Based on our experience with fertility issues, this short story served as the jumping point for the film More Than Stars. The character names, emotional beats, even some of the dialogue stayed the same.
Iris leaned against the bathroom sink, her arms rigid, locked at the elbows. Her chest felt heavy and cold, as though her lungs were full of gravel. She stared at herself blankly in the mirror, then looked to the white plastic pregnancy test in her hand. Even in the reflection, the test was easy to read.
One horizontal, blue line. Negative.
She prepared for this. The bloating, the lateness of her period, the multiple trips to the bathroom. She experienced all these things before and, despite what they meant to most women, for Iris, they had all ended with that one horizontal, blue line.
Still, there was hope. She had allowed herself that one extravagance. With her legs in stirrups, senses wrapped in a down duvet as Dr. Costa used a needle inserted through her vagina into her uterus to extract whatever eggs he could, hope seemed the only thing she had. She certainly didn’t have comfort or calm or humor.
The humor usually came later. As Quinn drove her home each time, he would graphically recount collecting his sample in the small collection cup. Their former clinic actually required the male donors to radio for a nurse before leaving the room. Quinn found that security measure wildly embarrassing.
He used to make Iris’ laugh in great gasps as he told how he stalled for time, not wanting the nurse to think he suffered from premature ejaculation, even when alone. And once he finally called for the nurse, he would almost run from the room.
At the new clinic in Santa Lupe, he was allowed to hand off the specimen to the nurse whenever he was done, although he still spent at least ten minutes leafing through old issues of “Time” before doing so. Or so he told Iris.
Whether it was true or not, she didn’t care. Nor did she care if the room didn’t actually feature a discrete drawer filled with mid-’70s skin rags like Club and Swank. What mattered was that he made her laugh until she thought her aching innards would bleed.
During the implantation procedure, Quinn was warned by Dr. Costa not to make her laugh. Seeing Iris’ on her back, legs up like a wounded beetle, took the humor from him anyway. Instead, he sat quietly next to her and held her hand, letting her squeeze it painfully when Dr. Costa inserted the speculum, then the syringe with the fertilized eggs.
The nurse would point to a spot on the ultrasound monitor when the doctor was ready to inject the dividing cells. The spot on the dark screen flashed quickly, minutely, like a shooting star glimpsed out of the corner of his eye.
Laughter at this stage could effectively cause an abortion, which Iris thought could top every milk-out-the-nose story ever told. But, that was not the goal. So afterwards, as she lay on her side to assist with implantation, Quinn would put his head down on his folded arms as if the exam table were a desk and he a tired schoolboy. In this silence, Iris allowed herself to hope.
She let her mind fill with images of her child, part her, part Quinn. Mostly Quinn, if she had any say. She imagined her boy putting on a play in the living room, lit by the two lamps on either side of the gaudy blue couch his father loved so much. The production might feature a caped superhero rescuing a magic dog from an evil monster. All parts played by the young thespian.
She thought of the spectacular days she spent with her mother, just the two of them, traveling to Europe. When they were walking down a thin street in Paris, they spotted a salon and decided to get a cut. It was the best hairstyle either of them ever had. Iris wanted that again, but with her own daughter.
This hope was the only way for her to smile, while Quinn slept and her abdomen throbbed. So like a child’s firecracker, this hope, promising loud joy and dangerous excitement, once again, went off in her hand. Only instead of blood or a burn and a sore palm for a week, she had a horizontal, blue line.
For the next few days when their friends asked them to go to dinner or see a movie, they would say Iris didn’t feel well. It was their agreed upon lie. The only times it was true were during the two miscarriages, one of which required a dilation and curettage procedure to remove dead fetal tissue. The process left Iris bedridden for days.
The lie would also be accompanied by the fake smile, the one Iris put on when she didn’t want people asking what was wrong. It’s not that she didn’t want to share. It’s that sharing would make her the eternal victim in the eyes of others—the lady with the broken uterus, the woman without womanhood. What comfort could they give that hadn’t been tried? What gentle touch could they offer that hadn’t been offered before?
So, she wore a fake smile. It was easier than saying, “The reason women are put on the earth, their one true gift—to bear a child—I am incapable of doing.”
Quinn had a fake smile, too. They called it the Dog and Pony Show.
“Honey,” Quinn pawed at the door of the bathroom like a cat. “I need to get in there. You almost done?”
Iris did not answer. She could not move. Her elbows were rusted seams in a creaking, empty warehouse.
“Hon? You okay?”
Iris threw the test in the trash and let out a sigh. “Sorry,” she said, opening the door. “I was just…”
Sobs poured out of her, betraying her stoic posturing, making her feel weak, lost. Quinn held her, stroking her hair, not asking why or what. He knew even though she didn’t tell him she was going to test. She wanted to spare him the feelings of failure and irrational loathing.
“He said it would take a few tries,” Quinn said.
“It’s been a few tries.” She looked into his eyes. “I’m almost 40.”
“Okay,” he said, not knowing what else to say. He made peace with not knowing what to say years ago.
They stood like that, holding each other in the door of the bathroom, still in their pajamas, for a very long time, until they could wait no longer and got ready for work.
(Clinic photo by donotlick.)