(The unedited version)
Jenna and Ben strolled across Anarbor Creek, atop an old squeaky bridge where young couples come to stare at the stars—below clear water rushes over dense stones. Holding hands, sometimes not, Ben and Jenna traded kisses—and trade secrets—save one that Jenna held under her tongue. The city lights below culminate a serene and calming sound from May to November; now, the summer had turned to fall. The golden-brown leaves had fallen from the bare birch trees. The autumn bark barely hung from the crooked, nearly dead tree trunks. It was a typical November in Washington State. Ben embraced—within his memories—the euphoric scent of Jenna’s breath and her angelic, pale skin—not wanting to touch. By the look in her eyes, Ben had a gut feeling; something worried her. Jenna wasn’t shy but, right now, her tight-lipped stare said otherwise. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, not wanting to jinx her announcement, she bit her bottom lip, darted her eyes either way. Without saying so much as a word, Jenna suddenly stopped directly in front of him, extended her arm, and pressed her hand against his chest.
“So like, we needa talk,” Jenna said as she fixed her hair in a ponytail, and shook off her brown, leather backpack.
“What’s going on?”
Jenna covered his mouth, shushing him. Ben then felt the sweat drip off her hands. Before Jenna could swoop down to unzip her backpack, Ben reached out to pull her bangs behind her ear. As he massaged her shoulders, he hoped this wasn’t a “break-up” moment. Ben squinted, tracing his mind back through the past few weeks, wondering what he said or did to make her break it off. When nothing came to mind, his eyes went cold. “Just wait for a second, Ben.” Jenna dug in her backpack; where the hell is it? she thought. “Found it.” Jenna pulled out an opened pregnancy test and handed it to him while wiping tears away with her soft lavender-scented fingers.
“What’s this?” Ben asked. He felt the tension in her tight chest. Her eyes drifted to the mountain of autumn leaves gathered to either side of the road, and then back at his eyes and to the trees, all the while biting her short fingernails. Before crossing her arms, Jenna widened them and motioned with her eyes to look. Positive — the test was positive. Ben felt slightly faint but didn’t show it, despite his weak knees and his dark pupils outweighing the whites of his eyes. Taken aback, Ben looked directly into her dazzling green eyes, which screamed, your response better align with my happiness. An audible sigh left Jenna’s lungs. As he dropped the test, her eyes followed.
“Positive…” Ben’s tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. Without his knowledge, his head lowered. The hair on his neck stood up. He begged his face to remain slightly optimistic. His head rose, but not his eyes. Jen noticed.
“Yes,” she gasped. “It is positive, Ben.” Jenna shrugged her shoulders as mascara and tears flooded down her cheeks. Jenna smiled as she tried but did not squeeze them back. Their eyes locked. She nervously laughed out loud and pressed her body against his. Her cherry lip-gloss stained his cheek; he didn’t mind it though. Jenna’s heart seemed to slow waiting for his response. Her eyes fixed on his. She couldn’t live with herself if his response were anything but we’re having this baby; she’d die. “Hello,” she said. “Is anyone home?” she waived directly in front of his face. She asked until he answered. “I can’t tell if you’re ok with this or not?” her eyes had become crinkled slits. “I’m pregnant.” Then, she gave him several quick pecks on his cheek.
“I thought you said you were on the pill, Jen?” he swallowed, tracing her lips in search of a reasonable response.
“At first,” she nonchalantly admitted, “I was taking birth-control when we first met. I was on the pill.” Spontaneity wasn’t her style, or maybe it was? He didn’t know anymore. This wasn’t like her at all. Worse yet, perhaps it was like her. Ben liked not knowing.
“Do you think we’re…?”
“You’re so not gonna be a downer, are you?”
“Never mind.” his body language shifted. No matter how much it was Jenna’s fault, she took control of the situation—any situation. She had to be in control—no matter what. Power was in Jenna’s DNA. Jenna touched his chin with her cold palm. Though the touch couldn’t blow the reality of a kid, it did just that.
“So like you won’t leave me a single mother, will you?”
Ben tilted his head and raised his hands in front of his body as if to ask, why would you even ask?
“Good.” she let out a sigh she didn’t know existed. Jenna placed her hands on her hips, with a duplicitous gaze glowing from within. “Well, come on. Say something.”
“I do wonder if we’re able to do this. I mean, a baby?” he stroked his beard in deep thought. “I wouldn’t up and leave you.” Ben hurled over, groaning and warm stomach fluid slapped the ground beneath his feet. Jenna was the most forthright person he’d ever met. That’s why he loved her, and she knew it.
“Fucking disgusting.” she laughed. “So like, I guess this changes everything.” Jenna tapped her chin, studying his slumped shoulders and defeatist brown eyes.
“Your parents gonna blame me?” Ben said, raking his fingers through her hair.
Jenna slammed her eyes shut and drew a deep sigh, held it tight, and blew it out of her nostrils. “Probably…”
“Like who cares?”
“I care,” Ben said. “This changes everything.”
Jenna fit her tight frame in his arms. “Stop so like freakin’ the hell out, dude.”
Ben glanced at her shaky palms. She brushed together. “You’re awkward,” Ben said, projecting his awkwardness. “I can’t deal with awkward.” He threw fistfuls of leaves at her and her at him. “I’m so not awkward.” She chuckled.
They threw leaves back and forth and back and forth until the couple rolled in the crisp leaves until their clothes were damp. She fit her tight frame in his arms. He felt her shake with laughter.
“I do remember last night you told me…” she couldn’t finish the sentence as she leaned over, placing her hand to her stomach. Her eyes teared, and her face contorted.
“It’s not that funny,” Ben said.
“You told me you couldn’t sleep because the picture of me drinking until I passed out drove you crazy.” She embraced his hand.
“You scared me to death.” He squeezed her hand. “You know how I feel about drinking.”
Ben’s birth-mother was an abusive alcoholic. The last thing he wanted is for Jenna to turn out like his mother, or her dad. Jim has been clean for a few years now.
“Well, you’re gonna have to deal with it because I’m changing for no one,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”
Jenna’s pale complexion suggested nothing he said would have made a difference. She wanted this kid, and nothing would stop her.
“The truth.” she crossed her arms. “The truth is that I so want a family plain and simple. I’m sorry if I was like selfish.” Jen lightly kissed his neck, and he forgot why he was upset. “Was it self-fish?”
“You know what? I am excited.” Ben lied.
“Really…” her eyes stretched their sockets. “Don’t be mad.”
As she squeezed him, his eyes cut to the sky. Dear God, why? Ben’s eyes returned to hers. He cupped her chin with his palm. “I’m not mad.”
Jenna’s eyes lit up with joy speaking about a daughter; she knew it would be a daughter. The more Ben warmed to the thought of a family. Growing up in foster homes, Ben had no father. The unexpected scared Ben.
“Good…” Francis raised her index finger eye level. “I don’t want to hear later that you didn’t want this kid,” she explained. Ben nodded his head.
“I know you want this.” she surmised.
“Do you?” Ben studied her pupils.
“Don’t you?” she asked, motioning with both hands. “I, we, practically finish one another’s sentences.”
“Not always,” he said.
“Most of the time,” Jenna said, laughing. Ben folded his arms across his chest. His eyes got lost in the city lights. “Look,” she said. “I realize you didn’t have a family as a kid.”
Ben waved his arms. “Don’t bring that up!”
“Still a touchy subject?” Jenna asked, confused he’d snapped at her. “What’s going on?”
Ben let out a gasp he didn’t know existed. “Jenna.” he paused, squeezing her hand. “Think about this—”
“I have,” Jenna said.
“We can do this, right?”
“We can do this,” she said as she placed both hands on his shoulders. “I want to do this!” Jenna assured Ben. He felt the peace in the core of her being pulled at his. She didn’t seem the least bit concerned, though she fluctuated between horror and relief at the thought of telling her parents.
“I had a feeling that you were…that you were…you know, pregnant.”
“You guessed right.” she smiled. “And the truth is that I’ve wanted nothing more than to have a family—to be a mother.”
“This is a lot to take in.” Ben hugged her from behind. She’d never been happier, and he could tell the baby meant the world to her. Her face glowed with anticipation. Even though he felt he had made a mess of things and the consequences could destroy any relationship with Jenna’s parents, Jenna didn’t seem to care.
“Don’t be a wimp.” She laughed.
“I ain’t no wimp,” Ben said, giving her several quick warm pecks on her cheek. “We’re just so…we’re just so young.”
“So we’re young.” Jen dismissively waved her hands. “What’s the big deal?”
“What I’m tryin’ to say is, we can’t turn back, it’s not like your parents are fond of me.” Ben tilted his head, waiting for a dishonest response.
“They don’t mind…”
“You know that’s a lie.” Ben placed his hand over her mouth. “Your parents would love to break us up.”
“Gotta point, there,” Jenna said. “Wait.” Jenna shook her head and smiled. “They don’t hate you. They just don’t know you.”
Ben gave a tight-lipped smile, gazing into her eyes. “Ok…ok, so maybe they hate you just a little.” Jenna spread her finger and thumb inches apart. “Maybe just a little.”
“That’s the honest Jenna I know.” Ben raised a sly brow. She pulled her bangs, which fell out of her rubber band, back in her ponytail. Ben traced her red, luscious cheek with his finger.
“No one is changing my mind. No one. Got it?”
Ben held his hands in front of his body, giving an engaging smile. “Hold on just a second, I’m on your side here.”
“Sure doesn’t seem like it!”
“Think about this rationally—”
“I have!” Jen said, resting her clenched fists on her hips. “I thought you’d be…”
“Don’t go there. I am happy,” Ben said, stroking her cheek. The point to Ben is much simpler than being young. Jenna’s dad scared him. Jim was a big man with a big mouth. He didn’t mince words. Ben didn’t know how to respond to Jim without answering the way he wanted him to. Jenna crossed her arms. Her body warmed as she lay wrapped in his arms. Jim wasn’t the kind of father who’d take kindly to Ben impregnating his high school daughter.
“Age is just a number,” she said. Ben didn’t agree, but he nodded all the same. Ok. If age were just a number things wouldn’t seem so bad, Ben thought. Jenna’s father wouldn’t see his daughter as an innocent angel anymore. And Ben hated the thought of Jim losing respect for Jenna.
“Let’s go,” Jenna said as she stood to her feet and she pulled him by his wrist. “Where’s the car?”
“We parked half a mile from the cliff,” Ben said. “By the way… your skin is pale.” he joked. Jen’s face turned red as she blushed.
“My skin?” Jenna pointed at him. “I think you mean your skin.” Jenna pinched his arm. “Your skin is pale.” Jenna placed her hand over her mouth and laughed until she couldn’t. “Race you to the car.” She kicked his knee. As he fell on his ass, Jenna took off, laughing, sprinting, looking over her shoulder, screaming, “This girl”—she pointed at herself—”this girl beat you.” Jenna leaned against the car as Ben bent over, touched the ground, catching his breath.
“I won.” Jenna bragged. She held her hands above her head, jumping in celebration. The light breeze pulled her ponytail. She knelt, placing both hands on the cold ground, mocking him. “I always was a better athlete than you.” She laughed. “What’s wrong? You look like you had just seen a ghost, Ben. What gives?”
“The ghost might be me once your parents kill me.”
“Not funny,” Jenna said. Ben’s lips tightened. He had been tracing through his thoughts about proposing to Jenna. The time is now! Ben thought. He couldn’t let her go. He wouldn’t let the best thing that ever happened to him leave. And now that she’s pregnant, he needed to do the right thing. Ben loved her more than life itself, however, he was scared he couldn’t live up to her father’s expectations.
It’s now or never, Ben thought. He touched her legs. “Close your eyes.” she covered them, nervously swaying back and forth. Ben slammed his eyes shut, letting out a sigh he didn’t know existed. He reached into his breast pocket, kneeling in the dirt, and held out a cheap silver ring. “Open them.” Her eyelashes burst open. He felt the apprehension in her weak knees. “Wait is this… what I think it is?” she asked, pointing at him. “Are you asking me to marry you?”
“I felt you in my heart before I ever thought to.”
“OK, that was cheesy,” she said while laughing. He made a case for forever with a worthless ring. Jenna’s eyes welled. “This isn’t a joke, right?” Jen asked, looking through her teary eyes.
“No joke,” Ben assured her as he stood to his feet, dusting off his jeans. “I am proposing to you.”
Jenna cried until she could not stop. The blood drained from her face. She swung her hair across her eyes, holding her hand over her madly beating heart. “Yes!” she looked into his eyes. “God, yes!” Jenna screamed, wrapping her legs around his waist. They twirled until falling directly on a pile of damp leaves. “We can’t tell my parents.”
“It’s not like I’d care what they thought.” he placed a finger over her mouth.
Jen folded her arms. “We’ll tell them, just not now.”
Ben kissed her cheek. “Look, I understand that you don’t want to upset them, but this baby changes everything.”
“It changes the way that I feel about my mother.”
He didn’t feel her skin though. He felt a mixture of excitement and sorrow.
“Do you want to feel it?” She couldn’t have been more excited for him to place his hand on her stomach.
“The baby…do you want to feel the baby?”
Ben shook off his coat, placing it inside the car. “Sure,” Ben said.
She placed his cold hand over her stomach, cracking a joyous smile. “Do you feel the kid?” Ben felt a light tap against his palm. He lit up with joy. “Yes. I bet he’ll look just like you,” he said.
“Did you say ‘he’?” she laughed. “It better be a girl.” she mocked. “What do you think it feels like if you could describe it?”
“A grapefruit…” he paused. “It feels like a grapefruit.”
“A grapefruit sounds lovely.” Jenna turned her head, bursting into deep laughter.
“Well, I guess that’s a good thing because,” she pointed at herself, “I love grapefruits.”
Ben drew a deep breath, exhaling the warm air out of his nostrils.” As they pondered the inescapable grief of Jenna’s fragile mother finding out, Eleanor, they focused on seeking genuine forgiveness from her old-fashioned father. Ben would rather eat his organs than tell to Jim he impregnated his daughter. Telling Jenna’s father, they were pregnant seemed worse than the pregnancy itself.
“We got no choice,” Jenna said.
“You know, I have a hard time believing there is a god, but if there is, I think he hates me.” At the time, Ben truly meant it.
Jenna laughed. “Wait, you’re serious?”
“Dead serious.” Ben tilted his head, raising a sly brow. “I think God has the biggest grudge against me.”
“Trust me, Ben, there’s a God, but He has no time for hating you.” Jenna sounded convinced. “What makes you think that, anyway?”
Ben folded his arms across his chest. “First the pregnancy”—he rolled his eyes—”now this engagement that we can’t be happy about.”
“My parents hate me anyway,” Jen said. Ben had the feeling that’s why she might have gotten pregnant: to anger her parents.
“That’s not true,” Ben said, holding her shoulders.
“You don’t live with them!” Jenna said. “Mom constantly bashes dad about drinking. And he tears into her for being an emotional roller coaster.”
“Better than growing up in foster homes like I did,” Ben said, shrugging his shoulders.
“I should be so lucky,” Jen said, holding her stomach, choking back deep laughter.
“You’re taking things to the extreme.”
Jen placed her hands on her head, rubbing her temples. “Talking about them gives me a damn headache.”
“It’s time to go,” he said, looking at his watch.
On the drive home, Jen fiddled with her phone. Looking at her wobbly hands, Jenna touched her cheek in deep thought. Before she dialed, she held the phone to her ear; took it down. She held it back to her ear; took it back down and stared at the black screen. “Wait,” Ben said, placing his hand on her wrist. “Are you’re sure you’re ready to call them?” A lump formed in his throat, Jenna felt the panic in his eyes.
“If you can get me pregnant, you can tell my parents.”
“Wait, what?” Ben asked, his voice raising a pitch. “Don’t look at me. It wasn’t my idea.”
Jenna folded her lips under her teeth and her face reddened.
“I’m fine with it.” Ben lied. “Or, I will be someday. Maybe, who knows?”
“You don’t have time to think about being happy.”
Ben clenched the steering wheel, his eyes straight ahead.
Jenna called her mom, Eleanor, letting her know they needed to talk. When she hung up the phone, Eleanor placed both palms on the marble kitchen counter, drumming her fingers. The tone of Jenna’s voice was off. Getting a call like this from Jenna means trouble, Eleanor thought. Jenna didn’t call home often, so to Eleanor, it was strange. It had to be something big. Eleanor held her face in her hands. Oh, my god. Jenna is pregnant; oh fuck. Eleanor covered her mouth. We’re screwed. Eleanor rarely cursed, but when she did, she meant it. She took several deep breaths, lit and smoked a Camel cigarette. Eleanor had stopped smoking a year ago, but right now, she didn’t care about her New Year’s resolution.
“Your dad’s gonna bury me six-feet deep.”
“Not funny.” Jenna drew a deep breath and exhaled through her nostrils. “Mom wants to live vicariously through me,” she said, ripping a hanging thread off his shirt.
“Where’s this coming from?”
“Don’t play dumb.”
“What I’m saying is, what I’ve been trying to say is, words ain’t gonna cut it anymore,” Jenna said. “Mom is against biracial kids.”
“Oh, great,” Ben said. “When were you going to—?”
“I should have told you,” Jen said, raising her palms in front of her body.
“What’s the backstory?” Ben asked.
“Mom had a biracial kid when she was in high school. Foster care. Granddad sent the kid to a foster home. He said it was the ‘wrong kid.'”
“I guess that explains your mom’s mood swings.”
“Mom has never forgiven granddad for it. Once the”—she air quotes—”‘wrong kid comes,’ mom will love the kid, but she’ll hate you.” Jenna patted his shoulder. “Not forever, though. Not for long. Mom’s weakness had been forgiving everyone except her father.” Eleanor had been sweet to him. Ben had known of no opposition to their relationship.
“Just what I need, another person hating me,” Ben said.
“Hold on.” Jenna unbuckled her seatbelt as he parked the car. “I never said they’d hate you forever.” Jenna shrugged her tense shoulders and smiled and slammed the car door. “Maybe it’s hyperbole.” Jenna stretched her hands behind her back. “Come on.” She pulled Ben by his anxious arm through the long, damp gravel driveway.
“Look, if you already know your parents aren’t going to the pregnancy well, why are we here?” Ben groaned. “Leave a damn note on the kitchen table or something.” The closer they got to the house, the more Ben’s stomach tightened.
Jenna’s eyes remained on his—never moving. “Nice try, but no,” Jenna said. “Show me you’re a man.”
“By ruining your family?”
“It was already ruined.” She gave a cocky wink and an arrogant smile. “We’re in this together.”
“I’m not feeling sportsman like today,” Ben said.
Jenna reached into her pocket and pulled out a dirty, white pill. “Here,” she said. “Take this.”
“What is it?” Ben asked.
“Don’t ask. Trust me,” Jenna said more sure of herself than she intended to.
“I’m past trusting anyone,” Ben said, placing the powdered, chalky tablet under his tongue. He gulped as the dry pill scratched his throat.
“We haven’t even told them yet.” she smiled. “Save your anxiety.” Jenna turns the lever. “Well, here goes nothing.” Jenna sighed.
“I think you mean, ‘here goes everything,'” Ben said.