“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Even the strongest of friendships can be challenged when one of you becomes a mother. Take the time to support your friend in her new endeavors and don’t be afraid to offer a gentle reminder that you have a life, too.”
—From Living Life magazine, “What to Do When Your Best Friend Succumbs to Mommy Madness.”
Every Wednesday I meet my two closest friends for coffee at the Java Joint. Meredith, now known as “Ryder’s Mommy,” is four minutes pregnant with her second.
Louisa, on the other hand, is more like me. After several thousand hours of analyzing, we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to become a mother until you can honestly say you don’t hate your own. “Ryder, look at Mommy. Ryder. Ryder. Look at Mom my. NO.”
“Would he like a cookie?” Louisa asks. “Thanks, but no refined sugar for us. Ryder, sit down.
Sit down, please. Ryder?”
We began this tradition five years ago, when I moved back to Northampton from Washington, D.C. The three of us met freshman year at Smith College, which rests on a hill six blocks north of the Joint. The main entrance of the school at the Grecourt Gates (erected in honor of the Smith College Relief Unit, a group of graduates who went to France after World War I) is visible from the window next to our table. We’re crammed around it to accommodate a high chair Ryder abandoned immediately after he was placed in it. He stands at the window, rubbing his fingers against the glass; it’s foggy from the cold. Squeak. Squeak.
“When do you leave for New York?” Meredith asks Louisa. “Ryder. No. Mommy asked you to stop that. Please?”
“Tomorrow morning. Gretchen, sure you don’t want to come?”
“Nah. I don’t have a New Year’s Eve in New York in me.”
“Lord knows I don’t,” Meredith adds, brushing crumbs off her shirt. “But you have no idea how much I would love a drink. To be drunk. To sleep.” She yawns. “Time for a nap. Ryder, it’s time for you and Mommy to go home, for night- night.”
“No!” Ryder screams.
“Night-night!” Louisa says, laughing.
Meredith starts to bundle up Ryder. She forces his feet, shoes on, through the narrow legs of a snowsuit. She Velcros his mittens over his clenched fists and finally, covers his head with a Cat in the Hat–like tower of knit.
“The hat has to be last,” Meredith explains. “Otherwise, he’ll try and take it off. I hate to stifle his gross- motor-skills development with the mittens for even a minute but it’s so cold out!”
Louisa kicks me under the table.
“I saw that,” Meredith says.
Meredith is an associate professor of anthropology at Smith, and as such she is prone to overthinking. She spent two happy years knee-deep in mud on the beaches of the Black Sea in search of evidence of “the tiny people” tribe and has now turned the full, unbridled force of her intellectual prowess to a) Ryder, b) the state of her career post-child birth, and, c) a painfully earnest e-mail with the subject line “Just Gestating” that she and her husband, Alan, send out periodically to keep interested parties up-to-date on her pregnancy. In last week’s letter, Meredith noted that she’d heard— in the waiting room of her OB’s office—that a woman is more fertile after she’s already had a child. I don’t know enough about it to say that this is a medical fact but, really, why would I? I didn’t even know Ryder was a name.
“What are you and Fredrik doing for New Year’s?” Louisa asks.
“I’m working,” I answer. “Not sure what Fredrik’s doing.”
My cell phone, which is set on vibrate, starts buzzing and moves across the table; it’s headed straight for Louisa’s latte.
“Sorry,” I say to Louisa and Meredith, who are now shouting to each other in order to be heard over Ryder’s demands to play with the phone. I quickly turn away and answer it, without checking caller ID; I’m desperate to get it out of Ryder’s view.
“I want to exhume your father’s body,” my mother says, before I can eke out a hello.
“What?” I yell. “Why?”
I look to Louisa. She is mouthing, “Who is that?”
“I can’t hear you, Mom,” I say. “I will call you later.”
I flip the phone shut and put it away in my purse. I sigh.
“She wants to dig up my dad,” I explain.
“Not that again,” Louisa says.
“On that note, I’ve got to get going,” Meredith says.
She spends a few more minutes with Louisa and me, trying to coach a “bye-bye” out of Ryder, but she gives up, says it for him, and heads for the door. After she leaves, the Joint is quiet—except for a muffled screaming sound, coming from the parking lot. I turn my attention to the window. I can see Meredith struggling to put Ryder in his car seat. He is arching his back and kicking his legs wildly.
“Ryder is adorable,” Louisa says.
“Do you think the defiance is innate?” I ask, chuckling.
“Meredith is so patient; she’s a good mom,” Louisa adds.
I think she is, but again, how would I know? I’m not sure my experience as a daughter, more specifically my crazy mother’s daughter, puts me in a position to judge someone’s mothering ability. And from what I’ve heard from Meredith, there is a lot, and I do mean a lot, I don’t know about being a mom—like Back to Sleep, food allergies, and 1-23 Magic. It is while I’m considering this, and my mother’s announcement, that two women in matching gray fur- lined down parkas approach me. They remove their hoods and their gloves in unison. They look vaguely familiar.
“Gretchen! We met at Meredith’s New Year’s Day open house last year. I’m Char, and this is my partner, my fiancée, as of Christmas Eve, Kate.”
Let me explain. I am the catering manager at the Northampton Grande, the town’s largest hotel, and since same- sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts I’ve logged thousands of hours planning parties for the gay, lesbian, and transgendered “Just Married” crowd. Char and Kate look away from me to check out Louisa. Nearly six feet tall, with long black hair that curls downward past her shoulders, her eyes are bright blue and they twinkle against her fair, lightly freckled skin. She is striking. I, in contrast, stretch to reach 5 feet, 2 inches, and my hair flips under on one side, up on the other. My eyes are brown. My skin is olive—greenish really—prone to breakouts and, as a result, I’m not altogether unfamiliar with products that contain “the active ingredient benzoyl peroxide.” I suspect they think Louisa and I are a couple, that I’m out of my league, and that I will never experience the pure, unadulterated joy of exchanging matching Tiffany classic-setting engagement rings. They are clearly enamored of their new sparklers; both women are admiring their hands in the Joint window, gesturing emphatically in a way only a recently engaged woman can.
“Best wishes to you,” I say.
“Of course we want you to plan our wedding,” Char replies.
“I’d love to.”
I take two business cards from my card-carrying case and hand one to each of them. This is the safest route; it’s hard to tell with two women who will do the actual planning. Nine times out of ten, it is four people: the two brides and their mothers. I am surrounded by mothers.
“I’m beginning to understand why you don’t wear a wedding ring. Not good for business,” Louisa observes after they’ve left.
I’ve often thought that it’s too bad I’m not gay, because Smith would have been the perfect place to come out. As a Gold Key Tour Guide I’d explained to more than one prospective student’s parent about how the college’s tolerant atmosphere “fosters personal discovery.” For some, that means playing with gender, though applicants have to be biologically female at the time of admission. For others, it’s the freedom to experiment with same-sex relationships. But it’s a nonissue. I’m straight, a “breeder”—a term thrown around by the more radical lesbians on campus. I never understood how lesbianism, feminism, or humanity could continue without someone reproducing, so I’m not entirely sure why this is a pejorative term. On the other hand, I am happy to postpone my participation in the great Disney Elton John Circle of Life until the timing is absolutely perfect.
Unfortunately, my period is five days late.
I jump out of bed and run to the bathroom. I quickly close the door and look at the test, which I left on the counter. There it is. The test spells out: pregnant.
“Gretchen? We need to get in there.”
“What? Why? I’m taking a shower.”
“I wanted to show Andrew the leak behind the sink.”
“Can it wait? I’m not dressed.”
“Come on. It’ll take two minutes.”
I scoop up the instructions and the empty box, and wrap them in toilet paper and shove it all in the trash can. My hands are shaking. I put the test in the waistband of my pjamas. I open the door. It’s a small bathroom, so I have to squeeze by them to make room for them to get in. As I do this, the test slops from my waist, through my pajama leg and to the ground; it rattles as it settles on the hardwood floor.
“What is that on your face?” Andrew asks.
“Nothing,” I say, bending over to retrieve the test.
Andrew beats me to it.
“I’m serious, you have something on there,” Andrew insists.
“It’s my acne mask,” I answer.
“And what’s this?” Andrew asks as he waves the tes around in the air.
“Um, uh…” I stammer.
“Says ‘pregnant,’” he observes.
Fredrik stops banging at the pipes and turns around. “What?”
“It’s a miracle! Andrew can read,” I say. I turn to Andrew and continue, “By the way, that has my urine on it.” Andrew pitches the test at me, which I catch. I look to Fredrik and smile. My heart it racing. I hope the test up, above my head.
“Oh, my god!” Fredrik shouts.
“I should go,” Andrew offers.
He does not.
After an awkward second or two, I back out of the doorway and into the hall. Fredrik pushes past Andrew, picks me up at the waist and lifts me into the air.
“Put me down,” I say.
“We’re having a baby!” Fredrick shouts.
“I think so. But I should take another test.”
“Why? They’re like one hundred percent effective,” Andrew adds.
“YOU ARE SO NOT HELPING!” I yell.
“Sorry,” he says, adding, “I should go.”
He does not.
Instead, the three of us make our way downstairs to the kitchen where Andrew and Fredrik start rummaging through the cabinets, looking for something to eat. Since I am unable to convince either of the to go to a drugstore and buy more pregnancy tests, I announce that I’m going to call the “If you have a questions (fragen?)” number listed on the side of the box.
“Why?” Fredrik asks.
“What if the test is wrong?” I answer.
“It’s not. You can take it before you’ve even missed—” Andrew starts.
“Thank you,” I say in my best Ryder’s Mommy voice. “I think I’m familiar with the testing, uh, um, methodology.”
“You’re late, right?” Fredrik asks, his mouth full. “What’s to discuss. You had sex and now you’re pregnant.”
Andrew makes a fist and pumps it in the air when Fredrik says “sex.”
I am bout to remind Fredrik about the diaphragm, as well as bring him up-to-date on the other causes of late and/or missed periods—perhaps Andrew could be of assistance here—but I stop. “Wait, what?” I ask instead.
“You’ve had sex,” Fredrik says slowly. “And now, you’re pregnant.”
“Oh, my God,” I say.
“Does that stuff on your face sting? You just got really red,” Andrew says.
“No, no. It’s just when you said that—Fredrik? Are you listening? Could you stop chewing for one minute, please? Or, at least put the sandwich down?”
“You’re being knocked up doesn’t change the fact that I’m hungry,” Fredrik says.
“FREDRIK!” I shout.
“What is the problem?” Fredrik asks.
“Everyone will know that I’ve had sex!”
“Andrew’s fist is in the air again. Fredrik bursts out laughing.
I continue, “Everyone means my mother. And your father, Fredrik. And, oh, God, Front Desk Bob.”
“I suspected it ll along,” Andrew says.
I glare at both of them.
“This is so embarrassing,” I say, looking over at Andrew.
“What, the shit on you face?” Andrew asks.
“Why are you still here?” I ask.
“It’s lunchtime,” Andrew says, offering me a sandwich. I accept. My secret is out. I might as well eat.
Later that night when we climb into bed, I turn to face Fredrik, instead of the wall, as I normally do.
“I’m beat,” he says, smiling at me.
“All I did all day was eat,” I say, laughing. “It’s all so surreal. You wake up, take a test—and I am going to take another one tomorrow—and then, there it is, you’re pregnant. And pregnancy means a baby and a baby means we’re someone’s mother and father and Oh, my God.”
“I’m sure we’ll be excellent parents,” Fredrik says. “Look how well we takecare of Boo.It can’t be that different.”
“I said that to Meredith once and she got really angry. She said—and I quote—‘Having a dog is like looking down a hallway, that leads to a door, that leads to a room, and in that room there is a dresser, and in that dresser, there is a drawer that contains a box, and if you can make it all out from the hallway, the room, the dresser, the drawer, and the box inside of the drawer, then, yes, you’ve had a glimpse of parenthood.’ Or something to that effect.”
“Does that mean you can’t leave a baby in a crate with a chew-toy?”
Fredrik turns to like on his back.
“What?” I ask.
“It’s exciting,” he says up to the ceiling.
“But scary. And it’s change. I’m not good with change.”
“But still, this is great news,” he says.
“It is!” I shout, a little too loudly. I’m giddy.
“We’re ready for this.”
“When Louisa said she thought we were ready, Meredith commented that no way in a million years can you even begin to prepare, I am pretty sure she said ‘begin to prepare’ instead of ‘prepare’.”
Fredrik turns back to me and places two fingers across my lips.
“Enough of Meredith,” he teases.
I smile at him.
“I love you,” I say.
“I love you, too.”
“Maybe we can’t prepare,” Fredrik says.
“Begin to prepare,” I correct him.
“And maybe we are nervous,” he continues.
“I am,” I whisper.
“But we’ll be fine. I know it.”
“If you say so.” I laugh.
See? There’s that confidence. Comes in handy.
He kisses me on the lips and we fall asleep, facing each other.
Excerpted from NINE MONTHS IN AUGUST © Copyright 2011 by Adriana Bourgoin. Reprinted with permission by Kensington Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Nine Months in August