This was my entry in this year's NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. They gave me the criteria: 2000 words in the comedy genre, including a perfectionist and a baby shower.
Natalia checked the time on her phone: three minutes to spare. She silently felt a wave of self-congratulation rising through her. So far on this day, she’d managed to walk the dog around the lake, down a superfood smoothie, cycle 13 kilometres to the city in the heat of the desert wind, knock over two of the 85 tasks on her list of things to do at work this year, and thrash out an afternoon body combat gym session. All that with enough time to arrive at number 85 Lansdowne Terrace by 6.30pm, showered and dressed in a casual-yet-elegant silk shirt-dress and three-quarter tights.
This was the scene of a new workshop, which Natalia had learnt of via a sponsored link on her social media feed. The online network had correctly identified her as an expectant first-time mother who, for now, remained immune to the bust cycle by which her current city was besieged. Iron ore prices had dropped, and the prevailing view, that “the arse was falling out of the real estate market”, was now evidenced by the rows of “For Lease” signs lining this prestigious strip of three-storey office buildings.
However, despite the economic downtown, Natalia was OK. Her partner was OK. Their dog was OK. She was grateful for that. And she was determined to maintain her fitness regimen for as long as she could hold out.
Natalia entered the building, typical for this part of town. Shiny steel balustrades, immaculate glass windows, and purpose-designed landscaping characterised the mostly empty edifices. Across the street, one office was occupied by a conservative federal politician, the outspoken Minister for Women: a self-professed anti-feminist woman. Natalia made her way up the stairs.
She spotted a sign: “Baby Showers by Design”. On popping her head around the adjacent doorway, Natalia found her friend Valeria and proceeded to take a seat beside her. She had invited Val because traditionally, Natalia had read in her online research, a baby shower ought to be orchestrated by a friend or family member of the expectant mother.
Val was the perfect candidate, Natalia realised, because Val felt indebted to her for the occasional Saturday morning when Natalia, her partner and their dog would alleviate Val of her unfortunate lot as a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inflated market. Natalia enjoyed these three-hour excursions with Val’s son, Dan, because they offered her a taste of what it would be like to raise a child with her beloved partner, inspiring confidence that this nuclear relationship would last (despite the incursion of a small, dependent, non-verbal human person), and that she would be spared the desperate fate that had befallen her friend. Thankfully, Natalia’s partner was on Dan-minding duties this evening.
While still remaining afloat of the collapsed market, Natalia had some fears about starting a family on the west coast. She had followed her partner here just one year after they had met in their hometown of Sydney. He’d come across to kickstart his late-blooming career as an architect. During their long-distance phase, she’d certainly considered ending the relationship, but decided eventually that he was a catch – down to earth, practical, relatively attentive, perfect father material. And so she left her network of family and friends to follow her partner more than 3000 kilometres across the country to the most isolated city on the planet.
Perth, Australia: where discrepancies between rich and poor seemed to coexist in closer proximity than in any other place on the continent, or any other place she had been, for that matter. But she avoided Chinatown, which seemed to harbour most of the inner-city’s unsavoury street creatures. Else, you had to travel to the extremities of the conurbation to find those left behind by the most recent iron ore frenzy emanating from China.
Natalia had been here for just a year. Working as she did in a nine-to-five professional office job, Natalia did not have much time to forge meaningful friendships. So far, she had connected with only one work colleague, Christina, from Scotland. But Christina had departed to follow her husband, one the many international mining and finance specialists flown into town for little more than two years, before following the money to the next career destination. Theirs had happened to be Abu Dhabi. Natalia was lucky to have Val really, an old friend of her partner from back on the east coast. It was just that Val’s neediness did sometimes feel like a tax on her free time – though she would never say that to Val, nor to her partner, nor even their dog. That would be bad karma, and it would make her look like a bitch.
The cell phone said 6.30pm. The workshop was about to begin. Susan, the facilitator, ran a one-woman show. As a stay-at-home mother of toddlers, Susan had not long graduated from the initiation rite of baby showers, and recognised an untapped niche market in this mineral-based economy, which still managed to fuel considerably high disposable incomes despite the doubling of median house prices within the space of five years.
Susan had managed to instate a $200 price-tag per mother-to-be at the workshop, and get away with it. This had given her a constant sense of self-congratulation since she’d conceived the idea the previous year. Inspiration had struck after she downloaded a year planner and workbook aimed at the “whole-hearted business creatrix”. So far, she already had filled five of these workshops, and was sure she had them down to a fine art.
Natalia felt another wave of self-congratulation too, that she had snared the deal that admitted two participants – she and Val – to the workshop for the price of one. She was always in search of great deals.
The workshop began. Susan introduced herself as a mother of two troublesome toddlers, and asked if any of the participants were expecting their first child. All but one of the 10 expectant mothers in the room was a first-timer, and more than half had brought a friend or sister. Natalia felt a hopeful smile begin to spread across her face. Here was a brand new chance to forge some meaningful friendships.
Susan went on to introduce the concept of a baby shower. “I invite you to complete this sentence,” she said, as she wrote in black marker on a whiteboard: ‘The purpose of a baby shower is to shower a woman with ...’. “You can come up with more than one answer,” she said. “Just take out your notebook and write down whatever comes to mind.”
“Gifts,” wrote Natalia. It seemed obvious. And gifts were what she needed too. Yes, she was relatively successful, but her cash flow did leave a lot to be desired. Natalia was pouring most of her income into her two investment properties in Sydney. And her partner, though starting to do well now, was making up for his late entry into professional careerism. This was an occasional source of tension between them, but Natalia had resolved to accept him, warts and all. As others at the workshop, continued to write answers (What could they possibly be writing?) her mind drifted to afternoons at the dog-friendly beach, where she would witness distant sunsets over the Indian Ocean, her partner silhouetted fishing off the rocks, and her dog panting happily in the shallows.
Susan interrupted the reverie. “Now, we’ll go around the group so you can introduce yourself,” the host beckoned. “Just say your name, perhaps where you’re up to in your pregnancy or whether you’re here with a mum-to-be, and any ideas about how to finish the sentence. We’ll start with you.” Susan was gently raising her hand in the direction of Val.
“Hi, my name’s Val, I’m here with my friend Natalia. And the purpose of a baby shower is to shower a woman with love.”
“Wonderful. Thanks, Val,” said Susan.
Love? thought Natalia. Oh no, I’ve fucked up. I’ve totally fucked up.
Natalia surreptitiously turned the page of her notebook so no one would see her original and let’s face it – correct – answer. The focus of the room turned toward her. She quickly steadied her breathing. “Hi, I’m Natalia, I’m 16-weeks pregnant and my answer is ... ‘joy’.”
“Joy. Yes, indeed – motherhood is all about joy, with just a few tears along the way,” Susan winked.
Is she taking the piss out of me? thought Natalia. No, stop that! Wait a minute. Breathe. Breathe. Just relax – this is going to be great. We’re all on this together. Were like sisters, all of us in this room.
Natalia smiled and offered a dainty NB-LOL (which she had learnt meant “nose breathing laughing out loud”), as she looked around at the group. Everyone else was smiling back at her. Excellent ... Success!
As the others introduced themselves, the answers were similarly wishy-washy: self-belief; self-love; community; happiness; sisterhood; and so on. Well, all of this seemed to go against the etymological definition that Natalia had read on Wikipedia. Evidently, Natalia surmised, this workshop would be process-driven rather than fact-based. Fantastic, she thought, as she worked to find the positive in the situation. It’s just like pregnancy, just like the journey of motherhood. She hoped that they also would get advice on choosing venues, party games and menus, before the night wore on too much longer.
The next exercise affirmed the process-driven path. Susan asked the participants to choose one of the words they had written down, close their eyes, embody that word, and visualise for five minutes how they could imagine that feeling playing out in their life right now. Susan explained this was an ancient technique that raised one’s energetic vibrations to bring in the desires of your higher self.
Oh yeah, that “Secret” shit, thought Natalia. But she was determined to be open to the experience and get her money’s worth. She was tempted to go with the word “gifts” in the hope of manifesting the products on her wish list, but erred on the side of caution, lest she be invited, once again, to share with the group.
Okay, joy ... joy. Natalia concentrated, as Susan guided them towards relaxation. “Feel the ground beneath you, under your sit bones, beneath your feet. Notice your breath. And begin to surrender to Mother Earth,” Susan proposed hypnotically. “Let your face relax.” Natalia gradually unfurrowed her brow.
Joy, hey? Natalia’s mind went back to that idyllic picture: the sunset, the fishing, the dog. [Don’t forget to reset the mortgage payments on the second property FIRST THING TOMORROW!] Joy. How can I feel joy right now? Natalia asked.
And they answered.
Did they? Yes ... she was sure of it.
The small, dependant, non-verbal human person answered. But they were non-verbal, that’s the thing. The answer wasn’t a word. It was in fact a feeling, a knowing. The thought began to form: I can feel joy right now by seeing the world through the eyes of an unborn child.
Her image of the Indian Ocean afternoons broke into memories: moments when she would wrap her hands around the foul-smelling burley as she packed it into the coil on the fishing line, so her partner had a better chance of catching a mackerel for dinner. Moments when she would retrieve the dog’s ball from the waves and fall in fully clothed. Moments when she wasn’t afraid of anything. Moments when she didn’t want anything. A tear ran down her cheek.
“You can open your eyes,” said Susan.
Natalia wiped her cheek and realised she felt like she’d just arrived back from a free holiday in Bali. Shit, she thought, I don’t have any answers to say out loud. Please don’t ask us to share. Please don’t ask us to share.
“I’m not going to ask you to share that experience – that’s just for you to hold on to,” Susan said. “Now, we begin to move toward your personal baby shower experience.”
Susan asked the women to choose whether they wanted to work alone, with their chaperone, or in groups. Val – just Val. She looked at her best female friend in this lonely city and smiled. Val smiled back. They were ready for the task at hand.
“We’re going to start workshopping ideas. So keeping these feelings with you – the embodiment of these feelings, I want you to start brainstorming, one by one, ideas for each of these categories.” Susan wrote on the board the words ‘Setting’, ‘Guests’, ‘Food and drinks’, ‘Activities’, ‘Time of day’.
“I’ll just let you know, I’ll be giving you advice on all of these things later in the evening, but this is a moment for you to come up with your own initial ideas about what you want your special day to look like,” Susan foreshadowed.
Suddenly, the answer was simple, obvious and, Natalia realised with enormous relief, real.
“Val,” she began in a low tone. “I know this workshop cost $200, and to be honest, I was hoping to work out how I could invite as many acquaintances as possible without feeling awkward about asking them to buy from a gift registry.” Val, taken aback at Natalia’s honesty, let out an NB-LOL. Val had always wondered why her dear old friend was with this control freak, but had put it down to the fact that he was so laid-back, he needed the complementary structure and drive of such a personality. But now she caught a glimpse of something else.
“All I want, Val, is to go down to the beach with you, Dan, Andrew and the dog, sit, sip tea or champagne or whatever you like, and watch the sun set. I just want a moment that lasts longer than five seconds to appreciate this fucking miracle.” Tears ran down her face. She released a couple of sobs from her tight chest. She was confused by this behaviour, but hormones were strange things, and her emotions had been even more out of control than usual lately.
Val opened her arms and embraced this newfound friend. Susan, partly in damage control and partly excited to see some emotion arising from her guided meditation skills, rushed over and whispered, “Are you OK?”
“Yes, I think I am,” replied Natalia. “But I think it’s time to go now. Val, do you mind if we go?”
The two friends left the room, descended the stairs of 85 Lansdowne Terrace, exiting through the externally-locking glass door and walked down the empty street, arm in arm, relishing the onset of the cool, south-westerly breeze.