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Having a baby is an excellent way to focus the mind.
It’s not an easy venture, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you can accomplish what you want to accomplish by reading a couple self-help books or making some bullet-point lists. However, if you’re in need of some serious shaking-up of things, well, a baby will do that for you.
Before Shawna came around, I was like most of my other friends, by which I mean you could say I was ‘drifting’, if you’re wanting to put it nicely. Honestly, I don’t know what I did with all that time I had. I guess I drank too much and smoked a bit too much weed, but that doesn’t even come close to accounting for all those lost hours.
Then, wham, bang, I was pregnant. I didn’t see it coming. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, and I hardly knew how it happened. Well, okay, I knew how it happened, but just not, you know, how my state of affairs came to be such that it did happen, if that makes sense.
Pregnancy was a bit of a killer. I puked up everything I ate for a couple months, and I was more tired than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I ate like I was training for a major league eating competition. As I got bigger, my motion slowed until it felt like my entire life was composed of nothing more than the walk to the bathroom and back. It was probably just as well that pregnancy itself gave me so much to think about; that made it easier to forget that a future was looming.
And then, one day, poof. There she was. This little, wrinkled raisin who apparently belonged to me.
I was too hopped up on pain meds and lack of sleep to remember much about the delivery, but I do remember them putting her in my arms. She was wrapped up in a towel and mewling like a little goat. She wasn’t much to look at — bald as a cueball, head smushed by forceps, and face screwed up in utter aggravation at the whole birth experience — but she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“Shall I go fetch father?” asked the trainee nurse before getting elbowed in the gut by the actual nurse, the one who knew that there was no man out in the waiting room on my account.
I didn’t say anything, and the trainee tried to pretend that she’d not said anything either.
The fact was, I hadn’t exactly mentioned anything about the pregnancy to the father-to-be. It was an awkward situation.
Duane Meyers was in my journalism class in high school. He was two years older, and a bit of a sleaze-bag Rumour had it that he kept condoms in his wallet, ‘just in case’.
I remember all of us girls discussing it once in the locker room after gym class; we were appalled by the presumption of it. If he’d been a somebody, that would have been one thing. But he wasn’t. He didn’t play any sports and he didn’t have his own car. Instead, he drove around on one of those motorized scooters that looks like a kid’s toy. He wore a scrawny mustache that did nothing for him; I remember thinking it made him look like a damp weasel. He was a little too smart for us to like, but not so smart that we admired him from afar — you know, the way we secretly looked up to those those kids who we knew would graduate and get out of this small town, the ones who made us all believe that anything is possible, even as we gave them wedgies and sprayed shaving cream through the air vents of their lockers.
Duane was on my list of people I’d never sleep with, even in a thousand years. There was no one yet on the list of people I would sleep with. At least, no one who wasn’t safely tucked away in the soft folds of Tiger Beat.
One time, a little before school let out for the summer, Duane stopped me in the hall after class and asked me out on a date. I was so surprised, I accepted. I’ve never been good at saying no, especially when caught off-guard. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me out, and maybe a small part of me was pleased to be asked. Another part of me wanted to end the conversation as quickly as possible, before anyone saw us talking together.
We exchanged a few words about when and where and then he added something perplexing: “Wear those hoop earrings you have, okay? The ones with three big hoops all joined up, the ones that go down to your shoulders.”
“Sure,” I said, trying to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible.
He gave me a wink as he took off down the hall, leaving me with a sick feeling in my stomach.
I put the date out of my head until the weekend, when I couldn’t avoid it any longer. About an hour before I was meant to meet him, I took a shower, got dressed and threw on some light makeup. I couldn’t find the hoop earrings. I looked around a bit, but I didn’t look very hard. In all honesty, I was sort of glad I couldn’t find them. The whole thing seemed a bit slimy, right up there with condoms in the pocket. I wore a pair of little gold studs instead.
I walked the nine blocks downtown to the movie theatre.
“Hi,” I said when I saw him. He was lounging outside the ticket kiosk, playing with wisps of his facial hair.
“Hi,” he said.
There was a silence.
“I couldn’t find the earrings,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. Still, there was something in his voice that made me feel like I’d failed a test or something.
We got popcorn and cokes and went into the cinema. I scanned the audience and was relieved not to see anyone I knew.
The movie was so unremarkable that I can’t remember what it was called. What I do remember though was that, as the credits started rolling, he went and stuck his tongue in my mouth.
I was not used to French kissing. I knew about it, sure, but I still thought of it as one of those gross things people did in films. Now, here I was with a wiggling boy tongue to contend with.
I slid my tongue around a bit, not wanting to give it away that this was my first time with this. My mind raced: is he doing this because he thinks I’m cute? Or, is he just doing this because he thinks he can get away with it? Should I seem enthusiastic? Or is it best to play it as if I’m bored? Holy fucking mother of Jesus shit shit shit, there’s his fucking GUM!
I broke free and turned away from him, disgusted to find his gum still in my mouth. I spat it into my hand.
“I’m not feeling so well,” I said. “I should go home.”
He insisted on taking me home on his stupid little motorbike. He wore a helmet but didn’t have one for me. I was just as glad; I hoped that if anyone saw me, I’d at least look somewhat cool with the wind sweeping my hair back. Those were the days when we all had salon perms and spent hours teasing our bangs into heaps on top of our heads. We used to bring rulers to school to see who could manage the tallest bangs. I myself was no stranger to Aqua Net, and I believed in the power of hair to make one cool, maybe more than I believed in anything in the world, back then.
When we got to the empty lot kitty-corner from my house, he parked his scooter and tried to stick his tongue in my mouth again. I remember the sound of my heart sinking.
And then, I blew it. “Sorry,” I said as I backed away, “I’ve never kissed that way before.”
The admission stumbled out of my mouth before I had the chance to stop myself. Once I’d realized what I’d said, all the dignity gushed out of my body in one big, hot wave.
Duane looked at the same time triumphant and magnanimous. The sides of his lips curled up in a way that I couldn’t interpret. “That’s okay,” he said in a fawning, oily voice.
He started to say something else, but I escaped across the street without looking back.
After our date, I did my best to avoid him. When he called the house, I made my parents tell him I was out. At school, I became an expert at disappearing.
Of course, I couldn’t avoid him forever. One day, he cornered me outside the journalism classroom, after class.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“You’re hard to get hold of,” he said, laughing strangely.
I said nothing.
“Can I take you out to another movie? I’m free, say…” he paused, “Saturday night?”
“I’m busy,” I said. I didn’t say that I’m washing my hair, but I thought it.
“Friday, then?” he countered, a little too quickly.
“I’m busy then too,” I said flatly. My mind was whirring. How could I get out of this?
“Well, when are you free?”
I could feel my shoulders sag. There was a long pause while my mind raced.
“I’ve got a lot going on right now…” I said at last, letting my voice trail off in a way that, I hoped, would sound very mature and aloof.
“Look, if it’s about the kiss,” he said, and I could hear a little touch of derision in his voice.
“It’s not about the kiss. I’ve just got a lot of studying to do. Thank you, though,” I said. Noticing a friend rounding the corner by the stairs, I quickly called out to her to wait up and hurried to her side, leaving Duane and his facial hair to their own devices.
I had never felt so dumb. Studying? Since when do I study? I grimaced, recollecting the taste of that horrible, over-chewed gum.
“What are you doing talking to Duane?” asked my friend, her eyes sparkling as they darted back and forth between Duane and me.
“You don’t wanna know,” I said, making a face. I knew I’d have to tell her something at some point, but I wanted some time to make that something up.
That was the beginning, and what I thought would be the end, of my relationship with Duane Meyers.
Now fast-forward a decade or so. And then add a few years.
Have you been to college? If so, you probably know what it’s like, those years after graduation, when nothing is working out quite right. Or maybe, you’re one of the lucky ones. Maybe you’re the one who got out of this town and is lording it up, doing something that nobody understands in some big city somewhere on one of the coasts. Maybe. But most likely, you’re just like me. You spent four years drinking and studying, but you don’t remember most of what you covered in your classes, and the bits you do remember don’t seem to fit together with anything else. You graduated with not too bad but not too good a GPA, and since then, you’ve been, as they say, ‘drifting’.
Are you still stuck with a student loan that it seems like you’ll never pay back? Are you still trying to find a job that has anything to do with anything? Are you now realizing that no one gives a flip what you majored in and that, if anything, having gone to college is closing doors every direction you turn? Who wants a check-out girl with a bachelor’s degree? Who’s going to hire a college graduate to wait tables? Who wants a pizza delivery girl with pretensions?
If you’re like me, you had more luck in the job market once you quietly deleted university from your résumé and just made up some bullshit about retail to fill in the gaps. So it was that I got a job pouring drinks at Annie and Woody’s downtown. It’s not the most fancy place, but Woody is nice enough — Annie is long-gone — and it paid the bills. It paid the bills and it’s better than what some of us got up to.
Anyway, I guess I’d been working there about two years (how did that much time go by?), when who should walk in, but Duane Meyers.
I couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t quite so skinny and the hair on his upper lip was thicker. It still looked odd; I mean, nobody wears just a mustache these days, do they? But still, at least it looked better now that had filled out a bit. He didn’t look so much like an accident. It was Duane alright. I reached up to my earlobes and felt for my earrings. I’d forgotten to put any in that morning. Somehow, my bare ears made me feel very naked.
Duane sauntered up to the bar and leaned against it, perching his right hand on his hip. He caught my eye, then did a double take.
It was only four in the afternoon, so I was the only one working the bar. There was no way I could avoid speaking to him.
“Hi,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t be in a talking mood. “What can I get for you?”
He stared at me. “Huh,” he said. “It’s really you….” He looked shocked…a little happy and a little disappointed, all rolled up together.
“Yeah, I’m really me alright,” I said and sighed.
He shook his head and grinned in that funny way with the corners of his mouth. I still didn’t know what to make of that grin. “Gimme a double vodka,” he said.
I poured his drink. What else could I do?
He drank it down in one gulp, then asked for another. He was drinking fast for four o’clock in the afternoon.
After the second drink, his smile appeared friendlier.
“How’s the studying going, kid?” he asked.
I looked him straight in the eye. If he was trying to rile me, it wasn’t going to get anywhere.
“Fine,” I said. There were no other customers, so I was stuck. If Duane wanted to talk, it was my job to listen. I started wiping at something stuck to the bar with a wet rag.
“Fine?” he said, arching an eyebrow. “Well, that’s good.” He paused, drawing a spiral in the droplets left behind by my dishcloth. “I tell you what, I always expected you’d go somewhere,” he continued. “Never expected to find you here.”
“Well, here I am,” I said. At first, I was a bit nettled, and then I realized something. I realized that he meant it. There was a time, once in our past, when he thought I’d be somebody. Something inside me started to soften, but I didn’t let myself show it.
“Here you are,” he repeated. He looked off into the distance, as if looking at something impossibly far away. I didn’t reply.
After a while, he ordered another double. I watched the second hand spin around the clock above the door, and I watched the minute hand try and fail to keep up.
“Once you get done here, you wouldn’t wanna catch a movie, would you?” he asked eventually. He was clearly trying to keep his speech from slurring, and for the most part, he was succeeding.
I don’t know why I agreed, but I did. Maybe it was the same reason I accepted that first date; I don’t like being rude to people and I still have a hard time saying no when caught off-guard. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe I wanted to spend just a little bit more time with someone who once thought I might have amounted to something.
He’d traded in his scooter for a fixer-upper Mustang a long time ago. I sat in the passenger seat and we drove through town, past that movie theatre where we’d had our first date. It had closed several years ago, and now the windows were all boarded up. There was spray paint on the wall where they used to hang the movie posters. Neither of us said anything about it.
We pulled in to the parking lot of the new shopping center, the one that killed off downtown while I was away at college, and made our way to the cineplex. Duane paid for two tickets. I watched closely when he took the bills out of his wallet, but I didn’t see any condoms. I tried to remember what it felt like to care so deeply about a condom in the wallet, but I couldn’t. I wondered if the girls at school had been wrong about that all along. Sometimes I think they spouted a lot of bullshit.
The movie was just as forgettable this time around, although I think Duane liked it well enough. As the credits rolled, I braced myself, but he didn’t even look my direction. Part of me was disappointed, in a strange kind of way.
When we got back to his car, neither of us said anything. If we’d had words, he would have asked, “Would you like to take a drive? Tour the countryside, perhaps?” and I would have said, “Yes, thank you; that sounds lovely.” But I guess words weren’t necessary, this particular time.
After an hour or so of driving, I felt drunk and he seemed to have sobered up. Before I knew it, the car had glided to a halt outside of his place, a little apartment on the main drag. I don’t remember him asking me if I’d like to come over. Somehow, it felt like the decision had already been made, without me being part of it.
His place was a mess. It was clear as soon as I walked through the door that this was the home of someone who didn’t bring people home often. I guess that made me warm towards him a little.
Duane went to the fridge and got us both out a beer. We drank them down, then went for seconds.
Somewhere in there, we started talking about things. I don’t know what. The journalism class, the yearbook, people we knew, what we’d done to that kid from my year who did eventually go to Harvard.
We ended up screwing somewhere between the seventh and eighth beer. Somehow, this act seemed less intimate than that kiss way back when. Just to be on the safe side, I avoided his mouth. Only once did he try to kiss me, and then I turned my head and moaned, pretending to be distracted by other things we were doing.
I was not used to drinking that much anymore, so the bit where I called a taxi is a bit of a blur. I do remember him urging me to stay the night, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
The next day, I turned in my notice at Annie and Woody’s. Nine months later, I gave birth to a baby girl.
There’s something about a new baby that gears you up, that makes you rethink everything. All of a sudden, so much of life snaps into focus. You begin to realize what you can do with scraps of spare time. You begin to wish you’d made more of yourself. You begin to think that maybe, just maybe, there might still be some hope for you yet.
At least, that’s where I’m at right now. I guess I can’t say for sure what you’ll do, when it’s your turn, when it’s your little one they’re handing you, wrinkled and crying and new to the world, when it’s you all of a sudden responsible for what feels like everything, and you feel all at once warm and scared and proud and wretched and ever so, ever so tired. I suppose there are a lot of ways things can turn out, with a baby.
I don’t know what I’ll do now that I’m a mother, now that I’ve quit my job, now that I’ve lost those hoop earrings and those gold studs forever, but I’m sure of one thing: me and Shawna, we’re getting out of this town.
I’ve got a lot of sorting out to do.