The windows were rolled down. MJ had some CD playing that a boy in college had once made for her. She didn’t remember his name, but she knew every word of every song on the CD. She’d stopped at her townhouse after her meeting with Nana and her mother to pick up this CD as well as Oreo and Willie. They had each claimed a window in the back to stick their heads out of. The parkway was nearly empty this time of year; the tourists who used it to visit the historic grounds it connected had mostly departed. The woods were thick on either side of the road, the leaves were every shade of fire. Her hair whipped around in the wind coming through the windows.
The meeting, the files, the words, the stories–they’d all come years too late. It felt like a press conference after the avoidable tragedy had happened; the damage was done. Their information and knowledge was appreciated, but it was too little, too late. She just wanted to be done with them. They’d delivered the news and the lore, but she wasn’t sure they should be there to deliver the baby. MJ wasn’t sure she wanted to deliver the baby just to know another girl would have to live through the secrets and the confusion. She wished she didn’t have to live through this either.
She wanted to believe that she was just a statue in the nativity scene her mother set up every Christmas on the side table near the front door. She wanted to believe that if she just followed the star, bore her burden that it would all work out. She had loved all the renditions of the Christmas Story her pastor had read over the years during the children’s message at the Christmas Eve service. All the stories had made it out to seem like this baby was the best thing to happen. MJ wanted to believe this baby could be the best thing to happen.
She caught a glimpse of the back seat through the rearview mirror. She wondered if there’d be a day where she’d load up a baby and her two dogs. If Jacob would be in the passenger seat. If they’d figure a way to fit his dogs in the car too. Could they really fit that much in her compact SUV? The car salesman had been talking to her like it was possible when she bought it, and she didn’t doubt that it was spacious. Maybe it was more the fear of missing the space. Maybe her life would get too full, the perpetual feeling that follows a Thanksgiving dinner. But she’d never quite reach the nap that followed, the silence of the house as everyone had simmered down. She wasn’t even sure if a Thanksgiving, a real, normal American Thanksgiving was possible for her family.
She pulled into a small turn off near a large rock that jutted out across the river. She hooked leashes on her dogs and lead them down the short trail to the boulder. They took the trip slowly, investigating every step, unsure of where they were headed and how dangerous it was. The sound of the water moving over the rocky river was deafening. For once, silence was her only choice. She sat down on the edge of the rock, her feet dangling over. Oreo and Willie hung back, but seemed content. They were sitting down behind her like gargoyles. Their ears were slightly pulled back, but their mouths were open, panting, almost smiling in a way.
MJ sat for a while just watching the water move over the rocks. She remembered going to Jesus Camp in her youth and picking out a river rock from a kiddie pool full of water set at the foot of the wooden cross in the outdoor sanctuary. The camp director had given some speech about how the campers were like rough river rocks and how over time God and the experiences he placed in their lives caused them to be worn smooth. It had moved her to tears at the time and for years she’d kept the rock on the windowsill in her room. Now, the process of river rocks just seemed like the way life worked. You were worn down until there was nothing left.
That night, MJ sat curled up on the couch watching NetFlix with Oreo and Willie. Oreo had his head resting on her lap. Willie was lying on his back, legs up in the air, snoring. She looked around the room, furnished with hand-me-downs. She tried to picture the space with baby accoutrements filling all the crevices. She remembered when Thom had first become a father.
He’d brought a large house in the suburbs. It had seemed almost too big at first. On one of her few visits there, MJ had run around the empty rooms as a kid, enjoying the feeling of space and emptiness around her. The walls seemed to orbit the small amount of furniture with which they’d moved in. Soon the house was fully furnished and decorated extensively. Jamie had started a blog where she talked about her decorating and homemaking skills. Soon the blog became about being an expectant mother. MJ remembered pictures on the blog showing the house became fuller with each day nearing the birth of Trevor. Babies needed so much and Jamie was never unprepared, stocking the baby supplies as if the apocalypse was around the bend. Thom had grown to like the puzzle of assembling the baby’s furniture and stroller. He liked to read up on the different options in car seats, see which one really stood the test of time. The build-up of stuff had seemed slow, and then suddenly years passed and they were caught in the current of birthdays and Christmas and all the toys that came along. Three kids filled the house up. Louie the Labradoodle made it jam packed.
MJ couldn’t imagine the same fate going over well in her place. Oreo and Willie filled it well enough. She didn’t even know where she’d fit a crib. She only had one bedroom.
She wondered what Jacob’s place was like. Zoey had probably furnished and decorated it, choosing some masculine color palette and filling the shelves with knick knacks that didn’t matter. His clothes probably didn’t even make it into whatever hamper she had spent time carefully picking out so that it matched the shoe rack or the color scheme of the framed urban landscapes she’d hung up in his room. It was probably a one bedroom apartment too. She couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Maybe in some alternate universe there was a house the right size for the two of them, that they could come together before the baby arrived, assimilate into a life lived together. They’d go on dates to Ikea or Babies ‘R’ Us. Their dogs would get along and each find their space in the house. They’d have a nice backyard where one day they’d erect a swing set. They’d mix their dishes together, let their silverware mingle in the drawer. They’d have a menagerie of glasses, knick knacks, and souvenirs. They’d argue over the theme for the nursery or something even more pointless like the color of the towels in the guest bathroom. But they’d settle down and try and become a family before the baby arrived. They’d pretend that they didn’t hate the other for leaving dirty dishes in the sink or leaving hair in the drain. They’d discover each other’s quirks. Learn to decipher each other’s shorthand on the grocery list. They’d live life in fast forward, skipping over dating, moving in together, engagement, the wedding, writing thank you notes to distant relatives who offered their hope and goodwill for the marriage in the form of toasters and waffle makers. They’d forgo those few years to themselves, the adoption of a dog that was neither hers nor his but theirs, the late night discussions about having a family, the excitement of deciding to throw away the birth control and try and try and try. There wouldn’t be a cute video announcing the pregnancy, there would be no gender reveal party, no baby shower. It would be a condensed version of all this; the celebration reduced; the responsibility and stress magnified.
MJ wanted to believe it could work for the better. That the choice to go for it, go straight to family in less than nine months would make the explanations of the child’s existence easier. Making things seem more grounded, but at the same time, she felt like she was cheating herself out of all those experiences and festivities.
The credits began to roll on the movie she hadn’t been really watching. She roused her dogs, hooked on their leashes, and led them outside. They sniffed around under the street lights, peeing by their favorite bushes, pausing every once in a while at the sound of something unfamiliar. When they were done, they headed back inside. She cleaned up their bowls and then the three of them climbed into her bed. Placing a hand on her stomach, which had barely a pooch to it, she tried to see if she could feel anything. She’d heard other mothers say that they could feel it, even when it was too early to really feel anything. MJ felt around her stomach, but she felt nothing.