In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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At first there’s darkness, and then darkness becoming less dark, then vaguely dark, then just shadows and the glow of sunlight pushing on closed blinds. There’s Melanie’s tangled black hair falling on the pillow inches from my face, a sniffle and the ruffle of sheets as her leg moves. There’s a siren howling closer and closer and then fading. The phone rings, then rings again.
“Probably Mike,” Melanie mumbles.
“I called and told him you wouldn’t be in.” I roll over and grab the phone from the nightstand and turn the ringer off, then lie on my back and stare at the various shades of darkness on the ceiling. In my mind I see shadows on a monitor, a flashing light in the center.
“Maybe I should go in,” she says, her voice flat, tired. There’s a long silence. “I don’t want to go in.”
A few months ago we gave up, surrendered. We accepted a life without kids. After four years and forty-six thousand dollars, after being so single-mindedly focused on procreation that it almost tore us apart, we relinquished hope and, strangely, entered into a second courtship: clinking glasses in French bistros, dancing arm in arm to the tunes of street musicians, going to the theater, the improv, comedy clubs. We did Ecstasy at a party at a rundown house in the Rockaways and then caressed and petted each other on the subway in the middle of the night. We took weekend jaunts to Montauk, Cold Spring. We had sex all over the apartment, in Melanie’s office in Midtown, in my tiny office at Columbia, in public places, without expectation.
And then, sitting on a blanket with a bottle of Mouton Cadet on the Great Hill in Central Park, we watched a performance of King Lear put on by one of those small troupes that pop up around the city in the summer. Old Lear, beaten and battered, betrayed not so much by his daughters as by his need to believe a lie, raged against the storm, and, as if on cue, the sky opened up. Lightning flashed, rain fell, and thunder shook the ground. Lear, broken, his dead child in his arms, howled, “No, no, no life? Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never!”
And the rain kept falling as the actors bowed and Melanie pulled me off the wet blanket, down the hill, across the street, and into the dark North Woods, in among a stand of oak and ash trees; it kept falling as she pushed me back against the brick wall of the armory, as she kissed my neck, as she unbuttoned my pants, as I spun her around and pulled her skirt up, as I entered her, as I pushed hard and then harder, as she let it out: Never, never, never.
But no. Not never. In surrendering, we prevailed. Suddenly the blood didn’t flow, and that was life.
In a darkened ultrasound room, a light flashed on a monitor full of shadows, and a Russian sonographer named Yeva looked at her screen and said, with a heavy accent, “That’s the heartbeat.” And Melanie and I wondered, How?
We’d gone through years of IUI, IVF, IVM, ICSI; of hormone injections and tests and more tests; of testing my fucking testes. The verdict: for me, abnormal morphology; for her, endometriosis. At one point, after her laparoscopy, my sperm somehow made it through, and she got pregnant, but we lost it within two weeks. Then another year of trying, and another miscarriage. And then we tried again, but even though I cut soy out of my diet, stopped exercising, no longer wore briefs, and took only lukewarm showers, my sperm still floundered around in the dark. And so we picked a sperm donor: a six-foot-two, brown-haired, blue-eyed Princeton undergrad with a nearly perfect SAT score, a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity who enjoyed writing poetry and teaching kids to ride bikes. He was two inches taller than me. And for the week that his sperm was inside my wife, I hated him.
When Princeton didn’t work, we went to a German herbalist in Hoboken, then an acupuncturist in Chinatown. For weeks we ingested only cauliflower, ginseng, guava, and Chinese licorice root. We stopped visiting friends with babies. We bought a box of tissues for the nightstand. And I took up running again, a daily loop in Central Park, training for 5Ks and 10Ks, running until it grew dark and then running under the streetlights so I didn’t have to go home to our apartment.
A few weeks after King Lear, sitting in that semidark room and looking at the screen full of shadows, we thought we had a chance — until Yeva sat back, frowned, and returned the ultrasound wand to its holster. “I be right back.”
Did we ever think that we really had a chance? The flashing light told me that nothing makes sense and everything makes sense and sense isn’t something that we need to make. It wasn’t a warning, and it was. It was the beginning of something and the end of something all together.
Dr. Pradeep, Melanie’s new OB-GYN, came into the room. An East-Indian woman with long black hair and dark circles under her eyes, she gave us a close-mouthed smile, picked up a plastic bottle, squeezed blue lubricant onto the wand, and inserted it between Melanie’s legs. “Let’s see here.”
Yeva came and looked over Dr. Pradeep’s shoulder at the computer screen that Melanie and I couldn’t see. We stared up at the monitor in the corner of the room.
“Ah, there it is,” Dr. Pradeep said. She leaned toward the computer and pressed a key on the keyboard. “There’s the fetal pole,” she said. “And it does have a heartbeat.”
I squeezed Melanie’s hand.
“But,” Dr. Pradeep said, “it’s only seventy beats per minute.”
“Only?” I said.
“It should be between 120 and 160.” Her voice had a tight, pinched quality, as if her words were naturally unruly and needed to be controlled.
“But it’s alive, right?” Melanie asked.
Dr. Pradeep adjusted the wand a bit, and the images on the monitor blurred. “Let’s wait a minute and see,” she said.
Melanie looked up at me, biting her bottom lip.
I said, “My wife and I are runners. Do you think that could have something to do with the heartbeat?”
“I used to run,” Melanie said. “I haven’t in years.”
“You ran cross-country at Penn,” I said. I turned back to Dr. Pradeep and said, “My pulse is usually around fifty.”
Dr. Pradeep shifted the wand around and then pressed a few keys on the keyboard. “This is what we’re going to do,” she said. “It’s early. Ultrasounds at this stage are not always accurate. I want you to come back next week. We’ll see if the heartbeat has improved and if the fetus has grown.”
“So,” I said, “we’ve got a chance with this?”
Dr. Pradeep’s lips tightened. “Right now, it’s not looking good.” She removed the wand from Melanie and placed it in its holster. “You can clean yourself up now.”
“Can you give us a number?” Melanie said. “A percentage?”
Yeva turned on the light. Melanie squinted and wiped the lubricant from between her legs.
“Just go home and relax,” Dr. Pradeep said, “and next week we’ll see if there’s any improvement. OK?”
A week later, in the same room, with the lights off and the monitor above us, the light flashing at its center, Dr. Pradeep said, sounding even more stressed than before, “The heartbeat is down to sixty, and the fetus hasn’t grown at all. The size should’ve doubled over the past week.”
Dr. Pradeep told us to go on about our lives and expect a miscarriage.
So now, here in this indistinct darkness, on the bed we have slept in together for ten years, we wait for the fetus to die in the womb. I try my best to help. I call Melanie’s office again and lie. (“It’s some pesky stomach virus.”) I make a breakfast that she doesn’t eat. I bring her a glass of Ovaltine. She attempts to smile. I massage her feet. Maybe we should bring the TV into the bedroom. Should we paint the kitchen? What color? Terra cotta? Blue? And then she sleeps.
In the middle of the afternoon, Melanie wakes from her nap and asks me why I want a baby. Her voice is slurred, as if she’s not fully awake.
“Huh?” I say, not eager to understand whatever it is she’s getting at. “How are you feeling, sweetie?”
“I’m cramping,” she mumbles.
My pen scribbles a few words on my legal pad.
“You’re not writing about this, are you, Doug?”
“What? No, I’m jotting down some thoughts on Antigone. Lucia wants to direct it for her thesis.”
“I had a dream that you were writing about this, that it was all a play, with actors in masks. Please don’t write about this.” She rolls over, takes a deep breath, and says, “It’s ironic.”
“I married you because I thought you’d be a good father. You’re so solid, you know? Even-keeled.”
“I hope that’s not the only reason,” I say. “What about my sex appeal? My sense of humor?”
“What do you want me to say? I could lie to you.”
“I feel nauseous.” She swallows and clenches her teeth.
“Mike called again. He’s doing his usual high-pitched Mike thing about the Arise Coffee campaign.”
“Maybe I should go in.”
“Sweetie, look at you,” I said. “He can take care of it.”
“I don’t want to go in,” she says, tears filling her eyes. “Oh, boy.” She starts crying and pulls the pillow over her head.
On the third day after the ultrasound, I move the TV into the bedroom. Melanie props herself up and watches the Home Shopping Network and the telenovelas on Telemundo, which she says lighten her mood and improve her Spanish. “Adíos, mío,” she says when I leave the room.
I clean up the abstract of my essay “From Noh to Brecht: Madness in the Mirror and the Mask,” which I’m trying to place in Comparative Drama. I make coconut-crusted chicken cutlets for dinner and cajole her into eating a couple of bites before she goes back into the bedroom to watch a telenovela about an ugly woman who is transformed into a real beauty.
The next morning I run in a fine mist through the park. I start slowly, ascending the Great Hill, and then elongate my stride as I head down the other side under the canopy of autumn leaves. It’s like the song I sang in my high-school jazz choir: “Autumn in New York / is often mingled with pain. Dreamers with empty hands / they sigh for exotic lands.” I remember not having any idea what that song was about. I hum a few bars and try to admire the bright leaves. Two women pushing babies in blue and red jogging strollers pass me going the other way. I run as fast as I can under the burning leaves. When I get back to our apartment, I take a shower and enter our shadowy bedroom to get dressed. Melanie is sitting up with her legs hanging off the side of the bed. On the TV a televangelist with a comb-over stands on a hill overlooking a vast desert plain. He holds up the Bible and says what we are waiting for now is the body, the actual flesh, the Rapture!
“Are you feeling better?” I say, almost in a whisper.
“I’m a liar,” she says, looking down at nothing.
“OK.” I reach into the closet for a shirt and slip my arms into the sleeves. “What are you lying about?”
If you pray, the balding man on TV says, if you pray, down on your knees, with all of your heart, if you give yourself to the Almighty, God’s anointing shall enter your soul.
“Can I turn that off, please?” I say, moving to the TV and pushing the power button.
“It’s bullshit,” Melanie says.
“The anointing,” I scoff, pulling open a drawer and grabbing a pair of wrinkled khakis.
“No, everything I do, every day — it’s not me,” she says. “I’m going to quit my job, if they haven’t already fired me.”
“You’re just talking,” I say.
I pull up my pants and grab a pair of white tube socks and my waterproof loafers. “It looks like it’s going to start coming down,” I say.
“I mean, think about it. I name things for a living,” Melanie says. “That’s what I do. The Alacra. The Sherpa. Who’s going to buy a car called the Sherpa?”
“People who live in the mountains. It’s a good name.”
“Marketing is ruining the world,” Melanie says. “We’ve gone from the Information Age to the Age of Marketing, the constant manipulation of language until it becomes unreal. Everything’s just acronyms, buzzwords, jargon.”
“Like collateral damage and friendly fire.”
“Like GIFT: gamete intrafallopian transfer. Fucking GIFT!”
“Well,” I say, “it might be a gift for someone.”
“And the worst part is that no one wants the truth anyway. You know what Mike says: ‘If people wanted the truth, we’d give it to them.’ ”
“Mike’s a prick.”
“Maybe, but he’s right.”
“He’s not still hitting on you, is he?”
“People want to believe. They have to believe. But the truth doesn’t need us to believe it. It just is. That’s the inherent problem with belief, and with people.”
“OK, so let’s start an antibelief campaign.”
“I’m done with belief. I don’t believe anything anymore.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I was thinking about just taking off somewhere: Brazil or Indonesia; someplace where I can’t understand the language. Maybe I’ll go back into the Peace Corps.”
“Not the Peace Corps again,” I say. “I prefer you with shaved armpits.”
“Or Operation Smile. I can help those kids with harelips.”
“What are you, a doctor now?”
“Nothing’s real.” She lies back on the bed, puts her hands on her stomach, and looks up at the ceiling. “Like us talking. Talk, talk, talk. It’s not real. You know what’s real? Sex. Sex is real.”
“You want to do it?”
“Ha,” she says, and rolls over into a fetal position. “You should work on your play. Stop with all the literary theory. Write about people.” She puts the pillow over her head and is quiet again.
I head to Columbia to teach my undergraduate dramaturgy class, in which I attempt to make Aristotle’s Poetics interesting. Afterward I cancel office hours so I can go home to be with Melanie. On the way, I stop by a deli/lotto/flower shop on Broadway and buy a bouquet of dark red roses.
Back at our building by Central Park, I stand on the elevator and watch the numbers change and think about taking Melanie out to dinner and maybe a movie, one of those big, brainless Hollywood movies that require a healthy suspension of disbelief. When the elevator stops on our floor, I hear distant screaming. I drop the flowers, rush down the hall to our door, unlock it, and sprint through the apartment toward the sound of Melanie’s cries. Throwing open the bathroom door, I find her on the toilet, legs spread apart, a wad of toilet paper in her hand. On the paper is a chunk of pink flesh maybe an inch long and a half-inch wide.
“Take it! Take it!” she shouts, her hand starting to shake.
With both hands I gently cup the wad of paper and look down at the little bit of flesh inside. Melanie’s hands ball up into fists as she doubles over.
“It’ll be OK, sweetie,” I say. And as I say this, I get a glimpse of my face in the bathroom mirror, all of my feebleness staring back at me. How foolish I am, how incapable. I bend over and kiss the top of her head.
“Get that out of here,” she cries. “Please?”
I carry it down the hall and into the kitchen, where I turn on the light with my elbow and look closely at what I’ve got in my hand. It doesn’t look remotely human: more like one of those organs that you pull out of the turkey the day before Thanksgiving. I set it on the counter and softly touch it with my index finger, not believing that this is how we start out. Then I gently fold up the paper and place the thing in the garbage can under the sink.
I help Melanie back to bed, get her a glass of water, and caress her hair, trying not to feel anything. When I call Dr. Pradeep, she tells me that it sounds like Melanie has passed the fetus.
“But it doesn’t really look like anything,” I say, pacing around the living room. “I mean, it’s just a little piece of . . . flesh.”
“But she’s cramping? In a lot of pain?”
“Then it sounds like she is in the process of miscarrying.”
She says that Melanie should call her in the morning. We may have to schedule a D and C. I ask what a D and C is. She tells me it’s a procedure to clean out any remaining tissue that might be left in the uterus. I ask why she didn’t just say that we need to come in to have Melanie’s uterus cleaned out. She tells me that the procedure is called a D and C.
That night I lie in the darkness, unable to sleep. I see that flashing light in my head, the little flicker among the shadows on the monitor. Hours pass, voices occasionally rising from the sidewalk below our window, garbage trucks rumbling by. I can see shapes around the room: the rectangular paintings on the wall, the tilted corn plant rising in the corner. Colorless forms. I think about Aristotle’s notion that recognition is the heart of tragedy, “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate” between the characters in the drama. What do Melanie and I really know? I wonder. And what will it produce in us?
I rise from the bed and walk into the kitchen. The city lights shine in through the window. It seems bright, but I know it’s not. I open the cabinet door below the sink. The wad of toilet paper sits on top of the garbage. I pull it out, place it on the counter, and unwrap it. The fleshy thing is there, lying on the paper, rings of moisture spreading from it. My right hand pulls a small paring knife from the wood block, and my left thumb and index finger carefully grip the little bit of flesh. I push the knife in and begin to slice, moving the blade back and forth through the tissue until it lies in two pieces before me.
I’m looking for the heart, the source of the flashing light that hasn’t left me since I saw it in that dark room three weeks ago, that flashing light I see when I run, when I’m standing in front of my students, when I’m trying to get to sleep, when I am asleep. But when I pick up one half and examine it, there’s nothing there that I can tell: no heart, no anything, just a pink mass of fibrous tissue.
“What are you looking at?” Melanie asks.
“What?” I say.
She flips on the light and sees me now with the thing, cut in half, in my hand. “What are you doing?” she says. “What the hell are you doing with that?” She backs away from me, her hands up by her face. “Doug?”
“Jesus,” she says. She turns and goes into the bathroom, slamming the door.
I wrap the two halves of the thing in the wad of toilet paper and set it back on top of the garbage. I stand there leaning against the sink until she comes out of the bathroom and says, her voice thick with phlegm, “You are not sleeping in my bed. You hear me? You sick, sick . . .” Then the bedroom door closes.
The next morning she gets up and walks past me lying on the couch in my blue-and-white-striped pajamas. She doesn’t say anything. A minute later, I hear the shower running. Her first shower in days.
I go into the bathroom to pee. “Man, I couldn’t sleep at all,” I say, as if nothing has happened. “My head is full of clouds.”
She’s silent. I go back to the couch, pull my old Michigan Wolverine blanket up over me, and close my eyes.
Melanie comes out wrapped in a purple towel and goes into the bedroom. Her cellphone on the coffee table beeps out ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” I pick it up and see Dr. Pradeep’s name on the screen.
“Hello?” I say.
The bedroom door opens, and Melanie comes toward me with her hand outstretched.
“Hello,” Dr. Pradeep says. “Your wife called me?”
Melanie yanks the phone out of my hand and returns to the bedroom, closing the door behind her. I get up and put my ear to the door, but Melanie’s voice is muffled, indecipherable. I go back to the couch and lie down.
When Melanie comes out of the bedroom, she’s dressed in gray sweat pants and her navy blue Penn sweat shirt. She stands with her hands on her hips and stares down at me, her long black hair wet and gleaming in the morning light. “I can’t believe what you did.” She shakes her head and sniffs.
I sit up. “I know. I can’t either, really.”
She turns and moves to the front door.
“Melanie, where are you going?”
In my pajamas, I follow her out the door and into the hallway, where the bouquet of roses I bought yesterday lies on the floor. “What are you doing?” I say. “Are you going to the doctor?”
She pushes the elevator button, her back to me.
“You’re going without me?”
She doesn’t turn around. The elevator dings, and the doors open.
“Melanie, please wait for me. We always go to the doctor together.”
She steps inside, and the doors shut. I race back into our apartment, slip my bare feet into my running shoes, and rush out the door with my wallet but no keys. I take the stairs three at a time, down eight flights. Then I’m sprinting down the sidewalk along Central Park North in my pajamas, past old ladies on park benches holding out rolled-up copies of Watchtower and asking, “You want some good news?”
As I get closer to Central Park West, I see Melanie up ahead starting to descend the subway steps. I rush past a guy handing out the AM New York and touting sales at J&R Music World, his voice almost lost in the rumbling of the backhoes digging up the intersection behind him. My wallet in my hand, I race down the stairs. “Melanie!” I yell, my voice echoing throughout the station. As I swipe my card at the turnstile, faces turn my way, wondering what the hell this guy in pajamas is doing chasing a woman in sweats.
“Melanie,” I say, jogging up beside her on a platform crowded with commuters in suits and ties. Down the tracks the white light is getting closer, and I feel the vibration of the approaching train. Melanie doesn’t look at me.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I say. “But —”
The train screeches to a stop, and we get on the packed car and stand, grasping a pole. “It’s not what you think,” I say.
“It never is,” she says, her eyes looking somewhere above the heads of the seated passengers, her jaw fixed, her face tight, unwavering.
“I just had to know.” I want to say more, but it feels like we’re heading into forbidden territory here, and I don’t want to do it in a crowded subway train. We get off at 86th Street and climb the stairs toward the bright sunlight. On the sidewalk, Melanie moves as if I’m not there, looking straight ahead, determined.
“I was trying to see,” I say. “That’s all. I had to know if it was . . .”
She ignores me and turns into the office building.
On the elevator up, I try again: “Here’s the thing,” I say. “I couldn’t find the heart.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Melanie says.
The elevator doors open, and she gets off and walks down the hall toward Dr. Pradeep’s office. I follow her in.
At the front desk, a young Hispanic woman hangs up her phone and says, with a thick accent, “Do you have an appointment?”
“I’m Melanie Mayer Aaron. I’m here for a D and C. Dr. Pradeep told me to come right in.”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “You’ll have to sign some papers first. They’re waiting for you at the end of the hall.”
I follow Melanie past the ultrasound room, where I first saw the flashing light. A door opens, and a tall blond woman smiles at Melanie and looks twice at me in my pajamas. “Good morning,” she says and welcomes us into her small office. She says her name is Uriel: “Like Muriel, but my parents left off the M. Have a seat.” The room is cluttered with blue and red file folders stacked in piles along the walls. “Don’t mind the mess,” Uriel says. “We’re updating our filing system.”
Melanie sits in a blue plastic chair and says, “Thanks for seeing me so soon.”
“Listen,” I say, standing behind Melanie, “I would like to get an ultrasound first, before we go through with this. Just to check.”
Uriel nods, a frown forming on her face. “I know this is difficult for you,” she says.
“Um, can you get Dr. Pradeep in here,” I say, “just so I can ask her to take another look?”
“Doug,” Melanie says, shaking her head.
“Will you call Dr. Pradeep, please?” I say.
“God damn it, Doug,” Melanie says, “will you please stop it?”
Uriel puts her elbows on the desk and clasps her hands together. “Mr. Aaron, I see this with a lot of people who aren’t ready yet. Maybe the two of you need a little more time.”
“I don’t want more time,” I say. “I want an ultrasound.”
Melanie shakes her head and says, “No. I’m done with this.”
Uriel leans back in her chair and ignores my pacing as she tells us about the procedure: what they will do with the extracted tissue; how Melanie might experience cramping for a few days, nothing major. Then she pushes a clipboard across the desk with papers for Melanie to sign.
“I don’t want this,” I say. “I don’t want any of this!” I pick the clipboard up and throw it against the wall. The papers flutter in the air.
“Doug!” Melanie says.
“Mr. Aaron,” Uriel says. “I understand you’re upset. It’s only natural. But —”
“I want to look again,” I say. “I want to take my wife into that other room, and I want to look. To make sure. We don’t know if that thing that came out was the baby. We don’t know anything. Maybe it’s still alive.”
Melanie doesn’t say anything.
Uriel slowly nods her head. “OK, I understand your frustration. You are not alone. Everyone who comes in here feels the way you do. It’s only natural.”
“Screw this!” I turn and walk out of the room, down the hallway with abstract paintings on white walls. “Dr. Pradeep!” I yell, throwing open a door to a dark, empty room. “Dr. Pradeep!” I open the door across the hall. Yeva, the Russian sonographer, sits in the dark beside a prone woman with her feet in the stirrups. I back out and go into the waiting room, where pregnant women look up from their magazines. “Dr. Pradeep!” I shout.
I know, as I stand here in this brightly lit waiting room, shouting and raging, that I’m getting close to something, something biological and broken and necessary. I can sense myself in an elemental way, and I’m suddenly aware of the depth of my folly, and my courage. I’m not going to let this go, this thing we made in a thunderstorm without all the doctors, just Melanie and me in a downpour.
“I want Dr. Pradeep, now!”
Uriel comes into the waiting room with her hands up, as if I am about to hit her. “Mr. Aaron,” she says, “please. We understand!” She turns to the receptionist. “Rosetta, call security.”
“I don’t want you to understand,” I say, trying to catch my breath. “I want an ultrasound.” I rush back down the hall to the room where Melanie sits stone-faced, staring out the window. I close the door and try to gather my thoughts.
“I don’t want to look,” Melanie says. “I just want this whole thing to be over.” Her voice is flat but determined.
I take a deep breath to calm myself. My jaw trembles. I take another breath and let it out. “Sorry. I just went crazy.” I put my head in my hands and let out a disbelieving chuckle.
“I love you,” Melanie says, “but I think I’m through with this.”
“What do you mean by ‘this’?”
“I just want to go away, you know? For a while. Maybe to Belize or something. Just collect myself. Being with you just makes me sad.”
“Sweetie, please don’t say that.”
She looks out the window and closes her eyes. “Oh boy,” she says, and then opens them. “I can’t look at that screen again.”
“Inside myself, and see nothing.”
“Melanie,” I say, putting my hand on her knee, “this is something we did together, without the drugs, without all the bullshit. This is us. If we don’t take one last look, we’ll always wonder: what if?”
“Doug, this isn’t your body.”
“I know, I know. Listen, please just do this one last thing for me, and then if there’s nothing, we’ll get the D and C and you can fly off to Belize or Bora Bora or wherever, get as far away as possible.”
“This isn’t a negotiation,” she says.
“Look, you were talking about truth and belief and all that, right? So, OK, the truth doesn’t need us to believe in it; it just is. But what good is truth if you don’t know it to be true? Don’t we have to know the truth before we do this thing? You’re just going on belief here.”
“Why do you even want to be a father?” she says.
I look around the room, as if expecting to find an answer. “I don’t know,” I say. “I just . . . When I saw that little heartbeat, I couldn’t breathe.”
There’s a knock on the door, three quick raps, and then it opens. “Hello,” Dr. Pradeep says. “How are we doing?” Her voice is gentle and it makes me uneasy.
“We’re OK,” I say.
“Are we settled down?” She turns and says something to a security guard behind her, and then leans back into the room. “The ultrasound room is available if you’re ready.”
“Sweetie?” I say.
Melanie stares out the window at the gray light of the overcast day. “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” She stands silhouetted by the light from the window. “Come on,” she says.
I take her hand and we walk slowly to the dark ultrasound room.
Melanie pulls off her sweat pants and puts on the paper robe before climbing on the exam table and putting her feet up in the stirrups. Dr. Pradeep works quickly, as if humoring us. She squirts the lubricant on the wand and inserts it into Melanie. She taps a button on the keyboard, and the monitor above us flickers on: a black screen full of shadows with numbers running up the left side and across the bottom.
“I want to apologize,” I say to Dr. Pradeep, “for the way I behaved out there. I went a little crazy.”
Melanie closes her eyes. “I’m not going to look,” she says. “I don’t even want to hear anything.”
I grab her left hand and squeeze it. Her diamond ring digs into my finger.
Dr. Pradeep twists the wand around. Shadows and grainy forms fill the screen, like before. “Well,” Dr. Pradeep says, “let’s see here.” She leans into her computer, searching the screen for something. And then she stops.
I look up and see, in the middle of the dark screen, a faint flashing light. I squeeze Melanie’s hand tighter.
Dr. Pradeep hits a key on her keyboard and moves the wand again. I try to breathe, but my lungs won’t take in air. The doctor takes the wand from between Melanie’s legs and puts it back in its holster. “I’ll be right back.”
She leaves us in the semidarkness to wait. I look down at Melanie’s face. Her mouth is closed. Her eyes are closed. Her dark hair falls away from her forehead, exposing her widow’s peak.
“What’s going on?” she finally says.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t say anything,” she says. “I don’t want to see or hear anything. Why did you squeeze my hand? I can’t do this. What was up there on the screen? What did you see?”
At this point I start to question what I’ve seen. I feel as if I’m floating in a dark, murky place.
The door opens, and a woman in a white lab coat comes into the room, followed by Dr. Pradeep. “Hello, I’m Dr. Chava,” the new woman says. She has short, spiky white hair and rimless glasses and speaks as if we are running out of time and had better get to it. “I’m going to take a look. You don’t mind, do you?” She sits down at the computer, rolls her shoulders around the way a swimmer does before jumping into the pool, and then squeezes some lubricant onto the wand. “You were the one shouting out there?” she says to me.
“Well, let’s see what all that shouting was about.” She inserts the wand, her arm moving between Melanie’s legs with a confidence I have not seen. “Well,” she says, “it appears as if you have a slightly tilted uterus. That can make it difficult to get a good reading. Sometimes you can’t see a heartbeat at all.”
On the screen, the little light flashes again, so fast it almost looks like a constant light. I stare up at it, squeezing Melanie’s hand tighter.
Dr. Chava looks at her screen. “Give it a second here,” she says. “One more second.”
“Doug?” Melanie says.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“One twenty-five,” Dr. Chava says. She hits a couple of keys. A white circle appears. “This is the head.”
“What?” Melanie says.
“Only twenty-five?” I say. “Is that the pulse?”
“One twenty-five,” the doctor says. “And there’s the umbilical cord.”
“One twenty-five?” I say. “Melanie, open your eyes!”
She shakes her head and clenches her jaw.
Dr. Chava asks Dr. Pradeep, “What was the length last week?”
“Well,” Dr. Chava says, “now it’s six.”
Dr. Pradeep brings her hand up to her mouth.
Dr. Chava tilts her head down and looks over the top of her glasses at me. “It looks pretty damn comfortable in there.”
“Honey,” I say, “open your eyes.”
As the doctors talk about the earlier readings, I wipe a tear that crawls from Melanie’s closed eye.
“Well,” Dr. Chava says, “first off, I want you to know that early ultrasounds can be incorrect. The earlier the ultrasound the less accurate. And with the tilted uterus, Dr. Pradeep just couldn’t get a good reading last week. We just got lucky today.”
“And with any pregnancy,” Dr. Pradeep says, “there can be cramping.”
Dr. Chava recommends weekly ultrasounds until we are in the clear.
I lean into Melanie. Everything falls away: the computer, the monitors, the doctors. There is nothing, just my forehead touching her forehead, my lips on her cheek. I close my eyes, so we can be in the same darkness, and I kiss her face again and again. “Melanie,” I whisper, “can you believe this?”
“Shut up,” she says. “Just shut up.”
When I read Alex Mindt’s short story “In the Near Dark” [June 2007], about a misdiagnosed miscarriage, I had just found out I was pregnant for the first time. The pregnancy felt extremely tenuous, and I was aware of the real possibility of miscarriage.
As I read Mindt’s story, I was dumbfounded. Could a woman expel tissue and still be pregnant? Could a doctor misread an ultrasound and convince a patient to abort a viable pregnancy? Could a D and C that’s performed to make a miscarriage more bearable actually kill a healthy fetus? I felt that by publishing this story, The Sun did a tremendous disservice to women who are trying to conceive. Not enough explanation was given, and because it was labeled “fiction,” I didn’t know what to believe.
It’s now a week and a half later. Today, after bleeding briefly this morning, I was told that the baby has no heartbeat. The clinic required a second opinion on lack of heartbeat, and the other doctor confirmed it. They even said the baby had deteriorated slightly. My choices: wait for a natural miscarriage, which can take several weeks to occur; take a drug to induce a miscarriage; or have a D and C.
So here I sit, haunted by the possibility that if I take the drug or have a D and C, there’s a chance I could be killing my baby. Or I can endure the grief, exhaustion, and morning sickness that come with waiting for a natural miscarriage.
I wish with all of my heart that I had never read that story.
My heart goes out to the above reader, and to any reader who felt undue pain as a result of my story. Matters surrounding pregnancy, as I know from my own experience, can be tragic and heartbreaking.
In defense of The Sun, which chose to publish my work, I must say that the medical aspects of the story, though dumbfounding, are completely factual. Yes, a woman can pass tissue, bleed, and be advised to end a viable pregnancy by doctors who can’t get a good reading on an ultrasound. I know this firsthand.
As a woman who is just beginning the process of trying to conceive, though I lost all of one ovary and part of the other when I was fifteen years old, I was deeply touched by Alex Mindt’s story, “In the Near Dark” [June 2007]. Although I have not had the tragic experience of a miscarriage, I feel that I can, in some small way, relate to the anonymous reader who shared her reaction to the story in the September 2007 Correspondence, describing the fear and uncertainty that it caused her. Although I, too, felt sad after reading the story, I was also inspired by the passion with which the husband insisted that the medical professionals and his wife trust his intuition about their unborn child. I was reminded of the importance of staying in touch with what is happening in my own body and not blindly following what the “experts” say.
It seems to me that making the decision to terminate a pregnancy for any reason would be heartbreaking, and that the question “what if” would always linger, whether that reader had read Mindt’s story or not.