fictional excerpt by John Rachel It was the first time in their marriage that they had been apart. Natalie had gone with her best friend from high school days and beyond, to Ibiza Spain.
When Natalie came back, she looked great. Really great. She had a fantastic tan.
But no tan lines.
“Don’t even think about it, Billy. There were no men there. We found this really private beach and went for it.”
“Does Pam have tan lines?”
“I can have her come over and you can look for yourself.”
“Let me think about that.”
“Better yet, check this out.”
She went over to her computer, plugged her camera in, and pulled up some photos of a magnificent shore, lapped by foamy whitecaps emerging gracefully from a turquoise sea. Sure enough, there were no men. There was one amazing shot of Natalie and Pam laying side by side on a beach blanket wearing only sunglasses and tanning lotion. His imagination had fallen far short of how beautiful Pam’s body was.
Natalie caught him staring, mouth agape, eyebrows arched in wonder.
“The sand is so white.”
“Right. Like you were looking at the sand. Hey! I just got an excellent idea.”
She stood him up, got around behind him and playfully pushed him into the bedroom, not that he offered much resistance.
She proved for the next several days to be insatiable.
“Good grief, Natalie. What did they feed you there on Ibiza?”
“Dreams, Billy. Dreams.”
Of course, they both had their work schedules. But it seemed at least for those first few days after her return, Natalie managed to avoid any professional commitments in the evening and was there for him, ready and able to make love as often as was physically possible.
She had to catch up at work Saturday during the day but they had a phenomenal evening. Sunday they actually had slept in a bit, the consequence of being up half of the previous night pursuing carnal bliss.
Natalie woke first and looked at him. Eventually his eyes opened and she cuddled up to him, placing her lips teasingly against his ear and whispered.
“Happy Valentines Day.”
“Hmm. That’s right. I forgot. You got back on Valentines Day.”
“There’s something else, Billy.”
“I want a baby.”
“I think the stores are open today. We can go after breakfast.”
“I’m not kidding.”
They talked about it over brunch at Anna’s, as they then walked through town afterwards, during the drive through along the Hudson River and Hudson Highlands State Park, and finally that evening at home over dinner. Billy did the cooking and proudly served a blackened dish he claimed was genuine Livorno-style lasagna, and a circular cardboard-like object which was supposed to be Sicilian pizza.
There was no doubt that they both wanted to have children. The whole question was timing. That they didn’t seem to agree on.
“I’m too young to be a father, Natalie.”
“No you’re not.”
“I’m only twenty two.”
“A perfect age. You’re young, energetic, yet mature, established.”
“Like I’m going to be some burnt out shell of a human being at 25 or 28, a moneyless bum sleeping in a dumpster behind Home Depot.”
“If it’s a boy, you can name him. If it’s a girl, I want to call her Lilith.”
That had a familiar ring. Wasn’t Lilith some Amazon queen his mom was telling him about? Or was she a biblical terrorist that had all of the kings in a tizzy?
“Lilith. Lovely name. If it’s a boy, I want to call him Chairman Mao.”
Natalie laughed and jumped on top of him and proceeded to nearly cause heart failure by tickling him so relentlessly. It was obvious she was not going to stop without a commitment.
“So are we on, papa Billy? Are we going to make a baby? Are we? Are we?”
“Ha ha ha ha . . . if you don’t stop tickling me . . . ha ha ha . . . I’ll be dead . . . ha ha ha . . . and that’ll be . . . ha ha ha ha . . . please . . . ha ha ha . . . I’ll do anything . . . ha ha ha . . . just stop . . . ha ha ha . . .”
“So that’s a yes?”
“Yes . . . ha ha ha . . . yes, Natalie.”
And they went to work.
At making a baby from scratch, that is.
Should have been simple. But it eventually turned out to be hard work. Very hard work.
It has confounded some of the best medical minds of the 21st Century, why fertility rates have been gradually declining over the past fifty years. Those from three generations back claim ___ obviously exaggerating, of course ___ that back in those days, post-World War II, and on into the featureless 50s, getting pregnant was supposedly easier than catching a head cold. Teens seemed especially at risk. Schoolgirls were cautioned about sitting too close to boys for fear that sperm would somehow leap forth, magically pass through clothing and skin, and home in on the cowering uterus like some precision-guided weapon, resulting in unwanted pregnancies.
Then came the 60s. A measurable decrease in fertility rates among both males and females started around the same time that the Beatles and the British invasion of pop musicians took over the radio airwaves, and has continued to this day. Egg production in women is still off, miscarriages continue to increase, sperm counts are down.
No connection could be established between the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and the other British bands, and the inability of couples to make babies back then or now.
So what precipitated the subtle but steady decline in fertility rates? Was it the cancelation of the Ed Sullivan Show? The unrequited romancing of the apparently still virginal Annette Funicello by any number of viable suitors on the Mickey Mouse Club? Chubby Checker and the twist? Lingering physiological effects from the hoola-hoop craze of the 50s? Radiation from the spaceships landing in Nebraska and Indiana abducting illiterate corn farmers and road-weary truck drivers?
The plausible connection turned out to be the enormous numbers of chemicals, artificial substances, plastics, and man-made pollutants which were slowly introduced starting in the 50s but were dramatically increased in both quantity and variety during the 60s, and are being increasingly used today. These include food additives and preservatives, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers, cosmetic chemicals, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, household cleaners, detergents and dry cleaning fluids, auto exhaust and industry pollution, industrial solvents such as acetone and trichlorethylene, the new generation of paints and varnishes, carpet and furniture fire and stain retardants, synthetic fabrics and clothing treatments, dioxyn, PVCs, plastic food and beverage containers, even monosodium glutamate, on and on the list goes.
This man-made inhibition of the natural reproductive process has spawned a fertility industry ___ both specialists within the ranks of the conventional AMA-approved health service providers and those working in naturopathic and other alternative treatment environments ___ raking in far in excess of a billion dollars a year.
Of course, Billy and Natalie weren’t aware of any of this when the decided they would try to get her pregnant. They just did what they normally did, with a little more focused effort the five or six days that were midway between her periods.
Away they went doing what came naturally for three months or so. Understandably they were both rather surprised when their energetic efforts produced no results in the embryo manufacturing department.
At first, their lack of success was taken with a lightheartedness, both of them assuming it was an anomaly which would soon pass.
“Maybe you’re firing blanks, Billy.”
“I’m definitely firing something.”
“You are definitely hitting the target.”
“Practice makes perfect.”
As the weeks and months passed, however, the whole subject became charged, more and more the trigger for arguments or tears.
“You don’t want a baby. That’s it, isn’t it Billy?”
“Natalie. Of course I do. I said I did. But whether I do or not, it’s not like I’m holding back. You can see for yourself that I’m doing my job.”
“Then how come I’m not pregnant?”
“How should I know? Maybe you fried your uterus in Ibiza. Maybe you got sand in the works. Don’t point the finger at me.”
“Billy. Please stop bringing up my trip like it was some negative thing. It wasn’t. It was a very good thing. It got me to a good place. It got me to where I am now.”
“Frustrated. Angry with me. Yeh, that’s just great.”
Natalie’s eyes turned red and started to pool, as her lower lip quivered slightly.
“Billy. I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. I know it’s not your fault.”
Actually, it didn’t appear to be either of their faults. The doctors couldn’t find anything awry. None of the five fertility specialists they had consulted, stretching from the Hudson Valley to New York City.
Billy’s sperm count appeared normal, in fact, better than normal. The quality of the sperm appeared fine. No two-headed mutants, none with tails missing, none suffering from lethargy or lack of swimming skills, no union organizers urging a sperm walkout or sitdown strike.
Likewise, Natalie checked out. She was ovulating like clockwork, producing the approved and recommended number of eggs, there were no blocked Fallopian tubes, no cross winds, no feminist demonstrations or marches going on in there.
The experts were stumped.
Of course, they had a solution. A very expensive solution. With no guarantees.
This was a multi-phased program of hormone doping, fertility drugs, taking his sperm and concentrating it to increase its statistical effectiveness, and further closing the statistical hit-miss gap by either inserting the sperm into her fallopian tubes or removing one of her eggs and performing in vitro insemination then replanting the fertilized egg in her uterus.
It was all so scientific and calculating but unscientifically unpredictable. They could end up with twins, octuplets, or a swaddling bundle of air. Who was to say. The doctors couldn’t.
Billy and Natalie could see the five-figure bill for services coming from miles away.
Monetary issues aside, they couldn’t imagine turning over what should be the natural unfolding of the miracle of life, to a bunch of lab coats surrounded by stainless steel tables, test tubes, oscilliscopes, pipettes, ultrasound scans, Petri dishes, electronic imaging equipment, electrophoresis separators, and whatever else the medicine men would drag out of their expensive bag of tricks. It was about as romantic as changing the motherboard or putting more RAM in a computer.
They decided at least for now, to continue their reproductive Olympiad, which despite the growing anxiety and tension introduced by their absorption and obsession with getting her pregnant, they both still thoroughly enjoyed. At the same time, they would try to increase the prospects of babymaking in their lovemaking by introducing some less-expensive, hopefully effective alternative assistance.
Their bedroom stand now included a vaginal thermometer, homeopathic medicine, and a small glass dish of opaque pink fertility stones. Both Billy and Natalie were taking specially formulated vitamin/mineral/herb supplements, respectively designed to fortify the male and female reproductive systems ___ his was called Inseminator Rejuvenator and hers Motherhood In A Bottle.
One day Billy pulled up on their computer a page from a website which was trumpeting the efficacy of various crystals, and showed it to Natalie.
The Shiva Lingham Stone is from the sacred Narmada River in Onkar Mandhata, one of India’s seven holy sites. Villagers gather this unique Crypto-crystalline quartz from shallow river beds. In Tantra, the shape embodies masculine energy, dynamic expression and knowledge. The markings named Yoni (sacred sanskrit word for vulva), depicts the feminine energy, wisdom and intuition. Together, the female energy arouses the masculine urge to create. As such, the Tantric Lingham unifies the dualistic (male female) world into harmonious balance. Place a Shiva Lingham in the Relationships/Marriage area of your home to increase fertility and to bring you closer to your partner.
“Well, there’s the solution to our problem if I ever saw it.”
Though they laughed about it, the true extent of their desperation was evident when they immediately ordered one. When it arrived Air Express, it was given a guest-of-honor place in the center of the headboard shelf of their bed, next to a faux-ancient scroll containing a Sanscrit fertility mantra they obtained from a local store, with a name printed in gold leaf on the front window, which only a few months ago they used to make fun of . . .
Things New Age: Your One-Stop Enlightenment Shop
They also went out of their way to eat healthy. More salads. Less fat. More fish. Less meat. They eliminated wine with their meals and never ordered cocktails when they went out with their friends. Five times a day, Natalie was drinking an unpleasant-tasting herbal tea consisting of Chasteberry, Red Raspberry Leaf, and Nettle. Billy had virtually eliminated coffee from his diet since he read that there were studies suggesting that coffee had deleterious effects on sperm production. He switched to vitamin C-enhanced peppermint tea.
Unfortunately, none of this seemed to work. The only ones who seemed to benefit were the manufacturers and outlets who pocketed seemingly exorbitant profits for a lot of worthless crap, which they used to generate and hawk new, promising, pricier, but at the end of the day, equally worthless crap.
By August, they were exhausted. It wasn’t the sex but rather the anticipation, disappointment, the regiment and monotony of the “fertility rites” they had created, the evident futility, and last but not least, the heat. Whether it was global warming or just a anomalous seasonal shift, the end of the summer was turning out to be a scorcher.
They lay in bed, sweating and sweltering, panting like dogs in the desert, after a pleasurable but nonetheless draining session of lovemaking, during which they often thought more about whether his sperm and her egg were going to end their Cold War standoff and finally get together, than to abandoning themselves to the carnal ecstasy of their union.
When the end of Natalie’s most recent menstrual cycle again declared that she was not pregnant, an announcement signed in blood, Billy tried to make light of it.
“Maybe we should just get a dog.”
“I’m not having sex with a dog.”
“I meant for me.”
“You want to have sex with a dog? I feel a little threatened.”
“Dogs are man’s best friend. No one ever said that about babies.”
“Wait! We’ll get two dogs. A male and a female. And watch them. Maybe we’re doing something wrong.”
“I don’t think my ego could handle it. What if they got it right the first time?”
“Ohmigod! You’re right. I’d have to kill the bitch.”
“I’d have the vet remove his balls. That’d show him!”
They laughed but their laughter was hollow. Hollow to the point of melancholy.
And though neither of them said anything, each invisibly was waving the tearful white flag of resignation. An impregnable sense of hopelessness had slowly but surely sunk in. This was the first failure of their relationship, the first tangible setback of any importance.
They never officially gave up. Thus, they never discussed a next step, either adoption or designing their lives together around childlessness. They never acknowledged they might be entering a next phase. A phase without a baby of their own making.
They clung to some thin, frail thread of optimism. After all, there were countless stories of couples trying and trying again over years, even decades, then finally producing the long-desired child. Billy and Natalie had many years ahead of them. The waiting and trying and trying again theoretically could define them as a couple, as it had many other couples.
But they both somehow knew this wasn’t going to happen.
Something had changed. They both sensed it.
The baby thing was over and done.
And what about them?
Was it over?
Practice makes perfect.
In all things.
“Baby Fever”, an excerpt from the full length novel The Man Who Loved Too Much, originally appeared in the American online and print magazine Down In The Dirt in July 2010.