The Nearness of You
“I love you,” said Hyland, in a tone suggesting that whatever was to follow would be terrible.
“I love you, too,” said Suzette. It was one of her rare days off, and they were having brunch. Hyland had ordered mimosas, a bad sign. After fifteen years of marriage, day drinking generally led to a queasy afternoon nap followed by dry mouths, pizza for dinner, and the sense that they should be having more sex. Thirty-nine was a confusing age.
“Are we celebrating something?” said Suzette, when the waitress (a white girl whose nose was pierced through the septum with a cylindrical ring) placed their champagne glasses on the table.
Hyland sat back in his chair, lifted his drink. “We’re celebrating our life,” he said. “Life! We are celebrating life.”
If he’d had some sort of terminal diagnosis, Suzette would know. Wouldn’t she know? Surely, someone at the hospital would have told her. But there were many hospitals in Houston. “Are you . . . sick?” she ventured.
“Sick? No, no!” said Hyland. But his face was weird as he gazed at her. In fact, he was looking at Suzette as if she were ill, her demise imminent—a combination of adoration and teary gratitude. Suzette was mad about her husband, but she hated this expression.
“Hyland,” she said, pointedly sipping her ice water. “Something’s going on. Just tell me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hyland. He clasped her hands in a hot grip. “But it’s not a surprise. It’s a realization. OK? And will you hear me out?”
Suzette nodded warily. “Go on,” she said.
“Do you want to order first?” said Hyland. “Yum, blueberry buckwheat pancakes!”
“Out with it, Hyland.”
“OK. OK, honey. Here’s what it is. I was jogging on Wednesday, you know, around the neighborhood. I was . . . Well, you know I’ve been unhappy at work.”
Suzette nodded. Her stomach eased. He was going to quit his job. No matter: Hyland, who had thought he’d be an artist, had worked at six different architecture firms since getting his degree, his mood circling from elated to morose, then back again with each new office. Suzette made enough money. She wanted Hyland to be the optimistic man she had married—she depended on it—and if leaving Glencoe & Associates would return him to himself, she was all for it. She nodded sympathetically, picking up her mimosa.
“And I thought, I’ve been thinking, is this it? I mean, we have our work, the house, the garden, but I mean—is that all?”
“Is this about your job?” said Suzette hopefully.
“No,” said Hyland. “It’s about— And please listen. It’s about. Well, it’s about a baby.”
Fear shot through Suzette. She had a sudden urge to stand up and throw her drink across the room. But she gathered herself. She breathed in slowly (Count to four, she heard the British narrator of her “Meditation for Anxiety” cassette tape intone); she held her breath, then exhaled (four, five, good work then . . . and six). She cleared her throat. “No,” said Suzette. “No, Hyland. Honey, please. We’ve decided. Haven’t we decided?”
He held up his hand, nodding. “But what if we didn’t have to use . . . what if it were my baby—but with a surrogate mother? Not even one cell of Crazy Carolyn. Just a baby that’s biologically mine and otherwise both of ours. It’s not so strange.”
“You’ve thought about this,” said Suzette, feeling hollow. She wanted to cry, but hadn’t cried in twenty years. “Hyland, we agreed . . .”
He nodded. She’d told him she didn’t want children on their first date. She’d said it simply, as soon as she realized how intriguing she found Hyland, and also how calm he was—and kind, a quality she’d almost given up on, especially amongst the overwrought medical school colleagues she’d been dating.
So many years ago: they’d finished their enchiladas and headed outside. Hyland couldn’t wait to show Suzette his favorite museum, a few blocks away from La Tapatia Taqueria. “There’s something I need to tell you,” Suzette had said.
“Yes?” Hyland wore jeans and a Mexican wedding shirt with elaborate embroidery. Suzette had chosen one of her two sundresses for the blind date. Her closet was bare: she had no money and had lived for the past year in medical scrubs, even sleeping in them between shifts.
“My mom is very sick,” said Suzette, pushing her hair behind her ears and looking past him, focusing on a live oak. “Mentally. She has a very bad mental illness. She’s—she’s in an institution now, and she will probably always be there.”
Suzette saw that she had his full attention. His gaze was expectant but not surprised. Suzette exhaled. She was tired of telling this story, not embarrassed but simply over it. She hadn’t talked to her mother in years. As far as she was concerned, Carolyn was dead.
“And I . . . I was sick, too, in college,” Suzette continued. “Mentally. But I’m fine now. I take medication, and I guess there’s always the risk that I’ll . . .” She could scarcely speak—the memory of the year she’d suffered was too awful to summon: the black terror and desolation, the difficulty of living from minute to minute. When she’d been unable to bear the pain a moment longer, she’d swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Her college roommate had returned from a date early, and Suzette was finally put on the meds that saved her, and had kept her pretty much sane ever since.
“Anyway,” Suzette continued, “I never want to have, um, children. I want this sickness . . . to end with me.”
“Where?” said Hyland.
His question was so unexpected that Suzette laughed, stunned, then managed, “Where what?”
“Where’s your mom?”
“Oh,” said Suzette. “It’s in New York. She’s in New York. That’s where I’m from.”
“Me, too,” said Hyland.
“You too what?” said Suzette. Her head was spinning.
“I’m from New York. Upper East Side. I grew up with my . . . with relatives on East Seventy-ninth.”
Suzette nodded. Relatives? She decided not to ask, not yet. “My mom’s at Bellevue.”
It was a strange prelude to a first kiss. But Hyland leaned toward her and she closed her eyes. His lips on hers, his mouth. It was love, it really was love.
After the kiss, they continued walking to the Dan Flavin installation. Hyland (who still thought he’d be a famous artist himself) took Suzette’s hand amongst the tubes of glowing neon, turning once in a while to absorb her bewildered-but-blissful expression.
“Do you get it?” he asked, in the main hall. Neon lights pulsed— pink, yellow, green, blue—and Suzette stared down, where the concrete floor seemed a river of color.
“No,” admitted Suzette. “But I love it.”
“Then you get it,” said Hyland.
They returned to his small rental house in Montrose, where he tried to make bananas Foster, setting off his fire alarm after igniting a pan of rum. By the time they figured out how to turn off the alarm and ate the dessert, it was evening. They drank cold beer on Hyland’s front porch, then made love. When Suzette woke in the middle of the night, she felt a cool peace over her like water, her stomach calm. She looked at Hyland, touched his face, knew she’d do anything to keep him, to never return to the way she’d been just hours before: scared, dislocated, alone. They were married the following year by a justice of the peace, then took their four best friends to Goode Company Seafood for campechana, oyster po’ boys, and champagne. (They’d had to live on beans and rice for a month to save up for the celebration, and it was worth every penny.)
Now, he sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “I know. We did agree.” And there was so much sadness in the words that Suzette was taken aback. Hyland looked at her. His parents and sister had been killed in a car accident when he was eleven. He’d told her, in their early courtship, that he’d always dreamed of having children, of seeing his mother’s face in them. He’d broken off their engagement over it, said it was just too important to him. But then, in the most wonderful turn of events, he’d changed his mind, and they were happy.
“I thought we were happy,” said Suzette.
But Hyland did not reply.
That night, Suzette lay awake, despite the Ambien. She tried deep breathing, then the meditation tape on her Walkman—the man with a British accent told her to “just check in” with each of her organs: How do your lungs feel today? Good? Tired? No need to change anything, just take note. And your colon? How does your colon feel?
Suzette pulled off her headphones. She had a full day ahead at the hospital and needed to sleep. But no matter which way she arranged herself, Suzette could not let go. A baby. What if it were possible to have a baby? Because of her brain and her mother’s brain (and God knew, probably her grandparents’ brains before that), Suzette had never allowed herself to yearn for a child.
A baby, warm on her chest. A toddler and a bag of breadcrumbs to feed the ducks in the park. The chance to erase her past, to begin anew. Suzette discovered that she liked the idea of the child being Hyland’s, a zygote formed with his sperm and the egg of someone young and sweet, someone who would disappear from the picture after a safe and joyous birth. (Bonus: Suzette would not have to give birth! Labor—its utter unpredictability, the brute nature of the act—had always terrified her. She was a surgeon for a reason, and that reason was complete control.)
As the pill lowered its leaden curtain, zonking Suzette’s mind into silence, she curled up, lay on her side. Oh, maybe, she thought: a warm girl, the nape of her neck smelling of baby shampoo . . .
It was a lark for Suzette, at first. Nerve-racking, yes, but exciting. There were piles of folders—so many young eggs! So many wombs for rent! The best chance for conception was traditional surrogacy: Hyland would medically impregnate someone young(er), who would carry the baby to term. Suzette could keep working without interruption and Hyland would sire a child. It was a win-win all around.
Late at night, though, Suzette panicked. It seemed straightforward, clinical, but something deep within her was disturbed. She thought of backing out, but Hyland was so damn thrilled—she hadn’t seen him like this in . . . well, ever. And she felt a fragile hope herself. A child—Hyland’s child—had been more than she’d ever dared to want. And yet, why not?
Because she was scared. Suzette still felt surprised by her good luck each night when she came home and Hyland was not only still there but still loved her. It was some sort of post-traumatic stress thing, she assumed: due to her miserable childhood, Suzette’s fight-or-flight response was all out of whack and she saw normal life as precarious. She tried to tamp down her terror, sat next to her husband as he paged through the donor profiles. He kept his hand on her knee, knowing her, knowing she was like a spooked animal.
In the middle of May, they chose a donor named Gail. Gail looked quite a bit like Suzette, actually: red hair and green eyes. But she was twenty-nine years old and had already given birth to two biological children and two surrogate babies, one for a gay couple in Arlington and one for a straight couple in Port Aransas. She kept a diary on her MySpace page, and Suzette spent her lunch break poring over it, reading about each of Gail’s pregnancies (a craving for peanut butter was a recurring theme) and staring at pictures of Gail’s children. Gail also had a husband, Oliver, who posed cheerily next to his constantly pregnant wife at bowling alleys and on a fishing boat.
Gail lived in Sugar Land, a Houston suburb that had been built atop a sugar plantation. Gail wrote that Oliver worked “in the construction arena.” Suzette surmised that the $35,000 each surrogate birth brought in helped pay for the boat and matching trucks (with vanity plates reading hiz and herz).
“I don’t know,” said Pam, the head nurse, looking over Suzette’s shoulder at her computer screen.
“She’s cute, though, don’t you think?” said Suzette.
“Sure,” said Pam. “But Dodge Rams? You drive a Lexus.”
“What’s your point?” said Suzette irritably.
“You’re classy,” said Pam. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Despite herself, Suzette was flattered. “Get scrubbed in,” she said.
“Yes, boss,” said Pam.
But before Suzette had time to prep for her 1:00 p.m. angiogram, she was paged for a donor run. An ambulance waited outside St. Luke’s, and Suzette called Hyland as it sped her through the city to the airport. “I don’t know how long I’ll be,” she said.
“We’re supposed to meet Gail and Oliver,” said Hyland. “At Applebee’s.”
“I know,” said Suzette. “I’m sorry.”
“OK,” said Hyland.
“Honey,” said Suzette.
“I know,” said Hyland. “You don’t have to say it.”
The ambulance turned in to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, following signs to John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Suzette peered out the window as they drove onto the tarmac, parking next to a private jet. “We’re here,” said Suzette. “At the jet. I have to go.”
“Goodbye,” said Hyland, cutting the line.
Suzette sighed, closed the phone, and stepped out of the ambulance. She nodded to the pilot, grabbed the transport cooler, and climbed the stairs to the passenger entrance of the jet.
“Six-week-old baby in Amarillo. Dallas didn’t have a match.” said Stefan Vaughn, the senior resident, who was already on the plane, flipping through the chart. “Motor vehicle accident. No insult to the heart. They did the second brain death exam an hour ago. Donor echo looks good.”
Suzette nodded. They both acknowledged the baby’s death with silence. The stewardess offered a basket of cheese and crackers. Suzette shook her head. She closed her eyes as the jet began to pick up speed, barreling down the runway. When they were airborne, she opened her eyes again. Stefan was spreading Brie on a Ritz cracker. “Come to think of it,” said Suzette, “I will have a snack. And a coffee, please.”
“Of course,” said the stewardess, unbuckling her seatbelt and heading to the galley kitchen.
“I could get used to this,” said Suzette.
Stefan nodded, brushing crumbs from his lips.
A waiting ambulance at Amarillo International Airport transported them to the hospital The operating room was filled with teams of surgeons: the baby would give up both her lungs, eyes, and kidneys as well as her pancreas, liver, small intestine, skin, and bones. But everyone was waiting for Stefan and Suzette, as the heart was removed first, transforming the patient from a state of brain death to a body without a pulse. The tiny cadaver was already prepped and draped on the operating table, and Suzette was relieved—it broke her to see a dead baby in his or her entirety, though she never let on.