After Calexico

Issue 52 by Carrie Lynn Hatland

After Calexico

The nurse places the silicone face mask over my nose and mouth before aiming the light at my belly. The doctor is behind me, out of sight, washing his hands. Water hits the sink with deep hollow thuds and spatters. I imagine the sounds are my bare feet slapping on the floor as I jump off the table and flee down the hall. The thuds are my IV machine banging off the walls. He shuts off the water and comes to my side to check my pulse.

He studies the monitors. Two days ago, during an ultrasound, he’d turned to me and explained he couldn’t find a heartbeat. I’d made him try again. I could see her tiny, upturned nose on the screen.

Now, he explains he’s going to administer the anesthetic and instructs me to count backwards from ten.

Ten.

At four months, people noticed my rounded belly and congratulated me.

Nine.

The baby is my only blood relative.

Eight.

Why didn’t David help more? If he’d done all the heavy lifting, maybe she’d be alive.

Seven.

David’s gone. He doesn’t want to try again.

Six.

Do I love him?

Five.

Last night, I found his slippers under the bed, his footprints pressed into the soles, and I didn’t feel anything.

Four.

I keep thinking about that little nose. Would she have had my freckles?

Three.

This is bullshit.

Two.

She’s gone, and now I’m the only—

One.

****

Later that evening, it hurts to bend as I take off my boots. Only the fish greets me. He swims to the glass and darts back and forth. There used to be four fish in the aquarium. He’s outlived them all.

I wonder what David is doing. I check my phone. He hasn’t called or texted. I could call his parents’. If he didn’t go there, he probably went to Jay’s house. Jay has a man cave in his garage that’s filled on Friday evenings with people, music, and smoked meats. If David went there, I hope a tree falls on his head. Once, we were in the bush looking for the perfect Christmas tree. He was getting mad at me for being too picky. We’d walked for miles and even I was starting to get upset. Out of nowhere, a giant black poplar crashed to the ground near us, brought down by the weight of the snow. So, it could happen. Trees can fall on people’s heads.

I shuffle to the aquarium and feed the fish. How much is a widow’s pension? Would it be enough so I could afford this house on my own? The water gushing from the filter makes me feel like urinating.

****

I’m seven years old, standing in a row of girls, all of us in brown dresses. My sash is almost full of badges, sewn on in straight rows, with tiny, evenly spaced stitches. Each one is for community involvement and acts of kindness.

All the other kids look like their parents. I’m the only one who doesn’t. My mom grew me in her heart, not her belly. She says it’s no different, but from where I stand, reciting the Brownie’s pledge, I can play a matching game with the kids and the other parents in the bleachers. Jane has black shining hair like her mom. They speak a secret language to each other that nobody else understands. Taiya has kinky black hair like her dad. Abby and her mom have long blonde ponytails and pointy cheekbones. My mom has long, brown hair, like a gypsy princess, and my dad had bushy brown hair and a beard. He died when I was little: the only thing I remember is he always smelled like soil from his greenhouse, even in the winter.

My hair is red, and I’m covered in freckles. My mom says that’s because I’m special, a gift given to her by the universe. I like that idea, but if I’m that special, why didn’t my birth mother want me?

It might be because I’m dumb. I can never remember this stupid pledge, no matter how many times my mom and I practice it. I move my lips and pretend to say the right words, hoping nobody notices.

I have to pee. I shift from foot to foot, trying to hold it in. I consider raising my hand or leaving the lineup but don’t want to interrupt the pledge. I really have to pee. I squeeze my eyes shut and bounce on my heels. I can’t hold it.

Warmth runs down my thighs, and I feel myself turn hot. I don’t want to open my eyes. I press my toes into the squishy wetness in my runners. Maybe if I keep my eyes closed, nobody will notice I’ve disappeared, and they’ll carry on without me.

I hear footsteps and my mom is there. She wraps her sweater around my waist and whisks me out of the building, my eyes still closed. I bury my nose in her neck and smell her body wash. That’s what it smells like to be grown in someone’s heart, like lavender.

****

A few days after the D&C, I’m lying on the couch, cocooned in blankets on the couch. My hair is greasy, my skin oily from eating potato chips and soft drinks. Empty cans are lined up in rows on the coffee table, evenly spaced, all the labels facing the same direction.

“You have to leave the house.” My mom sweeps the drapes open.

“No. I don’t.”

“Have you spoken to work?”

“I’m on leave.” My supervisor said to take as long as I need.

“You want tea?” She disappears into the kitchen as if tea will fix everything. To her, I’ll always be seven years old with messy pigtails and urine in my shoes. Cupboard doors clunk as she rummages for the teapot. I know she’s found it when I hear the tap.

The fish is nosing the blue rocks at the bottom of his aquarium. Other than the rocks, the aquarium is empty. He eats live plants and pulls at plastic ones until they float to the top. There used to be a statue of a Buddha for him to hide behind, but David took it when he left. At least he left the bonsai.

It’s sitting on the stand beside the aquarium, a miniature Chinese Elm from our first anniversary. In the space between the soil and the canopy of tiny leaves, my wishes reveal themselves. Today, I imagine my daughter, six or seven years old. Her eyelashes are copper, and she has my freckles. I add a tire swing to a low hanging branch for her to swing on. I imagine myself standing there, pushing her. For one small moment, I feel the joy of that experience. That’s the power of the bonsai.

****

I wake up on the couch. The aquarium is the only source of light. The fish gulps bubbles from the aerator, darting to catch them before they reach the surface.

David bought the fish on a road trip to Calexico, three years ago. We’d set out to find my birth mother, filled with questions. What did she look like? Was she who I’d gotten my learning disability from?

As we travelled south, we stopped at gas stations to change. First, the parkas went in the trunk and were replaced with hoodies. Next, came t-shirts, and finally tank tops and shorts. It was a shedding of sorts.

Calexico was covered in a thick brown haze, simmering under a scorching sun, neither knowing nor caring whether it belonged to California or Mexico. It was a place where you could eat hotdogs or chapulines and where Spanish rolled off everyone’s tongues. It introduced new questions. Why did my mother live here? What did she do for a living?

David disappeared into a store while I waited in line at a street vendor for our lunch. He emerged a few minutes later with a feeder goldfish in a clear plastic bag. He put the bag in my hands. It’s a gift for your birth mom. It hit me as funny. A goldfish was an odd gift for a woman I’d never met, but why not? We hung the bag from the rear-view mirror and ate our hot dogs on the way to the public records office.

I’d imagined finding my birth mom my entire life. In my head it had played out like one of those specialty shows where everyone is crying tears of joy at being reunited. In reality, I ended up standing in front of a gravestone in Mountain View Cemetery. Margaret McKenna Byrne had died when I was four years old. There was no next of kin on her death certificate.

I’d considered leaving the fish on the headstone, in his bag, but David said that was cruel. We hung him back up on the rear-view mirror, where he watched us add layers of clothing at every gas stop on our way north. When we got home, David poured him into the aquarium with our other fish.

The fish saw it all: tears over negative pregnancy tests, infertility specialists, scheduled sex during ovulation, mood swings from fertility drugs. The other fish had died one by one, maybe because of my neglect. The tank didn’t get cleaned very often and they didn’t get fed enough.

I look at my sole surviving fish. He’s still gulping bubbles.

****

I’m eight or nine years old, sitting on my mom’s lap in a rocking chair in my bedroom. We’re looking at my baby book. I always find the first few pages disturbing. They’re blank. My entire existence before my first birthday is a complete mystery: there are no pictures, no dates for milestones, no tiny handprints stamped into the waiting squares.

The first picture is the moment they put me in my adopted mother’s arms. I was looking up at my new mom like I’m about to cry, a pale little person with a mess of red curls and freckles so thick you couldn’t put your finger between them in most places. Whoever had chosen my outfit hadn’t known yellow clashes with my skin. My new mom was smiling down at me as if it didn’t matter how blotchy I looked. I stare at the picture, looking for freckles on her olive skin, but no matter how hard I’ve ever searched, there’s never been any, except for the time she drew them on her nose with eyeliner.

We rock and rock, looking at the rest of the pictures, but I keep turning back to the empty pages.

“When you’re old enough, I’ll give you your birth mother’s name and you can go find her,” she says.

“Will she think I’m pretty?”

“How could she not?”

“Do you think she’ll like me?”

“You’re the most likeable person I know.”

“Then why did she give me away?”

There’s no answer, just the rocking of the chair.

****

About six months after the miscarriage, I bring the bonsai to my mom’s and put it on a shelf above her television. It doesn’t hold the same power for me anymore. The space under the leaves is always empty. It’s just a miniature tree. My mom immediately gets a water bottle and sprays the minuscule branches. As she croons and picks off dead leaves, I notice how grey her hair is and how rounded and shrunken her shoulders have become.

“Do you have time for lunch?” I ask her.

She looks up at me, surprised. “Sure. I’ll make sandwiches?”

“Poached eggs.” I know they’re her favourite. “Do you have wine chilled?”

“There’s a bottle in the fridge. What’s the occasion?”

I smile. “The house sold.”

We smile at one another, neither of us sure what the mood should be. I go into the kitchen, get the Prosecco from the fridge, and pop the cork. My mom gets the eggs. I put a pot into her waiting hand. We anticipate each other’s moves as two people who’ve cooked together all their lives.

“What are you going to do now?” she asks.

“Get an apartment.” I shrug.

“Have you talked to David?”

“The lawyers take care of everything.” It’s been months. I don’t look at my phone to check for texts anymore. I walk at different parks, and my grocery list has changed. I buy the perfumed laundry detergent that gave him rashes. I watch different series on Netflix and cancelled TSN.

“How did you and Dad meet?” I ask, partly to change the subject and partly because it feels like I should have asked at some point before now.

“At a friend’s wedding,” she said. “He was the best man and had to make a speech.” She adds salt to the pot of water. “He was funny.”

There are so many questions I’ve never asked. Why did her parents immigrate here? Why couldn’t she have kids of her own? What did it feel like when my dad died? “How come you never remarried?” is the one I settle on.

She’s quiet for a moment. “I almost did,” she finally says. “A man I dated about two years after your father died.”

I’m shocked. “I don’t remember that.”

“You were young.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“He wanted me to travel all the time.” She breaks an egg into the boiling water. “I couldn’t leave you.”

“I was the reason?”

“No. He was the reason,” she says. “I got over him quick enough. There were other men through the years.”

I turn to face her.

She picks up the tea towel and whips the tip of it at my thigh. “You don’t think I’m some sort of martyr, do you?” She laughs. “I have a tonne of regrets. You’ve never been one of them.”

****

The apartment I move into is above a music store. The lady who owns it gives lessons during the day. In the afternoons, the blare of a trumpet or the squawking of a violin issues up through my floor. The couple on my left sometimes yell profanities at one another. When I see them in the hall, they smile and nod as if we’re strangers, but I know he has a gambling problem, and her mother hasn’t approved of him since the family reunion when he got drunk and puked on the geraniums. After every fight, their bed squeaks and hits the wall in the middle of the night.

The old man in the apartment to my right has a long white beard and wears flowing pants and shirts with wide sleeves. In the winter months, he walks back and forth in the hall. I watch him through my peephole. First, one way, then all the way back to the other exit door. I’ve tried counting how many lengths he does but always get sidetracked before he’s done. The couple on my left complain that his food makes the whole building stink. You can smell it in the stairwell as soon as you enter the hall. I wish he would invite me to dinner.

****

I register for a class at the local college to see if I can do it. I buy the fish a bigger tank. The couple on my left move out, and Mia moves in. Mia is a university student, five years younger than me. Now, the stairwell smells of pot. I often hear high-pitched giggles and muffled voices through the walls. I watch men leave through my peephole. She definitely has a type: they all have broad shoulders and boast full sleeves of tattoos. I wonder what it would be like to be one of those girls, to smoke pot and have sex and never see the guy again.

One day, Mia is sprawled on the steps by the front door when I get back from class. For the first time, she looks directly at me, not through me. She holds out her joint with a raised eyebrow. I haven’t smoked pot since high school, but I take a hoot. Immediately, I start coughing.

In her apartment there’s a big double bed instead of a couch and piles of philosophy books instead of end tables. Guitars lean against the wall. Their curves are sensual and shining in the dim light. The sink is filled with dirty dishes that smell like sour milk. I do what anyone would do in that situation. I wash them.

****

“Why do you never sleep with the same man twice?” I ask her. We’re lying sideways across her bed.

“People aren’t meant to be monogamous.”

“Is that something from your philosophy textbooks?”

“Tell me one relationship that lasts.”

“When you meet the right guy, you’ll see. You’ll fall in love.” My tone suggests I know something she doesn’t.

She hangs her head over the side of the mattress, so her hair hangs down. “Maybe for a minute,” she says. “You need to get your numbers up.”

“You mean sexually?”

“How do you know what you want if you’ve never tried anything? There are other ways to live, you know.”

I think about it. She may have a point, but I don’t have any urge to be with anyone. Everything still feels so fresh, even though months have passed. Time feels suspended. I like what she says about trying new things though. There are so many things I’ve never done.

I worry sometimes that time slipping away means I’ll no longer have the option of calling David back. He’ll move on and all our choices since the miscarriage will be irreversible. I can’t seem to let go completely, but I have no urge to go back either. He’s just always in the back of my mind, an option I’m not ready to think about. I slip my head off the mattress and hang beside Mia. From this perspective, she and I are right side up, and it’s the world that’s upside down.

****

Over the winter, Mia helps me study and I get a B in my class so register for another. I don’t know what I want to be, but I like it that way. For now, I’m a student and that’s enough. It’s not something I’d ever imagined for myself, and I like the freedom of discovering what I like.

We go to a different restaurant every week. We eat sushi, chicken inasal, pancit, or lamb eaten with torn pieces of injera. We try to cook spring rolls, pork dumplings, and vermicelli in my tiny kitchenette. We go to blues and reggae bars, attend theatre and the opera. I drag her to second-hand stores and flea markets, and in the spring, she talks me into going to the snake pits at Narcisse and into hiking the Mantario trail. It involves backpacks, a tent, and bear spray.

We’re in the tent, huddled in our sleeping bags. I’m listening for cracking branches outside.

“You never mention your ex,” she says.

“What should I say about him?”

“Was he a dick?”

I laugh. “Not as big as you.”

“I’m serious.”

“No. He wasn’t a dick.”

“Do you still love him?”

I frown into the darkness. “Does it matter?”

“You tell me.”

“I don’t know what I feel,” I say. “The pain is fading.”

“Do you want to get back with him?” she asks.

I sit up. “Is that a bear? Did you hear that?”

“Oh, settle down. Answer the question.”

“I don’t know.”

****

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that I run into David. It happens at the Human Rights Museum, a giant building made of glass and stone. Years ago, when the contemporary design was unveiled, so different from the square buildings in the rest of downtown, I’d thought it a monstrosity. Now, I’m not so sure. I like the open space and sunshine and lack of normal walls and ceilings.

The exhibits are packed with high school students, who gather in clusters. I study a hand-painted drum, waiting for a quiet moment between groups. Through the crowd, I see him.

For some reason, I think of the fish. It’s the size of my fist now and eats spinach and kale, bits of banana and apple, shelled peas, and ghost shrimp. While I study, he follows my finger along the glass, back and forth, up and down. I consider calling out to David, to tell him the fish is still alive. I want to tell him being alone made the fish stronger, that being alone made the fish grow. I want to tell him—

I think of the house and the renovations we did. The trips we’d been on, and how I’d always stuck my cold toes under his thigh while we watched movies. He doesn’t know about my new favourite Thai restaurant or the live bands that play in the basement of the Toad on Friday nights. He doesn’t know my mom and I buried the empty pages of my baby book under a white spruce tree or that I had flowers delivered to my birth mother’s grave in Calexico. He doesn’t know that I add sriracha sauce to scrambled eggs or that there are chickadees that eat seed from the palm of my hand at Bird’s Hill Park.

I lose the urge to call his name and absorb the sight of him one last time. He looks good. I hope he’s happy, but it’s not for me to know.

About the Author

Carrie Lynn Hatland

Carrie Lynn Hatland is currently studying creative writing at the University of Winnipeg and has taken long distance writing courses through Stanford University. She has attended the Yale Writer’s Workshop and multiple Writer’s Digest conferences in New York. Her professional background lies in psychology and counselling, which shows in the themes of her writing as she explores real-life situations and relationships.