White is for Picket Fences and Lies

White is for Picket Fences and Lies

            The bus ground forward, defying the pull of gravity to arrive on time.  Burps of diesel greeted the rising sun as store windows shimmered with the light of a new day. 

            “Beautiful clothes in those shops.”

            I turned to face a woman exiting the bus.  “Yes.”  I floated the word after her.  But I couldn’t afford them.

            Or perhaps that was my view of the situation.  Eric told me I could turn anything into something negative.  “It’s like you go looking for something to be sad about, Natalie.  You wear that hangdog look so much.  It’s depressing to be around you.”

            The memory of last weekend’s conversation forced me to close my eyes and lean back against the metal wall.  The brass knobs dug into my back.  I was angry they were there, because they made me feel something.

            I don’t want to feel anything.   Messages from friends had occurred so often they had become mechanical.  I didn’t trust their meaning anymore.  Nor their senders.

I always wanted to be a mother, naturally.  The moniker didn’t count if the children arrived through adoption.   My own mother promised I’d get to be one, even though there were times she yelled at me for just being myself.  

            But the biggest definition of my worth was tethered to society.  Female success depends on giving birth.  And I wasn’t a worthwhile woman.   Especially after so many failed attempts at becoming whole.  I was exhausted from the routine:  taking temperatures, determining ovulation cycles, keeping a record of when Eric and I made love and in what position, and crossing fingers with friends as we chatted about ‘this would be the time’.

            “Excuse me.  I’m sorry.”

            My eyes rushed open.  What was rudely bumping me from my pity party?  I stared into the face of a small child.   Brown hair, with brown eyes hovering under lashes so thick I found myself envious. 

            “I’m sorry my son bumped into you.  He’s not used to being up this early, and I think he’s still a little sleepy.” 

A woman wearing a large hat was speaking from under it.  The green brim made her eyes invisible, but her lips sporting a bright shade of red were obvious.  And loud.  Does she think this is the 1940’s?  Who wears those gigantic hats anymore?

A snort escaped from the woman…or the hat.   Her high-pitched voice assaulted my ears. 

“You know how children can be when they haven’t had enough sleep.  Or, when we change up their routine.”

No, I don’t know how children can be.  I’ve never experienced a child in the volcano of a schedule change or sleepless night.  I am weary from other’s assumptions, just because I am a woman.   I smiled thinly.  “It’s all right.  He didn’t bump into me that hard.”

With a whoosh, she sat next to her child.  We had successfully hemmed him in, between two adults.  This entity, squirming like a box of puppies.    He grabbed my arm and hollered, “You pwetty.  Do you awways wide the buf?”  Perhaps I was the recipient of his conversation because I was new.  I didn’t care.  I didn’t want to participate.

“Yes, I always ride the bus.”  I smoothed back some of my hair.  “And, thank you.”

“How come I never seen you afore?”

Because I don’t usually ride this route.   Because I couldn’t sleep last night and had to get out of the house before Eric woke up.  Because I am tired of our game of not speaking to each other.  “Oh, I’m just trying something new today.”

He nodded his head.  Apparently, satisfaction was easily achieved when you are three.  Or maybe four.

The woman put her arm around her son, drawing him closer.   Instinctively giving him love, protection, and permission wrapped in a packaged hug. 

My heart broke open and lay on the dirty floor.  It intermingled with gum wrappers, peanuts, and forgotten wishes.   I could comfort this boy.  Love him.

“I’m sorry if we’re bothering you.  He just likes to talk to people.”  She glanced across the aisle, empty except for a few people required to get up at this ungodly early hour.  “His father doesn’t like it when our son talks so much.” 

The hat had been removed and placed on top of a large suitcase. A face was revealed which made me startle.  It was no longer the bright red lipstick that seized my attention.  Rather it was the scar above the lip which reached toward the right cheekbone.  A puffy, white snake invading smooth skin.  Her eyes were different colors.    I gawked at the cacophony of brown, yellow, and purple. 

She raised one hand to her face.  The other pulled her son closer.  “I thought it was dark enough in here to take off my hat.”   She reached for the straw and cotton concealer.

I finally spoke to her.  “I’m sorry I stared.”

A laugh escaped her tongue.  “Guess I really gave you something to stare at.”  The hat landed firmly on her head.  The boy, now sleeping, was drawn closer.

“Are you leaving him?”  I nodded toward the suitcase.

She glanced around the bus, taking in the nuance of every person.  Her eyes rested in mine, searching.  Then decisive.  “Yes.”

I had seen this behavior before.  From women in hospital rooms, jails, schools, grocery aisles, clothing stores, city parks, and coffeehouses.  I had seen this behavior too often.  But to each woman, it is the first time for stopping the lie she’s told herself.  “Would you like some assistance?” 

Now there was surprise in her eyes.  “From you?”  More glancing around the bus.  Whispered words of wonder, “Why?”

“Because you are a person of value.  So is your son.  Your being abused isn’t right.”

 “How can you help me?  Who are you?”

I smiled.  “My name is Natalie.  And because this is what I do.”  It’s another definition of me.

She lifted her hat and stared at me.  Her eyes began to melt with acquiescence.  But of a healthier kind.  “What’s next?”  Her son stirred next to her.  She gently stroked his hair.

The pang that struck me, ready to mark again my ineptness as a woman, wasn’t as strong as it had been.  I may not be able to have children of my own, but I can help this woman with her child.  “I’ll take you to the women’s shelter.  I volunteer there.”  I glanced at my watch.  One hour until my appointment.  I’d ridden this specific route, because it traveled directly to the clinic.

“My name is Amanda.  My son is Jake.”

I smiled at her and thought about the paperwork and orientation involved when bringing in a new resident.  I glanced at my watch.  Maybe I can ask another person to settle Amanda and Jake.   I didn’t want to miss my appointment for which I’d waited five months.  She was the doctor who was supposed to be able to step in when all other options had failed.  She was the one I hadn’t told Eric about, knowing his reaction to the cost of IVF.  I snuck a peak at my watch.

“Do you have someplace else you need to be?  I don’t want to be a burden to you.  Jake and I can just continue to my sister’s house up north.  That’s where we were headed…before I ran into you.”

I sat up straighter, pulled skyward by her words.  Burden?  A person in need isn’t a burden.  This isn’t who I am.  “No, I don’t have any place else to be, Amanda.  I was checking my watch because I thought it had slowed down.  Faulty battery.”

After getting the two of them settled at the shelter, I cocooned myself in my office.  I fished a small piece of chocolate from my right desk drawer and stared out my window.  Female life was scurrying by, clicking on heels or trudging in sneakers.  What was important to these women?  What was their mark of success?  Belonging?

I heard women and children in the shelter.  Voices mixed with fear and excitement.  Voices attached to humans who were redefining themselves, thrust into a situation they didn’t create and certainly wasn’t one they’d set out to live.

I punched in Eric’s number.  I drummed fingers, suddenly anxious to hear his voice.  I loved that voice.

“Hey, Natalie.”  Silence.  “What’s up?”  His voice had gone from concerned to annoyed.

“I wonder if you’d like to have date night, tonight?”

“What?  We haven’t done that in months.”

“Then it’s been too long.”

“Why do you want to do this?  Now?”

I sighed, knowing it would take time for him to trust me.  All I could do for now was speak the words, then match them with behavior.  “I just want to be with you.  To laugh. Like we used to.”  I paused to let the words sink in.  “Come on.  You can choose what we do.”

No hesitation now from him.  “I know what I don’t want to do.”

“I know,” I whispered.   “Me either.  Not anymore.  Sixteen months is long enough.”

“Nats, are you all right?”

I chuckled, puzzled that the sound was foreign to me.  “I am.”

“Gosh, what will we do if we aren’t taking temperatures, researching latest methods, or running to doctors’ appointments?”  I could hear a little of the old Eric creeping back in.  The one who wasn’t afraid to use humor as a reference point.

I smiled, believing I’d shed fifty pounds.  “We can figure that out together.”

Jill Olson

I have been writing since childhood. Have published academic work, but fiction is my passion. Will be published in the upcoming collection: The Tyranny of Bacon, by Pure Slush.


  1. Bravo. I want more fiction....from you.

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