You talk to yourself a lot these days. Have you noticed that? The phone rings. It’s mom as usual. Same day, same time, every week. You haven’t picked up the phone in five months. Each time she calls, you send out a blank postcard. Always the same one — an oversized dogwood blossom and a miniature cardinal with the words North Carolina, A Better Place To Be! superimposed in cursive. She leaves desperate messages. She’s still sorry she didn’t come for the funeral. So are you. You lick the stamp and place it carefully on the corner of the postcard. There’s an empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby on the counter. The spoon beside it is clean, but still cold. In just a few minutes dinner will be ready — two packets of Easy Mac and instant spuds. You walk down the hall and slip your outgoing mail into the slot. Multitasking is very important. You eat, but afterward can’t remember having eaten at all. Something isn’t right.
You lie on your back and stare at the underside of the table. The last time you did this Mark crawled under too. It was a good effort but unwelcome. He made you play a game where you had to imagine clouds and then say what shapes they took. He saw a lion. You saw a chair. He looked confused. He saw a ballerina dancing in a tutu. You saw a second chair. He said you didn’t have much of an imagination. He saw himself and you with three children and one on the way. He lifted your shirt and kissed your flat stomach. You grabbed your shirt with both hands, slid it back down underneath his lips and told him not to do that. Now you see clouds ready to burst. You trace the stretch marks on your belly with your fingertip like a boat sailing down a winding river.
Today you decide to give away all his stuff. Bags of clothes, photos, the folded American flag, comic books, letters, tools, CDs — everything loaded into boxes. The phone rings. You haven’t spoken in six months, not to anyone. She doesn’t even know she’s going to be a grandmother. It’s easy to drown out her voice on the machine by thinking out loud. You mark the boxes “Free” and leave them full on street corners across town. Half a year has passed since you overheard him talking with a friend in the other room while they watched the Panthers’ game. Mark said, anyone who tells you being in the Army is about freedom and democracy is bullshit because the Army is about two things and two things only – killing and being killed, and if you’re lucky it’s only about one thing. Two days later he fell fifty feet to the ground from a helicopter during a routine training drill. His lifeline wasn’t secure and the cord slipped right through. He never even saw a battlefield. For him the Army was about the wrong one thing, and he was the wrong kind of lucky. You think if you had a time machine you wouldn’t have warned him to check his lifeline, you just never would have married him.
Mom leaves another message. She wants to know if you wrote on the last postcard or if that’s just a scuff mark. She wonders why you switched from bird stamps to dead president stamps. Are you trying to tell her something? After so much emptiness, dirt speaks volumes. There’s nothing in the fridge. At the supermarket you watch a boy secretly eat a plump tomato. He reduces it to nothing. He leaves only a puddle of juicy seeds on the floor where he ate. In another aisle a teenager has stuffed a balloon in his shirt and pretends to be pregnant. His mother sees you watching and squeezes the stomach until it pops. The latex falls deflated to the shiny waxed floor. You act like you didn’t see anything. You look down at the list you’ve made:
Mark Jr. Microwave Popcorn
Mark Jr. Cookie Dough
Mark Jr. Marshmallows
More and more strange women have been walking up and grabbing your midriff. There’s nothing to be done. Though you’re seven months along you haven’t gained much weight. Your breasts have barely grown and you still fit into your pants. You look like yourself after having swallowed a watermelon whole. That sounds good. You roll to the fruit section and buy a watermelon. They’re on sale.
High school was fun. College probably would have been the same. Remember the time Mark accidentally brushed his teeth with Desitin? Or when you baked his birthday cake with confectioner’s sugar instead of flour? There aren’t very many memories. You gave them all away. That was a mistake. So was moving to the Fort Bragg township to be an Army wife. Also, getting pregnant. Mark didn’t know he was going to be a father. He never was one and he never will be. There’s no way to go back now. In four weeks the bubble will burst. If only things could be different for you this once. On T.V. a woman asks, “What kind of crazy world are we bringing our children into?”
At nine months you walk by a free clinic and decide to go in. You’ve managed to make it this far without seeing a doctor. You lie and tell them you’re having a home-birth with a midwife, but it was supposed to come three days ago and you want a second opinion. After running some tests, the doctor says everything looks fine. A baby’s due date isn’t like a library book. They’re inaccurate because sometimes women don’t remember when they got pregnant to the day. The system is also off, give or take a week or two, depending. Ten percent of babies are born after forty-two weeks. Besides, everyone is different. Your stats are all good, both of you look perfectly healthy. Just let nature take its course. When he leaves the room you steal a handful of tongue depressors. Mark once said if it can be stolen then it should be. They send you home with a get-well rose. At night you watch the rose curl back up into itself. Maybe the doctor is right. The whole process is so mysterious. The phone rings. Another postcard. You think, maybe this is what it feels like to be really smart, ready to explode with ideas, swollen with answers. Maybe two heads are better than one. Working together you two could probably solve all your problems. Who says you have to follow the rules?
You realize how little doctors know. They couldn’t even tell you what your tonsils were for when they took them out. You go to the public library to do your own research. At ten and a half months your belly is getting smaller. The books give some possibilities about what might be happening, all of them life-threatening conditions, but you decide none of these options fit your situation. You head over to the art section and open a book of nudes. Naked drawings and sculptures never look natural. The models are always lying across a couch, or standing in a bath, or throwing a discus. You never see a nude picture of someone driving a car, or replacing a light bulb, or feeding the birds.
Through the stacks you notice a man who’s wearing Mark’s leather jacket with the rip in the left sleeve. You put down the book and take a tour of the main floor. There’s a boy wearing Mark’s baseball cap, and his high school backpack is lying alone by the circulation desk. You have to leave right away. As you walk through the exit, the metal detectors go off. They search your bag and your coat but find nothing. You didn’t eat a book, did you, dear? the librarian asks. You go home and mail another blank postcard. A Better Place To Be! The T.V. has been left on for days. You’re tired of pregnancy but can put up with it for a while longer. You’ve come to a compromise with life. Nature will let you take your own course.
Your stretch mark rivers are beginning to dry up. At twelve months everything is getting easier, lighter. If you know your mother, and you do, she has forty blank postcards stacked on her dining room table. That game is getting tiresome and you’re running out of postcards. In a couple of weeks you should just stop sending them and unplug the phone. Things keep disappearing from the house. There used to be two kitchen chairs, but one is gone. And your bed seems smaller even though your body is shrinking. It’s almost like there’s a room missing. You start asking yourself deep and disturbing questions like, What if “I can’t believe it’s not butter” turns out to be butter after all? or, If you surgically remove the wings from a butterfly, could it live again as a caterpillar? You count your fingers and toes. What color were Mark’s eyes? What position did he play on the football team? Where were you married? Maybe these details aren’t as important as you think. Strangers ask how far along you are, but you act offended and tell them you are just fat, thank you very much. If they ask when you are due you ask them, due for what? You buy an Easy-Bake Oven at a yard sale. The cupcakes are fabulous. You think about a future as a pastry chef. You watch the Food Network and make miniature versions of what they make. These creations leave something to be desired, but are really not bad considering they were baked under a light bulb. The more you eat, the smaller you get. You look at yourself in the mirror. Everything is backwards. If you look through your legs it is like a funhouse. You’re down to a smaller shirt size again. Maternity clothes all have an unappealing stretch to them. They’ll be easy to sell in a couple of months.
Mom shows up thinking you are dead. She is relieved to find that this is not the case, but insists that you must be depressed because you’ve gained a little belly. Not bad for fourteen months, you think. She plugs the phone back into the wall. She sets down a packet of stationery, envelopes, stamps, pens and extra ink on the table. When she asks how you are feeling about tomorrow you ask, what’s tomorrow? She says it’s the one-year anniversary, but you can’t remember of what exactly. Have you lost your mind? The anniversary of Mark’s death, says mom. Oh, right, you say, acting as if it were something you were trying to ignore. She comes over and gives you a strong hug and apologizes for, you know, what she said over the phone on the day of the funeral. You don’t know what she is talking about, but simply say to her, some things can be taken back. The next day mom buys two tiny American flags, one for each side of Mark’s plot. She lets you have some alone-time at the gravestone. You look at his last name and barely recognize it as your own. Mom is crying, but for you, not for him. You go up to her and offer a tissue. Maybe you’re right, you say to her, I should lose this belly of mine.
Mom only stayed for the weekend. Was that one month ago? Two? It’s hard to say. The phone rings but the machine has been gone for weeks. You lick the stamps she left one by one and place them all over your body. How many stamps would it take to send you out of the country? You make paper airplanes out of the stationery. They soar across the room and chip the paint off the poorly constructed walls. You worry they might cave in. You’ve almost lost all that unnecessary weight. It looks like you just ate a big meal, but you’ll digest it soon. With a pen you draw the northern hemisphere on your belly like it’s a shallow globe. In the shower you wash the world and watch it drip off your body and down the drain. You also wash a tattoo off your ankle that you thought was always there. You probably just drew it. What was it a picture of? It melted like snow on the tip of your tongue.
There’s something on the tip of your taste buds. It’s the taste of your taste buds. You ask yourself, when do taste buds bloom into taste flowers? From the window you can’t tell if it is a dark day or a bright night. The rain has driven everyone off the streets and replaced them with mud. You take a nap, and when you wake up your body is just as it used to be, but the microwave is missing. And the telephone, the TV, the books, the blanket. Did a thief come while you slept? Also the lamps, the clothes, the rug, the soap. You can’t remember what used to be where. What’s worse than forgetting? Forgetting what you’ve forgotten? Fine. Take it all away. The shoes, the napkins, the toothpaste, the doorknobs. You think if you sit perfectly still you might catch up to yourself. You try not to ruin it by breathing too much. Where does the air from your lungs go? Take it along with the floor, the walls, the lawn, the roof. What’s left? A postcard, a shoelace, a pillowcase, a wick. A fingerprint on the window that doesn’t match your own.