Friends and Strangers - J. Courtney Sullivan



SHE AWAKENED TO SILENCE. Nobody up at this hour besides mothers and insomniacs. She did not need to look at the clock to know that within seconds the baby would cry, and she would lift him from his bassinet before her eyes were quite open, exhaustion giving way to acceptance, devotion, as she held the warm heft of him in her arms.

A flash of hot rage sparked in her at the sight of her sleeping husband, but just as quickly it was gone, and she was changing the diaper, walking downstairs, wondering what would happen if she dropped the baby, if he died. The answer as familiar as the question: she would go out a window. That settled, Elisabeth kissed the top of his head.

A video affirmation she had found online began, in soothing tones, Every time I nurse my child, I drink a glass of water. In this way, I remember that I too deserve care. Filling a glass of water required more than she had at the moment, but she thought it was good enough that she knew she ought to.

In the living room, her eyes adjusted. She saw the black and blue shadows of the glass and gold coffee table with which she would soon have to part, the pair of armchairs, the potted fiddle-leaf fig tree, seven feet tall. She had arranged these items in the exact configuration they had occupied in the Brooklyn apartment, but somehow it all looked different here.

Elisabeth reached under the sofa and pulled out the ugly pillow with the stupid name. My Brest Friend. Someone, she couldn’t remember who, had given it to her as a shower gift, swearing that it was a godsend. This turned out to be true, even though she felt like she was wearing a life preserver around her waist whenever she put it on.

She sat down, laying the baby across her padded lap. She lifted her T-shirt, unhooked her bra. He latched on and began to suck, an easy rhythm that had seemed impossible four months ago. In order to be discharged from the hospital after giving birth, she was required to attend an hour-long class about breastfeeding. The entire time, Elisabeth kept falling asleep, waking when her head slammed against the wall behind her.

She held her phone aloft in one hand now, above the baby’s head, and used her thumb to navigate to Facebook. Straight to the BK Mamas page, as usual. Elisabeth scrolled until she came to the place where she’d left off before bed. The page buzzed with questions from mothers at all hours. They kept one another company there. She imagined the rows of brownstones in the old neighborhood, bathed in blackness but for the tiny screens, lit up, connecting them all.

There was a post from a woman looking for tips on flying cross-country with a toddler. Elisabeth read all thirteen responses with interest, even though she didn’t have a toddler or plans to fly anytime soon. Someone was asking about the flu shot. Someone else needed a unicorn birthday cake on short notice. Mimi Winchester, who had recently purchased a townhouse for three million, was selling a used boy’s coat, size 2T, for nine dollars.

Elisabeth had once mocked women like this—women who graduated from prestigious universities and excelled in their chosen fields, only to be felled by the prospect of clipping a newborn’s fingernails. Now they were her survival. The only people alive who cared about the exact things she did at this moment, with as much intensity, the people with all the answers. They were learning an evolving language, one you spoke for a week or two before everything changed again. What else to do with that accrued knowledge but share it. Someone with a child six weeks older than hers was a prophet.

She switched sides after ten minutes.

A new post popped up.

Slightly off topic, but…last month, as usual, my husband was a no-show on a visit to my parents in Minneapolis. While I was there, I ran into my college boyfriend, recently divorced. Now we’re texting at all hours. Is this an emotional affair? Am I supposed to stop? Because dammit, it’s FUN, and I think I deserve some fun.

In her profile picture, the woman was blonde and smiling and toned, a tall guy’s arms wrapped around her. They stood on a white sand beach, palm trees in the distance. Their honeymoon, maybe. Half the women still used their wedding photos, including, Elisabeth had noticed, the ones