My girlfriends have pulled an intervention on me, and I am trying to be grateful. I don’t know what I am missing, they say. I don’t understand the scope of my own longings. They are trying to fill my head with babies.
Shari, Nikki, and Delores — who has been going through an irritating phase of wanting to be called Lolita, as if Nabokov didn’t do it first, and better — are the culprits.
“This is a loving gesture,” Nikki assured me at the beginning of “phase three” today, apologizing for tying the bonnets so tightly around my wrists. “Delores — excuse me, Lolita — thought you might need to be restrained. And I thought, if we’re going to restrain you, we might as well go for a motif.”
I rub my baby-bonnet chafed wrists and try not to pout, crammed as I am between Nikki, who is 35, and her much younger half-sister Annabelle, 16. Annabelle smells sharp and poisonous, like scented glass. Her breast size is triple that of my own.
“Annie already has the urge,” Nikki tells me.
“I had it when I was like seven,” she says. Looking at the painful swells and slopes of her body in my peripheral vision, I think she is likely to find herself with child not too long from now.
“I’m putting in the tape now,” Lolita announces.
The tape plays tinkly New-Age music to the awake ear and subliminal messages to the unconscious ear, which is apparently located inside my uterus.
“Listen, Allison,” Nikki says to me. She is the designated spokesperson. “You’re going to be 35. You have a perfectly nice husband. Granted, he could stand to cut that ponytail, but he’s a lovely guy, you know we all approve. Your holistic doctor is also a really wonderful healer or guru, or whatever it is you said he was . . .”
“Right. But your healer hasn’t informed you of the issues around becoming 35 and having a baby. Your healer has been a little soft on the advice.”
“I don’t see him for advice, I see him for herbal remedies and acupuncture.”
“Great. You can have acupressure any old time. Herbal remedies, those are neat, too; clearly they’ve helped your complexion since high school. But babies are the stuff of life. Babies are your legacy, your future, your hope.”
When Nikki gets on a roll, it’s a loquacious, Hallmark-y one. She was Homecoming queen, and was crushed when she didn’t make valedictorian based on her good vocabulary and excellent figure.
Shari has pulled up in front of Mercy Hospital.
“Hey . . . look, I said I’d consider it, but I’m not going to go in there to get knocked up today!”
Because Nikki doesn’t laugh, I presume the thought has occurred to her.
“This is only phase three,” she says, as if this could possibly reassure me.
Phase one was a day spent at Wee Wee — a store that sells only the most designer baby clothes. We fondled Prada onesies and Gaultier sequined diaper covers. We cradled the softest terry towels stamped with Versace logos. Nikki rubbed various kinds of fleece and angora across my cheek, urged me to imagine the contours of babies’ sweet, spherical bottoms rounding them out.
Phase two was the toy store. A toddler gave me a mini-concussion by launching a plastic truck at my head. I thought the project had been abandoned until today.
“We’re going to oggle live babies,” Annabelle says, getting out and readjusting the top of her thong underwear so that an onlooker can see them even if her short shorts were to remain at their proper position above her bellybutton.
“You mean ogle. Oh-gull,” Nikki says, irritated.
“Yeah, ‘swhat I said.”
They do not give me room to run off, these women who have known me all of my life. I was, after all, a track star. I was also the only one smoking joints behind the gym at prom while they were jerking off their boyfriends in limos. They didn’t let me get away. Various shame tactics succeeded: “Blood sisters . . . can’t leave your own . . . remember where you came from.” The works. We applied and got accepted to the same Southern California University, all intent on becoming filmmakers. None of us actually doing so. We graduated the same year, Nikki’s sleight for valedictorian reprised, this time — to me. I keep thinking this whole baby plan is revenge for that.
We approach the pediatric floor, a cold white corridor with harsh yellow lights.
“We can’t just sneak in here and look at babies,” I whisper, expecting us to be arrested very soon.
“Of course not, we have an appointment,” Lolita says brightly.
“Dolores,” I say. “I just can’t call you Lolita. It’s a sacrilege to my training as an English teacher.”
She shoots me a nasty grimace, but as I suspect, she won’t insult me in this house of the ill and the recently born.
A nurse awaits us at the door. She smiles at us, thanks Nikki for coming. I stop listening to their conversation because suddenly I am assaulted by the sound of breathing. A network of tiny breaths, strung together into a blanket of soft sound, so alive, so palpable. This is impossible; my ears deceive me. We aren’t even in the room with any babies yet. We turn corners and follow the soft shush-shush of the nurse’s shoes, her soles reprimanding us.
We are taken to a sink and shown how to cruelly remove not only what dirt and germs reside on our body but the first few layers of our skin, until it gleams pinkly, helplessly. We are instructed not to touch anything else until we touch the babies.
There are so many of them in the room.
Nikkie, Delores, Shari and Annabelle collectively sigh and get ogling. I take a step back, as if toward the door, and Nikki reaches out for me, but the nurse lightly slaps her hand, reminding her not to touch anyone. “Babies first.”
They look like little secretaries waiting for our dictation. We are instructed to pick one. Pick one of the under-loved, underfed babies whose parents are sick and addicted, absent, murdered, or too drunk to come down. Pick one and only one of the soft, twitching, open-mouthed, wise-faced little people waving their tiny fingers in their plastic beds at us?
“Go on,” Nikki urges, her arms full of honey-skinned infant, swaddled. Each of my friends and even young Annabelle is soon rocking in the chairs provided. Rocking and cooing and smiling and stroking. Behind the masks we are asked to wear, my friends appear like evil scientists hatching plans to dominate a species.
“Well, which one would you like to hold?” The nurse doesn’t have all day, I can tell, by the way she slaps her foot against the ground after she asks her question.
I turn to my friends, their eyes open and waiting, and I thank them for their good effort, knowing that I cannot, simply cannot hold one of these tender, tiny creatures, give it the promise of my good love for only a moment, and then put it down, never to return.
“I’ll be waiting in the car,” I say, and because they are too baby-laden to protest, I am finally free to go. I don’t have to argue about all the other things I have to do in this life, whose brevity is the legacy my own mother left me before she died young, too, from cervical cancer.
Some things you just can’t make anybody, not even your oldest friends, understand.