Luck

Fiction by Laure Baudot

When Noreen compliments Alison on her cake, Alison smiles a tiny, hardwood canoe of a smile at odds with her pudgy, optimistic face, the one that used to look on the world as if it were one long drink of water. I recognize this smile from the days before I had Archana, back when people told me that losing my pregnancies was for the best, that it was nature’s way of weeding out ill babies.

“It’s from a mix,” says Alison.

“Still,” adds Sophie, the only blond one here, and the most level-headed.

Sophie is comforting Alison because, although the rest of our kids have been moving around for a while, Alison’s son Malcolm doesn’t even turn over by himself yet. For the past few weeks, we’ve been toning down our talk of our babies’ milestones. But despite our best efforts, and our innate, Canadian politeness, the subject of our babies’ progress keeps resurfacing. 

The five of us meet every two weeks at each others’ houses. We’re here to talk about baby problems, brag about our kids, and alleviate the boredom of being new parents. Today, we’re spread out on an Ikea carpet and navy-blue, plush armchairs. A cherry-wood coffee table, which has been pushed against the wall, displays a single, plastic sippy cup and some primary-coloured bibs. Cups of coffee are lined up on the chimney mantelpiece. Toys are scattered on the floor. We call one of these toys a popcorn maker: It’s a plastic, transparent bowl with a long handle. When it’s pushed, small marbles fly up inside the dome in a burst of blossoming “fireworks.”

And there are the babies. In blue or yellow jumpers, they are mostly fat and mostly crawling. Like soft, disoriented quadrupeds, they bump into furniture and, turning, direct themselves toward another bright thing that has caught their attention.

Except for Noreen, who sits on the couch on her hands, we dig into the cake. It’s spongy and iced-normally something I would hate, for it reminds me of working class immigrants, whose lifestyle I had hoped to have left behind in my parents’ generation. But in this year after my daughter’s arrival, I revel in everything sensuous, regardless of where it comes from.  Having children has awakened our senses: we experience life in an exaggerated way. We constantly feel pushed over the edge, sharpened to a point, nearly tipping into crisis.

Noreen looks at the icing that crests at the edges of the cake. “Still trying to shed those pounds, ladies.”

“I made it with Splenda,” says Alison.

“Really?”

“Nothing is fat-free,” says Sophie cheerfully, as she helps herself to a second piece. Sophie jogged here and is wearing sky-blue, spandex pants and white Nikes.

“Maybe just a little,” says Noreen as she cuts herself a small triangle, which crumbles as she lifts it with her fork. “Oops.”

At the adoption agency in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the adoption agent smiled through everything she said. I had noticed this trait in Ethiopian women. Most of them have tough lives, and their smiles are a defense mechanism. I believe they say the following: although you do your best to hurt me, I will integrate everything you do into my smile. You will not break my well-being.

“There has been a delay,” said the agent.

Despite everything we’d been told, it was still a shock.

“How long?” asked Peter. He’s a man to get straight to the point.

“Eh?”

“How much time?”

“One week?”

“One week?”

“One week.” This time the woman spoke more firmly.

Peter’s considerable shoulders tensed. He’s built like a footballer, although he’s the most gentle person I know. Except when he has to wait for something. And we’d waited three years.

“Please,” said the agent. “You will have time for sights. You know Ethiopia?”

“It’s okay,” I said. “We expected this. Let’s figure out what we can do.”

We walked back to the hotel through black streets. Pink garbage bags rose like flamingoes. From behind a fence towered an AIDS-prevention poster. At every corner, small children tried to sell us tissue packages. They touched our legs and bargained. Men had recruited the children to run the business. Of course, there were worse things. But we always bought a pack from each group.

At the hotel, Peter lay down on the bed. “We should do something that will pass the time,” he said.

The heat exhausted me. I saw the street toddlers scampering at our feet, their masked, meant-to-be pleasing faces running with sweat: like the women. Their attitudes were their only weapons. If you looked closely, you could see their eyes plead for the Birr that would help them avoid a beating.

“I have an idea,” said Peter.

I debated taking a shower in the trickle of water the hotel offered.

Peter got up to get the guide book. “Let’s go to the Simien Mountains.”

“I’m not sure I want to.”

“We should.”

“Are we fit enough?”

“How hard do you think it is?”

It was true that back home we did a lot of walking.

“I can’t stop thinking-” I said.

“Which is exactly why we have to.”

“Who’s going back to work?” asks Noreen. She’s the least attractive among us, but she doesn’t care. She rarely brushes her thick, black hair and she wears heavy, dark-framed glasses. We don’t blame her for neglecting herself, though, because her son’s a handful. He crawls so fast we call him The Commando.

“I am,” I say. I want to shout this from the rooftops. I can’t wait! Guiltily, I baptize my daughter with my hand. Her scalp is moss on a warm stone.

“Yeah,” says Sophie. “I like my job.”

“I didn’t want to,” says Noreen, “but John got mad. He said, ‘You will go back to work after one year, you will build a career.'”

“That’s extreme,” says Sophie.

“Can you discuss it?” asks Marjorie, who’s a teacher.

“He’s not a discusser,” says Noreen.

“Oh, I know,” says Sophie. “Men.” Sophie works in human resources. She’s good at managing humans.

“What about you, Marjorie?” asks Noreen.

“We’re going to try to make a go at it with one salary. It goes by so fast.” Marjorie, a mousy-haired woman who wears flowing skirts, looks dreamy. The minute Emily was born, Marjorie was already thinking about her next child.

“Lucky,” says Noreen.

Travelers have always extolled the beauty of the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia. From a distance, they are ragged, giant peaks. Up close, they are pock-marked rock with pockets of bleached grasses and delicate white flowers. But it’s the light that’s the most amazing. Just before dusk, the dying sun streaks the stones with pastel pinks, yellows, and blues, as if a schoolchild had run along the ranges and painted them with great swathes of primary-coloured chalk.

If you get tired on a hike, you should work through it and keep going. So although it was hard going, I kept walking. As I trekked, I thought about our future child. Like most Amharic Ethiopians, he would be dark and high-cheeked boned. He would be delicate. And I felt sure that, although he would feel out of place in Canada at first, we could work it through.

At noon on the first day, we sheltered under tall boulders to eat bread and peanut butter, which we had bought for a fortune in Addis before boarding the plane to Gondar, a small town southwest of the mountains.

“What are you thinking?” asked Peter.

“You know. I just want to make sure we’re not stealing anyone’s babies.”

“It’s that whole Madonna thing,” said Peter. “It freaked you out.” A few months before our adoption papers had gone through, Madonna had adopted a boy from Malawi. The media had discovered that, in fact, the boy had a father. “We re-checked the agency,” Peter reminded me.

“But is it really better? I mean, than helping the locals help themselves?”

“Liz, we’ve talked about this.”

We’re all still eating. I love food and don’t feel guilty: I’m skinny no matter what I eat. Sophie helps herself to another cracker slathered with cream cheese. “I’m still breastfeeding,” she says, as an excuse.

“I wonder what Lisa is doing?” asks Noreen generally.

One of the earlier members of our mother’s group, Lisa, was a schoolteacher who’d been used to controlling the classroom. After getting to know her, I’d begun to think that her perfectionism must have caused her to leave situations often. She was the only one of us who couldn’t breastfeed. Either her milk wasn’t coming in fast enough, or she didn’t have enough milk-I forget what the exact trouble was. It bothered her: she knew we all thought, but didn’t say, that “breast is best.”

Most of us breastfed. Some of us sat on the floor, leaning against a couch, cradling a cushion in an elbow; one of us was on the custom-made glider; others were on the couch itself, wrapping breastfeeding pillows around our waists like buoys. But Lisa had given her baby, Zachariah, the bottle. As she fed him, she refused to look at us. Zachariah drank with great gulps that could be heard, even with all the slurping and sucking going on.

By the second day of trekking, I felt like I had the flu. My knapsack seemed heavy, despite the fact that it contained only water and a camera: a mule carried the rest of our gear. I stared at my feet. I put one foot carefully in front of the other and watched the red sand forming a tide line around my ankles.

In the late afternoon, we stopped to set up our tents on a flat, green plain. In the middle of the plain was a tiny shepherds’ hut. From the plain you could see the green peaks of other mountains and the brown, serpentine paths winding through them. In the distance, goats bleated. At one point, a small boy brought a baby goat to entertain us. The goat stumbled, and the boy, smiling, admonished it and lifted up its hind legs so that it wobbled toward us. Peter gave the boy a Birr, and he left us.

Although we had paid for all the groceries, we were used to inviting everyone, including our guide, our armed guard, and our mule keeper, to eat with us. Since many Ethiopian families in this area rarely had enough to feed our families, this arrangement made sense. That night, we cooked a lentil stew. As we waited for the stew to be ready, we sprawled on stones around the fire, taking occasional breaks to go outside and breathe some smoke-free air. A rag hung over the door to the hut, and every time someone went in or out, the frigid, mountain air was let in. At one point, the mule leader opened the curtain and hesitated on the threshold, wondering if he could join us for dinner.

“Okay!” I said to Peter. “Let him come in or go out. But let him decide, already.”

Peter sat beside me awkwardly, one butt cheek half off a boulder. “What’s wrong with you?” he whispered.

On Lisa’s last day, she packed up her baby’s stuff carefully, like someone doing a puzzle. I caught up to her in Noreen’s foyer. I’d introduced her to the group and felt responsible for her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“It doesn’t matter, Lisa. There’s so much more to it than breastfeeding.”

“Exactly, right?” She slotted the bottle into the side of her diaper bag. “I read that it’s not about the breast itself, but about the physical bond. You can get the same bond from holding the baby and giving it the bottle.”

“Exactly!”

She had finished putting Zachariah in the front carrier and was putting on her jacket. The days were getting colder. We often debated about whether it had been good to have our babies in the fall-you’re so sedentary the first few weeks anyway-or whether it would have been better to give birth in the spring, when the trees bud and the long-lit days keep you from sinking into postpartum depression.

“So we’ll see you next week?”

“Yeah.”

For weeks after that day, even though Lisa hadn’t shown up to a few gatherings, I kept her on our group email list.

By the third day of trekking, I could barely put on my knapsack after rest stops, and our guide suggested that I ride one of the mules. The mule leader led my mule, smiling back at me in reassurance each time the path steepened. But I could barely hold onto the mule’s mane. I wanted to go home. I wanted my bed, I wanted my bathroom, and I wanted my new, wood-floored, semi-detached house in downtown Toronto, the one we had bought in preparation for the child.

“I want to go back,” I told Peter.

“Are you serious? Do you know how few westerners get to come here?”

“I need to go back.” I knew the landscape was spectacular, but I didn’t care.

Back in Addis, a test confirmed what I already knew: I was pregnant.

“What do we do?” I asked Peter.

“You need to decide.”

“I read that morning sickness means the pregnancy is a good one.”

Peter waited. Suddenly, I was sure that this time things would be different. “It’s good,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

Peter nodded.

“Let’s do it,” I repeated.

“Oh Grace,” says Sophie. For Grace has pulled herself up and knocked over a lamp.

“It’s okay,” says Alison. “The Swedes still know how to make a sturdy lamp.” Alison’s Swedish herself, and, if all things were normal, Malcolm would descend from a good, hardy stock.

Until Grace rolled over twice for the group, we thought her rolling over was a fluke. Then, being the performer she is, she turned over twice. Like her mother, she has a sunny, open disposition. She smiles frequently, sprouting a dimple on her left cheek.

“Could it have been a one-time thing?” I asked Sophie even then.

“That’s what I thought,” said Sophie. “But then she did it again. Here.” Sophie put Grace on her back on a sky-blue blanket covered with yellow ducks.

Grace lifted one leg over as if she were doing a Yoga stretch and flipped over onto her stomach. Her toe had barely grazed a duck before she rolled back onto her back.

“Wow,” said Noreen. “I thought you were kidding!” The merriment in Noreen’s voice was probably genuine.

When we told the Ethiopian agency women that we’d decided not to adopt, she smiled. But her eyes were calculating: she was already planning where else to place the child. Without looking at her, I signed the release papers.

“You’ll regret it,” said Peter quietly.

“It doesn’t seem right, now.”

“But why? We could have two. We have the means.” I didn’t realize that the disappointment behind his eyes would last through my pregnancy, and beyond.

“It just doesn’t seem right, that’s all.”

When we returned home, my mother, too, asked me what happened.  She’s a church-going woman. Although she had grieved our decision to adopt, she had reconciled herself quickly, especially because adoption gelled with her religious beliefs.

“It was meant to be.”

“But what about the other child?”

I turned away from her, then turned back. By then, my belly was round and firm. I patted it possessively. “It’ll be okay.”

How could I tell either Peter or my mother that I felt as if I had won the lottery? That I had personally succeeded where others before me had failed?

I turn toward the other mothers in our group. “Archana’s finally cruising!” I tell them.

We named our baby after Peter’s Indian grandmother. It’s a funny name for our daughter because she doesn’t look a bit like her Indian ancestors. She’s as pale as I am, freckled, and her hair is slightly red, like the beginning-ripening part of a peach. Peter jokes that he’s got some questions for the mailman. He doesn’t give a damn, though.  I see Peter and Arch together, and he’s blowing on her belly to make her giggle like mad.

“Great,” says Sophie. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

“Yeah,” says Noreen. “Those developmental milestones are off, anyway.”

We glance at Malcolm. He’s not even able to sit up on his own. Alison has propped him up with pillows. He looks out at us, and we’re thinking he’s like the emperor with no clothes.

In Alison’s kitchen, I help her clean up. “Great spread, Alison.”

“Thanks.  Malcolm’s so quiet that I can pretty much get anything done.” She’s doing the dishes with her back to me. “Liz, what am I going to do?”

Although I know she can’t see me, I nod.

“The doctor’s sending us for tests next week.”

“I’m sure it’s all very preliminary.”

I can’t help thinking of my recent, recurring dream. In the dream, the O.B. nurse hands me Archana, over and over again, and each time I’m amazed at how beautiful she looks-not in an objective way (I can already see she’s going to have my own Greco-roman nose)-but in that human kind of way, with ten, wiggling toes and a neck that works, and on this neck, an active, thinking head, like a miniature, solid hard hat.

Alison runs her fingers under the water too long to be testing its temperature. I stack the last plate and turn to go back into the living room.

“Don’t tell the others, okay?” asks Alison.

A year and a half ago, as I became increasingly pregnant, I began comparing myself to other pregnant women. I had stopped eating raw cheeses and fish and would criticize women who ate them. I would look at women on the street. “How many pounds do you think she’s gained?” I would ask Peter. “Do you think she’s thinking of Gestational Diabetes at all?”

Once we had dinner with our neighbours, who were also expecting. Linda talked about the genetic tests they were doing. “And blood cord banking, too.”

“A little expensive,” said George, her husband.

“What’s that?” asked Peter.

“You store some of the baby’s cord blood. That way, if the child gets a disease in the future, you can use his own genetic material to help him.”

“How….?” I started to say.

“That’s a little too pessimistic for my taste,” said Peter. “What are the chances?”

“I told her it was another corporation playing on the population’s fears around pregnancy,” said George. “But she wouldn’t listen.”

“Hey,” said Linda.

“Just kidding,” said George. He turned to Peter and me. “Really, we think of it as another type of insurance.”

Later, I brought popcorn to the TV room, where Peter and George were watching football. A commercial for the latest SUV-cars Peter hated-was on.

“What happens to these girls when they get pregnant?” George was asking.

“I know,” said Peter. “They get so competitive.”

“Like it’s a game.”

“Like gladiators whose audience is chanting for blood,” said Peter.

In Alison’s living room, we’re splayed out like starfish on rocks. Around us, our babies use the furniture to pull themselves up. Only Malcolm is still seated in his tugboat of cushions, as if he will suddenly be carried off to a more understanding place.

But then Sophie says, “Look, guys.”

Like an old man who’s finally found his cane, Malcolm grasps the couch fully with his left hand, which is stretched diagonally across his body, and pulls himself to a standing position. There, holding onto the couch with one hand, he sways a bit in a roly-poly, fat-man way, and makes contented, guttural noises.

“Malcolm, yay!” says Sophie.

“Oh my god.” Alison dashes toward him and then keeps her hands outstretched in space, as if she is afraid to touch him and upset the balance.

Malcolm hovers for a moment, then drops. Alison grabs him and holds him up in the air in front of her, then kisses him on both cheeks. “Oh, baby!”

“Ladies, I was so worried.” She shakes her head in disbelief, already ready to transition from feeling self-pity to mocking herself.

“See….” Noreen closes her mouth.

About miscarriages, I have little to add. One in three women have miscarriages, and women are starting to talk about them. The blood, the cramps, a heavy period. And then the shame, the wondering: What could I have done differently? Was it that glass of champagne, the one I had before I knew I was pregnant? Finally, the forgetting: you find yourself mentally ticking off baby names. And then you remember.

After the second miscarriage, I joined an online support group. Idly, I entered my grief onto the screen, and felt better. Once, an anonymous user typed: “Did you drink coffee during your pregnancy? That could have done it.”

My hands hovered above the keyboard. I saw a flag pop up on the screen next to the other woman’s words. It said: “This comment was deemed inappropriate. Although we appreciate everyone’s point of view, further warnings of inappropriateness will result in your user privileges being discontinued.” The message flashed. Still, I stared at the screen.

I touch Alison’s shoulder. “I’m glad, Alison. It’s really great.” I feel like Malcolm is my child too, something born out of the common experiences of Alison and me.

“I didn’t know what to do.”

“It was never your fault,” I say.

That evening, while Archana sleeps, Peter and I are having beer in our living room. “It’s all about luck, isn’t it?” I say to Peter.

“What?”

“The whole pregnancy thing. The babies.”

“I never thought otherwise.”

“Yeah. And Malcolm walking. Just luck.”

“I guess.” But Peter taps his fingers on our coffee table. “But there’s a problem with your thesis. It eliminates the need for action.”

Just outside the corners of Peter’s mouth are small grey-green shadows of disappointment that have been there since I told him I no longer wanted to adopt. These days, I have terrible thoughts. I don’t take my marriage for granted. Who knows what will become of Peter and me?

“Did Alison take Malcolm for therapy?” asks Peter.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, she should have. That was stupid.”

In the streets of Addis Ababa, children landed among us. To our shame, we felt like gods. Like moths, the children butted against our legs and chanted the name of the tissue brand they were selling: “Softies,” “softies.” Their thick-lashed eyes widened at the prospect of our wallets opening. And perhaps each one of them was thinking-viciously, competitively, or maybe only warily and willing himself not to care-that, among the other bodies shuffling their wares, they alone would have luck enough to be chosen.

Laure Baudot is a writer and martial artist. Her work has appeared in journals such as Prairie Fire Magazine and Existere: Journal of Arts and Literature. “Luck” is excerpted from her first collection of short stories, titled “Staying in the Family,” which has yet to find a publisher. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays based on her year of training for her black belt in karate: reflections on karate, motherhood, and writing. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.j

You can read Editor Jessica Powers’s interview with Baudot here.

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