‘It’s Only Broken Glass, Baby’ by Elizabeth Ball

Broken Glass
Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Because her self-appointed super-star lawyer husband traveled so much for work, Lucy spent a lot of time alone. In her room. Eating cookies. She’d moved to Montreal for a teaching job and met Guillaume quickly after that, so she hadn’t had much opportunity to make friends. Her colleagues were nice enough, but most of them were too organized for her liking, or talked about their families too much which made her miss her own even more. When she wasn’t working or in her bedroom stuffing her face, Lucy liked to bike around the city listening to music with her headphones on.

Sometimes she called Mom. Lucy didn’t want her to worry—she’d be on the next plane up, and Guillaume couldn’t stand her visits—so she made up all kinds of fantastic stories about her life in the big city. She didn’t hide the truth from Guillaume though. He knew she was miserable. But when she tried convincing him to move back to Saint John with her, he wouldn’t hear a word of it. “You can work anywhere, Chérie. But my work in Montreal is important,” he said. “Plus, Saint John is full of dirtbags.” Sometimes she wondered why he married her at all. She could tell that her moods and dirtbagness annoyed him. When she found out she was pregnant, she began to hope that things were about to change for the better. Guillaume sure seemed excited to be a papa. Perhaps he wouldn’t travel so much anymore. Perhaps she wouldn’t care.

Lucy had always cycled to work, but once she hit the third trimester, she decided to stop and take up power walking on her lunch break instead. Her second-graders thought it was hilarious to see her zoom around the school. There was a little group of them who liked to stand by the gate and cheer her on, throwing leaves in her wake. As they did, she blew kisses and pretended to walk like an overstuffed Santa Claus. Wobbling along, ho-ho-ing, and holding her big round belly as if she were coming home from a long night of merry-making.

One day, on her tenth lap, she stepped on a rather large piece of glass that her sneaker shattered. Nothing to worry about. She wasn’t hurt—her sneaker had a solid sole, and so, she thought, did she. It didn’t break her pace. It was just an innocuous piece of someone’s wine glass they’d snuck out from happy hour, maybe. Or a piece of a mayonnaise jar some kid had used for his bug collection. When Lucy was a kid, she had kept tadpoles in a pickle jar on her front porch. She was late getting back to class, so she didn’t stop to clean it up.

At four o’clock in the morning, however, the glass event popped in her mind and started to gobble away at her conscience as if she’d gotten drunk and stolen money from the Salvation Army to buy blow for her students. She imagined some kid stepping barefoot on the glass and bleeding to death. As a result of their unspeakable grief, the kid’s parents would fall apart and spend the rest of their lives in and out of prison, forced to leave their other children to grow up in foster care. She imagined an old man bending down to pick up the glass. He’d lose his balance and fall into the road. An oncoming truck wouldn’t have the time to stop before crushing the geezer’s head between the wheel and the pavement. She imagined a dog’s tongue sliced off as it tried to lick the glass. And it would all be her fault.

Lucy told herself they were the kind of worries that only happened in the middle of the night, or when you were high. And when you thought about them again during the day, you laughed because they were so cuckoo. Still, she couldn’t get back to sleep, so she ignored her baby’s kicks and Guillaume’s hard-on poking her backside, and slipped out of bed. She paced the living room. She paced the hall. She paced the kitchen as she stuffed her face with cookies. Guillaume was always giving her shit for eating while walking. “Only dirtbags do things like smoke or eat while they walk,” he’d say. But Guillaume wasn’t awake to give her flak, and the cookies were calming her down enough that she eventually came to her senses. People wear shoes, she told herself. Geezers get run over all the time, and it wouldn’t be her fault if the guy was stupid enough to bend down to pick something up when he his bones were as fragile as Lucy’s emotional state in the middle of the night. Dogs don’t eat glass. Only the baby is worth worrying about now. Then she told herself to back to sleep, and she did.

But the next night, she woke up with a similar feeling of alarm. Did she leave the stove on? Had she left the door unlocked? Did she forget Mom’s birthday? No. She remembered that she’d short-changed a waitress at the diner. Two weeks ago. The waitress hadn’t noticed, and neither had she until she looked at the crumpled bill she’d found stuffed in the bottom of her purse the next day. She’d told herself she’d tip extra the next time she went back, but she hadn’t returned. Not because she was a liar, but because she’d forgotten. At the time it didn’t seem like such a big deal, but at that moment, her mind was working in overdrive to convince her otherwise. An impatient voice in her head reminded her that she was the most selfish person in the world. Because of her, the waitress would be blamed for the till not adding up and would be fired. And then she’d lose her job, and she wouldn’t be able to pay her rent. And then she’d end up homeless. The tragedy of it all was too much for Lucy to bear.

There was a quiet, rational part of Lucy’s brain, telling her it was okay, begging her to go back to sleep, but she couldn’t. Whatever sense she’d once had didn’t stand a chance against her conviction that the fate of that waitress rested entirely upon her next move. So she got up, skipped the pacing, went straight to the bathroom—where she locked herself in with two baguettes and a jar of Nutella—and called the diner. Over and over again. She left three messages for the waitress, apologizing for her mistake, and then four more for the manager, begging him to rehire the waitress, in case the worst had come true. Each time the answering machine cut her off, she left another message. She puked up the baguettes and the Nutella.

After the phone calls, Lucy spent the rest of the morning on the bathroom floor, head buzzing as if she were attached to an intravenous drip of caffeine, body shaking like she’d been locked in a deep freeze. When she heard Guillaume stir, she left the bathroom and told him a candy-coated version of what she was feeling. “I can’t sleep or stop worrying about people,” she said. But Guillaume just rolled his eyes, took her into his arms and patted her head. “You need to stop worrying about everyone else, and start looking after yourself and our bébé précieux,” he said, as he rushed to get ready for work.

Over the next week, while Guillaume was away, Lucy continued to spiral. After work on Monday, she turned her apartment upside down looking for a sweater she’d taken from a lost and found box at a skating rink the previous winter. She was sure the sweater’s original owner had caught pneumonia that day and had weak lungs ever since, while Lucy had been wearing it without a thought for the poor soul. When she couldn’t find it, she felt compelled to rush out and buy a similar one and trek across the city to bring it to the rink. Until she saw the receptionist put the brand-new sweater in the lost and found box, she felt like someone had a gun to her head. Part of her wished they’d hurry up and pull the trigger. She missed her five p.m. prenatal class.

On Tuesday, she spent her lunch break tracking down every person she’d ever lied to. She apologized profusely through labored breath, berating herself for being such a terrible person. She confessed to her seventh-grade teacher to cheating on an exam. She admitted to a childhood friend that she’d broken her favorite doll. She tracked down her Girl Guides leader and told her she’d once stolen a box of cookies. She didn’t tell anyone about her pregnancy; it didn’t seem important.

On Wednesday, she went home during her lunch break to pack up all the things she’d ever bought second-hand. She reasoned that if she hadn’t purchased these items, someone less fortunate would have. There was someone out in the world who, because of her, had missed out on cheap goods—a toaster, a pillowcase, a porcelain dog—and that was just too much. So she packed it all up, even the cutlery and the bedside lamp, and went up and down Ste. Catherine street giving everything away to homeless folk. She forgot to return to work.

On Thursday, the principal called Lucy into her office and questioned her about her disappearance the day before. Also, she said that the kids had complained that she was acting weird. She was talking fast, forgetting names and she even forgot to feed Snowflake the guinea pig. Because the principal liked her so much, she said, she thought it best for Lucy to take her maternity leave early. It was important for the baby that she rest. Lucy apologized and thanked her, blaming it all on baby jitters and lack of sleep, but her mind was elsewhere. She was champing at the bit to get home and remove an old knife she’d put in the garbage. The blade was blunt, but she had visions of the garbage man’s mangled hand. At home, she couldn’t find it in her garbage can, so she spent the afternoon digging through her neighbour’s. In the middle of the night, she walked the streets, looking for broken glass.

Lucy couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t stop eating. She was afraid that if she showered she’d be taking water away from her neighbours. Whenever she managed to sleep, she dreamt of giving birth to wild animals, like skunks and porcupines. In one dream, a beaver ate its way out of her womb. When she spoke, it sounded as if she were in a cave. Her voice was thrashing all over the place and nowhere in particular, like a confused bat. Every little noise made her jump.

On Friday, the midwife called to ask why she’d missed her appointment. Lucy told her she hadn’t been feeling well, and that thoughts of other people kept her up at night, making her do messed-up things. “What should I do?” she asked.

The midwife told her the world wasn’t going to stop if she slowed down a little. “Try yoga and Skullcap drops, and make sure you don’t miss your thirty-two-week appointment. And if that doesn’t work, find yourself a doctor,” she said before cutting her off to treat another patient.

Saturday morning, Lucy set out to find a doctor. The first drop-in clinic was full. The second had a four-hour wait, but a doctor could see her in a couple of weeks if she liked. If they noticed her pyjamas, greasy hair, and bloody fingernails, no one mentioned a thing. Lucy wondered if she needed to take a dump on the floor to be taken seriously. But on her way to the third clinic, she remembered that she had a library book from her hometown in her apartment that she’d brought with her by accident when she moved. Abandoning her plan to look for another doctor, she ran back to her place as fast as she could, given her condition, with the intention of mailing the book back to the library immediately, along with an apology note and a hundred dollar bill. When she realized the post-office was closed, she set the book on fire in her bathtub. If she couldn’t return it, it had to disappear. When she struck the match, the flame burned her fingers, and it felt good.

On Sunday afternoon, as she was adding to her to-do-or-else list, her blood-tinged water broke all over the white shag carpet in the living room. Guillaume was going to go berserk, she thought. He loved that carpet, and now it looked like a crime scene. But before she called him, or her midwife, or Mom, or the taxi to take her to the hospital, she called the school principal as she had some things to tell her replacement: Joanna didn’t like to be called Jo. Thomas M––not to be confused with Thomas J––had to pee before recess. Nora shouldn’t be forced to eat her entire lunch. Lucy had promised to give the parents a play-dough recipe. She’d promised to bring in her Rubik’s Cube—oh, no! The Rubik’s Cube! Lucy hung up on the principal and went searching for it. What kind of example would she be setting if she didn’t keep her promise to the children? They’d never trust anyone again. They’d spend their lives going from one toxic relationship to another. She found the precious object under the couch and called for a taxi. She’d swing by the school to drop it off on her way to the hospital. She left her apartment without her hospital bag.

While the taxi waited for her across the street, Lucy passed out in the schoolyard covered in blood and amniotic fluid, with her Rubik’s Cube in one hand and a play dough recipe in the other. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her skin the color of a foggy Saint John day. Dozens of hysterical children swarmed her before the adults herded them away. “Miss Lucy! Miss Lucy!” they cried. “What’s wrong with Miss Lucy?”

In the ambulance, Lucy moaned about kitchen utensils and library dues and something about a pink sweater. When the EMTs lifted her shirt to check on the baby’s vitals, they found she’d carved up her tummy with something sharp and jagged. Some of the cuts were superficial, but many were deep and infected, oozing green and gold pus.

The following day, when Lucy came to in her hospital room, a nurse was standing in front of her holding a baby who reminded her of everything she loved and hated most in the world. “Am I dead?” Lucy managed to ask.

“No, dear. You’re a mother now. Congratulations,” replied the nurse, as she shoved the baby in Lucy’s face. “Would you like to hold him? He’s perfect.”

Lucy nodded, and took her baby. But it had already started to occur to her that she hadn’t paid the taxi driver: What if she couldn’t find him? What if he lost an afternoon’s pay because of her? What if that pay was meant to be sent to his starving family back in his country of origin? Whatever the case, Lucy’s stapled-together-gut told her that the nurse was lying. She knew that at least part of her had died. The nurse knew it, the women in the posters all over the hospital walls holding their babies against their breasts knew it, and the woman screaming bloody labor in the next room knew it. All the mothers in the world knew it. Part of her had definitely died.

 


ELIZABETH BALL grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick but has been living in Montreal, Quebec, since 1998. Her writing has been published in Glass Buffalo, The Dalhousie Review, and Waxing & Waning.

Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Ball. All rights reserved.