A Natural Father
“I don’t feel so good.” Lucy Basso pressed a hand to her stomach and closed her eyes. “Maybe I should do this another time.”
Her sister Rosetta rolled her eyes and passed the menu over.
“Stop being such a wuss,” Rosie said, dark brown eyes scanning the menu. “I’m going to have the pesto and goats cheese foccacia. What about you?”
“How about a nervous breakdown?” Lucy said.
Around them, the staff and patrons of their favorite inner-city Melbourne café went about their business, laughing, talking, drinking and eating as though none of them had a care in the world.
Lucy stared at them with envy.
I bet none of you are unexpectedly pregnant. I bet none of you are so stupidly, childishly scared of telling your Catholic Italian mother that you decided to do it in a public place so she couldn’t yell too loudly. I bet none of you are contemplating standing up right now and hightailing it out of here and moving to another country so you never have to look into her face and see how disappointed she is in you.
Her sister placed the menu flat on the table and gave Lucy one of her Lawyer Looks. Over the years, Rosie had perfected several, and Lucy kept a running tally of them. This was Lawyer Look Number Three, the my-client-is-an-idiot-but-I-will-endure-because-I’m-being-paid one.
“There’s no point worrying about something you can’t change. And it’s not like you’ve robbed a bank or become a Buddhist, God forbid. You made a baby with the man you love. So what if you’re not married to him? So what if he’s just left you for another woman? None of that is your fault. Well, not technically.”
Lucy narrowed her eyes, for a moment forgetting her nerves.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Which bit is technically not my fault? Us not being married or him leaving me? And please do not tell me that you think us being married would have made a difference to this situation because that’s so not true. I’d just be sitting here with a stupid ring on my finger and he’d still be having tantric sex with Belinda The Nimble,” she said.
Rosie smiled. “There, see? All you needed was to get a little temper going, and you’re fine.”
She looked so pleased with herself, Lucy had to laugh. “You are the worst. Please tell me you have a trick like that up your sleeve for when Ma starts crossing herself and beating her chest.”
“She hasn’t beaten her chest for years. Not since we told her it was making her boobs sag prematurely,” Rosie said. “And what’s with the nimble thing, by the way? You always call Belinda that. Personally, I prefer That Slut, but I’m hard like that.”
Lucy reached for the sugar bowl and dug the teaspoon deep into the tiny, shiny crystals.
“It’s one of the things Marcus said when he told me he was leaving. That he’d met someone and she was beautiful and captivating and nimble.”
Even though two months had passed since that horrible, soul-destroying conversation, Lucy still felt the sting of humiliation and hurt. She’d been so secure in Marcus’s love. So certain that no matter what else was going wrong in her life – and the list seemed to be growing longer by the day – he’d always be there for her.
“Nimble. What the hell does that mean? That she can put her ankles behind her ears? Like that’s going to see them through the hard times,” Rosie said.
Lucy shrugged miserably, then caught herself. She was wallowing again. The moment she knew she was pregnant, she’d made a deal with herself that self pity was out the window. The days of self-indulgent cannoli pig-outs were over. She had another person to consider now. A person who was going to be totally dependent on her for everything for so many years it was almost impossible to comprehend.
“Hello, my darlings, so sorry I’m late.”
Lucy and Rosie started in their seats. When it came to sneaking up on people unawares, their mother was a world champion. It was a talent she’d mastered when they were children and it never failed to unsettle them both.
“Why you had to choose this place when the parking is so bad and my cornetto are ten times better, I don’t know,” Sophia Basso said as she scanned the busy café, clearly unimpressed. “We could have had a nice quiet time at home with no interruptions.”
“Ma, you’ve got to stop sneaking up on us like that. You’re like the Ninja Mom,” Lucy said.
“I can’t help that I step lightly, Lucia,” Sophia said.
Small and slim, she was dressed as always with elegance in a silk shirt in bright aquamarine with a bow at the neck, a neat black skirt, and black court shoes. Over it all she wore the black Italian wool coat her daughters had bought her for her birthday last year.
“I know it’s hard to park here, but Brunetti’s make the best hot chocolate in town,” Rosie said.
Sophia sniffed her disagreement as she folded her coat carefully over the back of her chair. Then she held her arms wide and Rosie stood and stepped dutifully into her embrace, followed by Lucy a few seconds later.
“My girls. So beautiful,” Sophia Basso said, her fond gaze cataloguing their tall, slim bodies, dark shiny hair and deep brown eyes with parental pride.
She sank into her chair and Lucy and Rosie followed suit.
Sometimes, Lucy reflected, meeting with her mother was like having an audience with the Queen. Or maybe the Pope was a better comparison, since there was usually so much guilt associated with the occasion, mixed in with the love and amusement and frustration.
“You’ve put on weight, Lucia.” Sophia said as she spread a napkin over her lap. “It’s good to see. You’re always much too skinny.”
Lucy tensed. She was twelve weeks pregnant and barely showing. If she lay on her back and squinted, she could just discern the concave bump that would soon grow into a big pregnancy belly. How could her mother possibly notice such a subtle change?
Lucy exchanged glances with her sister.
Just say it. Spit it out, get it over and done with.
Ever since she found out she was pregnant five weeks ago, she’d been coming up with excuses for why she couldn’t tell her mother. First, she’d decided to wait to make sure the pregnancy was viable before saying anything. Why upset her mother for no reason, after all? But the weeks had passed and she’d realized she was going to start to show soon. The last thing she wanted was for her mother to find out from someone else. She could just imagine Mrs Cilauro from the markets or old Mr Magnifico, one of her customers, asking her mother when Lucia was due.
The thought was enough to make her feel light-headed. For sure the chest-beating would make a reappearance. And she would never be able to forget causing her mother so much pain. Not that being single and pregnant wasn’t going to score highly on that front. Her mother had struggled to bring her and Rosie up single-handedly after their father died in a worksite accident when they were both just toddlers. Sophia’s most fervent wish, often vocalized, was that her two daughters would never have to go through the uncertainty and fear of single motherhood.
Guess what, Ma? Surprise!
“I saw Peter DeSarro the other day. He asked me to say hello to you both,” Sophia said, sliding her reading glasses onto the end of her nose. “He asked particularly after you, Rosetta. You broke his heart when you married Andrew, you know.”
“Oh yeah, I was a real man killer,” Rosie said dryly. “All those guys panting on my doorstep all the time.”
Sophia glanced at her eldest daughter over the top of her glasses.
“You were too busy with your studies to notice, but you could have had any boy in the neighborhood.”
Rosie laughed outright at that.
“Ma, I was the size of a small country in high school. The only boys interested in me were the ones who figured I was good for a free feed at lunch time.”
“Rosetta! That is not true!” Sophia said.
Lucy squeezed her eyes tightly shut. It was now or never. Any second now, the conversation was going to degenerate into a typical Rosie-Sophia debate about history as they both saw it, and Lucy would lose her courage.
“Ma, I’m pregnant,” Lucy blurted, her voice sounding overloud in her own ears.
Was it just her, or did the world stop spinning for a second?
Her mother’s eyes widened, then the color drained out of her face.
“Lucia!” she said. Her hand found Lucy’s on the tabletop and clutched it.
“It’s Marcus’s. We think maybe a condom broke. I’m due in late October. Give or take,” Lucy said in a rush.
Her mother’s face got even paler. Lucy winced. She hadn’t meant to share the part about the condom breaking. She’d never discussed contraception with her mother in her life and she wasn’t about to start now.
“You’re three months already?” her mother asked, her voice barely a whisper.
Lucy nodded. She could see the stricken look in her mother’s eyes, knew exactly what she was thinking.
“I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure,” she said. It was flimsy, and they all three knew it. She took a deep breath. “I didn’t want you to worry about me,” she said more honestly.
Her mother exhaled loudly and sat back in her chair. Her hand slid from Lucy’s.
“Now Marcus will have to step up and take care of his responsibilities,” Sophia said. “You are angry with him, Lucia, I know, but for the sake of the baby you will take him back. You will buy a nice house, and he will get a real job to look after you and the baby.”
Lucy blinked. Fatten her mother up, give her a sex change and stuff her mouth with cotton wool, and she’d be a dead spit for Marlon Brando in The Godfather right now, the way she was organizing Lucy’s life like she was one of the capos in her army.
“Ma, he’s with someone else now. He loves her,” she said flatly.
Sophia shook her head. “It doesn’t matter any more. He has responsibilities.”
“Since when did that ever make a difference with Marcus?” Rosie said under her breath.
Lucy’s chin came up as the familiar urge to defend Marcus gripped her. She frowned.
He’s not yours to defend any more, remember?
“This child needs a father,” Sophia said, her small fist thumping the table.
Lucy knew that her mother’s words were fueled by all the years of just scraping by, but they weren’t what she needed to hear right now. She couldn’t undo what had happened. She was stuck. She was going to have to do the best she could with what she had. And she was going to have to do it alone.
Rosie’s hand found her knee under the table and gave it a squeeze.
“It’s not like I planned any of this,” Lucy said. “It was an accident. And I can’t make Marcus love me again. I just have to get on with things. I’ve got the business, and Rosie and I have been talking -”
“The business! I hadn’t even thought about that! How on earth will you cope with it all on your own?” her mother interrupted, throwing her hands in the air dramatically. “All those fruit deliveries, lifting all those boxes. And it’s just you, Lucia, no one else. This is a disaster.”
“Ma, you’re not helping. You think Lucy hasn’t gone over and over all of this stuff?” Rosie said.
“She hasn’t gone over it with me,” Sophia said, and Lucy could hear the hurt in her voice.
“I know this is the last thing you want for me,” Lucy said. ”I know you’re disappointed. But it’s happening. I’m going to have a baby. You’re going to be a grandmother. Can’t we just concentrate on the good bits and worry about the bad bits when they happen?”
Suddenly she really needed to hear her mother say something reassuring. Something about how everything would be all right, how if she had managed, so would Lucy.
Tears filled Sophia Basso’s eyes and she shook her head slowly.
“You have no idea,” she said. “Everything becomes a battle. Just getting to the grocery store, or keeping the house clean. Every time one of you was sick, I used to pace the floor at night, worrying how I was going to pay for the medicine and who was going to look after you when I had to go into work the next day. All the times the utilities were cut off, and the times I couldn’t find the money for school excursions… I would never wish that life on either of you.”
“It won’t be the same, because Lucy has us,” Rosie said staunchly. “What Lucy was about to tell you is that she’s moving into the granny flat at the back of our house. When the baby comes, Andrew and I can help out. Between all of us, we’ll get by.”
Lucy saw that her mother’s hands were trembling. She hated upsetting her. Disappointing her. Deep down inside, in the part of her that was still a child, Lucy had hoped that her mother would react differently. That she’d be more pleased than concerned, that she’d wrap Lucy in her arms and tell her that no matter what happened she would be there for her.
The nervous nausea that had dogged her before her mother’s arrival returned with a vengeance.
She was already scared of what the future might hold. Of having a baby growing inside her – a crazy enough concept all on its own – and then taking that tiny baby home and having to cope with whatever might happen next without Marcus standing beside her. She’d told herself over and over that hundreds of thousands of women across Australia – probably millions of women around the world – coped with having babies on their own. She would cope, too. She would. But she knew it would be the biggest challenge she’d ever faced in her life. And it would be a challenge that would never stop, ever. At seventy, she would still be worrying about her child and wanting the best for him or her. She only had to look at her mother’s grief-stricken face to know that was true.
She stood, clutching her handbag.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “I’m sorry, Ma. But I can’t do this right now.”
Her mother gaped and Rosie half-rose from her chair as Lucy strode for the entrance, fighting her way through the line of people waiting for service at the front counter.
Outside, Lucy stood with her hands stuffed into the pockets of her coat and sucked in big lungfuls of air. She stared up at the pale blue winter sky, willing herself to calm down.
It’s going to be okay. I’m twenty-eight years old. Last year, I started my own business. I can do this. I’m a strong person.
She found her car keys in her bag and started to walk, chin up, jaw set.
After all, it wasn’t as though she had a choice.