Author’s note: This is a follow up to my short story At Home, submitted in December 2019.
On Saturday morning, Haley took extra time in the shower. She shaved her legs and underarms, she used the vanilla scented soap that she knew Ben liked, she conditioned her hair. It had been months since she’d taken more than a quick five minute shower before getting back to Ava, their two-year-old daughter, but today was special. Today the three of them were going apple picking, and Haley had been looking forward to it all week. Being outside, with Ben, away from cell phones and TV and Ben’s work laptop, together as a family. She just knew it was going to be a perfect day, but she also knew that her high hopes could very possibly lead her to disappointment. In fact, she knew she was probably going to be disappointed in some way over the course of the day, over something Ben said or didn’t say, or something he did or didn’t do. But for once, she wanted to be optimistic. Her life over the last two and a half years had been plagued with pessimism, and that was no way to live.
After her shower, she toweled off and dressed in a new pair of (larger sized) stretchy jeans, booties, and a black sweater. She blow dried her hair, and put on a bit of makeup. Before going downstairs, she checked her reflection in the full length mirror in her bedroom, and she felt pleased, almost confident, in her appearance, a feeling she hadn’t had since before she was pregnant with Ava.
Downstairs, she found Ava attempting to climb on top of the counter. “No!” Haley cried, rushing over to her and picking her up. Ava protested loudly in her arms, because of course she did, these were the terrible twos she’d been warned about. Ben was nowhere to be found. Haley’s heart pounded. He was supposed to be watching her.
Still carrying Ava, she found Ben plopped lazily on the couch, typing on his phone. “You were supposed to be watching her,” Haley said, careful to keep her tone neutral and not show her annoyance.
“I was,” he lied. He sighed and put his phone down. Then he took a look at Haley. She felt herself blush. It was amazing how after all these years together, he could still have that effect on her. Then he said, “Are you sure you want to wear that?”
This wasn’t the reaction she’d expected. “Wear what?” she said, her voice catching in her throat.
“Just…that. All of it,” he said. “You look like you’re trying way too hard. It’s just apple picking.”
She swallowed. She would not cry. Not today. “I wanted to look nice,” she managed to say.
He laughed. “I wouldn’t bother,” he said, and she wasn’t sure if he meant not to bother because nothing could ever make her look good again, or because it was just apple picking, like he said. Her mind never stopped searching for the subtext in everything he said to her. “Go change,” he said, motioning toward the stairs that led to their bedroom, his eyes already back on his phone.
Haley said nothing, just put Ava back down and turned to go back upstairs. She put on an old pair of jeans with a stain on the knee, a t-shirt, and sneakers. When she went back downstairs, Ben made another face at what she was wearing, but this time he said nothing, so it must’ve been good enough or not worth talking about.
In the car, they rode in silence, Ben driving, Haley sitting silently in the passenger seat, Ava babbling behind them in her car seat. The radio played a pop song quietly in the background, and every few minutes, Ben’s phone chimed with a new email or text message. Haley thought about when they’d first started dating, and Ben would hold her hand while he drove, grinning, almost running red lights and stop signs because he was looking over at her.
At the apple orchard, Haley led Ava around, letting her toddle around gleefully, so curious and eager to explore the world around her. Haley lifted her up so that Ava could pick apples off the trees herself, and they both laughed at the novelty of it all, while Ben typed on his phone, lagging a few feet behind them. Haley and Ava filled their bag with perfect, ripe red apples, and inside Haley bought herself and Ben small cups of apple cider, and she let Ava take a sip of hers, watching her eyes widen when she tasted the sweet, tarty caramel colored cider. Ben finished his cider in one gulp and handed Haley his empty cup, wandering away with his eyes on his phone as he typed.
It was a perfect fall day, cool and crisp, but sunny, with not a cloud in the sky. Back outside, Haley let the sun fall over her face, closing her eyes, hoping that maybe it would heal her. She’d been waiting for the right thing to do to become clear, and it hadn’t happened yet. She was afraid of what she needed to do. Not because Ben would hurt her, not that at all, but because she knew he’d talk her out of it, and she knew this because it was what he always did.
He had, at least, stopped asking her for another baby, and she suspected that this contributed to his stony silence and his shortness with her. “Taking care of one baby is more than enough right now,” she had said one night several weeks ago, after Ava was already in bed and Ben had broached the subject again.
“But you don’t do anything,” Ben complained. When she stared back at him coldly, he said, “I just mean, it’s just feeding her and changing her, what else is there? It only takes a few minutes to do laundry or sweep or whatever. I don’t even know how you spend all those hours with nothing to do.”
“There’s plenty to do,” she said softly.
“Whatever,” he said, dismissing her, as he always did. “I just don’t see what the problem is. I thought you wanted a big family.”
“Yeah, that was before I had a baby and figured out what it was like. I mean, maybe one more, in a couple more years, but…not now. Not like this.”
He frowned. “Not like what?”
She gestured between the two of them. “Not while our marriage is like this. You barely seem to like me anymore. Why do you want to have another baby with me?”
He didn’t seem to know what to say. She had never said anything like this to him, only thought it in her head, afraid of what his response might be. But now it was out, and she couldn’t suck the words back in.
“Of course I like you,” he said, going over to her and putting his arm around her shoulders. “I can’t believe you would think that. I love you.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she just said, “Okay. I love you too,” and rested her head on his shoulder for a brief moment before he got up and went back to his laptop. But she continued to reject Ben’s advances, and eventually, he stopped trying. That was a couple of months ago.
The obvious solution, she knew, was to go on birth control. But doing that and not telling him felt somehow immoral and wrong. She wasn’t good at being dishonest.
Haley left Ava with Ben and went into the restroom. She turned on the sink and splashed cool water on her face. She stared at her reflection looking back at her, wondering what was so different now. She was the same girl she was before, even if she wasn’t really a girl anymore but a fully grown woman with a child of her own. What could she do to be the girl she was before? The girl Ben liked, not the one he merely tolerated?
Nothing, she thought, realizing it for the first time herself. She would never be the same now. She had to come to terms with it. Life had changed too much. Ben had changed, too, but in a different way. Being a parent had made Haley feel soft and vulnerable, like her soul became more gentle when she became a mother, and she understood something she hadn’t before, and she didn’t know what it was, it was a nameless feeling from deep inside her. Ben had become cold. He loved Ava, but at the same time, he wanted nothing to do with her. His job, he seemed to think, was to smile in family photos and then immediately hand Ava back to Haley. She could count on one hand the number of diapers he’d changed, or the number of times he’d gotten up to feed Ava in the middle of the night when she was an infant and she cried all night, every two hours, you could practically set your watch by the times of her cries. It was better now, thankfully, Ava had become a surprisingly good sleeper, but Haley never forget how tired she’d been, and how little Ben had cared.
Haley grabbed some paper towels and dabbed her face dry. She’d forgotten that she put on makeup that morning, and now mascara was running down her checks, leaving dark gray streaks on her face. She wiped it off and went back outside, where Ben and Ava were waiting for her. “What were you doing in there?” Ben asked her, noticing her blotchy face.
“Nothing. Going to the bathroom,” she replied. “Are you ready to go?”
Ben looked surprised. “Yeah. Yeah, sure,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
In the car, she stared out the window at the autumn leaves, letting the colors blur before her in flashes of red, orange, golden yellow.
“Do you remember the first time you met my parents?” she asked.
Ben chuckled. “Yeah. Yeah, I remember. We’d been dating for, what, six months?”
She nodded. “Yeah.” Then she laughed to herself. “And they made us sleep in separate bedrooms.”
Ben laughed. “I forgot about that. But then we’d go into the kitchen after they went to bed and play that dumb song we liked on repeat, and we danced around the kitchen until we were tired enough to sleep.”
Haley smiled. “I can’t believe you remember that,” she said.
“Yeah, of course,” he replied. “It was fun.”
Haley felt warm inside. Those old feelings felt fresh in her mind. She remembered those nights so well, like they’d just happened and were newly shaped in her memory. She liked knowing that he remembered, too.
Late that night, Haley laid in bed, lost in thought. She was laying on her back with her arms behind her head, staring at a spot on the ceiling. Ben was downstairs on his laptop. He’d be to bed soon, he’d said when she’d gone upstairs. She didn’t know what that meant.
She picked up her phone from her bedside table and opened Spotify. When she found the song she was looking for, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. From where she stood at the foot of the stairs, she could see Ben’s furrowed brow as he typed, the laptop keys clicking with each tap of his finger.
She crept into the kitchen and placed her phone on the counter. It was so quiet, she was almost hesitant to disturb it.
“Hey,” Ben said from behind her. “What are you doing? I thought you went to bed.”
She didn’t reply, just tapped the Play button on her phone. The song they’d danced to at midnight at her parents’ house in the refrigerator light rang out, loud enough for him to hear it and know what it was, but not loud enough to wake Ava.
She looked at him, eyes wide, hoping. Hoping that he would take her hand and grab her and swing her around the kitchen like he had before, when she thrown her head back as he dipped her and laughed and laughed, trying to muffle her giggling so that it wouldn’t wake her parents.
Ben recognized the song immediately, and he gave her a small smile. Then he turned around and went back into the living room, leaving Haley alone in the darkness.