Side Effects

Word Count 3,395

SIDE EFFECTS

By Ray Squires

Although she kept secret how often she smoked these days, she had agreed long ago to quit completely before she got pregnant. They had each assumed that she would stay home as primary care taker of their children. But what had always seemed years off – the decision to start having children – presented itself now and sat down with them at their favorite white tablecloth steakhouse on Atlanta’s north side, imposing on her 28th birthday dinner. Overlapping loops of conversations and the tinkling of glassware provided invisible walls of privacy for his sudden and intimate proposal, to which he seemingly awaited only a single, positive response.

“Do you think you’re ready?” Jason said, innocent and smiling, as he forked a bite of the black forest cake. “I’ll be a partner soon. We really shouldn’t have to wait any longer.” He offered this as if it were a part of his birthday present.

Unprepared for his serious case, her blue eyes gazed passed him, searching a mirrored wall for something that would give her another two years reprieve.

“I don’t—I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Don’t you think we’re ready? Jenny and Scott have one. Mary Linn just got pregnant.”

“I—.” Charlotte reached for her wine glass and drank its remains. As soon as she placed it back on the table, Jason reached for the bottle and refilled it for her. “Thank you,” she said and took another sip, clearing the cobwebs of saliva from her throat. “I don’t know, honey.”

“What are you waiting for?” Jason, still wearing the suit he’d put on that morning, grabbed his third drink, a Jack and coke with a twist of lime, and leaned back in his seat. He took a sip as his eyes traveled to the couple seated next to them.    

Sensing his usual frustration at her indecisiveness, she then recognized her own anger and it provided her mind the temporary clarity of a bronchial dilator. She looked at him. “I’m sorry, Jason. I’m just a little scared. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

He softened. “I am going to be here with you every step, Char. I’ll help you.”

“I’ll get all fat.” She sat back with her tan arms folded. 

“Yeah, but your boobs will get big.”

“What do I tell my work?”

“What do you mean? You tell them you’re pregnant.”

“You know, I have people reporting to me now.”

“There is no perfect time, Char, remember what your dad said.”

Charlotte twisted her platinum hair into a bun. Searching for another excuse, she remembered instead a report she should have sent out before leaving the office and then she imagined that Jason’s head was the burning end of a Marlboro Light.  

“I love you,” Jason said, reaching for her hand across the table, his eyes tired and glossy. “You’re going to be the most beautiful pregnant woman alive.”

Charlotte smiled, distracted by his affection. She slipped her French-manicured fingers into Jason’s hand. “I love you, too,” she said and meant it, releasing her muscles and curving her posture toward him. They sat, eyes locked, absorbed in what attracted them to each other until the waiter arrived with the check and released the moment.

“I’m definitely going to need some help quitting. Mary Linn said it was really hard. She took some prescription to help her.”

“Oh yeah, she was probably on Wellbutrin. We’ll get you some.” Jason pulled out his wallet, looked back up at Charlotte, and, with his brown curly hair wild now at the end of his long day, winked. “That’s no big deal, Char. Whatever you need, honey.”

“Well, I need to have one right now. Can we go?” 

Jason smiled. “Yeah, come on.”

He helped her into her coat and then she clutched the small red velvet box containing her birthday present and took his arm with the other. With the confidence of people arriving early to church they walked out of the restaurant and into the cold autumn night.

---

The doctor reviewed the side effects of Wellbutrin with Charlotte in detail, but she didn’t notice any of them. After three weeks of taking the medication all she knew was that she still craved a cigarette, especially on her commute home from work when she used to indulge after a long day managing her small team of pharmaceutical sales reps. It had been six days since she’d held a cigarette while stuck in traffic. Instead now she spent time in the car nearly chewing her manicure completely off. To stave off her desperate craving, she schemed to buy a pack on Saturday, smoke only one and then throw the pack out. When Saturday arrived, she intended to follow through on the plan, but first she had to make it through the day Christmas shopping with her mother, who had no idea Charlotte had ever smoked a cigarette in her life. She figured if she dropped her mother off by 3:00, she’d have just enough time to smoke one and then shower before Jason got home. He was spending the day playing golf.

“Gosh, doesn’t it seem like we’ve been sitting at this traffic light forever?” Charlotte sat in the driver’s seat of her white BMW, incredulous, while her mother, riding shotgun, organized a shopping list.

“Well, we’re in no rush, Charlotte,” the trim 52-year-old woman said, looking up from her list to pat her ash blonde hair in the visor mirror. “I told your grandmother we’d pick her up after lunch.”

“No, I really think they’ve slowed this traffic light. This is the way I go to work, and it seems like the last few days this light takes longer than it used to. I wonder why they would do that.”

“Oh, that is silly. See? It’s green. Now you need to be thinking about where you’d like to go for lunch. You look like you’re not eating enough.”

Charlotte glanced at her mother and then turned left. She had lost three pounds. Fortunately for Charlotte the stress of quitting smoking took away her appetite instead of giving her the munchies. Course, she’d also gone off her birth control pill when she started the Wellbutrin and figured that was probably contributing to the weight loss as well. Jason had agreed to wear condoms until she was drug free, agreeing to her request for one life change at a time. 

“We might as well just eat somewhere near the mall and then go pick up Grandmother,” Charlotte said, avoiding her mother’s comment about her weight. “Where is it she wants to go?”

“She wants to go to that pro bass fishing store or whatever it is to get Daddy a special reel or some kind of fishing gear or something—.”

“But that’s all the way down here,” Charlotte shouted and cut her mother’s thought short. “Why didn’t we get her first?”

“Well, we are not in a rush, Charlotte. Your grandmother can’t be on her feet all day. What is the matter with you?”

“Nothing is the matter with me.” Charlotte reached down to scratch her leg. The wool in her new pants bothered her. “I was hoping to be home by 3, and I just think it’s ridiculous to go all the way down to the mall in Buckhead, go all the way back up to grandmother’s and then come all the way back down here again.”

“Why do you need to be home by 3? I thought you said Jason was playing golf today.”

“I have some things I’d like to do before he gets home. We could have just gone to the mall near her house.”

“Well, I just love the holiday decorations down here. The ones at Perimeter Square aren’t as nice. Charlotte, quit scratching your leg, honey. You’re going to make a hole in those nice, new pants for goodness sake.”

Charlotte looked at her mother’s profile—as the woman hunted for something in her purse—and imagined the things she’d find in there: Gum, no doubt. A miniature bible. Wallet sized pictures of Charlotte and her older brother, in kindergarten, fifth grade, high school, of their graduations and wedding days. Three tubes of the same colored lipstick. But definitely no cigarette. Charlotte looked back to the road just as her mother took another brief pause from the hunt.

“What time are you and Jason coming over on Thursday?”

“Uh, 2:00, I guess.”

“Charlotte, it would be the most wonderful Christmas present if you and Stephanie were pregnant together.”

“Stephanie is pregnant again?”

“Yes, she is.”

“But Annabelle is only a year old.”

“Uh, here it is,” she said unfolding a piece of paper. “So. They’re ready to have another. Every man deserves a son, Charlotte.”

Charlotte bit at a hang nail on her thumb. “Jason and I aren’t trying yet.”

“Why not?  I thought you were. Charlotte, stop biting your nails.”

Charlotte dried her thumb on her pants. “I just got a promotion, too, you know. I want to wait a little longer.”

“Honey, it’s not going to make a difference. Jason is going to take care of you. He’s a good man. You’re going to be fine.”

“We want to save up some more money.”

“Charlotte, there is nothing to be afraid of. You are going to make a wonderful mother. You’re never ready, honey. And you’re never done with it.” Charlotte’s mother took a deep breath and looked out the window. Then she patted her daughter’s leg. “Children grow up, but you still worry about them and want to take care of them.”

“Right.” Charlotte gripped the steering wheel with both hands.

---

It was 4:00 by the time Charlotte dropped off her mother and her grandmother, too late to smoke and shower before seeing Jason. He had the nose of basset hound. Still, she cruised by several gas stations on the way home.

He was there before her, in the kitchen, looking in the refrigerator. 

“So how was shopping?”

“A nightmare.” Charlotte placed her bags on the kitchen table and looked through each one to review what she bought. “My mother makes me crazy. I need some nicotine gum or something if I’m going to be with her.”

“We can get you some of that. But then you should probably stop taking the Wellbutrin.”

“I know that, Jason. I’m fine with the Wellbutrin; I was just saying.” She looked up at him. “What are you looking for in there?”

“Mike’s gonna have some guys over to watch the game tonight. I was seeing if we had any beer. Do you mind if I go over there?”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Geez, potty mouth. I don’t know.” He closed the refrigerator, came up to her, and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Maybe Mary Linn will want to come over.”

“Hmm, yeah. Maybe.”

“She’s really putting it on, isn’t she?”

“What?” Charlotte tried to pull away from him, but he held her tighter and spoke into her hair.

“Mike says she’s gained like 30 pounds already.”

“She’s five months pregnant.”

“Yeah, but isn’t that a lot for five months?” He bent down to lift her sweater and kissed her bare stomach. “When can we start trying?”

She pushed him away, leaving his arms empty, and went to look in the refrigerator.

“We agreed I need to be off Wellbutrin before we start trying, Jason. You said you were fine with that.”

“Well, I’m gonna hop in the shower and then take off.”

“Already?” She closed the refrigerator.

“The game starts at six, Char. You should call Mary Linn.” He handed her the phone and then went upstairs.

---

Charlotte didn’t call Mary Linn. Instead, she called Melissa, who still smoked. Melissa and Charlotte had roomed together in college at their sorority house. Jason never cared for Melissa, of course. She’d always been a little heavy, and her voice, even more raspy now, hardened her, he said. Lately Charlotte had grown a little tired of her too, tired of trying to make her feel better about her self. But tonight Melissa seemed like a lot more fun than hanging out with a woman five months pregnant by a guy like Mike. They agreed to meet at the Twelfth Street Pub, just down the street from Melissa’s one bedroom apartment. They set up camp for the evening on stools at the end of the bar.

“Are you dying for a cigarette?” Melissa held up a pack of Marlboro Lights.

“Oh my God, yes. Please give me one. I knew you’d have ‘em.”

“You’re not on some kind of patch or something?”

“No, it’s like anti-depressant medicine. It’s not a substitute for nicotine.” Charlotte reached behind her to scratch her lower back and then held out her hand. “Give me a fucking cigarette.”

“All right.” Melissa handed Charlotte the pack. “I’m proud of you for trying. I don’t know when I’m going to quit. I mean it’s only when I drink anyway.” Melissa adjusted the front of her pants and pulled her oversized sweater over her hips.

“When you’re ready to get pregnant.”

“Yeah, well, uh, you have to be married first for that or at least have a boyfriend. Hey, can we get some matches and two Merlots?” Melissa shouted to the bartender who stood at the opposite end of the long bar.

“Whatever. At least you don’t have someone pressuring you into doing something you’re totally not ready for.” Charlotte unwrapped the box and pulled out a cigarette.

“What are you talking about? I may not have a boyfriend, but I have a mother,” Melissa lit Charlotte’s cigarette and then her own.

“Oh my God, my mother just about drove me absolutely nuts today.”

“I don’t know how you do it. You are like the perfect daughter.”

“Yeah right, I lied to her today, and now I’m smoking while I promised my husband I’d quit so we can conceive.” With her head tilted back Charlotte took her first long drag and let the smoke fill her like sand. She ran her fingers through her hair as she exhaled and ripples of sensation cascaded down her scalp. Strings of energy, previously thrashing, were now anchored deep within her core, billowy and soft, like jellyfish tentacles, ready for reception.

“So how’s work?”

“Busy, but good.”

Both women took hearty gulps of their wine and sat quiet for a few moments, temporarily entranced by a television over the bar. A commercial for Carnival Cruise Lines flashed images of people vacationing in the tropics.

“Oh my God, I forgot to tell you,” Melissa said and then exhaled. “Jessica and I are flying to Jamaica over Thanksgiving. Isn’t that awesome?”

“Oh my God, no, you didn’t tell me. That is so awesome. How did you work that?”

“You know, I just can’t handle going home this year. My oldest brother and his wife just had like their fifth kid, and I don’t want to deal with all the questions my mother is going to ask about when I’m going to settle down and who I’m dating and la, la, la.”

“Uh, I know. I’m sorry, Mel.” Charlotte put her hand on Melissa’s shoulder.  “But, Mark is cool with that?”

Melissa smiled and then sat up straight and continued. “Oh yeah. He doesn’t care. Jess says he told her he wants to go on a hunting trip with some friends or something.”

“I am so jealous. My family would disown me if Jason and I went away for the holidays instead of coming home. We’re going to five Thanksgiving dinners. I am not kidding.” Charlotte reached down to scratch her calf, hard.

“Jesus Charlotte, don’t you moisturize?”

“Uh, I know, it’s these pants. Do you have any lotion on you?”

“Oh yeah, I just got this great stuff from Body Balm.” Melissa balanced her cigarette in the ashtray and reached down to pick up her oversized Marc Jacobs from the floor. She revealed a small, colorful tube. 

Charlotte exhaled and then sniffed the cap: “Hmm, musky. Thanks. So what else is goin’ on with you?”

---

Charlotte looked at the clock when Jason came in. It was three.

“Where have you been?” She asked, propping herself up on her elbows. She knocked over her alarm clock before she found the lamp on her nightstand. The new light made her blink and draw her eyebrows close together as she focused on Jason. 

He was leaning on the dresser, emptying his pockets and rediscovering a few coins, a bottle cap, a box of matches. He seemed to pause on the matches and then stuffed them back into his pocket before tugging off his jeans, one leg at a time.

“A few of us just went to a bar for a little while after the game.”

“What bar?”

“Just some bar.”

“You seem pretty wasted.” Charlotte pulled herself into a sitting position in the bed. She wore a stretched out and faded pink t-shirt, a surviving souvenir from her last winter formal at school.

“Nah, not really.” He giggled.

“Who drove home?”

“Mike did. He didn’t drink that much.” 

"Mary Linn was cool with Mike going out?”

“Oh, no. They got into a wicked fight. Man, pregnant women get pissed. Mike’s the one who made us go to the Pink Pony. ”

“Where?”

“It’s a strip club, Char. It’s no big deal.” He turned off her lamp and got into the bed. “Hey somebody’s hair smells like cigarettes.” He moved her hair off her neck and kissed it. “Where did you and Melissa go?”

“Just down to that pub by her place,” Charlotte tried not to breathe on Jason. “You went to a strip club?”

“Oh Char, I want you so bad,” he said. His body rocked the bed as he worked off his boxers. 

“I bet. Jason, I’m half asleep.”

“Oh come on.” He kissed her neck again and maneuvered her into a horizontal position. 

Charlotte tried to pull away but couldn’t create enough space between his body and hers to leverage free. She felt him pull her underwear down and then push his finger inside her. Then his tongue separated the lips of her pursed mouth. Its sour taste nearly gagged her.

“I can’t believe you went to a strip club tonight,” she managed to say. 

“Uh huh,”

Now he was on top of her and inside her.

“Jason, wait.”

“No, baby. Come on,” he said and began thrusting faster. “It’s ok. I want you so bad.”

“But Jason–.”

He came before she could protest any further. And then he was still. The moon and star stickers on the ceiling reflected a dim fluorescent green. He rolled off, onto his side, and soon a steady snore settled upon his lips as hot semen seeped out and tickled her inner thighs. She freed her body of the remaining covers and cupped her vagina with one hand as she waddled into the bathroom and started the tub. Without turning on the light she got in. 

She waited for the heat and the dense steam. It mixed with the smoke from her hair and grew heavy and pungent around her as she squatted in front of the faucet. The scalding water tumbling out splashed between her thighs scorching clean the tender skin. Awake now and afraid, she reached deep inside trying to get it all out.

After drying off she wrapped the towel around her torso, and stepping over Jason’s pile of clothes, she clutched her purse from the dresser and carried it over to the bench seat by the window where the moon cast a dim light in. She pushed up the window glass and closed her eyes for a moment as the cool air crept along her face and down her neck and chest and out along her arms. With her back to the window she rummaged for the pack she’d bought at the bar. She struck a match and paused as the sweet smell of sulfur piqued her nostrils. Holding the flame to the cigarette end, she inhaled slowly, filling her throat and lungs and stared at her husband. He lay prostrate in the middle of the bed, wheezing like a sick animal while his breath pushed out and fluttered his lips. Waving out the match, she exhaled and decided she definitely wasn’t ready.