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Salvation at the Supermarket
It's amazing what you can find there by the paper towels and snack foods

By Amanda Freeman
Sunday, April 5, 2009

It wasn't until I was standing in the grocery store, nearly 40 weeks pregnant and shaking, that I came to understand the value of sisterhood. I was hunched over a cart, my basketball belly resting against the metal, staring at a display of fruit roll-ups, wishing I could go back to the days when they were my favorite food. If I could fix my mistakes, I reasoned, my husband would not be in a bar three states away with his girlfriend. And I would not be on my way to the hospital alone.

That morning, I'd decided to relax in a bath. As I swung my weight into the water, I realized it was too hot, scalding even. But still, I sat and considered: It would be so hard to get out of the tub. Then I saw my belly turning reddish purple.

The on-call doctor suggested I conduct a "kick count," to make sure the baby was moving. Three-and-a-half hours later, I had my panic-inducing childbirth books fanned out in front of me, but no kicks.

"She might just be sleeping," the doctor said. "But you should come in to the hospital tonight and get hooked up to a monitor. Just in case."

I felt surprisingly calm. I called friends to take care of Emma, the dog. Then I called my soon-to-be-ex-husband. We had a plan for the trip to the hospital.

At first I didn't understand what he was saying: It was his girlfriend's birthday; he was out of town, something about a party. Then I did. He wasn't coming. Once on the road, I could hardly see through the tears, so I pulled into the Giant parking lot. Grocery stores relax me -- the bright white lights, the racks of magazines, the towers of muffins. I always absorb some of the cheery order.

The store was nearly empty, except for a heavy-set older woman with curly, cropped hair and skin tags covering her neck. Grocery lady plodded behind a cart, partially obscured by economy-size paper towels. Then she pulled alongside me and offered a tissue.

"Honey, believe me, I've been there," she said, and waited.

"I need to go to the bathroom . . . and then to the hospital," I answered. From inside the stall, I poured out my story. They were co-workers. I'd met her several times, chatted over beers at happy hour. While I was out of town, they had stayed out drinking and talking. "She told me she had a crush on a married man," my ex had told me later. "It planted a seed in my head."

He and I had been married for a year and a half, best friends for seven. That summer, we'd laced fingers around subway poles, played one-on-one basketball in the park and house-hunted. That fall, I found his secret e-mail account. Everything unraveled from there. The affair became increasingly brazen: He phoned her from his office while I waited downstairs, texted her lyrics he'd once sung to me. He didn't want to try therapy and thought we should terminate the pregnancy.

"I just couldn't go through with it, you know?" I said to grocery lady as we rambled toward our carts, glancing to see if she was judging me. "We were . . . a family."

"You stop that talk right now, sister," she said. "You are a family. Men, they come and go."

"I know," I said resolutely. "I'm a strong woman. I can do this myself."

She grabbed my arm at the elbow and guided me out of the store, leaving the two carts side by side. Of course I was strong, she agreed. But I'd never truly be on my own, because I had sisters. I started to tell her all I had were three brothers, but it occurred to me that she was not talking about genealogy.

My mother, girlfriends, my ex's mother, old bosses: They'd been there, offering advice, hot meals and baby furniture assembly. But I'd been reticent to give myself over to their help, stubbornly insisting I could do this on my own.

"It's his penis," grocery lady said finally, as she helped me into the car, as if that explained everything.

At the hospital, the check-in nurse looked around and asked, "Husband, boyfriend ..." long pause, "partner?"

"Just me," I said. "My soon-to-be-ex-husband is off with his penis." Suddenly, it seemed almost funny.

The waiting room was warm, and I dozed on and off as I waited. We are a family, I found myself repeating. As if in response, a sharp pain jolted my bladder. Then a series of kicks drummed against my rib cage. My little girl had been asleep.

"You really ought to have someone to drive you this close to your due date," the nurse said when she unhooked my monitors.

"Believe me," I said. "I will."

On the way home, I called my mother in Boston, who started packing her bags. And my best friend in San Francisco, who bought a ridiculously expensive last-minute plane ticket. When Maia was born four days later, it was abundantly clear that the women in my life were far more important than the other woman could ever be.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.

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