The headache pounded the smooth concave to the left of Laraine’s eye. It was two days before Christmas, two days before the first anniversary of her mother’s death, and she was two months pregnant. Morning sickness could be causing the nausea but the rest of it, dancing lights, hypersensitivity to sound and smell, anxious stomach, were the migraine symptoms she’d known her whole life.
She closed the bedroom door and mounded pillows around her face to muffle out the holiday. Still, she heard the front doorbell and then her husband, Mike, greeting his old friend Roger, an actor from Los Angeles and Mike’s favorite friend. The thunderous hug, the clapping backslap, the smacking kiss; affection like a thousand little beatings.
When Laraine had migraines as a child, her mother used to sit at the edge of the bed and hold her head in her lap. She applied light pressure with firm still fingers, knowing instinctively that stroking would be too chaotic. Her mother had been the only person she could bear to be around, the only person still enough when she felt this way.
A wave of nausea rose in Laraine’s throat. She rushed to the toilet and spat a bitter stream of saliva. She rearranged her pillows. Male laughter rumbled the floorboards. The raucous scent of brewing coffee wafted up the stairs and triggered another bilious wave. Someone knocked on the door.
“Laraine? Can I come in?” Roger’s ski jacket emitted icy little puffs as he moved toward her. “Hi, darlin’.” He bent towards her and cans, tennis balls, spray deodorant, clanked in his duffle bag. “I just wanted to say hello.” The bag slid off his shoulder and bounced the bed.
In the four years she’d been married to Mike, Laraine had come to love Roger too but she was too sick to talk. She squeezed her eyes shut and a lightshow of fuschia zig-zags flashed on her lids.
“I’m sorry you’re hurting. I’ll let you rest. Happy Christmas.” His lips brushed her cheek.
Would a little Demerol really harm her baby? Cafergot, Codeine, Fiorinal, a humble aspirin? Laraine’s medicine chest bulged with remedies. Her three earlier pregnancies had ended in miscarriage but maybe this one would take. So for now, no drugs. Only pain.
“How are you?” Mike slipped into the room without her noticing.
He sat on the side of the bed. “What can I do?”
“Rub here.” She placed his hands on the back of her skull.
Mike kneaded with his monumental thumbs. The bones felt inflamed, tender with a hot pain that shot around her head in rings and tortured the soft spots behind her ears. He dug in so deep, the pain retreated for a moment but then it returned, stronger than before. She moaned when neon blue tic tac toe squares appeared.
“It’s okay,” Mike said.
He shifted until his body was almost on top of her and enveloped her head in his large hands. His flannel shirt released a smell like pollen and pistils, a male smell of reproduction, of sweet oily pecans, of grease and fried food. Her hair caught between his fingers, a sound like grinding insect wings.
“Stop. Thank-you.” She wanted him away.
She awoke alone the next morning with a tissue wadded in her hand. She hadn’t heard Mike come to bed or leave. Her headache wasn’t gone but lighter, more in the background. She put on a bathrobe and went downstairs. Mike had gone to the airport to pick up Gretchen, his daughter from his first marriage, her husband Ramon, and their two and a half year old, Choppy. She opened the front door.
Roger sat in a slash of sunshine on the front step “Mornin, darlin’. Feelin better?” He tapped his cigarette into jar a lid.
“A little bit, maybe.” For a few days after Roger’s visit, Mike would drop the final “g” on his words too. “I’ll let you finish your cigarette.” She pulled her robe tighter to shield the baby from the third hand smoke and went inside.
“Bitch,” Laraine whispered, pinching her stomach.
She hated her fetus. She hated the pain the little sac would cause when the pregnancy failed. She loathed the words the doctors would use to talk about her body: blighted ovum, incompetent cervix, inhospitable womb. She also loved her fetus. Insanely, hormonally, completely. She would let herself buy a crib and paint the extra bedroom this time. No, she would buy lumber and build a crib. Claw through the roof with her bare hands to open a sky light so the baby could gaze at the moon and stars.
She poured a cup of coffee. Caffeine eased some migraines. Not hers. Mike’s car parked at the curb.
“Merry Christmas!” Gretchen shrieked to Roger on the front porch.
Laraine winced at Gretchen’s high pitch. She wondered, not for the first time, how a Jewish woman from New York had ended up in a place where people screamed Christian greetings at each other. Her husband Mike claimed to be Jewish but California Jewish and Brooklyn Jewish were not the same. His family had celebrated Chanukah but had a Christmas tree as well. After his parents’ messy divorce, his mother sent him to Catholic boarding school. His first wife was Protestant.
Where Laraine grew up, a Jew with a Christmas tree would have been considered psychotic and Catholic school was for Catholics. Period. The Judaism Laraine knew was inevitable, a burden of hope, suffering and exclusivity all tied up with a Holocaust bow. Her husband’s choices and juxtapositions were barely recognizable, California Lite.
“Dreidls and latkes. No Santa for you.” Laraine cupped her belly.
“Happy Christmas!” her stepdaughter sang out.
Gretchen and Laraine pressed cheeks. Gretchen’s blond hair was the same fine silk as Mike’s but her grey eyes were as flat and silent as pebbles.
“Happy Holidays. I’m not feeling too well.” Laraine started up the stairs.
“Larrrraine,” Ramon trilled, looming in the doorway, Choppy and their bags hung from his shoulders.
Laraine remembered enjoying Ramon’s company. He knew unusual card games and liked to cook. But his taut soccer player’s body looked as if it were moving even when he stood still and his yellow Coq Sportif shirt hurt her eyes.
“Who’s that?” Choppy asked as she always did when saw Laraine.
“It’s Laraine,” Gretchen said. “You remember Laraine.”
Choppy extended her dimpled arms and Laraine took her. She had her father’s dark eyes and her mother’s light hair. Gretchen had asked her if she wanted Choppy to call her Grandma. The word floored her. She was hot. She wore French underwear. She was mother, not grandmother material.
“Aunt Laraine?” Ramon had suggested, but the manufactured connection made her feel even worse.
Just Laraine, she’d said.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Mike beamed coming in with Roger. He loved seeing her with his family. “Are you feeling better?”
“Grampa, Grampa, Grampa,” Choppy kicked her legs against Laraine’s belly and squirmed towards Mike’s arms.
Laraine’s headache raged full force again. She lay in bed with her arm across her face and saw her mother floating in one of her long hostess skirts offering a savory snack, an interested response, a napkin the second before a crumb hit the rug. If there was any justice, she’d have a baby girl she could name after her mother, someone to inherit her mother’s quiet nurturing ways.
The bedroom door creaked open. Choppy came in and stood next to Laraine’s bed.
“Hi, Choppy.” Laraine raised herself on one elbow, then plopped back down.
She tired of explaining Choppy’s name to people, that it was a baby word of Ramon’s and the name of a character Gretchen thought she remembered from a Swedish fairy tale.
“Mad?” Choppy looked into Laraine’s eyes.
“No,” she said. “I just have a headache.”
Choppy’s gaze shifted across the room to the new chair and ottoman, plump oozey furniture upholstered in dusky rose. “Weeeee,” she yelled, running across the room, climbing up on the chair. “Weeeee.” She jumped from the soft seat to the ottoman.
“No, Choppy.” Laraine imitated the even tones Gretchen used to correct the child. “We do not jump on the furniture. We do not jump on the furniture with our shoes.”
Choppy stopped and looked at Laraine. Then she began to jump again. Laraine got out of bed and lifted her off the chair. Choppy spit a tiny gob at her face.
“Grampa, Grampa, Grampa.” Choppy ran out of the room and slammed the door.
Laraine tried to sleep but every few minutes one of Gretchen’s pack of high school friends phoned or rang the bell. Each brought a fresh assault: car horns, the cardboard scent of microwave popcorn, the raw loose odor of beer. Laraine covered her stomach with a pillow to fend off rays and pulled the phone jack out of the wall.
She awoke from her nap ravenous and weak. The thought of toast and milky tea got her out of bed. She needed nursery food immediately. She stood in the kitchen doorway and watched Gretchen chop green peppers. Her friends were gone. Mike and Roger had taken Choppy to the park.
“In my country, en Peru, my mother always had a garden.” Ramon started as soon as she came into the room. “She grew tomatoes, calabazas…”
“Squash,” Gretchen translated.
“En Peru, the vegetables, I don’t know, they had a different flavor. Here everything tastes so…”
“Bland,” Gretchen said.
Ramon dragged a frying pan back and forth over the burner, a grating bone jangling noise as he sautéed onions and garlic over high heat. Laraine’s gorge rose. She put a piece of bread in the toaster.
“It’s really true,” Gretchen said. “When we were in Peru last year, Ramon’s mother made a dish with corn and potatoes and shrimp. What was that called, babe?”
“Ah, that was chupe.”
Laraine bit into toast with blackberry jam. The sugar was nauseating. A berry seed lodged between her two front teeth.
“First his mother sautéed onions and garlic with paprika and something hot. What was that, cayenne, babe?”
Laraine threw her toast in the garbage. She tried the next slice with Mike’s low cholesterol margarine. The spread left an aftertaste of chemical coconuts.
“Then she added the potatoes, milk, chicken stock and the corn.”
Laraine cut the last piece of bread in half. She tried the first with a little Dijon mustard, another of Mike’s calorie saving tricks. Her stomach shrank from the salt and vinegar. She threw it away.
“Peruvians are much cleverer than we are,” Gretchen continued. “An entire family could live on what we waste in one day.”
“Yes, in my country, it is not considered impolite to pick up the circles of the corn and…” He made a slurping sound.
Laraine pressed her belly. Would anything ever taste right? Clenched for disaster, she used the softened butter next to the stove on her last half slice of bread. It was perfect. Pure and creamy sweet. She wolfed it down, then pressed her fingertips to the crumbs. When she looked up, Gretchen and Ramon were watching her.
Laraine slept through dinner. The next morning Mike rolled up the back of her nightgown and kissed her neck. She’d read that, in some cases, orgasm eased migraine pain. She’d never found it to be so.
Mike went down to start coffee and Laraine dressed in loose pants and a wide sweater, clothes like pajamas. Gretchen and Choppy sat on the floor outside the guest bathroom playing patty cake waiting for Roger to come out. His lengthy morning ritual included coughing, spitting, several sets of vocal warm ups, and at least half a box of tissues.
“Hey, hey, hey.” He emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist, his chest hair swirled into rapturous eddies. “Three beautiful tomatas waitin’ outside my door.”
Laraine thought of making fruit salad with honey yogurt dressing but by the time she got downstairs, she lost the impetus. “Do you want me to do something?” She leaned against the kitchen counter and watched Mike arrange bagfuls of pastry on plates.
Before he could answer, the doorbell rang.
Laraine hugged her old friend Sylvia, but when she pulled back she noticed that Sylvia’s eyelashes were stuck together and a long light hair sprouted from her chin. They were both forty. Laraine wondered if she looked so worn. She hugged her friend again and over her shoulder saw the bulging stockings, the alien tree and mounds of green and red wrapped gifts in the living room. It looked like a stage set. Not an ounce of irony. The blue Star of David ornament Gretchen had given her last year dangled pathetically amidst a flock of silver angels, lost in a tangle of tinsel and lights. But still, while Mike and Sylvia chatted, she stole into the living room and scanned the gifts for packages with her name.
“When are you gonna give it up and come with me to L.A.?” Roger called to Sylvia as he came down the stairs.
“Happy Chanukah.” Sylvia said as they embraced. She swatted his hand as it moved down her back to rest on her buttocks. Every year their flirtation picked up where they’d left it but their relationship never moved beyond Mike and Laraine’s living room.
“Hello. Hello.” Mike tapped his glass when all the adults were seated at the dining room table. “I just wanted to say Happy Holidays and … ” He looked at his wife.
Laraine squeezed Mike’s hand. Don’t say anything, she telegraphed in case he’d forgotten that they’d decided not to tell Roger or the kids she was pregnant again. Informing people that she’d miscarried had been so painful she’d decided to wait until she was showing or in the hospital delivering this time. And when she was pregnant last Thanksgiving, Mike had given an emotional toast filled with love and pride in their new family. She couldn’t bear the optimism this year.
“I’m just really glad we’re here together.” Mike squeezed Laraine’s hand.
“To family.” Roger lifted his champagne flute and made prolonged eye contact with each person at the table. “And to the people we choose to make our families.”
The cheese plate and the baskets of scones and pecan buns were passed. Choppy refused to put on clothes and circled the table dressed only in a pair of “big girl panties” feeding from a box of animal crackers. Ramon kept trying to get her to eat little bits of pastry from his hand. Gretchen went to the kitchen and sliced a banana, the only one who missed Laraine’s fruit salad. Sylvia giggled as Roger whispered lasciviously into her ear.
“Who will be Santa?” Gretchen asked as when they moved from the dining room to the presents in the living room.
“Ho, ho, ho.” Sylvia squeezed in next to Laraine on the couch.
Everyone roared when Mike opened Roger’s gift. A big macho tool belt. How male, how male bonding and funny because Mike was a klutz with tools. Gretchen gave her father a red night shirt printed with polar bears wearing ice skates. She didn’t have to sleep with him. And for Laraine, a ceramic water jug in the shape of a chicken. Every year she got closer to something Laraine would actually like. As always, Sylvia and Laraine exchanged books. A holocaust comic strip for Sylvia and the newest lady poet suicide biography for Laraine. Roger, high on the success of THE BIG BOOK OF PASTA last year gave Laraine THE NEW AMERICAN FAMILY COOKBOOK.
“This is great. My mother had the old version.” Laraine crossed the room to kiss Roger. She put her hands around his neck and mock strangled him too just in case his gift was a comment on the absence of her famous popovers or any cooked food this year. “What is cooking for the new American family anyway? Microwaving?” Laraine flipped through the pages, almost jaunty again until her voice broke. “Meals for two?”
Mike and Roger fed gift wrap into the fireplace. Gretchen folded her gifts neatly and took them upstairs. Then she and Choppy and Ramon went to visit her mother and Roger drove across the Bay to see his sisters. Mike said he needed a nap.
“Let’s take a walk,” Sylvia said.
Laraine hesitated. When her headache had been at its worst she’d promised herself that if the pain ever went away, she’d never complain about anything again. But now she felt tired frozen, unable to lift herself from the couch.
“C’mon.” Sylvia pulled her up. “It will do you good to get out of the house.”
They drove to the edge of the city and walked along the esplanade at Ocean Beach. The waves hit the sand in a white foamy gargle. Sylvia wore her old green loden jacket with toggles, the same jacket she’d been wearing when they met their first year of college. The odor of moth balls and steam heat, the smells ever present in Sylvia’s mother’s tiny Manhattan apartment, rose from the dense wool.
“Very goyish at your house this year,” Sylvia said.
“What do you expect, Choppy to walk around with a collection tin for Israel? They’re not Jewish.” Laraine fished her sunglasses out of her purse.
“Roger seems his usual chipper self.” Sylvia stretched her arms over hear head and cracked her knuckles.
“You could try going out with him.”
“Why ruin things? It’s perfect seeing him once or twice a year.” Sylvia took Laraine’s arm.
“Besides, you know it wouldn’t work. He’s so Western. He’s so happy. He calls women ‘darlin.'”
“You’re right, Syl. Why break a twenty-five year tradition of spending Saturday nights alone when you could go out with a ‘happy’ man who thinks you have a great bod?”
Sylvia tugged Laraine’s arm. “He said I have a great bod? But is he really into all that Christmas stuff?”
Sylvia had been Laraine’s first friend to smoke pot, to hitch-hike cross country. She’d applied to join the Venceremos Brigade. But now her world view had shrunk to the size of her mother’s apartment. If she wanted everyone to be Jewish, she shouldn’t have left New York. Laraine shared all of Sylvia’s prejudices against jingle bells and Christmas but she wanted her friend to be better than her.
“How are you? What’s going on in there?” Sylvia tapped Laraine’s tummy.
“I don’t think I care as much this time.” Laraine’s voice came out choked.
“Of course you care.” Sylvia said and they stopped walking.
“All right. I care.” Laraine gulped in the beginning of tears. “But what difference does it make if my mother’s not here?”
“I know how much you miss her.”
“It’s either going to happen or not. This baby will live or die and there’s nothing I can do.” Laraine rested her head on Sylvia’s shoulder and let herself cry.
Sylvia’s hand moved in circles on Laraine’s back. “You’re gonna get through this. I promise.”
“My mother really wanted a grandchild.” Laraine sobbed into her friend’s jacket, the coarse fabric like steel wool on her wet face. Passersby moved around them politely. Through the corner of her eye, Laraine saw a dog wearing a Santa hat and a muzzle.
The next morning, while everyone still slept, Laraine made herself a cup of tea. The tool belt, the night shirt, all the gifts except Gretchen’s, still littered the floor. But Laraine felt upbeat. Her migraine was gone and everyone was leaving that afternoon. She arranged her teapot, and the magazine, book, and style sections of the newspaper in an arc in front of her. She heard light footsteps.
“Milk.” Choppy held her sippy cup in Laraine’s direction. Ramon’s yellow tee-shirt came down below her knees.
Laraine filled the cup, brought it back to Choppy and resumed her reading.
“Up.” Choppy positioned herself next to Laraine’s chair.
Choppy felt heavy in her lap. Laraine edged her arm out from under the girl’s soggy training pants and tried to read. Choppy’s foot shot out and knocked the newspaper from her hands. Laraine looked down at the sweet curve of Choppy’s nostrils and wondered if she was the only child she’d ever hold in her arms. She ran her fingers through Choppy’s hair, then let them rest, firm and still, on her forehead. Choppy started to rock and Laraine gathered her close. They moved locked together, damp and uncomfortable, a family, not a perfect fit.