Brian Schwartz: Thrum

They were both pregnant but only Fran got morning sickness. At dawn an irrepressible curdy sourness welled up in her gut, forcing her out of bed, pulling her toward the bathroom where she would retch and puke and cough until, a minute later, Naomi would pad in gently behind her. Her equally pregnant partner, not in the least bit nauseous, would rub her back, stroke her hair, offer wordless consolations. Occasionally Francine would feel this amazing soft shape against her side: the bump of Naomi’s pregnant belly, nudging her, coming to rest like a ship in harbor. All at once she would feel weak, ashamed, overjoyed.

The fertility doctor smiled at Fran and Naomi’s dilemma. He’d been smug to begin with, becoming only more pleased with himself when his technical interventions had resulted in two near-simultaneous pregnancies in the same couple—a kind of Olympic gold medal for a fertility specialist, a rare achievement. If downhill skiers were addicted to steep slopes and fluffy powder, Francine reasoned, maybe fertility doctors were junkies for artificially fruitful wombs?

“Morning sickness is evidence of the right kind of hormones,” the doctor told her. “So, good for you, Francine. Strong pregnancy.”

Their doctor was a Russian émigré. Whenever they met with him, he quickly summarized the information that he wanted to share that day, and then said, “You may not understand yet completely, but I will explain you.”

The phrase stayed with Fran because of its awkward grammar and its wild promise. I will explain you: this doctor would not settle for medical intervention; he would somehow go on to explain them, Francine and Naomi, their spiritual selves, their relationship, who they were together and apart. And on some days, Fran believed the doctor might make good on this promise. Some days it seemed that the medical explication of one’s reproductive biology really could provide a revealing portrait of who one was at a given time.

Regardless: from the start, as far as Francine could see, everything about having a baby had been easier for Naomi. Take, for example, choosing a donor:

For months their kitchen tabletop (which Fran herself had fashioned from stained cherry wood) was scattered with folders and brochures and paperwork relating to artificial insemination, sperm banks, picking, planting and growing the seed. But Fran couldn’t choose. Who should it be: The piano-playing nuclear physicist? The Army veteran defense attorney? The graduate student in Anthropology, or the one studying Public Health? She assumed that Naomi’s top picks all had Jewish backgrounds of one kind or another, but Naomi refused to confirm or deny this until Fran had revealed her own favorites.

They eventually settled on a half-Jewish artisanal chocolate-maker with a degree in Semiotics from Brown University. The decision took a long time. And it was just the beginning.

Before they got pregnant, they had to meet frequently with their Russian fertility specialist. During one disheartening trip to the fertility clinic, Fran felt Naomi’s hand on her knee, and heard Naomi say, “Fran, we really should tell him about the irregularity with your cycle.” The doctor’s gaze rested on Francine now; he began asking questions with the strange nonchalance of an adult male who could speak knowledgeably about menstruation. “An irregularity with your period?” he said in his villainous accent. Fran shrugged, ashamed and angry, as the pudgy doctor sat behind his desk lecturing her about her own womanhood. He knew more about her insides than Fran did. By a lot. Which was troubling and reassuring all at once. He named medications, sketched out timetables, and Francine tried everything he suggested; after three months, though, the doctor’s strategies led to nothing but hot flashes and tampons.

Finally, during yet another visit to his office, the doctor said: “We need to consider, Francine, whether you might be willing to step aside. Maybe Naomi should try for her own pregnancy, if that’s something you want as a couple.”

“Um,” Fran said, starting to cry. Naomi produced a mildly crumpled blue tissue, beating the doctor’s handkerchief offer by a full second, no surprise considering how often Naomi had helped Francine mop up after morning sickness. So the squat medicine man with all his professional reproductive expertise was left there holding a flimsy white square pinched between his fingers like a clown’s kerchief while Francine plucked the tissue from Naomi’s hand.

“These scenarios can create substantial emotional distress,” the doctor opined, withdrawing the handkerchief. “But there’s a lot of hope here. We want to pursue your best chances for a viable pregnancy.”

“Let’s both try at the same time,” Fran blurted out. “I mean, Naomi and I could undergo the process together.”

“Pregnant at the same time? No—not advisable,” the fertility specialist said. But Fran could see the flush of excitement on his face.

“I want to keep trying,” Fran pleaded.

“Wait, Fran, we need to talk about this,” Naomi said.

“We all need to talk about this,” the doctor said. “There are ethical considerations.”

But Francine suspected that the doctor was bored by ethical considerations. And she was right. Anyway, she thought, there was no way Naomi would achieve a viable pregnancy the first time out: how likely was that? How likely was it, in the end, that she and Naomi would be pregnant at the same time? It was almost impossible!

Almost, but not quite.

For Naomi, pregnancy was invigorating, a physiological condition that brought with it contentment, tranquility, spiritual wellbeing. Francine kept thinking of the old Jimi Hendrix line—butterflies and zebras and moonbeams and fairy tales—because that happy, fantastical progression characterized what Naomi’s hormones did to her in the first couple trimesters. They made her feel good. They added a colorful dimension to her experience. For Fran, this was an outrage. She couldn’t help but critique her partner’s highly satisfactory pregnancy, which completely played into all the phallocentric stereotypes about how being big with child was the right, proper condition for all women under 40, all the time. Fran tossed in bed while Naomi slept well at night. In the mornings, Fran blearily roused herself while Naomi drifted through the apartment smiling in the mornings, enjoying the aroma of her decaf. Naomi ate heartily at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Naomi—this woman who could barely throw (or catch) a baseball, who couldn’t run fast without falling over, who generally had a distant, uncertain relationship with her own body—Naomi was having herself a fine first six months. Her body was doing all that was asked of it, happily, made robust by pregnancy.

Fran, on the other hand, threw up every morning. Before breakfast, kneeling in the tiled bathroom, bombarded by her own wretched echoes, she would spit up something bilious and mucoid, a half-cup of the grease that was supposed to line her gut. On certain days she felt overwhelmed by hunger until she sat down to eat, at which point she would lose her appetite immediately. Sometimes she couldn’t sit with Naomi at the dinner table—it was too frustrating to watch her partner pack away steak and potatoes, slowly, neatly, thoroughly. Fran would excuse herself after a few bites. She knew this made Naomi feel guilty, and she was glad it did.

But Fran harbored this resentment only until the spotting incident. Naomi showed her a pair of underwear one morning that was stained with the unmistakable red-brown of blood. By this time they’d bid farewell to the Russian fertility specialist and moved on to an OBGYN practice that Naomi had been going to for years. Shortly after they arrived at the doctor’s office that afternoon, they were ushered into a small room barely large enough to fit the padded chair with stirrups that Naomi was asked to sit down in. After shoving aside a stack of tattered parenting magazines, Fran parked herself on a small padded bench in the corner. There were several minutes of quiet—Francine looking at Naomi, Naomi looking at the ceiling—before their doctor walked in holding a portable plastic ultrasound unit that looked like a kid’s karaoke machine.

The steady sound of a fetal heartbeat—a sound that made Fran think of tympani drums being played underwater—is one of the most hopeful, reassuring sounds we can hear outside of human speech. Given the many ways that technology allows expectant parents to peek inside the womb, to visually check on their growing baby, it’s surprising that the sound of the heart still holds such power. Chalky glowing images of a head, a hand, these are like cave paintings imprinted by distant ancestors and then transposed from rock wall to flat screen. Lovely and mysterious, they have the tinge of human handicraft, like charcoal sketches. But the sound of the heart, even mediated and amplified by a sophisticated machine, is more primal, its rhythm all animal vitality, the mammalian thrumming of blood and dreams.

The doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat. She pressed the sensor—it looked like a tiny microphone—against the skin of Naomi’s belly, moved it along the curve down by the waistband of Naomi’s white underwear. There was silence punctuated by crackles of static. Then more silence, a silence that poured from the small hand-held speaker as the room began blooming with catastrophe. Fran couldn’t countenance the half-thoughts taking shape in her mind. The doctor said, “Sorry. I wonder if it’s the battery pack—” Minutes went by. Fran sat there quietly, looking at her partner’s sock feet, holding her own belly because she couldn’t hold Naomi and because she was struck anew with the mysterious responsibility of carrying a child. There was so much that had to go right over the course of nine months. And she and Naomi, pregnant at the same time, were doubling the chances of some awful uncontrollable event…


“There it is,” the doctor said. “Strong. Sounds good. Sorry, that took a few minutes.”

Fran exhaled a moan of relief.

“Sorry,” the doctor said again. She was Southern; her slight drawl softened the edges of her jargon-laced doctor’s vocabulary; she had beautiful pale skin. She said that spotting in the second trimester was unusual but that Naomi and the baby both seemed fine. Fran insisted that this lovely woman look at Naomi’s dirty, red-dappled underwear (which Fran had brought along on the Metro in a plastic grocery bag), so the doctor looked at the stained cotton and shrugged. “You’re right, there’s blood there,” she said in her gentle drawl. The doctor had shoulder-length brown hair, an engagement ring on her left hand, quite a rock. She was the kind of woman Fran normally ignored, had for years ignored, but today every time the doctor offered some reassurance, Fran felt an erotic charge. The smooth-skinned twangy obstetrician from Atlanta or wherever had knowledge, control. She was saving their family. This was very attractive.

After that day, Fran held no grudges. She didn’t mind as much about the morning sickness. She had seen Naomi’s vulnerability and didn’t like seeing it. She was able to understand her own nausea more and more as a sign of strength and development, the little chocolatier inside of her making some confection, sending a signal, raising a cry. So Fran became steadier, and Naomi kept on as steady as ever. They’d both been artificially inseminated in the same week; their due dates were only seven days apart. In this way they moved together through pregnancy, often wondering who would go into labor first and imagining what it would be like for one of them, massively pregnant, to lean in close and cheer the other right through the delivery.

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