When Grady arrives, his ex-girlfriend Bec is stuffed into too-tight yoga pants and has cookie dough stuck to her fingers. He watches her through the glass door, leaning to twist the knob with her elbows. “Shhh,” she says, with one sticky finger held to her lips. “Amelie’s sleeping.” Her belly is sloppy, pouching over her elasticized waistband. It's been nearly two months since she had the baby.
Grady has avoided visiting since the christening. He’s not quite comfortable around his goddaughter. He hasn’t held her, yet. He’s been so busy with his book. He’s not sure he likes children, at all. He doesn’t like saying Amelie because it’s too close to Emily, but more difficult to say. And it’s French. And Bec and Mike aren’t even French. He calls Amelie Bean, instead. Bec and Bean, Bean and Bec. Bec doesn’t like it, just like she doesn’t like being called Bec, but she’s too nice to say so. Grady’s known her long enough to know that.
He steps inside, closes the door behind him. “Chocolate chip?” he says. Bec is already padding into the kitchen.
“Lactation,” she says, over her shoulder.
The house smells different. Sweet and musky, almost like a ferret. “Pardon me?”
She rinses her hands in the sink, wipes them across the front of her shirt, pulls a hot tray from the oven with a doubled-over tea towel. “They’re lactation cookies. Full of flaxseed and brewer’s yeast. You know, to increase your supply.”
He hears the word supply, and he thinks of high school. He thinks of marijuana, not breast milk. Or maybe that was stash, not supply.
“Amelie’s a big eater. I’m worried she’s not getting enough.” Bec rolls the last of the dough into little balls and scatters them on a fresh baking sheet. “I wouldn’t want to take any of those pills.”
Bec is an excellent worrier. Her breasts are already much larger than he remembers them being. She's wearing a deep v-neck t-shirt with the straps of her loose, no-support bra showing. Her nipples can't seem to agree which way they should be pointing.
“Mike’s getting groceries,” she says. “I’ll grab you a coffee in a sec.” Grady says he can get his own but, as usual, she insists.
He gets along with Mike okay, but sometimes it’s weird when all three of them are in a room together. Those occasional moments when conversation peters out, and they're all obviously wondering if the others are thinking about Bec and Grady, and how different things would be if they'd gotten married, instead. It’s more relaxed when he and Mike are barbequing out back with a couple of beers, and Grady can quietly triumph over Mike’s cut-and-see technique. It was even better when he was dating Louise, because she and Bec could go off into the kitchen and talk about whatever it is they had in common. They both like blue. He remembers that.
Bec takes a still-hot cookie off the tray, blowing on it for him. When they were dating, she did this kind of thing all the time. Folding his laundry, refilling the toilet paper roll before it was even finished, swiping her thumbs across his eyebrows to straighten them, pre-choosing gifts for him to give his little sister on her birthday. After his mom died, he supposes Bec developed a sort of proxy-mother condition. Like when a calf dies, they skin it and lay the hide over another calf. The mother starts nursing the disguised calf because it smells like her own. It’s a hormonal thing.
“Here,” Bec says, holding the cookie out to him. “Have a try.” She cups her other hand under it to catch crumbs.
He covers his nipples. “Should I really be eating those? Don’t know that I want to increase my stash.” He emphasizes the word stash, like now he’s in. Now he knows this language of motherhood.
“Supply, you mean.” She moves the cookie closer to his lips.
It was exactly this type of behaviour that made him end things with Bec. But because she’s the nicest person he knows, when he told her it was over, she didn’t cry or try to make him feel bad. Bec is incapable of that. She just pinched his cheek and whispered, “What are you going to do without me?”
When she left, he watched her out the window. She sat in her car a minute or two, looking over the dashboard with her hands on the wheel, staring at the pavement stretching ahead, like she’d never been on that street before. Like she’d forgotten which way home was.
He’s on his third lactation cookie by the time Mike gets back, carrying bags from the garage into the kitchen. “I’ll give you a hand,” Grady says, but Mike raises his palm like a stop sign, then gives a thumbs-up. When he’s done, Mike pours himself a coffee and leans against the counter. He asks, in hushed tones, about work, about Grady’s latest book-in-progress, about Louise.
Things with Louise were going well. There was none of this baby stuff. If Louise and Grady had had a baby together, she would’ve let him call it Bean, or Butch, or Bobo. Louise couldn’t cook, but she made enough money to survive comfortably off of restaurants and take-out. Grady could’ve been a kept man. Could’ve quit his job and stayed home to write. Could’ve been famous.
But then, when Bean was born, and they were supposed to go to the christening and bring a gift, he asked Louise what they should get. She just squished one eye at him, like she had no idea what to buy a baby for its christening, as if she couldn't believe he'd even asked her such a question. They sat there for a long time with nothing to say, picking at white cartons of fried rice and chop suey, watching reruns of Seinfeld. And Grady thought, Bec would’ve known what to do. Bec would’ve totally known.
“Louise and I are just friends, now.”
Bec says, “Aww, but I really liked Louise.”
Mike says, “She seemed like a keeper to me,” and Grady knows what he’s thinking. He’s thinking his wife was a keeper, too, and what an idiot Grady was to break up with her, and how he’s glad Grady’s an idiot because Grady's loss is Mike’s gain.
Bean screams into the intercom beside her crib.
Mike doesn’t even flinch when Bec pulls out her boob and lets it hang over the top of her t-shirt. Right out there in the open, leaky and pendulous, areola big as a saucer. Grady’s almost insulted. Is he invisible, now?
The living room, usually tidied and squared, is strewn with baby blankets, diapers, infant seats, doll-sized clothes draped over the back of the couch. Grady's not sure where to look or what to say. He brings up his novel—a literary masterpiece about a cattle farmer who becomes a world-renowned composer. Bec smiles and nods encouragingly at his description, but Mike announces he can’t stay to chat. He has to mow the lawn. “No free Saturdays when you’re a Dad and a husband.” He says it straight, no hint of sarcasm or discontent. He’s perfectly happy to be enslaved to two women.
Grady waits for the sound of the back door clicking shut before he speaks again. “This is why I wanted to come by,” he says. He could have done this earlier, but he worries his offering might be substandard. And if it is, he wouldn’t want Mike to know, because Mike is, admittedly, above standard in most departments. Except the barbeque department.
Grady digs his hand in his pocket and pulls out a small, velvet box. Compact, full of latent promise. He slips off the edge of his chair and kneels beside the couch where Bec sits. When he holds the box out to her, she doesn’t take it. Her chest is still—she’s holding her breath—and she looks at the box almost in horror, like it’s a tumour someone’s just dug out of her brain. Like she knew there was something malignant growing inside her all this time, but seeing it now, in palpable form, makes it so real. Like now she knows just how close a call it was.
He senses her confusion and opens the box. “It’s Bean’s belated christening gift. I wasn’t sure what to get. I know she can’t wear it until she’s older, but I hope she won’t mind. Being a baby, and all.”
Bec swallows, lets her breath loose again. She takes the fine, white gold chain and heart pendant between her fingers, holds it horizontally like a shimmering cat’s cradle. “Did you choose this all by yourself? You have good taste.” She seems both surprised and relieved. She tilts her head and runs a soft hand over his cheek. For a second, just a second, he wants to curl up in her lap.
When Bean is done eating, Bec props her up and holds her under the jaw, pats her on the back until she brings up a bubble. “Here,” she says, rising from the couch, holding the baby out to him like an offering. “These iron supplements are killing me. I’ll be back in a minute. Or ten.”
Before he can protest, can say maybe Mike should come in to hold her, or perhaps Bec could lay her in that bassinet over there, or maybe his cologne will make the baby sneeze, or he thinks he might be coming down with a sore throat, Bec lays Bean’s soft, cottony, mommy-scented blanket over Grady, like a farmer laying a common skin between them, so he and the baby won’t reject each other. Bec folds his arm into a cradle.
He was supposed to hold Bean at the christening, but she screamed so loudly no one could hear anything. The Reverend had to quickly sprinkle her, and Bec rushed down the aisle, covering the little white bonneted-bundle with kisses, Shh, shh, shh-ing, leaving Mike and Grady standing on the stage like jilted grooms. Grady admits he was relieved not to have to hold the baby, especially not in front of everyone. Mike leaned close to Grady's ear and said, “She has a new love.” Bec and Bean. Bean and Bec.
Grady turned to the pews, looking for Louise’s short, dark hair in the crowd, looking for commiseration in her face, or a smile, or anything. She wasn’t where he’d left her before the service. Later, he learned, she’d ducked out to take a work call. Then she figured, rather than squeak the door open again, she might as well wait in the car for him. Catch up on her email.
Bean lies still in Grady’s arms. She doesn't scream. Her slate eyes are wide, roaming his face, his hair, his shoulders, looking for something familiar in him.
Whenever Grady couldn't sleep, Bec did this thing on his forehead—tracing a heart over his forehead, a bowed crest at his hairline, a pointed V over the bridge of his nose. He does this to Bean, over and over, and her lashes flutter, but don't fall. They just wait together, listening to the lawnmower's buzz, the bathroom fan's low hum, holding each other's eyes, learning each other by scent.
A rush spreads across his chest, warm like milk. One too many cookies. When he first went to see Bec at the hospital, she lay on the bed with a breastfeeding pamphlet in one hand, the baby slurping away under a blanket. She read aloud to him about latches and nipple cream and breast massage. She read that this tingly, milky feeling is called a let down.
Let down. Grady's sure this is anything but.