“Cher, wake up,” Frank whispered, shaking her gently. “It’s late.”
She opened her eyes and the bedroom filled with bright morning sunlight. At first she saw only the empty room, her clothes on the floor, the sheet she’d thrown over Frank the night before bunched at the bottom of the bed. Her back ached from having slept sitting up, and when she moved she felt a sharp pain at the base of her neck, as if someone had neatly inserted a steel pin between two joints of her spine.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“A little after nine. Everybody’s downstairs having breakfast.”
Frank, she noted, had already showered and shaved, and was wearing what she now recognized as his regulation Southern-boy outfit: pleated khakis and a short-sleeved oxford shirt, in navy blue.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“Starving,” she said, before she remembered her queasy relationship to food. “Maybe I better be careful.”
“So I’m guessing ham and eggs in red-eye gravy are out.”
“It’s gravy made with—”
“On second thought, spare me.” She closed her eyes, thinking. “Could you get me a glass of water without ice and some plain white toast? No butter or jam or anything, just the toast.”
“No tea or coffee?”
A wave of nausea rolled through her gut, like a flash bout of sea sickness. “No, just the water and the toast.” She remembered her thoughts of the night before and added, quietly: “Please.”
“Okay. Go ahead and get dressed, I’ll bring it up for you.”
But he didn’t leave right away, and she realized that, without quite meaning to, she was searching his face for signs he’d had a change of heart. After a moment, his eyes danced away.
“You all right?” he asked.
“You mean, aside from the fact that I can’t eat, I’ve got a crick in my neck the size of a two-by-four, and I’m two months pregnant?”
Frank chuckled at her return to form. “Two months, huh?”
“Maybe a little less,” she said, softening. “It’s hard to be sure without seeing a doctor.”
“How long have you known?”
“Should have known? About three weeks. Known? Since Wednesday.”
“During the bar exam?”
She tapped her nose. Bingo.
“Jesus, Cher, I’m sorry. That must have been hell.”
“But hey, look on the bright side,” she said. “Under Webster v. Reproductive Health Services we still have twelve weeks to change our minds.”
The smile curdled on Frank’s face. “I’ll get the water and the toast,” he said.
By the time Cheryl called after him to apologize he was already out the door. She sat in the chaise after the door closed behind him, waiting for the roiling in her gut to subside. Clearly, this new kinder, gentler Cheryl was going to take some work.
She shucked off her robe and stepped into the bathroom for a shower. The hot water felt good on her skin and she dipped her face into the stream, taking care not to get her hair wet, opening her mouth to wash the taste of bile from the back of her throat. It had been a night of strange, unsettling dreams. She recalled no details, only a faintly sinister sense of having committed a crime, but as she set the soap back in its dish, an image sliced through her with force of a knife: she and Frank had been fooling around in the attic of his grandparents’ house in Lathrop. Cheryl was wearing a white shift dress and a pale blue apron, a maid’s uniform, and Frank was reaching under her skirt when the door clicked open. That was all she remembered, the jolt of panic when the door opened, but she thought again of the story Frank had told her about going into the maid’s room and finding Annie Johns’ bed stripped bare. Where was that girl now? What had happened to her? Had her family ever spoken to her again after she blew her chance at the fancy girls-school scholarship?
Cheryl turned off the water and stood in the empty shower stall until she could hold it back no longer and vomited as neatly as she could into the drain. She was crying now, a muffled whimpering. Snubbing, her grandmother had called it. “You girls quit that snubbing or nobody’s getting any ice cream,” the old woman used to say as she led the way on their long walk home from the beach in Oak Bluffs. This image, her grandmother in a floral dress and an enormous straw sun hat, the brim so comically wide it flapped like wings when she walked ahead of her three granddaughters on hot summer afternoons on Circuit Avenue, choked Cheryl up again and she collapsed into a corner of the shower stall, hiding her face in her hands.
And then the real tears came.
* * *
Ten minutes later, Cheryl had run the shower again to wash any last traces of sick down the drain and stood wrapped in a towel in front of the mirror, deciding what to do with her hair. Frank had come and gone, leaving a lacquered-wood serving tray on the bed containing a glass of water and two unbuttered slices of toast. She couldn’t be sure if he had come while she was showering, or later, while she was sobbing alone in the stall, but whenever it was, he had gone directly back downstairs without waiting for her to come out.
She had been careful not to get any water on her hair, but the combination of the humidity and a night’s sleep without a hair net had caused her hair to corkscrew. Hair had always been an issue for Cheryl. Both of her sisters had inherited their mother’s “good hair”—hair so naturally straight that, with only the most minimal ironing and spraying, it reached halfway down their backs without so much as a ripple. But if Cheryl wasn’t careful, if she didn’t have her hair done every six weeks, if she didn’t spray and iron it every morning, it frayed and curled, not so much that it became actually nappy, but enough that, before her grandmother began taking her to her own stylist in Beacon Hill, Cheryl had earned the childhood nickname Kizzy.
She had brought her usual industrial-sized sack of hair irons and relaxer sprays, and if it had been any other morning, if she hadn’t spent the last ten minutes alone puking and crying in the shower, she would have hauled them out and gotten to work. But now she just looked at herself in the mirror, said “Fuck it,” and pulled her hair back in a loose ponytail, tying it fast with a hair band. She brushed her teeth, dabbed some vanishing cream under her eyes to hide the puffiness, and by the time Frank knocked on the door, she was on the chaise fully dressed and nibbling at her second half-slice of dry white toast.
“It’s open,” she said.
He stood in the doorway, blinking. Admittedly, she had picked out a most un-Cheryl-like outfit: a blaring yellow sleeveless top, denim pedal-pushers and white strappy sandals. But she knew that it was her face, barren of makeup, and her unruly hair that had caught his eye.
“Welcome to the new me,” she said, snapping off a bite of toast.
“I like it.”
“Do you?” she asked, surprised by how much she wanted to know.
“I do, actually,” he said. “It’s different, but I like it. But listen, I came to ask you a question: Are you coming with us out to the farm? They’re waiting downstairs.”
“Is your cousin going?” Cheryl asked. “The one who met us at the airport?”
“That’s funny,” he said. “She asked me the same thing. About you.”
“Well, is she?”
“No, she’s staying here, with her mom,” he said. “Look, I know it’s been a rough couple days, but it’d mean a lot to me if you came. Grandpa asked if you were coming.”
Cheryl couldn’t have said precisely why she found this flattering, but she did.
“Give me a minute,” she said. “I’ll meet you at the car.”
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.