She had her lunch early that Friday, just after 11:30, the thick stack of envelopes she'd picked up from her post office box on the table next to her. She meant only to sort them while she ate, then take her requisite nap before sitting down at the computer. Daily updating, that was the key to her business. If she missed even a day she felt swamped, the work piling up so much that she would return to the computer at 3:00 A.M. when the baby's punches and thumps kept her awake.
Jennie ran a one-woman business organizing high school reunions. She called it My Old School, and she liked its orderliness, its neat stacks and growing lists, detective phone calls trying to track down lost alums. She even liked finding banquet halls and choosing menus -- planning it all and then sitting back to see how it turned out.
She had taken an interest survey back in high school. Would you: a) strongly like, b) somewhat like, c) somewhat dislike, or d) strongly dislike the following tasks: Sorting tobacco leaves by size and color. Separating nuts from bolts. Transporting boxes from one shelf to another. How she and her best friend Elizabeth had laughed then. Jennie had expected to be doing research in Africa or writing her way through Europe, undertaking some exciting, successful endeavor that would be hers for the asking. No one then would have predicted that Jennie Northrop, valedictorian of the Class of '83, Most Likely to Succeed, would have left college after a semester to come home and marry her high school sweetheart, have their baby, and sixteen years later, still be here.
Even her strange little business had come to her without planning. She'd done so much work on her own ten-year reunion that Sheldrake High had hired her to do the next year's, and now she was handling schools all over the area. Her income probably wasn't equal to the hours she spent fiddling with databases and envelopes and menus, but it was more than she'd made at any of the other jobs she'd held over the years to put herself through college and grad school.
Jennie took bites of her tomato and mozzarella sandwich and immediately felt hot. It was one of those early May days when it is warmer outside than in, the kind of day when ladies in their eighties would still wear turtlenecks and cardigans while college students at the end of their semester might put on shorts and polo shirts. Jennie, nine months pregnant, wearing only a tank top and huge cotton stretch shorts, couldn't get cool enough.
Her July reunion, little more than two months away, was a twentieth reunion from her own high school. It was her sister Stephanie's class, and though it was a big class -- 576 graduates -- Jennie recognized many of the names. Steph's friends, kids who had been seniors when Jennie was a freshman. Responses were lagging (1980 was an apathetic year, she kept hearing), so on the last mailing she'd started writing personal notes to anyone she even vaguely remembered. She had written one to her sister, though that hadn't produced a check yet. Steph didn't like to leave San Diego, not to come home anyway. She usually made it back once a year, a long weekend at Christmas squeezed between strategy sessions for her software company and spent smoking in their parents' garage, complaining about the Connecticut winter.
Jennie flipped through the return addresses. Most were still nearby: Connecticut, Westchester, a few in New Jersey or Long Island. There were three or four Manhattans, mostly Upper East Side, and one Brooklyn. Still single, she thought. Bankers, lawyers, people in advertising. The accountants and engineers stayed in the suburbs, even if they never married. Very few had left the East Coast, and if they had it was for California. At a ten-year reunion, those who were going to move away had usually done so; by the twentieth, most of them were back. "I know the demographics," she'd say to Chris in a mock-actuarial tone that parroted Mr. Shipley, the social studies teacher they'd both had in high school. "You got your wanderers but these New Englanders usually return to their roots to raise their kids the way they were raised."
She always noticed the ones who had moved away, curious about what path had taken them there. For that reason, the California address interested her. Stephanie finally? No. She couldn't believe it. Joel Tarn had actually replied. She had found his address within seconds by calling directory assistance in L.A., but that was months ago; it had taken a personal note on this third and final mailing to get him to respond.
She slit open the envelope and was surprised, almost disappointed to see the check. Joel was the kind who had left home. He seemed above these hometown dramas and reunion clichés, even more than Stephanie was. On the return form he had written a note: "OK, I fell for this. Knowing there's someone behind this (knowing it's you) made me sign my name, though it's been years since I've been back. What the hell."
It struck her as a flirty kind of note. Had hers been?
Probably. The thought of him still brought a teenager's queasy excitement.
Years, he'd said, years since he'd been home. Jennie herself hadn't seen him in eighteen years -- not since the summer before her senior year in high school, when he had returned home after a couple of years away at college. Even that summer she'd seen him only once, at a party her sister had thrown. At that party, Joel Tarn had the distinction of being the first boy Jennie had ever slept with. The only boy ever, other than Chris.
She looked at the note again. He had addressed it Jenny and she thought, Okay, so he was this major lust in my life and I'm so inconsequential in his that he can't even remember how to spell my name.
Joel. She had practically worshiped that l in his name. Joe rhymed with hoe, mow, schmo, blow; but Joel was droll, Joel had a soul. That l said,
"I'm worthy, I've earned it." He had worn black turtlenecks (in high school! in the seventies! in Connecticut! ) and spoke with a slight lisp that seemed to have something to do with the sexy space between his two front teeth. He was pale with hair so dark it was almost black, and everything about him was taut and angular, not at all like Chris, whom Jennie had first loved for his plump ass in jeans, the way his shirt opened at the collar, the curly blond head of hair that even now had not begun to thin. Joel had this mind -- well, they all seemed to think he did anyway. He gave that impression. He'd been Stephanie's boyfriend for a while -- who hadn't? -- and Jennie had always found him devastatingly sexy.
She lifted herself out of the chair after lunch, not able to bear a fold in her body after eating. She had to be vertical or horizontal, preferably horizontal, but first she had to pee. Even to get to the bathroom and back was an accomplishment these days, and when she finished she lay on the couch. It was essential that she sleep each day or she found herself so exhausted she could barely speak words to Tara when she came home from school or to Chris when he returned from work. As it was, she and Tara usually found something to "disconnect" about, as Tara called it. At times it was nearly impossible for Jennie to deal with Tara's teenage hormones and her own pregnancy ones at the same time. She felt guilty about how much she let things slide with her daughter sometimes, waiting for Chris to come home because he had always had an easier time handling her.
Joel Tarn. She enjoyed the private, foolish reverie his name conjured. A few years ago she would have already been on the phone with her best friend Elizabeth: You'll never believe who I heard from. But now she had no one to tell, really, no one to whom she could say Joel Tarn and have it mean something. Still, it was nice to have something else to obsess about besides the baby, who lately had claimed Jennie's every moment.
She was remembering that party. Their parents had been away for the weekend, as they often were, and the party was planned to last all night. By 4:00 A.M. only a select handful of Steph's friends remained, smoking pot on the patio while Jennie and Elizabeth sat with them, pretending they belonged. Jennie hadn't tried pot yet, mostly because it was one way in which she could choose not to copycat her older sister, but she and Elizabeth were drunk, trying to act as cool as the twenty-year-olds around them. It was early June, chilly enough at night to need blankets on the patio, so Jennie and Elizabeth had carried them out, and somehow Joel and Jennie had ended up side by side on the vinyl cushions of the patio couch. They shared a blue, nubby blanket, an electric blanket that no longer worked. Jennie could feel the thin loops of wire throughout, the heavy plastic plugs resting on her legs.
Almost idly, while Joel was telling his L.A. stories -- dance clubs and parties, the most amazing people, the coolest places -- he had taken Jennie's hand under the blanket and then, as if it happened every day, let go and began to work his hand between her thighs, edging into her underpants. Jennie looked over at him to make sure he knew who she was. Not Steph, but Jen, the younger sister. He'd given her that confident, ironic, gentle stare and said her name. "Jennie, so what do you think about coming out to the West Coast for college?"
"Well, I've looked at Stanford," she had said. "But now I'm thinking more of Northwestern or the University of Chicago." She had replied in such a schoolgirl tone -- she could hear herself even now -- talking as if he were a guidance counselor or someone's dad while his slim, cool fingers were parting the lobes of her labia.
"Ah, the Windy City," Joel said.
"She can go wherever she wants," her sister had said. "Double eight hundreds on the SATs."
Jennie hadn't even been able to move her head to give Stephanie a look, for as the conversation went on, Joel's fingers slid inside her. She was sure she was blushing, but it was dark and he'd smiled at her warmly and continued -- both talking and touching her -- and in the end, when most people had gone home and Stephanie had gone driving somewhere with those who were left, and Elizabeth, who was supposed to spend the night, had discreetly gone to the other end of the house, Jennie and Joel went inside to her room. Kissing her against the door, Joel had started to unbutton her blouse and asked, "What about birth control?"
"Wait a minute," she had said, dropping to the floor and drawing up her knees. "I need to think about this."
"You're not sure?"
"I'm a virgin," she said.
"So was everyone at one time." He smiled. "Even I." Normally she would be irritated by this arrogance, but Joel had a way of making you love it. And he took your eyes and locked them to his, as if he were going on a thrilling adventure and you, only you, could accompany him.
"Shall I leave you with your thoughts then?" he asked, and when she was silent he got on the floor with her, kissing her neck.
"No," she giggled, and they were kissing again. His hand was under her shirt, going at a breast. He was already doing things no one had done before -- after the Spring Dance Carl Lindt had touched one breast, not both, and no one's fingers but her own had ever gone inside her like that. She was astonished, really, by the places of a girl's body a boy knew to touch. She wanted this to happen. It was as simple as that.
"I've got some condoms in my jacket pocket," Joel said.
He put on some music and they went into her twin bed. He readied her, spent forever with his fingers and tongue so that when he finally pressed his penis against her and then inside she'd felt only that -- a pressing open, a pressing in, not much pain, very little blood.
She'd loved it. She was a good girl captivated by sex, taken in by it entirely. They did it twice that night, and after that she had said no more, that was enough for her first time. He held her for the rest of the night, one of her legs between his two thighs, his bare chest against her side. It had been the most exciting night of her life.
He left in the morning, before her sister was up, so that Steph had never known that her little sister, the smart, virtuous one, had lost her virginity at age sixteen to Joel Tarn.
Only Elizabeth had known -- nothing had ever seemed real until it was told to Elizabeth.
"So," Elizabeth had asked casually, slyly, "what did you think?" and they'd both burst out laughing, hugging each other, jumping up and down until they could calm themselves enough for Jennie to tell Elizabeth everything.
So many years had passed since that night with Joel -- more than half her life -- that it seemed more fantasy now than memory. She found herself getting wet, felt her clitoris throbbing as she relived the course of that summer night. She wondered if she would laugh or cry if she saw that sixteen-year-old body next to this one, twice as old, maybe twice as big, with an infant ready to burst from it. Maybe that night had entered the world of fantasy from the moment it happened, for in all this time she had never seen Joel again. He'd never called afterward; she'd never spoken to him again. She'd cried about him, about things, assigned various meanings to him at one time or another, but later she felt like it was the perfect way for it to happen, unsuspected and completely pleasurable, with someone she'd lusted after for so long. At that age, and even later, she carried this dramatic attitude about experience, that it shouldn't be diluted, that true life moments were unique and never repeated, that it was the once-ness of each thing that gave it its power. When she began dating Chris later that fall she didn't look back. Joel was a one-night stand, her first and only; Chris she fell in love with.
Jennie had often wondered what might have happened if it had been that night with Joel that had made her pregnant and not one of those nights, more than a year later, with Chris. There would have been no question of marriage then. Could she have brought herself then to have the abortion that her mother and sister tried to persuade her to have later?
These were all things she had thought about daily, hourly, obsessively years ago. Now it was rare that she considered them, though they still brought with them an instant ache.
She got up to go to the bathroom again but didn't make it.
"Damn," she said, pulling off the wet underpants. Bladder control had been slipping, but this had never happened before. She wadded up the wet clothes and threw them into the tub, sat again on the toilet. She hadn't even left the bathroom before she had to go again, streaming onto the floor.
"What is going on?" she said aloud. She stuffed a towel between her legs, then went to the phone to beep Chris.
"I think my water's breaking," she said when he called back.
"I thought it would be this gush but instead it feels like I have to pee again and again but I can't hold it. It's just everywhere."
"Did you call Dr. Perrin?"
"I haven't had any contractions yet. We don't need to rush off. I just wanted to tell you."
"I'm in Southport. I can make it in a half hour. Do you want to call your mother?"
"No! No, nothing's going to happen in a half hour." Jennie paused, spoke slowly and calmly. "The pleasure of your company is requested. However, you don't need to hurry."
"I will hurry. I love you."
"And I love you."
"We're having a baby today. 'Bye."
She could imagine the smile on his face when he said that. The grin. He probably had to check himself as he went out to tell the guys that he had to leave, to make sure they didn't see him beaming. Chris could do that -- beam -- and she smiled too as she pictured his face.
Jennie went back into the bathroom because every time she moved more fluid leaked out. So much for Joel Tarn, she said to herself in the mirror and then laughed.
She was glad Chris would -- and could -- be there soon. Now that Chris's parents lived in North Carolina it was really Chris who ran Brezione Landscaping -- a small firm, two trucks, two crews. The guys might slack off without Chris working beside them, and they couldn't afford to during their busy season, but at least he had the freedom to come home.
She knew she should call the doctor but she wasn't ready for that. She was feeling invincible, confident, a little proud. "After all, you've done this before," everyone kept telling her, but that had nothing to do with it. She had been a terrified eighteen-year-old the first time and wanted this birth to be nothing like that one, when almost from the start she was moaning, "I can't do it, I can't do it," finally letting them slit her open to take Tara out because she didn't know how to push anymore. This time she and Chris had taken radical-warrior childbirth classes -- that's what Chris called them -- where they did role play as fetus and placenta and practiced screaming, "Stop! That's my body!" at interfering practitioners. They had driven into the Upper West Side of Manhattan each week for these classes; there was nothing like them in Connecticut. Jennie was determined to be in charge of this birth, even though she realized how ridiculous that sounded, as if anyone could be in charge of a child coming into life. But she wanted to be anything but eighteen-year-old Jennie again, overfull with the shame of having that baby, of meeting her high school friends' parents in the grocery store later and seeing the shock in their eyes as they told her of their child's internship or junior year abroad while all she had to show them was the squirming toddler in her grocery cart.
She had begun crying when Chris came home.
0 "Is the pain bad, Jen?" he asked. He knelt beside her, smelling of grass and sunshine and sweat, his hair all matted curls from wearing a baseball cap.
"I still haven't had any contractions," she answered. "I was just thinking about how it was last time. With Tara. I did such a shitty job."
"We were eighteen. We didn't know anything."
She ran her palms up his arms, from wrists to biceps.
"It's going to be different this time," he went on. "It already is. Look, remember your mother, practically ordering you when to have your contractions, your dad just watching TV?"
Jennie winced, then giggled. "God," she said.
"What can I do for you?" Chris asked. "A back rub? A snack? Are you hungry?"
"I want you to take a shower."
"Are you kidding?"
"No. You kind of stink. I want you to be clean on your baby's birthday."
Jennie stayed in the bathroom as Chris showered, then followed him into the bedroom to watch him get dressed. It felt odd, just the two of them home during the day. Jennie was usually alone all day until Tara came home, followed an hour or two later by Chris. Weekends, if Tara was out, she and Chris were usually doing something, catching up on projects, running errands, not simply sitting and talking, not a thing to do in the world but watch each other. She felt almost as if they were back in high school, relishing time together in each other's houses while parents and brothers and sisters were out.
Only this was their house, had been for eleven years. They had lived with Chris's parents after they'd married, to save money while Chris worked for his father and Jennie worked nights at the food market. When Tara was two they had moved into their own apartment, and when she was five they bought this house. They probably would have been able to buy a little house earlier if they hadn't used their savings to send Jennie to college, two courses a semester for eight years, until she got her degree. Houses in Sheldrake were so expensive and they weren't able to afford much, but they had saved up because it made sense to buy a house. Jennie had hated the house when they bought it, and still hated it when she had time to think about it, not because it was small -- two bedrooms and a bath and a half, a living room, a small kitchen and a long, narrow family room at the back that doubled as her office -- but because it was so final. At twenty-three years old she had been able to imagine someone cleaning out the attic when she died.
"This is who we'll always be," she had said the day they'd moved in. It seemed the relinquishment of all possibility.
"You're lucky to get even this," was what her mother had said. "On a landscaper's salary."
"This is kind of nice," Jennie said now, lying on the bed and watching Chris dress. "The two of us alone in the middle of the day."
"Want to have sex?"
"Maybe in about six weeks."
"Oh, okay. Then how about some cards?"
"On the floor. I want to lie on my left side on the floor with pillows under my knees."
"I'm going to miss this about you being pregnant," Chris said. "These eccentric demands. 'I want pink lemonade very, very cold but with no ice and two pieces of toast, one with peanut butter and one with jelly.'"
"Shut up," Jennie said, sliding to the floor, where they played gin rummy, game after game on the rug. Nothing happened for an hour. Chris made himself a sandwich; Jennie called the doctor.
"Come in and we'll take a look at you," Dr. Perrin said, sounding weary.
"I want to stay home a little longer," Jennie answered. "I just wanted to let you know what was happening."
"Don't stay too long. With second babies they can really rush you. Once they start to come they come fast."
"What are we waiting for?" Chris asked when she got off the phone.
"We can't leave until Tara comes home. I don't want her to just find a note: 'Hi, we're at the hospital. We'll bring home a baby, need anything else while we're out?'"
"Your mother could come over and wait."
"I'm sure she has some luncheon. Besides, I want Tara at the hospital with us."
"Shouldn't she be home? Isn't school, like, out at three?"
Jennie flashed him an annoyed look. She hated having to carry every little detail of Tara's schedule in her head -- cheerleading practice, dance class, volleyball nights -- while being the major shareholder of Tara's scorn, while Chris could ignore it all and still win the role of Beloved Daddy. "She has practice until four-thirty," Jennie told him.
"Every day, except for Friday." Jennie frowned. "God, it's Friday. She goes to the Y on Friday with Rachel and Erica."
"The Y? The Y? Why the Y?"
"Supposedly to swim. I think it's to see that guy."
"Remember, that guy Matt? The Christian lifeguard? They met him swimming over the winter? He doesn't go to school, he's home-schooled, they were talking about that for a while."
"He's a lifeguard?"
"He's not really a lifeguard. He just pulled an old lady out of the pool during an Aquacise class while she was experiencing shortness of breath. Tara thinks he's a hero."
"Have we met him?"
"I have. Once."
"What's he like?"
"Very nice. Polite. Really polite, but not in an ingratiating-little-dweeb sort of way. He's talkative, very self-possessed. Kind. His family is very...Christian...or something. With this home-schooling thing, I mean."
"Serves us right for not taking her to Sunday school all those years. Now she's going to go off and get born again."
"They're infatuated with him, that's all. Did I mention he's gorgeous? I think that's why they still go to the Y." Jennie had thought this unconventional life of Matt's was the attraction for the girls until she'd actually seen him. Drop-dead handsome was this boy. Light brown hair, dimples, blue eyes. He was tall with a swimmer's strong arms, broad chest, unusual for someone his age. To top it all off he had the kind of warm, generous smile that would transform the most ordinary face into one of beauty, and on him it dazzled.
Jennie and Chris were still playing cards when Jennie felt the first contraction, just before 4:00. It was mild, a tight, menstrual cramp feeling. She didn't tell Chris until she'd had the next one because she wasn't even sure what it was. They played more gin rummy; Jennie had a few more contractions, barely noticeable. Neither of their watches had a second hand so they pulled the kitchen clock off the wall to time them. Seven minutes apart.
When the phone rang she was on all fours on the floor, stretching out her back.
"You don't want to talk, do you?" Chris asked. "It's a reunion person."
"Did you get a name?"
"Just...just take a message." Another contraction beginning. She tried to relax and breathe through it but she was actually thinking about her business. It suddenly seemed so overwhelming. How could she possibly attend to the hundreds of details each reunion required with a new baby at her breast?
"Let's go for a walk," Jennie said to Chris after her contraction was over. "That's supposed to make things happen."
Chris helped Jennie off the floor and they went outside to walk up and down streets they hadn't walked in ages. On almost every corner Jennie had to stop and lean against Chris as she eased through a contraction. They were getting stronger.
"That was six and a half," Chris said. He was carrying the round kitchen clock under his arm.
"I don't really need to go until they're five," Jennie said. At 5:30 they were six minutes apart. Jennie felt tired, and she and Chris walked back to their house. Tara still wasn't home, and by 6:00 the contractions had jumped to five minutes apart. Jennie was having trouble breathing and couldn't talk through the contractions anymore.
"We really should go," Chris said.
"Where is she, damn her? I still want to wait. They're not that..." But then she had to be silent. She felt her body taking over, telling her what to do. It was getting serious, it was really happening. There was no way of stopping it now, and Jennie had the feeling of having waited in a long line to board a terrifyingly fast amusement park ride, and now, finally being buckled in with no way of getting off.
Copyright © 2000 by Nancy Woodruff
Someone Else's Child
When fifteen-year-old Matt and his family move from Oregon to an affluent Connecticut suburb, the fact that he is home-schooled brands him as more than an outsider -- he is a town oddity. Just when he seems to have made inroads into the closed social circuit, just when he is embraced by a trio of teenage girls and feels his life might be changing for the better, he is responsible for a devastating car crash that leaves two of the girls dead.
Tara isn't in the car with her best friends. Instead, she's by her mother Jennie's bedside as she gives birth to a baby girl. While Jennie and her husband Chris mourn Tara's friends, and try to make sense of their eldest daughter's loss and their own new baby, a pervasive sense of blame begins to rain down on Matt. Jennie knows the community's reaction will surely ruin Matt's life. But when she reaches out to him, hiring him to work for her high school reunion company for the summer, Jennie suddenly finds herself vilified as well. In the face of community and family derision, both imagined and real, physical and emotional, Jennie and Matt soon find themselves in solidarity. As their attachment grows, Jennie realizes that she is bound to Matt by more than just compassion -- that the broken child she sought to save is, somehow, reviving her.
Someone Else's Child is a deeply moving story of guilt and forgiveness, despair and hope, and the intricacies of love and responsibility. In rich and unforgettable prose, Nancy Woodruff masterfully explores the fraying loyalties that can turn our world upside down in the face of tragedy.