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An Empty Lap

About The Book

"Joe and I had been forthright about children. I was pretty sure I wanted them, Joe was pretty sure he didn't. Since we each perceived in the other some room for movement, the difference didn't worry us. Then priorities shifted, needs changed...."
In her late thirties, journalist Jill Smolowe's life and career at Time magazine was on track. Her husband, Joe, was still her most trusted confidante and best friend. And now that she and Joe had decided finally to have a child, Jill assumed the pregnancy that had come so easily to all the women in her family would be her own next chapter. But nature had a different script in mind.
As her quest for a child swerved from the roller coaster of infertility procedures toward the baffling maze of adoption options, Jill's desperation deepened -- while Joe's resistance to children only hardened. In the fog of depression, disappointments, and dead ends, their marriage began to founder. Then, halfway around the world, in Yangzhou, China, she encountered a future she'd never imagined might be hers.
Honest and intimate, An Empty Lap is as much a window on a marriage as on a high-stakes baby chase. Compelling, beautifully told and as insightful as a novel, it's filled with emotions that anyone who has yearned for a child will recognize.


Chapter I

It is the postswim, predinner hour, and the smallest members of the clan are restless. Inside my parents' house, I can hear my two oldest nephews bickering over a game of Go Fish.

"You can't put that there, Alex."

"Can so."


"Michael! Quit it!"

Outside on the deck, I smoke a cigarette on a chaise lounge beside my sister Ann and sister-in-law Candace, watching the distant nightlights shimmer against the dark folds of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. I am fine, certainly far better than I was a year earlier when I'd arrived for my family's 1993 annual reunion reeling from a doctor's shock bulletin that Joe and I would not be able to conceive a child. I'd spent most of that week holed up in my parents' yellow guest room, hiding from everyone, particularly my five young nieces and nephews. Joe had spent most of that week worrying about my alarmingly fragile state of mind.

Now, I'm able to play Aunt Jill again. I've spent the afternoon dunking Michael in the pool and executing antic leaps off the diving board for Jeremy. With Emily, I've outfitted my parents' golden retrievers in absurd costumes, while with Alex and Shaina I've tiptoed around the flower beds, searching for elves.

Suddenly, the silence on the deck is shattered by my youngest niece, who bursts through the screen door, shrieking, "Mommy! Mommy!"

"What is it, sweetie?" Candace answers.

"Mommy!" Shaina says more insistently, raising her arms to be lifted onto Candace's lap.

A moment later, Ann's two children appear. Jeremy climbs onto my younger sister's lap, puts a thumb in his mouth and nestles his head against her chest. Emily stands stroking Ann's thigh, then tries to wrestle a place for herself by nudging Jeremy. Without opening his eyes, he moans, "Emmy! Stop it!"

Thinking only to keep the peace, I say, "I've got an empty lap here. Who wants to sit on my lap?" Emily answers by burrowing her head into Ann's stomach. After an uneasy silence, Ann whispers something in Emily's ear. My niece scrunches up her face quizzically, then walks toward me. Wrapping her arms around my waist, she murmurs, "I love you, Aunt Jill," then scurries back to Ann's embrace before I can finish saying, "I love you, too."

Then we all sit quietly. The mothers stroking their children. The children nuzzling their mothers. And me, wondering who will fill my empty lap.

It wasn't always this way, this obsession of mine with babies. Once I was a rational, optimistic person who thought she had a pretty good handle on maintaining some balance in her life. The daughter of a man who'd built a thriving dress-manufacturing business on the philosophy, "You create your own 'luck,'" and a woman whose ever-present lists reinforced her favorite maxim, "You plan your work, then you work your plan," I believed that results rewarded effort. I wasn't afraid to go after the things I wanted, confident that if I exercised forethought and patience, steeled myself for disappointment, and didn't try to make too much happen at once, I could eventually build a life that had it all.

My "all" was reasonable, I thought. Not too overreaching. I wanted to build a writing career. Find a loving mate. Establish a solid marriage. Move to a house in the burbs. Raise some kids. So I found it baffling when friends and family would say, "You're so directed. You always know what you want." Sure, I knew what I wanted. But it wasn't like I had a clue what key this would play out in or what notes would be struck. I just knew the leitmotifs and was trying to compose a life, one movement at a time.

Maybe it was my concentration that fooled people. I have great concentration. It didn't occur to me that was anything unusual until my junior year at Princeton, when my older brother and I met at Grand Central Station to ride home together to Connecticut. After we learned the next train to Westport wouldn't leave for another forty minutes, I sat down on the floor of the noisy main terminal and went to work on a term paper. When I looked up to check the time, I noticed Alan standing over me, laughing.

"What's so funny?"

"Look around," he said. "Do you even know where you are?"

It took me a moment to get what he meant. Then I laughed, too.

When Alan recounted the absurd scene in the train station, some family member joked that I was "tunnel-visioned." The adjective became a staple in one of those quick profiles that parents like to trot out for strangers, and children like to insist are untrue. Mine goes: "Jill is the most studious of our four children, the one with tunnel vision. She can be demanding of others, but she's hardest on herself. We never had to worry about punishing Jill. She always did that herself. She has a capable, tough exterior, and a soft, rather fragile interior that she hides from the world." Though I thought the tunnel-vision bit implied a narrowness that was unfair, I regarded my concentration as an advantage -- that is, until I experienced just how dark and cramped the tunnel could be.

I've always had an aversion to tight physical spaces. On the day I was born, I was apparently so eager to escape the womb that my mother almost had me in the hospital elevator. Three years later when I accidentally locked myself in a friend's closet, I was so panicked I'd never get out that my mother heard my frightened screams an eighth of a mile away. I still hate situations that make me feel trapped. If a subway car has the packed look of a cattle car, I'll wait for the next train; if a party threatens to be one of those affairs where people sip cocktails pressed nose to nose, I'll find an excuse to stay away.

I'm the same way about tight psychic spaces. Most of the time my instincts help me steer clear of them. I cruise along, adjusting to what is, ignoring or shrugging off what isn't, and relying on peripheral vision to keep my gaze from settling on any one aggravation for too long. On those occasions when a problem is so absorbing that it narrows my range of vision to a single point, my mind will start racing round and round in search of an exit. Almost always, I find the escape within weeks, if not days.

Only twice has a problem proved so intractable that it dragged on for months. In both instances, the longer I couldn't find the exit, the more desperate and uninterrupted my mental thrashing became. Over time, I lost my capacity to look around. See where I was. Laugh. As absorption gave way to obsession, I was propelled into the darkest and tightest tunnel of all: depression.

One of those times, the issue was babies.

But let's leave babies out of this for a while. Let's talk instead about Weasel & Weasel. Once I get going on babies, they'll overrun these pages, just as they overran the space in my life that was once reserved for Jill and Joe.


That should have been Joe's line.

When I first fell for Joe, I was twenty-six and very much focused on building my career. Marriage was an idea that teased more than tantalized. Children were, as yet, a distant hypothetical. I felt directed, secure, in control of my life.

I was, of course, grossly deluded.

I'd joined Newsweek in June 1981 as a writer for the international editions. When I reported for work the first day, a lanky editor with a touch of gray in his hair and a hint of Tanqueray on his breath escorted me to a windowless office in sorry need of a paint job.

"There's an empty office with windows," he said, his tone at once apologetic and defensive, "but we're holding that for Joe Treen, a reporter who's coming over from Newsday after the summer. He's got a lot more experience than you. It's only fair."

At the time, I didn't care. Fresh from four years of clerical and reporting duties in the cavernous newsroom of The New York Times, I thought it a great treat no longer to have to lock myself in a bathroom stall to secure a few minutes of privacy. But as the months passed and that windowed office remained vacant, I began to resent the alleged hotshot from Newsday. By the time Joe showed up in October, I was primed to detest him. As we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I smiled pleasantly and thought, "Schmuck."

Joe quickly dispelled my preconception of a prima donna. Though he was older than the rest of the international writing staff and more seasoned, having covered everything from Evel Knievel's jump over the Snake River Canyon to the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, he was amiable and unpretentious and had the deepest laugh I'd ever heard. The confidence that he exuded was offset by a shyness that seemed as uncalculated as Joe's nescience of his anchorman-style good looks. Though his chiseled cheeks, thick mass of hair, and warm smile screamed, "Camera-ready," he seemed not to hear it.

Almost immediately, we gravitated toward each other, tugged initially by our mutual newspaper backgrounds. We had plenty of time to talk since the trade-off for delivery from daily deadlines was a killer of a weekly closing that held us captive in the office from Friday mornings until the predawn hours of Saturday. Typically, that meant long stretches of downtime waiting for edits and layouts. As our conversation extended over weeks, we came to know a lot about each other.

I'd grown up in a close, private family, the first daughter in a boy-girl-boy-girl lineup. Security seemed a fact of life. I'd spent my entire childhood in the same prosperous suburb, same sprawling ranch house, same excellent school system. If life was never boring, it was also never unplanned: ski weekends followed the school week, summer camp and jobs followed the school year, college followed high school graduation. My parents turned up for both sons' Little League games, both daughters' piano recitals, all performances of all kids' school plays. Because they made each of us feel loved and special, I still cannot recall any sibling rivalry, despite the four of us having been born within five years. "It was my parents' greatest magic," I told Joe. "I remain very tight with my siblings."

Though rules were few, my parents' expectations were clear, consistent and unflinching. Major Jewish holidays were for family, no excuses. Bickering and screaming were not tolerated, period. And though discussion and debate were encouraged, once my parents made up their minds about something, they were a united, unyielding front. It was assumed that my siblings and I would go straight from college to work. It was anticipated that each of us would eventually heed my mother's injunction, sometimes humorous, sometimes earnest, to "get married, have babies." It was hoped that, like our parents' bond, our commitment to our partners would be paramount and permanent after we married. As yet, none of us had.

Joe told me that his parents were a similarly devoted pair, who held weekends in reserve for Joe, his younger sister Esme, and each other. Initially, family time meant attendance at Episcopal church services. After the Treens began breeding dalmatians, it meant dog shows.

Despite his family's stability, Joe had felt unsettled during most of his youth. A "corporate brat," he'd hated the periodic relocations to new states and new suburbs that had attended his father's ascent through management ranks. Although early on he'd been a reluctant loner who constantly felt disliked and displaced, by his teens, Joe had emerged as a gregarious prankster who wielded his humor and wit to make fast inroads at three different midwest high schools.

Upon completing his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Joe fled east, vowing never to return to either the Midwest or the suburbs, both of which he found stifling. After earning a masters degree in journalism from Syracuse University, he joined the reporting staff of Newsday, the daily on Long Island, where he remained for the next twelve years, minus an unexpected eighteen-month stint at Fort Eustis after his army reserve unit was mobilized during the Vietnam war.

Thirteen years my senior, Joe had done a lot more living than I. He'd married in 1965 while in grad school, divorced five years later, rebounded into a second marriage, then divorced within a year of that. Joe's life, I thought, sounded bold and unconventional. Certainly far more adventurous than mine.

Even so, we found much in common. A love of theater. A passion for travel. A twin devotion to writing and introspection that found expression in the keeping of journals. Each of us tended toward self-deprecating humor, and away from pretension in ourselves and others.

Serial monogomists both, we were each involved in yearslong relationships, he to an outgoing secretary with a flare for throwing elaborate dinner parties, I to Marc, a fellow Times journalist, whose keen intellect, unwavering kindness, and talent for remaining calm, no matter what the circumstance, I much admired. Though Joe and I adored our current mates, neither of us quite saw in them a life's companion.

After months of these late-night chats, Joe admitted with a modesty bordering on embarrassment that he had written a few plays. When I asked to read one, I discovered a wonderfully imaginative writer whose words made me laugh out loud. I gushed. Joe blushed. It was around then that I stopped thinking of him as just another colleague. Our discussions became more flirtatious, more playful, more intimate.

One night, Joe confided that he felt out of place at Newsweek. "Everyone is younger. So ivy league and preppy."

"I may be younger and ivy league, but at least I'm not a preppy. Besides," I scoffed, "you're midwestern white bread. That amounts to the same thing."

"Anyone can be a preppy," he countered. "You just have to own plastic ducks."

"Well, there you have it. I don't own any plastic ducks."

The next day I found an inch-high yellow plastic duck standing on my desk with a note that read: "Zap! You're a preppy!"

After that, we touched hands in a darkened movie theater. We kissed in a park. We tangled on the floor of his apartment. I shared my favorite joke with him: "Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead." We laughed so hard that we clutched our sides, tears rolling down our cheeks, our eyes locked on one another as we gasped for breath.

We were, it appeared, in love.

In July 1982, Joe and I broke off our respective relationships, each of us feeling wrenched and guilty, but eager to see if our mutual infatuation could evolve into something more enduring.

From the start, I sensed with Joe the potential to forge the kind of connection I hoped for in a marriage, a love memorably described by Milan Kundera as a "constant interrogation. " Affectionate and unafraid to show vulnerability, Joe was blessed with a great gift for intimacy. His eagerness to question, listen, and engage made him interesting and made me feel irreplaceable. His determination to keep growing ("relentlessly self-improving," I teased) promised to keep both of us from settling into complacency. His insightful observations, I thought, would challenge me to probe deeper and confront unexamined truths about myself.

In other words Joe wouldn't put up with my bullshit.

But the same Joe who could inspire was also capable of wielding his candor to devastating effect. The first time Joe erupted over some minor matter, I fled back to Marc, befogged with fear that I'd given up a comfortable, secure relationship for a fling with a madman. Soon, I was back with Joe. Then Marc. Then Joe.

My behavior, heartless and inexcusable, was a heedless expression of the debate raging within me. I felt I was choosing not only between two very different men, but between two very different versions of the me, as-yet unformed, who might emerge from each of those relationships.

I thought Marc reinforced many of my natural inclinations; Joe challenged me to exercise muscles that were atrophying from disuse. Where Marc massaged my intellect, Joe stimulated my emotions. In Marc I saw devotion, reliability, aversion to change; in Joe, excitement, spontaneity, unpredictability. Marc, who'd once told me, "You're the sanest woman I've ever known," inspired confidence and contentment. Joe, who early on maintained I was "as fragile as a China doll," aroused my creativity and passion. If my four years with Marc had been a soothing, warm bath, life with Joe promised to be a hot whirlpool.

By the time I stopped bouncing back and forth, Joe and I were as wary of each other as we were smitten. Joe mistrusted my intentions, I mistrusted his temper. Though we were cozily compatible when all was calm, we were badly mismatched when the peace shattered. Joe's battle style was confrontational and loud, with a quick recovery time. My own weapons, honed in a family where voices were never raised and grievances were seldom addressed frontally, were better suited to the style of warfare known as psychological operations. Edgy silence. Sniper attack. Rapid-fire rationalization. Then withdrawal and days of pouting.

"Why must you inflate every unintended misdemeanor into a premeditated felony?" I'd demand after his explosions.

"Why must you overreact to everything I say?" he'd counter. "When I get angry like that, just tune me out and give me twenty-four hours to calm down."

It was sound advice, but in those days Joe's mood was so variable that I seldom knew whom I'd encounter from one hour to the next. At work, would my E-mail be answered by supportive Joe, who could lighten any office irritation with his humor, or snappish Joe, who didn't want to be disturbed? When I returned from dinner with a friend, would I be greeted by playful Joe, dancing to Joe Cocker with a pair of socks dangling from his ears, or jealous Joe, demanding to know why he hadn't been invited? If I proposed a weekend outing, would the RSVP come from best pal Joe, who loved to go exploring with me, or frustrated Joe, who accused me of conspiring to steal time from his playwriting?

Though Joe told me repeatedly that he was "significantly depressed" about the approach of his fortieth birthday, I was too young and too myopic to see what was needed. Instead of giving Joe room, I crowded closer, determined to convince him -- and myself -- that I wasn't all the things he said I was: rude, selfish, unfeeling, inconsiderate, demanding, intrusive, uncaring.

Then his anger would pass as swiftly as it had come. While he rebounded, I'd brood. "Why don't you ever see all I do to hold this relationship together?" I'd demand. "Why do you always feel you have to 'do' something?" he'd answer.

Soon, he'd say, "It's over," and try to tease away my glum mood. "It's over for you," I'd sulk. "It's not over for me."

Eventually, Joe could kid me out of anything. He'd sing (desperately off-key). Dance (a gyration that reminded me of the Freddy). Or bow-wow to one of my classical records (must have been all those dalmatians).

After we could laugh again, we'd hear each other out and try to sift the truths from the gross exaggerations. We'd make our peace, kiss, vow to do better.

In March 1983, Joe moved into my apartment on the fifth floor of a walk-up in Chelsea. Though Joe maintained a safety net by subletting his apartment, we told each other that we regarded this move as a prelude to marriage. For the first few weeks, we felt oppressed by each other. Small stuff that had never rankled before suddenly grated. When Joe would burst into guffaws while reading in bed, I'd stiffen, resentful that he'd disrupted my own reading. When I would complain that Joe's accumulating mounds of newspapers were a fire hazard, Joe would bridle that I allowed no room for him to be himself. I couldn't stomach his rock music; he found my taste in jazz indigestible.

Then, we began to settle in. I started giggling at the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons Joe passed my way; he started taking an interest in the literary novels stacked on my night table. We carved out "Jill-free zones" where Joe could stack and litter without fear of me straightening up behind him, and "Joe-free zones" where I could work without threat of his encroaching mess. I learned to tolerate Randy Newman, Joe came to abide Laura Nyro. Together, we discovered Art Tatum and Etta James.

Somewhere in there I stopped regarding Joe as Marc's antidoppelganger or my missing link and began to appreciate him for himself. Through the habits of daily life, I came to see his tenacity and determination. His attentiveness to family, loyalty to friends, generosity to strangers. In a city filled with poseurs, Joe remained spontaneous, natural, unaffected. As his depression lifted and his mood evened, I discovered not only a far nicer guy than I'd imagined, but someone more steady and reliable. Joe's anger, I came to see, was neither free-floating nor constant. Actually, he had a tendency to stockpile frustrations for long periods, then erupt in a single, confused outburst that could take him days, even weeks, to sort out.

During the work week, our rhythms were contrapuntal. I was a straight line of motion from bed to office to writing my week's story. Joe was more likely to jog, schmooze, and dally over the newspapers before settling down to work. On weekends, we were like that toy with a half-dozen metal balls hanging from a rack. We might collide as we flung ourselves at each other from opposite directions, but we'd quickly absorb the impact and soon be swaying, at the same speed, in the same direction. Sunday nights we'd groan, "I miss you, Wease," then steel for the week ahead.

The more uninterrupted time we had together, the more relaxed and in sync we became. Often we were at our best on the road, where there was never any question who was in charge. Early on, Joe had aptly dubbed me a "directional dyslexic." He thought my unfailing instinct to turn the wrong way was the product of a shoddy education in the East, where geography lessons lack the reverential rigor they enjoy in the Midwest. My own theory was that it was the difference in our heritages, mine Jewish, his part Cherokee. "Your people are trackers," I reminded him. "Mine wandered in the wilderness for forty years."

In Mexico, we roamed lazily through the vendor stalls in Oaxaca and discovered a compatible taste in art. During a trip to England, we clowned along the walls of York and in London discovered a shared taste for Alan Ayckbourne comedies. In the highlands of Scotland, we baaed at the sheep and discovered a mutual taste for nicknames. (Trust me. You don't want to know about the Weasel business unless you have an airbag handy.) No matter where we went, time alone together only made us crave more of each other's company.

Life with Joe was proving to be not only the constant interrogation I'd hoped for, but a far more pleasant give and take than I'd anticipated. I was increasingly certain that Joe was the person I wanted to and would marry. Joe gave every indication that he felt the same way about me.

We still had much to learn about each other.

In August 1983, my younger brother Jonathan became the first of my siblings to make his way to the altar. There were mostly Protestants on the bride's side of the aisle, mostly Jews on ours, and a red-carpeted swath of unease in between. Joe and I watched the ensuing drama warily. We'd often joked about writing our own wedding vows, things like, "No screwing around, no bow-wowing to Beethoven." Jonathan's wedding inspired more serious discussion. Whom was the wedding pageant for? Who could perform a service that would satisfy us, yet leave both sets of parents comfortable? What should the content of that ceremony be? Even so, I felt no urgency about marriage.

Five months later, my first journal entry for 1984 mentions elliptically: Joe and I have entered "discussion " pending decision on the "big M": marriage. The conversations, few to date, have been mixed.

A few weeks later on a chilly Tuesday morning, I awoke to discover all the blankets piled on Joe's side of the bed. "Goddamn it," I muttered, and gave the blankets a rude yank that awakened Joe. I got the "You're a selfish bitch" spiel, but there was something more in it. Joe is talking of a breakup. This has come out of nowhere for me; clearly not for him.

As winter snows turned to spring showers, our relationship plunged into free fall. Though the connection between our talk of marriage and his talk of leaving now seems obvious, at the time I thought we were squabbling about houses.

Our hunt for a country home had begun casually, an outgrowth of the driving and biking trips we liked to take through the Berkshire mountains. I thought I'd made clear that for me, houses were about planting roots, not staking assets. When we came upon a house that Joe wanted us to buy, he was surprised by my insistence that I wouldn't consider a joint investment of such magnitude until we were married. He grew angry, convinced that I'd deliberately misled him. I couldn't believe he was so irrational; he couldn't believe I was so inflexible.

Joe demanded that we see a marriage counselor. Soon we were facing each other in the office of a Central Park West therapist named Grace, going at each other like two guests on Geraldo.

"Jill expects all sorts of trappings to go with a house, including marriage," Joe fumed.

"I regard a house as a trapping to marriage," I shot back.

"You're buying two different houses," Grace said, slicing through our nonsense with admirable efficiency. "Jill is buying a home. Joe is buying a shelter."

Over the next three months in weekly sessions with Grace, I became a lot less relaxed about the issue of marriage. Though Joe had told me about his two marriages and his "fear of failing again," I'd assumed he just needed time to gain confidence in us. Now, I began to suspect that Joe might be content to remain single permanently. For me that was not an option. If, until now, marriage had seemed a distant someday appointment, it was nevertheless an appointment I intended to keep.

At our final session, Grace assessed us as a "compatible couple with no fundamental problems." We could talk through and resolve problems. We shared many interests. We had fun together. She described Joe as emotional, me as practical, and suggested we could learn from each other.

"But Joe," Grace said, "is going to have to resolve his own ambivalence about commitment." If he doesn't, she warned, he'd probably hit the same point in some other relationship two years up the road. "Jill," she predicted, "won't wait much longer."

In the meantime, she said to me, "It would help if you could learn not to take Joe so seriously."

I thought all aspects of Grace's analysis were sound, save one: the part where I wouldn't wait much longer. The prospect of a breakup filled me with dread. Every part of it. Particularly the part where I landed up alone.

Soon after that session, Joe confided to Richard, the colleague to whom he'd sublet his apartment, that we were heading for a bust up. Richard, he suggested, should start looking for a new place. Unfazed, Richard answered, "It sounds like you're getting married." Richard, appropriately, went on to a brilliant Hollywood career in TV comedy writing.

Throughout the fall, as Joe spoke more frequently of leaving, I became someone I barely recognized. I clung, I implored, I pleaded. I couldn't, wouldn't, let go. And Joe, as ambivalent about a breakup as he was about a commitment, wouldn't let go either. Bound by our mutual inability to move on, I began to despise him. Us. Most of all, me.

Then in early November, a well-liked Newsweek writer, just thirty-two years old, died of heart failure while swimming laps at a midtown health club. It spooked everyone in our department. Dana was there one day; he wasn't there the next. Dana had told me over a recent lunch that he and his wife had just bought a house and were about to adopt a baby. At the memorial service, Joe and I held hands, feeling closer than we had in a long time.

A few weeks later, my sister Ann announced her engagement to an architect named Jim. Ann and Jim's plans threw back at me our own indecision. Joe, I was now convinced, could fencesit forever. Dana's death had been a reminder that I didn't have forever. None of us did. For the first time, I felt the weight of an approaching birthday, my thirtieth.

Suddenly, my impatience kicked in and my will came surging back with a vengeance. I reminded myself that I'd never been the sort of romantic who believed there was only one man in the universe for me. If Joe wouldn't give me what I wanted, then I'd get through the pain of a breakup and find someone who would.

Angry and determined, I set a date several weeks away. "I need an answer by then. Yes, we marry. No, I'm out of here." Then I waited out the weeks, silent on the subject of marriage.

When the day arrived, I waited nervously for Joe to say something. At the office, he offered no clue what he was thinking. We came home. Showered. Ate our standard midweek dinner: a pint of Häagen-Dazs and a box of cookies. Sat on the couch, held hands, watched Hillstreet Blues. Still nothing.

"So," I said, as the credits rolled. "What's it going to be?"

"What's what going to be?"

"The marriage thing. Yes or no."

Joe looked at me with a twisted smile. After a long pause, he said, "No."

The smile threw me for a second. He was joking, right? Then, I got it: Joe hadn't taken my deadline seriously. "That's it," I said quietly. "You should leave."

We talked calmly for a time. But the longer we talked, the more apparent it became that he had no intention of going.

"Why am I the one who has to leave? Why don't you?" he asked.

"Because this is my apartment."

"It's my apartment, too."

He called me immature. I called him self-centered. He shouted that I was inconsiderate and impatient. "Why do we have to make a decision this minute?" he demanded.

I went to the bedroom, called my friend Beth, and packed a bag. Then I trudged down Eighth Avenue and stayed the night with Beth and her husband John in their Village apartment.

The next morning Joe came to my office door and asked if we could talk. Fine, I said. We went round and round. He told me I was the most "vibrant, interesting, and stimulating woman" he'd ever known. "I fear if we don't get married, I'll never marry again, but I need more time. Why can't you wait?"

"I've been waiting since last spring," I answered, unmoved. "How much longer do you suggest?"

"'Til I'm ready," he snapped.

I put on my coat. "I'm leaving."

He looked stunned. I started to cry. We reached for one another. "Marry me," he said. "This is a proposal."

I pulled back. "Are you serious?"

"Marry me," he repeated.

Though we celebrated that night with champagne, I was so chary of his proposal that I told no one. Within a week Joe was saying that he didn't want to get married, but that he didn't want to break up with me either. Within two I was back at Beth and John's, waiting for Joe to move out of my apartment.

At Newsweek, I worked with my door closed and went the long way round to the ladies' room to avoid passing Joe's office. Three nights later, Joe called me at Beth's to say he would stay with a friend until Richard moved out of his apartment; I could return home. Calmly, we discussed how we would divide up our mutual purchases. Quietly, we agreed this was very sad.

When I got home from work the next evening, I couldn't sit still. I wanted every trace of Joe expunged. I put a Smokey Robinson album on the stereo, moved the needle to "Tracks of My Tears," and began decoupling our libraries. By two-thirty, I'd boxed an entire wall of Joe's books, dismantled his hanging walnut shelves, and spackled every hole.

The next morning, Joe walked into my office and closed the door. "Marry me," he said.

"Get out," I said, pointing toward the door.

"I mean it."

"Please. Just go away."

"Will you marry me?" Then he started to cry, something I'd never seen him do. "It was the spackling," he said. When he'd gone to the apartment that morning to get a belt, he'd seen the patched wall. "Until that moment, I hadn't believed we were really splitting up."

"I don't need this," I said.

"Marry me," he persisted.

"I have to work. Go away. I'll think about it."

Later, I went home, climbed into bed with my journals, and for the first time read every entry I'd written since we'd met, hoping the answer would become apparent. But as I moved from the first infatuated G-d, I like you, Treen, to the last fuming, He always wants out -- except when I want out; then he wants in, I saw only that though there was ample evidence of the Joe who was unsettled and frustrated, the more frequent companion who loved and let me love was nowhere to be found in those pages.

I turned out the light and tried to see us as we really were. We emerged as contradictory as ever: critical and supportive, ill-suited and well matched, angrily embattled and intimately engaged. An imperfect couple, true. But trying, always trying, to understand each other better.

Pride advised, Screw him if he doesn't know a good thing when he sees it.

Reason reminded, You'll never find everything you seek in one man.

Fear warned, The pain of a breakup will be short-lived, but the pain of a life with Joe will be enduring.

The Calendar prodded, You're almost thirty; it's time.

And Love whispered, Kundera never promised that a life of constant interrogation would be easy.

At around ten o'clock, decided yet undecided, I called Joe and said he could come over. We talked and talked. Sometime around midnight, I said I'd marry him.

"Yes?" he said.


"She says, 'Yes!'" He picked me up and twirled me around.

After New Year's, we set an April date and began to make wedding plans. Neither of us had the time or interest to fret the details, so we made most decisions together and quickly. For the ceremony, we picked a judge and the UN chapel (both nondenominational), for the reception a Chelsea restaurant (spacious and funky). We picked a menu (brunch food), a band (schlock city) and a photographer (a Newsweek colleague). We picked invitations (black script on beige cards), a guest list (about one hundred people), and a musician for the ceremony (a classical guitarist whom I'd discovered playing in a subway station). Independently, I picked a maid of honor and the flowers. Independently, Joe picked a best man and the fights.

Six weeks before our scheduled appointment at the altar, he demanded that I cancel the wedding. "We're only getting married because you're too chicken to tell people that it's off," he accused.

"You want to call it off? Fine. You call it off," I responded. "I'm planning to get married."

I began having jilted-at-the-altar fantasies. Then I went on the offensive, ginning up fantasies where I was the jiltee. I imagined myself saying, "No," if he glowered during the ceremony. If his "I do" lacked conviction. If he so much as looked nervous. Then Joe calmed down, and I decided I could live with nervous.

Our wedding day, April 21, 1985, dawned a bit hot, a bit humid. I was calm while my mother's stylist did my hair, calm while I posed for pictures with my sister, calm when, moments before noon, I stepped into the foyer of the UN chapel and took my father's arm. Then, I began to shake uncontrollably. My last thought before I started down the aisle was, If Joe is smiling when I come through that door, we'll be okay.

The door swung back, I stepped into the chapel and looked down the rows of pews. When my eyes found Joe's, he burst into the most beatific smile I'd ever seen. It was a glorious smile. A joyful smile. A smile that said, "You look beautiful! I'm so glad we're doing this!"

When I reached his side, he took my hand, then, feeling how badly I was trembling, placed his other hand on my back.

The judge smiled reassuringly and tried to ignore the photographer, who was tackling the assignment with newsgathering gusto. After a brief greeting, the judge said, "Usually on occasions like this, I offer some words of encouragement for the bride and groom. But, as you know, you can't tell journalists anything." Then, as our guests laughed appreciatively, our judge, the stand-up comedian, launched into the standard interrogation. "Do you, Joe --" "Do you, Jill --"

"-- You may kiss the bride." Self-consciously, Joe and I pecked one another on the lips. We started to back away, then impetuously grabbed each other and locked in a kiss that had the intensity of a Vulcan-mind probe, inspiring a noisy ovation from family and friends.

From that moment forward, Joe never again mentioned his ambivalence about marriage.

Copyright ©1997 by Jill Smolowe

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (October 1, 1998)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671004378

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Raves and Reviews


USA Today [A] heartwrenching account...readers of either gender will relate.

Entertainment Weekly Engrossing....Smolowe's unromanticized understanding of what it takes for two highly opinionated adults to work through some of coupledom's most stressful challenges is what gives this book its appeal....She makes compelling general-interest reading out of a special-interest subject.

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. Author of You Just Don't Understand and Talking from 9 to 5 Reading An Empty Lap is like staying up all night listening to a friend filling you in on the important events in her life. You know how things turned out, but you want to hear all the details. Jill Smolowe's honesty is compelling. It's like a thriller, only the terrain is emotional.

Kay Redfield Jamison Author of An Unquiet Mind and professor of psychiatry, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Extraordinarily moving, and wonderfully written, An Empty Lap is one woman's account of love, hope, lost hope, and then, finally, great and well-earned joy. The book is completely engaging. Jill Smolowe and her husband endured much to adopt a child but, when at last they succeed, their delight is utterly and boundlessly contagious. The complexities and resilience of their love story are woven together in a riveting way.

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