There’s a baby coming out of Lara and Jerry wants a cigarette. In the hospital, smoking is not allowed. Jerry turns to the window and parts the blinds with his fingers. He lets them tremble back against the glass as Lara releases a stream of air from her lips. Jerry feels like he is in a barn, with the horses, and one in the last stall can’t get up, its haunches slick with sweat. The nurse rubs Lara’s glistening calves. Jerry thinks of the empty parking stalls outside. He takes a drag from an imaginary cigarette and blows against the window, creating a tiny circle of fog. He sticks his finger in the middle and forms an even smaller circle, a clearer circle – a window within a window looking out onto the parking lot.
Jerry started going to see Lara not because he fell in love with her, but because he knew he wouldn’t. She became someone to see and someone he didn’t have to talk to: when Jerry talked, he rarely said the right thing.
Lara gave him the sonogram a few months later, on a day she came to see him at the lumberyard. She handed it to him with her upper lip twitching slightly and her fingers trembling as they raked through her hair. Jerry stared at it, holding it up to the light, and looked at the smoky gray thing on the glossy paper.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“That’s our baby,” Lara answered, breathless.
Three days later, Jerry’s wife, Susanne, found it folded in two, stuffed into the back pocket of the jeans he had left on their bedroom floor. Susanne always complained that he lacked common sense: while useful at fixing a loose floorboard or killing the bats that sometimes got into the attic, he usually forgot to turn off the gas stove after making himself breakfast, and Susanne would come into the kitchen a moment later smelling the air like a dog.
“Goddamn it, Jerry,” she would say, flicking off the burner.
She came into the living room while Jerry was watching a basketball game, carrying his jeans in one hand, a stain stick and the sonogram in the other. He was sitting on the couch with his knees spread, a beer bottle balanced on his left thigh.
“Jerry. What the fuck is this?” Susanne waved the picture in front of his face.
Jerry lowered the bottle back to his leg, but it tipped onto the carpet where the dark liquid quickly spread into the fibers. “A baby,” he said.
Susanne packed her bags, throwing her sweaters and underwear into piles on their bedroom floor. Jerry sat on the front stoop smoking a cigarette, watching the neighborhood kids play flashlight tag in the courtyard across the street. When the screen door slammed behind him he put out his cigarette and stood, reaching to grab a bag from Susanne’s hand.
“I got it,” she said, pushing past him towards the street.
“You call a cab?” he asked her.
Her eyes closed. “My mom,” she said.
Jerry pulled another cigarette from his shirt pocket and stuck it between his teeth. “I thought you found a place to live?” His cigarette fell to the ground as he spoke.
Susanne sat on one of her suitcases and Jerry watched it wobble back and forth before she found a steady seat. “I just needed a ride.”
Jerry dusted off his cigarette. “I would’ve taken you.”
Susanne lost her balance and fell, sideways, into the grass. She lay there like the beam of a flashlight from one of the kids, fallen onto the lawn. She sat up and rested her elbows on her thighs, staring out at the courtyard. “Don’t be stupid, Jerry.”
A car pulled along the curb and Susanne threw her bags into the backseat. She turned to face him, leaning over the open passenger door.
“Can you just tell me one thing?” Susanne asked. “Do you love her?”
Jerry looked at Susanne’s face, at the spray of freckles across her nose.
Susanne got into the car and set her arm along the open window. “That’s too bad,” she said, as the car moved away.
Susanne watched a lot of crime shows while they were married. She used to watch talk shows and soap operas, hastily changing the channel if Jerry stopped home midday to eat lunch. Her home-based tailoring business began to slow down over the years, so that later, on those lunches at home, Jerry would come across his wife sitting tense on the couch, the detectives on screen poking at some dismembered body.
“I finished early,” she would say, when he asked if she had a lot of sewing left to do.
Jerry always thought the continued viewing of homicides and rapes would give her nightmares, but it only seemed to give her ideas. She would roll over against him in bed until he could smell her toothpaste in the warm breath against his neck. “I want you to hurt me,” she whispered once.
“Hold me down, with your knees on either side of my hips. Make me scream.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You’re such a wimp sometimes, Jerry.”
Jerry rolled over, facing the dappled shadows falling on the closed closet door. “Go to sleep, Susanne.”
Susanne got up and slammed her way into the bathroom. Through the door, he could hear her yell, “Goddamn it, Jerry! You’re supposed to want to fuck your wife!”
When he was a child, Jerry could hear his father’s goats out in their pen in the mornings. The sound of the rusted bells around their necks always seemed to coincide with the dawn, and Jerry would roll over in his bed automatically and look out the window at the hills in the gauzy light. If he kept his eyes open for just a bit longer, he would eventually see his father, his shirttails rippling in the wind and a metal pail swinging in each hand.
Jerry always liked the smell of their fur, as he ran his hands through it backwards, watching the white or black or brown hairs bristle through his fingers. Their smell was like air – like the air Jerry used to believe the mountains smelled like back when nothing but bears and rabbits lived there. It was his job after school to go out into the pens and make sure the goats had enough grass, that the hay and capeweed were spread evenly amongst them. He felt like the shepherds they read about in Sunday school – leading an innocent pack to their food and water. The kids were his favorite. Curious and bleating, the little goats would take his shirt between their teeth and chew. He would pry them off and run towards the fence laughing. The goats would stumble on their new legs and Jerry would prop himself on the wood beams and watch the little families look for food.
Towards the end of every spring, his father killed the male kids that were not needed to mate with the females. The killing seemed more like a personal ritual for his father, rather than serving the purpose he claimed that it did. Slitting the throat, his father would jerk forward once, quickly, and the blood would pour into a bucket sitting on the grass. Some would stain the dry alfalfa beneath their feet. The goat would collapse into his father’s looped arms, his legs on either side of the slack little body, and the eyes would go dull like a mirror covered in dust. In one beautiful, swift movement, his father held the life of one small thing in his hands.
Each spring after the slaughter, Jerry would help his father dispose of the bodies and then go cry behind the garden shed.
Lara was Susanne’s idea, in the first place. She brought her up one night at dinner, over meatloaf and green beans.
“I wish I had someone to wear pretty underwear for, Jerry,” Susanne said. Jerry continued chewing his meatloaf.
“You’ve got some lacy things don’t you?”
“Look at me, Jerry. I’m wearing a man’s shirt and my grandmother’s old shoes.”
Jerry leaned back in his chair and stared at his wife across from him, hands folded in front of her plate, the sleeves of one of his flannels rolled to her elbows. He peered below the table, at Susanne’s gray canvas sneakers sitting atop the fraying rug. He remembered when they were teenagers, and she wore dresses in the summer and sweaters cut low in the winter. He wondered how long it had been since she thought of herself back then. He sat back up.
“You got a cigarette?”
Susanne stared at him a moment and then stood. She walked to the dish on the counter and tossed him her pack of Marlboros. Jerry dug for a match in his shirt pocket.
Susanne sighed and leaned against the counter, playing with the knobs on the stove. “I met this woman, Jerry. At the dentist’s, while I was waiting for Georgiana to clean my teeth.”
Jerry found a match and lit it, cupping his hands around the flame. He went to drop the match in his glass of water but missed, and it landed on a paper towel. Susanne rushed forward and smothered the thing with a damp dishtowel. She crumpled it between her hands and threw it onto the table.
“She was sitting beside me, and she was reading this article in some magazine, called ‘Three’s Company.’ It was about bringing a third person into the bedroom.”
Jerry stared at his wife. Her arms were crossed and she was biting her lower lip, looking at him like he was about to hit her on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. He cracked a smile. “She read it to you or something?”
Susanne sighed. “No, Jerry.”
Jerry finished his cigarette. He looked at his dinner plate, at the juice from the beans pooling around the meatloaf. “Come on, Susanne. I don’t understand what I’m not doing to make you happy.”
Susanne went to the refrigerator and opened the freezer. She set down a pint of coffee ice cream in the center of the table.
“You owe me enough to hear me out for a minute.” Susanne pried the lid off the ice cream and her thumb slid across the surface. She licked it clean. “We both want to try it. She’s coming over on Sunday.”
The next evening, Lara walked through the door in a red rain slicker, carrying a plastic bag full of chocolate bars. Jerry stood from his spot on the couch as Susanne closed the front door. Before he could even hold out his hand Lara said, “They were left over from my nephew’s soccer game,” and dangled the shopping bag before him, just as she would hold the sonogram out to him eight months later.
They sat together in the living room. Jerry looked over at Lara. She seemed so crisp: her silhouette defined by straight dark hair and lips outlined in lipstick. He looked over at Susanne. She looked as if the seams holding her together had been plucked in half with a razor.
“Well,” Susanne said, patting her thighs. “So Lara, you’ve got a nephew? You ever been married? Got any kids of your own?”
“Nope, never married, just my brother.” Lara reached behind her and opened a miniature chocolate bar. “How long have you two been together?”
“Obviously too long,” Susanne said, and both women smiled conspiratorially.
Lara chewed on her chocolate while looking around the living room. “I tried bondage a few times,” she said, swallowing and taking another bite. “But it can get kind of, I don’t know, out of hand pretty quick. You know how guys are.” Lara finished the chocolate.
Susanne was nodding. “I wanted to try some things before, but he refused,” she said. She looked over at Jerry. He felt his mouth drop open, like a fish suffocating on land.
“You watch those Law and Order shows, right?” Lara asked Susanne.
“Yes!” Susanne answered. “I always feel kind of strange but some of the things, well the violent things…” she trailed off and Lara leaned onto her knees.
“You’ve wanted to try them.”
Susanne sat back in her chair and closed her eyes, sighing. “I thought it was only me.”
Jerry felt like the third wheel on a blind date. He watched his wife leaning towards this other woman, becoming relieved by this other woman, falling in love with this other woman. “Can we just cut the bullshit here?” Jerry asked. He coughed into his hand and sat up straighter, trying to think without looking upset or confused. “Why the hell would you even want to do this?” He directed the question at both of them, but looked at Susanne for confirmation.
Susanne jumped from her seat and turned to look at Lara, who stayed sitting with both hands in her lap, the red rain slicker draped over the back of the chair. Jerry felt a warmth spread across his neck as his voice cracked, and he coughed once again into his fist. “I just want to know what the point of this is, Susanne. I’m part of this, too.”
Susanne walked towards him and set both hands on the arms of his chair. He could see the freckles dotting her nose. The first time he ever kissed Susanne, when they were only seventeen, it was outside in the summer, in a field behind his house. It was a kiss so light and so innocent that when Jerry opened his eyes and looked into Susanne’s face, he thought he could see the same thoughts running through her brain. He could see the freckles sprayed across her nose from being so close to her and he touched them with his finger. Susanne smiled, and leaned into him, her head fitting perfectly into the crook of his neck.
Now, in the living room, Jerry wanted to run his fingers along her freckles, one by one, connecting them with touch and air.
“Jerry,” Susanne said. “You have never been a part of this.”
With his wife inches before him and another woman a few feet away, Jerry breathed in Susanne’s smell and felt a swoop of fear through his abdomen. It felt like love, like the most love he had ever felt. He nodded and Susanne smiled, returning to her chair beside Lara. She leaned forward and set her fingers lightly against Lara’s knee.
“I think we’re ready,” Susanne said.
Lara crinkled an empty candy wrapper between her fingers and turned to drop it into the plastic bag. She missed, and it floated to the carpet.
“Let’s see how this goes then,” she said.
Lara led them up the stairs and Jerry found himself wondering if Susanne had told her where their bedroom was before she even came over to meet him. This thought made him feel even more insignificant than before. The hallway seemed crowded and dark, with three bodies in one straight line all headed towards the same destination. In the room, there was a quiet rustling of clothes and of curtains being pulled closed. Susanne had not made the bed and their green quilt was in a lump at the end of the mattress. Jerry kicked off his shoes.
When he and Susanne first began sleeping together, she used to curl into him and stick her feet beneath his legs. She was always cold and with his arm wrapped around her waist beneath the blanket, Jerry felt she was too fragile to exist beside him. Now, Susanne lay naked on the sheet, one arm beneath her head. Lara slid in beside her and kissed her once, lightly on the lips. Jerry wondered if she felt the same warmth he used to give her, next to her in bed.
He didn’t know who to look at or who to touch, and when it was over he excused himself to the bathroom. In the mirror over the sink, he examined his face and couldn’t believe the man looking back at him was the same man who had just moments before hopped out of a bed where two women clawed and grasped at the sweaty skin of his back.
As Susanne lay in bed that night reading a magazine, she was talking rapidly, but Jerry only caught a few words of what she was saying.
“She’s just like me,” he remembered Susanne saying, before she turned out the light and went to sleep.
A few days after meeting Lara, Jerry found he couldn’t stay in bed beside Susanne. He went early to work, spreading the blueprints out before him. While the paper unfurled he imagined the bedspread in his and Susanne’s room, rising and falling with the breath of his sleeping wife. He bought a coffee and brought it back to his office on the construction sight, where he spilled it all over the prints and crumpled them up in a heap, screaming, “Shit” at the plywood walls.
He dug through Susanne’s purse and eventually found a yellow scrap of lined paper with Lara’s phone number scrawled in his wife’s messy handwriting. Jerry looked her up in the phone book and saw that she lived on Melwood, in the new apartment building Jerry’s crew had finished building last spring. He drove there on his lunch break, his arm dangling out of the window of his truck. When he arrived, he took the elevator to the sixth floor and knocked on Lara’s door. He realized on his third knock that it was one o’clock on a Thursday and she was most likely at work. Right as he turned to leave, the door opened and Lara stood before him, hair mussed and eyes barely open.
“Oh. Jerry. Good morning.”
“It’s one o’clock,” he said.
“I work nights at Peter’s.” She cocked her head and rubbed her eyes with her hand. She squinted at him and then smiled. “Come in.” She stepped aside and Jerry entered her apartment. The coffee table and kitchen counter were strewn with fashion magazines and coupon leaflets from the paper; a door was partly open to his left and he saw a pink shower curtain, a canister of self-tanner on top of the toilet.
“Well, can I get you something? Coffee, water? A beer?”
“No, no, I just came to talk to you about something.”
Lara sat on the edge of the couch. Her robe parted a bit and Jerry could see the inside of her thigh. “Oh, I see,” she said.
“It’s not like that, it’s just; I don’t know how to say it.”
Lara stood and stepped towards him. She looked down at his mouth and then up to his eyes, like she was zipping up a pair of pants. “You just didn’t want a threesome, is that it?”
Jerry saw that Lara’s nose was clear, free of freckles. “Yeah,” he said softly.
Lara slid her robe down her shoulders and her breasts hung before him like something out of a painting he once saw in a school art book, sneaking looks at it beneath his desk throughout the day.
Whenever they fucked from that day on, Jerry felt as if he were watching his body do the things it did while he himself floated forth on air from the outside. It was better than being afraid, though; afraid of doing something irreparable. He thought of his father killing goats and the impossible weight of those bodies as they dragged them into the woods. He wondered if Susanne could sense it in his hands when he touched her, the bodies he had pulled behind him. While his callused hands ran over Lara’s skin, he always thought of leaving dirt behind; emptying his body of the past.
The doctor and nurses swarm around the baby that has just emerged from the impossibly small space between Lara’s legs, wiping it of fluid and wrapping it in a pink blanket. A girl, Jerry thinks. Lara leans against the pillows behind her head. She smiles weakly as the nurse brings the pink bundle towards her and sets it in the crook of her arm.
“Would you like to hold your daughter?”
Jerry sees the nurse standing before him, holding his daughter and looking at him like she has the greatest gift to present to him.
Taking his confusion for ascent, the nurse sets the baby in the crook of his elbow. Her head nestles against the worn flannel of his shirt. Her eyes are slits and the tiny holes of her nose are pinholes in her face.
“I want to call her Margaret,” Lara says from the bed. “Maggie while she’s little.”
Jerry looks down at his daughter and jumps when he realizes he can feel her heartbeat, right there against his skin. He runs his tongue across the front of his teeth and thinks, I made you. Staring down at the little girl in his arms he sees the beginning of a life that is held in his hands. She can either see what the world has laid out before her or remain hidden in her tight cocoon of blankets, protected by his hands. He watches her stirring and allows the wriggling movements of the little body to travel up his arms and down his legs. He feels her in his arms and as he looks at her face he can only wonder if she will develop freckles down the bridge of her nose. Jerry hands Margaret – Maggie – back to Lara.
“I really need a smoke,” he says. “I’ll be outside.”
Jerry stands outside the hospital and smokes a cigarette down to the filter. The sun has set and the darkness around him feels better than that little body in his arms did. He opens his carton of cigarettes and taps another into his palm.
Once, on a day after school, Jerry was in the kitchen making a sandwich when he heard a click on the linoleum behind him. He had left the back door open to let in some fresh air and now, before him, was one of the male kids from the pasture outside. They were tricky things, always finding ways out of their pen and into places where they weren’t allowed. His father would kill him if he saw muddy hoof prints on the kitchen floor. Jerry stepped towards the goat, slowly.
“Come on, guy. Let’s go back outside.”
He went to grab him by the fur around his neck but the goat darted around him, through Jerry’s legs and under the table in the corner of the room. Jerry grabbed a frying pan from above the stove and crawled with it under the table. He smacked the goat on its rump and it scampered out, bleating. Jerry huffed after it, reaching to give it another tap and scare it out the door. But when the pan was raised in his hand, hanging above his head, he lost the weight of it, the feel of iron in his hand, and when he brought it down against the goat’s behind it fell onto the floor, screaming. Jerry knew he broke something, its tailbone or spine, and was sick with the fear that he had done something irreparable, and that his father would scold him for injuring the kid rather than killing it.
He dropped the frying pan to the floor where he didn’t even hear the clatter and grabbed a butcher’s knife from the stand on the counter. He held the goat’s body between his legs and ran the blade across its throat like he had watched his father do dozens of times. But he must not have gone deep enough, because the goat continued to bleat and squirm against him. Jerry began to cry. He gripped the knife until his knuckles turned white and pushed it through the goat’s neck, until it came out the other side. The body fell slack, bleeding, and dropped to the floor.
When Jerry’s father found him an hour later, the goat lay on the floor, its white fur matted with congealed blood. Jerry sat beneath the kitchen table, knees pulled to his chest and fingers still clutching the handle of the bloodied knife.
Beyond Jerry’s reflection, in the lobby, sits a wheelchair. He walks through the automatic doors and sits on it, rolling back and forth. He sees the gift shop ahead and wonders if he should buy a teddy bear, some flowers for Lara. Instead, he rolls outside. He allows the chair to take him past the parked cars, past the empty white lines, past the grass growing baldly through cracks in the gravel. He stops in an empty parking space and spins around. He looks back at the hospital shimmering in the dark.
He used to sit out amongst the goats in the night, when it was so warm it was better than taking a bath or curling up beneath his quilt. They would circle around him and lower themselves onto their knees, their eyes closing and blending in completely with the hair of their bodies. Jerry would lie on his back with the straw beneath him.
Jerry leans back in the wheelchair, tilting his head up. Above, there are so many stars it seems the sky has been punctured, over and over, with a pin.