By dawn the smell had crawled out of the oven, up the stairs, and inside the fibers of Elise’s cotton pillowcase. She lifted the blanket and noticed Jeremy’s hand tucked halfway down the waistband of his boxers. The house reeked, and there he slept as serene as the baby rolling over inside her.
“You smell it too, huh?”
Elise had been a vegetarian since she was sixteen, half her life. She’d never once felt she was missing out. But now, after all those years, her baby demanded something she denied.
When Jeremy turned over on his back, she noticed the stream of orange koi on his boxers leaping in an arch, rising with his hard-on. She sighed, remembering how he’d tried again last night.
“Remember, Dr. Vickser said that sex is perfectly safe. The baby is protected by the…” He’d reached down to find his wallet in his jeans and pulled out a folded index card scribbled with writing. “The amniotic fluid in your uterus.”
“Oh, that gets me hot,” she’d said.
In the flickering candlelight Jeremy looked tortured, driven.
“You’re just so beautiful. I want to show you how much I love you, how much I love our baby. I still think you’re the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.”
He’d slid his hand over her belly and the extra large t-shirt she’d had to buy because none of his shirts fit her anymore. The third trimester had brought night sweats, seven more pounds, and steady waves of anxiety. It had also stripped her of a sex drive. Elise felt like a tortoise with its shell flipped the wrong way. A sweaty, bloated tortoise that now wanted to devour a double bacon cheeseburger with extra pickles. No, forget the pickles, she thought. Add extra pepperoni. And sausage.
Trying to ignore the koi and the memories of last night, Elise lumbered out of bed, and snatched the lavender spray off her dresser. She doused the room, but the moment she opened the bedroom door there it was again. The baby threw a fist.
The smell swallowed her in the hallway, and she held her breath all the way down the stairs to the kitchen. She clicked on the oven light and looked at the gleaming, golden brown skin sizzling inside. She checked the progress without really knowing how. It looked beastly and delicious. Another punch.
“Really?” she asked. “You can eat whatever you want when you get here, but let me do what I want now.”
Dr. Vickser had told her to talk to the baby, not scold it. She wasn’t preachy about her choices, and she simply wouldn’t tolerate this kind of demanding behavior from her own child.
“It’s like going to a Bar Mitzvah,” she’d once explained to an awkward first date, slightly drunk, nursing her fourth glass of wine. “I can go to temple, pin a black doily on my head, and listen to a language I don’t understand. I respect it, but I’m not going to convert to Judaism.”
He’d signaled the waiter for their check, but she hadn’t noticed.
“I can slice up the ham at Easter without taking a piece for myself, y’know?” She’d dipped a slim carrot stick into a dish of hummus, and pointed at him. “And that, my friend, is that.”
If only it were that simple now. She opened the oven, braced herself against the wave of heat, and sucked out the drippings with a pink baster. Simple. This had all been Jeremy’s idea. She thought about the moment four days ago when he’d walked into the house, arms full of paper grocery bags. Eric had called him that afternoon about a huge post-Thanksgiving turkey sale.
“With thirty-pounders this cheap, Eric thought I should go for the gold.” This meant making a Turducken. She had almost been too afraid to ask.
“Oh, it’s a chicken stuffed inside a duck inside a turkey. It’s going to be epic.”
Now, it took her three minutes of annoyed rearranging, lifting plastic takeout containers full of stock and stuffing, to locate her orange juice. After taking the first sip she poured it into the sink. The glass tasted like gravy.
He’d spent the past three nights diligently working. He’d even asked her a second time if this was okay. He was practically drooling and giddy as a young boy with a fresh box of crayons – how could she say no? He’d told her she wouldn’t have to be involved at all. He warned her that the whole production could get pretty savage, but Eric would be there to help.
She’d stayed in the living room for the deboning. Even with the radio on and the guys talking about iPhones and football brackets, she could still hear each gruesome step: the metallic scrape of blade against steel, the sharp crack of splitting wings, the delicate pop of hammer breaking bone. Eventually, curiosity overcame her. She poked her head around the corner and saw the birds spread open, both men wrist deep in cavities. She wanted to watch. She wanted to see how three things so different could fit together so well.
“It should be good to go in about an hour,” Jeremy announced.
He parked his elbows on either side of the doorframe and stretched, then walked over to kiss his wife. She offered her cheek like she had for the past three weeks.
“Morning, baby,” he said to both of them.
She hadn’t noticed the red light blinking on the answering machine.
“Hey, Lise, it’s Anica. I’m in town for a conference and today’s afternoon sessions look kinda dull. I thought I’d pop over for a visit. Hope that’s ok! I gotta go. See you tonight.”
“Typical,” Elise said.
“It’ll be fine. She’ll be here for the great unveiling.”
She stood in front of the stuffed refrigerator trying not to scowl. “Will there be anything for me to eat tonight?”
“Of course. There’s cranberry and corn stuffing and I’m gonna make a vegetarian lasagna this afternoon. Are you okay?”
When she looked back at him, he was flipping through a green Meade notebook searching through recipes. She felt like he didn’t really want to hear her answer. The kitchen felt too crowded, too ripe with the smell of cooking flesh.
“I have to go out for a while,” she told him.
Elise filled the afternoon with errands that could have waited for another day. The air outside felt frosty and refreshing against her face. As she drove around town, a powder of late November snow hit the windshield and instantly dissolved. By the time she turned back onto her street, she could see the kitchen window glowing from halfway down the block. She parked behind Eric’s maroon Toyota Camry.
Again she was struck by the powerful smell inside the house and a distinct yearning to devour the entire Turducken. She looked up to find a beautiful woman, no older than twenty-five, sitting on her living room sofa. She had nutmeg skin and bright red lips and was leafing through a coffee-stained New Yorker.
“Hi, you must be Elise. I’m Illana. I came with Eric.”
She put her glass of white wine down and rose to shake Elise’s hand. Illana had long fingernails like talons painted bright orange.
“Is that you, honey?” Jeremy called from the other room.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
He walked in with a glass of orange juice for her.
“Sweetie, this is Illana. Eric brought her over for the feast tonight.”
“We’ve met,” she said, taking the glass, knowing she wouldn’t drink it. “Have you heard from Anica?”
“Yeah, she called a few hours ago. I told her we’d be happy to have her over for the big event. She was in a banquet hall or something, somewhere loud. That’s all I got in before she hung up. Gotta love Anica,” he said.
Elise all of a sudden felt defensive, even though Anica’s inconsiderate tendencies annoyed her too. She clapped a hand over her stomach as the baby turned.
“Ah, sisters,” Illana sighed.
Elise couldn’t tell if the woman just wanted to add something to the conversation, or if she also had an intense relationship with a sister of her own. The door slammed behind them.
“I come bearing gifts!”
She turned to see Anica, her conference nametag still dangling from the lanyard around her neck. She carried a canvas bag stuffed with books, a bouquet of wilting hydrangeas, and two bottles of wine.
“Sorry I’m late. I can’t really drive a stick but it’s all the rental place had. It’s been an uphill battle for about sixty miles.”
“No problem. You’re actually right on time. Let me take that. Elise just walked in and Eric is in the kitchen finishing things up.”
She quickly turned and eyed Elise’s stomach.
“So?” Anica asked, pulling the word out slowly, like a magician revealing a stream of colored scarves from his sleeve.
“So, what?” Elise said.
She took a seat on the striped sofa opposite Illana and poured the orange juice into a potted plant on the windowsill.
“Boy or girl?”
“I told you months ago that we want to be surprised.”
Anica’s eyebrows dropped and her mouth fell into a pout. She turned to Illana as though she would provide some reassurance.
“Didn’t Jeremy say this was a dinner with some big surprise?”
“It’s the Turducken,” Elise said.
“A Turducken,” Illana echoed.
“Exactly,” Eric yelled into the living room. He took cautious steps into the dinning room as he and Jeremy each held one side of a massive metal tray. Bordered with cherry tomatoes and potato wedges, the Franken-bird took up half the dining room table. It drew everyone under its spell and the house fell silent for a moment.
“That’s the big surprise?”
Elise nodded and wiped her mouth. She willed her stomach to stop grumbling and her child to stop turning.
“What’s wrong with it?” Jeremy asked.
His words seemed both protective and pleading. Elise realized he sounded just like he had last night when he wanted to make love. What’s wrong with this, he was asking. What’s wrong with us?
“I don’t eat meat anymore,” Anica said.
“Since when?” Elise asked.
“I’ve been dating this guy Jacob for the past few months and he’s vegetarian. It’s just been easier for me to make the switch. I don’t cook anyway.”
“I could never be a vegetarian,” Illana conceded.
Somebody else might have sounded insulting, but Illana just put her opinion out there. Simple. Anica rooted through her canvas bag while Eric came in with a bottle of Chardonnay. He emptied two inches into Illana’s glass and wedged himself beside her on the armchair.
“What’s he like?”
Just as the question left her mouth, Anica pulled out a photo and handed it to Elise.
“Okay, that’s weird,” Illana laughed.
“I knew she’d ask.”
Elise studied the new vegetarian in her sister’s life: long blond hair, faded t-shirt, hands caked gray.
“What’s that?” she pointed.
“Clay. He’s an artist.”
“Dinner’s ready,” Jeremy called from the dining room.
“Try and be nice, okay? He worked hard on this,” Elise whispered to her sister.
They sat next to each other at dinner. Elise had to drag her chair back to the wall so she could fit. She’d almost forgotten about the overwhelming aroma, the sweet, smoky message from the center of the table.
They let Illana and Eric carry most of the dinner conversation. They learned that Illana worked at Fresh Mart where Eric had found out about the major post-Thanksgiving sale. Elise knew Eric loved to pick women up at grocery stores, but he usually browsed for conquests around the produce section. This time he found Illana behind the deli counter. Elise imagined her describing how to cook a roast beef and why that might be sexy for Eric.
Elise did not give in. She listened to Eric and Illana praise the Turducken. The meat was so tender, the breast so juicy, the skin crispy with just the right combination of spices. The baby banged its tiny fists against her belly throughout the meal, but she did not try a single taste. As she scrubbed dinner plates caked with stuffing and streaked with gravy, she wondered if she had already planted a seed of resentment in her child.
“Please understand,” she said, glancing down.
“I do,” Anica replied, walking into the room. “I get it. It’s not my life.”
She placed five glasses on the counter.
“I apologized to Jeremy. I even tried a bite. When you meet Jacob, promise you won’t tell him, ok?”
She nodded. “I promise.”
“Are you guys going to raise him as a vegetarian?” she asked, passing Elise a glass.
“Right – or her,” she said.
“Nah. She’ll have to make that decision on her own,” Elise said.
“So you do want a girl?” she prodded.
Elise rolled the idea around in her mind for a long time that night, even as she said good night to Anica, hugged her, and thanked Illana and Eric for coming. She thought about it while Jeremy took a shower and she scooped portions of Turducken into half a dozen Tupperware containers. Sliding the lid off of the last tub, she tore off a small section, reclined on the tile floor, and lifted up her shirt. She placed the slippery piece above her bellybutton.
“I’ll let you decide some things completely on your own, okay?”
She wiped away the grease and walked upstairs to her bedroom, knowing that when Jeremy came back she would let him in, let him join her and the baby, like three Russian nesting dolls fitting snuggly into one.