HuffPost has revolutionized journalism by taking over the news business. Is fiction next? My new novel, Seeing Red, is being serialized three times a week on the Huffington Post. Here's the fourth installment of the book. (Catch up with previous chapters at "Seeing Red on the HuffPost!")
"Down the Drain"
With both Ben Jr. and Jack, Ronda more or less felt OK. Mild nausea always used to hit late in the afternoon, right about teatime. Her stomach stayed "out to sea," as she put it, having its way on the waves, swelling, falling, refusing to be quelled, until finally she would force down a broiled lamb chop and a baked potato, because she knew that if she ate something hearty, the nausea amazingly would recede a bit. If Noni was around, she would eat a warm plate of homemade spinach ravioli, or a bowl of Noni's polenta. Then she would fall into bed, half dead from exhaustion, about seven.
But that was 17 and 18 years ago. Noni's been dead for a dozen years. And this time around, it is so much much worse. Not just morning sickness. Morning, noon and all night long sickness.
Sometimes lately, when she is flushing the toilet for the twentieth time, she stares into the clear toilet water circling down the drain and she swears she sees a long black hearse floating there. It's pulling up to her front door. She sees red and yellow gladiolas, columns of them, heaped in back. And a mahogany casket, carrying her inside. So many times in recent weeks that she has decided that dying would be bliss compared to living like this.
"Anything," she whispers now, her mouth starting to water, to fill up once more.
"What Ma?" Jack tenses. "What'd you say? Can I get you something?"
"No, no, nothing," she says, sinking into his shoulder and crying. "Just stay.
Jack starts humming, the tune to that sweet old song she made up for the boys during childhood. "Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, and you are our little angel." Sniffling, she rubs her cheek against the soft flannel of Jack's pajama shirt. It hurts to think about Jack as a baby. Which is why this baby, this baby murdering her tonight, gave her so much joy at first.
At first, she had no doubt. She wanted to keep it, fuss over it, dress and nurse it. Bathe and powder it, walk and sleep with it. No matter that the father wasn't so sure. Ronda was.
Absolutely delighted to think that one more time she would experience the flesh on flesh of motherhood. Especially if she had a girl. Elizabeth. Elizabeth Marie. Marie for her own mother, dead three years, the old-fashioned Italian mother she once resented but now misses desperately.
But now. Now this baby maybe shouldn't be. Maybe it's a curse, maybe the worst idea in the world. "Dear Lord," she keeps asking. "Why?" She can't help but wonder whether this is the way He punishes all women who dare to sin, who happen, quite accidentally, to become pregnant against the wishes of the men they love.
For the last three days, and especially tonight, she has begun to believe that even if the whole ordeal isn't punishment, it's exactly what she needs. Because she has been feeding herself lies. Because she has been deluding herself for the last few weeks with fantasies that Jesús, her lover, will, after all is said and done, come around. He'll call and sound like he used to, his voice low and sexy and carefree over the phone.
She rolls away from Jack. She's got to lie flat on her back on the floor. She is always more nauseous sitting up. She laps the water inside her mouth with her tongue. Tries to contain it, hold it back. She faces Jack, sees his frightened eyes, grown round and wide, hovering over her own.
"Ma?" Jack inquires, his voice quivering.
Bolting upright, she thrusts her chin over the rim. Her stomach caves, tosses, and nothing comes out. She crumples back to the floor. Her face is wet and clammy. She is drained of her last bit of energy. If only she could pass out.
Jack places a hand tentatively on the top of her head, as if he's afraid to touch her face. "I hear Karen," he says, turning. He jumps up. "I'll get the door."
She turns over onto the floor, face first. She feels her cheek against the cool tile. Feels her hipbones, and her stomach, raw and hollow. How ironic, she thinks. Here I am pregnant, supposed to be making a baby, and I can barely keep myself alive.
"I'll die, maybe, but that's better," she says to herself, "at least then I won't have to decide what to do. Whether to..." She thinks those two words, whether to, and she feels brutally unhappy and starts to cry. Her heart pummels the inside of her chest. She would like to think it's breaking.
But actually, her heart isn't breaking, it's just making those funny quick flutters again, as if it were skipping beats. It's been like that ever since she found out she was pregnant. She figured she would tell the doctor on her first visit. That is, if she makes an appointment for a first visit.
"Oh dear God Ronda." Karen is speaking in a hush, and scooping Ronda's shoulders up off the floor. There is that sweet scent of soap, Karen's scent. The fragrance of lilac. "Oh, Ronda why didn't you call before?" Ronda is over, on her back, her head in Karen's lap, and now she is smelling Crest or Colgate. Wow, Ronda thinks, Karen thought to brush her teeth.
"I tried to call you Ronda. You didn't answer." Ronda tries to smile, but is too tired.
"No," she mumbles. "I'm too sick."
"I'm sorry I didn't come anyway. I figured one of the boys would call. But why didn't you call me?"
Ronda smiles sweetly. "I didn't want to bother you."
"Bother me. Bother me? Dear God." Karen looks away. "Look, Jack, honey. We'd better get your mother to the hospital now."
Ronda stares up at Karen, the soft underside of her friend's chin. She feels Karen's strong arms. In these arms, she feels totally limp, soft, pliable, as if she will melt into a puddle on the floor.
"Hospital? Why?" Ronda says now, her lips dry as they come together. She wants to smile, because she is so happy to have Karen here. She can't think too clearly right now, but she knows she loves Karen, and Karen loves her. They laugh together. They shop for bras and bathing suits together. They drink white Sauvignon Blanc, ice cold, and they drink very strong cappuccino together. The night Ronda confided in Karen that she was pregnant, and that she had decided to keep the baby, even if Jesús didn't want to, she and Karen hugged each other for a long time and then Ronda cried. She is crying now. Somehow, tears are coming out despite the fact that there is no fluid left inside Ronda's shriveled body.
"Honey, I'm taking you over to the ER," Karen is whispering. And Ronda is thinking, what? ER? Why?
The rest happens as though it's in the past. As if she dreamed it. As if some vague time ago, she heard Karen say to Jack, in her calm nurse's voice: "Here, Jack, help me. We gotta get your mom up. She's probably not going to be able to walk too well or even to stand."
She heard that. She heard other things. Jack saying he should have realized something was wrong, really wrong, a lot sooner. And Karen saying, "That's not your fault, Jack. There's no way you could have known. We just have to get her to the hospital now. Right away. Before she gets any more dehydrated. We'll take a bag."
"A bag?" Jack asks, confused.
"Yeah, a grocery bag, for when she throws up again in the back seat of the Saab."
Karen and Jack each get an arm under Ronda and move her slowly down the stairs, Ronda stumbling, her legs coming forward on automatic, as if she's Raggedy Ann and her red- and white-striped legs are stuffed and made of cotton.
In the back seat of Karen's car, Jack holds his mother to his side. Ronda watches the block of night sky outside the window go by and she thinks briefly of Orion, but then he's gone and she is falling in and out of sleep, keeping her head on Jack's shoulder, and at one point when she wakes up, her stomach is rolling and heaving and twisting and she's aboard a ship and her mouth is watering yet again and her lips keep trembling and she's retching and absolutely nothing is coming out.
Only her diaphragm keeps wrenching, wrenching, pushing, twisting, and she stares into the brown grocery bag Jack has brought along and suddenly she decides that if tonight is the night she is going to die, then so be it. She had better pray. She closes her eyes and pictures God. An eerie image comes up. Ben Sr. in the garage, lifting the door. Then him in the car, giving her the finger. A huge wind comes up and blows the car away. In the wind, some female god appears. She is bright, an electric light. She beckons Ronda. Ronda follows as the goddess soars skyward, flying white and iridescent in the night sky. In light. In folds and folds of white and golden light.
The lights are so bright that Ronda covers her eyes. Other eyes hover over her. Suddenly a needle jabs the inside of her arm, just below the crease of her elbow.
"Will you just kill me and get it over with?" she mumbles.
"Oh now, come on Mrs. Fallon. Things aren't that bad." A hearty female voice. She hasn't heard this hearty female voice before. She hasn't heard this name -Mrs. Fallon--uttered in some time. For at least three months, she has been telling everybody to call her by her maiden name. Ronda Cari.
"Who are you?" she asks, and without waiting for an answer, she cries out again.
"Karen! Where is she? KAREN!!!!" She is crying, bawling, screeching now. She reaches out.
Tries to rise off the hard bed. Two arms slap her down.
"We'll get her for you, Mrs. Fallon. Just hold on."
Karen appears. Bending over, her eyes close, she squeezes both of Ronda's hands and kisses Ronda's forehead. Ronda reaches up with the wrong arm, feels the pinch and strong pull of a needle, a plastic tube. She cries harder. Her eyes fall shut, and all she sees there is the inside of the toilet bowl.
But this time the water, swirling, disappearing, carries Ronda herself down the drain.
READ THE NEXT INSTALLMENT on Tuesday, February 15, 2011, and catch up with previous chapters at "Seeing Red on the HuffPost!"