Prologue

© 2016 Rebecca Bryant

PROLOGUE: CRISIS CENTER

Steven D. has probably never had sex in his life.  He tells me as much — loudly, aggressively, a note of challenge in his tone.  He’s in my face, violating all personal boundaries.  Steven D. is mentally-disturbed and I feed him once a week at the Johnson County Crisis Center.  He always seeks me out; I’m an easy mark.

I’m short, quiet, a forty-two year old woman who, for whatever reason, must seem easy to rile.  Steven D. enjoys riling me.  No, not one woman!  Not in his entire fifty-four years!  Do I think he’s ugly?  Well?  Do I?

The man before me is profoundly ugly — not to mention his other potentially disastrous personality quirks.  Romantic prospects appear remote.  Agreeing with him re: his hideousity is not an option, however.  I am not mentally-disturbed.  I am nice.  Quite nice.  I volunteer at a food bank.  

Still, Steven D. wishes to force the issue.  In fact, he delights in it.  His eyes twinkle, lips smack — he knows he’s getting to me.  Well, do I think he’s ugly?  Should he, or should he not, be having sex by now?  Huh?  Huh?  Becky?  My nametag gives me away.  Steven D. can at least read.

A tall, wordless woman silently follows her unruly charge around the food bank.  She’s Mr. Hideous’s staff — his minder, his keeper, the one person here actually paid to endure his presence.  Her job is to monitor and assist Steven D. during his visits, although not all that proactively so far as I’m concerned.  He reliably stirs up trouble in each section he enters gathering his weekly necessaries . . . the blue zone, the green zone, the checkout registers.  Such is his life.  Such is mine.  

I opted for this.  Regularly, I choose to immerse myself in this sea of hungry, half-baked humanity.  I like to keep it real apparently.  Sometimes it gets a bit too real . . . but that’s okay too.  I have my own issues — issues for which easy, reliable distraction suits.  

Meekly, I try to avert Steven D.’s gaze by straightening the free fare before me on the shelves: baby diapers, baby food, baby formula . . .  Oh, fuck me!  Of course.  My heart sinks.  My uterus cramps.   I need to get to the bathroom now.  I’m fretting, despairing, on the verge of my own mental breakdown.

The wisest approach is to not engage Steven D. at all . . . but how to get him to not engage me?  Wordless Lady and I share a small grimace as I flounder at doing so once again.  She understands what I go through.  I feel her pain as well — this Crisis Center gig is just volunteer, but at the House of Mangled Chromosomes I, too, get paid.

Finally, I make the crucial tactical error of telling Steven D. that I think he looks pleasant enough.  He pauses and shit-grins, Cheshire Cat-style.  Pounce!  Well, if he’s so goddamn pleasant-looking . . . then where the hell are all the women?  Where are they?  Huhhhh?!

—–

The House of Mangled Chromosomes (HMC) isn’t as bad as it sounds.  I love the three young men who live there dearly: Jason C., Chuck S., Zane K.  It’s their house, their home, their exquisitely unique universe. There’s a wild soundtrack to being in these guys’ orbit that I’ve come to deeply cherish, even crave — a 24/7 casually swirling insanity that is comforting in a perverse way.

8201 Ashland St. is a place where life is just as likely to hand you a grown man’s surprise poop nugget on the kitchen floor, as to hear another spontaneously shout out batshit crazy statements like “You’re a cheeto!” or “I’m snowman eggs!”  (The possibility of both happening at once can’t be ruled out either.)  The daily bizarro environment here is, at minimum, a massive perspective adjustment.  No matter how bad the rest of us may think we have it sometimes . . . odds are it’s not quite snowman eggs.  

These three serve as a thankful, constant reminder to me of Mother Nature’s built-in quality control system, how maybe it’s best not to push, nevermind the supposed advancing decrepitude of my own eggs — the reproductive kind.  My body will do what it needs to; it always knows best.  Even if my husband and I have been trying to procreate seemingly forever . . . well, there’s a solid case here for being careful not to force your miracles too.  Patience is key.  

As far as these things go, my Ashland Street Boiz are actually stunning success stories.  Within Iowa City’s special needs community/underworld, they manage to jointly survive and support themselves — paying their monthly bills through a combination of federal programs and work gigs, utilizing round-the-clock assistance services from staffers like me.

My guys are each 30ish, born with varying degrees of special needs and/or general confusion: autism, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a particularly heinous form of mental retardation called Fragile X.  Fragile X results in elephantine genitalia (not as exciting as it sounds) and can provoke explosively profane outbursts from even the sweetest of sensitive souls.

Jason C. is such a soul.  He is soul, mixed with a little savant.  On “normal” days, which are most, he seems eerily tapped into some kind of cosmic otherworld connection, speaking an inexplicably wise kid-like language all his own.  He’ll refer to his heart as “fluffy” when pleased, ask “What’s our happy lucky day plan today, Becky kisses?” upon my arrival, or proclaim his teeth are “glowing like a superstar!” after a visit to the dentist.  Once he cautioned me: “Shhh, my wigs are sleeping!” in reference to a collection of ratty hairdos he keeps in a dresser drawer, useful for summoning up his Inner Princess.  

At 6’2”, bashful yet bold, Jason C. cuts quite the crazed figure in drag, dancing to Taylor Swift, transforming into Katy Perry for Halloween, twirling his favorite baton with carefully glittered fingernails.  Being around Jason C. usually exhausts me — his patter is incessant, infectious, always insightful, always worth the effort.  No other human I know is capable of greeting each day with his “rise and freshy!” sing-song kindness, or able to announce (correctly) that one of my fellow co-workers is pregnant before even the co-worker knows herself.  

Sometimes I think Jason C. may be the highest-functioning person in the household, inmates and staffers included.  His antenna is set to an ultrafine frequency to enable him to spread his very special blend of fairy dust to the world — an ability made all the more remarkable considering the tragic line Fragile X forces him to straddle daily.  This uncanny channel comes with a price: infrequent, but dark and stunning turns to rants of “bitch!” and “whore!” or worse.  Admiring himself in a new pink Breast Cancer Awareness t- shirt, he once described himself best to me thusly: “ My dear lady, I am a delicate man in this world.”

In my own mind, affectionately, I think of Jason C. as my beloved personal “Poet-Retard,” but do not repeat this aloud.  The “R” word is verboten to outsiders; even many an insider would object.  While this Ashland St. gang is, yes, technically significantly deficient upstairs, they also have capacities far beyond what many mere “normals” can fathom — for joy, for love, for the simple things.  In a nutshell: for life.

They are genuinely the happiest people I know.  

It’s not all bad for them after all: 24/7 attention to your every need, constant nurturing, companionship on-demand.  Plus, in their stripped-down states, Jason C., Chuck S., and Zane K. are blessedly free of the usual adult concerns, inhibitions, struggles.  There are no life goals or unmet desires here, nothing to relentlessly strive for but not achieve.  Nothing to ever feel remotely inadequate or unaccomplished about.  A good day for these guys is sticking to routine.  Scratch that: a great day is sticking to routine.

—–

Routine has become everything for me and my husband as well.  Our lives now run relentlessly by the clock: cyclically, biologically, lunarly, logistically.  Careful scheduling rules all.  With each new month (err, “opportunity”!) comes the latest refined mash-up of fertility considerations: superior nutrient consumption, perfected ovulation prediction, overthought love-making timing, indefatigable anticipatory projections (if we get pregnant this cycle, the baby will be born in April . . . thus, probably not the best time to plan that summer trip).

My menstrual cycle is charted monthly, my basal body temperature checked daily.  Second-guessing nearly every aspect of our life has become the norm.  We have changed our food storage containers (glass only, no BPA plastic — horrors!), our sleep habits (bye-bye, night-owl ways . . .), exiled our microwave, avoided hot tubs and saunas, eaten pineapple during implantation, and poultry only after, in the luteal phase.  For the follicular phase, it’s baby aspirin to build uterine lining.  Throughout my cycle, a myriad of supplements and woo-woo items are now essential: royal bee pollen, wild yam cream, red clover infusions, chaste tree berry tea, maca powder smoothies, something sickly green and god-awful named wheatgrass that makes me wretch to smell, let alone swallow.  

I have allowed Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to poke needles into places on my body I didn’t know I had, wave weird mystical mugwort sticks over my abdomen, suction-cup my backside into a dozen pink circles, stop me from eating the salads I love but can’t digest, and avoid all cold beverages indefinitely (my spleen is “wet” — don’t ask).  I’ve nourished the “Palace of the Child” within me via herbal potions which, astoundingly, out-wretch wheatgrass, and have added yoga, meditation, and visualization to the new lifestyle repertoire.  I fully understand that it is essential that I de-stress.  NOW!  But how?

At this point I am seriously considering calling in a hypnotist to help, or at least someone who can perform Mayan Abdominal Massage.  Supposedly, I have a “tipped” uterus.  Supposedly, this is not supposed to matter.  But what if it does?  What if somehow my cursed, lop-angled womb is the one piece of this puzzle preventing everything else from fitting into place?  Hedging our bets, I routinely lay butt-on-pillow, legs up the wall for fifteen minutes post-coitus and breeaatthhee.  If karma won’t fix this for us, perhaps sheer gravity will.

Outdoors, we’ve planted our first garden.  Communing with Nature’s Wonders up-close, developing a desperate green thumb now, should definitely translate into a fertile uterus ahead.  In reality, our plants have followed a parallel trajectory to baby, but no matter: the few vegetables we do grow are edible enough, and in the meantime the Paleo movement has converted me from a two-decade-long vegetarian to being almost entirely comprised of bacon myself.  In this emergency state, there is nothing that remains off-limits to pursue.

I’ve done the support groups, seen the specialists, taken test after test, read every book, and peed on a thousand sticks.  We have spent more money on all this ridiculous shit than I think I ever saw in my lifetime before trying to conceive.  What kind of grown woman chooses to exist like this?  A Wannabe Mom.  Never underestimate the power of her will; she does not mess around.  

For some ladies, of course, it’s all a piece of cake.  Natch.  It should be a piece of cake.  This is what women throughout time have been put on earth to do: conceive, maintain, nurture New Life.  

But . . . not so for me and my body, not so far.  This is a difficult thing to face up to about oneself.  As a born-and-bred female homo sapiens I expect to be naturally, effortlessly programmed to pull off child-bearing.  This is the one thing I should obviously be able to accomplish in my lifetime, my key purpose for existing at all.  Hell, I’m owed this.  After all those months of putting up with bloody pads, uncomfortable insertions, smelly forgotten tampons, wacked out hormonal birth control, painful IUD placement, cramps from hell and worse . . . now it’s finally time to collect.  Am I seriously looking at twenty-five plus years of that crap and no reward?  No baby?  Who do I see about such an outcome?  The powerlessness may be the worst part of all.

Besides countless friends and celebrities not me who have successfully managed to reproduce within our same window, the newspaper this morning now informs that even the Giant Panda at the National Zoo in Washington DC has at long last succeeded in birthing a cub.  This is, frankly, insulting.  I have been following the panda’s progress, mildly in competition with her I suppose, and there’s no other way to view this than as the final straw.  The fact that a panda pregnancy stings — or even affects my own life in any measurable way whatsoever — is ultimate confirmation of how warped our Baby Quest has become.  The Experts had given Ping Pong a 10% chance of ever bearing young.  Now she has a “tiny newborn about the size of a stick of butter.”  

Uh-huh.  So . . . where can I get some bamboo?

Joking aside, this odds-giving is perverse stuff.  While admittedly not knowing a great deal re: the nuances of Panda Production myself, it seems an unnecessarily pessimistic, cold-hearted view of procreation.  Are such things ever truly quantifiable?  The spiritual intangibles here are so immense, so powerful, too numerous, too eternal, too unknown.  Is there nothing we won’t dare slap a (dooming) statistic on?  The Western Medical Establishment is similarly quick to quantify over-40 gals like me as hopeless, indifferently pummeling our already fragile psyches . . . yet there is always more than egg and sperm connecting when life begins.  Any science that purports to predict Mother Nature — or any mothers at all — is a bogus, rickety pseudo-art at best.

Apparently Ping Pong didn’t talk to my Dr. Stegmann.  No one ever told Ping Pong that she probably couldn’t accomplish her signature feat in life.  No one ever told Ping Pong that she was running out of eggs.

The dire news has likewise never spread to Kenya, from where my boss at Ashland St. hails.  Bonnie Ndungu tells me that back home — throughout the entire African continent, actually — the concept of Advanced Maternal Age is completely unknown.  She finds it laughable.  A.M.A. is an entirely made-up Western label.  Back home, Bonnie Ndungu’s 45-year-old friend is pregnant with twins.  Naturally.  And nobody thinks twice.

—–

In the stall.  Bright red.  Oh, fuck me!  Of course.

Wednesday nights = Sound Reach.  Sound Reach is an activity generously sponsored by the local music store for Iowa City’s special needs population.  It is music therapy at possibly its most therapeutic, and most certainly its least musical.  Most Wednesdays the Sound Reachers can’t reach a syllable, much less a note.  

I escort Zane K. here regularly, and each session is simultaneously the most beautiful yet appalling experience of my life: a happily crammed room full of twisted bodies, mashed-up faces, wheelchaired wailers, cringe-worthy emanations, plus all the assorted metal & equipment, and accompanying weird helper peeps to make it all possible (we staffers, though good-hearted, are not exactly drawn from the least-marginalized of population pools ourselves).  At the front of the room, two plucky, perky twenty-something West Music girls conduct the festivities.

The net effect is Humanity Sea.  Typically, there is a near one-to-one ratio of Passably-Normal-But-Possibly-Strange people to Definitely Abnormal folks happening these surreal nights, all existing as one, temporarily suspended from their (presumably) difficult lives by bravely connecting in song.  

Attempting to connect, anyway.  Tonight the crowd is butchering a bouncy selection of springtime cheer, in preparation for their yearly mid-May “recital” of sorts.  The theme: Sunshine.  You’ve got your Here Comes the Sun, your Day-O (a version Harry Belafonte never bargained for!) and other light classics, not that any are especially recognizable.

This crazy mish-mash is the soundtrack to my latest miscarriage.  Am I being taunted?  A subversive message being sent my way?  It feels like the Baby Gods are having a very good chuckle, entertaining themselves at my expense: So you want to add a child to the world?  Uh-huh, have you taken a look at this nutty mess?!

At least the novelty adds some much-needed spice.  In nearly three years of trying for our baby — between four official miscarriages, several suspected ones, and who-knows-how-many unwelcome/belated menses arrivals at this point — we have been disappointed in every conceivable (haha) environment.  Sometimes, hyper-cruelly, in the same location twice.  But not yet here at Sound Reach!  Not yet here in the bowels of cacophonous insanity that have suddenly become crimson-infused despite my will.

Miscarriages are heartbreakingly awful deals.  No one disputes this; they simply don’t wish to talk about it.  The natural tendency is to avoid any discussion of something so horrible, so seemingly mysterious.  But let’s get one thing straight: there is no such thing as “unexplained infertility.”  Whatever is happening yet again, right here, right now, merely hasn’t been explained yet by the docs.  The truth is Western Medicine doesn’t try very hard at all to explain it.  Solving the puzzle is not nearly as profitable as perpetuating it; the Fertility Industrial Complex is fundamentally not so much a mommy-making venture as a money-making one.

Something causes our potential pregnancies to either not happen in the first place, or repeatedly fail early, however.  And my husband and I, though undeniably on the “mature” end of the reproductive age spectrum, are not even that unusual.  Statistically, one in four of all fertilizations “go south,” as my very-least-favorite nurse indelicately characterized our last ordeal.  Sure, the numbers get worse as we naturally age — up to one in three losses once a woman is over forty-ish, one in two near fifty — but that’s all this is: natural.  Our bodies have more years of wear and tear on them; eggs and sperm are generated from DNA that has perhaps been around the block a bit.  There is much more opportunity for a blip in the system.  

That said, the whole endeavor is far from the impossible feat the Advanced Reproductive Clinics of the U.S.A. would have older couples believe.  Much younger women face many of the same hurdles, deal with the same hushed, shrouded agony of a loss, thinking few others have suffered the same.  It’s as though there is an unstated, little-understood stigma, one that for some reason is not often looked at for what it truly is: not unusual in the least.  Contrary to popular Hollywood perception, a positive pregnancy test is not a done deal.  It is only the beginning.

Our latest ending is another hard blow for Team Bryant.  It had felt so promising, so real.  But now . . . more realness.  Sucker punch absorbed, I have little time to reflect.  Honestly, I’ve gotten pretty good at this — Moving On is simply what must happen next, especially with Zane K. left unchaperoned back in the musicquarium.

In addition to Zane K., the usual suspects are in attendance tonight.  Mitchell L. is a kind, hulking black man with wild, bulging eyes.  He’s always escorted to Sound Reach by his lilly-white adopted mom, who gamely joins in and sings, even at the recitals.  I admire her devotion, and her perseverance.

Near them is Downs Girl with her plastic doll.  She covets and nurses the doll as if it were a real child, carrying it with her everywhere — perhaps hoping, practicing for the real day, her own stick of butter.  She, like me, has a dream.

An over-touching Mentally-Challenged Couple near Downs Girl demonstrate anything’s possible . . . but also bring to mind the stranger who tells you way more about themselves than you’d ever want to know.  (Special Needs pairs can, and do, indeed have sex.  Procreating isn’t out of the realm of possibility either.  Woe unto the staffer assigned to assist the twosome in their bedroom, but this also happens.)

Every group has a Know-It-All, and ours is Elana J.  She’s the bossy brains of the room, constantly flitting around, a socially demanding butterfly.  She’s quite smitten with my own Zane K., who in turn is completely oblivious to her, to everything.

I find my seat again, numb.  One more bathroom stall left behind.  One more heartbreaking experience for the collection.  Fortunately, I’m just in time for the group’s grand finale: Circle of Friends.  

This is a fucking annoying and ridiculous song:

Come join us in a circle of friends
There’s always room for one more . . .
A circle that never ends,
All you do is open up the door . . .

Circle of Friends is traditionally more of an event than a song, really.  The tune itself unfolds with astounding precision, given the players: a befuddled mess for the bulk of it, punctuated by a wackily enthusiastic final verse, ending with an explosive group “Cha-Cha-Cha!”  

Afterwards: mass distorted jubilee, then the vans load to go home.  I can’t wait.

Have you ever been left out?  Have you felt alone?
Have you ever needed . . . a friend to call your own?
There is someone out there, who’s feeling just like you.
Open up your circle, that’s all you’ve got to do!

Hard, hard cramps.  Yeah, I feel totally left out.  Clearly, I am the one female on this planet never intended to be a mother.  My chief calling as a woman, relentlessly, eternally thwarted.

Come join us in a circle of friends
There’s always room for one more . . .
A circle that never ends,
All you do is open up the door . . .

My uterus continues its unhappy dance and I bask in the soul-crushing absurdity of what my days have become.  It does not seem to matter what I do, what extreme measures my husband and I are willing to take.  The verdict is always the same.  The blood I saw in the bathroom will become more blood, will become a flow, will conclude another rollercoaster ride of physical and emotional pain.

And yet . . . we have come close once again.  Closer than Steven D., who will likely never have sex, much less become a parent.  Closer than Down’s Girl and her make-believe butter baby.  Closer than countless other unhealthy or lonely people who may never discover their full bodies, or their true mates.

I should be glad I’m at least still in the running, I guess.  Patience is key.

When you’re on the outside, and you’re looking in . . .
Life can seem so empty when you don’t fit in.
There is someone out there, who’s feeling just like you.
Open up your circle, that’s all you have to do!

Goddammit, this idiotic song is actually starting to get to me.  I take in the room, the strange wonderful world gathered here, cobbled together, making a go . . . this crazy landscape of human beings with problems and challenges most of us can’t even fathom, and they’re singing.  Singing their hearts out.

I stuff the feeling down.  Wallowing is what I need.  

Circle of Friends thankfully builds to a crescendo and Mitchell L. bolts up, clapping feverishly.  He lives for the end of this song, though for very different reasons than myself.  A few weeks later Mitchell L. will see me at a public event and ambush me out of the blue — a huge, off-kilter presence simply wanting a hug and to share the joy.  His sudden approach surprises my family, but I no longer scare easily.  I’m impervious, used to it all: poop nuggets, pee stains, crazy talk, rude reactions, the works.

What I may not ever be able to get used to is being childless.

Come join us in a circle of friends
There’s always room for one more . . .
A circle that never ends,
All you do is open up the doo-ooor-OOOR . . ..

The Sound Reachers hang forever, hollering out the “doo-ooor,” then:

CHA-CHA-CHA!!!

The group shouts and celebrates it as one, but the “Cha-Cha-Cha!” is truly Mitchell L.’s.  He owns it.  Week in, week out.  Routine is everything.  He bounces in place, triumphantly pumping his fists, punctuating each “Cha!”  He looks like a maniacal, larger-than-life bobble-head, body-slammed by the best dopamine hit ever.

Circle of Friends concludes and the room is pandemonium: a jaw-dropping melee of genetic misalignment, combusting in glee.  I feel the wet red ooze from my unmaxipaded crotch but, remarkably, it’s . . . kind of okay.  I’m overwhelmed, moved by this place, this space, these people.  So imperfect, yet so extraordinary too.  All of life’s cruelties, misfires, brilliance, wisdom . . . all here on excruciating, humbling display.  A circle of friends.  The circle of life.  

The West Music girls cheerfully applaud.  Adopted Mom smiles and admires.  The Mentally-Challenged Duo awkwardly slobber-smooch and grasp hands.  Elana J. flutters her eyelashes at Zane K., who yells out “Batman!” at the top of his lungs.

The Wheelchairers wail.  The Twisty Ones flail.  Down’s Girl shrieks and holds her plastic child to the sky.

My eyes well.  My heart fluffs.  I am filled with hope again.

—–
Continue to Chapter 1.

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