Katie Letcher Lyle

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Christmas, Fourteen


from Shenandoah, Volume 38, No. 2, 1988.

What great brightness did you see?
What glad tidings did you hear?
—Angels We Have Heard on High


I had crushes on all my brother’s friends. They were juniors: tall, and strong, and three years older, and smelled mysteriously rank and animal-like, nothing like the Noxzema-scented girls I hung around with. In addition, they had taken to wearing colognes. I especially loved going into Jay’s room the morning after he and a couple of his buddies had spent the night. The empty sleeping bags and piles of comforters were as good as ghosts at telling me where each had slept: like a high harmony in the songs I loved by Perry Como and Bing Crosby, over top of the emerging man-smells, were their individual odors: Harry’s spot smelled of Old Spice, which I adored. Carl’s sleeping bag betrayed his presence with its subtler whiff of Mennen Skin Bracer. Jay’s own smell was familiar and comforting. Musky is the word that comes to mind. The men in our family didn’t wear cosmetics, or rings either; the implicit reason was that both were effeminate.

Of all Jay’s friends, one, Ralph, had a different smell, and one that excited me almost to sickness. It was, at least partially, tobacco, the stink of sophistication and sexuality and all the forbidden areas of adulthood. Ralph never spent the night, so I never had the chance to bury my face the next morning in his bedding. Another thing no one in our house ever did was smoke. So when Ralph came over, I tried to get near enough to bask in his divine vapor.

I envied the noisy and jostling camaraderie of Jay and his friends, and pined to be part of it. The girls I knew bitched and gossiped, and never did anything more daring than calling some teacher from a slumber party at three in the morning, disgusing their voices and saying stupid things. I liked that, but it was all so tame. Jay and his friends rode bikes all the way to Haymoon, and hiked up mountains, or descended the dark throats of caves, and just ignored any hints on my part that I might like to go along. Sometimes I even asked outright, knowing it was debasement but never totally losing hope even when they managed to escape me yet again. Accepting at the same time that I couldn’t go with them—that being a part of their group was no more in the nature of things than being rich was—I took what I could get and was grateful that they occasionally let me be with them, and sometimes they even discussed in my presence something important that had happened, trusting me not to tell. That was almost as good as going with them. I knew about the time Paxton Wills had let a pig into the library on a Friday night, and I knew what happened the time Kelly Francis and Doodie Winfree were parking with the pump organ in the back of his father’s station wagon. I knew about the time Jay got drunk, too, and how he swallowed the whole bottle of Listerine afterwards to keep Daddy from smelling the bourbon on his breath.

He knew about me, too. He knew about the curtain I set on fire the time I smoked the Pall Mall, and how I had tried to bleach out the burn, but then that curtain was whiter than all the rest, and had a pretty big hole, so I had to take down all the rest of the curtains in my room and wash and bleach them, and get Jay to help me move the furniture around to hide the hole, and pretend I was spring-cleaning my room when Mama got home. And she was suspicious because that was before I ever cleaned up anything, especially my room. But Jay never told.

Harry called me Blondie, and once kissed me on the top of my head. Carl’s eyes were like melted chocolate, and I had heard that he wrote poetry, though Jay professed ignorance of that fact. Willie, a football player, was sweet and shy and had a slight speech defect that made it seem that he was talking babytalk. He said “Aw, thucks” a lot, especially when praised for some remarkable play. I would have given anything to go out with any one of them, though I had only a vague idea of what “going out” might have meant, and I envied their secret knowledge of the world.

Ralph was the mysterious one; he talked hardly at all, never double-dated with any of the others that I could find out about, and when I worked up to asking Jay who he took out, he just said, “Nobody I know of.” In addition to the smell of the Camels he smoked, there was an aura of lemon about him that troubled my days and nights.

Ralph was a lone wolf. That’s what Mama said. I sensed, even with those boys who seemed to talk about nothing, and to gossip not at all, that Ralph was on the outside. They took him places with them, but he would never even stay at our house for a meal. As far as I knew, none of the boys went to his house.

Another thing I envied about the boys was their ease with my parents and other adults. Yet I noticed, or imagined, that when Ralph arrived at our house, my parents were somehow more guarded, or seemed unable to think of things to say. There were long spaces of silence that were not comfortable. Ralph would be even more mute than he was around the boys, broodily studying his nails or maybe whittling at a twig with his pearl-handled knife that snicked out of his holder at the touch of his thumb.

I felt sorry for him, and I sometimes dreamed about him, and I wanted to touch him, and to save him, to be close enough to get all of his scent that I wanted. When I thought of kissing, I tried them all in my thoughts, but it was Ralph who was there finally. He had moved to our town lately, and his father was in the service, and he was a Yankee: quick of word when he did speak, short of speech almost to abruptness, different. I didn’t even know if he had a mother.

He did not kid me like the others did; in fact, he stared at me with such anger in his muddy eyes that it frightened me. What could he be mad about? I always smiled at him. Once I tried to ask Jay about what was wrong with him, but as usual my hunger for sensational information was not to be satisfied. Loyal to a fault, Jay mumbled something vague like “Oh, Ralph’s okay, he’s just got a few problems.”

“Like what?” I prodded.

But Jay just shrugged, as if it did not matter, and said, “He’s moved around a lot. Would you make me a sandwich? Peanut butter and anything.” Jay always had the power to deflect too much prying on my part, by appealing to my weaknesses. He knew I loved doing things for him, and he had great faith in my expertise in the kitchen, in which I took great pride. He knew that I would get the bread out at once, shouting over my shoulder, “Do you want some milk to go with it? I can put some chocolate syrup in it.”

That year I got my first job, to make some money to spend on Christmas presents. I went to work as a vacation sales clerk at Bondell’s, our local department store, when school let out. I adored the place: the smells of all those things, the luxury of all that worldly merchandise, the feeling of pride when I could make the cash register cluck and bing;, frowning importantly to show customers how difficult and serious it all was. I took seriously the responsibility of having a real job. I loved the lush gray carpet that covered the floor, the lightness of the walls and mirrors, the soft neat piles of sweaters, the shine that glanced off the glass cases full of beautiful things. Our house was dark, with limp draperies and worn Oriental rugs in all the rooms, and old pieces of furniture everywhere that adults called antiques.

They put me right in the front of the store in Jewelry and Women’s Apparel. I enjoyed the variety of people who came in, and every day of the two weeks I clerked there before Christmas I could bring home some story that would make Jay and my parents laugh at supper. I told them about the Santa in the middle of the store, a local wino named Nathan who had managed to stay sober and come to work every day for a week. And I told them about the kid whose mom asked if she wanted to see Santa, and who replied, “Everyone knows Santa isn’t real,” and about another kid who, seated on Nathan’s lap, was asked what he wanted for Christmas. All he said was, “Don’t you remember? I told you yesterday at the parade in Haymoon.”

One night late we sat around our kitchen drinking cider the boys had made in October and stored in Harry’s family’s guest bathtub, and which had now gotten sort of fizzy and foamy. I had an audience made up of Jay and Carl and Willie and Harry in the palm of my hand, and I made the most of my story about a fellow from out in the country who had come to buy a brassiere that day for his wife’s Christmas present (which he would not name, would only point and call it “That there thing”), and had, when I had asked what size he wanted, tried to show me with his hands cupped. To make Jay and his friends laugh was the ultimate success, especially with a story that was just at the brink of danger.

Another thing I loved about working was that I was able to put on layaway presents for my family and friends every few days: a back pack from Menswear for Jay to take on his long bike rides; a soft yellow sweater for Mama that I knew she would love; slippers for Daddy that had lambswool on the inside, since his desk in the living room had under it a real lambskin in a pretty disgusting state of repair, on which he warmed his feet while writing out his patients’ bills, and which I figured he would throw out upon seeing my elegant gift, thus making the living room look a lot nicer. I chose rhinestone earrings for my four best friends, identical so there would be no possibility of bickering about who my favorite was, or who I had spent the most on. To Jay and his friends, I offered a personal consulting service in case they should be in need of advice on what to give for Christmas presents.

Harry and Carl, who didn’t usually pay much attention to me, came sauntering into the store together one day and asked me to help them pick out things for various family members. Harry’s little sister Dana was twelve, so I felt especially confident in recommending a blouse with a Peter Pan collar for her. “It’s what all the little girls are dying for,” I told him, and he bought it, along with several other things, including cashmere gloves for his grandmother. Carl picked out wallets for both of his parents, and Harry, thinking that was a good idea, did the same, but at my suggestion exchanged the one for his mother for a purse. And Willie came in and bought a blue-and-green patterned silk scarf, his face reddening when he handed it to me to wrap. I thought I knew who it was for, Dotty Macefield. I had seen them together more than once. I thought they probably kissed, and, as I rang up the sale, staring at the numbers in the little glass window, wondered what it would be like to kiss him. Then I gave him a professional smile and handed him his bag.

The last week before Christmas the store stayed open each night until nine, after which we who worked there were allowed to wrap our presents at the wrapping counter for free, using the bow machine and the glistening papers that poured gracefully as waterfalls from their wide rolls. Then I would walk the few blocks home in the stinging cold night, balancing my packages carefully so as not to crush the gorgeous store-made bows, drawing in the icy air until my lungs felt full of pins. Looking up at the heavens, I would try to think which star could have been the star of Bethlehem.

Christmas Eve I had planned to take home the last of my presents, the ones for Mama and Daddy, after work. Jay’s sleeping bag was hidden in the closet in their room, and I had delivered the earrings to Pris, Janet, Jean Ann, and Lauretta. Mama and I had made applesauce cakes for all the old ladies, foil-wrapped and tied them in red ribbon, and dropped them on porches all over town.

People red-faced from the cold and bundled to the ears crowded the store for last-minute shopping, and because Nathan the drunk was too busy being Santa to even go out for a bite of supper, I had taken my own supper hour, in a final burst of Christmas spirit, to go buy him a hamburger and a Coke and bring it to him on duty. Christmas carols played over the intercom, and the sharp smell of the evergreens decorating the store scented the air delicately. I was pretty certain I was getting the charm bracelet I had so longed for, and the blue cashmere sweater, and The Egyptian, a book by Mika Waltari that I wanted, and of course other things that were still secret. It was almost nine o’clock and my feet were tired and I was headachy from no supper, but my final paycheck that the supervisor had just delivered was substantial, even discounting the purchases I had made over the last two weeks, and I was feeling rather powerful really, when Ralph walked in the front door of the store.

I saw him at once, his leather jacket collar turned up around his neck, and watched him watch me the way he always did, that look of fixed anger on his face. The customers had thinned to almost nothing, and no one else was in my part of the store. He stopped a few feet off. I smiled and asked if I could help him, even though it was closing time.

He didn’t say anything, just held up his hands in an odd position, his fists out in front of his forehead so that the undersides of his wrists showed a yard from my face. At first I thought he was, somehow, going to attack me. Then I saw that beneath his cuffs was some odd color or substance I didn’t understand.

The smell told me first. The smell of blood mixed with tobacco, over the store’s piney odor.

Before I could speak, he said, "I tried to kill myself, but the slashes won’t bleed. They froze." And he began to cry, those brown eyes brimming over with water onto his flat cheeks.

In the back of the store, the lights blinked off, and came on again. A row of lights just overhead went off. “Come with me,” he said.

Just then a man walked by and said, “Merry Christmas!” and Ralph quickly turned away and swiped at his face with both hands. When he turned around again, the hard look was back in his eyes.

“I have to get my coat,” I said. The Christmas carol stopped in mid-note. The big clock on the post indicated one minute after nine.

I had no earthly idea what to do. I wanted to get him back outside in the safe darkness so no one else could see. And so his cuts would not thaw and bleed. He had said, “Come with me,” making me feel excited and terrified. Where? Would he die? Was this really going to be my first date? And with Ralph, the most compelling, the most dangerous one of them all? And would he die with his head in my lap, like Sinbad and Robin Hood in the movies I loved?

Once outside, the odors of blood and leather and Camels dissipated some, and I could think. I asked him if he had a car.

He didn’t answer me. In the darkness I could hear paper crackle between his fingers. People passed us, chattering, and calling out “Merry Christmas!” and “Good night!” to each other.

In a second, a light flared, illuminating his hands, casting odd shadows upwards on his bent face, and he lit the cigarette, took a deep puff of it, and blew out a cloud of smoke. My own breath made smaller puffs. “Oh, Christ!” he said, under his breath. I didn’t know what else to do but wait. “Want one?” he asked, glancing at me. I shook my head, and he put his hand under my elbow. At his touch, the lower portion of my stomach seemed to contract and twist in on itself. Would we kiss? He steered me down the street, then onto the crunching gravel of a parking lot. Down rows of cars we walked in silence. “Here,” he said, stopping at a dark Studebaker, opening the door for me. I couldn’t remember that anyone had ever done that before, and I passed very near him as I got in.

In the car, he stared ahead, smoking. The smell inside the car was his smell magnified a thousand times, wonderful and terrifying. When he just sat there, I couldn’t stand it. “I haven’t had any supper,” I said. “Could we go get some french fries or something?”

“Sure,” he said, but still he did not start the car, or even turn on the lights.

Then I remembered his wrists. “We have to get you to the hospital,” I said.

“No,” he said. Then, “I’ve tried it before. It won’t work.”

“Tried killing yourself?” In that moment, he seemed immensely tragic. The thought of dying, of not being, ever again, made me feel sick inside, and seemed for an instant to blanket the whole earth with hopelessness. The sun would never come up again, it would never be Christmas, we would all die. Die. As he nodded, he rolled down the window and tossed the cigarette out into the night, where it arced up and over, then out of sight, like a meteor.

Suddenly, a loud version of “Joy to the World” chimed out in the church tower next to the parking lot. I must have jumped, because he gave me a wry smile that might not have been a smile at all, in that dim light, “Kid,” he said, “let’s celebrate Christmas.” When he said it, he relaxed his weight, settling back against the seat, and reached his right arm the length of the seat back, a gesture that made that same thing happen again in my stomach. That black sense of depth and doom passed over, though the memory of it still made me feel a little bit nauseated.

“Well, okay,” I said, feeling very unsure about whether it was all right. If I didn’t, he might kill himself. I knew Mama and Daddy were at the Lockers’ annual neighborhood Christmas Eve party, with the country ham and biscuits, the turkey with rolls, all the men crowded in the den, its air dense with cigar smoke, the women in aprons bustling from kitchen to dining room and back again moving plates, putting out more rolls, pouring spicy mulled cider into the glass punchbowl. It was the same every year.

I estimated that I had an hour or so before they would begin to worry, and as I sat there in the smoke of Ralph’s presence, I began to see that this might just be the Christmas present I had wanted all along. I could already envision myself casually telling my friends all about it, how Ralph had chosen me to spend Christmas Eve with! that he was nursing some tragic past—so then I said, “You at least ought to put a Band-Aid on that. We could go by my house—”

“Nah,” he said. “Look. I got a real strong clotting factor. They’ve quit bleeding.” He stuck his left wrist out of his sleeve over towards me, and for a second I thought he was reaching for me, as his other arm was still on the back of the seat. I couldn’t see very well in the dark, but I nodded, feeling relieved. I didn’t know what else to say, but I thought I could still detect the rusty odor of blood even though his wrists, now that my eyes were adjusted to the dark, in fact looked more scratched than sliced.

For just an instant, his hand grazed my shoulder, and despite my wanting whatever was beginning to continue, I froze, and did the first thing that came to mind, which was to turn brightly to him and say, “Well, so, what do you want to do?” I hated that it sounded so—alert, so nervous.

His face was in deep shadow, but I could detect, maybe by the feel of the air, the anger that was so much part of him. “How old are you anyway?” he asked, then answered himself. “Fifteen. Did you know Juliet was fifteen?”

I did not want to correct him. “Juliet Who?”

A low unpleasant laugh. “Shakespeare’s Juliet. I don’t know her last name. She killed herself. She killed herself when she was fifteen. Just your age.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. I was beginning to feel very nervous. I knew the police shone lights into parked cars, and sometimes arrested the teenagers who sat in them. “We’d better go, don’t you think?”

It seemed to me he sighed, and stared at me a long moment in the dark. Then, with sharp and jerky movements which I knew meant he was angry, he started the car, and I wanted to cry out, “Where are we going?” but at the same time, I wanted to appear suave and cool, wondering for an instant if smoking a cigarette would help. I said nothing. He startled me by asking, “French fries? Isn’t there anything else you want?” Why did I feel such a shiver at the question?

Of course I did, I was hungry, but saying so seemed somehow greedy, so I only said, “Well, anything you want.”

“Oh, sure,” he said, in that maddening sardonic way I did not understand.

A block before we got there, I realized, with the train track just to the right, where he was heading. He was going to take me to that place, the one Daddy called a “den of iniquity” that I had heard about all my life. The sign outside said Lindquist’s Lunch, but all the people Jay hung around with talked about the drunks there and called it the Liquid Lunch. Up the stairs there was supposed to be a prostitute named Maggie, who gave S&H green stamps and had the body of a 25-year-old and the face of a 45-year-old. They had carried men out of there dead from drinking too much whiskey. Two men had killed each other in a knife fight there once years ago. There was even supposed to be the ghost of a huge Negro who had run away from his master sometime before the Civil War and gotten caught up with and shot to death in this bar! He had no shoes, only rags wrapped around his huge feet, and on certain nights you could hear the shuffling of his ragged footsteps coming down into the bar. I had heard about it at slumber parties. “We’re going here?” I asked.

“Sure.” He got out quickly. When he slammed the door, the cold surged in so that I had a reason to shiver. What if someone saw me? Everyone in town knew me.

He opened my door to help me out and added, “Best french fries in town.”

Tawdry red and green crepe paper and artificial holly loops swung gently in the smoky breeze from the overhead fan. Four men sat at the bar, drinking beer and studying their own reflections through the army of bottles arrayed in front of the mirror and the blue haze that hung in the air. Ralph steered me past their curious glances to the line of booths in the back, shadowed and dark, and I felt, or imagined, the heat from the palm of his hand on the small of my back. “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” played softly, and the air did smell like french fries. I was so hungry my mouth began to water. Almost at once the waitress showed up. Ralph nodded at her, while I tried to figure out if she knew him.

“What do you want besides french fries?” he asked.

I swallowed. “What are you having?”

“Rye and ginger,” he said.

“A drink?” He nodded. I racked my brain for the name of a drink.

“A Tom and Jerry,” I tried, finally. It must have been okay, for the waitress just nodded.

“Make the french fries double,” Ralph said. As she went away, he reached across the table and put his hand on mine. It was still cold. I could not move or look at him.

I kept staring at the table, “No,” I whispered. He took his hand away again and lit a cigarette.

At first I was chagrined, for the drink, when it came, looked like a wine glass of chocolate milk topped with whipped cream and freckled with nutmeg. His looked like a drink should look. But I tasted mine and it was wonderful, and by the time the french fries came I was relaxed and almost enjoying the cave of the booth where no one could see us. There were initials carved all over the wood, and I tried to figure out whose they could be. I couldn’t make out one single person I knew.

Ralph said he had a gun that had belonged to his father in the War, that he had gone out to the woods in the afternoon intending to shoot himself. He had thought about it, wandering in the cold for many hours, thought how they would find his body on Christmas. “Killing yourself is the hardest thing there is,” he said sagely, narrowing his eyes.

A woman who had not been there before wandered past the booth and slowed, as if she thought one of us might be someone she knew. Hesitating, she finally stumbled off towards the back, where, I thought, the ladies’ room must be. I had seen her somewhere before. Was it Maggie? I looked over at Ralph, and started to ask, then decided it was too unsophisticated a question. Silently, we ate the french fries, which were crisp and delicious, dunking them into little puddles of catsup on our plates.

Ralph told me about the car he had until he wrecked it: an old Franklin: the only car ever made, he said, with an air-cooled engine. The sound of the phrases rode like an easy pony in my head, an old Franklin: the only car ever made with an air-cooled engine. His knee touched mine under the table, and I moved my leg away, pretending that I was changing my position. He stared at me for an instant, then looked down and took a long drink from his glass. “Don’t you want to have good memories when you’re old?” he asked.

“Well, sure,” I said. But it wasn’t the right answer, because he only gave me a hard, disgusted look. I tried to smile.

He said when he was nine a truck hit him and left him without any memory of his life before then. One time when he was twelve his mother took him back to Boston where they had lived when he was little, took him to see their old house so he would have a place to remember to associate with his growing up. But it didn’t mean anything to him, it was just a house, and a man came out of it and asked what they wanted. Ralph’s mother had explained and asked to take him, Ralph, into the house to see the inside, but the man had refused, so they had to go back without seeing anything. “It didn’t mean anything anyway,” he repeated.

“Where is your mother now?” I asked.

He shrugged, “Who knows? She left us before we came here.”

I almost couldn’t believe that—a mother who just went off. About then, the woman who had been by before wandered back by, slower this time, and paused, looking down at me. She had on too much makeup, and was vaguely, unpleasantly, familiar. “Honey,” she said unsteadily, “let me tell you something. Stay pure. Stay the way you are.” Embarrassed, I didn’t have any idea how to reply, and looked at Ralph to do something. He seemed to be listening to her sideways. Then it came to me: she had been in the store one day, fingering stuff on the counters in my department. Since she would not meet my eye when I asked if I could help her, I had grown suspicious and followed her around closely until she glanced angrily at me and left, drifting on back towards Menswear. Now I could not meet her eyes.

Suddenly Ralph lifted his chin up in a sharp gesture, and that seemed to dislodge her. “Okay, okay, I can take a hint,” she said, offended, and then backed off, her teeth bared in a menacing grin. A coat rack stopped her, and she barely caught it before it fell. Did Ralph know her? Walking unsteadily, she went on back towards the front.

“Was that Maggie?” I asked, unable to keep still.

“What do you know about her?” he asked, sounding amazed. I shrugged. He made a face then, and both of us laughed softly, conspirators finally for an instant in a doomed, pathetic world; and, miracle of miracles, there was nothing weird or unwholesome in that laugh. I had never seen him just laugh before, and it made me feel better, so when he reached his hand across the table that time, I let mine stay under it. By then I had conjured up several other drink names, so I was ready when he said, “You want another one?”

“A Planter’s Punch,”I said quickly. When he next offered me a cigarette, I took it and smoked it—not as gracefully as I might have, but not disastrously either. “Hold the smoke for a minute,” he advised. “Then inhale.” After a moment he said, “You look sexy with a cigarette. Older.”

Our third drinks came. Mine was a Martini, and its raw sting, like alcohol on a cut, shocked me, after the sweet pleasures of the other two drinks. It smelled antiseptic, like my father’s offfice, and it had, of all things, an olive stabbed by a toothpick in it. After the first taste, I just held it, noticing how it sheeted the glass like oil when I tilted it.

I decided to ask him why he wanted to kill himself, because that seemed a foreign thing to me. By now, he was holding my hand under the table.

He narrowed his eyes at the question, seemed to ponder for a moment, then said, “I don’t know. I hate holidays. I hate Christmas.”

“You hate Christmas?” It seemed I had to mock him, I had no choice. “Golly! If you hate Christmas, then you must not like anything.”

“I like sex,” he said, staring at me, his hand holding mine very tight. I thought of the blood, so near.

My lips felt dry and I ran my tongue over them and tasted salt.

“That’s what I want for Christmas,” he said. “Here, feel this.”

But I jumped to my feet, grabbing my hand back from under the table, exclaiming, “Christmas, to me, is the single best day of the year!”

“Take it easy,” he said.

“What time is it?” I cried, too loud.

“Take it easy,” he said again. “It’s just eleven-thirty.”

“Eleven-thirty!” I shouted. “Ralph! I have to go right now! Mama and Daddy will be—I forgot—”

“Take it easy,” he kept repeating. “Just take it easy!”

He dropped me in the cold in front of our house, making no move this time to get out and open the car door for me. As his brake lights showed at the far end of the street like wicked red eyes, I realized that my parents’ Christmas presents were still in his back seat. The exhaust fumes hung pungent in the midnight air.

Inside, the house smelled of spruce and tangerines and Mama’s perfume that she wore just to parties. When I began, in the front hall, to try to remember what I needed to so I could explain, my father interrupted. “Don’t rub your eyes like that. You could have a disease.”

Horrified, I yet understood something of what he meant, and when I put my hands up to cover my face, they smelled of cigarettes and rancid fat. “I’m going to tell the police she’s safe,” he said over my head. “Go take a bath and go to bed.” He was talking to me. Mother was crying, trying not to let me see.

As I climbed the stairs, the church bells downtown began to ring. It was Christmas Day. Jesus was born. Keep yourself pure, she had said. Did Mary—? No, Mary was a virgin. I knew what that meant. You couldn’t have a baby without—I hated thinking about all of it. At the top of the steps Jay stood, waiting for me. “Are you okay?” he asked. I nodded, but I felt dizzy and couldn’t quit crying.

“Shhh,” he said, hugging me, “It’s okay. I understand.”

It wasn’t, and he didn’t, but I didn’t care. I let him hold me until I could stop, clinging to his familiar smell. All births were bloody, even Jesus’s. Things being what they were, I wondered how anyone ever got born.

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