by Jennifer Fawcett
It’s a grey day. The endless grey that makes it seem colder than it actually is, that wet kind of penetrating grey that happens in November. It’s November now, though the month isn’t significant, just the grey. And the cold. And the fact that your birthday is tomorrow. Birthdays are milestones. Milestones, millstones. Didn’t women used to get tied to those and drown?
You’re not the kind of person who gets freaked out by a number, but it is a mark, a notch in the continuum of time. Which means that today is a day for getting things done. Today, you woke up with a sense of determination. Today, you told yourself, you will finally crack open the book you bought last January and start your bullet journal. Those thick, creamy pages, just begging for color-coded lists to get control of your finances, hack your sleep, and embrace your creativity, whatever that means. From here on, your life will stop being a “to do” list and start being a “doing” list. You are going to sign up for hot yoga - no - Cross Fit. You can already envision how your wardrobe and, by extension, your life will improve with undeniable triceps. You will volunteer at the animal shelter, and get a flu shot, and a juice extractor. And a mammogram. And you will start all of this by taking the bag of hand-me-down maternity clothes given to you by your well-meaning sister out of your closet and donating them to Goodwill.
So far, you have accomplished one of these things: you dropped the bag of clothes off at Goodwill and then drove straight home and got into bed with all your clothes on. Now it is almost five, and you still have all these things to do because you’re leaving town for the weekend to go to your parent’s house to celebrate your birthday, a tradition that has never been broken. Even though there is some comfort in tradition, it also makes you feel like you haven’t moved; that surely now, as a forty-year-old woman, you should be doing more significant things for your birthday than you did when you were seven.
And yet here you lie.
You hear your husband pull into the driveway. Back from the gym. Your husband is a man of routine. Discipline, he says. Last night you went to bed before he had finished his evening meeting with a client on the West Coast. When he came into the bedroom, he moved effortlessly in the dark and slid into bed without touching you. You pretended to sleep. When you woke up, he was on his morning run, and you were out of the house before he came back. You know his routines by heart. In this way, you can go for over twenty-four hours without speaking to each other. The last time you spoke was yesterday morning when he told you he had made an appointment to get a vasectomy and then asked you to pick up milk when you were out.
You still haven’t bought milk. This gives you more satisfaction than it should.
You keep thinking about the old man who pulled into the Goodwill receiving area just ahead of you. The way he stood beside his car – one of those long, low cars all points and ugly angles that old men refuse to part with – and watched as a woman your age got out of the driver’s seat and started pulling everything out, and how within a minute it began to look like there had been an explosion and this was the aftermath. Not only was the car packed to the roof, it also had a trailer attached to it with furniture balancing in a precarious stack held together with a web of bungee cords. The old man watched, unmoving, while the woman (his daughter, you assume) was a blur of activity. She looked bossy, resentful that she was the one who had to do this, or maybe it was guilt because it was clear that this was her idea and not his. A Goodwill employee with a scraggly ponytail and goatee had ambled out of the receiving area with a big blue cart, taken one look at all the debris, and gone back inside to get help, looking annoyed.
At first, seeing how long it was going to take, you were annoyed too. You had one bag to donate and a lot to do! You were about to roll down your window to ask if you could go first when you realized that the old man was looking directly at you. You rummaged through your purse and found your phone, making it clear you were not engaging with this show playing out in front of you. He kept looking right at you, his mouth moving silently. He needed you to stop them. He needed you to insist it all be put back in the car, back into the house, the closets, the attic, the drawers where it belonged even though those closets, that attic, those drawers, they were all going too. At that moment, you knew all of this with absolute certainty. You couldn’t help him; you knew that too.
A second Goodwill employee came out, also dragging a cart. This one was younger, and didn’t seem as disgruntled as the first. The two of them were talking about football; their conversation, all half-described plays, numbers, and cursing, was completely separate from what they were doing. They handled the antique lamp with the same lack of delicacy that they showed the fur coat in the clear plastic cover, and the box of National Geographic, tossing all of it into their huge blue carts. The old man had reached out for one of the boxes, but the ponytail guy hadn’t stopped what he was doing and dumped it in the bin without breaking his rhythm.
“Just stay in the car, Dad,” the woman had said. “You’re in the way.”
The old man got back in the car, and as the pile slowly decreased, you could see him sitting motionless in the passenger seat, eyes closed.
Finally, you got out of the car and carried your bag of clothes in, past the Employees Only sign, and deposited it on the receiving area floor. This donation was supposed to be a gesture of freedom, a release from expectation, but as soon as you put the bag on that dirty floor, something rose in your throat: the wrongness of it all, all of it, everything. So, pick it up again, a voice in your head said, just pick it up and walk back out, say you made a mistake or screw it, don’t say anything at all. There you were, frozen with one hand still holding the handle of the bag, when the younger Goodwill guy came in and asked if you wanted a receipt, and it was too late. You had to leave those clothes behind. So, you did. You left your chance to wear those clothes, to become a mother, on the dirty floor of the Goodwill. When you got back in your car, you closed your eyes too. And then you drove straight home and got into bed.
When you and your husband met, he was in another relationship. Carrie, or Carrie as you thought of her, worked with your husband before he became a life coach with a home office and a vlog. You had never cheated and had always been happy to philosophize over beer about what kind of people did, but Carrie wasn’t real. She was an idea, an obstacle, a casualty of something greater. Her mere existence made your sex amazing. Back then, you and he couldn’t be alone without touching. Once, he broke up a 10-mile run by stopping at your apartment, and you had sex in the alley with all your clothes just stretched aside. His heart rate was already accelerated, and his chest was sweaty. You could hear the music in his headphones the whole time, something with a driving beat, the tinny sound coming out of those miniature speakers that hung down his back while he thrust into you against the brick wall of the low rise. When you finished, he kept running, and you went back upstairs and looked at yourself in the bathroom mirror, trying to see yourself as he did.
Two years later, you married in a courthouse and called your families from the car after, twisting the new ring on your finger to get used to it while you listened to them cry and laugh. Soon, all the friends who had babies started asking when you would too – it was always the ones who already had kids, like they’d joined some new cult and were bleary-eyed with ecstasy and couldn’t imagine why everyone else wouldn’t want to join too. You had assured your husband that you didn’t want kids, and that’s what you honestly believed at the time. This was one of the differences between you and Carrie. The two of you would lie in bed with your limbs wrapped around each other speculating about all the spontaneous travel, the sophisticated dinner parties, the freedom of being unencumbered. You got drunk together and made a list called “Reasons Not to Have Children.”
Reason Number 1: getting drunk together in the middle of the day.
Reason Number 2: spontaneous travel to dangerous places.
Your sister, Melissa, had one child and then, almost immediately, had another. She always hit the milestones first, even though she’s two years younger. Then she had a third child, Charlie. He is your favorite. Charlie is afraid of the dark, and his favorite color is yellow.
Maybe it was Charlie who changed everything. Last winter, your parents rented a condo in Florida, and the whole family went down. Each night, Charlie woke once an hour screaming because he wasn’t used to the humidity or the new noises or he was teething or some other reason Melissa tried to explain the next day. By the second night, your husband was cursing into his pillow and suggested the two of you get a hotel. But you didn’t want to leave those night rhythms: the sudden screams of panic, the sounds of your sister padding down the hall past your door, the soft murmurs of her calming him, the cries growing sleepier and then fading into silence again. Would you ever be needed so desperately? Would you ever be the only one who could make that panic disappear?
When Melissa’s first child was born, you spent an entire lunch break in a baby boutique, examining the organic cotton diapers and sustainably sourced rubber bottle nipples. You finally settled on the softest pair of booties you’d ever touched. It had felt good to spend that amount of money (clearly, you were going to be an excellent aunt), but then you didn’t give them to her. And you didn’t give them to her for the second child, or Charlie either. They are still sitting in the back of your sock drawer. Sometimes your hand brushes them. Every year since you turned thirty-seven, you have asked your doctor if you can still get pregnant, and every year she has said the same thing: “Yes. Probably. But.”
Or maybe it was last May when the cashier at the grocery store, his face a constellation of acne, handed you a pink carnation as you went to pay. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he said, and when you didn’t take the flower, he added, in case it wasn’t clear enough, “It’s for you.” “But I’m not,” you said because you were flustered, and when you get into that state, you don’t do the easy thing, which would have been to take the flower. Instead, you just stood there, him holding the extended flower, you holding your credit card, neither of you moving. “Please,” the boy sounded like he was begging, “My manager will give me shit.” By now, the people in the line behind you were wondering what kind of an asshole doesn’t take a flower when offered. His terrified expression was surely because you were either a child-hating monster or your uterus was a toxic dead zone. You started to repeat the old lines, “It’s a choice; it’s just a choice.” But then you thought of the birth control pills swirling down the toilet and the stash of ovulation kits in your bedside table drawer, and you wanted that flower suddenly and fiercely and knew you could not touch it because you were not a part of that club. The woman behind you said, “For Christ’s sake,” and the boy put the flower back in the bucket looking like you’d slapped him, and you almost ran over an old lady in the parking lot because you were crying and having that falling feeling you get in moments of panic.
When you got back to your house that time, you pulled the bag of Melissa’s maternity clothes out of your closet (“Just in case,” she’d whispered, so proud of herself for giving them to you) and dumped them on your bed. You got a pillow and jammed it into your underwear so you could fill out the clothes properly. How is it possible, you had wondered, for a body to expand to this size and then contract again. You put on the green wool dress she had worn two Christmases earlier when she’d been huge with Charlie. There was a fine gold thread woven through the fabric, and where it stretched out over the swell of your fake belly, it caught the light and glittered. You remembered how Melissa had seemed to glow when she wore it, and for the first time you had thought about the meaning of the word “miracle.” You put your hands on the pillow-belly, closed your eyes, and it was almost as if you could feel a heartbeat. Almost. Then you folded each item back up and put them back into the bag, and hid them in your closet until this morning. Logically, you know that this morning’s decision to get them out of your house was a healthy one. It’s your response that isn’t healthy, or normal, or convenient.
You hear your husband moving around downstairs, turning on lights, and think about getting up.
You think about how he could come into the bedroom, and you could have quiet, sad sex. Afterward, you’d put on your comfy sloppy clothes (in this scenario, they are more sexy-disheveled than comfy-sloppy) and watch TV while eating ice cream straight from the carton. Or he might sit on the end of the bed and rub your foot through the blanket and you would say, “I know it’s stupid,” and he would say, “No, it’s not,” and you would believe him. Then he’d make toast because you just realized that you are hungry. And when you finally get out of bed, he would make dinner, something simple and comforting involving cheese.
At one of the schools where you teach art, there is a family who is new to the country, and although the children are adapting quickly, their mother never speaks when she comes to pick them up. The look in her eyes is something you have no words for.
Reason Number 14: the possibility of becoming a refugee.
When you were twenty-two, you spent four months in some of the poorer regions of Central America, and you’ve tried to hold onto the conviction you felt then that you shouldn’t add to the population (Reason Number 9). Your husband’s best friend from college told him recently that he’d bought a gun. Two years earlier, this friend had become a father. For your husband, these events are directly connected.
Reason Number 23: kids make you paranoid, but,
Reason Number 24: the world is dangerous.
Yesterday, after your husband casually mentioned his vasectomy, you stood at the kitchen window and watched a cardinal at the birdfeeder. You didn’t think about children. You thought about how lately you’ve wanted to go back to sculpting, to press clay with your hands. You thought about the smell of art rooms in college – a mix of turpentine, oil paint, and sandalwood. You thought that you probably need glasses and should get your eyes checked. And that when you and your sister were fourteen and twelve, you read the major works of the Brontë sisters out loud to each other. Melissa always made her readings dramatic. And you thought about how you know three women who are all in remission from breast cancer, and they’re all your age. And that there’s a scratch on the back door of the car (driver’s side) that just appeared. You should get that fixed too.
You could have stood there all morning, but Melissa called to say that Mike, her husband, couldn’t come for your birthday weekend. He is an anesthesiologist at a hospital and is on call. Melissa said that yesterday an elderly woman died in surgery, and although Mike isn’t at fault, it has shaken him. There is going to be an inquiry, just a formality, but still. Melissa is an RN at the same hospital and is going back to work full-time for the first time since Charlie was born. You two shared a room until you went to college and know each other’s voices in the dark. If Melissa wasn’t so worried about her husband and going back to work, she would have heard something in your voice and asked, but she was distracted, so she didn’t.
You want to believe in God. There was a time when you did, when God was a benevolent grandfather in the sky who granted wishes if you were good, like a 365-days-a-year Santa Claus. There wasn’t anything that undid this belief, it just eroded invisibly until one day, you realized there was nothing there. Wasn’t faith supposed to be steadfast? Wasn’t it supposed to be the bedrock on which the house is built and whatever other metaphor you want to throw at it? Will it come back? You’re not sure. Perhaps with work, but that takes all the magic out of it.
Reason Number 50: love erodes too.
Your husband still has not come into the bedroom, though he must know you are home because your car is in the driveway and the house was unlocked. He isn’t coming in for a reason. It could be because he thinks you’re sleeping and doesn’t want to disturb you, or it could be because he knows that whatever is keeping you in the bedroom is not something he wants to deal with. It’s not the bag of clothes you would like to tell him; it’s what they represent. It’s the relentless grey sky. It’s another birthday that’s exactly like all the other birthdays, so that time is both unmoving in the sameness of it all and moving so fast that the years are an indistinct blur.
In the back of the closet is an extra-large suitcase, easier to access now that the bag of maternity clothes is gone. You dump a month’s worth of clothes into it, even though you’re just going to Chicago for the weekend. You have always liked the romance of an escape plan: to go to the train station and buy a ticket to the farthest place you can find and then keep going until you’re somewhere new where you can reinvent. The details need some sketching out, but this sort of thinking isn’t about logistics. You can’t quite believe you’re doing it, this excessive packing, but it feels good, it feels dangerous, and that gives you the energy to get out of the bedroom (bumping the suitcase down the stairs behind you) and into the car. You pass your husband standing in the kitchen, drinking a green smoothie straight from the blender, and say, “Ready?” This will be the extent of the conversation about what has been going on for the past hour as you’ve both been in the darkening house, two separate electrons circling the nucleus, never colliding, unable to move apart.
Here is what you don’t know:
When his shift at Goodwill is over, Oskar decides to go out through the receiving area because it is slightly closer to the bus stop if he sprints across the parking lot with its geography of black slushy lakes. The rain has turned to sleet, and all he has to wear is a sweatshirt. At this time of night, the bus only comes every 45 minutes, and he doesn’t want to be stuck standing in the cold, cursing his lack of a car. He should have a car – he worked doubles all summer to buy a car – but now that money is needed elsewhere. A man does what he has to do, he thinks. There are bigger things now. These are the mantras that run in an unending loop in his brain through the extra shifts at Goodwill, the late-night cleaning job, and the early mornings of these last few months of high school.
He is about to leave the sales floor when Kent calls out, “Hey Oskar, guess what I found?” Kent has Down Syndrome or something like that. Oskar isn’t sure. He is gentle and funny and way smarter than he’s usually given credit for. He loves Star Wars, and whenever anything Star Wars-related comes into the store, he spends his whole shift talking about it and trying to decide if he can afford to buy it. Usually, Oskar likes talking to Kent because he is clear in a way that the guys in high school aren’t. Still, he knows that if he gets into a conversation now, he’ll miss his bus, so he pretends he hasn’t heard and passes through the swinging doors into the clutter and chaos of the receiving area. The cavernous space sucks light and sound to the top, leaving the floor perpetually dim. This is where Oskar spends most of his time, sorting and pricing. It’s always full, but tonight it is especially crowded after that old man “vomited his fucking house here,” as Jay said. Jay, who also spends most of his time back here, is older and likes to complain.
He has three minutes, and he can just make the bus if he runs. He’s zipping up his hoodie when he sees a bag of clothes sitting on its own in the wrong place (he remembers the woman leaving it here when he and Jay were trying to deal with the old man’s “fuck ton of crap”). He had asked if she wanted a receipt. She had said they were maternity clothes and that she wouldn’t need them now (which didn’t have anything to do with a receipt, he’d thought) and then she had left in a hurry, and he’d forgotten about the bag, until now. Spilling out of the top is a sparkling green dress.
Oskar knows the rules, and he is a good kid. He thinks of Kent and his long debates about whether he can spend the dollar on a beat-up action figure, and of Jay, who he’s seen more than once slip a DVD or a watch into his pocket. Usually, this sort of thing would create a dilemma for Oskar, but this time he doesn’t question it. He pushes the dress into his knapsack.
After, he won’t be able to say precisely what made him stop and take the dress, only that as soon as he saw it, he knew it would be perfect for his girlfriend, Camila. Camila, who speaks in explosions, then cries in the bathroom when she thinks no one can hear because the water’s running. Camila, who is quicker to fight than any guy he knows yet grows softer and rounder each day as their baby grows inside her. She is waiting for him now, an exile in his mother’s apartment, because her coat can’t close over her belly. The dress will be warm, he can tell. It is soft and thick in his fingers. It will cling to her new body, and she will shimmer.
JENNIFER FAWCETT has been awarded the National New Play Network Smith Prize, National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, Kennedy Center’s National Science Playwriting Award, and produced regionally across the US. Her first novel THE OCTAGON HOUSE will be published by Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) in Spring 2022.