Imogene is tiny, all-white. Spun-sugar hair, pale forehead, chalky arms. Imogene the Ice Queen. Imogene the Milk Princess. A black spiderweb is tattooed on her left biceps. She is a resource allocation manager for Cyclops Engineering in Laramie, Wyoming.

Herb is medium-sized, bald, and of no special courage. His smile is a clumsy mosaic of teeth. Veins trail like root formations down his forearms. He teaches molecular phylogeny to undergraduates. He and Imogene live in a single-storey brick and cedar on five acres fifteen miles from town. Sage, most of it is, and skeleton weed, but they have a few cottonwoods in a dry creek bed, and a graveyard of abandoned tyres Herb is trying to clear, and whole bevies of quail that sometimes sprint across the driveway in the early mornings. Imogene has twenty-two birdfeeders, some pole-mounted, some suspended from eaves, platform feeders and globe feeders, coffee-can feeders and feeders that look like little Swiss chalets, and every evening, when she comes home from work, she drags a stepladder from one to the next, toting a bucket of mixed seeds, keeping them full.

In September of 2002, Imogene swallows her last birth-control tablet and she and Herb go out to the driveway so she can crush the empty pill container with the flat edge of the wood axe. This excites Herb: the shards of plastic in the gravel, the taut cords in Imogene’s throat. He has been thinking about children all the time lately; he imagines himself coming home from class to find offspring on all the furniture.

Over the next thirty mornings Herb and Imogene have sex twenty times. Each time, afterwards, Imogene tilts her hips towards the ceiling and shuts her eyes and tries to imagine it as Herb described: vast schools of his sperm streaming through her cervix, crossing her uterus, scaling her fallopian tubes. In her imagination their chromosomes stitch themselves together with the smallest imaginable sound: two teeth in a zipper locking.

Then: sun at the windows. Herb makes toast. A zygote like a tiny question mark drifts into her womb.

 

Nothing happens. One month, one period. Two months, two periods. After four months, on New Year’s Eve, wind hurling sleet across the driveway, Herb cries a bit.

‘I’m just getting the pill out of my system,’ Imogene says. ‘This stuff doesn’t happen overnight.’

Then it’s 2003. Imogene begins to notice pregnant women everywhere. They clamber out of minivans at the Loaf ‘n Jug; they hunker in Wal-Mart aisles holding tiny pyjamas to the light. A pregnant repairwoman services the office copier; a pregnant client spills orange juice in the conference room. What defects does Imogene have that these women do not?

She reads on the internet that it takes couples, on average, one year to get pregnant. So. No problem. Plenty of time. She is only thirty-three years old, after all. Thirty-four in March.

At Herb’s prompting, Imogene begins sticking a thermometer in her mouth every morning when she wakes up. He plots her temperatures on a sheet of graph paper. We want, he tells her, to time the ovulation spike. Each time they have sex, he draws a little X on their chart.

Three more months, three more periods. Four more months, four more periods. Herb assaults Imogene’s peaking temperature with platoons of Xs. She lies in the bed with her toes pointed to the ceiling and Herb rummages around on top of her and grunts and the spermatozoa paddle forth.

And nothing happens. Imogene cramps, finds blood, whispers into the phone, ‘I’m a fucking Swiss timepiece.’

The university lets out. The Brewer’s blackbirds return. The lark sparrows return. Imogene plods through the backyard filling her feeders. Not so long ago, she thinks, I’d be stoned in public for this. Herb would divorce me. Our crops would be razed. Shamans would stick garlic cloves into my reproductive tracts.

 

In August, the biology department administrator, Barb Swanson, gives birth to a girl. Herb and Imogene bring carnations to the hospital. The infant is shrivelled and squinty and miraculous-looking. She wears a cotton hat. Her skull is crimped and oblong.

Herb says, ‘We’re so excited for you, Barb.’

And he is excited, Imogene can see it; he bounces on his toes; he grins; he asks Barb a series of questions about the umbilical cord.

Imogene stands in the doorway and asks herself if she is generous enough to be excited for Barb, too. Nurses barge past. Drops of dried blood are spattered on the linoleum beside the hospital bed; they look like tiny brown saw-blades. A nurse unwraps the infant and its tiny diaphragm rises and falls beneath the thin basket of its ribs and its tiny body seems to Imogene like the distillation of a dozen generations, Barb’s mother’s mother’s mother, an entire pedigree stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the blue tributaries of veins pulsing beneath its skin.

She thinks: Why not me?

 

Wyoming tilts away from the sun. Goodbye, wood ducks. Goodbye, house wrens. Goodbye to the little yellow warbler who landed on the window feeder yesterday and winked at Imogene before continuing on. The abandoned tyres freeze into the earth. The birds make their brutal migrations.

 

‘What about you two?’ Herb’s brother asks. This is Thanksgiving, in Minnesota. Herb’s mother cocks her head, suddenly interested. Herb’s nephews clack their silverware against the table like drummers. ‘You guys thinking about kids?’

Herb looks at Imogene. ‘Sure. You never know.’

Imogene’s bite of pumpkin pie turns to cement in her mouth. Herb’s sister-in-law says, ‘Well, don’t wait too long. You don’t want to be rolling to flute recitals in a wheelchair.’

There are other moments. Herb’s two-year-old nephew climbs uninvited into Imogene’s lap and hands her a book called Big Fish, Little Fish. ‘Biiig!’ he says, turning the pages. ‘Biiiig fish!’ He squirms against her chest; his scalp smells like a deep, cold lake in summer.

A day later Herb tugs Imogene’s sleeve in the airport and points: there are twins by some newspaper machines with tow heads and overalls. Maybe three years old. They are jumping on the tips of their toes and singing about a tiny spider getting washed out of a waterspout, and when they are done they clap and grin and sprint in circles around their mother.

 

When Imogene was twenty-one, her parents were killed simultaneously when their Buick LeSabre skidded off Route 506 a mile from home and flipped into a ditch. There was no ice on the road surface and no coming traffic and her father’s Buick was in good repair. The police called it an accident. For two weeks Imogene and Herb stood in a variety of living rooms holding Triscuits on little plates and then Imogene graduated from college and promptly moved to Morocco.

She lived three years in a one-room apartment in Rabat with no refrigerator and one window. She could not wear shorts or skirts and could not go outside with her hair wet. Some days she spent the whole day in her kitchen, reading novels. Her letters from that time were several pages long and Herb would read them again and again, leaning over the dashboard of his truck:

There are two kinds of pigeons here. There are the thick-looking ones, rock pigeons, the ones we see back home. They moan on the roof at night. But there are also these other pigeons with white patches on their necks. They’re big birds and gather in huge wheels and float above the rooftops, dark and gleaming, turning up there like big mobiles made of metal. Some mornings crows dive-bomb them and the pigeons will start shrieking and from my bed it sounds like little airborne children shouting for help.

She never mentioned her parents. Once she wrote: No one here wears seat belts. Another time: I hope you’re keeping bags of salt in the back of the truck. That was as close as she came. Eventually she attached herself to a Peace Corps initiative and began working with blind women.

More than once in those years Herb stopped outside Destinations Travel in downtown Laramie and watched the four-foot plastic Earth turn in the window but could not bring himself to buy an aeroplane ticket. They had been dating only four months before her parents died. And she had not invited him.

He wrote his mundane replies: a hike to a lake, a new cereal he liked. Love, Herb, he’d conclude, feeling resolute and silly at the same time. He worried he wrote too much. He worried he did not write enough.

 

In 2004, after sixteen months of failing to get pregnant, Imogene tells her gynaecologist. He says workups can be scheduled. Endocrinologists can be contacted. Urologists can be contacted. They have plenty of options.

‘It’s not time,’ he says, ‘to despair.’

‘Not time to despair,’ Imogene tells Herb.

‘I’m not despairing,’ he says.

They have Aids tests. They have hepatitis tests. Two days later Herb masturbates into an eight-ounce specimen cup and drives sixty-six miles east on 1-80 to a urologist in Cheyenne with the cup in a little Christmas bag meant for office gifts because he and Imogene have run out of brown-paper bags. The bag rides on the bench seat beside him, little Santas grinning all over it. His sample barely covers the bottom. He wonders: Do some men fill the whole cup?

The same afternoon Imogene leaves work early to have her insides scraped out with a speculum. She has radio-opaque dye injected through her cervix into her uterus and all the way up her fallopian tubes. Then she is wheeled into an X-ray room where a nurse with peanut-butter breath and Snoopy earrings drapes a lead apron over Imogene’s chest and asks her to remain completely motionless. The nurse steps away; Imogene hears the machine come to life, hears the high whine of electrons piling up. She closes her eyes, tries not to move. The light pours into her.

 

The phone rings six days later. The doctors have discussed the situation. Dual-factor infertility. Imogene gets three words: polycystic ovary syndrome. Herb gets two words: severe deficits. In motility, in density, in something else. Only three per cent of his sperm are rated viable.

Herb’s face appears to crumple. He sets his half-eaten wedge of cantaloupe on the counter and goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. Imogene finds herself staring into the space between the countertop and the refrigerator. There is dust down there and a single Cheerio. A groan comes from the bathroom. Then a flush. With one hand Imogene gently probes her abdomen with her fingers.

 

All morning she sits at her computer and drowns in memory. A bus climbs through layers of cold air, mountains the colour of cardboard, a phosphorous sky. Gazelles in a courtyard pick through rubbish. Sheepdogs doze on village rooftops.

‘No parents, no husband, no children,’ a blind woman once told her. Her gaze was a vacuum. Imogene did not know where to look. ‘I am a tribe of one.’

Her computer screen swims. She rests her forehead on the desk.

 

‘Are you mad? Are you mad at me, Imogene?’ Herb cannot help himself: the refrain becomes almost visible, a whirl of haze, like fan blades turning in front of his face.

‘I’m not mad,’ she says. Their failures, she decides, were inevitable from the start. Pre-written. Genetic. Their inadequacies, their timidities, their differences from everybody else. She had always been confused, always living far from town, always reading, always saying no to junior high dance invitations. Imogene the Ice Queen. Imogene the Pipedream. Too petite, too pale, too pretty. Too easily scorched.

‘Everything is fine,’ she tells Herb during dinner, during Jeopardy. Ten years of trying not to get pregnant and now it turns out they never could.

Herb develops his own theory: it’s the tyres out in the yard. A whole graveyard of them, seventeen metals, sixteen types of hydrocarbons, sixty-one organic compounds, and they’ve gotten into the well water, the shower, the pasta, and now the poisons are inside their bodies. Fungus, cancer, bad luck incorporated.

More tests. Imogene has a laparoscopy during which a doctor punctures her ovaries a dozen times with an electrosurgical needle. Herb masturbates into another cup, makes another hour-and-a-half drive to Cheyenne, drops his pants in front of another urologist.

Wait another six days. Get another phone call. Confirmed diagnosis. Polycystic ovary syndrome. Severe deficits. Imogene blinks. She had been thinking she could quit her job. She had been thinking she could start cooking Moroccan food, Tunisian food: an infant strapped to her chest, pots steaming atop the range. Maybe raise some hens. Instead she starts a regimen of glucophage and gets diarrhoea for a week.

This is not real suffering, she tells herself. This is only a matter of reprogramming her picture of the future. Of understanding that the line of descendancy is not continuous but arbitrary. That in every genealogy someone will always be last: last leaf on the family tree, last stone in the family plot. Hasn’t she learned this before?

After school Herb walks out into the big pasture behind the house and works on the tyres. They lie so deep in places, so much dust and snow blown into them, that as he hacks out one, or the pieces of it, he inevitably finds another beneath. Sometimes he wonders if there are tyres all the way down to the centre of the world. He chops them into pieces with a maul, shovels the pieces into his truck. It’s cold and there is only the wind in the grass, and the ice clinking softly in the cottonwoods. After a couple of hours, he straightens, looks at the house, small from there, a matchbox beneath the sky. The tiny figure of Imogene trudges through the sage, filling her feeders, dragging a five-gallon bucket with one arm, stepladder with the other, her legs lost in the haze.

 

They agree to visit a fertility clinic. It is eighty minutes away in good weather. Parked nearest the entrance is a Mercedes with the licence plate: bbymkr.

The doctor sits behind a glass-topped desk and draws upside down. He draws a uterus, fallopian tubes, two ovaries. He draws instruments going in and harvesting eggs. On the wall is a framed poster of a giant vagina and its inner workings. Beside it, a framed photo of three chubby daughters leaning against a Honda.

‘Okay,’ Herb is saying. ‘All right.’

Does Imogene have any questions? Imogene has no questions. She has a thousand questions.

‘You draw upside down really well,’ she says, and tries a laugh.

The doctor gives a quarter-smile.

‘Practice,’ he says.

The finance lady is nice, smells like cigarettes. They can get loans. Interest rates are swell. Her daughter did three ‘cycles’. She points to photos.

The procedure, including medications, embryo lab and anaesthesiologist, will cost $13,000. On the drive home acronyms twist through their brains: IUI, ICSI, FSH, HCG, IVF. A herd of antelope stands in the scraps of snow just off the interstate, their shadows crisp and stark on the slope behind them, their eyes flat and black. They flash past: there, then gone. Herb reaches for Imogene’s hand. The sky is huge and depthless.

 

They sign up. A box of drugs arrives. Herb unpacks it into the cabinet in their bathroom. Imogene can’t look. Herb can hardly look. There are four different Ziplocs of syringes. Vials and pill bottles. Video cassettes. Two sharps containers. Four hundred alcohol wipes. Fourteen hundred dollars of synthetic hormones.

Imogene’s protocol starts with, of all things, oral contraceptives. To regulate her cycle, the booklet says. She pours a glass of milk and studies the little pink tablet.

Dusk falls across the range. Herb grades quizzes at the kitchen table. The clouds deepen, darken. Imogene walks out into the yard with her stepladder and seed bucket and the pill dissolving in her gut, and the silence extends and the sky dims and the birdfeeders seem miles apart and it is a feeling like dying.

 

Each time she hears a syringe tear away from its wrapper, Imogene feels slightly sick. Seventeen days of an ovarian stimulator called Lupron. Nine days of follicle-stimulating hormones. Then two weeks of progesterone to prepare her uterus for pregnancy. Then vaginal suppositories. If she gets pregnant, eight more weeks of shots. Sometimes a little dot of blood follows the needle out and Herb covers it with an alcohol wipe and holds it there and closes his eyes.

After the shots, he lays out her pills, five of them. She eats toast spread with apple sauce before work and swallows the capsules on her way out the door.

‘Tell me you love me, Imogene,’ Herb calls from the kitchen, and in the garage, the car window up, Imogene may or may not hear. The Corolla starts. The garage door rolls up, rolls down. Her tyres hiss in the cinders. The prairie shifts under its carpet of ice.

 

Springtime. Imogene’s ovaries inflate on schedule. They become water balloons, dandelion heads, swollen peonies. The doctor measures her follicles on an ultrasound monitor: her interior is a blizzard of pixels. Nine millimetres. Thirteen millimetres. The doctor wants them to grow to sixteen, to twenty. They root for numbers: thirty eggs, twenty embryos. Three blastocysts. One foetus.

Halfway through April, Ed Collins, the regional manager at Cyclops, calls Imogene into his office and chides her for taking off too many afternoons.

‘How many doctor’s appointments can a person have?’ He fingers buttons on his polo shirt.

‘I know. I’m sorry.’

‘Are you sick?’

She looks at her shoes. ‘No. I’m not sick.’

 

The more oestrogen that floods Imogene’s body, the prettier she gets.

Her lips are almost crimson, her hair is a big opalescent crown. Down both arms Herb can see the purple spiderwork of her veins.

Hormones whirl through her cells. She sweats; she freezes. She limps around in sweatpants with her ovaries stuffed full of follicles and her follicles stuffed with ova. ‘It’s like having two full bladders,’ she says. Before potholes she has to slow the Corolla to a crawl.

Herb rides beside her with his scrotum throbbing between his thighs, traitorous, too warm. He has eighty-three protein structure papers to grade on his desk. He is fairly sure he will have to charge this month’s house payment on his credit card. He tells himself: Other people have it worse. Other people, like Harper Ousby, the women’s basketball coach, get their ribs sawed open and the valves of their hearts replaced with parts from the hearts of animals.

Clouds pile up at the horizon, plum-coloured and full of shoulders.

 

On May Day Herb masturbates into another cup and drives Imogene and his sample to the fertility clinic and the doctor goes into Imogene’s ovaries, aspirating her follicular fluid with what looks like a stainless-steel hydra: a dozen or so segmented steel snakes at one end and a vacuum at the other. Herb sits in the waiting room and listens for its hiss but hears only the whirr and click of the heat register, and the receptionists’ radio: Rod Stewart.

After an hour they call him back. Imogene is shivering on a chair in the RN’s office. Her lips are grey and slow and she asks him several times if she threw up. He says he’s not sure but doesn’t think so.

‘I remember throwing up,’ she says. She sips Gatorade from a paper cup. He puts a pad in her panties and unties her gown and pulls her sweatpants up over her legs. Strange to think there is less of her now: she has been separated from a couple dozen of her ova.

For three days they want the eggs to grow, one cell cleaving into two, two into four. The delicacy of mitosis: a snow crystal settling on a branch, the single beat of a moth’s wings.

‘I was in Africa,’ Imogene says. ‘There were all these vultures in the sky.’

 

Two days later a nurse calls to tell them only six eggs have successfully fertilized, but two have become viable eight-cell embryos. Again they drive to Cheyenne. The doctor installs both embryos inside Imogene with a syringe and a long tube like a half-cooked spaghetti noodle. The whole process takes thirty seconds.

She rides back to Laramie lying across the bench seat, the sky racing past the windshield. At the doctor’s instructions, she lies in bed for three days, eating yoghurt, turning her hip to Herb every twelve hours for her injections. Then she returns to work, bruised, still full, an invisible puncture wound in each ovary. She finds herself walking very carefully. She finds herself thinking: Twins? A week later Herb drives her back to the clinic for a blood test.

The results are negative. Implantation did not occur. No pregnancy. No baby.

 

Things between Herb and Imogene go quiet. Invoices arrive in the mail, one after another. For extra income Herb teaches a summer section of general biology. But he is continually losing his train of thought in the middle of lectures. One afternoon, halfway through a chalk drawing of basic protein synthesis, maybe twenty-five seconds go by during which all he can imagine are doctors scrabbling between Imogene’s legs, dragging golfball-sized eggs from her ovaries.

There are snickers. He drops the chalk. A tall sophomore in the front, a scholarship swimmer named Misty Friday, is wearing camouflage shorts and a shirt with about a hundred laces in front of her breasts, like something a knight might wear under his armour. Her calves are impossibly long.

‘Professor Ross?’

She chews the ends of the laces on her shirt. Herb’s vision skews. The floor seems to be making slow revolutions beneath him. The ceiling tiles inch lower. He dismisses class.

 

Imogene and Herb buy their groceries, eat their dinners, watch their shows. One evening she crouches at the edge of the driveway and watches a mantis dribble eggs on to a stalk of weed, pushing out a seemingly endless stream of them, tapioca pearls in an amber goo. Three minutes later a squadron of ants has carried off the whole load in their tiny jaws. What, she wonders, happened to those two embryos? Did they slip out of her and get lost in the bedsheets? Did they fall out at work, go tumbling down her pant leg and get lost in that awful beige carpet?

Herb tries her in June, and again on the fourth of July: ‘Do you think we could try another cycle?’

Needles. Telephone calls. Failure. ‘Not yet,’ she mutters. ‘Not right now.’

They lie awake beside each other, speechless, and look for patterns in the ceiling plaster. Ten years of marriage and hadn’t they imagined children by now? A foetus curled in an ocean of amnion, a daughter standing at the back door with mud on her sneakers and a baby bird in her palm? Seventy-five trillion cells in their bodies and they can’t get two of them together.

Here is another problem: the clichés. There are too many clichés in this, armies of them. Imogene’s least favourites are the most obvious and usually come from the mothers at work: You’re not getting any younger. Or: I envy your freedom—you can do whatever you want!

Equally bad is the moment at the biology department summer picnic when Goss, the new hire in plant sciences, announces that his wife is pregnant. ‘My boys can swim,’ he declares, and pushes his glasses higher on his nose and claps Herb on the shoulder.

There is the cliché when Imogene tells Herb (Saturday night, Sunday night) that she’s fine, that she doesn’t need to talk about it; when Herb overhears a student in the hall call him a ‘pretty ballsy professor’; when Imogene passes by two receptionists at lunch and hears one say, ‘I can’t even walk past Jeff without getting pregnant.’

Stretch marks, baby formula, stroller brands; if you’re listening for something, it’s all you’ll hear.

‘Tell me anything, Imogene,’ Herb says. ‘But please don’t tell me you’re fine.’

She keeps her attention on the ceiling. Her name hangs in the space between them. She does not answer.

 

The chapter about human reproduction in the textbook on Herb’s desk is called ‘The Miracle of Life’. Imogene looks up miracle: An event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature. She looks up fine: Made up of tiny particles. Or: Very thin, sharp, or delicate.

Herb calls his brother in Minnesota. His brother tries to understand but has problems of his own: lay-offs, a sick kid.

‘At least you must be having lots of fun trying,’ he says. ‘Right?’

Herb makes a joke, hangs up. A room away, Imogene rests her head against the refrigerator: Outside the wind is flying down from the mountains, and there haven’t been headlights on the road all night, and all Imogene can hear is the whirring of the dishwasher, and her husband’s low sobbing, and the hot wind tearing through the sage.

 

Laramie: a film of dust on the windshield, a ballet of cars turning in acres of parking lot, Home Depot, Office Depot, the Dollar Store, sun filtering through distant smoke, battered men scratching lottery tickets on a bus-stop bench. Two brisk ladies in long dresses hold salads in plastic boxes. An aeroplane whines past. Everything deadeningly normal. How much longer can she live here?

They fight. He says she is detached. He says she is not good at dealing with grief. In her eyes leaves blow back and forth. Detached, Imogene thinks, and remembers a time-lapse video she saw once of a starfish detaching from a dock post and roaming the sea floor on its thousand tiny feet.

She retreats to the garage and runs her hands through her buckets of seeds.

He chops tyres until little stars burst behind his eyes. In a parallel world, he thinks, I’m a father of nine. In a parallel world I’m waiting beneath an umbrella for my children to come out of the rain.

 

The summer session winds down. The swimmer in the front row, Misty Friday, wants to conference about her take-home exam. Her tank top is sheeny and her shoulders are freckled and her hair is baled up in golden elastics. The classroom empties. Herb takes a seat in the desk beside Misty’s and she leans across the gap and they put their heads over a paragraph she has written about eukaryotes. Soon the building is empty. A lawnmower drones outside. Houseflies buzz against the windows. Misty smells like skin lotion and chlorine. Herb is looking at the perfect, fat loops of her cursive, feeling as if he is about to fall forward into the page, when he calls her—by accident—sweetheart.

She blinks twice. Licks her lips, maybe. Hard to tell.

He stumbles: ‘All cells have what, Misty? Cell membrane, cytoplasm and genetic material, right? In yeast, mice, people, it doesn’t matter…’

Misty smiles, taps the tip of her pen against the desk, gazes down the aisle.

The mountains turn brown. Range fires ring the sun with smoke. Imogene finds herself unable to summon the energy to drive home from work. She cannot even summon the will to get up from her desk. Screensaver fish swim across the computer monitor and the daylight fades to dimness and then to black and still Imogene sits in her plastic chair and feels the weight of the building settling all around her.

A person can get up and leave her life. The world is that big. You can take a $4,000 inheritance and walk into an airport and before your heartache catches up with you, you can be in the middle of a desert city listening to dogs bark and no one for 3,000 miles will know your name.

Nothingness is the permanent thing. Nothingness is the rule. Life is the exception.

It is almost midnight when she drives the dark road home, and in the garage she leans against the steering wheel before going in and feels shame draw up her torso and leach through her armpits.

It should be straightforward, she thinks. Either I can have babies or I can’t have babies. And then I move on. But nothing is straightforward.

 

In August Herb gets an email:

From: misty45@hotmail.com
Subject: Neurons
so if like you were saying the other day in class neurons are what make us feel everything we feel and each receptor works the same pumping those ions back and forth why do some things hurt and some things sort of prickle and some things feel cold? what makes some things feel good professor ross and why if nerve fibres are what make us feel can I feel so MUCH without the receptor being stimulated at all professor ross without any part of me ever being touched at all?

Herb reads it again. Then again. It’s Wednesday morning and his piece of toast, slathered with strawberry jam, remains halfway to his mouth. He imagines replies: It’s complicated, Misty, or, See, there are photoreceptors, mechanoreceptors, chemoreceptors and thermoreceptors, or Let’s talk further, or, Friday, 4 p.m., my car, don’t worry because I CAN’T GET YOU PREGNANT, but then he imagines he could get her pregnant, that all he’d have to do is want to, a few words here, a smile there, her twenty-year-old ovaries practically foaming with eggs anyway, so healthy, so ripe, ova almost half the age of Imogene’s, basically outfitted with tractor beams, even his dying sperm, that feeble three per cent, could make it in there. He thinks of Misty’s ankles, Misty’s throat; a twenty year old with glitter on her eyelids and a name like a weather forecast.

From the kitchen comes the sound of Imogene’s chair being pushed back. Herb deletes the message, sits red-faced in front of the screen.

 

Six months after Imogene returned from Morocco, they got married. He drove her to Montana for a honeymoon and led her up a trail beneath a string of ski lift towers, a drizzle coming down on her bare arms and the dry grass swishing around her knees, and the procession of lift towers running off beneath them standing silently under the rain. He’d brought a bottle of wine; he’d brought chicken salad.

‘You know,’ he told her, ‘I think we’ll be married for ever.’

Now it’s 2004 and they’ve been married almost eleven years. He submits the summer session’s final grades to the registrar and takes a corner stool at Cole’s and drinks a pitcher of sweet, dark beer.

Then he drives to the Corbert Pool. A few folks in shortsleeves sit in the bleachers beneath a forty-foot mural of a cowboy. Misty Friday is easy to spot: taller than the rest of the women, sleek in a navy one-piece trimmed with white. Her bathing cap is gold. Herb sweats in his khakis. The swimmer in Misty’s lane makes the turn, starts back. Misty climbs on to a starting platform, lowers her goggles. Everywhere voices echo: off the ceiling, off the churning water. C’mon, Tammy! Go, Becky. It feels to Herb as though he is pumping through the interior of a living cell, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging.

And yet everything is motionless. Misty’s knees bend; her arms rise. She leaps. The chlorine in the air touches the very back of Herb’s throat.

He hurries back to his truck. He tells himself it’s just biology, the chemical fist of desire, his spine quaking in it like a sapling. The truth. The questions. No transgression if there is no action. Right? Misty was right to wonder how people can make other people feel without touching one another.

He starts the truck towards home. The sun sinks behind Medicine Bow to the west and sends up streamers of gold and silver.

‘You never know,’ Herb’s mother once told him, the skin beneath her eyes streaked with mascara, ‘all the things that go into making a marriage last. You never know what goes on behind closed doors.’

When Herb walks inside, Imogene is sitting at the kitchen table with tears on her cheeks. In the fading light her hair is as white as ever, almost translucent.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘I’ll do it. I want to try one more time.’

 

It’s early October before the clinic can schedule them in again. This time they know the nurses’ names, the schedule, the dosages; this time the language is not so impenetrable. The box of drugs is smaller; they already have specimen cups, alcohol wipes, syringes. Imogene pulls down the waistband of her pyjamas; Herb drives in the first needle.

At Cyclops Engineering, receptionists string fake spiderwebs across the ceilings. Goss, the plant sciences professor, comes by Herb’s office with twelve-inch subs: turkey, tomatoes, vinegar. He talks about his wife’s pregnancy, how she vomits in the kitchen sink, how his unborn daughter is the size of an avocado by now.

‘Isn’t it crazy,’ he says, ‘that every student in this school, every person in town, every single human who has ever lived, existed because of two people fucking?’

Herb smiles. They eat. ‘Be fruitful and multiply!’ shouts Goss, and shreds of lettuce gather on Herb’s desk.

 

Subcutaneous. Intramuscular. Herb unscrews the used needles, drops them in the sharps container. He lines up Imogene’s rosary of pills. Out in the yard a few finches swoop between feeders like ghosts.

At work Imogene tells Ed Collins, the regional manager, why she will need to miss more afternoons. She lifts the hem of her shirt and shows him the spectrum of injection bruises above her panty line like slow purple fireworks.

‘I’ve seen worse,’ he says, but both know this isn’t true. Ed has two daughters and a waterslide in his backyard and gets hopelessly drunk playing putt-putt golf every Friday night.

Fifteen miles away, at the kitchen table, Herb cashes in his 401K. Again Imogene’s ovaries swell. Again the season begins to turn: leaves blowing across the field of old tyres, the sky seamed with a vast, corrugated backbone of cloud.

‘So our two frogs make Baby Tadpole,’ Herb tells his Thursday lab, ‘and Baby Tadpole will turn out like his parents but not exactly like them: reproduction is not replication.’

After class he erases Baby Tadpole, then the arrows of descendancy, parent frog A, parent frog B. The body has one obligation, he thinks: procreate. How many male Homo sapiens are right now climbing atop their brides and groaning beneath the weight of the species?

Tomorrow, the doctor will go into Imogene and retrieve her eggs. Herb drives home, cooks chicken breasts. The roof moans in the wind.

‘Do you think they’ll let me wear socks this time?’

‘We’ll bring some.’

‘Do you think all my hair will fall out?’

‘Why would it do that?’

Imogene cries then. He leans across the table and tries to hold her hand.

It starts to snow. It snows so much it seems the clouds will never empty of it and in the morning they make the long drive in a white-out and do not talk for any of it, not a single word. Trucks are overturned every few miles. The snow is hypnotic and blowing in sheets through the headlights and it looks as if the interstate has ignited into ten-foot-tall white flames. Herb leans forward, squinting hard. Imogene cradles his sperm sample between her thighs. The heads of her ovaries sway heavily inside her. Something in the way the snow swirls and checks up and swirls again reminds her of the way she’d pray for snowy days as a girl, how she’d go through an Our Father and enunciate every word and she wonders how she can be a thirty-five-year-old orphan when just yesterday she was a nine year old in moon boots.

When Herb finally pulls into the clinic, they’ve been in the truck three hours. He has to prise his fingers off the wheel.

The anaesthesiologist wears all black and is extremely short. They are late so everything goes very quickly.

‘I’m just going to give you some candy now,’ he tells Imogene through his mask, and drives the pentathol in.

Herb tries to grade lab reports in the waiting room. Slush melts in dark pools on the carpet. No matter what, he tells himself, no matter how bad things seem to be going, someone always has it worse. There are cancer patients out there incandescing with pain, and toddlers starving to death, and someone somewhere is deciding to load a pistol and use it. You ran a marathon? Good for you. Ever hear of an ultra-marathon? It might be cold where you live but it’s colder in Big Piney.

After a while he gets called back in. He kneels beside Imogene in the RN’s office, refilling her cup of Gatorade, watching the lights in her eyes come back on. Fifty feet away, for the second time this year, an embryologist rinses Imogene’s eggs and weakens the zona pellucida and injects one good sperm into each one.

A nurse comes into the office, says, ‘You two are so cute together.’

‘We don’t have it so bad,’ Imogene hears Herb say, as he half walks, half carries her through the slush to the car. ‘We don’t have it bad at all.’

The sky has broken and the sun fuses the entire parking lot with light. In the truck she dozes, and dreams, and wakes up thirsty.

 

The telephone rings. Twenty fertilized eggs. Fourteen embryos. An entire brood. Imogene smiles in the doorway, says, ‘I’m the old woman in the shoe.’

Two days later, three embryos have divided into eight cells and look strong enough to transfer. The snow melts on the roof; the whole house comes alive with dripping water.

If there’s a sadness in this, Herb thinks, it’s about the embryos that don’t even make it three days, the ones that get discarded, lumpy and fragmented and full of cytoplasm, rated unviable. Nucleated cells, wrapped in coronas like little suns. Little sons. Little daughters. Herb and Imogene, father and mother, the DNA already unzipped, paired and zipped back up, proficiencies at piano playing and field hockey and public speaking predetermined. Pale eyes, veiny limbs, noses shaped like Herb’s. But not good enough. Not viable.

Herb and Imogene and the birds at the feeders and Goss the plant sciences professor and Misty Friday the swimmer—all of them were once invisible, too small to see. Motes in a sunbeam. A cross-section of a single hair. Smaller. Thousands of times smaller.

‘The stars,’ a science teacher once told Herb, ‘are up there during the day, too.’ And understanding that changed Herb’s life.

‘Even if we get pregnant this time,’ Imogene says, ‘you think we’ll stop worrying? You think we’ll have more peace? Then we’ll want to find out if the baby’s got Down’s syndrome. We’ll want to know why it’s crying, why it won’t eat, why it won’t sleep.’

‘I’d never worry,’ Herb says. ‘I’d never forget.’ They drive the sixty-six miles back to Cheyenne. The doctor gives them photos of their three good embryos: grey blobs on glossy paper.

‘All three?’ he asks, and Imogene looks at Herb.

Herb says, ‘It’s your uterus.’

‘All three,’ Imogene says.

The doctor pulls on gloves, gets out the half-cooked spaghetti noodle. He implants the embryos. Herb carries Imogene to the truck. The interstate skims past, cinders chattering in the wheel wells. He carries her up to the bedroom. Her feet bump the lampshade. Her hair spreads across the pillow like silk. She is not supposed to get up for three days. She is supposed to imagine little seeds attaching, rootlets creeping through her walls.

In the morning, at the university, Herb hands out midterm exams. His students hunch in their rows of desks, snow on their boots, anxieties fluttering in their chests.

‘All you have to do,’ he tells them, navigating the rows, ‘is show me you understand the concepts.’

They look at him with open eyes, with faces like oceans.

Fifteen miles away, Imogene rolls over in bed. Inside her uterus three infinitesimal embryos drift and catch, drift and catch. In ten days, a blood test will tell if any of them have attached.

Ten more days. There is only the quiet of the house. The birds. The tyres in the field. She studies her palms, their rivers and valleys. A memory: Imogene, maybe six years old, had broken her front teeth on the banister. Her father was looking for pieces of tooth in the hall rug. Her mother’s bracelets were cold against Imogene’s cheek.

The telephone starts to ring. Out the bedroom window a pair of slate-coloured juncos flap and flutter at a feeder.

‘Tell me it’s going to be okay,’ Herb whispers, the receiver of his office phone clamped to his ear. ‘Tell me you love me.’

Imogene starts to tremble. She shuts her eyes and says she does.

 

Photograph © Jamiesrabbits

That First Time
Room After Room