Cody and I are sitting side-by-side on a picnic table, looking toward the Rocky Mountains covered by ponchos of snow. Black-necked geese are honking, and I’m thinking, They must be lost. They shouldn’t be in Denver. They should be in Acapulco. The concrete slab is cold under my butt, but the mile-high sun is warm and bright. It makes us both squint. That’s when Cody says, “Meg, I think I’m falling in love with you.” So I say I think I’m falling in love with him, too.
Two months ago we were just friends swilling Tennessee whiskey to numb respective heartaches. Next thing you know, he’s telling me he loves me, and I’m thinking I love him back. For a second or two, that seems just fine. Then Cody says:
“But here’s the thing. I’m insanely busy right now. Between teaching and getting ready for this installation in three weeks, I just don’t have time to start a new relationship. It wouldn’t be fair. So, I think we should put things on hold for a month or so, and then see where we stand.”
Where did the lost geese go? They aren’t honking anymore. The breeze isn’t blowing the bare tree branches. A car hasn’t driven by the park in a long time. It’s all so quiet that I can’t pretend I didn’t quite hear him and say What?
Cody looks at his watch. “Shit. I’ve got to get to my studio. I was supposed to meet a student there at four.” He jumps off the picnic table and stands in front of me. He blocks out the sun, and I don’t have to squint anymore. “Okay.” He holds my gloved hand. “I love you.”
This time I don’t say it back. This time I just say, “Uh-huh,” and listen for the wing-beat of geese.
INTERIOR: MY APARTMENT – TWO MONTHS EARLIER
I’m on my couch. CODY is on my floor. His girlfriend just broke up with him; my boyfriend just broke up with me. We’re passing a Jack Daniels bottle back and forth. This makes me look tough.
CODY: So, in case it didn’t suck enough, now I also don’t have a date for Celia’s fundraiser.
ME: They could’ve at least waited until after the party to break up with us.
CODY: (handing me the bottle) We could go together.
ME: I can think of worse.
The geese are back. “Where the fuck were you when I needed you?” I say. They honk, honk, honk. Some nonsense from the Tao Te Ching. The sun is falling south. It will be cold and dark soon. Across the street from the park is a coffee shop, the kind with dreadlocked girls and scratched wood tables and frou-frou drinks with the comfort of vanilla and spice. It’s warm inside, with steam shooting from the espresso machine, and music shooting from the stereo. I order a molto grande latte with cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s okay for me to have that much caffeine, now that I’m not pregnant anymore.
Celia and Cody were a couple after college, in another decade, another century. Cody lives in a world where he’s still friends with his ex-girlfriend from another century, so he’s friends with her husband—my brother, Nate—too. I was a bridesmaid at their wedding and Cody a groomsman, so you’d think we’d have hooked up taffeta-drunk then. It’s the only acceptable scenario for bedding your sister-in-law’s ex. But I was blindly devoted to a long distance boyfriend, and Cody brought some pretty girl. That’s the way it had been ever since.
Celia’s the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Act Out! Act Out! goes into schools and teaches kids to express their feelings through improv. Sometimes I help Celia come up with scenarios to get the kids started. Things like: YOU and TWO FRIENDS are hanging out together, when one pulls out a bong. Or: YOU and A GUY are getting hot and heavy, but don’t have a condom. Sometimes I come up with these scenarios even when Celia doesn’t need them.
Before Christmas, Act Out! hosted a black-tie fundraiser. It was attended by Denver’s society set, and by Celia and Nate and Cody and me. Nate rented a limo so we could all get insanely drunk on French champagne without risking anybody’s life. It’s the sort of extravaganza that a grad school dropout working in a bookstore would never get to attend, but Celia and Nate made it possible. The party was in a mansion that no one has lived in for a hundred years but gets rented out for weddings and high-class affairs. I could see why Celia wanted to stage the party there instead of a generic ballroom at the Marriott. The mansion had a real Louis XIV feel to it. And maybe that’s how we got in trouble. We thought we were untouchable.
INTERIOR: OPULENT ROOM IN MANSION — SEVEN WEEKS EARLIER
Velvet couches and chairs, a gilded portrait of some old woman. TWO MEN, TWO WOMEN, dressed to the nines. They’re drinking and laughing like the cast of a sitcom. CELIA asks if anyone’s ever had a ménage-a-trois. This is not a sitcom.
CODY: (slurping from crystal flute) Been there, done that, the T-shirt was too small.
ME: (laughing) There were T-shirts at yours? There was an utter lack of them at mine!
CODY: (jade eyes fogged by champagne) What do you say, Meggie? You, me, and who else? You want another man or another woman to complete the triangle?
ME: Do you mean your masculinity could stand up to another man?
NATE: (my brother) Disturbing mental picture here, kids.
CODY: Honey, I don’t know if my masculinity could stand up to you.
We are all quite sophisticated and witty.
It’s not like Cody and I had never been flirty before, flirty in that way you get when you’ve known someone a long time but he’s your sister-in-law’s ex-boyfriend, so he’s off-limits. Flirty in that way you get when you’ve had a little too much — but not too too much — to drink and you’re both dumbly devoted to others, so you know it’s harmless and will go nowhere. We’d flirted like that before. But we’d never flirted before with broken hearts, with Cody in a tuxedo after watching Cary Grant movies to figure out how to act suave and debonair, and me in a Little Black Dress—not looking as much like Holly Golightly as I secretly want, but still pretty good for a redhead with hips—with much-too-much champagne and the two of us alone in the back of the limo with the streetlights throwing neon across our faces. All that took us upstairs to my apartment. There was no “what does this mean” discussion. There was no stating of the obvious—I don’t want to ruin our friendship. There was Cody’s long, lanky body, a little soft in the belly, but hard in the right places, in my right places. There was my couch, and a rocking chair, and lastly, my bed, and when you end up in that many places that many times, sooner or later your birth control situation is bound to get “dubious.” That’s what Cody called it six weeks later, when I told him I was pregnant.
“And you’re sure?” he asked.
“I took two tests,” I said. The first one had been at home. First Response, it was called, as if the EMTs were going to arrive and give me CPR. I lay on the bathroom floor listening for their sirens for a long time. My faucet drip drip dripped, and the pipes banged above my head. No first responders ever arrived to pick me off the floor, so I got up and drove to the health clinic.
Since Cody lives in a world where he’s friends with his ex-girlfriend and her husband, he also acted like a Stand Up Guy when he discovered some woman who wasn’t his girlfriend was pregnant. “I’m going to support you no matter what you do, okay?” he said. “If you get an abortion, I’ll be there and help pay for it. If you have the baby, same thing.” That’s how it is with Stand Up Guys: they don’t tell you what to do.
I’d always figured, “Oh, if I have an unwanted pregnancy, I’ll just get an abortion.” In my head I actually said “unwanted pregnancy,” probably because I majored in Women’s Studies, and even though they say the personal is political, what they really mean is it’s all academic. The GRE question would go something like this:
If the subject is 31 years old and makes $12 per hour while working 30 hours a week in a bookstore with 1.5 degrees and 3.5 ex-serious boyfriends (none of whom are the father) and she still wears Doc Martins and never carries tissues in her purse, will she: a) make a crappy mother; b) get an abortion; c) feel soul-crushing regret no matter that she decides?
I invited Celia and Nate out to lunch to break the news. They both came from work dressed in suits while my thrift store sweater pilled. After our drinks arrived, I said, “I slept with Cody.”
“Like, sexually, you mean?” Celia said.
“No,” I said. “I’m making a production of us napping together.”
Nate sipped iced-tea through a straw. “You and Cody? Seriously?”
“Well, that’s . . . that’s kind of . . . .” Celia started laughing. And she kept laughing. So did Nate. In fact, they were whooping it up so big that they didn’t notice I wasn’t even cracking a smile. “God, that’s funny!”
“It is.” Celia grabbed Nate’s forearm. “I don’t know why.”
“Because it’s Cody!” Nate said, and they laughed some more.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, if you thought Act One was funny, wait until you hear Act Two.”
I thought I could hitch a ride on their laughter, but before any words came out of my mouth, tears came out of my eyes. I told Nate and Celia about the two tests. Celia held my hand and Nate gave me big brother eyes, like I’d just lost my ice-cream cone to the summer sidewalk.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Nate pulled a red Moleskine notepad from his breast pocket and plunked it on the table. He took out a pen and made a list of the reasons I shouldn’t keep the baby. It’s the same notebook where he jots down ideas about how to re-design the interiors people pay him to re-design. Sometimes it’s about changing the wall color to “Butter Up” or “Tiger Eye.” Sometimes he moves an entire staircase. His list for me said:
– tiny apartment
Celia picked up the notepad. “Sweetie, this isn’t exactly supportive.”
“I’m being pragmatic,” Nate said. “I don’t think she can get a Pell Grant for this.”
“Well, maybe this isn’t an entirely pragmatic decision,” Celia said. “Maybe it should be a little emotional.”
“My sister is knocked up with the love child of your ex-boyfriend,” Nate said. “This is the best I can muster.”
Nate and Celia’s reasons for not having kids included: expensive, noisy, stressful, messy, time-consuming. Celia admitted that anyone who stopped for one rational moment to consider the consequences of having kids wouldn’t do it, but people do it anyway, all the time. Biological drive usually trumps reason. But Celia figured she and Nate must be ruled by something else, some intangible intelligence which overrode their biological drive. When I tried to plug into my intangible intelligence, all I got back were pipes banging above my head. I was curled on the floor, wishing the EMTs would arrive.
I took the pen from Nate’s hand. I made my own list. It said:
– it’s not like I’m 16
– no other prospects on the horizon
– would it be so bad, really?
Cody’s studio is in the basement of an old church that’s no longer a church. Every time I step foot in it, I’m still surprised that a church can be anything other than a church. But I guess it’s still got to be something after all its believers go away. I walked into the studio without knocking, not that Cody could have heard my knocking if I did. He was welding a frame together. Not a picture frame, but a doorframe, as if he were building a house within a house. I stepped around the other side of the frame and waved my hands at him. He turned off the blowtorch.
“Is there any real reason I couldn’t have this baby?” I asked.
He hadn’t taken off his welding goggles. “No, not really.”
“Between the two of us and our friends and family, there’d be enough people to help us take care of it, right?”
“Probably.” He was still grasping the blowtorch.
I took a deep breath. “I want to keep the baby, Cody. Is that okay?”
“I told you I’d support you no matter what,” Cody said.
It sounded like a good answer, like the right answer, like the sort of answer that allowed us to move forward. But, I guess if I were really paying attention I might have wondered why he never took off his goggles. Why he kept grasping a blowtorch in the basement of a church where no one worshipped anymore.
INTERIOR: NATE AND CELIA’S DINING ROOM — TEN DAYS AGO
ME, CODY, NATE, AND CELIA. An adult dinner party. It’s important to have adult dinner parties, instead of hanging out at coffee shops like the cast of a sitcom. CODY arrives late, slow, muted. In the middle of dinner, he gets up for the bathroom. His legs come out from under him and he hits the floor. The dinner party turns to: panic.
EVERYONE: (shouting) Cody, are you okay?
CELIA: (slapping Cody’s cheek) Cody, wake up!
ME: (with unfamiliar shrillness) He only had two glasses of wine! That’s all!
NATE: Well, there may be one other thing.
(Celia and I look at him)
NATE: He borrowed some Valium from me yesterday. He said he’s been having panic attacks.
ME: How many pills?
NATE: Just two. That’s it.
CODY: (mumbling) Why am I on the floor?
CELIA: (standing) He’s just fucked up, that’s all.
ME (voice over) Ladies and gentlemen: the father of my child.
When Cody opened his scratched wood door the morning after our adult dinner party, he looked like how a five-year-old would draw a hangover—if five-year-olds drew hangovers: grey and fuzzy with bloodshot eyes.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
We sat on his couch, which was a futon folded up to look like a couch. At night he folded his futon down to look like a bed. Cody stared right at me for a good minute, as if I might not realize he was about to say something serious otherwise. “I still live like I’m in college,” he said. “I have no savings, and anytime I do have extra money, I spend it backpacking around Peru.”
There were sirens outside. Not the kind that lure men to the rocks. The kind that grow and fade, get sharper and louder, then dull and sad. Other sounds probably do that, too, maybe even girls on rocks, but in Physics’ 101 I learned about sirens on police cars and ambulances and fire trucks.
“Meg, you’re probably a lot better off not having a baby with me.”
“Oh my God.” I felt how a five-year-old would draw amazement: wide eyes, open mouth, eyebrows high. “You don’t even hear yourself, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re so freaked out that you had to drink yourself—” I pointed at him three or four times in a row, “—and drug yourself into a stupor last night, but you’re sitting there acting like this is all some . . . you know . . . favor you’re doing me.”
“I’m just kind of realizing that this isn’t exactly how I pictured my life going,” Cody said.
“Well, it wasn’t part of my master plan either.”
Say it. Say it, say it, say it, say it. The sirens outside wailed say it, say it, say it.
Then he said it. “I’m not sure I want to be a father.”
We said a lot of things, then. The word responsibility got bandied about. That word doesn’t stick, though. Not for very long. No sooner would it land on Cody than he’d throw it back. Then it would land on me, and I’d bat it away. Soon, the word got tired, and it fell into a heap on the floor.
“You know, it’s not like I don’t already feel like a total asshole about this,” Cody said.
“Am I supposed to feel bad that you feel bad?” I asked.
“Oh, for Christsake, Meg!” Cody sprang up from the futon-folded-into-a-couch. “Will you give me a fucking break!”
And there it was: We had turned into a bitter, disillusioned couple—without ever being a couple.
“Forget it, Cody,” I said. “I’ll take care of it. You know, every time I told someone you were the father, they laughed, and now I know why.” I heard how mean it was, but I couldn’t afford to take it back. “Pretending that things are different—that you’re different—simply because you want to be or because I want you to be won’t make it true. So this is me giving you the break you want. You’re off the hook.” I turned from him and headed for the door.
“That’s not what I want!” he said.
“Don’t.” I pointed back at him. “Don’t lie. It’ll just make us both hate you more.”
And then I did the drama thing: I slammed the door. I ran down the stairs of his building, and I slammed the door again. It hardly made a sound.
My car was cold, the glass fogged. I drove home with windows down. The sky was purple. Nate would call it aubergine. To Cody, it’s probably violet. It all means the same when painted on a winter sky: snow was on the way.
I called my brother from my apartment. “Cody’s bailing on me.”
“That fucking prick. Celia!” Nate yelled behind him, beside him, to another room. “That fucking prick is bailing on Meg!”
“I can’t raise a baby on my own,” I said, blowing my nose into Nate’s ear.
“Sweetie . . .” Nate’s voice faded off, as if it was looking for something. Or maybe it was just retrieving what was already there. “If you need help, Aunt Celia and Uncle Nate would love nothing more.”
“But you don’t want kids.”
“This isn’t the same,” he said.
Nate would be a great uncle, or a father, or some sort of male role model. He would paint the nursery Mango Orange and sit in a jacquard chair with the baby against his chest.
He whistled. “The storm’s really picking up.”
The sky outside my windows was littered with snow, like a tickertape parade for heroes returning home. “I know.”
INTERIOR: MY APARTMENT — LATER THAT NIGHT
I’m lying in bed, trying to read and trying to drink herbal tea. I hate herbal tea. Stuck to the ceiling above are fluorescent planets and stars left by a previous tenant. My hand is on my belly. My eyes are on my hand.
ME (speaking softly): Is there anyone in there?
MY BELLY: (no answer)
ME: Tell me what you want.
MY BELLY: I want some cookies.
ME: Who is that?
MY BELLY: You know.
ME: No. I don’t.
There was a knock on my door near ten o’clock. There was no one who could be knocking on my door near ten o’clock, not in that storm, not when cars couldn’t pass through the snow.
Cody stood there holding snowshoes in his hands, big unwieldy looking things that could also be squash racquets. Not that I’d ever met anyone who played squash, but if I had, their racquets would look like Cody’s snowshoes. Or maybe they were more like animal traps.
“I feel crappy about the way we left things,” he said.
I thought of telling him to go home. And he’d say, But it took me so long to get here in the snow, and then I’d say, Well, who asked you to come here in the snow, anyway? and then we’d bicker until I felt like I’d punished him enough, but it seemed like the sort of thing that only people in romantic comedies do. I realized that while I was thinking about what I should and shouldn’t do, Cody was standing in the hallway waiting for me to invite him in or tell him to go, and his having to wait was good enough for me.
“I guess you should come in,” I said.
He took off his coat and shook out his hat, scattering tickertape all over my floor. We sat on my couch, which is always just a couch, except for that night when Cody and I made it into something more.
“I can’t help that I’m scared shitless,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean I’m backing out on you.”
“I don’t want you to be there only because you want to be a Stand Up Guy,” I said. “I want you to be there because you want to, and you clearly don’t.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just . . . .” Cody closed his eyes and shook his head and looked at the floor. Then he turned his head and opened his eyes, and then he looked at me. “Aren’t you scared?”
I’d never stopped listening for sirens, not since the first moment I crawled down onto my bathroom floor. And, really, plenty of first responders had shown up since: Nate and Celia and even Cody. The problem was, they could only respond to the acute. I was in it for the long-term.
“Terrified,” I said.
“We won’t stop being scared once we’re actually parents.” It was the first time anyone said that word. They’d said mother a lot, and father and baby a lot, and even abortion, but never that word. Me and Cody. Together.
“Let’s just do the best we can,” he said. “And give each other a break.”
Cody put his hand over my stomach. It wasn’t much, my stomach, not much more than it was a couple of months ago. “Look what we did, Meggie.”
I put my hand over his. “I know.”
There was no couch and no rocking chair, no tuxedo or limo or French champagne, and certainly no dubious birth control. It was just soft and quiet and slow. We fell asleep tangled, with the tickertape of heroes forming a blanket on the ground.
The morning was bright: blue sky, yellow sun, snow white. But there was something else, something warm and sticky between my legs. It wasn’t until I pulled back the covers that I recognized it as blood.
He rolled over and mumbled. “What?”
“Cody!” I pointed to the red.
“Oh, shit!” He jumped out of bed. He said Oh, shit a few more times and turned circles like a dog getting ready to lie down. Then he pulled on his jeans and a t-shirt, and went to the bathroom. He came back with a warm wash cloth. He cleaned the blood off my thighs, swift and smooth and not weird like it should have been. He handed me sweatpants and a sweater. “I’ll go start the car,” he said, and took my keys downstairs.
I put on the sweatpants and sweater and socks and shoes. Then I got on my knees at the side of my bed. I looked at the sticky red spot. It wasn’t thick and it wasn’t thin. I didn’t know what it was.
“Hello?” I whispered. “Is anyone in there?”
Cody came back upstairs with my keys in his hand. “Your car won’t start.”
This is not a story where Cody put on his snowshoes and carried me to the hospital, leaving a trail of bright blood on top of pure white snow. He went next door and borrowed my neighbor’s SUV. Cody kept his eyes on the road, his hands at ten and two. No radio.
INTERIOR: A HOSPITAL ROOM — ONE WEEK AGO
ME on an exam table. CODY holding my hand. Some female DOCTOR and an ULTRASOUND TECH huddled between my legs. This is not the ultrasound on TV, against a woman’s full stomach with cold gooey gel. This one is inside of me, probing. Is anyone in there?
SOME DOCTOR: Meg, I’m afraid the fetus isn’t viable.
ME: I don’t know what that means.
SOME DOCTOR: It’s means we’ll have to perform a D&C.
CODY’S EYES: Everything will be okay.
MY EYES: Are you sure?
CODY’S EYES: (very clear) I promise.
It’s been a week since the scene in the hospital. Now there’s hardly any snow on the ground, just on the north lawns of buildings and in the shade of giant pine trees. Cody called every day since that day in the hospital, but I was never home. I was shelving books or napping at Nate and Celia’s or imagining scenarios for Act Out! by myself. Each time Cody called, he talked to my voicemail. “I just want you to know I’m thinking about you. Maybe we can see each other this weekend. Take a walk and talk.” He probably didn’t mean to rhyme. So, we went for a walk and we talked, and . . . .
We were sitting on the concrete slab, looking at the mountains covered in ponchos of snow. We’d been talking about normal things, about books and his upcoming show and how I was doing, which was fine. Then Cody said, “Meg, I think I’m falling in love with you.”
The breeze stopped blowing and the trees stopped rustling and the geese stopped honking and the pain and the loss and confusion and fear—it all sat on pause. For the last two months I’d been wandering through an overly scripted scene that I didn’t even write. But on this sunny winter day I knew one thing for sure: that when Cody said he was falling in love with me, he wasn’t being the man who he thought he should be or the man he wished he wasn’t. He was just being true. Maybe I could just toss away the script, maybe I could be true, too.
I looked at him squinting into the afternoon sun. I squeezed his hand tightly. “I think I’m in love with you, too.”
It was such a stupid thing to say. Or, at least, saying it made me feel stupid. Not right away, because right away I felt like I wanted to ride in a hot air balloon and eat fresh strawberries and hike to Machu Picchu and recite Shakespeare and sit in a bubble bath and do the Macarena and have a hundred babies with Cody. He brought my hand to his mouth and kissed the place where our thumbs folded over each other. His lips were cold and chapped. Then he said he didn’t have time for a relationship. He didn’t have time for me.
The molto grande latte I drank earlier keeps my legs tossing and my torso turning long after I’ve shut off the light. Above me the haphazard solar system glows fluorescent green. Somewhere beneath me is the blood. It settled there while I was in the hospital, burrowing through my sheets and into the mattress until there was nowhere left for it to go. Sheets can be washed three times and then thrown away. But mattresses, they just get sponge-cleaned and flipped by Celia and Nate.
Cody calls sometime after midnight. “Did I wake you?”
“It’s after midnight,” I say.
“I was an idiot earlier.”
“I don’t want to wait a month,” he says. “I’m just afraid I’ll fuck things up.”
“You might fuck things up,” I say.
“All that stuff about me being insanely busy, that’s all true. I mean, that’s why I’m calling you at midnight—”
“Because I just got free. Can you put up with all that for a few more weeks?”
“I’ve put up with worse,” I say, which is true.
“Then let’s have noodles,” he says. “Tomorrow night. Can you meet me at my studio around nine? I’ll order Thai.”
“Sure,” I say. “Noodles at nine.”
I hang up the phone. Noodles at a church where people no longer worship, but maybe they still say prayers. I put my hand over my stomach. It’s not much, my stomach, nothing more than it was two months ago. My hand is warm, or maybe it’s my belly, or maybe they create heat together. I fall asleep slowly, while sirens sing on the street below.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Liz Prato is the author of VOLCANOES, PALM TREES, AND PRIVILEGE: ESSAYS ON HAWAI’I (Overcup Press, 2019), and BABY’S ON FIRE (Press 53, 2015). Her stories and essays have appeared in dozens of literary journals and magazines, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Carolina Quarterly, Baltimore Review, The Rumpus, Salon, and ZYZZYVA.