“I’m gonna have a smoke.”
Lina rolled over on her mattress to see Carmen standing beside the bed in nothing but her underwear, Marlboro pack in hand. The familiar half-dark of the bedroom was cut with large swaths of moonlight through the window. Backlit, she was softer. She had taken down her hair and it fell in a thick black mass to her chin, hiding her undercut. Lina shut her eyes against a wave of feeling.
“Make sure you close the door this time,” she muttered.
Lina rolled back over. Behind her, she heard the gentle swish of the balcony’s glass door open and then shut. She thought about the bitterness the smoke would deposit on Carmen’s tongue and nearly gagged. Still, what could she have said? If she had refused, Carmen would do it anyway. She knew Lina would forgive her anything.
Or at least she knew now. Carmen’s abrupt smoke break had been triggered by Lina’s (stupid, stupid) decision moments before to confess her burning, undying love for the girl she’d been hooking up with for a year. Well, alright, she didn’t use those exact words, though they were far closer to the truth. Instead, she’d only expressed a desire to become more than the recipient of a “u up?” text three times a week. She thought this was more than a reasonable thing to bring up after 12 months, so Carmen’s silence was as shocking as it was punishing. She stared at Lina with eyes so wide and incredulous that Lina became horrifically embarrassed and turned away from her to preserve what little pride she had left. “Never mind,” she had mumbled into her pillow, craving immediate death. “Don’t worry about it.”
Behind her, she’d listened to the sheets rustle and floorboards creak as Carmen got up, turning to perhaps the only coping mechanism she had. It might be carcinogenic, but at least she had one. Now she was outside getting a nicotine rush while Lina laid there, concentrating on becoming as heavy as possible so that she might sink into the mattress and disappear.
Downstairs, the doorbell rang.
It was so faint, Lina wondered if she had imagined it. But then it came again, the distinct and comically on-the-nose “ding-dong.” She sat up and pulled on Carmen’s discarded Twin Peaks shirt, then headed downstairs.
Through the peephole, the street was bright yellow under the sodium lights, but empty. Lina’s spine tingled. This was how women got lured outside to be kidnapped. She wasn’t a fool, she watched Dateline.
She wasn’t sure what she thought would change when she opened the door. The street was still empty, and now she was cold. It was late October in Boston, and the breeze was straddling the edge of crisp and straight-up frigid. Lina shivered violently. She was not wearing enough clothes for this.
“Hey, you okay?” Carmen, from the top of the stairs. Lina was about to give it up and return to her, but then a tiny noise came from somewhere close to her feet. For the first time she looked down, and there, nestled inside a small cardboard box, was a baby.
“Oh,” she whispered, and knelt down in front of the box. The baby was wrapped tightly in a white blanket and couldn’t move very well, but it was making every attempt to squirm. It was smaller than Lina thought babies normally were, although she realized now that she had never actually seen a baby up-close before. It had black hair and brown skin, and its wide, black eyes stared up at her with a familiar intensity. All she could think was it looks like Carmen.
She hadn’t heard footsteps coming down the stairs, but cinnamon and smoke filled her lungs. “Holy shit,” Carmen breathed. She squatted beside Lina on the balls of her feet. The baby freed an arm from the vice of its swaddle and began to wave it around frantically. Carmen stuck a finger into the box and the baby closed its hand around it.
Lina glanced out at the street. The silence was unsettling. Slowly she rose and descended the first few steps of the building.
Carmen raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing?”
“I just…” She glanced left and right into the darkness, looking for movement. Nothing. It was as if the rest of the world disintegrated beyond the reach of the streetlight.
“We should go inside. It’s cold.”
Lina kept her eyes trained on the dark for another long moment. She wondered if, just a few feet away, the baby’s mother was watching them. She wondered if, just by staring long enough, she could summon her edges out of the night, and she would surge forward to reclaim her child before melting back into oblivion.
Unsure what else to do with an abandoned baby at midnight, Lina and Carmen relocated the box and its contents to the kitchen table. For a long while they just stood on opposite sides of the table and stared at it. Carmen’s hand was pressed firmly against her mouth, as if she were trying not to laugh. The baby, still trapped in its swaddle, stared bemusedly at the ceiling.
“Holy shit.” Lina this time.
“Like.” Lina gestured at the box. “That’s a baby.”
“That’s an entire child.”
“Is it a girl or a boy?”
Carmen pulled the box towards her. With surprising deftness, she unwrapped the baby and lifted it up. It nestled in her arms and made a contented gurgling noise. “It’s a baby.”
“Well, I know that.” Lina leaned forward and pulled the blanket loose from the box. An envelope fluttered to the table. It wasn’t addressed to anyone. She slid a finger under the corner and tore it open carefully.
“What does it say?” Carmen asked.
“To Ms. Ortiz, the lesbian who lives in this apartment building—”
Carmen let out a strangled laugh-snort. The baby was alarmed by this and flailed its tiny fists in displeasure. “You’re fucking lying.”
“I’m not!” Lina scrambled to her feet and held the letter up. “See?”
To Ms. Ortiz, the lesbian who lives in this apartment building,
I swear I tried to be a good mom but I’m only 16. I don’t have anywhere for us to live, or money to pay for what she needs. But you do. I’ve done my research. I know you’re a scientist with a good job and a nice apartment. I know you’ll take better care of Madeleine than I can.
Lina’s heart was beating nearly out of her mouth. She had never given much thought to the idea of children. When she was a child herself, she considered it too far off for her to need to worry about. The eventual lesbian realization let her push it off even further. As she got older, it would come up more frequently in small talk with friends and family, but she dismissed it easily by claiming to be “too young.” But as she stared at the literal baby in Carmen’s arms, her years collapsed dominoes upon her. Too young at 27? Her parents were already married for two years when they had her older sister at 20. Most of her friends were already moms or trying to be. Meanwhile, Lina had fallen in love with the most noncommittal woman in the greater Boston area and fallen behind in becoming an adult. Yet she somehow appeared put-together enough for a stranger to entrust her with her baby. Madeleine’s mother must not have seen all of her drunken late-night stumblings home, dragging Carmen or one distraction from Carmen after another behind her.
“Well,” Carmen finally said, snapping Lina out of her spiral, “I’m pretty sure this isn’t legal.”
“Which part? The stalking me part or the leaving her baby out in the cold part?”
Carmen took the letter from Lina and narrowed her eyes at it. “Both, but especially stalking you.”
She handed the note back to Lina, who immediately pulled it close to her face again. The letters remained firmly in place, sealing her responsibility. “Do people even do this?” Lina glanced at the baby — Madeleine — briefly. She seemed intent on grasping a chunk of Carmen’s hair, but it didn’t hang low enough for her to reach. “I thought the whole abandoning-baby-on-doorsteps thing only happened on TV.”
Carmen had shifted to hold Madeleine with one hand and was scrolling through her phone with the other. “Nope. It’s not super common, but it happens. Although I was right, it’s very illegal. Apparently if you’re going to do something like this, you’re supposed to bring it to like, a hospital or fire station or something. It’s extremely a crime to just leave it with random people.”
“Oh, shit.” Lina shot to her side and tried to read over her shoulder. “Does that make us criminals?”
Carmen narrowed her eyes at the screen. “No, but we’re supposed to call the police.”
Madeleine let out a wail of discontent. Startled, Lina jumped backwards. Carmen put her phone back in her pocket and held the baby against her chest with both hands, bouncing her lightly up and down. “Not a fan of the cops, huh?” she whispered softly. “Neither am I.”
Lina crept forward again, peering at the baby. She had stilled with the motion of Carmen’s body and was trying to look around. Her eyes met Lina’s and blinked. “She’s kinda cute.”
“Yeah,” Carmen agreed.
“How old do you think she is?”
“A couple months, probably. She’s acting very… intentionally.”
The smile on Carmen’s lips as she held the baby was tender in a way Lina had never seen before. Jealousy flared in her chest, replaced quickly by shame. Had she truly stooped so low as to be jealous of a literal baby?
“You mentioned the hospital,” she prompted. “Could we leave her there?”
“Lemme check.” Carmen pulled out her phone again. “Yeah, looks like it. As long as we bring the note and stuff, we should be fine.”
“Okay. So. I guess we take her?” Carmen was looking at the baby again with those gentle eyes. “Like, now?”
Carmen looked at her for a moment. “You don’t like kids, huh?”
“I don’t not like them. I’m just not around them that often.”
“Older sister. Much older.” Lina’s eyebrows furrowed. “You know this.”
“Right.” Carmen paused. “Let’s keep her.”
“Just for the night.” Carmen hoisted the baby higher. “Whenever we take her, they’ll definitely make us answer a ton of questions. They might even call the police, and they’ll ask us more questions. We’ll be stuck there for who knows how long, and it’s already late. I don’t know if either of us will survive.”
Lina considered the offer. Maybe if Carmen could see their compatibility playing out somewhere other than the bedroom, her decision of whether to be with Lina or not would be swayed. On the other hand, temporarily co-parenting a child left to her by a desperate teen mom with the girl she was in love with, who had essentially rejected her by omission, was definitely not one of her smartest (or sanest) ideas. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Do you really think we can do this?”
Carmen shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
She smiled at Lina and offered Madeleine to her. And that was that. Lina took the baby into her arms and pressed her face against her downy hair, inhaling her sweet scent.
Almost immediately, Madeleine let out an ear-splitting cry. Lina’s neck snapped back in as far of a recoil as she could manage without dropping the baby. “Fuck!” she exclaimed. Madeleine cried harder. “Sorry,” Lina apologized quietly. “Bad word.”
Carmen sighed. “Oh boy, here we go.”
Lina extended her arms straight out in front of her, holding Madeleine as far away from her as she could. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s probably hungry. Was there a bottle in the box or anything?”
Lina walked back over to the table and glanced into the box. “Nope.”
“Okay.” Carmen stood, the baby wailing away in her arms. “Get up. We’re going shopping.”
There are few places as disorienting as a 24-hour CVS at 2 in the morning, which Lina was quickly learning. She squinted against the bright fluorescent lights and tried to suppress a yawn. A few feet away, Carmen inspected the vast selection of baby formula while holding a still-screaming Madeleine on her hip. Lina had assumed the baby would exhaust herself with crying on the walk over, but instead the cold air seemed to have invigorated her lungs. She closed her eyes for a second. This was not the domestic fantasy she had imagined in her mind. Instead, the past hour felt like a literal nightmare from which she would soon awake. Any minute now one of Madeleine’s screams would break the sound barrier, she would morph into a shapeless blob of color and light and Lina would wake up in her bed to see Carmen blowing smoke rings at her from the balcony, indicating she was willing to forgive, forget and go back to normal.
Instead, Lina opened her eyes and found herself still in CVS, still holding the small, loud disturbance of a human being that had caused her life to come unglued from reality.
“Hey.” Carmen, suddenly in front of her. “I have to go get someone to come and unlock these.” She tilted her head in the direction of the formula case. “So fucked up,” she mumbled under her breath.
“Great. Try not to drop her,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.
“I haven’t dropped her once this entire time,” Lina muttered to no one.
What does Carmen know about babies anyway, she thought, a subconscious frown forming on her face. I think I’m doing pretty okay for someone with absolutely no experience. The baby was left to me, not her. Because I’m stable. Because I can take care of someone else. Because I want to take care of someone else. When has Carmen ever thought about someone else? When has she ever done something that didn’t just make her feel good?
Her sourness was interrupted by Carmen’s return with an employee who looked just as tired as Lina felt, a woman who couldn’t have been younger than 50. She leaned forward to unlock the case, but then her gaze fell upon Madeleine.
“Oh, is this your daughter?” she cooed, undeterred by Madeleine’s screeching. Without waiting for a response, she stepped closer and made a funny face. Instantly Madeleine stopped crying and giggled. It hit Lina that this might have been her first laugh. She felt her heart in her mouth again and found it difficult to speak around it.
“Are you God?” she managed to stammer.
The woman met Lina’s eyes. “I remember those days. I know it’s exhausting, but I promise you’ll miss it when it’s over. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
She turned back around with her keys. Lina felt a strange warmth spread throughout her body. She tried to make eye contact with Carmen, to see if she was feeling the same thing Lina was, but she kept her eyes trained on the grey carpet. Her face was so impassive that Lina knew she had to be forcing it. Lina pressed Madeleine even closer to her chest and closed her eyes again.
Back at the apartment, Carmen heated water and formula in a small pot on the stove. Lina had placed the still-teary baby on the rug in the living room and was playing a mildly cruel game that involved holding her up in a sitting position, then letting her go and watching her wobble dangerously to one side. Just before she fell, Lina would grab her and set her upright, then let go again. In her delirium Lina found this endlessly entertaining, but Madeleine was naturally displeased. By the time Carmen had started filling the bottle they’d bought at CVS, her crying had gone from sob to siren.
“How much longer on the milk?” Lina called. “She’s losing it.” And so am I.
“Just a sec.” Carmen appeared with the bottle, as if descended from the heavens. “Here we go.” She picked up the baby and tucked the bottle in her mouth. Madeleine began to suck greedily, truly silent for the first time in hours, and Lina exhaled.
“It is soooo much easier when they’re single-celled,” she groaned.
“Isn’t your job to kill bacteria?” Carmen sat down on the rug beside Lina, leaning back against the couch. Her face was impassive, but her voice had a joking lilt to it.
“Well, yeah, but first I have to make sure there’s something alive enough to kill.” Without thinking about it, Lina rested her head on Carmen’s shoulder. On contact she suddenly remembered that this was something they didn’t do and nearly jolted upwards, but Carmen didn’t pull away. In fact, she shifted closer to Lina and lifted her shoulder slightly, as if in offering. Lina took it as an invitation to nestle herself in the small dip between shoulder and neck where Carmen’s scent was strongest, and where she felt safest. “I have to make their food with just the right amounts of all the chemicals and nutrients. I have to make sure their plates and food are sterile so they don’t get contaminated or infected with anything. I have to make sure I put them in the right growth chamber at exactly the right temperature, and I have to check on them every day to make sure they don’t die before they’re supposed to.”
Lina could feel Carmen smiling. Her whole body changed, made softer. “Sounds exactly like motherhood to me.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
Carmen’s shoulders shook as she laughed, the lightest, freest sound Lina had ever heard. It didn’t happen often, and even less often at Lina’s provocation. Lina let herself laugh too.
Madeleine finished eating. Carmen took the bottle from her and then held her upright, slightly over the shoulder unoccupied by Lina. She patted Madeleine’s back gently until she let out a small burp, and then lowered her back into a horizontal position. She was asleep in seconds.
Lina took one more risk and reached for Carmen’s free hand. Their fingers interlocked, another small miracle. “How are you so good at this?”
“I have a younger sister and brother,” Carmen murmured. “Born 8 and 12 years after me. My dad wasn’t really around, and my mom worked full-time, so I helped raise them.”
“I didn’t know that.” Lina sat up, though it pained her to break the closeness. But it was hard to believe that this was her Carmen, the Carmen who had entranced her with her aloofness, who had never once faltered in her personal dedication to being unknowable. She wanted to see Carmen’s face when she continued, “And don’t say it’s because I never asked.”
Carmen sighed. “Lina—”
“We’ve been at this for a fucking year and I didn’t even know you had siblings?” The fingers on Lina’s free hand twitched. “What are we doing?”
“You said you didn’t mind casual.”
She was trying to be cold, but Lina didn’t miss the waver in her voice, the unsteadiness of barely holding it together. Though what good was this small weakness if she did hold it still? Would nothing push her over the edge? Lina thought she might cry from frustration, from longing, from loving Carmen even more with every inch she pulled away. “This isn’t casual!”
Madeleine’s eyes shot open, and she began to wail the way Lina wished she could. In a way, she thought Madeleine might have been doing it on her behalf this whole time.
Carmen glared at her. “Nice.” Her fingers slipped away from Lina’s as she stood up and held the baby over her shoulder again. “Shh,” she whispered to Madeleine. “Shh.” She walked down the hallway towards the bedroom. Lina could tell from the way Madeleine’s shrill cries were suddenly muffled that Carmen had shut the door. She pulled herself up onto the couch and shoved her face into the cushions until all she saw was grey.
Lina awoke to oppressive sunlight. She sat up, eyes burning, and for a moment couldn’t recall where she was. This wasn’t her bed, or Carmen’s. Then the meteor. Then the previous night, speed-running itself across her brain again. She buried her face in her hands, relishing the soft darkness. She felt so heavy. Carmen’s infuriatingly placid expression wouldn’t leave her. Lina wanted to kick herself. If she was going to make a mess of things, she might as well have gone all the way. She felt only fractionally revealed and entirely unsatisfied. There were so many lines she hadn’t gotten to use. I love you, sure, but somehow she knew that wouldn’t have been the most devastating. It was obvious, anyway. What are you looking for? How long can you go on like this? Why don’t you want more?
Lina dragged herself off the couch and trudged to the bathroom. But before she went in, she glanced down the hall at her bedroom door. Midmorning light shone from the gap beneath. Compelled by a force she would later call stupidity, she walked towards it.
Carmen lay sleeping on her side of the bed. All the sheets and pillows were in a pile on the floor. Her body curled in a protective comma around Madeleine, who slept beside her at some distance in the exact center of the mattress, swaddled in her blanket. Lina could only look at the scene for a split second before she shut the door quietly and returned quickly to the bathroom. She locked herself in and sat on the toilet lid and, at last, she cried.
Lina was sitting at the kitchen table when Carmen emerged from the hall. She either ignored or didn’t notice Lina’s puffy eyes, instead walking past her into the kitchen and asking, “Do you want coffee?”
Carmen pulled open the top left drawer below the sink and Lina thought it was a specific kind of torture that Carmen knew what drawer she kept her coffee filters in. “So are you taking her in later?”
So Carmen wouldn’t come with her to do it. Lina sighed. “Probably now. I mean, I’m not her mom.”
“No,” Carmen agreed.
“I don’t want to be her mom.” Lina paused. “I can’t do it alone.”
Carmen leaned back against the counter, lips, face, everything tense.
Say it, Lina thought. Say it. We both know what you want, so say it. Tell me that you want this. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself be happy with me.
She looked into Carmen. There, in the dark pools of her eyes, shimmer.
“Okay,” Carmen said aloud, and looked up at nothing. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
Lina let out a shaky breath. “Yeah,” she echoed. “It makes sense.”
The warm scent of coffee hung in the air around them. She’d expected it to hurt more. But now she understood that she knew the end as soon as Carmen’s lips met hers for the first time. She hadn’t wanted to admit it, but all the pain and heartbreak was never more present than it was right there at the start. It was like that theory she’d heard the undergrads talking about the other day when they were supposed to be inoculating cultures. She couldn’t remember the name, but it was about how astronomers predicted someday the universe would get tired of growing, reverse course and crash back together into an infinitesimal point from where the Big Bang could happen again. The explosion where everything both ended and began. The burning between her and Carmen, the searing heat she claimed all along was healthy passion, was in fact both their first and final supernova.
“Do you want to say goodbye?” Lina murmured.
Carmen couldn’t meet her eyes. “Yeah. I’ll go get her.”
She placed a steaming mug in front of Lina and left the room. Lina focused all of her attention on the white tendrils rising from the coffee. She barely registered Carmen’s return, holding a groggy, still-swaddled Madeleine.
“Do you have the note?” Carmen asked, jolting Lina into awareness. She looked around but didn’t see it on the table, so she dropped to the floor and crawled beneath it. As soon as she was out of Carmen’s sight her body released a few large, silent tears. They landed on the paper with Madeleine’s mother’s handwriting and bloomed small rainbow halos around the black ink. Lina swiped at her cheeks and crawled back out. “Got it.”
Carmen took the note from her. She paused over it for a moment, then folded it up and slipped it into the swaddle against Madeleine’s chest. “Okay, all set.”
Lina offered her arms, and Carmen placed the baby into them. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to Madeleine’s forehead. Then, as something more than an afterthought, she did the same to Lina. She lingered longer there, and Lina thought she might have heard her inhale, might have heard her breath hitch as if from grief. Then again, she was horribly sleep-deprived and probably hallucinating.
With Madeleine in her arms, Lina descended the stairs. She knew when she came back, Carmen would be gone. And she meant gone, single drawer in Lina’s dresser cleaned out, borrowed T-shirts reclaimed, spare toothbrush buried beneath toilet paper rolls in the garbage can. Not even the scent of her cigarette smoke would hang in the air, as if she had never existed at all, as if the past year had never happened. She knew this just as sure as she knew that after giving her up, she would never see Madeleine again and know her.
They stepped right into a frigid autumn breeze. Madeleine was silent, staring wide-eyed at the yellow leaves against the bright blue sky.
“Shh,” Lina whispered, holding the baby tight against her heart. “Shh. It’ll be okay. Everything is going to be okay.”