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LITTLE EARTHQUAKES

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Margery Williams
The Velveteen Rabbit

April

Lia

I watched her for three days, sitting by myself in the park underneath an elm tree, beside an empty fountain with a series of uneaten sandwiches in my lap and my purse at my side.

Purse. It’s not a purse, really. Before, I had purses – a fake Prada bag, a real Chanel baguette I’d gotten at the Barney’s clearance sale, a Louis Vuitton clutch Sam had bought me for my birthday. What I have now is a gigantic pink floral-printed Vera Bradley bag big enough to hold a human head. If this bag were a person, it’d be somebody’s dowdy, gray-haired great-aunt, smelling of mothballs and butterscotch candies and insisting on pinching your cheeks. It’s horrific. But nobody notices it anymore than they notice me.

Once upon a time I might have taken steps to assure that I’d go unnoticed: a pulled-down baseball cap or a hooded sweatshirt to help me dodge the questions that always began Hey, aren’t you? and always ended with a name that wasn’t mine. No, wait, don’t tell me. Didn’t I see you in something? Don’t I know who you are?

Now, nobody stares, and nobody asks, and nobody spares me so much as a second glance. I might as well be a piece of furniture. Last week a squirrel ran over my foot.

But that’s okay. That’s good. I’m not here to be seen, I’m here to see her. Usually it’s three o’clock or so when the woman I’ve been watching appears. I set aside my sandwich and hold the bag tightly against me like a pillow or a pet. That’s when she comes. At first I couldn’t really tell anything, but yesterday she stopped halfway past my fountain and stretched with her hands pressing the small of her back. I did that, I thought, feeling my throat close. I did that, too.

I used to love this park. Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, my father would take me into town three times each year. We’d go to the zoo in the summer, to the flower show each spring, and to Wanamaker’s for the Christmas light show in December. He’d buy me a treat – a hot chocolate, a strawberry ice cream cone – and we’d sit on a bench and watch people. My father would make up stories about them as they walked past us. A teenager with a backpack was a rock star in disguise; a blue-haired lady in an ankle-length fur coat was carrying secrets for the Russians. When I was on the airplane, somewhere over Virginia, I thought about the park, and the taste of strawberries and chocolate, and my father’s arm around my shoulders. I thought I’d feel safe here. I was wrong. Every time I blinked, every time I breathed, I could feel the ground beneath me wobble and slide sideways. I could feel things starting to break.

It had been this way since it happened. Nothing could make me feel safe. Not my husband Sam’s arms around me, not his voice in the ear, not the sad-eyed, sweet-voiced therapist he’d found, the one who’d told me “Nothing but time will really help, and you just have to get through one day at a time.”

That’s what we’d been doing. Getting through the days. Eating food without tasting it, throwing out the Styrofoam containers. Brushing our teeth and making the bed. On a Wednesday afternoon, three weeks after it happened, Sam had suggested a movie. He’d laid out clothes for me to wear – lime-green linen capris that I still couldn’t quite zip, an ivory silk blouse with pink ribbon embroidery that he’d bought for my birthday, a pair of pink slides. When I’d picked up the diaper bag by the door Sam had looked at me strangely, but he hadn’t said anything. I’d been carrying it everywhere instead of a purse before, and I’d kept right on carrying it after, like a teddy bear or a well-loved blanket that I couldn’t bring myself to let go.
I was fine getting into the car. Fine as we pulled into the parking garage and Sam held the door and walked me into the red-velvet lobby that smelled like popcorn and fake butter. And then I stood there, and I couldn’t move another inch.

“Lia?” Sam asked me. I shook my head. I was remembering the last time we’d gone to the movies. Sam bought me malted milk balls and Gummi Worms and a giant Coke, even though every sip caused me to burp. When the movie ended, he’d had to use both hands to haul me out of my seat. I’d had everything then, I thought, and my eyes started to burn and my lips started to tremble and I could feel my knees and neck wobbling, as if they’d been packed full of grease and ball bearings. I set one hand against the wall to steady myself, so I wouldn’t start to slide sideways. I remembered reading somewhere about how a news crew that had interviewed someone caught in the ’94 Northridge earthquake. How long did it go on, the bland, tan newsman asked, and the woman who’d lost her home and her husband had told him, It’s still happening.

“Lia?” Sam asked again. I looked at him – his blue eyes that were still bloodshot, his strong jaw, his smooth skin. Handsome is as handsome does, my mother used to say, but Sam had been so sweet to me, ever since I’d met him. Ever since it had happened, he’d been nothing but sweet. And I’d brought him tragedy. Every time he looked at me he’d see what we had lost; and every time I looked at him, I’d see the same thing. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t stay and hurt him anymore.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “I’m just going to run to the bathroom.” I slung my Vera Bradley bag over my shoulder, bypassed the bathroom, and slipped out the front door.

Our apartment was as we’d left it. The couch was in the living room, the bed was in the bedroom. The room at the end of the hall was empty. Completely empty. There wasn’t so much as a dust mote in the air. Who had done it, I wondered, as I walked into the bedroom, started grabbing handfuls of underwear and tee shirts and putting them into the bag. I hadn’t even noticed, I thought. How could I not have noticed? One day the room had been full of toys and furniture, a crib and a rocker, and the next day, nothing. Was there some service you could call, a number you could dial, a website you could access, men who would come with garbage bags and vacuum cleaners and take everything away?

Sam, I’m so sorry, I wrote. I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t watch you be so sad and know that it’s my fault. Please don’t look for me. I’ll call when I’m ready. I’m sorry…. I stopped writing. There weren’t even words for it. Nothing came close. I’m sorry for everything, I wrote, and then I ran out the door.

The cab was waiting for me outside of our apartment building’s front door, and, for once, the 405 was moving. Half an hour later, I was at the airport, with a stack of crisp, ATM-fresh bills in my hand. “Just one way?” the girl behind the counter had asked me.

“One way,” I told her, and paid for my ticket home. The place where they have to take you in. My mother hadn’t seemed too happy about it, but then, she hadn’t been happy about anything to do with me – or, really, anything at all – since I was a teenager, and my father left. But there was a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in. She’d even given me a coat to wear on a cold day the week before.

The woman I’ve been watching walked across the park, reddish-gold curls piled on her head, a canvas tote bag in her hand, and I leaned forward, holding tight to the edges of the bench, trying to make the spinning stop. The woman set her bag down on the lip of the fountain and bent down to pet a little black-and-white spotted dog. Now, I thought, and I reached into my sleepover-size sack and pulled out the silver rattle. Should we get it monogrammed? Sam had asked, and I’d just rolled my eyes and told him that there were two kinds of people in the world, the ones who got their silver rattles monogrammed and the ones who didn’t, and we were definitely Type Twos. One silver rattle from Tiffany, unmonogrammed, never used. I walked carefully over to the fountain before I remembered that I’d become invisible and that nobody would look at me no matter what I did. I slid the rattle into her bag before she could see me, and then I slipped away.

Becky

Her cell phone trilled as she straightened her back. The dog gave one sharp bark and trotted away, and the woman with the long blond hair in the long blue coat walked past her, stepping so close that their shoulders brushed. Becky Rothstein Rabinowitz picked up her canvas bag from the edge of the fountain, pulled the phone out of her pocket, winced when she saw the number displayed on the screen, and replaced the phone without answering. “Shit,” she muttered to no one in particular. That marked her mother-in-law Mimi’s fifth call in the last two hours. She and Mimi had had a reasonably peaceful détente when Mimi had lived in Texas with the latest in her five-husband series, but the marriage hadn’t lasted. Now Mimi was moving to town, and she didn’t seem to grasp the simple fact that her daughter-in-law had both a job and a baby on the way and, hence, better things to do than “just drop by” the shop Mimi’s decorator had recommended and “take a little look” at Mimi’s custom-ordered drapes. Nor did she have “just a quick sec” to drive half an hour to Merion and “sneak a peek” at how construction was proceeding. Her mother-in-law, an Atlanta native, was in the process of building a pillared, gabled, veranda’d mini-mansioned that looked, to Becky’s eyes, like the mansion made famous in “Gone With the Wind,” if Tara had gotten shrunk in the wash, but she knew better than to say that to her husband. She’d once made the tactical error of referring to Mimi as Scarlett O’Horowitz. He’d given her the silent treatment for the rest of the night.

Becky shoved the phone in her pocket and headed across the park to her restaurant, Mas. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and the little kitchen was already steamy and warm with the scent of braised pork shoulder in a cinnamon-spiked sauce, cilantro and garlic salsa, peppers roasting for the savory flan. Becky took a deep, happy breath and stretched her arms over her head.

“Thought you were off today,” said Sarah Trujillo, her partner and best friend.

“I’m just stopping by,” Becky said as her cell phone trilled again.
“Let me guess,” Sarah said.

Becky sighed, looked at the number, then flipped the phone open. “Hi, honey,” she said. They’d been married for two years, and they’d dated for three years before that, but the sound of Andrew’s voice still gave her butterflies.

“Hi. Are you all right?”

She looked down at herself. Bag, boobs, belly, feet, all present and accounted for. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

“Well, my mother just paged me and said she’d been trying to reach you, but you weren’t picking up your phone.”

Shit, Becky thought again.

“Look, I know she can be demanding. I had to live with her, remember?”

“Yes,” Becky said. And how you turned out normal is one of the mysteries of the ages, she refrained from adding.

“Just humor her a little bit. Ask her how things are going with the move.”

“I can humor her,” Becky replied, “but I don’t have time to run her errands.”

“I know,” her husband answered. Becky could hear hospital sounds in the background, some doctor being paged. “You don’t have to. I don’t expect you to. Mimi doesn’t, either.”

Then why does she keep asking? Becky wondered.

“Just talk to her,” Andrew said. “She’s lonely.”

She’s crazy, Becky thought. “Okay,” she said. “Next time she calls, I’ll talk to her. But I have to turn my phone off soon. Yoga.”
Sarah raised her eyebrows. Yoga? she mouthed.

“Yoga,” Becky repeated, and hung up the phone. “Don’t laugh.”

“Why would I laugh?” Sarah said, smiling sweetly. Sarah had eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate, glossy black hair, and a dancer’s body, although she hadn’t laced up her pointe shoes since she’d blown out both knees at seventeen. She was the reason that Mas’ six-seat bar was packed three-deep every weekend, and four deep on Fridays; the reason that of all the restaurants on Rittenhouse Square, they could fill every one of their thirty-two seats in spite of the two-hour wait. Sarah would put on red lipstick and snake-hip through the throng, a plate of complimentary empanadas in her hands and high-heeled sandals on her feet, and the grumbles would evaporate and the watch-glancing would cease the instant she appeared. “What’s the soup again?” Sarah asked.

“Garlic and white-bean puree with truffle oil,” Becky said as she picked up her bag and took a look at the still-empty dining room, each of the twelve tables set with fresh linen and wine glasses and a little blue glass dish of spiced almonds in the center.

“And why do you think I’d be laughing about yoga?”

“Well,” said Becky, picking up her canvas bag. “Just because I haven’t exercised in…” Becky paused, counting the months. The years. “….in a while.” Her last experience with organized fitness had been in college, where she had to pass a semester of phys ed before she graduated. She’d let Sarah talk her into Interpretative Dance, where she spent four months waving a scarf around, pretending to be, alternately, a tree in the wind, a child of alcoholics, and resignation. She’d been half-hoping that her obstetrician would put the kibosh on exercise and tell her to just stay home with her feet up for the last twelve weeks of her pregnancy, but Dr. Mendlow had been almost indecently enthusiastic when Becky had called for permission to enroll.

“You probably think yoga’s for wimps.”

“No, no!” said Sarah, her eyes wide. “Yoga’s very demanding. I’m impressed that you’re doing this for yourself and, of course, for your darling little wee one.”

Becky stared at her best friend and narrowed her eyes. “You want something, right?”

“Can you switch Saturdays with me?”

“Fine, fine,” Becky grumbled. She didn’t really mind working Saturday night. Andrew was going to be on call, which, more than likely, meant she’d be abandoned in front of the television set at least once so that her husband could go tend to someone’s inflamed appendix or obstructed bowel….or,. more likely, field more phone calls from Mimi.

Sarah scraped the jicama she’d been julienning into a bowl, wiped her cutting board, and tossed the towel into a basket in the corner. Becky retrieved it and threw it back to her. “Two towels a night, remember? The laundry bill last month was killer.”

“A thousand pardons,” Sarah said, and started scraping kernels of corn off the cob for the roasted-corn salad.

Becky headed up the back staircase to a tiny room at the top – a converted closet in the old row house that was Mas. She closed the blinds and took another appreciative sniff of dinner coming together – the mole simmering, the spice-rubbed brisket slow-roasting, the undertone of garlic and the bright notes of cilantro and lime. She could hear the sounds of the dinner crew arriving – waitresses laughing in the kitchen, the dishwashers turning the radio from WXPN to the salsa station. She set her bag onto the desk, on top of the stacks of invoices and ordering forms, and reached into the locker where she’d put her yoga outfit. “Loose-fitting, comfortable clothing,” the yoga flyer had said. Which, luckily, was pretty much all she ever wore.

Becky pulled off her elastic-waisted black pants, exchanging them for a pair of elastic-waisted blue ones and added an exercise bra that it had taken her forty-five minutes on the Internet to find at a site called, God help her, Bigmamas.com. She’d had it shipped to work instead of their house rather than running the risk that Andrew would be the one picking up the mail that day. She pulled on a long tee- shirt, slipped her feet into her sneakers, and pulled her curls into a bun that she skewered into place with one of the chopsticks Sarah had left on the desk. “Gentle, rhythmic stretching,” the flyer had said. “Creative visualization and meditation for the mother-to-be.” She figured she could handle that. And if not, she’d just say something about heartburn and head for the door.

As she stuffed her clothes into the bag, her fingertips brushed against something cold and unfamiliar. She dug around and pulled out a silver baby rattle. She felt around in her bag some more, but she couldn’t find a card, or wrapping paper, or a ribbon. Just one little rattle.

She turned it over in her hands, gave it a shake, then headed down the stairs to the kitchen, where Sarah had been joined by the dishwasher, the sous chef, and the pastry chef. “Is this from you?” she asked Sarah.

“No, but it’s nice,” she said.

“I don’t know where it came from.”

“The stork?” Sarah offered.

Becky rolled her eyes, then stood sideways in front of the mirror beside the dining-room door for another round of what was becoming her favorite game: Pregnant, or Just Fat?

It was so unfair, she thought as she twisted and turned and sucked in her cheekbones. She’d dreamed of pregnancy as the great equalizer, the thing she’d been waiting for her entire life, the moment where all the women got big so nobody talked or worried about their weight for nine blissful months. Well, fat chance. Pun intended. The skinny girls stayed skinny, except they developed adorable little tight-as-a-drum basketball bellies. Whereas women Becky’s size just looked as though they’d had too much for lunch.
And plus-size maternity clothes? Forget about it. Normal-size women get to wear little Lycra-blend sporty numbers that proclaim to the viewing public Hey! I’m pregnant! Meanwhile, any pregnant woman bigger than a breadbox got to choose from the offerings from exactly one – yes, one – maternity-wear manufacturer, whose stirrup pants and oversized tunics screamed Hey! I’m a time traveler from 1987! And I’m even fatter than normal!

She looked at herself in profile, straightening her shoulders, willing her belly to stick out farther than her breasts did. Then she turned to Sarah. “Do I look…”

Sarah sailed toward the deep fryer with a tray of corn fritters that Becky had prepared that morning. “Can’t hear you, can’t hear you,” she said, as the fritters started to sizzle. Becky sighed, did a quarter turn, and looked over at Juan the dishwasher, who’d suddenly become very involved in the plates he was stacking. She shot a glance toward the grill and found two waitresses with their eyes averted, busily mixing, chopping, even, in Suzie’s case, reading over the week’s schedule as if there’d be a quiz on it later.

Becky sighed again, picked up her bag, along with a copy of the schedule for the week and the specials for the weekend, and headed out the door to cross the park, walk eighteen blocks east toward the river, and keep her date with New Age destiny.

“Ladies, welcome.” The instructor, Theresa, wore loose black pants that rode just above her hipbones, and a strappy brown tank top that showed off exquisitely defined deltoids and biceps. Her voice was low and lulling. Hypnotic, really. Becky stifled a yawn and looked around the studio on the fourth floor of Theresa’s Society Hill townhouse. The room felt warm and cozy without being stuffy. The lights were dim, but votive candles burned in front of high windows that looked out over the city’s twinkling skyline. A fountain burbled in one corner, a boom box in another played the sound of wind chimes, and the air smelled good, too, like oranges and cinnamon and cloves. In her pocket, her cell phone vibrated. Becky hit REJECT without looking, felt instantly guilty, and promised herself that she’d call Mimi back as soon as class let out.

She replaced the phone and looked around the eight other students, who were all different degrees of pregnant. On Becky’s right was Yoga Barbie, a tiny blond girl with cornsilk-fine blond hair pulled into a thin ribbon of a ponytail, and a perky little belly. She wore one of those maternity workout ensembles that came in sizes Small and Smaller – white-striped track pants, black tank top with contrasting trim hugging her bump. She’d given Becky a friendly “Hello” before spritzing her mat with a bottle of Purell. “Germs,” she whispered, and offered Becky the bottle. Becky declined. Between the germs her unborn daughter were exposed to at the restaurant, combined with what her father brought home from the hospital, she probably had a kick-ass immune system already.

On Becky’s left was the most beautiful woman Becky had ever seen outside of a movie. She was tall and caramel-skinned, with cheekbones that could have cut butter, eyes that looked topaz in the candlelight, and a drum-taut tummy pushing at a light-brown cashmere sweater. She had perfectly manicured fingernails and, Becky could see once she’d pulled off her socks, perfectly pedicured toenails, and a diamond on her left hand the size of a sugar cube. I know her Becky thought. She couldn’t come up with a name immediately, but she knew her occupation. This woman – her name was something exotic, Becky thought – was married to the man who the Sixers had just traded a center and a point guard to get, a superstar from San Antonio with some ridiculously high points-per-game average who also, Andrew had explained during the one game Becky had watched with him, led the league in rebounds.

Theresa sank to the floor without using her hands. As if, Becky thought. “Let’s begin,” Theresa said in a slow, lulling voice that made Becky feel like curling up and taking a good, long nap. “Why don’t we go around the circle. Everyone can share their names, how far along they are, how the pregnancy’s been, and a little bit about themselves.”

Yoga Barbie’s name turned out to be Kelly! An event planner! This was her first pregnancy! She was twenty-six years old and she was twenty-seven weeks along! And she felt great, even though things had been hard in the beginning, because she’d been spotting! And on bed rest! Yay, team thought Becky, and stifled another yawn. Then it was her turn.

“I’m Rebecca Rothstein Rabinowitz,” she said, “and I’m twenty-nine and a half weeks. I’m having a girl. She’s my first baby, and I’m feeling pretty good, except…” She glanced ruefully at her belly. “I feel like I’m not really showing yet, which is kind of a bummer.” Theresa gave a sympathetic nod. “What else? Oh, I’m a chef and manager at a restaurant called Mas in Rittenhouse Square.”

“Mas?” gasped Kelly. “Oh my God, I’ve been there!”

“Great,” Becky said. Whoa. Her own mother hadn’t been that enthusiastic about eating at Mas. But the restaurant was gathering buzz among the city’s hip and pretty. It had just been written up in Philadelphia Magazine as one of its “Seven Spots Worth Leaving the Suburbs For,” and there’d been a very nice picture of Becky and Sarah. Well, of Sarah mostly, but you could see the side of Becky’s face. Some of her hair, too, if you looked carefully.

“I’m Ayinde Walker,” the beautiful woman on Becky’s other side began. “Thirty-six weeks. This is my first pregnancy as well, and I’ve been feeling fine.” She laced her long fingers over her belly and said, half-defiantly, half-apologetically. “I’m not working right now.”

“What were you doing before the pregnancy?” Theresa asked. Becky bet herself the answer would be swimsuit model. She was surprised when Ayinde told them she’d been a news reporter. “But that was back in Texas. My husband and I have only been here a month.”

Kelly’s eyes got wide. “Ohmygod,” she said, “you’re...”

Ayinde raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. Kelly closed her mouth with a snap, and her pale cheeks blushed pink. Theresa nodded at the next woman, and the circle continued – there was a social worker and an investment banker, an art gallery manager and a public radio producer, and one woman with her hair in a ponytail who had a two-year-old already and said she was a stay-at-home mom.

“Let’s begin,” said Theresa. They sat cross-legged, palms upraised on their knees, eight pregnant women sitting on a wood floor that creaked beneath them as the candles flickered, and the women swayed back and forth. “Let the breath flow up, from the base of your spine. Let it warm your heart,” she said. Becky rocked left to right. So far so good, she thought, as Theresa led them through a series of neck rolls and mindful inhalations. It wasn’t any harder than Interpretive Dance had been.

“And now we’re going to shift our weight to our hands, lift our tails in the air, and slowwwly ascend into downward dog,” Theresa intoned. Becky eased herself onto her hands and feet, feeling the rough weave of the carpet against her palms, and sent her tailbone sailing up. She heard Yoga Barbie beside her sigh as she got herself into position, and the beautiful woman – AyeINday – groan softly.

Becky tried to lock her elbows so that her arms wouldn’t shake. She hazarded a glance sideways. Ayinde was wincing, and her lips were pressed tightly together. “Are you okay?” Becky whispered.

“My back,” she whispered back.

“Feeeeel yourself rooooted in the earrrrth,” said Theresa. I’m going to feel myself landing on the earth in about a minute, Becky thought. Her arms wobbled…but it was Ayinde who dropped the posture first and rocked backward on her hands and knees.

Theresa was kneeling beside her in an instant, one hand on her back. “Was that posture too challenging?” she asked.

“No, the posture was fine, I’ve done yoga before. I’m just…” Ayinde gave a small shrug. “I’m not feeling right today.”

“Why don’t you just sit quietly for a moment?” Theresa said. “Focus on your breath.”

Ayinde nodded and rolled onto her side. Ten minutes later, after Proud Warrior and Triangle Pose and an awkward kneeling posture that Becky decided she’d call Dying Pigeon, the rest of the class joined her. “Shivasana,” Theresa said, and turned up the sound of the wind chimes. “Let’s hold our bellies gently, breathing deeply, filling our lungs with rich oxygen, and send our babies a message of peace.”

Becky’s stomach growled. Peace she thought, knowing that it wasn’t going to work. She’d felt exhausted for her first trimester, queasy on and off for her second, and now she was just hungry all the time. She wasn’t sending her baby a message of peace, but instead a message of what she was going to have for dinner. Short ribs with blood-orange gremolata, she thought, and sighed happily, as Ayinde sucked in her breath again.

Becky pushed herself up on one elbow. Ayinde was rubbing at her back with her eyes squeezed shut.

“Just a cramp or something,” she whispered before Becky could ask. “I had them off and on all night.”

After Theresa had clasped her hands over her enviably firm chest and wished them all namaste the women made their way down the twisting staircase and walked out into the twilight. Kelly followed Becky. “I just love your restaurant,” she gushed, as they walked south on Third Street toward Pine.

“Thanks,” Becky said. “Do you remember what you ordered?”

“Chicken in mole sauce,” Kelly said proudly, pronouncing the Spanish word with a flourish. “It was delicious, and… Oh my God!” Kelly said for the third time that night. Becky looked to where she was pointing and saw Ayinde leaning with both hands against the passenger’s side window of a tank-size SUV with something white fluttering on its windshield.

“Wow,” said Becky, “either she’s taking that parking ticket awfully hard, or…”

“Oh my God!” Kelly repeated, and race-waddled away with her ponytail bobbing like a flag. Becky hurried after her.

Ayinde looked at them helplessly as they approached. “I think my water broke,” she said, pointing at the sopping hem of her pants. “But it’s too early. I’m only thirty-six weeks. My husband’s in California…”

“How long have you been having contractions?” Becky asked. She put her hand in the middle of the other woman’s back.

“I haven’t had any,” Ayinde said. “My back’s been hurting on and off all day long, but that’s it.”

“You might be having back labor,” Becky said. Ayinde looked at her blankly. “Do you know about back labor?”

“We were going to take a class at the hospital in Texas,” Ayinde said, pressing her lips together, “but then Richard got traded, and we moved, and everything just…” She sucked in a breath, hissing, with her forehead pressed against the car window. “I can’t believe this is happening. What if he doesn’t get here in time?”

“Don’t panic,” said Becky. “First labors usually take a while. And just because your water broke doesn’t mean you’ll be having the baby soon…”

“Oh,” said Ayinde. She gasped and reached for her back.

“Okay,” said Becky. “I think we should go to the hospital.”

Ayinde looked up, grimacing. “Can you hail a cab for me?”

“Don’t be silly,” said Becky. Poor thing she thought. Being in labor all by herself – no husband around, no friend to hold her hand – was about the worst thing she could imagine. Well, that and having her midriff appear on one of those “Obesity: A National Epidemic” news reports. “We’re not just putting you in a cab and abandoning you!”

“My car’s right here,” said Kelly. She raised her keychain, hit a button, and a Lexus SUV across the street started beeping. Becky helped Ayinde up into the passenger’s seat and sat down in the back. “Can we call someone for you?”

“I see Dr. Mendlow,” Ayinde said.

“Oh, good, me too,” said Becky. “I’ve got his number. Anyone else? Your mom or a friend or someone?”

Ayinde shook her head. “We just moved here,” she said, as Kelly started the car. Ayinde turned around and grabbed Becky’s hand. “Please,” she said. “Listen. My husband…” Her forehead furrowed. “Do you think there’s a back door to the hospital or something like that? I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”

Becky raised her eyebrows. “Well, it’s a hospital,” she said. “They’re used to seeing people come in with gunshots and stuff. Wet pants won’t faze them.”

“Please,” Ayinde said, squeezing her hand even tighter. “Please.”

“Okay.” Becky pulled her big black sweater out of her bag, along with a baseball cap. “When we get out you can wrap this around your waist, and if you think you can manage the stairs, we can get to triage that way, so you won’t have to wait for the elevator.”

“Thank you,” Ayinde said. She pulled the baseball cap over her eyes, then looked up. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember your names.”

“Becky,” said Becky.

“Kelly,” said Kelly. Ayinde closed her eyes as Kelly started to drive.