On the phone, Angie says “Come to the library playground at noon. I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Will Noelle be there?” I say.
There’s a pause. I can feel Angie glaring at her phone, rolling her eyes. “Stop being a maniac.”
I catch a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. My hair is so dirty it looks like someone has poured salad dressing on it. There’s a smudge of something on my face. Is it poo? Since Madeleine was born, I tend to stay clear of mirrors. Now I see why: I certainly look like a maniac.
There’s an audible sigh on the other side of the phone, and Angie says, “Come on, Liz. You need to get some fresh air. You need to check out Clarissa; she’s talking now! Well, she says ‘hi’ and ‘bye.’ She’s greeting and dismissing. Like I said, I haven’t seen you in ages.”
I find the repetition of that phrase strangely soothing. It’s like when I hold Madeleine in the crook of my neck and say, “Hush, hush, hush.” Something about saying the same phrase over and over calms us both.
What no one warns you about having a baby—including your best friend who became a parent ten months prior—is that it’s regressive. You’re going along, thinking, I’ve got a handle on this whole being an adult thing. I can make potatoes au gratin; I can blow $100 at Sephora and not stress about it; I can ask for things the way an adult woman should be able to—six months of maternity leave, say.
Then the baby comes along, and it’s like she’s that nuclear-fueled car in Back to the Future, yanking me to some alternate universe where I am not just dirty and tired but also insecure and petty.
I’ll be honest. There is nothing “objectively” wrong with Noelle Strodemeyer. Angie has been telling me how awesome she is for years, and for years I nodded and smiled and pretended to agree.
I consider Angie’s request. Pro side to venturing to the library playground: Fresh air. Sunshine. Human contact. I haven’t seen any humans besides Madeleine and Seth for days, and Seth and I are becoming like animals in a cave, gnawing bones.
Con side: Noelle Strodemeyer, with her hair that somehow continues to be glossy and clean (how?) and her weird, complicated sling, four yards of batik fabric that looks like the long belt of a kimono. Yet Noelle somehow manages to configure her sling in 30 seconds flat while I’m trying to figure out how to get Madeleine in the perfectly simple Ergo without breaking her neck.
Look. I’m a feminist. I admire competent women. There’s just something so in-your-face about Noelle’s brand of competence, something so pleased and self-satisfied and triumphant.
This did not bother me, though, in the five years pre-babies, when I’d see Noelle at Angie’s house. Sure, Noelle was show-offy. At Angie’s baby shower, she gave Angie a rabbit she’d hand knit and stuffed herself. Everyone gushed over that rabbit, its long, floppy ears. “It only took me two weeks,” Noelle said. What a “look-at-me!” gift, meant to highlight her own talent and whimsy.
Prior to babies, Noelle would show up at parties at Angie’s with, I kid you not, a tooled leather-and-wood bar kit with all the accoutrements—a cocktail shaker, an actual mortar and pestle for grinding herbs. She would set herself up in Angie’s kitchen and make pretentious cocktails named after old movie stars (the Gene Kelly, the Marlene Dietrich). She would bring elderflower bitters.
A reasonable person can’t love someone like that, right? When her best friend tells her, “Oh, guess what? Noelle is pregnant too! She’s due in June too!,” a reasonable person is not going to jump up and down over such news, shouting “Woo-hoo!” But it wasn’t like I despised Noelle back then. I registered her as an annoying person, of course, but not someone in whom I would invest the passion of hatred.
Things that are annoying about Noelle Strodemeyer:
- Her cousin is a famous movie star, and here’s an amusing party game to play: How long will it take for Noelle to weave into a conversation with a stranger the fact that her first cousin is Jude Law? (Unfortunately this is a game that one has to play quietly and smugly with one’s own self, since Angie’s glares and eye rolls illustrate that she has no tolerance for this game or for any untoward observations about Jude Law).
- The aforementioned bar kit, which is clearly ridiculous.
- Her last name, which is a combination of Noelle’s name (Strode) and her husband’s name (Meyer), but rather than hyphenate these like most couples, they jammed them together and legally changed it to Strodemeyer, illuminating what a sparkling, conjoined unit Noelle and Peter are! (For the record I share the same disdain for couples who share email addresses. My sister’s is nancyandfred, and I give Nancy endless crap about this).
- The aforementioned show-offy sling.
Really, Noelle Strodemeyer distilled (like one of her stupid cocktails) into one word is “show-offy.” She can’t just be in the world like a normal person. She has to be constantly giving dramatic illustrations of her awesomeness. She’s competitive as hell, something I may have intuited in the bar-kit days, but which now in the days of infants is a glaring spotlight that burns out one’s eyeballs.
“Horatio sleeps through the night!”
“Sex with Peter is still amazing, and we don’t need lubricant!”
“None of my beautiful, clean hair has fallen out!”
Note that she named her child Horatio. According to Angie, it’s a family name, but that sounds like some trumped-up justification for pretension if I ever heard one.
As I said, having babies makes one regress. The last time I felt this kind of spite for another human was in high school, for this girl Betsy, who was going out with Lucian, the boy I had wanted for years. Betsy had this white cardigan with some kind of puffy, red, crocheted flower on it, and I said to my friend Paula, “Look at Betsy rock that knit corsage!” The way Paula looked at me—this irritated-but-pitying look—reminds me that I am inciting a similar look in Angie these days, when I pose the question, “Who names their baby Horatio?” Sixteen years ago, Paula shook her head, like it would take too much effort to enunciate the directive to stop being an immature bitch. Let your better self emerge, Paula’s headshake transmitted to me. Realize there is something deeply fucked-up about making out with Betsy’s boyfriend in the darkroom while you’re waiting for your photos to develop, and then resenting her instead of Lucian.
There is something equally dysfunctional about hating a woman who seems to have more of a grip on marriage, parenting, and how to put on a baby sling than you do.
I put my hair in a ponytail. I get Madeleine in the Ergo without making either of us cry. I pack my diaper bag and remember baby wipes and extra diapers. At the front door I take out one of the baby wipes to remove the smudge from my face (is it poo?). I resolve, on the five-block walk to the library playground that could as well be the sheer precipice of a mountain given my diaper bag, Ergo, and sleep deprivation, to be nicer to Noelle. To stop barfing up all my regressive resentment like our bony, hacking, hairball-spewing cat.
“Grow up,” I say out loud, but then I quickly say to Madeleine, to the top of her tiny, male-pattern-baldness head, “Not you! Oh, baby, I don’t mean you.”