Beth by James P. Hanley
She held Ronan when the only word he could get out was—cancer. Then the details followed: the prognosis, the treatment, the need to rely on his wife and children. Touching his forehead, she whispered she understood, and as the lunch hour was nearly over, they dressed, straightened out the room and left.
Her apartment was on the edge of Greenwich Village, fifteen minutes from the building their company occupied. At work, Beth went to the bathroom to ensure she was safely tucked and her makeup was unmarred. She started to call Ronan later that afternoon, but changed her mind. Feeling nauseous, she got a cup of tea from the cafeteria.
“What’s going to happen now?” Laurie asked over dinner. She was Beth’s best friend and the one of few who knew of the affair with Ronan.
“I don’t know. I’ll see less of him, perhaps not at all. Men can have a relationship with two women but comfort only from one,” Beth said facetiously, regretting her words immediately. Jabbing at her salad, she was in one of her cyclical diet phases and ate half portions or low-fat meals, but her dress size never changed. Beth was attractive at her weight: full breasts, rounded hips and a fleshed-out face that was proportionate, soft and circled by blonde hair.
“Why did you get involved with him? He’s married, fifteen years older…” Laurie paused.
“He’s aged reasonably well and is charming. I respect a man who is focused on success and I even admire his devotion to his children, as perverse as that sounds. We’re so naturally comfortable with each other.”
“I’m not opposed to involvement with married men; it’s one of the few relationships going in, you have an excuse for getting out. Is he good in the sack?” Laurie asked, smiling.
“Yes,” Beth answered seriously, “but not always in the way you mean. He’s a good lover, but sometimes in bed, he’s content to just touch me. Once I felt his hand move down my stomach, thinking he was going to try to arouse me but he wasn’t. He was tracing the shape of my thigh and legs. It reminded me of how a blind man might touch something unfamiliar to feel texture. I’ll miss that. But I’ll seek the solace of work,” she added with feigned profoundness. “I’ll stay longer after five, take on larger projects, and endear myself to the big guys.”
For the next week, she did just that, traveling to clients ensconced in rural corners of surrounding states. During a smooth flight, she felt airsick. At home, Beth went to her doctor and was told what she suspected; she was pregnant.
“Will you tell him?” Laurie asked at a restaurant, leaning over as she spoke, her pale breasts rising over the edges of her red blouse, catching the eye of a salesman at the next table in the final, stuttered words of his closing. She called the move: deploying the forward convoy, a term she learned from her stepfather, a retired Navy Chief.
Beth had thought about that question and was uncertain of the answer. Complicating his life while he struggled with treatment seemed unfair. Would he want to know; would it encourage him? But that assumed she’d have the child, and she hadn’t decided.
On a late March day, the weather was parading its variety. Beginning as a bright, clear day, the rising sun slowed traffic on the interstate with incessant glare. By late afternoon, a frosty wind came barreling down from the north cutting through the warm air and pulling dark clouds behind. She called her father and invited him over for dinner. It was not a natural move, he had not been a part of her life after the divorce from her mother, but as she grew older, he came back, in a measured, deliberate way. Her father had stayed single, and Beth saw only flashes of indistinct women in his life. When he arrived, he looked tired, but with Beth he could muster the sweetness that she felt must have attracted her mother and drew the woman who destroyed their marriage. His form was a contradiction: a wrinkled, scarred face from uneven living; clear, brown eyes set in puffy circles of white flesh; and a gym-toned, slender body. His hair had thinned and his day-old beard was thick with gray.
“Must be something serious to call the old man first,” he said after dinner.
Beth’s movement to the couch suggested he follow. “I’m pregnant,” she said with the haste of a confession.
“Who’s the father; is he aware; what will you do?”
It had always been his habit to ask questions as they formed, stringing them as if he didn’t trust his memory.
“He’s married; he doesn’t know; and I don’t know what’s next.” She answered in staccato form, partially to tease.
“Do you love him?”
“I don’t want to disappoint him. Is that love?”
“I hope you’re not asking me for an opinion on that topic. Like your grandmother with her road test, I flunked so often I’m banned from trying. I can’t picture you with a child.”
“Why do you say that?” Her question was unintentionally defensive.
“Because you’re thirty-two and you’re not mushy around kids like most women.”
She laughed. “How did you draw that grand conclusion about women?”
“When it comes to the ladies, I’m no expert, but I’ve tried to understand you.”
It was true, she thought as he said that. Once, a long time ago, when she described some early teen trauma on the phone, she could hear the scratching of a pencil as if he were taking notes.
He put his arm around her in staggered movements. Because he was not part of her childhood, when affection is natural and spontaneous, he wasn’t often demonstrative, and the unexpected gesture of comfort made her cry. She slipped from under his outstretched arm to nestle against his chest, burrowing as she would under a heavy blanket when the heat was off for hours.
Beth woke the next morning with a sense of resolution: her life should be unaltered, without a baby, without Ronan. As the day progressed, she was less determined and wary of her own decision made in the brightness of a fresh and uncomplicated morning. Nothing in her life had really changed at that point, except that she sipped ice tea at dinner rather than wine. However, she found herself staring at children watching their movements and the interaction between mother and offspring. When she asked clients about their children, she realized she must have done so with true interest; more than before, they asked if she were a parent, sensing a link in her inquiry.
After a trip to Philadelphia, Beth was in her apartment by early evening. She put on the radio before turning on lights. Out of habit, she walked to the phone and listened to the hurried voices on the recorder leaving brief, unimportant messages, always with the ending, “Call me.” At dinner, she turned on the small TV in the kitchen and watched the news, barely paying attention to her meal until she scraped the tin bottom of the microwave tray. Then she shut off all noise. On the couch with her feet tucked under her like a monk in prayer, she thought about her day and about Ronan. She accepted being single. When a man she was once involved with stayed overnight and seemed unhurried the next morning, she found herself getting irritated at the disruption of her routine and freedom. She understood the term with baggage—men she’d known seemed to come into her life and empty their psychological suitcase in front of her, lifting out their neatly-piled delusions and expectations like folded underwear. Laurie had once suggested that she’d gotten in the affair because it was less commitment. But when she was with Ronan, she was, in the beat-up term: in the moment, disconnected from the past, no regard for the future. Now she was left with something of permanence inside her and perhaps the center of her future. In the darkness, she thought more about her pregnancy. How do you decide? How do you weigh the factors; what are they? Did she really want this formless, soft shape inside her; was this a result of clumsy forgetfulness or a vague wish that wove itself into an unconscious plot?
Beth was brushing her teeth when the doorbell rang. The froth from the toothpaste had formed into a bubbly covering of her lips. She wiped her mouth and looked out the peephole at Ronan standing outside the door. He wore a baseball cap and his face was unshaven. His sweater had the worn look of a favorite, saved from being thrown away by a connection to a vague memory. When he took off his cap, she noticed that his hair was thick and unchanged. Catching the movement of her eyes, he said, “It hasn’t happened yet; it’ll soon thin out with the chemotherapy.”
“Then why are you wearing a hat, you never do?”
“To get accustomed, and so people won’t notice when they see my head covered. I get illogical in uncontrollable situations.”
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said enthusiastically.
“I couldn’t have our last time together be the soppy, weepy event it was.”
“I didn’t think of it that way. Is it important that I have this lasting image of you as someone resilient and brave?”
“Yes, I need that. The treatment will age me, and we Irish get wizened with age and illness—dry up into leprechauns.”
Awkwardly, they took half steps toward each other, embracing softly then tightening until their chests moved in the same rhythm of breathing. “I know we can’t make love,” he whispered, “it’s your time, but I want to see you.”
She didn’t correct him. Beth unfastened her blouse while he deftly pushed the button at her waist and lowered her pants over her legs. The palm of his hand brushed against her bare leg, and then he lifted each foot until the pants were on the floor. She knew not to unhook her bra—that was his job. In bed, he stroked her gently until his hands reached her panties and circled the edges of silk.
“I’ll call you next week. If you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m not well,” Ronan said when he left.
When Beth needed her spirits refreshed she’d call Carlos Viveiros and, like opening the windows and doors on an unexpectedly warm spring day, he would come over in a cleansing wind of animation and motion. Carlos was born in Sao Paolo. His mother was Brazilian, and his father, who was Argentinean, fled late one night like a discovered criminal. His beautiful mother did not learn from the mistake and she drew exotic men with mysterious backgrounds who spoke in halting Portuguese with odd accents. She would encourage them to be kind to her son as a way to her heart and bed. As a result, Carlos knew common words from many languages. His English was very good and he learned the meaning of words well but not always their inflection. He accented most words at the first syllable as if speaking in trochee or dactyl rhythm. Carlos was a short story writer and would call Beth when he received no-interest letters from literary magazines, often coming in envelopes addressed in his own script. Beth thought he was never destined to be more than a good writer, infrequently published, his style was too impatient and his imagination exhausted too soon into description and plot. Rejection seemed not to diminish his sweet mood for long or cause self-doubt and introspection. Oblivious was the word she used to describe him. From the beginning they knew a romantic involvement would never form between them; she would not be an adventure, he explained, intended as a compliment for her unpretentiousness and easy acceptance of his theatrical ways. As she often did, Beth asked about his latest relationship. If they didn’t see each other for a few weeks, a change in lovers was likely.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “Her name is Viviana, and I must marry her. How poetic her name will be: Viviana Vivieros.”
“What if she wants to keep her last name, many women do?” She said teasingly. He saw Beth’s wide, knowing smile that recognized the inevitable; Viviana would be out of his life long before talk of marriage began.
After Carlos returned from the kitchen with coffee he’d made for both, she told him she was expecting. With all of his following questions, he never asked about her plans regarding the birth. Beth wondered if the consideration of abortion was too personal, so she posed the question to him: “What should I do?”
He was not surprised at the question. Carlos knew her habit to seek opinions before deciding, but he hesitated in responding. “I’m not the right person to question. I’m a Catholic—that eliminates options.”
She asked him to clarify, “You are hardly a faithful communicant.”
“I’m not a practicing Catholic but I look upon that as a temporary state until it no longer impedes my lifestyle. I indulge myself in the smaller sins and refrain from the mortal ones. It is the only consistency in my confused heritage so I cling to it and will return like the prodigal son.”
“So you vote, no.”
He laughed. “You Americans are democratic about the oddest things. Ok, I vote no. You should marry him and raise the child.” She told him that Ronan was ill and married, and he listened, suppressing judgment. She knew he wanted facts and would not ask about her thoughts. Carlos saw relationships and love as largely unconditional domains where feelings could dominate and dictate, and imagination could elevate interaction even beyond reality, but children were in a different and practical plane where reason, responsibility and religion reigned—the somber adult world he dreaded for himself. In an odd way, his impractical perspective on decisions pushed her to think more about her choices. She wished that romantic love and parental love were as unencumbered as the love she felt for Carlos where the pure joy of his company was without expectation. She suspected that Ronan, who was also Catholic, would react as Carlos did.
But the decision was hers. She wondered if she had to choose soon or in time if instinctive, atavistic feelings would override. She’d heard women say that affection for a child begins when there is the first sensation of carried life. Laurie’s advice was direct, “Get rid of it.” To Beth, these conflicting opinions, Carlos’ and Laurie’s, neutralized each other.
Over the next few weeks, she thought more about Ronan. When they wanted to speak privately and intimately, she called him on his cell phone to avoid his secretary, Mariam Kass, but he wasn’t answering. Impatient to know how he was feeling, she called his work number. She pictured Mariam as Ronan described her—a small, tidy woman, self-satisfied in her efficiency and organization, working diligently at her austere desk with only a picture of her nephew on the edge of her filing cabinet as a mark of possession. “I knew she’s Jewish but I think of her as a nun who has lost her calling,” Ronan once described.
“Mr. McCormick’s office,” his secretary answered without inflection.
“I’m Beth Rains…”
“Oh, hello, Ms. Rains,” the secretary’s voice lifted with familiarity as if they’d chatted before. “You’re calling about Mr. McCormick?”
Beth noted that the woman said about and not for, as if prepared to share something.
“Has he been in lately?”
“He was here yesterday, and a few days ago before that. He doesn’t stay for long. He takes papers and files to work at home.”
“How is he?”
“He looks tired but he’s a private person. He doesn’t share with people.”
Beth disagreed. Ronan was the most open man she’d known. By the following silence, Beth imagined that, beyond the initial hint of warmth, his secretary had reached her limit of courtesy.
“Will you tell him I called?”
“Of course, I’ll leave the message with his wife, Margaret, she often calls on his behalf.”
There was judgment in the secretary’s final words, Beth reasoned later. She had thought little about the wrongness of involvement with a married man, except for the one time she’d asked Ronan if he took Communion. He shook his head as if answering a foolish question.
After the call, Beth stood in the small square room off the kitchen. The spare room was unadorned, with a small chair and bed in the corner. The bare, pale-yellow walls were chipped in spots to show a brown layer underneath. She envisioned a small white crib in the far corner, with a covering sheet of animal drawings and bright padding around the inside rim, and a nearby changing table with saddlebags at each side to store diapers and powders and creams. The images felt pleasant and disconcerting.
When Beth thought about Ronan then, her mind formed images of him—weakened, his hair thinning unevenly. In most imaginings, she saw him held by a faceless woman, nesting her breast against his serene face, and stroking his forehead. At times, she would cry until she fell into a deep sleep; other times, the sadness would drift to anger at getting involved in a directionless relationship, at the loss of days to distraction, at the forming child inside her. Laurie, twice engaged in the last three years, told her that the pain after a breakup was like a sentence to be served, and there was nothing to do but wait it out.
The next morning Beth drove to Ephrata, Pennsylvania, a small town in northern Lancaster at the edge of Amish country. She called Carlos on her cell phone when she stopped for gas. His voicemail always started with a weather report before a request for a message. Carlos, she thought, was the only one she knew who changed his message daily. Next she accessed her own recorder, and was surprised by Ronan’s voice. His words were hurried and muffled. Street sounds made her think that he was calling from a phone booth. “Better… doctor says…treatment working, prognosis not as dire as originally thought…” Inaudible words. “I miss you.” She drove almost unaware of the road, and exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike on to Route 222, turning off the tourist route that continued south then east to the villages with catchy names: Intercourse, Bird-In Hand, and the rows of gift shops and the ubiquitous black buggies. Fields of corn, far from ripe, were cut into squares by narrow dirt roads worn unevenly by tire treads and flowing rainwater. Beth stayed in a motel on States Street just outside of Ephrata and after checking in, drove to town for dinner. Altocumulus clouds spread a gray cover over the night sky and the full moon’s muted glow brightened a circle of the sky like a lamp under a wool blanket. Beth read a magazine when she ate alone, but she was skimming words and pictures without absorbing. She called Ronan on his cell phone and this time, he answered.
“You don’t sound excited,” he said after elaborating on his improvement.
“I’m pregnant,” she said without thinking. Ronan was silent for a long time. “I didn’t plan to tell you, not now. I’m not certain what I will do.”
“Yes, you are. If this child were to disappear from your life,” Ronan paused, “from our lives, you wouldn’t be telling me this.”
“You bastard, you can’t know things about me before I do.”
“Sure I can. It’s like the freckles on your ass, obvious to someone staring, but difficult for you to see.”
Beth laughed at his analogy. “Do you know because it’s a part of you?”
“No, your choice will have little to do with me,” he answered. “You’ll have the opportunity to shape love, to be bound to someone instinctively. Every other form of love in your life has disappointed you.” Then he added, “I need to be a part of this child’s life, somehow.”
Her voice shook: “But not part of mine. I hope you understand that.”
She later thought that Ronan would heal, and after he reflected for awhile, would confess to his wife as a prelude to absolution, as his religion exampled. If she had an abortion, she and Ronan could move on. A child would complicate their lives indefinitely.
At night lying in her room, naked, on top of the thin blanket, she reached down to touch the lower part of her stomach and stroked at an imagined fetal shape floating in a small sac beneath her touch, unstirring and unfelt but connected, a presence, the unintended inheritance. Since the call to Ronan, she thought more about the impact on her life if she delivered. This infant could be the link between the disparate lives close to her. Her father would feel the chance to make amends, to be more a part of her life, independent, blunt Laurie would turn into mush, and Carlos would bring the child to laughter with his flamboyant ways and insist on being called Uncle Carlos, teaching the toddler Portuguese words. But the child was also protection from abrupt change. Ronan was out of her life, at least as a lover. Carlos could impulsively leave for Brazil or chase after some vague inspiration somewhere else. Her father’s failure at parenting might resurrect in a grandparent role and he would retreat. But the baby would come into her life unformed, unencumbered, faithful in its need and reliance, and as a result, a potentially far greater joy.
There was still much to weigh, but as she drove back to her apartment later that day, she considered names.
James P. Hanley, a Human Resources professional, has been published in a number of professional magazines and recently began writing fiction. I’ve had stories accepted by mainstream and mystery publications: South Dakota Review, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Center, Crime Spree, Timber Creek Review, Futures and others.