Part I: There Is No Try: Phiona

In Short Stories by Meg Sternbee0 Comments

Phiona works, though she hardly considers motherhood a career choice. Marshall let her quit as a sales rep for Clinique once she was six months pregnant—how she puts it when blabbing about herself to friends. Really, Marshall had nothing to do with the decision–the determination that for Phiona is as deep as morality. Daycare wasn’t how her family did things and it isn’t going to be how she raises her babies. Belle will attend a desirable educational situation at the proper age. Phiona already has her on a wait list for a bilingual school. “It is going to cost just shy of a college education,” she tells her friends with mock bereavement.

Phiona drinks, and she takes a long sip until ice clinks up the sides of the glass. Damn, is it done already? “Well, I will have another. I’ve only just had the one today and Belle is still sleeping,” she tells the chestnut framed china cabinet filled with breakables. “Besides,” she continues peering into the glass, talking to the reflection, “Marshall isn’t expected home for another hour and what am I to do? Starve while I wait for his return?” Alcohol could always be counted on to suppress the appetites. As she pours Vodka over a fresh pile of ice, topping it off with lime seltzer water, Phiona lets a hand polish the ridgeline of her collarbone. She measures this peak and weighs herself in her head. Like relics, her bones forge themselves out of her body.

Thankfully Belle did not do much to Phiona. Morning sickness had brought its plague all hours of the pregnancy and she hardly ate until the last month. Half of what she did get down came back up. Even now, certain foods trigger flash backs.  The smell of Cheez-its, for example, will bring on a gust of nausea, possessed with a taste and sensation hard to place and even harder to discriminate against fact or fiction. She was reminded of the over-haul to her senses by the fetus.  Worse, the smell of the creature had permeated from her being. Phiona remembered her toots had a sour milk fragrance, as if she was puffing baby. “Look at me, I’m a baby machine.” She would smile queasily at Marshall.

But Belle had still come out a nine pounder, and afterwards—following the 47 hours of labor and a c-section that took under thirty minutes, she had bragged how there really had been a bowling ball between her legs and the cosmic force on her organs, converting her into a couch potato, did in fact, have a genuine source. “Marshall was a huge baby,” she tells her friends, “he nearly killed his mother.”

Sunlight is evaporating and Phiona decides she best put the casserole in the oven. The one Nan prepared before she left for the afternoon. It is their little secret, she tells Nan, slipping her a fifty. Marshall still believes Phiona cooks. Nan adores Belle, being barren and Phiona can’t imagine doing without her. Still, she is careful to remind the woman, in unspecific terms, of her dispensability. Don’t want the hired help to get greedy, her mother always said. Show firmness and don’t let them get too close. Phiona hears the voice of her mother’s ghost linger like a swell, pushing outward from the mind’s channel.

Phiona gulps down the rest of her second, surmising to finish quickly, pour herself a third before Marshall comes home. Of course he will assume it is her first, being just past five. With refresher in hand, Phiona hums, making her way to the kitchen. She turns on the oven and washes lettuce for a salad. Nan brought in cherry tomatoes from the garden and Phiona will use them to liven up the greens. Since it is Tuesday Nan made a Mexican dish, one with green chilies and refried black beans topped with sharp cheddar. Because it is Tuesday Marshall will be tired when he comes home and possibly full from a late lunch. Tuesdays he takes prospective clients to The City Grill, whose view from the 30th floor has natural seductive powers.

Phiona hears a whimper come from the baby monitor. Damn. Is Belle awake already? She looks at the clock. The baby has been asleep for a little over two hours. It’s never long enough. Phiona continues to chop lettuce, thinking she can get a few more minutes, but the mewling turns into a full on squall in a matter of seconds. Phiona aggressively throws the lettuce bowl towards the back of the counter. When she enters the nursery, Belle, red faced with her legs and arms bent upwards like a capsized beetle, begins to choke. Phiona lifts her daughter from the crib but the appeal has gone on a second too long and she can’t be calmed by pacifier or bouncing. Belle needs milk.

The formula has been prepared, thanks again to Nan, earlier in the afternoon and put in the fridge for future use. Phiona warms the bottle while Belle screams into her shoulder. She nearly puts in a few drops of Benadryl—an old trick of her mother’s to soothe a fussy infant, but then a sound outside the house makes her think she hears Marshall’s Beamer pull into the drive, the garage door going up. Phiona puts down the Benadryl, moves to a dining room window and pulls back the long white drapes, but sees only the neighbor pulling his recycling can towards his house. She lets the soft cotton fall back over the window and returns to the stove, pouring herself another drink with one hand, while she waits for the milk to warm. “Let’s both mommy and baby have a nip at the bottle,” she coos into Belle’s ear.



Marshall shakes Phiona awake. She feels her shoulder jiggle and then the grip of his firm and steady hand squeeze right above the elbow. As Phiona’s vision returns to focus she sees he has Belle in the crook of his other arm. Marshall wants to know how much she drank. She looks over at the glass whose ice has turned to surupy water. How long has she been asleep? She can’t tell him until she knows what time it is. Phiona’s mind grapples with the present, so that it feels like she has been thrown into the future from a distant past. Her body, heavy and awkward, drags with an internal inertia. “Seven,” she hears her husband say icily, followed by a repeat of his first question.

“A couple. I must have just dozed off,” though as she speaks her words lack integrity. Marshall begins to tell her how he found Belle lying on the dining room floor bawling. How he is surprised Phiona did not wake from the noise of her child’s hysterics. Then, her husband asks when dinner will be served. The casserole. Phiona forgot to put it in the oven. Damn, damn. Her head hurts when she rises from the Lazy Boy.

Leave a Comment