And he’s looking up at me waiting. He’s a little guy, maybe three or four. Hands on his hip, bottom lip edging to a cliff. Kid’s suspicious as hell. I laugh in response for a second longer than I should and look over at Neen, who stopped fussing with the other kid in the stroller long enough to look at me and see how I’ll answer. Her mouth is dangling open a bit and even though I know it’s not right, in that moment, I want to tell the kid that I know his mom, and more than that, I know the shape of her mouth and how it looked when she wrapped it around my fingers. How it would twitch a little in the left corner when she told me she loved me and how it would open briefly and then close iron tight if she was angry with me, which yeah, toward the end, she was all the time.
We ran into each other at the Northfield Mall, Neen and her two kids, which is crazy because she moved away from here years ago. She went from being my girl to just someone I would see floating through my social media feeds. Not that we’re friends, for real or for Internet, at least not anymore. Somebody we both know, probably from here, liked a photo she was in or one of those glass-half-full quotes she posted, so that’s how I see her these days. I think of her as a ghost sometimes because that’s what she is. She’s a story I tell myself when it’s dark and I’m by myself, but don’t want to feel alone. I’m used to ghosts. I live in a town full of them. People floating through their lives because there isn’t really anything else to be excited about here except working two and three jobs that don’t pay and clearance at Penney’s or a quick hit of something to make you forget that those are the options. Maybe I’m a ghost too, I don’t know. I haven’t really felt real to anyone else since Neen.
Back when we were together we’d go to the mall and Neen would pick out our clothes for going to the club. I would’ve been fine in some jeans and Timbs, but Neen said no, you can’t get into the club with that on. She liked places where lames wore suits and the girls looked like they would spit on you as soon as look at you. I was always pissed when we got there, but once the DJ really got going, Neen and I would be sweating all over each other dancing. She had these thick hips and tiny waist and she’d grind on me like she was the guy. And her mouth would open a little bit because she’d be really into it. My guys would clown me and say don’t bring sand to the beach, and I’d laugh but for real Neen and her hips and her lips were sexy as hell to me. She was so pretty.
I’m looking at her now with that open mouth and she’s still pretty, but I’m trying to say it objectively. Her hips are wider; the two big-head boys she has with her are probably the cause. She looks soft, like she stopped marathon running all the time, got comfortable with someone who’s not complaining about extra cake. Not that I know the dude, though I’ve seen him pop up in Neen’s photos sometimes. He’s always clutching her hips like he’s gripping his own dick. But Neen looks happy, or as happy as people look on the Internet, so whatever.
I don’t even know what’s at this mall that Neen would want? Northfield lost the big department store, the restaurants, and the sports store that sold the fancy yoga clothes and running pants all the women like wearing now to do every damn thing, like go to the bank, or concerts, or work. I didn’t know anyone who could buy a $150 pair of stretchy pants. Maybe they cost so much because people expect to wear them all the time. I don’t know. She’s dressed like someone’s mom, I guess, though looking at her I realize I don’t even know what that means. She’s wearing makeup, but not like the makeup she put on when we used to go to the club or to dinner. Her nails, which little man is grabbing, are bare and short and the hand was naked save for a thin silver band around her ring finger. I always figured Neen would want a big ring. One day I looked up the cost of rings on my phone while she was sleeping next to me in a damp tangle of legs and sheets. I said fuck so loud when I saw the $11,000 cost of one ring I accidentally woke her up.
Looking at her messing with the baby, I see a bag hanging on the stroller handles from Annie’s Candies, one of the only stores here still holding it down from back when I was younger. She probably grabbed some for those boys or for herself for nostalgia’s sake. Neen and her dad have a vicious sweet tooth. Or I say had because I think her dad died a couple years ago. I still see her mom around town sometimes but I always hang back a few steps until she doesn’t see me, mostly because I think she wasn’t really feeling me for Neen. But Annie’s—and the caramel-dipped pretzels that Neen used to make me get for her every month—explains why she’s here. I stopped up here to leave flowers for a girl I started seeing a few months ago. She works security and has a good sense of humor. Brickhouse body. It’s wrong, but I’m glad that I dropped off the flowers before I ran into Neen.
Her little dude’s looking me up and down and it occurs to me that he doesn’t look anything like her. We would joke late nights about baby names after wearing each other out. Neen would have this soft dreamy look on her face like she’d beamed down from another planet just for me and we’d whisper the names in each other’s ear.
Each more ridiculous entry would make us bust out laughing even harder into each other’s necks. Neen always smelled a little like sweat and a little like me and a little like this perfume she anointed her neck with every morning. I was never good with the names. My mom always laughs when I get her perfume on Mother’s Day because I just grab whatever looks pretty. Neen had a thing about odors. She wanted to smell like herself. Not that she could explain what that meant. It was like flowers drying in the sun, lavender maybe, something sharp and fleeting. I’d have to lean in close like she was a flower and it always made me want her even more. I’d be laughing into her neck in bed smelling her and then we’d usually start going at it again.
After one of these times, I woke up and saw Neen facing me and looking at me real serious, like furniture instructions or there was something she needed to figure out and it was complicated. I could see her shadow on the wall against a deep orange sunset.
—I would have your baby.
Her lips were parted like a peach and the light haloed her corkscrew curls. She was from another world.
I don’t know what came over me. I grabbed her and moved inside her like I was tunneling a hole to save my own life. She grabbed me when I tried to pull out and wouldn’t let go. If Neen said in that moment that she wanted me to rob a bank for her or punch somebody in the back of the head for no reason at all, I would’ve done it. Most times I felt like I couldn’t measure up to what Neen wanted, and even when I knew I was messing up I still just wanted to see her happy. I loved her.
Is Neen happy right now? Who really knows? I don’t see the worry lines on her mouth like some of the women I’ve dated lately who are stressed about working or not working because there are no fucking jobs left here unless you’re a doctor or a professor teaching somebody how to be a doctor. I guess I do alright with streets and san. I’m not even on the truck anymore, I have an office and everything. Neen always used to say that I’d be alright in life because I didn’t have a problem doing the things other people didn’t want to do. I’d clean up after my other roommates when we were in our 20s, I’d unclog Neen’s toilet in her apartment, fix things at my mom’s house. Neen would always ask me if there weren’t bigger problems I wanted to solve than those.
You could work for NASA or something, she would say real serious while we were in the tub together. I’d usually shrug. We were in the tub one night on one of those summer nights where the air’s so hot it suffocates your chest when she started talking that NASA business again and she could tell I was tuning it out. She finished her speech to me and then asked me what I thought. Did she care what I thought? Why couldn’t this be enough though? Me and Neen just loving each other and not worrying about possibilities or what ifs of anything. Things were fine. We were both working—her typing catalogs all day at that art gallery and I had the cleaning crew job at the time—both had a little money in our pockets. Food. Places to live. If this wasn’t enough, I didn’t know what else would be. But instead of just saying that, I shrugged because I was annoyed and wanted her to drop it. I knew later this was the fear talking. Plans that don’t get made can’t be broken. But in that moment, I just wanted us to stop talking about futures that I didn’t see anyone around me having.
Her mouth hardened to steel, then fired a bullet. “It’s like you don’t care about anything. Everything is just good enough.” She sucked her teeth through her perfect, angry mouth. “Maybe you’re settling for me too.”
Her mouth closed to me for a couple days after that fight. She went back to her place and I stayed in mine, and I had this weird feeling like I was watching a boat lurch away without me. But I’m planted on shore watching it go, acting like I don’t give a fuck when I do.
How do I know your mom?
I repeated the kid’s question and let it hang in the air, hazy like the cigarettes we used to smoke outside the club to sober up. I mean, it’s not like I would tell the little dude that he’s not his mom’s first kid. Neen has a look on her face like she’s not sure, like I would haul off and start talking about what it was like waiting with her at the clinic, the women with the long hair trailing their backs like brown capes who called us murderers and I raised up on one like I was going to hit her because I could see how that shit hurt Neen, how the nurses called her name to go back in the room and I couldn’t go with her even though she whispered that she wanted me to and her bottom lip started earthquaking, how her mouth was slack when the nurse walked her out of recovery or the way she was shaking. I never told anyone about how she cried when we got back to my apartment as her body tried to adjust to something that was barely there but a minute.
And I never told anyone that I know why she did it. That it wasn’t money or that it would’ve messed up her job, but that deep down Neen didn’t think I was The One and I didn’t have the words to fight her. You can’t force someone to want to be with you, even when you love them. I knew the minute she suggested the clinic that she had sailed on without me and didn’t want anything anchoring us together. And I fucking hated it, but I also wasn’t going to tell her what to do with her body.
I never told anyone those things, but I definitely wouldn’t say them to this kid. I’m hurt that Neen looks like she thinks I would.
Your mom and I know each other from school, I said and it wasn’t a lie. It was where we met. John Quincy Adams Junior High. Eighth period outside of art class by the yellow lockers. Neen looked satisfied with my answer. It was the truth but it barely touches the ways I know his mom. It’s like he asked me to tell him about the ocean. I could say basic things, salt in my mouth and the expanse of blue because I used to spend summers in California with my cousins and we’d go to the beach every day. I also know what it feels like to struggle against the water, have it overtake me, or grab me in a riptide that would’ve killed me if I’d tried to fight it. But I couldn’t tell someone those things without scaring them, or without creating more questions. If I said that I only wanted to float in it, not swim, not master it, people would think I had no heart. But it’s that I respect it. And I think what I know now that I didn’t then is that I was cool with submitting to it. I loved just being in it, or a part of it. When I was with Neen, I loved her and I loved being a part of her life. I didn’t have demands on her. I didn’t want to master her. I just wanted to love her and hear her tell me she loved me with her mouth.
But of course the next thing out of her mouth after I answered the kid is that it was good to see me in this relieved kind of way, and that they needed to go finish shopping. Her little man cocked his head and said bye and I watched them walk away from me into the rest of the mall. Lavender exhaust in her trail. From behind, she looked like a dozen other women cruising through the hall with strollers and kids. She wasn’t the Neen I recognized, but maybe I never saw who she was from the start. Maybe all I ever really knew was what came out of her mouth.
Stacie Williams is a Cleveland-based writer whose work has appeared in Bitch, LitHub, New York magazine, The Rumpus, Catapult, and The Toast. Her first book is forthcoming in 2018 as part of Fiction Advocate's AFTERWORDS series.