Home > I'm Fine and Neither Are You(7)

I'm Fine and Neither Are You(7)
Author: Camille Pagán

Of course, this woman was Jenny and her baby was Cecily. For whatever reason, I paused in front of them.

“Sounds like your little man’s not too happy,” said Jenny with a warm smile.

I shook my head. “Nope. He’s been like this for weeks. I’ve tried everything short of an exorcism.”

“What about probiotics?” said Jenny. She looked down at Cecily, who was the sort of pretty, peaceful infant that triggered ovulation in unwitting women. “That worked wonders for Cecily’s colic.”

“I haven’t tried that yet.”

“Get the drops—it’s practically a miracle cure. Your first?” she asked, nodding in Miles’ direction.

“Second.” I pointed at my waist. “Hence my two spare tires.”

“Don’t say that. You look fantastic.”

“For someone who’s six months pregnant,” I said.

She laughed. Her laugh was throaty and bright; it was easy to imagine her cast as the ingénue in a romantic comedy. “Cecily’s my first.”

She was awfully chic for a new mother, I thought, taking in her caftan-style dress, long sweater coat, and highlighted hair, which was artfully piled on top of her head. Even more than her clothes, though, she seemed like a parenting pro. But she probably had a mom who had shown her what to do. Nick was four when my mother left; I was six. I’d been winging the mothering thing ever since.

“How old is your daughter?”

“Three months,” she said. “This little peanut won’t let her mama sleep more than two hours at a time.”

“Miles is four months,” I said.

The corners of her mouth shot halfway across her cheeks as she grinned. “Practically twins!” She stuck out her hand, which I shook, not without noting that the paint on her nails was worn but most definitely the work of a salon professional. “By the way, I’m Jenny Sweet.”

“Penelope Ruiz-Kar,” I said. “But you can call me Penny.”

“Jenny and Penny,” she said, still smiling. “We should be friends.”

And so we were. Almost as soon as Jenny came into my life, things took a turn for the better. There is something about seeing someone like you thrive that helps you to do the same. It was true that even then, Jenny and Matt were financially comfortable in a way that Sanjay and I were not. They were, well, polished—whereas Sanjay wore T-shirts and track pants most of the time, and though I tried to make an effort, I inevitably found a Cheerio stuck to the back of my pants hours after I had sat on it.

Yet Jenny, like me, was a mother in her early thirties. While I longed to return to New York, she pined for San Francisco; she and Matt had uprooted after he took a position with a financial firm run by a former business school classmate. Though she stayed home with Cecily, hiring a sitter only when absolutely necessary, she had recently started a website—though back then it was just a blog, sans sponsors and professional-looking photos—and worked constantly.

As for my loneliness, Jenny quickly put an end to that. She seemed to know everyone, even though she and Matt had moved to our town six short months before we had, and she was eager to connect me. Here was a hairdresser who knew how to turn the frizz on my head into a sleek chestnut bob; there was a yoga teacher who could fix my postpartum back problems. She also introduced me to Sonia and Jael, who were also relatively new mothers, and soon the four of us had a standing brunch date on Sundays.

“You have a crush on this woman,” remarked Sanjay as I applied tinted balm in front of the mirror one Sunday morning in preparation for brunch, which had become the highlight of my week.

“Isn’t that how all friendships begin?” I asked before pressing my lips together to even out the color. “With some degree of platonic infatuation?” What I did not say to him was that it was not so much infatuation as deep relief at having a friend in the thick of it with me—and who seemed to hold the answer to my heart’s hidden question: how to be a good mother.

Sanjay looked at me quizzically for a moment. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “But you seem good lately. Happier.”

Happier wasn’t what he really meant. At peace, maybe, or at least accepting of my lot in life.

A few days after dropping out of medical school, Sanjay had surprised me by offering to become a stay-at-home dad. He would write during the kids’ naps or whenever he could find an opportunity, he explained. If all went well, by the time Miles was ready for preschool, Sanjay would have figured out the next step of his life.

I readily agreed. I didn’t really want to hire a stranger to watch my children or drop my months-old baby off at a daycare center for all of the hours he would be awake. More important, Sanjay was offering to be the father my own father had never been. Why wouldn’t I give my family this incredible gift? My job paid enough that we could just make it work in the short term.

But after a few months, it began to sink in that for all the perks of our arrangement, it did not reduce my parenting load one bit. Sanjay was just as exhausted as I was at the end of the day—so how could I blame him for not having done the dishes or scheduled Miles’ next pediatrician appointment? And if Stevie still wanted me to make her breakfast and help her get dressed and tell her stories until my voice was hoarse, could I fault her? I was gone most of the time she was awake.

One morning I was trying to pry Stevie off my leg so I could make it to work on time when it struck me: as wife, mother, breadwinner, and chief of operations chez Ruiz-Kar, I had become the fulcrum of my family’s health and wealth.

And frankly, that was kind of terrifying.

But having a friend who understood that made it easier to keep marching forward—day after day after day.

The children. What was I supposed to do with the children?

Sanjay was in the foyer, clad in athletic shorts and a Cornell T-shirt he’d owned since attending there as an undergrad. “Where are they?” I whispered when I reached him.

He jerked his head back, indicating that the kids were elsewhere in the house. “Pen, what is happening?” He looked up the stairs. “The police . . . the ambulance . . .”

I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I just stood there waiting for something to change.

“Cecily is upset,” said Sanjay. I knew he wasn’t directing this comment at me, and yet it made me feel guilty. “She saw them come in, obviously, and she’s hiding in the bathroom. The kids are in there with her.”

I put a hand on the wall to steady myself. The house was air-conditioned to the point of refrigeration, and the drywall was cold to the touch. “Does she know . . .”

“Know what?” Now Sanjay sounded irritated. “What the hell is going on?”

“Matt thinks . . . I just saw . . .”

His eyes bulged, commanding me to finish.

“Jenny.” I had to push the words out. “She’s dead.”

He let out a low curse. “Did you see her?”

I thought of Jenny’s tongue, prostrate across her bottom teeth. No wonder Matt had run off—I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t vomit right then and there. “Yes.”

“Aneurism,” Sanjay said, more to himself than to me. “Or a heart attack. But she’s so healthy. Genes. You just never know.”

“Stop, please,” I said. Matt had asked me to take care of Cecily. I needed to focus—which meant that by extension, so did Sanjay. “Can you take the kids home?”

“And leave you here?”

“I can’t go. What if she needs me?” I was sure Sanjay thought I was talking about Cecily, but in truth I meant Jenny.

But she didn’t need me. She couldn’t—not anymore.

Another paramedic had just entered the house with a police officer. Now they were in the foyer, asking me to move aside so they could get through.

“I don’t understand,” said Sanjay, though he was gently pulling me toward the living room.

“There’s nothing to understand,” I said. “Right now I just need you to go into the bathroom.” I could hear myself talking—I sounded like a flight attendant cheerfully reading safety instructions that would keep absolutely no one safe in the event of an actual crash. “Go in there and entertain the kids until I knock on the door and tell you it’s okay to come out.”

He looked at me, almost like he was waiting to see if I was kidding. Then he jogged off.

Less than a minute later, Matt appeared at the top of the stairs. He stepped aside as one of the first medics who had entered the house walked past him.

“Where is my friend?” I said to the medic.

She didn’t look at me.

“Excuse me!” I said loudly. “Why are you leaving?”

Now she turned my way. “I’m not leaving,” she said evenly. “Our team will be on hand until the medical examiner arrives and the police are done conducting their investigation.”

My stomach dropped at the phrase medical examiner . “Are they doing CPR on her?”

“Yes, ma’am. We do everything we can in cases like these.”

Cases like what? I wanted to say, but I couldn’t make my mouth form the words.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to get something from the ambulance,” the medic said, and let herself out the front door.

Matt had descended the stairs and was staring past me blankly. I reminded myself that he was in shock. People acted in all kinds of strange ways in situations like this. At least, some people did. Others understood they had to keep it together for the sake of everyone else.

“I can stay here if you’d like. For Cecily . . . or whatever you need,” I said. Jenny and Matt had no family nearby; hers was in Utah and California, and his was on the East Coast.

“Can you take Cecily home with you?” he said. “As soon as possible. Go out the back door and have Sanjay pull around the back alley. I don’t think she should see any of this.”

“Of course,” I said.

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