“So, you’re totally not going to believe this,” Julianne said.
With barely a week until Christmas, I had finally decided to tackle my shopping. Thankfully, Julianne had agreed to come with me to offer opinions and keep me company. She and I were walking through the mall, which was of course insane. It had taken twenty minutes to find a parking spot. Next year, online shopping only.
We had stopped into Macy’s and were held up at the perfume counter. I was trying to remember which perfume Ben had said we should get for his mother. Perfume was only good if you knew the brand. Otherwise, the gift would be thrown out.
“Hmm?” I said absentmindedly to Julianne, busy alternately sniffing two small slips of paper.
I jerked my head up, the pieces of paper fluttering to the floor. “What?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.”
“When a man and a woman love each other very much—”
“Well, you asked.”
“You,” I dropped my voice, glancing around me, “had sex?”
“Yeah. I don’t know how it worked either.”
“Wow. Are you going to keep up the adoption stuff?”
She shrugged. “We can’t decide. Our agency will put us on hold if they find out that we’re pregnant. But what if the pregnancy doesn’t work out? I don’t want to be left with no options.”
“How long can you keep them from finding out?”
“A while, unless we get a visit. If they come to see the house, and I’m visibly pregnant, they’ll drop us for not telling them.”
“Harsh. Could you go to another agency?”
“We could, but we would have to start the whole process over. I didn’t think this was even the most remote possibility. I’ve become one of those women. ‘Stop thinking about it and it’ll happen.’ ‘Adopt and you’ll get pregnant.’”
“I can’t believe it.”
“I know. I was in denial for weeks. I was sure I was late because of stress. Or sympathy for you guys, or something.”
“Oh, Jules. I’m so happy for you.”
“I am too, I think. It’s hard to know if this is it. If it’s safe to stop the adoption process. If everything will work out.”
“Everything will work out.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“It really isn’t.” I paused. “Next week, I will be more pregnant than I have ever been,” I said.
It was true. I would start my second trimester in five days. I hadn’t made it that far while pregnant with Daniel. I was sure that as soon as I got past that mark, I would be able to convince myself that everything would be fine. I would be halfway to viability, and that was a stone’s throw from a healthy baby.
“Are you nervous?” Julianne asked.
“Scared, mostly. I have to make it to that day. I have to.”
I nodded, not wanting to voice my fears.
“You should wait,” I said. “Until you’re a couple months in, and know things will be okay.”
“That’s the plan. If things stay good a couple months in.”
“Which of these perfumes is right for my mother-in-law?”
Julianne sniffed the two slips of paper. “Ugh. Gift card.”
“But that’s so impersonal.”
“So is bad perfume.”
I conceded, and bought the gift card.
“How’d the shopping go?” Ben asked as I entered the house weighed down by bags.
“Well enough,” I replied. “I’m done, anyway. Mission accomplished.”
“Thank you again for doing my shopping for me.”
“I am always willing to do the shopping for you. After all, you do the cooking for me.”
“A fair trade,“Ben agreed. “How are things with Julianne?”
“Good.” I paused. “Weird. Um, she’s pregnant.”
“That’s great. Right?” he added when I didn’t say anything.
“Of course it is.”
“You seem...not yourself.”
“I’m worried. For her. For us. I mean, what are the odds that the three of us could all get pregnant at the same time, when we couldn’t get pregnant before? And worse, what are the odds that we’ll all have babies at the end of this?”
“I’d imagine that the odds are pretty good, actually.”
“You are...quite the optimist.”
Ben smiled. “Of course I am. I want to stop being sad. Stop being afraid. I’m ready to be excited. And look at how much there is to be excited about.”
He put his hands on my barely-there bump. I put my hands on his and leaned my head against his chest, my eyes closed. We stood that way for a moment, a little family of three, almost.
“It’ll be okay,” Ben said. “Promise.”
Five days later, on the first day of my second trimester, I sat on the edge of the bed, debating my clothing options, trying to pump myself up for Ben’s department Christmas party. I’d never really enjoyed get togethers with Ben’s department. It had always felt contrived. I only ever saw the other faculty spouses maybe twice a year. Conversations always had that awkward feel of talking to someone you knew, but not enough to really let yourself speak. No one had known about Daniel. They certainly didn’t know about this baby, tenuous as it still felt to me.
We still weren’t telling people about my pregnancy. My body was beginning to change, but I could be putting on holiday weight, a perfectly normal December occurrence. One too many servings of turkey at Thanksgiving, perhaps. I didn’t see this particular group of people enough for them to have a solid grasp on what I’d looked like the last time we’d seen each other. The weight gain coupled with the fact that I wouldn’t be drinking meant people might begin to talk. I didn’t want to have to discuss my pregnancy with strangers, with people who wouldn’t understand why I was being cautious, why I was out of the first trimester – albeit barely – and still not telling people. It was too anomalous these days to keep a pregnancy secret any longer than necessary, but to me the secret felt necessary.
As soon as I walked into the party, I was separated from Ben by one of the other faculty spouses. I tried desperately to maintain my grip on him, but this woman was fierce, immediately steering me in her desired direction.
“Elise,” she said. “You made it. Can I grab you a cocktail?”
Already, I would have to start the delicate dance. I had a lie ready for why I was not drinking.
“No, thanks. I told Ben I would be his designated driver,” I added hastily when I saw her look of disbelief.
The Christmas party always had my hackles up. People brought their children, and I couldn’t help but imagine my children among them. I clung to safety by drinking, having enough that my imagination shut off and I could let go. But I would have no armor today, save that of my future. Today I clung to the next Christmas, when my child would be among the others.
My companion – I couldn’t remember her name, though I was fairly certain that I remembered which faculty member she was espoused to – steered me toward a group of women, at the center of which stood a very pregnant woman. She looked downright planetary, decked out in Christmas maternity’s finest. Maternity clothes had never failed to baffle me. You went out and bought a whole new wardrobe that lasted a couple months, at most, and then never wore it again. Unless you became pregnant again, but they you ran the risk that the clothes would be seasonally inappropriate. I only had a few basics: jeans, a couple pairs of nice slacks to wear to work, a few tops that could mix and match with the pants. The idea of buying a maternity dress with a Christmas tree on the front blew my mind. But I was not this woman, and perhaps we had different styles.
I smiled and greeted the women one by one, thankful that the woman who had snagged me – Diane, it turns out – was giving me everyone’s name.
“And of course, as you can see, Laura is expecting her third.”
I brightened my smile, a Herculean effort. “I guess so. Look at you. When are you due?”
I said these things because it was expected of me. They were the script for people talking to pregnant women. If I didn’t ask, people would wonder why I had no manners. When are you due? Boy or girl? What’s the name?
“April second,” she squealed. “It’s a little girl. We are going to name her Emma.”
Of course they are. Who wasn’t naming their daughter Emma right now?
“Congratulations,” I said.
“You and Ben are the only ones left who haven’t had kids,” another woman said, poking my arm.
It seemed improbable that we were actually the only married couple in the department without children. One in eight couples dealt with infertility, so we shouldn’t be the only ones dealing with that, and there were couples younger than us. Surely we weren’t the only childless couple among this crew.
“She’s not drinking,” one of the other wives said suddenly, and I knew the jig was up.
They all fell silent, and began measuring me with their eyes. I didn’t even begin to know what to say. If I denied it, they would turn on me in another month or so when there was no denying it. But I was scared that if I confirmed it, something would go wrong, and then I would have to answer their questions. I couldn’t go through that again. I felt like those celebrities who are hounded after every big meal, in case it is really a baby bump under their blousy dress.
“Don’t you know?” one of the women said.
“Of course,” I stammered. “Yes, I’m pregnant. I’m not very far along, and we’re not really telling people yet.”
They all squealed and hugged me, and did all the things Julianne and Paige has the sense not to. I wasn’t as excited about the pregnancy as these women were. I didn’t know what they were so wound up about. Then the questions began to fly. I could barely keep up with them. When was I due? Did we know what we were having? Would we find out? Did we have names picked out?
“We plan to find out in February,” I said, “if we make it that far.”
As soon as it was out of my mouth, I winced. Why hadn’t I stopped before I’d said that? Now I would have to explain myself, or they’d think I was some sort of...what? Paranoid pregnant lady? Nothing too wrong with that, really. It felt so abnormal, so the opposite of the woman on her third baby, even though I suspected she was younger than me.
“We’re being cautious,” I said after a moment. “We don’t want to jinx anything.”
That seemed to appease them. People always seemed to understand pregnancy superstition.
As the group returned to questioning the woman on her third child, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was thankful to no longer be the focus of their attention. I’d felt so much safer with this baby a secret. Even now, with the morning sickness still a vague but constant companion and the hint of a belly that made getting dressed a bit of a hassle each morning, I couldn’t shake the fear that something was going to go wrong. I couldn’t let my guard down, and I didn’t know how to explain that to these near-strangers.
Thank God I had people who would understand the true reason for my paranoia, and who could talk me down whenever the anxiety was too much.