2006 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
by Marie Holmes
Cassie found her announcement one day on the medical students’ board. It was the first flier of hundreds she had read during lunch breaks that could possibly be directed at her. The paper was pale pink, free of distasteful clip-art, the bold text arranged in a simple, double-lined box: Loving Couple Seeks Openhearted, Caucasian Woman, 21-34. That was all. There were two numbers in small type lower down on the page. One was obviously a telephone number—a hospital extension—and the other, while not preceded by a dollar sign and not containing a comma, was, Cassie felt certain, a monetary amount. That figure was five thousand. She removed the pushpin and folded the sheet of paper in half and then again so that it fit inside her palm.
Cassie worked in medical records at the hospital, pushing carts of paper between high metal shelves, hopping up a stepladder to retrieve manila folders neatly labeled with colored stickers. It was not where she had intended to end up, with her bachelor’s in sociology. What exactly her intentions were remained a mystery to Cassie, and she dedicated great swaths of time to imagining the endless iterations of shape that could be created with her life.
Cassie pulled files, replaced files, silently singing the alphabet all day long. What made her job bearable was the loose paper, transcriptions of dictations telephoned in by doctors and e-mailed to her computer from someplace in India. These she hole-punched and inserted into individual charts. She read every page that she touched, and racked up volumes of anecdotal medical knowledge—fearing aneurysm every time her head ached, stomach cancer when her gut cramped. She became a repository of fascinating hospital gossip—a baby wounded during a caesarian section, an old man who had died of a heart attack while waiting in the emergency room—which nobody would ever ask her about. None of the other clerks read the files. Not like she did. Cassie had asked: her colleagues found the material in the charts indecipherable and dull. But these stories—plain, tragic, typical—were entirely responsible, Cassie believed, for keeping her from losing herself to her own mind in those gray, fireproof basement rooms.
“Gynecology,” answered a receptionist when Cassie dialed the extension from her cubicle that afternoon. She scanned the sheet of paper for a name, some other identifying word.
“There was a flier?” she ventured, “posted by the mailroom?”
“You’re calling about the donor ad?”
“Yes,” said Cassie, disappointed to think that she was not the first.
The woman transferred her call. A male doctor, a reproductive endocrinologist, as he introduced himself, said he was just going to ask her a few questions: date of birth, height, weight, skin color—he wanted a very specific description here. Cassie said she tanned easily, and he said, "Why don’t we say olive." He needed to know how far she had gone in school, her SAT scores, and whether anybody in her family carried a genetic disease—cystic fibrosis, Tay Sach’s, Fanconi’s anemia, phenylketonuria. Cassie was fascinated—what were those last two? But it wasn’t an appropriate moment to ask.
College graduation had come like a sudden, sheeting downpour that left her scurrying for shelter. Cassie had done well in school. But between the chalked protest messages and the poetry and the decadent discovery of her sexuality, there had been little time to contemplate her post-college existence.
The town she lived in wasn’t far from where she had gone to school. School, however, had been far away from the rest of the world: an overpriced oasis of the liberal arts in the middle of the desert. The job at the hospital had been listed with career services, and although the position was clearly in medical records, the language of description— oversee, liaison, confidential—had intrigued her. Her ex-girlfriend, Gwen, was going to be teaching on the nearby reservation, as part of a national service program, and she was looking for another housemate. Their unkempt two-story with the overgrown lawn was a kind of halfway house, a last pit stop before passing into the limits of adulthood. Teachers’ salaries were, inexplicably, generous, and Cassie’s roommates provided take-out burritos and beer and stories of maladjusted children and monstrous parents and tyrannical administrators that filled long, warm evenings on their peeling porch.
Cassie still cared for Gwen. Their relationship had been brief, but exhaustive, in its way. Gwen was androgynously beautiful. Tall and athletically slender, with the hint of some delicateness about her. Gwen and Cassie had gone together to a summer program in Italy, and when the course in Rome was finished they changed their tickets, squeezed every last cent from their credit cards and caught the ferry at Bari. For two weeks, they caught early morning boats between the least-visited of the Greek islands, where the black sand was so hot that you had to lay on thick straw mats in order to be near the water. They breakfasted on fruit and honey and thick yogurt and their skin crusted with salt from swimming topless in the sea. When the relationship ended—not long after their return to school—they met in Gwen’s dorm room to divide the photographs. The only picture that Cassie had really felt she needed was a shot she had taken of Gwen knee-deep in the ocean, walking towards her, her hair and skin glistening in the late afternoon sun. Something about the way Gwen’s body held itself up—as though still buoyed by the salty water—struck Cassie with a sense of openness, as though the memory of that moment could expand to fill landscapes past the edge of the picture.
Since becoming housemates, there had been glimpses of the intimacy that they had once shared, and this pleased Cassie. Gwen struggled with the young students foisted upon her in September, and found in Cassie an attentive audience. Their conversations provided Cassie with a focus beyond her own unsettling aimlessness and the incessant difficulties of maintaining her bank account. Cassie’s parents did send money, every so often. They were earnest, aged-hippie types who assured her that, with time, she would mark her own path.
On the day of the interview, Cassie wore a freshly washed shirt and sensible shoes. It seemed important to project an image of cleanliness. The doctor who she had spoken with on the phone met her, alone, in his office. There was no official egg donation program at the hospital, he explained, but they had the facilities—meaning the doctor himself, Cassie guessed—to perform in-vitro fertilization with a donor egg. If they could find a suitable donor, it would save this couple from having to travel out to one of the big city clinics for as many cycles as it took them to conceive.
He had pages of questions. Somebody brought Cassie a cup of coffee. First they went through her medical history—sexual, social, psychological. The doctor had big, prickly-looking white eyebrows, which he cocked cartoonishly. He could not suppress his pleasure at Cassie’s lesbianism.
“So you’ve never had intercourse with a man?” He pushed his face forward from the neck, leaning out from his cushioned chair.
Cassie shook her head, wishing that she had dressed a little less conservatively. She was a dyke, not a nun, after all.
“But I have—you know—in high-school—”
“You’ve performed fellatio.”
“Did you develop any sores in your mouth?”
Cassie was neither especially ashamed nor humored to say such things. She knew that the doctor had seen stories much stranger than hers. She wished, in fact, that her own history were a little more colorful, contained something for them both to ponder in that drab office.
As the interview progressed, the questions grew stranger. Cassie forced herself to pause thoughtfully before each answer. The doctor asked which hand she used to write with, whether she could sing on key, how she rated her athletic abilities. Did she consider herself especially agile, average, or clumsy?
Average, Cassie said. She thought of herself standing on one foot during a yoga class that she had taken at school to fulfill a physical education requirement and pulled her spine straight against the back of her chair.
She became slightly frantic, towards the end, certain that her answers could not have captured all that was genetically desirable about her. The doctor cooperated, duly noting everything that she rattled on about. There would only be one chance. It wasn’t a job interview, but rather a cross between a medical visit and some other type of evaluation— she felt the shadow of something beneath each inert question. Cassie was being checked out, by the doctor, on behalf of the infertile couple. The process of selection had been clinicalized, and she was sure that their rejection would come over the telephone like an unhappy test result. She was no med student, no athlete, no artistic genius. These people, Cassie thought, would not pick her, and she would return to her stacks of files, to a bedroom window overlooking a tangle of weeds, without any proof that she had done this, that she had raised to the top of a stack.
The last thing the doctor did was take her picture. It was a Polaroid—the hospital was for some reason full of Polaroids, as Cassie had learned from notices for missing cameras that appeared above the photocopy machine in the basement. The doctor didn’t offer to let her watch her picture develop, but as he was showing her to the door, he looked down at the white square in his hand and smiled slightly. After saying goodbye and thank you Cassie paused a moment in hopes that he would say something more, something silly and inappropriate, perhaps tell her she was the cutest one so far. But instead he wished her a pleasant day.
That night, Cassie asked Gwen if she was attractive. Cute was what she said. “Do you think I’m cute?”
Gwen was smoking a cigarette, flicking ash into the garbage can as Cassie washed her plate in the sink. “I still find you attractive,” Gwen said coolly. She looked to Cassie’s face and then held her gaze there. Cassie felt something gooey and warm spreading in her stomach.
Two weeks went by. Cassie told herself that she was resigned to rejection, but there was a fluttering in her chest whenever the telephone in her cubicle sounded. She had told no one of her interview, and this allowed her to hope that she had made a good impression on the doctor. When he called to tell her that the infertile couple was indeed interested in harvesting her oocytes, pride rose up and bathed her like a cooling salve.
First, she was to meet with a young psychologist who had been recruited, it appeared, to deem her fit to withstand the cycle and harvest. She went over the process with Cassie, who assured her that she had no ethical qualms about leftover embryos being frozen or discarded. Cassie had done some reading on the Internet, and she worked as much medical terminology as possible into her answers, calling her eggs oocytes and mentioning various hormones by name.
After a time, the psychologist put down her pen and closed the folder in which she had been taking notes. Cassie scooted into the front part of her chair, preparing to stand, but then the psychologist sighed, just loudly enough for Cassie to hear.
“I’m just curious, why do you want to do this?”
Cassie had hoped against this particular question, as she could concoct no response that would be both rational and seemly. The obvious incentive was money, and the obvious thing to say was that she wanted to help these people. No words and no reasons, however, explained the way she felt at that moment, clutching her bag to her chest. A strange heat fingered its way towards her face and neck.
“Because I can,” she said, willing her tongue to move in a manner that wouldn’t betray her. “I’m healthy, I have time, I don’t think I have the kinds of problems with all this that some women would.”
“And the payment?” The psychologist had tossed her rapport-building mantle. She was asking this one for herself.
“It’s nice. But I guess there are easier ways to get money. What I’d like is to make a down payment on a car.”
“You don’t have a car?” The psychologist seemed genuinely surprised.
Cassie shook her head slowly.
“That sounds perfectly reasonable. I’m sorry. I was just wondering—”
“It’s okay,” Cassie interrupted. “It’s all kind of fascinating—I mean, I think it is.”
“Are you a med student?” The psychologist squinted at her.
Cassie gave her best polite laugh.
She was quick to shut the door behind her. Medical school, she thought. Just one of a thousand options she had never contemplated. Yet there was a promise of forward motion. She would not be at this tedious job forever. She had written, she had read, she had traversed far-away waters. And there too was that round weight sinking, with its incessant threat of anchoring here. Cassie found it difficult sometimes to tell whether she was moving along or she was falling. She had a secret wish, nestled like a small, burrowing animal inside her chest, to be a part of something larger, to scratch somewhere and know it would be permanent.
She had passed muster with the psychologist, the doctor called to inform her. Cassie’s next task was to meet with the lawyer. He met her in the doctor’s office with some papers he had drawn up for her to sign, relinquishing her rights to the embryos created with her eggs and any children that resulted.
“They don’t want to meet me?” Cassie enquired. “Before?”
“It’s standard procedure,” said the doctor, who sat behind his desk and tapped on his keyboard while the lawyer unearthed documents from an overstuffed briefcase.
“Even if the harvest is successful, a pregnancy doesn’t always result—it’s best if there isn’t any contact between the donor and the recipient.”
Cassie didn’t entirely believe him—surely, some of the people who placed these ads selected their donors themselves.
“Don’t I get to know anything about them?” It seemed fair. They knew her entire medical history, had seen the Polaroid picture that she herself had not gotten a look at.
The doctor looked down at his desk, away from Cassie’s gaze. “These people want very badly to be parents. They’re grateful for your help,” he said. The lawyer handed her a pen.
Teresa Ankeley was thirty-four years old and her folder was as fat as the ones they sent stacked in carts to the transplant center or psychiatry. After days of carefully negotiated sifting in the files that were called up to the infertility clinic, Cassie had identified Teresa Ankeley and memorized her location: third shelf from the bottom, a few palm’s lengths from the back of the row. Every time she went into that gray, cinderblock storage room to pull or replace a cartload of charts, she would slip Mrs. Ankeley’s tome on the top of her stack, reading as she looped the shelves. One page per file handled. She longed to take Mrs. Ankeley’s story home with her, or to at least slip it away for her lunch hour so as to devour its pages in the privacy of a dark booth in the cafeteria. Cassie had lost the urge to eye other charts with anything more than a passing interest, and the thought of getting caught with her head in this one was too terrible to imagine. Nobody could know, not before she had fingered every page, every lab form, every physician’s scrawl.
Eight years earlier, Mrs. Ankeley, then Teresa Martin, came to the hospital for a colonoscopy. She was referred by a doctor at a private clinic across town. Patient complains of excessive fatigue, those records read. Anemia? The doctor had ordered blood tests and instructed Teresa Martin to provide a stool sample. Cassie envisioned Teresa Martin—just a few years older than Cassie—outside a stucco clinic building, sitting behind the wheel of her car, tired and sad and scared, staring at the plastic cup that she was to return with the next morning.
The doctor’s office had sent the hospital a photocopy of some lab results. Certain numbers were highlighted orange. The notes section from Teresa Martin’s visit to the GI clinic read, simply, Chief complaint blood in stool. Cassie examined the pictures taken inside her lower intestine—grainy images that she could not imagine were of any diagnostic use. Several growths were removed during the procedure. There was writing that Cassie could not decipher, and words she did not comprehend. She recognized, however, the term malignancy, which appeared several times. Cassie thought of a doctor in one of the clinics holding the pictures up to the light, circling things with his finger. He would have made the call himself. He would have told Teresa Martin that she needed to come in to discuss her test results.
After her period had come and gone, Cassie made the appointment upstairs.
In the exam room, there was a small bowl of smooth, colored agates, and photographs on the wall of newborn infants cradled in enormous flower petals. A lavender gown, which tied across the chest instead of in back, lay neatly folded on the padded exam table. Cassie imagined that this was what a beauty spa would feel like—it was impossible to think that she was still in the hospital. The slim women sitting in the waiting area, with their leather purses and their handle bags from upscale mall stores, were not the hospital’s usual clientele. According to the papers she had signed, it was the infertile couple who would be cutting Cassie’s check once her eggs were harvested, it was to their home that the bills for her office visits were to be sent. No insurance would cover any of this.
The doctor did an ultrasound to examine Cassie’s ovaries. He slicked up some kind of probe with a gel, inserted it, and pressed against her cervix. Her ovaries sat like round sacks on the screen, gray and giant. After, a nurse came and gave her an injection of Lupron. The initial puncture of the needle stung a bit. Cassie exhaled, as the nurse directed, and the pain faded, but as she pushed the fluid into Cassie’s thigh, her muscle began to ache and then pulled into a piercing cramp. By the time the nurse withdrew the needle, Cassie’s eyes were brimming, and when she wiped at them with her fingers she only spread the water across her skin.
“That’s a tough one.” The nurse handed her a tissue.
“I didn’t think it was going to hurt,” Cassie said. “Are they all like that?”
Cassie’s skin was bumpy with cold underneath the thin gown, the tissue damp and wadded in one hand. She felt suddenly small and stupid.
“It’ll all be over before you know it.” The nurse placed the palm of her hand on Cassie’s exposed knee and shook it gently.
The records from the oncology department begin two weeks after Teresa Martin’s colonoscopy. Patient eager to schedule surgery as soon as possible.
The brief “social history” section of the preformatted clinic notes pages provided little descriptive information for Cassie to add to the image of Teresa Martin. As Cassie would have guessed, Teresa Martin was a non-smoker who had never injected herself with drugs. She was heterosexual and single. She worked at a gym—a trainer, perhaps? or a masseuse?—and lived alone. It was this last detail that struck Cassie as she read standing between the shelves, pretending to work. She imagined Teresa Martin’s clean, quiet apartment—large, unused candles on square side tables and a refrigerator moderately stocked with vegetables and fruit. Who would stay with her while she was sick? Was there a sister?
A portion—it was impossible to ascertain how much, without an anatomy textbook, as the Latinate terms meant little to Cassie—of Teresa Martin’s colon had been removed during the operation. Then another phone call. Another office visit. More difficult news. The cancer had not penetrated the colon and spread to other parts of her body, and the surgery was to have been the only treatment. But there had been some complication, some unforeseen quality to the tumors.
Discussed removal of growths and possibility of cancer remaining. Patient requests that chemotherapy begin immediately. Concerned about nausea and hair loss. Says not worried about possible effects on fertility.
Teresa Martin’s thoughts about having children made an intuitive sense to Cassie. There was a demarcation, she saw, a line that circumstance could deepen into a chasm, between an obsession with the shape of a future and an obsessive focus on the having of one.
On the day that she brought home a paper sack of vials and syringes and dumped its contents onto her bed, Cassie decided to tell Gwen. To keep it secret seemed unnecessarily martyr-like. She thought she would say it that evening on the back porch, where she could watch the horizon as she spoke. She would pop the top off a bottle of beer, raise it to her lips, say, So I’m going to do this thing, and take a long, cool sip. But it had rained earlier so the porch furniture was still wet, there was no beer and it was just Cassie and Gwen making sandwiches in the kitchen.
“Guess what I’m doing,” Cassie said.
Gwen didn’t glance up from the tomato she was slicing. “Tell me,” she said. And Cassie wondered if she should. Gwen’s voice had a hard quality to it—she was tired, Cassie thought. Her students leeched something from her.
Cassie attempted to change the subject, asking Gwen about her day at school.
“Just say what you’re going to say.” Gwen tossed the remaining tomato wedge into its wet plastic bag.
Cassie described, as succinctly as possible, how her oocytes were going to be cultivated and monitored and finally harvested.
Gwen grabbed a head of lettuce from the refrigerator and began ripping off the outermost, limpid leaves. “You”—she watched intently as the look in Gwen’s eyes traveled and transformed into the words on her lips—“are fucking weird.”
Cassie eyed the kitchen door. Imagined the sound it would make slamming behind her. She told Gwen it was five thousand dollars.
“That’s more than a down payment on a car,” she added.
“But why?” Gwen’s arms hung flaccidly at her sides, the lettuce dangling from her fingers.
“I need the money,” Cassie said weakly. “I just need to do this.”
Teresa Martin’s chemotherapy was unique—new, possibly experimental. It required her to be treated in a series of three cycles. Self-conscious about thinning of hair read one note. Hair loss only noticeable to patient.
At another visit, Theresa complained to a nurse that her labia had grown so dry that they cracked and bled against the brush of toilet paper. Personal lubricant recommended.
A couple of pages later, there was a reference to a baseball cap, beneath a notation that nutritional drinks had been suggested. Cassie flipped back the pages to the first visits, and calculated that by this point Theresa Martin had lost nearly twenty pounds. Cassie imagined her striking, bony face, under the brim of a red cap, whittled to a gangly, teenage shape.
The first weeks’ worth of injections were relatively simple, the syringes small. But then the doctor gave her a new hormone, which was to be injected deep into the muscle covering her hip. Gwen did not hesitate when Cassie asked for help.
The first couple of mornings, Cassie thought for sure that she would scream before the needle was out. But Gwen quickly grew deft with her angling. Cassie found a prickly sort of comfort in their new, clinical routine. Gwen would enter Cassie’s room before seven, expertly pulling the fluid from the vial. She pressed the syringe until a tiny spray shot from the tip of the needle, wiped Cassie’s skin with an alcohol swab, pinched a width of her flesh then jabbed the needle straight in. Slowly she pressed the fluid into Cassie’s muscle and then a fast exit, with her fingers wiggling the skin as though to shake off the pain. There was no earthly reason for a band-aid; nevertheless, Gwen stuck a tiny, beige adhesive strip to the injection site, tapping it into place with the tips of her fingers. What amazed Cassie was that she kept trying so hard to be gentle, after each of her efforts had plumed up into purplish-brown bruises.
For the entire six-week cycle, Cassie took great care when lowering her hips into bus seats and chairs. She was bloated and her breasts swelled slightly, but otherwise didn’t feel that the hormones were affecting her. There was one evening when she opened the refrigerator and found the ice cream gone and before she could stop herself her eyes had filled with stupid tears. She was especially tired at night.
Mornings were the best times. Cassie would arrive early at the hospital and make her way to the clinic, where the nurse waved her into the usual exam room. Then the doctor arrived. He left other women waiting for her, Cassie was sure. Hers was a precious load. She would pull off her pants, lay back on the table, and within moments there would be the soft knocking at the door. Then the doctor would perform a quick ultrasound, tell her everything looked good, that at three weeks they’d be ready for harvest.
She came in on Saturdays as well, and by the time she arrived, the doctor would have turned on the lights, opened the window in the stuffy exam room, and set the bottle of ultrasound gel to warm in a sink full of hot water. It was a longer trip for Cassie, with the buses running on their truncated weekend schedule. The doctor was thoughtful. On Saturdays he brought her coffee with milk and sugar—from the store, not the cafeteria.
During her third round of chemotherapy, Teresa Martin made six visits to the emergency room. Unable to keep down water. Dehydration. The doctors gave her Compazine, IV fluids, and discharged her the same day.
Once, she arrived with chief complaints fever and shortness of breath, and was eventually admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. Her treatment was suspended for a time, so that the third cycle grew into what was practically a fourth.
By the time the chemotherapy was over, and test results pronounced her remission, more than a year had passed since her initial diagnosis. There were few pages left in her file. Some colonoscopy pictures, just as indecipherable as the first. And ink-jet printouts of laboratory results. Finally, the records from the infertility clinic began. They were the first to mark the name change. Between her remission and the search for an oocyte donor, Teresa Martin had become Mrs. Ankeley.
These latest records lacked the oncologist’s sense of detail, of language. The current doctor—Cassie’s doctor— left no sense of Teresa Ankeley’s transformation from a woman unsure she would want a child to a woman who needed a child so much that she went looking for Cassie. There was nothing about the marriage, the return of her health, all the years that had passed. No clue as to when she had changed her mind. Cassie wondered if the idea of the baby had come when there was no need for birth control. If the fact of the impossibility, the blank permanency of no children, had charged Mrs. Ankeley’s desires.
Cassie replaced the file in its spot, sorry to have finished it so quickly, with days to go before the harvest and nothing more to discover. She tried reading the files that passed across her metal cart, but there was no comparison to the story of Teresa Martin’s cancer and remission, and Cassie returned to the shelf each day to re-read a few pages. Her appreciation grew upon second and third readings. No other chart was so brimming with information, so complete.
The oncologist was, it seemed, a man after Cassie’s own heart, a literary type prone to full sentences and evocative descriptions in place of doctor shorthand. He had once written that Teresa Martin was crestfallen upon hearing test results. It would go on like this for pages, and Cassie came to see that something other than writerly instinct, something beyond clinical concern, moved the doctor’s hand. Even before Cassie finally deciphered the signature at the bottom of a lined page, she knew that what she had been reading was some kind of romance. Dr. Ankeley had stopped by Teresa’s bedside every day that she was hospitalized, not for the perfunctory task of examining her but to ask how she felt, to discuss the long course of her treatment. He wrote about the sound of her breath. He noted that she seemed revived, animated. Teresa Martin was bone-thin, balding, and seriously ill, and Dr. Ankeley wrote of her not in idealizations—she was clammy and depressed and coughing productively—but with a singularity of observation that could only be art, or love.
Dr. Ankeley’s first name was Clarence. Cassie looked him up in the staff directory on-line. His offices were on the fourth floor. Department of Oncology. The clinic hours were posted.
The next Tuesday, after her morning ultrasound, she looped the hospital corridors, passing through sets of swinging, windowed doors, until she finally spotted a sign for Oncology. As in most of the clinics, the waiting area spilled out into the hallway, where some chairs and tables and old magazines had been set. There was an elderly man with an oxygen tank, an old lady in a wheelchair, a teenager playing a handheld videogame. He was tan and full-bodied, and it took Cassie a moment to notice that, in addition to being bald, he had no eyebrows or lashes. There were a couple of women wearing head-coverings—a floppy red fishing hat and a scarf with purple flowers.
Cassie approached the reception desk and took hold of a clipboard, as though she had done this before. It was a sign-in sheet: name, physician, appointment time. There were two doctors listed, Ankeley and Miller.
“Need a pen?” offered the woman behind the desk. She eyed Cassie curiously.
“No,” Cassie mumbled, reading the sheet before her. “Here’s one.”
She picked up the blue ballpoint tucked into the top of the clipboard, and with the slow, deliberate motions of a first-grader, traced the neat cursive of Esperanza Sanchez, the last patient to have signed-in to see Dr. Ankeley. Then she sat, unsure for what it was she waited. For Dr. Ankeley to introduce himself? To emerge, name neatly stitched to his white coat, calling Esperanza’s name?
The next patient was summoned by a nurse. Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, and Cassie thought that she might have to wait until Dr. Ankeley left for lunch to get a look at him. But then she heard a man’s voice inquiring, “Sanchez?” The woman with the purple-flowered headscarf stood and stepped away from her seat. Cassie stared into her lap, breathing hard, and then she looked up.
To say that he was not who she had been expecting wouldn’t be accurate. Cassie did not so much have a vision of Dr. Ankeley as an idea. For weeks she had imagined how it felt to look at Theresa Martin from his privileged, clinical vantage—and Mrs. Ankeley she could see. She had a height, a (recovered) weight. Cassie had selected for her a hair color (light brown) and eye color (blue). She had a birthday. Dr. Ankeley, until that moment, had functioned simply as her eyes and hands, observing and recounting his wife’s story. To look up and see anything other than a mirror image of herself was its own kind of shock.
He wasn’t wearing a white coat but a shirt and tie, with a stethoscope coiled around the back of his neck. He was of average height, and his belly hung softly over his belt, wrapped snugly in the fabric of the salmon-colored dress shirt. Wiry tufts of white hair seemed to have been stuck haphazardly around his crown, behind his ears. The skin of his face hung in creased folds, as if weather-beaten. Sixty, Cassie thought. He looked to be at least in his sixties. She stared, and he caught her gaze, staring right back at her for a long moment, longer than he should have been comfortable looking, as though it were a kind of pleasure, an entitlement. Cassie felt her blood swishing frantically in her veins, pumping up something inside her that would soon burst.
Dr. Ankeley motioned for Mrs. Sanchez to go on ahead back towards his office, the exam room, whatever it was they had hiding back there. When she stepped in front of him, he drew a hand to her back and ran it delicately down her spine, tapping his fingers against her tailbone. Cassie heard a strange sound, like a sneeze and a gagging. There were breaths coming fast, and she realized that they were her own.
She stood, steadied herself, and walked with long, swinging strides towards the set of double doors that led to the elevator. When she turned to glance back, Dr. Ankeley and Esperanza Sanchez were gone. The other patients had returned to their magazines. Forgotten the girl in the waiting room, her strange sound absorbed in the peripheral din of bodily malfunction and bizarre behavior.
The next morning, Cassie bit her lip and held her breath during the injection. When Gwen left, she lay a while on her mattress, lingering with her image of Dr. Ankeley and a trembling uneasiness in her gut. She felt as though she had been the one to cast him as the father, and now, finding him unfit for the role, she had only herself to blame.
She could back out at any time, Cassie reminded herself. The lawyer’s papers allowed for it. And she knew that she wouldn’t. It was for Mrs. Ankeley that she was going through with the harvest. She needed her.
Gwen surprised Cassie by taking a day off so that she could accompany her to the final appointment. She was supposed to have someone escort her home, lest she fall down the stairs or walk out into traffic in her anesthetized haze. In the softly lit waiting area, Gwen looked sleek and androgynous—perfectly out of place—and Cassie was sorry that she had come all this way.
It was a different room, on the day of the procedure—there were more tubes strung about, more bottles, brighter lights. Cassie changed into the requisite lavender gown. The doctor came in, accompanied by another young doctor, who would be administering the anesthesia.
“This is it,” the doctor said, with some measure of pride. Everybody—the two doctors and the nurse—had been reduced to heads hovering above her, and she felt suddenly exposed.
Cassie tried not to think about the forest of floating follicles blooming with round oocytes that she had watched growing on the ultrasound pictures, which was about to be snipped, or deracinated—she didn’t attempt to recall the details of the procedure, not while supine on the table. It would hurt, when she woke, in some way that she had never felt before. The nurse told her she might be sore for a day or so, and that she might be nauseated and dizzy from the anesthesia. Cassie felt her fingers begin to shake, and she looked up at the nurse, who was already reaching down for her hand.
“Whiskey,” said the anesthesiologist. His voice sounded like he was trying to take a picture of a kid.
“Here comes the whiskey.” There was a pinching at her arm, and his smooth pate was floating over her, his words soft and dulcet like thick liquor over ice.
“What do you like to drink?”
And Cassie remembered thinking: beer, but before she could push the sound from her lips her mind slipped into blankness.
It didn’t hurt, when she woke up. She was in the same room, her legs removed from the stirrups and tucked under a blanket. Sunlight shone in directly through the windows, reflecting off the glistening floor. Cassie struggled to form a thought through the haze enveloping her brain, and all she could come up with was, Time has passed. Her mouth tasted filmy and strange, and she remembered that she had not had anything to eat or drink since the night before. She felt the same down there, she didn’t even feel numb.
At one point, the nurse came in and asked if she would like help getting up, or if she wanted to sleep some more, and Cassie said, Sleep.
The light coming in through the windows became so bright that she couldn’t keep her eyes open, and the taste in her mouth grew more bothersome. A trail of bubbles passed ferociously through her stomach. She didn’t trust her legs to hold her up, and she hung onto the edge of the table as she stood.
When the nurse returned, Cassie was standing at the window. There was a white-haired lady bent over her walker inching towards the entrance below, making her slow, slow way to an appointment.
“You’re up,” the nurse said, with a note of congratulation. “How are you feeling?”
Cassie turned to face her, to tell her that she was fine, she was ready to leave. She looked to the stirrups, the steel sink by the wall, the glass jar of cotton gauze, the nurse’s face. She pulled the thin gown tight across her chest, and as she exhaled the tears came tumbling thickly down her cheeks.
“It’s over.” Her voice scraped against her throat.
“It’s all over now.”
The nurse was accommodating. She helped Cassie back into her clothes, handed her tissues, caught her shoulder when she stooped low into a sob. By the time she was dressed, she had regained enough of her composure. The borders of her world—the invisible measurements that held together a moment—had reconstructed themselves into something recognizable.
Gwen sat anxiously, waiting in the same chair Cassie had left her in. Not so much time had passed as she had thought. Cassie said that she didn’t feel sick. She said she wanted to get home and get something to eat. Gwen slipped her arm through Cassie’s elbow, fastening her there, as though she might shatter were she to fall.
Cassie followed Mrs. Ankeley’s medical record carefully, waiting for new documentation, for the implantation, for the pregnancy, to appear. But it often took days for charts to make their way from one department to another, or for copies of clinic papers to be sent down to the basement—sometimes these would arrive a month after an appointment—and there were as of yet no new additions to Mrs. Ankeley’s file. The doctor, however, was unexpectedly generous with information during Cassie’s follow-up visits: Seventeen eggs had been harvested and subsequently fertilized, he explained. After five days, there were left six robust-looking embryos, two of which were transferred into Mrs. Ankeley’s womb, and the remaining four cryogenically frozen.
When the lab results proving the fact of her pregnancy finally appeared in her chart, Cassie made herself a photocopy, which she folded into quarters and tucked in her back pocket. For weeks after, there was no more news. Nobody even called up her file. Cassie wondered if she had miscarried early, never bothering to return to the hospital.
She imagined fiercely and she believed that Mrs. Ankeley was still pregnant, that one of the fetuses had sloughed away and left the strongest to grow—a girl. She would survive this, too, and one day she would take her child and drive away. She would leave town and head off in some direction. Cassie knew she would keep going.
Copyright © 2006 by Marie Holmes.