“SO. Exciting,” she repeats. “I’m ’bout dead. Ok, I’m dead. I mean, I was starting to worry! And then we made the appointment, like you said, and kapow. Sperm, meet egg.” I steal a glance at Wendy, who is shaking her head in amusement. “Dickie is THRILLED. He was really freaked out about all the samples. I said, ‘You get to jerk off into a cup, while I have to have needles stabbing me all day and night,’ and he said, ‘How am I supposed to explain to the partners that my billable hours are down because I’m spanking it in a clinic bathroom?”
At this point, Wendy is doubled over in mirth, and I’m trying desperately not to let her start me laughing too. But Ruthie is oblivious. “And I said, ‘Richard Pickely Kleinbaum the Third, you get in there, and you do what you need to do so we can start our family.’ And then that night, I don’t know if he was just too worried about his billables or what, but here we are!”
And then, just as I think it’s my turn, she starts to cry.
“Eight years!” she says. “That’s how much the cousins will be apart in age. How can this even be? What’ll we do?”
I know the answer to this one! Zoey and Joy are eight years apart. “Actually, I think it will be wonderful, Ruthie. Linus is going to fall in love with this baby, and Bridget’s almost old enough to babysit. You’ll be glad for the help.” I glance up to Wendy and catch her smiling at the thought.
“You are so right! To be honest, I’m already kind of nervous about how hard it will be. I know the first three months are going to be just all eat, sleep, poop, but then after that . . . I just do not want to have to quit my job.”
“Yes, I remember thinking those things,” I say.
“Obviously,” she replies. “Even if you had wanted to quit your job, there’d be no way, I know. Dickie and I are right on the edge. We can make it without my salary, but I’m just so afraid I won’t be able to hack it at home. And then what happens when the kid is older? What becomes of me?”
Oh man. I lock my eyes on my wineglass so I don’t have to see Wendy’s reaction to all this. If I could answer that question, I’d sleep a whole lot better at night. This is what I worry about all the time. No matter how happy our choices make us right now, the day is coming when I won’t have anything between me and the profession I left eleven years ago, except the fact that I never particularly liked it. Hugh says that will be my “season to shine.” But this is my time right now. Mothering may well be the only thing I’m good at.
I take a decent sip of my wine. It’s as familiar as this kitchen I’m drinking it in—a favorite from the eight-dollar bin at Kroger, and it’s an excellent stall technique. And anyway, Ruthie has just gotten a fresh wind.
“I don’t suppose Seth’s given any more thought to that adjunct art-teaching gig I told you about? I know it’s beneath him and all that, but it’s only ten hours a week. It’s worth another conversation, right?”
“Mmm . . . ,” I say, noticing Wendy is getting more fidgety the deeper this conversation goes.
“And anyway, when was the last time he sold something? Dickie said to me yesterday, ‘Maybe we should hire Seth to do the childcare,’ and I was like, ‘Hardy har har,’ but then Dickie heard that Seth didn’t even apply for the latest commission for the Downtown Initiatives Fund. Not even apply? Wendy, you have to do something about him.”
I frown, and for a moment I wonder if I should take the laptop somewhere Wendy can’t hear us. But, of course, this conversation is supposed to be with Wendy. These words are meant for her ears, as surprising as they may be to mine. “What do you propose?” I ask her, looking up to catch Wendy’s eye.
“Leave him?” she says.
My jaw drops. Wendy’s eyes dodge mine, and she turns to my fridge, retrieves the wine bottle.
“Ok, ok, sorry. I didn’t mean that. I know you love him. I know how talented he is; I really do. But, like, what is talent if you don’t do anything with it? It’s like having a big dick but not being able to get it up,” she says. “And also refusing to take Cialis. Which Seth ALSO does.”
Oh no. Oh, that explains so much. I look up at Wendy again, but now she’s studiously pouring herself a glass of wine. A generous glass.
“Ruthie,” I begin to say, trying to warn her, though of what, I’m not sure.
“Ok, ok. You always get so prickly if I say anything even slightly critical of Seth. I’m your sister. I say it out of love.”
I clear my throat, lock eyes with Wendy. “Just keep in mind, it might hurt to know your sister and her husband are discussing your marriage,” I tell them both.
Above the laptop screen, Wendy sets down her glass and looks at me as if she’s reassessing me. Ruthie, meanwhile, just smiles sadly. “You’re so, so right, sis. I will cut it out, yesterday. Besides, I remember when he used to make you so happy. He should get credit, too, because he supported your decision to start this business, and now look at you. The keynote Saturday! You’re going to kill it.”
I open my mouth to respond, but she says, “Dickie and I were talking about division of labor, right, for when the baby comes. And I know you told me it’s all fun and games until there’s a crying baby at four a.m. and you can’t even wake your husband up, but Dickie said, ‘If you can’t wake me up, hit me in the face with a baseball bat if you have to.’ Isn’t that sweet?”
I take another drink of wine. “I guess?”
“And it just made me think about your deal with Seth, right?”
“My deal?” I repeat dumbly. In the background, Wendy is unscrewing the wine bottle again and filling her glass even fuller, even though she’s barely taken a sip of what she already poured. Either she really loves this wine, or she really hates this conversation.
“It’s just that I have had those baby-crazy hormones now, and I know how badly I want this and how, like, everywhere you go, all you see is new moms and their buggies and their diaper bags, and I totally get why you promised to do all the work of child-rearing to talk Seth into getting pregnant. But after eleven years, I just don’t think you have to keep that deal.”
I stare at her in shock, forgetting for a moment that Wendy is even in the room. She promised to do everything kid related by herself for the rest of her days? And Seth let her?
“You talk to me about being a good feminist, right?” continues Ruthie. “But then you do everything in your house. You do the kids, the food, the clothes, the money. It’s cray!”
Wendy coughs quietly. Her lips are set in an unreadable line, and her eyes seem stony, but I can still imagine what she’s feeling right now, and my heart pulls for her.
“He did play softball with the girls the other night,” I stammer in shock. Inside, I am reeling. Is this why Wendy is doing everything by herself? To keep an impossible promise?
Ruthie doesn’t seem to notice she’s made her way into such murky waters. “I know parenting is so complicated these days and that Seth is an artist and this isn’t what he signed up for when you guys got married, but Dickie said, and he’s totally right, you know, ‘What kind of husband expects his wife to keep a promise like that? What kind of man doesn’t parent his own kids or wants to see his wife so overworked?’”
In the background, I watch, concerned, as Wendy walks off, wine forgotten, into the living room, where Joy is playing with a stack of board books. Only half out of view, I can see everything as she scoops up my daughter, pulls her in tight, and drops a sad kiss on the top of her head that speaks volumes of her sorrow, her personal pain. I want to follow her, but what could I say to Ruthie? And what could I possibly say to Wendy that would make her feel any better after all this?
“Ok,” Ruthie goes on. “That’s the last thing I’ll say about Seth, I swear.”
She looks at me expectantly. I fish around for the right words and end up with, “Thank you.” But inside I’m absolutely roiling. Poor, poor Wendy. This explains so much about their relationship and why her expectations are so incredibly low. It doesn’t explain how Seth can hold her to this, but then, I’m not sure anything can.
I wrap up the call as quickly as I can. Another excited congratulations, a virtual toast, a shared desire to give her a big hug soon, vague agreements about finding a good date for the shower. As soon as I close the laptop, I go to find Wendy but find all three kids—my beautiful kids—instead. To my great amazement, they are all hanging out together, playing some kind of online Harry Potter trivia game I’ve never seen before and probably never would have let them touch in the past. Samuel, in his halting way, is reading the clues to Joy, and they all laugh when she incorrectly answers two questions in a row with “Hermione.”
After they notice me, I ask after their mother, stuttering only a little on the words, and Joy looks at me hard for a second before telling me in her goofy syntax, “That mommy went up to rest her eyes before the babysitter comes.”
For a second I think about going up there. But then I realize, as I drag myself out of my real house, my real life, to go live someone else’s, I don’t have the right. I’m not Wendy’s friend; I’m not her family. Yet I now know far more than she ever wanted me to know about the inner workings of her life. I finally understand that she made a deal with the devil for the thing so many of us want most in the world. And now that she’s paying the price, she’s convinced herself there’s no going back.