There's never enough work for Amy, but Professor Schapiro says it's not important that she do something, but that she be. He's paying her cash. Amy is helping Professor Schapiro with footnotes for a book called, right now, The Scandal of Hansel and Gretel: Incest and Other Mischief. All the research is done in his house. His office is in his bedroom. Professor Schapiro asks, a lot of the time, does Amy hear the internal slant rhyme in "Hansel" and "scandal"? He barely moves when he asks her, as if the fate of the entire book depends on her hearing the rhyme. He's growing a beard, and it's now at the point where it sticks out from the sides of his face like the hands of people shouting, Surprise! Only the beard quivers while he waits for her answer.
He was Amy's undergrad thesis adviser for her dead-in-the-water English major. Amy was interested in Virginia Woolf, but Professor Schapiro had looked almost stricken at the suggestion. So she'd written about "The Frog Prince," which he'd liked. Amy's favorite part of the story was when the princess threw the frog against the wall instead of fucking him. Professor Schapiro likes Amy for no reason she can see. It's as if he'd glanced up and seen her at exactly the moment he was looking for someone, anyone. He hadn't been a popular professor; being in his class had been like trying to catch a train. Sometimes you got there just in time, and other times you missed it and ending up just waiting and waiting, balancing on the precipice of giving up. And he was a harsh grader, scrawling illegible, unintelligible shorthand all over a paper. Didn't I teach this? he'd plaintively ask the class. Didn't we go over this? But he'd offered to be her advisor, awarded her an uncalled-for A. And he'd given her this gig, paying her too much, explaining she was his first choice.
Doing nothing is more difficult than it would seem, though, and so Amy creates tasks for herself. She gets coffee. Usually, Mrs. Schapiro, who also works from home, ignores her, but today when Amy says, mild as cottage cheese, "Professor Schapiro asked for a coffee, do you want one?" Mrs. Schapiro's eyes get very bright and she smiles. Her canines are especially sharp, and all the teeth are stained.
"What do you do when you're with my husband?" she says. "With him," she says, winking extravagantly.
"Mostly nothing," Amy says. Because, aside from its being true, isn't this what Mrs. Schapiro has been hoping to hear?
But Mrs. Schapiro frowns. She and Professor Schapiro have an open marriage, she explains. Picture, Mrs. Schapiro says, a mouth at the dentist. And now Mrs. Schapiro demonstrates with her own mouth, opening wide enough for Amy to see the silver inside her molars: ahhhh.
"I, for instance," Mrs. Schapiro continues, "am on the table four days a week with my acupuncturist. With him." And here again is the wink.
"I wonder if you'd like to see my office," says Mrs. Schapiro,. and begins walking away. She walks quickly, but not so quickly as to suggest she doesn't mean for Amy to follow her, which Amy does.
Unlike Professor Schapiro, Mrs. Schapiro has an actual office with a large, antique desk and a window.
"A room of one's own," Amy says, a little delighted with herself for the reference.
But Mrs. Schapiro just looks at her. "My office," she says, very slowly, as though it has occurred to her that Amy might not be fluent in English after all.
Mrs. Schapiro, it turns out, is much more interested in her own writing than in anyone else's. She writes books for, not about children. Mrs. Schapiro is hard at work on a children's book that will, if all goes to plan, become a wildly successful series. The book is about a little girl named Frances. Frances is a puff of yellow for hair on a body made of sticks with a triangle that's a skirt. When she runs, she's all elbows and dust, and the freckles on her nose are actually stars. Once the series launches, each book will begin the same way: "Frances loves living in France. Frances does not have any parents. Her parents are dead as doornails."
The books will help children grapple with their desire to kill their parents, Mrs. Schapiro explains. All children want to kill their parents. "Surely you'd agree?" Mrs. Schapiro asks.
"I guess," says Amy.
"You shouldn't be doing 'mostly nothing' with my husband," Mrs. Schapiro says, and Amy is a little flattered that Mrs. Schapiro has remembered and filed away her comment, even if it was only from a few minutes ago.
Mrs. Schapiro frowns deeply, or seems to. There aren't any lines. "Poor Amy."
Amy does sometimes think of herself as poor. Her sadness is like a lapdog, begging to be held, carried close to the heart. The sadness (on insurance forms, it's depression) gets in the way, her therapist says, of the work Amy must do on herself. As though Amy is a roof with gutters in need of repair. Part of the work is to set long-term goals, engage more fully in life. Live a little. Her therapist isn't entirely sure of this job—it seems more like treading water, running in place—but her father is pleased. He thinks Amy's here gaining experience and connections for graduate school. Who wouldn't want to go to graduate school? he says, and it's not a question.
"We have to fix this," Mrs. Schapiro says. "Every person deserves a life of adventure."
She tells Amy she would like to enlist her in a project. The trouble, Mrs. Schapiro says, is simple. She needs a child. If she's going to write children's books, but she doesn't have a child, some people might think it doesn't look right. She, a woman without a child, might be frightening, and that might affect her book sales.
"It was different before the Internet became such a thing," says Mrs. Schapiro. "Now everyone's Googling."
She shakes her head like there's water in her ears. "It isn't enough to be infertile these days! Now everyone says, Well, have you thought of this? And, Is this something you've tried? Chinese little girls are harder to get these days. You need those African babies with flies around their heads."
Mrs. Schapiro spreads her arms, splays her painted-red talons. Along with the fake nails, she also has hair dyed raven-black, a perfect fairytale villainess. "It's all over the Internet!"
And now she lowers her voice to a hoarse whisper even though no one else is there. "Surrogacy is an option."
Amy understands how bad the idea is, but she'd like to see it gather into itself, watch it hideously bloom. "You want me to carry your baby?"
"We can compensate you," Mrs. Schapiro says, smooth as a stockbroker.
She smiles like someone's behind her, yanking up the strings. "Isn't this material you could use for a college admission essay?"
"I went to college," Amy says.
"If you insist," says Mrs. Schapiro, and winks one final, valedictory time.
Dr. Altman, Amy's therapist, has a picture of a frowning Freud on her wall just above the desk she sits behind. There's a tiny rock garden on her desk, and a tiny rake. And, of course, a notepad and a beautiful, heavy-looking pen that must have been a gift. Across from the desk is a leather couch with removable cushions, where Amy sits. There's an option to lie down, but Amy sits. Next to the chair is a side table just large enough to hold a box of tissues. Amy has never used a tissue. Not even when she's had a cold.
Dr. Altman thinks the surrogacy idea is terrible, Amy can tell, but Dr. Altman won't say it. She just squints at Amy. She tells Amy to tell her more. If Dr. Altman liked what she was saying, she wouldn't be squinting. She would be nodding. She would be making eye contact with Amy, but all the while writing quickly, quickly with that beautiful pen. Lately, there's been a lot of squinting.
"I think it could give me some direction," Amy says. "Direction" is a word Dr. Altman likes. It makes Amy think of tourists and maps.
"I might get to have a baby shower," Amy says. "Would you give your daughter a shower if she was a surrogate?"
"I guess it would look weird to the guests. Like, 'I got a gift, now where's the baby?' Right?"
Dr. Altman asks Amy if she'd like to talk about the attempt.
Amy would rather not. "I didn't mean it," she says. "I would have gotten the job done if I really meant it."
Now Dr. Altman nods. Now she's paying attention. This is the conversation she wants to be having. Amy may even get her to smile.
"It's the dance you enjoy," says Dr. Altman.
And this is an image Amy can get behind: her and death in a ballroom, doing the foxtrot. Cha-cha-cha.
Amy had actually a little bit liked her time at the mental hospital, even if you weren't supposed to say that. The best part had been the smoke breaks. She didn't smoke, but the excitement was contagious; before the mental hospital, Amy hadn't realized how much people liked to smoke. And it was nice to get outside six times a day, to have something so basic become elevated to a reward. Second best was Kim, who was forever scheduled for ECT, always on the verge of being tied to a table and convulsed, a block of rubber keeping her from choking on her own tongue. For nearly a week, Kim had subverted it. The procedure—that delicate, clinical term—had to be performed on an empty stomach, but each morning, for something like five mornings running, Kim had darted behind the nurses' station and guzzled coffee before they could get to her. No one, she'd said, understood about a coffee addiction. Next to Kim, everyone—Amy included—was sane.
"A baby is pretty much the opposite of death," Amy points out now. "I think it's the right thing."
Dr. Altman writes something down. "This isn't literature we're discussing," she says.
"So no symbols or themes?" Amy asks. Freud is, after all, presiding above them.
And then Dr. Altman does laugh, just a little, eyebrows raised. They're, the two of them, in on something together. They've disappointed Freud.
But Dr. Altman's recovery is swift. Her smile goes back to wherever it is it usually stays.
"Why don't you tell me a little bit more about your work with Professor Schapiro?"
"On The Scandal of Hansel and Gretel: Incest and other Mischief?"
Dr. Altman writes something down. "You find the title provocative."
"It's the title," she says. "It's his title."
Sex is a problem for Amy, Dr. Altman has observed in the past. Not, of course, because of incest—though wouldn't that provide a tidy explanation?
"Professor Schapiro's thesis is a little out there. He thinks Hansel and Gretel were kicked out of their house because they were fucking. 'Up to mischief', Professor Schapiro writes. The witch is society, and she tried to stop them so they had to kill her. They cooked her and then ate her. Out, Professor Schapiro argues. They took turns eating her out."
Amy isn't supposed to look at the clock on Dr. Altman's desk. She's meant to be in the moment. As if there's any other place for her to be.
"You're looking at the clock," Dr. Altman says.
There are twenty minutes left of the forty-five-minute hour. There's a story Dr. Altman is especially approves of, so Amy trots it out like a young show horse. It's the story of Amy's mother's cancer. Breast. This part of the story always makes Amy feel like she's at a deli counter: And make that butterflied, please!
"You want to be a mother," Dr. Altman says. Here she is again with the pen, gathering speed. "A mother who abandons her child."
"My mother didn't abandon me," Amy says. "It wasn't like she up and packed a suitcase."
Dr. Altman's heel momentarily peeks out of a sensible pump before slipping back in place. "Symbolically," she allows.
Above her, Freud all but smiles, Mona Lisa-style
Professor Schapiro tells Amy to just take her time and think about it. "Time is money," he tells her. But when Amy says, "That's exactly why I have to decide now," he looks confused. "All these years, and I thought that saying meant something else." Sayings are more like sighs for Professor Schapiro; he doesn't think of them as having any meaning. He'll say, It's just water over the bridge; I guess that's killing one bird with two stones; A hand in the bird is worth two in the bush.
But her session with Dr. Altman has solidified it. "I'd do it," she says.
"But will you?"
He isn't being facetious, she sees. He knows the difference between hypothetical and actual. It makes sense. So little of his life seems to live in the actual. His house is overrun with imaginary children.
She tells him she will. Because here it is at last, shy as an estranged friend, waving a tentative hello: life.
The egg (not just yet too old) will come from Mrs. Schapiro, whose uterus, it turns out, is an inhospitable disaster. Professor Schapiro will supply the sperm. Mrs. Schapiro has suggested Professor Schapiro might be most comfortable—and successful—if he uses pictures of Amy while he jacks off into his cup. Porn, Mrs. Schapiro believes, is too tacky, too pedestrian, for Professor Schapiro's purposes. If Amy wants the money, Mrs. Schapiro explains, she must be willing to be helpful. Mrs. Schapiro has purchased a professional camera for the occasion. The camera was expensive, she allows, but money can buy some things. She, Mrs. Schapiro, will be taking the pictures. She stands so close to Amy it seems as if their teeth may bump if Amy opens her mouth to breathe. Mrs. Schapiro takes Amy's cheeks in her hands. It feels almost like love, its distant, twice-removed cousin.
"There are plenty of other spry uteruses if you disagree with our terms."
Professor Schapiro chuckles, but Amy can't see his smile. His mouth has been almost entirely displaced by the beard. "Plenty of sea in the fish," he says.
Amy agrees to both the existence of plenty of others and the terms.
But later, when they are alone in Professor Schapiro's office with only Hansel and Gretel to bear witness, he tells her he's sorry. He didn't mean it. She's the entire sea.
The photo shoot takes place in Mrs. Schapiro's office. Amy is to strip to entirely naked. There can't be anything, Mrs. Schapiro instructs. Not even jewelry. Not even a ponytail holder. If there's a Band-Aid or anything else, that also must be removed. As must any makeup or nail polish.
Mrs. Schapiro at first mistakes the red worm of scar across Amy's wrist for a bracelet, but once she examines it more closely, holding Amy's wrist, running a finger efficiently up and down the scar, she sees it's something that can't be removed and tells Amy she's ready. She may begin.
Amy has stood fully naked in front of someone only once before, though not, of course, as naked as this—that time, she kept on a watch, earrings, nail-polish on her toes. The someone was a guy she'd met on a blind date. He'd taken her out for drinks, and during the drinks, she'd said sure, she'd be up to hanging out again, and he'd smiled and said, Really? and she realized, with that Really?, that she'd never be able to bring herself to see him again. So when he asked her if she wanted to get dessert, she'd said yes. He took her to a cupcake shop, but he didn't order a cupcake; he told her she really needed to try the banana pudding, and she'd said, Sure. The pudding came in a plastic cup with two spoons. He dipped his spoon deep into the pudding, brought the yellow, gelatinous blob to his mouth, moaned. He smiled at her with pudding on his lips. He invited her, after, to his office. It was night, and his office was closed, but he had a key. Did she want to come see his office?
He brought her inside, past the security guards. His office was on the twentieth floor, and the view was magnificent, she told him. It was magnificent. He smiled and kissed her. He seemed like someone who'd be happy just kissing. He was happy to have found her, he said. She asked him if he had a condom, and he whispered, shy and grateful as a groom, I do. She took off her clothing. She let him do the bra, but she took care of everything else. She stood naked in front of the magnificent view. He laughed, a little.
She said, Wouldn't it be kinky if we did it on the desk?
She lay on the desk. Then she lay on the floor. He said, Are you OK? Was that good? And after, he said, Can I walk you home? And he called her the next day and left a message saying how much fun he'd had, and then a few days later he left her another message asking if she was OK, if he'd done something wrong. He asked her, Could they at least talk?
But she was home laughing at him. She was in session with Dr. Altman, saying, God, it was like he was jerking off into that pudding. She was asking, Where are all the normal guys?
This time, with the Schapiros, it's much easier. They're paying her. Everyone is onboard with this being a one-time-only event. She won't even have to touch anyone. And, if all goes to plan, she'll be helping Professor Schapiro do his part to make a life.
Mrs. Schapiro tells Amy to sit at her, Mrs. Schapiro's, desk. The desk chair is lined in piling polyester.
"Should we put down a paper towel or something?" Amy asks.
Mrs. Schapiro looks a little lost. "Of course not," she says. Is there something Amy's not understanding? she wants to know.
Amy tells her, no, sorry, yes; she gets it.
"Sit at the desk and type on the computer. Type very, very quickly. You should be typing so quickly your breasts move up and down." Mrs. Schapiro reaches over and takes Amy's breasts in her own hands. She lifts them and lets them drop. Lifts and drops. "You see?" She's surprisingly gentle.
"Yes," Amy says.
Mrs. Schapiro places a piece of paper in front of her. She is to type, word-for-word, what is hand-written on the page. "Once I include the illustrations, this'll be the book," Mrs. Schapiro says. "Typing is a big help." As if Amy is not naked, but fully, professionally, clothed, and a secretary.
Frances is a star. Her French boarding school is putting on a production of Oliver! Frances is perfect for the main part, as an orphan herself. To become Oliver, she must undergo a transformation. Frances does not mind. She does not mind becoming a boy, if she must. Frances always does what she must. She pulls her hair into a ponytail and lets her drama teacher, the beautiful Madame S., cut it off. The ponytail dances away on streaming legs made of ribbon.
While Amy types, Mrs. Schapiro takes pictures. The flash makes it a little hard to focus, but Amy finds she's enjoying herself. She sits very, very straight. She holds her hands above the keyboard, and each time she types a letter, she makes the movement come from her shoulders, her back, her pelvis, her knees. She feels like a virtuoso pianist selling out a concert hall. (And, yes, Amy knows Dr. Altman would interject here to point out that Amy's mother was a pianist before she was a dead mother.) But Amy can almost hear the rainstorm of applause, and this isn't about her mother. Not everything is about her mother.
Frances must miss classes when she practices for the play. She misses her classes with Mr. PeeWee, who wears a bowtie to class but forgets to tie his shoes. Mr. PeeWee is sad when Frances misses his class because Frances is very smart. Frances always knows the answer. Sometimes, Frances knows more than Mr. PeeWee knows. Poor Mr. PeeWee. He cries into his beard. Small mice live in there, and they scurry about, trying to avoid the flood.
Mrs. Schapiro puts a hand on Amy's arm, right next to the scar. "Just a little more," she says. "We're almost finished. Just a few more pictures to help Professor Schapiro."
Amy types for hours, of Frances who is a smashing success, of Mr. PeeWee who can't do anything right, of the beautiful Madame S., who is always right, who knows exactly how Frances must behave. Amy types until her fingers ache, until her vagina, against the friction of polyester, burns.
The implantation is a success. "I've put a baby in a womb of its own!" Amy announces to Dr. Altman. It's a joke she's been sitting on. Plus: How's this for a reference Dr. Altman will feel misses the point, will make her tell Amy, again, that life is not literature?
Dr. Altman's dismay is so obvious it's obscene. All her usual tics and rituals are gone. Her notepad sits forlorn on her lap; her eyes, it seems, have forgotten how to squint. Her face softens into a real person's face. She might be anyone, someone Amy could meet at a party, pass on the street, sit next to at a movie. There's something wonderful about seeing Dr. Altman so stripped of her armor, or her tools, as she would say were she being herself.
"Does your father know about this?" she asks.
Amy shrugs. "He asked about bulimia."
"He'll find out sometime," Dr. Altman says. "I think we should call him in. I think we should have a family session."
Family sessions were all the rage in the mental hospital. Family sessions involving only a father and a daughter, though, always felt a little pitiful; there wound up being too many chairs in the room, like a party with an unrealistic guest list. The therapy room had glass walls, and the only noteworthy one of Amy and her father's sad-sack family sessions was the one when a post-ETC-zapped Kim—they'd finally gotten her—floating greasily down the hallway, had stopped to press her lips to the glass like a mournful blowfish. Amy's father had looked at her, panicked. "You don't really need to be here, do you?"
"I don't know that he'd be up for a family session," Amy says now. "People who are adults get pregnant. It happens."
"You don't want to be doing this," Dr. Altman says. It seems almost as though, if Freud weren't watching, Dr. Altman would get up from her desk and shake her.
There's something to incubating life. It makes Amy feel as fragile and powerful as she did right after the attempt, when nurses surrounded her and a doctor stitched her skin together like it was only cloth come undone. But how awful that it has to be for Mrs. Schapiro, who will never love the baby. And for Professor Schapiro, who's only interested in imaginary children who are interested in each other.
"It's done," Amy says. "You can tell me congratulations now."
She stands and swoons.
Dr. Altman is very quiet and calm, telling her to just lie down now, that's fine, very good, there she goes. She can put her feet up just like that. Dr. Altman puts a hand on Amy's forehead, on her cheek. She gives her a child's juice box that comes with a little straw taped to the side. She puts the straw in for Amy, though Amy can do it herself, of course, she's totally fine, that was nothing, she's so embarrassed.
"Why do you have a juice box?" Amy asks her, once she is up and sipping.
It must be, she imagines, for Dr. Altman's grandchild, the child of her daughter, whose existence and wedding Amy learned of a few years ago, when it was announced in the Times. This grandchild must be visiting. The juice, which Amy has now finished, must have been packed away for this child, for later.
Dr. Altman doesn't answer, but she does sit down beside Amy, even though the clock shows they're out of time. Amy waits for Dr. Altman to say something, stand up, return to herself. When Dr. Altman stands up, Amy will be able to breathe. When Dr. Altman stands up, Amy will too, and she'll run out of the office and into the outside air, and breathe. But for now, Dr. Altman doesn't stand up. For now, she sits with Amy and they abide together, Dr. Altman, Amy and this newly-forming creature whose heartbeat she has not yet heard.