What if she shoved the stroller straight into oncoming traffic? In the flick of her slender wrist, Julie sees her arm extend from her body and send the royal blue stroller into the chaos of speeding metal. The baby flies head first onto the asphalt, his tiny skull bursting open and his brains flying out like silly string.
She shudders as if a gust of cold wind were moving through her. At the corner of Willoughby and La Brea Avenues, in front of the Amazing 99 Cent store, cars hurl past at fifty miles an hour, stirring up dust and litter. Potholes mark the asphalt like craters. The store sign glares down at her, the word Amazing boasting in perfect, prideful pink.
She releases an open, broken laugh because laughter is the single thing she can do to distill the intense weight in her chest. She would never actually push Elliot into the street or do anything to harm him. But what if her arm turned into a beast and did something completely outside her desire? How can she have these thoughts in the first place if there's an absence of possibility? What kind of mother imagines pushing her child into traffic and laughs it off?
She grips the handle as if dangerous thoughts will wrest the stroller from her hands. It is early afternoon and the temperature is warmer than it ought to be for fall. A haze hangs in the air like most days in Los Angeles and the sun shines relentlessly. Trying to shake the image of the baby on asphalt, she thinks of the apartment door. Did she lock it? She feels the key in her pocket and turns around. The need to check is far more than a tic; it's a surge, stopping life until she checks.
Elliot starts up, perhaps to remind Julie that life is here, in the world of tiny movements. Sometimes his crying makes her think of the feral cat that used to live in the alley behind the apartment she had shared with her good friend Kristen-- back when there were no diapers to change or aching breasts heavy with milk. The insistence of crying, like the whine of the cat, gets under her skin. She wants to stick tissue in her ears. He nearly depleted both breasts just before they set out for their walk so he can't be hungry. He's overdue for his nap. She picks up her pace, trotting over the cracked sidewalk.
The baby's cry has shifted from the steady whine of a cat to the sporadic bleating of a lamb. She stops walking, pulls the stroller to her, and lifts the blankets. His face is screwed up like a towel being twisted. The pacifier has fallen out and is on his stomach. The mouth, open like a fish. She picks it up and plugs it in. He goes absolutely silent, as if the air went right out of him. She loosens her grip on the stroller and walks again, able to hear birds in the sycamore.
She pushes the stroller onto the rectangle of grass and charges up the sixteen stairs two at a time, leaving the baby behind. The apartment door is locked. A sliver of tightness releases from her chest. She bolts back down the stairs to discover that Elliot has given up the fight against sleep. The stroller sits completely still, as if there is no living being in it.
Julie stands at the edge of the grass, feeling the absence of the rubber handle. The pearl white Honda with the gold-rimmed license plate turns into the driveway. She walks towards the stroller while her downstairs neighbor parks the car in the space at the back of the building. Julie isn't in the mood to talk, but Joy sees her and heads over with a Ralph's paper grocery bag in each hand.
"Hello!" Joy exclaims. She sets the bags down on the sidewalk and Julie is afraid Joy might reach out and hug her. "Do you like my new haircut?" She runs a hand along the curve of her blond bob. The shorter style makes Joy's face appear rounder and her nose longer.
"Yeah, it looks great," Julie says with feigned enthusiasm. "Did you just get it done?"
"This morning. I have the most wonderful stylist over in Westwood if you're ever looking for someone."
Julie pushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Her tangled, dark blonde hair hangs in a limp ponytail at the middle of her back. It's easier to throw her hair back lately, but she really should run a brush through it and trim the split ends.
"How is the little guy?" Joy inches closer to the covered stroller. Her fingernails are cherry red and she wears a whitewashed jean jacket dotted with jewels.
"Oh, he's just fine. Sleeping away."
"How are you holding up?"
"I'm fine. Tired, but otherwise, everything's just fine," Julie says with confidence and stretches her mouth into a smile.
"Can I have a look at him? It's been a few weeks. I bet he's changed so much."
Julie wants to say no, that Joy can't look at him, because that will require exposing his face to the harsh sun, but instead she says, "Here he is," and draws the blanket away from the sunshade as if revealing a prize.
The thin skin of Elliot's closed eyelids catch the strength of the sun and flutter like an insect's wings.
"Ohh! Such a sweet little babe! And he's already grown so much. Hasn't it flown by?"
Julie tenses, afraid that Joy's boisterous voice will wake him. No, it hasn't flown by because every movement in every day must be paid attention to. She considers saying that the days feel like they're inching forward in a calendar of molasses.
"So far, the days feel really long," Julie says.
"Yes, but they grow up before you know it. I remember when Abby was little. She seemed to go from wearing diapers to graduating from college overnight. Cherish this time because it goes quick. And if you only have one like I did, it'll go real quick."
"Yeah, I imagine." Julie secures the blanket back over the stroller. Elliot's sleeping form slips into dark. She needs to start moving, or Joy might pin her there with a story. Like the day Julie moved into the building two years earlier, Joy rattled on about her divorce saga the moment after introducing herself on the sidewalk. How her husband could go to hell for keeping the house and the BMW after everything he did.
Julie pulls the stroller to her. She remembers now how she didn't seriously mind Joy's need to talk at the time because Julie was a different person then, secure inside her own skin and the freedom of living alone.
"Oh goodness," Joy says. "You probably need to keep moving. And I need to get this milk put away. Are you coming or going?"
"Going. To the park."
"Wonderful. Enjoy this weather. It's supposed to rain on Monday."
"We will. You too," Julie says, and forces every ounce of energy into a smile. Then she moves the stroller off the grass.
Down Beverly Boulevard, she passes cafes with people her age. They throw their heads back and laugh, seemingly unconcerned with anyone's future but their own. An elderly woman in a maroon dress passes by with a brown wig on a Styrofoam head. Julie looks at the wig held by the woman, how easily she can slip it over her gray hair and change her identity in an instant.
Everyone she passes looks well rested and energetic. Through the front window of a nail salon, women thumb through Self and Glamour with feet dipped in soapy tubs and nails drying under mini-fans. Julie used to do those things on a Saturday. She can't argue that her innocence was taken or that she hadn't had enough time for herself. She'd lived all of her twenties, with plenty of parties and irresponsibility. Not that she had truly been irresponsible. She'd completed a Graphic Design degree, worked various retail and restaurant jobs in college, and for the past three years has been employed at Birch Designs, a boutique design agency.
Julie heads across the crosswalk as the green man turns to the red hand. 10, 9, 8. What if someone plowed right through them? What if an impulsive jerk floored the gas pedal and wiped out her and the baby? A tingling like spider legs crosses her chest and shimmies down her spine. She grips the stroller handle tighter.
7, 6. She shakes her head at the red hand, as if it can halt thought. She considers staying and daring the cars to decide their fate. Or she could ditch the stroller, pump her arms and legs like the flashing green man, and run. She could get a pedicure, thumb through a magazine, and pretend she didn't know of anything discoloring the bright day.
5, 4, 3. She rushes across, panic rising, and stops on the other side of the street at the perimeter of the park. She shivers, her body rejecting the concoctions of her mind, and then clenches her teeth and pinches her left arm with her right thumb and forefinger. This is both an act of self-punishment and a test to see if she can feel beyond the numbness.
There hasn't been a single stirring. What if she'd tucked him in too tight and he suffocated? What if the pacifier choked him? Her skin feels confining and the early October air makes her sweat. She wants to check that he is still breathing, but there is the danger of waking him. If she lifts the blanket, the sun will lash its whip of light in his face. He'll start bawling. She wants to take him to a friend's house because she is afraid to be alone with him in case one of the thoughts should turn to action. She is petrified that one poor choice or wrong movement could result in irreversible damage. She wants to call her best friend, but Duke is at work. Besides that, she can't imagine admitting these thoughts to anyone, not even Duke, whom she's known for sixteen years.
She crosses the parking lot to the corner of the playground. Under the moping branches of the cypress tree, she locks the stroller brake and lifts the edge of the blanket. The baby's nearly transparent eyelids are closed and his chest rises like a tiny puff. How sweet he is when sleeping. Sitting on the grass, she watches toddlers climb and swing. Parents seem like actors on a set. She imagines a director instructing them on how to move like parents and how to be at peace with their role. Some of them smile and nod like a puppeteer's strings are attached to their heads.
Julie leans against the tree and watches a man catch a toddler at the bottom of the slide. The little boy squeaks with delight and the man sets him on his feet and claps his hands in celebration, as if the child just won the spelling bee.
At the edge of the parking lot, a middle-aged man pushes an elderly woman in a wheelchair. Some day this could be her. One day when she's toothless and incontinent and agitated from old age, would Elliot take care of her? Guilt spreads through her veins like the blood that's needed to keep a system conscious.
BIO: Brittany Michelson's prose has been published in Whistling Fire, Speech Bubble Magazine, Sleet Magazine, Glossolalia Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Backhand Stories, Bat Terrier Journal, Flashquake, and other online journals. Print work appears in PoemMemoirStory Magazine and is forthcoming in the Tahoe Blues anthology by Bona Fide Books.