Benton watched Margaret spin on her heel and march resolutely out of his office, without having specified the time of their dinner that night or the location. With a little chuckle to himself he picked up folder of budget-to-actual cost reports and opened it, without any real intention of absorbing the contents. Having taken what to her must have felt like a monumental step – agreeing to sit down with him and discuss their situation – she’d made a dramatic exit. The exit was a bit premature in that they had no specific plan made for the evening, but Benton was confident that some instruction would come his way some time during the afternoon. If there was one thing Margaret could be counted on to do, it was give him orders.
He allowed himself to be hopeful. Perhaps she’d eventually come to see that there was nothing really complicated in the situation, even though she was obviously tearing herself up over endless pros and cons, marching and countermarching across her brain. Yet, to him, what could be easier or more natural? She was single: he was single. She loved him; he loved her. She was pregnant with his child (that it was HIS child, he had no doubt simply because she had said so) and he wanted a family. All the ingredients were there for them to live happily ever after.
The main impediment – she had other plans. Never had he known someone so intent on following a pre-established program, be it for a trade meeting, the itinerary of a visiting dignitary or, apparently, her own life. ‘Control freak’ didn’t come near to capturing the intensity of her need to dominate events.
A less analytical man than Benton would have labeled her as a stereotypical ‘ball-breaker’, lazily assuming that it was HIM that she wanted to dominate. While trying to puzzle out her mind, Benton had deduced that she was operating on a deeper level. The events of life itself, making up one’s passage from cradle to grave, these she needed to have lined up and marching in a straight line. And she had to be the one to draw the line.
As rigid as Benton knew himself to be when it came to certain issues, he saw himself as open to the vagaries of life. As a child he never knew where he might live from one year to the next. This pattern extended into his adulthood and it didn’t bother him, for example, to arrive at a posting without knowing when he would leave it or where he would go next. This would not be Margaret’s way.
However he looked at it, life with her was going to be an interesting challenge – assuming he could get her to agree to making a commitment.
He glanced at a piece of paper that he had picked up, then dropped it back onto his desk. No, he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate this afternoon. He leaned back in his chair, carefully so as not cause the rickety piece of furniture to tip. There was a line item for office furniture. on the budget printout that lay he had in his hand. Not a single item had been charged to it in the fiscal year. Margaret’s new office furniture had been bought last year and her old furnishings been given to Turnbull whose office was now much better appointed than his home.
Benton face drooped into a frown. He hadn’t thought of buying himself a new chair although he needed one and had the budget for it. A better chair would make him more efficient at his paper work, certainly, but it hadn’t occurred to him until that moment to actually obtain one. Why?
He pondered. Didn’t he always feel virtuous when overcoming difficulties, privations? Didn’t he live in a hovel when he could afford a more comfortable apartment? Didn’t he punish himself with balancing on a decrepit chair when he could easily get one more appropriate? Didn’t he insist trying to persuade to marry him a woman who would surely cause him daily grief?
Whoa! Where did that thought come from? Benton startled himself with the place his musings had taken him. He’d wanted Margaret for his wife for some time, but it was only when she had become pregnant that he had found the gumption to make her the offer. And the offer had only insulted her at first.
It was a pivotal moment for Fraser. He became aware of himself in an office too small for him, looking at work too menial for his talents, on furniture that should have been thrown out long ago. In a few hours he would plead with a woman to accept his love – heart, soul and body – when she didn’t seem to really want it. She saw him as just another piece of her life-puzzle to sorted out.
No, no, it was wrong to think that way. Wrong. But the thought came anyway and for the first time since they had begun being a couple at all, he found himself doubting whether he and Margaret as a couple were really viable. Was her need to control really enough to prevent them from operating happily as a real team, as his grandparents had done?
He leaned forward on his desk - yes, it really was far too small for him - and rubbed at his temples as though trying to massage these thoughts out of his brain.
She ended up driving of course. They went first to his apartment so he could dash upstairs and change out of his uniform. As he took off the uniform he felt he was seeing his own apartment for the second time since he had moved in. The first time he had really looked at it was when he had suffered amnesia and Ray had brought him hoping that seeing his own home would jog his memory. He recalled his words to Ray: “Am I being punished?”
He hung the uniform on a hanger and looked into his clothes closet for an outfit that a man might wear at a nice restaurant. There was no civilian business suits, no trim dress pants, no blazers. Why had he never respected his own person enough to dress himself decently?
That’s not important right now, he tried to tell himself. This night is about Margaret and me, not my own self-image. Now is not the time. I need to focus on our two lives and a third unborn life that depends on us. Puzzle out your psyche later, Benton, he scolded.
They sat opposite each other at the table. Ierfino’s was a restaurant that was not quite upscale but the lighting was soft and the music unobtrusive. They had spoken of unimportant things while they drove, while they checked their coats, while they studied their menus. Waiters had come and gone several times before, as they awaited their ordered food, Margaret brought up the subject of the evening.
“So, I guess we should talk now,” she announced.
There was nothing loving in her tone of voice. There hadn’t been at any time when she had tried to discuss their relationship or her pregnancy, but Benton only noticed it now. He tried to force himself to think kindly. She’s upset. She’s hurting. She’s confused. Her tone is a defense mechanism. I know better than to take it at face value, he told himself.
“Yes, I guess we should,” he said aloud, managing to sound detached. It was the tone she wanted.
Margaret cleared her throat. She shifted in her chair, as though settling in for some task, Benton noted. Then he chided himself silently for the comparison.
“There’s one more thing I have to tell you about myself that you don’t know, before you can really decide if you want to get married. I think I told you that my mother lives alone in Toronto. She’s . . . well . . . she’s getting along and she won’t be able to live alone for much longer. I’ll have to do something about her, soon. Maybe take in with me, maybe find her a nursing home. Something. That’s going to be extra pressure on us, if we decide there’s going to be an ‘us’.”
Something snapped in Benton. He lost his temper and started shouting even before he realized what it was that had pushed him over the edge.
He berated her. “What do you take me for? You have a needy mother? What difference does that make? You just keep throwing objections at me, one after another. Never any talk of love! Never any talk of raising a child! No, all I get from you is a series of arguments and counter-arguments!”
“Benton! Please calm down, you’re making a scene,” she lowered her own voice to a whisper. “People are staring.”
Benton didn’t care that people were staring.
“Margaret, do you want to marry me or not? Do you want to have my baby or not? Can you give me an answer to either of those questions that comes from your heart?”
She stared at him, unable to answer.
Benton found himself on his feet and took stock of his own situation. He took several deep breaths and forced himself to calm down. In what he hoped was a dignified manner, he lowered himself into his chair, all the while holding Margaret’s gaze.
He cooled down, slightly. This was another of her defense mechanisms. He’d expected her to loosen up during this dinner, speak of her real feelings. It was the only thing he himself was interested in hearing about. Obliquely she was doing that, she was showing him that she was worried about their future together. Moreover she was obviously still too afraid to let him see her true feelings. This business about her mother – it was pathetic really, she was trying to make things difficult for herself. He had to be understanding. But, damn it all, all this supporting and understanding was wearing him down.
“You don’t have a clue why I’m upset. I shouldn’t blame you. It’s not your fault,” he said finally. “But I’m not made of stone either, Margaret. I have my own issues to work though and I’m getting exhausted.”
He had regained his composure now and became as business-like as she was. “For the time being I’m withdrawing my proposal.”
Margaret was aghast. “You don’t want to get married? You’re breaking your promise to me?”
“This isn’t the Victorian era. You can’t take me to court for breach of promise of marriage. Let me make the situation clear. I love you. Come to me at any time and say, Benton I want to marry you and I’ll do it in a heartbeat. But I’m through begging. Tell me that you want me, really want me, and I’ll devote the rest of my life to you and our child. Say that to me, or don’t say anything more on the subject.”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” she replied haughtily.
“No, I don’t have enough nerve. At least not until today. You need to be in control, Margaret. You always have. Well, now you have it – absolute control. I’ll marry you the instant you ask me to. But I don’t want any more discussing back and forth. It’s too painful.”
Margaret looked away from him, pained. A flash of shame went through him for having hurt her feelings but at the same time he also felt a little proud for having stood up for himself. There was silence between them now, which Benton thought should be awkward but he didn’t feel awkward.
Food arrived and Benton ate his dinner with more relish than he had felt for any physical treat in many days. Margaret was more confused than angry or hurt, he noted. She looked from her plate to back up to him, darting glances at him as though trying to figure out who he was. It was appropriate, he decided. He didn’t recognize himself either.
They didn’t order dessert or coffee, so the waiter brought the bill, left it on a tray on the table and went off about his own concerns. Margaret and Benton both sat looking at it, neither making a move.
“Well, look at us,” Benton declared, enjoying the moment. “We’re not fighting over who will pay. Do you want to or shall I?”
As an answer, Margaret picked it up herself saying, “I invited you to dinner.”
“So you did. And I’ll tell you something. I haven’t enjoyed a meal so much in some time. We’ve cleared the air, I think.”
She eyed him suspiciously. She really doesn’t know whether I’m serious, Benton thought. I’ve stumped her. Good for me.
After she paid, they walked back to her car. Benton opened the driver’s door for her to get in, and then went around to get into the shotgun seat beside her. They drove off with Margaret not starting any conversation and Benton so relaxed that he didn’t need to babble to fill the silence. It was a novelty to him, and a pleasant one.
Instead he let his mind work on his own issues, those issues he had obliquely mentioned. He couldn’t expect more of Margaret than he himself was willing to give. Perhaps he should share with her what he had shared with Dr. Tung, the stories of the times he had been raped. Perhaps it would give her some perspective, to hear he had traumas of his own. He held back for the time being. His outburst had shocked her. Letting her focus on herself would be an act of kindness.
She drove up to his apartment building. Just before getting out the car, he turned to her and said, “Just so that the air is completely clear and you know what you’re getting into – there’s a reason I’m uncomfortable about sex. Not just with you but with anyone.”
She turned to him, astonished and fascinated.
“I was gang raped twice in my life. Once when I was ten years old and again when I was eighteen. Doctor Tung thinks that is having an effect on my attitudes to love, and to sex and that I feel inherently unworthy because of it.”
“Oh my God! I had no idea.”
“And you thought you’d shock me with your little bombshell about your mother. Well, good night.”
He got out of the car and closed the door after him. As he walked towards the front door of the building, she called out to him through her opened window.
He turned back to her. “Yes?”
“That’s so horrible. I’m sorry.”
”It doesn’t have anything to do with you. I just thought I’d tell you so that . . . well, actually I don’t know why I told you. I’ll see you at work tomorrow. Um, thanks for dinner.”
With that he went into the building and pressed the button for the elevator. Normally he went up the stairs, not trusting the ancient contraption. But tonight he was so buoyed by his sense of entitlement that he decided he’d let the elevator do its job and take him up, he wouldn’t do the walking himself. He caught himself thinking this and found the thought amusing. He had to remember not to take himself too seriously.
There was a noise behind him and he spun around to see Margaret standing there.
“I’d like to stay over tonight, if you don’t mind,” she said. Benton couldn’t quite make out her attitude. She was back to her usual calm.
“Sure,” he said, briefly.
They rode the elevator together and she followed him into his apartment.
“I think I understand now why you live like this. I mean, Dr. Tung was probably right. You’re punishing yourself. You should take some more therapy.”
He took her coat and hung it up, then hung up his own jacket. He’d blurted out his revelation but he wasn’t really in the mood to pursue it. It occurred to him that, like Margaret, he was avoiding talking about something important. But then, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander after all. He would only talk about it when he felt ready. And he wasn’t ready now.
Instead all he said was, “I’ll make us some tea. Or would you prefer coffee?”
“Tea’s fine. I mean it, Benton. About the therapy. Dr. Tung’s been away but there’s another doctor who has been covering his practice. She’s very good.”
“Tea it is. I’ll think about it. The therapy, I mean. I don’t need to think about the tea.”
She smiled. “You shocked me twice tonight. First with your little ultimatum. Now this revelation about your past. A real shocker of an evening.” She sat down at his kitchen table while he set about filling a kettle with water and placing it on the stove to boil.
Benton wondered why it was that she wanted to stay at his place tonight. He wasn’t feeling particularly amorous but he would try to accommodate her if she wanted to make love. That would only be chivalrous.
The kettle boiled and he took it from the stove and turned back towards her with it. She was sitting hunched over, clutching at her middle, her face contracted with pain.
“Oh dear,” he breathed, involuntarily.
“Cramps,” she moaned. “I don’t understand it.”
“Give me your car keys, I’m driving you to the hospital,” he ordered.
“That’s not necessary. Lot’s of pregnancies have . . .” here she paused, groaned again and doubled right over. “Where’s your bathroom?”
Benton pointed down the hallway and Margaret bolted in the direction he indicated, shouting, “My keys are in my purse! Get ready!”
The resident tried to give Margaret a pep talk, telling her that one in five pregnancies terminate on their own and often it is for the best. Besides, Margaret was at higher risk, having a first pregnancy her age.
This young man needs some training in bedside manner, Benton thought as he watched them from across the room where he stood, arms folded, listening. Finally, the fledgling doctor left her alone, after telling her that a D & C would be scheduled for the next day, after which she could go home.
“Sorry,” he said in Benton’s direction as he went out of the room.
Benton remained for another half hour, waiting until the sedative she had been given took effect. They had agreed that he would take her car with him and come back to her the next day.
They were more comfortable with each other for a few weeks afterwards than Benton thought they should be. He had been expecting Margaret to hide her grief and disappointment but instead she talked to him every day about her feelings, sometimes crying in his office. They went out together, for meals, for walks, and although Margaret was forthcoming in letting her own emotions show, she did not try to involve Benton in any discussion about their relationship. She seemed to be obeying his prohibition and keeping entirely mum on the subject of their future together, or lack thereof.
Benton comforted her, telling her what she was in the mood to hear on any given day.
One lunchtime they strolled together along the streets that surrounded the Consulate, with Benton commenting on the architectural features of the stately old buildings as they passed them. They walked arm in arm like an elderly married couple.
They stopped in front of one building and Benton launched into a lecture about the fenestration style when Margaret interrupted him.
“We can try again in six weeks,” she blurted out.
“Try what again?”
“You know what. To have a baby.”
“Margaret, you put me through all kinds of explanations about why you didn’t want a baby at this time in your life. And now that the problem is solved, you say you want to get pregnant again.”
“I’m surprised to hear you call it a problem,” she said.
“I’m echoing you. I never thought it was a problem. You may recall that as soon as I heard I was overjoyed.”
“Yes, you were. So, I take it you won’t mind trying again.”
“Now you’re using strange terminology. We weren’t trying the first time. You were on The Pill, you told me.”
“I want to try now.”
“And?” he prompted her.
“And what? Oh, and I want us to be married when we do this.”
Benton had to take a moment to think about what to say next. She was asking him to marry her but trying to save face by not phrasing it exactly the way he wanted to hear it. Well, he could accept that. But wanting to have a baby right away after protesting so before, this was something he couldn’t figure out. Then it came to him.
“You don’t want an actual baby, a living, screaming, demanding creature. You want to complete a project. The pregnancy was a failure, so you want to redo the operation successfully. That’s not a healthy attitude, Margaret. And it’s not realistic.”
“Look, pal. You’re the one who put down the ultimatum. I’m telling you I want to marry you and I want us to have a child. That’s what you’ve been claiming to want all along. Are you going back out just because you think my motivation isn’t pure? Isn’t that unfair.”
It was unfair, Benton thought. She was right in thinking that this was what he had wanted all along. Now, how ironic that his new understanding of himself made him feel differently about those earlier wants. He still loved Margaret and the thought of a life with her pleased him, but the urgency of the need had eased.
“You’re not answering,” she pointed out.
Life was certainly strange. She had to pressure him now, not vice versa. Oh, in just a few minutes he would take her in his arms, kiss her right there on the street and tell her to start making wedding plans.
But he’d make her sweat a little first.