Welcome, Paula Carter!

This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us in the past six months—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.
Today we bring you Paula Carter, whose flash memoir No Relation will be published in March of 2018.

lba_2192-1The Author

Paula Carter’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Salon, and Southern Humanities Review. She is a professional freelance writer who has contributed to publications including Writer’s Digest and Creative Nonfiction. Based in Chicago, she is part of the nonfiction storytelling scene and a company member with 2nd Story. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Indiana University, Bloomington, where she was the Darrell Burton Fellow in Creative Writing and fiction editor for the Indiana Review.



Love song
We are going to see the bats. We are three, James, his youngest son, and me. The bats will appear at dusk, swooping low among the trees at Bryan Park. They are easy to miss, because at first they look like swallows. But, if you look closely, you’ll see that they move differently – less of a glide and more of a dance. I say this to Alex as we walk, thinking he will find it interesting. Alex is looking down into the grass, scouting, and he tells me that his class went on a field trip to a cave filled with thousands and thousands of bats and so he already knows. Alex is wearing a sleeveless tank top that shows his plump, four-year-old arms and I am tempted to squeeze them, but it is safer to take James’s hand in my own. James leans over and kisses my head. Ahead of us, Alex spies something and calls out “Dad!” staccato, breathless. James goes to him and squats down and the two of them look at a family of mushrooms growing under a fledgling tree.
When we get to the bench in the middle of the park, James lies down to look at the sky but Alex is restless. He asks me if I’ll play tag. I make a sudden move and he takes off running. His motor skills are still developing and his legs kick out on either side as he runs. I feel silly careening after him, unsure of what I’ll do once I catch him. The sky is getting darker, turning purple, and I hear James call to us, “I see one, guys. I see a bat,” but we are a ways away now. The lights from the tennis courts pop on, throwing shadows all over the park.
I am close to Alex, only a few feet away, when he turns and says, “I bet you can’t kiss me.” I am startled but say, “Bet I can.” We are moving farther away from James and I wonder if he is worried. I gain on Alex easily and when I am close enough I lift him up into my arms and I can hear him giggling a low, heavy giggle, which vibrates through me like a hymn. I flip him over so he is lying in my arms. He is still giggling when I lean down and carefully kiss his forehead. It is a humid night and his skin is coated in a soft layer of moisture. He smells like the grass. When I raise my head and look at him, he is quiet. He is looking at me hard. He is looking for something. I think to smile, to say something like you would to a small child, but I just stare back. Finally his eyes dart from mine and he points to the sky and says, “Is that one?” And in the next instant James calls to us, “Guys, come here, you’re missing it.”
What the boys were like
We were making cookies and Alex kept eating the cookie dough. His father, trying to be smart, told him it was fine. In fact, he could eat as much of it as he wanted. I nodded, knowing exactly where James was going with this. We sat across from Alex at the second hand kitchen table and followed every mouthful. Waiting. Alex kept eating. Another bite. A pound at least. He never did get sick. It was a bust. Somehow that kid would always beat the rules.
Caleb, on the other hand, stood on the edge of a brand new playground that had just been completed, right outside the caution tape, while his father and Alex played on the new equipment. James called to him, told him to come on, it was fine. They wouldn’t get in trouble. But still, Caleb stood there, watching them swing and slide. He couldn’t cross that boundary.
That’s just the way they were.
Conversation overheard
“I was going to have a first date with this girl. The first date was going to be walking her dog. My friends, they said maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. They said: What if you like the dog?”
His life with her
Each time we go to his ex-wife’s house, I recognize something else from his life with her. The rugs are the same ancient indigo rugs he has in his house. On the wall is a small painting he has done. A larger one, reminiscent of his style, he assures me was done by a colleague—someone who once was a friend of both of theirs. When I meet these friends, they smile at me. They are glad to see him with someone and they tell him that, sometimes in private, sometimes while I am standing there. But I can see that I confuse them. I am the new woman. I am not the boys’ mother. I am young. One woman announces that she asked the boys if they liked me—my motives suspect, she goes to the source. She is happy to report they said yes.
The dishes are the same, probably from their wedding, split after the divorce. The albums—Richard Buckner, John Prine. It is eerie. It seems to me—because I did not see them divide—that these duplicate items have just shown up in both of their houses, as if they should be on one of those shows about long-lost twins who when discovered turn out to both be dentists and wear plaid. As if they are each, still, one half of the other.
One day I open up a photo album sitting on her coffee table and am shocked to see a photo of James and her in the delivery room moments after the birth of their second son. They both look so happy.
At night, in bed, I ask God to make me a bigger person.
The six of us
In the car one night on our way home from somewhere, Caleb announced that he thought I should marry his new stepdad, Ian, and James should remarry his mom and then all six of us should live together in one house. I could see how this made sense to him. His stepdad and I were in the same category—in his mind, we were the same. And I was flattered: Caleb hadn’t discounted his stepdad and me. Even if his parents got back together, he imagined we were there to stay. As it turned out, that was not the case.

To read further excerpts from No Relation, see the Spring, 2017 issue of Prairie Schooner.