Romance American Fiction

“I'm sorry...for the last two weeks.”

My statement filled Terri’s entryway like a whistle through an empty office.

Terri drew a breath he meant to form into words. None came. As our counselor had suggested, he was slowing down to run his thoughts through a kindness filter. I loved Terri's unique ability to set pride aside and act on another’s advice. Humility conflicts with American culture's current interpretation of “have it all—now”.

My new decision conflicts even more.

When Terri was able to keep his voice even, he said, "You ghost on me and show up now?”

"I had to think."

“About what? What happened at that party, Nola?"

My focus was tethered to a spot on the living room carpet. I had scrubbed the stain twice last year, but it was now a permanent mark by his foyer—a reminder that I can’t control everything.

I rubbed my arm, risking a glance in Terri's direction. His shoulders were set, but he held his weight to one side. 

I twisted the white-gold band around my finger, wondering if I would be wearing it tomorrow. “I met someone there—”

“What? Another guy?”

“N-no, not that.”

Terri leaned closer. I bit my lip at my failed attempt to articulate.

A heavy sigh pushed through his nose. “Just give me anything but silence. Even my friends say you don’t talk.”

“I’m sure they do.”

“If you want to get to know people, you have to engage in a conversation. Just chat them up—”

Terri went on to explain the basics of conversing with strangers as if I had somehow missed learning that skill in thirty years of life. My fists tightened. Even recalling our counselor’s words about patience couldn't silence the memories of the "quiet" label I had hoped I left behind at college.

Before Terri finished, I said, “I know how to, I just don’t want to. It's not that I hate your friends—”

“Then why?”

Pressure built behind my eyes. I hated how anger morphed its way into tears during each discussion of this particular subject.

“Because all they talk about is babies.”

Terri straightened, his blond eyebrows nearing his hairline. “Babies?”

I could imagine his questions before he voiced them: Why wouldn’t a woman want to talk about babies? Why not change the subject? Why not talk to someone else?

I willed my tears away. “You’re lucky you’ll never know what it’s like. Men don’t talk much about their kids.”

“Okay, so talk to the guys. They don’t mind.”

I threw my hands up. “And how long until the women give me an even better adjective? What will it be, I wonder? Home-wrecker? Hussy?”

A wrinkle worked between his eyes as he leaned into the wall. “They wouldn’t do that. Try talking to them and see—different topics until you find something in common.”

“You try getting a bunch of moms off the topics of diapers and breast pumps with ten munchkins squealing around your legs.”

“I guess…”

For too many ticks of the wall clock, silence claimed the moment. Terri’s sofa reflected that warm glow of morning, reminding me of all the times we had cuddled under the ratty throw. I wished I could forget my epiphany and lead him back to that place of comfort. It wasn’t fair to lie after keeping him waiting. 

It was my move. Honesty lingered at the back of my throat, but my heart clenched in fear of the aftermath.

I said, “I realized something that night.” I hoped he didn’t hear the catch in my voice. To his credit, he waited for me to elaborate. “You know I’m undecided about kids, but…well, that night—”

Terri shifted his weight. Even I didn’t know how I expected him to respond, so I allowed an honest recount of the event to flow free.


Of the fifty or so people present at the housewarming party, I recognized four. A large fraction still wore diapers or scattered bits of finger foods through the main floor. I was grateful I wouldn’t have to clean it. Scents of plug-in cinnamon drifted along with the chatter of kindred spirits and shared paths. 

I stood by a vegetable tray alone.

Women lined the dining room and kitchen, giggling and smiling down at sticky faces. I caught the moment one woman placed a pickle slice into a child’s mouth. Other women smiled and asked the boy if he wanted another. Pride gleamed through their expressions.

I abandoned the carrots to make my way across the shined hardwoods. To my right, I picked up pieces of the woes of daycare food allergies. To my left, I caught the words “stretch marks”. 

Muted but hearty laughter filled me with hope. I spied Terri on the deck through a window, a sweating glass in hand, his head thrown back at a comment made by his best friend.

Floating back to his side so soon would be cowardly. Leaving would spoil his fun, although I had driven myself. Instead, I had been forcing myself to converse—to get used to this environment in which Terri thrived. The effort was worth it for the man who appreciated my preference for sweets over alcohol and bought me framed flowers that would never wilt.

Two random squeals for dessert came from behind me. I spied the fathers gathered a safe distance away from the demands of those less than four feet tall. It was likely I had already exhausted the time deemed appropriate to converse with them. I sighed and found my way down to the basement. 

The scene there had me freezing on the bottom step.

A slender woman stood alone in the middle of a carpeted sitting area. A baby with the same striking ginger hair played at her feet. The little girl was gurgling and inspecting colored foam blocks, banging them together with contented squeaks. I witnessed the child in my peripheral; my attention was on the mother. 

I knew her posture and expression. I had to know more. Mama raised her head when I neared, dark shadows prominent under her eyes.

“A handful at that age, right?” I said.

Mama shrugged a shoulder. “Seems so.”

The baby grinned and reached up to her mother. A string of saliva joined a chubby hand with the child’s toothless mouth. Mama accepted the extended object and sighed as if questioning her next move. I had seen how other mothers reacted in this same instance: celebrate mediocrity and feign exuberance.

When I held eye contact with Mama again, reality sparked a mini adrenaline rush through me. 

I could be her in a couple of years: still alone even with a connection to other mothers crawling about my feet. I didn’t want to feel indifference to a precious life just discovering the wonders of the world. Who was I to follow along with a predetermined definition of progress that doesn’t fit me? 

It would be wrong to blindly follow—to take that next step of supposed progress at the expense of a new life. I didn’t hate children; I just didn’t possess that maternal desire. The hollow shell of a woman standing before me was proof of internal fears I had yet to name. Instincts don’t always kick in as others had assured me. It was time to embrace the fact that I am and always will be separate from most other women.

This time, I couldn’t blame my silence on immaturity. Moving forward, this was me.

My hand found my keys, so comforting in my pocket. 

I left.


“That’s it?” Terri said. Relief rang through his question, sending an equal part of calm through me.

I hugged my arms. “Don’t say it like that. It’s a big deal.”

“So you don’t like talking about kids. I get it.”

He didn’t get it. My chest felt too small for my struggling heart. How could I clarify a woman's place to this man who encouraged me to celebrate my differences?

This decision would follow me for the rest of my life.

Some cultures still believe childrearing is a woman's only purpose. I have secretly thanked God that I was born into a country where women have a choice, even if their decisions brand them.

Terri didn't have to be branded along with me. I couldn’t look at him without tears spilling over.

“Babe, hey,” he said.

The next sensation I had was Terri’s arms wrapping around me—too gentle for his build. I didn't want this to be the last time I felt it.

He rubbed my back and said, “It’s okay. We don’t have to go to those parties too often.”

“It’s not that…”

“Then tell me.”

I held my arms around myself as he folded over me. My left hand clenched until the symbol of our love bit into my finger.

“I don’t want kids! Ever. I don’t…I don’t have it. Whatever other women feel for them, I don’t. I tried…I just—”

“Shhh, it’s fine, babe. We don’t have to.”

My body convulsed as I sniffed, but I was determined to make him understand without manipulating him.

“All your friends have them or want to. How can you be okay with it?”

Terri slid away to rest his hands on my shoulders. I didn’t want him to see my moistened cheeks or my scrunched eyes.

He said, “Hey, look at me for a sec.”

I shook my head. He kept talking.

“I proposed to you. Whatever’s ahead, I want you with me. Kids or not.”

I nodded but didn’t let his words steal my resolve to make him understand. “What if you change your mind in a few years?”

“Well, that would be crappy of me.”

“And you’re okay with people asking us why we never had them?”

“Are you kidding? Some of my friends already envy our vacations because they can’t take them anymore. No more snowboarding for Sam or guy trips with Jake.”

A glimmer of hope made its way to my chest. Was Terri delusional or unable to absorb the full weight of what our future could be? How did I even begin to describe what I knew was coming: the sneers, the lack of common ground, the exclusion because we no longer fit into the parental crowd?

“Besides,” he said, “who knows if we could even have them? You know how many times I’ve taken a cleat to the nuts?”

The smile in his voice tricked me into lifting my face. He was trying to hide his lighter attitude, but the love in his eyes poured into me. If I was having this conversation with any other man, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But Terri, I believed in full.

What did he have to lose? He was the successful one. I brought an acceptance of his loud nature and tolerance of his shoddy table manners. To me, they were the rough edges of a kind and supportive soul.

Gazing up at him now, my tears vanished. The “quiet” label lifted from me, and the future label of "childless" lost its bite. If my friends continued to fall away after having their first baby, I now knew where I would be.

I would be laughing beside Terri on the Caribbean shores, sharing in a grand adventure of our own creation.

February 16, 2021 16:20

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.