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        Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

PRETEND
a short story
by Robin Bradford

I have taken as my lover a French motorcycle mechanic. When I enter his warm garage, pulsing with the scent of gasoline and leather like some strange black flower, the door sucks shut behind me. Brass bells from India ting. Dark fingerprints guard the knob like friendly spiders. His boots make a grinding sound on the gritty floor as he turns to see who's there. He wipes his hands on a greasy rag and tosses it on the worktable where the tools he used all day lie. The chrome on the machines around him reflects the light from a single round bulb. Suddenly his dark eyes are right above me and just as I'm thinking that I will crumble if he doesn't touch me, he reaches out and takes my jaw in his hands. His hair is black and slick with something that smells like crème brulee. A spark zips through my body. He greets me the French way, with a kiss on one side, then turning my head like the page of a book and kissing again. Then he traces a message with his tongue that starts on my throat and ends inside my mouth. He holds my cheek with his muscular fingers and I glimpse the dark smiles of his fingernails. I fall into a place inside myself that I can only enter when I am with him. We press into each other; he is rubber and I am gravel.

Meanwhile, my husband is humping a Spanish flamenco dancer with a giant fake rose in her hair and loud black high heels.

We do this in order to forget. Sometimes I wear leather, long fringe dancing on my thighs. Sometimes Greg wears, as a surprise beneath his jeans, the Miro-print silk briefs I once bought him on a whim. Or nothing at all. Before our son, now two and lying in the golden darkness of his room, it was enough to make love merely as ourselves. The best version of ourselves. Now we hardly know who we are, living in our son's universe, overabundant with diapers, toy cars, middle-of-the-night fevers, and tears.

Every night is the same. Bath, teeth, two books, two songs, three kisses. We listen to heartbeat music and learn to pray. And like a boat that we have been readying for a distant voyage, our son finally nudges away from shore and he is gone. We are always surprised that it has worked. Silently and too suddenly, we find ourselves alone outside his door. We hug without thinking. It is so easy to resist each other. We pay bills, make calls, read email, fold clothes, watch someone else's drama unfold on television. And then we sleep beside each other like two halves of a peanut.

But tonight, eyes shut, we initiate our parallel play. It is not important if he's in Spain and I'm in France because finally we are alone together, as we once were, all night and so much of the long days. If I can stay in this motorcycle garage, black with grease and night, silent except for our breath and some fuzzy jazz on the radio, then I can forget a thousand things.

Right now I am forgetting about the runny nose and wet eyes. Is it a cold, allergies, or molars? I'm not wondering if we should medicate, forcing syrup the color of goldfish from a syringe in the over-bright kitchen in the middle of the night. Or if we should try the questionably effective teething tablets, two sweet white sugar pills he plucks eagerly from my open palm that simply dissolve in the warmth of his mouth. Or whether we'll simply worry. That's six things I've already managed to forget, while the love of my life speaks French to me: "un, deux, trois."

I have forgotten everything. The day we found out -- our ticklish boy just a black line on a plastic wand. I handed Greg the strange object, still warm from my urine. Washing my hands, I felt the water carrying away the germs of my life as I had known it until that very moment. Greg sat on the couch staring ahead with a little contented smile.

I've forgotten how much sex we had then. It was just like years before when we started dating and stayed in bed together from Christmas to New Year's. We had quickies after work, no time to take a shower before meeting friends for a birthday dinner, and longies in the morning before the light and again on top of the spread-out newspaper, stopping briefly for coffee and danish. I had never let a man cum inside me without doing something about it. Now I stood by the sink every morning with a large sky-blue vitamin in my mouth, counting to five until I was brave enough to swallow. It only took two months. I was shocked that it was so easy to whip up the miracle of life.

Since then, almost every day something shocks me. Like how my chest aches with awe when Wade shouts "Pish!" -- his blond hair ragged and curly from never being cut, his pink finger dabbing in the water, knowing for the first time that streams are cold. We named him Wade for his great grandfather, but also as a command to walk bravely in high water.

I am forgetting our last weekend together -- the last time it was just us. "Let's just have a quiet night; go to dinner, rent a movie," Greg had said when he got home from work. I nodded. I'd spent the day on my hands and knees, sewing tufts onto a baby quilt I was making. I'd bought the African fabric, covered with dancing birds and snakes, from a booth across from where I would get coffee every morning.

The restaurant we went to that night was decorated with suns and moons. We shared a bowl of pumpkin soup. Over flan, there was a trickling. The tightening of my body made a pattern. We were the movie, getting in the car, driving home beneath the street lights, lying in bed that night, holding hands, looking at the dark ceiling, afraid to sleep because we would miss something. The next morning Wade began his slow descent from the netherworld where he thought himself up, to our world. It took him two nights and most of three days, to travel as far as he can jump now if he holds someone's hand.

"Big jump!" he announces, from the bottom step.

I have forgotten how they showed us to wrap him tight like a burrito, so he would feel safe. And how the third night home it stopped working. I pulled out a pan to fix dinner.

"Did you know they cried this much?" I yelled, while Greg rocked the reddened stranger in the hall.

"Yes!"

"Well, why the hell didn't you tell me?"

When I open my eyes, Greg is inches away, his breath mixed up with mine. He slowly lifts my shirt. Grazing his lips on my stomach, he makes a cool wavy line up my body. When he reaches my bare breasts, one of us moans softly. I remember that my bra is on the floor by Wade's bed. My nipples still feel moist from his lips. I slowly drop to my knees. I pull the end of Greg's belt from the loop, the leather rough because it's one of Wade's favorite things to chew. I flip the buckle open but before I get the zipper, Greg motions to switch places. Now he can lean against the greasy wall with a French girlie calendar above his head. I know it is French because the letters for the days of the week are all wrong. He shuts his eyes and goes limp against the wall. His jeans are warm on my cheek, as if from the dryer. He smells like peanut butter. Opening my mouth, I think of Wade. He taught me sucking is a way to meditate. When I look up, I see the French girl kneeling in the sand, her petal-shaped breasts, striped bikini, wet hair like seaweed.

The first time was on my flowered couch. Our third date. We had been kissing for a long time. He led me silently with his hand, but I couldn't figure out how his belt worked. When I finally began he shut his eyes, exhaled long, and sunk back into the pillows. He didn't let go in my mouth because I whispered to him that I wanted him inside.

"Inside, blasting like a rocket," I whispered.

I drove him to the edge, over and over, his toes curling, until he pulled me up. Now I feel my jaw tiring. I try to relax it but keep my tongue and lips tight and active. Part of being a parent, a mother, is learning to do two opposite things at once. It starts in labor when the center of you contracts to push out the baby and all around that center you must go deep and fluid. Then it's nursing him in bed while talking to work on the phone or eating dinner while burping him. Right now, I am forgetting and remembering at once. I am loving my man's sex and wanting to spit it out. I am engrossed in our lovemaking and looking forward to when we're through and wrapped in our new skin. I am listening for my baby's cry and hearing my lover whisper in my ear: "Mon amour… Je t'aime."

I swirl my tongue like he's a dip cone. He lifts me up, and our mouths come together tasting green. He pushes down my jeans and I help.

I am forgetting the way he has ruined our lives by making us care about nothing else but his happiness.

Two weeks after I gave birth, I carried him up the steps to the yoga place I had always gone to alone. I already knew some of the women there. The flesh we had once held inside our bellies in a slow hip roll in the prenatal class was now lying separate, on the blankets at our feet. Miranda, the yoga instructor, was a willowy woman with long bushy hair the color of wheat holding the babies, sometimes two at a time, in the crooks of her arms while she taught us how to breathe. The first time I brought Wade, he woke in the middle of class, crying. I was still uncertain what to do and whether I was the one to do it. Speaking to him in a soft new voice, I brought him to my body. He nursed. At the end of class we lay in meditation. With Wade still at my breast, I listened to the teacher's voice leading us to a sandy place at the water's edge. Feel the warm waves spread beneath you. Flowing in. Flowing out. Feel the water lifting you up. Effortlessly. Now you are floating. Floating away.

After class, Wade was bright-eyed, jerking his arms and legs in his blanket. I laid him down to change his diaper, filled the color of butternut squash or turmeric or marigolds. And the other mothers did the same.

"What do you do," one woman in her thirties whose baby was dressed like a strawberry asked, "when they cry for two hours and it's not their diaper, and they're not hungry, and even going outside won't work and you think you're going insane?"

We all nodded our heads, sighed, smiled.

"Did you try massage?" someone offered.

"What about a car ride?"

"Do you have a sling?"

"Pretend," another woman said, her light brown hair in dread locks. She was a single mother, looked barely twenty, who kept changing her fat baby's name from Pearl to Ophelia and back again.

"When Pearl goes off, I take her outside and hold her close to me and pretend that I'm happy. I pretend this is exactly what I want to do tonight. I make-believe that I'm not worried about money or our future. It's funny. I'm looking up at the moon or the weird yellow color the street light makes the clouds at night, and suddenly I feel better. And then I notice she's fallen asleep."

A blob of white cream trickled from the baby's pink lips and her mother wiped it away with the tail of her oversized T-shirt.

That afternoon, Wade reminded me of myself when I was fifteen and knew nothing to do with my hopeless loneliness except bawl. He was loud and red. I'd checked his diaper, changed his clothes, tried to nurse, and rubbed his stomach. Wearing him in the sling, I marched around the living room singing new verses to Hush Little Baby Don't You Cry. I promised to buy him a coconut pie, a singing elephant, a ruby ring, a silver Maserati.

Finally Greg rode up on his bicycle from work. I stepped out on the porch. It seemed like he'd been gone a century.

"Hard day?" he asked, pulling off his helmet and his pack. He kissed me on the lips then gently stroked Wade's wet cheek with his knuckle.

Suddenly hatred swelled up inside me. I despised him for being out in the world all day, alone and lightweight as a hitchhiker. My mind circled back on itself, tired and selfish, and now I was crying, too. It wasn't hatred, it was fear. Suddenly it was clear to me that somehow my old sadness had passed through me to Wade and he would be depressed all his life and unable to hold down a job or have a girlfriend. He would live on the street and pierce his tongue or sell over-priced life insurance and spend his nights watching football on a wall-sized TV. Already, I cried to myself, he was lost to us.

Silent and black as beetles, the bikes that need work sprawl around the wooden table in the center of the shop. My love and I separate for a moment, the air suddenly cool and clean between us as we strip away the rest of our clothes. The trail of our socks and under-things leads to the worktable lit by a single hanging bulb. Tools clatter onto the floor as he clears space for me. I sit on the table then scoot back. Now I am one of the shiny machines, still, but on the verge of incredible power. I shut my eyes while my working parts are tenderly oiled and slowly tightened.

I taught myself how to love. It was just a few days later. Greg called to see how things were going.

"He cries all the time," I said, "except when he's asleep or nursing."

"I'll be home in just a few hours," Greg promised.

When I hung up, I felt like I was the last person in the universe. And then Wade began to cry again.

I remembered what the woman at yoga had said. I took Wade outside. Babies like that, I had read, something about the light or movement. I carried him to the hammock that my parents had given us for our wedding. I loved to lie beneath the giant ash tree, but I rarely had, saving it for certain Sunday mornings when I plowed through the New York Times, the wind teasing the pages. That was before. Now I sat crossways, the rough ropes easing and embracing me. Lying on my chest, Wade quieted, straining his neck to raise his head.

"See the leaves?" I asked.

He looked at me with his almond eyes and then higher, to the yellow leaves. A fistful of them sprinkled down around us.

"It's fall," I explained. "They'll grow back."

A leaf landed near my head and I plucked it up for him.

"Happy, now?" I asked, twirling the leaf before his gaze. Let's just pretend.

Soon Wade's heavy head dropped. He rubbed his face flat against my chest and his neck swung blindly back and forth, rooting. I lifted my shirt and for an hour we swung beneath the yellow leaves, watching them fall, while black birds crossed overhead.

But that wasn't enough.

When night fell, the tears returned. We spread books open on the couch, tried different songs, a certain walk, the fan above the stove, a tape someone had given us of a heart beating. Each time we thought something worked, we soon found out that Wade had only stopped crying long enough to catch his breath and gather force for the next explosion.

Finally I took him back, my already wounded child.

With the soft blanket loose, I held him in one arm and went around turning off the music and all the lights. Greg slinked into the kitchen to construct dinner. I curled up on the couch and held Wade tight to me as a kitten. The only light was the street lamp outside making shadows on the floor.

"Listen," I whispered.

"You are lying in the sand. Warm water is lapping at your toes."

I kept talking beneath his crying.

"The water is creeping up your body. You are feeling so heavy."

He sniffled and panted and looked at me.

"You are feeling warm and calm, floating in the warm ocean."

Greg stuck his head out the kitchen door. The smell of garlic cooking reminded me of before.

I chanted to our baby, softly, slowly: "Floating, baby, you are floating."

The French man looks at me, straddling his lap, like I am the most beautiful machine he's ever seen. I glance over to the curving gleam of a gas tank and in its warped mirror our legs crisscross, connect, never end. He lays me down, the hard table pressing on my spine, and takes my head in one hand to make a pillow. The air thrums around us like crickets. He shifts his heft and rhythm to suit himself, and it is the same change I was going to exert. We circle low and tight, pull off high and hard. Suction, friction, combustion, exhaust, we are a mechanical wonder. I open my eyes and he is staring at me fiercely. Locked like this, sound and thought and time and fear are gone.

I don't care about Wade.

I hold on to this forgetfulness. I grip it like rope.

"Merde!" Greg sighs suddenly into my slick ear.

The motor slows to a deep purr.

"Mi corazon," I whisper.

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Robin Bradford
is a former Dobie Paisano Fellow. Other literary honors she's received include an O. Henry Prize and Texas Literature Grant. She's published stories in numerous literary journals and has stories forthcoming in Quarterly West and Glimmer Train. She has been a contributor to The Austin Chronicle since 1991. She works as communications director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. She shares a tiny house with her husband, 4 year-old son, 2 cats and a dog.

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