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There are so many things to notice first. The syrupy scent of frosted donuts splayed like a test of restraint next to brochures about basal body temperature and pre-natal vitamins. The row of round, plump babies frozen forever among yellow tulips and wavering grasses on a glossy poster. The waxy plastic palm leaves sprouting like question marks from a clay pot.
You’re there on purpose, but don’t actually want to be there and maybe that’s why what you notice first is the ring—pear shaped, canary diamond—on the left hand of a woman with a protruding stomach. Or maybe the ring is always the first thing you notice these days.
Your mother’s water broke on movie night, saturating the avocado green bean bag chair where Teddy Hayes would put his hand under your Nike t-shirt that said, Run like a girl, fourteen years later.
“It was Indian Jones that broke her!” your father told you again and again and by age ten Raiders of the Lost Ark and buttery popcorn and orange soda was cemented as your birthday tradition. Every October, you curled into your older brother and shuttered as Indy saved Marion with a black leather whip. Marion, the woman who told Indy that his affair with her when she was just a child had been wrong. Indy, who replied, “You knew what you were doing.” Marion, who slept with him anyway.
It was a hedge fund quant from Brooklyn who taught you Kamasutra Sex Position #197, colloquially known as spider monkey. That was last winter and when he asked if he could see you again, you said, “We’ll see.” It’s a phrase you learned from your mother. A phrase she learned from her mother. A phrase that keeps women from falling into the ditch of disagreeable.
The next day, when you described the attempted contortions, laughter spilling into pear bellinis and eggs benedict, Dani, who’s been apprised of every man you’ve slept with, almost slept with, or thought about sleeping with since freshman year of college, advised instituting the Seven-Date-Rule. No sex until after date seven. It was the sort of advice married women betrothed on single friends. But you listened and stopped taking the pill thinking the absence of protection would nudge you toward compliance.
Avoiding the gaze of the woman with the canary diamond and ballooned belly, you stride to the counter where you fill out paperwork you’re certain you filled out on the last visit and the visit before and then read an article about breathwork and ovulation until it’s time to follow a petite blond in daisy print scrubs to an exam room where she draws blood and tells you to wait as if there is anywhere to go.
There are more plump babies forever frozen on vinyl you don’t really want to look at so you wrestle your phone from the grips of a custom made purse—jade, rectangular, Italian leather, paid for with a slice of last year’s bonus. Cupping the phone’s smooth edges, you swipe open the inbox. Subscribe now to save on TGT Financial Review. Delete. Need latest on Hansel ASAP. Type: Will do. Hit send. Upcoming Fight 3357 to LHR. Delete. Re: Ditmarsch Deal Spread. Click open. Scroll and skim. Remember you forgot to tell the junior associate this was no longer relevant. Type: thx. Hit send. Look up at the plump babies. Return to inbox.
You slept with the quant because you were lonely and because his blond ringlets reminded you of Teddy Hayes, the first boy you ever kissed. Teddy was three years older and could drive places. As he accelerated into every turn on the winding roads of Holyoke, Pennsylvania, you clung to the worn fabric of the passenger seat and apropos of nothing, he said, “You’re lucky you’re a freshman and don’t have to read Mrs. Dalloway. It’s totally stupid.”
You’d already read it. A Room of One’s Own sat on your nightstand, but you rolled your eyes and said, “Totally.”
That’s when he kissed you.
The thin white paper under you cracks and crunches with every movement while you wait and wait and wait. Inbox now clear, you slip onto Facebook, thinking of Teddy for reasons you don’t really understand. You find a bloated version of his high school self, hair trimmed tight against face, ringlets all but gone. Running a finger along the feed, a wave of satisfaction washes over because he’s still in Holyoke. Working at an auto dealer. Refurbishing old Chevrolets on the side. And scrolling Teddy’s life, while you sit in midtown, one hand gripping a purse strap, the other gripping a phone, he seems so small, so insignificant and then, a video. You click it open. An enormous black balloon sways in the wind. A woman stands under a blue and pink rainbow of streamers holding the string, two young girls in matching pink gingham dresses at her knees. The laughter is dubbed over with some cheesy Justin Beiber song and then Teddy swings a pin at the balloon—the burst slowed as bright blue sparkles erupt across the screen and Teddy pumps his fist in the air and you cringe at the silliness of this social-media-crazed ritual, but then, the video scans to his daughters bear-hugging his legs, and you see tears streaming down Teddy’s face and suddenly it’s your life that seems insignificant.
When you were a girl, Troop #349 met in the basement of the Presbyterian Church on West Main Street. The room smelled of mildew and dirt and your mom was the Troop Leader. One day she flipped a paper bag with a swoop as glossy magazines poured out. Good Housekeeping. Newsweek. Woman’s Day.
“We’re building dream collages,” she said as she tossed the bag aside and pulled a bundle of scissors from a canvas satchel. “Clip images of what you dream of doing when you grow up. Then—” she yanked out a carton of glue, catapulting a stray lipstick into the air. “Glue the images onto construction paper and write a note about your dreams on the other side. Got it?”
Side-ponytails, crooked pigtails and crimped hair nodded.
You wanted to be a mermaid then, and your mother had told you could, had told you girls could do anything when she signed you up for the YMCA swim club where you kicked and swung and learned there was nothing more freeing than chasing chalky white lines along the pool’s pale blue bottom. But that day in the basement, you couldn’t find a mermaid so you clipped a woman wrapped in an apron, a woman giving a Band-Aid to a pouting boy, a woman marking a chalkboard with letters and when you showed your mom the collage, curling from too much glue, she handed it back without turning it over, without reading that your dream was to be like her and she said, “But Kara, you can have it all.”
Your mother didn’t have it all. She didn’t say that, but you’d heard enough about the choices she never had, the life she didn’t live, the potential she’d never realize and as she walked away, you remembered you were supposed to want more.
After chasing more all the way to a corner table at a Mexican restaurant on West Seventieth Street, you sipped a margarita as your mom told you she was ready to be a grandmother ten days shy of your thirty-seventh birthday and two decades too late to course correct.
You wanted to tell her the pool of eligible men willing to date a woman with your salary and resume was so shallow you’d crack a skull on diving in. Tell her there’s no room for children because after college, you became a robot on autopilot: Smash screaming alarm clock. Turn on shower. Hit brew on coffee machine. Blow-dry hair. Swig coffee. Yank at nylons. Suck in stomach. Zip skirt. Swig more coffee. Brush face with skin-brightening powder. Slip into black heels. Walk two blocks to the subway. Shove onto the train. Stare at a murky window as the sweaty walls of the underground tunnel blur by.
You wanted to tell her how the years after skidded by like that morning view while female colleagues vanished with such grace it was like they’d never actually been there. Engagement parties. Bachelorettes. Weddings. Baby showers. Never for you.
And you wanted to tell her how you judged. How if women opted out things would never change, and how you always bit into your gin and never considered opting anywhere else.
But you didn’t tell her. You nodded and then, ordered another margarita.
The next time you saw the gynecologist, she looked at her clipboard then up at you and said, “Do you want kids?”
“Maybe,” you shrugged, because how else does a thirty-eight-year-old woman who’s followed all the rules answer that question?
She nodded as you stared at the three young girls whose professional photos hung like a row of accomplishments on the room’s whitewashed wall and then, she leaned forward like she was about to share some higher wisdom.
“Well,” she said, biting into her pen cap. “Time is running out. You better freeze your eggs.” She pulled a card from the pocket of her white coat and handed it to you—New Horizons Fertility Clinic.
By the time the meticulously styled man with a slight limp and agitated voice pushes through the door, you’ve left Facebook and returned to the comfort of your inbox.
“Blood work looks good,” he says, plopping down on a stool and wheeling toward you. “You’re ready to start on the injections. We’ll have a few check-ins on hormone levels. Then you come in and,” he stretched his arms wide then swung them back, skin slapping skin, “Batta-boom-batta-bing, eggs are off to the freezer.”
“It’s crucial you do the injections exactly as directed.”
You nod again. You’re good at following directions.
“Have you decided on the four-pack?”
“I’m not sure,” you say, twisting your finger around the end of your marigold blouse.
“It’s a gamble if you don’t. We need twenty eggs and it’s impossible to tell how many we’ll get on the first try. If you pre-pay for four, you get a discount. Otherwise, you’ll have to buy the others at full price.” He spins away, looks down at his clipboard and before you can answer says, “Why don’t you think about it Kara. Just tell us before the harvesting.”
Science was never your favorite subject, but you did like dissecting things and in seventh grade when you picked up the forceps next to a dead frog, your lab partner took them and said, “I’m going to be a doctor.” His father was a doctor. His uncle was a doctor. His brother was in medical school. The next day, as he filled out the lab report, you told him it was the spleen, not the liver that stored blood. He rolled his eyes, but erased the error and then, he tore a piece of paper from your notebook, crumbled it into a ball and tossed it down your blouse. After the fourth toss, you asked what he was doing.
“Proving you’re flat.”
You bit the left corner of your lower lip hard but couldn’t stop the tears. He rolled his eyes again. “Don’t be a crybaby. You’re already a know-it-all.”
You turned away, said nothing and stopped raising your hand.
By thirty-seven, you’ve learned to raise your hand again by speaking their language. This deal is total shit. He’s a lying motherfucker. And last week, when a client refused to invest on an equity deal you’d structured, you told the head of the fund where you’ve spent the last decade of your life the client was a fucking pussy. Reed nodded hard and laughing as he walked toward the door of your office then paused and said, “Sure as hell is.”
That night you sat in the dulled darkness of your apartment, mind flickering in rhythm with the streetlamp on the other side of the window, as you sipped a gin gimlet. Like the sting on your tongue could erase the words.
Stepping out of the New Horizons Fertility Clinic onto the flurry of Eighth Avenue foot traffic and prickly sunlight with a white plastic bag of needles and hormones and pages of instructions in tiny print, you feel more alone than you knew was possible. When you call Dani, she says, “Let’s treat ourselves,” and by nightfall, nails are polished, hair is blown out and every blackhead has been removed from your face.
You look the part. You wonder if anyone will notice.
The lab partner wasn’t wrong. You were a late bloomer and in eighth grade, when all the girls were bleeding you pretended you were too. But it wasn’t until a year later that you spotted blood and screamed for your mother.
“What is it?” she asked, turning the corner, clenching the white ties on a rose petal robe.
“I think I got my period.”
You knew you got your period, but by then you’d acquired verbal ticks to temper what could appear to others as confidence.
The tiny print is barely legible even with every light in the bathroom at full blast, making the room glow white on white as you mix liquids into a vile, grateful you remember the directions, or mostly remember the directions. Pinching the skin of your stomach, you swallow in, hold tight to the air and puncture yourself as Whitney Houston sings about living to make some man happy from the your bedroom speakers. You’re almost certain the same song played the day your mom taught you to shave in her bathtub. “Be careful with those knobby knees,” she’d said, swaying her hips to the high notes, “Nobody likes a girl with scabs.”
The needle only hurts on the way out and you harmonize with Whitney to distract from the pain of withdrawal. I belong to you.
Four days in, your stomach is distending such that you’re wearing Spanx under dresses that’d been loose last week and you’re on your way to London to meet the head of an endowment fund at a revolving tower top restaurant that serves buttery steak and overcooked seafood. At the ticket counter, Reed, whose face you’ve always found heartbreakingly dull—symmetrical and square like every boy ever crowned prom king in Holyoke—raises an eyebrow and says, “Why are you checking a bag?” You pretend not to hear and throw a suitcase filled with needles and liquid hormones onto the scale.
At the revolving restaurant, you tear at a dinner roll and sip a seltzer as deal terms drift like pollen over London’s glittery skyline. You’re having a hard time raising your hand tonight, swallowed instead by too-tight skin and what you want to do more than anything is burst free from the constraints of your own flesh. Rip and tear and release. It doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe it never did.
“Kara can speak to that,” Reed says, startling you back to revolving restaurant, but you’re already standing, already stepping away from the table.
“When I’m back from the loo,” you say with a wink and a smile, hoping that will mask the tears of anxiety forming in the corners of your eyes.
The bathroom lighting is terrible. Moody and full of shadows. But you have the routine down. Mix. Pinch. Pierce. With the needle back in your purse, you splash water on your face, and suddenly think of Teddy’s wife holding the about-to-burst black balloon filled with blue sparkles. That would have been so much easier than this, you think, walking back to Reed and his bloodied steak.
Dani stands in black cigarette pants, an ivory lace blouse and nude patent leather flats, a portrait of grace on the other side of the street as you waddle toward her. It hurts to walk because your stomach is so bloated it constricts all forward movement and you can’t make it to her before the orange hand is flashing and cars are accosting the air with honks. When you finally get to the curb you dissolve into tears and ask, “Why am I doing this?”
“Security?” she says.
You step back, her face morphed through the fogged lens of your tortoiseshell sunglasses.
“My estrogen levels are about to catch up to a woman who’s nine months pregnant,” you say, tears streaming, streaking, gliding down your face.
Dani reaches for your hand and threads her fingers through your fingers the way she has since you were forever bonded by a mutual love of brown sugar Pop-tarts and a drive to achieve everything and anything on your own terms. Or, what you thought were your own terms.
“You’re almost there,” she says.
“Am I though?”
By day ten, you’re back at New Horizons where you’re poked and prodded and poked some more before being left to wait on the cold exam table again. You haven’t taken off your sunglasses because everything, everything is tearing you up. The aging man who opened the door at the bodega. An email from Reed that he signed with something like gratitude—thx. The dress you planned to wear to the fund’s formal tonight that no longer fits. You’ve lost all control of your tear ducts and when the fertility specialist pushes through the door with a little too much energy, you crumble again.
“Cheer up Kara,” he says. “We’re on track! You’ve done a great.” He then pats you on the shoulder as if you’d done something more impressive than just do what you were told to do.
He steps back, looks at his clipboard, and asks, “Oh, the four-pack. Have you decided?”
“Yeah,” you say, staring at the frozen, plump babies on the wall, letting their glossed foreverness take you in and away. “I’ll go with the discount.”
“Good choice,” he says, tossing his clipboard onto the counter with a smack.
And you nod, sluggish and certain, because you’ve always been, will always be, a sucker for safe bets.