By: Erin Adams
Rory doesn’t think she heard Andrew right and asks him to repeat himself. “Yep, we’re trying for another baby.” Nine people are looking at Rory now, their faces radiating the joy she should feel but doesn’t. She feels anxiety bordering on panic. She heaves her fishbowl Margarita to her lips. The bar erupts into shouts and wolf whistles and her head jerks, sending the neon green cocktail splashing onto her chin and down her shirt. She stands, shakes the ice down past her shirt’s hem onto the floor, grateful for Ohio State’s timing because now everyone’s watching the touchdown replay on the multiple flat screens above the bar instead of her. The touchdown celebration dies, and she can feel Andrew’s gaze. He’s finally paying attention to her, finally seeing her after all these months, and she can’t even make eye contact with him. She stares at the uneven crack between the pushed-together tables, wishing she could slide into that space and disappear.
They’re at Andrew’s old undergrad hangout, a windowless joint with gummy floors named, for god-knows-why, the Burrito Castle. She’s the one who talked him into coming here. He wanted to skip the annual Michigan-Ohio State game day tradition with his friends, and in past years she would have been ecstatic to miss it. But she thought coming today might ease his depression. They haven’t gone out for fun since his mother’s passing eight months ago. She tried once, but Andrew came to the car dressed in sweatpants complaining of a sudden-onset migraine. “At least he is still going to work,” she thought. For now. Even law partners can get fired or pushed out of their firms.
The server comes by for the first time in a while and Rory thinks about ordering a back-up drink. But she shouldn’t get drunk. The new babysitter might call. Rory told her to call if their two-and-a-half-year-old son had any issues. She didn’t tell the sitter what that “issue” would be because she was afraid the girl would leave if she knew that Tucker regularly uses the contents of his diaper as finger paint.
The chatter around her adds up to a roar, and although she can’t hear what Dave at the head of the table is saying, she nods and smiles. Her neck and cheeks are heating up. She feels like she’s deceiving everyone, but there’s no way to set the record straight without embarrassing her and Andrew both.
She should have told Andrew no when he said he wanted another child, but she didn’t think he was serious. He won’t think far enough into the future to make dinner plans, let alone a new human who wouldn’t arrive for nine months at the very least. Besides, he hasn’t touched her since the night after his mother died, when he reached for her like a blind, bewildered animal. Rory now understood the encounter was his desperate attempt to feel something other than grief. She thought his baby notion was a similar attempt, and tiptoeing around his grief, all Rory said was, “A baby—that’s something to think about.”
But this is more than a fleeting desire for Andrew if he’s announcing it to the world before she’s even pregnant. People normally wait until the cells take hold—is that at twelve weeks? Wait, does everyone think she’s already pregnant and drinking Margaritas?
How will she tell Andrew now?
Even before he was grieving, she had a difficult time disagreeing with him. There was always something to tiptoe around—his sister marrying the wrong man, a waiter messing up his order, a Buckeyes loss. It would be different if he would hash out disagreements with her, but he would freeze her out, sometimes going for days addressing her in the same tone as a car wash attendant. This made her feel desperately lonely. Sometimes she felt like he was all she had. She couldn’t just pop out to a spin class in the middle of the day when she had a toddler at home with behavioral problems, and by the time Andrew got home from work she was too exhausted to think about cleaning herself up and meeting a friend for drinks.
That’s why she didn’t disagree when he wanted to change their vacation destination last year. He deserved to pick the place because he worked hard, and she was just a stay-at-home mom to one kid, she told herself. Then she sat in a Montana hunting lodge for two weeks telling herself that she was imagining the sour smell and Aruba was overrated anyway.
That was two weeks; a baby is for life. This could not happen.
Nobody in the Burrito Castle seems to respect the fact that people are sitting and dining. Or the rest of the group is dining—Rory had a few dry chips because the last time she ate here she spent the night running to the bathroom every half hour. A khaki-clad ass butts Rory’s shoulder, sending her elbow skidding off the table’s edge. For the hundredth time she wonders why this group still insists on coming to this dive when they’re twelve years out of college and they all drive German cars.
Closed in and breathless among the crowd of people dressed in scarlet and gray, Rory feels like she’s drowning in a sea with harpoon-wounded whales. She shoves her chair back and knocks into a woman in shaky heels who almost loses her balance and cries out, “Hey!”
“Sorry,” Rory murmurs. She looks in Andrew’s general direction. “I need to call the sitter.” He nods once and continues his conversation with Dave and his wife.
The street’s no less chaotic than the bar. She nearly collides with a tree of a kid in a fleece vest coming down the sidewalk. But when she dodges him, she smacks into a shorter version of the same boy, also wearing a vest. She weaves through the masses and makes it around the corner where the crowd thins. Here, she inhales deeply, catching the scent of dead leaves under a blanket of exhaust. She has no intention of calling the sitter. She checks Facebook to see how many likes she got for her selfie of her and Andrew in matching OSU tees earlier today.
As she scrolls, she notices her hands. They’re pink and flaky and getting worse. They look like they belong to an eighty-year-old, lacking only the liver spots. Her red gel manicure, which she never bothered to get removed, looks like raw hamburger meat.
She did this to her hands. She’s been using industrial chemicals to clean up after Tucker. Sometimes she forgets to wear gloves—she never needed them with the mild citrusy organic products she used to favor. But last month she spent a sleepless night imagining the germs laughing, taunting her and her essence-of-orange-peel spritzes. The bacteria were having wild orgies and reproducing on every surface. The next day, she filled an entire shopping cart with the hard stuff—ammonia, bleach, anything with a warning label.
A girl who could barely pass for fifteen strolls by smoking a cigarette. Rory bums one and smokes half of it while trying to recall the last time she smoked. Why did Andrew make that public announcement? Was he trying to put her on the spot, or did he truly believe she was all-in? There was so much emotion around their decision to have Tucker—a bottle uncorked, wine-glazed eyes, talking all night. And she can’t even remember where this momentous discussion supposedly took place. The kitchen? The car? She hasn’t been sleeping well, and her memory has been slipping. Last week her book club showed up to her complete surprise and horror. She had nothing prepared, hadn’t even read the book. To make matters worse, the ladies all sat there smiling serenely, drinking Folgers because it was the only thing she had, pretending they didn’t notice how flustered she was. All she wanted was for someone to ask, really ask, how she was doing. Nobody did. These are her best friends.
Later, as she’s driving a tipsy Andrew home from the Burrito Castle, she decides to carefully broach the baby subject.
“What if we wait a while? Get Tucker through his rough patch and then talk about it?”
Andrew lets out a gurgling laugh. “Be ye fruitful and multiply the earth and uh, dominate the fish and birds and the heaven.”
Rory takes her eyes off the road to regard him. He’s squinting and wearing a crooked grin. “What are you talking about?” she asks.
“I mean, nobody’s ever ready to have a baby, baby. Just do it.”
“Were you quoting the Bible?”
“Paraphrasing. That’s what Christians do. We talk about the Bible.”
Recently Andrew started praying before dinner, helping Tucker intertwine his fingers, ending his blessings with, “In Jesus’ name.” Again, Rory didn’t take him seriously. Andrew’s mother had been religious, but not him. This was just another way to hold onto her, honor her, Rory thought. Andrew talks about going to church, but it’s just talk. When Sundays roll around he stays in bed until eleven.
Now she thinks carefully about her next words. Based on the baby-talk, this Christianity thing might stick, too. “I think it’s nice to believe in something,” she says.
He waves a sloppy arm, almost smacking her cheek. “It’s more than that. I need to be a Christian if I’m going to see my mom in heaven.”
Rory scoffs and feigns a yawn to cover it. There’s no way his mother’s in heaven. No, she’s very much in this realm, still lording that stupid pre-nup agreement over Rory. The most infuriating thing is, Rory didn’t even have to sign the agreement six years ago when before they married—Andrew told her not to. But she actually believed she’d win that woman’s approval by rolling over.
“Let’s start trying now,” Andrew says. He strokes her arm as they pull in the garage.
To her own surprise,Rory’s skin tingles where he touched her. She wants him to do it again. “Okay,” she says, knowing there is no possible way she could get pregnant tonight.
Ashley, the sitter, tells Rory that Tucker was a perfect angel. Rory lets out a relieved sigh, pays her, and offers her a ride home even though she lives a half-block away. Ashley declines. Rory starts emptying the dishwasher and realizes she’s stalling. Why? Is she trying to hold onto the delicious anticipation of physical contact as long as possible, or is she hoping he’ll be passed out when she gets upstairs? She realizes it’s a little bit of both, and she’s annoyed with herself. She shuts the cabinet, goes upstairs, and finds Andrew awake, sitting on the bed, stripped down to his boxer briefs, wearing one sock. He’s doing something with his face that he probably thinks is sexy, but it looks like a bug just flew into his eye.
“Oh, I almost forgot the ceremony,” he says, jumping to his feet. Rory watches him wobble to the bathroom. “Is this part of his new religion?” she wonders. “Is he going to anoint us with toilet water before sex?” Curious after a moment, she follows him. He’s holding her birth control over his head. Rory’s eyes go wide.
“You won’t be needing these anymore,” he says, shaking the pill packet like maracas.
“Okay, honey. I’ll toss them later.” Rory reaches for the pills.
“Noooo, we have to purge them for good luck.” He steps back and stumbles, banging his calf hard on the toilet seat. He lets out a little laugh and tries to rip into the thick foil packet. When that doesn’t work, he punches out a tablet, and it lands in the toilet.
“That’s bad for the environment.” She reaches for the packet. He goes up on his toes, and he’s so much taller than she is that she can’t even reach the pills if she jumps. She watches with horror as he punches a few more out. “You’re poisoning the fish,” she says, though she doesn’t give a shit about the oceans right now—she just wishes her husband would stop acting this way. She turns, goes back in the bedroom, and sits on the bed. The sound of the toilet flushing makes her cringe.
The sex is pretty good, despite how drunk Andrew is, despite everything that led up to it, and despite her composing a speech in her head at one point during the act to gently let Andrew down about a baby. But then she’s unable to bear the thought of going another eight months or longer without more sex, so she doesn’t give her speech.
The next day Rory slips into a cancelled appointment at the OBGYN to get an IUD put in. Ashley isn’t available to watch Tucker, and in an act of desperation she uses an online babysitting service. She chooses the most expensive one, figuring Door2Door Nannies.com must have high standards to charge thirty-five dollars per hour. But that doesn’t make Rory feel any less guilty for leaving Tucker with a complete stranger while she goes to the gynecologist. Tucker isn’t happy about the situation, clutching Rory’s leg, crying, “Mommy no go! Mommy make lunch!”
On her way home to relieve the babysitter, Rory’s sense of dread drowns out her audio book, The Perfect Mommy Lie: How Social Media Is Making Us Feel Inadequate. Last week when Andrew saw the book title displayed on Rory’s phone screen, he said, “You’re the last person on Earth who needs to listen to this stuff.” Rory kissed his cheek, but she bristled on the inside.
The woman from Door2DoorNannies.com is standing in the mudroom when Rory enters the house through the garage. Her face is blotchy. “I’m sorry. We don’t do cleaning,” she says in a wavering Eastern European accent.
Silently, the woman points toward the guest bathroom. Rory can hear Tucker giggling through the door. She was foolish to think putting on his overalls backward would work. If he wants to get in his diaper, he’s going to get into his diaper. At least this time the mess is contained in the one tiny room.
Rory rifles through her purse, finds her wallet, and fishes out a stack of bills. It could be twenty dollars or two hundred that she thrusts at the woman. She doesn’t care.
The woman takes a step forward. “That is all required to be done online,” she says, eyeing the money.
“Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.”
It’s getting to where Tucker is doing this twice a week. Last time she was too rough with him, she knew, plunking him in the tub with force, aiming the sprayer at his face until he coughed and sputtered out water. But that wasn’t the thing that scared her. She was scared because she wanted to do it again.
Most nights she wakes up around three a.m. and pulls the flashlight from under the bed. She wanders the house, running the beam along the walls like an overzealous investigative reporter in a hotel. Half the time she doesn’t know if she’s seeing a streak or a shadow, but it’s enough for her to get out her Clorox and slide the pink dish gloves up to her elbows when she remembers them. Then she scrubs in desperate circles until she can’t make a fist.
As far as Andrew knows, this has been going on only for a few weeks, when in fact it took her months to summon the courage to tell him about Tucker’s issue. If there’s one thing that he admires in her, it’s her mothering. Even when he’s in one of his dark moods, she can see his face soften when he watches her cutting Tucker’s grapes while singing a counting song.
Knowing Andrew would get mad if he found out she had kept this from him for so long, she presented the information to him as if the behavior had recently started.
“I’ve been looking up Tucker’s behavior online,” she said, “and I think he might have something called Oppositional Defiance Disorder.”
“Well, your first mistake is looking online,” Andrew said.
“You’re right, but maybe he should see a psychologist, just to be safe. The pediatrician can probably recommend one.” The pediatrician had already in fact given her a name, but she didn’t want Andrew to know she told the doctor before she told him.
“What do you think a psychologist going to do?” Andrew asked. “Tucker can barely talk. I don’t trust shrinks anyway, especially nowadays. Tucker could come out of that office and tell us he now identifies as Tabitha.”
Rory wondered how Andrew thought Tucker was going to tell them that when he couldn’t talk yet. Then she smiled and said, “Well, I could research it and find a good one.”
Andrew told her she was being dramatic. “It’s just a phase that little boys go through sometimes.”
“Did you go through it?”
“I don’t know.” His face went stormy. “And I can’t ask my mom anymore.”
Rory could taste the bitterness of her response, held in her mouth. You would know. She would’ve made sure we both knew.
A few days after she gets her IUD, she notices her scrubbing hand is swollen. The throbbing won’t let her sleep that night, so she gets up and goes to the high kitchen cabinet with the Vicodin from Andrew’s knee surgery. On her way back to bed, she stops in Tucker’s room where the soft green light from his star machine reminds her to breathe.
“Good night, Little Monkey,” she whispers, hoping to feel the tenderness of her own words.
There’s a thick book on his bedside table that doesn’t look like a children’s story. Rory holds it close to her face in the low light and recognizes it as one of the items she boxed up from his mother’s house—an old, leather-bound King James Bible. She flips through the thin, gilt-edged pages. “Tucker’s far too young to be exposed to the savageries in this book,” she thinks. Maybe this is why he’s acting out.
After five months of “trying,” Rory still hasn’t been honest with Andrew. The time just never seems right. He decides they should both see specialists. Rory goes with him to his appointment, waiting under florescent lights with slumped-shouldered women trying not to think about what their husbands are doing in the private rooms down the hall. She knows this is a waste of time and money, that Andrew’s not the problem. She tells him the only available appointment for her test falls on a date in two weeks when he’s out of town for a deposition.
Tucker’s nearly potty-trained now. There are dozens of stars on his chart—green for number one, gold for number two. She accompanies him to his mini potty every time and whisks him from it the minute he’s done. The messy incidents are down to once every few weeks at the most, and she knows she should be relieved, but she’s not. Like a soldier who’s seen combat, she can’t just snap herself out of her constant state of high alert, can’t stop watching for that slackening of Tucker’s face. She continues to scoop him up whenever his facial expression changes, and he swings and kicks, once drawing blood about a millimeter from her eye. She wonders if she’s traumatizing him, if her actions will lead to obesity, chronic underachievement, or drug-addiction.
Her hands aren’t healing even though she’s been wearing gloves every single time she cleans lately. Perhaps the rash is taking a different form now, fueled by nerves instead of chemicals. She’s still afraid she’s going to hurt Tucker. Just the other day she took the gate down from the top of the stairs to bring up laundry, and she left him upstairs. He knew how to take the stairs on his butt, and it was only for a minute, but she fantasized about him tumbling, landing just the right way on the tile at the bottom.
A few days after Andrew gets home from his deposition, she tells him she isn’t producing eggs at the rate of a normal thirty-three-year-old woman. If he starts talking about hormone shots, she’s prepared with another lie about why that won’t work.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he says, taking her into his arms. “No more tests.” She lays her head on his shoulder. “It’s finally over,” she thinks. She buries her face in his white shirt. She doesn’t have to lie and plot anymore. With every deception, she knew she was coming closer and closer to destroying her family. And there seemed to be no end in sight. Suppose he wanted a second opinion about her eggs, and this time he would insist on going to the doctor with her, where he would find out she’s been on birth control since Tucker was born? He would leave her.
Now she is safe. With this giant stressor out of her life, she tells herself she can concentrate on being a better mother to Tucker. She can be present with him, appreciate all those joyful moments other moms talk about, the ones she missed. She barely remembers him getting his first tooth, but she’ll get excited about his twentieth tooth. And there are still plenty of firsts on the horizon—preschool, riding a bike, finding out he’s good at art or hockey.
Andrew strokes her hair and puts a finger below her chin, lifting it so she’s looking him in the eyes. “Wait here. I’ll be right back,” he says with a reassuring smile. He leaves her in the kitchen, disappears into the den, and returns a moment later with a box wrapped in white paper with little bluebirds on it. It sounds like a box of rice when Rory shakes it.
“Open it,” he says.
“What is this? Our anniversary isn’t for two days.”
“I couldn’t wait.”
She unwraps it, and inside is an old-fashioned baby’s rattle, silver, with a little yellow ribbon around the handle. Rory nearly drops it.
“What is this?” she asks again, her eyes wide.
“We can adopt a baby!”
“What?” she says in almost a whisper, shaking her head.
He takes her hand that isn’t holding the rattle. “You don’t understand,” he says. “I know Judge Meijer. She oversees adoption cases for the county, and she works closely with a few agencies. She can get us near the top of several lists for infant adoptions.”
Rory’s breath hitches. She has a strange sensation, as if her head is filling with helium, ready to disconnect from her body. She feels like she’s in a horror movie—the heroine who almost got away right at the moment she realizes the killer isn’t dead. Maybe that heroine is better off than her.
On the morning of their actual anniversary, she gets one of those wooden four-picture wall frames that says “#Blessed.” She stands in the foyer barefoot in her cotton pajama pants, holding it, listening to the garage door whir up and the sound of Andrew’s car as he backs out of the driveway. She looks at the tacky knickknack’s stock photos: It’s an Aryan-looking family, each member in their own frame. Wholesome mom; uninterested-in-sex dad; kindergarten-aged boy with a milk moustache; and a toddler girl with Brigitte Bardot hair and far more sex appeal than mom. Rory drops the fake family onto the tile. They land face-up without the satisfying shatter she was expecting, so she smashes her heel into the toddler’s vixen face.
Vaguely aware that her foot is bleeding, she walks to the kitchen where Tucker is sitting in his highchair, Cornflakes stuck to his cheek, sopped hair, and a turned-over bowl on his head.
“Hat!” he says, tapping the bowl. Rory ignores him, pours a cup of coffee. After a few sips, she tries to summon the energy to clean up after her son once again. She walks over to the chair and releases the tray. Tucker’s pajamas are soaked through.
“Mommy hurt!” he says, smiling and pointing at her foot.
A flash of anger shoots through her. “You hurt Mommy,” she says. “This is your fault.” She snaps the tray back in place. Then, in a sing-song-y baby voice she says, “I should just let you stay like that all day. How would you like to be wet and sticky and dirty all day?”
Tucker starts to cry. Rory ignores him and pulls the Vicodin bottle down from the high cabinet. As she’s twisting open the cap, she warms to the idea, something she should have thought of a long time ago: Let him stay dirty all day.
Tucker has never once soiled the walls when Andrew was home, and Rory has always scrubbed the evidence away before Andrew could see it. It wasn’t real to him. If Andrew saw it, felt the visceral shock of it, he would understand what she goes through. He would understand that adding a second baby, a second set of tears and messes, is asking too much of her. The next time Tucker does his deed, she won’t clean it up.
All she has to do is wait.
But a half-dozen apple juice boxes and three days later, Tucker hasn’t been inspired to mess with his diaper. This morning she gave him a baby laxative.
Tucker’s smacking her in the thigh with his Incredible Hulk figure, telling her to “Awake n’up!” Her phone says it’s almost two o’clock in the afternoon. She drifted off and lost an hour. “I made potty, Mommy!” He turns and races back toward the bathroom. Out of habit, she jumps up from the couch starts to run after him. Then, remembering there’s no need to rush, she pauses and continues on tiptoe to the edge of the bathroom doorway where she listens. The only thing she can hear is the toilet tank running. She peeks around the corner. Tucker’s standing in front of the big toilet, watching the tank fill. The mini potty is empty. He used the big toilet by himself. Rory bites her fist to keep from screaming.
She knows that Tucker’s phase, and his potty training, are complete. What will she do now? All she had was this plan.
She’s still holding Tucker’s action figure, and she turns it around in her hand, thinking.
Maybe she doesn’t need Tucker for the plan.
For a moment she considers using dog shit. There’s no shortage of that. Yes. She could walk out the front door and come back two minutes later with enough dog excrement to create a massive-scale horror scene.
But then she remembers the time she was hiking with a friend and they came across a pile of crap right in the middle of the trail. “Somebody should clean this up,” Rory said, unzipping her pack to retrieve a plastic bag. She bent down toward the pile, breathing through her mouth. The next moment she leapt back with a shriek. This did not belong to a dog. There was no question as to whether it belonged to an animal—she could tell the difference immediately. “You just know,” she told Andrew that night as they sat at the dining room table playing Scrabble, pre-Tucker.
She remembers how repulsed she was, how she gagged for the next five minutes as they proceeded along the trail. She did not clean it up. She could not physically do it. But now her revulsion threshold is through the ceiling. She could do it with a tiny maple leaf and not think twice.
If only she had come up with this idea sooner, before it was too late. It seems like Tucker knew what she wanted him to do, and he completed his potty training to spite her. He has never used the grown-up toilet without her standing there, cheering him on. And last time he acted afraid of the flush handle.
He’s tugging at the pocket of her sweatpants now. She swipes at his hand, but he yanks harder, pulling the pants down to her knees. “Jesus, Tucker!” she says hitching them back up. He laughs and takes off running down the hall.
She starts to follow him, to find whatever he’d destroyed during her accidental nap, but then she thinks, “What’s the point?” And not as in, what’s the point of following him, but what’s the point of any of this? She can’t do it anymore. And she certainly can’t do it again with another baby.
There is one other option. She can’t believe she’s considering it, but the alternative—another child—might drive her to do something even more awful. She’s a cornered animal, and this is the only way she can defend herself. If she refuses the adoption, Andrew might leave her. She’ll be penniless, thanks to the pre-nup, and alone. Andrew must be the one to choose not to adopt this baby.
She finds Tucker in the den, pulling the leaves off her fern. She carries him down the hallway, wrestles his shoes on, and drags him to the car, kicking.
“I’ll get you ice cream if you’re good,” she says.
“Where going, Mommy?”
“Just one quick place after we get your ice cream, then home to play.”
Tucker smashes the vanilla cone into her hair while she’s unbuckling his car seat. She just laughs and perches him on her hip. He cackles back at her, tangling the cone in her chest-length hair as she walks him down the block to her destination. Maybe she will cut her hair today, too.
The Burrito Castle’s open sign isn’t lit. She pulls on the handle anyway, and the creaky metal door screams open. She marches inside, head dripping, and orders three “King’s Feasts.”
Back home, she sets the plastic Burrito Castle bag on the dining room table they don’t use anymore and gives Tucker her phone to play with. She pulls out the crystal and their wedding china from the cabinet. Then she goes down to the basement and selects an expensive, French Pinot Noir that they have been saving. The cork breaks as she opens the bottle, and she fishes little pieces out of her wineglass. Then she unfolds a cloth napkin onto her lap and pulls the first King’s Feast from the bag.
She cuts the greasy burritos into bite-sized pieces and chews slowly. She doesn’t gag—she barely tastes them. But the wine is exquisite. Andrew would call it “floral, with a zest of elderberry” or something like that.
The stomach cramps start just as she takes her last bite. Andrew will be home in a couple hours—plenty of time for her to execute the rest of her plan. The minute he walks in the door, he’ll understand how hard motherhood’s been for her. Tucker will probably tell on her, but that won’t matter. Andrew won’t believe him. He would never suspect that his perfect, agreeable wife had done such a foul, nasty thing.
She smiles to herself, crumples the wrappers, and tips more wine into her glass.
And then she waits.
Erin Adams has a background in journalism and is now pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Spalding University. She writes short stories, essays, and is working on a novel. Her flash fiction has appeared in Nailpolish Stories: A Tiny and Colorful Literary Journal. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband, Chad, and her two ill-behaved but loveable dogs.
Her Twitter handle is https://twitter.com/EodErin.