Thursday mornings were Active Baby! times at the Independent Word, the large, determinedly non-chain bookstore down the street. Naturally, she called it Achtung Baby!, and it was a measure of how bad things were between she and Nils that he hadn’t noticed yet. The bookstore was the favored place for the famous-for-DC to inaugurate their book tours, and it was always ready with a banner on the podium, a signing table, and lots of setting up and taking down of chairs happening on the street level.
But the half-basement was babyland, with a jumble of expensive strollers set like briars around the castle to thwart any who came in the wrong door, looking for the former assistant undersecretary to the whatever reading his memoirs. Smart nannies knew to market themselves by including in their “positions wanted” ad on the Nanny Talk website that they “enjoy taking children to activities such as the storytime at the Independent Word.” The Nanny Talk website itself was made to talk about nannies, not intended as a place for nannies themselves to talk. It was created by a few underemployed DC mommies and included a forum where you could narc on nannies caught feeding their charges Utz and Yoohoo for snack or talking on their cell phones while a toddler got in a sand-throwing battle. All other things being equal, mentioning the Independent Word storytime could land a nanny a nice spot in a double-lawyer household with a Mercedes SUV at her disposal.
The bookstore was flanked by a coffee shop, where the mommies and babies went, and a bar, where the real people went. Malone knew her place. People had been mistaking her for a nanny for seven months now.
Storytimes were segregated by age in an attempt to avoid incident, but it was still like The Who in Cincinnati when the story lady took her seat. Any babies who could toddle to the front of the pack did, and they didn’t care who they had to crawl over to get there. Eighteen months was the upper range for Achtung Baby!, which was less about reading than about songs, sock puppets, exercise—stopping childhood obesity starts early!—and watching the reader make extremely odd faces and sounds intended to stimulate language development. Malone figured it got them out of the house, and Linney seemed to get a kick out of it.
She’d kept to the back of the pack the first few times they’d gone, to stay out of the fray. Now Jessica, another mother she’d become friends with, often sat back there with her. She usually wore a bandanna over her long hair and long skirts like a hippie and had a boy who was as big and healthy as Linney. At first, she’d thought her baby was a girl, because he had beautiful black curls grazing his shoulders.
“They look like they can hold their own in this crowd,” said the other mom the first they were there, as they watched their babies attempt to sit up, rock over, reach for toys and try to locomote across a small blanket Malone had put down to get Linny some “tummy time.”
“Is she about five months, too?” Malone asked, admiring the baby’s hair. Linney had been born bald and it appeared she’d stay that way, though she made up for it in eyelashes.
“He,” the mother corrected.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s the hair…it’s beautiful,” Malone said, feeling stupid.
“I can’t cut it until he’s three years old, so of course he’s born with a full head of hippie hair already,” she said.
“Oh,” said Malone, who wanted to ask why but never did for fear of being impolite. “Well, it’s beautiful. You could keep it.”
“Nah, it’s too much trouble. I’m almost regretting it already. I’m totally a Chinese menu Jew. I just take the traditions I like and leave the ones I don’t. But this one I like, despite the complaining. Everyone’s gonna think you’re a little girl for three years, and then they’re gonna think you’re in the army, buddy,” she said, letting her baby capture her finger and pulling him very gently into a little side to side rock. “We’re shavin’ you.”
“She’s five months, too. Were you…near that date?” “Yeah, I was right on that morning,” she said. Malone gave a sound of sympathy. “I was supposed to be at a birthing center, but they said I had complications, which weren’t complications at all, they were just afraid of getting sued. So they sent me over to Georgetown that morning, and nobody paid attention but the midwife, so I might as well as had a home birth.”
“I was the day before 9-11. Or I mean, it was about a week after I was supposed to deliver. I had to have a c-section.”
Linney had managed to sit up and was sucking on one fist and bouncing a little. “She loves the songs,” Malone said. “I had to stay in the hospital because of the c-section, but they said I wasn’t in a rooming-in room, you know, where they let you have the baby with you. But after the attack happened, they put her in a cart and wheeled her in and said you deal with her, we’re busy. That was OK with me,” she said. She remembered the hours and hours of labor, being forbidden to move because she might dislodge the fetal monitor, everything stuck in place and the headphones clamped to her head, listening to Radiohead’s Pyramid Song over and over.
“Are you OK with the c-section?” she asked.
“Yeah. I mean I wanted to go without it, but two days of labor and I never got past nine centimeters. I’m certain now it was just that I didn’t want to let her go,” Malone was surprised to hear herself say. If anyone else had said such a thing, she would have wanted to deck them, and on top of that, she was saying it to a stranger. “Of course, it might have been because she was 11 pounds.”
“Holy crap!” the other mother said, toning the second word down just in time to avoid too many startled looks. “And you’re so tiny!”
Jessica kept up their talk at the coffee shop after storytime, because Malone didn’t have an assignment that day, and it had become a routine. Jessica was a single mom. Malone wanted to ask her over but wasn’t sure how to do it, exactly. It was weird—how do you make new friends when you’re a grownup?
Nils was intrigued by her tales of Jessica the semi-orthodox single mom. He kept asking questions about “how,” and whether she was a lesbian, and teasing Malone about having a crush. She never asked questions about things like that; she figured people would tell her if they wanted her to know. Like when Jessica explained about the haircutting, that some Israeli parents don’t do the first haircut until the third birthday, and how for her it was tied into the old Lilith legends, which she had reinterpreted to mean an overprotective, overbearing feminine presence and wanted to exorcise from her life any tendencies to that, because she now had to be responsible for raising a boy.
They could talk about all manner of things like this, so Malone wasn’t going to endanger that by grilling Jessica on “where’s the daddy” bullshit. Today, as they sat in the coffee shop with tea (for Jessica) and decaf soy latte (for Malone), and the mellow melisma of Alicia Keys or some clone piped in (grating on Malone), nursing their children, they talked about vaccination. Nils’ sisters were against it, saying it led to all kinds of problems from autism to obesity, the latter a Crowleyesque evil in their parade of sins. Vaccination was one battle that she didn’t have to fight, thank god, because Nils thought his sisters were fucking nuts, of course you get a damn measles shot, it hadn’t hurt him any, had it?
“Look, with these two, we could pretty much swing them through a room full of chicken pox germs and they’d be fine,” said Jessica. “I mean we’re nursing, they’re big, no respiratory problems. The thing that gets me,” she lowered her voice, although there were naught but nannies around, all busy talking to each other, “is when an upper-middle class woman decides not to get her kids vaccinated, she’s relying on herd immunity. So her kid catches something, that’s bad enough. But then her kid passes it on to a kid who hasn’t had a vaccination, maybe has asthma, maybe HIV, and that’s the kid who gets really sick.” She leaned back and spoke in a normal tone again. “I was a red-diaper baby, can you tell?”
Malone was trying to think of a way to ask her over to her house sometime when she saw the time. She popped Linney loose and put her boob back in her bra, said her goodbyes, and headed out to shoot a brand new kitchen in a Great Falls home about 10 times the size of hers.