Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.
SIX MONTHS EARLIER
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of thirty-nine and in possession of a good complexion must be in want of a husband. And a baby. Unless you are me.” My personalized version of that famous line from Pride and Prejudice was a mantra of sorts for me—a self-professed Jane Austen addict and an exception to this truth. Not that it mattered. I was as swept up in other women’s pregnancies and new-mothering dramas as if I did want those things.
Modern life as we know it is divided into two camps: the haves and the have-nots. The haves being those with children and the have-nots those without. As a have-not it was up to me to be as supportive and understanding of the haves as possible; after all, I had more disposable time and income than they did. At least that’s how it was in the beginning. “Get closer, all of you!” Gavin, a South Asian man of slight build and large personality yelled at us. “Us” being the entire staff of Haute—fashion magazine du jour—gathered in the staff’s overly stylish kitchen, chattering away, jobs forgotten. The occasion? Babies shower. The plural being necessary given that five women on staff were about to pop. To save catering costs the editor-in-chief, Marianne—one of the five, eight months pregnant and my best friend since college—decided to do an all-in-one shower. At least there were cupcakes.
“Closer!” Gavin shrieked. He’s our fashion director and a complete scream. “Don’t just stand there! Squeeze in as tight as you can to Kate.”
That would be me. Kate. The one minus the baby bump. The one perched on the wooden stool surrounded by pregnant bellies swathed in all-black designer maternity wear and teetering on four-inch platform pumps. The women did as they were told and moved closer. Too close. As they turned to check one another’s hair and makeup, their five swollen tummies, hard as basketballs, knocked my head in rapid-fire succession. I fought to keep my balance on the stool and tightened my grasp on the precious cargo in my hands.
“Don’t get those out of order, Kate,” snapped Ellie. She was seven months along and also one of the smuggest pregnancy snobs I’d ever met. Ellie routinely boasted about getting in the family way after only one attempt, even when she knew others on staff were up to their ovaries in IVF treatments. Still, I smiled reassuringly, recalling my duty to be supportive of all pregnant women no matter how unruly their hormones made them.
“They’re irreplaceable, you know,” she barked.
“They” are the five-part series of ultrasound images I held in my hands. For some inexplicable reason the mothers-to-be had decided to bring their collection of ultrasounds to the party for comparison. Somehow I was given the task of holding them before they were to be pinned to the inspiration board that was normally reserved for fashion tears and layouts. I wanted to ask if we could play a game of pin the tail on the baby, but thought better of it.
“Say ‘cheesy,’” Gavin called. We did. He snapped away as if we were supermodels striding down a Paris runway. “Perfection!”
That task complete, the women went back to sharing their child-birthing anxieties and thrusting baby bumps in my face as though I were invisible. I stood up to avoid the line of fire—which made all the difference because I’m five ten in bare feet, six two in my four-inch Mary Janes—and that’s when I spotted Jennifer, twenty-seven, stick thin, bottle blonde, drop-dead gorgeous, and the new features editor at Haute. She was munching a celery stick and rolling her eyes at me in sympathy. She had a reputation for being ruthless and had written articles about how to network with winners and avoid losers; how to be a good frenemy to those who count; and how to rise above your colleagues even if they’re better at the job than you are. She had even complained about having to ante up cash for other people’s unborn children and their toys. I smiled slightly and moved away.
“The fetus has turned,” Ellie gleamed to Marianne and glared at me for daring to listen in on a story that I couldn’t possibly relate to. Now that I think back, Ellie was a bitch long before the invasion of the hormonal body snatcher.
I wanted to say “so has the worm,” but bit my tongue.
“I think the fetus is actually bigger than normal for this stage,” she said proudly. “At least the doctor says the fetus is bigger.”
How many times can one person say “fetus”? Whatever happened to “baby”? Now don’t misunderstand me, or my tongue, which sometimes speaks like it has acid reflex. I have nothing against babies or pregnant women, and I offer my support whenever possible. That may mean choosing the perfect gift or baking the perfect lasagna—my signature dish—for when a new mother arrives home with the baby and can’t bear the thought of cooking.
I get along just fine with pregnant women. And pregnant women, especially of a certain age (those closer to forty than thirty) were everywhere. Which was all right with me because my livelihood depended on them. You see, I am hired to fill in for women on maternity leave at fashion magazines. I work contract to contract, so I even keep a journal of who is newly wed, who is trying desperately to get pregnant, and which of the slutty girls at the various magazines around town had a drunken weekend.
I had found my niche as a beauty editor, which means I spend my days writing about the latest mascara innovation, lipstick shade, and antiaging procedure. Or, more accurately, I’m an acting beauty editor, emphasis on “acting,” making me the ideal solution for every pregnant woman who still worried about her career before the birth, the sleepless nights, and diaper changes hit. Most women who have kids later in life view their career as their firstborn, and so they panic when faced with the prospect of handing the reins over to a stranger. That’s where I come in. I’m a career contract player and I like it that way because each contract comes with an end date and that comes with freedom: freedom from office politics, freedom to frequently change scene, freedom to freelance, and freedom to travel at a moment’s notice. That I hadn’t traveled or freelanced or even changed scene as much as I had envisioned was beside the point. I could if I wanted to. But none of that mattered now because my pattern of short-term employment was about to change. Darlene, whom I replaced three pregnancy contracts ago at StyleView, a sister magazine of Haute, had resigned to be a full-time mom. The magazine had to hire someone to fill the vacancy. And that someone would be me. I had turned down permanent offers in the past, so I knew the company wanted me. Just thinking about it made me smile. This is where all those years of playing hard to get would pay off in an above-average salary, private office, and—I was convinced—a signing bonus. An injection of cash that I needed desperately because I was broke. Through no fault of my own. Or at least not entirely. Put it this way: I had misjudged a man, but more on that later. Besides, there comes a time in every woman’s life, even a self-described intrepid one such as me, where stability is as sexy as adventure. This job would give me what I needed to be happy.
Right now, though, I was hungry. Still clutching the ultrasound images I spied the Magnolia cupcakes on the table and was about to pounce when I felt a hand on my arm. It was Marianne. Wearing an empire-waist tunic and leggings, she rocked maternity wear better than anyone.
“I can’t believe I got the stroller I wanted,” she beamed. “You must have told them.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. Marianne had her eye on this very posh stroller from Germany that wasn’t available in America yet. But the magazine had loads of European contributors, so I had made a few phone calls and raised the appropriate funds from the staff—Marianne was the boss, after all.
“Are you sure you could afford it?” she asked softly. She guessed, correctly, that whatever we were short I had topped up. But that was before the incident, the error in judgment that had made me broke.
“Don’t even think about it,” I said reassuringly, still eyeing the cupcakes, narrowing my choice down to a red velvet one with vanilla frosting.
“Have you heard from him?” she said, bringing up the incident.
“Not a word, and not a penny,” I answered gamely.
Here’s what happened. I was living with a guy named Chris on the Upper West Side for three years. We were content, sometimes even happy, with how things were. I never wanted the big ring, the fluffy wedding, or, even worse, the marriage, so cohabitation was for me. For us. I believed that we were as committed as any married couple. I believed this so firmly that when Chris was laid off from his graphic design job and wanted to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a film editor I offered to put him through film school. After all, we were a couple and I’d amassed enough savings to make his dream possible. He was ecstatic and we made room in the apartment for the state-of-the-art edit suite he needed to practice on.
It was perfect.
Until he met a sexy postproduction coordinator. He moved out almost immediately, swearing to pay me back the more than fifteen thousand dollars I’d loaned him, not to mention the debt he’d run up on my credit cards when his own were maxed out and he needed new software or whatnot. Well, that was over six months ago and I’ve not seen a penny. Just excuse after excuse about the low wages of an apprentice editor, and could I try being a little more patient? Sigh. I was a first-class sucker and now, along with my patience, all I had left was my own retirement savings plan—mutual funds and the like.
I needed Darlene’s job. Badly.
“Really, I’m fine,” I insisted.
“I’m glad,” Marianne said sweetly and rubbed her stomach. “And I’m looking forward to having this baby and eating some of your famous lasagna.”
I smiled. “The secret family recipe,” I said furtively. “You might get more than one.”
“Kate, can I speak with you a moment?”
We turned around to see Gloria, the executive publisher of the entire company, and Marianne’s boss, walking toward us. This must be it. My job offer had arrived. I practically floated out of the kitchen and into Gloria’s office.
“Sit down,” she said. I smoothed my hair and dress as I sat in the gray guest chair. I wondered if I could order a red one for my office. “You obviously know the economy is in a slump,” she began.
Of course I knew. It was September 2008 and the economy was big news. The words “financial crisis” were everywhere. So maybe I’d have to forego the signing bonus.
“We’re anticipating a heavy loss in advertising revenue,” she continued. “Not just Haute, but across the entire company. We have to make cutbacks. I know you’re substituting for Claire but she’s back next week.”
“And you have to find Darlene’s replacement,” I interjected with a knowing smile. “My salary requirements are negotiable.”
She stared at me and shook her head. Maybe I’d spoken too soon. “Not anymore,” she said and averted her eyes. “We’re no longer filling her position.”
I couldn’t decipher what Gloria meant because of a sudden sensation I might faint.
“Her assistant will be promoted and she’ll have to do both jobs herself,” Gloria explained. Then seeing my blank expression, she continued. “We’ve also made the decision not to fill maternity leaves. Existing staff will make up the slack. To be clear, once Claire returns next week, you’re not needed here any longer. I’m sorry.”
I swallowed. “I’m fired?”
“No, not at all,” she corrected me. “You were never an employee, just a contract worker. We’re simply not renewing your contract.”
It was suddenly very hot in Gloria’s office. I thought back to the kitchen full of my now former colleagues. The Ellie types, the Jennifer types, and all those in between. “Does everyone know?”
“No, not even Marianne,” she said. “I wanted to tell you first.”
I marched to my cubicle, my Mary Janes clipping and clopping so loudly on the hardwood floor I felt like a cavalry officer or his horse. My plan was to slip away without having anyone see me. I was no longer in the mood for cupcakes.
I nearly tumbled over when Claire appeared and threw her arms around me.
“I brought a new photo of Peanut,” she said smugly and plopped down a glossy five-by-seven of her son. “I hope you don’t mind. I’m back next week and, well, it’s not like you have photos to put up.”
She hovered, opening packages of makeup, rifling through my in-tray. There went my plan.
“I’ll be right back,” I said and trounced off to the ladies’ room in the hope that Claire would be at the shower by the time I came back.
I shut the stall door and leaned against the metal partition. That’s when I realized I was still clutching the ultrasound photos. Fuck. This meant I would have to return to the party. At that moment I heard two women walk in and begin to preen in front of the mirror.
“Why was Kate in the photo?”
Did she mean me?
“It’s like she wants to be one of them,” the other voice chimed in. “All she does is cover maternity leaves. It’s weird.” They were definitely talking about me.
“Why doesn’t she have kids of her own?”
“Instead of hanging around all the pregnant women? I heard her boyfriend dumped her.”
“He met someone else after Kate put him through school! He left her with a big, empty apartment and loads of debt. She had to move back home to Scarsdale,” one of them said with a snicker.
I sat there gripping the toilet. Should I remain silent and keep my dignity? Or confront the cows then and there? I chose option two. I stood up, opened the door, calmly walked out, and washed my hands. Seeing me, one of them grabbed on to the counter as though she were about to topple over. I refused to make eye contact but I recognized them; they worked down the hall in ad sales. What was obvious was that they were both pregnant, but forget Yummy Mummies. These two were Monster Mamas. They had been at the shower but were too early in their pregnancies to be included in the actual celebration. I wiped my hands dry, tossed the paper towel into the bin, turned and faced them, and, making a show of staring at their swollen bellies, I smiled warmly.
“Did you know that half of all men start an affair during their wives’ final trimester?” I lied pleasantly.
I went back to my desk, grabbed my things, and ran, but not before stomping back into the baby shower to find Ellie. I didn’t do it on purpose but as I stuffed the ultrasounds into her hand, the images flew onto the floor like a deck of cards, scattering in all directions. I heard the surprised shrieks from the women but I didn’t stop to help. Maybe I was crying.
Marianne tried to chase after me. But that’s the thing about pregnant women: They’re easy to outrun, even in four-inch Mary Janes.
Copyright © 2012 by Kim Izzo