WHEN I PICTURE HER, she’s still 21 and sitting on her bed, feet tucked under a corner of the twisted purple comforter. I picture her in a messy ponytail, jogging pants, a tight t-shirt she would never wear out of the house unless it was layered under something looser. I picture her laughing. The sniggering, gleeful laugh, surprisingly deep for a small, pretty blonde.
We lived together for four years, our habits quietly aligned, sharing pots of lip balm and carrying each others’ groceries. We’ve lived apart for the past seven. Well, a few continents apart at least — me teaching in Asia, her building a career in Canada. I didn’t meet her future husband face to face ’til they’d been dating for almost a year. When he proposed, it was beside a lake at a family cottage. She described it to me in one rapid breath in a phone call. I’d never been to the spot. I could picture it vaguely, a lookout point from a family photo that hung in her room almost a decade ago.
She told me she was pregnant last summer when I was back in Canada, visiting family and friends in the semester break. In fact, she didn’t tell me at all. We’d stopped at a paint shop to pick up colour swatches and, in the parking lot, she looked me in the eye. “So guess what?” The corners of her mouth tugged up in a restrained smile. I’d never hugged her carefully before.
We met in the fall of 2001, as randomly assigned roommates in a university dorm, politely coexisting in those first odd weeks. She was from Northern Ontario, a rural and outdoorsy girl who wore sweatpants contentedly to the dining hall. I was a city girl in a theatre phase, moody and prone to sloppy nights at the bar. We both had overextended relationships with emotional high school boyfriends, whose framed photos sat on our matching plywood desks.
Then, we spoke carefully to each other, lying in our beds a few feet apart, casting tentative nets of common ground.
“We did a 3-week portage. Have you ever done one?”
“Camping? I’ve been once or twice. I didn’t like it.”
“Did you see Moulin Rouge?”
“Oh I loved Moulin Rouge! You liked it too?”
“Uhh….. no, I kind of hated it.”
It took a few weeks to discover that we both laughed at the same things. That we both liked to sing along to Motown songs loudly and badly. That one girl down the hall rubbed us both the wrong way. We still spent Friday nights with different people. We still disagreed on most TV shows except, oddly, Dawson’s Creek. We both had friends the other didn’t like much. Still, at night in our separate narrow beds, we’d fall asleep laughing.
We had talked about babies back then. We joked about putting each others’ daughters in crazy outfits. We wondered aloud whether her children would inherit her breathless bursts of energy and whether mine would have my snide sense of humour. Whether we’d have to stop eating candy in order to set an example. We would talk about people we knew, mismatched university couples, the ones prone to crying phone calls or 3am arguments. “Can you imagine their kids?!”
I don’t think we ever thought about our future kids seriously. I never did. Children were hypothetical, an imaginary platform for analyzing ourselves and our peers (“Of course she’d be a good mum, look how she takes care of her shitty roommates!”). We never talked baby names. We never talked about boyfriends that way, whether they’d make good fathers in the future. It was like planning what to do with our imaginary lottery winnings; a fun mental exercise for car rides and snowy nights in.
Years later, when someone we knew was expecting, we’d still share the news as if it were gossip. “Remember Jane, who used to live with Laurie and dated that awful guy? They’re married now! And preggers!” In time, the shock dulled as more peers had kids. In time, we stopped using words like “preggers.” Once, a few months after her wedding, we’d asked each other in emails, “Are you feeling the baby crave yet?”
The night I found out she was pregnant, we lay on the bed in the guest bedroom of her house. She had a house. She groaned at the thought of strangers touching her belly, of gushing cousins holding frilly pink baby showers. She laughed our sniggering laugh. But when she showed me a set of tiny white burp cloths with pale yellow trim, something wrung my stomach. Things were changing.
Last fall, I’d receive photos of her growing belly. A visit to Toronto, in front of our favourite greasy chicken spot. A Thanksgiving family photo, her parents absolutely beaming. When I saw her in January, her stomach was round and taut.
“You’re full-blown preggers,” I told her.
“I know,” she said, with a laugh. “My fingers are too puffy to wear my wedding band, and I get so many dirty looks from old ladies on the street. It’s awesome!”
I was in Canada for a month, and we were able to meet a few times a week, spending cold afternoons together at her house. Later, I wondered if I’d done the right maternity friendship steps. If I should have asked to touch her belly more, or offered to put together bookshelves in the nursery. Whether there was something wrong with me for not bringing more gifts, for not looking in shop windows and cooing at baby onesies and soft alphabet books.
I wondered if I would ever get it. If being by her side trying to get it was enough.
A month later, I turned on my computer at work and saw a photo of my best friend, looking impossibly calm with her newborn in her arms.
Love. Awe. Love.
Ache, because I’ll be a mother too. Probably. Someday. Hopefully. Maybe.
Guilt, because this event is about her, and what kind of shitty friend makes it about herself? If I can’t be a little selfless when a baby is involved, what’s wrong with me?
Fear. For her sleepless nights to come, for scraped knees and shampoo in the eyes and the weight of parental love.
I emailed my congratulations. She wrote back almost instantly. “The baby can’t wait to meet you.”