In the middle of a mandatory office meeting about proposal distribution, the girlfriend excused herself and took the stairs to the second floor bathroom, where space belonged to her: all these cubes she could enter, doors she could latch. Here, she could carefully read the directions and administer the test. She could sit on the toilet watching the white stick’s cloudy window without the boyfriend asking, asking, asking. What’s that? What’s wrong? Are you…? Are you?
At home, the boyfriend was everywhere. He occupied the bathroom with her: flossed while she showered, shaved while she peed – because, he once told her, the windowless, linoleum-floored room, with the ceiling fan cranking and the curling water streaks and the clumps of hair in the corners, was the loneliest room in the apartment.
The girlfriend went into a bathroom stall and took the pregnancy test. She waited. The bathroom door opened and a pair of red Mary Janes paused in front of her stall.
“Do you mind if I get on the phone?” the shoes asked.
“I guess not,” said the girlfriend.
The shoes walked away, and then shortly: “I meant to wake you. I want you to be a thick-tongued idiot when I tell you if I’m driving and I see you in the street, I’ll smash you into a fire hydrant.”
The girl in the red shoes laughed.
The girlfriend was pregnant. Two pink lines made their way to the stick’s surface. She stuffed the test into the trash receptacle.
When the girlfriend exited the stall, the red-shoed girl stood stooped with her elbows on one of the sinks, looking into the mirror. “He’s a puddle I keep slipping into,” she told the girlfriend.
The girlfriend nodded. There were a lot of puddles. Big ones were easy to avoid, but small ones seemed a moderate challenge. People walked right into them.
Already, the girlfriend’s senses seemed heightened to damage. She avoided coffee in the morning, tuna at lunch. Hot tubs could injure the embryo; strenuous exercise and soft cheese, too: she recalled these things she’d read or heard or imagined. She moved slowly around the cold apartment, crossed the icy drive with her puffy-mittened hands in front of her like she wanted the whole world to pause. Wait. Hold it. She inched forward.
On their food-stained loveseat, the girlfriend sat down with the boyfriend. The boyfriend pressed his lips together. She knew he had his suspicions. They’d been reckless with protection: a test-tube experiment. Maybe, maybe, maybe. They were, after all, in their late twenties with no reason to move further down the path of Standard Expectations. But the path was there: in the increased telephoned pleadings from parents, in the pictures of wedding-cake smiles and babies-in-beanies their co-workers posted in the office. The girlfriend and boyfriend hovered before the paved path shaded by thick-trunked trees, lined with trim grass and manicured mansions, where miniature houses played mailboxes and animals played lawn ornaments and people played happiness.
She told the boyfriend, “Don’t be angry or nervous or excited.” She suspected all such reactions were momentary and dishonest, learned responses to what had happened to millions before.
“There will soon be a reason,” she said, “to go down the toy aisle at the supermarket.”
The boyfriend nodded. “That is not an inconvenient aisle.”
They shifted so slightly their ankles touched.
The boyfriend asked, “Will you marry me? Should we buy a house?”
The girlfriend shook her head. She did not like being referred to as “the girlfriend.” She knew the boyfriend found this amusing, but was also hurt by it; and it was for both reasons he called her the girlfriend all the time. Meet my girlfriend. My girlfriend likes boiled chicken. My girlfriend’s feet are always cold. He forgot her real name.
But the fiancée would be worse; the wife: the worst. They had crossed over the threshold and could run down the path if they wanted. The girlfriend felt like hobbling around the entrance for awhile.
When the girlfriend got pregnant, the boyfriend watched family sitcoms with a notepad before him, sniggering and jotting things down like father: clumsy (trips over tricycle—should look at the ground), mother: stupid (bright-eyed—need clothesline, oven mitt).
The laugh tracks bothered the girlfriend. Sometimes she came into the living room just so she could boo when the laughter started. She was sick of everything. She threw up all the time.
The boyfriend frowned at her. “You’re ruining it.”
“That’s not a family,” the girlfriend said. She pointed at the black and white figures. She stood in front of the television and smiled broadly, lifted her eyebrows, then pretended she was laying fish forks at a table.
The girlfriend wore an apron and high heels. The girlfriend applied makeup for only her husband and children to see. She was beautiful.
“I watch modern ones, too,” the boyfriend said. “I want a comprehensive sample.”
The girlfriend stood stiffly in front of the television. “Maybe we can raise the kid like this. In thirty minute segments, where we stop his accidental involvement in a cock-fighting ring with a friendly parent to parent chat. We buy him a new hat in the last four minutes, and the kid smiles. We send him off ‘til tomorrow.”
“I’ve nowhere else to look,” he said. The boyfriend came from a broken home. His parents had been alcoholics who slept in different rooms with different people, but they all lived in the same house with large rocks instead of couches and a fire pit in the kitchen and kids playing kick-the-can in their underwear in the street. Now his parents were recovered. They lived and slept together and only tentatively left home to go to work or visit their grown kids, who they encouraged gently to show them how wonderful family life could be.
On the screen, a mother smiled over a tennis shoe, her delicate hands crafting a double knot with floppy loops. “Now be home before dark,” the screen said.
“There’s got to be a middle ground,” the girlfriend said, “between this kind of happiness and that kind of suffering.”
“You don’t realize there’s a lot of scenarios.” The boyfriend looked at the screen and wrote something down.
The girlfriend left the room. “Just mute the volume,” she called. “I don’t need to hear how hilarious my life’s about to be.”
Her parents said: “Take vitamins every day and don’t stuff yourself like a pig. The more cereal you eat the more likely you’ll have a boy.”
The parents clipped out pertinent articles about baby hangnails and diaper bags bursting, sent them to the girlfriend in an envelope with money stuffed in: a crumpled five, a few ones. They called her together, the father upstairs on the green rotary, the mother cordless in the basement, her feet propped on collected Better Lives and Gardens.
“I’ll still be a dad,” the father said. “But I like the addition of grand to the title.”
“Will the baby sleep in a closet?” the mother asked. “Or the kitchen?”
The apartment the girlfriend and boyfriend shared was very small. The carpet flapped up in corners; they strung sheets over doorways in place of doors. There were cracks in the ceiling that sometimes centipedes and furry spiders crept through.
“This is where we live,” the girlfriend said.
Her parents said: “It’s time you became owners instead of renters.”
“Does the boyfriend have a fear of commitment?” the mother asked.
“I told you he was a street-jumper,” the father said.
“He’s educated,” the mother said.
“You can be more than one thing,” the father said.
The parents said: “That boy’s the father. You can’t unmake him that.”
While the boyfriend watched sitcoms in the evening, the girlfriend sat on their small slab of a porch. She entertained the image of a frazzled single-mother pushing a stroller down an icy street, with plastic grocery bags hanging from the stroller’s handles, the mother’s frame obscured by a fat purple coat and huge boots and shoulder-slung duffels. This seemed a heroic image. “Single mother,” she whispered to the frosty wind, and although muffled by the scarf wrapped tight across her cheeks and mouth, she liked the way it sounded.
Through the thin wall, she heard the boyfriend laugh. He had discovered closed-captioning; he no longer took notes. He recounted whole shows to her; and when she told him to stop, he developed this pleased, distant look, and she knew he was just recounting the episodes in his head.
“They feel like my friends,” he told the girlfriend later, in bed. He yawned happily and placed his head in her lap; and she stroked his long black hair and didn’t let a single strand fall forward to tickle his face while he slept.
The baby grew. When the girlfriend started showing, she wore big jackets to the office and hunched over hoping no one would bump into her. She was quiet at work, a non-nuisance. Professionally-dressed, hair-bunned, high-heeled: a respectable administrator of other people’s problems.
“Just tell me what to do and I’ll put it on your desk.”
She wanted to have the child, wanted to raise the child to be exactly like her, like all those fervent religious people got to do, except she would use logic instead of faith. Don’t you see, child? Doesn’t that make sense? Isn’t this the way it should be?
She wanted to hold that happiness inside, huddle around it like a big fiery secret shared only by her and the child. But there was all this interference.
The baby grew, and when the girlfriend could no longer hide it, her co-workers smiled knowingly and told her dirt-eating, crib-buying, tears-of-joy stories. She nodded politely. Was she excited? Yes, she was exhausted.
All these appointments to keep, various tests and measurements, fingers pricked by women in clown-patterned scrubs, doctors with chalky fingers and smug smiles. It was convenient to attend with the boyfriend. He talked to the doctor. Held the girlfriend’s hand. Suppressed his smiles when she asked him to. “What do you want?” he asked.
He carried all bags and duffels. They bought a stroller, and on the test-run around the block, the boyfriend pushed it down the icy street with the girlfriend unfettered beside him. She bent over the stroller where the baby would be and made cooing noises. She made up a song about how going over the curb was fun. Bump bump up.
The baby grew, the baby grew. The living room filled with laughter.
Then it was spring. There once was a path called Standard Expectations, and this path was paved and kept clean and every week a maintenance crew came and groomed the grass and trimmed the big shaded trees making passage as easy as possible. Here is the path, the path said. Don’t you want me?
Then it was spring, and the boyfriend wanted to get married. “Based on my studies,” he said. “As parents, husbands and wives fare better than girlfriends and boyfriends.” He quoted several TV shows. He quoted the girlfriend’s parents. He quoted the makers of the path. “Besides,” he said. “It’s a nice picture.”
He flipped the channel and showed her clean individuals in clean living rooms and kitchens and backyards, and they were smiling and laughing and even fighting: but that was a part of it, the boyfriend told her. “You throw manila folders and wind-up clocks at each other, and then you go to the bar or your neighbor’s fence or brood awhile on the park swing-set, and you come back misty-eyed with your palms turned up.” He showed her. “Isn’t that nice?”
The boyfriend’s parents called. The girlfriend excused herself to the small porch, where the purple-leafed bushes needed a trim and the Morning Glory the boyfriend had planted crept closer and closer to the door.
The air had turned thick and muggy; mosquitoes hovered and darted around her bare limbs. She heard the boyfriend’s aggravated voice through the wall. He blamed his life on his parents. Stories tied to every flaw, every mistake. This is why the boyfriend refused to accompany her to the roller rink. This is why when he searched the closet for the garden spade and discovered one of her roller blades, he held it in his lap crying. This is why, when particularly upset, the boyfriend shut his eyes and whispered: “I wish I was never born.”
The boyfriend’s parents wanted to speak to the girlfriend. The girlfriend took the phone and inquired about their jobs in children’s vitamin production and asked if they still liked the new stove they’d bought to replace the fire pit. They had become good nervous people who wanted to know if they were doing right in the world. “Every day is hard,” they said. “Sometimes we wish for a second chance.”
They said: “We would be honored if you took our name in marriage.”
In the middle of a mandatory office meeting about proposal distribution, the girlfriend went to the second floor bathroom and sat on the toilet in the same stall she’d taken the pregnancy test eight months before. Alone with the stale soap smell, the girlfriend whispered all titles available to her. Single mother. Pregnant bride. Gun-toting madwoman. She worried over connotations, paths lined with pansies and dogs that wagged their tails from a distance and never jumped or barked too loud.
The girl in the red Mary Janes came in and asked if she could get on the phone. The girlfriend said fine. She was accustomed to interference. She was ready to hand her life to whoever wanted to take it. If you get bored, pass it on. Just tell me what to do. She served food at a table. She tied shoes. She smiled.
The girl in red Mary Janes pronounced her vowels with a strain to them, like they were tightrope-walking a very straight line.
“No,” the girl said. “Not until you screw me one more time.”
“No,” the girl said. “There will never be a last time.”
The girl laughed and made plans to meet in the alley behind the office. And the girlfriend wished she was the girl in red shoes. The girlfriend wanted to lie on the gravelly road and fuck some monster, the baby sandwiched between them, jostled, maybe, yet still alive.
When she came out of the stall, the girl in red Mary Janes watched her in the mirror. She looked at the girlfriend’s stomach.
“Is the boyfriend in the picture?” the girl asked.
The girlfriend nodded. He was in the picture. They had become the picture. Two parents put their hands on kids’ shoulders. Mail slid into miniature houses and then into large ones. Birds flapped around birdfeeders and ants turned away at the door. Home smelled of laundered clothes and gas from the grill on the porch. The sun was so bright the sky filled with over-exposure, wilted the corners to orange, to red, to black.
Jessica Hollander is in the MFA program at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alice Blue, Gargoyle, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Quarterly West, and Sonora Review, among others. You can visit her at jessicahollanderwriter.com.