The game show-like voice came through the speakers above her head, it was announcing ongoing sales in the supermarket but the enthusiasm was out of place and out of time. She was already in the lineup so the price of local carrots was a moot point now. There were only two other people in the queue before her so she knew it wouldn’t be much longer but the day had already been long and she was tired.
The till next to hers had five wilting humans waiting, likely due to the young girl doing the bagging, she was new and hadn’t realized what this summer job entailed when she handed in her resume.
Pushing her basket forward with the toe of her sandal, she saw her old friend Lynda was on shift today. She looked bagged and harassed to one who knew her, though the beaming smile kept its place as if glued on. They’d gone to high school together a metaphorical hundred years ago and while they’d been friendly for years their lives had gone in opposite directions.
Looking around the brightly lit store Val took in the wooden floors and aisle signs above. Her eyes searched the faces of her fellow shoppers as she pretended to check out the candy selection to her right. There were all kinds in this neighbourhood she observed wryly. She hadn’t lived around here for over 10 years but this most recent visit home had brought her in. A hastily written note from her mom late morning had her popping in on her way back from a somewhat boozy lunch at the lakeside restaurant.
Something about the man in front of her unloading his basket onto the moving rubber belt caught her attention. She watched him unpack six dozen eggs, a large jar of mayonnaise, and two russet potatoes. ‘That’s going to be one hell of a potato salad’ she sniggered internally. Her lips twitched though and due to their fullness and colour he couldn’t help but notice.
“Does something amuse you, lady?” He barked while pulling the last carton out. Val just shook her head and bowed it, determined to hide the sparkle in her eyes. He thanked Lynda and told her he’d see her again the following week before striding to the glass door, flinging it open. While she watched him pass the front windows Val picked up her basket from the floor.
“He makes egg salad sandwiches for homeless people Val, he’s really a nice guy just a little eccentric is all. Anyway, what are you doing in town, I haven’t seen you in years.” Lynda reached into the large green plastic carrier to reach the selection as Val relayed that she had moved to the city at 18 to attend UBC. She had decided on marketing and public relations as a major. After graduation, she traveled as an agent for a touring company to learn the trade.
Tapping her credit card to pay Val, she realized she hadn’t asked Lynda what she’d been doing for the last decade.
“What have you been up to since grad? Did you ever get out of this one-horse town to just look around?” Her hands were busy with the bags and didn’t really find Lynda’s eyes as she asked.
“No, Val. I got pregnant with my Michael at nineteen, married his daddy, and went on to have two more before the bastard left. My parents need constant care and my siblings both bolted before the ink on their certificates was dry. So, no I never fled this one-horse town.” Her fingers formed air quotes as she spoke about the city, but Val couldn’t get her mind past the three children part of the sarcastic and sad response to what had been, let’s face it, a purely polite question.
“Oh, god I’m so sorry Val, about your parents I mean. Mine both seem reasonably healthy. I never managed to have children, I” she broke off as she met the angry dark eyes of the person behind her in line. She’d apparently taken up too much time already. She looked deep into Val’s eyes for the first time and was struck by the combination of anger and confusion.
“Look, I’m in town for a couple more days, can we meet, please?” She pleaded without consciously understanding why. Writing her cell on a ripped-off portion of the paper bag, she handed it across the belt and strode away. The next step was Val’s and who knew where that would lead?
Hours later she was sitting with her mother at the same kitchen table she’d taken meals on since kindergarten. They’d prepared and served dinner together and were now having a cup of tea, the heat emanating through the cup was at odds with the humidity coming through the screen door three feet away. Val peered at her mom through the steam, a quick scan took in wrinkled skin, loosened muscles, and fading freckles. She wondered to herself as she scooped a spoonful of fruit salad, whether her mom had ever wanted anything besides a family.
“Mom, can I ask you something?”
“Of course dear, what is it?”
“Did you grow up wanting children, a husband, and all the trappings?”
There was a pause, and a sensitive might say a chill before her mother answered.
Val waited for more, an assurance that she was okay with the end result, that she didn’t mind the girl and four boys that came along through the years, that it was all she ever wanted. It didn’t come.
“Just no, that’s all? I’ve been feeling so bad about not being able to have children for years. I thought there was something wrong with me, you know, mentally and physically. I never considered that some women out there didn’t want them at all.”
“Val, every woman is different, and every woman is different in each part of her life. I’ve been crying in my soul since you told me about the test results. I love you, you’re my daughter but sweetheart, having children is not all a woman is good for. Consider for a minute all the women around the world that have babies they can’t take care of, or the ones who got pregnant through rape or bizarre religious beliefs. I understand that not being able to have babies was a blow for you, but you have the means to help women that can have them but can’t afford them.”
Val could see Lynda in her mind’s eye and wondered if she had the same answer to the question as her mom had. Rising from the table she planted a kiss on her mom’s forehead and thanked her for the honesty and chat. On her path towards the patio door, she planted another on her father’s oily pate. Her cell and debit card were still in the back pocket of her shorts and so she drifted out the front door of a house she’d been leaving every fiscal quarter for a decade.
Wandering down the block she let her mind roll back to 1990, she’d been so full of hope and ambition then. Her only desire was to split this town. It wasn’t a bad place really, no crime she admitted. The city she resided in now was fifty times more dangerous. The risk here was the slow dive into nothingness, the post high school oblivion. Was that worse for a soul than worrying about dying on the way to the local café? Her feet took her towards where she knew Lynda used to live though she wasn’t really sure why.
Her toes were pushing against the end of her canvas sneakers but she kept walking. It was like she had a mission in her heart but the rest of her hadn’t been informed. It just followed along to see what was going to happen. Her eyes scanned the numbers, walking along the concrete until she found the right combination.
She took up a position on the sidewalk in front of the house. It was a small place estimated at about nine hundred square feet, not including the porch out front. Her presence had caused some interest next door and as per neighbourhood protocol, the phone inside the house pealed. It was only seconds later that the old screen door creaked open and Lynda stood there.
A few seconds later she was flanked by two blonde girls about eight years old, and one boy about ten. He was beautiful Val thought. His features were a combination of his mother, her sweet dimples and mobile mouth, and the disturbingly moss green eyes of his father.
“Hey Lynda, I was just out for a walk, wondered if you’d taken up your daddy’s place. Are these the kids? Hey y’all, I was a friend of your mom’s way back in high school.” She was smiling at them all but her gaze kept returning to the boy. Lynda was watching her from the wooden porch, she’d led the girls to the swing on the left side and held her son, a wiry arm across his narrow chest, against her. He was a shield of some kind Val thought wryly but a weapon at the same time.
He had ‘his’ eyes Val realized with a shaft of pain in her heart. There was really nothing she could do, she was just an ex, nothing in this situation if you wanted to be harsh. The two women though, facing off against each other knew the truth. A decade ago, almost to the day, Josh had broken up with Val after three years because she refused to go all the way, he’d paid an unwanted visit to Lynda the same night.
No one knew for sure why she had taken him in after what was rape in any other situation. What was it about him that touched her soul? When they got married the day Val left for University, the fetus already setting Lynda’s future in West Coast concrete, her existence had gone from hope to reconciliation.
Val’s eyes fought against the tears, her throat ached with unspoken, irreverent thoughts. She was fighting a losing battle here. Her conscious asked her in a sarcastic tone what she actually thought she’d do here, what rights did she think she had? Was she really thinking about coming to take the son? Did she seriously think that Lynda would bend down before her and praise her for her charity? Did she honestly think that just because she couldn’t have children that she could just take one at this stage?
Lynda stood on the deck, her once ‘kick-ass’ body deflated, her lips pale and chapped, eyeing Val with a renewed hatred. This woman, she thought comes to my house, my messy, barely paid-for place, and smiles at my children. Her hair is perfect, her toes recently pedicured and her ‘casual’ outfit probably costing way more than the local women’s auxiliary selections. What does she even want here? Her ears heard the greetings to the twins, her eyes saw the barely disguised yearning in the hello to her son.
She recalled, all of a sudden hearing about Val’s struggles with fertility, her many visits to a UVF clinic, and the sad results. Her womb throbbed in sympathy, her children had come to her easily, unbidden, or not. It had never occurred to her in all the years of raising them that there were women out there wanting what she had and didn’t always have the energy for.
She stepped down the wooden slats and when she reached Val, she took her in her arms and hugged her. They wept together, somehow knowing what each other was dealing with. They realized as the tears flowed that there was a slew of sayings and tenets but none of them seemed to fit. They just held each other, made some teary promises, and dried their faces.
Val understood that it was strange to want what someone else wanted no matter how little it actually fit into one’s present life, she gave Lynda one last squeeze and drifted back to her parent’s house promising to keep in touch. Lynda took her kids into the house and went through the bedtime regime before sitting down with a glass of wine. Her mind drifted to the last five years, and while she acknowledged there’d been some hard times raising the three kids on her own, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
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