Other People’s Mothers

My husband and I sit in bed, sweating, on the first night of our vacation in St. Croix. The Danish-style cottage isn’t air conditioned, and the ceiling fans—though powerful—are no match for the island’s humidity. Even though the last vestiges of an island St. Patrick’s Day celebration are raging outside our window, we are crowded into a bed by the light of a Macbook Pro streaming Veronica Mars. It’s going to be a long week, and we need to get our rest while we still can. And from the dull pain in my abdomen, I’m going to get my period at any moment.

We’re in the Virgin Islands because my best friend, Erin, is marrying her long-time partner. We are the interlopers at a small, family-only wedding and we are exhausted by pleasantries and humidity. Even though we’ve been together for five years, I feel like I’m initiating my husband into serious only-child behavior: hiding.

I love the Rudnisky family like my own, but they are a sensory overload and I’m out of practice being around a large family. Erin is one of three Rudnisky siblings, and conversations tend to devolve among her family the way they never have in mine.

“Amanda, stop.”

“Erin, stop.”

“Mom, stop.”

And yet, they don’t stop.

The best way I know how to articulate my accelerated need to have children is to talk about the Rudniskys.

Growing up in the quiet, only-child domain of my protestant mother’s family, I spent too many holidays at the feet of adults. I learned how to vanish into a book, or listen to adult gossip without drawing attention to myself. The women in my family don’t see motherhood as the default option, which meant I was often the only kid at the table, absent a slew of cousins. It also meant that I was surrounded by positive examples of how to be if you didn’t want children: aunts who were breezy, careerist, zipping off to Egypt, Japan, or the Grand Canyon whenever they felt like it. I always assumed that I’d take after those aunts.

The Rudniskys lived across the street from my parents, when they were still together, in Marianna, PA. This was before the coal mine caught on fire and the town gave up and all of us scattered to the more remote hillsides of western Pennsylvania.

Mary Ann and my mother were pregnant together in 1979. Erin and I were born in the same hospital, in separate decades but only six months apart. I used to joke that the first six months of her life must have been torture. Her sister Amanda showed up two years later and insisted that Erin and I were both boring until she came along.

In thirty-four years, we have grown apart, back together and apart, like a refrain. Her cell phone number is one of the only numbers I can still remember, because it hasn’t changed since 1996. She has been the same since we were born: kind, petite, and freckled, sure of what she wants.

According to the calculations of my fertility app, I could get my period on the day of the wedding. If I get my period, that means my body has suddenly started to regulate hormones the way it should, and my fertility odds have increased. If I get my period, that means savage bloating, crying, and other menses terrorism. If I don’t get my period, it might mean that my endocrine system is still broken, and the chances of getting pregnant are about the same. Or, I could be pregnant, but I don’t usually let myself go down that road very far. Instead, I bury those hopes like the turtles are now stowing their eggs in the white sands on the western side of the island.

One night, while everyone is drinking Presidente at the Rudnisky’s rented villa, someone asks how my mother is and where she is these days. If I had remembered that my mom had texted me a few days ago, I could have politely said that that she was in Buda, Texas—about an hour from where I used to live (where she never visited me)—without hinting that my mom and I don’t talk very much. But instead, I say I’m not sure.

Mary Ann thinks it’s good that at least my mom is doing what she wants. Mary Ann is the sort of mother who is comfortable calling my husband “Michael Michael Motorcycle.” She makes a hearty pierogi, prefers white wine, and is a remarkable historian of my parents’ divorce. She told me that when my parents announced their divorce on April Fool’s Day, she thought it was a joke.

When I was four or five, I woke up crying during an overnighter at the Rudnkisys. I had internalized the covert, after-hours fighting that was the norm at my parents’ house and it often gave me nightmares. At the Rudnisky’s house, they kept their conflicts in the open, and since my family only fought behind closed doors, I was frightened to see it in public. I thought it made people more likely to break up, not the other way around. I waited to get in trouble for crying and waking everyone up, but Mary Ann picked me up and rocked me back to sleep, smelling like soap and cotton.

“Do you remember King Kong?” Amanda interrupts the silence. Her favorite movie is the 1976 version with Jeff Bridges. My dad had a copy of it on VHS, and Erin and I would never let her watch it. We’d always insist on Goonies or Adventures in Babysitting.

After my parents got divorced, I would stay in Marianna with my dad every other weekend and Erin and Amanda became my joint custody sisters. On those Friday nights, we would watch movies until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. We’d wake up early, before the first cartoons started, and pour ourselves Frosted Flakes with 2% milk—a treat compared to the skim milk my mom kept in her fridge thirty minutes down the road. Eventually, my dad would wake up and make us eggs, bacon, and hash browns fried in the bacon grease. We’d spend the day running around his eighteen acres, browning in the sun. Saturday night, the rest of the Rudniskys would come over with venison jerky that Erin’s dad had cured and my dad would fry up walleye that he’d caught in the Youghiogheny River. They were the only sort of family dinners my dad kept up.

“And then you guys made me eat dog food,” Amanda reminds us.

It’s true. Erin and I would entertain ourselves by daring Amanda to eat dog food or swallow a spoonful of cinnamon, and she would always do it. This vacation reminds me that she is still a person who isn’t afraid to do anything: pick up a living starfish, navigate the Yellowstone River, verbally knock down arrogant men in public, etc.

I listen to Erin and Amanda tell my husband about our time as every-other-weekend siblings and I realize this is the first time my husband has ever heard stories about me as a kid, from the point of view of someone who grew up with me. I watch his attentive nodding and wonder if he’s taking notes.

My period still hasn’t shown up by the afternoon of the wedding. I toy with the idea of running to Food Town to get a pregnancy test, but I’m already late to help Erin get ready for the wedding and I hate running errands on vacation. I always thought I’d be less terrified of pregnancy tests when I was ready for the positive result, but the anxious feeling never leaves, it just switches teams.

At the beach-side ceremony, the ten guests form lines of five on either side of some palm fronds that are laid on the ground to mark the “altar.” Even with this narrow target, Erin’s father practically misses the turn down the makeshift aisle, whether intentionally or not. She quietly promised him, she told me later, that nothing was going to be different. She would still meet him for breakfast next Monday at Panera, like she always does. The same Panera where I used to meet my dad when I would come home, before he died of a heart attack while fixing his satellite dish.

I used to imagine Erin’s wedding, but not in terms of ruched bodices, organza, and satin, or what kind of men would be at the end of the aisle. I wondered, instead, whether we would still be like family. I wondered if our fathers would sit at the bar and sip Wild Turkey, if I would be included in family pictures, what heartfelt anecdote I would include in my toast.

The day after the wedding, some of us go snorkeling in the coral reef off the coast of Buck Island and I decide it’s okay that I still haven’t gotten my period because we run into a barracuda pack. And though I know that I got this idea from some old wives tale meant to shame women, I worry they might’ve smelled the blood. I look one in the eye and count to twenty before I make my husband go back into the catamaran with me.

I think about when I was ten. The pond near Erin and Amanda’s house had frozen over and they wanted to walk across. I refused. I stood on the edge of the pond in my puffy snowsuit, watching them trek across the cloudy, treacherous ice. When we got back to the house, they got in trouble, but I was the one who I cried. I wasn’t brave. I’ve always been too cautious, and I wonder if that has anything to do with growing up alone. When you don’t have much of family, you end up calculating how long it will take until you are alone, like a princess or a duke might try to calculate their place in the royal succession. Sometimes, all you can think about is the inevitably of your singular-ness. And sometimes, you think that if there had just been one more person growing up at the feet of adults with you—someone to save you from your constant internal dialogue—you might have been brave enough to step out on the ice. Though it’s not remotely sensible, you think that your body might be more willing to multiply had it been used to other people, had it not spent most of the time hiding.

The last night in St Croix, we sit down to dinner and an Adam Duritz wannabe sings reggae-infused Top 40 covers. Mary Ann asks my husband about his job, but steers the conversation towards her retirement, and Erin teases Mary Ann for talking about herself.

“So, my officemate says—”

“Mom, why don’t you ask them about their jobs.”

“I did! So, my officemate says—”

It reminds me of the plain-spoken devotional track on the new Sun Kil Moon album that I’m pretty into lately. It’s not my favorite track on the album—when stripped from the desperate guitar melody, the lyrics read a little cheesy—but it’s a grower:

I can live with your scorn, your sourness, your smug / I can live with growing alone if push comes to shove/ But I can’t live without my mother’s love.

The idea is so foreign to me, but, in the playful bickering between Erin and her mom, I see how it could be possible to be sustained on your mother’s friendship.

We all exchange hugs in the restaurant parking lot across from the Cane Bay beach. Over the waves, I hear Mary Ann tell my husband, “Thanks for taking care of our girl.”

I want to point out that he isn’t taking care of me, that we take care of each other, that I don’t need anyone to take care of me, but she gives me a hug and she says thank you so much for coming, and I get wrapped up in the plural of her “our.” Being a temporary part of the Rudnisky clan somehow directly maps to wanting a kid. Maybe had I never grown up with the Rudniskys, I would not want to be part of an “our.” I vow to myself to buy a pregnancy test the next day.

Erin asks me, motheringly, to text when we get home.

I promise that I will.

Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.