Maria keeps her birth control pills in a plastic bag under the third step of their porch, where some brush covers it for her. The spiral packages remain clean, while the plastic bag muddies after a week or two from torrents of rain and wind. Maria concocted this system soon after she and her wife Joan had decided to have a child.
“I think we’re ready,” Joan had said. “We should start looking at clinics and I’ll talk to Lizzie about testing for fertility.” Maria’s dark curls laid loosely on her shoulders and Joan wrapped her hairy forearms about her waist lifting Maria into the air. Under her wife’s touch, chilled by her wife’s soft hands, Maria shuddered.
“Lizzie is an OBGYN, not a fertility specialist,” Maria had said.
“But consulting her first wouldn’t hurt,” Joan responded.
Lizzie is Joan’s younger sister, who prescribed Maria birth control. When Lizzie originally tested their egg counts, she had found that Joan’s was very low compared to Maria, saying that it was unlikely that Joan would conceive. This difference led Joan to suggest Maria be the one to carry the child; Maria consented in silence. She gazed at Lizzie’s bulging blue eyes and trapped her in a conspiracy to lie to her sister. Money to revive her new practice; birth control for Maria.
“I don’t want this Lizzie,” Maria said while Joan used the bathroom.
“Have you told Joan?” Lizzie said, sitting down next to Maria and placing her hand on Maria’s dark wool sweater.
“I don’t think I can,” Maria swallowed, her throat slithering down the maroon fabric around her neck.
“Do you want my help?”
This day, Maria, outside to swallow her pill alone, nearly her last one that month, sees a deer approach from the woods behind. Their home, as Maria always wanted, backed into a thick forest of cypresses and maples, which obscures their neighbors and opens them up to the natural world. This region of Pennsylvania contains the natural drama of the northeast corridor with the quotidian assemblages of the middle class parts of the South. Maria imagines this yard as the site of faux-camping trips for their family under a starry night sky, warmed by fire and roasting s’mores, the hum of summer locusts slowly whispering the family to sleep. At once, she sees herself and Joan, the same worn early-middle age as the first vision. Their fingers fold together like origami paper, and expensive knit sweaters wrap up their bodies, hot coffee steam splashes their eyes in waves and they calmly scan their domain. All the while, a rescued Rottweiler strolls the lawn, their desire for each other echoed there. Their hands jointly mold the clay of their future and a straight-lined life doesn’t dictate the temporal nodes of life’s milestones.
“Are you sure we are ready for a child?” Maria had said to Joan. Maria’s shiver leveled to a tremble.
“How would we really know?” Joan had responded. “This is something we both want, right?” Joan said this as if the future had no history, but was a single trek towards the child and creation. Her leading question shut down Maria’s possibilities and she wanted to whisper “that’s not true,” to her wife, but her vocal cords refused.
The deer approaches and Maria stills herself. The deer has a part of its right ear lopped off at the tip where a tag had been ripped off by a branch as the deer scurried through the forest. Maria edges closer to the deer to pet it. A crow sounds in the distance and burnt wood floods the wind. Joan and Maria keep salt cubes in the bird feeder for deer to lick. She grabs one and places it out on her palm for the deer. It moves cautiously in her direction and begins to gently lick the cube. Joan opens the backdoor, startling the deer and Maria says “damn Joany.”
“Yes,” Maria said, then hesitated. “I think it is something we both want. I’m only worried what it does to our lives in the long term. What is our future then?”
“As parents,” Joan had said. “Our lives will be richer because of them. The children are our future.”
“Them?” Maria had said. “There’s going to be more than one?”
“I hope so.”
That same night, Maria had stayed wide awake watching the moon fall, then the sun surge through their bedroom window while Joan’s arm draped her, smothering her under the bed spread. Freeing herself up around 5 am, Maria stood in the shower only to whisper “what do I want?” to herself. The water filled below her and she wished she could drain down the pipes out the backyard, down the way, and to the waste dump where she would be sanitized with other foreign objects in the supply. She dreamed of being barren and released from her wife’s demands.
“What are you doing out here?” Joan says. Joan’s broad shoulders shadow the grass around Maria’s more feminine frame.
“Grabbing fire wood,” Maria moves to do just that. “But a deer came up and I was feeding it some salt. You scared it away.”
“Oh,” Joan is unfazed. “I’m sorry. Maybe it will come back to you. There are so many—too many out here anyway.”
Maria lifts wood and heads inside. She texts Lizzie to schedule a time to come in and renew her prescription. Maria worried automatic refills could make their way back to Joan via a phone call from the pharmacy. Plus, this way, Maria could check up on Lizzie and ensure she remained on board with their plan.
She had exited the shower and heard Joan downstairs having breakfast. But on the table sat half a dozen books with titles like “Artificial Insemination and the Pregnancy Life,” “When One Carries, the Other Cares,” and “Marriage and Birth: A Survival Guide.” The pile sat next to a plate of Maria’s preferred eggs, rye toast, and orange juice.
“What is all this?”
“I brought these last week after I told Lizzie we were looking into being parents”
“Joany,” Maria’s eyes filled. “I wish you would have waited for me”
“What’s wrong?” Joan slid close to Maria.
“I’m scared Joan,” Maria said. “Children are a huge commitment and we still have time. We are so young still.”
“But now is right,” Joan insisted. “Our jobs are stable and we own a house in a good neighborhood with excellent schools,” she backed away from Maria, who wondered if this could start an argument. Maria knew she couldn’t fight Joan’s logic. Logic presented a problem. Dictated from on high, the logic of reproducing checked out. Yet, Maria did not desire logic. Giving birth to children made her gut pulse as if she was about to vomit and cold sweat droplets dripped onto her stomach from her armpits.
“I don’t know if I’m ready, or if we should have children, it feels unnatural.”
“What?” Joan lifted her voice.
“I don’t think I’m ready,” Maria repeated.
“You’ll be an amazing mother.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“But, then what is your worry?”
Maria submitted to Joan. Maria had sensed a boiling in herself that would spill over and burn Joan, but she couldn’t locate its source. Joan stood in front of her, arms loosely folded, and Maria absorbed Joan’s impenetrable stare, a reminder of why she fell in love with and married Joan. Behind her was the kitchen they labored on for months together and the rustic orange paint they fought over. Joan had wanted azure to contrast their wooded backyard, Maria disagreed and Joan had relented. Their marriage had a natural give and take, but if Maria gave Joan a child, what would Maria be allowed to take in return? The thought made her shiver again, she dismissed it and ate breakfast with her wife.
And after speaking with Lizzie and with no clear answer to Joan’s question: what is your worry; Maria began to secretly withhold a child from her wife.
Maria texts Lizzie about picking up a new prescription.
I need to come in today
You need to tell her or I will
Not yet, work is stressful for both of us right now
This is the last time
Okay, I’ll swing by after lunch
Lizzie’s office is small, which gifts the waiting area a comfort for the mostly young clientele. Outside Joan and Maria, Lizzie administers to mostly teenage clients and some twenty year olds. It is a small practice, but Lizzie is proud of it. When it started, Joan and Maria invested most of the money, at Maria’s insistence; Joan had wanted to save the money to start a family. Lizzie, tall and brunette, with steely glasses of a young professional woman, comes out of the back examination areas. Her sapphire eyes are serious as she guides a young black girl out with dyed hair, handing her off to the girl’s mother.
“All good?” the mother asks cheerfully.
“Absolutely,” Lizzie looks back at her notes. Her expression shifts from medical professional to customer service. “No major issues. Come back in 6 months. Call tomorrow to set up an appointment.”
“Okay,” the girl says. Maria thinks the girl looks cramped. Maria doesn’t believe women possess intimate, intuitive knowledge about each other—what even is a woman?—but, this girl appears tense around her mother.
Lizzie wishes the women a good day and meets Maria to walk down the office hallway to the back room. Lizzie points to a polyester chair opposing her modern glass desk.
“You look exhausted” Maria glides into the seat. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t even have a receptionist. This job is killing me.”
“I can help look at the numbers for you. We can figure it out,” Maria leans forward to extend her hand across the glass desk and touch Lizzie’s hand. “Joan and I will give you more money.”
Lizzie’s head rises. “I’m sorry. I’m fine.”
Maria leans back on the chair, “Let me know if you want anything.”
“Promise I will,” Lizzie’s voice ticks upward. “You have to tell Joan or I will.”
“Just write the script.”
“You have a month, or I will tell her. Now, please get out I have patients.”
“You know I love her very much, I just don’t want this.”
“Then tell her or you don’t really love her.”
They walk down the hallway a bit before Lizzie turns to face Maria, “Why did you even marry her if you’re going to be this way?” Before Maria could answer Lizzie turns back away “don’t answer that.” Lizzie holds out her arm to direct Maria out of the office. They exchange glances, and when the waiting room door opens, both women resume their respective hospitality and good-will.
Maria turns out of the office and into her car, checking her pocket to ensure she hasn’t dropped the prescription. She doesn’t know where to drive. She starts towards work and then turns where, as she stops at a light, there is a baby store Joan and she visited in anticipation of a pregnancy. She turns into the lot, sitting in her car.
“See this is the crib I want because it matches this changing table best, and well,” Joan had said. “That changing table is the best one, look at all the drawers. The table is so wide.”
Maria now speeds by the courthouse where they signed their marriage license. That day and the reception that followed, pressed into Maria’s mind like a child’s fingers in wet sidewalk concrete. Its sandy texture stuck under her nails and the gray proto-solid condensed beneath her palm print. Joan imprinted herself on Maria. They threw a large reception, but only some family and a few witnesses at the courthouse to make the marriage legal. Their lives were to be quiet and pleasant, accorded comfort from material liquidity and a clear, straight-lined future. She checks her pocket.
“Marriage is fucking stupid,” Maria had said on the day of their first anniversary. “But I wouldn’t want to participate in a corrupt institution with anyone else.”
Maria turns around to drive home, taking the day from work.
Again, at the baby store, Maria saw her reflection in the changing table mirror. She looked at it, wanting to fall in it like Narcissus and drown herself. But, she was already drowning. She wanted to smash the mirror with her fist, bring it crashing around her knuckles, slicing them, doing what Narcissus would do if he was a woman.
Maria is back in the clearing of cypresses. Their sticky needles cling to her boots with the mud, or dung, or whatever else lay on the forest floor. A squirrel scurries past her and the leaves sound like a symphony of paper.
“Joany,” Maria had said. “Why are we here?”
“We’re just window shopping,” Joan said. “Don’t be a drag.”
“I’m not even pregnant yet,” Maria said. “This is giving me anxiety.”
The forestation gives little under her boots. She pauses. Few things move; she listens and decides to sit down. She smells burning asphalt from the nearby highway, and it reminds her of summer family trips. Leaves moan under her, the dew glistens on the greens around her. Crossing her legs, Maria huddles her knees against her chest. Her fleece keeps her warm, but she wants the plants around her to smother her body, bury it alive, cover it in the onyx ash of a forest fire. She hopes Joan journeys out behind her and digs her up, lifts the grey charcoal with her hands, rapidly scurries into the earth like that squirrel, down to its core where Maria sits, alone, huddled and warm.
“Do you not want this life?”
“I want to make something new.”
Maria dizzies and stands. In that straight path back to the second clearing, where she convened with the deer and the once-upon-a-time Joan, Maria’s trembling quiets, and she exists in participation with nature.
“I want the life my parents had.”
She finds the second clearing, deeper in the woods than she recalled, where the deer pranced around. In the center, as if sacrificed, lies the deer, away from which a raccoon hurries, its snout bloodied. She smells rot.
“Can we please leave?”
Maggots envelope the entrails like a white butter on rye toast.
A knock at the door and Joan answers to see Lizzie, still in her white jacket on their porch.
“Lizzie,” Joan says. “What a surprise.”
“Maria didn’t tell you?”
Joan pauses peering over her shoulder at her spouse. Maria gazes past Joan onto the porch at her sister-in-law leaning against the door frame playing with tassels on her jacket.
“Can I come in?”
“Please do,” Maria crosses her arms. “I’ll make some coffee.”
“Do you need money?” Joan whispers to Lizzie in the hall. Lizzie looks at her eyes, walking past her sister. Maria stands in the kitchen with her hand flat on the counter, her left arm taut like a cord holding up a suspension bridge.
“We only have tea,” Maria says. “The water is heating on the stove.” It slowly begins to simmer, singeing the dried scraps of burnt food on the electric stovetop. Maria feels compelled to stop the water and clean the stovetop immediately, igniting the cleaning chemicals and inhaling them deeply through her mouth, then down her throat hoping something stops Lizzie from speaking. She then wants to vomit, retch her innards. Instead, she finishes preparing the tea, pausing for the water to boil.
“I need to say something to the both of you,” Lizzie says sitting at the table. Maria shakes silently, standing taut alone on the far side listening to the words slowly, but bitterly anticipating: she’s lying to you.
“I think you need to adjust your plans for children,” Lizzie begins.
“What do you mean?” Joan says.
“Lizzie,” Maria interjects. “Don’t say something you’ll regret.” Joan swings her head around as if to suggest what do you mean? and Lizzie glares back from the table, the architecture of the kitchen collapses around the three women.
“Will you let me speak please?” Lizzie says. The kitchen returns.
The water boils; the pot whistles, and the burnt smell dissipates.
“We should run more hormonal tests on both of you because something with Maria’s eggs isn’t working and I can’t seem to figure it out. You should see an actual specialist because this isn’t as straight forward as I thought it would be.”
Maria removes the pot from the stove, silencing its wail. A discussion follows about costs, time tables, outcomes, and the like. Lizzie even suggests Joan try to conceive. As the three of them speak, Maria’s mind drifts away from the kitchen. She smells the soft winter wood outside and the snap cold of the autumnal forest. She wonders what they will have for dinner and fancies pizza from their favorite spot, but if they order out, Joan will probably make them choose Chinese. Maria rubs her clammy hands on her jeans, turning the light blue into speckles of navy. Joan looks over to Maria now and again asking for her input on various matters and she responds, always, with “I agree with you Joan.”
After an hour or so of speaking and Maria’s absent minded speaking, Joan stands from the table. “I’m going outside, I need air.” Lizzie leaves disappointed: she can’t break her sister’s heart; Maria, vindicated.
She sat alone in the den. The fire place brews a warm air that permeates the small space. With windows shifting in the sunlight and the fire rumbling, Maria begins to drift into sleep. The stress caused by Lizzie’s visit left her tired, ragged with fear. At the edge of sleep, Joan’s voice whistles through her ears “Maria” it says like a sensual whisper, a fleeting call to her beloved. It grew slowly to a full bodied “Maria,” finally it became physical, wrestling her eyes open to her lover standing above her, tears swelling under her eyelids, and a dirty gallon plastic bag containing Maria’s bottle of pills. Maria checks her pocket, the script still there.
The deer emerges again onto their lawn and approaches Maria and the salt cubes. It dances towards them, springing its hind legs in delight. Maria swallows her pill and begins to pet the wild animal.
“You didn’t have to do this,” Joan begins.
“I’m not done.”
After a few cubes, the deer perks its head and returns to the woods. Maria follows it onto the crunching leaves and pine needles both brown and green. Her hands shiver, she steadies them by pulling them into her body and under her arms. The deer hops to one clearing of cypresses, burned to the ground at the center—the soil, charred grey. Swirling winds penetrate into the clearing, enrapturing leaves, which whirl up and around Maria. A bird, maybe a crow or raven, sits upon a branch above. The deer continues deeper into the woods.
“I don’t know why you did this,” Joan says, she doesn’t lower the bag, instead holding it above her shoulders, which slump and her elbows bend like an early human capturing and displaying the hunt.
“I will carry the baby. You can stay or go. I will have a child.”
“Joany,” Maria says. “I’m not going anywhere.” Maria stood to comfort Joan by resting her hands on Joan’s shoulders, but Joan leaps back away from her. Maria’s hands sit in the air, open from nearly squeezing Joan, attempting physical affection to investigate for forgiveness.
“The baby will be mine, not ours,” then Joan left the room, dropping the package into the garbage. Maria opens the door to the lawn.
The second clearing and the deer stills, while a helicopter billows towards the center of town. Maria begins to sweat as if a forest fire bursts around her. She thinks she sees Joan in front of her, but younger, Maria steps to embrace her. The musical nodes of the propeller fly into to a single high pitched whirl as if Maria has tinnitus. All sound empties; she can only see the striking young image of her lover, a woman, but not tired or worn by the beginnings of middle age. Joan’s honey perfume blows in the wind. Maria’s desires manifest at her feet as the clearing extends outward, opening not to the anarchy of nature, but a pathway into the woods where she can follow the deer out of the confines of her pleasant woodland to something worse, or better, or neither.