Four months later
Anna has been cleaning my car for the last hour.
In the last few months, she’s gotten increasingly anxious about our cars. We work at the same place and always used to carpool together, but now we take separate cars because she thinks my car is too dirty, and she doesn’t want my wheelchair scuffing up the backseat of her car. For a while, I was letting her put my wheelchair in the trunk, but now she gets anxious about even touching the wheels. We had one very tense morning when my chair was in the trunk and she made me sit there for nearly half an hour, trying to coax her to bring me the goddamn chair. I was this close to lowering myself out of the car and dragging my ass to the trunk to do it myself when—thank fucking God—she finally did it. After that, we decided it was better to take separate cars for the sake of my sanity.
But today we’re going to Anna’s sister’s house for dinner and it would be ridiculous to show up in two cars. Lisa and Jake know Anna’s got issues, but I don’t want them to see how bad it’s gotten lately.
Anna has been off her meds for six months. That’s how long we’ve been trying for a baby. She really likes using her ovulation kit and charting her cycles, but the point of this is not to make elaborate graphs and charts. The point is to make a baby, and so far, we’ve been unsuccessful.
At our age, six months is the point when we go to a specialist to figure out why I can’t knock up my wife. But I’m already one step ahead of that. I already see a urologist, so before we even started trying, I got a sperm count to see if I was shooting blanks. Given all my medical issues, it made sense to check.
Thank God, my sperm count was okay. Not rip-roaring amazing, but in the normal range. My urologist told me I’d be fine. That said, my sensation below the belt is not what it used to be pre-MS. Sometimes I can’t ejaculate, which means all that great sperm isn’t going anywhere. We’ve had a few very frustrating sex sessions where Anna was ovulating, but I just couldn’t climax for anything.
The next step is for Anna to get herself checked out. And then we can try intrauterine insemination. And if that doesn’t work, we may have to go the test tube baby route.
It’s all really romantic.
But none of this is relevant because Anna will apparently be cleaning my car till the day we die.
“Anna.” I wheel around to the passenger side of my Toyota, where Anna is using a dust buster to clean the seat. I’m ninety-nine percent sure she’s already done this at least once. “We’re going to be late.”
“I don’t know how you let your car get so dirty,” Anna retorts.
I tighten my fingers on the pushrims of my chair. My car isn’t dirty. It’s extremely clean. And right now, it’s beyond extremely clean.
“It’s good enough,” I say. “Come on, we have to go.”
She shakes her head. “Five more minutes.”
“Anna…” I clench my jaw, remembering she went off her meds for me. For us. So we could have a child together. This isn’t her fault.
In the end, I have to nearly pry the dust buster out of her hands. As I take it from her, I wince when I see her palms are bleeding. That used to happen to her years ago from all the times she washed her hands, but it stopped.
Now I see her hands bleeding all the time. It’s as bad as it ever was.
“Maybe we should take separate cars,” Anna says thoughtfully, as she hesitates in front of my car.
I push away the urge to shake her. “Anna, please get in the car.”
“It’s not that big a deal, is it?” She squeezes her hands together, her blue eyes wide. “We could take two cars. It’s not very far.”
“Just get in the car.”
“I could park a block away so Lisa and Jake won’t realize we took two cars and—”
“Anna, get in the fucking car!”
She stares at me, startled. I never yell at her like that. I can’t believe I did it. I know she can’t help the way she’s acting, but it’s gotten so out of control the last couple of months that it’s starting to wear on me. It makes me feel like the Anna I married is disappearing.
In any case, the yelling works. Anna climbs into the car, but she’s shaking and she won’t look at me during the drive to her sister’s house. If we don’t make a baby soon, I’m scared we could end up divorced. I never would have thought it could happen to me and Anna, but at this moment, it doesn’t seem impossible.
I glance over at her while we’re stopped at a red light. I see tears in her eyes, but they’re just staying there, not falling. She’s trying so hard to keep it together.
I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I want my wife back. I wanted a child so badly, but it’s not worth this price. I didn’t think I’d lose Anna so quickly. I knew the meds were doing their job, but I thought all those years of therapy were worth something too. I thought me being there for her was worth something. I didn’t think she’d regress like this.
And that’s when I decide:
We’re not going to have kids. Anna needs to go back on her meds. I want my wife back.
I spend the entire drive to Lisa’s house trying not to cry.
Matt doesn’t yell. Ever. He gets upset at times, but he always keeps his temper with me. It’s one thing I love about him, because—let’s face it—everyone else in the world has lost their temper with me. I am a frustrating person to deal with.
Over the last six months, all the symptoms I believed were gone—well, not gone but at least improved—have returned. Every single one of them. If anything, I’m worse than I was before. I chant to myself that I’m being illogical, that if the cleanliness of the work breakroom didn’t bother me before, it shouldn’t bother me now. But it doesn’t keep me from breaking out in a cold sweat every time I enter the breakroom. I can’t keep my lunch in the refrigerator, that’s for sure.
As for Matt, I’ve seen him become more and more exasperated with me. Even though these symptoms are not new for me, he did not live with me prior to my starting medication. He never had to deal with me on a daily basis. It is difficult for him. And then today he cracked.
I knew it was coming. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.
The worst part is even though I feel horrible about him yelling at me, I can’t stop thinking about how dirty Matt’s car is during the entire ride. It was awful, really. He literally had crumbs of food on the passenger seat. Crumbs of food! God knows how long the crumbs had been there. Oh, and tire marks because he puts his wheelchair in the passenger seat when he drives. Even though I cleaned it out, I really would have loved the car to have a day to completely air out before I had to ride in it. If Matt hadn’t yelled at me, I would have grabbed some paper towels from the kitchen to cover the seat.
Most germs are not harmful.
My immune system is strong.
I have a husband who loves me very much, and I love him.
I really wish I had those paper towels.
Maybe I should ask him to go back so I could get them. But no, he probably won’t do that. And we’re almost there.
Matt is quiet during the drive too. He barely says a word as he gets his wheelchair out of the back seat and transfers back into it. The back seat of his car now has all the tire marks back that I cleaned off. I’ve been working really hard to keep Matt’s wheelchair clean, but it’s literally impossible. I now wash the cover to his wheelchair cushion nearly every night because he has to sit on that thing all day, and I clean out the little nooks and crannies with Lysol and I bought a toothbrush to help do the job. But the tires—they are always dirty. Always!
I suggested he leave his usual chair on the porch and use the spare chair around the house. Not that the spare is so great, but at least it hasn’t been outdoors. Matt didn’t like that idea though.
But Lisa doesn’t seem to care that Matt is going to make tire marks all over her floor. She hugs him when she sees him, even though she hasn’t hugged me for at least a decade. She likes him a lot. She said to me once, “I was always sure you were going to marry some weirdo. Glad you didn’t.” My parents like him too. If Matt and I ever got divorced, they’d probably all keep in touch with him over me.
“Hey, Matt!” My brother-in-law Jake comes out from the back with a big grin on his face. Even though Jake is a mechanic whose hands are permanently etched in grime, it’s hard not to like him. I would have had a nervous breakdown years ago if he didn’t come by any time I needed something fixed in my home. Still, I wish he wouldn’t shake hands with Matt, because Matt might touch me. “Hey, Anna. What’s going on? Knocked up yet?”
I cringe and instinctively touch my belly. Matt and I have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for six months now. Somehow it does not surprise me that we have failed at this. Both our bodies have failed us in so many ways—why not this too?
“Not yet,” Matt says in a flat voice that doesn’t sound like him.
Jake shrugs. “Don’t worry, it’ll happen. It took Lisa and me two years of trying to get pregnant with Luke.”
Two years. Oh God. I don’t think I could do this for two years.
Jake leads Matt into the living room, where he’s got some sort of sports game on the television. I don’t know how Matt could be interested in something so insipid, but somehow, he is. Luke is sitting on the couch and he’s eating crayons. The child is literally eating crayons—he has a blue and a red in his mouth and now he’s pulling a yellow from the orange Crayola box so he can ingest all of the primary colors to create the full spectrum of colors within his belly.
I rush over to my nephew and crouch down beside him. “Luke, you don’t eat crayons.”
I expect Jake to interrupt and tell me not to worry about it, but he doesn’t. He simply watches us, an amused look on his face. Meanwhile, Luke stuffs the yellow into the cushions of the couch and pulls a carnation pink from the box. My stomach turns just from watching him. “I like pink,” he says.
Well, that’s beside the point. “Right, for coloring. But not for eating.”
Luke looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.
I hold out my hand to him. “Luke, give me the crayons in your mouth.”
He pulls the two crayons from his mouth, sticky with saliva, and places them in my waiting hand. I glance at Matt and see a smile twitching at his lips. He probably thinks it’s hilarious that I have Luke’s spit all over me. But I won’t have my nephew ingesting a combination of wax and color pigment.
I bring the offending crayons to the kitchen, where Lisa is cooking dinner. I wonder if I’ll be able to eat anything here tonight. Years ago, I used to bring my own food when I’d come here for dinner, but Matt informed me I wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. Still, Lisa’s cooking practices are unhygienic at best. I realize I have higher standards than most people, but I am being completely objective here.
For example, she pokes at the raw meatballs in the frying pan with a fork, then puts the fork directly on the counter. Is she unaware that ground beef can contain E coli bacteria? You don’t just rest a fork that has touched raw beef on the counter! Especially because I know she won’t clean the fork or the counter. The thought of it makes me nauseated.
“Luke was eating crayons,” I inform my sister as I drop the crayons in the trash.
She smiles at me. “Nice to see you too, Anna.”
I wash my hands at the sink with scorching hot water and soap, then I take the fork she’d been using and wash that too. I take a sponge and clean off the counter as well. There—crisis averted.
“Very helpful,” Lisa says. She glances down at my midsection. “Are you pregnant yet? You need something to occupy your time.”
I sink into a chair near the stove, trying to ignore the disarray in the room. I spent an hour cleaning Matt’s car—I don’t have it in me to clean this kitchen. I’m so exhausted all of a sudden. “No, not yet.”
Attempting to conceive has not been difficult in itself. I enjoy it, in a way. I like charting out my menstrual cycles—I am quite regular. My cycles are almost always exactly twenty-eight days and I ovulate on day fifteen. It’s nearly perfect. I used the ovulation kit the first month, but then I realized I could just as accurately predict my ovulation by charting my temperature day to day. I have multiple charts hung up in our bedroom to predict the exact moment when Matt and I should have intercourse. It’s like a science experiment!
But it’s not all fun and mathematics. There are days when intercourse would be optimal, but Matt just can’t do it. I can see the frustration on his face. Usually, he puts my own pleasure above his and insists as long as I experience orgasm, he is happy. But it’s not enough to conceive a child.
The strain of being off my medications is more intense than I had imagined. My baseline level of anxiety has increased several notches and I am without my rescue medication. There are times when my fingers are itching for a Xanax, but I can’t risk it. Dr. Hayward suggested meditation. He may as well suggest draining the Atlantic Ocean with an eyedropper.
And then, of course, every month there is the disappointment of another failure.
Lisa picks up the fork to stir the meatballs again, then lays it right back on the counter again. For goodness sake…
“Listen,” she says, “Matt is able to… I mean, you guys can…?”
I stare at her.
“You’re able to have sex, right?” she finally says.
I frown at her. “Of course we have sex! How else would we make a baby?”
“Well…” She smiles crookedly. “It’s just a little hard to imagine you having… and well, Matt has all those issues, so…”
This is very insulting. Matt says that I say insulting things to people, but this is really insulting. “How could you think I don’t have sex with my husband?”
“No, of course you do,” she says quickly. “Sorry. Never mind.”
Lisa throws the contents of a pot of boiling water into the pasta strainer. She picks out a piece of spaghetti with her bare fingers and puts it in her mouth. Sometimes I think she’s deliberately torturing me. If I don’t leave this kitchen now, there’s no chance I’m going to be able to eat any of this food, so I excuse myself and go back to the living room to watch the sports game with Jake and Matt.
About forty minutes later, Lisa yells out that dinner is ready. Everybody heads to the dining room, except for Luke, who is probably too full from eating crayons all day. Lisa makes an attempt to get Luke to join us, but he refuses and Jake says to “let the kid be.” Anna looks horrified and I don’t blame her. It’s a family dinner, and maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think the whole family should be sitting together.
Anna and I would probably be on the same page about a lot of childrearing stuff. But it doesn’t matter. Tonight I’m going to sit her down and tell her we need to stop trying. She has to get back on her meds. It’s not worth this.
She sits next to the place setting at the table with no seat that is clearly meant for me. The table is a good height for my chair—I hate it when a table is so high that I’m half a head shorter than everyone at the table. That’s the situation at my parents’ house. Or alternately, it’s so low, I can’t get my chair under it.
Anna’s got her hands on her lap and I reach out to take her right hand. She hesitates for a second, and I say, “I washed them.”
She smiles at me and allows me to take her hand. “I know. You always do.”
Christ, I miss my wife.
It’s spaghetti and meatballs, made with fatty ground beef that Anna never would have used—I know because I do the shopping. But somehow, Anna’s tastes better than Lisa’s. My wife is by far a better cook than her sister. Even her tomato sauce is more flavorful. I know I shouldn’t criticize the meal Lisa worked hard to cook for us, but I’m spoiled by Anna’s food.
“This is great, Lisa,” I say anyway.
She beams at me. “Thanks, Matt. I can give Anna the recipe.”
Anna shudders and I almost burst out laughing.
I know the food isn’t great, but Anna is pushing it around her plate with a definite lack of enthusiasm. It makes me worry what she saw in the kitchen. It’s been at least six hours since we ate lunch, so she’s got to be hungry by now. But she hasn’t taken even one bite. Christ, I hope we’re not going to go back to her having to bring her own food when we go to our family’s houses for dinner. That was really awkward. Just one more reason why Anna needs to get back on her meds.
“So are you and Anna still house-hunting?” Lisa asks us.
Anna looks up from her plate, her face nearly green. I quickly answer, “No, we’re not. We’re putting that on hold for now.”
If I made Anna move on top of everything else, I think she’d really lose it. That’s got to go on the back burner for now.
“Why?” Lisa presses me.
I just shrug, wracking my brain for something else to talk about.
“You guys need to move,” Jake says around a mouthful of spaghetti. “Matt, I don’t know how you can stand it there, man.”
“It’s fine,” I say through my teeth.
“We’re making it work,” Anna adds.
“Making it work?” Lisa snorts. “Anna, it doesn’t bother you that your husband can’t even get up the stairs?”
“We have the stair lift,” Anna says weakly.
“That thing sucks,” Jake says. “Remember I had to come over and fix it for you when it got stuck halfway up?”
“It’s fine!” Anna snaps at him. She stands up from her chair so abruptly that she nearly knocks it over. She’s swaying on her feet. “We’re fine. It’s fine.”
“Anna?” I say.
Then Anna clamps a pale hand over her mouth and goes running.
I look between Jake and Lisa, who have baffled expressions on their faces. Running off in a panic isn’t exactly atypical behavior for Anna, but she hasn’t done it in a long time. All the more reason we need to quit trying for a baby and get back to normal.
I push myself away from the table and wheel myself to the bathroom, where Anna has shut herself inside. As a rule, I don’t bother Anna in the bathroom, but it’s obvious something is going on. I rap my fist on the door. When there’s no answer, my stomach turns into a little nervous ball. I rap again.
“Anna,” I call. “Are you all right?”
There’s a long silence. Shit, what the hell is she doing in there?
“Anna?” I say again. “Please say something.”
After another long pause, the door cracks open. I get a shock to see Anna kneeling on the floor. Her face is very pale and sweaty. “I don’t feel good, Matt,” she whispers.
She shakes her head. “I… I threw up.” She takes a shaky breath, looking horrified at herself. “I got freaked out about the whole house thing. I just… I can’t right now…”
“I understand.” I reach out to take her hand, which is clammy as hell. “I swear, we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. The truth is… I’m not even sure about this baby stuff anymore…”
She looks up at me with watery blue eyes. “Matt…”
“I know how hard this is for you,” I say. “I was being selfish. It’s enough just the two of us, Anna.”
The tears overflow from her eyes. She swipes at them with the back of her hand. I want to invite her into my lap, but I can tell she’s itching to get cleaned up. I know her really well.
There are footsteps behind us and I hear Lisa’s voice booming down the hall. “Everything okay over there?”
I don’t take my eyes off Anna. “We’re fine.”
Lisa doesn’t go away though. She walks over to us, hovering above me, her hands on her hips. “What happened here?”
Anna looks away, too mortified to respond. I mumble, “Anna has an upset stomach.”
Lisa looks between us and then at the toilet. A smile spreads across her face. “So,” she says, “you finally got knocked up.”
Anna and I stare at each other. She looks at the toilet then back up at me. She shakes her head. “No,” she says firmly. “I just wasn’t feeling well.”
“I threw up every night with both kids,” Lisa says with a shrug. “I don’t know why they call it morning sickness—the only time I wasn’t throwing up was in the morning!”
“But…” Anna is holding her stomach, looking greener than ever before. “I don’t think I am, Lisa.”
“Are you serious?” Lisa laughs. “You know, for a couple of supposedly smart people, you two are pretty dumb.”
I lean back in my chair, feeling dazed. One minute ago, I was telling Anna to forget it. I was resigned to the fact that it would just be the two of us. And now…
“We’ll take a pregnancy test when we get home,” Anna says. “We’ll find out for sure.”
Except I know. Lisa is right—I finally knocked up my wife.
Our lives are about to change forever.
To be continued...