by Stephen Murtough
I suggest a Facebook group to Ma, and eventually she says yes. For a while we scroll past posts from creeps and perverts, and then we stumble upon an anomaly, and I click on his profile. He describes himself as a loving gay man who wants to be an uncle-like figure in a modern-day family. We click on his photos. He’s got luxurious, long black hair that’s identical to mine, transparent blue eyes just like Ma’s, and a soft and honest smile.
I click on the envelope button and type a message and press send. And we wait and check our inbox every few minutes. Each notification ping hurries our fingers over the mouse and keyboard, and we click, and run our eyes over the text, and see that it’s someone else. Just another unsolicited weirdo.
The next day, Ma calls and says he’s replied. I tell work that I feel sick, and I sway whilst holding the central pillar on the bus journey home. When I arrive, Ma and I type our response and we invite him for an online interview. We dance around our flat locked in a waltz embrace, and we become excited. Ma and I have sex for the first time in months.
Later, Ma asks, what if he wants to be a proper father? I press my body against Ma and grip around her belly. He said uncle, I say, which probably means meeting once a year and giving presents and catching up on school updates, you know? Ma pulls away and hangs her feet over the edge of our bed. But what if he wants more? I weave my fingers into Ma’s hair and whisper nothings into her ear.
That evening, he accepts our invitation. In the intervening days, we make a list of questions, and we draw our red lines.
Quite suddenly, I’m pressing the call button on our laptop screen. His voice soaks my ears with a deep and mellifluous hello. I struggle past stutters and introduce myself and say how grateful I am. And then I realise it’s just me, Ma’s silent in a corner. I glare at her on the screen. She stares back, vacant.
He and I make great conversation. We discover a mutual love for Iranian cooking, and knitting and needlework, and we compare countries that we’ve travelled to and souvenirs we’ve brought back, and I bring down a vase I carried from the Middle East whilst solo travelling fifteen years ago. And then, we laugh about how similar our long, glossy black hair is, and we share tips and salon recommendations.
A voice barks and it’s Ma. She asks her questions one after another like bullets. He tells us he’s a first timer and was inspired by an ex-partner who became a donor father. He says, Joel has an actual proper relationship with his daughter, you know? I find myself saying yes and clutching for Ma’s hand, which isn’t there. He says, with your blessing, I’d like to fill that man-shaped hole that should never exist in any child’s life. I think forward to our child’s first birthday, and he’s there with his arms stacked high with presents, and he embraces our baby with his calming, bass voice. The years zoom by; our child has his long black hair, his transparent blue eyes, his soft honest smile.
Then Ma’s at my side, so I smile at her, and she plunges her nails into my thigh. It’s all great, Ma says, but we’re the parents of the child, you understand? Yes of course, he replies, I just don’t want to not be there, you know?
We end the call, and Ma walks off. Later, she says, He wants too much, He’ll complicate things, He’ll be here all the time, supporting without supporting, I’ll be forgotten. I soothe my hand through Ma’s scalp and over her body. I say, won’t it be nice for our baby to know their biological father? Won’t it be good for their happiness? And we still have our red lines. But Ma shakes her head, says the red lines are useless, says they’ve been rubbed out. I say, we just want a baby, don’t we? Our own baby. And isn’t this better than the dead, rotten spunk that we got from the bank? Ma, eventually, comes to me.
I send a message the next morning arranging for him to stay. And still, Ma is worried. We have long, mundane conversations: Will He be on the birth certificate? What will He be called? Do we meet His family? Is He to be trusted? Is He safe? I placate Ma by saying the right things and I tell her to not get ahead of herself. And slowly, Ma feels the excitement that she should already be feeling. She even takes us baby clothes shopping and suggests cot brands and pregnancy starter packs and she writes lists and lists of things we must do. I realise I’ve never been happier.
He arrives perfectly on time and Ma shows him his room and brings him tea and biscuits. That evening, whilst Ma washes up in the kitchen, I show him my ovulation chart. I tell him I want to try at least once every day. He hugs me close, and I feel the expectant stretch of his muscles beneath my fingertips.
The following morning, I give him a sterile cup and Ma and I prepare in the bedroom. I lie naked on pillows that prop up my hips, and Ma checks that my cervix feels soft and open. Then Ma leaves and I check again that everything’s in the right position, acutely aware of the exact angle of my hips and the precise position of my cervix and the hot feel of the bed linen against my exposed skin. Ma returns with a loaded syringe, holding it at length from herself. She kneels on the bed in front of me. Her hands are shaking, and her mouth is twisted in disgust. She tries to guide the syringe inside, but she slips, and the plastic lip cuts into my vagina and semen leaks out and dribbles down my upper thigh. Give it here, I say. I reach out and Ma screams and slaps my hand away. She forces the syringe inside of me and presses the plunger.
We repeat this routine for the next five days, and then we have a special farewell dinner. Just before tucking into our steaming, hot food, he starts giggling. Ma asks Him what’s funny, but he can barely talk. He holds out his hands, and Ma starts to get tense. She shoots me a look, and I turn away, embarrassed. And then he reveals a fresh packet of baby bibs and demands that we both wear one. And Ma, to my amazement, bursts out laughing, and she grabs a bib and fastens it around her neck. The whole spectacle of the three of us having dinner like this is hysterical, and I have to excuse myself at one point to go and bellow into a towel in the bathroom.
He leaves the next morning, and we wait. And wait. And Ma keeps asking whether I’ve started my period even though I’m days from when I’m expected. We continue like that, and one grey afternoon, Ma says, even if this doesn’t work, we can always try again because this is just a numbers game. I scream at her then, and I shout, let’s just give this a chance, shall we?
My blood arrives on time, and I don’t tell Ma straight away. We have breakfast together, I go for a walk, run errands in town, browse shops, and then only that evening, I give her the news. We hold each other and sob, and we agree to ask him for another set of donations. I immediately get my phone and send him a message, and he calls back straight away.
He stays again the next month, and we repeat our routine. And then the following month, and the one after that. The final time that blood soaks my vagina, Ma goes into her study whilst I’m curled into a foetal ball and crying on the bed. And she calls him. I hear her say, perhaps it’s best we stop for a while, perhaps it’s best we reassess. When Ma ends the call and comes back into the bedroom, I pretend to be asleep. She comes close and begins stroking wet hair from my face. I nudge one eyelid open and see Ma above me, cooing stupidly, and then she turns away. I lunge at her and slap my hand over her head. You never wanted his child! You were the one using the syringe! Ma throws her hands up and sways in front of me, and she looks so old, so past her prime that I know it’s all true. She sobs on the bed, and cries, you’ve got it all wrong. I walk around downstairs and find one of her lists of things that we must buy for our non-existent baby. I tear it into small pieces and fit them into my mouth.
A few days later, he calls me. He says, I really want a baby with you. There’s these stories online about these beautiful families, and they all say artificial insemination never worked for them either. It’s just not the way humans were meant to create babies, you know? Then he becomes quiet and my heart beats into my throat. He says, I know this is going to sound weird, but these families, they conceived naturally with their donor. I feel dizzy, and I sit down, and I look at my reflection in the mirror, grinning widely.
I tell Ma the following day. I say, it’s been shown to be so much more effective than artificial insemination. I bring up the Facebook posts that he sent me that show these happy mothers with their gorgeous babies. But Ma is silent, and she shakes her head and says this is sex with a stranger. I can’t help it, I roll my eyes. I begin to point out the benefits, but Ma cuts me off and starts screaming about our red lines and how they’ve been crossed and smudged and re-written throughout the whole time we’ve known him. She shouts, why will this be any better than using the syringe? What about adoption, or another donor, or maybe He’s the problem? Has He been tested, where do I fit in?
He arrives the next week and Ma stays with her parents. We’re awkward until we sit down and really talk. He says he’s never been with a woman before, and he wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t think sex was the only way to give us our baby. I tell him my own worries, and I talk about Ma’s disapproval and her distrust of the science. He questions Ma’s investment and how he’s always felt it was me who really wants our baby. We talk for hours, and comfort begins to seep through.
We have sex the following day. It’s clinical and unenjoyable and difficult. But afterwards I feel a certain happiness and surety. We have sex twice a day for the next five days. Things get easier. Once, we lie in each other’s arms and talk about what our baby will look like, what they will sound like, what they will be like. Ma doesn’t call or message throughout the period.
Then, Ma doesn’t return home when she’s supposed to. Instead, she calls my mobile and says it’s over. I try to tell her how it all went, and my voice moves quickly as I relive my experiences with him. I do my best by Ma and try hard to prevent the smile from entering my voice. But she doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to engage. I say to her, aren’t you even a little bit interested? After all we’ve been through? And Ma cuts the line. I go for a walk and wonder whether to go over to her parents’ place and to ask for her back, but I decide against it.
The date of my expected period arrives and I’m bloodless. I text Ma and tell her the news and I ask her to come over for the test. I leave it an hour, and then a whole day, and she doesn’t reply. I call her and it goes to voicemail. So, I urinate on the test stick. And there’s a red line. My thrashing heart feels like I’m choking. I fumble with my phone and find his number, and I press call and my grin pushes into the vibrating phone. It rings, and rings, and rings. I press call again.
Stephen Murtough is a scientist and writer from London, UK.