“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological
but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.
It is the real connection which is so feared by the patriarchal world.
Only within a patriarchal structure is maternity the only social power open to women.”
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
Of course, she’s only been acting her age for a few months when the years catch up to her. In some ways, she wishes there could’ve been a slip of being thirty, or just a hint of forty-one, so that she wouldn’t have to face the inevitability ahead of her, the thought that, if she really wants this, the means for it will be challenging. Well, not exactly challenging, but she’s seen the brochures, the statistics, the guidelines, and she knows better than to think of herself as some kind of exception.
When she can’t sleep, Bill can’t sleep, so he reaches for her, his arm coming over her thighs; he’s horizontal, head on the pillow, while she’s sitting up, back to the headboard. She once swore she never wanted children, but then again, she once swore she would never turn fifty, and now, they’re here, she’s shockingly married and even more shockingly to a good man, and one day, he asked if that was something she would want, and she thought, for the first time, yes, and the yes had taken her over to the point of sudden tears, as if that yes had been waiting to leave her lips for some time now. If they can’t conceive naturally, then they’ll try in-vitro. She doesn’t care if it all makes her look like she’s trying to appear younger. She doesn’t care if old friends think she would be unfit. When she looks down at Bill, at his sweet eyes and full lips and the bits of stubble she secretly likes against her own face, she knows that what she wants is for them to make a family together. She wants a child of her own who has his eyes. She wants to be a mother. It’s strangely freeing, she thinks, to be able to say that she wants to be a mother.
But tomorrow marks a certain number of weeks; she’ll take a test, and either she’s pregnant or she isn’t, and if she isn’t, then they need to pursue more invasive options. Though staying awake all night won’t make time pass any quicker, and though she knows half-assed prayers are moot, she can’t sleep anyway, has too full a mind. Still, Bill tugs her back down, putting her head to her pillow, moving his arm so that it blankets her ribcage.
“We’ll get there,” he says, then leans forward to kiss her forehead.
She bows her head toward him, closes her eyes, and tries to believe him.
For the intake appointment, they go into the back entrance of the clinic and wear big sunglasses in hope of not being noticed. Though she’s been a public personality for as long as she can remember, there’s something more private about this grief, like when her father died but more introspective; the tabloids could know about her father because he had been of old age, someone whose death wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, a media surprise, but she doesn’t want the public to know that she’s trying to keep her own hope alive. She doesn’t want anyone else to know how scared she is today. She doesn’t want anyone other than Bill to see her shaking hands, for he will take her small fingers in his and steady her while all others would stare and say oh, the girl must be nervous today. She doesn’t want the fact that she feels to be news.
Of course, there are clear roadblocks ahead: she has a history of irregular periods, her weight would only be normal for someone ten years younger, and she is, though the doctor will never say it in quite these words, too old. She is too old to conceive, so if the fertility treatments fail, then they shouldn’t be surprised. On their way out, they’re given laboratory orders, prescriptions, and two separate pamphlets on adoption, the front text in a playful font, a brown-eyed baby smiling on the cover. Though they want her ovulating, they’re asking her not to get her hopes up, not even in the early stages. She looks down at the little bottle of clomiphene they gave her and wonders why they didn’t include a white flag among all of her paperwork.
That night, Bill brushes his teeth while she stares down the pills on her nightstand, the bottle almost taunting her. Though she’s yet to start the regimen, she already knows this won’t work, already knows that her three months on this drug is a protocol solely intended to placate doctors who will rob her dry simply because she has a dream, a stupid dream, a dream that will absolutely never come true no matter how much she wants it to. If she tries the pills and they don’t work, then she’ll fail another round of this, need to go onto a different protocol used in more dire cases, and so on and so forth until she’s childless and sixty years old and dragging around a bored, exhausted husband. If this protocol doesn’t work, then she is a failure even when she has help. If she takes the pill, then she consents to that failure, opens herself to it, welcomes it into her life. How could she ever do that, let herself fail so inelegantly? Would it be better to try and know concretely that this doesn’t work, or is she better off sticking to her intuition?
And when Bill comes into the bedroom, wearing the nice pajamas she gave him for his birthday back when they were broken up and hating each other but craving each other nonetheless, brushing his fingers through his hair as he says something about some movie he’s seen but she hasn’t, she can already picture the rest of their lives together: she takes all of the pills but never ends up pregnant, he starts taking on fewer and fewer projects in order to support her, information ends up in the press, they spend their older years sitting on opposite sides of a king-sized bed and wishing the gap between them would grow so wide that the bed would eventually feel blissfully empty and become a soft place to sleep again. He’s going to hate her for this. He’s going to hate her for how badly she wants to try.
But right now, he dotes on her as he climbs beneath the covers, kisses her cheek and asks if they’re ever going to unpack the boxes in the spare room. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to a different part of town, somewhere farther away from the theatres, somewhere quieter but still in the city; the old place, still owned by Margo, sits unoccupied on all days except show days - she likes to retreat somewhere outside of the theatre after rehearsals, to have some quiet time alone before shows - while this place is her comparatively-distant refuge, their bedroom newly-furnished, the next room over decorated as Bill’s office, the third bedroom left full of boxes she’s afraid to unpack, for if she unpacks then boxes, then the room will be empty, and she can’t stand an empty room. What would she fill it with, then? Would she turn it into her own office, a place that would end up growing cobwebs because she likes the wide, sunny windows in the main room more? Or would she watch as Bill built a crib that they would rarely use because no child of Margo Channing could go without attention for even a few minutes? She can already hear Bill saying it, she’s got my nose and your temper, maybe we should send this one back.
So she isn’t going to unpack the boxes, not yet. She has the pills to try first, pills that will tell her she’s failing, boxes that will add an additional reminder. As Bill tells her he’s tired, could she shut off the light, she takes the glass of water at her bedside and forces down one of the pills, feeling the sting of tears in her eyes as she does so. She’s auditioning for a role she’ll never be cast in. She’s already admitted once that she’s too old for some things, but the difference now is that she denied this for so long in order to maintain the facade that false youth gave her. By force, she made herself the ideal woman: childless, ageless, rich, insensitive. From there, the accolades came, the allure of calling Margo Channing a heinous bitch, the popularity of theatre-world drama, the way that Lloyd was drawn to her for her masculinity and femininity combined. The reality, however, is that she is sensitive, that she does have wants beyond a career, that making herself a woman who cares for nothing may have been good for her image but had been horrible for her humanity. Had she admitted to herself what a pain this was earlier, she would’ve wanted children earlier. Though she couldn’t explain it all to someone if they asked, she understands it so intrinsically, as if maybe her life couldn’t have gone another way, as if she knew this way was the only one all along.
She turns off the light and folds the covers over herself; Bill snuggles in closer, just wants a kiss, a single goodnight kiss, and she’ll give it to him and hope he can’t tell that she’s scared, for if he can tell that she’s scared, she’ll have to admit that she’s scared that she can’t do this because she knows she can’t do this. She’ll have to admit that she was never meant to be a mother, and she’ll have to nod through his ideas of adoption, of fostering, of all other things that don’t solve the issue at hand: she waited too long, so now she can’t anymore. Don’t look at it like that, she scolds herself, for she wants to be a mother, not just someone with functioning anatomy, but still, the infertility feels heavy, a consuming topic that takes up too much space in her life, something she simply can’t stop thinking about. Someday, the pain of it will grow smaller, she thinks as Bill turns to his side of the bed and says goodnight, but not today.
“I love you,” he says so casually, facing away from her in bed, his voice muffled by his pillow.
“I love you, Bill,” she says and in her own voice can hear fear.
She feels nauseous from the single pill already.
“It’s only a weekend,” Bill told her as he packed his suitcase, taking one suit and a spare set of business-casual clothes and nothing else. Last week, she reorganized his shaving kit, replaced his toothbrush, found new tubes of toothpaste for each of them, cataloged her skincare products in a way that made her hands shake as she looked down at the list. This is not what you’re supposed to be doing right now, she thought, but she wasn’t working for the time being, and the boxes in the spare room needed to remain untouched. So, he would have spare razor blades for the trip, and she would have something to do. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
And it wasn’t like her to cling to him, wasn’t like her to hold him close and wish she could ask him to not leave, to skip his meetings and stay home with her for absolutely no reason, to throw over his career in pursuit of her, but she clung, fists balling in his shirt, acting like a child. This was their fourth month on the drug, extending the protocol just in case, and so far, every test had been negative, every return to the doctor accompanied with the same inadequate conclusion: not this time, but maybe next time. Still, she wanted to shake her doctor and say no, there wouldn’t be a maybe next time, she’s too old and they all know it, her best bet is in-vitro and her time is running out. All of these treatments, inseminations and pills for now but shots on the horizon, they staved off the eventual, the inevitable, and though she’d heard every single argument against in-vitro already - low probability of success, expensive, invasive, not the first option in any case - she already knew that nothing else would ever have a chance of working. The doctor should never even have taken her as a patient and instead should’ve laughed in her face and shown her to the door. The adoption pamphlets from the first day are still in the top drawer of Bill’s desk, and the door to the spare room remains closed.
She wanted him to stay for no reason. She wanted him to stay because, in the grand scheme of things, he could. Still, she followed him to the airport, insisted upon holding his hand in the car, kissed him before he headed to the gate, hugged him close and squeezed for a moment as if she was never going to see him again and wanted to savor this goodbye. Though he would call her every night anyway, though it was only for the weekend, she wanted to go to sleep next to someone that night, and she didn’t want to have to hold the phone to her ear in bed, listening to him talk as she nodded off, waking up to a dialtone and a sweaty face at two in the morning. She wanted him to stay.
But he didn’t stay, so she’s alone with the bleeding in the bathroom that night, her fingers warm and wet with it, carnage on her own palms. The test this time had been negative. She says that over and over again to herself as she balls up toilet paper and tries to clean herself. The test was negative. The test was negative. The test was negative. It smells like the iron supplement her doctor used to give her, liquid in red glass bottles kept in her refrigerator, a shot taken each day because she was so anemic that she would faint and feared such an episode would happen on stage; even after she scrubs her hands, picking blood out from under her nails, the scent remains, heady and heavy, a constant reminder. With a thick menstrual pad against her body, she feels as if she’s done something wrong, as if she’s supposed to wear something different, as if she should call her doctor and have some kind of procedure done. Though part of her wants to think that this is just a period, that the drugs have wrecked her cycle in some way, she’s studied her ovulation calendar every day, stared it down as if keeping a watchful eye meant that she would succeed this time, and she’s supposed to be past ovulating now, waiting on a period in a few weeks; no, she was pregnant, and she’s miscarried. It’s not a period, she thinks as she pulls pajamas up her legs, over her sore breasts that she’d thought hurt because of the drugs, but the test was negative. The test was negative. The test was negative.
Though it’s only seven in the evening, she draws the blinds, curtains the windows, crawls into bed, dims the lights; this is the end of her day, and she won’t argue with that, won’t try to force something out of herself. She already knows that she won’t cry, for this is a kind of un-loss, a loss of something that was never meant to exist, and if it was never meant to exist, then there’s no sadness to its loss, no grief. No, this isn’t a child lost; it’s just another example of how the medication isn’t working. That’s why I didn’t get my period, she thinks as she closes her eyes. Back then, she thought to call her doctor, to see if her timing was off, but the test had been negative, so she assumed her body was simply changing with the medication, that a missed period might be the last of her worries. The test was negative, she thinks again, but underneath the statement, she feels as if she should’ve known, as if there should’ve been some instinctive sensation. Didn’t women have these things, these intuitions? What kind of woman, what kind of person, is she if she doesn’t have such deep understandings of her own body?
At midnight her time, nine Bill’s time, he calls her to wish her goodnight, and she wakes to the ringing phone, takes it from her bedside table, holds the receiver to her ear while keeping the rest of her body completely still.
“I miss you already,” he says. “I was checking into the hotel, and the whole time, I was thinking of what you’d say. You’d have said that the white roses in the lobby were tacky. I could picture you there, saying exactly that. These white roses are tacky.”
The last time he went away for work, that time for a week, he sent her a bouquet of red roses midway through the trip, just because. When he came home from that trip, she hugged him so tightly and thanked him for the roses, genuinely thanked him, for she had been lonely and quiet without him, not sure what to do with herself, missing the sensation of coming home to love. Though she doesn’t rely on him for much, she hollowed out a space in her life for him while he did the same for her, so being without the other felt strangely empty. Even if they could fill back in those open spots, they didn’t want to; instead, they just wanted the other back. Phone calls could bridge that gap, but she missed waking up midway through the night, something nightmarish on her mind, and reaching for him in bed. She missed balling fists into his pajama-shirts and softly saying his name to wake him, then curling up with him until she felt sleepy again. She missed waking up in the morning to the thought that she was so very loved.
But yes, she would have said that the white roses were tacky. It was one thing to keep her red roses he sent her while he was away on her bedside table because she wanted the reminder of how loved she is; it’s another thing to line a hotel lobby with flowers suitable only for christenings or funerals. She would most definitely have called those white roses tacky.
“Have you been missing me?” he asks, sounding just a little bit smug. He loves that she loves him. She spent long enough denying it to them both that now it feels like a triumphant admission, like he’s proud of her for saying it.
“Yes, Bill,” she says, and her voice sounds darker than she expected it would. In some ways, she sounds sad, but in other ways, she sounds merely tired. She hopes he won’t ask. “I miss you very much.”
“How did you spend the day?” he asks. “Any new scripts come your way?”
Oh. She forgot to look. Right now, she isn’t actively working, has taken time off since the tour, and because Lloyd is a pitiful shell of a man, she’s never going to work with him again. The tabloids have been all over it, people stalking Lloyd outside of where Eve lives now, snapshots of Karen looking distraught, and when she has to pass headlines on newstands, she cringes. Why is it news that she chose not to act too young? Shouldn’t the press commend her for that? Had she taken the role, they would’ve called her too old, said she should work on a character who was more like her, but now, they act as if she lost something, as if she’s thrown away her career. She hasn’t thrown her career away; she just doesn’t want to lie anymore. She doesn’t want to be known for how fake she is. No, she wants something real, for once.
And she’s never going to have that real. No, she thinks she may have soaked through the menstrual pad, and she doesn’t even know what one is supposed to do about a miscarriage. Should she go to a hospital? Why would she go to a hospital? Isn’t this supposed to be a solitary experience? She feels as if a weight is coming over her forehead, as if she’s sinking into the pillow, as if there’s intense pressure behind her forehead. She wants to go back to sleep.
“No, not today,” she says.
“Are you alright?” he asks. “Did I wake you?”
“I’m fine, Bill,” she says, sighing into the receiver. “Just tired.”
“Are you still in pain? I left ice in the box if you need it.”
“Pain?” she asks, but then she remembers that she complained yesterday, the day before; her breasts had been sore, too sore to wear a bra, so she’d worn soft camisoles and loose jackets when they went out, looking odd for her but normal for almost anyone else. It strikes her as strange in retrospect that she told Bill that her breasts hurt. To some degree, they still do, but she’s drowned out the sensation for now, pushed it away. “Oh, it’s alright. No need. But thank you for that, honey.”
“Just want to make sure you’re taken care of,” he says. “Now, when I get back, I was thinking that we could head out of the city for a day. Just to clear our heads. A little treat, maybe. Nice hotel, nice spot to visit. It feels as if it’s been forever since it was just the two of us.”
Whenever it’s the two of us, they’re receiving poor news from her doctor, more talk of how this round isn’t working but might work next month. Bill will duck out of meetings in order to attend the appointments, and though she’s told him not to bother, that if something changes they’ll both know long before the appointment, he comes anyway. She almost wishes he would let her take this pain by herself, that he wouldn’t be there to witness what she can’t do. The unholy, angry, treacherous monster that is grief is best kept alone, for grief plays into the worst sides of a person, makes them practically inhuman with how it claws into the psyche; she wishes he would let her take on that monster alone.
“Okay,” she responds, and for a second, she’s smiling around the world, as if this thought of time together is the only thought she’s going to have for the rest of the night, the rest of the weekend. “I’d like that.”
And by the time the call is over, she feels heavier and more exhausted than she was before, but she needs to change the pad, so she forces herself out of bed, finds a new pair of underwear and a different pair of pajama pants, dresses herself all over again. Luckily, the sheets have been spared, but she feels as if there’s carnage to come. Don’t some women end up seeing the fetus itself, balled up and inhuman, splayed before them in the most terrifying way? Was this even old enough to be considered a fetus? She uses the bathroom in the dark because she doesn’t want to see, doesn’t want to know.
She sleeps through the morning, then part of the afternoon. When she gets up, it’s only to change the pad, to fill a glass with water, to take some of the ice Bill mentioned out of the box; otherwise, she stays in bed, tired enough to sleep through the day. It’s supposed to be draining, isn’t it? If she’s exhausted, if she feels defeated, then she’s working through the typical symptoms. She just needs to wait this out, and once it’s over, she’ll have Bill home again, and they’ll travel somewhere upstate, Bill driving while she sits in the passenger’s seat with her hair done up in silk, nestling into a comfortable hotel in a more rural place, sitting on their room’s balcony and reaching for each other because they wish they could be even just a little bit closer. She loves times like those, when she doesn’t wear - or bring - any makeup, when they can talk about anything, when she learns the deepest and most hidden parts of him, when she finds herself willing to expose those same parts of herself. It feels good to be close to him, far better than she thought it would, for he loves her, every part of her, even the infuriating parts of her - and, as he likes to point out, there are many, many infuriating parts of her. Even though she’s combative, testy, he only likes her more for those qualities; he wants her to be fiery and then to ask him to hold her, likes who she is without asking her to change. And she loves him, loves him so much that sometimes she fears him, for loving someone gives them such great power over you; he is the only person who could truly hurt her, and she chooses to give him that power every day, and in turn, he gives her the same power over him. She likes the weekends when they’re both on their knees to each other, when they find that there’s nowhere else they’d rather be than bare and looking into each other’s solemn, horrific, frightening eyes. In many ways, loving someone is baring to them how you’ll never be good enough for them; loving someone is seeing them bare like that and knowing that such shortcomings will never change how you see them. She likes when they can look at each other and choose each other once again.
But their calls grow shorter and shorter; she tells him she thinks she’s coming down with something, airport germs, he knows how it is.
“Close your eyes,” he tells her the night before he comes home, voice soft. “I’ll talk until you fall asleep. Just like back home.”
She almost wants to laugh, for that just like back home is rarely ever on purpose.
“If you say things about cinematography again,” she quips tiredly, “I’ll be out in two minutes.”
“I had a different subject in mind.”
“Are your eyes closed?”
She closes them, the receiver against her ear, the bed’s covers pulled up over her shoulders because she’s so cold.
“Yes,” she says.
“I was walking around today,” he starts, his voice soft and gentle, soothing, “and I ended up in a part of the city with markets. Fruits everywhere, hanging plants. It was sunny, and everything was lush, and as I walked among the stalls, I kept reaching for you, thinking I would find you somewhere among the lemons and limes. And it made me think of being in the Bahamas that first time, before things were real, back when I thought you would do away with me, that I might even do away with you. We were in a car heading to one of the more rural parts of the island - you remember that, when we wanted to see a waterfall, a real one - and you told the driver, Stop the car. I thought there might’ve been someone in the road or something like that, or that there had been an accident up ahead, but there was no such thing. Instead, you saw a bunch of mango trees on the side of the road, and you, in your little sandals and sarong, not dressed for such a thing, insisted on going up to one of the trees and picking some mangoes.
“I followed you mostly because I was flabbergasted. You stood on tiptoe and tried to reach, but you were too short, so you turned back to me - I can remember it so vividly, your big sunglasses, you had this sunhat too that you ended up losing - and you asked me if I could reach. And I could, so you told me which ones looked right, and I got them down for you. Eventually, I couldn’t hold them all, so you took off your hat and used them to carry all we’d gotten. Back in the car, you told me that one of them looked so, so ripe, so shouldn’t we eat it right now, right here? And the driver had been pissed because we weren’t supposed to eat in the car, so we waited until we found our way to that waterfall, until we made it to that beach at the very end of that long, rural path.
“I took out my pocket knife and sliced it for us both. I had a day bag, mostly just for sunscreen carried on your behalf, and by then, it was heavy and filled with mangoes. You sat on the beach, and I leaned down to hand you slices while you watched the waves. Eventually, I sat next to you and looked out at the skyline, and there was something about how shimmering and blue that water was, how technicolor could never render such a beautiful hue. I felt for once like there was substance to the story of my life, not just to the stories I wanted to put on the screen. I could think of the angles, of how I wanted you to be lit, of the little technical mechanisms involved in watching how you bit down on a slice and chewed.
“Do you remember what you told me right then?” he asks.
She’s stirred from half-sleep when he asks, so she says, “No.”
“Well, you didn’t actually say anything,” he says, and she can hear his little grin through the phone, “but you showed me that beneath all of the bravado, the chiseled exterior and the fame and fortune, there was something indescribably sweet about you, something vivacious. You licked your fingers, lamenting about how New York would never have fruit that fresh, and I saw in you someone who felt things deeply, who longed for things. I saw how human you were. I think that’s when I realized that I was in love with you, that it would hurt horribly if or when things ended. I thought, this is someone special. She’s someone who will show me great beauty and deep, inconsolable pain, and for a moment, I had been afraid, for that meant I couldn’t hide. And in many ways, I still am afraid. I think you’re afraid too.
“But it’s all worth it, don’t you think?” he asks. “I feel that it’s all worth it. Isn’t it, Mo?”
But she was fast asleep by then, her hand slack on the receiver, unaware of the ending to his story.