Cover Photo: Fruit of Me by Savannah Osborn

Fruit of Me

What matters is not their color, which is that of a plum rotting in reverse: as we boarded, coatless and wet-footed, a purple so bloody it dripped, oozed when you pressed your thumb into it. Then, herded off, sleeves rolled, sponging underarms with Wet Wipes at the halfway station: green, algae rising up and pressing against the surface of an evaporating pond, spread wide, like something being born, or something giving birth. I’m not sure.

And now, again in a muddily-lit rest stop bathroom, changing your diaper—there are three left and only one more day until we get off this godforsaken bus and never get on one again; we’ll take taxis everywhere, I promise, we’ll have a limo, our own driver, a private jet, we’ll teleport—now, they are a dull yellow, the color of a spice my mother used to call warming: tingeing my neck, my bicep, almost faint enough to be mistaken for the shadow of a hand, waving.

I test your bindings, ensuring you are buckled securely to the changing table, then duck into the closest stall. I leave the door unlatched and fasten my eyes on the strip of tile between the changing table and exit. I grope for a paper seat cover in the dispenser on the wall. I give up, squat.

A shudder of protest goes through my thighs and I sink onto the seat, beaten. I let the cool porcelain press into my ass like a palm. Liquid spills from me and I feel ornamental, stone and spitting: I am a fish atop a fountain, a mermaid lounging beside a pond, a marble lion’s head. I gush and think I will never be emptied.

The door to the restroom cracks open, hinges whining, then falls shut again. No one has entered; there wasn’t anyone here with us before. I imagine a hand reaching in, sucking you up like a vacuum’s throaty pipe, or plucking you like you’re a flower, gone. The stall door bangs behind me, urine drips down my thigh.

You blink up at me and your face puckers, reddens, begins to brew something. Hey, it’s just me, I say. I reach out, stroke your bare arm.

Sorry that was so loud. I fish a Ring Pop from my pocket and slip it between your lips. You seize it, mouth like a cherry yawning. I didn’t mean to scare you, I say. I just got scared. You quiet, sucking contentedly, and I turn to the mirror.

I take a wand of concealer from my bra, twist it open, dab at the spot on my neck you’ve rubbed clean with stubby, pink paws.

In the mirror, I see you blink sleepily and I pause to watch, admiring your lashless, spidered lids as they loll, lift, then close like a car’s hatch.

No, the thing that matters, the only thing, the one I am concentrating on, is that they are on me, not you, and that, I think, is the first thing I have done correctly as a mother.

Above us, a speaker coughs and a voice says that our bus will depart in twenty minutes. Etta Jones sputters from the ceiling.

I unbuckle you, cautiously. It’s easy to forget that you aren’t a doll, that you must be Handled With Care. I press you to my chest, bend backwards so you’ll stay there, quickly wrap the limp sleeves of my sweatshirt around you, then me, then you again. I tie them beneath you.

Asleep, intuitive, you adjust yourself so that we fit together seamlessly. You are so intelligent. I pull my jacket on and zip it up, you inside, we as one. Snug as a bug in a rug, I say. No one can take you now. In the mirror, I hardly notice the bulge.

There is a rapping on the door and I jump. It’s a public restroom. The door is unlocked; there are six vacant stalls. Anyone can come in. I don’t answer.

Again, someone knocks and the sound bounces off of the tile, receding hollowly into the mirrored wall.

Ma’am? A man’s voice, kind but official. My tongue is thick; I cannot move. Somebody said a toilet overflowed? I exhale. It’s only a custodian. He pokes his head in and I slump, relieved.

We have fifteen minutes until our bus leaves. I buy a coffee and a carton of milk at the convenience counter. You stir against my chest, restless; I try to feed you the milk with a straw.

Mine is so much better, I say. Organic. Locally sourced. I laugh aloud. Just try? You turn your nose up, bat me away.

The bus is stifling, teeming with too many legs like a centipede on its back: we flail and kick and trip over each other, we are all stuck. I take off my jacket and the man in the next seat eyes us warily.

Almost home, I say to you. Can you believe it? We’re almost home. I kiss your forehead, breathe in your scent. Do you remember being home?

The bus station is a mile from our house. There are cabs, but the weather is so pleasant, the evening so mild, I walk.

We’re safe, I whisper, afraid I will jinx us. But we’re so far; an entire country throbs between us and hurt. Hours and hours, miles and miles. We are so far. We are so safe. I skip.

Remember? I ask as we near our front lawn. I unzip my jacket partway so you can see; I am so swollen with joy I want to shout.

I bound up the steps and he opens the door before I knock on it. I press my face into his shoulder, suck him in.

We’re home, I say into his shirtsleeve. We missed you so much. He tugs at me, gentle, then rougher. He pulls me up and away from him, holds my shoulders and just looks at me.

There is something strange about his face, like he’s on the wrong channel.

When he speaks, it is fragmented, as if he is being censored, or calling me on the phone from a place with bad reception, shaking his head more vigorously with every word.

Jesus—fuck, Mara—your mom called—left—Where did—scared out of our fucking minds—are you— I shake my head.

Sorry. I didn’t think it would be this late, I say, pushing past him, pulling him with me. I should have called, I’m sorry, the bus took forever, and, you know. I lead him into the kitchen. Always does. God, it smells amazing in here.

Now he shakes his head, as if he’s waking up from something. He walks to the microwave and I realize that it has been beeping. He takes out a casserole dish and places it on the table. Steam leaks from it, stretches to the ceiling like so many wispy limbs climbing out.

Sit down, he says, pointing. Thad’s wife made lasagna. He drags the back of his hand across his forehead, as if he doesn’t know what to think of the fact that Thad’s wife would do such a thing.

I sit, pat his hand. I’ll send them something. Maybe beef stew?

They’re vegetarian, he replies weakly, as if it’s all too much, beef stew and dietary restrictions and neighborhood niceties.

Maybe eggplant parmesan. That’s vegetarian, right? I take a bite of lasagna from the dish. This needs pepper. I stand and go to the cabinet above the sink. Vegetarians never know how to season things, I say as I turn. He’s staring at my stomach. What?

Mara, he starts, then swallows something. Mara, what’s in your jacket? I laugh.

I almost forgot she was there. She’s sleeping, I say. Finally. And don’t you dare— But he is already standing, moving towards me, reaching for my jacket.

Mara— He unzips me and pulls something out; it dangles limply from his hand. It’s a loaf of rye bread, swaddled in a ratty Nantucket sweatshirt.

What did you do to her? I cry, snatch the loaf from him. I step backwards, seething. Is this some kind of joke? He says nothing. Because this isn’t fucking funny. My throat feels peeled open.

He shakes his head at me, wordless. Where is she? I scream. Whereissheyoupieceofshit?

He starts to cry.