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“Columbus Day”

by Sarah Barnett

            If you happened to pass the three story Victorian house, you might think it was a bed-and-breakfast. You wouldn’t see anyone relaxing on the wraparound front porch, though. In 1959, if you were unmarried and pregnant, you needed to hide. Your parents made up a story—trying out another school, tending to a sick relative. Really you were at the Shoreview Home for Unmarried Mothers across the street from the Saint Somebody-or-Other Catholic School for Girls, discreetly located in a forgettable New Jersey beach town. No boardwalk or hotels meant no tourists and little chance of running into acquaintances.

            Only Brenda and Sy, volunteer dance teachers, treated us like normal kids. They waltzed in on Saturday night with their records, and for a couple of hours we danced the lindy and cha-cha in the living room, the rec-room style sofas pushed against the wall.

            We were learning a Japanese folk dance, pretending to be workers harvesting rice, when Ellen just sat down on the floor. She was only five months pregnant. A social worker took her to the hospital. Next day they told us that the baby had stopped growing and died inside her.

            The first thought I had was, “Lucky.” Didn’t the others think Ellen was lucky too? If some fairy godmother had fluttered out of a storybook and granted each of us one wish, wouldn’t we imagine returning to a time when we were never pregnant? Weren’t we going to pretend exactly that when we went home? 

            Ellen wouldn’t have to pretend. She could go back to high school and the rest of her life. 

            Now, over 50 years later, I’d like to think I’ve learned something about luck. And I still wonder if any of it would have happened if we hadn’t gone to the beach that day.

Ellen, Laurie and I were sent to the dentist in a taxi. It was Columbus Day and when we left the office, people were walking around enjoying their day off and the unseasonably warm weather.   

            It felt good to be outdoors. Girls our age were hanging around Woolworths and getting ice cream cones from the candy store. “I can’t go back yet,” I said.

            “Whaddya mean?” Laurie said.

            “Let’s go sit on the beach. They won’t know how long the dentist took.”

            “We’ll get in trouble,” Ellen said.          

            “What can they do?” I started walking down the main street toward the beach. Glancing back, I was almost surprised to see Ellen and Laurie following. Our maternity tops floated over our bellies and our straight skirts. We pretended to ignore the looks we got from bystanders, equal parts curiosity and contempt. We had to wear wedding rings, as if the gold bands would keep people from noticing that we were barely out of the hopscotch stage.

            I couldn’t help checking my reflection in the store windows we passed. Was I still hoping that the short girl with the dark pony tail and the huge stomach wasn’t me? Would I ever get used to the idea that an actual baby was inside? 

            As we neared the beach, a gust of wind blew Laurie’s pleated top up to her face. “God,” she said, as she smoothed it back over her belly, “I feel as big as a boat.”

            Laurie wore hoop earrings the size of yo-yos, bright blue eye shadow, and her streaked blonde hair added three inches to her height. On her feet she wore flip-flops, the rubber kind you bought at bargain stores three pair for a dollar. Next to her, Ellen and I looked mousey. We wore almost no make-up and each of us sported “nice girl” brown leather loafers.

The girls usually steered clear of Laurie, but I wanted to know her better. I couldn’t help wondering how a girl, who seemed so tough and smart, had gotten herself pregnant like the rest of us.

            We made our way over to a space near the water. It was low tide and the waves had carved a hill out of the sand with a shelf at the top where I plopped myself down and slipped off my shoes. 

            It was a scene from a coloring book—blue sky, sparkling ocean, large boat floating on the horizon. Families sat on the sand in groups, small solar systems with children orbiting adults.  A setting so achingly normal, I felt like crying and laughing at the same time.

“Ellen, take off your shoes,” I said. But she sat stiffly, twisting her gold wedding band around on her swollen finger. Laurie walked along the shore picking up stones and skipping them across the water. I admired her sidearm throw, something boys usually did better than girls.

            “We should head back,” Ellen said. 

            “Relax.  It’ll be fine.”    

She’d managed to twist off her ring, and it dropped in the sand between us. Ellen didn’t talk much, and I wondered why her parents never came to visit on Sundays. I looked forward to seeing my mom every week. It was a chance to go out, eat in a restaurant and just ride around in the car. 

            Laurie came to sit with us, leaning back to get the sun on her face. Ellen removed her shoes, dropping her wedding band into one of them. Her dark curly hair had started to frizz in the humidity.  

            A family was sitting nearby, mom, dad and three girls. Mom and the two older kids, who looked about six and eight, were scooping sand into a large pile. The baby, who had strawberry blonde hair like her mom, must have just learned to walk.  Dad had rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt and stood at the bottom of the hill as the toddler rushed toward his open arms. He would scoop her up and plant her back at the top of the hill.  “Up you go, Josie,” he said, and he rushed back to the bottom in his bare feet.

            They repeated the game over and over, she giggling and shrieking, teetering from side to side, almost out of control, the sash of her pink dress trailing behind her. Eventually, Josie refused help, making her way to the top alone, digging chubby legs into the sand, staggering a little, putting one hand down for balance as she climbed. Then she waddled down the hill while sagging rubber pants slipped almost to her knees. Dad reached over, trying to fix them, but she was already moving up. Again, she raced down the hill, gathering speed, not able to stop.  He blocked her just as she was about to get wet, tried to pick her up, but she shook him off with a babble of scolding that needed no translation.

            We watched this scene as if it were a movie playing just for us. After a while, I turned away. I wanted to save a mental picture of the waves, cresting, breaking, receding.

            I remembered that when I was younger I would stand at the shoreline and imagine swimming to Europe. The ocean evoked a world of possibilities, all the places grownups could go. But from where I sat, it seemed entirely possible to sail far enough to fall off the edge.

            When I looked again, the family had started to pack up. The older sisters stomped out the castle they’d constructed, while the parents stretched their blanket between them and folded it, first in half lengthwise, then walked toward each other bringing the ends together.  They didn’t notice that Josie had wandered close to where the waves broke. She waved her arms while her feet did a splash dance in the receding water.   

            Three of us must have had the same thought at the same time. I shuffled clumsily down the hill, reaching Josie just as she was thrown off balance by an incoming wave. She shrieked, as water surged over her legs and waist. I grabbed at her hand, but she screamed and resisted with surprising strength. I should have bent down and picked her up, but my stomach was in the way. I was pulling her to her feet when I turned around and saw Ellen sitting halfway down the hill. Laurie was helping her up.  

            The parents had come rushing over. Josie’s mom took her daughter’s hand from mine. “I think she’s just scared,” I said. The mom looked down at my stomach, then her eyes arrived somewhere in the neighborhood of mine, and she gave me half a smile. Dad came up and said, “Good grab. Thanks. Is your friend okay?” 

            Ellen was on her feet brushing sand from the back of her skirt. “I just slipped.  I’m fine,” she said.

            “She’s all right,” Laurie said.

            Dad picked up Josie, called to the other kids, and they left after one more “thanks” and a “sure you’re okay?”

            The ride back was quiet. I didn’t know what the others were thinking. I had spent the last few months trying not to think, switching off the part of my brain that looked to the future. I was replaying the family scene on the beach. Then I put the memory away, the way I sometimes hid leftover cookies from dinner.

            Getting back was easy as I’d promised. We wandered into Shoreview’s living room where groups of girls sat knitting, playing gin rummy or reading, and we acted like we’d never been gone.

            At dinner, Ellen and I exchanged small smiles. But when I looked over at Laurie’s table, I saw the fight start. Later I learned that Jill had said something to Laurie about her shoes—What’s with the flip-flops?  Didn’t she know summer was over? 

            “Snotty bitch,” Laurie said. Then Jill said something, and Laurie flung a glass of milk.  Most of it missed Jill, and landed on the floor, but that was it. The “wardens” stepped in, walked Laurie away to a small office where phone calls were made, and then she was gone. 

            Then Ellen left a few days later and I felt really alone. I tried not to wonder if she lost the baby because of the fall on the beach. I couldn’t ask anyone. I told myself that pregnant women slipped every day and went on to have perfectly fine babies. Last summer at the beach, hadn’t I turned my back on a huge wave, allowing it to knock me down with its full force?  Wasn’t I still pregnant?

            I never go to the beach without remembering that October day, imagining the three of us walking in a line, maternity tops spreading like sails over bulging stomachs. Could I have looked out to the horizon and seen the changing climate? I couldn’t know that soon single pregnant women would have choices beyond signing adoption papers and pretending nothing had happened. Ten years after I left my infant daughter at Shoreview, young people were skinny dipping in the river and dancing naked at Woodstock. The need to hide would vanish along with billowy maternity clothes. The term “single mom” would become fashionable. Shoreview, renamed “Willow Academy,” was reinvented as a school for learning disabled boys. Today, you can turn on the TV and watch a weekly documentary about someone “Sixteen and Pregnant.” 

            I was wrong about so many things. I thought any hope for a real life was gone. I thought I would never marry, never have a family of my own. 

            I was wrong about Ellen. She wasn’t the lucky one. Her baby would never run into a parent’s waiting arms.

            Lucky me. You weren’t supposed to make friends at Shoreview. But Laurie managed to call me from her new “home,” and we started a conversation that is still going strong.

            Lucky them. Josie and her family. Once in a while when they’re together, someone will say, “Remember that day Josie learned to run up and down the hill at the beach?”

            Lucky Columbus. He found something he wasn’t even looking for.

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