Frank was in bed in a white silk Old Home Place Inn robe reading a John Grisham novel. He began to dog ear the page, then stopped, frozen by the fury in Cheryl’s eyes.
“I’m pregnant,” she announced.
“I’m sorry? What?”
“I’m pregnant,” she said again. “As in, knocked up. As in, with child. In trouble.”
She watched a complicated expression, half-smile, half-frown, spread across his face, as if he was surprised by how little he was surprised. “Are you sure?”
“I haven’t seen a doctor if that’s what you mean,” she said. “But I’m five weeks late. And you’ve seen me. I can’t look at a plate of food without wanting to puke. I’m pregnant.”
Frank stood up to embrace her. “Oh my God, this is … it’s …”
“Fucked up,” she said. “Seriously, deeply fucked up. And please don’t touch me right now. I don’t feel—I just don’t feel very clean.”
Cheryl had assumed that when she told Frank, she would burst into tears and not be able to stop. Instead, she simply felt angry. Angry at Frank, at herself, at her father, at both of their families, at the state of race relations in this miserable country she had grown up in. At that moment there wasn’t very much that Cheryl could think of that she wasn’t angry at. She reached for the drawstring of her sweats and shimmied out of them, tossing them to the floor.
“Where’s the other one of those robes?” she asked. “I’m taking a shower. I need to get clean. I need to wash off the last, thoroughly disgusting half hour of my life.”
“In the closet, on a hook in the door,” Frank said. “I thought you were using…”
“I was,” she said, wrapping herself in the white-silk robe. “I got mixed up and I missed a few days. It was stupid of me, Frank, and I’m sorry. I cannot even begin to tell you how sorry I am this happened.”
She cinched the belt of the robe and hugged herself against the startling cool of the silk. It bothered her how good it felt against her skin. It seemed wrong, somehow, that at this moment when she was so full of rage that her body should be swaddled in such soft, opulent clothing.
“What’re you going to do?” he asked.
“What am I going to do?” she said. “What about you, white boy? Or are you not involved?”
“Cheryl, don’t be like that. You know what I mean. And keep your voice down.”
“No, I’m not going to keep my voice down,” she said. “I’ve spent my whole life keeping my voice down and being a good girl and following the rules. And look what it’s done for me. Look at me, Frank. I’m twenty-five years old and unmarried and pregnant.”
“Honey, you’ve got to calm down,” he said. “I’m as freaked out about this as you are, but we have to talk. We have to decide what we’re going to do.”
“Why don’t you just come out and say it? You think I should have the abortion.”
He held his eyes on hers. “Is that what you think I want?”
“It sure would solve a lot problems, wouldn’t it?” she said. “One morning in some lousy clinic and I could take my clerkship with Judge Bishop and we could go back to the way things were, Frank and Cher, having their nice, secret interracial affair up there on West 78th Street.”
A door clicked open down the hall, silencing them both. For a long minute—it felt like an ice age—Cheryl stood frozen, her heart pounding in her chest, as a man’s heavy footsteps wandered the hall. At last, the door shut again, and she sucked in a hungry gulp of air.
“You’re the one who’s been trying to keep us a secret,” Frank hissed. “You’re the one who won’t introduce me to your family.”
“You think it’s so easy?” she hissed back. “Look at the way they’re treating me here. And these people aren’t even your immediate family.”
“My family wouldn’t treat you like this,” he said. “I’ve told my parents about you, Cheryl. They can’t wait to meet you.”
“Well, my family would treat you like this,” she said. “They’d be polite to your face, but as soon as we were out of the room they’d be shaking their heads over what a fool Cheryl was making of herself, how she was throwing her life away on some dumb white surfer boy from California. You have no idea, Frank. This would kill my father. You would kill my father.”
She felt him bristling, wanting to trot out his Law Review editorship, his big-shot corporate lawyer father in California, his civil-rights-pioneering grandmother, but he remained silent, knowing there was really nothing he could say. This knowledge, the weight of it, seemed to press on him and his legs buckled, forcing him down on the end of the bed. After a moment, Cheryl walked over and sat down beside him.
“Are you saying you want an abortion?” he asked.
“I’d do it if you asked me to,” she said. “But, no. That’s not what I want.”
“I don’t want that, either.”
“Then what, Frank? Tell me what we’re going to do. Because I’m sure as hell not going to raise this child on my own.”
“I know, I need some time to think. This, I mean, it changes everything.”
No shit, Sherlock, she wanted to say. What stopped her was the realization that, deep down, she’d been hoping he would tell her he wanted her to have the abortion. She would have hated him. She would have hated herself. Cheryl believed in abortion as a fundamental human right. At Yale, she had marched for hours in a pouring rain to protest the Casey decision, which restricted a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. But not her own pregnancy. Oh God, no. The thought of a doctor inserting a tiny vacuum inside her and sucking out her own flesh and blood was so ugly, so repugnant to her idea of herself, that she refused to countenance it. And yet, she saw now, it was what she had been waiting for ever since that moment in the ladies’ toilet on the first day of the bar exam: for someone to make this problem go away, to tell her she was free to go back to the life she’d planned for herself.
“You didn’t tell your dad about this, did you?” Frank asked. “Just now on the phone.”
“Please.” She snorted, sounding, she realized, exactly like her father. “All he wanted to talk about was how proud his baby girl was going to make him clerking for the Honorable John S. Bishop of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.”
In Frank’s studiously blank expression she saw that the anguish of that conversation, her whole failed attempt to tell her father the truth, was alive in her own face. It hurt her to see this, to know that he could see how deeply ashamed she was, but she was so tired and beaten, so full of other worries, she had no choice but to let it show.
“You could still do that, you know,” he said.
“Do you have any idea of the caseload at the Second Circuit?” she said. “Judge Bishop’s a good guy, he’d understand. But he can’t have his chief clerk bailing on him halfway through the term to go out on maternity leave.” She paused, picturing herself as big as a house, her ankles bloated, her face swollen up like a melon, waddling around the judge’s chambers in some awful floral-print muu-muu-looking thing. “To be honest, I’ll be lucky if Markham lets me start in the fall. They’ve already hired somebody to take my place for the year. If they knew why I was turning down the clerkship, they’d rescind the offer in a heartbeat.”
“They can’t do that.”
“Baby, they’re a New York corporate law firm. They can do whatever the hell they want.”
When he didn’t answer right away, she knew Frank was doing same thing she’d been doing for the past seventy-two hours: counting months, considering options, seeing for the first time just how complicated the next year of their lives could get.
“I could,” he said, “I don’t know, I could take some time off from school in the spring so you didn’t have to be out so long.”
“That won’t make any difference,” she said. “Anyway, we’d need you to finish up school as fast as you could.”
He smiled, chagrinned. “Guess I won’t be applying for that Legal Aid job next year.”
“Not unless they start paying Legal Aid lawyers enough to cover half the rent on an Upper West Side apartment and a nanny.” In Frank’s expression, in his very lack of response, she saw how deeply she had hurt his feelings. “Honey, come on, there’s plenty of private firms that do criminal defense. Good firms, too. Doing good work.”
“Not everybody lives on the Upper West Side,” he said. “I know lots of people who’ve moved out to Brooklyn. They love it out there.”
“Frank, do I look like the kind of girl who’s going to raise a child in Brooklyn?”
He laughed, and something in that, the way they’d fallen so effortlessly back into their roles, Cheryl the spoiled rich girl with a closet full of shoes, Frank the idealistic law student righting the wrongs of the world, allowed them to cut through the tension and just talk. They even flirted a little, teasing each other about the indulgences they’d have to give up: no more dresses from Bergdorf’s for her, no more weekends volunteering at the Lower Manhattan Justice Project for him. But none of it was quite real yet. Their sentences never left the subjunctive, and they were careful to couch each observation, each new demand, inside a joke, so that half an hour later when they turned out the lights and lay side by side under the sheets, Cheryl was left with the uneasy sense that after all their talk they had settled nothing.
Exhausted as she was, she lay sleepless in Frank’s arms, counting and re-counting the months until she was due, imagining the arguments in her parents’ book-lined living room in Boston and the freighted silences that would last for months afterward. Frank was probably right that Markham, Lewis & Gottschalk wouldn’t rescind its offer if she turned down the clerkship with Judge Bishop. They were lawyers, after all. They would want no part of the publicity that would come of being sued by a female associate—a minority hire, no less—claiming the firm had penalized her for the crime of having a child. Still, as she well knew, there were many ways to get rid of a problem associate. The firm could assign her a nightmare partner, or put her on a dead-end case being run out of a satellite office in Phoenix. Or they could simply give her no work at all and wait until she got the message.
She thought of her father, the bleat of wounded pride she’d heard in his voice as he railed about Cassie and her softball scholarship. Cheryl had endured enough of her father’s Mozart-blaring funks to know that, sooner or later, his anger at Cassie would pass. With her willowy figure and big, bright brown eyes, Cassie had always been the prettiest of the Crawford girls, and though she was no scholar, she had never been stupid or lazy. She would find her way back into her father’s heart. But this, Cheryl knew, the news that his oldest girl had fallen pregnant weeks before starting the most important job of her life—this would kill him. Harold Crawford had wanted sons, had hungered for sons, but after Cassie was born and it became clear he was fated to father only girls, he had turned to his eldest, the smartest, the most dutiful, the most loyal of the three. It was always Cheryl who took the day off from school to watch her father try a case. It was Cheryl who was rewarded with crisp twenty-dollar bills when she memorized a speech by Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass. Dahlia and Cassie had gotten pretty dresses and summer trips to Europe, but only Cheryl had gotten him, her father’s full, undivided attention. He’d been plotting for her to take the Bishop clerkship almost from the day she started at Yale. And now, after all the years her father had worked to curry Judge Bishop’s favor, after all the wine-soaked dinners at the Four Seasons, for Cheryl to turn down the clerkship—and for what? a boy, a white boy—yes, it would kill him dead.
In her ear she heard the faint rasp of a snore. Frank, she realized, had fallen asleep. She carefully extricated her arm from under his and arranged the sheet over his sprawled, sleeping frame. In the closet, she found the white slippers that went with the robe and settled on the chaise, watching Frank sleep. He had a very distinctive snore, unlike that of any man’s she’d ever been with, low and almost purring, like the sound her cat Cardozo made when he was kneading her stomach. Sometimes at night in her apartment when Frank was asleep Cheryl nuzzled up close, enjoying the soothing rumble of air passing through his chest. Now, though, it just pissed her off. She wanted to shake him awake and ask, not sarcastically, not merely to win a point, but as an honest question: “How can you possibly sleep at a time like this?”
But she didn’t. From now on, she had to treat Frank gingerly. She couldn’t push him. She couldn’t risk being needy or neurotic. She needed him now. If she had this child, any chance she had of salvaging a decent life for herself depended on Frank Watkins sticking around. Other than threatening a paternity suit, what weapons could she bring to bear if Frank decided he wasn’t ready to be a father? He had told her he loved her, many, many times, and she believed him. But he’d said it himself: this changed everything. And that, she saw with her logical, lawyerly mind, was the choicest irony of all: the life her father had built for her, the schools he’d sent her to, the books he’d given her, the doors he’d opened for her, the confidence he had drilled into her day after day, all that was a great stone fortress built so that his eldest daughter would never have to depend on the whim of a white man—and then, foolish, foolish girl, she had gone and done it, anyway.
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.