Street Parking

Ashley Hand    

          I’m waitressing in the Adirondacks for the summer, at an A-frame lodge on the lake in Saint George. We seat guests on the wraparound porch in the afternoons, once the rainstorms make their promenade across the water and gust over the village. My shift starts at four. Every day I stand just inside the cathedral of windows and watch the water rinse off the tables and deck chairs. When the storm is over I push open the double doors, plug in the strands of overhead lights, set the needle on the record player, strike a match to each of the mosquito candles. I serve warm beer and baskets of fried catfish. Men come off the golf course in their polo shirts and ball caps, their shorts belted below their bellies. They come off the rivers and streams in fly fishing trousers, trout guts under their fingernails. They come off the lake where they’ve spent the day trawling, water ribboning from the sterns of their boats, sending waves to lick the shoreline.

            Other men are coming off cocaine, off crank, off ecstasy. Off acid, dope, bath salts, bad skunk. There’s an all-male rehab facility twenty minutes out of town. It’s for rich people, city slickers, men who work finance in Toronto or Philadelphia or New York City and wind up getting carried away, stressed out, start snorting lines off toilet seats in the stalls of their high-rises. These men have eyes like glass. They’re skinny, sleek, sensitive. Their skin pulses at their throats and wrists, their vitality barely submerged under their skin. Halfway through the program, they’re rewarded with a day of swimming at the lake. They come down off the mountain in vans, file out the sliding door like paratroopers, cannon-ball off the dock outside the lodge. We watch these men on our smoke breaks. I take smoke breaks now, to stay in cahoots with the other barmaids. Let the men touch your hand, they say. That’s the key to making tips. Speak in a lower register. Look up at them from under your eyelashes.

            Geoff comes to the lodge alone. I can tell he isn’t a fisherman, a golfer, a skipper, a stoner. Before we even sleep together I can tell he is the sort of man who is going to screw me up. He has green eyes and a square jaw. He orders root beer and onion rings and turns his chair toward the railing to look out over the water. He pays with a card. I get his full name. I look him up. In five minutes, I learn that he lives in New York City, that he went to Yale, that he has a nice apartment in a good neighborhood and that means he has a good job. I learn that he jumps from helicopters over snow-capped mountains in Chile every year just to ski down untouched slopes of powder. When I drop off his bill, I say, I’m not just a waitress, you know. I’m a writer. I went to a good school. I’m not a do-nothing. I live up here because it’s quiet and I can think.

            We text back and forth and he invites me to come stay with him for a weekend, and I say yes, why not, and make an appointment in town to get everything waxed — arms, legs, pussy, mustache, chin, eyebrows. He asks me when I’m available and I say next weekend, and he says how about this weekend, and I tell him I’ll have to move some things around but I’ll see what I can do. He tells me he’s making dinner reservations for Friday night, and I say okay, and then Friday it is, and he sends me his address in Brooklyn Heights and tells me there is street parking.

            The morning I’m supposed to drive down to the city, I have a doctor’s appointment in Boston. I wake up at three and pour coffee in a thermos and hit the road in my Volvo when the street lights are still casting a jaundiced glow over the roads. I’m getting my eggs frozen. I’m thirty and my reproductive system will begin its decline in a few years. Take care of it while you’re still fresh and ripe, that’s what the nurse said on my first visit to the donation clinic. You can get them fertilized later if you don’t find the right man until you’re forty. Better safe than sorry. It’s a new era sweetheart. We’re buying you another decade, a new lease on life. Just think what you could do with all that freedom.

            At this fertility clinic, if you donate a set of eggs, they’ll freeze a set for you for free. On the house. It would normally run you ten thousand dollars, so this is a steal. This is my final checkup before stimming starts. The nurse has me pee in a cup to make sure I don’t have STDs and I’m not pregnant. I meet with the geneticist to talk about gametes and chromosomes and the human genome and how lucky I am that all of my blood tests came back negative for markers of genetic disease. Then I meet with a social worker to talk about the ethical consequences of egg donation. Have I considered how I might feel if a couple actually got pregnant with my eggs? Would I be kept awake at night by thoughts of my children tucked away in their trundle beds in some stranger’s home? What if five of my eggs were fertilized and three became embryos and two were implanted and one was discarded, would I be disturbed by that extra baby going in the trash? Or how about this, the parents that bought my eggs could choose to donate unused embryos to science, stem cell research, and let’s say my little humanoids were being poked by needles under microscopes, divided, replicated in a lab somewhere, would that bother me?

            I laugh and tell the social worker that it feels like an offering of genetic material, like blood or plasma, that’s all, and who hadn’t done that before when things were getting a little tight at the end of the month, when rent was due and the gas bill and you still needed groceries. Sometimes fifty bucks could make all the difference. The five of us kids would go with our mother to the hospital on Fridays, after our dad left, so she could get stuck with a needle for extra cash. We would get Gatorade and lollipops and stickers from the nurses and watch our mother squeeze a small foam ball and pump fluid the color of table wine into plastic baggies that would get carted away in a cooler. She’d get her check from the front office and cash it at the Rite Aid down the block and peel a ten out in the McDonald’s drive thru so we could get a chocolate shake and a large fry to share in the back of the station wagon. Then a twenty would go in the tank and we’d have enough gas to get to Laguna Beach so we could play in the tide pools and watch the waves crash against the cliffs.

            I won’t tell my mother about the egg freezing. She is Catholic. She will cry and say she feels sick thinking about her grandchildren in a fridge somewhere on the eastern seaboard. The thing about my mother is she would have kept having children if my father hadn’t run off with someone else. She donates her time at a religious pregnancy center that gives free tests and ultrasounds and teaches women how to do infant CPR. She metes out maternity clothes and car seats and binkies. She protests abortion every Sunday after mass on the sidewalks of Rancho Santa Margarita. Afterwards, she and the other ladies get omelettes and champagne at Le Peep. She can do this now because she has a rich husband, a self-made man who does commercial builds and insurance estimates in LA.

            The nurse takes a photo of me for the egg bank directory. She says I can smile if I want but I don’t have to. She says sometimes your eggs get selected faster if the prospective parents can see your teeth. I don’t smile. The picture comes out looking like a mug shot. It’s okay, the nurse says, with a resume like this your eggs will get snapped up in no time. Smart and pretty, wow, Brown huh? She gives me my first round of hormone injections and shows me how to use the syringes. The needle is long but thin, you can barely feel it go in, she says. She tells me I have to start taking the hormones two days into my period, twice a day, a shot in my thigh or my abdomen. She tells me my ovaries will swell up and not to worry if I feel like I’ve gotten fat, it’s just because of all the follicles filling with eggs. Lots of women wear spandex with a belly band to keep everything tight and in place. I’ll have to do that for two weeks and then I’ll come back for the harvest. They’ll stick a probe up my birth canal and vacuum my eggs out. I’ll get a check for seven thousand dollars. They’ll set ten eggs aside for me to use in the future. And as soon as all my eggs are bought up out of the bank, I can start the process all over again and make another seven thousand, how does that sound?

            The hormones come in little shoeboxes, the type that carry baby moccasins. The nurse puts three shoeboxes in a gift bag, teal, with ribbon handles.She tells me to keep the hormones cool, that they should be fine in the car so long as I keep the AC on the whole drive back to Saint George. I don’t tell her I’m on my way to see a man.

            It’s a four-hour commute to New York City from Boston. As I’m driving I’m rubbing my legs together and thinking about my ballooning ovaries and about what I am going to do with my hormone shots. I can feel peach fuzz on my inner thighs that the salon technician missed. I stop at a Target halfway to Geoff’s house. I buy a new bra and a razor. I go into the bathroom and use handsoap to lather up my legs and then take several strokes to my thighs. I can feel small pink bumps start to raise up on my skin. I go back out to the beauty aisle and buy a tube of Lubriderm and rub it on the bumps and it stings so much I have to rub it off with the handsoap. Then I have to buy a new pair of underwear because when I lifted my leg into the sink to shave, a water trail ran all the way down my hamstring and I don’t want to show up at Geoff’s apartment with wet panties. I stuff my old underwear in the plastic bag I got at checkout. When I leave the bathroom I see a security guard standing outside the hallway and I realize I must be making them nervous with all this going in and out of the bathroom with merchandise.

            I get to the city and am propelled through rush hour traffic, bridges and tunnels and overpasses, and I miss my exit and make circles until I find my way again. I text Geoff when I’m ten minutes away and he goes downstairs and stands in a parking spot to save it for me. He is wearing a dog leash around his waist. His pup is a leggy red hound. When he sees me pull up, he breaks into a smile. He puts an arm around my shoulders and leads me up to his apartment, a tall-ceilinged studio that he has curated with leather and textiles and metal and wood. There are skis balanced in the rafters, three peonies in a vase on his breakfast table.

            He takes me out to dinner and orders a whole bottle of wine and not once has a man ordered a bottle of wine to share with me at dinner. I can tell he’s the sort of man who will pay, and who will take me back to his apartment and talk to me and won’t expect sex, so then of course I want the sex myself, and we have it, and he is so kind with his kisses all over my body that at one point I’m scared I’m going to cry because I think okay okay we’re making love now and he holds me after and we fall asleep and the window AC unit is making a soft whirring noise like we’re inside a womb.

            In the morning, we share secrets. I tell him about the teal bag of hormones I snuck into his fridge, nested against his egg carton. I’m not trying to plump up my sex organs to have your babies, I say. Don’t worry. I’m not crazy. I’m being responsible about my future. I wonder if he is worried that I’m already trying out my feminine tricks, to trap him. We didn’t use a condom. But he laughs and says, what a story. You know we’ll have to tell people about this someday. My whole body goes warm.

            He tells me his mother is in a mental health facility upstate and he goes to visit her once a month, which was how he wound up in Saint George. He needed a break after she’d had an episode, but didn’t want to head back to the city, so he drove and drove until he hit the lake and took a breather. I wonder if now would be a good time to tell him about how in college I had to go to an institution myself, to take a breather. I’d started stealing, and was caught once, and I think arrested, but since I was a student and not the sort of slummy person you might normally expect to see stealing, the presumption was that I was in the midst of a crisis. I wasn’t hauled to jail or stuffed in the back of a cop car. Instead I found myself in an ambulance, belted to a gurney, with a paramedic sitting next to me, no sirens on, and we sailed silently through the streets, hearing the honks of other cars and wails of other ambulances, and I lay there mummified on a hard plastic board, thinking about the mascara and the tube of lipstick and the teeth whitening strips I’d tried to steal, totaling thirty-something dollars. I decide not to say anything about this to Geoff. There is too much underneath it, a rage, a wildness, a thing that has fangs. Instead I ask him if he’s ever been arrested before, and he laughs and says yes, in high school, technically a DUI because he was drinking beer in a parked car with a girl he was trying to… well, he was trying to get in her knickers, so to speak, he was sorry to put it like that, but he was sixteen then and thirty-two now, and much more of a gentleman.

            We spend the day ambling around Brooklyn. He takes me to Prospect Park to go roller skating. We get ice cream cones and sit in the grass and watch families flying kites. He lets his dog off-leash and we watch her sleek red fur dance in the sunlight as she streaks back and forth across the open lawn. He touches my hair and kisses my shoulder and when I turn to look at him and see the lilt in his smile I feel beestings in the corners of my eyes.

            That night, I shower while he makes dinner. I squeeze gobs of conditioner into my palms and smear it across the length of my hair. I take his razor and draw it across my skin, which is already hairless. I want bits of my DNA to meld with his. I imagine him pulling this same razor across his skin in the morning, his chin, his jaw, and I feel my own vigor and venom, both. I wonder if the Pantene is new, because he was anticipating my arrival, or if it was leftover from the last woman, Samantha, which I understood had ended four months before, part of the morning secret-telling.

            We have steak and asparagus and red wine. We eat on the couch while a documentary plays. I feel like a child beside him, swimming in a size large t-shirt I’d gotten off the coast of Maine when I went crabbing once, another weekend with another man, an artifact from a different ruin. I feel about ten years old, makeupless, bare legs, my hair slicked back, teeth-marks along my scalp from his comb. I sneak glances at Geoff and the glow of the aquarium on the table behind us makes his skin look blue, phosphorescent, like an Avatar.

            I leave on Sunday and he kisses me goodbye and I come back the next weekend and the next, and we fall into a routine this way. We walk the dog to the bodega in the morning to get our daily groceries, and he stops to talk to all the other neighborhood dog owners, and they know his dog by name, Wheatie, or Sweetie Wheatie he usually calls her, and when we see someone with a dog coming, he says, that’s Chester’s dad, or that’s Lucy’s mom.We go uptown to sit in pubs and take care of our separate business. I write and he works on his spreadsheets and this is as far as I know about what he does. We drink shandy on his rooftop. We go sailing in the Hamptons. We spend Saturday afternoons at the Met. We go to see The Lion King and I fall asleep partway through.

            I quit my job upstate and move down to the city to live with him. I pay a tiny share of rent with my egg money and I bartend and write. One weekend we are balancing platefuls of spaghetti on our knees and watching Jurassic Park and he says the next weekend he’ll be gone, up in the Adirondacks with his childhood friends. They make the trip every year. The cabin is in the middle of nowhere, dial-up internet and a landline, can you believe it. He’ll try to be in touch, but it maybe won’t work. And he would invite me, but it’s a guy thing. They go into the woods to trip on acid and tinker with science projects, meddle around with uranium, plutonium. They disassemble batteries. They experiment with bombs. All the stuff you want to do as a teenager but can’t. It’s like The Goonies, he tells me. It’s like Stranger Things.

            I google what it feels like to be on acid and I learn there will be hallucinations, existential revelations, and I wonder if he will FaceTime me to tell me he is in love, that it was me all along, be mine forever sweet Molly, be mine. My father became the best version of himself when he was on drugs. LSD made him happy. He would take my hand and haul me along with giant skips on the sidewalk, amplifying every step I took and making it feel like I was being launched into infinity, kipped up and up and up. Coke made him energized with big baroque laughter. Pot made him wise and gentle. We all liked him better when he was on something. I smoked a joint with Geoff only once, a Saturday morning, and we had dinner with his family later that day on Long Island to celebrate his mom coming home from the inpatient facility. Geoff was all serenity and patience, spent an hour untangling the delicate chain of his eight-year-old niece’s favorite necklace. When he was like this, I could see the future, a man in moccasins reading the newspaper on a deck chair, pouring coffee, mulling, full of humankindness and forbearance.

            I get a call from the egg clinic while Geoff is gone. You should come in as soon as you can, they say. I’m on my second round of stimming. I feel overripe and sluggish. I had to get an MRI the week before. A cursory blood draw had shown that my prolactin levels were high. It’s a hormone released from your pituitary gland, they told me. Not a big deal. Women release more prolactin when they’re pregnant. Or breastfeeding. Your body might think it’s pregnant or that it recently gave birth because of the fertility drugs. Had I been lactating at all? No. I think of my mother after the youngest was born, pumping her breasts dry in front of the TV at night after dinner and baths and homework. She sold the breastmilk for good money. Word got around through the other cleaning ladies. Women wearing pearls and Manolos would come to our house and our mother would take a drugstore urine test to show she was clean and then hand over the frozen Ziplocs for rolls of cash. She put it in a jar labeled milk money.

            The nurse says it’s a small chance, ever so slight, that it could be a tumor. But the MRI will confirm that it’s nothing. They injected ink in my veins, the kind that makes your organs light up under scans. I imagined my intestines coiled like electric eels. I imagined my liver and pancreas aglow, neon green, suspended in saline, floating like creatures in the deep. Walking out of the doctor’s office, I’d felt ultraviolet, radioactive.

            There’s a tumor, they’re telling me now. No more egg donations. You should talk to your doctor about this. It’s big. It’s the size of a prayer bead. It could affect your vision. You could wind up with seizures. You could fall off your bike into the street. It’s not safe. It could be cancer.

            I want to call Geoff. I think about radiation, about my hair falling out. I wonder if he will cry. I wonder how he will comfort me. I wonder if he will profess his love because of this.

            I walk out of the clinic into the sunlight. New York City in the summer is magic. It’s just rained. The pavement is slick. Beads of water have collected on black plastic garbage bags. Three blocks past a Burger King and I turn left at a pile of rubbish by the subway. Discarded needles. A child’s pram missing two wheels. Shoulder pad blazer from the eighties that became a hammock for a bundle of used diapers on the walk down from a nearby apartment. I keep going and there’s a three-legged chihuahua dining on a chicken carcass out of a styrofoam to-go container.

            That’s when I see them. They’re strolling, arms linked. I know his walk from behind. He has a saunter. He turns to the side so I can see his profile. He laughs. She’s looking up at him. I know her from the Internet. Her hair tumbles down her back like strands of gossamer. I’ve used her shampoo.

            I follow them. What am I thinking. They stop to make out. I get an ice cream cone from a stand across the street. Two scoops, please. Mint chip. I’m a block behind, step for step. I’d never have wound up in this neighborhood if it wasn’t for my prayer bead. Sometimes they hold hands. Sometimes he has his arm around her shoulders. We walk and walk until they arrive at an apartment building with revolving doors, all brass and mirrors. She works for Pandora. She makes money. Good money. She’s so slim. Those calves. And her lips, the pout of collagen and syringes.

            I don’t feel tears. I don’t feel anything. My mind is turned off. I keep walking past her building. I’m in an art district. There are creatures wearing glitter, sequins, fanny packs, roller blades. I crest a small hill and see a glimmer of water, the Atlantic, and I’m in the spot where Geoff and I had our first date. It’s an oasis from the city. Families are barbecuing. There are tomatoes and peppers nestled up amongst poppies and wildflowers. There’s a beer garden. A movie is being projected on a blow-up screen before a fastidious, sweeping carpet of lawn. There are food trucks vending barbacoa and hotdogs and there are converted trollies to eat inside of, pets and children everywhere, and still the sound of sirens and smell of smut in the air, but I don’t notice it, I breathe it in, and I laugh and laugh, I feel my canines cool in the breeze, a roar in my head, a tunnel from ear to ear. I was twelve when 9/11 happened. All this glitz was under a layer of cosmic soot, a blitzkrieg. Hunks of metal rained from the sky like a meteor shower. Ash turned the ozone dark. A solar eclipse. I picture the people sobbing and drinking and fucking while the city burned down around them. I don’t know it yet, but in two days, Notre Dame will catch fire. As it smolders, teenagers will be giving hand jobs in ancient corners of Paris. Cars will be towed for street cleaning. Mothers will be grocery shopping for shabbat meals. Garbage trucks will be running. Someone will be getting a root canal and someone will be playing Mozart on the chipped keys of an upright piano and we’ll all keep hobbling along, homo erectus on a spinning space rock, and our spines will morph into metal and we’ll grow taller and take longer steps and one night when we’re smoking on rooftops looking out at the wattage and wreckage of the cities we loved, we’ll remember the burning, the rebuilding, the afternoon binges of champagne and bootlegged movies, the times we were needled with new tattoos, the times we read horoscopes from the newspaper and wrapped ourselves in blankets and speculated when the city would fall into the sea and then put ourselves to bed with Old Fashioneds and held each other in the dark, every little twinge of melancholy and madness, we’ll remember, and no one will be able to say it wasn’t magic.