by Karen Kinley
No one expected much from Carly. She was a screw-up from the beginning, the “accident” baby who was routinely ignored by her family. She did poorly in school despite her best efforts and private tutoring by the teacher. And even then she barely graduated high school. This was due to not only her grades (marginal) but also her pregnancy (knocked up by the drum major of the marching band).
When she did graduate and subsequently delivered her baby (a little boy she named Garrett), she moved out of her parents’ home and rented a garage apartment from the parents of Garrett’s dad. He, the baby daddy, was off at college on the West Coast. USC, she remembered them telling her. He was double majoring in psychology and exercise science and for the life of her, she had no idea how those two things went together.
Anyway, Carly didn’t care about him, only Garrett. Garrett was her salvation, her way out of a pointless life.
In high school, before she got pregnant, she experimented with every drug imaginable to try to remove herself from that life. But it didn’t work, so she quit. The friends supplying her weren’t really friends anyway, and she knew that.
Then Carly started hanging out with the band kids because—although everyone else thought they were square—they were actually having more sex than the football players and cheerleaders. It was like a giant fraternity house. The band room, that is. Everyone was fair game. The small music practice rooms with their sound-proofing and perfect darkness were ideal for fucking. Even though Carly didn’t play an instrument, the band kids didn’t care. By the end of her junior year, she had worked her way halfway through the percussion section, and at the beginning of her senior year, she actively sought out some cute saxophone players.
The drum major, a lanky senior who played the trumpet when not directing the band at football games, showed some interest in Carly. They spent the better part of October screwing each other in Practice Room 3, usually right after lunch and right before MaryKate Lincoln’s private flute lesson when she always said the room smelled funny.
Anyway, on the Tuesday before Halloween, the drum major’s condom broke and, just after Christmas, Carly peed on the stick that told her she was pregnant. Her mom cried and her dad turned red but didn’t say a word. And no one in her family even talked about it until graduation when they tried very hard to position her in her cap and gown so that her belly didn’t show in photos. But it did. And it didn’t matter because she wasn’t giving her baby up for adoption as everyone wanted her to.
Instead, Carly got a job washing hair at a salon which was a bit challenging with her burgeoning stomach. She gave birth on a Wednesday morning right after The Price is Right. Only her oldest sister came to visit her in the hospital. But Carly was used to being alone at this point. When Garrett was two months old, Carly moved into that awful garage apartment because her father kept complaining about the “racket from that goddamn baby,” and she couldn’t take it anymore. The apartment had a bed with a lumpy mattress, and Carly brought the secondhand crib she used at her parent’s house for Garrett. She trash-picked an old sofa and then Fabrezed the hell out of it, covering it with some flowered sheets she found on a clearance rack at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Slowly, she put together a comfortable home for her and her son, although no one (except her oldest sister) ever came to visit. When the drum major’s parents wanted to see their grandson, Carly always brought him into their house or the backyard. They were generous and provided diapers and clothes and toys for Garrett, who was a very happy baby despite the life he was born into.
When Garrett was small, she brought him to work with her. Her boss, a middle-aged woman with no kids of her own, let him nap in the back room where they did the waxing. If he cried and Carly was busy washing a client’s hair, there was always someone to pick him up. Garrett was accustomed to all the ladies who worked at the salon, but he saved his most excited squirms for Carly. If she was the one who came to pick him up after he was crying, he would stop immediately and look right at her, wiggling his legs and arms at the same time. Carly thought he looked like a crab the way he did that and would laugh. Then Garrett would laugh. And that was the best sound that Carly had ever heard in her whole life.
One day, Carly was washing Mrs. Cronin’s thinning hair before her weekly cut and style. Mrs. Cronin was lying back in the fancy reclining salon chair, her face pale and wrinkled. Carly had her head properly soaped and was massaging her scalp when Mrs. Cronin suddenly sat up. The soap and water streamed down the black cape and dripped onto the floor. The old lady clutched her chest, made a strangled noise, and slumped over. Carly screamed, but after that, she didn’t remember a thing. Later she was told that paramedics arrived, put Mrs. Cronin on a stretcher, and took her to the emergency room. Mrs. Cronin didn’t die, but she never came back to the salon. Carly was very shaken up after that and left the salon a week later.
A few days later, Carly got a job at the local supermarket as a cashier. She couldn’t bring Garrett to a back room at this job, so she found a woman who lived on her street to watch him during her shifts. Mrs. Lopez had several small children of her own (and a few bigger ones, too), and Garrett was going to get the added bonus of learning Spanish as well. At work, Carly trained for a week before she was allowed to work a lane by herself. On her first solo day, she relieved Madison at #8, inserted her register drawer, and flipped the light on. Her first customer, an elderly man who looked like he hadn’t smiled in 20 years, bought exactly six items: chicken legs, frozen peas, two cans of tuna, a package of breadsticks, and a toothbrush. She rang up his order and bagged his items. He never said a word to her. She liked this job. She could be friendly and chat with her customers or she could be quiet and be left alone. She got breaks every three hours and sometimes the lady at the deli would make her a sandwich and leave it in her locker.
Over the next few months, Garrett learned how to roll over and eat cereal. He babbled nonstop and reached for his toys, always shoving them in his mouth. Carly washed everything he touched and kept her apartment spotless for when Garrett started crawling. She never knew if her next paycheck would pay for rent and food, but she was determined that her baby would not get sick or hurt on her watch, so she was vigilant. Mrs. Lopez always said that he was a perfect baby, and this was coming from a woman who had seven children.
Carly worked four 10-hour shifts per week, which left her with three days just for her and Garrett. When the weather was warm, she would take her son for long walks and sometimes to the park. They would watch the ducks in the pond and point to the squirrels scurrying up the trees. If it was rainy or cold, she would take Garrett to the mall and wheel his stroller all around, pretending to be a racecar, and his squeals would echo off the stone walls. Older women would smile at them, knowing how precious those moments were.
But the younger women, the ones with babies roughly the same age as Garrett, would scowl at her. She was never sure why. Perhaps they were jealous that she was able to enjoy her son and revel in those small moments instead of rushing from store to store, searching for the best sale, or the newest trend, or the one dress that would make them look as thin as they were before the babies. Or perhaps they were scowling because they knew she was a young, single mother hadn’t the faintest idea how difficult her life would become in the years to come. Without a spouse or an education, she and her son had little chance of a promising future. But Carly didn’t notice. Or maybe she didn’t care. She loved her son. She loved this time with her son. And no sour-puss middle-class woman with 2.5 kids and a mortgage was going to take that away from her.
Christmas was coming soon. Carly wondered if she and Garrett were welcome at her parents’ house. No one invited her. Was she supposed to just show up? She had already bought gifts for her parents and her four older siblings, even if they were modest offerings. The fact that Carly spent a good deal of time thoughtfully choosing these gifts probably didn’t outweigh the inexpensive nature of them. Regardless, she wrapped them lovingly and waited for her mom to tell her when to arrive on Christmas Eve.
The call never came. Carly and Garrett spent Christmas Eve in the garage apartment all alone. Carly knew by the way they were talking that the drum major’s parents assumed she would spend the holidays with her family. Since Carly didn’t want them worrying about her, she turned off her lights early on Christmas Eve so they would assume she was out. She plugged in the small Christmas tree she bought at Target with the white twinkle lights, and she and Garrett watched as they blinked off and on, on and off, against the dark wall. She played Christmas music on her phone and sang “Here Comes Santa Claus” to her son. He smiled and drooled and fell asleep right in her arms. In the morning, she unwrapped the three gifts she bought for him: footed pajamas, a toy piano, and a bag of wooden blocks. Garrett was more interested in the ribbon. Carly bathed Garrett and dressed him, then got a quick shower herself. She sang songs to her son while she put on her best dress and worn black boots and styled her hair into soft curls that framed her face. When she glanced in the mirror, she smiled, thinking that she almost looked like herself again and even applied a little mascara and lipstick. She bundled Garrett up in a thick blanket for the short walk across the yard and knocked on the back door. The drum major wasn’t coming home for Christmas. He got a job as Goofy at Disneyland and had to work the busy holiday season.
When the door swung open, Carly was face-to-face with someone she didn’t recognize. Her face must’ve betrayed her confusion because the young man motioned behind him. “They’re in there. C’mon in.” He stepped back, making room for her to step into the kitchen and gently closed the door behind her. “I’m Will.” Carly found out that he was the drum major’s cousin from Chicago, visiting with his mom.
The family was gathered in the living room, listening to Frank Sinatra Christmas tunes and munching on cheddar cubes. Faces lit up when they saw Garrett. His grandmother came over and scooped his little body up in her arms. He rewarded her with a giggle and grabbed her blouse with meaty hands. She kissed him, leaving fuchsia lipstick on his cheek.
Over the next few hours, everyone exchanged gifts and ate dinner and talked a lot. Carly found out that Will was a mechanic in his father’s auto repair shop. His parents had been divorced since he was 6 and his brother was 9. Will, like Carly, barely graduated from high school. It didn’t matter because his folks didn’t have any money to send him to college anyway. He also did bike repairs on the side and was hoping to open his own auto shop in a few years. Will wasn’t exactly cute, but there was something pleasing about him. His hair was too long in Carly’s opinion, but his eyes were warm and genuine. So when it was time for Carly to leave and put Garrett to bed, Will offered to carry her gifts back to the garage apartment. How could she say no?
Carly opened the door to her apartment, not bothering to turn on a light since Garrett was nearly asleep. She placed her son in his crib and draped a blanket over him. She turned just as Will had placed the gifts on a table he finally located in the darkness. He moved toward the door but hesitated for just a moment. That was all that Carly needed. She launched herself at Will, throwing her arms around his neck. Their lips, teeth, tongues collided with both awkwardness and desire. Will’s arms encircled Carly’s waist as he pulled her toward him. Pressed up against him like that, she realized how much she missed this. Not just sex. God knows she’d had plenty of that. But simply liking someone else. Enjoying being around him. Having a conversation that didn’t bore her. She liked Will. She wanted to know more about him. But right now she wanted something else.
She reached for the waistband of his jeans, expertly unhooking the button before he even realized what she was doing. “Whoa!” he said, breaking away from her mouth suddenly. “What are you doing?”
Carly smiled coyly up at him, her hand starting to work the zipper. “What do you think I’m doing?”
Then, he abruptly took a step backward and released his hold of her, putting distance between their bodies. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” He looked at her with an expression she couldn’t quite name.
She leaned forward, her fingertips touching his jeans again. “Don’t you?”
He grasped her wrists in a gentle way and looked in her eyes. “Carly, we just met a few hours ago. And I really like you. But I don’t do this…” He didn’t seem to be able to say it so he moved his head between them, indicating both their bodies. “…this when I first meet a girl I like. It’s too fast.” He swallowed hard, watching her for a reaction. Will relaxed his hold on her wrists, and Carly took a step back but didn’t respond. Will was looking at her with…was that a flash of pity in his eyes? Then he said in a quiet voice, “Don’t you think you deserve more than this?”
Anger swelled in Carly’s chest. What kind of guy was he anyway? She was offering herself to him and he pretty much never had to see her again, and he was turning her down? She wanted a moment to feel alive, to feel desired, to have some fun, but he was treating her like…like what? She dared not think of the words that fit this scenario.
“Get the fuck out,” Carly said. She did not yell for fear of waking up Garrett. Will didn’t move. He just stared at her. “Get. The fuck. Out,” Carly repeated.
If she had slapped him, Will would have been less surprised. He lowered his head. Then moved with heavy feet toward the door. Just before he closed it behind him, he whispered, “I think you deserve more.”
When Carly awoke early the next morning, her pillow was still wet from her tears. After Will left last night, she sobbed for hours. At some point, she wasn’t even sure why she was still crying. But she didn’t stop. For some reason, it felt cathartic. So she kept going. Normally, a long night of crying left her drained and splotchy. But today was different. She sat up in bed and felt strangely refreshed. As if all those tears were building up inside her for a long time and letting them out was a relief.
Since Garrett was still asleep, Carly stole into the tiny bathroom for a long hot shower, a luxury she didn’t allow herself often. She wrapped her body in one of the fluffy towels her sister sent her last week as an early Christmas gift. It felt decadent. In fact, today felt like a new start.
So Will didn’t want to sleep with her. That wasn’t so awful. He wasn’t exactly a prize. But he was kind and sweet and told her…what was it?…that she “deserved more.”
She wasn’t sure that she deserved more. She wasn’t sure she deserved much of anything. After all, no one expected much from Carly right from the very beginning.
But she had this amazing little boy named Garrett. And he was perfect. Everyone thought so. And Carly didn’t think she deserved him, but he was all hers. And she was determined to make his life a good one.
Would she be able to do that? Would she be able to give Garrett the kind of life she wished she had? The kind of life that he deserved?
Carly wasn’t sure at all. After all, she had been making some pretty questionable choices ever since she was a kid. This would mean a lot of changes for her. It already felt overwhelming. However, she had a clear picture in her mind of what she really wanted.
No one expected much from Carly.
But today was a brand new day.