When Penelope’s fertility doctor mentioned her age twice in the same sentence—“Certainly it’s not impossible for a thirty-seven-year-old woman to conceive for the first time, though thirty-seven is on the downslope of female fertility”—she shook her head and gave him the same pitying look she gave her students when they were being stupid.
“I’m thirty-two,” she said. The doctor opened the manila folder that held the form she’d filled out in the waiting room twenty minutes before.
“It says thirty-seven here,” he said.
“It does?” She leaned forward and looked. “Oh, no, that’s meant to be a two, not a seven. My handwriting is a mess.” She took a pen from her purse and added a tail to the seven. “There,” she said. “Thirty-two.” Her birth date was also written on the form, January 12th, 1988, but the doctor didn’t notice that. He closed the folder and smiled. She’d become a different person in his eyes, a patient with a promising outcome. He was pale and chubby and very young; his voice was high and oddly compressed, as if he’d taken a hit off a helium balloon. But judging by the layers of baby pictures and thank you cards pinned on a corkboard in the waiting room, he knew what he was doing. A fake orchid sat on his fake wood desk and framed pictures of his three children were lined up on a shelf in a glass and chrome bookcase behind him.
“Why do you put your photos where you can’t see them?” she said.
He swiveled his chair. “I can if I turn around.”
“Have you considered the effect that has on your patients, being forced to look at the examples of your obviously robust fertility when it’s quite possible they might not be fertile themselves?”
A little frown creased his forehead. “No, I hadn’t.”
“Well you should.” She sniffed and took a tissue from a box on his desk. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to cry. I have allergies this time of year.” She blew her nose and looked at him. “So,” she said brightly. “What’s next?”
Russ showed up while she was having her blood drawn by a nurse in a narrow examining room down the hall from the doctor’s office. He looked important in his dark business suit. “I was held up at work,” he said, inching around a Formica counter.
“Did they catch the guy?” Penelope said.
“The guy who held you up.”
The nurse chuckled. “Good one.”
“Russ, this is Rhoda,” Penelope said. “She says I have to give her permission to test my blood for HIV. Should I?”
“You just said you have to, so yes,” Russ said.
“But what if I have it?”
“You don’t have it.”
“I might, you never know.” She gave Rhoda a wide-eyed look.
“You’re quite the card,” Rhoda said. “How long have you two been married?”
“Long,” Penelope said. “We’re well past the incubation period, unless my husband has something to tell me.”
Rhoda gathered up her equipment. “I’m done here, you can go.”
Penelope rolled down her sleeve and slid off the table. There was no way she had HIV, yet she was capable of convincing herself of anything. A few years ago, she was sure she saw President Obama coming out of Lahore, a Pakistani restaurant down the street from her apartment. She swore to Russ that she’d seen the President, insisted she had to her friends, until finally she was forced to accept the fact that the President of the United States wouldn’t go anywhere alone, never mind to Lahore, which wasn’t even that good.
They left the doctor’s office and went to lunch at a place by Central Park that served grilled sandwiches and a variety of milkshakes. They sat at a table outside. Penelope pretended she was already pregnant and ordered a strawberry-banana shake that probably contained an entire day’s worth of calories. The trees in the park were tossing in a gust; the sky was an unblemished blue. The perfection of the day was a good omen, she thought. She fiddled with the carnelian bead she wore on a silver chain around her neck. She’d bought the bead at New Age shop in the Village because carnelians promoted fertility.
She took a long draw on her milkshake and sighed with satisfaction. “Just think, this time next year we could be parents.”
“Don’t count your chickens,” Russ said.
“I’m not. They’re also testing my blood for chlamydia. I won’t be able to have a baby if I’ve had chlamydia, it wrecks your reproductive system. By the way, if anyone asks, I’m thirty-two.”
“Why are you thirty-two?”
“Can I pass for thirty-two?”
He cupped her chin in his palm and tilted her face toward the sun. His eyes were sometimes green and sometimes blue, and his hair was a rich shade of auburn. Penelope hoped their child would take after him. She was attractive enough, but nothing special. “You’re not going to start obsessing about chlamydia I hope.”
She bit into her sandwich, a gooey four-cheese production. She would be the fattest pregnant woman ever. “You can have chlamydia and not even know it. Hepatitis C is called the silent killer; they’re testing my blood for that too.” She gave Russ the same goggle-eyed look she’d given Rhoda. “I could be dying right now.”
“We’re all dying right now,” he said. “The moment you’re born you start dying.”
For years Penelope hadn’t wanted a child. She taught French at private elementary school on the Upper East Side and knew what children were like. “I already have ninety of them,” she would say. “That’s more than enough for me.” Russ didn’t care about children one way or the other, and neither did his parents, who in any case lived in Hawaii. Penelope’s brisk, cheerful mother – a speed walker, a book grouper — was fatally hit by a city bus when Penelope was twenty-four; her father remarried a woman with two young sons, then they had twins, unplanned, together. “Fertile Myrtle,” Penelope called her stepmother behind her back. She called her father “The Old Goat.” Then one day she was leading the Pre-K class in a dissonant round of Alouette when she had a gut-punching vision of herself singing Alouette to her own child, a toothlessly smiling baby girl. She’d been thirty-five at the time, which didn’t seem too old, but two years of trying had produced nothing more than a bunch of negative pregnancy tests.
“You should have started this earlier,” Russ had unhelpfully said.
“We,” she’d said. “We should have started earlier. You didn’t want a baby either. If you’d wanted one, I would have wanted one too.” She missed her mother, who would have pushed for grandchildren, and hated her father for his inattention. She resented Russ’s unencouraging attitude. She would have liked someone to give a damn.
A week after her blood was drawn, she went back to the doctor to hear the results. She sat on a hard chair in the crowded waiting room for over an hour, steeling herself for being told she had HIV, or chlamydia, or hepatitis C, or a combination of all three. Surreptitiously, she assessed the other patients. Most of them seemed too young to be infertile, but there was one who looked too old to even be trying, judging by the brittle skin around her eyes. Someone’s husband read a magazine; another played a game on his phone. Both seemed oblivious to the buzzing anxiety that filled the room like an expanding balloon. Penelope got up and went to the reception desk.
“How much longer?” she said. The nurse shrugged and reached to catch a document that was being regurgitated from a fax machine.
“Not long,” she said, which was what she’d said the last time. Penelope sat back down.
“I’m about to jump out of my skin,” she said to the woman next to her.
“What stage are you at?” the woman said.
“Stage?” Penelope said.
“You know, where are you in the process?”
“Oh. The beginning. What about you?”
“I’m on my fourth IVF,” the woman said. “Fifty thousand dollars and I’ve got bupkes. If this one doesn’t take, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Penelope stared at the woman. She hadn’t thought as far as having to do this multiple times. They could barely afford to do it once. “Shit!” she said.
“Shit is right,” the woman said. She reached into a canvas tote at her feet and took out some fine yellow knitting. “It’s a baby blanket,” she said, showing it to Penelope. “I started it a year and a half ago.”
“Beautiful,” Penelope said.
“Or tragic,” the woman said.
Finally, Penelope’s name was called. She followed a nurse to the doctor’s office. He had removed his family pictures from the bookshelf and arranged them on his desk so they faced only him.
“Good idea,” Penelope said, indicating the new arrangement, but when he looked at her quizzically, she realized he’d forgotten who she was. Her folder was open on his desk, containing what she assumed were the results of her blood test.
“I wish I had better news,” he said.
Penelope froze. “What?” she nearly shouted.
“Your ovarian reserve is low. I don’t like to see that in a woman your age. Undoubtedly that’s why you haven’t conceived. But it’s not an insurmountable problem. We can proceed.”
“That’s great,” she said.
“We’ll start you on a round of injections and harvest the eggs when they mature,” he said. “In your case, I’m hoping for six or seven. Optimally, we like to see ten to twenty, but…” He gave her a clownish frown.
“Harvest?” Penelope said. “As in reap?”
“Exactly,” he said, closing the folder.
“That’s like something out of a misogynistic sci-fi movie, harvest the eggs.” She shivered.
“How else would you put it?” he said.
“Extract, maybe? I don’t know.”
“Well.” He stood and offered his small, fat hand. He’d never shaken her hand before, and she wondered at this sudden civility.
“Am I not going to see you again?” she said.
“Of course you are, when I harvest your eggs. Right now you’ll see Rhoda, she’ll set you up with your injections.”
Rhoda did remember Penelope, which Penelope found very cheering. They sat in an office whose single window looked out onto a tree that threw moving shadows across the bare walls.
“Pretty,” Penelope said of the shadows.
“Thank you,” Rhoda said. “It used to be shoulder-length, but I needed a change.” She touched the back of her shining dark hair, which was boy-short and styled into rigid waves across the crown of her head. “I broke up with my fiancé last month. We were engaged six years and I was like, it’s time to shit or get off the pot.”
“They say you shouldn’t do anything drastic to your appearance after a breakup,” Penelope said.
“I’ve heard that too,” Rhoda said. She picked up a syringe that lay on the desk between them. “Okay, here we go. You got your syringe; you got your medication.” She tapped a small vial of powder with one long glittering fingernail, then picked up a second vial filled with liquid. “This is your diluent. Carefully, you take the cap off your syringe. Do not touch the needle.” She inserted the needle into the rubber top of the vial of liquid. “Draw up exactly one cc of the diluent. You can see how much one cc is because it’s marked on the side of the syringe.”
Penelope leaned in and examined the syringe. “Got it.”
“Then you take your syringe and insert the needle into the vial of medication. Slowly inject the solution into the powder. See? Like I’m doing now. Don’t inject it too fast, and do not shake the vial.”
“I won’t,” Penelope said.
“When the medication is diluted, draw up exactly one cc of the liquid, raise your syringe, and tap out any air bubbles there might be.” She flicked the side of the syringe. Her hands were long and graceful. “It’s important you do this just like I’m showing you. Then, when you’re sure you got everything right, inject the medication into your butt.”
“I don’t know if I can reach back there with a syringe,” Penelope said.
“Not you, honey, your husband. And don’t forget to sterilize the injection site with alcohol. This is a hormone you’ll be taking, so it might make you feel a little nutty.” She took a couple of boxes of vials and a large plastic bag full of syringes out of a desk drawer and pushed the equipment across the desk to Penelope like a raft to the opposite shore.
The woman at the New Age shop who’d sold Penelope her carnelian fertility bead had recommended a psychic named Clair Voyant.
“Clair Voyant isn’t her real name, obviously,” the woman had said as she handed Penelope Clair’s card. “But that’s the only thing that’s phony about her. She’s brilliant with the Tarot cards. I have a lot of customers who swear by her.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Penelope had said. “What if she says I won’t get pregnant?”
The woman shrugged. “That’s the chance you take, but wouldn’t you rather be prepared?”
“No,” Penelope said.
But after starting the injections, she felt a surge of optimism. She told Russ she’d made an appointment with Clair Voyant.
“She’s supposed to be amazing,” she said.
“An amazing rip off,” Russ said. He popped the top off a bottle of beer. “You’re not into that woo-woo shit.”
“I am too.” She grabbed the beer from him and took a long swig. Knowing she wouldn’t be allowed drink alcohol while she was pregnant made her want to drink as much as possible now. She opened a cupboard below the kitchen counter and took out a bottle of gin.
“Then why haven’t you ever talked about it before?” he said.
“Just because I’ve never talked about something with you doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it.”
“Name one other weird thing you believe in that you haven’t told me about.”
She thought a minute. “The Bermuda Triangle,” she finally said for lack of a better answer.
Clair Voyant lived in a part of Brooklyn that required a change of trains; when Penelope emerged from the subway, she felt like she’d traveled to another country. There weren’t any shops or restaurants or apartments, only vast concrete buildings and a factory of some kind that leaked a mirage-like vapor from a series of gray chimney stacks. Following the directions on her phone, she made her way through empty side streets to a two-story brick house that was squeezed between a reeking car repair and an industrial appliance wholesaler. Clair opened the door before Penelope could knock. She was an elfin young woman who wore a plain white tee shirt and a pair of khaki shorts.
“You don’t look the way I thought you would,” Penelope said.
“I get that a lot,” Clair said. “But nobody can say what they expected me to look like.”
“I can’t really either,” Penelope said. “Less normal, I guess.”
“Whatever normal looks like,” Clair said.
She led Penelope down a hall to a little room where an overhead fixture cast a weak yellow light. She indicated that Penelope should sit in a ratty armchair, its stuffing bulging from holes in the fake leather upholstery. Across from it was a less ratty armchair, and between them, a round brass-topped table. An ornate, gilded painting of a winged figure was the only picture hanging on the dingy white walls.
“I dreamt about you last night,” Clair said. “I saw you with a group of children. It looked like you were at a playground.”
Penelope gasped. “I’m a grade school teacher!”
“Ah, that explains it,” Clair said. She sat down and picked a pack of cards up off the table. She shuffled the cards and placed them before Penelope. “My dreams are usually prophetic, but sometimes they’re just factual.” She smiled, revealing a wide gap between her front teeth. She had a nearly unnoticeable lisp, a tiny whistle, that must have been because of the gap. “Shuffle three times and then cut the deck into three piles.”
Penelope did as she was told. The cards were larger than playing cards and awkward to shuffle. She cut the deck. Clair gathered up the cards and lay down ten of them in a circle on the brass table. She studied them for a long while.
“I can see you’re on the threshold of something new,” she said.
“Yes, I am,” Penelope said eagerly. “Or I hope I am.”
“This thing is important to you.”
“It really is,” Penelope said. She wrung her hands. “Should I tell you? Is that okay?”
“Sure,” Clair said. Thsure.
“I’m trying to have a baby.”
Clair picked up a card that had a single cup on it. “Oh yes. I can see her. She’s beautiful.”
“Her?” Penelope said.
“Yes, you’re going to have a girl. I’m so glad for you.”
“Can you tell me when?” Penelope said.
Clair closed her eyes and pressed her temple with two fingers. “I see sunshine and green grass.”
“Maybe May?” Penelope said.
“Yes, May,” Clair said.
“Oh, thank God,” Penelope said. She felt almost nauseated with relief.
“You’re a magical person, Penelope. Have you been told that before?”
“No I haven’t,” Penelope said. “I don’t think of myself that way. My life is kind of ho-hum, actually.”
“That will change,” Clair said. “Magical things happen to magical people.”
“How exciting,” Penelope said. “What kind of magical things can I expect?”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” Clair said. “Your vibration is very strong.” She picked up another card. “I’m sensing a darkness from the other side.” She showed Penelope the card, which did indeed look forbidding. A gargoyle-like figure and a man and a woman were bound to each other by chains. “The Devil speaks of a jealous spirit who seeks to thwart you. Sometimes a dark spirit from the other side attaches to an individual on this side. It’s nobody you know, just a roving, restless spirit. You need to send it away so your pregnancy will be healthy.”
Penelope felt a chair spring spear the back of her thigh as she sat forward. She didn’t know what “the other side” was, but if it contained dark spirits she was happy to remain ignorant of it. “How do I do that?”
Clair got up, left the room, and came back with a glass cylinder that held a blue candle. “Burn this candle for an hour every evening. It’s imbued with positive energy. I can give it to you for seventy-five.”
Penelope looked at the candle. It was similar to a candle she’d seen in Crate and Barrel, yet totally different somehow. She felt the dark spirit as a shadow behind her, breathing down her neck. That she would attract such malevolence shocked her. “Will you take a check?” she said, digging into her purse. “I’m not sure I have that much…”
“Plus a hundred for the reading,” Clair said. “Make it out to cash.”
On the train back to Manhattan, Penelope wished she’d asked Clair Voyant her real name. Would Clair have told her? Penelope thought so. The personal nature of their conversation had made Penelope feel like they were friends; they’d hugged each other in parting, Penelope tearily grateful. As the train rattled across Brooklyn, she felt exhilarated and impatient. Lost in thought or listening to music, the other passengers were unaware of her radiance. The woman next to her was doing the Times crossword puzzle. She was about the age Penelope’s mother would have been. Penelope looked over her shoulder until she turned and said, “Are you a crossword lover, too?”
“Sorry,” Penelope said. “I couldn’t help looking.”
“A six-letter word for a ‘chilly baked treat,’” the woman said.
“Pardon me?” Penelope said. She had never done a crossword puzzle.
“That’s the clue.”
“Oh. Gosh, I don’t know. My head has been in the clouds since I got pregnant.” She patted her belly. “The little scoundrel is stealing my brain cells.”
“Pregnant! Wonderful!” the woman said. She seemed genuinely pleased for Penelope. “How far along are you?”
“Not far,” Penelope said. “Twelve weeks. I’m so excited.”
“Yes. It’s a girl. I found out today.”
“Oh, a girl,” the woman said. “I have a daughter. Have you thought of any names yet?”
“Etienne,” Penelope said.
“It’s French. I’m French. My daughter is going to be bilingual.”
“What a lucky, lucky girl,” the woman said.
“She really will be,” Penelope said. She looked out the smeary car window as the train came into a station. She wasn’t a liar, or not much of one, normally. Not this much of a liar. Who knew what else would come out of her mouth if she didn’t stop talking: she was starting to believe herself.
The egg-harvesting procedure was supposed to be painful, so Penelope would be sedated with the same drug that killed Michael Jackson.
“It’s called propofol,” the doctor said as the anesthesiologist rigged her up. “It’s perfectly safe if you don’t abuse it. When you wake up you’ll feel like you weren’t even out.”
Penelope was lying flat with her feet up in stirrups. She raised her head. “I’ll be completely out?”
“Of course,” the doctor said.
“How will I know what you’re doing, then? I mean, you could be doing anything to me.”
“Don’t worry,” Rhoda said with a wink. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Oh for God’s sake,” the doctor said. “Go to sleep.”
When Penelope woke, the doctor was gone, and Russ was sitting beside her in a plastic chair, his chin on his chest, asleep. His tie had been loosened and his shirt collar was open; his suit jacket hung on the back of the chair. She turned her head and looked at him fondly. Dutifully, he’d injected her with the hormones that had made her feel as nutty as Rhoda had predicted; she’d snapped at him so often she’d begun to dislike herself. They’d ridden the waves of marriage for almost thirteen years. Seven years ago, she became infatuated for several months with a fellow teacher, a younger man who had a place near school where they would fuck while Russ was at work. Russ must have sensed something different about her even if he hadn’t known what—or maybe he had known and hadn’t wanted to let on, hoping it would blow over. Ever since then, she’d been waiting for some kind of Karmic retribution. Maybe her infertility was it.
He woke slowly and looked at her as if she’d appeared from thin air, his bluish-greenish eyes blinking wide. “You’re supposed to lie here a while,” he said.
“You hate change, don’t you,” she said. “Chaos is your worst nightmare. That’s why you never wanted a baby, isn’t it, because it would completely upend your life.”
“I like my life the way it is, I admit it,” he said. “I like you the way you are. I don’t need anything else.”
“Do you know why I want a baby?”
“Tell me,” Russ said.
“Because I want someone in my life who can’t not love me,” she said.
“I love you.”
“But you can fall out of love with me, and there was a time when you didn’t love me, before you knew me. My baby will never not have known me, will never not have loved me. She’ll love me forever. And no one will love her more than I do. That was how I felt with my mother, that no one in the world would love me as much as she did.”
“You think it’ll be a girl?” Russ said.
“That’s what Clair told me.”
“Is that so.”
“I want someone to miss me the way I miss my mom.”
“I would miss you if you died.”
“Hah, right,” she said. “My mother wasn’t dead two years before my father remarried.”
Russ took her hand. “Penelope, sweetheart, what if this doesn’t work?”
Penelope frowned. “It’ll work. Clair told me it would.”
“She’s a scammer,” he said gently. “Psychics or readers, whatever you want to call them, they don’t really know anything, they’re in it for the money. That candle she sold you? It’s just a candle. She took advantage of you.”
Penelope had been lighting the candle faithfully, refusing to tempt fate with doubt. “She isn’t like that, Russ. She said she dreamt about me surrounded by kids in a playground, she saw I’m a teacher even before we met!”
“She Googled you, Penelope. Anyone can find out you’re a teacher.” He took out his phone and tapped in Penelope’s name. “See?” He turned the phone so she could see it. “There you are on your school’s website.” It was a headshot of Penelope, identifying her as a French teacher.
Penelope gazed at the photo of her face. “She said I’d give birth in May.”
“Did she tell you that, or did you tell her that’s what you want?” Russ said.
Penelope sat up and tore away the paper sheet that covered her. “It’s going to work.” She got off the table and put on her pants. She sat back down. “What if it doesn’t?”
“Then it doesn’t,” Russ said.
“You don’t care, do you.”
He raked his hand through his beautiful hair. “I care about you.”
“Never mind,” she said, and left the room.
Rhoda passed her in the hall carrying an armful of manila file folders. “I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know how many embryos are viable,” she said. “We’ll transfer them on Thursday.”
“What are my chances?” Penelope said.
Rhoda stopped. “Around twenty-five percent.”
Penelope gaped at her. “Are you shitting me? That’s all?”
“Think positive,” Rhoda said. “Try not to work yourself up.”
Penelope walked out into the waiting room. It was crowded as usual, the atmosphere dense with anticipation. The woman with the baby blanket was back again, as if she would be there forevermore, as well as the husband playing a game on his phone. The nurse behind the desk beckoned with Penelope’s bill in hand. There was nothing magical about it.
Photo courtesy of Regan Vercruysse; view more of their work on Flickr