Baby on Board

The smell of stale coffee and industrial-strength antiseptic permeated the community room in the basement of Bensonhurst Memorial Hospital. I followed the scent to a cafeteria table on which sat a pitcher of punch, a plate of cookies, and a sign-in sheet. But no coffee. I should have stopped at Starbucks, I chastised myself as I wrote my name at the bottom of the page and snatched a sugar cookie from the plate. It was only 6:00 p.m., but after a long day of wrangling 30 children and almost as many animals, I was exhausted.

A dozen women in advanced stages of pregnancy were seated in a circle on the floor surrounded by mounds of pillows. At their sides, a dozen men in the advanced stages of get-me-out-of-here exchanged furtive glances at the overhead clock in between patting their mates’ tummies, rubbing their shoulders, and whispering soothing words into their ears.

Most of the women had their eyes closed and were practicing the kind of deep breathing that I’d failed to master in my last disastrous attempt at yoga class. My best friend Carter—a yoga instructor who’s ordinarily a nice person but who gets some kind of sadistic pleasure out of watching women contort their bodies into gravity-defying poses—had chosen me to demonstrate a position that not only defied gravity, but several other laws of nature as well. I’d nearly dislocated my pelvis in the process. Even though my pelvic ligaments had healed completely, the memory sent a stab of pain shooting through my groin.

Hovering around the expectant couples was a tall, muscular woman wearing a sweatshirt that read “coach,” a whistle dangling from a chain around her neck. She looked up when I entered, giving two quick bursts on the whistle that cut through the soothing sounds of nature emanating from the CD player.

“Continue your cleansing breaths,” she said as she crossed the room in three quick strides and extended her hand. “I’m Maya.”

“Holly Heckerling,” I said. “Sorry I’m late. I missed the subway stop and had to double back.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Maya said, scribbling my name on a sticker. She peeled off the backing and slapped the sticker just above my right breast with a force much greater than the task required. “Happens to all of us.” She looked down at my mid-section. “You’re really on top of things. Most of my Moms don’t even think about Lamaze until they’re just about ready to pop. You’re barely showing. Good for you!”

My head sank as I followed her gaze down past my red “Hi! I’m Holly” sticker to my stomach, which was protruding slightly over the waistband of my jeans.

I nearly choked on my half-eaten sugar cookie. “I’m not pregnant,” I sputtered, brushing cookie crumbs off my T-shirt. “I’m the coach.”

“Oops, my bad.” Maya ripped the red sticker off my shirt and scribbled a new one. This one was blue. She slapped it on my breastbone with even more force than the first time. “Where’s your partner?”

I glanced at the door. “She should be here any minute. She had to use the restroom.”

“Of course.” Maya nodded knowingly. “Why don’t you just take a seat in the circle.”

I shoehorned myself into a space between a tiny Asian woman whose stomach looked like a perfectly formed basketball and a red-head who looked about thirteen months pregnant. I hoped if I ever actually became pregnant, I’d look more like the Asian.

The red-head, whose name was Lynda according to her tag, waved a plump hand and smiled. “First time?”

“I’m not pregnant,” I said through gritted teeth.

“I know.” She pointed to my sticker. “Blue is for the coaches. I meant, is this your first class?”

“Oh, um, yeah. Sorry for jumping on you. Must be the hormones.” Who says you have to be pregnant to use the hormone excuse? I have hormones, too, and lately they’ve been running amok.

She gave me a curious stare, then turned back to her husband, who looked like he was half her size and lived in fear of her rolling over in the night and crushing the life’s breath out of him.

The door burst open and my Aunt Betty pushed through. She set her pocketbook on the cafeteria table and waved me over. “Holly, honey, you gotta see this,” she said, unbuttoning her blouse.

I uncrossed my legs and struggled to get to my feet. Aunt Betty suffers from psoriasis, a condition that causes her skin to break out in red, scaly patches. During particularly severe outbreaks, her skin itches so badly that she can’t stand to wear clothing. Fortunately, the family has learned to avert their eyes when Betty decides to air her wares at home. Unfortunately, she isn’t averse to an occasional public airing.

Any one of the pregnant women could probably have made it across the room quicker than I managed to stumble over to Betty. I shuddered to think of how ungainly I’d become if I was ever actually with child.

“Stop!” I yelled, but it was too late. Betty had unfastened the last button of her blouse and was yanking it off.

To my horror and relief, underneath the blouse she was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt that read “Baby on Board,” with a giant arrow pointing at her stomach. “Isn’t it something?  I bought it at BJ’s.”

Maya was gaping at Aunt Betty, eyebrows raised but saying nothing. Betty scribbled her name on the sign-in sheet and shuffled toward the circle. “Where do I sit?”

The women had stopped their deep breathing and were staring at Betty. “What’s the matter?” Betty asked the tiny Asian woman. “Never seen a late-in-lifer before?”

I know I could have put an end to the wide-eyed stares and whispered comments by explaining that my octogenarian aunt was merely standing in for my pregnant best friend. Carter had moved to California with her boyfriend Danny, my former comedy partner, and she wanted me to fly out to be her labor coach. I thought she was making a huge mistake, since I have a habit of fainting when I see blood—and while I’d never witnessed childbirth, I was fairly certain there’d be some blood involved. But she insisted. She also insisted I take Lamaze classes and balked at my suggestion that I could learn all I needed from a DVD or online class. Carter, who’d undoubtedly mastered 87 different ways to breathe, wouldn’t allow me to get by with just the one.

So here I was, in the community room in the basement of Bensonhurst Memorial Hospital, taking the first in a series of six Lamaze classes to help ease Carter through the pain of childbirth.

I had tried to find an actual pregnant woman to go through Lamaze with me, but my “seeking single pregnant woman” flyer was removed from the bulletin board of my local Starbucks by the new manager, who suspected nefarious motives on my part.

In a moment of desperation, I had even asked my cousin’s fiancé, Monica Broccoli, though I’d rather endure a painfully protracted labor with no anesthesia than spend six weeks straddled behind Monica and telling her to push. Monica was a dancer-actress with the legs of a Rockette and the personality of a pit bull. Though we’d never been friends, lately I was trying to make peace with Monica for the sake of the family. To her credit, she’d declined to press charges when I inadvertently caused her to break her leg. But she did walk with a ridiculously exaggerated limp whenever I was around.

“Think of it as an acting assignment,” I’d told her. “You play the part of the pregnant woman and I’m your coach.”

“Is it a union job?” she’d asked. “Does it pay scale?”

“Okay, forget acting. Think of it as female bonding.”

“If you wanted to bond with me, you’d have agreed to be in my bridal party.”

I’d seen the sequin-studded sofa covers she’d selected for her bridesmaids’ gowns. No favor was worth seeing myself in that dress staring back at me in family photographs for the rest of my life.

When I reached the group, the women were commiserating over their ever-worsening pregnancy symptoms. “My breasts are so tender,” Lynda said, squeezing her oversized orbs for emphasis. Her husband went pale. The other mates respectfully checked their watches or adjusted their ties, making sure their gaze was directed at anything except for Lynda’s overblown breasts. “And my ankles are swollen.”

They continued to compare notes—heartburn, varicose veins, and stretchmarks, along with the effectiveness of various remedies for each. “I tried Bertha’s Belly Cream,” said a middle-aged blonde whose name badge read Kendra. “But nothing works.” She unbuttoned her blouse and outlined the offending marks with her finger.

“Think that’s bad?” Betty hiked up her yellow shirt to reveal an oasis of scaly red patches. “Look at these.”

I leaned over and tugged Betty’s shirt back down. “Those aren’t strechmarks,” I whispered. “It’s psoriasis.”

She hmphed. “I’m just trying to fit in.”

Betty grabbed two pillows from the center of the circle. She propped one behind her back and stuffed the other under her T-shirt. Then she patted her tummy and smiled. “I always wondered what this would feel like,” she told the red-headed woman. “My husband Bernie and I never had kids.” She looked over at me and smiled. “But Holly’s always been like a daughter to us.”

As if to prove her maternal devotion to me, Betty proceeded to boast about my accomplishments, from my first ballet recital to my brief career as a stand-up comic. “She’s really funny,” she told the Asian woman. “At one of her shows, I laughed so hard I wet my pants.”

Only Betty would find a lapse in bladder control something to brag about.

Maya kept shushing Betty, eventually resorting to blasting on her whistle and giving her a warning gesture whenever Betty opened her mouth.

Betty finally stopped gabbing and focused on the exercises. Pretty soon she was on a roll, not only going through the motions but fully enacting the labor process. At one point, she gripped my hand so hard she cut off the circulation to my fingers.

“Ouch!”

“Sorry sweetie,” she said, releasing her death grip. “Contraction.”

Two hours, three breathing techniques, and one disturbingly graphic childbirth video later, class ended.

As the husbands and other assorted life partners helped the pregnant women to their feet, I struggled to stand then turned and reached a hand out to Betty.

As she grabbed my hand, I noticed Betty had an uncharacteristically sheepish expression on her face. As she pulled herself up, I saw the cause of her sheepishness trickling down her leg and forming a puddle at her feet.

I froze in place, hoping that if we didn’t move, no one would notice. Then when the room cleared out, I could mop the floor and find something dry for Betty to change into.

But the art of nonchalance was lost on Betty. She stared down at the widening pool of liquid and pointed, attracting the attention of everyone who hadn’t already bolted for the bathrooms. As the crowd gathered around her, Betty said, “I think my water broke.”

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