“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, abruptly changing the subject. “I can’t do it, Kate. And I need to tell you why.”
She dips her head down, smiles weakly at her salad. She knew already, I can tell. I desperately hope I’m not her last hope, but of course I am . . . otherwise, she never would have asked me.
“I understand, and I don’t want you to explain yourself. Please, let’s not even talk about it.”
The waitress bursts upon us, obliviously cheery– care for some dessert? More iced tea?
I feel mean, small, ungrateful. Kate is my best and oldest friend. In my heart, she is my sister, and I owe her everything. Josh made it all the way to adulthood — technically, anyway, he’s an adult at age 18. But when he was a baby, I was 16 and we had nowhere to go. I was so depressed back then that I don’t remember much of his infancy. I remember when the house I grew up in was foreclosed on, and my mom and sister and I went to live with the militant church-lady who said I needed to learn about Consequences. I lasted a week.
My mother was a stoic — a Japanese war bride — and I had never seen her cry before. Even when my dad vanished with another woman, my mother did not cry. When I announced that I was pregnant, my mother did not cry. But when the church lady slapped me in the face and told me to get myself and my little bastard out of her god-fearing-Christian home, my mom cried. She was helpless, I knew; she had my little sister to care for and sometimes you just have to cut your losses.
I stood outside and prayed that she would take a stand and grab Theresa and leave with me, but the door remained shut and silent. The air conditioner hummed smugly as I stood at the edge of the lawn, sweating onto Joshua’s chubby baby thighs. I considered throwing a rock through the window and demanding the diapers I had spent seven bucks on that morning.
Then Kate showed up. I hadn’t even called her — how could I? I didn’t have a dime and I hadn’t even chosen a direction to walk in. Kate just appeared, magically, and drove me home to the house she lived in with her parents. It was our junior year of high school, and she was “teaching herself” how to drive stick. I wept with Joshua close to my chest as we sped, then slowed, then jerked forward again like broken bobble-head dolls in her little red Nissan. “You’re staying with us,” she announced.
I don’t really know how long I stayed with Kate’s family. Weeks, months? I had spent my first sixteen years living next door to them, and it was excruciating to look out the guest bedroom window and watch the new neighbors coming and going on my old driveway. But Kate’s parents were loving and kind; they said nothing about the way I trashed the bedroom when the mere idea of picking up the baby’s laundry was overwhelming and exhausting to me. They invited me to eat with them, and they asked for nothing in return. Kate did my hair for the big turn-about dance, and her mom babysat so I could go out and act like a regular teen for a little while. Josh took his first steps in their living room.
If not for Kate and her family, I probably would not have finished high school, and if I hadn’t finished high school I never would have made it to college. I feel reasonably successful with life — happily remarried, with a career I love and children I adore. The only road that brought me here is the only road I’ve traveled, and I find myself grateful for each step. But Kate has too much class to mention this debt that we’ve never really talked about; she will nobly ignore that she helped me in my time of need, even though I’m failing to reciprocate in hers.
“It’s because–” I begin, but she shakes her head vehemently at me, forbidding me to discuss it here in this bustling restaurant with the menacingly peppy waitresses. I’ve obsessed over how to say this for a week. I am the mother of four sons and one daughter; five healthy, beautiful children. Five unplanned, way-too-easily-conceived children that I worship, and it’s grotesquely unfair. I found out I was pregnant with the twins just four months after I told Kate that my three sons were driving me crazy. I didn’t want another child, let alone two.
But Kate did. Does. I know better than to console her, to say that her son Evan is amazing and she should be grateful to have him. I remember the Christmas she thought she was pregnant with a second child — Evan was bouncing around with excitement, gushing about how he’d help with the new baby. He and Kate had already started a list of potential baby names. I suspect that Kate hasn’t gone a waking hour since that Christmas, three years ago, without mourning her phantom babe. I ache for her, but stop short of saying I’d do anything I can to help. Kate was an only child; she wanted two children, at least, ever since she was a little girl.
“It’s okay,” she insists. I feel the heaviness of tears behind my eyes; she maintains a fixed smile, and moves on. Am I going to our class reunion next year?
I say I’m thinking about it.
Both of us were adopted as infants, and so was my little sister. I can easily wrap my mind around loving someone else’s children as one’s own. I need to explain to her exactly why I can’t be an ovum donor, and I need her to hear it from me instead of from one of our friends. But Kate has endured too many disappointments and she won’t allow herself to dwell upon them: She forges ahead to the next topic with the alacrity of a talk-show host, but she’s mentally going through all the possible reasons I’ve refused to help her.
I think you’re a fabulous mother, I want to tell her.
“I wonder if Linda and Steve will go this time — they missed the last reunion,” she says.
And it’s not because I worry about your financial situation. Nobody can ever afford to raise a child, really — you just have one, and then you somehow find a way to buy the diapers, the baby food, the college education . . .
“I went to Classmates.com and found Amy Miller on there. I was thinking of joining, but it’s 15 bucks just to send an email. Think I should do it?”
I nod. “Fifteen bucks to find an old friend? Sounds like a bargain. In fact, how about I’ll sign up for that and send Amy your email address? I was going to sign up, anyway.”
Kate insists she’s going to do it. She will, I know, even though 15 dollars is milk money when your husband has been laid off for the second time in a year. Even on an RN’s salary, it’s hard times. She works and takes night classes and sends Evan to baseball camp, she dresses nice and her car is nice and her house is nice — but it’s a stretch, I know, because she ordered a salad and it wasn’t even her favorite one. I want to pay for the lunch but I don’t want to offend her . . . and I wonder again, secretly, if she thinks I married Chris for his six-figure attorney income. She has no way of knowing about our six-figure student loans or the unpaid medical bills from our son’s surgery. We can talk about sex, periods, yeast infections . . . but money would be gauche. I am keenly aware that my situation looks better than it really is. I breathe deeply.
“I’m pregnant.” The words explode from my lips. Kate stares at me, and I feel my face getting red. “I’m so sorry . . . I couldn’t have been a donor anyway, I think, you know how neurotic I am, and I’m so old to be doing this–”
“Oh, god, Laura — congratulations. Congratulations.” Her voice is firm, warm, well-rehearsed. She’s been to a lot of baby showers. Kate was an OB nurse until she couldn’t bear it any longer.
“I know it’s not fair. I feel so embarrassed, and–”
“Shut up. Please just shut up. I will always be happy for you.” She throws her head back and laughs, a genuine laugh, her eyes shimmering and brilliant. “Six kids! Or maybe seven if it’s twins again — can you imagine? When are you due?”
I used the little chart last week to discern that the baby is due on Kate’s birthday, but it seems too cruel to say that, so I just mumble, “April.”
She reaches out across the table and holds my trembling hands. I haven’t even told Chris yet. But my husband is infatuated with our children and proud of our large brood; he’s an incredible father, and he will fall in love with this baby just as surely as he fell in love with the others.
I am raging inside, raging at a pill I forgot to take, raging because I wanted to go back to work full-time this fall and take up horseback riding again and maybe read a whole entire book for the first time in ten years. But how could I complain? I am, after all, the blessed one.
“Katie . . . remember that day, when I came to stay with you and your parents? How did you happen to come over at exactly the time I needed you?”
She looks up and away to ponder this. That was 18 years ago. Then she brightens, remembering.
“Your mom,” she says. “She called and asked me to come and get you.”