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Betsy Ladner

Second Round

I have a second interview today. The power is mine. I am bulging with it and Iíd be a liar if I said I wasnít enjoying it. They offered to come pick me up but I said Iíd get there on my own. On the phone, we called it a visit, but I know the truth. I remember my first job interview. Talcum powder in my purse to rub on my sweaty hands and a snap-to answer for every question. I had wanted that job and these people wanted my baby. I would say yes, or I would say no.

My mom takes me on the way to her shift. Actually itís not remotely on her way, but she does it anyway and miracle, doesnít remind me ten times what a nice thing sheís doing. I keep telling her that there can only be one martyr at a time and for the next five months the titleís all mine. She stops at the gate to their neighborhood. "I got to get to work. Besides, if I go in in this crap trap, securityíll just tail me until I leave."

"But hereís my engraved invitation," I laugh, but get out anyway.

"Theyíre bringing you back, right?" she asks as I slam the door.

"Right," I lie. I am taking the bus. No sense getting their hopes up if Iím not sure.

-----

The guard at the gate looks for my name on a clipboard and points me in the right direction. I hear him on the phone, telling them Iím coming and I wish he hadnít. I walk up a slight hill and see an old man in red satin short shorts and no shirt, running with his lab. His flesh is white and webbed with blue veins but he is proud of himself, you can tell, and he nods as he huffs his way past me.

Their house isnít too much further. Itís what I expected. A notch below Gone with the Wind, minus the lawn. But itís not Rhett and Scarlett at the window and then the door, itís Al and Marty Clayton who now greet me.

We have met once before at the office with the lawyer and the counselor. Marty had hugged me close before she could stop herself. I felt like a dress she had grabbed off the rack before anybody else could get to it. From the way they looked me up and down I thought I understood what it must be like to be really beautiful, but now I know itís different. Wanting and needing are different. They courted me though. I remember when I dropped my earring, Al picked it up and offered it to me like a kitten.

Today they are smiling, always smiling. We look to see if we have remembered each other right. Al is still big and jolly in his V-neck sweater and corduroy pants. Marty reminds me of a cockatoo with her nervous movements and the spray of red curls branching out of her hair clip. My stomach is a magnet. They canít help but look.

"Annie!" Al booms and steps aside to let me in. "Welcome!"

"Did you have trouble finding us?" Marty asks and touches my arm, just barely, then pulls her hand back quick. I wonder if Al has warned her off of touching me.

"Nope, the directions were fine. My mom dropped me off." I see them looking over my shoulder, maybe to get a look at my gene pool. "She had to get to work."

"Please, come on in. Weíll have lunch in the living room," she says and I follow her to a cozy room with classical music playing and framed prints of flowers and plants on the walls. Thereís a blue Oriental rug and a couch that I canít stop stroking itís so soft. The room is perfect. I wonder if they have arranged it just so for me. Put in the CD, I see her coming, Marty might say. Do you want the vase of roses here or here? Al asks. I like it that they are out to impress me, the goose with the golden egg.

"I didnít think to ask you on the phone," Marty says. "Do you have any special cravings?"

"Not really," I tell her. It is not true. I crave the quick fix of caffeine in the morning, and still drink coffee, too much probably. "So sue me," I tell my mother when she looks at me like Iím downing drain cleaner or something. "Itíll give the kid some spunk."

She leaves me with Al. "So howís everything going?" he wants to know.

"O.K. I donít get sick in the morning anymore but I donít sleep as well. Heís letting me know whoís boss, I guess." Al looks at me funny when I say this and Marty has quit frittering in the kitchen. They know my ultrasound isnít for two weeks. "I mean, I think itís a boy. We did a Chinese birth chart for me at work and it says itís a boy."

"A chart?"

"Yeah, you take your birthday and your conception date and look at the chart. The girls whoíve had babies swear it works."

Marty appears with a bamboo tray. She sets it in front of me and lists the contents of my plate like a waiter ticking off the specials Ė ham and biscuits, cucumber sandwiches, pasta salad, fruit salad. "Looks great," I tell her, but she doesnít seem to believe me. Al brings in her tray with a glass of wine on it. She takes a too big a swallow and it trickles down her chin.

"I hope you donít mind." She raises her glass and giggles. "Iím just a little nervous."

"No dear, really, Iím sure she hasnít noticed. Youíre a master of disguise," Al says, winking at me, and takes a seat.

-----

The afternoon gets easier. Marty mellows out with the wine, and Al really is funny. Game show funny with his one-liners and his Santa-like laugh. I tell him this and he chuckles. "Maybe Iíve missed my calling."

I ask them to tell me their history again. I know part of it from their file. Itís why I picked them. Everybody makes mistakes, and if Iím going to let them have mine, I want to know theirs up front.

"She chased me mercilessly," Al says with a leer.

"Whatever." She acts as if she is annoyed. "We had a class together in college. Abnormal psych. He was on the football team and never studied. I tutored him."

"I just pretended to be the dumb jock," he tells me. "Knocked her off her feet and married her before she regained consciousness."

This is the story they tell at cocktail parties. The cutesy story theyíll tell my kid when he asks.

"But you got divorced?" They have been waiting for me to ask this and hold hands as if on cue.

-----

"Weíre in this for the long haul," Al starts as Marty takes another swallow of wine. "We had some problems. Not being able to have a child was a part of it. Actually, to be honest"--Marty clamps down on his hand--"I was unfaithful." Her wine glass freezes below her chin and I know he was not supposed to say this. "But I was lucky enough to get another crack at this marriage and Iím going to do right by it."

"Itís funny," Marty says and gives me a too-bright smile. "Before you get married youíll do anything not to get pregnant, and after, itís all you try to do."

In the second after she says this, she looks even more freaked out. She thinks she has offended me, but she hasnít. I think of the movies Iíve seen where couples are desperately trying to get pregnant. Pillows under hips for the right angle and a thermometer at the bedside. Honey, get in here now the wife yells my temperature is perfect. And after, if that doesnít work, a lab where the mystery and romance is really sucked out of it.

"Annie." Al leans toward me. "We are incredibly grateful that you wanted to meet us. I swear to you, if you choose us, your baby will never lack for anything."

This is it. The little speech that Al has probably practiced in his mirror a thousand times. Add a soundtrack and now Iím in a movie. Marty lets fly with her enthusiasm and kneads her husbandís knee. "Weíd be great parents," she tells me. "Weíve been practicing on our nieces and nephews for years."

Later, we have coffee and cheesecake. I get milk, but I smell the bitter steam from their cups and the milk tastes like paste. "I really admire what youíre doing," says Marty. "So many women opt for the alternative." She cannot bring herself to say what the alternative is.

I had wanted an abortion. I was lying back on the table with my heels cupped in the cold metal stirrups, waiting for the doctor to come in and easily undo what I had easily done. The counselor thought I was ready. I said I was too, but I had already imagined what he would look like. I had already seen his face.

"Well, not me," is all I say to them.

"We would help you you know," Al says. I know all about the arrangements. I will not contact the child. They will throw gobs of money my way to cover Ďexpenses.í "You donít have to go through this alone."

"Iíve got my mom," I say as the word alone settles in beside me on the sofa. They are dying to know about the father. I know they are. They were told not to ask about it but will talk all around it, inching up to it when Iím not paying attention. I think about telling them that a PhD from Harvard dropped into town and stuck it to me, and I think about telling them the truth. Itís none of their business. In my file is the race of the father and his age and whether he has any diseases and the fact that he could give a damn what happens to this child and will never come looking for him. I left out the lame lines he fed me and how he always wanted the lights on so he could watch me rock on top of him and what he yelled at me when I told him the news. That little bundle of joy is mine to keep.

"Is there anything else we can tell you?" Marty asks as I get ready to go.

I am tired of talking. They canít tell me the future. Say one day he rear ends me at a light. He gets out of his Range Rover or Pathfinder or whatever his parents buy him and I get out of my car and we meet. Will he be a little prick to me? Or will he just space out on whatever theyíre smoking then while we trade information? Is there any chance that he will see something similar in me, somehow know without knowing that we are the same and maybe smile at me, chat me up, show me some kindness? Thatís the kind of crap that keeps me up at night, the kind of stuff I think about.

But I just leave to meet my mother at the gate, or so I say. They spastically wave to me until I am out of sight. I still donít know. On the way to the bus stop, I rub a circle over and over on my belly. Itís not a crystal ball but it will have to do.


Betsy Ladner lives in Nashville, TN and works at Vanderbilt University. This piece is her first published fiction. Hopefully it will not be her last.

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