Cardboard slices my knuckle. The pain tightens my jaw, and I swear as my finger bleeds. I look around the card store. A gray-haired woman in a red rain coat stands by the Easter cards. I apologize for my profanity, but she puts the card back into the slot and walks out into the mall.
The stock room door squeaks open, and Erica walks out hidden behind a box. The door falls shut behind her bouncing off the door frame a few times before settling against the bruised wood. It’s been broken for months, but our District Manager doesn’t think it needs fixed. The door is supposed to ding when it opens and close unheard. Instead, it screeches as the hinges are forced to move and bangs against the frame.
Erica’s skinny—the skinny that comes from a fast metabolism. Weight Watchers wouldn’t offer her a nutrition job because she’s underweight. She carries the wide heavy box easily, and I wonder how she eats so much but weighs so little.
I wipe away the blood off my finger with a tissue. I squeeze my finger to see if I still bleed. I tear off tape from the dispenser and wrap it around my finger until the slice is covered. I bend my fingers. The tape is tight, but it holds.
“There are band-aids in the back,” Erica says as she drops the box on the floor and kicks it against the counter.
“I’d buy stock in the company if I used a band-aid every time I shed blood in this place,” I say and pick up the cards that had cut me. I place the pale purple envelopes behind the white glittery cards. A pea pod is split open with two peas in it. It wishes the new parent’s happiness on the birth of their new twin babies.
I met him online in January. I was a senior in high school and I was ready to graduate, move away, and start college. I wanted a new place with new people. My college was an hour away. I joined the network page on Facebook, and he added me as a friend.
His name was Mark. He lived four hours away in Oil City, and he had a Myspace he still actively used. He was thin, pale, and ginger—a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day decorations. He had a poor taste in facial hair, which earned him the name “Billy Goat” around campus.
I wasn’t attracted to Mark, and we had little in common. We talked occasionally at first—whenever we were both on Facebook and had a few minutes. It grew into short chats every night and longer conversations on the weekends. He asked for my number. I gave it to him. I spent whole nights talking about the future with him and school days hiding my phone behind my purse to text. There was talk about making the drive to see one another. It never happened. It was just something we said.
A young mother walks into the card shop pushing a pink stroller. I grab the last pack of cards and rearrange them in the right order: four cards, four envelopes, one ticket, and one pocket identifier. I greet the mother and smile at the baby while I walk across the store. I shove the pale pink card that congratulates someone on their pregnancy into a pocket. I wipe the glitter covering my hands onto on my black apron. I hate glitter. It’s everywhere. It gets on everything. It’s the sexually transmitted disease of the card shop.
I move onto the next task on the list my manager left. I pull a pastel colored scarf out of plastic wrap, unfold it, crumple it into a ball, and start a pile. “So are you going to come to my reading?” I ask Erica while sorting through the spring scarves.
“I don’t know,” Erica says. She’s checking in a box of mugs for Mother’s Day. Pale pinks and blues litter the counter with cliché sayings about motherhood. Flowers and butterflies form repetitive patterns on the ceramic. “I don’t know if I’ll be around.”
I grab a black and white chevron scarf and put it on. I like it, and I choose another to try. “What does that mean?” I ask Erica as she takes a silver mesh scarf and drapes it over her head. The mesh drops over her face, and it reminds me of fencing helmet.
“Do you really want to do this now?” She talks with the scarf blocking her face. I can’t see her expression, but I hear the hesitation in her voice. I hear the panic.
In March, Mark dated a girl. I was jealous, and that’s when I noticed my feelings for him. They broke up after a month, and by June, I was in love with him.
We met the first night at school. His building was next to mine, and he texted me he was headed over. I threw my yoga pants and t-shirt onto the floor of my closet. I grabbed jeans and put on a shirt that showed a little skin. I pushed my boobs up and made sure my sternum piercing was showing. I fluffed my hair. I brushed my teeth. He was outside my door, and I let him in.
My roommates were gone for the night. Mark and I were alone, and I was terrified. I didn’t know how to be alone with a guy.
We went in my room, and he sat on my bed. I sat in my desk chair. We talked for a while. He grabbed my hand and pulled me to the bed. His hand moved up my arm until his fingers rested on the back of my neck. They were warm. He leaned in to kiss me, and I slid off the bed.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been kissed before, not when it mattered. I kissed my crush on a dare in the first grade—a swift peck on the cheek. In ninth grade, I frenched a boy in the hot tub, also a dare. It was sloppy and quick and gross.
I smiled and sat on the floor. I turned away and pretended I was coy. My face was flushed. I was embarrassed. He smiled at me, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me back. He leaned in. He kissed me. They were soft, simple kisses, and I relaxed. His tongue slid into my mouth. He was confident in his ability, so he kissed hard and long and well. I kissed him back trying to copy his movements and when he moaned, I knew I was doing it right.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long,” Mark whispered almost breathless.
At the card shop, Erica and I move behind the counter. “What’s going on?” I ask.
“I’ve been feeling weird,” she says. “I mean I’ve been feeling really weird.”
A lady asks for help finding a card. I lead her to the baby section and help find a card to congratulate a friend on becoming a first time grandmother. She tells me how she loves being a grandmother, and she knows her friend will find the same joy in it too. She tells me about the new mother, a girl about to graduate high school, and the father, a college drop-out who believes he can make more money collecting trash than getting a degree.
“And they say you know,” Erica says after the lady tucks her change into her purse and leaves with her card. “They say you just know because you can feel it. I just feel weird.”
I’m confused, but I think I know what she means. I’m worried the baby card is making my mind create wrong connections. She looks at me waiting. I see the tightness around her eyes and in her jaw.
“You think you’re pregnant?” I finally ask to gain some clarification.
“I just have been feeling really weird,” she says fidgeting.
Throughout the fall, we met on Thursday nights when my roommates are at fencing practice or out drinking. I remember his kisses and the feel of him. I would run my fingers up his spine, and he’d shiver. He’d pull my hand away. I’d do it again, and his arms would go weak.
He put his lips near my ear. “Please,” he whispered.
My eyes closed. My back arched. I wanted him and he wanted me. He pulled at my shirt.
“No,” I whispered.
His phone rang. He ignored it. He pulled again.
“No,” I said weaker.
His phone went off, and he swore.
He jumped off the bed to check it. In the brief moment it took him to put his phone on silent, I left. He was mad that I refused him that first night. He was mad when I did it again and again, but I refused to lose a piece of me to him so fast.
In less than a month, the guy I knew dissipated. He went to frat parties, and drank to get wasted. Instead of good morning texts, I received drunken ramblings. He was good at covering his tracks, but I learned I wasn’t the only girl. Later, I found out he slept with my best friend’s roommate on my birthday.
He was my first love, and I had fallen unequivocally. I was inexperienced and desperate for some semblance of love. Love was like black jack to me, I knew how to play the game, but I missed the class where I learned to count the cards.
I rub my thumb over the tape on my knuckles. I pick up a pink mug. It says “New Mom” on it in a cursive type. I set it back down and turn the text away from Erica.
“My friend told me she’s pregnant.” Erica says. “She’s on everything. She’s on the pill. They use protection. But still, she’s pregnant. I don’t do any of that.”
“Have you missed?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “I’m not due for another two weeks, but I didn’t bleed much last time. It was light and short.”
I avoid her gaze. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve read. I spent a week reading and educating myself on the signs. I know that once an egg is fertilized, it burrows into the lining of the uterus. I know that you don’t bleed after that. The lining is there to protect the growing embryo. I know she won’t bleed if she’s pregnant, and I offer it as comfort. But I also know, that sometimes, women bleed light and short because of the egg embedding itself and they mistake it for a period.
In October, my anger at Mark sent me on a date with Andrew—a guy in my calc class I was in lust with. We spent every night together for a week. He didn’t kiss me the first night. I thought he was a gentleman. On the fifth night, Andrew took me on a date. We talked through the Oak Grove holding hands and telling stories. I went out of my way to step on the crinkled leaves, and he laughed at me. He gave me his jacket when the cool fall air made me cold. He paid for dinner. We watched a movie curled up on the couch drinking vodka from plastic cups.
Andrew had treated me better in a week than Mark had since we got to school. The attention and the alcohol mixed to lower my inhibitions. We ended up in bed together. It was my first time, and I’m still not sure if it counted. He was small, I felt nothing, and it was over before I knew it began.
The disappointment of my first time was short lived when he said the condom fell off. I felt the warm liquid inside me, and I ran terrified to the bathroom. I knew a shower wouldn’t help, but it didn’t stop me from rubbing every inch of skin until it was red and raw and real. I came out in a hoodie and yoga pants. I curled up with my head in his lap while he put a new movie on.
“And my boobs are sore,” Erica says with her back to the register. A lady stands on the other side of the counter wide-eyed. We didn’t see her come up. I greet her. Erica covers her face and drops behind the counter out of sight.
The lady needs a card for her best friend who is expecting her first baby. It’s the forth one I’ve helped find today. The winter was bad this year. There were too many days when people couldn’t get to work, and too many nights with nothing to do. Couples should find something else to do when they are snowed in.
“Did you take a test?” I ask Erica.
“I just don’t want to take a test. I can’t handle that,” Erica says. “I’ll just wait.”
Andrew broke it off with me the next day. He got back together with his ex. “She’s it, ya know,” he said. “If you’re really worried, get the Plan B pill.”
“No,” I said. I wouldn’t reject anything growing inside of me because I made a mistake. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not. Just let me know if you get your period,” he said. He didn’t know that I wouldn’t, that I haven’t bleed since I was 13.
Mark found out the next day. He was pissed I saw someone else, and the idea of anyone touching me sent him in a tirade. He kissed me long and hard as if he was proving I was his. There was silence after that.
I bought the test the next week, and I waited until a night when my roommates were gone. In the privacy of my bathroom, I let myself break down. I broke my future into categories of what ifs. I planned my life for the next ten years in short, sketchy visions—a single, college drop-out taking care of her baby, working minimum wage jobs, and trying to make rent. Finishing college, writing a book, and traveling the world seemed lost already.
I felt cold. The tile stole the little warmth I had. I was curled on the bathroom floor, and my head rested on a rolled up towel. The door was locked. I was alone, but I locked myself in to allow myself to feel without being interrupted. My phone was counting down the seconds. I starred at the wall thinking about scrubbing the floor better around the back of the toilet next time.
My phone rang. The air horn from the Drake song filled the room. I threw my phone across the small bathroom. It was Mark. I ignored the ringtone. He hadn’t talked to me in a week, and I didn’t want to be yelled at again.
My alarm went off, but I couldn’t look. I starred at the wall until my neighbors toilet flushed. I blinked and remembered where I was and what I was doing.
I checked my messages. Mark wrote out a future for me, too.
“We can get married,” he said in a text.
I threw my phone on the carpet and checked the stick. I let go of the breath I was holding. I fell to the floor. My body relaxed, and I cried.
“If I am, I’m leaving,” Erica tells me. I’m threading scarves onto a hanger as she concentrates on counting mugs. “I’m the same age as my mom was when she got pregnant with me. My parents will kill me if they find out.”
“I’m sure they will understand since they went through the same thing,” I say.
“No,” Erica says her pale face turning a shade of white I didn’t think possible. “I’m leaving and not coming back. They won’t understand.”
I look around at the sterile white walls of the small exam room. The room is cold. I’m sitting in the chair by the desk. It’s weird not being on the exam table, but I’m thankful for it. The table makes me feel like a child again—small, vulnerable, and insignificant.
The doctor walks in and she sits in the chair next to me. She’s with her physician assistant and she asks questions I’ve already answered. She asks me about my lack of periods, and when I last had one. She asks me about my symptoms. She tells me about PCOS, things I’ve known since I was diagnosed at 15. She tells me about my pituitary tumor and my options.
“You won’t be able to conceive,” she says.
“I can’t have kids?” I ask.
“Probably not,” the doctor answers dismissing my concern. “We’ve got to make you bleed first.”
She continues talking, telling me options. I can stay on the medicine since I’m not trying to get pregnant. Even if I do try, I’ll have to get help. Medications, tests, and even then, there’s a chance I’ll never be able to.
Children aren’t in my field of vision, but they are an option I always thought available. It’s a someday and a what if. Even though she adds on the modifiers, maybe, possibly, down the road, I see my future pass like a meteor in the sky—bright, beautiful, then distant, and gone.
I step out into the cold Pittsburgh wind. It’s autumn and I pull my sleeves over my hands. I walk leaning into the wind, letting it push against me and curl around me. It cuts through my shirt and chills me. I look at the few leaves rustling across the sidewalk in the city. I step on the leaves and they crunch beneath my feet—everything dies in the fall.
Photo By: Jean-Pierre Aribau
Well done, Michelle!