I worked in healthcare for a while, when I thought I wanted to be a nurse. First I wanted to be a nurse for the very, very old and then, when that became too depressing, I wanted to be a nurse for the very, very young and then, when that became too tragic, I quit. I worked a few jobs in between, all in the name of administration and healthcare, all in which I saw very little health and only trace amounts of care. Doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators populated my life, were my whole world, for almost a decade. They were just people at the end of the day, though I never could really figure them out.
Just a month before I quit to become an actress, or at least participate in acting workshops in the effort to become one, I attended my final dinner party hosted by and for a group of nurses from obstetrics. I had been invited but I wasn’t really among them. Nursing was a huge mistake to begin with, a decision made on account of the simple fact that I’d grown up with an eerie, Pacific Northwestern notion of Christian charity and a quantitative, methodical mind, and everyone knew I was a phony. At the dinner party, these nurses had gotten so drunk they all became indecent, their clothes falling off of them and them falling off of their chairs. At one point, it was somehow decided that we would all shout facts until someone’s fact was the most interesting.
“Cheetahs have brown eyes and leopards have green,” said one. She wore earrings that looked like palm trees.
“The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg,” said another.
These were terrible facts; terrible facts that no one cared about.
“When you’re about to have a stroke, you start smelling smoke and fire.”
“Adolphe Quetelet invented the Body Mass Index in 1850!”
“In the fifteenth century, midwifery was considered a dangerous branch of witchcraft.”
“Witch, witch, witch!” the group began to chant. They all clapped and shouted at the woman who had recited this last fact; she was also incidentally the party host and was now standing on the table with one ridiculous Rainbow sandal in her hand, the other on her foot.
“Witch, witch, witch!” they shouted.
“And what was the book that made it official?” she cried.
“Malleus Maleficarum!” they all answered in unison.
“And when was it published?” she asked.
I was more or less repulsed and also a bit amazed. I had never met a bunch of nurses so excited about their field. I wondered if I had walked into something strange—a sex cult, maybe; a secret society of birth historians; an indoctrination. It was Los Angeles, after all, and it was a hospital, and it was obstetrics to boot. You could imagine anything.
But I, too, was from obstetrics and I, too, was capable of giving a little bit of wow. One of the first historians and, as he alleged, birthing experts was Pliny the Elder. A Roman philosopher, he wrote an early kind of encyclopedia—Historia Naturalis. I think of this from time to time: what was in it and all that’s changed. He suspected that an expecting mother with a predilection for salt would give birth to spawn without fingernails, and that a menstruating woman could turn seeds to virtual dust. Around AD 77, he advocated for laboring women to grind pig feces up into a powder and drink it during labor, to soothe the pain and expedite delivery. I won the game with this fact, shouted it out just as the hostess was about to step down from her perch and shotgun a beer, because it is a fact even though it isn’t true.
By then, I had already met my boyfriend Dale, who was in the process of convincing me to give up on health and pursue my dreams. It is easy to fall madly in love with a person who says that. I moved in just two months after we met. On our first date at a wine bar in Santa Monica, I had asked Dale to tell me something that no one knew about him. He thought seriously; he leaned forward in his chair and looked at his watch—a Rolex, a gift from a grateful client who had saved millions of dollars in income tax because of Dale’s financial acumen and agile brain—and finally said: “I love angel food cake.” It is easy to fall madly in love with a person who says that.
Since my falling in love, moving in with Dale, and leaving the nursing field, Dale and I had spent most of our waking hours in the apartment, satisfying our basic human desires and then resting, reading poetry, learning how to make angel food cake. And then sleeping, the backs of my thighs curled against the front of his. Dale spent his weekdays in an office in Culver City where he went to help wealthy people evade the IRS. He paid my rent, and I used my savings on acting workshops in North Hollywood, where I went three times a week to pursue my dreams and become talented. There were so many of these acting workshops—some took place in warehouses, others in restaurants, a few in dank little movie theaters in east Los Angeles. Our acting coaches—our mentors—were many things: young, old, thin, fat, brunette, blond, kind, cruel, rich, poor but all, I will maintain, all, outrageously talented.
One mentor was my favorite. She ruled over the acting workshop with an iron fist. She was prone to bouts of rage, which took on an especially frightening quality as the Botox in her forehead hampered our ability to read her emotions until it was too late. She’d raise her eyebrows, growing purple with disappointment over our lack of talent, and a spot in the middle of her forehead would stay smooth as a baby’s bottom, wrinkles surrounding. Her name was Samantha Buckswold. She had a blonde bob haircut: bright yellow with the cleanest, smoothest lines. Like a freshly sliced stick of butter. Samantha Buckswold’s acting workshop was somewhat famous; had been spoofed in various late-night television skit shows; was the rumored breeding ground for future Oscar winners; had provided the foundation for Names like Pitt and Davis and Bullock and Chalamet. Samantha was that old—older than any of her students really understood or out of respect for her, cared to admit.
“Lizabeth!” she yelled at me one dry, burning afternoon. She was gearing up for a signature takedown of my general mediocrity. This was the old-school workshop mentorship for which she was famous, and it was brutal. We never knew when she would strike. She stood up and lightly kicked her folding chair with one backwards gesture. The early evening sunlight illuminated the smears on the windows like stained glass. I held back my imminent tears and imagined the hallowed cathedrals of medieval Europe: a choir of nuns singing in a dark room, their voices rising up, up; the chorus bending through orange clouds and pink smoke, twisting over hills and valleys through time and ending up here, pounding against the walls of the yoga studio-turned-acting workshop in North Hollywood like some holy beggar on a midnight door; particles of sound falling away. I really tried not to cry.
“Lizabeth,” she said. “Has anyone told you that your emotions are flat?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Well, I’m telling you, Lizabeth, that your emotions are flat,” she said.
“Your voice, what is that? Fry?” she said. “That’s for young girls. That’s not for you. Get it together, Lizabeth. I say this because when I was twenty-one years old, my acting coach Lee Strasberg said to me: ‘Samantha, put on a pair of slacks. Samantha, get a haircut that doesn’t make you look like Keith Richards. Samantha, get your shit together.’ That was in New York. And he was being honest when he said it, and then he died two weeks later. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
I told her I did.
“Honestly, Lizabeth. You’re too old for this kind of fundamental direction. You’re almost too old to act at all.” She began pacing and waving her hands, which is what she did when she was furious. “It’s exhausting. Why do you want to be an actress at all? What did you do before this?”
“I was a nurse, you know that,” I said. Half of my fellow classmates looked down at their feet, the other watched us with glee. There were about seventeen of us sitting in a pathetic semi-circle on the concrete floor.
“Well, go be a nurse. I’m done with you.”
I finally gave in, began to cry, and sat down in my aluminum folding chair. Then I watched two young women act out a comic scene from Twelfth Night.
After class, Samantha cornered me by the cubbies. When the workshop space doubled as a yoga studio in the mornings, this was where people kept their jackets and purses and shoes and water bottles. Dale was waiting for me at a vegan restaurant two blocks away. We also left the apartment to go on dates.
“Now that’s a scene,” Samantha said. She put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s how you do a scene. Those tears? They were positively biblical. You need to give us more of that.”
I shook my head at her. “That was hurtful.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you, I guess.” I did mean it though. I really did feel grateful for Samantha. I liked my life as one, prolonged motion of ripping off a Band-Aid.
We hung out around the cubbies as the class trickled out, each aspiring actor grinning at Samantha and eyeing me with a special envy because of my proximity to her. Once they were all gone and we were alone in the studio, Samantha invited me to dinner.
“Dinner?” I said. “Why?”
“Because you’re an interesting person,” she said. She shrugged. “Because all teachers have to have pets.”
“Tonight?” I said.
“Saturday. Bring the boyfriend. We’ll entertain you.” She did not phrase it like a question, no looping upward vowel at the end of the sentence, which meant that it was not a question at all, Samantha being well trained in the science of vocal cues and thus very in control of her various intonations.
“I’m only so hard on you because I believe,” she said before locking the doors to the workshop and taking the elevator to the rooftop garage.
I considered dinner at Samantha Buckswold’s house a considerable step-up from sad Thanksgivings in the ER wing, cultish obstetrics soirées, White Elephant exchanges over flask whiskey and stale potato chips. A huge step-up. Fair, Samantha wasn’t exactly famous, but she was credentialed, yes, and very rich. Samantha was married to the man who had written the screenplays for lots of big war films, many upsetting stories about the holocaust and French Indochina. So I bought a new dress, made Dale cut his hair, groomed my brain for interesting anecdotes, readied myself for the weekend.
Dale looked at me as we sat parked on Samantha’s street that Saturday evening. His hairline was starting to recede, the coarse black curls glistening with perspiration. The shadows made his cheekbones look like darts. The sun had already set, though its arms were still outstretched through the skyline, burning golden and purple and pink, like the hands of a swimmer whose head has just gone underwater, the flailing fingers of a drowning man. We could see it through the car’s front windows. To the right of us was the sidewalk, and Samantha’s long, winding ranch home beyond it. Glowing with cacti and birds of paradise on the lawn, lights sparkling within. To our left was another expensive house, more massive cars lining the road. I was under the impression that Samantha had many connections in the industry.
Dale pinched my jaw and said, “Here goes.” Dale was used to vast discrepancies in wealth and income because of his job. As we made our way up the light-lined walkway and to the front door, an ambulance exploded by. It always seems this way—that these ambulances, bright yellow and red, simply erupt out of the night air, flashing emergency through the streets. It’s almost as if they disappear that way, too, that they never really find their still harbor, that their destination isn’t a hospital carport at all.
I had never been on a real audition, but this did seem like some type of audition, and I was predictably nervous. But also, I had a secret. It was part of the reason that this invitation to Samantha’s was so particularly exciting, and it acted as a sort of ammunition. That night was the eve of my thirty-fifth birthday and none of them knew. Samantha Buckswold didn’t know, Allen Buckswold didn’t know, and even Dale didn’t know. Our relationship was young. We’d cohabitated in a wild, blinded gesture of trust and erotic fantasy. We hadn’t talked about birthdays or, if we had, we’d forgotten. The only people who knew were my family and friends back in Oregon, a handful of nurses from the old hospital. The night before, after I’d returned home from my workshop and prepared for bed, I received a birthday card from my little sister, Kay, reading: “Age and Wine Glasses Shouldn’t be Counted.”
I had stayed up for hours, just looking at it, Dale sleeping peacefully at my side. Her inscription was something short and non-emotive—“You look great!” I had seen Kay an average number of times in the past ten years, my life having slipped quietly away from me since I broke off my engagement to a boy I’d met in high school, packed up my room in my parents’ home outside of Eugene, and moved to Los Angeles. I suspected that Kay’s recollections of what I looked like were, at best, murky. Or it was something more specific—“You look great for thirty-five!” or “Thirty-five looks great on you!” or “You don’t look a day over thirty!”
It wasn’t this flippancy that bothered me. It was that it seemed like a bold-faced lie. Growing up, Kay had believed in counting everything. Fingers, toes, candy, decimals, calories, sexual partners, extinction rates of Australian platypuses, reproduction ratios of the Oregonian ribbon worm. We were close. There’s no denying it. We were both quantitatively minded people. It was what we did. We counted the seconds between thunder and lightning, the number of frogs in the creek that ran through the backyard, the dozens of decayed blackberries on the bushes that knotted through our sidewalks. She was six years younger than I but even as a child she was no dummy. I turned the card over in my hands. True, I was an ex-nurse, and ex-nurses tend to be overly literal people, but for the first time I wondered if somehow, over the past decade, without my seeing, Kay had turned into the kind of woman who thought some things ought not to be counted. If she had developed into the kind of grim-faced citizen who thought the joke, and its ability to elicit laughter, wasn’t the point, as long as you sent the card on time to wish its recipient a very happy thirty-five. If Kay, my little sister, looked at me and was filled with some cold, intangible fear.
But I was still counting. I had my own thoughts about the birthday, most of them tinged with nerves and regret, but some of them observed as if from a very high, very beautiful tower. I was watching my life from a great height. I knew that my life might have gone differently if I’d never gone to nursing school at all. I knew that I might have something bigger—a family, a career—if I’d flown to Los Angeles sooner. This isn’t rocket science. I knew that if you were to get pregnant at age thirty-five, you would be considered a geriatric pregnancy. They call it something else now, but I remember. After that, your risk of miscarriage or your baby having a chromosomal disorder compounds with each advancing year. I knew that Kay, a planner, had always listed thirty-five as the age where she’d finally let herself get collagen injections. I knew the average thirty-five-year-old owns her own home. I fell asleep wondering about Kay. About what she was doing and what she was like and how perhaps I may have failed her.
A final count: I didn’t have collagen injections or a mortgage. I didn’t have a baby. I had an invitation to Samantha and Allen Buckswold’s home for dinner.
Samantha and Allen Buckswold were listening to Terry Riley and making curry. Okay, I thought as we put our coats in the assigned closet, this is something that normal people do. I relaxed. Samantha sat us down in the living area—to call it a room would be inaccurate and, I think, a disservice; mostly it was a vast, flat area with half-partition walls, a piano, an incredibly low coffee table and couch, a few Japanese screens scattered in a pleasingly nonsensical arrangement—and Allen Buckswold the very famous holocaust and French Indochina screenwriter served negronis. He put little umbrellas in them, two large, fancy cubes of ice in each. It quickly became apparent that Allen Buckswold was the sort of man who tried to take pleasure in the trivial things. They let the curry simmer. Samantha had just begun talking about my talent and poking Dale in the ribs when their child came in.
She stood in the archway between entrance, stairs, living room. She was young. She was out of place: this blooming, young, absurd person standing in the middle of all our old crudity. She wore an amorphous, pink flannel sleeping shirt. A pair of knee-length cotton shorts sagged around her legs. She had her index finger in her mouth and stared at us sleepily. I stared back, bewildered.
“Who’s that?” said Dale, gesturing toward her. My Dale, always asking the questions that need to be asked.
“Come here, Ellisjane,” Samantha said, her voice lifting to the pitch that a person might use for a dog they loved.
Ellisjane sprang over. I supposed it was nine o’clock. Samantha and Allen being of an old-world sort of glamour that required they still make the effort to eat late.
“You woke me,” said the little girl. She sat in her mother’s lap and looked lovingly up at her, then at her father, then at me.
“We’re sorry, Ellisjane,” Samantha cooed, smoothing the girl’s hair.
I noticed Allen. He crossed an ankle over his knee and leaned back in his low chair, gawking at the two of them. He smiled and then gawked into his drink, the green umbrella brushing his eyebrow.
“I’m glad!” said Ellisjane. She had a large, toothless smile and dimples. Almost cherubic, if she weren’t so skinny.
“I’m glad!” she said. “Now I can stay up.”
I was stunned, this being the first time I’d ever heard about Samantha having a child, and this revelation completely undermining the impression that I’d already constructed for Samantha, a narrative that had been thin but steady until this very minute. Dale rubbed my neck, an impulse he had when he sensed my energy getting dark and chaotic. He was used to people with a dark and chaotic energy because of his job. But I was stunned mostly because that when I say that Samantha was older, I mean that she was older. Not actress older. And not Los Angeles older.
The girl, Ellisjane, sat with us and blabbered throughout dinner until she fell back asleep. I was astounded as I saw her digging into the vegetable curry. I even asked her if it was too spicy, and her whole family—the whole wonderful three of them—dissolved into soft laughter. But what the little girl was up to was bizarre; I had been picky, my little sister had been picky, kids are supposed to be picky. Kay used to shove rice and peanuts and peas and broccoli away with a special sort of spite. I remember our mother, after pouring Kay a bowl of cereal and sending her up to her room, once plopping heavily down at the table. She said to our father without the slightest bit of humor: “I want to give her back.”
“To where?” he’d asked.
Finally our mother had smiled. She looked at me, a frenetic heat in her eye.
“Oh,” she said, “from whence she came.”
I had wondered about that, from whence Kay came. It’s a natural thing for people to ponder—where their babies were hanging out before their materials were formed into the materials that we recognize as baby. In 1958 Ian Donald, John McVicar, and Tom Brown of Glasgow invented and subsequently used the first ultrasound technology to study fetuses. It’s through ultrasound that we came to learn so much. The sex, the genetic makeup, chance of illness or disfigurement. The chance of perfect health. The position of the baby, the likelihood of a cesarean. Through medieval Europe and the Enlightenment, many believed that a woman carried around numerous, fully-formed but miniaturized people in her stomach at all times. Hair, fingernails, toes, and all. Pregnancy allowed one to grow. To give birth was to simply let it out.
Donald, McVicar, and Brown’s ultrasound was adapted from a technology whose origin was plain as anything; a technology already in effect and well-documented through the war, a technology used to find structural errors in ships.
Halfway through dinner Samantha and Allen were drunk. Dale and I were drunk. Ellisjane might as well have been drunk too, she drooled so boldly on the back of her hand as she slept sitting in her cushioned chair. Her hair was butter blond, just like Samantha’s. When she drooled, her chin looked just like Allen’s. Eventually Allen lifted her up and she folded herself around his torso like a tiny monkey. He carried her back to bed.
Samantha watched them disappear and then turned back to us.
“Dale,” she said to Dale, “do you have any idea that you’re married to a woman who does unexpected things?”
“We aren’t married,” I said. I also didn’t know what she meant by unexpected things.
“I’m sure Lizabeth is capable of many unexpected things,” Dale said.
Not true, I thought. I was a fairly monotone person, emotions ebbing and flowing at a slight and regular pace. It was why I was struggling as an actress.
“She was a nurse,” Samantha said. Now she picked up a spear of broccoli from her plate and pointed at him with it. “Did you know that?”
“I did know it,” he said.
“She’s not young, you know.”
“I know,” he said.
“Especially not for an actress,” she said.
She kept her broccoli pointed at him, though she may have simply forgotten it was in her hand. She looked at me. “No,” she said slowly. “No, I have the feeling that Lizabeth is capable of very unexpected things. I have a sense for these people. They’re fascinating.”
Dale looked at me (I must have looked so very expected in that moment, with my straightened hair and rack dress and general confusion) and laughed. “I’ll watch out.”
Samantha put the broccoli down. “Well, you must be very much in love,” she said, beaming at us. She had a way of radiating color from her face, as if she was in control of when and where and why she turned on her own aura. Now she glowed pink and violet.
“You must be in love.” She looked at me. “Use it.”
Allen came back into the room, brandishing more negronis, and asked Dale if he’d like to have a cigar in the gazebo. These were words I didn’t hear very often and so although I was afraid of being left alone with Samantha, I encouraged Dale to join so that I could, vicariously, find a meaning to put to them. As Dale shrugged on his coat, Samantha leaned her head back and coughed. Then she laughed. Coughed again.
“A nurse,” she said. “How sweet.”
Dale and Allen were outside. Samantha did a funny thing. She got up from the table, grabbed our plates and knives and forks and cups by the armload, and threw them all in the sink. I heard one shatter. She did this not uncheerfully—more with a shrewd, drunken focus. She stood over the sink for a moment and passively observed her work. As if it were a chore she’d done a thousand times before, in various states of sobriety, and it was simply, now, a thing that needed to be done. Like washing your face, brushing your teeth, feeding the dog (though of course they had no dog).
“Need help?” I asked.
“Oh, the girl will take care of it in the morning,” she said. She leaned her body against the butcher block countertop.
“Oh, a woman. A grown woman named Inez.”
I thought momentarily about this interchangeability of girl and woman, when and how it functions. I was lost and depressing enough to still be called a girl from time to time. Samantha was not. Inez, apparently, was. Was she young? I didn’t think so. Was it simply her proximity to dishes and housework? Was that, I thought, what made a woman a girl and a girl no longer a woman?
Boys are just boys. They get to be men around age twenty-five and we never look back.
I may well be too old to have a baby, but I want a girl. I know this idea is unfashionable and naive. By the time of this dinner, Kay was about to turn twenty-nine, her birthday two months later than my own. I had been thinking about that a lot in the days since receiving her elusive little card in the mail. She’s wealthy and married and has a lovely job studying the bacterial growth in saltwater ponds off Puget Sound. Her husband is rich. He does things like cook veggie patties. He takes out the trash. I imagine soon they’ll have a baby. If Kay were to ask me for my professional opinion, which she wouldn’t, I would tell her she should start thinking about what kind of baby she wants and then focus all her energies.
None of the homespun methods are unanimously proven to work, I’d warn her. Dale’s mother informed me she ate a lot of sweet potato in order to have a girl and look what she got: a Dale.
In How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby, Landrum Shettles outlines the Shettles method: deciding the sex of your child based on the time of conception and having intercourse closer to (or farther from) the time of ovulation. Males burn bright and die quickly. If you want one, try and conceive right on ovulation, when the egg is released to be fertilized. Females are like Aesop’s tortoise. Or at least given the trajectory of my life that is what I like to think. If you want to have a female, use the missionary position. Do it at least four days before ovulation. The slow and steady X chromosome will get there in perfect time.
I have seen this work on occasion. But of course, Dale’s mother must have done all this too. She’s no dummy. The Shettles method is no guarantee when it comes down to it.
With in vitro—first used successfully in Manchester, resulting in the birth of Louise Brown on July 25, 1978—you can pay an extra few thousand dollars or so to pick the sex of your baby. This is because in vitro fertilization involves a screening process that looks for the healthiest embryos after a sperm is joined with an egg in a petri dish. There are a lot of embryos to choose from and they all get a chromosomal analysis. Some of them are healthy, some aren’t. Sometimes you get to choose between a healthy male and a healthy female.
One in vitro process costs about fifteen to twenty thousand dollars. I suppose in the scheme of things that extra few grand doesn’t feel as large.
Sometimes knowledge backfires. For around a hundred years, there was a high rate of female infanticide in China. That is, the killing of baby girls in favor of having a boy, who can conceivably bring more financial stability. It sounds misogynistic, and it is—but Dale is the reason I still hang around yoga studios trying to become a movie star. Kay spends all her time looking at algae in seawater ponds and she still gets to be rich. I’d remind her of that.
In the early aughts, reports revealed a severe lack of women everywhere from Shaanxi to Jiangxi to Guangdong. It was causing lots of problems. Lonely men wandering through the streets in search of a wife. So few wives to choose from.
The point is that there’s a lot riding on this thing. Sometimes it’s a matter of twenty grand; sometimes a complicated technological or administrative process, which is what, I assumed, was the genesis of Ellisjane; sometimes life and death.
Samantha lit a joint and stood under her large, Tiffany pendant lamp. It was the only colorful thing in the room.
“Your daughter is beautiful,” I said, in part because it was true and in part because it was the thing to say.
“Ellisjane is a miracle.” She exhaled a big cloud of skunky smoke and then passed the rolled paper to me.
“Ellisjane, that’s quite a name.”
“Ellisjane is a miracle,” she repeated.
“Of course,” I said.
“No,” she said. “I mean that I was fifty-one years old at the time of conception and fifty-two at the time of birth.”
“It means I entered the sixth decade of my life with a ballooning belly, four months pregnant,” she said.
“Did you have a baby shower?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “Yeah.”
“I hadn’t been on birth control for almost fifteen years,” she said. “First I had no interest in kids, and then I just couldn’t have them, and then right when I’m about to settle into the relative calm of the grand dame, the comfort of a respectable and glittering sort of elder statesman-hood, whamo.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“I was still bleeding a little, once a month. Barely,” she said. “When I went two months without my period, I figured it was time. To I don’t know, acquire some mood stabilizers or prescription progesterone creams. I went to my doctor—my doctor, he’s a man, believe it or not, I’ve been seeing him since I was a virtual teenager, back when you had really no choice in who you got or what they stuck up you. What I mean to get across is that I’d known him for years. And he read my urine sample, and then he walked into my exam room just staring.
“He’s an awkward man. But that’s the kind of man you want rooting around in your nether parts.” Samantha let out a very big laugh at this. “He stood there and shifted from foot to foot. He rested his hands on his ribcage. His face was pale—but ruddy. Like he’d just done a jog in cold weather. It was summer though. It was the stinky heat of August.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘you could be pregnant.’ And, of course, I said, ‘what do you mean, could be pregnant?’ And he told me that what he meant was that all the signs pointed to pregnancy, all the signs other than the obvious. ‘So am I pregnant?’ I asked. ‘Well, yes,’ he said. I went home and told Allen. He was shocked. A little creeped out, if I’m being frank. He thought maybe I was delivering something sent from above the earth or beyond the grave.”
“Really?” I asked. This surprised me, him seeming to be a logical sort of person in the way that great success can in the best cases make a person, eventually, logical.
“So, my doctor told me to go home and break the news to my husband, who by now was getting comfortable with the fact that his genetic line was dead. Allen was basically excited to make his own elderflower syrups and travel between here and Poland making holocaust film after holocaust film after holocaust film until he one day he died peacefully in his sleep, a half-finished negroni on his bedside table. Hah. Big surprise, mister. So my doctor told me to break the news to Allen and then to schedule a follow-up for exactly one week later. As I’m sure you can imagine, it was—a high-risk pregnancy. A very, very, high-risk pregnancy. When we went back a week later, she was gone.”
“Gone?” I asked.
“When you’re just barely pregnant, they see the baby by watching for the—material around it.”
“The gestational sac,” I said.
“Oh god, of course. You were a nurse,” she said. She began to blush, an unfitting and weird emotion on her stiff, burlesque face.
“Well anyway, when he first examined me, that first day, there it was—the gestational sac. Winking under the ultrasound.”
“A transvaginal ultrasound,” I said. Developed in the mid-sixties by Kretztechnic, in Vienna.
“Right,” she said. “And when I went the next week, the gestational sac was gone.”
“Gone?” I asked again.
“Just gone. She was there,” she said, blowing weedy smoke out of her mouth, joint poised between two thin fingers. “And then she wasn’t.”
She continued. “I mean that made more sense, all things considered. A miscarriage or a crazy fluke diagnosis, which made me slightly skeptical about the doctor, but there it was. I was fifty-one years old and not pregnant. That’s a sensible way for things to be. That’s the order of life. We went home disappointed. We had just spent five days wrapping our heads around everything, basically bracing ourselves to carry the next Jesus or something. And then, what? Telling two fifty-year-olds that they’re going to be parents is different than telling two twenty-nine-year-olds the same. We were both spellbound. We were resigned to it in this sweet, sad way. Everything we do these days is sweet and sad. Not that we’re sad ourselves. We aren’t sad.”
“You don’t seem it,” I said.
“And then telling them that they aren’t going to be parents is a hell of an inversion.”
“I imagine,” I said.
“Then a month later, she was back. Very back. The doctor called in other doctors. It was like a scene in a House episode—one doctor calling all the other doctors in to stare agape at the medical mystery unfolding in their examination room. But that’s what happened. Suddenly she came back, from wherever she was, and stayed. I was seeing the doctor all the time of course, given that I was—oh, beyond geriatric. I mean it was beyond an advanced age pregnancy. So, I was seeing him almost every two weeks, taking vitals, looking at her, looking at me, looking at her again. Making sure she was still there. And she was. We knew everything about her. We knew she was a girl at twenty weeks. At eleven we knew there wasn’t a likelihood of Down Syndrome. At eighteen weeks, no signs of spina bifida. We knew there weren’t any clear genetic mutations and no signs of mental retardation.”
It amazes me what people know and how they know it. In the beginning, our mother was convinced that Kay was retarded. Our mother has panic syndrome, and compulsive thinking, and chronic guilt, and she talked for long intervals about how Kay, only six weeks into her pre-birth, curled up in our mother’s stomach, the size of a caper, thumping her ridiculous, hushed heartbeat as hard as she could, was bound to be retarded.
Our mother was wrong. Kay was a baby that would one day grow up to tell her older sister that “age and wine glasses shouldn’t be counted.” And there was no way we could have known that.
But that didn’t keep me from wishing that Kay would disappear already. Go back from whence she came. She was just resting in there, but she was making our mother go crazy. Our mother was getting fat and throwing up and dropping things and crying all because of Kay.
We knew because when she was just three months pregnant, our mother had the Nuchal Translucency Screening Test to see if Kay had any genetic abnormalities. Nuchal—it’s a disgusting word, and it has to do with the slope of the neck. It was just being introduced at the time—in fact it was a pretty advanced procedure that only became fully mainstream in 2003. But before 2003, it was a strange new thing that our mother begged her doctors to do because it was the earliest way. What they do is measure the fluid on the back of the baby’s neck to see if there’s a genetic mutation. If there’s a high level of fluid, it’s an indication of a problem.
This whole idea, combined with the world “nuchal”—it made me hate Kay even more. I imagined her as this hunchbacked, creeping thing with a big bag of fluid on the back of her neck like a goiter.
A few weeks later they ran a triple screen test, which predicted the same by looking for amounts of alpha-fetoprotein, human chorionic gonadotrophin, and estriol in our mother’s blood. She was clear. She had nothing.
Samantha had high blood pressure.
“I always had high blood pressure,” she said. “Because I ate a lot of salt. And other things. It was being monitored.”
“I’ve had it since I was young, actually.” She paused. “You know who else liked salt? Robert De Niro. We bonded over it in Lee Strasberg’s class. Our blood pressure.” she said. She looked off into the distance. “Can you imagine?” she said.
I told her I could not imagine it.
“Quite an inversion. Anyway. I’m getting beyond myself,” she continued. “At six months, I woke up to go to the bathroom. I don’t remember much else. Most of what I remember is plunging forward, of feeling the cool of the tile around my ankles, the wetness from the sink on my cheek. I remember hitting my face repeatedly on the floor. I remember that after a while it started to feel good. I remember the taste of blood in my mouth.” She paused and took the joint back from me. “I guess I do remember it after all. They took me to the hospital in an ambulance. I almost bit through Allen’s hand because he was trying to keep me from hacking off my own tongue. I had already done most of the damage anyway. My whole tongue was shredded. They grow back, did you know that? Tongues grow back like the ends of caterpillars.”
“Worms,” I said. “The ends of worms. And they don’t always grow back.” Once when Kay was eleven, and I was seventeen, she used the kitchen scissors to cut a dozen of them in half in the backyard. Everyone was gone except for me. She came screaming into my bedroom, eyes red with horror, the severed tails dangling from her guilty hand. Two years later, I went to college one town over. Eighteen years later, I was here looking out at Samantha’s pool. Kay was in Puget Sound dealing more carefully with other precious invertebrates. I wondered briefly about the time in between; it felt a bit like probing a stick into an amorphous, shimmering, jellyfish-like blob. Kay would know the word for that substance—the jellyfish skin. She’s a scientist after all. Mesoglea.
“Well,” Samantha laughed, “tongues do. I was seizing. I’d stop, I’d stabilize, and then I’d seize again. My pajamas were covered in blood as they rolled my wheelchair down the hospital hallway. Allen was running alongside them.”
What Samantha had was eclampsia—the onset of seizures before, during, or after pregnancy or labor. It was first diagnosed in any helpful way by Francois Mauriceau in the late seventeenth century. But different indications of eclampsia seem to show up in many ancient texts—everywhere from China to India to Greece. Descriptions and treatments were even found in papyrus scrolls.
What can you do? A few things. Eclampsia killed many mothers and still can, but the advent of emergency cesareans has helped, which is what Samantha eventually had done and how Ellisjane was removed from her body, four months early, borne into the world. The first record of a successful cesarean was in the year AD 1500. A rural Swiss man, Jacob Nufer, professional pig-spayer and farmer by trade, performed the operation on his wife Elizabeth after days of unsuccessful labor.
I wonder if he used his sow-spaying tools. I wonder what happened after.
“She was four months premature,” said Samantha. “Preemie.” Now we were sitting in her backyard. There was only one star in the sky—far off, blue, and piercing. Everything else was an ashen cloud. Her pool sparkled. We sat at its edge, dipped our toes in. I thought of the dishes and curries and forks and wine bottles left to waste in her sink.
“We spent the next fifty days in the hospital,” she said. “She was two pounds. At that point the most premature baby to ever live was named Alliona, or something. Allison. Allison Tyler, maybe, and she was twenty-two weeks. Ellisjane was twenty-five. Those two months of my life are one big blackout. I remember them, I do, but everything I mean looks literally black. Hospitals are well lit, right? You know that. But all my memories seem as if they happened by candlelight, in a faraway European castle. My own hands look green to me. Her alien face. The translucent tubes and boxes and cubes and cubbies they had her hooked into, propped up inside. Allen was working on a movie, actually. In Shadows. He came every day, but I was almost always alone. She was almost always alone. It was like she wasn’t even mine. Just a neighbor I once knew, now living far away.
“No one would say if she would live or die, not until about the second month. That’s when she decided to stay.”
Samantha kicked one foot out into the water. The droplets clattering to the other side sounded like a wind chime, or an old chandelier.
“For months I wondered if she would stay,” she said.
“I had no idea,” I said to Samantha. We were sitting side by side. It seemed the only appropriate reaction. “I had no idea you even had a daughter.”
“It’s not a well-known fact,” she said. She looked back at the house, I guess to the window of the room where Ellisjane was sleeping.
“I can’t believe you went through that,” I said.
“It feels like it happened to different people.”
“Yes,” she said.
“And poor Allen,” I said.
“Well, I used it,” she said.
We watched our feet in the pool.
“And there’s another thing,” she said. “Another thing about her.”
“And what’s that?” I asked.
She dipped her hand in the pool. “Allen’s from Tennessee, can you tell?” she asked, though she didn’t wait for a response. “Every fall we go back to Sewanee and stay in the family home. It’s a huge, creaking old house. It looks like it’s made of doilies. Can you imagine? Well it’s Tennessee. It looks out on a hill, and in the fall the world is covered in green and gold and brown. The trees are losing their leaves, and their bare branches sparkle. Like someone just dropped the whole country into a bucket of lacquer.
“Allen’s sister and her kids still live in Sewanee. They come over all the time. But we’re there alone for a lot of it, just the three of us. Allen and I have updated most of the rooms a little. New paint, faucets. New lighting and countertops. But his mother’s old sewing room is this tiny, warm nook on the third floor, and it’s the same. We’ve left it just as it was. It’s too perfect to touch.
“Allen’s mother sewed all their clothes inside that room. He never had one piece of department store clothing his whole childhood. His mother used to say that people didn’t stay rich by buying new clothes.”
“I wonder if she’s right,” I said.
Samantha leaned back on her palms. “She said that to me in the only year I ever knew her, the year before she died.”
“What did she die of?” I asked.
“Oh, old age. Old age and in the sewing room. They found her face down in a plaid skirt.”
“Does Allen like going there?” I asked.
The question just rang there, unnecessary and thus unanswered. It was a question that only existed for a formal purpose. It floated on the surface of the pool, bobbing atop the gentle waves our feet created in the water, until it dissolved.
“So, she sees her,” Samantha finally said. “Ellisjane sees her all the time.”
“Allen’s mother. Her ghost. She sees her in the sewing room, wearing a full skirt and red lipstick and small, round spectacles, which is what she wore. She sees her sewing all sorts of things—plaid skirts and blouses and floral bikinis and slacks. Sometimes she sees her standing at the window and watching the trees turn gold. Sometimes she just sees her sleeping. They talk. She sees her all the time,” she said. “But she doesn’t know she’s a ghost.”
I felt drunk and out of my mind, which I suppose I was. I hadn’t heard the sound of Dale, or of Allen, or of Ellisjane in what seemed like hours. Only the water, the air, the blurry night sky above. Rocks and meteors and planets slamming into one another billions of miles away. Stars burning out.
“Will you tell her?” I asked.
“Why would I?” said Samantha. “I’m sure, on some level, she already knows. She sees ghosts everywhere. In hotel rooms and planes. Sometimes at the park or the ocean. They’re just facts to her, they’re nothing. She’s already spent so much time between two worlds. Fifty whole days on the brink of death.”
“Right,” I said.
“It makes for a wisdom,” she said.
“She was there, and then she wasn’t. And then she was gone, and then she was there. I wonder if she just went somewhere else for a while, and then finally decided to return and stay.”
“Wow,” I said. Now I leaned back on my hands, palms pressing into the warm concrete.
“Anyway,” she said. “She’ll figure it out eventually. And then she can decide what to do.”
Eventually, Dale and Allen’s sounds began to travel through the air. As if the city had been on pause for a while, as if you could rewind the night and show that almost no time had truly passed. No garbage had been dumped and no cars had veered into highway dividers and no stoplights had changed. They sent us home with a bottle of wine—I don’t know why; they were drunk; it’s the sort of thing drunken rich people do; they storm through their reserves and pick an indiscriminate label with which they plan to saddle you—and as we walked down the path, hand in hand, Samantha called that she’d see me on Wednesday, at our acting workshop.
“Goodbye!” they both yelled, voices twirling into the ashen sky. “Goodnight!” They waved.
“See you Wednesday,” she called. “We’ll do a new scene.”
It was 1:23 am when Dale and I sat back in the car. The car was warm. I ran my hand across the felt seat cushions, the metal handles; I watched the green numbers glow and change on the digital clock of the dash, amazed. Dale pulled onto the street, palms rustling above, and told me about Allen Buckswold and his gazebo. I turned thirty-five.
I said nothing to Dale, just listened to the pleasant rain patterns of his talk as it filled the interior of the car, as we passed over freeway and suburb, through hills and valleys, city lights gleaming through the chalky Californian dark. It had been twelve years since I’d moved to Los Angeles. Twelve years since I, shortly after my twenty-third birthday, had dropped the things I knew and left.
“What’s in Los Angeles?” Kay had said. She was a teenager, living at home, sitting at the foot of my bed.
“That’s just it,” I said. “That’s just it.”
“But you have everyone you love here,” she said. “Things will be boring without you.”
“You’re young,” I said. “You’re not supposed to find things boring.”
“Young people find everything boring.”
“I’ll be back,” I said.
“A year,” I said. I was that lost and confused, at twenty-three, living at home and engaged to a local preschool teacher, my high school boyfriend, and seeing familiar things grow more alien every day. Like they were backlit with neon. Like they were all becoming ghosts.
Kay sighed. She was often sighing. She had once read somewhere that this expression, this special ejection of air from the nose and mouth, was the most effective communication of disappointment.
“A year,” I’d said to her. It hadn’t been a lie although it wasn’t true. “A year,” I’d said, “you’ll figure out something to do.” I could smell her sweet teenage perfume, her dirty feet.
Back in the car, Dale turned on his blinker. We merged onto a bigger, faster, longer freeway.
I needn’t reiterate that I didn’t want Kay to be born. The whole experience was especially traumatic, as far as these mundane traumas go: to see our mother swell and cry; to see our father watch the whole feminine performance in a livid sort of fear; to wonder what she’d be like, how she’d eventually one day grow to steal away all my things, how I’d eventually have to overcome and kill her. We spend so much time waiting for them, babies, that we forget that they’re unknowable as the stars.
We knew everything there was to know about Kay—we’d known for months, the information gestating inside of each of our brains as she was gestating inside her own wild, uterine world—but still her birth was an ordeal. When I was brought to the hospital, there were still hours left. There were false starts and stops, early water breakage, no drugs and then more drugs. An incremental counting up of dilation. An incremental counting down of the time to go. A panting. A screaming.
And then: she spurting out all slick and red; her tiny, searching arms and legs; her eyes staring wide at the ceiling above. It’s the most formidable thing in the world, that stare, although we never get to ask them what they saw. The afterbirth soon followed.
The afterbirth is a word we use to describe the muck left over. The fetal membranes and fluids ejected from the uterus when a baby is finally born. It’s a wonderful thing, Kay, now that we’re old, to understand that sort of mystery.