Suitcase in hand, you head to the station. Once inside, you watch through the glass door as Father’s old green half-ton hastens away. Your borrowed suitcase contains one change of your current clothing (Dad’s old shirt, a pair of split-seam pants) and one change of the clothing you will wear coming home (a pair of Ladies’ elastic waist pants and dark-pattern top). Your bras are sturdy cotton, blazing white. As per instructions, you’ve packed a full box of Kotex.
You buy a return ticket and board the train for a small city you barely know. When you arrive, you hire a big yellow taxi to bring you to St. Margaret’s of Cortona. The nuns are expecting you. One takes you to your room, which you share with three other girls. You will stay for about two weeks: first week waiting, second week healing. You miss your guitar like oxygen.
Your room-mates – Nancy, Pamela, Dianne – are bored and restless. Dianne is healing, but Nancy and Pamela walk about like you do, waiting, with freakishly big abdomens and shame-struck faces. You have no magazines to read, no T.V. to watch, only “uplifting” books. You and your roommates talk about the new music. Dianne likes Elvis but Pamela likes that new group, the Beatles. “Ugh,” Nancy says, “Why name themselves after insects?”
Sister Beatrice, who is young and therefore seems sympathetic, talks to you about purging wicked thoughts from your life. “Think of this fortnight as a turning point. It is your chance to start anew,” she says. You argue with her. Your wicked thoughts are not about sex; they are about your future and your place in the world.
You have no guitar, but you make up songs about waiting. You write a song about dashed promises of love. Nancy loves it and asks every day for you to sing it to her. But for you it is false: there were no promises; there was no love. Just sex and curiosity. And bad luck.
“What did your baby’s father say when he found out?” Nancy whispers when you meet exploring the fire escape.
“He doesn’t know. It was on a dare,” you say. You think hard about the party, but you can’t remember much.
“Oh.” Nancy tucks her skirt around her. “Well, mine wants to marry me.”
“Oh. Congratulations then,” you say. “Or should I say, ‘condolences’?”
Nancy belts out a laugh and you get busted by Sister Beatrice, who has more to say on wicked thoughts.
Days later your time comes, and you cry out in fear and pain. The anesthetic erases the next bit forever. Blotto. You wake up sore, damaged, bleeding, but with your future intact.
Father picks you up from the station and drives many miles back to the wheat farm. The fields of undulating grain hypnotize you. The sky is vast and reminds you of anesthetic. You are bulky with the pad and dripping with milk.
“A baby girl,” you say.
“Looks like rain,” he says.
At home, you mope around for days. You wish Mother were still alive. The dark pattern on the shirt hides the wet patches and a warm compress relieves the pressure of unwanted milk. The guitar presses flat and smooth against you and dulls the pain.
A couple of friends phone and say it’s too bad your mono has dragged on for months and you say, “Yeah, but now I’m on the mend.” Nancy from St. Margaret’s sends a postcard from the Grand Canyon. “A big, gaping hole,” she writes. “Thinking of you.” You burn it.
You decide to go to New York, where a new scene is happening. Coffeehouses are looking for new voices and Marty the manager lets you play off-hours at his café on the least popular day. Exposure, the chance to play and get paid: that’s all you want. You have songs, you are drowning in songs; songs are dripping from you and staining your dreams.
Exactly one year after the date you went blotto, you walk past a house with balloons tied to the spindly tree. On the stoop three women are arguing. “It’s my turn!” says one. “I get her next!” and she tries to lift the squirming baby from the lap of another. The baby is ugly and divine, with bright eyes that fasten on you as you walk past. You look away.
This happens occasionally from now on: you encounter a child close to Baby Girl’s age. The “could have been” thought glows like a lit cigarette but always you grind it under your heel.
You tune your guitar differently. You adopt a stage name. Your sound is ethereal yet raw, like a scream in the middle of a prairie sky. Soon you have a regular gig on the best day at the best café and people come to hear the rising star. You.
You find a new circle of friends, childless friends. A man attaches himself to your slender, blonde, soft-spoken persona. “You are everything I have ever wanted in a woman,” he mouths into your ear. Best of all, he says, you never bug him to settle down and raise a family. He mocks the “breeders,” the “Moms and Pops,” he calls them. He says you are his girl until suddenly, one day, you are not.
That’s okay. You need grist for your mill. You are a troubadour and now you can sing about this recent vanished love instead of the original one.
There are other lovers.
“She’s so unique,” your fans say. Many people find you stand-offish; others defend you as shy, driven by your art. Your songs are about, well, everything. Your best-loved songs, though, are about heartache and loss. You are known as the princess troubadour. Critics praise the whimsical lyrics full of child-like pleasures: balloons and rollercoasters and ice-skating. They love the fresh melodies that mirror natural speech. And always they admire how you skillfully you weave lament inside the joy.
You grow older. You hold your secret loosely at first, then more tightly as the years go by. You throw a party and a close friend’s wife shows up with an infant in a baby sling. You stare at the pink downy head as she babbles on about the unplanned pregnancy and she keeps saying what a blessing the baby is. “I never realized how self-absorbed I was,” she says. “It’s too bad you’ll never have this experience.” Full of concern, her doe-eyes blink slowly at you.
You shrug and say nothing.
Your career continues its upward trajectory. Concerts, albums, awards and more awards. Your fame is a burden, but you find an excellent personal secretary, Quentin, who knows you like dark knows the night. He knows how to run interference. Charities ask for your largesse. He knows how to winnow the requests. Strangers claim to know you. At first this is aggravating but eventually you learn it is because they love you so deeply through your music. They conflate the images in your songs with memories of their own lives.
You grow older yet you never lose you girlish look. Some friends become grandparents and they go on and on. They are intolerable and Quentin puts them on the no-invite list without your having to say a word.
You are seen as a “grande dame” and somehow it becomes more important that your secret stay hidden. You don’t want to disappoint. But mainly you don’t want the secret found out because your whole life’s work would become suspect, like Woody’s or Michael J’s.
Saint Margaret’s has shut down and “the records are sealed.” You hope Nancy never connects you with your stage name – or, if she does, that she is a person of basic decency. Dianne and Pamela likely don’t remember you.
Father dies and you briefly return to the ancestral home. The funeral is small and discreet; Quentin keeps the press away. Among Father’s papers are some of your earliest poems. And three postcards from Nancy, years apart. Father’s will contains a curious proviso for “any descendants who may prove their lineage.” You tell the lawyer, “there is no one else” and his estate is settled.
A biographer contacts you, and you warily co-operate, to see if he knows your secret. He does not. He only finds scandal in your love affairs. You instruct Quentin to disavow all claims the biographer makes. Your lawyer files a libel suit to discourage this biographer – and all future ones.
You pay more attention to the news than you probably should. Sometimes you see a young woman, Baby Girl’s age, has succeeded wildly. You wonder. Or the young woman has died. You wonder, too.
News stories appear of adoptees who find their biological mothers. You read the stories with horror, fear, desire. You are pragmatic and, to calm your demons, you write a plan of action. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst; Father would be impressed.
You also read news stories of the gene databases, where “surprising ancestors” are found, sometimes of the criminal variety but most often of garden-variety infidelity. Then there’s the doctor who fathered twenty kids “and counting.” But you have just the one secret. It hardly seems fair, all the energy you must expend on it.
A lump is discovered. You require surgery. You do nothing… you do nothing… and then in terror, just two hours before surgery, you leave an envelope in your night-table labelled “in case of my death” that lays it all out. The surgery is fine, the lump is benign. You go home and destroy the envelope. Laughing. “What was I thinking?”
You are exhausted. The energy to hide is too much; it depletes you. Your creative endeavors have broadened: not just music and poetry but textile art. You brush yarns, wondering how it would feel to have brushed Baby Girl’s downy little head. You braid strands, wondering how it would feel to braid a grandchild’s hair. You shed inordinate tears over projects that don’t work. It’s all part of the process.
Your lover persuades you to attend an ayahuasca workshop with him and this helps ease your anguish.
One morning you wake up and your secret is all over the news. The tabloids are printing your photo beside Baby Girl’s photo. The story says you “could not be reached for comment.” Your heart seizes. You throw up. Your mind races over the topography of your deceit for the past fifty years.
Where did the breach occur? Did your high school classmates not buy the story about mononucleosis? Did Nancy get tired of being snubbed? Marty, did you ever drunkenly say something to Marty? Did Quentin – or your lover – find the letter in the night-table? Was it at the workshop? You decide it must be Quentin, uncanny Quentin, who knows you like dark knows the night.
The betrayal scorches you from the inside out. You want to fire him on the spot. Then you scroll to the next page of the tabloid and see a photo of an elderly nun. Sister Beatrice, the one you argued with so long ago, the one who told you the future was not yours to control. She has written a memoir; all proceeds will go to support a new Saint Margaret’s of Cortona, somewhere in Brazil.
Quentin comes in with a fresh chai latte and fresh orchids.
“My rock of Gibraltar,” you say.
“Drink your tea,” he says. “Loosen your voice. Remember this too shall pass.” He adjusts the windows the way you like. “A woman called for you earlier – ”
“Who?” You try to remember the name under Baby Girl’s photo. You are weeping and cannot hold the chai. Your chest hurts terribly, and you pray this will be the end. Better to die than face Baby Girl.
Quentin takes the chai from you and nods to your current lover, who comes in and gives you a hug.
In a flash you realize you won’t die, and you can’t run away from this. You were outed by an elderly nun, renowned for her good works. The money from her book will support a good charity. You must accept this with grace.
The phone rings and Quentin puts it on hold. “It’s her,” he says. “Your daughter.”
The two words you have feared and desired most in your life. You take a deep breath. It is time to accept her call.