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My ex-fiancé, Sherrie, was the kind of woman you might call “intense.” She slammed her palms on the table or whatever surface was available when she was mad for any reason (and from what I remember, there was always a reason). She was a blonde who dyed her hair black and drew her mouth into a little sneer when she was unhappy with me. That’s what I’m focusing on now as she waltzes across my TV screen in an ad for some new cereal that’s supposed to taste like cookies and be healthy. She seems mad at the cereal. Then a man who is supposed to be her husband (and could have been me in real life) takes the box out of her hand and laughs as he puts it down on the table in front of their pretend kid who shovels the stuff into his mouth. “It’s made with real sugar,” Sherrie says, picking the box back up and looking into the camera, forcing the lower half of her face into a smile.
This must be Sherrie’s latest gig. She’s been in ads for shampoo, dog food, and some antacid. She’s the reason I left LA. Even if the population is over four million people, I never wanted to see that little sneer again or the fake smile she often broke into around her friends – the same fake smile she wore in the commercial. It was as fake as the alien masks I designed for a science fiction series that never got off the ground after the pilot aired.
Here in Tucson, things are a little more real, a little more laid-back. But I have yet to date anyone since I’ve moved back. It’s hard to meet people in the summer when everyone stays in their houses because it’s 112 degrees out.
I throw a flip flop at the TV because I’m too lazy to get up and switch the channel. And who knows where the remote is. Before I can look for it, Sherrie’s commercial is over and some commercial for a kitchen gadget that cuts carrots five different ways has taken its place.
At the university, it’s about 55 degrees. My co-workers are warming their feet on heated mats called “Toasty Toes” because management announced space heaters are a fire hazard and aren’t allowed.
“Can you believe this shit?” Janet says, walking into my office in her bare feet. “This bullshit of ‘Toasty Toes?’”
Reese, the kid who works as my assistant, is asleep at his desk with his head hanging down over the keyboard. Janet kicks the back of his chair. “Wake up, dude. You’ve got envelopes to stuff. Plus you’re going to burn a hole into your feet on that thing.”
“I saw Sherrie on TV this morning,” I tell Janet as Reese rouses and wipes the drool off his face with the back of his hand. He puts his shoes back on and apologizes for falling asleep. I wave the apology off like no big deal and he leaves carrying a pile of mail.
“No way!” Janet’s eyes get wide and she takes a chair, sitting on it so that the back is pressed against her chest.
Janet is not only my co-worker, but has been one of my best friends for the last 25 years. As one of the head evaluators in Graduate Admissions, she got me this job heading up the mailroom after I moved back.
“It was a commercial for some cereal.”
“What do you mean and what? You’ve been moaning about this ex-fiancé of yours for months now. I want to know the details, especially since I never got to meet her.”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing.” I say. “Besides, there’s not much to tell. She looked pissed off in the commercial –just how I remember her. But in the commercial she had that forced smile she’d always wear when we were out.”
Janet is frowning. “Well, women are forced to smile, you know, even when they don’t want to.”
This is one reason I love Janet. She keeps me in check.
“I just want to meet someone who smiles at me and who’s real.”
A genuine smile cracks across her wide, freckled face as she changes the subject. “Speaking of which, things are about to get real! Are you ready for the appointment?”
I take a slow inhale but try to be discreet about it. She’s referring to the appointment this afternoon when her wife is getting inseminated. Yours truly provided the sperm. If a child comes out of this, we have decided that the baby will live with Janet and Anita, but I will be involved. I’ve been nervous about the whole thing in a weird, imprecise way all week like when you’re coming down with something and your body hurts all over, but you can’t pinpoint the problem.
Despite my qualms, I say, “You know it.”
She looks down at my bare feet resting on the Toasty Toes mat and shakes her head. “That thing is hot. Don’t get burned.”
At the fertility clinic, we sit in the small examining room together. Janet and Anita are holding hands on the examining table. It’s freezing in here like every other place in Tucson in the summer where the air-conditioning is cranked to the max. I sit on a nearby chair, trying to sink inside myself. I can’t stop thinking about the commercial and Sherrie’s angry little mouth as she slammed the cereal box down in front of her TV kid. That could have been our kid.
I started suspecting Sherrie had been pregnant after I found a pregnancy test in our bathroom trash one night. It had the word pregnant printed on the little display window. I remember focusing on the word as if trying to make it read something else. We had broken a condom a couple months prior. When I confronted her, Sherrie bunched her mouth up and told me it belonged to her friend, Lola, who had taken the test at our apartment earlier that day.
“She and Darius have been trying to get pregnant,” she said. Then she paused and put her hands on her hips and tipped her head to one side, narrowing her eyes. “Who goes through the trash and pulls out an old pregnancy test?”
“I was taking the trash out.”
She was trying to look smug, but a little dent formed above her left eyebrow. It was the telltale sign that she was lying. I never told her that I saw it. It was like a secret that her face and I shared.
A week later when I ran into Lola in the checkout line at Gelson’s, I congratulated her. Lola gave me a bemused look before asking, “Congratulations for what?”
A hot zip of anger ran through me, knowing Sherrie had definitely lied to me. “Sherrie told me you’re pregnant.”
Lola seemed to mull the information over and not know what to do with it as she took the items out of her shopping basket and laid them out on the conveyer belt.
“Never mind,” I said. “I must have been mistaken. Maybe she was talking about a different friend.”
I had walked home defeated.
Now at the fertility clinic, the doctor comes in and shakes Janet and Anita’s hands. She looks like a doll with wide-set eyes, a button nose, and a little mouth like Sherrie’s. Immediately, I think I could design a mask using her features to make some type of butterfly princess that transforms into a flesh-eating alien. Kind of like the mask that Sherrie inspired for the TV pilot that went nowhere.
“I’m Dr. Lyons,” she says.
She turns and, instead of shaking my hand, takes it in hers and squeezes. “Mr. Peterson, I think what you’re doing for this couple is commendable.”
“Nothing I wouldn’t do for them,” I say with a nervous laugh.
She turns and asks Anita to lie down. This is my cue to leave, so I stand up. “I’ll wait outside.”
Janet grabs my wrist. “You’re just as much a part of this as we are, Miles. You need to stay put.”
Despite the cold room, my shirt is sticking to my back and a sweat breaks across my brow. I want to run from the room, but my determination to finally become a father keeps me there. As Anita puts her feet in the stirrups, my eyes move to the floor. Anita and I have always had a kind of weird, robotic relationship, so the last thing I want to do is to catch a glimpse of something I shouldn’t. But when Dr. Lyons takes out a long thin tube with my sperm in it, I look up. Luckily I can’t see anything from my angle – just Dr. Lyons with the tube containing half the equation. It’s weird to think that it could produce a human being – that I could produce a human being. I try to imagine what a kid will look like that is born from Anita and me. All I know for sure is that he or she will be tall and have dark eyes. And possibly a problem with commitment.
“She’s the good-looking one,” Janet said when she argued her case for wanting Anita to be the carrier.
As Dr. Lyons moves towards Anita, my eyes make contact with the floor again. The clinic was supposed to “wash” my sperm and take out any impurities that could make it harder for them to swim. Swim, you little suckers, I think. No, don’t swim – drown. A knot of pain begins to throb in my temple.
“We’ll know in three weeks whether you’re pregnant or not,” Dr. Lyons says as she takes the tube out of Anita and backs away from the table.
Later as we’re on our way home and Anita is lying down in the backseat with her legs propped up, Janet turns to me. “You should have gotten that doctor’s number. No wedding ring. And I think she was feeling you.”
“Nah,” I say with a shrug. “She had a little mouth like Sherrie’s, which probably means she would just bust my balls.”
“As long as it’s after Anita gets pregnant.” Janet says. “If we need to repeat this procedure, I want your balls in good condition.”
She laughs and hits the steering wheel with her palm as if she cracks herself up. I groan.
“Don’t sweat it,” she says reaching over and squeezing my hand. “I can tell you’re getting cold feet. But once you meet this kid, you’re gonna fall in love. I know you. Your capacity to love is enormous, which is one of the reasons I wanted you as our donor.”
Her words make me swell inside. Nobody has ever said anything about me having a large heart. However, I suppose she’s right about the cold feet. I tend to back out of everything that involves any type of commitment – the offer I got to head the theater arts department at the university when I first moved back, romantic relationships, even going out on a Saturday night. I always tell people, “Let’s play it by ear.” What that really means is “I’ll see how I feel when I wake up that day.” But I never got cold feet with Sherrie. She was the one who got cold feet.
The day after I had seen Lola at Gelson’s, I confronted Sherrie about it. I remember she didn’t even say hello to me as she walked into the apartment that night. She had recently begun doing that – ignoring me like I was a piece of furniture. She took off her jacket and opened the hall closet to hang it up.
“I saw Lola today,” I said.
Slowly, she put the jacket in the closet and turned to look at me where I stood in the kitchen pouring a glass of orange juice.
“Well, I congratulated her on her pregnancy,” I said as nonchalantly as possible. “But she didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.”
Sherrie didn’t get defensive and slam her palms on the counter like I thought she might. Instead, she walked over and took a seat at the breakfast bar next to a gorilla bust I had been working on.
“Look, Miles,” she said, folding her hands and taking the kind of deep breath people take before delivering lousy news. “I just told you she was pregnant because I didn’t want to tell you the truth.”
“That you’re pregnant?”
She looked at her hands and sighed. “Was. I was pregnant.”
I remember how bitter the orange juice tasted on my tongue. “Was?”
I took a deep breath like they taught us in the Hatha Stray Cat Pilo class I had begun taking. In the class, the city’s stray cats climbed up on us while we bent ourselves into various yoga shapes and breathed from our cores.
“I lost it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t even know you were pregnant!”
She frowned and gathered her mouth into a little pink knot, but this time it didn’t look angry. It just looked sad. “It’s probably just as well. You can’t commit to anything, Miles. Not even that stray cat you’re always going on about in that weird yoga class.”
Alex was the grey tabby who liked to clean my hair while I was in child’s pose or Vinyasa. I missed him.
“You couldn’t even adopt that cat.”
“You said you didn’t want a cat!”
“No,” she said slowly as if she were talking to a child. “I said I didn’t want a cat clawing the furniture. I said we would have to get it declawed.”
I put the glass of juice down on the counter with a dull thud. “Alex wouldn’t want to be declawed.”
She put her hands in her hair, exposing the blonde roots creeping up beneath the black. “How would you know? It’s a cat!”
“He’s a cat.”
“Well whatever,” she said removing my grandmother’s diamond I had given her from her ring finger. “It doesn’t matter. It’s been taken care of.”
“No it hasn’t,” I said calmly wiping up the orange juice I had dribbled on the counter when pouring it. “Taken care of implies things are fine now. But they aren’t.”
I looked at the gorilla bust and imagined it beating its chest and gnashing its teeth.
I was mad at myself. I had a feeling she had wanted to call off the engagement for a while by that point. Sherrie was the only woman I was never afraid to commit to. I feared the only reason I committed to her in the first place was because she treated me like shit. What we had wasn’t real love. Real love involves the capability to love yourself in the midst of loving someone else. What was it going to take for me to commit to someone worthy? What was it going to take to be able to love myself?
Janet phones me a few weeks later with the news that Anita is pregnant. Six weeks after that she and Anita go and get an ultrasound. She comes into the office later that same day to show me the picture of our to-be child, but gets intercepted by our coworkers. Before I can see it, Dominique, the head IT gal stops Janet at the door of the mailroom and takes the picture, squealing. Pretty soon a group has formed.
“I always knew you were a good egg, Miles,” Candy, the head evaluator, says handing the picture off to Victoria from the IT department, who gushes about what a good father I’ll make.
Before I can see it, Reese takes it from Victoria and looks it over, nodding his head in approval. “Nice, dude.”
I grab it out of his hand and squint to see a small white oval floating in the gray of Anita’s womb. It looks like a Cheeto.
“Wow,” is all I can say.
I think about the ghost baby that Sherrie and I would have had. Was this my second chance? It takes a moment to realize I’ve been holding my breath.
“You made that, Miles,” Janet says, putting her hands on my shoulders. I swallow and nod. “You’re going to be a dad.”
Even though she’s been saying that for weeks, it hasn’t sunk in until now.
“I can’t believe it.”
“I can. You were born for the job.” She takes the photo. “I’m going to go make a copy in my office for you to take.”
When she leaves, Reese turns to me in his swivel chair. “Dude, you being a dad is going to get you so many chicks.”
I give him a quizzical look. The kid is about 19. I’m supposed to be his supervisor, but clearly he has no respect for me and thinks of me as his amusing co-worker who he can say just about anything to. That’s on me, I guess. I hate being the boss type. I think of my kid forming inside Anita and straighten up in my seat, pushing my shoulders back.
“Not really, kid,” I say. “I don’t know how many women are going to want to date a single dad.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Are you kidding? With no baby mama in the picture – only a cool lesbian couple? You’re going to be swimming in it.”
He has a point, but I don’t care. I’m not looking to be “swimming” in it. What I am going to be looking for is a new job. I’ll have to start making more money if I’m going to be any type of a father.
I make a twirling motion with my finger that says, swivel that chair around and get back to work. He looks at me funny for a second like he doesn’t know who I am. I stand up, deciding to walk over to the theater department and try to get that job offer back. But before I leave, I pause in the doorway and tell Reese to turn off the Toasty Toes he has his bare feet resting on.
“That thing is making you sleepy. I need you to get the rest of the mail filed.” I pause and cross my arms over my chest, trying to look authoritative. “And make it snappy. You’ve got a lot of work.”
Then I leave with my shoulders back and my chest leading the way. I feel like a rooster. But I don’t care. Reese isn’t the only one with a lot of work to do.