Is this my baby?

Three kicks below her ribs in steady time like a pulse. Then a pause. She rested her hand there, where the flesh jumped, still disbelieving after all these months, still in awe that a baby lived inside her body. Again the baby kicked, two times slow and three times fast. Again the words took shape in her mind.

Is this my baby? Is this really my child?

For fathers, the question is old, outdated. A man used to have to take paternity on faith. His only proof was the contour of his upper lip or the arch of his eyebrow mirrored in a miniature face. Now a simple blood test, court-ordered, can make reluctant men fathers.

But did anyone ever ask a pregnant woman: Is the baby yours?

Three months in bed with her hips elevated nine inches on a foam rubber wedge. A six-inch wedge at night so she could sleep. Quick trips to the bathroom. One brief shower a day. Meals on a tray. Forty-seven videos and counting. Eighteen novels—including War and Peace—and counting. Five books on pregnancy and childbirth—enough.

I think we should put you on bed rest. We don't want to take any chances after all you've been through, said the doctor, a slender woman with luminous eyes that were sometimes green and sometimes brown. She'd often gazed into those eyes in the hope of finding the truth behind her optimistic words, but she never got past that question—green or brown?

Is this my baby?

She wasn't crazy; she would know the signs. She had a degree in psychology, a master's in education. The three months in bed had made her clear-headed, resolutely sane. Until four and a half months ago she had taught special education, "emotionally disturbed" children, which meant, she learned, that the parents had problems, too. Some of them were crazy. For the first two years she blamed her failure to conceive on those parent-teacher conferences that left her shaking, nauseated with rage.

It means you're not making eggs anymore, the doctor replied. Her eyes looked brown that day. Khaki. We do have an excellent egg donor program. I can give you more information.

Once more they sat down together at the dining room table with the calculator, the financial records. He rested his forehead in his left hand while he typed in the numbers with his right. Subtracting. Two years of trying, well, three really, but the first one was free. Insurance wouldn't cover much. We can afford to do this once. Maybe twice, he said. Barely.

He didn't believe it would ever work. He wanted to move on with their lives. He never said these things to her. He did say, with his soft, sad eyes, I just want you to be happy.

I want to have a baby, she repeated. She had to believe it would work this time. She would make her belly swell and quicken with the same power of will she'd summoned to keep it flat and firm all these years. I want to try this. If it doesn't work the second time, then we'll stop. I promise.

Two thick binders with floral print covers. Sixty women. This is like a dating service, she laughed. It is a little weird, he said with a smile. She held the binder. He looked over her shoulder. When she liked the picture, she read on. Health history? Previous pregnancies? Education? Reason for becoming an egg donor? How would your family and friends describe you? Strengths and weaknesses? Special talents?

Some she skimmed, some she read slowly, seeing the pen strokes as much as the words. She was looking for someone who was very much like herself. Only better.

She's majoring in psychology. He was the one who pointed that out. He was the one who reached over and touched the words with his elegant finger. At the time she said, Yes, and she's very pretty, isn't she?

They interviewed three candidates. But the final decision was easy for both of them. He said, She's a lot like you.

She said, Only better.

There were many options. Complete anonymity. One interview meeting. Or more, if all parties agree. Egg donors earn their money. Pergonal injections, trips to the clinic for monitoring, the egg retrieval under anesthesia. Midway through the first cycle, she got a call from Jennifer: Sorry to bother you, but I have an appointment at the clinic and my car won't start. Phone in hand, she hesitated, looked over at him taking his last swallow of coffee. She was still teaching then, she wanted to save her vacation. In case. Did he just offer or did she have to ask him first? I don't have any meetings today. I can drive her.

Thirty-five minutes there. Thirty-five minutes back. Then they'd probably had to sit in the waiting room for a while. It didn't take that long, he said, I got a lot of work done in the afternoon. He and Jennifer were together for over two hours. A lot can happen in that time. One can do a lot of thinking. She knew. But it was funny, very amusing, that it took her eight months to really wonder: What did they say to each other? What did they do?

Four days later, they all drove to the clinic together to extract Jennifer's eggs, collect his sperm. She and Jennifer talked easily, like old friends. He drove, watched the road, smiled cordially.

She wasn't crazy. The three months in bed had made her clear-headed, resolutely sane. Back then she had focused only on her hope. But she had been seeing things, absorbing details that only came back to her now. Sharp and clear. How Jennifer's face looked so pale and young in the soft light of the recovery room. How the late morning sun slanted across the table in the pancake house. How Jennifer sat across from them, sawing into her blueberry waffle with her fork, I don't know why I'm so hungry. How he watched Jennifer, chin in hand. She could see one eye, his left eye. At the time, she didn't think anything of it, but now, with the image so very clear in her mind, it struck her that his expression was, well—paternal.

Jennifer was outgoing, witty, intelligent. She wanted to do something with her life that would make a difference, that would help people. I don't care about money, she said. I'm not doing this for money. I want to help.

Jennifer was also very pretty. A lovely young woman of twenty-one.

She, too, had been lovely at twenty-one. When she walked back from the library at night, the eyes of the young men she passed would reach out to her as they strained to focus in the moonlight. Is she as pretty as she seems? those eyes asked, fixed upon her until she disappeared. Reading men's eyes was one of the most valuable skills she learned in college.

She, too, had been fertile at twenty-one. Mindlessly fertile. Her boyfriend had gone pale when she told him. You're not going to have it, are you? That's what his eyes said. She'd been more afraid of losing him—old what's-his-name—than giving up the baby. The child who would be Jennifer's age now. At the time she thought she could have another. As many as she wanted. Later.

What did they say to each other? What did they do?

Jennifer did most of the talking, but he was friendly and polite as he drove her to the clinic, read a magazine in the waiting room while they checked her ovaries and estradiol levels, then drove her back. That is exactly what happened. She had no doubt. The evidence was: the twelve embryos—four injected into her body, eight frozen—the positive pregnancy test, the tiny heartbeat on the ultrasound, the expensive celebration dinner, the worries about miscarriage, the smaller celebration when they made it safely to the second trimester, the later ultrasound—they'd asked not to know the sex, Let's do that much the old-fashioned way, he said—and then the early contractions, the bed rest, more worries, waiting.

She wasn't crazy. The three months in bed had made her clear-headed, resolutely sane. She just had an imagination. A fertile imagination.

Two bodies sitting in his Honda. Two bodies that had never touched. In a few days her eggs (fourteen of them) and his sperm (one hundred fifty million of them) would be joined in the lab under the hands of that blonde technician with the reassuring smile. Wasn't there an easier way? A cheaper way?

His imagination was not as fertile as hers. No, as a matter of fact, the thought never occurred to me. That's what he would say. She didn't even have to ask. Because if the thought had occurred to him, he wasn't the type to admit it.

He wouldn't admit it if the thought had occurred to him to pull off at the next exit, the one with the motel signs towering above the highway. It would feel awkward as they checked in, opened the door of the darkened room with its antiseptic motel odor, pulled down the blankets tucked so tightly under the mattress, undressed. But once he was in bed with Jennifer, it would be sweet, just the way it had been when they had first started trying, when they had thought it would be easy. He would embrace her soft, warm, young body. He would kiss her smooth throat. He would touch the skin at the outer corners of her eyes, the dewy, unlined skin that could stand up to harsh morning sunlight streaming across the table in the pancake house. Then he would slide inside of her with that mellow sigh. He would make love to the mother of his child—who was not his wife.

How different from that little room in the clinic with the plastic cup, the stack of magazines—several pristine Playboys and a well-thumbed Gallery.

How simple, what a bargain to get a baby for the price of a motel room. No need to sit down at the dining room table to do calculations, no need to work out a payment plan with the clinic. But then, she wouldn't be here right now, on her back; she would be dashing into her favorite cafe for a double cappuccino. And Jennifer would be feeling the kicks beneath her ribs. The same kicks from the same tiny feet. Two times slow, three times fast.

Is this my baby? Or is it hers?

Jennifer came to visit her once, looking very slim in her jeans. She brought a miniature rose bush, a small plastic pot wrapped in pink ribbon. You look great. The baby began to kick. She invited Jennifer over to feel her belly. She—or he—is so strong, she laughed. Do you think it's saying hello?

He came in with some herbal tea, some sliced fruit on a tray. He chatted for a few moments. Asked Jennifer how her classes were going. Asked if they needed anything else. Then he left them alone again. Jennifer watched him go, looked down at the plate of fresh pineapple and melon, the steaming mugs. He's taking really good care of you. Your husband's such a nice guy. Really sweet.

What did they say to each other? What did they do?

The pineapple, the melon, the herbal tea. Every bite of food, every sip of liquid. She imagined it becoming part of the baby growing inside of her. A baby nourished by her blood. A baby suspended in her womb, kicking, turning and sleeping to the rhythm of her heartbeat, to the muffled sound of her voice. At least her body, her blood could claim the verb: to mother.

This is my baby.

She tried saying it. She tried believing it.

This is my baby. This is our baby.

You're going to be a wonderful father. She often told him that. Indeed, he was taking such tender care of her. Without complaint. Rather like a mother, in fact. She could easily imagine those pale hands, those piano player's fingers holding his newborn child. When she was still out in the world, in the early months of her pregnancy, she began to notice fathers, older fathers, so many fathers with graying hair, carrying babies against their bodies in slings and packs, holding babies with hands that probably changed diapers, too.

Where did all these nurturing fathers come from?

Her own father had been loving, but he rarely touched her. It was her mother who did the nurturing, the touching. Hers was the embrace she sought after a nightmare, hers the hand that smoothed lotion on her shoulders blistered with sunburn, hers the deft fingers curling her hair for her first formal dance, hers the angry half-slap knocking that cigarette from her mouth. Her mother was always there.

A mother was always there.

Jennifer would pass on the contour of her upper lip and then go off to graduate school in a different state. A mother like a father. But she was the mother who would be there. To labor, give birth, suckle, soothe, nurse, and nag. When the baby was born, she wouldn't have time to ask questions.

Of course, some day the child would ask the questions, new questions for a generation conceived in well-lit laboratories, not darkened bedrooms.

How are babies made?

Well, a mommy and a daddy decide they want to have a little baby. They try and try for many years, and then they visit a special doctor who …

Are you my mother? My real mother?

Well, you see, I wanted to have a baby. You. The idea of you was mine. I was the one who imagined your face every day, years before you were born. Yes, your father wanted you, but mine was the eye that twinkled. And when I first felt you move inside of me, I was happier than I'd ever been in my whole life.

I was willing to do anything to get you. I willed you into existence. Because I wanted you so badly.

That was never a question.


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Donna George Storey lives in northern California with her husband and two sons. She is the author of Child of Darkness: Yôko and Other Stories by Furui Yoshikichi, a translation with critical commentaries. Her fiction has appeared in The Absinthe Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Carve Magazine, In Posse Review, Rain Crow, Zoetrope: All-Story Extra and is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review. A story published in Prairie Schooner received special mention in Pushcart Prize Stories 2004.