"You're pregnant?!?" I spluttered. "By whom?" She turned toward me, her eyes gleaming with fury, like a cat's.
"My boyfriend," she snapped. Her mouth twisted. "Who'd you think?" Finding her glare frightening, I shook my head and backed away, mumbling excuses. Her eyes gleamed more brightly and she barked out a laugh. "My God; I'm a live-in, not a slut." I cringed at the words she used to describe herself.
"Don't say that."
"It's true." Turning away, she grabbed her sweatshirt and shrugged into it, yanking the sleeves over her hands and arms.
"Why?" As the question burst from my mouth, she froze, the sweatshirt hanging off one shoulder.
"Why do you do that to yourself?" Slowly she drew the sweatshirt over her shoulder and zipped it up. Her fingers lingered on the zipper and seemed reluctant to let it go.
"Sleep with him, you mean?" I nodded.
"Yeah." Her eyes dropped to the floor and her body went limp. For a long moment she stood silent.
"Because," she burst out. "Because he wants me."
"Oh—" I reached toward her, but she yanked away.
"No!" she shouted. "No, don't tell me you understand! I can't even explain it! Just . . . he wants me. He wants me." She repeated the phrase, her voice small and childlike, as if trying to reassure herself. Her fingers twisted with the chain of her silver necklace.
"Does he want all of you?" I asked in a soft voice. "Or just your body?" Her head jerked up and she stared at me in trembling, wide-eyed silence. I saw her swallow and lick her lips.
"Maybe," she whispered. "Maybe it's easier to be wanted for something I can give. Maybe it's easier to do that than to be beautiful and good." Before she turned her face away, I saw the tears running down her face. For a long moment, she stared away from me. My gaze drifted over her frame, lingering on the soft curve of her stomach, and I felt a stinging in my eyes. I rubbed my fingers across my face.
"What are you going to do?" My voice came out in a whisper as well; I felt afraid that too loud a tone would shatter her into a million tiny shards. She swiped at her face with her sleeve and shook her head.
"I don't know. Move to a cheaper apartment. Get a better job. Something." She pulled her sweatshirt tight around her body and shivered. "Not much else I can do." Her hand rested on her belly for a moment, then her mouth twisted in a smirk and she glanced into my eyes. "My moral code doesn't allow many options." Her eyes flashed, daring me to challenge her, then she glanced away, staring into the distance.
"Anything I can do? Can I take you somewhere, help you out somehow?"
"No. Nobody can do anything."
"You could leave him." She laughed, the same harsh, cold sound.
"Why not?" She turned sad eyes to me and tried to smile.
"If you can't understand, I can't make you." She shrugged, pushing her hands deep into her sweatshirt pockets. "I've got to go. See you later, I guess." Head down, she shuffled away, her gait slower than her years dictated.
As I watched her, I felt grief swell in my throat. I wanted to call her name, to run after her, to hug her, to save her. But I did understand. And I knew that the wall she'd built in an attempt to protect her truest, deepest self would not fall easily. And that—she was right—was not something anyone could change for her. I shifted my eyes away from her hunched body and tried to forget the desperation in her eyes . . .