Fiction by Kristen M. Ploetz
She knew she had to get the baby home before the cheese and butter started to sweat. The sun had already slinked down behind the sumacs on the ridge. Cicadas filled the muggy air with their hot, angry buzz. The baby was fussy and joined their chorus with back-arched lassitude. No matter which direction she went, there would be too many steep hills. The relief of her life was mapped in similar fashion.
As she stood between the automatic sliding doors, bursts of chilled air whispered on the back of her neck. Each breath carried the stench of bleach and wilted lettuce, turning her empty stomach. The frayed hem of her cutoffs fluttered against the backs of her thighs. She contemplated her options. The damp ten folded in her pocket pressed hard against her skin like the pea that bruised the princess. Without tip, the cab ride home was six bucks. She’d have to beg her mother for another small loan to make it through the end of the week.
She walked over to the taxi courtesy phone and looked out the door. Four people were already waiting for rides in the two-taxi town. A body was suddenly behind her. Tall. Too close. Through her thin tank top she felt heat radiating from his humid body. “You gonna use that phone, sweetie?” he said over her left shoulder. He smelled like mouthwash and sweat. She could feel his eyes boring into her hips and legs as he took a step back.
“No,” she whispered. The baby and the butter wouldn’t tolerate the wait. Her mother wouldn’t tolerate the loan. She sidestepped away without looking at him.
Tendons in her fingers already ached from gripping the bags swollen with cheap cereal, milk, canned tuna, and the rest of her groceries. In Angie’s other arm, the baby, heavy and awkward like bucket of mud. His dirty t-shirt was too tight in the belly. His diaper needed to be changed an hour ago. Cookie crumbs clung to the corners of his mouth where the juice had dried. She hoped the late snack would hold him over until breakfast. She hoped he never remembered her habit of stealing things she wanted but couldn’t afford. She consoled herself by remembering she’d paid for almost everything today.
As she shifted his weight in her arm, she noticed an empty shopping cart with a baby seat attached in the front, the one lame perk for harried parents. The royal blue plastic seat was pocked with grey wads of gum and streaks of dried peanut butter. A seat fit for a fat, grubby prince like hers, she thought. The parking lot was busy. Nobody would notice. If she hurried, she could skirt another misdemeanor charge. Besides, she thought, it wouldn’t be stealing if she left it at the bottom of the last hill, the one before her mother’s crumbling driveway.
She fastened the baby into the hard seat. The nylon straps were frayed and the buckle was cracked and half-broken, causing her to pinch his skin. He screamed as she pulled the buckle free. “Hold on, little pudge. We’re gonna go real fast, okay?” As she spun him out the door, a can of root beer rolled out of a bag and knocked hard against the side of the cart. With tears in his eyes, the baby mirrored her smile and laughed.
The white noise of need and want and desperation screamed from the cart’s small wheels as she sprinted across the lot. Translucent ribbons of plastic bags eddied in a long stretch of empty parking spaces at the far end where she crossed onto the road. The cart punched the air with a metallic ring as she maneuvered it over the curb on the other side. Weariness consumed her and suddenly the shopping cart weighed more than the sum total of her life.
She struggled to push forward on the uneven terrain. She struggled with all of it.
Deep breaths burned against her ribs. She wondered whether she could keep doing this, whether she was strong enough to move forward and make a clean break from her mother. She wondered how she ended up being the kind of person who left shopping carts abandoned on the side of the road. She wondered how she ended up being the kind of person who didn’t care.
She knew she had to get the baby home before her husband was ready to FaceTime. The baby would scream as drips of cold water fell from his mother’s fingertips while she held him over the bathroom sink, painting the illusion of a proper bath filled with bubbles and nurturing. Then she would dress him in ducklings or teddy bears or sailboats. A cotton shield of innocence and promise. The baby would wriggle with fury as his mother shoved damp chubby arms into slender sleeves as though danger pounded at the door. The baby would whimper as he listened to his mother whisper-sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat and wipe away the tears—both of theirs—before the call came through. She knew this because it happened every time he called.
It was his third trip to Malaysia this year. It was her third time staying at Pranav’s place. She used to park her car behind his two-story brick Federal but decided it gave off the whiff of something illicit. Something that would yield strong disapproval. Something too true. The fulcrum of discretion gave way at the start of her husband’s most recent departure. Fuck it. I’ll stay better hidden in plain sight. Now she parks out front.
Pranav didn’t mind when she returned with the baby after the calls. He knew the babysitter was too young to do overnights. That’s why they reserved the sex for daytime when the baby was with the grandmother. With him, sex wasn’t just another chore like dropping off the dry cleaning or renewing her driver’s license or buying mouse traps, all the errands that hinted at her worth and existence, but never her value. Those late evenings at Pranav’s, when the baby was asleep in the guest room, when it was just dinner and a cocktail and the warm dessert of deep conversation, she savored the charade of being someone content. Or maybe just someone less broken. When the Malaysia project eventually ended, she told herself this should too.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. She scurried to the nursery and turned on the light. Eyes closed, inhale, exhale, eyes open. She pressed the button on her phone and her husband’s face filled the screen. The stubble of a long day dotted his cheeks and chin. The baby gurgled when he saw his father’s smile. She noticed a grain of rice stuck in his teeth. It annoyed her. She remembered Pranav’s mouth late the night before when the pepper and oak of his scotch passed from his lips to hers. She was eager to taste him again.
“It’s Dada! Can you wave to Dada?” She looked at the baby with an exaggerated smile and flapped his chubby hand at the screen. Then her tone went flat. “Look, he’s tired tonight and so am I, so can you just start reading?”
He read the tiny book he had packed in his suitcase. The baby listened to the life lesson of too little, too big, and just right. Angie did too. They said goodbye—nothing more—and then the screen went dark. Five minutes later, she backed out of the driveway a little too fast.
Later, when Pranav’s house was silent in the warm marrow between dusk and dawn, she woke up and went to the guest room. She stood next to the white noise machine near the portable crib. She strained to hear sounds of life.
From her baby.
From her marriage.
Guilt pressed hard against her ribs. She wondered whether she could keep doing this, whether she was strong enough to move forward and make a clean break from her husband. She wondered how she ended up being the kind of person who left vows and trust on the side of the road. She wondered how she ended up being the kind of person who didn’t care.
She knew she had to get the baby home before the sitter drove off like last week. The unpredictable impatience of a sixteen-year-old was the razor that sliced too close to Angie’s emancipation. She turned up the tail end of a Springsteen ballad—the one she loved in high school—and pulled out of the daycare parking lot. She careened through four-way stops and yellow-blink-red traffic lights, ignoring the baby’s hungry wails. Numb and focused she steadied her hands on the steering wheel. Her fingers relaxed only after she saw the babysitter’s car parked in the driveway.
“I’m sorry I was running a little late again. Just feed him the dinner I left in the fridge, and put him to bed around 7:30. I’ll be home a little after ten but Vik should get home before me anyway.” She said it all in one breath as she handed the baby to the sitter. The baby took a fistful of the sitter’s hair and pulled it toward his mouth.
“Sure,” the sitter said while prying opening the baby’s fingers.
“Thanks.” After kissing the baby on the back of his head, she ducked back into her car and didn’t bother to wave.
Bad Wolf Studio was a ten-minute drive to the center of town. As she drove, she remembered she needed to underglaze the black-green silhouette of a lacewing onto a large bowl. The intricate venation of fragile wings on stark white porcelain bestowed a kind of austerity that made her pieces unexpectedly popular. She sold many pieces like this through word of mouth, now unable to keep up with demand. She hoped a wheel would be open. Her hands felt restless and needed to work some wet clay. But during the last mile, she remembered the work emails she still needed to answer later that night. Staying late to throw a new piece no longer seemed feasible. Her shoulders tensed with resentment. CEO was never her idea. Neither was the MBA nor the business major nor captain of the high school debate team. She was just good—really good—at all of it. Her parents had branded good onto her soul early and quick, like cattle destined for slaughter. Always and only the good and the safe and the revered. Nothing frivolous. Nothing less than. She worried she was wasting her time in the studio.
When she pulled into the parking lot, she saw Nepthalie’s mint green bike leaning against the brick building. She was happy they’d be working in the studio together that night. Their friendship had formed despite difference. Angie’s life had always been predictable and routine. Uncomplicated. Yet Nepthalie—just half her age—thrived despite catastrophic upheaval after leaving Haiti. With passionate, textured riots of color, Nepthalie sculpted clay into geometric faces of hope and despair, fossilizing emotions and perspective, all triggered by the earthquake that forced her family to flee. Angie envied her resilience.
Standing in front of the shelf of glazes, she heard someone shuffle behind her, entering from the kiln area. “So, I’ve been thinking. You need to quit your job, Angie.” The scent of vanilla floated from the cobalt and black scarf tied around Nepthalie’s neck.
“What are you talking about?”
“You can do more than this,” waving her hand toward their finished pieces organized in rows on a nearby table. “You can’t even keep up with the demand of selling a few bowls here. You need more time. More than just coming here when you’re tired and feeling half-guilty about shuttling your son between daycare and a sitter. So, you need to quit. You need to do this full time.” She paused to stare into Angie’s eyes. “You’re good, Angie.”
“I don’t know about that,” she laughed. “I hate it but I support my kids with that job, Nepthalie. I can’t just quit. It’s easy for you to say that because you’re still young.” She shook her head and turned back toward the glazes.
“You’re only providing them with money that way, Angie. You’re not showing them what it means to be satisfied with your own life. There’s a big difference, and one day, they’ll see it. Anyway. Think about it.” She walked over to her workspace and put on her bike helmet.
“You’re not staying tonight? I thought we were going to figure out the rest of the open market set-up.” Her voice sounded needier than she wanted it to.
“Can’t. Doing a double shift tomorrow. Need some sleep. I’ll be here Thursday though.” Nepthalie turned as she slung her backpack over her shoulder and pushed the glass door.
For the next several hours, she tried to catalyze her irritation. Nepthalie’s comment echoed in her mind. Concentrating on the lacewing, she worked slowly. After placing the bowl near the kiln, she stayed late to make a large platter. Smooth clay oozed between her fingers. The white noise of the potter’s wheel helped focus her thoughts as she tried to unravel the knot in her mind. She knew there was only one way to pull it free.
It was almost midnight when she got home. Vik’s car was in the driveway but the house was dark. She went upstairs and closed the baby’s door before opening her laptop in bed, careful not to wake Vik. In the glow of the monitor, she saw bits of dried clay under her fingernails and embedded in the lines of her palm. She stared at the screen for several minutes before logging into her work email. Scrolling through her contact list, she selected the twelve names on the board of directors. Her fingers moved swiftly over the keys. In three short lines, she made the case: consulting part-time, otherwise they’d lose her.
Her body was calm. The voices of her parents and husband and colleagues, silent. She could finally hear something else.
Fear fluttered against her ribs. She wondered whether she could really do this, whether she was strong enough to move forward and make a clean break from her history. She wondered how she ended up being the kind of person who left obedience and easy outcomes on the side of the road. She wondered how she ended up being the kind of person who didn’t care.
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published with Atlas & Alice, Hypertext Magazine, Washington Post, (b)OINK zine, The Hopper, Gravel, Maudlin House, Cognoscenti, The Healing Muse, New York Times, Swarm Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays and short stories. You can find her on the web (www.kristenploetz.com) and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).