A Better Way     by Lauren Harriet


            Our flat was so dirty that the walls splintered under the strain of remaining white.  Tar, from cigarettes lit in worry, painted over the cracks.  A lumpy futon sat between two scavenged chairs and a busted television, a pathway cleared in the rubble so a person could walk.  Dust cloaked every surface.  Everything reeked of smoke and mildew, so badly I imagined my baby would, too. 

            My roommate tiptoed around Tommy, our cat, afraid of waking his flippant temper.  She tiptoed around the ants in the sink.  She tiptoed through the bathroom grit and over mounds of old laundry, unpaid bills and credit card offers.  Her toes pointed in dirty tiptoe dreams.  Laura tiptoed around my swelling stomach as though the summer’s humidity were expressed from my navel.  She came and went as she pleased, tiptoeing out the door so I wouldn’t wake from my tearful, oppressive rest.

            When not drowsing, I read bad poetry and lumbered to and from the bathroom.  I avoided the full-length mirror, ashamed of my new shape.  The toilet was crooked and clanked against the wall when I sat down in an unsuccessful attempt to pee.  I waddled back from the bathroom.  Tommy waited for me, his lazy eyes admiring my belly.

            Love me, he said and adjusted his tail.  Stop worrying and love me for a while.  I would gladly stroke him bald.  I ground my teeth in my need to hurt him -- I loved him so violently.

            We lay on the futon watching a movie recorded from television.  A low purr leaked from the cat’s throat as he slept.  The tape ended abruptly and I missed the privilege of cable.  I shifted my weight around the cat, not wanting to disturb his nap.

            “When will Laura get home?” I asked him, but he didn’t know.  His large black paw lay on my cheek, my feline paramour.

            I don’t care, he yawned.  His white underbelly spread as he stretched.  It’s better this way, just you and me.  I need to go outside. 

            “Sorry, bud.  You’re an inside kitty.”  I reached out to touch his head but he rolled away to lie in a patch of sun near the window.  He idly gazed outdoors, pretending he could walk through the glass to the roof outside, where three stories high, he could chase the squirrels and leaves that teased him.  I threw an empty cigarette pack in his direction, hoping he would play with me.  Instead he knocked it aside and stalked toward the kitchen.

            Tommy spent his days chewing houseplants and napping next to me.  The cat would occasionally be taken with a wild urge to knock over bookshelves or claw at the beanbag chair.  Tommy had the right to craziness, unlike myself.  I was expected to be the epitome of self-control.

            At times I wished insanity would take me like it did my mother.  The fury of mania and despair seemed better than the boredom that ruled the calendar.  I left my job as a telemarketer, uncomfortable around the dozen pregnant women chatting about clever names and formula brands.  Tommy and television weren’t enough to satisfy me.  Neither were the baby books my father bought me, nor the trifle conversation my roommate held.  I wanted to get fucked up, drink until this freeloader fell from me like a soft potato.  I wanted my body back.



            My mother had once told me that I was the reason she had never been a writer, that baby shit and a forced marriage and my father’s affairs were enough to thrash the creativity out of anyone.  “Life holds many promises,” she told me.  “That doesn’t mean they are good ones.”  A year later, she rested her head on the bottom shelf of our gas oven, lulling herself into expiration. 

            My father explained afterward that they had married due to her pregnancy, had never really known each other, and that I was the only thing they’d ever had in common.  On most nights he retreated to his office and I was left to sort through an ugly mourning by myself.  My teachers consoled me with the promise of my potential.  They came to me as surrogate mothers bearing hugs and leniency.  “With your mind,” one said, holding my hand as though it was porcelain, “you can accomplish great things.”  I told her my mind was no longer my own.

            I suppose I could have cried for my mother.  I might have thrown myself into my homework, or scribbled grief onto paper.  I could have indulged in a dim therapist and dissected my inner child until I discovered my mother’s suicide was her own problem and not mine. 

            Instead, I lay down for numerous daddies.  I memorized the patterns in many ceilings.  I wished men for myself as much as I wished them away.  I wished their grunts and pulls away from me, just as I had wished my mother away when she had shown me her rare interest.  I had never grieved for her.  Instead, I found love in the groins of unfamiliar men.



            Arturo waited for my answer to his rapping, rapping knock.  I stood at the door praying he would leave -- leave with the half-truths between us, a mass grave warm with hope. Instead, my hand caught the doorknob and pulled it open.  Tommy saw opportunity at its finest and bolted through the doorway, his rude tail behind him.

            “Leave him, Melissa, “ Arturo said.  “You spend too much time alone with that damn cat.” 

            Arturo took me in thin arms scarred by pavement and cigarettes.  My American coldness dissipated in his warm Latin smile.  He was always beautiful in the afternoon light.  Sweaty hair stood away from his scalp and pockmarked face.  His brown eyes were flat though engaging.  His shine warmed me to the temperature of brain and bone.  The color of rock and sand.  The smell of skin cooking in the sun.  His eyes darted around and through me, always avoiding the apple of my stomach. 

            Arturo led me to Laura’s bedroom where an old mattress lay on the floor.  Two boards propped on concrete blocks served as a headboard.  A fan stirred the thick air.  He sat and reached for my swollen fingers.  I went to him forgetting that he’d left me twice already.

            “I don’t feel well.”  I dug for his comfort knowing the well was long dry.  “I’m cold all the time and I can’t sleep at night.  I haven’t seen Laura in days and it hurts to pee.  This place is so dirty but I can’t get up and take care of it.”  I pulled my shirt over my stomach -- imagined my uterus deflating like a balloon.  “I’m just so tired.”

            “It’s because you sleep all day.”   

            “I told you I couldn’t sleep.  Tommy thinks I worry about silly things.  He told me I should take a walk or something.  Like I could walk in this fucking heat!  I’d swell up like a blowfish.”

            “You’re already swollen, Preggo.”  His laugh faded too quickly.  Eyebrows raised in cruel disapproval.  “So, uh, Tommy talks to you now?”

            I suddenly doubted my judgment.  “Well, I don’t know.  He tells me stuff, you know? ” 

            “No, I don’t.”

            “You’ve never had a pet that you swore smiled at you, or told you something?”  My voice trailed off.  Stupid question.

            “Like Lassie?”  He was annoyed.  He bent, untied and tied his shoes, left then right.  The silence between us was thicker than my waistline, growing faster than the thing in my womb. 

            Every question he’d ever asked me about the pregnancy was specific.  Precise.  My answers were vague.  I’d lie next to him at night and never confess my lack of sleep.  The futon groaned and pushed iron rods vengefully into our backs.  Arturo would sigh and turn to me -- sometimes cursing, sometimes praying -- gather his clothes and leave with his shoes in his hands.  Tommy would come and fill the place where my lover had been.  You don’t need him, Mel.  He just drags you down, he would say, not understanding the hunger I had to make this man mine.

            Arturo looked at a watch that wasn’t on his wrist.  “I think I should go soon.”

            “No you don’t, baby.  You promised me yesterday that you’d stay here tonight.  Sarah will be gone.”   

            “You said you hadn’t talked to her.”  He looked at my stomach, his face shifting from quiet discomfort to blatant disgust.  I wondered how he would feel if I were able to drink and dance with him, to be a carefree teenage lover, class ring and letter jacket included.  I recalled the song he played when I’d first met him playing guitar in the village, something by Paul Simon on a warm summer night before I knew I’d conceived.  “Things change, Mel.  I’m going to a party at Andy’s place tonight.  They really wanted me to be there.  I guess you can come if you want.” 

            “Go then.  Fucking leave me again.”  The familiar knot filled my throat until I grasped for air. 

            “Listen, girl.  It’s better this way.”  He reached to touch my face, his fingers recoiling at the last second.  “I love you, Melissa.”

            Arturo was leaving again, believing this child was his own.  He loved me unconditionally, except in the condition of pregnancy. 

            I schemed to trap his youth in a lie.




            Arturo died every night in my dreams.  Car accidents and food poisoning took him from me.  So did the scatter of bullets and the fervor of my father’s hands.  Maybe I needed him to soothe my guilt.  Maybe I held on knowing that I killed him every night and could revive him every sweet morning. 

            Sleep was replaced with a nebulous consciousness of the man next to me.  I never knew if I was in the clutch of dreams or the dismay of hallucination.  Everyday objects were ash, the room a vault, the sheets a noose.  The cat stayed near through my tempestuous nights.

            I once dreamed of walking through the desert, delirious with sun and exhaustion, when I came upon a pool of water.  Thirst drew me to drink.  I knelt at the pool taking what I could into my throat.  In my dream I considered a bath.  A toe touched the water and it started to stir.  It became a violent surge and I stepped back afraid of its aggression.

            “Let him go,” a voice said.  “It’s better this way.

            Arturo stood across the oasis, robed like a monk.  A ring of daisies sat on his

 head.  A slew of nude women lay dead at his feet.  He pulled his hand from his sleeve and

 motioned to the center of the whirlpool.  A baby was caught in the center -- swirling,

 sputtering, coughing, crying for its mother.  I dove in after him, snatching the cold child

 in my arms.  It’s tiny hands tangled in my hair.  I prayed Arturo would save us, but he was


            And then we were gone, drowned in our own helplessness.

            I woke at twilight drenched in sweat.  The baby kicked at my bladder.              Tommy lay next to me, eyes open, tail twitching, ears flat back on his head.  It’s better this way, he growled.  Don’t let him come back again.  You are too damn smart for this. 

            “Shut the fuck up, cat!  What do you know?”  I lashed out, kicked Tommy into the coffee table.  “Jesus Christ, I’m supposed to take advice from a goddamned animal?”  Potent fantasies of violence winked in my vision. My long-dead mother appeared in the periphery.  “Where you going, you little shit?”  Tommy was ambling away. 

            I ripped the sheet from my legs and threw it over him - fists clenched and ready to break - when I heard a key in the lock.  I let the cat go and lay down on the futon, shaking.  Laura tiptoed in, wary of my temper. 

            “Your manager called today.  I told them you were sick.”  Her light hair fell from its tie as she stooped to pet the cat.  Tommy purred and twined between her legs, his tail still puffy with nerves.  Laura sat next to me and Tommy found a safe place in her lap.  “You okay, Mel?”  Her voice was careful.

            “Yeah.  Yes.”  My hands shook.  My head spun.   “Yes, I’m fine.”




            Veins lined my stomach and breasts like a roadmap.  Hips spread in preparation for birth.  The womb held this thing unknown to me -- a giver of fever and vomit and a lover of meat and milk.  I tried not to feel anything for its tiny kicks and twists.   I could only offer it hope -- hope that I could provide, hope that I could balance my madness with some semblance of sanity.  But my will was weak, my fuses short. 

            Sometimes I viewed parenthood as an extended Hallmark card -- the sweet smell of a new baby, the joy of rediscovering sunshine and flowers during a romp in the park. Its birth would be shameful, illegitimate by society’s standards.  What is in this word? I would ask myself.  Illegitimate.  Would my child be unlawful?  Wrongful?  Criminal?  It existed due to my discrepancy and my social position would become its shackles.   Illegitimacy, I thought, is the church’s way of heaping burden on the backs of children -- guilt-ridden mothers serve life sentences.  I practiced righteous conversations about the completeness of fatherless families. 

            Arturo didn’t know yet that this wasn’t his child.  I barely understood that it was mine.  Explaining my indiscretion to him was enough to send a faulty atmosphere careening from present to past.  He told me he loved me, a loan with high interest.  His love was a check, forged and cashed.  His presence was fleeting at best. 

            I lay on the futon listening to music from the apartment downstairs.  On my back, the womb sunk into my spine and my legs went numb.  I felt better when I was uncomfortable -- painful atonement for my painful sins.

            You should be at work now. 

            “I quit my job.”

            Go to the doctor yesterday?


            Have you told Arturo about the baby?

            “No.  Go away.”

            That is not love, Mel.  This is love.   Tommy rubbed his head on my gut.

            “Please go away.”

            Three days and Arturo was still gone.  I remembered my mother’s promise. 



My cup was warm with coffee that I shouldn’t have had.  It was too hot for coffee, but I drank anyway, savoring the bitter, oily fluid as it slid down my throat.  I sat in the kitchen slumped in a chair to allow room for my extravagant stomach and tried not to remember the string of events that brought me to this place alone and pregnant and unhappy.  I closed my eyes and inhaled the smoke of a forbidden cigarette, one of Laura’s Camels that had deviously fell to the floor from her pocket.  It was stale and made me nauseous.  I wondered to myself why doctors told pregnant women that morning sickness was restricted to the first trimester.  And mornings.

The hair around my forehead frizzed wildly, and I tried to smooth it with the back of my hand.  My neck hurt.  My stomach hurt.  I felt the muscles in the abdomen strain against the baby, the baby who pushed and kicked excessively.  A soccer player, I thought.  Perhaps a gymnast.

I looked around the room and my eyes fell on an old picture of Laura and me.  It was summer then, too, and we stood, sunburned, blonde and laughing, in front of Lake Michigan.  We had owned the beach, stealing six-packs from unattended campsites and making friends with the townies.  Was it two years ago?  One year?  It was too hard to remember anymore, my memory was so selective. 

It was bedtime, past bedtime, and I was tired.  I lay on the futon and fell into a sleep  better than I had in months, without stirring, without dreaming.  Without dreaming of Arturo.

            I woke the next morning with tremors so severe that the futon rattled like dry bones.  Tommy lay on my frigid feet.  Sweaters and blankets would not make me warm.  I called my father in desperation, but he decided to call an ambulance to avoid leaving the office.  Tommy twitched nervously as the men strapped me to a stretcher and carefully maneuvered me down the stairs. 

I slipped in and out of consciousness, the sterile odor of hospital seeping into my skin, the kidney infection turning my ribcage into a vice.  The womb pushed into the liver and bladder and intestine.  Three intravenous needles trailed from one wrist and one dripped fluid into the other.  Pain seared through me as though my heart pumped hot oil instead of blood.  If discomfort were penance, I was Jesus Christ.

            Nurses came and went, changing the IV bags and talking softly to each other about my situation.  How sad it was.  No visitors, no phone calls. 

            “She’s only eighteen,” one said.  “In my day, nice girls had abortions.”

            I soon gained consciousness despite the medication and memorized the day’s television schedule.  Talk shows and infomercials kept my attention.  I loved the quiet care and did not want to leave.  I feigned illness and pain when my doctor came to see me.  She checked my vitals and reluctantly prescribed more painkillers as needed.  I assured her they were needed.

            My doctor sent me home when the Medicaid ran out.  A taxi was called, the driver looking at my bruised forearms and swollen belly with a suspicious eye. 

            “I don’t do drugs,” I explained, not knowing why I bothered.  “I had an IV.”

            She nodded with a sour look and accelerated too quickly. 

            “Are those your kids?” I asked, looking at a picture pasted over the speedometer, hungry for a decent conversation.

            “I guess.”  Her voice was throaty like she’d smoked for years.

            “I’m pregnant, you know.”  I tried to sound cheerful.  “I haven’t decided if I’m excited or not.  This was sort of a surprise.”

            “Get rid of it while you can.  You’ll fuck ‘em up just like everyone else.”  She turned a hard corner and I fell into the door.  “They took my kids from me.  All three of ‘em.  Kids mean nothin’ but trouble and bills.”

            We pulled up to the house, where my neighbor and her crude friends sipped beer from silver cans.  I paid the driver in cash, handing away the last of my savings.  I walked upstairs and unlocked the door, shaking the knob until the inner workings shook free from the lock.  The door squeaked open and Tommy ran to me, his tail waggling like a dog’s.  I nudged him away and fell, awake, into bed.



            Veins lined my stomach and breasts like a roadmap.  My hips spread in preparation for birth.  The baby was growing.  It replaced its somersaults and flutters for a gentle push on its barrier.  I lay my hands on my stomach and pictured a tiny head underneath the excess of tissue.  Tommy lay next to me in silent forgiveness.  I grieved Arturo’s absence and wept for my child’s hopelessness.  The darkness held a promise of loss.  The light held the promise of darkness.  My fingers weaved through Tommy’s fur, my pale skin against his inky coat.

            It’s better this way, he purred.  Just you and me.

            I groaned.  Tears had swollen my eyes nearly shut and made the room a blur.  Sunlight squeezed through the torn shades.  Codeine and tylenol pushed through me, a train on time in the station.

            You never needed him or his troubles.  That man made you believe in something that wasn’t true.  Love is not scripted.  Love is an action, a way of being.  One does not trip and fall into it.

            “Shh, Tommy.” My body was heavy and limp, still sore from the doctor’s prodding.

            What are you ashamed of?  Do you feel shame that your body can make life from nothing?  Do you feel shame that your breasts will bring milk, that you can nourish life?  Are you ashamed of the love you feel for a child that is part of you?  Ashamed, perhaps, that you may be unworthy of something so divine?

            “Shh, Tommy.  I really can’t hear this now.”  The tears began again.  The cat silenced me with a paw to my lips. 

            That man was never deserving of you.  He cost too much.  You have overspent on a love unrequited.  Here is your option:  love someone who is not worthy or love someone else.

            “But who will love me like this?  I’m pregnant, fucking stretched out and used.  Who the hell is going to love me now?”

            His eyes were wide and precise in my heightened state.  Surreally green. 

            I will.

            I was on my feet now, dizzy with anger.  Tommy flinched as I wrenched my arms from their numb rest.  “And what are you to me?  What the hell are you?  A fucking cat?”

            I can love you.

            My hands reached for his fat neck.  The cat’s eyes bulged from their sockets.  His hind legs kicked at my arms, scratching them raw until they stopped moving altogether.  His tail twitched and then fell still. I lay him on the floor, nauseated, yet slightly pleased, at my loss of control.            




            The cat lay dead and Arturo was not coming back.  My baby was coming.  Ashtrays were scattered on the floor.  Dirty sheets and underwear lay where they had been discarded weeks earlier.  The futon mattress needed flipping and the kitchen needed fumigating.  I left the cat alone, pretending he could sleep through the ammonia’s odor and the vacuum’s roar. 

            I stood at Tommy’s window, thinking that maybe he was right, that everything was preferable on the outside.  I lifted the sash and raised my weight to stand in the window.  Sunlight poured over me, an undeserving bath.  The leaves tickled the edge of the gutter. 

            I stood and breathed.  The baby shifted inside me, and I sensed it wondering why the light had changed so suddenly.  I crept tentatively to the edge and saw, as Tommy had imagined, a streak of squirrel and bird nest. 

            It is better this way, I thought.  I held my breath and gazed downward to the cool, calm pool of regret.

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