- This Is How It Always Is
“I dunno. Probably.” Poppy smiled happily. “You’re such a good hair braider.” It was the best thing about cancer it turned out. Poppy’s wig hair was much longer and less tangled than her real hair. “Your daughter’s going to be so lucky.”
At that very moment, Rosalind Walsh, aged twelve, decided two things: her daughter would have long hair, like really long, like long enough to sit on, and she would name her Poppy. Eventually, Rosie discovered Siam was now called Thailand, but it was several lifetimes later before she got there, and then it was not for vacation. This was the last time she was ever alone with her sister.
All the way to the hospital, while Penn murmured, “Breathe, breathe,” and Roo sang, “I gotta crow,” and Ben and Rigel and Orion cawed back at the tops of their little boy voices, “Er-er-er-errrrr,” Rosie whispered, “Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy.”
Twenty minutes after they pulled up at the front door, the baby was ready.
“Push,” said the doctor.
“Breathe,” said Penn.
“Poppy,” said Rosie. “Poppy. Poppy. Poppy.”
Was that why? Was she just trying endlessly to make a daughter to fulfill an ancient dream of her sister’s, a ten-year-old’s dream at that? Did she believe this daughter would grow up and be, at ten, the little girl she’d lost, Poppy herself, picking up where Poppy had left off, fulfilling all the promise of that stymied, hacked-off, stubbed-out little life? As long as she kept her womb full, might Poppy, some version of Poppy—some waiting, watchful, wandering Poppy demon—gather up all her errant atoms and come home again? Was it creepy to imagine your dead sister taking up residence in your uterus? Wasn’t it purported to be a sign of insanity to do the same thing over and over expecting different results?
One card short of a deck. One waffle short of a stack. One horse short of a … group of horses.
Or was it some long-bred, deep-sown conviction that the more children the better because you never knew when you might lose one? They had all been so broken when Poppy died, Rosie and her mom and dad. One was not enough. One was always out of balance. It was no longer two against two. There was no longer anyone to play with, to run to, to spare. Her mother, she knew, saw double, saw Poppy always at the edges, in Rosie’s shadow, at Rosie’s side during school plays and dances and graduation ceremonies, Poppy just behind Rosie and Penn at the wedding, Poppy panting quietly at Rosie’s side while her babies were all being born. Even when Rosie’s father left the world just before Roo came into it, her mother saw Poppy’s ghostly outline alongside Rosie’s swollen belly at graveside, quietly weeping for all that was lost, and it wasn’t just their father. At least then, it was one against one again. Balance restored.
One is the loneliest number. Never put all your eggs in one basket.
So maybe that was why. Or maybe Rosie and Penn just liked babies, their promise and chaos and mess, the way babies all started the same and almost instantly became entirely different. Rosie loved the high-pitched pandemonium of her big, sprawling family, muddled love filling up their farmhouse-clubhouse, a cacophony only she could make out, a whirling storm with her and Penn, grinning together, spinning together, at the center.
“Push,” said the doctor.
“Breathe,” said Penn.
“Poppy,” said Rosie.
And then, soon, “It’s a boy! A healthy, beautiful, perfect, impatient baby boy,” the doctor said. “Fast little guy. Good thing you didn’t hit traffic.”
One fell swoop, Rosie thought. Once upon a time.
Takes one to know one. A baby brother. At least the boys would know what to do.
Penn was an only child. On their first date when Rosie said, “So, do you have brothers or sisters?” and Penn said, “Nope. Only child,” Rosie had replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” as if he’d said he had only three months to live or had been raised above an artisan deli by vegans.
“Oh, thanks. It’s okay,” he’d said, and realized only a few beats later that that response was entirely wrong. He was having trouble concentrating. He was having trouble doing anything because blood was coursing through him twice as fast and hard as usual owing to the fact that he could not slow his heart, which had been in a state since several hours before he’d driven over to pick her up. Before he’d done so, he couldn’t imagine why. Rosie was a friend of a friend of a friend, an arrangement someone he’d not even known had hit upon at a party one night, drunk and silly. He was in grad school at the time, getting an MFA and waking each morning to wonder why he was getting an MFA. A woman from his medieval lit class (what this class had to do with writing a novel he could not even begin to guess) had dragged before him a woman he did not recognize, who had looked him over appraisingly for a bit before finally asking, “So. Want to date a doctor?”
“I know a single doctor who’s into poets.”
“I’m not a poet.”
“You know what I mean.”
“She’s real cute. I think you might really hit it off.”
“You don’t know my name.”
“She’s not into names.”
“That wasn’t my point.”