Platter of Oranges
I notice it right away, the platter of oranges. Big juicy naval oranges with pock marked skin. Thickly skinned. A few of the leaves, oval and glossy make a mandala on the red plate. Sandra, the architect in New York, potted orange trees in her loft. The scent of the white flowers were dazzlingly fragrant.
Oranges. Highly valued for their vitamin C content. Maybe they’re snacks for later. I could just peel one and put the peelings in my glass of water and savor the potent oil resting in the glands of the skin. I wonder if they’re organic but they had no stickers and I’m hungry and salivating over plump and juicy orange sections.
Twelve other people sit around the table, chatting noisily. All couples. Most of them have smooth ivory skin, one woman is black. Clearly I am the oldest woman. I pull on my chin to erase the lines drawn down to my mouth and fidget in my chair.
“Today we’re going to talk about the treatment. From biology to process and what to expect.”
How thick skinned does one have to be to walk into a group of twenty-something’s and know you have just as much a right to be there as the next person. This dream of pregnancy. This heart’s desire. This twist of age and blocked tubes. This worry about wrinkles and withered roots silently unwinding. Like soft rain streaming down the apricot tree, sculpting fissures into the bark. Like the network of roots sprawled above the ground. Cold water and the smell of earth. Those roots exposed as I am right now.
You have only one fallopian tube and it’s blocked. Conception, through intercourse, is likely impossible. Invitrofertilization, will be your most viable choice.
Said the gynecologist.
Oranges – fruits of promise.
I am in the right place. I have never been pregnant. Never miscarried. Not like my mother. Not that I knew that till later. I wonder now, what caused that, or if it happened more than once. They were married for ten years before I came along. I could have had an older brother or sister. I have often felt, in my past, the shadow of a brother. That could have changed everything. I could have leaned on him. We could have been close. He might have been funny, an artist, a buffer. He might have had thick skin.
“If you are the basket of oranges I am the knife of the sun.”
Blessings to that soul that might have been my brother.
The knife of the sun.
I look over at the plate of naval oranges looking very much now like a plate of pregnant bellies.
I’m supposed to be here – the doctor said so. The fear that my body is too messy for this.
The woman next to me wears a navy suit and gold earrings. I feel out of place in my gauze skirt and lacy top, but I’ve got my black cowboy boots on. I stretch my neck and hold my head high.
I’ve never felt old for my age but suddenly, I do. I am also certain this group has plenty of money. I parse out their probability of success from their manner, their appearances, their armor, not seeing my own. I am confident they think their recent accomplishments will assure them a positive outcome. It’s as if infertility is a flaw that can be eradicated with technique, willpower and drugs.
I am not aware of the gas of marketing infusing the room. I am scared but intoxicated.
“Hi, I’m Amy Sayers,” I say to the group.
Someone mutters “Grandma,” under their breath. I can’t tell who it is. A room charged full of estrogen juice and knives.
I wish Gavin were here. I’m in need of his support – everyone else is coupled. The nurse launches into describing the meds and exactly what they do.
“There will be changes in body chemistry. We will view your progress with blood tests and sonograms, in relation to the fertility drugs you will administer to yourself.”
Three to twelve ampoules of Fertinex a day at $60.00 a vial. A week’s supply could add up to thousands of dollars. My mind spins. Someone mentions Mexico, where the drugs are a fraction of the cost.
Another woman, the one in the navy jacket with gold buttons says,
“In France, it is nearly free. They have socialized medicine there. Shipping it here is about half of the American price.”
Could I reach across the table and grab one of those plump oranges.
Peel back my skin, let the juices run, spread out my seeds and feel the rich infusion.
Embryos. Lima beans. Blastocysts. Peas. IUIs, IVF and ICSI. These are the seeds of creation. This is how it will happen. We are drinking the kool aide. We are in the container, the womb if you will – our own orange. Sectioned off. Blood work here. Drugs here. Transfer here. Seeds here. Swimming in the juice.
The nurse holds the platter up.
“I’d like you all to take one of these fat juicy oranges. No, it is not snack time. It’s target practice.”
Everyone gets an orange, a sharpie, alcohol wipes, a syringe and a red plastic octagonal container. I see the hazard symbol and my heart beats faster.
“The red containers are for the disposal of used needles. The syringes are filled with water. Hold the needle so it points up toward the ceiling and tap the syringe to release any air bubbles,” the nurse explains. “You don’t want an air bubble to get into the vein. Slowly depress the plunger to get the bubbles out of the needle.”
The orange fits nicely in the palm of my hand. It’s comforting. This is doable.
I grasp the orange plunge in the needle. Through the pocked skin, the connective tissue and veins of the sections, into the flesh. No blood.
This will be different. I’ve never used needles before. In all my badness, I never shot drugs. In the hardcore drug world, needles are dirty. Smoking crack or heroin was glamorous. Shooting it is dirty. But this is elevated.
I am the basket of oranges – you are the knife of the sun.
These drugs are different. This is medicine. The ritual is exciting. The paraphernalia is reminiscent of addiction. These drugs will be the knife of the sun. Gavin will be my knife of the sun. He doesn’t know it yet. Will he be willing? He’s so sensitive. It will be a stretch.
I should pick up some oranges, I think, fingering the one I just punctured. I scrape a bit of the skin with my nail and inhale the robust scent. I will anoint him. We can practice first.
(In the end, injecting me with hormones was one of the many spousal leaps Gavin would take.) ?
I need to have a frank conversation with him about the money. We rarely discus money. I don’t even know his annual salary.
One night, after returning from our honeymoon, we were lying in bed and I asked him, “Can you share how much you make a year?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well, we’re married. We share everything, no?”
“Hmmm. Well, I’ll give you a certain amount in your checking account for food and what ever you need to cover expenses.”
“But why won’t you tell me?”
“Well, it’s just not the way we do things where I come from.”
“But we’re in America, now. That doesn’t seem fair.”
I called him on it but he didn’t really respond in a way that disconcerted me. Maybe it was a cultural difference but it’s disrespectful and a disconnect for us. I don’t know in this moment if I can trust he will be there. It’s like we’re separated sections – the patriarchy and the feminine. Do many married couples live with this disconnect?
I am the basket of oranges – you are the knife of the sun.
I look around the room at the woman in the navy suit. Her husband has closely cropped hair, parted to the side and wears a pink shirt with a blue blazer. He smacks of finance. She has her basket full.
My best friend in Santa Fe says she and her husband keep separate accounts. I don’t know what to think. I’m not working now and while there is guilt, I am so grateful to be focusing on getting pregnant. I don’t yet think my behavior is stunted. Gavin is always worried about money.
“What if I get fired?” he asked me when we bought the house.
“Why would you get fired?”
He shrugged and shook his head. We had both fallen in love with the house the pink brick and white trim with black shutters. He agreed that I should take a break from work when we got married. He seemed fine with it. Fine with me not working. I’m not sure I am.
Now the nurse is mixing the medicine with water. I watch her squirt water into the vial of white powder. She’s getting ready to inject the orange. I hold my finger to my nose and inhale.
I am the basket of oranges…
Gavin makes enough to cover the mortgage and keep us going. We need to be sure we have all we need to have to make a baby. All $15,000 per cycle. Plus, the $2,000 or so for the drugs.
It’s the end of the meeting and everyone is mesmerized. On the way out, I talk with one of the women. She is much younger than me and warmly pats me on the back.
“Is this your first experience with IVF?” I ask her.
“Yes. Yes it is. It’s the first time we have a window. My husband is a script supervisor for the movies and he’s in-between films right now.”
“Oh wow. Are you working as well? Sorry, don’t mean to be nosy. I’m not working. We just got married this past Spring.”
“Oh, congratulations. Yes. I work for Mary Kay. Where are you from?”
“Well, I’m from Santa Fe and my husband is actually English. I’m sorry he couldn’t be here tonight. He’s in Alaska working.”
“Really? What’s he doing up there?”
“Well, he’s opening a franchise for the company that employs him. They manufacture and set up Laser Tag arenas. So he’s setting one up in Alaska.”
“Cool. So did you do any infertility work in Santa Fe?”
“Oh no. Just started here over the past few months. We’re seeing Dr. P.”
“Yes, so am I. He’s supposed to be really good.”
“Yes, I like him too.”
“Have you heard about RESOLVE?”
“I haven’t. Tell me.”
“It’s the National Infertility Association and an incredible resource. They have support groups everywhere. Give me your phone number and I’ll let you know when the next meeting is.”
I am the basket of oranges.
The mild winter days pass slowly. It’s not a winter where you can see your breath. I keep a platter of naval oranges on the dining room table.
Fruits of promise. Heartbeats.
Their fullness is inspiring. Gavin returns from Anchorage.
“I’ve missed you so much. How did it go?”
“It went well. We found the perfect space in the mall. Need to get the permits. How did the meeting go? What did you find out?”
“Well, lots of technical information about IVF. We practiced shooting up oranges. Don’t worry. I’ll show you.”
I point towards the bowl of oranges.
I make a plunging gesture.
“Listen, I want to talk to you about the money. Want a cup of tea?”
“Sure. Let me put these bags in the office.”
“I’ll put the kettle on.”
I put the kettle on and grab an orange from the wooden bowl and slice it and lay the six juicy sections like petals on a plate.
Gavin comes back and we sit in the breakfast room sipping tea and eating oranges.
“So, I want you to please tell me how much you’re making.”
“Why do you want to know?” he asks, again.
“Because we’re about to be a family. What are you afraid of, that I’ll spend all your money?”
“Well, kind of. I’ve spent all my savings on this business and I’ve always had savings. I’ve always been frugal.”
Frugal. I hate that word. It has no soul.
“Well, we’re in this together and it’s our money now. I’m not going to spend all your money. We need to be in agreement about these huge life decisions.”
He tells me his salary. I know this is big for him. It’s big for me too. I’ve never been in a relationship with this much intimacy, where this much has been shared. A seismic shift. What I can’t know at the time is how distrustful he is of the world. The fear that sits in the mist of his thoughts, the ancestral fear that he will lose everything. I do not know the weight that carries.
I hear heartbeats. I see the fruits of promise.
“What I want to know is: are you with me on the infertility treatments?”
“What figures did you get?”
How do we put a cost on the fruits of promise? A child?
“About $15,000 to $20,000.”
“Okay. I think we can probably manage. But we should look into the cost in London. Might be prudent to do it there. Maybe you could move there for a couple of months.”
“Uh…not sure I would do that on my own. This is a two-person operation,”
“Let’s start with Baylor. Time is of the essence.”
“I suppose so.”
I dive in, charting my ovulation and watching the red line. I am still hoping that sex will allow for the egg and sperm to do their dance. In the time of our courtship, the long distance created a kind of sexual tension.
I am a basket of oranges.
But now I’m not. I’m a hard edge, a flat chord, a landslide of my own spit and ego. A well of dry ash and anger and I don’t think my body belongs to me. I want a baby. The wanting has taken seed over lust. Gavin must know this. I don’t really know it and he would never say anything, until one evening, before a dinner party, I tumble him down to the Afghani rug at the foot of our bed.
“What, what are you doing? People will be here soon.”
“No, there’s time,” I say, straddling his legs and pinning him to the floor.
I pulled his face to mine to kiss his lips but he pulls back.
“Come on,” I say. “It will be quick and fun.”
I strip off my tee shirt, unsnap my bra and dangle my breasts over his face but he’s like a caged bird, half aroused, half pissed, not free.
“Let’s do it now! Now!” I cry.
“No, I don’t think I can right now.”
“I can’t believe you. I thought we’re trying to make a baby.”
“I am not a machine, Amy,” he says, rolling over and stuffing himself into his shorts. “Come on. We should be downstairs. We’ll talk about this later.”
I stomp off to the bathroom. Wipe down the sour smell of my crotch with a wash cloth. Sour crotch. Sour heart. Salty lips. This confusion, this rejection kills me. I hate my body. I am an old woman in a sour hole.
I wake the next morning and roll over towards Gavin.
He is still asleep. I move closer.
“Please let’s talk.”
He rolls sleepily towards me.
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry for yesterday. I am not myself. I miss you.”
“It doesn’t feel natural when you just want it on demand,” he says.
“I know. I just want to have your baby. I want it to be from us. I’m so frustrated.”
“Just be patient. We’re doing everything we can.”
I think back to the first meeting we had had with Dr. Putnam.
The doctor doesn’t tell me I’m too old. He said I would be the perfect candidate for IVF.
“The first thing that’s needed is surgery,” he says. “You have what’s called a“bicornuate” uterus.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have a uterine septum – a wall of tissue dividing your uterus. Which makes it heart-shaped or double horned. It’s a fairly common anomaly,” he said.
Most uteruses are pear-shaped, I find out later.
“No fetus can survive in half a uterus, with a wall dividing the womb. The wall needs to be removed before any IVF techniques can be employed.”
You are the knife of the sun.
At that time, I didn’t know that DES was a known teratogen, an agent capable of causing malformations in daughters and sons exposed in utero to DES. But the information was already public in 1996.
Gavin and I stare at diagrams as he explains.
“We need to examine the interior of the uterus. It’s an outpatient surgery, with general anesthesia. You’ll be in and out the same day. Just a few tiny incisions by the belly button; you’ll still be able to wear a bikini if you want. It will all be over in a few hours. We just want to look for fibroids and any blockages, then we’ll scrape out whatever is necessary.”
You are the knife of the sun.
I am two halves of a basket.
We made it through the election surrounded by republicans and scheduled the surgery for December. My clock was ticking ticking ticking. That meeting was back in September. Now it is February.
It was a cold dark morning on the day of the surgery. I was taken to a tiny room that had a window, with a small bed, a small chest of drawers and a chair next to the bed. Gavin was with me there. The nurse came in to take my blood pressure, collect blood and take a urine sample.
She wanted my wedding ring off, but it wouldn’t budge.
“We can’t be responsible for it if something happens to you,” she announced.
This makes me feel even more uneasy. I put on the paper thin hospital gown, cap and booties. It’s freezing when the nurse finally comes to fetch me. Gavin, she sent back to the waiting room.
As she wheeled me toward the surgery room we passed an old woman with shadowed eyes who stared at me. I waved to her. I remember she pulled back a strand of grey hair and smiled. I somehow could hear her voice in my head.
“You’re going to be just fine,” the voice said. “Everything is in place. Trust. All is well. All you have to do is trust.”
I couldn’t see her eyes—she never looked directly at me—but I waved again. She seemed to melt into the shadows as they wheeled me out.
A man with dark hair and glasses stood behind me.
“Have you ever had anesthesia before?”
“No, never.” I answered.
“It’s easy. Just breathe normally and count backwards from one hundred when I tell you.”
The doctor stood at the foot of the bed, conferring with the nurses. “How ya doin’?” he asked.
“Fine,” I answered, glancing up at the anesthesiologist.
He’d wrapped a tourniquet around my left arm. I closed my eyes and tried to regulate my breathing. I felt a pinch as he inserted the needle into a vein on my left hand.
“Okay, start counting backwards. One hundred, ninety-nine…”
I kept counting, “ninety, eighty-nine, eighty-eight . . .” Then I heard,
“Pull it out. The stuff’s not going in.” And then, “Okay. Let’s start again.”
“One hundred, ninety-nine . . ..” I had a momentary feeling of panic, as if my air supply had been unexpectedly cut off. Then I blacked out.
When I came to, my wedding ring was still there.
The recovery wasn’t too bad. I’d been cleaned and dusted as they say. I was curious to know if the surgery had worked, if my uterus was now whole, if I would be able to carry a child. We returned to the doctor’s office a week later.
“You’ll be pleased to know that the surgery went well!” he told us. “We found adhesions in and around your uterus and your uterus is small.”
I put my hand on Gavin’s leg and he turns around to look at me.
“Small? Small is okay. He’s not saying, it’s a malfunctioning uterus. He’s not saying my uterus is too old,” I said silently to myself.
He did not say you have a DES uterus and will never be able to carry a child.
I am the basket of oranges.
You are the knife of the sun.
He told me, “I inserted an IUD, which will help it keep its shape. We’ll keep it in for a month and put you on birth control pills to regulate your cycle.”
“Birth control pills! IUD? Really?”
“Yes. That’s the protocol,” he answered.
I remember thinking, I hadn’t taken birth control pills since the first time I’d had sex. I was twenty then, a lifetime ago, living in Orange County, California and attending a summer dance intensive at UC Irvine. In love, or so I thought, with a tennis player from Detroit who followed me out to Long Beach. I was renting a house with two other girls from Detroit, about two blocks away from the beach. The other two were both dancers, had cars and worked part time as waitresses.
When I knew the tennis player was coming out to visit, I practiced with a diaphragm that I got from Planned Parenthood. Then it got stuck and I couldn’t get it out. I remember squatting on top of the toilet, reaching my fingers inside my vagina and squirreling around to no avail. One of the girls in the house offered to help.
“I’ve got really small fingers. I could probably get my whole hand inside.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m going to try some Vaseline.”
I smeared Vaseline all over my hand, laid down on my back and bent my knees up to my shoulders. Then I dove in, trying to dislodge the outer rim. I finally got a hold of the diaphragm and yanked it out.
Planned Parenthood recommended the pill and I thought that might be easier. I remember gaining ten pounds over night. Eating chocolate cake for breakfast, dancing at the studio, then eating doughnuts and potato chips for lunch, and feeling horrendously depressed by the end of the day. When the boyfriend arrived, we had sex immediately.
In the middle of screwing he said, “You don’t really like this, do you?”
I think I moaned, because I thought that was expected, but to myself I said, “You aren’t really in love with me, are you?”
Meanwhile, the doctor showed us pictures of my ovaries and the single fallopian tube – they all looked shiny, like they were enclosed in Saran Wrap.
The doctor said then, “That’s scar tissue, a byproduct of endometriosis. We’ve removed it and I think you guys are perfect candidates for IVF!”
The doctor kept talking but I didn’t hear him. A line of Egyptian women dressed in deep blue robes appeared before me. They wore crowns of burnished gold on their raven hair and their feet were bare. They walked in procession, attached to each other by a flaming orange sash. I felt their blazing ancestral energy and imagined them to be the sacred Mothers, givers of life and gatekeepers of the universe.
That kind of vision used to happen regularly when I practiced trance work that started with a particular breath pattern. I remember being wrapped in a spiral of gold and aqua in one of those visions. I felt certain I was witnessing my soul. It was like being found.
Indigo mists, indigo skies, indigo rivers, indigo in my veins. The deep lagoon blue of those robes sways me now. The ancestors are dancing before me. I pull out my Isis necklace and say a prayer, an incantation.
Isis, Egyptian milk goddess – help me create magic in my body. Open my womb to new life.
The sunlight has dappled the outline of trees on the yellow walls. I lean against the doorframe and watch Gavin’s fingers tapping on the computer. Two fingers tapping.
“Hey, there. Remember me?” I ask.
I am the basket of oranges.
You are the knife of the sun.