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United States


Gifts of the Magi- Pro-life Short Story

alec vanderboom

They entered the tree house. Ingrid’s name for it, anyway. A clapboard house perched on a pinch of hill above Atwood Avenue. Three gigantic, withered, white oak trees encircle the city sidewalk, a fifteen feet descent from home’s lilting front porch. A seat on the fax iron chair places Ingrid at eye level with clusters of leaves with tips as round and smooth as worn pencil erasers. Hence, Ingrid’s unofficial name for their destination.
The sixty steps from the sidewalk to the door at the Atwood Avenue entrance makes the tree house unwelcoming to all but the most dedicated solicitors. As an invited guest, Ingrid slips in by the friendlier back gate. Here a carefully manicured lawn curves around tailored shrubs and pudgy Buddhist statues. The garden’s highlight is a regal pond where three koi lazily lounge in black PVC tubes. During Ingrid’s last visit, the hostess had dipped a bare fingernail into the pool, shook the plastic tubes, woke the sleeping koi and asked them to perform for her guests. The red antique tricycle by the back walkway had always mystified Ingrid, though now, it suddenly seems appropriate.
Tim, her husband, yanks on the thick metal fence latch. He opens the wide gate of the Frank Lloyd Wright fence that seems a mandatory homage for certain income levels in Madison, Wisconsin. The fence belongs to the neighbor’s home but the gate lunges aggressively at Keira and Ben’s garage. Dressed in an olive Gap tee shirt, black teevas, and his one pair of unspoilt khakis, Tim looks sharp- except for the tufts of dog hair which poke from his Teevas’ Velcro straps, and a frayed right pant hem. In his pocket bulges their one illicit weapon: manly black beads unevenly strung on steel chain link. The rosary is a free gift from his ordination ceremony as a First Order of the Knights of Columbus. Ordinarily, Ingrid would have already nicknamed him, Sir Tim the Fainthearted, or other such clever monicure. With their future as tenuous as wet underwear hung on a laundry line without clothespins, Ingrid chooses not to banter with her husband’s tenuous self-consciousness.
Ingrid had no such rosary. Her sponsor had bestowed one on the night of Ingrid’s adult confirmation. The precious beads of rosewood blessed in person by John Paul II whose sticky scent had became less cloying after each removal from its plastic case, --that rosary chain had split apart into several small pieces. Ingrid now used it as a talisman against evil, rather than as a regular tool of prayer life. Before the last move, Ingrid left the rosary on the second Bathroom shelf to keep it out of Francesca’s prying hands. Infant’s Liquid Motrin must have spilled across the shelf because now the handsome face of a youthful pope disintegrates into a swirl of orange and red. Such simony causes an even stronger rush of guilt after the Pope’s death, so that Ingrid’s only rosary remains even more unused than before.
Now the only thing comforting Ingrid’s thumb and index finger is the aluminum foil which she’s inexpertly flung against the blue Plexiglas casserole dish. The blue dish still holds a few stubborn remains of rainbow trout drenched in white wine and cream sauce. French trout had been the entrée at her last dinner party. Today the dish contains five turkey sausages originally purchased to tempt Francesca to eat more meat, but which had languished in the freezer. Ingrid had chipped off the freezer frost to make the sausages more appealing.
Tim gives me a “here it goes look” and pushes upon the back gate. They enter, passing the koi pond and antique red tricycle. Ben, their host, stands by the chrome gas grill. No smell of lighter fluid or smudge of smoke accompanies him. Rather, Ben’s covering the propane tanks with special insulated covers for the coming Wisconsin winter.
“Hey yah! Sorry we moved back our dinner plans. We ended up only being detained a fifteen minutes from traffic on the Beltway.” Ben had a face that was all eyebrows- the thick chocolate swatches were the first thing you noticed in his face, then his brown eyes and shock of bangs raggedly hanging off his forehead.
“Oh that’s okay,” Tim collectively answered. “We went out for a quick beer. Had to take advantage of the babysitter . . . time alone. . . and all that.”
Ingrid had reach Ben on the back deck, now. She wasn’t sure how to greet him. A hug seems too forward. A handshake --too businesslike. Ingrid settles for a smile. She tries to make it genuine. Ben’s eyes look easier than when he first broke the news to her.
Chelsea, the infirm golden retriever barks noisily as Ingrid and Tim enter into the kitchen. Ben firmly closes her grey muzzle. He yanks the yelping dog to plastic chain outside. Keira flutters a quick hello and then hides her face. Keira hops from one foot to the other while pinching a cell phone between her head and shoulder. She must be trying to get a better cell phone signal inside the house, Ingrid reasons. The tattoo of a sun on the outside arch of Keira’s left foot is an identical hue to the azure kitchen rug she is standing on. Ingrid wonders why the spiral sun with rays made of swiggly arrows is azure, turquoise, and deep purple in the first place. Is it a personal color preference with some special meaning? Or would the conventional yellow and orange fade to easily? She hears Tim’s voice in her head telling me that no one gets tattoos in yellow. “It would fade too quickly, end up looking like a faint bruise instead of a picture in a few years.”
Tim shows no hint tonight of his numbing social anxiety disorder. He starts out the hearty congratulations. He gladly welcomes Keira and Ben into the new tribe. “Well, well. What great news! Ingrid’s told me already. I’m so excited for your guys!”
“Shhhhh!” Ben mouths. Keira flees into the hall bathroom. Ben motions for Ingrid and Tim to follow him into the dining room. “She’s on the phone with her sister.” He starts to flap his arms mimicking a pre-school teacher’s attempt to get children to sit down during circle time. “We’re keeping it on the down low. On the down low.”
Ingrid’s not sure what this means. Ben and Keira haven’t told her family, or they aren’t going to tell her family? The news of the baby was only indirectly hinted at during her last conversation with Ben. A client, Ben had shown up at Ingrid’s apartment at 2:00 PM on a Monday afternoon. Ingrid welcomed him inside, despite the fact that she was still wearing her pajamas. She apologized for the baby hysterically hollering in the next room. “He’s teething, so he doesn’t like to go down for naps.”
“What is all of this,” Ben said motioning to the discarded pile of skis, Martha Steward reading lamps, drafting tables, law books, and bookcases which cluttered the front porch.
“We’ve decided to move to NYC,” Ingrid responded breezily. “This is our attempt to lighten the load before moving into a tiny one bedroom on the Upper West Side.”
“Why? What prompted this?”
Ingrid started in on the tangled explanation. Ben’s agitation confused her. They were friendly, but not close. Tim had already handed over the final CD containing the new logo, pint-ads, and website. Kinko’s had delivered his two-color business cards. Did Tim forget that he promised Ben some future design projects by a specific date? “We’re just going to stay at Tim’s parents house beginning in September. We’ve got a laptop and Internet access. Tim will be able to finish any design projects he promised you on the road,” Ingrid said reassuringly.
Ben shook his head. “I came over for advice on advice on how to run a business. It’s . . . it can’t be done. It’s all over. . .Everything is over. . . I’ve got to get a regular job. . . a real job.”
Years of conducting legal interviews with distraught domestic violence victims had trained Ingrid to stay still in the midst of such confusing talk. Ingrid inhaled slowly. She exhaled evenly, the way her fourth grade drama teacher had shown her by balancing a dictionary on her abdomen. She concentrated on her hands, which usually spun in concentric circles when she spoke. Ingrid deliberately placed the left hand on the nearby bookcase, she place the right one on her hip, where a pocket should have been. Now she was ready to make gentle eye contact with Ben.
Her motions seemed to help Ben regain his thread of thought. “We have a problem. Everything is uncertain. The business. Taxes. Health insurance. Keira told me to come to talk to you guys because you have your own business and two kids. Keira’s going to have a baby in April.”
Ingrid’s self-imposed restrain vanished. “Oh my gosh, that’s incredible news!” Ingrid did a trademark jump- a sort of revised first position leap she’d adopted during her brief ballet training at age five. The jumps were the only thing the exuberant five year old had like and mastered.
Ben’s face stayed grey and immobile. He broke off eye contact. The lack of happiness grounded Ingrid after only three quick hops. What was wrong? Ingrid started to rewind the conversation. He had made such an awkward announcement. Keira, the woman who co-owns his house but dosen’t have an engagement ring, was going to have a baby. Wasn’t the baby his?
Ingrid refocused on Ben. He refused to return her gaze. Ben looked little boy panicked-not betrayed lover panicked. “It won’t be here till April. . . It just happened. We’re not telling anyone yet.” The news was too new to be real. Ben’s eyes were practically crying.
Ingrid reached inside to find something simple to say. “It’s the best thing I ever did.” She gestures around to all the kid accoutrements, the nude Melissa and David doll house, the brio train wreck, the orange plastic sippy cups with bite marks and missing lids. “Parenthood. . . It seems scary at first, but it was the best thing I ever did.”
Ben nods, reassured, and promises to call Tim later that afternoon. As Ben closed the door, the baby was still howling. “Even like this, it’s still good,” Ingrid thought. Then she looked down. A bold smear of Rose Cottage Red Raspberry Spread in the shape of a child’s finger had been strewn across her right breast during the entire conversation.
Now three days later, deposited in Ben and Keira’s immaculate dining room, Ingrid felt clueless. Were they keeping the baby? Was this some sort of test? Keira was still missing, probably talking on the phone to erase any sisterly suspiciousness raised by their entrance. Ben had started opening pizza boxes and scooping greasily cheese wedges onto matching plates. Were they all going to sit down, run the numbers and see if having a baby made financial sense at this point in their lives? How was her and Tim’s lurching story supposed to guide them?
Ingrid needed to rest. She chose to sit down on the chair on the far end of the dining room table next to a window. She immediately regretted her decision. The table was pushed too far back to the wall in an effort to make a larger traffic path to the living room. She could tell this chair was seldom used in a home of two. There wasn’t enough room for her to comfortably scoot back from the table.
Keira enters the dining room and slumps into the chair near the entryway. Her trademark yoga posture is all off. Limbs slide higgily-piggily into each other. There is no distinction between her chin and her neck. She’s wearing a loose indigo peasant skirt, with a black skirt and bare feet. The tassels from her sleeves wave gracefully as she fingers both ear lobes. Quickly, Keira perks up and assesses the dining room table. “Ben you didn’t open up a pizza. The good one. There’s salad here too, guys.”
Ingrid is dismayed to see a gourmet pizza revealed, one with feta cheese, black olives and tender green asparagus. She isn’t a lover of pizza. It was going to be difficult to finish this slice of pepperoni. Still, if she were going to eat pizza, she’d rather have a rare one whose vegetable toppings were actually tempting. To console herself, Ingrid takes the salad tongs that Keira offers. The salad is all green: green cucumbers, green celery, green peppers, green olives and green Boston Leaf lettuce. “Clever salad,” Ingrid says gamely.
“I didn’t make it,” Keira said embarrassed. “Everything is from Glass Nickel Pizza. They have some fun salad choices. . . Subs, too.”
“Well, I guess you guys will be loyally buying pizza from the Glass Nickel from here on,” Tim said. He turns to Ingrid, “Did I tell you, Ben just landed a new client? Glass Nickel wants three delivery cars to be converted. We get to design the circular logo stickers for the back windows.”
“Wow!” Ingrid answered.
Ben laughed, basking in the glory of having an established business as a new client in his new venture installing converters for alternative fuel. For under $1,000, Ben could install a kit from such reputable supplies as “grease monkey” to allow diesel cars to run on vegetable oil. He started explaining on how he was going to install a grease trapper and purification system into the kitchen.
“That’s perfect,” Ingrid replies. “The pizza delivery trucks can run on their own fuel.”
When Ben kept repeating the plans for “BioCoup” Ingrid felt giddy. She had named it! She’d named a real company. Ben had come to them with the original too-hippy sounding “Veggie Mobile.” It felt wrong for the seriousness of his business model. He needed a better name to drop at law school reunions. She clung to the rough-hewn page hem of the thesaurus, looking for alternative words to vehicle. “Coupe,” which she Americanized by dropping the last “e” felt right as soon as she read it out loud. The name was a true joint venture. Tim had picked the phrase “Bio” to go in front of it.
Soon Ben asks Tim about the date of the big move to NYC. “I’m not exactly clear on why you’re going.”
Ingrid wills herself to distract herself from hearing Tim’s answer. The attempt to explain the urge to go to the Art Capital of the World to a non-artist is usually painful to both speaker and listener. The whims of intuition are difficult to explain to outsiders. The truth was that though Ingrid and Tim were happily encamped in an apartment whose cedar hardwood floors, sunny side windows, and neighborhood of copious city gardens, truly elevated it to the name “flat,” last Saturday morning a moving van had parked outside the front window while new upstairs neighbors unloaded a feast of mismatching Ikea furniture. Staring for six hours at logo of “two men and a truck” had inspired a longing to travel. “Let’s move.” “Okay, let’s go to New York City.” Their marriage-- an easy compatibility of like minds-- made it a delight to decide on which odd film with foreign subtitles to attend, but made it a mess to describe joint life decisions to friends, relatives, or strangers.
It hurt Ingrid to think about moving. She had just developed an easy rhythm to hold the family together. She felt flung down an open trapdoor of giant unknowables: no job, no apartment, no church, no Tuesday night flamenco lessons, no steadying pediatrician, no therapist who was so gentle and understanding of her GAD, no get-togethers with the girls for a Brazilian margaritas at Jolly Bob’s, no navy PT cruiser with raisins stuck under the car seats, no trips to ride the horses at the merry-go-round park, no knocking of cheers with lollipop treats from Jenny Street Market, no listening to the cottonwoods by the lake on a bad day.
To distract herself, Ingrid tries to absorb herself into her surroundings. The dining room is furnished casual eclectic – lots of framed photographs in glass beads, precious shells and handmade clay creatures. It was a forest of interactive wonders to her two-year-old daughter on the last visit, hence the decision to hire a babysitter tonight. Well, that and it seemed easier to convince a couple that babies were easy without one actually being around.
The boys keep prattling on about business plans. Ingrid starts categorizing the paintings on the wall. A wannabe Van Gogh. A wannabe French impressionist. Oh wait, the small picture of a flower bouquet on the wall. It looked familiar. Ingrid strained her contacts to read the signature. Mark Hamon.
“Didn’t Mark go to school with you?” she asks Tim out loud. “Wasn’t he your TA or something?”
“No. Not a TA. He didn’t teach me. He was in some classes with me. He was just going to art school at the same time” Tim gruffly answered before resuming his train of thought with Ben.
Ingrid stewed silently. Yeah, just taking some classes at the same time. Still here he is now after school, eight years later. He has his own studio on Atwood Avenue. He got a commission to paint a serious of murals on foot-foot sections of fence in the community gardens. Where are we, eight years after school? A recovering lawyer who scribbles between loads of laundry and a graphic designer with a never used studio in the basement storage locker.
Ingrid remembers meeting the infamous Mark Harmon in person. She was walking home from morning Mass, entranced with how a stem of Scottish thistle on the strip of restored prairie land was thick enough to support a goldfinch. She turned her head to the right side and saw him. Mark was standing there, easily retouching a lush spring motif, of a large metal waterspout dripping droplets into a green plastic watering can, on the bike path entrance to Café Zoma.
“Are you Mark Haymond?” she ventured. “Harmon,” he corrected. “I’m him.” “I like your work,” she said quickly. He was repainting over graffiti, someone had used a white can of spray paint to say GDNK over the drip from the water tap. The graffiti had shown up on three murals a few days ago. Ingrid had been heartsick to notice how disfigured the slice of watermelon had been during her Sunday bike ride with the children. She felt so traumatized for the artist, his work given graciously to the public and so horribly betrayed. She tried to put those feelings of sympathy into words for him. “Your work is so good. I really like it. I’m sorry they so rudely spray-painted over it. It’s a shame.” Yet Mark didn’t seem perturbed. “Oh it’s easy enough to fix.” He waved his paintbrush with light heartedness. He seemed happy to be there, doing touch ups on a mural in the sunshine. Ingrid walked away quickly on the bike path without nodding in agreement. She felt shaken. She replayed his words and cheerful demeanor while passing the Jamaican store with the elderly Mercedes Benz perpetually for sale outside. It was one of her faults that she didn’t yet know that ugliness can easily be corrected.
The room is hot. Ingrid longs to remove her sweater, the khaki cotton one she bought from Goodwill for $3.99. Ingrid bought it for the J. Jill label, even though the oversized fabric covered safety pin on the neckline makes her self-conscious. At 5 PM, she couldn’t find her one brown tee shirt. Instead she opted for white New York Times Magazine tee shirt that her dad had gotten free with a renewed subscription. New York Times name had a certain cache which was undone by the bold pink “N” in Gothic type on the breast. Why didn’t the New York Times have times print? She decided remove her sweater and risk the pink N clashing with a brown and blue floral skirt. After removing the sweater, she belatedly discovered that she’d worn the blue-stripped sports bra to dinner. The bans showed noticeably through the shirt. She wants to put back on the sweater, but feels that an immediately return would be too obvious.
Ben was still spitting out detailed questions about their New York plan, or rather their planned adventure. How can anyone be this interested? Ingrid decided that it was being used to deflect the issue at hand. It was so typical of boys to dodge the meatier issues at hand. Frustrated she asked Tim for the cell phone. “I need to check on Alice,” she said. She starts up the stairs, hoping to get some privacy in the guest room upstairs.
“Can I help you find anything?” Keira asks, following her to the foot of the stairs. It occurs to Ingrid, that Keira must be eager to leave the table too.
She had forgotten to bring Keira the babysitter’s flyer. The “Hi, I’m Alice Thomas. I’m a twin, the oldest of four children. I’ve got lots of experience with newborns and toddlers. I’m red cross certified.” All written as a run on stream of type devoid of spacing returns based on periods or sentence structure. Alice was a shiny penny of a girl. She somehow had the illusion of extreme capability, despite the lost Red Cross Babysitting Certificate. During the first sitting assignment, Ingrid had rushed out to a client meeting at 11. She handed over the crabby baby to Alice. “The baby is teething, don’t even try to put him to bed.” When she returned one and half hours later, the baby was asleep in his crib and Hannah was in her bed-tent quickly reading farmyard books to herself. “How did you do that?” she questioned Alice. “Didn’t he put up a fuss?”
“Baby’s cry,” was Alice’s common sense answer. There was a time earlier in her mothering career, when such a retort would have sent Ingrid into a panic. Was she doing something wrong? Now such second-guessing seemed futile. Instead, she took this answer as the gift that it was. “What are you doing this afternoon? There’s a movie I want to see with my husband.” Thus, was born Ingrid and Tim’s first spontaneous time alone in three years.
It’s vital that such a precious resource not go to waste. Ingrid wants to spill it out. But Keira such a new mom, she doesn’t know to think of herself as a mama yet. She doesn’t understand the value of a reliable, available, and cheap babysitter.
“I’ve got to call my babysitter,” Ingrid begins.
“Okay,” Keira answers pertly.
“She’s really good. I should give you her number.”
Ingrid leans over the banister in desperation. You need this, Ingrid silently pleads with Keira. You’re going to be on that couch in eleven months. You are going to be sore and exhausted. You are going to be dying because you cannot stand to have a sucker fish attached to your breast anymore. I can help you. I can give you this sound shiny penny of a girl, who can come in and hold your newborn, pace with him so that you can go into the subzero freezer and pick out a diet lime coke and read upbeat poems in O Magazine. Do you really thing doing prenatal yoga is going to spare you all this post-partum agony? Ingrid looks again. Keira isn’t in blissful denial, she’s in numbing fog denial. The babysitter suggestion wasn’t going to get pick up tonight. Better to tell Alice to call Keira in June to troll for new business.
It was so hard to communicate. Keira and Ingrid drifted to the kitchen out of default, they wanted to give the boy their space.
“Do you want something? Keira stated, “We’ve got fruit juice, milk, fresh squeezed orange juice. . oh, and beer. Do you want a beer?
“No thanks, I’m still breast feeding,” Ingrid replied.
“I’ve got some of these new fruit juices. I’m trying out all of these new things now,” Keira replied self-consciously looking at her belly.
There was a tiny child in there, Ingrid thought. Or technically a “fetus” or a clump of cells which could turn in to a child. Keira would be more clinical. Still, a two time past-pregnant gal herself, Ingrid could only think of it as a child. A tentative child, maybe, still needing to overcome the hurdle of potentional miscarriage- but a child, nevertheless.
Keira opened up the refrigerator and pulled out some choices. The fruit juice was organic, shaped like a large juice box with a peel off foil lid. The foil lid looked promising. It reminded Ingrid of Ribena she’d enjoyed as an English exchange student. The juice wasn’t tart. To much syrupy mango. She forced her self to drink another sip to have avoid having to talk.
Ingrid pulls out a red painted kitchen stool by the breakfast nook. There is a grey coyote surrounded by moons and stars on the seat. Ingrid sits down and wearily places her elbows on the counter. The no elbows on the table rule, does it apply after dessert?. She stares stupidly at the counter-top. The vintage vanilla Formica with interlocking circles of pale blue and tired orange seems out of place with the smart sub-zero appliances.
“So how did you and Ben meet?” Ingrid asked. It was her new getting-to-know you conversation method. The one that had replaced her old college pallor trick of reading palms. She had to drop pretend palm reading after reading The Second Commandments prohibitions against sorcery of all kinds; including her previous habit of Capriacorn horoscopes. Which was for the best, really. It scared her when people got to into her made up explanations for the gathering of lines on the Mount of Venus. So now it was: “How did you meet?” “How did you met?” She had asked that of countless people, including a fuddy guy on the park benches below Edinburgh Castle. The familiarity of past stories leaves her unprepared for the honesty of Keira’s response.
“We met through my birth father.”
“Yeah, it’s strange. My birthfather lives in New Mexico, while I grew up in Arizona. He and my mom split up with I was one. I was raised by my stepfather. He’s the one I call “Dad.” As I said, no one knows my birthfather. No one. Yet he was the first person Ben met.”
“Spill all the details” Ingrid said eagerly.
“Um, I was going to this blues festival in New Mexico. I thought I’d look up my birth father. Just going to spend one night with him. . . My Birth Father.” Keira stumbles uncomfortably on this formal title. She must not have used it much. “ He’s not like me at all. He’s a big cowboy type. You know. A real chew in his left cheek, cowboy hat, a real Republican. We’re not alike at all. Anyway, he wanted to take me out country line dancing. I didn’t really like country music. I just thought I’d should humor him. So I end up dancing in this bar full of cowboys. Seriously, all the guys actually had scuffed toes and sagebrush sticking out of their boot spurs. I look across the bar. Then I see this regular guy. He’s drinking a flat tire. Do you know Flat Tire?”
“No,” Ingrid answered truthfully.
“Oh, it’s a microbrew they have down there. A pale ale. Sort of like our Spotted Cow from the New Glarus Brewery.”
“Oh, I’d like it then,” Ingrid responded. She looked eagerly at Keira for continuation of the story.
“Yeah! So I can’t believe this guy has a Flat Tire. I mean we’re the only people in the bar with that bottle in our hands. So I went over to him and said “hey, we must be the only people in here with a Flat Tire in our hands. And Ben laughed.”
Ingrid saw a flash of him then. Ben, smiling his wide, white smile, his swatch of eyebrows reflecting in a smoky bar mirror. A drink of clear water surrounded by tinny Bush beer cans.
“And he laughed, and we just started talking. We ended up talking for a sold three hours.”
“You couldn’t believe how comfortable you guys felt together”, Ingrid filled in for Keira during a natural pause.
“So what was Ben doing in New Mexico?” Ingrid pictured some drab law job, perhaps something in the Department of Justice following the money trails of terrorist or drug dealers.
“Oh, he was fighting fires.”
“Fire fighting?”
“Uh huh, he did that just after law school” Keira casually replied.
The incredulousness of that statement jolted Ingrid’s sleepy brain awake. Keira had repeated that as calmly as saying that Ben had spent a year working for Michael Best or at a clerkship at the third district bankruptcy court. Fighting fires? Benjamin?
Of course, in Keira’s world fighting fires was probably a normal job. In Ingrid’s and Ben’s insular world of the University of Wisconsin Law School, fighting fires was not a normal job.
How can I explain how radical his decision was to her? Ingrid flashed back to the job interviews for summer associate positions. She’d walked on the steel stairways, which through the marvel of modern architecture were suspended from space. Below her stood the candidates-not daring to sit down in the deep velvet chairs for fear of wrinkling their new suits. The guys had laced Oxford wingtips, choking Windsor knots, and no cufflinks. The girls wore drab uniform of navy blue skirt suits and jabbing metal scarf pins. No scarf. No jewelry. Nothing to soften their starched faces. These girly items were on the banned substance list along with perfume and smelly hair shampoo passed out by the Career Development Center firm interview tip sheet. The girls also wore sensible black pumps. Not the shiny pumps of her Nana’s Papagallo stores which were cream with gold buckles and toes dipped in taupe paint. These were clunky shoes which ended in suntan colored hose which contrasted with their pasty faces. The girls were so pale from months spent studying under the library fluorescent lights that their cheeks looked blue instead of pink.
Ingrid’s defiance of the interview system only led her to post-pone the interview session to the spring where she sat in a cranberry Anne Taylor skirt suit, a square cream and cherry scarf, and black Nine West loafers to beg for an unpaid internship with Children’s Legal Services in Boston. At the time, she considered herself she brave.
Now here was Ben, covered in soot, pouring dirt onto blazing fires in Western National Parks for a summer. That was simply heroic! There was more to him than meets the eye. Ingrid preferred this image to Tim’s description of an angsty guy dressing in black to smash Santa ornaments during Christmas time. None of this, including Ben’s vandalism spree can be easily conveyed to Keira. Ingrid decides to write off the whole explanation thing as an unnecessary tangent.
“Okay,” Ingrid struggled to get the timeline right. “So you met at the New Mexican cowboy bar. Then what?”
“I was only going to be in town that one day. So at the end of the night, I gave him my email address.”
“Then he wrote you back, and. . . .”
“Well, actually he didn’t write me back.”
“Ben didn’t write me for over two months. Then my birth father saw him in the street. He said, ‘hey, why haven’t you written my daughter! Don’t you leave her hanging like that!’’
The flutter kicks inside her belly were such a surprise, Ingrid’s first thought was that she might pregnant, too. She remembered feeling like she had swallowed butterflies the first confusing days she could feel Francesca move. It wasn’t a baby. It wasn’t indigestion. Keira’s words had just resounded in the place where life started. How incredible. A man had made Keira. Now the same man is instrumental in bringing her together with the father of his grandchild. Life is surprising perfect sometimes.
Keira didn’t seem to realize how much fate had had a hand in this pregnancy. She continued matter-of-factly. “So then Ben started writing. He’d write whenever he came into town on a weekly break from fire fighting. After a few months, he sent me an email saying that he had all of his belongings packed in his car. He was driving home and wanted to go to Tucson. To see me. I was in a panic. My mom offered to let him stay at her guesthouse. You see, I was living with a bad boyfriend at the time. Things were bad between us. It just was a bad situation. I’m always drawn to saving these unsavable people.” She stops to look questioning at Ingrid
Ingrid raises her hand. “Recovering codependent dater right her,” she affirms.
“Well, I’d wanted to break up with Jack, the guy I’d been dating for a year for almost six months. But he was depressed, like suicidally depressed. So I was afraid of ending it officially with him. I’d told him about all about Ben, and told Ben about Jack. I’d been above board about everything with everyone.”
Ingrid nodded. She’d never been able to be above-board with anyone while still in her 20s.
“Still it was weird, Keira continued. I had this fantasy everyone would get along. I dragged both Ben and Jack out to dinner at this local veggie burger joint the first night. It was excruciating. Jack refused to come out again. So that left Ben and I spending the rest of his weekend alone, taking in the sights of desert. By Sunday, I made my decision. I told Ben that I felt something for him. That it didn’t matter how he felt, because I was going to break up with Jack no matter what. I couldn’t continue to date him knowing that there were guys like him in the world. It was just a waste of time to continue to drag it out anymore. So I couldn’t believe it, but Ben told me that he felt the same way. He said that he was leaving to go home to see his family in Wisconsin. But after a visit, he was willing to move to Tucson to be with me. Well, the next week I have some vacation time saved up. I was supposed to go to the Burning Man Festival with Jack. Do you know the one?”
“Yeah,” Ingrid nodded, pleased she knew something hip and in the West.
“I found out later that Jack’s plan was to propose to me there.”
“Good thing you ended things when you did.”
“Yeah. Well, that’s that. Ben and I got an apartment and lived together for a year in Tucson. Then Ben said he wanted to come back to Wisconsin to start his business. It would be easier. So I came with him.”
“How long have you been in Madison?”
“Two years. We bought this house right away together.”
It was time. Ingrid lunged at the question that had been buried all evening: “so are you guys going to get married now?”
“Yeah.” Keira gave an embarrassed laugh. “In October. A very small ceremony. Just my mom and his parents.”
“It will be good.” Ingrid struggled with a better confirmation. “My best guy friend at my old job in Chicago . . . His name is Gabe. Gabe was really involved with this girl for years. She moved from Japan, where they met, to Indianapolis so that he could go to Law School. Then she moved with him to Chicago so he could take this public interest job. They came to our wedding, happy, but without any plans to be more than live-ins together. A year later, they married. Afterwards, Gabe and I had this deep conversation one day. He said that he was surprised that things were different. He said he really noticed a change.”
“Even though they’d been living together for a long time?”
“Yeah. Even with such a long history. Things were different when they married,” Ingrid said.
“Well, I can see how that would be,” Keira said thoughtfully. “After all, I know that I’ll feel more secure after we are married. We just had a discussion about that the week before I found out I was pregnant. I thought it was time. Ben’s against marriage, why does it matter to have a piece a paper, its just a meaningless institution, the only thing that matters is the emotional connection, which I believe.” Keira stops, her hand gestures showing that she clearly doesn’t.
“It will be different,” Ingrid repeats. “Better.”
There were no other words to say. Nothing more to say to the uninitiated. No way to say that not matter what definition “emotional connection” had been before, their joint definition of “love” would be transformed by this child with a unique heart song already started inside her.
Ingrid remembered when she and Tim had strained to hear Francesca’s heartbeat on a monitor. She was two weeks overdue. Dr. Chan had insisted that she have a stress test. There was something about a disintegrating placenta potentially hurting the baby. Dr. Chan described it as pinching the oxygen cord of the deep sea divers of old.
Now they sat in the triage unit of Riverside Hospital, close in proximity but emotionally far from the delivery ward. The weight of Ingrid’s stomach had pinned her to the too short hospital bed. Her skin was so taunt across the waist, that she felt she was constantly wearing pantyhose three sizes to small. She used one immodest hospital gown as a dress and had a second tied backwards to serve as a robe.
A rather frightening nurse had just explained that Ingrid need to rub her nipples- “stimulate herself” where the exact words. This intense rubbing was supposed to start the contractions that would let them measure how the baby’s heartbeat responded to stress. Tim and Ingrid were stranded by the monitor until the contractions came less than thirty seconds apart.
After five minuets, Ingrid was paralyzed with anxiety. She had trouble stimulating herself in the normal way under comforting conditions. Here in a large hospital room, her privacy assured by only a thin veil of printed cotton curtain, she was rendered immobile. Her shy nipple rubbing was giving no results that could be measured by the beeping monitor. Every few moments a nurse would unhelpfully call, “Rub harder, Ingrid! We aren’t getting any results yet.”
“Help?” Ingrid mouthed to Tim.
“No way,” Tim mouthed back. His head jerk towards the curtain signaled the extreme public nature of her predicament and the sexual pervert he’d be viewed as if the nurse caught him in the act.
She was utterly exhausted, so she shut her eyes. Then she felt him with her skin. Tim gently snaked a hand down the neck hole of her double-knotted hospital gown. His palm slid over her right breast which was bloated with veins of unused clostrium. His fingers found her right aureole and started rubbing.
Ingrid opened her eyes in relief. Tim had chastely turned his head away from her. All Ingrid could gaze at was Tim’s perfect neck, his muscles roped with tension. This was true love she realized. Many boys wished they could have touched her breasts. No one but Tim would dare touch them here.
Without words to share her thoughts with Keira, Ingrid was reduced to head shaking. She drank some more mango juice from the cut bottom glass.
“Do you want some root beer, now?”
“ No.” Ingrid looked at thought of the child inside Keira, which small enough to still be thought of as a fetus by its parents. Welcome to earth kid. There is no way to tell your mama yet that she’s in for something grand.
Just then the boys noisily entered the kitchen. “Time to go, hon.” Tim said. The wine had gotten to both of their faces. Ben came to hug Ingrid goodbye. His forward kiss on her check, told her the boys had also been intimate. Outside, the night felt good.
“I’m glad they called us.”
Tim impulsively kisses the hand he’s holding impulsively. He smells Coco, baby wipes, and warm mangos. “It’s a good thing-- babies.”
“Yeah, they are a good thing.”
“Are you ready to have another one?”
“Well, soon. Maybe after we get settled in NYC. I’m glad they called us. We knew at leave five days before any of their family members.”
“Yeah, that’s quite a compliment I’d say. We’ve been salty shepards without knowing it.”
“ Hmmm, feels good to get entrusted with the news early.”