“Mama,” Lia whispered as she nudged India’s swollen belly. “Mama, are we done resting? Mama?”
India allowed herself to slowly drift in and out of sleep until Lia’s voice and the low vibration of the box fan wedged in the window across from the bed became more persistent and she reluctantly opened her eyes. India groaned. Her entire body was sticky with sweat, the right side of her t-shirt, actually a cast-off of Daniel’s, was soaked through where Lia’s body had been pressed next to India’s as they napped. The book she had been reading to Lia before they fell asleep, The Bear and the Red Ripe Strawberry, was tented over India’s stomach and slid off onto the floor as India searched for a comfortable position. Her mouth was dry — cotton-like — and she longed to submerge herself in water, imagining the lake at her grandparents camp in Paradox where they had swam just a few weeks ago. India would have stayed but Daniel had to get back to school and he didn’t want her to be alone in her eighth, almost ninth, month of pregnancy with no phone at the lake.
“Mama, Mama, are you waking up now?” Lia sang in her ear. India smiled and reached over to tickle her daughter’s bare protruding stomach. The waist of her flower-sprigged underpants rolled down beneath it and sagged in the bottom. The extra fabric flapped up and down during Lia’s giggly dance off the bed and across the hard wood floors.
“Catch me, Mama, Catch me!” Lia giggled as she ran out of India’s room and down the hall to her own. India sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed at the sound of a basket of blocks being overturned.
“Lia?” India called.
“I’m building now, Mama.”
“Okay,” India sighed as she heaved herself off the bed and walked over to the fan. She lifted her t-shirt up and let the tepid air cascade over her breasts and belly. She closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them she caught sight of herself in the mirror above her dresser and laughed out loud. With her teeny sliver of underwear just visible beneath her ludicrously protruding belly she resembled Lia of just a few moments before.
India reached up and undid her braid, letting her hair fall across her shoulders. It was so long now it covered her breasts bright with veins, heavy with milk, and most of her stomach — a hair poncho. She moved to the dresser and picked up her brush to re-braid it — a horse’s tail hunk in her hand — when Lia appeared in the doorway.
“Playing hairdresser, Mama?” Lia struck a pose, her hands on her hips.
India smiled. Lia’s hair, dark black like India’s yet with a life all its own, stuck out all over her head like an electrified halo. She was still naked on top but on her lower half she wore a lavender and cream tulle tutu almost double the size of her body that Eve and Jed had brought back from New York City a few months back. India’s mother had played tourist (her words) while Jed played famous artist (India’s words) for the afternoon. A corporate client of Mira’s had just purchased two 10’x 10′ canvasses of Jed’s for his downtown loft and Mira had planned drinks with her client and Jed, counting on the presence of the artist to entice the buyer into two more canvasses. According to Eve, she’d spent the afternoon at FAO Schwartz.
“You look beautiful Lia Mia, are we dressing for dinner tonight?”
Lia cocked her head to one side, considering India’s question. “You mean we can eat naked if we want?”
India laughed. “No, I think we should wear clothes. I meant ‘dressed’ as in dressed up.”
Lia seemed to take this in, then shrugged her shoulders and skipped across the room for the hairbrush in India’s hand. Standing behind India, she began to brush what she could reach of her mother’s hair.
“How about a picnic?” India asked, hoping the air was a little less stagnant outside. They both turned towards the window as Daniel’s car rumbled into their drive.
Lia dropped the brush onto the floor. “Daddy!” she yelled out the window without the box fan. “Daddy!”
India bent to retrieve the brush. Daniel had just started work again at the college. At the last moment, a professor had accepted a sabbatical and Daniel was asked back to teach two sections of poetry. So they’d cut short their time at Paradox Lake and come home. Working was good for Daniel, now that his third book of poems was done and about to be published; he was always antsy, after he finished a project, in that lull before he began writing again.
India felt the baby shift and so for a moment she stayed bent over until the baby righted itself and India could stand without pain. She rubbed at her side as Lia skidded out of the room — her tutu, a tuft of tulle, trailed behind her out the door.
When India finally descended the stairs into the kitchen, Lia sat atop the counter eating a Popsicle; stripes of cherry juice ran in rivulets down her arm. Daniel, also with a Popsicle in his mouth, popped out from behind the open door of the fridge and smiled crookedly: one of the corners of his mouth turned up while the other held the Popsicle. His bay blue Oxford shirt was open down to his belly button and his pants were undone — his college professor clothes, India had called them, as she’d watched him this morning getting dressed for work. His college professor clothes were quickly becoming undone in the heat and so India went over and gave his trousers a good tug and they slipped down over his hips to reveal his boxer shorts. Lia squealed with laughter and pointed. Daniel mugged for his audience and hopped up and down until his pants slid to his ankles and he collapsed on the kitchen floor.
“Mama said we could eat naked tonight, Daddy.” Lia giggled.
Daniel smiled up at India with raised eyebrows and she felt a soft tugging inside. Daniel stood and walked out of his sandals and folded his pants over his arm like a maitre’d in a fine restaurant. In his clipped British accent he said, “I shall return, ladies,” as he backed out of the room, bowing slightly, the popsicle stick extending from his hand like a mini magic wand. India and Lia exchanged a smile as Daniel left the kitchen, and India opened the refrigerator to scan the contents for dinner.
“I think we should eat pops,” Lia said between licks.
“Hmmm,” India answered as she rummaged thru the vegetable drawer and pulled out three apples and an onion. “Come on, Chickadee,” India said as she closed the refrigerator door. “Let’s go out and see what’s left in the garden.”
Later, after India had culled a few late tomatoes from the vines and served them with sliced onion with oil and vinegar for salad, red pepper hummus, a loaf of bread, and apples, she lay with her head in Daniel’s lap on a blanket in the backyard amongst the remains of their picnic.
As the sun set, the air began to cool around the edges of the day. Beneath the old hydrangea bushes around the back of the house, the shade was a rich verdigris, beckoning Lia who squatted amongst the swollen heavy blossoms studying a line of ants swarming around the remains of another Popsicle.
“Mosquitoes,” India murmured, watching Lia thru half-closed lids.
Daniel yawned and adjusted his legs beneath India’s head. “No, no — they are done for the year. Too hot . . .”
India smiled lazily.
“You’re looking fetching tonight, Love.” Daniel said softly, and India raised her head off his lap and squinted at him.
“Are you okay?” India asked as she smoothed the thin fabric of her sundress over her belly.
Daniel nodded. “Perfect. I am perfect.” Daniel reached out and put his hands over India’s.
India watched Lia poke a stick into the ground in an attempt to force the line of ants into a stone and pebble structure she had built. The crease between her brows furrowed deeper and deeper as the ants resisted realignment. The tutu, India noticed, was soiled a dusty brown around the edges.
“My mother called this morning to remind me that she and Jed are leaving for Spain at the end of the month. She was checking to see if my due date had changed . . . from yesterday.”
Daniel chuckled. “And how many times in the last week has she reminded you of their trip?”
India sighed. “At least once a day.”
“She won’t stay here without him, will she?”
India shrugged. “How would he survive? He paints, she does everything else.”
“Ahh, I suppose.” Daniel mused.
Jed Hinds remained true to his art, and it was gaining him more and more admirers. Along with the attention, he got astronomical sums for his paintings, sums that even Jed seemed humbled by.
Daniel nudged India. “Where are you, Love? My legs are getting numb. I have to move about.”
India rolled off Daniel’s lap onto her side and Daniel rubbed her back. “We should get Lia inside, ” India said drowsily.
“Need a hand getting up?”
India snorted. “Just keep rolling me towards the back door.”
Lia fell asleep before India was done reading to her. Having heard the story so many times before, Lia recited the words along with India. “Who is reading to whom, Lia Mia?” India whispered as Lia’s eyelids fluttered and closed and her body relaxed under the thin blanket. Her hair, still damp from the bath, curled onto her cheeks and India smoothed the tendrils from her face before she adjusted the night light and left the room.
Daniel sat at the long pine table that dominated one half of their living room. The table, a cast-off from her grandmother Bix’s house after Jed and Eve remodeled, shone from years of beeswax polish. Here, beneath a circle of milky light, Daniel, bare-chested, frowned at the paper before him.
India looked over his shoulder, not surprised to see the page was blank. India had known Daniel through two books of poetry; she knew this to be Daniel’s reaction to publication. There could be days, weeks of nothing, and then the soft explosion of words falling onto the paper.
She placed her hand lightly on the cool, smooth skin of Daniel’s neck. “I’m going to take a shower,” she whispered.
India stayed beneath the water for a long time, so that by the time she walked naked and cool from her shower into the bedroom Daniel was in bed, sheet pulled up to his waist. It seemed to India that it was a moonless night, the dark murkier than usual, and she felt her way to her dresser for a nightgown.
“Don’t — come here.” Daniel whispered.
India heard the rustle of sheets as Daniel changed positions and she walked towards the sound. She leaned over him, the tips of her wet hair trailing drops of water across Daniel’s face. Daniel’s hands worked their way through the curtain of hair to brush against her breasts. India slid into the sheets and lay on her side facing Daniel. His thumbs now rubbed against her nipples and India felt a sticky wetness between her legs.
“Do you know what I was thinking about?” Daniel asked.
India felt Daniel’s erection against her belly. Involuntarily, her eyes closed and her mouth opened. Her mouth was dry and she licked her lips as Daniel continued.
“I was remembering that night we went swimming at the lake, how lovely you felt.” Daniel kissed India on the mouth, his teeth nipped at her lower lip as his lips moved down her throat to her breasts and finally her nipples.
India sighed. That night on the lake they had gone skinny dipping — unable to sleep, the air unusually muggy and yeasty, they had crept out of the camp, leaving Lia asleep, spread-eagled on the same cot that India had slept on as a child when she had come to the lake with Bix.
She and Daniel swam out to the rocky point and floated on their backs — India’s belly rose from the water and glowed white in the moonlight. She felt blessedly light and slippery, like the baby inside of her ,and she had gone to Daniel and he slid inside of her and they rocked together until Daniel came loudly and it echoed across the lake.
Now Daniel turned India over onto her side facing away from him, her bulk making this position the most comfortable. India lifted her hips and Daniel slid inside of her. She loved this part, the point of no return. From here they could only go forward with an urgency that thrilled and scared her until India felt that thing begin that moved from her toes, up through her legs, until it reached the center of her and a spasm moved across her abdomen, tightening her belly into a fierce knot. Daniel whispered her name over and over again and India felt the tears as every emotion, every nerve ending, was a tangle of hormones pushing her closer and closer to the edge.
It was several weeks into September before the heat broke. All the weather forecasters proclaimed it the hottest, driest September on record. Seven consecutive days topped 98 degrees while the evenings were a dull, heavy 70 degrees.
India measured that time by her thrice-a-week trips to Lia’s preschool and her weekly midwife appointments. The only outings she put clothes on for — and even then, just barely. She and Lia spent most of their day semi-naked in the shade of the backyard — the white pines that edged the yard formed a wall of feathery foliage and a dense tapestry of tall trees: winter dogwoods, Japanese maples, and evergreens filled in the rest.
The yard was what India had fallen in love with when she and Daniel first saw this house. Lia was just six months old, in a back carrier, and she and India had ventured out into the yard as soon as they had arrived, while Daniel charmed the elderly widow with a gift of strawberries from the farm stand they’d passed along the road.
Bix’s gift to India had been this love of plants. No botanical Latin for her, she was not that kind of gardener; that had strictly been Bix’s domain. Instead, for India it was the color and the smell and the texture. What intrigued her was form and leaf shape, and in the gardens, India designed for her clients. She layered oak leaf hydrangeas against hostas, blue globe thistle to attract butterflies, and often the perimeter plants were left loose and unpruned, and in there a stone bench could be partially hidden giving off the promise of a secret garden.
India saw all of this as she stood in the backyard for the first time, even though the house sat on a funny triangular piece of land bordered by the horse farms of Saratoga. The building was once a stone schoolhouse — a rectangular addition was added off the back over the years and housed three bedrooms and a bath. What had been the school room was now a large open space with a fireplace at one end and a small but serviceable kitchen tucked at the end of a hallway lined with hooks that India imagined held the ghost coats of children from years past. The kitchen had a long row of windows that opened out into the backyard above the sink so India could see from this vantage point a kaleidoscope of green against green.
She and Daniel and Lia had been living in the tiny carriage house that India and Daniel had shared before they were married. And it was Daniel who had seen a posting for the stone house while doing laundry in town. The piece of paper with the words “House for Sale” written in a fine spidery script had been taped to their refrigerator for a week, until late one Saturday morning Daniel stopped staring at it — mouthing the words as he read it from memory and not from sight — and called the phone number. By nightfall that same day neither India or Daniel could imagine living anywhere else.
Now, on the morning of the last day of September, the heat had peeled back a layer. India’s clothes didn’t feel as heavy, at least the only clothes she could stand, a white cotton t-shirt and a black stretch skirt. She had just 12 days until her due date, and her parents were scheduled to leave for Spain that evening. So after she picked up Lia from morning pre-K, she drove out to Cambridge to Bix’s farm.
When they pulled into the drive, Eve was standing between the house and what had been Bix’s studio, now Jed’s, with her hands on her hips, a look of confusion and exasperation on her face. When she recognized India’s car, she smiled and waved madly walking the stone path down towards the drive.
Lia was the first out of the car. She unbuckled her car seat and cranked open the door just as India killed the engine. India’s reprimand of safety was lost on Lia as she flung herself into her grandmother’s arms. The relationship between Lia and Eve was as mysterious to India as she was sure her own with Bix had been to Eve.
India extricated her belly from behind the steering column and slid out the door. As India came around the car she noticed that Eve was already in her standard traveling outfit: black slacks, black t-shirt, black cashmere sweater tied around her shoulders. Her hair was twined into a bun at the base of her neck and secured with two long onyx chopsticks.
“My girls,” Eve cried as she looked over Lia’s little shoulder at India and smiled. “I didn’t think you’d make it here before we left!”
India leaned over Lia and kissed her mother’s cheek. “Is that why you were out here? You were waiting for us?” India started to follow her mother up to the house.
Eve shook her head. “No, I was looking for your father. He went into town over two hours ago because he swore he didn’t have any of the black markers he adores.” She raised her eyebrows. “I told him I knew a case had already been packed and shipped with everything else, but for some reason he was being very pig-headed and refused to believe me.”
Lia slid out of her grandmother’s arms and yanked on the kitchen door, opening it for Eve. India and Eve followed her into the kitchen and Eve suddenly pivoted on her heel and said to India, “It’s not as if I haven’t been packing him for 33 years!”
India nodded. Eve crated and catalogued all of her own camera equipment as well as Jed’s supplies: paints, the expensive linen he liked to paint on, right down to the stool he used. Everything was shipped well in advance, and they didn’t leave the United States until they received word that it had arrived in Spain — just in case. India and Eve watched Lia run from one white sheet-covered piece of furniture to the next, lifting a corner, then letting it float back into place, expecting to see, India supposed, something different than the same old pieces of furniture.
All around her the house was ready for its owners to leave. The refrigerator was off — its door propped open, the blinds were down; the air held traces of disinfectant. India knew the one black canvas bag by the door held a change of clothes in case of a plane delay, and the tapestry bag next to it held books, magazines, Jed’s glasses, and a sketchbook for the flights.
Eve pointed towards India’s stomach. “So — my grandbaby refuses to budge any earlier, yes?”
India laughed. “I’d have to work pretty fast at this point, wouldn’t I?”
Eve laughed as well, but she was distracted searching out the back door for signs of Jed. “Everything is okay, isn’t it?” She said, more of a statement, India knew, then a question.
Lia came over to them and wrapped herself around Eve’s legs. Eve reached down and smoothed her hair. “I never thought about being a grandmother of one — now two!” Eve’s voice was bright and sharp. India suddenly felt very tired. These conversations with her mother were sometimes the stuff of bad television, skimming the surface and never quite touching down. At that was lacking was the commercial break and the canned laugh track.
“What time is your flight?”
Eve bit her lower lip and looked at her watch. “Our flight from Albany to JFK leaves at four–” India could hear the sound of a car in the distance and now both she and her mother turned to the window. They could see Jed behind the wheel of his truck, maneuvering around India’s car to park in the drive.
India glanced at her mother; her relief was palpable. She turned back to watch her father. He was a large man — not bulky, but imposing. His framed filled up the kitchen doorway. As he bent down to reach for Lia he wobbled and seemed to lose his footing but he caught himself before he hit the doorframe.
“Papa!” Lia yelled and dove at the space between his denim-clad legs, the surprise nearly knocking Jed backwards. He hugged Lia and grinned up at Eve.
Eve eyed him with one eyebrow cocked and leaned over so her face was level with Jed’s. “You old fool, you are drunk.”
Lia wiggled from her grandfather’s embrace and came to stand next to India just as India saw her father straighten up and grab a hold of her mother, crushing her to his body with both hands. When Jed and Eve were together, there was no one else in the room. Jed laughed into Eve’s hair and Eve joined him as he said, “How the hell else do you expect me to fly all the way to Spain?”
At India’s last appointment, Chloe, her midwife, said India’s cervix was two centimeters dilated and the baby’s head was definitely down into the birth canal. So when India, with Lia, strolled through the tables of zucchini and early pumpkins at the farmer’s market and she felt a familiar twinge — a tightening from her lower back and around to her abdomen that lifted up and just slightly took her breath away — she knew it had begun.
She was distracted as Lia studied pumpkin after pumpkin. India kept an eye on her watch counting minutes between contractions — 20 minutes, 15 minutes. They were strong enough that walking from the market to the car India had to stop several times to relieve the pressure until she was able to breathe again.
At home she put the 101 Dalmatians video into the VCR and set Lia up with cookies and apple juice. She meant to call Daniel but then everything stopped and she didn’t have another contraction until 45 minutes later while she stood at the stove, thawing a frozen block of lentil soup for Lia’s dinner.
Daniel found India squatting in front of the stove like she was in the middle of a deep knee bend. She looked up at him as he walked in the backdoor and dropped his backpack on the floor. He crouched next to India and gathered her hair that had come loose from its braid in his hands and held it back off her face.
“Bad?” He frowned.
India shook her head and exhaled. She licked her lips. “I just remembered I forgot to call you,” she laughed, and Daniel smiled.
Daniel helped her stand and India put her head on his shoulder while she leaned against him and let him rub her back. “They started about three hours ago. Twenty minutes apart, then they stopped. That was the first–” The pain seized India and she rocked back and forth until it crested and she was able to breathe.
“Did you call Chloe?”
India shook her head no, she could feel the sweat pooled under her arms and across her upper lip. If it was possible, she was hot and cold at the same time. She let go of Daniel and just reached the counter before another contraction took hold. How could they be coming so fast now? She was just about to say that to Daniel when she felt a pop and then warm water trickled down her legs effortlessly and saturated her socks as Cruella De Vil shouted from the living room, “Bring me the puppies, bring me the puppies!”
As planned, 45 minutes later, the adored Miss Miranda, an assistant teacher at Lia’s preschool, was reading Lia a story while the soup bubbled on the stove and Daniel and India left for the hospital.
By the time India reached the hospital lobby, her contractions were like waves barely subsiding before the next one took over. She registered the familiar form of Chloe as she walked towards India, and she allowed Chloe to take hold of her left arm while Daniel held her right. India was sealed off in a box of pain with no oxygen. She had to be almost there — the pressure was so intense. In the car in the parking garage she had pounded on the window and shouted at Daniel that she needed air. She panicked because he had turned off the car and she could not work the electric window. She pounded in frustration until Daniel came round and opened the door.
In the hospital room, a nurse with a German accent handed her a gown and told her to go into the bathroom and change. India had just closed the bathroom door when another contraction hit and she crawled on her hands and knees over to the stainless steel bar and pulled herself up onto the toilet. She could hear the nurse and Daniel speaking and then Chloe’s low laugh. India could not move from the toilet now — the pain rippled through her abdomen down her legs, rendering her helpless. “Daniel,” India called softly, “Daniel — please–”
India waited. She stared at the bathroom door willing the handle to turn. “Daniel,” she repeated and then the door opened. Daniel’s head appeared and India looked up at him and grimaced. “I can’t–”
Daniel walked into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. “Okay, okay, Love. It’s almost over, isn’t it?” he murmured as he lifted India’s t-shirt over her head and she sat, compliant, like Lia when she was sick with fever and India wiped her limp, hot body down.
“Lean on me while I pull your skirt down, India.”
India laughed; Daniel pulling her skirt and panties down around her ankles was what got them here. Daniel smiled at her and as India was about to tell him what was so funny, another contraction rolled through her — this time tighter and longer. She gripped Daniel’s forearms and braced herself against the pain.
When it was done, Daniel helped her up and they made their way the few steps from the bathroom to the bed. Chloe and the nurse helped her into bed.
“I have to do an internal, India — before the next contraction. Okay?” Chloe asked as she lifted India’s gown and parted her legs.
India barely nodded. She was exhausted already by the contractions. She closed her eyes as Chloe removed her hands. She could hear the snap and smack of the latex gloves as Chloe rolled them down her hands and threw them into the trash. “You are at ten, India. Do you feel like pushing? Now’s the time to do it, on this next one, yes?”
Another wave of contractions and India clutched at Daniel’s shirtsleeve. The faded canvas material gave off the comforting scents of sweat, laundry detergent, and something else — something close to the pages of a new book.
The contraction faded and India panted. She was vaguely aware of Chloe and the nurse breaking down the lower part of the bed, a squirt of something cold across her thighs and down between her legs. Everywhere there was an intense pressure and burning — a pulling sensation as she pushed and pushed. She could feel Daniel’s hand, each finger as he pulled back on her right thigh. He whispered in her ear over and over, come on, come on India. I love you, I love you, as she pushed another daughter from the tunnel of her womb, angry and red faced. India reached down between her legs for her daughter and brought her up close. The baby stopped scowling and squawking; her almond shaped eyes opened warily against the light; her lips puckered. India and Daniel stared down at their daughter. In that moment right after birth, she seemed to focus on their faces with great expectation.