Summer would be starting soon, Liz noted as she studied the new freckles speckling her hands. The sun seemed bigger in the sky. Her legs dangled from the truck bed like Spanish moss from a swamp tree, and already they were pink. Her family spread out around her, and all were lazily going about their business. Sweat stamped every upper lip. The sky above was very blue where it could be seen between the heavy clouds.
She checked her phone again. She couldn’t help wondering if it was healthy for her to be in the heat.
There was a crashing noise from the back of the house, coming closer. Mr. and Mrs. Thibodaux didn’t look up when two of their sons went crashing through the kitchen screen door and out into the yard. The younger, thirteen, was shoeless and shirtless, a skinny tanned boy with freckles but no hair across his chest, and carrying a cell phone that wasn’t his. The sixteen year old, chasing him and whooping and hollering, had on his shirt and boxers.
“Give it back!” the older demanded as they flew over the sticky gumballs in the grass towards the road through the humid midday heat. The younger yelled when his bare feet slapped asphalt, but he didn’t slow.
Mr. Thibodaux kept raking, his salt and pepper head bent attentively. Mrs. Thibodaux kept cooking, her dyed dark hair pulled back as she spread mustard on the roast.
Another son played guitar by the pool behind the house. The chords floated over the roof and the scene.
“My gosh,” said Liz, looking up and staring after her brothers. “We’re white trash.”
“Redneck,” corrected her sibling from the basketball hoop. “If we were white trash, there would be fighting dogs in the yard.”
Liz gave a tiny smile. “We have brothers. Basically the same.” She stood to go back in the house.
The air was pregnant with rain. The air conditioning whirred and shook, but even then it couldn’t stop the sheen of sweat continuing to build on everyone’s face.
“It wouldn’t be so humid if you’d shut the door,” Liz commented to her mother as she went past the kitchen table, pulling back her hair.
“It’s just hot because of the oven,” her mother said. “You want to make the salad?”
“I don’t think so. Usually I would. But for some reason the smell of cooking food is just…” She paused and looked at her mother. Her heart throbbed.
Her mother looked back at her, unsuspicious. “You need to get more sleep. If you weren’t always on that phone…”
Liz went past her to the living room and, upon finding the old fading couch open, she fell on it.
When Liz Thibodaux lounged on the couch, she always kept one foot on the floor. When someone called her, she would be able to leap up at attention; she never stayed down long. Liz had sharp eyes. They were blue, and stormed or danced at a moment’s notice – a sound in the corner and snap! They were focused. Her head swiveled like it was on a hinge, following her eyes. If possible, she preferred to be looking to the side – that way, the tendons in her neck stood at alert, and she could show just the eye with the perfectly done eyeliner. Her highlights would catch the sun then. There was no frizz there, despite the constant humidity.
She’d keep her phone or book up, hovering only an inch above her chest, so she could drop it quickly upon her breast and turn her attention to whatever or whoever called her name. Laying on her back was the only way to be, of course: she could turn her head much more quickly; and besides, this position made her stomach appear flatter and her bosom larger. Her breasts were round – 34D; all her friends knew that – and very well framed in her tank tops. Scoop necks with gentle colors for Liz – collarbones showing, Old Navy’s long-leg jeans, and high heels even after a rain. Liz was never more than five pounds above goal weight.
When she smiled, she smiled with her whole face. Already, at age eighteen, she had laugh lines. Her smiles would start genuine, and her blue eyes would sparkle – but the longer her chosen subject didn’t smile back, the more anxious she would get. She was unsatisfied until smiles were reciprocated. The girl was insatiable.
Today was different, though. She lay on her back for only a moment, but her hand went to her stomach immediately, and sat on it awkwardly. She glanced down at it, wondering if she looked fat yet. She tried to relax, but she flopped like a fish on a hook, unable to lay still until she thought she couldn’t handle it anymore.
Just as she stood, her phone beeped to alert her from a text message, and she grabbed it up greedily and stared down at the screen.
“Mom!” she called. “I’m going to Sarah’s.”
“We’re having family dinner tonight,” her mother replied from the kitchen.
“It’s barely noon. I’ll get my homework done when I get back,” Liz said as she headed toward her room, but paused. “Hey, momma, I’m borrowing your shoes.”
Her mother hummed noncommittally, and then said, “Don’t forget you have finals coming up.”
“In a month and a half?” Liz grabbed her purse from the granite countertop, wrestling with one soft sandal. “I’ve got an A in everything.”
“Well, you get cocky, and then…”
“I still make A’s?” Liz scratched her brother’s head absentmindedly, like he was a particularly lazy dog, as she headed out the door. “I promise to be back by dinner.”
Sarah was only several minutes away. She could walk there, but she wanted to get there quicker. The day was too hot, anyway, and she didn’t want to sweat. She felt disgusting enough, and so on the drive there she cranked the air as high as she could, and let it beat back her hair.
She left her car in the driveway, because Sarah’s parents had previously asked her to do so, and went through the unlocked door without calling a greeting, and slipped into Sarah’s room without knocking.
Sarah Guidry was plump and soft, sensitive, and sitting on the floor of her messy room, cleaning her foggy glasses. She was kind, and logical, and never made huge mistakes or rushed into things. It was very difficult to take some days, Liz thought as she immediately sat on the bed. If she was going to act like a nun, she ought to at least not be so pretty. “Thanks for answering my text so quick.”
“Yeah, sure. What did you want to talk about?” She was wearing blue, and seemed to blend in to the room’s walls. They were a light blue, like the sky in the morning. A baby color, Sarah had once complained.
The two locked eyes, and here was the impossible part. Crossing the bridge, telling the tale… Liz’s mouth opened but no words came out.
What could she say? Please don’t call me a stupid whore. She licked her lips. I’ve made a mistake. No, she hadn’t, but surely Sarah would want her to say that. Sarah was so goody-two-shoes… So good. Please don’t judge me. She needed advice. She needed the truth. The nasty truth. She didn’t want it, though.
“Liz?” Sarah put her glasses back on. “Girl, you look spacey. What is it?”
“You gotta promise not to be mad.” She felt like she was twelve, holding out her pinky finger and staring seriously into the eyes of her best friend on the hardwood floor of a living room, three o’clock in the morning, sleeping bags spread out around them…
“What did you do?” Sarah’s eyes were large and concerned.
She took two breaths. “Grownups. They’re stupid. I mean, like, adults. Well, we’re adults. Old adults. I mean. You know? They get… stuck in the times.”
Sarah pulled on her hair thoughtfully, “Like with tattoos? Sure, yeah. I mean, just because something’s different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, right? I hate that.”
“Why? Are you gay or something?”
“Me? No. Yeah. No. Sorry to disappoint, I….” Her leg was jiggling. “Like with… boys. Like. I mean, they’re hypocrites, aren’t they? How many of them got married because of pregnancy, right? Tons.”
Sarah looked confused. “I mean, yeah. They forget their own mistakes.”
“It is a mistake! Because sometimes they’re miserable. That’s not a good reason to get married. And they’re all… They have all these social constructs. Like what’s lady-like.”
“Okay.” Sarah nodded attentively, but her eyes had turned soft. Pitying.
“Having sex isn’t always a mistake. Like, what are they gonna do, stone you? It’s just experience. It’s not like anyone gets ruined. I mean. No one has to regret it.” She shifted more quickly. Her stomach was in knots.
“Sure, that’s true.” Sarah cleared her throat. “But just because it doesn’t hurt someone doesn’t mean it’s not wrong, either. It can still be a mistake. That doesn’t mean it’s—”
Liz stood up sharply. She’d attended just as many religion classes as Sarah. She knew very well the logic. The commandments, the doctrines, and the way your heart breaks when you wake up and you realize he hadn’t wanted all of you, like he claimed, just the physical bits. She knew about sex and its unitive and procreative properties that the priest wanted to talk about. She knew no one would approve. “Hey, I have to go, actually, I – I’m not ready to talk yet. S-sorry.”
She headed for the door, and Sarah did not chase her. Just said, softly, “Liz?”
Liz turned and looked at her. “…Yeah?”
“I’m sorry he dumped you. I am. He’s a jackass.” The pity outweighed the blame in her face. Liz ran for it.
Liz waited for him on the porch of the Community Coffee, fifteen minutes early. Her legs hung from the open weaved metal chair, kicking at the table legs. The table rocked with her. It clanged each time it tapped the concrete, metal on rock.
Sweat beaded below her headband and on the clear plastic of her cup of ice water. The cubes kept her fingers numbed, and the straw whistled as she drank. She put it down briefly to swat at the buzzing behind her ear, and then to brush her shirt against the bottom of her bra and absorb the excess moisture from her skin.
She checked her phone, and her face went from being yellow with sun to bright blue-white. No text. The phone was discarded and the water taken up again.
The ceiling, painted blue, made a valiant effort to keep hold of the fan. The fan itself wobbled and clattered, beating away at the air furiously. The sound mixed with the tapping of her foot and the whine of the straw, air, ice – an anxious cacophony.
Trent slipped into the seat across from her with a smile. “Hey, Liz. What’s wrong? Your text seemed worried.”
Liz looked up into his freckled face, and smiled. “Hey. I was just thinking, you know.” She pointed up. “Blue ceiling on the porch. Cool, huh? Sarah told me why they do that.”
“Is that what you were worried about?” He hadn’t stopped to buy a drink before sitting down. His concern was warming.
“Just… give me a few minutes.” She licked her lip. She’d forgotten lipstick today.
He studied her. Trent was brown, like all natural, home-baked bread. Brown hair, brown eyes, browning skin. He worked in a plant, had since he graduated two years ago, and he would work there the rest of his life, and probably one day he’d find a girl he could take for more than a few months, and he’d marry her. Liz found all of that incredibly comforting. When he spoke, he said, “Why is the ceiling blue?”
She smiled and looked up again. “It looks like the sky. So it catches spirits. They go towards it, thinkin’ they have all the room in the world, and then they get stuck and they can’t get in the windows. So the house is safe. It’s a… a Cajun thing.”
He nodded pensively. “Yeah. I know.” He cleared his throat. “Sarah told me too.” He watched her. Above them, the fan trapped in the porch ceiling spun around and around and didn’t beat away the heat. Twhap. Twhap. Twhap. It was hot as hell.
The silence was awkward.
“I’m just not…” Liz stared hard at the metal table, swirling her ice water in her hand. The straw moved from side the side, and her hand was clammy with condensation.
“It’s only… the thing…” Twhap. Twhap. She chewed her lip. “Only…” She coughed. Twhap.
“Dammit, woman. Speak up.” His accent was thick and his brown eyes never left her.
“You gotta understand. He said he loved me.” The word spilled out as if they were rice from a bag that had been ripped open. At least she knew he wouldn’t judge her.
His eyebrows shot up. “For real?”
“No, it’s –” Her hands poked at the metal table. “He left.”
“Oh shit. For real?!”
“Turns out…” She swallowed hard. “He changed his mind. But only after…”
“Oh shit.” This was the ultimate expression of sympathy. He touched her hand. “It’s okay, Liz.”
“You have to say that.” Her cheeks burned.
“It’s not a big deal. Everyone has a first time. No one has to know, you know?”
“Everyone will think it’s a big deal. Bet it’ll be on the news,” she said, tongue thick with sarcasm, but the tone shook and collapsed. “Cuz it turns out I…” Her hand drifted from his to her middle.
His eyes flickered down. “You’re sure?”
“I triple-checked.” And she had. Sitting on the toilet when her parents weren’t home, clutching several little white sticks and planning out how she would throw them away in her neighbor’s trash can, as though that would keep her parents from finding out.
He grabbed her hand again. “No one needs to know. We’ll fix it.”
She hadn’t expected him to say that at all. Fix it? She’d been trying to think of how to fix it. There was no way. No magical combination of words that would make her parents not kill her. And stop the gossips before they started. Blankly, she tilted her head. “What?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean like back alley. It’s safe.” He looked more eager now that he had the solution. He reached for his phone. “I’ll google it. It’ll be easy to fix, and I bet we don’t have to…”
“You know I don’t like… that. I still have my March for Life hat in my car trunk!”
Trent brushed this aside, swatting it out of the air. “This is different. You can’t…”
“I can’t?” Her stomach dropped.
“Don’t you want to go to law school?”
“Yes.” She looked down.
“Don’t you always say your parents are nuts? You don’t want to get kicked out.” He spoke soothingly, but she was still afraid. He leaned forward, like he was offering to sell her something. “The school rumor mill… You know it’s the worst this side of the Mississippi.” He smiled, offering his joke.
This was exactly what she’d been afraid of. The rumors. The talking. The putting off college and putting it off again until it never happened. But she felt her chest swell and her head lift as she replayed his words in her head. He had some nerve, saying the words she was afraid of hearing in such a soothing tone, such a friendly way.
Seeing her head lift, he nodded encouragingly and went on, “We’ll just fix—“
“Fuck you!” She sat forward so fast that the ice rattled and the table shuddered from foot to metal foot.
He stopped speaking. Her harsh breaths filled the air between them, the first hint of the hurricane. “Sorry?” he said, slowly.
“I said fuck you!” Her forehead bent and her back straightened, and she heard it pop. Someone at the next table over glared. “It’s a baby, you asshole; it doesn’t need to be fixed. And I can go to law school. What are you tryin’ to say, you tryin’ to say I can’t handle it? The responsibility, the gossip? I’m a grown-ass woman.”
“Liz. Calm down. I wasn’t trying to say that. It’s just… it’ll be really hard…” He held out a hand, trying to stop her, to suppress her.
“I can take hard. I’ve had my heart broken once already, Trent. I’m not gonna let someone come in and…” Her hand touched her stomach again. Perhaps this is what mother bears felt like. “You know what? I need to go.” She stood up. She’d have to trade soon to a tank top that didn’t rest so snugly on her stomach. Her feet would swell more. She probably wouldn’t be as pretty as before, but there were lots of things more important than pretty.
“People are going to talk about you.”
“Well, maybe that’s a penance that I can handle.” She stalked towards her car, leaving him sinking into his seat in embarrassment as everyone turned to look at him. They were staring at her back. But oh, well. She had a nice ass.
He was still sitting there behind her, looking calm, but she was tired of calm.
Liz picked up her phone even as she turned the key, and her car sprang to life. She was so agitated that pushing buttons presented a challenge, and she nearly called Sandra and Ty before managing to hit the contact “Sarah” with two hearts after the name.
The phone rang three times.
She had steam. Too little left to waste time. Liz hit the gas a bit too hard. “I’m pregnant. I didn’t tell you, but that’s why I was upset. I’m pregnant.” She breathed deep.
There was silence.
“And I’m going to have this baby. And I’m going to fight anyone who says I can’t.” Her hands clenched the wheel until Sarah finally spoke.
“Attagirl. Fuck the haters.”
Liz blinked hard at the road ahead. “Are you mad? Cuz I’m in this situation?”
“Honey, it isn’t my place to be mad. I’m just gonna help you go from here in the most supportive way I can. That’s all that’s my business. Or anyone else’s. Got it?”
It was so much easier to breathe now. Liz’s eyes pricked, but she was too angry still to cry. Not even the relief could stop her from charging now. “Thanks. Thanks you, yeah. It’s my business. Just mine. And maybe… maybe my parents’.”
The light flashed yellow, and Liz cursed under her breath as she was forced to come to a stop, tapping her free hand against the wheel. She just wanted to get home.
“I’m not afraid,” she said to Sarah through the phone.
“You know it’s okay to be scared,” Sarah said.
“I’m not, though. I don’t care if everyone in the world talks about me.” Her voice was brittle.
“That ain’t gonna happen.”
“Yeah, but all the old people. My mom. She’s gonna be pissed – no, she’s gonna be disappointed, like I made a mistake.” This red light never seemed to change.
When she spoke, Sarah’s voice was flat. “And you don’t think you did?”
Her fingers tapped the wheel more ferociously. “Okay,” she said at last. “Okay, so what if I did? Like no one else ever made a mistake? It’s like Jesus said. With the first stone, isn’t it? Why is it worse than what anyone else did? It’s not like I killed anyone. Why is this worse?”
“It’s not, love. It just feels that way because you’re the one living it. It’s not worse.”
“I’m gonna carry it. I don’t know if I should do adoption yet or… But what if they kick me out, is the thing?”
“Your parents won’t kick you out. And if they do, you could live with your sister. Or me. My parents don’t give a damn.”
“Promise?” Sarah had a steady voice. She could be cussing up a storm and put you into a trance. Liz had never appreciated it enough.
“Yeah, I promise. And you’re pretty lucky.”
The light turned green. Forcing herself not to drive as fast as she talked, she made the turn on to Tiger Bend.
Cautious, Sarah said, “I mean, I know it’s a bad situation. But a baby gets to exist.”
Something in Liz’s chest lifted, and she looked up. Her mouth twitched. “Yeah. A baby. That’s pretty cute, isn’t it?”
“And really, no one can gossip or be mad longer than there’s gonna be this kid.”
Her lips wavered. The angry clouds inside of her stopped churning long enough to let in a ray of sunshine. Her speed started inching from fifty to forty-five miles an hour. The trees seemed to pass more peacefully now.
“If I quit school, I can go back. Plenty of kids take a break year before college, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, and if your parents help financially, no problem. If not, I’ll teach you how to take out a student loan.”
Liz could hear her smiling, and licked her lips. “Sarah? I’m still scared.”
“I’d stop that if I could. But it’s okay. Finals are scary too, and you always rock those. This is basically the same thing. Virtually no difference, right?”
Liz laughed, softly, and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I’m almost there. I can do this. Tell me I can do this.”
“You can do this.”
She grinned. “Shut up, Sarah. Don’t tell me what I can do.” She dragged breath into her lungs, filling herself deeply. “I’ll see you later?”
Sarah’s laugh was tinny through the phone. “I’ll take you for ice cream later. I love you.” Liz knew that Sarah would probably start crying or something after this call, but that was okay. Tears just meant she felt strongly.
The car puttered into the garage, and Liz took one last gulp of breath. It didn’t matter what they said, she thought, a mantra to get her through.
She had no steam left, so Liz didn’t march into the kitchen as she had intended to do. Instead she put the car in park, and slowly opened the door. She was afraid, of course, but then, everyone was afraid sometimes. She was young and strong, and fear was new to her, but she was going to accept it. She let it wash over her, let it buzz in her fingertips and stomach, trying to familiarize herself with it. That was the only way to conquer it, she suspected.
At least the rain had stopped and the sky was clear. And if the spirits went towards it, they wouldn’t be in the house. The house would be safe. And she would need all the spirit-free atmosphere she could get.
The door creaked when it opened, and she smiled at the people inside.
“Y’all are gonna want to be gone for this conversation,” she told the brother and his friend who were lying on the floor of the kitchen and reading. They nodded at her, and jumped up and disappeared into the back room.
Her parents looked up at her. They both had round faces, a symptom of growing older in comfort and kindness. She’d gotten her blue eyes from her father.
There was silence. It only lasted a moment, but it felt like forever. A comforting forever, giving her all the time she needed to breathe in, and out, and speak.
“I’m gonna have a baby. I messed up. And I did something I shouldn’t. But now, I’m gonna have a baby.”
It was like she’d thrown a firecracker into the gumbo pot. That is, it exploded, and then her mother started yelling.
Her father joined in the fray a moment later. “Elizabeth Mary Thibodaux, young lady, how do you expect me to afford this?”
“You need vitamins!” exclaimed her mother.
Most of what they said was drowned out in each other’s voices after that. They were angry, that was for sure. Her father was white and her mother was red. At one point, he mentioned a shotgun for that boy who had abandoned his daughter, but this was soon forgotten. He wanted to take her to Confession. Her mother thought she needed to see a doctor immediately – Liz’s eating habits were atrocious, she said, and a doctor needed to fix that or the baby wouldn’t be healthy. Her father was already thinking about when he could retire if he covered all expenses until after law school. Her mother was fussing about babysitters.
The truth is, it didn’t matter what they said. Liz was embarrassed that they knew what she’d done, and sorry about any change of plans they might make for her, but there were things they could be saying, and she knew now they never would say them. She might be grounded, but she’d never be abandoned.
Their angry words cocooned her, protecting her. Nothing else could get at her with them whipping up a frenzy of concern. The terrible things, the cruel things, would never find their way to her. Her lips curled up at the edges.
I love y’all too, she thought.