The woman seated opposite Marta in the waiting room is laughing as she reads the folder of material for new patients. ‘Oh my God,’ the woman keeps saying, followed by a giggle. ‘Wow.’
She’s younger than Marta by several years, and wears a black romper and jacket, red heels and a drop of diamond on a silver chain. Her expression is amused, but Marta knows she is afraid. She remembers a year and a half ago, shuffling through the pages with her own husband, laughing at the absurd lengths to which some people were willing to go for a baby, the injections and procedures, the outrageous cost.
The woman’s husband wears a suit without a tie and rolls the ankle of his crossed right leg as he stares at his phone. He says, ‘Hey, I just got a text from Le Coucou. They have a table at seven that opened up.’
The woman’s eyes light up with ineffable joy. ‘Awesome.’ She checks the time on her phone and sighs.
The other people in the waiting room stare at the couple while pretending not to stare. Marta exchanges a glance with a blonde woman she recognizes from her dozens – hundreds? – of previous visits. She always remembers this blonde woman because her husband is ancient, a professor type with a soft-sided leather briefcase and old man pants that ride too high. She’s only seen them together a couple of times, but always wanted to know the circumstances of their relationship. The blonde woman suspects Marta’s curiosity and glares at her most days, but the look they share now is a knowing one. These people have no idea what they’re in for.
‘Madison and Carter?’ the medical assistant calls. The couple practically skip over to the blood-drawing chairs. Marta’s name is called, too, the assistant waving a limp arm at the second examination room.
The ultrasound probe is a squarish, skinny dildo. Medical supply companies could learn a few things from sex toy companies, Marta thinks.
‘Okay, cold, cold,’ the doctor says as she inserts the jelly-covered probe into Marta’s vagina. Well, not into her vagina at first. Actually, the doctor is pushing into the cleft of her upper vulva, right down on the clitoris, eyes on the screen while she pokes without looking for the vaginal opening. Every time this happens, Marta is embarrassed.
‘No, down, down, down,’ Marta says, as if the doctor is an inexperienced lover.
‘Oops,’ she says, but her expression doesn’t change.
‘Sorry for the pressure,’ she says each time she digs the probe deeper to see Marta’s shy ovaries. They are embedded somewhere near her hip bones. Until she’d come here, she had no idea you could make someone’s hip ache by poking around in their vagina. She struggles not to think of medieval torture, which only makes her think of it more explicitly. Certainly women have been subjected to swords through the vagina, then out through the hip, in the violent history of humanity. Thank god she wasn’t living then.
‘Lining is eleven,’ the doctor says to her aide who types the numbers into Marta’s electronic file. ‘One at seventeen on the left, one at eighteen, two less than ten on the right.’ The doctor works the probe with her right hand and clicks the computer mouse with her left, drawing Xs to measure the black voids of the follicles. Marta translates in her mind. Two follicles are now large enough they might soon produce eggs. Each egg has a 50% chance of fertilization, a 30% chance of growing to a Day 5 embryo, a 10% chance of being genetically normal – given Marta’s age – and a 70% chance of implantation after all that. Or maybe she has the percentages mixed up. Knowing them doesn’t help anyway.
The probe is withdrawn and Marta’s knees come together instantly.
‘Thanks for coming in!’ the doctor says, in her cheery, exhausted voice as she runs out the door, leaving Marta to wipe the ultrasound goo from her crotch with the paper sheet the assistant gave her to drape over her naked lap.
The waiting room is more crowded when Marta comes out. Madison and Carter are now laughing inside an exam room with the same doctor. Marta sees their silhouettes behind the frosted glass wall. A couple with a darling toddler enters the waiting room, and everyone looks harder at their screens.
The spring air outside smells of mud, pot smoke and early leafing trees. The fertility clinic is housed in a Midtown office building mostly occupied by a construction company whose name blares bright white on the cranes attached to matchstick condo towers-in-progress all along the southern skyline above Central Park. Marta goes into a basement Whole Foods and emerges with a cardboard container of assorted salads, which she eats on the sunlit side of a park boulder. Ancient ridges strafed across the rock press up through the thin soles of her commuting flats. A cold wind blows, but the day is bright and she likes to sit here and be held by the city after being probed. Ornate and plain facades rise above the trees. Here, the Pierre Hotel, there, her dentist’s office, a little further along, the Ritz. The matchstick condos are built to sway in the wind so they don’t collapse. Someday the oligarchs who bought apartments in them will be sorry. So high up (have they heard of blackouts?), so exposed (you think another plane will never hit?), so likely to be eaten first by Godzilla.
‘Thank God we’re not rich enough to live there,’ her husband said, one of their first times at the clinic. Marta laughed. They were waiting for the doctor, looking at the view from the clinic window, unsure if they even wanted a child. Wanting a baby had always seemed to Marta a kind of weakness, the sentimental flip side of sexual desire. Marta isn’t sure she wants one now, after all this. Zero good embryos, seven cycles, 50K and counting. At work, when she’s deciding which programs to cut from the City’s budget, she preaches against the sunk cost fallacy. But the fertility process is more like gambling than investment. Each time the lab techs email her with good news – two embryos collected on Day 5, sent for genetic testing – it hits the same reward centers as a good blackjack hand. Wild hope, a rapid heartbeat, breath held as the dealer peeks at her hole card. But the deflation of watching a dealer bust the table ten times in a row is nothing like the sinking that accompanies the next email, two weeks later, the one informing her of the embryos’ non-viability.
A pigeon walks in a tight circle around Marta and a squirrel begs on its haunches like a dog.
‘Get!’ She kicks at both of them. Fed by tourists nine months of the year, no predators except the hawks that roost on the cliff-like buildings on the East Side. In Iowa, where Marta was raised, animals were smart enough to be afraid.
Her foot connects with the pigeon. He is light and soft and goes fluttering down the side of the boulder. When he gets to the bottom, he looks up at her and struts away slowly, as if to show her he doesn’t care. Marta pulls her phone from her purse and begins firing responses to the fifty-six emails she received while at her appointment.
Yes, 3:00 works.
No, don’t send the RFP to the Mayor’s Office yet, wait for approval from the ACCO.
I agree it’s low-hanging fruit, but I want us to do more than that.
Attached looks good, send to Commissioner.
A month later, another failed cycle behind her, Marta is in the waiting room again with Madison and the blonde woman with the ancient husband. Madison – sans Carter – reads a book, serious this time. Marta used to read smart books here, and even in the exam rooms, with the paper sheet across her lap, waiting for the doctor. She thought it would help the staff remember and like her. She thought it would distinguish her from the desperate, unfulfilled women who had nothing but a baby on their minds. She kept it up until she understood the doctor would never care whether she was desperate or indifferent, smart or dumb as rocks, because there was no distinction: Marta was there for the same thing as everyone else. Now she lets herself play Donut County on her phone, a game where she is a hole in the ground, an ever-expanding hole that swallows up cute animals, eventually devouring their town. Madison is reading Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker. Acker’s face on the cover is both soft and tough, with a jagged line across it, as if it were a torn photograph. An ache rises in Marta, and a memory of early mornings on a snowy campus, a circle of women inside a stuffy classroom, the stirrings of fury at the male world – and pleasure in that fury – tingling in her chest as she stared at that same cover.
‘Hey, I love that book,’ Marta says, across a coffee table strewn with pamphlets for ovarian ozone therapy.
A collective breath is held. In over a year, Marta has never heard strangers speak to each other in the waiting room.
‘Oh, thanks,’ Madison says.
Marta makes bold and moves into the chair next to Madison. ‘It’s pretty fucked up, as I remember.’ Bodies in other chairs tense at fucked.
‘Yeah, well, that’s kind of the point, right?’ Madison says. Dark crescents droop under the girl’s eyes, but her cheek is so smooth Marta wants to brush it with the back of her fingers. She’s a little younger than Marta thought.
‘I wonder what Acker would’ve thought of all this,’ Marta says, waving her hand around.
Madison shrugs. ‘She would never do this, she hated the medical system.’
‘Why are we?’
Madison says, ‘I guess we’re dominated by the patriarchy.’
They laugh together, too loudly. The blond woman glares at Madison and Marta. Her husband is next to her, blithely marking papers atop his leather satchel, never looking up.
‘The nurse call you, don’t you hear?’ she says, in a Russian accent. She is older than Marta thought, near fifty, she’d guess. The woman’s right hand, thrown up in exasperation, has liver spots all over the back.
Madison enters Room Three and Marta is put right next to her. Through the thin wall, she can hear the younger woman talking to the doctor in a high-pitched voice, saying ‘totally on board’ and ‘absolutely, got it,’ phrases Marta’s program analysts assure her with all day, only to screw up because they do not, in fact, get it.
‘Hey, Madison,’ she shouts through the wall.
‘Uh, yeah?’ comes the answer.
‘Wait up after you’re done, I want to ask you something.’
The voices in the next room drop to whispers until the door clunks shut and Marta hears the fast knock on her own.
‘How’s it going today?’ the doctor says, making the intentional, unwavering eye contact she’s been trained to give patients.
‘Pretty good,’ Marta says, and leans back with her phone over her face, entering Donut County as the probe penetrates her. Her hole swallows three cacti, a cow, an airplane hangar, Joshua Tree National Park.
When Marta comes out, she asks Madison to lunch, an invitation accepted with surprising haste. A little ultrasound goo clings to Madison’s bare knee, but Marta decides it’s better ignored.
They eat at a pricey seafood restaurant across the street from the park. Madison is an associate firm attorney and Carter trades short-term interest rates at Goldman. Marta smiles and makes the connections between herself and the younger woman. Oh, you went to college in Chicago? Me too. Oh, Northwestern? Well, no, I went to the U of C. Yes, very different vibes. Oh, my husband used to work in finance too. As their entrees arrive, a silence falls over the table.
‘Did you always want to be lawyer?’ Marta asks.
‘No,’ Madison says. She scoops up a shrimp in tomato-ouzo sauce and dumps it in her mouth, letting pink-red liquid drip on the tablecloth. Madison is surprisingly sloppy for someone accustomed to business lunches with clients. ‘I was an English teacher for a couple years, but I was so tired and the money…’
Marta nods. Those are the choices, when you’re young in New York: exhausted with money or exhausted without.
‘You’re pretty young,’ Marta says. ‘You know, for kids.’ She feels heat in her face, saying it.
‘Oh,’ Madison says. ‘Well, I don’t know if I want them. We’re freezing embryos for later.’
‘Oh,’ Marta says, surprised. ‘I assumed you were trying now.’
‘Nah. My insurance is really good. A lot of the women in my office are freezing until they make partner. Or not.’ Madison twirls pasta around her fork and sucks the noodles in, sauce collecting on her chin. If her work product is like her table manners, Marta guesses or not is probably in Madison’s future.
‘I guess that’s one way to do it,’ Marta says, jealous. ‘Nobody did that ten years ago.’
‘Yeah, the technology is better now,’ Madison says. ‘Did you say you’d been to the Amalfi Coast? We’re going in June, I think.’
Chocolate cake oozes a raspberry liquor from its center when Marta presses it with the side of her fork. Outside, the madness of June. Tourists are cajoled into pedicabs, carriage horses piss rivers in the gutter, traffic slides around Columbus Circle. Madison never asks if Marta wants a child. Probably assumes so, given Marta’s age. In her late thirties, people were always asking her. They’ve stopped now she’s forty.
Marta does the veteran bit, explains the medication protocols, the appointment schedule, how to get answers from the doctor, tips for more comfortable injections – Carter is afraid of needles. In the midst of a discussion about the arguable merits of luteal phase stimulation, Marta’s phone begins to buzz and won’t stop. Finally, she takes it from her purse. The Commissioner’s assistant.
‘Where the fuck are you? The hearing is almost over. The Commissioner had to read your testimony to the City Council. He doesn’t know shit about your programs.’
‘Oh fuck. Fuck, fuck.’ People at other tables turn their heads. Madison freezes, as if Marta were cursing at her. Panic courses from Marta’s head to her extremities before she gets control. ‘Look, David, I was at the doctor. I’ll call the committee chairman and see if we can do a follow-up before the budget is finalized.’
‘I don’t care if you were in bed with the fucking Mayor. The Commissioner wants to see you as soon as you’re back.’
When Marta gets off the phone, she looks up at Madison, who is embarrassed for her. In her calendar, the spot where the hearing should be is blank. It could be sabotage – twelve years in city bureaucracy, she has enough enemies – but it’s more likely incompetence. She sends an email to her admin staff. Subject line: ‘WTF?????’ She imagines the panic flowing from her body into those of her staff and feels a slight relief.
‘Everything okay?’ Madison asks, knowing the answer.
‘I fucked up,’ Marta says. ‘I have to go.’
‘Yeah, me too,’ Madison says. She glances at her phone, which has been on the table the whole meal. ‘I’m super busy right now.’
They step outside together. They don’t know each other well enough to hug, but a handshake is bizarre after discussing their sex organs for over an hour. Madison takes her hands from her coat pockets, holds them with her palms facing Marta and waggles them at her.
‘Bye! It was so great meeting you!’ Madison says.
‘Yes, good luck!’ Marta says.
Madison looks confused for a moment, then smiles. ‘You too.’
A pang rises in Marta as she watches the younger woman walk away, bold, bare legs in a skirt suit on a warm day, taking pounding strides in the kind of three-inch heels Marta used to love.
In the cab, Marta cringes at the flurry of responses to her brutal email. Omg, SO sorry, omg, don’t know how this happened, where are you, are you in the office? She deletes them all and watches the delis, nail salons, liquor stores race by. Tomorrow’s problems are already looming. A press conference has to be moved from MooHouse Dairy in Queens to the new BedStuy Foodtown, some union thing. The entrance to a Workforce1 center is littered with chicken bones daily. She imagines the chicken bones falling into her hole in Donut County, each one making it a little bigger, until the hole is big enough to swallow the center and everyone in it.
She closes Outlook and goes to send Madison a text before realizing they never shared their numbers.
Marta comes home to Brooklyn at six, her husband between seven and eight. They take turns cooking, they listen to music. Marta will put anything on, but Brian always enters with a craving for Bowie or Jay or Wu Tang, old school stuff. Before they eat, Marta lays on the bed while Brian prepares her injections. She feels a tenderness at the clean dishtowel he lays out, the green case of works, the gauze and alcohol swabs. The pad of her lower belly is thick with fat. He takes a pinch of it between his thumb and forefinger; she grips the bedspread. He sinks the short needle before injecting the cold liquid. It spreads through the fat cells and burns. Often the needle emerges clean, no mark, but sometimes blood springs up and bruises. Brian touches her belly more when they make love now. She touches it too, trying to assure it that its sacrifices are appreciated.
The night before her next egg retrieval, they eat Szechuan food and drink more wine than Marta’s supposed to have. They end up in bed, which is also discouraged the night before. Brian licks her with his Szechuan-warm tongue, then comes inside her, all the sperm he was supposed to save for the lab techs swimming through her uterus and into the tubes where it will wait in vain. Tomorrow, the doctors will knock her out for twenty minutes while they suck the eggs from the ovaries through a long needle. While she is asleep, Brian will masturbate to PornHub videos and aim into a cup. If there are eggs, they will be injected with a single sperm of Brian’s and then Marta, Brian and the lab techs will hope for the best, which is to say, the unlikely. After they make love, they do a ten-minute snuggle, Marta’s head on Brian’s chest. When he shifts under her to indicate he’s ready for sleep, she rolls onto her side and lifts her phone from the nightstand, parsing emails from program assistants still at work. She checks the message with the clinic’s instructions once more.
‘It says “Don’t forget to bring your SPERM SORUCE with you. Maybe I’ll get you a t-shirt with that.”’ They laugh, but Brian’s eyes search the ceiling and he stops smiling.
‘I really want it to happen this time,’ he says. ‘We shouldn’t have done that.’
‘It’s no big deal. They only need one sperm. Drink some water.’ She doesn’t know if the wine is a big deal, or the sperm, or the pot she smoked all through her thirties, or the ammonia from her hair dye, or the plastic from the Gladware she microwaves leftovers in. She doesn’t know if the cycle they skipped to go to on vacation was the one with the good eggs, or how many children they might’ve had if they’d started when they were twenty-five, when they met.
‘No, we should’ve been good. We know better,’ Brian says.
Marta rubs his chest, but he pushes her hand away. ‘You don’t even want a baby. Just say it, then you can stop sabotaging us.’
A firetruck blasts its horn in the street below. She stops rubbing but leaves her hand where it is.
‘Fine. I don’t want a child. I don’t want to be a mother.’ Marta says it and tears spring up. Her first statement is a lie, but the second is true. She tells Brian this.
‘I know,’ he says, the sadness in his voice making Marta wish he’d found a better, easier wife.
Marta’s ninth retrieval is on a brilliant Sunday in early fall. From the waiting room windows, she looks down on sweatered couples, children, joggers, dog-walkers, coffee-sippers, all taking full, relaxed strides instead of the short, hurried ones of the weekdays. When called into the OR, Marta lies on the table and hoists her thighs into the leg holders. The nurse straps them down and spreads them wide enough that Marta can smell the meatiness of her vagina. A female doctor she’s never seen before – there’s a rotating cast at this stage – enters and begins to rattle off procedural information the way a bored server might recite the daily specials. 70% chance of eggs, 30% chance of fertilization, are we using fresh sperm, please verify your name and date of birth on the screen, do you have any questions. Sets of hands apply cuffs, monitors, nasal oxygen. The doctor doesn’t look at Marta once, merely sits on a stool between her legs, waiting. All of this is familiar by now, the hands working on her like a race car during a pit stop. She thinks suddenly of the pencil-drawn cunts in Acker’s books, the sketches interrupting the text, the ovular folds looking almost like disfigured hands in prayer. But here, Marta’s cunt isn’t of interest to anyone, only a tunnel on the way to the real treasure. Marta keeps her eyes on the face of the anesthesiologist, Edita, a kind woman from the Eastern bloc who rubs the top of her hand after inserting the IV line into Marta’s vein. Her voice is a good mother’s voice when it says, ‘You’ll be starting to feel sleepy now.’
Marta answers, ‘Yes, I feel it,’ as her forebrain blurs and blinks out.
During the retrieval, Marta dreams of the anesthesiologist. She wakes up saying, ‘Oh, Edita, I dreamed we were making pickles in a big farmhouse kitchen.’ Two nurses talk over Marta’s head – ’Some of them dream,’ one says – and wheel her into recovery. Marta types a text to her husband, but the effects of the Propofol make her spelling atrocious. She picks up the book she brought – The Girls of Slender Means – but the words drift on the page. In the next curtained area, a woman is telling the nurse she doesn’t want apple juice because she once vomited it up at a school picnic. The voice is familiar, if groggy.
‘Madison?’ Marta asks.
‘Yeah,’ Madison says. ‘Who’s that?’
‘How many eggs did you get?’
Marta has only ever gotten two. ‘God, I hate you,’ Marta says. Madison laughs, and the nurse too.
‘I hate every one of you cunts in here,’ Marta says. The nurse goes quiet but Madison laughs more loudly. Marta laughs too, and it makes her punctured ovary ache.
The nurse pops her head between the curtains. ‘Sweetie, relax yourself. You’re almost out of here.’
Madison is released first and stops at the foot of Marta’s recliner on her way to the dressing room. A drop of bright red blood falls from under Madison’s gown onto the grey linoleum.
‘Hey,’ she says. Madison is pale and knock-kneed, trying to keep the blood from dripping. Her blue surgical booties are pulled over socks with cats on them. Marta wishes she could stand and pull Madison to her, but she’s still cuffed to the blood pressure machine. She smiles instead. Warmly, she hopes.
‘Sorry about before,’ Marta says, her embarrassment rising as the Propofol wears off. ‘Nine is great. You won’t have to do this again, I bet.’
‘I guess. It’s different than I thought it would be,’ Madison says. ‘Hey, is everything okay with your boss?’
‘Yeah,’ Marta says. She’s surprised Madison remembers; she herself has almost forgotten that particular screw-up. There have been so many in the last few months, they all blur together. ‘He’s a dick, but, what’s new?’
‘Speaking of,’ Madison says. She taps at her phone and rubs a hand over her face. ‘Ugh, client meeting at four.’
‘Is Carter picking you up?’
Madison shakes her head. ‘The Fed chair gave a speech at noon. Market went nuts. Whatever, my office is like ten blocks from here. I think I’m good.’
Then she is gone, leaving Marta to her apple juice and Donut County. Another woman opens the dressing room door and Marta catches a glimpse of Madison wincing as she zips tight suit pants over her belly.
Two days of nothing in the vagina, then Marta masturbates daily to soothe her stretched and punctured parts, to provide a correction to the indifferent manipulations at the clinic, to re-sexualize her body enough to sleep with Brian again. Three more days until the email that will tell them whether the embryos made it to Day 5 or had to be discarded. In her office, Marta watches time-lapse videos of embryonic development. The fertilized egg trembles and shimmers, divides into two cells, then four, a fat pinwheel. Day 3 is like a cluster of soap bubbles, each new cell blurping out as if someone is blowing air into it. Day 4 is a twitching, blurry morass that reminds Marta of a just-opened oyster. But Day 5 becomes distinct again, a fetus-producing clump gathering on one side while the rest of the embryo is neatly rimmed by cells that will become the placenta. She doesn’t watch out of hope – many of her embryos made it this far, only to have trisomy of some chromosomes, or monosomy of others – but out of pleasure, the kind of idle pleasure she might have perusing the online photos of a resort she’d booked for months in the future. A program assistant, Rebecca, comes around the desk to show her edits on a presentation and accidently clicks the video tab on Marta’s screen.
The girl watches for a moment, then frowns. ‘Oh, is that yours?’
‘Yes,’ Marta says, though it isn’t.
‘Pretty cool,’ Rebecca says. ‘I mean, yeah. I mean, it’ll be really hard to have you be out, I don’t see much getting done here. But you’ll come back, right?’
‘Rebecca, I’m not even pregnant yet.’
‘Right, of course. It’s just, we really need you. I don’t know what we’d do without you. If you go, I mean.’
Marta slashes at the paper copy of the presentation with a red pen. Word will get around now, women will pull her aside to tell her to eat spinach and chocolate or nuts and fish, to give up liquor and coffee, to meditate, to exercise. But perhaps that’s what she wants – for others to know, to care. Behind her, Rebecca is breathing heavily and shifting from one spike-heeled foot to the other. The girl is terrified, Marta realizes. She is terrified of any mistakes she’s made and what making them will mean for who she can become. She is terrified of Marta, and of Marta’s not liking her, not loving her, really.
‘Rebecca, sit down,’ Marta says, and she does. Marta pushes the paper copy across the desk until it slides under the girl’s hungry eyes. ‘Good work. You’re almost there.’
The day is warm for November, but the air conditioning has been decommissioned for winter. Sweat breaks on Rebecca’s forehead the instant she hears Marta’s words. The girl nods rapidly as Marta explains her changes. Rebecca agrees with every one and, what’s more, she is listening deeply, learning to think how Marta thinks. Whether this is to please Marta, or out of real respect for Marta’s way of thinking, Marta can’t tell. Probably Rebecca herself doesn’t know the difference. When Rebecca leaves, Marta goes to her office door and gazes out at the cubicles. An instant awareness suffuses the air, tension rising as heads turn toward her, a mild excitement tinged with anxiety. She wonders if this sensation of power, her relationship to the people she oversees, has anything to do with motherhood, or whether motherhood is defined by the fearful opposite, a powerlessness so profound she might collapse under its weight.
On a Friday night in December, Marta and Brian drink martinis at the Midtown Ritz. Every year at Christmastime, they make a tour of the classic hotel bars, beginning at an already-packed Bemelmans at four, and ending in the Ritz’s subdued interior lounge with its maple burl paneling and staid pine wreath. They wear their best suits, slightly rumpled by now from the close air in crowded places and the snow that flurried onto them as they rushed in and out of cabs. For the last two years, they’ve toasted the end of their childfree life and mourned fondly the rituals, like this one, that might be sacrificed to a baby. Marta remembers her internal pleading in previous years – Just one more year of freedom, please. The pleading is gone now, replaced by a weariness – Christ, let’s get on with it already.
This year, Marta and Brian are drunker than usual, their tolerance having declined with age. They toast the city, and their love, and the single frozen embryo that tested genetically normal a week ago. A 70% chance, once transferred to the uterus. Not a sure thing, but close.
‘What a fucking year,’ Brian says, over and over.
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ Marta says, laughing.
‘It hurts when you say that. Like I’m an asshole just because I’m the man. I could be any asshole in here, when you talk to me like that. I could be that guy, over there.’
Brian points at an older, heavy-jawed man wearing a signet ring and typing on his phone while his young date talks animatedly.
‘You couldn’t be that guy. Besides, that girl’s a pro.’
‘So I couldn’t even attract a hooker, that’s what you’re saying?’
Brian’s eyes are glassy and unfocused. The past few months, so many obscure fights have begun this way – suddenly, incoherently. Marta reaches across the mixed nuts and folds her hand in his.
‘Let’s get a room,’ she says.
They go to the desk, but the hotel is full at this season. The Park Lane next door is full too, and the Essex. Brian steps into the street and stretches out his leather-sheathed hand. A yellow taxi sluices toward the curb.
‘Come on, let’s go home,’ Brian says, but Marta refuses.
‘No, fuck that. We’re not giving up.’
He closes the cab door. They pass the matchstick condos and the building where the embryo is a speck next to hundreds of other specks in a liquid nitrogen canister. They walk up the East Side, into the 70s. The snow has gotten grainy and is whirling in little dust-devils on the pavement. The Mark has a room, at twelve hundred a night.
Marta shrugs. ‘We don’t have to start the college fund tomorrow,’ she quips, but Brian is already halfway out the gilded revolving door.
Marta’s feet no longer feel attached to her body, but her leather soles crunch rock salt. An understanding has developed – they will keep walking, though the search for a hotel is over. Near 80th Street, just outside the park, they arrive at a spot they both remember. Another snowy night, a New Year’s Eve before Uber, their first together in the city, when they couldn’t get a cab and finally had to find a place to pee. They climb over the low stone wall and walk in the new snow. They kiss. Fifteen years unfold and refold, Marta’s mind toggling between the exhilaration and hilarity of that New Year’s night – did they make snow angels in their formalwear? – and the tender, gentle quiet now between her and Brian.
A little before one, they turn around and head downtown, the sound of their steps dulled by accumulating slush. Fifth Avenue is a river of red brake lights, all the office holiday partygoers on their way home. Marta’s is next Thursday, an after-hours potluck in the ornate marble lobby of Family Court. Lexington is dark at the street level but, higher up, Christmas lights line window frames and a few apartments glow with yellow lamplight. At 53rd, they wait to cross, alone except for a few smokers loitering beneath the Citigroup building. As Marta passes, she hears familiar plinking, the music from Donut County, issuing from a phone. The light from a screen illuminates a known face. Madison is standing a few feet away from the rest of the group. Her coat tents out unnaturally at the waist. A new layer of fat nestles under her chin.
‘Hey,’ Marta says. Brian is already ten paces ahead.
Madison’s eyes lift from the game to appraise her. ‘Marta. From the clinic,’ Marta says, smiling.
‘Hey! Wow, shit.’ Madison looks sheepish. She comes in for a quick hug, the warm screen of her phone tapping the back of Marta’s neck. A hard, round belly meets Marta’s soft one. Six months along, at least.
‘Look at you! I thought you were waiting.’ Marta says. Her voice is unnaturally high. Her diaphragm aches. She takes deep breaths to calm it, but threads of despair escape and snake toward her face. Marta smiles more vigorously.
‘Yeah, I thought so too,’ Madison laughs. She rests her hand on her belly with the pride of a teenage boy with his first car. She doesn’t realize she’s showing off.
‘Oh. Happened the old-fashioned way then?’
‘No,’ Madison says. ‘We just…decided.’
‘You started to want it, didn’t you?’ Marta asks. It takes her by surprise. It sounds like an accusation, but she doesn’t mean it that way. She hears Brian behind her, lingering patiently. She’s always running into people she knows.
‘No,’ Madison says, almost apologizing. ‘But I hated wondering if I ever would. I couldn’t stand it.’
‘Right,’ Marta says. She feels her lips press into a tight line.
Madison glances at the clutch of smokers – her co-workers – and grins with exhaustion. ‘Sorry, I’m on a shitty case, sometimes I need a drag. Not a whole one or anything.’ She gestures up to a row of florescent-lit windows in the otherwise dimmed building. ‘I just…’ She squeezes her eyes shut. ‘Fuck, whatever. I can’t wait to get out of here.’
‘It’s okay,’ Marta says. ‘Do you know what it is?’
‘A girl,’ Madison says. ‘That’s what I wanted. They let us pick.’
‘That’s hopeful,’ Marta says. ‘The way things are going for women these days.’ Marta gives a tight laugh and Madison steps back. Marta doesn’t know her embryo’s sex. She doesn’t want to fantasize. But every time she does fantasize, it’s a girl.
‘Are you guys still trying?’
Marta nods and looks at the ground. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to give up.’ She’s never said this, not to herself or anyone else. ‘I want a baby.’ Shame comes as soon as the words are out of her mouth. Shame of harboring such a trite, feminine desire. Of wanting something other women – women who have not put in any of the work she has – end up with after a night of tequila shots and bad choices. Of the enormous mistake she’s made – she’s too late, waited too long, too selfish, believed she could have her cake and eat it too. She deserves this, every difficulty, every minute of pain. Stop. Stop wanting. She is afraid to lift her eyes to Madison’s. She doesn’t want to see the assurances gathering. It’ll be okay. It’ll happen for you. There are lots of ways to be a parent.
‘You want a baby,’ Madison says. Marta looks up. In Madison’s voice, the phrase is not pathetic or mocking or anxious. A simple statement, in need of no defense.
‘Yeah,’ Marta says. She grins at the thought. Her throat is tight, but her body feels light and wide. Madison smiles back.
An ambulance wails by and Madison rubs the side of her stomach.
‘Ugh, sirens make her go nuts. Not a New York baby yet. I should go inside,’ Madison says. The group of smokers is already back in the lobby.
‘Of course. You must be freezing. Sorry, I didn’t even introduce you to my husband.’ Brian and Madison exchange the pleasantries of strangers who are being polite for the sake of a third party. Madison does the hand waggle at Marta again. ‘Bye, good to see you.’
‘Good luck,’ Marta says. She means it. Madison smiles, but doesn’t say it back.
‘Who was that again?’ Brian asks, hailing another cab.
‘A woman I know,’ Marta says.
Image © Donut County / Ben Esposito / Annapurna Interactive