This woman that I barely know is asking how I feel about kids. Kids, I say, sure.
We’re in bed, after the fact, her head on my shoulder, eyes burning up at me. Do I tell her now that on account of a botched something years ago, she’d have to be the one to carry? I’m assuming her womb is pristine. Her hair is thicker than mine, her eyes brighter, hips as wide as handles on a Harley. So these kids, they wouldn’t even be mine, but one part her, one part the sanctified vial of sperm, attached only to statistics and uncheckable facts that we’ve miraculously agreed upon based on reasoning that’s hopefully, somehow, transcended the fucked up foundation of our own early childhoods. I know her well enough to know we have that in common.
Yeah, kids. Sure, I say to the ceiling this time.
Really, she asks, all hungry like.
I am running my fingers through her hair, finger tips grazing her neck, trying to set her back into her body, to stop this line of questioning, but I’m the one who’s left, gone back fifteen years to that summer after I turned eighteen, when I took a job watching the Bellwether kids.
Kids, sure, I say, except probably not.
For whatever self-loathing reason, I’d moved back in with my mother that summer. Maybe just for confirmation that her heart was still beating, that she was still staring into the mint blue light of her computer, buying horoscope charts, or reading gossip news, sipping at the whisky she would declare, unasked, was just fucking apple juice. She was charging me rent: three hundred bucks a month for a room at the back of her apartment in a triplex, but the room had a bathroom and a door to the street, so we only had to cross paths in the kitchen. I was fine with paying rent. Putting money between us left me feeling less feelings about everything. That kind of money wasn’t nothing for me, but it was cheap for the westside and I wasn’t gonna live in LA without being able to bike to the sand. I didn’t want real work either, so when she told me about the job—yeah, she hooked me up with the job that paid her rent, that’s as mothering as she ever got—saying she’d heard from a friend of a friend that the Bellwethers, yes, those Bellwethers, needed someone for their kids, I knew that was the least of a someone I could be.
The Bellwethers lived in Santa Monica, north of Montana, of course. Their modern pitched-roof house wasn’t the fanciest, but on a block of Spanish colonials on steroids it stuck out. Mostly ‘cause it looked like a burned barn, the edges of each wood slat of siding was as black as charcoal. I imagined, when it rained, that that darkness ran into the street, pooling like ink. I’d noticed this house before, felt it ominous, except that a big bay window revealed a kitchen with bench seating and sun yellow cushions and a bright white table scattered with colored pencils and crayons. We’d never lived near here, but my friend Milly had. Milly’s parents were always leaving her with the housekeeper while they flew off to Europe. We’d linger outside liquor stores until some college kids ordered us up a keg and we’d all get wasted, strip down to swim, inevitably crashing our faces into the bottom of her pool. The nineties left me with the nastiest scars. Besides, none of those friends were the kind you held onto. Not even Milly, though I tried.
Mrs. Bellwether let me in, barely looking at me, one hand worrying something in the pocket of her jean shorts. She had that skinned alive look I’d seen on mothers who’d had one too many children. Eyes bugging out, nerves raw to every clatter of a pan, always anticipating the next injury. Everything about her was taut.
“I understand from Mrs. Watanabe—”
“Georgia,” I said, because I was eighteen and done with adults trying to make me feel like I wasn’t one of them. Georgia Watanabe was the friend of my mother’s friend—AA dropouts, all of them.
“Georgia then,” Mrs. Bellwether said, a death knell level sigh escaping her. We sat at the bright white table. “I suppose you can call me Leanna.”
“If you don’t mind,” I said. How fucking full of myself I was, sipping the lemonade she’d given me in one of those soft plastic cups for kids; cups we’d soon learn caused cancer in humans and toads indiscriminately. I’d been warned that the younger kid, the girl, had trouble with her speech.
“No,” Leanna said. “I don’t.” Her eyes briefly darted to where the kids were playing on the floor. “I understand you have some babysitting experience?”
“More than some,” I said. My mom had kicked me out in the middle of my junior year, sending me to live with my dad in Utah. He’d had a fresh pack of kids with his new wife, so there’d been those rug rats for me to look after. All of this on account of my having confessed to sleeping with my guitar teacher. “I’ve cared for children as young as eight months to age ten.” I knew the careful, practiced tone to use with a woman like Leanna, to be a melodic balm to her unseen wounds. These sensitivities come secondhand when you grow up around land mines. That’s figurative, of course, but my mom was bipolar and a drunk, so she had moods like no one I’ve met since. Though I was once hellbent on finding her equal.
Behind Leanna, the boy and girl dropped whatever they’d been busy with and went scrambling out of the room, the boy’s hiss-whispered instructions growing fainter as they climbed the stairs.
“Christopher, no,” Leanna said, the voice of a woman embarrassed in a library. “Bring Sarah Jane back down.”
Up until then, I’d managed to ignore them, not annoyed like, but with the vibe you give a working dog, a collie or Labrador that’s begging for instruction, the vibe that says you know what’s up, but you’ll only give the order when you’re good and ready. Detached. Alpha dog style. But the kids were already on the landing above and I knew, I had sensed as soon as I walked into that scalded house that those stairs, the central artery, led to the office of Tod Bellwether and that he was up there, working, not to be disturbed.
Leanna dropped her head into her hand and I said, “I’ll get them,” stepping as light and swift up those stairs as if I’d had a cape and mask. I stopped short of the landing, making myself only as tall as the boy, Christopher. They were right outside the door. It’s funny how you can feel the energy of someone creating, the way it possesses the air, hushing everyone nearby. Christopher looked at me like he was anticipating a reprimand, so I said, conspiratorially, “hey, what you got going on?” Sarah Jane turned then: heavy eyes and small, tight mouth. She had her father’s thick, black hair, but long, the curls falling around her face like perfect ringlets of ribbon. I craved, right then, her smiling at me. Christopher shrugged, still sizing me up. “I say we take this outside,” I whispered, a mix of assertive and mysterious, like I knew what this was. Christopher moved toward my outstretched hand. Sarah Jane followed. I suspected she would.
I heard Tod Bellwether crack his door, or I wanted to believe I did, and I pictured a thought bubble springing to life above his head: a scene for his next movie, a heroine inspired by me. I would be the reason he finally wrote a female lead! Or at least a woman who’s more than meat, slapped around, tenderized, if you will, always before or just after that rat-a-tat dialogue he inevitably follows with a breathless monologue and a hard cut. He changed the vernacular, they say. What vision! Everyone inured to his propagating the same violence he’s been accused of. It wouldn’t be until August that I saw it for myself.
Downstairs, I caught a glimpse of his Oscar in an alcove at the end of a long hall, a phallic blip of hard gold in what still seemed a pretty welcoming home.
Fuck, even I quote his films.
“Oh, look at that,” Leanna said, as I entered the kitchen with her kids in tow. “Tell me,” she said, mitting her hands, one inside the other. “When can you start?”
Most days I went from the Bellwethers to Tree’s apartment. Tree, my former guitar teacher, who’d only taught me three cords. Yeah, I’d taken back up with him. It seemed almost admirable, my sticking it out with my most blatant of mistakes. For him it was surely an act of redemption: I was of age this time, nothing illegal about it anymore. But something was lost in that. The sex was still fine, loud and exertive anyway, but now, instead of always checking behind me as if I might have been tailed, he held the door open a beat too long, watching me walk all the way in, as if waiting for a wind to blow through from the opposite end of the apartment and send me scuttling back out again.
“How’d it go with the kids?” he asked, every time. A teacher like that, conscientious of the day’s tasks.
“Fine,” I’d say, struggling to get my Doc Martin’s off.
We spent a lot of time talking about the Bellwether kids that summer. They were easy, in a house far enough away that we might not to stumble into the mess of our own. We were avoiding how he’d been brought in for questioning, how my mom had sent me away, the letters I wrote that he never answered, or how my mom let the charges drop out of some pity for him.
“Sassy talked to me today,” I said. Sassy was my nickname for Sarah Jane, because I believed she had venomous thoughts inside that head. “I mean, just the one word, but it felt, I don’t know—” Tree had gotten up to grab a beer. When he got out of bed like that, after the fact, the air where he’d been always felt weird cold. “I just think we’re good now,” I said. “Me and her.”
From inside the fridge, Tree asked, “What word?”
“Thirsty,” I said.
He snort laughed.
“Mrs. Bellwether said it doesn’t mean that she wants a drink.” I called Leanna Mrs. Bellwether when I was talking to Tree, like I wanted him, if not me, to have that respect for her. “I gave her a drink anyway,” I said. “Seems like she ought to know that’s what it means even if it’s not what she wants.”
What did you expect him to do, that was what my mother had said, going over there with barely any clothes on? Pity the man besotted by teen medusa. I thought you wanted me fucking men. For a time my mother had dragged me in and out of catholic churches, as if the right service might cure me.
I’ve always known I was bi, from the time I was six or seven, that age when your mind’s all about story making. But it was the older neighbor girl, Becky Brannigan, who first put her hands on me and it is still those hands to which I compare all the rest. Yes, pity the man; he didn’t stand a chance.
“Do your impression of the boy,” Tree said, “Christopher, right?”
It wasn’t an impression of Christopher I did but an impression of him mocking his mom. Leanna had a way of tossing her hair, her eyes spluttering, and Christopher, a portly boy of barely seven, did that toss with the exact same wrist-flick and eyes. He troubled Leanna, but I liked his spirit, his thespianism, the fact that his first priority was his own amusement. Maybe I envied him. I wondered, sometimes, if Sassy had been born first, if there’d have been more room, more time for her to learn to speak. Christopher was in the habit of hiding Sassy in tucked away places, stowing her, a game that Sassy seemed not to hate, but it rattled Leanna.
Christopher and Sassy Bellwether. I have avoided seeing them on the internet, in the checkout line magazines, wanting them unchanged. Surely Christopher’s found some form of fame, but all those cameras flashing at you, those lights, can bleach a person’s soul, leave it flimsy and blank. Sassy I have gone so far as googling: Sarah Jane Bell— but I always close the tab before the autocomplete list appears. Sweet, silent, Sassy. A flower picked and pressed between the pages of a book.
Sometimes I flash on the room that I woke up in, alone, a sheet barely covering me, fluorescent lights baring down, making the metal rail of the IV bag, the rolling cart, a blurry glare. I was fourteen weeks along when they took that baby from my womb, when they scarred me bad enough to make me an inhospitable home.
“I think it was a boy.”
Tree was the one to finally say it, to speak of the thing we had silently sworn not to. We’d made it all the way into August and now here it was, talk of it. The kid. No, it wasn’t that, not even close. Though ten of twelve of the necessary organs had been formed, a beating heart, lungs to fill with breath. And I had woken to voices in the hall, one man saying—I can still hear it, crystal clear—that thing just wouldn’t die. That thing. Out of me. And still alive? I ached all over. Wanting.
I never told anyone, not anyone, about hearing that. Or about the bucket in the corner of the room. They give you drugs so that, as much as anything, you can tell yourself you were hallucinating. Hearing things, seeing things. A red bucket in an all-white room, the same red as STOP.
Sassy said thirsty and then she looked me in the eye, as if to say her silence and mine were the same.
The first time with Tree, at my second guitar lesson, I was the one who kissed him. He was playing a song, showing me how I could play if I just sat still enough to learn, and I flushed with a hate-heat right then, so bad I had to put my lips on him. My mother wasn’t wrong; she knew what I was capable of, how needy I could be. She’d seen me put my fist through my bedroom wall, not so far from where she’d broken it open with the VCR. Except we’d both laughed at that, at the plaster and black plastic all over; she’d been frustrated that it wasn’t working.
It was my dad who suggested music, offering to pay for the lessons, a check mailed, already filled out.
“So what’s Tod Bellwether like?” Tree asked. He was sitting up, feet to the floor, his back to me then. I felt I’d disappointed him. I often feel this way around adults, even now, being one.
“Absent,” I say, bringing my own feet to the floor, so that we are two people talking to opposite sides of a room. “Some days he comes downstairs. Rustles their hair, pulls a Tupperware from the fridge, and goes back up. He’s not around much anyway.”
“So, he’s shooting something then? A film in production?” He was clicking the lighter, shaking it, trying to tap the last of its juice to spark a joint. “Work like that will take you away a lot, I bet.”
“You planning on robbing the place, Tree? You got a getaway car? I’m in on this, I get half. No, wait, I’m your in. You’ve got nothing without me. I want seventy percent, at least.”
The room filled with the skunk of weed. “You’re still funny,” he said, which seemed to summarize how much else had changed.
I no longer took my shirt off when we had sex. I let him put his hands up under it but I had come to hate how naked I felt, after the fact, that weird cold air when he left the room. Going back to him was supposed to give some sense to everything that had happened the year before. I’d gone back hopeful in June, resigned to the habit by July, but by August I was only moving underneath him, wishing I had just learned to play the fucking guitar. So I kept tugging my shirt down until he stopped trying. That was easier than saying how I felt.
“I’d have been a better father than that,” he said, handing the joint over his shoulder. I took it without looking at him. “You don’t want to discuss it, do you?” he asked.
“Just one hit for me,” I said, ignoring the question. “I have to go back. The Bellwethers have a function tonight.”
If I had to be making an old mistake fresh all over again, Milly would have been the better choice. But I’d been dead to her before I’d even been kicked out of town.
I’d never tried anything on Milly. We weren’t like that. I loved her as a friend. Us bisexuals can tell the difference; I know what people think, that we’re just too horny to make up our minds, ready to hump whatever moves, but that’s not how it is at all. I just love who I love, want who I want, and what’s in their jeans is a kind of afterthought. Sometimes I know there’s something beautiful about that, but most often I hear Milly in my ear, you’re disgusting, or my mother, you pervert, feeling her hand on my wrist, ripping me out of that confessional, because even there the way my heart works was an unspeakable thing.
I’d never even told Milly, my best friend, until the night when a couple of guys we’d been partying with in an abandoned house on the Venice canals dared us to kiss. In the spirit of the good times we were having—I’d already tore up my knees flying off a Zig Zagger in the empty pool—I went ahead and leaned in. Even with all the head spinney shit I’d put back that night, I knew to let Milly lead. Milly had always been the more brazen of us; the drunker, wildier, crazier, more fun one, always needing to be heaped into a cab and hauled into the bathtub of her parent’s guest house so I could shower her off, flicking the puke from her hair. I’d learned to keep tabs on her drinking, same as I did with my mom. That night, she wasn’t so far gone. It was clear in the way she leaned into me. At first, performative, an actress on a stage, as all girls are groomed to be, but then her body settled into it, her weight shifting, followed by the slightest electrical current around her mouth, then through the hot muscle of her tongue, breaking it past my lips like a Lolli-pop laced with gin. She was the one who slide her hand between my legs and I knew, if the testosterones hadn’t bubbled over into hoots and hollers, she’d have gone on.
The next morning she acted like it had never happened and when I called her on it—I’ve since gotten better at letting elephants wander in and out of the room—she said she had no idea what I was talking about, that she’d blacked out. Like I didn’t know her. Of course, I hadn’t let her know me. So, I told her right then about Becky Brannigan and the times with Tatty Lopez in the boy’s gym, and how some nights I stayed up thinking about Scully, from the X files, and what might actually make her scream. I wanted Milly to laugh, to be at ease with me again, but that’s when she put her hot cheese breath to my ear and called me disgusting.
I thought it would blow over, that by Monday we’d be back to normal at school, but she ignored me, sitting with Debbie Putlock of all fucking people, the two of them eyeing Tatty Lopez and making gaggy faces.
I had my second guitar lesson with Tree that week, coming in a live wire let loose from its mooring, wanting anything strong enough to hold on to me.
“What was it like,” I once asked Leanna. “Being pregnant?”
“I don’t know,” she said pausing, that little hum she had underneath her breathing. I wanted to hear it was horrible, how fat her feet had gotten, that she puked at the smell of her own skin, that giving birth was like being torn open by a fucking lion. But then, like she’d never given it enough thought before, she said, “It was the most powerful I’ve ever felt.” I started to smile, the first crack of a half-laugh, because this, from a woman who clearly found parenting diminishing, seemed momentarily absurd. There were days when Leanna started crying out of nowhere, weeping over the sink, blubbering for no reason except, when I considered it later, all of them. But being pregnant and being a mother aren’t the same thing; that was the extent of my own mother’s reasoning as to why I was forbidden from becoming the later. “I mean, I made people,” Leanna went on, her voice buoyant and whimsical. “It’s like playing at god,” she said, her eyes going bright, then closed. “Of course, even god gets it wrong.” She was referring to Sassy, of course, even though Christopher was the one always in trouble.
That night, in a tuxedo, Tod Bellwether looked like the Tod Bellwether I’d been expecting to come down the stairs all along. But Leanna was almost unrecognizable in her red dress, her hair freshly frosted and blown out, wrists bound in jewels, lips bright and shiny as a plastic rose. I never considered this version, the one in magazines, the articulable doll; I preferred her sweatpants and hair only halfway fitted into its bun.
“You have my speech,” Bellwether said, touching Leanna on the arm. She shook her head lightly and he turned in a huff, taking the stairs two at a time. He hardly ever acknowledged me, but I’d always found his reasoning for him; I was the help, after all.
As he crested the stairs, I said to Leanna, “You look nice.” This would be the first time I was alone with the kids for an extended period of time. Even when she ran errands Leanna came back in with the exact same energy as when she’d only wandered out of the room, always biting her cuticles, mumbling about yet another specialist for Sassy.
“Thanks,” she said, exhaling. “All these things he has to attend,” she shook her head, trailing off. She wasn’t even in the sentence.
Christopher came sliding in across the burnished wood floor in nothing but his socks and underwear. He stopped short, pinning his hands behind his back. His tell, I’d discovered, that he’d been up to some mischief.
“Where’s your sister?” I asked.
“In her room,” he said, dancing one foot out, edging the perimeter of his round shadow that was cast by the globe light overhead.
“Oh,” Leanna said, “Christopher, what have you done now?”
She’d warned me that it could be worse at bedtime, the witching hour, that he’d once put Sassy in the dumbwaiter—a convenience they’d designed into the house for Bellwether’s midday meals —but because Sassy never made a sound it had taken Tod shaking the boy, scaring him silly, until he finally fessed up. A space so cramped, Leanna hadn’t even considered looking there. They’d boarded it up after that. “What good,” Leanna said, recounting the ordeal, “is a girl who can’t even scream?”
“She’s fine,” Christopher said, shrugging now. “She’s happy.”
Beside me, Leanna took a gulping breath.
“What now?” This was Tod’s voice from the top of the stairs.
I looked up at him, then to Leanna. She had assumed her hunched posture, making a comma of her body, a space for breath, trying to stop herself from crying.
“I know I can’t,” Leanna said, shaking her head. “I can’t be crying now.”
But she already was.
There are many things I wish I’d done differently in my life; a disproportionate number of them reside in that year and on that particular night. Above all, I wish I had turned and pressed myself to Leanna, to sop up the spillage of her, my body the sponge.
“Jesus, Lea,” Bellwether said. “Pull it together.”
Her mascara was running down her cheeks. “Is my make-up okay?” she asked, her face pushed toward me, imploring.
“It’s still fine,” I lied. “I’ll go find Sarah Jane.”
I wish I hadn’t left that room. I didn’t have to look for Sassy at all. Christopher led me by the hand. Behind us, in the foyer, Leanna was still trying to catch her breath and Bellwether’s tone was one of agitated disbelief, calling her a mess, saying he should just go without her, what did he need with her anyway. But he wasn’t leaving. Or getting any quieter.
Boys Will Be Boys, the actual title of his first feature film.
It hadn’t been a boy, the baby I didn’t have. That was what I hadn’t wanted to talk about with Tree, the fact that I’d known, that some dumb tech during the ultrasound had asked me if I wanted to know. I was just a kid myself. How could I know then what knowing anything does to a person.
“She’s just in there,” Christopher said, pointing.
It was an enormous box, a delivery from a production studio, the equipment removed, the Styrofoam edging packed in around her, but lovingly so, a kind of ridged womb. That was when I understood that Sassy was the one who wanted this, that Christopher’s only amusement came from Leanna’s thinking he was up to no good.
Down the hall, Tod Bellwether finally exploded, his voice like a sonic boom, a sound known and expected—like a countdown had always been going—and followed by the punctuation of Leanna, her body, meeting what I imagined was the credenza in the hall. Christopher shuddered, but it was a reverberation of previous shuddering, a not original response.
I wish I’d ran out of that room, screaming at him to stop, or that I’d just found a phone and called the cops, but I didn’t. I want to say it’s because people like me, people who’ve only ever been told their existence is a sin, or false, unreal, well that strips away at your strength, your belief in yourself. Or maybe it’s just that I’d never known help. Sassy was looking at me, eyes burning, and I believed in that moment that she could already talk freely, that she was just stowing her words up, and that one day they would crest. It was inevitable. How badly we all need to speak.
Down the hall, there were the guttural gusts of breath forced from Leanna’s body. But not one scream.
Where have you gone? the woman beside me is asking. She’s propped herself up on an elbow and I sense she has been searching my face for some time.
Nowhere, I say, wanting this to be true.
Please, she says, I can read you better than that.
With one side of the Styrofoam removed, there had been room for me to climb in beside Sassy. As I did, her eyes fluttered closed, her body bending around me, her head to my shoulder. We’d been in there together only a few short minutes, with Christopher curled up on the bed, overseeing us, when Bellwether stumbled in to the room, breathless, eyes bloodshot, his mouth mealy around a lie about Leanna having fallen down the stairs, how he was going to get her to a doctor. He trailed off as he stepped toward Sassy and me inside that box. He looked at Christopher. Then back at us. His eyes were wild, taking in how I was holding her, maybe, too much as if she were my own.
Each time I begin to type Sarah Jane Bell—, I want it to turn up news of her bringing her father down. I want to believe I would be strong enough to back her up. To say, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.
The things is, I say to this woman, I wouldn’t make a very good mother.
You, she says, her eyes crinkling in that way that they do. That’s nonsense, she says. No one is more nurturing than you.
I am ticking off the time it has been for her and me. Certainly not years, but seasons, yes: summer, fall, whatever you call winter in LA.
I scoot myself up in the bed and her gaze lingers on my bare chest.
Have I ever told you about Becky Brannigan, I ask, lifting her eyes to mine with one finger under her chin.
We still talking about kids, she asks.
Yes and no, I say. I just need to tell you this first, from the start.
Kate Milliken is the author of If I’d Known You Were Coming, a collection of stories that one the Iowa Award, and the novel, Kept Animals, which was published by Scribner in April 2020. A graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, Kate has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Yaddo, and the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. This is her second story in NOR. She lives and teaches in Northern California.