The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 27

Nearly four months later, on her day off, Frankie pulled up to the Coronado Golf and Tennis Club and parked under the white portico. A valet rushed out to take the car from her.

“Thanks, Mike,” she said, tossing him the keys to her Mustang.

Inside, the club was decorated for Christmas, from stem to stern, as the sailors in the club often said. Fake garlands lay across the mantel, studded here and there with white candles. A live Christmas tree shone with multicolored lights and golf-themed ornaments. Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” wafted through the speakers. No doubt it was a scandalous music choice here.

Several men in polyester leisure suits stood near the fireplace, drinking Bloody Marys.

Mom was already seated in the dining room, which smelled of pine and vanilla. Behind her, the fairway stretched out in an undulating swath of emerald grass.

At the white-clothed table, Mom sat stiffly upright. She wore a cowl-collared jersey dress with a knit beret over her short black hair and long, dangling earrings.

Frankie slid into a chair across from her. “Sorry I’m late.”

Mom flagged down the waiter and ordered two glasses of champagne.

“Are we celebrating?” Frankie asked.

“Always,” Mom said, lighting a cigarette. “I’m walking and talking, aren’t I?”

Frankie took a sip of the champagne and felt a spasm in her stomach, a rise of nausea.

Barely excusing herself, she ran to the restroom and vomited.

Twice.

She went to the sink and drank a handful of water.

She’d been sick yesterday morning, too.

No.

No.

She pressed a hand to her stomach. Was there a slight swelling? A little tenderness?

baby?

But … she was on birth control. Could the pill have failed her? Had she been religious in taking it every morning? She might have forgotten once or twice …

She walked back to the table, didn’t sit down.

Mom looked up. “You’re pale, Frances.”

“I just threw up. Twice.”

Mom frowned. “Are you hungover? Do you have a fever?”

Frankie shook her head.

Mom’s gaze remained steady. “Are you being … intimate with a man, Frances?”

Frankie nodded slowly, feeling her cheeks burn. “I’ve been seeing him for a few months.”

“And didn’t tell your parents. I see. And your last visit from Aunt Flo?”

“I’m not sure. Since I started on the pill, there’s barely … anything.”

“You need to see a doctor.”

Frankie nodded numbly.

“Sit down. After lunch, we’ll go to Arnold. He’ll fit us in.”

An hour and a half later, after an awkward luncheon full of things unsaid, they left the club and drove to the doctor’s office on Orange Avenue. At the front desk, Mom said, “Hi, Lola. I need a pregnancy test.”

The older woman looked up. “Are you—”

Mom waved her hand in irritation. “Not for me, Lola. For my daughter.”

Lola pulled a pen out of her teased hair and said, “He’ll make time. Nice to see you moving so well.”

Frankie clasped her hands together and took a seat in the waiting room.

Moments later, a nurse came out, collected Frankie, and led her to an examination room. “Put on a robe. Ties in front. Doctor will be with you shortly.”

Frankie took her clothes off and put on the robe, then climbed up onto the exam table.

Pregnant. The word kept repeating itself.

A quiet knock on the door, and then it opened.

Closing the door behind him, the doctor pushed the black horn-rimmed glasses higher on his bulbous nose. “Hello, Frankie. It’s been a long time.”

“Hi, Dr. Massie,” she said. The last time she’d seen the doctor, she’d been seventeen, going off to college, and he’d given her a sex talk that was franker than the one she’d received from her mom, but still began with On your wedding night, and she’d been so nervous and uncomfortable hearing about penises and vaginas from an old man that she’d barely listened.

“I didn’t know you’d married,” he said.

Frankie swallowed hard, said nothing.

If Dr. Massie noticed her silence, he didn’t remark upon it. “Climb on up to the table.”

Frankie lay on the exam table and fit her stockinged feet in the metal stirrups. The doctor settled himself between her legs. She stared up at the brightly lit white wall, squeezing her eyes shut as he moved her legs farther apart, scooted closer, snapped on a pair of gloves.

“This will be a bit cold,” he said apologetically, as he fit the speculum up inside of her. He followed the speculum with a digital exam. After that, he stood up, covered her legs with the gown, and came around to her side. Carefully opening the gown, he felt her abdomen, her breasts.

Then he covered her nakedness and stepped back. “When was your last period, Frankie?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

“Are you on the birth control pill?”

“Yes.”

“They’re not foolproof. Especially if you aren’t conscientious in taking them.” He stepped back. “I will run some tests to be certain, but physical indications tell me that you are indeed expecting. I’d say about two months.”

Two months.

“Oh my God … I’m not ready … not married…”

He moved to her side, said softly, “Catholic Adoption Services do a good job of placing babies with upstanding families, Frankie. Your mother will know all about it.”

Frankie remembered a few girls from high school who’d disappeared from class and returned months later, thinner and quieter. Everyone knew they’d gone to a home for unwed mothers, but the words weren’t even whispered, it was considered so shameful. And there had been rumors—once—of a girl from St. Bernadette’s who’d died from an illegal abortion.

Frankie couldn’t imagine either path for her; not because they were wrong choices, but rather because she knew she wanted to be a mother, but not by herself, not as a single woman; she wanted the whole package: a husband, a baby, a family made from love.

She nodded, sat up, touched her abdomen. A baby.

She wasn’t ready to be a mother, and yet, when she closed her eyes, just for a moment she pictured a whole different version of her life, one in which she loved unconditionally and was loved, where her present wasn’t constantly shaded by images of the past, by shame and anxiety and anger. A version where she was Mom.

She dressed and walked out of the examination room.

Mom was in the waiting room, sitting in that stiffly upright way that was her new normal, as if she feared that poor posture could cause another stroke. She looked up, met Frankie’s gaze.

Frankie felt the start of tears.

Mom limped toward Frankie and took her by the arm, maneuvering her out of the office, across the parking lot, and into the Cadillac, where Mom immediately lit up a cigarette.

“You shouldn’t smoke, Mom,” Frankie said dully. “You’ve had a stroke.”

“Who is this boy you’re seeing?”

Frankie almost laughed. “He’s a man, Mom. Henry Acevedo.”

“The doctor who wants to start that clinic for drug addicts?”

“Yeah, Mom.”

“But … since when?”

“Your Fourth of July party.”

She smiled a little. “A doctor. Okay, so you and Henry will get married. A quiet ceremony. The baby will be premature. It happens all the time.”

“I don’t have to get married, Mom. It’s 1972, not 1942.”

“Are you ready to raise a child by yourself, Frances? Or to give it away? And what will Henry say about that? He strikes me as a good man.”

Frankie felt tears roll down her cheeks. If only this were a different life. If this were Rye’s baby and they were married and ready for children.

What will Henry say?

The wrong man. The wrong time. “I don’t know.”


In the four days since Dr. Massie had called with confirmation of the pregnancy, Frankie’s anxiety had increased daily. The phone in her kitchen rang often; Frankie didn’t answer. She knew it was probably her mother, worrying about her, but she had no idea what to say in response.

Henry knew something was wrong, too; he kept asking her why she was so quiet.

She didn’t know what to say to him, or to herself, or to anyone for that matter. So, she just kept moving, got up, went to work, did her job, and tried not to think about the future that was suddenly frightening. Now she was in OR 2, readying to assist on her last surgery of the shift. Christmas music pumped through the speakers.

“Happy birthday, Frankie,” the anesthesiologist said. His long hair was barely concealed by his blue cap; across from the patient, on the opposite side of the table, stood the surgeon, who peered down at the brown-washed, blue-draped abdomen. Bright white lights shone down on them.

“Thanks, Dell.” Frankie chose a scalpel from the instruments on her cart and handed it to the surgeon before he’d asked. The doctor made his incision.

Frankie blotted the blood that bubbled up.

“There it is,” Dr. Mark Lundberg said. “Going in. Tumor. Clamp.”

For the next two hours, Dr. Lundberg excised the tumor that grew in the patient’s stomach. When the surgery was over and the incision sewn up, the doctor pulled his blue mask down and frowned.

“Is something wrong?” Frankie asked, lowering her mask.

“He’s, what, Frankie, thirty years old? How the hell did he get gastric cancer?” He shook his head. “Send it to pathology.”

Frankie peeled off her gloves and tossed them in the trash. Following the patient into recovery, she went over instructions for his care with the nurse there.

Afterward, she studied his chart. Scott Peabody. Elementary school teacher. Honorable Discharge from the Army. 1966. Vietnam. Married. Two children.

She made notes on his chart and dropped it back in the sleeve at the end of the bed. As she walked back to her locker, past the Christmas decorations on the walls, she realized for the first time how badly her feet hurt, and there was a dull ache at the base of her spine. She was, what, a little more than two months pregnant and already she was feeling it? After changing out of her uniform at her locker, she grabbed her handbag and left the hospital.

With the windows rolled down, she drove home, veering onto the new Coronado Bridge with Jim Croce serenading her about time in a bottle.

As she turned onto her street, she saw a column of smoke rising from the chimney of her house, and she remembered that Henry was here to celebrate her birthday.

Twenty-seven.

She wasn’t so young anymore. Most of her friends from high school and college were already married, with children. Ethel sent so many baby pictures, Frankie had had to put them in an album.

She parked on the street and sat for a minute beneath a streetlamp, staring out at the black hump of the beach across the street.

It was time to tell Henry about the baby. She couldn’t handle this on her own anymore. The secret was tearing her up. And the loneliness it caused.

She would walk into the house, open the door, and tell him. She considered how to say it, turned the words over and over in her mind, rearranging them, trying first to soften and then to obscure and even to harden what she had to say, but in the end, it was simple and she just needed the nerve.

She opened the door of the cottage.

The place smelled of roasting meat and browning potatoes. No doubt it was Henry’s special recipe of chicken thighs, potatoes, and onion, browned in a cast-iron skillet and baked in the oven.

He was at the stove, wearing his favorite apron, which read LOVE MEANS ALWAYS HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY, over jeans and a long-sleeved California Angels sweatshirt.

“I’m home,” she said.

He spun around. “Happy birthday, babe!” he said, untying the apron, laying it over the back of a chair. He pulled her into his arms for a kiss. When he drew back, she was crying.

“What’s wrong, Frankie?”

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

His gaze searched hers. She had no idea what she wanted him to say. Nothing could make this moment what she wanted it to be. He was the wrong man and it was the wrong time.

“Marry me,” he said at last. “I’ll move in here. Give up my lease in La Jolla. You’ll want to be close to your parents.”

He looked so serious, gazed at her as if she were the very center of the world. Exactly how a man in love should look at the woman he adored. “Henry…”

“Why not? You know I’ve always wanted to be a dad. And this—love—it’s a thing I’m good at and you need it, Frankie, maybe more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“I don’t…”—love you—“think I’m ready,” she said.

“This is one of those times in life where it doesn’t matter if you’re ready. I hear it all the time from people: parenthood is a plunge into the deep end. Always.” He looked so deeply, genuinely committed that it stirred her heart, gave her a glimpse of hope. People married for all kinds of reasons, in all types of situations. You never knew what the future might hold.

He was a good man. True. Honest. The kind of man who would stay, grow old with a woman, be there.

And she would need strength beside her for this. She wasn’t strong anymore.

“We could be a family,” he said.

She put a hand on her flat belly, thinking, Our baby. She had always imagined herself as a mother, a mom, but somehow her experience in Vietnam—that baby dying in her arms—had derailed her, planted fear where joy belonged.

She was surprised to find that the dream of motherhood was still there, wispy, uncertain, afraid, but there, tangled up with the hope she thought she’d lost.

It hadn’t come the way she’d expected, or with the man she’d expected, but nonetheless, it was a miracle.

A new life.

“Okay,” she said.

He pulled her close and kissed her so deeply, with such love and passion, she found herself believing in him. In them.

“We’ll have to tell my parents—”

“No time like the present,” he said. He turned and shut off the oven, covered the skillet on the stove.

Frankie didn’t want to tell her dad this news, that she was “in trouble,” and getting married, but what choice did she have? Pregnancy wasn’t the kind of thing that could be hidden for long, and the clock was already ticking.

“I’ve got you,” he said, taking her hand. “Trust me.”

She nodded.

Even though it was cool by Southern California standards, Frankie and Henry walked down the street, holding hands, not bothering with sweaters or coats.

Cars rushed past them, headlights on. The beach was a vast, empty swath of black to their right, with a rising moon cut into the sky. The houses along Ocean Boulevard were decorated for Christmas, with Santas and reindeer and white lights wrapped around the palm trees.

At her parents’ house, they crossed the backyard, which was aggressively decorated for the holidays, and went into the house, which boasted even more decorations. A huge tree dominated the living room.

Dad stood beside Mom at the bar, holding a silver martini shaker.

“Frances,” Mom said. “Happy birthday, darling! We didn’t expect you tonight.”

Frankie couldn’t let go of Henry’s hand; he felt like her lifeline. “Dad. Mom. I think you know Henry Acevedo. We’re … dating.”

“Henry,” Dad said, striding forward, smiling that big, inclusive smile of his, the one that made everyone feel welcome and important. “Good to see you again.”

“Dr. Acevedo,” Mom said, practically beaming.

Henry said, “Could I speak with you a moment, Connor? Privately.”

Dad frowned briefly, then nodded. “Of course. Of course.”

While the two men walked down the hallway, Mom sidled close to Frankie. “Is this what I hope it is?”

“Mom, I have never been able to divine your thoughts,” Frankie said. It had never occurred to her that Henry would formally ask Dad for her hand in marriage. It felt so old-school, so Ozzie and Harriet in this Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice world.

Moments later, Henry and Dad walked back into the room. “Bette, we will have a son-in-law! Welcome to the family, Henry!”

Mom gave Frankie a fierce hug. When she drew back, there were tears in her eyes. “A wedding. A grandchild. Oh, Frances, your whole world will change when you hold your baby in your arms.”

Henry moved in, put an arm around Frankie, held her so close she wondered if he thought she wanted to leave.

“Welcome to the family, Henry,” Mom said. Then she looked up at Dad. “We need champagne!”

When her mother limped away, Frankie turned to Henry, put her arms around his neck, and stared up at him. “Are you sure we need an actual wedding? How about a quick zip in and out to the justice of the peace?”

“No way. This baby is a miracle, Frankie. Love in this screwed-up world is always worth celebrating. When Susannah died, I thought it was over for me.”

She felt his love for her, for their child, felt his dream for them unfold and take flight. It filled her with hope.

“I want to see you walk down some aisle toward me and hear you say you love me in front of your family and friends. I want a baby girl who looks just like you.”

“Or a boy who looks like Finley,” she said, daring to dream it. “I guess that means there’s a honeymoon in our future.”

“Baby,” he said, “our life is going to be one long honeymoon.”

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