I fell for Waylan while I was cleaning hotel rooms in the Badlands. People drove from all over with their families to see the dirt where dinosaur bones were excavated, and the museum where the skeletons get rebuilt. Waylan worked at a bistro that had a Mammoth Burger on the menu, and at 25oz of beef it was really too much meat for one serving.
I liked cleaning. It lets you see inner lives; how people treat the things they carry. Some rooms will be instantly marred with piles of clothes and musty towels on the floor, in others, clothes are folded neatly in the dresser, used towels in the bathtub, like the little cards with endangered penguins on them request. Guests trusted me. They’d leave money on the nightstand and I wouldn’t touch it, mostly because they had faith that I wouldn’t dare.
We made it work for a summer season, Waylan and me. I had my own room at the hotel, and kept it neat. By June most of Waylan’s belongings were in my place. He was sloppy and had the bumbling quality of a baby animal—a bear cub, maybe. I had a good feeling about him. He was a hardworking waiter and a minor pot dealer in town, so guests trusted him, too. They confided in him. At the bistro he got pulled aside and arranged deliveries, and then he’d treat me to dinner or ice cream. Our dates often felt like we were visiting Rome or Paris, with the tourists and all.
Once we went to the suspension bridge near sundown, and paused so I could take pictures of the painted Horseshoe Canyon and the deformed shadows of hoodoos. Then we stared for a while at this formation: the discovery spot for so many fossils, with dark bands of coal seams and stains deposited by the bathwater of history. Waylan rested both hands on my hips, his crotch pressed to my lower back. I let the desert wind gnarl my hair around, and felt one of his hands move to pin down my mane.
“I’ll never think of this place without you,” Waylan said.
“It’s our place.”
“Can I stay with you tonight?”
“Of course, I kind of thought you’d moved in.”
He nuzzled into my neck. The wind had calmed, he let go of my hair.
“What would you call this,” he said.
“A date, I guess.”
“No, I mean you and me. This.”
I turned to face Waylan. He licked his lips, which were so dry the saliva left a dark tinge.
“I’d call this a relationship, Waylan. Wouldn’t you?”
“I love you, you know that?”
He kissed me hard and I got so overwhelmed by his love for me that we rushed back to the car to speed home to the hotel. Out of Towner traffic slowed us down. We passed by the Dinosaur Museum and I tried to count the people in line at the doors.
“I lost count at seventeen.” I said. “That place is like a funeral home.”
“Orderly people waiting to remember the dead.”
Waylan laughed and put his hand on my knee.
“Maybe there’s a guest book—Allosaurus we still miss you.”
“Dearly departed dinos,” he said.
The drive back seemed like it took forever, as everything seemed slow with Waylan. I was impatient about him. I wanted every activity to fast forward since I was so excited about the possibility of what would come next. Waylan tried to convince me to enjoy the moment.
Towards the end of August, Waylan wanted to do something special, so we bought a tent and drove forty-five minutes south to the provincial park for a weekend getaway. We pulled in to the campground, which was empty. We found a good spot to pitch by the creek and popped the trunk.
I started slapping my arms while dislodging our cooler. “The mozzies are bad,” I said.
“You must have delectable blood.”
“Maybe I’m a target because there are no other victims to choose from.”
He started on the tent poles as I dug around for our bug spray. Soon he was bobbing and weaving, waving his hands around his head.
“They’re vicious,” Waylan said. “Let’s go register, maybe they’ll calm down in the meantime.”
We found a station and asked the ranger about the mosquitos. He told us there had been a flash flood the day before, and around here the critters take advantage of that rare opportunity to reproduce like crazy. The trails on the canyon floor were still sludgy and slick as yogurt. We were the only idiots there.
I kind of enjoyed the abandoned squalor of the campground but there were a few thousand too many insects to fend off for us to stick it out. We piled back in the car. Waylan drove and I was tasked with killing all the mosquitos that had followed us inside. By the time we got back to the hotel the inside of the windshield was a massacre of wings and legs and thumbprints of our blood.
Waylan must’ve taken this experience as an omen. By Sunday of that weekend, after we’d eaten our camping rations, he’d decided to break my heart. We were lying in a t-shape: my legs draped over Waylan’s hips, him across the bed the wrong way, head balanced in his hand. He said he was planning on giving everything up for me, but I didn’t understand what, exactly, he’d be sacrificing.
“You’re better off without me, babygirl.”
“Shouldn’t I be the judge of that?”
“Do you really trust your own judgment?”
“Sure I do. I chose to love you, didn’t I?”
“That’s my point,” he said. “You didn’t make that decision. I did.”
Then he decided I should leave. I locked myself in my room and washed my face for what felt like hours, hovering over the sink and splashing my skin with cold water every time a tear edged out of my eyes. I packed my clothes away in my shitty duffle bag and I stuffed plastic wrapped hotel soaps in the gaps. I looked for other two-time use items—shampoo, hand lotion—I’d make the tiny bottles last for weeks, same as I do with liquid soap, adding water to the remnants until there are no suds to be seen.
At the bus station I used the automated machine to buy my ticket. Eye contact was too much intimacy. Selected single, one-way. Lined up behind other travelers I held the paper against my mouth. Waylan, you’re lying to yourself, I whispered. He stayed in dino-central while I moved to the sprawling cowboy city two hours west.
Soon after, my belly started rounding. My breasts became tender and glorious. Stretch marks inexplicably asserted themselves only on my inner thighs, as though a creature with claws was trying to splay me open. I bought some comfy peasant dresses and noticed gentler treatment from the general public. Seats on the subway. Go-aheads in line. Panhandlers seemed to sense that I had nothing left to give.
I knew it was Waylan’s baby in there. I couldn’t bear to call him, it was too early, but I’d made the decision to keep it.
I met D at my new restaurant job. In many ways, he was the opposite of Waylan. Sturdy and reliable. He escaped Communism to be a first generation Canadian. Going by looks they could’ve been brothers, though. Next thing I knew I was staying at his rental house, which was peaceful and clean with easy access to the train station. Before I moved in, I made sure to ask D about his childhood, since I felt I could access his true character that way. When he was a kid he was an alien in school. Fresh to Canada in third grade, he couldn’t speak a word of English, so they enrolled him in remedial everything. Luckily, he met a boy from the same peninsula who served as his instant best friend and translator. Whenever I think of this story, I yearn for a friend like that, who could bring everything to me, pre-interpreted.
I made a habit of walking home from my waitressing shifts when it was dark. I figured I was safe—who has the stones to hurt a tired out pregnant lady? On these evenings I’d make my way through residential streets and search for windows with glowing TV light. I’d tiptoe across yards and watch what the people inside were watching. Rich people liked cooking shows. Most everyone else was on board with reality TV. At the top of our street, an old woman left the news on 24/7. Once or twice, I’d recognized Planet Earth videos: the night grew cool around me as I watched grazers on the African plains, living in peace before predators terrorized them. In slow motion, the screen displayed the most vulnerable being eaten by lions and then desecrated by scavengers. Then they’d repeat the montage in a different ecosystem.
D took me on the sort of dates I’d never been on before—they were more like activities. We went on walks and to galleries; he probably assumed that as a waitress I was tired of restaurants. He would cook dinner and seemed to love coming home to me. After school he’d walk in and say, Oh good, you’re here, like he was a little surprised or suspected that I’d leave. He never said a word about the pregnancy, either, which made me feel like he loved me so much it didn’t matter that I was carrying someone else’s child. Some mornings I’d wake up in a cold sweat, nauseous, and he’d soothe me back to sleep as though untangling a nest of guilt in my chest.
Heading north on a bike ride, we waited at the intersection of 34th and Borden. I was on the red Raleigh D had bought me at a garage sale, one of his many kind gestures of encouragement to try new things. When the light went to green, the minivan beside us turned without looking and I veered right to avoid it. D was too near behind me. My tire slid and down I went to the pavement. The van screeched to a stop. D jumped off his bike and yelled what the fuck and threw the heavy Supercycle onto the hood of the van, pretty much stomping to the driver’s side window. His voice was raised but I couldn’t really hear what he was onto. I was still on the ground worrying about what was happening inside of me. My knee and elbow were scraped up with road rash and I checked out my hands and they were a bit bloody and shaking. I looked over at D—was he leaning into the open window? The driver was a pudgy man with salt and pepper hair. He appeared terrified and, I thought, sort of sweet.
A woman dressed in an elegant skirt and silky tunic came over to me as I stood up and relocated to the sidewalk.
“Are you all right? I saw everything.” She looked ready for a high-level office job or for church.
“I think I’m fine, thank you,” I said, embarrassed.
D’s voice was quieting down so I wasn’t sure what they were negotiating. I heard the word man a few times.
“There’s a lovely bakery right here,” the woman said. “Can I buy you a cookie or something?”
I was half listening to her as D pulled his bike gingerly from the van hood and rolled it over to me.
“Oh, that’s so nice. But no, thank you.” I said.
“Okay,” she paused, as though I’d robbed her of some chance to practice charity. She noticed my cleavage and empire-waist tank top, my curves. D slammed his bike as he propped it against the streetlight behind me. I recognized a flash of panic glitz into the woman’s eyes, then vanish as she took her leave. “You be careful out there, dear.”
The van peeled away and the driver called, “Sorry!” out the window.
“What a jackass,” D said, looking me over. He swept some crud off my shirt. “Oof, your poor hands.”
“D, that was your fault.”
“You hit me. The van didn’t even touch me.”
“No. You were so close to me that when I swerved you caught my back tire.”
D laughed a little. “Oh holy shit. Well, that guy learned his lesson, anyway.”
I told D that the fall spooked me, but that he should ride on without me and we would meet at home later. He reluctantly agreed. He pedaled off, waving at me without turning his head, or signaling a turn.
“I’m sorry I slipped,” I said to my stomach. “Everything will be okay.”
The next day I got my start with the sound of glass breaking, the splash of liquid. Half asleep, I fumbled my way into the kitchen. D was on his knees with a dishtowel, pushing coffee around on the floor, letting out little yelps and yeeshes from the heat.
“Don’t walk, babygirl,” he said.
I was barefoot. Every man I’ve ever been with has called me babygirl. I don’t ask them to do it. Must be something I give off, the way some people just scream with their whole being to be called buddy.
“What does it look like?”
“Did you put boiling water right in the glass?”
D dropped his head and let it go limp. Like he’d given up on life.
“Clearly,” he said, “I have not even managed to have a coffee yet so can you please just go back to bed?”
I rolled my eyes as much as I could for how droopy they were at that godforsaken hour, spun around and climbed back under the warm duvet. I starfished my body out. That was three glasses he’d broken this month. If he would just make normal drip coffee this could be prevented. Who even drinks instant coffee by choice? Who doesn’t use a mug? D was waking up early for school. Correction: he was waking up for the possibility of school. He would sit at the table and wait in front of his phone for the supply list starting at 6am. A teacher somewhere in the district would call in sick most days, which was good for D, but on the other hand, you hear about kids and consistency. I dozed in and out of consciousness and heard D talking, then the rapid clamour of his work routine before the front door opened and slammed.
I borrowed D’s car to pick up a drive-thru breakfast and then found myself on the highway eastbound. I was pulled towards my old town and Waylan. Ditching the endless labyrinth of sprawl, the earth changed around me. The sky expanded, but the features grew more arid and lifeless the further along I got.
The bistro was slow when I walked in. Once summer is over the whole place becomes barren. Misty came out with a menu before she recognized me.
“You’re back?” She wrapped me in a rough hug.
“I was just in the neighbourhood.”
“Well, it’s good to see your face. You want a table?”
“Nah, I thought I’d pop by to see if Waylan was working?”
Misty bounced the menu against her hip. “He quit—end of the season, you know. He went home.”
She shook her head. “Not sure. His wife found a place somewhere.”
I could feel my face crumpling. “His wife?”
“He said he told you about her. I thought you knew.”
“Sure I did.” I straightened myself out.
“Well. He’s a smooth talker. His wife must be clueless, hey?”
“Must be. I guess I haven’t thought much about things since I moved to the city.”
“It stays the same out here, at least. So predictable.”
I thanked Misty, left, and drove to the less popular canyon. I wandered down to the coulee and thought how sad it was that I could never tell Waylan about the pregnancy. Married—that made me the other woman. What a guy. I chose to believe that he didn’t know what love was.
Up the cliff, I heard the loud rumble of an RV parking in the lot. A family of four got out and the kids held binoculars to their faces while the dad had a smoke. I waved at them and the little boy waved back. The odd thing about Badlands is that it’s impossible to gauge whether the route to the other side is five minutes by foot or an hour; the strange forms and slopes betray any sense of distance.
I put the red rock I’d picked up for D on the dashboard. Whenever I turned it slid and crashed into the windshield corners. He might appreciate it. A pain curled into my side as I approached the city again.
In the emergency room I told the nurse what happened. She made me pee in a cup, which she sent off to be tested, and then asked a bunch of lightning round pregnancy questions while I tried to act normal in my paper hospital dress.
Six or seven weeks I think. Yes I missed my period. Yes my boobs hurt. Bigger belly—leggings only for this gal. Yes morning sickness. No I haven’t taken a test. Because my body is like clockwork and I wasn’t using, y’know, anything.
The nurse nodded and jotted all of this down on a clipboard, then left to find the doctor. While I waited for the doctor I put a hand on my paunch. I studied a poster on the wall of a full-term pregnancy diagram. Soon I would be grotesque. In the nature documentaries, the babies just seem to slip right out, a glistening mess, ready to run. I wondered if D would be repulsed or if my shape changed slowly enough he’d get used to it.
The doctor came in after a while and barely said hello before my feet were in stirrups and she performed an examination, quick and uncomfortable.
“You can sit up now, we’re all finished,” she said. She frowned and peeled off her gloves. Looking at the chart one more time, she let me get dressed before positioning her stool in front of me. Later, I would recognize her odd bedside manner as awkwardness. She explained to me what phantom pregnancy was.
I opened the door to D’s place and the TV was on. On the floor, there were tons of white, powdery marks, and their trail led to D in the rumpus room, stretched out on the couch underneath the bay window.
“Hey babygirl.” He kept his eyes on the screen.
“Hey. What’s on the floor, this white stuff?”
“Oops. It must be from my socks.”
D had been putting baby powder in his socks to keep his feet from getting sweaty at work. It was nerves, he said. I told him it was his Payless shoes that were not, in fact, real leather and did not let his feet breathe, but he ignored me. He claimed he’d wear them until they couldn’t do their job.
“I’ll clean it up later,” he said.
I flopped onto the couch beside him. On TV, a man was trying to start a fire with twig friction and simulating a broken arm in a dense winter forest.
“I borrowed your car.”
“I saw that.”
“Are you mad I didn’t tell you where I was?”
D shrugged. “I trust your judgment. If I needed to know you’d tell me, right?”
“Right.” I leaned into him, and ran my fingers over his downy forearm.
“I’m sorry about this morning,” he said.
“I’ll use a mug.”
He looked at me, and brought my hand up to his face and kissed it.
I asked D about his day of teaching and drifted in and out of attention. Because he’s always a substitute, he gets to come in and be entertaining for his class. Sometimes they watch movies. Today, he told them mountain stories. Which ones, I asked. He told me the story about when he’d gotten lost on a hike. He and his father had climbed a peak in the Rockies late in the day. By the time they’d reached the summit, the sun was setting fast, so because they saw the road from the top they ventured a shortcut to get back quicker. They wound up following a goat trail and got lost. It was one in the morning before they made it out to the road. The police had been looking for them.
“Were you scared?” I asked.
“Not really. Just hungry. Maybe I would’ve been scared if I was solo.” He cracked his knuckles.
Is it harder to feel safe alone? I thought about telling D about Waylan, about the baby, but then he didn’t ask. Plus, I couldn’t picture him being pleased.
“Listen,” he said. “I have this recorded. Let’s start it over so you can see how he does it from the beginning. This guy is amazing. He teaches you how to survive. One sec.”
D jolted up and fiddled with the remote a while until he found the restart button. I felt relaxed. I asked D to press play and watched for a few minutes before leaving the room. He didn’t call after me.
On my drive back from the Badlands, I hadn’t worked out how I could’ve explained to Waylan I would’ve been willing to be a mother. Maybe something simple like, Waylan, you’re a daddy, and how can you argue with that. I pictured his reaction and no matter how I twisted it, he was thrilled. That is, if the baby wasn’t a phantom.
Someplace, Waylan was with his wife and the memory of me will be wedged in the middle of their timeline. I’d forgotten what beginnings feel like. Maybe like fireworks going off far away, when you confuse the echo for the source. Endings were what I got used to, what I looked for and what I’d been plugging away at predicting down to the minute.
I took a shower then wrapped myself in a towel while I scrubbed the tub, toilet, floor, and mirror until they sparkled. I dropped the toilet lid down and cracked the door. Steam escaped from the bathroom along with a waxy ammonia scent. In the hall, I strained to listen to the drone of D’s show. Though I loved TV, if scenes weren’t flashing in front of me the noise was real easy to tune out. I pulled a mop and bucket out of the closet and set to work. The footprints disappeared in wet streaks.