Mallory could feel him now. Little flutters, a tremor like a small ball bouncing inside her, a finger tapping at some internal door. It was a message for her, coded. I’m here, it said. I’m yours.
That was one change. Her belly was another, swelling slightly beneath her sweaters. And her breasts, too big for all her bras, aching at the end of each day. Her mind, too, the encroaching fog, actions slipped from memory. She would find herself in the kitchen holding a knife, wondering what she’d meant to slice.
Tim couldn’t feel the kicks yet. Mallory would press his hand to her skin just after they’d stop, or she’d feel a shudder too faint for him to sense. He never seemed disappointed, so she tried not to either. She was learning that her body’s storm would be hers alone to weather, the seismic changes would feel shattering only to her. She was already a mother, and Tim was not yet a father, and she understood that this placed them in two different worlds.
She liked to walk to the river. She liked to stand on the cold deck of the ferry while the wind whipped around her. She was warmer than she had ever been in winter—all that churning blood, all that extra life. He was quiet inside her while the ferry dipped and rocked. It wasn’t until she stepped onto solid land that he began to move again.
Last year, before she was pregnant, Tim was ragged, spending long hours at the office, slipping into bed with many sighs and once, sobs, when he thought she was asleep. Some mornings, he would pull her against his chest, squeeze her so hard it hurt. Sometimes he would take long, scalding showers, emerge flushed and steaming, his skin scrubbed raw. Sometimes he would fall asleep with his head on her lap then wake, look into her eyes with love so fierce it made her nervous and tell her, “I don’t deserve you.”
Then she was pregnant, and for a few weeks, he held open car doors and let her nap while he cooked dinner and researched mocktail recipes. But agitation set in. He was jumpy, snapping at her when she reminded him to pick up toothpaste or asked about his takeout preferences. He started in on the showers again. His skin was tender in the places he’d cleaned too hard, and he pulled away from her touch.
It was on a whim that Mallory picked up his phone. Or maybe it was intuition, something whispering in her ear. When she saw the texts, she was both shocked and not. It was like waking from a nightmare to find that you’d been dreaming about your real life all along. Tim was in the bathroom. She called out in a shaking voice.
“I tried to stop,” Tim said when he came in, when she’d showed him the texts, when he’d run out of evasions and had finally broken into frantic tears. “I ended things so many times. But I kept going back to her.”
Mallory had read that the baby could hear her voice through the womb. She imagined her tears echoing through his cave, vibrating in the dark waters. She imagined her shouts rising and falling in muffled bursts.
“In this house?”
Tim’s shame was embarrassing. He looked like a child, helpless in the mess he’d created.
“Do you love her?”
He covered his face. “Yes.”
Her was a colleague, a wisp of woman. Mallory had met her a few times. She was smug, a one-upper, interrupting to say, “I know exactly what you mean.” Mallory had formed an instant dislike, but acted even friendlier in her distaste, smiling, inviting her to brunch in some unschedulable future.
She made him leave, sleep someplace else. She made him promise not to go to her (although what good was his promise?). She needed time to think, to cry, to absorb the unabsorbable. Inside her, she felt a soft rhythmic jolting, the baby moving again.
Mallory was already a mother. What she would have given to drink until the world became a great forgiving blank, smoke until she was just a body in a room, her mind flown away somewhere softer, kinder. But her body belonged to her son. She was hopelessly, achingly present.
The days were blurred, full of ceaseless television noise, forcing herself to eat now and again. She walked to the deli, scarf and hat blocking as much of her face as possible. She bought toilet paper and milk and tried not to look the cashier in the eye. She couldn’t bear to smile or make small talk, could barely speak above a whisper. She wanted to become an object, unsensing, unnoticed. A gray pigeon feather tumbling from a fence. A plastic fork poking through a trash bag.
Tim called. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “I miss you.”
“You ruined me,” she said.
Mallory rode the ferry, aimless. She was taking a break from work. Tim had encouraged it at the time she quit, the first weeks of her pregnancy. She could find a new job after the baby was born; human resource jobs weren’t disappearing. At first she found her empty days freeing, but the freedom was paralyzing, too. She could go anywhere in the city, and yet she found herself slack on the couch watching old seasons of reality cooking competitions while she ate flavorless pad thai delivered from down the block.
A couple fussed over their toddler, zipping her coat, tugging mittens onto her hands while she flailed. Mallory watched their parental choreography, swapping one hat for another from the depths of a little backpack, passing wipes between them to catch the dribbles from their daughter’s nose. Mallory buried her chin in her scarf and tried to imagine Tim beside her, passing the baby between them. The river gleamed. Buildings stood like sentries, guarding the people rushing below. Mallory imagined them toppling one by one. The great white waves of rubble. The glaring emptiness in their wake.
She called Tim.
“Are you talking to her still?” she asked.
A pause. “Yes.” He began to cry.
“Are you seeing her?”
He sobbed. “I don’t know what to do.”
Mallory hung up. There was nothing she could break that wouldn’t cost too much to replace. She saw some clementines in a bowl on the counter, growing soft. She threw them one by one to the floor. They bounced lamely and rolled to a stop. She felt a battery of kicks, matching her heart slamming fast in her chest.
She began to tell people. Not most people, just her mother, a couple of friends. Their magnificent pity, their sound advice, their vicarious rage flashed over her and vanished. How could they know what it was to be her right now? How could anything they said matter?
Sometimes Mallory longed to talk to Tim. She thought about when they first met, the letters he sent her even though they only lived twenty blocks apart, just so she could read his heart. He was weedy and reserved with a tendency to overexplain past the point of interest, but he was a romantic. To propose, he’d whisked her away on a surprise trip to Aruba, knelt in the sand at sunset, and promised to adore her for the rest of his life. Sometimes on weekends, he would pull the covers over their heads and pretend they were the last people on earth. They had to repopulate, he explained, and while they held each other close, he whispered her name.
Sometimes, she wanted to kill him. Poison in his coffee. A baseball bat to the head.
Tim visited the apartment to pick up more things. He sank to his knees and buried his face against her belly, his arms around her waist.
“Tell me to come home,” he said.
Mallory was frozen, her hands limp at her sides.
“Stop seeing her first,” she said. “Then maybe.”
He paused, looked up. “But.” He hesitated. “But if you don’t know…”
She wrenched away. She closed herself in the baby’s room, or what would be the baby’s room when they bought a crib and a changing table and a rocking chair and filled it with color and softness. For now it was a blank, white room, and she realized suddenly, it might stay that way. She certainly couldn’t afford this place alone.
He knocked on the door before he left. He opened it a crack, and she slammed it shut. The sound was shockingly loud, and she whispered to her belly, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
That evening, lying on the couch in the blue dark, Mallory decided to go out. Her black jeans still fit, though tightly. Her velvet camisole was loose and hung from her now impressive cleavage, her belly mostly hidden behind the drapery. For the first time in weeks, she put on makeup. She looked at herself, and for once the baby was still. She could almost imagine she wasn’t pregnant.
Mallory went to a packed bar, and found herself holding her belly protectively as she sidled through the crowd. She ordered a rose-colored drink without alcohol. Mallory felt the baby pattering inside her. She felt prickly, alive, a little dangerous. She felt how she used to feel when she was twenty-one and single, the night spread before her like a feast.
She scanned the room. No one met her eyes, no secret smiles. Everyone seemed happy talking in their own groups, the chatter rising in competition with the music. Three times, she walked to the bathroom (she never stopped peeing these days), and each time, she brushed past men, placing a hand gently on their backs to squeeze by. Everyone shuffled away politely.
Mallory swallowed her pink drink quickly. When she stepped back out into the night, she felt strangely warm. She decided to walk a while. People were still inside restaurants, dawdling over their spaghetti, alight in conversation. She thought of dinners with Tim, swapping plates to see who “won” the order. Fingers meeting on the tablecloth. Glasses emptied and refilled and emptied until they stumbled into a car. He’d stay awake so she could sleep while they rode home.
She found herself at the water, a ferry waiting, waves slapping the dock and the sides of the boat. She bought a ticket. She tried to stand on the deck as the boat pulled out into the water, rollicking along, but the wind was too fierce. She ducked inside. From the windows, the lights of the city blazed.
There was a bar that sold watery beers and bags of chips. She tried to buy some chips, but the credit card machine was broken, and she was out of cash. She was about to walk away, but the bartender shook his head.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He was tall, not attractive, but also not unattractive, curly hair, a blue polar fleece zipped to the chin. He smiled at Mallory.
“Thank you,” she said. She opened the little bag. “Do you want one?”
He abandoned his post at the bar. The only other people around were huddled against windows, buried in their own thoughts. They took seats at a table and shared the chips between them, licking salt from their fingers. Their faces were too visible in the bright florescence of the cabin. The boat’s engine groaned beneath their conversation and they spoke loudly. The man’s name was Nick, and he’d been working on the ferries for a year and a half. He was saving for a car. He wanted, one day, to move someplace with a little land, plant his own food.
“I could have chickens, maybe an alpaca. You know? The ones with the floppy ’80s hair?”
“Are they the ones who spit?”
“Oh.” Mallory unbuttoned her coat. She could feel her belly pressing hard at her jeans, could feel the choreography inside her. She rested a hand there, willing her baby into quiet, then took it away.
“Alpaca wool is amazing. You can use it for literally anything. And it’s crazy soft. If you’re into that.”
“I’m into soft.”
Now was the time to plunge forward.
“Nick,” she said and touched his arm. The fleece was pilly and rough. “Would you like to come to the bathroom with me?”
He looked at her a long time, almost frowning. He glanced at the bar, checked the time on his phone.
It was cramped and awkward, squeezed in the little bathroom with Nick. It had been so long since Mallory had used condoms she’d forgotten the rubbery smell, the absurd moment of unfurling. She positioned herself with one leg up on the toilet seat, Nick behind her, breathing into her hair. She’d left her coat in the booth, and the bathroom was cold, goosebumps rising over her arms. She tried to enjoy it. She tried to think of the story it would become, of her freedom. Nick made soft noises and reached around to touch her hips, to hold her by the stomach. She shuddered with a sudden tremor of pleasure, which then vanished instantly. Nick groaned and fell heavily against her. He kissed her cheek and left the bathroom first. Mallory sat on the toilet until she felt the ferry slowing, turning to dock.
“That was fun,” Nick said when she emerged. He was back at the bar, wiping down the taps for the night. “Oh, and congrats.”
“What do you mean?”
Nick nodded at her belly. “You know,” he said. “I kind of thought so, and then I felt it…”
Mallory was frozen.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m kind of into it.”
She thought of Tim the morning she took the pregnancy test. His arms tight around her, hands gripping her hair. “Baby,” he’d moaned into her ear.
The ferry lurched to a stop, then rocked in place against the dock. Without replying, Mallory left Nick on the boat. She didn’t even know where they were, what part of the city she was in, how she would get home. The buildings, distinct as people during the day, were identical columns of lights shining in little squares, blinking on and off. The baby fluttered inside her as the ferry slid away. She checked her phone. Her battery was at two percent. A text from Tim said, “I’m sorry,” and she repeated the words out loud, echoing until they meant nothing.