When I got the timing right, the shipment would arrive the day before I got the ovulation signal on the fancy predictor. Then Liz would fish the tiny vial out of the liquid nitrogen vapor tank and defrost it in a cup of warm water. She’d pry off the tiny top — smaller than a pencil eraser — and pull the contents into a needle-less syringe that the sperm bank helpfully included in every shipment. Then she’d insert the syringe into my vagina and press the plunger.
We’d heard that it was a good idea to have sex when you inseminated, because the contractions of orgasm supposedly encourage the little spermies in there swimming. But it was always bad sex. Even when we lit candles, the room felt uncomfortably bright. We felt awkward and intrusively intimate, not like we were sharing something sacred and transgressive and exciting. More like one of us had walked in on the other in the bathroom.
In 1998, we fled New York in a seven-year-old Honda Civic that we drove for another decade.
I would write the sperm bank a check for $500 or more of our “car fund” every month for two and a half years.
When we didn’t get the timing exactly right, I had to find a place to stash the sperm before the liquid nitrogen expired. That meant driving to Springfield to put the vials into the freezer at Wesson Women’s Clinic. This was the shadiest part of the whole project: putting my sperm on ice for another month.
I would throw the R2D2-looking canister into the back seat of my car like a toddler’s booster seat. I eschewed valet parking at the hospital but still had to wrangle my little robot past the uniformed valet on my way into the building. When I’d heaved it down the corridor, an invariably unsmiling, white female technician would come to the service window. It may have been the same tech every time or an interchangeable collection of unmemorable women.
“Whose sperm is this?” she asked me once. Maybe it was the first time.
“It’s mine,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I had paid for it. No one else was coming to get it.
I had to register as a patient of the hospital every time I dropped off my sperm. That meant fifteen minutes on the phone during which a much more gentle and refined, if automated, female voice would ask me a series of questions.
Each time I wondered how it might affect my sperm that my choice of religion was “Unitarian Universalist.”
Sometimes we ordered more than one vial and stashed the second at Wesson’s to save a buck. It was a gamble: if I got knocked up on the first try, the second vial wasn’t necessary. But a month of freezer service was cheaper than a cross-country shipment. In our flush of optimism at the beginning it seemed like a wasteful gamble. By the end it started to feel like a good value.
Eventually the romance of trying to get pregnant in our own home wore off and we decided to up the odds by having a doctor do it. For a fee, the sperm bank “washed” our thimble full of semen, removing everything except the sperm. I had to arrange to meet the doctor on call at the office the moment my pee-stick gadget gave me the go-ahead.
It was a cold February Sunday with a steely sky and a cold dull rain when we met Dr. Diane at her Amherst office after church. She drove right up in her little SUV and unlocked the doors for us all. I’ve got a squirrely cervix, and Dr. Ed had warned me that they might need to hold it still with a clamping device to thread the catheter through the cervical os.
The bright white room tipped when the tenaculum gripped my cervix. I was lying down but I was falling. Did I yelp like a hurt animal? Did I shout? The doctor stopped, one hand steadying the instrument that tore at the core of my body, the other frozen in mid-air.
“Don’t. Stop. Now!” I hissed with the crazy fury of pain.
Later, when I told Jill about the tenaculum and the horrifying pain, she said, “You have already taken your first act of motherly courage.”
On the slushy grey cement just after it happened, bent over a blunt and echoing ache, this is what I knew: that would be the last time.
Roxy had been a lesbian for 25 years when she started dating Rat Boy. We called him Rat Boy because he came to the Halloween party dressed as a rat. Also because we didn’t like him. Some of us slept with men and some of us slept with women but if somebody slept with someone we didn’t like, we weren’t very nice about it.
Ric called me at work in the early winter.
“Roxy’s pregnant,” she hissed. “It should have been you!” She kept saying it, over and over. “It should have been you!”
I hung up on her so I could go cry in the ladies’ room.
I’m not going to tell you why I had to grow a person in my body because I don’t know. I don’t know why my family couldn’t start with a trip to China or Nepal or Ukraine or the over-flowing U.S. foster care system. I don’t know why I needed a stranger’s sperm to meet an egg in my uterus, a zygote to push itself into the spongy wet red lining of my womb and grow there. I don’t know why I didn’t need to know. I needed money for sperm and a freezer to keep it in and syringes to push it into my uterus. I needed doctors to sign forms that said they were supervising my efforts and I needed Liz to open the liquid nitrogen with her gardening gloves on. I needed the cash price of a Lexus in the bank, and in the end I needed a tenaculum to hold my cervix still while the catheter went in, but I didn’t ever need to know why I wanted to have a baby.
I’ve only bought one other thing at Walmart in my life: A pair of plain white little girl’s panties. They were on the ballet school’s list of items required for my daughter to perform in the Nutcracker. We were down to the wire. I wasn’t going to be the mama whose reindeer’s polka-dot panties were showing as she pranced in front of Clara’s sleigh.