Actually, she was certain. The test had been positive, and she’d done it twice. So in a way she’d known, but she hadn’t told anyone, not even Will. It hadn’t seemed true in the world until her first appointment here.

The night before, Beth had sat alone in the bathroom, wearing an old t-shirt of Will’s. Damon, her four year old, was asleep, Will was on his computer. All day long Beth had been holding the secret in her body, as she picked up Damon from school, stopped for groceries, hefted the heavy bags. She’d wondered about the sudden clench of her stomach muscles—might that dislodge it? It was so tiny, anything might dislodge it. It might disengage on its own, just kick loose and swim away.

Beth imagined the endometrium as a fur throw, dense and soft. The fur-lined she-cup. Where in it was this little mite, this little flicker of an idea, moored, amazingly, in the secret curve of her secret cave, taking root in that luxuriance?

She wasn’t completely sure she wanted to be pregnant. She hadn’t quite made a decision, though a decision had been made. She had a child who was perfect. Smart, funny, beautiful, already in school. Why change things? How could you give two children the attention you gave one? And she was just starting to teach again; a second child would set her back another five years. They’d talked about it, but they hadn’t decided. And there was another reason she hesitated.

She held the testing stick up. In the little window was a bold new line. She stared at it. She was alone with this bold new line, and with that tiny vital mite, burrowing deep. She felt something flooding through her, something so pure and powerful, so rich and elemental, that she couldn’t tell whether it was joy or dread.

When she’d had Damon they’d been living in Boston; now in New York she’d needed a doctor. A friend had recommended one, but she wasn’t taking new patients. This doctor, Kordel, was her partner.

Dr. Kordel was in her early forties, thin, with short brown hair and colorless light eyes. She wore a white lab coat over her dress.

When Beth came into her office Dr. Kordel looked up over the tops of her rimless glasses. Beth felt a sudden visceral reaction. Wasn’t it rude not to look straight at someone? “Look at me directly,” Beth thought, furious.

She would have to control herself. These sudden hormonal eruptions—she’d have to restrain them. Beth sat down. The walls were beige but the carpet was deep red, which was somehow disturbing.

“I’m Dr. Kordel.” The doctor folded her arms along the edge of the desk. “You’re here for a pregnancy exam?”

Beth hadn’t said the word yet, though she’d checked it on the form. This was the first she’d heard it spoken.

“Let’s get you examined.” Dr. Kordel stood up.  “Then we’ll talk.”

The air in the examining room was cool, and Beth shivered, pulling off her sweater. Her breasts were already swollen, and the nipples sensitive, though not in a sexual way. This is what pregnancy did: your pleasure, your inclinations no longer mattered. Your body had its own agenda.

The wrinkled blue gown barely covered her thighs. She tied the strings around her waist—was it already thickening? She sat on the examining table. The cotton gown rubbed against her nipples; any touch now was unpleasant, too much.

She wanted to bury her face in her hands, blocking out the light. What she remembered was her mother’s face, in the hospital. Her mother had still been in her same room. It was a shock: you thought of the people in a hospital as alive. Ill, but getting better. Or maybe not getting better, but still alive. Her mother’s face had been that strange color, and there was no motion in her.

Beth tried to stop. She did not want to think about it now, before this unknown doctor with her rimless glasses came in to examine her.

It was one of those awful ironies: what she’d wanted most, at her mother’s death, was her mother’s help. She wanted her mother to comfort her for the loss of her mother. It had been so unfair not to have her mother’s presence.

Beth had been told before she went in, but that hadn’t lessened the shock. There was the body, in the bed by the window. Beth couldn’t help herself.

“Mom?” she said. Why would she not answer?

Outside, the sky was overcast but bright, full of glare. Across the East River was a gray line of industrial buildings. The nurse left the room and Beth, hugely pregnant with Damon, was alone with her motionless mother. 

Beth had returned to that moment over and over, trying to make it come out right, trying to make her mother turn to her and smile, even weakly, even still laboring under the burden of pneumonia, those awful heaving breaths. Beth wanted to have done something to save her.

What stayed with her, what made a dark weight deep in the center of her, was the fear that she’d made a bargain, without knowing it. That she’d made a choice: her pregnancy, her first child, in exchange for her mother. Was that what had happened?

It was absurd, she knew, but also not absurd. Somewhere there existed a set of scales, precise and absolute, where just this sort of transaction took place. The part of her that knew this could never be seen or mentioned.

There was no one she could ask, no one to whom she could say, “All right, then, I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be pregnant, I’d rather keep my mother.”

She knew there had been no choice. She had been pregnant, her mother had died. It had been medical error, bad decisions made during the night. She knew that. She knew that.

Beth took her hands away from her face. Her cheeks were wet; she smoothed them dry.

The door opened and Dr. Kordel came in.

“All set?” Her manner was brusque.

Was that true, was she really brusque, or was Beth impossibly touchy, weepy, pathetic?

Dr. Kordel sat on a wheeled stool.

“Slide all the way down.” She stretched on a pair of pale gloves.

Lying beneath Dr. Kordel’s swift competent fingers, Beth felt her interior as a separate country. She was helpless. Whatever her body would do it would do. She would be explored and monitored by others, by this cold woman with the rimless glasses. She would give herself over to Dr. Kordel, herself and the tiny mite clinging to the fur pelt. They were in this woman’s hands.

Later, in the office, Dr. Kordel looked up as Beth came in. “You’re ten weeks pregnant.”

“Yes.” Beth began to cry. She squeezed her eyes shut and covered them with her hand. Dr. Kordel said nothing. Beth pressed her fingers hard against her eyes, trying to stop. There was kleenex on the desk; she took a tissue and blew her nose. 

“Sorry. I’m a bit emotional.”

“It’s not unusual,” Dr. Kordel said, and waited. Her short colorless hair was held on one side with a barrette. “Are you happy about this pregnancy?”

Beth closed her eyes again.

“This is—” She stopped. “It’s frightening for me.” She waited until her voice was level. “When I was pregnant before, with my son, my mother died.”

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Kordel said. “That must have been very painful.”

Beth nodded. “So being pregnant is frightening.”

Dr. Kordel looked down at her hands, then up again. “How did your mother die?”

“Medical error. I went in to the hospital to see her, the last night. She was fine, she was coming home in two days. Something went wrong, she wasn’t monitored properly. She died in the middle of the night.”

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Kordel repeated.

Beth nodded. “Thank you.” It was worthless, this exchange.

After a pause, Dr. Kordel said, “You know the two things were not related.”

Beth shook her head. “I know they weren’t. But I’m afraid they were.”

There was another pause.

Dr. Kordel looked down. “What do you want to do? This is your decision.”

“Yes, of course.”

Outside she called Will. She couldn’t wait.

“Hola,” he said.

At his voice Beth began to cry again. She turned toward the street, so no one could see. Why had she called, now, like this?

“What’s the matter?” Will asked.

“I’m pregnant.”

“Yes,” Will said, idiotically, and that made her laugh. But she wanted to say, If I have this baby, will you promise not to die?

When she was three months along they told Damon. It was Sunday morning, and they were all in bed. Damon was driving a small dump truck over the duvet. They explained: a little brother or sister. The whole time, Damon made a low rumbling engine sound. He watched the truck steadily, though he glanced sideways at his parents, still rumbling.

“Is he listening?” Beth said finally.

Will lay back on his pillow, bare-chested, unshaven, his hair wildly at attention. “He gets it. Boys are different. They don’t want to do things head-on.”

“Except head-butting.”

“Except head-butting.” Will closed his eyes.

After a moment Beth said, “Hey.”

“I’m not, I’m not. I’m just thinking.” 

“Well, it’s my turn to lie in bed with my eyes shut, thinking. You did it yesterday.”

“Okay.” Will opened his eyes and grimaced. “Okay. I’m up.” He threw back the sheets.

Beth turned over. During these first months, sleep overtook her. She could slide down beneath its depths any time, anywhere. Right now she’d plummet downward for an hour, two, three, as long as Will’s good nature held out.  

“Come on, buddy,” Will said to Damon. “Let’s go get some breakfast and let mommy sleep.”

As they left, as she moved down into darkness, Beth heard Damon ask, “Can I name it?”

She still didn’t like Dr. Kordel. After each visit she complained to Will.

“She’s so cold,” Beth said. “Why would she become an OB/GYN if she hates women? She’s like a man.”

Will stood over the skillet, stirring the potatoes. His shirtsleeves were rolled up high on his forearms.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“Not you, not you. You know what I mean. She’s like a robot. She never smiles.”

“My doctor never smiles at me. He gets all this great news about my annual check-up and he never cracks a grin.”

“Oh, shut up. This is different. Why are you being such a jerk?”

“Sorry.” Will turned to her. “I don’t know what to say. What you’re going through is so different from what I’m going through, I have no idea what to say. I want to make you feel better and I end up being an asshole.”

Beth sighed. “I have no idea what’s really happening. Maybe I’m oversensitive. I have no idea. I feel the way I feel. Anyway, this is different. It isn’t an annual checkup.”

Will put his arm around her.

“I feel like she’s holding me at a distance,” Beth said. “She’s the woman of science, the rational being. She’s gone over to the guys’ side, with all the scientists, and I’m stuck with the idiot blondes.”
“What would you like her to say?”

“‘Beth! You’re a miracle! You’ve carried this genius for another four weeks! Congratulations! The New York Times will be calling to interview you!’”

Will put his arm around her again.

“I know it sounds stupid,” Beth said. “But when you’re pregnant you feel proud. It is miraculous.”

The thought of seeing Dr. Kordel made Beth sick. She had fallen in love, though.

This was partly what made her so resentful, and partly what made up for it. She’d forgotten about this part of pregnancy, when you’ve given up your old body, your old life. Your body—hijacked by a daring stranger—is sailing the high seas, and you’re on board. You’re a captive, and enraptured by the voyage, which takes you further and further into the unknown. Your body takes you over. The stranger inside becomes more and more present. Her new son was amazingly active. Precocious.

One afternoon she took Damon’s small hand and put it on her belly. Damon looked up, inquiring. He looked like Will—the long face, the hazel eyes—but new.

“Feel this,” she said.

The baby was doing somersaults. Beth looked at Damon, but she was also looking inward, feeling her new son—so insolent, so demanding! She loved it.

Damon watched her face, his resistant hand held on the hard swollen belly. When he felt the movement he jerked away, horror in his eyes.

“No,” Beth said gently. She squatted clumsily down. “Feel it. That’s what you did, when you were inside me.” She smiled. “That’s what babies do. He’s playing. Put your hand right here.” But Damon put his hands behind his back and stepped away.

“Lovey,” Beth said, “this is your little brother.” She ran both hands over her distended self, but he would not come nearer.

It could not be Damon, she told herself. The trade could not be Damon.

At the seven-month checkup, Beth felt smug and proud. She had gained only twelve pounds, and the baby (they called him Burrito, after the Flying Brothers) spent his time rocketing around inside her. Had Damon been so acrobatic? She didn’t think so.

After the exam, Dr. Kordel sat before Beth’s open folder. Beth waited for praise.

“I’m concerned about your blood pressure,” said Dr. Kordel.

Beth frowned. “What about it?”

“It’s higher than it should be, and I don’t want it to become a problem. I’m going to prescribe a medication.”

Beth could feel everything in her body halt.

“Prescribe what?” she asked.

“I’ll write it out for you.”

Beth was shaking her head. “I’m not sure about this.”

Dr. Kordel looked up. “You’re not sure about it?”

Beth felt her throat narrowing. “I don’t want to take any medications. I didn’t take anything with Damon. He was fine. We were both fine.”

Dr. Kordel folded her hands. “I can’t answer for that situation, because I wasn’t involved.” Her voice was cool. “What I can tell you is that your blood pressure has become elevated. That can result in preeclampsia, which is very serious.”

“I know about preeclampsia,” Beth said. Did this woman think she was a moron?

On the wall behind Dr. Kordel was a close-up photograph of a mother’s face, her baby’s belly pressed against her cheek. “It’s serious,” said Dr. Kordel.

There was a pause. Beth felt her pulse rising. She would stay rational.

“I don’t want to take any medication.” Her voice was too loud.

“What is it that frightens you about this?”

“I’ve told you about my mother,” Beth said. “I don’t want to take any medications.”

She could feel fear closing in on her. She was about to start falling through some dark endlessness.

“I know about your mother, Beth,” Dr. Kordel said, “but this has nothing to do with her.”

“Don’t call me ‘Beth.’ Why should you call me by my first name and I call you by your—Doctor? You can call me Mrs. Webster. Or we can both use our first names. I’m not a child.” Her voice was high, she was afraid it would break. She was afraid she’d stumble over the word “infantilizing.”

Dr. Kordel’s mouth tightened. “I’m happy to use your married name, if you prefer. Whatever happened to your mother—and I’m very sorry about it—had nothing to do with you and me, right now.”

“How do you know that? Don’t you think her doctor told her he was doing the right thing, too? Don’t doctors always think they’re doing the right thing? You think your patients are ignorant fools.”

Dr. Kordel stood up and folded her arms. “ ‘Ignorant fools’ is a very highly charged phrase,” she said coldly. “It’s absurd to say doctors feel that way about their patients.”

She had gone too far, Beth thought, now furious at herself. She’d made her doctor angry, and then what? She was an idiot. But she would not permit the doctor to take over her body. She felt panicky and stupid, like a horse, with someone trying to throw a blanket over her head.

“No, I don’t mean that,” Beth said, trying to be calm. “But I feel as though I have no choice. That’s what I mean.”

Dr. Kordel remained standing. “As a doctor, I make recommendations based on my knowledge and training. As a patient, you need to trust me. If you can’t do that, you need to make other arrangements.”

Beth felt the shock physically. “Other arrangements? What do you mean? Do you mean I should find another doctor? I’m six weeks from delivery. No doctor would take me. What are you saying?”

“I mean that’s what you have to think about, if you can’t accept my recommendations.”

“Are you blackmailing me?” Beth asked, her voice shaking with rage.

“Look,” Dr. Kordel said. “I know your mother died because of medical error. I’ll tell you something. So did my father.” She paused. “He had a stroke and went to the emergency room. The staff knew what was happening, and no one came to see him. No one examined him, no one took him into the ICU for oxygen, and he died, there, in the waiting room.”

Dr. Kordel took another breath. “I live with that memory every day. It’s one reason I became a doctor.” She waited. “I’m concerned about your blood pressure. I want to make sure that it doesn’t become a problem. This medication is used routinely during pregnancy.” She waited again. “I’m going to prescribe it for you. If you refuse to take it, you must find another doctor. I will not be responsible for this pregnancy if you won’t cooperate in making it safe.”

Beth folded her hands at the bottom of her belly. She was in freefall, there was nowhere to land. She fought to keep from crying.

“Mrs. Webster, I’m on your side,” Dr. Kordel said, her voice quieter. “You must understand this. I’m acting in the interest of your health, and that of your baby. But you must trust me. If you don’t, we can’t proceed.”

Beth nodded. She could not speak. She was trapped. And why did the doctor call her “Mrs. Webster,” as though she were a stranger?

“Yes.” She kept her eyes on Dr. Kordel’s desk, the blotter, the prescription pad, the mug with its university logo. She was afraid if she raised her eyes she’d break down. “All right.” After a moment she said, “I’m sorry about your father.”

Dr. Kordel frowned. “Thank you.”

There was a silence. The door opened and the nurse put her head in. “Dr. Russell’s on the phone.”

“Please tell him I’ll call him back.” Dr. Kordel was watching Beth.

Each morning Beth took the pill before she brushed her teeth. Will told her not to worry. Each day she grew huger, and the baby rumpused around inside her. In the sonogram he was now a tiny creature, not a confusing mass. He was growing fast, and she worried that he’d be too big.

But Burrito was healthy, and sometimes she did not worry. Sometimes she found she’d stopped whatever she was doing, standing at the window, in the checkout line, in her bedroom, motionless, in a reverie, a vast ocean of delight. Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night gripped by terror, darkness hooding and blinding her.

At her eight-month checkup Dr. Kordel told her she was fine and the baby was fine. He had stopped growing so fast, though—he’d only gained nine ounces.

“Great,” Beth said, “he’ll be an easy birth.”


They were courteous. Not friendly, but not unfriendly. Beth had no other option; she had to trust this doctor. Will was careful, quick to put his arms around her, slow to respond to her touchiness. That made her angry, too.

“I’m not a mental patient, you know,” Beth said one morning. 

Will shook his head and did not answer. He stood by the front door, briefcase in his hand, ready for the day.

“You act as though I were.”

“No, I don’t.” Will pursed his mouth. He did this when he didn’t know what to say. She could see the misery in his face, how much he didn’t want a fight right now, just before he left for the office.

“I know you don’t.” Beth sighed. “I’m really ready for this baby to come.”

“Two weeks. Two weeks and he’ll be here.”

They were not calling him yet by his name, which was Andrew. Out of superstition they still called him Burrito. He was a prodigious kicker, a twister, a turner, an acrobat, though with less and less space in which to perform.

That evening, Will lay on Damon’s bed, reading to him. Beth came in and lay down with them.

Will squeezed over, still reading, and she smiled at Damon. She lay on her back, so that when Burrito kicked she could take Damon’s hand and put it on her belly. He now allowed her to do this, though he still made a face. She lay with her hands on her high hard belly, waiting for Burrito to start his gymnastics. But he was quiet, and they put Damon to bed without a goodnight twist and squirm.

That night they ordered out. Beth could no longer walk, she waddled. She was ponderous, imprisoned. She was no longer living her own life, in her body, she was merely the servant of this somersaulting baby. He had taken her over.

She woke in the middle of the night. For the last month she’d been sleeping badly, strung taut. Now she lay awake in the semi-dark. In the city, night was never really dark. The clock said ten past four. She turned onto her side.

Sometimes, when she woke in the middle of the night, she thought of her mother. Then she had to fold her hands together, locking them hard, and focus her eyes on something—the Matisse poster, dim in the darkness, or the wedding photograph. She had to hold onto something, had to clench her hands and take long even breaths, so she wouldn’t cry. Sometimes fear swept over her in huge waves. The thought of Damon in danger made her close her eyes, her breath turn short. There was no trade, she told herself.

Now she put her hands on her belly, spreading her fingers. Burrito was quiet. Maybe it was because she was quiet: babies knew your rhythms. This was time to sleep.

It would happen soon. She was seeing Dr. Kordel every week; a bed was reserved. Things were all right with Dr. Kordel, though she hated the barrette in her limp hair. Dr. Kordel’s name was Hilary, according to her medical school diploma. Beth wondered what Hilary did for dinner. Did she cook? Did her husband cook? On her desk were photographs of two grinning children. Was her husband a doctor too? Beth smoothed her belly again. Burrito was quiet.

By six o’clock she was standing in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, her mouth dry with fear. He was not moving. Was she certain of this? How often did he move normally? She could not be sure. Maybe he usually didn’t move during the night, and she just hadn’t noticed it. If she called the doctor it would mean something was wrong. She waited for him to move. She put her hand on the bottom curve of her belly, lifting it a bit. She waited for the movement. Now that it wasn’t happening she couldn’t remember exactly how it felt. What was it? A lift, inside her? A shift? She waited. 

There were huge circles below her eyes. Maybe she was overtired, and the baby was tired, and not moving. He was not moving. She leaned over, her hands on the outer rim of the sink.

Will found her there.

“What is it?” he asked.

She looked up. “It’s stopped moving.”

“For how long?”

“I think all night.”

“Jesus. Have you called?”

In his face she could see that she should have.

“I’ll call now,” she said.

They sat on the bed, waiting for the doctor to call back.

“Come in right now,” Dr. Kordel said. “I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

“I’ll take care of Damon,” Will said, “call me.”

At the hospital, Beth lay on the table in the darkened sonogram room. Jelly was smeared on her stomach. It was cold on her bare skin, and she shivered. A technician, a young dark-haired woman, moved a wand around on Beth’s belly, watching the screen. She turned dials and pressed buttons, shifting the view, the focus, sliding the wand over Beth’s belly. Beth watched her face.

Dr. Kordel slipped into the room, closing the door behind her. She nodded to Beth, then turned to the monitor. Beth watched her face. Dr. Kordel was frowning. Beth lay counting her breaths, making them long and even. She would not let anything happen just because of her fear. She was counting when Dr. Kordel spoke.

“Beth,” she said, “he’s gone.”

Beth looked at her, the room growing large.

“There’s no heartbeat.”

Beth sat up. The room had grown enormous. Everywhere around her was black space. The whole universe was there, she was in falling, there was nowhere to land.

“No,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Beth. He’s gone.”

“No he isn’t. You promised.”

“I’m very sorry. Something’s happened. It looks as though the cord has gotten wrapped around his neck.”

There was a long silence.

Now what? Now where in the universe?

Beth looked at the doctor. “I need you to put your arms around me, right now,” she said. “You have to put your arms around me now.”

Dr. Kordel put her arms around her. Beth closed her eyes. Dr. Kordel’s fine hair brushed against Beth’s face; the barrette pressed against her temple. Dr. Kordel was small and slight, and in her arms Beth felt huge and swollen. Her bare belly was still smeared with gel.

She could remember the buildings outside the hospital room, the way they had risen up, blocking out the light, the way her mother’s face had seemed almost blue. She remembered the way her mother could not hold her.

Dr. Kordel’s arms were around Beth’s back, her grip gentle, surprisingly strong.

“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Kordel said. “This is hard to bear.” She was crying, too, Beth could feel her sobs.

There was no trade, Beth understood now, there had never been a trade. There were no scales. The reality was much simpler, much worse: her mother had died, and now her baby had died. Dr. Kordel was right. This was hard to bear. It was hard to bear. She felt the high black waves rising around her. 

She held on tightly to Dr. Kordel’s narrow shoulders and felt herself cradled in the other woman’s arms. She should have been in the strong arms of someone who loved her—her husband, or her mother—not this fragile stranger. But she had no choice, there was no choice. There was no trade, there were no scales. You did what you could, you bore up under whatever happened. That was the way it was.

Right now, these were the arms that held her, and Beth burrowed into their shelter, pressing her still-swollen self against this slight body, taking what comfort she could against what was coming.