November 17, 2017
Every other month I receive two vials of frozen sperm in a nitrogen tank, which is then emptied, the vials labeled and kept frozen until the exact time of month I’m ready for them. This window of readiness is brief: 12 to 24 hours. When I detect that ovulation is imminent, the vial is defrosted. Ninety minutes later, 17 million sperm are inserted into my uterus via a catheter.
I do this because I am 39 and single and my craving for a child eclipses everything else, including my secret fear that this process will be successful.
The donor I have chosen is tall, well educated, lean, laconic, a chemical engineer who researches renewables. He’s a cyclist, they tell me, who clicks down the halls of the center in his special cycling shoes. Affable but not warm. His mother’s people are Tatars, Muslim nomads from the Central Asian Steppe. I like all that he seems to represent: intellect, precision, hardiness, planetary repair.
One week each month I pee daily on a test strip and wait for either an empty circle, which means the window is closed, or a smiley face, indicating an egg’s imminent release.
At a bachelorette dinner for a friend in late July, I met Sadie. She was loud, brash, a presence. From across the table, I overheard her describing plans to drive south for the coming eclipse, and a deep longing welled up inside me.
“If you have space —— ” I said.
By the wedding on Aug. 6, I was two days late, my breasts sore and engorged. A pregnancy test came back negative, but I was certain it was wrong. I felt swollen with a secret, sacred hope.
As the wedding came to a close, a band of pressure began constricting around my temples; my progesterone levels were falling fast. The blood, when it came, seemed to originate from somewhere deeper and more mysterious than my womb. I felt as if I were bleeding out dreams.
When Sadie’s email and itinerary arrived the following day, I was strangely touched. Each line read like a mouthwatering, carefully constructed dish: “Sunday 11 a.m. — we should hit this 60-foot rock slide. And Sunday 7 p.m. — shindig on the Green in Asheville. Bring instruments!”
There were four of us going: Sadie; her husband, Steve; and, from what I could deduce, an elderly relation named Eli. “Eli doesn’t text or use email,” Sadie wrote. “So I will call him.”
They arrived early Saturday morning with a fiddle, a ukulele and Eli, who stood quietly to the side, a guitar case slung across his back. He was my height, and younger, his sandy hair thinning on top. He had a soccer player’s build, side burns, a square jaw: pleasant looking but not my type.
Then off we went down Interstate 81 along the verdant folds of the Shenandoah with Eli driving. Passing a sign for Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists had gathered a week earlier, Steve said, “Did you see the video of that guy Cantwell?”
“The crying Nazi!” I said. “But I get it, how trapped and cheated he must have felt.”
Eli said, “Save your sympathy.”
Every day for me is an exercise in letting go. I have to let go of rage. I have to let go of fear. I have to let go of everything I thought my life would be and isn’t.
Steve looked up from his phone and said, “We’re on this road for 247 miles.”
Sadie said, “The people in the back have to give back rubs to the people in the front.”
And then, before I let myself think, I reached over and squeezed Eli’s shoulders. Through his T-shirt, I could feel the musculature of his back, his spine, its finger holds. It had been a long time since I had touched a man. Doing so now felt decadent and exhilarating. There was a hunger in my hands, an urgency.
From her phone, Sadie started playing “The Ashokan Farewell,” two violin strings singing at the same time. Under my thumbs, Eli craned his neck to the right. It was an invitation. I wanted to touch him, down to the bone.
The four of us shared one room with two queen beds. Crawling under the sheets later that night, Eli was looking at me. For the first time, I noticed his eyes, bright blue.
Because Steve snores, Eli handed me two foam earplugs, which I pinched flat, then threaded into my ears. As they expanded, the room grew muffled, safe. I had brought sleep masks, one for me and a spare, which I shared with Eli. We lay in the bed, he on his side, me on mine.
In the dark I thought: “Where are you? Come closer!”
It was a blind progression of intrepid searching, inch by inch. I bumped into him and he did not pull away. And that’s how it happens, how we find each other.
On Monday at dawn we drove a final hour south on empty roads meandering through mist-filled forests. The light filtered down, dim and soft.
Within the gates of the public park that Sadie had selected, we claimed a table, setting out snacks and spreading blankets in the shade by a lake.
“I think this lake,” said Steve, pointing, “is used to absorb the excess heat of the nuclear plant over there.”
Eli followed me down into the water, which was oddly warm, and I wondered, despondently, “What have we done here?” We huddled together in the shallow waters where a snapping turtle was sunning itself on a log.
After, I went to the restroom and peed in a cup. The circle that appeared was perfectly empty, a blank white sun. When I went back outside, the light had begun to change, growing dimmer. Eli was lying on his back. I lay down beside him.
Sadie and Steve had brought eclipse glasses and special binoculars. Through the glasses, the sun was small and orange, like a yolk. But through the binoculars, it was enormous and white, the International Space Station hovering before it like a speck of dust on the lens. We lay on our backs, all four of us, and stared at the sky.
It began as a slice, a piece of the sun cut away. We traded glasses, waited and watched. A bearded man pointed out how the shadows through the trees had softened, turning into gentle half-moon crests. It was all so strange. Periodically, when we put on the glasses, we could see the sun disappearing, losing its shape.
Everything happened as the scientists said. The twilight deepened. The crickets began to chirp. Stars appeared. The moon whittled down the sun to one final sliver then slipped quietly into place, aligning itself as gently as Eli had aligned himself alongside me, one body blanketing another so perfectly, so completely.
I was, we were all, for the briefest breath of time, made whole. All around the lake, in the darkness, people gasped, cried out, broke into applause. Under his breath and with a reverential sigh, Steve said, “Damn.” Through the glasses, the sky had become entirely black.
“I can’t see anything,” Eli said, groping the earth. “What’s happening?”
“Take off the glasses!” Sadie said.
For two minutes and 27 seconds, it was possible to look directly at the sun’s corona, the only visible remainder of light. Greedily, naked-eyed, we stared at the black orb obscuring the sun like a hole in the sky. I could feel my heart breaking open. Eli pressed his foot hard against mine and the pressure changed me, dilating my eyes. Dopamine surged, flooding me with joy. I thought: I won’t be alone after all.
Then a searing, liquid-white light began spilling out over the edge of the blackness.
And it was over, time to drive home. The perfect alignment of the universe had shifted.
“We’re on this road another 217 miles,” Steve said, staring into the traffic ahead.
I was driving, and Sadie had fallen asleep.
Do they see us from space, I wondered, all of us down here in our cars, a long, flickering, incandescent thread?
From the back seat, Eli reached up to touch the back of my neck.
I wanted to live in that moment forever, to tether myself to that particular point in time. I wanted to take the moment and bend it like a ray of light, extract its color and orbit it endlessly like a sun. But our planet moves through space at the rate of 18 miles per second — 18 miles per second! — and I did not hear from Eli again.
This isn’t the ending I wanted, but it was remarkable to see, remarkable to experience, coming home that night in a chain of cars, so festive, wending through the darkness, the snaking, synchronized way in which we all progressed, each of us so insolently persistent in reaching our own particular destination.