Well, goodness, I am finding it hard to tell you this, but if I don't, who else will? Going against all my proper English upbringing of not drawing attention to oneself or tooting one's own horn (mother would also not have approved of the word 'tooting'), I am forced to let you know that, well, that I placed third in a short story contest. Phew, there, I said it. Sorry to bring it up and all, but, you know, one is trying to make a living here. And the nice people over at Wordhaus and The Write Practice were kind enough to like one of my scribbles.
Okay, modesty over. You wanna read it? Well, be good enough to increase Wordhaus and the Write Practice's traffic by clicking over to them and having a look around, and then make yourself a quick cuppa and come back here.
It’s a practiced flick of the wrist, a tension of the forearm, that gets the door open and the stroller inside the Starbucks before the wind slams it on her. Hannah hates to do it, but must look over at the chairs and couches; must meet the eyes of those already there, their eyes filled with dread at the thought of getting hit by the stroller when—if—she dares to carve out a space for herself in their domain.
Chloe waves an arm; Hannah calculates to within a millimeter whether the cafetières displayed on the lower shelves are in any danger. Their elegant lines of glass and metal, so fine and delicate, products of a universe unrelated to Hannah and to Chloe’s solid little fist. And yet here she is, intruding herself upon their world, again, as if she has any right to be there.
Despite this, there she stays, accepting her lowly status as she has done for three years, since her hands first wrapped themselves around that stroller handle (or rather, not that one, the single one she used for ten short months until Max came along), since she first learned what they didn’t tell you in Lamaze class: that your physical presence in a room is allowed to be only so big, and if you try and increase it with children and their paraphernalia, you are judged in a hundred separate, invisible, incontrovertible ways by the others, the better people, the ones speeding through doors with their compact laptops in compact leather pouches, their whole life fitting into nine inches by eleven.
People, she imagines, like Miles. Who can now be that person every day that she does not demand he have the children, who can always bring his mother over to take over if he ever finds his previous self intruding, that child-toting, minivan-driving stranger he left behind when he informed her he “just couldn’t handle it” and moved into a condo in Westfield.
The door opens again; she hears a familiar voice and is swept with relief. The voice is unnecessarily loud, talking on a cellphone, but it belongs to someone like her, someone taking up too much space, with a stroller like a Ford Expedition: Louise, whom she met at toddler group and whom everyone immediately gave to her as the answer to all her problems. She’s divorced, they said, like you, and sailed back to their happier, married, less complicated friends.
Louise seems to take up more space even than Hannah. It’s the voice. Or the fact that she’s telling the person on the other end of the phone about Angelina’s triumph at interpretive dance the other day. Angelina is five. Louise looks up and catches Hannah’s eye. “Oh, hi!” she says, as if they are all the way across the room from each other, instead of one slightly deafened customer apart. Then she’s back to the phone. “Listen, gotta go, got to feed the caffeine addiction. I’ll talk to you later, ok?” She presses the button with one hand and pulls a mug out of Angelina’s hands with the other. “Good to see you!” Louise says. “Angelina, leave that alone. Paige, don’t tear the book; it’s for reading.”
Hannah says to the man in between them, “Would you like to go in front of me?” He doesn’t need asking twice, though there is some maneuvering needed for him to get past her stroller.
“Oh, much better,” says Louise, closing the gap and giving Hannah a kiss. “Haven’t seen you for ages.” It has been two weeks, but two weeks is a long time in their world.
“This is the first time we’ve been out in a week.” There are days when the thought of dragging herself and the children and the bags and toys and wheels that have to come with them is too much, and she tells herself that Chloe feels a little warm, or Max hasn’t slept well the night before, and she cancels playdates and instead teaches Chloe how to bake cookies or make macaroni and cheese from scratch, while Max sits in the saucepan cupboard and creates spaceships for his lego people out of the lids.
Hannah orders her caramel macchiato. Max is still sleeping. Chloe shouts “Pop!” and points to the pinkest thing in the display case; Paige, in Louise’s behemoth of a stroller, echoes her with her limited two-year-old syllables. Hannah buys four.
Louise says, “Angelina, go find somewhere to sit,” reaches into her bag and pulls out an iPad. Chloe, her large brown eyes homing in on it, strains and whines at her straps until Hannah reluctantly sets her free. Chloe is usually happy to sit, sucking on the ends of the braids she loves Hannah to put in her hair, and watch Angelina play; Hannah predicts that they will only bang into the knees of one or two people before they find a seat to squeeze into.
“Wow, he’s out,” says Louise, leaning down to look at Max in his horizontal cave.
Hannah picks up her coffee. “Yeah. I shouldn’t have brought him out during his naptime, really, but—”
“Oh, woulda coulda shoulda,” Louise dismisses the rest of her sentence. “If I’d listened to that voice, you think I would have ever thrown out Mr. Anderson?”
Her ex-husband is not called Mr. Anderson. This is the name she has given him to throw Angelina off the scent of who she is really talking about. Every time she does, Angelina looks at Hannah with what Hannah is sure is a give-me-a-break face. Louise has the edge on Hannah because she has an older child, but Hannah has been divorced for longer: it has been barely six months for Louise. Hannah remembers her feelings then: there was nothing she wouldn’t have said in front of her kids once she got going.
Miles left just when she had been thinking of going back to work, of trying two daycare payments, so that she could regain some of her own identity unattached to the tiny beings who enveloped her all day. Now her hours with the children mean that she can only work part-time, answering phones at a local marketing company. Mindless work, again taking up space somewhere she doesn’t belong. Her career had been fulfilling, and had demanded her full-time concentration. Where would she be today if Miles hadn’t left?
Huh. As this thought crosses her mind, she notices that she doesn’t feel the usual squeeze of frustration, of despair, in her gut. She tries again; focuses on a man about Miles’ age who is sitting in the couch by the window, reading a book and man-spreading something fierce. If it weren’t for Miles leaving me, she begins, I would have… I would be… But she can’t muster the anger.
“Shift yer butt, Hannah,” smiles Louise, pushing past her. Hannah follows her to where Angelina and Chloe have found a spot on the other end of the couch and now sit, heads together, faces lit by the one screen. Louise is already in the circle of the couch and chairs, picking up Angelina, depositing herself on the couch and plopping the girl down on her lap in one motion. There is almost room for Hannah next to her; the hipster dude at the end just needs to stop man-spreading and there’ll be room, if Hannah tries.
Miles has lost his power to upset her, she realizes. She probes the feeling again, like a tooth that might be cracked. What kind of life would she be living now, she thinks again, if he hadn’t left? What kind of woman would she have been? She holds her coffee close to her, gazing at the two children and her friend, aware of the slumbering presence of Max next to her.
She wants this, she understands now. She wants to have sole control over what her children do and eat and learn and read, bar eight days a month. She wants that job answering phones, because it gives her time to think about things she has discovered she likes, like cooking, and braiding Chloe’s hair in new and exotic ways. She wants not to be married to Miles. She wants to be able to meet her friend in a coffee shop at two o’clock in the afternoon. She wants these things, and, she sees now, she has just as much right to them as Louise, as every one of the people in this couch clique she thought so impenetrable before. People who, she guesses, have just as many uncertainties and questions as she, but who respect themselves enough to take a seat when it is available.
She smiles sweetly, but not apologetically, at the man-spreader, and sits down. He smiles back automatically, then looks at her harder; his smile widens, and he makes room.
(c) 2015 Kimberley Ash
Kimberley Ash is a British ex-pat who has lived in and loved New Jersey for twenty years. When not writing romance, she can usually be found cleaning up after her two big white furry dogs and slightly less furry children. Her first novel, Breathe, is now available from Crimson Romance. Her trilogy, The Van Allen Brothers, was released by Tule Publishing in 2019.