After the hysterectomy, Katrina couldn’t shake the feeling that she was pregnant. Impossible, she knew, but it didn’t change the heaviness of her breasts and the warm knot in her pelvis. Women in online forums had warned her that the surgery might leave her feeling sexless, even castrated, but so far the opposite was true. She lay in bed in the spare room, where she slept so she wouldn’t have to use the stairs, running her fingers over her belly and imagining the white walls a pale yellow, perhaps with a zoo animal border and light switch cover.
Her husband delivered a cup of chamomile tea and lay beside her. She thought about asking if he, too, could imagine the French Châtelet credenza, walnut Crate and Barrel bedframe, and heirloom secretary desk replaced with a bright white changing station, Dutailier glider, and convertible crib; if he could see a border of monkeys and zebras and fierce little lions marching along the walls. Instead, she pulled her nightgown tight, squeezed her breasts until cleavage spilled out, and asked, “Do I look bigger to you?”
He thumbed through email on his phone. “You know you don’t need to worry about gaining weight.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He put the phone away and faced her. “You are still one hot tamale.” He gently poked the side of her tender belly. “As soon as you can get back to your running and yoga, you’ll feel better.”
Katrina gave him a flat look. “I feel fine.”
“Did you take your pain pills tonight?”
“I don’t need them.”
He eyed her skeptically and lifted a stack of hospital brochures from the nightstand, sliding closer like he was going to read her a bedtime story. On top was a pamphlet titled “Life After Your Hysterectomy” that featured a graying woman a good ten years her senior sitting in the grass with an old man, their gold wedding bands glimmering in the sun. She felt like ripping it in half, shredding their satisfied faces to bits.
Thomas flipped it open. “‘Your uterus has reminded you every month for many years that you are a woman,’” he read aloud.
Katrina rolled her eyes. “God, can’t they just say ‘You aren’t going to get your period anymore?’”
“It says some women actually miss—”
“Well, I won’t.”
Thomas touched his finger to her shoulder and yanked it away, shaking his hand out like he’d been burned. He chuckled, but she rolled her eyes and shoved the stack of brochures beneath the bed, wincing as she did so. “These are ridiculous. It’s no big deal. Really.”
“All right, tough guy. Go it on your own.” He lay back and tucked a hand behind his head like this was his office, scrolling again on his phone. He snickered at something, completely oblivious to her full cleavage and the mysterious, glowing look of promise that she was sure sat on her face. She turned onto her side, switched off the lamp and pinched her eyes shut, keeping them that way until the light from Thomas’s phone clicked off and he went upstairs to bed.
When the leftovers of shepherd’s pie and turkey tetrazzini and tuna casserole from work and church friends started to dwindle, Katrina gave Thomas a shopping list. It was time to get back to their regular diet, plus she’d had enough of lying on the couch watching TV and needed something to do with her hands. He shouldered his satchel and looked it over, mumbling through the list of food and furrowing his brow at the craft section. “Yellow checkered cotton fabric?”
“Three yards. Also, do you think you could get my sister’s sewing machine out of storage?”
“You don’t even sew.”
“I do when I need to.” She gestured at the cheap metal mini-blinds in the spare bedroom, the only space they hadn’t yet renovated. “And this room needs curtains.”
“Yellow checkered ones? You hate cutesy stuff like that.”
She rolled her eyes. “I forgot every room in our house has to look like a Tuscan villa.”
Thomas scratched the back of his head, wearing his stiff, annoyed smile. “After all the work we did, you spend a couple days at home and want to change everything?”
“I just asked for some fabric for one set of curtains. Can I make one tiny choice for the house without you critiquing it?”
His stance went rigid and he tucked his chin back. “Hey, have at it. As long as I don’t get yelled at.” He toed something on the floor and stooped to pick it up—a small rock from someone’s shoe. “But can’t it wait till this weekend? I’m still playing catch-up from last week.”
She sighed. “It’s just, all I do is lie here all day. You know I’m not even allowed to check my work email while I’m out? I’m completely useless.”
He glanced at his watch, then looked at her and something in his eyes softened. “You’ll be better before you know it, don’t worry.” He sat on the edge of the bed and squeezed her hand. “You’ll be back to wooing rich businessmen into rescuing wolves and shaking hands with politicians. And doing your eight thousand sun salutations a day, or whatever they’re called.” He smoothed her hair with a callused hand, a gesture that took her all the way back to her father tucking her in as a child, a gesture that caused her to drop her scowl and relax the spot between her eyebrows, to take a deep breath and fully exhale like she hadn’t since before this whole thing started, since before the doctor had found the abnormal cells and tried and failed to freeze and then burn them away—a year ago now.
Thomas stood and his eyes drifted back to wherever he’d been before. “All right, I’m off. I’ll try to hit the grocery store and storage unit tonight.”
She reached out and squeezed his hand. “I can order the fabric online. And most of the other stuff on the list can wait if it has to. But will you get the bag of lemons? Everything else sounds disgusting.” It was true—the thought of eggs, oatmeal, any of her usual breakfast foods made her gag, but citrus, oh, her mouth watered at the possibility of lemons, limes, oranges lighting up the tip of her tongue.
He shrugged. “OK, weirdo.” He made a silly face at her as he passed through the door, and she laughed, reaching out as if catching a kiss.
She wasn’t much of a seamstress—in fact, she hadn’t sewn since she was twelve and her sister, Lily, came home from Down Syndrome camp with newfound sewing skills and insisted they make hot pads all summer—but the curtains were all right if you didn’t look too close. She danced them across the room, draping them over her like a dress when Thomas came in.
“What do you think?”
Thomas shrugged. “They’re yellow checks.”
“Would you like the honor?” She held them up to the window.
“Oh, boy.” He set down his bag and stretched, rubbing his shoulder.
“After a beer, of course. And after I rub your knots.” She brought him a beer and he breathed deeply as his muscles relaxed beneath her touch. He had nice muscles from all the weightlifting and handiwork around the house, and massaging them made her wish she took the time to appreciate them more. After she patted his shoulders and smoothed his shirt, he went for tools and hung the rod and curtains while she sucked on a lemon slice from the bowlful next to the bed.
“Not half-bad,” he said, stepping back and rubbing his hands together.
He took the second beer she’d brought him and sipped with a satisfied smack. “Really.”
“Because I’m thinking of painting the walls to match.”
“You’re not even allowed to lift your purse.”
She smiled. “But you are.”
He sighed dramatically and fell onto the bed, and when she tucked herself against him, he pulled her closer and kissed her. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“I wish we could.”
“Five more weeks.”
He ran his hand over her breasts. “These are nice.”
“I told you they were bigger.”
“They’re always nice.” He admired her breasts for a while longer, then placed his hand on her knee while they stared at the curtains.
“My sister would have liked this room, all yellow and cheery,” she said. “Can’t you picture her stuffed animals hanging in that corner in their hammock, and her little makeup table where the desk is?”
Thomas gave her knee a squeeze.
“Oh, that reminds me.” Katrina went to the hall closet and pulled out an old glass soda bottle Lily had painted pink, coated in glitter, and stuffed with paper daisies one year for Katrina’s birthday. It was one of the few things left from her that Thomas hadn’t relegated to storage and Katrina wanted it in the windowsill, filling the room with echoes of her voice, her laugh, her demands for attention.
Thomas laughed. “I’d forgotten about that. It’s the perfect touch.”
Katrina settled back in next to him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Remember how you would come home with some new craft project for her every day? You were so worried about keeping her entertained.”
Thomas smiled. “And all those chicken nuggets?”
Katrina rolled her eyes. “Oh my god—my arteries are still clogged.” They lay in silence for a while, Katrina staring at the cheery window, remembering those months after her mother’s cancer diagnosis. She and Thomas were just kids—should’ve been out drinking or dancing or going to concerts, but instead there they were caring for Lily, chicken nuggets at six o’clock and prayers at nine o’clock, every night.
“Dinner soon?” Thomas asked.
“I can’t help but wonder sometimes, if we hadn’t had all that responsibility at such a young age, what path our life might’ve taken.”
Thomas tossed a throw pillow into the air and caught it, the pleasant look on his face fading. But she couldn’t stop herself from going there today.
“I guess all those people who have kids young go through the same thing. Or worse.” She let out an awkward laugh. “I miss that feeling. Isn’t it weird? That heavy feeling of responsibility, day in and day out. When I had it, I thought I was miserable.”
Thomas tossed the pillow higher. “I miss the hell out of Lily, but I love being able to do whatever I want every night.”
She snorted. “What, lifting weights in the garage and drinking beer in front of the TV?”
His face clouded, and she squeezed his arm to take the edge off. “Not like I do anything more interesting. I mean, let’s be honest: we might as well have kids, the way we live.” She laughed as if the thought had just occurred to her. “We might as well be decorating this room for a baby.”
“I’m going to start dinner. I’m starving.” Thomas dropped the pillow on the floor and left.
Katrina stared at the window. Tears welled and she ground her teeth and blinked them away. Oh, shape up, she thought. There was nothing to be upset about, really: she didn’t have cancer, she would never have to deal with another period, and she was alive. She had beaten the beast that had nearly taken her mother before it could sink its claws into her. She was on her way to being well, and would soon be running fundraiser dinners, jogging in the foothills she worked to protect, and driving to Flagstaff to visit her parents, who had sent a lovely care package and called every evening to express their regret at not being there to help her. That was enough, wasn’t it? She reached for another lemon slice and bit into it with a squint.
A few mornings later, she woke before dawn to a soaked pajama top. Sure enough, when she squeezed one enlarged, darkened nipple, milk bubbled forth. She lay back down, her heart pounding as she pretended to sleep while Thomas bustled through the house. She pinched her arm to see if she was dreaming, then gave the other nipple a squeeze. She caught some of the liquid and tasted it, and sure enough, it was nutty and slightly sweet like the pregnancy websites said it would be. Feeling lightheaded, she lay back and laughed, covering her mouth as milk dripped down her sides and onto the sheets.
After Thomas left for work, she threw her pajamas into the wash, studied her engorged breasts in the mirror, and lined a bra with tissue. She chewed her fingers and laughed and stared at the yellow curtains, at how simple and right they were.
Studying her profile in the mirror—her swollen breasts and puffy belly—she nodded in approval. She imagined the doctor’s expression when she eventually marched into her office and revealed the growing belly where her uterus supposedly wasn’t.
There was no way she could lay around the house all day. She longed to call her mother or a friend, to tell someone, but she knew how it would sound. Though she wasn’t supposed to drive yet, she dressed and went to Target, where she ran her hands over onesies and bibs, hugged stuffed bears and tested the safety mechanisms on car seats. As she examined cribs, she let herself imagine a baby’s face with Thomas’s eyes and her lips, its little body emanating warmth, sweating against her as it nursed. Finally, exhausted from standing, she sat in a cushioned glider, cradling a stuffed toy and closing her eyes.
“Everything OK, ma’am?” A pimply girl in a red vest stood in front of her, head tilted.
She nodded. “Just taking a little break.”
“First trimester? I remember that phase—oh, lordy.” She patted her belly. “There’s a big sale on maternity clothes, in case you want to stock up now.”
Katrina’s cheeks burned and she fought the urge to turn away. She surveyed the girl’s greasy face and plump, pink hands—she didn’t look a day over nineteen. “You seem so young to have a baby.”
The girl looked down, running her hands over her vest. “My daughter is two now. Imagine how it must’ve looked when she was a newborn.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, I probably seem old to be having my first baby. So in a way, we’re in the same boat.”
The girl smiled, flashing a dimple. “I wasn’t thinking you were old.”
Katrina waved a hand. “You don’t have to say that. I know this is nothing short of a miracle, and I intend to appreciate it.” She hugged the stuffed animal, admiring its cute lion face. “This is for my little lioness. Or lion.” She tilted her head and smiled at the thought that came to her. “Leo if it’s a boy, Leonora if it’s a girl.”
Stepping closer, the girl said, “I know the perfect set of onesies that match that.”
Katrina held out her hand. “Will you take me to them? I’ve only got so much energy for traipsing around this store—you can imagine.”
After burying the two maternity dresses, stuffed lion, and packet of onesies in the closet of the spare room, she sat in the great room in front of the TV with her knitting needles and yarn, aching from her excursion but trying to resist ibuprofen, a category C drug. When Thomas came home from work, he ate a helping of the grilled chicken salad she’d made for dinner, and, after a little TV, started painting the spare bedroom—an eggshell color with just a tinge of yellow that they had agreed upon—while she attempted to knit a baby cap. She couldn’t help but smile as he traipsed through the house importantly with a ladder and painting supplies, such a dutiful if unknowing soon-to-be father.
The walls didn’t quite match the curtains and the cap looked more like a fat stocking, but they had worked contentedly together like they hadn’t since they’d first bought the house, just weeks after her sister had died of a stroke. Thomas had fallen in love right away with the large fixer-upper on the outskirts of town, and Katrina had quickly come around. It had four bedrooms, space for her piano, a pergola-covered patio ornamented with the delicious smell of mock oranges, and a big backyard made private by a tall, trumpet vine-lined wood fence. It was a house meant for children, ludicrous for a family of two. When she’d pointed this out, Thomas had put his arm around her and made some cocky remark about how they could afford the extra space.
With separate closets, bathrooms, living rooms, offices, workout nooks, and outdoor alcoves, they neatly divided the space and sprawled in their individual areas. If Katrina was at one end of the house, she couldn’t hear what Thomas was doing at the other. She would walk through the empty rooms and tell herself that just because they had them didn’t mean they had to fill them. This was what being a successful adult was, they would joke: having empty rooms. But sometimes, as she looked out over the street from her yoga mat in the loft, or sat in her office finishing up work emails while listening to the dull thud of weights in the garage beneath her, she wondered how too much could somehow be enough for two people.
At times she longed to summon Lily back, to fill this excessive home that had never known the likes of her with her laughter and tantrums and stomps as she ran the vast hallways and slid in her purple sleeping bag down the stairs—oh, how she would have loved those stairs.
Other times, she wondered how different her life might’ve been without Lily. If Lily hadn’t been disabled, Katrina might have been able to move far away from Albuquerque, to study abroad or go traveling with friends instead of carting her sister to swim practice and sewing classes, or leaving parties and dates early to coax Lily into the bathtub or take her to urgent care for another bout of pneumonia. Maybe she and her college boyfriend, Vincent—all forearms and Tony Robbins energy—would have stayed together, and he would have taken her to Chile and France like he’d promised, would’ve taught her to surf and sail and mountaineer, and when he’d shaken her shoulders that final night and said through clenched teeth, “What do you want?” she would have had an answer.
Thomas had been perfectly happy spending his free time playing Bingo with her sister, helping her father maintain the yard, and cuddling up for a Dateline double feature. He didn’t ask difficult questions and she didn’t worry about him darting off in the middle of building a life together. Occasionally, the subject of having children would come up, and her stomach would flutter with excitement as she imagined a mess of toys, blaring cartoons, and grape jelly-smeared countertops. She would envision Thomas building wooden toys in the garage and creating elaborate forts with the kids on Saturday mornings, burning his finger on a tray of fish sticks fresh from the oven and yelling, Aye, Chihuahua! instead of cursing. It made her laugh just thinking about it.
But after they batted the idea around, he would always go back to how much work it had been taking care of Lily, how much of a gamble pregnancy was, how peaceful their life was now and what a wrench of uncertainty parenthood could be. She would think about telling him the things she imagined, but he would lure her with a bottle of wine to the sleek leather sofa and get her talking about her job and how quickly she’d moved up in the Development world, his plan for a retirement condo someplace in Colorado and her dream of traipsing across Europe, and though she knew it was a ploy to change the subject, she would bury the motherhood fantasy, pour them each another glass of wine, and play along.
Once in a while, she would fantasize that she was still with Vincent, her passport actually full of stamps, her photo albums bursting with pictures from scuba diving and snowboarding and sampling unusual foods in foreign countries. Their home would be an afterthought—small and dusty because they were so rarely there, but bustling with activity and visits from friends on the rare occasions they were home.
Later, she would appease herself by thinking of the love and stability Vincent had sacrificed when he left her behind, imagining him single with nothing but scars to show for the years. That is, until she saw a video of him on the Internet BASE jumping off a bridge in Idaho while his wife and toddler cheered him on.
She could have been that wife, that mother, if that was what he’d wanted—even with Lily. She could have been all the other things she was somehow able to be under his inspirational spell, if he had been willing to continue to cast it. But her dependence and indecisiveness, which Thomas seemed to not even notice, or at least not be bothered by, had been a deal-breaker for Vincent.
For whatever reason, it looked like maybe, just maybe, she was being given a second chance, albeit a bizarre one, at what she only now realized—for she was always figuring things out too late—she had wanted all along. Maybe there was still time, this little oddball window of possibility. She took the paintbrush out of Thomas’s yellow-stained hand, set it aside, and said, “There’s something I’d like to show you.”
Slowly, she peeled off her top and removed her bra. The milk-crusted tissues fell to the floor, but Thomas’s gaze didn’t leave her breasts. His eyes widened and he drew closer, kissing her neck. She pulled away. “No, look,” she said, squeezing her nipple until milk dribbled out.
He turned pale and let go of her. “What was that?”
She blinked back tears. “Thomas, I don’t think the doctors removed anything.”
“Have you called Doctor Benson?” He stepped back, eyeing her warily, gesturing at her chest like an alien life form had attached itself there. “That’s not normal.”
She draped an arm over her breasts and surveyed his face, the stiff curl of his upper lip. “Oh, what do you know about normal?” As she crossed the bedroom, she wanted him to follow her, to meet her eyes and pull her into a hug. But he was still staring slack-jawed into space like her breasts had spurted Kool-Aid.
“I’m better than normal. In fact, I feel like a million bucks. Have you ever felt like a million bucks?” She looked him up and down. “I doubt it.”
She turned to gaze out the window, but it was dark and with the lights on, she only had her reflection to study, and if she adjusted her stance, a sliver of Thomas, arms hanging uselessly at his sides. How foolish of her to think she could share this with him. She should have known that as soon as she saw his skeptical reaction, the miracle would dissolve as surely as it had arrived.
He paced, rubbing the back of his neck. “You’re off, Kat. Your hormones are off—that’s all this is.” He went to the desk and sifted through her mess of papers, probably looking for her discharge forms to see if behavior like hers could be considered normal.
“No, they’re not. I’m beginning to think—”
He snorted. “Is that what you call this? Thinking?”
“We went about this whole thing wrong. We should have done more stupid things when we were young. Made more rash decisions.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows. “Oh great, one of your speeches. While your body is literally leaking…stuff.”
“It’s milk,” she mumbled. “Mother’s milk.”
But Thomas didn’t acknowledge what she’d said, and focused instead on the papers in his hand. “I’m calling the after-hours doctor.” He started toward the doorway, but she blocked him.
“Eight years,” she said. “It’s been eight years since Lily died, and what have we done with our life?”
He lowered the papers to his side. “If you’re not happy with the life you ended up with—”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Then what are you saying?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know.”
His jaw relaxed, and she could tell that just like that, with her slightest bit of uncertainty, he thought he’d won. “Look, things are fine, Kat. They’ll be fine. Just get that fixed, and we’ll get back to the way we were before.” His voice softened. “Which was always good enough for me.”
He stepped around the empty paint bucket at his feet and stooped to pick up her shirt and bra, handing them to her.
“There’s nothing to fix,” she said as another sputter of milk dripped from her breasts. “There is no way we were before.”
He paused, shifting his eyes away. “Come on, Kat.”
“Fine. I’ll get on some meds that dry this all up. Antidepressants, too, while I’m at it—I’ll get nice and numb. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? I’ll run errands at Costco on the weekends, and I’ll think up new house designs for us to argue about, and I’ll cook us sensible dinners until we are so old we can’t eat sensible dinners anymore. And I’ll look back on my life and be so satisfied.”
He went to the nightstand and scooped up a pile of dried lemon skins, throwing them into the trash. “I adjusted my whole life for you, and this is the thanks I get.”
“And we’ll never have time for anything else,” she continued, tossing her shirt and bra defiantly onto the bed. “Not even to get to know each other.”
“Oh, please.” He shook out the afghan, snapping it crisply against the air. “I know you too well, Kat. And you never said you wanted anything else.”
Katrina crossed her arms over her damp chest. “You didn’t listen.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t have time to read between your vague lines while I was taking care of your family and the house you wanted and working fifty hours a week.”
“You know, you’re not a very good liar.”
“I’m sorry I actually enjoy building a life together.” He removed a book from the tangle of bedding and slammed it in its place on the nightstand. “And I promise I didn’t read your mind. I wouldn’t want to invade your privacy. Wouldn’t want to set foot in your music room or workout loft, wouldn’t want to interrupt your important yoga sessions and piano practice. Where you apparently sit thinking ‘YOLO!’ and ‘Carpe diem, man!’”
Thomas’s face was now screwed up and pink, his lips tense little raisins. Katrina’s neck grew hot and her guts roiled.
“Oh, you love it that way. The only reason you were sad when Lily died was because it meant losing your excuse for being boring.”
Purple strips flared across Thomas’s cheeks, spreading to his throat. He looked wildly around the room and kicked the empty paint can into the wall beneath the window, splattering the hardwood floor. “Is that really what you think of me?”
Katrina laughed at the mess he had made. “You don’t even want to know.”
Her stomach lurched at her harshness and she turned away from him. The ugly pink vase of lopsided daisies on the windowsill caught her eye. Oh, that vase—wasn’t it a slap in the face? Such fabricated hope in that childish nod to Lily, to dead sisters and fantasy babies.
She picked it up and smashed it to the floor, where it exploded into the paint mess. The crash made her jump, and as she looked through the blackened window at her reflection, wild-eyed and half-naked, spewing false milk from a barren body, a great fear rose from deep inside her and tingled at the back of her head, a fear that felt vast and permanent. She looked back at Thomas and realized with a certainty she’d never known before that he would have made a great father, that she’d always known it, even if she’d failed to say it, that it was too late for that now. She longed to go to him and tell him the worst part: that building a life together, just the two of them, actually hadn’t been enough for her, that she’d wanted more from him, and that she would never stop resenting him for what he had let her shrug and nod away.
The heater kicked on, wafting the milk-crusted tissues across the room, sending them crawling toward the shards of glass, the wet paint, the glitter that would never really disappear. Thomas went for a dustpan and broom.
Alone and shaking, Katrina walked toward her reflection, slippers crunching on glass. She pressed her fingertips to their ghostlike mates, forehead to pale forehead. Beyond her translucent skin was the yard she and Thomas had landscaped—grass neatly sectioned apart from gravel and wood chips, flowerbeds freshly mulched and awaiting summer annuals, table and chairs polished and positioned near the fire pit they rarely used. She opened the window, erasing the vague figure looking in from out there, those eyes searching hers for answers she’d never trusted herself to give. The cool night air brought goosebumps to her skin and the mock oranges swayed in the breeze, releasing a phantom scent of citrus so strong that for a moment, she almost believed dozens of oranges were on their way.
Photo courtesy of Philip Ingrey; view more of his work on Flickr