At first I told myself I caught Sachi’s cold. That was why I was so tired all the time. The biggest problem with that theory was that I wasn’t coughing. The other problem was that I wasn’t bleeding.
I visited my doctor within a week of my second meeting with Keiji and received the all-clear for any illnesses the following week. I texted him the good news; he replied asking when we could see each other again, but I couldn’t bring myself to answer. I felt ashamed of overreacting to what amounted to a hook-up. It happens all the time; I just revealed how immature and inexperienced I was and more or less accused the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever met of being a skeevy creeper with hordes of illegitimate children. I had to go and mar the memory of one of the most thrilling experiences of my life by being a worrywart. No wonder Evan was rolling his eyes at me all the time these days – what must Keiji think?
Now it seemed like I might have a legitimate reason to be concerned. A little less than a month after Evan’s play, I found myself standing in the “Family Planning” aisle at my local pharmacy. Family planning. That was rich. Maybe there were online courses on this subject or classes at the community college. I could use some pointers on how to go about planning one’s family. What were the chances, I asked myself, of one random woman getting pregnant from one random sexual encounter on one random day of her menstrual cycle? Maybe Keiji shoots blanks. That would be helpful. Also, I’m 35. Aren’t my ovaries supposed to resemble dried apricots by now? Maybe it’s menopause. I was probably just late from psyching myself out over everything.
After spending a moment scowling at the rows of condoms, I grabbed a box of digital tests that would say “Pregnant” or “Not Pregnant.” There was no way I was going to try and interpret a bunch of lines or pluses or minuses or whatever the hell in my current state of mind. Just give it to me straight, universe. I made my purchase and headed to the office.
As I rushed to my desk with the single-minded purpose of dumping my stuff and making a beeline for the bathroom, I bumped into Adam (the Auditor).
“Good morning, Cara,” he said, a too-wide smile plastered on his face. Adam still didn’t forgive me for the “it’s not you, it’s me” line. Sorry, man.
“Hi, Adam,” I replied, trying to squeeze past him in the too-narrow cube farm aisle. I was lucky enough to have my own office, but it was at the other side of the building and I had to navigate a complex maze of first and second year associates to reach it.
“Whatcha got there?” he asked, blocking my passage with his wide shoulders and pointing at my CVS bag. I often brought in goodies for my underlings; with the recession the office had to cut back on providing snacks. The vending machines were empty tombs. (There were angry rumors that the Keurig coffee maker was next on the chopping block. Over our dead bodies!) I had to fill in the gaps because some days, life isn’t worth living without fresh Swiss Cake Rolls.
“Nothing for you, all right?” I clutched the bag to my chest and started to duck under his arm. He either bumped me on purpose or didn’t move fast enough; his elbow dislodged the four-inch binder of work papers crammed under my other arm. In yet another example of misjudging my priorities, I tried to save it and dropped everything. Papers flew hither and yon and the box of tests catapulted out of the plastic shopping bag. The box skittered across the floor, propelled by some demonic force from hell, coming to rest at the entrance to an associate’s booth. I heard Adam exclaim, “Whoooooooa!” like a demented sports announcer as I dove to retrieve the tests.
The stunned associate’s face flooded red as she registered her boss as the owner of such questionable paraphernalia – or maybe she thought I was a magical fertility fairy, come to rain good tidings and pee tests everywhere.
“It’s not for me,” I hissed, knowing my sordid lies were in vain. The associate nodded. Loyal creature. I marked her in my mind for a financial reward – maybe one of those $50 Visa cards.
I snatched up the box and turned back to Adam, letting righteous fury show on my face. To his credit, he was already stooping and scooping papers into the binder.
“What in the everloving hell is your problem?!” I whisper-screamed, knowing very well what his problem was: me, the idiot who thought she could have relationships with coworkers without it coming back to bite her in the ass. Well, that and Adam had never been the pinnacle of sensitive, mature manhood. I had a brief moment of clarity where I realized my entire sexual history was completely and utterly FUBAR. I shook my head and tried to get back to my angry place.
“I’m sorry, I—whoa,” Adam said, whatever apology he had cooked up dying on his lips when he saw the tests in my hand. As on-point as his Keanu Reeves impression seemed to be that morning, I was in no condition to appreciate it. Also, I really had to pee.
“Ahhh!” I not-exactly-whisper screamed, whipping my hand behind my back. “Will you just leave me alone!”
“Sure thing,” he murmured, in such a sudden hurry to get away that he forgot to call me “Cara Bear-a” (which he does because he knows I loathe it). I was thunderstruck anew by my absolute idiocy as I watched the shiny seat of his cheap dress pants scurry down the hall to his office.
“Fuck it, why should he care!” I hissed under my breath. “I have to pee.”
I crammed the box of tests inside my suit jacket, threw the mangled binder in my office, and headed to the ladies’ room. The biggest stall was taken, of course, so I took the one farthest away from it and tried to open the box as silently as possible. It seemed like the tests were triple-wrapped and I couldn’t get one of the sticks out of its foil pouch without dropping it twice. At this rate I’d be dipping the thing into the toilet to get a sample.
I scanned the instructions in a pee-fogged panic and decided to just go for it. This wasn’t my first time at this particular rodeo, and my motto lately was “Just do it,” right? I aimed my stream at what I hoped was the appropriate area, sprinkling my hand with generous amounts of pee in the process, and then squeezed my eyes shut for the next minute. After a decent battle of wills – a devil telling me to jam the test in the trash can and bolt, an angel telling me I had to know – I managed to unclench my fist and look in the little window on my future.
Unlike the moment when I discovered Evan’s impending arrival, my initial reaction wasn’t crushing dread. Instead I gasped, “Oh, shit!” sounding almost cheerful. (Okay, so I still failed at maternal beatitude.) If someone asked me how I felt at that moment I would have replied that “Pregnant” was not my desired result, but my treacherous subconscious was hard at work again, delighted to have a reason to contact Keiji. My hand slipped to my lower belly as I considered his probable response to this news.
Two days later I stood in front of an older building in a part of the city I didn’t frequent, mostly because I wasn’t an art student in my twenties sharing an apartment with five other art students in their twenties. The exterior of the building was well-maintained, but I knew that as soon as the door opened I’d be greeted by a long, rickety staircase. (Shag carpeting optional.) An organic açai smoothie bar sat across the street, and a bedraggled young man busked with a glockenspiel on the corner. I saw two cyclists wearing skinny jeans ride by on one-speed bikes.
“Cara,” I said to myself. “You have been impregnated by a hipster.”
I took a deep breath and walked up the short flight of steps to the front door of the building. There was a small intercom set underneath a doorbell; I pushed the button labeled “K. Nakamura.” He answered immediately, sounding a little out of breath. I heard him bounding down the stairs through the front door. Not sure where the guy gets his energy. Must be the smoothies.
“Hi!” he cried as the door swung inward. Not allowing any time for awkward greetings, he took my hand and pulled me inside. He kicked the door closed and we started up the stairs (no shag, although the carpet was a predictably hideous shade of dead frog green). He was talking a mile a minute, reminding me of Sachi at the play.
“I’m on the top floor, I know it’s a long way, sorry, no elevator, you know how these old buildings are. But wait until you see the place, it’s great! Have I ever told you what I do, you know, for money?”
“I think Sachi mentioned graphic art?” I said, taken aback by his manic small talk – it seemed so unusual from his typical disposition. Then again, I’d only met the guy twice. How could I know what was typical for him?
“Yeah, I do that, you know, websites, business cards, basic design and layout for whatever, wedding invitations, menus, signs. I used to work for an ad agency and a newspaper but they both kinda fell through when things started getting rough. I’m freelancing now, and—” we reached his door, which he pushed open with some fanfare “—mostly painting.”
He led me into a single room space with tall ceilings; three large skylight windows made the room very bright, although the day was overcast. At first I couldn’t process what I was seeing – it was all white and brilliant colors with a jumble of belongings set underneath like rocks at the foot of a mountain. When specific objects came into focus I saw that open metal shelves jammed with books and computer or art supplies lined nearly every wall. There was a lumpy, dark blue couch with a coffee table stacked high with two laptops, papers, pens, and sketchbooks. A low bed most definitely from IKEA was made with rumpled sheets; a half-wall separated this “bedroom” from a small kitchen area that appeared to be almost spotless. The counter displayed a lonely electric tea kettle. One large corner of the room was taken up by several easels, none of them empty. What caught my gaze and held it were the murals. Each wall sported at least one large painting, some partially obscured by the shelving but so bright in color that I could almost hear them – visual clarions. I couldn’t make out a coherent theme or style apart from the exuberant use of color. One painting reminded me of graffiti but there didn’t appear to be any actual letters, just letteresque shapes. Another paid homage to Hokusai’s The Great Wave with the sea rendered in azure. Still another seemed pixellated and depicted a large, crimson bird lying on its back, feet in the air. A realistic portrait of a severe but strikingly beautiful woman wearing a peach kimono filled the last large wall, almost floor to ceiling. No wonder the guy wore so much black. The cones of my eyes would be worn out after spending a day or two here.
“I’m kind of a slob,” he said after I rolled my eyeballs around the room a few times.
“They let you paint on the walls?” was the first thing I could think of to say. I had never known an artist before and didn’t have a trained eye, didn’t know if he was good or bad; I only knew that I was overawed by what I was seeing. He laughed and shook his head.
“I don’t think I actually asked for permission. The bug guy who comes to spray has never said anything to the landlord, I guess, because I’m not evicted.”
“But if you move you’ll have to paint over everything!” I cried, already indignant at the loss. Keiji shrugged.
“I never planned on being here forever. I’m terrible at decorating and though, hey, I’ll paint something. Maybe I’ll leave them up. Maybe the next tenant will like them. I’ll pay the security deposit. No big deal. Come and sit down.”
He took my hand and we walked to the couch. I perched on the edge of a cushion, gazing at the intricate pattern of blossoms detailed on the woman’s gown, until I realized he was looking at me from the other side of the couch. He flicked his eyes over my body a few times before resting them on my face with a contemplative expression. I felt self-conscious, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t put deliberate care into my appearance – I even did my hair after I got out of the shower, which was kind of a big deal for me on a weekend. I wore a simple long-sleeved cotton dress in dark green that hugged my shape. I wondered if my stomach looked different and had to restrain myself from looking at it. I crossed my arms instead. He started to chew on his bottom lip, then reached over and took my hand, massaging my palm with his thumb. At once I felt relaxed. I noticed that he was pretty good at disarming me.
“I know you didn’t come here to look at my totally awesome dead bird paintings.” He rolled his eyes in mock self-deprecation. I couldn’t help but snicker, although now that the time to tell him was upon me I realized I was scared.
“I’m scared,” I said, not knowing I was going to come right out with it that way. He stopped massaging and squeezed my hand. “I’m pregnant and I want to stay pregnant.”
He blew out a rush of air as he gazed at some fixed point beyond me. I braced myself for angry words, a sullen expression, anything to reject what I had just said; seconds later he came back to life, his eyes re-focusing on my face. He continued to hold my hand. I hurried on, still wary.
“I’m scared because I feel like this might be my last chance to do this — and I think if I pass it up I’ll regret it forever. When I was pregnant with Evan I was so upset because I felt pressured by my parents, my boyfriend, my boyfriend’s family, everyone. They all begged me to keep him, to raise him, or told me it was my duty to do it. I felt ashamed all the time. I don’t feel that way now, and I know very little of this situation makes sense when I look at it objectively, I mean, what kind of person goes through with not one but two unplanned pregnancies? Wouldn’t it be better to procreate like an adult for once? But even when I make a pro/con list or whatever I still want to have this baby. When I imagine not doing it I feel wrong. But now getting a glimpse of your life, the way you live…” I trailed off, knowing my words sounded like a condemnation.
“Do you mean the whole single-guy-with-an-art-degree thing? Because I can tell you, it’s not as romantic as it sounds.”
“Well, speaking of romantic. I get the impression that you’re much more active um, socially, than I am?” I looked down at our hands as I said this to avoid seeing his expression.
“I still don’t think it’s time to talk about that…” he began, but stopped when he saw I was tensing up. At least now I could blame my mood swings on being pregnant, right?
“Why not now? I’m not judging you; I just want to know you.” I hesitated, trying to find the right words. “If the way you express your sexuality is to be with lots of women, I feel like it would be unfair to ask you to commit to me. Because if you’re going to be involved with a baby that’s what I would want, a promise that you will be there when we need you and not–somewhere else. I don’t want you to make a promise like that if it would make you give up something fundamental.”
“I wouldn’t exactly describe myself that way , I mean, as needing to be with lots of people. I’m definitely not a fundamentalist about anything…haaa, okay, that was a bad one.” He paused and grew solemn, making sure my eyes were on his before he went on. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable of you to want a commitment from me. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it since the other day, uh, in the car, about how would I feel if you were pregnant. If you want to continue with this I am 100% with you. And the baby. You shouldn’t worry about that.”
“Are you serious?” I searched his eyes. When I detected a hint of fear in them, I realized he was sincere. I felt a cautious hope. At least he wasn’t putting on a front of bravado.
“But,” he said.
“Oh god, there’s always a but,” I groaned, and flopped back on the couch. I put my hands over my face and peered at him through my fingers.
“It’s just that you’re right; we don’t know each other very well. I really want to get to know you, to see you more often. And when I say what I’m going to next you might think I’m a total creep. But I think I better say it in case it’s a deal breaker for you.” He rubbed his palms on his pants as he finished speaking.
“Just say it,” I said through my hands, still flopped.
“I’ve had many casual um, relationships, it’s true. Responsible ones,” he added, when I started to take my hands away from my face. “I’ve also been in a few long-term relationships. But when I was in those relationships I didn’t stop the casual ones. I mean, sometimes the people I was committed to on a longer-term basis participated in the shorter ones with me.”
“Orgies? Wife-swapping? Polygamy? What? What is it you do?” My imagination was getting the better of me.
“I do whatever my partner wants to do, within reason. I hope that you would consider doing whatever I want to, within reason. Every couple has their boundaries. We would discuss and agree on everything before we did it. I would never force you to do anything or do anything behind your back.”
He waited for me to process this. I felt my face burning at his switch back to personal pronouns – when Keiji referred to me as his partner it was worlds away from being a Partner’s Wife. It took no effort to come up with several things I would like to do with him. I crossed my legs and squeezed them together which had the effect of putting indirect pressure on my clit. My dress rode up a bit with my movement and I saw him take in my newly exposed stretch of thigh. I wondered what he wanted to do with me. It was probably just the arousal talking, but I felt open to a variety of activities, possibly with a variety of people.
“I know you think I’m sexually repressed,” I began.
“I know you think I’m sexually deviant,” he said with a wry smile, not taking his eyes off my legs.
“I have no idea. I guess that’s the kicker. But I think I’m willing to find out what, exactly, it is that you like to do. I don’t want to go too far here and say something wrong because I don’t know what I’m feeling for you or why I feel it. I know that it’s different from what I’ve experienced in the past. Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve been with someone and I’m infatuated by the excitement of getting to know you, but, um.” I paused, feeling my blush deepen. Out with it, Cara, out with it. In a rush, I finished my train of thought. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone before. I can’t stop thinking about you. I dream about you. Oh god, I’m going to kill you with clichés.”
I flopped again and put my hands back up to my face. He pulled them down and held them again.
“Stop doing that. I can’t say I’ve never been in love before, but I’ve never had anyone say those things to me. They don’t sound like clichés when someone you care about is saying them to you.”
For once in our brief association I found it hard to look at him. I had never had such an intimate conversation. It was unnerving. And was he implying that we were in love?
“I think the most important thing to think about right now is the pregnancy,” he continued. “Whether or not we decide to move forward as a couple, I support your decision on being pregnant, or not. And since you said you want to go on, I can tell you I’m more than okay with that. Fair warning, I have no clue about babies.”
My eyes brimmed with tears. I don’t know what I expected of him, and the situation wasn’t without its heaping helping of ambivalence, but his plain support of my choice took me by surprise. As I told Keiji, I felt the decision about Evan was made for me. I didn’t regret my life with my son, but I would have made a different choice if anyone would have listened to me. It was so strange and so wonderful to feel respected instead of backed into a corner. I marveled at this man sitting with me, thinking of still waters running deep and envying his mild approach to just about everything in life…apart from his paintings. And sex. Maybe painting and fucking like a jackhammer were how Keiji expressed his louder side.