New Mother

You cannot go back.

Leah had sketched the words on every scrap of paper, every grocery list, even the coupons she handed over at the store, the newspapers she bound with string and set out for recycling.  They, too, bore her new mantra beneath the bylines—four words from a soft-tipped pencil she rarely sharpened.

Leah was a lucky new mother in that her child slept well.  She could lay him down after lunch and not hear him again until close to supper.  These were the hours she had been told to savor—to do something special for herself. “You should take hot baths and read books you never thought you’d have time for,” her mother advised, the faraway voice on the telephone she no longer recognized.  But no sooner had she settled into the tub than she heard the buzzer on the dryer and realized it was time to change loads—transfer the wet ones, fold the warm ones, prepare for another cycle of burp cloths and bibs.  The clothes, it turned out, needed the bath more than she did. 

Sometimes Leah sat a long time at the bottom of the stairs, the soiled garments at her feet, the soft light streaming through the cellar door.  She watched the day stretch ahead of her, then beyond, wide as the winter prairie, bare as the winter prairie, and she feared she would never again glimpse what was buried under that snow.

You cannot go back.

“Hello? Leah?—I tried knocking, but there was no answer.”  She heard the thump of thick heels, and then Zoe appeared on the landing.  Zoe, like no,  one syllable without an umlaut.  Seeing Leah below her, she called out, “Oh my God!  Are you in pain, Lay?  Did you fall?”

“No, nothing like that.”  Leah turned slowly—she had lost her speed, surrendered it all to caution. “I was just sitting here.  I was just—waiting for the laundry to dry.”

“You have chairs for that, don’t you?  A comfortable couch?”

“I know it sounds silly,” she said, pushing herself up with her hands, “but sometimes I think I just get up there and I have to come straight back down here again. I know I shouldn’t be—I sleep a lot now—but I still can’t seem to shake this tired.”

“Can I help you?” Zoe offered, her hands outstretched.

“Really, no, I’m fine.  Embarrassedactually.  It’s one o’clock, and I’m still in my bathrobe and slippers.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Zoe smiled, wrapping an arm around her friend and leading her through the pantry to the hall.  “I’ll make some coffee, and—I brought a Bajan sweet bread.”

“You didn’t.”

“I did. They’re back by popular demand at the bakery, and you know I can’t sell them without taking some home.  That would be a far too efficient business model.”

Leah leaned against a cushioned bar stool and watched Zoe work her way around the kitchen: every gesture smooth and precise, the way she had of making slicing and serving a dance.  Zoe stood tall in high boots and tight-fitting jeans—dark denim with slim, pointed pockets in back—and a lavender fleece vest, the perfect complement to her spume of red hair.

“I shouldn’t be eating any of this,” Leah sighed.  “At the rate I’m going, I’ll never get my figure back—such as it was.”

Zoe ground the beans, scooped them generously into the waiting filter.  When she looked at Leah, her brows were knit in problem-solver fashion.  “You need to start being nicer to yourself,” she said. 

“Nicer doesn’t take the weight off—and neither does your devil bread.  But it isdelicious.”

***

Leah spread a white linen cloth over the polished mahogany table.  The woman Michael had hired—the one who came once a week, avoided Leah’s eyes, and didn’t do laundry (it was in their agreement that she wouldn’t “operate machinery,” which included the vacuum cleaner, too)—seemed to have a particular passion for what could be done with an old rag and a bottle of furniture polish.  She liked to make all the surfaces shine.

“The house is still filthy when she leaves, Michael,” Leah had complained.  “The only difference is that it looksclean.”

“I’ll have a talk with her,” he said.  “Where she comes from, women don’t do the negotiating.  Instructions come from the man.”

Leah didn’t know where she came from and didn’t care to.  In fact, she fantasized the next time the woman arrived she would play a tape-recorded Donald Trump shouting “You’re fired!” and see if that voice was manly enough to convey her message.

“Lost in thought, are you?”  Leah refocused her eyes, and there was Zoe, still smiling, holding out a slice of warm bread propped on the saucer of a piping hot coffee cup.

“You do everything so fast,” she remarked.  “Since I had Liam, it takes me forever to get anything done. Mostly, I don’t.”

“Isn’t that typical, though?  I bet a lot of new mothers feel that way.”

There was that phrase again—new mother.  Leah had heard it so often in the last four months she feared it would replace her name.  Before long, she wouldn’t be a “new mother,” yet she would always be a “mother,” and in time, an “old mother,” someone even Liam didn’t want around.  The thought of it—this word competing with her own name, competing even with her general name of “woman”—threatening to replace them both as the truth of who she was—caused Leah to brace her hands on the chair and stand bent over, gasping for air.  This happened from time to time and had been happening more since the birth of her child. Michael called it a “momentary lapse” and told her she should drink more tea, get more rest, stop pushing herself so hard.  She scowled at him: As if there was any choice.  By the time Zoe returned from the kitchen, Leah had taken control of her breath and posed herself on the chair, not wanting her friend to see her that way, not wanting to appear any more pathetic than she already felt herself to be.   

“Do me a favor,” Leah said.

“Sure. Anything.”

“I don’t want to talk about myself today—or the baby.  I want to talk about you—maybe do a little vicarious living.  Do you mind?”

“No,” Zoe replied, “I don’t mind.  I’m just afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  I have nothing sensational to report.”  With that, she tore a small piece of bread dusted with powdered sugar and dipped it into her coffee.  “Hmmm…manna from heaven,” she sighed, and closed her eyes with the impossibly long lashes.

“Then make something up.  I don’t care what it is, so long as it takes me far away from here…Are you seeing anyone?”

“No one of interest.”

“Trust me—I’m interested.  I watched a two-hour special on dung beetles yesterday.”

Zoe laughed and sliced more bread.  “Well, when I say no one of interest, I mean no one of interest even to me.  I’m beginning to think all the nice girls are straight, and all the straight girls are married.”  She handed Leah another slice, which she declined at first, then reluctantly accepted.

“Michael says it’s important not to eat your pain.  That’s why he bought me the exercise bike—so I can ride it when I’m feeling hopeless and out of control.”

“Is it really hopelessness?” Zoe asked.  “I mean, I know it’s hard, and Michael has to travel so much, but Liam’s getting bigger now and sleeping through the night.”  She hesitated, picking small dried cherries from the bread.  “I thought this is what you wanted.”

Leah sipped her coffee to keep her lips from trembling.  “Let’s talk about you,” she said. 

“What do you want?”

“Some version of what you have, I suppose—someday, not now.  A person who holds my interest, a house with window treatments, maybe a big, drooly dog of some kind.  I’m not sure about motherhood, though I’d consider it,” she sighed—“but if we have a child, I’ll make her carry it, whoever she is.  Giving birth is noton my life’s to do list.” Then, Zoe laid a thin, freckled hand on Leah’s, which was dark and plump by comparison.  “Nothing against you, of course, or of all the women who do it every day.  I’m just a big chicken when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“I am too, apparently,” Leah murmured, thinking of her sliced stomach muscles, the scar that stretched like street car tracks across her abdomen. 

You cannot go back.

***

“I ran into Missy Compton the other day,” Zoe remarked.  “I guess it’s Missy Jordan now.  At any rate, she was all atwitter about the reunion, and she asked if I was going, and I couldn’t bring myself to say yes.  I mean, I’m not going, but if anyone could convince me otherwise, it would be you.”

“Do you think I want to see those people?” 

“Well, you’ve got something to show off,” Zoe teased.  “C’mon, that rock alone could make some heads roll.” 

Leah looked down at her diamond studded with sapphires, the coveted Marquis cut that twice she had let slip down the drain and had to retrieve with the rusty head of a hanger.  “Fifteen years.  That’s something.  Is the future what you thought it would be?”

Zoe walked over to the window and slid open the interior shutters so they could see the street in the distance and the flower boxes brimming with snow.  “Just about,” she said.  “I wanted a bakery, you wanted a family—we did our thing, and for the most part, it seems to be working out.”

You cannot go back. 

Leah wanted to say it aloud.  She wanted to clutch Zoe’s wrist-bone in her rising panic and shout at the top of her lungs: You cannot go back!  Instead: “How are you not terrified?” she asked, her voice tiny and solemn, her face but a shadow in the frugal January light.

“Everything always works out,” Zoe promised, pulling her chair close and leaning her body closer.  “Part of it’s just the winter.  You always feel a little sad in winter, a little scared—everyone does—but it passes. You’ll see.  Six months from now, you won’t even remember the way this feels.”

What Leah remembered was the way Zoe used to look at her in high school.  She was famous for her impish grins, her Anne of Green Gables earnestness, the way she would lie to the math teacher right to his face and never flush, walk away breezily with a homework extension or a higher grade.  But Leah had intercepted glances, had caught Zoe smiling shyly in her direction, with nothing of her signature moxie.  She found herself wishing that her boyfriend John—and later even Michael, her husband—gazed at her with such attentive eyes. 

Zoe snapped her fingers.  “Lay? Post-hypnotic suggestion?”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. 

“You’re tired,” Zoe said, patting her hand and standing up to collect their cups. “Shall I get you more coffee, or would you like to lie down for a while?”

“I was just thinking how I’ll never go parasailing.”

“What?”

Parasailing.  I always wanted to do that.”

“So you’ll do it,” Zoe replied.  “You’ve still got a few good years left” and grinned at her friend.  “Sometimes I think I’ll never have sex again, but it always turns around.”

“You don’t understand.”  Leah’s desperation was mounting, but Zoe seemed impervious, refused to permit it. “There are things I won’t do now, not because I can’t do them or because I’m too old to do them, but because it wouldn’t be responsible.  I could get hurt, and then where would my son be?  Michael says we can’t think about ourselves so much anymore—we have to think about the future with Liam in the foreground.”

“Well, he gets on a plane every week, doesn’t he?  That’s dangerous.  Driving is dangerous.  Hell, people fall getting in and out of the bathtub, and you’re not going to stop bathing, are you?”  Zoe came and stood behind her, stroking her hair.

“It’s greasy. I’m sorry,” Leah winced.

“Don’t apologize to me—for anything.  We’ve been friends too long for that kind of formality.”  Leah closed her eyes and let her shoulders settle again, her hands unclench from the seat of the chair.  “Why don’t you let me draw you a bath?” Zoe offered.  “It’ll feel good—and I promise it won’t kill you,” she whispered in Leah’s ear.

“I have laundry—”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“I have to spot-treat some of the shirts for the next load, and—”

“Lay, I know how to do laundry.  I may live in Single Land, but we still have washing machines there.  Next week they’re even sending us samples of Clorox color-safe bleach.”

“I’m sorry—”

Zoe slid her long, pale hand across Leah’s mouth.  “No more apologies.  No more protests aimed at people who are trying to help you.  All right?”

Leah nodded. She brought her own hand to her face, stretched it over Zoe’s, kissed the deep crease in her palm.

“You’re sweet,” Zoe said, and kissed the crown of Leah’s head, there where the first silver hairs mingled with the brown.  “Let me start the bath.”

***

When she heard the tap at the bathroom door, Leah startled.  Had she fallen asleep?  Had she been dreaming?  The water was cold now, her toes badly pruned.

“Look who’s here,” Michael smiled, stepping in from the hall with Liam in his arms.

“You’re home.” Her voice was flat, though she had meant for it to rise.

“I got an earlier flight,” he said.  “I thought maybe we’d get dinner out.”

As Michael approached the tub, Leah felt herself shrinking, had to fight the urge to cover up. “That would be nice.  Just give me a few minutes to dress.”

Michael sat down on the toilet seat and gazed at Liam.  “Look at how perfect he is.  I’m so jealous that you get to see him every day.”

“I’ll need to nurse before we go,” she said, her voice so low it seemed like growling.  Michael didn’t notice. 

“Where are we going?

She glared at him, but he was busy adoring their child.  “To dinner—where do you think?”

“Oh, I thought we’d stay in,” he said.  “I can pick up some take-out, or we can have something delivered.  I’m up for anything.  You choose.”

You cannot go back.  The words flashed, marquee-style, on the tile walls.

“I’d rather go out,” she said.  “I haven’t left this house for three days.”

“Don’t you think it’d be easier—and then if he starts crying and we’re in the restaurant—it’s too late to ask anyone to babysit.”

“Maybe Zoe would.”

“I ran into her,” Michael smiled.  “She was just leaving when I arrived.  She left us some bread from the bakery and folded all the clothes.”  Leah watched the tassels on his shoes twitter as he tapped his feet on the checkered floor.  “I always liked her.”

“Everyone likes Zoe,” Leah sighed.  “Don’t you know—she was voted Best Personality Girl of the Class of 1995. And Best Legs.  And Most Likely to Get into a Bar Brawl.”

Michael rocked the baby without looking up.  “It’s still so funny to me that she’s gay.”

“Why is that funny?”

“Well, not funny ha-ha, but amusing, I mean.  Do you know how many men in this town—”

“What does their desire have to do with hers?” Leah intercepted him.  She pulled the curtain closed before she rose to her feet, using the towel bar to steady herself.

“Do you need some help?” Michael asked.

“You have your hands full,” she replied, “and I’m fine.”

“It’s nothing against Zoe,” he continued.  “I’m not trying to say she shouldn’t be who she is.”

“Then, what areyou trying to say?”  Leah poked her head out from behind the curtain and studied him as he stared enraptured at their child.

“Nothing,” Michael replied.  “I don’t want to start anything—”

“Could you leave then?  I’d like some privacy.”

***

An hour later, they sat together at the dining table, Chinese food cartons bulging before them, Leah in her bathrobe again with a fresh towel wrapped around her head. 

“Shall I fix you a plate?” Michael offered.

“That’s fine.”

“Tell me what you want.”

“Does it matter?”

He stopped, laid down the spoon, let his eyes roam the length of the table until they came to rest on Leah’s vacant face.  “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” Michael asked, loosening his tie and letting his collar fall open like a torn sail.

“How is it for you?” she replied.  “Do tell me. I’m dying to know.”

This,” he said, gesturing toward her with a wide, emphatic palm.  “It’s either sarcasm or silent treatment.  It has been the last few times I’ve been home.”

“Interesting.” Leah folded her arms and leaned back in the chair.  “I’m curious. Why do you think it’s been like this—” mimicking his gesture, then resuming her pose.

“I don’t know. Dan says it could be hormones, that Shelley had a hard time adjusting after—”

“So you talk to Dan about me?”  Michael scratched his light stubble and looked down, guilty.  “What do I have to do to get on that list?”

“What do you mean?”

“The list of people you talk to about me.”

Michael was pretty, Leah thought, observing her husband like a specimen, something apart from herself and bound by her purview.  Too pretty to be faithful?she mused.  His slender face and hazel eyes.  His softly clefted chin.  Leah wondered what Michael had been voted in high school.

“I can’t play these games all the time,” he said, rolling up his sleeves now, becoming determined.  “Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.” 

“I did tell you what I want.  I said I wanted to go out to dinner.”

“Lay!”

“You explained why it wasn’t practical.  I understand. I am familiar with the strength of your veto.”

“Do you want some of this or not?” Michael demanded, his cheeks flaming beneath the gold shadow of a new beard.  When Leah said nothing, he served himself and ate hungrily, angrily, in silence.  She wrote You cannot go back in junior high school cursive with her finger on the dustless table.  

Then, Michael softened.  His mood changed.  “Maybe we could go away next weekend,” he said.  “Someplace warm?  Miami maybe.”

“Sounds impractical.  Who’ll take the baby?”

Michael cocked his head.  “We will.”

“I don’t see how that’s much different from staying here,” she said.

“Bright sun? Palm trees?  Strolls on the beach?”  His lips turned up gently.  “Room service?”

“It’s a long way to fly with a baby,” Leah replied.

“It’d be worth it.  It’d be—” he groped for the word, that helpless, pretty specimen of hers—“romantic.

“Since when are you interested in romance?”

“Leah, for Chris sake, just say what you mean!  I’m sick of all your little codes and rhetorical questions.”

“All right. Eight months.  No sex.  What now?”

He looked down again, cracked the fortune cookie in his hand—not the usual way, but single-fisted, so it shattered, a confetti of hard flour on his plate.  “It’s not for lack of trying,” he muttered at last.

“You never had any trouble trying before.  You were always so persuasive in that department.”  Leah was strangely enjoying herself now.  Everything out on the table, Michael squirming under her gaze.

“You never had a baby before!  I don’t know the wait time…I figured you would let me know when you were ready.”

“I did, Michael. Two months ago.  But you were so tired from the red eye, and then six weeks ago, but the baby was crying, and then a month ago—”

“Stop.”  He held up his hand like a pretty, helpless crossing guard caught in the intersection without his vest or flag.  “This isn’t about blame.  This is just an observation.”  She watched his chest rise and fall under his wrinkled shirt. “You’ve been distant.  Everything seems to mean the opposite of what it used to mean.  I didn’t want to force anything on you—”

“I appreciate your concern,” Leah said, rising slowly and walking around the table to where Michael sat with his sleeves rolled up, his collar gaping.  “I just wish I believed it was really concern for me.”

Michael’s brow creased, and he looked up at her, puzzled.  Leah lifted his fortune from the plate.  You like Chinese food.  “Who else would it be for?”

Leah patted his cheek before turning around.  “My mother always warned me—don’t marry a man who’s prettier than you are.  Nothing good will come of it.” 

They did not go to Florida.  Michael fired the housekeeper, and Leah kept the exercise bike as a makeshift garment rack. When he left for the airport, they kissed tersely in the dark, and he promised to call.  Leah invited Zoe to come for lunch the following day.

“What’s with the formal invitation?” Zoe asked.  “You usually just text something like get over here.”

“It’s not that kind of lunch,” Leah said, a lilt in her voice.  “I’m serving white wine and tuna niçoise—made from scratch, mind you—and it’s going to be…lovely.  Restaurant quality, but without the noise.”

“You know, we could goto a restaurant.  Save you the trouble.  Let someone wait on us for a change.”

“No,” Leah replied.  “I want you to come here.  Consider this a thank you for all the help you’ve given me these last few months.”

“I won’t come if it’s some kind of payback,” Zoe said.  “But if it’s just a lunch between friends—no gratitude involved—then I’ll be there.  What can I bring?”

“More wine. I only have one bottle.”

“Aren’t you nursing?  I mean—is that allowed?”

“Bread, then,” Leah said, and hung up the phone.

***

When Zoe arrived, the note on the kitchen door read Come In!  Zoe rubbed her heels on the old straw mat, brushed off the snow, and when she came inside, she left her ear muffs dangling over the door knob so she would remember them when it was time to go.

“Leah?”  She set a Tuscan boule to warm in the oven, then wandered into the dining room where the table was set, the white tapers already burning.

“Zoe.” Leah whispered her name so softly Zoe didn’t hear her at first.  When at last she turned, there was Leah holding a vase of tiger lilies, effusive and orange, her long hair pulled back from her face in an elegant twist, her lips set to smiling.

“You didn’t tell me this was a formal affair,” Zoe smiled.  “Look at you—you look beautiful.”

“Not beautiful,” Leah said, “but better,” setting the vase on the table and touching Zoe’s shoulder as she passed. “Take off your coat.  Stay awhile.”

“Is there something I can do to help?” Zoe asked, watching Leah glide about the kitchen in her handkerchief skirt and stockings, a little cloud of perfume trailing behind her.

“Not a thing. Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable.  I’ll serve the wine.”

“All right,” Zoe replied, unzipping her boots and folding one leg under her body as she perched on the chair.  “You get three guesses who came into the bakery today—ordered a cake for his three-year-old’s birthday party.”

Leah stood close to her, pouring the wine into both their glasses.  “No idea.”

“Peter—” When Leah’s expression didn’t change, Zoe clarified—“Peter Schoenlaub.”

“Oh.  So I take it he’s married then?”

“To Jeanette Farrow, no less.  That threw me for a loop.  Lay—” Zoe intercepted her with one finger to the wrist—“aren’t you going to ask me how he looked?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, peering down at Zoe with her wide gray eyes.  “I don’t need to know about Peter Schoenlaub.  It was prom, it was sex, it was over.  I doubt he even remembers me.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint you,” Zoe replied, toying with her silverware—“this is nice, by the way—”

“Wedding gift. We hardly ever use it.”

“He asked about you.  He remembered we were always friends in high school, and then he offered to set me up with one of his single friends.”  She rolled her eyes and slipped the napkin onto her lap. “Just when you think you’ve gotten the word out, another well-intentioned man with a friend comes around.”

“Maybe he meant a woman,” Leah offered, and hurried to the kitchen for the rest of the meal.

“No—an army buddy named Carl.”

“So you told him, I presume.”

“I did, and it was awkward—but you know I kind of like that part.”  Zoe winked at her in a way that made Leah feel vaguely like a math teacher.  “Then, he back-pedaled and stopped just short of the some-of-my-best-friends speech. That’s when he asked about you, actually—if we still kept in touch.”

Leah almost did it then, almost reached out and touched Zoe on her cheek.  When she couldn’t, she sat down beside her and began to serve the food.

“There’s bread in the oven.”

“Yes, thank you,” she whispered, her breath caught somewhere deep in her chest.

When they had been eating and drinking awhile, Zoe with her easy way of keeping the conversation alive, Leah felt a new urgency rising up from her toes, the way she couldn’t sit still without her ankles twisting, her knees bending out and in like butterfly wings.  “I’ll be right back,” she promised, excusing herself, but instead of the first-floor powder room, she climbed the stairs to the master bathroom. 

***

You cannot go back

She watched the words materialize, one by one, in lipstick on the mirror.  For a moment, she almost believed she had written them, until she blinked and they slowly disappeared.  Leah splashed water on her face, added color to her lips, then removed it quickly.  What did Zoe like?  She didn’t know.  Michael thought her lips were thin and liked when she traced them with pencil, then colored between the lines—something glossy and pink.  Would Zoe like that? 

Leah lowered her hand to her chest, just below the gold necklace Michael had given her. “It looks like a cutlass,” she had told him, surprised.

“Happy birthday, warrior woman,” he said, kissing her eyelids.

The hard clavicle bones were harder to find now.  She missed the way a crevice used to form when she bent forward—large enough to rest a finger in.  One button at a time, Leah opened her blouse until the lace camisole was showing.  Was it sexy? Was it trying too hard?  Why could she never call to mind the faces, the bodies, of any woman Zoe had ever brought home?

“Knock, knock.” Zoe peeked her head in.  “The door was ajar, and the bread was getting cold, and I wanted to make sure you were ok.”

Now Leah’s whole body flickered like a pilot light.  “I’m fine—I”

“You look flushed.  Are you running a fever?”

It was not what Leah wanted—not sympathy, not mothering, not the concerned hand to the flaming forehead.  She leaned against the counter as Zoe approached her.  She said, “Everything’s fine,” but Zoe wouldn’t take no for an answer.  This was the wrong way.  This was not how Leah had envisioned it.  When the hand stretched toward her, she intercepted it. When the face bent toward her, brows knit with concern, she brushed her lips against Zoe’s curious mouth, set always in the shape of an “o.”

“Oh,” Zoe murmured, stepping back.  “I’m sorry. I—didn’t expect that.”

Now the balance shifted.  Leah was the one standing tall, leaning forward.  She kissed her again, surprised by how small her mouth seemed compared to her own.  Or were they both small?  She had never kissed a woman before.

“Leah?” Zoe receded again, hands pressing lightly on her shoulders.  “What’s going on?”

Zoe like “no,” without an umlaut.

“Do we have to say anything?”

“I think we might.”

“Why?”

“Because—” Zoe looked helpless, startled—“you’re a married woman, and my friend, and—because—”

“Don’t you dare say new mother!”

“I wasn’t. It isn’t about Liam, or even Michael exactly.  I think it’s about you, Lay—I think you’re a little mixed up right now.”

“I don’t understand.”  Leah’s temples pulsed, and she felt the tears prickling behind her eyelids.  She wouldn’t let them out—she wouldn’t.  “I thought this is what you wanted.”

Zoe leaned against the bathroom wall, tucked her hands deep in her fleecy pockets.  “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me.”

“Oh, come on!” Suddenly, instead of tears, it was rage. “Stop pretending, Zoe.  I know how you feel about me.  You make a good show with all the girlfriends, but you’re never serious.  You never want to settle down.  And now when I’m finally interested in reciprocating, you decide to play like it never crossed your mind before!”

Zoe raised her hands, like a helpless, pretty crossing guard caught without a flag. “You’re my friend, and I love you—I really do—but not that way.”  She bit her lip.  “And not this wayeither.  This isn’t the Leah I know.”

“There are things I’m never going to do now!” Leah exclaimed, almost like an accusation.

Zoe’s face began to turn to match her hair.  “By things, I hope you don’t mean that grand, elusive lesbianexperiencethat earns you a merit badge in some sorority circles.”

Leah wasn’t listening.  “I admit it. I should have slept with you in high school.”  The tears came anyway, even against her will.

“Who says I would have slept with you?! I was in love with Tracey Carmichael, and you were my best friend!  This is absurd!”

Stunned, Leah took a step back.  “What about the way you used to look at me?”

“What way?  Leah! I’m a forthright person.  I’m an honest person.  Do you think I’m going to carry a torch for—for almost twenty years—and never let on?  You’re like a sisterto me.  Jesus!

“But—this doesn’t make any sense.  You always come here and touch me and—you’re always so warm.”

“That’s just how I am, Lay!  That’s how I am with everyone.”  Her brows knit in disappointment now, then rose again in indignation.  “Did you honestly think I was flirting with you all these years?!  Did you think I was just waiting for you to give the go-ahead so I could what—what did you think I was going to say?”

“I thought you—” Leah’s breath was fading again, the tears falling faster than she could wipe them away—“I thought at least you would—” gasping again.  “Oh, Zoe, are you sure?”

Zoe, like no, without an umlaut.  She stood with her legs spread, the door between them.  “I’m not what you need,” she said, softly now. “I’m not even sure I’m what you want, but I can tell you this—I’m not what you need.”

“I think you could be,” Leah murmured mournfully.

“I’m your friend,” Zoe said, firming her lips, the color draining out of her face.  “I’m not your parasail.”

“That’s not—”

Leah’s protest was interrupted by Liam’s cry.  She had just laid him down an hour ago.  “He never cries,” she said, incredulous.  “Not at this time.  Can you wait?”  Zoe stepped aside to let her pass.  “Can you wait for me?  Please?”

Zoe kept her head down, refused to meet her eyes.  “Just wait for me, Zoe.  I can explain everything.”

Leah walked into Liam’s room and lifted his squalling body from the crib.  He was screaming now, and she tried to console him, even as she listened for Zoe’s footsteps in the hall.  “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she promised, sinking down into the rocking chair.  “You cannot go back,” she said.  “Remember that, baby.  You cannot go back.”

When he stopped shaking and began to coo at last, Leah heard it—the kitchen door snapping shut, and one flight below, the dryer buzzing to announce another load was done.

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Julie Marie Wade
Julie Marie Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. She has published ten collections of poetry and prose, most recently Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems and The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel. Wade reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus and makes her home on Hollywood Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats.

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