There are things that need to get done. Erykah’s hair needs to be braided, the confetti cake needs to be iced and decorated with sprinkles, and I still haven’t changed the bed sheets in the guest room. I’m vaguely aware that I’ve been in the bathroom too long but something will not let me leave. My sister will be here in an hour. I wonder if she’s showing yet. She has to be, she’s nearly four months along. Absentmindedly, my right hand moves to my stomach and my fingers brush flesh that will never expand with life. The flat emptiness feels cold and rigid against my palm and suddenly I can feel tears piercing my eyes.
“Jill? Are you in there, hon?” Brad taps on the door before coming in.
“Yeah, I’m putting in these damn contacts,” I say, hoping that will explain any redness in my eyes.
Brad kisses me on the cheek and sits on the edge of the bathtub. I take out a brush, run it through my hair, and look at him through the mirror. It’s true what they say about men and aging. Sometimes I swear he looks better now than when we met in graduate school. Three years of dating and twelve years of marriage have given him a few crow’s feet to garnish his emerald eyes and salt and peppered hair, but it only serves to make him look more sophisticated and worldly. Forty-one looks better on him than thirty-nine does on me, but I can’t complain too much; the bags under my eyes and the worry lines had only appeared in the last three years.
“I’m leaving to pick up Karen in a few minutes.”
“Is Erykah going with you?” I ask, putting the brush down.
“No, she’s pretty excited about icing the cake.” Brad looks down at the floor then back at me through the mirror. “Promise you’ll try today, with Erykah I mean.”
I open my mouth to protest, but the lie chokes itself in my throat, and I stop short. “Okay.”
At the doorway, I watch as Brad whisks Erykah into his arms, raising her so she can touch the ceiling, then brings her back down to his chest. Erykah laughs and puts her little caramel arms around his neck.
“You and Mommy better have that cake ready for me when I get back, because I’m going to eat it all by myself.”
“No, you can’t!” Erykah squeals, her six-year-old voice fearful yet resolute.
“Yes I can. I’m going to do it just like this. Nom, nom, nom.” Brad takes her tiny fingers and pretends to eat them. I smile to myself and bring my hand to my stomach again only to feel the emptiness return. I cannot help but think of our own children, the ones we made with love and hope, and how wonderful he would have been with them.
Erykah shakes with laughter and tries to get away, but Brad’s embrace is strong and steady. “You can’t eat my fingers!”
Brad continues to tickle her and pretend-eat her fingers while she giggles and squirms. Watching them, I suddenly feel a pang of— I don’t know what it is exactly. All I know is she never giggles like that with me. To be fair I’ve given her no reason to.
They play for another minute, then Brad tells Erykah he will eat her toes when he gets back, to which she strongly protests, saying she needs them. He kisses me on the cheek, her on the forehead, and then leaves to pick up my sister from the airport.
Erykah watches out of the living room window until his car is out of sight, a ritual she repeats every time he leaves the house. When she can no longer see the silver Mercedes, she walks over to me and looks at me. Her big brown eyes are filled with silent expectation.
It’s so easy for Brad. He dove into this head first and came up swimming, all the while I feel as though I am treading and sinking. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been easier with my own child, one that I would have carried with me for months and given life to. We would have shared a bond that you can only make from sharing your body and blood. This makes me think of Karen and all the happiness she will share with her little one. Will she have that bond with her daughter that I never had a chance to have with mine? But then again, there is something about this girl. She is real and standing in front of me and her laughs fill me with a peace that is always followed by the doubt of whether or not she is enough.
“How about we braid your hair, then we can ice the cake for Aunt Karen?” I say.
She nods, seeming to approve of this plan, and we head upstairs to her room. I sit on the edge of her Barbie pink bed while she sits on the floor between my knees. I begin to make a part down the middle of her thick curly black hair, remembering the two French braids she had the day Brad and I met her.
* * *
“What are you waiting for honey?” Brad looked at me quizzically as I paused at the playroom door. Today was the day. The day we would get to meet her, the little girl who had been just a name and picture on a file until now.
Female. Age 5. African-American.
The file went on to say that her biological father had been killed by police fire in an unresolved incident and her mother died from complications during childbirth. She was raised by her grandmother until she too died two years ago, and Erykah was placed in the care of the Children’s Home Society of Florida.
Today we were taking her home to be our foster child. Brad could hardly sleep the night before from elation. I couldn’t sleep from guilt. He didn’t know about the last one. The miscarriage I’d had a month ago. The three we had suffered before were devastating to him and he said he couldn’t go through another one. That’s why I had thought my last pregnancy would have made it. We had already suffered so much and I thought that for me to get pregnant, without even trying, while we were in the middle of the Foster Care proceedings was a miracle. I promised myself to tell him once I got to month three, then we could stop with the foster care and be a real family.
I lost the baby during the second month.
I put my hand on my stomach. “Nothing, let’s meet her.”
* * *
I finish the first braid and notice that we haven’t spoken since we entered her room. “Do you remember the day that Daddy and I met you?”
She nods and scratches her knees.
“He was so excited.”
“Were you excited?” she asks, and fidgets on the floor.
I pause on the braid I’m working on before answering. “Yes.”
It’s a lie that I go to bed each night praying to be true, only to wake up with the same uncertainties that I fall asleep with. I know that Brad feels none of these doubts. With her, he seems to forget about the endless trips to the doctor and the pain of losing our unborn children. To him, there is only her, which is why we’ve started the adoption proceedings. A part of me envies him and a part of me resents him. I want to love her as freely as he does but how can I forget them?
My little ones who never drew a breath.
“Here, all done. Do want to wear bows at the ends?”
She nods and I get up and get two pairs from her night stand. “Do you want to wear the white or the pink?”
“Pink!” she says, and I’m not surprised. I don’t think she’s worn the white pair since we bought the two-set pack. I bend down and put the tiny bows on the ends of her shoulder-length hair. My finger brushes her cheek and I notice the contrast of my pale skin against hers. She looks at me with her soft brown eyes and I want so say something to make her giggle or smile but the words fail me and suddenly I am frustrated with myself.
We head in to the kitchen to ice the cake and her braids bounce as she skips along the hallway humming. I am still trying to think of something to say when she turns to me.
“What does Aunt Karen look like?” she asks as I get the huge bowl of homemade icing from the fridge.
“She looks like me minus the grey hairs.”
“Why doesn’t she have grey hairs?”
“Because she’s a lot younger than me.”
“How young is she?”
“Twenty-four,” I say, trying to mask any contempt that may escape in my tone.
“Does she go to work like you and Daddy or does she go to grown-up school like Cousin Stacey?”
“She dropped out of grown-up school and she sells paintings with her boyfriend.”
“Is he coming too?”
“I hope not.”
“You don’t like him?”
I sigh. “I like him. He’s just weird to me.”
“Why is he weird?”
“He has a bunch of tattoos and piercings. That doesn’t mean he’s bad,” I say quickly. “He’s just a bit odd.”
“Do you think I’m odd?”
I look at her in shock. “No. I think you’re beautiful and amazing and I hope that—that I can be better about showing you that.”
We stare at each other for a moment then she looks at the bowl in my hand. “Can we make it pink?”
The question pulls me out of my daze and I look down at the white icing. “We sure can. There’s food coloring in the cabinet.”
I hand her the red coloring while I have the yellow and we set out to turn the icing pink, but something goes wrong along the way. The creamy substance starts to turn a strange color. “Oh no. I think we added too much of one.” I go to the cabinet and look at the box instructions. “Honey, what color is the icing now?”
She pauses. “It looks orange.”
“Okay.” I walk back still reading the instructions and sit down in the chair in front of the kitchen table. I hear Erykah gasp and I start to feel a cool sensation spread across my rear end.
“I’m sorry!” Erykah yells. “I couldn’t see the icing when you asked so I put the bowl on the chair.”
I feel my cheeks go red and I get up and try to look around to my back. I see enough to know that my butt is covered in the odd-colored icing. I hear a stifled giggling and look up to see Erykah holding her tiny hand in front of her mouth. Seeing her makes me begin to giggle too, and she erupts in her infectious laughter. I laugh until tears run down my face and I feel what Brad must feel whenever he plays with Erykah.
Maybe she is enough.