Elation. That’s what I expected at this moment. A moment that should have been filled with joy. Instead, I feel paralysed.
“Miss, do you need any help?”
Learn to take it slow. Learn to be happy with myself first. Don’t rely on finding happiness with a man. That was my mantra.
“We have a lot of options.”
It still is my mantra.
And it’s brought me Adrian. Adrian, who makes me laugh. Adrian, who I’ve been wary with, who, amazingly, has stayed despite the way I tried to push him away, despite my fear of getting attached to someone again.
“Miss. Are you al—”
“Sorry?” I snap to attention. A woman stands beside me. She could be my mother. Her dark hair curls around her head. Her blouse, which has probably been pressed, fits impeccably. Her smile is both matronly and authoritative. This is a woman who appreciates and cultivates perfection. I take a step back.
“Would you like some help? It’s a nervous time, isn’t it? But exciting.” She smiles.
I glance at the shelf in front of me—the myriad of options—then back at the woman. “Yes. Thank you.” I struggle to keep my voice even, polite.
The woman wears a question on her face. Perhaps she expected elation too, when she saw me in this aisle, in front of these shelves. A glance at my hand and her smile starts to fade, then softens into sweetness. “You’ll figure it out. No matter what, it’ll be okay.” She places one hand on my shoulder and reaches to the shelf with the other. “Use this one. It’s cheapest and really they’re all pretty much the same.”
“Thank you.” I offer a smile. My normal smile. My seemingly natural smile. Inside I crumble into a scary mess. En route to the cash, I almost trip over a girl in a pink tutu style dress who walks right into me. An armload of toiletries and makeup fall to the floor. Lipstick and eyeliner, conditioner and nail polish, roll between us. The girl freezes. Her lip trembles. “It’s okay.” I smile and crouch to gather the items. A quick grin coats her face as she squats to help me. In under a minute everything is safely back in her arms. She gives a little laugh, disaster averted. A young woman—her mother?—turns up the aisle and calls her away, her voice harsh and grating. I can only wonder why she’s angry—perhaps a mother who wasn’t ready to be one?
At the cash I pay, wrap the box in a bag and stuff it to the bottom of my purse. The weight of it feels too much to carry. The pharmacy door squeaks closed.
Outside, I squint in the sunlight. “Tracey!” Through a halo of light, Eloise strides toward me.
I meet her smile with my own. “Hey, lovely.” Always the one to initiate contact, I hug her, though today I’d rather run in the other direction. Eloise is one of my closest friends. I should be happy to see her. Just like I should be happy this box is in my purse—it could hold the realization of one of my earliest dreams, what I’ve always wanted. But not like this. I didn’t want this. The box sits in my mind like a rock. The thought of holding it there, while I pretend to chat happily with my friends, feels like an anchor ready to pull me under.
“I’m glad I caught you.” Eloise links her arm in mine. “I wanted to chat about some new ideas for Aspire. The girls are so excited for the district-wide conference and …”
My thoughts bounce and scatter like ping pong balls: Eloise’s words lost among them.
She puts her hand on my arm. “You feel good about that?”
“Yeah, I mean … what?” My cheeks warm.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m sorry. I lost focus. I’m listening now.”
“I suggested we let the core girls take over the conference presentation. It would be a great way for them to put into practice the skills they’ve built these past few months.”
“Yes, absolutely.” My voice is high with enthusiasm. Too high. “That’s a perfect idea.”
Eloise pulls me to a stop as we approach the cafe doors. Her head tilts as her gaze narrows. “You sure you’re okay? You seem … not yourself … and pale.”
“Oh.” I wave my arm as if I’m waving away her words. “Not enough sleep last night. You know how I need my sleep.”
“Sure.” Eloise releases my arm and we turn into the cafe. Everyone but Allison, who is chronically late, is gathered around our usual booth. It’s been over a year since we’ve all been here. Today Autumn’s cousin Jennifer joins us as well. I smile and gush and comment on how fabulous Autumn looks, how London and her new man, Jakob, must be treating her well. The ping-ponging persists but I ignore it as best I can. The balls of thought settle as Autumn’s arms wrap around me. She hugs me as if my presence alone brings her joy.
“It’s good to have you home,” I whisper.
“It’s good to be home.” She pulls out of our embrace and joy sparkles in her eyes. She doesn’t just look good, she looks happy, which calms me. If she can be happy, it means goodness can come out of tragedy. Not that this would be a tragedy. Not at all. Autumn losing her husband the day after their marriage was a tragedy. This is … well, it’s not that.
“And my news …” Jennifer grins once the initial round of greetings and questions have died down. She pulls her flouncy shirt flat against her stomach, revealing an undeniable baby bump.
Excitement and questions explode around us, and I join right in. The only one who doesn’t act enthused is Sheila, who’s generally uncomfortable around all things decidedly feminine.
“That’s so wonderful,” reiterates Eloise as we sit down. “Autumn mentioned you and Rajeev eloped a while back.”
“We sure did.” Jennifer grins. She rests a hand on her belly. Her diamond ring sparkles. “Everyone assumed we had a shotgun wedding. Their suspicions seemed verified when I announced this little one, but she or he’s a honeymoon baby.” She shrugs. “A little too excited to remember my birth control. So, not planned,” she rubs the bump, “but very much wanted.” She takes a sip of her smoothie. “It’s kind of ridiculous, my first thought when I found out was—I’ll get fat. I can’t get fat. I was terrified!” She shakes her head. “I wasn’t even thinking about the baby, just about seeing that scale creep up.”
“Well,” says Autumn, “you weren’t planning a baby, and you worked so hard—”
My mind drifts again. What was my first thought when I realized it’d been almost two and a half months since my last period? Fear. I have a plan, a specific plan, and for the first time in almost ten years I’m with a man who could be part of that plan. A baby right now wouldn’t necessarily ruin the plan, but it could. Adrian and I haven’t been together long. He could walk, leaving me a single mother. I would still have a child, that true family I’ve always dreamed of … but not in the way I dreamed, not with a man I know loves me, a man I know won’t leave.
I look to Jenn as she talks on, not hearing the words, but seeing her laugh, seeing how at ease she seems. This wasn’t part of her plan. From what she said, she and Rajeev wanted to wait at least two years. But they’re happy now. Elated. Exactly what I want to be.
“My ladies!” Our heads turn as Allison breezes into the cafe. Her red hair glistens. “Sorry I’m late.” She winks. “I was with this dreamboat of a man who wanted a few more sets.”
Autumn stands and Allison wraps her in what’s more of a tackle than an embrace.
“Well, how could you resist that?” says Eloise.
“It’s been a long time!” Allison slides into the booth. “You should know.” She elbows Eloise. “We’ve both had a horrendous dry spell. Look at that.”
She laughs. “Three and three. So, Tracey, Autumn, Jennifer, while you catch me up on anything I’ve missed, be sure to drop some love hints to help out us single ladies.”
“I’m fine.” Eloise holds up her hands. “It’ll happen when it happens.”
“Oh sure.” Allison groans. “You say that. But you’ve had what, a measly year and a half since anything serious? Back me up here, Sheila. You and I must be pretty neck and neck. It’s been almost three for me. What are you at?”
“Four.” Sheila’s lips form a tight, thin line. “Since anything serious, anyway.”
“Yeah, we need help. Allison leans forward, her elbows on the table. Who’s first? Autumn, I’m pretty up to date on you and your British love.” She turns her head toward me. “Tracey, all I know is that you’re seeing a fella. A journalist?”
“Umm, yeah,” I shift in my seat. “Eloise and Autumn already know all the details. I don’t want to bore them with a rehash.” My stomach twists. I was excited to tell my friends all about Adrian, my first relationship to extend past three months in a decade. But what’s the point in getting them excited if whatever’s happening inside of me scares him away?
“Rehash away.” Allison offers a wink. “They can soak it in again.”
I take a breath and try to slip back into that feeling of happiness, of feeling secure in a man, to not suspect he’s cheating, or sly, or trying to pass the time. “It was at an Aspire fundraisers. He was covering it.” I smile. “So, of course he wanted to interview the founder.”
Eloise grins at me, then interrupts. “All the girls were whispering about him, how dashing he was. His broad shoulders, his burnt sienna skin.”
“Burnt sienna?” asks Allison.
Eloise laughs. “That’s what Jayden, one of the girls, referred to it as.”
“Okay, okay,” says Allison. “Go on.”
“He came over to interview me.” His stride was slow but purposeful, strong and confident. His green eyes were clear and focused. His smile grew as he got closer, his gaze on me and only me. “Instantly I felt a little something.” He reached out his hand. Our skin touched. My stomach fluttered.
Actually fluttered. I had always thought that was something people just said, not something that really happened.
“Just a little something?” Allison leans back, clearly eager to hear the story in full.
“Maybe a little more than a little.” For the second time today, my cheeks warm. My whole face is probably flushed. “Anyway,” I see him again, standing in front of me that first time, how handsome he was, how he looked at me like I was the only woman in the room, how he seemed entirely comfortable in his own skin, “he did the interview, his questions were direct, thoughtful, challenging at times.” I grin at the memory, him probing, asking why the school board wouldn’t have fulfilled this need years ago if it was as much of a need as I stated. “He stayed for the event, talked to a few of the girls, then left.”
“Not playing it too forward.” Jenn grins. “A risky ploy. And then?”
“And then he called me the next day, said he needed to do some fact checking. They were ridiculous things to check. The answers were on the school board’s website. I called him out on it.” I grin again. “And he asked me out.”
“Nice, nice.” Allison laughs.
“And it kind of stemmed from there.” I shrug, trying to downplay it in case … in case—“Nothing too fabulous.”
“But is he fabulous?” asks Jenn.
I can’t deny it. “Yeah.” I smile at her, but that twist of fear grips me again. “He is. The other girls know I haven’t had the greatest history in the love department.”
“That’s an understatement.” Allison rolls her eyes. “After her first big love it’s been nothing but cheaters, commitment-phobes, and guys who can’t seem to keep a job.”
“Allison.” Sheila shakes her head.
“No, it’s okay.” I push out a laugh. “She’s right. And with all of those guys I knew from the start something was off. This gut feeling, you know? But I’d stick with the guy, hoping I was wrong. Hoping things would work out because I wanted it to work out so badly with someone.”
I look to the table a moment, the memories pass through me. When Adrian called, it had been almost a year since I’d been on a date. Men asked, but I said no, too afraid of finding someone like the last guy—Thomas, the school teacher who turned me into the other woman. Still, I wanted love.
At first I said no to Adrian, but he’d been persuasive, said we didn’t have to call it a date. He’d edged and pushed. He made me laugh. Despite what he’d said, from the moment he picked me up it was a date. And I liked it.
He got to know me, let me know him. He was curious. Open. I tried to resist his attentions, scared it couldn’t be real, scared he’d disappoint me like so many others. He didn’t let me. Three dates in he invited me to a BBQ at his brother’s house. I belonged. Seeing him laugh with them, the ease: it hooked me. He hooked me. I look up at my friends. “With Adrian I never got the feeling something was wrong. It felt right.”
“And it still does?” asks Eloise.
“Yeah. Absolutely.” I nod. “It still does.”
Allison leans forward with an eager smile. “So, does this mean we’ll be meeting him soon? And is his brother single?”
I laugh, because I know that’s what’s expected, that’s what I’d usually do, but will they meet him? It all depends on the little box in my purse, what it has to tell, and how he reacts to it. “We’ll see. And no, I’m sorry. The brother has a lovely wife and two rambunctious kids.”
“Drat.” Allison glances around the table. “So, other news?”
Autumn mentions Jennifer’s pregnancy.
“My condolences,” says Allison. “Oh, I mean congratulations.” She winks. “No really, that’s awesome. Super happy for you and Rajeev. Just say goodbye to sleep, sex, clean clothes, and showers for a few years. At least that’s what my sister says. Her kid’s three, and my sis says she’s just starting to get her life back.”
“Not all kids are as rough as your sister’s was,” says Eloise. “Lori had some rough patches with Trisa, but it hasn’t been that bad.”
Allison tilts her head back and forth. “Well, your sister and her fella also have you living there to help and then nearby your Dad and Evelyn, his parents, Junior.”
“And Jennifer and Rajeev will have a lot of support too,” says Autumn.
How much support would I have? Mom and Dad for sure. They’d be disappointed that another one of their children would be an unwed mother, but they’d embrace this child as their own, just as they embraced me. But they’re two hours away.
And Adrian’s family? They joke about how he needs to settle down again, nudge that I’m exactly what he needs and I shouldn’t let him forget it. Yet he’s been married before and left that relationship. Would a baby feel like pressure toward something he doesn’t want? Or worse, scare him away?
The talking stops. I’ve zoned out again. Each face at the table stares at me.
“What?” I let out a little laugh.
“Autumn asked if you can come to a BBQ at her parents’ place this weekend,” Sheila raps her fingers on the table, “and if you’d bring Adrian.”
“Oh, I. Yes. I can. When?”
“Saturday at three,” says Autumn.
“Fine for me.” I notice my foot tapping and stop it. “I’ll have to check with Adrian.”
The conversation shifts to Autumn’s business ventures in London. I attempt to listen with a focused intensity, though I’ve heard much of this already. She started off slow—one on one and small group training in people’s homes and, when the weather allows, public parks—and has enough of a following that she’s thinking of renting a small studio space several times a week.
Next the group transitions to a case Shelia is trying: a young pregnant woman filing charges of incest and statutory rape against her uncle. It’s easy to see why Sheila tends to be so reserved and distant. If she kept herself open, I have no idea how she’d deal with the world she sees on a daily basis. The story makes my fear and stress seem unwarranted. At least I’m not that girl.
Allison talks about her fitness studio, and Eloise brings everyone up to speed on the Aspire group. For this part of the conversation, I need to do more than listen. I push the constant stream of what if’s out of my head and join Eloise in excitement and wonderment over how in a little over two years this youth empowerment program has gone from the group of ten students I’d bring into my classroom once a week for skills training and lectures from successful business women, to a program that now has Eloise as a full-time employee, two part-time workers, and involves three high schools and fifty-five young women learning the skills to either start their own business or excel in their field of choice.
When everyone is caught up, Sheila stands. “Time to head back to the office.”
Allison pops up beside her. “The gym is calling me.”
“And I need a nap.” Jenn stretches. “This baby is stealing all my energy.”
Her words snap me back to the fears I’d put aside to talk about the Aspire program. In just a few hours, my life could change forever.
“I have nowhere I have to be,” Autumn turns to me.
“Neither do I,” Eloise reaches for her purse. “I got a ton of work done this morning. What about you, Trace? Should we put off the prep for a few hours, get some quality Autumn time in?”
Her question is interrupted by a round of hugs before Sheila, Allison and Jenn all head away from the cafe.
“Umm … the summer program starts in a week. Do you think we have time to—”
“I’d love to catch up more.” Autumn rests her hand on my shoulder. “And …” she hesitates, “I’m worried about you.”
“You’re not yourself today.” Eloise pauses, a look of concern in her eyes. “Don’t try to hide it.”
I avoid their faces, scared of what they’ll think and scared saying the words will somehow make my fears real. But my mind is about to burst. I
have to tell someone.
Autumn gives my arm a squeeze. “It’s okay.”
I take a deep breath then let the words ease out. “I think I’m pregnant.”