As soon as Claudia spoke, I felt so happy and excited and surprised that all I could do was squeal and hug her. And of course I started to cry.
I did manage to gasp out, “Claudia! It's been so long!”
“What, I don't get a hug?” Stacey said.
“She's too busy crying on me.” Claudia said, patting me on the back.
Stacey laughed and shook her head, “Of course she is.”
I sniffed and pulled away from Claudia, and held out my arms to Stacey, “It's not my fault. How are you all not crying?”
Stacey handed the child in her arms to Claudia, and hugged me. Then she looked over at Kristy, who was just sitting there grinning from ear to ear.
“You're not getting out of this, Kristy. I demand hugs!”
Kristy leaned over and hugged her, then said “What in the world are you doing here?”
“We are both, officially, back in the 'Brook.” Stacey said. She looked great, and just as happy as I felt.
“And you brought the whole gang with you?” Kristy looked around at the children who'd followed them over. They were cautiously watching while their mothers acted like teenaged girls.
They called them over and we introduced everyone. I was about to introduce Allie when I started blushing. I realized I hadn't spoken to them since before I came out. They might not know about me, or about me and Kristy.
Kristy saw me freeze. She put her hand on mine and touched Allie's nose, and said to Stacey and Claudia, “This is Allie Spier-Thomas, our daughter.”
I watched them very carefully, Stacey was grinning but Claudia looked serious.
“We heard.” Claudia said, “And I, for one, am very disappointed I wasn't invited to the wedding.”
“We eloped.” I said softly.
“That was a joke, Mary Anne. I haven't seen you since graduation.”
I smiled. I shouldn't have been worried, Claudia and Stacey were some of the best friends I'd had in my life. “I know! We have so much catching up to do.”
The older children ran off to play, and everyone settled in on the blanket with Allie and Micah.
“Alright, who first?” Stacey said.
“I'll go.” Kristy volunteered. “So, I went to Penn State, and while I was there Mary Anne was in college in California. She called me when she came out. After college we got together, and I went to law school, and she taught 2nd grade. I passed the bar, and we got married. Then, she got cancer. She-”
“Hold up! Cancer?” Claudia said, looking at me. She and Stacey both had the same look on their face, and I hated that look.
I blushed and looked down, and wanted to cry. Instead I picked up Allie and held her close.
When I told people I had cancer, they got that look. Shock and terror mixed with disbelief. I hated it. Every time I saw it, most of me wanted to apologize for making them scared. But there was a little part of me that wanted to scream, Yes, I had cancer. Yes, it was the same cancer that killed my mom. And yes, I was scared, I'm still scared, and I'm doing my very best not to spend every day sitting in a room with my daughter and crying, so could you please just pretend I'm normal?
Kristy just went on, calmly. “Yes, cancer. She doesn't like to talk about it. It's in remission, she's healthy now. Then we had Allie, and Mary Anne decided to stay home with her. And that's where we are.”
I felt like Claudia and Stacey were still staring at me. I didn't look up, I just kissed Allie on her head. Kristy had covered everything, but without all of the tears.
“Sounds like you guys are doing good.” Claudia said. But something about the way she said it sounded. . . off. I glanced at her, and she was smiling, but she seemed a little sad. I hoped it wasn't about me.
Kristy just nodded, “Yeah, we're doing okay. So what about you two? Who's next?”
I really wanted to hear from Claudia, I wanted to know what was wrong. But Stacey spoke up, “Me! Okay, so I went to Columbia, majored in business. My senior year, I got a job with an interior decorator. It was a lot of fun, and one of our clients was this brokerage on Wall Street. I was there taking measurements, and I looked up and there's this drop dead gorgeous guy in the door. So I married him.”
“Right then, or did you give him time to rent a tux?” Kristy said, grinning.
“It's New York City, you've got to work fast.” She said, grinning back. “No, really, we dated a while, he's really nice. His name is John Dayton. We got married, and Isabelle was born, then Caleb a few years later. After Micah, I left my job. But with three kids, in that apartment, I was going a little crazy, so I asked John to look for a job somewhere else. He found one in Stamford, and I couldn't resist setting up in good old Stoneybrook. So Izzy just started kindergarten at SES last week, and I'm running into old friends in the park. It's like heaven.”
“That sounds really nice,” I said.
“Oh yeah, I forgot the most important part.” She said, very seriously. “Somewhere in there, someone invented Splenda. God bless that person. You all have got to try my peanut butter cookies.”
We all laughed, and Kristy said, “Congratulations!”
“I know! No, really, my life is nearly perfect. I'm so happy. Claud? What exciting, bohemian things have you been up to?”
She had been smiling at Stacey's story, but something behind the smile disappeared, making it seem empty. “Nothing much, you know, this and that.”
“Does this and that include that adorable little boy of yours?” Kristy asked.
Claudia looked at Kristy, then at Stacey, then me. She sighed, and the smile fell away. “I'm staying with Janine. I don't have anywhere else to go.”
Kristy looked surprised, and so did Stacey. They must not have noticed what I was seeing. I nodded and asked, “What happened?”
“Well, I dropped out of art school, half way through my second year. I sold some paintings, and worked at a boutique, and things were going okay. Then I met Spooner, Zee's father. He's a musician. We fell in love, and went to London for a while. Then we came back and I got pregnant. Spooner stuck around for a few months after Zee was born, but that was enough of the family thing for him. So I was trying to raise Zee by myself, but I just couldn't make it work. I never found a job that paid much, and Spooner either can't or won't pay child support, depending on the month. Last week I called Janine and asked if I could stay with her.” She took a breath, “So that's where I am.”
We were all quiet for a moment, letting that sink in.
Finally, Kristy said “This is unacceptable. Give me Spooner's full name and address, he's getting a call from your lawyer. And Mary Anne is going to watch Zee for you, so you can find a job.”
Claudia blushed, and I gave Kristy a look.
“What? We have to do something, Claudia needs help.”
“Yeah, but you can't just tell her what to do. Or Mary Anne.” Stacey said, glancing at Claudia.
“They don't have to do what I said, it's just a good idea.” She said, getting a little huffy.
I smiled at Kristy, and took her hand. Then I looked over at Claudia, “I'd love to watch Zee. And if you want Kristy to try to get you your child support, she'd like to do that for you. What she was trying to say is, you have friends, and we want to help.”
“I can watch Zee too, sometimes. And if you're still painting, I can see about selling some of it to my old clients.” Stacey offered.
“You guys would really do that for me, wouldn't you?” Claudia asked. She seemed more comfortable then she had since she sat down.
“That's what friends are for.” Kristy pointed out.
Claudia grinned, “Wow, I can't thank you guys enough.”
“You don't need to.” Stacey said. “What kind of job are you looking for?”
“I guess a cashier someplace.”
“That's a waste.” Kristy said, frowning. “You're a talented artist.”
“There aren't a lot of job listings for 'talented artist.'” I said.
“Yeah, and my art and raising Zee are the only things I'm any good at. I'm pretty much stuck with one of those trained monkey jobs if I want to move out of my sister's house.”
“We're only 28. There's still time for you to go back to painting.” Stacey said.
Claudia sighed, “Yeah, but I have to make ends meet in the mean time.”
While we were talking, I noticed a look on Kristy's face. I knew just what that look meant. She noticed me watching her and grinned, and I raised my eyebrows at her.
She cleared her throat, then said, “Claudia? What about Zee?”
“What about him?” She asked, confused.
“You're good at raising him. I only just met him, but he seems like a great kid.”
Stacey nodded, “He's really polite, and smart for a three year old.”
“And you did that all by yourself.”
“I know I'd go crazy trying to take care of Allie by myself.” I said. Kristy and I both knew from watching our parents how hard that was.
Claudia beamed, “Thanks. It's kind of rough, but I wouldn't give it up for the world.”
“So, what about a day care center?” Kristy asked.
“I never thought of that. . . I mean, I guess I could apply if one had an opening.”
“I meant starting one. With Mary Anne.”
My mouth dropped open, and I started to blush, “Kristy, we talked about this.”
“I know we did. And you didn't want to do it because you're afraid to talk to the parents, and you're worried about getting sick again. Claudia isn't shy, and this way you'll have back-up if you need it. Claudia is the perfect business partner for you. And you can have Allie and Zee there all day with you.”
I stared at her. She was right, those were the things I had worried about, and Claudia changed the situation completely.
Or she would have if those were the things I was really scared of. Really, I was afraid of the future. I was different before the cancer. I was comfortable, and confident. Maybe not as confident as Kristy, but I don't think anyone is. But I had a job, and was planning to have a baby.
Then everything changed, and I spent months sure that I'd never make it to my next birthday. I recovered physically faster then I recovered mentally, I had developed a paralyzing fear of looking forward to something happy and good, and having it ripped away. Kristy and Dawn both told me that I couldn't live like that, and they were right. Kristy went ahead and had Allie for us, and she was always trying to make plans like this, to keep me looking forward. But this was a big step, and I had no idea if I was ready.
I looked over at Claudia, who seemed just as shocked as I was.
“I've never thought about it. I don't know. I mean, don't you need a license and stuff to start a daycare?”
“Actually, I checked for Mary Anne. As long as you graduated high school, you can work at a day care. And if anyone questions your qualifications, Mary Anne is a licensed teacher. We can rent a place for it. I think someplace small, fewer kids and better quality.”
Stacey raised her eyebrows, “Who's putting up the money for this? What about taxes and insurance? Can the market around here even support another daycare center?”
“We can borrow the money. I haven't looked at the other two things yet.” Kristy said.
“What makes you think you can borrow the money if you don't even know your market?”
“We'll look into the market first. I think there's room for it, there's always room for a better quality product, right? And if the bank doesn't think so, I'll take care of it.”
“Alright, well, how about this? I'll figure this stuff out for them. I'm no accountant, but I did take classes on this in college. I know how to make a business plan and where to find things.”
“That would be great.” Kristy said, grinning.
“But, I'm only doing this if it's what Claudia and Mary Anne want to do. You have a career, Kristy. You're not going to be working there, so this is up to them.”
I smiled, a little glad that Stacey was there to remind Kristy of that. Kristy would never make me do something I didn't want to, but if she thought she had a good idea sometimes she just plowed ahead without thinking.
Kristy nodded and looked at us, “Well?”
“I think we both need to think on this, honey. It's a big decision, for both of us.”
Claudia nodded, “It sure is. Wow. I really don't know.”
Stacey smiled, “Take your time.”
“Yeah, no pressure, really. If you don't want to do this, I'm sure I'll think of something else.” Kristy said happily.
Claudia laughed. “I don't doubt it. God, it's great to have you guys here.”
“It really is. Every day I'm happier I moved back. But it's getting late, and I told John I'd be home to make dinner.”
I nodded, “Yeah, Allie needs a nap. But we're going to get together again, right?”
“All the time!” Stacey agreed. “The kids love each other.”
We all exchanged phone numbers and promised to call the next day. Stacey gathered her kids and went to get her blanket, and Claudia walked away hand in hand with Zee, the two of them having an animated conversation. Kristy packed up our things, while I held Allie.
I had to smile at her, “You were right. This was a great idea.”
She kissed me, grinning. “I love hearing that.”
I laughed and shook my head, “I love you.”
“I love hearing that even more.”
I shoved her a little, and she laughed “Hey! I mean, I love you too, dear.”