Sarah E. Robinson
Meredith Rivers is panty-less under her paper gown and her butt is stuck to that crinkly paper they pull across the examination table when the doctor—not her usual OBGYN, a new one, a much younger one—enters the room wearing a face mask, face shield, latex gloves, and a plastic surgery gown over her scrubs. This is just the protocol now, Meredith tells herself, but everyone in the office is all but wearing a hazmat suit, and it makes her feel both contaminated and defensive. “But I’ve done everything right,” she wants to whine, “I’ve followed all the rules.” Masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, bleach, and Jen is the only person she’s touched in almost four months. She hasn’t even been to the grocery store. God, how she would love to pick out her own apples. The ones Jen brings home are either stones or have the consistency of oatmeal.
The doctor sits on a rolling stool and propels herself not toward Meredith but away from her as she starts to talk. Between the layers of protective equipment and nearly ten feet of space she’s put between herself and her patient, she has to speak quite loudly, making everything she says sound like an attack to Meredith. Preeclampsia is the only word that’s registering; “possible” doesn’t even make a dent. Meredith doesn’t remember exactly what it is—she’s been trying to stay away from the “Complications” chapter of What to Expect When You’re Expecting—but her face grows hot, tears well up, and her mind just stops.
The doctor slows her speech. “There’s no protein in the urine, so this might be something we can manage with blood pressure medication. We’re going to give you a prescription and run more tests. It’s not time to panic, just time to pay attention.”
Meredith can tell that she’s trying to be reassuring, but she’s so far away and so young. She wishes she was being told this information by Dr. Ross, who’s forty-five years of experience have left her with both an air of authority and a comforting, grandmother-like vibe. “I’ve seen it all,” Dr. Ross used to assure Meredith when she began listing off her pregnancy-related anxieties, “and you’re fine.” She could perform a complete pelvic exam in under a minute.
Dr. Rita Vaswani doesn’t know what to do with her own patients these days, let alone those of Dr. Ross, who she feels don’t trust her, though she’s not sure if it’s her age, her skin color, or just the fact that she’s not “their” doctor that’s the problem. Belinda, she corrects herself, she wants you to call her Belinda. Given her age, it only makes sense that Dr. Ross, Belinda, has taken a leave of absence, but even though the clinic has only been seeing the high-risk pregnancies with any regularity and has stopped taking new patients, Dr. Vaswani’s swamped.
Emotions always run high at the IVF clinic, all these women—almost uniformly white—desperately grasping at the life they’ve always imagined for themselves, the infertile ones devastated by their body’s betrayal, as though bodies weren’t designed to betray us, but the ambient stress of the pandemic has taken things to the next level. This is the seventh pregnant woman she’s watched cry today and it’s barely ten a.m. It’s not that she doesn't feel for the woman clutching her hospital gown on the examination table—even from across the room she can see the jittery rise and fall of Meredith’s chest that indicates ragged breath, panic—but Dr. Vaswani is exhausted on several levels and can’t summon the energy to play therapist the way the patient wants, needs. “Do you have any questions?” she asks.
Meredith shakes her head, though she’s swirling with them, and wishes Jen were with her. Struggling back into her maternity clothes after the doctor leaves, she feels both weepy and stunned. She thinks of how many times she’s wished she wasn’t pregnant, of how many times she’s questioned this decision, and feels so shakily guilty that she can barely tie her shoes. Crocs would’ve made more sense, but wearing them outside the house feels like giving up. When she exits the room, she finds a nurse, also swathed in protective gear, standing by, holding an armful of cleaning supplies.
As Meredith plops down in her car, she catches a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror, of her red-rimmed eyes over her face mask. The patterned fabric—smiling woodland creatures and pine trees at jaunty angles—that was so cute and hipster when she made it seems ridiculously childish. She rips the mask off and Googles “preeclampsia” on her phone. Wikipedia isn’t exactly a great source of information, Meredith knows that she should go to the Mayo Clinic’s website, something with any credibility really, but she clicks nonetheless, and her eyes snag on the sentence about death rates. Blinking back tears, she scrolls down to “Causes and Prevention.” She knows she forgets to take her prenatal vitamins sometimes, and what do they mean there’s “insufficient evidence” that excessive exercise is a cause? Jen was right, she should’ve quit Pilates sooner. And what had she been thinking with all that prenatal yoga on Zoom? Meredith is sure that this is her fault.
Jen says very little when Meredith calls her and Meredith is sure she’s angry, that she also knows that Meredith is responsible.
“Should we cancel the shower?” Jen asks.
“How can we? It starts in less than eight hours.”
“It’s our shower, we can do what we want.”
They both know this isn’t true. Even though it’s their baby, even though Meredith’s the one wearing elastic-waist pants, they have little say on this aspect of the pregnancy; Meredith’s cousin Pauline has completely taken over. Claire, one of Meredith’s oldest friends, agreed to co-host in an attempt to rein her in but has reported only limited success.
Though the phone call ends with Jen assuring Meredith that she loves her and that everything will be all right, Meredith starts crying as soon as she hangs up the phone. She leans her forehead on the steering wheel. Do not, she tells herself, do not have a meltdown in this parking garage. But it’s June 2020 and Houston’s numbers are spiking and half the country is in the streets and she might have preeclampsia, so how is she supposed to not have a meltdown in this parking garage?
She’s about to give up the fight when she hears the echo of footsteps coming her way. It’s another pregnant woman. Her posture is slumped, and she’s walking with a heavy slowness, but the first thing Meredith notices is her black, pointy-toed pumps. How is she wearing heels? She looks to be further along than Meredith, and Meredith’s down to Crocs and sneakers.
A man exits the green jeep a couple of spaces away; though the parking lot is almost empty, everyone has parked in the northeast corner. It’s because of the elevator, but it looks like the cars are huddled together for protection. He goes to the woman, arms outstretched, and pulls her to his chest. They begin to sway gently, as though they’re rocking each other to sleep. Meredith watches, feels guilty about watching, and pulls out of the parking space. As she leaves the garage, she sees that both the man and the woman are streaming tears into their masks, and she sure that something has gone terribly wrong.
Meredith hasn’t been able to handle Houston’s highways in years—the speed, the aggression, the abrupt jumps from lane to lane and no one uses a blinker—so the long drive home is even longer than it should be. She makes it only a third of the way when, turning from Piney Point onto Westheimer, leaking tears and thinking about the couple in the parking garage and trying not to think about how this pregnancy is going to fail, how it’s going to end in nothing but physical and emotional pain, how will it rip her marriage apart, she hits a curb and hears the sharp pop of a punctured tire. A rapid hiss follows and the car begins canting to the left. Shit. Meredith spies what looks like a mechanic’s a couple of blocks away and slowly thumps her way toward it.
Though she knows it’s absurd, as she pulls into the parking lot of Christian Brothers’ Automotive, she imagines black-robed monks peering at engines, changing tires, sliding out from underneath cars on those wheeled wooden thingys. It’s probably just a name, she tells herself. Probably they aren’t brothers. Probably they’re not even Christian.
She pulls her mask over her ears, wipes her eyes, and hoists herself out from behind the steering wheel. Not quite seven months pregnant and already every movement involves hoisting, heaving, hauling. As Meredith walks toward the building, she feels the mechanics watching her. Or thinks she does; she doesn’t actually know as she keeps her puffy eyes on the tips of her tennis shoes, only lifting them to survey the bumper stickers on the cars parked outside the office. “Trump 2020” on an overlarge black truck. But there’s a Sierra Club sticker on the one next to it . . . maybe the place is okay?
Meredith finds that someone has painted a cross, one with lots of rays, on the glass door to the office, and the angel-bell hanging from the handle jingles as she enters. The ten-by-ten-foot room is baby blue and none of the four men inside are wearing masks. Well, she supposes that one of them technically has one on his face, but it’s pulled down under his chin so he can eat a sandwich. She has an immediate self-conscious impulse to remove hers, to fit in, but she can hear Jen’s voice in her head: You’re going to risk your life, our baby’s life, because you’re a pleaser?
A small man stands up from behind the desk, introduces himself as Jerry, and follows her outside to take a look at the tire, which has deflated so much that the hubcap is touching the asphalt. “How’d that happen?” he asks.
How’d it happen? She wants to say it happened because her blood pressure is through the roof and the doctor—not even her doctor—had started throwing out words like “preeclampsia” and “bedrest” and “induced labor” and because Jen hadn’t been there because she wasn’t allowed to be there and that, if she follows the loose chain of causality she’s been constructing in her head, somehow Trump, the coronavirus, police violence, and yard signs are responsible as well. “Curb,” she says.
“We’ll take a look and see if we can patch it. If not, I think we have something that will fit.” He circles the car. He can tell that the tires are shot, but he knows her type. Convinced that tires last forever, that standard automotive maintenance—oil changes, tire rotation, replacing the radiator fluid—are scams cooked up by money-hungry mechanics. Convinced that things will always run smoothly, that cars never need to be repaired. She’s probably bent the rim driving on that flat. “You might think about replacing all these,” he says, with little hope that she’ll listen. He’s exasperated by the amount of space the woman is keeping between them, and by the mask. There’ve been rumors that Texas—Texas—is about to require them and he’s been debating how much of a fuss to kick up. There are his beliefs, but then there’s his business. He smiles too broadly at her and wonders if, underneath the mask—are those squirrels?—she’s smiling back.
Meredith takes the chair that seems farthest away from the other customers and texts Jen. Blown tire, can you believe it? She checks her email, even though she checked it before leaving the doctor’s office thirty minutes ago, likes a few Instagram posts, does not Google preeclampsia again, and begins playing Regency Love, which she’s been doing to stay off Facebook. Loosely based on the novels of Jane Austen, the goal of the game is to marry off her character, Constance, to one of the five eligible, but seriously flawed, bachelors in the fictional town of Darlington. She’s currently debating between Mr. Ashcroft, who is rich, kind, and unbearably controlling, and Mr. Curtis, a well-read feminist who is also kind of a dick. A sixth eligible bachelor is available for $1.99, and Meredith wonders if he’s of a better quality. She also has to pee.
The ringing of the angel-bell signals Jerry’s reentrance. “Ms. Rivers?” He leads her out to the garage—the smell of motor oil is overpowering—and this time she’s sure the eyes of the jump-suited men linger on her. Is it because she’s wearing a mask, because she’s pregnant, or just because she’s a woman?
Hector Ramirez is the only mechanic paying her any mind. He’s looking at her belly and thinking of his wife, who wants another kid. He’s not sure what to make of it all, the pandemic, his boss insists the whole thing is overblown, the protests, his boss has a number of thoughts on them as well; really his boss has a lot to say on pretty much any topic and feels more than free to expound despite receiving no encouragement from anyone in the shop. But is this the time to bring a new life into the world? Besides, they already have five, and aside from the expense and the constant demands on his attention—he doesn’t think he’s been alone for longer than three minutes in years—there are the looks people give them. But he loves his wife and she loves being pregnant, which makes the other women in his family suspicious. Who likes being pregnant?
He thinks of bathing his youngest in the kitchen sink, rubbing one of those soft cloths with the ducks on it over his sparse hair, one hand on his son’s forehead to keep the faintly rose-scented suds out of his eyes. Julian’s become too big for all that, which makes him suddenly sad. He could do one more. He would like one more. But right now?
Jerry shows Meredith the punctured tire and says something about tubes and hammering the rim back into shape. “The bad news is that we can’t patch it. The good news is that the Firestone tires for a car this size are on sale. Now they’re still a little more than the Kumho, but they come with a one-year warranty and believe me, they’re worth it.”
Meredith squints at him. Would a religious mechanic be more or less likely to cheat her? She wishes Jen were with her. Jen would make him go through all the options, she’d comparison shop on her phone, she’d call his bluff if he was bluffing and get a fair price if he wasn’t. “Okay.”
“Do you want to go ahead and do the whole set?”
“Just the one.”
Jerry glances at her left hand. “Maybe you want to call your husband? Let him decide?” She’s pregnant, she’s obviously been crying, looks like she might start up again actually, and he’s glad she has somebody to take care of her. He also wants her, her mask, her suspiciousness, and her ridiculously large handbag out of his shop.
“I’ll do that. But just the one for now.” This isn’t a thing she does—pretend to be straight—but she’s alone and the mechanic’s shop is called Christian Brothers’ and she just doesn’t have it in her to deal with any homophobic crap from a small man named Jerry.
She returns to the office, pulls out her phone, and reopens Regency Love. Mr. Ashcroft is upset because she apparently snubbed his sister, Prudence, at a dress shop, which she has no memory of doing. Would leveling up in needlework mollify him? Or maybe if she increases her amiability score she can soften some of Mr. Curtis’s sharp edges.
Meredith’s gathering points by answering questions about propriety in the eighteenth century—there is always a right way and wrong way to behave—when Jen calls.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you? You don’t sound good.”
“I’m wearing a mask, I’m just muffled.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at,” Meredith swallows a slightly hysterical laugh,” Christian Brothers’ Automotive.”
“Do you want me to come get you?”
Meredith peers through the window over Jerry’s desk into the garage. “They’re probably almost done.”
“Are you sure?”
Her eyes well up and her bladder constrains. This is what it’s like to be pregnant: a constant need to pee and cry. “No.”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Meredith and Jen have a few pregnancy stories they like to tell: the symbol on the at-home pregnancy test that didn’t match anything on the box, the potential sperm donor that turned out to be their friend Claire’s ex-boyfriend Teddy. But the favorite, the crowd-pleaser, is the one about the tarot reading they received at the local farmer’s market. Meredith does a killer impression of the reader’s husky, contrived whisper, and Jen mimics the flair with which she’d flipped over the final card superbly.
It had been late January, Meredith and Jen had been trying to get pregnant for three months, and Meredith’s period was a week late. Jen was overjoyed. Meredith was suddenly unsure if it was the right time, or even the right move altogether.
The woman on the last card was wearing a nightdress that reminded Meredith of her grandmother: high-necked, long-sleeved, floor-length, folds upon folds of floral. It was probably supposed to be a gown, but except for the crown, she looked more like she was going to bed than to a ball. The yellow circle of the scepter she held was echoed in the symbol for female floating above a field of green-gold wheat.
“The Empress,” the tarot reader said, leaning over the card table she’d set up in the center of the tent, “symbolizes the maternal. It means,” the woman waved her fingers over the card, “creation, new life. Not necessarily a physical pregnancy; it could be a spiritual pregnancy, a new business, a new,” she hesitated and looked at Jen, clearly trying to ascertain the nature of their relationship, “love.” Jen likes to dramatize this searching gaze when they tell the story.
As they reentered the shuffling crowd of the farmer’s market, Jen tapped the back of her wife’s hand. “I told you.”
Meredith looked back at the tent, which wasn’t a Gypsy tent but the kind you’d buy at REI. “Gypsy” isn’t the right word, she knows, but nobody gets it when she says “Romani tent,” so she puts “Gypsy” in air quotes when she tells the story and hopes her audience understands that she doesn’t mean anything by it.
“Have you noticed,” Meredith asked as they passed the vegan baker, the kombucha booth, the wild-haired man touting CBD as a cure for everything from anxiety to fibromyalgia to cancer, “how few actual farm products there are here? Was it always like this?”
“I think we should keep the gender a secret.”
“We don’t even know if I’m pregnant.”
“You said your breasts were sore.”
Meredith glanced around them, embarrassed to be discussing her body in public. “That could mean anything. I might just be spiritually pregnant.” They stopped at the fermented foods table.
“Try this sauerkraut. It’s got curry in it.” Jen lifted the spoon to Meredith’s face, cupping her left hand underneath to catch any spillage. The smell hit Meredith like a fist. She normally liked sauerkraut, its sour tang, but this smelled overpoweringly like decay, and bile immediately rose in her throat. She gagged, slapped the spoon from Jen’s hand, and just barely made it to the trash can.
Meredith knows it’s a great story: weird, funny, vaguely mystical. People love it. But when she thinks of that day, it’s not the reading or the sauerkraut she remembers most viscerally, it’s trembling over a trash can surrounded by strangers, sure that she’s made a mistake and knowing that she’ll never be allowed to say so.
How like her, she thinks, reopening Regency Love, to work toward something for years, to fantasize about it obsessively, to save up the money to inject her stomach with hormones that make her feel crazy, to abstain from drinking for what feels like an eternity, to give up control of her body, first to doctors and then to this person growing inside her, and then be unsure if she wants it. And how like her, now that she thinks she might lose it, to desperately need it again.
Meredith still has to pee and is eyeing the filthy bathroom—what happened to cleanliness is next to godliness?—when she sees Jen walk into the garage. Not into the office, but into the garage, her ponytail bobbing out of her ballcap. Despite the fact that she’s striding into their territory like she owns it, or maybe because of it, none of the mechanics does more than glance at her. Meredith cranes her neck, trying to see what’s going on through the window above Jerry’s desk, but all she can make out are Jen’s tanned shoulders and Jerry’s head nodding in profile. She’s afraid that Jen is going to make a scene, about the masks or Jerry’s presumed homophobia or the mechanics staring at Meredith even though, she realizes, Jen doesn’t know about that and it might not actually be happening. There’s some gesturing that means nothing to her—it doesn’t look angry—some pointing at the car, and Jen heads for the office.
“Hey, hon,” Jen says, sitting next to her. “We’re going to need all new tires, so it’s going to be a minute. Weren’t you going to take care of that a few months ago?”
Meredith guiltily remembers making and then cancelling an appointment at Discount Tire Company back in early March, when the idea of a global pandemic still seemed wildly unlikely, thinking she’d just do it later. She shrugs.
“Why don’t you take my car and go home?”
“You don’t need to be here, especially not with,” Jen flicks her eyes at Meredith’s stomach. “Listen,” she continues, lowering her voice, though not as much as Meredith wants her to, and leaning on the armrest of her chair, “about what the doctor said—”
Meredith shakes her head vehemently. She doesn’t want the fight that’s coming, the one about how she hasn’t been eating right or has been exercising too much or has been too stressed out—how is she supposed to not be stressed out?—and she certainly doesn’t want it in front of an audience. “Not here.”
Jen withdraws her arms and withdraws into herself. This is so like Meredith, to just refuse to talk about something. No, instead she’ll obsess, get herself all wrapped around the axle, and then by the time she will talk, she’ll be all but incoherent. But what’s Jen going to do, pick a fight with her teary, pregnant wife in the middle of this cross-filled garage? She walks Meredith to the Corolla and waits as she lowers herself inside.
As Meredith moves to shut the door, Jen grabs it and leans in. “Hey,” she asks, “Did you tell Jerry you had a husband?”
Meredith feels a deep, fast shame followed by an urge to lie and is just starting to stammer out the word “no,” when Jen reaches into the car, snaps the elastic of Meredith’s face mask lightly, and laughs. She shuts the car door and waves before walking back toward Christian Brothers’.
Meredith wants to get away from this place, from the world, really, to curl up in a nest of blankets like a fox, but she can’t peel out of the parking lot the way she wants to—if it’s even possible to peel out in a Corolla—because Jen’s shorter than she is, and not pregnant, so she has to adjust the seat back, the distance from the steering wheel, the mirrors, and everything is controlled by buttons that she cannot seem to locate. It takes forever and she’s sure Jen is watching her, wondering what she’s doing. She finally gets everything in order except for the rearview mirror, which she decides to adjust manually despite its resistance. It breaks halfway off. Meredith sighs, looks at the mechanic’s office, jams the mirror back in place as best she can, and pulls onto Westheimer.
Without Regency Love to distract her from her possible preeclampsia and need to pee, they’re harder to deal with. She turns on NPR. This morning two boys were shot in Seattle. Last night one was shot in Louisville. There are rumors that the military will be deployed and the president has tweeted then deleted a video of a man in a golf cart yelling “White Power” at Black Lives Matter protestors. Meredith turns the radio off and feels guilty about turning it off. She hasn’t logged-on to Facebook in a week and a half and has been limiting her news consumption to The New York Times’s morning and evening updates. “Just take a break,” Jen had told her. “The world will still be horrible in a couple of weeks.” But why should she be allowed to take a break?
She thinks about the videos. She reads about them but has never watched one. Not the one of Eric Garner telling the officer who has him in a chokehold that he can’t breathe over and over and over again, not the one of a man in uniform leaning on George Floyd’s neck for almost ten minutes. He couldn’t breathe either. Not the one of Walter Scott being shot five times in the back, not the one of Tamir Rice—only twelve—shot in a park, not the one of Ahmaud Arbery, also shot, not the ones of Alton Sterling or Rayshard Brooks or Stephon Clark or James Boyd, also shot and also shot and also shot and also shot.
Meredith tells herself it’s out of respect for the victims, their families, but really it’s just that she can’t bear it. But why should she be allowed not to bear it? Other people have to watch it. Other people have to live it. You’re a hypocrite and a coward, she tells herself.
She feels even worse as she finds her self-recrimination overpowered by her need to pee. Should she stop someplace? The bathrooms at the Starbucks on Shepherd are usually clean and they require masks. But her friend Claire had told her about an incident that ended with an anti-mask customer hurling a cup of coffee—lukewarm, thankfully—in a barista’s face. Not at this Starbucks, but still. And even if nothing dramatic happened, stopping would involve hand sanitizing, and wondering if people are standing to close to her, and forgetting what she's touched, and hand sanitizing again, and constantly wondering if she is doing the right thing, just always wondering if she is doing the right thing, and she’d have to buy something, so fuck it, she can hold it.
Meredith loves their apartment. It’s got tons of light, beautiful hardwood floors, retro tiling in the kitchen and bathroom, and a great location. The only problem is parking. They have to park on the street and it’s a nightmare. A recent influx of townhomes has eliminated half the curb-space and on bad days it can take ten minutes of circling the neighborhood to get a spot. Meredith thinks the apartment is worth it, except for right now, when she has to pee and everyone and their mother is at home so there is no parking, just none.
Except, yes!, someone is leaving the vet’s office on the corner. Meredith is terrible at parallel parking and tries to avoid it, especially in front of people, and while it’s not crowded, there’s a steady stream of neighbors trying to stave off the stay-at-home madness by walking their dogs, their kids, themselves. Jen, who has run every morning for the last decade, has been greatly irritated by the influx of new-found outdoor fitness enthusiasts. “It’s like playing frogger out there.”
But Meredith really has to pee. She pulls up next to a large, blue SUV, aligns her back wheels with the bumper, turns the steering wheel to the right, and begins to back in. It’s a tight fit and it’s hard with the SUV being so big, but she manages to get into the space without too much back and forth and feels a rush of pride and a desire to show off to Jen, who has been known to reenact Meredith’s parking fails at dinner parties. Except one of the cars might leave before Jen gets home so . . . picture? She’s thinking of this as she straightens the car a little, moving slightly closer to the curb—if she’s going to document her parking job, she wants it to be perfect—and doesn’t see the woman get into the Prius behind her, doesn’t notice the car pulling forward just as she’s reversing.
The impact is minimal, both cars are going less than five miles per hour, but Meredith hurtles forward a couple of inches before the seatbelt catches her across the chest and the abdomen and slams her back. She feels a warm wetness spread under her, and the first thing she feels is jelly-legged relief. The war is over, who cares if she lost. The next is panic as she sees the woman get out of her car and walk toward the Corolla. She frantically looks around for something to cover herself with, a towel or a picnic blanket or—why is Jen’s car always so clean? There’s not even a stray cup in the cupholder or piece of mail on the floor. Meredith grabs her purse and sets it on her lap. It’s a large bag, a hobo bag, they call it, which is probably not okay, but it’s at least somewhat effective at covering up the dark spot across her lap. It’s the best she can do. Looking in the now-dangling-again rearview mirror, she finds that the woman has slowed her approach to inspect the bumpers. She roots around in the bag for the aromatherapy spray Jen’s sister sent her, locates the bottle, and sprays wildly. It does nothing to cover up the sour odor; now the car just smells like pee and lavender.
The woman knocks on the window with one knuckle, and now that she’s up close, Meredith can see that she’s really more of a girl, twenty tops and maybe still in high school. It’s hard to tell with the mask. She starts to roll down the window but then thinks that if the girl is wearing a mask then she should wear a mask, and she fumbles the woodland creatures onto her face before opening the window, only an inch so that maybe the smell won’t get out.
“Are you all right?” the girl asks.
“I’m fine,” Meredith says in a tone that she immediately knows sounds far too chipper. She hunches over the bag. “You?”
The girl nods and scratches at her ear. Her mask, Meredith realizes, is decorated with tiny penises, and the shock she experiences makes her feel prudish and old.
“The cars seem fine and I’m not even really sure whose fault it was so—”
Meredith, who has been nervously running her fingers along the armrest, accidentally hits the window button, and cuts the girl off with a pane of glass.
“Sorry!” she rolls the window back down—too far, pee smell—then up again so that it’s open just a crack. “What were you saying?”
“Just that I don’t think we need to get the police or the insurance companies involved.”
She probably means “we don’t need to tell my parents,” Meredith thinks.
The girl seems to be waiting for something. “Don’t you want to look at the car?” she finally asks.
Meredith waves her hand. “I trust you.”
The girl, Evelina, examines the woman and tries to figure out what her deal is, wonders if this is some sort of trap or scam. She’s pregnant and close to her mom’s age, looks a little like one of her mom’s friends, actually, which make Evelina want to both trust and resent her. She studies the little of the woman’s face she can see between the sunglasses and the mask—isn’t she a little old for those frolicking woodland creatures? She’s probably just like her mother, who she just spent a frustrating half-hour debating politics with, evincing all these liberal beliefs but won’t protest, won’t cut ties with her racist brother Phil, thinks defunding the police is “a little extreme.” She probably voted for Elizabeth Warren in the primaries. “Why would you?” Evelina asks. “Trust me, I mean.”
The woman shrugs and rolls up the window, which she has only cracked an inch, as though she’s afraid of her. After a moment, Evelina walks back to her boyfriend’s Prius, pausing to look at the bumper of the car. Warren.
Meredith pulls out her phone and pretends to be busy while she tries to figure out what to do. Their complex is only half a block away, but there are a number of people out and about. Maybe I can wait until it dries, she thinks. But it’s a lot of pee and, while Meredith is not an expert on the evaporation rate of urine, she thinks she could be talking quite some time. She really doesn’t want to, but she opens the messenger app and texts Jen.
When you get home, could you bring me a skirt? I’m outside the vet’s.
Jen calls her immediately. “Why do I need to bring you a skirt? Are you okay?”
“Everything’s fine, but there was an accident—”
Meredith can hear panic infusing Jen’s voice and she tried to channel her prenatal yoga teacher. “I’m fine,” she says in a slow, soothing monotone, “I just need you to bring me a skirt.”
“But why?” Now Jen sounds both scared and exasperated.
“We’re having a child together.”
Meredith reluctantly relates what happened. “Please don’t laugh.”
“I wasn’t going to laugh, that’s horrible. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Meredith sighs. Of course she’s not okay. Nothing about this day, this year, has been okay.
“It looks like they’re bringing out the car now,” Jen says. “I’ll be there in less than twenty minutes.”
Meredith opens Regency Love. It’s been a long time since she’s dated—she and Jen have been together for six years and married for two—but she finds herself falling into old patterns. She’s stringing along two suitors, neither of whom she particularly cares for, because she doesn’t want to hurt their feelings by rejecting them, and she’s perpetually trapped in conversation with the interminably boring Mr. Dibley for the same reason.
The eligible bachelors have three facial expressions: mildly pleased, displeased, and neutral, and she find herself chasing after those faint smiles like a sad puppy, changing the answers she selects from the drop-down menus, adjusting her skill sets. Then she fills with rage at “having” to manage their moods—her therapist would have something to say about this—and comes as close to telling them off as the game will allow. Which is saying “Good day, Sir,” and walking away abruptly. Then she feels guilty and goes panting after their approval again. Thank God she’s not single.
Jen arrives sooner than Meredith expects—she must’ve found a good parking spot—carrying a plastic bag. Meredith rolls the window down but Jen walks over to the passenger’s side door and holds the handle until she clicks it open.
“Here’s what I was thinking,” Jen says as she pulls a lump of fabric out of the bag, “I brought that wrap skirt so you can just put it on over everything and then shimmy out of those pants. I also brought a towel.” She looks at the soaked seat, the fluid on the floor. “I maybe should’ve brought more than one.”
Meredith clambers into the backseat awkwardly and Jen hands her the skirt.
“Aren’t you glad I got the tinted windows?”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“It’ll make a great story.”
“We are never telling anyone about this.” Crouching on her knees, Meredith wraps the skirt around her waist. It’s not a maternity skirt and it barely fits. She tries to figure out the least revealing method of removing her soaked pants and underwear and ends up wetly wriggling out of them with her butt pressed against the back of Jen’s seat. “I’m sorry about the car,” she says.
“I needed to get it cleaned anyway.” The car is immaculate.
After wadding her clothes into the plastic bag, Meredith reaches for the towel. She shoves it up the skirt and ineffectually dabs at her skin.
“Shit,” Jen says, tapping the rearview mirror, assuming it’s the result of the fender bender. Meredith knows she should correct her, ‘fess up, but doesn’t.
“Everything looks okay on the outside though, right?” she asks instead.
“I didn’t stop to check the car.”
She does, however, do a walkaround once Meredith is standing on the sidewalk, holding the skirt closed with her fist and barefoot because she can’t bear to put her soggy tennis shoes back on. “Seems fine. Weird about the mirror.” Jen turns to her. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get you some shoes?”
Meredith shakes her head.
“Why are you scrunching up your skirt like that?”
Meredith lets go and the fabric falls opens in a thigh-high slit. Jen gives her a cat-call whistle.
“I’m covered in piss.”
The concrete is prickly, and Meredith walks slowly, carefully. Outside their courtyard she stops to brush debris off her feet. “I feel like everyone is staring at me.”
“No one’s staring at us,” Jen says, though the next moment Ralph, who lives in the bungalow next door, is walking toward them.
“How are you?” He starts at the prescribed six feet away, but he’s a close-talker at heart and keeps inching forward. Meredith and Jen shuffle backwards. He inches forward again.
“We’re hanging in there,” Jen says. She doesn’t follow up with a reciprocal “how are you?” so Meredith does.
“For the first few weeks it’s wasn’t too bad, but now I don't know . . . Did you hear what the lieutenant governor just did?”
Ralph can tell he’s talking too much, talking their ears off. He barely knows them—can’t even remember Meredith’s wife’s name—but he can’t help it. He just wants to converse with someone other than Petey, their miniature schnauzer. His miniature schnauzer now, he supposes, since David moved out three weeks ago. They’d been having problems for a while, and Ralph had considered ending things in February, before everything started, had told his friend Lisa that he’d fallen out of love, but still, in the end, Ralph had begged him not to go, gestured around the room but meaning the world and asked David how he could possibly leave him now, in the middle of all this.
“How can I stay with someone who doesn’t love me,” David had said, also gesturing to everything and nothing, “in the middle of all this?”
Ralph rambles on about Texas’s lieutenant governor, who he despises, and about the state attorney general, who he despises even more, about the rumors of a mask mandate. He can see the women gradually backing away, but he can’t help himself, he keeps moving closer, keeps talking.
“I’m sorry, Ralph,” the one who isn’t Meredith says. “We’re late for something.”
Ralph shuts himself up and smiles apologetically under his mask. He thinks Meredith is doing the same under hers.
Jen’s phone rings as they enter the apartment, and she picks it up and throws her keys into the basket on the end table. She always answers the phone, which is great when Meredith is the one calling and irritating every other time. It sounds like a work call so Meredith waves to get Jen’s attention and points down the hall. “Shower,” she mouths, and Jen nods.
Clean and wrapped in towels—one over her body and one twisted around her hair—Meredith sinks onto their bed. Their cat, Chairman Meow, joins her. A few months ago, a woman on the light-rail, overhearing Jen and Meredith bicker about who would take him to the vet, had advised them to get rid of the cat before the baby came. “They smell the milk,” she said, “and they attack.”
Meredith knows it’s ridiculous, that cats and women have coexisted for centuries, but she can’t get the image out of her head and she crosses her arms protectively over her breasts as the Chairman kneads her stomach. Which is extra stupid because it’s not like there’s milk in there yet. Maybe never will be.
Jen leans in the doorway, silhouetted by the light from the hall.
“Why are you lying like a corpse?”
On her back, in the dark, her arms in an x over her chest, Meredith realizes she looks like she’s preparing for burial. She also suddenly understands that the woman on the bus wasn’t warning Meredith about the cat attacking her breasts; she was warning about him attacking the baby. She uncrosses her arms.
“You want some lunch?”
Meredith shakes her head.
“You should probably eat anyway,” Jen says, but she moves toward the bed not the kitchen. She lies on her side next to Meredith. “Can we talk about it now?”
“Okay.” Meredith clasps her hands over her stomach, martyr-like, and waits for the recriminations.
“I don’t think we should freak out. I called my cousin Kelly, you know, the nurse, and she says that a lot of times this is no big deal, that sometimes the next reading is totally normal. And even if it is preeclampsia, it's not like we’re on the prairie, babies survive this all the time. And yes, weeks of bedrest would suck, but we’d get through it.” She’s speaking uncharacteristically quickly but without the fury Meredith expected.
“You’re not mad?”
For the first couple of years of their relationship, Jen thought this thing Meredith does, always assuming the worst of people, always assuming the worst of her, the incapacity to trust that she’ll react reasonably, was due to some as-yet-undisclosed trauma or betrayal. Toxic relationship? Childhood abuse? Sexual assault? Jen had prepared herself to be sympathetic, understanding, and waited. And waited.
She spent the next two years fighting off a constant low-key irritation, with Meredith for being this way for no good reason and with herself for spending so much time worrying about the painful secret that had turned out not to exist, and trying to argue Meredith into a more reasonable worldview.
And now? Now she’s used to it. She barely even reacts anymore. It’s amazing, Jen thinks, what you’ll accept when you love someone.
Jen raises up onto an elbow. “Why would I be mad?”
“I kept doing Pilates when you told me it was a bad idea. And all that prenatal yoga.”
“High blood pressure isn’t caused by Pilates.” Jen rolls away from Meredith and off the bed. “I’m going to make you a sandwich.” Amazing what you’ll accept when you love someone. Amazing and also terrible.
When Jen pokes her head into the bedroom to tell Meredith that lunch is ready, she finds her wife curled on her side, fast asleep. Her glasses are still on, and Jen sighs. She’s already broken two pairs rolling over on them. Part of her thinks she should leave them where they are, that maybe busting a third would convince Meredith to be more careful, but she removes the frames from her wife’s face and places them on the nightstand before sitting down at the kitchen table.
There’s nothing wrong with the food—the avocados are ripe, the brie creamy, the bread lightly toasted—but everything tastes like sawdust and Jen can barely get the first bite down. She feels agitated and lonely and she does not want to sit with her thoughts, so she calls Dee.
“How possible is this possible preeclampsia of Meredith’s?” Dee asks.
Jen glares at her sandwich. Though Dee has assured her that she doesn’t dislike Meredith, it’s always been obvious to Jen how little patience she has with what she calls, usually with a circular wave of the hand, “Meredith’s shit.” Maybe Dee hadn’t been the right person to call.
“Don’t you think all her problems are in her head?” she had asked Jen over a bowl of queso just before the pandemic.
“Obviously they’re in her head,” Jen told her. “That doesn’t mean they’re not real.”
“I guess,” Dee said, folding her arms and leaning back in her seat. “But I grew up fat, Black, and butch in rural Alabama, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not moved by champagne problems.”
And really, Jen can’t fault her for her attitude. But it’s Meredith.
“Look, I’m just saying, it’s Meredith. She’s a little . . .” Dee pauses and sighs into the phone, clearly trying to think of the least offensive way to say what she wants to say, “prone to catastrophizing. You know you’ve always had a thing for neurotic women.”
“I don’t have a thing for neurotic women,” Jen says, knowing perfectly well that she has always had a thing for neurotic women. She can’t help it if all the ones she finds interesting come with a basketful of anxieties and the high-strung nature of a whippet. And, yes, Dee’s right, Meredith makes a mountain of every molehill, but this isn’t that. She wishes it were. “This is real,” she says, and for the first time she lets herself feel what it will be like if something happens, if Meredith loses the baby, if she loses Meredith.
“If it’s real, you know I’m there for it,” Dee says. “Anything you need.”
And she suddenly knows why she called Dee, of all people: while Meredith’s the one she’s in love with, Dee’s the one she can rely on. She’s the one that took Jen out and got her drunk when her mother told her not to call again; she’s the one Jen’s spent every holiday with for the last fifteen years, the two of them plus a rotating cast of friends and girlfriends; she’s the one that’s family. Jen’s eyes grow hot and she wants to express some of this to her friend, but that’s not the way they talk to each other so she just says thank you, and they stay on the phone talking about nothing until Jen’s phone beeps to let her know she has another call.
“I have to go. It’s Bryce,” Jen says, and she braces herself to deal with the cocky but inept good-old-boy who calls himself her supervisor.
Of course there would be a hiccup today, and of course Bryce would demand that it be fixed immediately despite the fact that the problem is limited to an obscure corner of the network that hardly anyone uses. And of course he would insist that Jen be the one to do it even though, given that the fix requires the technical expertise of hitting the reset button on a router, she could easily walk any fool, even Bryce, through the process over the phone. But at least this will give her something to do besides think. Jen leaves a note for Meredith and heads out the door.
The sound of her cellphone chirping wakes Meredith from a dream in which she’s in the middle of a crowded Target without a mask, one of her new cadre of coronavirus-related nightmares. Opening her eyes, she finds the world all fuzzy swaths of muted color. Jen must’ve taken off her glasses while she was asleep. She squints at the screen of the phone: her mother. Her mother who wants a grandchild more than anything. Almost every week an Amazon box shows up on their doorstep with a Baby Einstein DVD, or a toy that’s supposed to increase hand-eye coordination, or a onesie decorated with puffins accompanied by a note saying Just a little something for you and the baby. No, Meredith thinks, she can’t tell her, not yet.
She fumbles on the nightstand for her glasses, finds a Post-It note stuck to one of the lenses, rips it off, and jams the tortoiseshell frames onto her face. Once the letters are in focus, she reads in her wife’s neat handwriting Went to the office to deal with stupid shit and to pick up your RX. Home by five. Meredith glances at the clock: 3:18. She slept for more than two hours? Call if you need anything. Everything will be fine. p.s. Your partner is physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually attracted to you.
When they’d first started dating, Meredith’s one-bedroom had been littered with positive affirmations she’d written on pink Post-It notes she stole from work, part of an effort to transform herself into someone less like herself. I radiate love and others reflect love back to me. The shape of my body is beautiful and appealing. I know, accept, and am true to myself. She’d done a sweep before Jen came over for the first time, hiding the slips of paper in the junk drawer with the pens, batteries, and old keys that she was afraid to throw out in case she remembered what they unlocked. Somehow she managed to miss the one on the bathroom mirror, the most visible one, the most embarrassing one, the one her therapist called the crème de la crème of affirmations: I am enough.
Meredith was stretched across the bed basking in the afterglow of good sex with a new person when she heard the sounds of laughter.
“What is this?” Jen asked as she returned to bed holding the Post-It.
“Does ‘nothing’ work?”
“Not yet.” It made Meredith feel terribly vulnerable, this discovery, those words, much more so than their lovemaking, and she turned onto her side and clutched a pillow to her stomach as Jen got back into bed.
“You are enough,” Jen whispered in her ear.
Meredith stopped with the affirmations after that—not, she told herself, because she was ashamed, an emotion her therapist termed “worthless”—but because she didn’t need them. Anyway, Jen took up the mantle. You make decisions easily. Your ability to conquer your challenges is limitless. Your potential to succeed is infinite. You are enough. Meredith finds the notes on the fridge, in her purse, on the screen of her laptop. They’ve become less frequent over the years, but the discovery of one still brings a blush that’s half-pleased, half-annoyed to her face. She’s never figured out to what degree Jen’s making fun of her and to what degree she’s genuinely trying to bolster her self-esteem.
Meredith groans and pushes herself out of bed. She hates baby showers. She doesn’t want to have one and she especially doesn’t want to have one on Zoom. And she even more especially doesn’t want to have one now, when she’s not sure what’s going on with her body, with her baby.
Her cousin Pauline had tried to put a positive spin on the digital format when it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t be over anytime soon. “Now we can all be together, friends and family.”
As though Meredith hasn’t spent her entire life trying to keep them apart. She wants an impermeable border between the two, a militarized zone, one with barbed wire and German Shepherds. If she has to have a baby shower, which she apparently does, she wants two separate ones, the way they’d originally planned.
She walks to the kitchen for the half-cup of coffee she’s allowed each day and finds that Jen has left her a toasted brie-and-avocado sandwich, her favorite, saran-wrapped on the counter. Though the doctor told her she didn’t need to change her diet, Meredith forgoes the sandwich and eats a packet of unflavored instant oatmeal, feeling sorry for herself.
Still left with hours before the shower, she tries on all of her maternity clothes and worries. They’re mostly hand-me-downs from Pauline and all of the dressy ones have frilly collars that make Meredith feel like a missionary’s wife. After carefully curling her hair and then uncurling it, striving for a wind-tousled effect but ending up looking like an unkempt poodle, and applying and reapplying her makeup, she goes through all the clothes again and changes into a more flattering but too-casual ensemble. She wraps a light scarf threaded through with glitter around her neck. Better?
Then she wonders why, given everything, it matters what she looks like.
She plops down on the loveseat, in the midst of the Zoom background she and Jen set up the night before. Green letters saying “welcome baby” hang above her and she’s surrounded by artfully arranged gifts and stacks of decorated bibs and onesies. Pauline and Claire are running everything; all Meredith has to do is show up. She sees What to Except When You’re Expecting underneath the coffee table and feels a self-destructive urge to peruse the “Complications” chapter. Instead she opens Regency Love and pisses off Mr. Curtis by being polite to a new character, Harmony Whitmore, who is apparently his ex-fiancée. How was she supposed to know? She tries to charm her way back into his good graces but only earns the Unapologetic Flirt badge for her trouble and wonders why, given all the options in this dream world, this mockery of eighteenth-century England, she’s chosen to be herself.
Headway has been made with Mr. Curtis when she gets a text from Claire: Living in historic times turns out to suck, but look at this video of red pandas playing with a pumpkin. Meredith follows the link to YouTube, and it’s goddamn adorable, the fuzzy red pandas tumbling over each other, their stomachs as round as the pumpkin. She calls Claire and tells her everything.
“Have you talked to your mom?”
“How can I?” Meredith asks, thinking of all the misshapen little hats her mother—generally more prone to pick up a book and a glass of wine than a pair of knitting needles—has made for the baby.
“Let’s walk about it,” Claire says. “I’ll be outside in five.”
They’ve been walking together—if you can call walking on opposite sides of the street with their phones pressed against their face masks “together”—almost every day lately, and Claire’s already waiting with her phone out when Meredith leaves the air conditioning and steps into the sun. A graphic designer and general misanthrope, Claire has been working from home for years, and Meredith had thought she’d be fairly well prepared for the new reality. But she seems to be slowly losing her shit.
“It turns out,” Claire had told Meredith during week five of the stay-at-home order, “that there’s a big difference between minimal social interaction and no social interaction.”
“Tell me how you’re feeling,” Claire says once Meredith picks up the phone and starts walking.
But Meredith finds that she doesn’t want to talk about how she’s feeling, about how everything inside of her is on the verge of collapse, how the walls and ceiling are about to come down in chunks, so she brings up the neighborhood association’s new yard signs, which she wants a second opinion on. They’re red, white, and blue with the words “A good neighborhood is not an accident” in italic faux-cursive. “Isn’t there a bit of a ‘stay-out’ vibe about them?” she asks. The neighborhood is mostly white.
“I’m not sure, but I can tell you that font is a mistake.”
“Look,” Meredith says as they walk, examining their neighbors’ houses for clues as to their political affiliation, “none of the yards with Black Lives Matter signs have them. Or the ones that start ‘In this house.’”
“I hate those,” Claire says.
Meredith has always disliked them herself, though she can’t say why. She agrees with the sentiments—she believes love is love, she cares about women’s rights, she thinks science is real—but there’s something about them. “Why?”
“Smarmy. But also those raggedy-ass margins.”
They walk in silence for a few minutes, listening to each other breathe through their phones. Claire wishes that Meredith would walk on the same side of the street as her; she thinks that with the masks and them being outside and all it would be fine. But she has a heart condition—minor, though the smoking doesn’t help—and Meredith has added Claire’s increased risk should she contract the coronavirus to her carousel of worries.
Claire racks her brain trying to think of something funny, something to cheer Meredith up. Reassuring would be more appropriate, but Claire’s better at funny. Jeremy recently told her a pretty good story about a customer at the art supply store where he’s in charge of the pens, but she’s not supposed to be seeing Jeremy. She’s not supposed to be seeing anyone. No, she’s supposed to stay at home, alone, getting drunk and getting old and talking to people on Facetime and watching videos of red pandas in an attempt not to shoot herself for however long this pandemic lasts. Jeremy thinks that things will “for sure” be back to normal by the end of the year, but Claire looks as the data, looks at history, adds six months because she’s a pessimist, and comes up with two years. Minimum.
She knows that her off-again, on-again . . . not boyfriend, never boyfriend, but her off-again, on-again something, is a poor choice for a quarantine fuck-buddy, that if she has to have one, she should pick someone as isolated as she is. Though Jeremy says he’s distancing, that he’s following the rules—and he probably genuinely believes he is, the idiot—she’s seen his version of careful. She’s seen the threadbare, coffee-stained bandana he uses for a mask day after day, seen the quick dips under the faucet he calls washing his hands. And while, sure, he has to go to work, does he really have to go to band practice?
“Have you talked to Jeremy?” Meredith asks.
“Of course not.”
“I always thought you’d end up with him.” She sounds disappointed.
“You keep getting back together—”
“We’ve never been together,” Claire says, turning to face Meredith and holding her cell between her chin and her shoulder so she can make air quotes around “together.”
“But you love him.”
Claire snorts. “Not in a serious way, more the way you’d love a puppy. A puppy who gives really good head.” She pictures it, Jeremy’s face on a puppy’s body, lapping away, and shudders.
“Can you tell me about the shower?”
“You’re lucky it’s not in person,” Claire says, relieved at the change of subject. “You won't believe the games Pauline would’ve had you playing.”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“So there’s one called ‘Tinkle in the Pot’ where you, like, waddle around with quarters between your knees and drop them into buckets.”
“And in this other one you melt different chocolate bars and put them into diapers . . .”
Meredith and Jen log in to Zoom fifteen minutes early, as instructed by Pauline.
“Should we be beautiful but blurry or be ourselves?” Jen asks, hovering the mouse over the “touch up my appearance” button.
“Why would anyone want to be themselves?”
Their faces take on a ghostly but attractive haloed appearance as Jen clicks on the filter.
“Add me as co-host,” Pauline demands as soon as she joins them. Meredith fumbles with the settings ineffectually until Jen takes over. “I can’t wait for y’all to see the activities we came up with,” she continues as Claire joins them, and Meredith feels like crawling under the couch and dying.
The other guests—twenty in all—trickle into the “room” and awkwardly say hello. Meredith’s grandmother can’t figure out how to turn her camera on, and her aunt’s screen name is set to “Connie Lingus,” no doubt a result of sharing a computer with her seventeen-year-old son. Jen’s family is represented only by her sister and her cousin Kelly, and she can’t help but feel a stab of pain at her mother’s absence. But Dee’s there.
Pauline calls the shower to order by muting everyone, cutting off Meredith’s aunt—“I can’t imagine why he’d be calling himself ‘Connie.’” Apparently as co-host she has that power. She unfolds a piece of paper, no, multiple pieces of paper, and begins to speak. Forcing an expression of goodwill onto her face, Meredith prepares not to listen.
Her cousin frames the shower as “celebration of love in these difficult times” and calls the baby a blessing from God. A message from Claire pops up on the screen. More like a blessing from science and donor r528. Add me as co-host too, just in case.
“Everyone uncross your legs,” Pauline says, and there’s some shuffling on the screen, though almost nobody’s legs are visible. “Our first game lasts the entire shower.” She explains that “in honor of” the mother-to-be’s doubtlessly constant need to pee, they’ll be holding a contest: who can go the longest without crossing their legs. The winner gets a ten-dollar iTunes gift certificate as well as the glory.
Jen looks at Meredith pleadingly, clearly desperate to tell the story.
“I mean the pun alone,” she’d said as they’d rearranged the presents for the fourth time before logging on.
“Accident and accident.”
“Oh my god.”
“At least let me tell Dee.”
Meredith sees Claire lean forward and a moment later the words I’m sorry! appear in the chat box. I tried, I swear I did.
“Stand up, Meredith,” Pauline says.
She moves forward.
She takes another step.
“Now lift your shirt up and show us that baby bump! We’re taking bets on how big it is.”
This is exactly the thing Meredith hates about being pregnant, the constant attention paid to her body, the assumption that it’s public property. The same woman who warned Meredith about cats had reached across the aisle of the light-rail and lain her hand on top of Meredith’s stomach so nonchalantly that it made her wonder if she was crazy for being uncomfortable. But was there any other situation in which her cousin would be demanding that she show a large group of women—she barely even knows Jen’s sister—her stomach?
Meredith’s mother stares at her through the screen, not at her stomach but at her face. She’s always been able to tell when her daughter’s upset, the tightness around the nose and lips, the way she can’t sustain eye contact, are dead giveaways. What she cannot tell, what she has never been able to tell with Meredith, is why or what to do about it. There’s something about her that’s always been just out of reach; they have a good relationship, they do, but still it breaks her heart. It was the same with Meredith’s father. She pours more wine, and thinks about all the hundreds of hours she’s spent failing to understand the people she loves.
Meredith suffers Jen to wrap a tape measure across her belly. Eighteen-and-a-half inches. Their friend Shauna wins, which figures; she’s an engineer. And the games go on.
Jen is surprisingly great at matching the guests to their baby pictures and Meredith finds that she is able to complete more nursery rhymes than she expected. Photos of her at various ages are displayed. They tell the tarot card story after someone asks when they found out they were pregnant and, as always, it’s a hit. The whole thing is like being in hell.
Even on Zoom, Claire can see how exhausted Meredith is, how on edge, so she rushes everyone to the gift-opening portion of the evening. Pauline sends her a text “reminding” her that they skipped Baby Charades, which she ignores. What is wrong with that woman? She turns off her camera, opens the window, and lights up a cigarette. At least with the shower being on Zoom she can smoke.
Every onesie, every copy of Pat the Bunny or Goodnight Moon or Corduroy has to be held up and exclaimed over. Jen and Meredith take turns. Jen rips everything open with speed and ferocity, leaving curls of ribbon and crumpled wrapping paper festooned with bears or baby bottles in a pile at her feet. Meredith’s equally eager to get things over with, but her fingers are clumsy and for some reason she feels the need to take the tissue paper out of every gift bag and refold it for later use.
A message from her mother pops up on the screen. Are you okay?
Dee’s gift, the one she’d dropped off just an hour before the shower, comes about halfway through the stack. Jen quickly unties the glitter-trimmed ribbon and tears through what seems to be Christmas wrapping paper—so Dee—to a box depicting a toaster oven.
“It’s not a toaster oven,” Dee’s newish girlfriend, Gillian, calls out from over Dee’s shoulder. “Keep going.”
Jen fetches a kitchen knife, cuts through the brown packaging tape, and pulls a stuffed elephant out of the box. She pauses before she hands it to Meredith. It’s not just any stuffed elephant: it’s a Fluffywuffy.
The internet has unanimously declared Fluffywuffy the best stuffed animals in the history of time. Non-toxic, made from ethically sourced cotton, and “soft as clouds,” or so says the tagline, they cost at least $60 at Pottery Barn. The gift is adorable and frivolous and exactly the kind of thing Meredith loves but feels too guilty to purchase. It’s perfect and it must’ve just killed Dee, who is both exceedingly practical and somewhat cheap, to buy it. Jen mouths a thank you at her friend through the screen and hopes she can tell just how grateful, how touched, she is. And perhaps she can, because Dee smiles sheepishly and shrugs.
Meredith looks at the unnaturally blue elephant, the gentle waves of his plush. Though his eyes are just thread and are set back deep in its fluffy head, they seem expectant, as if he’s waiting for her to say something profound, to explain something he desperately needs to know. He doesn’t stand like a regular elephant but sits with his hind legs outstretched and his front feet placed playfully between them. Meredith brings one of his large, floppy ears to her face. It’s ridiculously soft, like clouds, just the way they say, and she knows it’s stupid, so so stupid that this, this stuffed toy is the thing that’s going to break her, but she’s imagining coming home from the hospital, childless and trailing a silent Jen, to find this cashmere-creamy elephant looking at her from an empty crib with his question-eyes, and she doesn’t see how she can live with it and her stomach begins to convulse with the sobs that she’s been holding back since the parking garage.
Claire snaps into action instantly, turning on her camera and taking over without even removing the cigarette from her mouth. She mutes Meredith, fairly shouts that Aunt Peggy has won the “don't cross your legs” game—the woman actually looks quite pleased about this and raises her glass as though she’s about to toast her victory—claps her hands, and clicks “End Meeting for All” just as Pauline opens her mouth. She spills ash all over the keyboard.
In another city, hundreds of miles away, Meredith’s mother reaches reflexively toward the computer screen, wanting to put her hand through the glass and wires and chips, through whatever it would take to reach her daughter. And, of course, she can’t. Again.
Much closer, Dee closes her laptop, sighs, and turns to Gillian, who she’s starting to think might be the one even though she doesn’t believe in the one. “I really thought she’d like it.”
Gillian sits on Dee’s lap and kisses her. “I’m sure she loves it. And if she doesn’t, she can return it and get sixty-five dollars. And who doesn’t love sixty-five dollars?”
Only a few blocks away, Claire picks up her phone but remembers that Meredith has Jen, that she doesn’t need her right now, that to call would, in fact, be intrusive. She lights another cigarette and texts Jeremy, knowing that it’s a stupid move, knowing that he’ll probably overstay his welcome, that he’ll probably make her listen to whatever his new favorite band is for hours and wander around her apartment in tighty-whities and a sweater or some equally dumb outfit until two p.m. the next day and eat all her Triscuits. But it seems better than nothing, better than being alone.
Things turn out okay and not okay. The blood pressure medication works and Meredith never develops preeclampsia. She not only carries the baby to term, but a week past her due date, barely avoids being induced. Meredith assures Dee, repeatedly, far past Dee’s patience, that she loves the Fluffywuffy, which she does. As Constance, she marries Mr. Ashcroft in Regency Love and, according to the text that scrolls across the screen over a picture of the two of them looking out over a mountain vista, they live a happy though childless life together and she becomes best friends with his sister.
Meredith and Jen tell parts of the story but never the whole thing. Meredith describes the scene at the mechanic’s in great detail, tripling the number of crosses in the office and emphasizing Jerry’s short stature until she decides that’s cruel, and in subsequent tellings he’s six-foot-two. Jen eventually persuades Meredith to let her tell Dee about the accident/accident, but no one else. They occasionally recount a version of the baby shower, a comedic romp about hormones—aren’t they crazy?—but only Dee and Claire ever know about the possible preeclampsia.
Three days after the Fluffywuffy, who they call Barry, takes up residence in Jen and Meredith’s bedroom, Texas passes the rumored mask ordinance, which makes Meredith feel hopeful for a couple of days, but nationwide the coronavirus numbers go up and up and up, FBI agents are sent to Portland and Seattle, and half the country erupts in flames. A grand jury in Kentucky declines to bring charges against the officers who shot Breonna Taylor in her home two hours before Dr. Vaswani—who Meredith has come to quite like—crouches between her legs as she gives birth to a baby girl while worrying that Trump will refuse to leave office if Biden is elected and that she’s going to test positive for Covid-19 and be separated from her newborn the way she saw on the news. Inspired by the aspirational names of eighteenth century—or more accurately of Regency Love—after a great deal of bickering and compromise, Meredith and Jen call their daughter, this life they decided to create, this person that they hopefully, foolishly, decided to bring into the world despite everything they know about it, despite everything, Mercy.
Sarah E. Robinson is a fiction writer from New Mexico and Texas. She received her MFA from the University of Houston, where she served as fiction editor for Gulf Coast, and is currently pursuing her PhD at Florida State University. Her work is forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review.