I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When he breaks her rib the first time—slinging her over his meaty shoulder like a caveman, her shriek halting his grunting stride to the bed—he is shocked, chagrined. He sets her down on the living room floor like a tea party teacup, backs away as if his mere proximity might further crush her bones. He looks as if he might cry. She tries to laugh, though it stabs (is there a broken rib-edge precariously near her heart, her left lung?), to reassure: he has done nothing wrong, of course not, she loves his brutish way with her, gasp-laugh, gasp-laugh, you big ape. Just an unlucky collision of shoulder and rib cage, is all. An unfortunate anatomical geometry. She gets carefully to her feet, wiping him from her mouth, grateful she is still fully dressed at this point in the evening and needn’t worry about unflattering lighting, an awkward reveal. He gazes at her, helpless as a child, naked from the waist down, his jeans and boxers still crumpled beside the couch, looking both ridiculous and dear. He is her lusty, adorable, thick-pawed wolf cub. He is indie-band T-shirts and grocery-store roses, a waft of sour beer and Ivory soap, fucking her on the kitchen floor or stroking her delicate wrist skin at movies. This is their Tuesday-night date night; she doesn’t want it going to waste. Not that it would be a waste, to her—his recline on the couch, thrusting into her mouth while she kneels between his thighs, the feel of him slicking her hands, salting her throat, was the highlight for her, and they’ve already been there, done that, tonight. But the thing he liked most came after, the flip to stripping her, pushing her down to unfold her limbs, open her wide with fingers and tongue and cock into shivery and weak; he is a greedy sexual altruist. He is her commanding plaything. He is her very own chin-scruffed, fuckable little boy.
But it hurts just to breathe, and she cannot imagine coming without friction, without torque. He tries to joke about being such an animal, although he is clearly pained by her pain. She tells him she has hollow bones like a bird, is all, so easy to splinter and crack. He looks confused, she reassures him she is just going for poetry. Being fanciful. It is nothing, just a freak occurrence, really. She knows he would never hurt her. He nods, offers to tape the rib for her—there is nothing else to do for a broken rib, he explains, suddenly remembering he has knowledge of injuries, of scars and sprains and the frailties of the body—but she smiles, shakes her head, tells him she will simply go lie still upon her bed. And so she sends him home to his wife, the woman he is madly in love with and alternately refers to, at times, as his Primary Partner, and his Bride.
She’d met the Bride a year or so earlier, the last hire before the budget freeze at the lab where she herself has been working nearly twenty years now—long enough, at forty-nine, to still think of herself as a Lady Scientist, or to suspect the other scientists (Mark and Javier and their lab supervisor, Tommy) do. Twenty years of computing chromosomal variables and tracking genomic mutations, teasing apart the X from the Y. Her focus is X-linked recessive diseases, those passed mother-to-carrier-daughter, or mother-to-likely-to-suffer-son, the Hunter syndromes and hemophilias. It is always the mothers’ fault, such cruel inheritances; they escape the suffering they inflict, but suffer the guilt. For twenty years she has sought to alter the power dynamic of dominant to recessive genes, to prevent imperfect genetic destinies, to no avail. She knows she will not be the one to solve this puzzle, despite her assurances to Tommy of eventual success; that victory will belong to the generation of geneticists who follow her, if ever. There is no prevention for, no cure, for such brutal life sentences as Lesch-Nyhan or centronuclear myopathy, only testing available, in this day and age of miracles.
The Bride was the lab’s new Genetic Counselor: a scientist, yes, but the master’s degree kind, the work-with-people kind, the lab’s gentler face; hers is a job of helix-decorated pamphlets and PowerPoint demos for frightened parents-to-be calculating risk. The Genetic Counselor’s job is to educate clients on their weaponized genes, to colloquialize jargon, explain genetic testing, and help them make informed choices without judgment—but, also, to increase the lab’s revenue by offering those expensive, typically out-of-pocket emotional support services. True science, pure research—what she and the guys do—is costly, after all; Tommy had been urging them to apply for grants, pressuring them to attend those insufferable cocktail parties to woo philanthropically-bent investors with the tease of medical glories.
The Genetic Counselor seemed so young, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, tiny and sage scented, with complicated ear cartilage piercings and asymmetrically chopped hair dyed shades of acidic blue, which reminded her of the punk wave of her youth—had it been so long that this style had become ironically fresh again? The girl was a laughing girl, sardonic and pert, and roamed the lab’s labyrinth—eyed by Mark (straight, married), Javier (gay, but still glance-smiling her way), and Tommy (status unknown, but flustered in her spaghetti-strapped presence)—to wisecrack at her paper-bonneted head as she bent over her pipettes and alleles. She felt annoyed by the interruptions, the gal-pal familiarity, yet flattered to be singled out. When the girl invited her for a happy-hour drink, she said yes before thinking it through, then added she’d need to leave early for a latish dinner date. And then winced at “dinner date,” which sounded both anachronistic and trying too hard.
It turned out they were meeting up with the girl’s husband at some nearby craft-beer bar she never knew existed, and she’d startled on seeing him; he was a giant next to his petite spouse, thick as a mastiff, the kind of guy you’d call a big lug in a Barbara Stanwyck voice. But the sweetest face: cherubic, rosebud-lipped, baby-blue eyes gazing besottedly at his wife. They had been together for six years, they told her over IPAs, married for four. He was a high school football coach, she learned, the kind to take the team for pizza after practice and not just after the Big Game, to encourage the kids to get the HPV vaccine no matter their uptight parents’ bullshit, to lobby the school board for concussion-resistant helmets. He and the Bride were precious together, their couple-touches and conjugal flirtings ionizing the air, and after an hour and two rounds and their pleasing urgings she made a fake phone call to cancel her fake dinner date and instead eat buffalo sliders with them.
They became a threesome: farmers’ markets and pub crawls, the local Nerd Nite, a Meetup gathering to watch the lunar eclipse; she was amazed at their ability to find cheap fun. The Bride and her husband were spontaneous and carefree, and somehow had decided she was, too, a woman with no partner and no child or children to raise. She inserted self-deprecating at my ages into sentences as tests, gratified by their scoffing, delighted by their view of a spontaneous, carefree, still-viable her. They seemed mystified by her lack of a boyfriend or girlfriend, why isn’t she dating, look, that waiter was flirting with her, he’s cute, she should go for it! She laughed it off, told them with a weary sigh meant to imply a career of debauchery that she has been there, has done all of that in this lifetime, relationships were such a hassle, anyway, she was happy to have no strings, to focus on her work. Then added—before she went too far with it and they found her abnormal in some way—Well, maybe it would be fun, sure, it’s been a while since she’s gotten laid, the phrase feeling like tourist guidebook words in her mouth.
She and the Bride went shopping for makeup and bras, commiserated about mammograms and menstrual cramps, how all forms of birth control were, I know, so fucking annoying—she and her husband have zero interest in having kids, the Bride told her, they had agreed on that when they married. She chose not to mention that cramps and contraception were no longer an issue for her. At times she wondered if her role in this friendship was to be big-sisterly, a kind of mentor, but her advice on that burdensome graduate school debt or not having that third beer before driving home seemed entirely unappreciated, barely acknowledged; perhaps this was more how a mother feels, confronted by a daughter’s blithe self-assurance and superior knowledge of the correct waist-height for jeans. The Bride laughed away her subtle hints that perhaps a halter top was not appropriate office wear, brushed off her gentle suggestions how to better approach Tommy about a raise (he might take her flirtatious manner the wrong way, after all), or that maybe hugging clients after a distraught counseling session on Down syndrome was not respecting good professional boundaries.
It was different with the girl’s husband; he was all big-brotherly interest and supportive care, scraping dead leaves from her rain gutters and asking about that genomic analysis thing she’s been working on, chastising her for not calling him that night she had a flat tire on the road or tried to move that bookcase by herself—Damn, look at that bruise, I’ll get you some arnica, he tsked tsked. There was something both alpha-male and innocent about him, and she felt a surge of affection for his adorable chivalry.
Then a few months ago he’d come to her house with his tool kit, stood disorientingly close as she poured him a Sprite, lingered too long after replacing her AC filter, asked a suspicious number of questions regarding her efforts to isolate those stubborn X-linked mutations, and finally said, Hey, can we sit for a minute? I need to talk to you.
First, his Sprite tremoring in his clutched glass, he wanted her to know his wife knew everything he was about to say to her, they had been discussing it for months (Do they need to borrow money? she began to worry. Do I need to intercede in a bad situation at the lab?), and well, he was really nervous, but…
They have decided to open up their marriage, he told her. They have realized they are, in their hearts, polyamorous. They have read articles and books, joined online polyamory forums, attended seminars on Ethical Nonmonogamy. It was rooted in their deep love for and trust in each other, in the foundational awesomeness of their marriage, in the shared desire for them both to have as much joy and pleasure in life as possible, because intimacy does not exist in finite amounts and should not, need not, be constrained by the artificial construct of sexual exclusivity—she tried not to smile at his pamphlet-speak—humans are not wired for monogamy, after all. And all this started when he confessed to his wife six months earlier that he had a massive crush on her, their awesome new friend, and his wife had said, You know what, if you want to fuck her, I’d be totally cool with that.
So, in short, he said with an awkward throat-clearing, Would you be interested in having a sexual relationship with me?
She blinked. Oh my, she said. I am so flattered. But no, she added, quickly. Whatever you kids feel is right for you, of course. Consenting adults. No judgment, here. But—she could not resist—why me?
He shrugged. I think you’re hot, he said.
She pointed out the eighteen-year age difference—stopped herself before saying she could, technically, be his mother—which elicited only another shrug, and a leery rosebud grin that gave her pause.
Well, no, she repeated. I can’t possibly. You are so sweet, and thank you. But no.
Okay, he said. But I’m not giving up. I will if you tell me to stop. If you use the word stop. But if I don’t hear that word, I’m going to keep asking. Until you say yes.
I’m so disappointed, the Bride said to her at work the next day, murmuring her voice away from Mark and Javier, from Tommy’s open office door. I mean, I totally understand. He’s just really into you. And it would work out so great for us. We can trust you, you know? She had already been on two dates with a patent lawyer she’d met at a poly potluck, he was amazing, and she hoped her husband would meet someone cool soon. He was the best guy, he deserved someone really special.
She began receiving texts from him, once, sometimes twice a day. Do u like tequila? or Strawberry moon tonite, go look! At the next craft-beer bar meet he showed up alone. The Bride was out on a hot date, he said with a generous smile, It’s just me and you tonight!
The lawyer? she asked, hesitant to edge too close to this brave new little world of theirs.
No, he told her. The lawyer flaked, but she likes this new guy.
Have you…? she asked.
Not yet. But I’m not in any rush. I know what I want. The leery grin again. I’m playing the long game.
Don’t you get jealous? she asked.
He shrugged. Guess I didn’t get the jealousy gene. Then, suddenly: I’d be jealous if you were with anyone else, though, and she smiled at his boyish earnestness.
Do u like Ethiopian food?
Hows yr car running, I can do oil change Sat?
Do u like sknnydipping?
She began going to the gym (those sad triceps, that belly pooch, she’s right on the edge of losing control of it all, she realized), examining a new skirt or blouse not for its age-appropriate utility but for its neckline tease, its flirty cling.
U looked really pretty ystrday.
She upscaled her moisturizer, bought a whitening toothpaste. She awoke with questions listing in her mind, began their increasingly-twosome happy hours together with inquiries tinged, she hoped, with hypothetical detachment, intellectual curiosity: how would this even work, would there be a fixed schedule, a shared Google Calendar they’d all use? What about STIs, pregnancy (let him think that’s still a worry, for her), what about privacy? She wouldn’t want anyone at work to know. He was delighted with her questions, answered them thoughtfully: a fixed schedule, sure, if that was convenient for her; regular testing, safer sex practices, condoms, totally, they can discuss fluid-bonding further down the road. And total discretion, of course—their first rule is no dating coworkers, although she is the agreed-upon special exception to that. It is all about clear boundaries and rules: there is no fucking a boyfriend or girlfriend in our home bed, he explains, no sleepovers, 11 PM curfew on Date Nights. It is all about honesty, open communication, about mutual respect and informed consent. They would love her to come with them to a poly seminar sometime, if she’d like.
Yeah, you kids have fun with all that, she said. Really not my scene.
He laughed. It’s not an orgy. Just, you know, mixing. People bring their boyfriends, their girlfriends.
There, see, she said. I have no interest in being part of anyone’s harem.
No, no, she has misunderstood. He is not interested in fucking any other girls. I want a relationship, he said. Only with you. Next to her, I mean. She’s my primary partner. You’d be my girlfriend.
She shook her head, amused as always by his lack of guile. Kids today. Thinking they can control everything, that they are so immune.
U looked really hot last nite.
Do u like yr guys big?
One night after yet another movie—Want 2 catch new Denzel?—walking her to her car in the apricot burn of a low moon he reached over and slid his hand across the nape of her neck, cradled it, squeezed. She felt the popcorn grease on his strong fingers and the sudden flush of sweat of her skin, smelled the hot salty oil of it all, and she mumbled goodnight, hurried to get in her car and drive away.
Why not? she thought. It’s an experiment. A well-controlled one. Clear parameters. And how many more such opportunities will she get in this lifetime, for an experience so practical, utilitarian, so carefully designed? After all, she decided, there is no risk to her, it’s not her marriage, she has nothing to lose, and she pulled to the side of the road.
OK, she texted. Yes.
This is so great, thank you, the Bride murmured to her at the lab the next day. I’d started feeling guilty, you know? She swept her hand through her thick hair, freshly sapphired.
Well, sure, she said. Um. You’re welcome.
He was so pissed at me the other night. I’m seeing this new guy, an architect, he’s amazing. We got really wasted at his place, it was late, and I wound up staying over.
Isn’t there a rule about that…?
Yeah, well, not driving was the responsible thing to do, right? Anyway. It’ll be easier on him now. More balanced.
She saw Tommy in her periphery, crooking a finger at them, and she nodded to the girl. He wants you.
The girl sighed. He wants me to have lunch with some investor dude. I’m the “future of genetic counseling.” He’s not paying me enough to put up with this shit.
Well, it’s part of the job, she advised.
And he keeps increasing my caseload. I mean, what the fuck?
You might want to be careful about—
Oh, I can handle him. Don’t worry. He gets all sweaty when he talks to me, it’s hysterical. The girl started toward Tommy’s office, then leaned back conspiratorially. So hey, maybe we can all go out one night? The four of us. A double date?
Um, sure, she said. That would be amazing.
The second time a rib breaks—her right side this time, the fifth or sixth thoracic, no danger to her heart although they both heard the crack when he threw his full weight upon her—he is actively alarmed. He leaps from the bed, away from her, Damn, he says. What was that?
I’m okay, she says. She clutches her side as if pinning her skeleton in place. She is glad to be already lying on the bed, tugs the coverlet over herself, realigns her vertebra with precise care. I’m okay. She takes a deep, slow breath. I’m a fairy creature, she says. I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m made of butterfly wings and bumblebee breath.
I need to be a lot more careful with you, sweetie.
No, she says. No, you don’t, I love how you handle me. And she does, she loves his use and command of her body, his obliviating force. It has been two months of their Tuesday-night date nights, of the requisite pizza delivery or Chinese takeout dinners followed by beery, thought-blotting sex, her mindless ragdoll yield. It is the apex of her week, this from-nowhere flare to her life, what she looks forward to and thinks back upon, the remembered feel of his thick dexterous fingers sunk deep and busy inside her as she mechanically inputs analysis data at work, the memory-loop image of his going down on her the first time, lifting his slickened face from between her thighs. She loves his solicitous Good Morning, sweetie texts and his late-night Wish I was fucking u rite now erection sexts, the juxtaposition of his crushing mastery and little boy sweet. She loves the tidy definition of the whole arrangement, its relationship veneer, the illusion of intimacy; she loves waking alone in her bed Wednesday mornings to find the sticky used condom on the floor, her body smudged with evidentiary eggplant bruises, his fingertip prints dotting her arms, the mottled blue starfish of his hand on her thigh—their slow fade over the next six days, her body erased to a perfect fresh slate. She loves that he doesn’t shower before he leaves her, that he carries the smeary scent of her home; she wonders how long she lasts on his body, obscuring the sagey smell of his Bride.
This is perfect, she tells him. You’re my sweet beast. Nothing needs to change.
Maybe it’s osteoporosis? My mom has that. She takes Vitamin D and calcium. My grandma too. It’s genetic, right?
I don’t have osteoporosis, she smiles. I’m fine.
You want some ibuprofen? His cell pings. Damn, he says, reading.
That asshole. His thick fingers are busy, texting. He just dumped her. Fuck. She’s on her way home. Sweetie, I need to go.
Oh. She glances at her bedside clock; it is only 8:37. They had started with sex, the pizza box unopened and cooling on the kitchen counter. Okay.
She’s really upset. He pulls on his jeans, hurries to the medicine cabinet.
Just go. Go take care of her. I understand, she says. After all, she thinks, but doesn’t say, she’s your Primary Partner. I’m just the Girlfriend.
Another ping. He looks at his phone. Damn. I gotta go, sweetie. I’ll see you. He leans, kisses her on the forehead, leaves.
She rolls on to her side, and the pain blooms. She breathes through it, slides her hand across her belly, her unbruised thighs, between her legs, feels the wasted, untouched wetness there.
Hey, she hears him call. Okay I take the pizza to her?
At work she can see, even from across the lab, how the girl’s face is puffy and blotched, her eyes red. Even her hair has dimmed, the azure strands limp.
You ok? she texts.
Guys all dicks. Why cant I have nice normal bf?
Hes so lucky w/u. Not fair.
I need pedi. Saturday mall date???
Work all weeknd. Tommy pressure. Sorry!
OK :( Hey, do u know Mark’s deal?
Oh. Married, I thnk
He handles her now like delicate crystal, antique lace, a fragile thing that would lose its value if broken or marred, and she hates being treated as if there’s something wrong with her. She tries to provoke him into a wrestle, a thrash, tries to reignite his pounding heat or tease out a show of impassioned force. He is all tender cuddles now, gentle strokes and fuck thrusts she can barely feel. She is annoyed by his thoughtful inquiries about her feelings, her health, all the precoital chitchat and postcoital lingering. She is irked by his reluctance to turn off his cellphone on Tuesday nights, ponders proposing a “no phone” rule for Date Night, but worries he’ll convene a big happy polyamory family council to discuss it; it has been months since their carefree threesome happy hours. She finds their couple-speak too cloying, resents his careful balance of attentions paid, his diffused focus, the girl’s oblivious self-absorption.
She has resented the girl’s attitude for a while now, she realizes. She’d gone to their place one Saturday evening, reluctant—Shes at fundraising shindig, he texted, we talked, totally ok u come here!!—but at last agreed, won over by her new exception-to-the rule status, only to be interrupted mid-foreplay on their living room floor by the ping of the girl announcing she was bored, coming home early, maybe they could all get sushi together? She’d scrambled into her clothes and left, piqued at the intrusion. It occurred to her, one Tuesday night when he left her house soaked in their mutual sweat, that perhaps they even liked the smell of her on his skin, in their bed, perhaps they used it to juice their own mundane marital passion. She is not jealous, she tells herself, of course not, she is merely the Girlfriend, and thank God; she wants nothing more than the perfect, shiny bubble of her three hours, once a week, her no strings, hassle-free Tuesday-night Date Nights.
The problem, really, was the girl’s lack of respect for appropriate boundaries. She has no patience for the girl’s hovering at her lab station to complain about her fucking workload, her shitty salary, having to manage her husband’s so-delicate feelings, about assorted asshole boyfriends met on a cheat-on-your-spouse website. What do you expect? You’re just some cheap fun for them, she thinks. What do you expect, when you come home drunk at three in the morning, when your husband finds out you brought some guy home to fuck while he was at an out-of-town game? She has noticed Mark’s moony gazing at the girl has ceased; he now pointedly turns his face away from her as she strolls through the lab, wafting sage, and she suspects something terribly improper has occasioned there. She reminds herself it is not her responsibility to reprimand the girl’s carelessness, to correct her every mistake.
What’s this? he asks, one Tuesday night. They are in her bed; he is gently outer-spooning her, post sweatless, too-polite sex, as she debates whether to give up on the evening and send him home. She wonders, suddenly, if his passion has cooled. If there is a shelf life for this arrangement, a ticking clock. How could she not have asked how the end of it all would work, how had they not constructed a protocol for that?
He fingertaps the inside of her left bicep, over the faint nickel of puckered flesh. This. Smallpox vaccine?
No. She shifts, tries to curl herself away into a tighter spoon, but his hand clasps her arm firmly in its place, and she relents. It was a biopsy, she says.
Oh shit, sweetie, are you okay?
Yeah, yeah, it was a long time ago. I was a kid. It was just a test.
She pauses, but his arms tighten around her. She squirms, testing, and his muscles steel.
It’s called osteogenesis imperfecta, she says. It’s something you’re born with. Imperfect bone formation. Defective connective tissue.
It’s not a big deal. I have type one, the most not-a-big-deal type.
But you look totally normal.
I am, she says. I am. I just, you know. Can fracture bones sometimes. Bruise easily. Believe me, as diseases go, it’s nothing.
She rolls onto her stomach, tries to slide, wedge herself beneath him. Sometimes this works, or it used to, he’ll press her facedown into the mattress, she’ll feel him get hard against the small of her back or thigh, he’ll push her legs apart, get up on his knees. But he shifts his weight, raises himself on an elbow, away from her.
Why didn’t you tell me?
There was nothing to tell. I never even think about it, she says. Be careful, she thinks, hears, remembers. Be careful. The chalky damp of plaster-of-Paris gauzed on her naked childhood flesh, the itch of encased, immobilized limbs. The bind of an Ace bandage, a metal splint. An ice pack’s cold crush against swelling skin, blood darkening below the surface, the hum of x-rays, her ghostly little girl bones. You’re special, she heard, always. You always have to be very, very careful. She tries a mock-narrator tone. “With good management and supportive care, most OI patients can expect to lead healthy, productive lives.”
Do your folks have it? His finger traces the length of her arm, down the ulna, up the radius.
No. Usually it’s inherited. It’s autosomal dominant. But mine was de novo. Out of the blue. She feels the tender heat of his mouth on the scar.
A spontaneous mutation, she murmurs.
Is that why you never had kids, he asks, or she thinks she hears him ask, it is so quiet, she can barely tell words from breath.
That’s the thing, she says into her pillow. You can be so careful. You can plan and plan. Control every variable. And still get a freak occurrence.
He is silent a moment, then tilts her slowly onto her back, arranges her like a museum piece he is adjusting on a shelf. He lies atop her, carefully balancing his weight. She closes her eyes, expectant. She feels him brush the hair from her forehead. Look at me, he says, and she opens her eyes, he is baby-blue gazing, she looks away but No, he says, come on, and he turns her face toward him, they gaze wide open together an endless moment and he leans, his kiss is a whisper, his fingers are feather wisps, his knees coaxing her thighs, he slides into her slowly, his bare skin on her skin, inside her skin, and, Do you want me to stop, he asks, still gazing, tell me if you want me to stop, and No, she says, please don’t stop, please.
Really need talk 2 u, the Bride texts her at work the next morning. Plz?
Of course, she responds. She is annoyed, but can’t figure how to deflect such a direct request. And then alarmed—did the girl detect the change in her husband, when he arrived home well past midnight, the shift in his heart, his eyes? Should their increased intimacy, their new fluid-bonding, have been discussed in advance? Is the girl upset at all this new rule breaking of theirs, at what it might presage?
She resettles herself in her lab chair; she had not showered that morning, wanting to keep the creamy wet of him between her legs. She is delighted to feel a bit guilty, as if she has stolen something, or reclaimed something that is rightfully hers.
Drinx after work? she offers.
She lets her eyes adjust to the dim of the craft-beer bar, peers for cerulean hair, is startled to see, in a back booth, the both of them there, together. Both of their faces alight upon seeing her. They wave with their free hands, in unison; their other hands are in a clasp displayed upon the table.
Hey, you two! she says. She slides into the booth’s opposite side, feeling ambushed. This is a happy surprise!
I got you the Seaquench ale, he says, sliding the bottle toward her.
She clinks his draft mug, the girl’s lemon-wedged glass of water. She takes a deep pull of her beer, smiling her lips around the cold bottle in her mouth.
So, we have some news, the girl says.
We wanted to tell you together, he says.
I’m pregnant, the girl says. They both beam at her, their faces blurred mirrors of delight. She blinks, then grins back, figuring this is the correct response.
Wow, she says. Congratulations! How wonderful! She gulps more beer.
We just found out today, one of them says.
Wow, she says again. That really is a surprise. I mean, you guys said you weren’t planning on doing that, is all.
We weren’t, he says. But, you know. He shrugs, then raises their clasped hands, kisses the Bride’s fingers. Life.
We wanted to tell you right away, the girl says.
Well. That’ll be quite a change. Having a kid. All that apple juice. Orthodontia. Saving for college. She smiles and smiles.
Oh, fuck, the girl laughs. I forgot about college. Then, to her husband: We both need to get raises, like now.
We’ll work it all out. He squeezes the girl’s fingers, drains his mug. Order me another, he asks, sliding out of the booth. I’m drinking for two now. He thumbs up, heads to the bathroom.
For three, the girl calls after him, laughing. Asshole.
Congratulations, she says again.
Thanks, the girl says. I’m really happy about it. Now, I mean. This morning, when I took the test? Holy shit, right? My first thought was no way, thank god for abortion. The girl sips her water. I’m not actually sure it’s his.
She frowns, blinks again. But, don’t you use condoms? With your boyfriends?
Yeah, sure. Most of the time. You know how it is, you get carried away in the moment, things get a little out of control…
No. No, I don’t know how that is, she says. She feels the hard naked silkiness of him inside her.
The girl waves it away. There really isn’t any safe sex anyway, right?
So, she gulps beer, is it… Mark’s?
Maybe. Who knows. We only hooked up a few times. His wife is totally vanilla, she’s a fucking lunatic, really, I got the whole sob story of their marriage. But he got all guilty and freaked she’d find out. I don’t need all that drama.
It could be this guy from that fundraising thing Tommy made me go to. We got together once. He was a freak. The timing sort of works out.
How will you tell him? she asks. She is suddenly horrified the girl will ask her to tell her husband, to mediate, to smooth all of this over. She imagines him weeping in her arms, her sweet broken boy.
Oh, he knows. The girl laughs. Of course he knows. We’re good. He was pretty pissed at first, yeah, but we talked it through. He says we should just go for it, he’ll love any kid we have. We might test for paternity when we do the prenatal stuff. He’s the best.
Yes, she says. He’s very special.
The girl squeezes her lemon wedge into her water, pouts. Seven long no-booze months for me, she says. Not fair.
No, she says. It’s not.
So, we’re going to cool it with poly for now, though.
Really, she says. You are.
We need to refocus. Re-prioritize.
But you’ll still be really involved, right? We want you to be really involved. I’ll need a lot of help. The girl spots her husband, returning, flutters her fingers at him. You’ll be like the coolest aunt ever, she hears the girl say.
She gives them fifteen minutes of talk about his babyproofing their place, about the efficacy of neonatal vitamins, about fears of morning sickness, then tells them she has to get going, there are test results waiting at the lab. She picks up the tab for their drinks. They all exit the bar, and she follows them into the parking lot glowed by a rising full moon, their hand-in-hand a swinging shadow on the ground.
Bye, kids, she calls. As she unlocks her car, she hears the girl urge: Kiss her goodnight!
She hurries in, slams the door. He walks over, taps on the window. She rolls the window halfway down, and he leans in. She turns her bright-smiling cheek for his kiss. You’ll always be my sweetie, you know, he whispers. She smells the scent of sage on his breath.
She watches them drive away. She grips the steering wheel, composing.
Dear Tommy, the letter will say. I must bring an unfortunate situation to your attention… She will explain how the Genetic Counselor has created a difficult and hostile work environment. She has jeopardized the lab’s reputation with potential investors, risking lawsuits, diminished profits. The situation is untenable. I am concerned her unprofessional behavior is spiraling out of control…
Or, Dear—whatever Mark’s wife’s name is, she can find that on social media, send a private message, I need, in sisterhood, to let you know what has been going on…
Her phone pings.
Do u like your shadow from moonlite? the text reads. She has no idea what that means, what he is asking of her. Maybe he is just going for poetry. Being fanciful. Maybe it is just nothing.
She deletes the text. She deletes all of his texts, his phone number. She starts her car.
TO: School Board Superintendent, she will write. RE: Football Coach Incident. She threads her right arm through the steering wheel, braces her forearm against the center console, and firmly grips the top arc of the wheel. She clenches her jaw, leans back in her seat for support, feels the damp stickiness shift in the seam of her underwear. No, RE: Assault. With her left hand she turns the steering wheel, carefully, turning with slow but coaxing force, past the initial resistance, waiting for the splintering, the snap, for the delicate brittle bones of her wrist, her hand, her arm, to crack.
Tara Ison is the author of the novels A Child Out of Alcatraz, The List, and Rockaway; the essay collection Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies; and the short story collection Ball. She is also the cowriter of the cult film Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee