Baby, Baby

Your mom said your life was a video. Her advice: Avoid doing anything you don't have the stomach to watch. You're here now on the side of the highway, your fat ass and big belly sweating, sticking to the vinyl seat in your stalled Chevy. Your husband--the one your mother said should make an honest woman of your careless self--cussing you out for forgetting to gas up, for forgetting that the gas gauge sticks at a quarter tank. Use the goddamned odometer, he tells you again even though it's too late now.

It's no use telling him you were at the doctor and you got other things on your mind. He's supposed to drop you at your mom's before going to work because she wants to try to teach you to knit again--booties and blankets--and now he's gonna be late. He's sweating almost as much as you, and the button-down shirt and tie he hates are stuck to him like soggy toilet paper on a shoe. Rat-faced bitch, he says. Fuck-tard. Shitbird. He's always been a creative curser--an ability you find adorable but one that doesn't win any points with your mom. She wants family to stick together, so she tolerates his mouth. That doesn't stop her, however, from trying to shame you by saying your son's first word's probably gonna be four-lettered.

So when he repeats rat-faced BITCH, changing up his emphasis and slamming his hands on the steering wheel, you laugh. You're in this together and--while you'd be a fool not to wish for the better--you're willing to work through the worse, and you can think of plenty worse things than running out of gas. But he doesn't think it's funny. Fuck off, he says. This is your fault.

You reach over to hold his fingers in yours, but he slaps your hand away. Don't touch me, he says. So you pull your hand back, look out the windshield, watch other people's working cars speed by, wonder if they're wondering about you, try to figure what you look like as your stranded self gets smaller and smaller in their mirrors.

Then he tells you to get out, throws your bag at you. The knitting needles and baby blue yarn your mom bought you tumble out all over the floor.

The hell I will, you tell him. He knows you can't even get shoes on your feet unless you put them on as soon as you wake up, not to mention that just wearing clothes--much less walking around in the blazing sun--makes your stretched skin scratchy. You make your mom call before she stops over now because half the time you're walking around the house in nothing but your sandals. Besides, you inform him, your mom--not his--donated this hand-me-down junker to your collective broke-ass cause. If anyone's getting out, it's him, not you.

This makes him sweat harder and his eyes are squinting, either from the heat or the pressure, you don't know which, and he tells you Fine. You try to reach for his hand again, but he's out the door, slamming it so hard you rock.

You sit in the car, wishing you had enough extra money to get an air conditioner. If you look outside, you know you'll only see the sweat on his back like a dagger before he disappears in the distance, so you stare at what's inside. You fiddle with the radio even though he took the keys and the only sound is the whoosh of traffic passing you.

Eventually, you'll have to call your mom and she'll blame you for the state of his shirt, the one you pulled from the dryer and moved straight to a hanger without benefit of starch or iron. If your video has voiceovers--which you hope it doesn't because when it comes to videos you personally would rather be shown than told--your mother will narrate. Her voice, rough from too many cigarettes and the disappointment of experience, will remind you, Some of us took pride in our husbands, made them look their best.

You know you could be better about bringing out your husband's best. Still, you miss him. You reach across the seat, pretend you're holding his hand. You sit like that for a while, humming an old Motown song he hates because it's too sentimental and sugary. Because no one's there to disagree with you, you pretend he likes it precisely because it's sentimental. Momma, he tells you, I'm a changed man, you'll see. You convince yourself that the wrinkles in his shirt are what eventually make you cry.

If you get the chance to edit your video, you think you should probably pull this clip from the highlight reel. You hate the way you look after a cry. But then you realize this isn't about you anymore. Some day, a long time from now, when your son asks, you'll press Play. You'll pause before things get ugly; you'll name what could have gone right instead of everything that's already gone wrong.

See this, you'll say, zooming in on your wrinkle-free, extended hand. She wanted him to hold her the way she was holding a piece of him. Some things are all or nothing, you'll explain, but this one was made from half of what's him and half of what's me.

About the author:

Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, VerbSap, Quay, Keyhole Magazine, and Fickle Muses. Her essays have regularly appeared in The Rambler in her column "No Do-Overs."