I wanted to share my latest short stories with you. It’s an exercise in obsession and I thought it applied to love addiction. I usually don’t share my short stories here, but I thought this one might be interesting to share.
I’m pushing a cart around the perimeter of Whole Foods, doing everything right. Imported Aji from Ecuador and catfish from the Yangtze River. Consuming with purpose, hopeful in the power of my ability to cleanse my system of toxic junk and prepare the terrain for procreation. I am my own eco system, my own world. Flowers spring forth from the pores in my skin. Trees jut out from my limbs. My feet are rock and sand. And yet, I can’t create humanity from one simple seed.
Life is fertile and tenacious, I’m told. We are builders, I’m told. Even when I was a little girl, my mother said to me, “Someday you will see what it’s like to have your own child.” She would say, “The wheel goes around for everyone,” and “Having a baby is part of the natural cycle of your life.” And so, every month I await the discovery of my body’s capacity for creation. And every month I am reminded of my body’s knack for destruction. But, I haven’t given up yet. I’m buying those products, which, I’m told by doctors and specialists, are the key to fertility, the essential building blocks of creation itself. Shop around the perimeter, they say, it’s the final frontier of real food; the organic produce, the unprocessed cheeses, the wild caught fish, the grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef. So, I’m taking their advice and orbiting the perimeter and placing in my cart, among other things dandelion, kale and chard, for folate; maca for progesterone; bee pollen for ovarian health; algae and alfalfa for hormone balance; a statue of the Hindu fertility goddess Lakshmi for luck, and yet another book about proper nutrition for moms.
There were four million, three-hundred, seventeen thousand, one hundred and nineteen babies born in the United States last year; a baby-boom, said the New York Times and USA Today. Two-point-one children for each mother. In Niger the women are having seven-point-five children each. In Berundi; six. They’re baby-making machines over there, eating nothing but bark and crickets. They don’t know what a prenatal vitamin is or a fertility clinic or the significance of imported goji berries and organic leafy green kale from Deerfield, Massachusetts. They don’t know that starvation and stress and poor nutrition cause infertility because they’re too busy popping out babies under the canopy of a ravaged, bloodied, war-torn world of disease, suffering and pollution. Seven point five babies, despite not having the figure for it, or the pampering, or the kit to chart your basal body temperature. And I can’t even have one.
It’s not as if I don’t have a fertile, healthy husband who’s willing and eager to match up every one of my eggs with copious amounts of his own reproductive seed. Because I do. Jack’s sperm are well over twenty-million per milliliter of semen, he never smoked, he eats well, he doesn’t wear tight jeans, though he did in college, but during undergrad, not law school. He’s in good shape, but he never rode a bicycle, which is known to damage blood vessels and nerves and cause impotence. He’s a runner. Remarkably, he’s even dodged the venereal disease bullet. He’s not the problem.
And I’m not sure I am either. I have an hourglass figure, a sturdy, medium-framed structure and good, strong bones. I was told in my teens that the thirty-six inch width of my hips was a good indication of being able to birth babies. Lots of them. I dance. I teach Pilates. I take prenatal vitamins. I bathe in rose-scented relaxation baths. I meditate. And I drink eight glasses of water a day. And it’s not like I waited too long to get started either. Twenty-seven, by today’s standards, is early. When I went to my endocrinologist, in fact, the doctors (and there were many) tested every level of hormone to make sure I was producing enough progesterone and estrogen and every other kind of hormone necessary for pregnancy. They laid me flat on a tilted table, asked me to place my feet in stirrups and they stuck their hands up inside me, one by one, visit after visit, pressing their fingers against my uterus; three inches long, two inches wide, one inch thick. Your uterus, they all agreed, is exemplary. The perfect size. I have no obstructions in my fallopian tubes, no fibroids or genetic defects, and my eggs are said to be young and plump and still quite perky, if that’s how you can even describe the egg of a woman of thirty-four. I even ovulate on a perfect thirty-day cycle. Without fail, my period arrives on the waxing moon. The waxing. Not the waning or the crescent, but the waxing. The becoming. The growing. That lunar phase which presents every creature on the planet with the promise and the right to a full moon. The promise that, in days to come, the oceans will rise with the easy gravitational tug of a ball up in the sky and force life out of the tide and upon the land.
I have been trying for seven years and all I have to show for it are three miscarriages, two poorly placed blastocysts, and a baby-blue and yellow nursery down the hall from the master bedroom that was conceived along with miscarriage number one. And I can’t deny that I have debris inside me that has built to toxic proportions, namely—a growing, nagging, malignant hatred of pregnant women. In fact, I’m in the same obnoxious classification with sexist men who look down at women’s breasts before looking into their eyes. My eyes gravitate toward the belly before they do the face. Which is why I’m surprised I notice this woman’s bag before anything as I make my way out of produce. On any normal day, I wouldn’t. On any normal day, I would be practicing kegel exercises down the aisles, or more likely, focusing on reducing my levels of stress. I would be breathing. Breathing in deeply through the nose; pregnant with the oxygen of the world, ingesting the same floating atoms of Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad; then, expiring through the mouth, pushed from the diaphragm. Immersed in the cycle of life in one breath. I would be at one with food shopping, or anything else I was doing for that matter.
But the planets align themselves in weird ways sometimes and the doctor’s visits over the past few weeks weren’t exactly filled with news I wanted to hear. It started as it usually does. I was spotting, but I was late; I was nauseous and my breasts hurt, sure signs of pregnancy, despite four negative pregnancy tests. I was still hopeful. So, I went to the doctor for a blood test, only to learn I’m having a bad reaction to the Clomid, and well—It seems, Mrs. Jones, the Clomid is causing hostile fertile mucous and thinning your uterine wall. You’re not pregnant at all, she said. In fact, your progesterone is low. That discovery usually means one thing: weekly shots of progesterone and possibly months of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder or, as Jack calls it, insanity. Something he’s not so sure he can deal with anymore since talk of adoption became an alternative. And I am considering the option. But not before I give my biology once last shot at proving itself a valid, reproducing co-conspirator in the game of life. It would be an offense to my womanhood if I had to adopt, really. So, the temporary insanity—a small price to pay for a reward that’s overdue and rightly mine.
So, today I’m back to cleansing. And I’m right there, scooping out organic oatmeal in bulk. Oatmeal cleanses and lowers cholesterol. And I’m surprised I notice this woman’s bag before anything. She comes swerving into me with this tote bag, and I barely notice anything but the bag. It’s glaring at me, pointing boldfaced-all-caps in my direction, hanging by a loop from her arm, with the words, “I’m Saving the Planet, What Are You Doing?”
I’m Saving the Planet, What Are You Doing? The words take on a life of their own, reverberating through me in a voice I imagine is hers. I have until the end of the whole grains aisle to think about it, before we loop around and pass each other again. Until I can figure out which is worse: a woman who carries a bag like this, or the fact that I can answer the question so easily.
I recycle all my paper, cans and bottles. I’ve bought fluorescent lights for all my lighting fixtures. I never water my lawn. I plant trees every spring. And I only vacation, up the coast, a car’s drive away.
What more can I do?
I breathe in and I think of a dream I had last night. I was reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics before bed and had a dream of humanity. I dreamed of all 6. 8 billion of us, gathered, populating the earth, and we were all connected. Our sub-atomic particles were invisibly sealed together in this vibrating, waving interconnected web and no one could exist outside of this invisible seal. And when I recognized my own identity and saw how I too was connected to this web, I felt an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety. A dark, boiling hot, smothering fear overtook me and shook me into a panic. I knew I had to break off from this web, but I couldn’t, and the more I moved and tried to scratch and claw my way out of the mucous-like film connecting me to the billions, I became more connected, until I was nearly smothered, unrecognizable, and unable to breathe. When I awoke I remembered the book. The only way to divide matter is to force subatomic particles together in a collision, thus breaking them apart. The trouble is, they never make smaller pieces. They never crumble or destroy. They’re at once destructible and indestructible. Matter is neither created nor destroyed.
I try to forget about the woman. She must have seen this bag and thought it was cute and threw it in her cart and bought it one day, inconsequentially. And despite thinking she’s saving the planet, I assure you she’s from Berkley Hills or Cragmont, that upper-middle class spread of sprawling wasteful mansion homes; town of the four-car garage and the Lexus SUV. But she seems harmless enough. Stupid, actually. To think that she’s saving the planet with the purchase of one bag is simply obnoxious, maybe even an oversight.
The planet’s not going anywhere. Everyone knows that. We learned about it in sixth grade when we were taught that the sun still has about another five billion years of hydrogen left in it. Rocks can hit the earth. Asteroids can wipe everything out. Ice Ages can turn everything blue and cold and dead. But a flower can split concrete in half and be born through the cracks. We are. We’re the ones on our way out. We’re the cancer, overpopulating the planet, raping the soil. Humanity is a virus, spreading, repopulating, killing a path along the grass where it walks. And the planet will belch us out and shit us out and vomit us up and be done with us. And then it will heal, it’ll self-medicate on the last specimens of goodness left; nucleic acids will arise and recombobulate and the seed of life will spring forth in some lucky one-celled creature in the dark, tumultuous, in-utero ocean. The planet is not going anywhere.
I inhale again, slowly; I don’t know why little things like this bother me. But I begin to feel dizzy and warm. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s self-righteousness. When I pull my cart around onto the soup aisle, I see her again and she smiles. It registers that we’re on this supermarket journey for the duration, so we might as well be friendly. At first, I linger at the canned goods, the organic vegan soups; split pea, broccoli cheddar, throwing the healthiest among them in the front basket of the cart, hoping she passes me before I scream. But then, I give her the benefit of the doubt; credit for smiling, at least. What does she know. She’s just a victim of consumerism. I smile a forced smile in her direction, but quickly look away and turn my thinking back to my own cart. I am pushing aluminum cans in a metal cart. I feel like a broken piece of extraterrestrial garbage orbiting earth, drawn into the rotational pull with the rest of the space junk. There’s a population explosion of purposeless, circling, whirling, turning, floating bodies, and I’m one of them, trying to cleanse my soul with a little spirulina and wheatgrass. Trying not to be a hazard to astronauts on a mission, with purpose. The amount of orbital debris that denies the world a clear view of the sky, is telling in this day and age, when humanity is left with more trash than stars. Did you know that two satellites colliding over Siberia drew more media coverage than any other random act of the night sky? Mars aligning with Venus. A meteor shower. A total eclipse. None drew interest in the news. We were more focused on our own mess. And the Lcross satellite hit the moon and now we know there’s water on the lunar south pole. That’s good news. Our garbage is having a positive effect on science. More potable water when the end is near, I guess.
I’m waiting to loop around again so I can see what she looks like, what she really looks like, what she’s wearing, what she’s buying. I want to know what she watches on TV and eats for breakfast. Her husband is probably a builder, or she takes three spa vacations in Italy every year, or she drives a Hummer. Or she’s so lonely and empty inside that she shops to lessen the pain of her uninteresting, vapid life. And the bag is a cover-up—a transparency—to help abate the shame and guilt she feels for overspending when she knows it’s a defense mechanism. But like the rest of us, she’s feral, out of control.
And that’s when I see what I must have known subconsciously was already there. That’s when she parts her coat and stands erect, that’s why she smiles, and why she must eat the same foods that I don’t have to eat, but do. That’s when I look down and see the globe below her breasts, and know the world is getting bigger. She’s having a baby.
Pain is not something that grows slowly and steadily. Sure, there are instances of that. When the reality of a life not lived strikes you one morning unsuspectingly, there is a dull, moaning pain that makes itself felt in the aching of muscles and bone. But there is another kind of pain that comes without warning, which is so sharp and abrupt that it comes with rage; like the skull-crushing, brain-splitting cracking of a solid wood rafter, crashing down on your head, out of the blue. You did nothing wrong. In fact, you did everything right. You were always so cautious. You were just starting to figure it all out and get there. And then you see stars; stars that aren’t the infinitely beautiful stars of which we are made, but rather, flashes of red, deathly light that come when your eyeball fluid has been ripped from the back of your eyes by the crack of a blunt object.
I need something to crush. Something to hit. I need to burn our country’s flag in effigy, or set off a car bomb, or dive into a building with explosives strapped to my chest to feel alive and be saved by a God who speaks to me. A God that points me in a direction, be it good or bad, and gives purpose to my life. How can I live on this planet, in this country when all around me are reminders of my inability to be human, to be what I thought nature and God wanted me to be. A mother.
I stand enraged in the middle of the aisle, immobile, fearing that if I move I will destroy something. I am consumed with questions, and I want answers. Is it the trihalomethanes in the tap water? The hormones in the milk? The birth control pills I took during college? Do I use too much bleach for my whites? Do I drink too much coffee? Is it Nutrasweet? Plastic? Mercury in the fish?
“Is it stress?”
I catch myself saying this out loud, noticing eyes upon me. And for a moment my face feels hot with shame. What, after all, is the breaking point of the soul? What does insanity look like when it’s shared in public, exposed to the 6.8 billion of us that are all connected and vibrating in the mucousy web? I shake my head from side to side as the shame is replaced with anger; a deep, clear, meaningful anger that recognizes the ugliness of truth. I snap to. The lady with the bag must be two aisles ahead of me now; that would be frozen foods. And so I move my cart like a wailing banshee, humming a tuneless tune in my dry mouth to replace the dearth of focus that I feel consuming me. I just want to call her on her bag. That’s all. I just want to let her know that buying one tote bag is nothing compared to the amount of waste and pollution and excess her baby will bring upon the earth. That by her bringing one extra human onto this planet it will cause one hundred and thirty six thousand pounds of garbage to be dumped into some landfill, or shot out into space, or sunk into the ocean. So, in fact, that bag isn’t doing much for the planet. It isn’t helping anything or anyone really. When you think of the energy this child will consume in his lifetime, what’s one tote bag? I just want to rub it in her face that’s she’s a hypocrite. And why not? She’s asking for it. You don’t carry a bag like that around without begging for repudiation.
And then I see her; her profile bearing the pregnant smirk; the kind of self-entitled, superior look that is so common of expectant women. They call it glowing; she is glowing. Her posture is yielding, pliant, curving into her spine. Her head is lowered, looking downward toward the list she carries in her hand. I move close; close enough that I can smell the organic shampoo on her hair, and see that her fingernails have been manicured, but I move subtly, staring into the cases of frozen foods, wondering what to say. Excuse me, is that your bag? Is that your bag that says ‘I’m Saving the Planet, What Are You Doing?’ Well, that’s not very nice and I’m offended. No. That sounds ridiculous. I can’t say that. She’ll laugh at me. Who cares if I’m offended? She certainly doesn’t. But I don’t have the language. I don’t know what to say.
And then it all kind of happens in a garbled, muddled sort of way; quickly and absurdly, the way things happen when you’re confused and smothered and have no voice, like you’re flailing your arms about in a puddle, trying not to drown. I might have read that somewhere in a book, “flailing your arms about in a puddle, trying not to drown.” But it happens like that. So much of what I’ve read becomes a part of me. It becomes so much a part of me that it becomes my own, and I end up believing it’s mine. How it happens is an accident really, and now I see that it’s most likely the progesterone and maybe even the Clomid or the combination of them both; maybe it’s just moodiness or PMDD. That’s what Jack would say. Jack would say that I’ve gone too far this time. That he can’t take it anymore. That my behavior is not normal and I need help. He’d say we don’t need a baby to be happy; that we’re OK on our own. But are we really? I’d like to think it’s just the side effects of all these drugs, and not what I am about to be accused of. Evilness.
In my hand I am holding a can of something organic, it just so happens to be the first thing I grab. I’m holding onto it for support, really. And I’m holding it so tightly that my knuckles turn as white as death. And, I don’t know, I just begin cornering her against the freezer because it kind of works out that way, because it’s easy, because she’s already there. And the only words that come out of my mouth are, “hey, excuse me!” And then there’s nothing else to say, really. And when she turns around, I can’t look at her reverently, like so many do, with maternal eyes and a smile that says, “within you is the seed of life.” I cannot see that kind of beauty. I don’t recognize it. I don’t have the ability or the language to comprehend the meaning of the word Life. Instead, I think of Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”: I myself had at that time no access to such a word. And so I bring the can down upon her head in a crushing blow, the edge of it scraping a gash across her face, and I have in me every intention of striking again and again and again and again. And I do that. I don’t just strike her once. I can’t. You get to a point where the toil of energy lifts and action becomes effortless. I push her against the freezer, where she can’t run and I hit her over and over and over again with the can until she slumps to the ground in a bloody mess and the can becomes this lifeless, twisted piece of aluminum, leaking cold green soup out of its open parts. And the only reason this is so uncomplicated, is because all the while she keeps bent over, her skull in clear shot, using her arms, foolishly, to protect her belly and nothing else.
It’s not so easy. You know, talking about fertility. People look at you like you’re a freak if you can’t make a baby; if you can’t do the simplest of human tasks. They think there’s something wrong with you. Or worse, they think that God doesn’t want you to have a baby. If God wanted you to have a baby, you would have had one already, they say. Everything is for a reason. Besides, it’s part of population control. I’ve heard that one too. Just like homosexuality and natural disaster and man’s inherent proclivity for war, not being able to get pregnant is all part of God’s master plan to weed out bad genes and control the population.
But there are young girls in bad neighborhoods on welfare having so many babies they’re using abortion as a means of birth control. They’re giving birth in toilets in high school locker rooms, or dropping babies into dumpsters. Some are smoking cigarettes and crack and shooting heroin and eating chicken fingers all day—they will spend an entire lifetime without having eaten the fruit of one organic pear from Whole Foods—and yet, they’re populating the earth.
I remember when Jack and I first got married. Friends were actually jealous. “Hope we don’t have a tough time keeping up with the Joneses,” they said. And the first thing that everyone asked us on our wedding day was, “When are the babies coming?” My mother even came up and nudged me, with a proud smile upon her face and said, “Make me a grandmother.”
We had talked about kids when we got engaged. We wanted two children, a girl and a boy, the perfect nuclear family, but we would wait a few years before having them; we would like to wait three years. Three years was perfect. It would allow Jack to finish up clerking and establish himself in a good law firm. We could renovate the old farmhouse we bought in Walnut Creek, and I could finish my graduate work in Sociology. Besides, everyone in our circle was waiting. Tim and Kathy had gotten married shortly after us, and they waited. Same with Michael and Nuria. Van and Abbe married the same year we did. In fact, we were going to synchronize and have our babies at the same time so that our children could play together and could grow up together, and go to the same schools together, and date together. It’s not like we were doing something different. It’s not like we asked for anything anyone else didn’t already have. We all drank from the same tap, we all bought the same milk, we breathed the same air. We were just like everyone else. But when Kathy had her first and then her second, and Nuria had a boy, and Abbe had twins right at the three-year mark, I felt an enormous pressure to catch up. People weren’t keeping up with the Joneses; the Joneses were trying desperately to keep up with everyone else. I used to have dreams every night that my teeth were falling out, or that I was lost in a house with many rooms and couldn’t find my way out. And each year that passed, and every time we had to attend a child’s party and watch someone else’s baby crawl for the first time, or say its first words, there was a part of me that died. It was like I was living in this artists’ colony and everyone was painting masterpieces. And there I was; me and Jack, and we couldn’t seem to even daub the paint on our canvas if our lives depended on it. We had plans. Friends and family had expectations of us. We had expectations of ourselves.
There’s a sick, malignant feeling in my stomach as I am thrown to the floor and handcuffed. It happens that quickly. My head throbs from all the pounding, the buzz and hiss of the crowd that has encircled me; Murderer! Monster! Killer! I am called names that will take a lifetime to understand if they belonged to me or not. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if I am those things already. Each time a seed plants in my womb with the hope of new life, something in me kills it. The brightness of the lights hurts my eyes; my arm is out of alignment from overuse, and sore. It’s the same kind of achy sore I feel after a workout, and actually feels better twisted and stretched behind me, locked and safe from further use. I am dizzy and can’t breathe well. And I’m shivering and cold and wondering what the likelihood is of getting a blanket, or calling my husband, or taking something to make the pain go away. And yet I feel an eerie sense of calm, something more akin to exhaustion. It’s like when my mother used to tell me, “When you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired you’ll do something about it.” I breathe in. I think of Emilie Cady’s quote from a Buddhist text I read years ago, “Individual people stumble over pebbles, never over mountains.” I breathe out. How do you reconcile the nature of who you are in the face of a world that expects you to be something you’re not? How do you reconcile being born blind, in a world of people with sight? The world around me throws stones and I don’t fight back. I take it. One stone at a time.