When the woman was thirteen, her first period delivered dreams of drooling, cherry-cheeked babies. She pictured swollen breasts and peasant blouses lightly kissed with spit-up. She declared her womb destined for motherhood.
She fell in love with a young man when love was free and living was easy or so the inhabitants of that era claimed.
A clinic visit confirmed her prayers. She broke the news, gently rubbing the man’s back, while placing a pair of knitted booties into his palm. He compressed the yarn into a ball, like making a fist could crush reality. Later, he smoothed the tiny socks over the woman’s bellbottomed lap. Combing fingers through shoulder-length hair he pictured a blue-eyed child riding a tricycle, traversing their crumbled patches of sidewalk.
In the beginning, her belly was soft and supple. She wore her bikini, slender strings the man untied under murky lake water.
Suddenly, her energy ratcheted into high gear. She raced through the apartment plugging electrical sockets and securing cabinet doors. Finding an aspirin required a locksmith.
As her second trimester approached, the woman ceremoniously unscrewed the lid from a jar. The essence of coconut transported the man to the beach where he had slathered her young body with lotion. It also smelled of sex. They made love in his Plymouth Valiant before driving home to her unsuspecting parents.
He dipped two fingers into the mayonnaise-like mixture, secretly craving a roast beef on rye. The woman promised the magical blend would keep stretch marks from creating a road map over her stomach. He swiped the ointment over the taught expanse, like oiling a rubber raft. The man visualized his offspring, a child with his chin and her nose. A boy.
After sixteen weeks, a ravenous appetite replaced nausea. Buttons strained the woman’s prepregnancy wardrobe, playing peek-a-boo with her new larger, utilitarian bra.
The man bought her a loose dress and a slim gold band from Sears. She wore a single daisy tucked behind her ear. Two friends witnessed their quick and efficient ceremony.
For two married months nothing changed. Then during her third trimester, the man longed for the woman’s hip where now a mound of jelly-like flesh ballooned over bone. He ventured beyond, feeling for the velvety abdomen he caressed while dancing to Eric Clapton. There, he found a sack of moving parts, the alien appendages of her fetus.
Finally, fours hours of un-medicated labor ushered Sheila into the world. The man held his daughter like a precious piece of porcelain he might drop on the cold hospital tile.
Once they were home, colicky cries permeated Sheila’s days. The woman wandered through the house, her blouse unbuttoned, waiting to offer a weary breast to a demanding rosebud of a mouth. Only the mother’s sagging milky sacs brought solace to Sheila’s whimpers.
The man missed stroking his baby’s chubby legs, her fingers curling around his thumb. The woman’s silken skin deteriorated into rough red scales as she sterilized bottles, nipples, and rattles in scalding water.
One tranquil day between colic and teething, Sheila slept in her playpen. The man tenderly picked up his daughter. She nuzzled his neck. He whispered something sweet. Then Sheila squirmed and familiar warmth accompanied by an acrid stench penetrated her diaper. She thrashed. In his mind he wanted to calm her, wanted to clean her, wanted to feed and clothe her. His inexperienced hands released Sheila to her bed. She cried in fitful gasps as he slipped out of the room.
The exhausted woman resumed her duties.
The man retreated to the porch. The encroaching weeds now concealed the cracks in the sidewalk.
Like crayons between waxed paper, one day melted into another. The woman grew accustomed to caring for her child alone. The man waited patiently for opportune moments to know his daughter.
Almost two years passed. The woman sought part-time work. The man agreed to mind the toddler. Babysitting would make up for lost time, she said.
Cookie, juice, monkey, were saliva-soaked syllables, Sheila’s polyglot approach to her relentless requests. When the father finally decoded her foreign tongue, every word was a command. They rolled a rubber ball between v-shaped legs before she tossed the ball into the toilet. She pushed her lunchtime macaroni off her plastic tray into a dried pile of parenthesis on the linoleum floor. The man searched for the slowly dissolving affection he felt on the miraculous day of her birth. He questioned love. Was it something to summon or conjure—an acquired skill?
One day he remembered a game his father played with him. He became a horse and Sheila the rider. After galloping along the living room trail the man unloaded his passenger. He collapsed, tickling his giggling daughter. Sheila begged to ride again but he said, “Let Daddy rest.” The man sprawled over the shag carpet, removing his shirt before falling asleep. He smiled and dreamed of holding Sheila’s hand her first day of school.
Sheila climbed her mother’s desk, grasping paper and permanent markers. When the paper supply ran out, she straddled the sleeping horse. He snored noisily. Sheila plucked at short hairs on his back. With a bright blue marker she connected coffee-colored freckles. The design resulted in a lopsided heart. Inside the heart she practiced the first letter of her name, ‘S’ for snake.
The woman returned, stifling fits of laughter while admiring her daughter’s handiwork. She draped a quilt over her slumbering family.
Clanging pots woke the man. He pulled on his shirt and announced, “Off to the gym.”
In the locker room, friends slapped the man’s back. “Cool,” they said. Sheila’s childish scrawl appeared in the full-length mirror. The shower’s lukewarm water was no match for permanent ink. He raged at the relaxed rules of the woman and the disobedience of her child.
That evening the man entered an empty home. Markers cluttered the coffee table. Colorful papers littered the floor. A note read: Be home soon. Love you. Below Love, Sheila had scribbled three crooked hearts. He switched on the television.
An hour later, the doorbell rang. She forgot her keys again. He’d let her wait, slowly tying both shoes before answering the door.
Two police officers juggled words like fatal, accident, and sorry.
The man apologized for his overgrown lawn.
They presented his wife’s purse—a damaged gift—found fifteen feet from the crushed vehicle.
The officers made coffee. In the refrigerator a teddy bear cake sat next to the cream. How had he forgotten Sheila’s birthday?
The officers looked away as the man muffled guttural groans into freshly folded bibs.
After midnight, the television’s sign-off tone forced the man to abandon his only source of comfort. He uncorked a hidden bottle of anniversary wine, guzzling the liquid like grape juice. He left the hollowed-out house, dazed and drawn to the lights of town. Cheerful twinkling mocked his despair. He ducked into the first open door. The shop buzzed with electricity. With determined desperation he stripped off his shirt and pointed to his back. His first tattoo.
~ Published in FWA Collections Volume Six