Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Excerpt from Paris Smells Like Rotten Eggs

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Every time I shifted my weight, Barney's stomach rippled between my legs at the bottom of the plastic baby pool. I didn't want a Barney baby pool, didn't even know who Barney was except that he was big and purple and dopey looking, but Barney was on blue light special at K-Mart, and I was desperate for cheap relief that hot August. Ten days overdue, I'd begun to think I'd never go into labor. I thought maybe my fear about becoming a mother (the orchid the chairman's wife, Gwen Whitford, had given me as a congratulatory gift, initially bloated from over watering, now shriveled dry, haunting me), was more powerful than the physiological impossibility of eternal gestation. I felt my bottom sticking to the plastic again and readjusted my legs, stinging the back of my thighs, causing Barney to ripple in the waves. I knew I should probably get out of the pool, go into the house, do something productive. Make dinner, dust figurines, fight for world peace. But the days were so long and amorphous ever since I'd unpacked the gold-rimmed wedding china, the Waterford crystal, the pitchers and wine decanters, the candleholders and candle snuffers, so many glass bowls I'd wondered, Did they represent something? Glass bowl: glass house, glasses? After I'd arranged and rearranged the gifts in the hutch, I'd imagined Mike arriving home with some colleagues, how I'd be a little mad that he hadn't called first, but then I'd whip up a gourmet feast that required me to use an aspic peeler, and I'd put Ella Fitzgerald on and we'd exchange witty conversation over candlelight. We'd retell the story of how we'd met and instantly fallen in love even though we were such opposites and our guests would ask if I'd always been such a gourmand. But Mike never came home for dinner that night (an unexpected bleed-out, which of course I couldn't get mad at, because it was a bleed-out for Godsakes) making my frustration all the more infuriating, I thought, as I nibbled a Lean Cuisine Chicken Cacciatore out of the plastic tray in front of I Love Lucy reruns.
After that, a pattern emerged. Mike already at the hospital for rounds before I woke up for work, arriving home after I'd fallen asleep. Offering only traces of himself, the rumpled indentation of his body in the sheets, his boxers draped on a chair, a wet toothbrush dangling on the edge of the bathroom sink, drips of orange juice on the counter, as if he were a lover who'd vanished without saying goodbye, leaving me over and over and over again.

I'd wake in the morning feeling the weight of his body pressed into mine, and turn to pull him closer, embrace the deflating comforter, and wonder if I'd only imagined that I'd married. But then I'd brush my face against his pillowcase still damp from the shower he always took before climbing into bed and inhale his Old Spice and assure myself it was only a matter of time before our life would begin. I might have gotten mad, but I was too tired and bloated, my mind focused on my fear of what I would do when the baby actually arrived. The idea of having a baby and the reality of a baby seeming like two entirely different concepts.

I surveyed the landscape of our resident housing complex as I did every day I sat overdue in the Barney pool. Each military barrack-inspired unit offered a square of grass just a tad larger than my baby pool and another square of garden half that size. The Urology fellow's wife next door was always hoeing and digging and weeding and fertilizing and watering, always with the wildflower printed garden apron, the shocking pink plastic clogs, the straw hat, the matching gloves. Late last fall, I'd watched her plant rows and rows of tulip bulbs, so close together that now her plot looked like a postage stamp from Holland. I envied her industriousness, her ability to see blossoms in those bulbous roots, her belief that she could make something out of that tiny dirt patch, when all I could think looking at my own plot was that it reminded me of that Woody Allen movie where the father handed the son a clump of dirt and said, "I always wanted to leave you a piece of land."

"I think that baby is afraid to come out," my other next door neighbor Laney yelled from her driveway now, interrupting my fascination with how fat my pinky looked. How could a pinky get fat? Laney was married to Paul, a pathology fellow, who I think I might have spotted from behind when we first moved in but hadn't seen at all since then. I'd liked Laney immediately. Her hair was too blond and spiky and she spoke loudly and frankly and I loved it because in Hanover you weren't supposed to be too blond, too funny, too bright, too outspoken, too sexy, too alive, too anything but polite and pretty and pedigreed. In order to fit in, it was best to be as restrained as humanly possible while still retaining the ability to breathe. Like white on white wallpaper. Like celery. Like stagnant air. "Afraid you'll subject him or her to that Barney pool and really screw him up for life," Laney continued.

"Is it possible I'm not actually pregnant?" I asked.

She examined my not-cute-like-a-basketball belly and said, "Not unless you've swallowed a lumpy sofa."

"Thanks," I said. "This is the most miserable month."

"What're you talking about? They're all miserable," Laney said. "Hanover is too damn pretty. You visit pretty; you don't live pretty. I believe in surrounding myself with grit. That way my life looks better in contrast. Next year when Paul's done with his fellowship, we're out of here, back to a place that appreciates the aesthetics of pavement."

"Why is it when you're most morose I find you the funniest?"

"Was that funny?" Behind her smile, her jaw clenched. "I'd love to chat but the twins are alone in the house, and I'm afraid they're planning a conspiracy."

"They're four," I said. That was exactly the kind of thing Laney said that scared me. The mystery of motherhood. The elusiveness of authority. How did mothers attain that? How did they know how to handle children? And what happened when the children asked you something you didn't know? I pictured my unborn child asking me the square root of 2,769 divided by the square root of pi. Was there a square root of pi? What was pi? I pictured myself saying, Let me get back to you, after I relearn math.

"Yes and they're very mad at me," Laney said. "I wouldn't buy them toy guns at the grocery store and that makes me the potential victim of who knows what."

I felt a pang and leaned to one side and clutched my belly, causing a minor flood over the side of the pool I was collapsing with my elbow. Wow, even my elbow looked fat.

"Are you alright?" Laney asked.

The discomfort passed, and I nodded and hoisted myself back up and stretched my legs, smashing Barney's mouth with my swollen toes. Then I blurted out, "I don't know if I can do it."

"The labor?" She said and waved her hand. "Don't worry about that. No matter how bad it is, you forget."

"No, not the labor," I said even though I was a wimp when it came to pain. "The mothering."

She stared at me a minute, and I tried to read her face, but it seemed all at once vague. Then she said, "Do you need help getting out of there?"

"Nah," I said. "I have a method. First I roll onto my side, then onto my knees and up from there."

"You let me know if you need anything," she said and as she turned away, I wondered if I actually could get out of the pool on my own.

From the moment we'd moved to New Hampshire, whenever Mike had a day off, we drove to his parent's house in Connecticut. This bothered me, not only because I didn't feel especially welcome at his parent's house, but also because Mike seemed more comfortable going home to them than being home with me. I was trying to be supportive, trying not to be too demanding, trying to understand his needs as much as possible, trying not to be cynical or distrusting or judgmental of his excessive compulsion to visit them, trying to be the good wife I secretly doubted I could be. It was a full-time acting exercise. Be the good wife, feel the good wife, inhabit goodwifeness. But I figured the late stages of my pregnancy would put an end to these visits.

I was wrong.

I told Mike that sitting in a car at nine months and eleven days pregnant was not very appealing, as I wedged my bloated self into the passenger side.

Mike insisted a car ride might bring on labor.

"What if I go into labor on the road?" I said. "In What to Expect When You're Expecting, it said -- "

"Trust me, we'll have more than enough time. Average first labor is twelve hours. Those books are written for the layperson."

"I am the lay person," I said, trying not to be irritated by his medical snobbery. There wasn't anything I brought up that he didn't either dismiss or immediately translate into Secret Doctor Code. Swelling was edema. Heartburn was reflux esophagitis. I'd decided that the difference between doctors and non-doctors was all in that Secret Code. No matter what I said, he had some study or tid-bit of information that made me feel as if my opinions regarding any aspect of pregnancy were inconsequential, making me feel stupid for being a layperson, making me want to go to medical school even if I was lousy at math and science, couldn't handle blood, was afraid of hospitals, just so I could say enterobius vermicularis.

And I rationalized that the person who came home spent and irritable, the mostly unrecognizable version of the man I fell in love with in New York, was the sacrifice he had to make in order to be the best doctor he could be. I told myself that I'd want a doctor as focused and serious and downright arrogant as he was becoming before my very eyes. Which might have had a little something to do with why the whole drive down Interstate 91, I reminisced about Sam, my boyfriend just before Mike, the temperamental slacker artist with no Plan B, who borrowed money he never returned, and threw industrial strength tantrums whenever we fought, but who sent me love letters and was gifted at make-up sex under the kitchen table.

"Elizabeth Martin's cat has leukemia," my mother-in-law said as she greeted us at the door. "And the plumbing is acting up again. So, if it's number one," she held up her index finger, pointed to her groin, "don't flush."

I nodded with feigned concern even though I didn't know who Elizabeth Martin was, because I was still hopeful that my mother-in-law would discover she actually did like me.

"You're enormous! You should be induced," she said to my middle, fanning her hand in front of my belly as if that gesture could make it disappear. "Shouldn't she be induced?" she said to Mike.

"Elizabeth Martin?" Mike said to his mother as we followed her into the family room. "Why are you even mentioning her?"

"You took her to senior prom," she said and plopped down in her La-Z-Boy chair and reached for her crumpled pack of Camels. Before I'd met Mike's mother, I'd imagined June Cleaver, only more refined, more Country Club Connecticutish. "I ran into her at the hairdresser's, and she's all grown up now."

She lit her cigarette, letting it dangle out of the corner of her mouth as she said, "Still a stunner," her throat rumbling like an old engine trying to turn over. "And a CPA now," she added. Her way of saying, You should have married stunning Elizabeth instead of enormous non-CPA me.

"Where's Dad?" Mike asked.

"I sent him out for dog food," she said and began rocking frantically in her La-Z-Boy.

"Why would you do that?" he asked.

"Because we need dog food?"

"You know he won't come back with dog food," Mike said. This was true. Every time we visited, Mike's mother sent his father to buy something at the store and he always came home with something else. According to Mike it had been this way for as long as he could remember.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" my mother-in-law asked. She took a long drag on her Camel, and, when she exhaled, the fire alarm trilled. Mike's father was a regional sales manager with First Alert. He'd expected to join the family's insurance firm, but a falling out with his parents over his decision to marry Mike's mother was so acrimonious that he was forced to seek employment elsewhere.

Smoke detectors were mounted in every room, and, every time we visited, his mother set one off. She rested her cigarette in the ashtray, jumped up and climbed onto the arms of her rocking chair, and balancing precariously, she whacked the alarm with a rolled up magazine, causing the batteries to tumble into her frosted hair-do. She shook and furiously batted the nine-volt out of her head as if she'd just discovered a bee's nest on her head.

Mike gagged and coughed and rubbed his nose and shook his head and said, "You know I'm allergic to smoke." Then he stomped out the back door, leaving me alone with his mother.

The family room reminded me of a doctor's office, the stale air, the stacks of mindless, glossy magazines blanketing the coffee table, the background buzz of the television news. And whenever I sat down on the stiff tweedy couch, I felt I couldn't get up until someone summoned me. The good thing about my mother-in-law was that sitting in the same room with her didn't necessarily mean we had to converse. This was so different from my family where conversation was a competitive sport, where dramatic facial expressions and hand gestures were part of the production, where I always felt if I didn't say something wittier and more intelligent than the last person, I'd be banished from the family. Even though my family's communication style made me feel pressured to perform and a bit inadequate, I found this non-communication a little disconcerting. I tried to relax into it. I glanced down at Redbook, "Knit Your Way to Happiness," "31 Ways with Chicken Breasts," and "I Was a Redecoratingaholic."

"I didn't see James for most of the 70's," my mother-in-law said and dragged so hard on her cigarette I thought she might inhale the entire thing, ashy lit end, tip of her index finger, and all.

I found her squinty eyes through the haze of smoke and said, "That must have been hard. Mike is working all the time and -- "

She glared at me. didn't say anything, her face didn't even register the fact that I'd spoken. I was continuously amazed how she could not acknowledge another person. Thought that must require enormous restraint. She flicked her long ash, then smashed her cigarette butt into the overflowing ashtray and said, "I'm going to use the little girls' room."

I looked back down, read: "My Crush on the Finnish Carpenter Nearly Cost Me My Marriage and My Built-ins."

"Come on," I heard from the front hall a few minutes later. "I want to show you something." My mother-in-law waved me over.

She led me up the stairs, past Mike's sister's room at the top of the stairs, all knotty white pine furniture and rose chintz. The first time I saw her room, I fantasized about growing up in it, imagined how differently my life would have been if I'd been enveloped in rose chintz, if I'd had a mother who'd driven me to voice lessons and ballet, insisted I learn a foreign language and travel abroad, who still dusted my bedroom weekly even though I hadn't lived at home in years. I'd met Mike's sister briefly when she blew into town for our wedding. She was long-legged and satin-headed, she spoke three languages fluently and lived in Italy with an older man who'd made his money in oil. "Crude or olive?" I'd asked Mike's mother, and Mike'd given me the we-don't-talk-about-that look. I got that look a lot at Mike's house. Just about every time I opened my mouth. And really, I tried to keep track of what was taboo, to make sense of it all, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure out the family code. Apparently the subject of Mike's sister and her oil man in Italy had to do with them not being married and her being over thirty. I later learned that one of the reasons Mike's mother drank and cried through our entire wedding and reception was because she felt Mike should have waited his turn for marriage several respectful years after his older sister. And now we were having a baby, and the sister still hadn't married. This was not the natural order of things.

"I told her a woman can't wait forever. The eggs dry up," my mother-in-law said now.

"Women have babies much later now," I said. "I read about a movie star who's having her first and she's forty."

Honestly, I envied Mike's sister, her chic lifestyle, her freedom, her legs.

She glared at my belly, and I felt ashamed that it reminded her of something she wanted but couldn't have.

"The problem is she doesn't even want marriage, babies, all the normal stuff. I just don't get it. A few years traipsing around Europe - fine. But what is she waiting for?"

For you to stop pressuring her, I thought. She waved her hand, announcing the end of that subject.

I followed her further down the hallway past the wall of framed family photos, a risqué blow-up of Mike's parents in a passionate embrace, followed by a stiff wedding shot, both of them leaning so far away from one another they formed a wide V, and then a mass of Mike and Emily's baby photos and neat rows of their school pictures, both blond and clear-eyed and neatly groomed, a few photos at the shore, some Halloween candids, several shots around the Christmas tree, the entire story ending abruptly at Mike's Dartmouth graduation.

Inside Mike's childhood bedroom, I sat on his cowboy print bedspread and took in the room. The walls plastered with baseball and football posters, sports banners and award plaques. Farrah Fawcet, in her red swimming suit attached to the ceiling, directly over his bed. The first time I saw his room, I remember thinking it was sweet that his parents left it as a shrine to his youth. But now when I sat on a cowboy's face, Farrah's feathered hair taunted me, not only because I could never get my hair to look like that, but also because I wondered if this shrine of loyalty to Mike was the reason he couldn't stay away. Maybe I'd feel the same way if I had a place to go home to, maybe I was envious. And why the cowboy bedspread?

My mother-in-law rummaged around in the closet and after a few minutes she dragged a large wooden chest to the edge of the bed and shoved it next to me. She opened the lid and we both peered inside. It was filled with yearbooks, and prize ribbons and programs and ticket stubs. She pulled out a yearbook and placed it on both our laps, the spine between us. Then she started leafing through it, stopping every few pages to show me another picture of Mike.

"He was involved in everything." She pointed to the tennis team photo. "Always the leader. We never doubted Mike. I told him when he was a little boy, 'If you want to be like Dr. Coles, ' " she whispered, " 'He's the most well-respected man in the neighborhood. His wife has help for everything, a girl who just runs errands for her.' " She rubbed Mike's tennis photo. "I said, 'All you have to do is apply yourself.' That's what I told him and he did. If Mike wanted something he'd get it and he always wanted the best." She looked up and studied me as if she were trying to figure out why he'd wanted me.

I tried to suck in my stomach but then I remembered that was impossible now. She glanced away and let her finger land on his senior photo that read: "Most likely to succeed." Then she rapidly leafed to the prom section and there was Mike and Elizabeth Martin, prom king and queen. She picked up the book and held it up to her face, then she put it back down and looked at me as if she were looking at me for the very first time and she said, "We know you're Jewish." The Jew part of Jewish getting stuck between her puckered lips in the way that people uncomfortable with the word always said it. Her discomfort with the Jewish thing was nothing new to me. My first Christmas morning with them, I'd said how cute it was that she and Mike's dad still acted as if Santa brought the presents, and she'd looked at me as if I'd ruined everything. "But, we think," she said now, "that the baby should be baptized so people don't identify him as Jewish."

"Why?" I said in a tone more accusatory than I'd heard it in my head.

"Some people are prejudiced against the Jewish." Again with the puckered lips on the J. "Look what happened in Germany -- "

I didn't say that part of me knew she was right. That in the small high school where I'd been teaching all year, there were skinheads with swastika tattoos, who carried Mein Kampf through the halls like a bible. I didn't tell her that I hadn't revealed my Jewish identity to anyone there, that I was relieved I could 'pass,' and that I felt ashamed about feeling relieved.

The sound of marching on the stairs, in the hallway. Mike and his dad at the bedroom door. Mike walked straight over to his Mother and grabbed the yearbook out of her hand and said, "What are you doing?"

She ignored Mike, turned to her husband and said, "Did you feed Cocoa?"

He shook his head. "We don't have any dog food."

"You're saying you didn't get the dog food?"

"Did you want me to get dog food?" James stood in the middle of the hallway and pouted like a helpless toddler.

"Oh Christ, James. What is wrong with you?"

He shrugged and then he said, "I'm dancing as fast as I can." A refrain he repeated in answer to most things she got mad at him about. It actually meant, what more do you want from me, you demanding bitch?

"I just can't believe you," she replied, her standard reply. Which meant, I thought I was marrying a rich man's son not some two-bit Fire Alert regional salesman who can't even run a simple errand for me.

That much of the family code I'd broken.

"Why didn't you marry someone like Elizabeth Martin?" I asked Mike on the way home. Her name conjuring up all that I wasn't. Prom queen, blond, good with figures, held up on a pedestal by my mother-in-law.

"Because I fell in love with you," he said. "Elizabeth Martin was my prom date. Why are you asking me that?"

"I don't know -- she just seems more like the kind of woman you would have married." I saw her pregnant and she was thinner, her dress wasn't sticking to her sweaty bottom.

"Don't get all insecure on me, Polly."

"Was I your rebellion?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You were the model son and everyone needs a rebellion -- so I was thinking maybe that was why you married me."

"Not because I loved you?" He said as if he hadn't even bothered to follow my train of thought.

"Did you hear what your mother said about a baptism?"

"No, I didn't and I don't really care. Ignore her. It doesn't matter what she says, what she thinks. All that matters is -- "

"Then why do we go there every time you have a day off? And why do you leave me alone with her? And why didn't you read Anna Karenina when I told you it was my favorite book?"

"Why why why why? I didn't read the book because it didn't matter, I was already in love with you."

Was that loving? Or dismissive? "I just want to know why you married me. Me specifically."

He put up his hand. "Just stop, Polly. Stop complicating everything. Stop reading between the lines. Stop looking for ulterior motives."

"You just named my only discernible skills."

His face softened; he looked at me, really looked, and grinned. "I married you because I love you. End of story."

"That's it?'

"No, actually one more thing -- "

"I knew it!"

"I thought you'd make a terrific mother."

"You did?" This surprised me.

He nodded, patted my belly, my cheek, turned back to the wheel, accelerated.

I didn't buy everything he said, especially the part about me making a terrific mother. But I had to admit that his more simplistic explanation calmed me, and I thought maybe that was why I'd married him.

My mother called as I was rinsing out the only pair of stockings that still fit over my belly. I was supposed to meet Mike at the Whitfield's for the annual recruitment dinner that evening if I didn't go into labor. Which made me more eager than ever to go into labor if only because I didn't want to have to put the stockings on, stand next to rail-thin Gwen, make up another excuse about why I'd missed the last Hanover Beautification League meeting. Quite frankly, while their sense of civic duty was admirable, every meeting I was tempted to say, A Beautification League in Hanover? Isn't Hanover beautiful enough?

A Bronx Beautification League? Now that I could wrap my brain around.

"How are you, honey?" Mother said. The sound of her voice always sent me yearning for those few glorious years after she'd recovered from the divorce but before my brother Teddy's first breakdown, when we were a team. More like sisters than mother and daughter.

"I'm okay," I said. "Other than feeling fat, and I haven't seen Mike in days, and it seems like I'm just waiting to go into labor and the more it doesn't happen, the more skeptical I am that it will happen. Did you ever feel like you'd never go into labor?"

Silence. I pictured her reading one of her scripts.

I cleared my throat.

"You will," she said distractedly.

Maybe because I was pregnant and I felt so alone, and I was especially hungry for that closeness we'd once had, I said. "You know the craziest thing about Mike's parents is?"

"Oh what? Tell me," she said excitedly.

Yes! I thought and continued, "You know how they seem so Norman Rockwellish on the outside, the neat little colonial, the Country Club membership, the good schools, well, they've got this absurd little drama going on. Think Waiting for Godot crossed with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

"Oh I love it!" she said. "Go on."

I could feel disloyalty coating the back of my throat with bitter phlegm. It reminded me of the way I'd felt in junior high school when I'd do or say things in a desperate effort to be 'in' with the 'in' girls. "So every time we're there, Mike's mother sends the Dad out to buy something from the store. The last time it was dog food for the English Setter."

"Of course, the English Setter. How quintessentially Connecticut."

"And of course he didn't come home with it."

"Why not?"

"Because he never comes home with what she sends him out to buy. It doesn't matter what it is. Toilet paper? Milk? He goes to the store and always comes back with something else. According to Mike it's been going on as long as he can remember. It's like he just refuses to give her what she wants because she wants it. Isn't it crazy?"

"It's wonderful. Very crazy. Very funny. Oh honey, you're so perceptive. You know just how to make me laugh."

That was what I wanted, what I missed. I racked my brain for more stories. I could do this. I could get us back to that place I yearned for. I poured a dab more Woolite into the water and rubbed the sopping legs of my stockings vigorously against one another, trying to think of a way to trump that story, and she said, "I need to tell you something about your grandmother."

"What?" I said.

"She fell again."

"Again?" I stopped scrubbing. "Why didn't you call me the first time?"

"I didn't want to bother you. But that isn't the real problem. She didn't break anything. She's going to be fine. But her mind is slipping."

Although I was glad that Gramma Sophie wasn't hurt, I felt irritated. Mother'd been saying her mother's mind was slipping for years now. It was her way of saying that she couldn't get what she wanted from her. "And she's letting 'outsiders' influence her," Mother said.

Mother and her sister Bernie hadn't gotten along with their mother since after their father passed away thirty years ago. They blamed Gramma for his weak heart, for outliving him, for not spoiling them the way he always had, for loving her in the first place. And although I understood my mother felt her mother hadn't given her what she'd needed emotionally, I'd always secretly liked Gramma Sophie. Little things about her. The way she smelled, a powerful mixture of Chanel No. 5 and Wrigley's Spearmint gum. In fact I loved her smell so much, I'd recently bought a little bottle of Chanel No. 5 for myself, making her scent my own. And I loved her charm bracelet filled with hearts, large twenty-four carat gold hearts for each daughter, and smaller eighteen carat ones for every grandchild. It clanked and chimed like bells on an Indian dancers ankle when she threw her twiggy arms into the air, which she often did, for no apparent reason, as if everything deserved exclamation. Everything but her own daughters.

"Outsiders?" I said, rinsing the tights under the faucet.

"You know, what's her name, Rosie?" Mother said, too much emphasis on the O.

Rosie had been Gramma's best friend as long as I could remember. When I was little, I thought Rosie was Gramma's sister. They dressed alike in good beige slacks and slim leather flats, never scuffed. They dyed their hair the same St. Tropez gold shade, and worried about their tiny waistlines and non-existent hips, drinking their coffee black with half a pack of Sweet and Low as if the whole pack would plump them right up. And they laughed at each other's jokes, even the ones repeated endlessly. When I was older I'd wondered if they'd been secret lovers. But I never questioned the sincerity of their bond.

"And what is the problem exactly?" I said, and then recalled that Gramma was not a topic we'd shared when we'd been a team back in the glorious years. I'd avoided the subject of her mother for the sake of our harmony. I squeezed the water out of the twisted tights while trying to gently stretch the fabric.

"She's got power of attorney and you know what that will mean about Daddy's money."

"You know, Mom," I said, careful not to let my impatience show in my voice. "I worry that it isn't good karma to count on money that depends on someone's death." The word death caught in my throat.

"Karma Schwarma. Don't be naïve, Polly. Inheritance has been around a lot longer than you or I have. It's biblical. What do you think the story of Cain and Abel is about? And I deserve my share. Daddy would have wanted it."

"What do you want me to do, Mom?" I asked, all at once exhausted by this conversation.

"I want you to call your grandmother and tell her how much you love her. Remind her how when you were little and she'd visit, you and Ted -- "

Silence. Silence filled with all that she couldn't say, but I could feel.

I lifted the drain on the sink and the heel of my stockings stuck and when I tried to free it, I ripped it. "Damn it," I said.

"I'm sorry," Mother said, thinking the 'damn' applied to her. I didn't correct her misperception. "But I can't change ... none of us can change ... what happened. It was just one of those things, Polly."

That was as far as our conversations about Teddy ever went. And while I understood that talking or thinking or contemplating the whys of Teddy's suicide was something Mother couldn't do, it still startled me, mid-laughter, in the middle of the night. Every time I tried to broach the subject with my mother or my father their standard line, 'Just one of those things,' drove me absolutely crazy, made it seem so random that I couldn't fall asleep imagining 'one of those things' just happening to me. And now it occurred to me 'one of those things' could happen to my baby and that was more frightening than anything.

"Will you call your Grandmother?" she said, a tiny bit softer. "Please?"

A little sweeter. "She'd like that."

"I'll call, but only to see how she's doing. I don't feel comfortable bringing up the money."

"Oh, Polly, see that's your problem, you're afraid to stand up for what you believe in."

"Isn't this about what you believe in?" I said, feeling hurt and misunderstood and mad at myself for wanting to feel close to her.

"You're so good at twisting things around, honey, I hope that serves you well," she said and hung up before I could say goodbye.

When I dialed Gramma's number, I got her machine with Rosie's voice. "We are unavailable to answer your call. Please leave a message after the beep."

"Hi Gramma. It's Polly. I love you. I hope you're okay. And, umm, well, you know I'm expecting a baby, and I'm almost two weeks overdue, and it feels like I may never birth this baby. Did you ever feel that way?" I stopped, hoping someone would reply. God, I hated talking to myself. Then I felt a pang so sharp, I dropped the phone and doubled over in pain, and, when I stood up, I saw Laney's twins out my front window, stark naked, chasing one another with guns made out of celery sticks and I laughed and laughed until my water broke.


Gail Konop Baker lives with her husband and three children in Madison, Wisconsin. She recently completed her novel, Paris Smells Like Rotten Eggs, from which this piece is an excerpt. Her work is published in Talking River Review, The Potomac, The Danforth Review, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Trails, Mota, Yankee Pot Roast, Xanadu, Womansong, Glass Review, and an anthology funded by the Ohio Arts Council.


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