When I went over to Scarlett’s to say good-bye, there was food out on the kitchen table and counters, and she was squatted on the floor with a bucket and sponge, scrubbing the inside of the fridge.
“Can you smell it?” she said before I’d even opened my mouth. She hadn’t even turned around. Pregnancy was making every one of her senses stronger, more intense, and I swear sometimes she seemed almost clairvoyant.
“You can’t smell it?” Now she turned around, pointing her sponge at me. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “That. That rotting, stink kind of smell.”
I breathed in, but all I was getting was Clorox from the bucket. “No.”
“God.” She stood up, grabbing onto the fridge door for support. It was harder for her to get to her feet now, her stomach throwing her off balance. “Cameron couldn’t smell it either—he said I was being crazy. But I swear, it’s so strong it’s making me gag. I’ve had to hold my breath the whole time I’ve been doing this.”
I looked over at the pregnancy Bible, which was lying on the table, open to the chapter on Month Five, which was fast approaching. I flipped through the pages as she bent down over the vegetable crisper, nose wrinkled, scrubbing like mad.
“Page seventy-four, bottom paragraph,” I said out loud, following the words with my finger. “And I quote: ‘Your sense of smell may become stronger during your pregnancy, causing an aversion to some foods.”
“I cannot believe you don’t smell that,” she muttered, ignoring me.
“What are you going to do, scrub the whole house?” I said as she yanked out the butter dish, examined it, and dunked it in the bucket.
“If I have to.”
“No,” she said, “I’m pregnant and I’m allowed my eccentricities; the doctor said so. So shut up.”
I pulled out a chair and sat down, resting my arm on the table. Every time I was in Scarlett’s kitchen I thought back to the years we’d spent there, at the table, with the radio on. On long summer days we’d make chocolate-chip cookies and dance around the linoleum floor with our shoes off, the music turned up loud.
I sat down at the table, flipping through Month Five. “Look at this,” I said. “For December we have continued constipation, leg cramps, and ankle swelling to look forward to.”
“Great.” She sat back on her heels, dropping the sponge in the bucket. “What else?”
“Ummm ... varicose veins, maybe, and an easier or more difficult orgasm.”
She turned around, pushing her hair out of her face. “Halley. Please.”
“I’m just reading the book.”
“Well, you of all people should know orgasms are not my big concern right now. I’m more interested in finding whatever is rotting in this kitchen.”
I still couldn’t smell anything, but I knew better than to argue. Scarlett was handling things now, and I was proud of her; she was eating better, walking around the block for a half hour every day because she’d heard it was good for the baby, and reading everything she could get her hands on about child rearing. Everything, that is, except the adoption articles and pamphlets that Marion kept leaving on the lazy Susan or on her bed, always with a card from someone interested in Discussing the Options. Scarlett was playing along because she had to, but she was keeping the baby. Like everything else, she’d made her choice and she’d stick to it, everyone else be damned.
“Scarlett?” I said.
“Yeah?” her voice was muffled; she had her head stuck under the meat and cheese drawer, inspecting.
“What made you decide to sleep with him?”
She drew herself out, slowly, and turned to face me. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Just wondered.”
“Did you sleep with Macon?”
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
“But he wants you to.”
“No, not exactly.” I spun the lazy Susan. “He brought it up, that’s all.”
She walked over and sat down beside me, pulling her hair back with her hands. She smelled like Clorox. “What did you say?”
“I told him I’d think about it.”
She sat back, absorbing this. “Do you want to?”
“I don’t know. But he does, and it’s not that big a deal to him, you know? He doesn’t understand why it is to me.”
“That’s bullshit,” she said simply. “He knows why.”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “I mean, I really like him. And I think for guys like him—like that—it isn’t that big of a deal. It’s just what, you know, you do.”
“Halley.” She shook her head. “This isn’t about him. It’s about you. You shouldn’t do anything you’re not ready for.”
“I’m ready,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Were you ready?” I said.
That stopped her. She smoothed her hands over her stomach; it looked like she’d swallowed a small melon, or a pumpkin. “I don’t know. Probably not. I loved him, and one night things just went farther than they had before. Afterwards I realized it was a mistake, in more ways than one.”
“Because it came off,” I said.
“Yeah. And for other reasons, too. But I can’t preach to you, because I was sure I was doing the right thing. I didn’t know he’d be gone the next day. Like, literally gone. But you have to consider that.”
“That he might die?”
“Not die,” she said softly, and there was that ripple again, the one that still came over her face whenever she spoke of him, and I suddenly realized how long it had really been. “I mean, I loved Michael so much, but—I didn’t know him that well. Just for a summer, you know. A lot could have happened this fall. I’ll never know.”
“I can tell he wants to. Like soon. He’s getting more pushy about it.”
“If you sleep with him, it will change things,” she said. “It has to. And if he goes, you’ll have lost more than just him. So be sure, Halley. Be real sure.”
Grandma Halley was staying in a place called Evergreen Rest Care Facility. Some of the people were bedridden, but others could get around; women in motorized wheelchairs zoomed past us down the corridors, their purses clamped against their laps. Everything smelled fruity and sharp, like too much cheap air freshener. It seemed like every open piece of wall had a Thanksgiving decoration taped to it, turkeys and Pilgrims and corn husks, and you got the sense that holidays there were imperative, important, because there wasn’t much else to look forward to.