The Red Romper by Eleonora Balsano

It’s barely been a month when you post about the sale, your stomach still swollen, your hormones still raging. Tsunamis of sadness hit when you least expect them, suck you in then spit you out, slap the carcass you’ve become. When the waves retreat, you’re lifeless. You like the word, the soothing sound of it, the bitter reality underneath.

Death comes to your mind, mostly when you look at the pills on your bedside table. You wish for a night that never ends, for darkness that matches the black hole inside, for someone to tuck you into bed forever.

Life goes on, everyone says. You’re still young; open those windows, let the air in.

Put everything on Craigslist. Out of sight, out of mind.

Up in the attic, time has stood still. From under the plastic film and the cardboard, everything smells of talc and baby cologne. You sit on the carpeted floor – woollen, impractical, expensive, gorgeous – and wait a bit before opening the boxes.

The new-born rompers are still immaculate.

You pick one up with two fingers, inhale its scent.

Then you bury your face in the box, ready to drown under a heap of tiny pyjamas with snap buttons on the legs. It would be a good death.

But you must live, remember? That’s what everyone says. You must live for them, although they don’t seem to live for you.

They sleep like babies at night.

You wake every two hours to nurse your ghost baby, the one born sleeping so soundly that, legally, she’s never been alive.

The day of the sale, it’s your husband who opens the door to prospective buyers; you can’t face an armada of pregnant ladies. In bed, that’s where you’ll stay, the bed you’ve been living in for the past six weeks. Eating, weeping, sleeping.

They arrive at noon. A couple of times you venture out on the landing, listen to their chirps, imagine their excitement, the intoxicating feeling of anticipation that pulses through their veins, swelling their bodies and hearts.  

It is easier once the attic is your office again, with the ergonomic leather chair and the dusty old files. It’s as though it’s never happened.

You look better, everyone says. A new haircut, a new dress.

They don’t know that, at night, you lie on the carpeted floor, face down, sniffing the white threads with the zeal of a bloodhound, desperate for a whiff of talc and baby cologne.

When life hasn’t turned out the way you hoped, nor have you found a way – yoga, God, Prozac – to make peace with it, you dream that you’re pregnant. Your baby needs clothes and bottles and a pram and a playmat. You dream of the brood of mums-to-be waddling out of your living room arm in arm. A folded pram in their boot, a bag containing a scented layette on their lap. Your baby’s pram, your baby’s layette, your baby’s scent. You want it all back.

In the morning, you leap out of bed, light and full. A dream is a dream is a dream, but this feels real.

It’s the red romper that you want back first. You’ll pay, any price. A slim lady with pale skin and flushed cheeks bought it. She wore a charm bracelet on her wrist that jingled like a bell on a cat’s collar. You heard it from upstairs. Her name was Anna and your husband found her lovely. He was sure she’d make such a good mum. You’d wanted to slice an axe through his head. You screamed that you would have been a good mum too. He brought you tea and a sleeping pill then called his mum. She said, give her time.

Anna’s number is easy to find thanks to the numerous acquaintances you still have in common.

Her WhatsApp picture shows four children building sandcastles on a Mediterranean beach. You enlarge the image with two fingers, study it. The toddlers’ cherubic chubbiness, the second’s missing teeth, the eldest’s long limbs. Then you ring her.

Do you still have, by any chance, the red romper? you ask, after briefly introducing yourself. The sale in Cherry Road. Yes, 2011. Yes, I think you were expecting your first. You describe the embroidered squirrel on the front, the tiny bone buttons on the shoulder, the white cotton collar.

A Santa suit?

No, not a Santa suit – a red romper, size three months.

Was it dungarees?

No, it was a red romper.

She doesn’t remember it.

She says she has to be somewhere and you hear the car engine and the wipers squeaking on her windshield but you beg her, please, it’s really important.

Go on, she says while chewing something.

Did you ever donate to charity?

Sure.

You scour every thrift store she mentioned. When you ask the saleswomen about the red romper, they chant in unison: we have new stuff coming in every Thursday. So many red rompers! Care to see one?

No, no, you don’t want a new one, you want the red romper with the squirrel and the bone buttons. Size three months.

How old is your baby now?

I don’t have a baby, you say, I just need the romper because I had this dream where I was pregnant and I know it’s a sign, a sign that I need to find all the things I sold in 2011…

They look at each other and then back at you. Before they say something, before the pity and the shame and the honest concern for a fellow human weave themselves together and end up in your face – a skein of corrosive yarn – you thank them and walk off.

It’s Christmas in a month and the shops are changing their windows, filling them with baubles and garlands, red and gold candles, bears and fawns. A robotic Santa in a velveteen suit startles the children with his metallic Ho, ho, ho!

You follow a young man with a Rudolph nose and Rudolph ears. He says there’s an early bird sale. Santa-themed rompers abound on the shelves but when you touch the fabric, it’s cheap and synthetic. Your red romper was thick and soft, 100% cotton, non-flammable. These new ones could catch fire under a hot bulb.

When you get home, you find your husband in the kitchen, talking on the phone.

She’s here, thank God. I’ll call you later, he says when he sees you.

Jesus, Isa, where have you been? I’ve called you the whole day!

You glance at your phone, it’s 7 pm. You’ve been walking for eight hours.

Do you remember the red romper, Chris?

Of course I do.

You do? You really do? Do you remember who bought it? I need to find it because I had this dream…

He steps towards you and takes you in his arms. We buried the baby with the red romper, Isa. It was your favourite, remember? Still too big for her, but we folded the legs under her feet. You said it would keep her warm.

Shock, shame and sorrow shut you up.

You have forgotten your baby’s face; you don’t even know what she was wearing before they took her away.

Yet, as you realise for the first time that she’s really gone, not even a blurred souvenir in some remote place of your brain, it’s relief that you feel. The night inside softens until it’s no more than a light shadow, a sombre companion you can summon and dismiss as you like.

You open those windows, let the air in, wear the dress and the red lipstick. You lie face down on the woollen carpet in the attic one last time, before stripping the floor naked and painting it white.

At Christmas, you light a candle for the baby you didn’t get to hold and hope that the red romper keeps her warm.

About The Author

Eleonora Balsano is a writer based in Brussels, with her husband, sons and dog. Her short fiction has placed and won in several competitions, including The Bridport Prize, and is featured or upcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream and FlashFlood. She is represented by the Zeitgeist Agency.

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