Dibs by Colleen Rothman

We start our day with the morning recap of yesterday’s violence against someone else’s kids. Two men behind the desk, sporting coordinated pastel ties. Chuckle, chuckle. Throw to the weather. A shorter man, balding, in a brown fleece pullover. Joke, joke, joke.

I gather the gear. Kiss goodbye. Clomp downstairs in my parka and Sorels. Let’s do this.

I exchange nods with the man next door as our front gates close in unison. He turns and heads east toward the lake, hastening his pace. The distance between us grows as we make our own journeys to the Red Line. My bulging messenger bag cuts into my neck.

Men surround me as I board. I look around for a seat. A sea of dudes, wool scarves unraveled, dark coats, like mine, unzipped, boots dripping into the grooves of the vinyl floor. Eyes on their phones, their books, the GrubHub ads on the ceiling. Everywhere but me.

I reach for a handle and heft my bag to the floor, trying to avoid the sloshing puddles as the train bobs, forcing us all to nod our heads. I close my eyes. Five hours of twice-interrupted sleep is not going to cut it today, and I don’t have time to stop for a latte. Maybe I can dash out after my first meeting, before I have to pump. No one will notice I’m gone.

I arrive at my windowless corner of the sky and start unloading. I feel someone’s eyes on me, and turn around. An older man is talking, but I’m underwater. All I hear is “my employees are much more motivated when they have another mouth to feed.” Yeah, let’s jam, man, one working parent to another. How do you juggle it all? And when did you get your pre-baby body back?

I bring my laptop to our manager’s meeting. Man, man, woman who hates kids, and my boss, who’s my age with two kids under two. “Stress energizes me,” she likes to brag. I start taking notes, but stop. All I want to do is look at my background photo. My kid, reclining in his borrowed Fisher-Price safari bouncer, gnawing on a wooden bee. He’s eleven weeks old today. My neck tingles. I glance downward; my blouse is damp.

Then, relief, or as close as it gets while milking yourself in a desk chair still sized for the marketing director who used to sit here. She was fired during my maternity leave. This sort of news used to upset me, but I no longer have the luxury of regret. If she still worked here, I’d be in a bathroom stall. Better her than me.

I arrange the used parts, small and delicate, like medical Monopoly pieces, on a floral dish towel. Yellow valves, like warped plastic thumbs severed at the knuckle, next to thin white membranes with bumpy grooves that pop into the valves just so. I attempt to remove the flecks of spattered milk from their crevices with quick-clean wipes. Yesterday I forgot them at home and had to sterilize everything in the break room sink next to an intern defrosting a Lean Cuisine.

I reassemble myself, fastening my last button as I rush to another call. Another man, one of our older sales guys who’s in a new hotel every week. I prefer to think of him as a consultant, which sounds more glamorous; after all, I’m following him up the same ladder. He’s the one who, when I sent the email about the dates of my leave, responded, “Have fun with your time off!” Have fun. Time off. Yeah, he totally gets it.

It’s a short work day today because our company is too cheap to realize that nobody wants to get festive with their coworkers on a Wednesday afternoon in January. For the first time in a year, I squeeze into high heels, and walk to the bar down the street. I sip so many club sodas with lime that the bartender starts assembling the next one when she sees me approaching. I sit with three men who had been my friends before I went on leave and feign caring about the holiday raffle.

Once that’s over, I circle the room to make eye contact with everyone who needs to see that I’m here, ducking around the men in plaid button-ups doing Fireball shots. I slip down the restaurant’s back staircase, surprising the coat-check girl playing Candy Crush. I walk back to the office to squeeze in a second pumping session before heading home, blinking through tears as I stare past the dusty mini-blinds onto the city below. The sinking sun’s reflection shimmers on the skyscrapers’ west-facing glass as orange streetlights flicker on below.

Back on the train with a heavier load. Twenty ounces of tomorrow’s food. A man with designer earmuffs offers me his seat. “Thanks,” I say. Could he see through the bag? Was a milk pouch poking out? Or do I still look pregnant?

Walking up our street, I see the man next door at his gate, also returning home in the dark. He sees me, and stops. I smile. We should know more of our neighbors. Forge a little community in the rows of three-flats.

He calls out, “Hey! Is this your car?” He points to our white Subaru.

“Yeah,” I say. “That’s us.”

“Could you not park it in front of our place anymore? We had a chair here for dibs, and someone moved it. My boyfriend spent an hour on Sunday digging it out, but he hasn’t been able to use it. He’s parked over on Glenwood now and he’s pretty pissed.”

My left eye twitches. Caused by lack of sleep—thanks, WebMD.

“Oh,” I say. “Sorry.”

“Thanks!” he says, and closes the gate. “Oh, and cute kid!” he shouts as he steps inside.

I trudge upstairs to the two men who matter. Dinner, bath time, story time, nursing, like every other night. Once the little guy is asleep, I take a shower to wash the day away.

It’s 9:00, 10:00 her time. Late, but I call anyway. Voicemail.

“Steph. It’s me,” I sigh. “Please tell me this gets easier.”

Colleen Rothman lives in Oak Park with her husband, her son and an extensive collection of diner mugs. She is at work on a novel. You can find her at colleenrothman.com and @colleenrothman.