When Claire and I and her youngest child, baby Nedi, arrive at Lettieri Café in Yorkville, the singletons of our little therapy group—Yves and Elena—are already there. Only Claire and I are married; she has a big family and I don’t have mine yet. That’s mainly why I needed therapy in the first place. There has been tension in our house; I’ll say it: “trouble.” It’s gotten to where Toby and I barely speak to each other. Oh, you’ve already eaten? Here’s the mail. Your mother called. It’s like that mostly. He makes rules I’m supposed to be happy with. “No” to a marriage counselor and a dog, but “yes” to infrequent upside-down sex.
Nedi, who is fourteen months, fell asleep in the back of my minivan, and I managed to get her into the new push chair I ordered online, without her waking or crying. Claire lets out a sigh as she sits next to Yves in the booth, knowing she can relax while I’m around. Yves slides a steaming pot of mint tea and an empty glass mug in front of Claire. For me, he’s ordered an americano with an extra shot of espresso, extra hot, the way I like it. He’s the mother hen of our group.
We are three women and one gay man. We began in a formal group-therapy setting, clinical, you might say. After a particularly stalemated session with our therapist, Julia, we all stumbled toward the subway, and Yves, who was going through hell with his wife after owning up to his longtime lover, Daniel, said, “Let’s save the cash and meet up for coffee instead.” Yves is a businessman who made a fortune in a start-up. If you ladies are in, meet me at Lettieri at ten o’clock, Wednesday morning.
Each of us had our way of letting Julia down. She’s a good therapist, but there was something about being in the front room of her fourteenth-floor apartment, we later admitted, that made us feel like actors, going around the room confessing our weaknesses and sorrows, while she sat there magisterially with her perfectly groomed blond hair tucked ever so slightly under her chin. I could have imagined this, but her chair seemed higher than ours. The director with all her pretty material things and then us, the troubled ones. What did it for me was that after a session one night she led us to her fancy dining room, and on her oak farm table various patterned china cups, plates, and bowls were stacked. She told us she didn’t want them anymore and offered them to us. As I stuffed a flowery teacup with a mismatched saucer into my oversized handbag, I thought, She doesn’t even think we can set a proper table.
The other members of the group stayed on with Julia, and it’s just as well. With the four of us, we don’t have to talk about our childhood traumas or feel pressed to make stuff up if there isn’t any bullshit from the week. Julia fancied a juicy anecdote, some slippage, and in a way we all wanted to please her, wanted her to take pity on us, so she’d keep us under her wing. It wasn’t healthy. At the coffee shop, we gloss over our pain if we feel like it. “We are those mismatched teacups,” I told everyone last week, surprising myself with such a tone of comradery and schmaltz.
Today, Claire begins, as usual, because she needs it more than the rest of us. She speaks quickly and is laughing as she talks. She’s like a pressure cooker letting out some of the steam of her disastrous life in puffs of humor.
“So we’re at this family gathering,” she tells us, “in his aunt’s back lawn, and a few of his Pakistani friends are there. There are so many fucking mosquitoes, you know? And this photographer guy is taking pictures of my girls and they’re clowning around. Anyway, I got out my can of Off and handed it to one of the mothers whose teenage boys are scratching their legs, digging at themselves so hard it looks like white chalk etched on their ankles. The mother says ‘No’ to me, and the boys plead with her, you know, like ‘Please. We’re being eaten alive.’ So I pass them the Off. ‘Here, you’ve suffered long enough,’ I say. But the mother gives it back to me again. ‘No,’ she tells me, like I’ve tried to give them cocaine or something. My husband gives me this look, and then I know. I’ve crossed some line. I’m always crossing some fucking line. So in the car, I tell him to take me to my mother’s even before he has a chance to say it, but he says it anyway. ‘You were flirting with those boys.’ Imagine it. ‘You were flirting with them!’ he tells me. Fifteen and thirteen years old, these kids. Fifteen and thirteen. ‘You were flirting with them.’ ”
She imitates her husband’s stern, accented voice so well it makes us laugh.
“So, we’re staying at my mother’s.”
We three steal glances at one another while she talks. No one else understands how she got to this place. Her husband, stuck in a misogynist century, the eleventh century for God’s sake, and Claire, sprightly and intelligent and lovely, could have had her pick of men. But I get it. She has her three baby girls no matter what. Once, Claire told us about the guys she had dated before Mustafa—the noncommittal types, guys in bands, bartenders, etc. Mustafa told her he loved her on the first date and he wanted a family with her.
Even with this horrendous story I contemplate the security of a guy who knows what he wants and thinks of himself as a provider. Even if that is something I shouldn’t be thinking of as a staunch feminist. I entertain it. Toby once said that he didn’t want to have kids until he had a million dollars in the bank.
“My advice to you two,” Claire says to Yves and Elena, “Marry someone who looks like you.” Elena glances down at her phone, unaware of what is being implied. She is the young one, and “No texting” is the only rule Yves established, with her in mind. We nominated him as mediator of the group. “This isn’t a patriarchal thing,” I’d said to him about his boss title. “You’re just better at keeping track.” In a way we are more vulnerable without Julia. Is it friendship we’re after? Is that really what therapy is about?
“My husband won’t let me have coffee,” I interject, feeling the caffeine in my temples. “He read that it inhibits the ovaries. He bought a $700 Vita juicer so I can live on a head of spinach reduced to a puddle of grit.” I try hard not to, but in a way I feel better than everyone else here, not because my problems are fewer but maybe the construct of group therapy is such that it’s only my social standing that makes my difficulties seem to pale against the others’. I’m in a different circle. Toby’s a highly regarded veterinarian, and I’m an urban designer. My job is basically to provide the Toronto metro with my New York aesthetic, make the city more visually appealing. We live in a beautiful loft on King, with tons of natural light and access to everything on foot. My problem according to Julia is chronic anxiety, mostly over the fact that I do not have a child. She told me it’s the one thing I haven’t been able to “acquire” easily, as if every pursuit in my life has come effortlessly. And as if everything is something to acquire.
“Jesus,” says Yves. He is French Canadian and seems to live on espresso, cigarettes, and sex. He is often dressed in sweatpants and sneakers—it’s remarkable that he looks smart in it; perhaps it’s because he is sinewy and wears an expensive wool cap. “That’s criminal,” he says about my not being allowed caffeine, and we laugh. Yves and I are the most alike.
“What a douche bag,” says Claire. “You’ve been trying for six years. It’s not the java, for fuck’s sake.” She swears like it’s recreation, and we know it’s one of the few ways she can be free. Sometimes when things are really stressful she’ll go outside with Elena and smoke, and then go into the bathroom and throw up so she smells like vomit instead of nicotine. She doesn’t wear a hijab, but her retaliations are so restrained against a culture that would stone her in certain circumstances. Sometimes I want to shake her. She is Ivory-soap-like in color and grew up with weird Quaker parents, and the idea of rebellion as the reason she married Mustafa seems too straightforward.
“What about you, E, you dreaming up a juicy Facebook status?” says Yves, calling Elena on her obvious boredom.
“I’m thinking of quitting music, going home to Calgary,” Elena says, “Fucking the dog or whatever and reclaiming my silver spoon.” Without the therapy group, Elena and I would never have crossed paths. Her parents are rich Italian immigrants who fashioned her into a principessa. She claims she’s bipolar and has little imagination for what it might be like to be anyone but her. Still, I like her. She is twenty-five and kind of nutty; she has a gorgeous singing voice and the punch line is she’s addicted to some American country singer, Aaron Tippin, and has blatantly siphoned her parents’ oil wealth to stalk him at concerts across the US. At present she is trying to break up the guy’s marriage or she’ll off herself, she told us this last time. Also, she has this tattoo of the Rolling Stones tongue on her neck and it makes me a little afraid of her. I look down and Nedi’s eyes have opened to a slant, and I quickly pick her up before Claire has a chance to even notice. The baby is delicately warm yet solid against my silk blouse.
“Are you taking your meds?” I ask Elena. Some part of me wants to say things to turn her inside out.
“I totally need to go up a dose,” she says, looking at everyone, “don’t you think?”
“Are you exercising?” Yves asks. “Why don’t you run the lakeshore with me, it’s a hoot.”
“I’d rather pop a pill and rev up on Diet Pepsi.”
Fair enough. We’re all sick of role-playing with Elena to source some kernel of sadness in her childhood. She needs to get through her twenties is all. Her determination is admirable, but it shoots off in every direction. I wish I were still her age and knew what I know now. I’d have ten babies by now.
“My father says he loves me whether I’m an artist or not. I could work in one of the offices in his oil company,” Elena says.
“Sure,” Claire responds. “Put a gun in your mouth after a week in the warehouse.” It’s hard for us not to project. Claire takes on a motherly role, but her patience for Elena is about the length of a toothpick. Claire can only see Elena for all the freedom she has, something she herself will never get back.
“Remember your mother sitting on the couch flipping through gossip rags and recipe books half the day, freezing her butt off in Calgary,” I say. “That’s bleak. Head south. The clock is ticking.” I say this and I feel my chest tighten. I haven’t told anyone, not even Toby, but I just found out I’m not capable of it. I can’t have a child.
“I resent that, Eva,” she says to me. “You’re just bitter ’cause you wish you were Claire.”
“That’s a laugh,” Claire says. “You mean it the other way around, right? Mustafa and I finally agreed that I won’t talk, ever, around his friends.” She’s jumping right back into her problems. Good. The nerve of Elena. “I showed a doctor buddy of his a blister on my finger, and Mustafa said it was disrespectful to offer a woman’s hands. It’s like farting, he said. So now I have tape over my mouth.” I snuggle into baby Nedi and the sweetness of her fine hair smells like roses, and I imagine her in the Madeline crib Toby and I bought at Pottery Barn a few years ago for the baby’s room. A little thing in the scale of suffering, right? There’s a baby’s room we’ll never need. So what? In the next moment I think that it’s true that for the children, anyway, I wouldn’t mind Claire’s life. I say to her, “You deserve more, Claire. Stay at my house for a bit? We’ve got plenty of room.”
She smiles and pats my arm. I feel a pang of desperation hoping she’ll agree to come.
“In my defense, I told Toby he needed to workout less. Found out it hurts the sperm count,” I offer, to try to loosen the grasp of the abject truth that has yet to sink in.
“Have you tried going on a date?” Yves says, “putting on some ‘come hither’ boots, wearing something sexy.”
“Fuck you,” I say, because we have done just that so many times.
“All right,” he says, “Julia would say, ‘Have you tried the “C” word?’ Communication, honey.”
“I pulled up the adoption site the other night. I want an Ethiopian baby. They’re so unwanted. Self-righteous of me, eh?”
But that’s not how I feel. I dream about their beautiful brown skin and soft curls and would give any amount of money to be on a plane to Addis Ababa. It’s fear that holds me back or something else. Maybe I’m just like Toby. I see so many happy white parents with Asian children and I always imagine they know something I don’t.
“Why don’t you do it yourself?” says Elena, her big blue eyes on me, as if she’s Bianca Balti. She’s all Italian beauty and confidence and seems to have it in for me today. “You’re a coward, eh? That’s what’s stopping you. I never knew how I was getting to Nashville for Aaron’s last concert but I made it, didn’t I?”
“Who’s the one moving back to Cal-town? You make no sense, Elena.” My cheeks are red. I count to ten in my head and breathe out.
“Listen, your husband is a vet and won’t let you have a dog. That says it all.”
“It’s against condo rules. You know that,” I answer.
“That’s an excuse,” Elena says, and isn’t backing down. “The guy runs your life.”
“Hey, enough. You can’t talk to me like that. Yves, tell her.” Suddenly I’m the child in this mess, and I need Yves’s rescue. I wonder if it’s in my face or my voice that I think Toby is leaving me soon. “You’re all leash,” he said last week. “I can’t be comfortable in my own condo anymore. You’ve got it rigged so our failure is staring at us from every angle.”
“Let’s call it, darlings,” Yves says, and he gets up abruptly, kisses me and the baby on both cheeks, and makes his way around the table to hug Elena and Claire. I think we all realize suddenly that he didn’t get to spill, but that is part of Yves’s problem—avoidance. “I’ll get this one,” he says, takes the check, and is gone.
Back at my apartment, Claire falls asleep on the sofa with a cashmere throw over her legs. At the last minute she’d agreed to come over to rest and let me play with Nedi. I called the office and told them I wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day. I am down on the Persian rug with Nedi. From the bookshelf I take a squishy, brightly colored square block. I roll it along the soft rug. Nedi crawls along and grabs hold of the block, then hands it to me, and laughs. I move the block to another part of the carpet, and she crawls over to it, then brings it back again. She’s delightful. I think if Toby saw me with her, he’d get it. He’d see me like he used to. I move the block again, and Nedi makes her way to it. We do this over and over. I am bewitched by her.
The keys to Claire’s Volvo dangle out of her diaper bag. If I’m really quiet and she stays sleeping, I’ll have to pick up her other children at the preschool. I’ll bring them back here and make a big meal. I’ve got enough vegetables to put in a pot with bouillon and chicken, and then we could play games by the fireplace, and I’ll make popcorn and we’ll giggle and talk. The older girls will want to play in my bedroom, and I’ll get out my big bucket of scarves and we’ll dance around with that Putumayo kids’ music playing on my iPhone.
Nedi cackles a laugh when she bonks herself on the nose with the block. Her laugh wakes Claire. She is up like a shot, and there’s drool on the down throw pillow. Claire grabs her coat and keys and slips into her shoes without bothering to fit her heels in properly.
“Fucking shit,” Claire says, “I’m late for carpool.” She hugs me with Nedi already on her hip. “Why’d you let me sleep?” She doesn’t wait for an answer and swings open the apartment door. I follow her into the hallway.
“I’m going to make a roast chicken,” I say. “I’ll start on it right away. It’ll be fun. We’ll all eat together.”
“Oh, Eva, I can’t,” she sighs. “My girls need to see their father. They miss him.”
She comes back toward me and gives me another hug, a pity hug, I know, but I take it. “I’ll see you next week, okay?”
I am unable to speak. I hear the ding of the elevator and they go in and the door closes.
Those children miss that father.
I leave my apartment door open and go in and lie on the couch exactly the way Claire had. I look out the big bay window and imagine Nedi is still there on the rug, playing. I visualize that I have someone just like her to worry about and to make me feel harried and overwhelmed with what there is to do. It is a lovely haze to be in. Later, I go into the kitchen and take down the instant espresso I’ve hidden behind the paper towels in the cabinet above the refrigerator. I boil water, and I make the coffee good and strong. At the computer, I open the adoption site and fill out the registration page in both our names, forging answers for Toby because we haven’t had the conversation. And he’ll never go for it. And I know I have no chance in hell if there aren’t two parents on the form. That’s clear. I’ll tell him tonight. And I’m pretty sure it’s the thing that will make him leave me. I complete the form quickly, and another comes up saying we’ll hear in two to three months, possibly sooner, about an interview. I sit on the couch looking out at the rush-hour traffic as dusk moves in. The clouds fill quickly with shades of charcoal, and rain pitters on the pane of glass, and it is evening.
I hear footsteps coming down the hallway. I shut my eyes and pretend to be asleep.