E
Oct/Nov 2005 Fiction

Seahorses

by Robin Evans


Maureen is staring me down from checkout twelve. She hasn't spoken to me in hours, but now she's passed a note to Kyle, the pimply-faced bag boy, and he's making his way towards me. I have a feeling I've done something to upset her, but I don't know what. Sleeping with her ex-boyfriend? Talking about her behind her back? Not returning her favorite Iggy Pop album? All of the above probably. I am a rotten best friend.

Kyle weaves his way through the checkout lines. He's holding Moe's note up to his nose, getting his greasy paw prints all over it. I look back at Maureen. She's got a scowl on her face, but she's not looking at me; it's Kyle and his pathetic groping of her note that's got her this time. I don't blame her. It's like he's using her handwriting to whack off or something. It's disturbing to watch, especially in public like this.

I pick up the phone bolted to the pole in front of me and dial one-two. Maureen's phone rings at the other end of the long line of cash registers. She's taking change for a Mars bar from an old geezer. It takes about four rings before she picks up.

"Kyle is disgusting. I'm not even going to be able to read what you wrote when he's done with that thing. Why don't you just come out with it?"

Moe turns to face me, and we watch each other talk into the phone. Talking on the phone in the same room demands this. You must stare at each other. It would be rude to do anything else. I stick my tongue out at her, and her scowl evaporates.

"Read the note, Dee." She gives me the finger and hangs up.

Kyle finally arrives, note in hand. The paper is crumpled and hot from his sweaty palms. I grab it from him and flatten it out on my register. I unfold it slowly, preparing myself for Maureen's wrath.

The note is short: two lines and her signature. Three M's. Maureen Mary MacDonald. Good Catholic name. Good Catholic girl, with a father large enough to keep her and her three sisters in line. Sort of.

I'm late.
Fuck.
MMM

I swing around and see her waiting for my reaction. She shrugs. Queen of the understatement, my Maureen. I shrug back and point to the clock. We're both off shift in a half hour. I mime a quick drink, and she nods in agreement. I am relieved that I am still in her good books. But the fact that Maureen has been having sex and I didn't know about it irritates me. I look at her note again. Fuck is right.

I pick up the phone and dial "99" for the customer service desk. Carol, our supervisor, looks up from her hairstyle magazine and scans the registers to see who it is. There is only one empty check out and a rack of fabric softener between us. I could clear my throat and get Carol's attention, but I'm a fan of the telephone and I also like to follow Handymart's rules and regulations to the letter. Carol rolls her eyes at me and picks up the phone.

"Whaddya want?" Carol smacks her gum in my ear. The price you pay for following the rules.

"It's dead. Let me punch out early," I say.

Carol is my supervisor for a reason. She has worked here four months longer than I have. She is also a stickler for the rules, but not in a smart-ass way like me.

"Dee. It's twenty-five minutes till the end of your shift. Just deal with it."

Inspiration strikes. "C'mon Carol. I've got my period. The cramps are killing me. I have to put my feet up."

In an establishment like ours, where three quarters of the staff is female, it is hard to find a day where at least one of us isn't off, begging off, complaining or crying due to our menstrual cycle. The bag boys and the big cheese, Mr. Wiley, are the only source of testosterone in this place. The estrogen is catching and sometimes, as will happen, the entire staff has their periods at the same time. Carol suffers more than most of us—genuinely—and has shown me the big brown bottle of tablets her doctor has prescribed to assuage her almost constant flow. If there is one thing that will make her bend the rules, it's the pain of PMS.

"Oh all right. Don't make a fuss though." Carol fixes me with a stern look over the boxes of Super Fluff.

I bat my eyelashes at her and make my way to the staff room to change. I dig through my bag and come up with enough cash for a bottle of Jack Daniels and a couple of other essential purchases.

I walk by Carol and wince a little to make it look good. She purses her lips and waves me away. I go directly to the Handimart pharmacy at the back of the store. The old pharmacist squints at me from her glass cage, but she doesn't offer any assistance. I pick up a pale blue box wrapped in cellophane. It has a pink label in the shape of a seahorse, which is funny because female seahorses don't ever have to worry about getting pregnant. I pick up a pack of extra-extra large condoms (candy-flavoured), and hurry to check-out twelve with my purchases.

I drop my goodies in front of Maureen. She is unimpressed.

"I'd rather have a drink, thank you very much." She fondles the baby blue package looking for a price tag. "And, I don't think I'll be needing these," she says holding up the box of condoms with two fingers.

"Those are for me, thank you very much. You know I don't approve of unprotected premarital sex."

"Very funny."

"So, how late are you?" I give Moe a bunch of change. She just dumps it in the till without counting.

"I don't want to talk about it here. Let's just wait until I'm off, okay?"

"Okay. It's just that time's a wastin'. You could give birth at any moment."

"Shut the fuck up."

"You know, cockroaches have a shorter gestation period than regular..."

"Are you insinuating that Dean is a cockroach?" Maureen laughs a little under her breath and rolls her eyes at me.

"I'm not in-sin-uating. I'm just saying..."

"Don't push it, Dee."

"Pushing stopped. So, will this be the extent of our entertainment this evening?"

"Well, I don't know. Let's have a drink first, maybe play with this seahorse thing… weird huh?" She drops the box into a grocery bag. "And we'll go from there."

 

"So, how late are you?" Maureen and I are drinking ourselves silly in her bedroom. She has a blacked-out cubby hole of room that her father partitioned off next to the hot water heater and the laundry machine. We can hear her family bashing around upstairs and the television blaring over her younger sisters' bickering.

"Hmm." Moe takes another drink from the bottle and passes it back to me. She leans back and digs through a pile of CDs on the bed; she grabs one and puts it on. "David Bowie can not be denied!"

"Hey Maureen, how many drinks does it take for a Catholic girl to start talking about sex?"

"I dunno, how many?" Moe's smile is wide and sloppy.

"I dunno, you tell me. You're the one with the story." I stretch out on Moe's bed; grab one of her feet in my hand. She's ticklish and jerks them away from me. Moe shifts her body around and drops her head on my chest. Her hair smells fruity, I pull my fingers through it, pulling at the knots. She makes a sound like a chimpanzee and gets comfortable.

"I mean, you Catholic girls are always so backwards. You know you can't get pregnant just because you touched a guy's dick, don't you? Not even a dick's dick, or a dick's cock for that matter..."

Maureen rolls over to face me. She looks like a cherub, an innocent little baby. Her cheek leans against my breast and her eyes are all watery. "Yes, I am aware of that."

"Oh monkey, I kid. I jest. I just didn't think sex... I mean, I didn't think you..." I give up. I want her to tell me everything, to the tiniest detail. But at the same time I want her to be a virgin again. I like it better when I am the one with the stories and the worries and the decisions to make.

Eventually it all spills out of her. Two months and two periods gone AWOL. Two months and she hadn't said a thing, to me or anyone. Two months of prayers to the virgin mother for help but with no results.

The act itself was uninspired. In the back of Dean's car, after another of their "should we or shouldn't we" conversations. This time Dean must have made the better argument, or Maureen was just tired of saying no. She wouldn't say who grabbed whose pants off first. She was trying hard to be the kind of girl who didn't kiss and tell. I, of course, was not making this easy for her.

"So, welcome to the club, Moe. Did Dean do the boys proud?"

"Meh... it was okay. It was okay, pretty much what I expected." She closes her eyes and squirms on the bed. "I'm not finding the after-effects particularly pleasant, though."

"No shit. One more drink, and then you get to play with our little friend the seahorse."

"Do you think it's just us that finds the whole seahorse thing strange?"

"Hundreds of women across the country are probably scratching their heads over it right now. I wonder if it would work if Dean peed on it instead?"

"Good question."

It's actually three more drinks before we get around to prying open the little blue box, and by that time neither of us is in any condition to read the results. But at least Maureen has to pee, so the process itself isn't that difficult. The hardest part is walking upstairs to the bathroom.

We are both swaying a little as we pass Moe's family in the TV room on our way to the family's only bathroom. Mr. MacDonald eyes us suspiciously as we walk in front of his television, but he doesn't say a word. Moe's mother tries to make up for his silence with offers of cookies and questions about what our plans are. She looks and sounds just like Maureen, and I find it hard not to stop and talk to her, but Moe just grunts at them and drags me into the bathroom.

Maureen pulls the plastic stick out from the waistband of her pants and promptly squats on the toilet. The Jack Daniels makes her pee for a very long time. We both wait for her to stop, and when it seems like she never will, we both crack up.

Maureen hangs her head between her knees. Still laughing. Still peeing. "I'm pretty drunk, Dee." She shakes the stick off and hands it to me.

"Yes. Yes, you are," I slur.

"Dee, what'll I do if it's positive?"

"Abortion?" I say it slowly. I try to make it sound as soft as possible. I try to make it sound like it's something we all do at one time or another.

"You did that, didn't you?" Maureen tries to keep the judgment out of her voice, but the drink lets it slip through.

"Uh-huh. Once through the doctor, and one time my brother just punched me in the stomach." I've used this line before, but she still winces when I say it.

"How could he? How could you…" Moe shakes her head, trying to figure out my fucked-up family dynamic. My house is not like her house. Up until now my life has been nothing like hers.

"I'm kidding, Moe. My brother would never lay a hand on me. Just don't judge me."

"I couldn't go to the doctor," she states matter-of-factly.

I grit my teeth. "Well, maybe Dean can punch you in the stomach."

"Dean wouldn't do that."

"Probably not."

"But it would work, though?"

"Probably."

"Probably," Maureen pulls her pants up slowly. She gives me a hopeless look. "What's the seahorse say, Dee?"

I look down at the stick. One line, it's negative. Two lines, it's positive. The little window is entirely black.

"Results are inconclusive at this time. You'll have to take it again tomorrow."

"Fuck. Now I really need to get pissed."

"I know just the place."

 

The pub is practically empty when we arrive. A few old men huddled in the corners and a couple of younger guys I don't recognize playing backgammon at the bar. I send Moe to pick a table while I order our drinks. Pints of beer and two tequila shooters for luck.

Maureen's cell phone is on the table when I arrive with the drinks. I use the tray to push the phone on to the floor.

"You call someone?" There's only one person Moe would be calling. "Did he answer?"

Moe leans in, picks up two of the shot glasses, and offers one to me. "He'll be down in a half hour. I think I have to tell him, Dee. I mean, he has the right to know, right?"

"What are you going to tell him? That your pee managed to fuck up a pregnancy test? What's the point?"

"Well, he could support me, you know, help me make decisions."

"That depends on the kind of decision you're making, Moe. Paper or plastic. Bottle or can. Those are the kinds of decisions Dean can help you with. This, this is a little out of his league." I raise my shot glass. To motherhood, I think.

"Still..." Maureen is unconvinced. She sees something in Dean that I can't see, or at least she wishes she did.

"It's not like he'll stick around, Moe," The tequila burns my throat. "No matter which way it turns out."

"You don't know that."

"I know enough."

"Well somebody's got to help me. I can't do this on my own. My Dad is going to kill me. What the fuck am I going to do?"

"I'll help you. I'm helping you. I would have helped you sooner if you had told me."

"That's not the kind of help I mean."

"Not good enough for you? You think Dean, wonderful, perfect Dean is going to do any better? Maybe he'll drive you to the fucking clinic and then pick you up afterwards. Maybe he'll do that much, but I doubt it." I slam my pint on the table. My voice is too loud, and the old men are staring at us.

Maureen grabs my wrist and gives me a tug. Her face is stone but her voice is soft and quiet. "You don't know that, Dee. I think Dean would make a good father."

I pull my hand back and shake off where she touched me. "Oh, right. Like Daddy Dean is going to come to your rescue. I can see him now, skateboarding to the liquor store with Dean Junior strapped to his belly. Fighting with the kid over who gets to play the video games. What a joke."

"Why not? Why can't he?"

"Because he won't. Because he doesn't have to. Don't be such a sucker, Moe. This is a girl thing, that's just the way it is. You know that."

But by the look on her face, I can tell she doesn't know it, and I wonder again how she got this far without being jaded or hurt or even disappointed. Before tonight I always thought she was lucky; now I'm not so sure.

"Not all guys are the same, Dee."

"Well, they're pretty damn close. It's the nature of the beast. Guys make babies, they don't take care of them."

Maureen shakes her head. "That's cold. What about seahorses?"

"What about them? This isn't Wild Kingdom, Moe. This is real life."

"I'm just saying there are some men who do look after babies. Seahorses carry them and raise them and..."

I choke on my beer and a tiny bit comes out my nose. "So Dean's a seahorse now, is he?"

"Well, he might be."

I shake my head and pick up my second shooter, down it and slam it on the table. Maureen does the same, and her face scrunches up with the taste of the alcohol. She stares at me defiantly, daring me to say something. I keep my mouth shut.

Dean arrives a few minutes later. He's loud and rowdy and doesn't notice the somber mood at our table. He orders more shooters and another round of beer. He grabs a chair and shoves it in between Maureen and I, making me move back a little to accommodate the wide spread of his legs under the table. Maureen rubs his shaved head with her hand.

"It feels like baby rabbit fur," she says and kisses him sloppily on the lips. Dean slides his hand over her t-shirt and up around her neck, finally stopping with a tug of her hair.

"Rabbit fur," I mock Maureen's baby talk and watch her swoon under the pressure of Dean's dirty hands. When they finish with their hellos, Dean turns to me and gives me a quick nod.

"Rabbits have lots of babies, don't they Dean?"

Maureen doesn't give him a chance to answer, "Just ignore her, Dean, she's drunk." She rubs his head and pulls him close again.

"Looks like you're both a little gone to me. When did you girls start?" Dean is jealous, doesn't like the fact that we have been drinking without him.

"Doesn't matter," I'm trying hard not to slur my words. "But like I was saying, Dean, rabbits have lots of babies. What do they do with all these babies? Sometimes the mother eats them, if there are too many. Did you know that? Oh, and kittens, if you have too many kittens, usually you can put them in a sack and drown them in the river. I think that would work with puppies, too."

"Or, you can try to find them good homes!" Maureen shouts.

"Yeah, but there aren't enough homes for all those bunnies and puppies and kittens. Sometimes a trip to the river is the best thing for them, don't you think, Dean?"

Dean nods, but I can tell he's confused, so I make it a little clearer for him. "What would you do with all these babies, Dean? I mean, as a man, what is the first thing you would do?"

"Are we talking about rabbits?"

"Dead rabbits, yeah."

I watch as Dean's mouth forms a little "o," and he noisily sucks in the air around him. "Fuck, you're not pregnant, are you, Dee?" He looks at me with concern and nervously licks his lips. He turns his head back and forth between Maureen and me. "You guys aren't pregnant, are you?"

I hate that he mentions my name first. I hate that he can't keep the guilt and fear from creeping up into his face. But most of all I hate that I am such a bad best friend.

I lean back in my chair and close my eyes. I wait for something to happen, and then I hear it. Just a little "oh" when Maureen puts it all together and another "ah" when she feels the pain of her first real disappointment. I feel a pinprick in my heart knowing that I am responsible for that.

I open my eyes and Maureen has already pushed her chair back and stomped away from us, taking refuge on one of the stools lined up at the bar.

For a moment, I watch her tapping her fingers on her thigh and soon enough my own fingers are tapping their own rhythm on the table in front of me. I turn to Dean, who is embarrassed, red-faced and staring at me like I am to blame for his girlfriend's behavior.

He takes a swig of his beer and looks back at Maureen, who is now in the midst of a deep conversation with the two backgammon players.

"You guys are fucking pissed. You're crazy, too. Fucking nuts. Kittens and rabbits and all that shit. I don't know what the fuck you're talking about. He stands up, ready to walk over to Maureen. Ready to apologize for whatever it is that made her leap up and leave him here with me.

I stand up with him, but I sway a little bit and have to grab on to the table to keep upright. "Dean?"

He's about to walk away but stops, waiting for me to continue.

"Dean? What the fuck do you know about seahorses?"

He rolls his eyes, finished with me. "Seahorses, Dee? Nothing. Not a fucking thing."

I take a step towards him, lurch forward until I'm using his shoulder as a prop. "That's what I thought."

He holds me up with one arm, and I fall into him, punching his stomach with all my strength.

The next thing I know I'm sitting on the floor. My head is aching and my eye is starting to swell. Maureen is screaming and the doorman has me by the collar escorting me outside.

 

Somehow I make it to my 9:00am shift on time. My uniform is sweat soaked from the alcohol seeping through my skin. I smell terrible. Carol doesn't say anything, but she winces when I come in, and she puts me on checkout one just to keep an eye on me. Each time I bend over to get a bag for a customer, it gets harder and harder to stand up. All I want to do is lie down and never get up again. Overnight my eye has turned from pink to purple with a hint of greenish-yellow. The worst of it is hidden by my glasses, but I'm still getting odd looks from the customers.

I'm in the midst of double-bagging a disagreeable bottle of ginger-ale when Maureen saunters in for her shift. Her red polyester uniform swishes against her thighs as she approaches me and my hands fumble over the bottle, which slams on to the floor for the third time. She stands at the end of my station without a word. She stops the bottle's rolling progress with her foot, bends down, wraps it in a bundle of plastic bags and hands it to my long-suffering customer.

"Thank you. Come again." Maureen's voice is pleasant, but slightly condescending. She smiles at the customer and then tilts her head in my direction. Her eyes are shining as she rolls them at me. I take that as a good sign.

"How you feeling, Dee?" She reaches out and gently touches the bruising around my eye. "Ouch."

"Yeah, ouch is right."

I've been waiting all morning to see her but now that she's here I find it difficult to speak. I need to find out if there is anything I should apologize for. It's not like I have forgotten anything that went on last night, but I'm happy to feign ignorance if Maureen will do the same.

"You okay? I can't believe Dean punched you. He said it was instinct. Instinct, can you believe it?" Maureen shoves her hands in the pockets of her uniform and shrugs. "What an idiot."

"Well, I did punch him in the stomach." I try to look guilty but can't really pull it off.

"About that..." Maureen twists the skirt of her uniform around herself, the buttons tug against her flat stomach. "I got my period. It started last night, just after we left the bar. Good news, huh?"

"Great news."

"And I didn't even have to take the punch."

I raise my fist and look at it from every angle. Maureen takes it in her hand and gives it a squeeze. She gives me a look that tells me I have nothing to worry about. She smiles at me and pulls my fist towards her until I have her in an uneasy embrace.

"My cramps are killing me though. I can't believe how much they hurt."

"Go talk to Carol," I whisper, trying hard to keep the tears from falling. "If you're lucky she'll tell you to go home before you even start your shift."

 

Previous Piece Next Piece