BY AM RINGWALT
Right now Maria is leading the young’uns from her dance class onto the stage and I’m sitting at the back of the auditorium. They’re wearing lilac bloomers with matching sequin-covered shirts tucked in and I can’t help but think that their parents must’ve had to pay a lot for such costumes. The air smells like strawberries and cream yogurt or Dip ‘n Dots and I really would love to complain to whoever keeps spraying that perfume. I don’t say anything, though, because I’m here for a reason and I don’t want to make a fuss.
Maria makes sure that all the girls are lined up right. They’re standing in a triangular shape reminiscent of Egyptian pyramids. I can hear someone tuning a guitar in the wings, preparing for the moment when Maria is gone, music starts, and movement commences.
She doesn’t look at the audience while she lines the kids up. It takes maybe a minute and twenty seconds for all of this to go down, but I’m thinking so hard that it all goes slower. I think maybe if I shout out or cry like an infant she’ll look up, realizing there’s something new she can protect. But I miss her. In my concentrated haze I lose track of her whereabouts, her navigating the kiddos. I peek at where she was standing and I hear the guitar finger-picking already starting and the kids are beginning to move.
I toy with my fake fur vest and the plastic threads are clinging to each other from the rain outside. It’s ten in the morning and I usually don’t spend time in the presence of others until at least noon so I’m sipping a bloody Mary out of an old soup thermos and before I know it I’m dozing off, my feet sliding on the concrete floor just a bit as I scoot my back down. My chin is to my chest and no, it’s not comfy, but in my dreams, it’s Maria and that makes all the difference.
So we took the runt kitten because the farmer who had all the barn cats thought it would die, and then we christened it Little Cat and went into the woods. We built a box out of old wood and we sang old songs and church hymns and it was holy, holy, holy.
“What if we built a spaceship and moved to Mars with our kitty?” I said. And we built the prettiest house for our kitten and we drew little horse-shoe crabs on the sides of the boxes with mud and we kissed the mud so it would last forever and when we were tired we sat on the big leather couch in my house under the spinning fan spinning faster. My love was a young critter clawing at my insides saying let me out, let me out.
Maria and I hung out on weeknights outside the community college funded by a romance novelist who decided they’d start educating the southern masses. The beach was just down the road and sometimes we’d go night swimming and have conversations under the water, salt-water wiggling in our mouths and around our teeth.
That night was different, though. She said, “There’s only two ways to live, baby.” Her drawl was long and her breath was dough rising, sweet beer on tongue.
“How’s that,” I asked. I looked in her green eyes. They were simultaneously wary and full of knowing.
“Well you live the honest way or you don’t. If you want to love you’ve gotta be honest.”
That moment was interrupted by a dropout named Johnny, who until then I had never talked to but had often seen at the hardware store.
He rolled down his car window and hollered as he pulled over on the side of the road. “Aren’t you freezing?”
Maria and I looked at each other. I shrugged and looked at him. He had skin like sandpaper and wore a baseball hat crooked on his head.
“What’s your name?” I asked. I was wearing a huge cut-out sweatshirt from middle school that said APA in block letters. It almost went all the way down to my knees. I crossed my arms and felt the worn, over-washed fleece interior rub against me.
He had brown eyes. Shit, I thought. Brown eyes weren’t good, not good at all.
“Johnny, or that’s what everyone calls me.” When he spoke, smoke expelled from his mouth and his breath smelled of corpses or piss. Not that I know what corpses smell like. Unpleasant, though. Definitely unpleasant.
By this point, Maria had left after winking at me. I didn’t know why I thought he really only wanted to make sure we were warm enough. Maria told me a story later, though:
Johnny was the kind of guy that went around to one of the big cul-de-sacs in town where the wealthy folk lived called Dee Price Fitz and changed all its street signs to “D-sized Tits.” Then he would toss stolen bras on the candelabras and wrought-iron garden sculptures lining the front walks.
Legend has it, though, that when Johnny once wanted somebody to love, he took a stroll to the Yatsen family’s house and used the softest stolen bra as a sling-shot to fling Hannah Yatsen’s favorite Koi fish at her bedroom window. He was trying to get some action and was good at playing naïve and sympathetic. He had the system planned out.
It was a quiet thud, though, so she didn’t notice. As a “plan-B” he threw his Bic lighter at her window. She opened it, saw the dead fish lying on the roof’s shingles and let out a frightened sob. She was fifteen, still half-asleep and didn’t know much about creeps so she asked Johnny how the fish got up there.
“Couldn’t tell ya,” he said, “but if you hop on down I’ll take you to the pet store and get you two new ones.”
She shimmied down the roof in the slip she wore under her Sunday’s best and Johnny snuck a peek. When she hopped down, he patted her rear and said Atta girl before feeling her up on the back lawn. They never made it to the pet store, she liked it too much.
Johnny and I had started to play show-&-tell on the hood of his car. “This,” he said, “is weed.”
“Don’t you think I know what weed looks like?” I said. I’d found that appearing knowledgeable was attractive.
He picked up my hand and sort of massaged it before spitting his chewing gum into my palm. It was endearing, though, because he did something for me and I had to show him I wasn’t a pussy.
“Spitting gum on me? That’s all you’ve got?” I laughed before throwing it into the air.
“That’s kind of hot,” he said. He was the first guy to ever call me hot, so I knew this was the beginning of a wonderful thing. He looked at me again in this come on, baby way before holding a joint in front of my lips.
“Why would you give me a present if you just met me?” I asked, making sure he wasn’t being what Maria called a D-bag. She said a guy’s a D-bag if he gets you high and then tries to get you laid.
He snickered and brushed a mosquito off his cheek. “It’s usually how I greet pretty ladies.”
Thankfully, we ended up sharing it—I think that’s what he wanted anyway. What a night, really. We found this TV in a field somewhere and rigged it in the back of his station wagon. It was the kind of car where you could fold up seats in the trunk so you’d face backwards. That’s where we put the TV. He didn’t once try to kiss me.
Another night, this time a Wednesday and on New Year’s Eve, the moon was five-hundred fists big and really close to the horizon. We were outside the community college again, this time eating Sonic burgers. It was almost midnight. “You ever had a bloody Mary?” Maria looked at me. “If you were a drink, that’d be you.” She laughed and waved a wand of celery in the air.
So then, an old car honked from down the road. “Shit, Johnny!” I groaned as I began to run across the road, swaying my hips like an old Flamenco dancer. Maria sighed as I leaned backwards and blew a kiss before saying “Love you right in another year!”
Once I got in Johnny’s car, we didn’t drive anywhere. “You’re certainly a nice lady,” he said. He passed me a joint.
“So, what do you have in mind today?” I asked. My stomach hurt pretty badly and when I breathed heavily I could taste undigested beef.
He didn’t reply. He unbuttoned my jeans and kissed me down below before he took off his clothes and I took off mine.
“Wait,” I said, “Can you tell me something?” I set my shirt across my lap and looked at him.
“Come on, babe,” he went. “What? I’m not using you, alright? In fact…I was going to wait, but here—” he reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a plastic egg: the kind at the front of grocery stores where cheap metal or plastic rings reside. Something someone might propose marriage with.
“Let me love you,” he said. That’s what you want, right?”
It was my first time and I tried to pretend like I had done it before but the blood was a dead giveaway.
My shoulders quivered against his chest.
The day Fargo was released to home video I let Johnny punch out my front tooth with a rolling pin. It started at the Waffle House in New Bern. Maria had just gotten a job there and she tied her uniform shirt up high so you could see her pierced belly-button. I picked out the ring for her because it looked like a lizard was crawling through her.
I remember seeing her behind the counter that night in old Levi’s jean shorts when we walked in. She saw me and winced before quickly pulling her mud-colored, straight hair up. I remembered an earlier conversation.
“You can’t let him use you,” she said, “Just be sure.”
I said he wasn’t using me. He really wasn’t. That was the first time Maria disagreed with me.
Johnny grabbed me by the arm just as I had begun to wave at Maria and he pleaded with me to stop caring about her. His mouth was right near my ear and his breath was warm. “She’s just jealous,” he said, “because you don’t love her. Don’t you see that look she’s giving you?”
He moved behind me a bit and held my waist firmly. I tried avoiding his gaze by glancing back at Maria even though I knew she was preoccupied with sorting the cash register, something she did to avoid the attention of unwanted customers.
“Thanks for this,” he said.
My eyes met Johnny’s and I cringed. I asked him once to never make eye contact with me because I could never tell what a brown-eyed person was thinking, or what they want and might expect. Still, he looked, and I shuddered before kissing his cheek. The bathroom of the Waffle House was a carnival of removed pants and watery eyes like sunflower petals dripping down a cherub’s face. He clenched my hair, syrup still running down the sides of his palms from hand-feeding me earlier.
I winced, feeling the stuff join with my hair. “I suppose we’re sugar-coated tonight,” I whispered. Then he pulled me to the ground and started fingering me. I wasn’t feeling it so he asked what else he could do.
He said this: “Let me take out your teeth.”
I kissed his neck and he ran his tongue down my nose. He ran out of the bathroom and said something to Maria. I heard the shitty kitchen door shut and open and slam and he was running to me again. He came back into the bathroom.
“This should do the trick,” he said with a smile. There wasn’t fear in my mind because he mumbled, “I love you, I love you” as a bit of drool trickled down his chin. I doubted he would even be able to hit my mouth with the pin so I opened my mouth real wide and let out the sound little kids do at the dentist’s. These things were all games.
Then I felt surprise: a release of bone, the jagged edges of where my teeth nested in my gums now poking at the inside of my mouth.
When I was little, I loved tasting blood in my mouth. I started swaying violently in the memory and let a warm hum escape me. He carried me out of the Waffle House and threw my tooth at Maria on our way out.
Then we got in his car and I had forgotten that once when we were smoking we rigged up an old TV in the backseat and put in an electrical cord and we heard George of the Jungle and Pachelbel’s Canon playing in the background.
We drove to Pine Knoll Shores and parked a few blocks away from the aquarium —the only one I could ever handle, I swear. He took the same rolling pin and broke out a small window in the back of the building because he helps his ma out there sometimes and we know that window’s weak. I peered through the passenger window of the car parked on a side road. The words come on, come on swirled across the glass.I looked at Johnny and cackled.
Johnny was always maneuvering his body so that it was forcing something out of me or forging closeness between us. He held me in a way that drew us both to the floor as he started to play doctor. He pushed both of his hands on my body everywhere saying is there any pain here, is there any pain here?
When his hands got to my belly and applied pressure I felt vomit churn out of my mouth and seep around his palms.
He was angry, but I didn’t mind. Johnny was moody at best and kind at worst. At least his anger was genuine.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, feeling chunks of waffle warm against my chin and neck.
Back when I’d gone to the aquarium with Maria, we laid on the ground .Some of the crabs were asleep. We could hear the biggest ones–the parents, she said– crawling in their watery display, protecting their young.
I had my portable CD player with me, the one I got back in high school with a check my Aunt Louise sent me for my 17th birthday. I had pirated a song called “Lucky” because it made Maria cry, and I put it on a blank disk. It happened to be in the CD player that night, soI hit the play button and turned the volume up as loud as I could.
“Did you know that horseshoe crabs have been around longer than dinosaurs?” I looked gleefully at her. “Can you believe it, Maria?”
She was standing above the crab display. It was still cover-less. “I want to touch them,” she said. The song was semi-audible and I remember wondering if the crabs could sense the new noise.
I rose to meet her at the display. “I want to touch anything that might love me, I think,” was what I had meant to start out with, but my speech fumbled as I stood bow-legged, trying to catch her stillness and maintain it in my attempted confession. We ended up slow-dancing, though. Her eyes were closed and herlips were pained as she mouthed the words to the song.
Maria was standing with me in the gas station. I was buying a pack of Sweet Mint gum and she was getting a fancy bottled water. (“You can splurge on water because it’s pure,” she liked to say.)
“I swear, I refuse to meet him again.” She wasn’t a fan of Johnny.
I sighed and went to the cash register. The cashier was a teenage boy, complete with overgrown brown hair and subtle acne. I paid with singles and only got coins in change.
When I saw that his eyes were brown, I covered my own with my hands. “Lady, are you okay?” he asked. I pretended to wipe some strands of hair out of my eyes, which only got hair in my eyes. Suddenly I was aware of the brownish paint on the walls, of Maria’s brown leather Rainbow flip-flops. I walked out of the gas station.
From across the street, a few stray cats walked by. At the front door of the stop, there were advertisements for the lottery, in addition to a rack of brochures. Most were about touring the Tryon Palace or visiting the Pepsi place downtown, but some said things like this:
Battle phobias at our at-sea adventure, this spring!
Still-born children are the devil-spawn… Leave your partner now to prevent upsetting our God Almighty!
Nursing Homes in New Bern: let us take care of you.
Since the brown eyes made me delirious, I’m not sure if they really said these things. The last one was definitely true, though.
“They’re just advertisements,” said Maria. Her hand was on my shoulder. She backed off.
I was crying. “Just let me love. Just let me love.”
The morning after Johnny made me throw up, I threw up again. I was staying with him in his trailer home for the weekend. He was calling thisour “honeymoon”. I think he just felt bad about hurting me, though, and this was his way of making things right.
I brought an old paper Harris Teeter grocery bag and filled it with my essentials: an old shirt that belonged to Maria’s uncle, along with a water bottle, a toothbrush, and a book I got when I was really little called “Babies.” There were pictures of lambs and kittens with 3D things like fur and mirrors. I looked at the book every night and I planned on showing it to Johnny because you’re supposed to share things you love with people you love.
“Babies” was on the bathroom counter-top and I was brushing my teeth with his toothpaste, something people in love also do. All of a sudden, I keeled over the toilet bowl, squatting low to the ground, and vomited. I hadn’t eaten much sincewe had zebra cakes and red wine from the gas station, so it was swirling red in the toilet.
Johnny made his move. “Everything okay in there?” he asked, turning the doorknob. I poked my head through the door, made an excuse about how there were knots in my hair I had to brush out, and shut the door in his face before locking it. I wasn’t okay, though. “It sure sounded like vomit,” he said. He sounded angry.
Panting on the floor, head propped against the toilet seat, I didn’t think him pushing on my belly would make me sick the next day. Besides, we weren’t that drunk. I looked and saw the front cover of “Babies,” the little critters snuggling together. I got out of his house through the bathroom window, afraid of embarrassing myself. He didn’t notice me leave.
“You said you needed me, but you seem fine. What gives?” Maria left her yoga class early to meet me outside Trent River Coffee. I was eating a cinnamon twist. My shirt was covered in crumbs. I felt awful.
“I’m sick,” I said. “My stomach is killing me.”
“And you’re eating?” she asked, unfazed.
“Yep. When you’re hungry, you strike, or that’s what Johnny says.” Maria reached out and picked some pieces of the cinnamon twist off my sweater.
“When do you think it’ll end, anyway?” Maria looked around Craven Street.
“Hopefully never,” I said. “You don’t think…” I grabbed my belly and chuckled, sending bits of cinnamon sugar flying into the air.
“A baby?” Maria reached out for my arms and held me in place. “Is there something you didn’t tell me? Did he sleep with you?”
Her face was bright red. She was only like this when she was disappointed, which rarely happened. The only time I’d seen her this red was when her mom remarried, and with a 19-year-old guy at that. I heard her mumble some swear word. It sounded like Shit, but I couldn’t be sure.
“He said he loved me.”
She grinned, despite her sadness. “Of course he does.”
“Don’t be sad,” I said. “We can be its mothers. I’d let you, if you want.”
Maria sighed. We walked to the general store in silence, where Maria bought me a pregnancy test.
After preparing a little church in the bathroom and saying a prayer, Maria called in sick to the Waffle House. She said she had to protect someone she loved from something bad. I never figured out if Johnny was the bad thing, or if it was the baby.
The test was white and plastic, like a deformed Magic 8 Ball.
“So I just pee on this?” I asked.
She nodded. I asked again if she would be a mother with me. She said she didn’t know if she could do that, but she could tell me a story: A horseshoe crab was lonely and went to shore and turned into a baby. Two girls found it and they raised it and lived in love. One of the girls had to leave. There was a storm coming. At the depths, when it all ended, there were thousands of horse-shoe crabs humming beneath them. They danced until the sea took them in.
I rattled on the front door of Johnny’s trailer. He stepped out to look at me.
“Where the hell were you? You ain’t quittin’ out, are you?
I skipped past him into the house. “We’re having a baby,” I said. “We made a baby!”
He ran up to me, held me softly for a moment, picked me up.
It ended with a punch to the gut, my knees to the floor. Then I felt hollow. I imagined our baby’s unformed teeth breaking out of its unformed skull.
“Jesus, Johnny!” I cried.
“I don’t want to be inside you anymore. Get out.”
I crawled across the threshold of his trailer until he kicked me in the back, my belly thumping against the stairs, my chin in the soil. A door slammed behind me. Over and over in my head I heard myself say, “I had a baby, once. I had a baby inside me and it loved me.”
A few days later, I pulled into Maria’s driveway. Her house was small enough to be considered a speck on North Carolinian soil, and I was sure her parents would’ve said it was a disgrace. I’d hold her grace to my grave though, and she knew that.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Holding the air inside me, I tried to say, “I love you.” It came out like “I need you,” though, and she knew I needed her and she needed me because we’re friends and friends need each other. She passed me a tangerine and green tea.
“The baby’s gone,” I moaned. “I want a baby that’s mine.”
“How’d it happen?” she asked, but I think she knew.
“Johnny hit me so hard.” With that, I squished the tangerine onto the counter and watched it ooze into flatness. “Suppose I’ll have to go to the doctor pretty soon.”
She just looked at me, and that’s all I needed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, so quietly that I bet I was the only creature on Earth or beyond who heard it. She stood up and we went to her bedroom. She was wearing a ratty shirt with an old woman winking on the front.
In the room I touched the walls. Seashells covered the surfaces and I remembered when we hid papers in the shells to pull them out years later. Maria sat on the bed, her hair limp and loose. I loved her and I said.
“More than friends,” I continued. “I’ve loved you all along sweetly.” It was innocent, though.
She pulled me to her bed and held me. I felt her breath whimpering until she took my hand and pulled me to the bathroom. The sink was industrial sized, the only fancy thing she owned, and I sat in it while she washed me.
I dried in the sun of her backyard. In the grass, we lay like sweet souls. I felt her chin on my shoulder and turned around. There was warmth on my face leading me to her lips and she held my face like a lover would. The kiss was long and painfully divine.
“Why’d you do that?” I whispered.
She shrugged, still in my awe.
Maria’s dancing in the recital now, and it’s almost time for lunch. I wonder if Johnny’s outside waiting for me to leave. He’s probably got my toothbrush and my “Babies,” and he’ll want to go get high. I’m still tired, though, so I try to doze off again, but I can’t. I sit in the back of the auditorium and watch her dance and I blow a kiss at the ceiling and say, “Send it on to Maria, why don’t ya?” I guess I’ll love whoever finds me first.