“Stop taking the progesterone,” Dr. Xiao commanded me during our first meeting. Dr. Xiao was an acupuncturist and herbalist who lived sixty miles away from me, and who had a reputation for helping her patients solve mysterious fertility problems. After six unsuccessful inseminations and four failed months on progesterone supplements, I had finally decided that needles and herbs were worth a shot.
Dr. Xiao had a round, freckled face and wore her long black hair in a braid. She had put on a pair of black reading glasses to examine the thick stack of fertility charts I had handed her, all of them crinkled and some of them tea-stained. As she glanced at each one, I felt a small sense of accomplishment, as if all of the months of logging my temperature finally counted for something. Dr. Xiao held up my most recent chart and pointed to the line that indicated the second half of my cycle. “You have plenty of days here,” she explained. “Progesterone not helping you.” She moved her finger to the mid-point of the chart, the sudden line that signaled ovulation. “We work to make this stronger,” she said. “I want to see sharper rise.”
I had mentioned from the beginning that my partner and I performed six inseminations using donor sperm, and wondered if she understood that we were lesbians. I braced myself for questions, but either Dr. Xiao understood exactly what was going on, or she didn’t care. Perhaps the lines on my chart told the only story she needed.
“Don’t inseminate for three months,” she instructed. “Don’t spend your money. Give me time to do my work.”
For Dr. Xiao I kept my clothes on, but rolled up my sleeves and my pant legs. I lay down on her table, closed my eyes, and pretended to relax. Her office smelled like dark herbs and sounded like rushing water. She stuck needles in my wrists, my ankles and my feet. Sometimes she stuck my ears, and sometimes she stuck between my eyes. Always, the last thing she did was place a call bell beneath my right hand. “You call me if anything not right,” she instructed.
When she left she closed the door behind her, and I would feel how the needles were shifting things around, opening veins, rerouting blood, stretching my nerves. I knew people who claimed to love acupuncture, who said that the needles relaxed them, that they fell asleep on the table and left the office feeling restored. I was not one of those people. Sometimes an ache would move up and down my leg. Sometimes a particular needle felt especially sore, and then the pain would pass. Sometimes my stomach turned. Sometimes a great wave of discomfort would travel through my body. The discomfort was never great enough that I considered ringing the call bell. I treated these feelings as the magic doing its work. But what drove me crazy was the waiting. Sometimes Dr. Xiao returned and removed my needles after only twenty minutes, but more often she left me there for so long that I could no longer track time. I would hear a door open and close, hear her footsteps in the hallway, and think that she was finally coming to release me only to hear her enter another room and talk in muffled tones to a different patient. My stomach growled in hunger. I had to pee. I thought of the piles of student papers waiting in my office sixty miles away. Often I wondered if she might have possibly forgotten about me, if perhaps I should ring the call bell to remind her I was waiting. I never did. When she finally returned, she set about her work of removing each needle and asking me how I felt. “Good,” I always answered.
At the end of the first visit, Dr. Xiao sent me home with a bag of brown powder and instructions for making tea. “Once your temperature rises, you stop,” she commanded. “No more tea. You come back; I give you different tea for next phase.”
I did as I was told. I took comfort in the tinctures, in drinking each cup until the liquid was cold, and there was a sludge of spent herbs at the bottom. I imagined my ovaries heeding the instruction these herbs provided, my eggs rearranging themselves. They were getting ready in the dark, like bulbs beneath the ground.
I took comfort also in Dr. Xiao’s view of things. She seemed to treat conception as an indefinite process, a thing that would take many tries and involve many failures. There would be no instant gratification. So far, she was the only doctor who seemed to respect the complexity of our bodies. Dr. Norman and Dr. Katz had protocols, the same for every patient. Dr. Xiao had herbs, a knowledge of meridians, and ideas about my chart.
By the time we inseminated again, our seventh try this time, I had driven alone to Seattle and back seven times. I tried to make luck out of this number—superstition was available to me everywhere—but what I felt more than anything was lonely. After every visit to Dr. Xiao’s office, I walked down the street and dined alone at a small Thai restaurant where I was often the only customer. As I pushed brown rice across my plate, I recognized and eerie feeling that had marked my life in different eras, one that I first noticed as a freshman in college. Every weekend my dorm roommate went home overnight to visit her parents and I happily claimed our shared space as my own. But though I enjoyed the solitude, I often felt like my own shadow waking, eating, and dressing with no one to bear witness. Often as I did my own dishes I sang this line from a Throwing Muses song: a kitchen is a place where you prepare….and clean up. It seemed like a throwaway line, and yet it spoke to me, calling attention to the strangeness of doing something only to undo it, to make a special meal, only to have to do all of the dishes and put them away. Which was, in a way, what my life had now became. All that effort into preparing my body every month, over and over, only to bleed it away.
Try number seven ended in blood. Try number eight ended in blood. Try number nine ended in blood.
Try number ten was the last try we had, the only remaining vial of the stockpile of sperm we had purchased, the last of the samples our selected donor had left at the clinic before moving on to the next phase of his life.
Note: This is the second installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can read the first installment here.