So Birdie Gradowski wasn't actually having contractions, but by the time she figured that out I was already at her house. She looked the same as she always had: pale, except for the pink skin around her nose ring; a string of tiny gold freckles across her throat; blonde hair slightly oily and curling at the shoulders. She was eating a plain tortilla when she answered the door. Her maternity overalls were black denim with spatters of fake green paint.
"Wait a minute," she said, leaning against the door frame. "What is this?"
"I'm Ruth's backup doula today," I said. "She's still at that home birth in Amherst. She asked me to swing by and make sure you're OK."
"I'm OK." Birdie looked down at her clogs, marbled with dried mud. "I asked the collective not to send you if I needed something."
"I was the only person available," I said, which was true, though I still felt a flicker of guilt. I hid my face behind my hands. "Pretend I'm not me. How are you feeling?"
"Fine now. It was just this rippling sensation I get sometimes." She rubbed her belly. Her blue nail polish was chipped on both thumbs. "He doesn't want to come out. If he's not out by Monday, they'll have to induce."
He. She was going to have a son. In the two years we'd dated at Smith, Birdie Gradowski and I had agreed that we would probably marry, and we would probably have children, and we would probably name them Prudence, Patience, and Honor. Our imaginary children were never boys.
"Well, you look good." I dropped my hands and hoisted my canvas bag high on my shoulder.
"You can go, Nora," she said. "I'll text Ruth and tell her I'm all right."
Then she winced, her lower lip puckered, her eyes narrowed. It was her old oncoming-migraine look, her too-much-Champagne look. It had been four years since she left me, but I believed I could still read her face.
"How about I get you a glass of water first?" I said, and she nodded and stepped back to let me in.
"How about I get you a glass of water first?"
Birdie's neighborhood: clapboard houses and renovated barns, solar panels and skylights, Volvos old enough to be boxy, Obama stickers, compost bins. They were mostly the homes of retired professors and psychologists. Birdie was the local Young Wife With Palette and Easel, or so I'd gathered from Instagram. Through her kitchen windows you could see the Connecticut River, flung across the valley like a sequined belt.
She sat in a chair and drank two Mason jars of water, lightly skimming her toes on the back of her sleeping chocolate Lab.
"I'm OK now," she said. "You don't have to stay."
"I want to," I said.
"It's too weird, Nora," she mumbled.
"Only if you make it weird."
"Fine." She tipped her head back and closed her eyes. "Normally, a person standing where you are would ask about Sam."
"How's your husband?" In college, the few times I'd met him — a bespectacled, sheepish redhead in clean corduroys — it seemed to me that he was forcing himself not to gloat.
"No, ask me about Sam."
I picked at a scab on my elbow.
"How is Sam."
"He's great. He's out running errands. This morning we realized we have no diapers." She reached into the pocket of her overalls and withdrew two lollipops, the kind bank tellers hand out to children, the kind you can eat in one bite. "He knows I love these, so he makes a small cash deposit every day."
"What a prince."
"Don't make me wish I hadn't let you in." She stood up, waddled over to her fridge, took out a package of bacon, and opened it with kitchen shears.
"You're not vegan anymore?"
"I knew you'd say that." She set down a cast-iron skillet, turned on a low flame.
"It's for Olympia."
The dog wagged her tail at the sound of her name.
"I feel the need to spoil her," Birdie said. "She got sprayed by a skunk yesterday, and I had to give her a tomato-soup bath. She was not exactly pleased."
"Sit down," I said. "Let me do this." I was leaning against her sink, and I felt a few drops of cool water seep into my shirt.
"You hate touching raw meat." She addressed the skillet.
"Let me do it. I want to be useful."
She cleared her throat, the way she did to suppress a laugh. Then she handed the package to me.
"Knock yourself out," she said.
I used a fork to peel the gleaming strips from their bed of plastic. The sizzle was a reassuring sound, and for several minutes it replaced the need for conversation. The dog stayed at my side, nose twitching, while Birdie drifted to her sliding glass doors, hands on hips, rocking side to side. The wind was strong enough to push her lawn chairs around.
The sizzle was a reassuring sound, and for several minutes it replaced the need for conversation.
"What were you thinking? On the drive over here, I mean."
"Well, I didn't think you'd be too happy to see me, for one thing."
She was standing so that her belly brushed the glass. I tried not to look at her breasts, which had nearly doubled in size. There was a skin tag under the right one that had always reminded me of a steel-cut oat.
"Were you wondering what the house looked like?" Birdie said.
Smoke rose from the skillet. Olympia licked my ankle in anticipation.
"I saw it on Instagram. Right after your in-laws bought it for you."
"They didn't buy it," she said. "They just helped us out."
I stabbed a piece of bacon and flipped it; the underside had gone crispy and dark.
"Hope Olympia likes this stuff a bit overdone."
"Olympia isn't picky. She's eaten menstrual blood off a towel," Birdie said, then frowned in regret. She was thinking, probably, of how badly stained our old sheets used to be. Or perhaps only I was thinking of that.
"I know you want to look around," she said. "Go ahead."
"You mean your house?"
"You think I want to go through your drawers or something?"
"I would never turn down a chance to go through someone's drawers." She laughed. "Neither would you. At least not back when I knew you."
It occurred to me, waving smoke from my face, that there might be something in the house she wanted me to find: an old letter I'd written, for instance, even though she'd made an effort to return everything I'd ever given her years ago. As I recalled, there was at least one gift she'd never given back — a jade necklace, its green flowers delicate as sugar roses. Maybe I'd find it upstairs, tangled with the wedding pearls I assumed she kept in her jewelry box.
"OK, sold," I said, setting down the fork, suddenly worried she'd change her mind.
What were you thinking? On the drive over here, I mean.
I was thinking, Birdie Gradowski in labor? Impossible. Pale Birdie, so easily felled, sunburned from May to September. She couldn't eat pepper without getting a rash around her mouth. She'd been born missing a rib, which explained both the smallness of her waist and her remarkable flexibility. At Smith she skipped so many classes — claiming migraines and sore throats — that she almost didn't graduate. Then she left me for Sam, an adjunct professor at UMass, and for a while it seemed that neither of us would graduate. I wouldn't because of my post-Birdie despondency; she wouldn't because she was newly in love.
Roaming their house, I discovered that she and Sam shared a king-size bed, that it was made up with a paisley duvet and an abundance of pillows, that Birdie's nightstand was tidy — tissues, an issue of Mother Jones —and that his was a jumble of two-inch-thick legal thrillers and remote controls. On the floor, a humidifier released paltry clouds, and I thought of the nights Birdie used to make spaetzle, pushing the batter through a colander with a spatula, face flushed from the steaming pots, floor slick with ice water, as if rain had fallen in our apartment.
Downstairs, Olympia barked. I heard Birdie tell her to be patient. I imagined the bacon grease on her fingers and, feeling nauseated, tugged open the top dresser drawer. Boxer briefs, thick white socks, faint odor of bleach, no letters. Next drawer: pink linen pajama set, calendula sachet. No jewelry box in sight.
"Find anything good?" Birdie said from the doorway.
"Do you actually wear pajama sets now?"
"Sam just texted. He's about twenty minutes away." She held my bag up by its straps. "Brought your stuff so you wouldn't forget it."
This was it, then. I sank onto the edge of their bed.
"You're kicking me out."
"I can't believe you were actually looking in our drawers," she said, shaking her head. A frown line formed a thin bridge between her brows.
"You said I could!"
"I was teasing you. It was stupid, I guess." She left my bag on the floor and sat next to me, holding her belly. "I just wanted to be alone for a minute."
"Well, don't worry, I'm leaving," I said, but I didn't move. I saw that one of her overall straps was twisted. I could smell her peppermint lip balm, the jojoba oil on her skin. When I leaned toward her, my head wouldn't stop until my cheek was against her thigh, until I lay with my head in her lap like a feverish child. She patted my shoulder impatiently, then tried tracing the line of my brows with a fingertip. This, I knew, had nothing to do with me. This was Birdie trying out her mother-posture, imagining herself as the healer of countless future wounds.
"I still hate Sam," I said. "I can't help it."
"Shh," she said.
"Why did you guys buy this place, anyway? You know this is my hometown." At Smith, our group of friends had called me Townie. "Didn't you figure you'd keep running into me?"
"Well." She laughed. "I figured one day you might move out of your parents' house."
"I'm only there temporarily," I said. Her fingertips traced my brow. It felt good, it felt like we were back in our old apartment, with its black-eyed Susans all over the kitchen linoleum. "Remember how our landlady made corned beef and cabbage every Sunday?"
"Christ, we burned so much incense because of that. Cabbage and sandalwood." She made a gagging sound.
"Remember Patience, Prudence, and Honor?"
She stiffened and dropped her hand.
I sat up.
"So this is what you do? Is this why you became a doula? Are you trying to raise my blood pressure here?" She reached for my bag and peered inside. "Essential oils," she said. "A CD of fucking spa music. And what's this? A menu? 'Quinoa salad with citrus dressing, choice of tofu or grilled chicken.'"
"I cook meals for my postpartum clients," I said.
She let the paper fall back in the bag and handed the whole thing to me. Her jaw, I noticed, was not as angular as it used to be; pregnancy had given her a slight double chin.
"Can you imagine if I'd been in labor? What if I'd really needed your help?"
"I would have helped you," I said. "You know I would have."
The pained look returned. I could tell she was holding her breath. Her green irises were edged with red, like pieces of flame lettuce.
She shook her head.
"Would you tell me if you were?"
She exhaled noisily, nostrils flaring.
"I can be here for this," I said, straining to sound calm. "I can be here the whole time."
"I'm not having my baby here. Didn't Ruth tell you anything?"
"She just asked me to check on you."
"Isn't there a file on me somewhere?"
There was a file, but I hadn't bothered reading it, certain that I already knew everything about Birdie Gradowski.
"I'm planning on the Pioneer Valley Birthing Center," she said. "But I'm not in labor. It's just this rippling thing again." She was rubbing her belly in circles. The rippling, I knew, was fear.
"Sam will help when he gets here," I ventured. Birdie looked as if she would spit.
"Sam takes a Xanax every time he hears the word contraction."
I'd attended fourteen first-time births, and I knew what this was. Birdie was right: she was not yet in labor. She was close enough to giving birth to believe that it would happen; she was no longer seeing it through a filter of romantic gauze. She was thinking, mostly, of gore.
"It's like this sudden claustrophobia," she said.
"We can go somewhere else."
"Like where?" Her eyes burned red and green and she breathed audibly through her mouth.
"Well, my house," I said, "or just for a walk, or something," thinking, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, just come with me. I watched her stand up, one protective hand on her belly. I watched her fumble in one of her drawers for her sunglasses. She rubbed a clot of sunscreen onto her nose. She was stalling, but she was going to come with me.
"Maybe for a little while," she said. Her hand in mine was damp. Her tread on the stairs was heavy under the weight of her swollen body. The bottles of essential oils clicked together in my canvas bag. Olympia, asleep on a battered pillow, barely stirred when she saw us. Good, I thought, we don't have to take the dog when we go.
We made it out to the driveway, then Birdie began to slow down. I, stupid, eager, feeling fully in love with her, began to list all the things we could do: we could walk on the bike path, we could visit the campus greenhouses, we could go to the used bookstore, we could sit and drink iced tea.
We made it out to the driveway, then Birdie began to slow down.
"Oh, Nora," she said, voice hoarse, "this isn't a date."
She pressed her fist to her mouth, let out a half-muffled sob.
"What are you doing?" she said. "Why did you let me do this? Why did you bring me out here?"
"I didn't bring you," I said, frightened by her pallor and the shakiness of her voice and the burn of her eyes. "Look, never mind, we'll go back inside —"
"You're not in my house," she said, then, correcting herself, "I'm not letting you back in my house."
I gripped my car keys.
"That's fine, Birdie."
"I want you to be really far. As far away from me as you can get." She scratched nervously at her scalp with her turquoise nails. Her wrists were so bony that they seemed in need of protection, as if they would be better off inside plaster casts.
"Relax," I told her, opening the driver's side door. "I'm leaving right now."
I waited until she was safely inside the house.
When I heard something crunch under my wheels as I backed up the driveway, my first thought was that somehow I'd hurt Birdie and the baby. Then I wondered if Sam had returned without my noticing and I'd managed to run right into him. I was shaking when I shifted into park and climbed out.
Under my wheels I found a blue plastic pool, streaked and smeared with red. I sank to my knees and looked for a wounded creature. Nothing. The gravel, warmed by the early-June sun, felt good on my hands. Whose blood is in this pool, I thought, whose blood is this, until I remembered Olympia's tomato-soup bath and understood that the wind had carried the pool out of the yard and left it behind my car. I waited for a rush of relief; you earned relief, I believed, when you didn't hurt someone. But it didn't come, not even after I played the soothing CD in the car, not even after I took the longest route, along the river, idling generously at every crosswalk, in case somebody might come along. It took me only twenty minutes to get home.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy is a 2014–2016 Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University.