From my Upcoming Novel, Sea Change
Tildie, a climate activist who has sworn off having children, shows up at her conservative parents' Fourth of July party and is badgered about having a baby.
In the kitchen, Bridget and Will and Rosemary and Bill were drinking club sodas out of mugs, as the other dishes whirred in the dishwasher. Bridget’s husband, Dougie, was passed out on the couch, Henry and Gus passed out on top of him.
“We were just talking about you,” Bridget announced, pulling her in.
“Oh,” said Tildie. “Was it about my nose for sound business investments?”
“Surprisingly no,” Bridget said. “It was something closer to “We think you should have a kid.” She leaned forward, giggling, and shook Tildie’s shoulders. “WE THINK YOU AND WILL SHOULD HAVE A BABY TILDIE.” Rosemary clapped her hands and did a little jump. “That’s exactly what we were saying,” she cried, still drunk. “That was it exactly!”
Tildie stared at the group, a stack of American flag cups in her hand. “A what? I should have--I’m sorry, a what?”
“Come on Tildie!” Bridget said. “You’re a natural! If I didn’t stop him every hour on the hour, Gus would be hopping the rails to Lovely, a bandana on a stick over his shoulder. It’s a gift, T. The short people love you.”
“Plus” Rosemary said, loving the fat sizzle of gossip, “Will has already agreed! Haven’t you, Will?”
Tildie stared at Bridget, then at her mom, then at Will, who ducked his head close to his glass, a sudden scholar of club soda.
“But Will and I don’t want a baby,” Tildie said, trying to pry Will’s eyes up with her gaze. “That was one of the first things we ever knew about each other.”
The room was silent. Is that so? The refrigerator seemed to hum, until Rosemary took over for it.
“Is that so?” she crowed. “Well that’s not what Will said!”
Normally Tildie would have a smart remark. Normally she would have said, Awesome, mom. What is this, seventh grade? But the crack in her notions of reality, her idea of Will, was so sudden and fundamental she was left without her usual recourses. The first time she and Will had ever talked, they’d walked straight into a baby pageant. They’d been camping with their Environment and Letters class somewhere in the dangerous wilds of Ohio, and had stopped at a food court in a small-town mall. And there it was: a line-up of babies in ruffles, in onesies, in striped leggings and matching headbands, their proud parents holding them up like prize watermelons. “I’m never having one of those,” said Will, as he tried to convince the cashier at the salad bar to put his food in his used tupperware. And they’d stayed up all night talking about overpopulation and carbon footprints.
“Is that true, Will?” Tildie said, coming back to the moment. She used the voice others would use if they found panties in the backseat of their husband’s car.
Will tried for a deflecting humor. “Now Rosemary, I said babies were cute enough to eat, not cute enough to have.”
“No Will,” said Rosemary, totally oblivious to the rift in the room, “You said cute enough to have! To have!”
The air of the room felt compressed, and there was everyone with their lit match. Something had to give.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree, Rosemary,” Will said, smiling weakly. “Tildie will only get pregnant if she can give birth to an endangered species.”
“Wait, for real?” Bridget said, and Will nodded. Tildie nodded too. It was true. Last month, after four shots of whiskey, she had said that.
“So like, a wombat?” Bridget said, pressing it further.
Tildie’s mouth dropped open, and she looked at Will. In fact that was precisely what she had said, standing up on her booth at the bar, swaying and holding onto the windowsill, Will and Peanut and Badger and Fern egging her on. There was a dollar on the table. Her dollar, if she’d speak her mind. “I’ll only get pregnant if I can give birth to a wombat!” said Tildie to the room, who started to tear up with drunken sentiment at the thought of it. The handful of patrons in the vinyl and sawdust bar looked up from their sorrows, unimpressed. “Noted,” was all the bartender said.
“I didn’t say anything!” said Will, arms up. And he really hadn’t.
“Was I right?!” Bridget yelped. She jumped out of her seat and did a victory dance. “A wombat, for real? Oh my god, a wombat.” She danced over to Tildie, saying “Who’s your best friend, whooooooo’s your best friend!”
Rosemary tried to join in, but she didn’t understand. “What’s this about a wombat?” she kept saying, but she was dancing too, raising the roof in petite little motions confined by the pull of her pantsuit. In the center of the hopping bodies, Tildie began to laugh, the anger and surprise rolling out of her as sound. “Yes, a wombat!” she said. “The first human-wombat hybrid on record.”
“Or an Amazon river dolphin!” Will said. “Or no! A Back-to-the-Future dodo! We just need to find a mosquito that bit a dodo and then got caught in some amber sap...That’s how it works, right? DNA?”
“Dodo Blanchard!” Bridget scream-laughed, delighted, still jumping up and down. “I can see the school pictures now…”
They sat down, sweating, and gulped down club soda. It was quiet for a moment, as each of them scanned through private Rolodexes of endangered species, trying to find the funniest one. Everyone except Rosemary, who had pivoted back to the original topic.
“But seriously, honey, when are you going to give me some grandchildren?”
Tildie groaned. “Mom, did you not hear anything I’ve said for the last fifteen minutes? I’m having a wombat.”
“Be serious, Tildie!” her mom said, and pouted.
“I am serious, mom. There are 7 billion people on the planet and less than a hundred Northern hairy-nosed wombats. It’s simple underdog math.”
“Under-wombat math,” Will corrected.
“Under-wombat,” Tildie agreed. “But for real, mom, just flip that scene for a second. Can you imagine if there were 7 billion wombats and 100 of us? Can you imagine? Wombats at coffee shops, wombats at the grocery, whole subdivisions full of wombats in gated communities named after what they’d killed: The Pines at Human Lake or Proud Primate Pointe? And in every living room, a wombat mother convincing her wombat daughter to have a wombat baby. Meanwhile you’re living in Shit City with two of your cousins, trying to get them to have sex and save the human race. Would you really want that kid wombat to have a baby?”
“Yes,” said Rosemary, wearing what Will called her Mt. Rushmore Opinion Face, very Serious and Immovable and Correct. “I would want that wombat to be happy.”
Now it was Bridget’s turn to choke on her drink. She coughed and coughed, and then she put her head on the granite countertop, shaking with silent glee.
Rosemary’s drunk was wearing off and now she really was offended. “I’m serious,” she said. “You don’t think I’m serious?”
“Mom, we know you’re serious.” Tildie said. “That’s the problem. But if you want me to be happy, mom, I’m happy. Wombat baby or no, I’m happy.”
The party ended at 2 am, Bridget hoisting her sugared children onto her hip, announcing to no one in particular that she was a negligent mother and please nobody call Child Protective Services on her. Tildie hugged her goodbye, then made some tea while she watched her mother. Rosemary was on a jag from all the excitement, and went around the house engaging in her favorite activity: putting tiny pink sticky notes on small nicks or imperfections in the house paint. Bill tried to coax her to bed and finally gave up, but not before sticking a few notes on some spots in the entryway that had been bothering him.
Finally Tildie could pretend at her tea no longer, and climbed the landing to the guest room. Will was in bed reading a book called Cities of the Future. She paused before she went in, then walked straight to the bathroom. She spent longer than usual washing her face, scrubbing the grainy paste in circles. When she was done she picked at her face, squeezing the tiny blackheads on her chin while she watched a slice of Will’s body in the mirror. Both of them were waiting for the other to speak.
“Excellent point about the wombats,” Will said. “Very if A, then B. You should be a wombat ethicist.”
Tildie stood in the door frame, tensing and untensing her fingers. “Did you say it?”
“Say what?” said Will, who knew exactly what.
“Did you say you wanted a baby?”
“I didn’t say it like that,” Will said. “Not like, hey Rosemary, pass the club soda I want to inseminate your daughter.”
“Then what was it like?” Tildie said. She didn’t laugh at his joke, and the space between them pulsed with a wicked heart.
“Come on Tildie! You know your mom! One minute she’s saying ‘Aren’t Gus and Henry cute?’ and the next minute she’s handing me a pen and signing me up on the dotted line. She hears what she wants to hear!”
“Yes, I know my mother,” Tildie said, “which is why I would never, ever, ever give a child so much as a compliment within one hundred yards of her. Now she’s never going to give up.”
“Tildie, I got blindsided! It was your mom and Bridget at once. It was a velociraptor attack!”
“But what did you say? Why does my mom think you want to have a kid?”
Will looked down at his book, then back up at Tildie, then back down at his book. In the hallway, the grandfather clock chimed the hour, its pendulum moving silently in its case. Will was silent for all eleven gongs. On the tenth gong, Tildie knew.
“Oh, Will,” she said, and she sat on the floor.