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I Sleep at Red Lights
A True Story of Life After Triplets
By Bruce Stockler
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Bruce Stockler
All rights reserved.
The ultrasound suite at New York Hospital is familiar, a bland and antiseptic box of a room with nothing special to steal our attention, no windows or magazines or glossy pharmaceutical company brochures to distract us from our anxiety.
Our son, Asher, was conceived here three years ago at the hospital's in-vitro-fertilization (IVF) clinic. We have undergone three failed IVF cycles since then, including two ectopic pregnancies, one of which went misdiagnosed in the emergency room and nearly killed my wife, Roni.
This is our last chance, I say to myself. I can't go through this anymore — the worrying, the waiting, the needles and injections and endless trips to obscure drugstores, the jumping when the phone rings, and, more than anything, the frantic 2:00 A.M. cab rides across Central Park to the ER. Not knowing what's wrong, if this is another bump in the road, the next agonizing end of a pregnancy, or a threat to Roni's life — the stress is too much.
We're lucky. We have a beautiful son. The boundaries of fertility, medical technology, probability, age, drug exposure, and our own fragile peace of mind cannot be pushed indefinitely.
Roni looks up from the examining table and smiles. I smile back.
Roni is panicking. She must be. She made the bed this morning, so I know she is upset. It has been at least a year since she made the bed. When she makes the bed, she is coming apart at the seams.
"Hi, honey," I say, stupidly. What do I say?
The ultrasound doctor enters the room. The blandly named Dr. Mills has generically handsome blond looks and a polite, regionally nonspecific speaking voice. He could be the product of the Greenwich WASP aristocracy, a preppy Jewish kid from Dallas or Tulsa, or an ambitious small-town Minnesota Lutheran.
"Good morning," Dr. Mills says without a smile. He fires up the aging computer workstation, types, then swivels in his chair, with a practiced minimum of effort and motion, to squirt conductive jelly onto the thin head of the ultrasound wand. This will be an internal ultrasound, not the tummy-top ultrasound so popular on TV shows.
We are at seven weeks. Roni and I have a chemical pregnancy, which is like a real pregnancy, with a dead bunny rabbit, but filtered through layers and layers of intrusive testing and probing, statistics and probabilities, maybes and wait-and-sees.
Seven weeks is a natural biological precipice, the period of greatest spontaneous abortion for all pregnant women. You may take a deep breath once you reach week number eight. We've been holding our breath for days now and we are dizzy from the exercise.
* * *
The ultrasound room is dark, lit only by the monochrome glow of the computer screen. Dr. Mills works the ultrasound wand slowly and wordlessly, with confident, fluid motions. There is the steady beep, beep of the imaging software and a zoosh as the backup drive fires and snaps a digital picture. But of what?
Roni is flat on her back. She can see the screen only by prying herself up off the examining table by the elbows and craning her neck to look through the valley of her splayed legs, planted wide apart in the stirrups. This must be the most difficult viewing position ever devised. Probably, I realize, this is by design — the clinic wants women supine, relaxed, and not thinking about it, which is preposterous.
The grainy black-and-white images are as cheesy as government hygiene films from the 1950s. I have watched dozens of ultrasounds, but still have no idea what I am seeing. The landscape of my wife's uterus remains an impenetrable mystery. I don't have the faintest idea what is going on in there.
Fifteen minutes pass by without a single word from Dr. Mills. He stops several times to replenish the conductive jelly. The machine beeps. The hard drive kicks in. The air is warm and stale with CPU exhaust.
I stare at the sonar readings of Roni's reproductive system. During Asher's pregnancy, I remember seeing the egg sac, a tiny white ring rising and falling on dark mountains of water. Now I see nothing but black, grainy emptiness, oceans of it.
We lost the pregnancy, I think. There's nothing there.
Beep. Zoosh. The computer is busy. Life is reduced to a palette of sound effects.
The doctor is recording the pathological evidence. What went wrong. Uterine this, morphology that. Chemicals. Hormone levels. Nature's cruel efficiency.
I stand in a corner behind Dr. Mills, a spiderweb tickling the back of my neck. My brain beams down thought waves into the doctor's cranium — Say something, say anything, say some English words, you crazy silent medical bastard!
Roni smiles at me, her eyes wet with fear.
I smile back, lying with every muscle in my face.
Time drags on mockingly. Without warning, Roni and I blurt out together:
"Please say something!"
Our joint outburst does not affect Dr. Mills, who remains ignorant of the cosmological rarity of our convergent thinking.
Dr. Mills snaps more images, checks his files, then pushes his chair back. He diffidently removes his glasses and crosses his legs to reveal bare ankles and expensive tassel loafers.
"We are trained not to speak during the procedure, so we don't impart any false impressions," Dr. Mills says. This caution comes from isolated lawsuits across the country in which parents who assumed they were having a girl at fifteen weeks sued the hospital when the fetus sprouted a penis at twenty-six weeks, explains Dr. Mills, with a practiced monotone. This man is human tapioca pudding. My pulse aches in my throat.
Dr. Mills scrolls through the sequence of recorded images. "As you can see by this series, I detected three distinct embryonic structures. Each of them presents with an appropriate level of cardiovascular activity. A fourth site is also indicated, here, but is probably undergoing reabsorption into the uterine lining. ..."
I stare at the computer screen. I do not understand.
"Could you say that again?" I hear a voice say. This is surprising, because I recognize the voice. It is my voice.
"Yes," Dr. Mills says. "I have outlined three egg sacs with excellent morphology. The first is here, along the top of the uterine wall. The second is here, just below it. The third is quite difficult to see, because it is actually implanted in tissue directly underneath the second, and the ultrasound cannot detect structures located ..."
Roni looks over at me blankly.
"I still don't understand," I hear the voice say again.
Dr. Mills examines us with a slight tilt of his head. We are biological specimens, too, only larger and perhaps dangerous.
"I see ... yes. Well. You are carrying triplets. They are in the seventh week of gestation. Seven weeks old."
Roni and I look at each other.
"Let me offer my official congratulations," Dr. Mills says, turning back to the computer. "Let's look at the egg sacs again. With triplets, the distribution of the embryos across the uterus is difficult ..."
Roni and I stare at each other for a moment, then look around the room, lost and confused, like dogs dropped onto the surface of a strange and dogless planet.
The women in the IVF clinic waiting room stare at Roni. It is a customary ritual, a kind of uterus-to-uterus psychic friends network. Roni gazes over their heads, unblinking. She is pale and shivers from the arctic blasts of air conditioning.
We step onto the sidewalk outside New York Hospital. It is a Friday afternoon, a bright summer day, and we both squint horribly, blinded, after an hour in a dark room, by the harsh midday sun. The traffic on York Avenue and Sixty-eighth Street whizzes by carelessly.
"Are you going back to the office?" I say.
"Should we share a cab downtown?" Roni says.
"Maybe we should get something to eat," I say.
"Is it lunchtime?" she says.
We don't know what to do. We feel numb and soft, like frozen sticks of butter defrosting.
We share a cab downtown, holding hands across the backseat but looking out our own windows. Roni climbs out at Thirty-ninth and Third Avenue, waves good-bye, and wanders into Au Bon Pain. She looks back at me as the cab pulls away. In the crowded store she looks even tinier than her five-foot, 105-pound size. Why is she standing in Au Bon Pain? She doesn't drink coffee or eat pastries. Maybe they started selling soup for lunch, or Caesar salads with grilled chicken. Roni is a picky eater. She will eat the same lunch every day for a year.
The cab takes me across town but becomes gridlocked on Thirty-fourth Street, near Sixth Avenue, so I jump out and walk west to my office on Eighth Avenue. Midtown is crowded and noisy, like in those dystopian 1970s movies where Earth is overpopulated and the government has dissolved the Bill of Rights. My building is Five Penn Plaza, a tedious block-long building with a Blimpie's and a DMV office on the ground floor.
I am the editor-in-chief of a film magazine, a trade magazine read by directors, producers, animators, editors, and special-effects experts. I have been the chief editor for two years and was a senior editor the previous seven years. The job is enjoyable because I write about projects and artists I find the most interesting. I take a stack of VHS and 3/4-inch cassettes into the conference room, where the tape decks are set up, and watch clips of TV commercials.
Dancing gasoline pumps, flying Listerine bottles, animated-clay celebrity boxing matches — I watch hundreds of tapes every week. Movies, TV shows, TV commercials: Everyone believes their creative project will transform the world. You can't put in the hours and not think it.
Harry, my technology writer, strolls in, eating a soggy vegetarian meatball sandwich, to remind me about our Monday meeting with Decker Computing to discuss their new rendering workstations. It will be a long meeting, full of flip charts, PowerPoint presentations, sales brochures, and white papers. They will discreetly inquire what kind of coverage they can expect. My job is to find a good reason to cover them while pretending we enjoy total editorial independence — which makes our coverage seem even more tantalizing. In the back of my mind, questions are starting to bubble up, but I have to call a man back about the latest developments in 3-D animated hair and fur.
Asher sleeps quietly in his Fisher Price car bed. It is 9:00 P.M. Friday night. After work I took Asher to Riverside Park and pushed him on the swings, then walked him through our regular play circuit — slide, play area, pigeon chasing. We ate pizza and Italian ices. He rode around on my shoulders like the king of West 114th Street.
A stack of books — Tom and Pippo, Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs, Good Night Moon — sits next to Asher's bed.
It has cooled outside, so I cover Asher with blankets from our bed, which he will invariably thrash to the floor. I don't know why I bother to cover him, but I always do, unless it is boiling hot in the apartment. Then I uncover him and throw open the windows. You are either boiling hot or freezing cold in New York. You can never be comfortable. You can never be just right.
Roni arrives home from work about 9:30 P.M. She is an attorney who works in corporate law, with a specialty in initial public offerings.
"Half day?" I say. This is an old joke. Her schedule is backbreaking — sixty, seventy, eighty hours a week, even more during a deal.
Roni throws her suit on the bed, changes into a big T-shirt, and goes to the bathroom. I remove the chicken, rice, and beans from the take-out bags. I pour seltzer and orange juice, fifty-fifty.
We eat dinner and watch TV in the den, taking turns with the remote control. We are each allowed one full cycle from Channel 2 through 99 before we switch. We both hate Friday nights because neither of us has a show on.
We eat quietly. Roni leafs through a magazine when it is my turn to flip.
"This is good chicken," I say.
"Yes. It is good chicken," Roni says.
We chew quietly for awhile. I pass the yellow rice and black beans.
"Is this the Brazilian chicken?" Roni asks.
"Yes," I say. "From Flor de Mayo." Flor de Mayo is one of our favorite take-out places, a Chino-Latino restaurant on 103rd Street and Broadway.
"We should save some for Asher," Roni says.
She's right. Asher loves the Brazilian chicken.
"Great idea," I say. "I'll save some chicken for Asher."
Roni finds a mystery show she recognizes on one of the public TV channels.
"Is that a good magazine?" I say.
"Yes," Roni says. "Antiques."
"Oh," I say. "I bet that's interesting."
The phone rings, but stops before the machine picks up.
"I wonder who that was," I say.
"They didn't leave a message," she says.
"It's spicy," I say. "The chicken."
"Right," she says.
"But not too spicy," I say.
"No, just spicy enough," Roni agrees.
"Sometimes I like it spicier, though," I say. "But sometimes I don't."
At 11:00 we watch a rerun of Law and Order on A&E, our favorite show, the cultural glue that binds us. We watch every new episode faithfully, at 10:00P.M. Wednesday nights. We have seen every rerun many times and play a game when the rerun starts — Name the Perp.
"I miss Michael Moriarity," Roni says, during the commercial break.
"I know," I say. "Me too."
Roni puts her feet up on my lap and I squeeze her toes. We relax, comforted by the safe, familiar presence of our old friends in the Manhattan DA's office.
Later that night, I wake up to the sound of sawing. I look around, confused, then realize I have snored myself awake.
I check the clock. It is 2:19 A.M.
Now there is another noise, a clicking.
Click ... click-click-click, goes the noise. It is creepy, this odd noise in the dead of night, and my adrenaline starts pumping.
Roni is not in the bed. She never leaves the bed, even to use the bathroom, unless she is sick. She must be chased out of bed in the morning with pointed sticks.
I find Roni in the kitchen, in the dark, sitting on the floor amid packing boxes, stacks of dishes splayed out around her, odds and ends dug up from the depths of storage. Drawers and cabinets lie open with junk overflowing everywhere, like entrails. Roni is typing on a labeling gun. Labels are everywhere and stuck to everything.
"Honey?" I say.
Roni does not acknowledge my presence. She squats on one knee, working furiously.
Click-click-click, goes the labeler.
"Honey?" I say.
"... a full basement, because we can't keep living with boxes, like we're college students anymore —"
I sit down on the floor and try to catch Roni's eye. She stares down into her hands.
"Honey? Are you all right?" I say.
"I'll do a spreadsheet," she says. "Marla has a program that prints out color-coded labels. ..."
The clicking continues. I see labels stuck to the floor: "kjJlillp" and "FFgnty."
I put my hand over hers to stop the labeler.
"Honey," I say. "Look at me."
Roni looks up at me, glassy eyed. She is traveling between distant galaxies, bouncing off dark matter, body surfing the invisible quantum force.
"You don't think God would play a joke on us, do you?" she says. "Give us three babies, then let something happen to them?" Her voice is quivering.
I hug her, but her body is stiff and unyielding.
"No," I say, with a conviction that surprises me. As soon as the words are out, I know this is true. This is not a religious belief, or faith, just an instinct.
"It's okay," I say. "It's almost eight weeks. We're going to be fine."
Something about my tone works. Roni puts down the labeler and closes the nearest box. We climb back into bed and spoon together, looking through the open French doors into the living room, where Asher is sleeping, his sweet face lit up by a mixture of moonlight and ambient city light.
"When I woke up, I thought maybe I had dreamed the whole day today, so I went to turn on the TV, to see what day it was," Roni says.
During our honeymoon in Italy, we saw a big Italian family at a restaurant in Florence, all the kids eating and talking and toasting each other. For a moment I imagined how much fun it would be to have a large family, but I never said anything to Roni. This was before we found out Roni's fallopian tubes had been ruined, when babies were still just a matter of penciling in a time and place. I am drifting back to Tuscany, to bread soup and olive trees and red and orange leaves chasing our Fiat down empty country roads.
"Where are we going to live?" Roni says.
We are doubling, from three to six. I lift my head and look around the apartment.
With one bedroom and seven hundred square feet, that leaves about one hundred square feet per person, twice the size of an average prison cell. I think about our boxes, stacked everywhere and covered with dust, the closets jammed full of junk we have not seen in years, the bookshelves that boil over, and my stomach begins to turn with anxiety. I put my hand on Roni's stomach, spoon her closer to me, and try to fall asleep. As my eyes drift closed I see Asher turning in his sleep, his bedcovers thrashed to the floor.
Excerpted from I Sleep at Red Lights by Bruce Stockler. Copyright © 2003 Bruce Stockler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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