Used to be I could recite a few psalms or proverbs and leave the food pantry with my cranberry jelly. Now you say I have to tell a story that means something to me personally. No more naked nymph with the saucy snake, no more arking up the quadrupeds for the deluge. Fine. You want resonance? I got resonance.
A man had two wives. First, the favorite, had shiny curls that bounced when she walked. As a girl, she went to exclusive private schools where she performed lines from Euripides, competed in chess tournaments, and made copper bracelets in Metal Shop for Girls. She did not fill out financial aid forms; did not widen the holes in her tights to make them seem intentional. Rather, she traded the prettiest clothes with the prettiest friends, and enjoyed the tastiest nanny-packed lunches. A walking superlative, she was never second in anything.
Second, however, spent her childhood with a widowed father who used words like “fellowship” and kept his family of two wandering from one sprawling chainstore nirvana to another in search of the perfect congregation. Or valet job. Or order-fulfillment position. Ever the new girl, she became an expert at befriending her knee socks.
Now, First was married young to her godmother’s eldest son. She never grocery-shopped alone at night, lugging the bags up two flights of stairs into a dark, empty flat only to hurry back out again because she thought she heard a noise. Never took the garbage out Tuesday after Tuesday even when she had the flu, head spinning like a globe with melting polar caps. Never filched shiitake ravioli from her employer’s refrigerator. And had certainly never been compelled to expound on scripture after standing in line to obtain canned green beans from a trailer in a church parking lot.
Look, wouldn’t you like me to tell a happier story? Because this one about two wives, one loved and one unloved, might be a downer right before lunch.
First and her husband loved to take evening walks in their affluent neighborhood. Dawdling and smooching on one such unseasonably balmy occasion, the pair held hands and took up most of the sidewalk, oblivious to the possibility that the combined width of their bodies, though individually slim and strength-trained, might be an obstruction for less fortunate persons, such as the catering assistant who, still smarting from her supervisor’s remark on the imperfect edges of her spinach triangles that day, had jumped off the bus a few stops early to avoid her own bleak block just a little bit longer.
The assistant found herself behind her clients by coincidence, but it was more than idle curiosity that compelled her to follow the couple at whose lavish annual holiday parties— three of them by now—she had served roast duck with cranberry chutney and passed trays of prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with chèvre.
While the husband went into the ice cream shop, First stayed outside, dimpling her grin in an animated phone conversation. At a distance, Second (as she had already begun to call herself) stopped to view her father’s text message about being fired by “another heartless Philistine.” Eventually, the husband emerged with a cone in each hand. Bypassing First, he headed straight for Second, confessing that not only did he remember her as the cute catering assistant who had worked his holiday parties, but that he wasn’t sure whether it was the sultry night melting his Rocky Road or the sultry sight melting his resistance. I couldn’t forget you either, Second was about to say—when she was rudely jostled from her fantasy by a television-news videographer nabbing footage of First and her husband as they traded flavored licks, wrists entwined.
When the couple resumed their stroll, Second followed with renewed purchase on two matters of import: how to keep her sad and sermonizing father from visiting during the holidays, and how best to maximize the cosmic misfortune she knew to be soiling the couple’s otherwise immaculate life: First was barren.
This year once again, on the night of the party at the home of The Couple With Everything But, it was Second’s lot to wrap a garland of pine boughs around the staircase banister and string the front window with festive multi-faith lights. It was First’s lot to descend those garlanded stairs in the glow of said lights, flutter her fingers, and hold sophisticated conversations about Vermeer or string theory or Peruvian pottery—never a dull slog about a barely insured catering assistant who worked fifty hours a week, had earned one third of a certificate in culinary management, and still owed $29,726.41 in student loans.
That’s right, ma’am, serving up the very personal, here and now in a long line at the Food Pantry. Lotta work for the pop-top tuna and add-water mash, doncha think?
And so. The couple’s three-story home displayed numerous mosaic bowls, hand-crafted by First. Party guests had called them elegant, but Second saw them as emblematic of their maker—fragile vessels, decorative but empty. With no motivation other than kindness, mind, Second took care, during the festivities, to store the showiest pieces in cabinets and cupboards out of harm’s way. Remembering that First had gone to bed early at previous parties, Second lingered by the punch bowl this time after the guests had departed. There, she found a way to mention to the husband (without revealing her knowledge of the couple’s quiet search for a surrogate) that she had carried a baby to term for an egg-deprived cousin.
A few months later, after the tests and procedures and the negotiation of a payment more handsome than Second could have imagined, she was inseminated in a doctor’s office with the husband’s sperm. When Second had her morning sickness at night, he increased her surrogate pay to cover the catering shifts she missed. When she began to show and was relegated to the caterer’s kitchen, he followed with another increase to replace her tip income. When she sprained her ankle, she didn’t have to ask the anxious couple to convert their sewing room to a guest room, drive her to her obstetrics appointments, and pay her bills.
Second put up with First’s inquiries about the date of her last cigarette. First put up with Second’s daytime talk shows and haughty manner with the gardener. Second kept her “second-but-fecund” affirmation private, even after overhearing First describe her as having been “leased like a goat for her kid-filled womb and milk-producing teats.” Second hosted expectant-mom groups in the living room of her temporary address, facilitating impassioned debates on cesareans and episiotomies, and wowing the gals with her spinach triangles (now perfected). First retreated to her studio to work on her bowls; the bowls she’d have to abandon when the baby came; the baby she wasn’t sure she still wanted.
The next holiday party would come eleven weeks before the girl baby was due. First insisted that she was up to the task, despite a slew of crippling migraines, but Second insisted that planning the party was the least she could do for her generous hosts. First wouldn’t hear of it, adding that Second should not feel obligated to attend a function where, after all, she wouldn’t know anyone. To the contrary, Second cited names from the guest lists she had archived and annotated, protesting that she wouldn’t miss it for the world. The husband said that the planning would be stressful for First with her migraines. Second said that the idle weeks would be bad for the baby. First relented.
While First spent more and more of her days vomiting in a darkened bedroom, Second planned the party and became a demanding customer of the catering company where she had once been the scullion. She also planned the nursery, and was careful not to bother First with troublesome decisions about color and crib design and limits on the household credit card. When Second was kind enough to wait until she found the husband alone before placing his palms on her belly to share the novelty of a fetal kick, First accused her of skulking, and complained, furthermore, that Second dressed to draw attention to her increasingly buoyant breasts. When the husband brought home two cashmere shawls identical but for color, Second curled up in hers while First lobbed her own into the gift bag whence it came, and then pressed her lips into a tight, horizontal line—even though Second had offered to trade. Why, at one point, The Empty Vessel grew so paranoid as to insist that, in the television newsreel in which she and her husband had lingered in front of an ice cream store one balmy night the previous year, the bystander lurking off to the side under a head scarf was Second. In short, First was obstreperous and simply could not be pleased.
Look, I warned you that the story was not going to be about restorething my soul or standething like wisdom on a mountaintop. And while I cannot promise that justice will prevail, I do think you’ll find my tale not wholly bereft of happiness. Shall I continue?
Alone in the baby room, Second cradled a stuffed lamb in her arms, and privately rehearsed the how-we-met story that was bound, in her mind, to come in handy when chatting with the other mothers at school meetings and future holiday parties, long after the eternal menstruant would have slunk away in disgrace. “Most people date, marry, and have kids,” Second told the mirror. “But he and I, we had our babies first...”
And the dad-to-be was in excellent spirits. Not quite old enough to be Second’s father, he was mindful when he walked next to her on the street, of the near salute she seemed to earn him from his fellow man, their gaze darting down to her rounded belly and then up to him who had caused it. It wasn’t about whether he had burdened or fulfilled, impoverished or enriched, captured or protected. It wasn’t even about creating a wondrous human. No, the point was that of abundance; his seed hath been made to multiply as the stars of heaven; greatness shall come forth out of his loins.
Okay, okay, forget the King James diction. You want the brutality to be mesmerizing, the male pectorals to be oiled shiny and absurdly proportioned. You want the truth to be holy and humorless; the fall of the mighty to be announced by the dooming stroke of a gong.
Sorry to disappoint.
It did not happen at the holiday party, where revelers mazeltoved my taut, expectant womb; where eager aunts piled high the gift table and inquired about silver nitrate and cord clamping; where the husband dropped a honeyed fig slice onto my tongue, prompting the outgoing wife to go out indeed though the front door and run headlong into a certain gray-haired parking valet with a wrinkled red vest and more than one sad story about the heartless philistines of this world.
No, mine was a tedious, incremental demise. A few weeks before I was to deliver, First went on a buying spree: clothes, shoes, cartons of camera equipment, even a gigantic luxury vehicle to replace the low-emission compact of which she had been proud. First also resumed wearing makeup and meeting friends for lunch; leave she would, but with her head held high. The husband saw through this veneer of courage and, in an admirable display of sympathy, reined in his displays of affections for me, a forfeiture I bore with noble patience. Indeed, I could afford to be magnanimous during the transition after which my natural fortunes would flourish while hers would wane. One morning when First thought I was out, I heard her on the phone reserving a moving van. As much as I yearned to help her pack, as much as I wanted to wish her well and preserve our small remnant of cordiality, as much as I winced about the visible exodus of funds for her final farewell, I kept a respectful distance and pitied the marriage its death rattle. Soon, the feeble life support of First’s seniority would be unplugged, and I would lay a crisp, white sheet over its brow.
My weekend retreat on natural birthing was a luxurious gift, hastily presented, no doubt, to facilitate First’s moving-out day. Returning, blissy and self-assured in the leather-seated jeep provided to me, I bided my time at a home store, collecting tile samples for the imminent bathroom remodel. When at last I pulled into the empty driveway of the place I would soon call home, I took my time further still, then pausing at the threshold in preparation for the lovely sight—no more shabby antiques and Persian rugs, no more sinky couches in dark chenille; and among the greatest mercies, no more “artisan” bowls cluttering up the coffee tables and backlit china cabinets.
But instead of the blank domestic canvas I had anticipated, the house sung First as it always had and I was greeted by a shock of items newly crowding my small room. Soft pink pillows had been returned to their plastic zipper bags, and the rest of the spring- themed linens I had lovingly selected for the nursery were neatly boxed and deposited on the bureau. The hamper was filled with baby gifts from the holiday party, including a felt pond’s five plush ducklings now upended. To the extent that my bulk allowed, I rushed upstairs. The nursery had been redone in boyish blues and imperial golds. A low table hosted a model castle; the toy chest was stuffed with brainiac baby games. A globe- themed pillow would teach this child to hold the world in his hands from his crib days forward. A bright, new choo-choo chugged rhythmically around the plate-rail overhead, its high-pitched whistle mocking the scream I held in my throat. Nobody had to tell me that this room now awaited a child more cherished, more exalted, more worshipped than the one I would birth.
I collapsed into the nursing rocker. Had not the father of my child held my chin in his tender hands? Had he not lamented that First’s quest for maternity was futile? Had he not deemed his progeny in my belly a rightful entrustment issued from the highest authority? And had these acknowledgements not forever impressed upon the crumbling couple that each of them, man and woman, deserved a genuine soulmate and not merely a candidate nominated in childhood to blend resources and strengthen alliances? Had he not proclaimed that the inferior present was stepping aside in deference to our superior future? And had not First wailed at him, amid a dramatic exit up the stairs, that something vital between the two of them was missing? That some cosmic displeasure—an ancestral sin or unobserved edict or a caution of nature—had kept them from multiplying? That her immense sorrow would be daily exacerbated, not mitigated, by a child of another woman’s womb?
Furthermore, I told myself, their union could no longer have been carnal. No lust could have survived, even briefly, that fraternal cheer and efficiency that marked their daylight errands. Their kisses were chaste, fish lips puckering. They held hands like school pals skipping down the lane on a summer day. They bantered in a juvenile made-up language of syllables known only to each other. With a domestic staff to handle the administration as well as the scutwork, the two of them did not so much run a household as they did play house. Never had I allowed myself to sleep until I heard the his-and-her doors close for the night on the pajama-clad spouses separately ensconced. It is unimaginable that I could have soundly snored while, directly above me, one lonely insomniac entered the private chamber of the other. Not after he had smouldered over me with stifled longing and stolen asides. Not after he had pulled me from a hallway into a darkened room just twenty feet from the movie-watching mosaicist, and pressed his hard tongue into my soft mouth. Not after I had bought new sheets for his bed, and not, certainly not, while I window-shopped for engagement jewelry.
But there in the nursery, the soldier clock chimed, and the choo-choo clacked and whirred in an infinite loop. I, the fertile handmaid, had been put to immediate utility, while First had been primed for the miraculous. I would be whore and she would be holy; I, soiled and she, immaculate; I, crowned with broken twigs, and she, wreathed with fragrant jasmine. Second might furnish offspring for cheap labor, but it was First who would beget royalty.
I spent the final weeks of my pregnancy in bed with the capsized ducklings. As I grew heavier and wearier, my rival became light-hearted. While her pale pallor turned beatific, I scratched my thighs raw from prenatal eczema. The officious sounds of baby-proofing rang in my ears like a town crier. A stack of brunch invitations appeared on the hall table, heralding the imminent arrival of “our little man.”
How then would it be for my girl to grow up as the playmate and servant of a young master, to test grocery-store cantaloupes for ripeness while he was tutored in philosophy, to pull his fermented boots off of him after his polo matches and return them aired and polished, to eat his leftovers alone in the kitchen and then scrub the plates? Would she, too, be pleasing and nubile and called upon, if not to yield fruit, then simply to yield?
One day while I pretended to be napping, First wheeled the sewing machine into my room where it had lived before my arrival. The husband, whispering in the hallway, asked her whether that possibly could have waited. First murmured a sharp reply, adding that no, she would not retain me in place of the cook who had retired.
“The transition for the child,” he pleaded.
“The transition for you,” she spat back.
Years and miles now from all of that, my family of two wanders. We line up at
the food pantry with tale on tongue-tip. We load our dark sofas onto pick-up trucks and transfer my daughter’s bunny curtains, long outgrown, from one rented window-frame to the next. Once from a distance I saw the young prince with his beamy parents and a multitude of siblings. The husband was still handsome, but I was curious about the young woman holding a baby. A niece? A nanny? Or possibly, Third? Still, I hold fast the belief that from my years of chaos, a kind of perfection will emerge. Like gods and mothers before me, I had filled my most wakingest dreams with a universe conceived in my own image, both the ruin and the renewal, in the hopes that maybe someday, there’d be another chance for me after all.