Elsie was sitting on a blue cooler of backup beers, eating spinach salad left over from the guests’ first course, when she said, “I can’t believe I want so many greens this pregnancy.” The words almost tripped out of my mouth—all I could eat was buttered toast and lemon popsicles when I was pregnant with my twins. But service workers slogging through a ten-hour shift don’t want to be reminded of dead babies.
So I did what I always do when folks start talking pregnancies—found something to do anywhere but there. Slung a rack of dripping pint glasses onto my hip and crossed the narrow road to the back of the inn. The screen door whined open, eased for a moment then snapped shut. Steam chugging from the old dishwasher gave a reason for my face to be damp and red.
At midnight we let the bonfires fade into embers and made sure wobbly guests had a ride home. I rinsed stainless steel pans behind the barn with a garden hose. Mud and creamed potatoes squelched under my black clogs. I thought about where I would be if my babies had lived—on the den floor folding little laundry, breasts leaky and low. I imagine Wren would have been more demanding, the girls in my family are vocal about their needs. Chattering and singing. Always wanting.
A month later, Elsie tied the sash of her black linen dress above her bump and talked to a toddler at a table by the bar. She told his parents how this baby, rubbing her belly, was a happy accident. When I reached for a bottle of prosecco, I lingered in the cool of the fridge.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive down the mountain to the fertility clinic. I think of what it took for me to get pregnant—the vials of blood, the pelvic exams, the medicine that made me hurl, the years. My ovaries were two warty toads, spotted and lumpy on a grayscale screen. My type of infertility, more and more common these days, is likely due to environmental factors. Tides overflow their boundaries. Mountains slide back into themselves. My hormones wane and never wax. Sometimes, reaching for what we want, all we do is create piles of grief.
At the inn, Elsie sets down warm peach pie and a small pitcher of custard. Her hair is glossy goldenrod waves. On a vintage floral saucer, she sets down a cherry cookie for the child.
A month after that, when the beech trees start flaming gold, a coworker grabs me by the elbow. She pulls me into the office and says “Elsie’s baby doesn’t have a heartbeat.” A guest taps on the door, asking if the tavern will be open soon. I haven’t even sliced limes.
Pouring tonic into gin, I don’t feel Elsie’s despair, so much as see it like a fever dream. Life and death collapsed into a single point of pressure. The miracle of tiny, perfect ears. She will hand her baby to the nurse and never get her back.
A week after I lost my twins, I threw the double stroller into the back of my Subaru and dumped it in front of the mother and child consignment shop. I called the store as I peeled away and told them I didn’t need any money, I just needed the stroller out of my fucking house.
The morning after Elsie’s stillbirth, I gathered what I could—grief tea with rose hips and cinnamon, a box of the good Kleenex, bars of dark chocolate, ice packs for when the milk comes in. When my phone buzzed, I saw Elsie’s name. She had only ever texted me about covering shifts, but I wasn’t surprised. There is a silent understanding in this miserable club. I loaded my car and went down to the valley.
The second time I visited Elsie, we sat on her couch tucked under blankets, our knees leaning into each other. She said, “Instead of waking up calling my baby’s name, I woke up calling out the names of yours. All three blended into one.” She wanted to touch them but couldn’t. In her sleep, she reached out her hand.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk