Annette had gotten used to Twinbrook’s cold autumns. Once October hit, she fished her scarf and turtleneck sweater out from the bottom of her dresser. She had a decent number of autumns, enough to push her up into her 30’s and close to middle age. The journey to that passed by in a blissful haze of cooking and sex.
However, it ended with her feeling alone, jaded, and pushing a buggy up to her in-laws’ house in the dead of the night. Where did she go wrong?
It started so well. The revenue from selling two lakeside houses, plus giving Bill puppy-dog eyes in order to get some of his money to cover the rest, gave Annette the foundation to lay down a foundation. She drafted some plans for a house. She dragged Harwood with her to get wallpaper and a second opinion about color schemes. It worked out. The floor plan was more pragmatic than stylish, but Annette didn’t get a second opinion about that. Her awful floorplan had pale maple wood floors and periwinkle wallpaper to save it!
Such an ambitious project made her beam with pride. Bill shared in that too, sharing the joy of sitting on actual stairs leading up to their finished home, with an arm around Annette.
“And there’s enough room to avoid Shark. You’ll be fine,” Annette said.
“Alright, I’m sold on it now,” said Bill, squeezing a little tighter.
He got used to the idea of being bound to the household soon after. Bill and Sagebear had met before, but the dog took little notice of the man until he moved in and bought a big box of Milk Biscuits. She started to wag her tail around him more and jumped up onto him after he came home from work and city council meetings. All because he fed Sagebear a treat whenever she was within ten feet of him.
Life was alright for Bill, at least for some years. And Annette had it even better! From kisses before leaving for work to rough sex after dinner, she had all that she needed. In return, she didn’t push Bill. A family could wait. It didn’t need to happen. Marriage? Why bother? The thought of it made him uncomfortable. It took a while for it all to go wrong.
It might have started one winter, some years later. Annette was somewhere around 32 and enjoying it. She did well enough at work to drink with her boss and have a house that she could throw formal parties at. 32 was a nice age, as it left her in nice enough shape to wear short club dresses and look great doing it.
That party could have just been a way to impress others with her cooking skills, making sure that Mary was watching her stir a pot of chili con carne. But it wasn’t for that either.
Enough time had passed for Bill to have an important birthday and get old. Annette wanted to cheer him on, but the rest of the crowd seemed unenthusiastic. She didn’t expect Shark to be happy, but Amy and Harwood? They had a little more tact that to stand around neutrally.
Annette didn’t even have that tact and decided to laugh at him. With him, she clarified later. It’s one of those things that is so bad you have to laugh at it. But really, it could have been worse.
However, the rest of the guests arriving just in time to cheer Bill on into old age did nothing to stop the night from going sour like old milk.
Annette would have stayed around to have some cake and a second bowl of chili, but she hugged her toilet instead. Tears rushed down her face. That chili tasted horrible the second time around, confirming that actual bile would not be a welcome addition to the recipe.
“Annette, are you okay in there?” Someone knocked on the door. Of course it was Bill.
“Don’t eat more of that chili,” she said, with a groggy, nauseated voice.
Bill opened the door and got down on a knee in front of her. “What a shitty night,” he said.
“Sorry about it.”
“Don’t be, unless you tainted my food or something,” said Annette.
“Or because of me.”
“What, because you got old? It’s not like I was fooled into thinking you’d stay younger. I accepted it a long time ago, you know, that we wouldn’t grow old together.”
“Doesn’t bother you?”
“Now I have another person to get senior discounts with!”
They got up from the dirty bathroom floor, only for Annette to get caught in one of Bill’s strong hugs.
“You mean all that?” he asked her.
“Bill, you know I do,” she said, sounding tired for 10PM. “I’d love you at 29 or 92.”
“23 or 32 for you. Better enjoy the rest of this year,” he said. Annette gave him a flirty smile. At that moment, it meant nothing beyond a joke.
So he was old. Old or not, Bill still kept his position in City Hall through dubious means. Didn’t bother his partner. Annette liked to pick him up from work right before heading off to the diner. And she always greeted him, at the stairs of City Hall, with a kiss. Usually, Annette stopped it there, but she had one other thing to tell him.
“So, I went to the doctor today,” she said. “And it’s something I wish I didn’t have to tell you right now.”
“It really is cancer?” he asked.
“A little better, at least for me.”
She laughed nervously, trying to find the best way to approach the announcement, until finding the most “Annette” way to. “Well, you remember back in November? You woke up with a boner and then railed me doggy style right after I woke up?”
“That describes a lot of mornings, honey,” Bill said, with a smirk.
“I thought you’d get the hint.”
“Goddamnit, Bill! I’m pregnant, that’s what I’m hinting at here.”
For the few seconds he was silent, in the falling snow, it seemed ominous. But then he broke it, with a laugh.
“Just trying to cheer me up with a joke after a long day? Damn, you got me!” Annette was too mortified to react; was Bill, her life partner and soulmate, really that dense? “Though it is kinda cliche now, isn’t it?”
“Are you fucking mad?” she muttered.
“Anyways, I don’t want you to be late for work,” he said. “And I need to relax at home. Mrs. Greenwood can be a pain to work for.” Bill made a good point for Annette; she did have to get to work. Pregnant or not, she had time left before maternity leave kicked in.
She came home to the faint smell of tobacco. Annette wasn’t stupid; smoking killed and everyone was sick of Bill’s habit. She tried to curb it and banned it at the house. Turns out he didn’t listen. The smell led upstairs to their deck, between the chess table and the hot tub.
Annette pouted at him for it. “Bill, you know how I feel about you smoking here. And you lit it inside? I could smell it right from the front door.”
“It’s just one,” he said. “I’ve cut down since we first met. Really.”
“I’d like you to quit as soon as you can. Even today.”
“You can’t see my progress?”
“It means nothing if you’re still smoking. It’s not good for the baby either,” said Annette.
“Don’t drag the pregnancy joke out just to get me to stop,” he said.
“Bill, stop it! I’m not trying to bullshit you about that. Go ask Dr. Drudge if you’re not convinced! I got a blood test. It’s on my records and everything.”
He turned towards her and grumbled. “How could this even happen?”
“You can only have so many unprotected morning quickies before something happens,” said Annette.
“Come on Annette, you can’t abort it?”
“I don’t want to, Bill. We’re both getting older, and I’m fine with being a mum. Plus, I read you my rules. I have to have a kid one day, and I want it with you.”
“It’s just too soon.”
Annette hung her head down. “I know it is,” she whispered.
“Like, you know that elections are this year,” Bill said. “There’s still people here who think having a child out of wedlock is bad. And, come on, I’m not going to retire just because I had a birthday.”
“Do what you feel is best,” she said. “I’ll get some dinner on.”
Annette might have expected a marriage proposal a little more romantic than Bill bringing back a tuxedo in a dry cleaner’s bag and saying “Your turn.” She nodded and set out to find a white dress, only to get one out of an old suitcase and sent away for cleaning.
Good thing brides were allowed some leeway in dresses. Poor Bill had to go with a black tux like every other groom, but Annette had a unique and antique dress instead. A white, drop-waist flapper dress right from 1926.
I dunno if my ancestors wanted their fashion used for my shotgun wedding, but I was just happy for it to fit.
The ceremony itself turned out to be pleasant. They met with their housemates and whoever the others could think to bring along at Twinbrook Esplanade, right around sunset. With half of the witnesses looking happy for them, Annette and Bill exchanged vows in the golden sunlight.
Like most married couples, they ended with a kiss. It was enough to fool their friends.
And perhaps, it was enough to fool them.
Now, while them getting married was a life milestone and worthy of mention (not to mention those lovely sunset photographs), it is also worth it to mention the wedding guests. Well, the one that Annette hadn’t met before. Amy brought him along, and introduced him at dinner after the event. His name was Sinbad, and he was a somewhat nasty young man with eyes the color of fresh kaffir limes.
Well, he spoke with a bit of venom towards everyone but Amy. Meanwhile, Sinbad had known her since she moved to Twinbrook. He was a native of the area, while she followed her lifelong friend from a cute suburb in San Mateo…who turned out to be Sinbad’s housemate. Amy forged a better connection with the auburn-haired bad boy from the swamp instead. When he wasn’t setting fires to houses and to Twinbrook’s laws, Sinbad enjoyed sleepovers with Amy and playing video games in his boxer briefs. Especially after she broke up with Marc (shit happens).
In spite of going out for dinner with Sinbad and playing games in their pajamas, she insisted that it was a close and continuing friendship. Maybe the fallout with Marc soured her. Annette saw through it and rolled her eyes.
So while Amy was a little bit friendzoned by Sinbad, she was still in a better romantic situation than Annette. As she learned one night, not too long later.
It started when Annette was kicked out of her own bedroom. She wondered if it was the frumpy tank top that fit her better than complicated lingerie, or perhaps her snoring at night. Something drove Bill to prefer Sagebear on the other side of the bed to his own wife. Annette tried to sleep elsewhere, but no matter where she went, someone opposed.
“I don’t mind you in my bed, but…”
It roused Annette awake. “Huh?”
“Come on, your husband should be able to put up with your snoring by now,” said Amy, woken up by her new bedmate. “I just can’t.”
“Why else do you think I’m here?” asked a bleary-eyed Annette. “Dude’s like a chainsaw all the time, but somehow I’m the bad one here just because of our little uterus dumpling.”
“How bad is it?” Amy asked.
“He hasn’t touched me in a while.” That was enough to break Annette, making her cry in Amy’s bed. “We…we didn’t even make love after our wedding.”
“He thinks I’m repulsive.”
“Come on, you’re barely showing now, let alone then.”
“Tell him that. Goddamn, Amy, I wish I knew where I went wrong. I’ve seen bad people, and he’s not that. He’s not bad enough to spoil this on his own.”
“Suit yourself,” said Amy. “I’ll try to put up with you.”
It seemed outlandish for Bill to refuse intimacy over such a small thing. Annette had less baby in her belly than Bill had fat in his. Even when eating for two, she kept herself in far better shape than her overweight, smoking, lazy husband did. Ask Annette about any of those qualities and she would say that she loved all but the smoking with her whole heart. But Bill turned away from a wife who was pregnant and maybe had squishier thighs than usual too.
That revulsion extended everywhere. In fact, the minor things were worse. Annette made up for the lack of sex, sort of, with a long courgette and wishful thinking. But when she couldn’t even get a hug from her husband or even touch his face, things got far worse than a turn-off. But she didn’t put much thought into it.
That, and Annette’s persistence in thinking that Bill would change, continued into August and past her due date. She had yet to drop a baby, and got a little bored waiting, especially seeing that her husband was out at work one morning. She at least understood why with that reason. City Hall didn’t grant paternity leave, and it was a weekday. And he had a speech to deliver later that afternoon! Re-election was a serious matter. But justifications or not, it still left Annette feeling lonely and shitty. As much as she kept making excuses for Bill, it seemed like a dick move to not sacrifice a few sick days to be there for her. Labor had to come sooner or later.
But while Bill being neglectful and overworking in the wrong places might have felt bad, it was nothing that waking up to a happy Sagebear couldn’t fix. That dog made a lot of things better. Annette crouched down to greet her most beloved friend, and got a wet lick on the face for her efforts.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Annette looked up to Shark, who dressed casually and stood near a suitcase on the floor.
“So this is new,” she said. “So which awesome gay vacation destination did you choose, and did you remember to limit it to less than eight days?”
“A funeral in Queen City, and yes,” said Shark. “I…I guess I thought you knew that already.”
“No one tells me anything anymore.”
“Oh. Well, it’s for Harwood’s sister. She passed away, and they’ve had their issues, and he’s had quite a few more with her family. I’d almost tell him not to go, but he insisted he has to and to take me.”
“And you said yes to a depressing vacation like that?”
Shark took a confident stance. “Come on, like I want to see a friend get hurt. They’d kill the guy. But they’ve got nothing I can’t handle.”
“And are there gay bars there?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll find some fun, don’t worry. There’s probably a lot more you need to worry about.”
He got out the door fast, leaving Annette on her own. And she checked twice; she really was alone with herself and a stubborn unborn baby. As much as mourning was important, she started to miss those two guys. Maybe they could have had a fun afternoon together, but alas, Annette needed to make her own entertainment.
Using her tablet in her pajamas turned out to placate Annette for an hour. She researched Queen City’s obituaries and found Harwood’s sister. Her name was Nadine and she had the same big eyes and dark skin of her brother, and led a much more mundane life. Working as an Arabic language interpreter and a civil rights activist didn’t garner much fame for her. And the obituary was short, so between that and beating Monument Valley again, she still had a whole afternoon to herself.
Cleaning up a bit. Cooking a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich for lunch. Wishing someone was there. Annette needed something more. Perhaps she could get a matinee ticket to the movies and a box of popcorn to go with it. Monument Valley: The Awful Film Adaptation could have been fun to laugh at.
Instead, she called up Mary: her boss. She had an afternoon off too, and they could take a simple walk in the park together. In spite of feeling like a watermelon was strapped to her middle, Annette could take a walk.
Mary thought it was a good idea, as she could also update Annette on kitchen matters. Things were fine. No one reported any food poisoning cases and the new menu items were a success.
Annette was led to believe it was just the two of them, until they spotted Julienne hanging out at the fountain with her tablet. They got along after reconciling their disagreements over Annette marrying her ex. Julienne didn’t trust Bill in the slightest, though. But it seemed like she had a soft spot for expectant mothers, no matter who the other half was.
“I hope you get that sprog out of you soon,” said Julienne, giving Annette’s tummy a rub. “We miss you over at the diner.”
“I miss you guys too,” said Annette. “Anyone in your life, though?”
“Ah, I can dream about some guys, but nothing yet. Speaking of that…” Julienne gave a knowing glare over to Mary.
“This is your thing, Jules. Leave me out of this,” Mary said. She walked away after that.
“I’m so sorry for you, Annette,” said Jules, with wide, worried eyes.
“Yeah, I know things aren’t perfect,” said Annette. “Don’t rub it in.”
“So you know already?”
“That my husband thinks I’m a fat sow? I knew months ago.”
“Worse than that, Annette. The guy’s cheating on you.”
“Come on, you’re just trying to drag him now.” Annette dismissed Julienne’s accusation with a frown. “There aren’t any problems that I’m not aware of.”
Julienne continued. “Her name’s Scout Sargeant and she’s the chief of police in town. She’s married too, expecting a baby. The only problem is that her husband’s sterile and she’s been spotted around with Bill a few times.”
“I want proof.” Julienne produced a dark picture on her phone, of Bill and another woman watching the fireworks earlier in July. As chaste as it looked, their hands were clasped together.
“I wish you were shitting me, then,” said Annette. Her eyes bugged out and if she could lose her color, she would. “I mean, it doesn’t quite prove sex.”
“I know it’s a little shoddy, but I dunno. Think about it,” Julienne said. “I might seem like a bitch, but I care about you too. Like you’re my little sister.”
She grimaced at Julienne for that last sentence. “Piss off. I’m your co-worker.”
“We’ll see you at work in a few months,” said Julienne.
Around sunset, the City Hall maintenance team set up a podium, and Bill did his best in public to win over the votes he didn’t need. Everyone knew that the Rackets rigged the polls and wouldn’t be stopped for a while. He had some genuine supporters, however, as evidenced by a small and enthusiastic crowd of sign-wavers.
Annette was in the crowd too, though towards the back. Half and hour went by without Bill even acknowledging her.
Fed up with that attitude, she waved at him, languidly.
“Oh right,” he said. “And I wouldn’t stand a chance of doing my job here in Twinbrook without my lovely wife. Give it up for Annette!” She got applause and a crowd turning towards her.
“Actually, Bill, I’m going home,” she said, without even wishing him luck.
It felt awful to leave him to finish up like that, but at the same time, it was Annette’s own justified revenge. Maybe Bill would get the message after that. Heck, maybe he’d be at her side and squeezing her hand when she gave birth. That would mend a few things.
Four days later, Annette woke up in pain from her overcooked baby. She had no idea where Bill was on an early Saturday morning. He exiled himself to the couch the night before, but when Annette got herself downstairs, he was nowhere to be found.
In fact, the whole place was unsettling and quiet. Sagebear was fast asleep in her dog bed, looking adorable curled up with her favorite stuffed toy. And it seemed that a lot of people were asleep. Instead of a conversation over breakfast, all Annette heard was the rustling of someone flipping through a newspaper. That said a lot, as only one person in the house was ancient enough to still care about newspapers.
It was nice to see Harwood back from Queen City, even if Annette didn’t particularly miss him either. She assumed that he was having the best time that he could while pretending to deeply mourn his sister’s passing. He seemed pretty calm about it before he left. Even if he wasn’t, he had to have found some joy in having the breakfast nook and the coffee percolator all to himself.
Annette leaned over one of the high tables, behind him. “Doesn’t your heart ache for all those trees that went into your weekend paper?”
“I thought you researched everything about me,” he said. “Because they switched to recycled paper in 1999 all because of my efforts. So, not at all.”
“Fine. Did you mourn well?”
Bored with being lonely and not quite to the point of pushing her big uterus pumpkin out, Annette took a seat next to her old friend. It was only then that she noticed the bruising and fresh stitches above his left eyebrow.
“Yikes,” she said.
“And that’s why I took Shark with me. He’s good for a lot of things, but especially for defending me against in-laws,” Harwood said. “Plus, he stayed with me in the ER instead of enjoying Queen City for what it offered.”
“Glad to see that he’s becoming less of a snothead.”
“You’re welcome.” He had a brief, smug grin at that.
“You did well making him a peaceful artist, I’m not gonna deny it,” said Annette. “You bring out the best in a lot of people.”
“Please, you know I can’t work miracles.”
Annette looked away, trying to hide how she was taken aback by what she already knew. “You…come on, you think that Bill’s just so corrupted that he can’t change? I didn’t think you could work a miracle, but…maybe you could have been the mediator.”
Harwood had a wide-eyed look on his face throughout the exchange. It looked wide enough to rip his stitches open. “Look, I’m sorry, but I have a lot of my own crap to deal with. And like any of us would judge you if you gave up on one thing?”
She had her fangs bared in a threat. “I don’t care what I’ve been thinking! I won’t do that,” she snarled. “Not because old uncle Harwood said it’s a good idea.”
It worked enough. He was shaking in his seat.
“Please, don’t do that again,” he said, with a timid voice.
She gained enough of her composure to start to walk away. She looked towards her friend with dejection. “It’s a rough time,” she said, her voice softening.
“I’ll…fine, I forgive you enough. Just, you know I’ve always been here for you,” said Harwood.
“I’m better alone. I probably won’t drown myself in the tub, but if I do, Sagebear sees you like another master. Take care of her.”
He had the sort of grimace that should have told Annette that was in bad taste, but whatever.
Annette knocked on the bathroom door and learned she would be alone in there. A warm bath would soothe the cramping. For the morning leading up to it, the pain was bad. Horrible, even. But it didn’t feel like the force of a baby ripping through her genitals or even preparing to within the upcoming hours.
So she drew a bath. As soon as the water started to run, though, a splitting pain ran through her abdomen. It would sure interrupt that bath she looked forward too.
She clutched herself in pain. “Dear god, today?” she asked herself, crying out. “When I’m all alone?”
Her screams had to have been audible throughout the house. Someone could help her, but no one knocked on the locked door. Perhaps Harwood was a good friend and listened to her requests to be alone, and she couldn’t blame him for the thought. But she lived with three other adults. None of them would come to her aid? And what was Bill doing all morning?
Annette had to face it. She climbed into the bathtub, held on to her tummy, and let out another groan of pain. “Fine, as I said…all alone.”
It took all morning and some of the afternoon, which was far less time than Annette expected. Especially considering how big her new bundle of joy was. She snuggled nine pounds of a darling little baby boy, who had all his fingers and toes and seemed comfortable wrapped in a blue towel.
There was the matter of his skin too: bright pink like the flesh of a watermelon. What some parents would call effeminate was just a mark of family heritage to Annette. At least she would always look like his parent.
Annette took about two steps out the door before facing someone. So much for that solitude she wished for.
“Come on Amy, he told us that she needs to be left alone,” said Shark, looking away from his aunt.
“But look at this little man! He’s such a darling.” Amy covered her mouth and squealed with excitement upon witnessing her friend’s baby’s cuteness.
“It’s fine,” Annette muttered. “I mean, it is pretty amazing. Making a new life, squeezing it out of my vagina. Doing that all alone.” Her voice started to trail off.
“So, you know what I want to know. What’s his name?” Amy got close to Annette’s face with the request, but she took it well. Even though Annette felt empty in more places than in her womb.
“Of course you get to know. It’s Franco. I didn’t ask Bill about it…you know, that’s the least of my issues right now. Having him accept that I named our son my old celebrity crush. Yeah. It’s his fault that no one stopped me from naming a baby after James Franco.” She chuckled a bit after saying it.
It was a few hours later when Bill dragged himself home, looking glum while entering through the door. At that moment, Annette was tending to a hungry baby Franco. She hadn’t gotten dressed that day, and went about her new motherly duties in a camisole and boy shorts. Although her body bounced back from the stresses of pregnancy well, none of that outfit seemed to grab Bill’s attention. He took one look at his wife and his new son, and started his way upstairs.
Annette cut off her feeding early and put Franco down in his crib, to confront her misbehaving husband. It was hard to hide the malcontent on her face, but Annette tried.
“So I spent my morning pushing out a big, overdue baby all by myself. I bet you were doing something really important for the city, but I thought you could say hi to your son first,” said Annette. Bill gave Franco a weak wave in his direction.
“That’s nice, Annette,” he said, in a quiet tone.
“So I guess you haven’t changed much,” she said.
“No, it’s hard to change. I’ll be upstairs. Don’t come looking for me.”
She obeyed that request, taking to the rocking chair in their makeshift nursery. It helped Franco get to sleep, but Annette wouldn’t give in to the smooth motion of the chair. First, she would drop her baby if she did. But thinking kept her awake.
It kept her awake for a long time. Longer than for how much a newborn could cry and keep her conscious for. Sure, Bill would come around to being a father. He started taking up some of the care after their bitter exchange, but still left Annette neglected. At best, she was his landlady. All because she had the nerve to have his baby.
It didn’t make her regret Franco. He had the most adorable chubby face and tummy, and how could anyone regret that? But she regretted enough to turn to her husband’s own domestic enemy.
Shark came home one evening from the gym, and with him came the hunger of an actual great white shark. He looked at Annette’s risotto with a ravenous gaze, and she had to suppress some laughter at the cluster of hickeys on his neck.
It hurt her to say what she said. “I’m a wreck because of your uncle.”
“About damn time.”
“Hey! I need some respect from you after I didn’t immediately prod you about who gave you that thing!” She pointed at his neck with her spoon. “But about your uncle. I still love him and all, but I need to get through to him, maybe try to tell him what happens when I’m not loyal to him…no, that sounds horrible.”
“It sounds fitting,” Shark said.
“Fine. What exactly sounds fitting, then?” He had a suggestion that sounded downright toxic.
“Maybe you can meet my dad.”
“I have. He called Bill a fat loser. Maybe he had a point, but why now? Just so he can boast about having foresight?”
“Look, I’m saying this so you can scare him back into love. Because I think he’s scared shitless of the others.”
“You want me to join the local mafia?” Annette asked, turning away to laugh. “You know, I’ve done worse in my life.”
“I’ll give him a call,” said Shark. “Just do it to show some spine. And maybe he’ll pay up something too.”
She loaded Franco into a stroller one Autumn night, and wrapped a scarf around her. Shark said that his dad loved kids, after all, no matter who they came from.