Every other night, you hide the knives. You repeat “baby” and “honey” and “darling”, but he isn’t appeased. He kicks your shin. He curses. Spits. Yanks your hair and pushes you up against freezing, concrete walls. Accuses you of screwing some man in the apartment downstairs. When he kicks the other shin, it balances out the pain. By morning your legs will host matching purple tattoos, stretched vaguely in the shape of a lizard’s body. You will cover up the reptile with knee-high stockings before you start your day as a waitress. You will feel sore in the ankles at first, before the pain swallows your calves and comes for your knees by mid-day. But you will carry on.
Tonight, he’s watching a rerun of CSI. You move between the kitchen and the living room, attending to him. In the kitchen, a plume of vapour climbs from a corroded saucepan. Ramen noodles thicken in a bubbling fusion of garlic powder, curry powder, mushroom extract, red chili pepper, and dried laver. You hate ramen but he loves it.
He gets up, cursing at the screen with a beer can in his fist. You leave the ramen, run to flip the channel, and find him a basketball game. Satisfied, he nods at Mike Breen, intrigued by the commentator’s lively voice. He plops back down on the sofa and picks at a piece of lettuce stuck between his butter-colored incisors. You hope the Knicks win tonight.
They don’t. It’s the Knicks, after all.
He flings the can at the floor. You ignore the beer seeping into the white carpet you bought at a yard sale in Brooklyn. You step over the growing stain and jog into the kitchen to bring him another. As you open the fridge, you glance at the knife rack on the kitchen counter. You forgot one. Thankfully, it is not the Chef’s knife. That one is hidden behind the frosted flakes in the cupboard over your head. The santoku and the utility knives are stashed away in a cardboard box inside another cardboard box in the pantry. The cleaver, the kitchen shears, and even the bread knives are all safely out of view. But you left the paring knife on the tiny island, next to an uncovered granny apple. The jagged teeth smile at you.
Your breaths become heaves of dread, crystallizing the translucent shelves of the fridge. You were doing so well. When you return, beer can in hand, you find him silent, fanned out on the sofa, thick pools of drool leaking out the sides of his mouth. His belly, bigger than yours, protrudes, and folds as his breathing morphs into heavy snores and whooshes. A reprieve, for tonight.
You must do better. Be clinical, next time.
You are fantasizing about slitting his throat when the baby kicks. You throw the paring knife into a pull-out draw and crunch into the green apple. The tart juice floods your tongue, and you are tempted to drink the bottle of grocery-bought Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge. But you don’t. Instead, you touch your belly and remember how he charmed you with cheap boxes of chocolate and single-stemmed roses in high school. You remember his watermelon breath and ivory-scented skin. How he slicked his hair back with his father’s pomade and proffered you booze concealed in an aluminum water bottle. How you ditched classes in the middle of the day to meet up with him in dodgy motel rooms. Where cockroaches boldly scampered across moss-sleeked tiles. Where you peed to the aggressive sounds of people fucking in the next room. Never making love. Because no one came to places like this to make love. And even back then you felt you were never a thing of beauty, to be understood, cared for.
You weren’t perfect like Wendy Odusanya, who jangled rosary beads to class and wanted to be deflowered at the Four Seasons in the city, surrounded by therapeutic pillows and plushy comforters. You couldn’t dream beyond moist beds and moldy walls. You had too much of your mother in you. The bar wasn’t set very high.
Still, you remember how you felt alive. With him. Sitting at the edge of the mattress, naked, smoking joints, and wondering how far the seventeen dollars and sixty cents you had managed to scrounge up could take you. Maybe to Coney Island and back. Maybe a nice Italian lunch with shaved cherry ice. Maybe. You didn’t want to go home. Home was a place you went when you had nowhere else to go.
The baby kicks again, and you remember when he took out that pocketknife in the parking lot of Singh’s liquor mart, flicked out a serrated blade, and carved a heart into his left arm. Blood outlined the heart as if traced by a red marker. No hint of pain, just giggles. The wound only began to ooze when he asked you to kiss it, which you did willingly, pressing your Chapstick lips to his skin. You do not remember the taste of his blood, but you remember how he kissed you, said he loved you. How he promised everything would be alright.
Now, while he sleeps in the sofa, you pull up the sleeve on his left arm, find the heart, and trace the outline. It’s all scarred over, embossed and warm. His skin is dry and patched. No pomade. His breath is stale. No watermelon breath. Just fermentation and cheese.
You pull out a worn shoe box from under the sofa and flick off the lid with shaking fingers. You reach for the pocketknife and feel its cold, angular body against your palm. The blade flicks open easily, sharp, and you close it before you allow yourself to think. You promise yourself that the baby in your belly will not become him or you. You open the door, walk down the staircase, and into a halogen-filled night. It has been four years since you last saw your mother.
Rajiv Ramkhalawan is an Attorney-at-Law and writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Rajiv is the winner of the 2020 Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize. He is a past recipient of a regional award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. His most recent works of short fiction has appeared in Joyland, The Los Angeles Review, The London Magazine and Litro Magazine.