The ushers went to the front of the church with the collection plates. This was my cue to sneak back to the ladies' room.
I squeezed past pulled-in knees down the pew. I didn't have a dollar to spare; I was worried the check I wrote for groceries the night before might bounce. My family would notice if I passed the plate down and didn't put anything on it.
The church program said the choir would sing a hymn after the collection. I would sit in a restroom stall and wait until I heard them sing.
I don't go to church every week like the rest of my family. I was only there that Sunday for my sister's baptism. She's 25 and a born-again Christian.
The ladies' room was empty. White sunlight poured through windows and bounced off the mirror above the sinks. It was radiant. I sat in a stall. I waited for the choir.
* * *
I'm pregnant. I don't know which of three men is the father.
* * *
I leaned my head against the cinderblock wall. It was painted white. I thought about the three men. One of them is my husband.
Mike has been unemployed for the four years we've been together, since before our low-key wedding where my mom cried because she was worried about me. I work and support him. He has manic depression, suicidal tendencies, and seasonal-affective disorder. When I first met him he seemed like a tortured and romantic poet, like Byron. He quoted Pablo Neruda. We used to talk about going to New Orleans for our honeymoon, staying in a hotel in the French Quarter, jazz, spicy food, steamy air that made our hair curl and our skin glow. We never could afford it. That was all before the new medication made him flatline. We don't talk about New Orleans anymore.
He sleeps until late in the afternoon and wakes up a couple hours before I get home from work. He kills time by reading or playing blackjack with an imaginary dealer. At first I thought the blackjack thing was weird but then I got used to it. It's the latest thing his mania has seized on; before that, it was learning the Basque language, and it was wilderness-survival skills before that. He says he can count cards and memorize sequences of numbers that have something to do with playing blackjack. "I just won $30,000," he'll tell me, sitting on the living-room floor in unwashed jeans and a T-shirt with some joke or comic-book character on it. He'll be watching a videotaped re-run of "Saturday Night Live" or something else old. The $30,000 is imaginary, of course. Mike didn't come to Emily's baptism because my family didn't invite him. He hadn't wanted to come anyway. He's an atheist.
Our apartment feels like depression, like a defeated sigh. It's dim, scummy, hopeless, stale. It's hard to remember how excited I was when we first got the apartment. I framed vintage record albums and hung them on the wall. I bought cheap flowers for the kitchen table. I looked at interior-design magazines and written down ideas.
Mike and I have sex once every couple of months. The last time was around when I lost my job, which was also when I slept with the other two men. It was an eventful week.
* * *
The first of the other two men was my boss. That's why I was fired.
* * *
I was fired on a Friday. It was a few weeks before Emily's baptism. At the time she was still going to clubs and doing shots of Jagermeister and grinding against strange boys on the dancefloor. On that Friday, after I had boxed up my IKEA cactus and taken down the postcards I'd thumb-tacked to my cubicle wall, I called Emily. Emily knew what I needed. We told Mike we were having a "girl night." He assumed we meant reruns of "Sex and the City" at Emily's place and pints of Ben & Jerry's. We took the Metro into DC and went to Club Five.
I wore black leather boots that were our mom's in the 1970s and a miniskirt that barely covered my crotch. Emily's boyfriend didn't come with us, but out of respect for him she was more subdued in dressy pants and a shiny top. On the Metro I felt that swirl of blood in my thighs that I get when my body knows it's going to get alcohol. "I am going to get crunk tonight!" I joked to Emily on the train, using slang that I knew I was too old to be using.
The club floor was sticky with spilled liquor. The busty bartender glowed in red neon. There were two bars, one downstairs and one upstairs that overlooked the dancefloor and DJ booth. I drank screwdrivers and Emily drank Long Island Iced Teas. Some guy bought us shots of Jager.
Emily drank too much. I didn't know it at the time, but she wound up spending most of the night throwing up in the grimy ladies' room. I didn't know that because I spent most of the night with a guy whose name was Anthony, I think. That's what it sounded like when he leaned over to shout it over the pounding electronic music. Anthony was big and muscular. He was probably a bouncer; he was friends with the bouncers at Club Five. They let the two of us past a velvet cord and into a dark lounge above the dancefloor. They did it as if they do that a lot.
In the lounge was a window with a view of white government buildings against black sky, a leather couch, and what can only be described as a stripper pole.
I love being drunk. I love the dreamy, watery looseness of my body. I love the hilarity of life, I love the bottomless energy, I love how beautiful I feel when I'm drunk.
I went to the stripper pole. I saw it and knew what to do, as if I were born to do it, although I had never even seen one in real life. I entertained Anthony. I twirled and slid my spine down the pole. With my knees bent, I spread my legs and tossed my hair. I must have seen all of that in some movie or HBO documentary. For a moment I was somebody else, living somebody else's life. For a moment there were no consequences.
Anthony pulled me to where he was on the couch. He kissed me with his tongue in my mouth, and I let him. His fingertips slid under my top, and I let them. The bouncer didn't let anyone else past the velvet rope. With my back against the squeaking seats of the leather couch, Anthony fucked me. I love how sexy I feel when I'm drunk.
* * *
My boss's name was Ed. He was a couple years older than my father. He was in great shape for his age, in great shape for any age. He liked Jack Kerouac and gambling and played in an amateur basketball league for men in their fifties. He took trips to Vegas and rented a convertible so he could drive through the desert with the top down. He was always sunburned.
I could tell he had a pervy streak in him when I first met him. My job was in an office, and it was boring. Ed and his wife ran a mom-and-pop property-management company. I think it was her idea to do that in the first place. Ed's wife, Chantal, was a sophisticated, cultured lady; I always felt like a clumsy hick around her. She was sharp-eyed and caught any mistake in the leases and correspondence I typed up for them. She was Ed's age -- when I wished her happy birthday that year, she rolled her eyes and went into her office and closed the door.
Ed took me out to lunch a lot, and I was happy for the attention; to the handful of others who worked there, I was part of the furniture. There was something alive in him that I responded to and hadn't sensed since I'd first met Mike. You could see where this was heading long before it happened, even though for a while he never said or did anything inappropriate -- it was that extra beat of eye contact.
"I love the wind," he said one day over pizza at our favorite lunchtime joint. He got a faraway look when he said this. I saw him in a convertible in the desert, the wind ruffling his hair. Weather and sun had traced patterns on his forehead, around his smirk. To me, he said, "You're like water. You go with the flow, wherever gravity wants you to go. You take the path of least resistance. You let things happen to you, and you don't stop them." I had never known anyone like Ed. He actually said things like this, out of nowhere.
My cheeks burned, and I said something boring about how I need to be more aggressive, more proactive. I was unintentionally reciting Chantal's critique from my performance review the other week. But Ed had a hippie streak in him; he'd flirted with Buddhism when he was younger. Of my letting things happen to me, he said, "That's not always a bad thing."
Sure enough, I didn't stop it when the predictable happened, when Ed and I were the only ones working late one night in the little Colonial-style house that had been converted into an office. I had imagined it happening outside somewhere, maybe in the desert. I had imagined it a lot. It happened in his darkened upstairs office, me bent forward over his sturdy mahogany desk. I wasn't prepared for the violence of it. Mike was the only man I'd been with up until that point. With Mike it was boring and routine, in our familiar bed with our respective books on the nightstands, but it was always safe.
With Ed it had felt like a porn scene: Boss fucks secretary over his desk. Files and papers scatter to the floor. I fixated on the pencil cup on the corner of the desk. I thought about how odd it was that I was getting fucked by my boss but what's foremost on my mind is that, hey, there's that pencil cup I've seen so many times, the one that looks like Krusty the Clown from "The Simpsons," to show clients that Ed has a sense of humor, that he's not one of those stuffy, boring businessmen. I sort of vacated my body as it was happening. You can want a thing and still have it break you.
Afterward, Ed said he hoped Chantal didn't smell me on him. I smoothed my clothes down and started to leave Ed's office, to clean myself up in the bathroom and then get in my car and drive home to Mike. Ed stopped me, touched my mussed hair and my flushed face. He kissed me softly. It was unlike what had just happened. "I really do care about you, you know," he said. It was more like he was saying it for his conscience than because it was the truth.
Chantal must have smelled me on him -- first thing Friday morning I opened my work e-mail and saw a message from her. "Miranda: Pack up any personal items. You are to leave the premises immediately. Your earnings from this pay period will be mailed to your residence." It was so formal; she even said "residence" instead of "home."
That night, after boxing up my cactus and calling Emily, was when I let Anthony fuck me. I let him.
"You're like water. You let things happen to you, and you don't stop them."
* * *
In a stall in the ladies' room at my sister's new church, I heard the choir start to sing. "Holy... He is holy." It was muffled but lovely from where I sat with my head against the cool white wall. I got up and left the stall to watch my sister's baptism.
* * *
I have a new job now. Emily works at a catalog call center, and she recommended me to her supervisor when someone there left. I'm faithful to Mike now. He thinks he's the father, and he might be. I don't know. He's excited; he loves children. He's picking up the classifieds more often these days. He's trying to lose weight so he can fit into his interview suit again and not have to buy a new one in a bigger size. Maybe something will come of it.
Maybe I'll look back and think that getting pregnant was a good thing. Maybe it will galvanize Mike. Maybe motherhood will give my life meaning.
A week after I was fired, my last paycheck from Ed and Chantal's company came in the mail. It's Ed who signs the paychecks. When I received that last one, I stared at his handwriting. I wondered what he'd felt when he'd signed it.
If I weren't like water, my life would be different. It would probably be better in many ways. I might have said no to Ed, I might have not let Anthony fuck me.
But there would be things I'd never know. I'd never feel myself dancing the way I did with Anthony that night, desperate and vodka-fueled, dancing like sex embodied, like God had given me one night of my life to dance.
I'd never have felt the thrill when, late that Thursday night, Ed stood in front of my desk wordlessly, looked at me like I was all he'd ever wanted in the world, and held his hand out to me, leading me up, up the stairs slowly, the hormones in me warming to him.
I will let this life grow in me. I will let life happen until one day death will come, and I will let it.