At 8:35 that Friday morning, my partner’s mother finished making her Martha Stewart farm breakfast while singing the Lord’s Prayer. She then took three matching plates from our cupboard and tilted her head to one side as if posing for the Mother-of-the-Year award. Obviously overcompensating for years of judgmental distance, she pointed to the food and asked, “Karen. Should I put this in the oven? Keep it warm?”
My back was to Ruth, and this was fortunate. I unloaded the dishwasher, making room for the soon-to-be dirtied breakfast utensils and largely ignored Ruth’s questions and hummed hymns. I was waiting for a phone call, and I was waiting for my spouse; my patience was already thin. Upstairs, I could hear water running. Bryn would be downstairs momentarily. I took a breath and told Ruth, “She’s coming.” I stopped short of saying anything more.
I closed the dishwasher and consciously wiped the grimace from my tell-all face before I turned to Ruth. Then, I gestured to the coffeemaker. I wanted to sound hospitable. “Do you want a cup? It’s decaf.”
Ruth shook her head. She complained, “All you have is that fat-free cream.” Still holding the plates, she looked through the rear-facing windows overlooking the backyard. The lawn maintenance crew trimmed the excess from our blooming azalea bushes; they pruned the oak tree and added topsoil to the flourishing vegetable garden. They swept fallen limbs into garbage bags and grass clippings from the patio, too. They did all this with their naked backs glistening golden in the morning sun. They were vibrant and virile; they might have been attractive to a heterosexual woman like my mother-in-law. Ruth’s lips quivered and her silence, though just seconds long, was disconcerting.
Finally, atop weed-wacking noise, Ruth over-enunciated, “The futon in the guest room is lumpy.” She looked me in the eyes. “Maybe I should buy you a new one. Something a little more firm?” Ruth didn’t wait for a response, however. She filled those plates and carried them as a truck-stop waitress would to the dining room table. She straightened the accompanying linen napkins, and her apron, several times. She pretended there was something in her eye and rubbed vigorously. I wanted to yell to Bryn to hurry up, but I could only nod and add sugar-lite to my favorite mug.
More composed, Ruth offered, “Let’s sit.” I did. She directed me to one plate, and took the seat across from me.
Our physical positions made it feel like a military stand-off. Wanting to stave off more awkwardness, I opened a dog-eared pamphlet that had been lying in the center of the table titled “You and IVF.” Ruth watched me flip through those worn pages. She stared at me until I gave in and asked her, “You know about in-vitro?”
Her face softened. Slightly. “Not much.”
I knew it was difficult for Ruth to accept what the Bible told her she couldn’t accept. Embracing our baby could mean certain things: social ridicule, an ousting from her church, eternal damnation. I said, “It takes a lot of time and money.” I thought: courage. I was honest, “It’s our last option.”
Ruth looked at me with a gentle smile. “Bryn’s said as much.”
I lifted an eyebrow. I knew Bryn would never discuss such things with her mother. Maybe her father–they were closer, and spoke often on the phone. Her father had been in the waiting room when the specialist’d told me the odds were against my being able to carry a child; I was over 40 and had an incompetent cervix. Her father was Bryn’s confidant, not Ruth. My mother-in-law’s smile was unnerving.
Ruth sighed, twisted her wedding band and asked, “Do you need money? I have a savings account I haven’t touched . . .”
I said, “No,” but I said it politely. I understood the offer was an immense step forward in our relationship and released my tight jaw with a swallow. I said, “Thank you, though. All of this is very complicated.” In long gulps, I finished my too-dark decaffeinated coffee.
Ruth leaned towards me over the dining table and said, “Karen, I have to be honest. I came here because I have to tell you girls something. Something bad.” She put a weathered, surprisingly warm hand on top of mine.
With Ruth, there is always something. I said, “Okay.” I marked the passage I had been scanning in the infertility pamphlet by folding a corner. I mentally prepared for whatever Ruth had to say. The room shrunk, pushing Ruth and myself even closer. That close, I could see her deep wrinkles; I could count her gray hairs. I watched as her blue eyes clouded with tears. Still, she said nothing. After a pulsing minute, I asked, “Should we wait for Bryn?”
She nodded, “Maybe that’s best,” but did not move.
I heard footsteps on the stairs then; Ruth finally pulled her hand away from mine and got up. She walked to the fridge and said, “Bryn needs vitamin C.” She poured her only child a glass of apple juice and saved the dregs of a container of sour orange for herself. As she poured, she whispered, “Just don’t give up on each other, all right?”
I removed my glasses and rubbed the crease between my eyes. There was no use in explaining, for the hundredth time, that our relationship was as committed as her marriage. As the minutes ticked closer to 9:00 — the magical hour when Dr. Gillis’s office opened — I tried to remember to breathe.
8:59. Bryn finally appeared at the kitchen table. Ruth and I nodded to one another across the kitchen; we seemed to realize two things with her arrival. The first was that Bryn would forever connect us, and that soothed my critical feelings somewhat. The second was that a baby is a blessing. Infertility seemed a cruel curse.
None of us ate Ruth’s breakfast. As Bryn pushed her eggs and potatoes into separate heaps on her plate, the phone rang. It was more shrill than usual. The caller ID announced it was Bryn’s reproductive endocrinologist.
Ruth and I watched Bryn’s eyes open wide, wider, then close quickly as she held that phone to her ear. She said, only, “I understand,” and, “Thank you,” then returned the phone to its cradle. I watched as my lover’s forehead began to perspire; her face drained of all color and the blush she always brushed on her cheeks stood out, clown-like. Bryn looked as if she was going to vomit.
Bryn paced to the comforting green walls of the living room. She wrung her hands. She told me, “I’m not pregnant. Again.” She spoke in a flat tone. Despite the previous months’ outcomes, the would-be mother was surprised. I was, too.
I was devastated by the test results and said, “I know you’re hurting.” I kissed Bryn on her heavily made-up cheek, careful not to be too affectionate in front of her mother.
Ruth handed Bryn a tissue, then grabbed one for herself. “I’m so sorry, sweetie.” Unexpectedly, she spoke to me. “I’m sorry for you, too, Karen.”
Bryn physically tottered in her despair; she fell onto the couch and pulled threads loose from the patterned deco pillows. She said, “You don’t know.” This was directed at me. She added, “This isn’t a ‘we’ situation.”
Bryn had angrily refuted the “we” for months. Later, in therapy, she said she felt as if she, alone, had undergone painful probing, blood work, sonograms. She felt as if she, alone, had lost. But I had been there, too; I had been in every doctor’s office. I had been rejected from the world of child-bearing; I knew what it felt like to be broken. I grasped for the most comforting words, but they eluded me. Words often eluded me.
Ruth offered something I couldn’t. She said, “I had a miscarriage, once.” She did not touch her daughter, but clasped her hands before her own round belly and whispered a prayer for all of us. “He leadeth me beside still waters . . .”
Two years and 23 attempts at intracervical and intrauterine insemination had potholed Bryn’s resistance to everyday disturbances. In our house, burnt toast was cataclysmic; running out of fat-free cream was tragic. Every ovulation was Olympic, and when we failed to qualify as adoptive parents, pathos reigned.
I offered the only words I could. “We’ll see another doctor, the best in the country.” I took the throw pillow from Bryn’s arms and smoothed the holes where she had pulled too hard.
Bryn’s fountain of tears showed she doubted the adjective “best,” as she doubted the existence of such a doctor. Throughout the grueling two years of fertility drugs and weekly blood tests, she’d confessed to doubting our relationship.
I closed my eyes, holding a cocoon of down against my flat stomach. It was true. I was a drug rep; I worked with Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, and they were the best. I tried; I told Bryn, “Then we’ll work on option number two.” I braced my feet against the coffee table for the coming storm.
Bryn’s tears stopped and she seethed, “Where are we going to find a birth mother who wants to give her baby to two dykes?” She had hit rock bottom in the months before, talking to the adoption agent who couldn’t sell hope for $40,000. At least not to a same-sex couple.
Ruth blanched at Bryn’s vulgarity and corrected, “Don’t say that.”
Bryn grabbed a magazine from the floor beside the couch, flipped through apparel that she could wear in her current state. She was a size four, but I knew she dreamt of ballooning and wearing elastic-bellied pants.
I clapped for the dog who had just made her way down the stairs hearing Bryn’s cries. We’d named her Sonnet for the first poem Bryn had written to me, and because she was small, a Shih Tzu. I lifted Sonnet up onto my lap, needing warmth. I couldn’t control the world, and so I buried my lips in the dog’s long, black and white fur, instead. I didn’t want to lose the woman I loved.
That woman sobbed into a fashion magazine, “I want a baby.” It was the purest yearning imaginable. She cried hard, then focused her eyes on the model-thin clothing before her, hoping, I guess, to realign her mind: Gucci, Prada, DKNY. She did not touch me, or our dog. She let her mascara run down her cheeks.
I held the dog tighter to my chest. “We’ll call the agency that Dana and Sheila went to.” Dana and Sheila were a couple from our church; they had just adopted a little girl from an agency in a nearby suburb. The child was healthy, drug-free, a newborn. African-American.
Bryn spat, “Dana and Sheila got a baby because they’re black. And the baby’s black. We’re not black, Karen.”
“No, we’re not. But we’re a good choice.” I looked to Ruth and preyed on the warmth she had extended just an hour before. I think I’d have even taken her offer of money then.
Still standing, scanning the room as if looking for an escape route, Ruth answered, “Of course you’re a great choice. Both of you.”
Bryn ran her hands through the very hair she’d wanted to pass on to our child. “I want to scream.”
“You can,” I said. “You’re home.” I was logical. I knew that whatever was supposed to happen for us would happen. I believed.
Bryn twisted on the couch. “We’re never going to have a baby!” It was a voice I was used to, the same voice that felt fat, dumb, lost. She took the diamond anniversary band I’d bought her years before and threw it at the television.
I begged. “Don’t do this, Bryn.”
At noon, Bryn sat on the porch in the shadow of the house next door; she drank a light beer. She let her hair fall over her thinning cheekbones. Sonnet panted at her feet, waiting for a loving pat, a “Good girl!” or breakfast leftovers. Bryn ignored the dog. My lover finally said, “I don’t want to stay here all day.” The aluminum can in her hand wept in the heat.
That moment was one of the moments I’d practiced for in couple’s therapy. No matter how much I felt I was giving in action, Bryn needed words. I said, “Okay, then. Come on. We’ll get lunch.” I walked to the sliding glass door and gestured for Bryn and her mother to follow me. Neither budged from their plastic chair.
Ruth spoke as if to herself, “I could use a new lipstick.”
Bryn balanced her beer in her lap and tipped her head to her shoulder, visibly thinking. After a moment, she bent down to ruffle the dog’s ears. The action was almost playful; she seemed almost her pre-fertility-drugs self. She said, “I suppose we could shop.” This was an answer to the blaring silence, if not a therapeutic one. I nodded; I took Bryn’s beer from her lap. Ruth stood and pushed her chair in.
I drove through four traffic lights before Bryn broke down again. She rarely swore, but couldn’t seem to contain her growing frustration in the passenger seat. She growled, “Fuck it! I don’t want to adopt, Karen. I want to have our own baby. I want to know that when he opens his eyes, they’re my eyes. I want to know that when he sings, it’s my father’s voice he’s using. I want to know things that we won’t know otherwise.” She always said “he” in reference to the baby-who-wasn’t; Bryn wanted a boy.
In the rearview mirror, I could see that Ruth was trying not to listen to Bryn’s rising voice. I watched her apply broken lipstick to her age-worn lips, reset the date on her watch, pull loosening eyelashes from her lids. When Bryn had first come out as a lesbian, Ruth probably hadn’t thought a grandchild was possible. Given the morning’s large breakfast and loan offer, it seemed she was beginning to see new possibilities. Ruth bent forward from her perch in the back and smoothed a fly-away in Bryn’s ponytail. She said, “I know, honey.”
As I drove, trying not to think about how our child would never have my eyes no matter his genetics, Bryn continued to lash out. She noted that I was driving 15 miles above the speed limit, I didn’t use my turn signal, and I consistently drove in the left lane. When I answered my work phone’s insistent ringing, Bryn grit her teeth and snarled at me, “Do you have to talk so loud?” I couldn’t remind her it was Friday — it was a work day for me. Ruth just watched. She caught my eyes in the rearview mirror about a mile from the mall. She mouthed, “It will be okay.” I accepted my role as scapegoat because I had no other choice.
Just inside the colossal shopping center, Ruth informed us, “We’ll go to Penney’s. I can’t go to Neiman’s and pay $30 for a back-up lipstick.” She read the poster-sized directory that greeted all the shoppers at the mall’s high-ceilinged entryway. She traced the directory’s plastic path to the department store with a shaky pointer finger and then urged us to walk towards that red dot. Ruth walked quickly. Bryn shuffled behind her, perhaps still fogged in grief, perhaps still buzzed from her morning beer. I followed third; it was a safe position.
Arriving at the department store, we saw a dingy cosmetics counter. It was covered with sales slips and greasy fingerprints. The counter was seemingly unmanned and empty of summer clearance ads. But Ruth smiled as she read, Endless Kissable Lipcolour. She said, “I think this is it!” I wondered, then, why she was so focused on buying lipstick, but couldn’t ask; the shopping trip was meant for healing.
Bryn’s face was dark. She whispered, “Mom. This place is dirty. Let’s go somewhere else.”
Ruth shooed her daughter away with dimpled and ringless hands. She did not whisper. “I can’t afford your fancy stores.” She lifted her glasses from her eyes and squinted at tiny price tags.
Ruth’s response surprised me. She and her husband seemed to live well; they had a big home with acreage, had new cars, and took bi-monthly vacations. They ate dinner out several times a week, bought designer clothes, and paid cash for most everything. Bryn must have been perplexed as well because she frowned, then looked at her mother quizzically. “What are you talking about, Mom?”
Ruth pointed a finger at both Bryn and me. “You two spend money like drunken sailors. I just can’t do that anymore, that’s all. I’m on a fixed income. There’s nothing wrong with Penney’s.”
Bryn touched her mother’s shoulder tentatively. She said, “A fixed income? Mom. Dad works.”
Ruth shook free from her daughter’s hand and rummaged through the open lip glosses in the testing tray. She dotted several colors on her hand, then wiped the residue on her jacket hem shaking her head. It seemed none of those glosses thrilled her. Bryn pressed, “And he has a good job. Did something happen? Did he get laid off?”
Ruth took off her glasses and cleaned the bifocals with the corner of her t-shirt. She ignored the questions and peered further into the display case. “There have to be other options here.”
Bryn slapped me with an open palm. It was my cue. I said, “Ruth, is everything okay?”
She answered, “This trip is supposed to be about Bryn.” She sighed dramatically. To Bryn, alone, she said, “Fine. It’s time you know anyway. Your father left me.”
Bryn’s face fell and contorted into a vision gruesome enough for a horror film. She yelled, “What? Is everything in my life going to fall apart?” Tears fell fast and her nose ran, too; she sniffed but it was no use. Bryn wiped her nose on the back of her own ringless hand. She swore for the second time that day, “God damn it!”
Ruth shot back, but she was quieter than Bryn, and more controlled, “Do you think this is fun for me, Bryn Ann? I’m old. I’m alone now. Now get a hold of yourself before the entire store turns to watch us.” Here, Ruth pulled a package of tissues from her purse. She roughly stuffed one into Bryn’s palm.
Bryn blushed, embarrassed. Several seconds later she asked, “Mom. Are you okay?”
At the J.C. Penney’s cosmetic counter, Ruth answered, matter-of-factly. “I don’t have much of a choice. Your dad has made his decision.” Then, just as Bryn had in the car, Ruth let her guard down. She peered at the color swatch for Moonlit Wisteria and her lips quivered. “I never wanted this to happen.”
Bryn reached out to embrace her forlorn mother though her own eyes were still sheathed in tears. It was the first time she had seemed concerned about someone else since the initial insemination. It was the only time I’d seen the pair be physically affectionate.
Ruth did not allow herself to cry into her daughter’s shoulder long. She did say, “We’ve been having problems for years. You know that. I tried. I prayed.” Then, she pulled back from the embrace and patted a gray hair into its previous, plastered spot. She straightened her back, sniffed hard, and held her daughter at arms’ length. “I’m going to be okay.” She pulled a loose thread from Bryn’s collar and blew it onto the floor. “Really. We’re all going to be okay.” Here, she turned to me. “Is there even a salesperson here, Karen?”
The salesgirl was small, Asian, and wore a sweat-stained work shirt. Her nails were chipped in old polish, and her nametag was handwritten. She wasn’t the statuesque L’Oreal counter girl one might expect from the Parisian commercials, but her voice was pleasant and her teeth were straight. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, and this struck me as genetically miraculous. She was casual, “What can I get you, ladies?”
Bryn paused; ten feet away a woman argued with her young child over a mouse-sized sweater. The child screamed, “I hate you!” and stomped his tiny feet. Without looking at the sales representative, Bryn said, “Mom, tell her what you want.”
Ruth was charming. She smiled broadly and complimented the girl on her eye color before asking, “Do you have the Endless lipstick in Mulberry?”
The girl apologized. “Mulberry is a discontinued color.”
To Bryn, Ruth said, “Doesn’t it just figure?” Her shoulders slumped and she looked beaten like she hadn’t when explaining her impending divorce.
The counter girl hastened to say, “But we do have something close. We have this new Cranberry Glace.” The girl couldn’t have been older than 18. “I’ve sold a ton this week.” Suddenly recognizing Bryn, she lit up. “Ms. A?”
When she heard the shortened version of her tongue-twisting Norwegian last name, Bryn lifted her head from the now-screaming child and his mother. “Hmmm?” She squinted for a moment and then said, “Melanie? What are you doing here?”
Melanie said, “I’ve been working here since junior year.” She sifted through a tray of lipsticks for Cranberry Glace and gave Ruth a Q-tip for sampling. “I haven’t seen you in forever! Not since that English final.”
Bryn seemed genuinely pleased and stood straighter. She had taught high school English until one overzealous obstetrician suggested job-related stress was hurting her fertility. Bryn smiled broadly and said, “It was a tough one, I know. But you did well.”
Ruth shook her head at the Glace, and Melanie tried another color, Crimson Passion. “How about this?”
There was a momentary pause as Ruth pursed her lips in the mirror. She chuckled. “I do like the name.”
“I’m going to college in the spring.” Melanie rubbed the burgeoning sphere that was her belly. It had been hidden behind the counter before her small hand directed our attention there. “I’m due in January. Wayne’s going in the fall, though. Anne Arundel Community College.”
I could see Bryn’s disappointment as she fought to keep her voice upbeat. She said, only, “I see.” She had told me once that seeing a bright student become pregnant was like watching a plane crash in slow motion. She’d had several girls in her inner-city classes choose babies over college.
Melanie turned to Ruth. “What do you think?”
Ruth nodded, then pointed at the other products in the display case. “Maybe I’ll look at new powder, too.”
Melanie continued talking as she pulled five medium-complexion compacts from her under-counter collection. She sighed, “It’s hard. We don’t know what we’re going to do yet. I do want to go to school; I don’t want to work here forever.”
It seemed too coincidental, a pregnant former student who clearly adored my partner. I wanted Ruth to be right — that God was good all the time. I cleared my throat and patted Bryn on the back. “Bryn?”
Bryn did not answer, only nodded at Melanie. She said, “You need to go to college. You’re so bright.” Then she blinked several times in a row.
Melanie smiled, “I’d like to go to the University of Maryland. Go Terrapins, right?” She giggled like a teenager should and began her saleswoman pitch to Ruth. “Our powders are all oil free. They contain SPF and have a 100 percent color guarantee.” Ruth pondered the powder while I held her purse. “Hey. Are you Ms. A’s mom?”
Ruth beamed. “Her sister, really.”
“She looks just like you! I hadn’t noticed at first because your hair is different.”
In seven years, I hadn’t noticed they looked alike.
Bryn pulled a pen from her bag and wrote on a discarded receipt. “Here. You call me if you need anything. A reference, maybe.” She gave her mother’s gentle smile, then pushed the slip of paper towards the girl’s open palm.
Melanie slipped the scrap into her maternity pants pocket. She said, “Thanks,” then laughed. In scrawling, juvenile handwriting she wrote her number on another scrap and punctuated it with a happy face. She said, “We’re living with Wayne’s parents right now, so it’s long distance.” She handed the number to Bryn and Bryn put the piece of paper carefully in her pocket. I knew I would see that piece of paper again.
We said our goodbyes and waved as we walked to the escalator, a family bound by lipstick. Stepping onto the moving stairs, Ruth mentioned Melanie’s blue eyes for the second time that day. Bryn had blue eyes. Bryn wanted our child to have those eyes. I hoped Melanie’s eyes foretold an even larger family for us. I fervently hoped that the unassuming L’Oreal counter girl would be our miracle.
The next morning, Bryn woke early and kissed my shoulder as the faint light of day inched across our windowsill. It was just 7:00. She sat up without taking her basal temperature or recording where she was in her cycle; she ran a hand through her unruly curls, but let them fall without smoothing or fussing or wielding a barrette. It was a new day, and the hours since shopping seemed to have pressed the worried lines from her forehead like Ruth’s magical finishing powder.
As she threw her bare legs over the side of our bed, Bryn said, “I love you.” It was a phrase I hadn’t heard in awhile.
I answered, “I’m glad,” and, silently, recalled all of the times Bryn had begged me to say that same three-word phrase at the beginning of our relationship. I had been in my thirties then; I’d told her I couldn’t say “I love you” until I was sure. I’ve learned since that 30 does not equal wise.
I asked Bryn, “Do you want to show me how much?” I turned onto my side and stretched the waistband of my pajama bottoms out invitingly.
Bryn giggled. She grabbed her down pillow by the edges and aimed for my head, saying, “Not while Mom’s here.” I grabbed her tiny hips and wrestled her to the mattress. We laughed together that morning, despite the empty sonograms and useless Clomid and homophobic adoption agencies. I was winning at this faux wrestling match, too, when she cried, “Ouch!” I let her go; this wolf-crying was Bryn’s way. Then, she stood up with a triumphant grin and grabbed an old, beaten sweatshirt of mine to pair with the cotton boxers she’d slept in. After pulling the shirt over her head, she squinted. Hard.
“We’ll always be together, right?”
I said, “Always.”
“Dad didn’t tell me, you know. And mom seemed surprised. I don’t want to be surprised . . .”
“I promise I won’t blindside you.”
She nodded. She understood. And she was again wearing her diamond anniversary band.