Author's Note Regarding Sensitive Material: this submission contains discussion on the struggle of infertility.
I peer anxiously at the silver spigot of the decanter as I top off Aunt Marge’s glass of sweet tea, wary of a single droplet escaping through that precarious seal on the teal glass. Today has to be perfect, and heaven knows that the last thing a beautiful buffet table needs is three gallons of iced tea dripping all over the burlap tablecloth. Sweet iced tea, of course. This is South Carolina; around here, unsweet tea is only good for flushing down a drain.
Aunt Marge cackles at my fervent concentration and shakes her head before plopping a wrinkled hand on the lacy shoulder of my dress.
“Everythin’ is perfect, honey,” she reassures me in her natural drawl, bringing her face close to mine as she takes a satisfied sip. “Even the tea is perfect! She’ll just love it. She’ll love it all, and she loves you, Lizzie. She’s just so happy that today ever came.”
I gulp at her last words, and quickly unclench my jaw as she pats my arm before sauntering toward the gift table. She doesn’t know; I can’t really blame her.
To her credit, Aunt Marge is proved right. She knows her grand-daughter, my cousin Cassie, and her tastes well. That’s why I enlisted her “advice”, such as it was, for the shower. She spouted off ideas over the phone: a pink candy bar! Little pink flamingos decorating the lawn! A banner of pink and gold ribbons on the mantle! Won’t that just look lovely? Pink cups for the tea and punch! I wrote it all down, like a dutiful niece. A few hundred dollars spent and many boxes of cheap plastic arriving on my doorstep later, and my two-bedroom condo was transformed into a parade of pink to welcome Gracie Abigail – due to join us in just eight short weeks, as Aunt Marge and Aunt Jennie (my real aunt) and, of course, Cassie, remind us all the time. I hold myself straight, I pin a bright smile on my features as soon as Cassie bounds – a bit unsteadily with her seven-month belly – through the door and wraps me in a hug before gushing about the bouquets (“where on earth did you find pink hydrangeas this time of year?”), the garlands, the piles and piles of gifts weighing down my former kitchen table.
“It’s all perfect,” she exclaims, running her fingers over the soft petals of a blush rose. But when I give her a sharp nod, her smile fades immediately. She quickly scans the kitchen doorway to make sure our various female relations are still gossiping around the iced tea decanter before wrapping an arm around my shoulder again. “I know today is hard,” she whispers. “I so appreciate what you’ve done today. It took so long for us, too. We’ll celebrate for you too, hun. I know we will.”
My throat closes as she gently presses her forehead to mine. I say nothing; there is nothing to say. Besides, today is already perfect; what could make today any better? I surely can’t think of anything. So I jerk away from her as the doorbell chimes again. I pin my smile back where it belongs as I graciously welcome the next round of squealing, frenetic women climbing into the condo, each laden with gifts.
An hour later, the two dozen or so ladies have drunk nearly their fill of sweet tea and pink punch, muscadine wine from the Midlands, and naturally, champagne. No champagne for Cassie though; Aunt Jennie hands her box after box of gifts, cards upon more cards tucked into pastel bags. Cassie gasps with every toy, blanket, trio of onesies she opens. I am tucked awkwardly between her and my fireplace, my ballpoint pen trembling as I try to focus on each thoughtful present and jotting down the lady who gave it; Cassie has to write thank you notes, after all, and Aunt Marge says I’m just so great at getting the details right. I giggle at the little jokes (“you can never have enough diapers!”), and gently arrange each item beside me on the hearth once Aunt Marge takes a picture of Cassie holding it with a brilliant smile. After the first round of presents goes by, my mind retreats to a comforting haze. Listlessly, I pretend to add up all the gifts in my mind, in terms I can understand.
Thirty dollars for a wooden set of alphabet blocks: that could have bought three pregnancy tests. The really good ones, the ones that tell you “early”. Not that it ever makes a difference.
Eighty-five dollars for a rotating baby monitor, with two cameras included: that could have paid for my Clomid prescription. The one we gave up on months ago, after Dr. Samir threw his hands up and admitted that we had to try something else.
Two-hundred and fifty dollars for a car seat: that could have bought the medications from Germany, the ones that my insurance won’t pay for, according to the assistant at Dr. Samir’s office (“I’m so sorry, ma’am, but advanced treatments aren’t covered under your plan. Of course, you can always pay out of pocket!”). It might have even paid the shipping, too.
I snort a little at the four-hundred dollar stroller, the convertible one (of course, Cassie needs the convertible one): that much wouldn’t even pay for the first IVF appointment.
I sip my sweet tea, impervious to the little gnat already drowned in my glass, and shake these terrible thoughts out of my mind. It’s not Cassie’s fault, or Aunt Marge or Aunt Jennie’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It definitely isn’t my fault.
I manage well enough with my stock smile as the ladies meander out of my doorway a couple hours later, whispering their congratulations to Cassie for the hundredth time amid a handful of glances back at me as I thank everyone for coming today. As I expected, almost no one pays much attention to me; why would they? I’m just the hostess – the young lady serving the tea.
Almost no one, except for Mrs. Davidson, the pastor’s wife, who leads the married ladies’ Sunday School at church. All of the others are filing out, mostly in pairs, dispensing hugs to each other when Mrs. Davidson suddenly leans in toward me. I draw back anxiously as her watery, dark brown eyes come alarmingly close to my face, but the effort doesn’t spare me her query.
“Have you and Johnny thought about trying?” She leans in even closer, her eyes now brightly inquisitive.
Trying. The word ricochets around my mind as my fingers go numb.
“You know,” she continues slyly, “trying for a baby of your own, I mean.”
I swallow quickly, and grip my palms together at my waistline. Had we thought of trying? Had we thought of anything else but trying? Was trying all we ever did? When would we run out of money to keep trying? Any of those would have been more incisive questions. They would surely be closer to the truth. But those aren’t what she asked, and God knows, she does not want the answers, either.
I will the muscles around my lips to curl into a smile as I reply: “We’re thinking about it.”
Several hours later, I am alone in my condo, which is now covered in torn up bits of shiny paper, white and pink tissue galore, and the occasional sprinkle gone rogue from whichever cupcake it started the afternoon on. Now that the shower is over with, now that I have nothing to do, nothing to keep me busy, the space which I decorated so meticulously feels strangely foreign. The champagne-stained pink napkins strewn about, the ribbon garland bearing the words “IT’S A GIRL!” now detached on one end and slung lazily across my hearth.
In truth, it feels offensive.
I should clean up. I know I should. I always know what I should do, after all. Somebody has to clean up, and Johnny won’t be back from his deep-sea fishing trip until tomorrow night at the earliest. I told him to take his time, to go have some fun. He deserves it; like the shiny paper all over our floor, he’s torn up, too.
But I can’t seem to move. All I can do is stare at the glittery golden words in their great slant across my fireplace: IT’S A GIRL!
My mind fixates on those words as I draw a deep breath. I press my sore palms into the hardwood floor around me, and push myself to my knees, then my feet. Slowly, like a trance, I wander to my bathroom as the all-too-familiar cream tiles come into view. How many mornings, afternoons, nights have I said on the linoleum floor, hoping, waiting, begging anyone who might hear me to make my only wish, the only one that matters, come true.
I wrench open the glossy white drawer, and pull out a test from its pink and purple box, wrapped in waxy paper: one of the “good ones”. I’ve only got this one left, I’ll have to buy more, and they aren’t cheap.
But I have to try.
It’s early; my cycle isn’t due for days. I already went through these same, tortured motions earlier in the morning; that’s the best time of the day to try, they say. This is foolish; it’s a waste of $9.95. It’s too soon, or too late. It’s never the right time. Everyone always says, “it’ll happen at the right time!”
But I have to try.
I can’t not try.
It doesn’t take me long to wet the stick; I’m practically an expert at using these little plastic sticks by now. I sit down in my spot, once again, and hold it, and wait.
Five minutes. Then ten minutes. It’ll be negative, I tell myself, over and over again, seeing the image repeated in my mind that I’ve seen in my palm so many times before.
Once the timer on my phone buzzes at fifteen minutes, I switch it off, and look down.
There it is, in plain English, black and white. Not pregnant.
I quickly catch my breath, I gasp as the tears I’ve held back for twelve hours now fall in earnest. My God, if only I could have back all the minutes, all the hours I spent crying on this floor, all the times I hid from Johnny, all the times I avoided his eyes at breakfast, all the little plastic sticks tossed in the garbage.
But the phone beside me buzzes. I exhale sharply, assuming that the timer has gone off again, when I see it: one unread message, from Cassie.
I click the green icon, and get it over with.
Thank you so much for such a perfect shower! I can’t imagine a more beautiful day than today was, and I can’t wait for all of us to meet Gracie. She will be so very loved by her Cousin Lizzie!
I shake my head as a fresh round of tears falls. But then, a quick scroll reveals the rest of Cassie’s message:
I love you so much, and I’m praying for you.
Pray for me, Cassie. Please, pray for me.