Ami Sands Brodoff Fiction Literature

The Arrangement

Ami Sands Brodoff

 

Fact or Myth

In fertile cervical liquid, sperm can live up to five days

Natalie and Rachel huddled together doing their happy dance, splashing strangers as they sang “Ring Around the Rosy,” as if they were kids, while I leaned against the edge of the rooftop heated pool, watching steam rise into the snowy Montreal evening.

“I have this feeling.  It stuck,” said Rachel, her voice wild, jubilant. “This time we nailed it.”

Nailed it?  Didn’t like that verb.

“You would know.” Natalie murmured.

“I want this for you,” Rachel said. She finger-combed her wet-slick hair straight back from her forehead. “For us.”

Natalie nodded and hugged Rachel while I felt increasingly superfluous, though I was enjoying this hot steamy pool on a cold winter’s night: our treat, for Natalie’s birthday. I lifted my arm out of the water and felt a refreshing mentholated sensation as my hot, wet skin met the chilly air.

Sad, purposeful sex had taken its toll on us, not to mention the battery of infertility tests and procedures. We went through the grief of three successive miscarriages and the terror of an ectopic pregnancy: Natalie nearly died. She had so much scar tissue in her uterus that she couldn’t carry a child to term. I hoped a baby would heal us, bring us back together. I couldn’t imagine my life without Natalie, my childhood sweetheart, l’amour de ma vie. And it would be great for Rachel, too, who always said she wanted to experience pregnancy and childbirth, but didn’t have a loving partner.

A few months ago, we sat in our cramped living room, considering options. I opened a bottle of Bullet and poured a glass for each of us, as Rachel flipped through a booklet Natalie had picked up at her ob-gyn’s office, reading aloud facts and myths about conception, pregnancy and childbirth in a wry tone.

“At least let’s try it,” Natalie said.

In truth, I was uncomfortable with her plan. It was all too Handmaid’s Tale for me. You’d think that Natalie would have been threatened, but she and Rachel are—well werelike sisters, and this broader definition of a family suited them. I grew up with a Catholic mother who didn’t believe in effectual birth control and a mostly absent dad who still managed to father six kids. We weren’t a model for the health and stability of the traditional nuclear family. I threw out the suggestion of egg donation and Natalie dismissed it with a wave of her hand. Too clincal. We’d had enough of that to last a lifetime.

 

Fact or Myth

Women ovulate on day 14 of their cycle

The first time we met up at our house, in our bed. The sex was silent and mechanical, a military operation, and I deployed. Natalie was kind of off to the side in a strange crouch during the whole business, which made me feel bad, as if this big idea was a big mistake. And Rachel lay there on her back, rigid, eyes closed, a human sacrifice. I felt myself float out of my body, watching, as if observing another man. It was an eerie, uncomfortable feeling. One that came back, years later, after my trucking accident.

The three of us rendezvoused a couple times after that, always at our house, in our bed. Disaster. After each encounter we sat in the living room, drinking bourbon, getting smashed, hoping our awkward shame would dissipate in relation to how much alcohol we consumed.

Part of the problem was, I had a crush on Rachel. I didn’t let myself dwell on it too much. I’m good at blocking out what I don’t want to think about, but sometimes I needed to daydream, like you need a drink or a cigarette or a chocolate bar. It was purely chemical, the way I felt my heart beat faster when she was around and I got clumsy and inarticulate.

Natalie and Rachel were physical opposites. Natalie was short and solidly built with strong shapely legs. She had wide-spaced expressive brown eyes and smooth olive skin, while Rachel was willowy with secret curves that she camouflaged in loose clothing. Her hair was auburn and her eyes a colour I had not seen before, a kind of amber with golden glints when she was happy, startled or angry, a flash of sun through lightning: intermittent, dangerous, brilliant. And then there was her personality. Deeply kind. And game.

We were about to give up on our arrangement when we planned the birthday weekend at the Bonaventure Hotel downtown. It was a big splurge for us, as making ends meet was a continual challenge. But what is life without a splurge now and then?

 

Fact or Myth

Having sex daily increases the chance of conceiving

Things just felt different that winter weekend at the hotel. Something about being in our own city but away from the daily grind, the luxury of room service and the novelty of the rooftop heated pool, the small tablets of expensive chocolate on our pillows. The whole experience was new to the three of us, like time out from time.

We made love, we fucked, we shagged multiple times over the weekend and I would’ve, could have done more. Back then, I was pretty keyed up and tightly wound sexually. Hell, I was young and horny. So were the women.

We had sex in the bed with its crisp sheets and fluffy cream-coloured duvet, we fucked on the floor, and, I should be more embarrassed to confess, got it on in that rooftop pool, which was more challenging physically than I’d anticipated. (There was a window of time when we were the only folks in there and no lifeguard to bust us.) I just felt free, released, delivered (excuse the pun) and so did Natalie and Rachel.  A flow state that’s impossible to force or will—it happens and what bliss. I never thought I’d be comfortable in a threesome but it felt just right that weekend. Making love to Rachel and Natalie and Natalie and Rachel making love to me and to each other. All this love all around. Yeah.

 

Fact or Myth

To conceive a boy, have sex right before ovulation. Want a girl? Do it a few days before.

Rachel was right. Natalie was with her when she did the home pregnancy test and it turned positive and Natalie went with Rachel to the gynecologist for a more official physical exam and blood test.

I was teaching music at Royal Vale High School in NDG and planning a coffee-house evening where the kids would perform and we’d serve light snacks to the parents. The coffee house prep meant long days and evenings. I loved that job, it was what I was meant to do. The news that Rachel was pregnant with my child, I mean ours, came to me a bit belatedly. Still, I was thrilled.

Once we knew Rachel was pregnant, we met and agreed that we wanted to name the baby after Natalie’s father, a firefighter and all around wonderful guy, whom we were all very close to growing up. He was a kid at heart and joined in our games, coached our teams, and ferried our band with all of its gear to gigs around Montreal. We were set on Jean-François for a boy and Jeanne-Françoise if we had a girl.

Still, Natalie and I had been through too much trauma to celebrate. We were anxious up until the end of the first trimester and cautiously optimistic after that.

Rachel gave us a blow by blow of all of her food cravings and aversions, her heartburn and urinary urgency, her low backache and acne, her need to buy a new bra every few months as her breasts grew to unforeseen proportions, her difficulty finding a comfortable position to fall asleep and her difficulty getting up, as well as her newfound pleasure in midday naps. She had leg cramps and pink toothbrush, swelling of her ankles and feet and brain fog. She complained to Natalie within my hearing of her vaginal discharge, enough each day to soak her panties. Oh, and did I mention hemorrhoids?

Frankly, I think Rachel enjoyed being pregnant but didn’t want to make Natalie feel like she was missing out. Natalie had loved expecting, that sense of being special, of possibility, even feeling like a sacred vessel—until it all went wrong every time.

Rachel was sexy pregnant. No surprise there. The ripeness was enticing, the dewy glow to her skin, despite a few blotches here and there, the lush, ample breasts. I tried not to think too much about my attraction but my dreams ignored my will, as they will, and there we made love often and passionately the bigger she became and she came and came and came.

 

Fact or Myth

Fetal movement can occur anywhere between the 14th and the 26th week, but generally closer to the 18th to 22nd week

Rachel appeared at our apartment late one night more excited than I’d ever seen her. She was around six-months pregnant. She’d felt the baby move and wanted us to feel it too. Taking turns we put our palms, then our ears, on her swollen belly. Natalie didn’t pick up anything at first, but I did: a sharp kick or pummel.

“What’s it like, Rach?” Natalie wanted to know.

“Well…” Rachel lay down on the floor on her back, feet spread wide, something she’d been doing more and more these days to counter backache and leg cramps.

“A fluttering. Like a butterfly in my tummy. A bubble bursting. Being turned upside down at an amusement park.”

“But I felt a real hard kick,” I said. “Nothing fluttery about it.”

“So do we want to know the sex?” Rachel asked..

“Yes,” Natalie said. “So I can shop for the baby.”

“Shit, Nat. We’re not going to colour code my baby.”

The my caught us all up short.

We managed to free our schedules to attend the next ultrasound screening, a late afternoon appointment, the final one of the day.

“What is that?” Natalie asked pointing to the screen.

Our obstetrician, Sarah Bloom, a tiny, waiflike creature and disconcertingly young, smiled like the sun coming out from clouds.“That’s your baby’s penis. Clear as day.”

 

Fact or Myth

Starve yourself, starve your baby

We headed out to the all night diner in St. Henri, The Star, later that evening. Rachel, slim to start with, had been advised by Dr. Bloom to gain twenty-five to thirty-five pounds and was already past forty, going strong. She claimed one side of the booth and Natalie and I sat together opposite her. Rachel ordered steak and eggs and hash browns, toast with peanut butter and a side of pickles. And a chamomile tea. We watched as she spread her toast with peanut butter and studded it with sliced pickle. Natalie and I had plenty of coffee, a fruit salad and cottage cheese for her, a giant corn muffinthe size of a baby’s head, I might addfor me.

“So we’re decided on names, right?” I said.

Natalie and Rachel nodded. “I’m happy with Jean-François,” Natalie said.

“Yeah,” Rachel added, “We can call him JF, same as your dad.”

We were all quiet for a bit, remembering Natalie’s dad.

Rachel took a long slug (that’s the only word for it), draining her tea, and motioned for the waitress for a refill of boiling water. “But there’s things we need to talk about,” she said, taking a big bite out of the peanut-butter pickle toast. “What are we going to tell him about his parents?” This came out garbled, her mouth slightly cemented with peanut butter, but we got the gist.

“Well,” Natalie said, “maybe we don’t have to tell him anything.

“The thing is,” I pointed out, “he’ll know who his birth mother is, Nat. It’s all in black and white.”

“Didn’t know that was a thing, kids checking out their birth certificates,” she snapped, picking up her coffee with a violence that sloshed it over the cup onto her shirt. “Shit!”

I dabbed at her with the paper napkin, spreading the stain, leaving little white clots on her blouse.

“Quit it, Guy!” Natalie said, pouring the spilled coffee from her saucer back into the cup. “He’ll assume I’m his birth mother. We’ll be raising him.”

Rachel polished off her toast, glugging down a full glass of water. “Well, maybe we could kind of divvy up parenting. He could stay with me sometimes. We’re all three his parents, right? Would give you guys a break. It’s no picnic, parenting, from what I’ve heard. Especially in the beginning.”

Rachel motioned for the waitress and ordered dessert. Natalie and I shook our heads but asked for coffee refills. I had the feeling I’d be up all night anyway and had an early start to school. I’d crash after.

We sat there and talked and talked until way past midnight about our dreams and wishes for our baby boy, our dreams and wishes for ourselves as parents. Most of our ideas were vague and pastel and oddly familiar through images on TV and in movies. I had that nagging thought at the moment and it became more pronounced later: we didn’t have a clue, not one of us. Yet, it was a coming back together for the three of us, remembering how much we loved each other.

“Maybe we don’t need to lay down the logistics in stone,” I said. “Take it as it comes.”

Natalie did an odd thing, her head circling between a yes and a no. Then she got up from the table and squeezed beside Rachel who was tucking into her apple pie a la mode.

“Hey sweetie,” Nat said. “Can I have a bite of that?”

Rachel smiled. “Get your own, sister.” But then she filled a spoon with steaming pie and ice-cream and fed it to Natalie.

 

Fact or Myth

Real labour has probably not begun if contractions are not regular and don’t increase in frequency or severity

On a sweltering August afternoon, breathing vapour instead of air, I was teaching a group of pre-teens a new song on guitar at the local Y day camp, when I got the call from Natalie: Rachel was in labour. Or thought she was. Rachel was forty weeks; it was time. Natalie was heading over to Rachel’s apartment which wasn’t far from ours and told me I should come over after work. Then she added, “No rush.”

When I got there, I was surprised to see that Rachel who had been exhausted and irritable, barely able to waddle, had a surge of energy and was mopping her kitchen floor and then cleaning out cabinets and fridge. She was huge, but still carrying mostly in front, a gain of fifty one pounds she’d boasted to us.

“So far it’s just like period cramps!” she called out. “I’m okay! You can go home, Guy.”

But I stayed. I helped clean and organize Rachel’s apartment and packed her hospital bag with my orders from her and Natalie: a plastic rolling pin for counter massage, warm socks (her feet were always cold), a hairbrush, a bottle of champagne labelled with Rachel’s name, sugarless lollipops to keep her mouth moist, a robe and pjs, toothbrush and toothpaste, heavy-duty sanitary pads, a travel Scrabble set, packs of raisins and nuts, a going-home onesie for JF, a receiving blanket, and a going-home outfit for Rachel of light loose sweatpants and cotton T. Done and done.

A few hours later, I ran out to get a late dinner for the three of us and when I returned, Rachel’s contractions had intensified considerably. She paced around and kneeled on the rug leaning over a big armchair. Natalie filled the bathtub and helped Rachel in and out and in and out.

“You hungry?” I called out to the two of them, not sure what to do or how to help.

“Fuck off, Guy!” Rachel snapped and I felt as if I’d been slapped across the face.

Natalie gave me a sweet, knowing look. I mouthed, should I, pointing toward the door. She shrugged. “Take a walk, but keep your phone on.”

“Course.”

I ambled around the neighbourhood for several hours. The night had cooled and there was a luscious breeze through the trees that swept againt my sweaty neck and back, refreshing me. I savoured this time alone—soon it would be rare, Natalie and me devising ways so that we each could have time to ourselves, spelling each other in the rondo of rocking and feeding and changing. Lights glowed in windows and I wondered about the people inside their houses, couples and families and singles, what they were doing while I was walking around, waiting to be called back in.

I was thinking about how much time and energy we’d put into getting pregnant. It was an all-consuming goal that blocked out everything else, even what it would be like to have a child, to be parents. We hadn’t given that much thought. Enough, that is.

Being one of six, four boys and two girls, and the baby in my family, I hadn’t had experience caring for babies or small children, though my older sisters had experienced changing diapers and feeding and calming me and my brothers. Sure, I had my fantasies, about teaching JF to play guitar, jamming with him, maybe even coaching his band, chauffeuring them to gigs as his namesake had, but these dreams leap-frogged over infancy and toddlerhood.

Roaming around the neighborhood, I realized how famished I was, that I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Though some take-out rice and souvlaki was sitting on Rachel’s counter, I didn’t feel ready to go back there and headed to The Star. I ordered a big breakfast of eggs and toast and sausage and home fries, plying myself with cup after cup of coffee. The coffee was really good there, strong and always fresh with a nutty flavour. As I ate, I remembered our talk a few months back. We still hadn’t come to a firm decision about the parenting arrangements. Or, when we would tell JF who his biological mother was.

Rachel’s idea of sharing parenting seemed like a pretty good plan to me. There were plenty of unconventional families at my school, in the neighbourhood. And they weren’t even considered so unusual these days. We should do what was best for JF. Still, as I polished off my breakfast, I had the niggling feeling that Natalie wasn’t quite comfortable with this set-up, even with telling our son that she wasn’t his biological mother.

As I paid my check, I got a text from Natalie to get back to Rachel’s place. When I arrived, Rachel was sitting upright on the floor leaning against Natalie’s chest with Natalie’s arms around her. Rachel’s eyes were squeezed shut and she grimaced and rocked with each contraction. Natalie rubbed Rachel’s neck and shoulders, applying  a cool cloth to her dripping forehead.

“Now,” Natalie would say each time Rachel had a contraction and I started timing them, as they got progressively more intense and closely spaced throughout the night. At around six a.m., Rachel rocked forward to kneeling and gasped, as clear fluid gushed from her and pooled on the floor. Her contractions were coming five minutes apart and and we helped her into our van and headed to the hospital.

 

Fact or Myth

Childbirth is divided into three stages. The whole process averages about 14 hours for first-time mothers.

We saw no sign of Dr. Bloom when we got to the hospital, but a nurse took us to the birthing room. Natalie helped Rachel change into a hospital gown and then the nurse gave both me and Natalie a sterile gown to put on over our clothes, while she checked on Rachel and the fetal heartbeat.

Rachel was now in what I’d learned was transition, the most painful and demanding stage of labour. Her contractions were less than two minutes apart, lasting a minute or a minute-and-a-half with intense peaks that I imagined like breakers in the sea, one after another after another with little space between.

Rachel grunted involuntarily in pain and vomited, her body sweating and shivering at once. She’d decided against pain relief but screamed that she’d changed her mind.

At that moment, Dr. Bloom wafted in. I was standing by Rachel’s shoulder, Natalie on her other side. She examined Rachel and we could both see her smile that lovely smile of hers. “Rachel, your cervix is fully dilated. You can push!”

Natalie helped Rachel into a pushing position, semi-sitting up and the nurse coached Rachel on when to push and when to pant or blow. As we learned in our delivery classes, I tried to be helpful, comforting, supporting her back, holding her hand, but she snarled, “Don’t.” Instead, I fed Rachel ice-chips while Natalie helped her relax between contractions, applying a cool cloth to her neck, shoulders, and upper back.

“Feel,” Dr. Bloom said, guiding Rachel’s hand to the baby’s head which was just beginning to crown and then he slithered out into Dr. Bloom’s arms. “Here he is!” she said “Your beautiful boy.”

And Rachel crowed, “I’m not pregnant anymore!”

 

Fact or Myth

A newborn is round and smooth as a Botticelli cherub

Our son, JF, announced his arrival by peeing in a golden arc and screaming until his tiny face turned purple. He weighed nine pounds and four ounces and was twenty-three inches long with a head circumference of fourteen inches, a pointed head, I might add, from his struggle into the light. I was terrified to hold him and was stiff and awkward. Rachel and Natalie were impatient with me, but our nice nurse took the time to help me get comfortable with my new son.

Rachel decided, last minute, to breastfeed and because it was for the benefit of the baby’s immune system, Natalie supported her decision and helped her to get the baby latched on.

My terror came back driving the three of us home from the hospital with our bruiser of a newborn in his new car seat. I took it slow and cautiously and got us back to our house in one piece.

Rachel moved in with us for awhile, the four of us together in our cramped little house. I found once I got more comfortable with JF, I was okay with getting up at night to walk him up and down the block to ease his colic, change diapers, and just hold him. I loved when he clenched my index finger in his tiny starfish-shaped hand and felt a tenderness I’d never experienced before.

 

Fact or Myth

Having a child brings parents closer

At two months, JF looked up at me and broke out into a wide open loopy grin and I felt that everything was right in my world. A couple months later, I watched him, a proud papa, as he boxed up on hands and knees and tried to crawl, again and again and again, finally succeeding—backwards!

Rachel was still breastfeeding, but at five months her milk supply was inadequate for JF and she had intense inflammation in her right breast, as well as a lump. She figured she had a blocked milk duct and went to see Dr. Bloom.

Dr. Bloom said it didn’t present as a blocked milk duct and referred her for a mammogram and ultrasound. The lump was biopsied and Rachel was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer with involvement of the nearby lymph nodes. It stealthed backwith a vengeanceyears later when JF was a teenager.

Apparently, pregnancy and the huge influx of hormones flooding Rachel’s system had triggered and accelerated the growth of cancer. She moved back to her own apartment for her treatment and Natalie went with her to help out, taking JF as well.

Natalie nursed her best friend and also took care of the baby. I helped out as much as I could, taking JF to our place and looking after him when Natalie accompanied Rachel to all of her treatment appointments.

When JF was a year old, after all the guests went home from his birthday party at Rachel’s apartment where he toddled over to me for the first time, Natalie told me that she needed to talk. Rachel was cleaning up, JF soldered to her hip.

“I don’t know if this will come as a surprise,” she started.

“What?” I couldn’t think.

“We’ve fallen in love.”

It was a moment that came as a shock and yet wasn’t a surprise at all, simply inevitable.I shook my head, laughed low in my throat.

“So you think it’s funny?” Natalie said, flashing her dark eyes at me.

“I was just remembering our talks about custody and when we would tell JF who his parents are, who his biological mother is.”

“So?”

“Won’t be an issue now.”

“Right.”

So JF grew up with two mothers that he adored and a father who came in and out of his life, alighting here and there. He thought of his parents as his two mommies and me as a kind of uncle. When he was two and I came to pick him up for an outing to the zoo, he looked up at me and asked, “Are you my daddy?”

 

Ami Sands Brodoff is the award-winning author of three novels and a volume of stories. She’s at work on a new thematically linked collection, The Sleep of Apples. Learn more at amisandsbrodoff.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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