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:
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.
Oh my! You must have Puerto Rican or maybe Nigerian blood? (Everyone’s a geneticist.)
No, just my own.
But where are you from?
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?
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.
I Am Woman.
Sucking down vodka and recycling emotions. Firstly:
‘I can’t believe it’s over’.
‘I hate you’,
‘Please come back’,
‘There’s not enough vodka in this bottle’,
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“I’d say you’re about twenty-four to twenty-six weeks along.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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?”
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.