Lydia Copeland Gwyn

All the Baby’s Air

 
In our Family Life class we’d all shared a table and watched Ms. Felton from Planned Parenthood unroll a con­dom onto a wood­en dil­do. She talked about sin­gle par­ent­hood, how hard it was, how no one helps like they say they will. She was preg­nant with her sec­ond and con­stant­ly pat­ting her tum­my. The whole class want­ed to be her sit­ter.

None of us could wait for the day when we would cradle and nurse and sleep with an infant on a mat­tress, our heads turned to the ceil­ing, care­ful not to breathe all of the baby’s air.

Ours was an all-girls’ school, and we were in the 8th grade. At dis­missal, we stood in front of its columns on a side­walk car­pet­ed with yel­low leaves. It was late October, and in a few weeks the leaves would be brown lace. I wore a plaid cape coat and bal­let slip­pers with wool tights. Lee Ann was braid­ed and wore the ring her moth­er left her before she moved in with her boss. There were two oth­er girls I knew a lit­tle from school. Both sis­ter red heads from Quebec. One of them had won poet­ry con­tests.

Soon my father would pull up in his black Town Car and we’d pile in and sit on our hands, ask him to change the sta­tion and turn up the heat. He nev­er asked ques­tions, just chewed gum and hummed along.

The poet girl had been the one to con­vince us to skip after-lunch class­es and to go with the boys in their truck. We’d met the boys at the mall movie the­ater, where they sat in the row behind us and tossed pop­corn into our hair. The boys were in high school, though we’d nev­er seen them around our town before. After first peri­od lunch, we walked out to the park­ing lot and found the boys wait­ing in their truck. We piled in the truck bed and let the wind blow our eyes closed and muss our hair, while they drove too fast down coun­try roads and over hills. There were four of us and only two of them, and we won­dered which of us would be the pret­ty ones.

The boys built a fire in a field on someone’s land and we all sat around. Lee Ann said stu­pid things about her par­ents’ mar­riage and her moth­er, about miss­ing her mother’s marsh­mal­low fudge the most. I rolled my eyes at her when no one was look­ing. I was grow­ing sick of her and her clingi­ness and all the notes I had to write to keep up, how crushed she’d looked when­ev­er I said I hadn’t had a chance to read the lat­est one.

We played a game where we each went alone into the woods with one boy for eleven min­utes, which meant we each went twice into the woods. One of the boys showed me a clump of white flow­ers called White Snakeroot that he said were poi­so­nous and had killed Abraham Lincoln’s wife. He picked off a tiny bloom and placed it in my but­ton hole.

The oth­er boy held my hand and took me to a creek deep­er in the woods than I’d gone the first time. He let go and start­ed to cross the water, walk­ing rock to rock. It had been rain­ing all week, and the creek was full and rush­ing with white crests form­ing around the big­ger rocks. The mist of it stuck to my face, and I felt like I was in a cloud. When he reached the oth­er side, he said, “Let’s take off our clothes.”

He stared at me, remov­ing his jean jack­et and pulling the t-shirt over his head. I looked away and felt the but­tons of my cape. The flow­er there stayed in place while I undressed. I draped my cape on the ground behind me, unzipped the side of my dress, rolled my tights down to my ankles and slipped them off. When I was com­plete­ly unclothed I looked up and saw him, thin and tall, creamy pale in the wet forest like a boy from the past. His hair looked dark­er brown now, almost black.

My shoul­ders round­ed and I crossed my arms over my waist. I didn’t know how to stand. We didn’t touch. There creek made a line which nei­ther of us would cross. I stood by an out­crop­ping of lime­stone, and I watched as he grew hard. The skin there was whiter than the rest of his body. I thought about the flow­er in my but­ton­hole and its white­ness and how pret­ty white was, and I won­dered what Ms. Felton would do. How she would hold and han­dle him with­out hav­ing to think about what her hands were doing.

Later the boys gath­ered more sticks for the fire, then tossed in an emp­ty hornet’s nest knocked down from a tree limb. Its paper walls black­ened in the flames. Before they drove us back, they showed us how sharp their pock­et knives were by slic­ing the thinnest lay­er of skin from our fin­gers and leav­ing it to dan­gle.

~

Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s sto­ries and poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in the Florida Review, Appalachian Heritage, Elm Leaves Journal, Glimmer Train, SmokeLong Quarterly and oth­ers. She lives with her hus­band and two chil­dren in East Tennessee where she teach­es English and works in a pub­lic library.