I used to subscribe to a magazine that came with a postcard crammed in the spine of each issue. On one side of the postcard was a famous work of art, on the other a thin line, splitting the negative space. Standard postcard protocol. I liked the postcards mostly because I like to avoid clutter and they gave me something to throw out. Except for one. A photograph of a tent called Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, by the British artist Tracey Emin. Inside a camping tent, Emin had stitched the names of anyone she’d ever shared a bed with, from friends to relatives to lovers. The tent’s reproduction on a postcard whittled its meaning down to the provocative title, but that was enough to save it from the trash. I put it on the mantel of my defunct fireplace, where I kept other precious keepsakes, like crumpled receipts, votive candles, and free-floating sticks of gum.
One night, as I was making dinner, I smelled something burning in the living room. Somehow the postcard had migrated near one of the lit candles and begun to smoke. I rushed to blow it out, thinking only of the vulnerability of my own belongings. But the next morning, on the cover of the arts section of the New York Times, was the headline “London Warehouse Fire Destroys Artworks.” At 2 a.m., right around when my postcard went up in flames in New York, a fire blew through a warehouse in east London, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of artwork, including the tent. I couldn’t believe my eyes but then, in an instant, I could. An instant is how long it takes to convince yourself of anything—that a banging shutter is an intruder, that you could live off juice for a week, or, in my case, that I was a full-blown witch.
In the wake of my latent powers, I looked into seeing a psychic.
Game recognize game and all that. I had never been to a psychic before. I figured if I want to throw my money away, I’d be better served buying six-dollar lattes. Or curling up cash into little tubes and shoving it down the drain. As far as I’m concerned, the psychics on the sidewalk are hucksters: the ones with the neon signs tell you what you want to hear and the good ones tell you what you already know. You have a fraught relationship with your mother. Oh, do I? Go on. They’re also notoriously poor marketers. Once I walked past a door that read psychic within, which I took to mean “within me” and kept walking.
Eventually, I settled on a psychic who came recommended by a rational friend whose only point of earthly disconnect was a nonsensical aversion to gluten. She sold me on this guy using the one guaranteed pressure point for any skeptic: our own skepticism. How could I be sure that my conception of the universe is the absolute one? I could not. Technically, this fellow was an “intuitor,” which I found less hubristic than “psychic.” And he had an actual office, which was encouraging. The office was located in a building in the Flatiron, behind a wavy glass door. Gold lettering on the door read please knock. This was less encouraging. What kind of intuitor requires a knock at the door?
He welcomed me inside, sat me down, dumped a shot of ginger into his tea, and informed me that I would have many children.
“You will have many children,” he said.
“Don’t you need to see my palm first or something?”
He seemed insulted. He doesn’t come to my house and tell me how to turn the computer on.
“No,” he said, shuffling a pack of tarot cards.
When I told him about the postcard, he was unimpressed. For me, it was one of the crazier things that had ever happened, one of the few life events that did not fall under the purview of coincidence. I was like one of those out-of-control mutant school brats. For him, it was as if I wanted a parade for flushing the toilet.
“You are not a destroyer,” he assured me, trying to rid me of an idea that had never occurred to me. “Energy is like a giant sweater. All you did was tug on a thread. And by doing that, you have created something.”
“I know,” I agreed. “A five-alarm fire.”
“No,” he said, “not that.”
There were tiny bells sewn into the seam of his head scarf.
They chimed as he shook his head back and forth.
“You have created the children.” “What children?”
“Yours.” “Whose?” “Yours.”
I looked over my shoulder.
“The children inside you,” he clarified, pointing at my belly.
I did not sign up for this Ray Bradbury shit. It’s one thing to predict the future, it’s quite another to alter its course. How could I possibly have made children, nay, “many children,” simply by coming here? If this were feasible, he should change his business cards and become the richest man in America.
“I don’t think about children,” I said.
This came out chillier than I meant it, like I was snubbing a street canvasser. It’s not that I was against children. I was not one of those women who felt the need to stress how much she never played with baby dolls as a child. As if the budding embracement of the power to procreate is somehow shameful. You’re not one of those girls. Not you. It’s just that I was still in my early twenties and against participating in a version of my life in which I wound up crediting a stranger for calling my motherhood in advance.
I explained that, as a literate female, it’s difficult to control the flow of stories debating the merits of motherhood, pumping women full of anxiety and presumptive regret, yammering on about the inflexibility of biological time if you want to have kids and the inflexibility of actual time after you have them. As if it’s entirely in your hands anyway, which it’s not if you’re single or poor or both. So I had opted to turn the faucet off entirely. Even the articles about how one is permitted to forgo babies only added to the pressure. One or two in isolation, okay. I might have read those. I’m sure they’re very good. But there were just too many. The more they screamed about a woman’s right to make her own stigma-free decision, the more they kept the topic in circulation. So, at the risk of remaining ill-informed about my own desires and thus engaging in the kind of self-suppression that has haunted women for centuries, I closed my eyes and tried to think of nothing. Sometimes it worked. Other times I saw a giant uterus with fallopian tube arms, terrorizing the city, ripping the crown off the Statue of Liberty before sinking into the Hudson.
“It doesn’t matter,” the intuitor said. “The children think about you.”
Okay, I thought. Good for them. Can we get back to me being a witch?
“They’re coming,” he stressed.
I told him I didn’t want the kind of children who show up to places uninvited. He took a sip of his tea, smiling at me as if I, too, had taken a sip of the tea. Then he shouted:
“And I’m sure your tent didn’t want to be set on fire but—poof!”
For this, I gave him sixty dollars and left the building. I briefly wondered if I should tip him. Does one tip an intuitor? A retroactive tipping system might be the way to go. Tell you what: Turns out I get eaten by that anaconda, there’s a ten-dollar bill in an envelope with your name on it. I waited on line at the coffee shop downstairs. Where was this army of babies going to come from? I had no plans to get artificially inseminated, was bothered by the mere sound of it, and, even if I did, I wasn’t going to start that afternoon. At the time, I didn’t have a boyfriend or even a guy friend whom I could see as the father of my child, if only he’d take off his glasses and undo his ponytail. The only thing I was expecting was a six-dollar latte.
Most children are okay once you get to know them. They’re like your flakiest, least employable friend who sleeps through brunch, makes terrible art, and name-drops characters you’ve never heard of. They’re also easy to beat at tag. Personally, I like my child friends to be at least seven years old, as there is little difference between what amuses me and what amuses a seven-year-old. But the idea of pushing a whole person through my major organs has always been simultaneously too abstract and too horrible. As someone who has met pregnant women, I can tell you that babies pound your bladder into a pancake and put your stomach level with your heart. This would be funny if women were men because the joke with men is that the way to their hearts is through their stomachs. But women are not men.
Deep down, I thought it was a moot point anyway. I secretly thought that if I ever wanted to become pregnant, a doctor would tell me that my uterus was not broken, but absentee. There’s just a bunch of insulation foam where a uterus might go. The one time I had reason to purchase a pregnancy test, I peed on the stick and waited for one blue line or two blue lines. When the timer went off, I went to check on the stick. The window was blank. Like a Magic 8 Ball without the magic. I consulted the box. “Blank” was not an option. I tried again with a second stick. Same deal. So I called my mother, who is generally useless on such matters but had recently knocked it out of the park after I lamented that a guy I was dating had never heard of Gloria Steinem.
“Eh,” she had said, “find out if his mother doesn’t know who she is. Then you’re really screwed.”
I thought perhaps this comment had ushered in a new era of wisdom. I was mistaken.
“This is a good thing,” she assured me about the test.
“Clearly, you’re not pregnant!”
“I’m not ‘not pregnant,’ ” I said. “I’m nothing.”
“Which would you rather be?” she asked. “Pregnant or nothing?”
Those were my options? For so much of history, to not be pregnant was to be nothing. And while we have mostly sloughed off such beliefs, some animal part of me was speaking up, making a strong case for “pregnant.” Another minute passed before a solitary blue line appeared in the window. I sighed, relieved. But we will never know who was the remedial one, me or the stick.
As I got older, I was surprised to find it was not my fellow women who were pressuring me to have a baby or even to have an opinion. You’d think a group of people who dress for one another would also have babies for one another. Not so. While I’m acquainted with a few status moms who believe what the world really needs is more Americans, and who ask, “What are you waiting for?” as if I have—whoops!—lost track of time, none of my actual girlfriends pressed the topic. They knew better. As for the question of immortality, of pushing my bloodline into the future, well, this is not the primary preoccupation of my gender.
Yet just about every guy I dated assumed that children were at the forefront of my brain. They became increasingly vocal about this, ridding me of my need to ignore the mountain of trend pieces—they brought the mountain to me. One guy was forever sniffing out my DNA-hustling agenda. He shoehorned the topic into conversations about guacamole. You ever try to put toothpicks through an avocado pit? If only that’s how babies were made! His lack of verbal agility hit rock bottom as we lay on the beach one summer, chatting with our chins resting on our fists. I asked him if my back was getting red and he asked me what I would do if I got pregnant.
“What are you going to do if you go bald?” I shot back.
“That’s totally different,” he said.
“Biologically,” I agreed, “not topically.”
By this time, I was thirty-four. I told him that I wasn’t sure what I would do. Because I wasn’t. Furthermore, I resented what I perceived to be the weaponization of my own vulnerability for the purposes of this conversation. I could tell it would have been preferable if I had sprung to my feet and drawn abortions 4eva in the sand. Looking back, it’s clear that he was building a case for himself, a verbal paper trail in which the reason it didn’t work out with us was because I was in a hurry to procreate. When the truth was he just wasn’t sure he wanted to have kids with me. Which was fair. I wasn’t sure I wanted kids with me either.
There’s an old riddle that goes like this: A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy!”
“Why not?” the nurse asks.
“Because he’s my son,” the doctor replies. How is this possible?
The riddle is a good litmus test for how we’re doing as a society.
How quickly does the person being riddled to register that the doctor is a woman? It’s hard to imagine a grown individual being confounded by this brain buster—even the language, “nearest,” hints that everyone in the riddle has a familiarity with one another—but I remember being stumped by it as a kid. Probably because my coterie of medical advisers consisted of a pediatrician, an allergist, and an orthodontist, all of whom were men. I was too busy cracking my teeth on hard candies, oblivious to the patriarchy.
But even knowing what I know now, I still don’t understand the doctor’s reaction. I don’t get the setup. Why can’t a mother operate on her son? Obviously, it’s not ideal. Her judgment could be obscured by emotion. Someone else really should do it. But I always picture the riddle taking place in a rural town, where she is the only doctor on duty. I imagine her pacing the hall while her son bleeds out on a gurney. All because she can’t pull it together. She just seems like a bad doctor and a hysterical woman, which transforms the riddle from feminist to sexist. Was this lady responsible enough to have a child in the first place? Or did she absorb so many outside opinions that she failed to develop one of her own?
By thirty-six, I was expending more energy avoiding the topic than it would have taken to address it. Like leaving instructions for houseguests about a “tricky” showerhead when all parties would be better served by a new showerhead. But by ignoring the conversation, I had put myself in conversation with the conversation. I was tired of maintaining the protective cloak of apathy I had once valued. There’s a term for this in economics: diminishing marginal utility. It’s the only economics term I know and I probably retained it for times like this, for understanding the moment when more of what used to make you happy no longer does.
Which is how I found myself, on an idle Wednesday, at a fertility center located high above Columbus Circle. I came in for a general check on my fecundity, a medical morsel to tide me over. Was I broken or not broken? This was not a debate. This was a quiz. I could take a quiz.
I sat in a waiting room with a nice view of Central Park, staring at a woman across from me as she knitted a baby blanket. At first, I dismissed this as wearing the band’s T-shirt to the show. But as I watched her needles go back and forth, clacking over each other, I became hypnotized. Her pain was so palpable, it was as if the needles were the one thing tethering her to polite society. If she dropped them, she might start screaming. I felt as if I could walk over, press my finger against her forehead, and sit back down. Even as I pitied her, I was jealous. She knew what she wanted and thus had the capacity to be disappointed when she didn’t get it. Whereas I was afraid that by the time I knew, there would be nothing to hope for.
More women came in with husbands or partners or mothers, each pair looking more solemn than the last. This whole place was a six-word Hemingway story. The receptionist handed the newly arrived their informational folders. On the cover of the folder were tiny baby pictures arranged to form the face of one giant baby. This struck me not only as a Chuck Close rip-off, but as poor folder design. For patients like me, pictures of babies were intimidating and foreign. For patients like the blanket knitter, pictures of babies should come with a trigger warning. The whole reason I had selected this place to begin with was because their website featured the words Let us help you meet your family goals superimposed over a young couple playing with a Labrador. Turns out they lure you in with the promise of puppies right before they stick an ultrasound wand up your vagina.
An ultrasound screen is something you just don’t see outside of a doctor’s office. You have never owned a TV shaped like the trail of a windshield wiper. So it’s no wonder we cross-stitch meaning with the image before us. Ultrasounds are the place where gender makes itself known, where one heartbeat becomes two, where one heartbeat becomes none. It’s package tracking for your unborn child. It was therefore unsettling to look at mine and see a wasteland of static. I was a healthy woman who wasn’t pregnant, so seeing anything in there, even an extra set of house keys, would have been disturbing.
But how strange to look at a live cam of one’s own uterus and confront emptiness.
The technician left me in the dark as I got dressed. I felt a hollow ball of grief expand in my body, but I couldn’t say what for. I couldn’t even say if it was real. Should I cry at the frozen tundra of my insides? Where had I put my underwear?
After the exam, I sat across from the fertility doctor in her office while, stone-faced, she reviewed my test results. On the doctor’s desk were three glass sculptures, each with a colored jellyfish blown into the center.
“Those are funny,” I said.
“Oh,” the doctor deadpanned, “they were a gift.”
Their bright tentacles so clearly resembled fallopian tubes; I was sad for this woman who surrounded herself by people who had failed to point this out to her. She closed my chart. Then she began explaining the reproductive process from scratch. As in from conception. I nodded the way I nod when a waiter details the steak special even though I don’t eat meat. At long last, she alighted upon the reason for my visit. On a Post-It note, she drew a graph, pitting age against biology. Her pen marked the precipitous late-thirties fertility drop-off so sharply, she drew on her own desk.
“You look okay,” she said, “but you might want to consider freezing your eggs.”
I promised her I would think about it, intending to drop the idea into my vast bucket of denial.
In the elevator, I received a “What are you up to?” text from my boyfriend. I had not told him about this appointment, not because he would get squeamish but because he wouldn’t. My main purveyor of external pressure—the opposite sex—had temporarily, perhaps permanently, closed for business. Here was a man who was open with his emotions, receptive to mine, and initiated casual discussions about the future. It was extremely disorienting. I wasn’t sure I knew how to have an opinion about this without blaming everyone else for making me have it.
“At doctor’s appt,” I texted.
“Because you’re totally knocked up?” he wrote back.
I smacked straight into the elevator doors before they had opened, like a bird who hasn’t figured out how to get out of its cage.
In addition to being a questionably necessary procedure—contrary to popular belief, one’s uterus does not spontaneously turn into a bag of stale tortilla chips at age forty—freezing your eggs costs a fortune. The cost is so high, I hesitate to state it here because I have worked hard to suppress the pain. You can easily find out for yourself by reading one of the many articles I refused to read. The best way I can describe the financial impact is this: I had a friend in college who had two hundred CDs stolen from his dorm room during our freshman year. He had learned to accept this loss but each time he heard a song he’d forgotten he once owned, he’d crumble into a depressed lump. For years, he basically couldn’t go anywhere music might be played. This is exactly how I feel about the egg-freezing bill.
What egg freezing does is give you the illusion of a plan. An expensive illusion. I’ve paid far less to eat mushrooms and stare at a bedspread for an hour. But the women with the resources to pony up the cash are buying themselves time, which is, arguably, the most valuable commodity on the planet. Waylaying the inevitable doesn’t come cheap. For me, time was the side dish. The entrée was brain space, the ability to release the pressure of making a decision that would impact the rest of my life and, potentially, the life of an additional human. When I looked at it this way, it almost seemed like a bargain.
Before you embark on the egg-freezing process, you have to take a class. The class is mandatory but you have to pay for it, which is a bit of a boondoggle. We arrived in the order of what kind of parent we would be. Women who got there early and sat up front would be the kind of moms who put notes in their children’s lunch boxes. Women who sat in the second row would remember it was Purple Shirt Day the night before and do a stealth load of laundry. Women who sat in the back would let their kids drink in the basement. I consoled myself that at least I was not the very last person to arrive. I was the second to last. But then I had to borrow a pen from my neighbor, which set me back.
We were each given flesh-colored cushions reminiscent of ergonomic mouse pads. We had to practice pinching them as if they were our own skin, and injecting them with empty vials of medication. All the cushions were Caucasian. I don’t know the exact statistics regarding the racial profile of women who get their eggs frozen but I can guess. I suppose there’s an argument to be made, albeit a weak one, that it’s easier for beginners to practice on something pale, to see the contrast of the needle on a mound of white-girl pseudo-flesh. But since such a creature does not exist in nature, I don’t see the harm in manufacturing them all in violet or mint green.
The women in my class were advanced fertility chess players.
I couldn’t understand how they knew so much already. They were eight moves ahead, their hands flying skyward as they asked questions about dosages and hormone levels and how soon they could pop their frozen eggs back from whence they came. One lady asked if it was okay to have sex during the process, which is just showing off. Overwhelmed by the naked want they all shared, I stress-pinched my flesh wad. My heart raced from peer pressure. In the weeks to come, as I laid out needles like a mad scientist, consulting YouTube videos for each injection, experiencing foul moods that dripped down to my heart like black syrup, I would amuse myself by saying, “The real bitch of this whole thing is that they made us take that fucking class.”
The only useful tidbit I learned is that the female reproductive system is just as dog-eat-dog as a man’s. Every month, all the eggs vie to be the power egg. This queen-bee egg forces the other eggs to sulk in the corner, presumably with such bad self-esteem issues you wouldn’t want one of them as your kid anyway. I had no idea that eggs were competitive like sperm. This is something we should toss into middle school health curriculums, if only for the sociological implications. My entire life, I have assumed that eggs were passive creatures, inert trophies to be earned by ambitious sperm. I blame Woody Allen.
The first step in egg freezing is to hormonally democratize this dictatorship. You inject vials of drugs into your abdomen to persuade that one egg to let everyone have a chance. At the end of two weeks, you are briefly knocked out while your eggs are popped in a freezer. And that’s that … with one tiny snag. Whatever symptoms of PMS a woman has when she normally gets her period exist in proportion to that one egg. One egg’s worth of headaches. One egg’s worth of bloating. One egg’s worth of wondering why everyone in your life is such a goddamn disappointment.
The average egg-freezing cycle produces between eight and fifteen eggs. You do the math.
But first, the drugs.
The hormones alone can cost up to two thousand dollars. When I unleashed this information on my therapist, she told me she had another patient who had just undergone the process and had leftover medication. I was delighted. Especially given how much therapy costs. I had always assumed that if I bought mass quantities of drugs on the black market, they would be recreational in nature, but here we were. My therapist—our therapist— introduced us over e-mail and we arranged a time for me to come pick up the stuff.
The woman was an Indian lawyer who lived in an apartment in Chelsea, a large doormanned co-op with aggressive lobby art and confounding elevator buttons. The interior of her apartment could only be described as palatial. No wonder she was giving away drugs like candy. When I stepped inside, I was asked to remove my shoes and handed a pair of “guest slippers.” In my house, I only have “guest hotel shampoos.” She had changed into leggings and a T-shirt after a long day of deploying her expensive education. We stood on either side of her kitchen island.
“So, how long have you lived here?” I asked.
“About three years,” she said. “I know it doesn’t look like it.” “No, no,” I said, “it definitely looks like it.”
Visible through her open bedroom door was a large flat-screen television. The Bachelor was on.
“I moved in after my divorce.” “Oh,” I said. “Cool.”
It’s hard enough to make small talk with a stranger without knowing you have the same therapist. There’s a subtle jockeying for sanest.
What you’re both really thinking is: What are you in for?
“So you need three boxes of the Menopur and two of the Follistim, right?”
The top half of her body was obscured by the open refrigerator door as she stood on her tippy-toes.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re aware that I’m selling these, right?” “No,” I said, “I was not aware of that.”
“It’s at least a thousand dollars’ worth of medication.” She stated the facts.
“That’s why I was so grateful,” I said, trying to laugh it off. “This is awkward.”
“I couldn’t figure out why you were being so nice about it,” she mused.
“Nice” didn’t begin to describe it. In our e-mails, I had referred to her as a “lifesaver” and a “saint.” I told her she was “doing her good deed for the year.” I was in for a financially and physically arduous ride, and the idea that a stranger with a heart of platinum would be so generous had renewed my faith in the capacity of women to support each other.
Later that evening, I went back and examined our correspondence.
Sure enough, she had clearly listed prices next to the name of each medication. The numbers were unmistakable. The issue was, she had left the dollar signs off. That’s how many boxes of drugs there are—it takes real time to type the dollar signs. Because I had never done this before, I assumed all those numbers were milligrams or micrograms or marbles. But the e-mails were not the point. Why would I assume a total stranger would part with such expensive items for free?
I wanted so badly to find just one loophole of ease, my subconscious made it so. I immediately began making justifications to myself about how I was right and she was wrong. She had found something incongruous about my appreciation and had ample opportunities to clarify the situation before I was standing in her kitchen. Not to mention the fact that these drugs had been in her possession for almost a year and would expire in a month, which meant she needed to find a buyer pronto. Selling them online would be illegal. If I knew that, she definitely knew that. Would she rather consign them to the dumpster or donate them to a clinic than give them to me? Absolutely she would.
I explained that if I was going to pay full price for nearly expired drugs, I might as well just be an upstanding citizen about it and go through a pharmacy.
“Well,” she said and shrugged. “Good luck with it.”
No negotiation. Case closed. She wasn’t doing it to be spiteful.
She wasn’t even annoyed, as I surely would have been if the slipper were on the other foot. She was doing it because it was time to draw a line in the sand. She had gone through two rounds of egg freezing with negligible results. Her husband had left her for a younger woman. She was forty-four, spent her days thinking about fairness on behalf of other people, and she felt owed. And she was owed. Just as every woman who smiles through a lifetime of complicated biology and double standards is owed. But tonight, I was going to be the one to pay her.
On the television in the bedroom, a tearful girl told the camera how much she regretted “putting herself out there.” I wondered if I should tell my therapist about this incident or if this woman would beat me to it.
Only the Upper West Side, a neighborhood that caters to the yet-to-be-born and the on-their-way-out, would be host to a pharmacy that specializes in both fertility meds and compression socks. I stood in line, eyeing bars of Reagan-era soap and a stunning variety of pastel candies. I tried to imagine the woman who had spent the past nine decades figuring out exactly which flavor of pastel candy she liked the best. When it was my turn, I relinquished my credit card to a cashier, who had to pry it from my fingers. As money had apparently ceased to have any meaning, I selected a couple of overpriced hair clips while he filled a supermarket bag. A few customers cast sympathetic looks in my direction. What would have to be so wrong with you that you’d walk away from a prescription counter with a shopping bag full of drugs?
“You want me to throw an ice pack in there?” asked the cashier.
“Why not?” I said. “Go crazy.”
None of the medication required refrigeration unless you were going to store it for an extended time, and so long as you didn’t do anything brilliant like rest it on a radiator. But at this juncture, I would take anything I didn’t have to pay for. Do you want me to throw a patty of petrified horse shit in there? Sure, why not? You only live once.
I went straight home, put the bag on my kitchen counter, tossed the ice pack in the freezer, and threw on a dress. It was New Year’s Eve. I was putting the “new year, new you” diets to shame. I would start the year as a grown-up card-carrying member of my gender, as someone who makes proactive health decisions and cowers before the reality of the future, as woman-shaped flesh wad.
The next day, I decided to familiarize myself with the drugs. I stood in my kitchen across from the bag, staring at it. But when I got up the nerve to peer inside, there were no drugs. Just the syringes, the needles and a portable toxic waste container for disposing of them. I touched the bottom of the paper, thinking vaguely of trapdoors. I could feel the anger spread across my skin. The cashier had forgotten to put my entire order of medication in the bag. Naturally, such a thing had never happened with a five-dollar prescription but of course it had with the fifteen-hundred-dollar one.
I had all of New Year’s Day to stew and pace. I called when the pharmacy opened the following day, displaying a kind of barely contained rage for which I expected to be rewarded. Anything short of murder warranted a gold star. But their records showed I had picked up the medication. I explained the difference between paying for something and leaving with it. I was not trying to swindle them. I don’t need the extra needles for my side gig as a methadone addict. I barely wanted these needles. I threatened to take pictures of the empty bag. Still, they maintained the drugs were in there.
“There’s nothing here,” I said. “There was only an ice pack and I put it in—”
There are moments in life when one literally stops in one’s tracks. Usually you have to see a wild animal or a celebrity you thought was dead.
“Will you please hold?”
I opened my freezer and removed the foil pack. For the first time, I noticed a seam at the top. I ripped it open. Inside was a packet of ice the size of a playing card and boxes of medication stickered with the words human hormone. DO NOT FREEZE.
The reality of what I had done took no time to sink in. I, who only four nights prior had registered the wasted cab fare to Chelsea, had just destroyed fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of medication by tossing it into the freezer like a bag of peas.
One wonders what I would do with an actual child.
The pharmacy had neglected to sticker the foil pouch itself and kindly agreed to send me new drugs. My case was easy to make. Improperly labeling medication is not an offense I came up with. Still, how could two of these misunderstandings have occurred in forty-eight hours? Has anyone’s ambivalence ever run so deep? Before we hung up, I asked the pharmacist how many functioning adults had ever done what I did. He pretended to scan his memory. The answer was none. I was the “hot coffee” case of the reproductive-medicine world. Next time you think to yourself, “What kind of idiot doesn’t understand that coffee is hot?” know that the answer is: This kind.
In order to freeze your eggs, you must give yourself two different types of shots, one in the morning and one in the evening, always within an hour of the time you gave yourself the first shot. This is as elaborate as it sounds. Especially compared with every other medication I’d ever taken, for which I needed only a working esophagus. My boyfriend offered to do the injections for me.
“It’ll be a good bonding experience,” he said, afflicted as he is with a fondness for the bright side.
“It’s not like I have to take them in the ass,” I reasoned.
“I’m not even touching that rationale,” he said and backed off. Some of the shots burn, others bruise, all of them force you to abandon your squeamishness around needles. The margin of error is significant. One day I didn’t mix in all the saline. Another day I managed to go through all the steps and somehow wound up with an unused needle, which is a bit like winding up with extra IKEA dresser parts, but slightly worse because you’re injecting the dresser into your body. Another day I sliced my finger open removing the sheath from a mixing needle. It was such a precise cut, it took a second to get comfortable with its existence before bleeding all over the place. Freezing your eggs is essentially a cheap way to become a registered nurse. But by the time you know what you’re doing, you don’t need to do it anymore.
Meanwhile, I went into the fertility center every day to get reacquainted with the wand. One morning, as I lay back and put my feet in the stirrups, I announced that it was the darnedest thing—the hormones were having zero effect on me. No tears, no mood swings, no irrational behavior. Finally, I was excelling at something. Then the doctor on duty turned off the lights as I was in the middle of reading from a list of questions. I cleared my throat.
“Can you just ask me during the exam?”
Perhaps I have mentioned that the exam entails a wand being shoved into your body. Not the ideal time for a Q&A.
“But you turned the lights out.”
“Don’t you have them memorized?” she asked.
“No,” I said, feeling my voice crack. “That’s why I wrote them down.”
I started crying. Hysterically. Inconsolably. People outside the door probably thought I’d lost a whole baby. The doctor removed the wand and flicked the lights back on.
“It’s the hormones.”
I sat up. I shook my head but was too busy sobbing to speak.
It was, most definitely, not the hormones. The Venn diagram of financial, psychological, and physical strain was more of a total eclipse. What’s worse, I had subjected myself to all this voluntarily. I had reasons to cry. My problem was that, once triggered, I couldn’t seem to get it under control. And for argument’s sake, let’s say it was the hormones. It seemed borderline dangerous to point it out. Try asking a pregnant woman if she’s in a bad mood because of the hormones and see what happens.
My boyfriend was out of town but offered to come back early for the procedure. As a longtime mostly single person, I appreciated this relationship perk. This was right up there with going to the bathroom at the airport without having to drag your luggage into the stall with you. That and the general reprieve from being viewed by society as either threatening or pitiable. But I discouraged him. It’s fifteen minutes, I explained. A power nap. People go back to work afterward. I did, however, inform my parents that I was going under anesthesia. Which meant I had to tell them why.
“I told you so,” said my mother. “You do have a uterus!”
I asked my friend Sara to retrieve me. Hospitals won’t let you walk out the door by yourself, which really makes you wonder if they’re fixing people in there. Before I went under, I asked the anesthesiologist what would happen if I didn’t fall asleep. Most people, she said, wondered what would happen if they never woke up. I told her this seemed like a nonsense question. Who cares? You’ll be dead. Your concerns are minimal.
Again, one wonders how I would speak to an actual child.
I don’t remember waking up from the procedure—“harvesting,” if you’d like to lose your lunch—but apparently I was less than pleasant. When Sara tried to force-feed me a saltine, I told her to “eat it.” From a padded chair, I watched other women sign their discharge papers and go, flying away to their lives. Eventually, a doctor came over and pulled a chair up next to mine. I lolled my head in her direction, waiting for her to do something insidious like ask me to take a sip of apple juice.
The doctor was younger than I was. Triangular pink diamonds swayed from her earlobes. Definitely a gift, but from whom? She was young enough for the answer to be “Daddy.” As she scooted forward, the concern on her face came into focus. She looked like the kind of lady who might refuse to operate on her son.
I knew it, I thought. I knew that my body would not behave as it should, that all my inklings about not being a real woman had been correct.
“Something a bit unusual happened during the procedure,” said the doctor.
Unusual? I rolled the word around the padded walls of my brain. Like they had to give me more drugs than expected “unusual” or they staged a revival of Gypsy over my unconscious body “unusual”?
Evidently, my eggs were fine, now crowded cozily together in a petri dish. But at sixty-seven, the club was at capacity.
I was awake now. I looked at Sara to make sure she had heard the same thing. Sixty-seven is not within the range of numbers listed in pamphlets. It’s a gaudy amount of eggs for a human to produce. On some core level, I was thrilled. To go through all this and get three eggs is like reading all of Ulysses only to discover the last page has been ripped out. But I was also disturbed. I felt disconnected from my body, as if it had been trying to tell me something for years and I hadn’t been listening. Or I had been listening but had heard the wrong thing. Because I was right. I am not a woman—I am a fish.
Sara promptly told me that I had “ruined caviar” for her.
“How often are you sitting around, eating caviar?” “Often enough.”
How, I wondered, had the daily wand molestings failed to see this coming?
“Because they were so packed in,” explained the doctor, cupping her hands to approximate the shape of an egg, “like a vending machine.”
“Gross,” Sara and I said in unison.
One of the benefits of having gone through something so specific is the ability to rehash the details with other people who have gone through that same specific thing. We may be done with our subcutaneous injections but our subcutaneous injections are not done with us. But I learned quickly to keep my mouth shut about my egg number. If it came up, I changed the subject or indicated that the procedure had gone fine. It’s a pass/fail world and I passed. Number disclosure is considered as gauche as bragging about your massive pay increase for doing the exact same job as your coworker. Many women find it insensitive. It’s how I feel about straight-haired beauties who get a thrill out of humidity. Know your audience, I think, tallying up a lifetime of hair products, keeping my hands in my pockets so I don’t throttle these shaggy-banged bitches. Seeing as how we’re dealing with the potential for human life, the throttling urge is that much stronger.
To so badly want a baby and not be able to have one is a peerless brand of devastating. Everyone knows this. Fictionally, it turns women deranged (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) and men monstrous (The Handmaid’s Tale). In real life, it just makes everybody sad. I am not in the habit of making people feel bad about themselves when they can do that on their own. And if it were just about hurt feelings, I’d continue to stay mum. I wouldn’t even have revealed my number here. But there was something rotten in the state of Denmark.
By freezing my eggs, I had stuck my toe into the world of competitive female biology. Women who had plenty of eggs retrieved (but still within the realm of reason) confessed something like pride in their number. They flaunted their results under the guise of relief. I want to distinguish myself from them. I was not so lucky as I looked, I explained. My big payout had come at a high cost. Mo’ eggs, mo’ problems. After the procedure, I was treated to a panoply of medical complications including a Tales from the Crypt–style syndrome in which one’s abdominal region retains multiple liters of water in ten hours. For me, this also resulted in a bonus surgery. Boy, had I been through the wringer!
I listened to myself recite all this, trying to fend off judgment. Was it really necessary for me to drag out stories of additional specialists in order to justify telling the truth? I won the lottery but my dog exploded, so, you know.
But even the complications couldn’t get me out of jail. When I told a friend who’d always been dyspeptic about having kids, she was unable to hide her disgust.
“See?” she said, assured of her own choices. “This is why it’s not worth it.”
Which is a bit like critiquing someone’s e-mail to their ex after they’ve sent it.
When I told one mother of three, she replied with: “Well, now you know what it feels like to be pregnant.” Not quite. Being pregnant is a natural occurrence. You don’t become six months pregnant over ten excruciating hours. It is my understanding that you also get a baby out of it. Now whose turn was it to be offended?
This was getting ugly.
The thing is, even if I had produced two eggs, I like to believe I would have been forthright about it. It’s impossible to say. But I know for certain that focusing on the math as the defining moment of one’s life only perpetuates the idea of fertility as identity. This isn’t the seventeenth century. Nor is it the dystopian future. There doesn’t have to be social meaning. There only has to be personal meaning. Tell everyone, tell no one. Read the articles, don’t read the articles, find kinship or alienation in them, it doesn’t matter. By virtue of them being written by someone else, none of them are prescribed for you and you alone. When it comes to your own life, there is only one location in the world where the right decisions are being kept. Which, come to think of it, is the kind of thing I would tell an actual child.
The children are coming, the children are coming. I would have sent that intuitor his tip if I hadn’t just broken the bank proving him right. My transcendental Paul Revere had succeeded where a magic wand had failed. But his prophecy felt less ominous now. The children are en route, okay, but they could always change their minds. My eggs are frozen in a cryobank in Midtown—they don’t have any travel plans. For months after the procedure, I would get automated updates from the cryobank using language that made me feel as if I’d arranged to freeze my head.
Then one day I was walking up my apartment stairs, flipping through junk mail, when I came across an envelope with the cryobank’s logo. My eggs had never sent me actual mail before. Camp is fun. We are cold. The letter explained that enclosed was “a representative photomicrograph of your oocytes frozen during the cryopreservation cycle.” I mean, they really go out of their way to make it sound like you’re freezing your head. I moved the letter aside to reveal a piece of paper with a black-and-white photograph of my eggs. They looked like the marks that would appear if you pressed a pen cap into your skin sixty-seven times. Or craters on the surface of some very distant moon.
They are just floating fractions of an idea. I know that. But I had never seen a part of my body exist outside my body before. I felt such gratitude. My eggs had held up their end of the bargain. They had saved me from having to think about them, which, for the first time in my life, made me want to think about them. This doesn’t mean I know what will become of them. Maybe I have a baby. Maybe none. Maybe eight. Maybe I sell them all on the black market, buy a townhouse and forget this whole thing ever happened. But sometimes when I’m alone, I run my fingers over the photo, even though it doesn’t feel like anything. I focus on one egg at random, imagining this will be the one my body uses to make a person, a person that grows up and reads this, and I think—Oh girl, I hope you set the world on fire.
Excerpted from Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley, to be published April 3 by MCD/FSG. Copyright 2018 Sloane Crosley.