SHORT STORY by Maxwell Epstein
Alice walked into Mark's study, where he was hunched over his drawing table. She tried hard to look her usual self when she leaned over to kiss him. But when he asked her " How did it go with Dr. Berman-your usual healthy report?" she lost control.
"I'm pregnant," she blurted.
This was not how she had planned to break the news but she was under the greatest stress she had ever felt. Over the past hour, Dr. Berman's words ,"Without question, you are pregnant," had rung in her ears. Since that moment she had felt a rising sense of fear and self-loathing. This was news she once would have cherished, but not now.
Mark stared, wide-eyed, mouth open, and silent. When he found his voice, it sounded strangulated.
"How can it be? Who is it? Why have you been lying to me?" He began to shake, and repeat "Who is it? Who is it?"
Alice stood paralyzed, her mind blank, her face a white mask. She knew exactly who it was, because in seven years of marriage, there had only been one man in her life besides Mark, but she could not bring herself to say his name. For the first time in her life she saw her hand shake, and she felt icy cold. She was frightened by Mark's rage, by the reality of her new condition, and by this threat to their marriage. She wanted to escape, to plan how to tell him so he would understand.
Through tears of fear and sorrow, she sobbed "I will tell you everything, but not right now--I have to be alone for awhile."
Mark grabbed her arm roughly. "You said you were going to the doctor to get your annual checkup. That was a lie."
"No, that was true, but it wasn't my only reason--I'd been feeling a little sick some mornings."
Mark let her go, not out of compassion, but out of a sense of defeat and futility.
Trembling, Alice ran to their bedroom and locked the door, for the first time.
Should I make up a lie? I have cheated, so is lying any worse? She wondered if she could make up a story less painful than the real one.
She knew the child in her could not be Mark's. They had long wanted to have a child, and when, after five years of marriage it did not happen, they had gone to a fertility specialist. That was when they learned that Mark was sterile. They had begun to talk about adoption.
The young Bernsteins shared an interest in most of the issues of the day, like civil rights, the environment and peace. On racial questions, they were not always in agreement. Whenever they talked about this subject, Alice would say "I know we still have discrimination in this country, but I think affirmative action is discrimination in reverse. The answer is better education, and child care for working mothers, and things like that." To which Mark would say, "We need all that but it is not happening fast enough. Affirmative action primes the pump and it is producing more black doctors and lawyers."
At that time they had no idea of role race would later play in their lives.
Mark was from a middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx, the only son of Rachel and Max Bernstein. The Bernstein home was nominally Jewish, mostly on the high-holy days when the family attended services in their Reform temple. They shared the liberal values of most of their fellow congregants.
Mark and Alice met in 1980 when they were students at UCLA. Before they married, they lived together for a year and none of the parents objected to that, but when they decided to marry, Rachel told Mark,
"I somehow always assumed you would marry a Jewish girl."
After two or three years, Rachel came to love and accept Alice, and she began to dream about being a grandmother. For Alice's parents, it was easier. They thought Jewish husbands made good providers, and they had long accepted that Alice was not religious.
Now that they had been married seven years, Alice found herself asking Mark, on a Sunday morning, "Do I still appeal to you?"
"Of course you do--why do you even wonder?
"Because we don't make love very often. We talk about the world, and our lives, and we don't fight, but we just get in bed and go to sleep. Remember when we did it every night?"
"Sure, but how many couples keep that up?"
Alice looked sad. "Maybe it's because we can't have children."
This took Mark by surprise.
"Maybe I'm working too hard these days, but I never thought sex was only for having babies."
He did not feel he could tell Alice what was on his mind. He had noticed the slow-down in bed, and he was aware that he was having trouble getting aroused, now that the chase was over. He believed the quest for variety was programmed into men, and he knew every nook and cranny of Alice. When Alice sat on his lap and kissed him, openly it had the desired effect. They made love, but neither felt that much was resolved.
Alice was immediately attracted to the instructor, Ron Miller an African American with a lithe body that moved like a ribbon suspended from the ceiling. Everything about him was smooth, his looks, his voice his manners and his walk. Alice noted the contrast with Mark, who was a little awkward and rough around the edges .She was amused to notice that she was flustered during the interview, which ended with an agreement to take ten weekly lessons.
With a spring in her step Alice left the studio and drove home to tell Mark.
"I am so excited--I just signed up for ten dance lessons, sort of modern ballet."
Mark was glad to hear about the dance lessons, not only because he thought this would be good for Alice, but also because this would relieve the pressure on him to provide diversions for her.
"Great idea. I'm sure you will enjoy it, and I love to watch you dance."
Alice kissed him and danced out to their backyard.
In her dance class, there were six women and one man. Alice felt that Ron paid special attention to her, and when he invited her for coffee after class one day, she was sure of it. In the coffee shop, Ron told her a little about himself.
"I 'm part of a troupe in New York. I applied for the job to teach dance here to get away from New York for awhile, and to enjoy being a teacher. What brought you to the studio?"
"I wanted to be a dancer when I was young, and that was my major in college, but I didn't stay with it when I got married. Besides I probably wasn't good enough to become a professional. Still, I miss it, so when I saw your ad, I thought 'why not?'"
From the sixth class on, coffee became a regular ending to the lesson. Alice looked forward to these dates as much as she did the lessons. She loved hearing about the life of a dancer in New York, and she loved the way Ron described it. She had the disturbing thought about herself--Iowa, the Valley, and Mark--a good life, but not very exciting.
On the ninth week, Ron came over to Alice during a break and asked
"Would you have dinner with me?"
Alice was surprised by the invitation. She assured herself that her responsiveness to Ron had nothing to do with the fact that he was black, and she said "Yes."
That night she told Mark "Our class is going to have dinner with the instructor next Friday." She failed to mention that the other students were not included.
On the day of the dinner Alice rolled her basic black dress into her duffel, along with her favorite perfume and a little pearl necklace. She could hardly concentrate on the lesson that day, and she wondered if she was capable of going through with a real date--a dinner date.
After the lesson, Alice went to the ladies room to "freshen up," and change. When she came out, she was glad to see the others had left. Ron looked her over with polished discretion and said,
"You really are a beautiful woman." Alice blushed, and in fact felt beautiful for the first time in a long time..
Ron drove them to an Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, and they shared a bottle of Chianti Classico with dinner. When the coffee was served, they both grew quiet, wondering what would happen next.
Ron broke the silence. "I live near here. Would you like to see a dancer's apartment?"
Until now Alice had been doing well at keeping Mark out of her mind, but this next step brought his face forward. She knew she should thank Ron and go home, but it was early and she did not want the evening to end, so she said "sure." They left the restaurant and drove a few blocks to an apartment building with green and blue lights focused on ferns and palms, apparently arranged to conceal some of the plain stucco front. Once inside, Ron settled her on his couch, and went to pour them an after-dinner liquor-- a sense of style to which she was not accustomed . As they sipped their drinks, they faced their second moment of silence, which Ron again broke.
"Tell me about your life in Iowa."
Alice was greatly relieved, and chattered away about her parents, the harsh winters, and her brother and sister. He did not ask her about her present life because he did not want to bring a husband into the room with them.
"And what about your life in New York?"
"Have you ever been there?"
"Well, it's different from here. Only one of my friends owns a car. We use subways, and taxis and we walk and walk. It's always crowded and fast. Here no one walks and the only place I see real crowds is on the freeways."
"And what about your life?"
"Well, I was married for four years, and I have a daughter I see on weekends. She's in first grade--smart and beautiful. I am starting to teach her a little about dancing. There is not a lot of spare time in my life, but I do occasionally get to a show or concert." He omitted his current love-life as he had her husband.
Since they were now speaking personally, it did not seem jarring when Ron put his hand on her knee. In fact, nothing that Ron did seemed jarring.
Alice noticed she was acting as she had on dates in years past, looking intently at Ron, including his lips.
"It is going to happen tonight isn't it," Ron whispered.
Alice did not answer. She was still having trouble keeping Mark out of her mind but kept her eyes on Ron. He leaned forward and kissed her gently. and she luxuriated in the feeling of his full, warm lips, just as she had imagined they would feel.
"Are you afraid?' Ron asked.
And the kissing became more intense. Alice was not being entirely truthful. She was afraid of getting into his bed, even as she could hardly wait. After all, it had been years since she had felt anyone but Mark, and she was not sure if she would know what to do to please this man, or if she would be able to face herself in the morning
"My bedroom is in here," and he held out his hand.
Although Alice had decided her excitement had nothing to do with Ron's being black--still she enjoyed the sight of her small white hand in his large dark hand, and she followed him to his bedroom. She thought that if it were not for the drinks, she would probably be leaving now, but she did not want to leave.
Ron went about slowly lighting three candles and then turned off the lights. His manner made everything seem natural to Alice, including letting him slowly take off her clothes. To her surprise, she found herself taking off his clothes. She was now fighting to keep Mark's face from her mind. When they slipped into bed, Alice got a faint whiff of Ron's after-shave lotion, and that made the place seem familiar. She had, after all enjoyed that scent for nine weeks.
Ron caressed her gently, and purred sweet words in her ear, about how beautiful and exciting she was.
This talk was something new for Alice. Mark did not talk. He acted, then sighed in relief.
. That night, everything happened slowly, led by Ron. By the time he started to move, with his graceful slow motion, Alice thought " I must be in heaven." After their high, actually three highs, they hugged and touched each other all over.
Now, slowly coming back to reality, Alice began to worry and to feel guilty.
I'm cheating on Mark, Ron wore no protection so there could be disease and pregnancy.
Ron sensed her fear, and told her,
"Don't worry, I'm clean. You are my first since I left New York, and there I have slept only with my girlfriend for the past year."
That was a great relief for Alice from one of her fears. The other two remained. Even as she recognized the risks she had just taken, she was lamenting the fact that Ron would return to New York next week, and this bliss would probably never happen again. She was happy, satisfied, afraid, and remorseful, all at the same time.
Arriving home Alice turned the key in the lock, and entered the living room, grateful that it was lit only by the TV.
"How was your evening" Mark asked, without looking up from his movie.
Barely suppressing the urge to run, Alice locked herself in the bathroom, took a long hot shower to wash away the traces of the evening, and went to bed.
On the day, weeks later, when Alice told Mark she was pregnant, he had tried to give her the time alone she had asked, but he could not. He burst into their bedroom, eyes blazing as she had never seen before,
Alice was not ready, but she knew she never would be.
"The night I went to dinner with my dance instructor, it was just the two of us. He is a black man. We drank, we went to his apartment and we made love. I can't tell you why I did it. I got carried away. I love you-- I beg you to forgive me. I need your help, I feel worthless and I have no excuse. I can only pray you will forgive me, and help me."
Mark looked at her in shock and disgust.
"Help you do what? Get an abortion? Give birth to a baby everyone will probably know is not mine? Help you resist the next man who attracts you? What in the hell do you expect of me?"
Alice had no answers. She just curled up on their bed and sobbed. Their differences on racial issues seemed irrelevant now. This was not a social issue--this was their lives, their future, their parents, their friends.
"Lying bitch" Mark screamed at her as he stormed out of the room, slammed the door and headed for his study.
The next morning, after a sleepless, night, they confronted each other. They had very different ideas about what they wanted to talk about.
Mark started. "How could you do this? We have always been open with each other. If you are unhappy with our marriage, why didn't you tell me? Why would you go sneaking off to have an affair?"
Alice, could only say "It wasn't an affair--it was something that happened one night after some drinks, and I am not unhappy with our marriage."
Even as she was saying this she realized that she had not been fully aware of how frustrated she had become.
Alice wanted to talk about what they would do now. "Mark, I love you. I don't love my dance instructor. I will do anything I can to keep you. I know you may not want me anymore, but please don't decide that now."
As shocked and angry as he was, Mark could not imagine life without his Alice, but he was also having trouble imagining life with her.
" I could have an abortion, but that won't take away what I have done. It will take away a child we could have--a child that is at least one half our blood baby, and you know all the fears we have about adoption."
Alice was surprised by how logical she sounded. Somehow this crisis had sharpened her.
Mark thought about what she had said.
"Sure, I can see it now, there I am , wheeling a baby down the street that everyone can see is not mine, showing him to our parents--our friends, and explaining about your dance instructor."
Mark recognized the irony--a strong supporter of black aspirations in America, and now race was relevant to his shame and anger.
It was while she was listening to Mark's pain that an idea struck her.
"Mark, she said softly, If you want to keep me and you are willing to raise this child, I have an idea. We have told our friends and family that we are thinking of adopting. We could go away for the last five months, and then come home with an 'adopted' baby. Knowing your concern for the black babies who do not get adopted , this would seem natural. No one would be surprised."
Alice sat quietly, knowing it would take time for Mark to come down from his rage and confusion enough to hear what she was saying.
"It sounds like you have this all planned out. Very clever," was his first response."
Alice sat quietly for a few seconds.
"No, I did not have anything planned. I've been in panic since I left the doctor's office. I just thought of this idea. I guess my desperate need to keep you has focused me. If you don't want this, I will get an abortion. You come first."
For the next week Mark and Alice went through their daily lives like zombies. On the eighth day, Mark said "Where would we go for five months?"
They both knew that their plan would require them to live a lie. They both wondered if Mark could ever again trust Alice as he had. They both knew that they would give all they had to their child. And they both knew that they wanted to remain Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein of Studio City.
Maxwell D. Epstein