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By Beverly Hoffman
Abbott PressCopyright © 2013 Beverly Hoffman
All rights reserved.
Before daybreak, Robin, snuggled in a sweater and drinking a cup of coffee, stood near the window in her mother-in-law's kitchen and smiled in anticipation of their week's vacation. Thanksgiving in Texas was a slumber party-gab fest of sorts because Robin's sister-in-law and husband bunked in for several nights despite living only ten miles away. She turned and glanced at Georgie, her husband's sister, who was staring at a stalk of celery held between her hands, her facial muscles taut. Each time Robin saw her sister-in-law's gaze tunnel into the distance, she felt an ache slide its way through her body and push against her heart. The volume of the Thanksgiving kitchen noise—utensils clicking against the granite countertop and a grandfather clock ticking minutes away—was only light chatter compared to the silence that filled the space between them. Georgie turned to the counter to chop the celery to add to the sage stuffing for the turkey.
Robin selected an onion from a bowl her mother-in-law Elizabeth had filled with fresh vegetables. She sliced off the top and studied the concentric spheres all tucked closely together. It was like a nested Russian matrioshkas figurine, a peasant woman painted in bright colors and then finished with a shiny lacquer. Within the figure were other identical, but smaller peasant women, all nestled together, a painted tear on the eyelid of each one. She was the great matriarch holding generations of women and protecting their secrets, holding close their stories that had made them weep. The umbilicus of the great-great-great-grandmother connected them all in a nurturing spirit.
Robin looked over at Georgie and saw her take a deep breath. Georgie straightened her shoulders, and her eyes blinked as she snapped back from her distant thoughts. Robin knew she would put on the face of a playful imp, her way of trying to convince the family that all was well. Georgie pushed strands of her dark hair back into her ponytail and then reached for an onion. It rolled out of her hand and began to tumble off the counter. Georgie swiped her hands underneath to catch it. "Hey, look at that. I'm Wonder Woman."
"No question about that!" Robin wrapped her arms around Georgie and hugged her, in the easy way women care for each other. They were so close to one another their breaths became one, their chests expanding and exhaling at the same moment. Robin could feel Georgie's heart beat next to hers.
She remembered a framed photograph in her dentist's office. Two infant babies in a cradle, the healthier one hugging the smaller one who looked listless and sickly. Inset under the photograph was the background summary. The babies were twins. While one thrived, the other had lost weight and its breathing had slowed. As a last resort, the doctor placed the healthy twin in the cradle with the critically ill sister. In a short time, they began to breathe in unison. The healthy one turned on her side, reached over to her sister, then hugged her. A flashbulb moment.
Robin tightened her arms around Georgie.
Then they turned to more Thanksgiving preparations. Robin squared up a cutting board on the edge of the counter and swept her hand over the granite. Its flecks of gold sparkled in the light. She liked the grounded feeling the stone gave her. Robin placed the onion on the board. She leaned into the counter and picked up the knife again. She had no need to run the blade across the pad of her thumb to test its sharpness. She appreciated that her mother-in-law never let her knives get dull, protection from accidental slips and unintended hurts. Robin anchored the tip of the knife with her down-turned palm and chopped, filling a quart-sized glass measuring bowl with identical bite-sized pieces.
Robin and Georgie, both in their thirties, more sisters than in-laws, had contrasting temperaments. Each sometimes secretly wished to be more like the other one. Robin often chastised herself for spending too much time organizing her life. Even though she needed those skills for keeping accounting books for several businesses in town, she carried that trait into running their household. She fretted if she couldn't find her red ink pen when she needed to jot down an appointment in her day-planner. Or her blue pen to write down a scheduled an activity for their eight-year-old son Chance.
Robin loved Georgie's ability to live in the moment. Georgie had once said that her perfect day would be sitting by a lake, a daughter by her side, the two of them eating peacock-blue cotton candy and, with their pants' legs rolled up, flutter-kicking their feet in cool water while they watched upper winds transform clouds from hopping bunnies to a mother holding a child's hand.
Robin's perfect day, she was sad to admit, was color-coded, with no surprises because she, her husband Stephen, and Chance would all know their individual and specific responsibilities. She valued the predictable, with no intrusions, no distractions, which she undergirded with well-thought-out plans.
Robin laughed. No longer was there a disquieting silence; now noises escalated as pots and pans were pulled from cupboards, and the clock tocked its steady rhythm. She dried the counter, making sweeping motions with the towel and folded it into thirds with the corner edges pressing against each other. She nodded her head, liking the way it folded together, with no straggly ends.
Elizabeth walked in from the garage with a turkey cradled in her arms and placed it on the counter. She immediately began helping the girls by chopping fresh sage. Robin breathed in the pungency of the herb, a reminder that dinner would be on the table in another five or so hours.
Georgie dragged the bowl across the counter and balanced it on her right hip. With her left arm, she swept the celery and onions into the bowl. "Hey, Robin, all my little guys are orphans compared to your neat little group of onion cubes."
Elizabeth added a handful of minced sage, melted butter, salt and pepper, and then mixed the dressing with her hands. Georgie picked up a jalapeño from the vegetable basket on the counter. She eyed the glossy skin, and her eyes twinkled. "Why don't we add a bit of heat to the dressing this year, Mom?"
Elizabeth looked at Robin, who shrugged her shoulders. "Why not!"
After Georgie had tossed the pepper into the dressing, she said, "I'll stuff the turkey. We'll see if I can keep the stuffing from oozing out." Georgie sidled up to the turkey suspended in a V-shaped baking rack. She rested one arm on its breast, and pushed her other hand into the cavity. As Georgie rotated her wrist and explored its emptiness, a cavern that needed to be filled, her jaw tightened, and her eyes filled with liquid. She jerked her head toward the bowl and cupped a handful of dressing, but she squeezed it too tight. The dressing slid through her fingers, falling back into the bowl in plops. Her lower lip quivered. She pinched her lips together. Robin could see that Georgie was forcing herself to look composed. She leaned over the turkey, her shoulders rounded. She turned to the sink to grab a towel, hiding her face in the process, but her shoulders shuddered.
Elizabeth went to Georgie and held her close, trying to soothe her wordlessly by rubbing her back. Robin joined mother and daughter, wrapping both of them in her arms. The three stood there, eyes closed.
Robin finally broke the silence. "Oh, Georgie. I wish I could help."
Georgie looked up, forcing a smile. "Like finding a baby in the bulrushes?"
Robin stepped back and held Georgie by the shoulders. "I am in this with you."
Georgie leaned into Robin and fell into her arms. "I know," she cried. "But it's just not happening."
The morning's tangerine sunrise cast aside night's shadows. Robin looked to the east and saw the pewter sky disappearing. She furrowed her brows and then her face relaxed, smoothing the worry wrinkles. She said, "I'm going to do it."
"What? Find a basket with a baby in it?"
With one hand across her breast, Robin leaned toward Georgie and held her chin with her open palm. She felt a strength within herself similar to the mesquite tree outside, with its tap root digging deep within the soil. "Georgie, I'm going to have a baby for you."
Elizabeth pulled back, her face as pallid as the turkey skin. She stifled a gasp. "Oh, Robin."
Georgie stared into Robin's eyes. "I couldn't ever ask you to do that."
"You're not asking."
Elizabeth stepped between the girls and put her hands on their shoulders. "Think. Think this through."
Robin stepped backward. The blur she had felt minutes ago began coming back into focus, and she saw shapes and edges and colors.
She looked around the room as though she were in a new scene, a different place. All was the same as it had been, but the orange sun now cast an umber tint over the kitchen.
Elizabeth twisted, arching her back as though to rid herself of a deep ache. The kitchen was overpowered with the pungency of sage, celery, onions and garlic.
Robin raised both of her hands to her temples and squeezed her head. I should have talked to Stephen. And to Chance. Robin stood still, then dropped her shoulders and crossed her arms around her waist. She swallowed, her guilt swelling in her throat.
Georgie sat down and hunched into herself, her forearms supporting her head. "Robin, you can't do this. You just can't."
Robin turned to her. "Georgie, I want to do this."
"This is too much." She slumped down further in the chair, her head resting on her knees.
Robin turned and busied herself with the yeasty dough Elizabeth had mixed for rolls. She punched it down and rolled it into a huge circle. As she began to cut it into wedges, some of the dough stretched and tore.
Georgie got up and stood by Robin. "Here. Let me help," Georgie said.
Robin looked at the remaining wedges and hesitated a bit before she gave half of them to Georgie. Georgie began to roll a piece into a crescent. They stood close to one another, separated by their thoughts as each rolled the pieces of the dough, neat and tidy, secured and perfect, until the cookie sheets were full.
Chance padded into the room in his Super Hero pajamas, rubbing his eyes. "Gram, do you have some cornbread for me?"
Robin walked to Chance and lowered her hand to his shoulder. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Instinctively, she switched into a mode that felt natural to her—mother-gear, the easy pattern that would give her time to breathe, to have some time to think. She tilted her head to one side. "What about a 'Good morning' first? Then you can ask Gram for a piece."
Chance yawned, remembering to cover his mouth, then tapped Elizabeth on her thigh. "May I use the honey in the bear jar?"
Elizabeth leaned over her grandson and gave him a hug. "Of course, you can, my Take-a-Chance. Of course."
As Elizabeth guided Chance to the kitchen table, Robin realized she hadn't thought through her offer. She simply reacted. Blurted out a crazy idea without a plan. She hesitated before she dared look up across the room at Georgie. When she did, she saw a questioning hope softening the creases around Georgie's eyes.
Georgie hurried down the hall to the guest bedroom where her husband Randy was still sleeping. She stood in the doorway, and splayed her hands over her stomach, trying to still her butterflies. She rehearsed the scene in her head. She imagined how happy Randy would be. She'd cuddle into his arms. His kiss. Gratitude in his eyes for Robin. Tears of joy. Thinking a baby boy ... footballs, campouts, and boys-only fishing trips. She paused and listened to Randy's snores, his familiar deep baritone inhalation and then a gurgling breath out. She quickly pushed away a passing thought that Randy might not approve of Robin's idea. He'd have to be happy, she told herself.
She noted he was tightly cocooned in the bedspread, a mummy in linen wrappings, except for the crown of his head poking out. She breathed in Randy's smell. His citrus after-shave lotion, along with the freshly-cut rosemary bundles her mother always tucked into their pillow cases, calmed the darkening anxiety she couldn't quite shake off.
She looked down and noticed her hands were clasped in a prayer position. "Onward, girl!" She leaned forward, bounding into the room. She flopped heavily on the bed, bouncing several times, hoping to waken her husband. He continued to snore.
She watched him. She studied his face, the strong jaw, his dark eyebrows and lashes. She leaned backward and picked up the wool blanket at the end of the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders to ward off the morning chill.
Georgie snuggled close and stared at him, willing him to wake. Finally, she couldn't wait any longer. She grabbed his undershirt and pulled at the sleeve. She leaned over him and tapped her fingers on his chest with her other hand. "Wake up." No response. She twisted his shirt tighter. "It's important," she begged. He squinted as he opened one eye, then flung an arm across the pillow, and rolled over on his stomach. She looked around to see what she could kick or pound to awaken him. She pushed her foot into their suitcase, the soft canvas lid cattywampus, half-opened and half closed, her clothes in a heap and falling over the sides, but Randy's clothes still folded and stacked. He didn't respond. She nudged it with her foot to make a noise. This time the thud finally roused him. He opened one eye, then the other, and turned over to look up at her.
The morning light washed over her face. "A baby." She bounced on the bed again. "We're going to get our baby."
Randy sat up, disoriented. "We what?"
"Robin's offered to carry a baby for me. Just now, she told me."
"Hey, go a bit slower. What do you mean 'carry a baby'?"
She waited for a minute for Randy to sit up, to cushion his back with pillows. She watched him struggle from a sleepy fog. "Randy, she's offered to carry a baby for us."
Randy wrinkled his brows. "It'd be Stephen and Robin's baby?"
"Yes. Or maybe your sperm. We haven't worked it out yet." She caught herself talking too fast.
Randy took her shoulders. "You haven't worked it out yet? What are you saying? This is big."
She wanted his lower lip to relax in the beginning of a grin. She wanted his approval of her idea. Steadying her voice, she tried to sound detached and controlled. "But it will work out. We'll have our baby." She lightened the conversation a bit, using a playful voice. "Maybe he'll even have your chin dimple that catches cookie crumbs." With her forefinger, she circled his dimple as she leaned in closer to him.
Randy pulled back and pushed her hand away. He crossed his arms across his chest. "Does Stephen know?"
"I don't think so. She just offered it."
He pulled down on his t-shirt that had twisted around his body, and smoothed it with his hand. She could see him trying to understand the situation. She watched him stare at the patterned bedspread, his finger tracing back and forth on the trunk of one of the dark, silhouetted trees on the background.
"I don't understand all of this. Too messed up. Their baby? My sperm? Hell, whose baby would it be? I don't understand all of this. You know I'm willing to do what it takes to have a child, but this is too messed up. We don't even know whose baby it would be!"
"Oh, Randy. Don't be like this. Isn't it enough that she's offered to help us?"
He looked at Georgie. "No. Not for me. We can't do this."
Georgie bristled at the way his voice had tightened with a heaviness she had never heard before. She felt her heart pounding in her chest. "Don't do this to me, Randy. You have no right to even question letting me have a child."
Sadness and pain contorted on Randy's face. He looked out the window a moment to compose himself before turning back to her. "This is too much. It will take some time for us to think this through. We need to slow down." He reached out to pull her close to him, but she stiffened at his touch.
"Don't. Just don't."
Randy said, "Georgie, just hear me out. I can't do this. Plain and simple." The sun cut in between the blinds, casting bars of shadow across the beige walls.
Georgie's voice turned to steel, "And just how are you the final authority?"
"I just am. It's not like Robin at all to just offer to carry a baby for us. There's too much at stake for her. And for us."
Georgie pushed her palm into Randy's chest, her face fierce and her eyes flashing. "I'm going to have a baby. And Robin's going to carry it for me. I'm not going to let my last chance go."
Randy grabbed her wrist, but Georgie pushed him away. "Let me go." She yanked her arms away from him.
With his lips tight, he said, "Georgie. Listen up. I'd rather never have a child than having Robin carry one for us. It just isn't right."
"Says who? Who decides it's wrong? Maybe it's very right."
Randy's back stiffened. "No." He held his stare.
She pounded his chest with both of her fists. "You can't tell me no. I want this baby. More than anything."
Randy spoke through clenched jaws, pronouncing each word slowly and deliberately, his voice measured and definite. "I want a baby, too. More than anything. Except I refuse to have one this way. It goes against everything I believe."
Excerpted from Cradled Dreams by Beverly Hoffman. Copyright © 2013 by Beverly Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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