In the days following the operation, Kris’s life broke down into shapes. The doors of the cafe where she worked swooshed back and forth with every customer, swinging parentheses marks in the air. Half circles. No — unfinished circles. Green paper rectangles handed to her in exchange for steaming hot cylinders, triangles of baked dough placed on plain ceramic circles upon circles…Her thoughts went the same way, starting in one place and going around and around until they wound up back where they started. Infinity is just repetition, she mused, swiping another rectangle into the card reader. After the operation, she was at liberty to view everything as a transaction. One moment, in. Next, out. The largest shape, though, was not a shape at all, but the empty space within one, a gap nestled in the smooth lines of the depths of her belly. She was heavy with it, breathed with it, in and out, and although it weighed her down, she moved through the day with a deliberate, if not persistent, momentum.
The town where she grew up lay just south of where Highway 99 met the Merced River. It was a river that was strong enough to cut through the entire state, fertilizing fields of sweet potatoes and grape vines and sprinkling sand deposits into the land. It was quiet and simple here, which Kris liked; her year of university at Davis had been full of confusion and listlessness, too many new things in too short a span of time, and she had felt misplaced among the students there who gave professors long, rambling answers that never seemed to hold substance; students who, like the girls in her dorm, always felt they were destined to make something of themselves, something beyond themselves. She had craved the familiarity of Livingston, and when her parents broke the news that they couldn’t afford another year, Kris, feigning disappointment, was secretly relieved. She had come home, found a job for the illusion of financial independence. Then she met Marcus.
That’s a boy’s name, Marcus had said when she introduced herself. She had just started her barista job in downtown Turlock, a fifteen-minute drive up the 99, and he had placed an order for a coffee with two sugars. She’d laughed and explained it was short for Kristen. Beneath his thick beard, a smile cracked wide open and Kris had felt a sudden rush of clarity — the sense that here, in this small, familiar town, with a man just like this, was how she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
Now, three years later, living in Turlock with Marcus and looking forward to nothing, Kris found herself confused and listless again. Imagining puzzles and shapes where there were none.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Flora, her older sister, always sounded calm after having seen or heard something unsettling. As if simply waiting to speak her mind. Kris shifted the phone in her ear. That was the beginning, Kris said. I kept feeling sick in the morning so I went to the doctor. The doctor told me I was pregnant.
No, said Flora. Further back. How’s things with Marcus?
What do you mean? Things are fine.
Kris glanced briefly at the door of Marcus’s apartment, as if he were about to walk in. Their apartment, technically, since she moved in two years ago, but still, somehow, his. The only time she had lived without her family had been with the girls at the Davis dorms; she’d never lived with a man before and didn’t know how to mold herself into the space. A lone coffee maker and toaster sat side by side on the kitchen counter. Kris had long ago adopted Marcus’s version of breakfast: a cup of coffee with two sugars, and two pieces of toast, one with jam and one with butter. The same, every day. She’d admit that it was a far cry from her mother’s Saturday morning papas con huevos, with warm tortillas and an indulgent pile of salsa on the side of the bright-colored plates that were a gift from her grandmother in Guadalajara. Kris felt that by simplifying her breakfast, she was stepping into a new era of adulthood, one that wasn’t bogged down by frivolity. It reflected what Marcus said was a more conscious approach to material things, which Kris admired. Still, she missed those beautiful plates.
Kris, said Flora, if things were fine between you and Marcus, you would have told him by now.
Kris was quiet. She was annoyed at being told what was or was not true. She instantly regretted calling her sister, who was miles away in San Francisco, a bustling metropolis so teeming with people that she couldn’t possibly understand true intimacy.
You’re right. I’ll tell him, Kris said after a few moments. I gotta go. They hung up, and Kris told herself that she was doing the right thing until she believed it.
The coffee shop became the only place where things made sense. The periods of time between days, between work shifts, were shapeless blurs in her memory. A few weeks into the summer, they offered her a management position. It was a modest pay increase, just an extra dollar per hour, but she knew the money would add up with the new full-time schedule. Kris could build up hers and Marcus’s savings. They could save for…a house, perhaps? A future. The bright future she had envisioned when they’d first met, now reduced to an empty heartbeat in the gap in the depths of her belly. But she wouldn’t think about that now. A promotion at work, something that was supposed to mean that she was good at her job, also meant that she could convince herself, however feebly, that what she had done was not a mistake. That her entire life was more than just a series of mistakes. Revealing the news to Marcus at dinner that night, Kris was careful not to betray her own excitement, wanting to see how he would react first so she could properly mirror it. She named the new wage, keeping her eyes cast down. She listened to him chew, then swallow, for a full nine seconds.
He said: But you’ll be working full-time?
Kris kept her eyes on her plate. It was a perfectly round circle, plain and white.
Well…yes, she said.
He ate while she slowly deflated.
Then he said: Well. Aren’t you worried we’ll have less time for each other? Did you think about that?
What he meant was you won’t have time for me, but Kris knew not to contradict him out loud. It would lead to nowhere. She also knew she was lucky to have a man who cared so much.
He said: I mean, you work at a cafe. Is it really a promotion if it’s not a real job?
She was silent. Unsmiling, she cringed in upon herself. Then he looked at her, meeting her closed gaze with soft eyes. But if you really think it’s a good idea, he said, you should take the promotion.
She knew then that she would not.
Later that night, she ran through the conversation as she tried to sort through her feelings. Marcus breathed deeply in the bed beside her. She lay on her side, staring into the darkness, and what bloomed into her mind, clear and effortless, was what she should have said — though, as always, it came too late. She had been at a loss, but she knew now that she had only failed to come to her own defense, that her refusal to respond was not protest, like she thought, but validation.
Why would you say something like that?
Sometimes Marcus would get angry. He never hit her, but he had put more than one hole through their apartment wall, thrown more than one ashtray, broken more than one chair. If she said something offhand that he took as an insult; if he saw her laughing too hard at something one of his friends said. Quit acting like a slut. You think I’m fucking stupid? It took almost a year before Kris realized that the anger was simply a knee-jerk reaction to feeling alienated by something else: vulnerability, or insecurity, or fear. A man could not be faulted for not having learned to feel these things properly. A man could be forgiven — if he said sorry.
And a woman could not be faulted if she took the anger in her arms, peeled back the layers to find the ache that lay beneath, like a child fumbling with an orange to break the skin. She could be forgiven for forgetting herself in place of the person she wished to be: someone generous and calm, someone who took a man’s sorry and gently melted it between her hands. She was not this person yet but she could try. She did not want to be like her sister: a hard woman, someone who didn’t understand romantic intimacy, who was always preoccupied with things beyond herself; one of those women’s rights types who shrieked when a man wanted to pay the bill.
Kris, by comparison, was only preoccupied with real life.
There was a time when she would fight back, snarling and beastlike, against Marcus’s antagonism. No, she was not guilt-free. She had belittled and bullied, slammed doors and built walls. Yeah, I do think you’re stupid. Fucking prick. Oh, going to break something now? Big man, you. There would be shouting and break-ups, after which she would disappear from the apartment for hours only to come back in tears and collapse, exhausted, into the familiarity of his arms. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I love you. She knew it had to stop. She began to practice breaking the cycle, biting her tongue; to her, this was what it meant to love someone in the deepest sense. Sometimes he would snap, and she would tuck it away in silence, telling no one because no one would understand, telling herself that the control was empowering, and that to love someone was to heroically deflect, or better yet, absorb, the worst of them.
Weeks passed before Kris spoke with Flora on the phone again. Flora, who was busy with her new job and usually worked weekends, announced she was coming home to visit. She said it was because she missed home, so Kris chose to believe it and leaned forward into the thrill of seeing her. Whether it was Flora’s presence she missed or just the presence of someone outside of work besides Marcus or Marcus’s friends, loud adult boys who wore basketball shorts and left potato chip grease on the couch, she couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter.
At the end of a shift on a Saturday afternoon, a dirty white Buick pulled up to the curb in front of the cafe, startling Kris so much that she dropped the ceramic mug she was trying to place on the counter. It fell to the ground with a tinkling crash, shattering into jagged pieces and bleeding hot coffee and milky white foam. Blushing furiously and squeaking sorry sorry sorry, she hurried to clean the mess while the Buick waited outside, still running.
Flora was indiscreetly rolling a joint when Kris opened the passenger door and threw her bag inside. You can’t do that here, she protested, half-whispering as if a cop might be hiding in the back seat, but she was grinning. Flora, with her short, dark brown hair pushed back by sunglasses on her head, swiftly ran her tongue along the edge of the translucent paper and pressed it down in a tight seal. For later, she said, placing it in a small metal tin and into the glove compartment. She turned to Kris, but her gaze lasted a split second too long, eyes frozen in studious observation of her younger sister, as if she wasn’t seeing what she had expected to see. It was miniscule, but it made Kris uncomfortable. God, look at you! Flora finally exclaimed, cracking a wide smile.
Where are we going? Kris asked. Home?
Not yet. Let’s go to yours. Flora adjusted the sunglasses on her face and pulled the Buick away from the curb. Kris hesitated, then replied: Sure. She didn’t know if Marcus would be home, but then couldn’t articulate to herself what, if anything, would be wrong with that. Flora had met Marcus before. The thing was that she kept her opinions about him so tightly concealed that Kris couldn’t sense where the boundaries were or how to act. It made her feel vulnerable.
Well, catch me up, Kris said in a cheery voice as they drove through the streets they both knew well. She had seen that Flora was opening her mouth to ask how Kris was doing, and Kris was not ready for it.
There were things they didn’t have to say out loud to each other, like I’ve missed you or I’m worried about you. And anyway, Kris didn’t know how to articulate the sense of loss she’d experienced on the day Flora left home to attend San Francisco State on scholarship, that inward seismic shift within her that never quite shifted back. Flora, her closest ally throughout their childhood and teen years, had gone on to learn things that Kris didn’t know and make friends that Kris couldn’t relate to. During visits home, the conversations that used to be about gossip and boys would revolve around new theories of society and identity — their identity, supposedly — that Flora learned in some feminist studies or Latino history class. Kris would nod and listen. Flora joined clubs and student protests and volunteered for the Chicano community center. Kris struggled to find her own way. She did not know how to describe the feeling of being in a perpetual, frightening freefall for years. She couldn’t have said it out loud if she tried; the words would have been too heavy to lift.
Marcus was at home, having a beer in front of the TV, when they came in.
Hi, said Flora.
Flora’s home to visit, said Kris.
Marcus nodded toward them, keeping his eyes on the TV. Kris thought she saw his jaw tighten. Cool, he said. You didn’t tell me she was going to pick you up.
It was a surprise, Flora said, chuckling. What, you don’t like surprises?
Sorry babe, Kris said. She crossed the room to place her bag on the couch and pecked him on the cheek.
He took a swig of his beer. It’s cool, just text me next time. Want a beer? Flora?
Kris stole a fleeting glance at Flora. The chuckle was gone and her eyes were on the TV now, passively following the blurs of color and movement. But of course she was paying attention, Kris thought in dismay. Flora, the one with all the opinions, the acute observer.
Let’s go smoke, Flora said in Spanish.
Outside, the late afternoon sun was blaring, casting a golden tint over everything it touched. Kris trailed behind her sister through the bedroom and onto the balcony. They leaned on the railing and shared Flora’s joint between them, inhaling deeply under the warmth of the sun and listening to each other’s silence for a few minutes. They were fifteen, and nine, and six again. There was no distance between them. It was safe.
I’m doing okay, said Kris, breathing out smoke and letting her muscles sink sleepily.
That’s good, said Flora.
I mean…everything’s fine. Things could be worse. You know?
A long pause.
You know he cheated on me?
Kris nodded. He doesn’t know that I know. But I went through his phone one day when he was in the shower. It was some girl named Lisa, or Elise, I don’t remember. But it seemed like it was going on for a while. Didn’t seem like the first girl either.
Was this…before, or after…?
Oh. Oh, Kris.
Kris shrugged. I just…I can’t explain why, but I know it was the right decision. To not have the baby. I don’t hate him…I know you don’t like him, but…I should have wanted this. I think. To have something we can share. It just couldn’t be this.
Kris stopped, and seemed disoriented by what she just said. Flora watched her carefully, curiously, illuminated under the sun. This was the little girl who would beg Flora to play with her because she couldn’t stand playing alone. This was the girl who had wanted to move in with her high school boyfriend at fifteen and had even tried to run away, almost without their parents finding out, perhaps thinking it was a way of taking control over her own life when, in retrospect, it was the opposite. Flora saw her sister now — how thin she’d gotten, the depressed look in her eyes — and knew it was all catching up to her.
Flora never thought of herself as a savior. She didn’t like to be depended on. But there was an irreversible bond between them she couldn’t deny. If the world ended and turned to black, all that would be left would be the two of them, hands gripped, guiding each other through the darkness.
Hey. You know, one of my roommates just moved out.
Kris looked at her with blank eyes. Yeah. I don’t want to live in San Francisco.
Flora shrugged and leaned her elbows on the railing, lazily dipping her head back. The joke between them, every time Flora came home, was that she would kidnap her sister and bring her back to San Francisco and they could smoke weed every day and live bohemian, rent-controlled lives together. To Kris, it was a nice fantasy, but that was all. This time, though, she didn’t need Flora’s feigned nonchalance to know that Flora meant it. And the stubborn knot in Kris’s stomach was telling her that there was still, even after it all, too much to leave behind.
There’s too much to leave behind, Kris said in spite of herself, knowing that, by saying it out loud, she was granting the fantasy a validation she’d never allowed before.
Yeah. Sure. Flora smiled.
After the sun set and Flora left for their parents’ house, Kris and Marcus set about making dinner. They settled into a familiar rhythm in the kitchen, a sort of dance, a choreographed flurry of produce bags and chopping boards, bodies crossing, cupboard doors creaking open and shut. Kris, feeling simultaneously light and heavy, let her body find its own way.
She put her arms around Marcus from behind and leaned into the muscles of his back as he swiftly chopped carrots, small, quarter-inch orange circles falling neatly into a line like dominoes. Over his shoulder, she watched the smooth rise and fall of the blade. She noticed, for the first time, how relatively small his hands looked, and the odd, crooked bend of his right thumb. From punching the wall during one of their fights, maybe. How ridiculous all of that had been. He swept the chopped carrots aside and moved on to celery stalks, same knife and motion. The sliced bits fell into a similar line of pale green half-circles.
No. Unfinished circles.
San Francisco. Kris’s thoughts swung back and forth like a pendulum between here and there. A memory surfaced in her mind of one of her visits to Flora a few years ago; they lay in the grass at the edge of Dolores Park and shared a joint, overlooking the entire park and the downtown skyline in the distance and, beyond that, the bay. There had been so much air to breathe. What could she do in a place like that, with all that air?
The answer was everything.
Here. Kris couldn’t imagine her life without Marcus until today. She felt all the furniture in his apartment, the couch and refrigerator, chairs and tables, inflate like rubbery balloon shapes, swelling and swelling until it pushed into her from all sides, suffocating her until she disappeared underneath it all. Such smooth lines to be trapped between and yet so delicate as to burst at the touch of a single sharp, surgical needle.
They sat down together. The food was laid out, portioned for two. Kris chatted lightly about her day, about breaking the coffee mug at work, about Flora. She didn’t mention the conversation on the balcony. Marcus nodded and asked questions in all the right places. Kris was already somewhere else, far away from this kitchen, from this apartment, from this town. Under the table, she reached out her ankle to touch his; the contact felt numb and she knew then that something was over. Suddenly ravenous, she began heaping large amounts of food onto her plate, far more than her fair share.
Aiya Madarang is a writer currently living in San Francisco. She holds a degree in linguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her poetry has appeared in Forum magazine.