I was the only woman left at work who wasn’t pregnant. Colleagues had swollen ankles and dark rings under their eyes, and they walked as if they were carrying greater burdens than the ones in their bellies. None of them glowed. The receptionist, with only a month to go, was inflamed, rashy, and declined my invitations to chew gum together on the loading dock. Even those who had once wanted babies had acquired a bitter look. We no longer bothered with baby showers.
I came home from work to find Dan destroying several of his marijuana plants. He was cutting them up with gardening shears and shoving them into the compost bin.
“Why?” I asked.
“They were males.”
“If you leave the males with the females, they pollinate them, and then all the female’s energy goes into producing seeds instead of smokeable buds.”
He turned away from me and went back to hacking at the plants.
The plants shouldn’t have made it to this late stage, but we were still figuring out the new rules of the natural world. Dan had just sprouted seeds in wet paper towels and planted them in pots on our patio—he hadn’t even used grow lights. It was something he’d always wanted to try, and now that he’d been laid off he had the time. He’d even dusted off his guitar. Most days I returned from work to find him practicing.
There are competing theories about how the fertility epidemic happened, and like the Big Bang and Creation, each is believable in its own way. I like the one about synergy. About how our wombs became more hospitable, like the earth around us, at exactly the same time that sperm became more virile. An evolutionary jump that made little sense considering the glut of people on the planet.
Sperm lived longer outside of the body. They became bugs, capable of surviving on their own for days. Their locomotion improved, too —they were practically amphibious. Sex was no longer a prerequisite to pregnancy. The sperm waited in damp sheets and crawled up women’s legs in the dark. They waited on toilet seats and in boxer shorts. They waited in the most unlikely places, bided their time and found a way in. They chewed their way through condoms with their developing mandibles. Birth control couldn’t regulate the powerful forces at work within us, or halt our ceaseless production of eggs. IUDs were expelled — painfully — by uteruses, and vas deferens and fallopian tubes that had been severed grew back together.
One night Dan lay beside me in the dark, wheezing slightly. It was damp from all the rain we’d had, and he had a mold allergy. It had been four months since I’d said no to sex and he’d been sleeping mostly on the couch. He’d come to bed to talk, he said, but nuzzled in close. I still thought he was cute as hell, so I scooted away.
“Would it be so bad?” he asked me.
“If we had a baby.”
“Ha,” I said. “We.”
“Don’t do that. You always do that.”
“Deliberately miss the point, like you just did again.”
I considered telling him that I was extraordinary — that he was extraordinary, too, but he kept talking.
“You could keep working,” he said. “Maybe it’s for the best that I got laid off. I could be a stay-at-home Dad and play with the baby and write songs for her. Or him. Maybe it’s my calling.”
He’d wooed me with love songs— simple and catchy and dedicated to us. I thought they were brilliant.
I could picture the way he would be with a child, the songs he’d write, the way we’d laugh together, the family I’d imagined when we got married. But the world had changed, and it had changed me.
“I’m the only woman at work who’s not pregnant,” I said.
“So I don’t want to be like everyone else.” It sounded whiny, unheroic.
“So what? We were happy before. We can be happy again.”
I stared at him, shocked that he would let go of our remarkableness so easily, and he stared right back.
“Not like that,” I said. “Forget it.”
He went to the couch for good then.
This was before all the research, before we knew about the sperm. All we knew was that girls who said they’d never had sex were carrying children. The national news anchors, with their plastic smiles, called it a “Baby Boom” and referred to it as “optimism, a sure sign of consumer confidence.” I smeared spermicidal jelly onto my underwear.
After Dan moved to the couch I sanitized the master bath and told him he could only use the one off the hall. When he came near me, I backed up.
“It’s not personal,” I told him.
“What are you accomplishing?” He held his hands palms-out, as if I were robbing him.
“I don’t think I would love it,” I said.
“It would still be ours,” he said. “The baby we talked about.”
I shook my head. “It would be a different baby. It wouldn’t be that baby at all.” It would be a baby with the power to turn me ordinary with its mere existence. I could see that he was trying to think of the next thing to say, the thing that would convince me, and I had to put an end to his trying.
“I would hate it. I’d barely be able to look at it.” This wasn’t what I meant. But it was clear, it was final, and even though clarity is not the same as the truth, it convinces most people.
It was over then, but he had grown attached to his plants, the female ones, which were enormous, bursting with sticky buds and hardly any seeds. They were not quite ready for harvest, and we agreed that it made sense for him to stay with them. I didn’t ask him what he’d do with all that weed. We hadn’t smoked much in the past few years.
The radio was always on by then, both because we’d run out of things to say and because we didn’t want to miss any breaking news. But all we heard was an accumulation of what we already knew: birth and abortion rates, agricultural reports, record rainfall, bumper crops of wheat, a 300-pound watermelon.
“We can feed the world,” Dan said right after they mentioned the watermelon. “I think it will all work out.”
I turned off the radio; the silence was worse than the news.
Dan harvested in late September. He was planning to cure the crop at his new place, but he offered to drop some off for me when it was ready. I told him he could have it all. As he needed health coverage, I said it was fine if we stayed married for a while.
It was hot and humid the day he left.
“You’re missing out on some great weed,” he said, pausing at the door, letting in the swampy air. I could tell he was trying not to cry.
“I know,” I said, as kindly as I could, then closed the door.
I still loved him, but it was as if we were waving at each other from opposite shores.
I don’t go out much anymore. I avoid men, and public restrooms are out of the question. I won’t eat food that I don’t cook myself. I go to work, which is reasonably safe since they moved the men and the women to separate floors. It was my idea and we adopted it even before the CDC came out with the recommendation. We do everything by email anyway, and women are allowed to stay home when they’re ovulating. I still have to go out for some things, to shop for groceries or run other errands. People stare at me, and I can tell they’re wondering where my baby is, why my belly is still flat. They resent me for my singularity, maybe even hate me for it, and it wears on me in a way I hadn’t expected.
People bring their babies to the office because of the daycare shortage, and all day long, while I try to work, at least one baby is wailing. Everywhere I turn, a baby stares at me.
Many women are pregnant again, though experts at the CDC say the epidemic is losing steam — that the new spermicidal underwear and supercondoms and improved sterilization procedures are working and that hysterectomies do appear to be foolproof, though there is some concern that so many young women have elected to have them.
They say we are learning to make adjustments. I expect that before long, someone from the CDC will issue a statement explaining why Tucson was the epicenter. I went into the new CDC field office recently, when I saw on the news that they were looking for menstruating women who had never been pregnant. The exam was longer but no more unpleasant than my normal annual exam. I gave blood and tissue samples and submitted to imaging. The researcher took a thorough medical history with a focus on my behavior during the past year. He thanked me for coming in, but he was reserved. He said he expected to find some biological reason for my nulligravidity, some defect that rendered me infertile despite my insistence that I’d simply taken the right precautions at the right time. I smiled and said he might be right, but I knew he was wrong. When he called with the results, he was beside himself. He said everything was normal, which made me an extraordinary case. He said this knowledge was a relief, really, proof that certain precautions could be effective when adhered to strictly.
“Brutally,” I said, and he laughed and said yes, that might be a more accurate word.
Dan called two days later. It was the first I’d heard from him in the eight months since he’d left, and the sound of his voice saying Hey you reminded me of the way we used to sit on the couch and watch TV, his arm slung across my shoulder or his head on a pillow in my lap. We’d make fun of the characters, or the dialogue, or ourselves for watching such crap. We used to touch each other as if it were no big deal, but now I saw it had been everything. He was calling to say he had health coverage and that we should probably go through with the divorce, sort everything out.
I tried to sound nonchalant, as if Dan uttering the word divorce weren’t one of the saddest things I’d ever heard. I asked where the health insurance was coming from and he said it was part of his contract to record a children’s album. He’d been discovered at one of the new government-funded daycares where he played songs for the babies. A respectable contract for a children’s album would have been unheard of a year earlier, but now entertaining kids was a growing industry.
“So you found your calling,” I said.
“I think so.”
He strummed a few chords. They were love chords, simple and true, but they weren’t for me anymore. I tried to remember the love songs he’d written and sung to me and couldn’t come up with a single rhyme. I closed my eyes, felt the tears burn, and listened to him play.
Dan let the last chord finish ringing. “I always thought it would be with you,” he said.
I laughed, careful not to let it turn to a sob. Dan was good at love. I should have known he wouldn’t be able to live without it.
“Have you figured out what you’re going to do instead?” he asked.
“Instead of what?” I almost said, but I saw that I’d be deliberately missing the point again. So I just said no.
About the author:
Kate Leary lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Night Train and Harpur Palate, and she was the winner of the John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. She received an MFA from the University of Arizona. She’s at work on a novel.