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The Torso and the Needle

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

We are minutes away from becoming a junkie couple, she thought standing on the corner of 49th and Lexington, waiting for Max to arrive.  She twirled a piece of her hair so hard her scalp burned.  It was noontime.  Office buildings were spilling pretty-young-things into the streets in search of lunch.  The natives walked briskly, deliberately; the tourists stopped midstep to gawk at architectural marvels, oblivious to the countless near-misses they caused.


​Paranoid that everyone knew why she was standing there, she tried to lock eyes with a certain tall, dark, and handsome.  He didn’t return her stare.  Maybe he’s embarrassed to acknowledge me.  Maybe he thinks I look deranged staring at him with my newly twisted dreadlock.  She shook her head to reshuffle her thoughts, chiding herself for being so irrational.  Wait.  Her chest tightened.  What if someone from my office across the street sees me?  

“Are you ready?” Max startled Maya, halting her analysis of pedestrian motivations.  Max’s voice was calm and soothing.  Maya turned to face him and dropped her head onto his chest.  If Max was nervous, his face was not betraying anything, unlike hers, which was incapable of hiding anything, ever.    


“Yes.” Maya lifted her head and responded into his neck, her stomach twisting itself into a New York City street pretzel.


“How did court go?” She asked, looking around as they walked inside.  Although there were other offices in the building, the clinic’s huge sign on the outside facade always made her frown.  

“It went well,” Max smiled his irresistible smile, exactly one part angel and one part devil.  The perfect combination for a lawyer, she always thought.  Innocent enough to win over juries and female judges, yet also mischievous, barely hiding the Machiavellian scheming.  ‘If you take one of those computer imaging programs used to predict what babies of famous people will look like, and if you cross Mona Lisa and the Cheshire Cat, you’d get your smile,’ she once told him.


“Lucky you.  What’d you spend, like a couple of hours preparing?”


“Nah, I reviewed everything on the train.”  


“Amazing.”


“Why, thank you.”


“Let’s see if you can master the needle class as quickly.”  Max stopped smiling and cleared his throat.


As they walked down the short hallway to the elevator bank, Maya looked to the right at her reflection in the wall of mirrors and briefly saw herself two years ago.  She looked so young and innocent then.  Now she saw gray hairs sticking out as only gray hair can, dark circles under her eyes and a deep wrinkle in the middle of her forehead.  The one her mom always warned her about.  Mom was right.  If you furrow your brow, eventually it will stay that way.


They nodded at the lobby guard and rode the elevator to the oh-so-familiar tenth floor.  In the elevator was a woman with a baby in a carseat.  Maya squeezed Max’s arm and beamed up at him.  This must be a sign.  Max smiled at Maya and gripped her hand tight.  Maya looked away from the baby and took a deep breath.  I came here alone so many times to get my tests done.  It is so nice to have Max with me today.  The elevator soon dinged announcing their arrival on the tenth floor.  Maya leaned into Max as they walked to sign in at the front desk.  They then took a deep breath simultaneously, pausing briefly on the threshold of their classroom, before quickly walking in and sitting down in two empty seats.  

Maya examined the packed room: a few Jewish religious couples, some May-December combos, but mostly other healthy-looking 30-somethings.  She didn’t see anyone she knew. Her shoulders relaxed.  

She peeked outside the open door at the busy waiting room amazed, as always, at how many people walked in and out of the tenth floor of 425 Lexington Avenue.  When researching fertility clinics in New York, she learned that there were sixteen on the island of Manhattan alone, totaling approximately 1.4 baby farms per square mile.  She remembered all the multiples she saw on the Upper East side while walking to her OBGYN’s office.  Definitely a concentration of them there, chances are they were not home-made. She chuckled.  But what always surprised Maya was the number of fellow Jews, even orthodox Jews, she saw during her Saturday-morning appointments.  

What about that covenant with God not to perform any labor on shabbos?  Is there an exception if you’re trying to make a baby? I guess if God made you barren then you can break a few of his laws.  I bet if Moses were alive today, and his wife couldn’t get pregnant, he’d be at the clinic on Saturday morning too, with the Ten Commandments tucked under his arm.    

All around Max and Maya couples were chattering until the nurse came in and everyone fell dead silent.  Maya remembered a law school class where students were this quiet, and that was because the professor thoroughly enjoyed making a spectacle of whoever dared make an unprovoked sound in his class.   She checked that her phone was shut off and prayed that the nurse wouldn’t pick on anyone, or at least not her.


On a table in front of the room stood an anatomically correct, female dummy torso.  From everything Maya read about the class, she guessed the dummy was to play the role of pin cushion.  Maya’s mind filled in the missing limbs and head, added a red bouffant and voila: it was Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.  (Ginger was the first female form that made an impression on Maya as a kid.)


“Hello, my name is Amy.  How is everyone?”  Nurse Amy stood behind Ginger.  She pulled a massive tote bag off her shoulder and put it on the chair beside her.  It landed with a loud thud.  The men in the room jumped in their seats.

 

“Nervous?”  Nurse Amy smiled and her forty-something face lit up big, blue eyes, full lips and perfect, white teeth, suggesting she may have been a looker at one point, decades ago.  But the “mommy haircut” and missing waist pointed to a litter of kids at home.


“Yes, a little,” someone in the back of the class mumbled.


“Don’t be nervous.”  She said.  “After this class, you will all be experts on how to properly give these hormone shots.  And men, for two weeks you get to inject your wives.  Maybe get a little frustration out and help along the way?”  

They all giggled nervously in response, as expected, like the feeble laugh track of any sitcom.


Maya looked at her husband out of the corner of her eye, trying to gauge his feelings.  Max looked pale and scared.  Not at all like how he must have looked at the court appearance he barely prepped for and aced.  He was afraid of blood.  And he most definitely never shared Maya’s obsession with medical shows like Untold Stories of the ER or her all-time favorite, Dr. G Medical Examiner on the Discovery channel.  Unlike Max, Maya always wanted to be a doctor, but she struggled with math and science and her mother strongly encouraged her to become a lawyer instead - the only other possible profession to her immigrant mind.  Maya’s sole consolation was that she wasn’t in a dreadful law firm anymore and was working in-house at a hedge fund.  Still, it was nothing like the tactile, healing work of doctors which she craved.  

Maya could hear Max take a big breath as Nurse Amy explained how the men would need to inject the women twice a day with various hormones for fourteen days straight.  


“Lupron,” which increases the number of eggs to be retrieved, needs to get injected into the fat of the stomach. “Pergonal,” which stimulates ovarian activity, needs to find its way into the muscle, making the butt the perfect location.  Then, about three days prior to egg retrieval, we add another drug to the hormone cocktail, which will induce ovulation.  Finally, “Progesterone,” which is a hormone that enables the uterus to support pregnancy and is a daily injection, gets added to the mix after embryo implantation.  

The male does not require any shots during the entire In Vitro Fertilization adventure and plays a rather minimal role altogether.  Much like in regular reproduction.  That's lucky for someone as squeamish as Max, Maya thought, who would rather be in a conference room than a doctor's office any day.

“The male contribution to procreation is momentary and transient.  Conception is a pinpoint of time, another of our phallic peaks of action, from which the male slides back uselessly,” wrote Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae.  Of course, in her seminal work, Paglia never considered procreating through IVF, Maya mused, and the many opportunities it gives males to repeatedly inject their partners, courtesy of these nearly-impossible-to-self-administer shots.


Nurse Amy filled the syringe with saline and gently stabbed the bottom of shapely Ginger.  She then passed the lovely test subject around so that each man got a chance to prick for practice.  All eyes were glued on Ginger while she slowly worked the room.  As each man stabbed Ginger, some straight and some a little cockeyed, Maya could hear them exhale a sigh of relief.  The women looked uneasy, which was understandable Maya thought.  They wielded very little control to begin with while doctors poked and prodded their bodies, trying to pinpoint the reason they were defective.  And now, to have their own partners, who were supposed to provide unconditional support join the rest of the medical community poking and prodding them, just added insult to injury.  Maya nodded in silent agreement.

Finally, Ginger was passed to their neighbor.  Max and Maya watched mesmerized as the striking blond specimen with incredibly strong and steady hands, executed the perfect injection.  A gentile, for sure, they both thought and exchanged furtive glances.  

And then just like that, Ginger, who at this point looked like she was crying from all the tiny saline leaks caused by innumerable stab wounds, was handed to Max.  All of Maya’s fertile years flashed back before her eyes.  Hundreds of perished eggs - possible babies - floated by her.

 

Who am I kidding? Those eggs never had a chance.  Ginger had a better chance of getting off that island than I did getting pregnant.  

“No pressure,” Maya whispered to Max squeezing his thigh.  She was lying, and wondered if he could tell.  He should feel totally pressured, she thought.  It’s a universal fact that (most) Jews are not handy.  Max ordinarily delegated what he considered menial tasks to Maya’s father, who, although a Jew, was also Russian, and therefore an entirely different type of Jew and an exception to the rule.  Maya’s father had a handyman awakening mid-life, according to Maya’s mother.  He “improved” with time and became just right when they moved to America.  

One of Maya’s dad’s early handyman feats: “engineering epiphany” (injenernaya myisl), Maya and her mom called it, was conceived twenty-five years ago in their less than 300-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Moscow.  The place had no mirrors, not even in the bathroom, and Maya’s mother desperately wanted one.  Maya couldn’t blame her.  People around the world, no matter how poor, all have their own beauty traditions, some of which are deeply steeped in vanity.  And Russians are some of the most looks-obsessed people Maya knew.  Her father used the only stretch of open space in the living room between two shelves to hang a mirror (wait for it) on a fishing pole.  Maya always thought it looked crazy, but when people came over, no one said anything.  Such ingenuity was common in 1980s Russia, and Maya herself saw similar contraptions at friends’ houses.  Although it caved somewhat under the weight of the mirror, the fishing pole otherwise held its own.  For all Maya knew, her father’s injenernaya myisl was still in use in the eighth floor of apartment #31, Building 15 Bozhova Street, Moscow.  

Maya imagined herself pulling down her drawers and her dad’s hand coming at her holding the syringe.  She shuddered.  Max will have to do.  Not much of a choice here, she despaired.  Just do as Nurse Amy said, Max.  Gentle yet firm, you can do it.  She looked over at Ginger and pleaded with her to be strongand not let them down.  She gently patted Max’s back to encourage him, but couldn’t suppress the icy goosebumps crawling up the back of her neck.  

Maya took a deep breath and held it.  She looked over to watch Max fill the syringe, inject Ginger on her firm, eerily life-like behind and - “Snap!” - break the needle.

   

Their fellow classmates collectively sucked in their breath.  Max looked like a deer in headlights.


Out of a room of twelve eager fathers-to-be, Max was the only one to break the needle.  

Oy, vey zmir! Maya heard her mother shrieking in Yiddish in her head, because she was always there, usually disapproving, but in the most reassuring way.  Say something, quickly, Maya told herself and felt her eyes bulging out of her skull.


“Clearly, the angle was wrong,” Maya blurted out loud, receiving a high-pitched teehee from their sure-shot neighbor.  

“Ahem, ahem,” the gentile giant cleared his throat and straightened his massive back.

“Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine injecting the real thing,” the nurse consoled Max.  

Not a good sign, her mother’s voice and Maya agreed.  They decided right then and there that she will have to inject herself.  So much for the IVF class.

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