IT ALL BEGAN WITH THE dress. Her mother had found it at the thrift shop, a beautiful wedding dress with a veil, and shoes to match. Each night, after she did her homework, she would try it on, gazing at herself in the mirror, imagining how it would be next summer, when Ricky came back home on leave, and she would surprise him with the dress, and they would get married She would be out of high school then, all grown up. Once, she took a picture of herself in the dress, using an old Polaroid camera she had found in the dining room chest, and she mailed it to Ricky, in one of the letters she wrote to him every day or so, and he didn't write back for a long time. But then again, he didn't always get a chance to check his mail; maybe he was off somewhere isolated doing his training.
But then, one night, she tried the dress on and it didn't fit. She took it back off (she always put on the dress after she had showered,…to make sure she didn't get it sweaty) and looked at herself in the mirror. There was something wrong. So she asked her mother, and her mother laughed, and said maybe there was more than just the dress that was going to be a surprise for Ricky.
"It's a good thing you have it," her mother added. "Don't worry, we can always let it out. See, they make them with extra fabric, just in case."
When she began to cry, her mother hugged her. "It happens all the time, honey, where do you think you came from? But I think we need to have a little talk."
So she told her mother what she had done, and when, and they agreed that there was plenty of time. It was surprising that she was showing so much so early, but the baby shouldn't arrive until well after the wedding.
But the next week, the dress was even tighter. "Something's wrong," her mother grumbled, "you're a lot further along than you should be. What haven't you told me?"
But there was nothing to tell. Ricky had left right after he graduated from high school. He came back for Christmas and she gave him a special present, then he was gone again.
"How did it happen then?" Her mother was getting angry now. "These things don't just happen, do they?"
"God only knows," she answered, "God only knows." There was no one else. And they hadn't really done anything. Well, they had done something, but not that. She was ashamed to tell her mother what they had really done, embarrassed to tell her that she was, technically, still a virgin. What sense did that make?
"Don't you dare talk to me about God, you little slut. What are we going to do now?"
Then her mother slammed the door, and she turned out all the lights but one, and pulled the dress on over her shoulders, and put on the veil, and cried as she looked at herself in the mirror. She had always known that she was very beautiful, and that everything good in life lay ahead of her, but what was going to happen to her now? So far she had worn a baggy sweater into school, and no one had noticed, but that wasn't going to last much longer. How could this be happening to her? What was going on?
She remembered how, the night she had given herself to Ricky (she had wrapped herself with ribbons and bows and tape, and he had laughed as he peeled off the layers), that night they had gone to the evening services, and they had listened to the story of Mary, the story of how God had told Mary she was going to have a special child. Was she like Mary? Had God ever talked to her? If He had, she must not have been paying attention. So she lay in bed, crying, praying to God for an answer, for an assurance.
The next morning she got up to go to school, but her mother was sitting in the kitchen.
"Why aren't you at work?"
"We've got something we've got to take care of."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't worry. Here, take one of these."
Her mother handed her one of her worry pills, and everything became slow and hazy. She remembered that they were in the car, and then they were walking into a building, and there was an ancient looking nun outside. The nun and her mother started arguing with each other, and the nun gave her a piece of paper that she took without looking at it, and her mother was screaming that she had no choice.
"There is always a choice," the nun replied with a sudden calm that seemed to freeze time. "You just have to have the courage to make it."
But her mother pushed her through the door, and they went inside.
It was cold inside, too much air conditioning for this early in the summer, and dark. There was a nurse at the desk. "Do you have an appointment?"
"It may be a while."
"Can you do it today?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Okay, we'll wait."
"Have you been here before?"
And there were forms to fill out. "Insurance?"
"We'll pay cash." And her mother took a lump of bills and handed them to the nurse. "Okay honey, I've got to get to work. I'll pick you up this afternoon."
"What?" But she was too dreamy to make much protest, and before she realized what was happening her mother was gone.
So she sat in the waiting room, reading baby magazines, wondering what it would be like to have a family. Maybe she should have tried to go to college instead, like all her friends. The worry pill began to wear off, and she began to get edgy.
"Do you need something to drink," the nurse asked, "or maybe something to eat? How about some yogurt?" But that just made her queasy. She threw up in the bathroom, and suddenly the baby was there more than ever. She staggered back out to the waiting room, and the nurse saw the way she looked, and they took her through the doors into the back, and they made her take off her clothes and put on a little robe that wouldn't fit around her, and then she had to lie down on a cold hard examination table. After that she fell asleep for a while. When she woke up there was a doctor with her in the room.
"What is this?" he was saying. "I can't do anything for her, she's much too far along." And then, her body gave one great heave, and there was a baby's cry. "Well, that's a first," the doctor said. "What the fuck do we do now?"
All at once she knew she wasn't dreaming. The world was sharp edged, sharper than it ever had been before. She knew that she was at a turning point, that all the future she had ever imagined was about to vanish. And she remembered the nun, and the piece of paper that was sitting on top of her clothes piled on the chair.
So the nurse took the piece of paper, and went outside. The nun was still there, although no one had stopped to talk to her for a long time.
"Can you come inside with me?" The nurse asked.
"Inside?" The nun's eyes flashed in horror. "How can I go into a place like that?"
"Please," the nurse said, "we have a situation. We need your help."
"My help? How can I possibly be of any help to the likes of you?"
"Please, just come inside." So the nurse came back into the room, and the doctor showed the baby to the nun, and then she explained to them all about how it couldn't be Ricky's and she didn't know how it could have happened, and the doctor shook his head and said he didn't believe any of it. But the nun looked at her differently. "It's a miracle," she said, "a gift from God."
"Isn't every baby a gift from God?" The nurse murmured. Then the nun asked her how she could work here, and the doctor said gruffly he didn't believe in any of that anyway.
"There are some papers we need to fill out," he said, and she signed her name a few times. The doctor left for a moment, and came back in the room with the bundle of bills her mother had left. "Here," he said, "I can't take this."
But she didn't want them. "Take them," she gave the bills to the nun, "buy something for the baby." And the nun was gone, and so was the baby. All of a sudden she was scared. "What's going to happen," she asked, "when my mother comes back and there is no sign of a baby?"
"Honey, why did you think you were here in the first place?" The nurse was trying to hold back tears.
So she put her clothes back on and went out into the waiting room. The music from the ceiling speakers blared out, glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, goodwill to men. What were they doing playing Christmas music in May?