Poet and activist Gary Snyder described Olivia Boler’s first novel Year of the Smoke Girl (Dry Bones Press, 2000) as a “dense weave in the cross-cultural multi-racial world of complex, educated, hip, contemporary coast-to-coast America… It is a fine first novel, rich in paradox and detail.” A freelance writer who majored in English at MHC (and minored in Biology), Boler received her master’s degree in creative writing from UC Davis, and has published short stories in the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) anthology Cheers to Muses, the literary journal MARY, and FacetsMagazine, among others. She lives in her native San Francisco with her family.
It starts, a dropping stab of jagged glass in her belly. No, Amy thinks, it’s lower, near her bladder. She grabs for the armrest but Carlton is covering it with his elbow as he reads the newspaper. She nudges his arm away and squeezes, eyes closing as the cramp rides over her, crunching its way up her abdomen, into her ribs. Her body is hot all over, and she tears off her sweatshirt, catching some strands of her long black hair under her nails. Outside the train, the interstate and countryside flash by in a high-speed chase.
“What’s wrong?” Carlton asks.
“I don’t know.” She is perspiring a little, and she feels his hand on her forehead.
“Don’t tell me it was the chili.”
She opens her eyes and laughs but it’s more of an idea. “Never.”
She’s eaten his chili at least a dozen times, and it’s never been like this. She’s not a big eater, being so little. A half-piece of toast and a cup of coffee in the mornings. A tuna sandwich on one slice of bread and a kid’s-sized carton of milk for lunch. For dinner, ramen noodles with a chopped hard-boiled egg, slurping it all up with her ivory chopsticks, the pair she’s had since girlhood. One cookie and more milk before bed. There are variations on the theme, but she always does meals in half-measures.
“Maybe it’s nerves,” Carlton says.
“Like before an exam.”
“I guess.” She doesn’t get nervous before exams. She relishes them.
He reaches one long arm to the rack above their seats where they have stowed their baggage and pulls his backpack onto his lap. He digs out a squeeze bottle, the kind cyclists keep on bicycles, and hands it to her. She unscrews the cap and drinks the water deeply, draining it. She’s been so thirsty lately.
“That’s better.” Amy settles back into her seat, leaning her head against the window.
He puts the bottle away. “If you need to puke, just tell me.”
“Maybe it’s cramps.”
Carlton tenses. Barely, but enough for her to notice. “Female stuff” he calls it. Her father used to avoid the topic as well, until the day she got her first period and there was no one else to talk to her about it. He muttered to himself for a while in pained Cantonese as Amy, full of embarrassment, shadowed him down the feminine products aisle of Albertson’s. After they returned home, he paced their living room, finally pulling out a worn paperback copy of Romeo and Juliet. He explained how young the doomed lovers had been. Just children, Juliet not much older than Amy. But they thought they were ready for each other, for being in love, and for taking part in everything it involved. And then they died, he explained, their love story becoming a parental warning. Don’t have sex so young. Don’t fall in love.
“Wouldn’t that be a hoot?” Amy says. “Finally meeting your family, and I’m curled up in your childhood bedroom all weekend popping Midol.”
He faces straight ahead. “Huh.”
“It’s about time though.”
“You mean for Midol or for meeting my parents?”
Ah—she got him to say, “Midol”—a coup. He picks up his paper again, The Christian Science Monitor. She teases him now and then about being the only business major not reading the Wall Street Journal. Everything about Carlton is a little touched by God.
Amy rolls her cheek against the cool glass of the window. The freeway parallels their route in the distance, but the train flows in a way they never could in the stop-and-go Friday rush to get out of Dodge, to go elsewhere. They could be on their way to a fresh start—a young frontier couple picking up and settling new territory.
Whatever it is that hit her, it must be over. She thinks about the upcoming visit to Carlton’s home, his family. They live in Clayton. She knows nothing about the town, and very little about his family, even after a year of sharing an apartment. They started out as roommates, strictly platonic, only because Carlton could not find another guy to share his place, but the odds were against him, the ratio of women to men at their university three to one. Once he began making romantic overtures, she wasn’t sure of the rules of conduct. She still has her own room, and whenever they fall asleep together or things get, as he calls it, “passionate,” he gets up and leaves. Amy is always left breathless and at once irritated with and in awe of his dedication to avoiding premarital nooky.
Every holiday, she goes home to her father’s in Lodi and Carlton goes to his family in Clayton. Every time Carlton’s family has come to visit him at school, Amy has been out of town or working at the library or taking part in any of a bag full of excuses she has concocted, none of them insulting, all of them legitimate. In the beginning she was genuinely busy, but over the months, avoiding them has become a sort of game. She’s out of reasons: here she is, on the train. And what can she do to stop it? She’s not even sure she wants to. She’s not sure of anything.
Her abdomen pulls at her. She doubles over without thinking and takes a deep breath, clutching at the seat in front of her. When she sits up again, Carlton is looking at her, alarm in his eyes.
“I think I’ll go to the bathroom,” she whispers, her voice husky, not her own.
He stands up quickly, and she slips by him, trying to appear normal and healthy as she heads to the back of the compartment. Privacy, she thinks. Sweet alone time.
Maybe it’s the train. Amy hasn’t been on a train in years. A few trips to visit her grandmother in Santa Clara, when she was in middle school. She didn’t get sick though, but things change, even tolerance for motion.
Inside the lavatory, which surprises her by being spacious and metallic, Amy unbuttons her jeans and pulls them down with her underpants. She sits on the toilet and pees, a long, relieving stream. After she’s done, she doesn’t get up right away, but stays there, the car swaying and rocking. She’s sitting backwards to the train’s motion. The window is frosted over, and someone has scratched “Billy the Kid” into the surface. She wonders if the graffitist meant to write “Jesse James.” She did a report on Billy when she was in fourth grade, and she doesn’t recall him robbing trains, although he did rustle cattle and kill a few men. All he ever wanted was to come clean and live honestly. Instead, he was pulled back into a life of banditry and lies. In the end, he was caught and shot.
Carlton is going to propose. Amy found the receipt in his windbreaker pocket when she was doing their laundry. One diamond solitaire in her size-four from The Diamond Center. She groaned when she saw it. The Diamond Center runs droning ads on radio stations around the Bay Area, including Carlton’s favorite Christian rock station. Amy never understood why the store’s owners choose such forums, not until seeing the receipt in Carlton’s pocket. Where else would an unworldly college student go for an engagement ring? She can’t imagine him walking into Tiffany’s or Gump’s in downtown San Francisco. He doesn’t even like the city. He’s made jokes several times about it being a den of sin. Which is exactly what Amy likes about it. She dreams of moving there after graduation, getting an apartment in an old Edwardian building on Dolores Street. Her cousins who have lived there all their lives could introduce her to people. It doesn’t matter what kind of job she’ll have. Maybe in a bookstore or a smart shop in Union Square or as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Sometimes Carlton is in these fantasies, but usually he’s not.
“Don’t your parents disapprove of us?” she once asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“You know,” she said. “I’m not Christian.”
He took her hand. “Not yet.” She’s been going to his Bible study meetings, which he leads every Wednesday night. She started a few months ago, and finds herself bewildered by the intensity of her peers—their fervent belief that the book in their hands is their ticket to everlasting happiness. She isn’t one to speak up in class, and so she’s the perfect girlfriend for Carlton to have there—never questioning his interpretations, only nodding along with everyone else.
“Do they know about us?” she asked. “You, know, being roommates?”
“Well, don’t they assume we’re…you know.”
“They trust me.”
“So they don’t think we’re living in sin.”
Carlton laughed. “But we’re not. And eventually, when we do…do it, it won’t be a sin. It will be what is right.”
She tried to imagine it’s something Romeo would say to Juliet, but it felt wrong.
Before Amy moved in, her friend Patrick rented her room, but he got his own place in a new apartment complex on the edge of Davis. In fact, it was Patrick who introduced Amy to Carlton. He was Amy’s biology lab partner, and they were studying in the library one evening when Carlton stopped by to say hello. They told him about their project. “The ecology of evolution?” he said. “Do you always blindly believe what you don’t see?” The question startled Amy. She had not thought about it before, but she figured out immediately that the answer was yes. One night recently, while they thumbed through scripture looking for some passage that Carlton insisted would prove his point about something or other, Amy realized that Carlton was also guilty of blindly believing in what he could not necessarily see or prove true. Faith: he declared he had it in God and in her.
Using lots of toilet paper, Amy checks for blood. There might be the slightest, pinkish tinge, but it’s hard to tell in the lavatory’s low light. Maybe it’s not her period nor food poisoning, but hunger. She looks in the mirror, which reflects her image like in a baking sheet. Pale. She actually has dark circles under her eyes. She hasn’t been sleeping well. Lately, in the middle of the night she awakens, her dreams vivid and about men who aren’t Carlton, her body pulsing. Sometimes there are movies stars and sometimes there are people she knows—her sexy Chinese History professor who has taken an interest in her family story, or the youngish pastor of Carlton’s church who is twice divorced. Sometimes, and this doesn’t surprise her at all, it’s Patrick, her old lab partner, whom she still sees, their paths crossing on the quad or the campus coffee shack where he works. Despite the occasional awkwardness that accompanies these encounters—awkward because of the dreams and because of that one late-night study session at his place she tries not to think about with longing— she’s become a double-shot mocha addict, or so she tells herself. Is she addicted to espresso drinks or is there something else she’s been ignoring? It only happened once with Patrick, and they agreed to stay friends, nothing more. It was right around the time Carlton started to woo her with his strange mixed signals of restrained “passion,” and she wanted to be sure she was okay with that.
During her night wakings, she goes to the refrigerator and more often than not eats a cheese stick. It’s a new part of her routine. She pinches the flesh on her waist. No wonder she’s thickened up, put on weight. Not that she really knows how much. They don’t have a scale (Carlton thinks they breed vanity), and the last time she got weighed was at the health center over a year ago. She was one hundred pounds, perfectly normal, the nurse practitioner told her, for her small frame.
The walk back to her seat is a little better than her previous flight from it. Carlton starts to stand, but she nudges him over to the window.
It’s a good thing too: a cramp far worse than the others grabs at her insides. Tucking her feet under her legs, she clenches her teeth, keeps quiet as Carlton frowns and watches her, helpless. The pain is radiating into her hips. She can feel it in her bones, and the sweat is a trickle down her temple, curving under her chin. Carlton touches her forehead again.
“You’re burning up.”
“It’s just a little fever.”
“We have to get off the train.”
“No.” She looks around. No one is paying attention to them. “Please don’t make a big deal out of this. I’m all right.”
“We’re getting off.” Carlton climbs over her and heads toward one of the emergency pulls. Amy dreads what is about to happen, even as the thought sends a quiver of anticipation through her.
But he doesn’t pull it, and although she’s not surprised, she’s a little disappointed. Instead, he taps a conductor on the shoulder, the one who has been walking up and down the aisle glancing now and then at their tickets in the plastic sleeves above their heads. Carlton gestures as he speaks, but when the men part, the conductor walks the other way.
“What did he say?” she asks when Carlton sits down again. She has started panting, her body a tight ball containing the agony that has become a part of her core.
“He said the next stop is in five minutes. There’s got to be a hospital nearby.”
“You didn’t tell him I’m sick?”
Carlton takes Amy’s hand, which is moist and hot in his own dry one. “It’s okay. We don’t have to alarm anyone else. We’ll be there in five minutes.”
Two minutes later, she lets out a wail, and everyone is alarmed, including the conductor, who hurries back into the compartment and leans over them. “Miss? Miss? Miss, are you okay?”
“It’s her stomach,” Carlton tells him. The smallest whine arises from Amy’s lips. Her eyes squint in pain, her teeth chew on her tongue to distract her body from the cramping in her abdomen. Another thought she’s been holding in abeyance rises to the surface—cancer. It could be—there’s a history there.
“Okay, listen,” the conductor says. “We’re heading into the Vallejo station. I’m going to call ahead and get some help for you—”
Amy tries to protest, but the two men insist.
“Maybe it’s your appendix,” Carlton says after the conductor leaves.
There’s nothing she can do but sit there dying. If this is really it though, she’s not scared. In fact, she’s fascinated by the thought. She imagines a tumor, a bloody pit-holed lump impaling itself in her body, bursting from between her legs or, in horror-movie style, out her belly button, her flesh shredding, sunbursting like a gory flower. That’s what it feels like, like her stomach is going to rupture out of her, a rabid animal abandoning the cave it’s always known. She would pray if she could concentrate. Carlton prays all the time. He has conversations with the Lord everyday—while he’s driving, studying, or even watching football on TV. “Jesus Christ, now why did You make them try that on fourth and twelve?” Does God listen? Amy often forgets to pray—her prayers feel staged, and when she presses her hands together she has to keep herself from resting her index fingers in her nostrils.
She gives it a try without the angel hands.
Please, God, please. If you make this go away, I will be so good. I won’t leave Carlton if You don’t want me to. Just make this go away. Just make this go away. She clenches her teeth so hard, she’s afraid a molar will crack. Go away.
Carlton squeezes her hand. “Amy, what are you mumbling? I can’t understand you.”
“Go away,” she whimpers. “Leave me alone.”
But he doesn’t, and neither does the pain.
The horn blows and the train begins to slow. Through the industrial backside of town, they roll through an abandoned orchard, storage facilities, yards congested with parked boxcars. The train glides into the station, the airbrakes burping and sighing their arrival. Once more, Carlton climbs over her and grabs their bags. He asks if she can make it on her own, and she nods. The other passengers scattered throughout the car are staring at them. They instinctively move aside to let the young couple off first. Amy tries to smile her gratitude, but they shrink back, as if she and Carlton were armed bandits worthy of fear and curiosity.
Amy expects a train-station nurse toting a first-aid kit, but instead there are paramedics waiting with a full gurney, a man and a woman wearing light blue shirts. They spot their patient right off, pulling her with gentle firmness onto the stretcher. They take her pulse, listen to her heart with a stethoscope, put a thermometer in her mouth. The woman asks her questions in a singsong voice: “What’s your name? Amy? Okay, Amy. When did you start feeling like this? Where does it hurt? What kind of pain is it? Cramping pain, you say? How’s your breathing? Has this happened to you before?”
Carlton is swept to the side holding their bags, a look of bewilderment on his face. Amy thinks there’s no need for him to come with her. In fact, he should go on, get back on the train. His family, who are supposed to meet them at the station, will wonder where they are when they don’t show up. She can do this on her own.
But before she can tell him, the male paramedic has put a little plastic mask over her face. It covers her nose and mouth. A cool, continuous gust caresses the insides of her nose and mouth, and she feels a heady blissfulness. Amy lays back and the man and woman with their strong, muscled arms wheel her away.
In the ambulance, the siren takes over everything else. If the paramedics are talking, she can’t hear them over the shrill, urgent blast. Carlton sits up front. Amy tries to raise her hand to get his attention, except her arm feels like lead. They’ve put an IV into the soft joint of her elbow. Isn’t it too high, too vulnerable? She closes her eyes.
The jostling movement of the gurney signals their arrival. Amy opens her eyes. They’re entering a hospital emergency room and several people surround her. Carlton is talking calmly to a man in blue scrubs. He carries himself with the youthful authority of a person who isn’t easily fazed anymore, and Amy guesses he’s the ER doctor. He nods grimly and brushes by Carlton to huddle with the paramedics. After slapping them each on the shoulder he turns to Amy. A nurse helps her onto the thin mattress of a hospital bed, and the paramedics reclaim their own.
“Okay, Amy, let’s take a look.” The doctor begins patting her belly with his fingers, as if forming the crust of a pie.
“I thinks it’s some chili I ate last night,” she says, muffled through her mask. If it’s cancer, he’ll have to find it on his own.
“Or her appendix,” Carlton says, hovering.
The doctor isn’t looking at either of them, but at a spot across the room. His hands hurt her as he pushes, and Amy can’t help but cry out.
“Rigid,” he murmurs. “Amy, when’s the last time you had your period?”
“I don’t know.” She hasn’t bought a new box of tampons or pads in over a year. She tries to remember her last period, but it’s one of those insignificant events that melds into others like it.
“Are you currently sexually active?”
Amy’s mouth opens. She glances at Carlton.
“No,” he says, a blush rising from his neck into his face. Amy nods.
“I don’t get my period regularly,” she adds as an afterthought. “Maybe three or four times a year.”
“That so,” the doctor says, his hands still on her stomach. “Amy, I’m going to do a pelvic exam, okay?”
She wants to ask why, but simply nods again. A nurse scoots Carlton away and draws a curtain around the bed. She helps Amy pull off her jeans and underwear. She’s exposed for only a few seconds before the nurse tosses a blue paper sheet over her middle. The doctor’s gloved fingers slip inside of her. “Cervix?” he mumbles to himself. He feels around some more. “No. No. That’s the baby’s head.”
“The what?” Amy tries to sit up. The nurse puts a hand on her shoulder and pushes her gently back.
“Amy, you’re about to deliver. Why didn’t you tell us you were pregnant?”
Carlton pokes his head around the curtain. His mouth is the roundest O she’s ever seen.
Within an hour, it’s over. Briefly, the doctor lays a slick, blue and pink baby boy on Amy’s chest, staining the cream-colored blouse she picked out this morning with Carlton’s parents in mind. The baby is on the small side—five pounds, six ounces—but healthy, the doctor assures her. Amy can tell that he doesn’t for a minute believe that neither she nor Carlton had any idea she was pregnant. A nurse takes the baby away to do something—another Apgar test or a bath—and Amy is alone behind her curtain for a few minutes. Even Carlton has disappeared. Sweet alone time. In those minutes, she mentally rearranges her life: her imaginary apartment on Dolores Street, her job in a smart Union Square boutique. She thinks about getting baptized—or not. And about Carlton. What will she do about him? In the time it has taken to give birth and feel the baby, slippery and bona fide on her chest, her world has turned in the most peculiar way.
A nurse and two aides return and help her into a wheel chair, covering her in a clean sheet. They wheel her onto an elevator and up to the hospital’s maternity ward, Carlton trailing after them, quiet as a tomb. The nurse takes Amy’s blood pressure and temperature and weighs her. She is 107 pounds. She’s given a soft cloth gown and some maxi-pads. Color rises to Carlton’s pale cheeks when Amy asks him to find a clean pair of underpants in her luggage. She takes a quick shower, surprised by how strong she feels, and changes in the bathroom of the hospital room, a room she has all to herself with a window looking over the parking lot six stories down.
The nurse settles Amy into her bed. All she wants to do is sleep, but another nurse wheels a small plastic tub holding the baby into the room. He’s clean, swaddled in a flannel blanket, a blue knit cap on his head. His face is like a squashed cabbage.
“Who would like to hold him?” the nurse asks.
Carlton is the second oldest in a family of five brothers and one sister, and he has handled babies. He sits in his chair, looks at the drowsing baby, and shakes his head.
“I will,” says Amy. The nurse demonstrates how to cradle him in both of her arms.
The baby’s mouth is scrunched and he suddenly looks to be on the verge of crying. The nurse shows Amy how to lock his lips to her nipple. “You say you didn’t know you were pregnant? I guess you haven’t had any prenatal classes then. Why would you, right?”
The nurse chuckles. She’s trying to be kind, but Amy senses her judgment underneath the veneer. She thinks Amy is an idiot.
“No. I didn’t.”
“Don’t worry, sweetie. It happens. Not often, but it happens.”
The baby holds on. The sucking sensation takes Amy’s breath away. It hurts, but in a good way, like a massage. Her breasts are only a little bigger than she remembers them being, not that she has paid attention to the little thing that is her body. It’s always just been there, unfailingly carting her around, staying about the same. She’s young and hasn’t considered that it would betray her, not yet. Her mother died in her thirties of uterine cancer, and a part of Amy’s thinking has been that she has time, ten or fifteen years, before she need worry about such stuff as her health.
The baby’s eyes are huge and dark, like a cat’s after it has come inside a lit house from a midnight hunt. Amy nestles him in closer to her. His long detached earlobes peek from under the cap. He’s a bundle, a papoose, and she doesn’t dare unwrap him for further assessment. The nurse leaves.
Carlton is still in his chair holding Amy’s bag of clothes.
“You lied to me,” he says.
She doesn’t answer.
“You lied to me.”
“No,” she says. “You assumed.”
There are tears in his eyes. “Who is it?” He doesn’t wait for her answer. “I wanted to marry you.”
“I know.” She thinks about the Diamond Center receipt. “But I wanted to do it, Carlton. Remember, for what it’s worth, I asked you to be my first.”
“You know how I feel about that,” he says, his voice rising. The baby whimpers. Carlton recoils. “Whose name is going on that birth certificate?” He’s not shouting, but his face has turned a dangerous, deep pink. “This happened nine months ago,” he says somewhat stupidly. “Who is he? Do you even know?” His tone suddenly softens. “Was it—did he force you?”
She looks into Carlton’s cloudy eyes. She feels sorry for him.
“No. I wanted to do it,” she says. “You know that.”
“But I thought we were waiting.”
“Not me,” she says. She looks at the baby. Some, like the members of their Bible study group, might think he is her punishment for betraying Carlton.
“Have you called your parents?” she asks him. “Weren’t we supposed to be there by now?”
He checks his watch obediently. “About an hour ago.”
“They’ll worry.” She pauses. “Maybe you should go.”
He stands and looks down at them.
“Please,” he says. “Just tell me. Who’s it is?”
But she does not want to tell him because she knows—and for the first time in her life is certain of—what she is supposed to do. She would not have known two hours ago, been able to see the differences between what is, by all accounts, “right” and what she desires. From now on, she will pay attention—to her body, to her thoughts, to everything she comes across. She thinks ahead to that moment when she will walk up to Patrick at the coffee shack carrying their son, and she’ll order a decaf. She knows that much about being a mother—no more caffeine for now.
She looks down at the sleeping baby, his mouth still on her—she’ll need to figure out how to detach him. She’ll do what she needs to do and she’ll learn. And, if she has to, she’ll fight for what she wants because she’ll finally figure out what that is. Carlton is not her Romeo, but a Romeo isn’t what she needs—after all, look what happened to that poor fool, and to Juliet. Her father was right. All Amy needs is in her arms. This thought makes her feel like an outlaw who has just stolen away with a bag of gold. The baby breathes through his tiny nostrils, his eyes finding her face.
“He’s mine,” she says. “That’s all.”
She looks up one last time at Carlton to make sure he understands. The baby curls his hand around her finger, and she looks down at him, this light creature in her arms. This small, good answer.