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Erika Dreifus


Everything would be fine.

That’s what Mia kept telling herself, while she sat in the breakfast room. Every few seconds she glanced at the phone on the wall. It was better, that Jerry had left on his business trip. This way he wouldn’t be calling or e-mailing her every five minutes to see if she’d heard anything yet. It was better for her to have the house quiet and calm, better to sense all the cosmic space, clear and clean between this breakfast room and the hotel suite across the continent in California where, hopefully, Jerry still slept.

His absence kept her busier, too. Before settling in at the breakfast room table she’d driven to the newsstand to fetch the papers (the New York Times, and the Newark Star-Ledger), then stopped at the gas station (though the tank wasn’t yet half-empty), and even treated herself to a chocolate-coated donut (reviving a very long-ago pregnancy habit) at the town deli. Now, at ten minutes to nine, the car gathered frost on the driveway while she was back in the breakfast room, the winter sun streaming in, the Star-Ledger atop the Times and bearing another front-page story on that Poet Laureate character, the donut uneaten.

Everything would be fine.

Just thirty miles away, at a Manhattan hospital, her daughter and son-in-law were having a "second opinion" test. Her daughter and son-in-law and the thirteen-week-old grandchild whose fetal image as of the previous week (you could see the perfect vertebrae, already, and the little arms and legs!) Mia could spend hours studying on the computer screen. It was a beautiful sonogram.

"Don’t you think it looks just like you, Mom?" Mia’s daughter had joked, to break the tension. Because as beautiful as the baby was, it was also borderline—as far as its nuchal fold measurement went.

"Its what?" Jerry had asked, more confused than concerned in that first moment when Mia had attempted to discuss the matter. "Noo-cal what? What’s that?"

"The skin of its neck," Mia said, trying to sound knowledgeable. She’d looked the term up on the Internet, after her daughter’s telephone explanation had raced by too quickly for her to absorb. Jerry still didn’t seem to grasp what she was saying, so Mia added, "They can measure it, now, and if it’s too thick, that can be an early indication that something isn’t quite right. With the baby."

Jerry was silent for a moment. Then he said, "How do you spell it?"

Mia had to admit she hadn’t known that initially, herself. "Progesterone" she’d managed well enough, and explained to her husband, when Allison first reported: "I have good news, and some possible bad news," and proceeded to say that she was four weeks pregnant, but that her progesterone level was low, and that her doctor had prescribed supplementary hormones. There might be a miscarriage.

So there was reason to be happy, but not delighted. Not yet.

Then the progesterone levels had risen, and steadied, and they’d all been happier. For awhile.

"We can be cautiously optimistic," they’d agreed.

Cautiously optimistic. A mother expecting her first child wasn’t supposed to have to be "cautiously optimistic." She was supposed to celebrate, to revel in the life growing inside her, to glow (like the cliché dictated) and to tell everyone why. Mia wanted to cry. Some days, when she was alone, she did cry, because it worried Jerry too much to see her upset. She was prone to migraines, and, before the pacemaker, fainting spells. Any indication of stress and Jerry would start hovering over her. So she kept her unhappinesses to herself, until Jerry left the house.

The house was a five-bedroom colonial, with neat shutters and a circular driveway and in truth it was too large for just the two of them, now that Allison and Andrew were grown and out on their own. But it also formed such a part of the life Mia had dreamed of, growing up. One day, she’d fantasized, she’d have a loving husband and a house in the suburbs. And of course, she’d have her children.

They’d married young, she and Jerry, and by their second anniversary they had saved enough to "start trying." They didn’t anticipate any difficulties conceiving, and they didn’t have any. So later, when she learned of all the miscarriages and fertility treatments and emergency c-sections and other traumas friends and acquaintances had suffered through, and began to have "health issues" herself, she marveled at how easy it had been. Two perfectly planned pregnancies. Two utterly uncomplicated deliveries, beginning with labors that started well after sunrise and had produced living, breathing babies by lunchtime. A daughter, and then, after what she’d understood to be the ideal three-and-one-half-year age difference, a son.

The first pregnancy Mia remembered with a clarity somewhat missing from the second, when she had also simultaneously supervised Allison’s tonsillectomy and transition to nursery school and their move to a larger apartment and her own mother’s medical care. The first pregnancy belonged to that golden time when life was still so very simple, when she and Jerry lived in a West Side walk-up and didn’t even own a car, when so much was still new and unknown, when so much promise filled the future. She was twenty-three years old.

It never occurred to her that everything wouldn’t be fine. Back then.

Back then they didn’t have nuchal fold tests. They didn’t have sonograms. They didn’t measure the amount of progesterone in your blood every few days and offer you special treatments in the early weeks of the pregnancy. They didn’t have "chorionic villus sampling"; she could only vaguely recall hearing, back then, the term "amniocentesis." But that was for much older women. Wasn’t it?

She’d gone to the doctor—Jerry’s aunt with the four children still at home had given her the name of her own obstetrician. Dr. Grossman, a middle-aged man with a crowded waiting room, had spent five minutes examining her and said, "Yes, honey, you’re pregnant. I don’t even need to see the test results." He’d asked about her last cycle, then told her the baby’s due date. And she’d reported it all to her husband, right away

"I floated out of that office," she told Allison, many times, recounting the wonder of that first pregnancy. "Daddy and I were just floating, for the next eight months before you came. Not a care in the world."

Were they just ignorant back then? Was it so wrong to assume that without thalidomide or DES in your history you didn’t need to worry? "Didn’t you even consider Tay-Sachs?" Allison had asked, and Mia had to confess that no, she hadn’t. But Allison was undergoing every test imaginable. In fact, insurance had refused to pay for some of the sonography.

Mia separated the newspapers. She couldn’t handle the impending war and other disasters no doubt filling the Times, not when there might be another crisis coming through the phones lines at any moment. But the Star-Ledger’s front-page focus on the latest Poet Laureate problem made her massage her temples, too. At least, with everything else to talk about today, it was unlikely that Allison would start in on that whole subject again.

"She really should have gone to law school," Jerry said, frequently, about their management consultant daughter. "Since she’s so fond of prosecuting everyone and everything."

Mia left the breakfast table, headed to the computer down the hall. She clicked onto the most recent sonogram and studied the picture of her grandchild, a grainy figure floating in its dark sac. The tears pooled and pressed.

Why hadn’t they called yet? The appointment was for 8AM. Surely they knew something by now.

For God’s sake, her daughter deserved to float, too!

True, Mia had actually appeared rather—weightless—back then.

"You must be pregnant," Jerry had said, his voice gaining energy, as they dined on hot dogs at Nathan’s the evening before that first visit to Dr. Grossman. (Who knew about nitrates?) "Because I’ve never seen you finish a meal before!"

She’d been so thin, in fact—barely 100 pounds when she’d first conceived—that she’d not only felt Allison move in the fourth month, but to her delight she’d soon seen the little knees and elbows protruding through her skin. At night she and Jerry would lie on their bed and watch the baby shift in her body, mesmerized.

"It’s floating around," she’d say, stunned at what was happening within her. As if no one else on the planet had ever experienced such a thing.

And she’d gained just fourteen pounds that entire pregnancy, because Dr. Grossman was— well, to put it nicely—something of an ogre; she and all the other women in that waiting room were so frightened of his scoldings about weight gain that they essentially starved themselves before each weigh-in. After the appointments, she’d cross the street and find other mothers-to-be in the coffee shop, shoveling food down their throats. Her own preference was chocolate-coated donuts, but the others seemed to favor mocha layer cake, or apple pie.

Allison hated chocolate-coated donuts.

Allison’s obstetrician had an office on Park Avenue.

Jerry had given Mia a rueful look. "I wonder what multiple of Grossman’s fee he charges."

"She charges," Allison corrected. "And hello, it is thirty-three years later!"

Everything would be fine. The obstetrician and technicians would give them the assurances they needed. And then they could tell the rest of the family, the cousins and the close friends who were like extra siblings and aunts and uncles.

After Mia’s first visit with Dr. Grossman, after she’d floated out of that office and told Jerry that her suspicions had been confirmed they could barely wait until dinner. They’d gone over that Friday night, as planned—as usual, for the Sabbath—but for the first time greeted Jerry’s parents with a: "Nice to see you, Grandma and Grandpa!" And there’d been pure, joyful laughter, as the realization hit first Jerry’s mother, always alert to anything medically-related, and then his father. Pure delight. Absolute and unadulterated happiness. Her husband’s parents had fled Hitler back in the 1930s. Jerry was their only son. This baby—and its future sibling—would be the center of their lives, until the days Grandpa and then Grandma had died, many many years later.

"L’chaim!" Mia’s father-in-law had shouted, lifting a glass of Manischewitz Concord Grape.

To life. It was a time they had thought of nothing but new life. No illness. No defects. No calamities or crises. Because back then everyone was healthy and alive.

After dinner with her in-laws she and Jerry had dropped by her mother’s apartment.

"This is a surprise," her mother had said. "Weren’t you coming tomorrow?"

And then, in a microsecond, Mother had seen their smiles and let out a shriek.

"You’re expecting!"

Next to know were Mia’s own brother and sister-in-law, themselves already waiting for their second child. Mia recalled the sense of familial love and warmth enveloping her from that moment on, just like the sheets and blankets that wrapped her in the most peaceful sleep of her life, all through that pregnancy. Never again would she sleep so well, and not only because babies could keep parents awake.

Thirty-something years later her mother was dead. So were Jerry’s parents. Her brother’s wife was gone, too—breast cancer. And now Mia’s nights were punctuated with those moments when she awoke and wondered how to help her brother through his own treatment. The prostate. Good news carried so much more responsibility, these days. So many burdens. Because floating was so much more elusive, in this life, with the holes of loss and absence, the demands of replacement, the trials and terrors tearing through the hours and days and years.

She returned to the breakfast room, to the donut and the newspapers. In the Times she skimmed the world news, the weather, the obituaries. And then she dared to read the Star-Ledger.

"N.J. Senate Votes To Eliminate Poet Laureate Post."

This she must absorb, as Allison was obsessed with the issue.

"It’s outrageous," her daughter had said, when the kids came in for the weekend of Jerry’s birthday in October (Andrew had even brought a new girlfriend), and they’d all sat around this very table, with bagels and lox and the Sunday Times, and Allison had gone straight for the Week in Review. The new girlfriend, though likely warned, still seemed slightly nonplussed by Allison’s intensity.

"What’s outrageous?" the poor girl had asked.

"Here we go," Andrew said. "Anyone want more coffee? Or a tranquilizer?"

Allison’s husband laughed. Jerry frowned.

"You don’t know about the Poet Laureate?" Allison’s eyebrows raised. And then she’d explained the situation. How in a poem this man had perpetuated a conspiracy theory that Israelis—read, Jews—knew in advance of the September 11 attacks.

"Never mind that hundreds of Jews were among the people killed that day," Allison said.

Allison’s husband sighed.

The new girlfriend looked at Andrew. "What did the poem say?"

"I’m sure Allison can quote it for you."

"Not quite." Allison glared at her brother. "But almost." She addressed the girlfriend again. "One line suggests someone warned ‘Israeli workers’ at the Towers not to go in that day. And another implies there’s something fishy about Ariel Sharon being off-site, too." She shook her head, while her brother’s girlfriend’s expression seemed to freeze halfway between bewilderment and terror. "Can’t imagine why Sharon wouldn’t have been there. I mean, he only runs another country in an entirely different part of the world."

"Doesn’t this man—this poet—have the right to express himself?" Andrew asked.

"Does anyone want another bagel?" Mia broke in. "Toasted?"

"Well, I like to think that something others might read as historical truth is at least quasi-accurate, but let’s put that aside, because I know you’ll just tell me," (and indeed, Andrew’s mouth had opened), "that ‘truth’ is a subjective concept." Allison paused, and Andrew’s mouth shut.

"So sure, let him express himself—but I’d prefer that as a representative of the state, especially, he not do it quite this way. And not on taxpayer money," Allison continued. "Which, please forgive me for pointing out, Mr. ACLU, but in this county, in particular, happens to include a lot of Jewish taxpayer money. You think Mom and Dad really want to be, for all intents and purposes, funding anti-Semitic propaganda?"

"Allie—," her husband interrupted. Or tried to.

But she was on a roll. Refocusing on Mia, as if she knew it would be hopeless to try to politicize her father she demanded: "I mean, aren’t you upset that your taxes are going to support this man? And that he’s spouting such poison—really dangerous poison—so nearby?" For Newark, where this poet was now preaching and teaching in the schools, was their own County Seat.

Mia had felt another migraine coming on.

"Allison, for God’s sake," Jerry had pleaded. "Leave your mother alone!"

The phone rang. Mia stood, too quickly. Usually the pacemaker regulated her heartbeat, but now she felt light-headed. She held onto the back of her chair. She must not collapse. That was all she needed—another episode for Jerry to worry over. The answering machine clicked on. Allison was speaking but Mia couldn’t distinguish the words. Again tears blurred her vision. All she could hear was her father-in-law’s voice, all she could see was his still-familiar smile.


The machine clicked off. Mia steadied herself and made her way over to the message. Everything would be fine. Just fine.

Wouldn’t it?

Erika Dreifus’s short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Lilith, Teachers & Writers, The Writer, and elsewhere. In 2003 her story, "Homecomings," won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest for Young Adult Writers, and she has been awarded residencies at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and at the Vermont Studio Center.

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