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by Kim Venkataraman
There’d been a time when she believed the frenzied pinching and squeezing of breasts over a sweater, as open mouths pushed and searched, was a sign of true passion. Not love; she knew love took time. But somehow she was sure that the frantic groping revealed an unspoken depth of emotion. Now Jean cringed to think she’d been so naive. Realizing how much that belief had shaped the path of her life—even if it was a life she loved—had become something else she couldn’t bear to think about.
Umbrella, sunglasses, beach chair…Jean ran through the list in her head as she drove. She had yet to take Jay to the beach without forgetting something. “You have done this before, dear, haven’t you?” was her mother-in-law Francie’s comment yesterday, when she’d forgotten his lunch at the cottage. Towels, pail, and shovel…“Shit.”
“Nothing, Jay.” She’d left her magazine on the kitchen table.
Thankfully, Francie was playing bridge today and Jean was meeting friends at the beach, so she didn’t really need the magazine anyway. As she parked the station wagon, something like a prayer ran through her mind. Relax, enjoy the day, think good thoughts. As she got out of the car, peeling her thighs off the sticky vinyl seat, she fought the nausea that rose in her chest.
“Come, love, get your bucket.” Jean ran her hand over her stomach, which felt noticeably tighter against her cover-up than it had last week.
Jay had already climbed out of the car and was eyeing the beach. “You bring it, Momma! I see Michael.” He started to run toward the sand.
“Stop! Wait for me.” With a heavy bag on each shoulder, she leaned over to get the chair and felt a strong twinge. Her breath caught. Slowly she straightened and took a deep breath, searching for any sign of the pain. Sighing, she began dragging her chair toward the dunes. Suddenly, without warning, she felt her stomach heave, and she dropped the bag on the ground. “Come with me!” she called out to Jay, rushing toward the front door of the club.
“Momma! Don’t go!”
“Jay, come!” She covered her mouth with her hand, hoping she made it to the toilet in time.
Following her inside, he yelled, “I’m not going in the mommies’ bathroom!”
Jean could hear him crying in the hallway as she pushed open a stall door and fell to her knees. She retched again and again, feeling the sweat on her forehead and fighting the urge to rest her head on the toilet seat, wondering how there was anything left inside her to throw up.
“Malcolm isn’t even going to make it up here next week—” Shirley said.
“Well, Doug had to cut his vacation short by two whole days,” Tess interrupted.
The five women sat in their low beach chairs, chatting as their kids dug holes and jumped over the waves that broke and slid over the sand. Jean stopped herself each time she noticed her hand was on her stomach.
“How are you feeling?” Gladdy asked her.
“Great! I managed to eat a couple crackers this morning, and I threw them up as soon as I got here.”
“That is great,” Gladdy said, reaching out to rub Jean’s arm. “Morning sickness is always a good sign.”
Jean couldn’t meet her gaze and looked toward the water, knowing that sometimes good signs didn’t matter at all.
“I know,” Shirley went on. “I mean, they work so hard—”
“Richard doesn’t work all that hard,” Barb interrupted with a laugh.
“Well, Doug’s in line to be Division Manager,” Tess responded quickly.
“Oh, I know, I know. Our husbands all have important jobs. All I’m saying,” Barb waved a cigarette as she spoke, “is that Richard spends his days talking with adults, having martini lunches, and coming home to put his feet up. He’s not driving a carload of maniacs to preschool, nursing a colicky baby, or potty training a strong-willed toddler.”
Jean laughed and noticed that not all of the women did.
“Seriously, there are days I think about pushing him out of the way, and running to his life and leaving him with mine.” Barb laughed loudly, but Jean watched her stare up at the sky and wondered if the others could hear the sadness underneath her words. For what felt like the hundredth time in the last month, Jean found herself thinking about the dreams—the plans—she’d had in college. Back then she’d known she was going to be an English teacher, maybe even a professor. But somehow, she was now a wife and mother. It was a life she loved, most of the time, and yet she was still surprised sometimes to find herself living it.
“Well, Jean, your Bill is just the sweetest,” Tess said.
Jean must have looked perplexed.
“I’m talking about your surprise party last summer, silly! The food from Roberto’s was amazing, of course, but the music trio? And all the lanterns around the lawn? I mean, honestly, it was just the most magical night. And he really seemed to surprise you.”
“Mmm, that was a surprise,” Jean said, pushing herself up to stand. “I’m going to see if Jay’s ready for a snack.” And she walked down to the water’s edge, not wanting to remember the “sorry you had a miscarriage when I was away on business” surprise birthday party.
“Ouch, Momma! Ouchie!” Jean knelt awkwardly next to the tub, trying to dry Jay quickly. The tile was killing her knees.
“Shh! You’re fine,” she said, knowing her mother-in-law could probably hear from downstairs. Roughly, she turned Jay around to dry his back and saw the bright red sunburn on his shoulders.
“Momma!” he wailed.
“I’m sorry, love.” She gently kissed his head. “I have some special lotion we can put on to make you feel all better.”
“No! It’s pink!” he shouted as she spread the calamine on his shoulders.
“This is the lotion big boys use,” Jean said, wondering if it would actually help, but it was all she could find in the medicine cabinet. With any luck, the redness would be gone by morning, before Francie could ask whether Jean had forgotten to put sunscreen on him.
Later that evening, the sound of a car door closing roused Jean out of a daze. Bill came into the living room and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “How’s my girl?”
“Good. How are you?” Jean’s eyes were burning, she was so tired, but she’d managed to keep herself from falling asleep until he arrived.
“Hello, Mother,” he said, turning to kiss her cheek as well.
“My poor William,” she said, closing her book. “Working your fingers to the bone and then driving all the way—”
“I’m fine, Mother. The traffic was a bit heavy tonight, but my fingers are just fine.” He looked at Jean and winked.
“I saved a plate of chicken à la king for you. Althea did quite a nice job with it.”
“Thanks, but I stopped for a bite in Portland. I want nothing more than to crawl into bed. Come,” he said, reaching out his hand to Jean. “How’s Jay?” he asked as she stood.
Jean smoothed Bill’s hair back, just wanting to touch his face. “He’s good.”
“And Little Bean?” he asked as he followed her into the hall.
“Good.” She paused. “Little Bean is good too.”
Every summer Jean is reminded of how oblivious she was the first time she visited the island with Bill in college. She still feels like an outsider, but she’s slowly learned the rhythm of the island, the personalities, and the shared history that everyone seems to cherish. Now, she knows that the man who’s always wearing the same frayed plaid shirt is the founder of a drug company and could probably buy and sell everyone on the island. And the family with the rusty old Packard owns a huge property with three massive homes. Not all the “cottages” are as big as Bill’s family’s summer house, but the families that spend the summer on the island don’t build additions with spacious bedrooms and modern bathrooms, even though they could. They drive ancient, beat-up cars and use the same threadbare beach towels, not because of a lack of money—or taste—as she’d first thought. It was more like a pride of tradition—an embracing of rustic life on an island in Maine, even if it was only for a few weeks each summer.
And the Club was a perfect example of this. It looked like a weather-beaten motel with a dirt parking lot. There wasn’t even a sign on the building, as if everyone was just supposed to know it was the “Chapman Island Golf and Swim Club” or, as everyone called it, the Club. Her first visits there had been late-night parking sessions in a secluded spot by the dunes in Bill’s parents’ car. Now it was just the place that every summer family belonged to, whether they played golf or tennis or not. It was where the ladies lunched, the kids took swimming lessons in the concrete pool next to the beach, and the men lingered over scotch and cigars after a round of golf.
One afternoon a few days into Bill’s vacation, after a morning spent at the Club beach, Jean convinced Jay to “play school” on the sunporch, promising him he could be the teacher. She’d learned that if she gave him a book to “read” to her, he’d let her stretch out and close her eyes while he talked.
Half dozing, Jean heard Bill return from golf and walk into the sunroom.
“Shh, Daddy. This is school and Momma’s learning.”
With her eyes closed, Jean could picture Bill taking in the scene of her stretched out on the daybed.
“No! Don’t sit there. Momma said we can’t because it’s ripped.”
Bill laughed. “Well, it sounds like it’s time to replace this old furniture.”
“Mmm, sure,” Jean said, keeping her eyes closed. “We’ll buy new furniture for the porch and maybe repaint the living room while we’re at it.”
The cottage—which was actually a five-bedroom sprawling house with three fireplaces—was now officially theirs. Bill’s father had died two years ago, and part of settling his estate involved transferring ownership of the cottage to them. So this was the first summer that the cottage was “theirs,” but in reality it was still very much his mother’s. She was in the master bedroom and it still felt—in every way—that the house was hers. Jean wouldn’t think of moving the percolator to another spot on the kitchen counter, let alone change anything.
“No, seriously. You should,” Bill said.
Jean opened her eyes. For a moment she imagined feeling at home—comfortable—in the place where they spent so much time. She didn’t really care that much about how it was decorated, but the thought of not feeling like a stranger in the house was nice to think about.
“It’s our cottage now; we should do what we want.”
“No, it’s not. Well, it is…” she said when she saw the look on his face. “But it’s still your parents’ house. I mean as long as your mother…” She let her voice fade away.
Bill’s face was flushed from sun or whiskey, or both. He smiled gently.
“I know it doesn’t feel like it’s really ours yet,” he said, “but we should live like it is. I say pick out whatever you like, and we’ll make it happen.”
“Pick out what and you’ll make it happen?” Francie asked from the doorway.
Startled, Jean didn’t say anything. When she didn’t respond, Bill said, “We were just saying that it’s time to get some new furniture out here.”
“Really?” Francie said loudly, drawing out the word. Her face held her signature look of shock combined with indifference, as if she was astounded yet somehow couldn’t be bothered to really care. Jean always wondered how she managed it.
“I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with the furniture. A decorator from New York chose it—and the fabric—especially for this room, and I can tell you it was not inexpensive.”
“Yes, Mother, but that was ages ago and the cushions are faded and torn.”
“Well, I don’t see how there’s anything wrong with the furniture—”
It was Jean’s turn to interrupt. “Maybe just the cushions could be replaced, or recovered.” She watched their faces and immediately regretted saying anything.
“I suppose I could fit in a trip to Bath. Beckman’s usually has some decent fabrics, and they might even have something like this yellow chintz. If Althea can watch Jay, we could go together, maybe Thursday morning after golf.” She looked at Jean.
In the moment Jean took to respond, she looked at Bill, his unfocused gaze and half-hearted smile telling her that he’d lost interest in the conversation. She wondered why she’d been foolish enough to believe that anything would be different. Jean smiled. “If Althea will take Jay to his swimming lesson, I’d love to go with you.”
The drive to Bath took nearly an hour, and Francie drove in a way that Jean thought of as not exactly cautious, but methodical. She seemed content to take her time as cars pulled out in front of them and hurriedly passed. Francie held the top of the steering wheel with both hands, constantly tightening her grip and shifting her hands as if she was kneading it. Watching her distractedly, Jean realized she was speaking.
“The wicker on the porch was some of the first furniture Gerald and I bought together.” Francie glanced at Jean. “The decorator picked everything for the living room and the dining room, too. That was the summer the cottage was finished. It had taken two years to build, and I was almost nine months pregnant with Bill.”
“I’m sorry, Francie, we didn’t …”
“Oh, Jean, I understand.” She took one hand off the wheel and waved her fingers. “I really do. Those faded old cushions need to be replaced; I know that. And I’m so happy that the cottage is now yours and Bill’s—it’s the way it should be.”
Jean could see her eyes filling.
“It’s just that sometimes I can’t believe how fast the time went. It feels like just a few years ago, Bill was Jay’s age, and we had everything ahead of us.” She shook her head and wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t apologize.” Jean didn’t know what to say. Her mother-in-law had never opened up to Jean about anything before.
“You know that saying, that you should pay attention, so life doesn’t pass you by?”
She glanced over and Jean nodded.
“I paid attention, I truly did!” Francie’s voice grew louder, and she continued to knead the steering wheel. “I treasured my life, and yet…”
She paused for a long time, and Jean wondered if she was going to say anything else.
“I still can’t believe how quickly it all went by.” Jean reached out and squeezed her arm.
They rode the rest of the way in a silence that was more companionable than Jean ever remembered, but she kept thinking about her conversation with Bill the night before. She’d been walking back upstairs to make sure that Jay had fallen asleep when she heard someone in the study. Looking in, she saw Bill standing in front of the desk talking on the phone. He spoke quietly, then laughed. He continued talking, his voice hushed.
“Yes, me too,” he said. “Of course, I’ll be there.” He said something else then hung up and turned around.
Jean could see—or sense—his surprise when he saw her. “Oh, hello, love.”
“Who was that?”
Bill came and put his arms around her. “What? Oh, that? Work. Kenneth needed to talk about a deal that’s heating up. Has Jay gone to bed?”
She nodded silently.
“Good. I’ll get a drink and we can sit on the dock. I haven’t had any private time with my bride in a while.”
Jean didn’t respond as they walked toward the living room.
“Would you like something? A cup of tea?”
“No, I’m fine,” she said.
Jean watched him, waiting for his words to provide their familiar comfort.
Walking into the store, Jean was surprised to find a huge selection of fabrics on racks and standing on rolls in barrels. As they scanned the room, Francie asked, “So what do you think? Do you want to look at the chintz?”
Jean smiled. “Sure, that’s fine.”
Her mother-in-law put her hands on her hips. “If you could pick any fabric, anything at all, what would you choose? Quick, without thinking too much about it.”
“A stripe.” Jean felt as surprised as her mother-in-law looked to hear herself speak her mind.
“A stripe…” Francie said.
“Yes, a wide navy blue and white stripe,” she said trying to sound confident.
“How would that look with the green furniture?”
“Actually, I was thinking that if the furniture was painted white, with a few red accents in the room, it would look bright and sort of nautical.” Her mother-in-law gazed distractedly across the store, and Jean began to regret saying anything.
“I think,” Francie said, looking at Jean, “that’s a wonderful idea. Shall we buy some white paint on the way home? It will give Bill something productive to do.”
It’s not like she’d never worried about Bill having an affair—what wife hadn’t? And it wasn’t just that he was handsome and outgoing. His work involved lots of nights out with clients and frequent trips. The few times she’d questioned him about where he’d been, he was quick to reassure her. He seemed to find the idea of her being jealous to be amusing, if not ridiculous. But in the last year, there seemed to be more nights out, and she wondered if there was a growing distance between them, or if what she was feeling was just an occasional, vague dissatisfaction with her life. But then Bill would come home and be charming and affectionate, and she’d know she was overreacting. Long ago, he could have had any girl he wanted, and he’d chosen her. But it still didn’t keep her from remembering the phone call.
A few days later, Jean was painting the sunroom furniture on sheets spread out on the side lawn. She’d insisted she felt like doing it, so Bill had carried the chairs and side tables outside for her before going to play golf. Even in the shade it was hot, and she hadn’t realized how long it took to paint wicker.
Gladdy stopped by, and Michael and Jay ran down to throw rocks into the water. Gladdy stretched out on the grass. “My, aren’t you a handy one! Couldn’t you have told Bill to do this?”
“I actually like it,” Jean said, “but I’m ready to take a break.” She set the paintbrush on the can and sat down next to her.
Jean told her about the shopping trip with Francie, adding, “I felt like something changed between us. I can’t really describe it, but it was like she was real with me. For the first time.”
Gladdy seemed to be thinking. “That’s good.”
Jean decided to be done with painting for the day, and they walked down to the patio to watch the kids sitting in a dinghy tied to the dock, pretending to row.
They were still sitting there when Bill got home. “Ladies,” he said, smiling as he crossed the lawn.
He bent over to kiss Jean, and he smelled of scotch and cigars and a day in the sun.
“Would you like an iced tea?” she asked.
“No, thanks. We had plenty of refreshments after our round,” he said with a laugh. “You can’t beat this, can you?” He stared across the yard at the boats moored in front of the house and nearby Sheep Island, all of it surrounded by water sparkling in the bright sunshine. “God, I miss this when I’m away. I feel almost like I’m hungry for this view, like I need to soak it in to sustain me when I’m away.” Looking almost embarrassed, he let out a little laugh.
“Of course, you miss this place. This view—it’s part of your DNA,” Gladdy said. “And you have to travel so much. How was Chicago last week? Is it still ‘the Windy City’ in the summer?”
Jean felt herself go cold.
“Oh, you know,” he said, “Chicago is Chicago. Ladies, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shower before dinner.”
Gladdy said something as Bill left, but all Jean could think about was her question. When he was gone, she asked, “How did you know Bill was in Chicago?”
Gladdy looked at her. “What? Oh, I don’t know.” She looked away. “I’m sure you told me.”
“No, I didn’t even know he was there.”
“Oh…” she said distractedly, “I’m sure you must have. I should probably get Michael home before his pre-dinner meltdown.”
Standing, she called down to the kids on the beach, “Come, Mikey, we’ve got to scoot.” As she started to walk away, she said to Jean, “Thanks for the iced tea. I’m sure we’ll see you soon. Oh, jeez, of course, we’ll see you at swimming lessons tomorrow. Michael, come! I’ll meet you at the car.”
Jean didn’t answer as she walked away.
Two days later, Bill carried the freshly painted furniture back into the sunroom. Jean wanted it to be ready when Francie got back with the newly covered cushions. She was just finishing washing the windows when her mother-in-law pulled in, and together they carried them in.
“Didn’t they come out wonderfully?” Francie asked excitedly.
Jean smiled. “They really did.”
“What a great idea to do the stripe, and the furniture looks brand new.” From a large bag she took out two red throw pillows. “I saw these and remembered what you said about some red accents.” She held one out to Jean. “What do you think? If they’re not right, we can get something else.”
“No, they’re perfect.” Jean put one pillow on a chair and one on the couch.
Her mother-in-law reached out and gave her a hug—something Jean didn’t remember her ever doing. “It’s lovely. Well done! I’ll get us some cold drinks. Let’s sit out here and enjoy it,” she said excitedly, heading to the kitchen.
Jean’s back was aching, and it felt good to put her feet up. And for a while they sat and talked, as the sun began to set.
Jay came running into the porch. “I’m starving!”
Francie stood. “Jay, why don’t we check with Althea and see if dinner is almost ready. Maybe there’s something you can help with.”
“Yes, yes!” he said excitedly, bouncing on his toes. “I’m good at cooking!”
“Jean, you look tired. Can I get you something? Why don’t you go lie down for a bit?”
“Actually, I’ve got a bit of a headache, and my back is so sore right now, I’d love to have a bit of a rest.”
By the time she got upstairs, the pounding in her head had concentrated behind her eyes and was keeping time with every step. She swallowed two aspirin and gingerly lay down on the bed. She tried shifting to her side to see if the spasms in her back would go away, but the tightness just seemed to increase. Closing her eyes, she knew that, between her head and her back, there was no way she’d be able to sleep, but she hoped she could at least rest for a few minutes. The next thing she knew, there were footsteps in the hall, and the bedroom door opened.
Groggily, she turned to see Bill in the doorway, outlined by the light from the hall. Confused, she tried to remember why she was in bed. Glancing at the window, she could see the sun had set, and realized how late it must be. She sat up and had to hold her breath because of the sharp pain in her lower abdomen.
“Are you still sleeping?”
“I didn’t realize it was so late.” She struggled to stand. “I need to use the bathroom.”
She ran her hand along the bead board in the hallway, telling herself not to rush. Holding her breath until she was in the bathroom, she was shocked to see what she’d known.
“Bill!” She called out, “Bill!” Her breath was ragged.
He opened the door, and she could only stare at him, feeling as if she couldn’t catch her breath. “It’s happening again.”
All Jean could think was that it couldn’t be real. Chapman Island wasn’t the “real” world —it was a place of endless summer days, and a beauty filled with ever-changing blues of water and sky. What happened here wasn’t real—it was a world where families had everything they could ever want, and more. But the cramps and the blood were real, and she felt sick, knowing she’d been certain this would happen all along. The closest hospital was nearly two hours away, so a call had been made to Dr. Woods in town. As Bill drove, saying repeatedly how lucky they were that there was a bridge to the mainland now, Jean leaned against the car window with her eyes closed, her hand on her stomach.
Why had she let herself be tricked again into being hopeful? From the beginning, she’d promised herself she’d keep an objective distance until she had a baby in her arms, or at least until she knew there was no way the world could betray her again. But she’d forgotten to be vigilant, to block every hopeful thought, ignore every imagined future moment. And so this is what she deserved.
She didn’t answer.
“Jean, honey, are you okay? Are you sure it’s…”
She didn’t open her eyes or respond. The ability to do so was beyond her. If she miscarried—when, she corrected herself—she was done. She couldn’t do this anymore. She couldn’t spend the rest of her life blindly believing. She couldn’t do it anymore.
The doctor’s office was attached to his house, and he met them at the door. Within minutes she was on the examining table, her feet in stirrups, Bill outside in the tiny waiting room. Dr. Woods spent a long time listening to every part of her stomach with his stethoscope, while Jean lay with her eyes closed. Not thinking anything, not feeling anything, but still the tears would not stop flowing.
“Jean…Jean.” She opened her eyes to see the doctor standing next to her. “The good news is, there’s a heartbeat.”
She watched his face, suddenly angry that he’d tell her such a thing when she was losing her baby.
As if he could tell what she was thinking, he shook his head. “It’s too early to know what we’re dealing with. I’m going to run some blood work, which I can get to the lab in Portland tonight. That’s the only way we’ll know for sure what’s happening.”
He called Bill in, and Jean tuned out what the doctor said as he explained the same thing to him. Finally, he said that it would be best for Jean to spend the night there. “You can go home, Bill. In the morning we should know what direction we’re going in.”
Jean moved to a cot in a room off the office and closed her eyes, shaking her head when Bill whispered, “Should I stay too?”
When she woke in the morning, she kept her eyes closed. To be awake was to know, and she wasn’t ready yet. But even though she tried to go back to sleep, she listened to the sounds coming from the office: the phone ringing, the sound of doors opening and closing. A couple of times, the door to her room opened slightly, and she gently breathed in and out, feigning sleep.
Finally there was a knock, and the door opened. “Good morning, Jean. How are you?” The doctor came in, wearing the same pants and shirt under his white coat. She could see Bill in the hallway behind him. Jean leaned up on one elbow, trying to feel the life—or lack of it—inside her, but she could feel nothing but a vibrating emptiness. She couldn’t answer but swung her feet around to the floor and sat up.
“Bill, come in. You mustn’t have had a great night out there on the couch.”
Bill crouched next to Jean and took her hand. She had to fight the urge to pull it away.
“Well, I have good news for you,” the doctor said. “Your blood levels are exactly where they should be. I’ll examine you again before you leave but I’m feeling confident that your baby is doing just fine.”
Jean was trying so hard to block out his words, to brace herself for what she knew he was going to say, that she didn’t realize what he’d said for a moment.
She looked at him. “It’s okay? The baby is okay?”
“Yes, the baby is doing just fine. The bleeding you had isn’t uncommon.”
Jean sat quietly; she could feel Bill watching her. “But does it mean that something…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“There’s no reason your baby won’t be born healthy and strong.”
Bill squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back.
On the drive back to the cottage, Jean felt sleepy and more relaxed than she’d felt in a long time. She wouldn’t have said it aloud, but she was somehow certain that everything was going to go smoothly with the rest of the pregnancy. Watching out the window, she felt at peace. Reaching across the seat, she took Bill’s hand as he drove. He looked at her, his concern evident. “Doing okay?”
Looking straight ahead as they neared the harbor, they saw the island come into sight. It was high tide, the time when the island looked the furthest out of reach of the mainland. But the black asphalt of the bridge—so new it hadn’t yet faded to the mottled gray that the Maine winters would bring—was like a magical line that tied the two worlds together.
Without planning to, she said, “Bill, from now on it needs to be me, only me.”
She kept her hand in his, resting comfortably in its warmth. But knowing that if she needed to, she could take it away. Exhaling, she waited.
“I love you, Jeannie,” he said, the emotion in his voice making it tremble. “And I love Jay and Little Bean, too. More than anything.”
He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. “I know.”