Grace felt it very early on the morning of her birthday, and she knew. She lay with her eyes on the dark ceiling, her hands cupped on her belly. Unbelievable, she thought, after all those years of trying. And then the years of trying not to. She went to the all night drug store in her flannel pajama bottoms and barn jacket. Her clogs slipped in the March slush. Gabe was still asleep when she got back. She peed on the thingy. It was a new kind of test. No more lines and crosses. It used the word in red letters. Pregnant. It said pregnant. Hell of a forty-seventh birthday present.
She perched on the edge of the tub waiting for the alarm to go off. When it did, Gabe cursed, and rolled off the mattress. He came to the door, a finger in his navel, thumbs already under the elastic of his boxers, blinking at the light from the bulbs over the vanity.
“You sick?” He aimed into the toilet. “Did I hear you get up an hour ago?”
“No. Not sick.”
She watched him go. He scratched his chest with the other hand. He was grayer than she was. More salt than pepper. He finished and reached around her to turn the shower on.
“Okay, well, then, unless you want to climb in there with me, you better move. I’ve got an early meeting.”
“You going to wish me happy birthday?”
“Weren’t we ignoring it?”
“Yes, but as it turns out, you did get me something.”
“No, you made me swear. No mention. No card. Not even a rose. No cupcake. No nothing.”
The bathroom clouded up. Grace held up the stick with the big red word on it. Gabe squinted to see.
“What does it look like?”
He held her wrist and moved it away from his face until he could focus.
“No,” he said. “No way.”
She nodded over the top of the stick.
“Way,” she said.
“Yeah. I’ll say.”
“Pretty wild, huh?”
He pulled his tee shirt off. He felt the shower water with his fingers and adjusted the temperature.
“All signs point to yes.”
“But I thought we couldn’t.”
Grace shrugged and pointed at the stick. Gabe took it from her and shook it down like it was a thermometer that needed to get back to normal. He looked at it again and handed it back.
“Gracie, you know to be careful, right?”
“Careful? I think the camel already has his nose in the tent.”
Grace pulled the hand towel off the rack. She tried to flick him with it, but he grabbed the end and pulled it from her.
“About getting your hopes up. Be careful about getting your hopes up.”
“I wrote the book on that.”
“Look, wait a few days, take another test, call the doctor. You know, go slow.”
“I can do all that, but the test is right.”
“I mean it. Go slow.”
“Okay,” she said. “Where you taking me for dinner?”
A few weeks later they sat in the car. Sleet pinged the windshield. Gabe turned on the heat.
“Let’s get another opinion,” she said.
The windows fogged. Grace drew a circle on hers. She gave the circle arms and legs and a curl. She drew a rattle for her to hold.
“They’re right,” Gabe said. “Couldn’t you see it?”
“I couldn’t tell what I was looking at.”
“And he kept saying it. ‘Severe.’ If he said it once, he said it ten times.” Gabe turned on the fan and the windows started to clear. Grace watched the fog baby disappear. “Have you ever heard of that before, organs on the outside?”
“Sometimes they can fix that.”
“Gracie, he said ‘no options.'”
“Sometimes they can.”
“I’m glad we didn’t say anything to our parents.”
Grace played with the glove box. Open. Close. Open. Close. Open.
“I’m not going to do anything just yet,” she said.
Close. Open. Close. Open. Gabe pushed the glove box shut and grabbed her hand.
“What do you mean? I thought we said, you know, just have the procedure. You know, done.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“But it’s all set.”
“I’m going to hold on. See what happens.”
“No. Let’s just do what we agreed. Please. It’ll be easier.”
“No, it won’t.”
“It’s too late for us, Gracie.”
“He said there was a chance I could carry to term.”
“He said minute. ‘A minute chance.'”
“That’s the one I want.”
That night, Grace heard him hang up the phone and come through the kitchen to find her sweeping the stairs.
“Why’d you do that?”
She poked the broom in the corners of the stair, and eased a line of fine dirt onto the dustpan.
“Tell my parents.”
“Hand me that dust rag would you?” She pointed to the old tee shirt on the landing. “The stairs are gross.”
“I thought we weren’t going to.”
“The rag, please?”
“No, you said you didn’t want to. That’s different from agreeing not to.”
“Now they’re very upset. They shouldn’t have to be.”
“They have a right.”
“Did you tell your side too?”
She down sat on the step.
He pounded out of the house. The garage door went up. His car revved.
“I might start to show.” She turned the broom upside down, and talked to the bristles. “I want everybody to know.”
A few days later, Grace sat at the kitchen table. She took a tiny bite of a Saltine and turned the pages of the catalog with the other hand. Gabe leaned against the counter with his mug, waiting for his toast.
“Where’d that come from?”
“In the mail.”
“Just coincidentally? A baby catalog shows up here?”
“I requested it.”
She circled the pink quilt on the bottom of the last page. Gabe threw what was left of his coffee against the back of the sink and banged out of the house. Grace watched the coffee drips bleed down the porcelain. The toast popped. It came out burned at the edges. She tasted the smoke from it in the back of her throat, and raced to the bathroom to vomit.
It was the next Saturday morning. A cutting pulse of an ache and bright red blood. Too much of it. Gabe was taking the snow tires off the cars. She shouted to him from the bathroom.
At the doorway he said, “I’ll call a cab. The cars are all apart.” But when he saw, he said, “Oh my god – an ambulance.”
“I never bought her anything,” she said. “I wish we had.”
She heard him give the address. He eased her off the toilet and down to the floor. He put a towel between her legs, and cupped her forehead with his hand.
“Oh, Gracie, oh no,” he said. “Hold on.”
“A bear or something. A doll. That we’d have.”
The room slipped and she never heard the siren.
The recovery room was cold. Grace shivered. The nurse brought another blanket and took her blood pressure again.
“Coming around a little?”
“Where’s my husband?”
“He said he’d be back.”
Grace felt her belly with her cold fingers. She pulled the hospital blanket up to her mouth. She closed her eyes and bit the blanket. She felt her teeth grind the fabric strands. She pushed more into her mouth and clamped down. Her jaw ached, and still she bit. She lay for a long time like that, biting until she gagged and the fabric strands separated. When Gabe came in, she pulled the damp blanket from her mouth.
He stood leaning against the wall with his feet spread wide, steadying himself. Gabe held a huge box across his chest with both arms curved up over it, the same way he carried logs.
“Your mother’s on her way,” he said.
“You called her?”
“The doc said you’re okay. Going to be fine.”
“What’s in the box?”
He crossed the room to her.
“I took a cab to the mall.”
She still had IV lines in both arms. He set the box on her belly as if it might detonate. He eased the top off. There was a dune of white tissue, its leaves fastened with a gold seal store logo. Gabe traced it with his finger, then tried to coax it away from the tissue without tearing it.
“What’d you do?”
“I was so mad at you,” he said.
“I know. I guess you were right.”
“I wish I wasn’t though.” He pressed his sleeve against his eyes for a long time, fighting to be able to talk. “I know you said a bear,” he said, “that’s the obvious thing, right? But I couldn’t do it. I got in there and, everything is just so, I don’t know, pastel. And soft.”
“I had to get out. The baby section. I just couldn’t.” He tore the seal and folded the tissue back a layer at a time. “I got pink. Seemed like it should be pink.”
“Gabe, show me.”
He lifted a fuchsia dress out of the box. A strapless satin number with a long, full skirt and a crinoline slip of hot pink net. He held it in front of him.
“Apparently it’s prom season,” he said. “I don’t know. I just thought, a prom dress.”
Grace took it from him. She fluffed the skirt and the slip, and felt the boning in the bodice. The zipper pull had a tiny pearl on the end of it, and she rolled it between her fingers. The fabric fell across the bed, so vivid it cast pink on the walls. She pulled Gabe down to her and held him, the dress between them. She felt his tears and hers run into her ears, and around the back of her neck.
“I’ll take it back.”
“Oh no,” Grace said. “We’re keeping it.”
10 replies on “Birthday Gifts”
I love the dialogue in this story – how the characters often don’t answer each other directly and how we feel, in just a few words, the love between Grace and Gabe and their longing for a child. Beautifully done!
Wonderful story. The ending has me undone and in tears. A prom dress — a symbol not of infancy, but of impending adulthood, and to Grace and Gabe, all that was lost in between. Brilliant.
Simply written and just heartbreaking. The prom dress instead of a bear – such an interesting turn.
Lot’s of surprises keep this story fresh. Love the use of body language and action, dialog is keen, and the ending adds a wonderful twist.
Great story and yes, I loved the touch of the prom dress… It does take the reader far into their future.
BRILLIANT. I was there, with them, with her. I wanted that baby so much, and then she was gone. Of course a bear wouldn’t have been right, but the pink prom dress made her a whole person, all grown up.
Couldn’t stop reading. Just loved it.
It seems unlikely to me that a woman would be in the position of emotionally wanting an item for a baby she was about to miscarry. More often women do too much in preparation for babies that are expected without any type of emotional protection for themselves. I thought that it was strange.
Oh my gosh! That was heartbreaking and beautifully written.
i truly enjoyed this! The urgency of emotion, desparation, hope, loss, love–all shine through in this short piece. thank you for sharing!