As I did with Cheer: A Novel, I wanted to share the first three chapters of my new book, HEADS OR TAILS, on this blog. If you want to find out what happens with Hillary, Margot, Jesse and, of course, the baby, check out the book here. I’d love your feedback!
HEADS OR TAILS
by Leslie A. Gordon
At some point, we reach a place in life when we’re sure there will be no more surprises. The timing is different for everyone, but the feeling — a settling, a resignation — is the same. We know everyone we’re going to know. We may encounter new clients or neighbors, the kinds of people who come and go, the kind that don’t last. But eventually, we come to understand that the old flame is not going to return decades later, that no one truly revolutionary is going to cross our paths. Our people are our people. And when we reach that point, we inherently grasp that no one new will change us. No one will shake the foundation of our identity or imperil our most cherished relationships. No one will force us to make unthinkable choices. No one will crease a comfortable life and fold it into a wholly new shape, like an origami crane.
And then someone does.
It began, as seismic shifts often do, with a phone call.
“Meees Hillary,” Jorge said, pronouncing my name Eee-lar-eee, which I loved. “Telefono. For you.” He held the corded beige receiver out to me. Construction site offices were pretty analog.
I’d just returned to the trailer after getting my lunch. I plopped the paper bag containing my avocado tuna sandwich from the latest hipster shop on Divisadero Street onto my desk and smiled at Jorge.
“Gracias,” I replied, inwardly wincing at my own bad accent. I was eagerly anticipating next Monday’s start of the conversational Spanish class I’d signed up for at the JCC. Connecting with construction workers beyond just simple workplace instructions had become a personal goal of mine. More than simply describing, say, the painting schedule of an upcoming project, I wanted to talk to Jorge about things like whether his daughter was enjoying preschool. But my pitiful Spanish just wouldn’t do. So learning conversational Spanish had been one of my New Year’s resolutions. The other day I looked up and realized that it was already late October and I’d better get on that. When Jorge handed me the phone, I was on a five-day countdown to the JCC class.
I took a quick sip of my smoothie, as overpriced as my designer sandwich, before tossing off my thin down vest and taking the receiver from Jorge. It was that gorgeous, in-between season in San Francisco, when Indian Summer met the beginnings of early winter, when the sun shined bright at high noon as leaves swirled around your feet by two. I lowered myself into my desk chair gently, my hamstrings objecting due to the eight-mile run Jesse and I had done the night before.
Because the call came into the Curtis Construction line, I’d expected it to be about the latest architectural drawings we’d received for a potential project in Noe Valley or the plumbing issues we were working out on the current Alamo Square project. So I was surprised to hear an elderly, shaky voice ask, “Hilly?”
Instantly, I was back at boarding school in New Hampshire. My time at Egan Academy twenty-five years ago was when I was at my best. “My peak years,” I joked to Jesse, implying that he’d gotten stuck with the second-rate me. Everyone called me Hilly back then and whenever someone used that nickname, I was immediately enveloped in the profound sense of belonging I’d not experienced before or since. Perhaps I idealized it as the years passed, but not by much. My Egan classmates weren’t just friends or dorm mates. They were confidantes, nurses, therapists, style consultants and sisters. Strangely, it wasn’t until I entered boarding school at fourteen that I understood the force of family bonds, even though the people to whom I’d bonded were in no way related to me. Somehow, those Egan girls made me my best self. Confident. Compassionate. Centered. Focused. Self-aware. It was a self I still strived to return to.
“Hilly,” the caller repeated, “It’s Jean.”
But she didn’t need to identify herself. The age and shakiness in her voice revealed right away that she was Jean, the mother of Margot, my first Egan roommate, my best friend in the world. And for many years, Jean had been like a mom to me too, seeing that my own mother was not only geographically far away from our boarding school, but far away from me in so many other ways as well. When I was a teenager, Jean graciously welcomed me at her house when Egan had long holiday weekends, even weekends when her own daughter went to a boyfriend’s family home instead. She listened when Margot and I complained about our least favorite teachers or about how Linda Tag always got the lead in the spring musical even though you could barely hear her voice past the second row. Jean helped me decide which colleges I should apply to and which one I should attend. And almost twenty-five years ago, Jean had secretly helped me during the scariest point in my life, my biggest crossroads. I credited her clandestine assistance with putting me on the path that led me to where I was when she called: in a fulfilling career, avidly pursuing personal interests, in my marriage with Jesse. She’d truly earned her spot at the “family table” at my wedding reception.
Back at San Francisco’s Alamo Square, the site of the latest project for Curtis Construction, at which I served as general contractor, my heart nearly burned a hole through my t-shirt when I heard Jean’s voice grow weaker, either because of age, emotion or the Parkinson’s disease that had plagued her for the last five years.
“Margot’s in trouble.”
My posture stiffened. I put my palm to my forehead and leaned on my elbow, snapping my eyes shut. Jean explained that what had started out as a routine case of the baby blues had morphed into full-blown postpartum depression.
“She’s not eating. She sleeps all the time. But worse than that, she’s, um, she’s having trouble taking care of the baby.”
Having trouble taking care of a baby was something I could easily imagine. Which is precisely why I, along with Jesse, decided years ago not to have kids. We’d each grown up as only children and had exactly zero experience with babies. And in my case, at least, the parenting model I had was less than stellar. I wasn’t going to attempt something I was destined to fail at, especially something as important as raising a person. Jesse and I didn’t even feel fit to adopt a dog. We loved our little life, the solidarity in our coupledom, our shared hobbies, which were most decidedly not kid-friendly. But despite how I felt about having children, this certainly sounded in no way like my ambitious, capable Margot, who’d wanted that baby intensely.
“She’s eating so few calories that her milk dried up. The baby’s on formula now.” Jean sniffed. “That’s not what she’d planned. It’s too early.”
My shoulders crept towards my ears and the corners of my eyes moistened. Despite how close Margot and I were, despite the fact that we were each the first person the other called whenever something good or bad happened, it was tempting to ask why Jean was calling me. Margot’s postpartum crisis was happening in New York and I was all the way in California. But I knew that there were precious few others — if any — for Jean to call in a crisis. Margot wasn’t married. She’d gotten pregnant through a sperm donor not long after her fortieth birthday, just weeks after the huge getaway bash she’d thrown for herself and her five closest friends. Like me, Margot was an only child — one of the many things that connected us — and Jean was a widow.
As if reading my mind, Jean said, “I didn’t know who else to call.”
At that, I swelled with a shameful pride that Jean called me instead of Rebecca, one of our other core Egan friends. For decades Rebecca and I had a palpable but unspoken competition regarding Margot. We each believed that we were her closest friend. More than once, I pounded out on the treadmill my jealousy after hearing that Margot had taken the train to Boston to spend the day with Rebecca, who lived in Cambridge with her husband and two kids.
“Well, I’m happy to help,” I finally said, my pitch high and unnatural despite the fact that I would, indeed, do anything for Margot. “Should I call her?”
“No, no,” Jean commanded, surprising me with her vehemence. I raised my head, absurdly glancing around the construction office trailer to check if Jorge or anyone else had heard Jean’s unusual chiding tone. “Don’t call her. I’m afraid of what could happen next. I’m telling you, Hilly, Margot is sick.”
I shifted in my chair, trying to loosen my rigid muscles. A grey afternoon shadow draped over the trailer and I threaded my arms back into my vest. I wanted to reach through the phone and pull Jean towards me, to embrace her and comfort her the way she’d done for me back when I was eighteen and ashamed to face what I’d done.
“Please, Hilly,” she said before I could figure out what to say next. “Just come.”
I felt a magnetic pull. Whenever one of my friends, dorm mates, confidantes, therapists, whatever from that time needed me, I went. That was my motto, my creed. Our creed. Margot did it for me when I had an adult-onset bout of chicken pox on my thirty-fifth birthday. I did it for Rebecca when her brother was killed in a car accident and she needed help cleaning out his apartment so their parents wouldn’t have to. But despite how dear Margot was to me, I was wholly out of my league with this. Postpartum depression. A baby. How could my devotion to Margot overcome my utter inexperience — not to mention disinterest — with all things baby? It was like a dermatologist being asked to perform a heart transplant or a tax lawyer defending a capital murder trial.
But when friends are like family, sometimes you reach beyond what’s comfortable.
I placed the receiver down and looked around, hoping that something around me — the trails of sawdust and ribbons of extension cords along the floor or the blueprint drawings on my computer — might instruct me what to do. Even though I was physically in my element, everything seemed fuzzy and I’d lost my ability to think clearly.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Carrying a bag from the same trendy sandwich shop, the one with the seedy street guys loitering outside but with the pricey vegan/organic/gluten-free/fermented ingredients on the inside, Frank crept into our little work hut and sat down at the metal desk across from mine. Our workspaces couldn’t be any more different. His desk was beautified with fresh wild flowers and framed photos. Mine was sparse, devoid of sentimentality, a trait that I’d inherited or picked up by osmosis from my mother. She’d displayed not a single family photo in our home, let alone her office.
Frank pulled off a beanie, exposing his bald head. He’d been losing his hair for awhile and decided a few months ago to shave it all, to “cut off the offender,” as he put it. Hairless was definitely a look Frank could pull off. Unlike me, he was preternaturally cool.
Frank was also, everybody joked, my work husband. We’d been running Curtis Construction together for more than seven years, transforming it from a teeny firm handling basic bathroom remodels and simple backyard deck replacements to a profitable and, more importantly, respected construction and restoration company. Job by job, we’d enhanced our craftsmanship and our reputation. Bathroom jobs grew into kitchen remodels. In the last year, we’d completed complicated additions and exterior renovations for high-profile clients in increasingly upscale neighborhoods. In March, we wrapped a three-thousand square-foot expansion near Dolores Park for a venture capitalist. Two months before Jean’s call, we’d been written up in 7×7 Magazine for landing the prestigious Painted Lady job we were working on at Alamo Square.
Frank handled the business side of Curtis while I served as general contractor, overseeing the entire construction operation, managing architects, subcontractors and engineers. We were a tremendous team. He had the charm to woo new clients, the business smarts to make shrewd financial decisions and I was an organized and thorough manager and, as evidenced by our nearly non-existent attrition rate, a decent boss. When I finally got more Spanish under my belt, I hoped to add “attentive and compassionate” to my list of leadership attributes. That Frank was considered by all to be my work husband was particularly funny considering that not only was I actually married to Jesse, but Frank last year married his longtime boyfriend Rod (the added hilarity of his gay husband’s name was not lost on anyone).
“Not really a ghost, but something just as disturbing.” We opened our respective sandwiches and I told Frank about Jean’s frantic call.
“Yikes,” he said, deconstructing his sandwich and wiping off the excess mayonnaise. “Sounds like you need to call the airlines.”
“I know,” I said, using my teeth to rip open a plastic pouch of mustard. “But how can I leave right now? This project is at a critical juncture.”
It was true. San Francisco’s Alamo Square was one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, home to the famous row of Painted Ladies, a handful of Victorian-era houses descending Steiner Street whose photos donned countless postcards and calendars. Tourists flocked to the quintessentially San Francisco spot. Through sheer grit, a killer proposal and, Frank and I liked to joke, our charming personalities, we’d landed the plum job of restoring one of the iconic postcard row homes. Not only was it the biggest residential project we’d ever handled, but its historical and visual significance meant that every design and structural detail was overseen not only by the homeowner, but also by the city’s historic preservation office. That office could serve as a limitless source of future referrals, if all went well. For the first time since we took over Curtis, Frank and I sensed the company was on the cusp of irreversible success, making us impervious to inevitable economic swings. The success — or not — of the current Alamo Square project would no doubt serve as the deciding factor, the turning point.
Frank pursed and twisted his lips and dropped his chin, as if to say, “True.” But with characteristic graciousness, what he actually said was, “It’s Thursday. We’re talking New York, not Cairo. Get on a red-eye tonight and be back by Sunday night. Nothing’s gonna happen here between now and then that I can’t handle.”
Just then, Jorge opened the door of the trailer, bringing with him a refreshing blast of late fall breeze. He handed me a subcontractor purchase order for my review and flew back outside, his construction boots on the cheap floors echoing through the room. The phone rang and Frank answered.
I finished my sandwich and folded the white paper wrapper into a neat square before tossing it into the trash. I slipped my feet out of my flats, rotated my ankles and flexed my sore calves.
I had to help Margot, I told myself, no matter what the costs. I pushed aside my concerns about leaving work, hoping that neither the homeowner nor the city would visit the site Friday, and I called United Airlines. Within ten minutes, I was booked on that night’s ten-thirty flight to JFK. I hung up, wincing at the inflated price of the last-minute ticket. My return flight for Sunday was only marginally cheaper.
Jorge shoved his head back into the doorway. His cargo pants were newly covered in splices of blue painter’s tape. “Eee-lar-eee,” he said, “There are two layers — not one — of wallpaper in the dining room. We’re going to need extra time and materials.”
“I’ll add it to the punch list,” I said, pounding out the addition into my computer file. “Muchas gracias.”
Just then, Frank got off his phone call. “Trip all set?”
My throat was parched. Swallowing an oversized glug of my smoothie, I nodded. Scattered thoughts and hasty to-do lists swirled around my brain like those afternoon leaves on the sidewalk. Jesse. Tri training. Suitcase. Cab. Briefcase. Proposals. Contracts. Laptop. Workouts. I had to remember to record the Sharks game and to tell Jesse I wouldn’t be able to stop by the aquarium store after all.
“Before you go, question for you: on the proposal we’re doing for that Noe Valley project, the client wants us to price an option for a floating overhang on the rear addition. But they don’t want to break the bank. Suggestions? Oh, and why do you have your smoothie in a death grip?”
I looked down and noticed that my fingertips were white from clutching the bottle.
“Give a call to Tim Mac,” I said, loosening my grip, “and see what it might cost to add a gable or shed dormer over the doors. Also, ask the client whether it’s already been framed. If not, we could consider cantilevering the floor joist.”
“I take it back,” Frank said while jotting down my instructions on a Post-It. “You shouldn’t go. This place won’t hold together without you, even for a day or two.” He was attempting sarcasm but we knew each other well enough that I could detect the thread of truth. Curtis Construction’s stability — our own future security — rested on the success of this high-profile renovation.
“You know Margot is, like, the second most important person in my life.” As I said the words, a heated dread rose through my body. Maybe I’d met my match. Perhaps I would fail Margot for the first time in twenty-five years.
Frank lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows dramatically at me.
“You’re number three, don’t worry,” I added. “Really, I’d do anything to help her.”
“Of course you would.” He balled up his sandwich wrapper and swished it into the trash can half-way across the trailer.
“The question is,” I said, partly to Frank but mostly to myself, “how am I going to be any help to a woman with a baby?”
The automatic doors parted and I blinked rapidly while crossing the threshold between the stale JFK airport air and the stinging early morning New York breeze. The chill was distinctly East Coast, harsher and more demanding than gentle California winds. I clutched my scarf closer around my neck with my left hand as I wheeled my carry-on behind me with my right.
It wasn’t yet six in the morning. On a normal Friday back home in San Francisco, I’d barely be awake at this hour. Jesse and I had recently taken to sleepily walking three blocks to the Cole Valley Peet’s for green tea (thought to be good for muscle recovery) immediately upon waking around six-thirty and then doing ten minutes of stretching in our living room before getting ready for work. I wondered if he’d continue the routine in my absence. In so many aspects of our lives, we were a pair.
Minutes after Jean’s frantic call and lining up my flight, I’d left the Curtis Construction trailer and headed out to my car, which is what I always did whenever I needed to make a private call. Parked along McAllister in the shadow of the Painted Ladies, my Acura was like a cocoon amidst the bustle and undeniably seedy side of Alamo Square. My car was littered with indoor cycling shoes, towels and half-filled reusable water bottles, all evidence of the latest triathlon that Jesse and I were training for. Set for January, the race included a mile-and-a-half swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park (our first open water swim), as well as a seven-mile bike ride along the Embarcadero, and a four-mile run that included an out-and-back stretch over the Golden Gate Bridge. I dreaded telling Jesse about missing the weekend’s training.
The late October afternoon sun beat right down onto the driver’s seat so I huddled in the back, scooting aside the canvas bag containing my emergency skirt and pumps, which I maintained for those times when I needed to look decidedly like a professional general contractor. Even more than a decade into the new millennium, I still didn’t look like a typical GC, considering I was a woman. But when formal client meetings required, I could tame my long curly brown hair into a low bun, throw on a navy skirt and do my best to fit into the still woefully male-dominated construction world. A gay man and a woman, Frank and I were an unlikely duo in the field. But in a way, our unusual demographic disarmed potential clients and somehow worked to our advantage. Together we worked tirelessly to prove to each client that they’d made the right selection.
As I dialed Jesse’s cell, a topless double-decker bus drove by. Tourists peered down curiously at me in my car as if to say, “there’s a native,” like I was an elephant in the wild.
“Hiya,” Jesse answered briskly.
We knew each other so completely that I could tell simply by the almost imperceptible clip in his tone that I’d caught him in the midst of what he called his “creative flow.” It was just as well. I’d get to the point and then sign off quickly.
“I have to go to New York tonight.” It was such an unlikely sentence for me to utter. We had no family back East and my job never required travel, let alone spur-of-the-moment, cross-country trips.
“You have —. What?”
“I know. Weird. But Jean, Margot’s mom, called me. Margot’s really in trouble.” I could hear myself talking double-time and worked to slow down.
“God, what happened?”
I relayed Jean’s report of Margot’s postpartum depression and how Jean’s own illness prevented her from caring for her daughter and infant granddaughter. Telling Jesse, I felt strangely detached, saying the words while at the same time scribbling a list of items I didn’t want to forget to pack. The sports bra hanging to dry in the garage near the washer. Three or four back issues of Time magazine that had piled up during the last few weeks.
“Ouch,” he said. “But what, exactly, are you supposed to do?”
While fair, given my lifelong indifference to babies and children, the question still stung.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying to smooth any defensiveness out of my tone. “I guess the first thing I’ll do is assess the situation. Then maybe find her a shrink? Help hire a nanny?”
Jesse’s question reignited my own doubts about how I was going to help Margot. But Curtis Construction wasn’t San Francisco’s up-and-coming restoration company for nothing, I told myself. I could manage the shit out of a complicated, time-sensitive historical renovation for uptight and stingy clients with impossibly high standards. I assumed I could apply those skills to Margot’s situation.
“The big training is this weekend.”
Running races and doing triathlons had become one of our primary forms of togetherness. Since we started our racing journey four years ago with the twelve-kilometer Bridge to Bridge fun run, not only had Jesse’s cholesterol gone down, but working out together had reinvigorated our nine-year marriage, which had grown a teeny bit predictable and even a bit boring. So we clung to training, signing up for a new race immediately after crossing the last finish line. Missing workouts only in cases of stomach flus had become a point of pride for us. This weekend’s practice swim — in the chilly Bay waters — would be our training group’s first one outside of the pool.
“I know,” I said. “I’ll bring a suit and find a local Y or something.”
A siren wailed as an ambulance screeched across Scott Street. I inhaled, but my belly barely moved, my breaths shortening. Jesse liked Margot and all of my Egan Academy friends, but he’d never truly understood my unmitigated devotion to them. So far, I’d never been forced to choose between him and them.
“I know it’s not exactly the same,” I continued, suddenly feeling the unmistakable abdominal twists and twinges of an oncoming period. It would undoubtedly arrive within a few hours, probably right as I was boarding the plane. I spun my head around looking for that slip of paper where I’d started my packing list. I added tampons in all caps. “I’ll try to get in a double run — or take a cold shower to simulate the Bay — or something. It won’t set me back.”
Truth be told, I was probably more anal than he was about maintaining the proscribed training program, not unlike how I insisted our workers stick precisely to the construction schedules I spent hours plotting out. I opened the car door, letting the truck and hammer sounds from our nearby project crowd out my feelings and signal to Jesse that I needed to go, letting the machines reinforce my personal message. I leaned against the car, my eyes cast downward toward the concrete.
“How about work? Isn’t this like your biggest project ever? Can you even be out of pocket tomorrow?”
The veins in my forehead began to pulsate. I was definitely getting my period. Christ.
“Frank’ll handle it. You know, my work husband.” I tossed out the tired joke in a weak effort to lighten the mood. Jesse didn’t respond.
“You charged the plane tickets?”
“Um, yeah. On the B of A card,” I said briskly, hoping to deflect the next logical question: how much they cost. Jesse and I lived comfortably, for sure. But our budget didn’t usually include spur-of-the-moment plane tickets. “You’re going to training tonight, right?” I added, trying to shift the discussion from finances to the scheduled five-mile group run through Golden Gate Park.
“Uh huh.” I could hear clicks of a computer mouse in the background.
“So I probably won’t get to see you before I have to head out. I’ve got to leave for the airport around eight.” I remembered then that my first Spanish class was Monday evening. It’d be days before I’d get to spend any real time with Jesse.
As if reading my thoughts, he sighed ever so slightly. “You’re a good friend, Stevens.”
I loved when Jesse called me by my last name, which I’d kept even after we got married. “You got this, Stevens!” he’d holler during those last excruciating minutes of long runs. At his comment then, I warmed with an inexplicable pride. Being a good friend — particularly to the Egan crew — was as critical to my self-worth as being a reliable and efficient general contractor. Leaning against my car, I placed the packing list on my thigh and scribbled “Call Sarah.” Blood throbbed through my brain as I lifted my head — the dreaded period headache was upon me. I also added ibuprofen to the list.
“Thanks,” I croaked and we hung up.
I walked back to the trailer and my brain crowded with more lists of things I had to do to get ready for the unexpected cross-country journey, everything I’d miss over the weekend. All of that collided with emerging questions of what, exactly, I’d find when I arrived in Manhattan. How bad could it really be with Margot, I wondered. Maybe Jean was overreacting. After all, she was always hyper-attentive to her only child, so unlike my own parents, who’d unceremoniously handed over most parenting duties to an employee. My parents were kind-hearted, but my whole life they’d kept a mile or two between us. They’d have no idea whom to call in a crisis, other than Jesse. They loved me, but were removed from the nitty gritty details of my life, like who my friends were. I placed my hand on the trailer’s door knob and thought of my best friend, my spouse, my job and wondered, at what cost, friendship?
Outside the JFK arrivals area was a sea of grey and yellow — grey for the blustery, low-hanging fog and yellow for the cabs, for which there was a surprisingly long line at that early hour. Had Margot been in her right mind — or even known I was coming — she’d have sent a car. That’s what she’d done for all of us nearly three years ago when she treated five friends to an extravagant trip for her fortieth birthday. She’d planned it out impeccably: we spent one luxurious night at the Essex House in Manhattan before heading northeast for four nights to a five-star hotel in Iceland, of all places. Margot paid for everything — including everyone’s plane tickets — which she could easily afford after spending nearly twenty years earning big bucks on Wall Street. Her artificial insemination by sperm donor was scheduled for the week after our return from Iceland so the birthday trip was also the last hurrah with her best friends before she was “saddled with a runt,” as she put it. The disparaging reference belied her intense passion for becoming a mom, which ended up taking several more inseminations than expected. Fortunately for Margot, she could afford to keep going until it worked.
In Iceland, Margot and I drank Bloody Marys while the rest of the girls had wine. It was our tradition. We drank Bloody Marys in high school when the prissy girls sipped sugary wine coolers and after college when everyone else had moved onto cosmos. I’ve never once had a Bloody Mary without Margot next to me. On that trip, we spent our days around a pool — yes, Margot found a luxury hotel in Iceland with a pool, complete with heating lamps encircling cabanas — reading aloud everything from poetry to beauty articles in Allure. We howled as we recalled our most outrageous Egan Academy moments, the most notable involving my urine and evil Ms. Green’s favorite coffee mug.
When I think of that fortieth birthday trip, the most recurrent image in my mind’s eye is of Margot covering her mouth with her hand as she laughed — her signature gesture — and clasping her belly with her other hand as if it hurt to experience something so hilarious. It was a trip for the ages and I’d spent the whole plane ride home smiling, grateful for such close friends who knew me so well and with whom I could be wholly myself. Being seen for who you are — and loved anyway — creates a dutiful bond, an inexorable allegiance. Normally, those kinds of ties were what bound family together. But in my case, that devotion was aimed solely and completely at my Egan friends.
I finally reached the front of the taxi line and a uniformed airport worker swooped his arm out like I was Cinderella and my carriage awaited. The cab driver popped out of the car and darted around to the back, preparing to open the trunk.
“No need,” I said, lifting my carry-on. “Just this. I’ll keep it in the back with me.”
As we drove, the landscape’s color shifted rapidly from grey and yellow to browns and oranges as the sun rose over the dingy Queens sky. Soon, we turned onto FDR Drive and I experienced that singular feeling I always felt whenever I entered Manhattan: an unusual mixture of thrill and dread, of jitters and exhaustion, a determination to explore every world-class art museum and hole-in-the-wall deli, while at the same time counting the hours until I could return home to California.
We hit traffic on the 85th Street Transverse and I pulled out my phone to check the time. It was still too early to call Jesse back in San Francisco. I considered phoning Jean or Margot to inform them of my imminent arrival but decided against it. Better to see for myself the gravity — or not — of the situation in its organic state. Better to spring myself on them, the way Sarah, my best friend in San Francisco, once did with a babysitter about whom she had a mounting, uneasy feeling. Sure enough, when Sarah returned to her house twenty-five minutes after departing for an alleged doctor’s appointment, she found the sitter watching lesbian porn while Sarah’s sixteen-month-old daughter sat inert in a bouncy seat watching the screen alongside her. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Sarah had said.
In Margot’s case, I wondered how bad the postpartum depression could really be. A few years ago, my mom had reported that my cousin was suffering from “baby blues.” She’d been weepy and lethargic and a bit detached. But apparently that had quickly dissipated once the baby began sleeping through the night. Plus, unlike my cousin, who’d gotten pregnant by accident, Margot went to great physical and financial lengths to conceive the baby, to become a mother without a partner. In fact, her quest for parenthood was one of the few times in the decades that we’d known each other that Margot and I were not thoroughly aligned in our feelings.
I, for one, could not imagine wanting to be a parent so badly.
Margot’s prewar Upper West Side apartment was the envy of all our friends, even those of us who had no interest in Manhattan living or any design sense. I could remodel an Edwardian with spot-on period details, but I couldn’t pick my own coordinating sofa pillows to save my life. Located on West End Avenue where its west-facing windows looked out onto Riverside Drive, the marble stairs and uniformed doorman of Margot’s place exuded a glamour and understated elegance that harkened from another era. It contrasted markedly from the charming coziness of the mid-century flat that Jesse and I shared on Frederick Street in Cole Valley.
The doorman welcomed me into the building just as a lawyerly-looking man I recognized as Margot’s stuffy downstairs neighbor brushed past me in the doorway and darted into a waiting black Town Car, cell phone clamped to his left ear. The building’s lobby was at least ten degrees warmer than it was outside.
“Haven’t seen much of her lately,” the doorman responded when I announced that I’d arrived to visit Margot. “She doing okay?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out.”
He nodded in apparent approval and picked up the building phone to request Margot’s permission to allow me upstairs.
“Wait,” I said, raising my palm. “I, um. It’s early.” I turned my wrist, gesturing towards a watch, though I wasn’t wearing one. “Can I just go on up? If she’s sleeping or something, I don’t want to disturb her — or the baby — with the buzzer. Her mom can let me in. Jean? She’s expecting me.”
The doorman held the phone suspended mid-way toward his ear as he considered my request. He regarded me for an extra moment, taking in my luggage, my harmless forty-something vibe, and then nodded. He replaced the receiver and guided me to the elevator bank around the corner, hitting the Up button for me.
Once on the fourth floor, I tapped lightly at Margot’s door, hoping that indeed I would not wake the baby with my arrival. But a moment later, I heard shuffling behind the door and the unmistakable hiccups of an infant.
“Shhhh, shhhh, don’t wake mommy,” Jean’s voice carried through the door.
When she opened it, not one thing was as I expected. Jean, who’d always had an elegant, Blythe Danner kind of beauty, was shockingly overrun by age and Parkinson’s. The skin of her cheeks was criss-crossed with deep wrinkles and hung almost below her jaw. Her hair was straw-like in color and texture and bordered by a two-inch swath of charcoal grey at her part. Barefoot with overgrown toenails, she wore a terrycloth bathrobe that bizarrely appeared to have outgrown her — it was untied, exposing her spindly arms and legs. Underneath, her nightgown was dotted with dime-sized stains. Her body shook from tremors, especially her jaw, which bobbed up and down before she even gathered any words.
Jean took me in and then nodded — either voluntarily or involuntarily, it was hard to tell — and brought her free hand up to cup my chin.
“Thank you, Hilly. Thank you.”
Squirming in her other arm was the baby, whose appearance was as surprising to me as Jean’s drastic physical decline. She had a thick shock of ink black hair and, if it was possible, even darker black eyes. Chubby and long, the baby looked nothing like Margot, a petite natural blonde with cornflower blue eyes. I’d expected a tiny bald baby or maybe a tow-head. I realized in that moment that I’d seen a grand total of one photo of the baby, snapped and e-mailed a few hours after she’d been born, all wrapped up in a blanket with a hospital-issued cap.
“This little pumpkin is Gretchen,” Jean introduced with a mixture of pride and profound weariness. “And, this, baby girl, is your Auntie Hilly.”
Jean readjusted the baby from the shelf of her hip to clasp her under the armpits and, to my horror, began to hand her to me.
“Uh, wait!” I said, with more alarm than I’d meant to reveal. I was so inexperienced with baby handling that my friend Sarah teased that her newborns had been safer resting directly on her parquet floors. I backed away and held up my palms for Jean. “Airport grime. Lemme wash up.”
I wheeled my suitcase into the entryway and led myself into the kitchen around the corner. Already, I could tell that Jean had not been exaggerating about Margot’s condition. Her stylish condo was normally impeccably tidy. Whenever I’d stayed with her in the past, she’d follow me around, replacing every item I moved or touched or accidentally left out of place. We’d been roommates at Egan so I was used to her persnicketiness. Sometimes, just to rile her, I’d send her “before” photos of the houses I worked on with their garages and closets overflowing with the crap of certifiable hoarders. That morning, though, it looked like Babies ‘R Us had exploded in Margot’s own kitchen. Onesies and burp cloths were strewn all over. The countertops were covered with open canisters of infant formula. The sink overflowed with plastic bottles. My shoes stuck to the floor as I walked to the sink.
“Paper towels?” I called to Jean. I couldn’t find them on the counter amidst several corded contraptions that, I suspected, had to do with infant feeding, and several white-capped orange prescription bottles that were obviously Parkinson’s medications for Jean.
“Oh, I know,” Jean said in her wobbly voice. “Such a mess. I told you, Margot’s not herself. And I can barely keep up with Gretchen’s feeding schedule — as you can see, she’s a big girl — let alone get around to cleaning up.” With one hand, she dug into the cupboard under the sink and handed me a roll of paper towels, the top of which was damp. “Margot’s twice-a-month housecleaner has been on vacation for two months! We’re both in over our heads.”
I knew she was referring to herself and Margot, but she could have just as easily been referring to me as well. I circled around her before finally pausing and awkwardly offering my arms out for the baby. Our bodies butted up against each other as we made the transfer. That close, Jean smelled of baby powder and stale perspiration. I took extra care to cup the baby’s head as Sarah had always insisted in those rare instances when she’d had no choice but to hand me one of her children.
“Oh, she can hold her head up,” Jean said. “She’s not a newborn.”
“Right.” I had no idea what qualified as a newborn or an infant. I continued cupping her head just in case. I noticed a dot of snot beginning to drip from her nose and hoped it wouldn’t land on me. “Where’s Margot?”
Jean tilted her head towards the back of the apartment where Margot’s bedroom was. “Let’s go in the living room.”
I carried the baby to the large white couch, which, to my surprise, now featured several conspicuous stains, as did the chevron pink and orange pillows. Normally, visiting Margot’s chic apartment inspired me to try to add some pizzazz and sophistication to my flat whenever I returned home. But that morning, it looked strangely tired and overwrought, not unlike the way Jean looked. I had the distinct urge to re-wash my hands and to open a window. Shards of morning sun tried to beam in through small cracks around the closed shades, which shot irregular, spotty light throughout the apartment.
“So what’s going on here?” I asked while nervously bouncing the baby with my knee.
“She sleeps all the time. She cries all the time. She was supposed to go back to work last month. She extended her leave, but she never even holds the baby.”
Jean started to cry. I wanted to get up and put my arm around her, but I was saddled with the baby.
“Oh, Jean. It’s okay.” With my one free hand, I pressed on the muscles on the right side of my neck, which felt like long oval rocks.
She nodded, but her tremors noticeably escalated. “I don’t know what would happen if I wasn’t here,” she continued. “The baby’s not being cared for by her mother. And as much as I love her,” she looked directly at the baby and her eyes grew wet again, “I just can’t do it anymore. I’m sick, Hilly. Someone should be taking care of me.”
I nodded. I continued pumping my leg up and down even though it had caused the baby to spit up a beige goo on my thigh. I wiped it with the back side of my hand. Then, disgusted by its warm, chunky texture, I rubbed my hand across my shirt.
Where was I? I asked myself. Normally Margot’s apartment was as familiar and comforting as my own. But right then, it felt like I’d been dumped into a freakish, alternate universe.
“She’s long past regular post-delivery checkups and she won’t make a doctors appointment,” Jean continued. “I made one appointment for her but she never even got out of bed that day. She can’t even get to the grocery store, let alone back to work. I just…I didn’t know what else to do. You’re her best friend, Hilly.”
My heart involuntarily leapt at hearing what was perhaps my favorite compliment in the world. At the same time, the obligations that accompanied being crowned Margot’s best friend began to descend like a gloomy afternoon rain cloud. It was not all glory. My head began to throb and I realized that I needed to change my tampon.
The afternoon before, when I agreed to go to New York, it never occurred to me to stay anywhere but at Margot’s. Yet taking in the chaotic state of her one-bedroom condo, already overrun by baby paraphernalia and already housing two more people than normal, I realized I had to find a hotel room on the double.
Still holding the baby, I stood slowly and handed her back to Jean, whose whole body sank under the familiar burden.
“I came right from the airport,” I explained. “Let me, uh, get settled at my hotel and I’ll come back later. Hopefully Margot will be awake by then and we can all talk.”
Truthfully, though, I had no idea or plan for what I’d even say to her. I didn’t know a newborn from an infant. I was awkward and ill at ease with a baby in my arms. I had no sense, no instinct for what Margot needed or whom to call to help solve this problem. But, as Jean said, I was Margot’s best friend. I had to figure it out.
“I’ll watch Gretchen for today,” she said wearily. “You strategize.”
I crouched on the front steps of Margot’s building with my carry-on luggage as my companion. I’d asked the doorman about the closest chain hotels and I used my phone to book a two-night stay at a nearby Hyatt. Between the last-minute plane tickets and a Manhattan hotel stay, this was turning out to be one expensive favor. Yet that was the least of my worries. The bigger problem was that I still had no idea what I could do for Margot. But after witnessing the unruly state of her apartment, not to mention Jean’s deteriorating health, I knew I had to figure something out.
It was still barely eight in the morning but luckily the hotel receptionist said they had room for an early check-in. I wheeled my luggage fifteen blocks toward Central Park West. In addition to wanting to avoid unnecessary cab fares, I needed the fresh air.
Around me, the Upper West Side buzzed to life. Large metal doors clanked musically as they rolled up to reveal shallow newsstands and fancy muffin vendors. Shopkeepers of every ethnic background hosed and swept in front of storefronts. Pantsuit-clad new millennials clicked down Lexington towards subway stations. I fantasized about spending a leisurely day at the Met or perusing sidewalk art vendors in Central Park. Since I’d be able to do neither with my usual New York companion — Margot — I instead forked out twelve bucks for a kale-mango smoothie and checked into the Hyatt.
Once in my room, I tore off my clothes and stood dead center debating whether I should take a shower or go for a run first. A wave of exhaustion swept over me as I remembered my fitful sleep on the plane and I contemplated taking a nap before either other option. But then I recalled Jesse’s disappointment over the training I’d be missing that weekend. So I rallied for a run, grateful that I’d remembered to toss workout clothes into my luggage at the last second. I hoped a run would help alleviate my cramps too.
Riding down the elevator with only my phone, my ID and the hotel key card in the waistband of my running pants, I realized how different my life was from what Margot’s had become. With an infant, she could no longer work late, go on a date or dart out for a three-mile run without having to make child care arrangements first. It’s why the lives of mothers always seemed so small to me. And yet another reason I sought to avoid that shrinkage. Jesse and I enjoyed our freedom. I enjoyed my own independence.
Pushing through the lobby’s revolving doors, a whoosh of crisp late October air blew bangs out of my ponytail, but also helped awaken me. I began a light jog towards Central Park. The early morning crowd there was akin to what I’d see at Golden Gate Park back home: elite runners with water packs on their back, twenty-somethings sleepily walking Chihuahuas and Labradoodles, gardeners in brown city uniforms operating noisy lawn mowers and leaf blowers.
About fifteen minutes later, I was mid-way through the Jackie O Reservoir loop when my phone rang. It was Sarah.
“How’s your best friend?” she greeted sarcastically.
I’d known Sarah for more than twenty years. We met while waitressing together in college when I was a junior at UC Davis and she was a senior at Sacramento State. We both moved to San Francisco after graduation and she remained my best friend there. As close as we were, she always knew that my Egan Academy friends, especially Margot, occupied an immovable place in my heart. She knew that Margot helped me become my best self back in the eighties, that Margot — and, by extension, Jean — had filled a gap in my life. They’d become the family who loved me unconditionally when I was certain my own family couldn’t.
I’d texted Sarah from SFO the night before to let her know I wouldn’t be able to meet up for the Sunday morning coffee date we’d planned. I talked to or texted Sarah just about every day and saw her several times a week, far more often than I saw or spoke to Margot. But despite the contact and proximity, Sarah frequently joked that nobody could unseat my Egan friends. Over the years, between my wedding and Margot’s regular visits to San Francisco, Sarah knew and liked Margot herself. But she still teased me about a manufactured friendship hierarchy that Sarah — not I — had constructed. Whenever I visited Margot or vice versa and Sarah got jealous, I always assured her that she and Margot were both my “chosen sisters.” But it was a jealousy I could relate to. That’s how I felt about Rebecca too.
Normally, I’d fire back at Sarah with a sarcastic comment of my own (“Keep trying, biatch,” or something of that nature). But I was too emotionally weary and too winded from my run to craft a snappy reply. “You know, I’d do the same for you,” was all I puffed out.
“What, did you jog to New York?”
“Nope,” I gasped, my chest tight. “Just running now through the park.” I slowed my pace so I could speak easier and catch deeper inhales. “What time is it there?”
“Zero dark thirty.” Sarah always woke a half hour before her husband and two young kids to read the Chronicle and watch Good Morning America while sipping coffee in total privacy and quiet. “Why aren’t you with Margot?”
“Oh my God, Sarah. What a mess.” I told her about the chaos of Margot’s place, about Jean’s weight loss and illness, and noted that I was deep into a problem that I questioned I could even solve — and I hadn’t even seen Margot yet. “I don’t get it,” I said. “My cousin had the ‘baby blues’ but got over it after a couple of months. Plus, Margot went to the ends of the earth to have this baby. ”
Sarah snorted. “That doesn’t make any difference. Don’t you know about Brooke Shields?”
“What does she have to do with anything?”
Sarah dove into teacher explanation mode, something she relished in, which is why she was such a natural mother herself. “Brooke wrote this book,” she began, as if she and the Suddenly Susan star were old friends. “It was all about her own postpartum depression. It was fascinating. She almost drove herself — and her baby — into a concrete wall! I’m telling you, she had bats in the belfry.”
When it was just us, Jesse referred to Sarah as “Sayings Sarah” because she peppered nearly every conversation with little idioms and phrases. Amazingly, I’d never noticed before Jesse pointed it out. But he was exactly right.
“Jesus.” I bit my lower lip.
“I know! But the point is, just exactly like Margot, Brooke had wanted that baby. She’d gone through multiple rounds of IVF, the whole shebang.”
“Wow.” I wound my way around the Great Lawn, grateful to have Sarah’s wise company during this run.
“I saw her on Oprah,” she continued. “The way she described it was horrible. The gnawing doubt, the fear of never bonding, the lethargy, the hopelessness. It was subtle but insipid. Like death by a thousand paper cuts.”
“So what do I do? What helped Brooke?” I asked, as if I, too, were on a first-name basis with her.
“Meds. She needs meds. It’s a bummer, especially if she wants to breastfeed. But she needs a pharmaceutical jolt to knock her out of this. Then lots of therapy. Lots. The guilt…”
“Jean, her mom, says Margot’s milk, um, dried up or whatever because she’s hardly eating. So she’s not breastfeeding anymore.”
“Okay, so in a way that’s good because she can get on some powerful meds. So first up, get her a therapist, not just a psychologist — one who can prescribe.”
I wondered how I could accomplish that Herculean administrative task by Sunday. I’d always loved that Margot was an only child like me because I didn’t have to compete with sisters for her affection. But for the first time, I wished that she had a sibling who could help get her better. “What about the baby?” I asked, shoving sweaty curls that escaped my ponytail back behind my ears.
“What do you mean?”
“Jean can’t take care of the baby anymore. She’s aged so much. It’s horrible. She shakes all the time. I was worried she’d drop the baby.” I fought to keep my posture from collapsing. “It was just…bad. And she’s a widow. There’s no one else.”
“Jeez. Sounds like it. For now, giving Margot space from that baby will probably be helpful — and not bad experience for you.” Sarah was always trying to convince me that despite what I’d always believed about myself, I would be a good mother. She swore that if Jesse and I agreed to have a baby, she’d get pregnant with her third kid just so we could share the experience. I’d told her to go ahead and donate her crib and baby clothes because it wasn’t happening. “How long can you babysit in New York?”
“Flying home Sunday night,” I said, turning a corner near the Loeb Boathouse and heading back towards my hotel. “How long did it take Brooke to recover?”
“Hill,” she said, “you don’t want to know.”
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