Readings — From the May 2012 issue

The Art of Waiting

From the March/April 2012 issue of Orion. Boggs is the author of the short-story collection Mattaponi Queen.

It’s spring when I realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction. In the woods where I live, their mating song, a whooshing, endless hum, makes me feel like I am living inside a seashell. When I visit my reproductive endocrinologist’s office in May, I notice the absence of sound in the air surrounding the concrete and steel hospital complex. In the waiting room, I test the leaf of a potted ficus with my fingernail and am reassured to find that it is real: green, living.

The waiting room’s magazine selection includes a thick volume of the alarmingly titled Fertility and Sterility. On the cover is a small, square photograph of an infant rhesus monkey wrapped in a white terry-cloth towel. The monkey wears a startled expression, its dark eyes wide, its mouth a tiny pink oval of surprise. A baby monkey hardly seems the thing to put in front of women struggling through fertility treatment, but unsure how long I’ll wait before my name is called, I reach for the journal. Flipping through, I find the corresponding article about fertility preservation in human and nonhuman primates exposed to radiation. This monkey’s mother, along with twenty other monkeys, was given an experimental drug and exposed to the same kind of radiation administered to women undergoing cancer treatment. On other pages, I find research about mouse testicular cells, peritoneal adhesions in rats, and in vitro fertilization of baboons.

Nonhuman animals don’t expose themselves to fertility-compromising radiation therapy, nor do they postpone reproduction, as I have done, with years of birth control. But in species with more complex reproductive systems—the animals genetically closest to humans—scientists have documented examples of infertility, hormonal imbalance, endometriosis, and even reproductive suppression. How does infertility affect them? I wonder, staring at the photo of the baby rhesus monkey, its round eyes designed to provoke a maternal response. Do they realize they may never be mothers?

My name is called, and a doctor I’ve never met performs a scan of my ovaries. I take notes in a blank book I’ve filled with four-leaf clovers found on my river walks: Two follicles? Three? Chance of success 15 to 18 percent.

On the way out, I steal the journal with the monkey on the cover. Back home, under the canopy of oak and hickory trees, I open the car door and sound rushes in, louder after its absence. Cicadasong—thousands and thousands of males contracting their internal membranes so that each might find his mate. In Tennessee it gets so bad that a man calls 911 to complain because he thinks someone is operating machinery.

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