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The blood soaking Neona’s sanitary towel was dark. There were painfully shed clots clinging to the webbed surface. Beneath the fine webbing of the pad, there was a lot of blood, since it was the second day of Neona’s period and she had not changed her towel for four hours. She could not change it more often at the moment, since she was running out and there was a shortage in the shops. Neona cursed herself for not buying more when she’d had the chance, before the lockdown, but the truth was she had convinced herself she would not need them. Neona had instead purchased three pregnancy tests, which she hoped would produce parallel pink lines upon engorging themselves with her urine. Neona’s lust for sex with women was always at its greatest when she was bleeding. The desire pulsed in her slippery bloodied vulva, which felt paradoxical alongside the disappointment at the arrival of her bleed yesterday. Her bleed was unexpectedly early. In fact, Neona had understood that her bleed would not arrive for at least another month, even if she wasn’t pregnant. She had begun an IVF cycle two weeks prior to the lockdown, just as the virus outbreak was gaining traction. At the time of beginning the cycle, Neona felt a small nugget of worry embedded in the bottom right-hand corner of her mind, but resolved that this spark of life soon to be rooted in her womb, in a time of massacre by the governments of the world, was a necessary beacon of hope. Romantic as her notion was, the thought of her new-born baby’s arrival felt right, and resolutely possible.
Neona had never felt she was maternal enough; nor did she feel like she was solid, graceful, womanly, nor flowery enough in floaty summary dresses, to be able to house a womb that would hold a baby. Neona also worried about her desire, since she had learned that to be a mother, you needed to desire only the father of the child, and certainly not desire women; except in that playfully bi-curious threesome way that men liked. This belief inhabited the deepest tissues of her body, the ones that nobody can see. They are enrobed in her flesh, while causing her muscles to move. They are the architecture of her being. Neona is trying to change this, with her mind, by reading different philosophies to the ones she grew up with, and by watching different films, and by letting herself desire differently. Neona feels she is fighting a losing game, since the lessons are still being taught.
Mai was the first woman that Neona had been in a long-term relationship with. Mai is shorter than Neona, but Mai is much stronger. They have a life together, woven tight by the smell of ripped fresh herbs while they cook in their kitchen, and bedsheets left without washing for too long, smelling wildly of sweat and vulvas. Mai shaved her head soon after they met, which made Neona feel shy at her beauty, but this was expected since she always felt awkward. Neona wanted to look more of a dyke, especially since she always felt like more of the “top” in their sexual relationship, and wanted to show the world that Mai was at least somewhat under her power. In her relationships with men though, Neona had always been the one under power.
Neona was the one who wanted a child, and it was she who had begun the conversation with Mai about it on their second date. They had been drinking a particularly fragrant and funky, almost rotten-tasting wine. It was amber, served in a bottle with a smudged label, and in not-quite-clean tumblers. The wine came with cured tuna coated in yuzu, which in its dried yet supple pale state, looked like thick slices of pearl. Neona and Mai ate with their hands, looking at one another as they ate, with eyes showing the alchemy beneath, where the fermented citrus smells melted into the scent of vulva, and the smell of the air in their bedroom, soon to come. Neona blurted it out, completely out of context, when the last thing said was about the meaning of the word queer. “I want a baby.”
Mai is a full Professor now, but at the time of this conversation she had just been promoted to Associate Professor in Race and Sexuality at University College London. Mai loved her work, but she hated the department she was in and its neoliberal focus on productivity and strange ways of measuring excellence and impact. Neona admired her for her staying power among her sniping colleagues. Neona was also an academic, but much less of a high-flyer, happy to stay in Mai’s shadow with her radical unproductive approaches to sexuality research. Mai continued smiling long after the blurted proclamation entered the air and hung there, bare and open. Mai’s mind was still half in the conversation they were having before, yet she wore the surprise of the statement’s entry lightly, as if she somehow expected it. Neona was relieved at this reaction but tried not to show it. The reaction from a man in the same situation, in her experience, would be different. Historically, children would become the signifier in her relationships of the joining of their bodies, and therefore their control over her made tangible, into flesh. It would work both ways. When she said she did not want them, she became a threat, a whore, or someone who did not belong sufficiently to the man in question. If she did want a child, then she was too clingy, or her desire for a child sat at odds with how non-maternal men perceived her to be. Either way, it was massive. A bombshell. But not for Mai.
Mai is a black woman and a lesbian, who was out from when she was a young teenager. Her mother was also a Professor, from Nigeria, and her father was a white English man from Norfolk. They met in London and lived together in Dalston, in one of those streets lined with trees with big merchant’s houses. They had a happy marriage, but Mai’s father died at sixty-seven, having been HIV positive for thirty years. Mai’s mother died not long after and it was said that this was one of those mysterious cases where one partner dies shortly after the other, seemingly from a broken heart. Neona had cried when Mai told her the story, because when she heard it, she imagined how it would feel to lose Mai. Neona’s overactive mind turned to every precious micro-moment, everything they cooked and everything Mai grew in their garden, all the kisses and the walks, the kindness and the love. Neona’s heart broke when she imagined it stopping so brutally, like it does in death. She wondered whether the only traces would be her own memories, or whether these traces existed physically somewhere in another dimension that she could touch. Mai made her feel like this was possible.
Neona is a white queer woman, who came out as bisexual later in her life, in her early thirties. She has conventional working-class parents, who are kind, but never acknowledged Neona’s sexual desire (in any of its forms). While Neona understood they were a product of their time, she nonetheless envied Mai’s much more open upbringing when she saw the quiet confidence it gave her. To be fair, Neona’s desire for people with vulvas took her by surprise. She was startled when she suddenly saw it swirling beneath her surface, dormant, yet affecting. Her desire was certainly visible to men, who would often like to abuse it, even though they were not quite sure what it was. Of note, was Sam, who had persistently insisted on threesomes, and would make her feel inadequate and vulnerable if she did not appear to enjoy them or seem enthusiastic to have them. Since primary school, Neona never felt like she fitted. She also had this constant feeling of having to fight something that was trying to mould her and keep her in order, and it succeeded by taking up residence in her womb. Neona was convinced that this was why the rounds of IVF that Mai and she had undergone, with donated sperm, had failed. Neona worried that her body was made rotten.
Neona and Mai chose to undergo the process of IVF a full two years before the outbreak. They went into it with realistic hearts, knowing that the process can be difficult with varying chances of success. They decided that Neona would be the one to carry the baby, and for Neona’s eggs to be used. Neona was the younger of the two women by a few years, which they expected would be an advantage. With each cycle, Neona and Mai would have to endure the two-week wait. Neona’s body would be tense and her mind would jump and twist during this time between implantation and possible pregnancy. She would “feel” pregnant, and she would symptom-spot and she would compulsively Google “Trying to Conceive” (or “TTC”) forums. When it was near to the time of her period, and time to do the pregnancy test to see if any of the embryos implanted had stuck, she would constantly be dashing to the toilet to check if the bubble of moisture she felt between her inner labia was the usual discharge, or if it was blood. She kept telling herself that it was OK even if it was blood, since a little blood could mean implantation. Mai would hold the hope quietly in her heart, that it had worked, but she would never ask Neona about it, nor betray any excitement at the slightest hint of a symptom. Despite their realistic hearts, the disappointments were crushing.
After the two failed cycles, they decided that this third one would have to be their final one. Neona’s eggs were not good quality meaning that the embryos made were barely “viable”, and Mai was too old for them to get IVF for free. Viable. A scientific term to indicate that the sparks of life, or the glowing spots that looked on the ultrasound like stars floating in the universe of Neona’s womb, were not quite “enough”. They were not alive enough. Neona and Mai would always have sex after implantation, knowing well that an orgasm from two women, fucking like animals, would increase the chance of embedding these sparks of life. After, Mai would rest her head on Neona’s tummy, breathing in the smell of her vulva slicked with sex, listening to the drama unfolding in the darkness, using her post-orgasmic power to welcome and will her baby to live and to stick.
It was very early spring, with long since released seeds from trees stuck fast to their wombs, just about bursting through the earth, just about becoming enough; viable. Whispers of the virus could already be heard, but those in power were ignoring them. Neona could tell that Mai was worried already. Neona insisted, in the same tone as politicians in the West at the time, that it would be fine, and it was basically “just like flu.” Mai did not share these feelings of nonchalance and ignored Neona’s reassurances. “I’m not sure, Ne. It’s like SARS, right? You know these governments are so fucked if its bad. They will deny it anyway and they don’t care. Come on Ne. You know better than this.”
“The media. They always want to scare us. It’s just a fucking flu…” Neona was feeling angry and superior, in that over-compensatory way that she had when she was scared. She pulled her long brown hair back into a ponytail with a black elastic that was constantly on her wrist, as she stomped into the kitchen to continue cooking.
“…say the fucks in power like Trump. You agree with them now?” Mai said, her words chasing after Neona. Mai shook her head and turned off the TV and chucked down the remote on the sofa in a desultory way. Neona felt slightly silly as she stirred the onions alone, but thought how she loved how Mai would not turn this into a massive row and would instead let Neona find her way to the position that was clearly right, but which Neona had not reached yet, nor was she ready to adopt. Mai was always first. It was a relationship that Neona treasured, but which she was scared to lose. Her safety in it felt too good to be true, like it would be whipped from under her feet at any moment, that she did not deserve it.
Since the outbreak had not gained enough pace for governments to begin to recognise its impact, Neona and Mai were still going to work. This meant that they both needed to get some time off so that Neona could have her hormone injections in order to get her body ready, and to make her ovaries produce more eggs ready for harvesting. When the doctors said the word “harvest” to Neona, about her eggs, she was reminded of how her constant fear of the loss of Mai could be traced back to when she was robbed of her own desire by men, long before Mai started to help her regrow it. Neona felt like words matter; small turns of phrase matter, especially when it comes to women’s bodies. The smallest turn of a man’s tongue can connect to a history of possession and control and allude to a multitude of painful futures.
After the appointment at the hospital, every organ of Neona’s body felt full of potential. She felt like she had fully become an egg; each part of her laden with the potential of the potential of birthing, tiny potential fat with potential. Her absolute egg transformation caused her ovaries to feel like a different organ entirely, or to take on odd couplings with other organs, such as her voice box; she could sing with those orbs either side of her womb, deep within her darkness. Her body was ready. Mai enjoyed Neona in this state and wanted to make love often; to fertilise her as the potentials begun to take the form of the possible, glistening like microscopic frogspawn within her, straining for release. Mai reached toward them with her hands, with her tongue and with silicone, defying the possibilities set out in sex education, the order and logic of the sexes, and reproductive science.
Neona and Mai were able to make love like this a lot, since they were working from home as much as they could. Neona was keen for the “harvesting” period to be over with, since she was feeling so many emotions that she was exhausted. The intensity of this time, and the need to try to be calm, and the stakes for them both, were weighing heavy on Neona. Mai knew that this was hard for Neona, understanding that for her, the miracle would not be the birth, but that she was worthy enough for it. Mai knew better than this and knew that each touch of hers restored Neona to herself, lovingly, slowly, and probably endlessly, since the damage caused to Neona was deep in her darkness. Mai’s patience was endless, especially since Neona was not always able to help her heal too. Strong she was, but Mai had wounds that even Neona could never understand. Sometimes she wanted to be the one healed.
Mai’s pain around the death of her father began to rise up around her during these weeks, as the pandemic began to form and fasten its grip on the world. Mai knew all too well the intergenerational trauma of the HIV virus, which was often coupled cruelly with homophobia and deadly violence against the queer community. Mai’s father was a bisexual man, who had contracted HIV from a male lover in the late 1980’s. Mai’s mother had been moved by gentle, real love, which meant she had taken a calculated and properly educated risk, in a time before PrEP and never contracted the virus. As a consequence, however, Mai’s mother had passed to her daughter an obsessive respect for blood, and its possibilities for connections both damaging and healthy, as well as its ability to carry life and death. Mai’s memories swirled around her as she felt both her mother’s and father’s pain, as she sat again in front of the news, hearing the rising death toll from the now-named Covid-19; all those bodies with still blood, growing into incomprehensible figures which erased their existence and their loves. People much like her mother and father.
Even Neona had now come to accept the seriousness of what was happening and sat quietly with Mai. She held her hand and watched her flickering eyes receiving these unbelievable images, glancing at her small ears as they heard privilege speak and powerful men shout over the cries of the dying people they had never cared about. Still their deafness continued, despite being forced now to recognise the existence of the vulnerable, and still they expressed no remorse at killing them. Neona wrapped her fertile arm around Mai, who was trembling with anger she dared not voice. Neona held her tighter, desperately, and Mai began to cry.
It was not until a week later that the government finally declared a full lockdown to try to stop the spread of the virus, which coincided with when Neona and Mai were due to be back at the hospital for Neona’s “harvesting” before the embryos would be fertilised and then checked for viability before implantation. Neona was the first to put the feeling into words and finally said to Mai: “Do you think our appointment will go ahead?” They were words that shook from their lines, far more than Neona had anticipated.
Mai was in the nook of Neona’s arm as they lay on the sofa, “Of course,” she replied. “It’s essential, right? We’re in the middle of the cycle.”
“…But it’s not as though I will die, or you will die, or anyone will die” Neona said quietly, with a sick feeling in her stomach as desperation began to grip her. “People are dying and we aren’t. Our baby isn’t alive yet in order to die.”. Neona pushed Mai from her and sat up, now crying.
“Neona.” Mai grabbed her and looked straight into her eyes. “It will be alright. If it is cancelled, we will still be alright. But they won’t. They can’t.”
Neona just cried and Mai held her, as Neona felt the potential seep from her body. Neona slept for ten hours each night in the coming week, as she waited. It was much like the two-week wait anyway, as you place your hopes against the odds, waiting for blood to appear but hoping it doesn’t. When she was awake, she tried to focus on gratitude for hers and for Mai’s health, and for their income, their food and for being together in their nourishing relationship, and for not being confined with an abuser as she would have been, not so many years ago. Neona felt that her fear of the cancellation call was selfish; why should she be seen in a hospital, which in itself would be risky not only for her and for Mai, but for others. She felt something familiar, that would again be reinforced, and this time in a seemingly legitimate way, that her body and her desires, and those of Mai too, were not important. When the call came, Neona was understanding on the phone, to the kind nurse who apologised and told her that they had not and would not forget her, and that there would be options to talk through. She reassured her that it was not the hospital’s decision and that they were angry, and they were heartbroken at the calls they were having to make, often to women mid IVF cycle, and to women who would likely be too old once the lockdown lifts. The decision was taken by powerful people who knew what to do and had a clear understanding of medical priorities. Neona thanked her, powerless, yet grateful for the gentle tone of the nurse, who felt her pain.
Neona stood, frozen to the spot in their kitchen, as Mai quietly moved behind her, listening to the conversation. Mai wrapped her arms around Neona from behind her and kissed her shoulders. “We can try again, when this is finished. Viable or not, we will try. We won’t let her go,” she whispered. Neona nodded but could not speak, as she anticipated her bleed to come, the remains of their potential upon the toilet paper, or in the toilet bowl. Mai held Neona’s hand, and Mai spoke, louder this time, into the air, the air which seemed empty but was actually full of voices, which heard but did not listen since they were busy speaking. “How is this possible life of ours, that might have been, so worthless? She will not appear on a death toll, but is it not still a death?”