It seemed the sun never sank that summer. All day long the air was thick and the river running through our town was just a dead gray snake with a sulfurous smell. Without wind, the tops of the trees drooped and when you fanned your face, the air was like a wall of water barely moving over you. People complained. Air-conditioning units banged, and the ice from a Slurpee was cool blue heaven before it melted on the pad of your tongue.
I didn’t want to get a job selling Slurpees, the way so many others my age did. I certainly didn’t want to be a lifeguard, hoisted high in one of those chairs with an emergency cross blazing at my back. I look eh in a bathing suit. I’m twenty-one, sun sensitive, my skin as white as milk in a blue china cup. I am the kind of person who seeks shady places and books; I like any book that has to do with houses and their insides. I like the old books about Boston houses—Edith Wharton and a man named James write about those—and I like the new books you get in the paperback rack in the drugstore, books where living rooms have velvet drapes and people are in love for two seconds tops. I’ve been in love a few times, but nothing worth noting here.
I live with my mother. In our town, most of us do. We go to the high school, a big industrial brick building with rows and rows of slick red lockers, and then we graduate up to the community college where huge elms shade the campus and there’s an archway you have to drive through that says something important and Latin on it. At the community college, most of us major in physician’s assistant training programs, which means you learn to draw a lot of blood and read pressure. Others do something with software architecture. I knew right from the start these career paths were not for me. I knew, and always have, that I wanted to do interior design, to make homes as beautiful as they possibly could be, to understand the subtle but serious distinction between mauve and merlot, or how to bring light to a row of wavy glass windows, to choose a carpet that complements the color of wood that soaks up the shine from the beaded chandelier, the one I chose, swinging from its root in the freshly spackled ceiling.
The summer of heat, the summer before my junior college year, my mother’s cancer returned, after ten years’ remission. My father left us a long time ago, for Florida. At first my mother felt just a small ache in her bones and then the ache turned into a limp and she finally had to admit the pain grinding and grinding at her hip was not arthritis. The doctor confirmed it with a CAT scan. He showed us the recurrence, there on films so gray they looked covered with cobwebs, there on the furniture of my mother’s bones, her architecture all wrong, chips and calcifications, black stains where the malignancy was. The body is a house. Make no mistake about it. The body is a house and the organs are the plush parts and the bones are the scaffolding and bed frames and bookshelves on which you hold your memories, your disappointments.
We came out of the doctor’s office, into a blast of heat. My mother waved a rolled-up patient information sheet in front of her face, perspiration lining her lip. “I’ll do the chemo,” she said. I wanted to put my arm around her, draw her in close, oh mom, but it’s not that way between us. We get along, but if you were to give us a personality test, you’d get opposite results. She’s loopy and eccentric and has little sense of style. She wears bedroom slippers a lot. I shop at all the outlets for Joan and David shoes and Talbot’s clothes. My mother has a knot in her hair, and instead of combing it, she just lets it get bigger and bigger until at last the lady at the salon just has to cut it out. She lives off my father’s alimony and spends her days reading horoscope charts and smoking cigarettes until the ash gets so long it drops off onto the carpet. Frankly, I have higher aspirations. A woman should. I’d like, for instance, to accumulate some wealth. I say to my mother, “Don’t you need a retirement plan?” and she takes a deep suck off her cigarette, her cheeks collapsing inward and says, “Whoop de doo, I’ll be gone before then.” I say to my mother, “Don’t you want to dye that gray in your hair?” and she says, “Gray tells the truth, Cynthia.” Standing close to her, I can smell decay, the same way I can smell that river that runs through our town, odiferous vapors rising up, singing tunes of sinking things and wretched things and houses taken by torpedoes.
I don’t remember ever being close to my mother. I don’t remember ever holding her hand or sitting in her lap. She invited me, over and over again, and I refused. I can be distant and scared. In our high school class there was once a girl named Leah Kowalski. Leah had a bad lisp and a gimp leg that ended in a prosthesis. Sometimes she’d take the prosthesis off, unbuckling the leather-and-steel contraption, removing it from where it nestled on the knee, and I’d see what was beneath. I’d see the sheen of amputation, the skin and spoke of bone, and I’d want to touch her there. Right there. Of course I never dared.
In the summers, in my town, most of us flip burgers or bag groceries or work in the hospital gift shop, but these things aren’t for me. I wanted to make some money. My mother’s cancer had returned, a boy was abducted while he walked home from the mall, his murdered body found in the weedy woods, and I dreamt of Leah Kowalski; she was saying operator, operator and coming towards me in an old-fashioned black dress with gorgeous buttons of pure pearl. I’d wake up shaking, the tree shadows fingering out across my bedroom wall, the occasional car swooshing by in the street outside, the heat just building like a bomb. I was in Gerry’s one day, ordering a low-cal soda, when I saw the sign. It was pinned on the community bulletin board, right next to the sectional sofa for sale. egg donors needed the sign said. generous compensation. 21–34. Call . . . and it gave a toll free number. Now, first off, I have always loved dialing toll free numbers. Sometimes I do it just for the thrill of reaching all the way across the country, to a voice in Texas, or Louisiana, or maybe even France, for free. But it was more than that. Generous compensation. I thought here might be a way to get wealthy. Here might be a way to stockpile some cash, start a serious savings plan, and move my way up and out of this tiny town of two-room houses and poor cable reception. I’d like to live in a place with just a bit of panache. I’d like to live in a house that has a foyer. I’d like a bathroom where the tiles are white floor to ceiling, except for the thin floral band that belts the midsection, beaded with water when I shower.
So I called. We are talking, here, the difference between a $5.61 summer wage, and a generous compensation. Who knew what it would be. I was thinking, maybe a couple of hundred? I had no idea. When I say that I mean that absolutely. I had no idea at all.
He was a lawyer. He said to come on in. We made an appointment for the next day. While I was waiting for the next day, I sat on my mother’s porch swing and sipped some soda. My friend Alice called and said she’d kissed a trumpet player; he had an incredible lip. My friend Marie called and said mud was good for your face. These girls I am close to, but not by much. I have always been dreamy and inward. I am always building places inside my head, rooms where quilts hang on antique racks, hallways with ceramic hands cupping candles on the walls. This world, that world, my world, where it is perfect and lonely both.
The next day, I went in to see him. He had a 1-800 number but an office just two bus rides away. I live in Troy, a tiny town; he was in Albany, big city, far but not far, if you see what I mean. His office was in a high-rise with one thousand windows. The elevator doors parted soundlessly, and I whooshed upwards, stepping into a silent hall, and then a waiting room of utter white, a carmine couch, a sleek telephone on the glass side table. He called me in. He was handsome as hell, or heaven. He said his name was Ike. Ike Devin. He had one of those faces that descend like ledges, and bead blue eyes. He wore chinos, perfectly pressed, and an excellent Oxford shirt that showed the little trigger of his Adam’s apple. “Sit down,” he said, and I did. “I have hundreds upon hundreds of couples,” he said, and he told me the tale, the women too old to make good eggs, the couples late thirtyish, always in love. They were looking for donors “like you,” Ike said, “healthy and smart,” and I could feel myself beginning to beam. Of course, like me. “A young woman like you,” Ike said, “has probably thousands upon thousands of genetically sound egg cells,” and when he said that I thought of my mother, her genetically unsound cells, and then I thought of my stomach, its flat pale plane, the little wink where the belly button was, the way Ike looked at me, approving, a small smile on his face. “You think I’d be a candidate?” I said.
“Quite possibly,” he said.
“Which couple would get my egg?” I said.
“It’s what we call a reciprocal process,” Ike said. “You choose them and they choose you, a partnership.” Then Ike pulled out a file drawer and riffled through it. “Here are all the profiles,” he said. “Here are all the couples who might want your genetic material.”
“How much?” I said.
“Five thousand,” Ike said.
I felt my eyes pop out like a pug dog’s. “Five thousand?” I said.
“Per retrieval,” Ike said. “If you do it more than once, then of course you get five thousand again. It can be lucrative,” Ike said. “And for a girl your age, you have a lot to give.”
I had to sign on many dotted lines. I had to sign away my rights to the future child, which was not a problem, because in my mind I was not giving away a child, just an egg, and there’s a difference. I had to prove who I was, birth certificate, doctor checkups, health histories, school report cards, where I’ve always been straight A. Three weeks later, Ike called. “You’re approved,” he said. I went back to his office and he fanned out the files before me. It was like picking parents. Each couple had their history, their likes and dislikes, their golfing styles, their pet status, their gardens and careers. I knew I wanted my egg to go to a certain sort of woman, one who had, say, a circular lawn, and underground sprinklers, the kind that work on an automatic timer and rain upwards just as the summer sun sinks, giving the air a lavender smell. I wanted the woman to have a lawn and a walk-in California closet and most definitely a career; she should have earned these things herself, and she should like dogs. I picked her, Janice. We would never meet, but then again, we would. I would be buried in her. She would grow me all over again. I would be born from her, born into her house, which she described as contemporary colonial, with two staircases and a shag carpet the color of cream. In the kitchen, I pictured fresh peppers hung in copper baskets; I pictured a small room painted a beautiful pale green, where the crib would be. I pictured the baby opening its eyes to see the lacquered blond spindles and the walls and a face bending over it, all shadow and jasmine scent. Janice. In her house, I would sleep in Neiman Marcus sheets. In her house, touch would be safe, mouth to cheek, finger to wrist, the skin always moist and fresh.
I thought the procedure would be relatively easy, my mistake. They can’t, it turns out, just go in there with lobster tongs and pick out an egg or two. I had to take a lot of drugs and this did not appeal to me, given that, unlike my mother, who eats meat, I am a vegetarian with insides as bright as sunny corridors. So I wasn’t happy about the drug part, but the fertility doctor at the clinic, where Ike referred me, said it was absolutely necessary. The goal was to ramp up my ovaries so they spit out eggs like silver pinballs, so doctors could harvest as many as ten at a time, all for Janice. I went in for ultrasounds. The technician squirted warmed goop on my belly and said, “There they are,” but when I looked on the screen all I saw were shadows and clouds. Now, at night, I dreamt of Janice. She was my mother, my sister, my friend. I could be close to her; we could be like blood relations with none of the liabilities this usually imposed. We did not share disease or death or even difference. We were just a pure blood-bond, and she came to me in my dreams, this Janice did, her skirt a spiral of color. She held my hand. I felt I had come home.
Meanwhile, my mother’s cancer was doing the cancer thing. Once a recurrence happens, and once that recurrence goes to the bone, well, you can imagine. If you have a cancer in your breast, which is where hers started, you have it limited, because there are only two breasts on the body. But when cancer gets to the bone it has a whole sewer system to work through because bones are everywhere, and they are not durable. My mother was in pain. She knocked on a door one day and shattered her porous knuckle. She drank her chemo down. The chemo was red as Batman’s cape, and left a stain on her lip. Ten years ago, when my father left her for a woman in high high heels, my mother’s already graying hair finished its transformation. Her veins are very purple in her high thighs, a little like mashed grape. “I’m my own woman Cynthia,” my mother tells me, has always told me. “I don’t care what anyone thinks of how I look or live and it’s a shame you do.” She says this to me in her bedroom slippers, as she sucks on her mentholated sticks. The smoke is snarled and yarnlike. I can’t believe I came out of her vagina. Sometimes I have a weird belief that the doctors never completely washed me off, so I still smell like her and what is this smell, my mother’s oils, the substance beneath the stone, where the worms are?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Secret Society of Demolition Writers by Edited by Marc Parent. Copyright © 2005 by Marc Parent. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.