On Valentine’s Day, Gail wakes up and slips the basal body thermometer from the nightstand. She rolls toward Anthony, pulls back the covers, unsnaps his boxers, and takes his doughy penis into her mouth. His erection is faster this way.
“It’s time?” he asks. “Your temp?”
He tugs off his shorts, scoots his pillow under her hips and slides into her. They don’t kiss.
Once upon a time she’d roll on top of him and they’d linger over sex. Now everything is quick and her thoughts drift to her to-do list. Dry cleaners before work. Pharmacy after. When they’re done, Gail rests her heels on the headboard, giving Anthony’s sperm their half-hour gravity boost.
“If it doesn’t work this time,” he says, “we need to try the shots.”
Two days before Mother’s Day, Gail climbs out of Anthony’s Miata, which they’re going to trade in for a family car directly after their appointment. He opens the door to the West Coast Reproductive Health Clinic. Practitioner names are stitched on a six-foot wall hanging. Four MDs, three CNMs, two MFCCs—husband and wife—one RD, one CLC, one LAc, one CMT, one DC, and a personal trainer. With the exception of two obstetricians and the midwives, Gail has seen them all.
Gail checks in with reception and sits in a wicker armchair, leaving Anthony an empty spot on the couch next to a very pregnant woman. She picks up a pamphlet titled Family Building Options. On the front a husband and wife hold a toddler’s hand, their child a product of reproductive technology. Inside are acronyms IUI, GIFT, ZIFT, IVF, and bold bullet pointed statements. Artificial Reproductive Technologies, Third Party Assistance, Child Free Living.
Anthony is a business coach who takes clients to climbing walls convinced that belaying for your coworkers brings new heights of cooperation. “Anything worth having is worth the effort,” he’s said about having a baby, convinced that once they manipulate all the variables satisfactorily, they’ll produce the desired results. No third-party assistance will be needed. And, on the remote chance that it is, a surrogate will carry his sperm and Gail’s egg. Their child will carry their genetic blueprint; otherwise what’s the point?
The point, Gail said at the only counseling appointment Anthony attended, was to have a child to love who would love you back. And she could love someone else’s baby.
“It would be wise,” the counselor had said, “to come to some mutual decisions about your reproductive life before you go too much farther into the process.”
Their mutual decision was not to talk about it.
Gail was 36 the first time they conceived, married two years, and off the pill four months. Her period was three days late, then five, then eight. The wand on the home test kit confirmed it. He lifted a glass of Chardonnay and she a tumbler of Pellegrino as they tossed around names: Tiffany, Crystal, Prescott. The next morning Anthony flew to Washington. That afternoon Gail found blood in her panties, left work early, crawled under the sheets, and called him at the hotel.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry,” he’d said. “It’ll be okay. Next time we’ll really be ready. Besides, trying is half the fun, right?”
Trying was less than half the fun when Gail miscarried a year and a half later.
“From now on,” Anthony told her from yet another hotel room, “I’m scheduling my travel around your cycle. I’ve missed too many windows of opportunity.”
Six months later when the open windows hadn’t led to a pregnant Gail, Anthony said, “We need to get serious about having a baby. No more letting nature take its course.”
Gail has given Mother Nature a run for her money. Thirty pounds lighter than when she first conceived, she lifts weights on her lunch hour and kick-boxes after work three times a week. She’s had regular blood tests, ultrasounds, uterine surgery, two endometrial biopsies, and six cycles of Clomid. During her last four cycles, Gail injected herself with varying doses of hormones sporting hopeful names like Pregnyl and Repronex. Rather than feeling healthy and confident, she feels like a lab rat in a maze unable to locate the cheese.
This time they decide on three cycles of intrauterine insemination. Gail will stay on the ovulation drugs. Anthony will provide ejaculate the day of ovulation. The lab will wash it down leaving only the most motile sperm, which the doctor will deposit in Gail’s uterus. Ordinarily, he’d give it six months, but with Gail approaching 40 they can’t spend too long on each treatment.
“Remember,” the doctor says, “No sex for 48 to 72 hours before ovulation.”
“No problem,” Anthony answers as he folds a list of antioxidant foods believed to increase sperm quality into his breast pocket.
Later, in line at the Alpha Beta with their basket of broccoli, brown rice, and spinach, Gail scans the covers of Cosmo, Vogue, and Redbook, all promising nonstop sex and endless orgasm. She thinks back to when they first met and three days without sex seemed an eternity.
Anthony’s leading a team building hike at Torrey Pines on Labor Day, so it is Gail who visits his mother, Cornelia, at Leisure World. They sit by the pool watching a water polo match alongside a woman with a triple stroller who says her dad is one of the team captains. It’s hard to tell how old the mom is, Gail’s age, or a few years older. Maybe 45. Gail wonders if she took fertility drugs, if that’s why she has triplets, but would never ask. The mother pulls out pacifiers for the fussing babies. One refuses, so the mother lifts her from the stroller and begins to nurse.
To Gail’s horror, Cornelia plucks a baby out of the stroller, but the mother thanks her. Meanwhile, the remaining child spits out her pacifier and begins to scream.
“Okay, okay,” the mother coos as she burps the first baby, places her in the stroller, picks up the crying one and begins to nurse her. The first baby, still hungry, smacks on her fist, then starts to cry.
“Would you mind holding her for a few minutes?” the mother asks Gail.
Gingerly, Gail lifts the baby and finds herself asking “and who are you?” in a singsong voice.
“That’s Kylie,” the mother answers. “That’s Kayla,” she nods toward Cornelia, “and this is Kelsey.”
Kylie’s legs are hot and damp. Gail sways slightly like the mothers she’s seen at the clinic for their postpartum checkups. Kylie begins to suck against Gail’s clavicle. It hurts, and she’ll probably get a hickey, but Gail holds Kylie closer, imagining simply walking from here, baby in her arms. Kylie, realizing her efforts have failed, throws her head back and wails.
“I can take her now,” the mother says.
Flushed from her thoughts, Gail settles the baby in the mother’s lap and sits down, crossing her arms over her belly.
Kayla in Cornelia’s lap grasps at the shiny gold figures dangling from the chain around Cornelia’s neck—the Virgin Mary, a football, and a foot.
“Milagros,” Cornelia says to the baby, “they bring you little miracles.”
Cornelia had worn her football milagro all last season: The Ravens won the Superbowl, and she was a thousand dollars richer.
“You wear a milagro, you pray, and the Virgin Mother will bring you a baby,” Cornelia had told Gail as she slipped a baby charm into Gail’s hand after her win.
Gail had tucked the trinket inside an interior pocket of her purse and left it there. But by the pool, she thinks about fishing it out, adding it to the necklace she’s wearing, a palm tree with a diamond studded trunk, a wedding gift from Anthony she still wears every day. Gail closes her eyes and turns her face to the sun. With all these babies around, poolside seems the perfect place for a milagro, as if it’s the happy hour special and she could order rum and hope.
Her acupuncturist taps thin needles into Gail’s arms and legs, turns down the lights and leaves her to relax. In the first years, stretched on the table, she imagined there was a baby—half-an-inch long and fully formed like the pink plastic dolls she bought for a nickel as a girl—only to watch her disappear in each period’s flush. But in the months since the acupuncturist diagnosed her with cold in the uterus, Gail imagines an inhospitable wall of ice without so much as a crevice for a baby to grab hold of.
Two weeks later she’s bleeding. Anthony pats her hand at the news. In a few days the routine will begin again. Track her BBT, inject hormones, prepare to ovulate, ovulate, clinical insemination, daily appointments for blood tests and ultrasounds that make her late for work two weeks straight, the inevitable bleeding and disappointment, the resolve to try again.
Gail knows she should be able to articulate just what compels her to have a child. She should be able to flip to a magazine quiz and bubble in the correct answer to the question: (a) To satisfy the biological drive to procreate, to see my genetic material continue, (b) To create the happy nuclear family I never had, (c) Because it’s the ultimate expression of the love a couple can share, (d) All of the above.
The stacks of Parents, Parenting, and Family Fun at the clinic are spattered with ads featuring big-eyed orphans from Romania, Somalia, and Pakistan who need immunizations, hot meals, and pencils. Simply send $15 a month and they will love you from afar.
She pictures herself pulling back the covers for this ready-made child to snuggle stroking her hair while she reads bedtime stories. She could love that child, implant that girl in her heart because it’s love, not genetics that make a family. As an orphan of sorts—both her parents died in the past decade—Gail knows what it is to want a mother.
On October 3rd, the refinance is complete, and the equity earmarked for any and all treatment alternatives. The next day, Gail’s eggs are harvested and analyzed. After the tests are run, the doctor sits on the edge of his desk, minimizing the distance between them. “There appears to be chromosomal deterioration,” he says.
He suggests they take some time to assess their options, offering pamphlets they’ve already taken from the waiting room, and gives them permission to have sex during the interim.
The doctor squeezes Gail’s hand on her way out the door. “Just because I’ve made infertility my life,” he says, “doesn’t mean you should, too.”
One celibate week later Gail is 40. Anthony cooks breakfast, seven-grain toast, tofu omelets with soy cheese, and calcium fortified orange juice. He sings “Happy Birthday” while he carries their plates into the dining room.
After breakfast Anthony refolds the newspaper, stacking the sections in order. “How about Radicchio’s tonight?” he asks. “I’ll make reservations.”
Radicchio’s is the new place out in Ports of Call. They’ve been there twice already. “Fine,” she says, although she’d rather stay home and barbeque a hamburger, but they’re off red meat until she is pregnant, or the baby is born, or the baby is weaned—Gail can’t remember what Anthony has decided.
The workday ends with an office party in the breakroom. Gail’s coworkers wear black armbands and bestow gag gifts. A withered philodendron for her desk, Centrum Silver, Depends, Lady Grecian hair color, and for Anthony, a bottle of candies labeled Viagra. Gail cuts the cake, handing out slices with napkins sporting tiny tombstones inscribed 40 and Over the Hill. The tombstones should have names, she thinks, one for each baby lost, not just the miscarriages she knew about, but each month when there was no baby and she told herself not to mourn, that it wasn’t really a loss. She must be in some stage of grief, she thinks, shock or denial, or maybe bargaining. Thanks to her macabre party, a new word comes to mind. Futile.
At home she tugs on baggy sweatpants, crawls into bed, and dreams of babies crying in cradles lined in neat rows, flowers at their feet, a cemetery of infants. Anthony finds her napping, scolds that they’ll miss their dinner reservation, and sighs heavily when they are seated in the bar instead of the dining room.
Midway through dinner, Gail pushes aside her entree. “Anthony,” she says. “What if we just aren’t meant to have our own baby?”
He sips his nonalcoholic wine. “Don’t say that. We still have options.”
“I’m tired of those options.” She tucks her napkin beside her plate and folds her hands.
“We agreed to do everything we possibly can to solve our problem.”
“You mean my problem,” she says.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You can’t help but think it.”
“We want a baby,” he says. “We need third-party assistance.”
“A surrogate?” She picks up her dessert fork and runs it across the cloth. “Maybe we should consider adopting instead.”
Their waiter approaches, clears his throat, takes their plates and offers dessert.
“Just the check,” Anthony says.
If they leave now, they’ll just postpone this discussion until they’re in bed, half-asleep. They’ll be up until three, Gail will cry herself to sleep and call in sick tomorrow. She’s tired of that option, too.
“I’ll have an Irish Coffee,” she says.
“Gail?” Anthony says.
“It’s my birthday,” she answers through clenched teeth.
“Decaf for me,” Anthony says in his prepare-to-do-battle voice.
The waiter clips to the bar.
They don’t speak again until Anthony stirs cream into his coffee. “You’re willing to give up on our baby after we’ve worked so hard?” He doesn’t look at her.
She sips her drink, and she feels the whiskey, wrapped in cream and coffee, slide down her throat. She doesn’t look at him. “I just can’t do this anymore.”
“You said a baby of our own would complete our love,” he says, throwing the words she’d used years ago back at her.
“I know. But is there anything we’re doing now that resembles love?”
Anthony slips his Visa Platinum into the check folder. “For your information Gail, I want to have our baby with you because I love you.”
“And what if someone else’s baby became ours, couldn’t you love that baby? Couldn’t you still love me?”
He runs a finger over the rim of his coffee cup, his forehead furrows. The look he gets when he’s trying to form a diplomatic response. He’s taken too long to answer, and now, whatever it is that he’s going to say, she can’t—won’t—hear.
“I’m tired; I can’t think,” she says. “Take me home.”
They drive home with the windows down, the mild scent of ocean filling the car, the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway too loud for conversation.
It is quiet on their street. “I need some time,” Anthony says and leaves Gail at the front walk. She watches his taillights disappear around the corner.
She is hanging her sweater when the house phone rings, and she answers, thinking it must be Anthony on his cell.
“Happy Birthday to you!” Cornelia sings the entire song, substituting, “My dear darling daughter, forget the in-law, Gail,” for “dear Gail.”
“Oh, Mom,” Gail sniffs.
“Trying to have a baby. It’s going to be the end of us.”
“Nonsense. I know my Tony, he’s not a quitter.”
“But I’m so tired of feeling like a lab rat. I’m beginning to think we should quit,” Gail says, “Maybe adopt. What do you think?”
“My dear, I think you should pray. Did you pray? Did you ask the Virgin Mary? She knows exactly what you need.”
“You know I’m not religious.”
“Religious doesn’t matter,” Cornelia says. “I hang up and you pray. And then you call me tomorrow. Okay?”
“Okay.” Gail returns the phone to its cradle.
She retrieves her purse and sits at the kitchen table rummaging through the interior compartments until she finds the baby milagro. She wipes the lint off with her thumb, takes off her necklace and slides on the charm. It’s dwarfed by the palm tree Anthony gave her. Does the Virgin Mary have any clue how hard infertility is on a marriage, considering she got pregnant by God without having sex, planned or otherwise?
Gail refastens the necklace and presses her hand over the charms, feeling her heart thump inside her chest. If Cornelia can pray for ball games and bunions, surely Gail should try to pray for what she wants. But what does she want? For their technological acrobatics to take? To get pregnant without trying? If those things were going to happen, wouldn’t they already have?
She could pray for Anthony to agree to adoption, but she’s never been able to change his mind about anything. How could a dead virgin? And if they gave up on having a child completely? What’s left for the two of them in a marriage that’s become regimented, mechanized, and hollowed out by failure?
Gail rises from the table when she hears Anthony pull into the garage in his new family-friendly Subaru and cut the engine. The car door slams, and panic rises in her throat. She inhales slowly. One deep breath, then two. A third breath before Anthony enters blinking against the harsh light. He stands stooped in the doorway with red-rimmed eyes as if he’s been crying—something she’s never seen.
Neither speaks. Neither moves. In the silence she searches Anthony’s face, devoid of its usual confidence. When the ultimatum she expects doesn’t come, Gail relaxes. She reaches for her necklace, fingering the charms, the soft curves of the bean-shaped baby, the sharp lines of the palm fronds. The decision belongs to her now. Maybe it always has.
She is finished with infertility. She holds fast to the milagro, closes her eyes, and surrenders the baby that will not be. As she does so, an image floats into her mind of the Virgin Mary emerging from the sea, carrying a child meant for Gail. Somehow, she will become a mother. Gail feels reassurance wash over her like foam on soft-breaking waves.
She opens her eyes and takes a step toward Anthony. No matter what happens between the two of them, she will be okay.