Sara Schaff received her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Inkwell and Fiction Writers Review.
People say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die, but it also happens when you find out you’re pregnant. And unemployed. Yesterday I got news of one life-changing event right after news of the other. First, Bethany fired me between Mrs. Temple’s mani-pedi and lip wax. Five minutes later I was in the Nifty Nails bathroom, staring at a little plus sign and feeling sick about everything.
Bethany said that due to the recent downturn they had to cut back, and even though I did the prettiest acrylic nails of all the girls, I still made clients nervous. “Instead of just scrubbing their bunions,” she said, “you make them feel ashamed.” It’s true I sometimes point out when a woman has let her feet go, but I explained it’s for her own benefit, and the benefit of our business, to encourage them to return regularly. Bethany looked at me sternly. “Mrs. Temple’s an old lady. She doesn’t need to hear that she can’t pull off a pair of strappy sandals.”
It wasn’t my first warning, and I was more concerned at the moment about my missing periods, so I didn’t argue. Instead I decided to do the drugstore pregnancy test before I returned home jobless. I couldn’t imagine finding out a positive result while staring at Bill’s gray briefs, which he hangs to dry on the towel rack in front of the toilet. “Hand washing and drying extends the life of undergarments,” he says, and for some reason that’s important.
With all the aromatherapy candles and soft lighting, the bathroom at Nifty Nails is designed to make bad things look better. Well, I sat on the heated toilet-seat, wondering how to tell Bill the day’s news. And it turns out the future doesn’t look any better with mood lighting.
Someone rapped on the door “Liz, honey?” It was Bethany. “Can you come out here and do Mrs. Temple’s wax?”
“I thought I was fired?”
“Yup, right after the lip wax.”
I tried to think of a snappy response, but nothing came. “Be right there!” I chirped.
For the last time, I flushed that spotless toilet. Then I removed Mrs. Temple’s unwanted mustache without looking her in the eye. Leaving Nifty Nails with my nail kit under my arm, I walked quickly, as if I had somewhere better to go.
. . .
Bill’s reaction this morning surprised me. “Let’s celebrate,” he said. “We’ll go on a picnic.”
“You’re happy?” I asked.
“Why, aren’t you?” He started dancing me around the kitchen. “Now you can stay at home and get in Mommy mode.”
I’m not sure that’s something to celebrate. But here we are at the park where we had our first date. We were sixteen then. A wave of nausea hits me as we head toward the lake. I’m carrying the plastic lawn chairs while he drags the cooler in the Red Flyer wagon and yammers about our future tyke. He’s already decided on a name, a face, and a responsibility on future family picnics: Mark Joseph after Bill’s father. Freckles and green eyes like me. Sandwich-maker and wagon-puller. “Because everyone needs a job,” Bill says. He glances over his shoulder apologetically. “Nothing personal,” he says. “Some of my best friends are unemployed.”
We don’t even know the sex of this thing! I don’t want to know.
My head has grown a layer of mold. The water looks so far away. The beer cans tap against each other and the ice in the cooler, and the wagon wheels rattle along the ground. I rarely notice such unimportant sounds, but now every little thing is magnified. I try focusing on the sounds and not on my discomfort.
Bill stops walking. “You look like a nagging hangover, Lizzie.”
I stare at his paunch. His beer gut is so rounded and taut that he looks like a woman starting her third trimester.
“Fat around the middle,” I sing-song, “is a recipe for heart disease.”
“Nice, Lizzie. That’s real nice.” He strides away, muttering to himself and perhaps to his vision of our future child, unwilling puller of wagons.
We find a shady place under a willow tree. I slump into my lawn chair, hoping I won’t puke in front of all the other picnickers. From behind his aviator glasses, Bill watches the lake. “You know,” he says, “I’m starting that protein diet tomorrow.”
“Go for it,” I say. “Live a little.”
“Bud and Lorna like it.”
“Ah, Pudge and Lovehandles.” I know I’m being mean, but I can’t help it, and I don’t actually want to. It’s only a matter of time before I’m as big as the rest of the family.
I nibble on a corn chip and swallow a mouthful of cola. I can’t get comfortable; the plastic mesh of the chair pinches my butt. As a Nail Specialist, I had a steady hand, but now my fingers tremble as they massage my belly. Losing my job was probably for the best; I’m sure those fumes are terrible for a fetus. But how is staying home gonna help with the car payments? Bill works under the table for this asshole who doesn’t invest in any safety gear—no hard hats or secure scaffolding and definitely not health insurance for his employees.
From the corner of my eye, I watch Bill breathe unevenly, drinking from the can. He’s already an insomniac, and the early mornings shingling the Harringtons’ roof have him running on even less sleep. So it was nice to see him perk up when I told him. I actually felt a little excited, too. But then his enthusiasm only reminded me that this was the rest of my life: nothing more than this man, our baby, this whole business of getting by in the middle of nowhere.
. . .
When my life flashed in the Nifty Nails bathroom, I can’t say I saw very much. The last time we were anywhere except this park was Niagara Falls in June, probably where I got pregnant. It was our annual tour on the Maid of the Mist. Bill works with a guy who knows a travel agent who gets us a discount on tickets, so it’s become this thing we do that everyone knows about. “You and Bill doing your thing this year?” my mother asks, even though she already knows the answer. Bill and I have tried inviting her and my dad, but she says they don’t want to interfere with our alone time. The truth is, she’s afraid of boats. Even though she grew up around the Finger Lakes, she never learned how to swim.
On our most recent trip, Bill started talking to the only guy not wearing one of the blue ponchos the tour center passed out as we boarded. “You are going to get fucking soaked, my friend,” Bill said, pointing at the nicely dressed dude. I elbowed Bill. He knows I hate when he swears in front of strangers. The guy shrugged. “You were fucking right,” he said to Bill later, and the two of them just cracked up over the guy’s water-logged loafers. His wife, blonde and pretty underneath her poncho, smiled and ran her hand up and down her husband’s damp arm. Over drinks at the hotel bar, we learned those two were childless and in love. They’d been all over the world: Asia, Europe, Alaska. They saw museums and plays. Once, my sister and I went to see The Lion Kingin New York, and I was blown away. Blown away, I tell you.
Back in our room that night, I asked Bill, “Why don’t we go to China or something?”
He looked at me like I was crazy and held up a finger, the stumpy one he cut off with the band saw in tenth grade—seven years ago now. “We saw an awesome force of nature today, Babe.” He raised another finger. “You tell me where we’ll find that kind of thing in China.” Then he waved his one and a half fingers around in the air in a little finger victory dance.
. . .
From my seat in the shade, I spot a young couple on a bench near the water—blonde ponytail and fake tan on her, baseball cap and desperate, horn-dog look on him. The girl’s arm is around the guy’s waist, and he whispers in her ear and then bites her earlobe, playfully. She starts giggling like the teenager she is. I wish my mother had sat me down when I was young and asked me what I wanted out of life. But I’m not sure anyone asked her either, and she seems happy to go along with what she’s been offered: a husband with steady work, three kids who call or visit every weekend, a garden big enough for all her sunflowers. Anyway, what would I have said if my mother asked me? In seventh grade, my art teacher, Miss B, told me I had talent, and I believed for that entire year I might one day become a famous painter. Then Miss B married the biology teacher with terrible breath, moved to New Mexico, and I never drew another thing. After I graduated from high school, Bill’s sister Lorna thought I might like doing nails at Bethany’s spa. “Because you’re artistic,” she said. She even helped me find a cheap nail tech course at the community college. And look how I repay her—by pissing off old ladies and calling Lorna names behind her back. I guess one thing I’ve learned from all this is that a person shouldn’t depend on someone else for ideas about what to do with her life.
Up the shore, a bunch of seagulls chases after bits of food that a barbecuing family tosses. A toddler, off-balance, shrieks and runs away from the flapping wings. Crying, he falls into the grass. Bill stares at the boy, grinning. “Kid’s gonna be a ball player.” I squint at him. I can’t tell if he’s talking about the toddler or our unborn child.
Offering me a beer, Bill says, “I like it here.”
I scowl and wave away the can.
Bill nods. “Sorry, I forgot. Got lost in the moment.”
I wish I could get lost, too. The weather is fine; this park is perfectly nice. I have nothing against kids. My own decisions led me to this place. Bill and I used to talk about having children. Everyone assumed we would be popping them out right after the wedding, but for three years that didn’t happen, and after a while I just assumed one of us was infertile. Bill’s mother cried sometimes, because no one was giving her grandchildren, but I just felt relieved, to be honest. I never went back on the pill.
I listen to car doors shutting, engines starting and driving away from the park. I put the cool beer can against my forehead.
Bill pulls my hand toward him, and our forearms hover over the grass. He’s not a bad guy. I’m not always easy to deal with.
I smell charcoal and burning hot dogs. I feel my pulse in my ankles, like a tiny frog jumping under the skin. When I close my eyes, I hear the jangle of a dog’s collar as it shakes itself off after a swim. My elbow aches from digging into the plastic armrest, so I focus on the water lapping on the rocks. I focus on the splash of a kayaker’s paddles.
Then I focus so hard on the rustling wind in the leaves that I become the wind for a second, if that makes any sense. As I listen to the jabbering seagulls, things get even stranger: One minute I’m sitting beside Bill, the next I’m flying with those birds, looking at the shadows between their feathers. From above myself I can see my ugly expression, a grimace on a sweaty face. I hear Bill planning our family vacations at the amusement park at Darrien Lake. “We’ll take the camper!”
Near the high branches, there’s a nice breeze off the water. Patches of leaves have turned orange already. My earthly body disappears as I rise into the clouds, thinking I should be cold and scared but feeling only a sense of warm weightlessness. And then I float. No echoes, no voices. Just dark and dark and dark, illuminated by a brilliant sphere that holds both me and Bill and the people grilling their burgers on the shore, as well as all the houses on the lake and all the farms and gorges and nail salons in the county.
The earth is a pearl: radiant, spinning. I think of the billions of people walking on its surface—grandparents, parents, children. Wars and birthday parties happening at once, cars driving over roads once traveled by covered wagons, malls being expanded while people tend their gardens. As I hover, gazillions of bare feet tread on grass at tranquil parks, bazillions of little fists clutch at corners of furniture to steady themselves, and a chorus of voices shout, sing, and whisper their prayers.
Gradually I sense myself retreating further, deeper into space. Assuming I’ll see other planets in orbit, I look around me and see nothing, not even my own hands waving in front of my face. Finally, I can relax. At some point I imagine I’ll return to earth, buy ugly maternity jeans, and see a doctor at the walk-in clinic. But right now, detached from even my floating self, my small concerns on earth are unimportant. And it is a relief, being separated from that smallness. From here I can see myself sometime along in years, passing out of the world with millions of other bodies at the same time. Some of us leaving people behind, some of us just leaving.