Sophie’s Big Day by Kendall Defoe

The doctor ignored her, but she was ready. The orderly stopped the gurney as they entered the delivery room and the hard light of the reflectors blinded Sophie for a moment. Soon she saw people in masks and loose green clothing, shuffling with trays and equipment as they made jokes and told her to relax.

Her husband was somewhere in the building; he had walked in with her until a nurse found a wheelchair and angrily deposited Sophie in it while passing him a form to fill out. There was little to do but breathe in a certain pattern, lay back when they put her on another table, and then wait. But she wanted to see the doctor; she wanted to see all of their faces. She wanted them to know. She was ready.

It was not Sophie’s first child: Back on the island, she had left a boy behind to be taken care of by her grandmother. There was a promise to send for him one day; she thought it would be better for him to come up as a little boy. Not her thought alone; there was Rufus’ idea that the boy should wait. He was willing even to take her if it was not his child. The grandmother never smiled or complained about this. Sophie wanted to go and see what this new man had to offer, and there was no life for her here. This man had an offer.

And why not accept? Rufus had made other promises to the family and kept most of them: the plane ticket; help with the visas; their own place in a country her grandmother had never thought of, but now wanted to visit soon. In Sophie’s village, they had lost many neighbours and friends to other places they knew through their school readers. Some chose places from the information they got in newspapers; others just wanted to take a chance on any place that was not an island unknown to anyone else. Sophie had received letters and packages from old classmates, now abroad; but she never dreamed of travel. It was the baby that made her think of it; it was Rufus who gave her the chance to move on.

Sophie took the plane alone; Rufus sent her the ticket, some instructions, and a brand new winter coat. She did not quite believe all the stories she had heard about the cold—they seemed to be about another planet, not a place to make a home. During the flight, she thought about her grandmother. Their hug on the hot tarmac was brief, and she looked over her shoulder to see her son kicking in his stroller. She had promised both of them she would not forget them, that she would send for them as soon as the money was ready. Her grandmother never cried; she told Sophie to write when she could. The boy kept kicking, looking down at his feet. She got on the plane, noted how her grandmother and son were not at the gate when the plane turned to begin its flight. There were some tears in her eyes as the instructions for wearing seat belts were announced. She did not look out the window.

They transferred planes and Sophie wondered what to do with the winter coat. The rain outside was intense, the cabin very stuffy. The other passengers were all in their coats and waited for the plane to take off as she tried to open up the velcro and zippers she had never handled before. It was hard to believe in the cold, even after the announcement, made an hour before landing, of snow and ice on the tarmac. But she soon learned that all the stories from friends and relations were true: The city was covered with snow and ice, and she put her coat on as the pilot announced their expected arrival time. It looked like a dream to her, the buildings grey and white and larger than she had imagined. They did not step out onto the tarmac, for which Sophie would always be grateful, but took a long tunnel into the airport. As she walked to the arrival area, she saw crystals of ice on a window that looked out on the other planes and buildings. It was too hard to resist putting her hand on the glass, and she would always remember that shock of coldness as it passed through her body. Rufus could see all of this as he waited for her; she was walking alone with her one handbag and unfastened coat.

The apartment was nice enough. Sophie did not like the furniture, but the bathroom was indoors and belonged only to them. Rufus had a new T.V. in the front room and they had a balcony that looked out over a nearby school and playground. She put her bags on the green sofa and breathed in her new place. She felt a little tired and wanted to rest a bit, but Rufus needed to show her around. The kitchen was also impressive, as were the stove and toaster oven (something Sophie had never used before). They went down the one main hallway to the bedroom and she felt a small shudder when she saw there was only one bed. She touched the green bedspread as Rufus put his hands around her. They were married, after all.

At least he did not snore. As Rufus turned in his sleep, she thought about the last man she was with. It was dark now, with a constellation of crystals now in strong relief on the windows of the bedroom. Sophie could not sleep. She quietly stepped into the main hallway, put on a pair of Rufus’ slippers and saw the door to the other bedroom. It was locked and she did not try to force it open. She heard the heat turn on and felt wafts of warm air through the vents. It was comfortable enough; Rufus had done his part. She only shed tears when she thought of her grandmother, and the child. It was warmer back home; much, much warmer.

The next week was full of changes she had only guessed at on the plane: Rufus worked almost every day, but he would take her out for a drive and show her the neighbourhood when he came home. There was less snow on the ground and she saw that children were playing on the equipment in the park. One tried to make a snowball, but it fell apart and quickly drifted in particles into the cold wind. She barely heard Rufus’ comments about where she could go shopping or what the city was like in the summer (she could not imagine warmth here). They often stopped at a mall that Sophie first noticed on the trip from the airport. It was a supermarket, a hardware store, a beer and liquor store; many other small businesses that tried hard to sell what they could. At this time of day, it was beginning to fill up with students from a local Catholic school who wore uniforms and laughed loudly about their own private jokes, and Sophie was surprised at the number of attractive girls in kilts; who felt no shame or, as she imagined, cold outside of that brown brick building. Rufus, almost dragging her through the main corridor, told her where she could buy the right food as they walked past a group of tall girls passing around a volleyball. Sophie preantended to listen and not notice them as her husband spoke.

A few weeks passed; Sophie learned how the bus schedule worked and now went to the mall by herself. During the day, the only people there were old men and women on the plastic benches or sitting at tables set up by the few cafes and restaurants there. The old women moved slowly but seemed to have a purpose to their motions. Sophie did wonder if they left their husbands on those benches and other seats while they shopped, like people who left dogs tied to a post outside of store. She smiled quietly at this thought as she looked for food. She went shopping at the small market Rufus pointed out to her, relieved that she could find things she remembered from home. Here, there were burlap sacks held in plastic buckets, and they were filled with rice, beans, flour and other dry goods; large plastic tubs and buckets behind the glass counters; chopped cuts of fish, chicken and meat beneath scales and cash registers on opposite ends near the front of the store; and the shelves were stocked with oils, syrups, preserves, biscuits, noodles and bread; cards for different occasions, candies and toys. Sophie also noted the fruit and vegetables in the final rows, but it was the shelves that gave her the most comfort. She did not feel this way anywhere else in the mall. It was a home for her thoughts of her other home, and she almost cried when she wondered about her grandmother and son.

She could have blamed the staff for this: Rufus took her in that first day, and as soon as she asked about the food on the list he gave her; the people in the store smiled and laughed endlessly at the accent that named her home. One woman, Lyndsay, was quick to come forward and tell her what was available. Sophie could tell that Rufus was uncomfortable in the presence of this woman, and she had to smile to herself. It was almost an immediate friendship. Lyndsay was a large woman with make-up, a gold necklace that looked heavy, and a casual ease with herself that made her seem the right person to speak to about this new place. Sophie told her everything about her life, even the facts around her son and grandmother. Lyndsay, sucking her teeth and straightening out her blouse and work apron, told her to never feel ashamed about such a common story. Sophie lingered a bit longer with her; Rufus waited at some other part of the mall: She did not want him to give her a ride home, even with the heavy bags of food in her arms. There was too much to learn.

Lyndsay also had her secrets. She had had husbands; now she had the business. There were at least four other assistants in that store, and she came in early and left late enough to make sure everything was stored properly, no orders had been missed, and no customers left unsatisfied. She had a lot of time for that word: satisfy. Sophie noticed this and how both men and women responded to Lyndsay when they spoke to her about food, the weather, gossip or their own private lives. Lyndsay became centre for their worlds because she gave them the attention they wanted and, as Sophie guessed, needed. The women were deeply charmed by this and could not feel any real jealously towards her; the men were cowed and silent, with only a few comments to make when they were allowed to speak. Sophie once entered the store when Lyndsay and another woman were discussing the eating habits of a man who, pretending to look for something on a shelf, clearly wanted to leave. They broke up into moments of laughter and Sophie felt a temptation to join in. It was good to know that she could have been a part of the joke.

After a few more weeks, the weather grew warmer, although Sophie could only see this change in the clothes people wore; she could not feel it. The girls from the nearby school no longer wore sweaters or cardigans; Lyndsay wore blouses which exposed her neck and more than jewelry; the sun was still in the sky after five in the evening; and the people around her seemed friendlier as they shopped—more unconcealed faces were beaming on her. Sophie kept on her sweater and coat through all of this. She still felt the cold on the bus ride to the mall and wondered if it would ever go away. There was a change here that she wanted to make and could see around her. The cold would not last.

Rufus still worked very hard. He invited a few co-workers to their place on weekends, but they never felt like men her husband could be close to; they were acquaintances made to form some sort of group in this place. Sophie never mentioned to her husband how few of the friends that came to the apartment were from their community. They were mainly other immigrants like her, but from very different backgrounds, and they sat around the T.V. watching sports, eating the bowls of food she prepared, drinking beer and liquor when they brought some over. She could never talk to them, and would often pretend to have work to do in the kitchen or bedroom, waiting for their good-byes before going back out and wishing them well. Rufus invited them back the next week; Sophie would not say a thing. They were his friends and he worked hard.

A few more months and summer arrived. Sophie finally felt real warmth when she left the building, still carrying her coat on her arm over her different handbags. At the mall, the students who once wore uniforms were now free to wear tight jeans, revealing t-shirts and less serious faces. They smiled more freely, laughed a little louder at their own jokes, and made Sophie smile. Some of them worked in the different stores and cafes in the mall and she found them very friendly when browsing or having a cup of tea. No friendship there, but there was another change she could see in this new place.

Lyndsay still ran her store. Sophie did notice two new people, on staff, from the school, and smiled. She also noticed how their boss kept a sharp eye on them, cutting the girls with looks as they helped customers or ran the cash register. It was not her place to ask why Lyndsay behaved this way, but she had some idea of why her friend turned so when she watched these young people. The men who had left their women to do their shopping now were much more eager to talk to girls who wore fresh makeup, had slender bodies and bright, glowing smiles. The men who truly feared Lyndsay now ignored her as they waited for the summer staff to overcharge them or forget the bill. Sophie could see how busy the store was as husbands waited in line with their wives and forgot to check their change. When Sophie got home that day, and explained why she was late, Rufus just smiled, sat by the T.V., and left the news on. He promised to take her to the mall next time she had to shop. He would make time for his wife.

Sophie did not ask about his day, she began to prepare dinner; bringing the stew to a boil provided ample time for the question to flit through her mind: that was, Did she love him? It was not a question she could have asked anyone else in her life because it was not a subject that anyone had ever discussed with her. She thought she knew what the words meant: sharing her body in another place with a man who smelled of cologne and beer; she thought it was clear when the child was born and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen; it became a painful truth once she had to leave her grandmother and that child who kept looking down at the tarmac and refused to wave to her. She knew how heavy the word was; how empty it was when she slept next to this man, in his own home, cooked him meals; sat beside him watching sports and other programs she could not follow nor care about. There was no answer to give.

The summer passed in an instant. Sophie wrote to her grandmother and told her about all the changes of her new life. The son left behind was now big enough to write to her and he and his grandmother enclosed a photo of themselves, he in a suit posing, she in her Sunday best (another day at church?). He had not smiled for the photo, and Sophie wondered about this when Rufus took her to the mall. Lyndsay was still guarding her space. The new staff still had their hold over the men. Rufus noticed this and laughed, telling his wife that he would return soon after passing by a hardware store (what did he need?). Sophie took out the photo next to the fruit stands after he left and Lyndsay walked over and caught her tearing up for no reasons her friend knew of from their conversations. Sophie had told her about the boy, but Lyndsay had not seen a photo and she smiled as they both walked back to the register. They agreed that it was hard to leave people behind, but it had to be done to prepare them for this place. What did they know about life in such a world? When Rufus returned from the hardware store, Sophie and Lyndsay packed up a canvas bag with shopping for that week. They would have to come back soon, Lyndsay said. Rufus only smiled as Sophie echoed the same thought in the corridor.

Autumn approached, and Sophie felt her own little fear of the cold to come. She still dressed for such weather as she had when she arrived from the islands, but she came to expect the change. Rufus encouraged her to learn how to drive, but the thought of operating a car through snow and ice affected her concentration during her first lesson behind the wheel of his car. They would also need to have a second car if she were to use it to go out, so the idea was quickly dropped. Sophie continued to take the bus. It was now full of students back at school and the mall in the late afternoon. Lyndsay now worked with less staff and was much more relaxed when she spoke to people. Sophie noted this while looking at the phone cards and hoped that she could spend more time with her friend one day.

It wasn't love. Rufus had been kind enough to take her in and make her a wife for nothing but his desire to be with someone. Sophie knew how lonely he was, or at least she imagined how he would feel in such a place without a family or close friends. She understood how passing time here could lead to ugly thoughts about what was given up by leaving home for this place; Sophie accepted this. And later that autumn, when she found Rufus staring with real hunger in his eyes at a group of schoolgirls in their kilts and uniforms, she felt no anger or jealousy. He had told her that he needed to pass by the hardware store again, and Sophie remembered how he carried a plastic bag with him to the car before they had left. After a short talk with Lyndsay, she went back to the corridor to remind Rufus about the letter she had to send that day; turned a corner, and saw how her husband was embarrassing himself. The girls: smiling but with hard looks in their eyes, exaggerating their gestures and their laughter as Rufus attempted to be casual with a coffee he had just bought and did not drink. No one noticed Sophie, and as she walked back to the store, she heard the laughter reach a shout and squeal; she felt pity for Rufus: not the way she felt it for her son and grandmother, but she was sorry for him. She pointed out some collops below the counter and picked up vegetables for a meal she knew he liked more than the rest, all under Lyndsay’s gaze and sucked teeth. It was not really love.

There was also the other problem. Rufus—not, perhaps, by fault of his own—was not a good lover; she would not have dared to talk about this as they filled in the necessary forms for the marriage, nor in the composition of letters home to her grandmother, with shared concerns over the health of her son. No, there was no one to tell; not in that past. Now she had Lyndsay, who closed the store just as Rufus returned with his newly filled shopping bag. He was sweating a bit, and smiling a lot, so when Sophie asked if she could get a ride home with Lyndsay, he really didn't seem to mind. There were still some students walking past the other closing stores and cafés, and they watched Rufus walk out into the darkness. Sophie didn't mind.

They didn't have much time to talk; Lyndsay noticed Sophie’s anxious state and locked the front panels of the store as she began to hear all the details of Rufus' and her year together. Lyndsay smiled, grinned, shook with her laugh. She always suspected things, she confessed, but never had someone who came to her store confess so much. There were no practical solutions to offer, she said. Sophie could not imagine finding another man, and knew that she would soon understand the men who lived here, even if they came from other places. Lyndsay smirked, but understood. They were talking about Sophie’s first lover as Rufus turned in the parking lot and saw them laughing through the glass doors of the main vestibule. He saw his wife drive off with this other woman and wondered what they had discussed.

By the beginning of the winter season, Sophie knew she was pregnant. She kept this information to herself for a few weeks before telling Rufus. She noticed the surprise in his expression when she finally confessed, but there was no other reaction. He shrugged and talked about the plans they would have to make. That evening, she began a letter to her grandmother, but stopped when she realized what relating this news would mean. The boy was older, and Sophie would soon want to send for him (never really discussed with Rufus). Did they really need two children in this place? She looked out the kitchen window at the distant street lights, apartment buildings and the roads leading to the highways she had not traversed since the trip from the airport. She wanted to cry but kept this to herself. There wasn't much else to do.

Lyndsay was the first outside of their home to know; there was no one else nearby or in their social circle—no real friends in the building; this, another regret for her—It was, once again, a conversation they had as the store was closing for the night. Lyndsay, to Sophie’s surprise, did not respond to the news with either laughter or indifference. Her friend stopped closing a panel, turned to look at her, and went back to the counter for one of her handbags. She never spoke as she came out from behind the register, but Sophie saw the small photo in her hand and understood what it meant. They walked to a café that was still open, with Lyndsay explaining her own experiences with a lover and an unexpected pregnancy. Sophie had always suspected Lyndsay had experience with many men; and, over a very large coffee she could not finish, pushed Lyndsay for more information.

There were many close calls on the island, and this man was not her first. She had met him here, not in the islands. They met by chance, never lived together, and Lyndsay ended up with much more than she ever expected. She was new to this place, she said; he had been here five years after taking a long-distance course. Sophie, piqued now (it was an older man), asked her for more. Lyndsay worked in an office part-time, and he was one of the managers. One night, they were both there late and began to talk about where they came from and how they had ended up here. They didn't dare have sex in the office, but Lyndsay, after over a month there and many lonely nights, wanted to take him home. She could not say as much, but—and Lyndsay smiled at the thought—men are an easy subject. He talked about how he wanted to start his own business while Lyndsay imagined what it would be like with an older man. (Sophie had to smile at these different thoughts between two people she barely knew.) Lyndsay finished her drink and sucked her teeth again, smirking.

And then, as she put the cup down and stared at the counter for a moment, Lyndsay let all the details loose—a few school kids nearby could probably hear them, but Sophie ignored this thought. and Lyndsay clearly did not care. It was her place, she admitted. Maybe if he did not see her cheap and cramped apartment, they would have had more of a relationship. But no, he brought her back to her place, came up for a drink she offered, and finally acted like any other man she had known. They both laughed and the school kids could not be heard.

It was the first time Lyndsay drove her home. Sophie never thought about asking her for a ride before, but she knew now, this would be a part of their routine after a day of shopping and gossip. And the car was a real machine. Sophie never imagined that it would be so big, or that it would be a name she knew from the game shows and soap operas she sometimes saw during the day (another habit). It was only as they approached the apartment that she realized how cheap Rufus’ own car was, and she smiled at this thought; he had not come home from work yet, and she was glad they could not see it that. Lyndsay made a point of saying both “Good night” and “See you tomorrow”; she knew this was going to continue, just as Sophie thought it would. But it also added to a sadness and guilt she now felt; it was the first time she had walked into the building with those feelings. Sophie could not understand why this was so. Lyndsay did not notice as she watched her friend head for home.

A few months passed and Sophie’s belly grew; but few noticed, with all of the sweaters and blouses she continued to wear. It would be a summer birth, and she knew it would be a fact she could not hide in the spring. Rufus had brought home a crib that came with a mobile she liked—fish she recognized from home. He would have to put it together for her, he said, but that would be easy. Sophie knew she should have been annoyed that he never asked her help him choose the crib, but she said nothing; it was a good choice and the extra room could take this small addition. There was a storage area in the basement for their extra suitcases and boxes. Rufus began to bring them all down by the beginning of the new year. Sophie was grateful for this, but sensed something new, that confused her as much as the guilt and sadness she had felt; her husband appeared more distant than ever before, often claimed to be tired when he came home from work, even avoiding T.V. after dinner and heading to the bedroom for a nap. Sophie didn't mind at first, but after a few weeks she must admit that she missed her husband, his clumsy hands, brief joys with her. It wasn't just because she was pregnant, she thought. It must have been the idea of becoming a father. They were not living in the wealthiest part of the city and they had never talked about children. Should they have had a moment together to think about these things? Sophie turned the volume down on the T.V., and put away what was left of their dinner. There was really no time for it now. She noticed how the crib was near to the wall that received the most light, and how the mobile sang when she pressed a button. Sophie could not talk about this change with Rufus.

The letter had to be written: three single-spaced pages to her grandmother at the café, wondering all the while about her son. The tone of what she wrote bothered her, but she felt that she had to be apologetic. Sophie knew that bringing her other child to this country would have to wait, at least until they moved to a real home (again, never discussed with Rufus). Her hands shook as she affixed the stamps to the envelope, began to fold the sheets of paper. For a moment she thought about how long her son had lived without her. The last photograph had him in nice clothes standing beside her grandmother, but there was no smile there. And that hurt; and she wondered if her son still thought of her, how she needed to remember him. The boy gave off that he was content with his life; didn't really ant her to take him anywhere. At the post office she felt the cold from a draft she could not place; she wondered about the response she would receive.

It was more than a month before her grandmother sent her a letter. Sophie was alone at home when she passed down to the lobby to collect the mail; could barely look at the envelope as she got on the elevator. In the apartment, she tried to be more concerned about the bills that Rufus handled, but she could not avoid that letter. She could tell that it was only a single sheet of paper, suggesting that her grandmother was to be very direct with her. So she opened it and read it through, both sides. There was disappointment but, as was clear by the middle of the second side, an understanding that Sophie was now married, and married people had children, and that this was her life now. Things were inevitable, she wrote.

Finally, Sophie read through the last paragraph and learned that she would still have to decide on a date to bring her son over and that she would have new responsibilities. The child she had in the new country would be hers to take care of (it almost sounded like a threat). There was a polite closing and a promise of love, but she did wonder why her grandmother had waited so long. Sophie put the letter in the well-worn pocket of her extra handbag and patted her belly. There was not a single thing she could imagine writing in her next letter home until after the baby arrived.

The doctor was very busy. Sophie had appointments with him over several weeks, they were always a very brief discussion, either about food, exercise, birthing classes, medication. She had a picture of her ultrasound at five months, and when asked whether she wanted to know the gender of the child, refused. Instead, she brought the ultrasound with her to the mall and showed it to Lyndsay. The black and grey sheet caught the light at strange angles when it flickered in the store.

“Girl. Definitely a girl.” Sophie did not think much of this.

The doctor had not mentioned any possible dangers associated with the birth. Her first had been a Caesarean—Sophie touched her belly as she confessed this—The doctor had recommended natural childbirth for the next. Lyndsay agreed to this, but seemed anxious to close up the shop and have another private talk with her friend.

The schoolgirls saw them, the grins and laughs began once again. They saw how the taller one—the one among them who seemed to command authority—looked down at her tea with a crooked smile. The girls nodded and laughed with a guess at the pair's combined age (at least 100?) and tried to catch more of their talk for a joke. (Even a freckled girl who envied their dark skin and hair—tanning just made things worse). They returned to their drinks, their notes from school and many private jokes. They would have maintained the same pattern every Friday that semester—the boys from school were not around and they sort of liked the one behind the counter—no real distractions,—but then the shorter one laughed. And continued laughing. All the girls noticed how she broke up with tears and shakes, and they all fell into silent screams and whispers, all the time wondering what the crazy overdressed woman heard from the one who looked like a retired pop singer. What did they talk about that night? No one finished their homework at the café.

Rufus was eating dinner when Sophie's water broke. She was in the kitchen, cleaning the counter and her screams made him jump up and nearly choke on a fish bone. She felt the pressure in her loins as she slipped on the tiles and ran to her prepared suitcase. Rufus was nervous, but waited in the hallway as she changed her stockings and skirt; she breathed as she had practiced in her classes. If he had guessed, he would have said that his wife wasn't nervous. In fact, Rufus thought, privately, as they left the apartment, that Sophie seemed excited.

She was still excited, even as she tried to see the doctor’s face from the table. The man who she thought was the doctor was moving a large tank closer to her, and Sophie finally had all the attention in the room. She demanded a natural childbirth and no one wanted to argue with her. Rufus was still somewhere else with a clipboard full of medical questions, too many thoughts and his own panic. Sophie would not care to know that her husband had struck up a conversation with a woman in a neck brace because her husband did not like his dinner. No, she really didn't care at all. She only remembered her talk with Lyndsay that last time in the café, a promise made; a promise... yes, it was made.

The doctor was actually a woman: She ordered an intern to hold Sophie's hand as she gave out instructions. There was nothing very friendly in her voice, but Sophie could tell that the doctor was on her side in her quest for... Well, could she say it? No, not even now. Not with all the awkward and brief fumblings with Rufus; not with the memories of the first lover in another place; not even with Lyndsay’s honest and wonderfully wicked talk. Ah, Lyndsay... Sophie was thanking her again and again in her own mind as she felt the pain of birthing turning into a distant wash of warmth spreading through her limbs; a joy that she had not known for too long was taking her a million steps away from any history, any relationship, any responsibility to anyone except this brief and glorious moment. Pleasure...

It was a girl. Sophie was still buzzing with pleasure when the child was cleaned, wrapped in a cloth, and placed in her arms. It was beautiful, small and still. It was another life for Sophie to handle, but she was ready for it. She had learned a lot from Lyndsay’s little talks, and this brief moment of bliss in the glare of lights and strangers. She had a lot to teach her own daughter...

Writer/Reader/Poet/Dreamer... Kendall is a college instructor, experimenter with the written word, and someone who thinks that books are worth saving. (Also: librarians and snail mail—damn you, Canada Post and certain school boards!) I just hope that someone gets a laugh and enjoys my work...