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The post-procedure period, lying flat on her back with her hips elevated, was starting to feel like forever. It was no longer standard practice to wait after insemination but many women, Sarah included, were superstitious. They needed all the help they could get, even from gravity itself.
There was a quiet tap on the door, then she heard it swish open.
"How are we doing?" asked Frank, the nurse-practitioner. Frank had a shaved head, a soul patch and a single earring, and he wore surgical scrubs with little bunnies on them. Mr. Clean showing his nurturing side.
"Hoping it is a 'we' this time," she said, propping her hands behind her head.
His smile made Sarah want to cry. "Any cramps?"
"No more than usual." She lay quietly on the cushioned, sterile-draped exam table while he checked her temperature and recorded the time.
She turned her head to the side. From this perspective, she could see her belongings neatly lined up on the shelf in the adjacent dressing room: her cinnamon-colored handbag from Smythson of Bond Street, designer clothes, butter-soft boots set carefully against the wall. Her mobile phone, programmed to dial her husband with one touch, or even a voice command.
Looking at all this abundance, she saw the trappings of a woman who was cared for. Provided for. Perhapsno, definitelyspoiled. Yet instead of feeling pampered and special, she simply felt old. Like middle-aged, instead of still in her twenties, the youngest client at Fertility Solutions. Most women her age were still living with their boyfriends in garrets furnished with milk crates and unpainted planks. She shouldn't envy them, but sometimes she couldn't help herself.
For no good reason, Sarah felt defensive and vaguely guilty for going through the expensive therapies. "It's not me," she wanted to explain to perfect strangers. "There's not a thing wrong with my fertility."
When she and Jack decided to seek help getting pregnant, she went on Clomid just to give Mother Nature a hand. At first it seemed crazy to treat her perfectly healthy body as if there were something wrong with it, but by now she was used to the meds, the cramps, the trans-vaginal ultrasounds, the blood tests and the crushing disappointment each time the results came up negative.
"Yo, snap out of it," Frank told her. "Going into a funk is bad karma. In my totally scientific opinion."
"I'm not in a funk." She sat up and offered him a smile. "I'm fine, really. It's just that this is the first time Jack couldn't make the appointment. So if this works, I'll have to explain to my child one day that his daddy wasn't present at his conception. What do I tell him, that Uncle Frank did the honors?"
"Yeah, that'd be good."
Sarah told herself Jack's absence wasn't his fault. It wasn't anyone's fault. By the time the ultrasound revealed a maturing ovarian follicle and she'd given herself the HCG injection, they had thirty-six hours for the intra-uterine insemination. Unfortunately, Jack had already scheduled a late-afternoon meeting at the work site. He couldn't get out of it. The client was coming from out of town, he said.
"So are you still trying the old-fashioned way?" Frank asked.
She flushed. Jack's erections were few and far between, and lately, he'd all but given up. "That's not going so hot."
"Bring him tomorrow," Frank said. "I've got you down for 8:00 a.m." There would be a second IUI while the window of fertility was still open. He handed her a reminder card and left her alone to put herself back together.
Her yearning for a child had turned into a hunger that was painfully physical, one that intensified as the fruitless months marched past. This was her twelfth visit. A year ago, she never thought she'd reach this milestone, let alone face it by herself. The whole business had become de-pressingly routinethe self-injections, the invasion of the speculum, the twinge and burn of the inseminating catheter. After all this time, Jack's absence should be no big deal, she reminded herself as she got dressed. Still, for Sarah it was easy to remember that at the center of all the science and technology was something very human and elementalthe desire for a baby. Lately, she had a hard time even looking at mothers with babies. The sight of them turned yearning to a physical ache.
Having Jack here to hold her hand and endure the New Age Muzak with her made the appointments easier. She appreciated his humor and support, but this morning, she'd told him not to feel guilty about missing the appointment.
"It's all right," she had said with an ironic smile at breakfast. "Women get pregnant without their husbands every day."
He barely glanced up from checking messages on his BlackBerry. "Nice, Sarah."
She had touched her foot to his under the table. "We're supposed to keep trying to get pregnant the conventional way."
He looked up and, for an instant, she saw a dark flash in his gaze. "Sure," he said, pushing back from the table and organizing his briefcase. "Why else would we have sex?"
This resentful attitude had started several months ago. Duty sex, for the sake of procreation, was no turn-on for either of them, and she couldn't wait for his libido to return.
There had been a time when he'd looked at her in a way that made her feel like a goddess, but that was before he'd gotten sick. It was hard to be interested in sex, Jack often said these days, after getting your gonads irradiated. Not to mention the surgical removal of one of the guys. Jack and Sarah had made a pact. If he survived, they would go back to the dream they'd had before the cancertrying to have a baby. Lots of babies. They had joked about his single testicle, they'd given it a namethe Uni-balland lavished it with attention. Once his chemo was finished, the doctors said he had a good chance of regaining fertility. Unfortunately, fertility had not been restored. Or sexual function, for that matter. Not on a predictable level, anyway.
They had decided, then, to pursue artificial insemination using the sperm he'd preserved as a precaution before starting aggressive treatment. Thus began the cycle of Clomid, obsessive monitoring, frequent visits to North Shore Fertility Solutions and bills so enormous that Sarah had stopped opening them.
Fortunately, Jack's medical bills were covered, because cancer wasn't supposed to happen to newlyweds trying to start a family.
The nightmare had come to light at 11:27 on a Tuesday morning. Sarah clearly remembered staring at the time on the screen of her computer, trying to remember to breathe. The expression on Jack's face had her in tears even before he said the words that would change the course of their lives: "It's cancer."
After the tears, she had vowed to get her husband through this illness. For his sake, she had perfected The Smile, the one she summoned when chemo landed him in a puking, quivering heap on the floor. The you-can-do-it-champ, I'm-behind-you-all-the-way smile.
This morning, feeling contrite after their exchange, she had tried to be sociable as she flipped through the brochure for Shamrock Downs, his current project, a luxury development in the suburbs. The brochure touted, "Equestrian center designed by Mimi Lightfoot, EVD."
"Mimi Lightfoot?" Sarah had asked, studying the soft-focus photographs of pastures and ponds.
"Big name to horse people," he assured her. "What Robert Trent Jones is to designing golf courses, she is to arenas."
Sarah wondered how challenging it was to design an oval-shaped arena. "What's she like?"
Jack had shrugged. "You know, the horsy type. Dry skin and no makeup, hair in a ponytail." He made a whinnying sound.
"You're so bad." She walked him to the door to say goodbye. "But you smell delicious." She inhaled the fragrance by Karl Lagerfeld, which she'd given him last June. She'd secretly bought it, along with a box of chocolate cigars, for Fathers Day, thinking there might be something to celebrate. When it turned out there wasn't, she had given him the Lagerfeld anyway, just to be nice. She'd eaten the chocolate herself.
She noticed, too, that he was wearing perfectly creased trousers, one of his fitted shirts from the Custom Shop, and an Hermès tie. "Important clients?" she asked.
"What?" He frowned. "Yeah. We're meeting about the marketing plans for the development."
"Well," she said. "Have a good day, then. And wish me luck."
"What?" he said again, shrugging into his Burberry coat.
She shook her head, kissed his cheek. "I've got a hot date with your army of seventeen million motile sperm," she said.
"Ah, shit. I really can't change this meeting."
"I'll be all right." Kissing him goodbye one more time, she suppressed a twinge of resentment at his testy, distracted air.
After the procedure, she followed the exit signs to the elevator and descended to the parking garage. Freakishly, the clinic had valet parking, but Sarah couldn't bring herself to use it. She was already indulged enough. She put on her cashmere-lined gloves, flexing her fingers into the smooth deerskin, then eased onto the heated leather seat of her silver Lexus SUV, which came with a built-in car seat. All right, so Jack had jumped the gun a little, buying this thing. But maybe, just maybe, nine months from now, it would be perfect. The ideal car for a soccer-mom-to-be.
She adjusted the rearview mirror for a peek at the backseat. At present, it was a jumble of drafting paper, a bag from Dick Blick Art Materials and, of all things, a fax machine, which was practically a dinosaur in this day and age. Jack thought she should let it die a natural death. She preferred to take it to a repair shop. It had been the first piece of equipment she'd bought with her earnings as an artist, and she wanted to keep it, even though no one ever faxed her anymore. She did have a career, after all. Not a very successful one, not yet, anyway. Now that Jack was cancer-free, she intended to focus on the comic strip, expanding her syndication. People thought it was simple, drawing a comic strip six days a week. Some believed she could draw a whole month's worth in one day, and then slack off the rest of the time. They had no idea how difficult and consuming self-syndication was, particularly at the beginning of a career.
When her car emerged from the parking lot, the very worst of Chicago's weather flayed the windshield. The city had its own peculiar brand of slush that seemed to fling itself off Lake Michigan, sullying vehicles, slapping at pedestrians and sending them scurrying for cover. Sarah would never get used to this weather, no matter how long she lived here. When she had first arrived in the city, a wide-eyed freshman from a tiny beach village in Northern California, she thought she'd encountered the storm of the century. She had no idea that this was normal for Chicago.
"Illinois," her mother had said when Sarah had received an offer of admission the spring of her senior year of high school. "Why?"
"The University of Chicago is there," Sarah explained.
"We have the best schools in the country right here in our backyard," her mother had said. "Cal, Stanford, Pomona, Cal Poly "
Sarah had stood firm. She wanted to go to the University of Chicago. She didn't care about the distance or the god-awful weather or the flat landscape. Nicole Hollander, her favorite cartoon artist, had gone there. It was the place Sarah felt she belonged, at least for four years.
She'd never imagined living the rest of her life here, though. She kept waiting for it to grow on her. The city was tough and blustery, unpretentious and dangerous in some places, expansive and generous in others. Great food everywhere you turned. It had been overwhelming. Even the innate friendliness of Chicagoans had been confusing. How could you tell which ones were truly your friends?
She had always planned to leave the moment she graduated. She hadn't pictured raising a family here. But that was life for you. Filled with surprises.
Jack Daly had been a surprise as wellhis dazzling smile and irresistible charm, the swiftness with which Sarah had fallen for him. He was a Chicago native, a general contractor in the family business. His entire world was right herehis family, friends and work. There was no question of where Sarah and Jack would live after they married.
The city itself was part of Jack's blood and bone. While most people believed life was a movable feast, Jack could not conceive of living anywhere but the Windy City. Long ago, in the dead of a brutal winter, when she hadn't seen the sun or felt a temperature above freezing for weeks, she had suggested moving somewhere a bit more temperate. He'd thought she was kidding, and they had never spoken of it again.
"I'll build you your dream house," Jack had promised her when they got engaged. "You'll learn to love the city, you'll see."
She loved him. The jury was still out on Chicago.
His cancerthat had been a surprise, too. They had made it through, she reminded herself every single day. But the disease had changed them both.
Chicago itself was a city of change. It had burned to the ground back in 1871. Families had been separated by the wind-driven firestorm that left nothing but charred timber and ash in its wake. People torn from their loved ones posted desperate letters and notices everywhere, determined to find their way back to each other.
Sarah pictured herself and Jack stepping gingerly through the smoldering ruins as they tried to make their way back to each other. They were refugees of another kind of disaster. Survivors of cancer.
Her front tire sank into a pothole. The jolt sent an eruption of mud-colored slush across the windshield, and she heard an ominous thud from the backseat. A glance in the mirror revealed that the fax machine had done a swan dive to the floor. "Lovely," she muttered. "Just swell." She pressed the wiper fluid wand, but the ducts sputtered out only an impotent trickle. The warning light blinkedEmpty.
Traffic crawled in a miserable stream northward. Stuck at a stoplight for the third cycle, Sarah thumped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. "I don't have to sit in traffic," she said. "I'm self-employed. I might even be pregnant."
She wondered what Shirl would do in this situation. Shirl was her alter ego in Sarah's comic strip,Just Breathe.A sharper, more confident, thinner version of her creator, Shirl was audacious; she had a screw-you attitude and an impulsive nature.
Excerpted from Just Breathe by Susan Wiggs
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