Beneath the queasy clenching of my stomach, it’s there. It sits there brewing in the acids, under partially digested lunch. I don’t remember lunch; somehow it blended into a blurry afterthought and—maybe I should fix myself something to eat. I can’t recall eating anything, but I get the funny feeling I might be full. No, I did, I met somebody for lunch. The tile of the bathroom warps under my feet, twisting and turning like a tire swing. Tile should be cold, right? It feels like hellfire under my hands. Those off-white walls look yellow in the weak lighting. I should change the lightbulbs, it’s too dark in here. The walls distort into a shrinking, yellow mass caving in under the weight of the ceiling. Tight spaces constrict my airflow. This is all wrong.
There’s a knock at the bathroom door and, like startled wildlife, the walls straighten back into position and the tile lose their heat. Leo slides through the gap between the door and its frame with the caution of a housecat, gently slinking onto the floor. The bathroom won’t collapse onto him; he keeps the balance in the universe. With Leo, mundane domesticity is the highlight of living. There are millions of wonders the world has for him to discover, but he’s happy to plant his feet in the same place I call home. I feel my mouth move, and I see his mouth move, but I can’t remember anything we said. My head tells me that his words were important. He only speaks with meaning, but any information my gut relays is unreliable. With an outstretched hand, he stops the Earth from falling on its axis and the bathroom levels out.
“Why don’t we go outside? Get some fresh air?”
I hear him this time. We leave the sanctuary of the bathroom to watch dogs walk their owners. Did it all seem backwards to Leo? Whatever sorting process was going on behind his eyes, he keeps it to himself. Today has gone on for far too long. I want it to be tomorrow already. There are very few moments when I break through the trance and the haze wears off. In those moments, I use my limited time to think as clearly as I can before being thrust back into my daze. As if the planets aligned, I break through.
“What is my mom going to say? No, she’d be thrilled. What is my dad going to say? That jerk would probably rub it in my face. All he does is get told that he’s right and I’m sick of it! He’s gonna flaunt that, once again, he knows me better than I know myself. Can’t I make a decision without him swooping in for the credit?”
“You don’t have to tell them right now. We can wait.”
“Use more sentences with ‘we’, I like that.”
Leo’s sentences become garbled as I’m pushed back down. I think I’m smiling at him; I hope I am. I hope Leo knows how much I appreciate him. God, my dad. In the fog, I could see the rim of his glasses forming. I wanted nothing more than to grab them and feel the snap of the bridge in my hands. Anything to keep that look in his eyes from focusing on me. For years we argued over my decision of not wanting to start a family. I can still hear him saying that I’ll change my mind, just like him. I don’t want to be just like him. I don’t want children and I will never change my mind. I won’t let him win.
Cynthia adopted kids recently, but I don’t visit them often. She’s a friend of my mom’s; I think they met through church. As the youngest of the family, the opportunity to be around children are few and far between for me. Cynthia’s kids make up the short list themselves, besides the toddlers that I’m unsure exactly how we’re related. The twins are an interesting experience as they don’t know how to interact with me either. They hand me familiar toys, sit on my lap, and reach for my necklace with their stubby fingers. The girl sits in my lap and plays with her cars while Cynthia shares stories about trying to adopt the twins. Her brother hands me blocks and runs back to his stash so he can bring me more. He mumbles in babytalk while his sister sits in silence. Apparently, the girl is a late bloomer when it comes to speaking and the fact clicks a few gears into place. There’s a territorial response in my bones as I remember my mom telling my schoolteachers the same. Her whole hand hardly wraps around my fingers as she uses me to gain her balance. I spend the rest of the day imagining what it would be like to have my own children.
By the end of the week, I show Leo my list of baby names. Nothing is definite, but simply playing around with an idea. He plays along with me by striking out the names he doesn’t like, then passing me a list he’s made in his free time. On good days like this, the tile in the kitchen doesn’t contort. The walls stand tall and support the popcorn ceiling. Popcorn ceiling, we should scrape that off, I hate it. On good days like this, I can think clearly, and I almost reach for the phone to call my mom. Instead, I go to the store with my friends. I haven’t seen them in a while.
Malachi digs through the section of comic books. He looks up from the pile once I mention his wife.
“So, you and Danielle, huh? Are you guys thinking about kids or something?” I wipe warm sweat on my hands onto my pants. I hope that wasn’t too obvious.
“Yeah, I guess. Maybe not, like, right now.” He pauses to read the cover of a book. “I mean, we’ve talked about it, and we want to.”
Malachi and his wife have to be one of the few married friends I talked to anymore. I’ve known Malachi since grade school, and he’s been talking about settling down since before puberty.
“Oh, that’s cool.”
“Why? You guys thinking about it?”
“We’ve been thinking about it a little more.”
Malachi leads the conversation on his own after that, rambling about the selection of comic books.
The outing with Malachi is a day in the warm sun compared to Amelia. She laughed with disgust when I brought up children. After coughing up the remains of laughter and cigarette smoke, she calmed down.
“No way, dude. First of all, they reek. Second, they’re sticky.” Amelia thumbed through the shirts coated in skeletons. “Besides, what if they’re ugly? No way, no thank you.”
I didn’t bring up children after that. Amelia’s declaration made me guilty because I agreed with her about kids being sticky and smelling horrible. Did my guilt mean that I wanted kids? My desire for a clean and neat home clashed with whatever her statements brewed inside me. Amelia spent the rest of the day telling me stories about her new job.
Leo and I spend the evening on the couch, watching a movie we’ve partially memorized. The flashing lights and sirens from the movie are loud enough to become background noise. Neither of us watch the movie this time. The timer on the microwave whines for who knows how long at this point. One of our dinners sit in the microwave growing colder to room temperature, but we don’t get up. The carpet twists and turns, but the couch never sinks into the floor. With my feet kicked up on the armrest, my imagination starts to roam.
Labor is supposed to hurt in a way I don’t know. I doubt the word “hurt” even sums up the experience. The thought makes me cross my legs to ensure that the imaginary baby never escapes. It makes me very aware of myself and my being. I’ve avoided pain the best I could, but labor is inescapable. As if it would change the fate of my imaginary self, I cross my legs tighter, just in case the fictional baby became real. I never asked my mom about the times she gave birth to me and my siblings. Though she would figure me out in a second if I asked. I wonder if it’s obvious, if a stranger could walk by and see right through me. Have the neighbours deciphered us? They’ve started greeting us, they must know.
While Leo is at the vet with the dog, I pace the sidewalk. The bench outside is too sticky, the vet is too stuffy, and it’s too quiet at home. Unanswered questions build and build until I get dizzy from pacing. Across the street, a mother pushes a stroller with colors resembling highlighters in one of our drawers. Would she answer my questions, or would she keep walking? Would she tell me if it’s worth it? Would she tell me what’s it like? The sticky bench beneath me collects water while I daydream about the mother across the street.
I bet her house is a wreck from toys that she may or may not get to by the end of the day. Still, she would sit down with me on her porch and keep an eye on the baby monitor. She would tell me about the highs and lows of raising a child while reassuringly holding my hand just like my grandmother. Or she would claw at my jacket and beg me to set her free. This was not the life she imagined for herself and certainly not the life she wants. Now, she’s trapped, shackled down in place. She’ll never catch up with the life she dreams of at night and in her youth. Finding out she was pregnant was a sign, it had to be! A warning from some all-powerful force in the heavens and she didn’t listen. Occasionally, she’ll have a bittersweet smile because she loves the kid, but she wasn’t meant to be a parent. It would’ve been better for the both of them if she had given the baby up.
The cold air burns my nostrils. My nose feels bruised under my fingertips; my glasses lost a nosepiece. I should lay down. I need it to be tomorrow.
(Featured image by DeviantArt user the flickererees and used under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)