The following story contains mature themes that may not be appropriate for younger readers.
The airplane idled on the tarmac. The heat of its engines made the cold air dance and blur. They parked and rushed to the cargo terminal but there was no one in the cramped office. Frank stood in the doorway while Pamela paced the room, stopping to lean over the counter and peer back into the office. From behind she looked small, even in the puffy down jacket; dull roots were showing through the careful blonde streaks in her hair. Frank looked away. He moved to a plastic seat and stared out the window at the cracked runway and the small-town Northern airport.
Eventually a woman emerged from the back of the office, looking harried. “Can I help you?” she said.
“We’re here for an air freight package – an express package, from the Canaan clinic,” Pamela said.
“You’ll have to wait.” The woman gestured to the plane. “It’s behind schedule, so they’ll be loading passengers and cargo for takeoff before they bring us the packages.”
Pamela looked to Frank entreatingly. Frank stood up, but could think of no way to help, and slowly lowered himself back to the plastic seat. Lately he’d become more and more passive in the face of bureaucratic machinery. Where once he’d have railed in the cause of efficiency, now he slumped into a listless wait. He scratched at a small flaw in the seat back, raising a slim curl of plastic behind his fingernail.
“This is quite urgent,” Pamela tried. “Our package is…” She hesitated. “It’s time sensitive.”
The woman didn’t look up, only lifted her hands in a helpless way.
“It’s frozen,” Pamela said, her tone desperate now. “It’s in dry ice. It really can’t thaw.” She watched the woman’s impassive face for a second and then walked over and sat next to Frank. Her face wore not an expression but a list: the late airplane, the delayed cargo, the test that showed his sperm was not ‘viable’.
A mechanical beeping started up in the rear of the cargo office. A man was backing a dolly through swinging doors into the building. Pamela stood and Frank followed her to the counter. The cargo woman scanned the boxes piled on the dolly. She picked up a solid plastic case secured with metal buckles and handed it to Frank. Her eyebrows were raised knowingly.
Frank wondered how many other couples had paced here waiting for packages from southern fertility clinics – lesbian couples perhaps, turkey basters washed and waiting at home, or single women in their forties, urgent and determined. He wondered how many of those people now held squalling infants. How many were happy customers, he wondered.
At the clinic the nurse nodded to Pamela. “Dr. Carolan’s at the hospital, so you’ll have a locum today,” she said. “Let’s get you changed.” She ushered Pamela – plastic box gripped tightly in both hands – into a room. Frank watched the receptionist typing into a computer. She looked grim. Frank sat restlessly, his jeans squeaking on the vinyl bench seat. He picked up a handful of magazines: House and Garden, Today’s Parent, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle. Their glossy covers were plastered with smiling women. Didn’t men have to go to the doctor?
The nurse emerged from the examining room. In her hand she held a small vial. “I’m just going to take a drop of this and put it under the scope,” she said to Frank. “When it thaws we’ll be ready to go.” She moved down the hallway.
Though they’d been visiting this medical clinic for several years now, the nurse was one of those people Frank found hard to distinguish outside of their work roles. She was one of those people in a small town: he would’ve found her familiar if he’d seen her at the grocery store, but wouldn’t have placed her. One time this spring he’d gone jogging with Pamela on the river trail. At the point where the narrow trail intersected with a broader paved path, they’d seen a woman walking a small dog. The dog – one of those toy breeds Frank despised – nosed along the bushes, its face obscured by a fringe of dirty white fur. Pamela stepped aside to avoid it and tripped over a raised tree root. She fell fast and hard, sprawling awkwardly on the path, and Frank had to steady himself against a tree to avoid falling over her. The woman with the dog was continuing down the path, the angle of her face awkward enough as it turned away to indicate she was purposefully avoiding their eyes.
“Goddammit,” Pamela hissed to Frank as he reached out to help her up, “It’s Dr. Carolan’s nurse. I hate that woman; she already thinks I’m pathetic enough.” Her eyes were filled with tears.
Frank watched the nurse make notes in an ancient computer. He noticed her mouth moved a bit as she typed. Her teeth were grey.
“Usually I’m more closely involved in the sperm’s arrival,” he said, and heard himself give a strange, barking laugh.
The nurse looked at Frank, her face expressionless. She stopped typing and pulled out a stack of files.
Frank parsed the silence for a few minutes until the nurse got up and left the room. “It’s thawed,” she said to Frank when she returned. “Would you like to take a look?”
The microscope was on a small shelf next to a box of rubber gloves and a jar of tongue depressors. Frank peered into it, closing one eye, and watched as the blurry film focused to show tiny movements, like metal filings moving with a magnet. Without meaning to, he jerked back a little. Forcing his eye back to the scope, he watched the swimming of a stranger’s sperm.
“They look…vigorous,” he said to the nurse. She cleared her throat and nodded toward the door of Pamela’s examination room. “You can wait with your wife,” she said.
Pamela’s legs were spread wide. Her thighs stretched, strong and muscled, but Frank detected a slight periodic tremor under the surface of the skin. They were alone in the examination room, and the only chair was positioned with a sideways view of Pamela’s open green gown. It was hard to make eye contact with his wife but he did it.
“You okay?” he asked. “Try to relax.”
Pamela gave a tight smile. Her eyes kept darting to the instrument tray on the desk, where the nurse had prepared the large syringe and left it. She looked, Frank thought, more like a dog about to be put down than a woman waiting to be impregnated.
The door opened and the doctor entered. He wore a checked shirt and khaki chinos, no tie, just a stethoscope. A little too casual, Frank thought. Though a male doctor wasn’t unexpected, it disconcerted him. The two of them, alone with his naked wife.
“I’m Dr. Lewis,” the man said, extending a hand, first to Pamela, who raised herself awkwardly to shake it, then to Frank. He looked young, maybe mid thirties. His grip was firm and his hand was cool. Frank hoped his own hadn’t been too warm. Dr. Lewis pulled rubber gloves from a wall dispenser. He pulled them on and approached the examination table.
“I’m just going to have a little look and check the condition of your cervix,” he said.
“Of course,” Pam said.
For god’s sake, Frank thought, she’s so easy, then wondered where that thought had come from. His normally assertive wife seemed like a young girl, eager, passive. He watched the doctor lean forward, saw the arm move up, the fingertips, then the entire hand it seemed, inside his wife. Frank felt a heat in his chest, anger rising while he sat, useless, in his chair. He shifted, cleared his throat. “Everything looking okay?” His voice came out gruff.
“Just fine,” the doctor said. “Just fine.”
You bastard, Frank thought.
The doctor pulled out his hand and snapped off the gloves, then walked to the desk and made a note on a chart. Frank wondered what he knew. Did he know whose fault it was Pamela couldn’t get pregnant the normal way? Dr. Lewis looked virile enough. Probably had a dozen kids.
“We’ll do the insemination now,” the doctor said. “It won’t take long.” He picked up the syringe from the desk and approached the table again. “A little wider please.”
Without responding, Pamela shifted down lower on the paper sheet and let her knees fall open. Frank felt a surprising and sudden arousal. He shifted in his seat. He wanted to look away, but his eyes held on the space between Pamela’s knees, the space occupied by this smarmy, business-casual bastard filling his wife with sperm. He willed his eyes to Pamela’s face and tried to smile. Whatever expression his face made, she didn’t greet it with a smile of her own, only raised her eyebrows and turned her gaze to the ceiling.
“Well, that should do it,” Dr. Lewis said. “I think I got a very good application.” He snapped off the gloves, pitched them to a garbage receptacle. “You may want to stay horizontal for a while, though honestly, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
Frank was pretty sure he caught a hint of a smirk in the words.
When the door closed, Frank strode to the bed. He leaned over Pamela, lifted her in his arms and kissed her, hard. He felt her little breasts, tight against him, tasted coffee on her breath. He wanted to climb right up on the examination table.
Pamela broke away. “Jesus, Frank,” she said. She sat up, wiping between her legs with a paper towel.
Pamela was an athlete. She’d been a bicycle racer in her teens and twenties, had competed internationally. When Frank had met her, she’d still had those incredible thigh muscles. Like a thoroughbred horse, he’d marvelled to himself, though he’d never have described them that way to Pamela.
After they’d married and moved back up North, she’d given up racing, though she determinedly kept fit. Frank saw how she’d apply the principles of her training to their life, keeping lists of home repairs and methodically crossing them off. When she said it was time for a baby, he saw things continuing to fall into place, like slow-motion dominoes. Only the last domino remained standing, even after three years of trying.
Today’s visit to the clinic was their fifth. After getting dressed, Pamela walked quickly to their car. “I don’t think Dr. Lewis did it right,” she said. “I don’t think he got the injection right into the cervix. It didn’t hurt like it does when Dr. Carolan does it.”
Frank nodded in what he hoped was a sympathetic way, unlocking her car door first, then his own. “He’s probably one of those new med school grads, putting in time up North while the government pays off his student loans.”
The silence in the car on the way home was heavy. It was like she’d already written this attempt off, Frank thought. He drove carefully, swerving to avoid empty garbage cans that had blown into the street in the afternoon wind.
At first it had been like a project, looking through the long files of semen donors the clinic had sent them.
“What is your favourite animal? ‘Squirrel,’” Pamela read, looking down at the printout. “What kind of person’s favourite animal is a squirrel?”
“A city person?” Frank ventured. “Maybe he wasn’t allowed pets.”
After the first failed insemination, she was unfazed. After the second, stoic. This was their fifth round.
There’s something about need that sharpens your senses, Frank thought. For him it had always been that way. In the years before meeting Pamela, he’d gone from woman to woman, pursuing them with such force that by the time they gave themselves to him he’d often forgotten what it was he wanted so much in the first place. It was different with Pamela, right from the beginning. She gave herself to him, he felt, but without giving in.
If he was to be honest with himself, he wanted the baby, but his need for a child was really an adjunct to a happiness he sought with Pamela. He had thought the shared need for a child would bring them closer, but now he saw it was doing the opposite, making their lives without one lacklustre, dull. He realized that Pamela did not, as he did, feed off of neediness, becoming more alive, but that she was sustained by certainty: that goals could be set, worked towards, and attained.
Two weeks after the latest insemination, Frank found her crying in the bathroom, struggling to unwrap the plastic from a box of tampons. “Tamper-proof plastic!” she read in an angry, teary voice, “Who on earth would tamper with a box of tampons?” She threw the box to the floor, not at Frank exactly, but it glanced off his shin.
Frank tried to think of an appropriate response, but nothing came. “I’m gonna take a walk before we eat,” he said.
Frank was a hard worker, but he prided himself that he played just as hard. Years of being a foreman on construction sites had given him wide shoulders and an ease with people, from labourers to big shots, architects who would drop by the worksite with clean clothes and an air of impatience. He’d learned to soothe them, looking them in the eyes and nodding to let them know he’d understood. He could give his crew a stern blast of curt commands when they were behind on a job, then knock back a few beers with them hours later. He’d liked that Pamela was action-oriented too, even when it came to something as outlandish as placing an order for some stranger’s sperm. But the appropriate actions were no longer clear, to either of them. Did they deserve a baby? Was actually trying to make it happen somehow making the odds worse? Thorny questions of destiny worked their way, irritatingly, into the life they’d carefully built on reason and desire.
Outside, he strode across the pavement. A streetlight flickered and blinked on, illuminating the doorway of the apartment building on the corner. A man he recognized from a construction job was leaning against the wall, smoking. He nodded at Frank.
“How’s it going, Fred?” Frank asked.
“Not bad,” the man said, inhaling. “I’m waiting on a ride to hockey.”
Frank found himself slowing his pace. “What happened to your truck?” he asked. He remembered it clearly for some reason, a battered four-by with a homemade canoe rack.
“Put it through the ice last winter on Lake Sleeman,” the man said.
“Jesus – how’d you do that?” Frank asked.
“Driving on thin ice,” the man drawled, and looked at Frank deadpan. Frank could tell there was something about the incident that pleased him.
A two-ton truck pulled up at the same time as a window in the apartment above opened. A woman with a child on her hip was silhouetted against the apartment’s fluorescent light. The child was crying, and she shouted over its sobs. “Pick up the paper, okay, Freddy?” she called.
“Yup,” the man said, giving a nod to Frank as he pulled himself into the cab of the truck. It pulled away and the man’s cigarette dropped out the window to the pavement with a spray of sparks.
Pamela stood behind where the truck had idled. She crossed the street toward him, stopping to extinguish the still-burning cigarette with a twist of her shoe.
They walked down the deserted street. On the corner was a children’s playground. Ordinarily this would be a place to be avoided. Today Frank walked without hesitation over to the undersize swing set and lowered himself. The chain holding the too-small seat cut into his thighs. He watched Pamela pacing the border of a leaking sandbox. The afternoon’s wind had blown small crystals over the box’s wooden edge, and Pamela scuffed at it with her feet, pushing the sand back into place.
The playground was deserted in the early evening dusk. Frank imagined the children neatly placed around the neighbourhood’s dinner tables, napkins tucked carefully. He knew this image was too Norman Rockwell, and his thoughts turned instead to a vision of Freddy’s apartment, shabby in the bright lights, his wife – pissed that Freddy was at hockey – slamming down a bowl of lurid orange noodles, the kind that come in a can, in front of a still squalling child. Did Freddy and his wife see their child as a choice they’d made, or an inevitability thrust upon them?
His reverie was interrupted by a squeal of tires. He looked up and watched as a battered car rounded the street corner and wove erratically towards the park. As it neared the intersection, the brakes squealed as the driver appeared to attempt a last-minute turn. It looked for a moment as though the car would make the correction. Then a wheel hit the gutter. The car spun, efficiently jumped the curb, and careened toward them.
“Pam,” Frank said, attempting a shout but managing only a whisper. Nevertheless, Pamela turned and leapt from the sandbox. The vehicle’s battered bumper clipped the edge of the box and the driver must have attempted to correct its course, for the car spun again, gave a final burst of speed and slammed into a jungle gym, its progress loudly arrested by a tangle of metal bars. The radiator burst steam, and a belt deep within the mangled front end of the car squealed angrily.
Frank pulled Pamela to his side and held her firmly. The car’s front door began to rattle. The dented door would not open, and after a minute the rattling stopped. The passenger door, though partially blocked by the tilting monkey bars, was wrenched ajar.
A teenaged boy emerged, squeezing his long body from the wreckage. He stared at the car for a moment, as if assessing its newly diminished value, then kicked at the flattened front tire. Then he turned and seemed to notice the clutching couple for the first time. His eyes widened, a startling blue in a face flamed red with acne and adrenaline.
“I am so fucked,” the boy said.
There was a moment of mutual assessment, then the boy turned quickly and broke into a run. Frank watched his long limbs move with a strange grace back down the street and disappear around the corner.
The squeal of the belt became higher pitched, and then stopped altogether.
Frank looked at Pamela’s pale face. Her jaw hung a little, uncharacteristically slack. She stared at the scene, like she was memorizing it in case she was questioned on the details later.
“I say we ground him for six months,” he said. “And no car privileges for one year.”
Pamela was silent for a moment. Then she laughed. She replaced her hat on her head and tucked her bare hand under Frank’s arm.
Frank looked at the abandoned car. It was a ‘70s model, could be a Dodge Dart, he thought. Growing up, Frank could easily distinguish all those models, Mustangs, Camaros, TransAms, and knew their macho given names: Dodge Challenger, Ford Maverick, Plymouth Barracuda. It wasn’t even a passion of his, just something every guy knew without trying. He wondered when he’d stopped knowing the names of cars. He wondered if he still had his Hot Wheels collection; maybe he’d ask his mom to send it North one of these days.
He squeezed Pamela’s hand between his arm and chest – he could feel its coldness even through his jacket. Matching strides, they headed back the way they’d come.◉
Photo credit: istockphoto/BrilliantEye