Survival Guide

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

Apply primer. 

When the bruise is at its darkest—any shade between red and violet—apply green concealer first, then regular concealer, one shade lighter than your foundation. Once it begins to yellow, substitute lavender concealer for the green. Then foundation, repeat; cover in powder, setting spray. Make every effort to ensure your makeup can outlast tears, sweat, the various liquors and juices that form a thin, sticky film on your skin that remains after you return home from your closing shift. Check every angle of your face—first in the bathroom mirror, then in your phone camera when you get behind the bar to test the lighting. Remember which angle makes the bruise the least visible when you’re talking to her.

She wants to help you. She’s a good friend, and you hate her for it. She’s a lawyer, and she acts like one, studying you with pleading eyes from behind her beer when she sits at one of the iron stools surrounding the horseshoe-shaped bar. Avoid being alone with her, getting cornered. You know you will cry. You always do. 

The truth comes out when she asks you to share a Pall Mall just outside the warm, cheerful brewery on a cold night in early February. She starts crying, and your own eyes begin to sting. But you quickly fight the tears down, walk back in like nothing happened and pour yourself, and any of the regulars who desire one, another drink. 

You move into the spare bedroom of her house by the end of the month. She keeps it too cold. You wear wool socks to bed, hug your knees to your chest under layers of quilts and it’s still not enough. You think about the first night you met him, how out of nowhere he appeared as you searched your backpack for a lighter. The way the flame, and the sudden glow of his smile appeared in the dark. You don’t sleep. You toss and turn in a bed that is not yours, in a house you’ll never be able to afford. You remember the night you both searched his apartment at three in the morning for his birth certificate, motivated by copious amounts of cocaine and a desire to find out his birthtime. Defeated, he sat on the worn futon, and you on the concrete floor, your head collapsed onto his bony knee, his fingernails tracing mandalas on the back of your neck.

You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to be anyone’s charity case. You’ve always done exactly what you’ve wanted. Each time you’d go to him, you couldn’t wait to leave your life behind: your boyfriend of two years, the home you were building with each other. Your hair would stand up on your neck when he opened the door, your flesh crawling with the illicitness of it all. Eventually, you confessed the affair to your boyfriend, and now you live in your friend’s spare bedroom, making promises of never seeing him again. You lie, more than ever. Only this time you’re doing it while you’re eating her food, drinking her expensive coffee, living in her house. She gives you clothes that no longer fit her: well-worn T-shirts advertising restaurants you’ve never been to, cities you’ve never even passed by. You wear them, like you wear the guise of a girl that is changing, but inside everything pulls you back to him.

The first time you sneak back to his place while she is at work, he takes your phone from your hands. When you go to reach for it, he slaps you with the back of his hand across your face. His ring collides with your cheekbone and leaves a mark. She asks you about it. You lie, smudged makeup. She looks at you defiantly: “Gal, that’s a bruise.” 

Be careful of what you say over text messages.

Ever since that first morning you woke up in his apartment, you feel the space between your legs swell when you see his name on your phone. You texted through the days that followed: talking dirty, typing fantasies of bondage and submission. He’s more methodical than you think, or at the least, opportunistic. Now, he throws it back in your face: If you ever tell anybody, he will show them that he was only giving you what you wanted. 

Trust your gut. 

Only your gut builds cobblestoned paths straight to your demise, illuminates your endangerment in a soft pink light. Your gut placed you behind steering wheels when you were too drunk to walk, before you were even old enough to get your license. Your gut asked your friend for drugs when you were both in the back of a paddy wagon (on camera) on the way to the city jail. Your gut shared a home with a man who loved you, and kept leading you to the apartment of this one instead, for sex, attention, drama and other reasons you can’t name. Your gut would gleefully skip barefoot across a path of hot coals to pick up a one-dollar scratch off ticket on the other side. You know love is not this. You’ve had love better than this; you could count it on both of your hands. Your gut chose this instead. 

Come up with a safety plan. 

It’s not like it is in the movies. If you leave, he won’t stop you. He will never pursue you after you are gone. He will have someone else in his bed before you can sign the paperwork for your new apartment. You have nothing stopping you from never answering him again. You choose to stay, again and again and again. You once heard in a court-mandated AA meeting that some people are addicted to being sick. Sickness is a part of them as inseparable as flesh. Love isn’t strong enough for you unless it has you in a chokehold.

One June day, he confesses he’s sleeping with someone else. You had been too, but as always, you feign innocence. You slap him; he chokes you until you lose consciousness. You wake on your bed, with him, then run down the stairs from your attic apartment. He chases you, falls on his knees in the backyard and begs you to stay. That night, you take a pregnancy test. You don’t remember your last period, don’t remember much of anything. The months stretch behind you like a blank white hallway. It hurts when you swallow from where his fingers gripped your throat. You read recently that people who have been strangled by their partners are over 700% more likely to be murdered by them the next year; that seven seconds of occlusion of blood is when permanent brain damage starts to occur. As the second blue line begins to appear on the drugstore test, you are too stunned to pick up your phone. You don’t know who to call. 

Be prepared for bold people to ask you: “Why did you keep the baby?”

Not so bold people will wonder the same. You don’t owe them an answer, but what you can say is: “No matter what, I was ready to be a mother.” 

You don’t tell them about the first one. You were 18 years old; you scraped together the money your Irish Catholic father gave you for books that semester and the money you saved working Sundays serving pancakes to churchgoers at a Cracker Barrel. The procedure took 15 minutes, but you sat in the waiting room filled with downcast eyes and a heavy silence for most of the day. The ultrasound tech sounded like she had once sat where you sat when she said: “I legally have to show you the heartbeat, but you don’t have to look at the screen.” You looked at the screen, the creature swimming like a jellyfish. You never once regretted it, but you promised yourself you’d never do that again. 

Promises were made to be broken. You make an appointment for a date the week before it would be too late, just in case. You drive to the clinic in Denver still undecided. It’s a regular doctor’s office, in a regular building, without a protester to be found. Here you are, ten years later, feeling more lost than you were back then. You sit in your car for 20 minutes, staring at the black windows against the beige building, knowing for less than a thousand dollars, you could walk into those doors and walk out the same, a woman who only had to care for herself. A decade ago, you knew exactly what you wanted. Now, you are ambivalent, passive. You’d hoped the doctor wouldn’t find a heartbeat when you attended your prenatal appointments. You’d hoped to wake up in the morning and see blood. You’d hoped that something would happen that was out of your control, that would allow you a second chance to have your first child in the kind of healthy home you grew up in, a chance to get this part right. You, like always, longed to slip quietly out of this situation, blameless and innocent. 

You choose to be a mother.

Now, when his hands lunge for you, you must protect your stomach instead of your face.

You try to make the best of it. You act meeker than ever, pick his clothes up off the carpet and fold them after he throws them to the ground in a rage. You twist yourself endlessly to fit into what you think he wants. You watch the animated version of The Addams Family on repeat, sinking deeper into the well your body has created on the king-sized mattress on his bedroom floor. He rubs your feet. Starts to smoke his cigarettes outside. Makes you bubble baths with off-brand dish soap, applies clay face masks, massages shoulders, cleans your skin when you don’t have the strength. He grabs your face, goes to smack it, his hand remains in the air; he throws a pot instead. He’s changing. He promises you he has changed. As your stomach grows, the walls close in. You stray further and further from the woman a younger you wanted to become.

You leave his apartment for what you promised yourself would be the last time. 

You’d made a plan. You go to your 20-week anatomy scan. The ultrasound tech shakes your stomach to try and get the baby to move. She asks if you ate breakfast, says the baby must be in a food coma. You hope that’s all it is, the first of many worries you will have for the life growing inside you. She has you walk around, change positions, go pee. Then she checks your baby’s every body part, wordlessly typing notes that make no sense to you. It’s a boy, what his father has always wanted. He’s healthy, a relief to you. You watch your son kick on the screen and feel his tiny feet against the wall of your uterus. You’d been feeling that flutter for weeks, but chalked it up to your anxiety. 

The day after your appointment, you drive east. You have a financed car, $2,000 in your bank account, clothes, and six black and white sonogram pictures of your child’s body parts: his long limbs, his feet, his testicles labeled “IT’S A BOY!!!!” You are afraid to face your family. You are ashamed: first in a long history of devout Catholics to be pregnant outside of wedlock, by a man they’ve never even heard of. You drive to Kansas City, pay for two nights at the cheapest hotel you can find. It is luxury to you, stretching into crisp white sheets, stretching into silence. You watch reality TV for two straight days with the lights off and the blackout curtains drawn, order sushi and BBQ and have them leave it outside the door. 

When you arrive back in Kentucky, the state you’d left five years before with no intention of returning, you sleep on an air mattress in your little sister’s spare bedroom. You deliver food from Applebee’s and Chick-fil-A in red insulated bags over and over again for laughable wages until you’re welcomed back to the same restaurant where you worked during college. You work doubles; you work seventeen days straight. Your feet swell. You buy new shoes. Now you can afford an apartment. Your mother and your two sisters take you to Target and they split the cost three ways. You leave with a metal trash can, plastic plates, and a vacuum. In front of the cashier, you shuffle back and forth in your oversized Sketchers and sheepishly dribble out I-can’t-thank-you-enoughs. You’ve become their charity case.

February comes around. Your wrists and fingers swell so much you can’t grasp a pencil. You wear a carpal tunnel brace to bed. Your belly can no longer be mistaken for extra weight. People you know and those you don’t congratulate you constantly. At home, you cry; you feel like you made a mistake. You swallow pregnancy-safe over-the-counter sleep aids. You long for dreams better than your reality. You long for a time machine. You long for stronger drugs. But, you already live for the boy growing inside you, now taking up enough space you can sometimes see his hands or feet from the other side of your translucent winter skin when you lay in bed at night. You work. You save. You make coffee at home. You only buy meat on sale. You are becoming disciplined. Still, lonely, you call your baby’s father. He’s always drunk and often with someone else. You fill your new apartment with the same old thundering screams from both ends of the phone, insults thrown from both sides like tiny darts in a dimly lit bar. You cry. You long to be seen. You should not be carrying this alone. But, you left. You knew this is what would happen.

Whether you’re ready or not, the baby will come. 

He’s born on his due date. His birth, like his conception, you cannot remember. He arrives violently, with an infection that ate your epidural in the middle of a C-section after two days of failed labor. You’re knocked unconscious with ketamine. You hallucinate through the delivery, sherbet colors, people you’ve hurt saying they forgive you. You wake up an hour and a half after he’s born, alone in a room with an oxygen mask over your face, shaking as you detox from the drugs. When it comes time to meet him, you tell your nurse you aren’t ready. You don’t realize she wasn’t giving you the choice. 

You video chat his dad from the hospital, he says that baby ain’t fucking his. When he is six weeks old, his dad tells you he’s found someone who will be a better mother than you are, and you scream and punch a wall with your son in a baby carrier, sleeping against your chest. He doesn’t wake up. He feels so safe with you, it’s your job to keep it that way. You promise this is the last time.

Six months later, his father comes to meet him for the first time. When he’s in your apartment, the shrinking begins again. Every move is scrutinized. You count down the days until he leaves. One night, while you’re sleeping, holding your son in your arms, he snatches him from you. He drags you with one hand to the kitchen outside your bedroom door, holding your cellphone in the other hand, upset about unanswered Facebook messages from your neighbor. He pins you to the linoleum floor. You hear your son start to cry from your bed. You know to shrink is to survive. Your eyes closed, you apologize and repeat, calmly, again and again: “Please, go get the baby.” The minutes feel like hours. You promise this is the last time. It is. 

Even if you don’t feel happy, you can find serenity in being alone. 

Your mom kindly suggests that maybe you could meet a nice single father to date; you know she worries you will never find a proper father figure for your son. Friends tell you to get the baby out of your bed so you can find your sexual self again. But you have everything you want. You find comfort in the rhythm of your days, lulled by the routine. You find peace in the sound of the dishwasher running at night. You are calm; you do not surf someone else’s mood swings like waves.

When your son’s laughter fills your apartment, you actually feel joy. Him in his highchair, you on a step stool in front of him, juggling clementines. He does not see any of your imperfections; he does not know any of your mistakes. You are the only thing he knows, and you are ridding yourself of toxic behaviors, wringing them from you like dirty water from a sponge, so that one day you may feel you deserve that kind of love. On weekends, you sip hot coffee and watch your son play. You make him scrambled eggs with sprouted wheat toast for breakfast. Most days, you don’t apply makeup. There have been weeks you’ve forgotten to look in the mirror at all. You keep your eyes on the next step and keep faith that he will grow up feeling secure and loved. That he will feel like each choice you made was the right one.

Lucy Jayes

Lucy Jayes has fostered a love of writing since she was old enough to hold a pen. Her work has been published in Cardinal Sins, Deep Overstock, and the Big Windows Review. She is a second-year MFA student at the University of Kentucky.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson


The side of a building with many fire escapes. The photo appears in black and white with a V-shaped center section in bright, comic-book style color, the building vibrant orange-red.

At 5:00 a.m. Mark’s pager squeals. It’s a fire call. 

In the kindest voice I can muster, I ask, “Can’t you skip it? It’s our wedding day.” I mash my face into the pillow. The real Catharine wants to break his face for leaving that damn radio on to disrupt my sleep. Pregnant, exhausted, awake most of the night because of his snoring, and planning to marry later that day—all are good reasons to let me sleep in just this once, to let another volunteer take the call, to allow the fires to burn. He says he won’t be long. 

I can’t go back to sleep, so I get up, eat a Pop-Tart, take a shower, and wait. An hour or two pass. Bored, or maybe suspicious of all these “fire calls” that have occurred almost daily since I moved in, I search his emails—he left the computer unlocked this time—dig through the files and folders in the steel filing cabinet in his office, flip through his baby book and other photo albums on the shelves, and rummage through boxes in the basement. This is my first time alone in his house when I’m not busy unpacking my own boxes, or getting ready for work or a class, or reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or trying to get back to sleep in the middle of the night after his pager crows and he rushes off. I push through the papers, albums, and files. I ignore the sting of the sunburn on my shoulders and chest and the urgent calls to pee every hour. Unsure of what I’m hunting, I keep digging until I have to leave to get my hair done. He’s been gone seven hours. We’re to be married at 4:00 p.m. Will he make it? Is he actually out fighting a fire? Why hasn’t he called? I get into the dress, the shoes, and drive.

I sit in an off-white wedding dress, size 12, while a woman curls my hair. The salon is loud with hair dryers, chatter, and the roar of my blood. My palms sweat. My back and neck ache. I close my eyes as she twirls my hair around the steaming iron. I don’t want to look at the woman in the mirror—fat, burned, and abandoned. 

As soon as I get in the car, my phone rings. Mark says he and his crew just finished fighting a large grass fire on the outskirts of town—two other volunteer fire departments were called in as well. Now he’s coming home. It’s 2:15 p.m. I say I’ll meet him at the house. 

I sit in the salon lot, my car running. All those emails to and from former girlfriends—Anne, Sharon, Susan, Linda, Janet, Stacey, Heather. They flip through my head. All those photos on his computer—vacations to Colorado, Las Vegas, Scotland, Arizona, Florida—organized in labeled folders with all those ladies’ names. All those faded Polaroid photos of a naked brunette in a bathtub in a box labeled “1985.” All those tax documents with his ex-wives’ names. All those receipts for rings, earrings, computers, limos, dinners, storage units, and trips. All those documents for apartment rentals, car leases, and purchases. All those credit card statements with balances in the thousands. He never mentioned debt. In his pen holder shaped like a fire hydrant, I found the key to a locked filing cabinet drawer. It held bankruptcy papers from 1997. He never mentioned bankruptcy.  

My dad calls to say he and my stepmom are in town and they’ve checked into the hotel. They’ll see me at the ceremony. I keep my voice cheerful. “Yes, see you there!” His call is the toll of a bell—time’s up—I put the car in drive and head to Mark’s. Because of my sunburn, Mark probably will not be able to tell I was crying. My face, neck, and chest burned, my skin peeling and pink. When I enter his door, he doesn’t say anything except how pretty my hair is as he buttons his white shirt. He has his shoes on. He’s ready. First stop: the flower shop to get my bouquet, and then the ceremony. 

My mother, with her large black sunglasses and cane, and her boyfriend David, wearing a terrible bright yellow shirt like always, are already at the Gerald Ford Rose Garden. They show up early to everything. Mark’s mother arrives in a bright white pantsuit. I wonder what her angle is. My dad and his wife Becky come up. My dad points at his Winnie the Pooh tie and says, “I know how much you like Winnie the Pooh.” I don’t correct him. If I ever did like that character, it’s been many years ago, so many I don’t recall watching that show like I remember Saturday mornings watching the Smurfs or She-Ra or Sunday nights spent with The Simpsons. I’m not angered by this—how could he know what I like or don’t like? He doesn’t really know me.

My friend Melissa, my maid of honor and only attendant, wears a lovely, flowing black dress. She was the maid of honor for my first wedding as well. This whole scene is a repeat. But this time—instead of the traditional tacky purple bridesmaid dress, rehearsal dinner, bachelorette party, church ceremony, and all the trappings she endured less than two years before—we are in a garden, and I said just wear a black dress, and please read this Pablo Neruda poem before the vows. I wanted everyone to wear black, but few did. I’m grateful Melissa is here. She applies my concealer, foundation, blush, and lipstick in the nearby restroom. Unfortunately, because of my sunburn from the week before, my skin is flaky, and she can’t do much to make me look better.  I’m glad she’s willing to participate in this event, though I am not sure whether it is a farce or real. The other bridesmaids I had in 2002 are not there—Gina cut ties because I told her I wasn’t going to raise my unborn child Catholic. At least that’s what she claims. But I know the truth: She watched me cheat on my first husband for over a year and lost all respect for me. Who could blame her?  Erin’s stationed out of state and couldn’t take leave on such short notice. Samantha, who had been pregnant at my first wedding with her second child, has her hands full with those two babies. I told her not to worry about coming. She had attended the first wedding. There may be more in the future, I joked with her on the phone. I had been out of Mark’s earshot. This time, instead of two hundred people witnessing my vows, we have maybe 40 guests. I’m surprised that Mark has only a handful of friends to invite. None of the other volunteers from the fire department are invited, which I find strange. 

This is his third wedding and my second, so we don’t register for gifts, and we don’t bother to invite distant cousins and aunts and uncles. I assume people who are no-shows don’t come because this is just a rerun. My extended family from Minnesota, Chicago, and Washington all attended my first wedding—I couldn’t bear to face them again so soon and did not invite them. It was bad enough this was my dad’s first time meeting Mark. They shook hands. I wonder what my dad thinks of him, of me. 

This time instead of a black limo, we ride in Mark’s Dodge. This time instead of not seeing my future husband before the ceremony, we shared a bed the night before and drove together to the site. This time instead of a priest who has known me since third grade, we have a judge.  He is a short man, maybe 5 foot—cartoon-like with a handlebar mustache and waiting there by the rose bushes in an awkward stance. We emailed our script to him the week before. Having never met him in person prior to the ceremony, we have no idea how well his delivery will go. 

This time instead of music, we have silence as people stand around and wait. Holding the bouquet, I face this small group. My mom’s boyfriend is taking photos. The photographer is off to the side snapping away as well. I asked that we skip the family group shots. 

I am two women. Part of me wants to keep this baby, have this wedding, quit my job, stay at home, and raise our son well.  I’d be better than my mother who only ever gifted me terror. She once screamed, “Pack your shit and get the fuck out!” and tossed my little red “Going to Grandma’s” suitcase at my head. I was seven. I’d be better than my father who took off (who could blame him?) and left me with the beast that still stalks my nightmares.

I’d give my son everything I had wanted: two parents, a house—not that trailer—nice clothes, family time, game time that didn’t end with a mother throwing the board or the cards in the trash, a place to land after a hard day at school, the embrace of a mother who listens to his stories when he’s young and keeps tabs on him when he’s a teenager. I won’t allow my son to run the streets with no curfew and no supervision. I won’t supply the wine coolers in our fridge, stay home if you’re going to drink. I won’t be the mother who’s at her boyfriend’s place every night of the week. Instead, I’ll be home playing the role of mother. Although I’ve never acted on a stage, never memorized lines, I would figure it out. 

The other part of me wants to run from this rushed wedding and give the baby away. The open road, the open notebook, the open door all call, and I want to go. This could be my fire call. I must act now. The pager can’t be stopped—it’s screaming and screaming—I must leave. I could jump in his car, flip the lights and siren on, and take off. This baby would do better with a mother not as bruised, not as cursed, not as abused. How can I offer anything good when all that was poured into me was poison? I’m a deep well. First, tainted by my mother. Then, as a 16-year-old rebel, I’d sought out others who offered me cans, bottles, and glasses filled with something, and I drank and drank and drank—hoping to finally feel my thirst quenched. I drank until I blacked out, and I stayed that way until I woke at this rose garden, pregnant and confused. It isn’t the kiss of a prince that awakens me; it’s the pinch of the dress on my growing belly, the clatter of the cameras’ shutters, the sprinklers suddenly dousing the rose bushes. The bouquet falls from my shaking hands. Mark hands it back to me. 

“You ready?”

It’s amazing what the years take away. I’m sure I looked into his eyes. I’m sure I said something when the judge asked for a response, but I can’t recall. All I have left are the photos and the script the judge read, which was from The Simpsons episode “A Milhouse Divided.” In it, after Milhouse’s parents announce they’re divorcing, Marge and Homer are worried about their own marriage. Homer feels bad that he couldn’t give Marge a nice wedding all those years ago because they were young and strapped. The episode struck a chord with us since we were marrying because of a surprise pregnancy too.

The judge read, “Do you, Catharine, take Mark, in richness and in poorness—poorness is underlined—in impotence and in potence, in quiet solitude or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated … and it goes on like this.” 

There was a note that the judge should shuffle his notecards before he said, “it goes on like this,” but I remember he didn’t do that. My only memory of the actual ceremony is my disappointment in the judge. He didn’t perform the piece like we had imagined.  

Now I read those words and realize we’d selected them because they were ridiculous. We weren’t being serious. We were two people who happened to like the same cartoon show. Two people who liked to drink. Two people who liked sex. That’s why we were gathered there—and we couldn’t compose real vows because there was nothing connecting us but an unborn baby who neither of us had known or wanted just a few months before. 

The judge announced us married and everyone clapped.

The day after the wedding, I ask about the bankruptcy. No point in hiding that I snooped—I left the emails up, the filing cabinet drawers open, and paperwork sprawled across floor. He knew I knew as soon as he returned home from the fire call, but he didn’t bring it up when I got back from the salon. He met me at the door, finished buttoning up his shirt, grabbed his tux jacket, and we drove off to get married.   

He tells me he married his second wife Amy in 1996. She was only 21 years old and he was 28. After knowing each other only a few weeks, they hopped a plane to Vegas, got married, then returned to Omaha to his shabby one-bedroom apartment. She started racking up debt almost immediately. He says Amy came from money. Her father was a rich lawyer, and she wouldn’t work, but expected a new place to live, fashionable clothes, a brand new convertible. 

One night, several months after they wed, they had a nasty fight. She was drunk and threatened to take the fancy car and leave, but he didn’t want her driving drunk and he didn’t want to lose her and face another divorce, so he grabbed her, maybe too hard, and she called her father and the police. Mark spent the night in jail. 

Some of the details he gave me are now cloudy, but eventually they filed for divorce, and he was loaded down with her debt. At the time, he worked as a manager at Wendy’s and couldn’t afford the mountains of credit card debt, so he filed for bankruptcy. He had no choice. Amy, he said, got away without consequence, except a sprained wrist. 

I ask about the new credit card debt. Perhaps it’s strange for a 23-year-old to be so wound up about debt. But I’d been lucky—my college had been paid for by a family friend, and I have no debt besides a car loan that’s almost paid off.  I was hired at a debt collection agency full-time when I was 18—before credit card offers made their way to my mailbox. After five years of listening to so many people cry, beg, and scream on the phone, I know what debt does to a life. I’d worked at the agency and attended college full-time, juggling 40-hour weeks and homework, losing friends because I was too busy, missing out on campus poetry readings and writing groups—all so I didn’t live outside my means. 

Mark says he now has about $20,000 in credit card debt and $5,000 left on his student loans. This doesn’t include the car lease or the mortgage. We order a pizza, drink sodas, and talk late into the night. 

I tell him about the cutting, the drinking, and the years of verbal and emotional abuse from my mother. He doesn’t seem disgusted or dismayed. He listens. He shares more. He paints a picture of a little boy sitting at the dinner table alone, playing by himself in his room, ignored by his father. Mark, first as a child, then as an adult, witnessed praise and gifts and money showered on his siblings—blood children of his father—while he was left to do it himself because he was adopted. That’s what he tells me and that’s what I believe.

The judge announced us married and everyone clapped.

 After he tells me that his second wife Amy left him holding such heavy debt, after he tells me about years working at grocery stores and fast food places, after he tells me it took over a decade to earn his bachelor’s degree, after he tells me that he built this house for Anne—an ex-girlfriend whose name came up in those emails I found—and then, that Anne broke up with him just months before the house was finished because she didn’t want to be saddled with his debt, after he says how he’s been a stranger in his own family his entire life—a blond-haired blue-eyed freak surrounded by the much loved black-haired children of his father—after he tells me about the time his father punched him, breaking his nose out in the driveway when he was 16, after hours and hours of talking, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears, I say, “I have a $20,000 CD. It just expired and now it’s in a regular savings account. I can pay off your credit card debt.” 

I know I must give this to him, though he’s hesitant to accept. He’s had a good job as a software engineer for only a few years, this new house was just finished in October, and now I’ve moved in with all my clutter and clothes and this baby I carry, and I can’t give him anything in return. I won’t even take his last name. He’s married me, and I must offer him something—a consolation prize, a thank you gift. 

I do not consider all the free hours of housekeeping and childcare he will receive in the coming years. I do not consider myself having anything of worth to offer besides this measly sum of money. I do not consider why he has racked up this new debt—where did the money go? Would he continue to spend so carelessly in the future?—I am a sack of tears and scars and now stretch marks, and all I want is a place to call home.  I give him the $20,000 as if to say, You’re stuck with Catharine, but here, take this check. 

Cat Dixon

Cat Dixon (she/her) is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry  (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016 and 2014), and The Book of Levinson and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2017 and 2015), and Table for Two (Poet’s Haven, 2019). Her new poetry collection, What Happens in Nebraska, will come out this fall. She works as an adjunct creative writing instructor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson