April 18, 2013
“Where’s Shrimp Salad?” was the first thing Elm’s husband Colin said when he walked through the door, and Elm fought a frisson of jealousy of her daughter.
The little hair Colin had left, white blond, clung to his head like seaweed. He popped a carrot stick left over from their daughter Moira’s snack in his mouth, and then tried to kiss Elm on the cheek clumsily. She had beaten him home by five minutes, and was still plugging in the various devices that needed charging after a long day.
Moira ran out of her room. “Daddy, I asked you not to be so silly,” she chided.
“Ya did, did ye? Be not remembering that, I wasn’t,” he said, exaggerating his Irish accent. He picked Moira up. “I’m silly? You’re a silly silleen gob, y’are so.” Colin let her slide down his body to the floor.
“Andrew was really funny today.” Moira said. “He made this noise in art class like this”—Moira blew a raspberry into her forearm—“and everybody really laughed. Even Mrs. Buchner.” Elm was half-listening, flipping through the mail. Bill, bill, package of coupons, labels from the children’s aid society, cable television offer, cable television offer, cable television offer. “And, Mom? It sounded like he farted.” Moira explained, in case Elm didn’t get the joke.
“Funny,” Elm said, placing her hand on Moira’s snarled hair.
Colin asked Elm when dinner would be ready, and Elm looked to see what the nanny had prepared for them.
“Whenever,” she said. “Looks like chicken. I can warm it up anytime.”
“I’m hungry now,” he said.
“Then we’ll eat. Moira, set the table, please.”
A silence set in while they ate. Dinners were always like this. Elm didn’t understand why the family was reminded particularly of Ronan during dinner. They had rarely eaten together before; this was a new phenomenon. But his absence was acutely felt, his memory respected by a silence they had all tacitly agreed on.
Moira took one bite from each end of the three chicken fingers on her plate. She liked the ends, with the extra breading. She would have to be coaxed to eat the middle. Elm didn’t have the energy to fight this battle again. She was so tired that even her toes felt fatigued, as heavy as doorknobs.
As if she knew what Elm was thinking, Moira said, “Mom, do I have to eat the middle part?”
Elm thought about how good it would feel it to close her eyes and let herself be empty. To not be anything, not mom, not boss, not wife, not friend. She could be driftwood, a cloud, a plastic bag blowing directionless down the avenue.
Later, in bed, with the rain falling heavily again and the tires sloughing off water twelve floors below on the wet streets, Colin snuggled up against Elm, breathing into the hair on the back of her neck. “Y’all gonna give us some somethin’ somethin’?” he asked.
“Who’s that voice?” Elm asked. “You sound like a deaf frog.”
There was a silence. Colin ran his hand over her stomach slowly, polishing it.
“What are we going to do this year?” Elm asked the ceiling.
Colin’s hand abruptly stopped. He pulled it back to him as though she’d bitten it. “I don’t know.”
Elm said, “Maybe we should go away.”
Colin turned, giving her his back. He was angry, hurt, Elm didn’t know which. Why could she still not read his silences after ten-plus years of marriage? Was she not allowed to talk about Ronan? “Maybe.”
After a silence Elm spoke. “I was going to say that I think I want to have another baby,” she said. Until that moment, she didn’t realize that she’d been thinking about getting pregnant, wondering if having another child might somehow ameliorate her grief.
“Really?” Colin said. “Is this the right time, do you think?”
“I’m over forty now. I don’t know how long it’ll take,” Elm said. “And I don’t want to regret not having started sooner. Or having waited too long.”
“I don’t know, Elm. Things are just so up in the air right now.”
Elm looked at the headboard. The veneer was beginning to chip away, revealing the particle board underneath. “I just feel like I’m ready.” She shrugged.
“Like you’re ready.”
In Dr. Hong’s examination room she stripped and put on the flimsy gown. She waited, chilly, increasingly frustrated at the passing time, staring out the window at its view of a brick wall.
Finally the doctor came in and introduced herself. This was Elm’s third ob-gyn since Ronan. How to explain to a doctor what happened? When Dr. Hong took her history, she asked how many times Elm had been pregnant. “I have one child,” she answered, her standard response.
Dr. Hong didn’t speak much during the exam, for which Elm was grateful. She hated having to make small talk with doctors. The nurse was silent as well. Soft music drifted in from a different office. Below, a truck backed up shrilly.
“Well,” Dr. Hong said, “everything looks fine.”
Elm had waited until the last moment. She and Colin hadn’t discussed it any further, but what harm could it do to investigate? “I was thinking about having another child.” Elm wasn’t sure if it was her imagination or if she saw the nurse raise her eyebrows.
Dr. Hong looked at her chart again. “Well,” she said, slowly. “You’re almost forty-three. You’re still getting regular periods?”
“Yes,” Elm said. They weren’t regular, necessarily, but they were not infrequent.
“There are two things we can do,” Dr. Hong said, resting her clipboard on her hip. “The first is test your FSH level, your follicle-stimulating hormone.”
Elm felt her annoyance rise. She wasn’t stupid, and yet doctors always explained biology as though she were completely uneducated, as though they were reading from a book about talking to patients. “Right, on day three,” she said.
“Yes. So you can come back in. Additionally, I’d perform a transvaginal ultrasound, that’s an ultrasound of your uterus.”
Elm’s patience ended. “Yes, I know what my vagina is.”
The doctor continued as though Elm hadn’t interrupted. “We do an antral follicle count where we, well, we count the follicles. That’s a pretty good indication of fertility. Would you like me to do that now?”
“Yes, please,” Elm said. She lay back down, her heart racing. Please, she begged silently, please let there be follicles. She tensed as the ultrasound wand entered her, and Dr. Hong pressed lightly on her abdomen. “Okay, three right,” she said to the nurse, placing her hand on the other side. “And four left.”
She removed the wand and took off the protective condom, placing it and her gloves in the bin. She immediately washed her hands. Elm sat up, nails thrumming on her thighs.
“Well, I’ll be honest, Ms. Howells,” Dr. Hong said. Elm looked at her, her eyebrows so thin, barely visible. “I counted only three follicles on the right and four on the left. That’s consistent with poor ovarian reserve.”
Elm felt the nervousness evacuate her body. It was replaced by nausea, the precursor to a wave of grief. “So I’ll have to take a fertility drug.”
“Well,” Dr. Hong said. Elm thought that if the woman said “well” one more time she might throttle her with her stethoscope. “The fertility drugs stimulate the follicles. If there’s nothing to stimulate, then it won’t really work. You’re not a good candidate.”
“What about IVF?” Elm demanded.
“There’s the same problem,” Dr. Hong said. “I won’t tell you absolutely not, because you hear these stories about spontaneous pregnancies, but it appears very unlikely.”
“With these follicle levels there’s a less than one percent chance of spontaneous conception,” Dr. Hong said. “I’m very sorry.”
Elm fought the lump that was condensing in her throat. “I see.”
“I’ll send you to a specialist, to do more tests,” Dr. Hong said. She made a note on Elm’s chart. “I’m sure you’ll want to exhaust all the options. And we do have the best-ranked fertility clinic here in the hospital.”
Elm had stopped listening. She made a mental inventory of her clothing—pants, trouser socks, blouse, belt. Don’t forget your sunglasses, she reminded herself. Don’t forget to fix that bra strap that was bothering you this morning. She didn’t dare look at herself in the mirror above the sink, sure that her reflection would make her cry.
She charged her copay and left the office, walking to the East River. The air had switched directions; coming off the water it was cool, almost sharp, and she let it blow her hair back as she walked. She imagined that it blew right through her, getting rid of all the liquid that troubled her: her blood, which kept her heart pumping and aching, and the tears, which were threatening now.
She held back until she got to her office, then closed the door and collapsed on the small couch sobbing like she hadn’t since Ronan’s funeral. It felt, in that moment, equally as painful, as wrenching, as the day she said good-bye to her son. This was it, then, no more children. No sibling for Moira, no feeling of fluttering kicks in her belly, no first steps, first words, first haircuts. From now on, only lasts.
That night, after dinner, Elm picked Moira up and carried her to the bathroom. Moira began to cry, in a whining, overtired way that grated on Elm.
“Please, Moira,” she said. Then: “Don’t you dare kick me. You love baths.” She tried to strip her daughter, who had turned her body to stone in protest. Finally, she wrestled Moira into the bath still wearing underwear and a T-shirt.
“Mom! You forgot to take this off. Now it’s all wet,” she said with an accusatory and slightly teenage inflection. She removed her shirt in disgust.
Elm sat on the closed toilet while Moira splashed and sang. Sometimes when she closed her eyes, Elm could see the wall of water moving toward her. The hissing of the wave’s retraction burned her eardrums, and she shivered as though pinned down again in the wet debris. These were the sensations she returned to, as if by default, the images repeating over and over again.
“Mom?” Moira interrupted her reverie. “Can we get a cat?”
“No,” Elm said.
“You didn’t even say maybe, or we’ll see.”
“That’s because there’s not the slightest glimmer of hope that we’ll get a cat.”
“But why?” Moira whined. Elm wondered if Moira was entering one of those phases through which Elm wished she could fast-forward.
It was terrible, she knew, to compare children, but Ronan hadn’t been this difficult. She recognized that she was looking back at the experience, and the past was always gossamer and preferable to an uncomfortable present. Maybe she’d been more involved then. She remembered looking at him in the bath and thinking, I created this. His smooth small arms pushed a rubber duck around, creating small swirls of water. “Duh-key,” he said slowly, his first word after “Mama” and “Dada.” He grabbed her hand, wanting her to touch it too; he always wanted her to share his experiences, as if to maintain the closeness they had when he was part of her body. “Duh-key.”
She’d been finishing up her dissertation then; really it was all over except for the formatting, and she was home with him constantly. Everything he did was miraculous and amazing to her, because he was her first. Then Moira came and did the exact same miraculous things at nearly the same rate (or faster) and Elm simply couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm.
Now she asked Moira, “Do you miss your brother?”
“Yes,” Moira answered automatically. She rang out a washcloth over her head and blinked to get the water out of her eyes.
“Do you remember him?” she asked, leaning forward.
“Yup,” Moira said. “His name was Ronan and he died in the su-mommy in Thailand.”
“Tsunami. But do you remember anything else?”
Moira thought. “Umm, no?” she asked, not sure if this was the right answer to Elm’s question.
Elm sat back. She wouldn’t be able to get a straight answer out of a five-year-old. Today Moira might not remember, tomorrow she would, twenty years from now, who knew?
“Time to get out, Mo,” Elm said, smiling to prevent tears.
“Noooo,” Moira wailed.
“Yes, come on, the water’s cold.” She reached in to pick Moira up under her arms. Moira began to squirm.
“Careful, Mo, you’re slippery.”
Moira splashed Elm with her feet.
“Goddammit, Moira. Can you just please for once behave?” And Elm, surprising herself, began to cry.
Moira was immediately contrite. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t mean it.” I didn’t mean it was child talk for Now that I’m in trouble I wish I hadn’t done it. But still Elm cried, out of frustration, exhaustion, residual grief.
Moira was not as upset as another child might have been; she’d seen her parents cry innumerable times—so much, there couldn’t possibly be any liquid left in their eyes. They should be sacks of skin like dehydrated cartoon characters.
Elm sat back down on the toilet, and Moira wrapped her towel around herself, then hugged her mother around the middle. “It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “I remember Ronan. I promise.”
On a rainy Friday, a week before she gave birth to Moira, Elm took Ronan to the Morgan Library & Museum. “Is that the house one?” he asked. She wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Frick or the Morgan.
They rode in the first car of the 6 train, so that Ronan could pretend he was driving it. “If we’re going to Thirty-sixth Street,” Elm said, “where do we get off the train?”
“Thirty-fourth,” he said, as though anyone on the planet could answer such a simple question. He was driving the train, turning an imaginary steering wheel, yelling out the stops when they slowed. The subway car found it cute; people were laughing behind her as she held his belt buckle while he tried to peer out the window. Elm couldn’t lift him anymore.
A black man in a doorman’s uniform came over and, without asking, picked Ronan up so he could see out. Elm was startled—a sudden rush of adrenaline made her extend her arm as though she might snatch him back—but the man was totally benign, just trying to help, and Ronan squealed with delight.
After Forty-second Street Ronan said, “We get off here,” to the man, and he set him down.
Elm took Ronan’s hand in the crowded station as they moved slowly up the stairs. The baby was heavy, resting on her pelvis, and picking up her legs was difficult. She had woken up that morning with swollen ankles. The only shoes that fit were her sneakers.
Ronan’s hand was slightly sticky while hers was sweaty. Usually she let him walk on his own, but today he held her hand the entire way. He walked slightly behind her, as though afraid she’d fall down.
In the museum, she found him a children’s guide to the exhibition “From Bruegel to Rubens: Netherlandish and Flemish Drawings,” and gave him the first item to find within the intricate drawings, a dog with a curly tail. He stood far back so he could see them. Elm watched Ronan taking his task so seriously. She could read the triumph on his face when he found the dog, rushing back to tell her, almost running into a middle-aged Italian couple. “I got it!” he screamed, and when Elm put her finger to her lips he whispered it again.
“Now you have to find a horse,” she said, and he resumed his scrutiny. Elm stood in front of Cossiers’s portrait of his son Guiliellemus. The nose was too large for the small head, but Cossiers had exactly captured the child as his attention was drawn to something else, that moment between focus and excitement that she loved to watch in her own child. Moira kicked inside her and Elm rubbed the spot.
“Babies, babies, everywhere,” Ronan said next to her, reciting a children’s book. “There”— he pointed to the drawing—“and there”—pointing to her belly.
“That’s right,” she said.
“Girls,” he observed.
“Actually,” Elm said, “that’s a picture of a boy with long hair.”
One of his pant legs was tucked into his sock, and it was time for a haircut. Knowing it was likely the last time they’d spend real time together before the new baby was born, and knowing that everything would change, she held him to her and clung, perhaps a bit too tightly.
“Ow, Mom, she kicked me,” he said, pulling away.
“You two are fighting already?” She had felt it too, a little foot wedged between them.
“I just hope she likes trains,” he said, sighing.
“Me too,” Elm said.
ALLISON AMEND, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection THINGS THAT PASS FOR LOVE and the novel STATIONS WEST, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her new novel, A NEARLY PERFECT COPY, will be published on April 9, 2013. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College and for the Red Earth MFA program. Visit her on the web at: http://www.allisonamend.com or http://www.facebook.com/AllisonAmendAuthor
Adapted from A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend. Copyright © 2013 by Allison Amend. With the permission of the publisher, Nan A. Talese.