She knew it was the day they should try to get pregnant, and so did he. He came around the corner from the hotel room kitchen and she could see in the half-light from the street, a black scab on his cheek.
“How did you get that?” she asked.
“I burned myself,” he said.
The room went gray. Vividly, almost noisily in her mind she could see herself explaining to a child, a little girl standing in front of a house, that her father didn’t like himself and sometimes hurt himself. She pushed this scene away and thought very loudly to herself no no no.
She rolled onto her side and shut her eyes. He knew she was not sleeping, put on his coat, and went out.
There was a picture in her Flickr of herself sitting alone on a plane looking straight into the camera. She had taken the photo as a record of the moment she knew she could no longer be with Van. The cabin lights were on, it was night outside the oval window. Incredulous. At the appointment to the fertility office, a newer more sports-like doctor asked why she didn’t want to get married. Van had replied when she got home and relayed the message, I don’t need a marriage counselor.
She was nauseated by the way her ignoring of all these kept putting a deafening pitch in her mind, a sound that could bring out relief maps on flat walls. So she looked at the photo a long time, and there followed a span, several months long, of reading books on recognizing consistencies of mucus: eggwhite, mucilage; sensing Van’s anxiety to turn to chest pain in her own body and breaking up with him; taking her temperature with a special thermometer and sometimes noticing it in a side pocket of her satchel as she looked for a pen. There was, too, the email that announced her colleague who had had a child all on her own 23 years ago by artificial insemination had passed away and the obituary said, “Sandra, her daughter, love of her life.” This phrase, love of her life, caused her to sob in the computer light and otherwise dark bedroom.
One day, maybe six months total after she had finally left Van in the middle of the street—balled up jacket in her one hand and key to be left under a brick in the other hand–that she opened up her laptop and looked up a sperm bank.
It was a graphically over-designed but organized. There were test tube icons completely filled like thermometers with green; green meant plenty of semen in stock, or the tube was half red, as in don’t count on there being a ton of this. Somehow she had to look through these in hot weather, in a difficult month. She had spent a whole afternoon thinking the bio of a drummer sounded perfectly familiar and smart. The next afternoon he sounded arrogant and strange and her sister in law confirmed this three states away, having read the description using her password. An afternoon, then two, flipped past and she studied long pdfs, each page a profile on each family member, and extended family. She had to call soon. What to look for? What wilderness was this? Oh, here’s a business person? His report contained this: The staff really were happy when he came in. That seemed important to her friend Olivia reading over her shoulder, a real testimonial. She tried to see how this congeniality and popularity was a good idea. This felt like looking for a complicated puppy. Olivia also pointed at some fine print and boomed about another man, “No no, he’s got twins in his family! Absolutely not!”
There was an electrical engineering genius, 21, whose entire family was in biology and music and education. She felt the more the kid fit in with her people, the better off he’d be. Trying not to breathe too fast, she dialed the phone and ordered two vials and used her credit card. She had waited so long there was an overnighting fee and the total came to 1700 dollars. This could go on for a year. If she willed it.
There had been a few men she had let into her life who had seemed moral and conscious of the environment, who had no cars, who owned no hip wardrobes, who nevertheless took rides in her car near and great distances. They remained happy with themselves at not being like other people. When she tried to see her choices in mates from the outsider’s point of view, this seemed the most complete form of psychological vertigo. It reared up as panic, especially when she saw nuclear families or pregnant women at the grocery. A colleague older than she was, one who had never wanted to have his own children remarked he didn’t know what she needed to worry about money for, that babies eat less than puppies. A different colleague with a ten year old still had a state mandated booster chair for him, and as he drove her home one day because her car was in the shop, he complained about all the money children cost.
She brought Olivia to the first insemination. It seemed dozens of people were in the waiting room, but all with a low gaze, partly inward and exasperated. There were so many papers she signed while sitting up, feet in the stirrups, she should own a home after all this paper signing, and she wondered about what kind of woman would sue a doctor for inseminating her with sperm she had bought after reading about it for hours and spending hundreds of dollars on it. The doctor had slipped the catheter into her cervix which she couldn’t feel at all, injected the specimen, which she also couldn’t feel at all, and then he raised the end of the table up thirty degrees and told her to lie back for ten minutes.
By the time Olivia had gotten her home, she did feel an overabundance of electricity in her body. She talked fast. And a lot. And watched people in costumes spin a giant wheel of glittering numbers on a game show while Olivia made an omelet for her. It felt for a few seconds as if her body were being scanned by an external ray from head to toe. She felt faint. She didn’t know what to say so she talked more than she ever had in front of Olivia and Olivia said, you seem off. You should go home and sleep. So she did, for five hours. When she woke up, the sun was going down.
Outside, a beautiful man on a bike rode by and he turned his head to look at her. In the months since she’d broken up with Van, she had not wanted a man to be near her, had not taken any interested in a man’s face, had not even wanted to be conscious of her body below her navel and above her legs. Well, he was dark and eastern European looking. There’s one, she thought to herself.
The second month, there was no one who could go with her to the appointment, so she thought hard. She found the sweater of her friend who’d passed away. That was sufficient for moral reinforcement. She balled it up and tucked it under her head in the back seat of the car and folded her legs up so that at least the top half of her could pretend it was in a bed somewhere, the kind of bed that had a little window over it that let warm air and the sound of leaves in. She felt happy that time, and soon her breasts were killing her when she put a bra on. Large quantities of pizza were on her mind. A red froth came out on the toilet paper. She felt like she’d just jumped off the top of a mountain, equal parts doom and immense joy. Then for two or three days she felt a wreck, but somehow never went to the drug store for a test. The summer air pressed in while she tried to retain her composure walking down the street. She watched her friend’s mouth move as Fiona told her about moving to Spain to live an anarchist lifestyle–something about how even Fiona’s daughter knew her first as a person, then as a mother. On the phone, the nurse seemed surprised she was waiting so patiently for the blood test, but she felt it was the most conclusive. Maybe she didn’t want to know.
The blood test came back negative. She was incredulous. How could she have read her body so wrongly? Or were they wrong? The doctor laughed, there´s no way you were pregnant.
About ten days earlier, the doctor had said he could see a polyp emerging from the eye of her cervix. It hadn’t been there the month before. He looked again and it was gone. I think you passed that polyp and I think we need to look and see if there are more. A baby will not grow if it implants on a polyp. Here is the prescription for a Xanax. Bring a friend.
What is the Xanax for?
To keep you calm.
She filled the Xanax prescription but did not swallow it. She did bring a friend, someone from work who seemed unlikely to ever say anything to anyone and also was not the type to try and give her a pep talk. Just in case.
“Did you take the Valium?” the doctor asked when the day had arrived.
“No, I didn’t.”
She knew this was coming, and lay back on the examining table. A drape was across her knees and down her legs. A plastic sleeve, like a cover for a road pylon and as large, was hung off the end of the table to catch blood and saline. Through the door, she could hear the doctor ask loudly to a nurse, so loudly his face must have been two feet away from the door itself, she really refused? Really? The nurse murmured something. On entering the room he asked her again and she asked again what it was for and he said to keep you calm.
“Is it for me, or is it really for you?” she said evenly.
“Just don’t punch me,” the doctor said and she pictured women throwing sucker punches at his head between their thighs. “If you change your mind, you can take the Xanax.” The doctor adjusted himself on the seat. She tried to see if she could see herself in his glasses.
“I’m going to go ahead and cry,” she said.
They inserted the camera. She could see the inside of her womb. Pink and wet. Smoother than stomach, very bright in the light. It almost seemed like the color of a pork chop and she immediately tried to forget this. A nurse stood next to her. The doctor said this will pinch and she suddenly knew that she could ask the nurse for her hand which the nurse gave, saying, That’s why I’m here. She squeezed the hand so hard she wondered if she was going to break a bone in the woman’s hand, and the nurse said no, she would have to squeeze it a lot harder than that to break it.
The doctor snipped the first polyp. A hot cramp went down her front and she almost had to urinate. She squeezed the nurse’s hand even harder, feeling okay about it, wondering about all the things she would have broken by the time she got out–not just hands, or bones within them. Then they drew the little plug-shaped polyp out, placed it in a small glass vial with a screw cap painted white. The second polyp hurt even more, but she didn’t flinch, just moved her head to the side. She said to them, okay, that smarts. A few tears squeezed out the corners of her eyes.
The doctor said, “When the time comes, you will not need an epidural.”
When they left her alone to get dressed, she could see the plastic sleeve being lifted away streaked pink and full of light pink saline. The two polyps on screen had been shaped like small arms, like the arm of an anemone. But they were not visible in the vial. Just pink water to the naked eye, too. Whatever. She would need an epidural. Everyone and everything was bullshitting her.
Later that day, after the sun went down, she watched a movie about Russians in the countryside. After a long two hours the movie had reeled along and the mother in the movie was asked by her neighbor what her child’s name is. While she was watching the movie, she had picked up a wallet to clear out the coins and old receipts and looked up when the neighbor asked the mother in the movie What are you going to name your son? The mother replied a name. She stood watching the screen, held the coins and stared as if pausing while paying for something. Because it was the name she had been hoping to name her child if it were a son.
This was the first dream in which she’d seen bloody people, dead people. It was in the woods behind the house she’d grown up in, and they seemed to be dressed for a marathon, all sneakers and foil capes for the finish. One after another on a path amongst trees, and after dipping down into a gully, she could see just above her eye-line a set of feet, and then legs, hanging from a tree. A new young man appearing in the dream tried to reason out a system of meanings. He had a big black beetle in his hand.
Once, a parent for one of the students she’d been working with, an autistic girl, Violet, who particularly liked to announce what day it was, told her about her own elderly mother. She said, when you buy a red purse, you can call your mother and tell her and she listens. You can tell your friends, but they don’t care or they don’t care the same way. Your mother actually cares about the red purse. When she told this story to her older friend Jean who had already gotten past her early forties long ago and survived the endless questions to herself about whether or not to have a child, Jean looked up from her chicken dinner and started to weep. It’s really true, Jean said.
For years, since her early thirties, she used to always picture her kid in the backseat with pigtails that jutted into the rearview mirror. Now she thought of the child as being about seven, and sometimes as a teenager, and often as a grown adult bounding into the room with good cheer. People tried to tell her she was rebelling against the hetero-normative. Hetero-queer–how could that be an actual thing? Or that she was a rebel. But she’d grown up in a family. She was from a family. They somersaulted into chain link fences, faught sibling fights where someone tried to put you in a sleeper hold and let you go at the last minute. They were family. There was the time Seth was so little, her neighbor’s little grandson, and she’d let him look at the hose running water onto the ground and it made too much of a splash so that he stepped back, staring at it. She’d readjusted the hose so it pointed straight out and made almost no splash. He liked that better. She knew how not to crush people. How to feed them ice. How to make things fun. Perhaps what she was imagining was not quite like the chasing of toddlers with antibiotics, the constant picking up and taking home from friends, school, practice. But being useful or providing more than anyone could imagine seemed like the one thing she knew how to do. The anguish of seeing this slipping away. The thought of trying to do this alone: she saw herself rocking a baby to sleep night after night, crying herself and baby to sleep. Medical leave on maternity leave. She told her brother once while they were standing in front of the basement sink sorting laundry how sad she was. He had two daughters she took on trips and one of them strangely had her mannerisms, told jokes like her, and made a lot of art. He’d said one day when she tearfully told him she’d had to stop trying, “But Sis, you already have two kids.”
This went on for months. She thought about propositioning the upstairs neighbor to sleep with her on the right day. Whenever she was ovulating she felt feral and paced as if she just had to find a bar, or perhaps would burst Hulk-like from her clothes not to turn green and angry, but to turn into a large apple, the sun, any form that might through symbolic magic result in a baby. When she went across the country to visit her mother who was losing her memory and sometimes did not know she had visited, cleaned the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, the dining room chandelier, all of which would need to be redone the next time.
Sometimes she looked at the population counter of the entire world.
There is little more impossible to a woman than explaining to a doctor who is fiercely dedicated to the science of making her pregnant that something he advised isn’t working. That he keeps telling her Flagyl doesn’t make her cry but all the women on the internet say it totally does make them cry. That she needs an antidepressant and that when he gets a coy smile like he knows better, she knows how the one page of a medical website was full of mini-testimonials from hundreds and hundreds of women confirming to each other that their babies turned out fine despite their being on antidepressants and that they never ever could have done it without them. That she should have known that two or three years ago but no one fucking told her. Used to be, and not that long ago, 28 days exactly, every fourth Friday around lunchtime, and she didn’t even take the pill. And there was the time she had to break it to the doctor that she’d miscalculated the day. When she told him they don’t cover certain procedures for single women, at least he had said with true passion, But that’s not fair! and covered his face with his hands.
She waited at her desk eating carrots, waited for them to call her cell to see if her estrogen levels were okay to proceed. And she could see while looking at the weave on her pants, and its depressing brown colors, that she wanted the nurse to say they couldn’t. It stuck in the air in front of her face: she didn’t want them to say everything was fine, we can try again.
Her cell phone then lit up on the podium while she was in front of her patient, and she balked and called them after she’d gotten back to the breakroom. And then the nurse did say with very practiced gentleness that they couldn’t proceed. And when she went into the office herself, she asked for the other doctor who seemed uninterested in having a great track record, not for, it seemed, his own sake. She asked him to tell her if this baby was unlikely. But more so, she to stop her animal brain from thinking it was possible. He told her it was incredibly dangerous pathologically and also much less successful to use her own eggs now. He sat back in his chair the whole time, and handed over a pamphlet on young donors, and how much it cost: $8000 to extract eggs from a donor and even then, nothing was certain. The last offer was: You can also use a frozen embryo from a couple who’d already had all the kids they wanted. Which at that point might be conceptually like adoption, but more affordable than a lot of adoptions.
Every time she saw a family in the grocery store, the wife’s jaw tense from trying not to argue with the husband about a frozen pizza, she felt like someone had pulled a lever and now all her composure was draining out. This vision was what she hated. She wouldn’t even cry, just look as if her face had been in a vice when she caught herself in a window. Two hot iron brands she could burn herself with: the torture of being married, or being a single mom much more fun but exhausting, doubly exhausting, and where did the failure or the thinking about failure end on her part?
Summer passed and almost finished. She had balanced her mother’s checkbook which was always fine because her mother only ever forgot was to add income, never forgot to subtract bills. She sat on a flowered couch, exhausted, visiting in the house where her high school teacher lived, Liz. Not only was Liz her second mom, Liz’s daughter had been her best friend in high school. This was the home they’d gotten after high school was over, after the divorce, and Simone’s mother had recently hung new drapes and painted in the kitchen. The teapots from around the world sat clean and arranged on a shelf. One a cottage with flowers in the windows, gleaming. One a Shakespeare with a spout coming out where an ear should be, handle where the other should be. One teapot was actually a table set for tea, spout and handle almost subtly stuck to the table cloth.
Simone, her high school best friend, had come home earlier that year and gone through the shoeboxes of mixed tapes and notes they’d passed in English class. Simone’s mom and the letter she’d written to Simone in England when Simone’s uncle Phil had died and Simone couldn’t afford to come back for the funeral. Now, Simone was out on the porch smoking a cigarette and talking to her husband who was far away in Montana, trying to parcel out small herds of breeder sheep from the herd. She and Simone were supposed to go to the movies, or maybe even watch a DVD, but by the time she sat on the couch, she knew they would probably just visit and this relaxed her.
“Hey, are you hungry?” asked Simone. The door slammed shut behind her. She said exactly what she wanted, chips and queso from the Mexican restaurant down the street. Simone said, “Don’t get up. I think you should rest here and I’ll go get it.”
This offer settled on her like a shock. Like someone had rearranged all the furniture. Normally she would have gotten up to go with her, or insisted no, or somehow managed to be the one who was going to run the errand while Simone rested. But she accepted this bit of rest and wondered out loud how long it had been since someone had waited on her, and how unused to it she had become. The mother, Liz, came out to chat with her. Simone gathered her keys and smokes. She and Liz waited until Simone was down the steps to talk about what they had nicknamed Nah, Narcotics Anonymous, and the ways it was and was not appealing to someone who did not believe.
Simone’s mother was the person who had taught them how to write an essay and use quotations. Liz was the person who had made them read the longest book they’d ever read, Bleak House, and the person who seemed most to be proud of her when she got in to college. This semi-retired English teacher had even come to bargain with the used car dealers last year with her, and when the price had stopped going lower, even though they had been there two hours waiting, had turned to her and said, “I think we should go get something to eat,” which caused the salesman’s face to drop. When she had told her own mother about getting into college, her mother had turned from the fridge and said, “That’s nice. We’re going to have to finish this chicken noodle soup tonight,” which had always seemed a result of sheer depression. Liz, on the other hand, more than twenty years ago, had made an excited face and held her hands up in joy.
Finally Simone did come in, white paper bags in hand, set down her wallet and asked what everyone wanted to drink from the kitchen.
“European water mum?”
Again, she didn’t know what to say because she was hit with so many conflicting possibilities. She wanted to laugh about how European Water, but also felt embarrassed about being waited on, but also wasn’t sure if Simone just meant CVS spring water. Legalistic to the end, like the Muppet scientist with no face, just the glasses. But simply, her friend realized she was tired. The plan to say out loud when she was suffering had worked. It was visible. The absence of the child would never be visible. The thing that felt like a traumatic car wreck had taken her baby and no one would ever see this. But she could be visible. A surprise and a relief to have someone take care of her.
“Would you like ice, or European water?” Simone tried again, putting a comically uppity tone on European.
“Water,” she replied.
Maybe Olivia, the friend who had gone to the insemination with her, when she made her tea with lemon. That felt like the last time someone had taken care of her. That wasn’t possible was it? But being asked what she wanted relieved every cell in her body. Everything on the calendar in her mind felt remote and covered with shapes of interiors, banisters or balustrades, and nothing seemed like a person except Simone asking if she wanted water, especially not like someone was coming with the glass of water she needed and wanted. Simone set the water down next to the warm tortilla chips.
She offered to take Simone’s mother Liz to see a movie Simone herself didn’t want to see. Something about old people who’d moved in together as a kind of dying pact. It was funny, she had always loved Simone but knew she wasn’t the dynamic emotional type of friend Simone went towards on the daily to smoke cigarettes with and bitch. Instead over the years she’d been friends with Liz who liked having someone to discuss Simone with. They went to the film the next day, just the two of them.
It was cool in the theater and she knew without asking that Liz could and would perfectly imitate all the accents and loved all the jewel-tone costumes, and have insights about the plot points, and how this ensemble cast, these odds and ends people had figured out where to and how to live. Those are the kinds of things her own mother might never have done, though she was a great mom in her own way, and definitely the kind who would have asked her and cared about a red purse. At the end the teacher cried, and said what a wonderful afternoon it had been.
Names have been changed.
Cynthia Arrieu-King is an associate professor of creative writing at Stockton University and a former Kundiman fellow. Her forthcoming work includes a book of poetry, Continuity, (Octopus Books 2020) and a creative non-fiction book about microaggressions, samsara, and recognition, The Betweens, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2021.