by Stephen Greenwood
Rating: PG-13 for a few choice words
Disclaimer: I tried to be involved but Tom Kapinos and the people at Showtime won't return my calls
Thank you to hummingfly67 and leucocrystal for the beta work.
Summary: Outside, the world goes on as it should; one startling revelation from an insignificant woman to an insignificant man could never knock the Earth off its axis.
There is an odd sense of irony in breaking the news of her pregnancy to him while reports of Kurt Cobain's death serve as background music. Two shocking outbursts in such a short space of time hit him full force, a one-two punch on his rise into consciousness, and Hank wants to pinch himself to make sure it isn't a drug-induced hallucination like usual. But Karen cries before him, silent sobs wracking her body, and he isn't certain which piece of information has affected her the most. He hears 'I'm' and 'pregnant' spill out of her mouth, one after the other, and he knows he should probably say or do something – comfort her, perhaps – but his body is frozen and the words tumble and fall inside his head until he isn't quite sure what they mean anymore. He is never at his most eloquent first thing in a morning; how the hell is he supposed to know what to say at a time like this, especially when the only thought in his sleep-addled brain is oh, shit.
Karen's crying makes his insides hurt and it adds to the blinding pain in his head, which has nothing to do with the whisky he drank quite happily last night and everything to do with the messy stream of conscience that has suddenly come out of hibernation to prod and poke his most tender spots. Go to her, the angel says firmly; the devil's voice niggles at the back of his mind and says, run now while you still can. He thinks Freud, for all his fucked-up qualities, might have had a point with his structure of the psyche. No wonder he could be a petulant child sometimes; his id usually ran rampant, clapping its hands with glee, a horny male with a wad of cash in a sex store (to update the old and overused 'bull in a china shop' metaphor, and it is somehow more fitting to Hank). "Beer!" it would scream with delight, "Cocaine! Woman!" And he would trot off merrily to satisfy it, ignoring morals and authority and warnings and all the things his mother told him to obey when he was a kid growing up in the big bad City.
He sees where that has gotten him. Jesus fucking Christ and all his disciples, he thinks, she's pregnant.
Hank's first instinct is to sleep it off like a bad hangover; maybe, when he wakes up, it will miraculously disappear and he won't have to deal with it. He wants Valium for his headache, enough to knock out a St Bernard or a small horse. It's just too much to comprehend all at once. He needs a little time to digest what she told him, all nine words of it (and really only the two that matter). He thinks he should have known what a huge impact so few letters could have; he's supposed to be a writer, after all. This effect is the kind he lives for, but usually through invention and ideas that have been through the wringer; it brings a whole new meaning to life imitating art and he can't say he likes it. Fiction he can handle; it's when it merges with reality he buries his head in the sand, sticks his fingers in his ears, covers the truth with a chorus of 'lalala', or whatever clichéd infantile behaviour suits him best at the moment it is needed.
But this… this transcends everything. There is no precedent. He doesn't know who to turn to or what to suggest and, if he's being really honest, he's scared shitless. It's a real-life horror movie; he's done what his father said would ruin his life. And he feels it in the pit of his stomach, the cyclonic churning of dread and apprehension, Mariana Trench-deep; never before has he felt so completely and utterly numb yet hypersensitive at the same time (he never was a fan of contradictions). It isn't Karen he's frightened of - if it had to happen with any woman, he's glad it's her - and he isn't terrified of commitment; he just prefers casual meetings with like-minded women, none of whom he has previously knocked up (that he knows of, anyway). But the fact is, this is life altering, bigger than losing his virginity or publishing his first novel. He is responsible for another person's existence. If it wasn't for his participation, the baby in her womb would simply not be there. They could never be born or graduate high school or change the world. His genes make up half of that person: cheekbones, hair colour, his way with words if the kid was lucky. They would look to him as a role model and call him 'daddy', and would take care of him when he grows old and can't piss standing up.
Hank only usually thinks like this when he's stoned; smoking a joint brings out his philosophical side pretty damn quickly.
A loud sniffle interrupts his selfish inner-monologue and he feels like he has been stabbed when she turns to face him with big wet storm-cloud eyes which have rained salty tears. She looks so young and helpless, sitting there with multicoloured stripes in her long hair and wearing his oversized robe, feet encased in a pair of thick socks. Despite his partial nudity, he feels she is the more vulnerable. Her body has been invaded and is no longer her own; she has to share thanks to him. Food, water, blood, all running through her and into that small umbilicus, nursing their cell-child like some pseudo-surrogate mother. He thinks of her as a matryoshka and wonders how many more are inside her and how many have already been discarded; the walls she regularly constructs lie in scattered chunks at his feet, the foundations crumbling with every tear she sheds.
Somehow, he doesn't think an apology will cut it this time.
* * * * *
They sit in his spacious bathroom, him on the toilet seat, her on the floor with her back to the wall in what he hopes isn't a sign of things to come. "Da-da," Karen says unsurprisingly, "it's positive." As if either of them had expected anything less the third time around; so much for it being the charm. She tosses the plastic stick to the ground in frustration.
"As in I'm with child," she snaps, glaring at him.
"Not so positive about that. Here," he says with a hint of desperation as he half-jogs to the counter to grab a different brand-name test, one which will undoubtedly tell them exactly the same as the previous three, "have another one. Look: pee on this. Pee on that." He proffers it like a gift, but it is not gold, frankincense or myrrh, and he is no wise man. Right now, he is barely Man, his bed-ruffled hair and wide eyes reminiscent of an animal seconds before it is face-first in the grill of a car. The waistband of his boxers peeks out from under his navel, and from there it is a pleasant journey over the well-defined contours of his chest to a face still showing the signs of sleep with a side order of worry. No jaunty, confident façade now, not in the face of adversity and surprise.
She looks up at him in exasperation. "Hank, we've done three, okay? I'm, I'm all out of pee."
He refuses to take no for an answer; he never has done in all the time she has known him – all those weeks she could count without needing the full use of both hands – so why should this be any different? "Well, then drink some water and hydrate, pee on this."
"I'm pregnant," Karen states, torn between wanting to console him and needing to slap the denial right out of his thick skull. Not just a river in Egypt, she sighs internally, and counts backwards from ten to stop herself from carrying out the latter (because all she needs is the tiniest bit of provocation; she could just blame the fluctuating levels of hormones, officer, and be done with it).
"I'm not convinced." Stubborn asshole.
"This is happening." Three tests have told her all she needs to know; it might not be enough for him, but it's her body and she knows when something isn't quite right. "Fuck."
"The rabbit done died, huh?" Hank's tolerance levels are dropping into a dangerous shade of red. He's had about as much out-of-the-blue news as he can handle for one morning. The ever-present swagger has disappeared from his step as he strides to the nearest carton of cigarettes. Sliding one between his lips delicately, he lights it hurriedly and inhales, and although he's fuckable in a James Dean Rebel Without a Cause way when he's smoking shirtless, having sex isn't the highest on her list of things to do right now. Been there, done that, got the fertilised egg to prove it, she thinks. "Alright, okay, what are we gonna do?" he asks bluntly.
"Well, it's okay, I mean, you know, I'll just take care of it, so." She wishes she could string more than two words together so her speech is at least a little coherent (but hell, she's not the professional who plays with such devices, so who gives a shit?).
"We'll take care of it," he corrects her immediately.
She's glad he accepts responsibility; it is half his problem, in any case. He should have warned her of his sperm's virility before fucking her senseless. "So that's it: we've decided. That's good, yeah." She knows she should sound relieved but her tone is all wrong and it comes out more sarcastically than she intended.
He tosses his hands up in semi-mock-annoyance. "Oh, well played, woman. I now feel entirely incapable of giving you the right answer here, so-"
"Well, no, I mean, Jesus Christ, Hank, we barely know each other, right? You've got a girlfriend!" She tosses it out as a thinly veiled accusation.
"Oh, come on, it's a loose arrangement. The waify models are good that way, you know. You have a boyfriend; let's not forget that important little factor." He feels he has to throw that in, if only to defend himself a little. This is not all my fault, he reminds himself. We're both consenting adults here; you were as much involved as I was.
She ticks off the details on her hand. "I have a boyfriend who is on tour, a boyfriend I never see, a boyfriend I think less and less about-"
He cuts her off before she can start crying again – he gets uncomfortable when women turn on the waterworks. Other bodily fluids he can handle but tears bring out some primal instinct he can't quite discard with a well-timed wisecrack. "Look, I don't wanna be insensitive, alright?" He crouches in front of her, vaguely remembering some programme on Animal Planet about getting down to eye level with a wild creature to make them feel less intimidated. "But are we entirely sure that this is my doing?" She stares at him, mouth agape in the universal code for 'how could you?', and that's when he knows he is in trouble. "Yep, you seem pretty sure. Okay."
Well played, son, he mentally chides himself and makes a vow not to say crap like that anymore, not in front of a hormonal woman who could kick his ass any time, pregnant or not. Besides, she just so happens to be the budding mother of his firstborn; surely that's got to count for something in the 'Do Not Piss Off' leagues. Unfortunately, he tends to be quite good at it, the pissing people off part, whether it's intentional or due to negligence, and he knows he won't be able to stop himself. It's almost an addiction, as binding as heroin, and, however hard he tries, he can't quit cold turkey.
He squeezes her hands as he resigns himself to being her inconvenience, the itch she can't quite scratch.
* * * * *
Hank holds her hand and plays with her hair like it is a new shiny toy as they lounge on his bed in a casual pose which belies the seriousness of the conversation; they're debating whether a bunch of cells should be allowed to grow or not, like they do on those political debate programmes (thinking of it as cells helps to quash the tug on his heartstrings; saying 'child' or 'baby' just plain hurts). They could solve all the world's problems right here in his bedroom if only they weren't so indecisive. The day's paper lies open on top of the sheets but neither reads it. Instead of discussing the earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes that seem to be dominating the press, they experience their own natural disaster in a New York apartment to the tune of cab drivers' horns. Who said a microcosm had to be a perfect replica?
Outside, the world goes on as it should; one startling revelation from an insignificant woman to an insignificant man could never knock the Earth off its axis. He is not a famous enough author to be a last minute footnote in a trashy tabloid.
They project agreement but are too obstinate to bounce their doubts off each other as well; he settles for grabbing a glass of whisky. They sit on their high horses and pretend they know what to do, adults being children acting like grown-ups, when neither is certain of anything anymore after the ground opened up under their feet and swallowed them whole with a blue line on one piece of plastic after another. In the belly of the whale they wait indecisively, nervously, not prepared to say 'yes' to one course of action or the other, fearing making the wrong choice due to misinformation or a complete lack of it altogether. Hank faces the entire situation with equal parts trepidation and apprehension. We need pamphlets, he thinks, and leaflets and huge textbooks written by experts and stamped with a seal of approval. When in doubt, you turn to what you know, and he knows literature. His experiences of parenthood certainly cannot be trusted, not when he has an adulterous father and a mother who turns the other cheek. He doesn't want to be his father. A small part of him, probably the devil again, coaxing him into trouble, keeps nudging him to whisper you could be better.
She seems content to rely on morals, but how can he have helpful input on such a matter? He does what he wants when he wants with whoever is willing, consequences be damned. He supposes he can't say that anymore, not when the repercussion is a life sentence.
"I'm sorry I knocked you up," he says quietly, almost shyly (and he doesn't know why he said it because he ruled out the possibility of an apology fixing everything hours ago, but it feels like the Right Thing To Do). He wants to down the whisky for some Dutch courage but he doesn't dare break eye contact with her, not when they're finally talking about something meaningful. He settles for gripping the glass tighter and imagining the smooth liquid sliding down his throat; it's no alternative to the real thing.
Karen appreciates his admission of guilt but she needs some air; too much serious discussion is suffocating her, and she had welcomed the banter they had been partaking in before his apology. "It's almost rude, right?" she replies with a light, semi-flirtatious tone of voice.
Luckily, he understands why the diffusion of the sudden build-up of tension is necessary – is almost relieved by the change in atmosphere – and he throws back a bunch of words that make her smile and beckon for him to join her. He wishes he knows what he said right this time so he could remember it for the future. Sure, he can write – he has the published novel and the royalties cheque to prove it – but writing affords him the luxury of thought before putting his fingers to the keys of the old typewriter. He can go back and start afresh if he makes a mistake and nobody is any the wiser. That's why he loves it so much, the way he can manipulate words on paper; it's something he cannot do elsewhere, and playing God to a bunch of characters inside his head gets him off on the power trip. In his real life, the one where he is not omniscient, he uses words as weapons and humour as a defence. He feels meek and feeble, and he crawls into Karen's arms like a cub going home to its mother.
She strokes his back as he sombrely says, "In ten years' time, you may very well be the love of my life."
He doesn't think he'll need a decade to prove it.
* * * * *
The words have never come so easily as they do when he looks at her. They spill onto the blank page from every pore, his personal failings flying from his fingers like sparks from a Catherine wheel, ink branding paper usually earmarked for pitiful fiction, falling victim to his fears and honesty. He calls it the hardest thing he has ever had to write and it is true, at least in principle, but his hands dance over the well-worn keys of their own accord, separate entities from his brain, and it is as though his thoughts hit the paper before his head can process them. They are too big and abstract for humans to even hope to comprehend; he serves as a mere intermediary, a conduit, so such grand romanticism can be expressed in terms people can understand. He thinks it only fair the world has some beauty to counteract the all too common horrors.
It is bittersweet, his letter, and Hank tries to oppress the self-loathing often present in his writing and his witticisms, although the self-deprecating tone makes a special guest appearance without an invitation. He doesn't want her to feel sorry for him; he doesn't need her sympathy. Too many women have come and gone in a moment of pity. He wants something more meaningful, something stable and concrete after a tirade of fleeting glimpses into lives he could never lead with people he doesn't even like. Sleeping next to a warm body at night, love them or no, is better than waking up alone.
Or it used to be. Something has shifted – an internal earthquake knocked a screw back into place – and he no longer wants to see any woman's face in a morning. He wants to see Karen's. She still sleeps now, turned away from him as if sensing his need for privacy when pouring his heart out on paper. She is bare under the thin sheet – he slid her clothes off earlier before he made love to her – and the knowledge would usually shoot straight to his cock but he feels it in his chest this time; there is a longing, a yearning just to be close to her and protect her and their child from all the dangers the world has to offer. I'm growing up, he senses absurdly, and this is what responsibility feels like.
And as he types, he silently tells her how hard he has fallen, using words like 'perfect' and 'The One', concepts he thought he had previously understood but only now realises how very wrong he was. He is hardly perfection personified, even if he projects the confidence he imagines Michelangelo's David to have (any guy who poses like that must be one cocky son of a bitch). He has flaws visible from space and his vices say too much about him. It would be easy to get caught up in fantasy (it comes with the territory) and dream of a life where the three of them are a happy family, but even in his faithful imaginings he is not himself in this counterfeit world he has concocted. To make it work he would have to Change, and isn't he too old a dog to learn new tricks? No, Hank's got a one-way ticket to Hell and he doesn't want to drag them along for the ride. He hopes that counts towards redemption.
She shifts in her sleep, the sheet slipping away to reveal a tantalising amount of leg. Hank wonders why God continues to test him, to flaunt sins in front of his face as though they were something as mundane and ordinary as money-off coupons (and he supposes they are, in this modern-day world, but he doesn't want to move permanently to the basement sauna; he's heard the humidity's always up to rainforest standard and the landlord's a real bastard slave driver). He thinks lust is his downfall, even above pride and sloth, and that's not too bad; Dante named it the least serious and it's only in the second circle of Hell. Anyway, he might have learned his lesson this time. The punishment fits the crime, he ponders, or does it? He was beginning to see her pregnancy as salvation, something that could change his life for the good instead of tear it to pieces and throw it to the winds like thirty-year-old confetti. He knows he writes better when he is with her – his agent must be praying for them to tie the knot already, would probably pay for a flight to Vegas – and when the words flow he is happy. It doesn't require a genius from MENSA to work out a solution.
And therein lies the problem. She doesn't want to see him. He needs to be with her. Conundrums, and compromise in particular, have never sat well with Hank. Sure, he understands her reasoning. He concedes her point. He isn't about to go all Fatal Attraction on her (he doesn't even have a favourite opera) but he doesn't want to lose her, either, because he blossoms in her presence for she is the oasis in his parched desert of an existence.
He doesn't know how else to tell her than through his words, for they are all he has.
If you're reading this, it means I actually worked up the courage to mail it, so good for me. You don't know me very well but if you get me started I have a tendency to go on and on about how hard the writing is for me. But this… this is the hardest thing I've ever had to write. There's no easy way to say this so I'll just say it: I met someone. It was an accident, I wasn't looking for it, I wasn't on the make. It was a perfect storm. She said one thing and I said another and the next thing I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the middle of that conversation. Now there's this feeling in my gut she might be the one. She's completely nuts in a way that makes me smile, highly neurotic: a great deal of maintenance required. She is you, Karen; that's the good news. The bad is that I don't know how to be with you right now, and that scares the shit out of me because if I'm not with you right now I have this feeling we'll get lost out there. It's a big bad world full of twists and turns and people have a way of blinking and missing the moment. The moment that could have changed everything. I don't know what's going on with us and I can't tell you why you should waste a leap of faith on the likes of me. But damn you smell good, like home, and you make excellent coffee – that's got to count for something. Call me.