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Four Near Misses

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One: Purple Haze

This wasn't the first free concert Elizabeth had attended at Harvard. Since moving to Boston, she'd been taking the subway from her campus residence up to the Cambridge campus. Her roommate had told her about the music program. This was the first time she'd seen the Faculty Center performance space so crowded, so early. She'd arrived almost an hour ahead and already the room was nearly full. Peering around the room, she spotted a seat up in front on the left side, not too far from stage. Maybe she'd get lucky.

"Excuse me, is that seat taken?" she asked the people sitting on either side of the empty seat. The woman wearing the orange jumpsuit with the matching headscarf shook her head and went back to making notes in red pencil on the manuscript in her lap.

The man sitting on the aisle stared up at her. His attention made her uncomfortable. "I was supposed to be saving this seat for Belly but you're much prettier than he is. Go ahead. He'll just have to stand in the back!" He practically leaped out of his seat to let her by. Oh, God. She hoped she wasn't making a mistake.

"Thank you." Elizabeth lowered herself carefully into the chair, smoothing her dress into place. She loved the way the slinky green and white polyester wrap dress flattered her figure but she was still mastering the art of sitting in it. The skirt had an unnerving habit of revealing too much at the worst possible moment. "I hope your friend won't be angry at losing his seat."

The man shook his head. "Don't worry about Belly. Besides, you obviously care about the music—getting here so early, coming such a distance."

Now it was her turn to stare at him. "How do you know I'm not a student here?"

He waved a hand in the air. "That's easy. You're too young to be faculty and dressed all wrong for a student. They're all card-carrying members of the upper class so naturally they want to dress like they're from the proletariat and pretend to be revolutionaries."

Elizabeth felt the same way about the political posturing of the student left, but it was unusual to hear someone say it out loud on a college campus. Intrigued, she studied the man, noting his well-worn jeans and corduroy jacket, his unruly hair , and lively eyes. He looked too old to be a graduate student. Maybe he was a post-doc or junior faculty? "You're right. I'm in the MFA program at MassArt." She hesitated, then extended her hand. "I'm Elizabeth Bradley."

He shook her hand. "I'm Dr. Walter Bishop, formerly of Oxford and M.I.T., now just an ordinary working stiff. How the mighty have fallen!" He waved his arms in the air and swayed a little in his seat.

Elizabeth edged her chair away from his and pulled her arms in closer. "So you're not affiliated with Harvard?" He looked all wrong for a businessman. Acted all wrong, too.

"No, I am. I share a lab here with Belly. We work for a company that manufactures...toothpaste," he said in a mock whisper, smiling and winking.

Toothpaste? Really? They needed to get to work on that cover story. Elizabeth changed the subject. "I didn't get a program. There's usually someone handing out mimeographs at the door. Perhaps they ran out?"

Walter reached inside his jacket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper. "Here you go."

She smoothed out the program. "Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello." A familiar choice, but that was fine. Then she read the name of the cellist. "Yo Yo Ma. Seriously? The Yo Yo Ma? The cello prodigy?"

Walter looked puzzled. "Is there another one? He's a student here, you know. Graduating soon, I believe."

Elizabeth had to laugh. Of course, Yo Yo Ma was a student at Harvard. Where else?

Walter began laughing, too. "It's like a different plane of existence here at Harvard University. Surreal, even." He lowered his voice. "It's even better if you've taken a small quantity of LSD. I've timed my dose to peak just as the concert begins. I have an extra tab in my wallet, a little something I cooked up myself, if you'd like to try some. It's very pure, I can assure you."

Elizabeth opened her mouth, then closed it. "No, thank you," she managed at last. "I'm sure I'll enjoy the concert without it."

Walter nodded sagely. "Let me know if you change your mind." Their conversation ended when Walter began staring intently at the back of the head of the balding man sitting directly in front of him. After several minutes, he commenced giving a lecture on male pattern baldness, or androgenic alopecia, as Walter termed it. Elizabeth hid her smile when the subject turned around and glared at Walter.

"Do you mind?" the man hissed.

"Oh, not at all," Walter said, then went on as though the man hadn't spoken. Fortunately, as soon as the dean of the music department appeared and began to introduce Yo Yo Ma, Walter stopped talking.

The two hours flew by. The music was sublime. Elizabeth had never heard the suites played so beautifully. Walter spent the entire concert with his eyes closed, and a small smile on his face.

When the lights came up, Elizabeth and Walter stood and began moving toward the exit.

"It's been lovely spending the evening with you," Walter said.

His wide grin reminded her of the Fourth Doctor or possibly the Cheshire Cat. Suppressing a laugh, Elizabeth said, "Yes. Thank you for giving me your friend's seat." She started to go past him on her way to the door.

"I don't suppose you'd like to have coffee with me, keep the evening going for a little while longer?" Walter said.

Elizabeth stopped and turned around to face him. He looked so wistful that Elizabeth was tempted to say yes, despite her better judgment. The man was decent looking, smart, and rather amusing. But he was also high as a kite, and for her, that was the end of it.

"Walter! There you are." Across the room, Elizabeth saw a couple waving at Walter. The man was tall with dark hair and an angular face, the woman impossibly beautiful, her black clothing a striking contrast to her bright red hair. "We're over here!" they said in unison.

When Walter turned to greet his friends, Elizabeth took the opportunity to slip away.

 

Two: Little Green

How could this have happened? Elizabeth flopped onto her bed and took a deep breath. She was taking birth control. She hadn't missed a pill. Yet, here she was, checking and double-checking her dates, worried sick because she was two weeks late. Walter was out of town on business again, and he hadn't said where. Even if she'd been able to reach him, she wasn't sure if she wanted to. Who else could she talk to?

Most of her grad school friends thought Walter was too old for her or too weird. If only they knew how far out there some of his ideas really were.

Her friendships from school were with girls who had already gotten married and had a child or even two. They didn't understand why she wanted to be an artist. They wouldn't understand or approve of anything about her life now.

Her mother, if she were still alive, would assume her daughter was still a virgin.

She didn't consider Nina a close friend—but Elizabeth knew Walter, and understood him, as much as anyone did. She was certain that Nina didn't judge her for loving him. On the other hand, she might wonder how Elizabeth had gotten pregnant in the first place, especially since she was taking birth control. God. This was so embarrassing! Nina was such a strong person, so sure of who she was and what she wanted out of life. Elizabeth was getting worked up over what the pharmacist would think, and what the salesclerk might say. She worried about everything. Nina would probably think she was being ridiculous. But she wouldn't say so and she wouldn't betray a confidence, of that Elizabeth was certain.

Elizabeth picked up the receiver and slowly dialed. "Nina. It's Elizabeth. Can you come by my place after you get off work? I, I need to talk to you about something. Yes, as soon as you can. It's...it's important."

~/~/~

For moral support, Nina went with her to buy the pregnancy test. It was called e.p.t. and cost her ten dollars, which was practically her food budget for the week. When they got back from the drugstore, Elizabeth set the tiny test tube into its holder and put in the drops of her urine. Two hours, the instruction booklet said.

"How about a glass of wine while we wait it out?" Nina suggested. She pulled two glasses out of the cupboard and uncorked a bottle of inexpensive white wine. Good. The chenin blanc from California. Elizabeth didn't care that Walter thought it tasted like flat soda pop. "Tell me about the project you're working on. Walter had mentioned that you're painting on wood now instead of canvas?"

Two hours and two glasses later, the news was in. It wasn't good.

"At least now you know," Nina said kindly. "And you do have options, Lizzie. You don't have to go through with this if you don't want to."

"I know." The Planned Parenthood she used for PAP smears and birth control did early abortions. She had some savings. The question was, did she or didn't she want to have this baby?

"The decision is up to you. Even Walter would say so."

And there was the rub. She had to be the one to decide, and she had to do it quickly. Elizabeth closed her eyes. It was easy to see how women could just acquiesce and let nature take its course.

Really, the answer should be obvious. Even if Walter asked her, she wasn't sure she wanted to marry him. For every positive, there was a counter-balancing negative. He was a brilliant scientist who couldn't talk about his work. He loved her, and would support her and their child, but he traveled constantly. He was charming, funny, and prone to erratic mood swings. Though he swore he wasn't still using drugs, she was certain he was lying.

Besides, she had plans for her own life. She'd be done with her degree in the spring. She'd already sold several paintings. She was going to move to New York, dammit, the way she'd always wanted, always dreamed about doing. Without question, she believed she had the right to choose that life, and end this unwanted pregnancy.

"What are you going to tell Walter?"

It wasn't the right time, and Walter wasn't the right man. "Nothing. There's no reason for him to know."

 

Three: 16 Shades of Blue

It wasn't such a bad life, being a wife to Walter and a mother to Peter. Elizabeth had a studio of her own, and a girl who came every afternoon to help with Peter so that she could continue painting. They had a lovely little house, even if it technically belonged to the university. She didn't see much of Walter, though that was to be expected. His hours were long; his government work and scientific research were all-consuming.

She didn't know what he and William did in that basement of theirs, and frankly, she wasn't sure if she wanted to. Peter had only been to his father's lab once, when he was about three. He'd begged and begged and finally Walter had relented. When they'd left the house, Peter had been excited, chattering non-stop about what he'd imagined he'd see. When they came home, he was quiet and withdrawn. When questioned about the outing, he insisted he didn't remember, which was peculiar because Peter remembered everything. Walter refused to answer her questions about their day; instead, he snapped at her, insisting that she should be able to see that he was busy, then stormed out of the house. In a way, having him gone so much was a relief, given his mood swings and unpredictable behavior.

"Mommy? When will Daddy be home?" Peter was clinging, as he always did when his father was away.

She gently pried him off her leg and dropped to her knees. "In a few more days, sweetheart." She put her arms around him and gave him a hug. "Why don't you go work on the puzzle you and your dad started? I need to finish making our supper."

It was harder for Peter, of course, having his father absent so much of the time. She watched as Peter returned to the puzzle laid out on the dining room table. It was a 1000 piece puzzle, which would be hard for many adults, but Walter insisted that Peter wasn't like most children. "His mind needs to be challenged."

The puzzle was made by Ravensburger, an old German toy and game manufacturer. It was called "Higgledy-Piggledy House." It was a picture of a three-story house complete with an over-flowing attic and a basement, a carport and a door that led to a tiny backyard. Every time Walter said the words "higgledy-piggledy," Peter would start laughing. When Walter recited the nursery rhyme, Peter would laugh so hard he'd fall out of his chair and onto the floor.

Higgledy, piggledy, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen;
Sometimes nine and sometimes ten,
Higgledy, piggledy, my black hen.

There was no question but that Walter was a wonderful and loving father, when he was around and wasn't in one of his dark moods. He was an inventive and passionate lover, when he was home and wasn't working on some project that kept him up until all hours. There had always been rumors circulating about Walter and other women. She'd not taken them too seriously. Walter's true passion was for science. But now, with him traveling every week, commuting between Boston and Florida, her long-suppressed doubts about his fidelity had resurfaced. Maybe she was just lonely.

The doorbell rang. She was expecting Nina for dinner. Since Walter and William had begun spending so much time away down in Florida, Nina had begun having dinner with them every Wednesday. Elizabeth looked forward to it. It broke up the week and gave her a chance to get to know Nina better, apart from her long-standing friendships with Walter and William. Elizabeth didn't make new friends easily, and she sensed the same was true of Nina.

They had a routine now. Elizabeth made dinner, usually spaghetti and meatballs because it was Peter's favorite, while Nina kept him occupied. After dinner, she'd read him a chapter from House at Pooh Corner, while Elizabeth cleaned up. Then Nina would work on whatever she'd brought home that day from the office, while Elizabeth got Peter ready for bed. Once Peter was asleep, they'd open a bottle of wine and talk.

They settled into their usual places in the living room, wine glasses in hand. Nina liked the divan and Elizabeth preferred to sit cross-legged on the floor opposite her. "Well? Did you talk to him?" Nina asked.

She had and it hadn't gone well. "Yes. He said what I was asking was impossible. That the project they were working on in Florida was too important. Nina, he talked about buying property there and moving us down from Boston!"

Nina didn't look surprised. "What did you say to him?"

"I told him absolutely not. I hate spending the summer in town but Florida is even worse. And there's nothing there but the military base—there's no nightlife, no cultural activities, no libraries or galleries. There's not even a decent restaurant."

Nina took a long drink from her glass and poured the rest of the bottle. "So, you're at an impasse."

"Yes. I don't think Walter will change for me, and maybe it's unfair to ask it of him," Elizabeth admitted. There. She'd said it. It wasn't a bad life—but was it enough?

"You don't have to stay married to Walter if you're unhappy, Lizzie. Walter has made some significant scientific discoveries. His patents will make him a wealthy man one day. He can afford child support and alimony now. I can give you the name of a divorce attorney who will make sure you get what you need and deserve."

"I don't want Walter's money," Elizabeth said faintly. My God. Was she really going to go through with this?

"Besides alimony and child support, he'll need to provide for Peter's schooling at least through four years of college, his medical bills until age 23, and yours, too, for at least five years." Nina had her Filofax out and was making a list.

She was already a single parent five days out of the week. Peter's life would hardly change at all. He'd still have her during the week and his father on the weekends. Elizabeth was only 29 years old. She could do it. She could make a new life, for herself and for Peter.

"I want a divorce. I'll tell Walter when he next comes home."

 

Four: Indigo

It would be over soon.

The death of her son had left Elizabeth with a grief so all-consuming that every day that passed, she had to talk herself out of ending her own life. Only the brief glimpses of the other Peter that Walter had shown her through his window had kept her marginally sane.

The other Peter's father was obsessed with finding a cure for his son, just as her own Walter had been. He thought it possible that the other Walter might succeed. "Belly thinks they're 30 years ahead of us in medicine and computer technology."

But something had gone wrong. At a crucial moment in the experiment, Dr. Bishop had been distracted. He'd looked away and failed to see a critical chemical reaction. Her Walter saw it through the window. "He did it! He found the cure! And he doesn't know it!"

Grief, combined with Walter's passionate conviction that he could save that Peter, had led to an even worse tragedy than what they'd experienced. Instead of being cured, the boy lay at the bottom of Reiden Lake. They'd both fallen through the broken ice. Despite Walter's attempts to save him, the other Peter drowned. Exhausted, Walter barely made it safely to shore.

Sometimes she wished he hadn't.

She couldn't bear to think about what that poor boy's parents would have to endure—their son, taken from them, never to return. Except that for them, there would be no bedside vigil, no grave to mourn over, not even a body to find. There would be no relief for them, just the endless torment of uncertainty.

There was one thing left that Elizabeth needed to do. She stood at the threshold of the rehab unit where Nina Sharp had been transferred. Fearing grave consequences for both universes, Nina had tried to stop Walter from crossing over to save the other Peter. In the attempt, her left hand and arm had been severely damaged to the elbow, requiring its amputation. Walter, Walter. What have you done to us? What have you done to our worlds?

Elizabeth would have gladly given up both her arms in exchange for her son's life, but this sacrifice had been meaningless. Still, Nina's loss needed to be acknowledged. Nina had been very attentive to Peter, to all of them really during his illness. Her kindness deserved thanks as well. As soon as Walter had recovered from his near miss, he had taken off again for Florida, to try to lose himself in his work, Elizabeth supposed. So the recognition of what Nina had done for them, and had tried to do for the world, would have to come from herself.

After taking a deep breath, Elizabeth pushed the intercom button. "May I help you?" The woman's voice sounded strained.

"I'm Elizabeth Bishop, here to see Nina Sharp." Elizabeth could hear she sounded calm and in control.

"Let me check her visitors list." Elizabeth waited. After a few seconds, the voice returned. "Okay. I'll buzz you in." The rehab unit shared a wing of the hospital with a locked psychiatric unit, hence the extra level of security.

When the buzzer sounded, Elizabeth opened the door and walked up to the nurses' station. The secretary, an older woman wearing a light blue scrub top and a badge with her name and picture, glanced up from the desk where she was working. There was a huge rack of charts on one side, many with green flags indicating new orders. "Ms. Sharp is down the hall in room 122." She put up a hand and reached for the intercom. "Wait just a moment. She might still be in therapy. Jerry?" she said, pushing down on the button. "Are you still working with 122?"

"Yep. Ten more minutes," came the reply.

"You heard him. You can wait here or go down to the room. Your choice." The secretary, named Mrs. Eleanor Crump, Elizabeth could see from her badge, looked exhausted. Mrs. Crump sighed. "I'm sorry if I was short with you. It's been a day here."

Elizabeth managed a smile. "Don't worry about it. I'll go down to the room now. Thank you, Mrs. Crump."

The door to Nina's room was open. It was small, with a neatly-made hospital bed and an over-the-bed table, piled up high with papers and books, sitting in the middle of the room. On the right side, there was a small two-drawer dresser and a folding chair. The left side had a door that led into the bathroom. She sat down on the folding chair. Next to the door, there hung a bulletin board filled with get-well cards, including the one she'd sent. On the dresser, she spotted a small framed photograph of Nina and William Bell, and another one of a younger Nina with an older couple, who she presumed were Nina's parents. Nina was an only child, just as she was, but she was having trouble remembering if Nina's parents were still alive.

"Lizzie! You're here. Eleanor told us I had a visitor." Nina was standing at the doorway, accompanied by a tall, very young and muscular man, wearing a light blue polo shirt and tan trousers. "Lizzie, this is my physical therapist, Jerry. Jerry, I'd like you to meet my friend Elizabeth. I call her Lizzie but no one else does," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper.

Jerry turned to Elizabeth. "Is that true? She's the only one?"

"Yes. Usually I hate the nickname, but it doesn't bother me when she uses it." Elizabeth had no idea why. She even made Walter call her Elizabeth.

She waited in the hallway while Jerry put Nina back to bed. "You can do this, Nina," Elizabeth heard him say before he nudged the door closed.

When he opened the door to let Elizabeth back in, Nina was sitting in bed, lifting up her tightly bandaged stump and maneuvering her pillows into place. "Finally." She looked over at Jerry. "It does get easier, right?"

"You're doing fine. I'll see you tomorrow morning." He grinned and gave a little wave.

"I know you will." Turning her attention to Elizabeth, Nina said, "Why don't you bring the folding chair next to the bed. It'll make it easier for us to talk."

Elizabeth did as instructed. She needed to say what she'd come to say and then she could leave. It will be over soon. "Does it hurt?" she found herself saying instead.

Nina grimaced. "Yes, it does. But they have me on a powerful narcotic. Doctors are usually stingy about medicating for pain, but I guess they treat cancer patients a little better."

Elizabeth swallowed. The official story was that Nina had bone cancer but for once, Walter had told Elizabeth the truth. "Nina. I know it's not cancer. Walter told me what really happened," she said softly.

Nina looked surprised, but she recovered quickly. "I see. I'm glad Walter told you the truth. It will make things easier in the long run."

Elizabeth looked away. "I don't see how."

Nina shook her head. "You're my friend—of course it makes a difference. Walter knows, naturally, and William, and now you. I have to lie to so many people—and keep lying, probably for the rest of my life. God, I can't even tell my parents the truth."

Elizabeth drew in a breath. "I am so angry at Walter right now. What he did to that poor boy, what he did to his parents, what happened to you..."

"I've moved past the anger stage, for now." She shifted in the bed, reached over and adjusted one of her pillows.

Elizabeth didn't believe that, not for a second.

"I suppose you know that William has left for Florida. He's gone after Walter."

"I hadn't known but it makes sense," Elizabeth said slowly.

"I think he's afraid Walter will pull a Burt Lancaster, walk out into the ocean and just keep going. You know, like that scene in From Here to Eternity?" she added at Elizabeth's blank look. "No one means more to William than Walter does. Having accepted that, William's departure has left me in a bit of a bind. Once I'm discharged from here, I'll need someone to help me. Insurance pays for a nurse visit and an aide, but they're not going to be there 24 hours a day. My parents can stay for awhile but they both work full-time. I'll need someone to drive me to physical therapy, doctor's visits, and so on, until I'm independent again." She looked at Elizabeth expectantly.

"You want my help?" This wasn't part of the plan.

"I hate to ask but yes, if you can manage it." Nina leaned back on her pillows. "You're the only person I know who works at home and has a flexible schedule."

Her work. Elizabeth hadn't visited her studio since...Peter's illness began.

"Plus, you know what really happened to me. It's such a relief," Nina said, her eyes tearing up a little. "It won't be forever—just until I can do these things for myself."

Nina had been a friend to her and now she needed help. Elizabeth reached for Nina's remaining hand and gave it a tentative squeeze. "I can. I will."

"Thank you," Nina said, letting go and reaching for her box of tissues. She dabbed at her eyes and tried to smile.

Elizabeth didn't feel like smiling. She felt like screaming: at her husband, and at that bastard, William Bell. At God, for not making Peter better. She tried to calm herself. "There is something I need to tell you. You said you're relieved that you don't have to lie to me. Well, I don't want to lie to you either."

Nina went still. "I did say that. All right. What is it that you need to say to me?"

Elizabeth sat up straight and looked Nina in the eye. "I don't believe you when you say that you're not angry. You should be furious—at Walter and William, too. Walter's obsession cost you dearly. It could have cost you your life. And William, so he's not your husband, but he's your lover, and your best friend. He should be here, with you, not down in Florida chasing after Walter, just as Walter should be here with me." She stopped to take a breath. It was all so clear to her now. "You're the victim here, not Walter! Why isn't William here, looking after you? Why aren't they both here?" Her emotions overwhelmed her. The tears welled up and began rolling down her face.

Nina looked sad and worried. She handed Elizabeth a tissue so she could blow her nose. "You're right. Those are good questions and I'm afraid there are no easy answers."

Elizabeth began to cry. "He left me alone," she managed to choke out, "all alone, in that empty house." She began to sob in earnest. Nina sat quietly and let her cry it out.

When she was done with tears, at least for the moment, she blew her nose again. She looked over at Nina. "I'm sorry."

Nina raised an eyebrow. "You've done nothing wrong so there's no need to apologize. And you're correct. I am still angry—at both of them. I vacillate between feeling mad as hell and just plain mad. But I can't allow the anger to get the best of me. There are too many problems to deal with. Recovery time from the surgery is at least four weeks. I've already used up my sick leave, which means I'm not getting paid. I have some savings but I'm probably going to lose my apartment. I might even lose my job." She reached for the nurse's call bell and pressed it.

Nina needed help and somewhere to live while she recovered. Elizabeth had two empty rooms in her house. The solution was obvious. "Nina. You can come stay with me." Nina looked skeptical. "Please, just hear me out."

Nina nodded. "Okay, I'm listening."

Elizabeth didn't know where to begin. "Walter wants to turn Peter's room into a shrine." She hugged herself, shivering. "He doesn't want anything touched, anything moved. I can't live that way. Being alone in that house is driving me insane." Nina's eyes opened wider. "When I first wake up, I've forgotten he's dead. Then I remember, and the pain begins all over again."

Nina nodded in understanding."It's like phantom limb pain. Your mind doesn't want to accept the loss."

The intercom came on."What do you need, Nina?" It was Eleanor.

"Would you please tell Beverly that it's time for my pain pill? I could use some fresh water, too. Thank you, Mrs. Crump."

"I can get you the water." Elizabeth gestured to the bathroom. "The sink is right there."

"Yes, but they say the water isn't any good here. Old pipes," she added, looking thoughtful. "It's okay for bathing but everyone drinks bottled water. Someone is going to make a fortune if that idea takes off."

"So will you do it?" Elizabeth would need to get the house ready. Peter's things could be stored in the basement, but the room would need a thorough cleaning, new sheets and towels, maybe new draperies. The rest of the house could stand some tidying, too.

"All right. Yes." Nina actually looked relieved. This could work, Elizabeth was sure of it. "But what are you going to tell Walter? And William? They're bound to have questions."

Too bad for them. They could both go to the devil as far as she was concerned. "I think we should tell them to stay in Florida." Nina began to laugh but stopped when she saw Elizabeth's face. "I'm serious. I'm going to call Walter as soon as I get home."

There was a knock at the door, then it opened. "I have your pain medication, Nina. And your water, fresh cups, too." The nurse handed her the pill, then poured the water into a cup, watching while she swallowed the pill. "I see you have a visitor."

Nina finished the water and set the cup on the table. "Yes, Beverly, this is my friend, Elizabeth Bishop. I'm going to be staying with Lizzie once I'm ready for discharge."

Beverly smiled at Nina, then at Elizabeth. "That's wonderful to hear. You must be very good friends to take on that much responsibility."

"Yes. We are." Elizabeth looked over at Nina, who nodded and smiled. "We're very good friends."