A few days after a needle aspirated nine eggs from my ovaries, before said eggs had been fertilized and jammed back into my womb to complete the IVF Circle of Life, I invited Amy and Crystal over. Crystal had baby number two on the way, which meant that she merely sipped as Amy and I guzzled Chardonnay—in flagrant disregard of my doctor’s pre-implantation instructions—in my cozy backyard. With the hum of the 405 Freeway accompanying the din of Venice Beach as our soundtrack, and a glass and a half of wine in me, I called for an emergency Tarot card reading. Crystal, a Tarot practitioner who carried her deck of cards the way I carried my Bloomberg login token, was happy to oblige. She spread the cards out on the picnic table Daddy had made for me out of California redwood and directed me to choose ten cards.
The most important card in the Celtic Cross Tarot method was the tenth and final one, the card in the “outcome” position. Everything else was just therapy, a reading of the past that led up to the one theoretically predictive card. (It took a lot for me to include the qualifier “theoretically.” I really believed in the cards.) Although I’d had my share of Tarot readings, I had only passing familiarity with the individual cards. But even a Tarot novice couldn’t miss the import of the last card Crystal flipped: a voluptuous woman with flowing hair. The Empress. Immediately I zeroed in on this card—and the fact that the Empress was upside down.
“Crystal! Isn’t this bad? Doesn’t this mean…” An unforgiveable breach of Tarot protocol: one does not read ahead. Crystal and Amy shushed me in tandem. “Let her read the whole chart, Susan,” Amy chided. Nine steps lay between me and my destiny. The Empress’s wavy tresses beckoned as Crystal’s turquoise eyes, behind funky glasses, widened and narrowed, surveying the cards’ array without regard for my current situation, gazing through the lens of the deck to home in on meaning, pattern, outcome.
Crystal had a great poker face, perfected over five years of readings, and I knew better than to analyze her expressions as she slid her eyes along the cross. Great readings cannot be rushed. Great outcomes cannot be coaxed. Great interpreters cannot be coached.
“So, this first card is your current condition. The Ace of Cups—this is a great card in this position—means your cup overfloweth, in every sense. You live a life of abundance. You are blessed.” I thought of the mound of eggs my thirty-nine-year-old ovaries had produced, waiting for their chance to become life, and my bank account, which afforded me drugs and a meticulously screened baby daddy. I nestled into this bounty.
“Now this next one—Temperance—is in your obstacle position.” I glanced guiltily at the tumbler of wine in my grip and shoved it away. We all dissolved in laughter. “No, no, it doesn’t actually mean temperance—although that might be part of it—it means you need to be gentle to your body. And you should allow your body to do what it needs to do to get pregnant. Think of tempering a piece of metal—bending your body into a form that lets it make a baby.”
Amy volunteered: “I think that means no more exercise, Susan. And probably a little more wine.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I declared, and we clinked glasses. Crystal permitted herself a slightly larger sip in solidarity.
“The next card is what you want—and I’m not really sure what to make of this one—the best-case scenario for you. It’s the Knight of Wands—but it’s upside down.” Crystal paused, consulted her tattered Tarot book, chewed her bottom lip. “I don’t get this card often, and never upside down. When it’s right-side up it’s a card about risk-taking—and the Knight is a feisty guy—he’s bold and brash and takes risks that maybe he shouldn’t. So if he’s upside down—I guess you could say the best-case scenario for you, based on this card, is NOT to take a big risk. Or at least, that’s what you want. Or think you want.” The three of us let this sit for a bit, searching for a meaning that would jibe with my fertility journey in the way we wanted.
Amy, thoughtfully: “Well, even if having a sperm-donor baby is a risk—maybe in some ways it’s not as big a risk as having a baby with someone you know—remember, you were going to ask your friend Mark…” She trailed off.
Crystal finished Amy’s thought: “So you have banished this Knight, told him to go fuck himself, or someone other than you.” We regained our lightheartedness, took the requisite swig of wine, and moved on to position #4: the cause of my present situation.
“Ahhh, the Queen of Swords. Not much of a shocker to see this come up in your chart, Susan. She represents a single woman—a nonconformist—independent, smart, basically she is YOU.” Crystal paused, frowning. “I have to say, I don’t love this. The way I read it, it’s saying that who you are—the Queen of Swords—is why your life is where it is right now.”
Amy to the rescue: “But that makes perfect sense, Crystal! Susan can’t find a man who can deal with her strength and independence—so she winds up having a baby on her own.”
Crystal nodded quickly, endorsing Amy’s reading, but she still seemed troubled, and rubbed her bulging belly to soothe her doubt. I mulled this over. What if I was not meant to have a child on my own? With a flash of empathy for my unborn child, I wondered if bringing him or her into the world with only one parent—and a workaholic parent at that—was morally defensible. We moved on.
“This is your immediate past. Another card that I’m not surprised to see come up in your chart—the World. It shows that you’re coming from a good place, a place of self-knowledge and wisdom, that you’ve just lived through a particularly introspective and thoughtful era.”
“Yeah—that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year—thinking through having a baby on my own.”
“It’s a good card to have here—means that you’ve given the baby thing a lot of thought—that you’re in the right place, that your soul is ready for this.”
But is my baby’s soul? I wondered, still hung up on the prior card.
“This next one is your immediate future—literally like the next week.” My embryo implantation wasn’t for a few weeks, so I downplayed the import of Crystal’s next proclamation. “This is a very powerful, and potentially dangerous—potentially wonderful—card to have in this position—the Wheel of Fortune. Not hard to explain the concept. You’re about to be in a situation which is a roll of the dice—could be good, could be bad—but it represents change.” Crystal paused, puzzled. “What are you doing for the next few days?”
“Going to Phoenix for a conference, then to a wedding in North Carolina, with Anne.” I would be wearing estrogen patches for this trip, which I’d slotted in between my egg extraction and implantation. “I don’t put my eggs back in for a few weeks. Could this card be about that?”
“Mmmmm—maybe. But it’s usually like a week out, max. Whose wedding, anyway? North Carolina?”
“This girl Anne and I met on a bike trip in Ireland.” My friend Anne and I had traveled extensively together. Facilitator of flings, chief cheerleader and coach, Susan’s biggest fan, Anne had witnessed me at my best (screwing our Kilimanjaro guide) and worst (shitting myself blind in a rice paddy in Vietnam). “It’s more of a chance for me and Anne to take a trip together than anything else. And we really like the bride’s mom. She was on the bike trip too—along with the brother.”
A sudden flash of intuition hit me. Bride-to-be Jenna’s brother Ken and I had bonded on the Ireland trip—up to a point. He was much younger than me, but we had undeniable chemistry, staying up late to down pints, a fun flirtation…right up until he told me he was gay. I had stumbled up to bed after this information transfer, disappointed by the scotching of my vacation fling. As I banged around in our tiny, shared room, Anne’s head popped up.
“Were you with Ken?” she demanded, as excited by the idea of my tryst as I had been a mere half hour ago.
“Yes,” I sighed.
“He really likes you, Susan!” Anne never qualified statements like these with words like “I think.”
“Oh, no he doesn’t,” I spat, and shot into the bathroom before she could pursue.
There was something magical about that trip, though—even if Ken hadn’t panned out. A couple of days and B&Bs later, as I hurried from breakfast to my room to retrieve my biking gloves, I encountered a young girl—maybe five or six years old—sitting in the B&B parlor at the standard-issue never-played piano. Our eyes caught, and she asked urgently, “Where are you going?” Her perfect Irish accent, princess dress, and commanding tone stopped me abruptly. “To my room!” I sang, allocating her to my omen pile. Where, indeed, was I going? Her insistent question echoed in my head for the rest of that trip, and not long after that I decided to have a child of my own, on my own.
I brought myself back to the cards. “You know, the brother of the bride—we had this real connection—no, not like that.” (Crystal and Amy’s expressions confirmed familiarity with my string of vacation flings.) “Although he was gay, I had a crush on him. And it really felt like he liked me too…” My voice trailed off.
“They don’t usually say they’re gay when they’re not,” Amy reminded me.
“Yeah, I know. But maybe I should ask him to be my donor!”
Crystal, gently, brought us back to the cards before I could pursue this reckless tangent. “Okay, this next card is your present-moment card—just who you are, right now. It’s the Ace of Coins—a card of plenty. I think this is about . . . money for you.” Crystal said this neutrally, as if she were observing the color of my eyes or hair, but beneath her words lurked an unacknowledged imbalance. I was financially mismatched with my friends. This only ever came up accidentally, during Tarot readings for example.
“But, you know what, it could also be about your health, or your physical world—look how the card has a garden in the background—sometimes it’s referring to a seed you have to plant. So maybe it’s saying your body is in a good place. That your issues getting pregnant are—not physical.” Crystal paused, seemingly unsure if she wanted to take the reading in this direction. Because if it was not physical, then what the hell was it? Identifiable physical problems getting pregnant—cysts, hormone levels, insufficient body fat—were to be welcomed. Once these were ruled out, your fertility odds went down.
We pressed on. “Okay, this card is what your friends and family think of you.” Crystal absorbed the card, which was upside down. “So this is the Queen of Coins. When she’s right-side up, it symbolizes wisdom, problem-solving, good sense. Upside down—well, I guess this could mean that the people who love you think you’re doing something . . . unwise.” Another delicate pause, as I waited for Crystal and Amy to assure me this was not so.
They did not.
Here’s the thing about having a baby on your own: it’s not generally embraced as a “great idea.” Or even a good one. Reactions ranged from “Well, if that’s what you want, I’m glad you’re going after it” (suggesting that I might not know what I want) to “Do you know how hard being a single mom is?” to “But what if it’s a boy? What would you DO with a boy?” As I waffled between giving birth to a biological child and adoption, I noticed decidedly more receptivity to the idea of adopting. This made me mad—why was my right to have a child who shared my genes less innate than that of a married woman with an infertile husband? Yet I also saw the logic, and moral standing, of it. What right did I, or any single person, have to bring a child into the world intentionally with only one parent? In another sense, isn’t the choice between conception and adoption like that between a purebred dog and a shelter dog? (And don’t purebred dogs end up having a lot of weird problems? Not to mention the fact that a nine-month embargo on two of my favorite pursuits, drinking and running, was an eternity which could be circumvented by adoption.) So even though Crystal and Amy had expressed their support and enthusiasm for my baby plan, they didn’t always recognize their cues to provide a standing ovation.
Rather than prolong this agony, I shrugged. “Well, I know my mom is pretty worried about it.”
Crystal nodded a little too vigorously. “Yeah, that’s probably it. So this next card is your hopes and fears card.” A smile danced around her eyes. “This one’s pretty obvious. It’s the Sun, which represents your soul, your being, your essence. It’s a powerful, good card. In this position, it means that you’re afraid of losing yourself to your baby—but hoping that the baby will strengthen your sense of self even more.” Crystal sighed dramatically, took a measured sip of wine to illustrate the love and loss associated with motherhood. “Lemme just say, be afraid, Susan. Be very afraid.”
“But little Maisie is soooo worth it!” Amy reminded Crystal as she reached over to pat her belly. “And this new one will be too.”
These were the sorts of things I wished Amy, or anyone, would say to me: “But little IVF baby Glenn will be soooo worth all the fertility treatments and awkward questions about who her daddy is!” Amy did not say this. Thus far, no one had said this.
We had now arrived at the ultimate card, the outcome card—the fertility goddess, the Empress, hanging head down as if awaiting tormentors to beat her into spawning. Crystal had had the entire reading to come up with a benevolent interpretation of this, and she did not disappoint.
“So, I’ll start with the bad news—you’re right, having the Empress here in this upside-down position is not ideal. But here’s the thing, Susan—she’s not just about fertility—she’s about creativity. So this is saying that your outcome right now is blocked—that there is something in the way of your getting pregnant. That’s not news—although the earlier cards tell us that it’s not your body holding you back. It’s something else.”
Crystal closed her eyes, and I imagined her calling on her potent blend of pregnancy hormones for intuition. “This card is telling us that you need to be creative in this journey. That you’re blocked right now, and without change, your outcome will remain blocked—but she offers hope that there is a way to overcome that blockage.” Satisfied, Crystal exhaled deeply, leaving me to wonder if she’d been holding her breath for the past few minutes, and if that could possibly harm her fetus.
I was not thrilled by this reading, but I allowed Crystal’s ending note of hope to trickle into my brain, and from there down to my ovaries, recuperating after popping out as many eggs during an hour under anesthesia as they usually produced in a year. Mind and body—not to mention friends—deserved a break from the fertility drumbeat, so I thanked Crystal with a hug and proposed a walk along the beach. The sun was just setting over the Venice boardwalk and embossing the ocean with diamonds. The legless, armless man was doing his dance for coins of the non-Tarot variety in front of the rippling muscles on display at the outdoor gym, and T-shirts punned with bright-font slogans like resting beach face and so nauti.
I reminded myself of the beauty of the life I had—a life that would be enough even if a baby did not find its way to me. I wished for an Ace of Cups card T-shirt, one that affirmed in hot pink bold print, Full Life Right Now. But even in my enforced moment of gratitude, I knew that my Ace of Cups card had been upside down ever since the desire to be a mother had taken hold.