Woman No. 17

Edan Lepucki

June 5, 2017 
The following is from Edan Lepucki’s novel, Woman No. 17. Lady Daniels needs help taking care of her young son. S., a young artist, responds to a ad & will care for the toddler & watch out for her teenage son, Seth, whose connection to S. takes a disturbing turn. Edan Lepucki is a NY Times bestselling author, a staff writer at the Millions, the founder of Writing Workshops LA, & has published fiction & nonfiction in McSweeney's, the LA Times, the NY Times, the Cut, & elsewhere.

I was different with Seth. As soon as I found out I was pregnant with him, I drove to Planned Parenthood on Vermont in my beat-up hatchback. I wanted to pee in a cup, have it confirmed by a doctor, or at least a nurse, I didn’t care whether their clinic was in a mini-mall. I’d forgotten how long the wait could be without an appointment, and by the time the beleaguered Filipina woman told me I was indeed carrying a child, I was so hungry I could barely think.

She held up a plastic wheel with numbers on it. “When did you say your last period was?” I told her, and she bit her bottom lip as she turned the disk. It was like some ancient device. I imagined Cleopatra owning one.

“You’re about ten weeks along.” She glanced at the disk once more and told me my due date.

“What are my options?” I asked.

She was waiting for me to elaborate, so I did: “I want to terminate the pregnancy.”

I’d said those words before, it wasn’t a procedure I was unfamiliar with. I’d already fallen from grace four years before, when I was eighteen. Not that the words rolled off my tongue.

“Do you have some almonds or something?” I asked. “Excuse me?”

“I’m, just, really hungry. . . .”

And that’s when I pitched forward, off the exam table. My nose hit the linoleum. When I came to, there was blood all over the nurse’s hands and chest. Edwina, that was her name. “I’m gonna need some help in here,” Edwina was yelling, like we were on a medical drama and I was dying of heart failure.

They got me back on the exam table and gave me some Gatorade and, weirdly, a fig. This was before every woman carried an energy bar in her purse. Now I never faint.

They called Marco. He took three hours, who knows what he was doing, probably helping some guy do a thing. That night he told me to move into his studio apartment in Koreatown. “Have my baby,” he whispered.

Of all the stupid decisions I’ve ever made in my life. A mother isn’t supposed to regret her child, so I won’t. What I will regret is my belief in Marco–because, even now, I can’t regret Marco. That night, I let him hold a bag of frozen broccoli to my face with one hand as he undid my jeans with the other. I let him say “I hope it’s a boy” as he pulled my jeans and then my underwear down my legs and off my ankles, the bag of broccoli balanced across my whole face so that I could neither see nor breathe very well. I let him yank off the bag and pull me on top of him as he said, “I guess we don’t have to be careful anymore.”

I wanted to believe that Marco and I could make a family. It didn’t matter that he only worked once a week at the Bagel Broker, plus odd jobs in his pickup truck, claiming that making money was a waste of a life. Or that he wrote spec scripts that no one ever read, or would read. Or that he sometimes didn’t call me for days at a time, or that he’d introduced me to his coworkers as his friend. So what? The baby would change him, and us. Had I known that Marco’s one and only wish was to give his mother a grandchild before her kidneys failed her for good, I might have stopped to reconsider. I wasn’t a genie in a bottle, I was a twenty-two-year-old woman. I should have known that he was doing it for his mother because he called her that same night. I heard them talking when I emerged from the bathroom.

“No, Mom. Lady.” A long pause. “A baby! Can you believe it?”

At the time, I was working as a personal assistant to an older actress. She was an actress in name only; she hadn’t worked in over a decade. Not that it mattered; she lived off her dead husband’s money and had the dubious honor of playing, in 1972, a woman slashed to death in some it’s-so-bad-it’s-good cult horror movie. She very seldomly traveled to conventions to sign autographs, and I’d tag along to make sure she had a functioning pen and a hot mug of ginger-lemon tea. When we weren’t traveling, it was my duty to book her doctor’s appointments, take her cat to the vet, and pick up her dry cleaning. Occasionally, I’d have to shoo away a schlubby fan who rang the doorbell, the scary-movie-themed star map clenched in his fist. It was an easy job, and the Actress’s damask curtains and self-playing piano comforted me. They were the sorts of things my mother might buy if she had a mansion on Benedict Canyon Drive. My mother and I hadn’t spoken since I began dating Marco, and I wasn’t so dumb that I didn’t see my job for what it was: the Actress paid me to be her best friend, and because I needed a mommy, I allowed the Actress to kiss my cheek as she handed me my paycheck.

The stability was nice too; back then everything felt a little precarious. My three roommates and I made just enough money to cover rent, food, and booze. It was a questionable lifestyle: the shower mold, the stolen cable, and a gangster neighbor who came over with his bong every now and again. I thought I was all right with it, but when I decided to have Marco’s baby a great relief sputtered through me like an undone balloon. I’d been a middling student of English in college, and I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I was in love with a man my mother had called a “pathetic loser.” Now that I was having his baby, I had a plan, a purpose. “I’m moving out,” I announced to my roommates at the next house meeting. “I’m going to be a mom.” I didn’t try to hide the triumph in my voice.

If I could have been pregnant forever, I would have. I loved watching my body change, it was like puberty but without the emotional trauma, and I loved being doted on. The Actress gave me a bloomer set from Neiman’s and a check for $5,000. Now that I was carrying his baby, Marco called me his girlfriend and always returned my calls. We painted a wall of his studio a bright yellow. The crib would be pushed against it.

I didn’t tell my mother. I imagined one of her friends seeing me at the supermarket and reporting the news, shocked. That I hadn’t broken our stalemate to tell her myself would wound her, and I knew she’d pretend to already know. She was like that: a liar.

Instead, when Marco’s mother asked me to call her Mom, I complied. And when she left our apartment I let Marco fuck me until   I neighed and kicked like a horse. Afterward, naked and slick with sweat, my belly so large I couldn’t bend over to tie my own shoes, I let Marco feed me: he knew how to poach eggs, and I loved poached eggs. The yolk would slime down my chin and I’d lick it back into my mouth. I was going to be a mother and for the first time in maybe forever I was happy.

For those thirty-some weeks, Marco and I were in love. I finally held his attention, which was what I’d wanted all along. Did Seth, in his amniotic chamber, intuit all that was happening? Some parents- to-be are too disturbed to have sex during pregnancy. It didn’t bother me, I understand the basics of anatomy, and I felt that if my unborn child were somehow witnessing my congress with his father, it would be a privilege. His papa loved his mama.

But  I must have  known that Marco’s  attention was temporary.

That made me want it all the more badly.

Seth has always been a keen observer, watching at the edge of a scene without offering a single line of dialogue. I bet he came to know the sounds of traffic on Normandie, where we lived, and the tension born of too little residential parking. He must have recognized the coos of his grandmother, Marco’s mother, and felt my annoyance at having to raise the volume on our TV for her. He would have heard the sound of the needle hitting whatever record Marco wanted to play, no matter what time of day or night it was, and the rasp of the Actress’s voice when she called for me from her bedroom. When Seth smelled potpourri and Tiger Balm, he no doubt knew we were in her large dark mansion. I bet he could feel my heart cartwheeling each time I opened the Actress’s front door to see those wide, carpeted stairs, how they split into two at the second floor, like a giant letter T. “A staircase fit for Fred and Ginger,” I said to Marco once. Marco didn’t get it, he didn’t watch old movies, but Seth would.

If Seth came to recognize what was present in his world to come, he must have also sensed what was absent. My mother, for one: her voice, and her hand on my stomach (not that she would have wanted to touch a pregnant belly, but I would have made her). Also: my father and Marco’s father. Both men were dead, which meant that the only male Seth heard regularly was Marco, and Marco didn’t have much use for conversation. I hate to confer magical powers on a mute, but even now I wonder whether my son decided in the womb that he wouldn’t speak. He’d keep it all inside.

Did Seth know what he was being born into? Maybe he intuited that the love between his parents was circumstantial, and that most of the time his father shuffled between lust and apathy. I am sure he knew that for all my happiness, I was lost and afraid. Sometimes at night I prayed that my pregnancy would last forever. I never spoke these prayers aloud, and I don’t have much belief in God, so who was I talking to? Seth was my only listener.

When I pushed him out of me, he didn’t cry. I tried to describe the moment to Karl on one of our early dates. “I’m pretty sure that’s normal,” he said, trying to comfort me. “They had to suck the mucus or what-have-you out of his throat first, didn’t they?” But it wasn’t just that, I said. Seth’s cry was hoarse when he finally let it out, and the look on his tiny wrinkled face told me that making the sound pained him. I think it did.

I should have felt protective of my baby at that moment, but instead I was disgusted. They placed his writhing body atop my chest and I almost asked them to remove him. It’s not that I wanted him to be taken away, it’s that I wanted him back inside.

Even in my weakest moments, even when we were having our big fight, I never told Karl that.



From Woman No. 17.  Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2017 by Edan Lepucki.

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