Unconditional by Ashley Reisinger

Over time, they grew to hate each other. It happened as the threadbare fabric of pleasant memory they’ve used to patch their relationship wears thin: the first time she saw his ruddy face in an Irish pub. The intoxicating flash of respect and desire in her eyes when he entered the room. Evenings spent huddled together on some moth eaten, multicolored blend of fabric spread across the littered shores of some crappy Jersey beach. The ring he bought from the pawn shop with that month’s rent, stones missing from the clusters of knock-off sapphires around the tiny diamond. Their hasty wedding, where her uncle got too drunk, and his brother screwed the maid of honor in the supply closet of the hall they rented.

Now, there’s nothing but the putrid stench of Jack Daniels and Marlboro. There’s nothing but pilled clothing from the thrift store, and cheap lipstick he says makes her look like a whore. There’s nothing but a trailer that’s hardly standing, with cigarette ashes in the kitchen sink, and puke stains on the bathroom floor.

And there’s the gentle stirring in her abdomen. One she knows they can’t afford. One she doesn’t want, and he doesn’t know about.

He tells her she’s getting fat as she struggles before the bedroom mirror, wrestling her traitorous, changing body into a dress with rhinestones bedazzling the shoulders.

“Screw you, Danny,” she says, not bothering to look at him, though she sees his reflection sprawled out on the bed behind her, one arm over his head, the other holding a cigarette to his lips.

His heavy-lidded eyes watch her possessively. She turns away, heat rushing across her cheeks as she reefs on the bottom of the dress and hears a rip peel through the room.

“What are you even going out for?” he asks, like the thought she could enjoy a night without him is absurd.

“Because I want to, Danny.” Because I don’t want to spend another miserable evening here with you. “What, I’m not allowed now?”

“You do what you want, Jin.” His words fall dead, like he doesn’t care what she does, but she knows it bothers him for some reason or another.

His gaze slides absently toward the window where broken aluminum blinds lay haphazardly against the wall. The darkening city shows through the slats, pinpricks of street lights flickering to life. He takes a drag, holding the smoke in his mouth for a second before letting out his breath. After four years, she can hear the click in his throat when he wants to say something, but doesn’t. She can feel the tension in the air thicken, but she ignores it, peeling the dress over her head and tossing it into the overflowing garbage. She imagines the bin spilling dirty diapers. She imagines the stench when the summer gets hots and the sun beats down on their bedroom window, dragging the temperatures over ninety. She imagines the harsh wail of a sleepless baby. She imagines Daniel’s rugged voice in the dead of the night.

Shut that thing up, Jennine.

She rubs her hand against her stomach, sickness climbing up the back of her throat. And yet, her eyes are still drawn to her own image in the mirror, some sort of morbid
curiosity spurring it on. There’s something inside of her. Beneath her fluttering fingertips, and the muffin tops that creeps over the waistline of her underwear—she buys six packs from Wal-Mart in white, black, and beige—there’s a life.

But her stomach is not the only thing that’s changed. Her bra doesn’t fit right anymore, and she spills out of the cups. More of her than used to be there sags around her hips, hugs her thighs, wraps her arms. Even her cheeks hold a roundness her face shed when she was young.

The weight doesn’t just come from the accident inside of her, but from the stolen Oreos in the middle of the night, when sleeping beside Daniel makes her panic. From the extra tip or two of creamer she adds to her morning coffee, thinking it doesn’t really matter if she’s going to get fat anyways. From the greasy bags of fast food she gets between her job at the dry-cleaners and her shift serving at the nothing little dive restaurant on the West Side.   

She doesn’t blame him for not knowing. She doesn’t blame him for not watching her the way he used to, with a quirked mouth and a mischievous glint in his eyes. She’s not sexy. She
can’t even fit into a stupid dress.

Tears start to well in her eyes before she can stop them. The emotion smothers her like a wave of mania, and soon she swallows hiccupping breaths while hot tracks burn against the skin of her face. Danny swears, panic simmering in his eyes as he pushes out of the bed.

“For the love of—”

She bats his grabby hands away as he reaches for her.

“What are you doing?” he asks.  

She can’t get any words out, and swats at him again, harder this time. She wants to tell him to leave her alone, but can’t. She wants to tell him she’s going out, but the words won’t
come. She wants to tell him she’s not getting fat, even if she knows it’s a lie.

He clenches his smoke between his teeth and seizes both arms in each hand. The lump in her throat grows, her airway tighter with each strangled word she tries to get out.

“You don’t. You can’t. It won’t.”

“Spit it out, Jin!” he roars.

“You don’t love me anymore.”

And with the words, the dam breaks. Huge tears roll down her face, over her cheeks, and off her chin. She sniffles, but it’s not enough to keep clear mucus from dripping out her nose. She tries to swipe it off on her shoulder, but his hands grip tight and she can’t move her head far enough.  

“You don’t love me anymore,” she says again, limp in his grasp.

It’s his eyes. It’s always been his eyes that give him away. His dark brows draw down his face, and pleats form across his forehead. The corners of his baby blues crinkle, and
though frustration is in his voice, concern is in his eyes.

“You’re hysterical.”

“I’m pregnant.”

The words suck the oxygen from the room. She didn’t mean to say them. They slipped past her lips, unsolicited, like the woman who shows up twice a month with her awful blue
eyeshadow, and her knockoff Louis Vuitton bag slung over her shoulder. Who brings grocery store gift cards every time she comes, and plunks them against the refrigerator beneath some tacky cow magnet without saying anything. Like Jennine and Daniel are charity cases and she’s doing them some kind of favor. The woman who walks into their home with an air of superiority, though Jennine knows for a fact she isn’t unfamiliar with trailer living.

She completely forgot about her mother. How can she possibly tell her mother? She’ll assume it’s Jennine’s fault, like her and Daniel ever feel impassioned enough to be spontaneous
anymore—like they would ever forget to take precautions. Because she’ll know, she always does, that Jennine and Danny weren’t trying for a baby.

The word, even in her mind where only she can hear it echo, sends a tremor through her. Her breathing grows short and quick, spurts of air she can hardly pull in fast enough.

“You’re what?” Danny asks, his voice so very far away. He sounds like a child. Scared. Uncertain. She can’t remember a time he ever seemed so young.

“Pregnant,” she says again. As the word leaves her mouth for second time, the reality begins to settle in. She’s pregnant. She has a baby inside of her. The thought causes a whisper of panic to peel through her stomach, but she tries her best to ignore it. She doesn’t know how far along she is. Too far to get an abortion?

Her stomach wrenches again. She imagines small fingers grabbing for her own, big blue eyes, like Danny’s, peering out of a chubby face.

Maybe adoption.

“I’m going to be a Dad?” he chokes, and her eyes flit up from the floor. She searches his face as his hands leave her arms, red marks where his fingers pressed in.

His gaze shimmers, his eyes giving him away again as they brim with tears.

Her throat constricts, and she can only nod her head.

“Really?” Something like a half-laugh escapes his mouth, and her own face twists into an uncertain smile.

“You want to keep it?” Her own feelings, so mixed up for the months she’s struggled with this, start to change. A small, simple bubble of excitement grows around her heart. She imagines those small fingers wrapped around hers. She imagines Danny brushing a strand of hair from her face as he leans over her shoulder to inspect the little child.

Silly, she knows.

“What? Of course I do. Why would you even ask me that?”

She gives a start.

His eyes inspect her face, and she feels bared beneath the weight of his gaze. Her arms cross over her stomach, and the baby stirs inside her.

“And I haven’t stopped loving you,” he says, eyes dancing away before dropping to the ground. She swallows hard. “It’s just—different. Harder. I’m sorry I don’t—”

He shrugs. He’s never been good with words, but it’s enough. A harried patch of memory comes back, one she’s long since shoved aside. His niece in a flouncy pink dress at their wedding, cheap tulle beneath the skirts, blonde ringlets spilling down her back. She stood, face red, eyes down, hands shaking as they gripped the slip of paper before her. She said something about unconditional love first, something her mother wrote for her. The words were mumbled, and lost in the sound of shifting guests. When she started the reading, her voice warbled.

“Love is patient,” she said. “Love is kind.”

Jennine remembers holding Danny’s hand and looking into his eyes. They sparkled beneath the overhead lights, and she could hardly breathe past the swelling warmth in her chest. Her face was all smiles, stretched so tight it almost hurt.

“It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” Little Alyssa’s words grew stronger as she gained some confidence, and buried her face behind the paper where she didn’t have to look at anyone. “It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

Jennine couldn’t look away from Danny’s face and he couldn’t look away from hers. His fingers brushed her knuckles, sending goosebumps rippling up her arm.

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”

She slips her fingers through his now, and he stiffens for a moment. But then his hand softens and he runs his thumb over her knuckles. She smiles.

“It always protects,” Alyssa had said. “Always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

She gently pulls his hand with hers, resting it against her stomach where the baby shifts. She’s not sure if he can feel it, maybe it’s too early, but he freezes, his face a mask of intense concentration. With a gentle smile, tears still brushing her cheeks, she thinks again of the words ‘unconditional love,’ wishing she had heard, wishing she could remember what the little girl said. But as the baby jumps, and Danny jerks away from her as though burned, she giggles, and thinks maybe she already knows. Maybe when conditions suck, and you’ve grown to hate each other—when the threadbare fabric of pleasant memory you’ve used to patch the relationship grows thinner yet—maybe you can still learn to love each other.

Danny glances up at her, his eyes alight with childlike wonder, and he rests his hand on her stomach again.

Or maybe it means you never stopped.  

Ashley Reisinger is a fair weather Canadian who hides in her little home in Edmonton whenever winter rolls around. She graduated with her Bachelors in Education from the University of Alberta, and is currently contracted with a freelance writing and editing company. She can often be found with a tea at hand, and a laptop open to the latest story she’s been working on (okay, let’s be serious, she’s on Twitter). She’s the eldest of five siblings, and is still trying to figure out how to cook for two.

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