“Are you sure?” he said, finally. He was sitting in his easy chair, in front of a window. Outside, I could see our neighbor hanging up an evergreen wreath.
I nodded. I was sure. In a way, I wasn’t even surprised. If it happened to a virgin, it could certainly happen to me. Merry Christmas. I had missed two periods already. I had taken nine pregnancy tests—one and then another one and so on, thinking best out of three? Five? My father breathed out slow. His disappointment hit me and hit me.
“Okay. Get the phone book,” he said, in a voice I hadn’t heard since “Get the paddle” as a kid. I bit my lip. He was angry. Quiet stuff: pale face, stiff fingers, a headshake.
“What are you going to do?”
He called Brandon’s house. Then he called four churches. The fourth had an opening in two weekends. I listened to his voice, his tired mind cranking out long one-breath sentences ending in question marks? Then silence. I hugged my knees and stared at a lamp. I decided to hate him. I counted the buttons on his shirt. I heard him put the phone away. I poked myself in the diaphragm. I wasn’t very big yet, just healthy looking.
I didn’t tell Brandon first, because Brandon was like a window. He couldn’t keep a secret. I knew the second that he liked me; there was no hiding it, and whenever he got mad, I knew why before he did. His fingers twitched around an imaginary accordion when he was full of news. “Ha,” I could have said to him, “you think you’re full of news.”
Brandon’s family came over that night. Our parents talked, mostly. I didn’t talk to Brandon. I sat on one side of the living room, far away from him, and he sat on the other—chevron sweater, dark hair, floppy loafers—as if we could undo everything by never touching or speaking again.
We didn’t talk until school the next morning. “We’re having a baby?” he said. His voice was high with adrenaline, like a boy’s. I counted two toothpaste spots on his shirt. How had I thought of him as anything but a boy? The kind that librarians and lonely piano teachers love secretly. The kind that is ruined by girls like me. I guess I can’t speak for other girls, to be fair, but I know I’m not the only one who feels guilty. Not guilty like, “what have I done?” but something like “what have I done to him?.”
“I am,” I said, and I could see already that he wanted to touch my stomach. He wanted to hold it, to listen as he would with a conch shell for the ocean.
“Callie,” he said. “I’ll get a job, and I’ll buy a house. A house.” His eyes were wide.
“Good luck,” I said.
“Are you okay?” He looked at my stomach again.
I saw the hope in his face and wanted to crush it. He thought he had me now, and as his own awful family receded in his brain, this new picture—me and him and kids—was exploding in his forehead.
Here’s what was exploding in my head: in two weeks, when everyone was whispering behind my back, “She’s so lucky it was him,” I’d be beating my pillow at night, fists and elbows sobbing, “why him?” He’d never leave. I knew it. I’d be walking up the aisle as soon as a church could fit us in, and Brandon would smile, look people in the eye when he shook their hands, and wave. The nodding church gossips would approve of him to their husbands as they drove home in the evening, in their blue suits and pleasant dresses. “What a nice boy,” they would say. But when I marched down the aisle, nobody was going to think what a nice girl, or what a nice dress. They’d be there for one thing: to watch the bouquet hover at my waist, thinking a little more to the left, a little more—there it is.
Brandon was nice—nicer than the other guys who liked me. My dad even liked him.
I didn’t. For a while, I avoided Brandon at school. He talked to me about ninjas and carrier pigeons and basketball and boardgames, and I listened with a straight mouth. Callie and Brandon forever officially started when I saw his mom yelling at him in the parking lot about a scratch on the van door. At least three other pairs of eyes glimmered at me from behind the tinted windows. I saw Brandon reach for the keys in his mom’s hand. I heard the punch of her voice, watched her slam her door and drive off without him. He looked so white-faced and pinched in. I’m really not the romantic type, but I ran back inside, waited for him to come up the school steps, and then I held his hand. No fingers-in-between-fingers. We were the same height. I felt like I was doing something profoundly good. I surprised myself, and I liked the feeling.
That was almost a year ago, and I broke up with Brandon at least six times after that. The most recent breakup was supposed to be the last, but my dad, who wasn’t in the loop, had invited Brandon for burgers. We watched a movie in the living room together, and there’s nothing like watching someone watch. Before Brandon came over, my father had cleaned up the house and combed his hair. My father was meticulous about his hair, what was left. He was always combing it, checking it in the mirror.
When my mom still lived with us, she would watch him do this and say, “Every time you look in the mirror, a piece falls out.” And for all we knew, it did. My mother usually meant what she said—she had that kind of power, the thrilling and useful power to say things that were true, like, “You’re gonna get pregnant and drop out of school, way you’re headed,” and most recently, “I’m leaving.”
So unlike my father, who whispers and shouts and never follows through.
My mother knew how things would go from the beginning, she said. She knew when they were driving away in Dad’s decorated Fiero with a hundred soup cans tied to the back bumper. But she hung in there. She went through with it, the whole wedding night and the homemaking. It’s not that she didn’t love him, she said. She just loved so many things. I don’t know about that last part. She never said that. I came up with it.
She left eight months ago. I didn’t see her storm out because I was at school. I can imagine it though—all her things on the sidewalk, her dark, curly hair. How do you chop off a marriage, exactly? I imagined a nod, a formal handshake. My dad came and got me, took me home early. He bought me ice cream. Later that night, I found him on his knees in his office, holding his head. His hands were soft and veiny. He looked up when I stepped into the room.
“Crying?” I asked.
“Feeling any better?” I said. I could see the shiny mushroom of his scalp. I tried not to look.
“Not yet,” he said. He touched his hair, his ear. I thought about praying. I’ve thought about it since, but I’m as nervous as I was then to approach the Heavenly Father. I’ve never been good with parents. It’s hard enough to talk to my real dad, or to my friend Erin’s dad, who tugged on my dance team shirt and said he was going to staple it to my pants if I couldn’t keep it from riding up. He walked in during Erin’s sweet sixteen, when we were all dancing. He watched us pass around a hula hoop.
Two days after the big conversation in our living room, Dad gave me five hundred dollars and told me to go buy a dress. He said there was more if I needed it. He said that Brandon’s mother, Dreama, would pick me up at noon, and look lively. When Dreama pulled into our driveway, I pushed myself out the door. We were well past the second stoplight when she finally spoke to me. She’d been trying to catch my eye since we left the house.
“What kind of dresses do you like?” Her voice was high and cute and likeable. I was surprised. I shrugged. “You’ll just have to try on a lot, I guess.” She told me about her dress, her first wedding, the big sleeves. She told me about her maid of honor, drunker than Ireland, crying like forest rain, rain-forest rain, all through the toast, and well into the cake. I watched the stoplight turn green.
The store, some trendy boutique, was full of women and dresses. Slick, shining white mannequins fixed their blank faces on me. There were walls of shoes and purses and gauzy veils and champagne glasses and stationery. There were curtains and stages. There were mirrors everywhere. A chandelier glittered in the center of it all, dripping with prisms. Each prism like an icicle or a knife.
One attendant sang across her dress rack to me, “Helping Mom find a dress?” I stared at her.
Dreama ignored the girl. “What size, Callie?” she said. I shrugged again.
“Four?” I said. “Six?” Eight, ten, twelve; I would wear all of those sizes, soon. The singing attendant was embarrassed. Her manager was embarrassed. It made me feel embarrassed.
“I’d like to try this dress, please,” I said loudly, snatching the nearest white hanger. The attendant gave me a corset bra with a hundred tiny hooks and a petticoat. I forced my way into them and worked as many of the hooks as I could reach.
“Need some help?” said Dreama.
“No,” I said. The thought of us both crammed into the tiny room, her fingers fluttering between my shoulder blades made me shiver. The petticoat was lined with something scratchy like tulle or chiffon that bit at my knees. I slipped on the first dress. It was too big, too heavy with beads.
“Let’s see it,” said Dreama. Her voice sounded far away. I felt very far away, suddenly, as if the day had taken me somewhere that I had never planned on going. Some place where girls still wore corsets and petticoats.
“One second,” I said. I touched the beige wall and saw where a little paint was peeling. I peeled it off. I breathed and opened the door.
“It’s too big,” I said.
“Oh,” said Dreama. “That’s not the one.” The room behind her was blindingly bright, all different shades of white.
“Let me find something,” she said. “You stay there.”
Dreama picked out an armful of dresses for me and hung them outside my fitting room door. The dresses were awful. Everything Dreama handed me was off-white and high-waisted. The wrestle in and out of them was exhausting, so much work to tada and take them off. When a dress gapped or hung too low, Dreama grabbed up the fabric. An attendant brought us a pair of clips that looked like jumper cables, and they used these to get me in snug. I looked like some kind of dressed-up machine.
“Aren’t these great?” Dreama said. She handed me dresses with collars and sleeves and mismatched lace.
“Try this.” She pushed something plain into the dressing room. “Try this.” Another high, ivory flowered neckline. She pretended to admire me, dragged me out to the three tilted mirrors. She didn’t put me on the pedestal, just let the dresses bunch around my feet as she fussed over the shoulders, the neckline, a missing bead. The employees tried not to look. They hung up my cast-offs with their heads down.
“Oh,” Dreama disapproved, pulling at my darted waist. “This one’s too tight.” She pulled the fabric, hard.
“What do you think?” she asked the bride-to-be at the fitting station next to mine. “Can you see it?”
The girl was turning like a roast on the pink, carpeted pedestal a few yards away. She was staring into three mirrors. She looked dizzy. “Huh?” she said. She blinked at us. Dreama yanked at the dress. I could hear the ceiling chandelier fizzing with electricity.
“It’s too tight,” Dreama said again, in her sweet voice. “Can’t even zip it up all the way.” I saw her reaching for the zipper, and I slapped her hand. I smacked her bony wrist and looked at her in the mirror.
“Stop,” I said.
She stepped away from me. I saw in her face the surprise of being hit. It was as shaky and obvious as if she’d been hit in the face. This was the great and only justice in all this mess.
“I hate all of these dresses,” I said. I reached between my shoulder blades and unzipped the high-collared dress, all the way down. I kicked out of it. I took off the petticoat. I stood outside my dressing room in a corset and my underwear.
“Excuse me,” I called to an attendant behind Dreama. “Will you help me take this off?” Dreama picked up the crumpled dress and held it up to hide me. Did you see it? I thought. Did you? My wrists were thumping. A pulse kicked in my stomach. I moved past Dreama and stepped onto the pedestal. I saw myself in the three-way mirror, arms crossed and legs rainbowed with prism light. I saw the way the women looked up at me, the burning in Dreama’s eyes. My underwear was green—plain and commanding, like nothing else in the room.