The sonogram technician, Tina, is short, conservative. Her two children smile from pictures of birthday parties past, blonde and generic, proof that life in all its red, white and blue glory does go on. The younger of the two is missing teeth, mugging for the camera and aiming an ice cream cone directly at the viewer. You are not at the point where you resent other people's children, though you can see how it sometimes happens.
You waitressed at the Faculty Club during your undergraduate days, where cheerless professors downed Jamesons and ate sunflower-yellow paella. One of the regulars, a sociologist with a Santa Claus white beard and glasses to match sipped vodka tonics and pronounced, "Women like you should have lots of children, but they never do." You were at the age where unsolicited comments were the norm: flounces are for girls without ounces, you'd be pretty if you lost ten pounds, legs like that should be on a soap opera actress.
You didn't care. You hated, in no particular order, your parents, children, the world, people who brought children into the world, the government, yourself, capitalists, college in general and Harvard in particular, apartheid, roommates, the heat. That summer, you cried daily for no reason. You vowed not to have children with malignant twenty-something certitude. You shouldn't have been anyone's mother.
You make small talk with Tina. You both avoid politics and agree that children should have their summers to themselves for tearing up the neighbor's gardens. One summer, when you were much younger, your sister climbed through a vacationing neighbor's dog door on a daily basis to steal licorice. When you think of having children, these are not the stories that first come to mind.
You are undressed from the waist down, and Tina holds a sad, grey wand, lubed up like a dollar-store dildo, something that might come in an industrial brown box labeled "da Wabbit." She unrolls a condom and lubes the tip, and you feel like the paid actor in some Brave New High-School sex education demonstration.
Nothing about infertility is fun. Everything is awful. You tell your students to avoid abstraction in their poems, but the specifics are lost on all but the initiated, AMH levels, follicular counts, histosonograms, ovarian reserve, IVF, IUI, TTC, basal thermometers and CVS ovulation kits. You do not wish this lexicon on your worst enemy.
You never saw "The Vagina Monologues." Who knows what your twat might say should it get all girly and chatty? But lately, it feels less like some feminist friend than a teenager that locks the door to carry on its own secret life. It's probably meeting men on the internet for all you know. You trust it just that much.
You aren't sure how you got to be 39 and childless, scored your own clichéd entry in the Big Book of Cliches. The entry below you is buying a Porsche and screwing his secretary. The one above is bashing gays while mastering the art of fellatio in public parks. But it shouldn't really be you. It's not like you love your job. It's not like you sacrificed so much to be where you are, like you chose against some snot-nosed imaginary brat who would have been whacking the computer off the table. It's not part of any plan you made. It's more like the sound of the sonogram room when the technician leaves and you wipe between your legs and put your underwear back on. It's the sound of a door you weren't listening for when it closed.
Infertility should be a Buddhist state. The condition of not having and learning not to want. The condition of trying for six months to a year to do something without success, but not really trying because you're not supposed to try. The very definition is a form of failure. And the reason behind your particular door number three, depleted ovarian reserve, makes you think of bomb shelters, of storing for a rainy day. In the gynecological tale of the grasshopper and the ants, your ovaries were evidently having a great time, dropping eggs like they were credit cards taking out lines of equity and credit and twisting the night away. Now they are empty and tired, with no genetic bailouts in sight. Other more careful uteri, it appears, were smugly socking away their ten percent. Even the anorexic actresses in their forties seem able to get pregnant. Your uterus is descended from beauty queens and daredevils, an uncle who re-upped for Vietnam—no wonder it didn't have more sense.
Then there's the state of letting go. Letting go of the gynecologist who wore white go-go boots and strung you through two years of hormones and surgery. You didn't read the fine print: no returns. Letting go of how groggy you felt on your wedding day, part of a two-month long progesterone hangover designed to shrink a polyp that was hanging on Cape Fear style to the lining of your uterus. You gave up dairy, and traded sugar, caffeine and alcohol—the holy trinity of self-medication—for spirulina smoothies, almond milk, and acia berry tea. When this is all over, your needs are simple.
You just want to eat cheese again in peace.
The Fertility Clinic takes up three floors of a large building, not terribly far from the mall where you registered for wedding gifts. It's set up a bit like Dante's Hell, with one floor just for the screening of sperm, where nervous couples sit like monkeys in an overcrowded zoo. No one makes eye contact with anyone else.
The floor below is mostly women, businesslike and purposeful. Smiling success stories line the walls, the elusive 33 percent. You and your husband sit side by side, playing scrabble on your iPhones, while you wait out your double-booked appointment. In the doctor's office, you read the Phi Beta Kappa certificate on the wall and look at pictures of his own children, blue-eyed and studio-posed. There's a bottle of Corona on one of the shelves. "In case of emergencies," your husband whispers.
You are on your best behavior for the doctor, dry-eyed and the portrait of reason. You have always responded embarrassingly well to authority. He would never guess that you are the same woman who has shelled out almost a thousand dollars to a Chinese doctor who claims, on her blog, to have reversed AIDS through acupuncture. That Evangelical Christians have anointed your womb. That you seriously considered rocking the chakras of the new-age fertility kit sent to you by your mother-in-law.
The rational part of you is aware that you might be losing your mind.
The doctor tells you, "I'm not a cancer doctor, but sometimes I feel like I'm handing out death sentences." You know exactly what he means. He's from Miami—liberal, funny. He uses phrases like "make love to Tupperware." And once he trusts you not to bankrupt yourselves on a less than ten percent chance of success, he says, "You have no idea how many women sit here like Cleopatra, queen of De-Nile."
But you were always the person who stopped at fifty dollars in Vegas, because winning was abstract and the rent, concrete. Still, you wonder when you stopped believing you would be the exception instead of the rule. On the way out you tell the nurse that they should have a reality show. She's younger than you, African-American, dressed in the kind of scrubs patterned to look like a children's book. She looks at your doctor and they both laugh.
"Too depressing," she says.
After appointments, you and your husband have lunch at the Flying Biscuit. He orders turkey burgers, and you get tilapia fish tacos. You hate that sometimes it's hard to remember how lucky you are. A student the day before read a poem about losing her sister and two nephews to an abusive partner. Knife-to-the-skull stuff: the ace-high of suffering. Your husband is more optimistic. He holds your hand across the table and seems happy that you have "options." The family agnostic, he still has faith.
In the back of your mind you know there are children out there, that the two of you will be parents someday. You hate that this aches like grief; it makes you feel selfish and greedy—the biological narcissism of it all. You will be able to let it go, just not today. Before this all started, you wondered when people told you about "that couple," the ones who tried and tried and tried and gave up and got pregnant. How does a person stop trying, you wondered? It sounded like not thinking of elephants.
You order decaffeinated coffee and watch ESPN on the screen behind the restaurant's bar. Your husband drinks iced tea, and you feel like the bizarro version of that Hemingway story where the hills are like white elephants and your hipper, younger anti-selves drink Anis del Toro and discuss a child that isn't coming. Where something so big is reduced to a phrase like "letting the air in." You wonder why there isn't a euphemism for the way you feel, something like "keeping the air out." But that wouldn't be it. It would be more like that sun-baked waiting for a train that doesn't come, not the feeling but the name for that silence.
And then there's sex.
It will no longer matter that your partner is hot, that you once pined for him and made yourself sick with longing. You will objectify him, but not in the way you think. His balls, for instance, will occupy a big slice of the pie-graph in your mind. If he dares to text with the phone in his lap, you will feel murder in your heart. Same goes for the nights he has one glass of wine too many, or the days he bikes to "blow off some steam." You will wonder if he masturbates when you're not around, not out of jealousy or fear, but because you're not sure how it affects sperm count.
He claims you are giving him anxiety, but anxiety pills affect performance, and affected performance gives you anxiety. Still having fun?
You research "sex plans" on the internet. How many days past your cycle to start, then every other day and double when you think you are ovulating. You are not even totally sure that you ovulate. You put on a black bra or vintage lingerie like a soldier strapping on boots; it's not sexy, it's a trudge through the muck and you're both feeling worn.
One of the things you miss most about youth is having all the answers. Second to that, you long for a time you believed that you could change the outcome of things by sheer force of will. In American Literature you teach Benjamin Franklin, who is probably somewhat to blame for your by-the-bootstraps mentality—his philosophy that all tragedy is but errata. You read somewhere that Americans are more depressed than other people because they expect too much. They can't accept normal lives. You think, instead, it is because they believe too much in their ability to influence the outcome of events.
In your twenties, when you knew everything, endings were easy because there were still so many beginnings. You didn't understand how the Hillary Clintons of the world could take back hound-dog husbands. Not you, you'd say. No way. Now you know that things aren't so simple. People work past disappointment because there's still more invested than lost, like the stock market in a bad year, and you are not so different.
Your body, for instance, has been around for quite some time. True, the past years have been rough, but it might be time to start over—become friends again. You think about writing it a letter.
Dear Body, you would say. I know we've had some good times, but lately you have let me down. (And I'm not even talking about the back and knees.)
Then you think what it would write back.
Dear Boozy. Don't even get me started. Write me back when we're bathing again.
There, you'd think, at least you still have the same sense of humor.
You take a long bath, the kind that scalds you pink, and feel the way water can seal you back into yourself. You make an appointment at an overpriced hair salon to take the gray out of your hair and save you from the ponytail of doom. This is not a frivolous expense. This is a love offering.
That night, your husband asks you out to dinner. You wear black patent leather heels, eat Bolognese pasta and lemon cake, and remember what it was like to start an evening that could end in sex for no good reason at all. A glass of the house chardonnay cheers you back into the present, the elusive now, that life that is happening in spite of your best laid plans.
You think back to college, to the nine a.m. European History class you attended every Tuesday and Thursday in the same tattered green sweatshirt and leggings. The class made a born-again college-commie out of you, and taught you that not every conflict need be reduced to victory and defeat. You learned the word détente, which seemed like something that only applied to countries parceled into zones, to nations divided by ideological barbed wire. It's far too grand a word for your own embodied civil war, yet somehow appropriate. The idea that over time your mind and body might someday simply relax and let each other be. Peace, it turns out, is not achieved by implantation and delivery, but by the slow build of evenings like these. The second glass of wine. The camaraderie of bodies. That final bite of lemon crème still lingering on the plate.
Alison Umminger is an Associate Professor of English at the University of West Georgia where she teaches creative writing and American literature. She is a recipient of the Lawrence Award for fiction from Prairie Schooner, and is at work on a novel and a collection of essays.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.