Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ~ Karen Wunsch

On a late October night in Greenwich Village, the rain was like a mist and it was unseasonably warm. When Jonathan saw a café with an outdoor table sheltered by an awning, he sat down to wait for Carole. Forty-two, he was thin and almost six feet, with dark curly hair and dark eyes. He wore a dress shirt and jeans. He still couldn’t believe that if things went according to plan, in six months he’d be adopting Carole’s baby.

It had only been a few weeks since his lawyer friend Peter, also gay, had told him about Carole. Two months pregnant, she was twenty-eight and single, lived in New Hampshire, and not only wanted to give up her child, but she preferred a gay male couple or a even a gay single man. Whenever Jonathan had vaguely thought about becoming a father he’d assumed he’d have a husband, but he was starting to worry that he’d always be alone. Carole had liked his being a college teacher and that he lived in Manhattan. Although she wasn’t Jewish, she seemed pleased that he was. (Apparently when she was in high school a gay male Jewish neighbor had been very important to her.) Jonathan wondered if she also didn’t want the baby to have another mother.

The one time he and Carole Skyped he’d worried about her seeing how his apartment had only one bedroom, but when he’d shown her the large dining area that could be converted to a bedroom, she’d said it was fine. He’d also made clear that in addition to his salary, he had enough inherited money to raise a child in an expensive city. Now he was paying for Carole to come down for the weekend so they could talk in person. No papers had been signed, and even when they were, at any point and up to seventy-two hours after the birth she’d be able to legally change her mind.

Suddenly she was there. Her shoulder-length reddish-brown hair looked cheaply dyed, her eye-makeup was too dark for her pale skin, and her front tooth was crooked, but she was prettier than she’d looked on Skype. She wore a faded yellow blouse with embroidered daisies around the collar and sleeves, and black pants. There were several rubber bands on her wrist. Jonathan tried not to look at her belly.

They sort-of hugged, barely touching.

After she sat down she kept glancing at the street. Although Halloween was several days away, it was a Friday night and many people walking by wore costumes.

“It’s so exciting to be here,” Carole said.

“Your hotel’s okay?”

“It’s really nice.”

He hoped she realized how much it had cost.

When the waiter came Carole ordered a Diet Coke. She told Jonathan he should feel free to have a drink.

The idea of his not drinking hadn’t even occurred to him.

Although he’d referred to his sabbatical in his application letter, he brought up again how although it would be over in the fall, he’d of course hire a nanny. He felt as if he were at a job interview.

It turned out Carole didn’t know what a sabbatical was. She was intrigued.

“Even though I plan to work until my due date,” (she worked at a thrift shop near Dartmouth College), “I feel like this time in my life, especially since I’m not—keeping the baby—it will be like a kind of sabbatical for me.”

He wasn’t sure what to say.

He didn’t know much about her. She’d gone to a community college. The baby’s dad (who wasn’t in the picture) was white. Peter kept telling him he should thank his lucky stars that she didn’t want to be part of the child’s life.

“Another thing I want to make clear,” Jonathan said, “is that I’ll send him or her to private school if that’s what…they need.”

Carole kept looking at the people walking by. There was a group of small children wearing costumes. Their moms were dressed like princesses or prom queens and had expensively streaked brown or honey-colored hair.

“And as I said in my letter,” Jonathan added, “I hope to marry one day.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Do you belong to a temple?”

“Not at the moment.” Should he add that he could join one?

When his wine came, he felt too shy to toast the baby.

Carole ordered pizza. Jonathan ordered fish, then changed it to a burger.

After the waiter left, there was a long silence. It felt like awkward date.

“There’s something you should know,” Carole said.

“Okay,” he said slowly.

“I don’t want to find out the baby’s sex before it’s born. I want it to be a surprise.”

He nodded in what he hoped was an encouraging way. He hadn’t really thought about finding out early.

“If you want to know, you can talk to the nurse in the office. Just don’t tell me. OK?”

“I don’t care about the gender.” He should have used a different word. “I’m just as happy not to know the sex.”

“Okay. But if you change your mind, don’t tell me.”

“I won’t change my mind.”

After another silence he talked about his job. He didn’t go into how his specialty was modern English poetry, or that his sabbatical project was about Philip Larkin’s early poems.

“Do you like Stieg Larson?” Carole asked.

“I keep meaning to read him,” he lied.

“He’s so good. You’ll love him. ”

She was watching a man walking by who had a snake around his neck. His bare chest and arms were covered with tattoos.

“I’ve seen him around the Village before,” Jonathan said. “He always has that snake. It’s not just that it’s Halloween.”

“I love New York!”

She’d better not expect him to keep paying for her to visit.

When their food came, they ate mostly in silence.

There was an almost full moon. With the streetlights shining through the mist and the small groups of people wearing costumes, everything looked romantic. And here he was, alone and part of what was basically a business transaction.

“I’m thinking about going back to school,” Carole said. “Maybe something like social work. Or maybe nursing….”

“If I can help with your applications in any way, I’d be glad to do it,” he said. “I’ve helped quite a few students.” He didn’t mention that he’d also helped his former cleaning person and his doorman’s son.

His burger was huge and he wasn’t used to eating so much meat. He ordered more wine.

Carole was eating her last slice of pizza when the waiter started to take away her plate.

“Hey!” Jonathan said to him. “Where’s she supposed to put down her pizza?”

Barely apologizing, the waiter put back her plate.

“Only in New York,” Jonathan muttered as the waiter walked away. “They charge exorbitant prices and then they can’t wait to get rid of you.”

She put what was left of her slice on her plate. “Wow! Thanks. I never would have had the nerve to say anything.”

He’d joke to Peter that he felt like her knight in shining armor.

It turned out she didn’t expect to go to his apartment (which a friend in real estate had just helped him de-clutter as if he were putting it on the market) or to see him on Saturday. She was leaving early Sunday.

Suddenly he was so cheerful he wondered if he were tipsy.

A witch and a ghost, on bicycles, whizzed by.

As he waited for the check, Carole said, “There’s something else I have to tell you.”

She’d changed her mind! She’d gotten herself a free weekend in New York, and now she was keeping the baby.

“The thing is,” Carole said, “you can’t be in the delivery room. My best friend, Diane, she’s going to be there with me. We’ve been friends since first grade….”

“That’s fine.” He’d thought more about taking the baby back to his apartment than about the birth itself. He realized that actually, he was relieved.


After they signed adoption papers Jonathan found it harder to concentrate on his writing about Larkin. He dated more frequently than he had in a while, but no one seemed promising. Peter invited him to dinner with a gay couple, one of whom was the biological father of their seven year-old daughter. They showed Jonathan many cute pictures, and he briefly wished he’d used his own sperm with a surrogate. He downloaded a Stieg Larsson novel, but although he could see the appeal he couldn’t finish it. He went to Barnes and Noble and skimmed a few childcare books. He googled a few stores that sold furniture for children, but was too superstitious to buy anything yet. He scheduled an appointment with the psychotherapist he’d stopped seeing several years before. He was surprised when, as Jonathan told him about the adoption, the therapist got teary.

Once a week he called Carole. He’d ask how she was feeling, and she’d say she was fine. He’d ask about her job, and she’d say they were busy or not very busy. She never asked him anything.

One day she said she’d just been to her obstetrician and had heard the baby’s heartbeat.

“Too bad you weren’t there.”

Was she trying to make him feel bad? Should he offer to come to New Hampshire one weekend? He didn’t know her well enough to read her signals.

Their best conversation was when he mentioned he’d seen Conan O’Brien at Starbucks.

Jonathan decided that if this didn’t work out, he’d never try to be a father again.


In February Carole invited him to New Hampshire.

“You can meet my obstetrician, Dr. Vo. I really love her. And you can hear the baby’s heartbeat.”

He rented a car, arrived in the late afternoon, and was amused that the inexpensive hotel Carole had recommended gave him a suite with two sinks and three beds. Relieved when Carole texted she had to work late and couldn’t have dinner with him, he went for a walk. There were a few office buildings, a luncheonette, several bars and a drugstore. There was a big empty storefront where groups of elderly people were playing bingo. Carole had suggested he try one of two restaurants near Dartmouth, but he didn’t want to get back in the car. He found a small pizzeria. Standing next to him at the counter was a sexy dark-haired man in his twenties, a little shorter and heavier than Jonathan, with blue eyes and a five o’clock shadow. Maybe he was the baby’s dad! Life suddenly seemed complicated. Jonathan wasn’t sure he was ready.

The man took his slice and left. Jonathan sat in a booth near a window. The pizza was pretty good. He wished they served wine. Not many people walked by, but he looked for the Jewish gay neighbor who’d meant so much to Carole. No one seemed possible.

The next morning he picked Carole up at her apartment to drive her to Dr. Vo’s office.  Despite the cold, she was standing outside her small brick apartment building, her black ski jacket half-unzipped. When she got in and fastened her seatbelt, he couldn’t help seeing how big her belly had gotten. He had the impulse to say something he would never say—Zowie!

During the half hour drive they made small talk, but there were awkward silences. At one point she said the baby was kicking and asked if he wanted to feel it.

“But I guess you’re driving,” she added quickly.

Not sure if he should pull over, he kept driving.

Dr. Vo’s practice was associated with Dartmouth Hospital. There were two other men in the waiting room. People must assume he was the dad. He wasn’t sure if that was exactly true. Carole took out her phone. She was wearing a pink top with ruffles on the sleeves. It looked stretched out and faded. Maybe she bought it at the thrift shop where she worked. He checked to see if she still had rubber bands around her wrist. She did.

The waiting room had photographs of mountains and lakes on the walls; the only reading material seemed to be about gynecology. One of the pregnant women reminded him of a colleague. He tried to think about a Larkin poem, but finally just sat there.

A nurse came in and announced that Dr. Vo had an emergency. She couldn’t say how long the wait would be. Two of the pregnant women agreed to see the other physician. Soon Jonathan was the only “dad.” After a while, just he and Carole were left.

Carole had put her phone away and was staring into space. Her hand was on her stomach. Idly, Jonathan asked her if she’d thought any more about going back to school.

“As I said, I’d be happy to help with applications.”

Okay,” she said. “You already offered. Enough!”

They barely knew each other, and he’d managed to make her angry. He wasn’t sure what to do.

“There’s a Yiddish word, genug—it means ‘enough,’” he said quickly. “My mom—she’s been dead ten years now—she’d use all these Yiddish expressions.” He smiled at Carole.

She didn’t smile back.

“Anyway, she’d tell this story about when I was a little boy.”

He used to hate it when she did.

“One day I got angry with her about something, and I happened to be holding a pencil. And, I threw at her.” Why was he telling this stupid story?

“It didn’t hit her or anything. Actually she caught it, but then she kept going on about how it could have hit her. ‘See how sharp that point is? It could have gone into my eye! You could have really hurt me.’ She went on and on about it. Finally I said, ‘Genug Mom.’” He smiled.

“Were you a bad boy?” Carole asked.

The idea seemed to please her.

“I guess. Sometimes.”

She took out her phone.

“Listen, can I ask you a question?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “I’ve noticed you wear these rubber bands.” He gestured toward her wrist. “I’m wondering, is there something special that you use them for?”

She smiled. “Lots of things. Like they make the lids of jars easier to grip. You can wrap a rubber band around the end of a candle, so when you put it in the candleholder it’ll be less wobbly. You can shorten an electrical cord with a rubber band. Maybe this is TMI, but before I got maternity pants, I used a rubber band to keep my jeans closed.”

The nurse told Carole she could go in. Jonathan would join her later.

He texted Peter that he was about to hear the baby’s heartbeat.

When the nurse called him in, Carole, in a green robe, was lying down. Dr. Vo, Asian, petite and pretty, wearing a white coat and boots with very high heels, was fiddling with some equipment.

“This is Jonathan,” Carole said. “I told you about him. He’s a professor at a college in New York.”

Dr. Vo nodded but barely glanced at him.

“He lives in Manhattan.”

Jonathan wished for Carole’s sake that Dr. Vo would at least pretend to be a little interested. He felt like saying something like, She’s just as good as you are.

Apparently there was a problem with the baby’s heartbeat or with hearing the baby’s heartbeat.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all,” Dr. Vo said. She went to get a different machine.

Jonathan wasn’t sure what to do. “Do you want me to wait outside?” he asked Carole.

“No. I don’t know. I guess so.” Maybe it was the green gown, but she looked sort of green.

Walking out, he realized he should have offered again to stay. And now here he was in an empty waiting room, alone again.

After a few minutes the nurse came to the doorway.

“Everything’s fine,” she said. “But Dr. Vo had another emergency. You’ll have to hear baby’s heart another time.”

He was close to tears. “The important thing is the baby.”

He wanted to buy Carole lunch at the nicest restaurant around, but she said she was wiped out and just wanted to go home and take a nap.

As she suggested, after he dropped her off he drove back to Hanover, had lunch at a fancy hotel and walked around the Dartmouth campus. He and Carole had planned to have an early dinner, but she called and said she still wasn’t up to being with anyone.

He told himself that he had no right to be, but he was hurt. He could have gone to her apartment and made her dinner. It had been a long time since he’d cooked for anyone.

He ate pizza at the same place. It wasn’t as good.


He was surprised the next morning when Carole called from the lobby.

“I was afraid you checked out. Can I come up?”

He tried to straighten the room. As she knocked he was throwing the spread over the bed he’d slept in.

“Come in!” he said heartily. “Excuse the mess.”

She kept on her unzipped jacket.

He took his suitcase off the chair, but she didn’t sit down.

“I meant to ask you, did you like Dr. Vo?”

“Very much.”

“She also teaches medical students,” she said proudly. “At Dartmouth.”

“Really good school.” He wondered what she wanted.

“Listen, remember when you asked me what I do with my rubber bands? Give me one of your dress shirts. I’ll show you how to pack it.”

“Now? I mean, unfortunately I only brought this one…” he looked down at his shirt, “and the ones I already wore.”

“That’s okay.”

He went to his suitcase and reluctantly handed her a wrinkled shirt.

Ignoring the other two beds, she spread it out on the rumpled one he’d slept in.

“Watch carefully,” she said.

First she buttoned it. She turned it over, folded the sleeves in some way he doubted he’d remember, folded the shirt length-wise and then rolled it up from the bottom. She took a rubber band off her wrist and put it around the middle of the shirt.

“Packing it this way keeps it from wrinkling.” She handed it to him.

“Great! That’s great!” He put it in his suitcase.

“Do you have a book with you?” she asked him.

“I just brought my Kindle.”

She took another rubber band from her wrist and handed it to him.

“When you get home, you can use this as a bookmark.”

Carefully he put it in his wallet.

If she ever had a child that she…he couldn’t think of a better word than “kept”…she probably knew about lots of rubber band projects they could do together. Their apartment would look like a cheery nursery school classroom. For the first time, he felt sorry for her, giving up her child.


Three weeks before the baby was due, Carole didn’t respond to either his text asking how things were going or to his email, and she didn’t answer his text the next day asking if everything was all right. He went from being sure something terrible had happened to her or to the baby, to worrying she’d changed her mind about the adoption. Maybe the dad had reached out and she’d taken him back. Or a gay couple was suddenly in the picture, and she’d decided that two dads were better than one.

Too nervous to do it himself, Jonathan asked Peter to call the local police and hospital. Nothing.

At night he lay awake. He should have found a bigger apartment. He should have joined a temple. He could have done a lot of things. He felt as if someone had died.

Whenever he went out, he’d notice children everywhere. A toddler in his building was often in the lobby with his nanny, and he kept saying bye-bye to Jonathan.

“Bye-bye,” Jonathan would croon. Then he’d turn around and say it again. And then again.

The third day Carole called.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

She was crying, and at first he couldn’t understand what she was saying.

At Carole’s check-up, a new nurse had inadvertently revealed the baby’s sex.

“At first I was so upset, I couldn’t do anything. But I’m better now. And don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you the sex. Unless you really want to know.” She paused. “Do you?”

“I’m fine.”

He didn’t say that he was so relieved, he didn’t give a fuck about the gender.


Carole went into labor on a sunny morning in early May. Jonathan’s bag had been packed for weeks, each shirt neatly folded and rolled up with a rubber band. He got to the hospital that evening, and a few days later he took his baby home.