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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Farm

JANE

When Ate first told Jane about Golden Oaks, Jane had been without steady work for almost three months. Her position at the retirement home had been filled while she was at the Carters’, and her old supervisor could only get her sporadic shifts. Jane was getting desperate.

“Mrs. Rubio is using Golden Oaks for her fourth baby. She had too many troubles with the other pregnancies. Preeclampsia and hemorrhoids and bed rest!” Ate explained.

Golden Oaks hired women to be surrogates. If you were chosen to be a Host you lived in a luxury house in the middle of the countryside where your only job was to rest and keep the baby inside you healthy. According to Mrs. Rubio, Golden Oaks’ clients were the richest, most important people from all over the world, and for carying their babies Hosts were paid a great deal of money.

“I would take this job if I could. The work is easy and the money is big! But I am too old.” Ate sighed.

“How much money do you mean?” Jane asked, resting one hand on Amalia’s belly so she would not roll off Ate’s bed.

“More money than you made with Mrs. Carter,” Ate answered, without judgment. “And Mrs. Rubio says if the Client likes you, you can make much more.”

Ate pressed a pale-gray business card into Jane’s hand. On it, there was a name, mae yu, and a phone number. “Maybe, Jane, it is a new beginning.”

Applying to Golden Oaks was time-consuming but not complicated.

There were forms to sign. Jane had to agree to a background and credit check and send copies of her citizenship papers. There were rounds of medical examinations at a doctor’s office near the East River and a battery of other tests, odd ones, at a smaller office on York.

Jane surprised herself by enjoying the latter tests, in part because the silver-haired woman who conducted them assured her there were no wrong answers. Jane was first shown a series of splotchy shapes and asked to describe them. The silver-haired woman then asked her questions—about what it was like being raised by Nanay, and what made her angry. Afterward, Jane took a computer test where she only needed to mark whether she agreed or disagreed with a list of statements.

Any trouble you have is your own fault.

Jane thought of Billy, of Mrs. Carter, and clicked: Strongly Agree. I do many things better than almost everyone I know.

At this, Jane laughed aloud. She did not even finish high school!

Strongly Disagree.

I don’t mind being told what to do. Agree.

Several weeks later, Jane received an email from Mae Yu, Managing Director, Golden Oaks Farm, informing her that she had passed the first two stages of the “highly competitive” Host Selection Process. She was invited to Golden Oaks for a final interview in early January.

Jane was overwhelmed. She was busy looking for apartments so that she and Amalia and Ate could move out of the dorm if she got the job—how would she have time to study? Ate, as always, took charge. She bought a stack of pregnancy books and showed Jane how to make study cards. She searched the newspaper classifieds for no-fee apartments and brought Amalia with her when she visited them, so that Jane could prepare for the interview undisturbed. Every night, she quizzed Jane.

“What are the correct foods to eat when pregnant? What is the best music for the fetus to be smart? What exercises make labor easier?” Ate asked, sitting at the dorm’s kitchen table, a candy cane sticking out of her mouth.

“Food high in omega-3; complex classical music like Mozart and . . .” Jane faltered, feeling not only stupid—she was never good at tests, even the easy spelling tests in school—but guilty, because she did not know these things when she was carrying Amalia.

“Kegels,” Ate said. She peered at Jane over her reading glasses. “Relax, Jane.”

“I am not good at remembering things,” Jane said, near tears. “You will be fine, Jane. They will be lucky to have you.”

On the Metro-North train the morning of the interview, Jane finds a coil of rosary beads in her pocket. Ate probably slipped them into her coat at the subway stop when Jane was distracted by Amalia. After Nanay died—and before Jane knew her mother would send for her—Jane must have said a thousand rosaries straight using the beads she had taken from her grandmother’s nightstand. They were smooth from use, like Ate’s.

Jane is so nervous she feels ill.

The train does not seem to be moving fast, but it is. Outside, tall buildings turn into shorter ones, blur into houses with small yards, then houses with bigger yards, then fields, wider fields, forests. Jane fingers Ate’s beads and tries to pray, but the familiar words only make her sleepy. She forces herself up and sways toward the café car, thinking of the priest in Bulacan, the one with the hunched back who taught catechism to the village children. The priest used to describe how Jesus was so anguished by the sins he shouldered for mankind that, one time standing in a green garden, he sweated blood. Jesus with blood oozing from his pores! Because of our sins! The priest’s normally timorous voice thundered as he described Jesus’s agony. For a long time afterward, whenever Jane was naughty—when she broke a plate and hid the pieces in the trash bin, when she lied to Nanay about whether she came straight home after school—Jane was sure her badness would turn her sweat red, too. On those days, she took care not to exert herself and to play in the shade. When she finally confessed her fears to Nanay, she was spanked for blaspheming.

In the café car, Jane orders an extra-large coffee and drinks it quickly. Outside the window farms flash past and, in the pastures, cows, horses, sheep. The animals of baby books. Would Amalia recognize them? Jane reads to Amalia every day now, as Mrs. Carter instructed her to do with Henry. Their brains, asserted Mrs. Carter, are like sponges.

Jane’s stop comes while she is in the bathroom. She almost twists her ankle rushing off the train. In the parking lot, a line of cars idles at the curb. Jane does not know how she will find which one is waiting for her. She walks the length of the line, trying to ignore how her shoes pinch—she has not worn them since her wedding—peering into each window with a mixture of shyness and apology.

At the end of the line someone honks. Jane notices a black Mercedes with a sign in the passenger window spelling reyes. It is the same car that the Carters owned, down to the slightly tinted windows. Jane pulls her coat tighter around herself and hurries toward it. The front door swings open, and a driver hops out and greets her. She means to smile at him but cannot. She slips inside, not knowing exactly where she is going, and tries to pray.

“Almost there!” announces the driver sometime later. Jane wakes, dazed. She meant to study her cards during the ride.

“Nice, eh?” asks the driver. He meets Jane’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They are driving up a hill lined with trees that Jane will later recognize as oaks. Behind them she glimpses a big, white mansion capped by a roof of dark green shingles, thick white columns holding up a wide porch, and windows, so many, all lit. A wooden sign with swirling, green letters reads: golden oaks farm.

Jane thanks the driver, her heart flapping in her chest. She stands for a moment at the mansion’s front door, on which a Christmas wreath still hangs, gathering her courage. Before Jane can knock, the door swings open.

“You must be Jane.” A pretty lady with blond hair pulled back in a braid smiles at her. She takes Jane’s coat, asks her if she would like a drink, and leads her to a large room with butter-colored walls covered in paintings. Jane sits near the fireplace. She stares above her at the wood beams stretching across the ceiling like ribs and thinks of Jonah, the man in the Bible who was swallowed by a whale. But this whale is a five-star one, filled with five-star furniture.

Jane recognizes the actress on the cover of a magazine on the table in front of her. How to Spend It, the magazine is called. She pretends to read as she surreptitiously observes everything around her—the chandelier dripping crystal at the far end of the room; the pretty lady behind the shiny desk murmuring into a phone that Jane Reyes has arrived.

“Your tea.” A different woman appears out of nowhere. Jane springs to her feet, the magazine in her lap sliding to the floor. The woman places a cup and matching saucer on the table and retreats with a smile. “Ms. Yu will be with you soon.”

The magazine has splayed open to the centerfold—three panels long, picturing a watch like none Jane has ever seen. In the middle of the watch’s face is the earth, the continents deep green and gold against a circle of blue water. Gold clock hands at ten-ten stretch across North America and what Jane thinks is the beginning of Asia. Ringing the earth in tiny, perfect increments are numbers 1 to 24 and, circling these, at the edge of the watch face, are the names of twenty-four cities: New York, London, Hong Kong, Paris, yes, but also cities Jane has never heard of: Dhaka, Midway, Azores, Karachi. Jane picks up the magazine from the floor. The watch, she reads, costs over three million dollars! It is one of a kind, antique, handmade—and, still, Jane does not comprehend how something so small can be worth so much money, nor how anyone would ever feel comfortable wearing it.

Jane used to have a watch, too—not a three-million-dollar watch, but so beautiful. It had a heart-shaped face and a wristband made of woven silver strands. Ate received it as a parting gift from one of her former clients, and she gave it to Jane when Jane agreed to be her substitute at the Carters’.

“This is to thank you,” said Ate, helping Jane with the clasp. “Also, so you will know when the baby must eat.”

Jane returned the watch to Ate when she was fired, her head hanging low so Ate would not see her tears. Ate did not berate her, only said in a quiet voice that was worse than shouting, “I will keep it for Mali. Perhaps for her Confirmation.”

“Hi Jane. Thanks for coming up. I’m Mae Yu.” Ms. Yu stands behind Jane’s chair with her hand already extended.

Jane jumps to her feet. “I am Jane. Jane Reyes.”

Ms. Yu stares at Jane with friendly interest but does not speak.

Jane blurts, “My grandmother’s name is also Yu.”

“My father’s Chinese, and my mother’s American.” Ms. Yu motions for Jane to follow her. “So I’m a halvsie. Like you.”

Jane watches Ms. Yu—tall and slim in her navy dress, the thin pleats in the skirt swishing as she lopes across the room. Her hair, the color of burnt honey, is pulled back in a loose bun, and when she turns to smile at Jane, Jane notices she is as fair as a white person and wears no makeup.

She is nothing like Jane.

Jane is suddenly conscious of her skirt—too tight and too short. Why did she not listen to Ate, who counseled her to wear slacks? Why did she allow Angel to apply her makeup?

She stops in front of a mirror hanging on a nearby wall and starts to rub at the rouge on her cheeks with her fingers.

“Jane?” Ms. Yu calls from the doorway. “Are you coming?”

Jane drops her arm, blushing, and takes mincing steps toward Ms. Yu on her too-high shoes in her too-short skirt.

They walk down a hallway lined, on one side, with ceiling-high windows and on the other with framed paintings of birds. “The floors here are original to the house, from 1857. And those are original Audubons,” says Ms. Yu. She points out the window. “We have over 260 acres of land. Our property line extends to that grove of beech trees back there. And those hills beyond, those are the Catskills.”

They enter Ms. Yu’s office, which is like Ms. Yu herself—simple and expensive looking. Jane takes a seat, feeling her skirt inch higher up her thighs. She tugs the hem lower.

“Tea?” Ms. Yu asks, reaching for a pot that sits on the low table in front of them.

Jane shakes her head. She is so nervous she fears she will spill on the white carpet.

“Just for me then.” Ms. Yu pours with her left hand. A huge diamond, her only adornment, flares on her ring finger. She smiles at Jane. “How were your holidays? Did you do anything exciting?”

“I was home,” Jane flounders. She and Amalia and Ate attended Christmas Mass; Angel cooked pancit and bistek and leche flan, and Amalia received gifts from almost everyone in the dorm. Not very exciting for someone like Ms. Yu.

“Home is where the heart is,” Ms. Yu remarks. “So, Jane. Your physical and psychiatric exam results were terrific. Passing Phases One and Two isn’t easy. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“This interview is meant to let us get to know you a bit. And to show off our facilities here at Golden Oaks!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ms. Yu studies Jane’s face. “Why do you want to be a Host?” Jane thinks of Amalia and mumbles to her folded hands. “I—I want to help people.”

“I’m sorry, can you speak a little louder?”

Jane looks up. “I want to help people. People who cannot have babies.”

Ms. Yu scribbles something on the tablet in her lap with a stylus. “And—I need a job,” Jane blurts. Ate warned her not to say this.

It sounds like desperation.

“Well, there’s no shame in that. We all need to work to support those we love, right?”

Jane stares again at the diamond on Ms. Yu’s finger, bright against her dark dress. Billy did not buy Jane a ring. She was pregnant, and they married quickly, and he said there was no point.

“Your references were also outstanding. Latoya Washington . . .” “She was my supervisor at my old work.”

“Ms. Washington was very complimentary. She said you are a hard worker and honest. She wrote that you were wonderful with the residents. She was sorry to see you go.”

“Miss Latoya was very good to me,” says Jane in a rush. “When I first came to New York, it was my first job. She was understanding, even when I got pregnant—ah!” Jane claps her hand over her mouth.

“That was my next question, actually. About your child.”

Ate told Jane not to bring up Amalia, because why would they want to hire someone who is always worrying about her own baby?

“We have no rule barring Hosts from having children of their own. As long as you wait the medically appropriate amount of time before implantation, there’s no issue. And it’s good to know you’ve carried successfully to term before.” Ms. Yu smiles. “How old is your child?”

“Six months,” Jane whispers.

“What a lovely age! I have a goddaughter who’s just a few months older than that,” Ms. Yu says brightly. The goddaughter lives in Manhattan. She takes a music class where the songs are in Chinese. The father is French, and he and Ms. Yu’s girlfriend plan on raising their daughter to be trilingual. “What’s your baby’s name?”

“Amalia.”

“That’s beautiful. Is that the Philippine version of Amelia?”

“It is the name of my grandmother.”

Ms. Yu writes on her tablet. “Jane, there is one thing we do worry about with Hosts who have their own children: stress. Countless studies show that babies in utero who are exposed to excessive cortisol—which is a chemical released by the body when stressed— end up more prone to anxiety later in life.”

“I am not stressed, ma’am,” Jane says quickly.

“We’d need to be sure Amalia is well cared for, that you wouldn’t need to worry about her while with us at Golden Oaks. Should we select you as a Host, what are your plans for her?”

Jane tells Ms. Yu about the one-bedroom she located in Rego Park in a no-fee apartment building. She will share it with Ate, who she will pay to take care of Amalia.

“Excellent. Another thing we ask is that you prepay your rent for the time you’re with us. Again, this is to reduce stress during the pregnancy. If selected, you’d come to Golden Oaks at three weeks’ gestation, which means prepayment of around ten months of rent,” states Ms. Yu. “Many of our Hosts take an advance out of their pay- checks to cover rent and child-or elder-care in their absence . . .”

“I have savings,” Jane announces, trying not to sound boastful.

“And your husband, how does he feel about all this?”

Jane feels Ms. Yu’s gaze on her, and her cheeks grow hot. “Billy? He is . . . we are no longer together . . .”

“I apologize for how personal these questions are. I’m simply trying to pinpoint any sources of stress with which we can help you.”

“He is not a source of stress. He is not a source of anything.”

“Boyfriend?”

“No!” Jane blurts, flustered. “I have no time for . . . I have Amalia . . .”

“And how do you feel about leaving Amalia during your stay here?” Ms. Yu’s eyes bore into Jane’s. “You wouldn’t see her for a long time unless the Client allowed it, which I can’t guarantee.”

There is a pain in Jane’s chest, so sharp it is as if she is being cut, but she forces herself to meet Ms. Yu’s gaze. She is doing this for Amalia, Ate has reminded her time and again, and this is what Jane tells herself now.

She answers: “My cousin is a baby nurse.”

Ms. Yu jots something on her device. “She’s in good hands, then. You’re lucky. Some of our Hosts have left children in their home countries and never get to see them.”

Ms. Yu stands and holds open her office door. “Now for the fun part. The tour!”

“Tour,” Jane repeats, thinking worriedly about her shoes.

“Yes! This will be your home for almost a year. You should know what you’re getting in to. As we say: the best Host is a happy Host,” says Ms. Yu. “Shall we?”

They turn down a different hallway which connects the old building to a new one, half-hidden by tall shrubs, Ms. Yu moving soundlessly on flat shoes, Jane’s heels clattering on the tiles. “We call this the Dorm. It’s where you’ll spend most of your time,” explains Ms. Yu. She holds a badge up to a square card reader to get through another set of doors. They pass through an airy room with skylights cut into high, blond-wood ceilings where a receptionist greets Ms. Yu and turn on to a carpeted hallway lined with doors. On each door hangs a wooden sign. They pass Beech, Maple, and enter Pines.

It is a large bedroom with two sleek four-post beds covered in thick white comforters, a big square window with views of the hills, framed pictures of pine trees dusted with snow arranged on the walls and a large attached bathroom. “I hope you don’t mind sharing a room,” says Ms. Yu.

“It’s beautiful,” Jane breathes. In the dorm in Queens, a dozen people would sleep in a room this big.

Ms. Yu shows Jane the lab, where blood is taken and tested, ex- amination rooms, for the weekly ultrasounds and checkups, the classroom where Hosts learn about best-practices in pregnancy, and the library, where one very pregnant Host reclines on a leather chair, her swollen feet resting on top of an ottoman. Jane stares at her, knowing she is being rude but unable to avert her eyes. The Host glances up at Jane, and Jane, heart banging, turns away.

“The exercise room,” says Ms. Yu once they have reached the bottom of a shallow set of stairs. She holds open the door for Jane. “Daily exercise is mandatory for the health of our Hosts and the babies they carry. You’ll be extraordinarily fit when you return to Amala!”

The room is mirrored on three sides, with exercise machines angled toward a fourth wall of windows. Rainbow-colored yoga mats are bunched in a large basket next to a shelf of free weights. A long glass table near the door holds stacks of folded towels, a porcelain bowl piled high with fruit and a pitcher of water filled with slivers of lemon and cucumber. Two Hosts walk briskly on treadmills and curl small red weights.

“Maria, Tanika, this is Jane.”

The Hosts greet her and resume watching the flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall. Jane peeks at them as Ms. Yu describes the daily exercise regime. Ms. Yu then leads Jane to the dining hall, a cheerful room filled with white tables of varying shapes and matching chairs piled with woven pillows in bright colors. In the center of the room, a gigantic chandelier of curving, rainbow-colored glass hangs from the ceiling. Through a wall of windows at the back of the room, Jane notices a group of furry creatures grazing on the grass.

“What are they?” Jane asks, rummaging through her backpack for her phone. “Amalia will like them.”

“Alpaca,” answers Ms. Yu cheerily, placing her hand on Jane’s arm. “Sorry, no pictures. In fact, we disable cellphone signals and Wi-Fi, so you couldn’t send the photo anyway.”

Jane watches the animals for a moment, feeling inexplicably hopeful.

The Farm
by by Joanne Ramos

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1984853759
  • ISBN-13: 9781984853752