he was meeting him for coffee. Just coffee. She knew by now that
was the safest thing to do. Things could get awkward-or out of
hand-very quickly otherwise. So she'd chosen this place. This very
Sip was her home turf. Isabel spent the better part of each day
at the dimly lit Chelsea cafe working on a novel about her pathologically
dysfunctional family. The book had no beginning or end, just an
interminable middle that seemed in no hurry to get anywhere. So
lately she had begun to write herself into the story. She did not
write about her past, but instead about her present and immediate
future. Life causing art. Or something. Anyway, suddenly she had
Isabel loved the simulated hominess of Sip--the sagging burgundy
and olive velvet couches with their balding cushions, the mismatched
flea-market tables and lamps. She loved that she was a regular
who knew all the other regulars without knowing any of their names.
But mostly she loved that Sip had free wireless internet access
and that just like her, everyone who came to work here eventually
joined the others who, like addicts in an opium den, plugged in,
logged on and tuned out.
After responding to each other's nerve.com profiles, Isabel and
Robert had exchanged pictures. But e-pictures were never very reliable.
Pixels could be manipulated. A guy who looked like George Clooney
in one of those things could easily turn out to look more like
Curious George in person.
She'd never spoken to him on the phone. She never talked to any
of them before the first meeting. That was one of her rules. That
was part of the fun. She'd messaged him that she'd be sitting in
the back, that she had long dark hair and a Dell PC.
"Excuse me, are you Isabel?" a deep, quiet voice asked.
Isabel looked up over her computer. He was dark and broad-shouldered
and had on well-worn khakis that slid below his waist and hung
on to his hips. And he was tall. Very, very tall.
She smiled a smile that didn't really belong to her. "I'm guessing
As soon as he sat down next to her she felt that dangerous, wonderful
heat rising up through her legs.
And in less than an hour she was perched on the edge of the sink
in one of Sip's two unisex bathrooms with Robert's head lost under
the folds of her lavender sundress. She let her head fall back
and knocked over the bottle of lemon verbena hand soap. She felt
high, drunk, ecstatic.
He lifted her off the sink and pressed her up against the faux
Tuscan finish of the bathroom wall, holding her there with the
weight of his hips and chest. Robert unzipped his khakis.
She tore open the foil package she'd smuggled into the bathroom
with her. She was reckless, not stupid. She knelt down on the terracotta
tiles, smiled up at Robert and rolled it onto him using only her
lips. Isabel was proud of what she'd learned in the past few months.
And Robert seemed very appreciative. He pulled her to her feet,
slid his hands up her thighs and lifting her up, wrapped her legs
around his waist. He breathed heat into her ear. Her head was spinning.
Someone knocked on the door.
"It's.occupied," Isabel called as Robert tilted her hips toward
him. Then she gasped and sank her teeth into her bottom lip to
keep from screaming.
After all, she was a regular here. She had to maintain some degree
Jordan waited impatiently for the nurse to get off the phone. "I
don't really have a lot of time," he said while she was still talking.
She gave him the hand. Jordan didn't like getting the hand.
When she got off the phone she talked him through the procedure
in a bored monotone--a telemarketer reading from an index card.
"It's important that we get a clean sample so be sure to ejaculate
"Yes ma'am. I think I've got it," he said. "I've been doing this
since I was twelve." The nurse narrowed her eyes at him and handed
him a plastic cup with a snap-on lid.
She probably had to give the same speech a hundred times a day,
but Jesus Christ, she could at least pretend to be sympathetic.
He walked down the hall watching his cognac-colored oxfords cross
the expensive Burberry carpeting. He made a right then a left down
the hallway of the office. The place was a rabbit warren. He passed
a nursing station where an attractive Asian nurse wearing latex
gloves sat on a stool labeling test tubes.
"Uh.excuse me," Jordan cleared his throat to get her attention.
She looked up at him and his empty plastic cup.
"Sample procurement rooms?" she asked smiling.
Now there's a euphemism.
She gave him directions to the jerk-off rooms. They were next
to the employee kitchen.
Jordan headed off down the hall imagining his semen sitting on
the refrigerator shelf next to a container of Light 'n Lively nonfat
Of the four rooms, only one showed the green vacant sign.
Jordan couldn't believe he and Isabel were putting themselves
at the mercy of this doctor and his freakish baby factory. He wondered
how the hell these people could be sure they were knocking up the
right woman with the right sperm.
He slid the lock into place engaging the occupied sign. He took
a look around and laughed at the good doctor's failed attempt at
making the tiny, windowless room mood-enhancing. The décor--
mauve walls, leopard print loveseat, black velvet pillows and shedding
ficus tree-looked a lot like his great aunt Beverly's place in
Palm Beach except that the couch cushions were vinyl and came with
a box of anti-bacterial wipes so that "clients" could clean up
after themselves should any spillage occur.
Jordan pulled a mini-bar bottle of scotch out of the breast pocket
of his sports jacket and took a healthy swig. He loosened his tie
and began to look through Dr. Rosenfeld's video library. He chose
the one about the sorority girls, slipped it into the VCR, unzipped
his khakis and got down to business.
"So Doc, what's the verdict?" Jordan asked Dr. Rosenfeld. "Which
one of us it?" He was sitting on his chair in front of Rosenfeld's
desk, nervously drumming the wooden seat with his hands.
Isabel shot him an angry look.
"It's not a competition, Jordan," Isabel said. Her lips were tight.
"You know that's not what I meant, sweetie," Jordan said. "I just
Isabel was teary now--. "Well that's how it sounded."
Jordan put his hand on her knee.
Dr. Rosenfeld cleared his throat. "Isabel's estrogen levels are
a little high-"
"So then that's the problem?" Jordan said.
A nurse interrupted on the intercom.
"Doctor, excuse me, Mrs. Sterne says she wants to schedule the
IVF after all." Doctor Rosenfeld pinched the creased skin over
Isabel took Jordan's hand off her knee.
"Go ahead and schedule it, but I want them to come in first," Rosenfeld
said into the intercom.
"Jesus, Is," he said, "would you stop being so sensitive. All
I'm saying is that doesn't sound so bad. Now that we know what
it is we can figure out how to fix it."
"Well, that's not actually the problem," Rosenfeld said. He licked
his top lip with the tip of his tongue and tapped his pen on their
"It's your sperm."
"Your sperm is preventing Isabel from getting pregnant," Rosenfeld
Isabel didn't know why and she certainly didn't mean to, but started
to smile. She had to look at the floor.
"Stop it. Stop it now," she told herself. I must be generous and
kind, she thought, digging her nails into her arm. But it didn't
help. She tried desperately to suppress a giggle. She wanted to
feel sympathy for Jordan, but instead she just felt vindicated.
After months of trying, everyone had just assumed she must
be barren, must have ovaries like raisins, must be dropping rotten
eggs. She couldn't wait to see her mother-in-law's face.
Rosenfeld was talking about low motility.
"What the fuck does that mean?" asked Jordan. A blue green vein
in his neck began to pulse.
Isabel took his hand. "It means, sweetie, your sperm have lead
They said nothing for most of the cab ride back to the apartment.
Isabel took his hand again. Because she did love him sometimes.
Because she wanted to love him more.
Eight years, two months and three weeks before their appointment
with Dr. Rosenfeld, Jordan and Isabel had met at a wedding in California.
Weddings, Isabel thought, as she stared at her husband- who wanted
nothing more than a happy, conventional upper-middle class life
with her-are a terrible place to meet. All that false hope, manufactured
romance, unlimited shrimp cocktail. Meet at a funeral and you know
the relationship has a fighting chance.
Isabel was twenty-five then and had spent the last six years in
and out of a long distance relationship with a lanky, pale blue-eyed
Brit whom she'd met during her year abroad in college. His three
great loves were books and beer and Isabel. So it came as a great
shock when he called from Paris, cancelled their vacation to the
Lake District and broke the news about Celine.
Jordan was standing next to the shrimp cocktail at the right time.
He was taken with Isabel immediately. She was petite and elegant
and there was something about her not quite of this century. He
casually worked his way over to her, his head bobbing arhythmically
to the wedding band's raucous rendition of "Celebrate."
"So," he yelled over the music, "Which side, bride or groom?"
When Jordan found out they were both from New York he decided
it was serendipity. Isabel decided it was a timely coincidence-a
convenient distraction from her painful breakup. Jordan made everything
easy, so easy. He took charge of things, took care of things, took
care of her. When she had a problem, he fixed it. In the beginning
she needed that. Then she got used to it.
Isabel wasn't attracted to Jordan immediately. He was short, a
little simian and had dark, bushy eyebrows like Balto, the famous
husky who saved a bunch of children stricken with diphtheria by
carrying medicine six hundred miles through a blinding Arctic storm.
But she slept with him anyway. It was pleasant enough. And he
had so many other good qualities. He was extremely loyal. Like
a pit bull.
And when the lease ran out on her tiny Jane Street studio and
her landlord doubled the rent, Jordan said she was being silly
when she went looking for a new place.
He took her out to a nice restaurant for dinner and presented
her with a list of convincing arguments and a set of keys to his
"You're moving in with me," he insisted. "We're going to do it
sooner or later anyway. We might as well do it sooner."
The rest just sort of happened.
"Should we cancel?" Isabel asked. She kicked off her shoes, lay
down on the sofa and sifted through the mail.
"We can't cancel," Jordan barked at her. "They'll know something's
wrong." He was banging around in the kitchen.
"Where's the friggin' roasting pan?"
"They already know something's wrong." Isabel said. "Your mother
blames me every time we see them."
"You're being paranoid," Jordan said. "Could I get a little help
here or are you just going to sit this one out?"
"Just a second," she said, "I have to pee." The second bedroom
was going to be the nursery. Now the tiny room was occupied by
jam-packed bookshelves. Piles of back issues of The New Yorker
and Vanity Fair were stacked around the perimeter of the room.
It was all Isabel's. Someday she'd get to it. In the meantime,
she couldn't stand to throw any of it away. Instead, the piles
just kept getting higher.
It drove Jordan crazy. He couldn't stand clutter. Or mess. A classic
Virgo. But it meant that Isabel never had to do the dishes or the
laundry, or take out the trash. Because by the time she decided
it needed doing, Jordan had long since done it.
They'd made a deal about "her room." She would keep the door closed
at all times so that he would not have to look at the mess--which
caused him physical distress-- and she would maintain the rest
of the apartment according to his standards. Obviously when the
baby came things would have to be renegotiated.
Isabel got that familiar flutter of anticipation and anxiety while
she waited for her computer to boot-up. She wouldn't have time
to check all her screen name accounts, but she was really just
interested in e-mails from James, Tyler, Dennis and Robert, the
men she'd been seeing most recently and regularly.
She opened the e-mail from Dennis first. He was the wildest, the
most out there. She had spent over a thousand dollars on toys and
latex outfits for their rendezvous. At one specialty shop downtown,
the manager had asked her if she was a "pro dom." Isabel had been
confused. "Professional dominatrix," the woman had said and laughed
at her cluelessness.
But Dennis made her feel safe too. He was a partner at a prominent
law firm. Married, kids in private school, president of his co-op
board. He'd been wanting her to experiment with another couple,
but she'd been hesitant.
"Isabel!" Jordan yelled from the kitchen, "they're going to be
here in half an hour!"
Isabel put her computer on sleep.
"I'm coming," she called. "Did I tell you I stopped at Columbus
Avenue Bakery and got a Lemon Curd tart?"
Jordan and Isabel had his parents-Marilyn, an east side party
planner famous for her tablescapes and Stanley, a renowned dermatologist-over
regularly. Jordan's mother expected it. Children should welcome
their parents into their homes. An effort should be made.
Marilyn was what a certain segment of New Yorkers called a piece
of work. Or a ball-breaker. Or, if you were Jordan's shrink, a
borderline personality with extreme narcissistic tendencies, whose
insistence on both constant admiration and iron-fisted control
had left Jordan, at the age of thirty-nine, with a spastic colon
and a severe case of maternal Stockholm syndrome.
"So," Marilyn said, sawing at her roast chicken, "what's happening
with the fertility? If this doctor is such a genius why can't he
get Isabel pregnant?" Marilyn held her wine glass out and Jordan
refilled it. Isabel glared at Jordan.
"Mom it's not that he can't-"
"We're just concerned, Jordan," Stanley said.
Marilyn stabbed the air with her fork, pointed at Isabel and began
her purely observational analysis of this generation of women,
their screwed-up priorities, and poor time management skills.
"All of you girls, all of you, waiting until you're nearly forty.
And now you're all lying in some doctor's office with turkey basters
"All right Marilyn," Stanley said. "I think we all get your point."
"I'm just saying--" Marilyn kept going. "I had four children before
I was thirty-five and I still had a successful career."
Isabel stared down at the untouched food on her plate. If she
looked at it long enough without blinking it started to move on
"Of course Isabel doesn't have a job, so that's not her problem," Marilyn
"I do have a job," Isabel said. "I just don't go to an office."
"Oh yes, I forgot," Marilyn snorted, "your book. You're a writer."
"Lay off, mom," Jordan said.
Isabel pushed her chair back and got up from the table. "Would
you all excuse me for a minute," Isabel said. "Jordan, you can
tell your parents about your low motility while I'm gone."
"You have low motility?" Isabel heard Stanley ask as she walked
down the hall.
"What the hell is that?" Marilyn asked
"It means there's a problem with his sperm," Stanley said.
"That's ridiculous," Marilyn said, "there's nothing wrong with
Isabel opened an e-mail from Robert and felt a warm ache as she
read his graphic description of their last encounter at Sip and
what he would like to do to her when they met next. She moaned
softly when she finished reading.
"You okay, Is?" Jordan called from the other room.
"Yeah.I just-I'll be out in a minute," she yelled back. She couldn't
possibly go back out there now-not like this.
She went into the bathroom, locked the door, and took her time.
It was quiet when Isabel came out. There were no voices coming
from the dining room. No conversation. She walked down the hall
past her room. The door was open. Marilyn was scrolling through
her e-mails. Jordan lay huddled on the floor crying quietly, his
head in Stanley's lap.
The divorce settlement should have been easy. No kids. No complicated
assets. But it wasn't. Jordan insisted on a gag order. He didn't
want Isabel writting about any of it -not about him or their marriage,
or her manic freefall, not even about herself. Not in any form--fiction,
non-fiction, crossword puzzle or limerick. For the rest of her
Marilyn refused to have Jordan publicly humiliated. Isabel refused
to sign away her right to be part of her own dysfunctional family
story. And until such time as litigation is completed and/or a
settlement is reached, the judge declared by order of the court,
Isabel is enjoined from writing a single word.
But he never said anything about me.