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Bête Noire

by Heather Sartin

Strangers started touching my belly last week before Gene took notice. Everyone wished me well. Their hands gravitated from shelves and purses and pockets to reach out to me. They asked if I was married. They insisted on names. The strangers in the convenience store inquired about my weight gain and my cravings and my mood swings. It was clear they were asking the wrong questions, but it was too late in the conversation to correct them. Everyone suddenly thought they knew what I was up to, and everyone wanted a piece. When the strangers started coming out of the woodwork, Gene always needed something from the other side of the store and claimed he would be right back. Give us girls some time to talk.

My body became a toxic mystery. The blue-hairs recommended remedies from their grandmother’s grandmother’s past, but all I wanted was to hide in the back of the cupboard, maybe slip out when the moment presented itself. Sometimes I had a recurring dream of being just one person again; I could choose my ice cream alone in the aisle.

In different rooms, most with similar smells, I was given pamphlets to describe the experience. They expected me to feel love right away. I was expected to do and say and feel. This went on for months. I was an emotion machine now. The highest expectation is that I would keep up. What the pamphlets didn’t mention was how it was clawing away at me from the inside. The magazines failed to note how it was actually chipping a hole through my uterine wall and would climb out in my sleep and run through the neighborhood in the middle of the night like a bastard thief. When I pointed this out to Gene he didn’t follow. When he pressed his big-knuckled hands against my belly he couldn’t feel it at all, but he gushed to his family over the phone about my showing, my glowing skin. These words prompted me to vomit by the bedside.

He simply said, “Hold on, ma, Lisa has morning sickness again. Can I call you back? Yeah, I’ll tell her.” Whatever it was she told him, he told me, too. I always wished he hadn’t.

In the last room we visited, the doctor didn’t hand me anything. There was light pouring in from the glassed-in overhead rafters. Gene mostly looked at the floor. The nurse turned off the ultrasound machine and closed the door behind her. I wiped the medical jelly out of my belly button and pulled my shirt down. I wanted to tell him that wishing too hard led to disappointment—something not capable of sound. Even when it came out cold, I could still hear its hands and feet hitting the pavement like an animal galloping away from me under the black sky, joyously. No one had to write it down; I knew to pursue her wherever she went. The strangers would follow her, too.

Heather Sartin received her BA in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She currently writes and lives in Houston, Texas. This is her first published work.

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