“All babies are beautiful.”
7:13 p.m., Saturday, 18 February
I see happy babies.
They are all around me here in this restaurant, seducing me with sleepy winks and dimpled Mona Lisa smiles. Their gleeful squeals are the siren’s call that makes my heart go achy-breaky, like a seventh-grader who has been honored with a casual nod from the cutest boy in class.
Today is my thirty-seventh birthday. Forget the metronome metaphor. My biological clock drones louder than Big Ben on New Year’s Eve.
My husband, Alex, can’t hear it. Even if he could, I know he’d pretend otherwise, let alone acknowledge it. Despite my very broad hints that I badly want a child, Alex has nimbly sidestepped these emotional landmines—for the time being, anyway. Up until now, I’ve cut him some slack because I know that there is only one child in particular who interests him: Peter, his ten-year-old son. But they can’t be together because Peter lives in Holland with Alex’s first wife, Willemina, who ignores any and all requests from Alex to visit the boy.
So, while I fantasize about the child we might conceive and love together, my husband mourns a boy he may never see again.
Happy birthday to me.
I remind myself to look on the bright side. Last year on my birthday we both agreed that the topic was still open to discussion; that we’d take stock of how life has treated us and move forward from there. Well, life has been great. We’re both healthy, the economy is behaving itself, and Alex is up for a partnership at his venture capital firm, Steadman & Martinez.
It’s time to talk again.
Tomorrow, for sure. Right now I’m channeling my maternal urges into close encounters of a toddler kind: a cherub-cheeked boy with ringlet curls, not yet two years old, has locked eyes with me in the mirror behind Alex’s head. What has caught the little guy’s attention isn’t the longing he sees there, but the diamond earrings dangling from my ears.
They are my birthday gift from Alex. He saw me admire them once, when we walked by a window at Tiffany.
Yes, it’s going to be a great year, in more ways than one.
As I play with my earring to keep my fickle admirer’s attention, I pretend to listen intently to my husband as he grouses about the fact that we are the first members of our party to arrive at the restaurant. “I feel a draft. Why did the hostess give us the one booth under an air-conditioning vent?” Alex asks as he shivers. “Katie, who are you smiling at?” He flips around to see what he’s missing. “Are they here?”
“No!. . . No one.” Immediately I shift my gaze back to him and in one long swallow empty the last of my glass of wine. It’s a cabernet that is so good it should be sipped, not gulped, particularly on an empty stomach. But it’s too late for that now.
If Alex has his way, it may soon be too late for a lot of things.
He presumes the adoration he sees in my eyes gives him a green light to keep griping. “Jeez, it sounds like we’re sitting in an echo chamber. I can hear every brat in this joint! So much for happy hour. Who chose this place, anyway?”
That remark is all the warning I need to stay away from the topic of children—tonight, at least.
It’s almost as if my young flirtatious friend also heard Alex over the murmur of diners and wants to prove him right, because suddenly his little face crumples into a sorrowful pout and he lets loose a gut-wrenching wail.
To shush him up quickly, his mother lifts him out of his high chair and hugs him to her generous breasts as she waltzes with him in front of their booth. The dark circles under her eyes attest to late-night vigils with her son. But that doesn’t give her immunity from Alex’s death-ray stare: the same one he uses on any start-up moguls he’s caught puffing up their company’s income statements.
Miffed by Alex’s sneer, my little boyfriend’s mom practically runs away from us, shaking her head all the way out the door.
Her husband shrugs, but his proud-daddy smile doesn’t leave his lips. Apparently he is used to the frowns of childless adults, because he winks at us as he raises his hand. I wince, expecting a middle-finger salute. I guess I should be relieved to see that all he’s doing is pointing his index finger at us, as if to say You’re next before scooping up their baby bag and following his wife.
God I hope he’s right.
I watch as the departing dad wades through a throng of hungry patrons walking in our direction, including the rest of our party: my twin sisters Lana and Grace, and their husbands, Thor and Auggie. Although they’re only thirty-two years old, my sisters are the real estate tag team to be reckoned in the tony little Silicon Valley town of Los Gatos, where humble starter homes go for a million dollars or more. By taking turns showing and selling hot properties, they make a great income and still have time to enjoy the things that matter most: their children, their husbands, and the picture-perfect homes they keep.
Their shouts of “Happy Birthday” are heartfelt. Our husbands exchange backslaps, while we ladies lean in for air kisses.
“Sorry we’re late,” says Grace. “Our sitter bailed on us. Lana’s was sweet enough to watch Jezebel along with the boys.”
Between them, Grace and Lana have three children. All of them are blond, like their mothers, albeit different shades: Mario, the oldest at six, is a curly towhead, whereas Max, four, has straight golden tendrils, and three-year-old Jezebel’s head is covered in strawberry blond coils.
These communal date nights used to be a weekly event. When Mario was an infant, it was no big deal to bring him along. As he got a little older, though, he’d pull the same sort of early-toddler antics as my little admirer.
It was just as disconcerting to Alex then as it is now.
Over the years my sisters and their husbands picked up on this. Instead of enduring Alex’s winces at their little ones’ restaurant etiquette, now we’ll eat out together only when they can get a sitter—which, in a community teeming with small children, is as elusive as the Holy Grail.
I hug Grace to let her know that, as far as I’m concerned, her tardiness is okay. Both her and Lana’s shoulders relax. Their next moves are just as unconscious and uncoordinated: in unison they push aside their bangs. They are identical down to the tiny moles below their ears, although Grace’s is on the left, and Lana’s is on the right.
The men they married, however, are as different as can be. The gregarious Thor is consistently the best car salesman at the BMW dealership in Silicon Valley’s Auto Mall. Eight years ago Lana went there looking for a preowned Z4 and walked out with a marriage proposal. For both she and Thor, it was love at first sight. Grace met the soft-spoken Auggie—a professor in Stanford’s philosophy department—at the base of The Gates of Hell in the university’s Rodin Sculpture Garden. She already owned a wisteria-draped cottage. Indulging in his love of flowers, Auggie has created their very own Garden of Eden in the tiny backyard.
The cottage sits right off the Los Gatos town square: close enough for Jezebel to pedal her tricycle to the park and play with Lana and Thor’s two boys.
Whenever I can, I join them. I can’t help myself. Kids are my crack.
“Should we order a few appetizers and a couple of pitchers? Has anyone here tried that beer they call Nutty Brewnette?” Alex yanks a shank of my long, dark curls before scooting me closer for a cuddle.
He leaves his arm around my waist. He is tall enough that when, unconsciously, he tilts his head over mine, somehow the curves of our heads fit perfectly, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
After six years of marriage, I’d like to think that our desires were just as complementary, but I know better.
When, finally, he holds our child in his arms, he’ll realize I was right to insist on having a baby.
That’s why I have to change his mind, soon; very soon.
Lana, Auggie, and Thor nod enthusiastically at his suggestion for a beer, but Grace’s perfect Cupid-bow lips break out into a sly grin. “Nothing for me. I’m not drinking these days.”
At first the significance of her words don’t penetrate my wine buzz, but then it hits me hard, in the gut:
One of my sisters is pregnant. Again.
Apparently her remark was lost on Alex, too, because he’s more concerned with waving down our waitress than deducing the nuance of Grace’s words, or noting her prenatal glow.
I can tell by the looks on their faces that my sisters and their husbands seem much more concerned with my response. I have too much pride to confirm what they rightly suspect:
Yes, I’m jealous.
But no, I won’t show it. So instead I turn to hug Grace tightly as I give her cheek a quick peck. “Oh my God, you’re pregnant? What great news! I’m so happy for you!”
That is not a lie. Granted, I’d have been happier if this announcement had come from me, and everyone there at the table suspects that.
Everyone including Alex. Especially Alex.
“Way to go, Auggie! Another little one on the way. Wow. That’s . . . awesome,” Alex says with a smile. But the frost emanating from where he sits has nothing to do with the restaurant’s air-conditioning.
The blush that spreads on Auggie’s ruddy cheeks is mostly hidden in his wiry auburn beard, but he can’t help but puff up a bit with fatherly pride. “We’ve always wanted to give Jezzy a little brother or sister. It just happened a little quicker than we anticipated.” Lovingly he strokes Grace’s arm. She responds with a heartfelt kiss.
I hope that my smile is wide enough that they’ll take my glassy-eyed gaze for happiness. For that matter, I’d prefer that they think I’m tipsy rather than guess the truth.
I’ll have my wish soon enough. When the waitress asks me if I want another glass of wine, I give her a firm thumbs-up.
Already I can tell that it’s going to be a long night. If I’m going to keep this smile on my face, I’ll need liquid reinforcement.
When the situation calls for it, there is an advantage to being a happy drunk.
“So what’s your guess, is it a boy or a girl?” Thor’s question, broached after appetizers of fried calamari, avocado eggrolls, and ahi poki, is aimed more at Auggie than at Grace. That’s because we all know her well enough to predict her answer: Either, as long as it’s happy and healthy . . .
On the other hand, Auggie is sure to have a definite opinion, as he does on most things.
Before answering, he pauses to give Grace an apologetic smile. “I guess Jezzy has spoiled me into believing all little girls are angels. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’d like a little boy at some point.”
Grace’s surprised laughter brings out the giggles in me, too. Or maybe it’s that third glass of cabernet, downed with too many fried calamari ringlets.
I dunno. Whatever. I just hope I don’t throw up on Alex.
Or maybe I should.
Upon hearing Auggie’s honest admission, Alex nods in agreement. “Yeah, boys are a lot of fun.” The beer has loosened his tongue. What rolls off of it is honest regret. Distance is yet another way in which to lose a child. The grieving process is just as heartbreaking, and is the reason why Alex is adamant that we stay childless.
He doesn’t want Peter to think he’s abandoned him.
“I know, because that’s exactly what I thought, after my parents split up and my dad remarried,” Alex had said, explaining his feelings to me one night, when we had first started dating. It was dark in our bed, but I could feel the damp grief on his face.
I presumed he was thinking of Peter.
He took my empathetic hug as my tacit approval of his decision to stay childless. Did he then presume that the kiss we shared immortalized my agreement to do the same?
Okay, yeah, I’ll admit it: I married Alex anyway, secretly hoping that Willemina would relent, or that time would heal the gaping hole left by Peter’s departure.
Or that Alex would seek to fill the void with a child that was ours together.
The only real change has been that my desire to have that child has grown stronger.
But I can’t let on now. So instead I give Grace a wink and a smile. “I’m guessing you’re carrying twins. It’s a Harlow family tradition that has never skipped a generation, so tag, you’re it.”
Grace pats her belly as she considers that. “Ha! We’ll see about that. In any case, I’ve warned the doctor that I want to keep the baby’s gender a surprise. It’s more fun that way.”
As tiny as she is, no one would even guess she was pregnant. Unlike me (when I was in college and my five-foot-seven frame was packing the freshman fifteen, I was called “well upholstered” by a boyfriend; we broke up soon after that—all right, I admit it: because of that), the twins are small-boned and slim, like our mother.
Thor must be thinking the same, because he gives her a sideways glance, then asks, “How far along are you, anyway?”
“As of today, six weeks and counting.” She turns to me. “Katie, I’ll need all the help I can get with the nursery and some baby gear. Are you up for that?”
“Sure, you name it.” This is my consolation prize. She knows I live to help her and Lana, especially when it comes to doing something for their children.
Before either of them makes a major purchase, it’s not unusual for Grace or Lana to ask my opinion. Not only did I earn my bachelor’s degree in interior design from San Diego State, I also am the assistant testing director at SafeCalifornia, the state commission that advocates for stricter safety regulations on consumer products sold in California. I’m always the first person to hear about some toxic toy, mass food poisonings, or a beauty product with side effects that make the term an oxymoron.
“If you’re looking for a color that works with either a boy or a girl, you may want to consider a shade in the melon family,” I say, reaching for yet another calamari ring. “It’s the new pink. Besides, it goes well with most yellows and greens. And if Auggie gets his wish and it’s a boy, it’ll look great with slate-blue accents, too.” Then I lean in close, as if divulging a hot stock pick. “But no matter what color you choose, use a paint with zero VOCs: volatile organic compounds. Consider a milk paint. It’s best for the baby. If we weren’t eating, I’d tell you what we do to rate the safety of paint. It would curl your hair.”
Both Lana and Grace nod as they rummage for pens in their purses to take notes. But Grace is frowning. “Thanks for that. Gosh, I’ve been out of infant mode for three years now. I don’t know if our infant car seat is up to today’s standards anymore . . .”
I shrug. “It can’t be. New legislation was enacted earlier this year. Car seat safety standards keep changing for the better.”
Auggie laughs. “What, now we have to buy another one? Then I guess we’ll need one for Jezzy, too. Damn, what a waste of money! Hers is as good as new.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I counter. “Don’t make me bring the crash dummy to dinner next time to make my point.”
Lana’s mouth drops open. “Get out of here! SafeCalifornia actually uses baby crash dummies in its tests? That’s—so morbid!”
“Hell no, it’s cool.” Thor takes a swig of beer. “You guys also test cars, am I right?”
Hearing this, Auggie swivels his head my way, too. Alex, who has heard it all before, keeps his eyes peeled on the Warriors basketball game.
I nod. “Yep. That’s Helen Crowley’s department. She’s our executive director.”
“Wait, we can talk cars later!” Grace is frantic. “Let’s get back to stuff that the baby will need. Have you tested any products besides car seats?”
I nod. “Toys, clothing, strollers, high chairs, you name it. Sadly, a lot of these problems surface only after the products have been on the market already. We then validate the complaints with our own testing. If we find the complaints to be valid, we pass them forward to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and lobby our state’s legislators for a recall. Lately our child product testing division has found some real doozies. In fact, Tuesday I’m testifying about a portable playpen that has caused a few deaths. When the parents of victims take the stand—well, it can break your heart.”
One father in particular, his eyes glazed over with remorse, comes to mind. He spoke at a recent hearing involving bite-size toy sponges shaped like different fruit, one of which was swallowed by his toddler son. I down my fourth wine in the hope of obliterating the memory of his description of his son’s suffocation.
My sole consolation is knowing all our hard work—research and testing, calling for hearings, lobbying for new laws on the book—sometimes pays off, and that we’ve saved lives.
Grace looks pale. Time to get her mind on something more pleasant. “Listen, you two: if you’ve got time—say, next Saturday—we’ll walk the aisles of Babies’R’Us and I’ll give you a few recommendations. It’s sad how many toddlers stand up in high chairs when no one is looking, and then fall out because the chairs aren’t very stable—”
Oh no, I’ve said too much again, because suddenly Grace blanches and slaps her hand to her mouth.
Seeing this, Lana pats her hand. “Sis, are you okay?”
“I think I’m going to throw up. You know, my morning sickness”—Grace closes her eyes for a moment—“between that and some of these horror stories, I’m getting queasy. Katie, I don’t know how you stand it. Every time one of those poor dummies gets crushed, I’d be in tears.”
“Yeah, but you’ve had a kid, so it’s real to you.” Alex said that so matter-of-factly. “Katie hasn’t. That gives her a built-in immunity.” He nudges me for validation. “Am I right?”
I can feel the corners of my smile droop into a grimace. I want to scream at the top of my lungs—above the scrape of forks on plates, and the chatter of diners enjoying their meals, and the ESPN commentators debating the night’s top-ten sports plays on the five big TV screens over the restaurant’s ornate bar. Don’t you get it, Alex? You may not want me to have maternal feelings, but I do. And you can’t stop them by wishing them away . . .
Instead, I think I’ll throw up.
I murmur some lame excuse in order to escape to the ladies’ room. Alex slides out of the booth first—and then has the nerve to pat my bum when I slip past him, if only to prove to my sisters that I was okay with his off-the-cuff remark.
And with his decision that we not have children.
If we’d been alone, I would have slapped him.
As I run to the loo, I hear Lana’s voice rise above the diners’ chatter: “Alex Johnson, truly, I don’t know what my sister sees in you. God, at the very least I hope your cock is a lot bigger than your brain.”
I can’t remember the last time I found myself face-down over a toilet bowl.
I take that as a good thing.
Sadly, this time I’m heaving so hard that one of my new diamond earrings plops down into the flotsam and jetsam that was my birthday meal.
Aw, hell! I must have loosened the post when I was teasing the baby in the booth across from us. “No, no, no,” I moan as it sinks to the bottom of the bowl. Frantically I look around the stall for something that might help me pluck it out. Toilet paper won’t do any good, and the paper seats they provide would be just as useless. Maybe I can stick my hand in the small coated bag that lines the used tampon dispenser, and fish it out—
Ooh, yuck, no! There’s a couple of tampons in there.
I search my purse for a pen or pencil or anything long enough to nudge it out of the bowl—
I can’t bring myself to dive in bare-handed. Even if the cost of the diamonds aren’t worth my dignity, surely the earrings are priceless if only for the sentimental value, because they’re from Alex. . .
I’m sobbing so hard that at first I don’t notice Grace’s sensible ballet flats peeking out from under the stall door. When I hiccup to a stop, she must realize I know she’s there, because she whispers, “Katie, I’m so sorry! Please . . . don’t hate me!”
“Why? Because you’re pregnant again?” I hope I come off as surprised, but my words, bouncing off the stall’s metal walls, sound sad even to me. “Grace, it isn’t your fault! It’s . . . it’s—”
If I blame Alex, it will only get her started again on why he and I should have continued with our couples counseling. She doesn’t understand how difficult he finds it to talk about Peter.
Alex can’t handle the pain.
So now, to cover for his grief—which my family can’t understand, and I can’t help him move beyond—I’d rather take the rap by telling her that, between our work schedules, we had to cancel too many appointments with the counselor; that the timing isn’t right for us, anyway, and that hey, if it happens, it happens. And if it doesn’t, it’s no big deal . . .
But yes, it is a very big deal: to me.
Instead, I say, “It’s all Auggie’s fault.”
That makes her gasp. But after too much silence, her giggles come out in spasms. “Yeah, you’re right! Let’s blame it on him. I told the son of a bitch to quit buying those cheap condoms.”
Now I’m laughing, too.
And sobbing. I want her life.
But I want it with Alex.
And I want Alex to want it, too.
The sudden realization that I am thirty-seven and may never have a child has me crouching back over the toilet. I can’t stop myself from retching out my future, along with the last of the wine and what’s left of any heavily breaded salt-and-pepper calamari.
Hearing me go at it again, Grace loses it, too. The door to the next stall slams shut with a bang. The next thing I know, we’re barfing in stereo.
Grace flushes her toilet. A moment later I hear water running in one of the sinks. By the time I stagger out, she is dabbing her mouth with a paper towel. Her eyes glisten even as she tries to smile.
This is quite a moment we’ve shared. If I weren’t still crying, I’d laugh.
As I rinse out my mouth under a spigot, I hear her say, “Katie, you forgot to flush!”
The next thing I know, she’s doing it for me.
Damn! Damn! My earring! Quickly I turn to say something—
But what? It’s too late to retrieve it now, anyway.
Slowly, I remove the remaining earring. Tomorrow I’ll track down a replacement. Tonight, though, should Alex notice I’m not wearing them and ask me why not, my answer will be half right: one of the posts came loose.
That’s what I get for flirting with a cute babe.
I hate lying to Alex, but I don’t want him to be upset with me, or for that matter annoyed with Grace. But by the sad look on his face during the appetizer portion of our meal, I’d say it’s too late for that, too.