Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Megan Massaro
The third and fourth grade lunch lines merged sloppily and not without an occasional fight, in the corner of the cafeteria where a rather large and seemingly immobile woman in a hair net calculated the items on our tray. Milk, $.35; ice cream, $.60; hot lunch, $.85. I couldn’t understand why two lines of hungry students warranted just one crotchety and painfully slow old woman, nor did I appreciate the extra time I spent sandwiched in a line with people I didn’t like. One particular day, when I was wearing my favorite multicolored spandex body suit, Matt Tocchio, lanky and grinning a snaggle-toothed smile hunched over and asked me, “When are you due?”
I didn’t understand. I looked blankly at Ollie Simmons who stood to my left, but his eyes were fixed straight ahead. He showed no hint of being willing to translate, though I could see him flexing his ears, and knew he was dying to hear my answer so he could be in on the secret too.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said finally, with a great sigh.
Matt snickered, “Well, you’re pregnant, right? When’s your baby due?”
“I am NOT pregnant!” I yelled, my voice betraying a mix of indignation and humiliation. Matt and Ollie gave each other high fives, and the line began to move. I know the lunch lady witnessed the whole incident, but she made no motion to discipline or even acknowledge our presence. Instead, she looked at the tray in front of her with the same stare I’d seen on that lazy cow from the apple farm. I could practically see the grass moving up and down, up and down in her fleshy, ruminating mouth. I tried to focus on something soothing. My shrink said that when I felt stressed I should roll one word over and over in my mind, and let it soothe me. I chose the word pregnant.
“A dollah twenty five,” a faraway voice said. I was experimenting with all the different ways I could draw out the word “pregnant” so that my mother wouldn’t know what I was saying when I broke the news. Then I wandered to a place of wondering. How I was going to finish the third grade if I had a baby?
“A dollah twenty five,” Her voice came through more forcefully as she repeated herself, and I heard a kid behind me say, “What’s the problem up there, Preggers?” I pressed my quarters into her open palm and dashed to my seat, head down, fighting back burning tears. I was always crying. I cried at movies, when Mom pulled my hair, when Dad dropped us off after weekend visits, if Andrea didn’t want to play, or when I wasn’t the best in Reading class. But this was different. Matt was saying something about me that I didn’t even understand. Am I really pregnant? I wondered. I thought I needed a boy for that, and I had no prospects. ‘Mary’ was not one of the names the boys chose when they played MASH and had to pick four girls they could tolerate to marry, nor was I a member of the coed popular group. The only time I interacted with a boy was when I finished my work early during Language Arts, and the teacher asked me to read to Tyler Mack, the boy with a glass eye and a hearing aid, so he could catch up on his work. And he didn’t even give me a Valentine. So how did I get pregnant?
I sat down at the lunch table and asked Andrea what she thought. She had an older brother and sister, and even though they were both into Star Wars and cars and stuffed animals, I figured they might have told her something about getting pregnant.
“Mary, don’t be stupid. You’re not pregnant. You’re just, well…fat. Those spandex give you a belly, kinda like your Mom had when she was pregnant with Thomas. Not all fat people are pregnant, ya know.”
I tried to hide my embarrassment at my own ignorance. But was this supposed to make me feel better? Now, not only was I fat, I still needed convincing I wasn’t pregnant. I spent the next several months watching for signs of life under my clothes. I became obsessed with the idea that one day soon I would have a baby, just like Thomas, come out of my body. Would my mother be mad? Would he come out while I was going to the bathroom or taking a shower? Anytime I was naked, my chest started to feel tight like a stretched elastic band, and each time I took a new breath, it stretched even further. I thought my underwear was the only barrier between baby and the world. Would it look like me? If it looked like Thomas, I didn’t think I could love it. He came out cross-eyed, colicky, and jaundiced, and Mom cried for months after he was born. What do you do if you don’t want your baby?
The next week, Mom was on the phone with Donna Barrell, the unofficial mayor of our street, bickering about whose daughter had the bigger vocabulary (clearly me – when we did those end of the year tests in second grade, I was off the charts), whose daughter was the better athlete (sorry Mom, but Tyler Mack gets picked for kickball before I do), or whose daughter had more friends (chalk it up to living with Dad in a different city every other weekend, but I lose in this category too). For about two hours, I listened to this banter, relaxing in my usual posture: on the floor with the dog’s bed under my head, legs at a ninety degree angle, feet resting on the television. In the middle of a particularly spellbinding episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, I began to feel sharp pains in my abdomen. This is it, I thought. I’m in labor and I’m going to have to ‘fess up.
I could hear my mother’s voice rising in the other room. She began sucking her teeth in disapproval at what was being said on the other end. I knew better than to believe she
was really upset, though. It was a rare moment when my mother wasn’t inwardly celebrating someone else’s misfortune. Especially someone who occupied a higher rung on the social ladder. This probably wasn’t the best timing, but if a baby was coming, I didn’t want it making a big mess all over the floor. I had to interrupt.
“Mo-om,” I started, as I peered up at her from the fetal position I had assumed at her feet. She whipped her head down and glared at me with the face that, although different in appearance than all other mothers, in universal Mom language meant, “Don’t even try me.” Her lips were thin and stiff, framing small, pointed teeth, making the soft lines of her drooping jowls stand out.
After considering Mom’s look, I knew I needed another strategy. Talking was only going to render me bald in some conspicuous spot from Mom’s hair pulling fetish. I army-crawled to the junk drawer and pulled out a crayon, and what looked like the receipt from the vacuum repair shop. I scribbled on the back of the receipt with great effort, mostly for effect, “Something is wrong. Must talk now.” The pain in my stomach was deepening. This wasn’t indigestion, but more consuming. I remembered how Mom was doubled over before we took her to the hospital to give birth to Thomas. I slid the note across the floor, ran it along the side of the chair like a toy truck, flew it over the great chasm between chair back and kitchen table, Boeing 747 style, and settled it under my mother’s tapping, nubby fingernails. The energy required to transport the note was so great, I collapsed dramatically in a heap at her feet. I hoped she wouldn’t stay on the phone much longer, because the floor was hard and cold.
I heard her pause in head nods. She was reading the note. “Listen, Donna, let me call you back…uh-huh….Oh, I know…” And the conversation continued that way until I
began pawing and scratching the tops of her slippers. I was the only girl in the fourth grade with long fingernails. I think it was because I drank so much milk. My mother refused to buy sugar-laden soda, so instead, I drank milk and ate sleeves of cookies in one sitting, because you can’t just drain a glass of milk by itself. Mom walked to the other side of the kitchen to hang up the phone, rolled her eyes and dug balled-up fists into her hips.
“Can you believe she thinks that Casey is a just about as good a reader as you? I could hardly even listen to what she was saying. Doesn’t she know that you just tested at a seventh grade independent reading level and you’re only in the fourth grade? I mean…Mary, what is wrong with you??” Her tone sharpened when she saw me writhing on the ground.
“I think I’m having a baby!” I blurted, and the tears began, falling as though in tracks, along worn paths. As I blubbered nonsensically, Mom grabbed me by the forearm and the hair, and yanked me to my feet.
“Quit crying and tell me what’s really wrong.”
“I…think…I might be having a baby!” I wailed, clutching my stomach.
I hadn’t told her about Matt’s comments, because I was afraid she’d accuse me of being a slut, like she did when our babysitter Lisa got caught with her boyfriend over. I didn’t know what a slut was then, but I knew it rolled off my mother’s tongue the same way Dad spewed out spit after a run. She sat down, bracing herself on both the table and chair and suddenly her face softened.
“Go to the bathroom, Mary.”
“What?” My posture straightened and I caught my breath. What was this turn of
events? Did she want me to have the baby in the toilet?
“You heard me. Go to the bathroom.”
I didn’t argue. It was too late at night, and I felt too grumpy and achy to fight. When I pulled down my pink panties, my sense of balance left me, and I stumbled back into the toilet. Light pink was only visible at the front and back of my underwear. Everything else was covered with bright red blood. I tried to scream, but all that came out was a hoarse groan. Was this it? Was the baby next?
“You got your period, didn’t you?” She was at the door watching me. I didn’t even notice her approach. My momentary outrage at the loss of privacy gave way to disbelief, then relief. Before I could answer, she turned on her heel and spoke again, probably more to herself than me, “I was just saying to Donna that I thought you were going to get it before Casey. I knew it…” Her voice trailed off and I could hear her rummaging through her purse. My period. I hardly even knew what that meant, but I had a feeling my mother was about to tell me. And it was at that moment that I had become resigned to the fact that I might actually be fat, or at least too fat to wear multicolored spandex in public.