Excerpt Just Breathe
April 13, 2016
MIRA (September 2009)
Originally published in 2008
After a solid year of visits to the clinic, Sarah was starting to find the decor annoying. Maybe the experts here believed earth tones had a soothing effect on anxious, aspiring parents. Or perhaps that the cheery burble of a wall fountain might cause an infertile woman to spontaneously drop an egg like an overly productive laying hen. Or even that the soft shimmer of brass chimes could induce a wandering sperm to find its way home like a heat-seeking missile.
The post-procedure period, lying flat on her back with her hips elevated, was starting to feel like forever. It was no longer standard practice to wait after insemination but many women, Sarah included, were superstitious. They needed all the help they could get, even from gravity itself.
There was a quiet tap on the door, then she heard it swish open.
“How are we doing?” asked Frank, the nurse-practitioner. Frank had a shaved head, a soul patch and a single earring, and he wore surgical scrubs with little bunnies on them. Mr. Clean showing his nurturing side.
“Hoping it is a ‘we’ this time,” she said, propping her hands behind her head.
His smile made Sarah want to cry. “Any cramps?”
“No more than usual.” She lay quietly on the cushioned, sterile-draped exam table while he checked her temperature and recorded the time.
She turned her head to the side. From this perspective, she could see her belongings neatly lined up on the shelf in the adjacent dressing room: her cinnamon-colored handbag from Smythson of Bond Street, designer clothes, butter-soft boots set carefully against the wall. Her mobile phone, programmed to dial her husband with one touch, or even a voice command.
Looking at all this abundance, she saw the trappings of a woman who was cared for. Provided for. Perhapsâ€”no, definitelyâ€”spoiled. Yet instead of feeling pampered and special, she simply feltâ€¦ old. Like middle-aged, instead of still in her twenties, the youngest client at Fertility Solutions. Most women her age were still living with their boyfriends in garrets furnished with milk crates and unpainted planks. She shouldn’t envy them, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself.
For no good reason, Sarah felt defensive and vaguely guilty for going through the expensive therapies. “It’s not me,” she wanted to explain to perfect strangers. “There’s not a thing wrong with my fertility.”
When she and Jack decided to seek help getting pregnant, she went on Clomid just to give Mother Nature a hand. At first it seemed crazy to treat her perfectly healthy body as if there were something wrong with it, but by now she was used to the meds, the cramps, the trans-vaginal ultrasounds, the blood testsâ€¦ and the crushing disappointment each time the results came up negative.
“Yo, snap out of it,” Frank told her. “Going into a funk is bad karma. In my totally scientific opinion.”
“I’m not in a funk.” She sat up and offered him a smile. “I’m fine, really. It’s just that this is the first time Jack couldn’t make the appointment. So if this works, I’ll have to explain to my child one day that his daddy wasn’t present at his conception. What do I tell him, that Uncle Frank did the honors?”
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
Sarah told herself Jack’s absence wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. By the time the ultrasound revealed a maturing ovarian follicle and she’d given herself the HCG injection, they had thirty-six hours for the intra-uterine insemination. Unfortunately, Jack had already scheduled a late-afternoon meeting at the work site. He couldn’t get out of it. The client was coming from out of town, he said.
“So are you still trying the old-fashioned way?” Frank asked.
She flushed. Jack’s erections were few and far between, and lately, he’d all but given up. “That’s not going so hot.”
“Bring him tomorrow,” Frank said. “I’ve got you down for 8:00 a.m.” There would be a second IUI while the window of fertility was still open. He handed her a reminder card and left her alone to put herself back together.
Her yearning for a child had turned into a hunger that was painfully physical, one that intensified as the fruitless months marched past. This was her twelfth visit. A year ago, she never thought she’d reach this milestone, let alone face it by herself. The whole business had become de-pressingly routineâ€”the self-injections, the invasion of the speculum, the twinge and burn of the inseminating catheter. After all this time, Jack’s absence should be no big deal, she reminded herself as she got dressed. Still, for Sarah it was easy to remember that at the center of all the science and technology was something very human and elementalâ€”the desire for a baby. Lately, she had a hard time even looking at mothers with babies. The sight of them turned yearning to a physical ache.
Having Jack here to hold her hand and endure the New Age Muzak with her made the appointments easier. She appreciated his humor and support, but this morning, she’d told him not to feel guilty about missing the appointment.
“It’s all right,” she had said with an ironic smile at breakfast. “Women get pregnant without their husbands every day.”
He barely glanced up from checking messages on his BlackBerry. “Nice, Sarah.”
She had touched her foot to his under the table. “We’re supposed to keep trying to get pregnant the conventional way.”
He looked up and, for an instant, she saw a dark flash in his gaze. “Sure,” he said, pushing back from the table and organizing his briefcase. “Why else would we have sex?”
This resentful attitude had started several months ago. Duty sex, for the sake of procreation, was no turn-on for either of them, and she couldn’t wait for his libido to return.
There had been a time when he’d looked at her in a way that made her feel like a goddess, but that was before he’d gotten sick. It was hard to be interested in sex, Jack often said these days, after getting your gonads irradiated. Not to mention the surgical removal of one of the guys. Jack and Sarah had made a pact. If he survived, they would go back to the dream they’d had before the cancerâ€”trying to have a baby. Lots of babies. They had joked about his single testicle, they’d given it a nameâ€”the Uni-ballâ€”and lavished it with attention. Once his chemo was finished, the doctors said he had a good chance of regaining fertility. Unfortunately, fertility had not been restored. Or sexual function, for that matter. Not on a predictable level, anyway.
They had decided, then, to pursue artificial insemination using the sperm he’d preserved as a precaution before starting aggressive treatment. Thus began the cycle of Clomid, obsessive monitoring, frequent visits to North Shore Fertility Solutions and bills so enormous that Sarah had stopped opening them.
Fortunately, Jack’s medical bills were covered, because cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to newlyweds trying to start a family.
The nightmare had come to light at 11:27 on a Tuesday morning. Sarah clearly remembered staring at the time on the screen of her computer, trying to remember to breathe. The expression on Jack’s face had her in tears even before he said the words that would change the course of their lives: “It’s cancer.”
After the tears, she had vowed to get her husband through this illness. For his sake, she had perfected The Smile, the one she summoned when chemo landed him in a puking, quivering heap on the floor. The you-can-do-it-champ, I’m-behind-you-all-the-way smile.
This morning, feeling contrite after their exchange, she had tried to be sociable as she flipped through the brochure for Shamrock Downs, his current project, a luxury development in the suburbs. The brochure touted, “Equestrian center designed by Mimi Lightfoot, EVD.”
“Mimi Lightfoot?” Sarah had asked, studying the soft-focus photographs of pastures and ponds.
“Big name to horse people,” he assured her. “What Robert Trent Jones is to designing golf courses, she is to arenas.”
Sarah wondered how challenging it was to design an oval-shaped arena. “What’s she like?”
Jack had shrugged. “You know, the horsy type. Dry skin and no makeup, hair in a ponytail.” He made a whinnying sound.
“You’re so bad.” She walked him to the door to say goodbye. “But you smell delicious.” She inhaled the fragrance by Karl Lagerfeld, which she’d given him last June. She’d secretly bought it, along with a box of chocolate cigars, for Fathers Day, thinking there might be something to celebrate. When it turned out there wasn’t, she had given him the Lagerfeld anyway, just to be nice. She’d eaten the chocolate herself.
She noticed, too, that he was wearing perfectly creased trousers, one of his fitted shirts from the Custom Shop, and an HermÃ¨s tie. “Important clients?” she asked.
“What?” He frowned. “Yeah. We’re meeting about the marketing plans for the development.”
“Well,” she said. “Have a good day, then. And wish me luck.”
“What?” he said again, shrugging into his Burberry coat.
She shook her head, kissed his cheek. “I’ve got a hot date with your army of seventeen million motile sperm,” she said.
“Ah, shit. I really can’t change this meeting.”
“I’ll be all right.” Kissing him goodbye one more time, she suppressed a twinge of resentment at his testy, distracted air.
After the procedure, she followed the exit signs to the elevator and descended to the parking garage. Freakishly, the clinic had valet parking, but Sarah couldn’t bring herself to use it. She was already indulged enough. She put on her cashmere-lined gloves, flexing her fingers into the smooth deerskin, then eased onto the heated leather seat of her silver Lexus SUV, which came with a built-in car seat. All right, so Jack had jumped the gun a little, buying this thing. But maybe, just maybe, nine months from now, it would be perfect. The ideal car for a soccer-mom-to-be.
She adjusted the rearview mirror for a peek at the backseat. At present, it was a jumble of drafting paper, a bag from Dick Blick Art Materials and, of all things, a fax machine, which was practically a dinosaur in this day and age. Jack thought she should let it die a natural death. She preferred to take it to a repair shop. It had been t…
And just when she thought the day could not get any worse, it did.