|Oct/Nov 2007 Fiction|
They moved in when the development was new, the land around it still a little wild, a sporadic X marked in fluorescent orange spray paint on the trunk of an oak here and there, the only evidence that further civilization was impending. Like most housing developments, the homes were dressed in a sort of suburban camouflage, in that they color-coordinated with one another in a series of beige tones. During the day, the skies were filled with hawks and turkey vultures and the occasional large white crane. At night as they lay in bed, they could hear coyotes yipping and howling in thin, girlish voices from atop a foothill a short distance away, the hill's lumpy shape hulking through the bedroom curtains, just over the backyard fence.
Leaving the city had been difficult for Mia, who with her tall, hipless body and dark, pixie hair, felt she blended in better on the streets of San Francisco. In the suburbs the women wandered around their front yards in tennis visors and designer gardening gloves, their surgically buoyed breasts brimming over the edges of their tank tops, their tanned and freckly legs extending downward from pastel-colored nylon jogging shorts. Mia secretly ogled her female neighbors every day as she took her morning walk, drawn to them by the same gene that compelled her to watch cable television and read fashion magazines in the grocery checkout aisle. There was something else, too, that she couldn't quite put her finger on. She was struck by the impregnable determination they exuded as they labored over the various additions of flowerboxes and tulip borders. Indirectly, they reminded Mia of the pioneer women she had read about in the prairie novels of her childhood. She had been happy, reading about the world that encompassed those women, their capable hands and meaty bosoms ruling over the kitchen as though it were a workshop. There was comfort in their familiarity, a feeling like clean cotton. It wasn't quite the same way with the gardening women of Mia's neighborhood, but there was a similarity of attitude between her neighbors and the pioneer women Mia had read about, something congruent about the way they were forever undaunted. And perhaps there was also a comparably sinewy quality about their necks.
Mia knew she hadn't quite made the same effort. Except for the addition of a set of sprinklers that switched on daily by means of an automatic timer, Mia's own front yard had remained unaltered for a little over a year now. The fact that a whole year had passed since they had moved into their new home was difficult to acknowledge. Not that the amount of time felt specifically longer or shorter; it just didn't feel like time at all. In many ways, it was as if the two of them had fallen into a time warp since moving out to the suburbs. Although their old life in the city now seemed distant, life in the new house and neighborhood maintained a patina of generic facelessness that persisted despite their daily efforts to inflect the days with the events and rhythms of their lives.
They'd left the city for the sake of the baby, the one they had been trying in vain over the last year to conceive. They decided they'd make the move first, get settled in, and then start trying. Phil liked to proudly tell friends at dinner parties, you could call them boring, but they weren't accidental people. They liked to have a plan for the things they did, he would often say, and the resources to make it easy. He'd been the one to do all the research on property taxes, school districts, inexpensive daycares. The research on reproductive problems had been done more equitably and by both of them, but that had come later.
Phil was an engineer, who strangely enough, didn't keep many engineer friends. Instead, he'd kept in touch with an assortment of quirky, oddball friends he'd known during his years at Cal. Most of them were artists whose lifestyles he secretly disapproved. They did things like performance art, modern sculpture, or else worked in the independent film industry. They owned loft apartments in the warehouse districts of Berkeley and Oakland. Mia was a web designer and had done many of their websites and consequently felt closer to the friends and more sympathetic to their various artistic ambitions than her husband did.
But it was also these same friends who had contributed to Phil and Mia's decision to ultimately leave the city. Phil never blamed his friends directly, only their "lifestyle," as he called it. He and Mia had both known enough to always leave the party early and to stay away from the pills and powders their friends offered them, but there were still incidents. At a cocktail party one night, Phil's friend Levi had gotten Mia sick on illegal absinthe—the authentic sort, made from a vintage recipe and laced with laudanum as in Van Gogh's day. Levi laughed with entertained glee as she drank the clear green liquid down without diluting it. All night long, Mia sweated on the bedsheets, trembling in spasms and demanding to be taken to a hospital. Phil sponged her forehead with a cool washcloth and tried to convince her that a doctor was out of the question. They would have to explain too much to the doctor, things he thought they should keep private. Phil considered himself a supremely sensible man. Though there were moments, he could see she was in no real danger. He was tall, narrow-shouldered, with the piercing blue eyes and strong face of a doctor. The only detail Mia remembers about that night is a single glimpse of Phil's face, his aquiline nose, his square chin, his steel-colored eyes peering down at her in concern. But the incident now seems so distant to Mia, who feels like she must've watched it happen in a movie.
This morning, when Mia comes in from her daily walk, Phil is at the kitchen table, sorting a pile of paperwork into separate manila folders. The folders are labeled with the names of a fertility clinic, a surrogate agency, a local adoption agency, and an adoption agency in China. This is how Phil stacks them one on top of the other; Mia thinks it is in descending order of Phil's own hopes. Although, it had to be admitted that the fertility clinic had already partially failed them, informing them of the need for a surrogate. Mia's eggs were fine, the clinic had concluded, but they would have to be carried in someone else's womb. The hopes Phil had riding on those two folders were now, in a sense, linked together.
"What time will she be coming over tonight?" Mia asks as she pulls out a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator. The question sounds genuine, although both of them are aware that Mia already knows the answer.
"Seven," Phil replies, not looking up from his sorting.
"I was going to make my coconut Thai curry. Do we have to watch out for any food allergies?"
"No food allergies," Phil replies. "But it does say in her file that she's allergic to cats. We'll have to put Stripe in the garage for now."
"And I suppose we should vacuum up the house really well," Mia adds, thoughtfully.
"Yes, let's do that," Phil says decisively, meaning her. He has finally conquered the mountain of strewn paperwork, converting it into a series of tidy little piles. He gathers up the piles one by one, taps the bottom edges of each bundle several times on the kitchen table, and inserts each into its respective manila folder.
"I'll grab Stripe and put him out in the garage," Phil offers. "Then I've got to run to the office."
Mia watches as Phil circles the sofa where Stripe is stretched out and taking one of his twenty daily catnaps. Phil hefts the eighteen-pound ball of orange and white striped fur over his shoulder and heads for the garage. A still drowsy and unsuspecting Stripe purrs loudly, until he finds himself standing on the cold concrete of the garage floor and looks up at his master with annoyed resentment.
"Sorry, buddy," Phil says. "New house rules."
After Phil leaves for the office, Mia can hear Stripe yowling loudly from inside the garage. Being a city cat, Stripe has never been allowed out on so much as a balcony, much less condemned to a garage. A lifetime of indoor accommodation means that somewhere along the way Stripe became thoroughly accustomed to his plush surroundings and that his temperament is generally sedate. One might even call him a lazy cat; the vet had once delicately implied that Stripe was several pounds overweight for his particular breed. Even from inside the kitchen, the sound of Stripe yowling is tough for Mia to ignore. Each time he meows, her sympathy compels her to throw open the garage door for relief. Instead, she turns on the vacuum cleaner to drown out the sound and sets about vacuuming up every stray orange and white hair in sight.
It has been difficult for Mia to convince Phil that working from home is something different from simply being at home. Ever since they moved to the suburbs and Mia began working out of the den via fax and email, Phil's perception of Mia's career has palpably shifted. The change, of course, took root subtly. In the mornings before Phil left for the office, he would casually comment on odd jobs that needed doing around the house. When he got home from work in the evenings, he would express genuine surprise if the odd jobs hadn't gotten done. Feeling a strange twinge of guilt every morning as she watched Phil climb into the driver's seat of his car to face the morning commute, Mia simply began doing the odd jobs and housework Phil mentioned. Pretty soon he began leaving his dry cleaning tickets on the kitchen counter for Mia to pick up, and lists of errands for her to run. She'd learned to do her work in the evenings, often while Phil read a book or watched TV in the family room.
Today Mia has her work cut out for her—her housework, that is. All the necessary cleaning and primping and preparing means that the day goes by in a blur of laundry loads and vacuuming duties, and suddenly Mia realizes that it is time to start preparing dinner if she wants it to be ready in time. She pulls the ingredients for her curry out of the refrigerator and places them on the counter: coconut milk, lemongrass, chicken breasts, ginger root, onion, curry paste. As the ingredients go in one by one and the curry begins to take shape, Mia congratulates herself on having the sagacity to pick a recipe she knows by heart. She learned to make the curry during her college years, when she shared a tiny ramshackle apartment with a fellow co-ed named Sukhon, who happened to be half Thai and half Vietnamese. From their tiny and ill-equipped kitchenette, Sukhon produced a series of what seemed to Mia to be very elaborate, aromatic dishes. When Mia asked for lessons, Sukhon was more than happy to play teacher. Learning how to cook was perhaps one of the better highlights of that year. On all other counts, Mia looks back on that year in college as one of the most arduous, grueling years of her life. It was the year she'd had her eggs harvested, for money.
Mia thinks it is ironic how life has come full circle. Phil never questioned why she seemed so familiar with the process, how she had known all about the battery of drugs she would have to take, how she had known by heart which weeks the two of them were supposed to abstain from sex. In a million years, he would never suspect that Mia had done it before, or that she had given the eggs to perfect strangers. Mia instinctively knows that Phil wouldn't care for that idea—the notion of her genetic material out there in the world, uncontrolled. Sometimes Mia wonders a little about that herself—about the potential existence of biological sons or daughters she has never met. If only she could reclaim one of those eggs, reclaim the child it might have become by now. But that was impossible. They knew you were likely to want to do that someday. That was why they made you sign a form relinquishing all legal recourse for finding out who had received your eggs. It was one of about thirty documents Mia had been required to sign, and it seemed just as innocuous and bureaucratic as all the others did at the time. It was ironic that the things you were often so willing to give up in your youth were exactly the same things you struggled so hard to regain later on in life.
They often tried to feed you a line about how donating eggs was a noble thing to do, that you were giving an infertile couple "the greatest gift a person can give." Even at the time she had done it herself, Mia knew most girls who sold their eggs didn't give a rat's ass for the nobility of it and just did it for the fast cash. Besides her obedient cooperation, the primary thing the agency wanted from Mia was photographs. Lots and lots of photographs. Photographs of Mia as a baby, as a little girl, as a young and healthy teenager. Photos with a boyfriend in them were not ideal, as the boyfriend would have to be cropped out. The last thing the clients wanted to imagine was Mia having babies with her own boyfriend, wantonly using her genes for her own purposes. The photos were important because it was Mia's appearance that mattered most, the agency representative unapologetically informed her. The prospective parents wanted to know what kind of raw material you offered. The rest, the parents always figured they could change via environment. There were certain standards, the representative said, that nearly always applied. Tall was better than short. Thin was better than fat. A small nose and nice chin were desirable. Heart defects or a history of mental health disorders were an automatic no-no. It may seem harsh, but don't take any of this personally, the representative told her. It's just human nature for parents to want their children to have better advantages.
Human nature, Mia muses to herself. Although he'd never come out and said it directly, Mia knows Phil isn't very enthusiastic about adopting; deep down he's always wanted whatever child they had to be a product of their own genes. Was that human nature, too? Mia wonders why it has always seemed to matter to her less, whether that said something about her in particular or whether that was the way with all men and women. Perhaps, Mia thinks, it was that she wanted to believe in some sort of karmic balance of love and care—the notion that, if you loved and cared for someone else's biological child, someone else was bound to love and care for yours. Adoption was a way to enter into this pact, a way to help strengthen the circulation of love and care. Mia likes the theory behind this notion, but whether she likes the theory or not doesn't really matter because she knows Phil sees it differently. For Phil, adoption is a sort of consolation prize, something you did to show you weren't a sore loser in the competitive realm of reproduction.
In a little less than an hour, the curry is simmering nicely. When Phil arrives home, he goes upstairs to take off his tie and returns to help Mia set the table. Nervously, the two of them take turns sweeping through the house, casting their eyes about, both of them trying to see it through an outsider's point of view. Occasionally, they pause to fluff a couch cushion or to tuck a tabloid magazine into a drawer. Issues of The New Yorker and National Geographic are allowed to remain on the coffee table. Truth be told, neither of them expect the surrogate to be particularly well-educated, but they nevertheless feel moved to ensure that their household exudes a certain level of intellectual superiority.
When the surrogate finally arrives, she is not what either of them have anticipated. Mia and Phil have seen photographs, they've read her file, and yet both of them are overwhelmed by the sudden comprehension that the women sitting in their living room is a complete and total stranger. The surrogate's name is Sarah, and when she introduces herself, she speaks with the methodical, confiding voice of a therapist. Sarah sits perched on the edge of the couch, looking both attentive and a little uncomfortable at the same time. They deduce that she, too, is nervous about the evening. In an attempt to overcome the awkwardness of the situation, Phil takes command of the conversation, easing from small talk over to the more pressing questions he really wants to ask. Mia sits back and studies Sarah's face, which at twenty-five still has a certain innocence about it. Sarah's features are dominated by a high, smooth forehead and large eyes. From a pair of wide cheekbones, the rest of her face tapers down into a tiny mouth and chin, like a doll's. Mia glances from Sarah over to Phil's narrow, doctor's face. The contrast in geometry is so intriguing that Mia hardly listens as Phil probes into Sarah's medical history, clearing up some of the more vague details in Sarah's file that he had marked a few hours earlier with a yellow highlighter. The scent of coconut and ginger fills Mia's nostrils, breaking her reverie, and she remembers to inform the others that dinner is ready.
Over dinner Phil backs down a little, politely attempting conversation pertaining to Sarah's career interests. She tells him she wants to be a social worker, that she is taking night classes in order to gain the proper certification with the county. It's not quite a college degree, she concedes humbly, but it will enable her to do what she wants.
"I noticed you have three children of your own," Phil says, referring again to her file. "It must be difficult to raise three kids as a single parent and go to school at the same time."
"It is," Sarah replies, then pauses. She looks at Mia and Phil a bit slyly, out of the corner of her eyes, as if trying to decide how much she should say. "I guess that's why being a surrogate wouldn't be such a bad deal for me." Sarah looks up, trying to gauge the impact her statement has made on Phil and Mia. She hesitates, then presses forward.
"I'm sure you've asked yourselves what's in it for me. I know a lot of people probably wonder about what kind of a woman is willing to rent her body out for a salary, and most of the time, they think a woman like that can't be very good. And because there's money involved, they think she can't be very moral."
As Sarah continues, it becomes evident that she has broken some sort of invisible barrier, that she has dared to tackle the pink elephant in the room. Phil shifts uncomfortably in his chair, a strained expression materializing on his face. Mia simply looks on, riveted with fascination at the girl's forthrightness.
"All I mean to say," Sarah says, the quiver leaving her voice, the rhythm of her speech slowing, "is that I wouldn't blame you if you'd wondered these things about me. Before I signed up to be a surrogate myself, I didn't understand why any woman in her right mind would do such a thing."
The room fills with silence. Somewhere in the house, a clock is ticking—the sound of which Mia never noticed before. Phil clears his throat. Mia can tell he is recalibrating his approach, trying to figure out how to once again take command of the conversation. Mia knows this habit probably strikes most people as obnoxious, but it is one of the things Mia secretly loves about Phil. He can always be counted on to dive in whenever things get difficult or messy.
"Well, then I guess it would be wise for us to ask you what ultimately changed your view of surrogacy," Phil offers.
Given the opportunity to explain herself, Sarah nods solemnly and gives a deep sigh. Something about Sarah's expression vaguely reminds Mia of the row of Catholic high school girls she once saw standing in a line in front of the confession booth in church. A gesture of private burden mixed with an irrational eagerness for its exposure. As she continues, Sarah fiddles with her fork, prodding bits of chicken curry around on her plate.
"I suppose, in a way, being a surrogate to someone else's babies allows me to be a better mother to my own. Like you said, I'm a single mother trying to raise three children. Being home for them is the best thing I can do right now. Two are still very young, and the oldest, Gregory... well, has special needs."
"Special needs?" Phil's brow furrows. There was nothing in the file addressing this.
Once again, the room is hushed with a shocked silence. Mia can feel Phil struggling to regain himself.
"But... But you're aware that we've opted for full prenatal screening and selective termination, right?" Phil stammers.
"Yes," Sarah replies in a quiet voice, looking down at her hands in her lap. "I know that."
"And you're okay with that," Phil says, his tone hovering ambiguously somewhere between question and statement.
"I understand that not everyone is ready to be the parents of a child with special needs," Sarah replies meekly, her voice soft and flat. "It's your private decision."
"That you have agreed to comply with," Phil reminds her.
"You don't understand," Sarah starts to say, but her voice trails off when she catches the look on Phil's face. His mouth is twisted strangely, as though he ate something bitter. Mia instantly recognizes this expression. It is Phil's manner of showing his disgust. Mia is suddenly and instinctively compelled to save Sarah from Phil's expression, from comprehending its unmistakable meaning. Mia abruptly scoots her chair back and stands up.
"Would anyone like dessert or coffee?" she asks cheerfully. It is a cliché move, a move that Mia witnessed her own mother perform countless times during awkward moments and swore to herself she would never emulate.
"Anyone?" Mia repeats with a tone of reinforced cheerfulness.
"Sure," Phil finally replies, his expression relaxing. "I'd like some coffee."
Over coffee and dessert, Mia and Phil continue to play the roles of polite host and hostess, although by now the conversation has shifted gears. Instead of interrogating Sarah, Phil and Mia talk about their own histories, about their jobs, about their lives prior to moving out to the suburbs. Mia is surprised to hear herself telling humorous stories about her grandmother, who had passed away recently but while alive had been notoriously both eccentric and absent-minded. By the time they see Sarah to the front door, the atmosphere feels more casual and circumstantial, as though Sarah were simply an interesting stranger they had once met on a train. Everything goes smoothly until Mia shakes Sarah's hand goodbye and watches her go out the door.
"Good luck," Mia blurts out impulsively, stupidly not knowing what else to say.
"Yes, good luck," Phil echoes carelessly. The words spill out into the dark night. Already three steps onto the front porch, Sarah turns back and smiles at them with a sad, knowing smile. Even at the youthful age of twenty-five, Sarah knows enough to understand that you never say good luck to people unless you aren't planning on seeing them again.
In the commotion of the evening, both Mia and Phil have completely forgotten about Stripe. An hour after Mia and Phil turn in for the night, Mia hears a meager, plaintive meow coming from the garage. She gets up, careful not to disturb Phil, who needs his sleep for yet another early morning at the office. She slides her feet into her slippers and pads down the stairs and into the garage. As soon as she pokes her head into the garage, her eyes and ears strain at the silent darkness. She no longer hears Stripe meowing. She holds onto the doorframe and leans further into the chilly garage.
"Stripe?" she calls out, softly. "Stripe? Come on, kitty, time to go back inside."
She waits for a response, a meow, a rustling, anything. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she realizes the side door to the garage has been left ajar, and that the moonlight is streaming in through the open crack. She is able to discern something moving, just barely, on the concrete by the door.
"Stripe?" she calls. The silvery mound does not move. Mia moves hesitantly into the garage, letting the door close behind her. "Stripe?" She pulls the side door all the way open, revealing a mass of matted fur and mangled feline.
"Oh God, Stripe," Mia utters in horrified surprise. She stoops down next to the furry body. Stripe, barely breathing, looks at her with yellow, vacant eyes. Mia surveys the damage. There are teeth marks and deep scratches all over his face, his abdomen is torn open, and his hind leg looks bent at a funny angle. In the moonlight, Mia realizes, things take on an otherworldly glow—Stripe looks silver instead of orange, and his blood looks black and shiny like oil. Mia recognizes the shallow rattle of Stripe's last breaths. Quietly, she lies down on the cold concrete next to him, gently stroking the top of his head.
"I'm so sorry, boy," she says, pushing her face close to his, the words catching in her throat. "It's my fault for not checking the door. We should have known better."
Mia stays for a while, lying on the cold concrete, listening for the curious, child-like howling of the coyotes on top of the foothill. Somewhere off in the distance, she thinks she hears one braying, very likely at the giant moon hanging in the sky. Mia lays a hand on Stripe's fur, which has already begun to grow cold. It certainly wasn't the coyotes' fault, Mia thinks. After all, they were here first, and they could only be expected to do what was in their nature.