This story is the third-place winner of the 2014 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2014 stories were judged by bestselling novelist Alice Hoffman. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Hoffman and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
by Courtney Sender
I am 22 and pregnant, which means I’m not a teen statistic, but you can chalk me up to the idiot percentages who think they know what they’re doing with a condom. When I was a kid, I planned my future around a timeline like the one I’m in. Then again, when I was a kid I planned to explore the earth by sea. Now there are no explorers left: satellites can read your watch from space and planes can take you across the planet in a day, and I won’t be 22 and pregnant for long—not because my birthday is around the bend, but because I’m getting it taken care of tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I’m getting it taken care of. Today, I have a dentist’s appointment. I’ve never been to the dentist by myself before; my dad offered to take off work to drive me, but I told him not to because I am 22 and prefer to go myself. I guess I could have canceled the appointment, but my dad’s the one who scheduled it—“August 28th, a little birthday gift!”—and the office doesn’t have online scheduling yet. I hate explaining myself on the phone to people I don’t know.
When I walk into Dr. Gilman’s waiting room, the receptionist remembers my name. My mother has a gift for small talk that balances her inability to discuss anything big, so it’s no surprise that the pony-tailed receptionists at every local beauty parlor and doctor’s office used to know me when I accompanied her. But I’ve been away at school for four years. It’s astonishing that the receptionist, whose name I have forgotten, not only recalls what I look like but also that I went to Swarthmore and was an anthropology major. Maybe my mother called ahead.
“When were you here last?” she asks, smiling.
“I don’t know,” I say, so she smiles and opens a filing cabinet beneath a framed photo of Marilyn Monroe. She pulls out my chart. Her name is Mary-Anne, I remember suddenly. She doubles as a hygienist and used to give me lollipops after my fluoride treatments.
Mary-Anne hands me a clipboard, and I drop into a plastic-coated chair before her desk. On one side of me sits a tired-looking dad in paint-spattered blue jeans. He is reading to his little boy from a book about a hippopotamus with a toothache. The little boy says, “Elephant,” and the father says, “No, hippo,” and the boy looks at me and I swear if he were ten years older he would wink, and he repeats, “Elephant,” and dissolves into a fit of giggles.
I imagine myself looking like a white elephant, white meaning the color of my stomach because I live in the northeast, don’t see the sun, and would burn if I did, not meaning Caucasian because that’s just a social construct. The thing is this baby, if it got born, would have a pretty decent chance of not being scorched in the sun, since its other major chromosomes are Hispanic. Science wouldn’t be able to tell that—there’s no genetic basis for race, so it doesn’t actually exist—but skin color, which is not the same as race, is heritable. The baby would still be Jewish because I am, which you definitely can’t tell from my DNA but is genetic depending on who you’re talking to. My mother, for example, believes in passing faith like a football through the maternal line. I don’t challenge her, thereby avoiding further argument about not marrying a Jewish man.
I am not married, obviously. That’s all part of the twenties as a developmental stage, staying single longer because we are the generation that grew up under the broken canopy of a 50 percent divorce rate and we know where marriage leads. I can just tell already that I won’t marry a Jew, because everyone I’ve been attracted to is not, because everyone who is reminds me of my brother, and anyway heterogeneity is the healthiest thing for a baby.
I have to ask Mary-Anne six questions about only four blanks on the form she gives me, even though I remembered to bring my health insurance card. But my dad’s is the name on the card, not mine; I think I’m still under my parents’ plan, didn’t Obama pass a law?; no, I’m not a college student anymore, but I have been one this fiscal year. I end up calling my dad and passing the cell to Mary-Anne, because she says it will be faster if she asks the questions herself.
“Hi, Mitch, how’re the shelves?” she says. My father is a manager at the largest shelf-production company in the tristate area. Mary-Anne remembers everything. I don’t know if she was married the last time I was here (two years ago, too long but I’ve been flossing), but now a chunky diamond and a gold band glimmer on the hand that holds the phone.
Mary-Anne presses the phone between her cheek and shoulder, gesturing for the clipboard. I hand it to her, just my name and home address filled out, as she takes a pen from behind her ear.
“You’re all set,” she says when she hangs up. “Your dad says be a trouper!” She laughs. “Don’t be nervous—we’re a gentle practice.”
Mary-Anne leads me to the exam room. I sit on the leather recliner where Dr. Gilman pulled my first tooth and unthinkingly turn on the wall-mounted TV with the remote that’s always lain next to me in this room. But then I don’t know what to tune to; my memories play cartoons in the background of the drills, but suddenly I think I should look for the news.
Dr. Gilman comes in. I switch the TV off.
“Congratulations,” he tells me. “Swarthmore. Great school. How long you back in Jersey?”
His latex fingers are in my mouth. I grunt.
“Now, what are we going to do about these wisdom teeth?”
He removes his fingers, my cue to speak. “They never grew in. You said last time that you didn’t think I had any.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what: you’ve got some swelling behind the second molar. Let’s see what’s going on in there.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“I’ll have Mary-Anne do an x-ray.” He pokes at my teeth with a stainless steel pick. “Otherwise you’re lookin’ good, kiddo. Keep it up.”
He heads for the door. I sit up very straight in my reclined chair and my voice, I admit, is probably louder than it needs to be when I say, “Do I really need an x-ray?”
He turns to face me. He’s developed an extra chin since I was here last. “Some people never get third molars, but sometimes they don’t grow until your thirties. You were late to lose your baby teeth, weren’t you? Can’t hurt to check in.”
I don’t know what else to say. Dr. Gilman leaves. Mary-Anne enters, whistling through gap teeth, carrying a lead apron. She drapes it over me, and as I feel its weight pull my shoulders I find myself wishing it were thicker and heavier. Mary-Anne removes my glasses, and the world goes blurry. A camera descends from the ceiling. I think about how my mother might decide arbitrarily that she doesn’t want an x-ray: she would probably just say no, I don’t want this procedure, and the people who ordered the procedure would nod seriously and not do the procedure and ask after her husband’s shelves.
Mary-Anne retrieves metal plates for me to bite down on. I keep waiting for her to ask if there’s any chance I might be pregnant, and I keep wondering how I can bring myself to say yes. I decide to say Yes, there is a chance, and leave it at that, but she doesn’t even ask. Maybe x-rays to the jaw don’t bother the organs so much lower, that’s why. Besides the risk shouldn’t matter to me. Why bother protecting something I’m not particularly planning to protect?
Still, for as long as I have it I think I’d like to keep it safe. That seems like the least I should do.
“Ow,” I say.
Mary-Anne’s fingers freeze around the plates in my lower jaw as she asks what hurts. Nothing hurts.
“Let’s reposition these,” she says. “Sometimes they can feel a bit sharp, nothing to worry about.”
Rubber and metal again, painlessly scraping the roof of my mouth. I imagine invisible cells sloughing into her hand. I twist my head against the leather chair.
Mary-Anne’s hands retreat again. She sighs. “Why don’t we talk about something else? How’s your mom?”
“Glad to have me home, I think.”
Mary-Anne looks at me like I must have lost a few good brain synapses on the car ride over.
“Oh,” I say, “my parents signed him up to go to Copenhagen. For a summer abroad thing.” My little brother’s name is Noah, but since he started college he’s been asking everyone to call him Nicky—it’s more nineties, he says, and he is politically and morally opposed to the direction this country has taken since then.
“That’s nice,” Mary-Anne replies absently, and she inserts the plates between my teeth and clamps my jaw around them. If I try to speak again, they’ll choke me.
Once the door shuts behind Mary-Anne, the tissue paper under my chin crinkles noisily. I stare straight into the x-ray camera: black lens and white plastic, and inside them metal tubes that I imagine more than see. I picture them twining, electric purple and alive.
It takes me about three seconds after the door shuts to decide that I need to reschedule this x-ray for next week. But by then, it’s been three seconds. How long is the walk from the patient room to the x-ray operating board? Does such a thing exist? How quickly will Mary-Anne know I’m not in the chair? What if she triggers the x-ray while I’m standing up, and she gets me in the neck, or the heart, or somewhere lower?
As I am engineering a way to slide myself in a single fluid motion from the chair to the door, I hear the camera click. The machine rotates. The black lens watches me, then clicks again. I sit absolutely still, lengthening my neck as much as I can, until Mary-Anne comes in and smiles and lifts my vest over my head.
Mary-Anne leaves me alone as she delivers the film to Dr. Gilman. I remind myself over and over that the clenching in my abdomen must be my stomach, hungry.
When Dr. Gilman re-enters, he pats my shoulder companionably. “I’m seeing some growth in the lower gums.”
“Okay,” I say.
“We could wait to confirm whether the teeth erupt, but what you’ll find more and more these days is removal while they’re impacted. I think, given the amount your parents spent on orthodontia, that’s probably the safest option.” He pauses as if he’s requested my opinion, but frankly I haven’t had the chance to research this matter.
Dr. Gilman gives the satisfied nod of a teacher whose favorite student has produced the correct answer. “Have Mary-Anne schedule an extraction,” he says. He checks my file, probably to confirm the five years I wore braces. “Wouldn’t want to spoil that gorgeous smile.”
I take my glasses in hand and return to the waiting room. The hippopotamus book is lying facedown on the father’s empty chair. Dr. Gilman doesn’t join me at the reception desk, over which Marilyn’s white dress is forever blowing above her waist. It must be my responsibility to tell Mary-Anne that I need an extraction.
I shirk this responsibility. She says, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” and I tell her I’ll hold off a few months before we schedule my next appointment.
As I walk outside, I press my tongue to the back of my molars to feel for swelling. I can only discern the differently smooth surfaces where plasticky teeth meet fleshy gums. The longer I focus my nerves into my tongue, the more I sense that I am probing someone else’s mouth.
The only other mouth I’ve felt this summer belongs to a guy who was just a week-long hook-up, nothing serious but not a one-night stand. I liked Javi because he smiled at me across the table in the Englewood public library one month after graduation, and because we walked out at the same time, since I packed up my books when I saw him packing his. I’d noted appreciatively that he had a strong jawline and a straight nose. He hummed “Silent Night” on his way down the stairs, punchy and off-season.
“You going somewhere special?” he said. His fluid accent echoed in the cement stairwell, as soft as his toasted brown skin, and to this day I’m not sure this was a question; it might have been a prophecy.
I never got to know him especially well, but I did learn that he’d grown up in Mexico City and that his father had given him the gold crucifix on the chain around his neck. When I first pulled his tee-shirt over his head, the little metal body fell from his elastic collar into the dip in his clavicle. I reached for its tiny outstretched arms, but Javi’s hand fell protectively over his chest. “I keep this on,” he said. I hadn’t meant to remove it—only to see it better.
I would have spent months studying Javi, finding out his favorite memory and his worst regret, but he grew bored of me quickly and I was feeling too tired to cling.
One of the details I do know about him is that he calls himself Catholic. I don’t know where he starts following the rules and where he stops—and it’s apparent that he stops—so I have no reason to give him papal opinions one way or the other. Still I would kill to find out whether he votes Democrat or Republican. He’s a minority and an immigrant, but he also carries Jesus on his chest, and as I slide into my car I close my eyes and see the little figure dripping red.
I swallow the saliva that’s built up since Mary-Anne removed the gurgling vacuum from my tongue. The burnt taste of x-ray plates slides down my throat and into my stomach.
I put my glasses back firmly around my ears. The fuzzy world turns sharp: even the leaves in the trees are filed to fine points.
I twist my key in the ignition, and the engine lurches to life.
I pass my house three times without pulling into the driveway. There’s something smoldering in my ribcage; I can’t remember driving home. On my fourth attempt at turning into my garage, I see the blinds rising in an upstairs window. My mother’s study. I imagine her manicured hand pulling the cord beside the vinyl slats, and my car jolts forward as the engine shifts gears, propelling me past my neighbors’ low hedges to the end of the block. I text her to explain that I’ll be coming home late. She texts back, ok.
Though I’ve already seen one doctor today, I swing onto Grand Avenue and follow the route to tomorrow’s appointment—just to ingrain the directions, so I won’t have to think about them. It stands to reason that focusing on a GPS reduces your attention to the road. I’ve never read an article on the subject, but that only means somebody ought to write one.
My high school sits half a mile before the clinic along Grand. As its remodeled stucco siding appears in my passenger-side window, I remember being president of the Helping Hands volunteer club there and captain of the track team, running in circles around the soccer field. I remember the feeling of my abs, each side contracting as I lengthened my stride. The memory feels powerful—a clenched fist; a firm No—and without time to turn on my blinker I swerve into the parking lot.
I sneak past the senior who’s volunteered to be this week’s security guard, proving his value to my placid suburban public school by falling asleep. I stand beside his chair and watch him for a minute, the beginnings of a thin blond moustache sprouting by his fleshy cheeks, and I note that seniors in high school seem like babies five years later, very cute in a pat-you-on-the-head kind of way. His cell phone is just seconds from dropping out of his limp hand.
I leave him for the main hallway; Nyack Slopes High doesn’t have metal detectors or anything, so I don’t worry about that. I climb the stairs to my favorite teacher’s classroom. Through its open door, I see her working at the same neat desk that sits in my memories, facing the same neat arc of seats, and penciling in the margins of Wuthering Heights while the kids are writing an in-class essay. I walk right in.
“Hi, Mrs. Tepper,” I say, then very quickly I add my name and graduating year to stave off our mutual humiliation if she’s forgotten me. There’s a framed photo of a girl on her desk, braces thrust toward the camera.
“Of course I remember you,” she says, which is nice whether or not it’s true. This is the teacher who once remarked on my paper—a fifteen-pager arguing that genetic modification of tomatoes both did and did not make sense—that I was smart but stymied. Which I didn’t tell her was ridiculous, because anyone smart is necessarily stymied.
She is the adult, so I stand a while waiting for her to talk first. “How are you?” she asks.
“I just finished college.”
“Congratulations! That’s a real accomplishment.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“So what’s the next step for you?”
“Not sure,” I say, because although this is the vaguest and least interesting way to answer, it is also the truest.
Some girl in a white summer dress glares at me as if I’m interrupting a brilliant thought. She probably thinks her essay on Brontë’s first through seventh chapters will get her into a good college. I stifle the urge to tell her, You’re so young, kid—you’re allowed to relax!
“How about teaching?” Mrs. Tepper asks. “Alice Wilcox seems to love it.” So my salutatorian has found a career; Mrs. Tepper must think I haven’t much unbaffled myself over the course of my undergraduate education. I consider reminding her where I went to college.
“Maybe. For now I’m living back home, sending out job applications. Hopefully something will come through.” In fact I had been planning to take the GRE and the LSAT both, then applying with whichever earned me the higher score. But I’d been studying in the library, and I couldn’t keep going there once Javi stopped. It’s possible that I’m what made him stay away, and also hurtful in a way I can’t neatly describe. Each time I sat without him beside the old, empty card catalogue drawers, a rubber band squeezed my heart. After a few weeks, it wrapped my stomach and then my pelvis. I stopped going to the library.
“It’s a tough economy,” Mrs. Tepper says. I’m grateful that she has decided to help make my excuses.
“Five job-seekers for every job,” I add, a statistic I read a few months ago.
We fall silent. I observe the rows of Mango Streets that line the shelves around the classroom, worn yellow cover after worn yellow cover. The main character in that book, I remember—her name is Esperanza. That’s “hope” in Spanish. It’s the only Spanish word I know aside from sí and gracias. In Spanish, I am helplessly optimistic.
It must be my turn to ask a question, though I can’t tell what’s appropriate to ask a former teacher and what would be prying. I can’t even tell if I should call her Mrs. Tepper or her name, which I think is Nancy. “How are you?”
“Great! Gracie’s ten already, can you believe it?”
“Wow,” I say. Mrs. Tepper’s daughter had been a toddler when I was the kid agonizing over the in-class essay; sometimes she came to school and drooled on Mrs. Tepper’s shoulder. I wonder now whether Mrs. Tepper’s husband ever took Gracie to his law firm in return.
“She’s learning to play Für Elise. She’s almost got the left hand down.”
“That seems so fast,” I say. “I take a few classes, and already Gracie’s playing piano. Did it feel fast? Did it feel like no time at all?”
Mrs. Tepper laughs. “Don’t you worry,” she says. “You’ve got plenty of time. You’ve got the whole world open to you.” She closes Wuthering Heights around her finger. “Can I tell you a secret?” She looks at me as if my whole body is a lifeline she’s about to read. And after all she is a mother, isn’t she? She is a mother unlike my mother, one who listens as her daughter learns Für Elise. My lungs fill up with my yes.
“Travel,” Mrs. Tepper tells me, with as much earnestness as one word can fit. “I wish I had traveled. Spend a few months working, then get on an airplane.”
I deflate. Security checks, I want to tell her. More x-rays.
“Well, it’s been nice seeing you, Mrs. Tepper,” I say. The bookshelves that line this room are my father’s. I can tell because of their edges: Dad doesn’t believe in right angles. Every shelf in this room is round at every corner, soft and painless even if you run right into them on your way out the door.
The volunteer security boy is gone by the time I pass his post a second time. I find my car, plug my cell phone into the cigarette lighter, turn on pop 100 radio, and start finishing my trip toward the real doctor.
I’m driving next to this landscaping truck that thinks it owns the road. I wish I could pass it or drop behind it, but there’s a silver minivan tailing me and I’m pretty much tailing the sedan in front of me. The medical complex is one traffic light away. The OB/GYN there is like my mother: good at making noise and bad at talking. I think about calling Javi, who might in the end have some opinion that I might deem worth listening to, but I don’t want to seem lost or like I miss him. His opinion either way is irrelevant, because my body is my own and if the Supreme Court ever changed that I would take the bar to set them straight or else I’d move to Canada. Canada’s cold but I do know French, and Montreal is supposedly hilly enough to be good exercise, which would increase my lifespan.
My phone lights up. I grab at it thinking Thank God, preparing how I’ll justify myself if he asks, You going somewhere special?, but the phone goes dark. I slam on my brakes, because the brightness was just the reflection of the green light turning yellow.
I watch my rear-view mirror as the silver minivan behind me decelerates. My polished teeth bite my lip: the minivan is still advancing so quickly that it’s like a movie happening before my right eye and not a reality happening behind my head. I have milliseconds before the impact, enough to process its likelihood, too few to avoid it; my heart thrashes; I curl my back a little, tucking my stomach into my spine, so if I crash into the steering wheel I’ll go chest and shoulders first.
The minivan stops in time. I unfurl. My arm is across my lap. Exhaust from the landscaping truck wobbles over my windshield.
I’d been intending to tell Javi that the thing is I know how I plan to raise my kid. We’ll fill our house with books and newspapers and almanacs, classic films, boxes bursting with crayons and glitter and posterboard. We’ll attend Friday-night synagogue and take piano lessons and play Beethoven over dinner. We’ll go to marathons and the beach and Europe, we’ll volunteer at nursing homes and food pantries, we’ll snorkel and sail and jog and ice skate and trampoline and we will laugh.
And these things will require money. Not to mention time, and commitment, and a stable home. I am only in my twenties. First I need to learn to cook and change my car oil, feel a forehead for temperature, small talk with grown-ups, read a health insurance card. First I need to learn to make another person want those things with me.
The light turns green again. The truck cuts in front of me and away. I pull down the visor because the sun is falling from the collar of the sky, glaring in my eyes, refracted in the kind of unexpected misty rain against which my windshield wipers do nothing. I drive slowly, checking my mirrors before swerving away from potholes. Every green-metal street sign looks fractured against the golden drizzle.
I pull into a diagonally slanted space on the far end of a gray building flanked by an oversized parking lot. My phone does ring, and I pick it up. It’s my mother, singing.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Twenty-three!” she says. “I can’t believe it.”
“Not technically for another few hours, Mom.”
“I know,” she says, “but I can’t stay up till midnight and who knows when you’ll get home. Sounds like you and your friends are having quite the evening. How does it feel?”
She laughs. “You’ve been saying that since you were twelve. Oy, twenty-three just sounds older, doesn’t it? A real adult.” I put on the parking brake. “Though you’ll always be a little girl to me.”
I am grinding the teeth that debuted on x-ray film today, and I remember that when I was younger I used to think adult was a phrase: a dolt, two dolts, and three and four.
“Are you there?” she says in my ear. I am wondering how much radiation is in a cell phone and how small a brain might be damaged by exposure.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Then speak up! What’s going on?”
I don’t know which of the many things I might say is the one I should say.
“I’m having Juana clean your room today, just so you know. She did Nicky’s last week. Consider it a birthday gift.” Juana has stunning, toasted skin, yellow-toned and warm, and she sings her mother’s lullabies as she dislodges sopping hair from my shower drain. I realize that I hadn’t planned to take my kid to Mexico. I wouldn’t know how to speak there, or when to sing or what to wear to church.
“God, I’m jealous of you,” my mother says. I notice that I’m not seeing the concrete building anymore. My eyes are closed.
“Jealous of what?”
She says nothing. I want to ask her: twenty-three years ago—did she want to protect the tiny unseeable thing that became me? Did she know how? “Mom,” I say. I want to ask her: I couldn’t protect it. But I wanted to. “Mom.” Where’s the question in it?
“What a gift,” my mother says, finally. In the background, I hear my father: Find out if the dentist went okay. “You’ve got all the time in the world.”
And that’s when I tell her that my friends are calling for me and I have to run, and I shut off the cell phone and drop it far from my torso, and I hear it clatter under the passenger seat as my glasses slip low on my nose and into my lap. I feel I’m missing something, a nostalgic ache not for the past but for one of the futures tomorrow will raze. I picture them both—clouds of possibility draped in metal aprons, a Marilyn breeze lifting their leaden hems—and I see myself mark their misty bellies, pick up a scalpel, and take aim.