Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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At the grocery store, Shana picks up four oranges, squeezes them, and puts them back. She wheels her cart to the baby aisle and stands there, staring at the cans of formula, bottles, and baby food. A mother a few feet away tries to calm her crying toddler.

"Shhh," she says to her baby, her finger to her lips. The toddler cries even harder. Shana looks around and suddenly the room is spinning. She feels like her heart is going to break in two, splitting down the middle cleanly, like when she cuts a kiwi and the skin falls neatly away. The jealousy runs though her body like it's poison.
She hangs on for dear life to the bar of the shopping cart. It feels cool and greasy. Suddenly, she remembers being a little girl, clutching the bar from the other end, begging her mother to buy Oreo cookies just so that she could eat the white icing. The room fades in and out, like a movie, and then before she knows what's happening, she loses her balance and tumbles to the ground.

Then she's on her back and looking up at the ceiling covered with florescent lights. She wonders what her husband, Greg, would think about this. He'd probably laugh and pull her up, pretending to dust her off. But Shana knows this is way more serious--at least serious enough to cause a slip of her mind, and then this embarrassing fall in the baby aisle.

The woman with the toddler gasps and then runs over to Shana. "Miss, are you okay?" she asks. Shana can look right up her nose. The woman is pretty, with shoulder length, brown curly hair, green eyes, and a round face.

Shana forces a laugh. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"Do you think you broke anything?" the woman asks.

"Oh no, no," Shana says, shifting her body and then slowly standing up. "I guess I just slipped on something."

"That's horrible!" the woman says. "Was there something on the floor?"

"Who knows. I'm just a giant klutz. Everything is fine."

"Are you sure?" the woman presses.

"Seriously, I'm good."

"Maybe you should have some water or something. Here." The woman leans into her cart and hands Shana a water bottle. "Drink this, okay? Do it for me if nothing else. I can't leave you like this. Do you need some help"

"Oh no, no, I'm fine, but thanks," Shana says. "That's so nice of you. I mean, really, I'm just--" her voice trails off. She clears her throat. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, well, thank you."

The woman waves her hand. "Oh, please." Her voice rises. "Oh my God, did you know that you were bleeding?"

Shana looks at her arm and is surprised to see a pretty big cut with blood oozing out of it. "Oh, crap. I didn't even know."

"Here, use this. I'm a mom. Always prepared," the woman says, handing her a tissue. "Take it."

Shana doesn't want to take it; she just wants the woman and her beautiful baby to leave. She feels the room start to spin again and knows she needs to get out. The woman's baby lets out a wail again. "Thanks so much, but I need to get out of here," she tries to say politely, but it ends up coming out garbled. Needy. Shana presses the tissue against her cut. She starts backing up, trying to avoid the shining lights and the baby products that remind her that she doesn't have a baby, and possibly never will.

"Wait!" the woman calls, pushing her cart after Shana. "Let me come with you. I really want to make sure you're okay."

"You don't have to do that. Really, I'm fine," Shana says, but the woman is already determinedly pushing her car to the checkout line. She buys diapers, some jars of baby food, wipes, and a bag of apples.

"For my little one," she tells Shana, leaning over and giving the little girl a kiss.

"Oh, so cute," Shana says, watching the screen above the cash register tally up the woman's bill.

Shana waits as the woman hands the cashier her credit card, signs the receipt, and hands her baby another cracker. The bag boy compliments the baby on her curly blond hair. "Beautiful," he says with a Spanish accent. Shana wills herself to not reach out and touch those curls, which are all over the baby's head in little ringlets. She herself has curly hair and has always imagined that her baby would have curls, too.

Shana notices that the woman's black sweater, which is a little shabby, has a few spots of dried baby food on it. Her jeans have holes in the knees and she is wearing old flip flops. Shana is wearing black slacks, a lacy t-shirt that she bought full price at Nordstrom's, and designer sandals. She has no one else to buy for, so who cares? What she wouldn't give for clothes stained with baby food or nails not manicured for months.

The bag boy puts the bags into the woman's cart and the woman motions with her head for Shana to come with her. Like an obedient puppy, Shana does, trotting next to the woman like they are old friends. "I guess we should introduce ourselves," the woman laughs. She holds out her right hand. "I'm Diana and this is Olivia."

Olivia. Shana loves that name. In fact, it is one of her top ten names for a girl. She swallows hard and forces a smile. "Hi, Olivia," she says. "Is that a good cracker?" Olivia stares at her solemnly. "How old is she?" she asks Diana.

"Eighteen months," Diana says. "Do you have kids?"

Shana sucks in her breath involuntarily. Diana must hear it, because she looks at Shana curiously. "No," Shana manages. "No, I don't have kids."

"Are you planning to?"

"I don't know," Shana says. "I mean, we've tried for five years with no luck. Time is running out. I'm almost forty and my husband is forty-five."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," the woman says. "I didn't mean to be rude."

"You're not being rude. People ask me all the time."

"I know it's a sensitive topic," Diana says, pushing her daughter in the cart to a silver minivan parked at a lopsided angle. She opens the trunk and puts the grocery bags inside. The trunk is packed full of stuff -- two types of strollers, bags of clothes, three jackets, and a Target bag. The woman pushes back her curly hair. "I just can't get organized," she sighs. "It's like a disease."

"I think it's wonderful," Shana tells her.

"Really?" Diana makes a face. "I think it's awful."

"Your life is chaotic. But in a good way," Shana says, trying to put a joking tone in her voice. If not, she knows she will start crying, breaking down in front of Diana like an idiot. "Do you have any other kids?"

"Yeah, I have a three-year-old son, Mason, at home with his daddy." She pushes shut the trunk door, pulls Olivia out of the shopping cart, and hooks her into her car seat. Olivia cries a little, and then quiets when Diana hands her a stuffed bear. Shana feels such a longing for kids, the minivan, the shopping, everything, that she feels like she can't breathe. Stop, she tells herself. Stop it right now.

"Oh, that's nice," Shana says.

"Yeah, but really, I can't stand the thought of being pregnant again. All my husband has to do is look at me and I get knocked up." She covers her mouth. "Oh, I'm so sorry. That was so insensitive of me!"

"Don't worry about it," Shana tells her.

"I am such a moron. Disorganized and notorious for putting my foot in my mouth."

"Don't apologize," Shana says. "I'm serious. Thank you so much for helping me. I know you've got to go."

Diana stares at her for a minute, then opens her purse and fishes out a pen and paper. "I know this is weird, but you seem like you really need a friend," she says. "I'm giving you my phone number and e-mail address. Maybe you can come over for iced tea and cookies one afternoon?"

"Uh," Shana says.

"I don't want you to think I'm weird. But really, I would love to hang out or something! All I have are mommy friends -- I would love a soon-to-be mommy friend."

Shana can't help it; she laughs. Mostly because Diana is so nice and so sweet, and seems vulnerable in a way Shana can't place. She realizes suddenly that she hasn't laughed in months, not since she and her husband realized that maybe Shana would never get pregnant. That they might have to look into adoption, because Shana's eggs are too old. When she thinks of her eggs, she envisions them all lined up in rocking chairs, knitting and chatting, not even willing or eager to just try to become a baby. In infuriates her, and that fury has turned itself into isolation and depression.

Her therapist told her recently that Shana needed to face the reality that she might not be able to get pregnant and give birth, but that didn't mean she couldn't become a mother. "There are all kinds of options," she had told Shana. "Maybe it's time to explore them."

Shana looks at Diana, who is bent over and scribbling on a piece of paper while her baby cries for her. Maybe she could use a friend. Maybe it would be good for her to have a friend with kids. Maybe it would teach her to get over her jealousy, to focus on the positive. Diana stands and hands the paper to Shana. "Call me," she says.

Shana nods and puts it into her wallet. Diana leans over and gives Shana a quick hug; the niceness and sincerity of it makes Shana tear up. She can't help it. Diana walks backwards, waving, and then gets into the van. Shana walks to her own car, gets in, and watches Diana and Olivia exit the parking lot, turn onto the main street, and drive away. She lets out a deep breath, rests her head on the steering wheel, and feels her body relaxing. Everything will be okay, she tells herself. I know it.

Jennifer Robinson lives with her husband and two-year-old daughter in Southern California. Her work has appeared in Writers Monthly, The Readerville Journal, Full Circle: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, Long Story Short, Looking Back: Stories of Our Mothers & Fathers in Retrospect (New Brighton Books, 2003), and 2DO Before I Die : The Do-It-Yourself Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Little, Brown & Co., 2005).

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