LINDA FOWLER CONSIDERED MONOGAMY IN HER THIRTIES, BUT SHE STILL HAD A YEN FOR VARIETY. Her phlebotomist, Wallace, was far more thrilling than her husband, and had emerged during the Fowler’s last in-vitro attempt, making procreation almost fun again. Linda’s husband Ed had accompanied her to the lab in the beginning, but somewhere along the way he’d stopped, urging Linda to face the blood draws without him, as if assisted reproduction could be normalized. Just before the procedure, as they came to call it, Ed was sautéing a shallot for a kielbasa lasagna, and Linda was shouldering into her raincoat for another drive alone down Bancroft Avenue to the lab. Her mouth watered—not from the sizzle of meats but from the thrill that Wallace might flirt with her again.
“Your hands are very soft,” Wallace had said before pulling on rubber gloves, his words chiming against the clinic tiles. He squeezed Linda’s forearm. He handed her a purple ball to squeeze. “And nice muscle tone here.” He pressed his fingertips into her arm.
“Years of chopping carrots,” she said, enjoying the way the words made her sound like an expert in something.
Wallace’s acne scars exposed a time of less care, and his nose reminded Linda of little fingerling potatoes found in stews. His posture was that of an ex-con. His clipboard was flimsy in his mechanic hands. He said Linda’s name (“Leeenda Fowwwler”) as if he were cat-calling from a cell.
“Linda means beautiful in Spanish,” he said.
“But your name is Wallace.”
“Mother’s from Mexico.” He dug the needle in. “But my father…” He seemed to concentrate on the bubble and pull of the syringe.
“From San Francisco. The bastard.”
Linda turned her head to the side. She delighted in Wallace’s expletive, falling into grooved positions her life had hollowed, where only months ago this would have been someone to take home to Ed. She lifted her chin, its newly-hanging wattle, and inhaled to lift what pride she had after years of yearning and never getting exactly what she wanted: Adoration. Respect.
He whispered, “almost there, almost there,” and she chewed her lip-skin waiting for the blood to let, like a damsel, someone who might have found needles distressing. The last oily gush pulsed into the ampoule and she looked away again, examining ill-green tiles on the walls, exposing folds in her ear where she knew her husband loved to chew.
When Wallace was finished taking Linda’s blood, he capped off the vial, and stood in front of her with his legs spread. “They’ll call you with levels,” he said.
She couldn’t help it. Thinking about it later was like watching a movie of her own death. “They will call me?” she said. “You can call me. Have dinner with me and my husband on Friday.” Wallace looked on-guard but titillated, the face a man makes before he commits a crime.
One night early in the Fowler marriage, Linda and Ed—naked in the tub, drunk on Pastis and admitting to prior dishonorable fantasies—were tickled to discover they both believed all humans were sexually interchangeable. Linda loved the way a woman’s breasts curved upward in little wine glass peaks. Ed thrilled at the way a man’s forearms—when his sleeves were rolled—could broadcast the quality and tone of the rest of his body. A female thigh could weaken Linda to the point of short breath. So they played with other partners, and had many trysts.
But as Linda ripened and cured, marriage did something: It made her dowdy. Hetero. Almost loyal. She did, actually, now adore the way men, particularly Ed, could unfold before her without meeting her eye, as he faced away, blinking ahead at the road, or the television, or at the bottles of Jameson on the bar. She knew that as long as he didn’t have to look at her, he’d give her his past, and let her roam his face for truth.
They were trying for a family, along with everyone else they knew; time had surged forward unabated and empty. For Linda’s thirty-fifth birthday party, they’d rented a blow-up castle filled with rubber balls, and Ed had joked that they should keep trying as long is it takes to have a baby. “After all,” he said with a strained fizzle to his eyes, “It’s the journey, not the destination-heh.”—implying he enjoyed the sex part. But the joke bit back—their lovemaking had become awkward and clammy—and Ed’s voice skidded on the high notes, a sign of the lie. The women in the bouncy rubber castle had tossed blue and yellow orbs of color at the Fowlers then, offering dutiful laughter to cover group cringes.
The Fowlers had six good married friends, all accomplished, none with kids: Jill Oleander had stopped ovulating--she was thin from her years as a dancer and ate cheddar sandwiches for fertility. Camille Penelope’s husband had crippled sperm from living near walnut orchards. All that pesticide. The specialists didn’t know what was wrong with Linda yet, so, they looked into what the doctors called “the big guns.” Needles sucking eggs out. Her poor Ed, someday soon sitting in a corner with a Hustler, preparing intra-cytoplasmic sperm injections for an embryo and, hopefully, a baby. Linda watched her friends blowing birthday kazoos and wondered if they also felt a sudden slipping of their relevancy, if they also suffered the cracked-vein autumn leaves of their own skin, the exoskeleton of baked insects replacing their eggless and arid ovaries, if they tasted dirt in their throats when they tried to sound happy.
Ed was up for his sperm test. Perhaps his little men were meanderers. They didn’t know. Linda didn’t know. She wanted to know. Because, as she told him in the flat blue of the waiting room, if his men were damaged, then they would know what was wrong and could consider—softly, in a whisper, with her hand to her mouth—donor sperm.
Ed recoiled from her, his feet shuffling against the tight carpet.
“If you enjoy sleeping with men,” she suggested, “then you wouldn’t mind using their…material…to help us.”
“I don’t want to have a child with another man.”
“You wouldn’t. You’d be having another man’s child with me.”
Ed rolled his Men’s Quarterly into a log and Linda took it from him.
“You are my wife,” he whispered. “I don’t want to raise another man’s child.”
She thought about this. She let the idea fill up the silence.
“I don’t cook for you,” she said finally.
“No, you don’t.”
“So how am I your wife?”
“You’re my best friend.”
“That’s not a wife.”
Again their volley ended with a thwack—she tried to give a good one, something that rang the air with an echo of her wit. She checked in with the other couples in the room, looked at the men. They seemed ready for porn in the way children ready themselves for confession—heads low, eyes averted, hands folded in laps. They gave the Fowlers mechanical good-morning nods.
“Are you excited about your performance?” Linda asked.
“Making love to a cup?”
“Why don’t you take the Men’s Quarterly?” She poked his shoulder, smiling.
They had a rule, no shouting during arguments, but she wasn’t sure either of them considered this an argument. “Don’t what?” she said.
“I’m not gay!” He was definitely shouting now.
“Dreamboat…” She used this name to calm him. Other people could most likely hear their conversation. “If you want a family with me…” She knew she should be whispering and the knowledge of this made her want to speak more loudly, as if by being obvious, her bad behavior would be allowed. “Then I think we should stop it.”
“Playing. We should just enjoy each other. Me and you. Only.”
Ed moved his arm around her. She knew he needed her to contain herself, but she furthered, “No more fun,” she said.
“We do have fun.”
“I need just you from now on.”
“Okay, yes, okay,” Ed cooed at her as if she were a spoiled child demanding toys. He swept the room with his eyes, scooped Linda up in his right arm, and covered her face in the kind of hold that came with earthquakes.
Her capacity for love was terrifying to her, and bottomless. She thought she could nurse the entire world if given the chance. But this kind of passion could work against a person, like in college when she fell in love with her Theories of Persuasion Professor. The last day of finals, she would not remove herself from Prof Wintraup’s side and stood gripping onto him like a mollusk, until he gave her that forceful expression people resort to when they want to end things: a close-lipped smile. And still she held on. Finally, he patted her on the back—and though she recognized the insistent gesture of closure, the shut door of possible intimacy, she still suffered a fixated hope that he’d secretly fallen in love with her.
This is what she thought of now as she and Ed stood in the corner of the art opening at the Drunken Goat: her own secret capacity for hope. She really did think that by making the request, Ed would become Hetero-Man. But there he was, under a scientific illustration of the human spine, inching closer to some towering tart with a beard, touching the man’s arm, tilting his head to reflect thrill in whatever this man said. Linda attempted to stand between them, but they spoke only of male things, quite literally over her head, their butt cheeks most likely quivering, shifting in their boxer briefs. She thought she may have detected an erection through Ed’s mustard Carhartts. She laughed loudly, as a way to show she didn’t care that Ed and this tall man were talking, that this tall man’s illustrations were too young and hipster-prone, and that the free Merlot tasted like paperclips.
Ed—holding his wine glass with three front digits, a shiny thumb pressed on the bulb of the plastic imitation crystal—sent a measured snicker at her closeness. She was monitoring him, he would complain later.
“What’s this song?” the tall man asked with the lumpen-class wariness of anything unfamiliar.
“A band out of Austin, Texas. From the eighties.” Linda said too quickly, noticing the beginnings of a wince from Ed. By offering only the geographical origination of the band, she secured for herself a cryptic vagary, which would increase her rival’s level of discomfort. The tall man seemed to neither guess the group nor feign recognition, and she felt the tangy checkmate of superior musical knowledge.
Ed pulled Linda to the corner where they stood under a painting of a buffalo.
“You’re making a mistake,” he said.
“I thought we were stopping this,” she felt the teakettle steam of jealousy rising to her cheeks, imagined the whistle screaming through her ears. “No more fun. You said no more.”
“I am talking to him,” Ed said. “I am being polite.”
“I know how you look when you’re…” She stopped when a reply seemed to swim across his face. She waited for him to interrupt, but he did not, “when you’re interested.” She wondered if she was right, measured the accuracy of her words in the snap of his eyes. “You get ‘polite’,” she said. He didn’t respond, but with a stiff back and reaching feet, pulled away and walked in the direction of the tall man. Linda gripped the counter to keep herself from following. He’d never walked away from her before. It was more insulting than language; he was telling her he could be finished with her someday.
“He’s coming at eight,” she said.
“I already invited him.” Her skin speckled at the thought of the phlebotomist with his urban nose and criminal demeanor, sitting in their dining room, holding her spoons.
“Does he think we’re going to play?” Ed asked, and she thought she detected a note of appeal in his voice, like a strand of some unnamable but sweet spice.
“Do you think we’re going to play?” she asked.
“You’ve instructed me not to.”
“We agreed together,” she said. “Don’t turn me into the jerk.”
“You should call him and tell him some other time.”
It was the day before the procedure. She’d given herself an intramuscular estradiol injection and her face had artificially flushed with the simulation of fresh love. Ed seemed to panic at the shift, when he saw her IVF glow, the hormonal lie of it, and had been jumpy. It was as if he couldn’t accept how their life would change if she did fall pregnant. He buzzed around the kitchen with a can of Hungarian paprika, and she caught his left butt-cheek in her hand. “My fifties housewife,” she joked, but this appeared to make him more nervous. “Are you afraid?” she asked. There was a moment of daring, of narrowed eyes between them. “Can you not handle a dinner without flirting, Ed?”
Requiring fidelity of Ed would simply stoke his hunger for play. If all of their money and tests and needle pricks and surgery paid off, and she did gave birth to a dewy child, Linda wondered, suddenly, if this man would sit down, hold his son’s or daughter’s hand through a cry, and do it again and again, ignoring calls of Chances, the bar down Telegraph Avenue where they both knew the bartender’s birthday, and where men would gather, not to share stories but to press up against each other in corners.
Wallace came with a faux-hawk and a Muscat. He nodded into his phone. He handed Linda the Muscat without looking at her and tried to complete his conversation with an apparent babysitter. “My first night away from home,” he explained, rushing into the Fowler’s living room as if he lived there already. “In the freezer, in the freezer, give the phone to Amanda. Give it to Amanda—“ He smelled of fir, and his clothes were more pressed and colorful than his scrubs; in fact, he seemed more scrubbed too. This was disappointing to Linda. Wallace the phlebotomist had come to her as a kind of beacon, that ill-green light at the end of the clinic corridor, promising dirty merriment. She’d enjoyed her trips to the lab, had grown accustomed to—and even looked forward to—the violence of giving blood, and the man who took hers. But here, as mortal, Wallace seemed overly coifed, effortful, and expectant. He shifted in his dark jeans, and dribbled crackers on the couch. What Linda had hinted at when she invited him to dinner a week ago—only days before she and Ed had agreed on their new fidelity—had expired, and what was left was a sour promise like old milk.
“How do you maintain the moistness?” Linda said, standing over a table of gleaming quail bones and butter. “Everything is so tender.”
Ed smiled under hooded eyes and grabbed her hand. “Wallace has a son,” he said.
“I realize that.”
“Pour another glass of port,” he said. “The one we’ve been saving.”
Ed had apparently forgotten their waiting room conversation. He grinned across the table just as he did in the old days, when Wallace would have joined them upstairs for some kind of juicy tryst. Linda stacked three plates on top of each other, leaning them against her stomach as a balance. Ed was now touching Wallace on the neck, on the triceps, closing his fingers around his elbow, leaning in to share an insight the way a lover would in a crowded room. And finally, when Ed fried up his famous Manchego cheesecake flambé, circulating around Linda in the small kitchen without touching her, and actually fed Wallace with a fork, with reverence, Linda saw it. She didn’t want to believe it, but there it was, right in front of her, like a traffic sign: Ed and Wallace had spent time together. Without her. Both men slurped down dessert without even looking at her, sniggering at some joke to which she had zero access.
“No need for me to keep the conversation going,” Linda unfortunately said.
Wallace scraped the last crumbs of cheesecake from his plate with the backside of his fork.
“Wallace is more than a needle man.” Ed said. He and Ed had been sharing life details, the kind people share when they want to blend. Linda remembered those days in the beginning of their cycle, when he had indeed accompanied her to the blood lab. She tried to think back to missing afternoons to where Ed could have spent time with Wallace. “I’m O negative.” Ed continued, more to Wallace than to Linda. “My blood is prehistoric. This is why I need so much meat.” And then he laughed deep in the back of this throat, looking embarrassed and invigorated.
“I am B positive,” Linda said, “the most modern blood type, an advanced personality, requiring excellence from people—evolved conversation, sacrifice, higher-order commitments.” She rose from the table, cleaning it, wiping crumbs with her palm in a dance with memorized steps, suddenly unable to escape.
Ed’s fingers had burn marks on them, a sign of daring in the kitchen, not a sign of a limited skill. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he was doing, it was that he tried different things, always something new—avocado pasta, carrot tortillas, bison soufflé—and these new meals almost always required a certain balance, a kind of grace that comes only with familiarity. So often the pan would slip and oil would drip or sugars would ignite. It was these burns, and their watery blisters, that Linda now stroked and pressed as she lay like a quartered criminal on the operating table at Alta Bates Fertility Center. On the wall was a mural of Hawaiian palms and hammocks, a way to relax the patients, a failure. Ed stooped on a stool next to the bed while the doctor and her nurses hovered about with rubber gloves and gauze.
“You’ve been spending time with him,” Linda said, though her hand held fast on Ed’s, and she massaged his scars.
“We had a few lunches together. After the first blood test.”
“You told me you wanted to go alone. Lunch. And then what?”
He scooted the chair closer. The anesthesiologist numbed Linda’s right hand, explained in rehearsed whispers what would happen, not appearing bothered by the marriage unfolding beneath her numbing gaze.
“When he talks, I move,” Ed said, “when he moves, it makes me want to stop talking,” either unknowing how his words sounded to Linda, or knowing fully, and intending to hurt her. She couldn’t tell which. She couldn’t tell, actually, where her head rested with the mess. The wrap of bone and skin that contained Ed’s hand was this strange reassuring warmth in the middle of her crumbling inside. She would have none of this. She gripped Ed’s fingers as she considered never touching them again. He wouldn’t be able to rest. He clearly couldn’t see how the musical chairs of life-partner swapping could ruin a child. Linda swam in the clouds and imagined how she might evaporate from this life, his life, one piece of furniture at a time, one breath at a time. Lightness followed her as she severed connections with this man in her mind. They shared music, she would have to find a way to separate hers. She closed her eyes and decided to rest, one more heavy turn of her head toward independence as four of their healthy embryos swam in a catheter syringe, prepped as they were with assisted hatching to better implant in the womb, and then she slept.
It was a two-week wait—the time it would take for Linda and Ed’s embryos to nuzzle into Linda’s womb, if they were so inclined.
To pass the time, the Fowlers prepared meals.
But Linda was no chef. She had the clunky salt style of an old-world grandmother. She’d always wanted Ed to adore her, so after their marriage had cooled, she’d enrolled in cooking classes and hoped her tongue would develop that mysterious quality that elicited eye-rolls from guests—not the disdainful kind, but the kind that comes from perfect sex, perfectly poached eggs. The kind of eye-flutters that Ed would command with his meals. She wanted to understand him, to make him unite with her in culinary enthusiasm. Or more accurately, she wanted to match him in his fervor, because she was not enthused with cooking, not an ounce, and any minute in the kitchen made her feel tight and awkward and held hostage. Everything she was supposed to have learned at cooking class sifted through her brain and landed in Ed’s hands. What was left—forty thousand dollars in tuition and a husband who could now more deftly finesse a vindaloo than she could ever apply mascara—was a reminder of her inadequacies, and her shameful tendency to fall into men.
This extended, of course, to their sexual escapades. For so many years, Linda had played the part, performing oral sex on firemen, allowing Ed to pick so she didn’t have to face the growing discomfort of doing something she didn’t want to do, like ignoring a tag on a piece of clothing. It was only through infertility that she grew the balls enough to demand. To require. To make requests of. This is what I want, she told Ed nightly over cinnamon tea, I want to lean on each other without the third leg, the tripod of another man getting in the way. I want to have a family and feel safe. I want you all to myself, I want nobody else to have you like I have you, and I want to blend together through the flesh of another human, not a man, but a small human, a child.
And as each night in that two-week wait passed, Linda noticed her husband’s muscles growing more and more taught. She noticed him preparing less fanciful meals. His morning French toasts grew soggy, soon he was only pouring cereal. Their refrigerator, normally stocked with rubbery glistening eggplants and showered chard, erect cartons of buttermilk and cream, noble brown eggs and plump onions, began showing signs of disuse, as if the rotting items themselves had a grudge to bear, one that could only be remedied if quickly thrown away. And so Linda did. Ten days into the wait, while Ed was out again, she dumped flaccid sticks of celery into the compost bin, despairing over the clots that fell out of the cream. With all of her training, and all of her hopes to be a mother, it saddened her to think she could do nothing with cream.
She knew too, that Ed couldn’t stop his affections. Yellowed Brussels sprouts told Linda that Ed was with Wallace. The dried sprigs of thyme normally kept fresh and somewhat damp in the vegetable drawer announced that yes, for all of her efforts to impress him, Ed would always want to be with men. And this knowledge flowed out of Linda with crystallized maple syrup, the bottle that had been hardening in the fridge not just for weeks, but for months, the lid so cemented shut she couldn’t rinse the residue from the mouth of the opening to screw the lid off. And it was here that Ed unlocked the front door to his wife covered in old food, with piles of decomposing vegetables at her ankles and a fist of broken bottle in the shape of a log cabin, her right arm glistening with syrup. It was here that Linda knew by the way Ed looked at her with his eyes so roasted they were overdone, that he was leaving her.
“I take my pregnancy test on Monday,” she said as if to pre-empt.
Ed nodded and came to her, explaining in small inhales, searching gazes, and no words.
“Why did you marry me?” she asked, wiping crystalline sand from her forehead with her wrist.
“It’s not like that.”
“How is it like?”
Ed said nothing.
“Why would you pretend to love someone?” she asked.
“Why would you pretend it doesn’t bother you.”
“Is it that I’m unattractive?”
“I’m moving in with Wallace. You can have the furniture.”
“I will take your Le Creuset,” she said, her mouth full of confusion. She knew her words meant nothing to him, and she searched to find a sharper weapon. “Not that I’ll have time to cook.”
“Not that you ever made time to cook.”
“Am I not woman enough? Or not man enough? Make up your mind.”
Ed stalked away from her toward the bedroom.
“When did it start?” she called after him.
“I don’t have to answer that,” a muffled response came from the bedroom. He was lying face down, she knew, into the pillows, unable to process it all. She went to him. His was the most fragile constitution, barely withstanding her blows, like an old windowpane or a poorly constructed cake, ending up in pieces before she ever noticed anything falling.
“Dreamboat?” she eased next to him. “If you adore Wallace...”
But Ed seemed to have retreated to childhood, that hot insane trough of memories and exposed nerves. His body jerked the bed with a toddler-esque spasm. She grew tired of these. They came whenever she asked something of him he didn’t want to give. They came when he knew he was being unreasonable. They came when he knew he’d lost in some way.
After a moment, the bed stopped vibrating from Ed’s quakes, and the evening light stopped searching from behind the curtains. An airplane passed, the bell-curve of its roar bending the thickness in the room. A neighbor’s car door shut. Ed stalked into the shower, his feet reaching in the way they did when he needed calm.
Linda considered how she might miss Wallace’s shift and have another phlebotomist take her blood for the pregnancy test. She rose early this time. Normally, she visited the clinic before dinner. If she went before breakfast, for certain she would miss him, and she wouldn’t have to cringe as she walked up the firm green carpet to the second floor and wouldn’t have to hide her face as she spoke through the window at the waiting counter, wouldn’t have to swallow as she slid her insurance card toward the receptionist or care too much about what her face looked like as she rolled up her sleeve, whether her forehead betrayed her, whether she could appear nonchalant.
He stood ready for her. It was a busy morning. He couldn’t have known she’d be there, too many people required levels every day. Hers certainly weren’t of concern to him. But here he was, his head tilted to the side, his eyebrows like perched birds.
“Any nausea?” He asked.
“In some places.”
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t need to answer. Instead, she asked, “When will I know?” When will she know if she was pregnant, in the singular—not the plural. We, to let him know she’d be doing this alone. To inform him that Ed had left.
Wallace looked injured, as if she’d said something inappropriate. “After the second blood test,” he said.
“So I have to come in here again?” She didn’t mean for this to sound so cold.
“Linda,” Wallace held her hand in his hand, where normally he would hand her a purple ball to squeeze. He pressed his dark thumb into her blue-ish palm. “I know everything is not okay,” he said. He placed her palm on his face, which was oily and cool and repentant. “Nothing is fair.”
His eyes avoided her with a softness she’d not seen before, and she was aware of the incapacity they both had, in the flaws of life, in the stumbling forward through next steps, as if they were ingredients in a poorly constructed casserole.
Her husband loved this man. Her test results would come, trying for family would come to an end, and she’d absorb the future alone. The snap of rubber gloves wrangled her attention back to the phlebotomist, doing his job on this day as on any other, to the ill-green tiles boasting their precision built on reason in a structure of deliberate stability, and she watched this time as the needle punctured her skin.
Sativa January holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, where she taught creative writing as adjunct professor and edited fiction for Washington Square Review. Her writing appears in The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Rattle Magazine, and online at Joyland.com. She lives in the Napa Valley and is working on a novel based on her experience working for a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.
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