"What does your husband do?" This is the first question Becky asks me as we sit down on her couch. Her living room is a canvas of cream with splashes of green and pink paisley. Even the glass of ice tea I'm holding is rimmed with coordinating stripes. I wipe the condensation away and take a sip of what I think is sugar with a dash of tea.
"I'm not married."
"Really? Single?" I nod. She continues. "How awful. I just can't imagine moving to a new city by myself. I just couldn't do it."
Becky's facial expression changes, the freckles splattered across her pale skin forming a new pattern of pity and curiosity. She rocks her baby in her arms, caresses his own pale freckles as if to wipe them away. His eyes are blue, like hers, and I imagine when he grows hair it will be the same bleach blonde as Becky's.
"I haven't had much time for men. I focused on school." My excuse drops, faceplants on Becky's real, dark, hardwood floors. It's the wrong excuse, and I know because Becky's smile pinches at the corners. Maybe because it's such a blatant lie. Her eyes rake over me, trying to figure me out, taking in the tight black jeans and prim silk blouse against the lizard tattoo on my hand and my deep auburn hair which is long, unkempt. I am a far cry from her ironed slacks and stainless cardigan sweater.
"You didn't date at all in college?"
"Some. Just not a lot." This statement floats between us like well-crafted, small talk should. It isn't such a lie, but fucking guys who promise to never call again isn't the same as "dating."
"Well, even with the new job, I'm sure you'll find someone here. The University is brimming with available men. That's how Donny and I met. You'll meet Donny; he teaches in the English department as well. We dated a year, were married for a year, and Marcus came two months ago in November."
A picture of Donny sits on the coffee table. He looks like a nerdy bookworm with a closet full of tweed "retro" jackets, and his hair is spotted with premature gray hair. Sort of handsome—sort of successful—sort of absent; a real winner. I look at the baby and can see Donny's nose, a miniature version fitted onto a too-small, hairless face.
"We named him Marcus after Donny's father," she says. I don't know what to say, so I smile. She leans forward as if I'm supposed to reach out a hand and stroke the baby's bald head or tiny clenched fists. I take a cookie from the paisley plate on the coffee table instead. Becky coughs a little and adjusts the baby."This is a great town to settle into. The University is growing, as you know, and most of the professors here are right out of graduate school like you. It makes it so easy to connect."
I nod. She pauses. It's my turn to speak. "Your house is beautiful." I know this is something people say. The guy who moved the three pieces of furniture I own into my new one bedroom, one bathroom across from beautiful Becky and her beautiful house said it—smirking.
"Oh thank you! Donny's parents helped us find it when we first moved. I thought we were going to have to use lawn chairs for furniture, but my parents surprised us with a new set for each room. I don't know what we would have done without them."
She pats the couch and then gives a tinkling laugh. Touching the couch doesn't seem as dangerous as touching the baby, so I caress it with one hand and give an approving smile. Balance is restored.
"So you said you moved from Chicago? Why'd you want to move to a small University town like this? You seem like the big city type."
I take a bite of the cookie before answering. Becky gives a genuine smile as if she has been waiting for me to eat a cookie from the minute I walked through the door.
"New start? Smaller town? The first job that came along? I couldn't afford to move out of my mother's place while in school, when I finished I grabbed at the first opportunity."
"You're not close with your mom?" She's concerned.
"Close enough. It was just time."
Becky nods, and I take another bite of the cookie which tastes like domesticity and vanilla.
"I didn't see anyone helping you move in yesterday. I would have come out but you know..." She indicates the baby, the one-size-fits-all-excuse of mothers everywhere. "Your mom didn't help you move?"
"My mom works two jobs, neither of which offers great vacation time." I smile as if the fact is a light, inappropriate joke. She shifts in her seat, uncomfortable at the nonexistent accusation I've made by revealing my mother is poor—and me, by extension.
"And your dad?" Her voice is higher in pitch.
I shrug. "He left when I was little." Cliche tragedy that it is, it's mine.
"Oh what a shame. Well, no wonder you are single." Now, I make sense to her. Who knows, maybe my father is the reason I don't bake cookies and coo at children. She moves the baby to her shoulder and shifts closer to me on the couch. A manicured hand pats my knee.
"Well, there will be plenty of people here to take you in. We'll find you someone special in no time and who knows, within a few years you could have a little one of your own. The University offers great maternity leave."
"Oh, I don't want kids." The statement is out and bouncing between paisley pink pillows before I can take it back. So much for a brand new start. Becky's eyes go wide, then narrow, and then vacant.
"Oh I don't believe that." She does believe it. No one says it unless they mean it. She has already taken offense. I have already been put into the us versus them category. There will be a small basket of welcome muffins on my door in the morning and awkward obligatory neighborhood dinner invitations in my mailbox once a month. A broken family explains away my lack of significant other, being poor is an excuse for my lack of manners, but not wanting children? Only cold-hearted, misguided bitches admit that out loud.
"Well, I should go." I stand up and give a polite smile.
"Oh well, I suppose you have a lot of work to do in that house. Ms. Newman couldn't take care of it near the end. It's great you've taken on such a project." She doesn't stand but offers another pat on my thigh. "Good luck with your first class."
I nod. "Thanks for having me."
The sun is setting and as I cross the street. The smell of hotdogs on the grill and fresh cut grass follows me. My new house sits with resolute ugliness among white picket fences, painted shutters, and monogrammed flags staked in manicured lawns. The siding is a fading Pepto Bismol color, the grass weedy and high, and the porch sags as if too lazy to stand level. I don't think it needs one bit of work.
BIO: Emily Claire Utley recently earned her MFA from Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives in North Carolina and works in the glamorous world of healthcare. When not working off her debt to society for scary massive student loans, she spends time with her fiancé, two cats, and a writing notebook. Previous work can be seen in Apeiron Review and Gravel Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @mleclaire