Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
“I think I missed part of what you were trying to tell me in there,” she says. “You said, ‘It’s not,’ but I didn’t hear the rest. It’s not…what?” Mallory’s nerves are jangling like the zills of a tambourine. Did Ursula say, “It’s not fair”? Pregnancy and childbirth aren’t particularly fair. Women get the short end of the stick. They have to carry the baby, they endure the pain of delivery, and the time-consuming job of nursing…and that’s only the beginning.
Ursula shakes her head. She looks at Mallory warily now, as though Mallory is trying to wrest away something that Ursula isn’t willing to relinquish.
Well, Mallory can guess the unspeakable truth.
It’s not Jake’s baby.
But Ursula will neither confirm nor deny.
“I should get back,” Ursula says. “Thank you for the Kleenex.” As if the damp, disintegrating tissue she’s holding in her hand is the sum total of what Mallory offered.
Before Mallory can respond, Ursula disappears into the ballroom.
Mallory pulls Fray off the dance floor. He’s doing the twist with Geri Gladstone, and how odd is
considering that Geri’s ex-husband is now shacking up with Fray’s mother, Sloane, in nearby Fells Point? Geri looks to be genuinely enjoying herself and Mallory feels bad about stealing Fray away but…desperate times.
“I need you,” she says. “And that cigarette. Outside.”
Mallory also needs tequila. Two fingers of Patrón Silver, which she procures from the bar and takes with her as she weaves through the tables toward the back door. Jake and Ursula are seated; Ursula has flipped open her phone, of all things, and Jake cocks an eyebrow at the sight of Mallory and Fray leaving together.
It isn’t Jake’s baby. Is this
It’s like something out of
All My Children,
but this isn’t a soap opera, this is real life. Did Ursula
on Jake? Mallory feels affronted by the idea—and how hypocritical is
Mallory is Jake’s Same Time Next Year! She has no room to judge
pregnant by someone else and Mallory knows it, should she tell Jake? The answer is obviously no. So Mallory should keep the secret and let Jake believe it’s his baby when it’s really not?
Mallory can’t think about it. She follows Fray outside.
They sit on the stone retaining wall on the far edge of the patio, the dark end, so people won’t see them smoking. The people Mallory is worried about are her parents; in so many ways, she still feels like a teenager.
“Did you always smoke?” Mallory asks. “I can’t remember.”
“I started when I stopped drinking,” Fray says. “I needed a new vice, one that would kill me more slowly.”
Mallory is already feeling the tequila three sips in, and the first inhale off the cigarette makes her so heady that she nearly topples off the wall like Humpty Dumpty. She grabs for Fray’s hand and ends up clutching his thigh. Which is a little awkward, right? She steadies herself and taps ashes into the manicured grass. “So how are you?” she asks. “You’re good, right? A millionaire?”
“Six coffee shops in western Vermont and one opening in Plattsburgh at the end of the summer, all operating at a profit,” he says. “Next week I fly to Seattle to see about launching my own brand of coffee. Starbucks did it. Peet’s did it. No reason I can’t do it.”
“You should call it Frayed Edge,” Mallory says. She cackles. “Never mind, that’s a terrible name for a coffee brand.”
(Fray kind of likes the name Frayed Edge. The future of coffee lies with young people, and young people like irreverence. He can see Frayed Edge coffee shops at every major university in the country, girls showing up in their frayed jeans—they buy them intentionally ripped and whiskered now—kids pulling all-nighters during midterms and finals. And, as Fray has learned, what twenty-year-olds want drives business to other demographics, because everyone wants to be twenty.)
going to call it Frayed Edge,” he says. “Thanks, Mal.”
“Give me a commission, please.” She throws back what’s left of her tequila and
You’ll pay for this later
written all over it, but it does the trick. She feels nothing but a slow, dirty burn inside. “This wedding is…I don’t even know.” She longs to tell Fray about the love triangle that has ruled her life for the past six years, nine months, and two weeks and how it has been, maybe, revealed to have another side. But it would be too much for Fray—or anyone—to digest. And Fray might feel like telling Coop in the name of “protecting” Mallory.
Next, Mallory considers telling Fray that she saw Valentina crying in the bathroom, but she doesn’t want to stir that pot either. The wise thing is to keep quiet.
“I’m going to keep quiet,” she says, because she’s drunk and can’t keep quiet.
Then an astonishing thing happens: Fray turns Mallory’s face toward him and they start kissing. Fray maneuvers himself off the wall and ends up standing to the left of Mallory’s legs, which are bound together by the ballet-slipper-silk skirt of her sheath.
Mallory is enjoying herself. Is it weird that she’s kissing Fray, a person she has known since she was a little girl? She might feel that way tomorrow, but tonight she’s hungry for his attention. Besides, she has always had a thread of sexual curiosity about Fray, deeply sublimated, but come on, he was older, a little dangerous, and off-limits to Mallory because of Cooper and Leland, which only made him that much more intriguing. He’s sober, he knows full well what he’s doing, so Mallory can only think that either Fray has held a torch for her all this time or Mallory has somehow transformed herself into an object of desire, either of which would be gratifying. In any case, she lets Fray lead her to the woods on the far side of the eighteenth hole and they make love leaning against a tree, which sounds rushed and uncomfortable but is, in fact, the opposite. Fray takes his time and deals with the restrictions of her sheath so expertly that Mallory wonders if he often makes love to bridesmaids at wedding receptions while leaning against trees. What neither of them thinks about until the last possible minute is birth control; Fray promises he’ll pull out and then breaks that promise.
When they walk back to the reception, the band is playing “At Last,” which is the song Mallory danced to with Jake at Coop’s first wedding. She seeks him out—and sees him staring right at her and Fray. His eyes remain on her as she reaches up and pulls a leaf from her hair.
He shakes his head almost imperceptibly, or maybe he doesn’t shake his head, maybe Mallory is imagining this gesture of disapproval, of jealousy. Mallory longs to take his hand and pull him onto the dance floor, she longs to whisper in his ear,
Yes, I was just in the woods with Fray, but it’s you I love, it has always been you, it will always be you, Jake McCloud.
But she can’t. Ursula is sitting right next to him, shaking the ice in her glass. Ursula has told Mallory she’s pregnant and maybe Ursula told her something else as well, or maybe she didn’t, but either way, Mallory can’t go near Jake for the rest of the night.
“Wanna dance?” Fray asks.
“Sure,” Mallory says.
Labor Day is ten weeks later. Mallory is waiting in the Blazer when Jake steps out of the Nantucket airport. He climbs in without a word. Mallory turns the key in the ignition without a word.
Mallory turns down the no-name road, and dust, sand, and dirt billow behind the Blazer in a cloud, just as they always do. Mallory has burger patties waiting under plastic wrap in the fridge, six ears of corn, shucked, four perfectly ripe tomatoes from Bartlett’s Farm sliced and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic, and a wedge of Brie softening next to an artful pile of water crackers and a small dish of chutney. There are novels stacked on Jake’s side of the bed—this year,
by Myla Goldberg, and
The Blind Assassin,
by Atwood—just as there always are. But this year, something is different. Maybe more than one thing.
Mallory pulls into the driveway, turns off the car, and looks at Jake.
“Home,” she says, trying for cheerful.
“Ursula is pregnant,” he says. “I know I should have called, but I wanted to tell you in person. I thought you deserved that.”
Mallory can’t decide if she should act surprised or not. Not, she decides. She appreciates the effort to get it all out on the table right away so they can talk it through, then enjoy their weekend.
“I understand,” she says. “Better than you know.”
“What?” he says.
“I’m pregnant too,” she says.
What are we talking about in 2001? A Tuesday morning with a crystalline sky. American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175, also from Boston to Los Angeles, crashes into the South Tower at 9:03. American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles hits the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. And at 10:03 a.m., United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco crashes in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. There are 2,996 fatalities. The country is stunned and grief-stricken. We have been attacked on our own soil for the first time since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. A man in a navy-blue summer-weight suit launches himself from a 103rd-floor window. An El Salvadoran line chef running late for his prep shift at Windows on the World watches the sky turn to fire and the top of the building—six floors beneath the kitchen where he works—explode. Cantor Fitzgerald. President Bush in a bunker. The pregnant widow of a brave man who says, “Let’s roll.” The plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed for the Capitol Building. The world says,
America was attacked.
New York was attacked.
New York says,
Downtown was attacked.
There’s a televised benefit concert,
America: A Tribute to Heroes.
The Goo Goo Dolls and Limp Bizkit sing “Wish You Were Here.” Voicemail messages from the dead. First responders running up the stairs while civilians run down. Flyers plastered across Manhattan:
by the terrorists because of the bluebird weather—has an eerie significance: 9/11. Though we will all come to call it Nine Eleven.
If there’d been anything else we cared about that year before this happened, it was now debris. It became part of what we lost.
rsula loves being a mother.
This surprises no one more than Ursula herself. Her pregnancy was difficult. Everything that could go wrong did: she had aggressive morning sickness, she got carpal tunnel in both hands, she had gestational diabetes, and, finally, in her seventh month, placenta previa, which put her on bed rest until her delivery date.
This last development, the bed rest, was not received well at work. Hank Silver did the predictable thing, showing up at Ursula’s apartment and suggesting that maybe her priorities were shifting, maybe instead of relentlessly pursuing partner, she wanted to consider part-time hours, a support role.
“The Mommy Track?” Ursula asked with no small amount of disgust, for that was what everyone called it. “You know me better than that, Hank. I’m going to close this case from bed. And after the baby is born, I’m going to work twice as hard. I will make partner
That was my goal when I started. That’s my goal now.”
(Hank knew to tread carefully; the last thing he wanted was a sexual-discrimination suit. But Hank had five children; he understood better than anyone that children changed things. They took priority, as Ursula would soon find out.)
“Okay,” Hank said. “I just wanted to let you know that if you feel differently after the baby is born, we will all understand.”
They would understand? Sweet of them. Ursula had seen the way her coworkers’ attitudes toward her changed with the news of the pregnancy. Ursula had once heard two of the male partners call her a ball-crusher, and privately she was flattered. But gone were her slim tailored suits and her wicked stilettos. She had grown round and soft; her breasts were swollen and heavy, and the only pair of shoes that fit were her Ferragamo flats, and even those were uncomfortable. She took them off under her desk and rubbed her sore insteps.
Once Ursula announced her pregnancy, her decision-making was questioned and people talked over her; even
talked over her. Ursula couldn’t
the stereotypes that came to life in vivid Technicolor right before her eyes.
Ursula wanted to
Hank Silver. He had five kids of his own and crowed about their accomplishments—the squash!—but there had been no such conversation in the office with Hank when his children were born, because Hank was a man. Hank had a wife at home to handle the kids, and even if he had been a single father, there would have been his mother, his sister, a housekeeper, a legion of nannies or au pairs, and no one would have batted an eye, no one would have said he was “farming the kids out,” no one would have called him a bad father or suggested that he go part-time, take on a support role.
Incredibly, however, Ursula had one worry more pressing than her career or discrimination in the workplace.
That worry was the baby’s paternity.
Ursula and Jake had had all of the standard prenatal tests done—two ultrasounds, nuchal-fold test to check for Down syndrome, Rh factor and carrier screening—but none of these told Ursula what she really needed to know: Was the baby Jake’s or Anders’s?
Ursula’s emotional affair with Anders Jorgensen started in Las Vegas, but they didn’t cross the line until they were assigned the case together in Lubbock, Texas, where there was absolutely nothing to do in their downtime but go to the rinky-dink hotel bar—aptly named Impulse—and drink. During her first visit to Impulse, Ursula ordered a glass of champagne and was given Prosecco that tasted like a green-apple Jolly Rancher. She switched to vodka (they had Stoli, thank goodness) and soda with a quarter lemon. She could drink ten in a row; they were sharp enough to cut through the heat outside the bar and the cheesiness inside it.
The surprising thing wasn’t that Ursula slept with Anders; the surprising thing was how long she waited. Anders was tall, broad, blond, a Viking—that’s right, descended from
. His size and strength were surpassed only by how
he was, how savvy in negotiations, how ridiculously good at his job. He pushed Ursula to work harder and better; he inspired her. She was energized when he was in the room. Could she impress him? Yes, she saw that she did impress him. It gave her a jolt. She became an addict for his attention.
But what about Jake?
While Ursula was sucking down bright, citrusy Stoli sodas at Impulse, Jake was at home in Washington playing games on his computer instead of job hunting. He was, Ursula thought, in danger of becoming as interesting and influential as a soft-boiled egg. But Ursula had been raised Catholic and she had personal honor. She was not morally flimsy.
Or was she?
The allure of Anders was stronger than Ursula’s innate morality. He broke her code, cracked the safe—whatever metaphor you want to use, the result was Ursula and Anders in bed. A lot.
Ursula reasoned—as she padded barefoot down the hallway of the Hyatt Place back to her own room, her skirt suit hastily donned, hanging crooked, partially unzipped—that the problem was that she and Jake had met too young, and during the times when they had been broken up, Ursula hadn’t sowed her wild oats the way she should have.
Excuses: She despised them. She had been led to temptation, she had not been noble enough to resist, and her bad behavior had resulted in this punishment: she didn’t know whose baby she was carrying.
When Anders found out Ursula was pregnant, the affair ended abruptly. Anders had only this to say to Ursula:
It’s not mine. Do you hear me, Ursula? Even if it’s mine, it’s not mine.
He then accepted a transfer to the New York office, and the gorgeous six-foot-tall blond associate Amelia James Renninger, a.k.a. AJ, went with him. They moved into a loft in SoHo together.
Even if it’s mine, it’s not mine.
Ursula was, on the one hand, reassured by this blunt statement; she chose to believe that since Anders had categorically rejected paternity, the baby must be Jake’s. Still, she worried the baby would come out blond and oversize when both she and Jake were dark and slender. She feared bringing pictures of the baby to the office and watching everyone at the firm realize that Ursula’s baby looked
like Anders Jorgensen.
On January 23, 2001, Elizabeth Brenneman McCloud was born, weighing six pounds, eleven ounces, and measuring nineteen inches. Dark hair, dark eyes, something in her face that echoed Jake’s.
God is good,
Ursula thought. Though she knew there would be payback somewhere down the road.
After Bess was born, Ursula hired a baby nurse who slept on a cot in the second bedroom, now the nursery, but Ursula got up for every single feeding. She expressed milk nonstop, labeled the bags, stockpiled them in the freezer. She returned to work after only four weeks. She traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, for a case but flew home every weekend, sleep be damned. She interviewed nannies and found Prue—sixty years old, Irish, the mother of four grown children herself. Prue takes excellent care of Bess, and Ursula watches Prue’s every move, hoping to imitate her calm, sure hands, her ability to be present with the baby, never distracted, never rushed.
I can guarantee you one thing,
These are days you’ll miss.
Ursula is doing it all, and for months, she’s been doing it all well. She has a thousand billable hours by the end of June. After Omaha, she takes a case in Bentonville, Arkansas. Isn’t there anything closer? Jake asks. He’s helpful, hands-on, every bit as smitten with Bess as Ursula is if not more so—Ursula caught him dancing with her in the nursery to the strains of Baby Mozart—but he has just started as the VP of development for the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation and he travels across the country to meet with donors. Ursula’s third case of the year is in Washington proper, so she’s able to feed Bess every night and every morning. When summer rolls around and Bess starts eating solids, Ursula goes to the Orchard Country Farm Stand and buys produce to steam, purée, and strain. Jake is impressed; Ursula has never cooked anything in her life.
Bess meets all of her developmental milestones early. She rolls over, sits up, smiles, laughs, coos. She has soft brown hair coming in and large, chocolaty eyes. She has Jake’s smile. What a smile. Ursula has never melted at anything in her life—but that smile.
Jake goes to Nantucket over Labor Day and Prue is away visiting her daughter on Lake Lure so Ursula has Bess to herself for the weekend. She is…the perfect mother! The perfect
mother! She nurses Bess, feeds her, changes her, takes her to the park and pushes her a hundred and fifty times in the bucket swing, reads to her, puts her down for her nap. While Bess is napping, Ursula works, and when she takes a break, she gets on the treadmill and powers out four miles. At the end of the day, she is too tired to even make a sandwich or call the Indian place a block away so she pours a glass of wine and eats an apple for dinner.
As soon as Jake returns from Nantucket, Ursula goes back to work, but it’s harder after such a wonderful weekend than it was even right after Bess was born. Ursula considers Hank Silver’s offer anew. What exactly does she want to achieve by making partner? Money? Prestige? An ego boost? Ursula always had some sense that she would change the world, make a difference—but she’s the first to admit this isn’t happening in the world of mergers and acquisitions.
The following weekend, Bess has a low-grade fever. She’s cranky and gnaws on her fist; she sneezes, her nose runs, her cries are ragged with mucus. Ursula gets home from work Monday evening and Prue announces that it’s not teething, like they all thought. Bess needs to see the pediatrician. Prue has made an appointment for nine o’clock the next morning.
No problem, Ursula will take her, go into the office late.
“Are you sure?” Jake says. “Prue can take her.”
“I am not the kind of mother who makes her nanny take her sick child to the doctor,” Ursula says.
Jake squeezes her shoulder. “I know you’re not,” he says. “I’m proud of you.” The words are meant to be kind, she knows—Jake is as kind a person as God ever created—but they also sound vaguely patronizing. He’s proud of her for choosing Bess over work because he expected the opposite. He’s proud of her, but
isn’t volunteering to take Bess, even though it was fine for him to take last Friday off so he could go to Nantucket on his boys’ weekend.
Ursula could start a fight, but she won’t because they will go around and around and say hurtful things they don’t mean and Ursula will still end up taking Bess to the doctor. She keeps quiet. She’s learning.
She’s smart enough to be the first parent at Dr. Wells’s office the next morning. Ursula doesn’t have a minute to waste—look in her ears, write a scrip, and we’re off. It’s five minutes to nine. The staff is milling about in the back, getting ready to start a day of caring for the children of Washington’s elite. Deena Dick, the receptionist at Dr. Wells’s office, is among the most powerful women in Washington, and she knows it.
Deena sees Ursula enter the waiting room five minutes early and she takes a sustaining breath. These parents. But better early than late, she supposes—her day will end with one of the ambassador wives rushing in at ten past five with her kid in tow, pedicure foam still between her toes. Priorities.
Deena stands up to call Ursula and baby Bess back; the doctor is perpetually late and won’t be here for another ten minutes at least, but they can get the baby weighed and check her vitals. Parents are less impatient once they cross the threshold to an examining room.
Then the emergency line rings.
Deena thinks. She picks it up.
It’s Deena’s husband, Wes.
“What’s wrong?” Deena asks. When Deena left the house that morning, Wes was dressed for work, making Braden and the twins French toast and watching the morning news.
“Something’s happened,” Wes says. “Turn on the TV.”
Deena is confused. A plane hit the World Trade Center? At first, she thinks it’s a small plane, an inexperienced pilot, a rogue gust of wind, maybe. Deena doesn’t have time to turn on the TV—okay, maybe she does, there’s a small one in their lunchroom. She finds CNN. Sure enough…wow, it looks bad. The building is on fire, and people are dead for certain. Deena says a prayer and goes to fetch Ursula and baby Bess.