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if inconvenient, come all the same

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october 1965 //  twelve weeks

 

Joan's been relatively lucky with regard to her figure. While she is gaining weight (there's no point in denying that, even if every new pound is driving her up the wall) most of it has settled in her breasts and hips. She needed new brassieres after nine weeks, and recently had to start letting out a few of her outfits in the bust. There wasn't much room to let, considering the way her clothes are tailored, but thankfully, she isn't showing in a way that makes her appear noticeably pregnant. Some days, her abdomen looks very round. Other days, it's as if she's just bloated, or as if she's on her way to a little winter weight.

On a Wednesday morning, just before eleven, she's reorganizing the bottom drawer of the standing file cabinet. She bends at the waist to replace one last folder in current billings when a loud ripping noise makes her straighten up with a gasp. Turning her face toward the windows, she feels discreetly around her lower back to find the tear. Her heart catches in her throat when she touches her zipper with her fingertips and feels the fuzzy edge of torn pink fabric gaping open along the left seam. The split goes so high she can't even trace it the rest of the way up her back. With a sigh, Joan moves slowly to her desk, opening the third drawer and calmly pulling out her spare change of clothes. The dress is last year's style: a lavender floral, slightly faded, but it's still a relief to be prepared.

Her relief is short lived. She spends the next ten minutes locked inside a tiny bathroom stall, struggling to force her zipper up and failing every time, until she's so angry she wants to rip both outfits into pieces. She can't even get the hook and eye fastened at the collar, that's how big she's gotten.

This dress fit a month ago, damn it!

Joan takes several deep breaths, willing herself not to cry. She can't even bring herself to change back into the original pink outfit, though it could be pinned in the back with help. She just drops the dress into the covered metal trash can by the sink and shrugs into her camel coat, buttoning it fully around her so she's not a walking advertisement of failure. Thank god she had the presence of mind to bring it with her. To add insult to injury, even the coat cinches ominously at the waist once it's fully buttoned, but she ignores this, walking out of the ladies room and across the office until she reaches Lane's doorway, knocks once, and steps inside, closing the door behind her.

He must see the frustration on her face, frowning at her from his seat behind the desk. “Joan? You all right?”

She means to ask for his help with the zipper. Instead, she bursts into tears.

Lane's on his feet immediately and at her side, stuttering over the words as he blurts out, “What's happened? Are you hurt?”

Joan shakes her head no, trying to speak, and failing. Instead, she fumbles to undo the buttons of her coat, only managing to work one of them open with her shaking fingers before she gives up with a frustrated wail. She pushes away from him, sits down heavily on the sofa, and hides her face in her hands, feeling the ill-fitting dress pull painfully around her middle every time she moves.

Lane sits next to her, placing his arm around her back as she sobs out hot tears of shame. She buries her face in his shoulder. When she sits up, mortified, he's watching her with soft eyes, leaning in slightly, as if waiting for her to speak, as if he's going to pull her back into his arms.

He does neither.

Joan swallows thickly, wiping her damp cheeks, hands moving to unfasten her coat. This time, the buttons loosen easily, and she sheds the coat with his help so he can see why she's upset. Her sleeves sit just below her shoulders, collar taut against her upper arms. The floral-print cotton pulls tight around her hips and bust, stretching the flowers into grotesque bundles, while the panels of the bodice flap uselessly from the open zipper. She feels air on her upper back and shoulders, on the expanse of skin not covered by her foundation garments and long-line bra.

“My other dress ripped.” Her voice wavers, and she curses herself as new tears spring to her eyes. “I had this in m—my desk, but—”

Looking from the unzipped dress to her tear-streaked face, Lane pulls a red handkerchief from his jacket pocket, pressing it into her hands with a sympathetic expression.

“I know I'm supposed to get bigger,” she mumbles with a sniff, gesturing to her middle as if she's already gained fifty pounds. “It's just—” she unfolds the handkerchief, swiping at her eyes and nose before clutching it in one fist. Awful. She's kept in shape since she was a girl, and now this tiny little thing is ruining years of discipline in a matter of weeks.

“Joan.” Lane's hand moves to her partially-covered shoulder, as if the smallest touch will make the dress fit again. “You've done nothing wrong, you know.”

“I know,” she sighs finally, glancing away from him.

Lane doesn't say anything for a moment. Joan glances back to her right, suddenly needing to see his face, when he takes both her hands in his. “You're only...growing...because the little one needs a bit more room. Can't have him jumping on your spleen, hm?”

She can't help but smile, even if it's watery. Stupid joke. He always tries to make her laugh when she's upset. “He practically does that already.”

And it's the first time she's referred to the baby as anything other than an it, which, frankly, is terrifying. Joan blows out a breath, and pulls her hands away from Lane's with an awkward smile, putting his handkerchief into her coat pocket. She needs to stop letting him comfort her every time she gets upset. This can't become a habit. She's married. Greg should be the one comforting her, for god's sake. Greg should care that she's fat and upset, but he doesn't.

“I should go home and change.”

Lane blinks, as if a spell's been broken, as if he meant to say something else to her, but recovers quickly, indicating he'll help her back into her coat. “I think that's a—fine idea.”

**

At home, Joan changes into a knit dress, whose cashmere is more forgiving than her usual acetate sheaths. It's the same black dress she wore to work several days ago, but it's not as if anyone's going to see it. She's already decided to take a half day. Reorganizing her closet has become necessary. She'll go out in the afternoon and buy a few new dresses. By one o'clock, she's even been able to eat: half an apple and some saltines. She's just putting some of her smallest sized clothes into a box by her bed when she hears someone knocking on the front door.

“Just a minute!” She pads quickly out of the bedroom in her bare feet and into the hallway, quickly unlatching the chain and pulling open the door.

Two men in class-A green uniforms stand on the other side. Their clean-shaven, stoic faces betray nothing underneath their garrison caps; each man's posture as stiff as the tri-folded American flag balanced in the older officer's gloved hands.

This man is the one who addresses her first. Later, Joan won't even be able to remember his face, no distinguishing features at all except for the deep furrow that formed between his bushy eyebrows as he spoke. “Mrs. Gregory Harris?”

Joan sucks in a breath, fingers curling around the doorframe. “Yes.”

“Mrs. Harris, the Secretary General of the Army deeply regrets to inform you that your husband, Dr. Gregory Harris, was killed in action in the Quang Nam province on October 4, 1965.”

“In—action?” she manages to stutter, staring from the starched corners of the flag to the sealed, cream-colored envelope which the junior officer is holding. The young man's hands are shaking. She can see it. She can't stop looking at the cuffs of his jacket. She can barely hear what he's saying.

“—Secretary extends sincerest condolences—you and your family—tragic loss—”

They place the flag and letter into her hands, and with a salute and a murmured, “Ma'am,” they're gone.

Joan pushes the door closed with an outstretched hand, and turns away from it as if in a haze. Her shoulders are slumped, she feels light headed, and clumsy on her feet. She turns to her right, where the round gold-framed mirror reflects her ashen complexion, thin mouth, and shock-wide eyes.

She had everything planned—mapped it all out with the ruthlessness of an empress, and every time there had been a misstep, she'd corrected her course. When she realized Roger didn't love her—was never going to marry her—she set her sights on a real husband. When she met Greg, she was going to be a surgeon's wife—an accomplished hostess, throwing parties and attending banquets within the medical community's highest circles. Once that fell apart, she'd thrown herself into the solid practicality of Army routine—waiting for Greg to call, writing him every ten days, learning everything she could about the military and its daily operations in order to prove she could do this—she could sacrifice this much if it meant a stable family—

—Joan could wear beautiful jewel tone dresses and keep her figure and work endless hours and clean the apartment and cook for one and resign herself to the constant pressing ache of loneliness and indifference because she was married—she had to stay married

For the first time in her life, she doesn't have a plan.

She's pregnant with Lane's child. Its heartbeat flutters under her palm, and she has never been so thankful—has never been so terrified—

“Greg's dead,” she whispers aloud, staring at her red lipsticked mouth in the mirror as she says the words. They force air into her frozen lungs, make her gasp for breath as she slides clumsily down the wall into a sitting position, wrapping her arms around her middle as her chest begins to heave and her stomach contracts and her sides ache. Is she laughing or crying? Water splashes hot onto the back of her hands and down her nose and her body shakes so much she feels like she's shivering with fever—someone is screaming in long shrill bursts, a high wailing sound like a teakettle whistling—

He's dead.

She always knew he would leave. He wanted to. He didn't love her.

He's dead. He's dead. He's dead.

**

When Lane arrives at the office on Thursday morning at seven thirty, to his great surprise, there are several secretaries working in the creative lounge. Clara sits at the round table, marking copious notes on a stenography pad, and next to her is a stack of papers so high they nearly obscure her face.

Scarlett is at Clara's desk instead of her typical place in reception, typing determinedly, the rhythmic clack-clack-clack of her fingers striking keys reminding him of a freight train gaining speed as it leaves a station. He didn't realize she could type so quickly. Remarkable.

A waifish blonde girl – Bridget? Bailey? she's rather new – is standing in the middle of Joan's office, looking around with a nervous expression, as if completely lost. And there's another voice coming from her open doorway. Lane walks slowly forward, wanting to know who it is. Can't be Joan. He suspects she'll come in later than usual. Yesterday morning was very hard on her.

“Oh, Clara, honey?” Caroline moves into the lounge, wearing a brown shirtwaist dress and a lime green sweater, gold-rim glasses pushed onto the top of her head. Her dark hair seems to have been set in a hurry. She looks...frazzled. “I forgot—you'll have to cover my desk at ten o'clock, when the partners meet. Don's particular about his phone calls. But Roger's phone doesn't ring that much.”

“Okay,” Clara says with a sigh, making another note on her stenography pad.

At this point, Caroline sees him, blowing out a breath. “Hi, Mr. Pryce. Did you need coffee? We should talk in your office.”

She indicates that he should unlock his door, and after a moment, he produces the keys and obliges. Is there a special visitor due today? He has no idea. He's usually told about these things.

Caroline's taken his hat and briefcase before he can blink, putting the hat onto the coatrack and his briefcase in the center of his desk. He hangs up his coat and moves toward his desk as she speaks.

“I'm sorry. Joanie usually takes care of you, since you're both here so early—but I realized on the way over I don't even know what you drink. Is it always hot tea?”

“What?” he says, stopping in the middle of his search for a pencil. “Erm. Yes. Sorry—is—is Joan—not coming in?”

Do not panic. She promised to keep you informed. Perhaps she's supplementing her wardrobe. She could be sleeping in. She would have phoned.

“Lane,” Caroline stutters, “—I—I thought that's why you sent her home. Didn't you hear?”

He can feel his heart pounding somewhere near his throat. His entire body prickles hot in fear. Oh, god. Nearest hospital—they'd have taken her to St. Luke's—he's got to—no, he can't lose her—

“Her husband died. She called me at home—last night.”

Shame whitens his face as the words sink into his head.

Oh.

Oh, my god.

He's staring at the abacus on his desk, unable to say anything, because the first thought in his head is monstrous—thank god it's not the baby—and sinks into his chair, completely stunned.

“Gosh,” Caroline says, breaking the silence, “you look terrible. I didn't mean to shock you. Let me bring you some water.”

She's placing a half-full water glass onto his desk once he finally trusts himself to speak.

“I thought it was about the baby,” he breathes, then realizes, half a second later, that he has said these words aloud. Jesus Christ. He's done the one thing he promised not to do—god damn it!

Caroline's covering her mouth with both hands, blue eyes wide in disbelief. Lane realizes his own mouth is hanging open, that he hasn't spoken in too long. Panic wells in his throat.

She speaks first, lowering her hands. “Joanie's—?”

“Shut the door,” he rasps out, waving an arm toward the occupied hallway in a frantic motion. They'll hear it. They'll hear it. Caroline obeys wordlessly, and after she does, turns and walks slowly back toward his desk, standing a few feet in front of it, wringing her hands, and pressing her thin lips together as if trying to keep herself from crying.

No one can know,” he hisses, forcing himself to look the older woman in the eyes, frantically trying to make her understand. “Do you hear me? Not Roger, not the partners—no one.

“I understand,” Caroline blurts in a high voice, nodding her head once, the motion small.

Lane feels he's got to come up with some kind of story, and so he keeps talking, very quickly. “Joan—didn't want her condition to affect her—standing—she's got to work, now, you see—it's why she went home yesterday. She was ill. That's why she—told me.”

Don't say anything else. Don't say another word. Don't look at her. She'll see the truth in your eyes. He's pouring sweat now, his hands are shaking—god, he doesn't deserve to be in Joan's confidence—how could he have said something so bloody stupid?!

Caroline clears her throat, causing him to look up. She's standing as tall as her matronly five foot frame will allow: hands clasped tightly in front of her stomach, mouth set in a line. When she speaks, it's as if she's trying to channel Joan herself. The words are careful, as if she's trying to censor herself, and almost—but not quite—calm. “You don't know me. And I know you didn't mean to say....the...thing you said. But I can tell Joanie's your friend—a-and I'm sure you were just trying to help her. Yesterday.”

Help. The word's almost hilarious. He has done his best to be present for Joan, to ease her stress now that she's the mother of his child, but he is positive it isn't enough. He can never do enough to take care of her.

“I promise I won't say a word,” Caroline finishes, and it is a testament to her quiet earnestness that he actually believes this, that a bit of the weight eases in his chest.

All he can do is nod his head yes. After a moment, Caroline lets out a heavy sigh, ambling over to the credenza. She gestures to his china teapot and picks it up with a smile that's more like a grimace, as if she's attempting to set the room to rights by getting back to some kind of routine.

“You want some hot tea? I'll bring you the water. I guess I should boil it.”

**

The partners' meeting would have been a tense affair no matter what. Caroline is comfortable enough leading the table in business discussion, but not as deft as Joan, nor as able to rein in the other partners when discussion inevitably become unruly. The only men she's able to deflect with constant ease are Roger and Bert, and it's only, Lane thinks privately, because she's so deeply familiar with their peculiarities, not because she's socially gifted. Then he feels uncomfortable criticizing her in light of this morning's terrible slip, and decides he ought not to talk at all.

He's staring at the spreadsheet in front of him, wracked with guilt and waiting for the meeting to be over, when Bert Cooper clears his throat, causing Lane to look toward the head of the table. The old man is leaning back in his chair, hands folded over his stomach.

“Before we go, there is a personal matter we ought to discuss among the partners.”

“...Off the record?” Caroline asks, after a long pause. Judging from the anxious glance she gives Cooper, it seems this is going to be about Joan's loss.

“Regarding Mrs. Harris, yes,” Cooper says, gesturing for the woman to put away her notebook. “For those who are unaware, her husband was killed in action earlier this week.”

Roger, in the midst of lighting a cigarette, freezes with his lighter halfway to his lips. “Jesus.”

Pete and Don exchange a sort of unhappy look which Lane can't decipher, before Pete sits taller in his chair, steepling his hands against the table as if preparing to make some kind of speech.

“What about her condition?” he says, prim voice quiet, and matter-of-fact. “Are we going to speak about that, too?”

Caroline gasps. Lane feels himself go pale. Roger's mouth has fallen open, and the cigarette he meant to put back to his lips is barely hanging from his fingers, shedding ash onto the table.

“Pete,” Don says tersely, giving the young man a glare, “Not the time.”

“I'm sorry, Don,” Pete replies, his pale eyes sweeping around the rest of the table, “I know you don't agree, but I feel it's in the agency's best interests if we address this issue now.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Roger asks loudly, glaring at Pete and Don as if they're playing a practical joke on him.

Cooper is silent, eyes flicking toward Lane for the briefest second before returning to the rest of the group. Lane feels anger and terror grip his stomach in a vice. Despite the fear, when he finally speaks, his voice is forceful and clipped. “Caroline—please excuse us.”

Casting him an apologetic look, she rises from her chair and exits the room, so quickly she forgets to take her stenography pad with her.

“Joan's expecting a child,” Pete announces to the table before the door even closes, as if he's reading the weather forecast. Then, to Roger, in a voice so superior it makes Lane's skin itch with anger. “Did you really not notice? There were several signs.”

“Shut up!” Roger retorts, flushing a dull red. His cigarette has fallen to the table, forgotten.

“She didn't want any of us to know,” Don growls, with an unhappy look at Campbell. Lane realizes he must have figured out her condition, as well. They must have spoken about it before. “It's not our business.”

“I believe it is,” Pete says. “Joan is part of our business atmosphere. Her condition affects all of us. Clients will see her. They will interact with her.”

“She's not a piece of furniture, for Christ's sake!” Lane snaps, before he can control himself. “Her work is essential!”

Roger gestures to Lane with an outstretched hand, as if to tell him well said.  It's very off-putting. “You hear that, Campbell? Least someone in this room's making sense.”

“Roger, it's an unnecessary risk! She'll scare men away. She'll be in delicate health—are we going to let her go into labor in the lobby?”

Under the table, Lane is clenching one of his hands into fists.

“Jesus,” Don retorts, glaring at Pete as if the younger man's lost his mind, “what do you want to do, fire her? Her husband died. Can you even imagine what that's like?”

“Don,” Pete counters, looking aghast at the other man's temper, as if the spoken truth is beyond offensive, “I'm merely suggesting she be put in a less visible role—”

“I suggest you shove it up your ass!” Roger shouts, jumping to his feet as if he's going to leap across the table. Don moves between Roger and Pete immediately, voice booming, physically pushing Roger toward the glass doors with one hand, and gesturing toward Pete with the other, which is clenched in a pointed finger. “Take a walk!”

Roger and Don disappear into Roger's office amid a small scuffle and loud cursing, the wooden door slamming closed behind them, so hard Lane can practically feel the vibrations even in the conference room. Pete storms out in the other direction, past Joan's office, as if he's just been thrashed on the primary school playground and wants to preserve the last of his remaining dignity.

Lane's clenching his jaw so hard he tastes blood, turning to Cooper, who's watching everything with an amused detachment, mouth pursed into a slight smirk, as if he's in the middle of a matinee. This is more offensive than any display of temper Lane could have witnessed or instigated, and it's what finally prompts him to speak.

“Joan is a very valuable member of this agency,” he begins in a low voice, meeting Cooper's gaze across the table. “She is fluent in nearly all matters of the business, from the social and secretarial to the financial. To purposefully lessen her role in this company would be an unmitigated disaster. We cannot do what she does.”

“I understand you and Mrs. Harris have a cordial relationship,” Cooper replies calmly.

“This is not about our relationship, goddamn it!” Lane shouts, finally losing his temper, getting to his feet to pace in front of the table. “This is about her role as the primary provider for an innocent child! Do you propose we punish that child for his father's mistakes? Shall we punish her for performing at a level of excellence unmatched by any woman in this office? She deserves to be in this agency, she deserves a permanent place despite her current condition, and your attempt to roust her out, less than a day after being widowed, is shameful!

The echo bounces off the windows and seeps throughout the silent room.

Cooper's first reaction is to raise his eyebrows at the outburst, as if only mildly surprised by the passion behind it. Lane can't even look at the man anymore, and storms out of the room, clipboard in hand. Secretaries and junior staff are gathered in the hallways, attempting to eavesdrop, faces eager and curious, and Lane pushes past all of them with a growl of frustration, heading straight for his office.

When he enters, Caroline is standing to the right of his desk, a slip of paper in her hand, arm outstretched, as if she were about to drop it off. She cringes noticeably as he storms in, as if he's going to start throwing things in her direction.

“What?” he snaps.

She purses her lips, proffering the paper in his direction. “Joan left a message with the service for you—last night. Girls forgot to put it on your desk.”

Lane snatches the paper from her, barely glancing it over before his decision is made. “I shall be leaving for the day. Have Clara clear my schedule.”

“Okay.”