On Revealing the Truth About Your "Roommate"

Read an excerpt from J. Courtney Sullivan's new book, Saints for All Occasions, out May 9.

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Bridget didn't notice her mother had called that morning because she was in bed with Natalie, and then walking the dog with Natalie, stopping for coffee along the way. She brushed her teeth at the sink while Natalie showered, and lingered in the bathroom as it filled with steam, carrying on a conversation about Natalie's boss, taking in the clean soapy scent of her shampoo, pulling back the curtain for a kiss.

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Bridget was dressed for the day in jeans, sneakers, a navy blue crew-neck sweater. The same uniform she'd been wearing since the second grade. Natalie wore black high-heeled boots that ended just below the knee, a fitted grey dress and a long black coat open over the top. Red lipstick, a gauzy silk scarf. Her red hair hung to her shoulders.

"Have a good day," they said at the door now.

"Love you."

"See you tonight."

After Natalie was gone, Bridget drank one more cup of coffee alone. Sunlight flooded the windows and the hardwood floors, giving the illusion that it wasn't bone cold outside. The apartment had been Natalie's first. She went with the place. Bridget saw her in the careful details. Framed abstract watercolors on the walls, purchased from a friend with a gallery in Williamsburg. Different ceramic bowls in the cupboards for pasta, yogurt, cereal. A larger bowl at the center of the kitchen table with nothing in it, strictly decorative.

Until she moved in three years ago, Bridget had lived like a bachelor. Her brothers joked that she had taken a vow of poverty. She didn't care much about things. She had nicer than expected mismatched furniture, passed along whenever her sister-in-law, Julia, redecorated. But her prized possessions were an old Trek bicycle, two milk crates full of records and every Celtics game of the 1986 season recorded on VHS.

Her life then had consisted of a date here or there, a short-lived love affair once in a while. Visits to her mother in Boston at the holidays. Work, mostly. At home, it was just Bridget and Rocco, an aging pit bull, together in a dim apartment. Content to be a couple of old grumps forever, until Natalie came along and let in the light.

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She tried now to picture a high chair at the end of the table, a baby's toys strewn across the rug. A time when leisurely mornings like this one would be a thing of the past.

In advance of her thirty-fifth birthday, Natalie had announced that the gift she wanted most was not jewelry or tickets to a Broadway show, but a baby.

Bridget had never thought of herself as particularly maternal. She couldn't muster much enthusiasm for baby pictures, or for the fact that one more human being had learned to correctly identify the letter D. When she thought about motherhood, she thought of her own mother and her aunts, who, when she was young, liked to sit around on someone's front porch on summer nights, playing cards, smoking, and drinking Canadian Club. They had always seemed a bit bored, dissatisfied by their own children, yet later, all they spoke about was the desire for grandkids. They had sacrificed everything. The least their daughters could do to pay them back was to suffer in a similar fashion.

Bridget still wasn't entirely convinced. But she believed that Natalie deserved to be a mother, if that's what she wanted. And, to her surprise, at forty-four, she found that the idea of having a baby with Natalie excited her at least as much as it terrified her.

A year had passed since Natalie first raised the issue. It sometimes felt like since then, they had spoken of nothing else.

Bridget suddenly panicked. Though it should have been obvious much sooner, that was the first time she realized she would have to tell her mother.

***

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Natalie knew which baby names she liked, and she had found a top-rated clinic where she would be inseminated. They had chosen a donor, though they had yet to actually purchase his sperm. They called him by his official profile name: International Archeologist. He was five foot eleven, a hundred and seventy-five pounds, with blonde hair and blue eyes.

Hobbies: The Brazilian martial art of capoeira, running 22 miles per week

Ancestry: Swedish

Donor lookalike: Paul Bettany, Paul Newman ("But those two look nothing alike," Bridget said.)

Personality: His positive outlook is contagious!

Bridget wondered what was to stop the sperm bank from telling them all this when in fact the guy was a short, depressive high-school dropout who worked at Burger King. She kept the thought to herself.

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It had taken them months to decide. Night after night they lay in bed, scrolling through profiles. You could go off of anything. Eye color, blood type, even the sound of a man's voice, recorded in short audio clips, or the age of his oldest living relative. They grew drunk with choosiness.

"He has to have gotten at least a 1480 on the SATs," Natalie said once.

"You realize if you'd used that criteria to find a partner, I'd be out," Bridget said. "By a lot."

"Good golfer!" Natalie declared at some point. And at another, "Disqualified! His favorite animal is the cat."

Bridget refused to shortlist anyone with a sleazy profile name. There was a So Smooth. A Dr. Feelgood. One was called I'll Just Have Water ("Translation: Alcoholic," she said.)

She wondered what compelled a young man to take this particular route to making extra cash. How many of them would think about it differently in ten or fifteen years? One night, she lay awake thinking about her youngest brother Brian. All the debt he'd racked up in his twenties, following a dream that didn't pan out, living on the road for so much of every year, and now living at home with their mother because, she assumed, he was broke. She texted him: If you ever need a few extra bucks, ask me, okay? Don't do anything stupid.

Brian just replied: ?

When they finally settled on a donor, Natalie's credit card in her hand, fingers poised over the keyboard to make the purchase, Bridget suddenly panicked. Though it should have been obvious much sooner, that was the first time she realized she would have to tell her mother.

Her brain tried to find a way around it. She pictured herself arriving home at Christmas with an infant in a carrier.

Whose baby is that, Bridget?

Who? Him? Oh, never mind.

"Before we buy the sperm, I feel like I should tell my mother this is coming," she said.

Natalie, whose parents had known for ages, blinked. "Oh. Okay."

"Your mother cannot possibly think that at your age, you just decided to get a roommate for the hell of it"

Three months had gone by, and still Bridget had not done it. A few weeks ago, when they were home for Christmas, she tried. Natalie and Julia planned a lunch at the Four Seasons, making the whole thing seem like Bridget's idea. But it was their kind of place, not hers.

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When Bridget invited her mother, Nora seemed skeptical. "Just the two of us? Why on earth would we go there?"

"I want to do something nice for you, that's all."

Neither one of them was comfortable. Bridget wore an old pair of black dress pants and a black silk blouse. She looked like an aging cocktail waitress. She could barely breathe. The food was too precious, the room too stuffy. When the waiter brought out a bottle of champagne after the plates had been cleared, Nora looked around as if the place were bugged.

"What in God's name?" she said.

The first time Bridget brought Natalie home, her mother said, "Natalie, you have such style. You should take our Bridget shopping."

It occurred to her then that Natalie was the daughter her mother was praying for all those nights when they were kids, the whole family kneeling in front of the sofa, saying the rosary as they listened to Cardinal Cushing on the radio.

Nora was forever trying to improve upon Bridget, her criticisms most often wrapped up in what she considered compliments.

You've such a nice face. Why won't you do anything with it?

To leave those cheekbones bare is a sin against God.

Do you know how pretty you'd look if

If you'd just tweeze your eyebrows. Grow out your hair. Put on some lipstick Bridget, it won't kill you.

At the party she threw every year on Christmas Eve, Nora introduced Natalie to cousins and neighbors as, "Bridget's friend from New York," or else, on a few unfortunate occasions, "Bridget's roommate."

"Your mother cannot possibly think that at your age, you just decided to get a roommate for the hell of it," Natalie had said on one of those nights, tucked into Bridget's childhood bed beside her, an air mattress made up and untouched on the floor.

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"I think that's what she wants to believe," Bridget said.

"So she doesn't know you're gay."

"Maybe it has nothing to do with gay. Maybe she just thinks you're way out of my league and can't imagine why you'd live with me other than to go halfsies on the rent."

She pulled Natalie into her arms, hoping the joke would smooth over the pain in it. Sometimes Bridget thought Nora knew and chose to ignore it. Her mother had a knack for blocking out what she didn't want to be true. Other times, she thought Nora truly didn't know, even though Bridget had told her.

Her sophomore year at UMass, she had sex with a woman for the first time. It happened the night before she went home for Thanksgiving, and it was all Bridget could think about—reliving those moments as she passed the cranberry sauce, and watched the Macy's Parade and talked about football with her father.

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She had determined to come out to her mother on that trip. After everyone else was in bed, as Nora scooped the leftover vegetables into a giant serving tray so that they looked like the Irish flag — a thick stripe of green beans, then mashed potatoes, then squash — Bridget said, "Mom, I have to tell you something. I don't want you to be upset." Nora looked at her, a spoonful of potatoes suspended midair.

"I'm mostly seeing women these days. I think that's where I'm headed."

Bridget bit the inside of her cheek as she waited for her mother to react, but Nora's expression was unreadable.

"Do you understand?" Bridget asked after a long silence.

"Yes," her mother said.

"You do?"

"Yes."

Nora didn't add I love you, but she never said that.

Bridget couldn't believe it had been so easy. She felt a huge weight lifted from her shoulders until Christmas dinner a month later, when Nora said, "Bridget, Tommy Delaney's home! You should go down the hill and see him. Eileen says he still has a thing for you."

When she was a junior in high school, she had tried to date one guy, the only guy who asked. The son of her mother's friend. They went out for maybe a month. Nora had never let it go.

Bridget looked at her mother with wide eyes.

"What?" Nora said. "I'm not saying you should marry him. Just—a winter romance. Wouldn't that be nice?"

***

A decade later, on Saint Patrick's Day 1992, Bridget was visiting Boston for the parade and the annual party thrown by her Aunt Babs and Uncle Lawrence, as she did every year. She was twenty-six. That year, a group of out gay people wanted to march. It had caused an uproar, gone all the way to the state Supreme Court. The group was granted access in the end. When they went by, people hurled beer cans and smoke bombs. A huge guy in a white Irish knit sweater held a child, wearing a smaller version. Minutes earlier, the guy had been tearing up as he sang 'The Unicorn' to his son. Now he screamed, "Quarantine the queers!" Others joined in. An old lady with a green carnation corsage pinned to her coat held a sign that read AIDS CURES GAYS.

Bridget's relatives weren't the people shouting or throwing rocks. They were the ones standing across the street from them, doing nothing about it.

When a priest on the news that night said that to allow gays to march was to condone immorality, she couldn't shake her bitterness—that this institution that had ruled their lives, these men with all their perversions, stood in judgment of her. That after so many years in their presence, she stood in judgment of herself.

Her mother was nodding at the TV.

There and then, Bridget vowed that she would never force the issue with her. She wasn't a rebel. Deep down she wanted to please Nora. She wanted to be known by her too, but that mattered less.

But now Bridget's life was different, and soon this would have to change.

Excerpted from Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. Copyright © 2017 by J. Courtney Sullivan. Published by Knopf. All rights reserved.

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