This story is by Mia Botha and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I take off my coat, the room is stifling. “May I?” I ask again, holding my coat up to the hook behind the door.
She is absolutely absorbed but spares me a glance. “Of course, sorry. It’s better for the baby if it is warm.”
They’re both bundled up in the bed. I move the flower arrangements on the dresser to make some space. My small arrangement looks cheap in all its airport gift store glory. I smack a helium balloon declaring ‘It’s a girl’ out of the way and shuffle past the bed to the nearest chair. Sweat beads on my brow.
“You look well.”
“Thank you, I think motherhood is going to agree with me.” She adjusts the blankets and makes coochy-coo noises at the baby. “How was your flight?”
“Fine, fine. It took forever, but that is nothing new.” I look around, the duplex is pristine. The curtains and bedspread all match, the furniture expensive, very different from the old dump with the lumpy bed we shared. “This is a lovely place. You’ve done well.” At least I don’t have to lie about that.
“I’d thought you would like it.”
“Did everything go well, with the birth?” Crap, not supposed to ask personal questions.
“Yes, it was long and it hurt like hell, they don’t lie about that.” She smiles, “but it’s all over now and worth it. The doctors are very pleased.”
I don’t know where to start. “I was surprised to get your message, Alice.”
“I was surprised too. I was convinced it was a boy. But she is pink and she is perfect.”
“Of course she is.” I can’t tell. All I see is a bundle of blankets.
“You can hold her as soon as she’s nursed.”
“No rush.” I look away as she unbuttons her pajama top and unhooks the enormous feeding bra. I try to read the note on the card of a nearby arrangement. I don’t get farther than ‘Dear Cara,’ I can’t see the rest. Cara? I frown and she catches me.
She clucks her tongue and her voice squeaks. “Please tell me you’re not one of those people, Geoff. Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world.”
“Of course. Alice.” Why the hell did I come here?
“Boobs are natural. They were made to do this. To nurse babies, not be sex objects for leering men. They’re made for babies.”
“I know, Alice.” Nothing has changed. She’s still exactly the same.
“No one will shame me. I’ll feed my baby whenever she is hungry, wherever I am.”
“Alice, please go ahead.” I try to avoid looking at her boobs. She calms down and fiddles and then coos some more.
“Where is the bathroom?” I’m panicking. I need to get out of here.
“Across the hall.” She doesn’t look at me.
I find the bathroom, close the door and lean against it for a moment. Why on earth did I think this would be a good idea? I run the tap and splash cold water on my face. Three years, but I had to come back. Idiot.
I look around for a towel and dry my face. The newness and the thickness of the towel is surprising. Where did all the money come from? I hang it back and take a closer look at the bin. It is full. White envelopes peep out of the small wire basket. I look at the top two, both marked: urgent and final demand, stamped in big fat, red letters. They’re addressed to C. Smith. Who is that? Maybe the previous tenant. I shouldn’t snoop. I turn to leave the bathroom but instead I go back to the cabinet above the sink. Stop it, Geoff. Don’t do this, but I can’t stop. I open the mirrored door. A glass, a toothbrush, face wash, night cream, dental floss. Perfect, lined up, labels to the front. I have to calm down. Panic threatens. This is bad.
I take a deep breath and open the door to the bedroom. I have to get out of here.
She is still nursing the baby they’re both content and happy. This is good I tell myself. This is good for her. “How long have you stayed here?” I ask.
“About six months. I still have some unpacking to do, but it’s liveable.”
“The neighbourhood seems nice.” And expensive, but I don’t say that.
“The school is really great too. For later, you know.” She looks at me, really looks at me, for the first time. “I’m so glad you came.”
I nod. I’m not so sure.
“I really want you to know her. To be in her life.” She seems so sincere, but I know that expression. I’ve seen it before. It is coming.
“It’s really important to me that she has a strong male influence in her life. To have a happy childhood, not like mine. I want her to grow up in a healthy family.”
Leave. Now. My brain is screaming. She is doing it again.
“Alice, I’m honoured, but I live on the other side of the country. I don’t know how involved I can be.”
“I was hoping you’d consider moving closer. Maybe we could try again.”
I have no words.
“I know we parted badly, but I thought once you met her that you would want to be in her life. I want us to be a family. A real one.”
“I’m sure she is going to be a beautiful little girl, but I’m not doing this. Not again. We broke up.”
“That wasn’t my decision.” Her chin wobbles, tears pool.
“You slept with my brother and tried to seduce my father.” I keep my arms stiff, hold my fists tight. Breathe.
“I told you, I couldn’t help it. I never had a father figure. I don’t know how to interact with men, other than in a sexual manner. Doctor Lindberg suggested a stable relationship.”
“I don’t particularly care what your doctor, who you also slept with, says.” I move towards the door.
And there she is, the Alice I know. Cold. Manipulative. Sick. “That’s unfeeling. I only told you that to gain your trust again. So that there would be no more lies. I didn’t tell you so that you can use it against me.” And in the next moment, she is the innocent again. Her voice girly, soft. Tears spill. “I was hoping we were going to raise this baby together.”
“Why on earth would I want to raise this baby, with you? I have no ties with either of you.” I should have known better.
“You’re her father.”
My mouth drops, I work the hinge searching for words. For sanity. “I haven’t seen you in three years, Alice. That is not possible.”
“She’s yours, Geoff. She even has your eyes. Look.”
I look at the pink bundle clutched to her chest and she turns the baby so that I can see. My heart pounds in my chest. I look at the tiny, pink face. Hilarity, fighting with pure panic.
“It is a doll, Alice. You’re fucking breastfeeding a doll.”
I deflate. Nothing has changed. I walk to the door and pull on my coat. She simpers in under the duvet.
“Call your doctor, Alice.”
The duvet heaves up and I duck as the doll hits the door.
“Bastard.” She yells and I walk down the passage.