Is it weird to anyone else that so many of the processes of our body occur in the dark? In my mind’s eye, I’m watching things happen the way they would in an educational film in high school science. Everything: digestion, oxygen exchange, salivation, ejaculation, menstruation.
I mean picture it: a woman releases an egg, it travels down the fallopian tube, if no sperm find it, it dies and passes through the body with the rest of the uterine lining. If it’s fertilized, that egg changes, grows, and moves into the uterus and usually embeds in the right spot. Now imagine that in the dark. How the hell does this happen?
Hormones. Temperature. Luck. All regulated by biochemistry and stuff I can’t see at all. Why do I care? Is it because I’m logical and scientific? Is it because I run a little anxious?
The corpus lutem is a little watchmen that waits for any sign of a fertilized egg implanted in your body. It’s the part of the ovary that the egg bursts out of. It waits in the dark for a wave of heat—estrogen—to signal that the uterus should hold on to its lining if you are pregnant. You know the rest: the mystery of life and really if you think about it, death. Something happens and cells thrive or something happens and cells die and it all happens inside us.
It’s embarrassing how hard I tried to have a baby. How badly I waited. I thought I would be laid back and spontaneous. Finally, we can just have sex and not worry. Like Sally Albright, I thought we’d bang on the kitchen floor whenever we wanted but the truth is, it really is a cold, hard, Mexican ceramic tile and super uncomfortable. I really did take the fun out of it.
In every month, you spend three weeks waiting to find out. Waiting to ovulate, waiting to find out if you are pregnant and waiting to start again.
I had months and months of starting over. I wasn’t medically outside of normal limits. We were told that getting pregnant within a year of trying is normal. I absolutely break for people who endure this for years.
After six months and eight cycles, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt like I was riding the tiniest tidal wave of heat. I felt a vibration—like a buzzing, happening in me. I sat wide awake in the dark and smiled. This was unusual enough, chemical enough, that I absolutely knew I was pregnant.
I was right. The next day, a few days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and yep, two lines, that little heat wave was the start of a baby.
I rode other waves too. Like the nausea wave. That is no joke. I texted my Dad who had recently stopped chemotherapy for what we had just learned was terminal throat cancer. We joked about puking first thing in the morning, how much we puked, how gross it is, all the different weird words for it: Puke, barf, vomit and his favorite an onomatopoeic RAAAAAALPH.
But at my first OB appointment I found out, I would be starting over again. My baby had no heartbeat.
It’s a thousand tiny deaths … all those steps from there to here. Cell death. Death of what you thought would happen. The death of your father.
When they showed me the tiny form on the screen, all I could think was that it was dark inside my womb. I didn’t want my baby in there alone and unseen when they turned the monitor off.
The body works along, without our consent whether living or dying.
I endured a few very hard weeks hoping for a natural miscarriage and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a D&C.
I found myself really curious about how the D&C procedure is performed. I asked the doctor to explain the approach in detail to me. Why does a physician go in blind when they remove the fetal tissue? Wouldn’t it help to have the procedure guided by ultrasound? Why do you do it in the dark? Why can’t you see?
When I asked the OB these questions, a lady I had never met but had already spoken to on the phone, she seemed offended and sort of scuffed when responding. “Um, I’ve done this before. We don’t use an ultrasound because we don’t. We know how to do it.”
Is it so much work to educate a patient about your methods, about the risks? I pressed on. “How are your outcomes? What are the risks?”
Again, annoyed and terse. “They’re good. There is a small risk of puncturing your uterus and therefore of bleeding, of hysterectomy, and, of course, even death.”
“So I could wake up without the ability to have children?”
“It’s possible, but what else are you going to do?”
She actually said that to me.
The first nurse couldn’t get an IV in. Another nurse came in and got it. She offered her condolences to me. The office was plastered with pink and red hearts. Fresh roses sat proudly at the nurses station. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. My husband offered a thankful nod and the nurse left. He held my hand and waited with me, assuring me it would be okay. He was an ocean of calm.
A small-framed man walked in, the anesthesiologist. We pulled his chair close to mine and started with this:
“My wife has sat where you are sitting five times. We joke that we have two only-children because there are nine years between our first and second living children.” He had kind eyes and a friendly energetic voice. “I’m going to talk you through the risks of anesthesia. The procedure involves sedation, no intubation or ventilation but there is a risk, less than a lightning strike, that I would need to intubate you, okay? It’s safer to do this than to drive home. You could have a bad reaction to the medication but again, these are old meds, very well studied and I am an excellent doctor.” He went through a few other risks, including the tiniest risk of death, which he said was like suffering two lightning strikes in the same day and told me I’d wake up a little groggy.
He consistently addressed me before addressing my husband. He put his hands on mine and said he was so sorry I was suffering and he wished me well, hoping that I would fare better than his wife. As he was leaving the room he turned and said “After this, you can start over and try again.”
I wrote him a thank you note later. That man is why I let them wheel me into the room, let the somewhat rude OB scrape the baby out of my body without even looking.
He was right. I did get another chance to start over. Two months later, they peeked again and saw a strong heartbeat and a tidal wave of heat with their machines. I was ten weeks along when Dad passed away in the dark of morning. And the mystery of that baby growing in the dark accompanied the grief, the way the sun rises even if you didn’t sleep great. I had a daughter that December, she has my Dad’s curls.
I got to try again two years later and have a son. We named him after my dad. He was born as fast as a lightning strike into a unlit hallway of the birth center. The midwives turned on the lights later and we all laughed at the trail of blood I left from the lobby to the spot he emerged. “That looked a lot better in the dark,” the midwife said. That was true. When I play the video of his birth in my head, I see nothing. I don’t need to see it. I had gone through enough life and death by then to trust what I can’t see.
I feel the power of his body moving through me. The weight of him leaving me, the people bustling around me, I hear myself yelling out, I hear splashes of liquid hit the floor. A nurse tells me to squat, which I ignore and deliver him standing up. I don’t even see him yet, he is just pressed against my abdomen screaming. I hold him to my belly. I feel his squishy shoulders, his tiny frame. At that point, we didn’t know it was a boy. I did have to move out of the dark hallway to confirm that.
CARLY BERGEY is a Speech-Language Pathologist, singer, and writer currently crafting a memoir about her work as a voice therapist. Her creative and academic writing has been published in Intima, Pulse, the ASHA leader, ENT Secrets and CHEST. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her family.
The crocodile slipped out of the underbrush that strangled the opposite shore and eased into the water. He shoved off with webbed paws incongruously small for steering a barge loaded with muscle and teeth, like tricycle tires on a hearse. He moved slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to wreak havoc upon humanity. No hurry, must scrutinize the menu before making his selection.
The freshwater lagoon teemed with local families diving headfirst into crystalline water. They hurtled themselves into the boulder-encrusted pond from a frayed rope swinging from a rickety tree. Standing on a small dock downstream, I’d hesitated to join the splashing crowd. With the croc’s grand entrance through the curtain of mangroves, the terrified mob scrambled from the water. We didn’t speak their language, and the Mexicans didn’t speak ours, but we got the message: get the hell out of the water, pronto! In a country where the national motto seemed to be, I’m reconciled to death, the translation rang loud and clear: Not like this.
“Felipe,” scolded the poolside café’s bartender, shaking his head at the cold-blooded critter who had crashed the party.
Although Felipe apparently pub-crawled here often enough to earn himself a pet name, the bartender had kept mum while the croc remained out of sight. The café had the market for refreshment cornered, perched at the edge of a shady headwater deep in the Mexican jungle. Bad for business, this errant croc who bellied up to his bar with growing frequency, so the bartender wasn’t going to give away the marauder in the back booth as long as the Uzi stayed under the table.
If ever God needed to knock back a stiff one, Tovara Spring is where He’d rap his knuckles for a double shot of Cuervo. Here we could chug an ice cold bottle of Tecate with a lime wedge, then leap into aquamarine water to cool off in the muggy heat. Which my husband, friends, and I were about to do when Felipe took his cue and cruised into the spotlight. Despite his lack of Shakespeare monologues or juggling tricks, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. There was nothing to stop him if he decided to eat our hands. If Felipe chomped one of us in mid-swig, he’d get the lime, beer, and salty sweat all in one gulp.
We had nowhere to run if Felipe left the water, since the only way in or out of this place was by boat. He idled in neutral about ten feet from where we jammed together on the dock at the lagoon’s base. At the pond’s head, about a hundred feet upstream, a cliff towered. The dock jutted from a narrow strip of paved shoreline along one side, mostly hogged by the café. A handy set of stairs descended into the water so that Felipe could easily emerge from his bath to sip his piña colada with cartilage garnish. On the opposite shore: a solid mass of impenetrable brambles, probably littered with the remains of other tourists.
Too close for comfort, we backed up on the dock. Our friend Mark and our guide Nicho argued about Felipe’s vital statistics. Eight feet long, snout to tail, Mark estimated. Twelve feet, Nicho countered. We agreed on ten, but of a massive girth, solid as skyscraper girders—well-fed. Nicho’s quick calculation: 450 pounds. We settled on 500. Fifty years old, everyone agreed, judging by Felipe’s size—a crafty survivor who knew a thing or two about the food chain.
The bartender wrung his apron, likely hoping Felipe would realize that he’d forgotten his SPF 30 and return to the shade. But Felipe didn’t move an inch of his cement-hard muscle (not bad for a middle-aged bald guy, he’d obviously been disciplined about his Pilates). His scales looked as dense as the concrete pier we stood on. Unimpressed with his admirers, he sunbathed like an aloof Hollywood starlet. An imperceptible current rotated him gently in the limpid water. Squat legs, thick and short as old-growth tree stumps, were motionless. Those feet were made for bitch-slapping as sure as any evolutionary tool, but Felipe didn’t look like he’d bother breaking a fingernail.
Sizable fish tra la la’d under him, and turtles cruised past his snout. If the mood struck, the jaws that made up a remarkable portion of his overall length would widen and then snap shut, with the strongest bite of any animal on earth, and he’d ingest a crunchy tortuga like a taco. Just a snack, more out of boredom than hunger—a television commercial break to interrupt a documentary yawner in which the seasoned killer does absolutely nada. I suspect he hummed an Alice Cooper tune under his breath.
The lagoon beckoned, now peaceful and empty. Truly paradise—except for the crocodile—this idyllic spot that we’d toiled to get to.
I turned around to the downstream side of the dock, my back to Felipe. I stuck my big toe into the water. Here in this pond, disaster wasn’t lurking around a corner, ready to catch me unawares, but stretched out in the water, big as a pontoon bridge.
We had journeyed half a day from Puerto Vallarta to get to this mouth of water, appearing by magic at the base of a verdant cliff. The still and cool freshwater turned to murky saltwater farther downriver—if you could call the maze of channels hacked through the swamp a river—before meandering to the Pacific Ocean. We had hoped to sight crocs as we journeyed up the swamp from where it emptied into the sea, but we never intended to swim with one. Our guide had assured us that crocodiles never crossed from salt to fresh water. So when we putt-putted from brine into the sudden miracle of clear water at the head of San Cristobal Estuary, we stripped down to our bathing suits, eager to take a refreshing dunk in the carnivore-free pond.
A hundred miles from any cash machine or English-speaking waiter, we were the only white folks there—three middle-aged, married couples, all pushing the upper limits of height-weight proportionate and more interested in testing tequila brands than in testing our mettle. We had traveled all morning on rough roads pockmarked every blink by a white roadside cross commemorating a gory death. Buses passed compact cars on blind mountain curves, and the left hand blinker on the car ahead could signify a polite “okay to pass, the road’s clear,” or, “I’m turning left, so don’t pass.” Take your pick, brake or gun it, ’sup to you. You’d find out in a minute what the driver ahead was trying to tell you.
We navigated the tricky Mexican highway system of turning left from the right hand lane. We followed instructions like, “Park at the El Conchal landing. Get out of the car and wait. Eventually someone will come get you.” Fortunately this turned out to mean boat guides, not drug runners or kidnappers.
We spent two more hours puttering up the estuary in a flat panga with no life preservers. Our rented skiff squeezed through the tunnels of trees; in places we ducked to avoid low-hanging limbs that would knock us into brackish tributaries. Covered in bugspray and sunscreen in high humidity, we hunted crocodiles with our digicams and binocs, but they remained elusive. We spotted tortugas, owls, and herons, and the disintegrating remains of a Hollywood movie set, all well and good, but not what we came to see. An hour after we forked over 200 pesos (twenty dollars) apiece and journeyed up the dank estuary without seeing any reptiles, our guide Nicho admitted that it was the wrong season. At this time of year, late in the spring, the parent crocs hid with their newborns deep in the tangled mass of shrubbery and roots. We glimpsed one or two juvenile crocs, a foot or so long, errant adolescents out on the prowl, revving their engines. At sight of us, they startled like teens caught smoking and thrashed away through the undergrowth with an unexpected swiftness from clumsy-looking bodies. So by the time Felipe took the watery stage, I understood his capacity for speed. Looks were deceiving. He was a Sherman tank with a Maserati motor. His fire hydrant legs could move like redlining pistons.
Calm as driftwood, Felipe was an impressive beast, especially given the lack of barbed wire fences, nets, guns, and Peligrosa! signs. A depressing ecological reason must account for Felipe’s emigrating to a new ’hood, where he was as welcome as an oil tanker in the Galapagos, but at the moment, who cared about global environmental crises?
I’d risen before dawn while on vacation and traveled all morning for a dip in this swimming hole. I was an inch shorter than when we’d set off that morning, my spine compacted by our tin van’s thunking through never-ending potholes. I’d worn my swimming suit under my clothes to save myself the hassle of changing. No teeny-bikini, this total coverage bathing costume. I suffered the swamp in a girdle of cling wrap. Felipé would need some serious dental floss to pick this hellacious spandex stuff out of his incisors. The turquoise water glinted. I moved to the empty head of the pond. Felipe did the dead man’s float, the distance between us about the length of a few stretch limos in a funeral procession. I sat on a boulder and dangled my legs into the water. Nirvana, if I ignored the fact that I was flashing my knees at a butcher with a fondness for knuckle sandwiches.
The crocodile has remained unchanged for 200 million years. I’d remained unchanged for forty. Time to shake things up.
I’d spent four decades in my well-defined female role: shopper, navigator, time watcher, reservation- and list-maker. I was a clucking hen, not a wildlife tamer. I blundered into rare exploits by mistake, ignorance, or indifference. I tagged along on other people’s adventures so that I could carry the First Aid kit. Like today. I’d almost stayed back at the hotel with my book, in close reach of the fridge and bottle opener, but I went along to ensure that everyone wore their seatbelts and sunblock. I wasn’t out to wrestle a tooth-crammed predator that would outlive a nuclear holocaust (I hadn’t read any such crocodile prognoses anywhere, but, looking at him, I was certain that cockroach genetics had nothing on his). This sucker’s DNA was all about survival. Obviously unlike mine, since I, sporting cellulite instead of armor, was flaunting my gams at a pilgrim with a penchant for drumsticks.
My idea of daring was eating just-expired yogurt. I’d faced my brand of peril earlier in the shallow end of the hotel swimming pool; I slipped off a child’s inner tube, a too-small frame for my large culo, and cracked my head on the underwater stairs. Did I want to meet my maker in such an inglorious manner, floating ass up in one foot of heated water? Or did I want to go down as the woman who swam with crocodiles, the inspiration for Waltzes with Felipe, an overbudget Costner epic? Just me and Baryshnicroc starring in a memorable pas de deux.
Always too fearful and uncoordinated, I’d never done a cartwheel, never climbed a tree, never did the splits, except once when I slipped on my brother’s Hot Wheels. The primary definition of my life so far was what I had not done: bear children despite repeated attempts. Always an over planner, stocking up on maps and emergency supplies, things had not gone as planned. After seven miscarriages in ten years, I was aimless, drifting like Felipe in the trickling current, uncertain about my next step. My husband and I could not agree about embracing childlessness, further medical intervention, or adoption, so we often ended up discussing divorce. Adopting a child felt as scary as swimming with a crocodile, a leap of faith if ever there was one. My husband was ready to take the plunge, but my reluctance persisted. I wanted to feel whole and complete first, without a child, before I moved forward on adoption—not as if I was missing a puzzle piece, a woman without substance or value until she replicated herself. What I had become was paralyzed. Faced with twelve brands of pickles in the grocery store, I left empty-handed. My future was not nearly as clear as Felipe’s shadow, stretching dark and ominous below him on the pond bottom.
But this decision was miraculously easy. I was sweaty. I was grumpy. I was sore and tired. I was an idiot American with a charge card. I endured hardship for a dunk in this water and damn it—after being denied time and time again the thing that I most wanted—a dunk is what I’d get. I didn’t want to leave this pond adding one more thing I had not done to the already lengthy list. If it was my time, then I couldn’t imagine a better place to go. My demise would be quick. I’d be beheaded like a Cabbage Patch doll snatched by the school bully. (A friend assured me later that in reality the croc would drag me to the rocky depths and toy with me until I drowned in slow agony.) Regardless, we were so far from any hospital that I couldn’t be saved to live out my days with no arms and legs, just a head and torso sipping meals through a straw. No fuss or muss for my family, no choosing cremation or burial, no debating my final resting place, just a wake with margaritas and alligator boots all ’round.
Here, I wasn’t afraid of the unknown, an ambush against my body by my own body that surprised me every time. This was my one and only chance to swim with a crocodile. In the States, a SWAT team headed by Bruce Willis would close the place down before you could say New York Sewer. If I lived through doggie-paddling with a homicidal lizard, I would have this knowledge to carry me through the rest of my life: for once, I didn’t overthink. I finally did something really, really stupid. At long last, I took a risk.
Mostly, though, it was hot, and the water was fine.
So, with a smidgen of a second thought, I eased my body into the water a decapitated head’s throw away from a ferocious reptile. I tooled around my end of the killer-infested pond (I assure you that one large crocodile equates to infested), about as far from Felipe as a baseball catcher from a dirty player on third. I enjoyed myself but tried not to splash and attract Felipe’s attention. This wasn’t about committing suicide. I was simply tired of being afraid. Of course, I was also hyper-aware that I frolicked with a wide-jawed trespasser who could make toothpicks of pelvic bones.
I floated, as near to a prehistoric killing machine as I’d once gotten to Roger Daltrey backstage before my nerves failed me. The water so clear, I saw the tips of my toes five feet below me, and farther. So clear, I would see an underwater torpedo, dark shadow of death, streak through the depths a millisecond before I become dinner. Me, a frothing bubble bath of crimson, red tendrils snaking to the surface as the predator worried me into extinction. The huddled mass of frightened bathers onshore would witness Chef Croc shredding my sinews and tendons like fajita fixin’s. My eyeball might float to the surface before the croc snagged it for dessert, a tasty macaroon. Or my ear a vanilla wafer, my diamond stud twinkling in his teeth like a rap star’s.
Felipe did… absolutely nothing. We each remained at our end of the pond, avoiding eye contact like brooding tennis opponents mid-match. The locals on shore looked from Felipe to me and back again.
Felipe appeared oblivious, off in a daydream, yet I sensed his awareness of every dragonfly that flitted past his snout. When he chose to strike, it would be with the speed of a Daytona finish line. He was the size and shape of a drag racer, poised at the start, wheels spinning, ready to peel out and burn rubber. But he didn’t. He hung out, considering the shapes of clouds.
My husband, the daredevil who’d never left his teens and kept emergency rooms in business, watched me from shore, arms crossed over his shirt. Damp stains spread under his arms and sweat dripped down his forehead. Without children, we often had nothing in common, other than his tendency to set things aflame and my ability to douse them with one of my several fire extinguishers. I had followed him on countless of his spontaneous escapades, more to pick up the pieces in case of catastrophe than to enjoy the moment, nagging him the whole time about safety equipment, safety courses, safety belts, safety goggles. But this tale would be mine alone, my gamble, my glory, if not my funeral.
The crowd grew bored with tossing Felipe tortillas that he left for the fish. One by one, the families returned to the water. A father tossed his two kids in; the toddler couldn’t swim and wore inflatable arm bands above his spindly elbows. A pregnant madre slipped in, cradling her infant. For the first time in my life, I’d been the fearless leader, venturing into the face of menace and proving it safe for the rest of grateful humanity. Me, Bruce Willis, with breasts and hair. Job done and credits rolling, I heaved myself out of the water, cool and slick as an arctic seal and just about as graceful.
Truthfully, I’m sure the locals would have returned to the water without my bumbling example. I couldn’t pretend to sum up their culture after a week there, but I witnessed a willingness for risk that’s absent in the States (except by teenaged boys). The bull-riders at the local rodeo had no ambulance or nearby hospital, the beaches no lifeguards or warnings about riptides, and the taxis no seatbelts, with grannies in rockers riding in the back of open-bed pickups. They exhibited an acceptance of fate that I rarely glimpsed in the U.S. I’m sure they would embrace a pension plan and a teaching hospital in a First World minute but had no choice other than to shrug at whatever nature and providence handed them. Nobody said boo to the bartender for keeping his trap shut when he should have divulged the fact that Felipe had U-Hauled it into a family neighborhood.
In the States, we insist on insurance, assurance, or recompense for what nature or mankind dishes out. We want doctors to fix our ills and demand that lawyers avenge what’s broken. We weigh statistics before we make decisions. I knew the precise odds for each of my pregnancies and thought each of my doctors would eventually cure my problem. I tried to shrug and “let nature take its course” but could not, carrying on an argument about where nature’s path led me. Adoption carried a different sort of risk, with a good chance that alcohol and drugs had been abused during the pregnancy and that the child had been abused since birth. But if I didn’t take that plunge, I would surely lose out on one of the richest experiences of my life.
We climbed back into our panga and began the long journey home. My husband put his arm around me. Felipe still hadn’t moved a pinkie.
But we did. We signed up for foster care and adoption certification training shortly after we returned home. Someday I’ll be able to tell my son, “Mommy once swam with a crocodile.”
Then, “Don’t ever let me catch you doing something so stupid.”
JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is a Top Three Finalist in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition. She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Brain, Child; Listen to Your Mother; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.
Resolve, The National Infertility Association of America, lists a variety of emotional and physical symptoms in response to not getting pregnant when you want to get pregnant. They include but are not limited to:
Lack of energy (especially when you have an unsuccessful cycle, on medical appointment days, or when you will see a pregnant friend);
Irritability (snapping at people or making mountains out of molehills)
Inability to concentrate
Shoplifting is nowhere on this list.
Yet in the nearly three years it took me to conceive, along with over $22,000 in home-refinancing and credit card debt, I also acquired the following:
One black large-ring pullback belt with double buckle
A boxy caramel suede jacket with fringe on the front pockets and hem
Decadent Fig, Orchid Surrender, and Cheating Heart lipstick (Estee Lauder)
Two bottles of 2006 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir
The complete boxed set of My So-Called-Life
Much like infertility, shoplifting requires a certain kind of seat-of-your-pants creativity. Some seasoned lifters, for instance, line empty bags with aluminum foil to get past the door sensors; others rig bags with springs or wear enormous coats with hand-sewn secret pockets inside. Whatever the method of concealment, though, recreational shoplifting has long been considered an archetypal feminine vice, an impulsive pilfering of the phallus and the mirror image of castration anxiety. Secreting a skin cream in the feminine folds of your purse couldn’t be more obvious in this respect. Or imagine a necklace up your coat-sleeve, its laminated price tag held fast like a nascent IUD. Think about the fact that just this year in a South Carolina outlet mall, they arrested a woman with over $1700 dollars worth of stolen clothes in an empty infant car seat.
When I finally got caught, it was on the first floor. The first floor of most department stores is the sort of gateway drug of shoplifting because it is full-to-bursting with easily pocketed items such as makeup and jewelry, a whole range of objects no larger than an infant’s palm or a deck of cards. I had just slipped a gold-plated chain necklace with purple lacquer beads into my shopping bag full of already purchased merchandise.
Standing in line to actually pay for something while you steal something else is a trick I thought I was clever enough to come up with on my own although, actually, it’s quite commonplace. Cloaking oneself in the veneer of respectable consumerism has a certain logic: who would suspect someone who is in the middle of paying for something else? The calculations involved in such decisions (how much to spend, how much to steal) are both whimsical and precise, a weighing of the universe against your own held breath and courage. I was actually feeling sort of virtuous that day as I had passed up a display of patterned SmartWool socks, thinking somehow that a pair might be pushing my luck. Then I heard the voice behind me:
“Ma’am, you need to stop right now and come with me.”
Of course I had not choice but to follow him, though he made me walk in front, somehow guiding my elbow without touching me at all. We rose up on the same escalator that, as a child, I used to be afraid would catch my shoelace and crush me. Resort-wear was on sale, and we passed turquoise and pink signs that read “Island Getaway” against a backdrop of pixilated palm trees and sand. I remembered then, oddly, that the first word I learned to read was “Island.” “Is-land,” I pronounced it (with an “s”) to much praise, as I had I tried to sound it out and not just guess, which when it comes to words is just about as much right as wrong. I still cling to this skill—to be able to make a mistake and be redeemed for how I made it—even in the most awkward of circumstances. Perhaps if I just explained to this young man, I thought, as we rode past waffle grills and men’s shirts and thick blue Mexican glassware, that this was all because I was thirty-seven years old and didn’t have a baby. I had made a mistake but I could learn.
Yet I couldn’t speak of these sorts of calculations as we turned right and left nearly a dozen times into the stained off-white recesses of the store, a place where doors no longer whooshed but were opened by punching a code into a metal box above a doorknob. This is where the logic of theft got you, I thought, as I was ordered to sit in a chair with leaky stuffing. This was the place for people like me, people who think the universe runs via a system of payback such that pilfered accessories could balance existential rage.
The gentleman who had caught me on a camera concealed in a mirrored pillar couldn’t have been more than twenty-four years old, with dark hair cut close to his head. He called in a female sales assistant—store policy I later learned—and the only thing between me sitting up straight and passing out in fear was my ability to concentrate on her silver nametag and the garland of irises tattooed around her ankle. Both of them were, I was sure, ridiculously fertile, with at least thirty years of potential baby making between them. She usually worked at the cosmetic counter where they wore white coats. By now I was so used to being administered to by people in white coats that I half-expected her to ask me the date of the first day of my last period and to take out a syringe of Lupron.
“Name?” he asked, as she rotated the ankle of her right leg in a circle and stared at her cuticles.
I learned that if I signed a paper saying that it was my first offense and I agreed to pay the store one hundred dollars and not shop there anymore (though I was allowed, he emphasized, to shop online whenever I wished), I could be let go without involving the police. It wasn’t until he ripped the form off from the top of a pad of them that it really hit me that people did this all the time. I didn’t know why anyone else did it. I only knew that for me it was a way of biding time and ferreting objects away until the empty space was filled. If I had been pregnant, I might call this magpie-like behavior nesting.
I saw a therapist for a while over my anxiety about not being able to get pregnant but not about my shoplifting; it seemed too personal. Her assurances that I had come from “a long line of women who were able to have children” didn’t work for the obvious holes in its logic: anyone who has been born should therefore never suffer infertility. She prescribed me anxiety medication by consulting a laminated circular chart.
Years later, and after I finally had a baby, I learned that she had long been on a kind of informal shoplifting “watch list” at one of the more expensive boutiques in town. She hasn’t been arrested for a number of reasons, I suppose, chief of which includes her being white, in her late sixties, recovering from throat cancer, and recently divorced from her husband of forty years who left her for his Japanese teaching assistant. (In a small college town information like this spreads quickly).
I imagine my therapist, even now, arms full of Academic Woman of a Certain Age clothing—long, flowing caftan-like tops with nubby printed textures connoting either travel or a degree in anthropology—clothes meant to encase their wearers like so much flocked wallpaper. When she hands over her Visa Gold she nicks a scarf, say, or a free-trade wallet whose earmarked profits benefit children in Guatemala with cleft palates. The clerks in the store keep a lookout and try to sense when she might take something in order to distract her, like shaking a bright plastic toy in the face of a crying infant. No one really has the guts to actually call her on it, and the store must make enough money from what she does buy that they can afford to leave her alone but for the watching. My reaction to this information is a combination of repulsion and sympathetic joy.
The fear of getting caught, as any therapist will tell you, is an endemic part of the thrill of shoplifting. The pounding of blood in the arms and neck, the panic-static in the eardrum, the bursting open of the department store’s heavy glass and metal doors and into the air of the known world abruptly accessorized by what you both do and do not deserve. Thus the final steps out of the store are the scariest, and the most thrilling. I would draw this part out, lingering at the edge of tile and concrete, fingering the perfume bottles in an approximation of calm, my attempt to look less criminal and more casual consumer, a hassle-free flaneur with time on her hands and the world at her feet, a pantomime of the person I wanted to be. Not a thirty-seven-year-old academic whose left hip was covered with raisin-sized bruises from hormone injections. Just a woman. A woman shopping, as women do, for something warm and soft.
Of course, the stealing only quelled my pregnancy obsession for short periods of time. I still zealously counted the days of my cycle, took my temperature and recorded it in shaky print on a series of post-it notes next to the bed, bought package after package of ovulation kits and debated on the toilet seat whether the cervical mucous stretched between my fingers was, in fact, an inch or more in length, and if the opening to my cervix felt like more like my lips or my nose (the former connoted the approach of ovulation, or was it the latter?). For three years I would periodically sneak my index finger into my underwear to check for blood as the twenty-eighth day approached, the absence of which would mean I could breathe for the next hour. When my period came, as it inevitably did, the pelvic tugging and the thick molasses cramps became yet one more sign of the fact that the more I wanted something, the less likely I would be to get it, that I couldn’t count on getting what I wanted without subterfuge. Once stopped at a red light (probably on day twenty-six or twenty-seven), I reached up under my skirt with my left hand only to see the man in the SUV next to me raise his eyebrows and smile. You’d think that such embarrassment would warrant something good later to make up for it, but still that month my period came. Later, standing in line buying tampons, I palmed a tin of mints the size of a swallow’s egg.
Statistics vary, but most agree that women are born with a finite number of eggs, somewhere between one and two million. Approximately 750 eggs are “lost” each month and even fertility specialists throw around the term “shelf-life” to refer to the ways in which a woman’s eggs begin to diminish in quality after her twenties. One doctor called it the “dried macaroni problem.” If you have a box of dried macaroni on your shelf, you can expect it to last for years and years. However, the longer it sits inside your dusty cupboard the more likely it is that when you set it to boil, some of the individual pieces will have deteriorated.
I have never stolen a box of macaroni.
Part of what makes shoplifting seem alluring is also that you can pretend that you are striking a blow against the facts, against a world where the age you are able to pay your bills and live without three other people splitting the rent is also the age at which your peak fertility begins its precipitous drop. Stealing then felt to me like a swipe against Mother Nature and Father Capitalism at the same time. After all, that sweater at the Gap? It was made by fertile women at maquiladoras being paid cents a day.
Across the parking lot from my pediatrician’s office is a large department store whose red star signals its function as a space of gratification, both imaginary and concrete. When I carried my son into and out to of my car for his first checkup, I was afraid someone would stop me. I love him so much that I’m still not convinced he will disappear into thin air for everything I have ever done.
Two weeks ago, I saw my old therapist on the front steps of our local organic grocery store. It was October, and she had just tucked her cell phone into her wool pocket after calling (I imagine) for someone to come and collect her. By the time I was finished shopping, I saw her get into a taxi and leave the store’s order behind, turning her back on shelves, radio frequency identification tags, video cameras, prices for objects per can and box and gram and ounce. Before she stepped into the cab, her long linen skirt brushed against a pile of pumpkins arranged by the entrance, their round ridged orange skin fairly glowing in the shadow blue of early evening. They were still sitting there as she drove away. Right out front. Anyone could have taken one.
JENNIFER MAHER is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has published scholarly and creatively in a variety of venues including Brain, Child, Bitch Magazine, and Feminist Media Studies. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Indiana.