After/Again by Kathryn Ordiway

When the war was over, we returned to what was left of our houses and pretended life was normal. Carbs became a staple at every meal and we women relished the fat that piled on our once prominent bones. We shared our limited clothing and enjoyed each other’s closet scents.

In months, we were our old selves again, poking the fleshy deposits we thought we would always love, trying to target their specific demise. We quickly forgot the luxury of fat.

The men took to organizing, though this was once our job. They organized sporting events and city leagues boomed. They organized quick plays littered with garish actors and then reviewed their own productions in meager publications. They organized dinner parties and seating charts. They organized our children and said “look, look at our children without dirt on their faces or gashes on their knees.”

For the first year after the war, we forgot what we were expected to do and did what we could.

It started with the return of recognizable government and continuous TV programming. The leader called himself President, in the old fashion, and developed a talk show so he could keep the public informed. He encouraged us to fill the country with potential.

We women mumbled that he should be thrown out. We asked for a new leader, perhaps a female leader, and the men scowled.

They asked why and we said “men got us into this mess” and they said “but men got you out” and we said “we all got us out” and they said “but look, look at our children,” and took credit for our most glorious work.

We worked in fear of stopping. For so long, all we had known was the mindless energy of accomplishing tasks. When the novelty of peace began to fade, we ran back to the comfort of labor.

Unemployment plummeted, and for this the men thanked the president. We thanked the war, then rapped our large knuckles on warped wood.

We were startled by how many of us had died, startled more still by how many had survived. We took the names of our departed and tattooed them in hidden places, the spaces between fingers, the bottoms of our feet, behind our ears. Our bodies became living memorials to the rotting flesh that paved the way to peacetime.

Eventually, we found that it was harder to have children than it was before. We deemed this a quiet blessing. The men were looking for more children, crying out that we had to repopulate, but we possessed none of that desire, that fantasy.

There were those of us who tried, those of us who took to our beds for the good of the future, but there was little success.

In public, we would stutter and wail, wrap our arms around our remaining friends and scream at the sky that we had lost so much already. In private, we whispered that we were thankful, that we hoped the men would stop asking, that we did not want any more children.

With time, televised sports returned, and again the men gathered around their TVs. Again we could be found in the kitchen, glaring at the food we were asked to display on tarnished platters. We could not understand how, after everything, we were not invited to participate in the viewing of acceptable violence. Had not we killed, too?

We encouraged our daughters to sit with their fathers and they were welcomed, encouraged to watch and clap and shout along with the men.

Already, we had returned to thinking of future generations.

The men flaunted our daughters, had them spin, and said, “Look, look at her, my child.”

The men agreed, more was more.

The President spoke to us weekly. We spent Sunday mornings sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the purr and gravel of his voice. Our men sipped weak coffee, nodded slowly, flexed their hands and clapped at the conclusion. They asked our children questions about what the president had said and rewarded thorough answers with old, bitter chocolates.

We bit our tongues and drank our coffee and never relaxed our hands. When the questions were asked, we averted our eyes and counted the food groups in the pantry.

The first to conceive was lauded as a miracle, an inspiration and guide. When she walked past in the street, they clapped and cheered, whistled and winked.

We seethed. Now we would be expected to do the same.

It truly started, then.

We would be ready to sleep, ready to close our eyes, and the men would put their fingers in our hair, run their thumbs along our ribs. They would ask and ask and we would decline and decline, and then they would bury their palms in the backs of our necks and fight for the future between our thighs.

We filled the country with potential.

Kathryn Ordiway is a short story writer, poet, and small-town Pennsylvanian currently living in Oklahoma. She received her degree in English from Saint Vincent College. In her spare time, she enjoys classical music, tea, crime dramas, and heavy blankets. Her poetry has appeared in Francis House.

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