A R Robins
There's a layer of sky above me, dark and mottled. The earth is beneath the asphalt, and I'm clacking across its surface to my car. My keys clink in my right hand, my left hand in my pocket, digging at the hole there in the coat's lining; a tampon hides and some change.
I never think to use the hidden change, especially now that I have this new job and especially now that I've stopped smoking. No need to rummage around my apartment for forgotten money. No need to count out dimes on a gas station counter in exchange for a pack of smokes.
"We have a buffer now," says Ira, "just in time."
I never remembered to use the tampon either, even on days when I was reduced to rolling toilet paper around my hand to fashion a makeshift pad. I'd forget about that tampon until the end of the day, when it was too late, when I had already become a musty collection of smells, when everything useful had already fallen out of me, needing something else, perhaps home and its warmth. Now there is no need for the tampon.
My baby kicks my left rib, so I stop walking and look down. My stomach shifts beneath my blouse as he shifts around my lower torso, tangling himself in my organs. I press the fingers of my right hand under the edge of the rib and fish around for his foot or maybe his head.
"Please, Will, not so rough," I whisper, the trees chattering above me.
Ira always tells me to stop poking him. "What if you give him brain damage?"
"Really? Millions of years of evolution designed this body. He's protected."
"But you're digging so deep. What if you push out his eyeball?"
"What do you think the cave women did when they were pregnant? You think they were worried about brain damage?"
"The cave women did a lot of things."
My hands can't find his body beneath my skin, but he stops twisting anyway. With no piece to jostle or prod, I press both of my hands into my belly on either side and give him a little shake. I'm not sure why I think this is a good idea. He's likely to kick my ribs again if I jostle him too much. It's just something I've started doing, some instinct.
Electric halos pattern the parking lot. I begin to walk faster; I'm winded before I reach my car. I breath in as deeply as I can and out comes a wet puff of mist. I breath again and press my fingers to my lips like I'm blowing a tiny kiss. I exhale slowly. It's good to breathe. It's good for the baby.
When we started trying, I quit smoking. Just quit. Without thinking.
Janey, the other cashier, likes to brag to me that she also quit after she got pregnant. She wants to have something in common with me, and I'm not sure why. Two women, working near each other with numbers in their head. It should be enough, but not for her.
Between customers, she tells me about her pregnancy. Her feet. Her cravings. Her sleep. Her medicine. Her doctor's appointments. Her blood. Her fear.
"Poor Theo was alive in my stomach for two weeks before I quit smoking. I just had to quit. I couldn't stand feeling all that guilt."
What would I be without my guilt?
My grandfather burnt me with a cigarette once while we were walking to the park. I lifted my four-year-old hand up to hold his, and my tiny fingers crushed the end of his cigarette. I don't remember how he apologized, but I remember the guilt I felt because he had to light a new cigarette.
Today my boss called Will a parasite again, and I could tell he wanted me to clutch my stomach and cry out from humiliation—at least mock humiliation. Instead, I smiled at him, despite being bored by the jokes repetition. No one laughed the first time, Jerry. I want to tell him that I made the same joke to Ira several months ago. Ira laughed.
I think of the parasites that make cats smell good to mice; I think of the parasites that make grasshoppers jump into the mouths of fish, but I don't tell Ira what I'm thinking.
Before the pregnancy, I stayed up all night listening to music and playing on my phone, and I'd chain-smoke. Some nights I'd play video games with my eyes half-closed. I'd take pills to stay awake. I'd drink coffee. I'd drink tequila. Some nights I'd shop online until 8 AM and then pass out on the couch, cigarette butts swimming in coffee and solo cups, my throat packed with sandpaper. Some nights I'd read old emails until 8 AM and begin cooking eggs for Ira, and I'd tell myself that I was a good wife for making my husband breakfast before work. Some nights I'd crawl into bed at 3 AM, half-drunk and crying, and I'd wake up Ira and tell him how sad and sorry I was.
Now Will tells me I am tired at seven, and I listen. Now I sleep on my left side, my knees tucked under my belly, and a pillow between my knees. Will tells me this makes me comfortable. Now I eat marshmallow cereal at 6 AM every morning, and I slurp up the cold, sweet milk from the bottom of the bowl, letting the wet crumbs grate the roof of my mouth. Will says I like it. I let him take over. Everyone around me knows I have lost control, and they think it is beautiful.
"You seem so happy now," Ira says.
"I am happy."
I swing my body into the driver's seat, and my purse spills out into the passenger's side floor. I'm too big to bend over to pick up anything up my purse. I see it there at the bottom, a blue and yellow BIC lighter. I remember the pack in the glove compartment—menthol, extra-large gauge, half empty and almost a year old. They are drying out and will probably taste like the cheap menthols I used to steal from my grandmother. She would buy them in bulk and fill the closet in her bathroom from the floor to ceiling. Every night before bed, I'd pull out a pack and climb into the shower and light one, my hand floating above my head like a Roman statue, smoke mixing with steam until the bathroom was full of rich, gray fog.
My grandmother smoked with my mother. My mother smoked with me. I wonder how they felt about it. When I was three months pregnant, I ate an entire can of ravioli, right out of the can and then immediately read an article about the dangers of botulism from canned food. I cried all night into Ira's chest.
"He will be fine. My mother ate nothing but canned food when she was pregnant with me."
"Would she have eaten it had she known?"
"Does it matter?"
When I was a child, I'd remind myself that I once lived inside my mother, and my grandmother would tell me that I was inside her when she was pregnant too.
"The material to make you was there inside your mommy, so it's almost like I carried you too."
I don't remember what my mother's body looks like, what her face or voice sounds like, but I know I was there inside her once. I lived with her for as long as she would let me. Somehow, now, I find more comfort knowing that I was there with my grandmother too.
I drive, and I notice how bright the waning moon is above the road, a round plate of porcelain half full of ash, and I notice how the trees move like smoke on either side of me. And the stars are beautiful tonight, white and gray on the denim sky, like when you flick your cigarette over a pair of new jeans. I think of my first menthol, the cool smoke that swarmed, then softened.
Last night I said to Ira, "We should have had him sooner. I wanted her to meet him."
"Don't make yourself sad."
"But why did we wait?"
"Don't cry. You'll hurt the baby."
Will shifts again, and his foot pokes through my stomach. There below the steering wheel is a perceivable outline of a foot; I can see it even through my shirt. I press my left pointer into this outline of a foot, and focus again on the road.
A.R. Robins received her M.A. at Southeast Missouri State University. Her fiction is published in Potomac Review, Moon City Review, Opossum, The Big Muddy, The Swamp and others. Her poetry is published in Crack the Spine, Trailer Park Quarterly, The Cape Rock, Atlas and Alice and others.