:: Article

mother and child doing fine

By Lucy Jones.

Photo by Anastasia Dulgier

1

The night I took E for the first time was the night Berit gave birth. The larger Berit’s belly had grown, the harder Tamara and I had partied. We weren’t wild about Berlin’s night life anymore; we were in what turned out to be a last, desperate phase before growing out of it. But before we did that, Tamara pulled out all the stops.

She casually mentioned that we would drop in on her dealer before clubbing and, because she was behind the wheel of her battered Audi when she said it with me in the passenger seat, that sealed it. Our nights out were mostly split down these lines: her driving, me sitting next to her with trepidation. Tamara was pretty hardcore and I was anything but. That night I sped along in the tailwind of her fearlessness, silently looking out at Marzahn’s deserted streets as we cruised over to a pre-fab tower block. Tamara steered with one finger, ripped the filter out of her cigarette which she smoked straight while trying to find the right radio channel at the same time. I braced myself in the passenger’s seat, trying to seem cool, my sphincter tightly squeezed.

Her dealer ushered us in with a wan smile, a man who smelled of resignation, although he couldn’t have been older than thirty despite the premature lines on his face. The thud of techno made the neon walls of his grotty flat tremble. The low lighting disguised the state of his bedsheets as he scooted over so we could sit next to him. His teeth and the whites of his eyes glowed iridescent purple in his blacklight as he smiled absent-mindedly at Tamara’s banter. She came from a well-heeled German family and I couldn’t come up with the story of how they had met. Baggies of pills and grass were laid out on the table so we could test the wares if we wanted. He pulled out more from a miniature filing cabinet. The choice was tremendous, enough to make you high just looking at it. Little was said, and Tamara did all the talking; she and the dealer smoked a companionable joint which I waved away, thinking one of us should keep straight. The pit of my stomach writhed, not unpleasantly, like the first ascent of the rollercoaster that climbs up, up, up with the ride still lying ahead.

In the lift on the way down, I was convinced we were being scrutinised. A blonde woman in her fifties with bucked teeth and a hunched greyhound on a lead were the only others apart from us. Her eyes were glassy and her body gaunt like her dog’s. She wore a flimsy summer dress that showed bony, bruised knees. I took all this in while pretending to study my shoes; Tamara, however, beamed at her with the insouciance of one used to reassuring others.

‘Where are we going now?’ I asked when we stepped out, my voice catching slightly, even though I knew where we going and was just trying to slow down the pace of the evening. ‘To dance, we have to dance now, you’ll see,’ Tamara grinned, enjoying her role in the driver’s seat and exhaling smoke smoothly from her nostrils.

We rode back to the city centre, Iggy Pop on the speakers, finally turning onto the wide boulevard of Karl-Marx-Allee, parking and heading down into the basement of Bar Moskau where the throb and sweat of human flesh felt claustrophobic. Tamara smiled fondly at me, almost maternally, and placed a pill on my tongue as if medicating her overgrown baby. I waited, so full of anticipation about what would come next that I forgot to breathe, the mirrored backsplash reflecting my nervous expression. I felt raw, like everyone could see my insecurities, as we waited for the onset. Suddenly it hit me: Tamara was my loveliest, most precious friend and all I had to do was look at her and touch her shoulder and tell her how much she meant to me.

I would have happily shared intimate secrets with the man leaning on the bar next to me, who only half an hour ago had seemed offputtingly cool, when Tamara clasped my fingers and dragged me onto the dancefloor. We danced, or rather we swooped like birds. I was proud that my body knew what to do, and my heart swelled and pumped up into my oesophagus, a foreign organ connected to the DJ’s long, ringed fingers. I swept across the dancefloor, Tamara following me like a fellow falcon; we were one bird now and danced for hours, each new sixty minutes bursting with new sensations, dance waves giving way to smooth breakers of adoration. I felt compelled to touch everyone who squeezed past me to the bar or toilets, felt it was vital to tell them I could see inside their souls and how beautiful they were; but all I managed was to catch the back of a damp T-shirt, concentrating all those thoughts into a catatonic smile I knew they would understand.

 

2

Berit was the first. We were going to have to scramble to catch up. What began as a faint scratching at the earth soon became a fully-fledged stampede for motherhood. Something undefinable, something we had yet to formulate, was pulling us forward. We tried to squeeze the shape of ideals we had grown up with—ideals about families and mothering and children we had been carrying round inside us since we were girls like Russian dolls—into the reality we faced.

To become mothers, we were going to need fathers. The men Tamara and I had been hanging out with for the past few years that were commitment-phobes, stoners or both. They didn’t even rate highly as boyfriend material, let alone father material.

We started to see men in a different light, judge them according to different criteria. We made identikit children with the face of potential fathers in our imaginations. We started to notice things like solvency, backgrounds and the tidiness of their flats.

Tamara was the youngest in her big family; she wanted to re-create the same warmth of her brood, this time as the mother. She also wanted a change of scene. And while working for a company abroad, she fell in love with the CEO and left Berlin for his city. She cleaned up her act, swapped her battered Audi for an SUV in preparation for the school run and bought a house on the coast. What’s more, she turned out to be very fertile. They started a family almost immediately, and the kids popped out of her almost effortlessly.

*

I was lost. I had partied for years, tinkered with my career, taken it for granted that I would have kids one day. But at thirty-two, I realised that I was going to have to take action for it happen. My ideal father was probably a morphed version of my own father. A bulk of warmth, an easy smile. Someone who would stick around through difficult times. But if I had been perfectly honest, I knew I would settle for less. I would shoehorn a suitable man into my ideal. Blinker my vision.

*

For his fortieth, a wealthy friend booked a bar where the cocktails were free all night. A jazz musician played tasteful piano music in the background. Everyone I spoke to had proper jobs. Standing at the sleek counter with a mojito, I was approached by a man a few years younger with an unusual opener.

He: ‘So, do you want children?’

Me: ‘Ah. Sure’.

He: ‘How many?’

Me: ‘Ah, three or four.’

He: ‘Well, what are we waiting for then?’

I could see he was pulling my leg. It even sounded ridiculous to me and I was embarrassed for us. For our mutual need. I changed the habits of a lifetime that night and took a chat-up line seriously. The stakes of our game got higher as the night went on: it was soon clear he was not a commitment-phobe. He was a commitment-addict, the kind who proposes marriage after the first date. I was so transfixed by the idea of making babies that I forgave him for spending most of the party snorting coke in the bathroom, only occasionally returning to me to fire off bizarre questions.

‘What would you call the first one?’

‘Depends. Maybe Sean. Or Natasha.’

‘OK, I can live with both of those.’

‘Do you like sleeping with the window open?’

‘If it’s warm enough.

‘Good, because I get very hot in the night.’

The urge to leave was pretty strong on several occasions. But something kept me there. Adrenalin. Desperation. Curiosity to see if he was full of bullshit or whether there was actually something behind his bold statements. In the end, we rode home in a taxi as dawn was rising, and about a year later we married.

We started off as all couples do, just trying and hoping. After two years, we’d given up all pretence at relaxation. We had days ringed red in our calendar, and the concentration of our expressions and the brevity of our lovemaking confirmed what it was all about. I was on constant alert for changes: in breast tenderness, cervical mucus, mood swings. I started to watch my body as if it were not part of me.

Then came ovulation predictors. It was hard to have a social life when everything revolved around pregnancy, and wasting one month was devastating.

We ramped things up and saw a fertility specialist. I lost count of the number of times I was examined, my abdomen kneaded, or fingers were inserted into my vagina. But that is something you have to get used to. You have no choice. My husband’s part was minimal, which infuriated him, and he would prowl around the kitchen at night, trying not to break things.

*

No one tells you that trying for a baby with fertility treatment is one of the loneliest things you can go through. And yet, there are so many people involved. It’s like being at a crowded party where everyone talks about you. It helped that I had to take so many drugs. I had a list of them I had to cross off every day. And the irony was not lost on me.

*

Only three tries, that’s what we decided. After the last try, the insurance company would stop paying for the exorbitant treatment. I had an array of medication at home that would have made a junkie foam at the mouth: one drug to wind down my system, induce the menopause, then another to crank my system right up again. I had a standing order for pills and injectables at the local chemist’s for over a thousand euros a month.

For the first round of IVF, I spent the best part of two weeks on my own in Cologne: it was easier that way. I could fully concentrate on what I was going through and it gave us a break from our obsessive talks about it. It was summer and I stayed at a friend’s house while she was away. Read David Sedaris (nothing too emotional, the doctor had said, and preferably funny). Went to the open-air town pool. Every morning and evening, I injected Heparin into the fold of my stomach; the fat, laughing nurse told me, ‘You’ll be lucky to find it!’ She could laugh: she had three kids.

For the preliminaries, different people in hairnets with clipboards saw us. When our tests came back, it turned out that we are both duds: my husband’s sperm swam backwards or in circles. My eggs were plentiful but not healthy. The doctor recited their genetic defects like a bingo master: trisomy 13, 16, 18 and 21. He generously said he’d declare my husband as the defective party so that his private insurance would cough up. My paltry state healthcare wouldn’t have covered it; I was already considered old. He said we could choose to test my eggs at the pre-implantation stage if we liked. What I heard: otherwise who knows what we’re scraping from the bottom of the barrel. We planned the first cycle of treatment for the coming months.

My husband arrived by ICE and was shown into a room filled with porn mags. Our gametes were introduced to each other in a Petri dish. Their advances were surveyed by goggled lab workers. For the implantation a day later, I was sedated and wheeled into a room with a huge screen, my legs in stirrups. Any inhibitions I might have had were long since over.

‘Let’s get you pregnant!’ the doctor crowed.

Lying back in my chair, arms limp, I watched the whole procedure while he joked to me about the kind of car we would need if we had triplets.

‘Twins,’ he announced three weeks later, himself a Porsche owner. ‘Well done,’ he added as an afterthought, more to himself, or so it seemed. But we are so over the moon we barely heard.

*

Why did we tell people before the three months were up? Was it the jogging? My celebratory glass of crémant? ‘It must have been something you did,’ my husband yelled at me, spitting out the ‘you’. I heard how could you, why didn’t you, what should we. I saw his mouth moving and there was nothing I could say except that my body was the enemy. It was not me. I started to have doubts; but it was too late. We were in too deep.

The whole of Berlin seemed pregnant that mild autumn. I averted my eyes and my ears to baby chatter, but unless you’ve been through infertility, you don’t know when it’s time to be quiet. We’ll get through this, I thought, even as my husband and I argued on the stairwell one winter morning. It came to pushing and shoving, and I stormed out to the car; he followed me, shouting, onto the street, because he couldn’t bear me walking away from a fight. Only when I drove off did I realise that he was standing in the snow in nothing but his boxer shorts, shouting after me with tears in his eyes.

For round two, we found a doctor in Berlin. Cologne was jinxed, and anyhow it was better for our logistics. We were less naïve this time. At the appointment, we were almost downbeat. This was misinterpreted by our new doctor, a weary-faced professor in his late sixties, as ‘depression’. I was referred to a psychiatrist whose office was in the neighbouring room, and whose cool grey eyes matched her cashmere sweater. When I explained how the suffering and frustration were wearing down our relationship, she infused the greyness with a tinge of empathy and said, ‘But there are many ways for you to get a child.’ The way she said it made me feel sudden tenderness for those women who steal new-borns from hospital wards. The smell of those little hairless scalps. Those tiny fingernails.

‘We do?’ I said.

‘Of course,’ she replied reassuringly.

I realised she was doing The Look.

I had discovered The Look back in the old days when we were trying normally, when the gynaecologist told me not to stress, just lie down and breathe in some ‘pregnant air’ from the woman having a CTG behind the curtains next to me. Yes, that would do the trick, she said. Back in the days when my mind was just one big blow-up of my menstrual cycle and the only time I was happy was from Day 6 to 9. Don’t do The Look, I thought, you have no idea.

‘I’m not depressed,’ I told her baldly, ‘I just want to get pregnant.’

*

Despite the odds stacked against us, the Berlin doctor managed to harvest about fifteen eggs. About four days later, I went to the implantation appointment. This time, it was very low-tech. The doctor’s surgery was poky and dark; it was November, one of those wintry days when the light is fighting a losing battle with the grey outside. When he had finished the implantation, he left and I had to shuffle back to my bed escorted by a male nurse, who gave me his arm to lean on. I was woozy from the sedative, vulnerable, almost made of paper. He smelled of cigarette smoke. Pregnant women normally can’t stand the smell of tobacco. But a woman like me, who had been pumped with hormones fit for seven pregnant women, is like a bloodhound. By the time I got back to my bed, I had mentally crossed the clinic off my list too. The car-park sign just beyond my headboard, warning vehicles not to reverse into parking spaces, was being busily ignored, and the petrol fumes filtered through the crack in the window to mingle with the smell of tobacco smoke. I closed my eyes, nauseous.

We had one last try, according to our budget.

*

A woman, a rare thing in this business, strangely. Male doctors seem to have far more confidence in the entire process. My new fertility specialist, however, had her own, less strident approach: she was quietly supportive and informative. She never did The Look and seemed to understand that we needed facts, not reassurances.

Her clinic was on the sixth floor in the centre of Berlin. If I was a difficult case, she didn’t let it show. She greeted me by extending a thin, white hand. Her thighs were pretty hard to ignore in those black, sleek trousers—were they leather or latex?—and her diminutive form was elevated on stiletto heels. I named her my domina-doctor after our first meeting, imagining that her bizarre outfit was a ruse to remind me that what we were doing normally involved sex. Her real name was Christina.

Christina smiled fondly at me, almost maternally, and it felt natural when she did the pelvic examination. I was so full of anticipation the morning of our last try that I forgot to breathe, the mirror in the bathroom at home reflecting my nervous expression.

When I arrived at the clinic for the egg harvest, I felt raw, as if Christina could see all my insecurities. I remember her kindness and thoughtfulness: the cushion placed in the small of my back and the unobtrusive music, something classical, but thankfully not Verdi’s Four Seasons. The acupuncturist came in first and held my hand in a way that didn’t feel fake before she placed the needles. We spoke about how we both believed in acupuncture.

‘Forty percent of people don’t,’ I said, ‘but I belong to the other sixty’.

Then Christina carried out her woman’s work; she, a woman, doing it for me, a woman. It reminded me of a Kate Bush song. Men were so strangely absent in the whole procedure, I almost believed it would be mine and Christina’s baby.

After the procedure, I had to distract myself from the wait and so I structured my days carefully; all the same, while lying in a deck chair in the garden, the book I was holding in front of me was just a blur of letters.

‘Between two and five o’clock,’ Christina had said, ‘once I’ve checked the eggs.’

The sun needled my skin and I stared at my Nokia, willing her number to come up on the display.

The phone rang. It was a friend and I barked at her, ‘I’ll call you right back. I have to go.’ As I hung up, my phone vibrated again, this time with the right number.

‘I am sorry,’ Christina said, getting swiftly to the point. ‘There were no viable eggs. We won’t be able to carry out an implantation.’

She paused, waiting for me to say something. I could hear her breathing, slow and steady.

A huge door swung shut with a loud clang. I juddered as it banged shut, its metal rivets and rust vivid in my mind. It must have been a very old door but until that moment, I hadn’t been aware it was in my head.

‘Are you still there?’ Christina said.

Suddenly I saw myself through the eyes of an unkind stranger. ‘She was desperate,’ the stranger muttered.

‘Hmm,’ I exhaled, but didn’t manage more.

I stared at the phone in my hand for a long time after I hung up. My thoughts and my body became immobile. I tried to stay that way for as long as possible, not ripple the air around me, not take up any space. I drew out the present for as long as I could because, despite the odds—I was thirty-eight by then, which had meant a success rate of around 3.9 percent—I hadn’t paused to consider what this would feel like. I couldn’t remember what it was like to concentrate, talk about meaningless things or gaze into the leaves of a tree.

There won’t be babies, I thought, but there’ll be … other things.

We could get a dog.

A sweet little brown puppy with big eyes.

Wouldn’t that do?

No.

*

In the middle of the night, I woke up and remembered my last five eggs frozen in storage at the second clinic and my heart started to race with the old furious adrenaline. What if I could get them and we could have a fourth try? Perhaps one or two of those might be healthy?

The weary-looking doctor from the clinic phoned to ask why I wasn’t continuing the treatment with him. He sounded as if he was taking it personally, as if we’d broken up.

I paused for a moment, remembering his dingy room.

‘This is a competitive business,’ I said. ‘People shop around.’

I went to fetch my eggs.

*

I caught my expression the rear-view mirror; the line between my eyebrows was creased in concentration. To my left on Friedrichstraße, George Clooney was toasting me with a cup of Nespresso; to my right on the passenger’s seat, sat a smoking canister of liquid nitrogen with my eggs inside. A blast of heat came in when I rolled down the window, so I opted for the air conditioning, not sure which was best. The canister looked like one of those new-fangled cocktails I’d read about that might lacerate your stomach so badly, you’d need it surgically removed. I felt a queasy thrill, this time from the damned Clomid. Luckily, I spotted a parking space, otherwise I might have rushed out to buy the gold-sequinned trainers in Leiser’s, even though that’s not listed as a side effect.

In the lift, I was convinced I was being scrutinised. There were five of us squished together, and I had to make sure that my ice-cold canister didn’t rub against anyone’s shins. A couple—he, overweight with a sallow complexion, she with the tell-tale bulge around her midriff—both smelling of resignation, studied their shoes. Beside them were two businessmen on their way up to the seventh floor, which was a hedge fund office. They passed looks that said: Crazy Lady with Canister.

The lifts arrived at the sixth floor with a ping. Out walked the couple, and I followed them, canister in hand. I looked back briefly to see the young men reflected ten-fold in the mirrored walls of the lift. Ten healthy men in suits. I bet they had high sperm counts.

I set off down the corridor for my very last try.

 

3

Some hours after leaving the club, Tamara and I were lying on the park lawn in the pink-tinged light of dawn that had snuck up on the horizon. I couldn’t remember leaving the dancefloor or how we had walked here. Horizontal seemed infinitely preferable to vertical; she rolled a joint and sucked on it, and as I watched her, my Nokia chirped like a cricket and a text appeared on the screen: Berit in labour since 4 hours. Baby on its way. Squinting at the black and white letters, my mind took a while for the message to sink in. But then it did: our friend was about to be a mother.

‘Cool,’ said Tamara, and I noticed a hint of sadness around the corners of her wry smile, a fragility in her expression I hadn’t seen before.

‘Yeah, awesome,’ I nodded, staring into the distance, not wanting to think about how horrible the comedown was going to be.

‘Let’s roll down the hill,’ she declared in the perfect solution to dodge further analysis; and I, only too happy to push these thoughts from my mind, clutched onto her ankles and she onto mine, and we pushed off. It seemed like a never-ending stretch of grass. My body went limp against the ground and I wanted to surrender the rest of my youth right there and then. I was ready for a change, something big. Tumbling into a pile at the bottom, we wrapped ourselves in each other arms, panting and laughing into each other’s faces. Somehow, we picked ourselves up at the bottom of the slope and half-staggered, half-danced back to her apartment, coming up with the idea on the way that we’d go for a spin to the Ostsee because of how incredible the saltwater would feel.

Luckily for us and anyone else out on the roads that day, we stumbled home to her flat and fell asleep on her sofa before we could get into the car. Later, at seven that morning, the second text arrived: baby son, 4 kilos, mother and child doing fine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucy Jones is a literary translator from the German and a writer. She lives in Berlin where she runs Transfiction, a collective of arts translators in Berlin. Most recently she has translated works by Theresia Enzensberger, Brigitte Reimann and Silke Scheuermann. Her book reviews have appeared in Words Without Borders and CulturMag. She also hosts a reading event called Fiction Canteen for writers and translators in Berlin. Her own writing has been published in Berlin’s SAND Journal, Pigeon Pages NYC, stadtsprachen magazin and Visual Verse.

www.transfiction.eu

https://fictioncanteen.blog/

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 13th, 2019.