fiction issue 32

The Donor

by Tom Houseman                                                                                     

DSC by Charles Adesanmi Adedeji

The Donor

The girl’s name was Della. She sat across from them in a soft gray chair in the room the agency had set up for them, her black ballet flats pressed firmly into the carpet. She wore dark blue jeans and a maroon, three-quarter sleeve shirt. Her eyes were light blue and her hair was a glossy black, cut in a style that he was pretty sure was called an undercut, one section shaved and the rest long. It looked like she had dyed it recently. He wondered if she had done it to look more professional for them, to make a good first impression.

            “Tell us about yourself, Della.” His wife, Mel, sat next to him on the little couch, wearing her dark green turtleneck sweater dress. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and she had on the same makeup she’d been wearing for the last twenty-five years, the combination of concealer and nude lipstick that made it look like she wasn’t wearing makeup at all. “There’s only so much you can learn about somebody from notes in a file.”

            They had spent hours reading the files of girls in their early twenties with a college degree and no significant medical issues. After a while they had all blended together, but as Mel eliminated potential egg donors, Della’s had persisted until it was the only one left. Even then, it wasn’t enough assurance that they were making the right decision, which was why they had requested this meeting.

            The edge of a tattoo peeked out from under Della’s right sleeve. He couldn’t tell if it was the corner of a star or a foot. “I graduated from Rutgers two years ago with a double major in Sociology and Global Studies,” she said. “Now I work for a non-profit that provides resources to at-risk youth. In my free time, I like to knit.”

Mel looked like she wanted Della to keep going. The three of them sat in the hum of the air conditioner until the silence was snapped by the crack of a soda can tab. Both Della and Mel looked at him, at the can of Diet Coke that was sweating into his hands.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asked Della. “Soda or coffee?”

            “No thank you,” Della said.

            “Rutgers is a good school,” Mel said.

He and Mel had met at Princeton. He’d lived in New Jersey his whole life, but she’d grown up in Iowa. He could tell from their first date that she’d been determined to move up in the world, that she was more ambitious than he was.

            “What about water?” he asked.

            “No thank you,” Della said. She looked at Mel. “I wish I could have gone somewhere smaller, but the scholarship money was too good to pass up.”

            “Your parents must be proud of you,” Mel said. Della didn’t answer. There hadn’t been any information about her parents in her file besides that neither side of her family had a history of mental illness. That was why Mel had said she wanted to request an in-person interview; there was so much they didn’t know. After the agency set up the meeting, they’d spent hours writing a list of questions to ask. After all, this was the biggest decision of their lives.

“Do you want kids someday?” Mel asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Della said. “It seems like a big commitment.”

He remembered the research he’d done on the process of donating eggs. Della would take one medication to stop her menstrual cycle, then another to hyperstimulate her ovaries so she would produce multiple eggs at once. Then a doctor would stick a needle through her vaginal tissue into her ovaries and extract the eggs. The recovery process would be grueling, and there were potential long-term health risks. That seemed like a big commitment too.

Having kids wasn’t something he and Mel had discussed when they started dating, or even when they got married. She had devoted herself to her job, he to his masters, then teaching. But then Mel brought it up, and it suddenly seemed as if it had been humming in the background of their lives the whole time, like the air conditioning in the room, just quiet enough to ignore. “I think we’re ready,” she’d said. She was thirty-nine, he was thirty-eight. He’d agreed because he couldn’t think of a reason not to, because he loved her and wanted her to be happy. They’d had sex that night, and she’d bought a pregnancy test the next day. That was almost three years ago. Three years of sex and hope and joy and frustration and tests and every result but the one they wanted. And then the realization that something needed to be done, that a choice needed to be made. And then discussions. Not fights, or even arguments. Discussions and pamphlets and research and math.

He listened as Mel ran through the questions they had come up with, questions that toed the line of propriety that he imagined must exist when preparing to purchase a part of another person’s body. But this wasn’t buying a kidney on the black market from someone who was going to wake up in a bathtub full of ice. They were working with an accredited agency, and paying well above market rate. They wanted to do this the right way.

Della’s answers were short and spare, and he could tell that Mel was getting frustrated, that she wanted Della to lay out her entire life story for them. He didn’t know how to help. He wanted to be an active participant in this process, but he also didn’t want to intrude. It was Mel’s body, after all, and Della’s eggs. He wasn’t sure what role he was supposed to be playing.

Mel’s cell phone rang in her purse. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That must be my office. I told them not to call me unless it was an emergency. I’m sure it’ll just take a minute.” She stood up and went into the hallway, closing the door behind her.

“Your wife seems busy,” Della said.

“She works very hard, but she’s very excited about being a mother,” he said. He didn’t want this girl to think that Mel wouldn’t be devoted to her child, that she might put any obligation ahead of being a parent. After all, Della could say no to them too.

Mel always seemed so collected and confident when it came to business, and it had unnerved him how uncertain she had been about their decision to get an egg donor. There were risks, of course, but it was more than that. When the doctor had told her that her eggs weren’t viable, she had handled the news stoically but broken down when they got home. He hadn’t seen her cry that hard since her father’s funeral. He’d held her on the couch and told her that it was going to be okay, that they would come up with a plan, that she would be a mother soon, no matter what. He’d started doing research that night.

“What does she do for work?” Della asked.

“She works at a hedge fund.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

He could have gone into detail about what Mel did every day, the decisions she made involving millions of dollars, but it seemed too complicated to explain, so he just said, “I don’t either, really.”

“What about you? What do you do?”

“I teach. High school. History.”

When he told people that he taught high school and that his wife worked at a hedge fund, he could see them doing the math in their heads. Her paycheck dwarfed what he earned, and his contribution to their bank account amounted to little more than a rounding error. Not that Mel ever complained. They had more than enough money. But it was something he thought about a lot. His father had been the sole breadwinner of his family while his mother stayed home to raise him and his brothers and sister. Their roles had been clearly delineated. With him and Mel, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t just that they both worked full time; all of the money that had gone into the tests, that would pay for the eggs and the procedure and the hospital bills, would come from her salary. He wasn’t sure what his role was at all, except that he was there to help, and the best way he’d always known how to help was to learn as much as he could about whatever uncertainty he was facing. Mel was the hunter, and he was the gatherer.

“What are you going to do with the money?” he asked Della. He still felt like he didn’t know anything about her or why she was donating her eggs. “Student loans?”

“I don’t have student loans,” Della said.

He tried to think of what someone in their early twenties would do with $15,000. “A vacation?”

“No.” She scratched the inside of her right wrist and bit her lip, then said, “My partner needs gender confirmation surgery. Surgeries.”

“Oh.” He chose his next words carefully. “Do they have insurance?”

“It only covers his testosterone injections,” she said. “Not the surgeries.”

“Can his parents help pay for it?” he asked. She snorted with laughter and shook her head, and he decided not to ask any followup questions. He didn’t know how much gender confirmation surgery would cost without insurance, but he was sure that $15,000 wouldn’t come close to covering it. What else was she giving up for him? How long had they been dating, that she would be willing to make such a sacrifice?

He hadn’t known what kind of person would sell their eggs. He’d assumed most young women made this decision out of either desperation or a casual self-indulgence without care for the consequences. He hadn’t expected somebody like Della, who seemed so confident in the choice she was making, in the selflessness of her act. He couldn’t tell if it was foolish or admirable. Maybe both.

Of all of the couples that he’d known from college, he and Mel were the exception to the rule. Almost all of the others had broken up. He wondered what would happen if Della and her partner broke up in five years. Would Della resent him and wish she could have her money back? Would he feel guilty that she had spent so much on him, assuming it was an investment in a future that would no longer come to pass?

Mel came back in. “Sorry,” she said as she sat down. A wisp of hair had come out of her bun. She brushed it behind her ear.

“It’s fine,” Della said. “I do have to go to work soon.”

“Of course,” Mel said. “I just have one last question. This isn’t a test or a trick or anything, but, would you want to be involved in the child’s life at all? You would, technically, be the mother.”

He hadn’t wanted her to ask that. It seemed unfair, asking Della to be involved in the life of a child who was both hers and not. He also didn’t like the way it implied that Mel would be less the mother of this child than Della would. He’d told her over and over that of course she would be the mother. But if she thought it was important, he wasn’t going to stop her.

Della scratched the inside of her right wrist and bit her lip, a gesture that he knew meant she was thinking carefully about her next words. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” she said. She looked at Mel. “I don’t think I’d think of myself as the mother. You’re the mother. It’ll be your kid, no matter what. I’m just the donor.”

Mel smiled, and she looked like she was about to tear up. “If you would want to, even just to meet her, or him, I’d like you to be able to,” she said. “You could even be there at the birth.”

“Thank you,” Della said. “I’ll think about it.” He felt like they were having a conversation that he wasn’t part of, about a process in which his presence would be incidental.

Over the next twelve months he continued to have that feeling. He went back to the agency a few weeks later, on his lunch break, while Mel was at work. He went into a room the size of a broom closet and sat in a reclining chair and masturbated into a cup, his only real contribution to the process. When they went to the hospital for the fertilization, the woman from the agency told them that the egg retrieval had gone well. Mel wrote the last check and gave it to the agency.

Every time he held Mel in his arms while she cried, and told her that they’d made the right decision, that of course she would really be the baby’s mother, he felt like he was at a distance from her. He watched her belly swell and saw how beautiful she was, how she looked more like a mother every day, and he felt the distance grow. When they designed the baby’s room in what had once been his office, he agreed with every choice she made, and when they discussed names, he didn’t volunteer any ideas. He held her head in Lamaze classes and practiced changing diapers with the precision of a soldier in basic training learning how to break down and reassemble a rifle. And he read every book, and he tried to do everything he was supposed to do.

Some nights, while Mel slept wrapped around her pregnancy pillow, he went into their shared office and did research on what Della’s partner was undergoing. He read about mastectomy and testosterone replacement therapy and facial masculinization surgery. He learned the difference between metoidioplasty, enlarging the clitoris as part of the construction of a penis, and a phalloplasty, taking skin grafts from different parts of the body, which would result in a larger penis, but one that couldn’t become erect without a follow-up penile implant. He wondered which one Della’s partner would choose.

When he was twelve, he had gone to a Jewish friend’s bar mitzvah, and watched his friend become a man in the eyes of his people, and felt jealous. He never rushed a frat in college or fought in a war. His father never taught him how to shave or gave him a watch that had belonged to his father and his father before him. When had he become a man? When he went through puberty or lost his virginity? When he graduated from college or got married? He could not point to a specific moment, a line of demarcation. Maybe it would be when he became a father. But as he read details about the procedures that Della’s partner was undergoing, he felt the same jealousy he’d felt when he was twelve. Someday soon, Della’s partner would look in the mirror, and for the first time he would see the face that he’d always known he should have had, would see the man he’d always known he was.

They’d scheduled Mel’s induced labor weeks in advance, and arrived at the hospital an hour early. They went into the delivery room where their doctor and a team of nurses were ready for them, and he tried to pretend that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the controlled chaos around him. The doctor and nurses moved with practiced precision, and he felt like he was in everyone’s way. He stood at Mel’s side and wiped her forehead and tried to remember everything they’d learned while Mel dug her nails into his arm and tried to breathe. The beeping of the heartrate monitor taunted him with everything that could go wrong, that he would lose Mel, or that Mel would lose the baby. The room felt too clean, smelled too sterile, and it became oppressive, as if the walls were closing in on him.

He went out into the hallway to fill a cup of ice chips from the machine and saw Della sitting by herself on a bench, wearing a different pair of jeans and a grey hoodie, looking at the door. Her hair was shorter than it had been when they met. They hadn’t heard from her since the interview, but they’d sent her a message through the egg donation agency letting her know when and where the birth would take place, that she could come if she wanted and meet the baby.

“Do you want to come in?” he asked her.

“I’m afraid I’d get in the way,” she said. “I have no idea what’s going on in there.”

“I’m sure Mel would appreciate seeing you.” He didn’t know if this was true or not, but he thought it was the right thing to say.

“No, it’s okay. Thank you, though.”

 “How have your partner’s procedures been going?”


He wanted to ask if her partner had decided between the metoidioplasty and the phalloplasty, but he didn’t. He went down the hallway and filled the cup with ice chips until it was overflowing, and when he got back, his hand covering the top of the cup to keep it from spilling, Della was gone. He went back into the delivery room and took his place next to Mel, trying to take up as little space as possible, and he told himself that he was about to become a father. When the baby was born, a healthy baby boy, he watched the doctor clean it off and cut the umbilical cord. He waited for the doctor to hand the baby to him, and he wondered what he would feel.

Tom Houseman is an emerging writer from Chicago. His short fiction has been published in White Wall Review, Pacifica Review, and Allium. You can find him at

Charles Adesanmi Adedeji is a self-taught ballpoint pen artist with a focus on exploring mental health, Africanism, and being African in this new age.