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By AJ Gentile
CHAPTER FIVE

He was back in the Holy Grace Gift shop.

Disinfectant faintly suffocated the air. The big-hipped woman was there. She smiled and handed him the medal. He turned it over to check the engraving. There was none. It was bare, unblemished. He flipped the medal over again. The small relief figure of St. Elizabeth was gone. In her place, scratched, roughly into the silver, were what appeared to be three X’s.

The bighipped woman reached out for him, her hand falling on his shoulder, and said, “Come.” Only it wasn’t the woman’s hand at all, it was Anne’s, standing above him, shaking him, saying, “Come on, wake up. Go to bed.” And he wasn’t in the shop but slouched on the sofa in the living room. John looked at her. He saw her, but he was still asleep. His eyes were blank, unregistering, a thin scratchiness behind them.

“Come on. Let’s go to bed.”

Anne moved from him to the television, and the blue flicker of the screen was suddenly gone. The room paled into darkness. There was only the faint yellow phosphate glimmer of the streetlights from below.

“You up?” he heard her ask in the darkness.

“Yeah.”

“You have to put your daughter to bed.”

He heard her make her way to the bedroom, and when she opened the door, could dimly see her silhouetted in the doorway, a shadow in the dark.

A police car roared by a half block away. The wail of the siren filled the room, peaked, faded. When it had passed, everything was still.

John stood up, stretched and pulled his back taut till it cracked. His mouth felt gummy. He went into the kitchen for something to drink, found a can of fruitdrink, and took a sip from it without bothering with a glass. He went into the foyer to see that the front door was locked, lowered the thermostat, then headed for the bedroom.

He felt the tail under his bare foot a split second before the cat let out a screech that made his heart skip a beat. “Jesus!” In the dark he couldn’t tell which one it was. “Why do you sleep where you know people walk, stupid,” he said in a hushed voice with out expecting an answer.

Anne was in the bathroom, the door halfclosed, the light spilling into the bedroom. He could hear the water running loudly in the sink.

Jenny lay crumpled on their bed, curled like a sleeping kitten, her thumb in her mouth, a habit she had never broken. He lifted her gently so as not to break her sleep and carried her across the hall to her bedroom. Her body was soft and toasty in his arms.

Hang on, Baby—Friday’s Coming!!! It was printed on a poster right over Jenny’s bed: a picture of a wideeyed kitten hanging suspended from a bar. John pulled down the bedspread and sheets, laying his daughter down on the mattress, tugging off her sweater with one hand, holding her upright with the other. He got her flannel nightgown from a turtle-shaped pillowcase and slipped it on over her head, pulling it down. His palm skimmed over her belly, over her legs pimply with goosebumps. The room was chilly, damp. He laid her down, tucked her in, pulled the comforter and bedspread up over her. Jenny mumbled in her sleep, wetting her lips unconsciously. She stirred, shifted.

The freshness in his daughter’s sleepsmeared face overwhelmed him. He fell apart with love for her at that moment. It made him sad to think that that freshness would fade one day, as Anne’s had. Already her hair was losing its baby fineness. In all the sketches and drawings he had done of her, he had never been able to capture that glow of innocence she radiated.

There was a big bay window in Jenny’s bedroom that looked out the back of the brownstone on the garden. He walked over. The catch was black with soot. He looked down. Below, on Thayer’s patio, a rusted barbecue stood in a clump of leaves, a monument to summer. He remembered those warmer months with a smile. Thanks to Thayer and Janet, it had turned out to be one of the best of the six they had spent in the city.

When he and Anne had made the move in seventy-seven, both of them had been a little cautious about getting too friendly with an older couple. If they were lonely they’d latch on to you, wouldn’t give you a moment’s peace, all privacy shot to hell—as John knew only too well from living in that highrise in Brooklyn Heights with its thin walls and cramped rooms. Old Mrs. Pincus living alone, a widow, calling all hours of the night because she heard someone sneaking around outside in the hall. And Francine and Sal Gottlieb, always asking them over for bridge, always catching him in the elevator where there was no escape. So they were careful with Thayer and Janet, especially since they would be the only ones in the brownstone with them. Thayer, an M.D., had his office on the ground floor, making his home on the second and third floor, duplex style.

But it hadn’t been long before John realized how foolish it was, those reticent good mornings and howareyous. Thayer and Janet were not that type at all. They were warm and lowkeyed, just plain good-natured people. Really. Thayer actually owned the brownstone, had bought it years ago at an incredibly low price when there was a slump in the market. “It would break your heart if I told you how much it was, so I won’t.” He never had. But not telling was even worse than finding out. John’s imagination was openended, quoting prices in his mind that made his heart sink.

Thayer’s practice was relatively new and still growing. He had only been a general practitioner for a little over a year. He had been a surgeon once, one of the best in the state. A bitter divorce from his first wife, though, had shaken his life. It was an awkward time for Thayer, but it was also a time that drew him, and John together, bonding their friendship. John tendered to Thayer as if to a second father. He began sharing chores on weekends, helping out with the brownstone’s upkeep, painting, cleaning, repairing. He couldn’t do enough for them.

And Jenny. The sun revolved’ around her, the way Thayer and Janet carried on about her. They treated her as if she were their own granddaughter and spoiled her rotten. Toys, clothes, candy, movies. They didn’t stop. Oh, John had spoken to them about it, and they would nod in agreement. A week or two would go by, and then it would start all over again, without fail. “John, please don’t be mad, but we saw this, and it was on sale, and we just had to buy it for Jenny.” What could you do?

After a short while Jenny began calling them aunt and uncle. John just could not believe the remarkable happiness that such a simple act of affection could bring. When news of Anne’s pregnancy came, he and Anne had already decided to ask Thayer and Janet to be the baby’s godparents, even though they knew they’d be getting flack from inlaws and closer friends. It was well worth the risk just to see the joy on their faces. They were so ecstatic about the whole thing that the following day Janet ran out and bought the christening outfit. A tiny gown and coat of embroidered organdy, a slip of taffeta imported from Italy, and a huge price tag of one hundred and seventy dollars.

John drew the shade.

Anne was already in bed, her belly gently swelling beneath the blankets. Her eyes were closed. John stripped and got in between the cool sheets almost soundlessly.

“How are you feeling?” he whispered to her, not sure if she was asleep yet.

“The same.”

“Did you take anything for your cold?”

She nodded, but he knew it was just to humor him, r and that she hadn’t. They fell silent for a long while. Night ticked at the window. A dog’s bark echoed from somewhere far off.

Anne turned her back to him, burrowing into the pillow. Her breathing suddenly became heavier, more irregular. She was making herself sick, he realized. He lay next to her like a stranger, waiting for whatever was coming.

When she started to cry, John held himself back from moving closer. What had been building inside her all night had finally broken, and he didn’t want to intrude on her until be could assess what the matter was. So he took his time—raising himself, edging closer to her, running his hand through her hair, working it lower to her neck, moving his hand down the curve of her back, soothing her all the while like a child, “Ssh . . . ssh . . . it’s all right . . . everything’s going to be all right”—like a song.

Her face twisted to him in misery. “I hate this apartment, John. I hate it. I get up in the morning and the days just pull me along. I wake up with nothing to look forward to anymore. It’s all passing me by, and I sit here watching it day in and day out, moving along like a train on the horizon. I feel so old. So very old. Like I’ve never been young. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been dead for twenty years.”

“Anne, you’re pregnant. You’re going to have a baby. Isn’t that enough to handle right now? Isn’t that enough to look forward to?”

“No,” she admitted guiltily. “It isn’t.”

He shook his head. “It hurts me to see you like this. But you gotta recognize your limitations, babe. For now at least. There’s only so much you can do.” He leaned down and gave her a long kiss. “You know I love you.”

“I know you do. No man would put up with me if he didn’t love me. But I’m not happy, John. I’m breaking into pieces. Jenny, you, the baby—you all rob me of my space, my time. You trap me, all of you, you do. I don’t live through myself anymore, I live through you people. And I’ve lost myself. I don’t know where I am, John. I have no idea.”

She looked as though she were anchored to the bottom of the ocean. There was nothing left to say. He forced himself to turn away from her. The silence between them was like a third person.

He felt the bed on her side depress and turned to see her lurch into the bathroom. When he heard her gagging, heard her get sick, he was out of bed instantly and going to her.

Anne was stooped over the toilet holding her stomach. He moved around her. The tile floor was cold under her feet. He knelt and held her, supporting her. Her stomach heaved, and she retched. Nothing came up. She moaned, looking at him, her face ashen.

“Take it easy. Don’t get excited,” he told her. “Keep your head down.” “God, my stomach feels like it’s boiling.”

And John could hear it, actually hear it bubbling, standing there beside her. He put his hand on her stomach to help soothe her, and he could feel it, too, the gas bursting, punching inside her. She heaved again, clutched the bowl, close to nothing coming up.

“Easy. Take it easy. . . ” John’s voice was clear and deliberate.

Anne knelt there, hunched over, staring blankly into the bowl. With a deep sigh she stood up, flushed, and moved to the sink. She rinsed her face with cold x water, then toweled it briskly. She swayed slightly. Her face had gone white. She looked drunk.

“You want me to go downstairs and get Thayer?”

She shook her head.

“You sure?”

“Don’t bother him,” she told him evenly.

John filled a glass of water, handed it to her. He didn’t realize till he saw their reflection in the bathroom mirror that they were both naked.

“Drink it slow.”

Anne drained the glass and handed it back to him. Her hand was cold. She shivered. He grabbed a towel from a rack, wrapped it around her shoulders. He peered anxiously at her.

“You all right now?”

Anne nodded.

He led her back to bed and got in beside her. He leaned over, kissed her on the forehead, felt for a temperature. She was cool. Her eyes were open, watching the shadows on the ceiling. He kissed her again. She looked at him suddenly, a desperate appetite in her eyes.

“Make love to me.” Her voice was a plea.

“Anne, will you rest—”

“Fuck me, John. I want you to. I want you inside me.”

They kissed, tongues probing. It would be the first time in almost six months that they had made love. Because of a previous miscarriage, Anne’s doctor had advised her to refrain from sex during the first two trimesters of the pregnancy. The uterine contractions during orgasm, he said, were liable to trigger another miscarriage. They did not want to take a chance on anything that might even remotely affect the pregnancy. It was easy enough the first month or so, harder as time went on. But both had abided by the doctor’s orders. Until now.

He was holding her tight, hugging her, kissing. He ran his tongue down her neck, stubble scraping, then leaned over and sucked her stomach gently. His arms went around her, and he stroked her breasts, larger and firmer than ever before, fingering her nipples, working against her body: Anne’s eyes were closed, her mouth a little open. John’s legs roamed over her hips, over the tiny white tracings that ran across her distended pelvis. He could tell by the expression on her face that their lovemaking was the only thing on her mid. It was rare moment. An uncontrollable burst of emotion swept through him.

They were both on their sides now. Anne pushed against him. He felt the wetness between her legs. He ran his hand along the inside of her thing. Dancer’s things, powerful and beautiful. She took his hand and guided all five of his fingers into her. Her middle hardened in a straining contraction. She reached climax with an almost inaudible cry at the end of a few seconds.

Lying on his side, facing her back, John slid his hand from her hips, pulling her onto him.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you.”

He entered her from behind so his weight wouldn’t be on her abdomen. He felt his nipples go taut but didn’t know if it was from the cold or his excitement. He lost himself inside her.

When it was over he was exhausted. Neither of them spoke. He turned, slide from her, lay on his sweat-slicked back, breathing shallowly, one had still clinging to her. The moment his head hit the pillow, he was asleep.

Anne woke him twice during the night. Cramps. She found herself running to the bathroom constantly with burning urination and diarrhea. John felt quilty, certain that the sex had caused it. He had never regretted an orgasm so much in his entire life. Anne didn’t fall asleep until sometime after three. When sleep finally came to him, it was broken, restless. The big-hipped woman from the religious gift shop had come back.

“Come,” she beckoned. She was leading him through what looked like a tunnel. This time he followed.

He woke up with only a murky memory of a dream. Morning had slipped into the bedroom soundlessly. Outside he could hear the city waking, coming to life. He sat up, turned to Anne's side of the bed. Not surprisingly, she was already up.
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