I have an abortion the same day my best friend Courtney has her miscarriage. I’m not supposed to drink for two days after the procedure, but I can’t wait. We cry at the narrow, underground bar modeled after a speakeasy. It feels like it is more modeled after a trench. When I say we cry, I mean we cry about her miscarriage. I don’t tell her about the abortion. I hadn’t known she was pregnant when we agreed to hang out, so I made the mistake of telling her on the phone, “you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had.” And she’d said, “me too,” and am I glad I let her vent first when we got here. Telling her I had a fetus vacuumed out of me doesn’t seem appropriate now. I make up a story about being in a fight with my Dad, which is truth-adjacent, I called him three times earlier and the line just droned. With Court, I say, “No, my day’s nothing compared to yours, nothing, nothing.”
“I can’t believe we lost the baby. ‘We.’ Jordan didn’t do anything.”
I order us two dark and stormys and let her unload.
Courtney blots under her eyes with a napkin. “That sounds strong.”
“That’s the hope.”
We drink like we’re in college, but at the price point of people doing far better than us. It seems like everyone at the bar is doing far better than us. To self soothe, we invent lives for them. We decide the girl at the bar with the obvious hair extensions is sleeping with a married man with a thing for dog collars.
“Her name’s probably Terri with an ‘i’ or something,” I say.
Courtney laughs. Her puffy eyes shuffle through the crowd.
“How about the old couple,” she says, indicating a nearby table. A pair of patrons in their 60s stand out like neon among the younger crowd. The woman has a sensible haircut. Her slight body swims in a seashell-pink sweatshirt that reads Fort Lauderdale.
“The ones bragging about having been to Florida? You tell me.” I catch the bartender’s eye and hold up two fingers. He nods and digs a scoop into the ice well.
She hesitates. “They’ve adopted a dog. They have a nice yard and they just re-did the fence so he’ll be safe.”
“What kind of dog?”
“A Boston Terrier.”
Her face freezes. I somehow made our pain distraction game just straight up pain again. I go into repair mode.
“Aren’t Boston Terriers the ones with squinchy faces and the breathing problems from over-breeding?”
“That’s pugs,” Courtney says, warmth returning to her face slow, like an oven.
“What are Boston Terriers?”
“I’ll show you.” She types Boston Terriers into her phone. Images pop up of black and white dogs. If they were in a cartoon where all of the characters are puppies, they’d be the villains. They look like they’ve perpetually got a gob of drool stretching from the side of their mouths. I hate bodily fluids. If I could opt not to have a body, I would. My stomach cramps. I clutch my gut.
Courtney’s still electronically parading the bad-guy dogs, finger swiping upward with ceremony on her un-cracked screen.
“Cute!” I declare.
Somewhere nearby, a votive candle burns out, sings a sulfurous swan song. Courtney twirls ice with her straw.
“I’m glad they’re adopting that dog.”
“Yeah, it’ll quell that empty nest anguish.”
We chuckle; just a pair of empty nests ourselves.
The bartender drops off our drinks, so we invent a life for him too. He’s been texting all night, so we assume he’s hatching plans to reunite with the ex, probably someone thin and tattooed who wears a toque all year round. We finish the drinks. When the server comes by to collect the glasses, I order two more; tell her to fuck us up. I don’t feel drunk, but I will when I stand up.
Courtney talks about how one of her co-workers is taking an extended leave. She’s worried about how much extra work will fall on her plate.
“My plate’s already pretty full,” she says.
Her drink is, too. She’s barely touched it. A curl of orange peel floats tantalizing in the bourbon. I realize she’s grown accustomed to not drinking. Heat settles in my cheeks. Courtney gets tender in the eyes about some couple’s imaginary dog and meanwhile my stomach squeezes like someone’s trying to extract juice from me. The concept of fairness is bullshit, just another means of trying to dominate a nature that can’t be bested. I, who don’t want a baby, who never wanted one, who offers nothing but crappy genetics and crappier habits, got pregnant from the time I fucked a random three months ago. Justiceless. Proof everything in the universe is dead as rocks or worse, alive and indifferent, so I drain my cocktail then steal a sip of Courtney’s. I probably should’ve asked, but it’s better than wasting money. She starts texting. For a moment I’m scared she’s bitching to Jordan about what a mess I’m being, so I take a sip of water as a show of maturity.
Courtney nestles her phone back into her purse. “I’m tired, Riley. Would you mind if I call it a night?” She’s already tying a knot in the sash of her camel coat, fashioning it into a symmetrical bow. I shred a coaster.
I say, “Thanks for meeting up. I hope you and Jordan are okay.”
“I’ll tell him you say hi.”
Courtney shakes droplets out of her umbrella and disappears into the night. I sidle into the corner of the booth and let the wall support me. I wish I could’ve magically transferred my pregnancy, teleported the baby into her uterus and transmogrified my genetics into hers.
The bartender swings by to clear the table. He’s establishing-shot handsome carrying a bulky bus bin under his arm. I say, “Hey, man, who’ve you been texting all night?”
He shoots me a scrutinizing look. I tilt my head down toward my drink and angle my eyes up. I remember from a media studies class that advertisers arrange women into this position when they want them to exude sexiness.
“My ex wants to pick up her records.”
We were right!
“I’m sorry. Are they good records?”
“Some of them.”
“Gonna hide any from her?”
He laughs, “Nah, I’m not like that.”
“Not even for like, I don’t know, like a copy of Doolittle?”
“Doolittle would hurt. But still. Not worth being unforthcoming.”
“Good man,” I say. He looks pleased. I finish Courtney’s drink; wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I say, “Do you want to get out of here?” and he says, “No, I’m working,” so I say, “Well fuck you then.”
He splits; casting me repulsed looks over his shoulder as he fills the belly of the bus bin with abandoned glassware. A waitress slaps my bill down. I leave an extra twenty on the table to make up for the encounter even though it fucks my budget. I raise my hand in acknowledgement as I go, but the bartender ignores me.
It’s raining hard. My socks are soaked and itchy at the ankle. It’s too late for the regular bus so I walk along the route; hope the night bus catches up with me. No point lingering at the stop, waiting is waiting in stillness or in motion. My fingertips are red and stinging from cold but I’m pretty sure it’s not frostbite until they go white. To distract myself, I review other things that can hurt me. Poison ivy is low to the ground and has three leaves. Tick bites resemble target signs. If you’re hypothermic, you should sit with your knees to your chest and tuck your hands into your armpits. Fucking can cause babies, but it can also not cause babies, whichever is less convenient. I glance down the road hoping for a bus: nothing but cars. If I hadn’t tipped the bartender so much, I could spring for a cab, but cabs are the earthly manifestation of Murphy’s law: you can never find one when you’re looking.
I’ve been walking for twenty minutes when I realize I’m not sure if this route actually has a night bus. The rain spits crooked, hits like flicking fingers. Up ahead at Ash street, a squirrel’s dead in the road, its cherry guts on display. Poor thing deserves a better resting place, some dignity. Soon he’ll become part of the city, too tire-flattened to even scrape off the road. I throw up looking at him. The wind whips my hair into my puke-sticky mouth, and worse, blood floods from my vag, which I guess I should’ve expected. I’m grateful the rain has darkened my jeans so the blood can camouflage, not that anyone’s around to see it.
In the street a driver veers to avoid getting squirrel guts on his tires. He looks haggard, but dry. Dry looks appealing. I search my contact list for somebody to beg for a ride. In the Gs, I see “Greg Waterfront STN” and think who the fuck is that when it dawns on me. Greg Waterfront STN doesn’t know what a bullet he dodged. Rain obscures my screen. I wipe the phone on my coat sleeve, but that just pulls the droplets long. I have a memory of being small and washing Dad’s car with a garden hose, water sluicing down the windshield.
So I call him.
“Hello? Riley, you okay?”
“How’d you know you wanted kids?”
The long pause tells me I’ve fucked up. I can practically hear his brain waking up from sleep. I picture him upright in bed, concerned under the navy comforter. He’s had the same five books stacked on his nightstand for years: Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, Kane and Abel, Skin Tight, Zorba the Greek, and Networking for Dummies. The nightstand is scratched up like someone’s taken a vegetable peeler to it, but it’s real wood rather than particleboard, so Dad likes it. He doesn’t take great care of things, but he tries.
“Riley, it’s five in the morning.”
“Oh. It’s two here.”
“I see now how that’s not better.” I’m nauseous again. “Dad, I gotta go.”
“Wait, are you outside?”
“Just walking home. Don’t worry about it.”
“And it’s two?”
“Come on. You shouldn’t be walking so late. Get in a cab.”
“Cabs are rip offs, you’re always saying.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“Cab drivers rape people too, you know.”
“Same,” I say.
“Okay. Call a cab; don’t call a cab, what do I know?”
“Sorry I woke you. But I can call you? If it’s an emergency?”
“You’re worrying me, kid. Is this an emergency?”
“No,” I press a palm to my roiling solar plexus. “No, I’m just drunk.”
“Call a cab, Riley. It’s not good to be out this late.”
“But I’ve come this far already. Besides, I’m not at an address, so…”
I look over at the staunch, brick building just beyond the fence down the way. It reads eerie in the mist, like it might be a place that disposes of medical waste. Probably it’s a furniture warehouse or something, but at night it sings sinister. I bet it has a spider web-smothered basement with some creaky old office chairs. A shiver rolls down my spine. It’s the unknown that’s scary, I remind myself. That’s what people are afraid of when they think they fear death. Some philosopher once said there are only three core fears and everything else is just details. One was a fear of the unknown. I try to recall the other two.
“I was saying if you don’t know the address, give them the intersection.”
“They won’t come to an intersection.”
“Of course they’ll come to an intersection.”
“I’m telling you they won’t.”
“Fine, I’m not going to argue. Be careful with the drinking, alright?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not running around the streets like a lunatic. Careful is my middle name.” Vomit scales my throat. I swallow it.
The night bus rushes by me, spewing water onto the sidewalk. I’ve missed it.
“Love you Dad. Say hi to Cheetah.”
Cheetah is the stray cat my Dad feeds and lets stay in the garden shed. When I call Dad normally, I’ll say something like hi Dad how’s it going and instead of answering like a regular person, he says Cheetah’s okay today, he let me pet him for ten minutes. Or he’ll be like, Cheetah caught a bird. Or he’ll be like, people could learn a thing or two from Bob Barker about spaying and neutering their pets. All these unwanted strays.
“Okay, I’ll pass that along. Text me when you get home?”
A bulb forms in my throat. “Yeah. I’ll text you.”
I hang up. My hair clings like a leech to my neck. I try to make words by scrambling letters on billboards. “Visit the Aquarium” gives me “rum” (so had the bartender), and “quit,” which I feel like doing. I’m close enough to home that paying for a cab would be a waste of money, but Alder Street is mountain-steep. At my fittest this hill steals my breath, makes me heave. This is not my fittest.
I ring Courtney.
“Hey, Court. Just wanted to make sure you got home okay.”
“Yeah, I’m home.”
“Good.” The word forms a cloud that spreads out until it’s indistinguishable from the rest of the sky. I exhale again to watch something that was inside me go and become nothing.
“Good? Pfft. No.”
“I meant home.”
“Oh. No.” I try to remember the lie I’d come up with at the beginning of the night.
“I hope you make up with your Dad soon,” she says. Of course she remembers. She’s got that kind of honest concern that isn’t diminished by her own suffering. She has enough room in her heart for your pain and her own. It’s the thing that’ll make her such a good mother someday.
We exchange goodnights and hang up.
The beacon of an unoccupied cab glows in the distance. I open contacts and pull up Greg Waterfront STN. I push down on the name until the trash icon appears. He’s gone like he never existed. I thrust my hand out to flag the cab. It pulls over and I climb inside.
The driver’s smiling with a phone tucked between his shoulder and his ear. He wraps up the call and sets his phone on the dashboard. I catch a glimpse of the caller ID photo before the screen goes black. In the picture, the driver stands with an arm wrapped around a woman in an orange dress. Their heads lean toward each other in easy intimacy.
The driver surveys me in the rearview mirror. “Where’re you heading?”
“Home,” I say.
My breath sprawls fog across the glass. I palm it clear. Under streetlights, yellowed rain plummets to the sidewalk. The taillights of cars and streetlights firework in the puddles. Fluids everywhere. All day, fluids. This used to be called the neon city before developers took it over, evicted all the character and all the characters with it. Old photos show downtown streets lit up by a parade of vertical neon signs, like a drunken stupor montage in an old cartoon. It must have looked spectacular reflected in puddles. Now the roads and sidewalks just look wounded, wept out in rain. The city grates can’t keep up with the insistence of precipitation, water fountains in the gutters, spills over, stains the concrete a slick, slate gray. It’s meant to be sunny tomorrow. By morning, it will dry and fade back to normal; the city will revert to looking bored, and it won’t be so easy to find hurt in the infrastructure.
Erin Kirsh is a writer based in Vancouver. Her work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, Barren Magazine, EVENT, CV2, Short Edition, and more. Visit her at www.erinkirsh.com or follow her on twitter @kirshwords.