Cassandra Dunn - The Diplomacy of Marriage

  Theresa lay awake and listened. The drip of a faucet, maybe the one in the guest bathroom. The bark of a dog in the distance, possibly Misty chasing off raccoons. Abby fussing, then settling, next door, the poor thing still struggling with her cold. Theresa struggled to sleep, counting the minutes that ticked past on the grandfather clock in the hallway. She had almost relaxed enough to drift off when the baby kicked inside her, a sharp elbow or knee jab to her bladder. She went to the bathroom, then returned to bed, unable to get comfortable in any position. She watched Drake, sleeping peacefully, snoring softly. His apnea kicked in and he took a strangled breath, then didn’t exhale. She counted the seconds. After six seconds she elbowed him. He rolled languidly onto his side, his breathing returning to normal. The clock ticked on.

          Morning came slowly, the sun snaking its way over the hills, the pool of sunlight spreading until it touched every house in the valley. Theresa was jolted awake by the sound of Drake’s electric razor. She buried her head under the pillow, but it was no use.

          “Hey hon. Sleep well?” Drake’s lips found the back of her neck.


          “Should we go out to breakfast?”

          Theresa struggled to sit up, her eyes refusing to open against the sunlight. Drake had opened the drapes and cracked the windows. A chilled breeze fluttered her hair. Abby began to cry, no doubt woken by the electric razor. At seventeen months, Abby was the lightest sleeper in the house. Theresa had learned to creep down hallways to avoid squeaky boards, carefully closing doors so the latch didn’t click, and worried about Drake’s snoring waking her. Drake lived life as if they had no baby to wake. But then again, when Abby woke in the night, it was Theresa who had to get up and soothe her back to sleep. Drake always got a full night’s rest. Abby had been up from 3-5am, congested and cranky, exhausted, but unable to sleep. Theresa had been up right along with her, trying all of the worthless home remedies: vapor rub, humidifier, saline spray. Eventually Abby had cried herself back to sleep, too exhausted to care that she couldn’t breathe.

          Theresa rubbed her round belly, hoping this next baby would be a more sound sleeper.

          “Hop in the shower. I’ll get Abby up.” Drake headed to the baby’s room, then downstairs. Theresa nodded but didn’t move. Morning people. She’d never understood them. She’d never been able to partake in their joy at seeing a new day dawn. Late, quiet nights were her refuge. Morning was an abrupt ending to her reverie. Sleepless nights made mornings even less bearable. Sleeping in was a long forgotten luxury, and the pregnancy made her crave rest. Just a few minutes would be heaven.

Downstairs, Abby started crying. Theresa heard Drake on the stairs, heading up to her for help. She lunged out of bed and into the bathroom, turning on the shower as she undressed. When he found her, she shrugged.

“You’ll have to keep her until I’m done.”

“I think the steam might help her sinuses.”

And so Abby was shut in the room with Theresa as she showered. Abby cried and  clung to the shower curtain, begging for Theresa to pick her up. Theresa rushed through the routine, forgetting to use conditioner. She had a hard time getting the comb through her hair as she perched Abby on one hip. Downstairs, she could hear Drake listening to music. She pictured him reading the paper and relaxing, untroubled by her and Abby’s needs, and sighed.

          Drake whistled as he drove. Whistled. Some show tune. Sinatra? Fly Me to the Moon. It was all a bit excessive, so early on a Saturday. Theresa fought the cobwebs and tried to find a lighter mood. She loved Drake’s simple pleasures. Adored his ability to see a sunny day after a rainy week as the most joyous of events. Well, most of the time. Once she’d had her morning coffee it was usually easier to appreciate him. These days, stuck on decaf, it was harder to pull out of the morning gloom. She glanced at Abby in the back seat, carefully shaking Cheerios out of her snack cup, filling her car seat with them.

          “Your mom called while you were in the shower,” Drake announced.

          “What did she want?”

          “Didn’t say.”

          “Did you tell her I’d call her back?”

          “Nope, just said you weren’t around.”


          “You know, you can’t avoid her forever.”

          “Watch me.”

          Drake also had a normal family. They supported each other without question, had disagreements where nobody got excommunicated, and never avoided each other for weeks on end over…Theresa could barely even remember what. Some rude comment, comparing her to her sister. As usual, Jenny had come out on top. It wasn’t Jenny’s fault that every characteristic she had ranked on their mother’s list of perfect qualities. Theresa was careful never to blame Jenny for their mother’s preference. Jenny talked to their mom every Sunday without fail, and frequently emailed her during the week. If being perfect required that kind of devotion, Jenny could have it. Theresa preferred the freedom of being the black sheep.

          “What do you want to do today?” Drake settled into the booth and scoured the menu. Silly, since he always ordered the same thing. Theresa struggled to get Abby into her highchair. Unnecessary, since she wouldn’t be eating. Abby was the quintessential picky eater. She’d had milk and few bites of banana when she woke up, and had hopefully eaten some of those Cheerios in the car. Theresa knew Abby would refuse anything the restaurant had to offer.

          “We could take Abby to the Children’s Museum.”

          Drake gestured outside with an incredulous look. Right. The first sunny day in weeks. Not a day for an indoor activity.

          “Or take a hike somewhere,” she offered.

          “That sounds good. We can call Jerry and Louise, see if they want to join us. Pack a picnic lunch, make a day of it.”

          The waitress smiled when she saw them, or saw Drake anyway. She tucked her notepad into her pocket as she approached.

          “Coffee, OJ, ham scramble, wheat toast,” she said to Drake, then glanced at Theresa, “and decaf with blueberry pancakes?”

          “French toast,” Theresa corrected, “with strawberries.” She liked to keep them guessing.

          After breakfast they picked up sandwiches at a café next door and settled in the car. Theresa’s coffee sloshed in her stomach, giving her a sense of impending acid reflux, but the small dose of caffeine was finally kicking in, and she almost felt as happy as Drake looked. Drake unfolded a map of the area and searched for a new place to explore. Theresa, bolstered by a wave of delight at having such a sunny day in February, chose a rugged, hilly place where she knew the trails would be steep and they’d get a real workout. Drake left Jerry and Louise a message with their plans, and drove toward the wilderness area.

          They laced up their hiking boots, which had been living in the trunk of the car all winter, and selected a trail. Abby was loaded into the jogging stroller, refilled cup of Cheerios in one hand and a sippy cup of apple juice in the other. She had eaten one bite of French toast, two strawberry slices, and chewed up, then spat out, a bite of egg. Abby had a doctor’s appointment for a vaccine booster in a month, and weighing her was part of the exam. Theresa knew she had to get some weight on her before then, or she’d be resuming the monthly weight checks until Abby had finally put on enough weight to convince the pediatrician there was nothing wrong with her. Theresa had tried everything: cookies, donuts, French fries, milk shakes, but Abby just wasn’t interested in food with calories. She never touched meat, cheese, egg, yogurt, or sweets, and subsisted entirely on milk, fruit, Cheerios, and steamed broccoli. The pediatrician always praised Abby for eating vegetables, even as he requested another follow-up appointment to make sure she gained a little weight.

          A short way into the hike, Theresa panting heavily under the extra weight of the pregnancy, the baby inside her rocked to sleep by her steady step, they heard a low whistle, and turned to see Jerry and Louise behind them. Louise strode with her long legs, quickly closing the gap. Jerry alternately ran and walked slowly, distracted every few seconds by some plant just off the trail or a bird soaring overhead.

          “Hey mama, how are you?” Louise folded Theresa into her long, tanned arms, a souvenir from their recent trip to Hawaii. Louise, a mother of two grown children, took more enjoyment in Theresa’s pregnancies than anyone else. Louise rested her hands low on Theresa’s belly and smiled. “Lulled to sleep, huh?”

          Jerry made faces at Abby until he got the squeal he was seeking, then offered to take over pushing the jogger, his outstretched arms suddenly withdrawn as something caught his attention.

          “Are those morels?” Jerry wandered off the trail, slowly circling a pine tree, poking in the mat of needles beneath it.

          “I’ll push her. Jerry’ll drive her off into the woods on his search for mushrooms.” Louise nudged Drake aside and began pushing Abby with effortless strides up the gravel trail.

          Drake fell into step beside Theresa, his hand resting on her lower back. She was breathing hard, and he watched her a little too closely. She smiled to reassure him, and he grinned back, nodded, then took off. Drake was not a leisurely walker. He pulled ahead of Louise, then broke into a little trot until he’d crested the hill.

          Theresa made it up the hill, dragging up the rear behind everyone else, but proud of her accomplishment. Still able to hike, while five months pregnant. She was taking her body a little more seriously this time around, now that she’d experienced the post-baby slack skin and saggy belly once. She wanted to stay toned and firm in the hopes of bouncing back after this baby. She wasn’t getting any younger, after all, and she kept hearing from her mother how much harder it got to lose weight the older you got.

Drake set up the camera on Abby’s jogger, posed them all for a nice photo with the vast sweeping hills and bay behind them. Louise held Abby, Jerry held up a handful of morels, and Drake rested his arm around Theresa’s shoulders. All seemed at peace in their world, and they had the photo to prove it.

          It was just two days later that Theresa got the call from her OB, that there had been something on the last ultrasound, a shadow on the baby’s heart.

          “Nothing to worry about, yet. We’ll bring you in for a level two ultrasound. Check it out more thoroughly.”

          Yet? Why had she dropped that particular word into the conversation? Theresa tried to stay calm, to stay focused on caring for Abby, to trust Drake and his insistence that there was nothing to worry about. How he could be so nonchalant about the whole thing while she was a bundle of nerves was beyond her. But then again, he wasn’t the one pregnant, feeling the baby moving all day. To him, the baby didn’t really exist until it was born, but Theresa was already completely attached to this child, and needed everything to be fine.

          The morning of the ultrasound, Louise came over to watch Abby. Drake, it turned out, wouldn’t be coming to the appointment. Some meeting, he’d said, that he just couldn’t miss. Theresa tried not to hold it against him, but she disagreed that a business meeting trumped their baby’s health, and her need for him at her side. She called Jenny to come with her, and Jenny was happy for the chance to ditch work and join her. As soon as Theresa saw Jenny in the parking lot at the hospital, her bright green eyes flashing and strawberry blonde hair trailing behind her, she knew this was how it was supposed to be. There were some experiences that you just needed another woman’s support for.

          Jenny held Theresa’s hand as the tech guided the ultrasound wand across Theresa’s round belly, taking picture after picture, not just of the baby’s heart, but of everything. The technician wasn’t the chatty type, she was all business with her straight spine and high bun. Theresa disliked her instantly, so she focused instead on Jenny’s peaches and cream complexion, the faint array of freckles Jenny always tried to hide under foundation, her red hair now softening to blonde.

          “When are you going to have one of these?” Theresa asked.

          Jenny wrinkled her dainty nose. “Never. I’ll just enjoy yours.”

          “Really?” It was the first Theresa had heard of this. As children Jenny had always wanted to play with babies, while Theresa was busy climbing things, building things, destroying things.

          Jenny shrugged. “Mark’s not sure he wants kids.”

          “But what do you want?”

          “Mark.” Jenny smiled, as if that settled it, but Theresa suddenly felt uneasy for them. Mark was a ridiculously handsome man, the type Theresa avoided, too good looking to be relaxed with. He doted on Jenny, was respectful and chivalrous with her. But denying her a chance to have children. That was a serious spot on his record.

          “Okay,” the tech said, finishing her task. “You can go use the restroom now. We’ll send these to your doctor, and she’ll contact you with the results.”

          “When?” Theresa asked. She’d expected to get some clear answers on the spot. The tech just shrugged and glanced at the clock.

          “Can you print out a couple of pictures for us?” Jenny asked. Theresa had completely forgotten.

         After several failed attempts, the tech was able to print two pictures, profiles of the baby, one close up of its head, another of its full body. It looked like it was sucking its thumb.

          “Could you tell the sex?” Theresa asked. “They couldn’t see last time.”

          “A girl,” the tech said. She looked Theresa in the eye for the first time, smiled, and left.

          Theresa hurried to the restroom, now desperate to rid herself of the half-gallon of water they’d made her drink before the exam. A girl. Two sisters. Like her and Jenny. She drove home, trying to hold onto this, knowing the sex of her baby, cutting the baby name game in half, but the unsettled feeling of not having the information she needed rode along with her, clouding everything else.

          “I’m sure it’s nothing,” Drake said for the tenth time. And for the tenth time Theresa felt like hurling some hard, heavy object at him. It wasn’t reassuring, his dismissal of her feelings, if that’s what he was going for. Pregnancy hormones don’t mix with stress, she decided, and kept her mouth shut, and her hands off the paperweight beckoning to her on the end table.

          Two long, harrowing days later, the OB finally called.

          “A healthy baby girl with a perfect heart. Are you excited?”

          “Yes,” Theresa said, but having had the wind knocked out of her days ago, she couldn’t make her lungs fill with fresh air just yet.

          “See?” Drake said, smug and playful, when she told him. She scooped Abby up and headed out back, to get away from him.

          She thought of Jenny and Mark, the perfect Ken and Barbie couple, and wondered if maybe they were onto something. Having babies didn’t add to your marriage so much as it challenged everything you had going. She glanced inside, wondering if Drake would ever apologize for not being more sensitive, more supportive, during those frightening days of doubt. He was watching TV, beer in hand, feet on the coffee table. Probably not.

          She turned back to Abby, who was running a steady loop, down the slide, up the ladder, down the slide, up the ladder, stirring up the freshly mown grass, the scent of spring fighting for purchase on this cool March day.

          “Baby, did you know you’re going to have a sister?”

          Abby paused at the top of the slide, her rosebud lips parted, thinking this over. Theresa pointed to her belly.

          “This baby. It’s a girl. Like you.”

          “Becca?” Abby said. Her little playmate’s name, who had just moved away, leaving both her and Theresa short a friend.

          “You want to name her Becca?” Theresa asked, laughing.

          “Becca!” Abby shouted.

          Theresa rubbed her belly, felt her strong baby girl push against her palm. “Okay, for now we’ll call her Becca.”

          Abby resumed her loop of climbing and sliding, and Theresa resumed her musings on family, on the strength you get from women that you just can’t count on from men. She was glad Abby would have a sister to stand beside her during her own hard times in the future. There was something in particular about family women, about blood relatives. They are the ones who, no matter how crappy you treat them, always let you come back. They don’t require the politeness or diplomacy of marriage.

          Theresa slid open the back door, fetched the phone, settled back down to watch Abby, and dialed her mother’s number.


Cassandra Dunn received her MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Her stories have appeared in All Things GirlMidwest Literary Magazine's Bearing NorthRead Short FictionLiterary House ReviewThe MacGuffin, 322 Review, and Fix it Broken. Her website is

Posted on December 16, 2013 .