BR Belletryst and Jozelle Dyer

BR Belletryst
Strays
Response

Lena (coda).
By Jozelle Dyer
Inspiration piece

Lena wanted a baby.  It was a problem.  Heather didn’t want children and—more—she didn’t understand Lena’s desperate desire to have a child of her own.  Lena was used to going along with whatever Heather said.  Heather had saved her: given her a home, and a family, and a purpose in life.  Before that, Lena had just been drifting along, not knowing why she made slicing cuts on belly and breasts, not knowing why she smoked, or did drugs, or why she fought with her parents.

“Do you want to be a cliché?” Heather’s smoky voice had laughed.

She’d taken Lena to the house, washed the dye from her hair, held her head when she puked.  Lena had been there ever since.  Betty and Sam called her Heather’s little shadow, but Lena didn’t mind.  Not so long as Heather talked to her in that smoky voice, and touched her—loved her—with those strong hands, that crooked mouth.

Lena used her own small scarred hands to brush the hair away from Heather’s face.

“Good morning,” she said in a voice that broke.  “It’s time to wake up and have your coffee.” She handed over the cup and smoothed her hand over Heather’s shoulder.  “It’s my turn to open the shop.”

The shop was attached to the house and had a yellow roof to match the house’s yellow front door.  There was a blue sign outside with the symbol of the female on it and careful lettering that said, “Arts and Crafts.”  It made Lena’s heart feel good to see it.  She used the biggest key on her ring to open the top and bottom locks and let herself inside.

Lena loved the shop.  It sold the things that Betty and Sam and Heather and other women in the neighborhood made.  She wished that she was talented enough to knit, to draw, or even to make jam, but she wasn’t.  Lena still went to school in the afternoons.  She was eighteen, but she had gotten behind and Heather said that it was important for her self-esteem to finish.

Lena was shy and awkward, but never with the customers.  Especially the children.  She didn’t mind when they roamed the store shouting, touching with their sticky fingers.  Sam, who didn’t like children, would often call her over to soothe and to distract their smallest customers.

Just before she left for school, a man with thick brown hair came into the shop with a little boy and a little girl.  Lena’s heart just about broke in her chest when she saw the way that the man bent down to talk to the little girl.  He took her to where they kept the hand-painted toys and dolls, and let her loose in the bin.  The girl—“Rosie” he called her—came up with a little red-headed doll with button eyes and a painted face.  She squeezed it to her small chest, then put it back in the bin.  They left the shop empty-handed.

Lena handed the shop keys over to Sam and slipped out of the back door.  Her car was parked out back. It had been a gift from her parents when she moved into the house and started up going to school again. Lena hardly ever went anywhere—mainly to school and back—but Heather said that it was good for her to have a certain amount of independence.  It made Lena feel proud that her parents and Heather trusted her with such a big responsibility, and she washed the car every weekend.  Lena never drove very fast or without her seatbelt and she was never low on gas.  She took her responsibilities seriously.

She took evening classes at the high school with the pregnant girls and the boys who worked as mechanics during the day.  She wanted to be friendly, but a lot of the other students wouldn’t talk to her because she was “one of those dykes.”  Lena was just glad that she had someplace to belong.  But when she looked at those fresh-faced girls with their protruding bellies, Lena’s heart yearned.  She knew that having a baby was a different kind of belonging.

“Feel my stomach,” one of the girls—Alana—demanded of everyone in the class.  “The baby’s kicking.”

Lena placed her hands around Alana’s stomach and felt the little pushes that were the baby’s feet.  “It’s so beautiful,” she murmured.  “You’re so beautiful,” she told those little feet before Alana pulled away.

Lena met her mother after school.  Her name was Helen, and that’s what the waitress called her when they went into the diner:  “Hey, Helen, hot enough for ya?”  Helen ordered a glass of water with lemon.   She squeezed the lemon into the glass and added a Sweet’n Low from its pink packet.   When she pushed the hair out of her eyes, Lena could see that they were deep and dark just like hers.

“Your brother had a track meeting  today,” Helen told Lena in her precise English.  “I wish you could have been there to cheer him on.”

“It was my turn at the store,” Lena murmured and ducked her head.

“What a good girl you are,” Helen said, meeting Lena’s eyes.  “So bright and responsible.”

Lena wondered what her mother would think if she knew how desperately Lena wanted to become a mother.  She felt sick inside knowing that Helen’s opinion of her would change.  She wouldn’t be good or bright or responsible anymore.  It was foolish to wish for something that she couldn’t have.

Heather told her not to worry about it.  “Relax,” she said as she blew air gently into Lena’s belly button.  Lena squirmed on the bed.  She tried to concentrate on her breathing:  in and out, in and out.  She always came too quickly the first time, and it was hard for her to have multiple orgasms.  Even in bed, Lena’s awkwardness betrayed her.  She rolled over onto her stomach and pressed her cheeks to the sheets to cool them.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Heather, her voice clouded with tears.

Heather rubbed her back: up and down, up and down.  “It’s okay, baby,” she said.

Heather drifted off to sleep.  Lena studied her wide back and the pattern of tattoos that swirled over her right shoulder.  Her eyes ached and she wanted a cigarette.  Heather didn’t like it when Lena smoked.  She said that Lena still had trouble respecting her life, her health, and her body.  Lena tried not to do it, but she needed something, so she got out of bed to make a cup of tea.

She was surprised to find the kitchen dark and empty.  Usually Betty and Sam stayed up far into the night playing cards and drinking black coffee at the kitchen table.  Sometimes they had friends over who stared and made Lena feel self-conscious.  She always had a hard time talking to people she didn’t know.

The stray cat that haunted the neighborhood was banging his head against the kitchen screen.  He meowed plaintively, and Lena wondered if he was hungry.  She was not allowed to feed the cat.  “He’ll just keep coming around.”  But he came around anyway, banging the screen and crying through the window.

“You scat!” Lena whispered.

The cat continued to complain loudly.  Lena was frightened that the noise he made would wake up the entire household.  All she wanted was a cup of tea, but her hands shook so badly on the kettle that she couldn’t get it filled.  The cat jumped to the window and stared at her through his bright yellow eyes.

Lena’s heart thumped hard against the wall of her chest.  She wrapped her arms around her body and rocked, praying that the cat would go away.  Its cries seemed to echo in the little kitchen.  Soon everyone would come downstairs, woken from their beds, full of pity and disappointment.

Lena ran to pantry and threw open the door.  She saw rows of beans and pasta, rice, cereal, racks of spices, crates of onions, garlic, peppers—nothing that would satisfy a cat.  The fridge held tofu packaged in water, soy and rice milk, a drawer full of apples, soy cheese, and a jug of lemonade.  Lena began to weep.  Pressing the back of hand against her mouth to silence the harsh sobs, she slid down the wall between the window and the door, and the cat’s cries filled the night.

The next morning, Lena was up at dawn scrubbing the kitchen floor.  “Every day is entirely new,” she said in her broken voice.   The phone jangled, startling her so that she dropped the brush and spilled the scrubbing powder.  “Fuck,” she said.  She answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this the arts and crafts store?”

“Well, yeah, technically,” Lena answered.  “But the store isn’t open yet.”  She paused.  “What can I do for you?”

“You have a doll: red hair, button eyes?  Can you put it aside for me?  I’ll come in for it later this afternoon.”

“Sure, sir.  Can I have your name?”

He gave it to her, and Lena hung up the phone.  She thought that the man had a really nice voice—soft, but not feminine—and she wondered if he was a father, and if the doll was for his little girl.  She thought that she knew who he was.  Not wanting to forget, she slipped out of the house and down to the store.  She opened the locks, and stepped into the dark.  Without switching on the lights, she found the red-haired doll with button eyes and placed it behind the register.  She let herself out again, locked the door, and stepped back into the kitchen to prepare Heather’s coffee.

Determined to do better, Lena set the cup and saucer on the bedside table and kissed Heather’s shoulder.  “I’ve brought your coffee,” she murmured.  Heather rolled over in the bed, the sheet slipping below her waist.  She gave Lena a critical study.  “What have you been doing?” her smoky voice asked.  “Your face is flushed.”

“Oh,” Lena said, biting her bottom lip.  “Just cleaning up in the kitchen.”

When Lena opened the store that day, she felt a delicious thrill of excitement.  She was certain that the same dark-haired man would return to pick up the little doll.  Rosie would get her prize after all.   Lena could not say why she wanted this to be so—why she willed the man to walk through the door—but she knew that she wanted to see him again.  She remembered the way he had bent his head so tenderly.  It made her heart ache.

Lena fussed.  She wondered if he would bring the children or if the doll was a gift.  She found a box that fit, and some tissue paper and wrapped the doll up prettily.  She put it in a shopping bag and put the bag on the counter so that it would be ready.  She felt almost frantic as she waited for the man to present himself, her heart knocking hard in her chest.

He came back.  Lena was a little disappointed that he did not bring the children.  But he spoke to her in his soft voice and Lena was so moved that she didn’t know what she replied.  She rang up the sale.  His hand touched hers as he handed over his credit card.  Lena brushed the hair out of her eyes, and met his eyes with hers.  “Thank you for coming.  Enjoy your purchase,” she said meaningfully.

“Thank you,” he said, and when she continued to stare, “Thank you very much.”  He left the store.

Lena did not know why she was so disappointed.  Did she really expect the man to fall in love with her and to take her away?  His children probably already had a mother.  She closed the shop and had a bath, sitting in the water until it turned cold.  She told Betty that she had a headache and wouldn’t be down for dinner, and did her homework by lamplight in her room.

Lena pretended to be asleep when Heather came to bed, turning her body so that Heather could only kiss her shoulder before sleep.  Heather did not see the tears sliding down Lena’s cheeks.  When she was certain that the house was quiet and that Betty and Sam had vacated the kitchen, Lena went downstairs.  She sat on the back stoop and lit a cigarette, watched it glow in the night.  She concentrated on her breathing: in, in, out, in, in, out.

The neighborhood stray came skulking.  Lena stroked its back and let it crawl into her lap.  “It’s okay, baby,” she murmured in a voice that broke.  “It’s okay.”

2 Comments

  1. Amaryllis
    Posted October 30, 2010 at 6:22 pm | #

    I like that so much. Lena and the cat are kindred spirits who want the same thing – a family. So sweet. And the picture captures all of that emotion.

  2. Posted October 31, 2010 at 1:29 am | #

    Skinny black cat! Scary! A nice Halloween offering!

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