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My future mother-in-law, an East Coast debutante who withheld approval as if it were a scarce resource, found me lacking. Her perfect son, the lawyer, could have married the daughter of one of New York’s most prominent physicians. But then he met me. Not only did I disrupt the plan for what would have been Manhattan’s wedding of the year, I also was to blame for something far worse — Daniel Landauer’s permanent relocation to Los Angeles. It was the most egregious crime a girl could commit — coming between a cherished son and his over-protective mother.
Daniel and I had been dating for about five months when I met Mrs. Landauer. She flew out to visit her son who had not been “home” in almost a year. I tried to get out of meeting her, but Daniel insisted.
“Come on, Mel. It’s just dinner.” Daniel picked up my hand. “My mother’ll love you.”
Suffice it to say, Eliza Landauer did not love me.
We met in the foyer of an overpriced seafood restaurant. I’d arrived first, having driven directly from work. The door opened. I saw Daniel and then his mother. She was wearing a fabulous gray and white tweed pant suit. Everything about her was intimidating.
“Mom, this is my girlfriend, Mel.”
I sensed disapproval the minute Daniel’s mother set eyes on me. She raised her chin and pursed her lips. But then she smiled politely and extended her hand, pink nails manicured to perfection. “Lovely to meet you, dear. Is that your natural hair color?”
My hair, an unfortunate shade of red, was the genesis of all my insecurities. I couldn’t blame her for commenting on it though. Everybody did.
“It is,” I said. “My father’s mother had the same exact hair.”
“So it runs in the family. How nice.” Mrs. Landauer turned to the hostess. “Is our table ready?”
We followed the hostess to a corner table and took our seats.
Eliza Landauer placed her napkin in her lap. “Is Mel short for something?”
“Yes,” I said. “Melanie.”
“Melanie,” she repeated. “I like that much better.”
For the rest of the meal, she said my full name. What do you do, Melanie? Do you have siblings, Melanie? Your father’s a doctor, Melanie? A chiropractor is not a real doctor, Melanie.
I remained composed and polite. I had to acknowledge that my boyfriend resembled his beautiful mother – same thick brown hair, clear blue eyes, slim build. Even his charming smile matched hers.
Dinner conversation revolved mostly around Daniel’s work as an associate attorney in a mid-sized law firm downtown and his recent promotion. Mrs. Landauer reminded Daniel that his cousin’s graduation from NYU was in two months and that everyone was looking forward to seeing him at the family reunion/graduation celebration.
Thankfully, our dinner was brief. Daniel had an early meeting the next morning, so we skipped dessert and left the restaurant.
Outside, in the chilly night air, Mrs. Landauer squeezed both my hands. “So nice meeting you, Melanie,” she said. “Goodnight.”
No see you soon or let’s do it again or come visit us in the Hamptons.
To be honest, I was disappointed. I was twenty-nine and had had my share of boyfriends. Their mothers always loved me, usually even more than my boyfriends did.
The next day, I offered Daniel an out. I suggested it might be a good idea if we took things a little slower.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “If anything, I want to speed things up.” Daniel admitted his mother could be difficult, but he was positive she’d come around eventually. “One day she’s gonna love you as much as I do.”
The second time I saw Eliza Landauer was a year later, shortly after Daniel proposed. She and Daniel’s father, James, came out to meet my parents — my mother, my father, and my father’s wife. My parents had divorced amicably when I was little, but I worried it was one more black mark on my record. Between my hair, my broken family, and my “not up-to-snuffness,” even I was beginning to wonder if Daniel had chosen the right girl.
I stressed over where we should have our family introduction dinner for days prior to the Landauer’s arrival.
“You’re overthinking it,” Daniel said. “Let’s just go somewhere easy.” We ended up at our favorite Italian restaurant because it had good food, a decent wine list, and prices that were not outrageous.
Mr. Landauer, a perfectly nice, unassuming investment banker, ordered a bottle of expensive champagne and toasted our engagement. I liked him.
“So,” Eliza Landauer said to my father. “I hear you’re a chiropractor.”
My father, a heavy man with large hands, slathered a sourdough roll with butter and nodded. “Uh-huh. Do you need an adjustment?” He laughed uproariously, and my two mothers, sitting on either of him, both smacked his arms. “What?” He ate half the roll in one bite.
I wanted to crawl under the table.
Our third meeting took place in New York. Daniel’s parents were throwing an engagement party for us on the East Coast so that a few of their closest friends could meet me.
What I learned in New York came as no surprise. Eliza Landauer knew how to entertain. The entire weekend was a mini-wedding celebration. It started with Friday night family dinner. In the beautiful backyard of the Landauer’s Long Island home, at least fifty people milled about sipping French Bordeaux, Dom Perignon, and Johnnie Walker Black Label, which I developed a taste for that very night.
The following evening, one hundred and fifty people gathered at the country club for a party that jumped right off the pages of “The Great Gatsby.” I had never been a shy person and was not easily intimidated, but I felt like an interloper. In my cream-colored sun dress and cute but casual sandals, I looked like I belonged at a backyard barbecue. Of course, Daniel, as well as all of his friends and cousins, did too. But I was the bride, and I should have stepped it up a notch. There was no way this California girl would ever fit in with the New York elite.
While Daniel’s father stood off in the corner with his investment banking friends, his wife flitted about in a gorgeous red silk dress, her shoulders smooth and tanned, her rich brown hair twisted into a perfect bun.
“If you leave my side,” I said to my fiancé, “I will break up with you. I’m not kidding.”
Daniel entwined his fingers around mine and kissed my cheek. “Only to let you go to the bathroom. I promise.”
Not a minute later, Eliza Landauer grabbed my arm and pushed Daniel toward the bar. “Go get yourself a drink. I want to introduce Melanie to the girls.”
With a helpless smile, Daniel relinquished me to the care of his mother. I was terrified.
But Eliza Landauer encircled my waist with her arm and showed me off like a new doll. Her friends eyed me with jealousy.
Why can’t my son bring home a sweet girl like Melanie? I just love your beautiful red hair, Melanie. Your dress is adorable, Melanie. We can’t wait ’til the wedding, Melanie…
The attention and compliments were as intoxicating as the Johnnie Walker, and I drank them in with abandon. Lightheaded with adrenaline, I embraced the role of future daughter-in-law. I was charming and confident and delighted to meet everyone, even the parents of Daniel’s ex-girlfriend.
I lost track of Daniel, but it was okay. I did fit in, finally. Eliza Landauer not only accepted me, she was proud of me! But like Cinderella after the ball, I felt myself returning to my lowly status as soon as the party ended.
On Sunday morning, the caterers arrived at the crack of dawn to set up a brunch buffet — a platter of crab legs, shrimp, and oysters on crushed ice, omelets to order, French toast, sausage, cinnamon rolls, petit-fours, pecan coffee cake, and fruit carved into works of art.
My insecurities returned with a vengeance.
“It’s just breakfast, Mel. Who cares what you wear?”
“I care, Daniel! And your mother cares. And all her friends who think I’m the newest American Girl doll care!” I shook out the navy-blue dress I had worn to dinner on Friday night. “Everybody saw me in this already. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the brunch!”
In the end, Daniel saved me by changing out of his khakis into shorts and flip-flops, allowing me to wear my jeans and sneakers.
As we came downstairs, Eliza’s jaw dropped. “What are you wearing?”
“We’ve got to be ready to go to the airport, Mom.”
Eliza, in off-white slacks, a flowery blouse, and shoes that probably cost more than a month’s rent, pointed at us. “Both of you, march right up those stairs and change your clothes!”
I was mortified. I was a child being scolded by some other kid’s mother.
“Sorry, Mom,” Daniel said, taking my hand and leading me down the stairs. “If you prefer, we can skip the brunch and go to the airport now. Your choice.”
God, I loved my future husband.
With pursed lips, Eliza Landauer relented.
I kept a low profile and tried to hang out in the kitchen, as if the caterers needed my help. But everyone was asking for me, so Daniel dragged me back into the living room where men sat on couches devouring food like they hadn’t eaten in weeks and women sipped mimosas and nibbled on cinnamon buns.
Among her guests, Eliza slipped back into the role of consummate hostess and adoring future mother-in-law. Have you seen Melanie’s ring? Two carats! The kids are ready to rush out to the airport — so smart to fly in comfortable clothes. Melanie’s family lives in LA, right by Beverly Hills. The rehearsal dinner will be in Malibu…
I practically danced with joy two hours later when a horn honked and I saw our taxi out front. We said our goodbyes to the guests and headed to the foyer where Mr. and Mrs. Landauer were standing. I resisted the urge to run right past them.
“It was a beautiful weekend,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome, dear,” Eliza said. “I’ll see you in a few weeks for the shower.”
“Oh, that’s right.” I forced a smile.
Daniel kissed his mother. “Great party last night.”
Eliza gave her son a tight hug then handed him a gigantic Neiman Marcus bag. “I packed a few snacks for you both. Airplane food is terrible these days and most likely spoiled.”
Mr. Landauer opened the door. “Taxi’s waiting, tick-tock.”
The instant I stepped outside, I could have sworn I heard the glorious sound of angels singing. I didn’t even look back, so intent I was on getting into the cab. As I closed the door, I glanced up to see Eliza waving and wiping tears from her eyes.
The driver pulled away from the house. I looked at Daniel, and he looked at me. “What?” he said.
“Nothing. It’s just that. . .” I was going to say something not nice about his mother, how she was quite the actress, but I caught the words just in time and stopped myself from saying something I would no doubt regret.
In the three weeks between our trip to Long Island and my wedding shower, I worried about my future mother-in-law meeting my extended family. The shower hostesses were two of my mother’s best friends, both of whom would have kissed my feet if I’d agreed to marry their sons. I walked into the restaurant and saw my half-sister from my father’s second marriage. Jillian, a bohemian, vegan, nineteen-year-old with green highlights in her blond hair and a unicorn tattooed on the back of her left arm ran toward me. I loved her, but she was sorely lacking in judgement.
“Jesus Christ, Jillian! I told you Daniel’s mother was coming. Why didn’t you fix your hair?”
“Sorry, Mel. I forgot. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it for the wedding.”
The back room of the Cheesecake Factory over-flowed with flowers and table decorations. My mother, step-mother, and the two hostesses were busy filling bowls with mixed nuts, tying ribbons around little jars of Jordan almonds, and setting out place cards according to a prearranged seating chart.
The guests started to pour into the private room that looked out over the water in Marina del Rey. They swarmed me, oohing and aahing over my sparkling ring, my adorable dress, my stunning eye-lash extensions. With nervous anticipation, I watched for Eliza Landauer. Daniel was picking her up at the airport and bringing her straight to the shower. Evidently, she had been annoyed by the fact that there wouldn’t be time for her to freshen up at the hotel before the shower, despite her eight-fifteen in the morning flight.
The room turned quiet when Eliza walked in. Heads turned. Eliza looked as if she had just come from an elegant salon and not a six-hour flight. She had on a sleeveless pink sheath dress and black sunglasses.
“My God,” a voice whispered. “It’s Jackie-O come back to life.”
My mother rushed to her side and escorted her through the crowd. I managed to move my feet and welcome her.
She gave me a hug, sort of. “Hello, Melanie.”
“I’m so glad you’re here, Mrs. Landauer. Thank you for making the trip.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t dream of missing your wedding shower. What a darling dress. It’s the same one you wore to the engagement party last month, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Why she had to turn a compliment into an insult was beyond me, but I brushed it off and told her how much I loved her dress. Which I truly did. It was gorgeous.
At that moment, Jillian appeared. Eliza’s eyes widened. “And who would this be?”
“I’m Jillian, Mel’s sister. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Landauer.”
Eliza blinked rapidly. “Sister? The maid-of-honor?”
“Yes!” Jillian did a little jaunty step, completely unaware of Eliza’s inherent disapproval. “I’m so excited!”
Eliza raised one eyebrow. “Your maid-of-honor has green hair.”
I gave my little sister a light shove. “She’ll fix it before the wedding.”
“I certainly hope so.”
I guided Daniel’s mother to our table. By design, Eliza was seated next to my father’s second cousin Marilyn, an East Coast transplant who, after ten years of living in California, still hated it. As my mother and I had hoped, Eliza and Marilyn seemed to hit it off. I relaxed and ate my Chinese chicken salad.
After a few silly shower games, it was time for gifts. I opened my presents, exclaiming how much I loved each and every item, all the while keeping an eye on Marilyn and my future mother-in-law. They still were enjoying each other’s company. But as Jillian finished creating the ribbon bouquet and the hostesses stacked my gifts on a table, the lighthearted exchange between them turned frosty.
The next thing I knew, my future mother-in-law grabbed her Chanel bag, put on her Jackie-O sunglasses, and stomped toward the exit. I threw my chair back and ran after her. “Mrs. Landauer, wait! What happened?”
Daniel showed up just as his mother got to the door.
“Perfect timing. Let’s go.”
“The shower’s over already?” Daniel looked at me with confusion.
I shook my head.
“It is for me. Take me to my hotel.”
“Yes, now.” She turned to me, her lips tight. “It was a lovely shower, dear. Please do not seat me with your cousin at the wedding.”
I stood paralyzed with my mouth hanging open as Daniel left with his mother.
When the shower ended, Robin, my best friend and matron of honor, took me downstairs to the bar. She had been sitting across the table from Eliza and Marilyn and heard the entire exchange…
According to Robin, it started over the discovery that both Eliza and Marilyn were descendants of soldiers from the American Revolution. At first my future mother-in-law was delighted to learn that I might be eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“But then,” said Robin, “Marilyn called the organization a joke and said she had withdrawn her membership application because the process was grueling, invasive, and nastier than sorority rush.”
The waiter placed four tequila shots on the table. We clinked our glasses and downed the shots with lime and salt. It burned, and I grimaced. “Keep going,” I said.
“Then,” said Robin, licking salt off her lips, “Daniel’s mom told Marilyn that the process was intended to weed out those who were not eligible.”
“Was that so bad? I mean, it is true.”
“What pissed Marilyn off was when Mrs. Landauer suggested her lineage couldn’t be proven and that she therefore probably isn’t a true descendant.”
“Oh, Jesus.” I groaned and downed my second tequila. Knowing Marilyn, I could only imagine how much that remark infuriated her. Her ancestry was her claim to fame.
Robin drank her second shot and motioned to the waiter to bring two more.
“And that was when Marilyn called Eliza a stuck-up bitch and said she hoped you knew what you were getting yourself into—marrying the son of a hoity-toity elitist who thought her precious boy was marrying beneath him.”
“Oh. My. God.” I stared at Robin. “This is a disaster.”
“I’m sorry, Mel. I should have intervened and dragged Marilyn away from the table or something. But I’ll tell you, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion.”
I dropped my head into my hands. There would be no coming back from this debacle.
That night, Daniel tried to make me feel better. “Don’t worry. My mom’ll get over it. She always does.”
“But she can’t stand me!” I was sitting on the couch in our new Santa Monica condo sobbing into a pillow, my head still fuzzy from too much tequila. “You sh…should go back to New York and m…marry the doctor’s daughter.”
He sat down next to me. “But I don’t like the doctor’s daughter.” He kissed the top of my head and rubbed my back. “Listen, I know my mom can be trying.”
I wiped snot from under my nose. “Trying? No, Jillian can be trying. Your mom is the quintessential monster-in-law. And she hates me!”
“She doesn’t hate you.” Daniel’s cell phone buzzed. He looked at the screen. “It’s my mom.”
“Don’t answer it.” I tried to knock the phone out of his hand, but he was too quick for me.
I ran into the bedroom and slammed the door. A minute later, the door opened. Daniel came in and held his phone out toward me. I got under the covers and pulled the sheet over my head.
“She’s asleep,” Daniel lied. “Okay… yeah, I’ll tell her. Love you, too. Bye."
I uncovered my face. “Tell me what?”
Daniel Daniel put his phone in his pocket and gave me a sympathetic smile. “She’s very sorry she walked out.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I swear it. She said she shouldn’t have let your cousin get under her skin.”
I eyed my fiancé. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. Oh, except to remind you to make sure Jillian’s hair isn’t green at the wedding.”
I fell back against the pillows and hid under the covers for the rest of the night.
Two weeks before the wedding, my stomach acted up. Then I developed a rash on my neck, and I had horrible dreams. Daniel started to worry about me. He even suggested we elope, and for a few days I seriously contemplated it. But then I shook myself off and put on a big girl face. We would have our huge wedding — me wearing my grandmother’s dress, my daddy walking me down the aisle, and our friends drinking at the open bar that Eliza and James Landauer had graciously offered to host.
Three days before the wedding, as if by divine intervention, Marilyn was hospitalized and ended up having gall bladder surgery. I was ashamed by my elation.
Our wedding was wonderful, our Hawaiian honeymoon glorious. One week later, my husband and I returned home and began our life together.
Over the next two years, Daniel worked ungodly hours at the law firm, and I climbed the ladder at the advertising agency, becoming an account executive shortly after my thirtieth birthday. We did our best to please our families and dealt with the holidays by divvying them up and planning our calendars years in advance.
My relationship with Daniel’s mother settled somewhere between distant and pleasant. We were polite and friendly toward one another and even spoke on the phone occasionally. When Daniel face-timed with his parents, I’d look over his shoulder, smile and say hello, and then dash out with the excuse that I had to run to the store or do some work or get the mail.
When I turned thirty-two, Daniel and I decided it was time to start a family. We were practical, both of us, and hard working. Our savings account had built up a decent cushion for unexpected expenses. We were ready for the next step.
At first it was fun, trying to make a baby. We joked that if we conceived in the kitchen, our child would be a good eater. In front of the television, our child would be a couch potato. On the balcony overlooking the ocean, our child would be a beach bum. When it didn’t happen right away, I wasn’t concerned. My friends who were having babies said it could take months. A year went by. Nothing.
On our anniversary we received a card and a generous check from Daniel’s parents. The note read: “Wishing you a very happy anniversary and hoping to hear exciting news from you soon!”
“What the hell?” I said. “Did you tell them we were trying to get pregnant?”
“God no! They probably just figured. . .” Daniel stopped speaking. He looked guilty. “I might have mentioned it.”
After that, every time we had sex, I felt like my in-laws were watching. Our most intimate secret had been revealed. Eventually, everybody in our family on both sides knew that Melanie Landauer could not get pregnant.
Sexual relations became a chore. I took my temperature religiously. When it measured the exact perfect point on the basal thermometer, I tracked down my husband and demanded he perform. I put “sex with Daniel” on my to-do list between “pay bills” and “vacuum.”
Infertility treatments appeared as a line-item in our budget.
Nothing worked, not even IVF, which we tried twice. When a woman can’t get pregnant, it seems as if every person she sees is sporting a beach-ball sized belly. To me, everyone in my office looked pregnant, even the benefits manager, who was at least sixty.
On my thirty-fourth birthday, Robin took me out to lunch. We laughed ourselves silly reminiscing about our college days, our ex-boyfriends, and the disastrous wedding shower fight between Marilyn and my mother-in-law that almost derailed my marriage to the wonderful Daniel Landauer.
Tears were streaming down our cheeks, and we were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. The waiter came by and asked if we wanted anything else.
“I don’t want to leave yet,” I said. “Let’s have martinis.”
“Are you kidding? It’s too early for cocktails, and you know what a lightweight I am. I can’t drive after I drink.”
“Not a problem. I picked you up, remember?”
“That’s right, but still I don’t…”
“It’s my treat,” I said. I knew money was tight for Robin and her husband. “I insist.”
Robin’s face grew serious, and the waiter backed away from our table.
“Oh, Robin,” I said. “Did I offend you? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…”
Robin picked up my hand. “You didn’t offend me, Mel. It’s just that I have something to tell you.” Her face was dark. It would be bad news. Robin was moving away or was getting divorced or was just diagnosed with some horrible disease.
“I’m pregnant.” My friend looked guiltier than the time she’d crashed my car. “I’m so sorry.”
I wanted to die. I covered my face with both hands.
“I didn’t know how to tell you,” she said. “I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t even going to bring it…”
I lifted my head. “Stop.” I took a deep breath. I can’t even describe what it felt like to hate myself so deeply. To think that my inability to conceive had turned me into the kind of person that my beloved best friend felt she had to tip-toe around and be afraid to share her joy with. “Don’t you be sorry for a minute. I am so happy for you, for us.” I saw Robin’s eyes fill with tears of relief. “This is the best news in the world.”
We sobbed together for the next hour, and instead of drinks, we ordered a giant piece of carrot cake and two decaf cappuccinos.
That night, I told Daniel I wanted to stop trying. I threw out the basal thermometer, the ovulation kit, and every book I had purchased on infertility. I immersed myself in work and three months later, was promoted to Account Supervisor.
We splurged on pricy artwork, fancy dinners, and weekend wine-tastings in Napa Valley. Our sex life became a source of pleasure once again.
Our decision impacted both sides of the family. Although the subject of baby-making was off-limits, my mother brought it up all the time. I was her only child. If I didn’t have a baby, she’d never be a grandmother.
“If it happens, it happens, Mom.” I told her I was done discussing it. I’d let her know if anything changed.
Daniel’s family, on the other hand, never said a word. I was shocked. And grateful.
Right after Christmas, Robin gave birth to a gorgeous girl who smelled like rose petals. I strangled the jealousy monster as best I could and embraced my role as doting Auntie Mel. Then I bought a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps to remind myself how fabulous it was to have money.
For two years, Daniel and I moved upward and onward. We bought a house in Westwood, remodeled the kitchen, landscaped the yard, and still were able to fund our 401k’s. My professional life could not have been better, and when one of my colleagues suggested we go out on our own, I got excited. The idea of establishing a new agency and taking control of my career was appealing. Daniel encouraged me to consider it. My life was moving in a new direction.
And then, one morning, I got out of bed and threw up.
The next day, I peed on a stick watched the little plus sign come to life. The pregnancy panicked me. Daniel and I had embraced the idea of never having a baby; we had stopped wanting one.
We cried. We held each other. My husband kissed me. “I’m so happy, Mel. I know I said I didn’t care if we never had children, but I guess I did.” He tucked his face near my neck, and I felt his warm tears on my skin.
While our baby grew in my belly, Daniel tended to me as if I were a fragile piece of glass. He cooked and cleaned and texted me at work three times a day. At the twelve-week point, after I saw my doctor, we felt safe sharing the news with our families. It was a warm Sunday morning in April. My first call was to Robin. She screamed so loudly I thought her neighbors would call the police. My mother sobbed. I told her to call me back when she was done crying. My father and step-mother talked over each other, and we could hardly understand anything they said.
Jillian’s response didn’t surprise me. After growing out of her counter-culture phase, she went to college and was about to graduate with a degree in business. “You’re crazy,” she said. “A baby will completely derail your career!”
I told her someday she would understand.
We took a break to eat lunch before calling the Landauers. For some reason, telling my mother-in-law made me nervous.
“That’s ridiculous,” Daniel said as he made a kale salad. “Why are you nervous?”
“Because your mom will ask a million questions. And she’ll press us to find out the sex of the baby.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Because your mother is like that. She always, I don’t know, needs to be in control of something.”
Daniel sighed. “If you want, I’ll call her myself. I’ll tell her you’re napping.”
“That would be really weeny of me,” I said, although it wasn’t a bad idea.
“Yes, it would.” Daniel sat down with our salads and looked at me. “It’s time you get over being intimidated by my mother.”
“Excuse me?” I felt the stir of anger rising. “Intimidated? I’m hardly…”
“Yeah, you are. Either that or you flat out don’t like her. And the truth is, Mel, she and my dad are pretty great people.”
My eyes stung. Instead of wiping the tears away, I let them fall, wanting Daniel to feel bad, to apologize for accusing me of being intimidated. He didn’t. And I could not fathom what had gotten into my husband.
“Why are you taking her side over mine?” I asked
“See? That’s just it. Nobody’s taking sides. This isn’t a competition.” Then Daniel raised his voice. “Jesus, Mel, this isn’t just about you. It’s my baby, too.”
My first instinct was to fight back. To throw something, to run upstairs and slam the door. I was the one who was pregnant and had hormones flooding my system, spewing uncontrollable emotions.
I sniffled. I stood and got myself a glass of juice. I sat back down at the table, where Daniel was eating his salad and scrolling through messages on his phone. Without looking at me, he said, “I have a case starting next week, so I’m gonna go to the office.”
And he left — no kiss, no goodbye. It was the first time he’d ever left the house mad at me.
I made an especially nice dinner. I wasn’t the best cook, but I did know how to make good spaghetti and meatballs. Besides, I had a craving for garlic bread.
Around six, I heard the garage door open. He came into the kitchen.
“Hi,” I said.
A smiled played at the corner of his mouth. “I know. I can smell the garlic.”
“Are you hungry?”
“I guess. Okay with you if I shower before dinner?”
“Sure.” The tension between us lingered. While he showered, I set the table and even opened a bottle of wine. Daniel liked Chianti with his spaghetti.
We sat down and started eating.
“Tastes good,” Daniel said.
“Glad you like it.”
Daniel poured himself some wine and took a drink. He looked at me with his beautiful blue eyes. I readied myself for his apology and the sweet relief I’d feel when our fight was officially over.
“I…” he hesitated. “I called my parents this afternoon. I told them.”
I felt dizzy, a symptom that could be caused by my pregnancy. Or by the shock of my husband’s announcement. “Why?”
“Why?” Daniel’s eyebrows went up. “Because you didn’t want to talk to them, and I wanted to tell them before they heard it from somebody else.”
In my mind, I went over the various ways I could react. Should I be furious? Hurt? Offended? I bit my tongue. Literally. I was chewing, and I bit my tongue. “Ouch!” I stuck my tongue out. “Ith it bleeding?”
“Yeah, a lot. I’ll get you some water.”
My tongue ached. I tasted blood. It was a sign, a punishment for my being so stubborn. “I think I’ll call your parents after dinner.”
Daniel looked surprised. “You will?”
“Yes. And I’m sorry, Daniel. You were right.”
My husband smiled at me. He took a deep breath. “Thank you. I forgive you.”
My in-laws were delighted to hear from me. And thrilled beyond belief that they were going to be grandparents. Then Eliza told my father-in-law to get off the phone so we could talk girl-talk. I got ready for a barrage of questions, but they never came.
“I just want you to know how happy I am, Melanie. And… and I hope the baby has your gorgeous red hair.”
“I do,” she said. “It’s beautiful hair.”
“Now remember, being pregnant is very exhausting, so get your rest. Don’t work too hard.”
“Okay. Sounds good.”
“Talk to you soon, dear. And thank you for making my son so happy.”
It was not the conversation I’d expected. Maybe she was tired. Maybe Daniel had told her not to pepper me with questions. Maybe my mother-in-law really did like me. Maybe I was the one who… I stopped there. It was not the time to over-think.
After we hung up, I found Daniel in the office upstairs.
He looked up. “Well? Were you interrogated?”
“Not in the least,” I said, gratified. “Your mom was amazing.”
At fourteen weeks, I started to show, and one of my coworkers noticed. A guy. He thought I was looking a little chunky.
“I’m pregnant, you idiot.”
“Oh, good. I was afraid you were just getting fat.”
I told my boss that afternoon, and I assured her that my plan was to return to work after the customary six-week maternity leave. Word spread quickly, and by the next morning, three flower arrangements and a gigantic balloon bouquet filled my office.
I went on a business trip to San Francisco to pitch a new client. The next weekend, Daniel and I went to Home Depot and looked at paint colors for the nursery. We selected a pale shade of green — perfect for boy or girl. We would pick bedding after the baby came. I spent my weekends reading pregnancy books and thumbing through Pottery Barn Baby catalogs. I ordered maternity clothes from A Pea in the Pod.
I was watching TV when, at almost eighteen weeks, I felt our baby move. At first I thought a fly had landed on my belly because it was just a tickle. But then I realized it was a tickle from the inside. Daniel was working late. I almost called him, but I didn’t. In a way, I wanted to be alone. Alone with my baby, cementing this remarkable moment in my mind.
Five nights later, I thought I had wet the bed. I woke up cold, the sheet underneath me damp. With my eyes barely open, I went to the bathroom and, before I could even sit on the toilet, a gush of blood and fluid spilled out of me.
In the hospital, as contractions hit me one after another without a break, Daniel held my hand, his face as white as the paint on the walls. I heard people saying things like natural miscarriage, D and C, incompetent cervix . . .
An “incompetent cervix.” I would have preferred to just be called incompetent all around. An incompetent woman, first unable to conceive and then physically incapable of holding my baby inside me. A perfectly healthy little boy. My cervix failed me. It failed my husband. It failed my child.
Within twenty-four hours of my miscarriage, I was home in bed with a pad as thick as a diaper in my underwear. What a cruel irony.
“What can I do for you?” Daniel asked.
“Tea? Something to eat? You haven’t eaten a thing.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“What if I called Robin?” Daniel said. “I’m sure she’d come over.”
“No, Daniel, please. I don’t want to talk to anybody.” I turned over and closed my eyes. I wanted to be alone. Alone with my incompetent cervix and my empty uterus.
Everyone in my immediate family was out of town. My father and step-mom were in New Orleans for Jillian’s graduation from Tulane. My mother, who swore off men after divorcing my father, had met a super guy in line at Trader Joe’s. They’d been dating a few months, and he had taken her to Carmel for her birthday. I didn’t want my bad news to spoil their celebrations. As for Robin, well, I just wasn’t ready to break her heart.
I slept. I woke. I sipped water.
“You really should eat something.”
“I’m still not hungry.”
Daniel hovered over me just enough to be annoying.
I had a nightmare. I was holding my baby, wrapped up in a soft blue blanket, and when I unwrapped him, the blanket was empty. My screams woke us both, and that was when Daniel fell apart. We were lost, two people abandoned on a life raft floating further and further from shore. And nobody held the rope to pull us back.
Daniel called in sick to work. Not to stay home and take care of me, but because he couldn’t function. He couldn’t talk. I found him in the living room sitting on the floor, his head against the wall, his face red and wet with tears.
I touched him lightly. “Sweetie? Are you okay?”
He was wrecked. “I’m so sorry, Mel. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m…”
I sat beside him, the pain in my body a dull throb now. “Why are you sorry? It was my fault.”
He looked like a little boy, helpless and vulnerable. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I should be able to fix this, and I — I can’t.”
I tried to hold him, but that only made it worse. He was suffering because he could not help me.
The following day was no better. I found Daniel in the garage, sitting in the passenger seat of his car, pounding the dashboard and cursing God, his face contorted with so much pain and anger that I hardly recognized him.
I left him there, went into the bedroom, and called Eliza. I told her I’d lost the baby and asked her to come. Within eleven hours, she was at our house.
I’d never seen anyone manage a crisis with such calm efficiency. She barely spoke, but with gentle touches and few words, she began to fix us. I watched how she cared for her son with a perfect mix of sympathy and guidance. There were no platitudes or banal words of consolation.
After I took a shower, my first in three days, I put on clean pajamas and got into bed. The sun was just setting, or maybe it was rising. I had no idea. Daniel came into the bedroom. He looked better. “Thank you for calling her,” he said.
I fell asleep. A deep, dreamless sleep that left me disoriented. I got out of bed and went to the bathroom. The bleeding had lessened. My stomach was still swollen, my breasts huge. I went back to bed and slept more.
Daniel woke me in the morning. He was dressed for work.
“What day is it?” I asked.
“I think it’s Wednesday. Maybe Thursday. Do you mind if I go to the office for a few hours?”
“No, of course not. What are you going to tell them?”
“That I had the flu. Nobody knew about the baby, I hadn’t told anyone yet. So I don’t have to explain anything. I guess that’s good.”
“I guess it is.”
He kissed me gently. “My mom’s going to take care of you.”
“I know she is. I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
After Daniel left, I called my office and told my boss. She said she was sorry. She said that everything happens for a reason. I hated her for saying that.
Downstairs, my mother-in-law was pouring herself a cup of coffee. It smelled divine.
“Funny,” I said. “My taste for coffee is back.”
She smiled and poured me a cup. She put in a splash of half and half and a teaspoon of sugar. I never realized she knew how I liked my coffee.
We sat in the sunny breakfast room. “How about some toast?” she asked.
I felt my stomach gurgle. “Okay, thanks.”
She buttered a toasted piece of bread and sprinkled a bit of cinnamon and sugar on it. “When Daniel was little, he loved cinnamon toast.”
I took a bite. “I did, too.”
Eliza took a sip of her coffee. “You don’t have to talk. Only if you want to.”
I didn’t know what I wanted. “I called my boss a few minutes ago. I told her about the miscarriage.”
“Uh-huh,” Eliza said, dusting crumbs off the table with her hand.
“She said that everything happens for a reason.”
Eliza swallowed. She looked at me. “Yeah, well, fuck her.”
I almost dropped my coffee. “What?”
“Pardon my raw language, but it’s crap. Things don’t always happen for a reason. Sometimes they just happen, and that’s that.”
I stared at the woman who had intimidated, annoyed, and vexed me for years. Who could have thought that Eliza Landauer would be the one person to say the exact words I needed to hear?
“However…” Eliza put her hand over mine. It was cool and soft. “In my many years of life, Melanie, I’ve come to realize that sometimes good things do come out of very bad situations. Maybe, later on, you’ll find that that’s the case.”
I was dumbfounded by her use of the F-word and by her sage advice.
“All clouds have a silver lining, is that what you mean?”
“Oh, lord, I do hate clichés. And believe me, not all clouds have silver linings. But yes, some do.” Eliza’s eyes drifted past me, as if she were recalling a distant memory. “Some definitely do.”
After breakfast, Eliza said she was going to the market and asked if there was something special I’d like for dinner.
“I think you should make whatever Daniel’s favorite was when he was little.”
She smiled. “That’s very sweet of you, Mel.”
It was the first time she’d ever called me Mel.
I gave Eliza the keys to my car. “Do you even know how to drive?” I asked her.
“I did once upon a time,” she said. “I’m sure it’s just like riding a bicycle. I’ll figure it out.” Eliza took my chin in her hand. She studied my face a moment and smoothed my hair off my face and placed a gentle kiss on my cheek. “I’m happy you called me. I hope you are, too.”
After watching Eliza back my car down the driveway and out onto the street, narrowly missing a passing car, I washed my face and got dressed for the first time since I’d lost the baby. I put on sweat pants and an oversized sweater. I even made the bed. The process exhausted me. I lay down on top of the soft duvet and fell asleep
I woke up from my nap to the smell of something so delicious it pulled me downstairs like an invisible rope.
“Oh my God,” I said. “What are you making?”
“Pot roast with onions, potatoes, and carrots.” Eliza removed the foil from the pan, and fragrant steam wafted upwards.
She took a long fork and a knife and sliced a thin piece. She popped it into her mouth without even cutting off the fatty edge. “Emm…”
She sliced another piece. I opened my mouth like a child and ate from her fingers. The ultimate comfort food. “It’s so good,” I said, feeling as if my appetite had kicked into gear. “Unbelievably good.”
“I bought the meat at the gourmet market. Listen, when it comes to beef, you get what you pay for.”
Wow — another piece of wisdom.
“Oh, by the way,” Eliza said. “I have a confession to make.”
“Yes, believe it or not, I do. Remember the argument I had with your cousin Marilyn at your bridal shower?”
Who could forget that? I thought. “Um, yes.”
“Well, I did a little research. As it turns out, Marilyn is eligible to be a member of the DAR.”
“Really?” I said.
“It’s amazing what the Internet can find these days.” Eliza scooped carrots and potatoes from the greasy juice and put them in a bowl. “If she’s still interested, I can forward her the information.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “But next time I see her, I’ll let her know. Maybe she’ll write you a thank you note.”
Eliza laughed. “Wouldn’t that be something. She and I really hit it off at first, but then, well, I guess I was a little short tempered that day.”
I didn’t say anything, just lowered my chin and pressed my lips together. I could not imagine why Eliza wanted to revisit the event.
But she did. And she seemed to be making fun of herself, which did amuse me.
“Remember how shocked I was at Jillian’s green hair?”
I giggled. “And you didn’t even notice her unicorn tattoo.”
“A unicorn tattoo? Where?”
“On the back of her arm.”
“Well, thank God I didn’t see that. I would have lost my mind.” Eliza chuckled. She picked up the bowl of cooked vegetables and crossed the kitchen. With one hand she opened the refrigerator door. As she raised the bowl, it fell from her hand. It hit the floor and sent carrots, potatoes, onion, and a slurry of greasy gravy in every direction.
My mouth dropped open.
Eliza put her hands on her hips. She surveyed the mess. “Well,” she said. “And here you thought I was perfect, didn’t you?”
I don’t know how, but laughter exploded from the bottom of my belly and shook something loose. I felt a sense of relief, as if I’d been unshackled. Eliza and I laughed together. I’d never seen her so genuine and unaffected. It changed everything.
At that moment, the dam that had been holding back my tears burst with unimaginable force. I hadn’t cried since I’d lost my baby, my precious boy the size of a mouse.
I sank to the floor, as if the bones in my legs had turned to dust. My body jerked. I curled onto my side and pulled my knees into my chest and wept, my tears hot and wet on my cheeks.
My mother-in-law knelt down and held me while I sobbed. She rubbed my back and smoothed my hair. She didn’t speak. There were no words that could bring comfort. Only her presence. And her love.
Eliza stayed with us a few more days. By the time she packed her bags to go, Daniel and I had found our footing. We would recover. We would move on.
At the front door, Eliza hugged me tightly.
“Thank you for needing me,” she said.
I nodded. “I’ll miss you,” I said. My words surprised me, but they were sincere.
Daniel beeped the horn. It was time for her to go.
I watched Eliza, dressed in black slacks, suede Gucci pumps, and a red Burberry jacket, walk down the steps and get into the car. She waved goodbye as they drove away, and I felt a pang of loss. I truly would miss her.
The dark cloud of my despair began to lift, and I opened my heart to the possibility of a silver lining.