Trivial Pursuits {?} - Chapter 15

Amy woke up on the living room floor, her cheek itchy and crosshatched with rug burn, her left foot partially asleep, her perspective mercifully limited. She took in the room gradually from her low vantage point: the muscular bulge of the cherry-wood chair legs, the loose baseboards in the corner, the long stagnant plug-in air freshener, greedily sucking up voltage for no apparent reason.

A few feet away, her laptop winked with its logon screensaver, and she idly watched its predictable disappearing act as the icon rotated its position on the screen. She must have fallen asleep working on her newest account, sitting on the floor. This was something she used to do fairly regularly; she believed the odd location helped her think more creatively. She hadn’t done it in a long time, though, and it didn’t feel the same.

She rubbed her eyelids over her irritated contact lenses, which caused her vision to slip into blurriness and then, with the next blink, to pop back into clarity. Across the room, near the DVD player, she thought she saw a glint of something shiny, metallic, almost painfully sharp and bright. At the moment, though, she had trouble trusting her own eyes.

Just then, the phone trilled loudly; apparently, she was going to be jolted into full wakefulness, whether by migraine-inducing optical illusions or by the shockingly aggressive bleat of the phone. Her decision to let the answering machine get the call felt more like a deferral than any kind of true escape; it was like hitting snooze on the alarm one last time.

“Amy, Greg, hi, this is Diane Lucas from the agency,” the smooth, musical lilt of the voice, with its relaxed-sounding Southern accent, hardly needed to be identified. “Um, I’m calling you with a bit of a difficult situation here. It seems as though the—“

“Hi.” Amy almost didn’t realize she’d picked up the phone until she heard her own voice, terse and nasal and ugly, interrupting Diane’s melodic flow. “Hi, I’m here.” And she took the phone and lay back down on the floor, looking up at the ceiling as she listened to the news Diane had called to give her.

The last time she had lingered in this spot on the floor, Greg had been beside her, laughing. And they’d both stayed there for a while, staring up at the tacky popcorn-textured ceiling as though a fascinating, hypnotically entertaining TV show were being projected on its surface.

They’d been crawling around on all fours on the floor, an absurd exercise recommended in a baby-proofing book Amy had read. The goal had been to see the house and its potential hazards from the perspective of a crawling infant, or as the baby-proofing expert phrased it, to “think like a baby.” Greg had found this endlessly amusing from the start, and he’d teased her mercilessly about it. She’d reluctantly admitted that it was kind of ridiculous. But she also felt it was important, and she didn’t mind making a fool of herself for things that mattered.

She’d been worried. From the moment they’d learned that the agency had matched them with a young expectant mother who’d agreed to give them her baby, Amy’s excitement had quickly transmuted into anxiety, and she’d set about taking steps to prove them worthy of this good fortune. She wanted to be sure that nothing went wrong; she read every book on baby-proofing that existed, and purchased virtually every safety product on the market. She’d made sure the slats on the crib were less than 2 and 3/8 inches apart, so that the baby’s head wouldn’t get stuck, jail-bird style, between them. She’d purchased a toilet lock and baby gates and edge cushions for sharp corners and edges. She’d bought a “small object tester,” essentially a small shot glass, which was used to gauge which household items were small enough to be a choking hazard (if they fit into the glass, they could fit into a child’s mouth). She’d actually acquired several of these, which she gave out to her mother, Greg’s mother, and a few of their close friends to keep in their homes.

“Now, this is pure genius,” Greg had said, holding the small object tester up to the light with a chuckle. “I guess some shot glass manufacturer with extra inventory decided to make some cash on the side off anxious moms. I wish I’d thought of that; what a racket.”

He had a point; the whole business of baby-proofing, unheard of in their parents’ generations, had built into its premise an almost endless tunnel of anxiety, one which seemed to reveal new depths, twists, and turns the further she progressed along it. The relief of one fear, ritualized with a wise purchase, seemed only to lead into to another, even more terrifying possibility.

Because, really, once she got started with this, how could she stop? Which of these items could she, in good conscience, simply decide were dispensable? The oven lock or the baby helmet not purchased hung over her head like an accusation: Don’t you care enough to buy this?

Greg had been, for the most part, patient with her compulsive baby proofing; he believed her obsession was a way for her to exercise some control over the situation, since, as an adoptive mom, she was at the mercy of another woman carrying her baby. A woman, who, for all they knew, could be slugging grain alcohol and sliding down the stairs on her belly.

“I just wish you’d try to enjoy this a little,” he’d said. “This is supposed to be a happy time.”

“I’ll be happy once she’s here,” she said.

Once she’s here – it sounded like a massive sigh of relief, a well-earned safety zone of relaxation and easy breathing at last. And it would be true; during the brief period sandwiched between once she’s here and after she’s gone, a true happiness would settle in, and it would be felt fully and without knowledge of its end. It would be the very best kind.

And so Greg had joined her on the floor for the laughable exercise, and they’d crawled from room to room at baby eye-level, surveying their home for potential hazards. He’d cheerfully mocked the whole thing as they went along; at the time, she’d been frustrated by what she saw as his unwillingness to take it seriously. But now, thinking back, she realized he’d been trying to lighten the mood, to offset her own humorlessness, which now seemed embarrassingly earnest.

“Come on, honey, just indulge me on this. Okay, please?” she’d said as they’d awkwardly trundled around the room on their three-decade-old knees, which most definitely lacked the resilience and enthusiasm of a baby’s. “Look, I’m on my knees, begging you.” She tried for a little weak humor of her own. And he’d smiled, and it was a full, genuine, delighted smile.

“Of course,” he’d said, and proceeded to crawl gamely along.”

The living room turned out to be one of the more problematic areas, second only to the treacherous bathroom.

“The outlet next to the TV definitely needs a cover,” Amy had noted as she’d crawled along at an ambitious clip. “And that plant my mother gave us ought to be hanging, or at least out of reach. We probably should find out its name, too, and whether it’s poisonous. I read about this baby who had to be rushed to the emergency room, hyperventilating—all because of a single rubber plant leaf.”

“Okay,” Greg said, nodding faux-earnestly. “I’d be writing this down if there were a pen within crawling range. But a pen within reach would probably be horribly dangerous, so it’s all for the best.”

“I think we should get rid of the mini-blinds, they could easily be a strangulation hazard,” she continued, refusing to acknowledge his jokes until they’d finished the task. “And remember that we need to drill an air hole in that toy box.”

“Ame, you’re thinking like a baby who’s terrified for its life. Babies don’t think that way,” he’d said, catching her in his arms as she’d struggled, laughingly, to continue crawling out of his grasp and onward, like a stoic little windup toy.

“Come on, Greg!” she’d shrieked, trying valiantly to stay on task as he’d proceeded to tickle her ribs. Soon, she knew, she’d collapse in a fit of laughter and kisses, but she wanted to take this seriously. “Of course babies aren’t terrified. We have to be terrified for them.”

Yes, that was part of the job, but not all of it. She would learn that excruciating lesson in helplessness later. You could fear for your child all you wanted, but there were limits to what you could suffer on their behalf. The most frightening thing her child would experience, she would experience alone.

“So, basically, she’s asking to meet you,” Diane’s voice was still melodious even as she got to the awful bottom line. Amy’s own voice, when upset, tended to become gravelly and harsh, and sometimes betrayed her with sudden squeaks, like a pubescent boy’s. “Of course, all I said was that I would have to talk to you. I didn’t give her any information at all, Amy. That’s for you to decide.”

She should have known this would happen eventually; it had been hanging over her head for a year, and she hadn’t had the energy or courage to deal with it. It seemed that P.J’s birth mother had re-entered the picture.

When they decided to adopt, they’d chosen a “semi-open adoption,” which would’ve allowed P.J. to easily find her birth mother when she reached adulthood. Under these terms, a limited amount of contact with the birth mother was permitted; they were identified to each other on a first-name basis only. It was the sort of familiar anonymity often seen in confessional-style magazine articles. Amy and Greg hadn’t been comfortable with a full-fledged open adoption; they didn’t want awkward holiday gatherings in which this young woman, whose name was Ashley, gazed longingly at the child she’d given up. Under the arrangement they’d made, they could send her updates or pictures through the agency, but actual face-to-face meetings would be rare, until such time that P.J. pursued them as an adult.

Of the many things she wasn’t brave enough to face after losing P.J., this was perhaps the most unforgivable, and therefore the most dreaded. They hadn’t been required by law to notify the birth mother of P.J.’s death, and so they simply hadn’t.

Originally, she’d been too stricken with grief and shock to even think of it; then, she’d been afraid. Ashley had trusted them with her baby. How could Amy possibly admit now that she’d died in their care? Finally, after debating the issue with Greg, she’d managed to convince them both that this young woman had been through enough—she didn’t need to suffer through this, too. This was no longer her burden to carry. As the months went by with no contact, Amy almost came to believe that the situation might simply disappear. But she should have known it wouldn’t; it wasn’t human nature for this type of thing to just go away. The girl would always come back to this decision of hers, would always, for the rest of her life, wonder whether she’d made a mistake. And Amy, who knew the answer, would not be spared the pain of telling her.

“This is uncharted territory for us, too, Amy,” Diane said, and Amy thought she detected a faint, uncharacteristic twinge of irritation in the woman’s voice at being thrust into such territory. “I honestly didn’t know what to say to her. I just want you to know that we will respect whatever you decide, and maintain our end of the disclosure agreement.”

“Thank you,” she said, her voice sounding distant and muffled despite that it was issuing from inside her, that she could feel the glottal vibrations of it in her own mouth. “I wonder if I might be able to have some time to think it over first, if I could get back to you.”

“Yes, of course,” Diane said without hesitation, once again restored to her role as the warm, understanding advocate and confidante. “Take your time. Talk it over with Greg. You know how to reach me.”

Talk it over with Greg. As Amy hung up the phone, she realized that Diane shouldn’t have had to suggest this; it should have occurred to her. She should have been able to talk it over with Greg; they were married to one another, they continued to live together in this house because they supposedly had something to say to each other. And there’d been a time when Greg, always the strong one between them, would have been the first person she’d turn to when she needed support. Many, many times in their marriage, it had been his calm solidity—his love for her and his insightful advice, which was sometimes harsh, but always rooted in that love—that had gotten her through her countless fears and crises and demons.

But that Greg was gone, maybe temporarily or maybe forever. She’d watched the way he’d incrementally retreated into himself, had pared down the complexities of his existence to a manageable Q and A format.

A situation like this, presented to him in all its raw emotional awfulness for his consideration, would simply force him to crumple inward, to look eerily through her. And he would simply suggest the most reasonable course of action, and leave her floundering with the messy feelings he’d managed to extrude. What would happen, she knew, was that Greg would just disappear further. And, although she rarely admitted it to herself anymore, there was a large part of her that still wanted him around.

She picked the laptop up off the floor and made a halfhearted effort to straighten up the living room; she knew Greg would be home soon. The room had certainly declined quite a bit from the baby-proofing days; at a glance, she could tell it was rife with hazards. The outlet covers had been taken off—they were a bit annoying if they weren’t needed—and there were tangled wires snaking along the floor in an imposing phalanx of TV/VCR galvanism. A candle was half-lit on the coffee table, well within toddler range, its flame dozing as if unsure whether to flare up and set the house on fire. The mini-blinds were back; they’d both gotten tired of being blasted by the cheery insistence of the California sun. And there were fresh new offenses as well; the plug-in air freshener, totally depleted of its scented oil, serving no purpose but to possibly explode.

There was really no need to keep the house safe anymore; it was just them, now. If anything, they’d done a different kind of proofing since P.J. had died. They’d kept the place free of painful, telling silences, of truths spoken out loud, of sharp edges that might reopen wounds. They’d shielded and guarded their eye contact, their touch, their laughter. They’d protected their home against the hidden dangers inside them. It was a safe and a stale house; no one was falling down here, but no one was really taking any steps, either.

Her eye again snagged on the bright thing flashing at her from near the DVD player, the thing she’d at first imagined was an optical illusion created by her contact lenses. But here it was, catching her eye again, insisting on being acknowledged. She walked across the room briskly in pursuit of it, as though it might disappear before she reached it. But it was still there, half-embedded in the carpet—a small, silver earring, shaped like an elongated tear. She recognized this earring: she remembered being told by its owner that it was “Tiffany-inspired,” a claim she’d simply shrugged at. What was she supposed to think about such a meaningless distinction? Was it supposed to matter? She pulled the earring out of the rug, wondering why Lynette had never mentioned it, or asked for it back. Wondering how long it had been there, and why the vacuum cleaner hadn’t caught it. Wondering, pointlessly, whether Greg had seen it. But even if he had, he’d simply have assumed that it was hers; in some ways, this affair she was having was entirely too easy to hide.

The earring featured the sharp, pin-like part that went into the ear, not to mention a small possible diamond at its base that may or may not have been capable of cutting glass. It was also highly likely that the earring’s post was also buried in the carpet someplace. It was an extremely dangerous item that had been half-obscured on their rug for God knows how long, hidden yet flashing with the kind of eye-catching brightness any kid would love. She took it into the kitchen, where she rummaged around among the cabinet containing the glassware until she found the long since retired “small object tester.” They’d once joked about drinking tequila shots out it of once P.J. was older, but had instead banished it to the far end of the cabinet, where it sat untouched and unlooked at. She wondered what their parents and friends had done with their glasses, if they’d thrown them away or sold them in yard sales, or if they did guiltily drink shots out of them. She took the glass out of the cabinet and held her lover’s earring momentarily aloft, then dropped it into the small object tester with a satisfying clink. It was a perfect fit.

Check out previous chapters of Trivial Pursuits {?} right here.

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