By Janis Bultman
Published in The Belletrist Review, Fall/Winter 1996/1997
I was on the phone when Jill ate Nana’s diamond—all five-point-one-three carats. If you know diamonds like I know diamonds, you’ll recognize that’s just about the size of a chocolate-coated peanut M&M. Or a sugared raisin—a big, plump, juicy one. Jill, however, had not mistaken the diamond for food. She knew what she was doing and exactly what that diamond meant to me.
It was Monday morning, and I was alone with Jill, who was two. My husband Harry was at work at the family business, Caldwell Containers, where he is CFO. I should have been at City Polytechnic, examining my latest crop of fruit flies, but Leah, our nanny, had chipped a tooth on a flying Sippy cup. I’d packed her off to the family dentist.
I tried to make the best of things by giving Jill quality time. We got out the crayons, then the Duplo’s. We sent her Wee Folks off to school and then set up her play table for a tea party. Within twenty minutes, we’d abandoned the wreckage and retreated to the living room couch. Jill slumped beside me, sucking her thumb and watching a kid’s show with the alarming intensity of a researcher on the edge of a breakthrough. I swigged my fourth cup of coffee and fell to admiring Nana’s diamond ring under the end-table lamp.
Harry’s Nana had died the previous year, but probate is not a nimble business, so the ring had come to me just days before. I’d been wearing it around the house while I worked up the courage to take it out in public. It was a monster, a mugger’s dream. And while I itched to get I under my microscope, I was reluctant to take it to work with me. It was so big, so ostentatious. What would my colleagues think? Liz Taylor and my sister-in-law could get away with it. But was it really an appropriate ornament for a developmental biologist?
A muffled ringing came from the end table drawer where we keep the cordless. I was waiting for word on a grant proposal, so I jumped for it. As I did, the ring caught on the nubby fabric of the couch and the diamond fell out of its setting. Thanks to the coffee, I was quick. I scooped up the diamond, depressed the childproof latch on the drawer, and yanked up the phone’s antenna.
It was Marlene, my post doc, but no sooner had she identified herself than Jill set up a clamorous wail. I tried to get out of range, but Jill scuttled after me and wrapped herself around my leg. When you are two, the telephone is a fearsome rival. I thought it would quiet her if I picked her up. To accomplish this, I needed a free hand. I set the diamond on the desk by the window.
The desk, like all the surfaces in our apartment, is completely bare. Paper and pencils are locked away, and the chair has been removed because Jill will eat anything. She gnaws on the cat’s tail and uses things like scissors and table knives to pry loose outlet covers so she can chew on them. Also, although she’s a little chubby, she climbs like a monkey. She shimmies up lampposts and hangs from the top shelves of bookshelves. I should have known better than to leave Nana’s diamond within her reach, but my adrenaline was high. I wanted that grant. At that particular moment, it was all I could think about.
It was a struggle to get Jill balanced on my hip. Finally, I managed. She stopped crying, but it was only because she saw the diamond glittering in solitary splendor—as I realized only later. I was dying to hear what Marlene had to say, so when Jill started to squirm, I let her slide down my leg and forgot all about her.
“The grant is ours,” Marlene exulted. I was elated. I’d developed a theory that was purposefully controversial. Eventually, I hoped my research would nudge open the door to private industry. I’ll be honest. I was after something a little more glamorous than a teaching job at City Polytechnic.
I hugged myself and spun around to share the good news with the only loved one available. Jill perched on the desk, swinging her chubby legs, looking for all the world like a sated cat. Instantly, I saw the diamond had disappeared. Then, impudent child, she stuck out her tongue. There it was, resting on the wet pink pillow of her glossal flesh.
Jill knew the diamond was forbidden treasure. I’d already caught her trying to sneak it out of my bedroom. That time, it took all my self-control to stick to verbal remonstrations. I delivered a short but heated lecture explaining the diamond’s value and outlining the ramifications if she ever touched it again. I thought I’d made myself clear.
I flung down the phone, grabbed Jill, and pried open her mouth. No diamond. I stuck my finger down her throat. She gagged. I upended her and shook her by the heels. Her hair hung limp, and her face turned purple, but the diamond did not reappear. I set her upright and did what I hoped was an approximation of the Heimlich, wishing I’d found time to learn CPR. All to no avail. Nana’s diamond was gone.
I called Fielding, the pediatrician. Jill sat splay-legged at my feed, red-faced and wheezing. I glared at her.
Then I passed the point of no return. Clenching the phone between shoulder and ear, I squatted and gripped her arm. I gave her a tentative shake and then shook her harder. My face twisted with rage, and I could see I frightened her, but I was beyond the pale.
“Bad, bad, bad,” I hissed. “Naughty Jill.”
Her mouth trembled. Fat tears skidded down her cheeks.
I stood and turned my back to her.
Fielding’s receptionist answered. “It’s Dr. Caldwell,” I said. “Jill just ate a gigantic diamond. A real one.”
I knew this would grab her. Fielding’s receptionist has big, frosted hair and glitter-striped fingernails. She’s young and single, but when she finds her man, she’ll squeeze him for the biggest diamond she can get. Size, not quality—that’s what she’ll go for. One thing I’ve learned—you can tell a lot about a women by the diamond she wears. Or would wear, given the chance.
“How many carats?” she asked.
I told her.
“I’ll get the doctor,” she said.
Musak clicked on.
The day Nana’s diamond was delivered, I took it to that ultimate arbiter of a jewel’s worth, the National Gemological Academy. A certified gemologist cleaned and photographed it. Then he sat me down next to him while he evaluated it.
When he finished, he handed me a certificate that said Nana’s diamond was five-point-one-three carats, color rating “L,” clarity “I1.” In layman’s terms, it was big, murky, and badly flawed.
“It’s cut in the old mine style,” he said. “Too shallow. Leaks light. I’d have it re-cut if I were you. Put the life back into it.”
“How much?” I asked.
He tipped his head, considering. “We’re not supposed to say, officially. But unofficially, I’d say it’s probably worth about thirty-three now. Re-cut, you could double that.”
This was stunning news, and it almost silenced me, but it wasn’t quite what I’d meant. “That’s great,” I said. “But have it cut by how much? How much smaller will it be?”
“Oh, a carat or so. I couldn’t say for sure.”
I resolved to do what he advised. I’d seen the results when a diamond is properly cut, but I decided to wait just a month or so. I wasn’t ready to part with even a fraction of five-point-one-three carats. Not quite yet.
The Musak clicked off.
“Dr. Fielding here.”
I told him what had happened.
“How did she ever manage to get her hands on a diamond that size?” he asked.
Fielding has this knack. When Jill got diaper rash, he gave me a gentle smile and said, “Why don’t you change her diapers more often?” When Jill fell headfirst from her stroller, having wriggled out of the seatbelt I am always careful to fasten, Fielding asked sweetly, “Why didn’t you fasten her seat belt?” And when Jill climbed on the scales at our last checkup, Fielding sighed and frowned and said, “Mrs. Caldwell. Why don’t you put her on a diet?”
As if I hadn’t tried.
“And note the Mrs. Instead of Dr.”
I should have changed pediatricians, but I haven’t had the time.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Wait. Feed her lots of white bread and go through her diapers. Normally, I would order an X-ray to be sure the object hadn’t lodged in her esophagus, but I’m fairly sure a diamond wouldn’t show up. Too transparent. I’ll check with a radiologist, just to be sure. The odds are against it getting stuck, anyway.”
“Go through her diapers?” I wrinkled my nose. “Can I give her a laxative?”
“Mrs. Caldwell. It’s really never a good idea to give a two-year-old a laxative.”
“Dr. It’s Dr. Caldwell.”
“My apologies, Dr. Caldwell, I’m sure. It won’t take long. A day or two at most.”
“Will it hurt her? Cut her insides?”
He paused a moment, and I could almost hear him thinking. “It’s unlikely,” he said finally. “The diamond has to travel through the large and small intestines, which as you know Dr. Caldwell are made of tough, fibrous tissue. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen pass through without a trace. Rocks. Glass. Batteries. A wood screw. And once, I treated a little boy who swallowed an open diaper pin. It came out without leaving a scratch.”
I was speechless with horror.
“Call me if she has any trouble eating and call me in a few days if the diamond doesn’t appear.” And that was it. He rang off.
I looked down at Jill, who snuffled at my feet, her tear-streaked face upturned and hopeful. I was still annoyed, but I’d calmed sufficiently to do the right thing. I did love her, after all. I sank to the floor and pulled her into my lap. “Jilly. Jillicakes,” I crooned, smudging her tears with my thumb. “That was one hell of a big diamond you ate.”
Jill gave me goo-goo eyes and waited.
“But you know what? You’re worth more to me than a big, fat diamond any old day.”
She shuddered and nestled against me. Thank God, I thought. Kids are so resilient.
* * *
I never noticed diamonds until Harry asked me to marry him. Then I became a woman obsessed.
Harry proposed in the laundry room of his apartment building, his head in the dryer. He was pretending to look for socks. “Think we should get married?” His voice boomed inside the metal drum. He emerged grinning, holding a bottle of champagne. Then he plucked two glasses from his laundry basket.
I already love him with heart and soul. “Yes,” I said.
“Pick out a ring, why don’t you,” Harry said. “Whatever you want.”
Thus, innocently, he started it all.
I had no idea where to begin, so I called my mother. She wears a plain gold wedding band, and her passion is gardening. “Peonies I know,” she said. “But diamonds? Ask your future mother-in-law.”
Harry comes from big money, and my mother had noticed, as anyone would, that Harry’s mother and sister wore gems befitting their status. After meeting them, my mother commented, “It’s a shame that in the absence of any other measure of self-worth, some women seem compelled to advertise their husband’s wealth and affection.”
I thought her criticism was a bit harsh, especially after I inherited Nana’s ring and learned how beguiling multi-carat diamonds can be. Anyway, I had yet to establish a rapport with either Harry’s mother or sister, so I shelved Mom’s advice and did the next best thing. I did research.
I went to the library and checked out a stack of books. Color, clarity, cut, and carats became my mantra. I haunted Tiffany’s, quizzing the salespeople. I queried my friends and was amazed to find them full of diamond lore. Was something wrong with me? Had I lacked something in my upbringing to be so ignorant of these coveted gems?
Suddenly, I couldn’t keep my eyes off other women’s hands. On the train, I shot glances at fellow passengers to see what they judged safe to wear. At Saks, I barely saw the creamy invitations the saleswoman displayed, riveted by the huge emerald-cut rock that sparkled on her hand. At the greengrocer, I felt an unexpected flash of pity for the clerk, who, like my mother, wore a plain gold band.
When Harry announced our engagement at a family barbecue, I still had not made a decision. I sat on the deck behind his parents’ huge suburban house, sipping Veuve Clicquot and assessing the family jewels.
Harry’s Nana was there, still alive and well and wearing the five-point-one-three carats her granddaughter would eventually swallow. Harry’s sister, Roxanne, whose husband owned three Contempo Furniture Warehouses, sported a wide pavé band with a brilliant of at least three carats. Harry’s mother, Irene, wore two large diamonds, one on either hand. On her right flashed a giant oval sandwiched between trios of icy sapphires. She caught me looking and twinkled her fingers. “Thirtieth anniversary,” she said. She raised her other hand, where she wore a large, square diamond. “And this is one of the first Radiants. Magnificent, isn’t it? It was done by Grossbard himself.”
My research had been so thorough, I’m embarrassed to say I knew exactly what she was talking about.
“Where’s yours, dear?” she asked.
“Susan’s still shopping,” Harry said, dropping an arm across my shoulders.
I smiled, but I was depressed. I felt trapped by a dazzle of diamonds. I didn’t want to compete. I was an academic and modest by nature. Moreover, I was a liberated woman with my own career and no need to trumpet my husband’s love and success. A big, flashy diamond just wasn’t my style. On the other hand, they were gorgeous gems, surely one of nature’s triumphs.
I excused myself and went to find a bathroom. Nana followed me and cornered me on the way out.
“You seem sad,” she said. “What’s up?”
I sighed and confessed. I had to share my dilemma with someone, and from the start, Nana and I had hit it off. In her youth, Nana had authored a series of scandalous romances and published them under a pseudonym. This established the two of us as the family intellectuals. I’d read her books and told her how much I loved them, which happened to be true. I’m a sucker for a good romance. This sealed our alliance.
Nana said, “I have a thought. Here’s what you do. Pick out something small, but quality.”
“Spend a few thousand, tops. I’ll give you the name of a wholesaler you can trust. That’ll impress my Harry. That you don’t want something expensive. Then, when I die, I’ll give you this.”
Nana extended her hand. I fought the urge to drop to one knee and kiss it. Instead, I choked out a refusal. “I couldn’t,” I said.
Nana shrugged. “Sure you can. Irene won’t want it. It’s too old-fashioned. Roxanne either, for that matter. It’s flawed, you see. They won’t care. Or maybe they will. But tough.” She shrugged again. I’d really like you and Harry to have it.”
“It doesn’t look flawed to me,” I said.
Nana smiled and patted my shoulder.
I did what she advised. Harry and I went to her wholesaler and I picked out a three-quarter round in a classic Tiffany setting.
“Good choice,” said the wholesaler. “It’s cut to look bigger.”
But I’d already noticed that.
* * *
A few hours after Jill swallowed Nana’s diamond, Leah returned, her teeth restored to near perfection. With noticeably diminished enthusiasm, she resumed her care of Jill. I didn’t dare ask her to help with my nasty assignment. Instead, I had her stockpile diapers for me. When I came home each evening, I rolled up my sleeves and tugged on a pair of disposable surgical gloves. Harry would have helped, but he was working late that week. No matter. I was a trained and scrupulous investigator. If anyone could find that diamond, it would be me. But for all my care, it didn’t appear. When Leah wasn’t looking, I eyed her suspiciously.
Late on Thursday morning, Leah called me at work. “Jill has a fever. I’m worried.”
I grabbed a taxi and got home to find Jill doubled over and fiery to the touch. I called Fielding, who told me to get an ambulance.
Fielding met us at the door to the emergency room. “What is it?” I yelled as we jogged beside Jill’s gurney, just like on TV.
“It’s incredibly rare,” he said. “Your Nana’s diamond must be occluded.”
At the door to the operating room, a nurse tugged gently at my arm. “Wait here Mrs. Caldwell.”
“It’s Dr. Caldwell, goddamit. And I’m coming in.”
I shook her off and lunged for the door. She grabbed me and held me back. Others came running. The hallway became a tangle of white and mint green.
I threw them off and faced them down, snarling, “That diamond is worth thirty-three thousand dollars. I’m going in there. Don’t try to stop me. I’ll sue your butts off if anything happens to that diamond.”
They fell back, wary. Then the crowd parted. The surgeon appeared, already masked and gloved. She turned to back into the operating room.
“Thirty-three thousand?” she said. “Someone get her a gown.”
When I entered the operating room, I was directed to stand at Jill’s side. They had put her to sleep and screened her abdomen. I couldn’t see a thing. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“The diamond is lodged in your daughter’s small intestine,” the surgeon said without looking up. “We took an X-ray.”
I narrowed my eyes at Fielding, who stood alongside the surgeon.
“We’ll go through the abdominal wall into the peritoneal cavity. When we find the object, we’ll make a tiny incision and milk it out so as not to spill the contents of the small intestine.”
I nodded, appreciating her professional tone.
“There it is,” she said.
Everyone craned to see as the surgeon extracted the diamond. She whistled in admiration and held it above the screen. It was nothing more than a bloody gobbet, a mere shadow of its real sparkling self, but there were murmurs of appreciation at its size.
“Clean this up for Dr. Caldwell,” the surgeon said to the nurse at her elbow. “I’d like to get a good look at it too.”
Then the unthinkable happened. The nurse fumbled the hand-off and dropped Nana’s diamond. It bounced off a corner of the operating table, struck a metal instrument stand nearby, and fell to the floor. There was a sharp crack, and the diamond broke.
For a split second, I froze in horror. Then I hit the floor, scrambling for pieces of diamond. Someone jostled me, trying to help, I thought. I was sweating, wrapped in panic. My diamond! My five-point-one-three carat diamond!
Then I glanced up. To my surprise, I was alone on the floor. The others crowded around the operating table. There was a flurry of anxious activity. A high-pitched mechanical keening pierced my preoccupation.
One of Jill’s monitors was sounding an alarm.
Clutching my diamond fragments, I clambered to my feet and stumbled toward the operating table. The keening stopped, replaced by the rhythmic beeping that signaled a crisis averted.
Later, the surgeon found me in the darkened recovery room standing vigil with Jill. I wiped my eyes and managed a meek and penitent thank you.
The surgeon checked on Jill, then put an arm around me and gave me a kind squeeze. “Jill was never in any real danger, you know. The equipment malfunctioned. It happens sometimes.”
I stared at her.
“Look. I have something to show you.”
She handed me a wallet-sized picture. I held it under the one dim light and saw it was a wedding photo, a stock shot of a bride’s and groom’s hands artfully posed to show off their wedding rings. I bent to look closer. My eyes widened. The diamond was at least as big as Nana’s and flanked by two brilliants that had to be a carat apiece.
“It’s a doozy, isn’t it?” the surgeon said. “I can’t wear it to work, naturally, so I carry this everywhere. Five carats. A family heirloom. I guess yours was too. The photographer wanted to shoot this soft-focus, but I wouldn’t let him. I told him I wanted a sharp edge on every facet. I wish you could see the real thing. My husband makes me keep it in the bank most of the time. I love fancy parties because then I get to wear it, but my husband goes around telling everyone it’s a fake. He’s a nervous guy.”
She paused and leaned closer. Her voice dropped. I just wanted to tell you I understand. No one knows I carry this around with me. No one but you and me.”
Speechless, I held the picture out to her.
She took it and squeezed my arm. “Take care,” she said and walked away.
* * *
The surgeon’s revelation only partially dispelled a nagging sense of shame. I determined to make some changes. I cut my hours from ten to seven, so I could spend more time at home. Marlene was pleased to take on more responsibility. Leah was happy to have less. That done, I took a good, hard look at my other relationships. Harry remained as devoted as ever. Our marriage stood firm. But I’d never managed amity with my in-laws, so I summoned my courage and took Irene and Roxanne to lunch. I did not stare at their diamonds and wore my own small gem with pride. Last but not least, I found a new pediatrician, interviewing five before settling on a kind, no-nonsense young woman who didn’t wear a ring.
Meanwhile, Fielding had the audacity to send me a bill. I shoved it into a far corner of my desk drawer, for later consideration. The surgeon’s bill arrived soon thereafter. I submitted it promptly to our insurance company.
A few months later, while Jill played with her Wee Folks on the rug nearby, I retrieved Fielding’s bill and laid it alongside the insurance statement that had just arrived. I got out the fragments of Nana’s diamonds and lined them up on my desk. We owed the surgeon twenty percent, and I planned to settle up.
I poked at the fragments. When Jill came home from the hospital, I’d taken them to the Gemological Academy. Gemologists came scurrying from all over the building. “What are the chances?” they asked each other. And turning to me,” Why didn’t you have it cut down?”
“Greed? Lust? Vanity? Sheet stupidity?”
To a one, they cocked their eyebrows and nodded, seeming to understand.
My gemologist examined the pieces carefully. Then he delivered the bad news. Together, re-cut, the fragments were worth less than half the value of the original. I sighed and accepted my penance. It was no more than I deserved.
At my feet, Jill marched her Wee Daddy around a chair leg. “Bye-bye Daddy,” she said, speaking for the Wee Folks left clustered behind. I watched her march Wee Daddy off to work, cherishing her precociousness, her busy plump hands.
The bills and diamond fragments reclaimed my attention. I selected the smallest fragment, and held it to the light. It was the size and shape of a sequin and just about as worthless. I taped it to Fielding’s bill, and because it was tiny and easy to miss, I drew an arrow and wrote along it,” A souvenir of Nana’s diamond, in payment for your services.”
The surgeon got a larger fragment, about the size of a currant. I did not include a note.
Done with the bills, I fingered the two remaining diamond chunks and watched Jill stage her Wee Folks in a mock disciplinary action.
“Bad, bad, bad,” Wee Mommy said to Wee Baby, bashing it on the head.
“Jill!” Shocked, I grabbed her wrist. Clearly, we still had some anger to work through. At least Wee Baby wasn’t bashing Wee Mommy. That was something.
To distract Jill, I pulled her up into my lap and reached around her plump middle to pick up the two diamond pieces. “Look, Jilly.” She stuck a piece of hair in her mouth and shrank back against me. Who could blame her?
The two remaining pieces were three-quarters of a carat each. I sandwiched my engagement diamond between them and squinted to imagine the finished effect. It wasn’t quite Nana’s diamond, but it would still turn a head or two.
Sighing happily, I propped my chin on Jill’s head. “Won’t it be pretty, Jilly? This will be yours someday.”
She chewed her hair and twisted around to look up at me. I kissed her nose and set her down.
A few weeks after that, I got a letter from the surgeon. Inside were a check and a typewritten note: “Many thanks for your payment, but it exceeded our fee for services. Herewith, our check for the difference.”
I fingered the check, feeling smug. The surgeon had understood. Jill would too, someday.
Fielding never did get the message. I still get dunning notices from his collection agency. I ignore them.
© 1996, 2017 Janis Bultman