Unhappy Woman

I have what people call “child-bearing hips.” I guess that means they’re wide or something. I first heard the term when I was playing softball my junior year. Our coach, the one who had a filed record of staring at girls the wrong way, said something as our lead pitcher threw a strike during practice, the ball slicing through the dry summer air from the pitcher’s mound to home plate like a pizza cutter. “That girl has child-bearing hips. It’s why she’s such a good pitcher.”

I always thought my hips were more like ledges, someplace for me to balance baskets of laundry or boxes of books I used to come home with when libraries were still open and had used book sales. Right now, as I watch Martin firefighters take turns manning the hose to put out a car fire, I feel like a teenager at the homecoming football games again: waiting on the sidelines in the crowd for some man to finally notice me. I imagine how his hands would feel—warm and a little calloused—coming up behind me and making my hips into handlebars, steering me in the shadows under the bleachers where the elementary kids usually played tag or the high schoolers usually smoked something-or-another (but never the two activities together). And this man would probably kiss me, and I would let him because I melt in the face of spontaneity, especially in crowds where I feel the presence of Loneliness as tangible as if it was the clothes on my back, the boots on my feet.

I blink and the white lights of the football field, the bleachers rising into the night in the background fades away. That was years ago. I’m twenty now, and the scene before me is bathed in the flashing white and red lights on the fire engines, the yellow glow of the fire, which has been struck down from the side of the manufactured home and tree line. The remainder of the flames hides under the vintage-looking Ford pick-up. On their knees, two firemen each grip a hose by its mouth, oxygen tanks secured to their backs and their gear so thick, I wonder how much sweat is collecting between the layers. There’s a sizable puddle in the driveway, foam like miniature white-capped waves around the edges. 

Orangeville Fire is on scene, too, a cluster of familiar faces several feet behind me. If I’m being honest, they’re my favorite fire department, mostly because when I worked out of Martin Base, I often found myself in Orangeville. Running calls is where bonds are forged. I will not forget all the times Corey and Jeremy carried the Princess of Orangeville out of her house and loaded her into our ambulance. Nor will I forget the altered patient we took in, whose arms were flailing as we moved slow like a bowel movement through the narrow hall of the trailer, out the front door, and one of those balled up fists would have struck me square in the nose, had Andrew not grabbed the patient’s arm and saved my face a bruise.

Orland, my partner for this fire standby, fixes himself nearby Orangeville. I’ve been following him around scene like a puppy, something I haven’t done since the first couple of months I started as an EMT. Back then, it was Lindsey I followed around and if she were still here, we would be commenting under our breaths about which firefighter was the most attractive, which ones weren’t very good at their jobs, and what about that young girl on Martin Fire? If she leaves her braid sticking out like that, she’ll definitely ignite.

But Lindsey isn’t here, so instead, my gaze is fixed on the men whose helmets say Trainee on the back. My eyes dip down to their faces, and for some reason, their big eyes and straight-line-lips are impossibly sad. One of them seems to have been put in charge of the board (if there’s another name for it, I don’t know it). When fighters come back from the fire, he hands back a tag with their name on it. When they go in, masks fixed to their mouths, breath sounds like Darth Vader’s heavy koosh-koosh coming from their persons, they hand the same identification tags to the man and he clips it to the board, strategically. He’s short, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, and has to be about thirty. The other trainee must be a year or two younger than me. Acne scars and fresh-out-of-high-school eyes. Unlike everyone else, neither of them has their surnames stitched to the backs of their jackets. The two of them together—so green—makes me ache for when I was new and hopeful and not beaten down, ground into the pavement by the reality that the world absolutely sucks—sucks like flames consuming oxygen from the atmosphere until you’re left suffocating and dead. 

I didn’t know how badly I’d changed until I began reading Cassandra Clare’s books again. Before EMS, she’d been one of my favorite Young Adult Fantasy authors. I read a couple hundred pages and realized the problem wasn’t the writing, it was me. It seemed I lost the ability to suspend my belief and fall for a world where demons and magic were the norm. It seemed I lost a chunk of my imagination.

This whole time, Orland has been doing all the small-talk with the firefighters, making jokes and the like. He knows these men better than I do. He used to be on Hopkins Fire, and I sometimes wonder if standing back and watching is more agonizing than he makes it look. Orland likes control, and fire standbys—especially since he has the knowledge—means we’re “guests” on scene. This isn’t medical unless someone gets hurt, and until then, we’re just bystanders.

One firefighter comes sauntering off scene. He rips his mask and helmet off a couple feet ahead of me, and when he turns around, his face lights up. 

“Hi, Maci!” 

And I think, I don’t know who that is, but he apparently knows my name?

Not wanting to be rude, I muster an abrupt, “Hi,” before he sidesteps me, in search of water, probably. It takes me a moment to recognize the guy as the student rider we had two days ago. When I asked if he’d ridden with us before (because if he hadn’t, then I would need to show him the inside of the ambulance, how to use the monitor to take vitals), he gave me a half-scowl and replied, “Yes.” I wondered for hours after what I’d done to earn such an attitude when it finally struck me that this was the same student who saved me from backing into a tree a couple months ago. So he was maybe offended I didn’t remember him—but of course I didn’t remember him. At the time, I had been laughing in the front cab with my partner, Taylor. Which is probably why I didn’t see the tree until the student said something. 

At the thought of Taylor, an ache rips through my chest. I wrap my arms around my abdomen and push aside the thought: He should be here. He should be here, but he’s probably getting drunk in Kalamazoo.

But I can’t really blame him for it this time. I would want to get shit-faced if I’d seen a woman dying on the sidewalk, too. The last time a patient affected him so, he fell drunk down a flight of stairs. I’m prepared to go home tomorrow and find his body, bruised and bloody, when I open the front door. I’ve been prepared to find him dead for some time now, and I don’t know what that means.

Just then, it doesn’t seem possible that anything could exist outside of this scene. It’s past midnight, I’m starting to get tired enough to sway on my feet, and the whole world beyond our bubble of light is shrouded in darkness. I check my Apple Watch, hoping I just didn’t notice it vibrate with a new notification from Taylor, but I didn’t. He didn’t message me back. It’s been hours since I last heard from him and rather than be distressed by this finding, I regard it from a distance.

It’s fine, I tell myself. Sometimes I don’t answer him for hours simply because I don’t feel inclined to. Maybe he feels the same these days. Before I left for my shift, he said he’d miss me. I didn’t believe him. And I knew I wouldn’t miss him, so I didn’t return the sentiment. Though we live together now, our schedules don’t align much anymore. I’m getting used to being on my own again.

Besides the noise of water surging from the tankers through the hosing and the heavy rattle of the engines, the air is punctuated by high-pitched chirps from the men’s gear. I don’t know much about it, but from watching, I gather they each wear a timer, probably to let them know when they’ve run out of oxygen in their tanks. They’re supposed to come see us in the ambulance for rehab after breathing through two tanks, but in my experience, they rarely do. Instead, they throw themselves on the ground, some distance away from the scene, and slurp cold water from plastic bottles. I watch The-One-Who-Knows-My-Name crouch on his knees beside another fighter lying on his back. Sweat glistens on his forehead, body heaving as he sucks in air. I look away before he catches my eye and feel like I’m seventeen and searching the homecoming crowds for Michael Arnett again, my girlfriends chatting and giggling at my side because Maci Bennett doesn’t have time for boys, so why is she looking for this one? I still remember the looks on their faces—wide eyes, raised eyebrows, and open mouths—when Michael came through the crowd and found me first. He had a blanket in one hand or maybe someone lent it to us later, in the bleachers. 

All I remember next is being in the famed student section, (a section in the bleachers I never sat in but always sat behind so that I could throw glow sticks at my sister’s old suitors instead) that wool blanket over our knees, while we sat and pretended to watch the rest of the game. Our classmates stared at us, something of an unlikely match, the word ripping through the crowd as gossip does, and I remember praying my sister wouldn’t find out. Because I didn’t know what it meant that Michael wanted to sit with me. All I knew was that he liked my hips and once had the audacity, at the gym, to ask if my butt was real. And that, in the first grade, he spelled the word the on the spelling test like teh.

Orland says something. I tear my gaze from the men shoveling debris from the house to face his towering form. 

“What?” 

“I said, they need to be ripping that insulation out of the attic or else they’ll be back in four-five hours for a rekindle. Rekindles are an embarrassment to your department. Because there’s no such thing—it just means you didn’t do a good job putting it out the first time.”

“Yes, I’ve heard.” There’s a smile on my face, the one that makes the dimples in my cheeks pop. I can feel them. I can feel them begging to be to be noticed. I wonder what Orland would do if I buried my face in his chest and started sobbing. “If you ever need anything,” he said only weeks ago, “you know where to find me. I worry about you, kid.”

“You don’t need to,” I replied before my throat could constrict too far and make it impossible to speak.

“I know. But you’re like one of our girls. I’ll worry anyway.” That was the second time Orland accidentally made me cry. The first time it happened, I was driving back from Holland Hospital. Orland showed me an ad on his phone for a shirt that said: Think like a fish, drink like a fish. Even though alcohol made me skittish like a kitten kicked one too many times, I forced a laugh. I don’t recall what I said, but Orland suddenly set his phone down.

“I love getting out of work and having a couple beers. But now I got Kathy coming home and telling me I need to watch my drinking, saying things about Taylor falling drunk down his steps and all the intoxicated patients we’ve had lately.”

The smile fell from my face, then, and my mouth went dry. Orland said something about not trying to air dirty laundry, but I’d stopped listening. Tears blurred my vision. Don’t you dare compare you and Kathy to me and Taylor, I wanted to say. It’s not the same thing. I felt hollow, then, outside-of-my-body with remembering. I willed my eyes to dry and focus on the pavement of 142nd instead.

I turn back to the fire scene. One man tosses the contents of his shovel into the truck bed of the pick-up. “Fucking 2020, am I right?” One of the home-owners said with a certain bitterness when Orland and I went to check on the couple. I was forced then to consider how a pandemic, society-shutdowns, lay-offs, and individual house fires could damage a single person. But the fire’s out now, which means we’ll be cleared to leave soon.

Behind me, I hear Orangeville making jokes, laughing. Christian says something about a new swimsuit he got, and I roll my eyes, grinning to myself, as he begins talking about his new sunburns.

He should be here.

I imagine I’m standing on the sidelines again, my fingers hooked into the metal fence surrounding the football field. And that man comes up behind me, hands fitting to the curves of my hips. Maybe he bends down to kiss my neck before spinning me around—and it’s Taylor, his half-grin and flickering eyes. He’s taking my hand and leading me towards the bleachers, but I stop him. People give us dirty looks because we’re clogging the main walkway, but they flow like water around us anyway. 

“What are you doing?” He asks, leaning down to kiss me. I take a step back. His brows furrow with rejection and I think about all the late nights, lying in bed, my lips barely touching his neck while he spoke. 

“Can I keep you?”

“Do you want to?”

“Yes…”

“Maci, I miss you.” And the crowd is moving past us in a blur. Somewhere, the band strikes up the Trojan Fight Song. A ref blows his whistle. But it’s like one of my episodes of sleep paralysis: I can’t move. Instead, I look up at him, my lips slightly parted, and my eyes sad because I feel my love for Taylor like an orb of yellow light that cannot be defused, but what if constancy is not enough?

Then show me.

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