The widower paid for the abortion, but he wouldn’t come with her. Olive called Susannah from the clinic after it was all over. Olive spoke into the phone and then there was silence. The long space after her voice made her wonder if more should have been said. She looked up at the cloudless sky. How about a bird, she thought, to see if it was within her to bring a bird into existence.
“Oh,” her sister said, a soft, empty release of breath. Then, “Wait there,” as though Olive had been planning on doing something else entirely.
A plane, not a bird, appeared overhead. Its wings flashed, silver and mechanical, in the sun, leaving two dark spots in Olive’s eyes.
After the procedure, Olive had sat alone in the hallway for two hours, waiting the recommended time. She’d felt a little fuzzy. Maybe dehydrated. The hall was taupe, brightly lit. One year in school they’d made a papier-mâché cell and used chewing gum for the Golgi apparatus. Freshly spat out, it had been pink and glistening, but after a few days, hardened on, it had grown lacklustre, the pink turning grey. That’s what the hall reminded her of.
She’d tried to find a corner to have a small cry, but when she took the first left, she found an orderly asleep on a gurney—her orderly, the one who had led her to her bed and blue curtain—his face so dull and slack it looked to be made of wax; he had frightened Olive back into her chair. There was a book in Olive’s bag, one she had packed specifically for the occasion, but not one she felt like reading when the time came. She had procrastinated for a while after the two hours were up, going once to check on her orderly, who was sleeping fitfully, and then made the call.
Olive waited for Susannah outside the clinic. She stood a ways away from the clinic doors under a garish yellow banner that read: Everything Goes! Moving Sale! It belonged to Carpets Carpets Carpets. Carpets Carpets Carpets had been claiming to be on their way out for as long as Olive could remember. She had always found this endearing, but today she tired of them. Their banner flapped noisily in the breeze, boxing her ears. She shifted her weight from foot to foot. She was uncomfortable; there was a hot chafing at her thighs.
A woman in a long, drab skirt approached, her hands busy with pamphlets. Olive looked down at her feet.
“Once a week we pray,” said the woman, a pamphlet outstretched.
“I’m fine,” said Olive, though she took the pamphlet that was offered. It looked like it had been printed at home, the black ink faded and striped towards the top.
The woman touched her forehead with her finger. “I can see just here that you’re not.”
Olive had always hated the shape of her own forehead. She rubbed it self-consciously.
Susannah’s rusty red Camry announced itself with the high screech of its brakes as Susannah sped around the corner into the parking lot. Both Olive and the woman squinted through the noise. The woman pushed another pamphlet into Olive’s hand.
Although Olive was far out of reach, Susannah reached an arm through her open window as if to take Olive by the wrist and lead her away, the way you might a child.
“Come on then,” Susannah said.
The car smelled warm and lemony, like their mother’s detergent. Olive sat on her hands so Susannah wouldn’t see them shaking.
“Why do you always let them get to you?” asked Susannah, taking the pamphlets from Olive’s lap and tossing them into the backseat.
“It’s written on my forehead,” said Olive.
Susannah drove them further into the suburbs, where the fast food restaurants were clustered in high concentration. Their whole lives, Susannah had always known what was needed. They ordered strawberry milkshakes from a drive-through window, parked in the parking lot and drank them in the car. The milkshakes were cold, so cold they made Olive’s teeth ache. It was almost nice; it reminded her she was still inside a body.
The land to the east of the city was flat and swampy, cut through by a highway that took drivers over the mountain range. Directly in front of the car a long bolt of red marked a field of cranberries. Geese stretched their V over the field, honking as they descended. Olive had always admired geese, the solidarity they showed in flight.
“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Susannah.
Olive wrinkled her nose. “No,” she said. “Not really.” She lifted herself gingerly off the seat to check she wasn’t staining it.
“Incontinence pad?” asked Susannah.
“Full diaper.” Olive pointed at her crotch. “Same brand as mum’s, actually.” She laughed and spilled her milkshake and then the tears came.
Susannah started the car, signalled back onto the freeway. Olive felt tender and breakable, her whole body alive to the car as it moved beneath her, the potholes and rumble strips drawing out a new and different pain. She ached all over, the way her teeth had. Olive reached behind her for the box of tissues Susannah kept in the same place their mother had always kept hers.
“Why didn’t you call me?” asked Susannah, when Olive was done crying. The question had been festering between them ever since Olive got in the car, tainting the air. Olive didn’t know how to respond, even as the car seemed to be suddenly relieved of its pressure, like a balloon rapidly deflating. What Olive wanted to know was what Susannah meant—or more specifically, when, at which point, did Susannah wish Olive had called. Their eyes met in the rear-view and Susannah shrugged and looked away. Olive couldn’t unsee what had been there, alive between them in the mirror, Susannah’s tiredness and something else, a naked, barren want.
Olive felt fine for a day, and then began to bleed heavily. For three days, the cramps were raw and endless. On the third, when she knew she could avoid it no longer, she phoned the clinic. She felt nervous, her voice shaking as she stated her reason for calling. She struggled to describe the pain in the terms the doctor seemed to want. According to the doctor, everything was as it should be. She recommended a warm bath, which Olive sat in until it grew cold and red around her. She continued to bleed through the diapers. The apartment seemed to shrink. The air grew thick and cloying.
Susannah phoned most nights. “I think you should talk to someone,” she said.
“I am,” said Olive.
“Someone other than me,” said Susannah.
“Like a professional.”
“Mum?” asked Olive. “I think I could tell mum.”
“No,” said Susannah sharply.
Olive chewed at her nails. She too knew her mother had more bad days lately than good. “What about—” but she didn’t want to say the widower’s name, not to Susannah.
“Olive,” Susannah said, and sighed. Olive felt her sister’s disappointment buzzing through the phone. She pulled her knees up to her chest so the aching pain in her middle was surrounded and held by the rest of her.
Olive cried, then patted her face with tissues. Susannah stayed on the line.
The next day, Olive barely bled. There were only a few light spots of blood the colour of rust. She stowed the diapers in the dark of her closet and unwrapped the slippery blue casing of a pad.
At the end of the week, Susannah convinced Olive to go with her to a dinner party. The host was a school friend of Susannah’s. He and his wife owned their own house. Standing on the front steps, Olive realized this was the first house she’d been inside since moving to the city. Even the widower lived in a modest rented condo downtown, though it had a view of the ocean and the north shore mountains.
The house was a new build, freshly shingled. There was a small window right at the top of the roof where Olive could imagine a child would press their face and look out.
Susannah picked up Olive’s heavy braid, ran it through her hands like rope, and said, “Sure you’re ready?” Olive reclaimed her hair. She lifted the heavy brass knocker, a faceless mermaid, and let it fall. Susannah could sometimes get carried away thinking she knew what was best for Olive. Today, Olive wanted a glass of wine, a good perch on the sofa, and a decent, flirtatious view. She could see how Susannah would not approve.
Inside, the house was loud, overly warm. Bodies stood and sat and milled about. Their coats were taken. They left their shoes with the covey by the door. A dull ache moved through Olive like a hand. She bent over, lining the shoes up heel to heel until she could stand again. Olive imagined a stranger drawing her aside in the hallway and pointing. She waited to feel blood against her thighs but none came.
“Stay close,” Susannah whispered, then promptly left Olive behind, threading into the kitchen. Olive followed half-heartedly. She helped herself to red wine and later white, tasted rum someone was pouring, brought back from a tropical vacation. Almost everyone was employed in a field they seemed reluctant to explain; international relations, foreign policy, risk assessment.
The only other outsider Olive found was a court stenographer, though she was married to a woman who worked in information security. They sat on the sofa. The stenographer tried to explain her wife’s job. She gestured animatedly as she spoke. Olive clutched onto her own drink tightly and watched the stenographer’s as it looped and twisted. The stenographer owned a gracefulness Olive would never possess. About the job, Olive understood only a little. She was tipsy, but caught: video crew … not in China but other, similar places…new equipment. Olive nodded along.
“Basically,” said the stenographer, “I’m married to a very boring spy.” She laughed, excused herself, and moved away with her drink. Olive was left alone again on the sofa. How desperate she felt there, waiting for someone to save her from solitude. After a few minutes of looking around for someone who might join her, heart rabbiting anxiously in her chest, Olive stood up and went to the window. She could see Susannah out on the back deck where a table had been set up and two of the younger men in suits had taken off their jackets, rolled up their shirt sleeves, and were playing beer pong. The white ball soared between them. Brief flurries of foam splashed up into the air. The backyard was full of quieter-seeming people, studding the lawn in intimate clusters, smoke rising above them into the night.
A second reflection appeared next to Olive’s. She turned to see the host by her side. His hair was long and sweeping, black jettisoned with white. Even through his beard, Olive could make out the flush rising in his cheeks from drink, his eyes a little glassy.
“You’re feeling out of place,” he said, his voice low and insistent.
“Nothing new,” Olive said, meaning to reassure him. Her words rang loud in her ears. She thought of the view of the mountains from the widower’s apartment, how strange and out of place they seemed, rising so close behind the city lights. She had liked waking up there and rolling out of bed, seeing them as a manifestation of her own incongruousness.
“For me either,” said the host, and he raised his glass to hers. He smiled only slightly and Olive realized he was not as drunk as she’d first thought; he was watchful, reserved. His eyes darted, almost birdlike, between the guests.
As though guessing Olive’s preoccupation with his guests, he asked, “What is it you do then?”
“I’m a writer,” said Olive, and she waited for the conversation, as it often did, to stall.
“Would I have read anything of yours?” he asked. Olive grimaced. No one said what they meant anymore. Not the widower or her sister.
“That depends,” she said, sighing, playing his game. She held out her glass for a man passing with a bottle, topping everyone up.
“On how well-read you are,” said Olive. The host laughed, his mouth dark and soft, and toasted her again. Olive turned with her full glass to the window, where she found Susannah watching her. Olive raised her glass to her sister, who raised hers, suspiciously, it seemed, back. The host brushed Olive’s hand, and she stiffened. When she looked back to him, she saw he was gazing away, into the busy throng of the party where one woman held aloft a sparkler and another woman blew noisily into a tinny kazoo.
The party showed no signs of ending and Olive felt suddenly drunk and tired. The host took her to the room with the coats. She shouldered hers on, a long brown fur, too heavy for the weather.
“Thank you,” she said, “for tonight.” She stepped towards him—later, she would wonder what for—to embrace him? To kiss him on the cheek? She had never been good at goodbyes. He put his arms up quickly in front of him as if afraid of her intentions. They collided, Olive tripping backwards and falling heavily onto the floor.
Susannah called a cab. She helped Olive into it, but Olive could see her sister’s face had drawn closed. A spot of blood had appeared on the gauzy fabric of Olive’s dress. Susannah looked at it and then away. Olive peered up at Susannah through the tinted cab window after Susannah shut her in. As the cab departed, Susannah waved and Olive blew a kiss. She watched as her sister walked back to the house with the host, her arms moving up into a shrug. Maybe she was explaining away Olive’s behaviour, or distancing herself from it. Either way, Olive didn’t mind much. Her head was full and cottony, and she would soon be in her own bed.
The next morning, nursing a hangover, Olive thought about visiting her mother in the home. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone. She got in her car and drove.
At the hospital entrance, Olive sanitized and signed in. The nurse said, “Not a great one,” as Olive passed her station. Another nurse had rolled the pill trolley out into the main room and was carrying small white paper cups around. Olive saw her mother and waved. Her mother tugged at the seatbelt on her wheelchair and let out a guttural cry. No one had dressed her for the day and her nightgown bunched around her hips. Olive turned and fled. “I forgot—” she said as she went by the nurse. The nurse smiled nicely, and that made it worse.
The rest of the day, Olive spent waiting for Susannah to call. When she didn’t, Olive realized she’d really done it this time, although it didn’t seem fair. The whole episode had been one large mistake. What bothered Olive the most was that she had wanted to kiss the host, but not there in the room with the coats. She’d wanted him downstairs, much earlier in the night and when she’d had far less wine. He’d laughed at something she’d said but then she’d caught him eyeing the other partygoers wistfully, his laugh distracted and cheap. His embarrassment had been alive, shimmering between them. Olive had felt a deep ache then, different from the pain of the last week, and she’d wanted to act on it. But she hadn’t kissed him, she hadn’t, and now she felt misunderstood.
When Susannah hadn’t called on the morning of the third day, Olive was hurt. She soaked in the bath. She called Susannah. The phone rang and rang and rang. Her sister’s voice came on, telling Olive to leave a message. Olive knew Susannah was at home, letting her phone buzz beside her.
Olive called the widower, who said he would pick her up in twenty minutes and was only forty minutes late. Olive put on the dress from the party. The stain was still there, round and rusty, but her jacket would cover it. When the widower arrived, it gave Olive some pleasure to see he looked a bit unkempt; his clothes hung loose, making him look older than he was, a little frumpy. No mention was made of the last week’s events. He drove while Olive gave directions. She looked at his hands on the wheel, his nails trim and clean. She was having a hard time looking at his face. Without seeing it, she knew the high blonde hairline, the wide-set eyes, his hooked nose. They parked out front of Carpets Carpets Carpets. The widower wouldn’t get out of the car until Olive had gone into the store first. Olive watched the widower close his wallet in the glove box and step out into the sweeping sun. Inside, he said he thought she was playing a trick on him. His laugh was high and nervous.
There was a nice salesman in Carpets Carpets Carpets who led Olive through the store. The widower stayed near the window, pinching rugs between his fingers and commenting on the pile. Olive saw that the widower felt everything between them could return to its previous state. She saw that most of the store was made up of rugs rather than carpets. The rugs hung from the ceiling.
Olive pointed to four different woven rugs, which the young salesman took down from their hooks and laid out, one next to the other, on the floor. The widower sidled up beside her and rested his chin on her shoulder.
“This one’s cheaply made,” said the widower, pointing to a gold rug on the far left. “You can tell by the attachment of the tassels.” The widower had always been inappropriate; it made Olive feel both resentful and protective of him. Quite often in the past, she found herself superior to him in social settings, and when this happened, she wanted to get him into bed. She liked the way the humiliation was private. It belonged only to her; even the widower didn’t see it. The widower hummed to himself, oblivious to the grimace of the salesman.
“Is the store really moving?” Olive asked the salesman, after they’d all been staring down at the rugs for a while. “I’ve lived here for some time, you know.”
The salesman smiled and blushed. He shrugged. He had long, pretty hands that came up in the same way her sister’s had when she’d shrugged. “You’d be surprised how well it works,” the man said. “As a sales tactic. And if someone buys the rug and it makes them happy when they wouldn’t have bought it but for the urgency of the sign—can that be a bad thing?”
Olive nodded her head. “I can see that,” she said. She stepped closer to the man so that she might look directly down at the third rug she had chosen. In front of this rug, her body caved inwards, her shoulders slumping.
“The colours,” said the salesman, nodding towards her shoulders. “Each one has its effect.”
Olive thought of the clinic’s grey, pressing hallways. She turned to face the widower, only to find he’d moved away. He stood at the window with his back to the store. Olive felt herself hardening to him, an old anger rising unsteadily, on shaky limbs within her.
“Here’s a trick,” said the salesman. He glanced over at Olive nervously. “You step in front of each rug. You close your eyes. You ask yourself: would this rug make me happy?”
Olive considered the man. “How well does that one work?” she asked. “As a sales tactic.”
“No, no,” said the man. “I assure you. This is not a sales tactic.” He clasped his hands together. He moved around Olive to step in front of the first carpet and closed his eyes, as if to encourage her. She tried it.
“Which rug do you have?” asked Olive, looking around her again, wondering if she had really chosen the best four rugs in the store.
“Oh,” said the man. “I have carpet at home.”
Olive nodded. She supposed there was nothing one could do about that, short of pulling it up. For a brief moment, she thought she might offer to buy the man a rug for his home, but realized with a sick, disorienting feeling that the gesture was one the widower would make, wholly improper. But if she did—buy one for the salesman and one for her, it would work out to roughly the same amount the widower had paid for the abortion. Olive thought she might like that, making the procedure physical and yet not complete; how one piece would stay with her and the other with a stranger.
“I think this rug would make me happy,” the man said finally, when Olive didn’t speak, pointing at the second rug in the middle. It was blue and yellow with a green trim and thick tassels at each corner. In the end, it was the rug Olive bought. Whether because she thought it would make her happy or because she wanted the man’s happiness as her own, she wasn’t sure.
Olive bought a second rug, the cheaply-made one, and instructed the widower to drive it to Susannah’s apartment. He took both rugs, complaining about his newfound position as a delivery person, but Olive only smiled. She had told the widower she would walk home and take in the sun. Olive stood outside of Carpets Carpets Carpets and waved as the widower wrestled the two rugs into his trunk.
“I was here last week,” Olive called. She couldn’t tell if the widower had heard her. His head was moving up and down, his mouth wet and open as he grunted, still struggling with the rugs.
At home, Olive found the rug leaned up against her door. She’d worried on the walk home that the widower might toss it out of the elevator or leave it obstructing the hallway, but there it was, neat as anything. She dragged the rug into the living room and cut it out of its plastic packaging. Rolled out, it took up the bulk of her apartment, was somewhat large and ungainly. Olive moved her table to sit on top of it, and then brought a few of her best books. She placed a lamp on the table and carried over her pillows. She created an entire room on her rug, a smaller room within the bigger room that was her whole life.
When Olive was settled on the rug, she called Susannah, but Susannah didn’t pick up. She dismissed the widower, her mother. She didn’t want to be alone in her new place, on this large life raft that was her rug. Feeling a little foolish, Olive went into the bedroom and retrieved the antique mirror that hung opposite the bed. She leaned it against the wall so it sat at the foot of the rug. Sitting, Olive could see the whole of herself reflected. There she was, thirty trillion cells, dividing and dying. She drew her skirt up around her waist, crushing the flimsy fabric in her hands. It felt like petals, so soft and silky she felt herself waiting for the air to be filled with fragrance, as though she could conjure it, just now, from nothing.
Alison Braid is the author of the chapbook Little Hunches (Anstruther Press, 2020.) Her work has appeared in TNQ, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan, CV2 and Prairie Fire. She is currently pursuing an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.