“Belly, 2009” by Jennifer Shaw. Courtesy of the artist
By Mary Miller
At La Fiesta Brava, my sister tells me that her girls, my nieces, aren’t biologically hers. She had another woman’s eggs fertilized by her husband’s sperm and inserted into her body. The eggs she chose, she says, were those of a woman they selected because she seemed most like her husband, a dark-haired entomologist with brown eyes and pale skin. The donor is a dark-haired ornithologist with brown eyes and pale skin.
My sister never did have much of an imagination. Also, she is known for exaggerating, which is what we call lying in our family.
“April Fools!” I say, though it is the twenty-sixth day of the month.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She readjusts herself in the booth, which is too far from the table.
Though she has been explicit, couldn’t have been more clear, I’m still piecing this together in my head—the multiple trips to Denver when they don’t ski or smoke pot, a few conversations I walked in on that stopped abruptly. And there’s this, the big one: The girls don’t look anything like her. I picture one of their faces and then the other, one and then the other. Turns out if you carry a child for nine months and give birth to it, no one doubts that the kid is yours, even if it doesn’t look anything like you. If, however, the child doesn’t look like your husband, there might be a great deal of doubt—the mailman, a repairman, sperm donor, etcetera. Who the fuck has ever had sex with their mailman, anyway?
“I’m sorry,” she says again. “I have no idea why I’m telling you this now. I wanted to tell you a long time ago, but I was worried.” She makes a fake-pained face, lips stretched and cheeks scrunched up. “You can’t keep a secret.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“No,” she says, “you can’t, and you never have been able to and now everyone will know. You’ll tell the person with the biggest mouth and let them do the work for you.”
“So why are you telling me?” I ask.
“Because it’s hard to look at you.” She makes that awful face again, as if to illustrate how hard she finds it.
We haven’t even gotten our drinks yet. When the waitress places our waters-with-lemons on the table, I ask for a margarita on the rocks, no salt. I like salt and don’t know why I’ve specified no salt. It is a decision I regret immediately but I said it with so much conviction that it would be weird to call the woman back and tell her that I do want salt, that I always want salt.
My nieces are two and four and I love them more than I love my dog, which is a ridiculous amount—not because they’re particularly smart or pretty or funny, but because I believed they were mine, that I had some claim to them. If my sister and Alex died, and both of my parents, and probably Alex’s parents, too, I would have to raise them. I imagine it in great detail when I’m unable to sleep: making them pancakes in the morning, having to remain sober in case one of them gets sick in the middle of the night. The three of us and the dog in bed together, watching whatever stupid movie they are obsessed with on repeat. I have also used them as an excuse to remain childless: I have two adorable nieces, I tell people, such sweet girls. I love thinking of myself as an aunt. You might even engrave it on a tombstone: DAUGHTER, SISTER, FRIEND, AUNT. Aunt is pushing it. I realize this.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
In the stall, I smoke my e-cigarette and watch, horrified, as the vapor rises in a great cloud. I take another puff and another, watch it grow larger. A mother is trying to wipe her child’s butt in the next stall. Someone is washing her hands at the sink. There’s a polite cough. I wait for one of them to comment, but they don’t. They never do. I would like to be called out, but people don’t say shit to you in a bathroom.
When I return to the table, my margarita is there. Chips and salsa.
“Okay,” I say. “Well, this is the most awful news ever. And you’re telling me that everyone else knows?”
“Mom and Dad. And Alex’s mom and dad, and his brother. Not that many people, really. Papa Dave and Aunt Patty.”
“So everybody, is what you’re saying?” I take the ChapStick out of my purse and run it over my lips for the second or third time, which drives my sister crazy. My mouth: it is limitless, what it wants from me. The waitress comes back and I order a floater. I like saying “floater,” even though I mean a shot. It is too late for a floater.
“You mean a shot?” she asks.
“That’s what I mean. And I’ll have the chicken chimichanga.” I pass her the enormous menu while my sister looks worriedly at her own, flipping through half a dozen pages as the waitress shifts her weight from one leg to the other.
“I’ll have a shrimp quesadilla and a side of guacamole,” my sister says.
“I want guacamole, too.”
“Yours comes with it,” the waitress says. “Do you want more?”
“Yes,” I say, “I want more.” I will murder you, I think. It is absurd when strangers become stand-ins for real people.
I drink my margarita, eat chip after chip. There is no way I would have ruined my body for a baby that wasn’t even mine. Why didn’t she just get a surrogate? She didn’t get a surrogate because she couldn’t pretend the babies were hers then, and yet the children are hers, of course they are. My sister carried them because she’s a good mother, because it’s what she wanted to do. I respect and admire her for it. She’s a better person than I am and always has been; from the youngest age, she was kinder, more giving.
“I hate you.”
“This is why I never told you,” she says. “I shouldn’t have.”
“I wish you hadn’t. Why did you?” I drink my margarita like people do on TV, raising the glass to my lips and swallowing until it’s empty. I do my best not to choke. It is impossible. “You’re the worst.” My shot arrives and I take it, too. Then I get up and leave.
I sit in my car for a while listening to NPR, knowing that I should go back inside and put my arms around her, tell her I love her. I’m not going to do that. At the very least, I should pay my check, but I’m not going to do that, either. My sister and I were close once, and I realize that I have been viewing our not-closeness as temporary, when we haven’t been friends—or even friendly—in years. I visit my nieces at my parents’ house, leave before my sister comes to pick them up or hide in my old bedroom until she’s gone. I imagine us fifteen or twenty years in the future trying to navigate our mother’s death, how we will fight over jewelry and place settings we don’t care about in order to win something that was lost long ago.
I drive to my ex-husband’s house, pass it and continue driving like I do sometimes when I’m going to church—just pass right on by and stop at Family Dollar or the grocery. I turn around, park. It is the middle of the day and my ex won’t be home, but his new wife will. Beth likes me for some reason, enjoys hanging out with me. I know what it’s really about, though: She’s able to witness my bad-hair days and periodic acne breakouts, get a close-up of the scar above my left eyebrow from a Rollerblading accident I had when I was thirty. I seem a lot less threatening this way. She doesn’t have to ask him questions or stalk me online.
She opens the door, lets me in. Her three-legged dog barks and then stands under my hand waiting to be petted. He is old and terrible looking. He keeps escaping from the backyard and getting hit by cars, which baffles me. The dog is small, though, so perhaps he digs holes and goes under the fence.
“When are you going to put this thing down?” I ask, petting him with my shoe.
“Never,” she says. “Not even when he starts pooping on the floor.”
“I thought he was already pooping on the floor.”
“Well,” she says, “he is. That’s true.”
“I bet John wants to take it out to the camp and shoot it.”
“He’s mentioned it, but he was only joking!” She hugs me, though it is a full minute too late for this, and asks how I am, where I’ve been keeping myself. I stand awkwardly in their kitchen, which was once my kitchen. “Y’all got new cabinets.”
“We had the whole thing remodeled a while back. I thought you’d seen it.”
“No,” I say. “It looks very nice.”
She shows me around: new refrigerator, new stove, new dishwasher. And you can see the glasses and plates through the cabinets. I look at them, at the things inside of them, and take out a glass. She offers me an assortment of beverages, starting to look a little worried.
“What was wrong with the old dishwasher?”
“Nothing was wrong with it,” she says. “But we replaced these other things and it didn’t match, so we just went ahead and put in a new one. It’s more energy efficient.”
I stumble a bit, hold onto the counter.
“Are you okay?” she asks. “You don’t look so good.”
“I don’t know. Your eyes look a little funny.”
Funny how? I think, wanting to see how far this game can go, but I like Beth, or I like her well enough. She’s always been nice to me even though there’s no reason to be nice to me, no reason whatsoever. I’m sure John wishes she would stop. I tell her I’m fine, because what would she say if I said I wasn’t? There is nothing to say to that. She might take my hand and sit me down on the couch and look at me more closely than she is now.
“I just wanted to ask John about something. Taxes.” John is an accountant, so this sort of makes sense, even though he’s not a CPA and tax day has come and gone. I filed an extension, like I’ve done the past two years. I enjoy filing extensions, even though I don’t owe much and have the money to pay.
“Oh, I know,” she says. “What a nightmare. We owed a ton of money this year—like three thousand dollars. We were talking about putting in a pool, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“The backyard is so small, though.”
“It would be kidney shaped,” she says, and smiles, the slight gap between her front teeth terribly charming.
And now it is later and we’re outside on the deck, drinking Coronas and waiting for John to arrive. Talking about how excellent a pool would be. There’s new patio furniture and an enormous gas grill. I know all of this is Beth’s doing, but she acts so casual about it that I wonder. Perhaps John is thrilled to have a woman come in and fix things up, perhaps he even initiated it. It is possible they have dinner parties.
“This is the life,” I say, closing my eyes like this is normal, the two of us together in a house that used to be mine, awaiting the arrival of a man who used to be mine. I know she feels sorry for me so I try to think of something I could tell her that might change her mind, but no matter what I told her she would still feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for unmarried women, too.
“I’m so happy you came over,” she says. “I’ve always liked you.” She lifts her sunglasses to look at me.
“I’m glad. Me too.”
I want to tell her about my nieces, how they aren’t mine. I want to tell her that I’m still in love with John, that I hate their new kitchen and don’t want to see what’s inside of anyone’s cabinets.
I only notice she hasn’t touched her beer when mine is empty.
“You’re not thirsty?” I ask, and she gives me a cute little shrug as she passes me her bottle.
“No?” I say, and she does it again. I have a surge of feeling for her, a pure sort of affection—it is almost as if she’s my new wife, as if she might have a baby for both of us. And then John opens the door and sticks his head out. He is tall and handsome, more handsome than the last time I saw him, but I’m not in love with him anymore and haven’t been in years. He smiles at me, which is unexpected; he isn’t angry that I’m here. He asks how I’m doing, how I’ve been, says I am a nice surprise.
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