Estuary, fiction by Caroline Kepnes

It was a bad idea, smok­ing up in the park­ing lot before going in, but it was too late now so Lau­ra took anoth­er hit. Women were such suck­ers. In Laura’s next life, she’d invent Bath & Body Works and be a zil­lion­aire. The monot­o­ny of women and their bod­ies, women work­ing on their bod­ies and rub­bing stuff on their bod­ies and try­ing to shape them into shapes they didn’t wan­na go into and now gath­er­ing at night in a rec cen­ter—a rec cen­ter—to save a body of water that didn’t wan­na be saved. What a waste. Lau­ra had no beau­ty régime. No exer­cise rou­tine either. She did not like regimes. And it wasn’t just because she had good genes. She thought if she was one of these gals, at this age, she would let her thighs spread if they want­ed to. She wouldn’t go to Curves or Zum­ba and fight. Life changes you. Shit looks dif­fer­ent. Look at these wed­ding rings. How ridicu­lous they look now on those swollen fin­gers, sparkling like the wed­ding was yes­ter­day, like the past 20 years lived up to the expec­ta­tions. He went to Jarred. Love went out the win­dow.

Baked now. Lau­ra fucked up. She had nev­er want­ed to be one of these moms with noth­ing bet­ter to do than show up at the rec cen­ter at night to meet with oth­er moms. She had nev­er been drawn to the sis­ter­hoods that formed around birth­days and slum­ber par­ties, the bonds woven now through caus­es, can­cers and school boards. Lau­ra pre­ferred men. You could respect a man. Men didn’t try so hard to make the world a bet­ter place. If they did, they did it on their own. Would a group of men gath­er to feast on burnt cof­fee and munchkins under the pre­tense of sav­ing the plan­et? Would a man print out a fly­er that screamed SAVE THE SOUND? Hell no. Nonethe­less, Lau­ra had to do this, cross the lot, which was a sheet of black ice. No rock salt? Real­ly, Ladies? She fell twice. Both times she want­ed to say fuck it and get back in her car. But, when you’re fuck­ing your best friend’s hus­band, you have to do things. You have to go where your best friend wants to go. Your best friend thinks a bunch of ladies can save the sound in a rec room with a pot of cof­fee? You have to think so too. She was stoned. But she was here.

The room was ripe with sweat. Women were sweat­ing under their wool and on their shiny cheeks and the sweat of their sons lin­gered from ear­li­er that day, bas­ket­balls coast­ed in sweat were gath­ered in a cor­ner. Sweaty balls, Lau­ra thought, and she laughed. She found two chairs. Relief. She laid her coat on the emp­ty chair and pat­ted it, a chair for Angela. She was a bad per­son and she vowed to change. No more cheat­ing. She would become the woman she was pre­tend­ing to be right now, the one vol­un­teer­ing to SAVE THE SOUND as she SAVES a seat for her best friend.

Hel­lo, Lau­ra,” some­one was say­ing. Was it Anne Some­thing?  Aman­da? How did any­one remem­ber anyone’s name?  Who­ev­er this woman was, she was built for this, for talk­ing to women she hat­ed while pre­tend­ing she liked them. She had thin every­thing, lips, legs, eye­brows. You had to won­der if it was from meth but then if she were a meth head would she have come to the rec cen­ter to save the world? Also, her jeans were ironed. Her fisherman’s sweater wasn’t pilled. The evi­dence that she was just anoth­er house­wife was abun­dant and Lau­ra had a flash of being nine­teen and on her bed and dream­ing of liv­ing in New York City, away from wool sweaters and thin, Spar­tan lips.

 “Lau­ra, I’m sur­prised to see you here. You nev­er get involved.”

Well, Angela made this out to be life or death. I just want to help.”

Thin lips smirked “So, how’s Ray?”

 “Ray’s Ray. He’s good.”

It was Laura’s turn to ask about Mr. Thin Lips. But who knew what his name was? And why wasn’t it good man­ners to be hon­est? What Lau­ra want­ed to say: “I have no idea who you are, I don’t care about your hus­band and I real­ly wish you’d stop talk­ing to me.”

Lau­ra watched Thin Lips move on to anoth­er woman in anoth­er fold­ing chair. How’s Ray? The worst ques­tion. It wasn’t fair what mar­riage could do. She was sewn into him. It didn’t mat­ter how many times she made love to Ted. Even if they divorced, she would hear that ques­tion for­ev­er, How’s Ray? She took a bot­tle of Coke from her purse. You don’t drink Coke around women like this. Social code dic­tates that Diet Coke would be the right thing. You want to act like you’re at war against your body too.  But Lau­ra liked her sug­ar and she opened the bot­tle and drank her calo­ries. Women were look­ing at her. Let them.

 One time, Angela told Lau­ra to write a mem­oir and call it The Revenge of the High­ly Meta­bol­ic Woman. Lau­ra didn’t know what to say. It was so sad, the idea of Angela brain­storm­ing names for Laura’s unwrit­ten mem­oir. And Angela was no word­smith, didn’t use words like “meta­bol­ic”. Lau­ra had chuck­led, “Angela, you final­ly opened up a dic­tio­nary.” Angela hadn’t laughed. It was not long after that con­ver­sa­tion that Lau­ra start­ed fuck­ing Ted. Some­how, Angela had giv­en per­mis­sion that day in a way that could nev­er be explained exact­ly. But she had. She had cal­cu­lat­ed an inad­e­quate insult, reveal­ing that she was jeal­ous of Lau­ra, every­thing Lau­ra. And once Lau­ra had that cloak of jeal­ousy laid on her shoul­ders, she could do any­thing she want­ed because Angela had essen­tial­ly announced that she no longer con­sid­ered her­self a woman, in the meta­bol­ic, hot ass hav­ing phys­i­cal way.

What are you, blow­ing the bot­tle?”

Lau­ra spit up Coke. “Angela. You’re here.”

No kiss on the cheek hel­lo tonight. Did she know?

I just had a lit­tle to smoke.”

 “Are you kid­ding?”

I was thirsty. You know what I mean.”

You’re wear­ing fur.”

 “This scarf is rac­coon. Who cares about a lit­tle rac­coon?”

We’re here for the envi­ron­ment, Lau­ra.”

 “Well I’ll take it off. But real­ly, Angela it’s a scarf.”

It’s an ani­mal who feeds and thrives in the very estu­ar­ies we are try­ing to save.”

Lau­ra shoved her scarf in her purse even though it didn’t real­ly fit. “I didn’t wear an estu­ary.”

Do you even know what an estu­ary is?”

Don­na Kendrick drove here in an SUV. Why don’t you go egg it if we’re all sup­posed to be such heroes?”

That’s dif­fer­ent.”

Ugh. Get­ting high with Angela was the great­est, but being high near sober Angela was the worst. Angela could leave you with­out get­ting up. She’d always been good at that. Sec­ond grade. Angela and Lau­ra in class, their tables fac­ing each oth­er. Give me that tape, Lau­ra. Lau­ra had gone mute. Angela said it again Give me that tape. And Lau­ra obeyed; she gave Angela the tape. A real friend would ask for the tape, but Angela hadn’t asked; she’d com­mand­ed. A minute lat­er, Lau­ra asked for the tape. Can I have it back? But Angela ignored Laura’s attempts to get the tape back. She doled out one insuf­fi­cient piece at a time. She could make steal­ing seem like a jus­ti­fied act of redis­tri­b­u­tion.  Maybe that’s why Lau­ra was fuck­ing Angela’s hus­band, because of the tape, because she was owed some damn tape.

I wish we’d just get start­ed already. We could be an under­wa­ter ghost town in fifty years if we don’t change our ways. This meet­ing needs to start.”

Oh, come on. That’s a lit­tle dra­mat­ic.”

These are facts.”

Angela, nobody knows the future. And if we’re meant to be under­wa­ter, we’ll be under­wa­ter.”

Are you kid­ding right now?” Angela was huff­ing and puff­ing. “Lau­ra, this is seri­ous. If we keep using rock salt we might not have any water to drink. Have to import Poland Fuck­ing Springs and spend an arm and a leg and have no beach to go to in the sum­mer.

Oh, come on. You don’t know that.”

I do know that. It says so. Did you even read the read­ing mate­r­i­al?”

Lau­ra sim­mered at the redun­dan­cy. Read the read­ing mate­r­i­al. Why hadn’t she moved away long ago when she could have, before kids and wrin­kles? “Yep.”

Lau­ra, rock salt throws off the bal­ance of every natural…bacteria and all the, the stuff, the nat­ur­al stuff. And over time the rock salt’s gonna dry us out.”

Tell me this. When I got here tonight, I fell, coul­da died. You know why? No rock salt.”

You smoked.”

The lit­tlest bit.”

Angela looked down at Laura’s boots, the two-inch heels. “You ever think about get­ting duck boots?”

That’s not the point.”

You fell because you smoked up in heels.”

I fell because there’s no damn rock salt. Save the sound? What about the fuck­ing humans?”

That rock salt could kill your daugh­ter some day.”

Lau­ra tin­gled. Kill your daugh­ter. Did she know? Did she?

Lau­ra, why don’t you just go? I know you hate this. I don’t know why I told you to come.”

***

On the way to her car, Lau­ra took her time. She was care­ful to stare at the pave­ment before step­ping. She was like a kid on a pond that’s not quite frozen. It took a long time get­ting to the car. She pre­tend­ed she was a solid­er, nav­i­gat­ing a mine­field. She wob­bled. What a waste of her time, a waste of her life. If there were rock salt in the bed of one of these trucks, she would have dumped it. Her phone buzzed, Ray.

You done sav­ing the world? Jesus what a waste of time.”

Every­thing I do isn’t a waste of time.”

Whoa, whoa. I didn’t say that.”

Yes you did.”

She was down, hard. Foul mood. She could have cried. She could have yelled.

Lau­ra?”

Yes what?

I was try­ing to have a laugh, you’re the one thought it was fun­ny, hens sav­ing the world.”

Well, at least they’re try­ing. You don’t know the right from the wrong in all this.”

She stum­bled. She wasn’t pay­ing close enough atten­tion. Why did Ray call at the wrong time? All time with Ray was wrong time.

 “Ray, we could be under­wa­ter in fifty years if we keep this up.”

Oh, come on. That’s a load of bull­shit.”

Do you under­stand what hap­pens if we lose our estu­ar­ies?”

The fuck’s an estu­ary?”

She hat­ed the ques­tion. She didn’t know the answer. She hat­ed him for not being an intel­lec­tu­al, for not being the kind of man who pushed, who played. He didn’t say, see, Lau­ra you don’t even know what the fuck an estu­ary is. He didn’t like to catch her in a jam. He just sighed and he was over it. And she sup­posed this was why she was hav­ing an affair.

***

The fuck’s an estu­ary? Lau­ra was still think­ing about that ques­tion a few days lat­er. It had killed her buzz. It had sent her into the motel to meet Ted because Ted didn’t ask dumb ques­tions. But she didn’t love Ted.  Why then? Why was she doing Ted? Indeed, what the fuck was an estu­ary? She tried to cen­ter her­self the way Zen types do. She mut­tered aloud.

"I am Lau­ra Winger. I am in the laun­dry room. I am wash­ing my husband’s things. My hus­band is Ray. My daugh­ter is Ella. They are togeth­er upstairs. They don’t mind each oth­er.

She opened her eyes. She could hear a lit­tle more clear­ly now, Ray chang­ing chan­nels, Ella lob­by­ing for her crap, Ray tol­er­at­ing it a minute, then seiz­ing pow­er. The two of them would go on like this all day on a Sun­day. There was noth­ing for Lau­ra to do in there and she decid­ed right then that they would have a dif­fer­ent kind of day today.

At the top of the stairs, she slammed the door shut. “Come on, you two. We’re going to Ted and Angela’s.”

Ella rolled her eyes and looked at Ray. They all know it would be Ray’s call.

Dad, no.”

But Ray hit the mute but­ton. “Lau­ra, ten min­utes ago you said you were tired and didn’t feel like it. I already called ‘em and said for­get it.”

 “So call ‘em back.”

***

Lau­ra was sit­ting in the back­seat try­ing to remem­ber when this hap­pened. When did she give up the front seat to Ella? Was that nor­mal? Did Angela sit in the back? No, def­i­nite­ly not. It was too cold out. There was no cold sun con­niv­ing with the world today, draw­ing you out here only to make you freeze. It was weird of them to get into this car and go some­where. Lau­ra could have bawled right now. She was over­whelmed by the urge to cry. What the fuck’s an estu­ary? She used to know things, how to be a mom,  a friend. Had she unlearned these things the way only a few Span­ish words remained from her mid­dle school vocab­u­lary or had she for­got­ten them all at once, the way a mem­o­ry leaves you and you don’t know it until some­one else brings it up.

It would be good to kiss Ted. They’d find a way. He’d see how in need she was today, a cold Sun­day, a laun­dry day. He would find a way to be alone with her and kiss her. She looked for­ward to the phys­i­cal things, the feel of his hair in her hands, his tongue, more direct than Ray’s, scratch­i­er some­how, and his hands on her ass. And then they’d leave the bath­room. They didn’t want to get caught. They didn’t want to run away togeth­er. They were just try­ing to find out what an estu­ary was, she sup­posed.

When had Ella got­ten into the car? She was here now. She had brushed her hair back, low and tight. Her eyes were Ray’s, her hair too. She was noth­ing like Lau­ra. Lau­ra used to think maybe there’d been a switch at the hos­pi­tal. Or maybe she’d been on some drug and had nev­er even been preg­nant. It was easy to imag­ine an out­raged, indig­nant moth­er show­ing up and say­ing YOU STOLE MY BABY.

Lau­ra would have hap­pi­ly let Ella go and be with her real mom. Maybe Ella knew that. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t all that nice to her mama.

Hon­ey, I like it when you wear your hair down.”

You’re such a weirdo, Mom.”

Why am I a weirdo?”

Every oth­er mom sits in the front seat. Who wants to sit in back? It’s like call­ing reverse shot­gun.”

I like it back here.”

Ray got into the front, set the case of beer on the mid­dle par­ti­tion. Ella reached for it. Team­work. “Don’t knock your moth­er, kid­do. She can’t help the way she is.”

It’s embar­rass­ing. She should sit in front.”

Well it’s eigh­teen degrees on a Sun­day morn­ing so for­tu­nate­ly for you, I think you won’t be shamed today.”

He popped the clutch and they were on their way.

***

It would always seem like some­thing that could have just as eas­i­ly not hap­pened. When they got to Ted and Angela’s, the child pro­tec­tion lock was on in the back­seat. Lau­ra banged on the win­dow. Ella opened the door. That was the only trou­ble with the back­seat; some­times you were too much of a child, depen­dent on oth­ers. And Lau­ra didn’t like feel­ing trapped so she stepped out of the car too quick­ly. Her heel clicked onto the ice. Shit. Ouch. Fast it hap­pened. She grabbed at the car door, but her mit­tens were soft, unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly soft, not like the leather gloves she usu­al­ly wore.

                        WHY WAS SHE WEARING MITTENS?

The fall was fast and brit­tle. Sen­sa­tion stopped, all sen­sa­tions fled. Every­thing left her. It was over now. She learned lat­er what she was now, what life for her was. She was par­a­lyzed. No more walk­ing for Lau­ra, but, as the doc­tor said, she was very lucky to be alive, very lucky that fur­ry scarf had cush­ioned her head against the ice, so lucky, so very, very lucky.

                        THANK GOD FOR THOSE MITTENS.

Maybe if she hadn’t been doing laun­dry down in the cold base­ment she wouldn’t have reached for large soft mit­tens.  Maybe if Ella had made plans with friends and hadn’t been home, maybe if Ray hadn’t been on that couch, maybe if he’d pushed to go to Ted and Angela’s when they were sup­posed to go instead of being a pushover.  Maybe if the back­seat door had been locked and she’d sat up front for a change, or maybe if the child pro­tec­tion lock hadn’t been on and she could have gone where she want­ed, when she want­ed. Maybe if she had had a sec­ond child years ago, maybe if she hadn’t tried to save the sound, maybe if she’d nev­er kissed Ted, that first hot kiss, dark snowy night, maybe if she hadn’t become the kind of ass­hole who want­ed to be kissed in the snow in the dark by a man who wasn’t meant to kiss her.  Maybe if Ella had been an Ellis, a boy, and she didn’t share the house with a girl who was dif­fi­cult, imp­ish, cer­tain­ly not on her side. Maybe if she’d nev­er been born in the first place.

                        HA. TELL THAT TO THE MITTENS THAT SAVED YOUR LIFE.

Maybe if she’d nev­er kissed Ray in that base­ment, Bryan Adams singing about a good sum­mer a long time ago. She’d known she was set­tling. She’d known what she was doing. Those had not been the best days of her life but she had played them like they were. Maybe if Angela hadn’t been late to the meet­ing at the rec cen­ter. Maybe if there was no sound in the first place, maybe if the land had nev­er erod­ed. Maybe.

                        MAYBE IF NOBODY EVER INVENTED MITTENS.

Maybe one of those women, maybe all of those women, maybe they had all wished this sort of fate on her. Maybe they had gath­ered to save the sound, to destroy the Lau­ra. Maybe they had more pow­er than she knew. Hell, maybe they would even save the sound the way they had destroyed her. Maybe if they hadn’t con­vinced Angela to for­go rock salt. Maybe.

Long days not mov­ing and still, Lau­ra did not know what the fuck an estu­ary was.

***

Peo­ple grew shy of her and their faces around her were sweet. Peo­ple looked younger, less con­fi­dent, the ones who came by any­way. They were polite. They asked how she was feel­ing; she knew they want­ed to know if she hat­ed the world. They asked if they could bring her any­thing; she knew they want­ed to know if she thought of off­ing her­self with pills. She had Nan now, a wid­ow, a PCA, which stood for per­son­al care assis­tant. Nan helped around the house, lied and told callers that Lau­ra was nap­ping so she wouldn’t have to talk on the phone to peo­ple she’d nev­er liked then, didn’t like now. She had Nan and so it was nev­er pos­si­ble to be alone with Ted. She couldn’t ask Nan to go for gro­ceries so she could see Ted. But he hadn’t tried all that hard to see her. And why would he? They hadn’t been in love. Paral­y­sis of her body didn’t break his heart let alone his mar­riage.

Now she sat in the back­seat for a rea­son. She had to, what with the dif­fi­cul­ty of get­ting her in and out. Every day she and Nan tried to think of some­where to go. She liked to get in the car ear­ly, sit in the back­seat in the dri­ve­way, no heat on, cold as fuck, no music, just look­ing at noth­ing, maybe a kid walk­ing home from school, maybe a guy walk­ing his dog. Nan didn’t ask why. Nobody asked why. Peo­ple did not ask the ques­tions they real­ly had.

Kids in the neigh­bor­hood stared at her, crip­ple in a car, how could you not? Two lit­tle girls with scoot­ers, one chub­bier than the oth­er, stared the most. Their blank curi­ous faces hang­ing there like bal­loons tied down. Whis­per stare whis­per stare.

Angela came by once a week.  Cof­fee, gos­sip, crap like that. Those girls in the neigh­bor­hood seemed more at ease when Lau­ra was sit­ting with Angela, like they were less afraid of Lau­ra, because she had a friend.

I think they think I’m crazy,” Lau­ra said. “But they like you.”

They’re just girls. Kids. Some­day they’ll get it.”

Get what, Ang­ie?”

Why you’re here.”

What’s to get?”

Angela crossed her legs. She cov­ered the smile tak­ing over her face. Lau­ra looked instead at the two girls. Of all best friends in the world, one was always brighter, one would always come out a lit­tle high­er. One would get to call the tape her own tape and one would do try to make the most of what tape she got. There was noth­ing that unique about Lau­ra, after all, or Angela, or any­one.

Angela, how are those estu­ar­ies?”

"Those what?”

 “The save the sound stuff. Are you still doing that?”

 “No,” she said. “We fin­ished that.”

 “Fin­ished sav­ing the world.”

 Angela smiled but she didn’t laugh and she didn’t say any­thing else. In anoth­er sec­ond she’d start talk­ing about some­thing else, because she didn’t owe Lau­ra any­thing, nev­er had, nev­er would.

kepnesCaro­line Kep­nes has been split­ting her time between Los Ange­les, CA and Cape Cod, MA. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in The Barcelona ReviewCal­liope, Dogz­plotEclec­tica, Metazen and Word Riot. She wrote and direct­ed a short film, Miles Away. In her spare time she enjoys read­ing about meth lab busts, Florid­ian crim­i­nal activ­ity and wild ani­mals.

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