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Monterey Peninsula, California, 2001
There were nights when Joelle thought she could actually feel the fog rolling in outside her window, cutting her off from the rest of the world. She had trouble sleeping on those nights, and they were frequent during the summer months. She would awaken each morning in the dim interior of her condominium, every window coated in white. She'd moved from Carmel Valley to the seaside village of Carmel two years before, when she was thirty-two and newly divorced, and although she loved the beauty and quaintness of the storybook town, she thought she would never adjust to the closed-in feeling she had in the mornings.
It was more than the fog keeping her awake on this early-June night, however. Joelle turned from side to side in the bed, bunching her pillows up beneath her head, then flattening them again, wondering, as she had for the past couple of weeks, if every twinge low in her belly might be the start of her period.
She had never been regular. Sometimes she could go months without a period; other times she would be surprised by two periods only a week or two apart. The capricious nature of her cycle had made getting pregnant problematic, if not impossible, during the eight years of her marriage to Rusty. The absence of a period would give them hope, which would be dashed when the pregnancy test came up negative. Her failure to conceive eventually led to the end of their marriage. Two years ago, after medical tests had revealed no clear reason for either of them to be unable to procreate, Rusty had told her he'd met someone else and wanted a divorce. Joelle supposed she should have been angry, but in a way it had been a relief. Their marriage had been reduced to one focus, and she was tired of the temperature taking, the urinating on test sticks, the probing of impersonal doctors. The mechanical and regimented nature of their marriage had eaten away at their love for one another.
All the speculation about which of them was the cause of their infertility was answered when Rusty's new wife had gotten pregnant. He now was the proud father of a little boy, and Joelle knew that she, herself, would never have a child.
Laughter rose up from the street outside. Her bed was in the center of a turret, windows on all sides, and the laughter and chatter surrounded her as though the revelers were beneath her bed. Although her condo was a fair distance from Ocean Avenue, the main street in Carmel, tourists sometimes had to park this far from the heart of the village, and she knew that was what she was hearingpeople on vacation, who didn't have to get up and go to work in the morning, and who had spent the evening exploring the little shops and art galleries and eating in cozy restaurants. She pressed one of her pillows over her head and squeezed her eyes shut.
Her condo was one of two in a charming old white stucco house, which had, at one time, been a one-family residence. It was only three blocks from the ocean and Carmel's white sand beach, and from the windows of her second-story bedroom and living room, she could watch the sun sink into the Pacific in the evening, when the fog was not too thick. Her neighbors, Tony and Gary, lived in the condo downstairs. Her relationship with the gay couple was affable and neighborly, and she occasionally ate dinner with them or watched a movie on their big-screen TV, but they were in their twenties, and they had each other. Sometimes she could hear their laughter rising up through her floorboards, and she felt her aloneness even more keenly.
The tourists were getting into their cars now, and the sound of slamming doors rose through her windows and slipped beneath her pillow, which she clutched over her head.
It was no use. She was not going to sleep.
Throwing off the covers, she got out of bed and walked into the bathroom. From the cupboard beneath the sink, she pulled out an aging plastic grocery bag and carried it back to the bed, dumping the contents onto the lemon-colored matellasse. Here were the basal thermometer, the ovulation-predictor kits and the home pregnancy tests, items she hadn't looked at since leaving the house she'd shared with Rusty. She was not even certain what had possessed her to bring these things along with her. She stared at one of the pregnancy kits for a moment, then picked up the box and opened it, slowly and deliberately. She tossed the instructions in the trash can; she hardly needed them after having performed this test dozens of times in the past. Removing the test stick from the box as she walked into the bathroom, she tugged the cap from the absorbent tip and sat down on the toilet, holding the stick in the stream of urine, counting to ten. She feigned indifference as she put the cap back on the stick and rested it on the counter. Smoothing her long, dark, bed-mussed hair in the mirror, she waited out the three minutes, then looked down at the strip. Two pink lines, one in each window. She stared at them. For eight years, she had longed for that second line to appear and it never had. Now, the color was nearly vibrant. And now was the wrong time for a miracle.
Fighting to stay calm, she checked the expiration date on the box. Still good for a year. She opened one of the other boxes, a different brand, because she used to try them all, just in case one test might find her pregnant while another did not. Just to give herself that little modicum of hope. She read the directions this time, following them carefully. The results were the same, though, only this test stick displayed a blue line.
Methodically, she wrapped the two test sticks in toilet paper, dropped them into the trash can, then washed her hands. The reality of her pregnancy had only reached her head, not her heart, and she was determined to keep it there.
"Stay rational," she whispered to herself as she left the bathroom. "Stay calm and logical and " Tears burned her eyes, but she kept them at bay until reaching her bedroom. Lying down on the bed, she rested her hands lightly on her flat belly and stared at the dark ceiling.
This can't be happening, she thought. A bad joke. Wrong timing. Wrong man.
She was fairly early. Early enough for an abortion, at any rate. She knew the exact date of conception: eight weeks ago. Quickly, she blocked the memory of that night from her mind before it could haunt her any more than it already did. She didn't need a pregnancy to remind her of what she'd done.
Rolling onto her side, she thought of going to an out-of-town women's clinic for an abortion. She knew many local obstetricians on a professional basis, since she was the social worker in the maternity unit at Silas Memorial Hospital in Monterey, but she didn't dare go to anyone who knew her. Only eight weeks. It would be easy. Over in a snap. But how could she possibly have an abortion? How could she part with a longed-for child?
Getting out of bed, she walked over to the window and stared into the gray night fog, thinking through her options. Each of them was fraught with complications, some with the potential to hurt other people even more than herself. Eight weeks pregnant. She leaned her forehead against the cool glass of the window. There would be no sleep for her tonight. Only more staring into the fog, more tossing and turning in bed, as she struggled with the alternatives.
But beneath her worry and fear and uncertainty was a vague, yet alluring, hint of joy.
The maternity unit looked entirely different to Joelle when she stepped inside the Women's Wing of Silas Memorial Hospital the following day.
As she did every morning, she walked toward the nurses' station, past the open doors of the patients' rooms. This morning, though, the sight of the women walking slowly through the corridor as they healed and the cries of babies from the rooms held a different meaning for her. In mere months, she could be one of these women. One of the crying, hungry, beautiful babies could be hers.
She found Serena Marquez at the nurses' station and held out her arms to the head nurse.
"You're back!" Joelle said, giving her a hug. "Do you have pictures?"
"Does she have pictures," one of the other nurses said, wearing a grin. "I think she spent her entire maternity leave with a camera glued to her face. Hope you have all morning, Joelle."
Joelle leaned on the counter, her hands outstretched. "Let's see them," she said to Serena.
"We should talk about your referrals first." Serena was beaming, clearly anxious to hand pictures of her little boy over to an apt audience, but motioning instead toward the forms in Joelle's hands.
Joelle took a seat on one of the stools, then read aloud the names on the forms, and Serena pulled the plastic binders containing each patient's medical record from the turntable on the desk. Joelle studied the referrals: two requests for help at home for a couple of single mothers, one case of questionable bonding between mother and baby, one baby born to a cocaine addict, one father denying paternity, one stillbirth. It was a typical batch of referrals for the maternity unit, including the stillbirth. In Joelle's line of work, where she was invited to see only the problems and rarely the joy, dealing with the family of a stillborn infant was all in a day's work. It was never easy, though, and today in particular, when the pink and blue lines were still very much in her mind, she winced as she read through the woman's chart. This was the woman's second stillborn baby. She looked at Serena. "How is she doing?" Joelle asked.
"Not too well," Serena said. "Nice lady. Thirty-five. They lost the first baby and had been trying hard for this one, apparently."
Thirty-five. If she were to have this baby, she, too, would be thirty-five when it was born.
"Why is she losing them?" Joelle asked.
Serena shook her head. "Unknown cause."
"Poor thing," Joelle said. "To go through this twice, with no answers " She asked Serena a few more questions about the woman and her family, then reached once again for the pictures of the head nurse's baby. She glanced from the pictures to Serena, as she sorted through them. Serena's cheeks were pink, and although she had not lost all the weight she'd gained during her pregnancy, there was a radiance about her that Joelle envied. The nurse was twenty-eight, and this had been her first child. Joelle wondered if, while Serena was pregnant, she, too, had experienced the maternity unit in a different way. She didn't dare ask.
She made the mother of the stillborn infant her first stop, noticing as soon as she walked into the patient's room that the woman looked a little like her. She had long, thick dark hair with deep bangs and was more cute than pretty. She looked more like thirty than thirty-five. Her husband sat at his wife's bedside, holding her hand, and her mother sat in a chair at the foot of the bed, her hand resting on her daughter's leg through the bedclothes. There was love in the room, an almost palpable sense of caring between the husband and his wife. That was the difference between herself and this patient, she thought. This woman was married, with a husband who obviously loved her.
"How could this happen again?" the woman's mother asked, a question Joelle could not answer. She rarely had answers in these situations. All she had was the training and experience to anticipate what the family was feeling, and the skill to provide comfort or support. She spoke with them for quite a while, letting them talk and cry over their loss, then asked them if they wanted to see their baby.
"No," the woman said emphatically. "We saw our last baby. We held her and " She began to cry. "I can't go through it again. I don't want to see this one."
Joelle nodded. Ordinarily, she might try to persuade the parents to see their infant, but in this case, she was willing to accept their decision. They knew what they were turning down. She didn't blame them, yet she would stop back later, in case they changed their minds.
She left the room after half an hour, knowing that this particular woman, who looked like her and who had tried hard to get pregnant, would stay with her. Two babies, loved and lost. Joelle thought of the tiny life growing inside her and admitted to herself what she had known since seeing the pink line in the middle of the night: she could not abort her baby.
The hospital cafeteria had been remodeled the previous year with mauve walls and huge windows that looked out on Silas Memorial's parklike courtyard. Joelle stood in the entrance to the dining area, holding her tray, trying to convince herself that the scent of the liver and onions on her plate was tantalizing rather than revolting. She'd selected the liver, along with spinach and a glass of milk, for her lunch. She was eating for her baby, the baby she was going to have, no matter what the cost. Searching the tables for her two fellow social workers, she spotted the men near the windows and walked toward them.
"Hi, guys," she said, setting her tray on the table and taking a seat adjacent to Paul and across the table from Liam. The three of them ate together nearly every day, whenever their schedules would allow it.
"What's with the liver?" Paul grimaced in the direction of her tray.
"I don't know," she said. "Just felt like a change."
Paul Garland handled the pediatric and AIDS units. He'd only worked at Silas Memorial for a year, but he'd had previous hospital experience and had fit in well. Liam Sommers had been the social worker for the AIDS unit at the time of Paul's arrival, and Paul had begged to take over that assignment with such fervor that Liam had agreed. Joelle and Liam had speculated that Paul was gay. He was a stunningly handsome man, always neatly tailored, with stylishly short black hair, green eyes and a sexy crooked smile, and everyone knew he had once modeled for a department-store chain. But they soon realized, especially after meeting Paul's fiancee, that he was quite straight, and that his interest in AIDS patients was born of his compassion for them, nothing more.