Natalia Giovengo is an English major with an emphasis in Fiction Writing. When she has writer’s block, she walks dogs, plays videogames, or finds pizza to eat. When she doesn’t have writer’s block… No, she always has writer’s block, but she has become good at pushing through it.
Jalil was different ever since his niece Tasha died.
The two of them had been close. His love for spending time with her had been what prompted us to go ahead with the surrogacy. After all, we had the money saved up, the cozy two-bedroom house in a decent neighborhood in Tacoma, the desire to prove wrong our family members who had doubted our ability to start a functional family.
But then she died.
The whole affair was ugly, heartbreaking. Her father said she’d been walking home with a friend when a van sped around the corner and sent six bullets into her back. She died instantly.
He seemed to lose his purpose. I was too afraid to talk to him about the impending arrival of our baby girl. He spent his days floating between work and the bedroom, barely speaking or eating.
I kept my distance. I didn’t want to disturb him or set him off. I was afraid if I did, he would tell me what I was most afraid to hear. I had to keep the dream of our family alive.
So I tied a knot in my throat and kept silent for four months.
. . .
When I got home, I dropped my car keys into the bowl on the kitchen counter, ready to pull out a cold turkey sandwich from the fridge and settle on the couch with a book. But instead of the quiet living room I’d grown used to, I saw Jalil. He was a statue sitting on the couch in front of the TV, watching a blonde news reporter ramble.
“Jalil?” I said.
He gave a little jump and turned.
“Elijah. I was watching… How was work?” he said, standing and wringing his hands.
“Are you okay?” I asked, coming closer and resting my hands on the back of our red couch.
My eyes fell upon the coffee table where two bowls of baked potato soup sat, still steaming.
“I made us dinner,” he said.
“I was going to just…,” I started, running a hand through my hair. “Thanks.”
This had been our ritual once. Settling down on the couch with a hot soup, our legs intertwined, ready to laugh or shake our heads at the monotone voices of the same three evening news reporters.
“Did you want to eat?” he asked.
“Yeah. Yeah,” I said, coming around to the front of the couch.
We sat down at the same time. I grabbed the remote and turned the TV off. Jalil’s eyes lingered on the dark screen.
I ate in silence, letting the soup burn my tongue. Jalil still hadn’t picked up his bowl.
“You didn’t call,” he said.
“What?” I said, pausing over the bowl.
“You didn’t call. To say there was an ultrasound today. I only saw it on the calendar when I got home.”
I’d scheduled the appointment a while back. Eva, our surrogate, had agreed to the unusually late ultrasound. I’d spent most of the day marveling over the 3D pictures, trying to memorize them.
“It’s been on the calendar for three months,” I said.
“I didn’t see it for three months,” he said, his eyes meeting mine.
I dropped my gaze to my bowl, filling my spoon again.
“Well. I thought you’d have seen it. I thought you were busy,” I said, still not looking at him.
I cleared my throat.
“What did she look like?” he asked after a moment.
I looked up. His brown eyes were glazed over, the lines of his face still.
“Did she look healthy? Eva? And the baby? She’s only got about a month left, right?”
I was shocked he remembered. I nodded.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Do you have pictures?” he asked.
“Um. Yeah. In the car,” I said.
He leaned back against the couch and closed his eyes.
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” he said.
I felt the string in my throat tighten. I stood up, gripping the bowl. Jalil opened his eyes and looked at me.
“I have to send some emails for work,” I said, my hands shaking so the remaining soup sloshed against the sides of the bowl. “I’ll leave the pictures out for you on the counter later.”
Without a word, I went to the kitchen and set my bowl in the sink. I walked down the hall to my office and shut the door behind me.
. . .
Later that week, I was exhausted and anxious. With the start date of my paternity leave looming over my head, my desk was piled almost a foot high with résumés, HR complaints, and employee evals.
An hour before my lunch, Jalil called. He never called while I was at work. Not anymore.
“Hello?” I said, pressing the phone to my ear.
“Do you think I’ll have to cut back hours?” Jalil asked, as if we’d been having this conversation for a while.
I could hear the bustle of the warehouse where he worked in the background: the calls for shipments, the beeping of trucks backing up to get unloaded, the slams of boxes carelessly hitting the ground.
I rolled my chair back from my desk.
“Hours for what?” I said, peeking out through the crack of my open door to see if anyone was walking past outside.
“My job. It’s bad timing. The manager is nervous about sending me on leave when we’re supposed to be getting these corporate shipments soon. It’s gonna be a mess.”
The doubt, again. I swallowed and felt the knot squeeze in my throat.
“Maybe they won’t even let me go,” he continued. “And if they do, they’re not gonna be willing to let me take less hours when I get back.”
“Is this something we need to talk about right now?” I asked, my leg bouncing rapidly on one of the legs of my chair.
“Aren’t you on lunch right now?” he asked.
“No, not for another hour.”
Since Tasha died. Since he stopped calling me to complain about his co-managers. Since I was too afraid to call anymore.
“It’s new,” I said, strands of hair getting caught between my fingers as I pulled my hand out of my hair. “Look, I have a mountain of paperwork to get through. Let’s talk about this later?”
He paused. I thought I heard him sigh.
He hung up.
I dropped my phone on my desk and put my head in my hands. After a few minutes, I texted one of my coworkers.
–drinks tonight at the tavern?
I took a deep breath. The string in my throat settled.
. . .
“Where are you going?” Jalil asked.
This was the first time we’d gone shopping together in months. I’d planned to go by myself, Eva’s due date so close I had to keep busy. But Jalil insisted on tagging along.
I stopped the cart as I was about to turn towards the baby section of the store.
“Oh. Groceries, right,” I said, shaking my head and turning the cart around. “Why don’t you start? I wanted to check something out.”
“You want me to just come with you?” he asked, resting his hands on the cart.
“No. It’s faster if we split up.”
He stared at me for a moment.
“Alright,” he said.
“I’ll come find you,” I called after him.
I waited until he turned the corner before speed-walking down toward the baby aisles. When I had what I needed, I made toward the front of the store but stopped at a rack of toddler onesies. They were for one-year-olds, covered in soft gray fuzz with a pair of floppy elephant ears on the hood.
“Preparing for baby?” a woman in a store vest asked, placing a tiny hanger onto a rack.
“Yeah,” I chuckled, holding up the items in my arms. “I just keep realizing that I’m missing things.”
“Oh yeah, it’s always like that,” she said, smiling. “You’re always forgetting something. You having a girl?”
“Yeah. Which means it’s all the more difficult not to shop years in advance.” I shook my head.
“I know what you mean!” she said, sifting through the other side of the rack. “I love these ones.”
I threw the elephant onesie over my arm and came to look. The others were equally soft, but made of more vibrant colors, pastel blues and pinks and yellows.
“What are you doing?”
I looked up and saw Jalil. His voice was steady, but his hands were tight on the cart, his knuckles white.
“Family?” the employee asked, an unaware smile still on her face.
“I was just looking at, um, outfits,” I said, stepping back behind the rack to hide the items in my arms.
“Didn’t want to include me?” he asked, tilting his head slightly.
“They just caught my eye,” I said.
“Oh, is this your husband? You two are having the baby?” the woman asked, her eyebrows disappearing into her bangs.
Jalil’s eyes shifted to her.
“Yes, we’re having a baby. She hasn’t been born yet,” he said.
“Uh huh. That’s sweet,” she said, less kind than before.
“We have everything we need though,” I said, sliding past her and dropping the items into the cart.
“Why do you have that?” Jalil asked, pointing to the elephant onesie still hung over my arm.
“I just… thought it was cute,” I said.
“It is,” the woman said, holding up another onesie. “Did you want the dragon one too?”
“We don’t need that,” Jalil said. “This one or that one.”
I cleared my throat, trying to keep the string in my throat from constricting.
“You’ll need it eventually,” the woman said.
“Yeah I mean, I’d rather get everything now,” I said.
“And I’d rather take things slow. Get only what we need right now,” he said, closing his eyes tightly.
“What’s the point of waiting?” I asked, though it didn’t come out sounding like a question.
“Because we don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“We don’t know if she’ll–” He stopped himself.
All the sounds around us fell away. The woman watched us, wide-eyed.
I tried to swallow but my throat was too tight.
“Can we talk about this–” I started.
“Later?” he asked.
We stared at each other, the air crackling between us.
He shook his head and walked off.
. . .
When we got home, I brought the bags into the baby’s room. The white crib sat ready and waiting. Our handmade mobile of paper cranes on delicate strings hung above the crib.
When I turned, Jalil was standing behind me. I quickly closed the door and moved past him.
“What’s your deal?” he asked, following slowly after me.
“My deal?” I said, raising my eyebrows.
“Yeah, this whole thing where you’re shoving off conversations and closing doors on me. Did you forget that we’re both living in this house?”
I rubbed my eyes and sat down on the arm of our couch.
“No, I didn’t forget.”
“So what’s going on?” he asked, crossing his arms.
I waved my hands around as I searched for words.
“I’m just stressed,” I said, dropping my hands and letting them slap against the tops of my thighs.
He pursed his lips and cocked his head to one side.
“No, no that’s not it,” he said, taking a few steps towards me. “I’ve seen you stressed. You run around the house trying to do a million things at once and never shut up. That’s not this. So what is it?”
“I really am just stressed,” I said, sighing.
“Elijah please don’t lie to me,” Jalil said, coming closer and reaching out to me.
“I’m not lying,” I said, leaning back.
“Jalil, I promise you that’s it,” I said, standing up and moving around to the other arm of the couch.
Jalil dropped his arm.
“I just want you to talk to me.”
“I can’t,” I said, shaking my head, my throat constricting again.
I closed my eyes and said nothing.
“Don’t do this to me,” he said, slamming his hands on the couch. “Don’t treat me like I’m fragile.”
“You are fragile!” I said, pulling my hands down on either side of my face so my skin stretched flat over my bones. “You’re fragile and I can’t talk to you about anything because no matter what I say, it’s going to break you.”
“Talk about what? Say it,” he said, his entire body trembling. “I’m a fucking adult, Elijah, just fucking say what you want to say.”
I felt the string in my throat shaking. I tried to swallow it but couldn’t.
So I said the words that cut it loose.
“I don’t feel like you want her!”
Jalil’s body stopped moving. His mouth hung open.
All of the pressure in my throat was finally gone. I pressed on.
“I don’t feel like you want her. I really don’t. You’re so withdrawn all the time. You don’t try to get involved in anything.”
“You don’t allow me to be involved in anything,” Jalil said, an edge still in his voice.
“Yes I do,” I said.
“No, you tiptoe around me,” he said, looking up at the ceiling and shaking his head. “You push me away, you hide things from me. You avoid talking about the future with me.”
“Because I wasn’t sure you wanted one with me anymore. I… I was afraid of confronting that.”
“But you never asked me,” Jalil said, walking towards me with wet eyes. “You never talked to me. You put me away in a box so you didn’t have to deal with my grief. And it’s ugly, Elijah, it is. It’s fucked up and I’m fucked up, but I’m trying.”
“I need you to try harder.”
He was quiet. The lines of his face were shining with tears. I rubbed my eyes and realized I was crying too.
“I messed up by not talking to you. I’m sorry,” I said, my voice thick. “I just want this so bad, and I’m so scared I’ve barely been able to function. We’re having a baby in two weeks.”
I felt lightheaded. It was the first time I had said it aloud.
“We’re having a baby in two weeks.” I repeated.
Jalil was quiet.
“Do you still want this?” I asked. “I need to know. I need to know that you want this.”
Jalil sat gently beside me. A shaky breath escaped him.
“I looked at the ultrasound pictures,” Jalil said, picking at the calloused skin on his palms. “I don’t think I’d really looked at any since she was the size of a mango.”
I licked the salty tears off my lips.
“Mangoes are easier for the mind to process,” I said quietly.
“She’s fucking beautiful. I don’t know why I expected anything different, but… god she’s beautiful.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes. The only sound was cars passing outside, there and then gone.
Jalil slowly put his hand over mine. I wove my fingers through his.
“I want her. I want you. I want all of us to be a family. But… only if you can handle this,” Jalil said, gesturing to himself. “I’m a fucking mess but I’m willing to try if you are.”
I leaned forward and pressed my head against Jalil’s.
“I can. I will.”