by Jaime Campbell
It wasn’t until Frances climbed into the tank and pulled down the hatch that she wondered if sensory deprivation was safe during pregnancy. It must be, she decided—it was really just a dark, warm bath. She lay down, the weight of her body disappearing into the salt water’s buoyancy, and she wondered if her senses still existed if nothing was there to stimulate them.
Yes, she thought. Once she’d turned off the glowing purple light, she could see the dark, hear the silence. The water was as warm as her nearly nude body, which diminished the concrete boundary of where one ended and the other began, and she thought about how, right now they weren’t yet tethered together. The umbilical cord, the placenta wouldn’t grow, wouldn’t bridge the border between them for a few more weeks, if she let it get that far.
It wasn’t just her body that floated—two gut feelings rose to the surface of her consciousness then, too. She could not abide by the both of them. Would it feel like a choice, when one prevailed? She rested in this white, futuristic tomb hoping it would feel more inevitable than that—fate or righteousness. Either one would do.
When Frances’s hour was up, she dressed and walked into the reception area, which contained white furniture against white walls.
“How was it?” her sister Cass asked.
Frances told Cass what she wanted to hear. “Enlightening.” What she was thinking, though, was that no one would know her child was Mexican by appearance alone. It was tough sometimes for people to see it in her. Especially white people—they assumed she was one of them.
Cass put her arm around Frances, pulled her close. “We should make this a weekly thing—just you and me.”
What was this bond, Frances wondered, that linked her so closely to Cass, but also prohibited her from sharing so much of her life with her sister? Was it their age difference—seventeen years? Frances could not tell Cass that she was pregnant, not here, and not in the car on their way home from town, either, where Frances stared at the long line of studs along Cass’s right ear as Cass drove. She saw Cass glance over at a field of yellow flowers alongside the rural highway that led to Modjeska, the tiny canyon community Frances had lived in her whole life. There were so many of the flowers, which Frances did not remember from previous springs—not like this, anyway. Fields upon fields of them smothered the Southern California hillsides.
“Wild mustard,” Cass said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Beautiful but invasive—nonnative. It’s crowding out the sage, the rosemary,” Frances said as she turned toward the open window, the wind blowing her long bangs into her eyes. “It’s really just a weed.”
Frances sat at the gazebo above the park. From this height, she could see her own house across the canyon, atop Olive Hill amongst a mix of live oaks and olive trees. Amid these two shades of ashen green, Frances’s mother Meredith wheeled their trash bin down the steep driveway to the narrow street, but from the distance Frances couldn’t hear the sound of it. Instead, she heard the rustling of someone walking up the dirt trail toward her.
It was him. He had a can of Pabst in his hand and sat down close to her, held the beer toward her. She took a small swig and said, “I’m pregnant.” Her eyes traced the thin, nearly undetectable trail Cass had blazed through the forest behind their house up to Santiago Truck Trail at the top of the ridgeline. Frances had been five, but she remembered going with Cass, watching her hack through all that plant life. It had been less than a half mile through Cleveland National Forest, but off trail like that, it’d been wilder, more primitive than anything she’d experienced before.
“Anyone I know?” Jess asked.
“You sure? I know your mom’s story,” he said.
Everyone in the canyon knew her mother’s story.
“I’m not my mom,” she said.
“No, I know,” His voice shifted into a soft kindness, free of his usual conversational aloofness. “I’m only joking.” He glided the back of his index finger against her cheek.
Her situation, her eyes—both revealed her vulnerability, her deep need for reassurance that she’d be okay.
“I’ll take care of you both,” Jess said. He was thirty-nine and his t-shirt had a faded Confederate flag across it.
She leaned her head on his broad shoulder, the longest layers of her black hair fallen against his tan arm as she filled with an affection laced with resentment and what-ifs. “I’m going to have an abortion instead,” she said, the necessity of this choice so obvious to her now that she was by his side.
“You don’t think you’ll feel guilty about it?”
Her mother and sister were both white feminists, her Mexican father far more liberal than his Catholic, conservative family he had fled Guanajuato to escape decades ago. “No,” she said. “Do you feel guilty about that?” She leaned forward and pointed to his shirt. “I mean I know our newly inaugurated, piece-of-shit president has normalized such symbols, but come on.”
He smirked and said, “That sounds like some millennial bullshit to me.”
She laughed and said, “You’re more a millennial than I am. I’m what comes after millennials.”
“I’m Gen X,” he said, pushing his legs out straight. “Millennial?” He smirked again. “Shit. I can’t believe you just called me that.”
They shared a smile, but she did not change her mind.
Frances woke from a three hour nap craving her aunt’s house almost two thousand miles away in Guanajuato.
She took the drive all by herself. She knew three different routes and chose the fastest one, through Arizona. Her first trip to Mexico had been with her dad, at six years old. She remembered her surprise as they’d crossed the border, at how little there’d been on the freeway to signify a change. She’d expected a wall or strip of brightly colored paint in the same shape as the line on the map. But there’d been nothing—they’d just driven right in, and the geography had told a similar story. Mexico’s countryside was covered in the same golden, dry grass as the canyons. The same orange witches hair and pink prickly pear. Mexico looked just like home.
The developed areas like Guanajuato were another story, though. The rainbow and pastel colored buildings were nothing like the suburban strip malls in Orange County Frances visited to run errands and go to school. She hated going to town at home. But in Guanajuato, even the tunnels were pink. The city had color in a way she felt connected to and appreciated right away. The distinct archways and bell towers that had stood for centuries charmed her. The city could be beautiful—she’d learned this as a child visiting Guanajuato. The canyons were her home, but Guanajuato was her city.
Frances arrived at six in the morning, sneaked in quietly and started making breakfast for her aunt and cousin who both hugged her for so long once they’d woken up, Frances had to resist pulling away. That afternoon, Frances and her cousin Carmen went to the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato, like they used to do as kids. They walked down the line of mummies, which looked like they were dressed in clothes made of egg cartons. She finally got to the one she’d come for—the fetus—expecting grief, perhaps guilt, but she didn’t understand how to feel connected to what grew inside her. The feeling wasn’t there. She knew only herself, only sensed her own emotions, her own body. She thought about how the mummified people had all died of disease, of cholera, and she imagined a sickness inside her, killing her slowly. The exhaustion made her feel this way, the hunger, too. She knew it was the pregnancy, but there was still a default part of her mind that had not accepted this explanation as any more likely than the possibility of her having cholera.
They drove back to her aunt’s house and sat on Carmen’s double bed where Frances told her, “I’m getting an abortion when I get back home.” They spoke in English because this was how Frances had started the conversation.
“You’re pregnant right now?”
Carmen curled up to her and placed her head against Frances’s stomach. “You’re lucky you’re an American,” she said. “I had to have my abortion in secret.”
Frances petted Carmen’s hair and then her forehead, which was so much darker than her own hand. The contrast brought out the golden brown undertone in Frances’s skin rather than highlighting its lightness, and she wished this was what her skin looked like all the time.
“What was it like?” Frances asked her cousin.
“Not as bad as you’d think. She was a doctor and everything. I went in like it was a normal appointment in the middle of the day, but instead of a Pap smear, she gave me an abortion. It was still scary, though. I kept worrying someone would burst right in, but no one did. I even went back a few weeks later, to make sure everything was okay in there.” She reached for her own abdomen.
“The doctor doesn’t worry about getting caught?”
Carmen kept her head against Frances’s stomach as she spoke. “I don’t know. She’s a do-gooder, I guess. I tried to give her money, but she wouldn’t take it. She just said, ‘That’s not what this is about.’ She was nice.”
Carmen got up, took the envelope out of a drawer and handed it to Frances, who slid out the Mexican bills, fingered their papery texture, and put them back as she imagined her womb, like a drawing. The walls of her uterus popped into black outlined borders between the rest of her and the baby, fetus, cluster-of-cells, human inside her—whatever anyone wanted to call it.
She looked up then, at all that color that sat outside the bedroom window, felt for her abdomen, which was always so bloated by this time of evening now, and she hated being a woman for a minute, resented the capabilities of her own body.
Frances and Carmen took the money and used it at a float spa in Guanajuato, which looked a lot like the one in California. Frances relaxed more this time until longing and loneliness came over her and she imagined Jess inside that tiny space with her, his scent filling it, pressing her desire against her senses where it could not be ignored. How could she miss this man? How could she like him? Why did she see through what should be opaque, unforgivable? Pathetic, really. She knew this was what he was—a scared, threatened giant white man. “I will forget about him,” she said. Her spoken words were an insular echo inside the deprivation tank, and they sounded just different enough from her usual voice that it was as if an outsider had uttered and verified the truth of it for her.
Once Frances had returned home, she played a game of pool with her mom Meredith, at the billiard table that’d been in the living room Frances’s whole life. Her mother lifted the wooden triangle from the cluster of balls as Frances said to her, “I have to have an abortion on Friday.” What Frances was thinking, though, was that her mother would raise her child as her own, without hesitation. This realization ricocheted through her brain, triggered the release of emotions, perhaps hormones, and it stirred Frances’s nerves.
Meredith leaned over, bending at the elbow. She paused to say, “Who’s the father?” Her shoulder didn’t budge as she broke, the seven falling into the corner pocket.
Frances had thought about this moment—how to explain who the father was. She had the lie ready from casual rehearsals in the car, on the drive back from Mexico. “You remember Todd, from high school?”
Her mother laughed then. “Todd?” She shook her head, “No way, nah-uh. Not Todd.” Her mother’s anger guided her around the table as she said, “Five ball, right here.” She gestured at the right center pocket with her stick, but then missed.
Frances took in the table, decided on her shot. “Just because he’s nerdy,” she said, pausing only for the click of the stick against the fourteen, which dropped into the pocket, “doesn’t mean he can’t get a girl pregnant.”
Her mom grabbed the stick from her, leaned it against the wall. She said, “Don’t lie to me.”
Frances stared at the pool stick behind her mother, thinking, Cass even—she would probably raise him. Thirty-six already and no kids of her own.
“Jess is a fucker,” her mom said. “It’s good you’re getting an abortion.”
She knew her mom was right, but she felt defensive of him anyway. “He’s not that bad when it’s the two of us. He can be sweet, nice to me.”
“He’s married, Frances. They have a kid. He’s an ignorant, alt-right—racist.”
“He treats me just fine when we’re together. Why would he do that if he was really racist?” Frances could not believe what she’d said, and she felt the question fester, expand deep inside her, as if it was a developing life of its own. She meant it, too. There was a naive, generous part of her that really didn’t understand why Jess said such awful things about Mexicans when he so obviously liked her.
“Because his general racist views are illogical. They can’t hold up in the face of real-life experience with an actual person he finds intriguing, attractive. Charming, whatever.”
This had always been her mother’s way—answer emotionally driven questions with textbook logic. “It doesn’t make him a good person,” Meredith continued to clarify. “It doesn’t mean you should hang out with him, let him touch you.” Her pool stick was on the floor now.
The three of them could raise the baby together. No one would even have to know who the father was, Frances thought. She said, “Like you’re one to judge, Mom.”
They both knew what Frances referenced—her mother had not known who Frances’s father was until after she’d been born, after a blood test.
“Homer and Abram both respected me. Neither of them hates like he does.” She picked up her stick, chalked it. Her face cleared, let go of something—of everything—as she bent over the table, but glanced over at Frances. Her eyes moved back to the burgundy felt, but she spoke to Frances. “Fine,” Meredith said. “Negotiate your own relationship with him.” The three landed right in the center pocket. “Do you need me to go with you Friday?”
Frances saw Jess’s truck in the parking lot of the Ralphs Supermarket in Foothill Ranch, the closest suburb to Modjeska. She walked over to it—a giant diesel-fueled, shining white leviathan and climbed right into the bed. She used her nail to pull up a corner of his “Make America Great Again” sticker, and slowly she peeled the whole thing off. She looked over her shoulder, but no one cared, no one saw, despite the crisp daylight. People walked right by.
She told herself to get up, run to her own car, and speed away. Instead, she waited for him. When he walked out, a paper bag in his hands, she threw the sticker right at him and he laughed at her.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I told you already.”
“Did you do it yet?”
“Should I take you?”
“Probably, but my mom is going to instead.”
“Does she know it’s me?”
“No,” she lied.
His face softened with what Frances identified as relief. He said, “Thanks.”
He offered his hand to help her out of the truck, but she pushed it aside and got up, jumped out. She stared at the store—the rectangular beige structure that could have come from anywhere in Orange County, nearly anywhere in America. “I wish the building were pink or red, blue or purple—just a little color to make it seem alive,” she said to him. “Like in Mexico.” She looked him in the eye and said, “It’s so beautiful there, you have no idea.”
He dropped her gaze, smirked, and said, “I gotta go.”
As she turned and walked to her own car, it started raining.
The storm that rolled in was expected to ravage parts of the canyon, flood the creeks. Frances remembered seven years before in 2010, when Modjeska Creek had swallowed Olive Hill bridge, and they couldn’t leave home for three days.
She drove home now, the rain really picking up as she headed along Glen Ranch Road. She saw Jess in her rearview mirror, and she took the long way, down to El Toro Road and then past the biker bar, just to see if he would follow her.
Of course he did, she thought. And she could not stop looking at his face. She glanced at it so often she thought it was a miracle that she didn’t cause an accident, winding over Modjeska Grade Road to the mouth of the canyon. Just past the fire station, she turned to go over the bridge and up Olive Hill, relieved when he headed straight, to his house by the wildlife sanctuary.
Frances got home and ran up the cement stairs in the rain. She stopped before heading inside, watching the raindrops land against the swimming pool’s surface, and she hoped they got stuck again, hoped the rain pommeled the canyon until she could not get out.
By the next morning, though, the sun shined—the storm had been powerful but short-lived. Frances climbed down to the creek at the side of Olive Hill bridge, between the mailboxes and the historic Helena Modjeska house. She took off her shoes, lifted her skirt. The creek wasn’t flooded, but it also hadn’t run this high in years, the water roiled with mud from the storm. Frances felt the current travel against her knees and against her thighs. She dropped her skirt, letting the hemline skate along the water as she felt the urge to get in all the way. The creek was a body, calling her to it, and she listened. She lay down and floated downstream.
It was a colder and more violent carriage than she’d expected—rocks and sticks snagged on her skin, scratching it open. Her senses sharpened against the sound of the water, overstimulation breaking her heartbeat open into mild panic. Something grabbed at her arms, her shoulders, and she screamed as she stood up. That was all it took to escape the water’s grip—standing up.
It was her sister Cass. She was in up to her knees, her jeans wet. Fear and worry filled each line of Cass’s face. “What’re you doing?” she asked.
“It doesn’t look very comfortable,” Cass said, looking at her own hands. “It’s so cold.” Cass’s pale skin was webbed with blue veins. Cass and her mother both had Reynaud’s syndrome—a white woman’s harmless, chronic condition. Cass wore her cold in this way, but still grabbed Frances’s hands, tried to warm them in her own.
Frances said, “I’m pregnant. Can you believe it?” She laughed, but teared up, too. “Mom’s taking me tomorrow—for the abortion.”
Her sister pulled her into the nook of her arm, and walked them out of the water. On the embankment, it was so slippery that they both fell. They laughed at the mess, at the texture of the mud on their skin, and the way they could not maintain their balance, clinging to rocks in order to make it to the gravel at the top of the embankment.
Cass said, “It’s Jess’s, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Frances went to wipe her own face, but ended up smearing the mud against her cheek.
They walked up the paved road toward home and at the top of the hill, Frances thought of what she’d done with Jess. She’d had sex before, but never like that—not just without the condom, either, but without worrying what the other person had thought, without inhibition or shyness, without hesitation to let her body and voice loose. What did it mean? Why did part of her want to do it again and again, while another part of her never wanted to let him touch her, not ever?
“How can I like him?” Frances asked Cass.
“Don’t bother trying to figure that out, trust me.” Cass used her sleeve to wipe the mud from Frances’s cheek, and Frances smelled the patchouli oil her sister wore as Cass said, “Just move on.”
She knew her sister meant well, but it wasn’t enough—she wanted to understand herself. There was a baby inside her, and half of those cells had come from this man. “But I want to understand,” Frances said huddled up to Cass as they made their way up the stairs in the yard.
“Well little sister, you might not get to this time.”
Frances sat shotgun, waiting for her mom to come down to the car. She stared at the opposite side of Modjeska Canyon, which had come alive with green since all the rain. She settled her gaze on the gazebo at the park. Jess sat up there drinking, smoking, and he stood up. It was ten in the morning. She watched him kick over a can, but she could not hear the sound of it from the distance. Instead, she heard her mom’s light, quick steps down the stairs, Cass close behind. She watched Jess, not really doing anything.
She was so much more responsible than he was. She sat there feeling as accountable as her mother. This settled in, became a self-defining characteristic from then on out.
They drove out of the canyons, past the Ralphs, and Frances saw that someone had painted the entire stucco panel behind the Ralphs sign sea-foam green, with royal blue trim.
It was the sweetest thing a man had ever done for her, but the windows were rolled up, the heat on too high, and the air in the car felt as if it was the same temperature as her skin. It was like she was back in that tank, and she closed her eyes, imagining herself floating, her senses caving, until she could not feel a single thing.
Jaime Campbell's work has appeared in Sonora Review, Santa Monica Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Angel City Review. She was awarded an Honorable Mention in CRAFT Literary’s 2021 First Chapters Contest and was also the runner-up for Sonora Review’s 2020 Fiction Contest, a semi-finalist for the American Short Fiction 2019 Halifax Ranch Fiction Prize, and the winner of the 2018 JuxtaProse Fiction Prize. She is the Managing Editor of Citric Acid.