Liz Prato is the author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories (Press 53). Her fiction and essays have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Butter, Subtropics, The Rumpus, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Hunger Mountain, among others. She writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, OR, and beyond.
Excerpt from Baby’s on Fire: Stories
© Liz Prato 2015
“When Cody Told Me He Loves Me on a Weird Winter Day”
Cody and I are sitting side-by-side on a picnic table, looking toward the Rocky Mountains covered by ponchos of snow. Black-necked geese are honking, and I’m thinking, They must be lost. They shouldn’t be in Denver. They should be in Acapulco. The concrete slab is cold under my butt, but the mile-high sun is warm and bright. It makes us both squint. That’s when Cody says, “Meg, I think I’m falling in love with you.” So I say I think I’m falling in love with him, too.
Two months ago we were just friends swilling Tennessee whiskey to numb respective heartaches. Next thing you know, he’s telling me he loves me, and I’m thinking I love him back. For a second or two, that seems just fine. Then Cody says:
“But here’s the thing. I’m insanely busy right now. Between teaching and getting ready for this installation in three weeks, I just don’t have time to start a new relationship. It wouldn’t be fair. So, I think we should put things on hold for a month or so, and then see where we stand.” Where did the lost geese go? They aren’t honking anymore. The breeze isn’t blowing the bare tree branches. A car hasn’t driven by the park in a long time. It’s all so quiet that I can’t pretend I didn’t quite hear him and say What?
Cody looks at his watch. “Shit. I’ve got to get to my studio. I was supposed to meet a student there at four.” He jumps off the picnic table and stands in front of me. He blocks out the sun, and I don’t have to squint anymore. “Okay.” He holds my gloved hand. “I love you.” This time I don’t say it back. This time I just say, “Uh-huh,” and listen for the wing-beat of geese.
INTERIOR: MY APARTMENT—TWO MONTHS EARLIER
I’m on my couch. CODY is on my floor. His girlfriend just broke up with him; my boyfriend just broke up with me. We’re passing a Jack Daniels bottle back and forth. This makes me look tough.
CODY: So, in case it didn’t suck enough, now I also don’t have a date for Celia’s fundraiser.
ME: They could’ve at least waited until after the party to break up with us.
CODY: (handing me the bottle) We could go together.
ME: I can think of worse.
The geese are back. “Where the fuck were you when I needed you?” I say. They honk, honk, honk. Some nonsense from the Tao Te Ching. The sun is falling south. It will be cold and dark soon. Across the street from the park is a coffee shop, the kind with dreadlocked girls and scratched wood tables and frou-frou drinks with the comfort of vanilla and spice. It’s warm inside, with steam shooting from the espresso machine, and music shooting from the stereo. I order a molto grande latte with cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s okay for me to have that much caffeine, now that I’m not pregnant anymore.
Celia and Cody were a couple after college, in another decade, another century. Cody lives in a world where he’s still friends with his ex-girlfriend from another century, so he’s friends with her husband—my brother, Nate—too. I was a bridesmaid at their wedding and Cody a groomsman, so you’d think we’d have hooked up taffeta-drunk then. It’s the only acceptable scenario for bedding your sister-in-law’s ex. But I was blindly devoted to a long distance boyfriend, and Cody brought some pretty girl. That’s the way it had been ever since.
Celia’s the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Act Out!, a nonprofit that goes into schools and teaches kids to express their feelings through improv. Sometimes I help Celia come up with scenarios to get the kids started. Things like: YOU and TWO FRIENDS are hanging out together, when one pulls out a bong. Or: YOU and A GUY are getting hot and heavy, but don’t have a condom. Sometimes I come up with these scenarios even when Celia doesn’t need them.
Before Christmas, Act Out! hosted a black-tie fundraiser. It was attended by Denver’s society set, and by Celia and Nate and Cody and me. Nate rented a limo so we could all get insanely drunk on French champagne without risking anybody’s life. It’s the sort of extravaganza that a grad school dropout working in a bookstore would never get to attend, but Celia and Nate made it possible. The party was in a mansion that no one has lived in for a hundred years but gets rented out for weddings and high-class affairs. I could see why Celia wanted to stage the party there instead of a generic ballroom at the Marriott. The mansion had a real Louis XIV feel to it. And maybe that’s how we got in trouble. We thought we were untouchable.
INTERIOR: OPULENT ROOM IN MANSION—SEVEN WEEKS EARLIER
Velvet couches and chairs, a gilded portrait of some old woman. TWO MEN, TWO WOMEN, dressed to the nines. They’re drinking and laughing like the cast of a sitcom. CELIA asks if anyone’s ever had a ménage-a-trois. This is not a sitcom.
CODY: (slurping from crystal flute) Been there, done that, the T-shirt was too small.
ME: (laughing) There were T-shirts at yours? There was an utter lack of them at mine!
CODY: (jade eyes fogged by champagne) What do you say, Meggie? You, me, and who else? You want another man or another woman to complete the triangle?
ME: Do you mean your masculinity could stand up to another man?
NATE: (my brother) Disturbing mental picture here, kids.
CODY: Honey, I don’t know if my masculinity could stand up to you.
We are all quite sophisticated and witty.
It’s not like Cody and I had never been flirty before, flirty in that way you get when you’ve known someone a long time but he’s your sister-in-law’s ex-boyfriend, so he’s off-limits. Flirty in that way you get when you’ve had a little too much—but not too too much—to drink and you’re both dumbly devoted to others, so you know it’s harmless and will go nowhere. We’d flirted like that before. But we’d never flirted before with broken hearts, with Cody in a tuxedo after watching Cary Grant movies to figure out how to act suave and debonair, and me in a Little Black Dress—not looking as much like Holly Golightly as I secretly want, but still pretty good for a redhead with hips—with much-too-much champagne and the two of us alone in the back of the limo with the streetlights throwing neon across our faces. All that took us upstairs to my apartment. There was no “what does this mean” discussion. There was no stating of the obvious—I don’t want to ruin our friendship. There was Cody’s long, lanky body, a little soft in the belly, but hard in the right places, in my right places. There was my couch, and a rocking chair, and lastly, my bed, and when you end up in that many places that many times, sooner or later your birth control situation is bound to get “dubious.” That’s what Cody called it six weeks later, when I told him I was pregnant.
“And you’re sure?” he asked.
“I took two tests,” I said. The first one had been at home. First Response, it was called, as if the EMTs were going to arrive and give me CPR. I lay on the bathroom floor listening for their sirens for a long time. My faucet drip drip dripped, and the pipes banged above my head. No first responders ever arrived to pick me off the floor, so I got up and drove to the health clinic.
Since Cody lives in a world where he’s friends with his ex-girlfriend and her husband, he also acted like a Stand Up Guy when he discovered some woman who wasn’t his girlfriend was pregnant. “I’m going to support you no matter what you do, okay?” he said. “If you get an abortion, I’ll be there and help pay for it. If you have the baby, same thing.” That’s how it is with Stand Up Guys: they don’t tell you what to do.
I’d always figured, “Oh, if I have an unwanted pregnancy, I’ll just get an abortion.” In my head I actually said “unwanted pregnancy,” probably because I majored in Women’s Studies, and even though they say the personal is political, what they really mean is it’s all academic. The GRE question would go something like this:
If the subject is 31 years old and makes $12 per hour while working 30 hours a week in a bookstore with 1.5 degrees and 3.5 ex-serious boyfriends (none of whom are the father) and she still wears Doc Martens and never carries tissues in her purse, will she: a) make a crappy mother; b) get an abortion; c) feel soul-crushing regret no matter what she decides?
I invited Celia and Nate out to lunch to break the news. They both came from work dressed in suits while my thrift store sweater pilled. After our drinks arrived, I said, “I slept with Cody.”
“Like, sexually, you mean?” Celia said.
“No,” I said. “I’m making a production of us napping together.”
Nate sipped iced-tea through a straw. “You and Cody? Seriously?”
“Well, that’s . . . that’s kind of . . . .” Celia started laughing. And she kept laughing. So did Nate. In fact, they were whooping it up so big that they didn’t notice I wasn’t even cracking a smile.
“God, that’s funny!”
“It is.” Celia grabbed Nate’s forearm. “I don’t know why.”
“Because it’s Cody!” Nate said, and they laughed some more.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, if you thought Act One was funny, wait until you hear Act Two.” I thought I could hitch a ride on their laughter, but before any words came out of my mouth, tears came out of my eyes. I told Nate and Celia about the two tests. Celia held my hand and Nate gave me big brother eyes, like I’d just lost my ice cream cone to the summer sidewalk.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Nate pulled a red Moleskine notepad from his breast pocket and plunked it on the table. He took out a pen and made a list of the reasons I shouldn’t keep the baby. It’s the same notebook where he jots down ideas about how to re-design the interiors people pay him to re-design. Sometimes it’s about changing the wall color to “Butter Up” or “Tiger Eye.” Sometimes he moves an entire staircase. His list for me said:
– 31 – single – tiny apartment – Cody
Celia picked up the notepad. “Sweetie, this isn’t exactly supportive.”
“I’m being pragmatic,” Nate said. “I don’t think she can get a Pell Grant for this.”
“Well, maybe this isn’t an entirely pragmatic decision,” Celia said. “Maybe it should be a little emotional.”
“My sister is knocked up with the love child of your ex-boyfriend,” Nate said. “This is the best I can muster.”
Nate and Celia’s reasons for not having kids included: expensive, noisy, stressful, messy, time-consuming. Celia admitted that anyone who stopped for one rational moment to consider the consequences of having kids wouldn’t do it, but people do it anyway, all the time. Biological drive usually trumps reason. But Celia figured she and Nate must be ruled by something else, some intangible intelligence which overrode their biological drive. When I tried to plug into my intangible intelligence, all I got back were pipes banging above my head. I was curled on the floor, wishing the EMTs would arrive.
I took the pen from Nate’s hand. I made my own list. It said:
– it’s not like I’m 16 – no other prospects on the horizon – would it be so bad, really? – Cody <<>>