FEBRUARY 2008 – NO. 21
I hadn't finished counting.
The computerized sign in the airport read: Flight 4285 Delayed, Arrival Time 4:05
My husband and I joined the Admiral's Club in San Juan. It seemed like the thing to do now that our flight had been delayed five hours. We sat down at a table beside the bar for a beer. The tables on either side of us were empty. But this only lasted for a few minutes. A couple soon approached the table across from me. I noticed them immediately and began to study them with the kind of intense curiosity that results in a stare. I found myself doing this more often; I was conscious of it but unable to stop. Ever since the doctor had said the word hysterectomy to me, I'd become aware of every small child and family around me. And my eyes focused on them with the kind of high-resolution clarity that transposed the details of their faces and their gestures and their lives into millions of pixels, playing back on a continuous loop the interminable Power Point presentation I'd titled "Here's the Happily-Ever-After You'll Never Have."
When the woman at the table noticed my intrusion, suddenly returning my stare, I diverted my eyes temporarily before lowering them to the stroller that was parked beside her. My gaze remained fixed on the luxury model Peg Perego; inside, eyes like tiny blue marbles peeked out from beneath a blanket.
Before I could stop them, the words toppled from my tongue.
"She is so adorable. What's her name?"
The woman spoke in a low voice. "Sadie," she said. She looked up and smiled proudly at the man beside her. I looked up at his face, drawn to the sharpness of his features, the thick coal-black waves of his hair.
I kept going, wanting to know more, tormenting myself with the perfection of this couple and the shared purpose of the little human project they'd made together.
"How old is she? She seems so quiet and calm. Is she a good sleeper?"
"She's almost six months," the woman said. "And she is a good baby. Though she does have her moments."
She was far less striking than her husband. Her black hair was twisted up into a large plastic clip, pieces of it poking out of the top like spikes. Her skin was pale and she was considerably thinner than most new mothers I'd seen.
"She's actually five months, three weeks, and one day," the husband sang.
I watched as his eyes drifted to his wife, remaining fixed there until she spoke again. "Isn't that sweet? He knows better than I do and I'm the one that gave birth."
I felt uncomfortably warm. I looked across the table at my husband who was sipping the last of his beer, staring intently at the television above the bar. I returned to the couple, my eyes shifting from one to the other. The man slid the leather backpack down from his shoulders and handed his daughter a stuffed bear that had been wedged into a pocket.
The room began to feel like it was tilting, back and forth like a seesaw. The beer was beginning to affect me, mixing with the shots of regret I'd been pounding one after the other. I looked away from them finally, focusing on a large window across the room and a plane I could see lifting off in the distance.
"That's the twentieth plane that's taken off since we sat down," my husband said.
The framed sign on the wall read: Maximum Occupancy: 75 Persons
Our Sunday morning ritual began with breakfast at The Vinegar Factory near our apartment on the Upper East Side. As we headed there, sirens blared along First Avenue. People walked briskly with purpose, pushing strollers or tugging at leashes. And the warm spring day attracted the spandex-clad runners and power-walkers, pumping their arms to push the limits of cardio endurance. As part of our routine, we stopped to buy The New York Times from the newsstand on the corner of Ninety-second.
It was always the same. On most Sundays, we even sat in the same two seats at the counter. He ordered eggs benedict. I ordered the gruyere omelet. We both scalded our mouths with black coffee. We divided the newspaper. I read The Arts section and The Book Review. My husband perused The Real Estate section then Sports.
One Sunday, the second-floor restaurant was more crowded than usual. The counter was always available, though. So, we sat in our usual seats and watched the same short bald man seat groups of people as they arrived. He marched at a frenetic pace, keeping the crowd in line. I could see beads of sweat on his forehead, and I began to count how many times he pushed his glasses back up on his nose. Sometimes they slid all the way down to the tip before he even bothered.
My husband turned to point out the signs on the wall beside him. One was a framed poster with diagrams and instructions on how to perform lifesaving procedures on a person who was choking. The other smaller framed sign indicated that the maximum occupancy of the restaurant was intended to be no more than seventy-five people. At the same time, we each turned toward the crowded restaurant, silently tallying the number of people seated at the tables. My husband's head bobbed slightly as he counted.
"I got 98. How about you?"
I hadn't finished counting, so I held up my finger for him to wait.
"I got 102. Did you remember to count the babies?" I asked.
He didn't answer. We each snatched our usual sections of the paper and began to read. I held The Book Review out in front of me, but I looked beyond the paper to the people sitting at the table closest to us. A small child sat in a chair between her parents. Tied to the back of the chair was a yellow balloon. The girl tugged at the string and tilted her head all the way back to watch as the balloon bounced up and down. A second balloon was tied to the stroller on the opposite side of the table.
I became aware of more balloons in the room. Many, actually. I surveyed the sea of people seated at tables with colorful buoys secured to the location of each child that belonged to them. I counted 29.
My husband looked at me over the top of the paper, folding it down slightly. "There are 60 one-bedroom apartments under $600,000.00 available on the Upper East Side alone."
Silence hung between us.
My husband folded one section of the paper and placed it on the counter, picking up another and spreading it out in front of him like a map. Several minutes later he spoke again. "And did you know that Derek Jeter failed to get a hit in only 23 games out of the 154 he played in this season?"
The LED sign outside the hospital read: We delivered 411 babies in April
Once again, I found myself waiting at the traffic light beside the electronic sign outside the hospital. Pink tulips encircled the base of it, and white blossoms on a magnolia tree hovered above, the petals spreading open like tiny hands. The sign stood close to the busy road, in between the street where I lived and the bookstore where I spent a lot of my time.
Late Friday afternoon, I headed to Barnes and Noble for a book of Mexican food recipes. It was Cinco de Mayo and my husband and I were hosting a dinner party. I could've searched online, but going to the bookstore offered escape. I had been stuck inside for weeks after my surgery, and I'd had too few excuses to get out once I'd felt well enough. We also needed another bottle of tequila for the frozen margaritas we planned to make.
Once inside the bookstore, I walked briskly down the middle aisle toward the Cooking section. I quickly turned down a random aisle on the right and realized immediately the misfortune of my mistake. The sign above the books on the shelves read Pregnancy & Childbirth. I stood there facing the countless spines glaring back at me. Words from them began to leap up into the air, buzzing around my head, stinging like bees. Baby's first year, breastfeeding, labor pain, father-to-be, new mother, toddler, twins. I wanted to move, to keep going, but my feet seemed fused to the floor. So, instead, I scanned the titles as though I needed to memorize each and every one. There were 49 different books just on baby names. But there wasn't a single one that came close to naming what I felt standing there in that aisle. Maybe I should write one, I thought, What To Expect When You'll Never Be Expecting. I left the store in a hurry, forgetting the cookbook. I drove directly home, trying to ignore the sign as I passed by it again.
I ran inside, threw my keys on the counter and turned into the bedroom where I kept my computer. I sat at the desk and stared out the window for a few seconds before beginning to type. First, I would write a letter to the hospital suggesting they add another sign beside the one they already have. The new one could read something like: We removed 52 uteruses this month. The tips of my fingers hammered at the keys. Next, I would begin writing my book. Chapter One: Are You Never Going To Be Pregnant? What You May Be Concerned About: Encountering Pregnant Women • Seeing Women With Strollers • Receiving Baby Shower Invitations and Birth Announcements • Walking Through Airports • Browsing In Bookstores • Looking At Signs • Leafing Through Catalogs • Surviving Every Hour • Not Crying Every Minute .…
Breathing every second.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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