Denise stood in the walk-in closet riffling through her blouses. The one she was wearing, the one she’d thought would be just right for the day ahead, was now covered with strawberry stains. Eventually, she pulled a blue cotton sleeveless blouse from the hanger. Before she did the hasty switch, she did a quick breast check. Ever since her mom had been diagnosed, Denise checked herself as often as she changed blouses. Jeff told her she was being paranoid, and maybe she was, but she couldn’t help but think that for the last couple of days there was something off as she pressed here, then there. Was that a lump? It certainly felt like it. She started to hyperventilate while slipping her arms into the sleeves of the clean blouse. She began to work a button into a hole when the closet started to whirl in slow motion. She groped her way over toward the bed, all the while feeling like she was in a tunnel, one that became more and more narrow. Beads of sweat dampened her forehead.
“No, no, no,” she said under her breath. “Please, not again. Not today. Not ever.” She dropped down on to the bed.
“You taking a nap?” Jeff said, running into the room.
Denise’s eyes were closed, but the aroma of chlorine filled the room; she imagined water dripping from her husband’s bathing suit. She said, “Just trying to collect myself before everyone gets here.”
“Don’t know why you agreed to have this thing, anyway,” he said.
She willed herself to feel better, pushing herself up onto her elbow in time to watch Jeff run bare-assed to his dresser, pull out a pair of jeans and slip them on without the benefit of underwear.
“I have to run out,” he said. “Want me to pick anything up?”
“We’re out of propane, aren’t we?”
Jeff grabbed a faded T-shirt, slipping it on over his wet head of hair.
“Don’t start, Denny.”
“Who’s going to be open now for propane? It’s a holiday.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. You’re going to be okay, she told herself.
“Mackenzie’s opened. I called.” He grabbed his wallet from the dresser. “So, you need anything else?”
“I just don’t know why you would wait till the last—”
Jeff stopped and gave her his insolent, stultifying look. “If you were so goddamned concerned about the grill, why the hell didn’t you make sure we had propane while I was working my ass off all week? I’m the one going out for it on my day off, aren’t I?”
She had a hundred comebacks, all that wanted to point out how busy she, too, was with running the boys to their soccer practices, dentist appointments, friends’ houses, her photography classes, taking care of the house, and the laundry, all the while trying to get ready for the family reunion, but just then, Elliott yelled up from the bottom of the stairs, “Grandma and Grandpa are here!”
She tossed her hands up and forced a smile. “Well, as long as you’re going out, could you get a bag of Granny Smith apples?”
Jeff slipped on his sandals, running out of the bedroom. “Granny Smith apples,” he repeated.
She went to the bedroom door and started to call that she’d be right down, but then felt her stomach roiling and rushed to the bathroom, crouching over the toilet just as scrambled eggs spilled into the bowl. Once she believed it was over, she got up, wiped her mouth with the hand towel and walked out of the bathroom to see her mother standing tentatively outside her bedroom door. She looked like a picture of health, dressed smartly in crisp white slacks, navy blue shell and matching sweater draped over her shoulders. Her shock of white hair was thinner than before the cancer, but it suited her.
“Are you okay?”
“I am now,” Denny said. “I don’t think my breakfast agreed with me.”
“I should be okay now, though.”
Her mother walked into the room and ran her thin fingers through Denise’s short layered brown hair. “Are you sure it’s not morning sickness?”
“Mom, please,” she muttered. Fact was, the unacceptable thought had already crossed her mind. She thought she could take the news of having breast cancer better than finding out that she was going to have another baby.
“Well, wouldn’t you like to have a little girl before it’s too late?”
“Mom, I said—”
“I know, I know. I’m just saying. It’s just that you’ve always been so good with babies.”
True, she did know how to be a doting mother to babies. It was when they started walking, speaking, and making demands that she felt at a loss, but Denise suspected her mother was referring to her own long bout with postpartum depression after she’d had Lottie. Her mother would occasionally reference Denise’s mother-instincts, as though that was why she had taken over when her mother had failed.
Denise was about ten years old at the time and recalled how the baby, Charlotte, would cry for hours unattended in the crib while her mother was hidden away in the bedroom refusing to push herself out of bed. Denise wasn’t quite sure what to make of it since she really didn’t know her mother all that well. After all, it was Miss Pearl who’d cared for Denise, Natalie and Emily while their mother was on shoots with Allen for most of Denise’s young life. But for the last couple of years, there was no more Benny and Crow, and her mother didn’t quite seem to know what to do with herself. According to her father, there was no need to pay for live-in help any longer, even though her mother did try to make a career out of bringing Allen to one audition after the next, but they eventually let the nanny go. But then her mother got pregnant, which kept her in bed during most of the nine months. Denise had been under the impression that once the baby was born, her mother would be better, but that hadn’t been the case at all.
It seemed that Denise was the only one around. Her siblings expressed little interest in having a baby in the house and her father seemed to always have to fly somewhere that would keep him away for days at a time. It was Denise who stayed home from school to take care of her baby sister. Otherwise, she was afraid Lottie would die of starvation or cry herself to death. She was the one who gave Charlotte the nickname Lottie and it stuck.
Part of Denise had hated her mother for being void of feeling for such a little needful being and another part feared that her mother would soon snap out of her melancholy behavior and stake her claim. Denise discovered she loved being needed and couldn’t understand why her mother found it so difficult. Now, all these years later, Denise discovered that babies grow up into charges that drain you, suck the life from you, cause fights with the man you were once so madly in love with.
Now, she looked over at her mom and said with determination, “I’m not pregnant.”
Her mother raised her hands as if giving up.
“He took a ride with Jeff. Did you want to rest for a bit before everyone gets here?”
“No,” she said. “There’s too much to do.” She went over to the dresser and grabbed a roll of film. “It’s going to be a good day,” she said with forced optimism.
“It is, but you probably should put on a clean blouse.”
Denise looked down to see that vomit was splattered on what she’d just changed into.