Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

An excerpt from I Love You, Elizabeth

BY JEFF HAVENS

 

Day 23

 
They say it takes ten minutes, but it only takes four.

Four minutes of waiting, of focused silence and the simple sounds that become your world – the cannon of a clearing throat, the rustle of denim sliding slowly up your naked thighs, the alien rasp of your own suddenly awkward breath. The tiny click of the applicator being placed on the bathroom sink, crisp, like the snap of a playing card pulled face down from a new deck. Four minutes of waiting, alone, slowly losing strength as your thoughts run endlessly uphill.
Then the color comes, imperceptibly, the way the dawn surprises even those who wait for it – blue, bright baby blue, outlined sharply against the infinite white you’ve been staring at for so long. It’s not the color that matters, though, but the shape of that color, the rigid shape of the ineluctable future.

On the one hand, a single vivid slash, flat and empty.

And on the other, two perpendicular lines in the shape of the cross, blue and eternal, patient and blessed, the holy promise of a miracle.

Or a curse.
 
 
“Everything all right?”

Ashley closes the bathroom door behind her. She’d been in there for twenty minutes, curled into herself on the closed toilet seat, knees to her chest while all the heat in her body flowed away like a liquid into the cracks on the linoleum floor. She’d taken a second test, just to be sure, and again those two blue lines had grown steadily darker, hardening in the applicator window like a fossil, mute and indelible.

He had never come.

She watches him for a while, hands crossed in front of her stomach as though they can shield her from herself. Even now he isn’t looking at her, his dark eyes locked instead on his video game, hands gripping the controller like talons. In twenty minutes he had never come. Not a knock on the door or half-concerned shout from the couch – nothing. Nothing at all.

Suddenly his hands come up, and his body jerks to the left. “God dammit!”

He’s yelling at the television.

“Turn the game off.”

He doesn’t. Instead he pauses it and swivels toward her, controller still in hand, eyes flashing as though she has somehow inconvenienced him. “Is there a problem?”

Don’t make me say it, she thinks. You should know already, if you loved me you’d know. But immediately the fear redoubles, churning until she feels nauseated. If she could wait a month, a week, a day, before this conversation had to happen, she could prepare herself. It doesn’t seem fair. She’s only known for twenty minutes.

Actually that’s not true. She’d known before she took the test, known in a visceral way, the way butterflies know how to migrate to places they’ve never been. And there were the other signs—the darkening of her nipples, the waves of lethargy, the abrupt urges to vomit—but she’d forced herself to pass them off as anomalies, odd symptoms of a hidden flu. Ignorance was so much easier, and she hadn’t wanted to know. And neither had he, which is why he’d kept playing his video game while she’d hugged herself alone in the bathroom.

“Dammit, Ashley, talk. Is something wrong?”

The words come before she’s ready for them. As though she could ever be ready. “It’s positive.”

Jack puts the controller down. His voice is flat, hard. “What do you mean it’s positive?”

“I mean it’s positive. I’m…I’m pregnant.”

There. Now it’s real.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” She hates the way her voice sounds. For as long as she can remember she’s been imagining this moment, collecting the details—the sparkle in her eyes, the flash of exuberance in her lover’s face, the ecstatic embrace, the flurry of phone calls, the squeals of joy on the other end of the line—and now that it’s come she sounds like a doctor handing out a death sentence.

Jack sits back against the couch, dark eyes fixed on the television screen, his race car frozen in an endless loop. “Shit,” he breathes. His fingers flex. “Shit.”

Outside a car pulls into the lot—could be Kate coming home. Ashley hopes it isn’t, not yet. This will be easier without her there.

“The test could be wrong, you know,” Jack says. “They’re not perfect.”

“I’m almost two weeks late.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. Hell, my sister’s been two months late before. Freaked her out, but she wasn’t pregnant. Maybe—”

“Jack.” She says his name softly, suddenly the comforter, as though he needs it most. “I’m not late. I took two tests, they’re not both wrong. I’m pregnant.”

His mouth clamps shut, jaw tensed like a boxer sizing up his next opponent, searching for a weakness. He presses his left hand to his mouth, thumb and forefinger on either cheek. The fingers of his free hand will not stop moving.

Long moments pass. Ashley looks at Jack, waiting for him to say something. But he just switches the hand covering his mouth and stares at the floor.

It’s not supposed to be this way.

“Jack…”

She has no idea what she’s going to say. But it doesn’t matter, because before she reaches the second word he leaps to his feet and looks at her with eyes as dull as slate.

“How do you know it’s mine?”

The question hits her like a fist. She flinches—a worthless defense—and it drives itself deep into her stomach, inward and upward, through the mass of cells dividing furiously within her to stick like a thorn in her suddenly closed throat. She falls heavily against the bathroom door. The shock is so great that for a moment she can’t breathe. This is more than unexpected; it’s unthinkable.

“How do you know it’s mine,” he says again, more confidently this time, as though drawing strength from repetition.

“Of course it’s yours,” she whispers—a pale rasp.

“I don’t see how it can be. I wore a condom.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s—”

“I always wear one. Remember? You always made me. So it can’t be mine.”

“They don’t always work, Jack, you know that.”

“They never broke.”

“Well I haven’t been with anyone else.” The words sound as though they’ve been
squeezed through bars, strained and weak as though she doesn’t believe them herself. She knows she should sound angry, a wronged lover demanding justice, but she can’t help herself; every scrap of knowledge she has accumulated through twenty-four years of innumerable arguments has broken down in the face of an overwhelming desperation. She and Jack have been together for ten months – that should mean something. Could ten months really come down to this, torn apart in a sentence?

“Who was it?” He sounds calm, almost magnanimous.

“It was you, and you know it.”

“Couldn’t have been.”

“It was you! It had to be, I haven’t been with anybody else! It’s yours—ours
you can’t just…oh God…oh God…”

“Just tell me who it was,” he says. “I won’t be angry, I just want to know.”

The muscles in Ashley’s legs give way but somehow she remains standing, pinned against the bathroom door like a moth on display. She no longer recognizes the man standing beside her couch. He doesn’t even look familiar, nothing at all like the man she allowed inside of her, who told her he loved her as he eased himself in as far as he could go. The man she’s looking at now is an intruder, and she knows that nothing can transform him back to the man he was twenty minutes ago. From some places there is no return.

“Was it Derek?”

She’s dimly aware that he’s acting, reciting a speech he’s writing as he goes. He knows he’s lying; he knows it. There’s no other way to explain how he could sound so calm. If he truly believed that she’d been unfaithful, she’d have reason to fear him. She’s seen his temper. The last time, when his serpentine belt gave way—a simple repair, and inexpensive—he bloodied his fists against the hood of his own truck. And this is more than a broken belt.

“It was Derek, wasn’t it. I’ve seen the way you look at him.” Cool and composed, as though he’s doing her a favor by being so understanding.

She unpins herself from the bathroom door and goes into the kitchen for a glass of water, although her hands are trembling so much she’s not sure she’ll be able to hold it. “The way I look at him?”

“Yeah. Over at Ty’s, two weeks ago, he was all over you.”

“We were talking, asshole.”

“Don’t you call me an asshole!” He springs up from the couch, his voice a flame. “I’m not the one who screwed another guy!”

“It’s your baby, Jack. Yours and mine. I haven’t been with anybody else.”

“Well it can’t be mine, I wore a condom!”

“They don’t always work!”

“Well then why’d you make me wear them in the first place?”

He’s flailing now. She can hear the quiver in his voice, disguised as rage—he’s scared, too—and it softens her slightly. “I didn’t ask to get pregnant. I didn’t try to.”

“How do I know? Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. It’s not like you’ve made any secret about wanting to be a mom.”

“Yeah, but not like this!”

“That’s what they all say!” he shouts—too loud, the roar of a caged animal. “Then one day—boom! Just like that, hey, I’m pregnant, and I’m supposed to believe that this was some kind of surprise? I wore a condom, Ashley! Every time!”

“Jack.” She keeps her own voice level and warm. Maybe there is a way back. “I didn’t plan for this to happen. I didn’t. But it did. I’m scared, too, OK? This isn’t how I pictured it either. But we can get through this, OK? Together. As long as we—”

“We?” He says it as though he’s never heard the word before. “No, there’s no we here. It’s not mine. You hear me? It’s—not—mine.”

“It is yours, Jack! And you know it is!”

“No it’s not.”

“I’ll get a goddamn paternity test if I have to, Jack, it’s yours!”

“No it’s not!” The veins on Jack’s neck are bulging. “I know it’s not mine, and I’m not going to let you trap me into raising somebody else’s baby.”

“Listen to yourself! I’m scared, too, all right, but you don’t have to treat me like this!”

“Yeah, well you didn’t have to treat me the way you did when you went out and slept with somebody else.”

“You are such a liar.” She wants to hurt him, to drive a knife between his eyes the way he’s impaling her with his unwavering denial. She doesn’t even mind the possibility that he might hit her; at least that would be something. “And you know you are.”

Slowly, deliberately, Jack crosses his arms. “I’m not the one who’s been lying.”

“Yes you have. You sat right there” – she flings a hand toward the small kitchen table; water flies from her glass – “you sat right there an hour ago and told me you loved me. And now when I need you more than I need anybody in the entire goddamn world…” Her voice begins to break, but she wills it not to. “Now that I need you more than anything, you’re going to stand there and tell me that it’s not yours?”

“That’s what I’m saying. It’s not mine.”

“Screw you, Jack.”

“Listen, bitch…”

That’s it, the spark on the powder. With a wordless roar she whips her glass at his face. It misses by a hair and careens onto the floor beyond, breaking but not shattering as she had hoped it would against his square jaw and dull eyes. The whole thing happens so quickly Jack barely has time to flinch.

“Get out!” she screams, loudly enough to break all the other glass in the apartment. “Get out!

“Jesus, calm down, will y-”

Before he can finish she lunges forward and punches him as hard as she can in the smooth crease where his cheek meets his nose. There is a concussion of sound, like the slap of a wet towel on concrete.

GET THE FUCK OUT!

Jack grunts and staggers back against the couch, blood pouring from his nose. He doesn’t retaliate, and in her fury Ashley can see that he’s not going to. He looks relieved.

“Let me get my stuff.”

“GET OUT!” She rushes toward the television and in one motion lifts the video game system and tries to hurl it at him. But it’s still connected to everything, and halfway across the room the cords snap taut; the television skids on its stand, almost overturning, and Jack’s four hundred dollar video game system crashes to the ground with a dull thud. Pieces of plastic go flying.

“Jesus, you crazy bitch!” He scurries behind the couch, away from his attacker, his voice disfigured by pain but without the anger she wants to hear. He puts his left hand to his nose and winces. “Fucking whore.”

Whore.

She looks for something else to throw, something deadly; if she were in the kitchen she’d be reaching for the nearest knife. But it’s too late. He’s already opened the door and slammed it behind him.

And just like that, she’s alone.

With her remaining strength Ashley screams at the door – “Fucker!” – but the sound bounces harmlessly off, a wasted arrow. He’s gone forever now. She’s nothing to him anymore, a bad memory worth forgetting.

But she’ll never be able to forget him, will she. He’s made sure of that.

Ashley sinks onto the couch. They’d found it together, she and Jack, six months ago by the dumpster behind her apartment building, stained and torn but with the stuffing still firm and largely intact, nothing a clean sheet couldn’t disguise. It was a good couch, long and wide enough for two people to lie down on and watch a movie or make love – which they’d done several times, the last time only two weeks ago, sweaty and silent while Kate was taking a shower. Was it then that it happened, that the impossibly thin layer of latex in which they had placed so much trust had failed? Was it then that her life had changed forever, there in the middle of her living room on a torn couch they’d found beside a dumpster?

The tears come, hard and hot and innumerable. She turns over and buries her face into the sheet, and the more she cries the more she loses control of herself. In seconds she’s sobbing, folded into herself, arms and legs pulled to her chest in a primal, hopeless attempt to disappear.

If she’d only had a little more time to think, she could have figured out how to break the news. She could have soothed him better; she could have controlled her temper; she could have convinced him to stay. If only she’d had a little more time. And now she’s alone. Pregnant and alone.

Just like her own mother had been.
 
 
By the time Kate comes home Ashley has been sitting at the small kitchen table for over an hour. There are no lights on in the apartment, and in the deepening gloom the hard edges of shapes are beginning to melt into one another. But it’s easy enough to see the wreckage of Jack’s video game system on the floor, and even easier to hear the crunch of broken glass as the front door opens.

Kate steps gingerly into the apartment and closes the door behind her with a soft click.

“What happened?”
 
 

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