It was the morning after their third date. Jenny woke with an odd heaviness on her stomach, as if someone were sitting on her. To stand she had to first roll on her side, levering herself towards the edge of the bed. A pinching at her crotch: a sheet of notebook paper rolled into a cigarette emerged, mucus stringing from one end.
Huevos coming, written in clumsy block letters she didn’t yet recognize as Martin’s. iPhone charger.
Jenny held the note a moment before laying it on the bedside table. She squatted with one hand on the mattress for balance. She bore down, imagining she could see with the pads of her fingers. This was not so different from recovering a stray tampon, she thought. She felt for a foot, for one of those damp hands that had grasped her own just the night before. Nothing emerged but another note: Nice try.
An hour later a GrubHub deliveryman arrived with an order of huevos rancheros, which Jenny ate. The next day an Amazon package addressed to a Martin Penderson, containing a phone charger and a pair of blue earbuds. Order pizza, said the note pressing into her underwear that night. Did my package come? Low batt. The block letters didn’t connect cleanly and it took her a few minutes to decipher his meaning.
You can have your package when you come out, Jenny texted. Order your own pizza. She appended a dozen dancing cat gifs and imagined his cries as his battery drained. Her back was so stiff that she felt as though her spine had been removed, knotted in two, and planted back beneath the skin.
She cancelled plans with her friends that night. Cancelled a date for the following day. Martin pummeled the inside of her stomach, his fists pressing against gleaming white marks shot across her skin. At times he settled on her bladder or pressed an elbow against her kidney; other times he went exploring, his fingers grasping for something he could never quite locate. He would come out when he was hungry enough, she thought, though a week passed with no movement.
When she’d used all but one of her vacation days she called her ex-girlfriend Sam, a doula. “Well fuck,” Sam said when Jenny opened the door to reveal her distended stomach, Martin’s elbow visible through her t-shirt. “You could try giving birth, if he were open to it,” she said as she pressed her palms on Jenny’s stomach, “but I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“It’s dangerous enough to have a baby, and he’s a full-grown man.”
Jenny stared at her stomach. She’d spent the morning laying on the hardwood floor, knees bent. She could feel her spine compressing into itself. “What about a c-section?”
A fist billowed against her stomach. Jenny watched Sam inspect its shadow. “There’s a support group for this,” she said before leaving. “Down the community center. That’s the best thing.”
That night Jenny tried to convince herself she wasn’t alone though she had not received a note in almost two days. She touched her stomach, felt the bulge of Martin’s head beneath her palm. She imagined the enveloping comfort of being inside a body that was not her own, of curling in the pliable constraints of a stranger’s womb. She inserted string cheese and slim jims as though they were tampons, then plucked free their empty wrappers with hesitating fingers. She snaked in the end of the iPhone charger and Martin pulled it like a lifeline, so fast that the square plug popped off and clattered to the floor. Jenny felt something like a bee sting, and ten minutes later her phone pinged.
I don’t like the cheese. As she stared at her phone a light began to dart across the floor, streaming from between her legs. Martin’s hands groped as though he was searching for some part of Jenny she hadn’t yet found herself. She emailed the support group leader, who wrote back, Yr body is a life-giving vessel, it is a home, you are a miraculous being. Hope 2 C U Wed at 8. She imagined this placid woman rubbing a gleaming parchment-thin stomach broken only by purple veins and the shifting contours of the body it held. On Wednesday night she jumped up and down in her living room, Martin laughing. She ran a bath and raised minor waves as she lowered herself, lay a towel across her stomach so she wouldn’t have to see his face pressing against her skin. Watching her limbs distort beneath retreating bubbles, she recalled reading that people loved water because it reminded them of their first lives.
Jenny took a deep breath and sank below the surface. Distantly she heard water splashing to the tiles. She waved her hands, stroked the smooth walls of the tub. She would have liked to turn over, to feel the rippled flowers on its floor. It must be nice, she thought, to float – to just float, and nothing more. To feel yourself held so secure. A damp bitterness would grip her when she emerged from the water to find her back still pinched, pain radiating around her left hip, feet crushed by the doubled weight of her body, but for this minute – she could have this minute. What’s the harm in her one minute, when Martin has all the rest?
Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, cream city review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. You can find her at www.ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy.