bathroom, but when I finally got out, my phone started beeping.
Sean sent me a long, mistyped text message about how he missed me. Between the spelling errors, I made out pleas about how there will never be someone else like me, and that I was the only thing he had going in his life. It was cheesy to the extent of Dara proclaiming I was family, but getting a reaction like that out of Sean always drew me back to him. Those lines were always his last resort.
My thumb wavered over the keypad, considering replies about loving him and needing him, but I was smarter now, stronger. It was always going to be the same with him, and responding back would’ve been the same from me. I had to break the cycle. I closed the phone and put it back on the sink.
It was then that I saw the two strawberry-molded soaps in the dish by the faucet. I had been in Kelli’s guest bathroom a few times before, but never noticed the luxuries. I picked one up in between my index finger and my thumb, and although it looked identical to the real thing, it felt completely different. The scent, however, was close. I held the strawberry soap underneath my nose for the better part of a minute, occasionally letting it graze my upper lip. It wouldn’t hurt to have a small taste. I bit off a piece, and it was nothing I expected. Instead of being soft and juicy, the faux berry was crumbly and bitter. It wasn’t a sweet fruit, no matter how well it dressed. It tasted exactly like what it actually was: soap.
I spit out whatever hadn’t slipped down my throat and cupped some water into my mouth. After a few rinses, the bubbles stopped forming, and I returned the now-chipped soap to the dish. The “small” sample was much more noticeable when placed next to the untarnished strawberry. Apparently, I consumed half of the bar. I couldn’t think of a good excuse to tell Kelli and Dara regarding why their soap was awkwardly missing a chunk, so I tossed the bit. I’d tell them later that it slipped out of my hands and accidentally fell into the trash. That was believable enough.
Kelli already had dinner in the oven, and Dara set the silverware and plates around the bowl of salad in the center of the table. The TV was turned off and in a completely other room. Sean and I never ate without it, and we typically only had one course so as to minimize the time we spent eating. I took my place at their table and strew a napkin across my lap. Another nice change: It wasn’t a paper towel.
Against Dara’s protest, Kelli filled everyone’s plate with some salad before sitting down herself. The tingle from the soap returned to my tongue when I looked down at my plate – strawberries and walnuts mixed with spring greens. I didn’t know if that was considered irony or coincidence, but I wasn’t a fan of either.
I was about to dig in, but Kelli cut me off.
“Will you say a few words?” she asked Dara, both of them reaching for my hands.
“Sure,” he closed his eyes and tilted his head. “Dear Lord, thank you for this meal in front of us. Thank you for my lovely wife and our beautiful baby that is on the way. And thank you for Lindsey’s company tonight, and please watch over her during this time of transition in her life. In your name we pray, amen.”
I pulled my hands back before either Kelli or Dara could fully release their grips. They didn’t have to bring God into this.
The blessing gave us the go-ahead to dine, and I pushed my fork into the salad. The lettuce spring drooped over the side of the tine, and I could already see the brown creeping in from the edge of the leaf, but I ate it anyway. The raspberry vinaigrette was a moot point; the entire forkful was tasteless. I took two more bites and felt my phone vibrate in my jean pocket. I dropped the fork onto the plate and pushed the whole mess away from me.
“Is everything all right?” Kelli asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I think I just need to lie down.”
“Sure thing. Don’t worry about the dish; we’ll take care of it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Go rest,” she insisted.
I thanked them both, dragged myself upstairs and stopped off in the bathroom before heading to bed. I could feel the bland lettuce stuck in between my teeth. The mirror seemed to disagree, but I brushed until my gums bled. The pinkish foam dripped down into the drain and was washed away when I splashed some water on my face. I toweled off, and my eyes fixated on the remaining strawberry soap.
There were perfectly edible, real strawberries downstairs, yet there I was, hulled up in a bathroom eating another piece of soap. This time I was able to chew and swallow the entire thing. My mouth burned a bit, but I didn’t want to rinse out the flavor like I had done before. No, I simply went to bed with the lye blanketing the insides of my cheeks. I dozed off when the pains started in my stomach.
My cell phone was the first alarm that went off the next morning. I flipped it open and found twelve missed calls, twelve voicemails and a countless amount of text messages. I didn’t listen to what he left or read what he wrote; it was typical Sean. Clearly, he was in the midst of another of his pathetic, depressed benders. I wasn’t going to give him anymore of my pity. Instead, I called into the office and told them I didn’t feel well. I drifted out of consciousness again until I heard a faint rapping on the door a few hours later. The door creaked before Kelli peeked in.
“Lindsey, are you awake?”
“How are you today? You didn’t go to work.”
“I’m fine,” I sat up and stretched. “I just wanted a day off. Might as well have a three-day weekend, right?”
“You definitely deserve it.” Kelli said. “So, I have some good news…”
She looked down and rubbed her belly as her voice trailed off.
“Boy or girl?” I asked.
“Girl,” she said and shuffled over so she could sit on the bed with me.
She squinted since her smile overtook half her face. Kelli’s mother passed away when Kelli was only three, so having a girl was a big deal to her. She saw it as a way to make up for the time she never had with her mom. I failed to fully understand the redemption, but I held her hand anyway and told her I was happy for her.
She spent the next couple hours alerting her family and friends of the news. During each call she made the same avid, high-pitched shrill, and each time it seemed to get a little higher. I locked myself in the bathroom in hopes of drowning out her squeals, but Kelli’s voice penetrated the door. I also made sure to leave my phone in the bedroom. It rang on an hourly basis.
I didn’t eat any strawberries while I was in the bathroom, but only because I couldn’t find any in the cabinets. I opened up when I heard Dara come home and walk upstairs. He had two paint cans in hand – cliché pink.
“Looks like I’ve got my Saturday planned,” he set the cans in the empty room.
He popped open one of the lids, and a droplet of paint drooled over the side of the can. The pink streak dribbled down to the plastic tarp underneath and formed the basis of a small puddle. I licked my lips.
“I can paint,” I said. “Let me take care of it, and you and Kelli can enjoy your weekend.”
“No, I don’t think I can just let you…”
“I insist,” I interjected. “Really, it’s the least I can do in exchange for you letting me stay here. Please.”
I reached for the stirrer and dipped it into the paint. I began mixing before Dara could stop me.
“If you feel that strongly about it, then I guess I have no choice,” he said. “I’ll bring in the roller and a stepstool.”
“Everyone ready for dinner?” Kelli called from downstairs.
It donned on me that I slept through most of the day. Furthermore, I hadn’t eaten anything. My head felt light, and I clinched the railing with both hands as I walked downstairs. I stumbled into the kitchen and plopped down into my chair.
“You must be starving,” Kelli roused the sauce on the stove with her wooden spoon. “We’re having spaghetti and meatballs tonight. I hope that’s okay with you.”
“I don’t have much of an appetite.”
“You poor thing,” she put some plates on the counter. “Well, I’ll give you a little bit, and if you decide you can handle more, feel free.”
I failed to see the direness of my situation. “Poor thing” was a phrase reserved for kittens without homes or for sick infants. I simply didn’t want any damn spaghetti. The plate was in front of me in a few minutes anyway, one meatball on top, and I left my fork alone until God received his reverence. Luckily, I wasn’t mentioned directly this time around.
In the brief silence between saying “amen” and opening their eyes, I heard a distant chime from upstairs – ding-ding – like a bell. I forgot about my birth control alarm, sounding at six o’clock every day to remind me I was without child. Ding-ding, it went again; Kelli and Dara didn’t notice.
“I think I need to go back to bed,” ding-ding.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Kelli placed her prayer hand over mine, ding-ding. “You really should eat something.”
“I don’t need to be mothered,” I took my hand back and paused for a moment.
I waited for the noise again, but it was finished. I picked my plate up and placed it in the sink.
“I’m sorry; I just think I need some more rest.”
“It’s okay,” Kelli said. “Head on upstairs and let me know if you need anything.”
I thanked her and did as she said. I passed the future baby’s room and stopped by the door to look in. The paint cans sat on the floor, and Dara was true to his word and had brought up a paint roller, a brush, and a stepstool.
I walked in and spread out some plastic by the wall closest to the crib. I immersed the brush into the pink viscous and drew a streak across the wall. The sharp, thick scent emanated from the feathered edges of the mark and from the tips of the bristles. It was intoxicating, and the urge to move the brush toward my nose overcame me. I let the aroma linger before I lowered the brush slightly and dabbed some paint on my tongue. I thought it’d be sweeter, but it was good enough. It wasn’t long before I dropped the brush and plunged my hand directly into the paint can, scooping up globs. My lips were coated, and I couldn’t grit my teeth without feeling the paint on my gums. After a few minutes, I had swallowed half the can, while the walls remained plain beyond the lone mark.
I wanted to keep feasting, but I heard someone coming up the stairs. I jetted into the bathroom since there wasn’t a logical way to explain to Kelli why her paint was all over my lips. I washed my hands, but there still wasn’t any soap. I scrubbed as hard as I could and sloshed water into my mouth, but the stains lingered. I was going to have to hide. I grabbed my purse when I thought the coast was clear, and I quickly called out that I was leaving as I shut the front door behind me. Unfortunately, there was only one place I could go.
The bus took me back to the train, and the train took me back to the city. The horizon didn’t make the sun disappear; instead, it was the tunnel. Lights flickered in the train car, scaring an infant and causing it to cry. The child’s mother tried to soothe the sobbing by rocking the bundle in her arms and whispering to her child , but the tears continued until I reached my stop. I stared at them as I stepped out of the train, but the mother only focused on her baby. The doors closed, and once again, I was two blocks away from my old apartment.
The door was unlocked, and a pair of empty whiskey bottles stood on the coffee table. I took a seat on the couch, but got up immediately; the cushions were too soft. My stomach turned. I scanned the living room as I walked to the bedroom, and everything was just as I left it. As expected, Sean hadn’t bothered to pack any of my things. Not that it was his job to do so, but I would’ve appreciated the gesture. Dara would have been more accommodating.
Smoke seeped through the doorframe, and I found Sean planted against the wall, cigarette in one hand, the third bottle of whiskey in the other. He was such a fucking cliché. He looked up at me, and a lazy smile came over him. His eyes were half open, and ash covered his jeans. I leaned over him to see if there was anything left.
“Your mouth is pink,” he laughed and took another sip from his bottle. “I love you.”
He ran his finger down a strand of hair hanging in front of my face, but his breath reeked of alcohol. I pulled my face away.
“I don’t know why I came back,” I said.
“I’m glad you did,” he smiled again.
I tried to go for the door, but felt a sharp jab in my stomach. There was another stab, and I fell onto my side, holding my waist. A lump surged through my throat, and paint spewed out of my mouth and onto the carpet beneath my cheek. I looked toward my lap, and there was blood on my pants. Sean crawled over and put his hand on my shoulder.
“What happened?” Sean rubbed my arm. “Are you okay?”
My head thumped, and my vision faded. The last memory I had was Sean reaching into his pocket for his phone.
When I awoke, Sean sat on one side of my bed, a curtain and some sort of computer monitor on the other. An IV was hooked up to my arm, and a clip was attached to my finger. Sean’s hand was underneath it. I glanced up at his eyes; they were sullen and bloodshot. He was sober now.
“How are you?” he asked.
He hesitated before he spoke, “The nurses pumped about a pint of paint out of your system. I talked to Kelli, and I…”
“What about the blood?” I interrupted.
His sighed and shook his head.
“You should rest more.”
“Don’t bullshit me,” I replied. “Tell me what’s going on.”
He gripped my palm and moved closer to the bed.
“The doctor said you were pregnant.”
“Were?” the bedside monitor pulsed.
He lowered his head toward my stomach, and just as we had done a day earlier, we cried.
Eugene Schacht loves his mom, sisters, grandma, aunt andRachel. He is a writer out of Washington, D.C., and you can follow him at www.storyboss.com.