Southern Pacific Review Editorial Services

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Baby

by
Gaston Rauch

I lean back in my seat and gently unfold my sunglasses, placing them over my eyes. The glare of the Texas sundown, in its orange-purple majesty, seems entirely focused through our windshield. I risk a sideways glance at John. Blocky, balding, bland, boring, it’s difficult to recall now those things I surely must have seen in him. And yet not even a year has passed. Surely he’s undergone some strange, if not drastic, transformation. Surely I hadn’t extended him the benefit of the doubt for money I didn’t need. Surely.

Beneath his aviators, I know his eyes are fixed upon the road. He would, after all, want nothing to happen to his baby. <i>Our baby</i>. John had talked up the sports car like a child, as a heaven-sent solution to every marital ill. We would both love it, he insisted, as though its arrival would herald a new stage in our marriage, one in which we were too blinded by our love of another to care any longer about our own lovelessness. Not only that, but in caring about something again, our love would slowly, organically, re-sprout.

Of course he hadn’t said it that way. “You’ll see. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.” I can hear his voice enunciate each word exactly, as for the better part of two months they had been chained together in an unending mantra.

I move an air vent with my hand, angling artificially cool air in my direction. John was not entirely wrong: the arrival of <i>our baby</i> had brought about a new phase in our relationship. Looking for the first time on its shiny black paint, its sleek lines, I simply realized that I didn’t care anymore. I simply had no spite left in me. Where it had been, instead, there was only a deep, vacuous pit of indifference. I had put my hand on his shoulder, given it a single squeeze, and walked back into the house, resolving in that moment to live a life unhindered by him.

And so I contemplated leaving for the better part of a week. But I never did. I didn’t fear the process. It wasn’t the shouting, the throwing of objects, the lawyers, or the inevitable aftermath in which our friends would choose sides. I was then, and am now, prepared for all of it. The question which plagued me, which stayed my hand was always, Why?

I knew the question would surely come. Even as the sympathy flowed in the form of shoulder patting reassurances, of There there nows and It'll be all rights, I knew that, inevitably, they would ask, What happened? Predictably prefaced by, But the two of you seemed so happy, and, Oh, my god, are you okay?

And I would nod, bravely of course, and say that I was fine. I would say that I didn’t hate him, that he was not a bad man, but only that we hadn’t worked out. We were, you see, simply different. But this would not stay their questions.

<i>Did he cheat?</i>

<i>No, I… I don’t think—</i>

<i>Was he a drunk? He didn’t hit you, did he?</i>

<i>No. No, nothing like that. It’s just—</i>

<i>Then what?</i>

<i>Well, he just didn’t seem to care about me. He kept talking about this car, and I just got fed up, and—</i>

And they would nod understandingly, but their eyes would have a quizzical, accusatory look. They would never understand the why. Maybe he had cheated. Maybe I had cheated. Deep down they would think, What on earth is she complaining about? She’s being unrealistic. Is a man not allowed an interest outside of her?

I might, of course, have lied. Our end might have been about anything. But beyond being apart from John, beyond escaping our marriage, I wanted another’s understanding. I wanted their nods, their wholehearted, I would have done the same.

Night falls, twilight fades, and still we’ve not arrived. I remove my sunglasses and stow them in the glove compartment. John wordlessly reaches out, takes them, and places them instead in a drop-down compartment in the cabin’s roof. Another aspect of our routine.

“I always forget,” I say.

John manages a nod and a sound between a grunt and a chuckle.

I play with a gold bracelet on my wrist and watch the neon signs abutting the highway flicker and illuminate. We pass the church where fat Jed Carter’s face shines down on us, as though he were God Himself. Revulsion rises in me.

Every Sunday we would gather to watch that fat swindler caper about the stage, crying, expounding, and, ultimately, begging for money, which, in turn, we gave only too eagerly. Aunt Jenna, who sat next to us each week, would turn to me in the silences, poke me in the ribs, and shake her head blissfully.

“You see, girl? This is what your generation’s missing. Y’all just don’t understand what God wants. Don’t just slouch there, listen!”

Exhortations like these, were, of course, bookended with decrials against the Democratic Party, government in general, and “those unwholesome gays.” Her happiest moment had come one Sunday, maybe two months back, when she’d turned to me and found tears at the corners of my eyes. I’d smiled and nodded, not daring to tell her that the cold and boredom were driving me to yawn incessantly.

Through it all, John simply sat like a stone, eyes fixed straight ahead. He stood when others stood, opened the hymnal to the appropriate page when he was told, and tithed when Jed Carter asked us to tithe. I’d once grabbed his arm as he reached for his wallet and he’d stared at me momentarily as though he understood. As soon as I let his arm go, he’d reflexively doled out a fifty dollar bill. And yet, for all the money he insisted on giving, he never spoke about church, never sang in mass, never stayed to mingle with the other parishioners after mass had ended.

I once floated the idea that maybe we’d stop going, or, at the very least, that we’d find a different church, Aunt Jenna be damned. He’d simply looked at me and shaken his head.

“Why would we want to do that?”

“I don’t care for Pastor Carter, if I’m being honest.”

“He seems nice enough.”

“He lives like a king off our donations, John!”

“We do pretty well ourselves, you know. He says God wants me to have what I want. Why shouldn’t he have the same?”

“That’s not the point. We’re not pastors, we’re not—”

“Just give it a few more weeks. You’ll come around to it.”

“I’ve been going to that church for two years, John. Before I even knew you.”

“So what’s three more weeks?”

The church and Carter’s electronically enlarged smiling face vanish behind us, replaced with the illuminated signs of a solid three mile line of strip malls.

Pools. Patios. Furniture. Office Supplies. Chain restaurant ethnic food. Things I don’t need.

I turn my gaze toward the other side of the freeway where paired lights advance toward us and quickly fly by, a thin yellow line all that separates us from them. It’s here that the intrusive thoughts always find me. A gentle nudge of the wheel, a simple, yet uncorrectable mistake. Not that I ever would, of course. But I often imagine the small headline, fixed on page two or three of the Express News:

<center><b>CRASH CLAIMS TWO LIVES</b></center>

Of course it might be more than two. And it would say that the coroner was waiting on toxicology reports, and people would shrug and shake their heads in dismay. Weeks later the story would be run again, with the reports coming back negative. Those same people would probably skip the story entirely. Or maybe they’d read it, take in the words, but digest none of them, before moving on to the sports section, or the poorly written editorial on oil drilling.

John takes the exit, shifting gears and slowing the car as it descends a gently sloping ramp onto the access road. I sigh audibly and look over at him.

“I’m feeling a little tired, John. Maybe we can leave early?” I ask.

He shrugs, almost imperceptibly.

The car turns right onto a surface street and slows again. It’s not far now, though I wish it were. I wish the car ride would never end. So long as it doesn’t, we’re not required to talk, not obligated by manners, and politeness, and posture. So long as we’re in the car, my only obligation is simply to be. In truth, I’d prefer to drive alone, making a slow lap about the city. I’d pass the quiet business parks, the empty malls, and the crowded clubs, and maybe I would stop. But it would be spontaneous, of my own volition.

The nighttime city is, or, rather, would be my dreamscape if only this man, this unthinking, unfeeling man currently directing the car were not an anchor of reality chained about my ankles. The Anchor, blissfully unaware, hangs a left onto a tony, sparsely wooded street.

The homes are large and identical. Faux brick and cheap wood, they rise, their windows lit, SUVs and sports cars parked in their driveways. A group of college students, maybe four years my junior, stand near a Mustang laughing, drinking beer. Two toss a football back and forth, their faces grimacing, twisting with concentration as they hurl the ball with all their might. It hits a branch and flails lamely, a wounded leather bird. Laughter follows.

John pulls the car to a stop near the house at the end of the block. Atop a small rise, it sprawls back through a thinning thicket. Light shines and voices waft through open windows on two floors. Cars line both sides of the street, packed tightly.

John drives past them, looking, as I have come to understand, for enough space to comfortably park his baby without the fear of dings or dents. He finds one moments later, almost a block from the house.

He parks and, not without reluctance, shuts off the motor. I make no move to exit. Moments pass, me staring out the passenger window at the dimly lit block, him looking at me.

At last, annoyance in his voice, he asks, “Coming?”

I force a smile onto my face. “Go on ahead. I need to fix my face and put on my shoes. I’ll only be a bit.”

I reach down and scoop a pair of black pumps off the floorboard. I dangle them from my hand as if presenting evidence. He does not think to ask why I did none of these things on the long ride over. He doesn’t complain; instead he simply shrugs, hands me the car key, and begins trudging toward the house.

I sit in the car, taking in the silence, before gently slipping the shoes on my feet, then opening my makeup case, and applying some color that I don’t need. At last, I unlatch the door, allowing it to spring upward toward the night sky. I step out unsteadily, immediately wishing I was anywhere but here.

The walk to the front door is eternal. Purse shouldered, I twirl the car key about my finger before ringing the doorbell. Catherine answers, dressed in a beige cocktail dress with her initials pinned in gold above her right breast. Her brown hair is curled, her face powdered and plump as ever.

“Emma! You look fabulous! Why didn’t John say you were coming?” she exclaims.

I’ve never really liked Catherine. She works at being nice, and, in the beginning, you imagine that eventually the politeness will wear through to something more genuine. But Catherine is always interviewing. Each question is pointed, each answer is met with a nod as though she were jotting down mental notes. I’ve always half-expected a letter in the mail, maybe a day after the event, explaining why she’d made the decision to go with someone else for the position.

“John didn’t say I was coming? I was just getting ready,” I say, smiling, shaking my head.

Catherine shrugs. “We just assumed he had come by himself. But now you’re here!”

“Now I’m here,” I find myself repeating.

Catherine stands aside and with a flourish ushers me inside. The house is dim, moody; guests shuffle from room to room. Men stand in corners with drinks in their hands, conversing with one another, or, more frequently, checking their phones in silent solidarity.

I turn to ask Catherine where John went, but she’s latched onto an older gentleman I don’t recognize and is busily trying to fill his cup with wine he keeps refusing.

“Oh, come on, Mr. Rice!” I hear her say.

Poor Mr. Rice shakes his head and protests, “But I’m driving, Mrs. Brett!”

“Not for a while yet!” Catherine retorts.

I contemplate calling out to Catherine, of being Mr. Rice’s salvation. Too late. Mr. Rice relents, his cup filled to the brim with California red. But Catherine is not yet finished.

“What about food?”

“I’m fine, Mrs. Brett, really—”

I turn and move away. The kitchen is crowded to capacity as guests move past each other, exchanging pleasantries on their way to the waste bin. John is absent here, too. Unsure of what to do, I turn, making for the couch where I might wait for him. I take my phone from my purse, dial his number. No answer.

Truthfully, I’m not sure having John with me would be at all better. I seem not to know a soul, but if John could not be bothered to tell them I was coming, could he possibly be bothered to introduce me? At best he might make me feel less awkward.

A bulky young man in a suit plops down on the adjacent cushion. With pudgy fingers he digs a case of cigarettes from his pocket and lights one. He offers the case to me and I decline.

“Are our hosts all right with smoking?” I ask, unable to help myself.
The bulky youth shrugs, scooping an ornamental ashtray from the table that looks as if it’s never seen use and tapping it with his index finger.

“No clue. Got these for a reason though, right?”

A smile slowly crosses his face as he deposits the first bits of ash into the tray. My desire to leave wells to a staggering crescendo.

“Excuse me,” I say rising to my feet, “I’ll be right back.”

As I walk away he calls after me, “Hey! Could you get me a glass of the Scotch?”

I turn and smile, not intending to do any such thing. I pass the staircase, briefly looking up. I hear voices and, for a moment, I wonder if I should ascend and look for John. I dial his phone one more time to no avail. A middle-aged couple moves past me, hand in hand, heading for the door. I look down at the key I’m still clutching with my left hand. I make my decision. Sorry, John. I’m not sorry.

I walk to the door, follow the couple out into the night.

The man turns to me. He’s fat, his beard graying, and there’s not one hair upon his head. His wife is matronly, her mascara haphazard, thickly applied.

“Nice party, huh?”

“Yes,” I say quietly, unsure if he’s being sarcastic.

“This is us,” the woman says as the couple pauses in front of a bulky white Cadillac.

“Goodnight,” I say, not bothering to look back as I move down the sidewalk.

“You’re with John McKenna, right?” the man asks, stopping me in my tracks.

I turn and shake my head. “No, you’re thinking of someone else,” I respond apologetically.

“Huh. Look just like her. Always imagined pretty thing like her would be one of a kind.”

I smile. “Have a good night,” I repeat.

“You, too,” he allows.

I tap the button on the key. John’s baby blinks and beeps as the door slides open. I get behind the wheel, adjust the seat, remove my shoes. I consider my phone one last time, wondering if…

I toss the phone gently onto the passenger seat and start the car. I pull from the parking space, changing gears. The night stretches out in front of me. I find my way back to the freeway as my surroundings rush about me, lit and pure, suddenly imbued with possibilities.
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<td><a href="http://southernpacificreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Gaston-Rauch.jpg"><img class="aligncenter size-thumbnail wp-image-3743" alt="Gaston Rauch" src="http://southernpacificreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Gaston-Rauch-150x150.jpg" width="150" height="150" /></a></td>
<td>A native of Los Angeles, Gaston Rauch currently resides in Arkansas where he is at work on his first novel. When not writing or missing the ocean he can often be found trying to overcome his fear of heights by climbing large rocks. He is grateful to his wife Roselyn for supporting his decision to embrace writing as his calling in life.</td>
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