Amy Jean is steaming oysters in the kitchen. It is finally October, the brief prime season of oysters and other lovely things. The air is golden and almost cool enough to need a jacket. In a few weeks there will be frost at night, and the fat pecans will start to fall off the trees all over the neighborhood, some nights so heavy it may sound for a minute like hail and the nights will be crisp enough to crack.
Amy Jean's big wolfhound is scrabbling to reach under the kitchen door and pry it open to get outside. When the door won't open she looks up at us with a pitiful whine.
"Masha, where's your baby?" Amy Jean coos. "Where's your baby, Masha?"
Masha woofs and throws her shoulder frantically against the door.
Masha pretends to lie down, but cannot rest. With her front legs, she drags herself on her belly across the floor to Amy Jean's feet, little whimpers begging please, please, please and help help help.
"Masha, what's the matter?" Amy Jean teases. "Can't you find your baby?"
Masha leaps up, runs, and crashes into the door again. Amy Jean laughs and Masha throws her a bruised look over her shoulder. A missing baby is no laughing matter.
The things is, Masha has no baby. A week ago, she went into pseudocyesis, false pregnancy. All female dogs go through false pregnancies, but Masha's are severe. It's got her tits swollen and her head all turned around. She hunts all day for the babies her body tells her she should have and cries for them all night.
Amy Jean lifts the steamer of oysters out of pot in a wet cloud that smells like laundry and wine. Some people say that oysters smell like pussy, and to the degree that both smell like clean ocean, like salt water and abundant life, then yes. Amy pours white wine into the shallots simmering in the pan, so then there's vinegariness and butteriness and onion in the air, too, and the steam catches in our hair in tiny drops.
A year ago Amy Jean started to talk about having a baby. I was careful not to seem surprised. Amy Jean can have a baby if she wants. She has a real job these days, the kind with Opportunities for Advancement. She has a long-time boyfriend who would probably come around to the idea. She lives in a real house with real furniture. Babies, why not?
She wanted a baby a lot. A whole lot. I'd never seen anything exactly like it. She reminded me of someone terribly hungry, so close to real starvation that they can only think of food and everything in the world is either Food or Not Food and nothing else matters. But because things were not quite right and she was not making quite what she would like to be making at her job and because her boyfriend was not quite ready, she didn't have a baby. Then in June she found out she had cancer instead. The cancer is over now, but the irradiated iodine they killed it with is not good for fetuses and Amy Jean will not be having a baby for a while. Amy Jean is quite cautious. All my girlfriends are quite cautious, and none of us have babies.
"Masha, leave the door alone," Amy Jean says. Masha backs up reluctantly, turns toward the hallway and finally throws herself down on her side in an agony of grief. I rub the back of her neck with my toes. Poor Masha.
I don't think I've ever felt it, that particular hunger. If I had I would know it, right? When I was growing up I always insisted that I was never having babies. The older people would nod knowingly and pat my leg and say you feel like that now, but don't worry, when the time comes you'll want it, everyone does-- a prospect I found only slightly less terrifying than the threat that Jesus would be saving me, whether I wanted him to or not. I want no overwhelming desires, no mystical overthrows of my will, no terrible hunger like Masha's terrible hunger.
I like babies just fine, I swear I do. I love my niece. She makes hilarious faces and endearing noises programmed to make me feel pleasantly protective. She laughs when jiggled and jumps when I jump and registers no objection to being dressed as a woodland creature for her auntie's entertainment. So far, she is perfect.
She doesn't make me want to have a baby, though. Not this year, anyway, or the year after that, or probably even the year after that. I am very busy for the foreseeable future. And if it goes on like that, I will probably never have a baby, and that shouldn't be a tragedy. Shouldn't be. I think.
There's a morality story, though, for women like me, and it's about a woman who always thinks she'll have a baby later when she feels like it but then she wakes up one morning in her early forties and realizes that a baby is exactly the one things she wants more than anything in the world. She has the hunger in her, and it is too late to do anything about it. It is a terrible threat.
Choices are frightening things in themselves. Don't worry, say the grown-ups in my mind. You'll change your mind. Everyone does.
The steam has split the mouths of the oysters into little moues. We crack the open and set them on the plate. Amy Jean goes to the kitchen door, wiping her hands on her skirt.
"Masha, you want to go out? You want to go out and look for your baby?" Masha snaps alert, body electrified with purpose. Amy Jean opens the door and Masha bounds out, barking. She will call and sniff the bushes for an hour for a puppy she will never find.
Amy Jean pours two glasses of white wine. I pick up the platter of oysters, trembling to be swallowed, and carry them to the table.