“The kitty is yours, sweetheart,” I tell her. “You earned it.”
And apparently I earned this. I don’t know how. But as I pass through Macy’s with Anna Joy happily staying within my sight, I wonder what, exactly, I did to be so lucky that instead of spending a day in my own stress-filled life, I am shopping with someone else’s money on someone else’s time, and there is plenty of both for the first time in many years.
Anna Joy gets hungry just as I am checking out in the women’s section. Once I got her dress size right, I found five great separates that make Celeste’s waist look shapely, two bras that move her breasts back into the correct position, and a pair of shoes that say both I’m a great person with something meaningful to say and If you’re lucky, I’ll leave these on during sex, at the same time. Lucky Hugh! I think to myself, only to remember that Celeste can’t have sex with Hugh right now, or I would also be having sex with Hugh, and there are rules for a reason. Still, I might leave Celeste with some notes on how to use tools like these shoes and bras and the pair of lacy undies I doubt she will be pleased to find in her drawer when she gets her body back. Once everything is paid for and bagged up, I take Anna Joy to the excellent dumpling restaurant a block away. Just as she has never seen a Frito before, she’s also never seen a soup dumpling. She looks from it to my boobs suspiciously.
“I want milk,” she says.
“You can have cow’s milk,” I tell her firmly.
“I want mommy milk!” she clarifies at the top of her lungs. “FROM YOUR BOOBIES!”
I am calm. This is Celeste, not me, whose kid just shouted boobies in a dim sum joint.
I take out a bag of Starburst.
“These are very chewy,” I tell her. “Come sit in Mommy’s lap like you were going to have milk, but instead try chewing on one of these while I stroke your hair.”
She looks at me dubiously. I unwrap a strawberry Starburst, eat half exaggeratedly, and say, “Yummmmm, so chewy!”
She comes to sit on my lap, and to my surprise my breasts start to tingle and let down. Not caring what anyone thinks about Celeste in this place, I stuff three napkins inside each bra cup and push one arm against my nips, using the other to hold up the sweet baby girl who is probably missing her real mommy so much, even if she can’t quite figure out why. Pangs of emotion and the pure desire to just give in and nurse her bang around my head and squeeze my heart. The hormonal surge that accompanies the milk letdown brings on happy memories of my own babies. Bridget at three was chubby like this one, and she was speedy and zoomy, too, but she didn’t fall for new things so easily. If I had told her to eat something specific—no matter how sweet—at three years old, she would have refused on principle. If I had said to sit on my lap, she would have lasted two minutes before trying to stand on my shoulders and leap over the top of me. But oh, how she made us laugh.
By contrast, Anna Joy cuddles in deep, takes a candy, and puts it in her mouth, then grabs a fistful of Celeste’s deep-brown hair and twirls, twirls, twirls.
To my own surprise, I’m sympathetic to Anna Joy’s plight. Linus probably would have nursed till fourteen if I hadn’t had to go back to work, where my breasts laughed in the face of my breast pump and closed up shop within three weeks. He loved, and still loves, cuddling with me as tightly as possible. When he was this age, he would bring books up to me at every hour of the day, sometimes even when I was sleeping, and get as close to me as he could without fusing atoms. Then he would open the book onto my face. If I was too tired to start reading, he would tell me the title and then recite the story from memory, turning the pages completely at random. It made Seth crazy. “I’m trying to sleep here!” he’d tell us from the opposite side of the bed.
“You’re not the one with a book on her face!” I’d call.
“It’s three a.m.!” he’d say.
“Go to the guest room!” I’d tell him back. “At least you can breathe! Linus, honey, let Mommy have her windpipe back, ok?” And Linus would adjust his hug to pinch my kidneys instead and resume his narration.
Anna Joy sighs, not a contented sigh but a longing one, and I do the same. It is a strange irony of motherhood that you start yearning for another baby before your first one can say her own name, before you’ve had a good night’s sleep in ages, before your body could possibly handle another pregnancy. The baby itch that you think will be finally soothed with a beautiful, healthy child in your arms after nine months of waiting comes back so fast, and stronger than even before the first kid. I thought for sure it would be gone after Linus, he of the six months of morning sickness and the forty-eight-hour labor, but no. Around nine months later I started to think that if I must have sex in this baggy, stretched-out, tired body, maybe I should have it unprotected so we could try for a third.
Even now that Linus is eight and Seth has been snipped by mutual agreement, I find myself watching mothers of three jealously, as though I don’t already have an embarrassment of blessings. My perspective vanishes, and it’s suddenly all about what I don’t have after all. Look at those multiparous women, with their one last baby, their last midnight snuggles, their last stroller walks. Their last maternity leaves and their last diaper changes and their last slow lukewarm baths and the chance to say a proper goodbye to every stage, knowing for sure they have done it right this time, that they have learned what there is to learn, that this child, certainly, will be the one to give them three perfect grandbabies and let them snuggle them as if they were their own when the happy time comes.
At two kids, you think, I’m so tired. Two has to be enough. Two healthy children; I’m as lucky as they come. And your husband, or at least mine, is ready to walk as it is.
But still, you break down some mornings around your ovulation. You dream of another baby, and when you wake and find she is not real, you cry. You cry when you sell your stroller to a neighbor, and you cry when you take your baby bottles to Goodwill. Each laundry day you sort out what is too small for your youngest and cry a little then too. You wonder, Would three really be so bad? The other two would be in school all day, and it would be just you and the baby. And now here I am, in Celeste’s body with her baby on my lap, pressing my arms to leaky nipples and thinking, If only I’d had one more. This would be my life. This toddler in my arms gazing up at me lovingly, and nowhere to be except here with my favorite soup dumplings within easy reach.
This is Celeste’s life.
A sorrow as keen as knives opens inside me.
“Mommy,” says Anna Joy. “Why are you crying?” She makes it clear that she is the one who should be crying here, and she indeed seems very close to tears, though she is trying this new thing with her whole heart.
I think about what to say that won’t freak out this kid for life. “I am so glad you’re here, that’s all. You are a little precious gift, and your mommy is so lucky to have you.”
She smiles. “Can I have milk, then?”
“No,” I say. “My heart is made of stone. Sorry, darling.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” she says and takes another Starburst. Lemon.
“You never know,” I say in return, both to her and to myself.
There is a knock on the office door. Wendy told me in no uncertain terms not to shut her door—apparently her PhD thesis was on the power of “architectural/subliminal information in the compassionate workplace.” But I ignored her because she doesn’t get what it’s like to never, ever, ever be alone. She gets to sit in this office all day and read these articles to make herself feel smug about her choices. She uses an office bathroom with a lock on it. In her office desk she has a stash of what looks like leftover Easter candy that her children will never, ever find.
I call for whomever it is to come in.
“Wendy?” says a man with a full foot of height on me—well, on Wendy, who is just short enough that in her body the whole world looks slightly bigger. The man has the nicest sort of shoulders that he has to angle to squeeze through the half-open doorway. My, or Wendy’s, body kind of wakes up when he’s in the room. My very first thought: Is Wendy sleeping with this guy?
Looking carefully at him, I’m not sure I could blame her.
“Everything ok in here?” he asks. His accent is a rich, creamy British, and he looks genuinely concerned.
Do I look funny? I wonder. Is my Celeste showing through? “Why do you ask?”
“The door,” he tells me. “You never close that door.”
Oh, right. My lack of architectural compassion.