Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Giving It Away

 

 

 

 

Frankie zeroed in on me at a party and started kissing the back of my neck. It didn’t take long for me to agree to go back to his dorm room with him. He had a bong on his school-supplied desk and a poster of Springsteen curling off the wall. Too wasted to help me with the buttons on my blouse, he asked me to undress. For a second, I hesitated. Frankie put his hand on my shoulder. I could smell his beer breath. “Come on,” he said. “This’ll be good. I promise.”

 

Afterwards, I stumbled out of his room. In my rush to get out of there, I’d dressed too quickly, not bothering with the top button of my jeans. John was in the hallway, crouched down on one knee to tie his shoelace. He stood up when he saw me. I pulled my sweater down to hide my unsnapped button.

 

“Hey, I know you. You’re in my Geology class, aren’t you? You’re Clarissa, right?”

 

“Right,” I said and then a second later, “I’m going to be sick.”

 

John shepherded me quickly into a communal bathroom. I rushed into a stall, not having time to latch the door behind me before throwing up. At the sinks, I cupped my hand under the faucet to rinse my mouth. When I came out of the bathroom, John was still there. We were about to say something to each other when Frankie came out of his room. I waited for Frankie to greet me.

 

“Howdy,” he said and scooted past us to go downstairs. His heavy footsteps on the uncarpeted steps faded away.

 

John raised his eyebrows. “Did I interrupt something?”

 

I shrugged. “No.”


 * * *

 

The first time John and I were together, I did what I normally did. I slipped out of his bed and put my clothes on.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Leaving.”

 

I got down on my hands and knees to look for my shoes underneath the bed.

 

“Why don’t you come here?”

 

“What?”

 

He patted the mattress. “Come back.”

 

I slid next to him, and he wrapped his arms around me. 

 

“Isn’t it better this way?” he murmured. He fell asleep quickly, his exhale ruffling the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. I kept my hair very short those days, as short as a man’s. John smacked his lips together and hugged me tighter. I wiggled away from him.

 

“What’s wrong? What’d I do?”

 

“Nothing. I just want to go.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I’m not comfortable.”

 

John scooted back, giving me more room. “These beds are narrow.”

 

“It’s not that.”

 

“But I don’t want you to leave. Look, let’s do something. No, not that. I’m just saying let’s talk. We can talk for a bit. Would you like that? Would that make you feel better?”

 

Before I could answer, he launched into a cheery story about a fishing trip he took with his uncle back home in Arkansas. Poor Uncle Bob kept sneaking sips from a thermos even though it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Before noon, Uncle Bob was looped. He almost fell out of the boat, and John had to drive him home. They didn’t catch any fish. My eyes started to droop. I fell asleep as John started on another memory of his—about a summer job he’d had last year at a warehouse. When I woke up in the morning, still nestled in his arms, I thought I was in love.

 

He never asked me about Frankie Galloway, or any of the other guys I’d been with before. His lack of interest was a relief to me. I used to see how many boys I could be with in one night. One time, I met someone at a party, went back with him to his room, returned to the same party once we were through, picked up another boy there, took him back to my room, went back to the party after we’d finished, and found another boy. Three in one night. Greg, Pete, and Alex. Or maybe it was Pete, Alex, Greg. It was a campus legend.

 

John believed that everything had a definite meaning behind it. “The reason I’m majoring in math,” he explained to me once, “is because I like knowing that there is an answer to most every problem.” But there was nothing about me that was defined or absolute. I felt as if I had no clear edges; there was no boundary between where I ended and someone else began. Perhaps that was why I found it so easy, before John, to mold myself into someone else’s arms.

 

 * * *

 

John graduated from our college three months later and moved a few hours away to start a job in sales in Cleveland. I still had two more years of school. Wanting to stay close to him, I didn’t go home to Pennsylvania that summer. I took a job on campus instead, typing and filing for the Dean of Admissions. My family didn’t question my absence. “I suppose that you’re off on a life of your own now,” my mother said over the phone when she heard my plans.

 

John visited me once that summer for the weekend. He kept talking about how tough the real world was. “You have no idea what’s in store for you.” When I told him that I wanted to be faithful to him, he hugged me. “You’re a sweet girl,” he said.

 

By the end of that summer, I was dizzy and incredibly thirsty all the time, my throat so parched that it hurt. When I wasn’t gulping down water, my mouth tasted like I had just sucked on nails no matter how many times I brushed my teeth. My hair became luxurious and thick with a glossy shine I’d never had before. I stopped cutting it and it grew down past my chin. I constantly ran my fingers through my hair, enjoying its new silky weight.

 

John stopped calling me. When I tried his apartment in Cleveland, all I ever got was his answering machine.

 

I never made a conscious decision to hide my pregnancy. It just became like my promiscuity; the shame of it silenced me. I moved into a single room in the fall. There was no chance of a prying roommate getting curious about my altered shape. My only friend was a girl who lived across the hall, Felicia Newbury. She was bone thin and inordinately preoccupied with her hometown boyfriend. She spent most of her time either talking about him or making plans to see him. Friends of convenience only, we walked to classes together and ate meals in the college cafeteria but that was the extent of it.

 

I didn’t go to the school doctor, a congenial man everyone knew by his first name: Dr. George. Dr. George treated minor venereal diseases and sore throats. What would Dr. George do with me?

 

I went home for a weekend in late September—a visit that my mother insisted upon because she was throwing a luncheon for the local PTO and needed my help. Coming in on a Greyhound, disembarking at my town’s almost empty, one-room bus station, I decided not to call for a ride. I walked instead, slowly passing all the familiar landmarks:  Betty’s Beauty Salon and Supplies, the Peaches and Crème Coffee Shop across the street from the First Church, the Mobil Gas Station next to the First Bank. I felt as if my pregnancy had changed my vision also; everything was cast in a dim, soft light. I enjoyed that feeling. I felt special. When I got home, my mother was sliding a cookie sheet in the oven and talking on the phone. She blew me a kiss but didn’t stop her conversation. My father was still at work. My sister sat in front of the television in the family room, twirling her hair absentmindedly as she watched one music video after another.

 

During the entire weekend, I wore baggy sweaters and sweatpants to hide my new bulk. No one mentioned my figure. They probably assumed I’d gained weight, gotten lazy about exercising, indulged in too many late night pizzas.

 

I planned on telling John the truth before Thanksgiving. I was going to go to Cleveland and wait for him outside his apartment until he came home from work. I hoped he’d be happy to see me, putting his hand on my stomach, assuring me that I didn’t have to go through this alone.

 

But Thanksgiving got closer, and I still didn’t tell him. I figured I’d kept quiet too long, that there was nothing to do now but wait. My belly button popped out of my criss-cross veined ball of a stomach. My ankles turned puffy. My hands burned hot.

 

Early one morning, a gush of fluid soaked the inside of my thighs, my underpants, my bed sheets. I stayed still, lying on my back, until the pain started to roll across my stomach. I tried to hug my knees to my chest. When I couldn’t bear it any more, I went to get Felicia. After I knocked for awhile, she opened her door. For some reason, she hadn’t washed off her lipstick from the night before, and the combination of her pale skin, over-processed hair, and vibrant, red lips made me feel even worse.

 

Felicia gasped. My belly rippled underneath my wet nightgown.

 

“I think I ate something bad,” I said, trying to cover my stomach with my hands, a gesture—I realized too late—that only emphasized the state I was in.

 

Felicia drove me to the campus infirmary. It was still dark out, and the infirmary was closed. We waited in her car for Dr. George to arrive. Felicia breathed through her mouth. Dr. George pulled up next to us in a small hatchback.

 

“Oh my God, oh my God,” Felicia said.

 

The infirmary’s small waiting room had faded posters about Chlamydia and the dangers of alcohol abuse on the walls.

 

“Jesus Christ,” Dr. George said when he saw me. 

 

“I think I ate something bad,” I repeated.

 

“Girl,” he said, looking up from my stomach, “that’s not what this is. And I think you know it.”

 

Dr. George took me to the county hospital. The nurses there kept pressing me for a name until I finally gave them John’s. My labor was quick and intense. I was silent throughout the whole thing, pressing my lips tightly together to stop any noise from coming out. I refused an epidural.

 

Hours after it was over, my parents arrived. My mother came in the room first, holding a pink tissue up to her nose. I was sharing the room with another woman, hidden by a floor to ceiling curtain that sliced the room in two.

 

My mother kept asking me why I hadn’t told them. I tried to close my eyes and go to sleep, and she yanked my arm to wake me up, repeating herself.

 

“Why? Why? Why?”

 

John came later that day. He whispered, “I can’t believe this,” and “How could you not tell me?” and “It’s been so long since we’ve even seen each other,” and “We’re going to make this right,” and “Have you seen her yet?”

 

I held his hand, and he squeezed my fingers too hard.

 

 * * *

 

The baby and I moved into John’s apartment outside of Cleveland. His place only had two rooms. The living room/kitchen/dining area had a sliding glass door that led onto a tiny balcony overlooking the parking lot. We set up a crib in the corner of the bedroom, near the door to the bathroom.

 

I stared out the sliding glass door a lot, looking down at the tops of the cars parked below.

 

My breast ached with a throbbing that was almost sexual.

 

The baby cried a lot. She had the smallest of veins in her neck running up to her jaw. She clutched her fingers into fists and waved them at me. My milk came in.

 

John traveled every other week for his job. He’d leave me his car when he was gone. I’d take the baby for drives, stuffing her into the car seat, pinning her down with straps that I could never properly untwist. She’d wiggle and scream throughout each short trip. I started staying inside more and more.

 

I watched television: The Price Is Right with that silver fox Bob Barker, waving contestants to come on up; the Today Show hosts smiling as a visiting chef chopped vegetables; lovers fighting in a bedroom on Guiding Light.

 

I gave the baby a bath in a small plastic tub. She hated the touch of water. Her limbs were slippery with soap. I was afraid that she’d slip under. I gripped her arms too tightly. She screamed. She couldn’t catch her breath.

 

 * * *

 

My mother and sister visited one day. The baby was in the crib, crying. My mother picked her up, put her to her shoulder, and the baby immediately fell asleep.

 

“Have you named her yet, Clarissa?” My sister asked.

 

“No,” I said.

 

John’s mother called once, sounding wheezy and out of breath.

 

“Honey, I know we’ve never met but we’re going to fix that real soon,” she said.

 

She promised she would come and see the baby right away but nothing was ever scheduled. The next time she called, she asked to speak to John, and he took the phone into the bathroom for privacy.

 

 * * *

 

I met John for dinner with the baby. I took a city bus to the restaurant because John had the car. On the bus, a small radio was balanced on top of the dashboard between the massive O of the steering wheel and the wide front window. The intermittent pulse of static and salsa music from the radio lulled the baby to sleep. But, at the restaurant, before we could even order, she woke up and started to scream. She kicked her legs, like a tiny swimmer underwater desperate to break the surface. When I picked her up, she arched her back and her head smacked into my chin.

 

John threw his white napkin on the table.

 

“Clarissa, I know I’ve asked you before. But I still don’t understand.”

 

The baby was screaming so loudly, I could barely hear him.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

“I don’t know,” I said.

 

“You owe me that much, Clarissa.”

 

“I know,” I said.

 

“If you’d told me about it beforehand, we could’ve discussed other options.”

 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

 

“Why didn’t you say anything? Is it because—? Is there a possibility that—I have to ask.”

 

“What? What is it? What are you asking me?” I asked.

 

The baby reached up and pulled my hair.

 

“Aw, forget it. I shouldn’t have brought it up. It’s just at school, you know, you were known, you know, for certain things—”

By the time our entrées came, the baby was asleep. John and I ate in silence.

 

We didn’t make it a month.

 

 * * *

 

I never expected to run into Frankie Galloway again. But, before Christmas this year, I was at my niece’s piano recital and there he was. We were in the teacher’s living room, a large space filled only with a shiny black grand piano and three rows of folding chairs. My sister had my three-year-old nephew, Brian, on her lap, but Brian squirmed, reaching out for me, so I took him. My niece, Jennifer, looked over her sheet music. She didn’t want to do this, confessing to me on the car ride over just how nervous she was at the prospect of performing. “I can’t do it, Auntie. I just can’t.”

 

Some kid played Chopsticks and then it was Jennifer’s turn. She sat on the edge of the piano bench and put her trembling fingers on top of the keys. A few seconds passed before she started to play. A parent behind me coughed into the silence. She launched into a soft and stilted rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and slid off the piano bench as soon as she was done. We clapped loudly.

 

The recital went on like this, little kids trying their best, until a young girl stepped forward. She wore a long silver skirt and a black blouse with a ruffled neck and sheer sleeves. Her long, straight hair was pulled back from her face by a black headband. She had a sullen look on her face but she attacked the keyboard with a surprising intensity, playing a difficult Beethoven Sonata fluidly and flawlessly, perfectly memorized. While her fingers flew up and down the keyboard, she appeared completely indifferent to what she was doing, as if she wasn’t really there, playing the piano so brilliantly. I turned to my sister and whispered, “Wow.” I wondered if she also noticed the strange disconnect between the girl’s striking talent and the remote way she carried herself.

 

When it was over, my sister and brother-in-law found a group of people they knew and beckoned me over to meet them. The girl who had played so well was there, standing in front of her parents. The father was tall and he wore a maroon v-neck sweater pulled tightly across his paunchy stomach. The mother was austerely thin with a pile of gold necklaces wrapped, almost entangled, around her neck.

 

“Clarissa,” my sister said, “I’d like you to meet someone.”

 

I shook the woman’s hand first and then looked at her husband. My recognition came gradually. I had to ignore the soft sag of his cheeks and his receding hairline to place him.

 

“Your daughter is a wonderful pianist,” my sister said to him.

 

His wife cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

 

Frankie stared at me.

 

“We should get going,” I said to my sister, “as soon as possible.”

 

We waved our good-byes and went into the next room to get our coats.

 

“What’s the rush?” My sister asked.

 

“I didn’t know you knew him.”

 

“Who? Frank Galloway? They used to live in our neighborhood but they moved out years ago.”

 

“Well, I went to college with him.”

 

My nephew hugged my legs. He was saying, “Auntie Clar, Auntie Clar,” so I picked him up. He wrapped his arms around my neck and put his head down on my shoulder.

 

Jennifer skipped over to us. “Auntie Clarissa, what’d you think? How’d I do?”

 

“You were wonderful, sweetheart. A real maestro.”

 

We stepped outside the house and walked towards the dark shapes of cars parked neatly along the curb. My arms ached with Brian’s weight. Jennifer hopped up and down next to me.

 

I put my sister’s kids in the back seat of their car. Then I turned around and looked back at the house, still thinking of young Frankie, trapped now in his stoop-shouldered body.

 

My sister patted my arm. “Clarissa?”

 

“Frankie Galloway. He recognized me too. I could tell.”

 

“Did he—was it—did he know you back then?”

 

“Yes.”

 

My family never talked about what had happened to me. They focused on how successful my life was now—after I transferred to another university, graduated with honors, attended the best business school in the country, and got a first-rate job with a first-rate bank. No one ever mentioned the baby.

 

“Don’t think about it. You have a good life now. None of that matters anymore. Put it in the past where it belongs,” my sister said before she got into the car.

 

The door to the piano teacher’s house opened, the light inside blocked by a group of people in the doorway, and then I could see Frankie and his family. They came outside and started towards us. The wife had one thin arm draped across her daughter’s shoulders. Frankie was fastening the top button of his coat. His walk was distinctive, an ambling gait, his upper body leading the way. He looked up and saw me, standing at the curb. I leaned against the car. I didn’t know what I was waiting for—some acknowledgement from him, a superficial greeting, a quick hello?—but I couldn’t do anything but watch him come closer and closer.  

 

They were heading for a tall Range Rover parked two cars down from my sister’s. Right before they got there, his strange daughter jerked away from her mother. She ran to Frankie and tugged on his coat sleeve until he stopped. She rested her cheek on his arm, the first child-like gesture I’d seen her make.

 

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I heard Frankie ask.

 

“Oh Daddy—”

 

The girl was crying, her tears wetting her father’s coat. He placed his hand on the top of his daughter’s head. I felt his awkwardness. His wife walked past them to the car. She tried the passenger side door.

 

“Could you please unlock the car, Frank?” She asked, ignoring her daughter’s shaking body and increasingly loud cries.

 

Frankie pointed the remote towards the car and his wife opened the door.  He tried to move forward but his daughter clutched onto him tighter.

 

Although I rarely allowed myself to think of my only child (was she happy? was she loved? she’d be 18 years old now), there was one thought that would slip into my mind over the years, like a prisoner making a daring escape. It usually happened late, past the dark of midnight, after a particularly stressful day at work. It had the power to startle me awake for hours, up in bed, clutching the bed sheets up to my chin. Whose had she been? Although I’d used John’s doubt as a reason to give her up for adoption, the truth was I never could be certain who she belonged to. I hadn’t used any protection with either Frankie or John. I always wondered if Frankie ever thought the same. Although I never returned to that campus, he must’ve heard what had happened to me and remembered our night together. Did he also consider the timing?

 

Now, as I watched him try to console his sad daughter—he murmured “OK, now, let’s go, now,” while his wife remained unengaged from it all, sitting primly in the passenger side seat, staring straight ahead as if the car was already moving—I finally understood that it couldn’t ever matter to him, whoever my daughter was. Her imagined life was nothing in the face of what he had now: his elegantly cold wife, his inaccessible girl.

 

He promised his daughter ice cream if she’d just get into the car. She shook her head wildly.

 

“I don’t want to, Daddy. No, I don’t want to go.”

 

Other parents stopped to stare. The piano teacher stepped outside to ask if there was anything she could do; he waved her away.

 

“Enough,” he said to his daughter.

 

“Please, Daddy, please understand—”

 

I wanted to hold his pitiful girl, rock her in my arms. I lurched towards them just as Frankie grabbed his daughter by her wrists. He began to pull her towards the car. She fought him, locking her legs. He looked up at me and nodded.

 

“This is nothing. She’s tired,” he said to me. “That’s all.”

 

Finally, he was able to push her inside the car where she clawed at the window and slammed her hands against the glass. He ducked his head as he jogged over to the driver’s side of the car. I watched him navigate his oversized vehicle away from the curb, out of the neighborhood.

 

 * * *

 

The simple act of letting go was the most powerful thing I ever did. Giving away a life to save my own.

 

I called my mother first. Everything went quickly after that. I signed a stack of papers in a small office building in downtown Cleveland. My mother was with me. John refused to join us although he never indicated that he didn’t want the adoption to go through. I understood that once this was over, John and I would never see each other again.

 

At the end, I kissed the top of the baby’s head. She parted her rosebud lips and squawked a little. Her lower lip was slightly chapped. Her eyebrows were just starting to come in— tiny, light blond hairs growing in perfect semi-circles.

 

My mother stood next to me. “Clarissa, it’s best not to drag this out,” she said.

 

The nurse was short and dumpy. “What a pretty baby,” she said when she took my little girl away from me.

 

 

 

 

Catherine Uroff lives in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Her short stories have been published (or are forthcoming) in The Georgetown Review, The Foundling Review, The Blood Orange Review, The Main Street Rag, The Worcester Review, Carve Magazine, Primavera, Pindeldyboz, and The Bellevue Literary Review. Her short story, “What She Left Behind,” was published in GHLL in 2004. She has just finished her first novel and is currently looking for an agent.