Claire and I met at a party to celebrate the launch of her husband’s second book. My husband and I had moved from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles two years earlier, and an unsophisticated aura surrounded us, having both been raised in conventional middle-class Republican families. There was a certain type at parties like this: intellectual, vocally liberal, slightly bohemian, creative and with good taste, and quietly and mysteriously moneyed. I was watchful and impressed.
My husband, Jeff, taught history at a high school, most of his time consumed by a yearbook commitment he’d been pressured into taking, and I was on maternity leave from a secretarial position, though I’d quit soon to stay home with our newborn son, David. Jeff had heard about the party through a friend who hadn’t shown, and there was no one else we knew.
Displayed on a stand at a table where the book was being sold, Material Promises was more than 700 pages long, the cover a profile photograph of a somber and bearded and younger Richard, fist at his chin. Published by an academic press associated with the private college where he taught, his books were classified as experimental fiction. At that time I admired anyone who’d crossed that impenetrable threshold to publication and I hoped to meet him, though I didn’t yet want to think of myself as ambitious.
Richard sat at the corner of the living room, and I passed David—less than one month old—to Jeff. I made myself walk over. Though Richard gazed in the other direction, an almost imperceptible tug at his mouth led me to believe he knew I was there. I opened my mouth to speak, but in near synchronicity his head went back and his eyes closed and then he touched his eyelids with his fingertips as if in distress, so I retreated.
“Did you talk to him?” Jeff said.
I grimaced, letting him know he was no better at networking than me, and I took back our fussing son.
“Over an hour left,” I whispered, shaking my head no, wide-eyed, as Jeff gestured to the front door. We’d agreed to last at least two hours at the party.
Later I was breastfeeding David on a couch in a private den, his little leg poking out from the blanket that enclosed him at my chest, listening to his mmm-hmm-mmm sound, when I saw Claire studying a small landscape painting near the open door. She wore a simple black dress and absentmindedly fingered her jade choker, her hiccupping daughter facing her chest in a Baby Björn, splotchy legs and arms wobbling with each hiccup. Claire looked closer—and closer still—until it appeared her nose might touch the painting.
I knew she was married to Richard because I’d watched them earlier. She was affected with him and vice versa: they seemed to encourage it like a performance, both using the words “my love” with a condescending edge and an unnerving frequency. (“Pass me my drink, my love.” “Of course, my love. Here you are, my love.” “Thank you, my love.”) She was pale, elegant, and younger than Richard. I wondered how she remained so passionately thin—her figure like a boy’s—when like me she’d recently given birth.
Even before she turned and saw us—with a surprised step back and a smile—I knew she and her daughter would join us at the couch. And she did, unhooking Lily from her carrier and propping her forward on her lap, one hand at Lily’s chest and neck, tapping her back with the other. “Beautiful,” she said, glancing back at the painting. “The rest”—she gave a dismissive hand wave, while still supporting her daughter.
“Isn’t this your house?” I said.
“Oh, hell no,” she said in amusement and then added seriously, “It belongs to a colleague of Richard’s.”
For a long while we silently watched Lily bobble with each hiccup, a bubble of saliva forming at her bottom lip. The only other sound was the rhythmic patting of Claire’s palm against Lily’s back and David’s breastfeeding hum. Then Lily’s hiccups stopped and soon her head drooped in sleep.
Claire placed her at the couch between us, with Lily’s tiny arms and legs splayed. Claire and I shared notes: ages of babies (Lily three weeks older than David), our ages (both of us in our late twenties), and our birthing experiences (still viscerally recent and traumatic).
Then David drifted to sleep, his mouth barely tugging at my nipple, little ticklish nibbles. His leg shook outside the blanket, a convulsive twitch, and then he stilled, his mouth fully releasing my nipple and his leg and body leaden against me.
With both our babies asleep, our conversation became deeper, freighted, based on the profundity and strangeness of new motherhood and our mutual need for companionship. We talked about how we’d been mothered (hers a competitive intellectual Episcopalian, mine an anti-intellectual born-again Christian), and how long buried memories of our childhoods now came unbidden and unwanted. She paraphrased Germaine Greer, saying that once a woman has a child, her capacity for suffering deepens. We agreed that what we felt for our newborns was larger and more passionate than any love affair. Our marriages, our first loves, and our closest familial relationships paled. And how after we’d given birth, we’d both felt an uncanny awareness as if we were, as she phrased it, “at the center of an abyss.”