Merran Jones ~ Curls

Great hair!”
“Thanks.”
The stan­dard exchange between Carla and any health shop girl. Girls with names like Jasmine or Skye or Willow. Girls who munched chick­peas and trot­ted around the globe in an absent-mind­ed way.
“You do any­thing to get it like that?”
Carla shrugged. She pushed the can­dle for­ward. “Just this, please.” Ocean Breeze. She need­ed more aroma—more top notes of apple, mel­on, and berg­amot (what­ev­er that was)—in her life.
Leaving ‘Essential Living’, Carla trudged through the post-work crowd. On the sub­way, peo­ple stared at each other’s shoul­ders, shar­ing the drag of a Tuesday.

At home, the can­dle went on the cof­fee table for opti­mal relax­ation. Also to cov­er a stain.
Carla inspect­ed the kitchen for food. Some pota­toes in the cup­board were grow­ing a perm. A tin of creamed corn kept them com­pa­ny. The fridge con­tained swampy let­tuce and a smell no nose should have to endure. (Perhaps the can­dle should go in there.)
Things to do:
Buy gro­ceries.
Carla pulled the note off the door. She’d under­lined it four times the pre­vi­ous night, but the need for pon­cy can­dle­light had tak­en prece­dence.
She sighed and glanced up. The street­light gave the room a jaun­diced look. November bris­tled out­side. Her legs had already giv­en up. Grocery shop­ping was not going to hap­pen. Neither was the eight a.m. meet­ing with finance.
Carla checked her reflec­tion. Her face was the colour of a spleen. She scrunched her nose. She pinched her cheeks. When did she get so old? So burned-out? Lately, even ten hours sleep wasn’t enough. What’d hap­pened to the girl who’d left home five years before, strid­ing toward the east coast, defi­ance squar­ing her twen­ty-year-old shoul­ders …?
Carla stuck the note back on the fridge and con­sid­ered her options for din­ner:
1. The tin of creamed corn that’d expired a year ago,
2. Pizza (again).
There was no ques­tion. Carla ordered din­ner then show­ered off the day, siev­ing water through her fusil­li hair. Hair she didn’t like to tam­per with. Once when lit­tle, she’d tried to comb it. Two days lat­er, her mom found the comb and cut it out with prun­ing shears.
She’d always felt like a plus-one, an acces­so­ry to herself—Carla’s hair, plus Carla.
Afro head! The oth­er kids had jeered. Go back to Africa and mar­ry an ele­phant! The cru­el and usu­al pun­ish­ment of the school­yard.
She hat­ed the invi­ta­tion her hair gave strangers.
Exhibit A:
Great hair!
Thanks.
Exhibit B:
Oh my! You must have Puerto Rican or maybe Nigerian blood? (Everyone’s a geneti­cist.)
No, just my own.
But where are you from?
Des Moines.
Oh, sor­ry.
Me too.

Carla tow­elled her­self dry. Mark’s deodor­ant still sat by the sink, as it had for the last three months. She picked it up and shook her head.
Ahh, young Mark—hazelnut voice, vase­line-smooth­ness, a pair of neat, well-groomed balls. A suit with a face, think­ing con­fi­dence equalled intel­li­gence. A tall glass of water who hadn’t been as refresh­ing as she’d hoped.
Like many before, he’d tak­en her to the bal­let and the Met. They’d rid­den horse-drawn car­riages around Central Park. They’d lis­tened to Gershwin and Schubert and oth­er com­posers who sound­ed like head-colds. They’d eat­en beef yakiniku in restau­rants with­out TVs.
After three-point-five dates, they’d intro­duced the con­cept of sex. (It always seemed an appro­pri­ate amount of time.) With his bold lips and her under­wear peeled down one leg like a shack­le, they’d both closed their eyes, they’d both been loud, they’d both been fast, real­ly forc­ing the pas­sion. Forcing it hard.
Later, Mark’s snores had bro­ken through the night, his wed­ding band mock­ing in the dark. Carla had read Wednesday was the most pop­u­lar day to cheat—hump day.
We’re going in dif­fer­ent direc­tions, he’d said when it end­ed.
Yes. You’re walk­ing out the door while I watch.
I can’t leave Karen.
Didn’t you care about me at all? Ugh, so clichéd. At least the silence had been hon­est.
After that, she’d rebound­ed with some­one very different—Corey. A man four-fifths beard with a moun­tain­ous voice. He hadn’t owned a suit. At most, he’d a shirt with a clip-on tie. And iron­i­cal­ly, the only bag­gage he’d brought to the rela­tion­ship had been a shav­ing kit.
What’s that for?
My shoul­ders.
(Good grief.)
Instead of muse­ums, Corey had shared his devo­tion to ice hock­ey. They’d eat­en bur­ri­tos from Slovakian ven­dors. They’d drunk beer in pubs called: ‘Jimmy’s Hole’, sur­round­ed by blokes with mis­spelled tat­toos.
Carla had loved Corey’s transparency—so full of dumb, St. Bernard eager­ness. He’d pro­nounced ‘très’ like ‘trays’. He’d thought ‘cous cous’ was just the sound a pigeon made. He’d believed February 29 wasn’t a real day, but was invent­ed by Wall Street ‘for extra trad­ing or some shit’.
He’d been more refresh­ing than Mark. And made a change from her nor­mal breakup routine—power bal­lads and Hershey’s Kisses.
Singing:
R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
and
I Am Woman.
Sucking down vod­ka and recy­cling emo­tions. Firstly:
‘I can’t believe it’s over’.
Then:
‘I hate you’,
‘Please come back’,
‘There’s not enough vod­ka in this bot­tle’,
and final­ly,
‘I’m hun­gry’.
But a rebound had been dif­fer­ent. A rebound had allowed her to bounce back. Or bounce for­ward, or what­ev­er. Dating some­one like Corey had been plain bril­liant. Or maybe just plain. Which had become more appar­ent every time he burped the alpha­bet.
Naturally, it hadn’t last­ed. And after dump­ing him, Carla had returned to dat­ing her apart­ment; keep­ing her pil­low warm, night after night. She’d felt lost and grey like an old gym tow­el.
I’m not Woman. I am Miss-Laid.
Once, she’d called Mark, but hung up when Karen answered.

Now, star­ing into the bath­room mir­ror, Carla pinched her doughy mid­dle.
I must stop eat­ing piz­za.
She thought of the creamed corn.
After tonight.
She ran a hand through her curls and donned her pyja­mas.
A pointy-haired boy deliv­ered the food.
“Just for one?” He hand­ed Carla the par­ty-size piz­za, peer­ing over her shoul­der.
She slammed the door on any chance of a tip, retir­ing to the couch with an episode of Ready Set Cook and the calm­ing scent of Ocean Breeze.

*

You look dif­fer­ent.” Pat hand­ed her a fax.
All recep­tion­ists were called Pat. They wore Pandora bracelets and blous­es bloom­ing with ruf­fles. This one had eat­en too many cook­ies when her hus­band left and had tak­en on the shape of regret. She’d often rest her boobs on the desk. Carla vowed she’d cut hers off if they ever got that big.
“Different how?” Carla said.
“You’ve a gleam in your eye.”
“That’s just my con­tacts.”
Carla felt noth­ing but gleam­ing. She’d arrived at the office, stiff as a Monday, after a break­fast of cold piz­za.
“Mmhm.” Pat winked, face like a cher­ry pie. She sta­pled a form and popped it in a tray, then said: “Something on your mind, dear? You seem a lit­tle trou­bled.”
“Just think­ing about my gro­cery list. Gotta start buy­ing stuff like: green sal­ad and rice cakes and low-fat cot­tage cheese.” Carla gagged on the words.
“Why?”
“I need to lose weight.”
“Oh, non­sense!” Pat rub­bished her words as though bat­ting a fly. “Girls are far too skin­ny these days. You’re a good, healthy size.”
Healthy: the word reserved for women that’d put on a few.
Pat tilt­ed her head. “How ‘bout I get you a cof­fee?”
“No thanks. I’ve gone off it.”
“Oh yes?” Pat gave Carla the once-over. A smile nes­tled in the cor­ner of her mouth.

By four o’clock, Carla had had enough of work. The hor­mon­al weath­er reflect­ed her mood.
She left the office, side­step­ping pla­cen­tal bags of garbage, and bought bananas and dough­nuts at the store.
At home, she ate two slices of piz­za, three bananas, four dough­nuts, then cocooned her­self under the sheets.

*

So what do you think?” Carla asked.
“Hmm.” The doc­tor poked her mem­o­ry-foam feet with a pen. “I’d call them squidgy, not swollen. What do you do for work? On your feet a lot?”
“I work in sales at Macy’s.”
“Hmm. And what oth­er symp­toms have you had?”
“Aching, tired­ness. Perhaps it’s chron­ic fatigue?”
The doc­tor leaned back. “Are you sex­u­al­ly active?”
“Pardon me? You think it’s an STD?”
“Or preg­nan­cy?” He slipped it into the dis­cus­sion like a book­mark.
Inconceivable.
“Please hop up.” He pat­ted the bed, then pro­ceed­ed to feel Carla’s stom­ach.
Her pulse quick­ened. She lay, throat in a fist, dar­ing not admit what had already crossed her mind, once or twice or thrice.
“So?”
“I’d say you’re about twen­ty-four to twen­ty-six weeks along.”
“What?”
“Judging by the fun­dal height. We can do bloods to con­firm. Or you could just take a preg­nan­cy test. It’ll def­i­nite­ly be pos­i­tive by now.”
Silence.
“Congratulations.”
Carla sift­ed through her thoughts. “But I haven’t been vom­it­ing or any­thing.”
“Not all women expe­ri­ence morn­ing sick­ness. Some have very few symp­toms.”
“But I’ve still had peri­ods.”
“Have you?”
“Yes!”
The doc­tor tent­ed his fin­gers. “What might seem like peri­ods can be irreg­u­lar bleed­ing. Up to a quar­ter of women have it due to the egg attach­ing to the uterus, or more blood flow to the area. It’s not a men­stru­al cycle.”
Carla blinked.
“You’re not the first per­son this has hap­pened to.” The doc­tor offered a smile. “Quite a few women reach this stage or fur­ther before they realise. Either they’re rush­ing around, too busy with work—like yourself—or they’re over­weight and it doesn’t show. I had one woman who com­plained of appen­dici­tis. She swore it wasn’t a baby. We raced her to hos­pi­tal. Soon after, she was joined by her child.”
“Brilliant. So what’s next?”
“An ultra­sound.”

*

A week, two weeks passed.
As though it’d wait­ed for con­fir­ma­tion, the baby began to show.
“I knew it!” Pat said.
“You’re what?” Carla’s boss said.
“See? No good can come from mov­ing to New York,” her mom said, like­ly grip­ping the phone, pinched with wor­ry, wish­ing Carla would just come home and mar­ry a corn-fed boy called Ethan. “Didn’t you feel it kick­ing?” she con­tin­ued.
“I mis­took it for gas,” Carla mum­bled. She sat on the toi­let, hold­ing her mound of stom­ach. The mound nudged her. She poked it back. “What does it even want with me? I’ve noth­ing to offer it.”
“You have more to give than you think.”
Carla didn’t respond. She thought of her scat­tered life, her need for shoes above elec­tric­i­ty.
“You will rise to the occa­sion.” Her mother’s menopausal tone echoed in the bath­room.

*

The symp­toms of preg­nan­cy grew. Carla still hat­ed cof­fee, but acquired a taste for ice-cream with olives. Her legs mor­phed into a sea of cel­lulite; thighs shaped by mint choco­late.
She endured the chron­ic para­dox of heart­burn and hunger. And shared a goose-bot­tomed walk with ladies who strolled through the park, pre­tend­ing to out-exer­cise bad diets.
As her stom­ach grew, she lost sight of her pubes, then her legs, then the abil­i­ty to bend unlike a giraffe.
“Try this preg­nan­cy belt,” some­one sug­gest­ed.
Carla wore the belt for two hours. Upon remov­ing it, her hips spilled like Jenga over the floor.
“How’re you feel­ing?” a col­league asked.
Carla shrugged. “Pregnancy is weigh­ing me down.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“At the moment it’s a lump of Cherry Garcia.”
“But don’t you want to know the sex?”
“No. I don’t want to think about it at all.”

*

Who’s the father?” Pat asked.
“Who’s the father?” her friends asked.
“So who exact­ly is the father, Carla?” her mom asked.
Corey? Mark? The one before Mark had been Brad: anoth­er suit, but with ash-blonde hair and Full-Windsor ties.
“I’ve been won­der­ing that myself,” Carla said.
“Carla Renee, are you telling me you do not know who the father of your child is?” Her moth­er aged ten years.
“It’s prob­a­bly Mark.”
“Mark? Mark who?”
“Mark—” Carla stalled. Shit. It was some­thing beige like Jones or Smith. “Johnson,” she set­tled on.
“And what does this ‘Mark Johnson’ do?”
“He’s an oper­a­tions man­ag­er.”
“And what’s that?”
“It involves wear­ing nice shoes. Talking up Oscar Peterson. Getting mar­ried. Staying mar­ried.” Bitterness soured her voice.
“You had an affair with a mar­ried man?”
“I’d call it a liai­son.”

*

Great hair!”
“Thanks.”
Back at ‘Essential Living’, Carla sniffed the can­dles. Ocean Breeze wasn’t work­ing. She rubbed her bump, car­ry­ing a great bur­den.
“Try this one: Lemongrass.” Jasmine or Rain sug­gest­ed. She eyed Carla’s stom­ach. “When are you due?”
“In a month.”
“Oooh, excit­ing!”
Carla shrugged. “Just this, please.” Déjà vu.
“Any crav­ings? Or heart­burn? My sis­ter had ter­ri­ble heart­burn.”
“Yeah, I’ve had some.”
“Means you’re gonna have a hairy baby.”
Corey?
Carla pic­tured giv­ing birth to a child with a giant beard, who then high-fived every­one in the deliv­ery room.

*

A week, two weeks passed.
Carla fin­ished work with flow­ers and gifts. The breast pump scared her. As did the small­ness of the baby clothes.
“So three months mater­ni­ty leave, then child­care?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Don’t you feel guilty about putting your baby in care so ear­ly?”
“Oh yes. But I shove it deep down and let it fes­ter.” Carla smiled.
The col­league sidled away.
“I’ll miss you, dear.” Pat bun­dled her up in a hug. Her eyes mar­bled with tears.
So elder­ly. Carla felt sor­ry for her. And for her­self. Her bump jud­dered. She too had tak­en on the shape of regret.

*

Carla’s mom arrived.
Just for the first month. To help with the baby. It’s a big respon­si­bil­i­ty you know.
Carla found her at Penn Station, bag­gage around her feet and eyes.
She tut­ted at the bro­ken lock on Carla’s apart­ment build­ing, and at the emp­ty kitchen.
“Where are your mul­ti­vi­t­a­mins?” She banged the cup­boards. “And what’ve you been eat­ing? You need to keep your strength up. Good nutri­tion is imper­a­tive.”
“I’m not too hun­gry these days, giv­en my stom­ach is jammed up by my shoul­der.”
“I’ll have to start cook­ing for you.” Carla’s mom slammed a draw­er. “Have you told the father yet?”

Later that night—after casse­role and broccoli—Carla paced the kitchen. She tapped the phone against her chin. It had to be Mark. The dates con­firmed it. She pic­tured him at home, sip­ping wine as Karen stacked the dish­wash­er, Liszt play­ing in the back­ground.
She closed her eyes and dialled.
“It can’t be me,” Mark said.
“What?”
He dropped his voice. “Karen didn’t want kids. I had a vasec­to­my two years ago.”
Carla hung up.

I can’t do this,” she con­fid­ed to her mom before bed. “I’ve had three months to adjust to a life-chang­ing event. I can’t be a moth­er. I’ve noth­ing to offer this baby except a cred­it card bill.”
Perhaps it was the hor­mones, or the home-cooked meal, or Mark’s out­right rejec­tion of father­hood, but she’d nev­er felt more vul­ner­a­ble.
“Every new mom feels this way. You will rise to the occa­sion. And you have more to give than you think.”
“So you’ve said.”

*

A week, two weeks passed. No baby.
Carla stood in the show­er, preg­nant from her fore­head to her toes.
This body ain’t big enough for the two of us, kid.
She spent long nights list­ing in bed—prep for the sur­gi­cal removal of sleep. And dur­ing the day she beached her­self on the couch, star­ing at Oprah reruns. Thanks to infomer­cials, she decid­ed to buy a KitchenAid Mixer, sue some­one, and get her erec­tile dys­func­tion fixed.

Looks like you’re about ready to pop,” the mid­wife said.
Carla hat­ed that term: pop. It made her sound like a large, unpre­dictable blis­ter.
“We’ll have to induce with­in the week.” The doc­tor felt her stom­ach.

*

The day of Carla’s induce­ment, she ate twelve hot cross buns. Then her con­trac­tions start­ed.
She hopped in the show­er.
“What’re you doing?”
“Shaving my legs.”

After ten hours of sear­ing pain and the biggest urge to poo she’d ever felt, Carla gave birth to a frizz of hair.
“How’re you feel­ing, Carla?”
“Inside out.”
They placed the baby, slip­pery and raw, on her chest.
Carla gasped. Its heart thrummed against hers. She touched its bud­ding fin­gers. It stopped cry­ing and stared at her, eyes like two soft stars.
“Congratulations, it’s a girl.”
“A girl,” she whis­pered. “And there’s not a beard or Windsor tie in sight.”

*

Carla stum­bled into moth­er­hood. The struc­ture of her days col­lapsed into tears and dia­pers and strings of ques­tions that stretched through the apart­ment. No longer alone, a small pair of feet fol­lowed hers. A small hand crept under the door as she sat on the toi­let.
Despite the scrib­bles on the walls (and the White Out on the lap­top), despite the pub­lic humil­i­a­tion (like the time her daugh­ter removed her ful­ly-loaded dia­per and dumped it at the mall entrance), and despite her all-too-lit­er­al take on the world (Drink up, sweet­ie. Up where?), Carla fell in love with her. This lit­tle girl with alabaster skin and immense­ly dark curls. Wrapped up in Carla’s face, every bit of her was Carla.

See? I knew you’d be fine,” Carla’s mom said. “And look,” she pulled a lock of hair, “you’ve giv­en her more than you thought.”

~

Merran Jones is an Australian phys­io­ther­a­pist and young mum who’s been writ­ing for a cou­ple of years. Her work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in After the Pause, A Quiet Courage, and Literary Orphans among many oth­ers. She’s also won sev­er­al small com­pe­ti­tions, was com­mend­ed for the KSP Speculative Fiction Award 2014, and won the 2015 Write Well Award.