The first time I sat for confession, In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, I thought about revealing how I’d stay up late on weekends just to watch shows or movies I knew showed, if only briefly, scenes with women undressing or already undressed, forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, or how I spent one summer afternoon in the bathroom getting to know the models in a Sears catalog wearing the newest panties and bras, hoping that if I flushed the toilet every few minutes, my mother, stepfather, and sister would think I was suffering from diarrhea again, this is my first confession, but I felt, if I remembered my studies correctly, that in the Catholic realm of sins, my carnal desires took a backseat to that eighth commandment, I have stolen things. And what kind of things did you steal my son, and although I wanted to tell the priest that really I had stolen my own innocence, that I had already pulled back that veil that keeps a certain number of people believing that their bodies can live without the intimacy of flesh, all I could manage to say was a Blue Power Ranger. It was on the ground, Father. The package was already open, and I… I thought no one would see. But the Lord saw my son. And I think I felt Him, Father. I could almost hear Him saying that I shouldn’t take it, that I shouldn’t put it in my pocket. And why did you still take it? Forgive me, Father. Son, you must come clean with the Lord. Because… because I wanted it, Father. I wanted it bad. The priest assigned me two Hail Mary’s and three Our Father’s, and after the act of contrition and the prayer for absolution, I stepped out of the booth, regretting that I didn’t add that when I left the store with my mother, I stopped to tie my shoes and buried the action figure beneath some mulch surrounding a palm tree. Amen.
The toy aisle hasn’t changed. I gaze at the shelves of action figures, dolls, plastic rifles, remote control cars, the myriad upon myriad of toys I could go on listing if I completely forget that I’ve come here to buy a pregnancy test. Perhaps my subconscious is already thinking about the future, about what toys I’ll buy my son or daughter. No, no. I told Naomi it’s still too early to tell.
I move quickly down the aisle, try not to stare at the learning blocks I can already picture my child trying to fit into one of the square holes on the set, and trying even harder not to see myself splayed beside the scattered blocks, lifting one of them up and saying in a half-normal, half-baby voice that maybe it fits here. No. Still too early.
I round the corner. A man wearing headphones with the volume obnoxiously high pauses from bobbing his head and shoots a glance at me as I study his basket, the stacks of frozen personal pizzas, the cans of tuna, the clear, plastic box of donut holes, a six pack of craft beer. I look up, meet the man’s gaze, the young, green eyes and the subtle manner in which they seem to be asking not to be judged, that the food he has is merely what he eats, not who he is.
I glance at the aisle markers, looking for the hygiene products. I walk past a man and a woman and overhear the woman say, “I don’t give a shit if you just had four beers. You gotta keep your composure. You’re not in college anymore.”
Canned Vegetables. Coffee. Beer and Wine. Dog Food. Finally, Medicine and Hygiene.
At our apartment, Naomi opened the bathroom door, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She wore my shirt, a long, baby blue tee with a smiling orca. I placede my book on my lap.
“You alright?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
She got into bed, snuggled beneath the sheets, and said, “It’s probably just my body hating me again.” And when another two weeks had passed and she opened the bathroom door, the toilet still flushing behind her, she said, as I tried to focus on my book, “I can’t remember when I last got my period.” I couldn’t either, couldn’t even remember the last time she said period, always substituting the word for a few recycled phrases—That time of the month, Lady business, Mother Nature’s revenge.
I study the store’s tiles, the shoe-printed trails of mud and rainwater everyone this evening has dragged in. I look up, expecting to see Naomi the way I usually see her at grocery stores, searching for me and asking why I’ve wandered off in that direction when where I should be looking is on the opposite side. A girl, however, no older than twelve or thirteen, stands in front of me. Her blue sweater is open, revealing a pink shirt with a rainbow and unicorn.
I smile and take a step forward. The girl takes one as well, and as I smile again—hoping she interprets it as an apology—and take a step to my left, she takes one to her right.
I laugh. “Sorry.”
I move to my right and she to her left. “Seems like we’re dancing here,” I say.
“Do you want to?” she asks, mistaking my comment for a question. She’s standing awkwardly, as though she had suffered an accident when she was younger, and even as I think this is a horrible thing to think, that I shouldn’t judge people, much less kids, solely on their appearance, I feel less guilty about that sentiment than when she asks, “So do you want to? Do you want to dance?” She doesn’t view the world the same way I do.
“I practice a lot,” she says, still avoiding eye contact. “I don’t have two left feet no more.”
I nod. The girl appears more comfortable.
“Oh boy. Can’t you hear it?” she asks.
“I’m sorry, hear what?”
“The music, goofus,” she says, laughing.
I look around. A few people pass, but no one notices us.
“This is a really good one.” She closes her eyes, lowers her shoulders, and takes a deep breath.
“Where’re your parents?” I ask, thinking they perhaps work here. “Are they in the front?”
“Shhh,” she whispers, and now I’m sure this has to be a joke, that at any second a TV host will appear from one of the aisles and point at the overhead cameras or at the cameraman rushing up to me, trying to get the best angle at my shock, relief, and subsequent laughter. But the girl thrusts her hand upwards, and before I can jerk my head back, she places her index finger on my lips and shushes me again. Her finger is sticky, saturated with the scent of something outrageously sweet. She lifts her arms and then brings both her hands to her chest, and with her eyes still closed, she pretends to be playing the synth echoing from the loudspeakers overhead. Her fingers are too fast for the rhythm, but she keeps on playing, even when the synth stops and the singer’s slow, almost sensual voice comes on. The girl sways her hips side to side and whispers, in tandem with the singer, “I’ve been waiting for too long.”
She opens her eyes, her left eyelid droopier than the right. She points at me with her right hand, and with an enthusiasm that doesn’t quite match the song, she slowly backpedals and begins moving her left arm like she was swinging a lasso. She stops, then starts snapping her fingers and circling me. She bobs her head, and as soon as the chorus enters, she sashays toward me and puts her arms around my neck.
None of this should be happening. Things like this are supposed to happen to other people. But the girl’s touch takes me back to the courtyard just outside my dorm. My graduation ceremony was earlier that afternoon, and after having dinner with my parents—my mother and stepfather spending their time between bites asking how the job hunt was going—I met up with Naomi and walked around campus, settling what seemed like hours later at the courtyard. Somewhere from my dorm’s upper floors, there was an open window with music playing.
“You know, you can stay here,” she said. “It’s the city, there’s plenty of jobs.”
“I know. But I’m not sure I see the point. No one to really stay for.”
Naomi looked down. “I’ve told you why I can’t,” she said. She grabbed my hand, and though I felt like pulling it away—remembering how a few months before she had sat on my bed and explained that she knew this would sound cliché, but she needed to explore what, and yes, maybe even who was out there before making any long-term commitments— I let her fingers slip between mine. She moved my hands to her hips and then to the small of her back, saying she liked the song that was playing. I asked her many times after what song they heard that evening, and Naomi, as caught up in the moment as I was, said that all she knew was that it was slow and made her realize months later when I was back at home, some four hundred miles away, that she wanted to be with me, that she couldn’t shake that feeling that would overtake her when she’d remember the way we danced, her head on my chest, my arms around her waist.
“Dance,” says the girl, and I, guided by memory and the sudden sympathy I feel for a girl who clearly doesn’t understand that asking a stranger to dance at a grocery store isn’t something people usually do, do as I’m told, placing my hands on her waist and moving slowly in a small circle.
She closes her eyes again, begins slurring the lyrics. Her breath smells like pasta, in contrast to her fingers. It appears she wants to tiptoe and kiss me. But she holds back the urge, and there’s something about the girl’s ability to resist that makes her beautiful.
I close my eyes for a moment, then open them and see behind the girl an older gentleman staring at us suspiciously. That must be her father or grandfather, but the man merely switches the basket he’s carrying to his left hand and reaches inside his pocket, pulling out his phone.
I let go of the girl’s waist. The girl licks her lips. There are whispers behind me. I turn and a small crowd has gathered, a concerned expression on each of their faces.
“Sorry,” I say, “I’ve gotta go.” I grab her wrists and try to pull them off me gently, but she cups her hands behind my neck and pulls herself closer. I laugh nervously, move my hands to her forearms. “Thank you… well, for this,” I say, squeezing my fingers tighter.
“The song isn’t over,” says the girl.
“I know. But look, I’ve really gotta go.” I turn my head and catch a glimpse of two more people approaching, asking what’s going on.
I tug the girl’s arms more forcefully, but she holds on and says, “You promised we would dance when I practiced more. Please. The song ain’t over.”
“It’s over. Sorry but –”
“You were waiting for someone like me, right?”
“I know you were waiting. That’s what made you play the song and dance with me.” I grip her forearms as tight as I can.
“Don’t forget who brought you here,” she says, pulling me in closer. She puckers her lips, then tilts and thrusts her face at mine, landing what she can of a kiss on my chin just as I cock my head back and yank her arms away. The girl falls forward, breaking her fall with her hands on my knees and shins.
“Whoa, whoa,” utters a voice behind me. A few gasps and Oh my God’s spill from other people’s mouths, but only the older man puts his basket down and rushes over. I think he says, “What are you doing?” or “What’s your problem?” or perhaps he doesn’t say anything at all, just stares me down before kneeling and asking the girl if she’s okay.
“I… I’m sorry. I just needed… the test,” I say, hesitating to lean over and help. I extend my hand, but pull it back immediately, feeling I’ll cause her more pain than her slow sobbing is already suggesting she’s in.
I look back. A man has his phone in front of him, recording the aftermath. I lower my head and in a half-walk, half-run stumble down the aisle. I hear the crowd calling me back, and the girl screaming, “Don’t forget who brought you here! Don’t forget who brought you to the dance!”
Naomi sat on the side of the bed, while I stood a few feet away from her, hands on my waist. “I’ll set up an appointment tomorrow morning,” I said.
“But we need to make sure first.”
“No, I get that. I’m just saying we also need to start thinking about what happens if you are… if we are.”
“Do you even want a child?” she asked, standing up. I reached out for her stomach the way I imagined I’d be doing in a few months every time she rose from her seat. She ignored my gesture and walked toward the window, her reflection a partial silhouette. She was a people watcher, and she’d often make me sit with her by the window on the weekends watching the pool junkies, as she liked to call them, playing or drinking in the water or sunbathing for hours on the lounge chairs.
“You think bringing a child into this world is the best thing?”
“Something can go wrong. During the pregnancy. Or after.”
“Anything can go wrong at any time. We can’t think like that.”
I moved toward the window, and perhaps because Naomi sensed that I was going to place my hands on her shoulders, give her a kiss on the back of her head, and explain, as best as I could, that everything would be alright, she said, “Okay, make the appointment tomorrow. But I still want to make sure tonight. The store’s gonna be closing soon. Drive safely.”
I nodded at her reflection, grabbed my sweater from the bed, and said, “I’ll be back soon.”
Outside, the rain was pouring, and the clouds, dark and painfully swollen, were rocking what could be seen of the moon to sleep.