“Living Small” by Allison Lamberth

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

“Get under the covers.”

“I will.”

“No,” he insisted. “Now.”

She laughed. “I will, I will.”

His sheet and comforter-covered feet clamped about her hips and tugged. She laughed again, and let him pull her back, though she was careful to press her hands into either side of his legs to support herself. She was eight months pregnant.

“Who’s going to turn out the light?” she asked, adding, “Not me.”

“I guess we’re stuck then,” he said, pulling her closer, his hands poking at her bulging belly. “Make him do it.”

She fell asleep sometime in the hour after, sometime before Oliver must have stood and turned off the light himself. He always went to bed long after she fell asleep. She had woken once in the middle of the night, wondering at his absence, disoriented as to the time. Like a peeping tom, she had crept to the bedroom door, one eye searching through the cracked bedroom door. He was sitting in the living room armchair, one of his textbooks open between his hands, his mouth agape with drooling sleep. He worked in the accounting department of a startup and had returned to school to obtain his master’s. One semester more and he’d be a free man.

He must have done the same today, as he only came to bed two hours before he was due to rise, and she knew he could not have kept himself awake so long. He was stealthy in his movements, swiftly resituating himself in the bed, his arms once more around his sleeping wife. That is, Jane was not sleeping, though she gave the best appearance of it. She had slept well until his return. She had felt guilty when she learned that her husband was not with her, and even more guilty at her own resentment that he returned at all. Their bed, a full, had become increasingly too small for the two of them over the past three months.

This week was the first of her maternity leave. She had two weeks left until her due date, and her doctor was convinced the boy would be arriving sooner. Her blood pressure had been a little high for more than a month, and it was just a precaution, really—it wasn’t an official bed rest—but she had been commanded to relax, lie down, and do no more than gentle stretching and squatting for exercise.

For breakfast, Oliver brought her a plate with two slices of buttered toast and an apple. He helped her move into a sitting position. “No time for eggs,” he said, kissing her on the forehead. He wore his usual backpack and had swung his laptop bag over his shoulder. “I’ll be late tonight.”

She nodded, surprised he had bothered to remind her. He had his night class on Mondays. “I’ll be perfecting the list.”

They had yet to decide on a name. His family had insisted that Colin be used, and her mother kept hinting that Patrick was a nice name. Colin was Oliver’s late grandfather, and Patrick should have been nothing more than a nice name, though Jane knew—what her mother didn’t know she knew—that Patrick was her mother’s college boyfriend, the one she’d left for her ex-husband. Jane could not tell Oliver this, which meant that he thought her mother’s request more a suggestion than a necessity. “We have to have at least one name of our own,” he would say, and she would interject “But Colin Patrick does have a nice flow,” and so they’d go, back and forth. The list was meant to facilitate a compromise.

Oliver left, and Jane instinctively checked her work email. She worked in sales at an advertising firm, and she had already had nightmares about losing her reputation and position in the wide, empty expanse that seemed the next three months. She had been told not to answer a single inquiry, and she’d put up an out-of-office message, but she hadn’t anticipated the silence of her apartment, the only sound the distant chatter of passersby of the living room window.

That wasn’t true either, about the silence. She had anticipated it, but she had found no solution. The boy had been a happy accident of circumstance, a creature they’d tried for and abandoned hope of years ago. They had settled well into fruitless monogamy, living and working and vacationing as they pleased. Her discovery at the age of thirty-five that doing the same thing again and again did, sometimes, create a different result, was a great and terrible one. She could not rebuff such an opportunity at her age, with so little chance of recurrence. But she also could not welcome it. She and Oliver had become comfortable living small, and the introduction of a new responsibility into their home of the past fifteen years felt more an invasion than a natural expansion.

There were no messages. Only an hour had passed of her usual work day, and her regular clients were already informed of her situation. Had she gone into work today, she would have had nothing to do. She might have spent the morning drinking coffee and chatting with Suzie, the front desk secretary. Maybe felt out a few leads, flirted with one of the analytics boys (they didn’t know how to handle such treatment, especially from a pregnant woman), and grabbed lunch with Analisa. An average day of no distinction. No better than the one she was having, alone at home.

She fed the two cats, as Oliver had forgotten again. Or perhaps they’d already eaten his apportionment before she rose from bed, but they were both too skinny for her to worry about overfeeding them. The younger, Coconut, rubbed his head against her ankles in seeming thanks, and when he finished his meal, she spent fifteen minutes massaging his stomach and scratching his neck. The elder, Butterscotch, was far less friendly; he preferred Oliver. He consumed his portion and removed himself to the bedroom, snuggling in-between the pillows of the unmade bed.

She then fed herself, her stomach unsatisfied with Oliver’s offering. She made an egg sandwich, letting Coconut lick up the fallen bits of egg and crumb. The local morning news was as dull as expected, but she felt an odd thrill in the mere viewing of the ramshackle performance. She had not watched a television program independent of Oliver since her late twenties, when she had come down with bronchitis and been forced to stay home for a week. That was in their old apartment, where the only space for their 24-inch television was in the bedroom. She had posted a running commentary of the soap opera she was watching to her social media account, and even gained a few followers. She had been unashamed then, of her situation: there was no helping her body’s capacity for illness, and there was little productive she could do, sick as she was. But a maternity leave required significant sacrifice on the part of others, and she would now feel almost wicked, and a little pathetic, to publicly detail all the nothing she was watching and doing in her apartment as she waited for her son to be born.

This was not to say that the early leave was not, in all likelihood, necessary. Her back ached considerably, and her legs and feet had swollen beyond what was anything comfortable. She spent the rest of her day alternating between the couch and the bed, haphazardly reading a book and scrolling through the deepest ventricles of the internet, endeavoring to find something of interest to text Oliver. She took a brief walk at twilight, bundling herself in a blue pashmina scarf and her husband’s old, oversized winter coat. Their son would be born in February, the coldest, blessedly shortest of months. She dreaded going into labor, fearing most a below-zero, icy night, her water breaking and freezing between her legs as Oliver hailed them a cab to the hospital.

He usually arrived home promptly at nine in the evening, his class having ended a half hour earlier. On her laziest days, she would order in some gargantuan feast and have him handle the leftovers. She elected instead to make a decent meal, whipping together a chicken and potato stew. She left his portion on the stove so that it would be hot upon his arrival.

After nine o’clock came and went, she poured the stewed remains into some Tupperware. She did not worry, as the subway was listed as delayed on the city website. No reason was provided for the delay. At ten o’clock, she decided the freezing temperatures must have burst a valve or somehow damaged a piece of electrical equipment on his particular subway car. And he had said he’d be late, besides. She did text him then, but she did not worry; she was not afraid.

She woke to the bright colors of the television screen, a news anchor reporting some grisly murder in the East Village. She must have fallen asleep on the couch. The weight of her belly had nearly pulled her onto the floor and startled her to consciousness.

She checked her phone. It was three in the morning. He had not responded to her message. All the lights were on. She checked the bedroom. Her husband was not there.

It was then, and only then, that she panicked. She texted him fifty-five times, called him twenty-three. Each time, the phone did not ring, going straight to voicemail. She messaged all his social media accounts and sent seven emails, each to a different address. He had acquired an extensive internet presence over the years; at least one of them, she was sure, he would answer. She felt it was too late to call the police, much as she wanted to, and in her addled state she recalled there being some law about having to wait to report a missing person for a certain number of hours—and Oliver couldn’t be missing, anyway. He was too unremarkable a target for armed robbery, she was sure. Tall and skinny, all legs and arms with dark, curly hair, his body highly unpredictable, his work’s dress code—on a good day—jeans and a collared shirt. He was not a person to be selected, to be watched, to be lost or found. He was simply present where he was, his blue eyes rapt even in the dark.

She forced herself to sleep, fearing for the baby, and half-convinced she would wake to Oliver’s mouth nursing at her shoulder. She slept fitfully, and woke to Coconut licking her toes, begging for his daily kibble. There was no sign of her husband, his jacket absent from the front door hook, his damp socks and boots not scattered across the living room floor, nor the latter even set nicely in their proper place in the closet. His textbooks did not lay on his desk, and his desktop browser offered the same tabs as had been left the day before. He was not home, he had not come back, and Butterscotch had defecated on the bathroom floor, as Oliver had not been there to clean the litter box.

She seized a pair of latex gloves from the cleaning cabinet and pulled one of the dining chairs over to the bathroom so that she would not have to squat. She removed the excrement from the floor and the litter box, endeavoring not to breathe more than she had to. Butterscotch watched her from his perch on the side of the bathtub, cocking his head in apparent confusion at the spectacle.

She waited until eight thirty in the morning to call Oliver’s office, knowing his absence would have been noted by then. For good luck, she sliced up an apple and made herself toast for breakfast.

One of the younger secretaries answered the phone on the first ring. “Hello?”

“Hi—hello,” Jane stuttered, still chewing a bite of rye bread. “My name is Jane Finley.”

“Oh Jane!” said the secretary, her pleasure almost genuine. “This is Lilly. How are you? How’s the pregnancy?”

“Good, good,” said Jane, entirely unhinged and unsure how to proceed. She recognized the voice now and felt embarrassed to disclose her situation to such a young girl. She was the type, Jane knew, to make eyes at her coworkers, to gossip about even the most inane details of other people’s lives. “I wanted to check—that is, did Oliver make it to work yesterday?”

“Why—” Lilly seemed baffled. “Yes, yes of course! I mean, I believe he’s here right now. Is everything alright?”

“You saw him?” Jane asked, unable to control the urgency of her voice. Lilly was flaky, she reminded herself. She easily could have mistaken Oliver for someone else. “He’s there?”

“Yes. He walked in a half hour ago.”

Jane eyed the bedroom and living area from the dining chair, desperate to understand how she could have missed her husband’s presence. She wondered if this was some rare pregnancy symptom, an overactive imagination, a short-term memory loss of appalling proportions.

“Do you want to speak with him?” Lilly asked.

Coconut and Butterscotch were hissing at one another, digging their claws into the kitchen mat in front of the sink. They were prone to “play-fighting,” as Oliver called it, though it wasn’t a habit she and Oliver liked to encourage. Coconut had bitten off a piece of Butterscotch’s right ear a few years back. The vet bill had been astronomical. Jane stomped her foot hard on the floor to startle them both.

“Mrs. Finley?”

“I—” Jane did not know what to say. She did not have the words to describe her state of mind and understanding of her world. She thought it strange, almost comical, that Lilly had suddenly elected to use such a formal manner of address, and that Oliver was not dead, or stranded half-asleep on the side of some road, or drinking coffee in some other woman’s apartment; that her husband was exactly where he always was on a Tuesday morning, that, for him, the day was not unusual, that no habits had been broken—except, perhaps, for his most basic custom of returning home to sleep in their shared bed—and no grand calamity had befallen him—it was impossible, utterly impossible. “Yes, that would be wonderful.”

“Great,” said Lilly, clearly finished with the conversation. “One moment.”

Jane’s stomping had done nothing to alleviate the two cats’ antipathy for one another. Coconut struck first, batting Butterscotch in the cheek with his paw. Butterscotch retaliated with a light whip of his tail, perhaps recalling the previous ear-biting encounter and doubting his own strength. Jane wanted to yell at them, but she was afraid that Lilly or Oliver would return to the call and think her insane. And she must be insane—she must have imagined herself into such a hallucination to escape her own boredom, perhaps pulling, unconsciously, from a storyline in that old soap she had watched years ago.

“Hello?” said Oliver, his tone ceremonial. Lilly must not have informed him of the speaker on the other line.

But it was his voice. He was not gone. She had not been alone in her apartment. Where else could he have found clothes for the new day? She had simply missed him; she had not made the bed, after all. Perhaps he had slept there and snuck out the door, not wishing to disturb her sleep.

“Oliver,” she said, overjoyed. “Oliver.”

There was a hesitation. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Who is this?”

“Jane,” she said. “You didn’t come home last night. Or I didn’t see you, anyway. I was sure—”

The line went dead. She looked at her phone to see why—it said nothing about a call failure. He had hung up on her. Her husband of eight years had hung up on her. He was her husband, wasn’t he? She had called the right office. That was the number; she had used it before, when he lost his phone at that concert a year or so ago. And Lilly had known her, Lilly had recognized her voice, had known she was pregnant—Lilly with her long blond hair and wide brown eyes, her natural facial expression a perpetual state of surprise. Oliver was her husband. Oliver had held her the previous morning, had loved her, had made breakfast for her, had made the baby within her with her. She was not in the wrong. She could not be. She thought of calling one of her friends or her mother to affirm herself in this, but she could not tell them what it was that had happened—she could imagine their own disbelief. There must be some misunderstanding. There must be.

She decided, first, to check his social media accounts to confirm that he still listed her as his wife, that his profile picture was still of their wedding, as it had been for the past five years. Nothing had seemed irregular when she had visited those pages the previous night, but she had been in an agitated state; perhaps she had missed something.

And she had: that is, whatever she had seen the previous night, and all the previous eight years of her life, was gone. Every account, every picture. Her account remained the same; a photo of him and her on the pier three months prior still splayed across the top of her page. But he was no longer tagged, he was no longer her friend, his name no longer appeared in her relationship status. She was simply “married.”

In the chaos of the moment, she had forgotten the cats. They were at each other’s necks, Butterscotch’s teeth near to sinking into Coconut’s jaw. She feared separating them; they had progressed so far, they would scratch her as much as each other if she so dared. She reached for the box of aluminum foil in the nearest kitchen drawer and crinkled it, stunning both of them. They darted away from each other, their backs arched high. She seized Coconut, ignoring his struggles, and barricaded him in the bedroom. He would likely pee on the bed, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and she didn’t have the energy or time to care. She could feel her son moving within her, his hands and feet pressing out the sides of her stomach. He was, she believed, as afraid as she.

She resolved to go to her husband’s workplace. He would not leave in the middle of the day, it was not his way; not even, she decided, if he wished to avoid his wife. The company, relaxed as it was in its dress code, was not nearly so flexible with sudden emergencies. Whatever was going on, he would not be able to ignore a sobbing pregnant woman, not in front of his coworkers, not when they knew her to belong to him, and he to her.

And all his things—she thought of this as she pulled on, once more, his winter coat, wrapping herself again in her scarf—all the bits and pieces of his life still here, his shirts and pants and ties, his socks and underwear, his computer, his books, his toolkit and suitcase—did these things not matter to him either? She should have searched, she realized, as she boarded the subway, for what was missing: for the things he had taken, the objects he thought valuable enough not to leave forever in her hands. If forever was his intention—but how could it be? How could he think to disappear at such a time, in such a fashion? It was impossible, it was all impossible—even the snow that greeted her as she exited the subway. It was too wet and heavy for February, too eager to pelt any and all exposed skin. She stumbled toward the glass doors that led to her husband’s company, her pregnancy somewhat concealed in the bounds of his coat and the disorder of the sleeting snow. She was relieved when the doorman opened the door for her, the rush of heat making her conscious of her own shivering.

She had not looked in the mirror since she had fallen asleep the night before. She couldn’t imagine her makeup, her hair. But the man at the front desk recognized her and seemed eager to buzz her up, his expression all smiles. “You’ll have to bring the boy in to visit,” he said, gesturing to her belly, “as soon as you’re ready.”

She did not recall telling the man she was having a boy. She hadn’t visited since before she knew. Oliver must have told him—he must have slapped his hands on the man’s desk, his expression gleeful, the words spilling out of him. He had looked so excited when she’d told him.

“As soon as the snow lets up,” she said.

He laughed and told her to head up on the first elevator to her right. “I’ll call your husband,” he said, “and let him know you’re coming.”

She nodded as if this was something she wanted, and half-hobbled to the elevator, her feet tired from the journey. Her doctor, she knew, would not be happy with the extent of her walk, and she couldn’t imagine what the last few hours had done to her blood pressure.

Her husband stood just outside her elevator when she arrived on his floor. He wore his new coat, his backpack swung over one shoulder. He was visibly taken aback at the sight of her. She did not recognize the red and blue checkered shirt he wore beneath his coat.

“Jane,” he said. He hardly ever said her name, after they married. Jane, we have to pay this bill; Jane, my father is dead; Jane, the knowledge of her name, herself, her life engraved in his brain.

“What’s going on?” she asked. She had other questions, but this seemed to sum them up.

He sighed. “You have to go.”

“So do you,” she said, nodding to his outerwear. “I’ll go where you go.”

He looked at her, his expression calculating. She would tell her granddaughter, years later, that there was a second she saw him reconsider, a second where his eyes cracked, the decision spurting blood and shame into his cheeks. And she would tell her granddaughter that he was a coward, that he was as much a boy as the son burrowed in her belly.

But she would be lying. It was true that there was a second—a second where she saw him, where he saw her, where they, at last, understood one another. But what she saw in him was nothing more than pity, its greatest part contempt. He could not say what he felt because it was too terrible. The horror had been building too long, gnawing at him, sapping him of life.

He composed himself, and his tone became once more detached. “I can’t help you.”

It was a senseless response, as if it had been a practiced answer to another question. She willed herself to cry, but something impeded her—the chill of the outdoor snow, the heavy heat of the company floor, the mundanity of Oliver’s appearance, his expression calm. She could not. “Talk to me,” she said. “Let’s go outside and talk.”

“It’s snowing,” he said, and added, clinically, “you shouldn’t be out, in your condition.”

“What happened?” she begged. “What happened yesterday? What did I do?”

He eyed either side of the hallway, perhaps fearing the judgment of co-workers and passersby. “Go on home.”

“Not without you,” she gasped, seizing her belly. She felt a searing pain, like her stomach being stretched near to tearing. She did not know then if its source was physical or emotional. “Your son—we have a son.” As if he could have forgotten.

He looked at her then, his eyes cold. “You have a son,” he said. One of the elevator doors opened, and he walked in. It contained two women, four men, and a boy with a dog. There was no room for a pregnant woman.

 

 

Allison Lamberth grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and now resides in New York City with her husband and son. An adjunct professor and freelancer, her short stories have previously appeared in Chaleur Magazine, The Write Launch, and Burnt Pine Magazine. Follow her on Twitter and check out her website.

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