They’d risen before dawn to catch the plane. That’s why Cathy was exhausted. She sat on the edge of a black vinyl chair, sipping coffee from a paper cup. Groups of these rearward angled chairs were latched together, and she was waiting on the aisle end, guarding their bags, while her husband, Tom, stood in line to rent a car. Her ears felt stoppered from the flight, her brain insulated from her usual prevailing thoughts. They did not have children, she could not have children, and no one could tell her why.
In early daylight, at their home airport, she and Tom had been forced through long looping lines configured to hold the most in the smallest space, like the yard-lengths of intestine coiled inside average human beings. Here, the line to rent cars was shorter, though it wasn’t moving. Tom waited near the end, a tall, slender clean shaven man wearing khaki pants, a blue anorak, and horn rims. Cathy was ordinary, too. They were extraordinary in just that one way. Might he have had children with someone else? The truth was, he still might.
He’d claimed he’d accepted childlessness. He liked to say they were specks of life on a speck of earth on a speck of time. He’d brought her to the far north because they really needed a vacation. Shyly, he’d hinted that she might pack some new lingerie. On the plane he had smiled and asked about it. Was it black? Red? White, she told him, and it wasn’t lingerie. She knew he didn’t have the words negligee or peignoir at his disposal, but she understood what he meant when he asked, "It’s a nightgown then?" She shook her head. They sat belted in, their arms in contact on the armrest no more remarkably than if they’d brushed against themselves. They hardly saw each other anymore, as a person learns not to see what’s in front of his face, the frame of his eyeglasses, if he wears them, or the blurry near transparency that might or might not register as his nose. If it wasn’t lingerie, then what had she brought? He had learned not to ask and she not to tell. This was less duplicitous than strategic. They might almost get along if they avoided certain subjects, his contentment and her torment, for instance. "Maybe you should lose this thing," he said, "whatever it is." He wasn’t smiling anymore. "Maybe," she said, "but I can’t."
No, what she’d brought wasn’t what he’d hoped for, but she felt reassured to have it in her bag. At home, she had tried it on and adjusted the strap to fit, the way that women often drill with clothes, seeing what felt right, just as little girls pretend with dolls and dress up games, approximating the nun’s wimple with a bath towel or pregnancy with a needlepoint pillow.
They used to love each other. That’s why they still did. But they’d changed, and now they loved nonexistent people. They both loved someone who loved someone else, someone from the past. And yet they loved each other, as the exhausted love the bed itself.
There was a clock on the terminal wall, but Cathy couldn’t remember when she’d sat down and Tom had left to claim their car. She felt she’d been studying the same people for a long while, watching families reenact home life in open space. Two boys, brothers, chased each other around several upright suitcases and played a constricted form of tag. They wore identical dark, soft jersey pants and tops, like pajamas, good for lounging or travel. The taller one, with the longer reach, was probably the older. Running in a narrow circle made him bend forward, bringing his knees practically to his chest. The younger reared one shoulder and leaned away, as if it were a matter of fastidiousness to avoid his brother’s touch. "Ugh!" They both were goofy with laughter.
Sometimes she made believe she heard her own nonexistent children laughing, singing unintelligible rounds, running up and down the stairs. But they were ghost siblings who couldn't have played all together because their gestations overlapped. Even if some had lived, some would have had to die.
Down the aisle, a tiny girl in pink coveralls was learning to walk, slightly bowlegged, wobbly with every step. A man--her father--followed after. His cheeks were stubbled, his shirttail out, the buttons straining across his middle, but he seemed under his child’s spell and unaware of himself.
When people asked, "Why don’t you adopt?" Cathy wanted to ask, "Why don’t you?" But her inquisitors had biological children. They were always the ones who asked. No, really, why? Because she had lost her mind, and Tom was happy enough.
A woman with eight husbands, or rather eight ex-husbands, would be marked by her poor judgment and conventionalism. Eight lovers, and no one would have had to know. Eight wrecks, and Motor Vehicles would have revoked her driver’s license. Eight bankruptcies, and she might have begged successfully for yet another credit card, but maybe not. Eight children? Was she among the religious ultra-orthodox? But eight miscarriages? Had she tried the Cleveland or the Mayo Clinic? Or how about a psychiatric institute?
She had wanted children, and so had Tom. But then he’d said she just wanted what she wanted, and he’d accused her of pure ambition.
From her perch on the black vinyl chair, she checked to see Tom’s progress in the rental car line. He hadn’t moved ahead, and yet he’d advanced proportionately because many more travelers had joined the line behind him. No, the world was not about to run out of people. Conditions of fertility could continue to degrade as they recently had, down from good to fair and slipping, but people might not mind for a long while, not without sufficient deaths. In much the same way, the vacationers around her would be disappointed by fish kills or seabirds falling from the sky, but they would make the best of it. She enraged Tom with thoughts like these. But these were her normal thoughts. "Leave it to the epidemiologists," he’d shout. "Or tell your goddamn therapist."
She’d been assigned a diagnostic code to denote ritualistic feelings of contamination and shame. And yet who was to say if her fears were neurotic or preternatural or real? Even animals had OCD, but there were also animals who could sniff out cancer.
At work, in the midst of her losses, she’d tried to monitor when women colleagues thickened suddenly and began to wear their blouses untucked, when they switched to herbal tea or avoided the malodorous break room altogether. Once out of rage and grief, she wished she could have bottled those nauseating smells--burnt coffee and motley microwaved food, nachos, hot dogs, the smell of convenience stores--to uncap when a gossipy pregnant colleague sidled up to her. "Why don’t you ever come to the baby showers?" this woman had asked, testing for the facts behind the rumors, hoping even to elicit tears. "Because I think they’re bad luck," Cathy said. "Or maybe it’s me."
Miscarriage was normal; it was universal; it was nature’s way. For every woman who hadn’t miscarried, the next woman had, twice or more. That’s how doctors reassured their patients with the current wisdom on the newest normal. Statistics from the last five years showed that ninety percent of early pregnancies ended with menstruation, and one-third of those women hadn’t even known that they were pregnant. See? Her sorrowful colleagues preferred not to talk, or not with her. Once word got out, she was practically a pariah, jinxed by her number. "How many?"
Her embryos had died almost as soon as they’d burst to life, but she had seen them flicker on the ultrasound screens.
Hormones, chromosomes, physiology, rh, ph, killer cells, known metazoa, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, rickettsia, prions, viruses, parasites, pesticides, solvents, colorants, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, methotrexate, triclosan, BPA, trihalomethanes and other mutagens and hormone disrupters. Across all indicators, she and Tom and their house and the offices where they worked had tested "acceptable."
Two months ago, she’d left her old job and taken a new one with a mammoth bureaucracy that sent her roving from site to site, never staying long at any building that might potentially be sick. Her duties called on the most unfeeling part of her: strict, rule bound, numerical. She did not make friends or comfort the bereft, but still, more and more, the murmurs of miscarriage reached her.
At home, after the last cumbersome water filter unseated the kitchen faucet, Tom had insisted she remove all the water filters in their apartment. What was the point? They had given up. But she continued collecting water from the tap, ounce by ounce, for secret testing. Behind furniture and on high shelves, she hid inconspicuous canisters, like canisters of film but designed to sample air. Only once did Tom comment on her brightly colored silicon bangle: "What charity is that for?" He was quiet when she answered, "Infertility." A new bracelet appeared in her private post box every week, wrapped in sterile packaging from a lab, with a prepaid envelope for thorough analysis on its return. The bracelets were meant to soak up all the toxins she did, but Tom had no idea that silicon reacted like a chemical sponge. He didn’t seem to notice the pricks or telltale bruising on her arms after a storefront phlebotomist drew her blood. He didn’t ask why she sometimes locked the bathroom door, so as not to be found collecting urine, saliva, and sundry mucus to send away to more unproven, unethical labs. Where else could she turn? Whatever she was looking for, she was beyond counteracting or purging it. But she believed it existed or preexisted, if only someone could discover what it was.
"But you don’t even know what you’re testing for," he'd shouted one night. So he knew she was testing, and he knew she couldn’t stop. But he implied that if she went on being secretive and he went on being unobservant, if they made those tacit promises, they might be happy again. His true hope was prelapsarian. "I just want us to be the way we were. We need a vacation. We’re both exhausted."
In the terminal, in the long line to rent cars, Tom had crossed his arms over his chest. He hadn’t looked Cathy’s way or gestured for her. The paperwork was in his name, and he liked to handle things himself. But other travelers were going back and forth, switching places and relieving their companions. When the weary sat back down, they shared the latest bits of frustrating news. An elderly man wearing a fishing vest said, "No cars left. They claim they sent for more, if you believe them."
So they were stuck. They were all stuck. Behind the bright yellow counter, two employees, male and female in bright yellow shirts, studied their computer screens with an intensity that forbade interruption, or else a glint, a life, a rogue car could vanish in that instant. More likely, they were just avoiding eye contact with the customers waiting, fifteen or so corralled in line with Tom and all the others near Cathy, amidst the rows of latched chairs. The exit doors slid open and shut, thanks to several laughing girls jumping on the doormat to tease the automatic sensor. But no one walked out. Perhaps, like Tom and Cathy, they all had prepaid for nonexistent cars. Now and then, headlights shone through the windows, heralding service vehicles that drove on by. The cab stand, someone said, was back upstairs.
The air felt hotter and smelled of peanuts. A businessman nearby was eating fistfuls he’d saved from the plane. Across the way, an unzipped duffel had spilled out like a ransacked drawer. Too weary or too canny to run anymore, the brothers playing tag now bounced and feinted, the upright suitcases between them. The wobbly toddler girl was walking faster, as if she would go and go and only stop when her legs decided. She made happy sounds, and her father trailed behind.
At the bottom of Cathy’s coffee cup, the last inaccessible drops had formed a brown semiliquid ring. She set the cup on the floor, beside her carry-on, which held the special item she had packed. She slipped her hand in the bag to feel for it. There it was, still near the top, tucked in the folds of a sweater. Empty or filled, it kept its own shape, slightly rigid but flexible, like a single bra cup in a retrograde bathing suit. Her fingertip dented and then undented it by popping out the dimple from within. On the convex side, she found the permanent crease reinforced with a winglike metal clip approximating the bridge of her nose, over which it fit tightly. The elastic band, stretching from ear to ear, furrowed her hair across the back. No, it wasn’t lingerie. It was a valved respirator mask.
Everything happened at once. That’s how Cathy would remember it.
She stood, and the toddler’s father grabbed his little girl and suddenly turned, as if he had felt Cathy watching and, still more alarming, watching his child. Similar subtle shifts in sound, light, shadow, mass, and heat alerted Cathy to a woman approaching from behind. The woman’s dress brushed by, minuscule accordion folds of fabric that would open out as needed, or not. Not. The word throbbed in Cathy’s head. The woman’s face was close, her makeup blurred like rubbed pastels. Around her neck, she’d tied a scarf in some absurd stylish way, as a ruse to redirect attention upward. She was five or six months pregnant.
Did the suitcases topple first, where the boys were playing tag?
The older brother swiped quickly, catlike, and touched the younger’s arm. "You’re it!" Immediately the younger boy failed to return the tag. The older boy laughed. The younger boy cried out in fury. The sharp edge of a mature upper front tooth, pushing through, was just visible in his open mouth. He lunged. The older jumped back, dodging the bags in time, but the reckless move left the younger skidding forward on a suitcase rough with zippers and trim, its two front wheels spinning uselessly in their sockets. He groaned and shouted, "Mom!"
In the ruckus, the pregnant woman staggered and reached out, as if to grab open space. One knee bent first. She teetered sideways, her hand across her abdomen. An inner orifice must have tightened in self defense, even as the rough vibrations continued moving through her, pulling her down. She was falling, and then she was on the floor. The long accordion pleats of her dress zigzagged outwardly around her, in horizontal folds. Immediately, voices intervened, calling for help, advising her to roll to the left, to increase blood flow to the baby.
Another voice shouted, "That masked woman pushed her."
But Cathy hadn’t pushed her. She had pushed her away–away from the invisible contaminants that were in Cathy, of Cathy, in her misty biome, disseminated in her breath and words. A mask was hardly protection. Still, Cathy was compelled to shout in warning through the fibrous layers:
"Last weekend in Italy, a country with one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world, twelve pregnant women and their nearly full term babies, that’s twenty-four people, twenty-four people died!"
The boys’ mother hugged her younger son and told him, "Don’t stare."
The toddler girl, clutched in her father’s arms, struggled to pull off her shoe.
The pregnant woman, now sitting upright with her legs outstretched, drank water from a cone-shaped paper cup.
Nearer Cathy, onlookers had retreated and left her amidst rows of empty chairs. A policeman was running down the concourse with a whistle in his mouth, tooting loudly and then more breathlessly. She looked for Tom, who was already looking at her, though he made no move to get out of line. His face was tight, cold, weary. He had his passport and his ticket with him, in his pocket or his backpack. But he'd left his suitcase in her care. No, he could not deny knowing her, but he was far along in the process of detaching. He would arrange for help, if possible, and leave. She nodded, urging him on.
A hand, so thickly gloved in vinyl that it appeared jointless, led her away, down a hall and through a door marked with a red bisected circle. No Entry. The sign for Quarantine, heavily inked, black on yellow, conjured a gas mask or a three-bladed fan. Biohazard, outlined more freely in arcs and circles, was a beetle sprawled with six extended legs. Or else it was a devil looking out, his eyebrows winglike and wild, his curved horns and bifurcated beard symmetric. At issue were dispersal, containment, and protection. Lock this up, whatever it was, because it wanted out. It wanted out of her. But Cathy held to her illusion that an etiology would eventually be found, perhaps through karyotyping, biopsy, or even vivisection. The guard unlocked a second door, and she said, "Thank you."
Her room resembled an ill lit basement with block walls and a concrete floor. She saw a canvas cot, a chair, a metal table, a toilet in the corner. When she took off her mask, she smelled the toilet's pungency. She set the mask on the table. The lightweight cot rattled under her as she lay down. Exhausted, she closed her eyes, thinking there had to be other women like herself whose suspicions were disbelieved, who were isolated not only from those around them but also from each other. She must find them if she could. That is, if she ever got out.