An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Devan Wardrop-Saxton
Pregnant with someone else’s baby, Melanie stands outside her boyfriend’s hotel room with a bouquet of flowers and wishes it would rain. In the movies, it rains in scenes like the one she’s sure is about to start, it pours down and dampens and amplifies everything. It hammers on roofs and windows and walls, it drowns out apologies and coaxes out forgiveness, it furnishes desolation and comfort in equal measure. If it would only rain, she is sure she would feel more angry than sad, more determined than resigned. But the sky is its usual hollow blue, the sun is a thin, unimpressive wash over the peeling paint of South Dakota’s loneliest motel, and instead of knocking, she just rests her hand against the door, as though the wood itself could give her the strength to finally break the news to the man she’s leaving behind.
She’s named the baby Max. It’s too early to know yet if it’s a boy or girl, but she figures if it’s a girl then she’ll grow up tough and if it’s a boy he’ll grow up goofy, and that’s a hell of a lot better than what most of the kids she grew up with got. Most of the kids in Danford grow up tired and mean, done with the world before it ever got a chance to prove itself to them. Either that or they hunch into themselves until the day they can leave and never come back.
She has to keep reminding herself that the collection of cells inside her is not even really a baby yet, though the pamphlets in her bag disagree. She understands the science, she can see the unfathomably small images in her head, but there’s understanding and then there’s knowing, and despite herself, Melanie is sure of this baby, sure enough for names and plans. Sure enough to leave.
She raises her hand, curls it into a fist, and steadies herself.
She hesitates. The flowers were a stupid idea, she realizes. She brings her hand back to her side, leans her wrist against her hip self-consciously. Only girls get flowers. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, picking through the plastic-wrapped carnations at the supermarket to find the ones that still looked like they had come out of the ground. Only four dollars for I’m sorry in red and white, a pretty apology that now looks more like an insult. She stares down her peace offering, the petals suddenly offensive, and wishes for the thousandth time that she’d thought things through.
If she’d been thinking, she would have brought him something better. If she’s honest with herself, though, then she knows that if she’d really been thinking, she wouldn’t have gone to the bar that lonely night and sat herself down where she could see Jackson Sutter undressing her in his mind. She wouldn’t have taken the drink he ordered her, and when he came over and asked her if there was anything he could do with the same self-sure voice he’d had ever since the fourth grade, she wouldn’t have cried.
She was surprised she didn’t cry after, when the door latch clicked open and Jackson stepped back out of her life as smoothly as he’d stepped in. She thought about praying, but that felt too close in a world where she felt so far from everything else, and in the end she just got up and locked the door. She lay in bed, eyes closed, until the dull morning light seeped through the blinds, and then there was nothing but another day of waiting in the same old dead-end town.
For a week she got dressed, she worked the diner, she came home and stared at the life she had finally allowed herself to hope for, yellowed and curling into uselessness. She got undressed, she laid in bed, she closed her eyes. She didn’t sleep. Mason called her once, like he did every week; she said so little that he asked what was wrong. Nothing, she said, stretching a smile across her tired face, hoping it would fit and that he would hear it as happiness. Just tired, that’s all. I miss you too. Love you. Bye.
She borrowed Missy’s car, drove up to Aberdeen where she was one of thousands instead of one of hundreds, and bought the little pink box she’d been dreading, thinking that it contained more significance than anything disposable ever should. She did pray, then, slumped between the sink and the toilet, her feet pressed against the door. She didn’t look for a long time. And when she did, it all came clear in her mind: she knew.
She still did what she thought was expected of her. She still went to the clinic, she still filled out the forms, she still listened to the options. She didn’t tell her parents. She didn’t even tell Missy, her first phone call when her dad had moved out. Melanie had barely looked at her, just thanked her and took off. She filled the gas tank on the way home and left the keys in Missy’s mailbox. It was the least she could do.
All she had thought of, in the bar, in her dark apartment, in the diner, in the car pulling into the clinic’s parking lot, was Mason. Mason, coming back in a week and a half. Mason, whose broken silence on the telephone was worse than what she had braced herself for, worse even than the yelling that followed and the badgering insistence of a dial tone when he hung up on her. Mason, only a plywood door away.
She regrets it almost instantly, a cold wave of fear spreading from her sternum down her arms and leaving her fingers trembling. She can hear him moving; she imagines him shuffling blankets to the floor, pulling his shirt over his head. His footsteps, slow and heavy on the carpeting. Her hand jumps unconsciously to her stomach; she jerks it back to her side. She wonders that there was a time when she didn’t have to remind herself to breathe.
“Melanie.” He’s standing mostly behind the door, but she can tell he looks the same as he always looks, rumpled hair and lumpy sweater hanging off his skinny chest. All the bluster and anger she’d readied herself for deflates, just like that, and her heart leans toward him the way it always does when their eyes meet. Today is different, though; his eyes are shuttered up. Her words crack on her tongue; she realizes she’s still holding the stupid carnations.
“I brought these for you,” she stutters when her voice stumbles back, thick and dry. She doesn’t hold them out to him.
“Thanks,” he says softly. Melanie can tell he means it; any other day she would be relieved, but today she is just empty. He almost smiles, but then the hurt washes back into his face and he looks away.
“I just wanted to‒”
“Come in, then,” he says, even quieter, and Melanie swallows the words that stick in her throat and nods. Mason reaches beside her, and for one brilliant, painful moment Melanie thinks he’s going to take her hand. He takes the crinkling plastic bouquet instead and lets the door swing open behind him as he shuffles back inside.
It isn’t much. His suitcase, open on the table. The bed near the door, still pristine, and his bed, unmade, an untidy clump of blanket having slid to the floor. The TV is on mute, football highlights flashing bright across the screen. A box of doughnuts and a napkin crusted with crumbs sit on the bedside table. Melanie sinks into a chair and reads him in the things he has left behind.
He fills a paper cup with water and tries to set the carnations in it, their long stems uncooperative. He settles with leaning them against the television. Melanie closes her eyes for a moment.
“So,” he says. She opens her eyes and he is sitting on the bed across from her. He seems to have run out of words; he knots one hand in the blanket and doesn’t look up.
“So,” she says, trying to make it sound like an agreement. She can’t tell if it works. There is nothing to say, there is everything to say. “How was the training course?” Her voice rings false, even to her. He looks up sharply.
“Christ,” he sighs. Silence. “It was fine.”
“It was great, actually. They’ve finally got me started on training the dogs, I’m not just cleaning up after them anymore.”
“That’s nice,” she says, trying to mean it. Mason almost smiles again. She thinks about what this conversation could have been only a few weeks ago, and the thought makes her want to bolt. She takes one shaky breath at a time, and the feeling fades to an ache. Mason stares at the floor.
“Do you mind if I…?” she asks, already reaching for the doughnuts.
“Don’t eat that,” Mason mutters. She hesitates. “You’re supposed to be eating healthy, aren’t you?” he says in the smallest voice, his eyes settling on everything in the room except her. “For the baby,” he adds unnecessarily, his voice even smaller. The word baby, in his mouth like a broken promise, hits and buckles her knees; she is grateful to be sitting. At once, the enormity of it all crowds out everything else and the conversation feels like it’s already happened, like she’s looking at it from a distance of years. Boy Max, girl Max, just a cluster of genetic information, a little nothing steadily becoming a something, then becoming a whole person, a person who will go out into the world and be talked to and misunderstood and loved by people Melanie will never know. She looks at Mason and tries to find words for the caved-in little man in front of her: thank you? I’m sorry? I love you?
“Just one’s okay. I think,” is what she says. Mason does smile then, though it’s a worn-down, sad-eyed smile, like he’s forgotten how.
“I guess.” She takes a doughnut and breaks off a piece. It’s only a little stale. Mason clears his throat awkwardly a couple times. “I got you something.” He jumps up from the bed and rummages around in his suitcase.
He thrusts a tissue papered bundle at her.
“Listen, just listen for a second, okay? I… this is really hard. Melanie, when you called me‒” He stops, rubbing his forehead. She wonders if he will cry. He takes a deep, unsteady breath, his eyes closed, as Melanie picks at the ragged edges of the tissue paper. “When you called me, I… I couldn’t… I couldn’t think about anything,” he says solemnly, still standing in front of her, his hands folded like he’s delivering a eulogy. “But then, I… well, open it.”
His eyes flick up to meet hers, so full Melanie has to look away. She opens the present gingerly, careful not to rip the paper. A little plump square of soft white cotton.
She turns it over, unfolds it. A shirt with two green felt owls stitched onto the front, a shirt so small it could be a punchline. For all of its obvious sturdiness, it feels impossibly delicate in her hands; she has a sudden, irrational desire to gather it up safe and hide it somewhere.
“I didn’t know, boy or girl,” he says.
“It’s way too early for that,” she says.
“Right,” he says, and Melanie sees the sort of father he would have been in the earnest shyness of his voice. She sees him and her heart folds in on itself.
“Mason, I can’t ask you to‒” she says, not sure of how she wants the sentence to end.
“I don’t think I could,” he whispers after a moment. She’s not sure if what she feels is relief or regret.
“Okay.” Mason doesn’t say anything more, just curls his hand tighter in the blankets and keeps staring at the floor. “I’m leaving,” she says, finally. “I’m driving out to Aberdeen, be with my Dad for a while.”
“Okay.” It is only a small disappointment that he doesn’t acknowledge how long a while could be. There doesn’t seem to be anything she can say, and Mason looks like he’s simply given up. She stands, clutching the tiny shirt close to her.
“Mason? Thank you.” Those aren’t the right words, they don’t hold enough to be the right words, there aren’t enough words in the world to mean what she wants to say, but they’re all she’s got. Mason just turns away and cries.
She eases the car out of the parking lot. The sun is a little stronger, the sky a kinder blue. Off in the distance, past the silos and the cornfields, the dead-ends with the houses she’s known since childhood, the day is already warming up. She takes the turn for the interstate slowly, thinking about Mason’s crumpled face and wondering if that’s what her father will look like when she pulls into his driveway this afternoon. She wonders if that’s all she is now, a lonely woman who crumples up the people who love her. There are no prayers she knows for this, no words that come to soothe her and reassure her of a better, brighter day on the horizon. There is only the improbable, fragile wonder of life in search of a beginning, and the uncertain promise of a road ahead.
© 2013 Devan Wardrop-Saxton