Chapter 1: the pills
“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.
Chapter 2: the shots
Midway through a dinner out with a few producers and their wives, Bill takes Margo into one of the bathrooms, and she hikes her skirt up while he goes into her handbag to find the syringe. They keep a dot of pen-ink on her skin at the injection site and redraw the dot after each injection, making sure to remember the spot. Though she knows how suspicious this looks, how a couple ducking into a bathroom together screams certain things that are the exact opposite of what they’re currently doing, he couldn’t avoid this dinner, and she can’t do this herself, can’t reach to the right place. If she needed to prick herself, she could - though maybe it would take ten minutes to find the courage - but it’s so much easier to have Bill or Birdie do it, usually Bill. And he’s gentle too, unlike Birdie. He rubs the alcohol swab against her buttocks as if she deserves to be touched softly. It’s intimate, she thinks, maybe even more intimate than sex. All couples should have to do this if they want children, for if a man can’t inject fertility drugs midway through an important dinner, then maybe he isn’t a man worth having children with.
Once he’s done, he follows the sharps protocol, holds gauze down on the site because she tends to bleed just a little bit afterward.
“You didn’t want a reception, right?” he asks, pushing the gauze against her skin in order to help the blood clot. “I can’t remember if I ever asked.”
“No, of course I didn’t,” she says.
At dinner, one of the other couples said they were shocked to find that Margo and Bill had actually, sincerely married, had thought that such a thing was merely a tabloid rumor, and in many ways, it did seem like a rumor in that it was so small and inconsequential that no real story could ever come out of it. But really, all she’d wanted was a ring, a ring that he picked out for her after he asked if she wanted to choose - she didn’t - and a ring that she wore every day, only took off to bathe. She hadn’t wanted a party, for parties meant entertaining and dressing up; what she really wanted was a marriage, a chance to tie the knot and move on, to be able to call Bill her husband and have a clear and present excuse to ask him to sleep beside her each night. She hadn’t wanted a party at all.
“Okay,” he says, nodding. He pulls away the gauze, brushes a thumb over her skin to make sure nothing’s been irritated. “Just wanted to make sure.”
She tugs her skirt back down. “Did you want one?”
“Oh, absolutely not,” he says, then gives that smile of his, the one just for her, not the normal kilowatts but instead something quiet and warm, “but I’d put up with the hell of a party if it made you happy.”
“You like parties.”
She smooths out the wrinkles in her skirt, turns to the bathroom mirror so that she can check her lipstick.
“Yes, ones with friends and alcohol,” he says, coming up behind her as she looks in the mirror, palming her side as his chest comes flush with her back, “just not ones with relatives and family politics.”
“Who said we would invite family?”
Now he’s getting flirtatious, crouching a little so that he can kiss her face, making her laugh as she takes lipstick from her clutch and reapplies, and though she doesn’t want to admit it, she’s glad that the shots into her buttocks have yet to kill the romance. He still grabs her there for reasons unrelated to the shots, swatting the one cheek they don’t use because he doesn’t want to hurt her, and the normalcy is such a relief. No matter what news they receive in the appointments, he doesn’t treat her like anything different has happened; instead, he treats her like she’s Margo.
But then again, he does treat her differently, but only at certain times. He’s stopped asking her to unpack the boxes. When they have sex, he’s slower, gentler, his mind elsewhere; she understands it, for her mind is elsewhere too, but she has to ask him to come back, tell him that he’s allowed to enjoy it, that they’re both allowed to enjoy it. Afterward, he slips a pillow underneath her hips - they don’t even know if that will work, but they do it anyway, or at least he does it anyway, and each time, that’s her reminder that even if he acts more detached, even if he is less emotional after the appointments than she is, he too so desperately wants this to work. He does the same when he refills water glasses for her, when he cooks for them both even though they’re the kind who skip lunch and then take to a late-night restaurant for dinner later, when he hears the alarm that means it’s five minutes until she needs the injection go off on his watch and drops whatever he’s doing in order to attend to her; it’s clear to her that he wants this, that his way of showing that desire may differ from hers but that his desire is no smaller than her own.
The first time she recognized her own pain in him, he was calling for an ambulance after he came home from that weekend trip, panting with anxiety and stuttering as he told the operator their location. Now, she can’t remember the earlier parts of the day well, for the fever had been high and she’d been exhausted, but that Sunday, he’d come home to find her in bed, blood staining the sheets, her forehead too warm and her words slurred. Apparently, she should’ve checked in with her doctor after realizing that this was a miscarriage, and she should’ve seen if she needed any subsequent treatment, but instead, she waited out the weekend until she ended up with a heavy bleed and an infection, both of which landed her in the hospital for three days. Once she was done with the blood transfusion - Bill knew her blood type even though she didn’t know his - he sat with her and held her hand, stroking his thumb over her fingers, taking any closeness he could get. Though she was too exhausted to care, she could still see the concern in his furrowed brown, the way he looked at her with pain, and at the time, she’d assumed she just looked small and pale, sickly in a way that made spouses wince.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, his voice soft and nonjudgmental, as if he had done wrong by her in some way and wanted to apologize.
And she could’ve lied, could’ve said that she assumed it was just a period, but she didn’t want to lie to him, not about anything, especially not about this. She knew that she could’ve lied had she wanted to, but she didn’t want to.
“I don’t know,” she told him, and she wished they could have this conversation at any other time, for she was too exhausted to meet him where he was.
But he nodded, and she could tell that he understood, that he had known that, had he been in a similar situation, he wouldn’t have known what to say either.
“Did you know beforehand?” he asked, his tone sounding as if he were bracing himself for something painful.
Oh, she thought. He thinks I did. He thinks I didn’t tell him.
“No, no,” she said, sighing out a breath. “Of course I didn’t.”
“I’m so sorry, Margo,” he said, shaking his head, gripping more firmly to her hand. “I’m...”
And then, to her surprise, he started to cry, at first soft and in a way that made her wonder if he really was crying, but then, it turned to near-hysterics, taking his hand back so he could cover his face, and she sat up in the bed, lacking the necessary energy but not knowing what else to do, and she reached for him, said his name over and over again - Bill, Bill, Bill - trying to reach him but unable to do so. Finally, she grabbed one of his arms, clutched firmly to his shirtsleeve, and forced his name through her lips - Bill! - and he folded toward her, their foreheads together over the sides of her hospital bed, intravenous antibiotics making her dangle one arm behind her and away from him.
When he climbed into bed with her later that night, he asked her how she felt, and she told him she was okay, really, she was okay. It never felt real, she said, for it hadn’t, but since then, she felt it creep into certain areas, become a ghost following her home from her appointments. It could’ve worked, that ghost whispered, but it didn’t. But it didn’t. But it didn’t. If she took Bill’s hand, if she reached for him, she could drown out that sound, but sometimes, especially with the injections, the sound grew too loud, so she would wake him midway through the night and cling to him, tears in her eyes, saying that she was scared though there wasn’t any danger near them. And she knew he felt it too, so when he held her close, when he soothed her, she knew that, it many ways, they were soothing each other, her grounding him with her tears, him calming her with his soft voice.
In those moments, she was so sure that they had made the right decision to marry, and in these moments too, when he’s kissing her neck so serenely that she almost messes up her lipstick, when he stalls heading back to the table because, quite frankly, he doesn’t care for producers, and who he really cares for is her, especially during certain hours of the night. Still, she pushes him away playfully, for tonight is about business, not pleasure, and once they’re seated again at the table, they’re asked if they would like a dessert menu, and while all of the other couples shake their heads and give quiet nos, Bill says yes and orders them a slice of chocolate cake to share, three layers of pure decadence. He makes sure she gets more of the frosting than he does.
Seventh months in, they still haven’t conceived; she chooses not to view the miscarriage as a success, for it never was one to begin with. She used to think that she would absolutely demand in-vitro after six months, that she would argue that her age posed a problem that vetoed all preemptive treatments. Given her wealth, they could afford in-vitro; the only obstacle was bureaucratic protocol, and if she yelled loudly enough, she figured that someone would concede to her, but after six months, after they started the shots, she thought, I’ll give it a year. One year, and if we don’t conceive by then, we’ll start in-vitro. After one year, I’ll refuse anything else. But still, she thinks she might postpone it even more, might say that fourteen months is enough trying, or eighteen, or some arbitrary number, for now, it feels comfortable to try. She feels as if they’re making progress. The negative tests have become a default, so now, the negatives no longer feel like failure; instead, they feel as if all things are the same, as if everything is normal. Though she knows she shouldn’t think that the failure is normal, she’s found comfort in it, in how they’re both determined, in how they keep trying and trying and may someday be successful. It’s easier to fail the same way each time than it would be to have the prospect of success on the horizon, the sheer possibility. In five months, she will stop these treatments and opt for something else, but she can’t think that far ahead, has never really been able to. It’s comforting to know that she’ll at least be doing something by then.
It’s raining when they leave the restaurant, so he hails a cab, states their home together as the destination; he sits close to her in the backseat, taking her small hands in his, warming up her fingers. She’s never liked the rain, especially not the rain in New York, and he knows it, so he does the little things she likes, warms her hands and cants in toward her, letting her rest her head on his shoulder so that she can drown out the noise. Though she hates the rain, there’s something a bit more wonderful about it tonight, all of the bright lights of the city blurring in the downpour, neon signs glowing with life, skittering passersby shaking raindrops from their coats. All the while, they’re inside the cab, warm and buzzing through traffic, and her belly is full, and Bill is reaching an arm around her because he can, because he wants to, because he loves her, and somehow, she feels at peace. Despite the rain, despite the producers, despite the shot in the bathroom, she feels at peace.
Looking up at Bill, she sees him cast in passing light, the buildings they go by illuminating his face for a second before it’s drenched in darkness again; spots of rain on the windows create a pattern on his face, and she wishes she could stop time for a moment, could keep him like this so that she could remember this moment forever, the way it feels to be loved by him in this instant, the way it feels to know so securely that he loves her. But time is transitory, and she can’t capture this moment or any other, so she reaches out and touches his cheek, trying to create a tactile memory, trying to internalize every feeling. Her mouth still tastes like chocolate frosting. When she kisses him, she finds that his does too.
They giggle as the press the elevator button in their building’s lobby, as they hold hands and wait for the arrival; inside, they’re alone, so he kisses her wildly, her back against the cool metal walls, his body cocooning her, the scent of rain in his hair. These are the kind of kisses she can laugh into, that she feels everywhere from her forehead to her toes, that make her pull on his jacket so that he’ll come closer, and by the time that the elevator doors open, he’s lifted her off of her feet, almost making her shoes fall off, and she’s telling him to put her down - Bill! Bill! Bill! - but she’s laughing because she doesn’t really want him to. First, he lets her set down her clutch in the living room, but then, he carries her to bed, right to bed, coat and shoes and all, and he’s so gentle as he puts her down on the bed, as he unzips and peels away her jacket, as he abandons both of theirs on the floor, as he starts to unbutton his shirt, but she tells him no and reaches out for him because she wants to be the one to do that. He pulls her dress over her shoulders; she tugs down his shirt, his pants, and his mouth is on hers again, pushing her onto the bed, surrounding her. She wants every part of him, wants to feel every part of him, and outside, there’s a thunderstorm, the kind that claps out loud and blurs their windows with all of the fat raindrops, and it feels so right to have his mouth against her neck, to have him ask breathily how she’s doing, and she’s doing well because they haven’t had real sex in so long. They haven’t had sex just to have sex in so long. Palming his hips, she tells him that she wants him because she does, and he meets her gaze with tenderness and underlying fervor, a kind of love she’s still awestruck to find. It’s a different kind of sexual attraction, desiring someone for themselves rather than their body alone, and she relishes in it. With one look, he has the room spinning around her. She never thought it could be this good.
And they take it slow at first in the way they used to, the lazy kind of sex reserved for weekend mornings and early afternoons home from work, but he wants her, and she wants him, and that doesn’t last too long; she’s gripping at his back, digging her fingernails into his flesh, her eyes closed and mouth open, her mind empty. Though they’re not following the schedule right now, though she’s not in the right spot of her cycle, she doesn’t care, couldn’t possibly care, for she can feel his every movement as if it were her own, and she almost wants to cry because it feels so good, but instead, she locks her ankles around him in an attempt to pull him closer, feels his hot breath against her skin. She loves him, and for as long as this lasts, all she feels is that love, the treatments and doctors be damned. She forgets that it’s raining outside. She forgets that this act has procreative purposes. She forgets what ovulating is. She forgets that she’s a woman and that he’s a man and that those words have any kind of meaning. She forgets that he’ll have to give her another shot tomorrow.
Afterward, he curls around her, him on his side while she’s on her back, and he’s stroking her belly, piquing the soft little hairs there, the places she feels awkward about. Of all things, she’s most thankful for how he can see her naked and feel nothing but love.
“I have a good feeling about this time around,” he says, and his voice sounds so warm and hopeful, so elated. He really does think it’s going to work. “Really, I do. I have a hunch.”
“A hunch,” she says and smiles, for she feels the same way too, all of her logical thoughts be damned. It really feels as if something is different this month.
“I really think it’s going to work this time,” he says, leaning over to kiss her bare skin. “I really think it’s going to.”
But that month, she has her period before they even remember to take the test, and though the failure has grown comfortable in many ways, it’s starting to grow uncomfortable too. They’re not sad anymore; instead, they’re angry and viscerally so, and blood in her underwear this time makes her want to scream and tear the panties in half because they had a hunch. This time, they had a hunch, and it hadn’t been true, and they’ll do more shots until it’s been a year, and then, they’ll do in-vitro. Until then, they have four more rounds, four more chances to get it right, four more tries.
I really think it’s going to work this time, she thinks during the next round of shots, then hushes that part of her mind and asks it never to speak again.
When all else seems to be failing, they take that long-postponed trip he mentioned the weekend of the miscarriage, traveling to a resort at Mount Washington so that they can relax. She’s heard that sometimes the greatest barrier to fertility is the stress caused by infertility; if the couple simply forgets the problem of infertility, then maybe they could, in fact, conceive. To her, it’s bonkers, but it’s in the back of her mind all weekend anyway, and because they’ve just passed their first anniversary - for paper, he gave her a handmade leather-bound collection of Ibsen plays, and she gave him a hardy notebook with his name engraved in its cover - she feels an almost pressure to relax, to be completely and perfectly content, to force through the tribulations of a first year of marriage and come out on the other side fruitful. Had they wed twenty years earlier, maybe even ten, by now their friends would be expecting a pregnancy announcement of some kind, side-eyesing Margo at dinners out to see whether or not she ordered wine, but instead, their nights out consist of more business talk, the things that matter to big, wise adults. All the while, she listens to other directors speak to Bill in words she once understood but has since forgotten, filmmaking words, words she threw over in pursuit of theatre, and she thinks, I can tell you anything about my hormones. I can tell you anything about my blood counts. I know every single mechanism of ovulation. If you wait a few minutes, together Bill and I can demonstrate how to administer an injection. And if you want to see me uncomfortable, if you want Bill’s smile to fade away, then I can detail to you every last mechanism within a cesarean procedure, where each stitch goes and why.
In some ways, it makes her feel small, a disgusting kind of feminine, a woman oppressed by her own making, but while she was in the medical archives of the library last month - Bill had been out of town for a few days, and she couldn’t stare down the closed door to the spare room any longer - she opened a book on childbirth to find the most horrific and breathtaking of pictures: a belly, an incision, the flesh of the uterus voided through black-and-white ink, a tiny hand reaching up from the bloody mess. Apparently, some cesarean procedures required weights to hold the flaps of skin down. Though normally a picture of that kind would make her feel sick, would overwhelm her with the primal ugliness of it, she pressed her pointer-finger down to meet the child’s splayed hand, reaching for nothing and everything at the same time, bare skin open and vulnerable to the horrors of the world. Long ago, she stopped painting her nails and bleaching her hair, just in case; her finger pressed down against the page until the bare nail turned from pinkish to pure white.
These men couldn’t look at a picture like that, she would think as they talked about things she didn’t understand, things she maybe didn’t even want to understand. No, she didn’t need these things, for she had something else, something devastating and beautiful, something that brought her such hope and gratefulness and at the same time such despair. She wondered if these directors, all of whom sought to communicate the most gratifying agonies in their work, could ever experience something as profound and uncomfortable as seeing a peeled-apart belly and thinking, Yes, that’s what going to happen. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to hurt, even if they numb me. But there are some pains in life worth feeling. There are some pains so worthwhile that you start to crave them, want them so badly that it feels like you can’t breathe. This is what I’m choosing, and I’m not choosing because it’s easy, or because it’s what I deserve, or because it’ll make me a different person; I’m choosing it because I want it. I’m choosing it because the pain is for a reason that makes it all worth feeling.
Their room at the resort looks out at the mountain range, the tops capped with snow, firs shaking in the wind. Warming her feet in front of the fireplace, she curls into one of the armchairs, upholstered with a reddish fabric she can practically blend into; they’ve had a long day, one spent romping around in the snow like children, Bill flopping over to make a snow angel and grabbing at one of her boots until she did too, and as soon as they returned from dinner, they were in pajamas, warm ones for the weather. You’re like a cat, Bill always tells her, trying to find every warm spot in winter. Here, let me warm you up. She has a book about the divine feminine in her lap - she’s willing to try anything at this point - but she’s not reading, for there’s something about the quiet observation of a partner, listening as Bill turns on the radio - Frankie Avalon doing “Venus” - and flips the tap in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, washing his face, breathing in a cadence she can almost feel against her skin. Though she’s lived with others before, there’s something so different about living with a husband, about traveling with one; of course, there are tics of his that she despises - and he’s figured out that an obvious sign that she’s sad is that she hasn’t silently but judgmentally capped his toothpaste tube when he’s left it open - but there are the little things, so many other little things, that she loves, and she looks for those more, focusing on them instead. Her favorite is the sound of him falling asleep alongside her, the way his breath shifts after he kisses her goodnight and turns onto one side, the way he lets his guard down so easily.
And then, when they travel together, their mannerisms travel too. He unpacks all of his suitcase, settles shirts in the drawers of the hotel room and lines up his whole shaving kit on the bathroom sink, while she hangs things that will wrinkle and leaves everything else in her bag. When they call for a car, she sits on the righthand side of the backseat, he on the left. Though she takes her rings off to bathe or sleep, has a little enamel box for them on her nightstand at home, he keeps his wedding band on at all hours, and when they shower together, the feel of it against her bare skin makes her quiver, that constant reminder, that clear and present commitment. If he orders dessert - nowadays, when he orders dessert - he passes the spoon to her first. Award nominations make him anxious to the point that he talks too fast and stays up until the small hours of the morning, pacing their living room and waking her up. When she walks by the spare room, she cringes. If her shot is even a few minutes late, her hands start to shake, but she won’t tell Bill that she’s nervous, that she thinks they’ve done something horribly wrong. By now, Bill knows that, as soon as the plastic test comes out of its package - they have a slew of them under their bathroom sink, ten or twelve boxes just ready to deliver the same news as the last one - he’s to leave the bathroom, and he’s supposed to occupy himself, for no matter what the news is, Margo won’t be out for at least twenty minutes. Furthermore, if she’s not out by the twenty-minute mark, then he’s to knock softly, and if she doesn’t answer, then he’s to knock harder. So far, he hasn’t had to knock harder, but she knows that, if such a thing were to happen, he would follow the instructions she hasn’t given him, instructions she’ll never need to provide. He knows not to ask her to unpack the boxes. Last week, he asked her, where’s my coffee mug? You know, my favorite one. Little chip in the top. Red ceramic? And she wondered first why he hadn’t asked for it before - right, because she asked him to join her in quitting caffeine, and since then, they haven’t had many warm drinks - and then felt sinking dread as she realized, It’s in one of those boxes. One of my tucked-away boxes. Though she told him she wasn’t sure where it was, that maybe it was lost in the move, she could tell that he knew she was lying, then that he understood what the lie meant and that the mug must be in one of the boxes, and out of respect, out of love, he said that’s too bad and dropped the subject altogether. The door remains closed; the boxes remain packed.
When he returns to the bedroom, all washed up and ready for bed, he asks, “How tired are you?”
The fireplace is warm, her belly is full but not uncomfortably so, she had warm milk with honey sent upstairs for her while he was showering because she was a winter kind of tired, looking to curl up somewhere cozy and watch from afar as fat flakes of snow fell down toward the mountains. Yes, she’s tired, but she knows where this question is going, that she doesn’t have a choice in the matter.
“We can’t skip it,” she says, for they can’t.
When he’s inside her, when they’re on the schedule, she sometimes closes her eyes and thinks of that night in the rain, his mouth tasting of chocolate frosting, his hands holding tight to her body as if she were something to be both cherished and craved. It’s impossible to make every time romantic, and though they did try to defy that impossibility, she soon enough asked him to give up on such frivolous things; she would spend the weeks after her fertile window aching between the legs, recovering before the inevitable - yes, inevitable - menstrual period and then the even more inevitable try-again period, so sometimes, it seemed best that they do it in a purely medical way, everything for once focusing just on ejaculation. She could tell that neither of them desired it, and though that did make the real sex, the sex had simply because they wanted to have it, the sex outside of her fertile window, better, it still felt encumbering to see sex as an obnoxious, scheduled inevitability. In moments like this, when she’s tired and just wants to curl up with him in bed and do nothing else, she’ll think, Maybe all of this effort isn’t worth it. We can try to adopt. If we start the process now, we might get there before Bill’s forty-five. I’m not sure why I’m so attached to wanting this. But when the lights are out, when Bill has inevitably fallen asleep before her, she’ll be plagued with the thoughts, reminded of how painfully she wants this, reminded that she’s done so much and pushed herself to her limits because she has never wanted anything else so badly, and she’ll feel ashamed that she even let the idea of quitting come into her mind. You’re just mentally and physically exhausted from trying, she’ll tell herself, but still, there’s a voice in the back of her mind telling her what she fears someone else will: it’s not working because you don’t deserve to be a mother.
He comes over to her chair, crouches next to her, leans forward to kiss her cheek. At night, he always smells good, a homey kind of good, like the handmade soap he keeps in their bathroom, like clean linens.
“At least let me try to make it special,” he says, and then, he’s wedging his arms underneath her body, picking her up bridal-style and carrying her to bed, and though she otherwise would giggle and palm his chest and insist that he put her down, now she’s tired enough that she just balls his shirt in her fist, holds on to what she can.
“Alright,” she agrees as he puts her down, and he’s gentle, so painstakingly gentle, he takes his time with her in the way he would on a real night, but he’s timely too, knowing that she wants this over with no matter how good it feels, and because he understands her, because she doesn’t have to explain herself in order for him to know what she wants, she closes her eyes and relaxes. Sometimes, the only thing that makes this struggle easier is knowing that he understands and honors the pain she feels at each failure. If he didn’t, she isn’t sure she would still be here with him, snow falling on the mountains outside, the fireplace in their room at the resort keeping them warm inside. She isn’t sure they would’ve made it to one year.
Afterward, he holds her close and rubs her back. They used to slip a pillow under her hips and talk afterward, but now, they’ve grown to find that frivolous. Instead, he’s silent as he holds her, as he waits for her to fall asleep.
Or he isn’t waiting, for when she’s comfortable, when she feels herself slipping, he asks, tone so quiet she can barely hear him, “What if we were to talk about names?”
She can tell that he regrets it the instant he says it, for she can feel how his heart rate quickens, how he tenses with those words. Oh, Bill, she thinks; for a moment, she can’t think of the gravity of the question and can only think of what he must be feeling in order to ask such a thing. Oh, Bill.
“No,” she says softly, gently, denying him. If they talk about this any further, even for just a minute longer, she’s going to start crying, and she’s too tired to cry. If she cries now, she’s afraid she’s never going to stop.
“Okay,” he says, then relaxes a little, warm with embarrassment but letting that emotion subside. “I’m sorry.”
Pulling him closer, she tries to silently communicate to him in the way he does so well with her, I understand.
When it’s time to take her test at the one-year mark, she goes into their bathroom alone. Bill’s at his desk reading a script he doesn’t seem to like and pretending this isn’t momentous because, if he were to show any outward emotion, hope or fear or anything else, she would break down altogether and refuse to do the test at all. We can just wait, she would say, and if it’s false, we’ll know in a few days anyway. What’s the rush?
But the rush is that they need to start in-vitro. She’s running out of time. Or, rather, she ran out of time years ago, and now, she’s desperately using medical advancements in an attempt to catch up, and she’s failing. This test is going to come up negative. She’s failed every attempt for an entire year now. She’s failing.
By now, the mechanisms are embedded in her muscle memory: open the box, sit on the toilet, wait ten minutes, think about anything other than what’s happening right now. Each time, Bill gives her twenty minutes, and she takes those twenty minutes, the first ten spent waiting for the result of the test, the next ten spent staring down that result and thinking nothing, feeling nothing. She isn’t surprised, angry, upset, nervous; no, she’s blank, almost comfortingly so, and her mind is empty, and she has one thing to focus on, something so simple and basic, something that communicates so much that she needn’t use any sense or intelligence other than her own vision.
After the allotted time, Bill knocks, and though she usually says come in or be right out and then readies herself, this time she just calls back it’s negative and stands up, almost woozy from the speed, not bothering with a second or third test even though they’ve double-checked ever since the miscarriage. No, this is negative, it’s a true negative, and she hadn’t expected any other result. Tomorrow, she’ll inform her doctor, and their next appointment will be spent going over the details of in-vitro fertilization. This next year will be spent doing more fertility treatments and hoping something quite literally will stick, but still, she can sense those adoption pamphlets in the bottom of the desk-drawer, the constant tug toward something more probable, something she should’ve opted for a year ago. Do I still want this? she asks herself as she unlocks the bathroom door, as she walks out, the test left in the garbage where it belongs. Did I ever really want it in the first place?
Quickly, too quickly, Bill wraps his arms around her, hugging her with a vulnerable desperation, not speaking and not breathing either, and she doesn’t want to show him that he scared her with the action, but she’s scared nonetheless. Right now, she doesn’t want to be loved; no, she wants to be nothing. Thinking back, she remembers how she would go home alone after the play each night, how she and Bill were off again and how she swore that empty houses didn’t make her anxious. She would climb into bed and think, Is this the rest of my life? And as she closed her eyes, she would ask herself, Why shouldn’t it be? Though there was nothing to that life, the nothingness was comforting, for it meant she could avoid the unnecessary pain, could report to herself and herself alone. It’s a burden to have others care for you, a burden to care for others as well; she misses being able to climb into bed and think about herself. She misses waking up in the morning to an alarm she set and sighing in annoyance that no one else would notice. She misses being completely and totally alone.
“I’m sorry,” she says, squirming away from him. “I need some air.”
So he lets her go without saying anything, and once she’s got her handbag and her coat, she leaves quickly, hails a cab and lists off a specific address, leans back against the seat of the taxi and breathes out forcefully. She closes her eyes; she doesn’t have the energy to see New York right now. When the cabbie lets her out in front of her old home, she thanks him, tips heavily, and cowers inside, the front door feeling bigger and heavier, the furniture seeming to dwarf her as she walks inside. Her stage makeup is still here from the last show she did. If she looks thoroughly enough, she might be able to find something of Eve’s here.
Though the linens aren’t fresh, the bed is a refuge, a place that hasn’t known of her past year; no, this bed only knew nonprocreative sex, fun sex, sex to win an argument, sex to keep a man. She’s never cried in this bed. She’s never miscarried in this bed. There are probably still condoms in the bedside table’s drawer, maybe even used ones in the wastebins. With her shoes still on, she pulls the duvet around her, covering her head and shoulders, letting the red fabric swallow her whole. Her head feels as if it’s buzzing, a strange but quiet ringing resounding between her ears, and she wants everything else to be quiet around her. As she closes her eyes, she’s thankful that the person who was last here thought to darken the room by closing the curtains and blinds; it’s midday, but everything is dark, so perfectly dark, and she appreciates the darkness, how it drowns out the rest of the city.
Had it worked, she would be holding a baby right now, her baby, Bill’s baby, or she would be heavily pregnant, annoyed that her feet were too swollen for her shoes, exhausted and tired and done, or she would be newly in the second trimester, the nausea finally wearing off, those glowing hormones that all the books talk about finally coming in, or she would be in the first trimester, biding her time between her bathroom and her bed, sick out of her mind for the best possible reason. Or, of course, she would be celebrating with Bill because today was the day that the test was finally positive, racking up five whole positive tests just to prove it to themselves, giddy with excitement and not knowing what to do with the news, aware that one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage but figuring that, if it was this hard to get pregnant, then they have to be on the positive end of that statistic, right? Right?
But instead, it’s been a year, and she’s alone now.
I’ll call about in-vitro tomorrow, she tells herself even though she doesn't want to call.
Chapter 3: the first round
Two days before the retrieval, she’s on her side in bed, facing away from Bill. Though it’s past one in the morning, she still can’t sleep, has tried the exercises she knows - mentally repeating word-for-word Shakespeare, counting sheep, closing her eyes and telling her mind to please be quiet - but knows none of them are going to work. Since the IVF intake appointment, every night has been like this, her eyes shut tightly though she barely manages to sleep during the night, a majority of her rest occurring on the couch while Bill is at work.
But it’s not his fault that she can’t sleep, and she won’t spend her nights elsewhere because that would prompt greater conversations, but she can’t help thinking of the red bed in her old home, the linens fresh and the house silent and the drawers void of his things. He only came into that home through suitcases. He never could have left a trace.
His voice is soft, tentative; though he thinks she’s awake, he doesn’t want to wake her if mistaken, and nothing beyond the gentlest of words could reach her right now anyway. Since they started discussing the IVF, she’s leaned on other things - herself mostly, but her old home too, and Karen a little bit, but Karen’s found a man who loves her, so she’ll never be able to understand how Margo wants to pull away from the one person who makes her feel safe. If she tells Bill of her fears, she’ll jeopardize their future together as parents or as individuals, so for now, the thoughts stay inside. Someday, she’ll express such things to him, but not now, not until they’re parents, not until they’ve exhausted every option. She won’t cause him unnecessary harm in order to lighten her load.
“I…I can’t reach you anymore,” he says, tone just above a whisper. “It scares me. It’s...something feels wrong, and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how to fix it.”
She stays as still as she can without looking reactive, measures her breaths and keeps her eyes closed and tries not to imagine what he looks like right now, on the very opposite edge of their bed, brow furrowed because he’s upset and doesn’t want to cry.
“I want you to know that…”
He pauses, takes a breath, tries to sigh it out as gently as he can, and the hesitance makes her heart pound. Though he thinks she’s asleep, he’s saying this anyway. He’s saying this because he needs to.
“I want you to know that you can call it all off,” he says. “And if you don’t want to go through with this, I support you wholeheartedly. No excuses, no bargaining. I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do, Margo. You aren’t letting me down if you choose not to do this.”
But she would be letting him down. It’s as if men ascribe childbearing to all women until a woman has been proven incapable, and then they relax. They apologize and say it’s alright if she can’t. They tell her of other options. And it makes Margo want to scream, why reduce me first? Why is it that you only look for more in me when you realize that that one thing is something I’m incapable of? Why is it that my identity as a woman is tied to motherhood until it’s determined that I can’t possibly be a mother? Couldn’t I have been more than this all along?
But Bill isn’t like that, she reminds herself, for he isn’t. She knows that Bill doesn’t want her solely because she's a woman; no, he wants her for other reasons, wants her because she talks back to him as he directs, because she understands and shares his sense of humor, because she's accomplished and tenacious and unfathomably interesting. Though she tends to tune such words out, she’s heard him say them about her on so many occasions, while talking to other directors at parties, while telling friends about what she’s like up-close, while arguing with producers that, no matter what threats Margo Channing seems to pose to a production, she is absolutely the lifeblood of whatever show she’s starring in. She hates compliments, but she finds comfort in that she can follow dark, uncomfortable thoughts with a clear and present no given what Bill has already said about her. Since they married, she’s followed the thoughts of he doesn’t really love you with a look at her ring finger - or, when he’s around, a look at him, and when he catches her staring, he’ll start smiling and then nudge her knee, giving her emphasis that she didn’t even need to ask for - and respond with actually, he does love me. He loves me very much.
“I want you to be okay,” he says, and she can hear the quiver in his voice, like when she was in the hospital, like when he asked her if she wanted to pick out her own ring or to have him pick one for her. She forces her eyes further shut, squinting, feeling the wrinkles around her brows accentuate. “Nothing matters but that. Really, nothing does.”
And she could turn over in bed and move toward him, cozy up to him and let him cry to her the way she let him during the months of hopelessly hopeful injections. She could tell him that she wants to do this and that she’s okay and then hold him until he feels better. That, or she could call the whole thing off, tell him how scared she is, how the books at the library wouldn't tell her how big the needle going through her vagina and into her ovaries will be, how the sedation always will make her feel nauseous for days on end and how the success rate for her age group - which doesn’t actually exist and instead is based off of the success rate for women over forty-two - is so abysmally low that she doesn’t want to go through the pain of a cycle that she already knows will be unsuccessful. She could look at him and laugh and say, how about we go out for brunch tomorrow instead, and we’ll have mimosas and laugh again the way we used to?
Instead, she stays still and pretends to be asleep, and fortunately - unfortunately - he believes her.
Certain spaces in the apartment are sacred. The spare room is sacred, so sacred that no one is allowed in; the couch is a close second, where she used to rest her head on Bill’s lap but where she now rests her head alone, a blanket pulled up to her chin, her hair unwashed and put into a braid; the third is a certain shelf in the pantry where she keeps the Rice Krispies that she has for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because she can’t stomach anything else. When Bill asks about the cereal, she always attributes it to her stomach - the fertility drugs make her sick, or so she says - but it’s the thought of cooking something, even something simple, that makes her opt for something so easy. Though her diet right now is supposed to be as healthy as possible, and though Bill tries to cook good things for her, food doesn’t seem as interesting anymore, and she’d much rather have something a bit bland than lie to Bill and tell him that she can actually taste his food, that it has some kind of appeal to her, that she’s thankful to be eating it. Though her side of the bed should be sacred, he’s been on it too many times for it to be safe, so after breakfast, long after he’s left, she goes to the couch, pulls the blanket up to her chin, and tucks in for a nap. Just a nap, she used to tell herself, but now, she’s too exhausted to lie. She hopes that his key in the lock will wake her, and then, she’ll say oh, hi, I must’ve fallen asleep while reading. How was your day, sweetheart? And she’ll pretend to listen to his response.
Though none of this - the off-limits room, her meals, sleeping away her days - is sustainable, it’s only temporary, isn’t it? She won’t do more than three rounds of IVF, so she’ll set aside no more than a year of half-asleep nights and inadequate dinners, and that will be that. Either she gets pregnant or she doesn’t, and once this is over regardless of what direction it goes, she’ll return to her normal meals and nights spent sleeping easily beside her husband. Her feelings don’t matter if they’ll go away eventually. Her fear doesn’t matter if it’ll be quelled when she holds a baby in her arms.
But will it really be quelled? she wonders, then uses absolutely whatever she can to silence that thought.
When she wakes in the evening, the long windows in the living room flaunt lit city windows surrounded by deep darkness, and Bill is hovering over the stove in the kitchen. Something smells like rosemary. Eventually, he looks back at her after stirring and flipping dinner, and when he sees that she’s awake, his face lights up in a way that makes her form fists, and he says, “Hey, I didn’t know you were awake.”
She sighs out a breath because she’s too tired for any kind of conversation. She’s too tired for him.
“Last meal, I figured,” he says, “so we’re indulging.”
And it is indulgent, steak and roasted potatoes and creamed spinach, aromatic and warm, and they have water with dinner because neither of them drinks anymore. In theory, it’s a beautiful meal shared by two people in love, and sitting opposite at the dining room table, she watches how he enjoys his dinner, how he hums in satisfaction and asks her what she thinks with a boyish giddiness, but she can barely taste it, doesn’t understand how something so simple could be so enjoyable for him. It’s just food. Yes, he spent time, energy, and money on this meal, but it’s still just food. How could it possibly be so interesting?
“You don’t like it,” he says midway through - she’s barely touched her dinner not because she isn’t hungry but because the thought of eating makes her wince for reasons she can’t determine - and she shakes her head quickly, tries not to give him any doubts.
“No, it’s wonderful,” she huffs, then adds, “I’m sorry. I’m...nervous.”
And he softens at that, and she wishes she could punch him. She wishes she could push him out of his seat, straddle him on the floor, and bring her fist to his face until she’s broken his nose, his cheekbone, his brow. She wishes she could watch him be bandaged in an emergency room, then look at how much his face has swelled from what she did to him.
“It’s okay,” he says as he reaches for her hand, and though she doesn’t want to take his hand, she does so anyway because she doesn’t want to have a deeper conversation. “It’s okay to be nervous.”
He squeezes her hand and tries to lock his gaze on hers, and she feels as if she’s going to be sick, but she forces herself to swallow, to stay put, to mind over matter everything in her life right now. In the end, she tells herself, it will all be worth it.
But it won’t be, a voice in the back of her mind says while she brushes her teeth alongside her husband that night, two separate sinks in the same bathroom. It can’t possibly be worth it, not if it makes life like this.
Most of the time, they sit in waiting rooms while wondering if the news they’ll receive will be good or bad. More often than not, it has been bad. If she sees one more magazine about weight loss and potluck recipes, she’ll start taking hostages.
From midnight onward, she wasn’t able to eat or drink anything, and it’s too early for her to be awake - eight precisely, and though she once woke easily at this hour, she’s too much of an insomniac nowadays to schedule anything before noon - but early enough for her to be hungry. If you’d eaten more last night, she chastises in her mind, but she knows she couldn’t have done more last night, couldn’t have cuddled Bill for any longer than she did, couldn’t have skipped the afternoon nap or foregone breakfast altogether. Momentarily, she wonders if she’s sick, but no, she can’t possibly be sick, for if she were, her doctor would know it. No, she’s just old, too old for what she wants, too old to recreate her life, so she’ll feel bad as a result. Getting pregnant - that’s all it is at this point, for she’s heard the statistics on a live birth after turning forty and knows that one and the other are drastically different things - won’t solve how she feels, might even make her feel worse.
And of course Bill came with her. Of course Bill arranged for town cars with tinted windows. Of course Bill told the front desk that they would be coming in through a back door. Of course Bill will be waiting for her after the procedure, once the anesthesia’s worn off and she can be taken home. Of course Bill is holding her hand. Taking a deep breath, she wonders if she’ll stop feeling claustrophobic once they’ve given her drugs or if that feeling will permeate through the rest of her day, maybe even the rest of her week, and she’ll be sitting on their couch feeling as if the city is caving in on her, and she hasn’t read any scripts recently, and she hasn’t worked in more than a year, and though she didn't want to only be the Margo Channing up in lights, she isn’t even sure she’s Margo, just Margo, anymore. No, she’s BillandMargo on nights out with other directors, and she’s Margoagefiftyone at these clinics, and she’s Margotestnegative during most appointments, and she’s Margotryingtogetpregnant to her closest friends, and to herself, she’s a husk. When she left their home today, dipping out onto the New York City street, she cowered into her coat and wondered, has it always been this loud? Have there always been so many people? Why do I feel on edge? I want to go back inside. Years ago, she went to lavish parties, even threw some herself, but now, she grows nervous in the time between leaving her building and ducking into a town car. What kind of woman does that make her?
“Bill,” she says, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do.
He hums a response and meets her gaze, and he’s so attentive, so disgustingly attentive, and any other woman would value him. Any other woman would tell him how she’s feeling because she knew he would support her. Any other woman would get on her knees and beg for his forgiveness, for she’d been a bear to live with, a distant and emotionless wife, a burden. If she could, she would erase this last year of their lives so that he could fill in a new year with better things, better jobs, more opportunities around the country, fewer appointments showing what a letdown she is. Maybe they would’ve divorced after two months, regretting the impulsive marriage and wondering what they were thinking in the first place, or maybe they would’ve had a six-month honeymoon in Paris, waking at five in the morning to walk the quiet Seine together, kissing over coffees in upscale cafes, spending their evenings at private parties in art galleries. Maybe, one way or another, they both would have been happy.
What could she ever say that would change things? What could she ever do that would make this right?
Before she can decide what to say, she’s called back for the procedure, and she lets go of his hand, and his eyes are so big and so sad, and he knows what she doesn’t want to say but doesn’t know how to express that he knows. And how could she expect him to do what she can’t? How could she expect him to say no on her behalf when she can’t even tell him that she doesn’t want this anymore?
And they force her to dress in a gown, and those are always so big on her, too wide and reaching down to her mid-calf, the ties at the back gaping. No underwear, the nurse who gives her the gown specifically tells her as if she hadn’t already known that, but somehow the panties come off easily while she struggles with the clasp of the brassiere, staring down at the nude cups, afraid to look beneath. Once, she thought about having a breast augmentation, and as she kept working with Lloyd, she wondered if she made the right decision not to go through with the procedure. It’s too cold in here; she doesn’t want any of the nurses seeing the imprint of her nipples against the gown. Can’t she keep this one thing on, this one stupid, uncomfortable thing? This isn't one of her favorite bras, but the thought of taking it off brings tears to her eyes as if she’s parting with a well-loved friend. When the nurse who gave her the gown comes knocking to ask if she’s dressed, Margo asks about the bra and gets an incredulous laugh and a no in response, so she swallows, unclasps the back, and pulls the thing off with her eyes closed. They give her a locker that doesn’t lock to keep her belongings in - no metal, they prompt, so she takes off her two rings, and she hasn’t been married long enough for the two to need a good pull in order to be removed - and then lead her - no shoes, they tell her to leave her shoes - to the now-sterilized suite, sitting her down on the stark, centered table in the room, leaning her back, bringing her left arm onto a board and starting to set an intravenous catheter.
“The veins on my right arm are better,” she says, for now she’s someone who knows such things about her body. With her near-constant blood draws, she knows that she can manage the left arm if the right one is bruised but that the right will be one that a nurse can prick on their first try. If they have to poke her more than once today, she thinks she might start crying, not in anger or annoyance but in defeat.
“Yeah, well, the board’s on the left,” the nurse says, then raps on Margo’s arm with two fingers, pounding in hope that the veins will come out to play. Then, the nurse wraps a tourniquet much too tightly - she’ll have a bruise around that part of her arm afterward, she knows it - and swabs Margo’s arm with alcohol, maybe the worst part of these procedures, that strange vulnerability of someone touching the inside of one’s arm. Too close, she thinks. Even Bill doesn’t touch her there.
And they say that they’ll anesthetize her slowly so that she won’t feel dizzy or uncomfortable, and as the medication is slowly pumped into her veins, the suite fills with more and more people, all of them in masks and scrubs, some wearing protective glasses with lights on the bridge of the nose. They put her feet in stirrups when she starts to feel sleepy; she stares straight up at the ceiling and tries not to think about how many people are staring at her vulva. Before her first fertility specialist appointment, she got a bikini wax because she didn’t want to seem uncouth, and then the gynecologist lectured her on how unhealthy waxes were, how they could easily lead to infection, but she’d rather be clean-shaven and risking infection than unshaven and spreading her legs in front of so many people. If she were younger, she could tell herself that these people have seen worse, but at her age she knows that she is, in fact, that worse, that she’s the one with horrible problems that they’ll comfort their spry patients about, that they’ll tell younger women in this clinic that they’re not too old for this stuff, after all there’s an actress over fifty who’s going through the same thing, and you’ve definitely got a better chance than her.
“Is she out?” one of the nurses asks another nurse.
She’s not, but her eyes are closed because she would start crying if they were open. Around her, the world feels softened, as if she’s had her eyes dilated on a sunny day. She’s stopped feeling her fingers.
“Yeah, definitely,” the other nurse says.
“Women like this are so despicable,” the first one says. “It’s like...you’ve got all this money, and you waste it on this? Get a grip. That ship has sailed. Adopt if you must.”
“It’s kind of a bizarre midlife crisis,” the other says. “You could buy a sports car for less.”
“I think she’s an actress.”
“No, Broadway, I think.”
“Maybe she’s on her third husband or something.”
“He’s a lot younger. Did you see him in the waiting room? He’s hot.”
“Shame,” the second nurse says, and then Margo’s world goes dark.
She doesn’t remember putting her clothes back on. When she finds herself in the waiting room after the procedure, she looks down and expects to be naked, the other women in the room gaping at her body and wondering how someone could look so disgusting. Thankfully, Bill comes to her and leads her out of the place, back out the same hidden entrance, right to where a waiting town car is parked. While he opens the car door for her, she looks down at the sleeves of her shirt and realizes that it’s raining, not pouring but still raining hard enough that there are dark, wet splotches all over her clothes. Once they’re in the car, she can feel that her arm is bruised where they placed the catheter. She can’t remember having the catheter removed.
“Margo?” Bill says, and his tone tells her that he’s said her name more than once, that he can’t reach her, so she looks toward him in the backseat, doesn’t know what to say, can’t think anymore. “They really drugged you up, huh.”
“Yeah,” she manages, and it’s hard to sit up straight in a driving car. Bill fastens her seatbelt for her.
“They got eight,” he says, and when she looks up at him, he’s beaming. Why is he beaming? She had - now delusionally, she realizes - hoped for at least ten. “They’ll call us tomorrow with a count of the mature ones.”
“Okay,” she says, then looks out at the slap of the wipers against the windshield, the constant, aching sound of rain overhead. Once, she played a drug addict on stage, and she can remember one line so clearly: heroin feels like driving under a bridge while it’s pouring.
He holds her hand because he’s the best man she knows. He tells her that he managed a recording of one of her favorite actresses in a play they’ve missed on Broadway, the tape all ready to listen to at home. He’s taken the whole day off, won’t work tomorrow either, so they don’t have to do anything, can cozy up together and spend the rest of the day relaxing.
“Won’t that be nice?” he says, but it won’t be. Her bed isn’t safe anymore. She wants him to leave her on the couch and not come home for six hours. Now, she’s growing more alert, and a strange part of her belly hurts, and she wants to press a hot water bottle against it. Is she supposed to hurt? Maybe she's just too old. Maybe they don’t warn most women that the aftermath is uncomfortable because most women are capable of bouncing back.
Shame, she hears in that one nurse’s voice, and she tenses at the sound. Why didn’t she forget that too? Why does she remember what they said when she can't remember dressing herself? Women like this are so despicable. Get a grip. That ship has sailed. Women like this are so despicable. Get a grip. It’s kind of a bizarre midlife crisis. That ship has sailed. Maybe she’s on her third husband or something.
He’s a lot younger. Did you see him in the waiting room? He’s hot.
“Hey,” Bill says as he reaches up to touch her cheek, drying tears she didn't realize she'd shed, “is everything alright? Are you in pain? They said you could have Tylenol once we got home.”
Everything isn't alright, but she won't tell him that. She’ll let him dab away her tears. She’ll even let him curl up in bed with her. He can kiss her if he wants to, for tomorrow, no matter how many eggs are mature, she’ll tell him that they’re stopping now and that she won’t enter that building again, not through the back entrance, not as one of their oldest clients. No, she’s not going back there again, for none of this has been worth the effort, and she wants to be able to taste food again. She wants to be able to sleep again. She wants to feel the love that her husband gives her. She wants to be herself.
Actually, she thinks, I'll sleep on it, then leans against Bill’s shoulder and prays for the rain to stop.
Chapter 4: the victorian house
this is absolutely not the direction i expected this to take. i can't remember exactly, but i think this route was one of many in a few different fics that i decided on while dealing with medication-induced insomnia, so feel free to blame my girl bactrim for all of this.
content warning for suicidal ideation and action (and the same warnings listed at the beginning of this fic), as well as mentions of stillbirth and childhood sexual abuse
The gardening is the hardest part. Of course, the other women say it’s therapeutic, that being alone with one’s thoughts is important for healing, but the porch is so close to the garden, and she can handle the porch, could sit there for hours and watch the clouds passing then sunset without boring or tiring, the eventual darkness gently asking her to go inside for dinner. And dinners, she’s good at the dinners, and they’re all good dinners too, for Emily’s a good cook, went to culinary school and worked as an executive chef in New York until her divorce, and she likes to be the one to chop the carrots - she’s been taught the proper ways, folding her fingers over to prevent cuts, swirling the hand holding the sharp knife - for their meals, roasts on rainy days and salads with seared meats on the warmer ones, everything brightened with fresh herbs from the garden. But she watches the woman who gardened that day come in with a harrowed look on her face, haunted by something the rest understand intimately, and she thinks, My shift is in three days. My shift is in two days. My shift is tomorrow. And then she sits through dinner and tries not to feel haunted.
When she gardens, she thinks about Bill. She thinks about blood. She thinks about how much she wishes she had a job to dig her teeth into, then thinks about how maladaptive that’s already been, but hasn’t the polar opposite been maladaptive too? She can’t just be an actress, can’t just be a wife, but being neither of those things hurts tenfold, for she’s stuck in a house with nine other women and two psychologists who leave at five in the afternoon each day, and she isn’t allowed to shave her legs for six weeks because Gemma’s a cutter. She had her bag searched when she first moved in, and luckily, Bill had been gone for hours, so he didn’t witness how one of the psychologists questioned her about a bottle of pills, then confiscated them because, though she had won plenty of awards for acting, Margo Channing happened to be a terrible liar when it came to things that mattered. No pills, no sharps of any kind, no yarn, no needles, no shoelaces, no top sheets on the beds. Through some initiative focusing on the trauma of women, a subject that felt simultaneously feminist and misogynist, a group of psychologists had created this retreat, a six-week program at a Victorian house in the Catskill Mountains, a refuge for women who understood that their pain fell outside of both society and a psychiatric ward.
It had been Bill’s idea. Of course it had been Bill’s idea. She shears off dying leaves from each plant in the garden, for the plant tries to heal those dying portions while neglecting the rest of its body and sometimes kills itself as a result. Whenever she thinks clearly about the succession of events that brought her here, she knows what an intelligent, emotionally mature man he is, that he loves her so deeply and effectively, that he truly wants what’s best for her, but the subjective emotions gnaw at her, make her heart beat faster, bring a flush to her skin. Subjectively, she feels abandoned. They’re going to make iced mint tea to pair with dinner; she plucks sprigs of the herb, sticks them in the pocket of her apron. And though technically this had been her decision, she knows it was Bill’s decision overall, for he gave her an ultimatum, and she simply chose the lesser of two evils. A Victorian mansion with a wraparound porch and four twin beds to a room would always be better than a psychiatric ward in a hospital in New York, though as she winces at the image of herself in hospital clothes, in restraints, she wonders if it wouldn’t be at least more comfortably medicated.
She hasn’t taken a pill in one whole month, no injections or intercourse schedules, no painful punctuations to her day. Though she has plenty of routines here, she misses the medical routine the most, one tailored specifically to her, one she shared either with her husband or with no one else. Instead, she brushes her teeth alongside three other women, bathes in shifts with three other women, bides her time between sunrise and sunset taking shifts within the house. Shifts, shifts. The word is used so often that Margo finds it’s lost its meaning. Now, shift, the time when you must do something you’d rather not do, either with people you’ll detest the whole time or alone, which you’ll detest even more. Like a waitress, like someone who never worked in the theatre, she spends her days in shifts, and she wishes she could be pulled aside to have a shot administered to her buttocks, or maybe to have pills distributed to her in the way they are to some of the other women. No, this place wants her unmedicated, at her most basic state, all of her inner demons welcome to come wandering out. It would be a luxury, she thinks, to be screaming and restrained in a hospital, then injected with something to make her go limp and quiet. Instead, she spends nights half-awake but somehow still having nightmares, and Marissa, who sleeps on the bed to the right of her own, reaches out a hand - the beds are close enough that they can touch fingers with ease - and asks, are you alright, dear?
And she’s not even the craziest one here. Or, rather, if she were to use the proper language, the language encouraged during the morning group therapy sessions, she’s not the most traumatized. Childhood sexual assault, stillbirth, death of a significant other, she’s had it so easy in comparison, but there are other women here too, ones with even more minor problems than hers, divorce or a sense of directionlessness, so she’s forced into the middle, the uncomfortable middle, the place in which she can’t deny her presence here but also can’t loudly proclaim it. Though she’s been through enough to warrant her stay here, she still knows that many of her problems have been self-made, that she could’ve avoided this experience altogether had she never told Bill that she wanted children. These things hadn’t happened to her so much as been caused by her. She was the only person to blame. At one of the private meetings she had with one of the psychologists, she expressed that sensation, how she had caused all of her own pain, and she was told not to look at herself as a problem or a pain and instead to realize that vulnerability came with a price, and that sometimes vulnerability caused great pain. And, of course, the psychologist asked her to come up with a list of examples in which vulnerability had made her life better, and she now had that list taped up above her tiny twin bed, a reminder each time she got out of bed.
My first Broadway show. Canceling a run to take care of Daddy. Bill.
It’s Friday. Today, she gardens because it’s her turn. And tomorrow is Saturday, the Saturday of her fourth week in the program, and that Saturday involves planning for either a longer stay or a return home in two weeks. And on Saturday, Bill will come to see her for the first time since he kissed her goodbye and told her he loved her with a fervor that made her feel like his greatest burden. On Saturday, she’ll have a taste of the real world again.
They’re having iced mint tea with dinner. Next to her taped-up list, she hung a postcard-sized watercolor she did during the art therapy shift of this week, her best attempt at the valley view from the porch during sunset, a gift she’ll give Bill because this place makes her feel sentimental. She thinks about his face, the little lines on it, the way his cheeks feel when he kisses her after arriving home at night. She thinks about watercolor paints, how they can move so unexpectedly, how they love to blend. Picking more mint, she imagines putting the leaves down on watercolor paper, that image warding away dark thoughts.
She made the special request as soon as the psychologists confirmed Bill’s visit.
“Let me stay with him for the night,” she told the psychologist she worked with privately. Mary, the taller one, brunette and fond of wrap dresses, spoke to her one-on-one three days a week. On a day out to the mall two weeks ago, Margo bought a wrap dress inspired by her, and it has been a favorite ever since, aubergine, soft to the touch, what she wears when she wants to feel bright. “I would like to sleep next to my husband.”
And this threw so many red flags that Bill’s visit was nearly canceled altogether, phone calls going back and forth over long-distance lines, constant questions about boundaries. Would they stay in a hotel room together? Bill certainly couldn’t stay in the house. If they were to have sex, were they allowed to have it unprotected? Should they be allowed to have sex at all? Were two psychologists in a house full of traumatized women really allowed to restrict the sex lives of their patients, particularly those who were already planning a formal departure and who also were legally married? If Margo was already asking to be made an exception, was she really ready for this visit at all? But during Margo’s next session with Mary, she did what absolutely no one within the spiderweb of complicated decisions thought she would do: she let the idea go.
“Alright,” she gave after Mary informed her that it would be unlikely that Margo could spend the night with Bill. “I knew it was an uncommon question. I doubted the answer would be yes, but I thought there was no harm in asking.”
When Mary called Bill to inform him of this, Bill droned on for twenty minutes about how lying about something like this was morally reprehensible, then about how this organization must be full of over-prescribing quacks if his wife had been made that agreeable, and Mary assured him that no, Margo was not being drugged, and that Mary herself was as surprised as he was that Margo, who was known to be petulant about peeling potatoes, doing dishes, or finishing almost anything, would be so willing to concede.
And then gossip started to spread around the house in the way it inevitably did, though usually the gossip was benign and about whether or not one of the women in one of the rooms brushed her teeth or used shampoo. While a pair cooked dinner, they would hash out what they had learned: Margo had asked if she could spend the night with her husband, and she had been denied, and never once outside of therapy had Margo mentioned this request. How was that possible? Margo would describe in-depth the details of the used tampon she found in the Pink Room’s shower, but she wouldn’t even mention to another one of the women that her request to sleep in the same bed as her husband for just one night had been denied. Though Margo was a bit more private with personal matters than the other patients were, she by far wasn’t silent about her life, so why hadn’t she spoken up? What did she have planned? She must have something planned, for why else would she concede so easily?
But she didn’t have anything planned. She was told no, and this time, she listened. This time, she scolded herself for even bothering to ask, then swiftly moved on.
And on Saturday morning, she wakes to the sound of the kitchen timer she snuck from downstairs, digital and set for the number of hours from the house’s required lights-out to right before the sunset; she turns it off before the sound can wake the other three women in the room, then tiptoes into the upstairs hallway, gently lowers herself down each of the stairs. She slept in a cardigan, for she knew that the morning would be cool out on the porch. Beyond the windows in the main room, the sky is still dark, the empty mansion uncommonly quiet around her. She knows they don’t lock the backdoor. The front one, yes, but not the back one. In theory, they’re all free to leave at any time, but no matter how horrible the shifts are, no matter what the psychologists force her to face, she doesn’t know where else she would go, doubts the other women know either. No one came to this place because their real homes were comfortable. If she were to set out running, she knows that eventually she would come to a turn in the dirt road leading away from the mansion, then decide it was too far to get into town and that she should turn around instead.
And she doesn’t want to escape through the backdoor; no, she just wants to sit on the wraparound porch, use one of the big wicker chairs because unfortunately the porch-swing would make too much noise, watch as the sun rises over the valley below them. The crests of the mountains, the soft blue of the brightening sky, these are views she’ll never have in New York, and she wants to bow in the presence of such beauty, to applaud at the end of each sunrise and sunset, to thank whatever powers above have granted her this opportunity. By default, she isn’t a grateful person, but this kind of gratitude feels more genuine than most she’s felt, for the sun doesn’t owe her anything, doesn’t control her career, doesn’t threaten her livelihood and image. Awards were credentials, challenging scripts an opportunity to establish herself as an actor, but the sunrises and sunsets didn’t ask her to do anything but watch. Maybe I should see a few shows once I’m back in the city, she thinks, and she wants to applaud then too, to watch the actors onstage bow and to be thankful even if the play is bland and predictable. She wants to be more like the women who pause them all before dinner and say thank you to not only their respective gods but also to those who cultivated this food, who sowed the seeds and watered the plants and plucked each individual carrot or sprig of mint from the garden. She wants to be someone others think of with comfortable fondness. She doesn’t want her own struggles to overrule her ability to be kind.
So she sits back in one of the chairs, wraps the cardigan tightly around herself. Mornings were her greatest challenge at the beginning of her stay; everyone wakes up at seven, the women on their fifth or sixth weeks - or maybe ninth or tenth, if they needed a longer stay - making sure that everyone is up and brushing their teeth, no sleeping in, no five more minutes. Before the morning group therapy session in the main room, they all prepare a simple breakfast together - a big pot of oatmeal, yogurt with homemade granola, pancakes if everyone agrees to make the batter the night beforehand - and eat together at the long table that can seat all of them, one woman at each head and four along each side, the bowls and mugs for tea mismatched and floral and chipped at the edges. The psychologists appear just in time to record whether or not each woman has eaten, and after fifteen minutes of comfortable lounging in the main room, the therapy begins, right around eight o’clock. Everyone must talk, even if only for a few seconds, and because sharing is encouraged, many speak for long lengths of time. If there are any grievances within the house, those are brought up in the presence of the psychologists in order to not cause trouble. On Mondays, the group charts each woman’s shifts for that week, and on Fridays, they create a meal schedule for the following week, planning what to purchase at the market on Saturday. Then, there’s lunch, followed by private therapy, work shifts, and, for the lucky ones on that specific day, the chance to laze with one of the paperbacks found within the house, stretching out on the porch-swing while in one room of the house someone cries over an event from ten years ago that still rules her life and in the garden beyond another woman struggles to believe that she’ll ever feel differently. And then, there’s dinner to be cooked, dishes to be washed, and nighttime routines, showers in shifts and an hour for winding down before the lights are out and everyone is in their beds. Though the psychologists leave before dinner, order remains in the house nonetheless, and to her own surprise, Margo found herself craving that order, looking down on anyone who dared attempt to disrupt it.
But the mornings were challenging for her. Beyond her now, the sky starts its steady turn, glowing brighter blue at the edges of the mountains. One week had been enough time to forget her anxieties. On the morning seven days after they told her that one of the four implanted embryos had taken root, that she was pregnant by definition, she woke to blood. Though she wasn’t sure if she believed in a higher power, she knew that only a god could’ve woken her at four in the morning to the sensation of stickiness between her legs, especially given how many times she’d ruined a set of sheets after she’d unexpectedly gotten her period during the night. She wasn’t in any pain, but still, she woke to the sensation of warm blood between her legs, and though she knew that her first instinct should be to wake Bill, to call her doctor’s all-hours number, to go immediately to an emergency room, her first instinct instead was to mourn. No matter how normal spotting could be, no matter how traumatized the procedures had made her uterus, she knew that for her blood meant a miscarriage. She knew that she wasn’t pregnant anymore, even if a doctor could still find a heartbeat.
She did the right things, waking Bill and calling her doctor, going to the emergency room, but she didn’t do them because she wanted to or because she thought they would be best for the baby. To her, there no longer was a baby, and though the doctors in the emergency room had tried their damnedest to prove her wrong, though they’d had her on an intravenous drip and on some kind of pill to prevent miscarriage - why hadn’t she been given that to take every day? - she still had a dilation and curettage at the end of the day, waking from the anesthesia to find Bill standing over her and reaching out for her scratched-up hand, the intravenous catheter having been removed sometime during surgery. He kissed her forehead as if she were a child. Though she knew he had had two meetings scheduled for that day, she could tell based on his demeanor and clothing that he’d canceled both, and that he’d canceled all of his meetings for the next day too. She wished she could’ve woken up alone.
That morning, the sky had been a perfect shade of blue while Bill hailed a cab. She stood on the sidewalk in front of their building, a maxi pad thick between her legs, and stared up as New York began to wake, apartment lights flickering, the sky a muted navy that turned bright at its edges, then became the color of the Hudson, then transformed into something like the sea in Venice, cool air colored by the sky, Bill reaching out for her hand and easing her into the back of the cab. She’d read that most humans were born in the early hours of the morning, the same being true of apes. When they explained the dilation and curettage to her, she found it improper that they weren’t going to cut her open, scalpel to skin, long scar on her belly. She’d been hoping it would hurt.
The first morning she spent at the Victorian house, a woman who had since left named Whitney had ordered her, get out of bed. Get out of bed. No dawdling. Get out of bed! And though Margo had been told the daily schedule the night beforehand, though she knew that she needed to brush her teeth before breakfast, she found herself paralyzed, stuck in bed, clutching her quilt and no sheet with white knuckles. Beyond the long windows of her four-person bedroom, the sky was that same color, only this one had stars instead of small windows. When Whitney wasn’t looking, she snaked her hand down between her legs, prayed that she wouldn’t find blood there again.
Whitney liked to yell. Though she was released, the other women gossiped about her afterward, claimed she would be back in a few weeks because her recovery wasn’t sustainable. She yelled at Margo, pointing at the bathroom door while Margo tried to hide beneath the blankets, and when Margo managed to tuck herself beneath the quilt, Whitney ripped the quilt off of her, then pointed again to the bathroom. There was a strict order in this house; if Margo didn’t help maintain that order, then everyone else would fall apart. Did she want that to be her fault? Of course she didn’t, but she couldn’t get up. She couldn’t tell Bill this time. She couldn’t call her doctor, nor could she go to the emergency room. She needed to stay in bed. She had the sinking feeling that, if she didn’t stay in bed, then she would die.
Eventually, Whitney gave up, but not before the disruption managed to echo throughout the house, the other women peeking into the Pink Room - there was a Purple Room for four, a Blue Room for two, and the Pink Room for Margo and three others, each room named after the chipped color on the walls - in order to see what problems the new girl had caused, but the problems made the other women cower, for they’d all been the one crying in bed before, pulling the covers over their heads and repeating please stop even though the person who they were asking to stop had stopped long ago. Until the psychologists arrived, Marissa, who had been there for only a week when Margo arrived and who slept one bed over, sat at the foot of Margo’s tiny twin bed, making sure not to touch. When Mary and Ann, the two psychologists, arrived that morning, Ann led group therapy while Mary crouched down to the left of Margo’s pillow, meeting her where she was, and asked what was going on.
I hadn’t woken so early since then, Margo eventually told her, though not on that morning, not on that day. The last time I saw the sky in that color, I was having a miscarriage.
The mornings were her challenge at first. Each day, her wakeup call was a cacophony of alarm sounds, women’s chants, and flashbacks of blue, deep blue, the blue of the sky on that wretched day, but each day, the flashbacks grew dimmer, painful still but easier to push away. She wasn’t paralyzed in bed anymore. If the other women caught her crying while she brushed her teeth, they didn’t speak up about it, nor did they gossip about it. And now, she can sit on the porch and watch as the sky changes color, as pinks come into view, as a deep purple echoes over the puffs of clouds, as the garden is cast in warm, nutritious light, as the house behind her wakes and wonders where she is. She’ll duck back inside in a moment; she hasn’t gone far. But for now, she takes in the warmth of the day, the comfort of the morning, the excitement of having pancakes for breakfast. Things are getting better. She’s getting better. In a few hours, she’ll share lunch with her husband. Though the Victorian house wouldn’t let her keep her engagement ring during her stay, too many sharp edges, they let her keep her wedding band, and she looks down at it with a fondness that brings an involuntary smile to her lips. She’s missed him so much. Once a week, she writes him a letter, and once a week, she receives a response from him, but she misses their long conversations, the feeling of his warm arms around her, the way he gazes at her when they share dinner together. She loves him, maybe even more than she realized when she married him. She’s so excited to see him.
And if the women noticed her absence, they don’t comment on it as she sneaks into the bathroom, brushes her teeth alongside them. They don’t comment as she flips pancakes, as she dribbles bits of batter onto the griddle and hands out tiny golden-brown drips as snacks. Instead, they ask her while she cuts two pats of butter to add to her stack, is your husband coming today? And she beams and tells them yes, then laughs lightly, a smile out loud, and her joy is so palpable and unperformed that she senses it makes the people with whom she shares a breakfast table more joyful as well.
As she does before most meals, Adelaide asks if they can say grace, and throughout the prayer, Margo closes her eyes and thinks of him, lunch with him, two rings instead of one. She loves him, and she counts down the minutes, brimming with excitement, for she’s about to see her husband after a month apart. She can’t wait to see him again.
Some days are so bad that she ducks into a bathroom to cry and finds herself too numb to do so, but other days are so good that she rolls the window down in the car her husband rented and twirls her wrist in the wind as she sings along with the radio, I want a dream lover, so I don’t have to dream alone. In the Victorian house, they keep a radio in the kitchen; those on cooking shifts could tune it to whichever station came in that day, and while Margo scrubbed carrots and potatoes, peeled them in sharp strokes, an Etta James song crackled through the radio, and she braced herself against the kitchen counter at which she worked, listened to the singer’s breathtaking voice, and, for once, felt the lyrics viscerally. Back then, she’d only gone two weeks without seeing her husband, but a comfortable, romantic song could make those two weeks feel as if they’d been infinitely longer, as if she’d last seen his face when he was ten years younger. She wrote to him that night, telling him that she’d started to painfully miss him when the song came on, and she told him she wished she could hear the song again, just her alone in the kitchen, taking a chance to miss her husband, and after that, she wished she could hear the song again but with him that time, his arms wrapping around her, his body against hers, their heartbeats together. When he wrote back to her, he told her that he found that record at a store, then listened to it at home and missed her in the same way she’d missed him. It’ll be sweeter, he wrote, to listen to this with you, both of us back home, no care in the world. No one left to miss.
He brought her engagement ring with him for the weekend, as if he’d known how much she wanted it back. As soon as they were out of the Victorian house, she put the ring back on, her hand feeling heavier in a good way, the diamond sparkling in the sunlight outside. They had a meeting together with Mary while the other women were out doing the weekly shopping, and all the while, Margo sat alongside Bill and wished she could talk about anything other than herself, that her mental wellbeing could be shelved in favor of better conversation. He’d only kissed her once so far, and though she understood the need for a meeting with her private therapist, she wanted to crawl into the backseat of his car and kiss him senseless first, purge herself of that energy and then start the meeting with a sense of relief. Instead, Mary detailed Margo’s accomplishments - no rule-breaking past the first week, perfect attendance, admirable support of the other women though Margo herself would never admit to it - while Margo cringed, and when Bill pressed about deeper matters, Mary asked Margo to step out for the moment, to let Mary and Bill chat one-on-one. Of course, Ann was waiting outside of Mary’s office so that Margo wouldn’t be left unsupervised, and together, they waited for the conversation to end, for Bill’s more important questions to be answered in astute ways, for patient-doctor confidentiality to be as nearly breached as possible. But even if Mary were to overshare, Margo didn’t mind, for her husband deserved the proper assurance. Yes, she still loves you, Margo wished Mary would say. Yes, she’s doing better. Yes, she’s doing more than just surviving. No, she hasn’t shown any of that kind of behavior since arriving here. No, she hasn’t mentioned wanting to try again. Trying to conceive again, I mean. Though Margo knew that communicating with her husband was hers to do alone, she still hoped that Mary could say what Bill wouldn’t believe when heard from Margo. She hoped that, despite it all, Bill would be convinced.
But he’s laughing as she sings along to Bobby Darin, shimmying her shoulders, reaching out to touch and then kiss his bicep. She’s wearing a dress she found last week at a thrift store near the grocer’s, little red flowers over cream-colored linen, hole in the left sleeve. Adelaide, who works as a hair stylist and esthetician, dyed Margo’s hair and gave her a little trim on Tuesday, so now her hair is back to blonde, just below the shoulders in length, no longer so shaggy; though she’s spent her last few weeks in outdoor clothing, wearing gardening gloves and aprons during her shifts, she never realized that she stopped feeling pretty while she was at the Victorian house, but now she feels pretty, especially when he glances over at her, when he smiles so breathlessly. He still loves her. Though she had no reason to doubt him, she’s surprised that he still loves her. He doesn’t need to love her, but he loves her anyway. Isn’t that all love is, feeling something so useless but so important nonetheless?
When Mary spoke with Margo one-on-one, Mary gave a proposition: if Margo thought that she would be okay spending the night with Bill, then she was allowed to go, but if Margo didn’t think she would be okay, no word of this would be expressed to Bill, never allowing for the opportunity to let him down. And of course Margo thought she was okay, for she was okay; she could write home to her husband with her heart on her sleeve, could smile while making pancakes with the other women, could wake up and spend time with the colors of the morning now. However, Margo knew that one subject between her and her husband could be complicated, so she swallowed her pride and asked the dreaded question: do you have condoms that I could take? And because she had hoped Margo would ask that question, Mary pulled a package of condoms from her desk drawer and passed them over, exhaling with relief that, so far as she knew, Margo really was okay. No ulterior motive, no secret agenda, no fixation with conception, no grand fairytale of how this one time, just this one time, it all would magically work. The what if had been replaced with reality. This time, Margo didn’t want to hope.
So now she has a whole package of condoms in her purse, a sick joke, they might use one at most, and her husband is driving her out toward a different part of the countryside, a little surprise for her. Because he hadn’t expected to spend the whole day and night with her, he planned something special, and she brims with excitement, reaching out to hold his hand as he drives, smiling wildly, wondering what could be in store for them. And meanwhile, the other women are at the grocery store, and they’re planning this week’s meals, and they’re clipping coupons and doing all sorts of normal things. Normalcy, she thinks, is the antidote to all pain. After she’s missed him so deeply, nothing feels better than sitting in the passenger’s seat while he drives them somewhere, anywhere. They aren’t talking about estrogen, about phases of the menstrual cycle, about sex on a schedule, about the absolutely unknowable future, and she doesn’t want to talk about those things, not now, maybe not ever again. No, she wants to talk to him about watercolor painting, about his options for his next production, about scripts and actors and furniture for their home and how long is the proper time to cook a boiled egg. She wants their life back. She wants life.
And he takes her up to a field overlooking the valley below, and the day is clear enough that she can name the peaks in the distance. He smiles at her in a way she once would’ve called wretched, but now, she’s seen how Adelaide delicately took her hair between two fingers and snipped only after receiving permission, felt how Marissa held her on the other woman’s worst night, flashbacks of her husband shoving her head through a window, the night around them quiet as they curled up together on the dark floor in the Pink Room and tried not to wake the others. If those women could love Margo in small moments, and if Margo could love them in return, then the love from her husband was tenfold, far deeper and more beautiful, intense and indescribable and endless. As he shakes out a picnic blanket, opens up a bag full of her favorite foods, she watches him in the sunlight and thinks, he loves me. He loves me very much. He loves me despite it all. Maybe he even loves me because of it all.
He spreads brie on crackers. Raspberry preserves and cold grapes and fresh little strawberries that leave pink juice on her fingers, she’s going to stain her dress but doesn’t care. And he kisses whatever part of her he can find, her shoulder and then her neck, her ribs, her calves, her kneecaps, and he brushes his fingers through her hair, holds her hand, rubs the small of her back. Beyond them, the mountains touch the sky, greenery in the distance, empty patches where skiers slalom in the winter, the odd radio tower, no clouds in the deep blue. She feels as if her heart is sprouting wildflowers.
When he brings a grape to her lips, their legs tangling together on top of the quilt, she stills, remembering his hand in front of her mouth, the fluorescent bathroom, mauve tiles, she hated the mauve tiles. His hand in front of her mouth, her lips shut tight, her tongue going numb, and he told her to spit them out, spit them out, Margo, spit them out or I’ll call someone, spit them out now. And she felt a paste form and settle in her cheeks, and she stared at him, not blinking, her vision blurring before her, and he started speaking louder, spit them out, Margo, I swear to god, I need you to spit them out. And though she needed water, needed something to help the paste go down, she tried to swallow, but before she could manage to do so, he was pining her to the wall, his fingers prying open her mouth, reaching inside and scooping out as many of the pills as he could, a pile of white, powdery slush on their bathroom floor, her saliva mixed with her fertility drugs, the aspirin Bill kept for his headaches, allergy medication and anything else she could find in the cabinets. He told her that either he would call an ambulance or she would willingly go to a hospital with him, and she sat on the floor of the bathroom, her forehead resting against her bent knees, too tired to go against his wishes, and because she didn’t want to walk, he picked her up and carried her out of their home, and when they admitted her at the hospital, she wasn't wearing shoes.
She wraps her lips around the grape and forgives him.