by Terri Leker
Winner of the 2019 New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, selected by Claire Vaye Watkins. Originally published in New Ohio Review Issue 26
The coyotes moved into the woods behind my house just after I learned I was pregnant. On a quiet June morning, while my husband slept, I pulled on my running shoes and grabbed a leash from a hook at the back door. Jute danced around my feet on her pipe-cleaner legs, whining with impatience. It would have taken more than this to wake Matt, but I hushed her complaints with a raised finger and we slipped outside. A light breeze blew the native grasses into brown and golden waves as we wandered, camouflaging Jute’s compact frame. She sniffed the dirt, ears telescoping as though she were asking a question. When we reached a shady thicket of red madrones and live oaks, I unclipped the leash and wound it around my wrist.
It was over with Richard, had been since I’d found out about the baby. Anyway, I had come to believe that adultery sounded more illicit than it actually was. Between managing my schedule with Matt and making time to rendezvous with Richard, an affair often seemed more about time management than sexual gratification. I was meticulous with the calendar, but I would have known that the baby was Matt’s regardless, because Richard’s sperm could not locomote. He had told me so early on, while showing me the master bedroom of his faithfully restored North Oakland Victorian. His unexpected disclosure had interrupted my admiration of the exposed brick walls, so unusual for the earthquake-conscious Bay Area. Matt was having dinner just then with friends, thinking I was helping my mother set up her new television (she would be dead within a few months, but we all pretended to be optimists then), so he was eating eggplant parmesan at the Saturn Café as I lay with Richard on his king-sized bed, hearing words like motility and capacitation. Richard’s sober tone had suggested that I might comfort him in his sterility, which I did, if the definition of comfort was a passionate encounter that lasted as long as one might spend unboxing a 48-inch HDTV and connecting it to both Netflix and Hulu. But Matt and I had tried to have a baby for three years, so I took the pregnancy as a sign to recommit myself to my husband, who, predictably, jumped up and down on our unmade bed when I shared the news, attempting, in his white-socked excitement, to pull me up with him, not realizing that doing so might judder the bundle of cells loose, delivering me back to Richard and a childless but aesthetically pleasing life.
So, the oncoming baby was a good thing, I told Dr. Mintz, the therapist I’d begun seeing after my mother’s diagnosis, but when the old Psy.D asked jokingly at the end of our session if I was ready to be a mother I had surprised both of us by blurting out, “No,” with real feeling, and even a little jolt of anger toward Matt, as though he had forced me into motherhood and, furthermore, was actually in the room. Dr. Mintz’s mustache seemed to droop a little more than usual, and his glance at the wall clock behind my head told me that our fifty minutes had expired. As a therapist, Dr. Mintz was less Freudian or Jungian than he was Berkeley-ian, so we discussed my comment without really discussing it when I returned the following week. With my permission, he attempted a visualization technique that involved a great wooden chest wrapped with thick chains and padlocks.
“Drop all your anger inside, Nan. Your misgivings, your fears. Let it go,” he droned softly, and I squeezed my eyes shut and watched the chest sink heavily to the bottom of the jet-black sea Dr. Mintz described. In the moment, it had felt somewhat restorative, as though Matt was indeed the right choice, and Richard but a crumb unable to reach the water’s surface to persuade me to visit him and his tufted velvet headboard one more time. Yet, every so often, I felt that chest rising through the dark water, sometimes many feet at a time, and wondered in those moments if Richard, who I had heard through the grapevine was moving to Portland, had found someone new.
Jute was still wandering out of sight, but I heard snuffling noises in the bushes. When I knelt to tighten my laces, the ground was studded with spots of blood that puddled a few feet away beside a gutted raccoon, limp and flat as a pelt. As I wiped my hand on my shorts, a bristly gray tail swished among the plumes of wooly pampas grass. I called for Jute, my voice shrill, bare ankles stinging from the brush as we darted home.
For weeks after that, the evenings resonated with the sounds of coyotes yipping and screaming. They sounded like teenagers having a drunken party. The first few nights I woke up laughing, until I realized I had just laughed myself awake, and then I lay there, stiff as a stick, glaring at the ceiling while Matt snored beside me. Whoop, went the coyotes, and, WowWowWow, and, “Dear baby,” I would think, in the darkness, “You are just an egg ball.” Or, “There is so much sadness you don’t know about yet.”
* * *
We lived near the Berkeley campus on a wide, placid street shaded by a canopy of towering elms that kept the stucco houses cool in the summer. I was a unicorn, an art history post-doc with a good job—curator of the Wolford Gallery, a crazy, fantastic repository for the disparate treasures of a Bay Area philanthropist. The gallery was walking distance from our house, down a leafy residential avenue sprinkled with well-entrenched bookstores and cafés. When a day passed without a caller, as it sometimes did, I imagined myself the caretaker of an adult dollhouse. Our hours were erratic, and visitors were sometimes surprised to find the gallery open at all. It wasn’t difficult to stop by my mother’s house, especially in the mornings. Four months had passed since the funeral, and I hadn’t finished emptying the rooms or even the refrigerator. With each visit, a new ecosystem seemed to be taking stronger hold. I’d been here just last week, but schools of dust swam in the skylight’s bright beam and lacy cobwebs now netted my face. Two light bulbs above the kitchen sink had burned out; the oven’s LCD now flashed an error code.
I sat on the sofa arm and listened for new messages on the answering machine. My mother had kept the old landline all these years, the same number I’d grown up with. “What’s all this fuss about cell phones?” she would say when my iPhone rang. “Everyone’s such a big shot now.” Her voice was still on the machine (“I’d love to talk. Won’t you please leave your name and number?”), and I listened to the messages with a mixture of fascination and dread. I’d briefly stopped returning calls after my mother’s college roommate said, as though it were my fault, “Well, I knew Marian had that brain tumor, but I didn’t know she was dying.” There were three messages: a distant acquaintance looking for a bridge partner, the dentist’s office confirming my mother’s next cleaning, still in the future, and a man I didn’t recognize.
“Yes, hello,” he said briskly. He was older, his voice sibilant and imperious. “I’m not feeling at all well today.” There was a short silence, and then a smacking sound. “My head is absolutely splitting, and you know why.”
A wrong number, or one of the weirdos that my mother’s estate lawyer had warned about, strangers who sometimes materialized after a death. He left no name or contact information, and the phone didn’t have caller ID. An unpleasant mystery that I both did and did not wish to solve. Definitely a wrong number. I played the message again, though, wishing that my mother and I could share a laugh over it, especially the officiousness of the man’s tone— “absolutely splitting”—as though other people didn’t have heads.
A few days before she died, she’d said of my father, “How strange that I can’t just pick up the phone and call him. Gone ten years and it still doesn’t seem real.” She had smiled, and primly rearranged her terry-cloth turban. “That’s what it’s going to be like for you, dear.” She was in a semi-private hospital room, its only occupant at the moment. At her insistence, I was leafing through a Pottery Barn catalog, looking at couches. My mother did not want to die with the same sofa she’d had since her first year of marriage, the same sofa she’d changed my diapers on. She liked to imagine her mourners sitting on something plush, like the chocolate suede sectional that I reluctantly dog-eared for her.
I could tolerate her death without really accepting it, probably because her illness had come on so suddenly. One day I opened my front door to get the mail, and there she was on the top step, gripping a manila envelope stuffed with Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, asking, “Can Matt do my taxes now?” Matt was a chemist at Bayer, wonderful with all types of numbers except those attached to dollar signs. “I feel a little funny,” she said, wobbling past me into the kitchen, reaching into a cookie jar filled with dog biscuits. Over her slurred objections, I wrestled her into the car and drove to the ER, where, from her gurney, she’d spotted a quarter on a fuzzy corner of the hospital floor and motioned for me to put it into her purse. A few minutes later, she had a CAT scan that even I could read. She’d lived almost exactly six months from the day of her diagnosis, when the oncologist had said, “It’s one of the most aggressive tumors known to mankind. Truly remarkable.”
“I’m glad you’re impressed,” my mother had answered.
I hadn’t ordered the Pottery Barn sofa. I’d taken the catalog home with me and stuffed it into the recycling bin, and when my mother mentioned it the next day, I made a joke about how heavy the catalog was, something about it weighing as much as a baby, and she hadn’t asked again. I looked at the answering machine, its light no longer blinking, and lifted the telephone to call the dentist’s office back.
“I’m calling about an appointment for Marian Felder.” I looked down at the note I had taken. “Wednesday the fifteenth at three.”
“How can I help you?”
“I just want to confirm,” I said, folding the piece of paper.
“Very good,” she said. “We have you down, and we will see you then.”
After I hung up, I listened to the second message again, the woman looking for a bridge partner. I wrote her information down too, then tucked the slip of paper into my purse. The third message was something else altogether. There was nothing to write except that the man was nuts.
* * *
Before I was pregnant Matt rarely made breakfast, but now I’d almost come to expect it. He had a sheepish demeanor, as though he could not believe he was in part responsible for what was taking place inside my body. He was also sheepish because of his snoring, a new and poorly timed nuisance. I told Matt about the dream his snoring had interrupted.
“I was in my old bedroom. Everything looked the same except for an old man with a dirty beard sitting on my twin bed. He was holding my ladybug clock.” I motioned to Matt with my fork. “My mother was on the bed too.” I scraped the rest of the scrambled eggs onto my plate. “I asked her, ‘Are you alive?’ and she said, ‘Have you gained weight?’ And then I woke to the sound of you, Darth Vader.” I took a bite of eggs and looked at him. He still hadn’t remembered to get his hair cut.
“I’ll sleep on my side tonight,” Matt said. “Just kick me if I’m still snoring.”
“Dr. Mintz said these kinds of dreams can be very encouraging.”
“They are,” Matt agreed from behind the Times’ Science section. “She should be coming back any day now.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” I said, but we both laughed. I reached for a bowl of tumbled beach glass at the table’s center, and sifted through nuggets of frosted azure and indigo. I was aware of a surging movement through my body, as if I could actually feel cells—relentlessly, hysterically—dividing. I palmed a small handful of glass, gauging its weight, while Matt sat beside me in his white T-shirt and plaid boxers, reading an article about the tidal ranges in the Bay of Fundy, a place he had talked about visiting before learning that I was, as he liked to say, “with child.”
We startled at the telephone’s ring, but ignored it, letting the machine pick up. It was the realtor, Dora, asking when my mother’s house would be ready to put on the market. Matt looked at me over the newspaper.
“Soon.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. “I’m almost done over there.” That peculiar message on my mother’s answering machine had to have been a wrong number, though hadn’t the “you” sounded personal, as though the man was holding my mother responsible for something that had happened to him? Creep. I cycled through a mental to-do list, from the weather-beaten and probably rotting redwood deck to the jammed hall closet where my father’s sweaters had been stored for the past decade, still encased in dry-cleaning plastic. I’d asked Matt to stop coming to the house after he suggested cramming the sweaters into the drop box at the Telegraph Avenue homeless shelter. It was the most reasonable solution, certainly the most humane, but the idea of routinely bumping into street people dressed in my dead father’s cardigans depressed me deeply. I planned to donate the clothes to an organization further afield (like the rat I’d once live-trapped and chauffeured to Tilden Park); I just hadn’t identified this organization. I shook the glass bits back into the bowl and lifted a sticky piece of pancake from Matt’s plate.
“Everything has to be out before Dora can start showing it,” Matt said. “So new people can move in,” he added, a bit unnecessarily. “We have to pay estate taxes either way.” I did not like the thought of new people moving in, or living in the house I had grown up in. The same house where I had once liaised with Richard on a night that my mother had been admitted to the hospital for IV fluids and more unnecessary tests. I thought about that evening, my mother in a peach-colored gown, saying, “I’m fine, you should be with Matt,” and my remembering was interrupted by the telephone’s ring, this time a robo-call plugging the “Berkeley Values” of a local mayoral candidate.
“Jesus Christ, can we go five minutes without a phone call?” I said.
Matt raised his eyebrows. “Don’t yell at me. It’s not like I’m calling us.” Then he saw my face and dropped his newspaper. He stood behind me, wrapping me up in his long arms and kissing my neck, but I didn’t want to be touched. His hands on my swelling hips and back felt like more of a measurement than a caress, and I pictured Dr. Mintz’s absurd padlocked chest advancing in the dark water, strings of seaweed snaking toward me. I shook my head and unpeeled Matt’s fingers. He started to follow me out of the room, then remained in the kitchen, where I heard the soft rustle of newspaper as he resituated himself at the table.
The nights passed slowly, because I was pregnant and because of Matt’s snoring, but also because of the coyotes’ deranged howling. Their commotion set off a chain reaction, spurring Jute to bark in short, desperate bursts until she retreated to her mat in the living room, grumbling herself to sleep. Some nights I left Matt in bed and joined her, reading a book or watching old episodes of The X-Files at thunderous volume. I personally hated the sound of the television when I wasn’t the one watching it. Not Matt. Would he even hear the baby when it cried? I started a journal. “Dear Baby,” I began, and then never wrote another word. Even if I had stained the pages with misery, or let’s say sadness, at my mother’s loss, even if I had written about my indiscretions with Richard (though who would write that to a baby?), I would still have kept the notebook in the top drawer of my nightstand where Matt would never think to look because he’d been raised to respect other people’s things. I knew that if Matt kept a journal that I would’ve taken a peek, though probably only a peek, because it would be filled with notes on toxicology and metabolic shifts. I sometimes sat beside Matt while he slept, wearing my headlamp, holding a pen. I looked at my empty journal, and pretended I was a miner, searching deep below the earth’s surface for something lost and precious.
* * *
As people do, I felt elated just after my mother died, grateful that it was finally over, that the cliché about her no longer suffering was true. But then the vastness of her loss hit, where loss was no longer a relief, and the antidepressants I’d begun taking during her illness now seemed only to remind me that I needed to drink more water. Matt had driven us home from Sinai Memorial Chapel where we’d made the simple arrangements she’d requested. I walked from room to room, picking up this and that, thinking not about my mother but about the day I met Richard last year, not long after her diagnosis. He was an architect who had wandered into the Wolford Gallery for inspiration. Richard was older than me, in his early forties, with closely cropped graying hair and a slight limp from a recent triathlon.
I’d never had an affair, had never (to my knowledge) been cheated on, but Richard’s forthright manner excited me. If I were checking his traits off a list I might have assumed him gay—unmarried, a fan of the Victorian era, season tickets to the Berkeley Rep—but his preferences were simply preferences, such as shaving with a real razor rather than an electric. He did not look like a forever grad student, like Matt, who was masculine in his own mild way, but ever boyish. Darling Matt who had proposed to me in a tan corduroy sport coat. I was flattered by Richard’s invitation to come by his place to advise him on the placement of a Flemish landscape that he had just acquired at auction. Yes, he was attractive, but his offer was ridiculous, and I looked forward to describing the flirtatious visit to Matt over dinner.
I’d driven to work that day so I could pick up my mother’s comforter from the cleaners. It hadn’t smelled “right” to her since starting chemo. I headed over at lunchtime, after Richard left, and waited to pull into a parking space that was blocked by a Lexus SUV, idling for no reason. I stepped out of my car to ask the driver, a woman in a matching red turtleneck and beret, if she would mind pulling up a few feet. She was probably fifteen years older than my mother, who had just recently turned sixty, the last age she would ever be. The woman responded by rolling up her windows and cranking her stereo, blasting Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” It had been infuriating, was still infuriating later that afternoon when Richard returned to the empty gallery, standing so close that I smelled the Altoid he had just finished. So infuriating, in fact, that I found myself kissing him, or being kissed by him—it was hard to say in what order it had happened—without thinking of Matt, or, for that matter, my mother, who, one month after her diagnosis, was not looking at all well.
So, that night, instead of telling Matt the story of Richard hitting on me, I’d joined Richard for drinks, and, the next day, lunch, and after that he had given me a tour of his impeccable house. My mother would have been aghast (“How could you do this to Matt?”), but there I was doing it anyway, for months, feeling a perverse sense of achievement at having never congregated with Richard in my own house (though we’d once made love in the back seat of my Subaru after placing Jute in the driver’s seat with a rawhide bone).
But that awful day at home with Matt, after making the funeral arrangements, I was inconsolable and dissatisfied, with Matt of all people, and thinking about how his goodness didn’t always equate to my appreciation. Was it Matt’s fault that for him kindness was as natural as breathing? I could never have left him if my mother was alive, but I wondered if now was a time for bold decisions. I was inclined to think not. For one thing, I loved Matt. For another, I didn’t, in my previous thirty-three years, have a track record of making bold decisions, and I realized that I’d always rather envied those who did, including my mother. When I was nine, I’d walked with my parents across the Virginia Street Bridge to see the Truckee River. One minute we were peering down into the swirling brown water, and, in the next, my mother had picked up a partially unwrapped package of Fig Newtons from the gutter. I’d burst into tears as my mother ate the cookie, certain that she’d be poisoned. I didn’t want to be raised by my father on a diet of World War II movies and hot dog omelets. “Don’t be such a coward,” she’d said. And of course she did not die on that day, she had simply eaten a cookie that I would never know the taste of.
I saw panic in Matt’s eyes as he tried to comfort me, and my sobs led to a smothering embrace I couldn’t back out of (it called to mind, as I endured it, one of those “hug-boxes” that had originally been designed to soothe cattle), to mumbled kisses that assuaged my pain, and finally a trip to the bedroom where Matt tore off all of our clothes and tried every position he could think of to make me feel better, even inventing new ones that made no sense. I woke the next morning in his arms, red eyes raw and puffy, and not long after that I was peeing on a stick. And not long after that I broke things off with Richard. I never said a proper goodbye, merely left a sealed note under his cast-iron doormat telling him it was over, with a postscripted request not to contact me. To my disappointment, he never did. I’d looked forward to him teasing the pregnancy out of me and me standing firm, restating the impossibility of our affair continuing. I was with child.
* * *
My mother’s house was still a work in progress. I was dragging the process out, holding up its sale because I felt that there was magic in her answering machine. On my last visit, I’d listened to a message from a volunteer at the Berkeley Public Library about the upcoming used-book sale. As she spoke (“We always look forward to seeing your smiling face”), a white mouse darted out from underneath the dishwasher, peered around, and disappeared under a bookcase. The answering machine was running out of space, so I’d begun deleting older messages to make room for new callers. I recorded them as voice memos on my iPhone in a folder titled “House.” I didn’t delete the message from the man about his splitting head, because I irrationally hoped its presence on the machine would entice him to call again.
I forced myself to focus my efforts outside the house, checking for unforwarded mail, making sure the doors and windows were locked. Then I would compulsively sweep the deck, clearing fallen leaves and pinecones, moving the broom like it was part of my body. I kept going even after my arms throbbed and there was nothing left to sweep, all the while picturing my reward—the flashing red light on the answering machine. One day I entered the house to a message from the dentist’s office. The receptionist wanted to know why my mother had not shown up to her appointment. Her name was Susan.
“Marian,” Susan said, “Could you please return my call?”
* * *
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know if I was having a boy or girl, but of course I was told anyway. In my twenty-second week, as cartilage transformed to bone, I vomited into the toilet, pulled on a floral sundress, and walked to the Northside Café for a breakfast burrito on my way to the Wolford Gallery. I stood next to an older woman on the corner of Euclid and Cedar, waiting in silence for the light to change. Without warning, the woman pressed her beige, wrinkled hand against my stomach.
“You’re having a boy,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“Because.” The light changed and the woman dropped her hand and walked away. “You have mean eyes.”
I wondered if she was right; maybe I did have mean eyes. I’d not been good to Matt, yet somehow Matt still found me beautiful. What was wrong with him? Now even strangers could see the faultiness of his doting assessment. But the woman was wrong about the baby. Not long after her streetside prediction, I had a detailed ultrasound. From my stirruped vantage point I glimpsed pulsing organs, eye sockets, a neatly curved spine, and what I was told were a nubbin of girl-parts swimming inside a tiny black aquarium. We celebrated that night at Ho Wa (or, as we called it, the Ho Wa Bull), a mediocre Chinese restaurant we frequented when we were first dating. We came home after our ma po tofu and silken eggplant and watched a nature special on PBS. Lions were hunting antelope; Komodo dragons were doing terrible things to goats.
Matt was lying on my lap on the sofa. I told him, “I don’t like how much they show of animals eating other animals.” I folded my arms across my chest.
He laughed. “Can’t you enjoy anything?” The credits were rolling, and he pointed at the screen. “No more animals. All the weak ones have been eaten and the strong ones are full.”
Matt was still so excited about the ultrasound (“A daughter!”) that when we got into bed he seemed to fall asleep all at once, like a wind-up toy that had clicked to a sudden stop. He lay on his back, arms stretched above his head while I gripped my empty journal, waiting for his snoring to begin.
The next morning I lay on my side watching him, contemplating the vibratory bleats and trills. I had no idea if Richard snored, because I’d never actually spent the night with him. I walked to the toilet and peed for a full minute, filling the bathroom with a faint aroma of chicken soup even though I hadn’t eaten meat since high school. I was in awe of my hormones’ unruly power. I washed my hands and dried them on Matt’s bath towel, which he never complained about. He probably didn’t notice that his wet towel should have been dry, and at that moment his indifference to such small discomforts seemed almost obnoxious. I pulled on yesterday’s jeans, slightly tighter today, and clanked a handful of change near Matt’s head on my way to let Jute out. But Jute wasn’t there, and the back door swung wide open. I slammed the door over and over, the breeze lifting my bangs, until Matt ran from the bedroom to ask what was wrong.
“Our dog?” I said. “Gone.”
Matt pulled on his shoes, running his fingers through his hair. I grabbed the leash and we headed into the woods. I didn’t know how long the back door had been left open; the only thing I was certain of was that Matt was responsible.
“How could you be so careless?” I said without turning around. “She’s like a coyote’s wet dream.” My stamping entry into a small vale of Manzanita shrubs disturbed a pair of nesting quail, who ran for fresh cover, warbling with irritation.
“I probably didn’t pull the handle tight enough when I shut the lights. I’m sorry.” Matt walked toward me. “The latch hasn’t been catching. I’ll fix it when we get home.”
“Fantastic.” My anger had invigorated me, the pictures in my mind alternating between Jute’s empty bed and my mother’s old sofa, still in her desolate house. Why hadn’t I told her—and could any lie have been simpler to tell?—that of course I’d ordered the fucking Pottery Barn sofa. “Maybe you can fix the glass you knocked over yesterday, too. And didn’t bother to clean up.”
“I didn’t even know it fell until you told me. I was running to answer the phone.” Matt’s hands were splayed against the back of his head, elbows pointing in opposite directions. “It was Dora calling again about your mother’s house.”
“Jute,” I called through cupped hands. “Jute.”
“I apologized. What else can I do?” He groaned with exasperation. “Nan, do you really think I want you bending over to clean up broken glass?”
“How should I know what you want?” I shouted, and then I realized: it was me. I’d left the door open when I got the broom and dustpan to sweep up the shards. But my anger was a possession I wasn’t willing to share, and we plodded forward, separately, to look for our dead dog. “Why do you snore so much?” I called after Matt. “You aren’t even fat.”
After twenty minutes of calling I felt desperate, my throat raw. I walked back to the house to print a “Lost Dog” poster, and when I arrived Jute was lying on the front porch. Her tail beat hard against the screen door, and I squatted, gracelessly, to tug on her ears, trying not to cry. Matt was walking at a distance behind me, and sprinted forward when he saw her.
As he knelt to pet Jute, I walked to my mother’s house, which was now shot through with a ripe, fermented smell because the refrigerator had stopped running. It was as though the house knew it was unoccupied and had stopped even trying. I began dropping everything inside a Hefty bag—moldy cheese, jars of pickles and jam, freezer waffles—knowing exactly what my mother would be saying: “That’s compost. That’s recycling. That’s not trash. That’s not trash.” A neighbor had told me that I could share her garbage can, and I deposited the bag with relief. I washed my hands and checked the answering machine, still hoping for a second message from the man with the headache, but it was Susan, the dental receptionist. Since my mother hadn’t shown up to the appointment or canceled—especially after confirming!—her credit card would be charged. Good luck, I thought. I erased the message and went home, but Matt wasn’t there. He was out, his note on the kitchen table said. Just Out. When I went to bed at midnight he still wasn’t home, and the house was so quiet that I could hear Jute breathing from the other room.
At the gallery the next morning, an email from the Wolford estate informed me that a crate of carved acorns and bones from rural South America would arrive shortly. I meandered through the redwood-paneled rooms, deciding where the display would fit and what to consolidate. Matt had left the house before I woke, but I knew he’d been home because his jacket was draped over the guest bed, and an unopened fortune cookie from the Ho Wa Bull had taken the place of his one-word note. I had cheated, but had Matt? Ever? He’d been a late bloomer and never seemed to notice when women hit on him, which they often did, because, goddammit, he was cute. Matt was reliably enthusiastic in the bedroom, but easily distracted (sometimes too easily for my taste). He was an eternal optimist, however, always eager to try again. We had our routine in bed, by which I mean we each knew what we were into, and we knew how to have a good time. As opposed to sex with Richard, who I would do almost anything with, or as ‘anything’ as it got for me. But at least when Richard had the opportunity he took it, as opposed to Matt, who had once tried to get me into a bed covered with laundry baskets, a giant dust bunny peeking out from the open closet. “We can either clean up this room or you can blindfold me,” I offered to him, and instead of covering my eyes and ravishing me he’d begun folding clothes.
But I’d loved Matt practically from the day we met, when I stood behind him in line at a local deli. I was coming off of a breakup, in that highly aroused state of recent single-hood, and noticed how the sun lit up the golden hairs on the back of his neck. At the register, he patted all the pockets of his cargo shorts, then did a dippy little jump in place (to summon his courage, he later said). He turned to me, with my falafel and orange soda, and asked to borrow twenty dollars. After that, he said, he’d run home for his wallet and meet me at Ohlone Park. I never told him, but that little hop had just about killed me. I was halfway through my lunch when he arrived with a bouquet of roses, which, when we went back to his apartment after lunch, he put in a vase of water. Matt had always smelled good to me, even now, when roses smelled like old garbage.
I was already hungry for lunch, and it wasn’t even 11 A.M. My sides seemed to be made of rubber bands, widening and stretching. I called Matt at his office on the other side of town and reached voicemail. He answered his cellphone after three rings.
“Where are you? I tried you at work.”
“They’re cleaning a chemical spill in my lab.” I heard street traffic in the background. “The building’s closed until tomorrow.”
“Do you want to have lunch?”
“I can’t. I’m running errands. I—”
“Oh,” I said. “Errands. Don’t forget to stop at the hardware store for a new latch.” I hung up before he could answer and turned off my cellphone. This was no way to make up, I thought, as I unwrapped the fortune cookie. Aside from a sinister typo, the cookie’s message was not meaningful: “The sun shines brightest on those who bring sunshine to our lies.” I reread the email about the new exhibit, which said only that the collection was large and the objects were small. Without knowing how anything looked, I typed up a list of adjectives for the wall labels, describing the acorns in what I assumed would be rich, nutty tones. I checked my watch from time to time, then forgot about Matt and everything else as the carvings came into sharper focus and my typing quickened.
The lights were on when I got home, and the house smelled of paint. Chemical fumes had once made my temples throb, but now they were intoxicating. Matt had redone the guest bedroom in shades of pale green and yellow. It was a little girl’s room, feminine but not princess-y. He was on his way to the laundry sink to rinse the brushes, but he gave me a brief hug. “You have to be nicer to me” was what he said to the top of my head.
I thought about the broken glass and the door I had left open. I remembered Richard’s touch, experienced and persuasive, and the evenings I’d spent in his bed when Matt thought I was with my mother. I followed Matt to the sink and held onto him from behind while he worked paint out of the brushes. I felt him loosen up, a little at a time, and we stayed like that for a long while, my face pressed into his back.
* * *
It would be Christmas soon, and I was officially huge. One drizzly morning, Matt and I walked around a small pond at a nearby park. I was surprised by how much it felt like exercise. We rested on a wooden bench, and I watched the other women with their husbands and children while Jute strained against her retractable leash, gobbling green and white goose turds. Everyone looked haggard. I laced my hands together over the front of my bulging sweater.
“Have you grown spurs?” I asked the sweater. “Take it easy.” I tried staying still, but the baby kept moving.
Matt leaned into my stomach. “I’ll make you pay for that later,” he said, his lips pressed against the hard knob of my belly button. The baby kicked again, defiantly.
We stopped at my mother’s house on the way home. “Don’t tell me you need these,” Matt called from the living room, riffling through a stack of manila envelopes filled with more Bed Bath & Beyond coupons. Dust swirled around his head. I walked over to see for myself, and it did look like trash, or, rather, recycling. There was a message on the answering machine from an HVAC company offering duct cleanings, followed by two hang-ups that I knew weren’t Richard but which made me think of him. Everything with Richard now seemed like a very long time ago. The last message was from the dentist’s office. Susan had tried charging my mother’s credit card but the transaction wouldn’t clear. She sounded betrayed. Matt walked over to the sofa.
“Wrong number.” I deleted the message.
“Don’t you think it’s time to disconnect the line?” Matt said.
“Yes,” I said, thinking that it would be nice to throw the answering machine into the garbage. I dragged the broom and the power washer onto the side deck. My mother had sat here last winter in a vinyl patio chair so I could trim what was left of her hair. It was a clear day, and the trees swayed above us. She pretended not to notice that I’d over-steeped our tea. When I finished, I ran a hand over her scalp, checking for stray hairs, then swept the silvery wisps over the deck’s edge where they fluttered briefly before joining the pine needles. My mother had pointed to a pinecone dangling off a high branch. “I’ve been keeping an eye on that one from my bedroom window,” she said. “I’m pretty sure when it drops, I’m finished.” We drank our lousy tea and talked about different ways to keep the pinecone attached: wire, Krazy Glue, scaffolding. When it got too chilly to stay outside, I brought our mugs in and started dinner. And when the pinecone did fall, there was nothing I could do about it.
* * *
“Have I told you about my birth plan?” I asked Matt as we climbed into bed. I shut the light, and, with my feet, struggled to situate a small pillow between my knees.
“May I ask what a birth plan is?” We were facing each other, and the moonlight made a silhouette of his eyelashes.
“It’s where I say all the things I want to happen in the delivery room,” I told him. “I saw some online, pages and pages long. What music you want playing, if you want to keep your contact lenses on your eyeballs. Perrier, not San Pellegrino.”
“Gin and tonic,” Matt said.
“Pringles and cocaine.”
“I’m so excited,” Matt said. “I can hardly wait.” He turned over so his back nestled against my breasts and stomach. The baby found a new position and readjusted, for the hundredth time that hour.
“Matt,” I said to his back. I moved closer, and spoke more quietly. “I did an awful thing.” I felt him stiffen and I thought about how he would react when I told him about Richard. What would he find most outrageous, the betrayal or my sanctimonious behavior? Oh, there would be condemnation, and Matt would demand to know the same details that anyone would. “Why?” he would ask, and, “How many times?” I’d already forgotten what had tipped me over the edge with Richard—I only knew that edges were made of straight lines and that I was ready to see shapes and contours, to witness something momentous in the world. It should be good out there, the world, because we had invited someone new in.
“I was the one who left the door open that day,” I said. And then, “It was my fault Jute ran away. I knew all this time, and I didn’t tell you.” This was enough, I thought.
I waited, but he said only, “I know.” He reached back for my hand and placed it against the hollow of his chest. “You must have felt terrible.” Even now, his heart could surprise me.
I closed my eyes and danced my fingertips across his back, tracing letters and symbols. My lips grazed his shoulder, and I rubbed my cheek lightly against his smooth neck, inhaling. In the distance, I heard the coyotes yipping, their party just beginning.
Terri Leker lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Coyotes” is part of her fiction collection, Civil Dawn. She has received residency grants from the Vermont Studio Center and a 2019 Sustainable Arts Award. She is currently working on a novel about a linguist who relocates from San Francisco to Paris in the wake of a minor disgrace. She received her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College.