The Year We Turned Forty
CHAPTER ONE June 2005
The labor-and-delivery nurse belted out the command as Jessie shook her head defiantly in response, her entire body trembling, sweat and tears dripping down her face, pooling at the base of her neck. Even as the baby crowned, she knew she wasn’t ready for its arrival.
“I can’t,” she finally managed, her mouth as dry as a ball of cotton. She’d kill for a drink of something that would quench her thirst—in fact, she could vividly picture herself strangling the nurse in exchange for a tumbler piled high with huge cubes of ice and filled to the brim with cold water.
“You can do this.” Her husband Grant’s breath felt like fire on her ear, his words fast and fumbled, desperation lacing every one. He and the nurse had been having a not-so-subtle conversation with their eyes for the last hour, their concern heightened with every raised eyebrow and pointed look at the baby’s heart monitor attached to Jesse’s protruding belly. “You have to. It’s time. Please, honey.” Grant’s pale skin was glistening under the
fluorescent lights, his dark hair matted against his head as if he was the one who’d been in labor for almost twenty hours. He rubbed the corners of his dark green eyes vigorously, and Jessie knew he was searching for the encouraging yet forceful words that would make her want to push the baby out, but his slumped shoulders exposed how close he was to admitting defeat.
Her pregnancy had been difficult for so many reasons, and Jessie wasn’t one bit surprised that it was culminating in an arduous labor. In her mind, she deserved every painful contraction, every minute that clicked by without relief.
Jessie could feel her baby fighting its way out now, and she remembered why that severe burning sensation between her legs was called the ring of fire. She tried to concentrate on the hideous paintings of pastel floral arrangements adorning every wall, but the searing pain yanked her back to reality just as her doctor walked into the room, effortlessly releasing the commanding words Grant was having trouble articulating. “This baby is coming—now—and you have a job to do here, Jessie.”
“Okay,” Jessie huffed before taking a deep breath, gathering a current from deep inside her, and pushing with a force she didn’t realize she had. The baby’s first cries unleashed a tornado of emotions—of joy and sadness, relief and anxiety. As her newborn son was placed on her chest and she inhaled his smell, she was bewildered by how holding her baby for the first time could be both the best and the worst moment of her life.
• • •
“What do you think is taking so long?” Gabriela glanced at the clock on the wall, her long nails tapping the ripped navy blue armrest beside her, her makeup from the birthday party the night before smudged beneath her coffee-colored eyes. She was still
wearing her skintight emerald green dress. Despite the amniotic fluid stain down the side—Jessie’s water broke in a violent burst at Gabriela’s house the night before, splashing off the travertine tile and onto her dress—it was attracting more than a few approving glances.
“I’m sure it will be any minute now,” Claire declared calmly from behind a tattered copy of an old tabloid magazine. The couple canoodling on the cover had long since split up. “I actually thought because it’s her third kid she’d push like one time and poof, we’d have ourselves a baby.”
Gabriela glanced at the swinging doors once more, willing Grant to burst through them like a jubilant new father, dispersing candy cigars as he announced that the baby had arrived safely. When Jessie’s water broke, something had cracked open inside Gabriela too—an incredible desire to hold the infant, to nuzzle it against her and marvel at its ten tiny fingers and toes. She’d never wanted children of her own, and had never wavered, not even when her husband, Colin, would place yet another of their friends’ birth announcements in front of her with an expectant look in his eyes. She’d gently repeat her explanation—that she didn’t feel she was meant to be a mother. Then she’d watch the range of emotions ripple across his face—first the frustration that she wouldn’t change her mind for him, followed by the realization he’d never be someone’s father. But ultimately, the love he felt for Gabriela always won out. She’d been honest about how she felt since early in the relationship, and until they had married, she’d thought he had been on the same page. But then he would drop a hint here, make a comment there, and she often wondered when or if he’d finally stop bringing it up. Until eventually, he did.
Which is when something unexpected happened.
Gabriela had recently turned forty. When she did, it revealed a hole inside of her she hadn’t known was there. Now, she couldn’t wait to see the look on Colin’s face when she told him she was ready to be a mom.
• • •
Claire eyed Gabriela discreetly from behind her magazine, watching her carefully cross and uncross her long legs. Gabriela could be described as a lot of things: organized, practical, whip smart, even nurturing. But worrisome and anxious were not words Claire would ever use, and Gabriela’s nervous behavior baffled her. She was surprised Gabriela had not only come to the hospital but waited here this entire time. It wouldn’t have been at all out of character for her to have stayed at the party and visited the baby once it was cleaned, bundled, and sleeping soundly in a bassinet. Jessie had actually tried to convince both of them to do just that. Through clenched teeth and short, heavy breaths, while Grant was pulling up the car, Jessie had practically begged them not to ride with her to the hospital, to please stay and enjoy the party because it was theirs too, the urgency in her best friend’s blue eyes taking her by surprise, almost enough to make Claire agree.
Gabriela’s, Jessie’s, and Claire’s birthdays fell within a few months of each other—Gabriela in late May, Claire in June, and Jessie in July—and they’d made a vow almost twenty years before, while sipping beers at a dive bar in Newport Beach, their feet crunching the peanut shells covering the floor, to always celebrate together. Last night, they’d clasped hands as Colin toasted them, making a joke that forty was the new eighteen. Gabriela glowed as her husband captivated the crowd, Jessie shifted her weight, nervous and uncomfortable, her bladder
signaling she needed to go again. And Claire only half listened as she popped a strawberry into her mouth, shyly making eye contact with a man different from any she’d met before, who’d made her heart flutter when they’d grazed arms and shared small talk at the chocolate fountain earlier.
Claire’s phone vibrated in her hand and her stomach jumped as she realized the adorable guy she had bantered with last night was now calling. She pulled her magazine up slightly to hide her smile from Gabriela. Forty was starting off right.
• • •
Jessie squeezed her eyes, fighting the flow of tears that continued to gush from them, like a pipe that had burst inside her. She hugged her baby to her chest tightly, putting her finger inside his hand and watching as he gripped it. She studied her newborn son’s scrunched face, searching for her own features, trying to calm her rapid breath as she instantly recognized the shape of his nose and jut of his chin. She glanced over at Grant. Did he see it too? She had promised herself that she would tell him today. That he deserved to know the truth. She even let herself believe that he might stay anyway, although she was smart enough to realize that it would never be the same, that she’d never again catch him looking at her like he’d just met her and was intrigued by all the things he didn’t yet know.
Grant pressed his lips to her forehead and combed his fingers through her damp hair. She looked at him hard, trying to etch each angle of his face into her memory, so she could always remember what it was like to have him love her like this.
“I have something to tell you,” Jessie said in a lowered voice as she glanced at the nurses busily cleaning up.
Grant gently took the baby from her and cuddled him against his broad chest, his eyes glinting with tears. “I love the girls with all my heart, but I never knew it would feel this way to have a son.”
Jessie swallowed the words that had been sitting on her tongue and made a choice. She had no idea if it was the right one, but it was the only one she was capable of making. “I’m so glad. He looks just like you.”