Bella Bravo was born in California, grew up in Utah, and now lives and writes in Bloomington, Indiana. Their work has been published or performed by Monster House Press, Limestone Post, Driftless Magazine, and Sitcom Theatre.
by Bella Bravo
Nothing had been unusual the last time Francis and I had sex. I never used protection and told the few men who asked that I was sterile. I perpetuated this myth, my genetic predisposition for infertility, and specifically, as provided to those who timidly pressed for concrete support, that I shared certain menstrual symptoms with a barren aunt.
The part about the sterility of my aunt was true. In the course of immigrating to the US, my grandparents and mom, Esperanza, had abandoned an older sister. They wouldn’t tell me her name, a sham shelter. Then on my twelfth birthday, my mom banned baths, though I had not yet started to menstruate, as a precautionary measure.
When Esperanzita was small, still toddling like a peanut with big eyes, she found her older sister bathing in blood. She dropped the roll of cheese fresh from the market in the dirt and cried as her older sister scuttled into the house, hands like leaves in the wind covering as many shifting body parts as they could. My mom’s eyes had flickered every time she recited the story to me. The older sister was hospitalized at fifteen for abdominal pain and blood loss. The doctors found her womb uncontained, bits of lining adrift outside of itself, and told her that she would never give birth. Her womb wouldn’t have survived the high altitude of the migratory flight to the US due to increased risk of blood clots. The aunt went to live with family in the south, even though it was closer to the jungle. Esperanzita didn’t know her sister wouldn’t join her and their parents until after they had boarded the plane. Esperanzita blamed the bath explicitly and her witness to the bath implicitly. During a long or heavy period, I believed I could have little bits floating around inside me before they circled the drain. I believed I could prove it by guarding my myth like the cave entrance to a shrine in the earth, a sanctity both insulated and exposed.
I could tell Francis never trusted me. He would aim for the shower wall, sheets, or, during our breakup, the braided blue rug in my living room. I had scrubbed at the wet spot on the rug with an old t-shirt and lied to him again: We would keep in touch.
The same spirals of blue scrap cloth, now, radiated under the phone and me. I blew out a cedar stick for the smoke smell. My toes pushed into the rug, small to big like the impatient roll-tap of a hand on an important desk. At 28 weeks, I didn’t have a plan. To sit up, I craned arm to my side and leveraged my round stomach from the floor inch by inch. Every movement was weighed differently now; everything had to be arranged. I reached for my phone.
I had woken him up. My back twitched. “What time is it there?”
“Why? Are you booking a flight?” Francis’s voice shifted to alert, crisp even. I massaged underneath my shoulder blade.
“Francis, I need to have an actual conversation with you.”
When Francis asked me to move to Osaka, I had held my face perfectly still, a tight weave. With him. For a job. He had broached the subject, as I would have expected him to: on the sofa over Chinese and wine. His finger had pulled a stray string from the sofa cushion. A career. A life. His words. His fingers circled the loose hair at the base of my neck. After three years, this was the out I had been waiting for. I said I couldn’t leave my mom alone in this country. Francis withdrew every part of his body in unison like a murmuration of starlings onto the next tree. He could always tell when I was lying. Since my parents’ divorce, Esperanza was better than ever. I couldn’t hide anything from him. How could I live like that, so exposed? My thought. I had slipped my fingers through his curls and my thigh across his as I pulled him to the floor, a consolation for our breakup. We hadn’t spoken since.
“You’ve made it clear we don’t have much to talk about.”
I exhaled deeply into the receiver. “Instead of interpreting what I say, could you listen.” My stomach itched; my back ached. My body scattered and took all my attention to collect. He would only oblige me if it suited him. What would it feel like to be intact? “And, that’s not a question, Francis. Full Stop.”
“We’re still friends, right?” The phone hummed during his pause. “I think that’s your word.”
I couldn’t help a curt exhale through my nose. He had seemed aware of his emotions, eager to name mine. The containment attracted and repelled me. I scratched at the taut skin across my stomach.
“Abbey, the thought of coming to visit a friend shouldn’t anger you.” As he said “friend,” the stiffness in his vocal cord ran like a fingertip across my collarbone. Francis embodied the liminal space between aggression and attraction. We had met after the Pony Express 100-mile ultra. I finished six hours ahead and wouldn’t have noticed Francis if a mutual friend hadn’t introduced us. That night’s campfire air, the desert’s pink dash of Indian paintbrush, and my pervasive muscle tightness contributed to the impact of our meeting. We found that we enjoyed long slow runs together with the runner’s high kicking in after forty-five minutes or so.
A software firm offered Francis two years abroad to learn a language and culture, so he could assist with synergy development between foreign offices. When Osaka office requested him, I had insisted he go. After that, the smell of smoke, especially from a wood fire, would annoy me, reminding me of him. The attachment hovering in the air around my skin, scooping me up like a spider string spun nearly six thousand miles away. My shoulder blade twitched with stress like a tug on the string.
“Did you open my gift?”
“I’m saving it.”
“You’re avoiding it.”
“I have something I want to talk about.” I put the phone on speaker and set it on the rug next to me.
“It’s a blue teacup. It was expensive. You should use it.”
I inclined into my arms and let my neck fall back. Each part of me—head, crown, neck, collar and down the skeletal structure—started to release from the rest.
We were going to be that couple fighting in public.