“Joan—are you awake?”
Lane switched the radio station sometime after they left the city, fumbling with the dial for several minutes until (judging by many frustrated sighs) he gave up in desperation. She's not sure what kind of music he was set on hearing, but it's been playing instrumental jazz standards for what feels like hours. It's driving her crazy. She doesn't want to invite conversation by stirring.
At first, she'd tried to sleep. She thought if she closed her eyes she could force herself to relax, could doze for a few minutes. Apparently, rest was too much to ask. All she can think about is sitting on the hard exam table with her legs in stirrups, naked under a paper gown and trying not to shiver as the doctor glances over her with a bored expression.
Considering your age, you're lucky your husband got you pregnant at all.
She's braced against the door and window, using her coat as a makeshift pillow. Watching fir trees speed past on the highway shoulder was making her eyes hurt, and so she's kept them closed, though sleep is impossible.
“Joan?” Almost a whisper.
“I'm awake,” she murmurs, so low she's not sure if he hears it. But there's a rustling, like he's shifted in his seat, like he's trying to get a better look at her.
“Are you—all right?”
She sighs loudly, pushing a few strands of hair away from her forehead. You women always want it both ways. “No.” Her voice catches on the last word. She swallows the lump in her throat, hoping that he didn't hear it.
“Well, tell me if I've got to—pull over,” Lane says, voice gruff. Maybe he just thinks she's nauseous. She can hear one of his hands tap the steering wheel in an irregular, anxious rhythm. Jesus. Just light your pipe. Roll down the window. Do something.
They keep driving.
Twenty minutes to six. They're early.
From the outside, it looks like any other rural doctor's office: white, one-story, with a brick foundation and weathered wood siding. There are no busybodies at the front door, no screaming husbands beside the window, just four or five other cars in the parking lot. A small breeze rustles the leaves of nearby oaks facing the grass curb. It's peaceful. Almost quaint. As if they're all here getting allergy shots before the weekend.
The sudden strike-hiss of a match against sandpaper makes Joan turn to her left. Lane's shielding the bulb of his pipe as he lights it, and after blowing out the match, he puts it into the ashtray on the driver's side, taking several puffs on his pipe to kindle the flame. A sweet-smelling smoke begins to drift through the car. Joan might find the scent calming if her stomach wasn't a little unsettled. She couldn't eat much at all today. And typically she gets sick at night, around seven or eight o'clock. She's trying to ignore the feeling. In a couple of hours, it won't matter anyway.
Her hands fuss at the latch of her purse, opening and closing it several times in a row before she mentally scolds herself to calm down. She's already examined her face and refreshed her lipstick. There is nothing else she needs in her handbag. To keep herself from fidgeting, Joan forces herself to glance at Lane, whose gaze is fixed on the steering column as he smokes. Suddenly, she wants to reach out and get his attention. She wants to blurt out the thought that's been pressing at the front of her mind since they left the highway. You don't have to sit in the car.
After a moment, he notices her looking, and takes his pipe from his mouth. “Sorry—I can—step out, if it's bothering you.”
“No,” Joan says, motioning that he should stay. The hands of the dashboard clock say it's ten till six. “I don't mind.”
Her palm rests just over the l-shaped door handle. She looks back at him, and watches as a muscle tightens in his jaw. Part of her wants to get out of the car and march inside the clinic without speaking, but she doesn't move. She needs to remind him of pertinent details.
“The appointment's under my maiden name—Holloway.” She clears her throat. “If everything goes as scheduled, I should be finished around 7:30.”
Just as she's decided to open the door, his hand comes to rest on her black-gloved wrist, on the hand that's braced against the tan vinyl seat. It could be a plea. Be careful. Be safe. It could also be reassurance. You don't have to sit in the car, she thinks again, searching his face, but she pushes the thought down before it has a chance to leave her lips. She exhales a breath. “I'll be fine.”
Joan pulls her hand away, opens the car door, and steps out onto the pavement.
Six thirty. She's checked her watch for the thousandth time. What the hell is taking so long?
Joan's flipped through the same four pages of Cosmopolitan for twenty minutes without retaining a word. And it's very warm in here. If she's not careful she's going to sweat through her dress shields. There's only one other woman in the waiting room, several years younger than Joan, by the looks of her bright makeup, stiff bob, and brown polka-dotted dress. She's not handling the wait very well: darting into the lobby every few minutes to cry in private, judging by her red eyes, and when she's not in the lobby, she's pacing in front of the low coffee table, wringing her hands.
After the third or fourth time the woman returns from the lobby, Joan puts aside her magazine. “Are you all right?”
The woman glances over, surprised to be spoken to, and drops her hands to her sides with a cry. “No, I'm sorry—I just hate waiting. It's eating me up.”
Joan doesn't trust herself to engage on that particular sentiment, and so she doesn't reply. The woman takes this silence as an invitation, tugging nervously at a stray curl by her ear.
“My daughter didn't want me to come with her.”
“Oh,” Joan says, mindlessly flipping another page of her magazine. The queasy feeling from before is returning, and she tries to ignore it. Just breathe.
“She's seventeen,” the woman blurts, fumbling in her sweater pocket and pulling out a small white handkerchief, dabbing at her nose. “I—was fifteen, when I had her—but she seems so much younger.”
“She must be very beautiful,” Joan offers after a moment, deciding this is the easiest compliment to offer an anxious mother.
The woman clutches her handkerchief more tightly, blinking back tears. “Yes. She is.”
Joan drops her gaze to the back cover of Cosmopolitan, for politeness' sake, so it almost startles her when the other woman speaks again, so soon. “How old is your daughter?”
Jesus, Joan thinks, breathing out carefully through her nose. She thinks I'm someone's mother.
You're not going to be sick. You are not going to be sick.
The nausea still isn't going away. Joan has to glance away from the woman for a moment in an attempt to collect herself. Stay calm. Think about something other than the discomfort.
“I'm sorry. She's—got time,” the other woman says quickly, as if she's expecting Joan to burst into tears. “They're so young. It's better this way.”
Before Joan can reply, they're spared from further conversation by the sudden arrival of a nurse in the waiting room. Joan doesn't even pause to look at this person, to gauge if the nurse is ready to take her back for the procedure or to update the nervous mother.
All she can think about as she grabs her purse and walks briskly into the lobby is the pounding in her head. The bitter taste in the back of her throat.
I can't do this.
She flings open the front door, stumbling down the three brick stairs and into the parking lot in the dusk light, making a beeline for the tall oak about a hundred feet from the clinic's entrance. Oh, god. She puts a hand over her mouth, moves faster, practically jogging. Just get past that blue car.
Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Lane moving in her direction—shouting something—but she can't stop. She makes it as far as the edge of the grass before doubling over and retching, putting her palm on the nearby hood of the car for support.
Minutes later, after the bout of nausea has passed, she takes a breath, wipes her mouth on the back of her hand, and straightens up. She takes two steps backward, leaning against the hood of the car in order to use it as a makeshift chair. Her legs are shaky, her skin is clammy, and there's still fog in her head, but at least she can breathe again. Please let it be over.
Movement makes her glance to her right. Lane's standing less than a foot away, studying her with anxious eyes. God, he saw her throw up. Multiple times. It's so humiliating.
“I didn't go through with it,” she says weakly, cutting off whatever questions he might try to ask. She's crying, either due to the vomiting or some new emotional hell, and she swipes at the tears with a frustrated noise. “I can't. I just—” her voice is so wobbly— “want to go home.”
“You do?” Lane asks in a rasp. She nods her head, very small.
He clears his throat, stepping closer and offering her his arm. She takes it, gingerly, and allows him to lead her past the blue car and away from the mess in the grass, walking slowly down the row of empty parking spaces until they reach the beige Plymouth.
They stopped at a service station before getting back on the highway. Lane topped up the tank, and came back to the car with a pack of nabs and two small glass bottles: one ginger ale, one club soda. Joan can't eat yet, but sipping the ginger ale is making her feel less ill. She's grateful.
They've been driving ten minutes when Lane clears his throat and says, appropriate of nothing, “You—scared me. When you ran outside.”
Joan turns to look at him, pulling her coat higher around her shoulders.
“I thought—” he sighs, seems to reconsider his words. “Well, I don't know what I thought.”
“I thought I was going to throw up in the middle of the lobby,” Joan replies quietly. It coaxes a very weak smile out of Lane, followed by another sigh.
There's a short silence. Joan remembers their arguments from the beginning of the week. Lane's emotional outburst in particular. You could bleed to death in the middle of a bus!
“When we argued,” she says, slowly, “at work—you said you were worried about complications.”
He doesn't look at her. Joan takes another sip of her ginger ale, then puts it aside. Bottle's empty, anyway. She decides to follow a hunch. “Did your wife have trouble carrying?”
Lane clears his throat again, and after a brief hesitation, gently guides the car onto the shoulder of the road, keeping the engine running. It's so dark outside now that Joan can't even see the trees through her window, though she hears a strong wind stirring the leaves. Cicadas in the tall grass.
He hasn't said anything yet, but the fact that he pulled over is confirmation enough. She feels a faint rush of sympathy course through her chest. Pregnancy must be bitter for the women who walk on pins and needles for months, waiting for something to go wrong.
“You don't have to talk about this, if it's painful.”
Lane takes a deep breath, briefly turning to look at her. “No—I, erm, think you...ought to know.” Another deep breath. “Becca—hemorrhaged. With Nigel.”
Joan's eyes widen, her mind reeling with inappropriate questions. This explains Lane's reaction to her intended termination, as well as his illogical belief that she'd just miscarry after less than two months. She's about to ask about the circumstances when he speaks again.
“And there were losses. Before.” He lets out a noise that would almost be a laugh if it weren't for the crack in his voice. “But—the last time...nearly killed her.”
Joan tries to parse out the most important part of this admission. Losses. Plural. That could mean anything. Miscarriages. Stillbirths. Years of heartache. She touches his shoulder, briefly, imagining a much younger Lane pacing a hospital waiting room as he waits for an update, or panicking by his wife's bedside as nurses rush to her aid. “That's terrifying.”
He's staring out the window, now, the distant blur of oncoming headlights sliding across his face as cars on the other side of the highway soar past. Maybe he didn't even hear her. She studies his anxious profile, trying to find the right words. His right hand is lying on the seat, curled into a loose fist, and on an impulse, she reaches for it, slipping her hand into his and squeezing it in reassurance. The gesture makes him turn to stare at her in surprise, but she doesn't let go, just meets his eyes in the darkness. Exhales. “I'm sorry I scared you.”
“It isn't your fault,” Lane replies, voice just as low. “I—I am—trying, you know. It isn't...easy.”
“No. It isn't.” For either of us.
She doesn't want to talk about logistics, or reinforce the point she made before: that they won't be raising this child together now that she's keeping it. She made a vow to someone else. She gave her word. But she's so sick of arguments and awkwardness and misunderstandings. Instead, she wants to make him a kind of peace offering. For telling her the truth.
“I'll keep you informed as my condition...progresses.”
Even in the darkness, she can tell he's stunned. His mouth falls open a little, as if she's just slapped him in the face. A prism of light catches the lenses of his glasses as he turns his head to stare at her. “You'd—do that?”
“I don't want you to worry,” Joan says simply, with a shrug of one shoulder. Lane's an anxious person on a normal day, and it seems as if his fears might be more manageable if she keeps him up to date, rather than if she ignores him for the next seven months.
She does not let herself dwell on the possibility of having life-threatening complications. At this point, everything other than the fact that she is expecting a child is conjecture. There's no reason to assume she won't have a healthy pregnancy.
Lane's still gripping her hand very tightly, as if he understands what she's too tongue-tied to say aloud. I'm scared, too. In an attempt to reinforce this point – that she's grateful for his support, despite the circumstances – she scoots closer to him and puts her head on his shoulder. Her coat falls to rest just above her right hip. Their hands, still joined, occupy the few inches of space between his right leg and her left one.
“I'm having a baby,” is all she says. The words echo in the small space of the car, filling it up, overpowering the ambient noises from the forest and from the highway. Joan just concentrates on keeping her breath even and steady as her heartbeat pounds a frantic rhythm against her chest. After several minutes – in which she begins to feel more comfortable, almost drowsy – she feels him shift in his seat as he guides the car back onto the highway.
Friday morning means a partners' meeting. 10AM. Joan's already sitting at the conference table with her notes when Lane arrives, shooting a wide-eyed glance in her direction as he sits down, leaving a chair's space between them and placing his folio on the wooden table. She doesn't know why he looks so surprised. They had this conversation in the car just as they'd crossed the bridge into Manhattan.
“Are you going to go in tomorrow?”
She'd lifted her head from his shoulder to stare at him. Why wouldn't she? “It's a workday.”
“Yes, but perhaps you ought to—take the morning? Could get a bit more rest.”
In the spirit of keeping things amicable, Joan had decided not to answer.
“I thought—” Lane begins, but is interrupted by the arrival of Pete and Roger. Pete takes a seat on the opposite side of the table, to Joan's left, while Roger takes the chair next to her.
“Good morning,” she offers, surveying the group.
Pete mumbles a brusque hello, not looking up from his newspaper. Roger gives her a grin before putting a cigarette in his mouth. “Mrs. Harris. How's business?”
Joan notices Lane flinch at the question, though he tries to pretend he's writing something very important on a clipboard. She just buffers her shoulders, regarding Roger with an amused expression. Sometimes, sparring with him is the easiest thing in the world. “I see someone's in a good mood.”
Roger exhales in a jet of smoke, smirking at her as he says, “Hey. It's Friday.”