For Max and Lucas
he woman in the next bed nursed her baby in the dark. Isabelle listened to wet suckling, to rhythmic sighs so faint they might have come from a day-old sparrow. If the dividing curtain was open, Isabelle would see the outline of tiny fingers batting against an engorged breast, a mother’s palm cupping her infant’s head in wonder. She would see the blackened shapes of helium balloons bobbing against the ceiling. The mother, Beatrice, said her daughter was born two weeks early but healthy as a horse. “A boy and a girl now,” Beatrice said to Isabelle as her visitors filed out. “The million-dollar family.”
Isabelle shifted onto her side and fixed her gaze on the glowing exit sign over the door. Her breasts ached. The hot compresses the delivery team recommended hadn’t done a thing.
The baby was kissed loudly and wheeled away by a nurse. When the covers stopped rustling and Beatrice finally lay still, when the cadence of her breath slowed enough to reveal
the woman was asleep, Isabelle placed bare feet on cold linoleum and stood up. She untied her gown, soaked down the front now, and reached for her clothes, folded neatly on the chair next to the bed.
“Don’t give him a name,” the chaplain had said in the labor room, gold cross strung from her neck. With her stout frame, in white suit and hose, sturdy beige nursing shoes, she could be a carton of milk. “Makes them too human.”
The corridor was lit only by the glow of a coffee machine and a goose-necked lamp at the nurses’ station. No sign of life, other than a tired doctor waiting for his cup to fill with bad coffee. Finally he left and Isabelle stepped into the hall.
She’d promised herself she wouldn’t do this.
“Don’t look at the baby, not even for a second,” the chaplain added when Isabelle was instructed to push, “or you’ll see that face first thing every morning for the rest of your life. You’ll never move on.” Isabelle had allowed them to take her son away the moment he was born. The weighing, the Apgar test, it all was done in another room. The baby hadn’t made much sound. One angry squawk when they bundled him off, that was it.
Behind the neonatal station was the nursery—a shallow viewing room that displayed babies like pansies in a window box. Isabelle tied her long hair in a knot and focused on the glass before actually looking through it. Someone should give it a wipe with vinegar, she thought. The fingerprints and nose prints blurred the view.
Finally, she allowed her eyes to skim the bassinets. Pink blanket. Pink. Blue. Pink. Blue. Blue. All swaddled up tight like pastel burritos. She wandered along the window’s ledge, reading the index cards taped to each bassinet.
Blaskovic. Ayushi Kapoor. Ian Bell. Jenna Fennessey
. Baby Jenna was so big she could start nursery school soon. Isabelle, six feet tall herself, mentally wished the girl well.
The next card read only:
Baby Boy Santos
She stopped. Let her eyes travel up the blanket to rest on a flick of wavy hair, a sleeping face the color of baby aspirin. His cheeks weren’t as plump as the others’. You could see what he would look like as a man. Earnest and sad. Resigned. As if he’d peered through the glass and somehow gotten a glimpse of his future.
The chaplain was right. Seeing the child’s crumpled brow and pursed lips, his fists balled and ready to fight, it was a mistake.
Isabelle walked. Down the stairs. Past the candy machine. Out into night air that smelled like water. With shaking hands, she lit a cigarette. Pulled her coat tight and marched toward the bus stop.
leanor gazes out into the darkened gloom of Newbury Street thinking it’s about time to close up shop. A flash of movement catches her eye. There, with rush hour traffic battling the rain behind her, a trench-coated woman stands beneath the tree and takes turns looking from her feet to the window.
She’s trying to work up the nerve to enter.
They feel they have no right, these women. As if having a fully functioning womb were required to even step inside Pretty Baby and if they’re caught without one, an alarm will sound throughout the store. Eleanor knows the feeling well. She steps back from the door, busies herself with a piece of lint on her otherwise pristine white shirt. She took extra care with her appearance this morning. Polished her boots. Ironed her jeans. Folded a vintage hankie and put it in her vest pocket. This isn’t just any Tuesday.
The blonde outside has made her decision. She holds her purse over her head and steps out from beneath the dripping elm.
It doesn’t happen all that often, that an infertile woman enters Boston’s most exclusive baby shop to torture herself with all that could have been, but when it does, it’s always the same. She slips through the door and winces when the bell chirps her arrival. She avoids eye contact with Eleanor and her assistant, Ginny Hardwell, and wanders along the battered wooden floor toward the back, taking care to stick to the store’s periphery where the larger baby equipment is displayed—chunky jogging strollers that look like miniature ATVs, cribs that justify their exorbitant prices by later converting into daybeds. Then, when she no longer feels the weight of anyone’s attention, the woman wanders along the antique shelving, pausing to examine a Baby Mozart CD or a vanilla-scented plastic giraffe. These objects don’t hold her attention for long. What stops her—what stops this woman today—are the newborn sleepers.
The look on the blonde’s crumpled face as she holds up a tiny onesie says it all. Wanting anything this small cannot be too much to ask of life.
Pretty Baby was born of need. Eleanor Sweet’s need to have a baby of her own. When she opened the store some nine years prior, she knew what she was doing. In stocking the shelves with organic hemp diapers, Swedish soothers, and washable bibs made of antique linen, she was collecting the most elaborate layette an infant could ever hope for.
Her own baby never came.
“Just because it happens for others and not for you,” the doctor told Eleanor and Jonathan last year as he closed her file, “doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a woman.”
It wasn’t easy for Jonathan to accept. Even in the most unpredictable of jobs—emergency room physician—Jonathan
took comfort in what he could count on. That the ER would empty out the night of an Olympic gold hockey game. That childhood injuries would peak at 4 p.m. after kids tumbled home from school. That Christmas break would see at least one couple exaggerate an elderly parent’s symptoms so they could fly the kids to Orlando with a clear conscience.
Trying to get pregnant is a game of odds and the odds stack up quite nicely for the average couple. Given a year of enthusiastic trying, eighty to ninety percent of couples will conceive. It never seemed a thing to worry about, until it didn’t happen to them.
But none of that matters anymore. Finally, Eleanor and Jonathan Sweet are to have their baby. Eleanor checks the cash in the till. The paper in the register. She’s never left the store for an entire week before and she wants everything to be perfect.
The store’s atmosphere is paramount to its success. The nine months a woman spends pregnant are made up of moments. Moments in which the mother-to-be holds the secret: that hers is the most special baby ever to be conceived. Pretty Baby is set up to reinforce this. Classical music—often Beethoven’s cello sonatas for their deep, calming tones—wafts through the air.
The decor is soft and romantic without being precious—one wall is brick painted in matte white, the other two are dressed in blue and white toile du Jouy wallpaper depicting scenes of pastoral country life in which a sailor-suited male pushes a nymph on a rope swing. Off to the side, a baby—their baby, it must be presumed—chortles and kicks fat feet from a Moses basket. That the repeating pattern represents fertility did not happen by accident. Eleanor hoped, rather
than believed, her ovaries would be kick-started via tasteful visual suggestion.
The store’s shelving is artfully distressed in a creamy white finish. Scattered throughout are sumptuous white denim chairs with matching ottomans upon which tired mothers-to-be can rest their swollen feet. Chandeliers heavy with Austrian crystals sparkle and wink from above.
Eleanor is well aware that a pregnant woman is determined that her infant will be cared for like no baby before. She wants to provide her progeny abundance, luxury, and purity. All this, Pretty Baby provides.
Decorative objects, such as silver piggy banks, heirloom clocks, and dolls are displayed in threes or fives as odd numbers offer greater visual interest. Baby towels and facecloths are plenty and languish in fluffy pastel piles throughout the store. Lamb-soft cashmere and Italian wool blankets are rolled and stacked in pyramids for a calming effect on the psyche. The walls and shelving are dotted at regular intervals with the gleam of something silver. A clock, a tissue-box cover, a photo album meant for baby’s first year.
Even the air’s scent has been given careful attention. Throughout the store are tiny bowls full of roses doused in essential oils. The fragrance is decidedly subtle—the hormones of pregnancy can make a woman’s olfactory senses hypersensitive and Eleanor does not want to offend.
Pretty Baby is an oasis of calm for the expectant mother.
Now, Eleanor approaches the trench-coated woman under the ruse of adjusting a stack of receiving blankets. The blonde, whose purse is cracked at the edges, whose coat is torn beneath one arm, starts. The white sleeper slips off the hanger in her hands and onto the wet floor. When the
woman picks it up, she’s horrified. The sleeper is stained along one side.
“I’ll pay for it,” she says.
The gesture makes Eleanor want to put her arms around the woman, who reminds her of herself—mid-thirties, hair the color of vanilla ice cream, mouth slightly too big for her face except when she smiles. “It gets easier, sweet pea,” she wants to say. “Once you stop hoping, it gets better.”
The day after Eleanor learned she’d never bear a child, she took a newborn sleeper from Pretty Baby upstairs to the two-bedroom walk-up above the shop that she and Jonathan have shared since he finished med school. He didn’t know it, but she slept with that Velour, zippered onesie under her pillow for three weeks.
“You know what?” says Eleanor. “Just keep it. Wash it with a bit of vinegar and it’ll come out just like new.”
The blonde looks at it, her mouth twisted with desire. “I could never.” She fumbles with the ninety-eight-dollar price tag that twirls on a pale pink ribbon.
Before Eleanor might change her mind, the woman thanks her and is gone, the Genova sleeper tucked inside her vinyl handbag—maybe later, beneath her pillow.
Eleanor feels a nervous flutter in her stomach. The flight is in less than four hours. It’s time to go upstairs and finish packing.
“Ginny,” she calls as she marches to the back of the store, “if I leave you instructions not to torch the place while I’m gone, can I trust you to follow them?”
Ginny sits in the staff room filing invoices into an accordion envelope, her shirt so rumpled it could be a used Kleenex.
Ginny’s attire is always better from a distance. Eleanor has spoken to her about the benefits of a crisply ironed blouse—Pretty Baby customers should feel they’re being cared for by consummate professionals—but having a police-officer husband who does shift work and three hyperactive boys under the age of five, Ginny once explained, bumps her wardrobe down on her own personal hierarchy of needs. When you’re scraping last night’s lasagna from the dining room wall, bleaching spit-up stains from the shoulder of your sweater drops dramatically on the list of priorities.
“We could keep clothes here for you,” Eleanor says. “Like a Pretty Baby uniform you change into when you arrive. And you would never, ever wear it home.”
Ginny looks up at her boss. “Would I have to dress like you? Turtleneck, blouse, vest. I could get you a parka too.”
Eleanor smoothes her shirt. “What? Layers are fashionable.”
“Not when the store is heated by radiators.” Ginny stands up and checks the thermostat. “Seventy-three degrees in here.”
“I’m leaving. If anything comes up, I’ll be checking my e-mail every day—as long as I have service. Just remember to lock up at night. If you pop out for lunch, put a sign on the door. And don’t forget the Kleinmans are coming in next week to pick up the furniture order. Mr. Kleinman said he’d assemble the crib himself, but based on the way his tie was done up, I’m pretty sure he’ll need your help. So if you don’t mind heading over there—”
“Hey.” Ginny looks up casually. “Can I book a week off over Christmas?”
“Didn’t you use up your three weeks over the summer? You went to Ted’s parents’ place out on the Cape? You brought me
back one of those snow globes but it cracked in your suitcase and was empty when you gave it to me?”
“It’s the thought. Remember that.” Ginny blinks at her boss. “And you gave me four weeks when you hired me.”
“I’m pretty sure it was three.”
“Honestly, Eleanor. You should write this stuff down.”
It’s possible she did forget. She has been mentally wrapped up in the adoption. And before that, the battle to get pregnant. God knows, Jonathan keeps pointing it out. “Okay, then. Christmas is fine with me.”
With a triumphant grin, Ginny punches a number into her phone. She turns to Eleanor and covers her mouthpiece. “Do you mind?”
“Oh. Of course.” Eleanor gathers her bag from the closet and heads to the front.
As she goes, Ginny says into the phone, “Hon? I just scored an extra week’s vacation!”
Eleanor stops, hoists her bag farther up her shoulder. She should fire the woman. Anyone else would. Ginny is unkempt. She can’t stand her own kids, let alone anyone else’s. And she’s surly to customers. But who else would hire her? And with the three boys, Ginny and Ted struggle financially. The Hardwells need the job.
Her assistant’s dark ponytail pokes through the doorway as she leans way back in her chair. “Yes?”
“I was just thinking. What if she doesn’t like me?”
“Not possible. Babies are hardwired to love their mothers, no matter what. I can’t even pee without at least two of them following me into the bathroom and you know what kind of mother I am.”
Eleanor smiles. “Yes. A terrible one.”
“Exactly. Now get your skinny butt on that plane and go pick up your kid.”
With a wave goodbye, Eleanor heads out the door.