Copyright © 2001 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
The rains began to fall at the end of June, hurling through thestreets, flooding the rivers, and sending them running overthe roads. Two inches fell in half an hour one day, sweeping awoman and her pickup truck over a bridge. The river that ranthrough Job's Corner jumped its dam and returned to its oldcourse. Roads were closed permanently. We could no longer get tothe mall, fifty miles to the north. Going to a movie was out of thequestion. We were trapped in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, with noend to the rain in sight.
"What about this one?" Connie asked, picking up an ovulationkit in the drugstore and turning it over to read the back. "ClearPlan Easy."
"I like the sound of that," I said. Clear Plan Easy. It sounded likesomething I couldn't mess up.
Connie frowned at the instructions. "All you have to do for thisone is piss on a stick," she said.
We looked at each other. "What could be simpler?" Connieasked.
Indeed, what could be simpler? Ten days after the start of my lastperiod, I could begin to test for the hormonal surge that wouldprecede my ovulation. Once we saw a blue line on the test stick, wecould order the sperm. As the day approached for me to begin testing,I could feel my courage leaving me, running from me like thewater that coursed down the road in front of the house, headingfor the fields. I read the directions over and over: keep the test stickpointed down and avoid splashing the windows with urine. Iresisted the urge to practice. The night before the first day of testingI dreamed that I was trying to piss on my stick and people keptknocking at the door, trying to get my attention. "Leave me alone!"I kept saying, moving from bathroom to bathroom in search of privacy.When I'd closed the last door behind me, I turned to findmyself out on the roof of a building, with people I knew drivingpast on the street below. "Hi, Louise!" they called, over and over. Igave up, sank down on the toilet that sat out in the middle of everything,and pissed on my stick. There was no blue line.
There was no line in actuality, either. Starting on Day 10 of mycycle, I got up every morning and pissed on my stick, worryingabout it every step of the way. Had I left it in the stream of urinelong enough? Had I splashed any urine in the little window?
Every day I drove to Mansfield, the small university where Itaught English as an assistant professor, braving the floodwatersthat periodically submerged Route 6. I could hardly think about myteaching. My whole life revolved around the ovulation kit. I concentratedas if sheer mental energy could cause the blue line toappear, wavering and then growing solid, taking up its space in thelittle window that waited for it. Around me the water surged, thickand brown and furious, hurling down the hillsides, surging acrossthe roads like cattle, leaving layers of sludge in its wake.
I drove my stretch of highway with my eyes on the pavement infront of me, barely cognizant of the churches that dotted the landscape,almost as numerous as the cows: the Valley MissionaryAlliance, the Full Gospel Church, the Assembly of God, River ofGod, Church of God, and so on, all carefully whitewashed andmaintained, every church with its own hand-lettered sign outfront, the slogan changing every day. This was God's Country, asthe welcome sign attested, and Connie and I were two lone lesbians,trying to conceive a baby by our own version of immaculateconception. I just kept my eyes on the road, around me the floodwaters rising as if Nature herself were testing for a surge, pissingdown on all of us, waiting anxiously, to see what might appear.
My luteinizing hormone surge, or as those of us in the knowcalled it, an LH surge, showed up on Day 13 of my cycle. Thismeant that my ovulation would occur, just as the brochure said itwould, on Day 14, exactly halfway through my cycle. I took the teststick down to the kitchen to show Connie. "Look!" I told her triumphantly."I'm having my LH surge!" I felt vindicated somehow,more of a woman. Hormones were surging through my body, takingover my bloodstream, detectable even in my piss. I felt like anextremely complicated being.
Connie took the test stick and studied it over her bowl of cereal."Look at that," she said, examining the dark blue line in the testwindow that matched the dark blue line in the sample window thatshowed us that we had done the test correctly. She looked at meadmiringly and handed it back. "Way to go," she said. I warmed tothe approval in her voice. I was worthy of this mission. I would, infact, conceive our child. I felt like a vessel, open and pure. It felt alittle bit like being a nun.
Connie brought me the phone. "It's time to call the spermbank," she said. It felt urgent, like we didn't have a moment to lose.I dialed the number and ordered up two shots of Donor No. 9012,praying that his sperm was still available. We'd chosen him not onlybecause his physical characteristics matched Connie's but becausehe'd listed interests in skiing and guitar. We'd liked his explicitness.Other donors had listed sports and music, but this was better,we agreed, because it implied that he might actually participate inthese activities, as opposed to watching them on television while heopened up a can of beer.
"We'll ship it right out," the woman at the sperm bank informedme. "Federal Express Priority will guarantee that you have it by ten-thirtytomorrow morning for just ten dollars more."
I hesitated for just a moment. We didn't have to do this. I couldhang up the phone right now, throw out the donor information,and our lives could just go on the way they were. I could feel mystomach plunge, as if I'd just stepped off the edge of a cliff. "OK,"I said. "Send it express."
"Fine," she said. There was a pause. "Will that be MasterCard orVisa?"
As it turned out, the extra $10 was a waste of money. We lived inwhat Federal Express had officially classified as a Remote Area,meaning that it couldn't guarantee priority delivery before 4 P.M.I waited on the front porch with Connie, both of us watching thestreet. I wondered what I was doing, trying to have a baby in anarea so remote that Federal Express couldn't even deliver on time.The world around us seemed full of moisture; the tops of the treeswere shrouded in fog, a mist that seemed to roll up from theground, as if we were in a jungle. I could picture elephants careeningdown the street, heading for the water. The petunias sprawledup the balusters of the porch, indolent in the wetness that floodedtheir roots. It was a jungle outside, teeming with wildness, and I wasabout to try to conceive a baby. I thought I must be crazy.
When the Federal Express truck pulled into the driveway, thedriver hauled a large gray tank out of the back of the truck andcarted it up to the porch. Connie and I studied it dubiously. It wasstamped with the words HUMAN TISSUE. The driver looked at us,from one to the other. "You want to sign for this?"
Connie and I looked at each other. I signed my name tentatively,as if this might just be the last straw, consigning me to an instantstate of motherhood from which I would never escape. The driverpocketed his pen and sauntered off down the steps, his clipboardunder his arm, whistling something as he headed off to his life,leaving us on our front porch surveying our tank of sperm.
"Well," Connie said. "I guess this is it."
We both just stood there looking at the tank. Neither of uswanted to touch it.
"I guess it is," I said. "I guess it's time."
"It's time," Connie said. We looked at each other. "Let's go."
We drove at high speed, the Talking Heads' "Little Creatures"playing over and over on the cassette player. "I want to do it," Conniesaid breathlessly as she squeezed the steering wheel in herhands. "I want to do the insemination." She glanced over at me.Her eyes glowed, as if with fever. I wondered for a moment if shemight be mad. "Then we can say I got you pregnant," Connie said.Her voice rang with satisfaction. She looked back at the road,swerved, and hit a pothole. "OK?" she asked eagerly. We passed aplacard rising majestically from a hill. "The fear of the Lord is thebeginning of wisdom," it read. The words were arranged on thebillboard in the shape of an open Bible.
I shrugged. David Byrne's voice filled the car, ricocheting off myears and through my brain. "Sure," I said. The rain ran down theside of the road and splashed against our tires. "Who else?" I asked.The tape switched over, the beat relentless and even. I shook myhead to clear it.
By contrast, the waiting room at the doctor's office was deathlysilent. Not even Muzak dented the quiet. People lined the room,looking stern and uncomfortable in straight-backed chairs thatwere just a little too small, their children playing on the rug. It wasa practice that concentrated on the poor; the majority of theobstetrics patients were high risk, fourteen-year-olds who'd gottenpregnant by their boyfriends, or sometimes, by a member of theirfamily. "Incest capital of the world," my colleagues used to joke. I'dalways found the comment irritating, but now, looking around theroom, I found it even more annoying, because I suspected that itmight be true. The rest were elderly people on Medicare and Medicaid.The median income in the county was $12,000. Its populationwas forty-one thousand, more than forty thousand of whomwere white. Most of my students were the first in their families togo to college, some already the first to finish high school. It waswhat I liked about teaching here, the idea that I could reallyaccomplish something, really give my students a vision for change.It was a lot like the work I used to do in my twenties, when I organizedpeople in low-income neighborhoods to seek change.
Everybody looked at us when we walked in lugging our tankbetween us, the HUMAN TISSUE label clearly visible on the side.We checked in at the window, then found a couple of empty seatsagainst the wall. People eyed us uneasily. I wanted to make somecomment about the head we were taking into the office, but theremark dried on my tongue. There was no room for levity here.This was a serious business. Children played around us on thefloor, their faces smudged with dirt and grime. One looked up atme, her fingers in her mouth, her eyes large and solemn. I felt achill go through me. This was what we were here for? What had webeen thinking of? The tank sat between us on the floor, ominousas a time bomb. I could almost hear it tick.
"Connie," I whispered. Connie looked at me. Her eyes werehuge. She played incessantly with the keys in her hands. "I'm noteven sure I like kids," I whispered.
Connie glanced around the room, leaned in closer. "I know,"she said. "I held a little baby today, and I didn't feel anything."
"Louise Blum?" the nurse said, opening the door. Connie and Irose as one and hauled our tank across the room between us. Alleyes followed us to the door. Not only did we have our ownHUMAN TISSUE with us but we didn't have to wait. I could sensea restive stir behind us.
"Come this way," the nurse said. We followed her mutely. I didn'tknow her. I hadn't known the receptionist. I didn't know anybodyhere, except for Dr. Gordon. I felt as if I might throw up. The nurseled us to a room where we deposited our tank of sperm. She lookedat us, nervousness evident in her glance. She didn't know why wewere here. She didn't know what preparations to make. The two ofus just stood there, the tank between us on the floor. "The doctorwill be right with you," she said and backed out of the room, closingthe door behind her.
I took a deep breath and turned to Connie. "Well," I said. "Thisis it."
Connie nodded, taking her own deep breath. "Yes," she said, "itis."
I sat down on the table, not knowing where else to sit, andglanced at my watch. I took another deep breath and tried to connectwith the egg inside me. Was it in there? Was everything whereit was supposed to be? I glanced at Connie out of the corner of myeye. She was looking very serious. I reached out and took her handin mine. It was cold and slightly clammy. She looked at me andtried to smile. There wasn't anything else to say. In the end wecould only sit there and wait for the doctor to appear.
We'd been through this once before, nearly two years earlier. Onthe recommendation of our family doctor at the time, we'd scheduledan appointment to meet with an insemination specialist inanother city. I'd dressed for the appointment carefully, my pink trianglepin prominently displayed on my lapel. "You look great,"Connie had said, watching me dress.
I had glanced over at her as I put on my boots. "Oh, yeah? Wouldyou inseminate me?"
Connie had smiled at me. "In a heartbeat."
We had held hands across the seat of the truck as we drove. Thecity was more than an hour away, down a long and winding roadthat snaked through a tricky mountain pass that took several liveseach year. Trailers and shacks, some sided with tar paper, outlinedthe road with puffs of wood smoke from their makeshift chimneys.Junked cars filled their front yards, the outhouses propped upagainst the edges of their fields. We passed a farmhouse with a signswinging from the mailbox, a cow neatly stenciled beneath thewords Jesus Saves.
We waited in the waiting room for hours that day. Pregnantwomen sat around us, reading parenting magazines and rocking inrocking chairs placed tastefully around the room. I picked up amagazine from the rack beside me and thumbed through its pages,looking at the pictures of babies and toddlers and happy glowingmothers. It was like an alien language. A chill shot through me. Iput the magazine down. What were we doing here? We had agreedI would go first. I had the better insurance policy; I was the one withthe aging ovaries drying up inside me, threatening to blow away ona puff of wind.
The hours crawled by. The longer we waited, the more nervouswe both became. "I don't know if I can stand this," Connie confided.At that moment we heard the nurse call my name. We roseand marched across the room, aiming for that open door, the doorthat would take us into motherhood.
The nurse weighed me, wrote the information down in a chart,and ushered us into the doctor's office. We both sat down, our twostraight chairs uncomfortably far apart. The moments ticked by.When the door opened again, the doctor walked in, short andstocky, his white jacket barely buttoning across his belly. "I'm DoctorRomero," he said. I introduced myself, then introduced Connieas my partner. I didn't know what other word to use. Loverhardly seemed appropriate, given the situation.
He nodded at me, ignored Connie. He flipped open my chartand asked me questions about my menstrual cycles, my personalhistory, filling in the relevant information. Then he glanced up atme. His glasses slid down his nose as if they might fall right off,given another moment. "Are you married?" he asked me.
I hesitated in confusion. Hadn't our doctor taken care of this?"Well, no," I said. "I'm not."
The doctor shut my chart and sat back in his chair. "Oh," he said.The word seemed to freeze on his tongue, like ice. "We don'tinseminate single women."
I stared at him. "I'm not single," I said. I indicated Connie again,vaguely, with a wave of my left arm. "We're together."
The doctor cleared his throat and pushed his glasses back up hisnose. "Let me clarify that," he said. His tone was crisp. "We don'tinseminate women without husbands. It has nothing to do with thefact that you're lesbians."
We sat there for a moment. Neither of us looked at the other."But our doctor talked to you," I said.
Romero interrupted me. "He talked to my partner," he said."We've had a staff meeting since then and developed a policy."
"A policy," I echoed faintly. Inside I felt absolutely numb. Myheart no longer even seemed to beat, as if it had dried up in there,whispered away in the chill of this sterile office with its white-jacketedmedical personnel and its artificial air. I couldn't look athim. I got up and, without even intending to, walked out of theoffice and back toward the door.
Connie got up to follow me out. "Thank you," she mumbled aswe left.
I never stopped at the desk to settle the bill. I never stoppedmoving until we got back to the parking lot, and by the time wewere there I could feel the numbness fading away, replaced by arage so deep I thought it might destroy me. I looked around for hiscar. I imagined slashing his tires, running the edge of my key alonghis doors, dumping sugar in his gas tank, stuffing a banana up hisexhaust pipe, all guerrilla tactics I'd learned as a young communityorganizer, spending what free time I had reading Saul Alinskyand Franz Fanon and knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods.That fucking little man, I thought, with his fucking sacred sperm,dispensing it only to those that he deems worthy. That fucking littleshit.
We drove home in silence, me in the passenger seat, Connie atthe wheel of the truck. As we began to climb the hills that led tohome, I became fixated with her shifting of the gears. "Don't putit into fifth so soon," I said.
Connie stared straight ahead. "Don't tell me how to drive."
"It's my truck," I said. "I don't want you to ruin the transmission."
Connie pulled off the road, and we sat there for a moment. I feltmy eyes fill with tears. Connie looked at me. "Why are we fightingwith each other?" she asked. There was wonder in her voice. "It'sthat doctor that we're mad at."
After that experience a friend referred us to Dr. Paul Gordon, aman in his forties, known in town for being progressive. He treatedthe clients at the human services agency where Connie worked.Gordon was also the chief of obstetrics at Soldiers and Sailors, thelocal hospital right down the street from us. I knew him fromthe town's fitness center, a place I'd spent a lot of hours and wherehe worked out irregularly, though we'd never been introduced. Iknew him by his body, which was short and compact, covered withsweat when he ran on the treadmill. "Just ten more minutes," he'dsay, when anyone asked him how much longer he'd be. It wasalways ten more minutes. He used to spend an hour on that thing.I thought his heart rate must be something else. "We'll do it," he'dsaid without a moment's hesitation when I'd asked him aboutinseminating me. "We've never done it before," he added, "butwe'd like to get into it." He might have been talking about a realestate deal.
"What about your partners?" I asked him.
He shook his head. "They'll be fine." He leaned back against thewindow and cupped his hands around its sill. He exuded maleenergy. I remembered him on the treadmill, his T-shirt clinging tohis chest. For a moment I pictured his sperm jogging through hisbody, all suited up for the run, not frozen in some test tube somewhere,preserved for eternity.
"My best friend is gay," he said. "He was my best man, and I washappy when he told me he was gayit meant he wouldn't make apass at my wife!" I wondered briefly whether he would have anycompunctions about a lesbian under the same circumstances. "Asfor the girls at the desk," he said, "they never have to know. It's aprivate matter."
"It's not a private matter," I told him. "I want everyone in theoffice to know." Especially, I thought, the "girls" at the desk. Iwanted them to have to deal with it on their own, to have toacknowledge my relationship with Connie the same way theywould acknowledge that of a husband and wife. I was tired ofthings being private. My relationship with Connie wasn't privateanymore, and I was going to make damned sure it never was again.
Dr. Gordon nodded. "OK," he said. "Whatever you want."
When he stepped into the room now, on the morning of ourfirst insemination attempt, I felt my stomach clench. He shook ourhands as if it might be some sort of business transaction that wewere just about to conduct. "OK," he said, looking down at ourtank. "Have you opened it up yet?"
Opened it? I could hardly stand to carry it. No way was I openingit up alone and unsupervised. "No," Connie said brightly."Can I?"
He nodded. "Certainly," he said.
Connie bent down and unscrewed the lid and pulled it off.Steam rolled out into the room. We all stared at it in awe. "It's likea horror movie, isn't it?" Connie joked. I chuckled wanly. Dr. Gordononly leaned back and crossed one leg over the other, cuppinghis hands around his knee, surveyed her speculatively, as if waitingto see what she might do next. I gripped the sides of the table withboth hands. Nausea pummeled my stomach. Please, I thought, justlet this be over soon.
"I'll just step out of the room for a moment and let you getundressed," Dr. Gordon said, pulling a drape from a drawer in thetable and handing it to me.
Connie stepped over to me as soon as the door closed behindhim. "We can do this," she said.
I looked at her. I felt as if I were drowning, as if she were the onlyperson who could pull me to shore. "Don't forget to tell him youwant to do the insemination," I said, as if I might not be able to talkagain once Dr. Gordon came back in. For a moment I almostwished for general anesthesia, so that I could just wake up andhave this all be over.
Connie nodded. I unzipped my jeans, slid them over my hips,slipped off my underwear. My heart beat unevenly. I pictured it inthere, haggard and worn inside my chest, prematurely aged fromtoo much adrenalin. "I'm scared," I said. The paper on the tablestuck to my ass; the drape tore as I spread it over me, trying vainlyfor some sense of privacy.
"I know," Connie said. "I am too."
Dr. Gordon opened the door and stepped back in. He gave theimpression of flowing in, snakelike, insinuating his body aroundthe door. He listened seriously as Connie explained that shewanted to do the insemination. He nodded solemnly. "There's noproblem with that," he said. "I'll just open Louise up and show youhow to do it."
Open me up? Hello, I wanted to say. I'm still in the room. Hepulled some cotton swabs out of a drawer and handed Connie aspeculum to warm up at the sink. The two of them busied themselveswith preparations while I lay back and tried to keep breathing.My whole body felt cold. I'd imagined this process as beingmore personal somehow. This felt about as personal as an autopsy.Dr. Gordon removed the vial of semen from the tank and slippedit into my hand to warm it to room temperature. Finally, somethingI could do. I lay back and held it in my hand, studying itbetween my fingers. No. 9012. It looked entirely innocuous, like atiny vial of egg substitute.
Dr. Gordon slipped my feet into the stirrups and arranged thedrape across my knees. "You slide the speculum in just so," he saidto Connie. I felt the familiar suck and stretch, reminiscent of a papsmear. "Now you try," he said, collapsing the speculum and pullingit back out. Connie glanced at me, then slid the speculum back in."Be careful," Dr. Gordon said. "You don't want to pinch the wallsof the vagina."
No, I guess not. I could feel my whole body bracing itself, waitingfor the pinch. The speculum slid into place. I could feel the airof the room slipping into my opened vagina. "See," he said warmly,"how the cervix just pops into view?"
I pictured my cervix popping into view, waving a cheery hello.The image was chilling. "You swab the mucous from the cervix," hetold Connie, "and then aspirate the semen like so." There was apause. I couldn't feel anything anymore. I couldn't see them onthe other side of the drape. All I could see and feel was a bright hotlight directed on my vagina. "That's it," Dr. Gordon said withenthusiasm. I could see the tops of their heads, the blond of thedoctor's mixed with the brown of Connie's. "There it goes," hesaid. I tried to feel it, this rush of sperm, sent off like salmon ontheir run, swimming upstream despite the odds. "Gee," he said toConnie. "You're really good at this."
"My father's a doctor," Connie said modestly, as if this might bewhy, as if her father might have had her help him out around theoffice after school. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my egg,tried to get a picture of the sperm valiantly making their waythrough my body. I could picture their little arms going up anddown, their heads rhythmically tilting to breathe the air downdeep in their lungs, their little faces taut with the pressure, whilesomewhere far ahead of them my egg danced on the waters like ashimmering sunrise, awaiting their arrival. I tried to wish themwell, but it didn't feel like a friendly swim; it felt like an invasion,like my body had just been assaulted by a hostile army. It felt inexorable,like being injected with HIV. I felt sick suddenly. All thattime I'd spent trying not to get this stuff beyond my cervixdiaphragm,birth control pills, rhythm method, withdrawalandthere I was, open-legged and ready, willingly admitting it.
"OK," Dr. Gordon said, sounding almost cheerful. He put myknees together gently, like closing the pages of a well-worn book."It says here that you should lie here for twenty minutes or so, soI'll just leave you alone in here."
He closed the door behind him and immediately Connie wasthere, her face close to mine, her hands around mine. "It's OK,"she said. "You're going to be just fine." Her face was soft, tiny linescrinkling the skin around her eyes when she smiled at me. "It's alldone now," she said, and I could feel the muscles in the back of myneck loosening, could feel my breathing slow. "It's all over," shewhispered, leaning closer to me, and I closed my eyes and felt herbreath against my face, felt her lips brush my forehead, the touchof her tongue against my skin. "There's nothing else you have todo," she said, and together we waited out the rest of the time, untilthe doctor told us we could go.
"Here's the vial," Dr. Gordon said as we gathered our thingstogether to leave. I felt light-headed, suddenly, as I walked outinto the hallway. I moved carefully, carrying my body as if transportingthe Ark of the Covenant. God knew what might be inthere. "You'll want to hang onto this," he said.
"Why?" I whispered to Connie as we paid our bill at the window.What on earth would we want an empty sperm vial for? A littlememento of the experience? Weren't we hoping for another kindof keepsake? Connie shrugged and slipped the vial into the pocketof her jeans. "Come on," she said, pulling out the keys. "Let's gohome."
"Let me see the vial," I said when we got home.
"No," she said possessively, taking it out and looking at it fondly.Then she put it on the mantel. "Dad," she said, nodding over atme.