Authors: Claire Lombardo
Her parents were sitting on the porch and the dog came running down the front steps and her mother called after him, halfheartedly, “Loomis, stay up here.” Liza bent to pet him. In the alternate universe, as well, this news wouldn’t be competing with that of her sister’s secret adoption scandal—not a new baby but a teenage boy who’d wriggled out of the woodwork.
“Can you believe this gorgeous evening?” her mother said, rising to hug them both.
“Your mother’s officially entered porch mode,” her dad said. “She won’t set foot indoors again until October.”
Liza clung to him when he hugged her, for just an extra desperate second, hoping both that he would notice and that he wouldn’t.
“Wendy enrolled us in a
wine of the month club,
” Marilyn said. “This month is something white. I know nothing about it beyond the fact that it was dropped on the doorstep this morning like a bomb and probably cost more than our gas bill. Can I interest you?”
Liza paused too long, then said, “Actually,” and her voice cracked on the
and this wasn’t how she’d meant to do it at all, but she’d drawn attention to herself, and she felt blood rush to her face and tears to her eyes.
“Sweetheart?” Marilyn asked.
“We have—some news,” she said. She saw her parents exchange split-second eye contact before her mother affectionately took her by the wrist.
She turned to look at Ryan, but he seemed mortified, toeing one Converse into the other.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, for the first time ever, no turning back, and her mother pulled her into another hug—Marilyn’s hugs were one of a kind, tight and electric and full of kinetic energy, radiating love—and said, “Oh,
honey, what wonderful news.”
And then Marilyn moved on to Ryan and Liza again faced her father, who wrapped her in a second hug as well, which immediately activated her tear ducts, and she felt his absorbent polo soaking in her crying, and he pulled away to look at her.
“Liza?” he said softly.
“I’m sorry; they’re happy tears,” she lied, and she pressed herself against him again.
“Liza-lee,” he said after a minute, and the catch in his voice made her wonder if he was shedding some happy tears of his own. “I’m very happy for you,” he said, finally releasing the embrace. He offered his hand to Ryan. “Congratulations,” he said.
“Thanks, Dr. Sorenson,” Ryan said, like a fifteen-year-old who’d impregnated her under the bleachers.
She forced herself to laugh, took Ryan’s elbow. “For God’s sake,” she said. “Call him David.” But then, so he would know she wasn’t mad, she kissed him, just quickly, once.
Marilyn smiled at them. “Look at these darling parents-to-be,” she said. “Goodness. I’ll get— Lize, sweetheart, seltzer? Ginger tea? Can you keep anything down these days? I’ll bring an assortment. Sit, sit. Tell us everything.” She waved her hands as she flitted inside. “I mean, not
” she added, and she left them there, David and Ryan with faces aflame, Liza busying herself with scratching the dog’s belly.
“How’re things with you, Ryan?” David asked. “Aside from this—boon.”
“Fine,” Ryan said, nodding vigorously. Hers wasn’t one of those provide-for-my-daughter-or-I’ll-string-you-up-by-your-you-know-whats fathers, but Liza knew her dad still made Ryan nervous, knew that Ryan hated relaying to David—again and again—that he’d yet to find a job. “Just—doing some—freelance stuff until I can find the right fit for the long term.”
Beside him, Liza discreetly took his hand.
It’s okay that you’re lying,
Someday it won’t be a lie.
“Tell him about the strange weeds you found around the perimeter of the yard, sweetie,” she said. “It looks kind of like—almost like a cactus, Dad.”
“Purslane, probably,” her father said.
Her mother reappeared with a tray. “Oh, lord, honey, have you moved on to invasive plants already? Before they’ve even told us when our grandchild is due?”
Help help help,
she wanted to say.
This is not going to be okay; Mama, please do something; those weren’t happy tears, Dad; I don’t know what to do; tell me what to do.
“I’m eleven weeks,” she said. “Due in January.” She watched her parents exchange glances again. “What? Is that—bad? What’s wrong with January?”
“Oh, no, love,” her mom said. “No, I was just—”
“It’s a great month,” her dad said lamely.
“No, sweetheart, I— It’s silly. Jonah’s birthday is in January too. Violet just—told us that recently. I just had a little bit of déjà vu.”
She watched her mother get teary-eyed and her father wrap his arm around her on the glider. In the alternate universe, it would be
who got inappropriately weepy over the temperature of her La Croix, Ryan who put his arm around her and winkingly apologized to her parents, something about
hormones, crazy women, ha ha ha;
there would be nobody to distract from the distress she was in, nobody to divert her parents’ attention away from the fact that she and her partner were in serious trouble and that this baby, more than anyone else, would suffer because of it, because Ryan was sick, and his good intentions weren’t enough to make up for the reality of it all, the hilly decades that lay ahead of them with Liza, alone, steering the wagon with one hand while the other hung on to her child.
But of course, in the alternate universe, there would
no distress. She looked up and saw her father watching her with something like concern.
“I’m sorry, Lize; it just popped into my head,” Marilyn said. “Of course it doesn’t detract from this fantastic news. It’s good timing, semester-wise, is it not? Will you be able to take off the whole spring term?”
“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” Ryan said. “You guys are the first people we’ve told.”
“Well, we’re honored,” her mom said, leaning her head against her dad. “And you two have plenty of time to get all of your ducks in a row.”
for me, please, Mom. Tell me how the fuck I’m supposed to arrange them.
“Any pro tips for us?” Ryan asked, which she found sort of endearing.
Marilyn laughed. “For those, you’ll need to consult a pro.”
“Oh, yeah,” her dad said. “We’ve been floundering since ’seventy-five.”
avid was a watchful father, but in fairness, his daughters had given him reason to be wary. He could tell that something was askew with Liza. In fact, when she’d asked if she and Ryan could come over for dinner, both he and Marilyn assumed that the two were splitting up. He hoped the hug he’d given his daughter earlier would convey
Hey, just so you know, I’m not a person you ever have to lie to.
He couldn’t say these things to his children explicitly; it was an inconvenient caveat of being a dad.
After dinner Liza rose, as she always did, to clear the table, and he rose, as he always did, to join her. They had an easy routine, a trade-off of washing and drying, splash of water and squeak of towel. Some of his most valuable moments with his daughter had occurred while both of them were up to their elbows in Dawn suds.
“How’s Gracie doing?” Liza asked. “I haven’t talked to her in a while.”
He and Marilyn, in their recent twilight porch discussions, had barely scratched the surface of Grace’s law school acceptance, so distracted were they by the news of Jonah and, now, their concern about Liza.
“Ah,” he said. “You know, Lize, I’m not sure. She’ll be fine, of course, but I— She’s just sounding a little adrift, I guess. A little lonely. But I’m sure that’ll change when she starts school.” He fiddled with the taps, waiting for the water to cool off. “Don’t you feel like you hit your stride in graduate school?”
She snorted. “I have never come anywhere near hitting my stride.”
“Of course you— I mean, Lize, you’re—”
“Gracie has nothing to worry about,” she said. “Hey, is Mom okay? About—Jonah? Like, she seemed—”
He knew she was changing the subject, deflecting his investigative attempts. “She’ll be okay,” he said. “It’s just been a surprise.” He paused. “Lize, you didn’t—Jonah—did you—”
“Know about it?” She laughed. “God, no. Dad, I’m the last to know everything. Violet and Wendy have never once let me in on any of their secrets.”
When Liza and Ryan left, he was expecting Marilyn to erupt with speculation. But his wife only half-smiled at him, rubbing at her cheeks.
“You are a god,” she said, “for doing the dishes. I’m so tired I can barely see. If I had to tackle all that silverware I think I’d burst into flames.”
This was not quite what he’d hoped she would say but he smiled at her anyway. “It’s my pleasure,” he said. “Are you too tired for a debriefing? How about a nightcap?”
“Oh, honey, you know I’d love to, but I— How about a roundtable over breakfast? We’ll go get omelets.” She must have seen his disappointment because she came over and kissed him on the cheek. “Or I’ll make something. Scrambled eggs on the deck, huh?”
He pulled her against him, and he could feel from the way her body melted into his that she
tired. “I forget you worked today,” he said. “You go on up. I’ll take Loomis out.”
She rubbed her cheek against his chest. “Thanks.”
The dog, suddenly beside him, wagged his tail expectantly.
Their yard was immaculate, save for the ailing ginkgo tree, stationed in the center like a lighthouse. He descended the stairs to pick a little impromptu bouquet of lilacs for his wife. Loomis, finished marking his territory on each of the bushes David had so painstakingly shaped, sniffed around him as he looked for the best bundle of flowers. She’d given some to him on one of their early dates, picked them from this very bush when the house was still her dad’s and pushed them toward him and said,
I’m tired of this antiquated feminine bullshit; girls can bring guys flowers too.
He’d kept them in a coffee mug by his bedside until long after they died, their water giving off a rancid, sewery smell that woke him up each morning. Now he chose a few sprigs and removed them delicately from the branch.
“Spring’s upon us, beautiful,” he was saying when he entered their bedroom, but Marilyn was dead asleep with all the lights on, curled tightly under their duvet. He set the flowers on her nightstand, undressed and joined her in bed.
“But I think I—” she said, and he felt her kick one of her legs beneath the sheets, preventing herself from falling in a dream.
“Shh,” he said. “It’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
She found him in the dark, wrapped herself sleepily around the length of his body, and he pulled her in closer, kissed the top of her head.
“Sorry I’m such a dud.” She shifted, yawned hugely. “I know we always debrief.”
He relaxed a little. She knew. She was suspecting all the same things that he was. Their daughters were a mess. Everything was in shambles.
“What’s your score?” he asked, his mouth pressed against her neck.
“Oh, nine,” she said. “What a nice evening.”
He froze, and he felt her wiggle against him, trying to make his body give in to hers.
“What?” she said. “Too low? Too high?”
“Another baby,” she said. “How nice. Lize seemed well, didn’t she?”
She seemed indolent and regretful and crazy, which—no offense—is how you seemed every single time you were pregnant. And Ryan barely said a goddamn word, and the sleeves on his shirt were too short, and is that really a tattoo of a floppy disk on his wrist?
“You had a nice time,” he said instead.
She hummed, and he felt her exhale, halfway to dreamland.
She really wasn’t going to bring it up. Nothing about the abruptness of Liza’s announcement. Nothing about how Gracie had clearly been smoking while she talked to them on the phone last week, exhaling audibly between sentences. Nothing about how she’d nearly burst into tears remembering that Jonah’s birthday was in January. He brushed his hand up and down over her navel, one of the magical spots that seemed to arouse her on contact, but her breathing remained steady. This was arguably one of the life-saving rationalizations for the institution of marriage, one party consumed with worry so the other could sleep through the night.
f Miles were here,” Wendy said, “he’d be railing on the state of public education.”
Jonah had been complaining about his fall schedule, how he couldn’t have a study hall because they were making him take a stupid “Exploring the English Language” class that was very obviously for remedial kids, which he wasn’t, he just hadn’t taken the standardized language test in eighth grade because of the month he’d spent living with the boring animal-figurines people in the ass-fuck middle of nowhere before he moved in with Hanna and Terrence.
“My school’s fine,” he said, “it’s just not been totally, like, accommodating to the fact that I’m not some fucking loaded Gen Y-er who’s slated for Princeton.” He didn’t really get to talk to anyone else like this.
“You could go to fucking Princeton,” Wendy said, twirling her wineglass.
“I don’t want to go to Princeton.”
“Well, I don’t want that either, but you shouldn’t write it off like you’re some kind of bog dweller who can’t string together a sentence. Miles would’ve killed for a student like you.”
After a few days he’d stopped being weirded out by how often she mentioned her dead husband. Being married to someone seemed like a big deal, grand-scheme, and it was pretty fucked up that Wendy’s husband had died so young.
“We’ll make sure you end up somewhere better than the City Colleges, though,” she said, and the indignation in her voice flattered him. “Gracie seemed pretty happy at Reed. It’s as expensive as Princeton but not, like, a total doucheville.”
“I’m not really thinking about—”
“I’ll take care of it,” she said, exhaling smoke above her head. “When the time comes.”
He wasn’t sure what to make of this crew, people who professed to be ordinary but didn’t have normal jobs and didn’t appear to worry about taking another person into their homes. He’d never overheard conversations at Wendy’s house like he had at Hanna’s, conversations about the grocery budget and dental insurance. Her condo was like the apartment where a wealthy
villain would live, on the thirty-sixth floor overlooking the lake, nothing but windows, all cool shiny marble and high ceilings and big stark pieces of furniture, a museum exhibit about the future. Wendy had a lot, and he didn’t require much. It was the first time he didn’t feel like an imposition. Things, for once, seemed to be turning out okay. He was settling into his life with Wendy, the woman who drank wine like it was water and seemed to exist outside of the structure under which normal people lived, a structure where you got up when it was bright out and played by the rules during the day. Better to be living with a rich basket case than to be at Lathrop House. Better to have your own bedroom where you sometimes heard your quote-unquote aunt having sex with men you never saw than to be feigning sleep in the stupidly named Tween Room where your roommates jacked themselves off into unconsciousness and awakened looking for a fight. There was unlimited cereal at Wendy’s house, and late-night conversations that felt flatteringly beyond his maturity level. Someone who acknowledged that he was a person instead of a number; someone who’d read too many books, which was better than the opposite.