by Elizabeth Fergason
My husband Harry and I are on vacation. It’s been a difficult year so we’re giving ourselves a little time off from the pressures of home. Our two daughters stayed behind with a sitter. The girls are three and five and they need a break as much as anyone. A break from our recent tensions, our troubles. Of course, our girls aren’t happy we’ve left them. Children never are. Ada threw herself up into my arms and clung to me the way kudzu clings to a tree. Anna stood at my feet, both hands clamped tightly on my leg.
It’s a pretty place, this city in Central Mexico. A big old cathedral, a cobblestone plaza, some special gardens filled with blooming hibiscus. There are a hundred restaurants here at least, and every meal, we eat in a different one. Never the same spot twice. We are active, moving, always moving, but despite the busyness, I feel flat inside while trotting alongside Harry.
We are here because we’re at a hard spot. That’s Harry calling it a hard spot, I would say it is something so much worse. A couple of years after our wedding, we were trying to conceive when Harry came up with Plan B. He called it quits on our getting pregnant together and started using condoms. I blame 23 and Me, that genomics company over there in Los Altos because Harry balked right around the time they measured our spit.
“DNA can be tricky,” I said, trying to get him back on track. “You need a big pool for accuracy. Larger data sets allow for more precision. 23 and Me just might be wrong.”
Harry didn’t think so; his side of the family has decades, centuries even, of detailed family history. Give her a couple of martinis and his mama will start bragging about their ancestors coming over on the Mayflower. Harry’s DNA results were spot on; totally in line with the family genealogy.
Me, I am of Yoruba heritage. Originating in Western Africa, the Yoruba people arrived in the U.S. during the transatlantic slave trade. Despite my argument against genomics, the DNA results are easy to believe since I’m from North Georgia, a place entrenched in slave history. I’m fine with the findings and don’t see why anyone should mind.
Anyone, meaning my husband. Harry’s not happy. Seems he’s got a grudge against my lineage. Suddenly, I’m a person of color. Except, my skin is pale. My eyes are blue. My hair is dirty blonde. Our girls, well they look just like me, the very spitting, even to the sprinkle of cinnamon freckles across our noses. But we are not related. No, our daughters come from a college student over at Stanford. Plan B.
Harry made her do the DNA test too. She’s in medical school for something super smart like brain surgery. She sold her eggs and Harry used his sperm. I hatched them though. In the production of two amazing daughters, I was allowed this much: to put the eggs inside of me and hold them in my womb as if they were my own.
Each day here feels the same. We’ve established a routine. In the morning, Harry and I walk into the center of town and look for food. After breakfast, we get lost in the never-ending maze of narrow streets until it’s time for lunch. Afternoons are spent by the hotel pool, then we go out to eat again. After supper, we return to the hotel by taxi. I’d rather walk, but Harry, who by then has had a few drinks too many, thinks the nights are unsafe. He says anyone could get knifed in the dark here, especially “Americanos”.
It is Saturday and I miss our girls. We sit outside at a tourist cafe on the edge of the plaza and watch the theater of people. The Zocalo is sun-filled and noisy. Children run around everywhere with mothers and grandmothers chasing behind. The place is full of balloons, their colors over-sharp. Giant Mylar characters from the latest Disney films bobble and glint. The vendors hang on to so many balloons that I search for anchors at their feet, something to keep them from ascending into the blue cloudless sky. Trinkets, blankets, t-shirts, toys. Churros, tacos, ice cream, pineapple. My girls would be overwhelmed by the busyness, but the kids here are so active, unfazed by the noise and the crowds and the heat. They swim through the plaza like little fishes, little experts. Harry dabs a sweaty lip with his hanky. His panama hat looks limp.
A woman with a baby fastened to her back steps up to our table to show us the cotton bracelets she sells. She’s woven neatly in English: Fuck Trump. I start to compliment her handiwork, but Harry snorts and waves her away with “Beat it, señorita!” He moves us inside the café, out of the reach of street vendors where he orders a second helping of flan. His put on a little poundage, there’s no doubt about it.
Like all the other days before it, our conversation is limited. I wish I could tell you what our trouble is exactly. Ennui, boredom, sameness. It feels like a wife and two daughters are not enough for Harry anymore. Especially when one of them has turned out to be substandard. That’s me doing Harry again, when I say, substandard. Harry has standards. Especially for our girls. He put Anna on the waiting list of a five-star nursery school months before she was born. A five-star nursery school is something I consider ridiculous. Ridiculous in the same way as much of the other highfalutin things are in our town. You know the roll call: the cars, the clothes, the schools, the food. The second home in Tahoe. The help-mates of trainers and shrinks. The hot stone massages, the Rolfing and reiki.
I am not of that place. Not of Palo Alto. Ten years ago, Harry plucked me out of the mountain laurel of Southern Appalachia. He was nice-looking and had a smooth line. I was alone and bereft, missing my Mama who’d just died. When Harry left the data server farm to return to Palo Alto, I was packed and ready. Love works that way. Love is a survivor.
Back at the hotel, we face-time with the girls at their bedtime. It’s hard to practically have them in the room and yet be unable to touch. I want to hold them. I want to hug. I want to get on the next plane and go home. We are near tears by the end of the conversation. All of us but Harry. Harry isn’t the crying type. He asks the girls about their books, gets the titles of what they are reading, and says his goodnight. Afterwards, he wants to go downstairs to the bar for a drink. I splash my face with cold water, but wind up asking him to go downstairs alone.
I sink onto the bed then jump up to freshen the flowers, carefully pinching away each ragged petal. Growing up, I wanted to be a gardener. Someone who grows pretty beds of flowers and then takes care of them. Not long ago, while making lunch for the girls, it occurred to me that I have become a gardener, after all. My daughters are my flowers.
The next day, we pay a few pesos to tour the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman, a big old cathedral. Harry’s impressed with the fancy gold genealogical tree crawling up the sanctuary wall and along the coved ceiling. The painted relief shows a fantastical lineage of the order’s founder, Dominic Guzman, and it begins with no less than Mother Mary herself. He pokes me in the ribs and whispers, “We could do something like that in our living room.” He’s completely serious and we do have a high ceiling there, but it seems a little vulgar. He’s on fire though, snapping photo after photo and I can’t help but wonder how he plans to fit me in. A leaf shoot? A tendril? A nada? Surely, like Dominic Guzman, he’ll want to start with someone big, like say his Mayflower granny.
I sit on a cold pew and watch my husband. Harry is handsome in his cotton guayabera, he still appeals to me and I don’t understand why, but maybe it’s because we’re so much in the thick of it together, this life we’ve built ourselves. It hurts that he’s not slept with me in months. He shrinks away from my touch and claims he’s too tired. Sometimes I wonder if it weren’t for watching the girls, he’d even keep me around. Our neighbors have a nanny. I reckon we do too.
Outside of the church there’s a jardin and it’s the most unsentimental garden I have ever seen, not one of scented flower and delicate rose petal, but of agave with their squat shape, their sharp black spines. Next to the agaves, a student group has set up an encampment of colorful pup tents. Harry sucks his teeth. “What’s this?” he asks. “Occupy Oaxaca?”
I inspect a flyer one of the students has handed me and try to translate as best I can. “No one is living here,” I assure him, for he has no patience with mayhem. “These tents are like installation artwork. They’re symbolic, something to do with social justice.” I think of the woman selling her bracelets at the café and roll the last word across my tongue again in soft smooth Spanish, justicia.” Harry takes off his wilted fedora and grinds it beneath the heel of his loafer–a little protest of his own.
The following day, we interrupt our routine to tour a Mayan archeological site a few kilometers outside of the city. It is furnace hot at the ruins and Harry and I buy giant sombreros to trek around in the heat among the enormous structures built of sand and stone. Later, inside the museum, we stare at small piles of bones stacked together like delicate sculpture. A sign says that in the Mesoamerican culture, death was an obsession and human sacrifice the highest form of karmic healing. Instead of being repelled, I find the idea intriguing. One person is murdered so another might thrive. Grace by proxy, I think, and I wonder what else could be accomplished this way. Motherhood by proxy, yes; I know all about it. But what if it’s something less lovely? What about punishment–what if, instead of the murderer, we sit someone else in the electric chair, a pretty girl, say, or the homeless, or a poet? I stare at the child-size bones and can’t believe my coolness. Is it the heat that’s making me heartless? Is it Harry?
It’s after dark when the tour guide drops us back at the hotel. Upstairs, Harry stretches out across our bed. “Long day,” he murmurs. I sit at the desk and thumb through a book I bought at the museum. I think he is sleeping until he begins to speak. “I know I’ve not been easy to live with lately,” he says. “It’s work, sure, and it’s the reading thing with Ada too.”
He’s been griping about Ada since the day she was born. I turn a page and inspect a photo of bones. What if the past is a proxy for the present? What if believing in your history is more important than the right here, the right now? The idea that something outside of yourself, some relative say, who may or may not have come over on the Mayflower, actually makes a difference.
Harry snaps his fingers. “Are you even listening?”
The way I see it, fancy ancestors are nothing but distractions from the real. “Harry,” I say, “She’s only three,”
“Her sister was devouring books by then.”
“Just Hop on Pop. And she heard it so much, I’m pretty sure she memorized the words.”
Harry pushes himself into a sitting position. “We should try again. Hire a new donor, someone who’s not just bright but also athletic and this time we go for a boy.” His voice jumps an octave when he says, “God, how I’ve longed for a boy.”
That’s Harry hanging on to his blueblood. Of course, he’d want a son.
He tells me there’s a new way to test for the sex now. “It’s all over China, India too. But in the States, the pussyfoot FDA won’t have it.” Harry’s calculating the odds. I can practically see the numbers running in his head –how many eggs it will take before he hits bingo.
I’ve suffered too many mean men in my life. Mama’s hateful husbands, a meth-head ex-boyfriend. Harry’s no mountain man, but he’s turned out to be callous. “Maybe it’s you, Harry,” I say. “Maybe you’re like, you know, Henry the Eighth and there will never be a boy.”
His eyes pop. My husband isn’t used to sass. “You dumbshit,” he says. “I bet you certainly hope so.” He’s been a name caller for several years now, dumbshit, dufus. You’d think I’d be used to it, but I’m not. I crumple a little and turn back to my book.
The truth about the girls’ surrogacy is this: At first, I was reluctant. I went so far as to suggest Harry was racist. He was displeased but kept insisting. It was the logic of his argument that finally convinced me. When Harry said, “Face it, Babe, you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed,” I had to agree. Most people in Palo Alto are sharp tools indeed. Every child, a little prodigy, all those Stanford whiz kids creating even whizzier ones. My own blunt mind was the reason I gave in to him.
And yet, I had such high hopes for this trip. Like Harry, I’d been thinking about a third child and I’d hoped that he would finally agree to conceive with me. The wish grew stronger upon realizing that our getaway would occur at the same time as my ovulation. Now I wonder if hanging on to dreams is like hanging on to the past; neither one of them is going to do you much good. My tone is tight when I tell him, “I’m not carrying any more babies for you, Harry. Forget your boy.”
He laughs at me. “Of course, you won’t. You’re thirty-five now, what they call geriatric. I want a viable pregnancy, a healthy child.” Harry sucks his teeth. “We’ll hire a surrogate this time around. Some kid who needs the cash. You got a young cousin or something?”
He wants to cut me completely out. I feel a wave of rage that is so deep, initially, I do not even recognize it as rage, but as pain–a stabbing spasm, beginning at the base of my spine, twisting upward and emerging as a kick to my heart. I say, “There’s no way any cousin of mine will ever be a part of your scheme. No cousin and no hired surrogate either!”
Harry pays me no more mind than he would a buzzing fly. “We’ll bring her to our place and put her up in the spare room. Make sure she eats right, gets her exercise.”
He’s wrong, I’m not old. And I’m not stupid either. I shake my fist and shout, “I have never ever been a dull tool!”
“We make double damn sure she stays clear of drinking and whatever other shit you people got going on in those hills. She’s nice and clean — same as you were with the girls.”
I find my purse and grab my shoes. Harry’s still cranking out his plan as I run out of the room.
It’s a mile into the center of town. I slip though the fast-moving traffic and dash down narrow dark streets toward the Zocalo. It isn’t until I reach the agave garden outside Santo Domingo that I finally stop to catch my breath. The garden is empty of students, but the small tents remain in place, each one with a single light inside. The tents look so pretty; soft glowing lanterns situated within the shadowy stone walls of the church. One tent is unlit.
I am exhausted and I’m crying so hard I don’t even think much before crawling inside the pitch-black tent. It is empty, the floor deep in sleeping bags. I cry myself to sleep. At some point, a man enters. The scent he brings in with him is clean and sweet, like strawberry or guava and it is this that awakens me more than any rustle or noise. He is, I think, a handsome man. A student perhaps or a tourist, it doesn’t matter. Our conversation is limited but this is what I learn: From a place of desperation, almost any notion can be conveyed. And it is grace we exchange. I kiss his lips. He smooths my brow. He is my warrior, my darling, my proxy and my own ruthless exploitation. I can see this–that I am as bent as my husband.
At first light, I dress and walk back to the hotel. Harry’s out already, his sombrero is missing. No doubt he’s searching for breakfast. And it says something, doesn’t it, that never once do I imagine he might be searching for me?
I pull close the curtains and rest on the bed in the cool darkened room. There’s a moment of stillness before the war. I reach back into the past and memories surface with gladness and joy. I am home again, holding Ada on my hip with her arms and legs wrapped completely around me and there is her sister, pink thumb stuck tight in her mouth, who is standing so close she’s on top of my feet.
Elizabeth Fergason is a native North Carolinian and graduated from the MA English program at San Francisco State University. Recent publications include Flash Fiction Magazine, Wraparound South, Parhelion, Ligeia, Blue Moon and Typehouse Literary (Pushcart nominated). These may be connected to through elizabethfergason.com