“Isn’t a shower just an excuse to ask people to buy you presents?” Sarah asked.
My older sister was pregnant with twins and I insisted on throwing a baby shower. Sarah wasn’t sure she wanted one, but it was important to me for a number of reasons. Most of them were good reasons, but not all. I was in a bad relationship and still recovering from my divorce. My sisters had been there for me through it all and I leaned on that friendship. I wanted to give back something to show my excitement for Sarah’s shift into motherhood and my own excitement about becoming an aunt. Still, giving can be its own kind of selfishness.
“Yes, it is,” I conceded. “But people like buying gifts for babies. Especially if they get to give the expectant mother advice. Maybe some of them will want to scare you with their own delivery stories, but mostly they want to see how fat you are. Think of it as an excuse to get Andrea to come to town.”
The mention of our younger sister was a powerful hook and Sarah capitulated. “It will be fun!” I promised. “I won’t make you play any games. Except Twister.”
It was my first time throwing a shower. I filled a notebook with detailed lists of tasks. I researched recipes and tested them at home. I scoured the internet for decoration ideas. I designed multiple invitations, but finally settled on one which featured a blue footed booby with two eggs in a nest, because Sarah is a biologist. Cute. But not ‘cutesy.’
Then there was the question of activities. No one likes shower games, but it seemed rude to take people’s gifts and send them on their way without even trying to entertain them. Andrea suggested that we have an old fashioned quilting bee. My sisters and I are not religious, but we still enjoy the crafty elements of our Mormon heritage. We knew it would be fun for our Mormon relatives as well.
Everything was planned and under control. Then, three nights before the shower, the guy I had been dating for six months showed up at my door and said, “We need to talk.”
Ted was a terrible boyfriend. He was also recuperating from divorce, and we were never going to get serious. At first it was fun, but as time wore on he grew increasingly distant. His humor was snide and sometimes cruel. He smoked pot constantly. He told the same stories over and over again, as if his brain was disconnected and floating free in a pool of dirty bong water. It was clear that unless I was standing directly in front of him, he never thought about me.
The less he engaged the more insecure I became. I blamed myself for his indifference toward me. I lost sleep and gained weight. It was time to break it off, but I wanted to wait until after his birthday, which happened to be the same weekend as the shower. Ted changed the plan. As we stood in my living room amongst the chaos of shopping bags, scraps of pastel wrapping paper, and stuffed animals bought in pairs, he was the one to say it was over.
“I feel so smashed up and sad,” I told my friend Janice the next morning at work. “I was totally looking forward to this shower. But now, I just want to close the blinds, curl up in my bathrobe, and sleep. And by ‘sleep’ I mean watch back-to-back episodes of MacGuyver, drink gin from the bottle, and eat salt and vinegar chips until my mouth bleeds.”
“Try to enjoy the party,” Janice said. “You’ve put so much work into it, which is amazing considering that you hate babies.”
For the record, I never said ‘I hate babies.’ But whenever I see an infant in public, it has an unhealthy color of booger trying to escape one nostril. Or the entire lower half of its face is glazed with snot, like a freshly dipped doughnut. As the owner of a delicate gag reflex, I’m honestly not in control of what might happen. And one day, when I can’t stop myself and I vomit directly into a stroller, I have this feeling no one is going to be on my side.
But those are strangers’ babies! I did have one cousin with chronic ear infections who spent his toddler-hood looking like a stalagmite. But 95% of the babies in my family have never made me physically ill.
“Ted was a prick.” Janice continued. “It’s too bad he was the one to say the words. But you’re rid of him; that’s the important part.” I knew she was right. I tried to put the break-up behind me and focus on Sarah’s shower.
Andrea flew in the next day and we made plans to get our nails done. It was a busy day for the posh salon so my manicurist set up her table in the gift shop. I perched awkwardly on one bum-cheek to fit in the chair, which was half in a rack of silk robes and half in a metal post card stand. My mother was at the next table and Andrea was blocked from view by a display of leather handbags.
Mom called out to me over her shoulder. “Yes?” I said, leaning my head out of the robe rack, making all the wire hangers screech and shift.
“You should pack up the dog and come spend the night at our house. Then we can talk more tonight.”
“I can’t, Mom. I have so much to do before the party tomorrow.”
“I’ll stay and help you,” Andrea volunteered.
“Great!” said my Mom. “It’s all settled.”
As I leaned back into my chair, causing the post card rack to spin unsteadily, I mentally reconfigured the project plan while trying to ignore the panic that lurched in my chest. “Things are already slipping out of control…”
“Okay,” Andrea said a half hour later as we climbed into my car. “Where do we start?”
“Once we get the food, my plan is to measure out ingredients, split everything for each dish into paper bags and staple instructions to them. Then, tomorrow, I can hand the bag to the person who will be in charge of that dish, and they’ll have everything they need.”
“Um… that’s really complex. How many ‘dishes’ are we making?”
“Only four,” I said, feeling defensive.
“Can’t we buy the food? And then tomorrow we could just… like, make it?”
“But… I have a plan.”
Andrea didn’t respond, allowing me to simply infer what she was thinking. “I’m not being a control freak,” I said in reply to the silence.
“I didn’t say that,” Andrea said.
Two hours later, after all the food was bought and stuffed in my refrigerator, we packed up my dog—a Yorkie named Wensley—and drove to my parents’ house. There we spent the rest of the evening wrapping gifts and packing quilting supplies into Mom’s Subaru. I caught my Mom dishing some leftovers into a bowl for Wensley.
“Mom, please don’t feed the dog chili.”
“But he likes it!” Wensley’s thumb of a tail wagged in a blur of agreement.
“Can he have a little ice cream?”
“No. He cannot.” I said.
“Soon,” I thought to myself, “they will have grandkids to spoil. Then maybe my dog will live a little longer.”
I forgot Mom had converted my old bedroom into a sewing room. “But you’ll like the new couch,” she said. “It’s really comfy.”
It wasn’t. It was also very near my parent’s room and my dad’s snoring, which sounds like a construction crew digging a subway tunnel with jack hammers. I hadn’t slept since the break-up, so I did my best to ignore it, but then Wensley began to whimper. “Uh oh,” I thought. “Chili attack.”
I pulled a hoodie over my pajamas and I walked him around the block, hoping that might help my poor pup’s belly. Then I made him as comfortable as I could on the couch, but the whimpering continued and I resigned myself to one more sleepless night.
“How’s Wensley?” Andrea asked the next morning.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know we kept you up.”
“What’s wrong with Wensley?” Mom asked.
“You didn’t hear him?” Andrea asked. “He was crying all night long.”
“I think he had a stomach ache,” I said.
“Would some whipped cream settle it?” Mom asked. “I gave him a bowl of that last night. He loved it.”
Andrea and I stared back at her with indicting and sleep-deprived eyes.
“What?” she asked. “You said he couldn’t have any ice cream.”
“I have to go,” I said. “I have to put things in bags.”
“You really don’t,” Andrea said. “You know that, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “I do. And if that makes me a control freak, then fine.” I had been dumped. I hadn’t slept in days. My dog was going to shoot whipped cream and chili out of his anus at any moment. These were things I could not control. But I could put things in bags and staple instructions to them. And by God, I was going to do it.
“Okie dokie,” Andrea said, with a little fear in her eyes. “See you at the house.”
Sarah’s mother-in-law offered the use of her house, which had a large deck and a sweeping view of the city. Mom set up the quilt on the deck. I put my paper bags and instructions on the counter so my sisters prepare the food. Meanwhile, I worked on the centerpiece for the buffet table, a glass vase filled with lemons, limes and rubber duckies. Everything looked bright, cheerful and precise. Like the cover of a homemaking magazine that I would never buy. I had pulled it off. I had five minutes to be pleased before the guests arrived.
The thing about showers, unlike other parties, is that few of the guests know one another. This collection of people was composed of family, Sarah’s friends, Sarah’s colleagues, and students from her lab. When everyone showed up, they all stood around in a polite but awkward circle waiting to be directed. No one wanted to be the first to eat. No one wanted to be the first to converse. No one wanted to lead the way out to the deck. Instead, all the ladies stood there, staring at me. Waiting to be hosted.
My little thrill from the perfection of the buffet table faded. “Oh right,” I thought. “I am bad at this.”
I knew I was supposed to help with introductions and refreshments and direct them to the seating area on the deck, but I was out of gas. I was looking into their blinking and expectant faces and responding with rage. “What are you waiting for?” I wanted to yell. “Get some food! Talk to one another! Have fucking fun, for fuck’s sake! Christ, do I have to do everything?”
Instead, I turned my back on the group of women. I got my camera and starting snapping photos. “Maybe if I just keep taking pictures of the little duckies, I won’t scream,” a crazed voice said in mind. “Look at the pretty table. Get a close-up shot of a lemon. Everything is going to be okay…”
Soon everyone managed to find food and wander onto the deck without my help. It was a beautiful day. Nearly everyone on the guest list was able to come. My sister looked beautiful and comfortable as she made conversation with everyone. The party was gaining momentum. I was still observing it through the removed comfort of my camera, but as the minutes passed my motivation was more to capture the candor of the moment than to hide from it.
That was until I decided to take some photos of the quilt. The irony of seeking shelter in the camera’s viewfinder is that it makes the rest of the world difficult to see – which is dangerous. I didn’t see the metal frame of the porch swing, for instance. The one with the bracing bar hovering perilously at ankle height. But I felt it as it tripped me, headfirst, into the quilt. I saw the bright colors collapsing around me and I caught a brief glimpse of the sky as I hit the deck’s floor, the small wood towers supporting the quilt frame piling on top of me to complete the destruction.
Worse than the sound of twenty ladies gasping, even worse than the sound of the pine frame snapping under my ribcage, was the ripping sound that came from the quilt. It must have been only a second that I lay there in the rubble of fabric, looking at the light stealing through the colorful filters of the patchwork cloth. But I unrolled the sliver of time and curled into it, remembering the safety of the quilt forts I built as a child on chilly afternoons where I would retreat inside myself, sometimes reading entire books from cover to cover. Sometimes doing nothing at all.
Before I was ready, I was pulled out by my ankles and helped to my feet. Andrea cautiously eyed the bump on my forehead, but I was far more concerned about the damage to the quilt. We found the source of the ripping sound. To my colossal relief the fabric had torn on the far side of the quilt where it was pinned to the frame and not in the center where I had landed. This meant it would be a minor fix and not a major one. The top of the quilt Andrea had spent hours piecing together was completely unharmed.
“Don’t feel bad,” my mom said, leading me to a chair by the elbow. “I did the same thing when I was out here earlier setting up the quilt.”
Miraculously, the thing I said next was not: “Thanks for not mentioning it to anyone. Leaving it hidden like a bear trap was a really good idea.” What I said was, “Could you please excuse me? I need to go scream into the toilet.”
Sarah and Andrea repaired the frame with duct tape and the quilting station was reassembled. MacGyver would have been proud.
After lunch, people began quilting. At least, my Mormon relatives did. My mom, her sisters and my cousins happily moved their conversation quilt-side. I started on a free corner and Andrea joined us. I looked around the quilt and noted, “If Sarah were sitting over here, we would have three sisters,” I pointed to myself and Andrea, “three sisters” I pointed to my cousins on the opposite side of the quilt, and then pointing to my mom and two aunts, “and three sisters.”
This delighted my aunts. “Get the camera, get the camera!” My mom was jumping up and down looking for someone who was equipped to capture the moment.
I found my camera (which had survived the fall) and gave it to one of my sister’s school friends. We pulled Sarah away from a conversation and the nine of us posed, arms entwined, for a photo under the canopy of a shady cottonwood tree.
I thought of this photo a year later when my mother called to say her older sister had passed away after a short but violent battle with cancer. After I hung up I realized the last time I saw my aunt was at the shower. I booted up my computer to find the photo of me and eight of my female relatives. In it, I look fat, sad and slightly concussed.
I thought over the events of that weekend and I wished, regretfully, I could have rallied and enjoyed the day with these women who are far more important in my life than Ted ever was, even on our best days. Sitting a year in the future, it was plain the only bad thing about that break-up was that it robbed me of my chance to do something selfless for my sister because I was too sad to enjoy the day with her. I wanted to be the one who was helping and not the one who needed help. But I blew it.
I studied the photo and focused on my mother and her sisters. They seem so happy to be together and so proud of their daughters. I wondered about the heartbreaks that they had nursed one another through long before my cousins and my sisters and I were born. The little ways they have supported one another that even they have now forgotten.
For every detail a photo reveals, there are a thousand more that remain unseen. Maybe only I can see the heartache in my eyes. Only I can see the way my sisters draped their arms around me to steady me for this photo, effectively helping me lie to the world and say, “I’m okay.” Perhaps only they knew, one day, I would be. Anyone else might look at this image and simply see two generations of caring siblings and a belly bump full of promise for a third. Someday I’ll show the photo to the twins, and that’s what I would like them to see.
Rachel Lewis lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a playwright, she had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. Her full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in Salt Lake City in 2005. Ms. Lewis currently works in pharmaceuticals professionally and writes recreationally, but dreams of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. She is working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and blogs at onlifeandlemons.com.
© 2015, Rachel Lewis