Each morning Julia arrived at work expecting positive news, but as the days lingered she heard nothing optimistic about her boss Tina's baby, named Allie. Tina's husband Jeremiah had started a blog about Allie, where they reported information with frightening details: gain and loss of fluid, oxygen levels, and occasional medical procedures associated with such a preemie. At break time the team flung off their headphones and instead of complaining about the customers, the normal discourse, they discussed, in minute detail, the blog's contents. That morning was extraordinarily upsetting: the child had a setback and at that moment pediatric cardiologists were performing an operation to repair aortic defects. Julia, who stood overlooking the four cubes she considered the social center for the team, stopped herself from listening and retreated to her desk around the corner.
Todd circled around to his own cube next to hers, under the tall, ashen windows. "It's getting old." He nodded toward the top of the wall.
"It's okay," Julia said. "They just worry about the baby. And about Tina."
Todd strapped on his headphones. "Funny how she goes from being a bitch to a saint in weeks."
"That's a shitty thing to say."
"What? It's not true?" Todd tapped his mouse and the computer screen flickered. "Even you were saying that you felt sorry for her kid."
This was true. Just the day before Allie was born two weeks earlier, Julia had ragged about Tina in the lunchroom, as she ate with Todd and their other cube-mate, Chris. Julia had just returned from her bi-annual one-on-one with Tina, who had railed on Julia for the entire hour regarding her on-phone percentages from the past six months, even though Tina knew that Julia had suffered from morning sickness for the majority of that time. Before her own pregnancy Tina had acted so understanding, so compassionate. She passed off sick days and listened to Julia's concerns about her shot-gun marriage, about having a baby without her mother to help, just everything. Julia would have gone so far as to call Tina a friend. Even in the early months of Tina's pregnancy they shared what Julia considered a secret bond, but she had felt a slow growing coolness from Tina, culminating in the tirade Julia had just escaped.
Julia had said, "See, it's like she's so much better than me, just because she never felt sick or anything. I feel sorry for that kid of hers. It'll be hounded." The guys laughed in agreement. This was nothing new to them. Just the week before, in the team meeting, Tina pointed out that Todd was "not enthusiastic enough" with their customers, and that the team "embarrassed" her in front of the department head by not compiling enough customer call-backs. Before that outburst Julia would always stand up for Tina, something Todd had warned her about. "Can't trust the bitch," Todd always said. "It'll be your turn fast enough."
Sitting with Todd at their cubes, Julia felt bad for complaining about Tina and said so. Todd dismissed her with a shrug. "She's still a bitch, if you ask me. Maybe it's karma."
The break was close to over, and Chris arrived at his desk. The three trained together two years ago; working the phones at the mutual fund company was their first job out of college, and in the ensuing years Chris had gone from partying country boy to born-again Christian. Julia liked Chris, and Todd hated him. Chris dropped into his chair, and Julia, after glancing at her clock, swiveled to face him. He had a large, handsome demeanor that was soothing to her. "What do you think?" she asked.
"God will provide what they need." He slipped on his headphones.
"Do you think that? Do you really?"
"You have to believe," he said. He turned his back to her as they started to accept calls.
That afternoon, at home, Julia stripped and lay naked on the bed, in front of the chugging window air-conditioner as it struggled to belch out streams of freezing air. The baby butted against the front of Julia's belly, stretching the skin so that she swore she saw a hand poking up. She fell asleep, and woke a few hours later in the twilit room to the sound of Brad returning from work. His shift was later than hers; he worked for the same company, in the data processing department. Upon waking Julia felt chilly, and pulled an afghan over her body as he entered the room. She told him about the outcome of the surgery -- the baby was still in very dangerous territory -- as he changed out of his work clothes; the white button-up shirt she purchased for him at a garage sale, and the khaki pants frayed at the cuffs.
He didn't comment on Allie's predicament, instead flipped off his shoes and crawled in bed. Julia wrapped the blanket close, her fingers poking through the holes of the crocheted yarn. "Isn't it awful?" Julia said for the third time.
Brad folded his forearm over the length of his eyes. "Of course."
"Don't you feel terrible for Allie?"
"I feel terrible for the situation," Brad said to the ceiling.
"I just am so grateful it didn't happen to us."
He rolled over, and reached out to stroke Julia's bare shoulder, rubbing his thumb and fingertips along the ball where it creased into the upper arm. "Who knows why we're lucky."
Julia shifted to avoid his breath, stinky all the time to her since she became pregnant. He removed his hand. She tugged the blanket over her shoulder. "I hate that this happened to her. To them." He scratched his cheek. "You think I'm being melodramatic."
"No, I don't." Brad jerked the pillow from beneath his head and pulled it over his face.
Wrapping his arm over the pillow, he said, "Jesus, why do you have to be this way? Is it the hormones?"
Julia turned and struggled to move out of bed, but in finding her balance wavering, she braced her hands on the mattress. "Why do you say that? You think it's the hormones that make me sad for the situation?" She rose and faced Brad.
"Stop crying," he said through the pillow. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything." He tossed the pillow aside and held his hand to her. "Come on, get back into bed." Seeing the bags under his eyes, she felt a moment of weakness for how hard he'd been working, banking overtime in order to save for the impending costs of the baby. She complied, and they lay in silence, listening to the thumping radio blaring from the apartment behind theirs.
When the baby died three weeks later, the team was informed, after the announcement of the funeral plans, that they would not be allowed to attend the service. The company could not afford to have ten team members off the phones, even for a few hours. Julia was relieved, but during the afternoon break chatter erupted regarding the wake the following evening. She returned to her desk before the break was over. Her hands and feet had begun to swell the night before. Her toes tingled in her sandals, which she removed and shoved under her desk. She tugged at her white gold wedding and engagement rings and set them on her open-faced calendar. When it was time to get back on the line, Julia donned her headphones but didn't press the live button. She just sat at her desk, staring at the computer screen.
That night Julia and Brad sat in their miniscule, yellow-lit dining room, eating Chinese take-out, the one treat they allowed themselves per week. Julia told Brad they should go to the wake. "I have to work tomorrow night."
"I know. But maybe you can take off early." Julia fingered the plastic wrapper on her fortune cookie.
"Why should I go? I don't know Tina at all."
"To support me, maybe?"
"I don't think you should go."
Brad took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. "You're going to make me say it?"
"Say what? What are you going to say?" Julia threw her fork on the table, and it clattered across the cartons of food, landing on the top of Brad's plate. "What?"
Julia stood. The action caused the table to wobble, resulting in knocking over her glass of water and the container of red sauce. "Say what?"
Brad placed his face in his hands. "Why do you have to do this each time?"
"Do what? What am I doing?" Even in that moment Julia realized her actions were based somewhere not in her head, but somehow behind it, under it. She couldn't control the sob in her throat as she noticed the oily mix of red sauce and water dribbling like a waterfall down the side of the table.
"You've got to calm down."
Julia fetched a towel from the kitchen. Brad joined her as she knelt and dabbed at the sauce seeping into the thin circles of the carpet fibers. "Come on, let me do that." He reached for the rag.
Julia snatched it away from him. "I can do it. I can do it." Her belly stretched over her upper thighs as she leaned over. She could barely see what she was doing as her tears pooled, blurring her vision.
Brad stood as she continued to blot the stain. She realized she'd made it worse, but she couldn't stop daubing, pushing on the cheap carpet the landlord put in. "You're being ridiculous." He retrieved the carpet cleaner spray. "Come on, at least use this."
Julia wiped her eyes, and picking up the bottle, sprayed the carpet. "Leave me alone, leave me alone," she cried. "I said to leave me alone."
"Jesus, you are being such a bitch."
"I can't believe I'm having a baby with you. I can't believe I made this choice."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
She wanted Brad to tell her to sit, that he'd take care of it, but instead he began to stack the dishes. She continued to blot the stain. "Being with you, moving here, having this baby."
"Your choice?" Brad slammed the plates on the table, and they broke, the shards flying like Frisbees in all directions. The remnants of the dinner landed around Julia. The baby flipped in Julia's belly, as if agitated by the argument. Julia glimpsed at her hands, and noticed that her rings were missing.
"Oh, shit, my rings, my rings."
Brad stood above her, hands on his hips, "What?"
"My rings . . . I left them at work." Julia's face felt hot, sticky from the tears and snot.
"You can get them in the morning."
"I can't." Her voice came out dry and constrained from the panic. "I can't get them in the morning. What if someone takes them?"
"Who the fuck is going to take them?"
"Someone. Someone might take them."
"No one is going to take them." Brad knelt beside her, and Julia sat back, wiping her face with the backs of her hands. He plucked the shards from the carpet and began to collect them in his palm.
"I need them, I need them. I can't sleep without them."
Brad set the pieces on the table. "They're not worth --" he started to say, but then said, "Okay, let's go get them." He stood and held out his hand, grasping her about the upper arm, helping her up.
She knew that the rings weren't worth anything. They purchased them at a mall jewelry story, during the lunch break from the Pre-Cana weekend they were required to attend in order to marry in the Catholic Church. They paid for the rings, a teensy diamond for her, white gold for him, with the scant credit left on their Visa card. Everything had happened so fast that spring: her mother dying, finding out she was pregnant, Brad quitting school (after he had waited for her to graduate to start) to work full-time, their families insisting they marry, and the wedding itself, which took twenty minutes.
The drive to the office took longer than the ceremony. Julia felt as if she was running in slow motion through the darkened building. But she found the rings, right where she had left them, side-by-side on her calendar.
Todd ended up driving Julia and Chris to the service. Julia sat in the front seat of Todd's Saab and berated him for not having air-conditioning. Chris concurred from the backseat. "They can fix that, you know." The heat neared ninety-five degrees, and Julia's head swam as they drove. The breeze from the open windows barely made an indentation in the humidity. The car reeked of half-rotted leather seats.
"I'm waiting for God to fix it. I said a prayer this morning." Todd directed at Chris.
"This car is twenty years old," Todd said. "They don't even make the parts for it anymore." He glanced sideways at Julia. "I'm sorry. I didn't even think. Are you okay? You're not going to get sick?"
Julia shook her head, grimacing as the baby ran a fist across her bladder.
Outside the funeral home, Julia experienced a Braxton Hicks contraction. She grasped the side of the car she stood next to, the heat of the engine and the radiant sun burning under her palm. "You guys can go ahead," she said to Todd and Chris, but instead they shuffled nervously, hands shoved into the pockets of their chinos, chatting about the crowd in the parking lot. The contraction passed, and they entered the dim funeral home. It smelled of carpet cleaner and a variety of perfumes. Julia had not been in one since her mother died the previous March. This one looked strikingly similar, although her mother's visitation had been held in Julia's hometown five hundred miles away. Julia had a thought that maybe they created the homes in the same manner, as if they ordered the over-stuffed brown and tan couches from one central warehouse.
The visitation was held was at the end of a long, lamp-lit hallway, in a room to the right. A small black sign with white plastic letters read "Alexandria Hudson." Next to it was a shelf holding prayer cards and envelopes, and Julia grabbed one. Todd asked her what they were for, and Julia explained the use. "You have to give money?"
"Only if you want to," she replied.
"We already had to sign that card for the team. I didn't know you have to give money."
"You don't have to." Julia opened her purse, picked out her wallet, and retrieved a twenty-dollar bill. "This is only if you want to." She remembered how much it meant to her to see the list of donations after her mother's funeral. Julia tucked the money into the envelope, signed her name on the front, and slipped it into the slot at the base of the shelf.
"I'm sure she'll get enough money." Todd indicated through the doorway to the line snaking around the back of the room.
They joined the line. Julia didn't see Tina; only her husband's head stuck above the crowd. Julia had only met him once, at the last Christmas party, which was held on a Saturday night mid-December, in a cavernous convention center. Tina and her husband had ensconced themselves in a far corner away from the phone reps, preferring to hang with the other managers. Julia had drunk so much at the party she didn't recall much of anything, only coming home and throwing up half the night, then the ensuing hangover, which lasted well into the following Monday morning.
The procession stretched between rows of folding chairs. Julia prayed the contractions wouldn't hit again. There was little talk in the room, just low murmurs from the others in line. Julia didn't see any of her teammates. She, Chris, and Todd attempted conversation, but it was mostly smattering, a word or two. Forty-five minutes later they finally got a chance to eye Tina and her husband. Tina was dressed in a pencil-thin black skirt and a button-down white shirt, Jeremiah in a dark gray suit, with a muted red tie. Tina's face held a look that Julia recognized; as if Julia herself mirrored that look. Tired, but more than tired, beyond tired. Julia flashed back to the memory of standing in front of her own mother's body, and she took a breath as she leaned in to hug Tina. "I'm so sorry."
Tina fingered a tress of her short brown hair behind her left ear, showing a single creamy pearl. "Well," she said, patting Julia on the back. "I'm surprised to see you guys here." Her eyes were dry and clear, but she had none of the makeup that she normally wore to work.
"We're all very sorry," Chris mumbled. Tina blinked. Her mouth was set in a stern smile, similar to the one that she had when addressing the team on some petty work problem. Her eyes darted to the people behind them. They were dismissed.
Two weeks later, at her thirty-seven week checkup, Julia learned she had preeclampsia. Her doctor notified Julia that, after attending a series of assessments at the hospital, including a non-stress test and an ultrasound, she needed to go home and lie on her left side, all day, every day. "Until when?" Brad asked. Julia's doctor, a stern-faced young woman with bright red hair that hung seriously around her chin, told them until at the very least the due date. Julia, who was lying on her left side on the exam table, noticed that the doctor had her hand on the door handle, as if ready to flee. Brad asked more questions: Is the baby okay? What is the ultrasound for? What is a non-stress test? Why test her urine? The doctor answered the questions in darts of words, and Julia was unnerved by the lack of consolatory tone.
The afternoon at the hospital was a blur, as they marched down brightly lit corridors from one exam to the other. "I've got to get to work," Julia said to Brad numerous times, outside the lab, in the sonogram room, while taking the elevator to the birth center. Waiting for the non-stress test, Julia said, "I have to tell everyone," as she lay on the narrow, white-sheeted bed in the triage room of the maternity ward. Several monitors sat on shelves next to the bed, with cords dangling and IV poles scattered about.
"I think the phone call was enough."
"I have projects! I have all my stuff there. I have to pick it up." Julia had left a message on Tina's voicemail immediately following the doctor visit, but she still felt a sense of panic. "I have to explain this to Tina."
"What's to explain? Women go on bed rest all the time." Brad seemed to Julia to be not worried enough, and she said so. "The doctor said not to worry."
"She obviously doesn't know what she's doing."
Brad, sitting in a slate gray folding chair, shifted and crossed his legs at the ankles. He was still in his work outfit, gray slacks, white shirt, and an amber-flecked tie, even though he had not made it to work that day; the appointment had started at nine, before his shift began. As if he realized it himself, Brad removed the tie and folded it with precision, then shoved it in his pocket. "You're a phone rep, how important can your projects be?" he asked, as the door squeaked open and a nurse entered. She wordlessly strapped a set of black belts affixed with monitors over Julia's rounded, vein-speckled belly. They were attached by black cords to a machine that, the nurse informed them, checked the baby's heartbeat. Brad and Julia didn't talk during the test, only listened to the galloping kaboom kaboom kaboom that pulsated from the machine, and that, the nurse said, was normal and healthy.
As Brad and Julia walked to the elevator on the far end of the atrium of her office building, the sweat on her forehead beaded and her underarms tickled from the perspiration. The elevator wasn't much cooler, and Julia spied her face in the mirrored wall, which was blurred by age and mistreatment. The distortion made her face appear longer, as if sketched by a painter, intentionally making her look melancholy. Inside the office the blinds had been drawn to block out the late day sun, but it still peeked through, and Julia squinted as they made their way to her team area. Julia directed Brad to her cube, and headed to find Tina.
Tina's office lined the interior of the building, and the door stood half-open; Tina was sitting at her desk, which faced the door. Julia took a moment before knocking. Tina had returned to work the previous Monday and hid out most of the time, leaving the team to stand around during breaks and surmise about when she would finally take the chance to speak with them, about anything.
Julia tapped on the door. "Tina?"
Tina glanced up. "I got your voicemail."
Julia entered the room, standing awkwardly just inside the doorway. "I just wanted to stop by and . . . " Julia grasped her purse against her stomach. "I guess I'll be starting my leave early." Tina nodded. "I'm not sure when I'll be having the baby."
As if shaken, Tina perked up. "Sit down for a sec." She stood and drew a chair from a small circular table that sat kitty-corner from the desk. She was dressed exactly as she was at the service, in a white blouse and long black skirt. Tina rolled the chair over to the opposite side of her desk, and placed her hand on Julia's forearm, as if to assist her to sit. Julia plunked down, thankful; her knees felt as if they were about to buckle.
"I'm sorry." Julia said. "I thought I would be able to get all my stuff transitioned -- "
"Oh, it's fine," Tina said, loudly. She cleared her throat. "Todd knows about your projects. He can handle everything." She glanced at Julia. The baby began to squirm, and the top of Julia's belly shifted, the baby fluttering about inside of her. Tina turned her eyes to her computer, her cheeks crimson.
"So, I guess I can get home."
"Good idea." They both stood. "Well, give me a call when you know how things are going, and we can determine your return date then." Tina marched around her desk with her head down and opened the door so that it banged against the doorstop. "Good luck." Julia budged out of the chair, grasping the arms. Her purse fell to the floor. The contents spilled out: keys, her wallet, brush, lipstick. Julia groaned, and Tina rushed over, down on her knees, shoving the items back into the purse. Julia first noticed the dots of water dropping on the beige carpet, and then realized that Tina was crying. She stood as Tina pulled herself up by the lip of the desk and shoved the purse at Julia.
"Tina, I'm sorry." Julia was crying as well. "I'm really sorry."
"Why is it that you can have one and mine died? You tell me?" Tina's face was crunched up, her eyes barely visible. "You weren't even married."
Brad arrived at the door, and Julia turned to him, helpless. Tina returned to her chair, sat, and placed the balls of her palms on her eyes, snaking her fingers over her forehead. Her sobs came loud and hollow, like a cat losing a fight, and Julia glanced at Brad. Brad took Julia's hand and pulled her out of the room, clicking shut the door behind him.
At home, on the couch, Julia lay on her left side, with her bed pillow under her head. She fell asleep moments after lying down, and woke three hours later to find Brad sitting on the orange easy chair they had taken from his father's basement. His feet were up on the coffee table, and Julia could see the dirty outline of his toes on his white socks. He looked from the TV to her and smiled. "Hi."
"You want anything?"
"I'd like a Coke. Although the caffeine --"
Brad said, "You want a Coke, you get a Coke. Anything else?"
"I want a burger. I want a big burger with fries and a chocolate shake."
He stood up and leaned over, kissing her on the head. "I'll be right back." He grabbed his keys and wallet from the table next to the door and strode out.
On the coffee table sat a plain white envelope with her name on it. When she tore open the card, she found it was from her teammates, a good luck card. She figured someone must have purchased it for her over the lunch hour, after learning of her predicament, and then presented it to Brad. It had a cartoon of a pregnant woman on the front, her stomach clownishly misshapen. Inside, the message was innocuous, about not letting her situation get her down. She fingered the words, and then read the small, cramped writing of each member of her team. Todd's said: Don't miss us. Tina's was a short Good Luck! and Chris wrote a bible verse: I praise the justice of the LORD; I celebrate the name of the LORD Most High. Psalm 7:18.
Julia placed the card on the pillow, and lay her head down on top it, careful, as her doctor ordered, to stay on her left side.