By Kelly George
For the past twenty minutes, I’ve been driving behind a truck with its mud flaps spray-painted with graffiti-a smiley face on the left flap, a frowny face on the right. I don’t want to read meaning into them, but I can’t help it. Staring into the space between the mud flaps, I start to think about how fourteen days ago a receptionist at my infertility doctor’s office handed me a piece of paper with a black and white image of a six-celled organism. The organism is a circle. Inside the circle there are six other circles all of roughly the same size, perfectly contained. It’s an embryo, but I don’t like calling it that. When I think embryo I can’t help picturing a tiny human baby, but this is something far more elemental.
During the embryo transfer, the embryologist hands the doctor a thin wand with the organism inside. The doctor inserts the wand through the vagina, past the cervix, and into the uterus, where the wand ejects a small puff of air—and with it, the organism. To ensure that it has been transferred from wand to uterus, the doctor passes the wand back to the embryologist who then looks at the wand under a microscope to make sure that the organism is no longer inside. In other words, the black and white image the receptionist handed me is an enlargement of something about the size of a pinhead.
I know how I’m supposed to feel about the six-celled organism. Before all this, I had learned like a good liberal not to anthropomorphize embryos. And I still believe that a teenage girl in the rural Midwest should not be denied her future just because a certain arrangement of six cells occupies her body. And even now that I have seen my own six-celled organism, the one made from a bit of me and a bit of my husband, I don’t feel different about six-celled organisms in general. That’s why I surprised myself when I returned home with this piece of paper and neatly folded it into a two-inch square and placed it in a tiny frame and gazed at it as if its six cells were six eyes that gazed back. I tell myself not to imagine eyes, nose, mouth, but I can’t help it. We see faces in punctuation; our minds are wired for emoticons.
I imagine what it would be like for a child of mine to hold the neatly folded paper with the circles and look into the face of her humble six-celled beginning. She might develop extra sensitivities. She might spend afternoons collecting ants and worms from the sidewalk to save them from a squishing death. In her teenage years she might refuse to eat anything with a face, because something like an entire chicken contains quite a few more cells than six. She may even experiment with fruitarianism, eating only the fruits and nuts that fall naturally from plants. Eventually though she will succumb to the only practical stance in these matters: I may have begun as six cells, she will declare one evening at dinner, but I still have to eat.
Today, I’m headed back to the infertility doctor for my beta test, the blood test that will tell if I am pregnant. When I arrive, they will take my blood and then I’ll turn around and make the long trip home. Sometime after that, my phone will ring and the nurse on the other end will tell me my future. I won’t be able to stop myself from intuiting the test result just by the way she says, Hi, Kelly. It’s Stephanie from Dr. Sasson’s office.
As I drive, the faces on the truck’s mud flaps whip around with the bumps in the road. I think about how the organism starts as less than six cells, of course. After the embryologist chooses the single sperm that will join with the egg, the sperm unpacks its DNA, and that is the moment of fertilization. Under a microscope, the moment of fertilization appears as just two circles, which are the male and female DNA, sitting next to one another with their circumferences touching.
I tell myself not to make a story out of two circles, but I can’t help it. They look like an elderly couple waiting together at a bus stop, shoulder to shoulder.
I spend the fourteen days after the transfer taking my shots, trying not to read into every twinge I think I feel, and trying to forget what comes next. At some point I realize that having those six cells inside of me may be the closest I ever get to pregnant. The organism might not make it to the blastocyst stage. It might not implant in my uterus, might not differentiate into placental and fetal cells, might not grow into the tadpole icon labeled “4 weeks” on the chart of human fetal development, might not hold the neatly folded paper with the circles and ask me to tell her again the story of how the six circles are her and she is the six circles.
Kelly George is a writer, teacher, and researcher living in Philadelphia. Her essays and commentary have appeared in the literary magazines Philadelphia Stories and Literary Mama, and the arts and culture web site, Broad Street Review.
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