The fourth time we try to make a baby, I’m not there to hold your hand—I am 2,500 miles away at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. Cranes glide through the backyard, horses run in circles next door, playing in their enclosure. My teenage cousin and his friends catapult their bodies into the wall of the bounce house in the backyard. I hold a spiked seltzer to my face, the can still cold from the cooler. This is all I know of Florida—visiting my grandparents, the dizzying humidity, the orange trees.
All day, I answer a thousand Where’s Ashley?s, my relatives having been eager to finally meet you. Long story, I say, which they won’t accept. This was the only weekend she was able to do another IUI, I explain. I’m not close with many of them and before we got married, I never knew how they felt about gay people, but everyone, even my Republican grandparents, has embraced our marriage. Still, I hate that I had to wonder in the first place. You were supposed to be here, that was the plan, but there wasn’t any way around it. We didn’t want you to have to wait another month before trying to get pregnant. You didn’t want to miss the party, either—you wanted to meet every branch of my tree. I assured you there would be more parties. I wanted you to stay home and relax.
I picture you at your appointment, without me, and it makes me feel stormy. A selfish part of me doesn’t want you to conceive while I’m not present. Call me superstitious, but it doesn’t seem like an ideal way to start a family. Take a picture of me to your appointment, I text you. I’m joking but I hope you do it anyway. Or at least stare at the background on your phone while the doctor shoots 25 million sperm into your uterus. Be pregnant, commands the doctor once the procedure is done. Great, I’ll try my best, you laugh. I can’t provide more details for this scene because this is all you tell me, via text, while I fan out my armpits in the Florida heat.
This is our first IUI with the new fertility clinic. We weren’t happy with our prior one. The treatment had been impersonal and unorganized. Not to mention, we had a different nurse for every IUI procedure. And like an airline during high demand, it seemed their prices could change at any time. The woman you spoke with over the phone more or less said as much. They know how desperate people are to grow their families, and they capitalize on this desperation. You’re extremely depressed after three failed attempts, and I don’t know how to help you when I can’t control things like anatomy and physiology. Social media isn’t helping either. Everyone’s pregnant but me, you say.
What I imagine your Facebook feed looks like:
- Photo of a baby.
- Photo of a different baby.
- Photo of a pregnant woman in a mirror.
- Birth announcement.
- Awful “gender reveals.”
- A family of six.
- Lesbian mothers pregnant simultaneously.
- Baby shower photos.
- The cruel world ganging up on you.
One of the only things that calms you is talking to others who have been through this. A few weeks prior, we met for drinks with a straight couple, L and D, who got pregnant on the fourth IUI. Having done three, we weren’t at a terrible percentage. Back in college, my basketball coach would encourage our three-point shooters to keep shooting after three early misses. This was what I told myself. There was still hope we wouldn’t have to move onto IVF, which costs so much that I have to open a beer whenever I think about the price. L and D’s baby was about eighteen months old. She had grown so much since we’d last seen her. Unafraid, she marched up to even the biggest of dogs at the brewery, showering them with love and aggressive baby pats. I watched you play with L and D’s baby. You scrunched up your face and waved at her. Sometimes she rewarded you with a laugh. Other times, it was as if someone had told her snacks were canceled forever. I know that you cherish these small, beautiful miracles spent with someone else’s baby, I know you do, but that’s just it, isn’t it? She is someone else’s baby, in someone else’s arms, inducing someone else’s joy.
After drinks with L and D, we decided to switch to the university-affiliated fertility clinic L had used. It was cheaper and she’d loved the doctors. She had been 42 when she had her daughter. I like to remind you of this fact whenever your eyes fog over, whenever I can feel you drifting from me, from us—something I’ve never fully learned how to handle.
We met at the new facility after work. It’s chaotic in here, all the elevators are dinging and dinging, you texted me while I circled around the parking garage. I eventually parked on the roof—it was so high I was convinced I could lick the blood orange sky clean. I felt like an outsider—everyone seemed to know where they were going except for me. I’ve always had a terrible sense of direction, which is why you weren’t surprised when I texted you, I’m lost. Do you need me to come get you? you asked. This isn’t McDonald’s Play Place, I’ve got this, I said, referencing the time I got lost in a Play Place when I was barely two years old and my neighbor, G, had to speed-crawl through the tubes to rescue me. At least our kid would inherit your navigation skills.
Sometimes I like to imagine that the kid will be your clone, that the sperm merely functions as a building block for growth, without any of the sperm donor’s qualities to show for it. I love you with an artist’s fervor—I will not stop until I make more of you. I will serve my family of nesting dolls breakfast in bed, although forgive me, I am still learning to which degree each one of you likes your toast burnt. There’s no way around it, though—every time I fantasize about our future children, I remember the limitations of medicine, that without winning the lottery, you and I cannot fuse our eggs. Ashley, I want to enjoy making a baby with you. I want the feverish build build build, I want our bodies harmonizing in orgasm the moment our child is conceived. Instead, we have the paper-covered doctor’s table. We have hand-shakes with strangers we place our trust in. We have the swipe swipe swipe of credit cards.
The closest we can get to making a baby together would be using my brother’s sperm, something we’ve gone back and forth on for a while. There were so many unanswerable questions: Would it be strange? How do you ask someone something as life-altering as that? How do we explain to our child that my brother is both their uncle and their father? Would my brother’s fiancé approve?
Once we were safely in the doctor’s office, we stuffed free mints in our pockets. They were those really good individually-wrapped Lifesavers that somehow taste way better when they come that way. We met with the doctor for an hour and a half. She was funny, engaging, and personable. She was also very tall. This mattered because I inherently trust tall people; I consider them too conspicuous to get away with deceit. Then she did an ultrasound. You sat on the table, and after three unsuccessful tries and dozens of ultrasounds, I know the drill with you—I say, She’s going to tell you to scoot down, you know, and the doctor laughs because it’s true, and she does.
She told us information that the prior doctor had never told us—success rates, diet to improve fertility, and the meaning behind certain hormone levels. I don’t feel bad for leaving them anymore, you said, popping a mint in your mouth. Everything looks wonderful. I promise we’re going to get you pregnant, the doctor said, smiling. Suddenly, your whole body relaxes, like it does when you first slip into a bubble bath after a long day.
At the end of the appointment, we signed consent forms outlining the risks of fertility treatment. On the desk where we signed the form sat a creepy stuffed toy: a sperm attached to a grinning, googly-eyed egg. One of the major risks, according to the paper, was “psychological trauma due to the use of third-party gametes.” While I understood how trying that could be on a person’s psyche, I had to laugh—forgoing third-party gametes had never been an option for us. We’d needed to shop for our third on the world wide web. Third-Party Gametes would make a good band name, I said, laughing so I wouldn’t cry. Lightened by the doctor’s confidence, you bob like a balloon out of the office and down to the parking garage. And I do, too. We are a pair of balloons, the two of us, prepared for our baby’s birthday party.
In Florida, my aunt pulls me aside and tells me she had a dream about you. My aunt believes in her dream’s psychic abilities. She has had her own personal psychic ever since I can remember. When I was born, my aunt called my mother and said the psychic told her that I would get a full scholarship to college for basketball (true) but I wouldn’t play in the WNBA (sadly, also true). She’s just a baby! laughed my mother. I didn’t even tell her my sister had a baby, my aunt said spookily. My aunt is one of those people whose channels are extremely open. She will believe in anything and everything, including herself. There’s something I find admirable about her commitment to belief. I had a dream that I was holding a blond baby boy and rocking him, she tells me. When I woke up, I was confused and didn’t know whose it could be and then I realized it was your baby. I think Ashley’s going to have a boy, she nods. Well, she’s not even pregnant yet, I remind her. You wait, she says. I can’t tell how I feel about my aunt’s premonition. On one hand, it boosts my confidence—given the right detail, I have always been more than capable of deluding myself. On the other hand, it plants a false hope in me, when all I need is to remain steady, realistic.
After our meeting with the doctor, I had a mission to complete. Our old clinic had been storing our last two sperm vials, so I needed to transfer the vials to our new hospital. When I called to inquire about the cost of a sperm transfer, they told me it would be $750 to transfer it just five miles. So, at 8 a.m. I drove to our new fertility clinic and met a staff member from the lab. She set down a huge liquid nitrogen tank. Whatever you do, don’t let this tip over. It needs to be upright at all times. And don’t let it spill on you, either. I told her I would return it as soon as possible, assuming our old clinic wasn’t busy. The tank easily weighed 40 pounds. After I loaded it into the passenger side, I texted you and joked that my years of weight-lifting had all been preparation for this single mission. I drove the five miles to the other clinic, bent sideways over the stick shift, clutching onto the handle of the tank so it wouldn’t tip over. It felt like the longest drive in all my life and I would have to do it twice more.
At the old clinic, a woman greeted me with an easy smile and took the tank into the lab to load our sperm vials into it. When she returned it to me, she put an extra zip tie on it to keep it from opening. Don’t let this spill. It’ll burn you, she warned. Oh, and good luck! I snapped a photo of the sperm tank and sent it to you: Bear Fox Michael Wilder? You laughed and asked if my mission had been completed. Nope, I’ll keep you posted. Again, I drove back to the new clinic, sperm in tow, bent over and holding onto the handle, the tank again on the floor of the passenger side—only, this time, I took the carpool lane. If a pro-life person had told me they treated a sperm like it was a second passenger, I probably would have slapped them. But with us, it was different: I chose that lane out of dream-swept longing.
I was so terrified I would somehow spill both the liquid nitrogen and the sperm. I had been entrusted to get the sperm there safely, and safely I would get it there, even if I managed to induce a panic attack along the way. I wished our sperm donor could see his sperm now—what a life it had lived outside of his body. In order to have a viable sample for an IUI procedure, a semen sample must contain 20 million sperm or more; last try, the third try, our sperm donor gave us 75 million. I’ve slept with many men before, and never have I ever thought about sperm as much as I do now. I had always viewed sperm as an evil entity that would accidentally knock me up; now, it was crucially important.
While driving, I marveled at how the sperm’s only protectors were me, the masking taped-Prius, and our valor. I laughed as I told you my thoughts later. You are the great protector of our baby, you said. I can’t wait to tell them all about that time I had to transfer them between clinics, dipping and diving out of traffic. That’ll be the fucking best, I said. You told me, I really do hope this is the one.
My mother pulls me aside at my grandmother’s party and says, Did Aunt Susan tell you about her dream? She says this like it is fact. None of the women in my family have managed to win the lottery or predict a natural disaster, but all of them, at some point of another, have spoken to a ghost or predicted a pregnancy. When I say that I don’t have these same supernatural experiences, my mother says, You have to open yourself up to them, they won’t come to you otherwise. Sometimes, I try to channel this part of my family—at night while cuddling on the couch with our dog, I will say things like, This try was the one, I can just feel it, but mostly, I am lying. Other than existential exhaustion, I can’t feel a thing.
When I say that I cannot feel a thing, I am lying. Ever since I was a kid, I have had vivid, powerful dreams, most of which were nightmares. When I woke up, I felt trapped inside them all day long—I couldn’t escape until I went to sleep yet again. Not all nightmares are monsters and near-death experiences; in the first nightmare I can recall, I dreamt I was undressing my basketball teammate. Then we slow-danced in her bedroom in our underwear and lacy bras. Music magically turned on: “You Got It Bad” by Usher. We swayed back and forth, her arms wrapped around my neck, my hands curling around her waist. I woke up wanting to be a boy so that I could kiss her. But as it stood, I was a girl and she was a girl, two facts which added up to an insurmountable problem. The dream followed me around for months on end. I stayed up later and later so that I wouldn’t have to fall asleep and look my future in the eye. I read books in the dark by flashlight; otherwise, my mother would bang on the door for me to go to sleep. My sister was away at college so I dug through her drawers looking for interesting books. I found a sex education book written by a sex therapist. Many of the chapters involved the sex therapist answering anonymous people’s questions. One chapter I read over and over until I committed to memory: the LGBTQ+ chapter, which was rife with questions from scared, confused, and nervous individuals. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, the sex therapist wrote. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.
Perhaps my mother has only had positive precognitive dreams—that would explain why her channels are still open. I closed mine long ago, to protect myself. I had the same exact dream as Aunt Susan, says my mother. You’re having a little blond boy, for sure. I should be grateful for my mother. She went from ambivalent support, in which she told me she loves me no matter what but otherwise avoided my sexuality and any conversations around it, to proudly calling you my wife and welcoming you into our family. She’s excited about the prospect of having another grandchild. And she doesn’t behave like Bette’s father on The L Word when Bette and Tina tell him that Tina is having a baby. (“She’s not my grandchild, she’s not related to me,” he said, hurting them both immensely.) But I am going to therapy because of my mother. I watch how she treats my six-year-old niece, my brother’s daughter. Smile, no not like that, smile a real smile, a pretty smile, that looks like a pirate smile, look cute, smile wide, cross your legs, turn your head this way, fold your hands in your lap, now look here, smile bigger, sweeter, more natural, there you go, my mother says, holding up her iPhone to snap fifty or so pictures of her. This type of controlling behavior was what taught me growing up that my most valuable trait was in my presentation, in how pretty I could be. How do I tell my mother that I don’t want her to damage my child, too? What I want to say is, Thank you for the support, but can you do it from over there?
One of the things I hate most about myself is my undying need for my mother’s approval, which has notoriously been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. You, however, have never needed anyone’s approval. It’s one of the many things I admire about you. As a teenager, you didn’t feel the need to come out—you knew who you were and who you liked and that was enough for you—but you ended up coming out after your grandmother said something rude about gay people. When you tell the story, you say, I yelled ‘You want to say shitty things about gay people? Well, guess what? I’m gay, so now what are you going to say?’ That shut them up. Every time you tell this story, it makes me fall for you all over again. You are so unapologetically yourself that everyone else dulls in comparison. I am ready for the bold, foul-mouthed humans to outnumber me in this household.
Fast-swimming sperm can reach the egg in just 30 minutes while others may take days. By the time my grandmother’s birthday party is over and I am on my way to the airport, you could already be pregnant, although of course, we cannot know for two more weeks. Within limbo, time slows down. Every day at work might as well be a month. I send you pointless updates from my travels you’re supposed to be on. Your wife dropped her lip balm on the plane and is inconsolable. Your wife is eating gumbo and drinking a beer. Your wife prefers your quiet over the quiet of anything else. Your wife says “your wife” over and over again because she can. As of writing this, gay marriage was legalized just five years ago. I will say my wife for every person who never could.
This flight to you can’t take off soon enough. I’m excited to come home, to lie in bed and read next to you, to listen to our dog’s groans and snores at our feet, to read you Mary Oliver poems, to laugh while the dog army crawls his way up to our faces, to wake up, kiss your cheek, and climb over you to make coffee. To look around and think, I am so lucky this is my life. Before you, I was never a domestic person; I owned one fork. I was never inside my house. I spent a lot of time traveling and getting drunk at bars and going on Tinder and Bumble dates and dating people I could only love in the past tense. I couldn’t find anyone I liked enough to commit to, let alone have a child with. The more I went on dates and slept around, the more I hated myself. I was convinced love was nothing more than a product we’d all been sold on. Then I met you. The night I met you I started wearing my seatbelt. Even though I had no idea what would come of our collision, I knew I didn’t want to miss the chance to find out.
The other night at a concert, my brother’s fiancé turned to me and said, Your brother is the only person I like all the time. The only one, she said. Everyone else I grow sick of or annoyed at. But not him. Her comment stayed with me because I feel the same way about you. Even when we are fighting. Even when you are cranky. Even when you eat the last of the quiche. Even when I don’t want to run to Ralph’s and Sprout’s and Trader Joe’s and Target all in the same day. I want to be domestic with you, you said during our affair, when the closest thing to domesticity we could achieve was wandering around Rite Aid together after the gym, pretending we were a married couple picking up shampoo. I think what you meant was—I want all of you, even the boring.
According to neuroscientist, Dr. Mossbridge, it is possible for dreams to predict the future. She and her research team performed experiments in future predictions over a 26-year period. She claims that the human body goes through changes in advance of important future events, and that our bodies then alert our subconscious minds of these changes. Dr. Mossbridge posits that important future events can cause “pulls” that reach out to the past and affect human consciousness, and these pulls are most commonly experienced within dreams. Approximately 15 to 30 percent of people claim they’ve dreamt about future events before they happened.
Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about the boredom brought on by routine and comfort within a long-term relationship, and how that boredom is a luxury for many queer and trans people. The dull hum of love, the quietude, the patient, beautiful tedium—these are signs of relative safety, however fleeting they may be. Growing up queer, I never thought I would have the opportunity to fall in love and marry a woman. I spent most of my time in a pitiful state of acceptance surrounding my fate: that I would have to marry a man, and that I would simply have to find a man whose friendship I at least enjoyed. Now, whenever I find myself thinking, Do I really have to do the dishes again? or Is this all there is to life? Doing laundry and folding laundry forever? I check myself. I think about the version of me out there that didn’t get this chance, the version of me that does the chores to distract herself from her romantic despair. And the more I think about it, the happier I am to read on the couch next to you with a glass of wine and say, You hungry? I’ll make you something.
On the flight, I fall asleep and have a dream that the doctor calls and says she made an awful mistake and you actually aren’t capable of having a baby. So sorry for the mix-up. You hang up the phone and whip it at the wall like a major league pitcher. It shatters as it dents the wall, shards of glass flying like confetti throughout the room. Then I have another dream in which you are pregnant. We are on a date at an Italian restaurant, celebrating. You smile across the table at me, playing with my hand. This is all we’ve ever wanted and it has finally come true. You eat too much garlic bread, I eat too many mussels. When we leave the restaurant, my arm looped in yours, a group of men jump you and kick you in the stomach. Over and over again. I curl into a ball on the ground and sob until I wake up. I don’t share these awful dreams with you, I don’t want to speak them into existence.
The next week, we go to the bar with some straight friends. We are cautiously hopeful. No matter what we do, I take it upon myself to try to protect you. I don’t want people to ask how our fertility journey is going, how many tries it’s been, how you’re feeling, any of it. I know that it’s impossible to protect you from everything but it’s my instinct nonetheless. A male friend of ours gets drunk and brings up your ex-girlfriend, the one you were dating when we met. He goes to the same CrossFit gym as her. Did you know she’s pregnant? By a man? he asks, wide-eyed. No, you say, clearly irritated, sipping your soda water. You’re not yet pregnant (that we know of) and your ex who begged you to have a baby with her is. I didn’t know you could do that, says our friend’s mother. I thought you either liked boys or you liked girls, she says, shrugging. I want to scream in their fucking faces—I’m heated enough I could sucker punch them both—but instead we close out and leave.
When I looked back and forth between our friend and his mother, all I could see was two generations of ignorance, of insensitivity and entitlement. Everywhere, examples of what not to do as a parent.
We stomp home, tunnels of smoke trailing behind us. Who the fuck says that someone? I say. I don’t know, I don’t know, you say. When we get home, our dog greets us by presenting us with one of his many bones. Beautiful, thank you, we say. He still smells good from the bath I gave him this morning. Do you want a tubby? I’d asked, to which he’d responded by jumping off the couch and sauntering into the bathroom. I told you how I’d poured water on his head and he’d gotten payback by shaking and soaking me. That’s why he hates tubbies with you, you say. Our kids are going to do the exact same thing to you. Then, in a higher, softer voice, you say: Can other Mommy give us a bath? Please? I laugh. What? You don’t think they’ll love it? I say. When we talk like this, I know somewhere the earth is listening and calming. It is moving around the sun at the rate it always does—get us there, get us there.
When we get in bed, I kiss your neck, your chest, trying to seduce you but you complain of cramps, trailing off. Neither of us says anything because we don’t have to—we both know cramps aren’t a good sign. Cramps are no longer just cramps, a sign that you need to take some Advil and put on a panty liner. Cramps mean, your body is not a home. Cramps mean, better luck next time. Cramps mean, 30 percent isn’t a high enough percentage. Cramps mean, don’t close your eyes lest you fall into another dream.