The first try I don’t inject the sperm. I hold your white-knuckled hand while the doctor spreads your legs. She smiles as she talks, pulling on her latex gloves and rolling over to you on her stool. I wonder how many pregnancies she tries to facilitate per day, if she will even remember us. The preparation is so casual, we could be getting ready for bed. There is a jar of sperm where a blown-out candle should be. A bright fluorescent light, instead of our bedroom’s familiar dim. A folder of paperwork in place of our ever-growing stack of books. Outside, drivers beep at one another and fight over parking spaces. Here, in the place where our family will hopefully grow, there are no sensual playlists, no half-empty bottles of wine, no dontstopdontstopdontstops. Just us, and a third we didn’t find on Tinder.
The doctor looks up at me from between your legs and says, Do you want to do it? I’m so unprepared for her offer that I scream No! and you laugh so hard that I think there’s no way a baby wouldn’t want to call your body home. I know it’s silly but I’m afraid I’d somehow mess the procedure up. What if I shoot the sperm up the wrong tube? What if I don’t push the syringe hard enough? There is so much that we cannot control.
I hold your hand until the procedure is done and the doctor wishes us good luck on her way out the door. It feels rushed, but not in the delicious, untamable way that a quickie does. For the next two weeks, I feign a level head—for you and for me. I know that intrauterine insemination—IUI—almost never works on the first try. All the articles say so. Our friends, too. Plus, you’re thirty-six, a fact you wish medical professionals would quit reminding you. A geriatric pregnancy, they’re still calling it. You’re right, we have to prepare for more tries, I say, putting on what you call my business face. But at night, when you’ve turned off the light and kissed my shoulder, mumbling goodnight through your falling, I lie awake thinking of our baby, Bear, a name I can’t wait for my mother to hate. We have a list many scrolls long, but Bear is near the top. No matter what, our baby’s middle name will be Michael, after your late brother. Always Michael, never Mike. Bear has your blonde wispies and tender blue eyes, and Michael’s sweet, songbird lips.
Our sperm donor was an English major, is now a bookseller and photographer. What you said when we first began searching the online bank for him: Don’t get too attached to any one donor. We don’t know if his sperm will be available when we’re ready to buy it. Four beers and two hours later, I was practically rewriting my vows to include a man named C. I wonder if he ever thinks of us. I wish I could ask him what he’s reading right now, if reading makes him feel closer or further from himself, and what tools he uses to measure that distance. I imagine Bear holding a book before a bottle. A different kind of hunger. I imagine Bear has our sperm donor’s butt chin and freckles, too.
This waiting is unlike any waiting I’ve had to do before—every task, every decision, every meal, has a new weight to it, a peculiar hyper-focus to distract us from the biology of chance. I never thought I’d be here, doing this, with anyone. And then I met you at a basketball game, and everyone who wasn’t you looked blurry around the edges. I can’t recall the first thing you said to me, but I do remember how, when you sat down on the bleachers next to me, my breath kept getting lost on its way out of my lungs. What was it you said just a few weeks later?
You’ve given me something I never would have taken for myself.
I wish it were possible for me to give you this one thing, for my strap-on to contain millions of sperm dying to enter the race. I want to make a life with you so badly that I can think of little else. The corners of my universe are tearing away to make way for a new one. Two weeks later, the test is negative, and we split a bottle of wine called Bearitage, just to lean into the pain.
You’re fascinated by spaces, how the same space can affect people differently. That’s one of the first things you told me at the cove where we stole minutes together, our partners none the wiser. You used to talk about the energy of a playground versus a dilapidated building versus a luxury resort. Every space has its own identity, separate from the visitor. Going home to Massachusetts was always hard for you—there was so much turmoil there—but at least it was full of family. Family that never missed a chance to curse a motherfucker out for you. (I wish I’d been there when your mother threw a McDonald’s cheeseburger at a customer who was harassing you, a fifteen-year-old employee.) Now, your mother’s house has become a Michael museum. When we visit, we find childhood photo after childhood photo. We find your brother’s tools, tee shirts, and flannels. His gecko your mom inherited taps the glass with its tiny hand; we remove it from its case and let it crawl up our arms. If I have ever known a deeper sadness, I cannot recall it. The air stills, then sits on our chests—it’s hard to breathe. Hard to separate life from limbo from death.
You see it all the time—joyful spaces ruined by loss.
I didn’t want the same thing to happen to our cove, the covert meeting place where we held hands and kissed and drank Cali Creamin’ while discussing the best way to be together without blowing our lives up. I didn’t want to miss out on you. I hoped the cove would never become a space that I couldn’t bear to return to.
Now we sit at that same cove, its energy unspoiled. I read an article that says children of lesbian mothers report higher rates of happiness. They should give us a child based on this fact alone, I say. The sun illuminates your countless tattoos. Zen Hulk. Wolverine. Slimer. Scooby-Doo. Cacti. Flowers. I work with children, you say, whenever people ask what they mean. What I think you wish you could say: I have a gaggle of children, a rugby team full. Then there’s the tattoo for Michael. The one that makes everyone grab your wrist and say, That’s beautiful, what is it? their breath stopping as they realize what it means to store your heart in the dash between two dates. We discuss our gorgeous nephew. How we wish we could be the ones to raise him. We recall the way he clutched onto us at Michael’s funeral, crying whenever we passed him to anyone else. Loved ones took turns speaking at the podium, a slideshow of Michael-photos playing in the background. I propped your brother’s son up on my lap and stuffed him full of crunchy snacks—I didn’t want him to understand what was going on. He looked like the rest of our lives, and yet, we cannot touch him. We discuss fostering, adoption. We dream of a house with a huge yard full of games and balls and inquisitive children, a porch with rocking chairs we can read our books in. Aperol spritz for me, red wine for you. There is so much I want for us that I don’t know where to store all the wants. When I wake up each morning, I am so heavy the floor cracks beneath my feet.
The second try I am prepared. Should I go down on you first? Will that help? I half-joke as you pull off your pants and underwear. I wish, you say. After we confirm the sperm donor’s identification number, I tell the doctor that I’m ready to knock you up. This time it’ll take, I say. Because of my magic touch. You agree, I think because you’re too afraid of the alternative—that faith isn’t nearly powerful enough. This is the closest two women can come to making a baby, I think, as I push the plunger on the syringe and send 50 million sperm cascading down the catheter and into your uterus. This time, the doctor tells you to lie on your back for fifteen minutes, like a Handmaid, and I put a timer on for you.
At work, I grow angry thinking about all the fertile straight people of the world. They have the chance to make a life out of love, or even not-love, if they want. I think of our male friend who, when we told him how IUI works, laughed and said, Wow, poor us, we just had to have a lot of sex for three months. And here we are, paying entire paychecks for what we cannot do alone. Later, when I fuck you, it feels like the room is holding its breath. Your orgasm is hard and lasts longer than usual. I think this one worked. I can feel it, I say. I don’t know what I’ll do if it didn’t, you say. Your comment makes me feel small yet alive.
What if IUI doesn’t work? What if we need to resort to IVF, in vitro fertilization, instead? I wonder how much more money we can afford to throw away. Not everyone has this privilege, I think. The privilege of trying and waiting and breaking all at once. When the doctor presents you with a price list not unlike a list of à la carte spa services, what they don’t tell you is how many pregnant women will show up on your Facebook feed, or the penetrative haunt of a single pink line, or the strength it takes to permit yourself to hope. They don’t tell you the effort it takes to smile and say congratulations when someone turns to you at a party, mocktail in hand, and says, Guess what? I’m pregnant.
This time in bed I think of Fox. Maybe Fox is the one that makes it. I read that foxes can hunt using the magnetic field of the earth. Maybe our Fox can track eggs that way. It only takes one. I don’t know everything about Fox, but I do know that Fox will be kind even where kind has never been found before. In new natural habitats, in the cracks of quaking hearts. We will make certain of that. I want Fox to be able to talk to us about anything and everything, I say. There is a reason I am applying to grad school to become a therapist. Sometimes I cannot fathom anything but talking. We will be awesome parents, you say, smiling at me that way you do. Fox can be whoever the fuck they want to be.
To be clear, Fox cannot be a Republican, I say, wagging my finger dramatically. You make a face that says, Not fucking possible.
You’re fascinated by spaces, how, over time, they can become the object themselves. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to play this game that we called “Fill in the Spaces.” It went like this: player one stood with their feet planted far apart to create a crawl space between their legs. Player two was then required to fill in the space around player one—the most common move was for player two to slither on their belly between player one’s legs, grass marking up the front of their tee shirt. But every once in a while, a player scooted through on their back, or snaked their body around both legs in an impressive display of flexibility. Once player two established their position, they held that pose while player one removed themselves from game-play. If there were only two players, player one would then become the person responsible for filling in the space. You could play with as many players as you wanted, though. There was no objective, no way to win. We simply liked seeing what kinds of crazy positions we could contort our bodies into. It was an intimate game. A slow, methodical game, in which the players deliberated then carried out their moves like generals. Already old enough to feel insecure, we had to be willing to see each other from new, potentially unflattering angles. We also had to trust that no one would fall on us; and when you felt like crumbling, you had to hang on a little longer.
Throughout our affair, there were some days when we both felt like giving up. We sent each other desperate and pessimistic emails. I’ve since lost track of how many times we collectively called it off, only to come running back to each other. We’ll destroy each other, we’d say, trying to find comfort in our lies. But there were good emails, too. For me, they were the connective tissue that held me together for so long. Years later, I still cherish this one:
My atoms miss your atoms. It’s crazy how quickly you have taken over every thought I have.
I really want to jump on you on Tuesday so we have to make that happen. I miss everything about you. I also have a lot of favorite baby names—I acknowledge that you asked that question. I love you.
I hope your flight is good—you have been flying for ages. Saw some more old stuff today and drank some Raki—it was strong. We will have some. Going to old town and beach tomorrow.
I loved the certainty of that statement: We will have some. It was you acknowledging that there was a future for us. I remember the flight you were referring to—I was on my way to Croatia with my friend, where we sat on a corny tourist beach a few days later drinking Aperol spritzes and people-watching. I saw this woman standing knee-deep in the ocean, holding a child on her hip. She was smiling at the kid as if the kid had singlehandedly invented joy. I wanted it to be you standing in the water with our child. Our first family vacation of many. I wanted to sprint into the water and splash you both. I wanted to hold our entire world in the palm of my hand and show it off to anyone and everyone. I notoriously have a terrible memory, but that is one of those flashbulbs for me—the moment I realized that, regardless of the consequences, you are where I want to be.
Against my better judgment, I texted you a description of my vision. I want to make more of you, I said. And it was settled; we decided that we would have children before we were even officially together. We made that paramount decision while we were in relationships with other people and then worked backward from there.
The third try, we are exhausted. I feel like it is our twenty-fifth try. I can’t imagine how you must feel, your body pumped full of hormones. The side effects of Clomid, the fertility drug, include:
Breast tenderness or discomfort
Pelvic pain, tenderness, pressure, or swelling
Increased likelihood of multiple births
Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome
There you are on the table again, wincing as the doctor inserts the catheter. I mean, it doesn’t feel great, you say, when she asks how you’re doing. I don’t push the plunger this time. The doctor doesn’t offer, and I don’t know why I don’t ask. Something about it feels cursed now. We’d been convinced that my involvement was the secret to conceiving. Now we don’t know what to believe.
I’m here, I say. You give me a tiny, generous smile. Your cheeks are flushed with love and other human sicknesses: fear, hope, desire, desperation. Afterward, you lie on your back again, your legs propped up against the wall this time. If the walls were covered in posters of the young Leo and Brad, one might think we were best friends at a sleepover, chatting away. The comfort between us has always been there. When we met, it was as if we’d simply picked up in the middle of a conversation we’d started lifetimes earlier.
Next: the timer. The going to work. The timid longing of it all. That night we agree to babysit a friend’s baby, W. She’s a beautiful baby with the sweetest personality. When our friends leave for a baseball game, we take the kid to a neighborhood brewery where her moms always take her. As I push her in the stroller on our walk there, it feels like we are playing house—we both know it, but we don’t say it. We are desperate to remove the word playing from that sentence.
Did you steal C’s baby? the bartender laughs as we remove his favorite regular from her stroller. I hold W up so she can play the game her mama has perfected over the years. When we ask her if we should stop for grilled cheese on the way home, she nods emphatically. On the walk, we pass many families. It occurs to me that they probably think we’re a family. I like that they think we’re a family. I imagine you pregnant, demanding I go buy you a pint of ice cream at 10 p.m., and me, irritated that I have to slip on pants and get in the car, but thrilled.
We feed W and sneak her some of our curly fries the way aunties do. Our dog, needy and jealous, bucks at our knees, making a sick-sad squeal. What are we going to do when we have a kid? I laugh, temporarily forgetting about his asymptomatic cancer. He won’t make it that long, you say, and I can’t tell if you mean because you think he’s going to die soon or because you think it will take us several years to have a baby, and I don’t ask for clarification.
We read W three books before bed, turn on her soothing Spotify playlist, and head into the living room to cuddle and watch Schitt’s Creek. We turn on the baby monitor. It all feels so normal, as if we’ve been doing it for lifetimes. We find ourselves distracted, constantly checking the monitor to admire her cute sleeping position, the buffet of pacifiers she has laid out in front of her. I hope Ocean is this good, I say, imagining a dimpled god, all thigh and cheek, walking early, eager to explore the world. Ocean, a world inside one human. You look tired, dreamy. I think I screamed for two years straight, you laugh, leaning in to kiss me.
Outside, the orange scream of sky. The shape-shift of saltwater. We know that water well. We’ve spent hours watching the waves collide whenever the future has threatened to pry us open. You smile and grab my hand. I can’t tell if I am making it better or worse by talking about our baby that may or may not exist. Another week, and we will know for sure.
You’re fascinated by spaces, how the absence of something can weigh more than its presence. Everything is so stressful, most days I think I may implode. For the next week, we try to distract ourselves. We fill our nights with TV and friends and restaurants and books and pizza and art and each other, but still, I can’t help but spiral—what will happen if neither of us can conceive? Will we lose a part of us that was never ours to keep? It’s an indulgence, to think these foreboding thoughts. I imagine a world in which we don’t make it, a world in which we let the stress gradually wear us down and ultimately tear us apart. Our love, exiled to memory and delusion. Our apartment becomes a quiet, weary space. A constant reminder of what we weren’t able to create.
One week passes and still, no life grows inside of you. What if my eggs are broken? you ask. I pull you closer, as if I can protect you from biology. Your period is a different beast now. No longer merely a monthly irritation, it now serves as a reminder of your emptiness. I’m frustrated, too, but it’s different for me, not having to endure the repeated experience of my body betraying me. At least, not yet. Perhaps my turn will arrive sooner than we thought. But for now, I promise you that you will get pregnant, even though I have no business promising such a thing.
Bear, Fox, Ocean: if you’re listening, I adore you to the point of delirium. I can’t wait to learn from you, to explore and discover and grow with you. Bear, Fox, Ocean: if you’re listening, we are ready for you.
You decide to deactivate your Facebook and Instagram accounts so you don’t have to see any more pregnancy or birth announcements—it feels like everyone is pregnant but you. Your depression gives way to a new helplessness in me, one that stems from my inability to step inside your body and take up some of that weight.
Tonight, in the blue swallow of night, we climb into bed with empty wombs—the dog at the foot of the bed, you in the crook of my neck, our hope wherever wish becomes war. Soon, your breathing settles, and I gently lift your head, unwrapping my tingling arm from around your shoulders. I study your body, how best to pair it with mine. There are so many different spaces to fill, so many solutions to your body’s puzzle. I was wrong—it turns out there is a way to win. I roll you over onto your side and press my breastbone against your back. I slip my arm loosely over your belly, leaving just enough space for one more.