Relationships

The Stuff of Life

On a short list of potential sperm donors, my high school sweetheart was at the top

You figured he'd say yes.

You pictured the jar—maybe a small one from marinated artichokes, the glass and lid sterilized in the dishwasher—and how he'd hand it over with a sheepish grin.

You imagined calling him a few weeks later with the news: "Mazel tov! You're going to be a … donor!"

You fantasized that the kid would look, inexplicably, like all three of you.

It's not every day that you ask a high school boyfriend—OK, your one and only high school boyfriend, because you can't count the gay guys who never returned your crushes or the senior you kissed, sloppily and only once, at a New Year's Eve party—for sperm to help you and your lesbian partner make a baby.

You asked because this one was a mensch: smart and funny, bookish, skeptical, introspective. This one had enough self-confidence to wear scarlet lipstick with his vampire costume on Halloween, when you sat on his lap in the back of someone's father's Peugeot and sneaked a few kisses when no one was looking.

He wrote you messages in small, cramped print inside Sandra Boynton cards, annotating her drawings of beanie-wearing elephants with jokes only the two of you would understand. You played Scrabble and talked about Hermann Hesse. For Chanukah, he gave you a large, bespectacled stuffed ape.

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And then, after seven months—a teenaged eternity, nearly all of 11th grade—he broke up with you one spring afternoon on the lawn outside the high school. He couldn't explain why. Both of you cried a little.

But you stayed friends. You exchanged letters that summer, when you were smitten with a girl at the Governor's School for the Arts and he was disenchanted on a teen tour of Israel: blue airmail missives jammed with that same tight print and, at summer's end, a gift of malachite earrings from Eilat.

Seasons slipped underfoot: a prom you attended with one of the gay guys; caps and gowns and notes scrawled in yearbooks. He went to college in the Midwest, you in the Northeast, and for years you heard from him, or about him, only intermittently.

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He married. He had a son. You moved to Portland, Oregon. He and his wife divorced. You and your girlfriend fell in love. Once, in a San Francisco bookstore, you ran into his sister, who jotted down his new address, and the two of you exchanged a couple of sweet, nostalgic notes.

Fast-forward to your late thirties. Your partner really, really wants to have a baby. For a while, you change the subject each time she brings it up, but finally, over burritos at that place on Northeast Broadway, she talks you over the hump of anxiety and doubt.

Now the question is: How? You know a couple of lesbians who used a sperm bank. "It's just a body fluid, like donating blood," one of them tells you diffidently over a dinner of tofu enchiladas.

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But it's not just any body fluid: the sperm you use, whatever its source, will write half your kid's genetic blueprint. It might determine whether she loves Chopin or Sondheim, whether he craves spicy food or wants only mac and cheese, whether the child will grow up to be a poet (nature and nurture doing the tango) or (less likely, but you never know) an astrophysicist.

You want to know the source of the sperm that will dally with your partner's egg, then cell-divide like crazy until it turns into a person. You make a short list of potential donors, and high school sweetheart is at the top.

You start envisioning how it will unfold: the letter you and your partner will write; the face-to-face conversation after that. Your heart leapfrogs ahead—you can't help it, you've caught baby fever now, too—and you picture a thoughtful toddler in OshKosh overalls, a bespectacled third-grader obsessed with snakes or subways, a lanky teen curled on the window seat with a copy of "Franny and Zooey." Sometimes the kid is a girl, sometimes a boy; always, she/he has dark, curly hair, a quirky sense of humor and limpid eyes.

You imagine a whole life for this not-yet-conceived person, a life webbed to other lives—your own, of course, and your partner's, but also to your former sweetheart and his siblings and their partners and children. You glow a little when you think about it, this bold family-making experiment you are about to undertake, and how it knits together some loose strands of your past.

And then—after the careful letter, and an awkward phone call, and a conversation in which the two of you walk around and around a park where you used to make out as teenagers—he says no.

He says he's flattered and that the idea of making alternative family is intriguing. But his life is already complicated—the ex-wife, a teenaged son, a stepson, in-laws, aging parents—and he can't invite another twist of complication, another relationship to worry about and sustain.

You understand. You hug each other goodbye. But "no" is the pin that stabs the bubble. Your future—the life you envisioned as mother, mother, baby and friend/donor/uncle—pops and withers, just like that.

Because this is how rejection works. "No" wipes out, in one terse syllable, everything you thought would unspool from that moment.

Remember? You'd ask your crush to dance, then murmur "I love you" during the song's bridge. In a few years, you'd propose at sunrise; later, you'd have two kids and a porch with a swing. You'd apply for that job, and sunlight would pool on your desk in the corner office. You'd bid on the bungalow with pansies in the window-box and—hello, there's the realtor with a lilt in her voice—it would soon be yours.

"No" throws down a boulder where you believed there was a path. Nothing to do, for a while, but slump against the jagged rock and sob.

I flew back to Portland, held my partner and cried about the baby who wouldn't be. And years later, after we'd asked another friend who also said no, then tried seven times with frozen vials from the sperm bank, a tiny pink flag on the pregnancy test waved toward our future. Not the one we planned, not one we ever imagined. A life mapped with all the places we (and our no-longer-hypothetical kid) would hit a "no" and all the times we'd grope our way past, sobered and hopeful, still whispering "yes."

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