How to Conceive on the Verge of Exhaustion

We were there to picket, but the district court was deserted. The lawmakers, the clerks, the janitors—every man had been sent home. A bomb threat, one loiterer said, which was bigger than the twelve of us. We decided against hurdling the police tape to fit in Channel Eight's shot.

So we convened with our picket signs on the downtown square. JP grabbed my hand, then, only to lift it to the sky, to force me to experience the second problem firsthand. "Too much wind," he said to all.

We needed attention, we all agreed, but we still needed to look our best. "And great hairdos stop traffic. Great hairdos," Julia said, "win elections." Eleven heads nodded our agreement: we'd have to make news indoors.

The city bus took us by the civic center, the covered farmer's market, and the temple on West Graves. We got off at the aquatic center and demanded to be let in. The receptionist, no older than twenty, maintained military composure. "I can meet your demands," she said, "when you become Blue Star members." So we used all six of her clipboards at once and paid the ten dollar per person fees. We were good negotiators.

We weren't prepared to swim.

We bypassed the locker room and went straight for the lap pool. We jumped in—clothes, wallets, all—and began chanting, "Save our whales! Stop global warming!"

When the initial splashing weakened we saw only the reflection of skylights on water. Nobody was listening to us. Nobody but us was there. We agreed to make some calls. JP had a cell phone in his pants pocket, underwater. He resurfaced the device gently, with two hands, as one might cradle a stillborn infant, and we gathered close.

"Is it waterproof?" someone asked.

"Yes," said JP, "but unfortunately not chlorine proof."

Humor got you far with this crowd. Humor was why JP was our leader.

JP asked for volunteers to lead a mission. I raised my hand quickly, the best way to show my loyalty—the best way to prove I hadn't given up on the club, and, in my mind, on JP. From all the other eager hands jutting into the air like patriotic flagpoles, JP picked Julia's. I told myself it was her white-blond hair, her pencil-thin strands that reeled him in like a fishing line. Or, it was her eyelashes. Julia had eyelashes as long as fork prongs, as vibrant as bracelets of tiny crystal balls. I reasoned quickly: I was happier to take her with me than leave her behind, with JP.

Through the glass double-doors I hailed the aquatic center's receptionist. Julia beat me to the punch. With the doors still closed she meticulously mouthed, "Can we use your phone?" We went in, dripping wet, betrothing large splats on the sign-in sheet that held our twelve names alone. The water smeared my name into a bluish ink blob; JP and Julia's names skidded as if on water skis into each other and off the page.

The receptionist said, "Okay, okay. One call."

I said, "My lawyer, then," and Julia nodded like she'd been in on the joke all along. "No wait," Julia then said, like the joke wasn't over, "give us Oprah." Julia's face became all teeth when she laughed. The receptionist's mouth curled upwards, and Julia brushed the back of the girl's hand as if to signal a hidden cue that lay between them. I may have only met Julia a week prior but knew it was her nature to butter people up, to woo men and women into her groove. She had that way about her—strong gestures that told you she was onto you, hard looks that meant she heard everything you didn't say. Julia was the girl you wanted to please, without knowing why. My assumption was that it was fear—fear of flying, fear of leaving the ground, fear of failing—fear of anything, really, that made for all the differences between her and everyone else. Like JP, Julia knew no fear, and like me, the receptionist was putty in Julia's wet, puckered hands. Without being asked, the girl set the phone on the counter, angled towards Julia.

As Julia dialed channel eight's Hot Tip line, my mind connected the receptionist's freckles into something like Charlotte's Web. "Want to join our club?" I asked her. I was thankful her stare wasn't of malice, only blankness.

"Let me guess—anarchy?" She blurted out the phrase as if it was one elongated word. "Or are you just your typical band of overzealous environmentalists?"

I couldn't let her peg us that way, so I let her have it.

"Neither," I said. "Polygamists." I smiled, letting the receptionist in on another of our jokes. She smiled back a big smile this time, a whopper.

Didn't I tell you? Humor is how you please a crowd.

Julia left a message on the Hot Tip line. If this was our one phone call, it appeared we were out of luck. I was determined that the mission wouldn't fail. I asked Julia, "So what's plan b?" and turned to face her, forcing my eyes to water at the sight of her—Julia, oh, Julia! —with that delicate pale skin, those locks of ghostly beauty, those dangling weeds of just-ironed-on hair! I released sighs so great I thought my watery eyes had punctured her lungs. Julia held back her laughter, shaking her head at my phony tears.

We deserved Oscars.

People's Choice Awards.

The receptionist said, "Okay, okay. Make another. As many as it takes." Dot, who seemed reluctant to tell us her real name, was our newest, biggest fan.

Julia called the local paper, the regional paper, the public radio station. She told them we were fifty-strong, and we had signs (leaving out the detail, of course, that water had made them illegible). She told them this was the evening news. It wouldn't be long after that—and Dot promised that the press wouldn't need Blue Stars to venture in. She told us we made her membership quota for the month. "I owe you five," Dot said, "ten, maybe twenty phone calls." Our club members weren't a dime a dozen—yet there was Dot, the perfect candidate, the survivor of our hazing. I pulled from my pocket our sign-up sheet, only the paper was soaked through, damaged beyond repair. Dot shrugged. She said she'd come to our next meeting, that she'd know where to find us. She said she couldn't wait.

Yet for all her talk, I knew better than to get excited. I hadn't won her heart. Promises like hers—I'd heard them all before.

Julia and I waited with the others in the water, chanting and pulling off headstands, marching the pool's perimeter and performing belly-flops off the low dive. We rotated events like a three-ring circus for the better part of an hour. Sometime around noon a lone cameraman appeared in the lobby. Dot pointed him our way.

"They're coming!" someone shouted, and we struck our best pose. We chanted louder, "Save our whales! Free the kittens of the sea!" We continued chanting and held our made-for-TV poses like we'd held our breaths. The camera panned across the pool, then held stationary on the shallow end, locking its sights on Julia. I waited for the camera to pan back, to give me one more look, but the shot only stopped for the cameraman to ask for a spokesperson. JP pinched my thigh, then, and pushed me forward. If I hadn't been standing in water, chest-deep, JP's touch might've knocked me over. I wasn't prepared to speak. My instincts took over, then—which of course means: I held my breath and went under. I counted to ninety-nine.

When I resurfaced, the cameraman was interviewing JP, who sat dangling his legs off the low-dive. The others were still chanting, everyone except Claudio, our newest member and my first true recruit (I'd met him on the bus ride to picket earlier that morning). Claudio was ringing out his shirt in the kid's pool that was the shape of an apple or a bell—I couldn't tell which. He took off his sneakers and turned them over, one at time, pounding them on the concrete to drain the water. I didn't want to stop chanting but couldn't let him get away.

"Claudio," I whispered, only he didn't hear. I said his name louder till eventually I had no choice but to yell, "Claudi-O!" He looked up, startled, and came to the edge of the pool where I was leaning. "What gives, Claudio?"

"This is hocus," he said. "I thought I could do it. I thought this was a good cause. But I draw the line. I can't make a fool of myself for people who believe this is helping anyone. Look at me? I'm soaking wet. And for what?"

"Think of the whales, Claudio. Free Willy, Shamu—" I said, but he wouldn't listen. On his way out of the aquatic center, he stopped to tell Dot, I assumed, why he was leaving. He waved his wet shoes in the air for emphasis. Even as the most devoted member of the club, my recruitment techniques had always been poor. Claudio could've been my exception, my Blue Star.

Before I could turn around, I heard the spring of the diving board and a "Bombs away!" from overhead. The cameraman was the fated victim; a wall of water tall as the empty lifeguard stand crashed down on him and his equipment. I could only assume that he'd said something to upset JP. That JP, our all or nothing guy, the most genuine man I'd ever known, was apparently gifted in water sports. His cannonball was a masterpiece, and the gallant wave of water soared as proof of his leadership, his charm, his finesse. Moments like these I was in awe—so much so, that what I did was, I froze. And I stood there in the water, unsure of what was keeping me upright, uncertain if the pressure surrounding me hadn't been there on dry land, too, my life long. There was tension I couldn't explain. My legs were weighted to the pool's floor. But if I was immobile, was anyone else aware? No other face showed sign of my immobility. I pleaded with their eyes, imaging their arms as lifejackets, their bodies as rescue boats cranked down from the main ship. It was the cameraman's cursing that brought me out of this trance. When he screamed, "Damnit! I'm soaked!" the pool released me from its grip.

JP was still lurking underwater. The cameraman ran for the door. Julia was the one who took cue fastest. "The plan has been comprised," she announced to all. "Mission abort. I repeat: mission abort."

Someone began splashing, as if chaos needed a go-ahead. Someone else raised his hand, as if Julia was the teacher of his dreams.

"Yes?" said Julia.

"Where to now?" that someone asked. "What's next?"

Someone else piped up. "Mining. Another tunnel collapsed in the mountains."

"Too far," Julia said. "We don't have the money to charter a bus."

"What about new signs?" someone else said. "We've got to do something about the war."

"Yes," someone agreed. "World peace should have top priority."

"And whirled peas should have glop seniority." We didn't need to see him to know that JP had resurfaced. His humor gave him away and gave us another fit of laughter. JP knew how to unify a crowd. We rallied in the shallow end, my body still tingling from the jolt of JP's pinch, before taking once again to the streets.

It was sundown before we scattered for the day. Someone suggested we should unwind; someone else said we'd been unwinding since dawn. I waited until JP spoke. "Let's reconvene at Faraby's," he said. "But let's do it in a week."

Three weeks passed before I heard from the club again. My phone rang. Julia was on the line, inviting me to her house. "A dinner party," she said. "In honor of JP." Our fearless leader, at age twenty-eight, was retiring from our community. He was moving to West Virginia, Julia said, to join the coal miners' union, to advocate for workers who needed him most. When it hit me that she was serious, the receiver slipped down my neck until it fell from me completely. It was fear that kept me from bringing it back to my ear and asking why it was she who knew of JP's plans. But I gave in to gravity, then, leaning my wilted body into the phone that lay on the ground. On my hands and knees, I told Julia that yes, I would attend.

The day of the party, I could hardly get myself out of bed. I could hardly bend to get dressed or hold my wrist steady to brush my teeth. Was it possible that love didn't always win? Was it possible that destiny wasn't leading the charge? With mouthwash to cover my breath and ruby red polish to glaze my nails, I prepared for the worst.

I took the bus past the farmer's market, the fraternity row in mid-town, and the permanently-docked boathouse that lit up to the tune of "Fur Elise" by day and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" by night. I arrived at a calculated hour—late—and overdressed.

"It's so great to see you." Julia's white teeth shone in the moonlight when she spoke. I handed her a housewarming gift—a basket of white pears, before their season—and inward I went. There wasn't a chair unoccupied.

"Have mine," said JP. He gave me a pat on the back like a pep talk was all I'd ever needed. I sat without taking off my coat, realizing I didn't want to expose my A-line dress and pearl necklace to a room full of T-shirts and cropped pants. As I surveyed the attendees, most of them new or ex-club members, a smile paraded across my face passionate enough to belong to a baton twirler in the county parade or to a mother-of-the-bride who thought she'd never be. I blew bubbles with my chewing gum and accepted the first beer I was offered.

People drank steadily. Someone kept announcing toasts in the kitchen; someone else showed us how to shotgun a beer. When someone yelled, "Let's go! For old times' sake!" nobody said no. I followed the crowd out Julia's back door, effortlessly becoming one of them. We walked to the end of the block, where dirt took over for the road. Posts in the dirt marked plots of land for a developing subdivision.

"Here we are," someone said, and everyone inhaled gratuitously before chanting: "Say NO to growth! Stop new development!" The chanting continued for only a few minutes before lights in Julia's neighborhood began illuminating the block. Neighbors yelled threats out their windows. When our chants grew louder, a voice came through a bullhorn from three stories up—as if God was on the line. What God said was: the cops—oh yes, the very county police that we knew all too well—yes, yes, the cops were on the way.

Normally, under any other circumstances, we would've stayed put, held our ground. But with most of us drunk, or close to it, the risks of what could happen were too great. Someone said that they couldn't stay, then, that they already had a record. Someone else said he'd been to jail before—overnight—and never intended to return. People scattered. Others, like Julia and JP, waited until they saw a siren in the distance before taking off full-speed towards Julia's house. I watched them turn the undeveloped corner, Julia stumbling a little and reaching out for his arm, his hand, his anything up for grabs. I followed their silhouettes down the paved street, around the side of Julia's house. Once again, I felt pressure all around me. My feet would not move. I was anchored to the earth; I was frozen; I was stone. Before the sound of the approaching car was too great, I heard JP and Julia's footsteps rattle the back stairway, until the echo of their feet hitting wood faded, halted, retreated somewhere in the distance.

The cop who approached me was not one of the regulars I knew. He had a young face, handsome and fit enough to frame above my bed with all the others—rock stars, movie stars, JP. I faced him dead on, taking a mental picture of his jaw-line with my mind. I may have been alone. I assumed I was alone. I couldn't turn around to find out. A rush of adrenaline hit me, then, mounting from my feet upwards, as if gravity had rang destiny and said, "Time to give her something new." Somehow I felt smarter and more confident than I'd been in months. Maybe it was the beer.

"I got a call about a protest," the officer said. "You know anything about that? Seen anyone suspicious around the neighborhood?"

These were questions I was ready for, but what came out was far from what I planned. "No, officer," I said. "Nobody here but me."

"And what's a lady like you doing at the end of a cul-de-sac at this time of night? What's the occasion?"

"Oh, well," I began, "that's quite easy to explain. You see, my boyfriend and I had plans this evening, and—" I undid the buttons on my coat, opening the flaps to reveal my dress, my pearls, my rerouted destiny. "And, well, he ditched me, you see. In this cul-de-sac. In this lot. We had a fight, and well, regardless of the other girl, let's just say, it's safe to assume it's over between us."

The words just poured out, unrehearsed. "In fact, I wouldn't even call us friends anymore," I said, and, like that, just like that, I said "Goodnight" to the handsome officer before he could even think about offering to escort me home.  

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