Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons
Make it a girl’s night out! Join us for some drinks and a casual Q&A about how to freeze your eggs AND the clock.
This is what the Egg Freezing Party ad touted when it popped up in my Facebook feed. Egg Freezing Parties are today’s Tupperware parties, except now women are vacuum-sealing away their potential progeny. The ad’s brochure-worthy photo featured a group of stunning young ladies sipping margaritas on the beach. One blonde, straw hat cocked sassily on her head, laughed brightly. Not a care in the world. What does she have to worry about? It will be years before her biological clock starts to tick. And when it does, she can hit the snooze, secure in the knowledge that, while the eggs inside her body are withering away, the ones she was smart enough to put on ice will remain forever fresh.
In my day, the ads concerning a young woman’s eggs weren’t nearly this sophisticated or targeted. Although, whatever algorithm caused this ad to appear on my Facebook page was well over a decade off the mark. When I was the age of the sassy blonde on the beach, the egg ad that caught my attention was in print. There were no pictures or fancy graphics. Just a small square box appearing on the fat, ink-smeared pages of the Village Voice. Inside, the simple black and white lettering read:
EGG DONORS NEEDED
What caught the eye was the compensation price listed underneath—$5000.
When I answered my egg ad, I did have a care in the world, but it didn’t have anything to do with planning for the future, let alone my future family. All I cared about was scrounging up my half of the rent each month for the one-bedroom apartment in Queens that I shared with my best friend.
I was 23 years old and still a B cup the morning I stripped off my clothes and folded them in a neat pile on a white plastic chair. Shivering in the sterile basement of the fertility clinic, I wrapped the hospital gown they’d given me around my body and rolled myself up onto the gurney. My lower stomach was so swollen that my skin stretched taut over the alien matter growing inside of me. The almost-life overloading my ovaries had already been sold, and I couldn’t wait for the transaction to be complete.
The doctors came in and put me under for the procedure right there. Counting backward from ten, my lids grew heavy as my eyes scanned the bare walls for any small detail that would make this subterranean surgical room feel less like where they put Mulder on trial in the X-Files.
This isn’t worth it. I want to go home. Not be probed!
Fear held my thoughts above water as I pictured little green men scooping out my eggs. Then anesthesia’s dark waves pulled me under and time jumped back to where my wild egg ride began. It all started because I didn’t have health insurance.
“I’m telling you, go get your lady parts checked for free,” the girl at the party said, sipping red wine from a clear plastic cup. “You’ve got to get a clean bill of health before they even consider you, which means free physical, including gyno and STD screening for HIV and everything.”
The thin railroad apartment was packed full of twenty-something actors, musicians, and playwrights, so this girl had our full attention at free gyno. Struggling artists in early 2001, we were still months away from world-altering tragedy. There was only horizon, nothing loomed. The most difficult thing most of us faced was figuring out how to string together enough survival jobs to make ends meet. Few of my friends had even reached for the brass ring that was health insurance. We’d all seen the egg donation ads, so we listened intently as this girl, this friend-of-a-friend, taught us how to game the system.
“You get put on this waiting list after, and it can take months to get contacted. Some people never get picked. And even if you do,” the girl claimed, “you can always say no.”
When I wandered into the fertility clinic near Columbus Circle in the middle of January, I told myself I was only going for the free exam. When they called me two weeks later to say I’d been chosen by a couple, I was shocked. But I didn’t say, “No.”
I returned to the clinic early one Saturday morning for a class on how to inject my body full of hormones. In a windowless conference room, I took a seat at a long rectangular table with a handful of other girls. In front of us, arranged like the world’s most unappetizing table settings, were two kinds of needles: a simple pin-prick one and a scary syringe. Next to the needles sat a smooth, round bump of synthetic skin. We were to practice giving injections on the rubbery skin bump before taking our handy hormone kits home to jab our real skin daily during the donation cycle.
“Whether you put a packet of sugar in a twelve-ounce cup of coffee, or in a sixteen-ounce cup, the amount of sugar remains the same, it just becomes more diluted…”
The nurse leading the class presented this analogy to explain that donating our eggs didn’t mean depleting a set stockpile that would render us infertile later. But that, instead of a normal menstrual cycle where the body focuses on having one egg mature and, at ovulation, releases a single egg, the drugs we’d be injecting ourselves with would create something called “controlled hyperstimulation.” To put it plainly, we were shooting up our ovaries to make them pump out a crap ton of eggs all at once. When putting your eggs in another woman’s basket, best not to do it one at a time.
What does any of this have to do with coffee? I don’t know. Distracted by the other girls in the room, I was only half-listening to the nurse. We all looked shockingly similar: early twenties, pretty, average to tall, with long brown hair and big brown eyes. Except they were thinner than me. Surrounded by skinny doppelgängers, I practiced injecting saline into my fake skin bump. As we chatted, I learned that the other girls were mostly actresses, one was a poet, and another a painter. They were donating their eggs to pay off credit card debt or student loans. While Nurse Coffee-talk demonstrated the proper use of the scary syringe—insert the needle in your upper hip, pull up slightly on the plunger and check for blood, if you don’t see any, inject yourself—she stressed what a wonderful gift we were giving to the women who’d chosen us. And she was right. But looking around at these doe-eyed arty girls injecting saline into their skin bumps, what if we were also creating an entire fleet of useless humans? An army of liberal arts majors with brown hair, brown eyes, and no practical employment skills?
It was an “anonymous donation” program, however, so not only would the identity of the women we were giving our gift to remain unknown, we’d also never know if the couples got pregnant. The idea of having this maybe child out there fascinated me. I couldn’t see myself having children, so I joked about my “back-up” kid. One I’d never meet, or be given the opportunity to screw up. Everything about children was hypothetical to me back then, which made it easy to crack jokes. I spun stories about this theoretical child to make myself feel better for cashing in my eggs to put off having to deal with my own uncertain future.
The previous summer my best friend, Kristen, and I had moved to New York City to be actresses, but I was barely scraping by working as a hostess at a failing restaurant. I bided my time staring out of the restaurant’s front windows at the people streaming down Eighth Avenue and scribbling lines of overheard conversations into a small notebook that I kept tucked inside the hostess stand. A few friends gave me the names of their temp agencies, but I hated the thought of being stuck in an office, and the last thing I wanted to do was go running to daddy for help. But even more than I needed the money, I didn’t want to admit that I was just another wannabe actress going to cattle-call auditions and working in a restaurant. I donated my eggs for the five thousand dollars and to make myself feel different. Special. Nevertheless, here I was, in another room full of girls who were thinner, prettier versions of myself, all trying to do the same thing.
I parted ways with the other me’s in front of the building. Brown hair streaming out from beneath snug winter hats, snow swirled around us as we shuffled off down Broadway. The fertility clinic released us back out into the wild with a box full of needles, vials of medicine, and a medical waste coffee can. The nurse also gave us an emergency number to call. You know, for whatever emergencies that may arise when you send a group of young artists in New York City home with a box full of hyper-stimulation drugs and needles.
At first, donating my eggs was this big secret I hid from everyone, including Kristen. Not an easy task when you’re sharing a one-bedroom apartment and your “room” doesn’t have a door. Eventually, though, it became part of my routine. Get up late. Eat cereal while watching All My Children. Pin-prick shot to the tummy. Pull the hazardous waste coffee can down from the high shelf in the hall closet where I’d hidden it from the short Kristen. Dispose of the needle. Put the can back. Slap on some pretty. Ride the subway into Times Square to stand for hours behind the hostess desk. Force myself to stay awake on the late-night subway ride home when the trains ran local. Fall asleep. And repeat. And repeat. Until one day I forgot to put back the can.
“Something you want to share?” Kristen asked, tap, tap, tapping the edge of my coffee can full of used needles with her manicured nail. Donating my eggs seemed better than heroin addict, so I confessed. Good thing I did, because as the donation cycle progressed from the tummy-prick shots that paused my ovaries from functioning normally to injecting the medication that stimulated egg production, I had difficulty twisting around myself to stick the scary syringe where my upper thigh meets my ass. One morning, I pulled up on the plunger to check for blood, as instructed, but stared in disbelief when the syringe filled with dark red liquid. My blood. Something I foolishly assumed would never happen.
“What’s with you?” Kristen asked, walking into the kitchen. Hands shaking, I dropped the syringe, and it fell to the floor. Legs sapped of their strength, I followed.
“Blood. There’s blood,” I stammered, going from zero to panic, “I, there’s not supposed to be blood. It’s bad, very bad.”
“Why?” Kristen asked, remaining calm.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why. They just told us it was bad. Blood in the needle is bad, very, very bad,” I said, escalating to full Rain Man meltdown.
“But, why?” Kristen repeated firmly, taking charge, “What are you supposed to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“Yes, but… I wasn’t listening!” I shrieked. Then burst into tears.
“Oh, for Pete’s Sake,” Kristen said, her voice plummeting from its usual perky chirp to the low register reserved for when she’s annoyed with me. The octave I fondly think of as Kristen’s real voice. “Can’t you call someone?”
The nurse on the emergency line assured me blood in the needle did not mean I was going to die. Again, if I’d paid better attention during egg class, I would have known that you check for blood to make sure you aren’t injecting yourself in a vein. All I had to do was pick a new spot. Simple. Except my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“I can’t do it,” I said, leaning against the kitchen counter, lightheaded and near tears.
“Here. Give it to me.” Kristen snatched the needle out of my hands and yanked down the side of my pajama bottoms, “Turn around.”
Obeying her command, I presented my heinie. Without pause or pain, Kristen inserted the needle, checked for blood, and gave me the shot. A good friend has your back when you sell your eggs for five thousand dollars; a best friend gives you daily shots in the backside without ever asking for a cut.
“Easter? Are you freaking kidding me?” I yelled into the phone. I’d been calling the clinic daily begging them to “just scoop these suckers out of me already.” Each time, the nurse reminded me that the recipient’s cycle needed to sync up with mine before they could retrieve my eggs in order for the doctors to fertilize and implant them into her. I don’t know anything about the woman I donated my eggs to except that her slow ovaries sure knew how to ruin a holiday weekend; my egg retrieval had been scheduled for 7 a.m. on Easter morning.
“Gives a whole new meaning to Easter eggs,” Kristen snorted when I told her.
So, this is how my best friend and I celebrated our first Easter Sunday in New York City. Her attending early morning Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Me having my eggs extracted in the X-Files basement of the fertility clinic. Followed by bottomless mimosas brunch around the corner at Café Europa.
When I woke up, it was as if the egg retrieval never happened. For all I knew, the doctors could have implanted my eggs into the little green men. When they gave me the green light to go home, I wandered, still groggy, out to the lobby where Kristen was waiting as my designated escort. We’d made it to the elevator when one of the doctors stopped me, holding out a cream-colored stuffed bunny with long floppy ears.
“A present,” she said, thrusting the toy rabbit into my hands. “From the couple. To say thank you.”
I held that bunny as if it was a bomb that needed diffusing. Should I cut the red wire or blue wire? Meanwhile, beside me, Kristen was the one on the brink of explosion, stifling her laughter over my Easter-eggs bunny.
“I think I saw them. In the waiting room,” Kristen said at our post-egg-retrieval brunch.
“Who?” I asked.
The bunny’s black eyes stared at me with empty innocence as I sipped my mimosa. The rabbit’s pink nose and black whiskers were hand-stitched, along with the flowers adorning its round belly. Judging by the quality, it was probably purchased at one of those upscale toy stores in the West Village that sold things like Mozart for Babies and hand-painted flashcards.
“You know, the couple.”
Kristen, in keeping with the theme of the day, ordered eggs benedict. I got a bagel with lox and cream cheese.
“They were sitting there. Earlier, before you came out. I tried not to stare, but I think it was them.”
“Did they look nice?”
“The woman, she was a bit jumpy, I guess. But mostly, they just looked normal.”
I smeared an extra glob of cream cheese on my bagel and took a bite.
“They got you that bunny,” Kristen said, using her toast to mop up the runny mixture of yolk and hollandaise on her plate, “they probably celebrate Easter then. That’s nice.”
Were they religious? Catholic? Would they have Easter egg hunts? Give her a good life? My theoretical child was a girl. The couple had to have money, at least, to pay for this. They needed my eggs. I’d given them a gift, a wonderful gift. But what if they were bad parents? What if they were mean to her…?
“Yeah, that is nice.”
Fifteen years later, I stepped back into that same building off Columbus Circle for the first time since donating my eggs. This time, however, I was headed to a different clinic, on a different floor, to get my first mammogram. After I gave notice at my full-time office job to make a go of it as a freelance writer, I wanted to do everything I could, medically, while I was still covered. The mammogram was my last stop on the “do all the things tour” before I lost my health insurance. I’d picked the place off my doctor’s referral list because it was close to work. I didn’t even think about where I was going until the elevator doors opened a few floors before mine and I glimpsed the ghost of my 23-year-old self sitting in the lobby of the fertility clinic. When the elevator doors slid closed, she, and the years that separated us, were gone.
“Lean forward, relax your shoulders. No, relax them…”
This is what the compact nurse said as she positioned me over the imaging machine like a busty puppet. My shoulders weren’t tense because I was anxious about the mammogram; hunched shoulders are my natural state of being, and, again, I was only half-listening to the nurse when she told me to relax. Instead, I was wondering if the basement operating room was still there, lurking beneath us as cold and sterile as the metal plate flattening my now D cup breast. The nurse instructed me to hold my breath. Closing my eyes as I did, I envisioned the Easter-eggs bunny staring up at me. The only creature I’ve ever held that was, albeit in a roundabout way, a product of my ovaries. Counting backward from ten, I drifted off a young girl with viable eggs. Time jumped, and I woke up a single woman pushing forty who needs to screen her boobs for cancer. I missed the middle bit somehow.
I don’t regret donating my eggs, but I no longer foster any romantic notions about having a theoretical child out there. If there was a baby, her parents are the couple who gave me that bunny all those Easters ago. Now that I understand what it’s like to yearn for something which seems to come so easily for everyone else, I hope I did indeed give them that gift.
When that Egg Freezing Party ad appeared, however, I balked at the idea of young women being enticed into outwitting their biological clocks before the tick even tocks. Being in your twenties is complicated enough without the added pressure of freezing-up your future. But as I reenter the life of a struggling artist, a life of uncertainty, financial and otherwise, the Egg Freezing ad also made me wonder why, back then, I assumed I wasn’t going to end up having children. Did I self-fulfill my own prophecy? Yet even when I cracked jokes about my “back-up” kid, a part of me believed that once I met the right person, somewhere down the line, it would happen. It hurts to admit that the door is closed. Maybe, if I had been more like the sassy blonde on the beach, I would have slipped the doctors a couple of bucks to put an egg or two on ice for me.
KELLY JEAN FITZSIMMONS is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Her recent work has appeared in the Black Fox Literary Magazine, Newtown Literary, Hippocampus Magazine, and Hypertext Magazine. Earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, she also produces No, YOU Tell It!, a “switched-up” storytelling series with a twist: Each NYTI participant develops their own story on the page and then flips scripts with a partner to present each other’s story on stage. Learn more and listen to our podcast at noyoutellit.com.
[copyright 2017, Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons]