babe in the wood
Allie called the playgroup Mommy Camp. This had made Susanna laugh at first, when they were new mothers juggling the fussy twin boys Susanna had birthed, when their clothes, the urban artist’s uniform of all black, showed every spot of spit-up and streak of snot. But lately, Allie’s jokes sounded, even to Allie, like the jabs of an outsider. Instead of life feeling like us vs. them, it felt like Allie vs. Susanna.
They had been driving for over an hour, Levi and Dash asleep in the backseat, when the map on Allie’s phone directed them off the main road. Susanna drove onto a causeway flanked by the wind-whipped waves of the Long Island Sound. The narrow road was dotted with trees; their branches stripped white, gnarled by the salt wind.
“You didn’t say the beach house was this far,” Allie said, as the sun bounced off the water, assaulting her eyes. She sank into the passenger seat and pulled the hood of her black sweatshirt over her head.
She had been up most of the night color-correcting a cover photo she’d shot for a Danish magazine. She was behind on the deadline after their three-day trip (with the boys, Susanna had insisted), to Massachusetts, where they’d been married at the Northampton town hall. Then Levi, the more demanding of their boys, had woken at four this morning, shuffling into their room, his thick honey-dusted hair spilling into his eyes. He had begged to join Susanna and Allie in their bed, and Susanna had relented. Not for the first time, Allie had thought about how Susanna coddled the twin who looked most like her. Susanna and Levi looked as if they belonged on a Swiss mountaintop, herding goats. Yodeling. Dash, the more diminutive twin, took after Allie, or at least after Eric, their beloved sperm donor and good friend whose appearance had matched Allie’s brother. Straight brown hair. Skin so pale you could see the green veins that crisscrossed his temples.
“Oh,” Susanna gushed, “it’s amazing. Should we stop? Look, we can pull over right there and look at the water.”
“Wait. The boys.” Allie sprang forward. “They’ll wake if we stop.”
When the boys had simultaneously fallen asleep in Queens after thirty minutes of gridlock, it had felt like a gift from who-knows-who-or-what. Allie was an atheist, like most of the artists, filmmakers, and designers who made up her and Susanna’s elite New York City circle. Still, she thought, they should wring every drop from the blessing.
“Please,” Allie pleaded softly, “sweetheart. Let’s keep going. I have to pee, and my head is killing me.”
Silently, Susanna accelerated, the eight-month-sized globe of her belly bumping the steering wheel. Allie could see, in the tightness under Susanna’s jaw, that she had, once again, said the wrong thing.
“Maybe the pregnant woman carrying your baby is the one who has to pee,” Susanna said. With the quick-fire anger of a woman in her last term, Allie thought.
“I’m sorry,” Allie said. “That was selfish.”
She couldn’t help adding, “It’s not a competition, you know.” She knew that this, in Susanna’s mind, negated the apology, but Susanna’s tone irked her, the “you-owe-me-big-time” tone Susanna used more and more as she neared the end of her pregnancy.
Our pregnancy, Allie thought, correcting herself, though she preferred to call the pregnancy “the egg swap.” She found levity worked best when describing their situation to her childless friends, all immersed in a world of unscheduled and unbridled creation, and who she bumped into at the few SoHo gallery shows she could get to these days.
Susanna, my partner, is carrying my egg, fertilized with the sperm of our twins’ father, aka, our homo best friend. Ba dum bump! Like a punch line.
Some of these friends, like Allie, had been Susanna’s teachers years ago when she was a student at the Parsons School of Design, and they relished in teasing Allie. You knocked up your student, did ya? This made Allie smile and remember that other Susanna—Susie, she’d corrected Allie (Professor Strong) on that first day of class over a decade ago, her high ponytail swinging.
The sleek European station wagon (Susanna had wanted a minivan of all things, but Allie had prevailed) wound around the curved road. The sun flickered through the canopy of trees, some already splashed with autumn gold, and Allie imagined herself in her studio, painting, mixing colors until she found a match for the green-gold that unfurled like silk streamers above. Hot coffee. Lou Reed. Guilt-free smokes. But the fantasy dissipated as Susanna began to talk about her new business, a rental stroller franchise, Babes-on-the-Go!™.
When Allie had first heard the name of the franchise, she’d responded with another instance of zero self-control.
“You realize, hon,” she’d said, “some yuppie folk might confuse this stroller company with a traveling stripper show. You know? Babes-on-the-Go?”
She had yanked her gray tee up (she’d been braless since college, since coming out) and jiggled her small breasts.
Susanna had said, “not funny,” but when Allie repeated the joke (sans flashing) at a dinner with their art friends, Susanna had laughed the loudest.
Since Babes-on-the-Go! had entered their lives, Allie was expected to watch Dash and Levi on weekends while Susanna descended into the co-op building basement now overrun with the monstrous double strollers and stacks of car seats Susanna rented to desperate Brooklyn parents. Susanna spent hours down there, repairing tires, adjusting alignment, and scrubbing the child travel systems, which is how Allie had heard Susanna describe them when on the phone with a rental customer. Allie was left in charge (Susanna’s favorite phrase these days), and when the boys’ play inevitably turned to roughhousing, she put on a movie. Something a tad too mature, like Spider-Man or Iron Man, guaranteed to keep them subdued in terror. When Allie heard the creak of the stairs, she quickly turned off the TV and gave the boys a double wink before Susanna rose from the basement—her hair curled with sweat, her hands kneading her lower back, her newly popped belly jutting forth. Allie was pretty sure most part-time parents, like herself, used the secret-TV trick when their parenting partners had their backs turned.
They drove by the entrance to a lush overgrown park—Caumsett State Historic Park, the sign read. They were way out in the middle of nowhere, Allie thought, and she’d be screwed if there were crap wireless at the beach house. Her agent was shopping her next book of photography around, the deadline for the Danish cover was in just a few hours, and there was also the panel she was hosting at the upcoming Parsons School of Design Fall Symposium.
“Did I tell you I found a Phil and Ted double stroller?” Susanna said, with an excitement that jolted Allie.
“That’s great,” Allie said, feigning enthusiasm.
Her phone buzzed. Speak of the devil. A message from her agent. A gig shooting female comedians for a magazine layout. Hot, she typed back.
“It’s not just great. It’s really great,” Susanna said, and although Allie could hear the growing annoyance in Susanna’s voice, she continued to text. $?
“You think you could stop that and listen to me?” Susanna asked. “Please? Remember the promise you made? Email-checking, texting, tweeting. Limited this weekend. Okay?”
“Sorry. It’s a work thing,” Allie said, stuffing the phone into the back pocket of her skinny black Rag & Bone jeans.
“You’ll get cancer if you keep carrying that phone on your body,” Susanna said. “Didn’t you read that article I forwarded you? This isn’t just me. This is science talking.”
Allie tossed her phone onto the dashboard, where it slid with a clatter against the windshield. Both women sucked in their breath, shooting glances at the boys in the back. Their collective fear made them smile.
“What pussies we are,” Allie whispered.
She reached over and squeezed Susanna’s hand. Susanna’s face had grown fuller each week and now, with the scheduled C-section only a month away, she looked younger. Her nose was dotted with summer freckles like an apple-cheeked farm girl, and for a moment, with the backdrop of the leaves and overgrown grass on the side of the road, Allie felt a humming desire. She imagined a girlish Susanna (without the belly bump) stretched out on dewy grass, Susanna’s hips bucking against Allie’s face. She was about to dip her fingers under Susanna’s thin cotton maternity skirt when Susanna spoke.
“We need the extra Babes-on-the-Go money,” Susanna said. “For your adoption fees.”
Allie sighed. “I know.”
Susanna was always reminding her that Allie would have to adopt the baby once it was born. As if what Susanna really wanted to say was, Sure, it’s your egg, but it’s still my baby.
“And so you can take off work,” Susanna added, and Allie felt Susanna waiting for a response.
She wasn’t going to talk about that again. She couldn’t take more than two weeks off, and that was final.
She pulled her hand out of Susanna’s.
“Your hands are like mini freaking heat pads,” she said.
A pregnant woman’s body temperature rises ten degrees above normal, she remembered. Just one of the pregnancy facts Susanna shared daily.
“I know you think the stroller business is duller than dull,” Susanna said.
“You’re not dull,” Allie said, sighing.
“I didn’t say I was dull,” Susanna said.
Allie thought she heard a small indignant huh. As in, so that’s what you think of me.
“I’m glad you have something to do besides take care of the boys,” Allie said, eager to shift the mood. “Maybe you can save the stroller rental money and get more babysitting hours. And then,” she paused, daring herself, “you can get back to your art.”
Susanna sighed. “The boys are my art for now. I have the rest of my life to be selfish.”
Allie felt Susanna’s eyes leave the road and flash to her face.
“Plus,” Susanna said, now more sweetly, “I don’t think there’s enough room for two artists in this family.”
Allie stared ahead. She wasn’t going to give Susanna’s passive-aggressive BS a reaction.
Susanna leaned over the steering wheel and looked up at the sky, a perfect blue corridor running between the trees.
“But it is so beautiful here. I mean, really,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
And for a moment, as she let the sunglasses slip down her nose, Allie could forget Susanna’s question was a test, and she could see the beauty. The restless white-tipped waves tossing driftwood—a bleached-out black-and-white photograph waiting for Allie’s capture. The tree canopy shimmering like aged bronze. The sky that cerulean blue paint they had brought back from Venice in their life before children. The sunlight that yellow from Sedona, hand-mixed by a tired old Navajo woman. Places they wouldn’t visit again for years, not until the boys had grown, not until the care of this new baby—my baby, she reminded herself—had become manageable. The thought of the dirty-diaper, runny-nose, tantrum-filled delay, the unreachable future freedom, suddenly exhausted her.
“We could move here,” Susanna said.
Allie knew it had taken courage for Susanna to say this because if there was one disagreement they had worn to death, it was the city vs. the ’burbs debate.
“The city is close enough,” Susanna continued. “I looked it up online. There’s a direct train. Forty-five minutes to Penn Station.”
“It is pretty,” Allie tried, too tired to get into it, to recite her usual lines. “Maybe someday.”
“We don’t want to wait until the boys are too old. They might get used to the city. Levi cries when he sees a mosquito!” Susanna laughed, and it clanged false to Allie.
“Levi cries about everything.” Allie knew she had said it too loudly because Susanna threw a glance over her shoulder.
“You need to be more thoughtful,” Susanna said. “He could’ve heard you.”
Allie often forgot that the boys had grown old enough to listen, to learn, to repeat, to have their feelings hurt. No longer impulsive cavemanlike toddlers immune to threat or negotiation. Susanna had lectured Allie on how, sometimes, honest can be too honest.
“What was your favorite thing about yesterday?” Allie asked.
“Nice topic change,” Susanna teased. “You think I don’t know you by now?” But she smiled when she said it and reached over and squeezed Allie’s hand, bringing Allie’s fingers to her bow-shaped lips.
Levi had the same lips, Allie thought. Both Susanna’s and Levi’s bottom lip quivered when they cried. The day before at the courthouse in Massachusetts, when the judge had declared them legally wed, Susanna’s lip had seemed to tremble, then she had thrown her arms around Allie’s neck, her abundant belly pressing into Allie’s diaphragm. For a moment, Allie hadn’t been able to breathe. Then she’d been swaddled in that sweet scent that was Susanna’s alone, that Allie had loved for nearly twelve years. Like a newly flowering almond tree.
Usually iffy about public affection, Allie had reminded herself all day. Hold Susanna’s hand. After the courthouse, at the bohemian-chic restaurant where they’d brunched with Eric, who the boys called Daddy and who had traveled to Northampton for the ceremony, and the boys in the matching seersucker suits Susanna had picked out (Allie had lobbied for blazers and skinny jeans). Kiss her. Tell her you love her. Allie hated that she had to remind herself to do these things, but, as she had told Susanna many times, it was who she was. It was how Allie’s people were made. On holidays, Susanna’s family greeted each other with kisses on the lips. Allie’s father had never and, it seemed, could never, tell Allie or her brother he loved them. As kids, they had taunted him, repeating, “I love you, Dad! I love you, Dad!” until he had shouted at them to cut it out.
“Okay, I’ll go first,” Allie said with a deep sigh, as if she was clearing the air. “My favorite part was how hot you looked in your fancy schmancy Diane Von Furstenburg maternity dress.”
Susanna smiled, and Allie thought she saw a release in Susanna’s grip on the steering wheel.
“Thanks for wearing the corsage,” Susanna said. “I know you didn’t want to.”
Eric, a lover of all things beautiful, who threw elaborate dinner parties and whose Chelsea studio apartment was never without a vase or two of fresh flowers, had surprised them with a bouquet of white calla lilies for Susanna. And a single white lily corsage for Allie.
“For you, baby?” Allie said. “I’ll stick a flower in my lapel.”
She slid her hand over Susanna’s belly—her fingers, the nails gnawed, looked child-sized against the cloth-draped orb.
“How’s our baby girl?” Allie asked.
“Oh, don’t start that again,” Susanna said and shook her head slowly, as if Allie was a disobedient child who should know better.
“I know,” Allie said, “and you know, you want a girl too.”
“I truly don’t care. As long as it’s healthy.”
It had been Susanna’s idea to keep the sex of the baby a surprise, and that was fine, Allie thought, but Susanna’s feigned indifference toward the penis vs. vagina preference sounded a bit holier-than-thou to Allie.
“Lace-trimmed socks,” Allie cooed as if teasing one of the twins. “Pink bows in ponytails. And those ruffly underwear you see sticking out from under their little dresses. What do you call those things?”
“Bloomers?” Susanna laughed, and Allie was relieved to see her easy smile.
Then Susanna let out a wet-sounding belch and winced.
“You okay? Need to pull over?” Allie asked.
“I’m fine,” Susanna said through a slow exhale.
She sniffed furiously at her wrist, the inside of which, Allie knew, Susanna dabbed with lavender-scented oil. To combat yet another side effect of the pregnancy, what Susanna called her superhuman sense of smell.
“Are you going to puke?”
“I’m fine,” Susanna stuttered as she breathed through her nose, her wrist tucked under her nostrils. “Just don’t.” She paused to inhale. “Don’t talk.”
Allie knew she should say something. A few gentle words to help Susanna’s pulsing blood pressure drop, to make the reflux settle back down in Susanna’s gut. Couldn’t Allie pretend—for Susanna’s sake, for the baby’s sake—that they would buy the four-bedroom Cape, the one Susanna searched for in the real-estate listings every weekend, they would plant a kitchen garden, fence in a big yard for the boys, renovate the little cottage in back. Voila! An art studio for the two women to share. Maybe they’d even adopt a dog. Hadn’t Dash been asking for a pet?
No, Allie couldn’t pretend. Despite Susanna’s deep breathing and the defeated hunch of her back—the back Allie had painted and photographed and even copied in clay when it was pure muscle and bone, when the taut tendons in Susanna’s neck had defined all that was beauty and art and youth and sex and love.
She knew she had the power to make Susanna happy, maybe even beautiful again, but Allie couldn’t help feeling her own anger. That they weren’t at a bed-and-breakfast out on the Cape, just the two of them on a naked honeymoon. Emptied oyster shells and chocolate-candy-bar wrappers on the bedside table. The windows cracked to let in the salt-crisped air. Or showering together after uninterrupted sex, the kind of sex where you didn’t whisper a moan, you didn’t freeze midstroke and look at the bedroom door, waiting for it to burst open, a sleepy boy whining that he had to pee. They certainly could have left the boys with Eric. He had even offered to take them back to NYC for the night, for a Dadurday, Eric taking the boys to a café for brunch the next day, somewhere he was sure to bump into his friends, many ex-lovers, many hoping to be, and show off his progeny.
But no, the day before, Susanna had reminded Allie of the invite for a weekend out East, something from one of the “mommies” in Susanna’s playgroup. They had bickered—Allie demanding Susanna cancel (They were getting married, for fucksake), and Susanna calling Allie out on what they both knew was bullshit, reminding Allie that she hadn’t cared about getting married anyway. An hour spent snapping at each other as they got the boys ready for bed—until Susanna burst into pregnant-woman-pitched tears, promising Allie (between sobs) that they’d get away soon and have a real honeymoon. Allie had been the one to apologize—again—the defeated opponent of every bout they’d had since the twins were born.
The woman hosting the weekend had gotten hold of Allie’s cell number, and Allie’s and Susanna’s phones had dinged simultaneously with the arrival of every exclamation-point-laden, smiley-face-emoticon-punctuated response from the moms in the playgroup, and the one dad who wrote, with what she hoped was irony,
woo-hoo! we’ll bring the tequila. body shots!!
Here they were, Allie thought, moving closer and closer to a destination where the talk would be of what viruses had recently ravaged the children’s immune systems, of the preschool drama that never ceased to bring a sparkle of urgency to Susanna’s eye, and the minutiae of day-to-day child-rearing that made Allie feel as if life were running out. That by the time they woke from the monotonous half slumber of parenthood, they’d be old, probably get cancer or something, have just a little time left to be Allie and Susanna, to live the life they had shared before.
Susanna pointed toward the glove compartment.
“Get me one of those candy bars, Al?”
Allie couldn’t stop herself.
She said, “I thought Dr. Patka told you no sweets. That chocolate made heartburn worse?”
“What did you just say?”
Allie shrank back, the way she had as a girl each time her father confronted her after she’d been caught in a lie or gotten detention (again) for doodling in her textbook. He had used the same words when she tried to lie her way out of punishment, usually a few licks on her bare legs with his belt. What did you just say? As he bent to peer in her eyes.
“You know,” Allie said, “that you have to be careful of what you eat?”
“Do you want me to puke?” Susanna asked quietly.
“Then give me the goddamn Snickers bar.”
* * *
The sea cottage was shabby, bordering on decrepit: piles of junk near the front door, along with a tangle of driftwood and half a buoy. Allie practiced her smile as Susanna rang the doorbell.
“Lay-dies,” sang the woman who answered the door, clad in a white tube top that showed off her bronzed skin.
Tiffany, thought Allie. The oversexed, self-righteous mommy Susanna always crabbed about.
“It’s so exciting to have you here!” Tiffany said.
The woman, Allie thought, might as well have said, Well lookee here, if it isn’t those darn lesbians? How interesting!
Awkward introductions followed—and reintroductions; one could never remember whom you had or hadn’t met in the hazy, sleep-deprived early parenting years. There was Michael, Tiffany’s baby daddy, a greasy-haired hipster dude. Then Nicole, whose parents owned the beach house; Rip, the sole daddy in the playgroup—springy with nervous energy—and finally Rip’s wife, Grace, a boxy Asian woman, whose firm handshake made Allie wonder if she wasn’t just a tad butch.
Allie looked out onto the living room full of kids. The light streaming in from the seaside windows turned the scene into a tableau. A twisted moral. Titled Life After Children, Allie thought. The twins were in a tussle certain to turn violent. A plump Asian boy (Rip and Grace’s kid, Allie guessed) stood in the corner, his hand sunk into a bowl of M&Ms. There was just the one little girl, a long-limbed beauty whose scabbed knees peeked out from under her flowered sundress. Allie knew this was Harper, daughter of Tiffany—a child Susanna loathed almost as much as the girl’s mother. Harper had just won a tug-of-war over a jump rope, and the loser, a flaxen-haired boy with an upturned nose, wailed. Oh yes, Allie thought, the crier must be Chase. She had heard Susanna speak of Chase’s “behavioral issues” in a whisper, as if the boy had an unspeakable disease.
But it was the mommies that frightened Allie the most. The mommies. Must she really use that word, she had asked Susanna on the drive. Their sugary smiles, their kisses like pats on each other’s cheeks, the exaggerated rolls of their eyes at their children. The daddies seemed harmless enough, shoulder shrugs punctuating most everything they said, as if they were embarrassed at the “crazy” situation they’d gotten themselves into. Aw, shucks, parenthood.
And where did Allie fit in?
With the mommies? Oh no, she thought, she was too much of a dyke, too part-time mommy for them.
With the daddies? Nah, a woman could never join those ranks.
She belonged to neither. And that was exactly the way she liked it.
Copyright © 2014 by Julia Fierro