Phoebe swears that the slick roads and misty skies, and the fatness of the roses in our front yard are all signs that point to Bruce. When we hear “Bruce” called out at a restaurant, or see the name in the newspapers, or watch a movie with a character named Bruce, she grabs my arm and says, “See?”
Bruce is everywhere.
Millions of Bruce. Millions of Bruces. Split into teams. They rumble, speed, skate, squirm, swim through us. We lay on our backs, our heads where our feet should be, our legs up the wall.
I am the universe. Phoebe is the universe. We are the universe. No walls, no skin, no boundaries. I feel big.
Our pillows are tucked under our sacrums, giving those millions of Bruce a gravitational edge in the darkness of the forest of us. Our fingers twist around each other. We study the sharp corners of the ceiling, where grey meets white.
“We are a starlight mint,” Phoebe says.
I ask her if I’m the red swirl or if she is.
My mama and I used to grab handfuls of those starlight mints from the register at Rae’s Diner and shove them into our pockets before anyone could catch our greed. They were wrapped in cellophane and when you yanked the gathered bows on both sides, the mint twirled until the wrapper loosened enough for you to grab the candy with your teeth and suck it into your mouth. I sat in the cab of our rusty pick-up and chewed one after the other after the other until we were home.
She turns her head and half smiles and says, “You’re my red swirl and I’m yours.”
That would make us two starlight mints. We both want to be the red swirl.
“Do you feel anything?”
“I can feel them swimming,” she says. “All those tiny Bruces.”
I feel a fold in the sheets just below my shoulders. I feel the tiny hairs on her arms tickling mine. I feel my fingers squeezed between hers, but I don’t feel Bruce.
“What if it happens? Twins?” She bites her lip. Our hair spills across our pillows. Our feet. Her toenails are manicured, merlot, though no one ever sees them. Mine are ragged. I have matching callouses on the sides of my big toes. I’m barefoot most of the time.
She turns her face towards mine and I see the little girl she use to be. Her lashes are inkblots, her eyes, a crush of green and hazel brown. Her teeth are perfect pearls. When she dresses for work, her ankles slope into her Louboutins. She wears tailored skirts. She swings her leather briefcase and it brushes against the outer edge of her knee. She sparkles. I love her more when her make-up’s worn away and the pale pink crush of her lips fades into her skin. She told me once when we were drunk that kindness is weak and sweetness, unprofessional. Underlying qualities she hoped no one would see.
She reaches for her phone and schooches her hip closer to mine. “For my mother,” she says, lifting the phone arms length. We smile, and knock heads, looking as pretty as we can on our backs with our legs up the wall, and she snaps a photo. She sends it, tosses the phone on the pillow. “I feel pregnant,” she says.
I’ve spent most of my of my life praying that I wasn’t pregnant and wondering what I’d do if I was. Before I grew up, before I came out, I believed that sex was a means for escape and sleeping your way to the top was a real thing. When we started dating, I figured I’d never have to worry about it again, but at Christmas with her family, we met her new nephew, and she blurted out that she wanted a baby, too. I’m not immune to the irony of me, now, laying next to her, volunteering my internal obstacle course for Bruce’s run and taking selfies for her mother.
“Really, really, really, Shri. I do.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll try.”
We talked to Dr. Fern. We found a cryobank. We watched how-to videos on Youtube on at-home insemination. We preferred the privacy, the excitement of Russian Roulette. We both wanted to be there at the moment of inception and she didn’t want anyone from work to know. On weekends and evenings, we studied donor profiles and the pictures of their look-alike proxies. We decided to draw straws, which Phoebe insisted was the only fair way to choose who’d carry the baby. We narrowed out donor choice from twenty to ten to one. Bruce.
We love Bruce. We carry printouts of his profile in both of our purses. We set a place at the table for him at dinner. Sometimes, we buy him coffee, which we split later. On Sundays, we pretend he’s with us hiking Runyon’s Canyon, or Griffith Park, or riding beach cruisers on the boardwalk. We make up stories about him and laugh at his imaginary jokes. We toast him over drinks.
Duncan clams up when we talk about Bruce. When Phoebe told him about the baby plans at brunch a few weeks ago, he’d assumed that we were asking him to be the donor.
“Of course,” he sputtered. “Where? When?”
“Oh. We have someone,” she said. Duncan’s face fell. He blew his nose in his napkin. The corners of his mouth tightened. He looked at me with narrow eyes.
Duncan and Phoebe dated in high school before they both came out. I think he’s still in love with her. He runs marathons, as many as he can fit into a year and wears running shorts and compression sleeves underneath his regular clothes. Phoebe says the tightness comforts him. He ran in Boston the year the bombs went off. Though he was a few miles from the explosion, he talks about it all the time. He stares at pictures and says, “I think I passed that guy in the race” or “I remember her.” Then, he turns his head towards whatever window is near and stares for fifteen minutes. He falls into fits of silence, then suddenly ‘woofs’ and yammers about how he met so-and-so at King’s Road and thinks ghost-write his or her memoir is not out the realm of probability. And then he’s quiet again, a flatline. Also, he blinks a lot. On Sunday mornings, he walks with us. On Sunday nights, he drinks with us.
The night we’d decided to pull the trigger and order a round of Bruce, he seemed fine at first. We met at Seven Grand at eight. He pounded rum and diet cokes and then bourbon on ice. I sipped my Happy Rabbit. Phoebe drank wine. We still hadn’t gotten around to drawing straws, but she ordered a Proseco for Bruce, so I figured we were close.
After a while, I caught him scowling at Bruce’s empty chair and elbowed Phoebe. Laughing, she threw her arms around him, planted a hard kiss on his cheek, and announced that she had an itchy Fallopian tube. He shook her off, jumped up, and kicked Bruce’s chair, which tipped over. Then, he bared his teeth and hopped from foot to foot like he’d seen real fighters do and shadow boxed our imaginary friend. Phoebe howled and the bar turned quiet except for one woman with Betty Page bangs whose voice cut across the room when she said, “What’s that asshole doing?”
He punched at the air until he was winded and the bouncer laid a fat hand on his shoulder and told him to calm down or get out at which point, he slouched, arms crossed, like petulant child on the velvet settee. Phoebe popped up and ran to the bar. She came back with a bunch of drink straws and shoved them in his hand and said, “Help us choose.”
I’ve known since Phoebe said she wanted a baby, that she’d pull the long straw. I thought I was fine with that, but, that night, when I pulled my first short straw, my heart hurt just a little bit. When Phoebe drew a short straw, it rallied. I felt Bruce leaning forward in his chair, rooting for me, for us, for the twisting together of genes, the twin spinning of chromosomes, the electric spark of sperm meets egg. The next time I pulled a short straw, I felt his heart break, too. When Phoebe finally chose the long straw, my mouth went dry. I smiled anyway.
Whatever Phoebe wants, Phoebe gets.
She jumped up and down like she’d won a game show and threw her arms around Duncan and me. We hugged. We jumped with her. We ordered another round. Before we’d even left the bar, Phoebe emailed the cryobank from her iPhone.
The next morning, three vials of Bruce on ice, hurtled through the air, flying from Chicago to L.A.
Two days later, I took a selfie with the Fedex guy and sent it to her. “Stork’s here.”
How is it that we’re laying next to each other, both of us hoping that each of our eggs will choose Bruce?
I seduced her. I don’t know why.
I opened a bottle of zin, I broiled steak. I dressed in one of her power suits. I didn’t wear underwear. While Bruce defrosted on the kitchen counter, I fed her chocolate mousse by the spoonful and kissed her neck.
“Do you want to try for twins,” I whispered, nipping the lobe of her ear.
“Uh huh.” I brushed my fingers up the inside of her thighs.
Her eyes rolled back, her neck arched, her hands clenched the edges of the dining room chair. She groaned. “Yes.”
We watch for early signs, even though Dr. Fern tells us there won’t be any. Phoebe says she feels different. She insists that something’s growing inside of her. Bruce recedes to the corner the room. His job is done. We take his chair away. We don’t talk to him anymore.
Phoebe thinks it was the third vial of Bruce, which we used the next on her since she drew the long straw, that cemented the deal. I haven’t the heart to tell her that I accidentally left it on the kitchen counter over night. I snuck the vial back into the freezer the next morning so she wouldn’t be disappointed.
“It’s too early to tell.”
Phoebe says, “Shri, I feel it.” She twists her hair into a bun, steps into her fitted skirt, and leaves for work.
Bruce has faded, but he’s not gone. His essence is everywhere. It’s in the mix of man and woman, the mingling of genes in everyone I encounter. The motorcyclist at the stop light, the angry cashier at CVS, the old woman in line behind me with her thin hair cropped tight to her head who says, “Good luck,” when I pay for the pregnancy tests. I see Bruce in the cafe. On the billboards and magazine covers. When I teach my barre class I see twenty Bruces in ponytails and yoga pants, swinging their legs back and forth.
At the beach, the ocean’s sullen and the sand is wet. Surfers in black wet suits bob in the water waiting for the waves to pick up. The boardwalk Ferris wheel bleeds into the sky. The sand pipers chase the water’s edge.
In high school, I’d steal my daddy’s truck and drive here to smoke pot. I had sex with anyone who looked like they might be famous one day. They’d say I looked like an actress and I’d tell them I was. I wished that someone would ask me to stay, that there’d come a time when I didn’t have to turn that rusty truck around and drive back home. When I was Cheryl Yablonsky. Cherry. As in pop my cherry, which I did. My senior year, I considered sleeping through the JV soccer team my extra curricular activity for the year.
I never bothered with the pill. Instead, I prayed for my period. I’d make the rounds of every drugstore in Yucaipa and bought pregnancy tests. Every month, I’d pee on the plastic stick in the back of my mama’s trailer in a bathroom so small I could touch both walls with my elbows. I’d wish for negative and fear a thundering positive, calculate my means for escape. When the cramps came, I’d promise God that I’d use protection the next time, but I never did.
Phoebe’s never been with a man. Not even Duncan, even though they dated.
I see Bruce walking his dog. I see him rollerblading on the street. I see him spare changing outside the Whole Foods on my way home.
The pregnancy tests are cautiously cheerful. I stand them side by side on the kitchen island. Phoebe’s flush with excitement when she gets home. I’m nervous. I don’t know why I wanted Bruce inside of me two weeks ago. Maybe because I want to be Phoebe’s red swirl. If its me who carries the baby, she’ll cherish the both of us. If it’s her, I’ll recede into the corner like our imaginary Bruce. There will be no room for me.
She opens both boxes, smooths out the instructions. She kisses the tip of my nose. She hands me a stick, enveloped in a pearly, plastic pillow, like a cheap toy. She goes to the upstairs bathroom. I stay down.
In the half bath mirror, I see my mother’s eyes. They’re too big for my face. My roots are starting to show. I recite a list of things I’ll have to change if I’m pregnant. I’ll stop coloring my hair. I’ll be careful about seafood and cheese. I’ll quit coffee. I know about change. I’ve been practicing change my whole life. I’ve applied it layer by layer, spun until I was wrapped in it. Change is my religion.
But, I can’t bear to watch the stick. Suddenly, I want this. I want it so bad. I want it more than I’ve wanted anything in my life. More than money, more than freedom, more than security. I want this. The wanting hurts. It contracts my chest. It makes my throat dry. It pricks at my skin because Phoebe is a winner and I’m anything but. Phoebe’s Bryn Mawr and Columbia Law. I’ve got a high school education, barely passed the GRE’s. Phoebe’s family invites us to dinners and on vacations and over for holidays, and my parents don’t even know if I’m alive.
Two lines. Positive. My cheeks burn. My eyes tear up. I can’t stop myself from smiling. I imagine Bruce behind me, the collar of his shirt catching my hair, holding me as our genes embrace.
“I love you,” I whisper to him, to the air, to the mirror, to the splitting cells inside of me. The bathroom is crowded with happy ghosts.
When I come out of the bathroom, Phoebe’s slouched on a kitchen stool, the points of her elbows pressed into the granite counter top. She stares at the stick in her hands.
“Twins,” I ask softly. I’m beaming. I know I am.
She drops the stick on the counter and shakes her head no. She collapses her head into her hands and burst into heaving sobs.
She buys two more tests. A week later she buys two more. The test results are the same. At seven weeks, our doctor confirms that I am pregnant and she is not. At twelve weeks, Dr. Fern draws an arrow that points to a tiny inkblot of a stain. The inkblot will grow into my baby.
I don’t have morning sickness and Phoebe frets that the inkblot is not viable. I fake vomiting three mornings in a row and then she worries that my body is rejecting the inkblot. I dial it down. A little less velocity, a little less volume.
On Sunday, her mother invites us to dinner. Phoebe grips the steering wheel with both hands as we drive up 10 to Pasadena. She says we should find out the baby’s gender so that people, her mother, can buy us gifts.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say.
She grips the wheel. “It matters to my mother.”
“It’s not your mother’s baby.” I rest my hand on the back of her neck. “I don’t think we should know.”
It’s fifteen weeks. This and morning, I found another spent pregnancy test buried in the garbage beneath the coffee ground. She won’t say it, but I know she can’t believe that her plan swung in the wrong direction. She’s not the red swirl.
At a traffic light, I take her hand. She squeezes my fingers. “I’m happy,” she says, and I think, she needs this time. She’ll come back.
My hips are already wider and my stomach’s soft. I’m not showing, but I see changes. Phoebe couldn’t handle this, her pencil skirts growing tight, her calves opening up, her face filling out.
Judy waves at us from the doorway. She hugs Phoebe and then me. “I’m so glad you came,” she says. She calls us her girls. She coos in my ear, “I’m just so excited!”
Phoebe’s father’s reading The Wall Street Journal at the kitchen table. His face lights up as Phoebe kisses his cheek. His hair is white and choppy, his teeth as perfect as hers. He calls her sweetheart.
Her parents threw her a coming out party when she told them she was gay. Her mother baked a rainbow cake. Her father hired a band. At midnight, the guests released helium balloons.
Summers, they rent a house in Myrtle Beach, or the Blue Ridge Mountains, or Puerto Vallerta and pay for the entire family, spouses and all, to come play board games, cook dinners, and drink wine that they’ve sent in advance. My first vacation with them, after dinner, when everyone was tipsy and content, and Judy was rocking on her husband’s lap, I told them that my parents had disowned me when they discovered I was gay, which isn’t exactly true, but, their happiness was stifling. I had to pop it. Everyone grew sullen after that. Later, when Judy and I were cleaning up, she threw her arms around me and cried.
When I was a girl, my mama and daddy and me would coast up or down the highway, whichever direction felt lucky that day. We had a dented trailer filled with bad art daddy’d bought at storage unit auctions that he’d hook up to the rusty pick-up. On those desert afternoons, we’d pull over just outside a gas station and unload the art on the side of the road.
“Look beautiful, Cherry,” my mama’d say. “Look sad.”
The breeze and car tires kicked up the dirt and my dad would flag motorists who’d pulled into the gas station and dust off his cap on his knee. “Truck’s broke. Gotta get my little girl home. Buy a painting?” He’d smile his gap-toothed and squint into the sun.
People, nice people would give me thirty bucks for a twenty-five dollar statue and tell me to keep the change.
“Stay pretty, little Cherry,” my mama said as I counted money in the truck’s cab on the way home. Sometimes, she leaned her chin on the top of my head or played with my hair.
I think about them, my ma and daddy. I think maybe I’ll send them a post card. I’ll write, “Los Angeles is home now. Married a lawyer. Live in a house by the beach. I miss you.” Maybe I’d send them money. But, for what?
Judy pours Phoebe and Robert wine, nice wine. I close my eyes and imagine driving through Napa at night when the whole Valley smells of grapes. When I open them, Judy’s leaning towards me, her chin resting on her hands, her smile plastered into place. I don’t trust her when she smiles like that.
“So, tell me,” she says, “how do you feel? Tell me everything.”
I’m showing! My stomach’s hard and round and claims its own space. It leads, I follow. Strangers smile at me at the grocery store. They’re happy. For me. I am the red swirl.
We’re happy until Duncan brings us a death trap of a toy, two hugging bears in rainbow shirts. The bears have button eyes and velcro sewn onto their flattened paws. Their fur smells like dry cleaning. They’re stitched together with nylon thread. They’re made in China. He sits on his hands and stares at me.
“I wanted to get running bears. I couldn’t find any. These are designer bears. They’re hugging,” he says. His eyes are potholes, leading into darkness. His lips barely move when he speaks. He cranes his neck towards the window and stares.
At night, I dream the baby is a bumble bee. It flies through the tip of my finger as I point to a bluejay in the branches of a tree. Phoebe’s in the dream. She’s dressed like a little girl. Her knees are hornets nests. She skips after the baby bee. In the dream, I see my parents’ trailer, a brown fleck in a vista of sickly blues and greens. My mother waves at us from the front porch and I run to catch the bumble bee baby before she flies too close. “Come home,” I shriek. “Come home, come home, come home.”
The nights that I have that dream, that I wake up crying, Phoebe cradles me and kisses my forehead. She lays her head on a pillow by my belly and traces my imperfect moon. Sometimes, she seems excited. Sometimes, content. Sometimes, morbidly sad. It comes in waves.
Our fights are cyclical, too. We fight about paint colors. We fight about decorations, detergent, about which stroller her mother should buy. We fight about where to put Duncan’s death trap of a toy. We fight as we assemble the crib. We say regrettable things.
“You wouldn’t like anything Duncan gives us,” she says. “You don’t like Duncan.”
“That’s not true,” I say. “He’s strange.”
An Allen wrench swings from her finger, the crib parts are stacked in sections on the floor, legs of the bed stick straight up, like a dead horse. “He’s lonely.”
“I don’t care.”
“He wants to be part of something,” she says. “He wants to be the baby’s godfather.”
“No,” I say.
“It’s not your decision.”
“My body, my baby,” I say.
“My credit card, my sperm.”
I know the sex of the baby. I won’t tell Phoebe. I tell her it doesn’t matter. I tell her I don’t want to know. I tell her we should embrace the mystery. But at my last sonogram, I asked the technician to whisper it into my ear. I closed my eyes and relished the sound of her parting lips, the rustle of her smock, the skating roll of her chair wheels as she pushed herself to my reclined head.
“It’s a girl.”
A girl. I already loved the baby, but that moment, I loved her even more. A beautiful girl will grow up to be nothing like me. A rose in the middle of California’s seasonless winter. I promise my girl that I’d keep our secret. Phoebe could wait.
The next morning, I start awake at two and can’t fall back asleep. Something’s wrong, I can sense it. I slip from our bed and tiptoe downstairs to the kitchen. Behind the frozen salmon, and the frozen yogurt, and the frozen fruit, in the far back corner of the freezer, is a styrofoam package. Nestled inside, three vials of sperm. She hasn’t given up. She still wants to be the red swirl.
The outdoor lights are orange against the slate sky. I set the three vials side by side on the kitchen counter. I want to crush them with a shoe, to mix glass into that frozen life. I feel slices of coldness when I press them into my palm.
We’re hardly making it with one. What would we do with two?
With a paring knife, I pry the tiny lids off and lean the vials standing against the walls of a ramekin. I place them in the microwave. I press cook. Afterwards, I replace the caps, slip Bruce’s dead swimmers back into their nest of styrofoam and return them to the freezer.
I feel better after that.
I’m stranded on the outskirts of Phoebe and Duncan’s friendship. He comes over and she hangs on his every word. They drink mimosas and Bloody Mary’s on Sunday mornings and smoke cigarettes on the back deck. I pretend Bruce is among us, his hand on the small of my back. He leans against the kitchen counter or sits in the fourth chair. He’s casual and comfortable, easy. When I leave Phoebe and Duncan to stroll around the neighborhood, Bruce walks with me. My back is bowed by the weight of the baby. The girl is heavy. My feet are swollen. Its summer and it’s hot.
Judy insists on baby shower in Beverly Hills. It’s on a Sunday, and Duncan comes over in the morning, still drunk from the night before. Phoebe pours Bailey’s into both of their coffees. I drive.
In the car, Phoebe lolls her head against the car seat. Her hair’s undone, her lips are tight. She’s wearing a new pair of sunglasses, the lenses so big that they cover most her face, but I see her bloated cheeks and ask her if she’s okay.
“Cramps,” she says.
Despite the microwaved sperm the spent pregnancy tests that still sometimes litter the trash, and the second order of sperm I found in the freezer that I’d topped off with spermacide, and reporting her credit card stolen to delay further deliveries, I still fear that she’s gotten herself pregnant, anyway.
Duncan pokes his head between the seats and rubs her shoulders and says, “Poor baby.”
“Are you fucking him.” She’s fucking him. I swerve the car to the side of the road. There’s acid in my stomach. The baby punches my bladder.
Phoebe bolts up. “Jesus Christ. He’s gay! He’s gay.”
“You are, too,” I scream.
Duncan retreats into the back seat and kicks at the door and yells, “Let me out. Let me out.”
“I can’t fucking believe you,” Phoebe hisses. “Now you’ve upset him.” She knocks her glasses off as she reaches to pound on the dashboard. Duncan rocks in the back seat, hugging his knees. Crying. There’s something in Phoebe’s eyes, a brokenness, a sadness, a sweetness. She was born under a bright star. She sparkles.
She is a red swirl. A delicate, strong, sad, red swirl.
I love her.
I screech back onto Wilshire. Duncan and Phoebe, crushed by the sudden speed.
The restaurant in Beverley Hills is soulless. On the sidewalk, a muscle bound valet bobs his tiny head up from his magazine. He lurches from his folding seat to take our car. Phoebe sways on the sidewalk. Duncan’s hands dig deep into his pockets. My palms press into my back, my breasts brush my belly. For the first time, I want this baby out of me. I just want it out.
Phoebe bows her head into her hands. “I don’t want to do this.”
Judy stands at the glass door to the restaurant, all smiles. She waves us in. “Come on, come on. They’re waiting for you!”
Phoebe knocks her shoulders back and barrels ahead. Duncan follows. It’s so hot in Beverly Hills. I waddle through the door.
The guests are Judy’s friend. They drink mimosas and white wine, this swirling cluster of women, who, like Judy, like me, married well. They smile as best they can. They don’t stand too close to each other. Phoebe and Duncan lean against the bar, their backs to me, flagging the bartender. There’s an empty chair next to mine and I imagine it’s Bruce’s. I see him sitting there, grimacing, grinning. I feel him squeeze my hand.
There’s a lull in the buzz of conversation and Judy snaps her head towards the restaurant door. An old woman, a crone, drags herself in.
Judy’s stone smile tightens. She surpasses a laugh.
The woman draws her fragile body towards the crowd of pointy shoed, bird-faced ladies. Her skin is paper thin, her bones, crumbling, her lips devoid of color. Her teeth are outlined in brown. She smells of ivory soap. She smells like my mother.
Judy would do anything for her children. Anything for them to succeed and I know in that moment that it’s not Phoebe, but her mother, who instilled that competitive winningness, who bought her children’s advantages with her husband’s money, who paid for the drive to succeed and gave her children the permissions to erase failure by any means necessary. Its Judy who’s pushed poor Phoebe along. Its Judy who thinks the baby should’ve been Phoebe’s and not mine. Its Judy who taught Phoebe that kindness is weak and anything short of winning is failure.
The crone, my mother, faces me. Her eyes are glazed with white, her hair, sapped of color. I’m Sleeping Beauty’s mother greeting the thirteenth fairy, the one who wasn’t, really, invited to the party. The crone is the only one I can trust.
My mother glances at the group of ladies with their frozen smiles and diamonds. She snorts. “You looked like someone I used to know.” She takes my hand.
I nod and she winks like she used to when I counted back change incorrectly on purpose at the side of the road on route 80. Before my daddy got hooked on painkillers. Before for she started drinking again. Before I left one day and never called, never wrote, never looked back.
The disgust on Phoebe’s face as she watches Judy’s ugly failure, is vindication enough. She bolts towards the bathrooms. Duncan chases after her.
“Wrong place, I guess,” my mama says to the group. Her body shakes with a smoker’s cough. “Wrong address, for sure.” She trips as the maitre d’ gently escorts her out of the restaurant. “I got someone waiting for me outside.”
Thank you, I love you, please forgive me, I think as loud as I can. Her shoulders press back. She feels my thoughts.
Then, Judy’s eyes lock with mine. I smile. She wilts.
The baby kicks. Her tiny foot stretches through my skin. The sun pings through the restaurant windows. Phoebe hiccups by the bathrooms. Duncan holds her by the elbows.
“They should be serving soon.” Judy turns to her guests. “The quiche is lovely.” They mill silently. No one sits.
My daddy’s rusty pick-up coasts by the restaurant window.
I extend my hand towards Phoebe. I think see the crack of a punch drunk grin.