by Julia Sorensen
Artwork, “Improvisation 204” by Gina Yusim
Jon’s nostrils welcomed the smell of coffee as he leaned his elbows over the
cold granite counter. The gurgle of the machine filled the kitchen, slowly waking up
the world before his shift at the bank. His naked legs pressed against the island; the
day did not start, not for him, until he donned his pants. He still had to get dressed –
he left his tie in the car after tiredly discarding it last night.
“Hey, Hon?” he called out. “Where are the keys?”
“Check my purse,” Margo answered from the living room.
Jon found the black tote bag by the windowsill. He tentatively searched
through it, as though it housed an unknown creature. Why else would women’s
purses weigh so much? He emptied the tote one item at a time: checkbook, makeup
case, expired coupons, an unused gym membership card, and a loaf of organic
whole-wheat bread. Exhausted, he rubbed his face and sighed. Shit, he thought.
Again. He held the bread for a moment, wanting to throw it out the window, but put
it aside as he found the keys.
Margo walked into the kitchen, second cup of black tea in-hand and already
dressed for the day in her white cotton skirt and t-shirt. Setting the mug down, she
snuck her arms around him from behind.
“Find them?” she asked after gently kissing his neck.
He dangled them in confirmation, and then held the bread. “You ran out
She took it from him, staring lazily at the label. “They like this one better than
the rye.” Back into the cavernous purse it went. “I should go soon, the babies are
Jon wanted to say so badly No they’re not, but he bit his tongue.
Excitement graced Margo’s face, lighting it up like that of the young girl he
met and fell in love with years ago. “Do you want to come with me today?” she
“Maybe you could take a break?” he asked nicely. “I think the weather’s going
to be shit today, and it’s not like they’re not going anywhere.”
Margo looked at him in confusion and motioned to the window, sunlight
shining in through the blinds. “It looks fine out. And they need me – they’ll be grown
before we know it. Now, do you want to come?”
He sensed annoyance in her voice, and deciding not to press further, he
checked his watch. “Sure,” he relented. “I’ve got some time before work.” Margo
beamed, suddenly back to her happy self. She hugged him again and hurriedly tried
to take him to the door, but he pulled her back. “Um, honey? I need pants.”
She looked him over, brown eyes widening in surprise. A sheepish smile
crept across her heart-shaped face. “Oh. Right.”
Jon pecked her on the cheek, smiling to himself as he went down the hallway
toward the master bedroom. He ran his fingers along the eggshell walls, and tried
not to pause as he passed the locked door. His breath always grew short when he
walked by it – a hiccup he couldn’t drink water for. He had locked it so Margo
wouldn’t go in there anymore. He could still see her in there, sitting in the center of
the floor, staring at the unfinished pastel walls in permeating silence. “I’m fine,” she
always whispered when he asked. Dislodging the memory, he promptly donned his
button-down and slacks, poured his brewed coffee into a travel mug, and met his
wife at the porch door.
They walked together, his hand in hers down the sidewalk. He was almost
hopeful that she was okay. But he knew she wasn’t: her happiness was her own
delusion. And Jon could do nothing but watch; too afraid to shatter the thin snow
globe she lived in. Just a month before, she had grown unrecognizably somber. The
light in her eyes had dimmed like a petering candle. Jon had to remove any
reminders: averting her from the toys section of Target, burning the few
congratulations cards they’d received from eager friends, and hiding the book of
baby names. He tried to stay strong for Margo, to pick up her pieces, but Jon wanted
to fall apart too.
Pseudocyesis. That’s what the doctor said she had experienced: a false
pregnancy. A false hope of what Margo had dreamed of since she said “I do”. The
symptoms matched up for months: she had the nausea, she gained the weight, she
shed the tears. And she was so happy – Jon had never seen someone smile as they
threw up over the toilet. It wasn’t until they went in to get Margo’s first sonogram
that not only was there no baby, but there never would be. The doctors found an
abnormality in her follicles that in short terms meant her eggs weren’t fully
developed. Margo never had a child in her, but she felt the loss all the same.
“Do you think I don’t know this?” she had said to Jon after they got the
diagnosis. “That it was never real? My child – my son – wasn’t real. But to me he was. It
should be easy to just get over it. But I… I can’t. He was so real, Jon.”
“I know, honey, I know. But the doctor said – “
“Fuck what the doctor said!” she snapped. “That male doctor will never know
what it is like. Having something you’ve always wanted, then getting it stripped away
and being told you made it up. And then that you can never have it.” Tears welled in
her eyes. “Jon, I felt him. I felt our son. His little heartbeat, his little kicks. It was so
“Margo, I’m sorry. I just want you to be happy.” He motioned to hug her, but
she flinched away. Hesitantly, she accepted and sunk into his arms.
“I’m fine. I promise,” she said. “I wish we could go back to before, back when I
never thought I was pregnant.”
Now they crossed the street along the golf cart pathway, curving toward the
neighborhood golf course’s fourth hole. But instead of going to the tee off, Margo led
him behind the thick bushes where the lake was. It was manmade, but Jon and his
wife liked to pretend it was a hidden oasis amidst suburbia.
About a month ago Jon took her there to try and cheer her up, but not even
the beauty of the lake could bring the light to her eyes. They walked by the hibiscus
bushes in the shade, and as Margo motioned to sit down Jon jerked her back.
“What was that for?” she asked.
Jon pointed to where she was about to sit – “Look”. Just under the bush,
hidden in the foliage, was a nest of eggs. Margo stopped breathing. Also in the bush
was a mother duck – watching the two of them cautiously. She wagged her tail in
defense, but eventually lowered her guard. Behind her they saw her protected
treasures – little newborn ducklings that were barely able to walk. Light, feathery
down covered them like static cling. Jon looked over to Margo and saw the best gift
anyone or any god could have graced him: she smiled again.
Since then Margo had gone to see the ducklings every day. He was okay with
her bringing them bread. He was okay with her calling them “the babies”. He was
not okay with when she started bringing little toys. He was not okay with her calling
them “my babies.”
Now the ducklings, yellow and fluffy, swam along the golf course lake in line
with the mother. Margo pointed at one of them “Look at little Jeremy, he’s finally
keeping up with the others.” She bent down and said, “I’m so proud of you!” Jon
couldn’t tell them apart. Hell, he wasn’t even sure if she could tell them apart. But he
smiled and nodded along with her.
Jon checked his watch and frowned. “I’ve got to go,” he said.
Margo didn’t look away from the lake. “Okay, you go on ahead. I’m going to
“Are you sure?” He studied her carefully.
She finally tore her gaze away and looked at him. “Yeah. I’ll see you tonight.”
He grazed her shoulder as he stole a quick kiss. As he walked away, he
hollered, “Don’t stay here too long!”
He heard her laugh behind him and say loudly, “One time!”
Three, he corrected in his head. Three times he had left her in the morning to
find her still there at sunset in the same spot, smiling at her ducks. He hoped she
remembered to eat this time. He knew this wasn’t healthy for her, but she was so
* * *
Jon loosened his tie with his free hand before tossing it into the passenger’s
seat. It landed on the box of orange-frosted doughnuts he had picked up for home.
They were Margo’s favorites. Memories of her sweet smile drowned out his worries
about work. He was devoting more time to the bank and acquiring brownie points
with his manager to get a raise. Anything to support the both of them at this
When he reached a stoplight, his phone rang in the cupholder. A picture of
his mother shone on the screen, and he sighed in preparation as he turned on the
car’s wireless speaker.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, trying to sound like the cheerful boy she always thought
he was. Jon was raised with her saying “A mother is only as happy as her saddest
child.” And, as Jon was her one and only, he needed to be as happy as could be so she
didn’t have to be sad anymore since his dad had passed away a few years back.
“Jon, sweetie, how are you? I haven’t heard from you in months!”
Weeks, Mom. “Yeah, Margo and I have been busy lately. Sorry.” The thought
“Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask” ricocheted through his head like a bullet.
“It’s all right, I know how you lovebirds can be. So how’s Margo?”
“Depends if you ask me, or her,” he muttered.
“Nothing, nothing. Margo’s fine.” Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask.
“She’s handling everything okay? I can send her some bigger clothes when
she needs them.” And then she asked. “How’s the baby coming along?”
Jon coughed and gripped his hands tighter on the steering wheel. He passed
by a cul-de- sac stopped the car besides a dumpster. He didn’t trust himself on the
road like this. “Theresnobaby,” he mumbled.
“Sorry, what was that? I think your connection is going.”
“There’s no… bamby,” he choked out, almost inaudibly.
“Bambi? Jon what are you saying?”
“THERE IS NO GODDAMN BABY,” he shouted.
Silence rang through the leather-seated car. The seatbelt choked him,
constrained him from doing anything but sit there and stew in his outburst. Helpless
– that’s all he was. To him and to Margo.
“What… do you mean?” his mother finally asked.
“We went to the doctor for the sonogram, and there was no baby. Empty.”
“Was it a miscarriage?”
“No, there never was a baby.”
“So Margo lied?” Anger tinged her voice. “How long did this go on?”
“No! God, no. Margo thought she was pregnant. She really did. We found out
about a month ago. The doctor said she had this thing called pseudocyesis, where
you think you’re pregnant but not.”
“Did she ever take a test?”
“She…” Wait, did she? Jon couldn’t remember. “It doesn’t matter. She’s fine
now. She’s happy.”
“But how do you feel, Jon? You’re my baby, not Margo. I want to know that
“Like I said, happy,” he said.
“No, you said that she is happy. Which I also have trouble believing. How do
Cheated out of my child, he wanted to say. And exhausted. “I’m fine, Mom.
Trust me. We can get through this. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, we haven’t
really told anyone.”
“You need to talk to her about this, son. If it’s only been a month, there’s no
way that she’s over it. A mother’s grief is immeasurable, even if she wasn’t really a
“But how?” He hated how pathetic he sounded to his mother.
“How you do it is up to you – you know your wife. But you have to do it
before it gets worse. It’s okay not to be fine.”
Jon’s lip quivered. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks, Mom.”
“I love you. And don’t forget to call more, okay? I’m not getting any younger
An exhaled laugh escaped him. “Okay.” With trembling hands, he slowly
merged back onto the road. He hoped to god that Margo was home, and happy, and
was ready to talk. How would he even break it to her besides saying bluntly ‘Those
ducks are not your children and you need to snap out of this’? He would be
supportive of her no matter what she did, but this wasn’t healthy for either of them.
He pulled into the driveway, running over a spot of lawn in the setting sky’s
light. The house lights weren’t on. Maybe she’s just writing and forgot. Wishful
thinking, Margo writing again. Jon got out and tried the front door – locked. He
rested his head against the wooden door. “Four,” he sighed.
Back in the car, he drove to the lake with a fogged mind. Everything was just
so fucked up. He wanted to go back to the months before, when there was no
thought of a made up baby, or any baby at all. Jon wanted to be angry with Margo,
for bringing up his hopes of being a father and then dashing them. The doctor had
told him privately to not blame her for the delusion. “She made it up,” Jon had said
desperately. The doctor said no, and that Margo had truly believed that she was
pregnant. All of the pity went to Margo, but Jon had grievances too. Gone were the
images of him holding his child, of taking his son or daughter to museums and
sports games, of being called “Dad”.
Doughnuts in hand, he went to where he had left her but she wasn’t there.
The sunset reflected against the lazily rippling waves, cresting shades of pink and
“Margo?” he called out. No response. The golf course was empty, a final cart
driving away. Jon circled the lake until he came to the hibiscus bushes where they
had first found the nest. He stilled at the sound of sobbing. Slowly, he approached to
find Margo on the ground behind the bush, knelt into a quivering ball and holding
something. Immediately he was beside her, tentatively placing a hand on her
shoulder. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
She sat up, mascara staining her cheeks. Her hands unfurled to reveal a tiny
lifeless duckling, soft feathers swaying in the gentle breeze. Unable to look away, she
began to choke on her own sobs. Jon didn’t know what to say. He wanted to tell her
it was just a duck. Ducklings are frail, and this one didn’t make it.
“Little Jeremy,” she whispered. “I don’t know how this happened.”
“It’s not your fault,” Jon said.
Margo’s hands were shaking. “It is. I should have known when he was gone
from the rest of them. He was my baby.”
Jon finally began to cry, too, but not for the duck. “No, he wasn’t,” he said.
“None of them are. You realize that, right?”
She shook her head. “No, no they were mine. My babies. My – “ She started
crying again. “Oh, God. What am I doing?” Her thumb brushed absently across
Jeremy’s feathers. “Jon?” she said softly.
Mouth open, trying to find words, she finally said: “I’m not fine.”