“I really want to go out of the country,” Jessica said. “I think it’s time.” Kyle looked up at her from his video game, nonplussed, and said, “Well, that would be nice.”
He resumed playing, intent on killing the soldier at the top right corner of the screen. Undeterred, Jessica continued, “Jackie and Max just went on a cruise to Mexico two weeks ago. It looked amazing.”
Her eyes traveled along the grain of the wood paneling on the walls, a remnant of the house’s sixties construction. Their living room felt cavernous—poorly lit and worn—but comfortable.
“Don’t you think it’s time?” Jessica asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know,” he said. He scrunched his face and killed another assailant, whispering, “Yes!” before continuing to his next challenge.
Four popcorn kernels rested by his feet, and a faint red stain, which Jessica hadn’t seen before, lay by the coffee table, one of a collection of subtle blemishes that pockmarked the carpet.
“But we can’t afford that right now,” he said.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged, “Can we?” The answer was, of course, no.
She was an aid at the nursing home two miles away. The pay wasn’t great, but it was enough until the airplane factory where Kyle worked began automating portions of its manufacturing, a new technique imported from Germany. Kyle’s department was the first to get terminated as an experiment to test the new production process. The company drastically cut expenditures and increased its output, but the collateral damage it caused was unquantifiable. All Kyle received was three weeks’ notice, a measly severance package that barely stretched two months, and the stark realization that he was expendable.
“I’m employable. I know I’ll find a job soon,” he said to Jessica on the night he found out. He didn’t meet her eyes as he said it. As they sat under the dim, yellow light of their bedroom lamp, she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.
“I was going to paint this room next weekend,” Kyle said as he eyed the wallpaper, just beginning to fade and peel in the corner where the sun shone. “I guess it will have to wait.”
As Jessica watched Kyle immersed in his game, her phone timer rang. Opening the oven, she found a blackened pizza oozing brown, congealed cheese.
“Fuck,” she muttered, opening the window to ventilate the smoky room. She was surprised the fire alarm hadn’t gone off, but remembered it was damaged, one of several broken things in her home. The backyard door didn’t close fully, letting in the chilled October air that made heating nearly impossible. The bedroom’s ceiling leaked. The brown droplets from the roof collected in the white bucket that sat next to her bed. Every evening, she heard the steady plunk of water as she drifted asleep. Every evening Kyle said, “I’ll fix that tomorrow.” He never did.
Jessica spent many of their first days together at his family’s small acreage, reading magazines on their porch that overlooked the sweeping land undisturbed by trees and helping Kyle’s mother with the meals. Despite a busy weekday schedule of varsity sports and church, Kyle spent his Saturdays mowing the dense prairie grass or mending the fence encircling the property with his father. The work often spilled over to Sunday if it remained unfinished or wasn’t to Kyle’s liking. He returned to the house at six, his hands more calloused, his body pungent, ready to consume what Jessica prepared. Lasagna or enchiladas were always preceded by a grace, centering on the bounty of the earth and the wholesome toil of its laborers. At sixteen, Jessica became aware of what her future could be if she married Kyle. And so, after two years of dating, she did.
“Work hard,” Kyle’s father would say. “Work harder than everybody else, and you’ll get where you need to be.”
Kyle was awarded hardest-working player for four years on his high school football team. His mowing business, which he began at fourteen, single handedly paid his community college tuition. He was promoted to manager at the factory in two years when it had taken others six.
Jessica removed the pizza from the oven and began scraping the hardened, black cheese from the pan. The doorbell rang. When Molly entered the kitchen moments later, she crumpled her nose and said, “Jesus, it smells awful here. Were you trying to burn the house down?” It was her third night at Jessica’s this week.
“The pizza box said forty minutes,” replied Jessica, “and it came out like an explosion.”
“You burned the hamburger meat on Sunday night,” said Molly as she grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, “Maybe you’re just a shitty cook.”
“Fuck off,” said Jessica. Molly beamed Jessica a toothy smile before swigging her beer. Best friends since high school, Jessica was accustomed to Molly’s grief—biting, yet truthful. They decided to order pizza since Molly had a coupon. Jessica could spare the ten dollars the pizza would cost, but no more.
“Why don’t you order the pizza?” said Jessica, “I have to get the laundry. Just no green olives or mushrooms.” Molly was on the phone when she returned, and, glancing at Jessica, said with a grin, “Can we get a large with green olives and mushrooms?” Jessica flipped her off, sending Molly into a paroxysm of laughter.
“Actually no,” she said, “I want pepperoni. And breadsticks and those brownie bites.” She hung up the phone and said, “It’s twenty-five.” Jessica’s eyes grew wide.
“Relax,” said Molly, “You got dinner last night. I owe you one.” Jessica eyebrows slackened. It was nice to know there was someone with whom she could share a simple burden like dinner.
Jessica found the bottle in Kyle’s drawers, buried beneath the socks and underwear. “The doctor prescribed it two months ago,” he admitted. “I guess I have depression.”
The pizza arrived twenty minutes later.
“You look like you’re on another planet,” said Molly, as she looked up from her phone “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” said Jessica, patting the little ponds of oil that dotted the pizza’s surface with her paper towel.
Jessica studied the large sycamore tree in the front yard. Green a week ago, it was now a dull golden-brown, its leaves blanketing a lawn that was losing its summer color.
“Where would you go if you could leave the country?” said Jessica.
“Haven’t really thought about it,” Molly said and continued her scrolling. Jessica had once gone to Orlando in high school. It was the furthest that she had ventured. But she knew that other people traveled, really travelled, to places like San Francisco or Mexico or Europe. In the fourth grade, Sam Johnson went on safari to Kenya. He gave a presentation to the class, while Jessica and her peers eagerly assembled around the projector, marveling at herds of elephant romping in marshy fields and cheetahs lounging on boulders. She still recalled the purple and teal plumage of the lilac-breasted roller, a bird that was still her favorite, though she had never seen one nor likely ever would. Scouring her school’s collection of National Geographic later that afternoon, she wondered why she couldn’t travel to Kenya and go on safari. If other people went, then surely, she could as well.
As Jessica peered out the window looking at the browning, featureless landscape, she felt that deep longing that she felt as a girl, that urge to escape the place she’d never left, but always promised herself she would.
“You’ve never thought about going to a foreign country?” Jessica asked.
“I can’t believe that.”
“Jessica, right now I’m making ten dollars an hour seating people at IHOP. I barely get any days off, and I gotta pay my rent and bills. How the hell am I going to afford some expensive vacation out of the country?”
Jessica gulped what remained of her beer. She felt a pain budding at her temples as she finished the last slice of pizza in silence. She wondered if Molly’s complacency had worn off on her, becoming too firmly fixed to be shaken. Later, she passed out on the couch, waking the next morning with her head enveloped in a throb.
Each summer for one week, Kyle and Jessica stayed in their friend’s cabin in Branson, Missouri, a welcome reprieve from the routine of their daily lives. They enjoyed spending time outside away from the hub of town life, nestled faraway in the Ozarks. They spent their days at the local amusement park, the museums, and the local bars.
Often, Jessica woke with a mild hangover, finding herself wrapped in an unfamiliar blue comforter and deerskins draped across the pine floors and walls. She looked in the mirror to find her mascara had run down her cheeks before stumbling toward the kitchen, desperate for coffee, while Kyle softly snored in the bedroom. She settled on the porch that overlooked a small creek as the sun rose over the dry Ozark forest. The events of the prior evening were fuzzy and incoherent until she looked at her phone, now replete with photos taken with strangers in dive bars. An hour later, Kyle staggered outside with his coffee, hair disheveled. He kicked his feet against the railing while he slowly regained consciousness. As they reviewed the photos, the last evening crystallized. They laughed at their antics, now fodder for the stories they told their friends back home, the moments upon which they’d reminisce over the next year until they went again.
“What do you want to do today?” Kyle would ask.
“Well, it’s nearly noon,” she said, “It will be late by the time we get anywhere.”
“We could stay in?” He said. She smiled and agreed. They spent the rest of the day on the porch in their pajamas, gossiping about the latest thing her mother had said or how to deal with Kyle’s nonsensical boss. She had found a white hair, and Kyle discussed his father’s latest financial misstep. During their conversation, she was reminded of Kyle’s ability to give good advice, even if it was sparsely given. After they ate the hamburgers from the grill, they returned to the bedroom, not leaving until the next morning.
At the end of each week, she and Kyle would float down the river on inner tubes. They rode lazily on the current, the world unencumbered, while the cicadas chanted their afternoon hymns. It was her favorite ritual before the reality of nursing homes and mortgages returned, and the vacation became a distant memory. After a few beers, Kyle would grab her hand and gaze at her the way he did when they began dating, full of longing, amazed to find himself worthy of her affection. He’d say, “Jessica Jean, I really do love you,” his speech a little slurred, his tongue a little slow. And with those words, Jessica knew that she could wait one more year for Branson, as long as he could look at her like that and say that he loved her.
One day the baby was kicking, and the next day it wasn’t.
“They don’t want to stick,” Jessica said as she sat on the examination table, her gown billowing in the slight draft. He grabbed her hand as she began to cry, wrapping his arm around her waist. They considered naming her Abigail, after Kyle’s grandmother whose hair, a bright shock of red, looked ablaze whenever she drove her ’59 Chevy. A horrible accident, the doctor said. Nobody could have foreseen it.
“Baby, I have news for you,” said Kyle, as Jessica walked in the door after an especially grueling day at the nursing home. Two aides didn’t show, leaving Jessica to care for several new patients, among which was Ms. Weatherly, a kind woman, with persistent streaks of black hair, and a severe case of dementia that rendered her incapable of knowing with whom she was speaking. When Jessica walked in that morning, Ms. Weatherly said in her syrupy voice, “My dear, you are as beautiful as you were when you were a child,” giving Jessica a gummy smile.
“Why, thank you, Ms. Weatherly,” she said, “But you know I’m not your daughter. I’m your aide today since Tonya’s out. I’m here to check in on you.” Ms. Weatherly’s expression went blank. Jessica placed her hand on Ms. Weatherly’s shoulder and smiled at her. She enjoyed working with geriatrics, and though some people were unpleasant and the days long, the majority were kind. They had given her a great deal.
Minutes later, Ms. Weatherly’s unsuccessful bid for the toilet left a stain on Jessica’s white Keds, resolutely fixed despite Jessica’s best efforts to remove it.
Jessica walked down the hall of her house, clinging to three shopping bags, one of which was precariously wedged between her arm and thigh. She preferred to make as few trips as possible between the house and car after grocery shopping, the result being more shattered jars of marinara than she could remember. The bag tilted dangerously. Jessica suddenly knew how precarious it all was. A can of green beans went rogue, tumbling from one of the bags. An apple went headlong. Then Jessica lost control, the bags falling, their contents scattered across the white, tiled floor.
“Fuck,” she muttered as she surveyed the extent of the damage. White egg shells lay in pools of yolk and marinara sauce, the stalk of celery crushed under the cans of black beans. She had probably lost $70.
“Can you help me with the groceries?” she called Kyle. “I dropped them.”
She sighed and entered the living room. Kyle briefly looked at her before fixing his attention back on the screen, running his hand through his brown hair to reveal its subtle recession at the temples. His stomach held a small paunch that had slowly accumulated since cancelling their gym membership. Jessica once saw him in the bathroom with his hands wrapped around his stomach. He had looked at himself in disbelief as his body softened from disuse. She, on the other hand, was now all points and angles, her body as featured as his was vague.
“I have something to tell you,” Kyle said.
“Okay, but first, I spilled some groceries. Can you pick them up? I have to pee really bad.”
“Umm, yeah, sure,” he said, but she knew everything would remain on the floor.
When she returned from the bathroom, the groceries were still scattered. Bananas, perfectly yellow at the store, displayed sprawling bruises. The Wonder Bread was dented, its plastic wrapping coated in strawberry jelly.
“Oh crap,” said Kyle, entering the kitchen as she wiped jelly off the bread. He collected the bananas from the floor then stood against the counter.
“Can I talk to you about something?” he asked, holding an envelope embossed in official type. She silently gathered some of the remaining items and placed them on the orange laminate countertop.
“I have news,” he said.
“I want to tell you something.”
“What fucking news could you possibly have?” she said, a sudden explosion that surprised even herself. Kyle looked at his feet in silence. He hadn’t worn shoes in three days.
“I get why you’re pissed,” he said after a few moments.
“I’m not pissed.”
“Maybe if you—,” but she stopped to collect herself.
The jar of peanut butter rolled back and forth on its side near the garage door. The strands of vanilla ice cream oozed down its tub, congealing on the ground in a sticky mess.
“What if it was your fault?” she asked.
“What if it’s your fault that we lost the baby?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s your fault,” she said, her voice rising, “How could a baby be born here? How could a baby be born to this?” She waved her arms wildly while her ponytail unraveled, her brunette hair flopping back and forth from shoulder to shoulder.
“Are you blaming this on me?” he asked.
“You haven’t tried one bit, Kyle!” she shouted. “I’m here cleaning up the mess. You promised the door would be fixed. You said you would take care of the leak. The kitchen is a disaster! And there you are, wasting away on the coach in front of your video games!” He shook his head and muttered, “I can’t believe this.”
“Look at me,” she cried out, lifting her shirt. Her ribs thrust up like speed bumps on the smooth contour of her abdomen.
“You don’t see me,” she yelled, though it also sounded like a plea. He briefly looked at her then averted his gaze.
“I don’t fucking have time for this,” he said. He shook his head and moved toward the den, but stopped. She grabbed a tissue to wipe the tears and smeared mascara. She fixed her hair into a ponytail so tight that her temples ached.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said as his face contorted, his eyes welling with tears. He looked at her with expectation.
“Kyle,” she said, gathering her composure, her expression as sharp as stone, “I don’t want to have a baby.” He looked away.
“Not with you,” she said. She slammed the door to the garage, entered the car, and drove away. Kyle remained, dumbfounded in his unclad feet and unshaven face, unable to convey the contents of the envelope in his hand.
The humid spring was gracious to Jessica’s yard. Green grass carpeted a lawn that hadn’t been watered in weeks. An assortment of annuals—petunias, marigolds, and impatiens—were housed in several pots, and hostas lay in the small bed by the porch, their broad leaves bathing in the June sun. Her collection was by no means large, but it was something that she had built, a small luxury she could now afford.
“How was your day?” Kyle asked as Jessica leaned against the doorway.
“It was okay. One of the nurses was bitchy, but besides that, everything was fine.” He motioned for her to sit next to him, but she refused. The den was Kyle’s domain for a few hours each evening—a compromise established early in their relationship that helped maintain the relative peace of their ten years of marriage. Jessica still thought the video games were grotesque—the slashing of limbs and heads, the flowing of blood. She sometimes feared what was being hacked away in Kyle, if the violence was distorting something in him. But he enjoyed it, and she supposed it was a fair exchange for his four-month employment at an auto body shop. Many of the airplane factories hadn’t recovered from the recession. Some permanently reduced their workforce, and others moved their base of operations out of state. Even now, though, Kyle still had a muteness to him.
“I got groceries today,” said Kyle, “I’ll help with dinner when I’m done with this level.” His proactivity caught her off guard, and she felt a pang of guilt.
“Thanks,” she said and left for the bedroom. While the roof no longer leaked, a recent repair they could now afford, a faint brown spot remained on the carpet by her side of the bed—remnants of a chapter she was glad to leave behind.
After the fight, Jessica drove to the only place she knew to go. She spent the next two evenings eating Chinese takeout on Molly’s couch, recounting the events of the past eight months, wondering if the marriage had any true merits left or if it had run its course.
“Lord knows you gave it a good try,” said Molly, “with you taking care of him and babying him.”
The next evening, Molly pulled her car up beside Jessica on her evening walk. “Just get in the car,” she said. They were getting a pedicure. Molly’s treat. They drove the ten minutes to Glamour’s Nail Salon, a small establishment in one of those beige, declining strip malls ubiquitous in their town, filled with Dollar Generals and Great Wall Chinese Restaurants.
“Do you want to have children with him?” asked Molly after they sat down. Jessica clutched the armrest as the pedicurist gently peeled the overgrown cuticles from her toes.
“I love him,” said Jessica, drawing out each word as she searched for the right, the true thing to say.
“I know,” said Molly. She twisted eagerly in her seat to face Jessica. Her fist propped up her chin and her eyes grew wide as she asked “But?”
The pedicurist grunted. Molly’s had shifted out of reach.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” she said and resumed her position, stiff as a board as the pedicurist massaged her feet. Jessica laughed and flipped through the pages of a fading Cosmo, viewing the images of actresses hawking expensive jewelry. She put the magazine down and asked, “What should I do?”
Molly closed her eyes and exhaled.
“Hell, I can’t decide that for you,” she said.
Jessica looked straight ahead as the pedicurist applied the clear varnish to her toes. She reached down to touch her pumiced heels, now smooth after months of wear, the months of caked skin now gone.
Later that evening, Jessica said, “I’m saving my money and going on a trip. Just me.”
“Good,” Molly said, wriggling her neon pink toes on the coffee table, “It’s about time.”
Jessica spent the better part of the next day considering how she wanted to tell Kyle.
Straight to the point is always best, Jessica thought as she entered the driveway after work. She walked to the den and announced, “I have something to tell you.” Kyle looked up before resuming his game, “What’s up?”
“I’m going on a trip.” He jerked the controller, squinting his eyes in concentration as his car barreled around the raceway, barely dodging another vehicle. He crossed the finish line. He won the race.
“We’re going on a trip?” he asked, “Do we have the money?” Jessica took a deep breath and said, “No, I’m going on a trip.” He briefly looked at her again, wearing one of those droll smiles he gave when he thought she was joking or wasn’t making any sense.
“Aren’t we going to Branson in a few months? You mean that trip?”
“We are,” she replied, “But I’m going on another one. By myself.” Her words hung in the air like cottonwood seeds in their frilly masses, as they searched for places to land.
“With my money,” she replied with more resolution. After the miscarriage, she saved for eight months, forgoing the tiniest of un-necessities: purchasing the off-brand toothpaste instead of the Colgate, eating canned produce instead of fresh. Ten dollars here and five dollars there had amounted to an all-inclusive vacation just for herself. When she saw the advertisement on social media, she went for it. She knew vaguely that Costa Rica was somewhere below Mexico, covered in rainforest, she assumed. Her Google searches revealed teal oceans, giant volcanoes, and, as she suspected, rainforests. The resort had paddle-boarding and scuba diving and zip-lines. She now had something to look forward to instead of sitting on her bed alone with her all-consuming grief.
“How long have you been saving?” he asked.
“When I was unemployed?” All the mirth in his face was drained. She suddenly filled with shame.
“Kyle, I needed this,” she said, “Something to get me through. I was hoping you’d understand.”
“Where are you going?” Kyle asked. “And when?”
“Costa Rica in October.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t tell me you were taking medication until two months after the fact,” she said. His face darkened.
“That’s not fair. You know what I was going through. I was trying my best,” he said, shaking his head. He removed his baseball cap and ran his hand through his thinning, graying hair.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked again.
“You don’t get it, Kyle,” she said. “You know I’ve always wanted to leave the country.” She leaned against the wall and said, “Give me this one thing, Kyle. Just be happy for me.”
“I didn’t know you wanted to leave,” he said.
“Cause you’ve never asked,” she said, “You never knew because you never asked.” They stared at each other. Her expression grew cool and steely.
“I’m going in October,” she said.
“I guess you are,” he replied, smiling. He walked past her out the room, muttering, “Unbelievable.”
She remained, deflated, surprised at his nonchalance. How anti-climactic it all turned out to be, she thought. She wanted it all to be so much more.
She walked to the back porch, noticing the strips of peeling paint that circled the ancient shed. The giant cottonwood that stood in the center of the lawn was scattering its white tufts that rode the wind. It seemed so natural at the time, marrying so young, she thought. But even now, after everything seemed normal, she remained unsure. A tuft settled onto her hand. She blew it away, watching it sail over the fence.
She entered the bedroom to find Kyle on the bed, flipping through one of his car magazines.
“If it means so much to you,” he said, “you should do it.”
“Thank you,” she said. She kissed him and nestled next to him, feeling the rise and fall of his chest against her back. He kissed the top of her head and caressed her thigh. She noticed the stain was fainter now. Her scrubbing and scouring had made it so. They’d change the carpet next year when they saved more.
But even when they replaced the carpet, Jessica knew the stain had already sunk to the baseboard.