When Annabel asked the question, out of nowhere, Kit felt something like relief. It had been bound to come along, and here it was, in the safe confines of a family dinner, passed around the table as nonchalantly as salt.
“Mom, did you ever have an abortion?” Annabel helped herself to more lasagna, meticulously skirting the carrots that Kit had sneaked into the filling. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Of course I don’t mind, honey.” What else could Kit say? She’d raised Annabel and Sam to sing out their thoughts, even at the occasional cost of her own sanity. She couldn’t mind her fourteen-year-old daughter’s question, and really she didn’t mind it, but Mike, less in thrall to theory, might. She looked over at him. He replied with a wink and a grin. This is your crunch, he was saying. Best of luck to you, kid.
Fair enough. Mike hadn’t been there all those years ago. In 1970, she’d been fresh out of Juilliard, making a go of singing at the downtown clubs. Kevin Powers, her Greenwich Village lover, her tweed-and-whiskey writer, fifty years old and much divorced, had shared her agitation at the news that she was pregnant. Abortion was illegal, but he’d known how to find Doctor S.
Kit said, “I don’t mind you asking if you don’t mind hearing the answer.”
“I mind,” said ten-year-old Sam. “How come you make lasagna every Tuesday?”
“I don’t do any such thing.”
“You made it last Tuesday.”
“Last Tuesday you liked it. Last Tuesday it was your favorite thing in the world.”
Annabel put down her fork. “If you don’t want to answer my question, you could just say so.”
“And you could use your head, Annabel. Let’s take a walk before dessert. Just you and I.”
The soft air smelled of freshly cut grass. Stars were popping out above the bloomy trees. Annabel took the steps in a single larky jump, and the fullness of the moment drew around Kit’s shoulders like a favorite shawl. She reached for her daughter’s hand, the way she had on the damp September morning when she’d first walked Annabel to school through a reassuring sea of yellow slickers.
“I guess I know the answer,” Annabel said.
“I guess you do.”
“How old were you?”
“Twenty-two. Old enough to have been smarter. Not to have gotten pregnant, I mean. I counted days on my fingers and thought I could leave my diaphragm in the medicine chest.” She perfectly remembered the bathroom in her old apartment: the floral frills etched onto the corners of the mirror; the way the towel bar turned and clattered when she took off a towel; the shower with pressure that never quit; morning after morning of stark disbelief that her period hadn’t started.
“We don’t have to talk about it, Mom. Really we don’t. You seem uncomfortable.”
“And here I thought I’d struck the perfect tone.” Kit hesitated. “Maybe I’m worried . . .”
“That I’m pregnant? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not having sex until senior year.”
“I know you’re not pregnant. Give me some credit. It’s just —” She dropped Annabel’s hand to link arms with her. “Well, maybe I’m worried that you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night thinking I might have made the same choice when I was pregnant with you and it’s you who might not have been.”
“Oh, we all might not have been,” Annabel said easily. They turned onto Candlewood Lane. They always walked this route: left at their corner to Candlewood, left again on Briar, then up Breezy Hill to Larch and left to home. “The odds against existence are humongous.”
“Odds are only odds. When I look at you and Sam — anyone, of course, but it hits home with the two of you — I’m knocked out by how inevitable you are.”
“Was it a boy or a girl?”
“I asked the doctor the same thing. He touched my thumbnail and said, ‘We’re talking about something half this big. A tiny question mark, that’s all. Don’t hang yourself from it.’ ”
They were walking by the Hammerslags’ now, the grandest house on the block. Fiona Hammerslag had been arrested the week before while helping to block the entrance to an abortion clinic in White Plains.
“I hope it never happens to me,” Annabel said with a shiver.
“I hope so too. But if it does — well, that’s why the Fionas mustn’t prevail. And, honey, no matter what, you can always —”
“I know,” Annabel said, with tender impatience. “I can always come to you and Dad for help. Was he the one? The father, I mean.”
“I didn’t know your dad existed. This was a long-ago and far-away person.” She paused. Better for Annabel not to hear Kevin Powers’s name; fairer to Mike. “Do you want to tell me why you brought this up?”
“No special reason.” She started skipping. “Why do you put carrots in the lasagna? I really wish you wouldn’t.”
The next morning, Kit’s car wouldn’t start. Mike had already gone to his office, so Kit walked four blocks and caught the bus. It had been two, maybe three, years since she’d been on one, and the bleak ads above the windows captured her attention. Condoms. Drugs. Bunions. Low-fat, budget-friendly rice. Then she saw the neon purple letters on shimmering pink.
DO YOU MISS YOUR MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN?
FETUS FINDERS WILL PUT YOU IN TOUCH.
and talk to the son or daughter you aborted.
$2 three minutes.
Disbelief came first, followed fast by indignation. She looked at the other riders to see if they shared her outrage, but no one seemed to notice. She considered speaking to the driver, a stoic fellow with his cap set squarely on the top of his head, but her stop came before she found the words.
She passed a pay phone on Moger Avenue and paused. Then she thrust her hands into her pockets and hurried to Harmony House, the music school she directed.
“Morning, Kit,” Frankie said. “Your phone’s been ringing off the hook.” He passed her a pile of slips.
She gave them back. “Hold all my calls,” she said.
The telephone on her desk, a quite ordinary, white, dual-line console, looked unnervingly soft, like tapioca pudding. She covered it with a paisley scarf she found in her bottom drawer.
That evening, she got a ride home with Lila Breslau, who wore one of those musky scents that made the car as confining as a closet, but there weren’t any ads.
Mike grilled chicken wings. The kids set and cleared the table without a reminder. The sweetness of her life reproached her; her temples pounded out the rhythms of a migraine, and she fled upstairs. She shoved the telephone under the bed, adjusting the dust ruffle over the cord.
When Mike came up to check on her, she told him about the ad.
He unbuttoned his blue-and-white checked shirt but didn’t take it off. He rarely took his shirt straight off. Early in their marriage he’d reminded her of those old men at the shore, wading slowly into the water to get their chests used to the chill. She’d worried that as the years passed this quirk of his would begin to irritate her. But after sixteen years together, that day hadn’t come.
“They think they’re saving the world, so anything goes,” Mike said. “I guess it’s no worse than their pickled fetuses in jars.”
“It is worse. Much worse.”
He sat on the bed and put his arm around her shoulder. He was the one nonmusical member of the family and the one with musical looking fingers — long, tapering, flexible. “Kit. Look at you. This is just what they meant to do, so why don’t you not let them? Call that number and tell them to screw themselves.”
“I’ll call, then. Where’s the phone?”
“Kit, it probably isn’t even a person. Just a stupid recording. One of those dolls that says ma-ma. Believe me, you’ll feel better when you know.”
A shutter opened in Kit’s mind. “It’s not a doll. It’s Kerry.”
“Kerry who would have been. I lied to Annabel. Oh, not a lie, but I knew. Half a thumbnail and I knew. Just the way I knew with Annabel and then with Sam, months before the amnio. It was a girl. She was a girl. Kerry.”
His face compressed the way it did when Sam or Annabel scraped a knee. “You had a name? Even though you knew all along what you would do?”
“She’ll be twenty-three this month, and her mother doesn’t even know the date. No presents, no party, nothing.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
Mike’s voice got unnaturally steady — his dentist-to-petrified-child voice. “Now listen, Kit. You’ve been working too hard. We both have. We’re going to take a vacation. The four of us. Next week. Some nice, warm, do-nothing island. We’ll pull the kids out of school. We’ll just do it.”
“We can’t afford a vacation now.”
“We can’t afford to have you fall apart. I love you. We all do. Have we forgotten to tell you lately? We love you so much.”
She lay back on the pillow that Annabel had embroidered for Mother’s Day. She gripped his hand. “Maybe an island will save us. Find us one without phones.”
She had no faith in the island. Her stomach hurt. She couldn’t stop being afraid.
Neither of them slept. At four in the morning, Mike went downstairs for a glass of milk. He stared at the kitchen phone, a cheery yellow wall model with a thick, spiraling cord that never hung straight. He translated the awful letters into ordinary numbers. 1-900-693-3887. Powerless numbers.
He heard three ascending tones and a polite, robotic voice. “We’re sorry. Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and dial again or ask your operator to assist you.”
He tried again to be sure. Then he went upstairs to tell Kit the good news. The ad was a scam, selling tortured nights but nothing worse.
She shook her head. She worked her fingers around a tissue. “If I called, I’d get through.”
“I have to tell you that you’re being frighteningly irrational.”
“Don’t push me, Mike. Believe me, you don’t want me to call.”
“But I do. It’s just what I want.” He heard a garbage truck grinding outside. “So we can get some sleep, for God’s sake.”
He dragged the phone out from under the bed. He put the receiver in her hand. She knew he’d never been more wrong, but she had no choice. She sighed. She punched.
“Fetus Finders. Good morning. This is Maryjane speaking. How may I help you?”
Kit took a deep breath. “My name is Kit Barnes, and I’d like to talk to Kerry, please.”
“Date of attempted termination?”
“Name of doctor and location?”
“I never knew. Doctor S. We had to do everything in code. Pittsburgh. Not an office, an apartment, number 1401. Isn’t it funny that I remember the apartment but not the street? He had a piano, a baby grand, the middle C was chipped. Yellow daisies that needed fresh water.”
“Ah yes, the good Doctor S. 1970. June, July . . . August. Yes, here’s Kerry. Got a pencil? It’s area 212-982-4492.”
The ordinariness of the number thrilled her. “Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s really all right? For me to call her?”
“Of course it’s all right. You’re her mother, aren’t you?”
When she hung up, Mike exploded. “Kit, this is the cruelest goddamn hoax I’ve ever heard of. This is worse than the pickle jars, worse than those bastards who send dog bones to MIA families.”
“Hoax?” She was picturing curly hair like Kevin Powers’s — red, of course, not gray. A comical chin.
“For chrissake, will you use your head? Of course it’s a hoax. What else could it be? You were six weeks pregnant. It wasn’t even a fetus. Barely an embryo. We’re talking microscopic. It’s gone, honey. Over.”
“You want it to be a hoax.”
“Wanting has nothing to do with it. It is a hoax. What could it be but a hoax? A parallel universe? Come on, Kit!”
“Maybe, or maybe Doctor S. had a garden. Think of the things we’ve planted that were much, much smaller than half a thumbnail, little nothing seeds, and look what they grew into. Maybe all the doctors planted gardens.”
“Kit, dearest, I’m afraid you’ve got to get some help.”
“See a doctor, you mean? I’d like to see Doctor S. and kiss his hand. What time is it, Mike? Is it six yet? I really shouldn’t call before six. Not that I’d mind if she called me in the middle of the night. Oh, Mike, tell me you’ll try to love her as if she were yours.”
At 8:05 that morning she reached Kerry’s answering machine. She’d always thought you could tell a lot about people from their outgoing messages, and her daughter’s words were everything she could hope for — warm but not smarmy, crisp without being officious, and blessedly free of grammatical error.
“This is Kerry Powers on tape. I’m sorry I can’t answer your call. Please leave your name and number and a good time to reach you.”
Kit hung up without leaving a message. She needed a moment to compose herself. “I got her machine,” she told Mike. They stared across a divide that words couldn’t bridge. She tried Kerry’s number again. Already she knew it by heart. The voice on the tape was as homey as milk.
“Hi, Kerry. It’s Mom. Nothing special, I just felt like chatting. I’ll be home until eight-thirty, at the office by nine. Give me a call, honey.”
She kissed Mike on the cheek. Then she went down to pack Sam’s lunch.
“You taking calls today, Kit?”
“You bet I am, Frankie. Especially one. If a Kerry Powers calls from New York, buzz me no matter what.”
The phone on her desk was its angular self again. Cool, neutral, heard-it-all. Taunting her. She hadn’t ached for a call so badly since she was Annabel’s age, in the first throes of love. Her ears craved that ring.
Oh, but she wasn’t fourteen. She didn’t have to sit there panting. She would go to New York.
She took out the Manhattan directory and started flipping pages. And there it was. There, between the cracked, blue covers — there, where she might have seen it on any of hundreds of days:
Powers K 68 Jane 982-4492
If she hurried, she could catch the 9:36 to Grand Central. “A family crisis,” she told Frankie. “Cover for me.”
She called forgetful Sue Alexander to remind her that today was her day to car pool the boys after baseball. She arranged for Spotless Cleaners to deliver Mike’s blazer and leave it in the breezeway. The family had seats that night for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and her time would be tight enough after New York without a stop at the cleaner’s.
It felt like forever since she’d been in the city. The light was bright and hard, proclaiming flat surfaces and angles. She caught a cab on Vanderbilt Avenue. “Jane between Eighth and Hudson,” she said.
“You got it,” said the driver. He gunned it to make the light. “Some kind of weather.”
“Spring is in a class by itself.”
Kit said fall was her personal favorite but there was no denying the beauty of spring.
The driver blew his horn at an indolent white limousine.
“Let’s take Fifth down to Thirteenth, then make the left on Greenwich,” she told him.
“A woman after my own heart. Sure, Fifth. They all want to take Park, but that’s the problem — they all want to take it.”
She was having a little trouble breathing. She cranked down her window. She leaned back and closed her eyes, letting the driver’s words roll over her.
“. . . but whose city is it, I ask you? Are we just gonna hand it over to them? Go ahead, blame it on the Democrats, but it started with —”
Opening her eyes, she recognized the street. “Halfway down on the left is perfect,” she said. “Just behind the orange van.” The house looked friendly and wise in the morning sun. She would never tire of that warm brick face, the smiling windows.
She told the driver to keep a dollar over the meter, and she put the change in her wallet. As she stepped out of the cab, a blind was raised upstairs in Kevin’s study, and then she saw his face, the cloud of hair, the welcoming wave and smile. She heard Kerry at the piano, playing Scriabin, heard the tension in her shoulders; only a week till the recital at Merkin Hall.
The cab peeled off. Kit had the funny, tugging feeling you get when you’ve left something on the seat. She checked. Her gloves were in her bag. She had her wallet and her date book. There was the skinny Graham Greene novel she’d brought for the train.
A breeze nudged her back. Whatever she’d forgotten was gone. She suddenly craved the warmth of her daughter’s hug. She got out her keys and went in.