Winner, 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
When we talk about infertility, we talk about the struggle of living in a female body that has evolved over eleventy billion millennia to make us want to have kids—but the body won’t comply. We are consumed by the oldest wanting: To carry on our genes, ensure our offspring’s survival. It is a yearning before and beyond language itself, before my ancestors even had brains or spines or more than one cell.
But to understand how I feel about my infertility, you have to know about two things: the Poochie Overnighter, and Cold Fusion.
I am in my friend’s living room for her fourth birthday party, watching her open gifts. She tears paper off the present my twin sister and I had picked out for her, the toy she told me over and over she wanted most that year: a Poochie Overnighter gift set.
She is thrilled. And when I see her holding the Poochie Overnighter in her hands, I begin wailing and run into my mother’s arms.
The Poochie Overnighter is a toiletry kit sold under the Mattel brand “Poochie for Girls”. The package contains two plastic shampoo bottles, a pink comb and mirror shaped like Poochie’s face, a toothbrush, a small notepad, and a Poochie-shaped rubber stamp. They all tuck inside a pink plastic clamshell case emblazoned with a cartoon white dog with pink ears and purple sunglasses perched on top of her head.
Mom calmed me by promising to buy us Poochie Overnighters — one for me and one for my twin sister. These things could not be shared. It was the young female version of the dopp kit our father took on business trips. Perhaps it occurred to my parents that this was an odd toy for a toddler to covet.
But how often do kids make sense?
EARLY 2000s: TWENTY-SOMETHING
I have eloped with my college sweetheart, and there’s a bubble tea shop called Liquid Fusion near our love nest-cum-shitty first apartment along the wooded banks of the Des Plaines River. We keep calling the shop Cold Fusion instead, because it sounds much cooler when we call each other to say, “On my way home. Want me to pick up some Cold Fusion?”
We go there a lot. Bubble tea is one of the many passions we share, along with books and animals.
One night, we are driving across the river down a dim country road to a bookstore in a neighboring suburb. He will sit beside me in the café and read graphic novels while I work on the novella that will be my senior project. Between sips of matcha boba, Alan declares, “We should name our firstborn Cold Fusion.”
“Yes,” I nod in the dark passenger seat of our beat-up Honda Civic. We’re kidding, but we’re not. C.F. Minarik. We could make it something else — Charles Foster, or Charlotte Fredericka — and only we would know what it really means.
We buy a home with an extra bedroom in anticipation of starting a family someday. It’s in a suburb farther north, even though most of our friends have long since moved south to Chicago. We have fallen in love with the nature here. Our two adopted feral kittens watch sandhill cranes wade through the pond behind our condo building. A sparrow nests in our porch light. On the weekends we wander the forest preserve trails nearby, pausing when we spot deer, or if we are lucky, a turtle the size of an Army helmet.
Most Monday mornings, Alan drops me off at O’Hare where I watch the sunrise from Terminal 1 with a latte and my laptop. When boarding begins for Los Angeles or Dallas or Columbus or wherever my business development job sends me that week, I wheel my red carry-on through the usual crowd of characters. There are not that many women my age flying at this time, except for moms with kids and car seats in tow. I witness more than a few humans have tantrums in the terminals. Some of them are toddlers.
When we reach cruising altitude and I’m safely out of work email range, I pull a pouch out of my bag with the comforts of civilization: KIND bars, headphones, and a pocket-sized journal where I scribble paragraphs of an untitled novel. Under my suit, I wear compression stockings to prevent blood clots from forming because I have a genetic disorder that makes my blood clot too readily. Every thirty minutes during a flight, I make circles with my ankles to keep my blood flowing, and it works.
I’m squeezed next to my twin sister on a cramped city apartment couch at our mutual friend’s baby shower. We are on the edge of a large circle of chattering women, nibbling on egg casserole. Neither she nor I know anyone else here, aside from the mother-to-be.
As each present is opened — some mysterious goo tube or pump or sling or grinder or clip — the room erupts with the requisite awws and proclamations that said object, whatever it is, was literally a Godsend when their own offspring were newborns.
Each time, my sister and I exchange bewildered looks and whispers. What is it? What does it do?
My sister and I are foreigners here. We have no relatable anecdotes to share, no gory birthing stories or laments of small people pooping on us at inopportune moments. We have nothing to contribute, except registry items and polite smiles.
Tiny clothes emerge from a pastel gift bag. They are so, so tiny. This is why I bought them.
My sister and I each want to be moms someday but are also ambivalent, and scared. Our doctors agree that when we decide to get pregnant, it will be high risk due to our shared blood clotting disorder. High risk, but manageable.
I drive her home from the party, sighing, “That felt just like the Poochie Overnighter. Like, I’m watching someone else enjoy something. I want to be happy for them, but there’s this crazed inner part of me twisting with envy.”
“Yeah,” She nods.
“Did we ever get our own?”
“I think so. Mostly I remember some girl losing her shit over a Rainbow Brite doll.”
High risk seems like just one more thing I can’t deal with right now. The world feels risky enough as it is. In our mother’s day, building a career was called climbing the corporate ladder. These days I also climb, but more often struggle to hold on, to regain lost ground, to not fall off the ladder, and hope to find a new, alternative ladder worthy of climbing. I hate my job but we cannot afford to live on one income. Four years after the recession began, our mortgage is still under water.
At my house, the extra bedroom fills with computers, bookshelves, luggage. We call it the office now.
As spring arrives, Kate and I take a girls’ trip to New York City. We both need a break; she’s burnt out after two years of trying to make a baby with her husband, and I’m unemployed. By day, we run along the Hudson River and find the pier where our great-grandmother first set foot in the United States exactly 102 years earlier, on the ship that had just rescued Titanic survivors. We stay in a former seamen’s flophouse turned boutique hotel in Chelsea, its claustrophobic rooms framed with porthole windows. The last time we had been in this city together, we were growing inside our mother, sharing a single amniotic sac and a branched umbilical cord. Cozy quarters have never bothered us.
At night, we share a room along with secrets and stories like we did as young girls. She relates the ups and downs of her infertility tests and treatments. It sounds horrible. I hope it never happens to me.
When I get food poisoning at the end of the trip and can’t leave the room, the only thing on cable is James Cameron’s film, Titanic. We watch all three hours and fourteen minutes of it while laying next to each other on the bed, right up to the end when Jack makes Rose promise that she will survive, and have lots of babies, and above all never give up. We both agree that things would have worked out better for them if they had just floated on the door together.
By October, my sister has news. We meet at a bar in Ravenswood, across the street from the empty gravel lot where the old hospital once stood. It’s where we were born exactly thirty-five years ago. I wish I’d seen it again before they tore it down.
She is finally pregnant. The blood clotting disorder will be managed with Lovenox injections.
I start to think, and hope, and maybe my hope is overtaking the fear.
A few weeks after my sister’s news, on Thanksgiving night, I tell my husband that I no longer want to wait. I make an impassioned speech about feeling scared but wanting to try anyway and see what happens. I am so okay with whatever happens because I am tired of being afraid.
We conceive that very evening, on the first try.
The calculators tell us that the baby will be due in the middle of August, just in time for our anniversary. The timing is perfect. Everything is perfect.
We paint the office pale blue, and get rid of three jammed bookcases.
The doctor doesn’t even wait for me to put my pants back on before he tells us in the ultrasound suite that they haven’t detected a heartbeat yet. There’s a chance we just miscalculated the conception date, so we’ll wait a week and check again.
In the night, my husband rolls over in bed, reaches around to lay hands on my belly. He whispers into my shoulder, “Come on, Cold Fusion.”
Two weeks later, I leave work in the middle of the afternoon, hoping that no one else on the train notices that my pants are soaked with blood. Alan is waiting at the station platform. I cry into his neck and he holds me tight.
The end has just begun, and I am so not okay.
The few people who know recommend we plant a tree to mark our loss. Our plants always seem to die or get kicked over by the cats, so this idea seems ill-advised. A month later we go to a film festival to take our minds off things. I jump up in my theater seat in the middle of a movie when I get a text from my brother-in-law. A blood clot traveled to Kate’s lung, but she and the baby are both alive. I feel helpless, and struggle to busy myself with concrete tasks, like bringing her gossip magazines and peanut butter cups while she recovers in the unit usually filled with elderly male cardiac patients.
My doctor says we can start trying again, as soon as we are ready.
We start, we stop.
I try to do things to ease the grief, the emptiness, the yearning. Perhaps I’m not getting pregnant again yet because I haven’t fully dealt with this? Isn’t there something I can do?
We each go to therapy.
We try, we take a break, we try again.
I stop getting my period for a while. I pee on a stick, get my blood drawn, but there is no baby and everything else is within normal range. The doctor orders more expensive, painful tests, which my insurance refuses to cover.
We curl up together on the couch each night, the cats climbing onto our laps and kneading us with their paws. I wonder if this will be the extent of our family snuggle pile, and if I will ever be okay with that.
I scroll through my phone for hours at a time. Years of buying baby shower gifts and prenatal vitamins have confused the internet’s ad algorithms, which serve me articles about ways to get rid of the stubborn belly fat in my “mommy pooch,” which just reminds me of that damn dog, Poochie, and how I have an ample stomach but nothing to show for it.
We take up running together, again. One Saturday morning on the Des Plaines River Trail, Alan spots something sitting in the middle of the pavement. We slow down, get close enough to see that it’s a nestling sparrow. Alan is intensely worried that the cyclists will run it over, so while I scan Wikipedia on my phone for advice he stands over the rumpled gray chick like a father penguin, cradling it on either side with the arches of his running shoes. It opens its mouth soundlessly, as if it wants to tell us something but decides it would rather stay quiet. Has it fallen out of its nest, or is it just hanging out here? If we move it, will its mother disown it? Is she even coming back? Alan uses his hat to gently scoop it up, moving it to a soft spot in the grass. The bird refuses to release its talons from the mesh visor, so we leave it as-is. When we circle back later, the hat is still there but the bird is gone, having left some poop on the brim.
We sponsor an endangered Blanding’s turtle through a breeding program at the forest preserve. Emys blandingii are a bellwether species in the Great Lakes region, meaning that if they are not surviving, conditions for other species are deteriorating as well. Females must travel for miles across busy highways and golf courses to lay their eggs. They have been threatened for many reasons, chiefly that their breeding grounds are disappearing and overpopulated raccoons enjoy snacking on their eggs.
Biologists set traps in wetlands with anchovies for bait. Should they catch a fertile female turtle, they inject her with hormones to stimulate egg production. If you can take her eggs, incubate them, and grow the babies big enough in captivity before releasing them, they have a better chance of surviving to their life expectancy of seventy years.
The Turtle Champion donation form has a field inviting you to name your little one. Later, an email arrives with photos and details about our hatchling. He is a male, hatched a few weeks earlier, on August 23. His name is Cold Fusion.
At the Turtle Champion open house, we meet the biologists in a barn and squat around black kiddie pools looking for our hatchling. I snap a photo of my husband gasping with delight when they pull Cold Fusion out of the water. He still fits in the palm of the staffer’s hand, but he is a good eater and is quickly outgrowing the other hatchlings.
One of the biologists remarks that her colleagues all agreed he has the coolest name.
2018: THIRTY-EIGHT (NOW)
My niece, Julianna, is nearly three. Julianna and I snuggle on the couch watching Chuggington cartoons on my phone. Her tiny fingers grip the case. She watches intently, wordlessly, rapt at the young trains learning how to make underground tunnel rescues. Then, she decides it would be fun to put my phone on the floor and stand on the glass screen.
Shit. What would a mom say?
“If you’re going to stand on it, kiddo, no more phone.”
Her face twitches and contorts into a near-instant meltdown when she realizes there will be no more train videos. “BUT I WANT IT,” she wails.
Is this what her mother and I looked like at this age?
I know how she feels, and sometimes I want to scream, too. I act calm and try to ignore her tantrum for a few minutes to see if she will forget about it. She moves on.
Cold Fusion is growing. He’s now the size of an apple. Friends continue to post more baby photos online. I scroll, trying not to look, not to see.
A new doctor determines that I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, a common contributor to infertility. It’s incurable, yet treatable, and they advise me to not wait any longer. Before I can look for the anchovies or ask if they need to shoot me up with the same drugs they gave to Cold Fusion’s mother, I get a superficial blood clot in my leg and have to stop to treat that first, which may take months.
Our office needs new mini-blinds. We order the cordless type, which are supposed to be safer for kids, because… who the hell knows.
I’m at Ragdale on a writing retreat when I decide to write this essay. I look it up as research: vintage Poochie Overnighter sets are available online. The old ad copy proclaims,
There were times when a little girl couldn’t say how she felt. But now, there’s Poochie to help your little girl put it into words. On Poochie notepaper, with Poochie pencils, and Poochie stamps that say all sorts of things.
I am used to being able to learn the shit out of something, to work hard, to try all the angles, to persist, to make detailed spreadsheets and contingency plans. I have tried to do this for my fertility, too, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.
Will I comfort my own crying three-year-old someday when she realizes that you cannot always have everything you want, right when you want it? Knowing that the wanting will keep increasing for her, but ultimately that is what it means to be alive?
But I’m here, and I’m writing my novel again. At Ragdale, I take a break to have lunch with a poet who is working on a memoir. I marvel at how brave she must be, to tell the truth of her life. She asks me what it is like to create new people and worlds from your head, and where they come from. I tell her they have always been there, wanting to get out.
My husband and I are long gone. Our cats have been gone even longer. The condo building will probably be taken over by progress or entropy, the sparrows continuing to nest in whatever takes its place.
Cold Fusion the turtle will waddle through the underbrush north of our home. He will have grown to the size and color of an Army helmet, with a bright yellow chin and throat that makes him look as though he possesses the relaxed grin of a young Matthew McConaughey. With any luck, Cold Fusion has already begotten generations of tiny helmets that will march along the Des Plaines River, across the Chiwaukee plain toward the Lake Michigan shore. They will strive to outswim hungry predators. Some of them will live. Some of them will thrive.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/KA