--- A M B E R D O R K O S T O P P E R
The presents had been two Brio trains and one of those keyboards that lie on the floor and are stepped on to create noise, like the one at FAO Schwartz in New York, except that this one had been purchased at Youngworld on Chestnut Street. It was small and not nearly as good. There was a store-bought cake with a candle shaped like the numeral 1, and colored plates and napkins depicting non-copyrighted rodent characters in clothing. Everyone sang "Happy Birthday" quickly and perfunctorily, as the baby was getting tired, and then he indulgently smeared cake over his face for his mother's camera, and he was soon put to bed.
The child's mother, Margot, who was young and single and attempting the life of a professional, came out of the bedroom where she had put the child down, smiling at her guests. She had never given a party before, not even a cocktail party, so she had ambitions for this gathering that superseded cake and gifts for her son. It had been hard to come up with ideas; what she really wanted to give was a cocktail party.
Margot's boss was there, with his own four-year-old son. Margot's boss looked uncomfortable and out of place, and his wife looked downright unhappy about the errand of coming to this small birthday party, and when the baby was put to bed they made motions to leave.
"We've got to get this one home," they said of their little boy. After all, there was little else to say, the guest of honor had been put to bed, they did not know anyone else present and there were only two kitchen chairs in Margot's whole apartment. "Thank you, Margot, for inviting us," they said.
The little boy hung from his mother's wrist. He watched his hostess wrap up a piece of cake for him in one of the print napkins so he could take it home. "Your girl polish is chopping off," he said, looking at her nails.
Margot looked down in real alarm and saw that he was ever so slightly right. She gave him a toothy, fed-up, blank- eyed smile and handed him a piece of cake, and closed to door on his family. She was annoyed with them for leaving so soon; she was hoping to extend the party into something like a cocktail party once the baby had been put to bed.
Mark and Wendy needed to leave, too; Wendy was feeling very tired. Mark was a work mate of Margot's. Wendy was his new wife, in the late ninth month of her pregnancy. They had just gotten married, with Wendy big and fat and gravid. She had sat quietly at the party, listening to her body, which had begun to give her indications of early labor. This had also stolen some of Margot's thunder in a situation where she basically considered herself the guest of honor; her one-year old certainly didn't care about any of this, he was just a baby.
"Want to get moving, honey?" Mark asked Wendy softly.
Margot turned her head to the sound of the endearment. Thus being reminded of Wendy's presence, she sent them off with a flourish that told them they had been the real guests of honor; what Wendy was doing was remarkable, God, she made it look so easy, she was obviously born to be a mother.
Margot made them promise to call, however many hours or days it took, as soon as that baby was born. "Get home safely, now," she said, as Mark tenderly assisted Wendy down the staircase. Margot watched them get out the door together.
Now the only people left were friends of Margot's, who had come for the sake of making a more party-like number; Anthony, who was a friend from college, and Nadine, who lived in Margot's building. Anthony was a financial analyst who did not get invited to many parties. Nadine was single, chunky, horse mouthed, with a limitless envy for anyone with a baby in their possession. She perched on a stool near the front window, watching Mark and Wendy go up the street together towards their own home. It seemed, both to Nadine and to Margot, that there ought to be more to say about that situation.
"It's amazing how fast they grow up," Margot said, holding court still, pouting maternally, looking at the now-developed Polaroid of her son smeared with cake.
"It's always the tiniest ones that get all the attention," said Nadine, "My sister's son is two and a half now. And when he's in a room with other babies, he is virtually ignored."
Margot shuddered at the thought.
There was still a half a bottle of wine on the table from when the other guests had been there, and Margot supplemented it with a full bottle from their refrigerator, and with a bottle of Scotch that Anthony had brought. Although Anthony didn't get invited to many parties, he had spent many evenings of entertainment with Margot, and knew what was necessary for these. Nadine was one of a similar mind. They drank.
Shortly Margot went to check on the baby. "Like an angel," she reported to Nadine, who clucked fondly as though this could truly in some way be justified: like an angel.
Anthony opened the bottle of scotch and helped himself to some in a coffee mug bearing the name of the corporation which Margot worked for. The women continued to drink wine, looking out the window. Expectancy hung still on Margot's face, a pearly sheen edging towards the clammy, expectancy of more guests, more gifts, more fun, something. She sipped her wine, looking very charged up.
"Mark and Wendy sure did look happy," said Nadine.
A plane shifted on Margot's face and Anthony would not have been terribly surprised if she had lashed out somehow; but after a series of small tics that indicated a cooling period, Margot nodded.
"I suppose so," she said. "They are very inexperienced."
"Seemed like she had started her labor a bit," Anthony added. "Guess they'll be headed to the hospital soon."
"They went in the direction of their apartment," Margot said, looking back out the window, as though at their tracks in the snow. "Maybe they'll go to the hospital later. She could certainly go at any minute. She's a little wifty, that Wendy. I wonder if she realizes that."
"The weather is so unpredictable, too," said Nadine. "It could turn a tiny minute and make traveling conditions hard."
"Well," said Margot, "there's nothing to be done about it, that I can see." She shook herself out, folded a piece of wrapping paper. "Do you want to play Scrabble?" she asked her guests.
Ten blocks away, Mark and Wendy were in their sparsely furnished new apartment. Wendy lay on the couch, solemnly marking time by the pressure in her belly. They had called the midwife, and she had said they were still sometime from having to go to the hospital. Wendy agreed with her; while uncomfortable, something told her the midwife was right. She tried to sleep between pains, barely remembering anything they had done earlier in the day, including the baby's birthday at Margot's house. Wendy didn't like Margot very much anyway. She was actually somewhat afraid of her.
Mark, Wendy's husband, nursing a beer silently as his wife writhed gently on the couch, had poor taste in friends. Mark was always befriending people that he thought were "good people". They were often boring people, or stupid people, but always people who had cowardly little twinges of badness in them that could grow larger if fanned. Anyone who was not actively berating Mark, was a "good" person. It was in this way that Mark had come across many of the people whom he called his friends. It was the reason he had gone to the birthday party in the first place, and had dragged with him wife, who would give birth to their child in the next thirty hours. Because for all her short-comings, Margot was basically a good person, and you couldn't have a bunch of no-shows at a first birthday party, could you?
While the party had not been fun, and had in many ways been rather sad, Mark felt it had been a good thing all around. He was sure that everyone had had fun. He was glad he had gone and glad that he had appeared pleased to be there. Now he was inexplicably tired.
The phone rang. Mark answered it. Wendy watched him from eyes half-mast; she assumed it to be her mother. "No, no," he said, "we called the hospital and talked to the midwives, and it's just not time to go. Yes, she's having some pain. Well, yes, they would be considered contractions. No, no. Really.Okay. We will let you know as soon as anything happens," he said, and hung up.
"That was my mom?" asked Wendy.
"It was Margot," said Mark, "and Nadine."
Wendy stared at him.
"Wendy?" Mark said. "You there?"
"What did they want?" she asked.
"They were just checking on you," Mark said. "Worried about you being able to get to the hospital in time and all. You know Margot; she's got a year's worth of experience under her belt that she wants to share with someone." He came over and rubbed the small of Wendy's back.
Margot hung up the phone, looking blankly disappointed.
"They aren't going yet," she said. "They talked to the midwife."
"Mmmm," said Nadine.
Margot stood with her hand still on the receiver.
"You know," she said, "it's not that I want to cause alarm where it is not due. But I was told that for every contraction you have, the baby is losing oxygen. She really shouldn't be lying around there like that."
"I'm sure the midwives wouldn't steer her wrong," said Anthony. "She's under medical care. From talking to her at the party, it sounds as though she's been very fastidious about her care."
"Oh fastidious is one word," spat Nadine knowingly. She and Margot looked at each other.
"What?" asked Anthony.
Neither of the girls looked like they were sure of what their answer should be. "She's just odd," Margot offered quickly. Her hand was still on the receiver. She turned back to Nadine. "I know they'll be mad at me, but I think I'll just mention that little fact to Mark, just this once... I just want him to understand... you think?" She was dialing already. When Mark answered, she continued in very much the same apologetic tone. She hung up within a minute.
"Well," she said. "I've done what I can."
"Did he listen?" asked Nadine.
"He said they had it 'under control'," snapped Margot, insulted. Unplayed Scrabble letters littered the floor at her feet. "Wouldn't that be something," she said, "If Mark and Wendy's baby was born exactly a year to the day after my son was."
"Did you know Mark and Wendy back then?" Anthony asked.
Margot's eyes were bright. "I've known Mark for years. But I don't think he and Wendy were even dating at this time last year," she said, pointedly.
Nadine shook her head. "Amazing," she said.
Anthony knew better than to mention, just for the sake of argument, the ignoble details of Margot's own conception; by a man she had met two Aprils ago. She had given birth the following January.
"Let's not discuss the ugly details anymore," said Margot, collecting Scrabble letters. "Anthony barely knows these people. Mark's just someone I work with. The girl is weird. There's no point in airing people's dirty laundry when one of your guests couldn't care less. Let's just play." She looked at the clock anxiously. It was not even nine o'clock.
Mark had marched into the kitchen and begun doing dishes after the second phone call. Wendy pulled herself up off the couch to go in and see him. "Lie down," he said grouchily. "Just go back to the bedroom. I'll be there soon."
"I want to stay in the living room," Wendy said. "And watch TV. Who was on the phone?"
She knew who it was. "It was Margot again," Mark said. "I think she's been drinking a bit after the party. She's just concerned. I pretty much think that's the end of it for the evening. I think I sounded a little teed off."
Tears sprang to Wendy's eyes. "Hey," said Mark, "Everything's fine now. We'll get some sleep tonight and call the hospital in the morning, see what they want to do. We're going to be looking at our baby by this time tomorrow night, I'll bet."
Wendy smiled at him and tottered back towards the couch, standing in front of it for a moment, deliberating. She then started to walk a slow lap around the room.
"Okay there?" Mark called from the kitchen.
"Yes," said Wendy. She was thinking about what Mark had said, about seeing their baby. She had pictured many friends and family members at the hospital with her after it happened, bearing gifts and balloons. She had looked forward to that. Now the thought of it irritated her. She lay back down on the couch, reminding herself to mention this to Mark. She didn't want that Margot woman having the phone number to the hospital room when the baby came, and didn't want her coming to visit, didn't want her bringing clothes that were now too small for her own baby. No old toys, either. Nothing.
The fact was (and there was no problem in discussing it in front of Anthony, because he didn't know Mark and Wendy that well anyway and certainly wouldn't stick up for them), the fact was, neither Margot nor Nadine could really stand to watch Wendy raise a baby. She was just so weird. Into all that natural stuff, not eating any food that had animal products in it, and... they were hard pressed to think of something else about Wendy that would make her a bad mother, but the truth was, they just didn't like her at the moment. She had been innocuous enough when not pregnant, but somehow... and if Margot and Nadine both had a bad feeling about it, there may very well be something to that, mightn't there?
They both got the impression now that they were being shrugged off over the phone. Although neither of them admitted it to the other, they each had a picture in their minds. Not of Wendy and Mark at home in imminent danger of losing their baby, confounded and ignorant; but of Wendy and Mark at home, warm, in comfort, disgusted with the well-meant phone calls of Margot and Nadine.
Anthony, who was sluggish with drink but not exactly drunk, was more than happy to stay with the sleeping child, and watched with amusement at the intensity and drama being conducted as the girls tipsily threw on their coats, checked for keys, and gave each other solemn and urgent looks.
Margot would do something like this, he thought to himself. He was sort of surprised at Nadine, but she did certainly seem stupid enough to follow Margot's lead in a situation like this. It seemed clear to Anthony. Although he planned to think it over again when he was totally sober, that this whole thing was fueled by the jealousy over this impending baby, the newest around; it was a feeling Margot had once gotten the taste for, and one that Nadine had a hankering for as well. He hadn't known, though, that it was possible for women to try to take it away from each other.
He watched them go down the dark street, each of them slipping a bit on the ice. He checked the baby once. "Like an angel," he said to himself, and fell asleep on the couch.
Wendy was surprised to hear the doorbell ring, but thought that perhaps Mark had ordered take-out food while she had been dozing. She was curious when, after he went down to answer the door, he did not return immediately. She heard high female voices, sounding fairly emotional. She heard Mark's calm anger. She could not believe it. Had they come to her house?
She considered going to the window, but didn't have to. She heard Margot's voice as clear as glass in the black freezing night. And that Nadine was down there too, such an obvious lackey, how could they have? That Margot, with her lipsticked mouth and pointed, massive jaw- Mark had told Wendy plenty about her. She wanted Margot to know all the things she knew about her, about her baby, about the father. That's all this was; Margot jealous, jealous because the man who had gotten her pregnant had not stayed by her the way Mark had.
Wendy remembered herself telling Mark the news of her own pregnancy, their pregnancy. She had been told as a teenager that she would never conceive. She was now very shocked and very happy- she remembered the look on his face, and the first words out of his mouth, "This wasn't how I wanted it to be." Those words were something, she knew, that neither of them would ever admit had happened. But Mark had stayed, Mark couldn't wait to meet his baby, and Margot could not stand it. She had come on to Mark at a Christmas party once, Mark had told her.
She heard the door shut soundly, and Mark's heavy tread on the stairs. The look on his face told Wendy that he was no longer entirely in control of the situation, in his own mind.
"It was them," he said. "I told them to go away."
"What do they want?" Wendy cried, "What is it they are trying to do?"
"Margot thinks we don't know anything about having babies," Mark said, his voice rising. "She thinks she knows something we don't. She thinks you should go to the hospital now. She thinks..."
Wendy had a frown on her face, doing a quick scan of all her reflexes and intuitions. "No," she said, "I'm sure it's still not time. The midwife agreed."
"Fine then," said Mark, brushing Wendy's lank hair away from her face. "Then there really isn't a thing to worry about."
True, Wendy thought, there wasn't. She was in good hands. She was going to have a baby soon, a baby who would have a father-- a baby whose first birthday party would be populated with children, and with aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins-- not with just a couple of people from work and tenants from the building.
She allowed herself one little peek over the windowsill and saw Margot and Nadine standing, coats open, faces flushed, in the fluorescent light of the clam bar across the street. They were next to the payphone.
The two girls stood alone on the icy street, reeling with the experience. He had actually shut the door in their faces. Neither of them had a plan as to what to do next; neither of them had had a plan for what they would have done if Mark had let them in the apartment. They had not heard Wendy crying out in agony, as they had both half-hoped; they now watched the warm, rosy light coming from the apartment windows with undisguised jealousy. Like infants themselves, like wolves, they were incapable of examining their motives, and continued standing, seething, staring at the apartment.
"This situation is so fucked up, I feel so sorry for that baby," Margot said.
"You think they would appreciate the fact that this is something that you know about," said Nadine. "That you've been through it recently and could guide them."
"Well, you could have expected such a response from Wendy," Margot said. "She wouldn't listen to someone who would let their child eat Froot Loops, like I occasionally do. She would only listen to someone who fed their baby fig bars and quinoa and used cloth diapers. And Mark, you would think Mark would pay some attention, he knows me, but who knows how wrapped up she's got him."
"I kind of got the impression," said Nadine carefully, "at your party, that maybe it seemed in a way like... well... like Mark and Wendy almost felt a little sorry for you."
Margot looked at her with a deep, relaxed hatred.
When the phone rang, Wendy caught Mark by the arm. "Check out the window first," she said.
Mark looked out the window. He looked assured, defeated. He did not pick up the phone. "As soon as it stops ringing," he said to Wendy, "I'll call our parents. Tell them to call in on a code. Call, let it ring once, hang up. Then we'll know."
"Just take it off the hook," said Wendy. "I don't care anymore."
"But I told my mother-" said Mark.
Wendy shot him a look. He unplugged the phone in mid-ring, then looked out the window again, as though he expected to see Margot become aware of this as he stood below, the cold receiver to her ear.
She hung up, and looked at Nadine. Both of them were more sober now, and getting cold.
"I can't help these people," Margot said. "They don't want to be helped. I don't even know why I try."
Again, they both looked up towards the windows of Mark and Wendy's apartment. Again, they did not share with each other what they each thought they saw there; joy, excitement, happiness, warmth. They looked, hungrily.
"Well, we'll know by tomorrow or so," said Nadine.
Neither of them made a move to start walking back to Margot's apartment. "I hope the kid stayed asleep," Margot said. "God knows what he'll think if he wakes up to find just Anthony there."
"Maybe we should go back," suggested Nadine.
Margot did not move. She continued to look up at the apartment, where the living room lights had just gone off. She watched the door; no one came out. In a moment, a light came on further back in the apartment, and two or three minutes later, it was extinguished as well.
"I should be getting home soon anyway," said Nadine, "My purse is still at your house."
"There's something I want to ask you," said Margot, finally tearing her eyes away from the apartment, somnolently searching her pockets for her wallet and keys. "My son?"
"Yeah?" prompted Nadine.
"Will you be his godmother?" Margot asked Nadine, teary- eyed.
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