Carey: “Granted, six feet five is a little extreme.”
Beth: “A blond southerner who likes terriers and Fontina cheese isn’t what I was looking for either. But I trusted you.”
Pam: “I trusted you, too. And that made my decision easier.”
The phone rang just as I happily settled into bed with a thick novel and a box of cereal. Once I freed myself from a day’s deadline pressure, nothing restored me better than eating while I read, or reading while I ate. But the airy bedroom of my Cambridge town house was no real refuge. The New York Times copy desk could still call with urgent questions about an article I had written for the next day’s paper, and I had to be available, always.
“Hello?” I said again. No answer. “Hello?”
Still no reply. Pressing the receiver harder against my ear, I made out the muffled voice of my boyfriend, a cosmopolitan scientist I’d been seeing for nearly a year.
It had been on and off, with a start so strong that I swore we were in love by the third date, then a crash followed by a long limping. I was usually rational to a fault, but with him I couldn’t seem to let go.
It slowly dawned on me that I was listening to a conversation between my boyfriend and a female friend of his, a doctor I’d met and liked. I deduced that he must have accidentally pressed the Send button on his cell phone, and that it repeated the last number he called: mine.
“So what’s up with you romantically?” I heard the doctor say.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m back with Carey, and it’s certainly not issue-free.”
“Why don’t you see other women, then?” she asked.
“I don’t want to hurt Carey… I really don’t want to hurt her.”
“Well, what do you think you’re looking for?”
“First of all,” he said, “it would have to be somebody who really attracted me.”
I felt my body start to shake, as it registered the depth of the rejection before my mind could absorb it. I would like to note here, in my own defense, that I am in fact generally considered attractive, and have occasionally even been called beautiful, but I am by no means to everyone’s taste. I am tall and cello-shaped, with high cheekbones, a broad, even smile, and thick dark curls or frizz, depending on the weather. (He ended up marrying a buxom redhead so petite she could wear girls’-department clothes.)
I paged him—his cell phone was busy, obviously—and broke up with him, my limbs shivering so hard that it was difficult to talk.
There are more where that came from. Rejections of me. Rejections by me. All leading to the moment when, the night before I turned thirty-nine, on assignment in a remote town in northern Maine, I lay alone in an anonymous motel room bed, staring at the ceiling, and faced the biggest decision of my life.
It was biological midnight, at least as I had defined it for myself. I was a professional success, Boston bureau chief of the New York Times, and a romantic failure, dating doggedly into middle age and still incurably single. Now, my self-imposed deadline had struck. If I really wanted to have a baby before it was too late, I would have to do it on my own. It was time to give up on romantic love, and try to become a single mother.
It was a bad, but not all-bad, moment. What had seemed like such a depressing thought, such a failure, for so many years, suddenly started to seem like something that was hearteningly doable, unlike the endless frustrations of trying to make love work. It was a decoupling of the desire for a man and the desire for children, and it carried sudden, surprising relief.
It was also sad, sad, sad to plan to become a single mother. It was standing against the wall at the biggest dance of all. I had not been chosen. I was not desired. Not loved.
For nearly seven years, I lived out my long-standing dream of working as a Moscow correspondent, reporting mainly for the Los Angeles Times right through the climactic years when the Soviet Union was collapsing. I could have stayed longer, but when I was thirty-four I came home to work for the New York Times with the very explicit idea of Getting a Life.
I was aware of having an agenda, painfully aware. I knew that some of my failed relationships, if given more time and less pressure, might have turned into love. But there was no time. No time. I had always been a goal-getter. But now, having the goal got in the way of achieving it. I analyzed the problem to death. “What I want most in life now is to fall in love, marry, and have a family, but that is not the sort of thing you can make happen,” I lamented to my best friend, Liz. “You can’t go to school for it. You can’t get on a waiting list for it. You can’t directly apply. You can try to prepare for it, but what else?”
Time ran out before I could find an answer.
My own parents were separated before I was born. Their split was so rancorous that, family lore has it, my mother didn’t want to allow my biological father into the hospital to meet me when I was born. He was a successful physician, professor, and author. He also had a violent temper, a two-pack-a-day habit, and the kind of superiority complex that led him to conclude, from personal experience, “Remember, Carey, a man never hits a woman unless she makes him feel totally powerless.”
My mother, a supremely warm and hilarious woman, moved back into her parents’ house and raised my brother and me on her own until I was two. Then, to our great good fortune, she married Charlie Ritz, the loving, wise, patient man who would become my stepfather—but who was really my dad, my father in every sense of the word except genetics. He always said that he could not possibly have loved us more if we had been his own biological children. When a car accident left my mother in a permanent coma in her midfifties, my dad spent hours with her shell of a body virtually every day for nearly two years, gently watching over her as the hope that she could recover slowly faded. He held her hand as she breathed her last breath. To this day, he wears his wedding ring.
Perhaps I would have my mother’s luck in late-found love. At least I could think about having a child on my own as skipping the ugly divorce.
Two days after my birthday, I told my dad that I had decided to become a single mother.
“No matter what you do, I’ll support you,” he said firmly, sad-eyed. “I’m sure you’ll make a great mother.”
I could see the crumbling of a vision he’d had for me. On the other hand, I thought, my mother met him when she had a one-year-old and a two-year-old, so he couldn’t think this was truly the end of all hope for love, could he?
I went to see the gynecologist at a women’s clinic, the kind of inclusive, groovy place that would be accustomed to helping lesbian couples and single women get pregnant. We sat face to face in a tiny exam room. I wondered if he was single.
“Fertility varies tremendously from woman to woman,” he said, “so the consequences of waiting longer in hopes of meeting the right man are hard to predict.” But he had evolved a rule of thumb for cases like mine, he said: “If you think you could well end up heartbroken because you let your chance to have a child go by, you should do it now.”
I went to see a wise older therapist who specialized in fertility issues, a fragile-looking woman revered by her clients. Another office the size of a walk-in closet.
“It’s the morality of it that’s troubling me,” I said. “How can I knowingly bring a child into a situation that is less than optimal from the very get-go?”
“Well,” she said, “what do you think a child needs?”
I had never tried to come up with a list.
“Love,” I said. “A safe and stimulating environment. A circle of people who care, who can help her reach her potential, that kind of thing.”
She was silent, smiling slightly, letting what I had just said sink in. Then she asked me, “Can you provide that?”
My mother, who would have been an ideal grandmother, all twinkle and fun and unconditional acceptance, was dead. But I had my dad, living just a few blocks away in Cambridge. He was in his midseventies, but still healthy, and would make a world-class grandfather. My brother and sister and best friend, Liz, lived in distant cities, but I had some close friends in Boston, a few dating back to my teen years. I had the money to hire excellent childcare, thanks to my late mother, my savings from Moscow, and the stock market. My job was demanding, but I was reaching the end of my stint as Boston bureau chief and was ready to ratchet down my career for the sake of a child. I had been blessed with a certain serenity all my life, and I thought it would morph easily into maternal stability.
“Yes,” I finally said. “I can offer all of that.”
I went to grill Sally, a single-mother friend with southern verve and inner strength, as she supervised her two-year-old son on a snowy playground.
“Carey, it’s the best thing I ever did,” she said.
As we pulled her blond son on a sled over the fast-melting snow, his cherub-cheeked face, rosy in the cold, shone with ecstasy.
I started to think about donors. I made lists of male friends and considered their pros and cons. I started dropping into conversations my plan to become a single mother, just to see if anybody nibbled.
A married couple with one beloved child offered the husband’s sperm.
“As far as I can tell,” he said, “having children is the highest thing we do.”
The wife said that the child could be part of their extended family. But friends with children warned me that things could get terribly complicated that way.
Sperm banks started looking better and better.
“Would you like to be my labor coach?” I asked my sister, Morgan, on the phone one day.
She got a little choked up. “If we were normal, you would be asking me to be in your bridal party,” she said. “But since we’re abnormal, this is a great honor.”
For something that was supposed to be somewhat secret, my baby plan was leaking out all over the place, and I was the main culprit. I told two older mothers at the Times, and they encouraged me but warned about the extent of the changes in store for me. One advised me to realize that children would be the front thing in my head for the next few years. Another said, approvingly, “Give yourself some joy!” and advised me to get on the stick about blood tests to check my hormone levels. I did not tell any of my editors. Bosses want your labor, and not the kind that ends in delivery.
I decided to slow down. Sally helped convince me that this was not a process to rush. I had to feel my way through each step, let each decision settle and make sure it still seemed right.
I also kept my profile active on Matchmaker.com, out of habit or momentum or the last vestiges of hope. I wrote a little note in my journal: “If you are a future child of mine reading this, I just want you to know that I really, really tried, in the weeks and months and years leading up to making you fatherless, to find you a dad.”
I was doing a lot of online searching—sperm donors and potential dates and fertility information. I gave thanks to the inventors of all the technology that brought some of the deepest human needs right to my desktop.
“So what about this guy?” I asked Liz during one of a great many phone calls so tedious that only a true best friend would ever tolerate them. “He’s got an MD from Harvard, blond hair, blue eyes, he’s five ten and one hundred sixty-five pounds, and he’s interested in classical music and social events.”
“Wait,” she said. “Is this a potential donor or a potential date?”
“He’s a donor, but there’s even less information about him than you’d get on a dating website. How can stats this dry help you make the juiciest of human decisions? At least with online dating, you can quickly meet the guy for coffee and then go with your gut. With these sperm banks, all those mechanisms for mate selection that we evolved over millions of years have been disabled!”
She paused for thought. “You need to prioritize, given the little information you’ve got. What are you looking for most?”
“Good health, but I guess they all have that or they would have been screened out. And after that, let’s face it, of things that a person can inherit—which seems to leave out character and virtue and the like—what I value most is intelligence.”
“So do they give you IQs?”
“A few do, but most don’t, not even the longer profiles I’ve ordered for extra money. They usually won’t even tell you what college the guys are at. A few have SAT scores, or occupation, and years of education. But you’re totally in the dark about what the person is really like. It makes a one-night stand with some guy you meet in a bar seem like lifelong intimacy by comparison…”
Liz was still single, too, despite her stunning Nordic beauty. She and I differed over one central value: if we couldn’t have everything, I chose children over a man; she chose a man over children.
“What I don’t want,” she told me, “is for you to give up your dream of having the supportive partner you want to make the family you want complete. You are a beautiful, loving, brilliant, warm, creative woman. And you are very open to people. I think it’s just a question of timing. Your decision to seek a sperm donor doesn’t doom your dream. I can understand your feeling of sadness, but I hope and believe that you won’t let it keep you from seeking the partner you want.”
After weeks of dithering, I settled on Donor 8282 of California Cryobank, the nation’s largest sperm bank. His SAT scores were better than mine. He had six siblings and wanted to be a scientist who also wrote popular books. I was planning to become a science writer. If we ever met, I thought, what a nice conversation we might have.
California Cryobank provided the next best thing, an audio interview. In a deep voice that sounded intelligent and somehow clean-cut in a southern way, he said: “Hello. My donor number is 8282. I am six feet, five inches tall, and two hundred forty-five pounds. I have a medium build, my hair color is blond, and my eyes are blue. My skin color is fair, and I tan lightly. My mother’s country of origin is Switzerland, and my father’s country of origin is Belgium. My racial color code as established by California Cryobank is white.”
The young woman interviewing him asked why he chose to study evolution, and he said, sounding confident and a touch professorial even as he hesitated, “Well, for me, evolution is… um… is a very basic sort of force that has shaped all of us, and I think understanding that is basic to understanding ourselves.”
I ordered eight of his vials at $175 each, then bit my nails, hoping no one else would snatch them first.
The vials arrived from California Cryobank in late March, and went into the freezer at the touchy-feely clinic. The means to motherhood were in my hands—or under my name in a freezer, anyway. It was mine to make happen. But still I hesitated.
“So, Liz,” I said, on perhaps our fiftieth phone call on the topic. “Listen to this e-mail from a Matchmaker.com guy.
“‘Hi, Carey, I liked your essay answers, so I’m writing you. I would even venture to guess that we might have some overlap in our outlooks and sensibilities. For instance, I’ve loved reading Russian authors since I was a teenager. I don’t know Platonov, but I find Mandelstam’s poetry deeply moving. Doesn’t it make you sad, though, to dwell on the desolation of that era in Russian history? Well, what do I know? I’ve never even been to Russia, much less worked there as a reporter. I do have a degree in anthropology, and I’ve published some travel writing, but Southeast Asia is more my area,’ et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…. ‘How about you, which reporters/writers do you admire? Take care—Sprax.’”
There was a long phone silence as she digested. She tended to temper my spurts of enthusiasm, bringing me back to my usual caution. “Sprax? What kind of name is that?”
“No idea. But he sounds an awful lot better than the usual ‘Do you like to snowboard?’ guys. And one thing’s for sure. I’ll never know how one of these donors feels about Mandelstam.”
“Well, clearly it’s a date and not a donor, right?”
“Yep, I’m meeting him tonight,” I said, checking my makeup in the mirror for sufficient subtlety. “And the donor thing is over for now. The 8282 vials arrived today.”
On our first date, Sprax and I sat next to each other in a downtown Boston auditorium, listening to a mountain climber describe his feats in Greenland, and I looked down and noticed how huge his knee was compared to mine.
He was wearing bulky army pants, but it was still clear that the knee was such a robust ball of strapping muscle and bone and ligament that I would want him and he would not want me. That is, he was too handsome and athletic, with mile-wide shoulders, tawny hair, and an open face of clean, straight, Scandinavian lines. He was intellectual as well, and worldly. So we could have some good times together, but the high school Renaissance man never dates the bookish girl for long, does he?
Somehow, the new power of having vials in the freezer lessened the sting of impending rejection. I did not need him. As we walked out, I said what I really thought: “The whole thing would have been so much more compelling if there had been some children on the top of the five-thousand-foot granite wall who needed saving, don’t you think?”
On our second date, we sat in an intimate Persian restaurant eating velvety roasted eggplant and told each other intimate things. Sprax had been raised Mormon, but had long since rebelled and been excommunicated. His spirit seemed free, prone to wandering. He told stories from a wide variety of subcultures, from the geeks of MIT and his software jobs to the artists of Indonesia. I tried to match him with tales from Russia and the Times. We wandered around to my life plans.
“I’m hoping to have a baby soon,” I blurted—and then added, “but you don’t need to worry, because I’m going to do it on my own. I’ve already got the vials of sperm and all.”
He took his head in his big hands, as if to say, Yes, this is a big, complex thing, then changed the subject without changing it.
“I tried to be a sperm donor once,” he said, and moved into an amusing story about the rigors of the testing that he hadn’t quite passed.
Sprax was a write-off in my mind, a rejection waiting to happen. But for weeks we kept seeing each other, just because… just because it felt good.
“I really like being with you,” he said, as we stood in a long but chaste hug in my kitchen, the air sweet with the wine and molasses of a simmering vegetable stew.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” I replied. I had to lean back to meet his gentle blue eyes. He was a head taller than me—a rarity among men—and his height held a silly but undeniable appeal. Next to him, I was the right size.
“It’s kind of scaring me,” he said. “I don’t want to just fall into another relationship.”
“Go slow,” I said, stepping away. “There’s something here. Whatever it is, it’s fine.”
I told him that getting to know him reminded me of the pictures we made as kids by coloring all different rainbow colors on a piece of paper, then coloring over all of them with black, then scraping away a picture with a pin, and seeing all the colors emerge.
“It’s there,” he said.
“I know,” I said, moving to the stove to ladle out the stew.
In May, we went north on a wilderness trip—a travel-section story for the Times—and hiked through the hyperbolically titled “Grand Canyon of Maine.” At one point, we got to a little rock seat overlooking the rushing water of Gulf Hagas, and he put his arm around me, and said, “Thank you for bringing me here,” and he kissed me lightly.
The next day, we kayaked out into Moosehead Lake to the towering peninsula of Mount Kineo, and as we faced the great granite splendor of the massive rock face head-on, he leaned over and again kissed me, from his kayak.
It was a “when I die I won’t be able to complain that I have not lived” moment.
There were little fights and pouts now and then, mainly when he was coaching me up rock faces, but mostly it got better and better. My new plan was to take the summer to play, and then start the baby making in September—either with him or without him. It made no sense to hope he would agree to help, of course, after we had known each other a mere few weeks and barely kissed. But he was a live, strapping, irresistible man right next to me, a man who had doffed his shirt and swung a sledgehammer on an old wall I needed to demolish. No abstract sperm donor could possibly compete.
Perhaps foolishly, I told Sprax my new schedule. We were planning a two-week climbing trip out west in late September, and I said I thought it might be too strenuous if I were pregnant. And also, I added with trepidation, I was sort of waiting to see what happened with him.
“It seems like we’ve known each other an awfully short period of time to face such a lifelong decision,” he said.
“Well, I just want to tell you that I’ve come to understand that the baby is something I have to do on my own, and you should feel no pressure about it. It just would make no sense to have a child together when we’re both feeling so tentative.”
“Have you ever thought about how, no matter who you’re with, it will always feel like something is missing?” he asked. “At some point, it just takes a leap of faith.”
“I’ve always had trouble with that,” I said. “I don’t know how anyone does it…”
The romance fell apart. We had a painful kitchen-table talk about how we had seemed to really fall for each other at first, but lately had been feeling less. He felt pressure for commitment, he said, even if I wasn’t putting it on him directly. I told him that he was beautiful inside and out, but if this wasn’t right, we needed to face it. We decided to break up, but remain friends.
“You’re still my favorite person to be with,” he said.
Just as I was adjusting to our new status and starting to orient myself toward an 8282 try, Sprax flip-flopped. We spent a memorable day on a monster hike in New Hampshire, and drove home at two a.m. in excruciating foot pain. On the way, he confessed, “I’m feeling all distracted again. Like I want to be more than friends.”
“I don’t trust how you’re feeling,” I said.
We went kayaking a ways out into Boston Harbor, and on Peddock’s Island I gathered green sea glass and found an old shoe in the sand. We talked about the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven.” I gave him a piggyback ride, all 210 muscular pounds of him.
He took my hand as we were crossing a stream on the beach, and said: “However you want things to work out with the baby, I hope they do.”
We got sort of back together, then instantly hit trouble again. He asked to cancel a rock-climbing day we’d planned in order to go on a bigger, harder climb with friends, including a gorgeous Dutchwoman. I agreed, then found myself sobbing in the car on my way home from work. My only coherent thought: I hope someday I’ll find a man who really cares about me. When I saw Sprax that night, I told him I thought we should give up. He argued me out of it, his absolute unwillingness offering the very balm I needed.
Very sad, closer, much closer than before, we went to bed. Passion must be the feeling that somehow, over barriers of flesh and through blocks of intellect and boulders of emotion, you’re trying desperately to join. It felt like that. I’d always kind of imagined that you had a night of passion and wham, you were joined. But no—morning comes again, with all the daylight problems.
The big trip came: Utah, Seattle, Mount Rainier, and then the climax, a week of climbing in the Bugaboo Mountains, high in the Canadian Rockies near Banff. It was a climbers’ paradise, not far from touristy Lake Louise.
The Bugaboos were like nothing I had ever seen, mythical, jutting spires of granite. At the Conrad Kain hut, we stood eye to eye with glaciers, nestled in a tumble of boulders as big as houses and cars. Every now and then came the rumble of another little cascade of white snow off rock above us, briefly drowning out the constant rush of the glacial stream running through alpine flowers and mosses nearby. Thin, yellowing pines provided reminders of what a ninety-degree angle was; otherwise, there was nothing but slope.
It took from six in the morning until two the next morning to get up and down Bugaboo Spire. The slowness was mostly my fault. At one point, near the top, a wicked storm caught up with us, and we had to huddle in our guide’s bivy sack. When we reached the summit at five p.m., another storm had started, and the rock buzzed with static electricity, making strands of my curly brown hair float upward in a Gorgon do. I was too ignorant to be scared, but Sprax yelled at me to get down quickly, and I did, annoyed at him for pulling me forward so roughly.
The descent was hellish. We short-roped downward, constantly pulling at each other, to the point that Sprax said days later that he still had phantom feelings that he was tied to me—and not in a good way.
I told Sprax later that even though we had reached the summit, the mountain had still won. Yet without knowing it, and with our relationship still in deep limbo, we laid down the first thin layer of what could become trust.
On September 27, two weeks after we got back, I went in for my first insemination.
The night before, Sprax stayed over for support, and admitted that the thought of having an “accident” that might leave me pregnant by him rather than an anonymous donor had crossed his mind. But that was as far as he went, and the next morning I called the clinic to say that I was coming in for my insemination.
“Wonderful!” the receptionist said.
It is? I thought. No one had ever reacted to my plan that way before.
I was so nervous as I drove that I missed the clinic entrance and had to make an illegal U-turn to get back to it. Inside, everyone was pleasantly matter-of-fact, and the procedure was surreally quick and simple.
I lay down in pelvic-exam position, my feet high in stirrups. The midwife, Ann, felt for my cervix with a gloved hand, inserted the speculum with a light, to see where the good cervical mucus was, and then shot the sperm up into it from a clear plastic “straw.”
And that was that. She shook my hand when she was done.
Excerpted from Three Wishes by Goldberg, Carey Copyright © 2010 by Goldberg, Carey. Excerpted by permission.
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