Chapter no 15 – Unsolicited Advice

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Your life is about to change.” “Excuse me?”

“Your life. It’s about to change.” A woman just ahead of Elizabeth in line at the bank had turned to point at Elizabeth’s stomach. Her face was grim.

“Change?” Elizabeth said innocently as she cast her eye down upon her round form as if noticing it for the first time. “Whatever do you mean?”

It was the seventh time that week someone felt compelled to inform her that her life was about to change and she was sick of it. She’d lost her job, her research, bladder control, a clear view of her toes, restful sleep, normal skin, a pain-free back, not to mention all the little assorted freedoms everyone else who is not pregnant takes for granted—like being able to fit behind a steering wheel. The only thing she’d gained? Weight.

“I’ve been meaning to get this checked,” she said, laying a hand on her stomach. “What do you think it could be? Not a tumor, I hope.”

For a split second, the woman’s eyes widened in shock, then instantly narrowed. “No one likes a smart-aleck, missy,” she gruffed.

“You think you’re tired now,” a wiry-haired woman commented an hour later as Elizabeth yawned in a grocery store checkout line, shaking her head as if Elizabeth were already showing signs of personal weakness. “Just you wait.” Then she launched into a dramatic description of the terrible twos, the tiresome threes, the filthy fours, and the fearsome fives, barely taking a breath before piling into the angsty adolescents, the pimply pubescents, and

especially, especially, oh lord, the troubled teens, noting always that boys were harder than girls, or girls were harder than boys, and on and on and on until her groceries were bagged and loaded and she was forced to get back into her faux-wood-paneled station wagon and return home to her own personal set of ingrates.

“You’re carrying high,” the man at the gas station observed. “Definitely a boy.”

“You’re carrying high,” the librarian commented. “Definitely a girl.”

“God has given you a gift,” said a priest who’d noticed Elizabeth standing alone in front of an odd gravestone at the cemetery later that same week. “Glory be to God!”

“It wasn’t God,” Elizabeth said, pointing at a new tombstone. “It was Calvin.”

She waited until he walked away, then bent down and ran her finger over the complex engraving.

Calvin Evans 1927–1955



“To make up for what happened,” cemetery management had told her, “we’ll not only provide a new tombstone, we’ll also make sure it includes

the whole quote this time.” But Elizabeth had decided against a second round with Marcus Aurelius, opting instead for a chemical response that resulted in happiness. No one else recognized it, but after what she’d been through, no one questioned it either.

“I’m finally going to see someone about this, Calvin,” she said, pointing to her bump. “Dr. Mason, the rower, the one who let me row in the men’s eight. Remember?” She stared at the inscription as if awaiting a reply.

Twenty-five minutes later, as she pressed a button in a narrow elevator, her only companion a fat man in a straw hat, she braced herself for more unsolicited advice. And sure enough, he reached out his hand and placed it on her belly as if she were a hands-on exhibit at the Natural History Museum. “I bet eating for two is fun,” he admonished, patting her, “but remember: one of them is just a baby!”

“Remove your hand,” she said, “or live to regret it.”

“Bada bada bada!” he sang, thumping her stomach like a bongo drum.

“Bada bada boom,” she rejoined, swinging her handbag directly into his crotch, the impact of which was compounded by a heavy stone mortar she’d picked up earlier that day from Chemical Supply. The man gasped, then doubled over in pain. The doors slid open.

“Have a bad day,” she said. She stomped down the hallway, encountering a seven-foot-tall stork wearing bifocals and a baseball hat. In its beak hung two bundles: one pink, one blue.

“Elizabeth Zott,” she said, moving past the stork to the receptionist. “For Dr. Mason.”

“You’re late,” the receptionist said icily.

“I’m five minutes early,” Elizabeth corrected, checking her watch.

“There’s paperwork,” the woman informed her, handing over a clipboard. Husband’s place of work. Husband’s telephone number. Husband’s insurance. Husband’s age. Husband’s bank account number.

“Who’s having the baby here?” she asked.

“Room five,” the receptionist said. “Down the hallway, second door on the left. Disrobe. Put on the gown. Finish the paperwork.”

“Room five,” Elizabeth repeated, clipboard in hand. “Just one question: Why the stork?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your stork. Why, in an obstetrician’s office? It’s almost as if you’re promoting the competition.”

“It’s meant to be charming,” the receptionist said. “Room five.”

“And since every patient of yours is one hundred percent aware that a stork isn’t going to spare them the pain of labor,” she continued, “why perpetuate the myth at all?”

“Dr. Mason,” the receptionist said, as a man in a white coat approached. “This is your four o’clock. She’s late. I tried to send her to room five.”

“Not late,” Elizabeth Zott corrected. “On time.” She turned to the doctor. “Dr. Mason, you probably don’t remember me—”

“Calvin Evans’s wife,” he said, drawing back in surprise. “Or no, I apologize,” he said, dropping his voice, “his widow.” Then he paused, as if trying to decide what to say next. “I’m so very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Evans,” he said, covering her hands with his and giving them a few shakes as if mixing a small cocktail. “Your husband was a good man. A good man and a good rower.”

“It’s Elizabeth Zott,” Elizabeth said. “Calvin and I weren’t married.” She paused, awaiting the receptionist’s tsk and Mason’s dismissal, but instead the doctor clicked a pen and tapped it into his breast pocket, then took her by the elbow and led her down the hallway. “You and Evans rowed in my eight a few times—do you remember? About seven months ago. Good rows, too. But then you never came back. Why was that?”

She looked at him, surprised.

“Oh, forgive me,” Dr. Mason said in a rush. “I’m so sorry. Of course. Evans. Evans died. I apologize.” Shaking his head in embarrassment, he pushed open the door to room 5. “Please. Come in.” He pointed to a chair. “And are you still rowing? No, what am I saying, of course not, not in your

condition.” He took her hands and turned them over. “But this is unusual. You still have the calluses.”

“I’m erging.” “Good god.”

“Is that bad? Calvin built an erg.”


“He just did. It’s all right, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes,” he said, “certainly. It’s just that I’ve never heard of anyone erging on purpose. Especially not a pregnant woman. Although now that I think about it, erging is good preparation for childbirth. In terms of suffering, I mean. Actually, both pain and suffering.” But then he realized pain and suffering had probably been a constant in her life since Evans died and he turned away to hide his latest gaffe. “Shall we take a quick look under the hood?” he said gently, gesturing to the table. Then he closed the door and waited behind a screen while she put on a dressing gown.

The examination was quick but thorough, punctuated with inquiries about heartburn and bloating. Was sleep difficult? Did the baby move at certain times? If so, for how long? And finally the big question: Why had she waited so long to come in? She was well into her last trimester.

“Work,” she told him. But that was a lie. The real reason was because she’d quietly hoped the pregnancy would take care of itself. End as these things sometimes do. In the 1950s, abortion was out of the question. Coincidentally, so was having a baby out of wedlock.

“You’re also a scientist, is that right?” he asked from the other end of her body.


“And Hastings kept you on. They must be more progressive than I thought.”

“They didn’t,” she said. “I’m freelancing.”

“A freelance scientist. I’ve never heard of such a thing. How does that work?”

She sighed. “Not very well.”

Registering the tone in her voice, he finished up quickly, tapping her belly here and there as if she were a cantaloupe.

“Everything looks shipshape,” he said as he stripped off his gloves. And when she didn’t smile or say anything in return, he said in a low voice, “For the baby at least. I’m sure this has been enormously difficult for you.”

It was the first time someone had acknowledged her situation, and the shock of it caught in her throat. She felt a cache of tears threatening escape just behind her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said gently, studying her face the way a meteorologist might watch a storm develop. “Please know you can talk to me. Rower to rower. It’s all confidential.”

She looked away. She didn’t really know him. Worse, she wasn’t sure, despite his assurances, that her feelings were allowable. She’d come to believe she was the only woman on earth who’d planned to remain childless. “If I’m being perfectly honest,” she finally said, her voice heavy with guilt, “I don’t think I can do this. I was not planning on being a mother.”

“Not every woman wants to be a mother,” he agreed, surprising her. “More to the point, not every woman should be.” He grimaced as if thinking of someone in particular. “Still, I’m surprised by how many women sign up for motherhood considering how difficult pregnancy can be

—morning sickness, stretch marks, death. Again, you’re fine,” he added quickly, taking in her horrified face. “It’s just that we tend to treat pregnancy as the most common condition in the world—as ordinary as stubbing a toe—when the truth is, it’s like getting hit by a truck. Although obviously a truck causes less damage.” He cleared his throat, then made a note in her file. “What I mean to say is, the exercise is helping. Although I’m not sure how you erg properly at this stage. Pulling into the sternum would be problematic. What about The Jack LaLanne Show? Ever watch him?”

At the mention of Jack LaLanne’s name, Elizabeth’s face fell. “Not a fan,” he said. “No problem. Just the erg, then.”

“I only kept on with it,” she offered in a low voice, “because it exhausts me to the point where I can sometimes sleep. But also because I thought it might, well—”

“I understand,” he said, cutting her off and looking both ways as if making sure no one else could hear. “Look, I’m not one of those people who believe a woman should have to—” He stopped abruptly. “Nor do I believe that—” He stopped again. “A single woman…a widow…it’s… Never mind,” he said as he reached for her file. “But the truth is, that erg probably made you stronger; made the baby stronger for that matter. More blood to the brain, better circulation. Have you noticed it has a calming effect on the baby? Probably all that back and forth.”

She shrugged.

“How far are you erging?” “Ten thousand meters.” “Every day?”

“Sometimes more.”

“Mother of god,” he whistled. “I’ve always thought pregnant women developed an extra capacity for suffering, but ten thousand meters? Sometimes more? That’s—that’s—actually, I don’t know what that is.” He looked at her with concern. “Do you have someone to lean on? A friend or relative—your mother—someone like that? Infants are hard work.”

She hesitated. It was embarrassing to admit that she had no one. She’d only gone to see Dr. Mason because Calvin had always insisted rowers enjoyed some sort of special bond.

“Anyone?” he repeated. “I have a dog.”

“I like it,” Mason said. “A dog can be tremendously helpful. Protective, empathetic, intelligent. What kind of dog—he, she?”


“Wait, I think I remember your dog. Three O’clock, something like that? Ugly as sin?”


“A dog and an erg,” he said, making a note in her file. “Okay.


He clicked his pen again, then set her file aside. “Now, as soon as you’re able—let’s say in a year— I want to see you back at the boathouse. My boat’s been looking for the right two seat and something tells me you’re it. You’ll have to arrange for a sitter, though. No babies in the boat. We have plenty of those as it is.”

Elizabeth reached for her jacket. “That’s very kind, Dr. Mason,” she said, assuming he was only trying to be nice, “but according to you I’m about to get hit by a truck.”

“An accident from which you’ll recover,” he corrected. “Look, I have an impeccable memory when it comes to rows, and I very much remember ours. They were good. Very good.”

“Because of Calvin.”

Dr. Mason looked surprised. “No, Miss Zott. Not just because of Evans. It takes all eight to row well. All eight. Anyway, back to the business at hand. I’m starting to feel a bit better about your situation. I know you’ve been through quite a shock with Evans’s passing, and then this,” he added, pointing to her belly. “But things will be fine. Maybe even better than fine. A dog, an erg, two seat. Excellent.”

Then he took both of her hands in his and gave them a cheerful squeeze, and although his words hadn’t made complete sense, compared to everything else she’d heard up to that point, they were the first that finally made some.

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