Jan/Feb 2014  •   Fiction


by Stephanie Austin

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

The semen analysis discussion stalls out, so I get up from the table and start washing my dinner dishes by hand. The dishwasher has been broken since Christmas. My husband turns on the TV. Gunshots, yelling—he's watching something violent. To dry my hands, I use a paper towel. Wasteful.

My husband's McDonald's garbage rests precariously on top of the trash can, so I angrily shove it down and tie off the bag. In the process, a wrapper falls, and the cat, a fat calico with tiny slits for eyes, darts over and begins licking the hamburger grease. Our kitchen, dining room, and living room exist in one plane, and from his place on the couch, my husband laughs at the cat. I swipe the wrapper off the ground, which startles her, which makes my husband stop laughing.

"How funny will it be when she starts throwing up later?" I ask.

"Maybe she's hungry."

The cat's dry food dish is full. A tiny paper plate with hardened bits of Beef Classic sits on the gross floor next to the water dish. The linoleum is faded and torn. I'm supposed to bring a child into this kitchen? With the floors looking like that?

When we bought the house two years ago, we wanted to fix the floors. All the floors. We stayed up at night talking about how we couldn't wait to replace the upstairs carpet, strip out the horrible scratched parquet in the living room, and tile the kitchen. My husband liked the idea of a black and white kitchen. White tile. Black appliances. No, I said. Not white. Shows too much dirt.

My husband sits on the couch in his undershirt and boxers. He comes home from work and undresses haphazardly, as though the clothes on his body make him physically ill. He's left his tie and belt on the railing. He kicked his shoes off into the corner filled with his other shoes. His work shirt and pants are draped across the arm of the couch.

After taking the trash out to the garage, and without saying anything further, I go upstairs into the office and plunk down at my computer. Work. Distraction. I need to focus on my lecture for tomorrow. Last week, I introduced my first-year composition students to the art of the structured essay.

Write a narration recounting a significant event or development in your life in which you learned a lesson.

Opening my files from last semester, I review my lecture notes. This is only my second semester teaching composition, and I'm not confident yet. When I taught this paper in the fall, one of my girls came back with a thesis statement about how her dental hygiene program helps people get jobs. In what fucking universe are the program requirements and job placement ability of the dental hygiene track in a community college program considered compelling drama?

I begin to type.

You are to craft a single sentence—your thesis statement—that gives me some sort of life-altering truth, some sort of fluid "I get it now!" announcement.

Think of it as a story. A story about you organized within a clear structure. Your introduction gives me history and funnels into your thesis statement, which is your controlling idea of the paper. Then you have your supporting paragraphs—you need support in your writing just like you do in life. Finally, you ease us into your conclusion, which is your moment to recognize the change or the conflict or at the very least, your chance not to just rewrite various sentences that appeared in the body of your paper. When you finish writing this narrative, you should walk away having learned something. You should know yourself better. English 101 is free therapy.

Think about something important to you. When or where or how have you learned the most important lessons?

An example. If I was writing this paper, I might start with something like this: daily writing helped with cope with—

Well, if it was me, I'd pick something traumatic. My first boyfriend, who was a mechanic, treated me like shit. He dumped me after we had sex for the first time. My first time. Two months later, he called to say he was sorry. More sex. Another break-up. Sorry again. More sex. So began a miserable cycle. The sorry disappeared somewhere, and I was okay with that for a long time. When I started writing about it, I realized how fucked up I was. Writing helps me find patterns, helps me find places for the broken parts. Helps me remember how much money I used to pay for birth control pills. We've all made terrible mistakes in our lives, but we learn and grow and become better people for it and use our coping mechanisms, like writing, to help us and blah, blah, blah.

I can't use any of that. I delete all the way up to trauma.

Almost on autopilot, I'm on Facebook now, getting distracted from the distraction. As usual, FB is awash in fertility. Kid pics. Kid quotes. Kid stories. A girl I used to party with in college—whose body is apparently unaffected by the damage we used to inflict upon ourselves—posted a picture of her little boy wearing a t-shirt saying "Big Brother." One hundred and twenty-five thumbs up and 43 congratulations. Women my age are already on their second kids. I like the picture, add my congrats, feel like crying but don't cry, then hide her from my newsfeed.

Feeling myself up, my boobs are normal. Not tender. Not painful. Not pregnant boobs. But right now I'd be, like, a week and a half pregnant. Boobs wouldn't blow up this early. My friend said she knew she was pregnant before a home test because when she took a shower, the water hurt her nipples.

Nipples. What a word.

I leave Facebook and visit the infertility boards where I lurk but don't comment. Women who post here call themselves babybug_12, baby_hopes, or hopefulmama2. Most of them are in their 30s and 40s. I know their follicle counts, which day of their cycle they're on, how many negative pregnancy tests they've taken, and how many miscarriages they've had.

They make me jealous when they can afford IVF. Awhile ago, wishing_for_mymiracle posted she'd had a miscarriage. She described the visit to the hospital and hearing from a doctor she'd lost the baby she'd tried for so long to conceive. Everyone sympathized, but I was envious of her. At least she'd seen a positive pregnancy test. At least—no, I am not practicing good empathy. A warm hand presses against my shoulder, which is unexpected and startling. I close the browser window.

"What are you doing?" my husband asks.

"Working." Turning in my chair so he has to move his hand off me, I get up and move away from the computer and pretend like I need a book.

"I'm going to bed," he says.

"Great. Good night."

He folds his arms over his chest, keeps his body closed off, away from me. "It's not like I'm saying I won't do it, but I've already done it once before."

"Dr. Betz said—

He holds his hand up. "You've told me what she said."

This is where we ended up at dinner, circling around this thing like vultures who've already had a big meal. We both shift our attention to the cat as she meanders into the space. She sits between us, her tail flicking back and forth. Slowly, she begins to lick her paw so she can clean her head. The wet sound of her tongue and mouth, like how a banana sounds when you eat it, suddenly annoys the hell out of me.

"I'll call the urologist tomorrow. I'll ask them where they are on my medical records request," he says. "But we have our pitch on Friday. Long days between now and then."

I roll my eyes and return to my computer. "Fine. Let me know when you have time to figure out what's wrong with us."

He turns and leaves the room, which is his dumb thing he does. He'll tell you he's taking some "no words" cooling time because he's being an adult about it. Really, he's just super conflict avoidant.

I pull my temperature chart. This is supposed to give me clues, but it wrecks me. Nearly 12 months. Something is missing. I'm doing this wrong. Right? Isn't it supposed to end up being a little thing? Oh, silly Andrea, you're not broken, you're reading the thermometer upside down! I tell my composition students not to use exclamation points. The power of your message lies in your words, not your punctuation.

My email is free and clear tonight. The last two months have seen two pregnant cousins. Email blasts with amazing good news of constant impending miracles. Pregnancy surrounds me. She is in line at Target. She is a cashier at Target. She is a girl at my school, too young to care about anything other than how fat she thinks she's getting. She is my best friend, texting me, saying she can't wait to see Paul and me for dinner this weekend. She's nearly eight months. I'm a statistic.

I'm angry, jealous, confused, bitter, sad, numb, unhappy.

I did not admit these feelings to Dr. Betz, the reproductive endocrinologist I saw two weeks ago. Instead, I introduced myself and apologized my husband couldn't join me as he had a work obligation.

Dr. Betz is the kind of woman who doesn't wear pants. She wears slacks. No shirts. Blouses. She's an older lady with tightly cropped hair. She is matter of fact and optimistic, which is the kind of personality I need sitting across from me. I am high strung and irrational, spending much of free time Googling progesterone supplements, luteal phase defects, anovulation, symptoms of fibroids, symptoms of cysts, symptoms of endometriosis, and symptoms of early menopause. Next to Dr. Betz's degrees, she had pictures of what were probably her grown children. I wondered how she achieved them.

We discussed my husband's visit to the urologist. She'd like to have him in for a retest, she says, because her office examines the semen for more than just a count. They look at the shape and the speed and the—having a matter of fact conversation about semen is such an odd thing.

"He had a count of 81 million, but that's good, right?" I said. "That's a lot of sperm."

She nodded and smiled slightly. "We also encourage the wife to be with her husband during the sample collecting."

He shoots it into a cup, which apparently I have to witness, and I have to get an HSG, some big giant ultrasound requiring me to sign a waiver because of a rare but serious side effect from the dye they will inject in me. This test will examine my tubes. Maybe my tubes are blocked. Could my tubes be blocked? And then what? Don't they have lasers for that? Maybe all I need is a laser.

She went on to discuss my ovarian reserve (like a missile reserve?) and this involves hormones. On cycle day two or three, I'd go in for a blood test, then an ultrasound, then have to do some trigger drugs, more hormones, then more blood, more ultrasounds. She wants to know if I'm ovulating. According to the OPKs, I'm not. (TTC lingo: opk is ovulation predictor kit. TTC means trying to conceive.)

How will that feel? How will having some stranger sit across from you and say out loud the thing of which you are most afraid: it doesn't matter you've spent most of your mature adult life trying to get the shit inside your head together; you are still broken, and you still cannot have what you want.

Dr. Betz gave me her card and then told me to call her Barbara. She instructed me to call the nurse line when my next period starts. CD1. (TTC lingo: cycle day 1.) As I was leaving, she reminded me to have my husband get in touch with her. At the front desk, I gathered forms and tried not to think about money and our mortgage and my car payment and cat food and insurance payments and how we need a new water heater and how the floors suck.

When I relayed this to Paul, mostly over text because he was at work, he said, "Dr. Betz? She's a fertility doctor and her name is Betz?"

My house is very quiet now. The TV is off. My husband is probably already asleep. Distraction. Lecture. Work. Focus. I begin to type again. Choose a meaningful subject, something close to you. Tell the story you have no choice but to tell. Put these words on paper and read them over and over again because that is where you feel safe.


Mid-week, I wake up feeling queasy. My period always makes me sick a day or two before it shows up. Classic MF scenario here. (TTC lingo: mind fetus, when you create pregnancy symptoms in your head thinking you're pregnant; also referred to as mind fuck.)

Distraction. I go to work. I teach. I think about what's immediately in front of me: body paragraphs and some light grammar because I still make my own grammar mistakes. I'm not one of those super charged grammar Nazis.

How did that become a thing? Good grammar makes you a grammar Nazi? Having a command of the English language is comparable to the mass murder of an entire race of people? Sure, both of these things are rigid, but hardly analogous. We cover fallacies toward the end of the semester.

"Most of you are still struggling with using 'you' and passive sentences," I say to my class. I turn to the white board and write Y-O-U with a black dry erase marker. "Someone tell me again why we're not supposed to use you when writing a personal narrative."

Nineteen pairs of bored eyes meet mine.

"Any ideas?"

Veteran teachers have told me never to pose a general question to the whole class. Call on someone. Name them. I pick on a kid named Kyle who always takes notes on his laptop.

"Kyle, why are we not supposed to use you?"

He frowns slightly. "The paper is about us."

"Yes," I say. "This is a personal narrative. It is about you, not me. When you're writing you, you, you just change the POV. Unless you're Jay McInerney writing Bright Lights, Big City or an ego-driven kid in a beginning creative writing class, don't use you."

They don't get the Jay McInerney joke, but I get the Jay McInerney joke. I am funny to myself.

"Secondly, passive sentences. Guys and girls. Your use of passive sentence constructions is getting out of hand." I turn to the board again and erase the you, then write, The car was serviced by the mechanic.

"What is happening in this sentence?"

They don't know.

"What or who is the subject in this sentence?"

No one gives a shit. A girl in the back is texting.

"The mechanic is the subject, and the one doing the action. The mechanic needs to be in the beginning of the sentence. Remember, agency in our lives, agency in our sentences. Do you guys know what I mean when I say agency?" I ask.

Brian, this kid near the back who always looks stoned, agrees with me even though I'm not sure if he knows where he is.

"Agency is control," I say slowly, hoping someone will jump in. "Agency is doing. Agency is being the leader. I've been lax about the yous and the passive sentences, but as we move along in the semester, I am going to start taking points off. Any questions so far?"

Courtney, a pretty girl near the front whom I have never seen in the same shoes twice and whom I overheard last week talking about throwing up a bunch of vodka, raises her hand. "How many points?"

"Enough to make it count," I say.

Sometimes I want to gather the girls in my class, sit them down in a circle, and tell them things about their lives. You will have consequences for your actions. Terrible things will happen to your friends in front of you. You will find one day you do not have the choices and time you once had. Instead, I tell them they have too many run-on sentences. I mark all their comma splices. I circle portions of their paragraphs and write that their focus is off and hope they have enough time to correct themselves. I glance at the clock, and so do several of my students.

"Introductions. Let's go over some ways to make your first line pop," I say and write things like begin with a misconception, use a statistic, which are all clichés, but which get the job done, and English 101, while being free therapy, is also getting a grade to get into English 102. Inertia.

When the weekend rolls around, we meet my pregnant friend at The B, an upscale burger joint downtown. Paul and her husband both work in advertising, and they're talking about some old timer who's retiring. My pregnant friend looks at me, smiles a bit, and rolls her eyes. She sips her water, then wants me to tell her about the carpet people. I'd forgotten we'd talked about that last time we were together. At the time, I told her I was going to make an action plan, call around to some places, get some samples.

"Still in the planning stages," I say.

"I need new carpet." She lifts her hair up away from her neck, then fans herself. "I'm so jealous. The dog has completely wrecked our living room."

My mouth, suddenly dry, makes me reach for my water. This restaurant was her pick.

"How is work going?" she asks.

"The usual. Lots of apathy and excuses," I say.

She laughs. "I remember how excited you were when you first started teaching."

I smile. "I was. I am. I like teaching. It's just difficult sometimes. I really need to suck it up and go beg for a creative writing class."

My friend puts her hand on her belly. "We're very hungry tonight," she says.

She'd sent me a text that morning like, I need meat.

I'm on day two of my period. The heavy day. The day when looking at or smelling food, specifically meat, is like punishment. Yesterday, I called the nurse line. Several hours later, my RE called and left a voicemail. She hadn't heard from Paul, hadn't received any records, would really like to review all that before loading me up with drugs.

Because I teach in the evenings, and Paul works during the day—sometimes long hours—I don't see him much during the week. Depending on where I am in my cycle, I see him turning off the TV and going to bed or watching him watch me tell him it's time to do this again. Again. And again. And ugh.

The B has a faint blue glow because of the lighting around the bar. The staff is dressed in all black, and our waitress has a faint streak of purple in her hair. She's made up like a 1950s pinup girl, only she's added those thick black-rimmed glasses. With her bright red lips, she asks me if I'd like another glass of the same Pinot, and I say yes. Paul asks for another beer. My pregnant friend eats another sweet potato fry.

"If you don't stop me, I'll eat this entire thing," she says and smiles.

I laugh and push the basket toward her. "You can't deny the baby sweet potato fries. That's cruelty."

"I wanted Sun Chips the other day. I hate Sun Chips, but I couldn't stop thinking about them." She takes another fry. Then another. "You wait. You'll see."

She does not know I am struggling with infertility. She got pregnant the second month she tried. Everyone around me gets pregnant whenever they want. At her baby shower last month, I ran into a girl I used to work with. She was just over three months. I was in the kitchen, fixing myself another mimosa. Before I'd brought the alcohol, I'd asked my friend if she thought it would be ok. Maybe booze at a baby shower is a faux pas. She said yes, bring it, her mom will totally drink with me.

"Don't let them tell you it'll take a long time," my former co-worker said as I stood there stirring. "It took one month," and she snapped her finger, "one month, right off the pill. And I thought, am I ready for this? We said we were ready, but then when it happens, you're like, am I really ready?" She laughed then, like the world was a kooky, magical place no one will ever understand.

On my way home from her shower, I listened to a This American Life episode. David Rakoff had just died. They played a recent audio clip of him reading from his new book. His voice sounded weak and stretched and over. I stayed in my driveway until the credits. I cried.

Our purple-haired raven sets my glass of wine in front of me and removes the empty. She tells us our order is next, but again, that mention of heavy food turns my stomach. I should have listened to my instincts. Ordered a salad. Gone light. Maybe just waited to eat when I was truly hungry.

The conversation has shifted to health insurance. My friend says her insurance doesn't cover maternity, just complications, of which she's had none. She says it will cost several thousand dollars out of pocket to have this baby. Seeing the RE—just having a half hour chat with her in her office—cost $265.00. The individual health insurance policy I have will not cover anything related to infertility.

I shift in my seat, then feel it. A slight gush. Goddamn it. Excusing myself to the bathroom, I snag my purse off the back of my chair. Yeah, I know you're not supposed to put a purse on the back of your chair.

In the stall, I hang my purse on the hook, set the new tampon on top of the toilet paper dispenser, and hike up my skirt. I've bled through a bit into my underwear. Good for fucking me. In a hurry though there is no reason to be, I remove the old tampon with a bit more force than necessary. As it comes out of me, it swings and splashes a bit of blood onto the back of the peach-colored stall. I stare at the bright red splatter—a bit of me smeared in a public restroom.

I could end here. Make this into a moment. Use a metaphor. Take dramatic notes in my journal. Imagine the ocean, the trees, how menstrual blood is lifeblood, deadblood.

Unrolling some extra toilet paper, I clean the smudge. Never end on the image of blood, yours or someone else's. Bad blood is overdone.

The food has arrived. The three of them look up when I sit down, pretending as though they'd been nonchalantly unaware their food was available to eat. My friend puts her napkin on her lap but giggles because, you know, her belly is so big. "It's so much farther to reach now."

We laugh with her. She stops. Her eyes get big.

"Oh, babe," she says, then reaches for her husband's hand. "Babe, she's dancing again."

He'd had his fork in his hand, about to scoop into his side dish, tri-color pasta salad. He doesn't have time to set the fork against his plate, so it ends up resting between them, tines pointing toward Paul and me.

My friend holds her husband's wrist against her belly, and her husband turns toward her, leans in as though he's listening. They both startle then, but giggle, and her husband moves his hand further along her belly.

Paul has bitten into his sandwich. He swallows, watches, breathes. Onion. Already that smell is seeping from his mouth. He has this thing at night where he often won't brush his teeth. I'm just going to do it first thing in the morning, he says. Ridiculous logic.

They are lost in their baby now. His hand moves along her belly, searching, finding what he needs and settling there. My husband and I sit next to each other. Rigid. Separate. Chewing.

She says, "We decided as soon as she can walk, we're putting her in a hip hop class."

When my husband laughs, his breath lingers in my space. I feel the way my body pulls away from his, how I lean toward the door.