Ryan’s back is facing me, as Rachel’s face is in my direct eye line. She mouths, Is this OK? half pointing to Ryan’s back. I give her a thumbs-up. That’s all she needs. She just needs a thumbs-up. If I’m thumbs-up, she’s thumbs-up. “I’m so glad to see you!” she says. She turns on the charm as if it has a switch, but it’s real. She’s being entirely genuine.
“Me, too,” he says. “Me, too.”
“We’ve missed you around these parts,” Rachel says, giving him a sisterly light punch to the arm.
“You don’t even know the half of it,” he says. “What can I do? How can I help now that I’m here?”
“Well,” Rachel says, looking at me now, “we’ve had a slight hiccup.”
“Hiccup?” I say.
“Natalie and Charlie ran down to prenatal.”
“Oh,” I say.
“When is she due?” Ryan says. “It’s soon, right?”
“Thursday,” I say.
“Right,” Rachel says. “Well, she thinks she has something called Braxton-Hicks.”
“What is Braxton-Hicks?” Ryan and I both say at the same time. It’s muscle memory, the way we can function as one unit so easily. It’s such second nature to be two halves of a whole that after months of not speaking, we are now speaking as one.
“I don’t know. Mom explained it. It’s something where it seems like you’re in labor but you’re probably not.”
“Probably not?” I ask.
“No,” Rachel says. “I mean, she’s not. But they thought it was best to address it. Apparently, the contractions feel just like real contractions.”
“So it’s painful?” Ryan says.
Rachel nods and tries not to laugh.
“What?” I ask.
“It’s not funny,” Rachel says. “It’s totally not.”
“But when the first one came, Natalie grabbed her stomach and said, ‘Jesus, f**k me.’ Even Mom was laughing.”
I start laughing along with Rachel. Multiple elevators have come and gone at this point, and we just continue to stand here.
“You guys are mean,” Ryan says.
I start to defend myself, but Rachel intervenes. “No, it’s just funny because Natalie is the nicest person I’ve ever met. Truly. When she said it, Mom laughed so hard she blew a huge snot bubble.”
I start laughing again; Ryan does, too. My mother has appeared right behind Rachel.
“Rachel Evelyn Spencer!”
Rachel looks at me and rolls her eyes. “Mom heard me, huh?”
“Sorry, Mom,” she says, turning around.
“Never mind that,” my mom says, her face growing serious. “We have a slight hiccup.”
“Yeah, Rachel told us,” I say.
My mom’s line of sight focuses in on Ryan and then my hand, which is still holding his after all this time. “Good Lord, this is all just too much,” she says. She sits down in one of the chairs along the hall and puts her head in her hands. “It’s not Braxton-Hicks,” she says. “Natalie is in labor.”
“Please tell me you’re joking,” Rachel says.
“No, Rachel, I’m not joking. And this is a good thing, remember? We want this baby born.”
“No, I know,” she says, reprimanded. “I just mean it’s a lot at once.”
“Can I do anything?” Ryan asks.
My mom looks at him and stands up. She hugs him tight. She hugs him the way only a mother can hug. It’s not a mutual hug, like Rachel and Ryan had. My mother is hugging. Ryan is being hugged. “I’m just so glad to see your face, sweetheart,” she says. “So glad to see your face.”
Ryan looks at her for a moment, and I think he might lose it. He might actually start crying. But he changes course. “I missed you, Leslie.”
“Oh, honey, we all missed you.”
“How is Grandma Lois doing?” he asks. “Can I see her?”
“She’s sleeping at the moment,” my mom says. “I think we should split up. Some people need to go be with Natalie and Charlie, and the rest of us need to be with Grandma.”
It’s an impossible choice, isn’t it? Do you want to be there for the last moments of one life or the first moments of another? Do you honor the past or ring in the future?
“I can’t do this,” my mom says. “I can’t choose. My grandbaby or my mother?”
“You don’t have to choose,” I say. “Between me, Ryan, Rachel, and Fletcher, we’ve got everything. You can go back and forth.”
“I suppose I’m going to get stuck with Uncle Fletcher?” Rachel says.
I look at her. The look on my face is an apology and a plea.
“Fine,” she says. “Everyone has a life event but me. So I’ll just go watch Grandma with Uncle Fletcher.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“When the baby is born, please come get me. Please? Ryan? Will you come get me? Switch with me or something?”
“Absolutely,” he says.
“I’ll go with you,” Mom says to Rachel. “Keep us posted, please,” she says to Ryan and me.
“OK,” I say. “You got it.”
“If she wakes up,” Ryan chimes in, “tell her I’m here?”
“Are you kidding?” Mom says. “I don’t know if we could keep the news in if we tried!”
Ryan smiles as I hit the elevator down button, and then I hit the up button. I don’t know where we’re going.
“Mom?” I call out.
She turns around.
The down elevator dings. It’s here. Here we go. We have been chosen to ring in the future.
It turns out that ringing in the future is not like New Year’s Eve when you can count down from ten until the ball drops. Ringing in the future is a lot of waiting. It’s a lot of sitting in uncomfortable chairs and walking back and forth to the vending machine. It’s a lot of checking regularly with Charlie but not staying in the room itself.
“She’s at three centimeters,” Charlie says, when we find their room. He’s talking to us while looking at Natalie, and it’s clear he assumes we are Mom.
“You OK, Natalie?” I ask. She looks like crap. I mean, she looks beautiful, because beautiful people are beautiful even when they look like crap, but all the signs for looking like crap are there. Her hair is disheveled, her face is flushed. She’s clearly been crying. And yet, somehow, she’s entirely happy.
“Yep,” she says. “I’m good. Just don’t ask me during a contraction.” She looks up at me and sees a strange man standing beside me. Admittedly, I should have thought about the fact that Ryan is a stranger and Natalie is in a hospital gown on a bed with stirrups.
“Uh . . .” she says, looking at him.
Charlie follows her eyes and turns around. His face lights up as if a lightbulb has just gone on above his head. “Ryan!” He steps up, dropping Natalie’s hand, and gives Ryan a bro hug. There is a lot of back patting.
“Hey, Charlie!” Ryan says. When they are done hugging, Charlie stands next to him, and Ryan keeps his hand on Charlie’s shoulder for a just a second longer than a friend would. They are closer than friends. Charlie starts to introduce Ryan to Natalie, but she starts cringing and gasping for air. Charlie runs to her. He’s so quick it looks instinctual. This is a guy my mom has to beg to help with the dishes, but the minute Natalie is in pain, he’s there. He’s supporting her. Helping her. Being there for her.
“Can I do anything?” I ask. I am hesitant to offer ice chips again, but she did say that they were appropriate for labor. “Ice chips?”
Natalie laughs for a moment through her pain. It is, perhaps, the best laugh I’ve ever gotten in my entire life.
“Yeah,” Charlie says, his hand being squeezed. “Ice chips.”
Ryan and I leave to find some. The nurse tells us there is an ice machine at the end of a very long hall. We start walking.