Carrie had never seen Dr. Joel Olefeeder before, but he was the only one available under her medical plan--the old HMO clusterfuck--so here she was. She sat in his waiting room, reading a Time from three years ago. Racism was out of control. Civil war was savaging the Balkans. Hollywood was auto-cannibalizing. Time made it all seem delightful.
Dr. Olefeeder's nurse, Delores, had attended the same high school as Carrie. She too had been one of the fat girls who stood by, year after year, and watched the others dance. Now they pretended they didn't know each other.
"You can go on back to room seven, Miss Stoops," Delores said. She wore a wedding ring but was still a tubbo.
Carrie, through a glum devotion to celery in its many enticing forms (stalk, juice, pudding) had entered the land of the slim five years ago. She was sure this was why she always felt a little cold--lack of adipose. She shivered as she undressed and slipped into her hospital gown. Delores came in to take her temperature and check her blood pressure. She wanted to say something to Delores, something like: I'm sorry you're still so fat. Being skinny isn't really so much better in the end. No, I'm not just saying that.
But Delores wouldn't even look at her.
She left finally and Carrie passed the time browsing medical supplies. Tongue depressors. Disposable thermometers. A jar of K-Y Jelly the size of a newborn. She plucked a pair of latex gloves from a box on the counter and touched at her face absently. The gloves were coated in a chalky film--reptilian. Was this what it would feel like to be a snake handler? But snakes weren't really chalky, were they?
Behind her, Dr. Olefeeder cleared his throat.
"Sorry," Carrie said. She pulled off the gloves. "Just testing for quality."
The doctor smiled quizzically. He was a large man with a swirl of hair that sat on the crown of his head like a danish and his ears were red and damp, as if they had just been defrosted. "What can we do for you today, Miss Stoops?"
"I'm having some pain in my abdomen," Carrie said.
"The abdomen!" Olefeeder said brightly. "Yes!" He gestured for her to lie down on the exam table and raised her gown and set his hands, both his hands, on her belly. Carrie braced for the inevitable prodding. But Olefeeder's touch was surprisingly light. His fingers danced over her skin and he closed his eyes and let his head loll from side to side. He looked like a blind piano player.
"Could it be my appendix?" Carrie said. "I was worried, you know, because if you wait too long . . . " She made a small explosion noise.
Olefeeder's great body tensed. His fingers fell still. Then he began, again, a delicate glissando of touches from her belly button to the sensitive flesh at the top of her thigh.
Carrie didn't know what to do. Olefeeder wasn't hurting her, exactly. This was more in the nature of a caress. It felt . . . nice. Carrie had always suspected that blind men would be good in bed. She began to envision a scene in which she was assigned the task of leading Ray Charles to his private room, which included a jacuzzi, a heart-shaped jacuzzi. This was after a concert or something. Ray was in a thin silk robe and he asked her, in that gentle husky voice of his, would she help him find the top step and shed his robe right there and set his hand on her arm, his gentle gentle hand. And just at this moment--as Carrie gazed at his physique, the old braided muscles and smooth dangling sex, as she prepared to shed her gown and join Ray in this exciting new world of aqua-erotic tactile exploration--just at this moment, Olefeeder removed his hands and lowered her gown.
Carrie let out a little moan of disappointment, which she then tried to camouflage, absurdly, by pretending to sneeze.
"When was the last time you had sexual intercourse?" Olefeeder asked.
Intercourse? "I'm not sure I understand. Is there something wrong?"
"Not at all!" Olefeeder smiled broadly. His teeth were the color of newsprint.
Carrie winced her little wince of mortification. "A month ago," she said. "Six weeks, maybe." An image of Brian's torso flashed above her, narrow and thickly sprigged with black hairs; his lips peeled back to reveal pale gums. This was his I'm coming face. The expression always reminded Carrie of the novel Jaws, in which a woman describes her lover as looking like a shark. The association struck her as somewhat pathetic.
"What sort of birth control did you use?" Olefeeder said.
"My fiancé uses condoms, the kind with spermicide." Carrie had gone off the pill last year, after Brian moved to Milwaukee. The idea--as she had presented it to him--was to minimize side effects. But she had done this mainly to punish him for leaving. His response had been mordant whimsy. ("I suppose this means an end to the days of wine and douches?") That was Brian all over: good-humored to the point of exhaustion.
"Well," Olefeeder said. "My diagnosis is: you're pregnant."
"Pregnant!" Olefeeder said the word as if he had just hit a bingo.
"No. I'm sorry. That's impossible. I haven't seen Brian in more than a month. I got my period after he left."
"I wouldn't know anything about that," Olefeeder said cheerfully.
Carrie shook her head again. "I don't mean to question your expertise, or whatnot. But, I mean, what are you basing this on?"
"I see your point." Olefeeder nodded vigorously. He turned to the drawer behind him and removed a needle and a small vial.
"You're not considering taking my blood."
"That's really the only way to know for sure."
"Wait a second. I don't think we're communicating." Carrie had now begun speaking extremely slowly. "I came in here with a sharp pain in my stomach, on the right side of my abdomen. Somehow, that's led you to conclude that I'm pregnant. But as I've explained, that's just not possible."
Olefeeder tapped the chart with his pen. He looked somewhat wounded. "Very well then," he said softly. "You may put your clothes on."
On her way out of the office, Carrie spotted Delores leaning over the copier. It was now obvious why she looked so slag-bellied--she was pregnant.
"The whole thing was just totally crazy," Carrie said. She was on the phone with her friend Maggie.
"What was crazy?"
"This doctor. You'll never guess what he told me. Are you ready for this? He thinks I'm pregnant."
"That's so weird," Maggie said. "I thought there was something different about you. Like this glow."
"I'm not pregnant, Mag."
"I thought you said--"
"I said he thought I was pregnant. He thought that. But I'm not. It's been, like, two months since I had sex."
"I thought Brian visited last month."
"Early last month. And I'm sure I got my period after he left. I remember, because it was that same weekend we went to Scottsdale."
"When did we go to Scottsdale?"
Carrie could hear the bolt-bolt-bolt of Mag's sewing machine. She was a set designer who seemed to do most of her work while on the phone. Once, in a last-minute whirl to prepare for La Traviata, Mag had sewed the phone cord into one of her scrims.
"This guy isn't even a gynecologist. He's just one of those, whatever they're called, general doctors."
"Did he give you a test?"
"He didn't even do an exam. That's what I'm telling you."
"Are you going to get one?" Maggie said. "If my doctor thought I was packing fetus, I'd get a test."
"That's absurd," Carrie said. "I don't have a single symptom."
"Are you going to tell Brian?"
"Why should I tell him? There's nothing to tell him. That some quack believes I'm knocked up based on my having a stomach ache? This is exactly what I'm talking about. Just because he's a doctor and a man you immediately believe him. When I'm the one, it's my body, and goddamn Brian, he probably wouldn't even--"
"Why are you screaming?" Maggie said. She had stopped sewing.
Carrie took a breath and something in her throat caught.
"Are you okay?"
"PMS," she said quietly. "Goddamn PMSing."
All the next day, Carrie was hounded by babies. Precious little airbrushed babies gazed down from billboards. Real-life babies with faces like plum tomatoes wailed next to her at traffic lights. Babies on the TV at work sat in the middle of radial tires, burbling in a manner meant to suggest all-weather traction. At the bank, she got in line behind a woman who was dressed in snappy pantsuit. Incongruously, she had a baby flung over her shoulder. The infant, dressed in a canary onesie, slept peacefully. And then, right in front of Carrie, the child opened its mouth and released a gout of cloudy liquid, most of which landed on his mother's sleeve.
"Oh! Diego!" The woman set the kid in his stroller and examined her sleeve. "Wouldn't you know it? The one time I leave the diaper bag in the car!" The woman gestured at the baby, then, as if by some previous arrangement, at Carrie. "I'll just be a minute!" A rancid odor rose from the boy's pale scalp. His eyelids were threaded with tiny pink veins. Diego? There was nothing to suggest even a trace of Latin blood. His mother--she was now, for some reason, haranguing the branch manager--looked Jewish.
Brian was half-Jewish. "The lower half," he liked to joke. He had an endearing way with his insecurity, but there was something deeply clannish in his mindset. It seemed to Carrie that she was always being kept just beyond range by his ambitions. He could be terrifically persuasive and passionate, even charming when the occasion demanded. But the word that leapt to mind when Carrie thought about him was overdetermined. His marriage proposal had sounded like an arbitration ruling.
Diego's mother (Mrs. Diego?) now returned and lifted her child from the stroller. "Thank you so much," she told Carrie. "You're a gem. Something must have disagreed with his little tummy. Is that right? Did something disagree with your little tummy?"
The child, Diego, spat up again.
Carrie's boss, Neil, was pacing. This was fine. Neil paced a lot. He was an edgy man. He needed to pace. The problem was that he was pacing in Carrie's office.
"Haven't we talked about this?" Carrie said.
"Talked about what?"
Carrie walked to her desk and picked up the brass nameplate. "It's really better that you don't come into my office unless I'm here, Neil. Unless you're invited."
"See, when you come into my office and I'm not here I get worried that you might be checking through my drawers, trying to find my Big Pink Work Vibrator with the special Rotating Clitoral Cuff."
"I don't know anything about that," Neil said.
Carrie made it a point to mention sex toys, because she knew this would put Neil on the defensive. This was where you wanted a boss like Neil, whose loneliness bled into his duties and made him tenacious in unreliable ways. He had confessed to Carrie, during last year's Christmas party, that he feared he would never find a woman who could love the real him. This seemed a reasonable concern. And yet, it infuriated Carrie that he had singled her out for this declaration, as if they now shared the burden.
"I just wanted to know if you'd looked over the memo," Neil said.
"The new maternity leave policy memo."
"As a matter of fact I haven't."
"Did you check your e-mail? It's been on your e-mail since Friday."
Carrie sat down at her desk and picked up her framed photo of Brian dressed as an elf and considered hurling it at Neil's head. "Why are you bringing this up now?"
"You're the one who brought it up," Neil said. "You brought it up. Last year. Remember? You said any civilized office should have a policy. That was the language you used, if I recall. I thought this would make you happy, Carrie."
Neil was pivoting into his self-pity offensive.
"I'll take a look at it," Carrie said. She began inspecting her mail.
Neil cleared his throat. "While I'm here," he said, "could we discuss the new account?"
"The consulting group?"
"No. The moisturizer."
Carrie's stomach ache was gone, but it had been replaced by waves of nausea, one of which now rose saltily into her mouth.
"What?" Neil frowned and his chin pitted up. "You don't like the name?"
"The name's fine."
"Is something wrong? You look green, sort of."
"I'm fine, Neil. Just give me a minute."
Carrie spent half an hour bent over the toilet bowl, waiting to throw up. Was this a flu? Something acquired from little Diego? But she didn't feel achy. Or hot. The only symptom was this queasiness, along with a certain amorphous heaviness in her limbs. On the way home, she stopped off at Eckerd's and bought a home pregnancy test.
The nausea kept her from eating much at work. But now, at home, having gnawed through a plate of rice cakes and carrot sticks, she began fantasizing about a Philly cheesesteak. In high school, she had gorged herself on cheesesteaks. She and her boyfriend Tony Ducati would cut seventh period and head over to the Black Spot. The place was full of longshoreman, burly guys who smelled of Old Spice and low tide. There were no tables. Everyone stood at the counter, shoulder to shoulder.
You always hoped Vic was working (as opposed to Constantine) because he used three steaks per order, peeling the paper-thin filets from an overhead freezer and flipping them across the grill like playing cards. The steaks took only a minute to brown. Vic would parse off a spatula's worth of onions and peppers from the heap at the center of the grill and slather them across the steaks. Next came the cheese, three squares of white cheddar laid, always, corner-to-corner atop the onions, like yield signs. The cheese began to melt almost immediately, to bubble and curl, and Vic delivered four or five quick strokes with the edge of the spatula, then layered the jumble onto a long roll from the Portuguese bakery next door. Carrie could still taste those rolls, gummy with juices from the seared meat and the sharp cheddar and the sweet caramelized onions.
Those sandwiches had been her first idea of physical passion, the drip and warp of love, its redolent flagrancy. She could taste the cheesesteaks on Tony Ducati, on herself, on their joined breath as they bounced on the blue sofa in the basement of the apartment house where his mom ran a laundry service.
Her own mother despised the very idea of a Philly cheesesteak. And she always knew when Carrie had indulged herself, always, no matter how many capfuls of Scope her daughter gurgled. She could scent a cheesesteak at twenty paces.
Grease--and all that grease implied--was now the enemy. Carrie had to remind herself. There was such a thing as self-control. This had been her mother's guiding principle, and, to a greater extent than Carrie liked to admit, she had inherited it. She marched to the kitchen and popped a V-8.
The drink tasted like chilled blood.
Carrie switched on her laptop and checked her e-mail. She read over Neil's maternity leave memo, which was dreary and predictable until the last paragraph, which read: "In conclusion, I would like to cite Miss Carrie Stoops, senior account executive, for initially suggesting and vigorously advocating this policy."
The memo was cc'ed to the entire division.
The next seventeen messages were from colleagues. The subject line of the first read: Knocked Up???
So now she would have to race over to Neil's pathetic little duplex and drive a stake through his heart. And then, of course, there would be an inquest, and they'd dust the cross for fingerprints, meaning Carrie would have to wear gloves and, perhaps, a blond wig. And where was she supposed to get a stake from, anyway? Who sold stakes anymore?
But even if she killed Neil, the questions would continue: Were she and Brian finally going to tie the knot? Had she given any thought to a midwife? And now Carrie remembered the pregnancy test, which sat on the kitchen table in its plastic bag with the receipt still inside. No. Perhaps she should kill Neil first. Murder then pregnancy test? Pregnancy test then murder? Where was Miss Manners when you really needed her?
Carrie pulled a manila folder from her briefcase. Inside was the proposed photo for the Babyface Moisturizer ad: a toothless infant seated against a blue velvet background, pouring a bottle of Babyface onto its head. The child looked ecstatic. Carrie had never seen a happier child. She suspected it had been given drugs.
On a yellow pad, she doodled possible slogans:
You're never too young to fight wrinkles!
Recommended by four out of five infants!
How come my head feels like a porn star's?
Help! My mother is taking 70 percent of my gross earnings!
In years to come, when I have grown ugly and desperate and lonely, I will gaze at this photo and want to kill myself!
It was now time for Carrie to have some wine.
When she woke, the apartment was dark. That was the problem with wine--it put her out. Brian used to complain, early on, when he was famished for her body all the time, though later he came to see this, the strategic glass of wine, as a useful ally in the management of what came to be described as her moods. But before that, no, she wasn't allowed to drink on visiting days, which was what Brian called their overnights.
Carrie was still in her work clothes. This was no way to feel: wrinkled and gross, with a head full of mud. She needed a shower and stripped off her clothes and let the hot water jazz her boobs and soaped herself down below with the gentle, all-natural soap that never stung. Quietly, happily, she leaned against the tile. She imagined Tony Ducati begging her to open her legs, a little wider, just a little wider. His eyes were closed and his shiny brow was quivering. That's how happy Tony Ducati was. For the sake of posterity, Carrie had granted him long sideburns and cleaned up his skin a little.
"Just a little wider," he murmured.
But there was a strange and familiar ring to this phrase. And suddenly Carrie realized why: during her nap, she had dreamed of giving birth. She lay on some kind of padded rack in her office. Brian stood to one side in a lab coat. He was explaining something: the child was stuck. They were going to have to call in a specialist. A specialist in stuck babies. Dr. Olefeeder bustled in, damp and joyful. He bent to examine the situation and pulled on a pair of latex gloves, the cuffs of which snapped against his wrists. Then he set to work, twisting the baby round and round, like a cork. There was a loud and embarrassing pop as the child finally broke free. "A girl," Brian said. "A little baby girl." He handed her to Carrie. But what was this? Her daughter was covered in some kind of thick white emollient, almost like . . . exactly like . . . Babyface.
Carrie shut the water off. This was just the kind of crap she had come to expect from her subconscious. A truly disappointing subconscious. Ham-handed and prosaic. This is your brain. This is your brain on advertising.
She and Brian had discussed having kids. They had. But not for quite some time. Carrie recalled one conversation that took place a few months after they got together. They had both called in sick. She'd been a little frightened to make love during the day, with all the sun that poured across Brian's mattress. But the experience had been breathtaking. Her own body, his body, the happy desperation of their hands.
"Maybe we should have used protection," Brian said.
"I thought you were going to put something on."
"I was, before you scissor-clamped me."
Carrie giggled. "Liar."
"I've got bruises!"
She was close to her period, pretty close, and anyway she liked this guy, really liked him. She straddled him and ran her fingers through the hair on his chest and yanked the pale skin beneath. "You're in big trouble if you knock me up."
Carrie slumped back onto his belly and considered this question. "I guess it might be kind of cool to have a kid."
"As long as it gets your eyes." Brian fluttered his lashes. "Seriously, we could make a beautiful kid."
Carrie felt swimmingly alive. She reached behind her and massaged his crotch. "I hope it gets your cock."
"I hope it gets your tits." Brian reached up and cupped her.
"We could sell it to the circus."
"And use the money to move to France."
"Mmmmm, I'm hungry."
There were other discussions. But these had been grim and cautious, more in the spirit of negotiations. The idea of children had been subsumed into the larger looming ideas of cohabitation and marriage. These, in turn, had been weighed against issues like career advancement and logistics. Brian didn't avoid these matters. He was too clever for that. Instead, he slowly bled them of passion.
Now he was in Milwaukee, heading his own agency. ("This is something for us," he'd told her. "For our future.")
Carrie sat in her dark apartment and gritted her teeth. Her tits were sore. She wanted a Philly cheesesteak.
The phone rang eleven times before Brian answered.
"Hey," she said.
"What time is it? For Chrissake, it's 2 A.M."
"Funny. It's only midnight here."
"Have you been drinking?"
"Yeah," Carrie said. "I just drank an ass pocket full of whisky. I'm an alcoholic now, Brian. You're engaged to an alcoholic."
"Should I guess as to the purpose of this call?"
"Aren't you going to tell me you have a presentation tomorrow? I just love it when you talk about your big, hard presentations. It makes me hot."
Brian whistled in a manner intended to suggest his bottomless patience. "I take it then, that Ms. Grumpy has arrived." This is what he called her period.
"As a matter of fact, no, she hasn't." Carrie glanced around the room, at her elegant pointless furnishings. "I'm pregnant."
There was a clunk--Brian propping himself up in bed. "You said pregnant?"
"That was the word, yes."
Brian's breathing took on an accelerated rhythm.
"Is there a delay on this line?" Carrie said.
"Okay okay okay. Enough with the smartass. You've got my attention. Talk to me, Carrie. Details."
"I went to see my doctor yesterday. He said he thought I might be pregnant."
"No. Just a general doctor."
"And he gave you a test?"
Carrie paused. "No."
"How did he know you were pregnant?"
"He said I have the symptoms."
"So what is this, speculation?"
"I took a test," Carrie said quietly. This was, in the technical sense, a lie. But what she needed was for Brian to stop questioning her and really, she needed this quite badly.
"One of those home tests? Why didn't the doctor give you a test?"
Carrie squeezed the phone. She could see Brian and his ridiculous, sharky orgasm face. His breath rattled around inside the receiver, tense and rhapsodic.
"There's nothing to get panicky about," he said finally. "Those home tests, you know . . . what do they cost, twelve bucks? The first thing to do is go see your gynecologist and get a real test. If this is for real, if you're really pregnant, this is something, you know, we'll deal with this. It isn't the end of the world."
Carrie felt her anger boiling off. Instead, she was growing sad and there was an immensity to her sadness, a weight she could feel on her chest. Brian continued talking, making plans. He was good at plans. "You'll make an appointment and get a test. That's first off. Until then, you are not to worry. Do you hear me, sweetie? Neither of us, until we're sure there's something to worry about. Worrying doesn't solve anything. Can you do that? Call me right when you know. On the cell. We'll work this thing out, baby. If it comes to that."
In the olden days, this would have been the end of the line. No more wiggle room. Just a daddy with a shotgun (or a broadsword or a nice big rock) and a few witnesses and the couple themselves, the sweaty groom and the pink bride, stepping awkwardly onto the long, gray carpet of compromise.
Brian was prattling on about flights, airlines, contingencies, managing the problem. This was how he saw things--no occasion for joy, no happy accident--and Carrie felt her heart crack, a big crack right down the side. And the weight pressing down on her, which she saw now was the weight of her own knowledge, and the beginning of her life without Brian, the familiar comforts and miseries.
The receiver, balanced on Carrie's clavicle, slipped free. The tiny male voice grew fainter and fainter, until it was just a scratch in the dark air. Carrie returned the receiver to its cradle and unplugged the phone.
It was just after midnight. She went to the kitchen and got the pregnancy test and went into the bathroom and followed the instructions and sipped a glass of wine as she waited. In the Yellow Pages, she found a listing for a sub shop and dialed it on her cell.
"Big Mike's," said the voice on the other end.
"All night, lady."
She could hear the sizzle of the grill in the background and a warm shuffling of voices. "Do you make cheesesteaks?"
"How many you want?"
"Just one." Carrie glanced at the pregnancy test. "Do you deliver?"
"Not after midnight."
"But it's just past twelve. Could you bend the rules?"
"Would it be possible, could I talk to the owner? Is Big Mike there?"
"You're talking to him."
"What if I told you this was an emergency, Big Mike? A potential emergency craving situation."
"I don't know nothing about that."
"Please," Carrie said. "I really need this."
Big Mike sighed.
Carrie could tell from the timbre of this sigh, a deep suffering vibrato, that he was relenting. This was Big Mike's secret: he was a softy. A big gruff softy in an apron. She heard him yell something and slam his spatula. "Now listen, my delivery boy, he was on his way out the door. I promised him a decent tip if he does this last run. You understand?"
"Absolutely," Carrie said.
"They got child labor laws in this state."
Carrie felt as supple and tingly as a teenager. Where was Tony Ducati these days? Laid out upon some worn blue sofa? In a bedroom of exorbitant mistakes? She glanced again at the pregnancy test, the invisible ring beginning to form. Or not form. How sweet it would be, in either case, to sip again from the grail of the dangerous and possible. To do just the wrong thing in the right spirit. Carrie glided through her apartment, snapping off lights. Then she dumped her wine in the sink, curled up on the couch, and waited in the dark for the kid to show up.