After the Rice

Wendy French

Forge Books

Chapter One 
 
I was late, and not for the bus.
 
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, afraid to look at myself, concentrating instead on the checkered shower curtain reflected just beyond my right shoulder. In an effort to slow my heartbeat, I focused on the shadow of mold at the top seam, which Matt had pointed out the night before, when he reminded me to open the window the next time I took a twenty-minute shower. Victoria may have boasted the mildest climate in Canada, but February was February, and the thought made me shiver.
 
Of course, the temperature wasn’t the only thing giving me chills.
 
I blinked twice.
 
Just breathe.
 
I glanced at the vitamin box nestled between my husband’s deodorant and his exfoliating cream. The Monday and Tuesday sections were empty, right on schedule, and each subsequent day contained the precise combination of colored capsules and tablets he’d been taking daily since childhood.
 
If Matt thought that forgetting to crack the window was a capital offense, what would he think of my failure to pop a birth control pill on the morning of my Postmodern Canadian Fiction midterm exam three weeks earlier? I’d taken one as soon as I returned home late that evening, confident that I was covered because, after all, what were a few measly hours?
 
Apparently, enough.
 
I was currently on my third placebo and hadn’t even felt the familiar twinge of a cramp.
 
Of course, I knew the Pill wasn’t an absolute guarantee, but could I have landed on the wrong side of the decimal point? The odds were in the realm of lotteries and lightning bolts, but was I the fraction of a percentage I’d scoffed at when my gynecologist wrote the prescription?
 
“Megs, have you seen my brown belt?” Matt called through the door.
 
“I think I hung it on the rack in our closet,” I responded, trying to keep my voice even.
 
“No, that’s the black one.”
 
“So?”
 
“So, I’m wearing brown shoes.” He sighed. “Never mind.”
 
I let my gaze drift upward until I was looking into my own eyes. They were blue, just like they’d been yesterday and a hundred yesterdays before that. I exhaled slowly, noting with reassurance that I looked perfectly normal. Yes, there were bags under my eyes, but the silent arrival of two a.m. had been setting off my internal alarm clock for the past couple of weeks while I worried about school, and I’d had a hell of a time hitting snooze. I didn’t want a new topic to fret over, had no desire to trade Dr. Zhivago for Dr. Spock.
 
I turned on the tap and splashed cold water against my face before patting it dry with a toffee-colored towel—part of a set we’d been given by my older sister as a shower gift almost a year earlier. I blinked hard and assessed my image again. My dirty-blond hair was looking less than spectacular, but that was nothing new. My skin lacked its usual rosy hue, but thanks to a brutal essay on Byron, I hadn’t been outside in days. No, neither of these minor details added up to pregnant.
 
I glanced downward, surprised when my hand instinctively moved to my stomach and rested there, palm against the rough knit of my argyle sweater. Daring myself to do it, I poked my belly with an index finger and, ludicrously, felt relieved when nobody poked me back.
 
I bit my chapped bottom lip, gaze drifting from my nail-bitten fingers to the slightly frayed cuff of my sweater, past the clunky metallic men’s watch I’d swiped from Matt on our fourth date, to the mole where my Adam’s apple would be if I weren’t an Eve. I watched the round brown speck move with the rhythm of my breathing for a moment before looking at my face again.
 
I didn’t look like a mother, for crying out loud. My wayward eyebrows showed no sign of behaving, my left nostril still looked bigger than my right, and there was no way a fetus was inside me.
 
No way.
 
I stared at my cheeks. My mother always said she could spot a pregnancy as early as the second week, when the skin was glowing and luminous. I was most definitely pasty and wan.
 
I couldn’t be pregnant. It was impossible.
 
I had several more terms of school to finish.
 
Matt was implementing a new computer system at the library.
 
We were a party of two.
 
We were satisfied.
 
We didn’t want kids.
 
 
Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t need children, although the world not only thought otherwise, but constantly strove to convert us to the Church of Parental Bliss.
 
“Can you imagine a combination of our genes?” I’d asked Matt once. “Your knobby knees, paired with my thighs?”
 
“What about my ears?” he’d asked. “It would be cruel to pass them on.”
 
“Or my pointy nose,” I’d said, shaking my head. “Child abuse.”
 
We could happily live without learning the gibbering language of the infatuated parent, speaking in tongues about woobies, wee-wees, binkys, or nigh-nighs. We didn’t want to lose more sleep than we could afford, change more diapers than we cared to imagine, or deal with time-outs, groundings, allergies, sleepovers, report cards, soccer games, cookie sales, camp outs, chicken pox, smoking, drinking, driving, dating, sex, and the task of teaching some poor little soul everything they needed to know about how to survive in a world that was changing every day, and not necessarily for the better.
 
We were responsible people, and the last thing we wanted was more responsibility.
 
“Hey, Megs. Don’t worry about the belt,” Matt called.
 
“I’m not,” I muttered, pinching my cheeks for color.
 
“I found the black one and changed my shoes.”
 
“Good thinking,” I said, shaking my head and reaching for my toothbrush.
 
It wasn’t that we didn’t like children, but we didn’t feel they were missing from our lives. My uterus flatly refused to ache at the sight of a toddler cramming a handful of cottage cheese into its mouth.
 
Its mouth? Their mouth? Whatever.
 
Friends, family, and complete strangers loved to tell us that we couldn’t comprehend what it was like to have children, or fathom all that we were missing out on.
 
In high school, they called that peer pressure.
 
“You should be glad that our nonexistent kids can’t edge yours out of college, or bully them during recess,” I’d say.
 
Our families badgered us to contribute new wrinkles to the family fold, but we weren’t about to create a life so Matt’s mum could buy tiny grandma loves me T-shirts, or my dad could go by “Pappy.”
 
If there was one thing we knew for sure, it was that we didn’t want kids.
 
Shit.
 
 
“Do you want me to wrap the gift?” Matt asked, tapping his knuckles against the door.
 
“I’ll just shove it in one of those bag things with some tissue paper,” I said, squinting at myself.
 
Wouldn’t I instinctively know if my body had achieved double occupancy?
 
“Nah, I’ll just wrap it.” I heard his footsteps recede toward the kitchen.
 
I ran my fingers through my hair and set to work with a hint of eyeliner and some shadow in an effort to mask the fatigue. I was definitely stressed and worn out over school, and my mean-spirited body was probably holding my egg hostage as payback. When my period arrived, I’d be giggling over the scare. Hell, I was practically laughing hysterically already. In the meantime, I’d just keep it to myself. Matt was a natural athlete when it came to worrying, and the last thing he needed was a trip to the Olympics.
 
His footsteps approached the door again.
 
“Megs, I can’t find the tape,” he said.
 
“I think it’s on my desk.”
 
“I already checked.”
 
Of course he had. I rolled my eyes and reached for the mascara. “Maybe it’s in the drawer beneath the cutlery.”
 
“Why would it be there?” His tone was incredulous.
 
“It seems like a logical spot.” I shrugged, despite the fact that he couldn’t see me. I heard him walk back to the kitchen, then rifle through the drawer.
 
“What’s the checkbook doing in here?” he called out to me, clearly agitated. His footsteps brought him back to the door.
 
“I don’t know,” I murmured absently.
 
Maybe the manufacturer of my pills had a Web site. Surely I wasn’t the only client who half-missed a dose. There was probably an FAQ section, patiently waiting for me under a handy purple tab. A few keystrokes, and I’d be all set.
 
“I thought we agreed to keep it in the office,” Matt said.
 
“What?” I asked, attempting to tousle my hair. Instead of voluminous, it just looked messy.
 
“The checkbook. Didn’t we agree to keep it in the office?” he asked.
 
“I guess so.” I tried to push the concept of pregnancy to the back of my mind, behind the grocery list I never wrote down and the reminder to buy a new thesaurus. If I could just relax, my period would arrive and I could carry on with life as I knew it. My situation was purely psychosomatic, and all my psyche had to do was take a deep breath and roll out the menstrual welcome mat.
 
Easy!
 
I inhaled slowly, soothingly. Just forget about the possibility, because that’s all it is. A slim chance. I exhaled. Slim to none. Inhale. A late pill is a minor, minor indiscretion. People try for months and even years to get pregnant before they succeed. Exhale. What makes you think you’re in the accelerated program?
 
I took another breath, feeling better already, my shoulders relaxing. The scare would be over in a matter of hours. Or days, maximum.
 
No big deal.
 
“Hey,” Matt interrupted the thought, “did you note that forty dollars you got from the bank machine the other night? I don’t see it in the register.”
 
“No,” I muttered, taking one last hopeful look at myself before opening the door.
 
My husband stood directly in front of me, his dark hair carefully parted, the khaki stripe in his collared shirt perfectly matching his pants. His soft brown eyes were fixed upon me, his full lips in frown formation. While I may not have looked like a mother, if I added a wallet, thick with souvenir foreign currency, and a pair of black kneesocks to his lanky frame, he’d be my dad.
 
The man in front of me could be a father.
 
I could practically see an imaginary six-year-old tying Matt’s shoelaces together while he waxed poetic on the topic of checkbooks.
 
“Then how am I supposed to balance it?” he asked, eyebrows furrowed with annoyance, as though there were nothing on earth more important than the damn register.
 
“I’m sorry, I forgot,” I snapped. “Sometimes I forget things, okay?”
 
Things like little pink pills.
 
I mentally shoved the thought between the lyrics to Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” and the image of my mother’s bunions, knowing that combination could block out just about anything. “I’m not a bloody computer, Matt.”
 
His tight-lipped expression softened into the smile of a shared joke. “Don’t I know it,” he said, reaching to adjust my necklace, his fingertips brushing against my skin as he pulled the clasp away from the cloisonné pendant he’d given me for my twenty-ninth birthday. He settled it at the nape of my neck, where it belonged. “There we go.” He rested his lips gently against mine. “Now let’s find the tape.”
 
The tension seeped out of me. Sometimes all it took was a soft tone or a quick squeeze. “You don’t need tape, buddy,” I whispered, as our breath mingled. “You need meds.”
 
He chuckled, eyes crinkling. “And you need a Palm Pilot.”
 
“Never.” I laughed at the all-too-familiar threat.
 
“A BlackBerry?” he asked.
 
“Not on your life.” I swatted at him.
 
I’d spent most of Valentine’s Day terrified of unwrapping one, but he’d erred on the side of bonbons, thank God.
 
“Do you know how much I love you?” he whispered, wrapping his arms around me.
 
I pretended to consider the question for a moment, as though we’d never played the game before. “Uh . . . I’m betting your love could almost fill a margarine container.”
 
“Nope.” He smiled. “Think bigger.”
 
“Could it fit inside one of those self-storage units with the obnoxious orange doors?”
 
“Bigger,” he murmured, nuzzling my neck.
 
“Is your love as big as a B.C. ferry?” I asked. “And I don’t mean one of those puny ones that goes to the Gulf Islands. I’m talking the Queen of Surrey or a superferry, like the Spirit of British Columbia.”
 
“Bigger.”
 
“They fit hundreds of cars, Matt.”
 
“Keep trying.”
 
“Could your love cover every inch of this island?”
 
“Yup, and more.”
 
“Okay, how much do you love me?” This was the part I never tired of.
 
He let go of me and pressed the tips of his thumb and index finger together, tightly enough that the skin changed from pink to white. “My love for you encompasses every molecule of the universe that isn’t squeezed between these two fingers.”
 
“Technically, only one of them is a finger,” I told him.
 
“Well, you get the drift.” He smiled.
 
I pulled his hand toward my face and squinted at it. “Not much room left,” I murmured.
 
“Not much at all.” He kissed me softly.
 
“Well, my love for you extends beyond the limits of the known universe . . . plus one.”
 
“One what?”
 
“I don’t know. One of whatever that unit of measurement is.”
 
“It’s a good thing you’re in the arts program, you mathmagician.” He chuckled and led me down the hall.
 
Our Jack Russell, Duncan, eternally optimistic that the only reason we’d ever enter the kitchen was to dispense rawhide bones, followed on our heels, his collar jangling like his own personal theme song.
 
While the dog balanced on his hind legs, a difficult task on the heavily waxed linoleum, Matt stood in the center of the room, hands on his hips as he turned in a slow circle, surveying the counters, the top of the microwave, and the cookbook shelf, searching for the Scotch tape.
 
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I whispered, “Matthew Ismore prepares for the triple axel . . .”
 
“Very funny,” he said, dropping his hands and peering at our bright yellow wall. He stopped in his tracks, scowled, and pulled a Wet-Nap from the dispenser on top of the fridge. Quickly crossing the room, he eliminated a dark smudge I’d never noticed above the toaster.
 
“I think you need a cape or something, Captain OCD,” I told him, shaking my head. “Or maybe a holster for your Lysol.”
 
As he opened his mouth to respond, he spotted the tape on the windowsill and that was enough to still his lips.
 
We set to work as a team, wrapping tiny striped tights and an embroidered denim dress in shiny pastel paper covered with cartoon daisies. I’d been so good at banishing thoughts of pregnancy for a stretch of several minutes that I almost forgot to envision wrestling our own little girl into striped tights.
 
Almost.
 
Matt and I signed the blank note card I found in a stationery box under the stack of Christmas gifts I hadn’t managed to put away in two months. I attached a bow, and I watched as he pointedly dropped the roll of tape into the drawer where he kept the address book.
 
“From now on, it’s kept here, Megs.”
 
“Gotcha,” I told him, eyeing the digital clock on the microwave. “Crap, we’re late.” I winced as soon as the words left my mouth. “For dinner, I mean.”
 
He glanced at me quizzically as he slipped into his carport jacket, but I left it at that.
 
After tossing a handful of dog biscuits into Duncan’s bowl, we were off and running, hoping to make up some time on the drive, but halfway down the front steps of our 1938 bungalow, we heard a loud creak.
 
“This stair’s ready to go at any moment,” Matt murmured, pausing to hop on it a couple of times. I saw the dull shine of a coin tucked into the designated slot of his penny loafer, then checked his facial expression. His brow was furrowed yet again. He had to have the strongest forehead on the island with all the working out it got.
 
“We’ll get Jess to fix it,” I told him, in an effort to hurry him along. “Big brothers love doing that stuff.”
 
Matt frowned. “He’s not my big brother.”
 
“He’s mine, Lambchop.” I checked my watch.
 
Later, still.
 
“We can’t just—”
 
“He’s been spending too much time pining over the divorce, anyway.” I continued down the stairs, hoping he’d follow my lead. “I’m sure he’d appreciate the distraction.”
 
I trailed my fingertips against the leafless branches of our clematis, wishing it were spring already. February felt like the longest month of the year, despite its claim of being a mere twenty-eight days long. It was Mother Nature’s best bait-and-switch trick.
 
“We should just hire someone,” Matt sighed.
 
“We’ll pay him with pizza and beer,” I called over my shoulder.
 
“I don’t like feeling indebted to people, Megan. Especially family.”
 
“Speaking of debt,” I said, pausing at the landing to turn and face him, “maybe the Bank of Montreal will come and fix it. After all, they own eighty percent of the house.” I put my hands on my hips and leaned over to scrutinize the step. “Yup, I’m pretty sure that’s one of theirs. I’ll call them tomorrow.”
 
“Very funny.” Matt smirked, finally descending the stairs and following me across the lawn. Before we made it to the car, I heard him mumble, “I need to mow.”
 
“We can do yard work on Saturday morning,” I said, though I had no intention of doing so. Granted, part of me wanted to help him with the lawn and garden, but it was a negligible part, like a knuckle or my left armpit. The rest of me would prefer sleeping in, followed by a nice batch of chin-wagging and a side of wheat toast.
 
He caught up with me and tilted his head toward the pristine landscaping next door, whispering, “Mr. Abrahms offered to lend me his lawn mower.”
 
“We have one,” I said with a shrug.
 
“He knows that,” Matt sighed. “He was making a point.”
 
“Well, it’s a good thing he’s got all day to make points and mow lawns. Does he understand that we aren’t retired? That we don’t have time to trim each blade of grass with nail clippers and a level?”
 
“He understands that when summer hits, the lightest breeze will ensure that our dandelions become his dandelions.”
 
“Good grief.” I rolled my eyes. “We’re just being neighborly, sharing the wealth.”
 
Matt climbed into the driver’s seat of the Toyota and I buckled in next to him, gazing lovingly through the windshield at our home. Ragged lawn or not, it was adorable.
 
I admired the crisp white shutters we’d painted together the month we’d moved in, and the first hint of crocus sprouts in the flower bed by the front door. I remembered struggling with the power washer, as we removed the grit and mold from the exterior of the house, amazed as the bricks brightened from rust brown to a cheery red. I gazed at the crab apple tree Matt’s cousin gave us as a wedding gift and recalled the afternoon we spent moving it from one spot to another, trying to find the perfect location. The spindly branches were already reaching for the windowsill. The windowsill of the office; the room Matt’s mother had designated for a baby, as though the addition were inevitable.
 
Don’t think about it.
 
Matt swept his arm across the dash, gathering a paper trail in one cupped hand.
 
“Why are you keeping this stuff?” he asked, digging under his seat until he retrieved a crumpled Safeway bag to stow it in. “Parking validation? Movie stubs?”
 
“I know, I know.” I kicked some old People magazines to one side of the foot well. “I told you I’d clear it out. I just haven’t had a chance.”
 
“Convenience store receipts?” He held one up for me to see, as though I needed proof.
 
My shoulders tensed, but I tried to make light of it. “Those treats we snuck into the Odeon. That movie with Clive Owen. Remember?” I pulled a slip of paper free from his grip. “And this is the Butchart Gardens ticket from when your aunt was visiting. The dashboard is practically a scrapbook.”
 
He started the car and backed out of the driveway. “More like a scrap yard, Megan.” He glanced at the backseat, where half-empty Coke bottles and granola bar wrappers lay in wait. “And you drive people around in here?”
 
“Point taken,” I grumbled, growing irritated.
 
“Is that the electric bill by your feet?”
 
“No . . .” I picked up the crumpled wad of paper, saw the BC Hydro logo and groaned inwardly. “Yes.”
 
“Megan.” He rubbed his forehead and looked at me like I was an errant three-year-old.
 
“I was going to pay at their office.”
 
“And?” he asked, tapping one finger against the steering wheel as he drove.
 
“And I forgot, obviously.”
 
“So you saved the cost of a stamp in favor of a late fee? Excellent strategy, Megan.”
 
“Look,” I said, dropping the bill into my purse, “you knew what I was like before you married me.”
 
We were more Oscar and Felix than Romeo and Juliet at times, but usually it worked for us.
 
“Meaning?” he asked.
 
“Your toothbrush,” I muttered, citing the first example that popped into my head.
 
“What?”
 
“You replace it every three months.”
 
“Those are the instructions on the package.”
 
“I use mine for a year.” At least.
 
“Your teeth are fine, Megs.”
 
“That’s not the point. You handle all the detail stuff, like oil changes.”
 
“So? You do your fair share.”
 
“No, Matt. I specialize in late fines at Pic-A-Flic.” I paused for a moment. “I’m the expert at belated birthday cards.”
 
“Megan . . .”
 
He scrubbed the bathtub weekly, while I was more inclined to wait for a rust-colored ring to appear as my own personal orange alert.
 
He should have known I couldn’t be trusted to keep the car clean, pay the bills, or handle birth control!
 
“Megan?” he asked, glancing from the road, to me, then back again, ever conscientous.
 
“You knew all of this ahead of time, though.”
 
“What are you getting at?”
 
“Look, it’s not like I tricked you by being tidy and organized when we were dating, then uncovered my true identity as a sloppy loser after the wedding,” I snapped.
 
If I was pregnant, it was entirely my fault, and I’d never hear the end of it.
 
“Whoa, slow down!” He kept his eyes on the van in front of us while he reached for my hand. “I’m just teasing you.”
 
“Well, cut it out,” I growled through gritted teeth. I could feel the sharp sting of tears forming in the corners of my eyes, and I willed them to dry up before he noticed.
 
“What’s wrong?”
 
“Nothing. I’m just not in the mood for criticism right now.” I stared out the window, relieved as the threat of tears passed.
 
“Megan, I’m serious. What’s wrong?”
 
“Nothing.”
 
“Something has to be.” His fingers traced a slow circle in my palm.
 
I pulled my hand away and scratched the skin, more tickled than soothed. “It’s nothing, okay? I’m just tired and cranky.”
 
He glanced at me. “We don’t have to go to this dinner, Megs.”
 
If only that was all I was worried about.
 
“Yes we do. She’s six months old today, and it’s our job . . . no, our duty to give a rat’s ass.”
 
He frowned and gripped the steering wheel tightly, his wedding band gleaming in the glow of the streetlights as we passed. “Why? Who on earth throws their kid a birthday party at six months?”
 
“Karen does.” And we all had to bow to Karen’s will.
 
“Your sister’s a nut job, and you know it.”
 
“Look, the fallout from not going will be far worse than just biting the bullet and celebrating,” I assured him, from the clear vantage point of past experience.
 
“As far as I’m concerned, if Hallmark doesn’t make a card for it, it isn’t a legitimate event.”
 
“If we don’t go, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
 
Matt sighed and didn’t speak again until we were several miles from the house, gliding along Cadboro Bay Road. When he did, it was with forced cheer, standard practice following any tension between us.
 
“Mmm, sweet and sour spareribs.” He licked his lips as we passed the Golden Palace. “It’s not too late to get takeout and go home.”
 
“Yes it is,” I told him, wishing we could do just that. Maybe spicy chicken could help clear out my uterus. General Tso to the rescue!
 
“We could always—” Matt began hopefully.
 
“No we can’t.”
 
“Come on, Megan,” he urged, glancing from the road toward me. “Are you going to liven up anytime soon?”
 
“I don’t know,” I sighed, staring out the window at the recycling bins and garbage cans lined up at the end of each driveway.
 
The truth was, I couldn’t be angry with Matt for failing to recognize that, thanks to my ineptitude, our happiness was dangling from the minute hand on my biological clock.
 
Could I really be pregnant?
 
I took a sidelong peek at my perfect husband, his close shave, neatly trimmed fingernails, and the damn shoes that matched his belt. He was a man who never made mistakes, never had to clumsily defend himself and hope for understanding or forgiveness.
 
No, I couldn’t be angry, but I couldn’t tell him, either.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Wendy French