Kara knew the man wasn’t following her through the supermarket: she wasn’t as light as air, as outwardly naive as the kind of young girl who flew off to Florida to get noticed. The easy targets. They are always frighteningly slender, almost all angles—the only curves are loose blond ringlets that bounce together in unison. Kara blended in with the day-to-day of Florida living that never made it into the travel brochures. But there he was for the fourth time, rounding the corner of the next aisle she’d dodged into. It wasn’t her first shopping trip without the weight of the ring on her left hand, but maybe that was it. Maybe intimidation was the game, desperation was the reason, and the players weren’t picky. Kara used to be catcalled, though, like the rest of them. She’d flip her hair and shrug it off, start walking with a little more sway. But by the time she’d gotten engaged to Marco, she was past the time of compliments—or even objectifications—of her body.
Marco rarely complimented her unless it had been days since she let him touch her, or if he wanted something. That’s how she knew men no longer found her beautiful. It was never their organic impulse to call out the waxing curves of her thighs because they’d long since been scored with roadmaps of stretching. Imperfections. Cracks in the facade of youth that always fades too fast, that men are always pining for.
In the process of avoiding the unwanted advances of the stranger, Kara nearly bumped into a man crouching, scanning the backs of flax and chia pouches. He let out a “whoaaaaa,” followed by a laugh, and the next thing she knew she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. He’d risen to his feet, which were fitted into dress shoes someone at the airport must have just shined. His blue eyes carried memories of a colder, harder climate. He was too tall, too broad, and too close for her comfort.
“That could have been bad for both of us.” He paused, and when Kara said nothing, he tried again. “You almost dropped your stuff. Clean up on aisle eight, right?” Another laugh. His hand was still there, flush against her shirt and the skin of her arm, and she could smell mint on his breath. Business men so often smelled like mint that it was hard to separate it from her idea of wealth.
Kara shifted, clutching the glass jar of red sauce, the frozen chicken, and the thin bag of onions and garlic closer. She silently willed herself to be smaller, uglier, or more fierce.
“Making pasta tonight?”
“My name’s Stephen.”
“Hey, are you all right?”
She quietly thanked him and hurried to the cash register, walking right by the penne she needed. That evening she ate the chicken by itself, too afraid to return and risk bumping into either of the men from before. Then she took Angel, the dog Marco had left behind, for her second walk of the day.
Marco used to play fetch with driftwood or watch Angel chase seagulls while Kara wrote words the tide would eventually wash away. Angel often lunged toward the beach like she used to, but Kara started redirecting her onto the sidewalk, leaving behind those memories and the rhythmic crashing of waves. They had gone out every day since the breakup and the walks were getting longer.
The sun sneered at the layers of burns on Kara’s shoulders the next morning. It was a week of record highs—far too hot to put on a shirt—and she was quickly sweating off the name brand sunscreen that was meant to last. Patches of healed skin had turned a dull beige, not the exotic caramel tourists brought home as souvenirs. Kara hated the outdoors, and Marco was always trying to change that about her. Now she was the only one to take Angel out, and her resentment towards the sun and the fit moms with strollers and diaper-bag-toting husbands grew.
The appointment initially confirming Kara’s infertility did not phase her. Donna—her mother—was prying and impatient enough. She knew clever sidesteps when conversation turned to anything but Kara’s future as a mother and a housewife, like her career. Instead of an education Kara had been encouraged to find a house and a husband, so Kara earned scholarships instead. She graduated and went back for her masters, and eventually became a relatively young supervisor at a biomedical something or other. Donna never cared to remember the company name or what it was that she did. Every phone conversation went the same.
“. . .the Fergusens from church, you know, Naomi and Liam. You know, Liam’s mom Cherryl was raving about his sister, Abby, who got first chair clarinet. You wouldn’t believe how tall she is now. Kimberly, one of the girls who leads worship sometimes, well, she used to play the flute, but I don’t know if she still does. Anyway, Naomi and Liam were asking all about you—Naomi says she misses you and it’s been too long. Do you remember when she would come for sleepovers and you would both do your hair up and steal my makeup, and have a fashion show? You always used to get so mad that the dresses she brought over didn’t fit you. You’ve always been a little bigger, but you grew into your body, honey. Everyone I show your picture to—that one where you’re kind of stood to the side with the flower in your hair—everyone who sees it says you’re beautiful. You’d strut up and down the hall and blow a kiss to me every time. I miss those days. They were so much simpler, you know? Not all this, everybody always fighting each other over what words we’re allowed to say and everybody has to have something to say about everything, you know? Anyway, Naomi says she misses you and that she wasn’t sure what you were up to these days. I told her, ‘not much, same Kara, you know’, and that you were working in that one office up on Fourteenth. But I forgot the name.”
“Livedge. Did you explain that I manage the office?” Kara hadn’t spoken to anyone from her graduating class in almost long enough to stop fearing chance encounters in supermarkets. She insisted she didn’t care about them, but the distinction of her title mattered.
“Well, honey, I wasn’t sure about the details, and it was just a passing thing, just a little chatting over the offering pan. You know how it goes. But you know who you need to talk to? Denny. You remember him. He’s always translating when The Lord speaks through someone. You know he’s the manager of The Christian Coffee House, right? He’ll be at Easter service if you’d just come. He’s a really good manager and you could learn a lot from him. You always used to love sitting on his lap and I know he misses you. I’ll tell him you said hi.”
This would continue until Donna’s shows came on or until Kara interrupted with an excuse. Donna might have thought she went to the doctor three, four times a week if she was listening, but she never questioned it. A lot of things were left unsaid.
Kara allowed for one holiday a year that Donna could drag her back into the Pentecostal church she had grown up attending. Usually it was Christmas because Donna volunteered in the God’s Angels Choir and loved an audience. But she chose Easter that year instead, so that Kara could learn all about managing a business from Denny. And as much as she tried to forget his wandering hands over her younger body during prayer, it was difficult to stand there in her Sunday best and pretend not to notice his traveling gaze.
Later that evening she was propped against the bar of a hazy spot downtown, sipping a fruity drink the bartender said was “from Marco.” He pointed at two men, and the uglier of them waved. Nothing happened that night, much to the disappointment of the office girls who demanded all of the details.
Donna didn’t like Marco at first, and that excited Kara. She brought him to family gatherings, went on and on about his cooking, and begged him to answer his phone in Spanish. Her mother would scoff, and Kara would get that rush of pride like when a person successfully walks out with lipstick they didn’t pay for. It was not good: it was an exploitation and she knew that. But the idea that it kept her mother up, thinking about Kara, was the trade off. And she would always say,
“Kara, it’s not because he’s Mexican.”
“Cuban, yes, no, that’s not it. I just don’t think he’s right for you, honey. You know what Pastor Eugene says about being unequally yoked. I just want the best for you. I want a strong leader for you and your house and to raise your kids on the right path, honey.”
“Mom, his family is Catholic.”
“Well I just don’t think you have the same values. What if he prays to Mary or if he makes the kids get baptized like they do it? Honey, I just want you to be happy. God will find you the right man. When he closes a door he opens a window, you know.”
Kara could have broken up with Marco, but he was easy to spend time with. He stayed over after their third date and never really left. Eventually his old roommate gathered up his things and brought them by, so she pushed her clothes to one side of the closet and they started living together. They rarely talked about anything. She quickly forgot how to cook. It was easy when Marco left breakfast in the fridge before he went to work and made dinner once he got home. Kara knew it wasn’t love. Still, she said yes when he proposed on their eight month anniversary.
Marco also never asked if Kara wanted a dog, and apparently stopped by the pound on his way to the store. Instead of bringing home the frozen chicken, bell peppers, and rice—they were running low—he brought Angel. They weren’t messy people, but things were left around without much thought, and when Kara returned from work at least two of her nice blouses had been shredded. Marco left a note that read, “Went 2 gym. Her name is Angel. Love you.” She gathered what she could salvage of her sweaters, hats, and mittens-in-progress from knitting projects, and shut herself into the bedroom until he came home.
Kara had hobbies like knitting and reading, though they were never good enough for the women who made looking twenty their passion or the men who loved twenty-year-old-looking women. She would be asked pointed personal questions at work parties or in elevator smalltalk, and on every dating app and first date before and since Marco, every popup ‘which this or that are you?’ quiz she took at 3 am. They collectively decided that Kara was boring, dull, always the meek mouse or the sleeping princess, waiting for someone to wake her.
They tried to inspire her, to change her, to save her. All of them. Marco would buy tight bathing suits and sports bras, break off the tags, and fold them into her top dresser drawer. He’d insist they work together to get his money’s worth, that she had too good a body not to show it off, and when she would dig in her heels he would leave for the beach or the gym without her. By the time Marco returned she would forget she’d been mad at him, and she would eat whatever dinner he decided on. She could tell he had bought Angel to force her into leaving the house, though. Out of spite, she refused to walk the dog. Marco, in turn, refused to walk the dog. The dog would wine, and then bark, and then piss on the floor, and then whimper when Marco would yell. The yelling is why Kara started taking Angel out.
She only remembered her father by the sound of his voice. He would yell after Kara went to bed, always at Donna. Often Kara heard clattering and slamming doors, and once there was such a loud shattering of glass that she hid beneath her covers. Her mother never yelled back, though, and she was unsure whether or not she spoke during those fights at all. One night he didn’t come back, but Donna never grieved. At least, she never cried, and never talked about it.
After Kara and Marco got engaged, Donna must have realized that things were getting serious. She invited him out to The Christian Coffee House and they talked for three hours about a lot of things they never said to Kara. It became a regular thing for them. They’d meet up for coffee or Marco would cook and bring her dinner, always inviting Kara, who always refused. She knew they were making future plans that involved her, but it was when the baby names started coming up in daily conversation that Kara grew tense.
“How was the gym?” It was just one of many threads of smalltalk Kara would force to cut through post-work time spent together at their house. She leaned against the counter while he methodically cut a vegetable that looked like squash, but might not have been.
“Good, yeah. Nate and I helped this girl who was trying to bench too much. I mean she could have really hurt herself had we not been there.” Marco never talked that much. Kara’s curiosity was genuine.
“Yeah, we got it done. Her name was Sydney. Don’t you think it’s a pretty name?” Typical. Men who preached equality always made allowances for the objectification of a fit woman, she thought.
“I’m sure Sydney from the gym was very pretty.”
“No. I meant a pretty thing to name a daughter someday.”
“Whatever. You always do this.”
And later that evening she would get a call from Donna, parroting the name, scolding her for upsetting Marco, who she could tell was hurt from “how his texts sounded,” accusing her of being too insecure, warning her that insecurity leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness. Kara would shut herself away in her room for an episode or two of some gritty crime drama that’s always wrapped up in the end, and then Marco would return from walking Angel. He would climb into bed and try to ignite something in Kara, who would fake tired until that didn’t stop him and then fake excitement.
Marco started questioning why she wasn’t getting pregnant, but Kara wasn’t aware they had been trying. Apparently they’d stopped using protection at some point without discussing it, and the dissociation that happened for her during sex made it difficult to recall when Marco made the decision. Marco and Donna eventually convinced her to go and get a fertility test. The news she later received—a low number of viable eggs and an inhospitable uterine landscape—was not shocking. She figured her body was just that: a place not meant for life. Like Saturn, with its rings and no true surface—all swirling gases and liquids deeper down. And yet a body. Her body. She quickly found peace. Still, Kara lied to Donna and Marco about it that evening at dinner. She also didn’t finish her peas and carrots, but her mother couldn’t criticize a 36 year old for that.
The doctor recommended Kara try therapy to process the reality of her situation. She went two consecutive weeks, but the therapist thought group therapy would be a better fit, so she met with other women struggling with fertility in the gymnasium of some Christian high school. They made her stand. They made her speak, and then speak up when her voice got too quiet during the parts everyone wanted to hear. It was like an addiction support meeting, with tears and dramatic sighs from the women clutching their reusable venti cups. Then, she sat down in front of the judges, maybe to hear if her story was sad enough for their pity.
“Kara, you are so strong,” said Rachel with the leggings and the perfect messy bun.
“Oh my God, it’s so nice you have that support system with your husband.” Fiance. Who didn’t know a thing about it.
“Right? Yes, what a sweetheart he must be,” chimed in the kind of woman named Brittani. She placed a hand over her heart. “Girl, I’m telling you now, adoption is so rewarding. That’s how I got my two little princesses, Ada and Mailie. You’re strong.”
“You’re strong.” They all repeated the mantra in unison. “You’re fierce,” they chanted.
Kara never went back, and declined the friend requests from each of them until she figured they’d taken the hint.
After the reaction of the women at the support group, Kara decided not to tell anyone else. That included Marco. It wasn’t like they talked much before, so this lie was not harmful at first. They began to plan a beach wedding (because Donna had always wanted one) and Marco and Donna sat her down one day to ask,
“Who is going to walk you down the aisle?” Before she could answer, they told her Donna was more than happy to do the honors, “since I’ve been there for you since the beginning” and because, “Marco has my approval. I can’t wait to call him my son.”
In the end, Marco caught on that there was something Kara wasn’t telling him. She shut down every single conversation about children, or names, or looking at houses with a third bedroom. When he insisted she come with him on walks, she fell behind on purpose, or walked down the shore line until he and Angel were specks flitting back and forth. She used her finger or sticks of driftwood to trace words she wished she could say, to Marco, to Donna, to anyone who felt sorry for a woman with a body like hers. A body they decided needed fixing. One day Marco suggested they attend premarital counseling, and Kara refused. He threatened to leave, and, not even for any reason in particular, she told him he should. Of course, he left for the gym or crashed with a friend or stayed with his family or Donna, but a week later he was back. She’d forgotten to change the locks. She let him stay, and ate the dinner he prepared, until one evening he cornered her while she was washing the dishes.
“Why don’t you want anything to do with me?”
“Why would I be here if that were true?”
“Why won’t you have kids with me?”
“What if I just don’t want to?”
“Kara, you’ll change your mind once we’re married. Trust me. Even your mom didn’t want to have any kids before, but look how happy she is to have you in her life. You will feel the same.” It might have been the assertion that Donna was in any way a good mother, or that somehow marriage would change her mind, her choice, or body, but something summoned a deep pit of rage to the surface.
“You’re right, Marco.”
“See? I knew you’d—”
“No, Marco. You’re right. I’d never have kids with you.” And when that wasn’t enough, she unloaded every hurtful thing she’d been holding close until her voice amplified into a scream that she recognized as her father’s. She launched a plate across the counter when he tried to put a hand on her shoulder. After that, Marco left. She collected his things and put them into boxes on the porch. When she caught him hovering one day with his hand posed to knock, she asked if he wanted the dog.
“No. Of course not. I could never take Angel from you like that. She needs her mother.” And after collecting a few of his nice work shirts, he left for the last time. Angel watched from the window while Kara turned and walked away.
Kara and Angel eventually fell into a routine during their walks alone, meaning that Angel would whine long enough for Kara to get fed up and take her out. Then they would make a game of how long Angel could hold her bladder. They often followed one of three paths on these walks. The most recent—and longest—that Angel carved brought them near the outskirts of the city, past the pound. Every time Kara would pause and study it, watching volunteers running with dogs in the chain link yard, families being half-dragged to their cars. She saw kids throw their spindly arms around the thick necks of dogs or around their parents as they were lifted high. She often felt compelled to take Angel there, but she never did. Instead they would loop back to the house, and Angel would slobber-crunch down her food while Kara cooked in the kitchen.
Kara rinsed off her plate and left it in the sink for another day, moving to pour a glass of wine and retreat to the solace of her covers and some random reality nonsense on the TV. She wasn’t picky, as long as there was drama. Angel followed a step behind and tried to push her head between the closing door and its frame. Kara almost spilled her drink shoving Angel out. She could hear Angel slide to the floor, snout pressed into the crack underneath the door. She’d lie there whining for an hour every night before giving up and finding a corner of the empty house to curl up and lie down. Kara was immediately grateful for her wine, and for her empty king-sized bed. She loved to stretch completely out, something she never did when Marco was living there. She thought she’d have to sleep in a ball for the rest of her life, and she probably would have done it.
Donna held it against Kara that Marco had left, but she was convinced it was because of her anger. She told Kara to get help. She begged her to come back to church. When Kara refused, Donna accused her of being just like her father. She would say, “you’re no daughter of mine” or “you’ll never find happiness if you aren’t happy with yourself” but they were all empty words. Donna couldn’t blame any of it on her body. Kara never faulted it for doing its job. Not every place is fit for life.
Savannah Harris is a left-handed writer from Indianapolis with an undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Indianapolis. She has been published in the Penultimate Peanut Magazine, Etchings Literary Magazine, and Neutral Spaces Magazine, and is the recipient of the 2020 Lucy Monro Brooker Poetry Award and the 2021 Roberta Lee Fiction Award. She manages the Museum of Miniatures in Central Indiana.