Audrey T. Carroll is a Creative Writing major at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. Her work has previously been published in Sphere and...read more Variance. She is co-editor of Variance this year.
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO IMAGINE going my whole life without having kids. I want to be a mother more than anything. I tried everything for the past two years—natural conception, in vitro, little tricks like herbal teas to relax me and keep me prime for fertilization. I even lit a candle after mass every Sunday for fifteen weeks. But every try was met with a heavier and more expected disappointment. Dr. Greenburg basically told us to give it up. He suggested adoption. It was in our “best interests” to avoid getting our hopes up.
I apply more red lipstick in the bathroom mirror. I probably had enough on two applications ago, but it’s something to keep my hands busy. The purple circles under my eyes are pretty well-concealed by foundation, and my mascara is perfect. I play with my brown curls. My hair is half clipped back, but I’m not sure how much of it should be in front of my shoulders and how much should be behind them.
Derek comes into the room. He grabs me around the waist and kisses my neck. “You look beautiful,” he whispers in my ear. I grin, staring at his reflection in the mirror. The few weeks before he’d asked me out, I would grin just thinking about Derek. My cheeks would hurt after a while. But it was a good kind of aching.
It was freshman year of college, and Mom and Dad had been fighting with Lisa again. The smell of her incense still lingered around the house, though I’m sure Mom had already made her put it out. It was summer, but already dark outside. Yanni was still blasting from Lisa’s room, though, something heavy on violin. Mom and Dad were convinced that Lisa was doing pot; she’d been listening to all the New Age stuff for a couple of years by then, since she was about thirteen, wearing “that hippy shit” as Dad liked to call it, and burning her incense. The truth was that Lisa didn’t do pot until college, but our parents wouldn’t believe that. As I sat on the couch in the living room, scribbling something about the French Revolution into my notebook, I heard the steps squeak. I turned toward the front door. Lisa crept down the stairs, then hung a left and walked into the living room, sitting on her knees next to me, facing the window. Her hair was straight, waist-length. She wore a sleeveless white shirt and a long purple skirt, and as she sat, legs folded up under her, she played with the gold coin bracelet on her wrist. I underlined a phrase in my textbook.
“So how bad was it this time?” I asked, still looking at a map in my textbook.
“Eh. Not any worse than usual,” Lisa replied. Even when she was in deep, she managed to sound calm. That might have contributed to her reputation as a pothead. “You know, Mom screaming, Dad all silent and disappointed and whatever. The whole nine yards.”
I glanced up at Lisa as she pulled the curtain aside. She stood up and slipped on the flip-flops by Mom’s wooden organ in the corner. “Kitty, Ryan’s here. If Mom and Dad happen to ask, could you—”
“Lisa? I dunno. Isn’t she up in her room?” I recited with a shrug. Lisa grinned at me as she took her knitted purse off the organ. She squeezed my shoulder briefly, mouthed a quick thank you, and was out the door in a moment. My cell phone rang the “Ode to Joy” from the coffee table. I leaned forward and picked the phone up. It was Derek, who had been talking to me for the past month. That was the night he first asked me to dinner. I picked up the phone, grinning.
Even through all the baby problems, he knew how to make me grin.
“And you smell good too.”
I laugh, turning away from him and fussing with my hair again. “Thanks.”
I smell of chocolate chip cookies. I’d been in the kitchen, baking all afternoon, waiting for Lisa to come over for her weekly dinner. I made some lasagna too, and biscuits and carrots. But I smell of cookies. Lisa and I used to have monthly lunches, whenever she decided to stay in the city for a while. We went to Rizzo’s, a small Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, and then walked to Grayson’s Bakery, where we would usually split a black and white cookie, so that we each had some vanilla icing and some chocolate.
The snow on the ground was already piled up on the edge of the sidewalk from the plows, and covered in black. I was wearing my puffy black coat, the faux-fur lined hood over my head. I thought I might have already been pregnant—my belly seemed like it might have been rounder—and I didn’t want to risk getting sick. I’d just gone through my first round of in vitro the week before, and was waiting on the results. I’d been trying to get pregnant for about a year by then. Lisa only wore a cardigan over her dress, even though it was about thirty degrees outside. We walked away from Grayson’s Bakery, eating our cookie halves. She ate hers chocolate first, and I ate mine from the split.
“How’s working at Chase going for ya?” Lisa asked.
“It’s been alright. You know, handling money’s stressful sometimes. The higher-ups only trust people so much. How was Texas?”
“Eh, it was alright, I guess,” Lisa replies, brushing aside some strands of hair blowing in her face. “The town I was in was way too uptight, if you ask me.” Lisa thought that most places were too conservative, so this didn’t surprise me. “So are you preggers yet?” If anything, Lisa knew how to get to the point.
I shrugged. Lisa raised her eyebrows at me as she bit down on her cookie. The air was dry and cold. When I breathed in, I felt it through my nose and all the way down to my lungs, and it rushed my heart to beat faster. “Maybe,” I finally said as I swallowed a bit of vanilla-iced cookie.
“Maybe, huh? Well that’s specific. Is this some of that superstitious crap about not wanting to jinx it early on or something?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m still waiting for the results yet. Believe me, you’ll be the first to know, after Derek.” Lisa scoffed. “What?”
“Derek gets to know before me?” Lisa laughed, and her eyes lit up as her smile puffed out her cheeks. “C’mon, Kitty. You gotta learn how to take a joke.”
I choked out a laugh. “Well, yeah. You’ll probably be in Morocco by then anyway, right?” I continued to smile as I turned away from my sister and looked at the store to my right, an antique place with a wooden rocking horse sitting still in the window. The window was dark, and the sign on the door read CLOSED. I turned back to Lisa. “Did I tell you my idea for the colors in the nursery?”
We only started doing dinners about four months ago. Derek insisted we move the dinners here.
Derek kisses me on the cheek. “Come on, babe. Lisa’ll be here soon.” He takes my hand and leads me from the bathroom, through our short hallway lined with four framed black and white pictures of the two of us—one of us hiking, another at our wedding, a picture of us in the hospital when Derek’s niece was born, and one of us from when we first moved into the new apartment—to the kitchen. My red knee-length skirt, a gift from Lisa’s trip to Morocco last year, swirls around my legs. In the kitchen, Derek reaches for the plate of cookies covered in plastic wrap.
“Ah, ah, ah!” I scold, touching his hand. “Not yet.”
“One cookie’s not gonna kill me,” he insists.
I place my hands on my waist and purse my lips. “No!”
Derek smiles at me. “One cookie?” He leans in and kisses me. I feel one of his hands hold the back of my head. He turns so that I’m against the counter. The sound of crinkling plastic wrap is very clear in the near-silence. Pulling away, I swat his arm.
“Derek!” Before I can stop him, he has a whole cookie in his mouth. “For God’s sake, at least chew!”
A knock at the door interrupts us. He kisses me on the cheek again. “I’ll get that,” he mumbles through a full mouth. The cookie crumbs are on my face. I take the nearest dish towel and wipe them off, then open the oven. As I take the pan of lasagna out, I hear Lisa and Derek talking by the door, then Lisa’s giggling. The back of my hand grazes the toaster as I pass it with the lasagna, and my skin is shocked by how cold the steel is.
As Derek and I sat in Dr. Greenburg’s office, my hand rested against the examining table under me, and the metal was ice cold. I shivered. Derek was sitting with his hands clasped together, hunched over, his eyes closed. I’d seen Derek do this before. He’d pray, but he never thought I noticed. He hated going to church, but I’d still catch him praying sometimes, when something as big as this was on the line. Finally, he looked up at me and smiled.
“I think you’re pregnant,” he said. “I think it worked this time.”
I smiled back at him. “Why?” I asked. “Am I already getting fat?”
Derek shook his head. “You never looked so pretty.”
We listened to the footsteps in the hallway, sat up a little bit straighter whenever we heard one of the doors open, the paper crinkling under me. I looked at my watch every minute or so, not registering the time since first glance. Finally, the doctor came into the room, a silver-haired shorter man. Derek stood up, fumbling with the brown leather jacket that had been in his lap until he tossed it into the chair. He extended his hand toward Dr. Greenburg, who shook it.
“Well, Doc,” he said, smiling as he pulled his hand away. His jaw was shaking, just a little.
“How’d we do?” Dr. Greenburg sighed and opened our file.
I take a good look at her. She’s wearing black sweats and a light pink shirt, and gained quite a bit of weight in her round stomach since last week. Lisa’s about twenty-one weeks pregnant. It’ll be twenty-one weeks on Sunday. I never thought I’d see my sister pregnant with my child.
Lisa never was the type to stay in one place for too long. She’s flaky. My sister isn’t usually in one place for two weeks. A long line of men who disappointed her gave her the urge to get a fresh start—Ryan, Tom, Glenn, Stu, Gary, Jacob, Aaron. That, and her naturally restless nature. Ever since we were kids, she was a free spirit. I was the typical, responsible older child—job at fifteen, my own apartment at twenty, and only two boyfriends my whole life (my high school sweetheart Scott, and Derek). I’ve always loved my sister just for what she is.
Six months ago, I sat in Rizzo’s with Lisa. The corners of my eyes were sensitive and burning from rubbing them too much. I held a tissue in my right hand and lay my head on the table. “I just don’t understand why I can’t have my own baby,” I choked between heavy breaths. “We’ve been trying all year.” I rubbed my nose. “It just won’t work.” I glanced over at some other tables, but the restaurant was mostly empty.
“Oh, Kitty,” Lisa whispered, rubbing my back. “Are you sure you can’t carry a baby?”
“Dr. Greenburg…” I sat up straight and rolled my eyes so that I was staring at the ceiling. This only made the mascara burn them more. “Said it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever conceive.” My mouth was overcome by a sour taste, the kind that makes you pucker your lips, the kind I usually associated with throwing up. I took another gulp of the red wine in front of me.
When lunch was over and we split the check, Lisa and I walked our way to the bakery, like usual. She was silent, so all I had to listen to were other people shouting and the cars skidding and stopping short and honking. I held my purse in front of me with both hands clasped around the handle as I chewed my lip.
“I’m sorry I freaked out like that,” I finally said when we were about a block from the bakery. “It’s just I—”
Lisa put her hand up, her eyes squinted and her lips tight. I stayed quiet as we entered the bakery. There was only one other person in the store, an old, gray-haired woman in a floral-printed hat looking at the cookies, cakes, and pastries through the glass.
“One black and white cookie, please,” my sister said to the young girl behind the counter. She turned to me. “I can carry your baby.”
“I can carry your baby. You still have eggs left over from in vitro, right?”
“Then you can have me be your surrogate.”
“I… Buh…” I wanted to go through pregnancy myself. Still, this was better than adoption. “Are… Are you sure?”
“Thank you,” Lisa said to the cashier, who was looking my sister up and down. She turned to me again. “It’s about time I settled down,” she said as we left the bakery. “And you want to be a mother, right? After all—” Lisa smiled into her shoulder for a moment, then looked me in the eye again. “I owe you for all those times you covered my ass, right?”
When I got home later that night and told Derek the news, half joking, he hugged me tight, for a long time.
“Kitty,” Derek calls. I look up from the black pan.
“No. No, I’m fine. I’ve got this. Thanks.” I continue into the dining room. I never thought in a million years she would go through with it. I would have bet good money that she’d be in Houston by the time the appointment with the doctor came about a week later, and I guess I would have lost. But she showed, and she agreed to be the surrogate. And within a month, she was pregnant with our child. Soon afterwards, the weekly dinners started.
“You look great,” Derek says as we sit down at the table. He is at the head of the table. Lisa sits on his right and I sit on his left. I have the china out—white china plates, with pink and purple flowers painted on around the sides. They were part of a wedding gift from Derek’s mother. Each of us has a crystal glass and the good silverware, too. The tablecloth is cream colored with white flower designs, and a bouquet of red roses, sunflowers, white daisies, and baby’s breath is set in a glass vase in the center of the table. Derek bought them for me last Tuesday. He passed the florist on his way home from work. The only thing that doesn’t belong is the paper napkins.
“Why thank you, Derek,” Lisa replied, flashing him a wide smile of perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. Her flat brown hair is placed evenly over her shoulders.
“Doesn’t she look great, Kitty?” Derek asks, turning to me. He’s smiling, too. It’s that same smile he had plastered on his face when he asked for a cookie only minutes ago, when it was the two of us alone in the kitchen.
“Mm-hmm,” I squeak. “Who wants lasagna?” I take the lid off the pan. Steam erupts from it, releasing the smell of pasta and meat and sauce. I don’t get an answer. Derek turns back to Lisa.
“So are those new clothes?”
Lisa laughed. “Yeah. I bought them the other day.”
“Pink suits you.”
“So, Lisa,” I ask as I plop a square of lasagna onto her plate. Derek stays fixed on her. “How’s that morning sickness coming?”
Derek looks to his own plate as I serve him a helping of lasagna. “Oh, this looks wonderful, honey.”
“I should get the rest of the food,” I say, pushing my seat away from the table.
Derek turns back to Lisa. “So what’ve you been up to lately?”
“Well, this week I went to Babies ‘R Us,’ she started, “And picked up the cutest yellow romper for you two.” I tuned out the rest of what she said, concentrating on the smacking of my heels against the wood floor as I headed to the kitchen, where I pull the blue resin bowl of carrots from our chrome microwave and the plate of biscuits from the black marble counter.
Two months ago, when Lisa was about thirteen weeks along with our baby, we went to Babies ‘R Us over by Union Square. I would have preferred to go on my own, or with Derek, but Derek thought that it might be a good idea for me and Lisa to go together. The streets were loud—cars honking up and down, and the sounds of masses of people talking at once. It smelled awful, too, with the warmer weather. As I inhaled the scent of trash and smog, I felt as though my senses were heightened. I wondered what it would be like to be pregnant. I looked to Lisa, to see how badly it was affecting her, but it didn’t seem to be. We walked into the store, and were overcome by the chill of it, and the clean smell of clothes.
“This is adorable!” Lisa squealed, grabbing a white baby robe with a frog on the front by the sleeves. She turned to me, smiling. I managed to force one back, and nod. “Oh, Kitty, ya gotta let me buy this for you. It’s just perfect!”
“No, Lise, that’s okay. I couldn’t ask you to—”
“Please, please! I’m the auntie, let me spoil ‘em.”
I sighed. I knew it was no use fighting. The robe was already draped over her arm, and she’d moved on to another rack of yellow clothes. I walked over to a bunch of bottles, looking them over, checking the prices but not really processing what the numbers meant. I imagined holding my child, and rocking my baby to sleep after a midnight feeding. I couldn’t think of anything specific, just a crib in the room and a heavy bundle of white blanket in my arms. As I searched some of the colors, I noticed the pink and blue among the yellows and greens and colorless tops. I wondered if my baby was a girl or a boy. Derek didn’t want to know the gender, and Lisa had agreed to not find out, though it would be months from this trip before she could. None of us could know, because the others would be sure to find out if pink or blue baby clothes started coming into the apartment. Standing there, running my fingers over the bottles as if I were examining them, I realized how little I knew about my baby.
I return to the dining room.
At the doorway, I stop, leaning against the wall. Derek is smiling at my sister. She brushes something off the collar on his blue plaid button down, then adjusts it so that it’s sitting properly on his neck. I walk in and drop the food on the table. A couple of biscuits slide off the plate, and a few slices of carrots pop out of the bowl. Lisa and Derek look at me.
“Carrots?” I offer, presenting the bowl.
The dinner went on like usual: Lisa did most of the talking, Derek did most of the answering, and I mostly watched the two of them. We covered every topic she felt was necessary—from the wallpaper choice for the nursery to stroller brand advice she read in an article in The Times.
The air is particularly cool for a July night. Both the windows in our room are open. The smell of oil or tar comes in from the streets. The rain is drizzling, barely making a pinging sound against the ledge of the windows. I’m laying my head on Derek’s chest.
He continues to talk, but I don’t listen to his words. I listen to the way his heart is beating as he speaks. It’s fast, pumping instantly from one pulsation to the next, not taking the time to make particularly distinct beats. I wonder if this will be how our baby’s heart sounds, pumping so fast and so strong that it’s hard to make out each beat. The same blood will be beating through our child, after all. Or will it all be Lisa’s? I stop breathing for a moment. Our baby has her blood pumping through its veins. Even when it leaves Lisa, even when the baby’s in my arms, its heartbeat will be pumping Lisa’s blood. Maybe a sister’s blood is almost the same. How much of a difference could it make?
He strokes my hair. It feels nice, relaxing, though I can’t help but stay fixated on Derek’s heartbeat.
“Lisa was glowing, though. I bet she’s carrying a boy.”
“Huh?” I look up at him.
“Well, my mother always said that carrying a boy made a woman look better but carrying a girl made her look worse. And Lisa looks great. Aren’t you curious what it’s gonna be?” he asks.
I nod. “Of course.” My hand suddenly feels odd in his, clumsy and nervous. I look to the nightstand next to Derek. A silver picture frame holds a photo of Lisa and me. It’s just our faces. We’re teenagers, I’m sixteen and she’s fourteen, with the sandy background of Jones beach. We have on the same pair of black and purple plastic sunglasses, and the same smile. People always said we had the same smile. It was our mother’s smile.
“So Lisa thinks we should do a jungle theme.”
“Lisa. She thinks we should do a jungle theme in the nursery. You know, trees, monkeys, tigers, toucans…”
“I thought we were doing a sea theme.”
“Well, if you want to…”
“No,” I reply, staring at the picture, at the same smiles. “No, a jungle theme’d be fine.”