BY ELIZABETH COULTER
Copyright is held by the author.
“SERIOUSLY, TRICIA. You’d think three kids should be enough,” Iris says, her words slurring. The server has cut us off and clearly wants us to leave. He’s given us breadsticks to absorb the vodka we drank. “On the house,” he said as if that was a huge gift. Our bill came to over $300. Next time, I’ll kick my husband and kids to his mother’s house so we can enjoy girl’s night out in our condo. No doubt, when he sees the bill, he’ll agree. He may be a lawyer, but he’s a frugal one.
“More breadsticks, please.” But like Dionne Warwick’s classic song, the server just walks on by. I love the music of the ’60s. Women sexy with newfound empowerment. Before romance died. The server looks annoyed. At first, we were the fun group. Now we’re soppy and annoying. We’re all nearing 40, I’ll go first next month. Perhaps we are no longer cute on the imbibing alcohol scale.
“I’m not saying I know everything about love, but I know what it’s not.” Iris has an opinion about everything. I’m afraid she offended Suzanne, who left an hour ago. Suzanne revealed she is desperate to get pregnant again, despite her husband’s protestations. Iris thinks she’s gone over the edge.
The lights on the patio flicker. We grab our purses and, arm in arm to support each other, stumble out into the cool evening.
“Hope he enjoys his $10 tip,” Iris laughs. If she knew about the $20 I left under my plate, she’d be angry. I’d have to listen to her lecture on co-dependence. When aimed at you, Iris’ sharp edge can be hurtful. She thinks I bend too easily when it comes to the needs of my family. But tonight, I’m not honest with her. Matthew, my trusted husband of 10 years, came home last week with a whisp of perfume on his jacket. A proverbial long hair. That night our lovemaking was frantic. As if his appetite had already been whetted.
The night air snaps against my cheeks. A chill makes me shiver. The armholes of my sweater turn inside out as I try to put it on. I give up and wrap it around my shoulders. My left ankle turns over in my heels as I hobble on the sidewalk. Iris struts in hers. How can we nearly be the same age? She has no gray in her dark hair and doesn’t have to squeeze into spanx so bulges won’t show. I make it to a bench at a bus stop and motion for her to join me. It doesn’t smell too much like urine so we sit. I remove my shoes and rub my aching feet. Iris reaches into her bra and a joint magically appears.
“No, no, I can’t,” I say. She wiggles it in front of me, calling it the nectar of youth. Two matches strike and burn out in the breeze. There’s only one left. I grab it. She was always lousy at lighting these things. Back in high school, when it was risky, I was the one to light up. One strike and the sweet smoke rises. I cough after a small puff then pass it to Iris. She takes a drag. A cop car slows down in front of us. Iris waves.
“God, I love this country,” she says, handing the joint back to me. It’s been years since I’ve smoked. I cough again.
“Covid!” she yells. It’s an ongoing joke between us. All coughs are covid. Iris had the virus and said it was awful. Five days in bed and a cough that lasted for weeks. That’s why we laugh at it. To make it smaller and less scary.
We sit in silence, mesmerized by the nightfall of the city. Music from an unseen car, heavy with base, fades. A far-off siren moans, off to save yet another overdose. Towering condos, windows lit up like Japanese lanterns, house thousands of people quietly living their complicated lives.
A young man walks by, sleeping bag draped over his shoulders. I suspect we are sitting in his nocturnal abode. He hesitates in front of us then walks on, swallowed up by the streets. His scream startles. It echoes off the buildings. Then he is gone.
I rummage in my purse for my cell phone. My god, did I leave it at the restaurant?
“Do you have your phone?” I ask.
Iris is lost in her thoughts. I nudge her.
“Your phone?” I ask. She dumps the contents of her purse on the bench between us.
“Are you crazy? There are crooks everywhere.” I rummage between lipsticks and compacts. A business card offering half price on Botox. Miraculously, it all fits back in her little black purse.
“Suzanne already has what she wanted. A man, children, a condo with a view,” Iris says out of nowhere. The pot has made her philosophical.
“What?” I ask.
“Suzanne. Antonin. She’s already got him trapped,” she continues. “Even if he wanted to leave, he couldn’t. What is the cost of alimony and support on three kids? He’d have to live in a rooming house. They’re a thing again. Like in the old days.”
“You’re stoned,” I say. “They’re not breaking up.”
“But the question remains,” she says, her brow furrows. “Does having a baby ever save a relationship?”
I met Suzanne five years ago, when we were dropping our babies off on their first day of daycare. We both stood frozen, as young, smiling daycare workers took our precious firstborns from our arms. We lingered, wondering what to do after we were shooed from the room. We found a coffee shop and stayed there for hours, talking about our fears, until it was pick-up time. Now I have two, and she has three. And we are first in line when the daycare doors open.
“There are ways to get pregnant,” I had said after the wine and the vodka started to flow. “You could poke little holes in the condoms! He’ll never know!”
“He has his own supply,” Suzanne sighed. She glanced to the next table. The couple was immersed in their phones. Still, she made a shushing sound.
“What about retrieving the used condom from the garbage?” Iris suggested. I tried not to laugh but she was on a roll. “Then get a turkey baster and . . .”
We were interrupted by our server and who set down another round of vodka martinis.
“And hey, if that doesn’t work,” Iris said, “there are walking sperm banks everywhere.”
Suzanne, still sober, left shortly thereafter.
I hadn’t realized how unhappy Suzanne had become. Antonin’s a good guy. He is older and has given her a lot of security. Sure, he is rough around the edges, but he grew up in Soviet Bloc Czechoslovakia. His stories are both fascinating and terrifying. When he was three, a group of playground bullies decided he needed a tattoo. They used old nails to scrape “war” on his forearm. He was proud he didn’t cry. When his father found out, he chased one of the boys down and broke his leg. I mean, it was understandable that Antonin’s idea of nurturing was skewed.
“Relationships are hard,” I say to Iris, who is no longer listening. She rummages through her purse and in her pockets. As I watch her, I think about her simple life. Just her and Devon. What is the source of their stress? Choosing what to watch on Netflix? Recently, Matthew and I have been struggling. After two years of covid isolation with daycares closed and the kids running around while we worked at home; it’s little wonder we’re so tired. And now escalating inflation strains our budget. I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to go home and listen to loud music. Like when I was in my twenties.
Iris finds her phone but as usual, her battery is down to one bar. She texts her boyfriend who hopefully will be awake and can pick us up. The cool air numbs my bare shoulders.
“All I’m saying,” Iris says. She wraps her sweater around her shivering body. “Is maybe Suzanne should be happy with what she’s got. One more child may tip the iceberg.”
Iris knows what she wants. Or rather what she doesn’t. She’s had two abortions. I drove her to both. The first was in grade twelve. The usual story of “just one time” although nobody ever really believed that claim. Her mother was standing on their front porch when I drove up in my father’s Chevy. Whereas Iris was opinionated, I was convincing. I had spun a story that my parents were going to play in a tennis tournament. Iris was going to help me with my algebra. Her mother was fretful, the idea of being separated from her daughter. If she knew the truth, she’d be gutted. She gave us ten dollars for pizza. Iris kept it together until we were just out of sight. Then she broke down in tears. “It’s okay,” I said. “You’ll be okay.”
The second time was just last year. Failed birth control. No tears this time, just anger. “What the hell,” she said when she called. “Why does this happen to me?” This time, it was Matthew I lied to. I called in sick from work and spent the day with her. One month later she moved in with Devon, the one we are waiting for now. He was the . . . father? What do you call the man in this situation? The impregnator?
“Devon said last week he might want a baby,” Iris says. A bus approaches and slows down. She waves it on. “But I don’t know.”
“Well,” I say, then hesitate.
“Well, what?” She turns her head and glares at me.
“I was drinking heavily at the time.” She is angry. “I know the risks! And I don’t owe you an explanation.”
Big droplets of rain started to fall just as Iris’ boyfriend pulls up.
The lights of the condo are still on when I arrive home. Soft rock from the living room, too loud for sleeping children. My reflection in the hall mirror startles. Black smears of mascara. Crimson strayed from my lip lines. I pull off my dress, the rolls of my body released from the tight undergarment. It feels so good. I am down to my bra and underwear by the time I get to the living room.
“Hello, beautiful,” Matthew says and hands me my cotton woodland-themed pyjamas. They’re soft and warm, just out of the dryer. Piles of folded laundry sit on the coffee table.
“The kids?” I ask. They’re spending the night with his mother. He suffered through her salty lasagna, penance for a free night. They don’t really get along but both had their own agenda. His, a quiet evening. Hers, morning Sunday School.
“I’ve had a bit to drink,” I confess and tell him about my lost cell phone. He’ll check at the restaurant tomorrow. Or later today, as it is one in the morning. “You did laundry?”
“Four loads,” he says. He’s proud. Congratulations, I want to say. I do 10 loads every week to no fanfare. He picks up my pink cashmere sweater from the pile, now doll sized.
“Is this Lucy’s?” he asks, referring to our two-year-old.
“Yes,” I say, sighing, my precious sweater collateral damage. “Do you have a bottle open?” Matthew pours a glass of cabernet and sets it down on a coaster on the end table. He also brings a tall glass of water. I close my eyes and listen to the music. Cat Stevens, now Yusuf. Memories of Matthew as a university student, wire glasses and unruly hair. A mattress on the floor. A candle dripping over an empty wine bottle.
Matthew turns the lights down and holds me.
“Do you ever think you might want another baby?” I ask. He releases his embrace and looks at me.
“Are you?” he asks. I point to my wine glass and shake my head. Ever the lawyer, he adds, “I’m quite content with things as they are. But if you want another baby, I would take it under careful consideration.”
“Oh hell, no.” I laugh. “I can barely handle the two monsters you’ve already given me.”
“Where is all this baby talk coming from?” I tell him about this evening. About the difficult times Suzanne and Antonin are going through. And Iris’ judgement.
“I mean, isn’t that what love is?” I ask. “Isn’t love wanting to give your partner the things that make them happy?”
“So, Suzanne wants another baby.” Matthew looks down at his hands. “That’s a tough one.”
I’ve learned if I want more information, I must wait. So I do.
“I’m going to tell you a secret. You can’t tell anyone.” I nod. “Remember last month when Antonin was at a conference? Well, he got a vasectomy instead.”
My face flushes. I’m angry.
“Doesn’t he love her?”
“It’s not a matter of love.” Matthew chooses his words carefully. “He just doesn’t want any more children.”
“But,” I say. The word hangs in the air like a dark cloud, casting a shadow over the guitar riffs and carefree melody. I push, uncertain if I want to hear what he may say. “But isn’t love being truthful?”
How many secrets can one carry in this world? Suzanne will surely find out Antonin will not give her what she wants. Now I am a participant in deception. My silence seals the lie.
Matthew squats beside the stereo and adjusts the volume of the music, his shoulders hunched with life’s burdens. He kept Antonin’s secret for over a month. What other cards does he hold tightly to his chest?
At that moment, I make a decision. I will no longer sniff his jacket for perfume. No more searches for errant blonde hair. Years later, when the kids have kids of their own, we’ll hold hands on evening strolls and toast the sunset with Perrier instead of wine. The world around us moves quickly but we are content. Lust has long passed and love persists.
But this is not now.
My husband takes my hand in his and kisses it. I lean back into the couch, heavy with the responsibility of love and trust and friendship. I close my eyes, the music transporting me to simpler times.
Elizabeth Coulter writes short stories among the mountains and an occasional bear in Port Moody, British Columbia. She has worked as an Emergency Room Nurse in Canada, England and the United States. She is presently a student in The Writers Studio, at Simon Fraser University.