You and Jane
by Laurel Osterkamp
Nick’s demeanor is an ingrown toenail, an infected irritation creeping into the flesh until suddenly, it’s all there is, the infection. He’s mad that you’re drawing on the iPad again, instead of holding his hand. But it calms the nerves, this electronic sketchbook that lights up with your touch, that bends to your will. The stylus feels like a charcoal pencil, only clean. Nothing smudged on the fingers. On a blank screen, you make a rough outline of a tree, with gray, heavy clouds behind it.
“Stop squirming,” says Nick, and he reaches over to pat your hand. “Everything is going to be fine.”
Damn. His calming gesture made your pencil stroke go outside the lines. At least it’s easy to erase. “You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. These things tend to work out.” Because he’s older than you, and because you met him through your father, Nick thinks that he can take a paternalistic tone. He believes in his worldliness and superiority; you know such things depend upon experience and opportunities put to good use.
Nick peers down at you with a reassuring smile, his thinning hair neatly combed back. His scratchy red cardigan, worn over a shirt and tie with khakis, makes him look like an aging Target cashier who’s trying too hard.
So, you squirm a bit more, just because. Then you draw yourself. It’s a cartoonish self-portrait of a small woman, her mouth shaped into a shocked “O”, her bespectacled eyes widened in fear. Behind her you sketch branches. One shoots straight up and the other goes to the side, as if the tree is a demented cheerleader.
The door behind you opens, and a tall, stately woman walks in. She wears a lab coat over her red dress, and she’s incredibly striking, like she could be on a fashion runway in Paris. Clearly, she’s more interested in erudite pursuits, and she probably gets annoyed when people tell her that she could a model.
She sits across from you and Nick, at her desk. “Charlotte and Nicholas Bell. Thank you for your patience. I’m Dr. Elaine Knox. How are we doing today?”
Her sexiness combined with her pronoun misuse is grating. Worse, even though you’re both sitting, you feel dwarfed by her. She must be at least ten inches taller than you. And she has amazing hair: dark, thick and coiled, like an ebony crown. In comparison, your hair feels even straighter and more ordinary than usual.
Get a grip, Charlotte. To her, you say, “Of course. We’ve been looking forward to this.”
It’s such a lie. You’ve been dreading this day since the moment you found out you were pregnant—perhaps even before. Genetic counseling with a licensed psychiatrist. You glance at the wall over Dr. Knox’s head, where her set of diplomas and certifications hang, no bit of dust clinging to either frame. With her mix of specialties, she can obviously afford to have someone cleaning up after her.
“We’re eager to begin,” says Nick.
“Okay,” says Dr. Knox. “Charlotte, we’ll start with you.”
“Great.” You click your stylus back into its spot on the iPad, flip the cover over the screen, and then lay the iPad in your lap, folding your hands over it. Perhaps if you adopt a calm posture, you’ll feel calm on the inside too.
Dr. Knox pulls out a file. It must contain information from all those forms you had to fill out. Page after page of boxes reducing your life to a series of one-to-five-word answers.
“So, Charlotte—it’s rare that I have a celebrity client.”
“I’m not exactly a celebrity.”
“You’re a bestselling author. Everyone says Jane’s Air is the next Gone Girl.” She leans forward, palms against her desk, smiling at you. “I must confess, I haven’t read it. I don’t really have time for fiction.”
“No worries. I’m glad you haven’t read it.”
“Oh yeah? And why is that?”
Her question strikes you as very therapist-like. You’re here to make sure your baby has a fighting chance at life; you would do anything to have a healthy baby, even if that means responding to excruciating questions about your personal and family history. It was Nick’s idea to go with someone who could also analyze your emotions. “Just in case,” he’d said.
He didn’t need to say just in case of what.
“I’m glad because everyone assumes that I’m Jane, or that Jane is me. She’s a fictional character, and not everything in that book is taken from my own life.”
Nick laughs. “I certainly hope not! That would mean that I locked my first wife away in the attic.”
Dr. Knox offers Nick a weak smile, and then she addresses you. “But there are some similarities between you and Jane?”
“Well, sure. Physically, we’re the same: short and small-boned. And I like to think I’m resilient, like Jane. We’re both fiercely independent and willing to rebel against society. But otherwise…” You give the doctor a shrug.
“You both like older men,” says Nick.
“True, but I didn’t know you when I wrote the novel.”
“Hmm.” Doctor Snyder looks through your form. “Jane was an orphan, correct?”
“Yes. How is that relevant? I’m not an orphan.”
Doctor Snyder reads from the form. “Your mother died when you were only five. Cancer?”
Why is she asking you? It’s all right there on the form in front of her. “Ovarian,” you confirm.
“And your two eldest sisters both died several years later.”
“Umm hmm. Maria fell from a cliff and a horse trampled Elizabeth.”
Doctor Snyder tilts her head, questioning you.
“We lived by these moors, where it was always foggy and slippery, and people let their horses run free. Let me tell you–it was hazardous!”
“I see. But you survived, as did your siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne.” She looks down at the form again “Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by ‘survive,’ right? They’re all dead now, aren’t they? Didn’t they die within eight months of each other?”
Blood rushes to your cheeks, but then you remember, there’s no need to defend the death of your siblings. It’s not like you killed them yourself.
“How did they die?” The doctor asks.
Night surrounds me; I’m in the depths of woe…
You must snap your mind back. Ground yourself in reality.
“Branwell got a staph infection, after… well, he got into a fight with his married girlfriend, and she bit him near the heart.”
“Excuse me?” Doctor Snyder’s eyebrows raise in shock.
“It was a powerful bite; she got her teeth pretty deep into the sternum and muscular tissue. Unfortunately, she suffered from Coxsackie disease, so she had a bunch of contagious mouth blisters. We took Branwell to the hospital, and they stopped the bleeding, but then, well, infection spread to his heart.”
“I see.” Doctor Knox straightens her already good sitting posture, and swallows roughly. “What about Emily?”
“Emily was struck by lightning.”
Doctor Knox furrows her brow. “Isn’t that fairly unusual?”
“Not for Emily. She’d often get struck when she was out ghost-hunting. She had this crazy idea that she’d see ghosts whenever white-hot lightning shattered the sky, and that they’d linger in the storm’s eerie glow.”
Dr. Knox nods, signaling you should go on. You take a deep breath and continue. “Any time it stormed, she’d go out wearing her tinfoil hat, hoping to find Mom, Maria, Elizabeth, or Branwell. Emily must have been struck half a dozen times, and the effect was cumulative. The last time, when she stood near the power grid, that was what finally did her in.”
Doctor Knox looks like she wants to inquire about this further, but when she opens her mouth, all she says is, “And Anne?
Sweet Anne. Somehow, her death was the most painful of them all. “She spontaneously combusted.”
“Seriously?” asks Doctor Snyder. You study her twitching mouth. She’d better not be fighting laughter.
“Yes. It happens, you know. It was nearly 100 degrees that day. Anne was sitting in her rocking chair, up on the top floor, heating a Hot Pocket in the microwave she kept up there. Then, suddenly, poof! Anne and the Hot Pocket exploded at the same time.”
“I see.” Doctor Snyder sighs. “Look, Jane – I mean, Charlotte—I have to say. I know you write fiction. Are you sure you haven’t, umm… embellished your siblings’ deaths?”
“Of course not. I loved my sisters, and their lives were cut way too short. I would never make light of their deaths.” You pause. “Except for Branwell, I might for him. He was always such a hot mess.”
“Well,” says Doctor Knox, “I’m sorry for your loss. I don’t know how anyone endures what you’ve been through.”
Doctor Knox drums her fingers against her desk. “Okay. Let’s move on. You listed several health concerns which your family was prone to: addiction, delicate lungs, cancer, asthma, depression,” she pauses, “and heart disease? Has anyone in your family lived long enough to develop heart disease?”
Who should I follow? On which path should I go?
You think about the tree you were just drawing and envision a lightning bolt breaking the tree in half. Heavy branches fall, perilous and blocking your way.
After an awkward silence, Nick shifts in his seat and says, “Her father is still alive, and his heart is fairly strong. But he’s had some minor health problems over the years.”
“Then who had heart disease?” she asks.
You release a sigh. “I’m thinking more of Branwell, Anne, and Emily. Especially Emily. She always got these chest pains.”
“Were they diagnosed?”
Nicholas speaks. “Not exactly. She saw a therapist, who said it was most likely from anxiety. Emily was… well, you know.”
Doctor Knox gives him a questioning look.
You answer. “I come from a creative family, Dr. Knox. Anne and Emily were also writers, and Branwell liked to paint. Anyway, they were all somewhat fragile, but Emily especially had issues.”
Nick laughs and you want to kick him. “What?!”
“I mean, all you have to do is read Withering Hikes to know that she needed help.”
“That’s not fair! Withering Hikes is a masterpiece.”
“Yeah, but every character is an asshole with a death wish! And then they all die! What is it about your family, that everyone dies?”
“Okay. We’re mistaking fiction for real life, yet again. Besides, I didn’t die! I am still here, even after my mother, my aunt, and all five of my siblings fucking keeled over on me!”
“That’s exactly my point,” answers Nick. “It’s mind-blowing, and it’s almost like Emily predicted it in her novel. Doesn’t that bug you?”
“Did you seriously just ask me that? Which part do you think might ‘bug’ me, Nick? That all my siblings are dead, or that Emily semi-predicted it would happen?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“No. The real question is, does it bug you? I think you regret marrying me, especially now that we’re having a baby. Am I right?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Nick. that strikes me as an evasive response.” Dr. Knox says this, and for the first time, you like her.
He scratches at his itchy red sweater-clad arm, and sighs. “I love Jane–I mean, I love Charlotte.” He meets Dr. Knox’s eyes. “I absolutely do not regret marrying her. But sometimes she reminds me a little too much of Currer, our pet bird.”
Dr. Knox tilts her head quizzically. “You have a pet bird named Currer?”
“Yes. Charlotte insisted we get her, and that we name her that. I think she felt an instant kinship with the poor thing. Most of the time she seems so desperate that she’d gnaw off her own wing to escape.”
“Are you talking about Currer, or about Charlotte?” Dr. Knox asks.
It’s true that you felt an immediate connection to Currer the moment that you spotted her in the bird aisle at PetSmart. Nick had wanted a dog, but they’re loud and smelly creatures. Currer, a white and gray owl finch, was tiny and energetic, and she enjoyed building her own nest. So, you took her home. Too late, you realized she needed more space to fly and other birds to socialize with. You’re unable to give her what she needs but feel incapable of letting her go.
You can’t let Currer escape, just like you can’t escape yourself.
“Is that true, Charlotte?” Dr Knox leans in toward you. “Are you desperate to escape?”
Your only option is dishonesty. “No,” you state. “Nick has it all wrong. He’s confusing me with Jane again. Jane wanted freedom. She needed air, hence the title of my book. But me? The only thing I’ve ever wanted is autonomy, and to love someone who doesn’t die.”
“But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We lose our autonomy, and we risk everything, including ourselves when we choose to love. Because there’s always the possibility that whomever we love might die.”
I wait and hope, I won’t succumb to fear…
You narrow your eyes at Dr. Knox. “You think I don’t know that? I live with that knowledge every moment of every day. It’s why I am the way I am. It’s why I fantasize about leaving Nick.”
“Please don’t say that.” Nick’s eyes fill with tears. He turns in his seat, meeting your gaze, taking your hand. “Nothing else matters if I don’t have you. Whatever problems we might face, we can face them together.”
Nick said something similar when he proposed. And after all the loss you’d endured, it seemed too good to be true. Someone to love. Someone to love you. Despite his flaws, Nick at once challenges and cares for you. This unique combination makes him your emotional home. And now, there will be a baby.
So even though he confuses you with both a bird and with the fictional character you created, you make the same choice now as you made years ago. To do otherwise is as impossible as setting Currer free.
You reach for Nick’s hand and bring it to your mouth, pressing your lips against it in a quick gesture of forgiveness.
“I’m sorry, Doctor Knox,” you say, turning toward her. “We’ve gotten off track, haven’t we? I just want to know; is it possible for someone like me to have a well-adjusted, healthy baby?”
Doctor Knox presses her lips together and then says, “Anything’s possible.”
“That’s not exactly the answer we were looking for,” says Nick.
“Well, I’m worried about Charlotte’s health. She’s not gaining enough weight for someone twenty-one weeks along. Looking at her, you wouldn’t even know she’s pregnant.”
“I’ve always been small. And I’ve been so nauseous, it’s hard to keep anything down.”
Doctor Knox nods and looks at her desk. “There’s another concern, but it has to do with Nick.”
“With me?” Nick scrunches his face with apprehension. “I thought my bloodline was okay.”
“Mostly it is, but unfortunately, you have a rare, often dormant genetic disorder from both sides of your family that often skips a generation or two. It’s called Karson-Cline knee disease, and it occurs when either parent has A/B negative blood type, is from the Upper Midwest, and is a descendant of Swedish immigrants. But Karson-Cline knee disease doesn’t just affect the knees. It attacks all your joints, even your fingers.”
“So, it’s like arthritis?” You ask.
“No. It’s way, way worse. It makes limbs fall apart and muscles atrophy. Anyone who has it will eventually waste away.”
“It sounds like something that would kill a 19th century street urchin,” says Nick. “No one in my family ever had it.”
“Nevertheless, you have the genetic disposition for it,” says Doctor Knox.
It’s like you’ve lost your power of speech. In your lap sits your iPad, and the urge to open it back up to your drawing of yourself and the tree is too powerful to deny. With large, black loops, you turn yourself into the bird, flying through the lightning and the destruction.
Your child is going to waste away. Just like your mother did, and just like how all your siblings did too. In some form or another, they all wasted away.
But it wasn’t your fault. It was never your fault. And it won’t be your fault when your baby wastes away, either.
It will be Nick’s.
“How do we find out if our baby has this really bad, really rare Calvin Klein knee disease?” he asks.
Doctor Knox says something about ultrasounds and amniocentesis, but you tune her out. You already know the fate of your baby. It’s the same fate as everyone you ever truly loved.
You curse your strength. Underneath your drawing, you write:
Night surrounds me; I’m in the depths of woe.
Who should I follow? On which path should I go?
I wait and hope—I won’t succumb to fear,
Not when there’s still light; not when my sisters are so near.