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EXCUSE ME? she said. Help, I need—can you help me?
She was standing at the side of the counter, in the hallway that led to the booths and the bathroom. Blood pasting her white jeans to her thighs. She was hunched almost double, arms wrapped around her stomach, limp hair lashing her face. She smiled around a crop of buck teeth. A strand of saliva looped to the floor. Sorry, she said, wiping her mouth on her wrist. I’m sorry.
Are you okay? I asked, stepping backward, away from her, until my foot met the wall. The smell of burning sausage poured from the ovens.
I had a miscarriage, she said. In your bathroom?
I opened my mouth, imagining an actual baby in there, slick and twisting on the tile.
Maybe you could call someone? she suggested, her voice very small, high, like a child’s. Blood all the way to her socks. An ambulance?
Okay, I said, reaching for the wall phone, okay—
I turned the OPEN sign off and sat beside her in a booth. I kept thinking how the splits in the vinyl bench would soak up the stuff coming out of her. Jason would be pissed, like I’d spilled my own blood there on purpose. The girl trembled, knees tight together, making a sound like hm, hm, as her hands, thin but veined like a man’s, crept over her elbows. I didn’t think to put down a towel or give her a glass of water. She leaned over the tabletop to look out the window, neon from the shop signs pooling in the flooded gutters.
Do you think they’re coming soon? she asked. Even her hair had blood in it, from where she’d sat on it, or pushed it back with her fingers. I moved away, to the very edge of the seat, and she whispered, calmly, still facing the window, It’s okay.
When the ambulance stopped at the curb I could see two men, heads down in the rain, carrying a stretcher. Oh, she said, and then the men were in the room, dripping onto the mats, and I stood up so they could touch her wrist and flash lights in her face. When they asked her What happened her eyes slid over to mine and she smiled, sucking her lower lip between those enormous teeth, before passing out in their arms.
I spent an hour in the bathroom with a bucket of bleach and paper towels and a pair of yellow gloves with crud in the fingertips. I wiped the porcelain over and over with one hand while I breathed into my elbow. There was something the size of a steak in the toilet, sunk in the red water, organ-like; it didn’t look like a baby, but maybe there was a piece of a baby inside—an eye, a finger, a face—and I wondered if there was something I should do with it, but I couldn’t think of anything. I flushed, coughing. The thing squeezed down the pipe, and little bits of whatever it was gurgled back up into the pit of the bowl so that I had to stand there and flush until the water was clear.
She’d used up the toilet paper, stuffed long red ropes of it into the trash. There were meat-colored streaks all over the floor where she’d walked in her own blood. And the graffiti on the walls that Jason loved—that’s what she had to look at while it happened, things like Wesley King eats dick and Fuck off and die. The overhead light was dim and the dark blue walls were almost black and I knew I wasn’t seeing it all, getting it all, the mess she’d made, but I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left. I took the trash out to the dumpsters and ate cold pepperoni and drank a cup of Mountain Dew. The phone rang.
Hi, she said. Hi, it’s you?
I spit the pepperoni into a napkin. Yes, how—
I’m sorry, she said, I know—there was a mess. I would have cleaned it. I would have—
It’s fine, I interrupted. I could still feel the pepperoni in my mouth, slippery, rancid. Are you okay?
Oh, yes, she said. Yes.
That’s good, I said.
Thank you, you know, for—calling the ambulance. For staying with me.
It’s fine. There was a long pause; when she spoke again her voice was whispery but loud at the same time, like she had her mouth pressed up against the receiver.
Did you see it? she asked.
When you were cleaning up, she said. Did you see anything?
I thought of the black shape in the water, its gleaming sides.
Not really, I said.
I did, she said, sniffing. I touched it, even. I thought it would be, you know, that you could see what it looked like. But it wasn’t a baby. It was something else.
Her voice broke off. A little breath.
And you—you just—flushed it, right? she said.
Yeah, I—I mean, you left it there, I—
She giggled. No, I mean, of course, it’s okay, that’s great, you were really great, she said, and she stayed on the line for a moment, and so did I, listening to her, listening to her listening to me, and then she made a noise, like a part of a laugh, or a sob, and then she hung up.
I walked home in the rain, up to my ankles in the filthy water. It was a Monday night and everything was closed. I wondered if they’d given her new clothes to wear at the hospital, or if someone’d brought her something to change into—I didn’t know how it all worked, who would clean her, how she would clean herself. There’d been a trail of blood from the bathroom to the counter to the booth to the door, blood on the medics’ blue suits as they carried her out. I imagined having what she had, a place in my body that could splash an entire room with my insides and then let me walk away. I got an erection though I didn’t mean to. I pushed my hands into the front pocket of my hoodie and rubbed them against my crotch, grimacing, not feeling good at all. When I got to my apartment my roommates were already in bed and I fell on the couch in my wet clothes and went to sleep.
The next time I saw her she wasn’t alone. Her boyfriend towered over her, with a thick red beard and a gut of hard fat stacked over the belt of his khakis. She was pressed against his side, her head grazing his armpit, in a tank top and a short corduroy skirt, showing off her flat chest and pale legs. He ordered a slice of the Five Meat and she wanted a Diet Coke. He took their change and I gave her a cup. Our fingers touched. I turned to get some crusts from the freezer, feeling her gaze crawl up my neck; when I glanced back at her she was smiling. I went around the ovens to the sink just to get away from them. He said something and she laughed. I stared at the rack of dirty pans and counted the days since she’d come in, two, three, four—why was she laughing? How long did you have to wait until you could laugh again after something like that? Finally I heard the door open and I walked to the front. She had her head on his arm, her hair grazing her waist. I looked for the blood but of course it wasn’t there. Bye, she said, and I said Bye, out of habit, back.
They came in once or twice a week, sitting in the booth where we’d sat together, her ass or his ass right on top of the tape I’d put over the split in the seat, right on top of where her blood had been, still was. I knew they were fucking a lot. He would grab her bony wrists and pull her across the table for a kiss, her body jerking like a puppet, and while he ate he grinned at her like he was thinking about something dirty. If he was on top of her—I imagined it against my will. How could it not hurt her? He was so big. That sloppy body, his filthy beard. I was nineteen. I was a virgin. The counter came all the way up to her chest and when they ordered she stood there kneading the edge of it with her thumbs in this weird way. I didn’t know what to do. I served her, I served her boyfriend. I cleaned up after them—their dirty plates, their crushed napkins—I let them smear themselves all over the place. She had a habit of putting her forehead right on the window when she looked out of it. The grease from her face left a mark on the glass and I wiped that off, too.
I peed into a Styrofoam cup on my breaks. During the shift overlap I watched the others tick off their names on the bathroom maintenance clipboard but I didn’t tick mine. Jason came in at the end of my shift and started saying he couldn’t trust me if I slacked off whenever he went out of town. I stood against the wall and nodded, keeping myself very still. He went to take a piss. I waited. What the fuck, he shouted a minute later, the door banging against the wall as he kicked the plunger into the hallway. The toilet’s fucking clogged, he said. I didn’t move. He snapped his fingers in my face. Hey. Genius. Wake up. I said I’d take care of it. I don’t remember if I did. I don’t remember ever going back in that bathroom again.
But she did. Both of them did. Once they went in there together and when they came out she was licking her lips and giggling. When she saw me looking she stopped. A muscle in her cheek twitched and her lips were struggling to get around her buck teeth. I kept staring at her. Her boyfriend was leaning over the stack of flyers beneath the window, his foot in the air, and she was caught between the two of us, between me and him, me and the black door behind her.
You’re there, good, you’re there, she said, and it was like the time she called from the hospital or wherever; she was out of breath, her mouth right up to the phone.
It’s late, she said, I can’t believe you work so late.
You’re up, I pointed out.
Oh, well, I’m always up, she said.
What about your boyfriend?
The guy you’re with.
You mean Dennis, that’s Dennis. Her s’s hissed a little, like a lisp. He’s not here.
I wondered what that meant. If they lived together, if he was out somewhere without her and that’s why she was calling me, or if there was some other reason, one I couldn’t guess.
Does he know? I asked, swallowing.
About what … happened.
She paused, like she didn’t know what I meant. Oh, she said eventually, no. I mean, not really.
Oh, I echoed.
I used to come in a lot, she said, tentative, almost a question. Before. By myself?
Don’t you remember?
I work near you. I mean I saw you so many times.
I was sure I would have recognized her. Someone who looked like her. I had a feeling she was lying. I didn’t say anything, just dug my finger beneath a broken flap of plastic on the register drawer.
He didn’t know that I’d been already, she said. He thought it was his idea. To go there. He likes your pizza.
It’s not my pizza. It comes frozen.
Well, he likes it. Do you mind? I mean, that we come in so much? That I’m calling? You must be busy, she said. You’re always by yourself.
It’s fine, I said. You work down here, too? Where?
She paused. Just down the street, she answered. Not far at all.
Where do you live?
Not far, she repeated.
I broke open a sleeve of Styrofoam cups with one hand. Why are you calling? I mean, do you want something?
No, she said. I just thought—
Never mind, I said, stacking the cups next to the register. I thought about the way she’d sat in the booth, making that sound, the raw smell of her so strong I had to breathe through my mouth. I pushed the cups into line with my finger. There was a dustless circle where they always stood and I had to get them into that circle. Water was sliding down the front window in thick ropes and I flexed my toes in my shoes, still wet from the night before. It would not stop raining.
I let myself imagine this was some kind of game for them, a routine: he’d fuck her and she’d get pregnant and then she’d take something, medicine or something, and they’d wait for the thing to happen. He’d send her into these places to do it, and he’d meet her at the hospital and she’d tell him who had touched her and what it felt like and he’d fuck her again as soon as they got home, and there’d be a pile somewhere, of her jeans, stiff, rust-colored, that she would never wash or throw away. The smell of stale blood filling their bedroom and the fact of her pain just that, a fact, and not something that could really hurt her, because she’d been scraped out so often that everything breakable had already been broken and cleared away. She would be smooth inside, as smooth and slick as wet rock. There was something so fucked up about them, about her, the way she smiled at me with her boyfriend standing right there, as if we’d met at a party, as if we were friends, as if what had happened had never really happened at all.
I didn’t have an umbrella and I never got one. Jason said it was monsoon season and I thought that was a real thing until I looked it up online and saw that it was only for India. I used that joke with her the next time they came in. Dennis leaned against the counter and said Goddamn rain, right man? And I said Yeah, it’s like a fucking monsoon out there, and she seemed pleased, snorting with her mouth open. I slung his pizza onto a paper plate and didn’t charge her for her soda. He clapped my shoulder and said You’re a good guy. She wrapped her arms around his bicep and beamed. They’d tracked in a lot of mud and while they ate I got the mop and cleaned the floor, swabbing beneath their table so they had to raise their feet before settling them back, still filthy, onto the damp tile.
She always called at the same time, after we’d closed, when I was cleaning up. I didn’t say Hello, Party Pizza when I answered, just waited for her to talk. There was this moment, when we both were listening to each other, breathing, that made me feel like I was turning into smoke, expanding, filling the room, and she was there, filling it with me. Then she’d say Hey, it’s me, in her tiny voice. I didn’t know her name. I still don’t.
Do you have friends? she asked me that night. A lot of friends?
I tucked the phone against my shoulder, counting money from the drawer.
I have roommates, I said. Two.
Are they home when you get home?
I’m sorry, she said, I just—thought of you as going home by yourself.
They go out a lot. It’s mostly just me.
Oh. I never lived with other girls, she said. I went right from home to being with Dennis. We met at a concert. I was dancing and someone hit me on my cheek, by accident, and I had a cut and Dennis helped me fix it up.
I could hear her smiling. I imagined her holding her hand to her face, lost in a crowd, letting people slam into her. I imagined being there, standing against the wall. I’d see her get hit and I wouldn’t help her. I would just watch the wound open up and she’d see me watching, she’d let the blood run down her shirt. It’s not that I wanted to see her get hurt. I hated everything about what had happened to her. But that sound she made, her smallness, the way she showed herself to me—that’s what I saw, what I still wanted to see.
When the phone rang the next night I picked up but it wasn’t her; it was him, breathing hard.
Hey, he said. It’s Dennis. She there?
We’re closed, I said.
Right, right, shit, he said, with a little laugh. Shit, man. Sorry. Yeah.
It’s cool, it’s cool, she’ll be back any minute. I just thought she said she was going to get some food and that was a while ago, so you know. Just thought I’d call ’cause she left her phone here so I can’t get ahold of her.
We close at ten, I said.
Yeah, okay man, see you later then, he said, and hung up, still panting. I squeezed myself through my jeans, my head against the wall. After a moment I opened one eye and there she was, at the window, watching me, her hands cupped against the glass.
The next time they came in she looked at me with her eyebrows high, like we had a secret, but we always had a secret, or they did, or I did—I didn’t know who knew what or what there was to know. I wasn’t charging them for drinks and Dennis went back for refills twice. I thought maybe he’d gained weight. She had her feet on top of his under the table and was making little rips in the scalloped edge of his paper plate. When they left Dennis turned and gave me the thumbs-up and I smiled like I knew what that meant.
Was it your first time?
She giggled. My first time what?
Having, you know—it happen.
I could hear her shifting, her body rubbing against something. I wondered if her hair was in her face, like it always was when I saw her, or if it was pulled back, and, if so, what her face was like when it was bare, if there was something behind all that hair that she was hiding.
I didn’t even know that I was pregnant. I thought I was dying, she said. I really did.
Uh, I said.
Was it your first time, too?
I blinked. What?
Seeing that. A girl like that.
Y-yeah, I said. Obviously. Yes.
It’s not that uncommon, she said. The doctor said it happens all the time. Not to the same person, I mean, just in general. Sometimes you don’t even know what it is, you think it’s just cramps or a weird period or something. But mine was … farther along.
She took a deep breath, then sighed. I know what you think, she said. You think I’d just leave you alone. You think I’d—do something different. She paused. But I do this instead. I can’t help it. I love it, she said in that breathless whisper, and I was suddenly so hard it hurt.
I don’t know! she exclaimed in wonder. The way you look at me. Do you know how you do it? Is it something you do on purpose?
Like—like you hate me, she said, swallowing. Like you can’t stop.
I don’t hate you.
Oh, it doesn’t matter. Maybe there’s a different word for it. For that way you look.
I wiped the counter with a paper towel, in a circle, the same circle over and over.
Did it hurt a lot?
Yes, she said.
I was quiet. The counter was cleaner than it had ever been and yet it still felt sticky.
Do you want children? she whispered.
You’re lucky, she said, her voice thinning out, a wisp, floating away from me.
Come here, I said, squeezing the phone in my sweaty hand. Come alone.
She exhaled—not surprised, not unhappy—and for a moment I thought I had a chance, the future bloomed out before me, and then she said He’s home, and hung up.
Copyright © 2019 by Maryse Meijer