Hannah hadn’t told anyone she was pregnant again. Instead she packed grapes in ice, purchased a large thermos for the soup, made sandwiches on baguettes. Between her shoulders, a little off-kilter, sat a child’s backpack, stuffed to near bursting. She and Sean had trouble keeping up. He, because his wheels were so small, his legs just barely five. She, because the bike basket was heavier on the left and the backpack was angled toward the river and the river itself was a weight, a wet moon, drawing her to it. Her red Schwinn refused to run parallel on the narrow dirt path.
The late October day was supposed to be crisp. Rich with the smell of fallen leaves, of fires from distant chimneys. But instead, a muggy heat smothered every fragrant thing. Even the river seemed bogged down; it meandered in and out of the rocks along the bank as if unable or unwilling to get anywhere in a hurry. Hannah was out of breath. She grunted and pumped harder. She didn’t want to lose sight of her husband. He was ahead with his work friend Rebecca and her husband Ezra. Their bikes, mere specks, wove in and out of each other in perfect waltz. 1, 2, 3 // 1, 2, 3. Hannah thought she heard Paul’s laugh rise from his stomach and spill into the air like firecrackers.
Her stomach was sweaty. Every inch of her was perspiring. The saleswoman had convinced her this sweater was perfect for fall picnics, but now it seemed dumb. She’d outgrow it in a matter of weeks. If only she’d dressed like Rebecca. Athletic gear and a ponytail. Working women were so practical. And so thin. That morning, Hannah had finished unraveling the curlers from her hair in the kitchen, using the oven glass as a mirror, while she added chives to the soup and stuffed supplies into the backpack. She thought she’d used enough Aqua Net, but all the hair spray in the world couldn’t stand up to this oily air.
“Come, Sean,” she said. “Pick up the pace.”
They ate in a grassy clearing overlooking the river, among the crab apple trees. Hannah poured mugs of potato-leek soup and passed out sandwiches. At the library, she’d scoured every issue of Gourmet from 1977 to 1979 to find just the right recipes. Was thinly-sliced beef tenderloin and horseradish over brie sophisticated enough? She didn’t know what she’d been thinking, inviting Rebecca. It was too much pressure. And for a bike ride! Rebecca’s an active, outdoorsy woman, Paul always said. Hannah longed to release herself from the hot sweater. But the blouse underneath was soaked through; it cleaved to her fleshy parts.
“Why did you bring soup?” Paul asked. “It’s too hot for soup.”
“I think it’s lovely,” Rebecca said as she blew gently on her spoon. The way she said lovely was lovely.
Hannah stuffed her hands into her sweater pockets, which were shaped like fat baby pumpkins. Stupid sweater. She listened for the sound of the river, but all the chewing drowned it out. The baguette was hard to bite; the beef required extra work of the jaw. Its bloody smell ruined Hannah’s appetite.
“I don’t like this cheese,” Sean whined. “It burns.”
“Just eat. It’s good,” Hannah said.
“Didn’t you bring any kid food? He can’t eat horseradish,” Paul said—beef between his molars.
She watched him rip another bite from the baguette, moving his head back and forth like an animal. She felt ill, revolted. When they were first married, she was so enchanted by the intensity he gave to everything he did. How his body was always passing electric shocks to hers. Now, she breathed deeply, counting in for five and out for five. She couldn’t get sick in front of Rebecca, whose genetic research was receiving all sorts of attention. According to Paul, she’d been named to one of President Carter’s task forces. A woman like that didn’t belong with vomiting mothers who hadn’t even finished community college. Hannah lowered her eyes from the chewing, from the tug of the river, until the queasiness passed.
“Paul tells me you went to the Ivy League,” she eventually said to Rebecca.
“The Ivy League isn’t a place,” Paul said. “She went to Yale. Triple-dipped. Undergrad, med school, PhD.”
Hannah thought she might still have her spiral notebook from Introduction to Geology in a box somewhere.
“Mommy, this soup tastes funny.”
She passed Sean some grapes.
“There is a unique flavor,” Ezra agreed.
Hannah poured herself a cup. A chemical taste preceded its heat. Aqua Net.
She must have spritzed hairspray into the soup.
“What’d you put in this stuff?” Paul asked.
A fresh rush of perspiration. A hot flash. While Hannah considered her reply, Sean grabbed a crab apple from a tree. He plunked it in his father’s soup. It landed with a noise like an audience clapping. The thick cream splattered onto Paul’s face and into his eye. He screamed at his son, screamed at his wife. Fucking soup. Hannah noticed a pile of rocks just behind Paul. Someone had carefully balanced them, one on top of the other, in the shape of a small dwelling.
“I’m pregnant again,” Hannah said, not knowing why she chose this moment to say it, why she hadn’t told Paul before. She was already twenty weeks. Probably too late to--
Paul pushed the soup aside and hugged her tightly—with his whole body. When he finished, she put her hand on her stomach, feeling around for the little body of water inside her, wondering if the membrane around it could pop.
Ezra wore the backpack for the return ride, and Paul moved the basket to his bike. But even without the extra load, Hannah’s Schwinn wouldn’t obey a straight line; it veered again and again toward the river like they shared a secret kinship. The world was dissolving into particles. Hannah thought she might overheat. She took one last look at Sean—little legs pedaling so hard—before riding her bike down the steep bank. Velocity accumulated until she slipped into the river, relinquishing her heat to the cool rush of the water. The current was stronger than she expected.
-- Maureen Langlossis a lawyer-turned-writer living in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Little Fiction, Sonora Review, The Journal, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. You can find her on Twitter @maureenlangloss.