“But, Mama,” Olivia interrupted, “didn’t you think you’d missed out on something you truly wanted?”
“Think?” Her mother laughed. “With eight little tykes hanging on to me, I didn’t have time to think!”
It seemed that no matter who she asked it was the same story. “Bounce a baby on your knee, and you’ll forget about everything else,” Sara Sue said.
“But,” Olivia questioned, “weren’t you planning to be a newspaper reporter?”
“At one time, maybe,” her friend said. “But once Willie came along…”
As the days went by Olivia started to imagine a heavy weight tugging at the hem of her skirt, and at night when she closed her eyes and waited to drift off to sleep she could hear a baby crying. One night she dreamt of sitting at the switchboard with a stomach so large and round that, try as she may, she could not reach across the tandem board far enough to connect a call.
The following Saturday Francine Burnam stopped in for a visit. Eight months ago she had added another one to her litter, and she was accompanied, of course, by all four children, the youngest of them howling like a banshee. “He’s teething,” Francine apologized and jiggled the baby from one shoulder to the other. Olivia was about to suggest that Alma Porter used a piece of ice to soothe her baby’s gums, but before the words were out of her mouth Francine, who already looked like a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, started to wail. “Oh, Lord!” She flopped down onto the sofa. “What have I let myself get into?”
“The baby crying has probably gotten you a bit frazzled,” Olivia suggested. “Once his tooth comes in, everything will be just fine.”
“Fine?” Francine exclaimed. “Fine?! Maybe for you! You’ve got a job where you’re appreciated! Try taking care of four kids, and then see how you feel!”
Olivia was taken aback by the outburst. “But surely Joe helps?” she said.
“Oh, yeah,” Francine answered. “He helps—helps himself to a piece of pie and tells the kids to shut up because the noise is giving him a headache. He’s got a headache. Ha, that’s a joke! He’s concerned about his headache, never mind that I’m the one who listens to their carrying on every hour of every day.”
“That’s not even the worst of it! Now that he’s got me knocked up with a fifth kid, I find out he’s carrying on with some redhead who works in his office. He bought that little whore a fur coat,” she moaned. “Imagine that! A fur coat, when I’m wearing dresses older than the kids.”
“If I were you, I’d divorce him,” Olivia growled.
Francine started to cry even harder. “Oh, yeah,” she sobbed, “and just what am I supposed to do with all these kids?” Just then Joe Junior, the eldest of the bunch, punched his brother in the face, and a new level of wailing ensued.
Suddenly Olivia could see the bars of an invisible cage, and she told herself that this was the truth of what happened. First came the itch, then the babies, then a woman was forever locked into a lifetime of drudgery. It happened to Francine, a woman who’d once worn chiffon dresses and polished pink fingernails, a woman who’d read poetry and loved music. It happened because Francine allowed it to happen. She’d donned a white satin gown and pranced down the aisle like a happy cow unknowingly headed for the slaughter house. If it happened to Francine, it could happen to anybody.
Two weeks later Olivia slipped the diamond ring from her finger and returned it to Herbert. She claimed that although she cared for him, marriage was simply out of the question.
“But, sweetheart,” he said bewilderedly, “have I offended you? Have I done something to cause such a change of heart?”
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Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13