Allee told the girl, by way of explanation, that she had a husband once, and they’d tried for a kid. Jim. The story just came out, then she looked at her hands and noticed the stunning number of sharp, painful hangnails she’d been ignoring all day, or perhaps creating with nervous teeth.
Later she would stand over the sink and tear each one off by hand, then shellac her reddened nails with light blue polish and cover that with a clear coat. Or perhaps some cornstarch, to give a matte finish. That might suggest calmness. It might be more visually striking, and resemble the sun-faded wallpaper of an infant boy’s nursery.
The girl was still nodding when Allee looked back up. She seemed constrained by Allee’s furniture, pent up by the closeness of the coffee table, squashed at the sides by the high arms of the square seat. Allee could curl up in the chair with her knees practically touching her chin, to read a book or slowly chew a weed gummy before bed. But Margarie was stifled by her melon stomach.
Margarie was eighteen she said, but looked about fifteen to Allee. Even college undergraduates looked like little guinea pigs in people clothes, at this point. Except for the bulging belly, it seemed like the girl was still young enough to be impressionable. That there was hope. But something had impressed itself on Margarie already.
Allee took a long sip of ice water. For the past hour, she’d been struggling to keep conversation flowing, but at best it only trickled, then dribbled, then went bone dry. No one taught Millenials how to talk to strangers anymore. Allee remembered how confident she pretended to be at her own college interview, how politely assertive. Allee’s father told her to speak in all caps. He always spoke in all caps.
But Margarie probably hadn’t applied to any colleges. Maybe it was fine that she was timid, then; maybe she didn’t need the skill. Allee watched the girl take in a small sip of the water, and felt slightly offended. Did it have a weird taste? Was there a smear on the side of the glass that suggested Allee’s home was less than immaculately clean? She should have gotten bottled water. This trashy girl would not have cared about the environment.
After at least two minutes had passed, Margarie said, “Haden and I talked about getting married. But.”
“Oh really?” Allee almost cheered the words, she was so surprised to hear the girl speak, and sat up straight. Then she processed the words and felt shame. “Oh. Well. The statistics were not in your favor anyway, huh?”
“That’s what I said,” Margarie nearly whispered.
The girl still wore barrettes in her hair. The bright plastic pink things gnarled through her hair, two on each side. Allee could rip them off the girl’s hair and put them right on the baby’s head, when the time came. But it was a boy.
“So,” Allee began again. “Is that why you decided to..?”
Margarie looked at Allee with shallow, pale eyes, the flesh on her face a perfect shield of impassivity.
“If you’d gotten married. Would you two have kept the…kid?” Allee wasn’t sure which word to use for the six-month not-baby in the girl’s spreading abdomen.
Margarie digested what Allee was asking and leaned back her head. Allee’s apartment had an old popcorn ceiling, which looked slightly asbestos-y. The building manager said he would remove it, he swore he would, but it never got done, and so the apartment was a potential infant deathtrap. The child could develop ADHD or sociopathic ideation or poor impulse control or anemia or gluten intolerance or worse. Allee trusted the girl didn’t know or worry about that kind of crap. Still the thoughts came.
“I thought about a lot of things,” Margarie said finally. She wasn’t done. Her chest puffed out over her belly and she sighed. “I thought maybe my parents could raise it and pretend I had a brother. I thought I would join one of those weird Christian clinic-cults where they ship you away to some camp and make sure you have the kid. I thought I might just abort it.”
Allee felt a chill and gave a small shake. “Why didn’t you? Abort it, I mean?”
The girl’s mouth and nose twitched a few times like a little bunny’s. “Well, I was thinking…and I wanted to tell Haden. Not because he had to know, like, fuck him, I was gonna do it. But I thought…maybe I should tell. And see. Then he said, are you sure? Maybe you’re not even pregnant. And it just took so long..,”
“What took so long? All the appointments?”
“Just to get in and get seen took like a month. And then the clinic, the real one where they…you know. It was a couple of weeks, and by then I couldn’t do the pill kind. Where you just bleed it out or whatever.” Margarie rubbed the rim of her glass. “Do you know how much the operation costs?”
Allee shrugged. “Like four hundred, I thought?”
She had friends. Personally, Allee never had to use anything stronger than the morning after pill, though she’d taken three or four birth control pills all at once, too. It turned out none of that was necessary.
Margarie chewed on ice and said, “No, it’s way more than that. So then I was waiting to get my check from Build-a-Bear. And then it was too late.”
“Wow. Wow. Well, I. Thank you, I guess?” Allee heard herself making a weird, fluttery laugh. “I mean — not to be presumptuous.”
“Nah, you can be presumptuous. I’ll probably pick you.”
The girl didn’t emote. She was peering someplace beyond Allee, maybe at a spot on the wall behind her head. Allee hoped there wasn’t a smear of dirt or a crack in the plaster or anything. Then again, she knew Millenials sucked at eye contact. This might be a trick, a way to ape attentiveness without the claustrophobia of connection.
“Really?” Allee said.
The girl swallowed the ice, and her throat bulged. Allee thought for a minute of the water coming from the tap, into the ice cube tray, carried by Allee’s increasingly frail, old-woman-looking hands to the freezer. And then, sometime later, those same hands broke the smooth surface of the ice and placed the cubes in a clean glass, filled the glass with more water, and delivered the offering to this girl, Margarie. And Margarie accepted the offering and took it grudgingly within herself, where it would be poured through various tubes until it reached the baby. Which Margarie would one day hand to Allee.
She snapped back to reality. Margarie was thinking about whether she’d ‘really’ give the baby.
“Yeah, really,” she said with her lips drawn tight. “I mean, I’m not gonna want to do many of these interviews, I can tell you that.”
“Well, I would understand if you were picky — ”
“I read your bio,” the girl said.
Millenials. They didn’t read the texts; they gave Allee ten-page papers regurgitating Cliffnotes and YouTube summaries with Thesaurus.com synonyms and Google Docs spelling. They learned more from the recaps and reviews than they did from the original texts, and they learned their own opinions in the comment sections, not on the floors of philosophy classrooms.
The most frustrating part was that they were so right so much of the time. They were getting away with it, they were faking it and cribbing and co-opting the past and it was almost always pitch perfect. They were spambot versions of human beings and even Allee couldn’t tell the difference. She’d given more A’s in the past three years than in the whole rest of her teaching career combined. Soon they’d learn how to teach and grade themselves entirely, too.
The girl’s phone made a pleasant, chimey sound. She pulled the massive apparatus from some unseen pocket-fold somewhere on her shirt and held it diagonally before her eyes, for just a second, then slipped it away just as discretely.
“My mom’s coming soon,” she said.
“You didn’t drive?”
“We’ve only got the one car.”
Allee stood up and stretched. Her arms popped from their sockets (the girl probably couldn’t hear it, she reassured herself), and her skirt slunk back down into its proper place. She stepped around the couch where she’d been sitting and into the sun.
It was a clean, open two-bedroom with a kitchen island and photographs on the walls. Allee had a sensible car and a nursery in the works. It could be ready in two weeks, if it needed to be. She lived by an orderly, shiny train stop with a solar paneled roof and pot after pot of adorable cacti. Surely it looked good. It had to be good enough to this girl.
“Relax,” Margarie said. It was the loudest she’d spoken. Even on the phone she’d addressed Allee like a frightened kitten.
Allee turned on her heels, letting her back soak up the sun. She attempted to say, “Hmm?” in a casual way, but it sounded demented.
“You’re great on paper. You’re good enough in person. And you’re close.”
“Right. Okay. So?” Allee nodded vigorously.
The girl stood. If not for the belly (which was huge for six months), she was not very big. She was five feet tall at the absolute most, to Allee’s five eleven. Her hips were wide and stabilized her, but the rest of her was relatively lithe. Even though she draped herself in cheap jeans and thin cotton blends, she looked like she might float away and become a cherub in a painting.
The girl’s shoes squeaked across the floor as Margarie picked up the water glasses and deposited them in the sink. She came back and squatted, and Allee almost panicked until it became clear the girl was unzipping her backpack and withdrawing a manila folder crammed with papers and, perhaps, a grainy image of the not-baby that was presently hovering four inches above Allee’s waxed floor.
Allee tried not to rush over. She didn’t want to look desperate, even now, and also she imagined herself tripping on the glassy surface and sliding like a baseball player right into the pregnant teenager, knocking her on her ass. She hovered over the girl with squirming hands. One hangnail caught on another and sent a sting into Allee’s finger.
“Here,” Margarie said, and handed her the folder. There was no ultrasound photograph, but everything Allee needed was in there. “I guess I have to talk to my case worker, or whatever they call it.”
Allee nodded and swallowed a little cry. “I would do it, but it looks better if the mother initiates it.”
The girl flipped her bangs from her eyes and said, “Birth mother. Okay?”
“Did your husband want kids?”
Allee’s mind went white as a snowstorm. She’d gone snowshoeing on a fourteen-footer outside of Seattle once, in the middle of a blizzard. Couldn’t see a mitten before her face. It was like that.
“Not exactly my husband,” she said. “Jeez, I don’t know. I don’t know if he wanted kids? Yeah I guess I don’t. We never really talked about it.”
There was that impassive mask again. Allee wondered if the girl was thinking at all, or if she was imagining her eyes were a screen and she was changing the tab. Maybe she was typing a response in her head before sending it out, just like a text message. That was more likely. That was the more forgiving interpretation.
“It’s okay,” Margarie said. “I don’t care that you lied.”
“Oh. Great.” Staring down at the girl was straining her eyes. “Do you need a hand?”
Margarie rolled her eyes a bit and mouthed yes. Allee took a step forward, like a lunge, and extended a hand to pull her up. The belly hung between them, as if in the air.
“Did you lie about anything on your application?” Allee asked her.
“No. I stopped drinking, soon as I knew. I’m taking my last few classes online, so I get a lot of sleep and I have time to cook really good stuff. Oh, there’s my name.”
“Your name is a lie?”
“Everybody calls me Butter.”
“Butter? Butter- Oh wait, like margarine?”
“Yeah,” the girl looked at the floor (the belly obstructing her view) and smiled with another small rabbit-twitch.
Allee said, “Butter. What are you gonna call the kid?”
She shrugged. “You can name it. I mean, I get to veto if it’s anything…awful or lame.”
“Ketchup?” Allee offered. The girl started breathing more quickly, an unvoiced laugh, the greatest gift she’d given so far. “Olive oil? Paprika?”
“Like on Blue’s Clues,” Margarie-Butter said. A bit of pink came to her cheeks.
There was a honking on the driveway. Allee went and pulled back the curtain to see a poofy-haired woman with Margarie’s face-shape and much larger cheeks, wearing glasses. The car was dusted lightly with rust, like cinnamon sugar on toast. Margarie struggled with her back pack, huffing and pulling her legs apart so she could bend to get it.
”Let me help you!” Allee cried. She put her arms on the rounded bottom of the bag and cradled it until Margarie had pulled it on. “Jesus lord fuck, this is heavy, what do you — Oh. Sorry. I’m sorry I said that.”
“I don’t care,” the girl said again. “Books and shit, lady. I had to wait at the mall for my mom’s shift to be over.”
Allee wanted very desperately to unzip the bag and dig around. What would she find? Physics, Neurobiology, Chemistry, Photography? Stolen hardcovers from the Half Priced Books in the plaza? Did it matter? Should she care? She should applaud the girl’s industriousness. She was getting a baby.
“I gotta jet,” Margarie-Butter said, with a slight growl, and she gave Allee a tepid, bulging hug and went out with remarkable speed.
Allee watched, a few feet from the door, putting her hand up to wave at Butter’s mom as they pulled away. She found her phone and held it close to her heart, murmuring and standing wherever the sun was hitting the floor, at all times, until night came and the darkness permitted her to pour a glass of wine and eat a portion of weed gummy. Her dealer Jim made them in little animal shapes and coated them with cornstarch.
She curled up in the chair with her phone against her clavicle, waiting for Butter’s caseworker or whatever to call. She kept it there until noon the next day, when it finally happened. The process was so arduous Allee wasn’t sure they’d have it all finished in three months. No, four. It takes ten months, despite what every movie says. Still not enough time.
It went on like this for what seemed like an eternity. Every few days Allee would call the girl with a question: What color should the crib be? Should she use cloth diapers or plastic? And the girl would say she didn’t care, she didn’t care. When Allee started dating, she called at midnight in a guilty panic, and the girl said she didn’t care.
When it looked like the paperwork and the home study and the checks wouldn’t be ready in time, the girl said it didn’t matter. Relax. When Allee took a job at a community college ten miles away, Butter said that was cool, she was going to school in California anyway. When Allee picked a preschool, Butter didn’t care which it was, she just wanted some finger paintings shoved in a manila envelope, two or three times a month.
When the kid poured jelly all over the white chair with the high arm rests, Butter told Allee not to care. Allee called Butter when the kid got a D in science. By then, Butter was pre-med and asked Allee why she cared, and then offered to tutor. The kid got a B- and Butter said she didn’t care, just be happy and do your best.
When Allee bought the kid a car, Butter still didn’t care, she just wanted it to be a nice color. Blue. Not too shiny. Like the baby room and Allee’s nails, all through the kid’s childhood. Coated in cornstarch. Her mouth twitched like a rabbit while she adjusted the videophone. The kid walked past the screen and said hello b-mom but didn’t make eye contact. Allee and Butter laughed at one another and said, digital natives have got to be the rudest generation yet.
— — — —
This story was originally published in the 2014 issue of Bacopa Literary Review.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.