ANGLE OF RETURN
By Gena Ellett
Every Monday since I moved in with Luke eight months ago, I walk his daughter to school and we play badminton along the way. Kendra is eight years old and sweet with tangled hair and an easy toothless grin. She stays with us half the week. Her room is next to ours so sometimes Luke covers my mouth during sex so she won’t hear us, and instead he whispers in my ear baby baby baby. Like a spell. Afterwards I fall asleep with the blanket clenched between my teeth. An old habit.
In high school I never made my boyfriend wear a condom. It wasn’t out of ignorance or stupidity. I understood the risks. I volunteered at a Planned Parenthood clinic for a couple years and sat through four years of sex-ed, even took part in those activities where they paired us, boy-girl, and had the girls stand and stare into the boys eyes and say “I won’t let you come inside me without a condom on.” Everyone else had laughed through the whole thing, but not me.
At first it was exciting. And then it felt like it’d gone on for too long for me to suddenly stop and say hey, we should probably use something. And then after a few months, it was something else. I’d decided I wouldn’t get pregnant and my body had listened. I felt so calm, powerful even, like a body of water. It was a divine secret. I didn’t tell anyone. Still haven’t. Not even Luke.
The last morning I walk her to school is in early October. The kind of grey white morning where the sidewalks seem extra bare, everyone far off in beds. “You missed,” Kendra calls to me. I look down at my feet where the birdie turns in a half circle, losing momentum. She told me once that she hated being the first kid dropped off and the last kid picked up. I told her we liked to avoid the rush but then I went right out and bought her the rackets and a pack of birdies. The deal is: twenty steps towards school, two passes back and forth.
“Sorry sweetie. Must be half asleep still.” I pass back to her and she jumps to catch the birdie in the air. She turns and starts counting out her steps, stopping to yank her leggings up and kick a pinecone onto the street.
“No coffee no talkie. That’s what my mom says. Nineteen, Twenty.” She waits for me to walk ahead before throwing the birdie in the air.
“That’s funny. Your mom’s funny.” It always takes her at least three tries.
“Are you going to have a baby?” She doesn’t look at me.
“That’s a big question.”
“What’d he say, exactly?”
“That you’re having a baby. A brother or sister for me. Hopefully sister.”
We count our steps together. This morning in the dark of our room, the blanket still clenched between my teeth in sleep and in comfort, Luke asked why nothing was happening. He sounded concerned. I told him these things take time, and I felt like a body of water again but I wasn’t sure whether I was rising or sinking. If maybe I was wrong all along, about my power, about who chose.
“Lisa Chan at school has four sisters and they fight all the time.” She waves her racket in my face and grabs my hand to pull me forward.
“What do they fight about?”
“Everything. Lisa says they steal her books and rip the pages out. And she never gets to decide anything.”
“Are you worried about that?”
“No. Sixteen, Seventeen…”
What would I tell my daughters if I had them? One or two, god forbid three or four. Would I tell them to hold onto all those small secrets of their own for as long as they could? That you have to be careful when you start loving someone else because suddenly your choices aren’t entirely your own, your body becomes a shared space, the old deals you made with it become cumbersome or useless or even regretful. You lose those secrets like glass beads in a creek bed.
I throw the birdie in the air and I hit it hard. It ricochets off the sidewalk out into the road and Kendra hops after it without hesitation. I think I’m moving upwards, but how can I be sure?
I don’t hear the truck until it’s too late. She must have been humming to herself. It’s swift and I’m too far away. I’m bolted down and she hums away from me. The truck speeds on and my heart pounds, even though I don’t ask for either.
My insides are black ice and the whole scene veers away from me and just as quickly my body is in motion. It moves without me.
It launches forward and I see the purple of Kendra’s sweatshirt disappear behind the row of parked cars and I’m after her, I’m between the cars and on the road, my hand raised palm flat STOP MY DAUGHTER STOP.
The truck slams on its breaks. I can’t see her, fast fast the driver is screaming on the road. In a moment she is gone a million times.
If I’m sinking, couldn’t I find calmness in a dry riverbed? Pulse louder than anything, hands still raised, I walk in front of the stopped truck.
She is crouched on the road beside it, the birdie clutched in her hand. The driver’s mouth moves and he waves his arms in front of me but I push past him.
What they say is true: your body will know what to do.
Close by, my love sleeps. His daughter catches her breath and reaches out for me. Would I tell them about the pressure and darkness of this place? That the weight of it’s unimaginable?