“This is all going to work out,” he whispered into my hair as we lay on the floor of what was going to be my office in our new house, naked and wrapped in the starchy, coarse painting tarps on the floor. My father’s old oak desk was already stationed under the huge picture window, and my maps were neatly labeled in their tubes in the corner with my huge box of old National Geographics and my files on various locations and their elevations and borders. Dane and I had only moved in four days ago, but the weight of having a house was already starting to sink in, and I was itching to finish my office and unroll the drafting projects I had stashed away- the ocean floor just off the coast of Florida, the pipeline grid of Manhattan, finally ready to frame and hang in their new home.
“This is going to be perfect,” Dane is saying, as I imagine the beginning sketch of what would have been my new project, working with a hydrographic company out of Cape Town.
“You’ll see. We’ll do the living room in that dark red, and the kitchen in yellow, and it’ll be perfect.
“What’s wrong with the light green you painted in the kitchen today?” I ask to humor him, lying flat with my warm hands over my stomach and my husband curled around me.
“No, the wasabi was all wrong. It was okay in the morning light, but in the afternoon it was all wrong.”
“Oh,” I mouth. He nuzzles the top of my head with his cheek, and I can feel my brown hair sticking to the sweat on his skin.
“I’m sorry I was such a brat this afternoon,” I murmur. There’s a dull ache, a pressure, forming low in my stomach, which I try to alleviate by shifting slightly, finding a somewhat more comfortable spot between Dane’s bony knees. He responds by curling tighter around me, pulling the tarp in around my torso and the weight in my belly pushes back. I can feel the sweat on my lower back soaking into the rough canvas.
“You know you can’t take the job right now, don’t you? You can’t travel all over the world now that we’ve just moved in, especially now that you’re pregnant. You can’t go to Africa with my baby.”
“No, you’re right,” I reply softly. “It’s just that it would be such a great opportunity. Hydrographic grids are so interesting. My boss said that my history diving-“
“Claire, please, I don’t want to have this conversation again.”
“I think I can forgive you,” Dane sighs drowsily, and I bite my lip.
“How’s your job hunt coming along?” I ask.
“I have a few offers, but I figured I could wait to decide on something until this place is all patched up and perfect before I jump on something. My career isn’t going anywhere, right? This house is more important, Claire. Our new home.”
“I suppose,” I say, staring up towards the yellow-brown water stain in the corner of the ceiling. The yellow-brown mark is shaped like Africa, but Madagascar has formed a land bridge with the continent, perverting the tip of South Africa into a curled backwards J.
“It is. We can think about your career after you have our son.”
“Dane, you know it’s far too soon to tell the sex.”
“It’s going to be a boy, Claire, and this is going to be his room.”
“Where is my office going to go?”
“You don’t really need an office here, do you? You have a real office at work with your real boss and your real coworkers,” he said, enunciating each word with a sharp tap on my side.
“I need to be able to work from home, Dane, that’s the one thing I asked for when we were looking at houses.”
“Well that was before we discovered little Dane Jr., wasn’t it?” I can smell the lingering spice of the soup we had for dinner on his hot breath wafting over me as he shifts, pulling his knees under him and leaning over me. His thick blonde hair, matted with sweat, is half clinging to his forehead over his dark knitted brows, honey brown eyes wide and locked on mine until I look away. He breathes out, thickly, like there’s mucus in his lungs, and bends to kiss me. His chapped lips are gritty and hot. I can taste bile rising in my clotted throat, pressing against my stifled, heavy breathing and I swallow it down.
I can see Africa behind his head as his lips trail down my neck. There’s another strange protrusion overtop the Gulf of Guinea where the Côte d’Ivoire is supposed to be, but the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea is spot on, down to the peak at the top of Morocco where it crests up to meet Spain. Dane’s lips are leaving a thin trail of spit, like a snail, down my body, between the twin peaks of my breasts and across the long swath of my torso. He moves my hands away from my lower stomach and kisses me there, pressing down so hard that the dull ache there is transformed into a sudden pain like a knife twisting deep inside of me and I let out a sharp gasp in spite of myself.
Dane’s face blocks my view of Africa again.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“I… ah… I have to run to the bathroom,” I say apologetically, and he nods and helps me untangle myself from the painting tarps, running his hand softly down the length of my naked spine.
“I love you, Claire,” Dane says as I leave the room, walking down the white hallway stacked high with our unpacked boxes, each labeled and organized. The wood floors feel cool underneath my bare feet and I press my hands deeply into the pain which is now a throbbing that comes from deep in my uterus and radiates into my lower back and down my legs. I run the last few steps, a disjointed pace, and the wooden floor gives way to a field of small moss green tiles. I feel along the wall for the switch with my right hand and turn on both the light and the fan, which hums to life as the tile floor flashes into glossy iridescence in the sudden shock of light.
I close the door. The lock clicks into place behind me as the throbbing pain releases downwards. I reach down between my legs and close my eyes and wordlessly pray to a God I’ve never met.
My fingers come away bloody. I have finally found salvation.
* * *
“Hello, my name is Claire Tyler, may I speak with Doctor Jones, if she has a minute?” I ask into the receiver, pressing my left hand into the seemingly ceaseless ache in my stomach. The operator says something unintelligible before the line clicks into fuzzy, crackling classical music. I lean back into the plush red cushions of our living room couch and stare at the wall, which is crisscrossed with lines of paint. The little test patches Dane had painted in the corner had seemingly mutated and grown larger, overflowing into large blotches of color, four subtle variations of brown competing for space on an otherwise blank wall. All of the rooms in the house had been treated similarly; our furniture pushed into the middle of the rooms, whole boxes of our things still unpacked, with paint cans lining the walls in growing stacks and towers, dripping slowly onto the plastic tarps that were strewn everywhere.
Before me on the coffee table lies a worn out copy of one of my favorite books, Discover Africa. I idly flip to the section on Cape Town as I wait. The pictures show a sprawling metropolis built around mountains covered in dense vegetation, 70 or so peaks that summit over 3,300 feet and mimic the jagged curves of the coastline. I could have been there right now, checking my diving gear, scouting the ocean floor for drill sites.
“Mrs. Tyler?” a voice at the end of the line finally says, and I snap the book shut.
“Dr. Jones,” I reply, “thank you for answering my call.”
“Of course,” the voice says. “What can I help you with today?”
“I was wondering if you had any word about my test results?” I blurt out quickly. The voice at the end of the line hesitates, and I bite my lip, listening for the sound of Dane’s car pulling in over the crackling white noise on the phone. He told me he was just running out to the hardware store for something, which meant that I could have anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours till he came back.
“I do,” the voice says, slowly, “I just got the results in, as a matter of fact. I wonder if you might prefer to come in with your husband tomorrow and discuss the results in person?”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” I say evenly, “I’d much rather you told me now.”
“Ah.” I hear a long exhale. I close my eyes and count slowly as the pause lengthens out. As I reach the number 6 the doctor’s voice comes back on the line.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Tyler, but I’m afraid you’ve had a miscarriage. There is no baby.”
“That’s more or less what I was expecting.” A sudden noise in the driveway causes me to jump up and I look out to see Dane’s red pickup pulling in. I look at the clock. It’s been five minutes since he left.
“Mrs. Tyler,” the voice of the phone is saying, “we have all kinds of resources for women who have experienced a miscarriage. If you’d like to come in some time this week-“
“No, thank you, Dr. Jones, that won’t be necessary.” I say hurriedly into the phone as the car door slams.
“Please, Mrs. Tyler, this can be an emotional time for both you and your husband, I really think-“
“Yes, I’ll talk to you soon,” I say, and hang up as Dane walks in.
“Who was that?” he asks me, crossing the room without taking off his shoes.
“My mom,” I say, sitting up from my reclined position. He gives me a quizzical look as he walks by me into the kitchen.
“Didn’t you talk to her this morning?” he calls, as he starts opening and closing the cabinet drawers.
“Yeah, she forgot to tell me something. What are you doing in there?”
“I left without my wallet. Have you seen it?”
“Try the office.”
“The baby’s room.”
“Yeah,” I say. I hear his footsteps fade down the hallway, stop briefly, and get louder again. He reappears triumphant, holding his faded brown leather wallet above his head. I smile as he stops in front of me.
“What did your mom have to say that was so important that she had to call you again?”
“Oh, one of my old high school girlfriends is pregnant, I guess,” I say smoothly, “Mom just ran into her at the store.”
Dane smiles and stoops to kiss me.
“Well I’m glad Dane Jr. already has a potential play-date, then,” he whispers, brushing his fingers lightly across my stomach.
“It’ll be great,” I agree cheerfully, and he turns back towards the door.
“I won’t be a minute,” my husband calls from the doorway, and he disappears as I finally release my white-knuckle grip on the phone.
* * *
“You didn’t take the lunch I packed for you this morning,” he greets me as he sits up.
Dane’s blonde hair is tousled and flattened on one side from where he was lying on the couch. He blinks away the sleep from his eyes, which seem sunken in somehow, dark bruises under his lower lashes. I can see a red spot starting to form on his chin, an unusual blemish in his otherwise clear skin. I’d woken him up from a nap when I’d walked in. He’d been taking a lot of naps lately. I’d come in after work with my head buzzing with reports from a new research team in some far-off place to find paintbrushes in the sink, tools all over the floor, and Dane fast asleep on the couch.
“You didn’t take the lunch I packed for you this morning” he repeats, as I stare at the coffee table at the books I’d read a million times, flipping pages back and forth looking at pictures of exotic places across the world in the hopes that I could visit them some day. There’s a fat splatter of green paint on the cover of Discover Africa.
“I went out to lunch with the girls,” I reply, “There’s a new Mexican restaurant down the block. Dane, did you repaint this room again?”
There’s a long green drip trail running down our brown wall from a large swatch of wet paint that now covers about half of it. The bulb of the drip is still wet and is clinging to the baseboard two inches from the beige carpet.
“I told you can’t eat anything other then the food I’m buying you, Claire,” Dane says, ignoring the question.
“Dane, you’ve repainted this room five times. Enough is enough.”
He stands up from the couch, and I can see his forearms are smudged with paint.
“Tell me you didn’t eat anything processed. What was the name of this place?”
“Enough with the Mexican food, Dane!” I scream as I pick up the copy of Discover Africa and thrust it into his face, “Every fucking thing in this house is covered with paint! You need to stop!”
“God, excuse me if I’m trying to make things perfect for our son, who by the way, you clearly don’t care much about if you’re not paying any attention of your diet!” He rips my book out of my hands.
“Is this what this is about?” Dane continues in a low voice. “Your stupid job? Do you want this more then our child?”
He opens the book in the middle and rips out a chunk of its pages. I watch the pieces flutter to the floor, and look up at him.
“I lost the baby a month ago,” I say calmly.
Dane drops the book.
“What?” he says.
The slap, when it comes, hits me high on my left cheekbone and has enough force behind it to send me down on one knee. I close my eyes and wait for another blow. This is nothing like the scenario I’d played out in my mind a thousand times. I am not scared or angry or even surprised. I am relieved.
“What happened?” Dane is screaming in my ear, over and over. His hands are twisted in my hair. I fix my gaze on the book lying on the floor, surrounded by its torn innards, binding cracked down the middle and smeared with paint.
“When were you going to tell me? Were there ever any problems at all? How did he die, Claire? Will you look me in the eye and tell me how you lost my son? Did you kill him? Is this your fault?”
The second blow lands closer to my left ear and I let my legs go out from under me this time and land at his feet. I let my body go limp. I have the insane, panicked thought that he ripped out Cape Town from my book but from this angle I can see it’s Tanzania. For whatever reason, this is comforting to me. I let my eyes close and lie there until long after his footsteps fade away down the hall.
* * *
“What are you doing?” I ask. It’s been three weeks since I told Dane I lost the baby.
He’s in the office on the ladder, painting the trim near the ceiling. I lean into the doorframe with a basket of laundry on my hip and watch the rhythmic flick of his brush, spraying little drops of orange that were dripping slowly down the wall. He is pressing the bristles down so hard that the edges are curling up in jagged, wet peaks, like towel-dried hair.
“Finishing up in here,” he replies, gaze locked on the dripping wall.
The crib and the rocking chair we bought are covered in plastic in the middle of the room, dark brown and cheaply made with white cushions and bedding.
“I thought were going to move that stuff out.”
“I’m almost done anyway.”
“Aren’t we putting the desk back in here?”
“That’s going to be awful crowded, isn’t it?” he laughs.
I stare at him.
“I thought we were going to put my office back together.”
“We never talked about that.”
The silence is heavy. I can hear the crunch of dried paint on his brush underneath the layers of wet paint, grating softly against the slopping puddle he’s already generated by going over and over the same spot.
“Dane, there is no baby,” I say finally.
“Just because we lost the first doesn’t mean that our chances for another aren’t good. I’ve been doing some research-“
“Dane,” I interrupt him, “there is no baby.”
“What do you mean?” he asks. I watch a long drip of orange paint fall from his brush and break against the ladder rungs. I take a deep inhale.
“I don’t want to try again.”
“You don’t mean that-”
He just stares at me.
“You’ll change your mind.”
“No, I won’t.”
I wish he would yell, but he just stands there with a white-knuckle grip on the ladder. I press my hands into my face, shutting out the room, letting the warmth of my hands radiate into my cheeks, collecting my long exhale in my cupped palms. When I lower them again, Dane has put down the brush and climbed down the ladder. He stands with his hands in his pockets, gazing at me. The waning light coming through the window flickers through his blonde hair and deepens the shadows around his honey brown eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks. He looks tired.
“You’re going to have my son, Claire.”
I am silent. The basket feels like it’s getting heavier in my arms. Dane takes three long strides to cover the distance between us. I dig my fingers into the unrelenting plastic of the basket.
“You know what I think?” he says, getting right in my face. He pulls the basket away from me and lets the lavender scented sheets tumble out across the floor.
“I think you’re afraid I’ll figure out it’s a fucking lie. This whole wife and kids fantasy is a fucking lie.”
“Dane, please,” I say, quietly.
“Tell me you want to have our children. You do, don’t you, Claire? If we have a child, everything will be perfect, won’t it?” His eyes are drowning me. My mouth feels like it’s full of sand.
He steps closer to me and for half a second I swear he’s going to hit me, but he just puts his fingers under my chin and raises it so I have to look him in the eyes.
“Claire.” Dane says, his low voice ice cold. His clammy fingers clutch at my forearms.
I can hear the blood pounding in my ears. Every sound seems to reverberate in my head- my heartbeat, his raspy breathing, the slow drip of wet paint. All I know is that if it means this conversation, this nightmare, would finally end, I would let him hit me again. I half close my eyelids in anticipation when I notice what he’s using instead of a painting tarp.
My maps, my precious life’s work, are lying scattered on the floor, smeared in dirt and muddy boot prints and splashes and smears of orange paint, ripped and crinkled and bent. The coastline of Florida has been folded and creased underneath the ladder, and the pipelines under New York City creep halfway up the wet wall. I bite back a mangled cry when I see Cape Town underneath the empty baby crib, with a big, ugly boot print stamped right across the docks.
Just like that, my head is clear. I look up at Dane, my beloved husband, and tell him the truth for the first time in a long time.
“Our baby was a girl, Dane.”
He shoves me backward hard.
“No, I’m not. Remember we had all those early ultrasounds done? The results came in just before I lost your baby.”
Slap across the left cheek. Not that bad. I took a deep breath.
“Maybe you just aren’t man enough for a son,” I said, and the reaction on his face is visceral and immediate.
“You bitch! This is all your fault!”
I go down on the first blow- right in the belly of my left cheek. He kicks me hard in the stomach and I curl up like a centipede. I let him have one more before I throw my hands up.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you were right!” I scream. My nose is bleeding at this point so the wetness in my voice is convincing. Dane stills.
“I want to have your son, I truly do,” I say, as I stand up. He’s still skeptical, but at least he’s listening.
“I think we should have him tonight, Dane,” I continued, “I love you.”
He is still silent, suspicious, his eyes feverish and a little unfocused under his tousled blonde hair. His skin is almost translucently pale, clammy, almost blue tinged. I can’t remember the last time Dane has gotten a full night’s sleep. He’s always painting.
“Listen,” I say, wrapping my arms around his torso. There is so little left to him. He’s almost skin and bones.
“Why don’t you go out and get us something to eat from your special pregnancy diet and I’ll clean up and then we’ll make love. Does that sound okay? I can call off work tomorrow and we can finish the house together, you and me.”
This gets a reaction, finally, and he seems to focus back on me. He smiles, hesitantly.
“That sounds perfect, Claire,” Dane responds, finally, wrapping his arms around me. I have to force myself to respond, to wrap tightly around him like I did on our wedding day not so long ago, when he was broad and strong and so completely different from the person I was hugging now.
Just like that, it’s over, and he’s picking up his coat and keys.
“Don’t forget your wallet,” I call out, and he turns to reach for it on the table. There’s a blotch of bright red blood on his shoulder. I wait until he’s gone, the door is shut and locked, and the car has pulled out of the driveway before I cross to the phone and dial.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“The empty room,” I reply, sitting down heavily on the floor, “my husband has a problem with the empty room.”