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Author: Sherrie Cronin

Chapter 1
A START: FEBRUARY 1986

72

Who was making those noises? Gurgling … loud … intermittent … they had woken her just as she was finally falling asleep.  And yet, instead of finding the sounds annoying she found them intriguing. She repeated the latest one in her head. Not quite right. She tried again. A little higher in pitch, a little faster in pace. Yes, that was better. She started to try to match it again, but was interrupted with delight by a new sound. Oh good. Another one. A little softer and lower. And shorter in duration. She tried duplicating that one. Oh, that was not even close. Try again.

What the hell am I doing? She awkwardly pushed herself up into a semi-sitting position against the pillows and looked down at her giant belly. As her mind cleared, she realized that in fact she herself was making those noises, keeping a gentle syncopated rhythm with her husband’s soft snoring by producing a series of mildly unhappy gurgling sounds. They were coming from a stomach that was clearly and understandably tired of trying to digest food while being crammed into an increasingly smaller corner of her body. She gave her belly a gentle rub through the sheet. Just a few days more, she promised it. Then came the realization that she had asked the wrong question.

Who had been listening to the noises? She eyed her belly curiously as she took slow breaths, willing herself to calm back down. And after awhile, the rhythm of the revolving blades on the ceiling fan combined with her sheer fatigue to finally let her doze back into a restless sleep.

 

Lola Zeitman woke up early the next morning, eager to get the day done. Her teacher husband was already out the door, as was his habit, with a note left behind saying he would check in by phone later, maybe several times, and to call him if anything, anything at all, started to happen. She smiled. It would have been nice to linger over his stark handwriting, savoring that sense that it was all going to be all right which he somehow managed to convey. However, being late to work today was not an option.

Lola considered herself mature at twenty-six, good at meeting life's responsibilities like showing up to work on time, and dressing better than usual when she was making a presentation. She knew the rules. But unfortunately, dressing better had become increasingly more difficult as the pregnancy had advanced. Today's other presenters would be all male of course, most of them also hired over the last few years fresh out of school with their shiny new master's degrees, brought here to fill the oil industry's sudden burgeoning need for geoscientists.

Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt had made many a bad decision, in Lola's opinion, including banning the Beach Boys from performing in the D.C. mall.  But even though his social conservatism and apparent disregard for the environment made him one of Lola's least favorite cabinet members ever, his decision three years ago to open up virtually all offshore federal waters to drilling had personally affected Lola in ways that politics seldom did.

Lola had originally seen herself researching earthquakes, or maybe in the best of all worlds becoming an expert on the geophysics of other planets. Then the oil companies had come to campus, dangling riches as they scrambled for new hires who could interpret the massive amounts of seismic data they were acquiring to compete for the "billion acres" James Watt bragged that he had just made available to them. She and Alex were newly married, very broke, and wanted children before too long. Just a few years could get the debts paid off. The other planets could wait.

And thanks to the Watts decree, in 1983 the number of offshore tracts leased by oil companies jumped from over a hundred to over a thousand, and in 1984 Lola and Alex joined the mass of young professionals who over the years quadrupled the size of the sleepy little Cajun town of Lafayette, Louisiana. Even the 1986 dip in oil prices had not significantly slowed the offshore machine, and Lola and her colleagues were about to recommend more leasing and more drilling. The guys would be clad in their inexpensive suits, selling their scientific interpretations and their ideas to a sea of older men in more expensive suits whose career advancement would have granted them a slight bit more freedom in tie color choices.

Only Lola would stand out in her giant wine-colored jumper, carefully laid out last night before the hours of tossing uncomfortably had begun. She had bought it to wear just for occasions like this because she loved the deep intense red of it, and she thought it maybe, kind of, brought out the reddish highlights in her dark brown hair, which frankly was just about the only part of her which still looked good right now. And she had paired it with a very conservative white blouse. But she sighed as she picked it up. No. It really was too intense. She stood out enough. Lola turned to the meager supply of "big enough" clothes left in her closet and with resignation she reached for the navy pinstripe jumper that she had almost worn the stripes off these past few months. It was still her best shot at blending in. One more time, she promised the well-worn material. If there is ever a baby number two I promise I will buy you reinforcements.

As she brushed on just a touch of blush, she caught her own eye in the makeup mirror. She had been avoiding thinking about last night's odd disruption. "Weird night, huh?" she asked the eye in the mirror. The magnified iris seemed to widen slightly at the question.

"Yeah. Right. No time to deal with metaphysical mysteries this morning. We have an offshore oil prospect to sell to upper management today. We are going to be responsible for our first federal lease. We are going to show that we are just one fine geophysicist no matter how pregnant we are. I am. Why do I always talk to myself like there are more of me? … Get a grip Lola. Go act like a scientist." She pulled on the now barely adequate maternity pantyhose with a brusque efficiency, stuck her swollen feet and ankles into her lowest navy heels and achieved something that was a cross between an uncomfortable waddle and a confident stride as she headed out the door.

 

The office was lively with the expectation of the arrival of upper management from Houston. Upper. Like they would drift in on clouds. Lola chuckled at the image. People often told her that she didn't have much of a sense of humor, but that was because they were generally people who told jokes that Lola did not find funny. She had no trouble coming up with jokes of her own that made her laugh.

She smelled fresh pastries in the conference room mixed with printing fluids from the rolls of meticulously drafted maps. The walls were covered with poster-sized displays which had been carefully colored by two overworked techs who had been overly supervised by all the eager young geologists and geophysicists anxious for the brief chance to show just how smart and savvy they were. Nervous middle management types were double-checking the displays, the pastries, the ties of the presenters. And the pastries again. Lola thought that her boss Chuck was on his third donut. His bulging waistline attested to his habit of eating when nervous. It also attested to the fact that being geophysical manager for the Offshore Gulf of Mexico Western Exploration Division made him nervous a lot.

"Zeitman, you're not gonna pop that baby out in the middle of our big presentation are you?"

Chuck called all the guys by their last names, all the secretaries by their first. He had been a little confused about what exactly to do with her when she had started there a year and a half ago fresh out of school, but after a few awkward months of almost never referring to her by name at all, he had settled on considering her an honorary guy—called by last name only. And even though after fewer than two years of marriage "Zeitman" still seemed to Lola to be her husband, not her, Chuck's decision had still suited her well. She knew she was a fairly pretty young woman, and it set a genderless tone with her coworkers that she liked. In fact, after she became Zeitman to Chuck, almost everybody had been relieved simply to consider her a short and slightly misshapen guy who could interpret symbols produced by sound waves bouncing off rocks as well as the next guy. Maybe even better than some. And until she had the poor taste to shatter that illusion by becoming increasingly more pregnant, Chuck had actually gotten fairly comfortable with her. Now it seemed that he was back to the awkward jokes.

"Oh God. Not the blue pinstripe jumper again Zeitman. We're gonna take up a collection and buy you some new clothes. Wait. You don't need new clothes. Or maybe you do. You gonna be pregnant forever?" And so on.

She picked up her roll of maps, smiled nervously, and headed to her office to run through her presentation one last time in her mind.

 

Chuck watched Lola walk to her office with a small sense of amazement. He honestly admired the hell out of her, though he would never have considered saying so. His own wife had spent most of her ninth month of pregnancy on their couch, generally complaining, while he fetched ice cream and anything containing bacon bits which she had inexplicably started to love. But Lola, to Chuck's pleasant surprise, had shown up to work every single day. Smiling. True, her thick, normally unruly dark hair had gotten noticeably wilder over the last few months and her wardrobe had diminished, but otherwise she had looked professional, worked hard, and asked for nothing special. Hell, she had even expected to take her rotation going offshore to oversee data acquisition from a wellbore, before the health and safety guys had informed him that there was no way he was to send a pregnant woman offshore. And then the legal folks had shown up in person in his office to make sure he had gotten the message.

Which was fine. He had been content to watch Lola's quick little bird-like movements and ever-present goofy smile as she approached her due date. Chuck knew it probably wasn't obvious from the way he acted, but he always liked meeting people who exceeded his own expectations. It was he who had originally gone to bat for this petite female geek with a certain fearlessness about her, agreeing to add her to his team by recommending not only that the company make her a job offer, but that they even offer her the same salary they offered to the guys. He'd been warned against the latter, told that she'd probably get pregnant, and he would lose productivity from her. No, Chuck thought, he did not regret his decision a bit. Hell, she even smiled at his dumb jokes, which was more than she did for a lot of the other guys.

 

Lola knew that she smiled too much. She smiled when she was happy, or amused, or even just content, and now she was smiling as she sat in her office reviewing her materials and munching on the apple slices she had brought for breakfast. People thought she was always happy, but they did not understand that she unfortunately also smiled when she was nervous, sometimes when she was sad—she didn't know why—and she certainly smiled when she was embarrassed or felt awkward or just plain didn't know what to say. Which, being on the shy side, happened a lot. She'd smiled often in college, especially in all the math and physics classes when the professors looked at her funny on the first day of class. She'd smiled her way through every doctor's exam she'd had to have since she got pregnant, and she smiled her way through the most awkward moments at work. She'd smiled like crazy the three times they'd sent her out to offshore drilling platforms before she got pregnant, with the ironic effect that the guys offshore seemed to like her because, as one bluntly pointed out to her, she seemed so much friendlier than the other stuck-up women (okay, he had not actually used the term "women") who occasionally showed up out there in one professional capacity or another. "We like you because you smile at us," he'd explained. And with that, she had smiled again.

 And the last couple of months … well, she'd smiled through spontaneously offered child-rearing advice, uninvited labor horror stories, and two male coworkers asking if they could please put their hands on her belly. She'd said yes, she really wasn't sure why, and then stood and smiled uncomfortably while they marveled at how firm and taut a pregnant stomach actually was.

Now she was smiling, and eating her apple slices, which she did enjoy. Alex kept buying other alternatives for their grab-and-go breakfasts, but she kept choosing the simple apple, over and over. She looked over the agenda and noted that she was fourth on the list of presenters. As was customary, she would be called by the secretary after the first presentation ended and allowed to enter and sit quietly in the back of the room after the second presenter finished. Normally she would be expected to return to her office and work after her own presentation was over, but given that she was three days away from her due date and everyone was glad that she had made it as far as today, she had already received permission to go home and put her feet up when done. Maternity leave would officially start tomorrow.

 

When her turn came, Lola walked to the front of the room and smiled. The president of the company, an older attractive man with a great deal of charisma, sat in the center seat and, upon seeing a young female, smiled and raised one eyebrow out of habit in a more than friendly greeting back. He was flanked by the two most important senior executive vice presidents, both seated close enough to lean in and whisper sage advice as required. Other assorted VPs, directors and managers had established themselves in approximate order of importance on either side of the trio, with the occasional overly aggressive or politically naive manager seated above or below his station. Lola's boss and his two counterparts, the reservoir engineering and geology managers, sat at one extreme end. Chuck looked like he needed another donut. Chuck's boss cleared his throat.

 "Our fourth prospect today will be presented by, uh, Lola. Zeitman. Lola got her master's degree just eighteen months ago from UT and started with us straight out of school and she has done a great job mapping in the West Cameron area. That is despite a little, uh, inconvenient medical situation which we hear can be remedied."

There was assorted laughter.

"Please gentlemen, do not say anything to upset her. The last thing any of us wants to do is to deliver a baby here in this room today!"

Slightly louder and more boisterous laughter followed.

"No, no, no," the president surprised his entourage by throwing up his beautifully manicured hands in mock agitation. He was in a good mood today.

"Say anything you want, gentlemen. Talking is not the activity that sets off labor with a very pregnant woman," he chuckled knowingly. "Trust me, I know what really sets labor off".

The chuckle spread to others and took on an even more knowing tone, first from those who really knew what he meant and somewhat more slowly but no less knowingly from those who didn't. Lola, knowing damn well what activity he was referring to, was aware that any response from her at all would be unwelcome. So she waited quietly for the noise to die down before she began to speak. She pursed her lips to forcibly reduce her nervous smile.

"I am here today to recommend that this company make a substantial bid on a block in southern West Cameron," she began quietly. "The map behind me shows a faulted four-way structural trap with sizable potential."

Her delivery was professional, courteous, calm. She knew that her ability to read a room and deliver recommendations accordingly was one of her more unique assets, and this was no time not to rely on it. Most anyone trained in her profession could analyze data and make a decent map. Most could study those maps and assess the best places for oil to likely be trapped. But few scientists seem to possess that ability to take the numerous points of a recommendation and sense how to best present all that data. Few could read a room so well, knowing instinctively when and what to push and when to step back, how hard to sell various aspects, or not, and how jovial or serious or humble or confident to be.

When Lola finished, she knew she had done her job well. The block would receive a good-sized bid from her company and the company might well win the lease from the Mineral Management Service. Then they might drill a well. They might find oil. And if they did, more cars and planes would run and more homes would be lit and heated. In 1986, to Lola and those trained in her profession, the discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico seemed like only a fine and beneficial thing.

She left the presentation feeling proud of her own part in it, although slightly bothered by its boisterous preamble. She could not quite put her finger on why. She knew well enough that no offense had been meant and she would hardly have expected Chuck, or his boss or his boss's boss, to ever interfere with whatever good cheer they were fortunate enough to have upper management exhibit while visiting them. But somehow, it seemed smarmy. Like she was the butt of a mildly dirty joke that she had been forced to listen to without being permitted to respond. Wait, there was no "like". Actually, she thought, that is exactly what had happened.

When she got back to her office, she saw that the secretaries had carefully taped three pink phone message forms to her door. The first one said, "Alex called to wish you luck." It was the careful cursive handwriting of the secretary that liked Lola and went out of her way to be helpful to her. It had a little smiley face added for effect. A different cursive script advised that "Your sister called to make sure everything was okay." Oh dear. Lola's younger sister Summer had been very emotionally involved in this upcoming first arrival in the family and Lola had not called her in days. Worse, this personal piece of information was from the secretary who had made it fairly clear that she was not pleased at having a professional woman in the group, and, near as Lola could tell, even less pleased that said professional woman had the audacity to defy stereotypes by finding a perfectly fine man to marry her. The second cursive script informed her curtly on note three that "Alex called. Again."

The geoscientists who had already made their presentations were gathering in the break room, laughing, kidding each other, giddy with the relief of being done and no longer needing to be nervous that they would inadvertently make that one stupid remark or observation which everyone laughingly referred to as the CLM. Career limiting move. You want to promote whom? Isn't he the idiot who once said  …?"

In a corporate culture in which almost everyone was smart and good at what they did, it was the little memories of "farting in church" as one coworker called it, that would stall a rise upward. Apparently, no one had "farted". The relief was so thick Lola felt as if she could smell and taste it.

"Hey. Lola," a friendly young geophysicist greeted her as she joined them, welcoming her into the circle of laughter. "What do you call it when a school bus in New Orleans filled with little black kids drives off a bridge into Lake Ponchartrain?"

Lola was confused by the question. What? Was this a tragedy off the news? Surely not a joke. "I don't know. What do you call it?"

"It's a start," the young man chortled. At Lola's blank face, he tried harder. "Get it? Lola, it's a start."

Lola was so surprised she honestly didn't know what to say. The first thing that came out of her mouth was a response she had given no thought to at all. "So what do you call it if a bus full of white kids goes off a bridge into Lake Ponchartrain?"

The whole break room looked at Lola. Unspoken office rules were that if someone made a joke, you laughed. If it was a bad joke or it offended you, you only laughed politely and then you were free to complain to them or, more likely, to others about it later in private. Folks worked long hours together and public confrontations were as unacceptable as, well, public farting. Lola could sense that she was inching across a line. She tried to soften it without backing off.

"So what do you think a group of black people call it if a bus full of white kids goes off a bridge into Lake Ponchartrain?" she rephrased her question carefully.

And he looked back at her as if she had just grown three turquoise heads. "I guess they'd call it a start too," he said lamely.

And because neither one of them knew what else to say after that, pretty much everyone in the room started saying something about anything else. Once no one was looking directly at her, Lola quietly went back to her office. She felt annoyed with herself for not having confronted the man more directly. What was wrong with her? She in no way supported this kind of racism toward any group, and she'd been frankly shocked to hear it from one of her educated coworkers. On the other hand, she knew that even with her meekly offended response, she'd pay the price for "not having a sense of humor" by now being excluded from the office banter even more than she had been. Great.

She sat at her desk for a minute. You know, she really did not feel like saying goodbye to anyone now that she thought about it. Time to go home, even if the only home they'd been able to find in the middle of this housing boom was a rental without central air or heat, sitting above ground on cinderblock stilts allowing who-knew-what to live underneath. She picked up her purse, and left without saying a word.

 

Alex was waiting for her at the small house they were renting, stretched out on the well-worn hand-me-down couch, his soft blue eyes checking her carefully for damage of any type, his long arms outstretched to hug her. He was a tall man, and stocky at twenty-eight years old. He was always trying to lose weight, to drop down to the level of those wonderful college athlete days he had had before she had known him, but the truth was that she liked him the way he was now. He felt solid, like no matter how hard the winds of her own emotions blew she could hang on tight to him and it would all be okay. She let herself be engulfed by his arms, enjoying his freckled skin, the soft sandy hair on his arms that matched the unkempt dirty blond hair on his head.

“So how is my favorite geophysicist doing?" His hug pushed away much of the strange feelings swimming inside. She let herself be held for a minute. Then she had a very odd idea, one she could not begin to justify to herself, much less to him.

"I am really ready to have this baby," she began.

"Hey, me too," he answered. "My back has been killing me since you got pregnant, remember?"

"Do you recall learning about oxytocin and how it sets off labor?" she persisted. "You know, a woman releases it when she breastfeeds and when, well, you know …"

"Yes, I was listening during Lamaze classes," he laughed. "Okay, at least during any part that actually used the word 'orgasm.’"

"So," she began. And let her hand continue the thought.

“Hey, wait a minute Lola. Easy girl. Not that I want to ever discourage this sort of behavior, but I am not sure this is a terribly good idea right now. I am not even sure it is a terribly possible idea. It has been at least three weeks since we have … and geez dear, no offense, but you have gotten huge in the—"

Alex stopped. It did not take a genius to see that this was not going in the loving, concerned direction he had intended. She was tired. Uncomfortable. Probably overwrought from the presentation, certainly on a hormonal trapeze, and he was willing to bet the house that she was about to cry. So he did the only sensible thing he could think of. Which of course led to the next thing and the next and of course it was possible … What was he thinking? It was always possible. And four hours later after a pleasant afterglow nap during which Lola seemed particularly pleased with herself, they left for the hospital just as the contractions were approaching ten minutes apart with consistency.

 And the hospital sent them back home. With instructions to go walking. Thus it would be twenty more long hours before they were actually in the birthing room, by then both of them sleep-deprived, scared, and crabby. It would have been nice if the birth had been the joyous and easy experience they had imagined, but the fact was that this was a first pregnancy and the baby, although in the correct position, was big, with a large head. The end of labor was particularly slow and difficult, and another, less understanding doctor would have given up and done a C-section. As it was, Lola ended up on oxygen with an IV, neither of which she wanted, and at the very end she gave in further and accepted an analgesic as well. Alex curtly informed the nurse that he personally was ready for any drugs WHATSOEVER which they were willing to give him.

And so it was that Zane Alphonse Zeitman was born at 6:48 p.m. CST on February 20, 1986, to tired but happy parents. He was a pretty baby, with his father's long lashes, and his mother and father eyed him with the wonder that most first time parents do their child. He exhibited an easy-going cooperative nature from the very start. As Lola tentatively held his face close to her breast for the first time, she could not help thinking, "Ye gads. What the hell do I think I am doing? I have no idea." Then Zane latched on with an instinct possessed by virtually every newborn mammal on earth, and Lola muttered to herself, "okay … that's it. We are going to show them that we are just one fine mother child team here no matter how good a scientist we are. I am. Good grief. Get a grip Lola. Relax and act like a mama." And she did.

 

Because giving birth is followed by the mind-numbing exhaustion that comes with raising a newborn, it is understandable that for the next several weeks Lola gave no thought to the odd little experience with the noises in her belly. In fact, by the time she finally remembered it, she wasn't even sure it had really happened.

Raising a child is hard work too, and it does get harder when there are more children, no matter what anyone says. And over time, there were more. Holding a job where an boss tries to milk all the energy he can from one does not exactly create a situation conducive to much reflective thought. Ask almost anyone with a job about that situation. And let's face it, being a decent and caring spouse takes time and energy, particularly when time and energy are in short supply. Hell, sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning and managing a bit of occasional compassion along with basic hygiene and on-time bill paying can pretty much fill up one’s time and one’s head. So, clearly Lola did not spend time thinking or wondering about hearing anyone else's thoughts in her brain. She was busy. In fact, for the next two decades she was usually very, very busy and often very tired as well. And, there was never a real reason for it to come up. Not, that is, until twenty-three years later, when the memory would come storming back and demand to be recognized.

 

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