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  We lived on West End, at Eighty-second Street, and his practice was in our building, on the ground floor, and I used to come by to visit after school. All his patients knew me, and I was proud to be the doctor’s son, to say hello to everyone, to watch the babies he had delivered grow into kids who looked up to me because their parents told them I was Dr. Stein’s son, that I went to a good high school, one of the best in the city, and that if they studied hard enough, they might be able to as well. “Darling,” my father called me, and when he saw me after school on those visits, he would place his palm on the back of my neck, even when I grew taller than he, and kiss me on the side of my head. “My darling,” he’d say, “how was school?”


  When I was eight, he married his office manager, Adele. There was never a moment in my childhood in which I was not aware of Adele’s presence: it was she who took me shopping for new clothes when I needed them, she who joined us for Thanksgiving, she who wrapped my birthday presents. It was not so much that Adele was a mother to me; it’s that to me, a mother was Adele.


  She was older, older than my father, and one of those women whom men like and feel comfortable around but never think of marrying, which is a kind way of saying she wasn’t pretty. But who needs prettiness in a mother? I asked her once if she wanted children of her own, and she said I was her child, and she couldn’t imagine having a better one, and it says everything you need to know about my father and Adele and how I felt about them and how they treated me that I never even questioned that claim of hers until I was in my thirties and my then-wife and I were fighting about whether we should have another child, a child to replace Jacob.


  She was an only child, as I was an only child, and my father was an only child, too: a family of onlys. But Adele’s parents were living—my father’s were not—and we used to travel out to Brooklyn, to what has now been swallowed by Park Slope, to see them on weekends. They had lived in America for almost five decades and still spoke very little English: the father, timidly, the mother, expressively. They were blocky, like she was, and kind, like she was—Adele would speak to them in Russian, and her father, whom I called Grandpa by default, would unclench one of his fat fists and show me what was secreted within: a wooden birdcall, or a wodge of bright-pink gum. Even when I was an adult, in law school, he would always give me something, although he no longer had his store then, which meant he must have bought them somewhere. But where? I always imagined there might be a secret shop full of toys that went out of fashion generations ago, and yet was patronized, faithfully, by old immigrant men and women, who kept them in business by buying their stocks of whorl-painted wooden tops and little metal soldiers and sets of jacks, their rubber balls sticky with grime even before their plastic wrap had been torn.


  I had always had a theory—born of nothing—that men who had been old enough to witness their father’s second marriage (and, therefore, old enough to make a judgment) married their stepmother, not their mother. But I didn’t marry someone like Adele. My wife, my first wife, was cool and self-contained. Unlike the other girls I knew, who were always minimizing themselves—their intelligence, of course, but also their desires and anger and fears and composure—Liesl never did. On our third date, we were walking out of a café on MacDougal Street, and a man stumbled from a shadowed doorway and vomited on her. Her sweater was chunky with it, that pumpkin-bright splatter, and I remember in particular the way a large globule clung to the little diamond ring she wore on her right hand, as if the stone itself had grown a tumor. The people around us gasped, or shrieked, but Liesl only closed her eyes. Another woman would have screeched, or squealed (I would have screeched or squealed), but I remember she only gave a great shudder, as if her body were acknowledging the disgust but also removing itself from it, and when she opened her eyes, she was recovered. She peeled off her cardigan, chucked it into the nearest garbage can. “Let’s go,” she told me. I had been mute, shocked, throughout the entire episode, but in that moment, I wanted her, and I followed her where she led me, which turned out to be her apartment, a hellhole on Sullivan Street. The entire time, she kept her right hand slightly aloft from her body, the blob of vomit still clinging to her ring.


  Neither my father nor Adele particularly liked her, although they never told me so; they were polite, and respectful of my wishes. In exchange, I never asked them, never made them lie. I don’t think it was because she wasn’t Jewish—neither of my parents were religious—but, I think, because they thought I was too much in awe of her. Or maybe this is what I’ve decided, late in life. Maybe it was because what I admired as competence, they saw as frigidity, or coldness. Goodness knows they wouldn’t have been the first to think that. They were always polite to her, and she reasonably so to them, but I think they would have preferred a potential daughter-in-law who would flirt with them a little, to whom they could tell embarrassing stories about my childhood, who would have lunch with Adele and play chess with my father. Someone like you, in fact. But that wasn’t Liesl and wouldn’t ever be, and once they realized that, they too remained a bit aloof, not to express their displeasure but as a sort of self-discipline, a reminder to themselves that there were limits, her limits, that they should try to respect. When I was with her, I felt oddly relaxed, as if, in the face of such sturdy competence, even misfortune wouldn’t dare try to challenge us.


  We had met in New York, where I was in law school and she was in medical school, and after graduating, I got a clerkship in Boston, and she (one year older than I) started her internship. She was training to be an oncologist. I had been admiring of that, of course, because of what it suggested: there is nothing more soothing than a woman who wants to heal, whom you imagine bent maternally over a patient, her lab coat white as clouds. But Liesl didn’t want to be admired: she was interested in oncology because it was one of the harder disciplines, because it was thought to be more cerebral. She and her fellow oncological interns had scorn for the radiologists (too mercenary), the cardiologists (too puffed-up and pleased with themselves), the pediatricians (too sentimental), and especially the surgeons (unspeakably arrogant) and the dermatologists (beneath comment, although they of course worked with them frequently). They liked the anesthesiologists (weird and geeky and fastidious, and prone to addiction), the pathologists (even more cerebral than they), and—well, that was about it. Sometimes a group of them would come over to our house, and would linger after dinner discussing cases and studies, while their partners—lawyers and historians and writers and lesser scientists—were ignored until we slunk off to the living room to discuss the various trivial, less-interesting things with which we occupied our days.


  We were two adults, and it was a happy enough life. There was no whining that we didn’t spend enough time with each other, from me or from her. We remained in Boston for her residency, and then she moved back to New York to do her fellowship. I stayed. By that time I was working at a firm and was an adjunct at the law school. We saw each other on the weekends, one in Boston, one in New York. And then she completed her program and returned to Boston; we married; we bought a house, a little one, not the one I have now, just at the edge of Cambridge.


  My father and Adele (and Liesl’s parents, for that matter; mysteriously, they were considerably more emotive than she was, and on our infrequent trips to Santa Barbara, while her father made jokes and her mother placed before me plates of sliced cucumbers and peppered tomatoes from her garden, she would watch with a closed-off expression, as if embarrassed, or at least perplexed by, their relative expansiveness) never asked us if we were going to have children; I think they thought that as long as they didn’t ask, there was a chance we might. The truth was that I didn’t really feel the need for it; I had never envisioned having a child, I didn’t feel about them one way or another. And that seemed enough of a reason not to: having a child, I thought, was something you should actively want, crave, even. It was not a venture for the ambivalent or passionless. Liesl felt the same way, or so we thought.


  But then, one evening—I was thirty-one, she was thirty-two: young—I came home and she was already in the kitchen, waiting for me. This was unusual; she worked longer hours than I did, and I usually didn’t see her until eight or nine at night.


  “I need to talk to you,” she said, solemnly, and I was suddenly scared. She saw that and smiled—she wasn’t a cruel person, Liesl, and I don’t mean to give the impression that she was without kindness, without gentleness, because she had both in her, was capable of both. “It’s nothing bad, Harold.” Then she laughed a little. “I don’t think.”


  I sat. She inhaled. “I’m pregnant. I don’t know how it happened. I must’ve skipped a pill or two and forgotten. It’s almost eight weeks. I had it confirmed at Sally’s today.” (Sally was her roommate from their med-school days, her best friend, and her gynecologist.) She said all this very quickly, in staccato, digestible sentences. Then she was silent. “I’m on a pill where I don’t get my periods, you know, so I didn’t know.” And then, when I said nothing, “Say something.”


  I couldn’t, at first. “How do you feel?” I asked.


  She shrugged. “I feel fine.”


  “Good,” I said, stupidly.


  “Harold,” she said, and sat across from me, “what do you want to do?”


  “What do you want to do?”


  She shrugged again. “I know what I want to do. I want to know what you want to do.”“You don’t want to keep it.”


  She didn’t disagree. “I want to hear what you want.”


  “What if I say I want to keep it?”


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