Beautiful Elaine. I watched her through my lashes. Beautiful, curvaceous, fecund Elaine. No wonder Oliver couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. His hands, either, for that matter. In comparison, I was a sallow, insubstantial, specter. Whatever fleeting and foolish love Oliver had felt for me in our early days had been completely and unabashedly transferred to the wife of his best friend. I shot a look across the table at James. He’d taken my hand in a gesture of understanding —as Elaine basked in Ollie’s attention— that he was in the same position as I. I turned my hand to link our fingers and whispered, “Thank you.”
“No, Gen, thank you,” he replied. And after a gentle stroke of his thumb to mine, he let it go.
He returned to his meal and I to mine, though I had little appetite. My stomach rolled at the sight of the medium rare red meat. I should’ve ordered something light like the soup. But in an attempt to feel ‘normal’ among all the other normal people, I’d ordered the steak. Oliver had been making snide remarks about my recent weight loss, as if I was doing it just to spite him.
He really had no idea…
For years I had counted on my career to supply the ammunition for my arsenal of arguments against reproducing. I really did see the most horrid side of humankind. But now I didn’t even have that any more. Three missed deadlines, three major screw-ups and I had lost one of the biggest donors the non-profit had on their list. I hadn’t told Ollie, even though it had been a week since I’d been ordered to clean out my desk. I still got up every morning, showered and dressed and left at the same time. However, instead of heading to my Center City office building, I bought coffee at the cafe and I walked. I walked and walked and walked for hours.
Failure. I was a failure. At everything.
That was the reason I didn’t want to have a baby. God, I was barely able to take care of myself. How was I supposed to care for another human being? A little person who had to depend on me for their very existence? It scared me to death. And yet my unwillingness to have a baby was just one more loss on my score card.
I was thoroughly convinced that my parents had had children out of a sense of achievement. As if it was another box to tick off in the accomplishments of life. And now they were exerting that pressure on me. If I didn’t fulfill this duty —this obligation— to produce offspring, it would be yet another demonstration of my incompetence. Yet, the more pressure they put on me, the more resistant I became toward the idea. I’d be damned if I was going to become Oliver’s brood mare just because it was expected of me.
Mother sent emails with articles about how much more difficult it was for women to get pregnant after a certain age —the age I now approached. My sister was an oblivious conspirator in this battle, in that mother had insinuated to her that Oliver and I were trying but failing to conceive. Allison now tried to offer comfort in not so subtle ways. She made remarks about my taking time off work to rest and get my health back —if she only knew— and how stress interferes with all sorts of things, especially fertility. I would laugh and say that would only be a problem if I was trying to get pregnant. And she would tsk and nod with pity and a knowing look.
I hated them all for their self satisfied, ‘I know better than you’ attitudes. It made me want to scream. I was never enough for anyone. No one was ever happy with just me. Why was I so unlovable? Did I not offer enough all on my own? I was a bad daughter, not playing by the rules. I was a bad wife, not yielding to my husband’s desires. I suppose my own desires were of no consequence in comparison. I was a freak of nature. A woman who ignored her biological and evolutionary purposes. I had failed my species.
And now I had even failed at the one thing I counted on for validation —my job.
And so I didn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and I found myself I staring into an abyss of perpetual misery. I had no practical answers, no solutions to this predicament. I dreaded talking to Oliver. He would view my newly unemployed status as an opportunity. Or at least he would have a few months ago…
But now I watched him, gazing at beautiful Elaine, his eyes full of tenderness —he used to look at me that way long ago— and the emptiness and despair that washed over me was physically painful. As I looked across the table at James once again, the first tear spilled over and rolled down my cheek.