by Emma Castleberry

“This is definitely going to affect your fertility,” the doctor says. She’s wearing a classic white lab coat, her practical brown hair neatly trimmed to her shoulders. She sits casually on a wheeled stool. I look down at my bare feet, pale against the powder blue laminate floor. “I know you’re only twenty-one, but you should still keep that in mind,” she says, scratching something on her notepad. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead.

“Is there anything we can do about it now?” I ask, my eyes still trained on my toes. My voice sounds small in the cramped, cold room.

“Not really,” she says. She stands from the stool and heads for the door. “I’d suggest, as soon as you find someone, have kids as quickly as you can.”

My Aunt Juli had a husband once. My mother refers to him as Ivan the Terrible. They never had any children, and they divorced before I was born.

Juli’s voice is soft and fragile, like the rest of her, as if she is always on the brink of tears. She has wispy blonde hair, bony wrists, and a pale complexion. When I hug her, her skin feels soft and crepey, her mid-section doughy. She has a cat named Penny.

At some point, my Aunt Juli ran out of eggs. When exactly this happens is largely based on luck—some women are born with two million eggs, others with a measly one million. But at sixty-five, Juli’s childbearing days are definitively over.

After Ivan, Aunt Juli moved to the west coast and never came back home to Alabama. She had a long, prosperous career as an attorney for the port authority in Portland. Decades in the gray, hu-mid climate of Oregon have preserved her—she looks much younger than those sixty-five years. When I comment to my mother about Aunt Juli’s youthful appearance, she says, “I’d still be beautiful, too, if I’d never had kids.”

When I visit Juli, we drive along the Columbia Gorge in her electric blue Mini Cooper with the white racing stripe. A knobby hand on the wheel, she looks out over the staggering cliffs and sparkling water. I see myself in her profile: the broad, slightly upturned nose; the dimpled chin; sharp green eyes.

I wonder if she ever tried. If a baby, or babies, were lost. I wonder if she has regrets or if she relishes her solitude. I don’t ask.

In 2011, Alice Taylor Castleberry made me an aunt. Her dark hair spiraled into a cowlick on the very tip top of her pink head. I rubbed my cheek against the cowlick, cradled her tiny density in my arms and wept. Not long after, her sister arrived—Margot Elizabeth, a pink, dark-headed bundle with the most enchanting eyes I’d ever seen—a storm of gray and gold and green.

While in their mother’s womb, Alice and Margot began to grow the egg cells, or oocytes, that would ultimately—theoretically—become their babies decades later. After twenty weeks of gestation, a woman—Alice, Margot, me, Aunt Juli—will never create another egg. In fact, after that twenty-week mark, those egg cells start to die by the millions. Before we even leave the womb, we are deteriorating. Potential grandbabies evaporate within their grandmother’s womb. I find this fascinating—it’s my favorite cocktail party fact, though it doesn’t always land well with other people.

And the constant decay doesn’t end there, not in the least. At the moment of their birth, Margot and Alice each had between one and two million egg cells. In the years before puberty, around ten thousand egg cells die within them every month.

I wake up to the sound of Margot’s high-pitched, staccato cry. It’s the middle of the night. Her mother is out of town and my overworked brother has slept through her grainy distress on the baby monitor. Gummy-eyed with sleep, I climb from the guest bed and pad down the carpeted hall-way to the nursery. The crying stops abruptly when I open the door.

“Amma,” she says in a halted, stuffy voice, thick with relief. “Amma up. Amma up.” She hiccups.

I lift her from the crib. Her velvet hair is matted to her neck with sweat—the exertion of a tantrum. I unzip her onesie and blow on her back. She sighs. I sit down in the rocking chair, and she settles into my chest, still sniffling. I rub her back—a few circles this way, then reversed. Pat, pat, pat. Shhhh.

Many years later, my brother will ask me what it actually feels like—physically—for a woman to want a child. He asks this not only because he is a man, but because he and his wife never went through that acute stage of wanting—their first child came along a little too quickly, a little before they were ready. Married at twenty-seven, pregnant by twenty-nine.

Primal, the only word that comes to me, seems feeble. But the feeling isn’t. The feeling comes from my abdomen, the same place that hurts desperately when you lose a person—that icy, cold hole where grief lives. The reason people double over in movies when they get tragic news: an arm across the abdomen and they bend, collapsing into themselves. That’s the place where the wanting comes from.

After three years, we’re still not sure about each other. We’ve attended countless weddings of countless couples who “just knew.”

“You’re still young,” my father says.

“You might just need more time,” my married friend says.

“I love you, I just don’t know,” he says.

But we talk about babies. We agree that we want them, eventually.

“So, what would we do if I decided to have a child?” I ask the new gynecologist. No white lab coat. Jeans, a blue cotton button-down. A no-fuss, short, blonde bob. Black-rimmed glasses.

“Simple,” she says. “You’re still young. Just stop the birth control and start trying. If you were any older, I’d probably send you directly to a fertility specialist.”

After all that—simple, she says.

I don’t stop the birth control, but we do stop trying. Five years, culminating in the crunch of gravel under tires as his car pulls out of the driveway. I’m thirty when he leaves.

Alice, now nine, loses about 120,000 eggs every year. Egg loss slows down after puberty—a sweet spot between puberty and about thirty-two years old, when a woman loses only twelve thousand eggs a year. Each month, nearly a thousand almost-eggs die, but one has a chance (sometimes two, which become twins).

Margot, a lanky seven years old now, still crawls into my lap when I visit my brother’s family. She smells like she did when she was a baby—milk and honey, skin and warmth. We lie down on her twin-sized bed and read books. She burrows under the comforter and nudges me with her porcelain nose. I lift my arm and bring it around her, pulling her into me and breathing deeply.

When I see her next, she will have lost seventy thousand eggs, and six thousand of mine will have died.

That baby-wanting feeling is made more acute by my intimate knowledge of how a heavy infant feels in my arms and against my chest, how her skin feels beneath my lips, her smell in my nose making me dizzy. I know what it feels like when a child falls and cries out my name through tears, reaches up for me, presses her wet face into my neck with relief. I know what it feels like to have a stranger at the mall say, “She has your eyes,” about the baby strapped to my chest. But, she’s not my baby. I’ve been babysitting her for a few months. We are in no way related. She does not have “my” eyes. Still, it stirs something deep and heavy within me all the same. I smile at the stranger, and I do not correct her.

A healthy thirty-year-old, with no fertility issues, typically has about a hundred thousand eggs left. That’s eight years of chances. Plenty of time. If you’re healthy.

The doctor hands me a pamphlet. Her nails are painted shell pink. The brochure is cold and smooth in my hands. A woman is on the front cover, smiling, cradling her swollen, pregnant belly. In pale blue script at the top, it says, All You Need to Know About Egg Freezing. “It can be a decent option if you have the money,” the doctor says. “Unless you’re going to get pregnant in the next year, this is what I’d advise.”

My mother reaches across the living room carpet, which is scattered with old photos. She hands me a wallet-sized portrait with a muted blue background—clearly a formal school photograph. The subject is a young girl with perfect posture and long, straight, dark blonde hair. She’s smiling with her mouth closed, staring confidently into the camera, hair hanging in shiny sheets along each side of her body. Her sleeveless shirt is white, patterned with tiny blue flowers, a ruffle down the center.

“Such a pretty photo of you,” my mother says.

I try to recall a physical memory of when this was captured on film. I can’t recognize the setting, or the clothes, or the photograph itself. This isn’t unusual—my mother took countless photos of me growing up, very few of which I recognize or remember. But this is a school photo. Those are specific. Wouldn’t I have seen this? Wouldn’t I remember it?

“When was this?” I ask her. “When was this taken? High school? I don’t remember this shirt.”

I hand the photo back to my mother who studies it, biting her bottom lip.

“Yeah, well, it must have been…”

She stops. I watch her, eager for an answer, some clarity. I don’t do well with the unknown or
the unknowable.

“Oh,” she says suddenly, a wave of recognition washing over her face. “That’s not you, honey!”

She starts to laugh. “That’s your Aunt Juli.”

“What?” I say, loudly. “No, it’s definitely me.”

“Nope, that’s Aunt Juli.”

I scoot closer to my mother. She looks up at me, then back at the photo. We are silent.
“Pretty uncanny,” my mother says, her voice soft.

I do not know how to do this with someone else, but I am trying. This new person does not fit into my bed the way he did, does not have the steady breath that is familiar to my ears. This new person also fathered twins, a boy and a girl, with another woman. I know full well that it is not a good time for me to be dating a man with twins, the robust fertility of his former lover constantly dancing in my periphery. But human companionship is vital, and he provides it for me right now.

One afternoon, a few months into this uneasy courtship, I find myself suddenly ravenous. This is strange only because I have been eating all day. I stand in the kitchen and shovel cold, unseasoned cavatappi pasta into my mouth. I heap in forkful after forkful before the first is fully chewed. I vomited this morning, so I assume I am simply making up for lost nutrition. That voracious hunger, a need to be filled, primal and powerful, bottomless. Am I dying?

Another possibility occurs to me when a bite is mid-air. The refrigerator door is still open. I return the bowl to the fridge, slip on my shoes and grab my keys.

A murmuring quiet fills the pharmacy, gray carpet and fluorescent lights. I find what I need and leave quickly.

Back at home, perched on the hard plastic toilet seat, I stare at my toes against the laminate floor. I am cold. Are my toes turning blue? I should stand up and get some socks.

But to stand up would mean looking at the plastic stick sitting on the edge of the sink. It would require me to pull myself from what feels like a precipice—this plastic toilet seat, this cold laminate floor, the only barrier between what I see as one half of my life and the other. I cannot move.

It is not that I want a baby now. In fact, I very much do not want this baby, in this moment, with this person. This specific baby, that may or may not exist depending on the God-like voodoo magic stick sitting on my bathroom counter, is not the one. But this almost-baby, maybe-baby, represents a realm of possibility that makes me sway with vertigo.

When I do stand, all at once, in a rush, the stick tells me that I am not pregnant. A deep intake of breath and a slow release—a sigh—of relief or disappointment, I do not know.

I dig out the bread pan from the cabinet, pie plates and cake tins clattering about against each other. Black coffee waits for me on the counter in a blue porcelain mug, steam rising from its surface. I place the bread pan down next to the flour and sugar canisters and take a tiny, careful sip of the coffee. It’s still a little too hot to drink, but the brief, nutty heat in my mouth makes me smile.

I wash my hands, dry them on my jade-green apron and start peeling the bananas. The rubbery skins slip off easily, brown and soft. The flesh smells rich as it disintegrates beneath the potato masher. I halve the sugar in the recipe—the bananas will lend plenty of sweetness.

The thing about banana bread is that it takes time. Slow and low. I set the timer for an hour at 325 degrees. I sit on the couch with my coffee, a magazine spread across my lap.

The morning saunters by, slowly but not unpleasantly, the bread traveling—quietly, leisurely—to its state of perfection. I abandon the magazine and open Hinge, a dating app that appears as a small capital H on my phone, a tiny window into an enormous world of wanting. Chad likes the outdoors and pineapple on his pizza. Trevor isn’t looking for anything serious. Mark is divorced with three kids. I swipe left a few times, then drop my phone on the couch next to me.

I have framed the school photograph of Juli, where she looks so much like me. It sits on the mantle in the living room. I look at her—shiny, happy, a little mysterious with her hooded eyes and slight smile. I remember, absently, that I am named after her. We call her Aunt Juli, but her full name is Emma Julia.

Mindlessly, almost, I place my hand on my stomach. A thousand eggs a month is about thirty-three a day, which is more than one egg per hour. I know the death doesn’t happen in this measurable, linear way, but I find the thought unsettling. The timer goes off, shrill and high-pitched. Sixty minutes, gone. I rise from the couch.

I pull the loaf from the oven, the melted pools of chocolate glistening against a fluffy golden crust. I set it down on the counter and breathe in the rich caramel scent. I should wait, but I can’t.

I run a butter knife around the edges of the pan—it will come out easily, surely—and tip the loaf onto a clean wooden cutting board. I tap lightly on the bottom of the pan, scalding the tips of my fingers on its heat. Slowly, carefully, with anticipation, I lift the pan away from the cutting board to reveal a pile of partially cooked batter, sitting there in a gooey lump. The remainder of the gummy bread is stuck to the bottom of the pan, streaks of melted chocolate and raw banana mush.

It needed more time.

I sigh as I scrape the mess into the trashcan. I still need breakfast, so I crank the stove, pull out the eggs and crack one into the pan. It sizzles on the black cast iron, popping and spluttering. The scent of banana bread still fills the kitchen, an invisible temptation.

Emma Castleberry is a writer who calls Asheville, North Carolina, home, though she is often found sleeping on the ground or in her car in pursuit of all things wild and free. She is the associate editor of The Laurel of Asheville magazine and she also enjoys reporting on social justice and the outdoors.