In a room for women whose bodies are broken, the biographer waits her turn. She wears sweat pants, is white skinned and freckle cheeked, not young, not old. Before she is called to climb into stirrups and feel her vagina prodded with a wand that makes black pictures, on a screen, of her ovaries and uterus, the biographer sees every wedding ring in the room. Serious rocks, fat bands of glitter. They live on the fingers of women who have leather sofas and solvent husbands but whose cells and tubes and bloods are failing at their animal destiny.
This, anyway, is the story the biographer likes. It is a simple, easy story that allows her not to think about what’s happening in the women’s heads, or in the heads of the husbands who sometimes accompany them.
Nurse Crabby wears a neon-pink wig and a plastic-strap contraption that exposes nearly all of her torso, including a good deal of breast. “Happy Halloween,” she explains.
“And to you,” says the biographer.
“Let’s go suck out some lineage.”
“Anagram for blood.”
“Hmm,” says the biographer politely.
Crabby doesn’t find the vein straight off. Has to dig, and it hurts. “Where are you, mister?” she asks the vein. Months of needlework have streaked and darkened the insides of the biographer’s elbows. Luckily long sleeves are common in this part of the world.
“Aunt Flo visited again, did she?” says Crabby.
“Well, Roberta, the body’s a riddle. Here we go—got you.” Blood swooshes into the chamber. It will tell them how much follicle-stimulating hormone and estradiol and progesterone the biographer’s body is making. There are good numbers and there are bad. Crabby drops the tube into a rack alongside other little bullets of blood.
Half an hour later, a knock on the exam-room door—a warning, not a request for permission. In comes a man wearing leather trousers, aviator sunglasses, a curly black wig under a porkpie hat.
“I’m Slash,” says Dr. Kalbfleisch.
“Wow,” says the biographer, bothered by how sexy he’s become.
“Shall we take a look?” He settles his leather on a stool in front of her open legs, says, “Oops!” and removes the sunglasses. Kalbfleisch played football at an East Coast university and still has the face of a frat boy. He is golden skinned, a poor listener. He smiles while citing bleak statistics. The nurse holds the biographer’s file and a pen to write measurements. The doctor will call out how thick the lining, how large the follicles, how many the follicles. Add these numbers to the biographer’s age (42) and her level of follicle-stimulating hormone (14.3) and the temperature outside (56) and the number of ants in the square foot of soil directly beneath them (87), and you get the odds. The chance of a child.
Snapping on latex gloves: “Okay, Roberta, let’s see what’s what.”
On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the shrill funk of aged cheese and one being no odor at all, how would he rank the smell of the biographer’s vagina? How does it compare with the other vaginas barreling through this exam room, day in, day out, years of vaginas, a crowd of vulvic ghosts? Plenty of women don’t shower beforehand, or are battling a yeast, or just happen naturally to stink in the nethers. Kalbfleisch has sniffed some ripe tangs in his time.
He slides in the ultrasound wand, dabbed with its blue jelly, and presses it up against her cervix. “Your lining’s nice and thin,” he says. “Four point five. Right where we want it.” On the monitor, the lining of the biographer’s uterus is a dash of white chalk in a black swell, hardly enough of a thing, it seems, to measure, but Kalbfleisch is a trained professional in whose expertise she is putting her trust. And her money—so much money that the numbers seem virtual, mythical, details from a story about money rather than money anyone actually has. The biographer, for example, does not have it. She’s using credit cards.
The doctor moves to the ovaries, shoving and tilting the wand until he gets an angle he likes. “Here’s the right side. Nice bunch of follicles . . .” The eggs themselves are too small to be seen, even with magnification, but their sacs—black holes on the grayish screen—can be counted.
“Keep our fingers crossed,” says Kalbfleisch, easing the wand back out.
Doctor, is my bunch actually nice?
He rolls away from her crotch and pulls off his gloves. “For the past several cycles”—looking at her chart—“you’ve been taking Clomid to support ovulation.”
This she does not need to be told.
“Unfortunately Clomid also causes the uterine lining to shrink, so we advise patients not to take it for long stretches of time. You’ve already done a long stretch.”
She should have looked it up herself.
“So for this round we need to try a different protocol. Another medication that’s been known to improve the odds in some elderly pregravid cases.”
“Merely a clinical term.” He doesn’t glance up from the prescription he’s writing. “She’ll explain the medication and we’ll see you back here on day nine.” He hands the file to the nurse, stands, and makes an adjustment to his leather crotch before striding out.
“So you need to fill this today,” says Crabby, “and start taking it tomorrow morning, on an empty stomach. Every morning for ten days. While you’re on it, you might notice a foul odor from the discharge from your vagina.”
“Great,” says the biographer.
“Some women say the smell is quite, um, surprising,” she goes on. “Even actually disturbing. But whatever you do, don’t douche. Questions?”
“What does”—the biographer squints at the prescription—“Ovutran do?”
“It supports ovulation.”
“You’d have to ask the doctor.”
She is submitting her area to all kinds of invasion without understanding a fraction of what’s being done to it. This seems, suddenly, terrible.
“I’d like to ask him now,” she says.
“He’s already with another patient. Best thing to do is call the office.”
“But I’m here. In the office. Is there someone else who—”
“Sorry, it’s an extra-busy day. Halloween and all.”
“Why does Halloween make it busier?”
“It’s a holiday.”
“Not a national holiday. Banks are open and the mail is delivered.”
“You will need,” says Crabby slowly, carefully, “to call the office.”
The biographer cried the first time it failed. She was waiting in line to buy floss, having pledged to improve her dental hygiene now that she was going to be a parent, and her phone rang: one of the nurses, “I’m sorry, sweetie, but your test was negative,” the biographer saying thank you, okay, thank you and hitting END before the tears started. Despite the statistics and Kalbfleisch’s “This doesn’t work for everyone,” the biographer had thought it would be easy. Squirt in millions of sperm from a nineteen-year-old biology major, precisely timed to be there waiting when the egg flies out; sperm and egg collide in the warm tunnel—how could fertilization not happen?
Don’t be stupid anymore, she wrote in her notebook, under Immediate action required.
She drives west on Highway 22 into dark hills dense with hemlock, fir, and spruce. Oregon has the best trees in America, soaring and shaggy winged, alpine sinister. Her tree gratitude mutes her doctor resentment. Two hours from his office, her car crests the cliff road and the church steeple juts into view. The rest of town follows, hunched in rucked hills sloping to the water. Smoke coils from the pub chimney. Fishing nets pile on the shore. In Newville you can watch the sea eat the ground, over and over, unstopping. Millions of abyssal thalassic acres. The sea does not ask permission or wait for instruction. It doesn’t suffer from not knowing what on earth, exactly, it is meant to do. Today its walls are high, white lather torn. “Angry sea,” people say, but to the biographer the ascribing of human feeling to a body so inhumanly itself is wrong. The water heaves up for reasons they don’t have names for.
For seven years she has lived in the lee of fog-smoked evergreen mountains, thousand-foot cliffs plunging straight down to the Pacific. It rains and rains and rains. Log trucks stall traffic on the cliff road, the pub hangs a list of old shipwrecks, the tsunami siren is tested monthly, and students learn to say “miss” as if they were servants.
The pharmacist’s assistant is a boy—now a young man—she taught in her first year at Central Coast Regional High School, and she hates the moment each month when he hands her the white bag with the little orange bottle. I know what this is for, his eyes say. Even if his eyes don’t actually say that, it’s hard to look at him. She brings other items to the counter (unsalted peanuts, Q-tips) as if somehow to disguise the fertility medication. The biographer can’t recall his name but remembers admiring, in class, seven years ago, his long black lashes—they always looked a little wet.
Waiting on the hard plastic chair, under elevator music and fluorescent glare, the biographer takes out her notebook. Everything in this notebook must be in list form, and any list is eligible. Items for next food shop. Kalbfleisch’s necktie designs. Countries with most lighthouses per capita.
She starts a new one: Accusations from the world.
- You’re too old.
- If you can’t have a child the natural way, you shouldn’t have one at all.
- Every child needs two parents.
- Children raised by single mothers are more liable to rape/murder/drug-take/score low on standardized tests.
- You’re too old.
- You should’ve thought of this earlier.
- You’re selfish.
- You’re doing something unnatural.
- How is that child going to feel when she finds out her father is an anonymous masturbator?
- Your body is a grizzled husk.
- You’re too old, sad spinster!
- Are you only doing this because you’re lonely?
“Miss? Prescription’s ready.”
“Thank you.” She signs the screen on the counter. “How’s your day going?”
Lashes turns up his palms at the ceiling.
“If it makes you feel any better,” says the biographer, “my new medication is going to make me have a foul-smelling vaginal discharge.”
“At least it’s for a good cause.”
She clears her throat.
“That’ll be one hundred fifty-seven dollars and sixty-three cents,” he adds.
“I’m really sorry.”
“A hundred and fifty-seven dollars? For ten pills?”
“Your insurance doesn’t cover it.”
“Why the eff not?”
Lashes shakes his head. “I wish I could, like, slip it to you, but they’ve got cameras on every inch of this bitch.”
She can’t see the ocean from her apartment, but she can hear it. Most days between 5:00 and 6:30 AM she sits in the kitchen listening to the waves and working on her study of Eivør Mínervudottír, a nineteenth-century hydrologist from the Faroe Islands whose trailblazing research on pack ice was published under a male acquaintance’s name. There is no book on Mínervudottír, only passing mentions in other books. The biographer has a mass of notes by now, an outline, some paragraphs. A skein draft—more holes than words. On the kitchen wall she’s taped a photo of the shelf in the Salem bookstore where her book might someday reside.
She opens Mínervudottír’s journal, translated from the Danish. I admit to fearing the attack of a sea bear; and my fingers hurt all the time. A woman long dead coming to life. But today, staring at the journal, the biographer can’t think. Her brain is soapy and throbbing from the new medication.
Two years ago the US Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.)
She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter. After his victory there was glee on the lawns of her father’s Orlando retirement village. Marching in the streets of Portland. In Newville: brackish calm.
Short of sex with some man she wouldn’t otherwise want to have sex with, Ovutran and lube-glopped vaginal wands and Dr. Kalbfleisch’s golden fingers is the only biological route left. Intrauterine insemination. At her age, not much better than a turkey baster.
She was placed on the adoption waiting list three years ago. In her parent profile she earnestly and meticulously described her job, her apartment, her favorite books, her parents, her brother (drug addiction omitted), and the fierce beauty of Newville. She uploaded a photograph that made her look friendly but responsible, fun loving but stable, easygoing but middle class. The coral-pink cardigan she bought to wear in this photo she later threw into the clothing donation bin outside the church.
She was warned, yes, at the outset: birth mothers tend to choose married straight couples, especially if the couple is white. But not all birth mothers choose this way. Anything could happen, she was told. The fact that she was willing to take an older child or a child who needed special care meant the odds were in her favor.
She assumed it would take a while but that it would, eventually, happen.
She thought a foster placement, at least, would come through; and if things went well, that could lead to adoption.
Then the new president moved into the White House.
The Personhood Amendment was passed.
One of the ripples in its wake: Public Law 116-72.
On January 15—in less than three months—this law, also known as Every Child Needs Two, will take effect. Its mission: to restore dignity, strength, and prosperity to American families. Unmarried persons will be legally prohibited from adopting children. In addition to valid marriage licenses, all adoptions will require approval through a federally regulated agency, rendering private transactions criminal.
Her father is calling again. It has been days—weeks?—since she answered.
“I am curious to know your plans for Christmas.”
“Two months away, Dad.”
“But you’ll want to book the flight soon. Fares are going to explode. When does school let out?”
“I don’t know, the twenty-third?”
“That close to Christmas? Jesus.”
“I’ll let you know, okay?”
“Any plans for the weekend?”
“Friends invited me to dinner. You?”
“Might drop by the community center to watch the human rutabagas gum their feed. Unless my back flares up.”
“What did the acupuncturist say?”
“That was a mistake I won’t make twice.”
“It works for a lot of people, Dad.”
“It’s goddamn voodoo. Will you be bringing a date to your friends’ dinner?”
“Nope,” says the biographer, steeling herself for his next sentence, her face stiff with sadness that he can’t help himself.
“About time you found someone, don’t you think?”
“Well, I worry, kiddo. Don’t like the idea of you being all alone.”
She could trot out the usual list (“I’ve got friends, neighbors, coworkers, people from meditation group”), but her okayness with being by herself—ordinary, unheroic okayness—does not need to justify itself to her father. The feeling is hers. She can simply feel okay and not explain it, or apologize for it, or concoct arguments against the argument that she doesn’t truly feel content and is deluding herself in self-protection.
“Well, Dad,” she says, “you’re alone too.”
Any reference to her mother’s death can be relied on to shut him up.
Before the first insemination, the biographer forced herself to consult online dating sites. She browsed and bared her teeth. She browsed and felt chest-flatteningly depressed. One night she really did try. Picked the least Christian site and started typing.
What are your three best qualities?
Best book you recently read?
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
What fascinates you?
- How cold stops water
- Patterns ice makes on the fur of a dead sled dog
- The fact that Eivør Mínervudottír lost two of her fingers to frostbite
But the biographer didn’t feel like telling anyone those things. Delete, delete, delete. She could say, at least, she had tried. The next day she called for an appointment at a reproductive-medicine clinic in Salem.
Her therapist thought she was moving fast. “You only recently decided to do this,” he said, “and already you’ve chosen a donor?”
Oh, therapist, if only you knew how quickly a donor can be chosen! You turn on your computer. You click boxes for race, eye color, education, height. A list appears. You read some profiles. You hit PURCHASE.
A woman on the Choosing Single Motherhood discussion board wrote: I spent more time deadheading my roses than picking a donor.
But, as the biographer explained to her therapist, she did not choose quickly. She pored. She strained. She sat for hours at her kitchen table, staring at profiles. These men had written essays. Named personal strengths. Recalled moments of childhood jubilance and described favorite traits of grandparents. (For one hundred dollars per ejaculation, they were happy to discuss their grandparents.)
“Do you feel undeserving of a romantic partner?” asked the therapist.
“No,” said the biographer.
“Are you pessimistic about finding a partner?”
“I don’t want a partner.”
“Might that attitude be a form of self-protection?”
“You mean am I deluding myself?”
“That’s another way to put it.”
“If I say yes, then I’m not deluded. And if I say no, it’s further evidence of delusion.”
“We need to end there,” said the therapist.
The dawn air is cold and gritty with salt. She sits in her car, throat shivering with hints of vomit, until she’s late enough not to care that her eye–foot–brake reaction time is slowed by the Ovutran. The roads have guardrails. Her forehead pulses hard. She sees a black lace throw itself across the windshield, and blinks it away.
She can’t face the drive to her day-nine egg-check appointment without coffee, even though caffeine is on Hawthorne Reproductive Medicine’s list of things to avoid. Teeth on her mug, she steers up the hill, under towering balsam fir and Sitka spruce, away from her town. Newville gets ninety-eight inches of rain a year. The inland fields are quaggy, hard to farm. Cliff roads slick in winter. Storms so bad they sink boats and tear roofs from houses. The biographer likes these problems because they keep people away—the people who might otherwise move here, that is, not the tourists, who cruise in on dry summer asphalt and don’t give a sea onion about farming.
Kalbfleisch calls her ultrasound “encouraging.” The biographer has five follicles measuring twelve and thirteen, plus a gaggle of smallers. “You’ll be ready for insemination right on schedule, I suspect. Day fourteen. Which is . . .” He leans back, waits for the nurse to open the calendar and count off the squares with her finger. “Wednesday. Do we have at least a couple of vials here?” As usual, he doesn’t look at her, even when asking a direct question.
Four, in fact, are sitting in the clinic’s frozen storage, tiny bottles of ejaculate from the scrota of a college sophomore majoring in biology (3811) and a rock-climbing enthusiast who described his sister as “extremely beautiful” (9072). She also owns some semen from 5546, a personal trainer who baked a cake for sperm-bank staff; but his remaining vials are still at the bank in Los Angeles.
“Start the OPKs tomorrow or the next day,” says Kalbfleisch. “Fingers crossed.” He rubs foaming sanitizer into his palms.
“By the way.” She sits up on the exam table, covers her crotch with the paper sheet. “Is it possible I’ve got polycystic ovary syndrome?”
Kalbfleisch stops midrub. A golden frown. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t have all the symptoms, but—”
“Roberta, were you looking online?” He sighs. “You can diagnose yourself with anything and everything online. First of all, the majority of women with PCOS are overweight, and you are not.”
“Okay, so you don’t—”
“Although.” He is looking at her, but not in the eye. More in the mouth. “You do have excessive facial hair. And, come to think of it, excessive body hair. Which is a symptom.”
Come to think of it? “But, um, how does that account for genetics? Certain ethnic groups are naturally hairier. My mom’s grandmothers both had mustaches.”
“I can’t speak to that,” says Kalbfleisch. “I’m not an anthropologist. I do know that hirsutism is a sign of PCOS.”
Wouldn’t that be human biology, in which all physicians are trained, and not anthropology?
“When you come in on—” He glances at the nurse.
“Wednesday,” she says.
“—I’ll take a closer look at your ovaries, and we’ll include a testosterone check with your bloodwork.”
“If I have PCOS, what does that mean?”
“That the odds of your conceiving via intrauterine insemination are exceedingly low.”
She wants an ashy line down the center of a round belly. She wants nausea. The marks of motherhood on her friend Susan: spider veins at the knee backs, loose stomach skin, lowered breasts. Affronts to vanity worn as badges of the ultimate accomplishment.
But why does she want them, really? Because Susan has them? Because the Salem bookstore manager has them? Because she always vaguely assumed she would have them herself? Or does the desire come from some creaturely place, precivilized, some biological throb that floods her bloodways with the message Make more of yourself! To repeat, not to improve. It doesn’t matter to the ancient throb if she does good works in this short life—if she publishes, for instance, a magnificent book on Eivør Mínervudottír that would give people pleasure and knowledge. The throb simply wants another human machine that can, in turn, make another.
How can you raise a child alone when you can’t resist twelve ounces of coffee?
When you’ve been known to eat peanut butter on a spoon for dinner?
When you often go to bed without brushing your teeth?
Ab ovo. The twin eggs of Leda, impregnated by Zeus in swan form: one hatched into Helen, who would launch ships. Start from the beginning. Except there is no beginning. Can the biographer remember first thinking, feeling, or deciding she wanted to be someone’s mother? The original moment of longing to let a bulb of lichen grow in her until it came out human? The longing is widely endorsed. Legislators, aunts, and advertisers approve. Which makes the longing, she thinks, a little suspicious.
Babies once were abstractions. They were Maybe I do, but not now. The biographer used to sneer at talk of biological deadlines, believing the topic to be crap for lifestyle magazines. Women who worried about ticking clocks were the same women who traded salmon-loaf recipes and asked their husbands to clean the gutters. She was not and never would be one of them.
Then, suddenly, she was one of them. Not the gutters, but the clock.
Leni Zumas is the author of three books of fiction: Red Clocks, The Listeners, and Farewell Navigator. She teaches writing at Portland State University.
“She Was Warned” is an excerpt from Red Clocks, out today from Little, Brown.