I was quickly regressing from professional to petulant teenager. Restlessness and a sharp craving for a drink surged into my temples, and I blasted my stereo to mark the end of the work week, releasing a defiant hollar like a crowing Peter Pan.
I turned to my computer for news of the weekend’s potential diversions, and cringed at an empty inbox. I refreshed my screen with reckless abandon, again and again, nearly stomping my feet. Refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh. And then, a twinge of regret at the sight of a bold subject line.
BABY ON THE WAY!
A reminder that Sarah’s Baby Shower will take place this Sunday at 2:00 PM.
I had completely forgotten.
You have replied ‘Attending’
Click here to change your response
I hovered my cursor over the link. It aroused a faint sense of danger, like swiping a candy bar at the corner store.
THEY’LL BE DESSERTS. DESSERTS. DESSERTS. (AND SALADS!)
“Guess I dodged a bullet there,” my friend Rachel chuckled later. She had evaded the invitee list. “Remind me to never have one of those,” she said, rolling her eyes. Rachel and her partner were in the early stages of trying to conceive.
“Oh don’t worry, I’ll remind you plenty!” I snickered. Rachel’s laugh gave way to silence.
“Well, we will want to have some kind of party when the time comes,” she said.
“Of course, of course,” I replied.
Sarah always wanted to get married and have children. Though she never said so to me directly, it was common knowledge among our high school clique. We all had our teenage persona, and Sarah was the traditional one.
As teenagers, Rachel and I considered ourselves to have much loftier goals than babies, like building impressive careers and having copious amounts of sex.
“We don’t have much in common with her,” Rachel said as we gossiped about Sarah’s odd preoccupation with motherhood, our feeling of superiority thinly veiled.
I wondered if Rachel remembered those conversations.
More than ten years later, I found myself drowning in a sea of new mothers and imminent mothers and fiancées and newlyweds. The click-clacking sounds of high-heeled shoes made for its own kind of chatter, drowning out the female voices. I looked down at my scuffed sneakers and winced.
I hadn’t seen Sarah in over a year, well before she announced she was pregnant, and she was now six weeks away from the due date. All her sharp angles had curved, her delicate arms and breasts had swelled. She looked as though she had been stuffed to the brim with joy. She had transformed into a life vessel.
The imminent arrival of a child had not thrown off her astute fashion sense however. I looked down, hoping to find her wearing ugly ‘mom-running-shoes’ that would make me more comfortable with mine. Sarah’s sandals were elegant, and even had a small heel.
“Oh god, they’re so fat,” she said, catching me lookingat her feet. She let out a nervous laugh. “I’m round everywhere.”
The women sitting around her quickly joined in a unison coo, “Nooooooo.” I shook my head in agreement.
We were lying of course, but Sarah’s new shape suited her. It made me think of ivy growing over a concrete wall, green and lush and hungry. Sarah’s body had gone wild and looked very pleased with itself.
My gaze drifted to her stomach. Mostly hidden by a loose-fitting top, I could still make out the edges. A sudden urge came over me to reach out and touch it. I was enchanted. Then the heat of embarrassment washed over me.
I later assured myself that I was mesmerized by the rarity of a socially acceptable protruding belly, and not by what lurked beneath the skin.
“I’m pregnant!” I blurted out.
My mother turned towards me. “Oh.” A pause. “Oohkaay,” she said slowly, stressing each syllable, her face blank.
I was nineteen, home for a visit from university. We were in my parents’ bathroom, and I was perched on top of the toilet seat, looking up at my mother standing in front of the mirror. The fluorescent lights cast a bluish-green hue onto her skin, making her look pale and menacing, her features severe.
I was teaching her how to apply eyeliner. But watching her practice technique in the quiet began to overwhelm me: her face pushed up against her reflection, one hand pulling at her cheek while the other shook, gripping the pencil. I felt like I was going to burst. I had trouble keeping anything from my mother, which both of us acknowledged as unfortunate.
“First thing is, let’s not tell your father. Okay?” she said.
I nodded, then crinkled my face. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, suddenly feeling the weight of my confession.
“Honey, this may surprise you, but I’m totally capable of handling this situation.” My mother is a psychologist and academic, specializing in adolescence, which throughout my teenage years felt like a cruel joke. “We will take care of this situation together.” I assumed that the word ‘situation’ came up a lot in the literature on teen pregnancy. “When did you take the test?”
“Oh, I haven’t,” I blurted out. “But I know I’m pregnant.”
My mom looked into my face. Was she searching for that new motherhood glow?
“What makes you feel that way?” Her therapist tone singed my ears.
“I just know!” I whined. “I mean, you just know, right? Your body knows!”
I had never been particularly connected to my body, so if I had been truthful with myself, I would have realized that it wasn’t telling me anything. I had cried and sweated and cursed the alien cyst I was certain had latched onto my insides. But perhaps the reason I told my mom was that I knew that she would recognize this epiphany of mine for what it was. Pregnancy wasn’t living and breathing in my gut, it was an idea floating in my mind.
“Well, let’s get a test before we jump to conclusions,” she said, letting out a little laugh.
I crossed my arms as a show of disdain. My mom looked back into the mirror, then back at me, and said, “How do I look?”
Just as Sarah personified the ideal image of Expectant Mother, the dining room table looked like it had been ripped from a trendy lifestyle magazine. Every platter of food seemed purposefully placed, according to its size and colour, drawing the eye across the spread.
And there was a clear focal point: the cake. Resting on top of an elegant silver stand was a vanilla cake, covered with playful splashes of white and salmon-coloured icing, like dripping paint. White and purple roses decorated its surface, with green leaves sprouting out from behind them. I couldn’t tell if the foliage was real or fake or edible. No matter. It was beautiful.
Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman popped into my mind — Sarah and I and all our friends had to read it in high school. I had a vague memory of a pink cake. Had been in the shape of a woman?
I remember being so moved by the novel. As she feels increased pressure to conform to patriarchal norms, in particular to get married and have children, the protagonist steadily loses her ability to eat. Like most high school girls I knew, I had started experimenting with obscure and exhaustive diets. I decided Atwood was investigating the common eating disorder, and by extension, my life, and found it thrilling.
Did society play a role in all this? I wondered. Yes, but it has more to do with fashion models, and less to do with family planning, I concluded, not quite making the connection.
The cake had been in the shape of a woman. Marian bakes it at the end of the bookand devours it, reclaiming her relationship to food and her sense of self.
“Are you going to take some?” A woman asked me as she pointed to the platters of food.
I moved aside and watched as guests shyly helped themselves to the salads and the meats and the bread. Butno one touched the cake.
It was far too pretty to eat.
When I hit puberty, I started suffering from a recurring nightmare that I was going into labor. The dreams varied, but the crux remained the same: the time had come for me to deliver a baby and I was scared shitless. Faceless strangers dragged me by my feet, presumably towards a delivery room, and I grabbed hold of a door frame with both hands. Like a cartoon character fighting a tornado, my legs flailed up into the air until I was almost upside down, my knuckles turning white as I tightened my grip, a dark fate ready to suck me up at any moment.
“What do you think it means?” my therapist asked me, when I told her about the dreams.
It was the clichéd therapist response, like most of her responses seemed to be, which infuriated me.
I had been told that I was an angry teenager, and I had been sent to therapy against my will. I promised myself I would rise to the occasion and live up to the role which I had been cast.
“Isn’t it your job to tell me what it means?” I quipped.
“I do have a theory,” she said, maintaining eye contact. My hostility never managed to throw her off balance. “Do you know why you are pregnant in the dream?”
I gawked at her. “Well, have you had sex with someone?” she asked.
The word ‘sex’ made me recoil in my seat. “I don’t know,” I muttered.
She leaned towards me. “Exactly!”
I looked to the ground, not wanting to participate in her satisfaction.
“Amanda, I think you are carrying a heavy burden. A weight. And it doesn’t belong to you; it’s not supposed to be there. And you need to let go of it, you need to get it out of your system. A good first step would be to talk about it here.”
I looked up. She was staring at me intently.
“I see what you are doing,” I sneered.
“What do you mean by that?” Her smile was taunting.
No, I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. So, we sat the rest of the session in silence.
Sarah’s parents were hosting the baby shower, and their home conjured memories of teenagehood.
All of us huddled around the kitchen island countertop, hurling cheese puffs into our mouths. Sarah’s parents had a rare quality in those days: they weren’t bothered by boys in their home. And while I secretly relished the coed gatherings at Sarah’s, I kept a slight distance from members of the opposite sex in those early days of high school.
Some of the boys would sneak in forties of beer, hiding the bottles within their oversized sweaters. They laughed nervously with every sip, and the rest of us would try not to stare, pretending to be unfazed by the illicit alcohol consumption.
Now, rows of mimosas were lined up along the kitchen table. I grabbed one and slurped half of it down.
“Amanda, oh Amanda, I’m so thrilled you could make it!” Sarah’s mom, Tina, pulled me into a hug. “It’s so good to see you.”
I was stunned by the sincerity in her voice.
“How are you? How are your parents?” She was beaming, so much so that I couldn’t look at her directly.
“Oh, you know, good!” I tried my best to sound chipper. “Congratulations!”
“I know, I know, I can’t believe it, I’m a grandmother, I’m going to be a grandmother, I’m thrilled!” She said, giddy, as her eyes darted across the room. She turned back to me and lowered her voice. “I’m glad you helped yourself, no one is touching the alcohol.”
“Oh… ” My voice trailed off as I looked around the room. Guests were holding beverages, but they were drinking something else, something pink.
“I guess the raspberry lemonade is more of a hit,” Tina added with a sigh. “But have you tried the cake?” She picked up a plastic plate from the coffee table behind her, and plopped a chunk of dessert into her mouth, licking the icing off her fingers. “It’s delicious.” And then she was off, zigzagging across the kitchen, greeting her guests.
“The biological clock is a total myth!” I declared.
My parents and I were sprawled out on their living room couches, sipping coffee after brunch. I was telling my mother about a new fertility study I had read about.
“Sure,” she said, barely looking up from her book.
“Well, if you ask me,” my father piped in from across the room, “You’re past your prime.” His face showed a slight hint of a smile, leaving it to me to decide whether he was joking or not. “There is a reason women in other places start having children when they’re fifteen.”
The irony is that when I was that age, my father made no distinction between boys with sex, between sex and babies, and all of the above were strictly forbidden.
He once caught my teenage boyfriend in our house at 3 AM. “What do you think you’re doing!” my father raged, not a question but a threat, his voice expanding like a cloud of smoke, permeating the whole house. “Get out!” he snarled.
I still remember the way Tom’s teeth chattered. The blood vessels in his eyes glistened pink in the dark.
My dad was hostile towards any boy that came into his house during the day, and after the incident with Tom, none dared to visit after dark. I was better off burying contraband in the backyard than bringing someone home for dinner. Dating became a weapon I could wield against my parents. Boys and sex and babies merged into one murky symbol of power and rebellion.
“Haven’t you heard the term geriatric mother?” my father snickered.
“Is he still talking?” my mother finally looked up from her novel. She sighed, took a beat, and then grinned from ear to ear, her way of setting up for a joke. “Anyways, we aren’t destined to have grandchildren. I have accepted that I will have grand-doggies.”
The gift my parents bought my new dog, a rubber chicken chew toy, shot me a look from the hallway mantle.
I thought of Rachel. “I’m turning 31 next year,” she said, wringing her hands. “If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.”
The story had changed when I wasn’t looking. I had awoken from a dream to find myself in a new fairy tale.
Women had gathered in the living room. They were comparing smart watches and that current day’s step count. A few older relatives were arranging the gifts into a semicircle on the dining room floor.
I felt a wave of nausea, I had forgotten to buy a present.
I headed to the bathroom but as I hit the staircase, I felt a poke in the back. “So how are you doing? Sorry we haven’t been able to talk more, it’s crazy in here,” Sarah said, her shoes in her hands.
“Oh please, no problem,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Good, good. It was harder in the beginning. Now I’m fine.” She rubbed her belly as she spoke, which seemed fitting.
I wasn’t sure what to say but I didn’t want the silence between us to go on long. “Are you scared?” I blurted out, and then felt my cheeks go hot. I expected Sarah to laugh, to brush off my naive question, surely far too personal a question for the time and place. But she looked like she was considering it thoroughly.
“Not anymore.” She smiled. I smiled back. I had never seen Sarah look this serene.
“Are you ok? You look a little pale.”
I let out an awkward snort. “Oh don’t worry about me, I’m fine!”
Sarah gave me a hug and then turned into the dining room, where she was being beckoned to open gifts.
I swallowed hard and followed Sarah into the dining room.
“Do you want the rest of mine?” Tina was suddenly beside me. “It’s too sweet for me,” she said, and put her mimosa into my free hand.
“Thanks,” I replied, but she was gone, back into the kitchen.
The rest of the women were kneeling around Sarah, looking up at her as she held a leopard-printed onesie. I remained standing, smiling sheepishly, with both hands firmly clutching silver-plated flute glasses filled with booze.
AMANDA FEDER is an emerging writer from Montreal. In 2018, she was selected for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Mentorship Program.