Chapter 5 – Julia‌

Hello Beautiful

Julia a d rose did ’t speak on the way to the airport. William hadn’t wanted Julia to drive the borrowed car; she was so pregnant

her belly touched the wheel even with the seat pushed back. He’d offered to chauffeur them to O’Hare, but Julia knew it had to be just her and her mother. If Rose was going to communicate something to Julia—some missing information to explain her leaving, or regret for the decision—it wouldn’t happen with William present. But Rose kept her face stony as they parked the car, checked her luggage, and walked to the gate.

Julia said, “I’ll send you a photo of the baby when he’s born.” Rose nodded. “Don’t be so sure it’s a boy.”

“Everyone says it is, because of how I’m carrying.”

Julia and Rose stopped suddenly. Cecelia was standing by the gate, holding Izzy on her hip. She was wearing her painting clothes: jeans and a splattered long-sleeved shirt. Her hair was held back with a yellow bandanna that used to belong to Charlie. She mirrored her mother’s stony expression.

Cecelia said, “I won’t let you leave without meeting your first grandchild.”

Rose’s eyes darkened. She looked pale and hard. Julia could tell she was thinking about her husband lying on the hospital floor.

“My first grandchild is right here.” Rose pointed at Julia’s belly. “No,” Cecelia and Julia said, at the same time.

Rose took a step back.

Izzy, who was missing her morning nap, rubbed at her eyes with the backs of her hands and frowned at everyone.

“It’s going to be so hot in Florida,” Julia said, trying to steer the conversation to a place that made sense, that had potential for peace. As the words left her mouth, though, she knew they were meaningless. “You’ve never liked the heat, Mama.”

“You don’t have to be this stubborn,” Cecelia said.

Julia felt a tremor run through her body. She’d known there would be an important conversation with her mother at the airport—she’d felt this in her bones—but she hadn’t known it would include Cecelia. She felt a pinch of jealousy, because her younger sister had stepped in front of her again. Cecelia was almost nineteen and seemed more powerful, more certain, in motherhood than she had been before. She was pretty and wearing clothes that fit her. Julia felt as big as the ocean, and her thoughts swam like fish in her head.

“Are you trying to kill me too?” Rose said to Cecelia. “Right before I get on an airplane to have some relaxation for the first time in my life?”

Oh no, Julia thought.

“You can’t really, truly believe that I had anything to do with Daddy’s death.” Cecelia pointed a look at Rose that said, If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s yours.

There were people all around them—eating snacks, drinking coffee, making sure they had what they needed in their carry-on bags—but Julia couldn’t have said whether there were ten strangers in the terminal or one hundred. Were they watching and listening to her mother and sister stab each other in the heart?

“Daddy said that you never spoke to your mother again after she turned you out.” Cecelia shook her head, and so Izzy shook hers too. “I wanted to say goodbye and tell you that I always loved you and that I’ll tell Izzy only good stories about you. And you know why? Not

for you, Mom. I’m going to do that for me. I don’t want to get bitter and angry like you. I want to miss you, because I love you.”

“You shouldn’t talk like this,” Rose said. “I’d like to sit down.” And she went to sit in one of the waiting-area chairs. The tremors coursing through Julia’s body seemed to pass over her mother’s face, but Rose said nothing until the boarding announcement was made.

“Do you have everything you need for the flight?” Julia said, and then thought, Why can I only say stupid things? She wanted to be in this moment with her mother and sister, but she wasn’t. She was a cheap bouncy ball in the middle of a gunfight.

Rose directed her attention at Cecelia. “I choose what conversations I have, young lady. Not you. There’s no virtue in being mouthy.” Rose nodded, as if in agreement with herself, and then walked slowly toward the boarding tunnel, where she showed the flight attendant her ticket and disappeared from sight.

Izzy made a soft noise and bounced in her mother’s arms.

The two sisters looked at each other. “I didn’t know I was going to come here when I woke up this morning,” Cecelia said. “I just found myself walking to the train.”

The airport thrummed around them: overhead announcements, the clack of bags being set down, the murmur of conversation. Julia said, “Could you drive the car back to the city? I think the baby is coming.”

“Now?” Cecelia’s eyes widened, and she kissed her sister on the cheek. Izzy leaned forward from her mother’s arms to do the same. One firm kiss, and one butterfly-light.

“Of course he’s coming,” Cecelia said. “Let’s go.”

“You were so brave,” Julia said, as she let herself be led down the hallway. Her voice was dim in her own ears, and these would be the last words she would say out loud for a while. She could feel some kind of vast power pulling her within herself.

They didn’t have a car seat, so Julia half-sat and half-lay in the back seat, holding Izzy with both hands.

“Hang on,” Cecelia said. “Just hang on until we get to the hospital. I thought it was so silly when Daddy taught us to drive, since we live in a city and never owned a car. He told me that it was a valuable life skill and that I could be the driver when the four of us robbed a bank one day.”

Julia knew her sister was talking to keep her attention away from the pain, but it wasn’t pain exactly—more a smothering intensity. Every few minutes, she felt like she was being sat on by an invisible elephant—the weight crushed her—and then the elephant stood up, and she was herself again. Julia focused on keeping her hands on Izzy, who had fallen asleep beside her. She looked so perfect and beautiful in her sleep that Julia started to cry. No baby could ever be this cute again, she thought. Which means my baby won’t be this cute.

“There’s the river,” Cecelia said from the front seat. “Five more minutes. I’m going to paint a picture of Izzy and your baby together. I’ll paint one for each of us.”

When the elephant stood up, Julia thought, Mama is in the sky right now. She’s not even on this earth. She’s literally unreachable.

Cecelia seemed to hear her thoughts. “It’s Mom’s loss, not yours,” she said. “She’s going to miss everything, but you won’t. I won’t. I’ll call William and the others when we get to the hospital. All of us will be there.”

They reached the hospital, Cecelia peeled Julia’s fingers off Izzy’s onesie, and people—faceless strangers whose voices she couldn’t understand—helped her into a wheelchair. Julia wondered if they were the same people from the airport. She could hear the timbre of Cecelia’s voice, but the words wouldn’t separate into distinct shapes. Julia kept shifting her weight, twisting in the seat, trying to evade the elephant, who now refused to stand up.

Later she would be told that her labor was surprisingly fast for a first birth and that she arrived too late to have an epidural. Cecelia called the history department at Northwestern, but no one could track William down right away. It took thirty minutes before he was found in the university gym and then he ran, despite his bad knee, to the corner of the Northwestern campus where it was possible to find a cab. Sylvie abandoned her desk at the library. Emeline had been sitting alone in the house they grew up in, intent on spending every minute of the last day their family owned it inside its walls. She ran out the front door, though, when she got the call from her twin.

Because everything moved so quickly and William hadn’t yet arrived, Cecelia was in the delivery room, just as Julia had been with her. The ability to hear and understand words was the first of Julia’s capacities to go. Soon she was thinking in sentences without prepositions or adjectives. No, no more, stop, baby coming. It felt like a wall had fallen inside her and revealed that she was no more than an animal. This was a surprise to Julia, even from that place. She growled and mooed and caterwauled as her body somehow squeezed itself. The noises seemed to come from inside her and outside her, and she felt no shame. She felt power. She felt like a lioness, covered in sweat, rising up on the hard bed they’d laid her on, announcing, “Push,” as everything she was made of, in lockstep, guided the baby out of her body.

“It’s a girl!” Cecelia cried.

The elephant evaporated, the squeezing stopped, and Julia was herself again. Mostly herself, anyway. She realized that she was most certainly a mammal and had the ability to shake the world apart and create a human when she unleashed her power. She was a mother. This identity shuddered through her, welcome like water to a dry riverbed. It felt so elemental and true that Julia must have unknowingly been a mother all along, simply waiting to be joined by her child. Julia had never felt like this before. Her brain was a gleaming engine, and her resources felt immense. She was clarity.

Julia held the baby for what felt like only a few seconds before the nurse whisked the infant to the nursery to be washed and wrapped in a blanket. Cecelia left the room to tell the others the news. Julia shook her head, in disbelief and joy. She couldn’t believe how fast her mind was moving, but perhaps these truths had been inside her all along and were accessible now because she’d given birth. She saw everything so clearly. She had spent her whole life trying to fix other people—her parents, her sisters, William—but that had been a fruitless endeavor; she could see that now. She couldn’t keep her father alive or her mother in Chicago or Cecelia celibate or William ambitious. She’d just been fine-tuning her skills for now, for what mattered, for motherhood. She would protect and celebrate her baby girl and let everyone else do whatever they wanted. With her daughter, Julia was complete. She realized, amazed: I love myself. That had somehow never been true before.

William entered the room with a nervous smile on his face. Julia had been frustrated with her husband for weeks, but inside her new warmth, she felt affection for him. She was love. She beamed at William and thought: I never needed you. Did you know that? I thought I needed a husband, but I don’t actually need anyone. I could have done everything by myself. William bent his long body to hug her, and Julia wrapped her arms around his neck. She told him how excited she was for him to see the baby girl she’d made.

whe julia a d baby Alice were home in the Northwestern apartment with the sunlight streaming through the living room window, they set up in the armchair. The nurse in the hospital had taught Julia how to breastfeed, and Alice had taken to it easily, so they spent their days in that chair with feeding and resting as their only activities. Breastfeeding made both Julia and Alice sleepy. Julia was surprised every time she woke to find that she had slept sitting

up, in the middle of the day. Time moved like waves across a waterbed; hours and minutes surged and then settled under her heavier weight. She never knew what day of the week it was, to the extent that each time William told her he was leaving for work, Julia was startled. When he was home, her husband brought her food and glasses of water, and took care of dishes and laundry, and let her sisters in when they rang the doorbell. Julia felt drugged with a kind of dazed happiness with the baby in her arms.

Her newfound power was like a wonderful secret. She smiled to herself at odd moments, thinking of it, but she allowed herself this rest, this recovery, to gather her strength. Sometimes when the baby napped, Julia would lie beside her and daydream about the future. She would become truly independent. When the baby was a little older, she would call Professor Cooper and ask him for work. She would use her gleaming brain, and while William was in graduate school, she would make money. There would be no more financial hiccups, with her in the mix. She could see this new life so clearly. Emeline worked in a daycare, so Julia could leave Alice with her loving aunt when she went to work. With two incomes, she and William could buy a house sooner rather than later. They could afford to send Alice to private school. This vision was less complicated and fraught than any other that Julia had had in her life, because instead of depending on her husband, she was depending on her own capacity, which had been revealed to be limitless.

Hour to hour, though, the baby pulled Julia’s attention as if she were a magnet. Julia had thought Alice would be a boy, but regardless of the gender, she’d expected the baby to look like Izzy. Newborn Izzy had been dark-eyed and serious. Alice, though, had sea-blue eyes and a friendly expression. She seemed interested in and somehow optimistic about the landscape around her. Sylvie used Charlie’s old camera to take a picture of Julia and Alice in the armchair, to send to Rose. Julia had expected it to be difficult to smile for this particular photo, to express anything other than loss or

anger. To her surprise, though, she beamed. The pain of her mother’s departure had nearly disappeared; all that remained was the faintest trace of a bruise. The obvious explanation was that Alice’s birth had reshuffled Julia’s place in her family. She was the mother now. Alice was the daughter. Julia wondered if Rose had sensed that she was about to become a supporting character, instead of the main one, and left to avoid that fate.

In the middle of the night, in the armchair, Julia found herself talking out loud, not to her mother but to her father. It was him that she missed in those moments. In the darkness, it was easy to imagine Charlie sitting on the couch, his eyes filled with delight each time Alice waved a tiny hand or pursed her lips. “Daddy, she’s exquisite, isn’t she? You would adore her. Her middle name is Padavano. Alice Padavano Waters.”

Emeline came over most days during the small window of time between her shift at the daycare and her evening classes at the community college. She joked that she was taking the long road to graduation, because she was only able to manage one or two classes at a time toward her early-childhood education degree. She was enthralled with the new baby, though, and couldn’t bear to stay away. “I get to snuggle Alice,” she said into the newborn’s cheek, “and then go home at the end of the night to Izzy. I’m sooo lucky.”

Julia smiled at her sister’s happiness. “We need to find you someone to make babies with,” she said. “You’ll be the most amazing mother.”

“I know—I wish I could just skip ahead to that point.” Emeline was shy, and nervous around men. She stood behind her sisters in social settings, the same way she’d hidden behind them at parties when she was a child. “I’m a homebody,” Emeline said, whenever she had to explain herself to someone new. Her propensity to stay home was even greater since Izzy had been born. Emeline wanted to leave Izzy’s side only to visit Alice.

Alice was three weeks old when Emeline said, one afternoon when they were alone in the apartment, “I’ve noticed that William doesn’t seem to, well, hold the baby much. Do you think he’s scared?”

Alice was asleep, a solid, delicious weight against Julia’s chest, so she spoke softly. “You’re right. I’ve noticed that too.” William held the baby only when Julia directly asked him to—for instance, when she used the bathroom or took a shower. And he always walked directly to the bassinet or changing table and set Alice down. He never snuggled her or leaned his face down to kiss her soft cheek.

“I don’t know if he’s scared,” Julia said. “I don’t know what he’s feeling, because he won’t tell me.”

“I wonder if maybe it’s because his parents weren’t…normal,” Emeline said. “Maybe he doesn’t know how to act with her?”

This hadn’t occurred to Julia, but she shook her head. “I don’t think that’s it. He always says he’s fine, everything is fine.” She shifted in her chair, careful not to wake the baby. She found she was relieved to have the chance to share her frustration with her sister. “I thought it was so nice that William was doing the dishes and laundry, and I know it is, technically, but he’s clearly doing those things because they keep him away from Alice. Emmie, he doesn’t even look at her.”

“Well, he might just need more time. Men aren’t naturals with babies like we are. He’ll come around, though. How could he not? Alice is scrumptious,” she said, and peppered the baby’s foot with kisses.

Sunday was the only day that William had no classes or work, and his presence in the apartment threw off Julia and the baby’s normal routine. Julia sent her husband out for any errand she could think of and took a long afternoon nap, but it still felt like every time she looked up, William was in front of her, asking a silly question. Which shirt should he wear? Should he contact the movers about what time they planned to show up on the designated day? Did she

want him to ask the super about the elevator button? Did these grapes look okay to eat?

Julia finally said, “I can’t give you every single answer in the universe! I’m busy with the baby, and I don’t have time to take care of two children.”

William looked hurt, and he apologized. This irritated her too. Julia shifted in her chair, beneath the baby, and wished it were Monday morning. She could feel the real questions in their marriage lurking beneath the surface of William’s tiny ones. These questions were hers: Do you really want this life? Me, and Alice? Do you want to be here with us?

William asked fewer questions after that, but this meant that he spoke less. This irritated Julia too, and the way he avoided the baby made her increasingly sad. Now that one of the main equations of their marriage—William’s questions plus Julia’s answers equaled a plan—had broken down, they were awkward around each other. “Am I doing something wrong?” he asked her one night, after they’d turned out the lights. “Oh, William, you’re fine,” she said into the darkness, and then fell asleep.

When Cecelia visited next, Julia tried to explain her revelation while giving birth and how different she was now. She said, “Did you feel like an animal?”

Cecelia considered this. “Well, I don’t think I made the kind of noises you made or went quite as feral.” She grinned at her sister. “But I know what you mean, I think. If someone tried to hurt Izzy, I’d rip their face off.”

“You’re more powerful since you had Izzy.”

“Am I?” Cecelia said, with doubt in her voice. Izzy was on her lap. The baby could stand on her own now for a few wobbly moments, but she liked to pat Alice with great enthusiasm, so Cecelia stayed close.

“I convinced William to go to graduate school,” Julia said. “But I’m the one who should have gone. I could have gotten a PhD in

organizational psychology or gone to business school. I could run a business, don’t you think?”

Cecelia kissed Izzy’s soft cheek. “I think you’ve got some powerful hormones in your body and you should enjoy them while they last.”

That night, in the shadows, Julia said, “I miss you, Daddy. I wish you could have seen me as a mother. It would have made you smile.”

julia a d william moved into the bigger apartment in July, when Alice was eleven weeks old. The apartment had two bedrooms and a new kitchen, but the living room windows looked out over other buildings instead of the sky and a peaceful quad. Alice woke up less frequently in the night, so Julia slept in bed with the bassinet beside her. Although Julia had wanted to move before Alice’s birth, she’d come to appreciate the timing. This was where she would start her new life. She’d decided, without talking to William, that she’d start working when Alice was six months old. Julia eyed her closet and designated half of it for the business suits she would soon buy. She walked from room to room in the apartment, thinking: When I’m making money, we’ll buy a new sofa to go there and a soft rug for Alice to crawl on.

William was gone for long hours, studying in the library, attending graduate classes, and teaching a summer course. By teaching and taking classes during the summer, he would earn his degree sooner, but he looked exhausted and glassy-eyed when he was home. Now that the baby was a little older, Julia’s sisters visited less often. Cecelia and Emeline had their own apartment—a basement space with a tiny backyard for Izzy—and Sylvie had rented a studio on the top floor of a small building near the Lozano Library. Her sisters were busy, and Julia was no longer their focus.

Once a week, Julia phoned Rose. The call sounded like the long distance it covered: Sometimes there was static, and Rose sat on her condo’s balcony, where she could see a sliver of ocean, so there was noise on her end too. Wind, occasional car honks, perhaps the sea.

“The air is different here,” Rose said. “Softer. Saltier too.”

“Alice can almost roll over,” Julia said. “Did you get the last set of photos? The ones I took in the park?”

“Yes,” Rose said. “She looks healthy. Did I tell you the ladies and I take turns cooking dinner?”

Julia looked down at Alice, who was lying in her lap. The baby was holding and inspecting one of her feet. What a marvel, Alice seemed to be thinking. Look at this craftsmanship. Julia smiled.

She heard her mother say, You have to let me go.

“What did you say?” Julia said.

“I made enchiladas for the first time. They weren’t bad either.”

Julia shook her head to clear it. She said, “Mama, did you feel different after having me? After becoming a mother?”

“What a question! I barely remember that time, Julia. By the time you were Alice’s age, I was pregnant with Sylvie, wasn’t I? I was far too busy to think about how I felt.

Julia nodded. What had happened seemed to have happened only to her. “I have to go now, Mama. This call is expensive.”

When she hung up, Julia put Alice down for her nap. The baby was always amenable to the idea of sleeping. Each time she was laid in the bassinet, she seemed to set her mind to the task at hand. Alice closed her eyes, a small smile on her lips, and tried her best to sleep.

Julia pulled the shades and lay down on her own bed. She’d figured out why it was her father she’d yearned for since Alice was born. She wanted to explain to Charlie how she now saw the world, because he was the one who would understand. Her father had seen her power—understood its scope—before she had. When Julia told

him that she and William were getting married, Charlie had looked disappointed for a split second. That reaction hadn’t made sense to Julia at the time, because she knew her father liked William. But Charlie had stopped calling her his rocket around the same time, and Julia realized now that her father had hoped for more for her. He’d seen her potential and wanted to watch her soar, not marry and make a home. “I can do both, Daddy,” she said now into the room softened with the sound of light baby snores. “I’ll figure out how to do both.”

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