Joyland

San Francisco |

The Surrogate

by Caille Millner

edited by Kara Levy

Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.

Still, she’s surprised by how irritated it makes her feel. It happens in early summer, when he weather is hot and still. They live on the dusty edge of a desert city. The neighborhood is small, bleached-out, and quiet. Their house is a bright one-story with a chain-link fence in front and a little patch of yard out back. An arm’s length of space separates the houses on either side. All of the houses on the block are the same butter yellow, and all of the yards are the same drought-mustard green.

Cecily is thinking about their neighbors when Franco calls to her. The neighbors are all nice people. It’s the closeness of the way that they have to live that makes her uneasy.

It’s easier for Franco. The men nudge each other in the sides and tell jokes, while Cecily has to answer their wives and girlfriends’ questions. They have watched her carry one child after another without bringing any of them home and they always sound concerned: “Are you okay?” they ask. “How are you doing in all of this heat?”

Cecily tells them she is doing fine. She spends her days on the couch with her feet above her heart, holding an ice pack against her face, praying that the wind won’t pick up. She needs the peace, because she’s bloated and steaming like a furnace and dreaming of the day she can drop this baby and pick up the $30,000 check she’ll get for carrying it. Then they’ll get the air-conditioner fixed, and maybe a new lawnmower as well. All of their neighbors will want to use it and Cecily will smile when they ask.

When she looks out of the plate-glass sliding door into their backyard, all she can see is their tough little patch of grass. It’s grown much too high. She wishes she could mow it, but she’s already too big to push their old lawn mower with its bad-tempered pull cord.

Franco doesn’t notice the grass.

He doesn’t pay attention to the grass, but he loves peaches, and he calls her out to where he’s shaking them off of their overgrown tree. It’s 10 a.m. and nearing 100 degrees.

Cecily waddles outside, sweat tearing up on her forehead. She wants her ice again, and she wants to be left alone on the couch, but what she gets is Franco saying that he wants a baby.

So she snaps at him, and she really doesn’t mean to. “I can’t even think about a baby right now. I’m stuffed up with all this and you want to talk about having a baby?”

“I’m not saying right now, babe,” he says, and his voice pitches up and down, a little roller coaster of persuasion. It’s awkward having this conversation while he’s up on the ladder, looming over her. She has to lean back a little, shielding her eyes, and the action suspends her body in a position that feels alarming. Blood pulses loudly in her ears.

“I’m saying I would like us to start thinking about it before you go and get full up with the next one,” Franco says.

Stuffed up. Full up. They never use the word pregnant when they talk about the babies she carries. They’ve never talked about why they don’t.

“Okay,” she says. She watches him on the ladder, rustling the branches of the tree. Leaves swish back and forth over the sun, dappling the yard with shadows. She winces as the peaches hit the ground with soft thuds. A few of them roll, leaving a faint slick. “Are you sure it’s the right time? I mean, you’re out of work and all.”

“We’ve got time. You know how it is with the work. It’ll pick up in the fall.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It happened last year, didn’t it?”

“For a little while. What about Marisol?”

“What are you talking about? Marisol is nine years old and she’s with her mother half the time.”

Marisol is his daughter from his first marriage. She’s a sweet child, but slow, in Cecily’s opinion.

“I know,” Cecily says.

“Well, look, we should have our own. Before you get worn out from carrying all these other kids.”

Worn out. There’s something else they’re not talking about, but now Cecily isn’t sure of what it is.


*

Cecily is carrying this baby for Rebecca, a woman who has the most incredible smell. Whenever she sees her, Cecily closes her eyes and inhales deeply, trying to guess what’s in her perfume — is it cedar?

It must be cedar. Franco sometimes smells of it when he comes home after work. On Franco it’s mixed with the smells of sweat and tar, and on Rebecca it’s mixed with smells that are too nice for her to recognize, but she knows cedar when she sniffs it.

Franco had found out for her. Amused at how much she liked the scent of the wood shards and dusts that he’d carried home in his neck, under his fingernails, and in his hair, he asked his boss the name of the wood they were installing. Seederrr. It sounded like an ocean mammal.

Now it’s one of the few smells that doesn’t make her sick. It’s the only thing that makes her feel comfortable as she waits for the nurse to call the family’s name.

“You look great, Cecily,” Rebecca says when she walks in. She looks at Cecily carefully, though she’s trying not to, so her eyes go in all directions. “Did you have a good week?”

“Yes,” Cecily says, planting herself in a chair next to Rebecca and looking straight ahead. “Did you?”

“Excellent. I’ve just filed all the paperwork for my maternity leave, and Derek’s been putting together a crib. He’s so slow with this stuff that I told him to just start now. Otherwise it’ll never happen in time.”

Cecily smiles. “My husband’s the same way.”

“They’re all that way, aren’t they?”

Actually, for Cecily, every family is different. This one insists on going to the doctor with her each and every time. Usually it’s the husband and the wife, though today it’s only the wife, as Derek has “an urgent call.” They have their own doctor, and they trust no one else. Even when Cecily needs to see a specialist they ask the doctor if he will go with all of them to the specialist’s office. Each time the doctor explains that he doesn’t want to insult the specialist by sitting in his office while Cecily is being examined; each time the family listens to his explanation without accepting it.

Cecily likes their doctor, too. During an appointment three months ago the doctor noticed a growth on her back. After the family had walked out of the office to let Cecily dress, he told her to come back for a test. When she opened her mouth to protest he said, “You don’t have to say anything to them. Just come back and I’ll do it free of charge.”

The growth turned out to be benign, but the way the doctor handled the situation impressed her. He will be a good doctor to this child, for even though he’s not a pediatrician Cecily is sure that Rebecca and Derek will bring the baby to see him anyway.

The last family had been very different. They already had two children of their own — sweet-tempered girls, small and silky as minnows. The mother of the family had many “commitments,” so she’d given Cecily free rein when it came to the doctors’ appointments, as long as Cecily came to the family’s house every six weeks so that they could look at her and ask questions that Cecily then had to remember to ask the doctors.

It was a long drive to their house, all the way across to the other side of the city, and every time Cecily entered the “guest number” on their outdoor security gate and then drove up the winding hill of their driveway she seized up with panic that she had forgotten to ask about some crucial detail.

Eventually her panic was fulfilled. The family had been determined to have a boy and had insisted on a surrogate who was willing to carry two of them to term. Franco was out of work again, so Cecily said yes without giving it much thought.

She hadn’t planned on being off of her feet from the fourth month forward. And then, when one of the fetuses died in the sixth month, that had been just about the worst month she had ever experienced in all her years of carrying babies.

She’d never been in that kind of physical pain. It was so bad that she’d let the family see her crying when the staff wheeled her into the operating room. To their credit that family had come to see her every day in the hospital, the little girls too, and they’d cried with her.

They also gave her a $10,000 bonus after she’d delivered their remaining son, which was nice, but not enough to make up for that horrible month. All of that blood.

After that she’d sworn to herself that she would never do it again.

A year and a half later, of course, Franco was still out of work and she told herself that this would be the last time, the very last time, and here she was at the same hospital with a different doctor.

Rebecca pulls out a pillbox of Altoids out of her handbag. “I’m sorry the wait’s so long today,” she says.

“It’s okay,” Cecily says, taking an Altoid. “He’s a good doctor. I’m sure he’s very busy.”

“Yes,” Rebecca says, beaming, as though Cecily is talking about her.

Even though Cecily feels tried by her fussiness, she’s also tickled by her intense involvement in the process. Rebecca keeps a thick binder full of all the medical documents and brings it with her to every appointment. She’ll even interrupt the doctor so that she can reference whatever he’s talking about, while Derek watches her and grins the way that Rebecca’s doing now. Rebecca calls Cecily every night to ask how she’s feeling, and she even bought her a special pillow so that she can sleep more easily. The pillow’s as long as Cecily is and she has to fight Franco for it in bed.

Cecily had to draw the line when Rebecca asked if she could buy breast milk for a full year, though. Six months is her limit, and no amount of money will sway her. She gets paid for the milk, the supplies to transport it, and the gas she burns driving it to FedEx, and the money’s still not nearly enough; a year of burning and clenching and cracked nipples would be impossible.

“Derek found this doctor when we first moved here,” Rebecca is saying. “He’s been with us the whole time, through all my problems and now this. We’ve been very lucky to have him.”

Even with the intense intimacy that she has with these families, it’s funny how everyone still wants to keep a few things private. Cecily doesn’t tell anyone about Franco being out of work for years at a time, and every family has some small detail that they don’t share with her — why a blocked fallopian tube, why the irrational desire for a “balanced” family, to the point where they would want someone to carry two sons. It makes everyone feel a little less ridiculous to keep a secret in this situation, any secret at all.

“How’d you know you were ready for a baby?” Cecily blurts out. She’s surprised as soon as the words appear, and stares ahead at them, as if they were cigarette smoke.

Cecily senses Rebecca’s back straightening in the chair beside her.

“That’s a good question, Cecily,” she says, and it sounds to Cecily like she’s never thought about it before.

Of course Rebecca had to have thought about it before, there were so many explanations they had to give on the paperwork, and they’d told Cecily something during their first meeting. Thinking back, though, Cecily can’t remember anything special about what they’d said.

“I guess... it was always something I wanted?” Rebecca says. “Something Derek always wanted? We’d better want it, with everything we’re going through.” She chuckles.

They sit there for a moment.

“But I guess you’re always sort of ready, right?” Rebecca says. “Once you have your life together.”

“Hmm,” Cecily says.

“We’ll see,” Rebecca says. “Right now I think I’m ready but who knows? Maybe I’ll freak out the first time the kid won’t stop crying. It’ll be an adventure, that’s how I’m looking at it. It’s good to look at things like this as adventures, even though I’m sure it’s been a more difficult adventure for you.”

“Oh, it’s been fine,” Cecily says. “The pregnancy’s been so easy.”

“All the same, I’m sure you’re ready to get that right out of you.” Rebecca tries to laugh, and she chokes on it.

Cecily turns away so that Rebecca can get her face together. She looks towards the door, to see if the nurse is walking towards them. The sooner she comes, the sooner they can have this appointment.

The hall is empty. Cecily doesn’t feel like she can look back at Rebecca just yet, but she speaks to her over her shoulder in a cheerful voice.

“It’ll be here before we know it.”


*

When Franco gets a call at 5 a.m., he’s so relieved that he’s giddy. Until a few years ago going to work had been just that, work, but that was before everything dried up.

He fumbles around in the dark, pulling on his clothes. Cecily stirred when the phone rang, but now she’s asleep again. Her belly swells around her like an inner tube. After he got up, she slid over in bed, and now the baby is nuzzled in the warm print of his body. While his eyes grow used to the low light, he listens to her breathing.

Once he’s dressed he can sense where everything is. He fills his thermos of coffee in the kitchen, wraps a stack of tortillas in foil, finds his toolbox in the dark jungle of the garage. As he opens the door of his truck, he reminds himself that the day will come again when this morning feels routine, when he won’t be so grateful, when it’s just another job.

It’s a remo, which is even better. With a remo the supe has to be careful about how hard he works you and paying overtime, because the owners are watching, at least in theory.

Another great thing about a remo is that it’s a chance to peek into someone else’s life. He used to think that wealthier people were smart and intimidating before he started doing remos. By now he’s seen so much weird furniture and sloppy housekeeping that he’s changed his mind.

Since the site is all the way on the other side of the city he stops to pick up Omar. Omar’s car isn’t running and he hasn’t gotten enough work to fix it, so Franco offered to drive. He’s happy for the company. He likes Omar, and he doesn’t see him often enough.

Of course, he and Cecily don’t see very many people these days, and there will be even fewer as she gets deep into the third trimester. Towards the end she starts losing patience with everything and everyone.

Franco sets off on the road with one hand draped across the steering wheel and one hand tapping out a tune on the open windowsill. The early light is crawling up the sky. As it hits the hills they’ll ripen, slowly turning from blue into purple and finally gold.

Here in the valley that Franco is driving through, everything is still dark, but he looks at the sky and smiles at how nice the morning is going to feel when it brightens up. He parks in Omar’s driveway and honks the horn — once, then twice after a few minutes pass.

Finally Omar tumbles out of the doorway, and Franco can see that the morning doesn’t feel quite so nice to him.

“Ha!” Franco says as Omar slowly wedges open the passenger side door. He leans over to pick up the toolbox and drop it into the back cabin of the truck. “You out late last night?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Omar mumbles as he climbs in.

“Young and hungover,” Franco says, still chuckling. “You enjoy it while you got it.”

“Wish I didn’t have it right now,” Omar says.

Franco hoots. Then he says, “You need some coffee, there’s a thermos in the back. Just make sure you wipe the cup.”

“Appreciate it,” Omar says, then turns to root around in the back cabin for the coffee. He may be hungover, but he’s careful when he pours, and despite the little road bounces he doesn’t spill a drop. Then he turns back and sips slowly out of the cup. They ride quietly, watching the empty blacktop unspool before the headlights, watching the sun warm the hills.

Omar has to shake his head every minute or so, just to stop from dozing off. “How is it,” he says, clearly thinking as he speaks, “that every older person I know can just be all awake at this time of day? Every one of them?”

“Responsibilities,” Franco says. “I got rent to pay. A wife. A kid. Maybe another kid soon.”

“Oh, really?” Omar says. “You guys gonna have another one?”

“Yeah,” Franco says, then hesitates. Omar doesn’t know that Marisol is from his first marriage, and doesn’t know what Cecily does for work either. Neither thing is a secret, but Franco doesn’t like to do a lot of explaining to people he doesn’t know very well.

“We’ll see,” Franco adds. “We haven’t started trying yet.”

“That’s the best part,” Omar says, laughing. “The rest of it — I don’t know.”

“You’ll change your mind,” Franco says. “Kids are great. You’re going to love having them around.”

“You think?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know,” Omar says. “I feel like women want them more than we do.”

“Nah,” Franco says. “Even you’re going to wake up one day and decide you want to be a dad.”

“Hmph. All these girls out here want a baby. That’s like, for life. I don’t know if I want to be stuck with any of them for that long.”

Franco laughs. “That’s a whole other thing,” he tells Omar. “But you’re right. There’s not a woman alive who doesn’t want a baby.”


*

It’s evening, high-blue evening. The sky is so parched for water that it never quite gets dark at night. At midnight, Cecily can struggle outside and look up, and see the stars cracking through a faded indigo sky. Only then is it cool enough for her to stand outside in the yard, tasting the outdoor air, grass tickling her calves.

To cool the house they’ve got all the lights off; only the glow of the television helps them find each other in the room. Cecily and Franco sit side by side on the couch, watching a wrestling match. Marisol is playing with her toys at their feet. Cecily wishes Franco wouldn’t watch these matches in front of Marisol, but he loves them.

They return him to his childhood, to the times when his family had just moved up from Mexico. Franco had been his father’s interpreter of American culture, and one of the things he taught him was to see American sports as just freak variations on their superior Mexican counterparts. There were no substitutes for the greatest sport of all, soccer, so the Americans made do with the scrum ballet of football. American baseball was an arcane version of the faster version that Mexicans played. Both of them granted basketball to the Americans, but decided that the advantage there was the blacks, who had little else to do in that country.

As for his father’s beloved lucha libre — with its emphasis on family, with its dramatic sense of theater — the Americans had their own interpretation of that too. In American wrestling, everyone was a celebrity, and it was every man for himself. The wrestling matches helped the old man understand America, Franco had told Cecily.

The matches weren’t bad now that she had gotten used to them. If she squinted to blink out the blast of bright light from above and the splotch of frothing spectator below, she could appreciate the drunk dance in the ring. Plus she was amused that Franco enjoyed something so foolish.

“How are you, babe,” he says every once in a while, glancing at her nervously. He’s especially nervous after he gets excited by a tackle or a hold; he tends to jump up from the couch a little and then he worries about whether or not his excitement makes her think less of him.

“Fine,” she tells him, and she rubs his hand.

She wishes it were winter, or that the air conditioner was working. With only the glow of the screen, the bareness of the room stands out to her. They have little furniture, and the old tufts of brown carpet look even sparser than usual.

Cecily looks at Franco again. He smiles and gets up to go into the black maw of the kitchen, bringing back a beer for himself and a diet soda for her. She isn’t supposed to drink the diet sodas but she does anyway.

“Daddy, are they really angry at each other or is it just for TV,” Marisol says.

“What do you think, Marisol?” Franco asks her.

“Umm.” Marisol scrunches her face up, deep in thought. It’s not often that she’s asked for her opinion; she doesn’t want to give the wrong answer. “I think it depends.”

“Uh-huh. And what do you think it depends on?” Franco asks.

“Well, maybe some of them know each other and don’t like each other,” Marisol says cautiously. She sloshes the tip of her long black braid back and forth, like she’s painting her upper lip. “And... maybe some of them don’t know each other but they pretend they don’t like each other.”

“Can you tell them apart?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you look for the ones you think are faking.”

“Okay,” says Marisol, and now her voice is excited. She turns to the television eagerly, but soon her shoulders slump. “I don’t think these guys are faking.”

Franco chuckles. “I don’t think so either,” he says. “There’ll be another match after this. Keep watching.”

He turns to Cecily and speaks quietly. “Your sister called.”

“When?”

“Right after I got home from work. I just walked in and caught the phone before it stopped ringing. You were at the doctor, I think.”

“I was,” Cecily says. “Rebecca and I were there for the six month appointment. What did my sister say?”

“First I asked why she hadn’t called in so long.”

Cecily reaches out to stroke Franco’s hand.

“Your brother, I kinda get it, he’s a man, he doesn’t do all that checking in.”

“He could call.”

“He should,” Franco says. “But your sister lives not too far from here, she doesn’t do hair all weekend. She could drive over, instead of going out to the nightclub.”

Cecily stretches her neck to make sure Marisol isn’t listening. Over the years, she’s tried to keep her younger brother’s problems out of Marisol’s earshot. Frustrated as she gets with Marisol, Cecily wants to spare her all of these adult headaches. They’ll come for Marisol soon enough, and hopefully not as soon as they came for Cecily. Marisol does her part by continuing to stare placidly at the television.

“I’m guessing she called about the other one,” Cecily says.

“You guess right. Got in a fight with a customer at the hardware store while he was on the clock. Some jerk called him stupid, he wailed off and hit him. Maybe hit him a few times. Went to county and they won’t drop the charges.”

“He is stupid, then.” She stops stroking Franco’s hand. “What’s he want from me? Money? You told her we don’t have it, right?”

“Of course.”

“Did you ask her if she could get him out?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“She got insulted.”

“I guess he’ll have to sit there until she gets over it. I’m surprised they’d keep him for that.”

“It’s probably the priors,” Franco says. “They take any excuse these days.”

They’re quiet for a moment.

Cecily was fifteen years old when she became responsible for her younger siblings. Her mother had gone home to Mexico, and she would call Cecily with instructions about what to cook, how to talk to the teachers, how to avoid nosy neighbors. Those calls always came late at night, when the long-distance rates were low, so Cecily would sit on the floor in the kitchen after her brother and sister had gone to bed, cradling the phone against her ear, drunk with exhaustion and the hypnotic power of her mother’s voice.

She’d done everything her mother had said to do, and still the younger children had turned out the way they had; now when she spent late nights by the phone, she felt all of the exhaustion and none of the magic. Cecily still didn’t know who was to blame — her mother, for the advice, or herself, for the execution.

Franco is sure that he has the answer.

“This isn’t your fault,” Franco says. “He’s grown now.”

Cecily sighs.

“You know, I always liked that about you,” Franco says. “The modesty.”

Franco looks at Cecily in a way that makes her uncomfortable. She isn’t sure why until she realizes it’s the same type of beaming grin that Rebecca had today.

“What’d the doctor say?” Franco asks.

“The doctor says I’m fine.”

Franco wants her to ask the doctor how soon she can have a baby after she’s delivered this one. He doesn’t understand how strange it is to sit in that office with Rebecca, while the doctor pokes her naked body.

Nor does he know that she feels differently about these things since the last time they talked about them. When they were newlyweds, they’d told Franco’s mother — still alive at 78 with the heart and watchfulness of a raptor — that they would have a baby, but that they weren’t in any hurry. They had all the time in the world then — plus there was Marisol, and Cecily had been eager to spend some time alone with Franco. Then they’d both fallen out of work, hard, and she’d started carrying everyone else’s babies. Things had gone differently than they’d planned. Now she’s looking at their apartment, and at Marisol, and at her brother and sister, and at her body. There was a course that she and Franco were on, and he wants to get back on it, but she no longer knows where to meet him.

“But how many months do we have to wait?”

“You know how I am right after a birth. Besides, I thought we were just talking about it.”

“We are talking about it.”

“It doesn’t feel like we’re talking anymore. It feels like you’re telling me.”

“I just wanted to know if you would be okay.”

“We can’t rush. I’ve got to do the breast milk and everything.”

“Can’t you give them less milk this time?”

“That’s not how it works. It’s in the contract and everything.”

He sighs. Cecily leans over to rub his hand, then pulls her hand back. She shifts on the couch, trying to get comfortable again. With the extra thirty pounds, it’s hard to find the right spot.

“I just thought that after all these kids, you’d want one of your own,” Franco is saying. “We always talked about it before we got married.”

“I remember talking about it,” Cecily says. “That’s one reason we got married.”

“Exactly. That’s one reason we got married.”

“But we can’t do it tomorrow. We just need to be patient.”

“Daddy, these guys are faking!” Marisol shrieks.

“What’s that?” Franco asks.

“Look,” Marisol cries in a voice of triumph, and Cecily and Franco focus on the television.

A new match has started, and Marisol is right.


*

She’s seven months along now. Every movement feels worse, except for walking. Her feet have swollen to the point where steps feel spongy, like she’s walking across an air mattress. Every morning she spends an hour walking in the house, getting exercise as she’s been urged to do, feeling a little tickle of pleasure at the sensation of her toes nuzzling in the fur of the carpet.

It’s full summer now and the dust clouds have started up. She walks to the sliding door and stops to catch her breath, tasting metallic heat bubbling up from her stomach. With her tongue she catches a few drops of sweat rolling down her face.

Through the door she watches Franco heave and sweat as he finally mows the lawn. A fine coat of dust has settled onto his bare arms and upper chest. His thick black hair whips around his head as he trudges up and down the lawn. The particles of dust in his hair give him highlights that explode in the sun.

He worked for a few days last week on another remo before the supervisor let him go again. Bad times, the supervisor said. He told Franco that he was a good man and that he would call whenever he got another job — the usual. It was true and no one took it personally anymore.

She’d hoped that Franco’s desire for a baby would just be a passing wish, something he’d forget about by the time she was deeply into the third trimester, but she’d been wrong. He kept talking about it as though a decision had been made.

Reluctantly, she called the doctor. It took him three days to return her phone call, and when he did he laughed at her question.

“Of course you can have a baby,” he’d said. “Look at all the healthy, wonderful babies you’ve already had. Wait three months after the birth before trying, so everything is healed and your body’s ready. When you come in next time I’ll check you out. But I wouldn’t worry at all.”

“Thanks,” Cecily said. “I wish I could keep coming to you.”

“I wish I could keep seeing you,” he said. “Take care of yourself.”

“I will,” Cecily said.

She told Franco about most of the conversation.

She doesn’t want to tell him everything. Some things have to be held back until the right time.

Like: She still has an old birth control prescription from the nurse at the local clinic. She hasn’t filled it, but she hasn’t thrown it away.

At some point, she’ll have to do something with it. She just isn’t sure if that moment will come before or after she tells Franco that there will be no more babies.

Outside, Franco is taking a break. The pull cord has defeated him. He stands up over the mower, chest swelling and contracting like an accordion. He looks at the machine with resignation. As the wind whips his hair up again — a hail of dust blasts off of it, like a meteor shower — he yanks his fingers back through it, opening his face up to the sun. Cecily has to nearly choke before she realizes that she’s been holding her breath while she watches.