Fiction

False Spring

Ben Lerner

Eventually I reached the park and walked into it only far enough to find a bench and sit down and watch the nannies, all of whom were black or brown, push around white kids in expensive strollers. I imagined trying to explain all of this to a future child, whom I pictured as Alex’s second cousin: “Your mother and I loved each other, but not in the way that makes a baby, so we went to a place where they took part of me and then put it in part of her and that made you.” That sounded okay. I pictured myself beside her bed, stroking her brown hair. “Really,” I would explain, “everyone gets help making a baby, it’s never just a mom and dad, because everybody depends on everybody else. Just think of this apartment where we are now,” I’d say—although I probably wouldn’t live in the same apartment as the child—“where did the wood come from and the nails and the paint? Who planted the trees and cut them down and shipped the wood and built the apartment, who paid for those things and how did the workers learn their skills, and where did the money come from, and so on?” I could have that conversation, I assured myself, as I watched a Boston terrier (originally bred for hunting rats in garment factories, only later bred for companionship) tree a squirrel: I’ll narrate our mode of reproduction as a version of “it takes a village.” But then my voice went on speaking to the child without my permission: “So your dad watched a video of young women whose families hailed from the world’s most populous continent get sodomized for money and emptied his sperm into a cup he paid a bunch of people to wash and shoot into your mom through a tube.”

“Wasn’t the tube cold,” I heard in Alex’s niece’s voice, a six-year-old we’d babysat together more than once.

“You’d have to ask her.”

“Why didn’t you two just make love?”

“Because that would have been bizarre.”

“Can IUI be used for gender selection?” Now she sounded like a child actress.

“Sperm can be washed or spun to increase the odds of having male or female offspring, but we didn’t do that, sweetie; we wanted it to be a surprise.”

“How much does IUI typically cost?”

“Great question.” Alex had recently been laid off. “According to the rate sheet, and because they recommended some injectable medications for your mom, and because we did some ultrasounds and blood work, probably five thousand a pop.” I regretted saying, even though I hadn’t said anything, “a pop.”

“What was the annual per capita gross national income of China at the time of ejaculation?”

“4,940 U.S. dollars, but I think that’s an unreliable measure of quality of life and I’d dispute the relevance of the fact, Camila.” I had always liked the name Camila.

“What if you have to do IVF to make me?”

“That’s more like ten thousand.”

“Average annual cost of a baby in New York?”

“Between twenty and thirty thousand a year for the first two years, but we’re going to live lightly.”

“After that?”

“I don’t know. Ask your phone.” A teenager had sat down on the bench beside me and was texting ; I absorbed her into the hypothetical interrogation.

“How are you going to pay for all of this?” she asked me.

“With a book advance. You’re overfocused on the money, Rose.” It was my maternal grandmother’s name.

“Is that why you’ve shifted from a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market to the fantasy of coeval readership?”

“Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.”

“Are you projecting your artistic ambition onto me?”

“So what if I am?”

“Why didn’t Mom just adopt?”

“Ask your mother. I guess because that’s equally or more ethically complicated most of the time and because, independent of culturally specific pressures, some women experience a biological demand.”

“Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?”

“Because the world is always ending for each of us and if one begins to withdraw from the possibilities of experience, then no one would take any of the risks involved with love. And love has to be harnessed by the political. Ultimately what’s ending is a mode.”

“Can you imagine the world if and when I’m twenty? Thirty? Forty?”

I could not. I hoped my sperm was useless.

“Cutting and other modes of self-harm and parasuicidal behavior are endemic in my age group.” I pictured the teenager pulling up her sleeve, showing me the red crosshatching.

“You’re misusing endemic.”

“The average cost for a month of inpatient treatment is thirty thousand dollars.” This observation was in Andrews’s voice.

“She will be surrounded by love and support.”

“How will you work out your level of involvement so that neither I nor Mom resent you for it?” The teen.

“As we go along.”

The conversation didn’t stop so much as recede beneath the threshold of perceptibility. Maybe to distance myself from the morning’s anxiety, I removed the blue pill from the inside pocket of my coat and tried to crush it, which I couldn’t do, but with two hands I succeeded in breaking it in half. I absentmindedly tossed the halves onto the sidewalk in front of me, at which point a nearby pigeon approached it, no doubt accustomed to being fed by tourists from this bench. What is the effect of sildenafil citrate on stout-bodied passerines? I stood and tried to shoo the bird away; it startled, but then turned back and quickly ate a half before I managed to intervene.

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