Cake

     Denise’s husband, Glen, enlisted in the navy before they got married.  In the four years that followed, he’d served two long deployments and his squadron had been out to sea for extended exercises several more times.  Glen had just gone out for another month of exercises when it happened.  A boyfriend she’d had in high school got Denise’s number from a mutual friend and called when he was passing through town.  He suggested stopping by for a quick visit and brought a bottle of wine when he did.  They drank that, and then some more that she had, and things just happened from there.  He got up in the middle of the night, dressed quietly, and crept out of the bedroom while she pretended to sleep.  She wasn’t consumed with worry that he hadn’t used a condom because she and Glen had been trying to get pregnant without success since their wedding night.  But, she felt worse and worse lying there as the alcohol wore away.

     When Glen’s cruiser came back in, Denise met it at the dock with the other wives.  She wore her hair the way he liked and a dress he’d given her for her birthday.  Like always, his initial embrace when he got off the ship was intense; they rocked back and forth for a long time and then walked arm in arm to the parking lot.  At home, he wanted them to get in bed right away.  She did, too, but there was a new ache somewhere deep inside of her as they made love, and a chill passed over her when they finished.  Soon, Glen began snoring softly.  It was late afternoon.  Denise watched dust float in the slant of sun that streamed through the window shade slats and listened to cars go by in the street outside the little bungalow they rented.  Twenty minutes or so passed before she smoothed the hair off Glen’s forehead, kissed him there, got into her robe, and went into the kitchen to start dinner.

     Things afterwards settled into a pretty normal routine.  Although the ache inside was never far away, Denise was able to act normally enough that Glen didn’t notice anything amiss.  He’d never been particularly observant or intuitive anyway, nor the type to be suspicious; his simple goodness and trustworthy nature were things that drew her to him when they first started dating.  Also, his earnestness and how gentle and solicitous he was with her – those things never changed either.  She knew how much he wanted to have a child, and even after all the years of trying, his hopefulness never diminished.  Earlier that year, they’d begun saving so they could try in vitro fertilization; Glen knew how long it would take to accumulate enough money, but he stayed upbeat about that, too.

     Denise’s period could be a little irregular, so she didn’t become concerned until the fifth week had passed since the last one she’d had just before Glen had gone out for exercises.  Finally, when that same chill in her became almost constant, she bought a pregnancy test kit and brought it home early from work when she knew that Glen would still be on his shift at the base.  In the bathroom, she hurried through the procedure, her hands shaking, then stood in the glaring light from the globes above the mirror and watched as two colored lines slowly appeared on the test strip: a positive result.  She shook the strip, blinking at it, but the pair of lines remained.  Denise lowered it to the counter, looked at her face in the mirror, shook her head, and began to cry.  After a while, she wrapped the strip and its packaging in toilet paper, brought the bundle out to their trash can in the alley, and buried it under several bags of garbage.

     She went for a long walk through the neighborhood and out along the bay.  She looked at the boats on the water and thought about how Glen had been gone more than he’d been home during their marriage and how lonely she’d felt.  But, she knew it was no excuse; it was what she’d signed up for as a navy wife.  A cold, winter fog drifted in from the north, and she hugged herself against it.  She walked until the afternoon’s light fell towards gloaming, then made her way home.

     Denise was putting leftovers in the microwave when she heard Glen pull the car into his parking spot in the alley.  She swallowed, turned on the radio, found some music, then turned it off again and busied myself washing dishes at the sink.  A few moments later, she heard the back door open and Glen’s footsteps come into the kitchen, then stop.  He cleared his throat.  She turned the water off, steadied herself, and turned around.  He was standing a few feet away with his hands behind his back, a big grin on his face.  He shook his head slowly back and forth, but kept smiling.

     “What?” she asked.

     He brought his hands around to the front.  One held the pregnancy kit strip.  He showed it to her like it was a trophy.  His grin had widened and his eyes were dancing.  “When did you do the test?”

     Denise felt her frown deepening.  “How did you find that?”

     He shrugged.  “Dumb luck.  Dog knocked over our trash can and was sniffing around what spilled out when I pulled up.”  He stepped over to Denise and took her in his arms.  “I’m so happy,” he whispered.  After a moment, she felt him trembling and realized he was weeping.  She forced herself to move her hand back and forth across his shoulders.  “So, so happy,” he whispered.  “Can you believe it?  We’re going to have a baby.”

Glen insisted on immediately calling the doctor and reached the office before it closed.  He made an appointment for the next morning, then called his supervisor and got permission to come in late.  Denise did the same while he went to change out of his work uniform; she just left a message for her boss at the supermarket that she needed to get something fixed on her car.

     The next morning, the doctor confirmed the pregnancy and then rattled on for a while about upcoming steps and prenatal care while Glen held Denise’s hand in both of his.  When he squeezed hers, she did her best to do the same.  Glen kept nodding, looking back and forth from the doctor to Denise.  She kept her eyes on the doctor’s face and hoped her hand wasn’t as cold in Glen’s as it felt to her.

     They’d driven separate cars so they could each head to work afterwards.  After the appointment, Glen gave her a final hug where they’d parked along the curb.  Then he stepped back with his hands clasping her upper arms and said, “Is everything all right?  You feel okay?”

     “Yeah.”  She blew out a breath.  “I’m just still in shock, I guess.”

     His smile returned.  “Well, it’s real as can be.  Better get used to it, little mama.” 

     He rubbed her stomach, kissed her cheek, then trotted to his car.  Watching him go, the only relief she felt was that she knew he hadn’t done the same math in his head as she had when the doctor gave the expected due date.  And because he was Glen, the same man she’d fallen in love with and married, she knew he never would.

They agreed not to tell anyone about the pregnancy for at least another month.  Denise went through the motions at work.  At home, she spent a lot of time in bed so she wouldn’t have to face Glen.  She told him she was tired or having morning sickness, which he accepted without question, bringing her instead an extra pillow or covering her with a quilt.  He moved quietly in the house so he wouldn’t disturb her and began preparing most of their meals, asking her if there was anything special she was craving.  Sometimes, lying there in bed staring at a wall, she could hear him humming softly in another room.  The ache and chill inside of her became one an the same, always there.

     Denise took time off work, making up a story about having a lengthy flu.  She’d always left after Glen each day and returned home before him, so he didn’t know.  During the mornings, she took long walks until it was late enough to go to a matinee movie – a comedy, if she could find one.  At home afterwards, she found herself cleaning furiously or organizing and re-organizing closets and shelves, often throwing things into the trash with a force that broke or scattered them. 

     Every time Denise saw a mother with a baby or a family together, she turned away.  Although she had gained no weight, she began wearing loose-fitting clothes.  She could hardly sleep; she just laid there listening to Glen’s soft, contented snores, alternately curling up against him and turning to the outer edge on her side of the bed, waiting for the first gray light of dawn. 

     It wasn’t until several weeks later that she made a decision.  It came on a Saturday morning when she got up late and came into the hallway.  She found Glen in their tiny second bedroom with all its furniture piled in the center.  He was painting a wall light blue; all the wainscoting glistened a fresh pink.  He paused and turned his smiling face to her.  

     “If it’s a boy, I’ll paint over the wainscoting blue,” he said.  “Vice versa, if it’s a girl.  Either way, we’ll be ready.”

     He held the paint brush like a baton.  Flecks of blue and pink freckled the hairs on the back of his wrists.  She put a fist in her mouth and bit the knuckles.

     “Hey, there,” he said.  “Stop that.”

     He embraced her.  “Sometimes, I get so filled up with joy, I’m ready to lose it, too,” he whispered.  “Yesterday, I passed a tool to a guy at work and just started tearing up.  I hope the baby has your eyes, your hair.  Your everything except maybe my nose; my nose isn’t bad.”

     Denise felt him chuckle and buried her face deeper into his chest.

On Monday, she found an abortion clinic online and made an appointment for their next scheduled opening two days later.  In the intervening time, she stayed in bed without interruption, even when Glen was at work.  During those stretches, she sometimes burst into muffled sobs.  She refused the meals he brought her and remained unresponsive to his touch.  He didn’t mind at all; he told her to get all the rest she needed.  When he turned out the light and said that her he loved her, Denise shut her eyes tight.

     After he’d kissed her goodbye on the morning of the appointment, she listened to him gather his jacket from the peg by the back door, his keys from the little table there, and walk out to the alley.  She waited for the sound of his car to disappear before getting up, showering, and dressing.  She walked through the neighborhood, her fists balled in her sweatshirt pockets, until it was time to call the cab that took her to the clinic.

     There were forms to complete, a lengthy consultation with a nurse practitioner, and finally, she was lying on a table in a paper gown, her feet up in stirrups, local anesthesia numbing the lower part of her body.  During the procedure, Denise stared straight up at the florescent lights behind their muffled plastic sheets in the ceiling.  She tried to steer her thoughts to happy memories from her childhood: family vacations, Christmas mornings, birthday parties, buying clothes and supplies for a new school year.  At one point, she put her hands over her ears, pressing hard, screaming silently.  

     Denise had entered the taxi driver’s number into her cell phone when he dropped her off and called him after the recovery period to bring her back home.  Twenty minutes later, she was standing alone in the living room of their little bungalow in the white light of early afternoon with the murmur of an occasional passing car outside.  She looked at the framed photos from their wedding on the wall and the shells they’d collected during their honeymoon in a glass bowl on top of the bookcase.  A clock made its slow, repeated tick from the second bedroom; she closed the door to that room.  She sat in the middle of the couch and stared out the front window.  

     A half-hour passed before Denise went into the bathroom, showered again, and dressed in different clothes.  She brought the clothes she’d been wearing into the laundry room, stuffed them into the washer, added detergent, and started it.  Then she went into the kitchen and collected ingredients to bake a cake.

     She ignored the box of instant cake mix in the cupboard and made it from scratch.  Her motions were sharp, focused, punctuated.  When she was finished, she put the pan in the oven and set the timer.  She went into their bedroom and laid down.  She was aware of sprinklers hissing on in the yard next door and ending abruptly a while later.  A siren wound its way somewhere across town.  A dog barked nearby and another answered.  Birds tittered in a tree outside the window.

     When the timer on the stove eventually rang, she went back in the kitchen, turned it off, and took the cake out of the oven.  She set it on a rack to cool, then made frosting in a bowl, and stood looking out the small kitchen window into the backyard.  A cat slunk along the fence that bordered the alley.  She stood very still, staring, until she heard the afternoon’s last southbound train clatter into the station several blocks away, blowing its whistle, then hissing to a stop.

     Denise stood at the counter and frosted the cake: chocolate on chocolate.  She found some rainbow sprinkles and coated its top.  She ran water over the dishes in the sink, glanced at the clock at the back of the stove, bit her lip, and went into the living room.  

     She was sitting in the same spot on the couch as earlier when she heard Glen’s car settle into its spot in the alley, heard him come in the back door, heard him reverse the steps from the morning with his jacket and keys, heard him pause at the opening to the kitchen.  Then he appeared under the arch where the hallway joined the living room.  Their eyes met and Denise started to cry.  He came quickly to her side, sat next to her, and took her hands.  She sniffed back a breath, looked at him, and said, “We lost it.  The baby is gone.”

     He stared back evenly.  His eyes didn’t blink, but his breath had quickened.  Finally, he said, “You miscarried?”

     She nodded.  “I didn’t want to tell you on the phone.  I’ve been to the doctor already.”

     His expression hadn’t changed.  Very quietly, he asked, “When?”

     “This morning.”

     Denise looked at him and choked back a sob.  Glen wrapped her in his arms.  “Shh,” he whispered.  “That’s all right.  We’ll keep trying.”

     She nodded into his chest, and her sobs became harder, deeper.  He kept whispering, “Shh, shh,” and stroked her hair.  The light in the room was muffled, dim.

     A few moments later, Denise pulled away suddenly, her eyes wide and wet.  She said, “I baked a cake.”

     A small smile creased Glen’s lips.  He said, “I can smell it.”

     “Chocolate.  Your favorite.”

     He nodded and reached over with a fingertip.  Very gently, he wiped tears from both of her cheeks.  His smile grew and he nodded.  He said, “I love your cakes.”  

     “I’m glad,” she said, and began whimpering again.  “I’m so glad.”

About the Author: William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.