The Glass Housec
With trembling hands, Wanda flipped through an issue of Parenting magazine. It was all ads. That was okay, though, as she wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on an article anyway. Then Helen rushed in and sat right next to her.
“Are you nervous?”
Helen made Wanda nervous. She tended to sit too close and looked too directly into your eyes. And if you looked away, Helen would reposition herself, chasing your gaze around the room.
“Yeah, a little,” said Wanda.
“Well, take a few deep breaths through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. There’s nothing to fear. These are very nice people. You couldn’t ask for better, really—highly intelligent, both of them.”
Few things Helen could have said would have put Wanda less at ease. Intelligent people had never liked her. And only now was Wanda able to put her finger on what was wrong with Helen: she talked like a man. Not that her voice was low-pitched. Nor did she look like a man—she would have been pretty if not for a small, reptilian nose. But her sentences, delivered with precision and power, were like a man’s. Many of the women Wanda had met at the agency, and in Portland in general, spoke this way. It was jarring, when you were used to the sugary chirp of women in Eula, Idaho.
“All right, should we go in?”
Helen led Wanda by the hand into her office. “Randy, Melissa, this is Wanda.”
The couple stood to shake Wanda’s hand. Randy was bald on top, had a beard that was thinner on his cheeks than on his chin, and wore thick glasses that made his eyes look small and far away. A band that had been cinched tight around the back of his head held the glasses in place. A happy gasp caught Melissa, who was a full head shorter than Wanda, and she took back her hand to cover her small, heart-shaped mouth. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said. “I never cry.”
Randy put his arm around her. “This process has been very emotional for Melissa,” he said.
“For both of us,” said Melissa.
Randy nodded and kissed the top of her head.
“Let’s all sit down,” said Helen.
Wanda gave Melissa a reassuring smile as they obeyed.
“This is just an introductory meeting,” said Helen. “We’ve read each other’s profiles, we’ve seen Wanda’s test results. At this stage in the game we like to have a brief face-to-face. There’s a lot to take in, so we keep it short. Of course, things are a little different since Wanda lives so far away. Wanda, I’ve made it clear to Randy and Melissa that you might be meeting with one or two other couples during your visit. So, like I said, just a brief meeting to put a face to the numbers. Okay?”
Everyone nodded and smiled at each other.
“Wanda, I think Randy and Melissa have a few questions they’d like to ask.”
Wanda crossed one leg over the other and turned toward the couple, like a guest on Donahue.
Randy said, “Well, Wanda, your profile said that you grew up on a farm?”
“Uh-huh. My dad was a farmer and my mom was a housewife. They died not too long ago—”
“In a car accident,” said Melissa. “I was so sorry to read that.”
“Thanks. But, yeah, we were farmers. I’ve lived in Eula all my life. Now I work at the K-Mart.”
“And do they know that you’re doing this? That you’ll have to take some time off down the road?” Melissa asked.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve worked there a long time. They’re behind me on this.”
Randy inhaled, then paused, then said, “What makes you want to do this, Wanda? I mean, it’s such an odd situation”—he cast a sheepish glance at Helen, who had folded her arms and leaned her chair against the wall, as if she could melt into it—“and it makes perfect sense from our end, but, from yours . . . ” His tiny eyes blinked.
“Well,” said Wanda, “I’m thirty-one years old. I had a boyfriend, Hank, all through my twenties, and he was a good man. We talked about gettin’ married and havin’ kids, but we were just so busy, me at K-Mart and Hank with his career, and pretty soon he got so high up that his company had to move him. He asked me to come with him to Washington, D.C., but I just couldn’t, you know? Eula’s always been my home. I have a sick uncle I take care of. Plus, I just knew Hank would never settle down and make a real family with me. So I broke it off. And now here I am, healthy and ready to bear kids. I don’t have a man, and I don’t want a man. But I do want to experience pregnancy. It’s in my genes—women in my family have always had children. But, you know, I can’t afford a kid, and I don’t want to be a single mother. So I figured I’d do what the Bible says and give to the poor. Not that you two are poor, of course, but you need help. My friend Sarah gave her kidney to her brother. He died anyway, but that’s not the point. I see this as a way of giving to the needy, even though I don’t have nothin’ to give. Does that make sense?”
Melissa glowed. “It makes perfect sense. It’s the only reason anyone would ever do this, I think.”
“Wanda,” said Helen, “do you have anything you’d like to ask Melissa and Randy?”
“Um, sure. What do you do for work?”
“Well,” Melissa said, “I’m an architect, and Randy owns a bike shop.”
“We do a lot of cycling,” Randy added.
“Wait, you’re an architect?” Wanda asked.
“I never heard of a girl architect,” Wanda said.
“Well,” Melissa sang airily, repositioning herself in the chair, “there aren’t too many of us around.”
Randy chimed in, “They always said, a woman’s place is in the home.”
Helen guffawed. This was the first thing the couple did that felt canned; Wanda could tell they had said this a thousand times.
After a short pause, Wanda said, “Do you live here in Portland?”
“Pretty much,” Randy said. “Out in the gorge.”
“And do your parents live here?”
“Melissa’s recently moved to Arizona.”
Wanda continued asking them unobtrusive questions, and her mind wandered a bit during their answers. She had known what type of people they were since she laid eyes on them: They exercised regularly and watched very little TV. They used dental floss and voted in every election. There were people like them in Boise.
Nearly everything Wanda had said so far in this meeting had been a lie. She had told herself two weeks ago, before her first meeting with Helen, that she would lie about the drugs and that was all. But then there had been questions about her parents on the form, and she knew that they’d never accept her unless she changed her family history a little. And once you change your family history, you change everything.
So, in this meeting, she was forced to tell those first lies, and after that she had to keep going. A true answer would have sounded like a lie. Even when Randy had asked her why she wanted to be a surrogate, she had to parrot the surrogate mothers she had seen on Donahue—because she couldn’t remember why. Once she was pregnant and everyone left her alone, the reasons would return to her. Until then, ten thousand dollars would be her reason.
“I hate to interrupt,” said Helen. “I know you all have a million questions for each other, but, like I said, we try to keep these initial meetings short.” She stood, and so did the others. “Melissa, Randy, have a seat for a minute. I’ll be back to wrap things up.”
Helen led Wanda back to the side lounge and sat down with her. “You all right, kiddo?”
“That was easy,” Wanda said.
“No reason it shouldn’t be. You did great. Now just sit tight for a few minutes, okay?” Helen disappeared back into the office.
Wanda picked up another magazine. Was there another couple for her to meet? Helen hadn’t been clear about this part of the process. How many interviews would she go through, and, at the end, would she choose them, or would they choose her? After a few minutes, Helen came back into the room and plopped down with a satisfied sigh. She leaned toward Wanda and grinned, as if concealing a pleasant surprise.
“Did you like them?” Helen asked.
Helen clapped her hands together and fell back in the couch. “I had a good feeling about this from the start.” Then she leaned forward again and said, “They want to have you over for dinner, Wanda. Would you like that?”
“Well, you leave tomorrow, so it’ll have to be tonight.”
“What about the other couples?” Wanda asked, a little disappointed that she wouldn’t get to order room service, as she had last night.
“Think of them as backups. You like the Weston-Sloanes, right?”
“Randy and Melissa. The Weston-Sloanes. Do you feel comfortable going forward with them? You can say no.”
“I like them. They like me?”
“Enough to have you over for dinner and get to know you better. This is a very good sign, Wanda.”
“And they don’t mind that I live all the way in Eula?”
“Like I told you that first day, Wanda, that’s going to work in your favor. Everyone wants a farm girl to carry their baby. They’re a little concerned that you’ve never been pregnant before, never carried a baby to term, but you can’t have everything, can you?”
“Well, then,” Wanda said, “I’ll go over.”
“God, I love my job,” Helen said, with a force that startled Wanda. “I’m sorry, but this is the part that really excites me, when there’s chemistry between a couple and a surrogate. You can help them make a family, Wanda. You have that power.” Helen squeezed Wanda’s shoulder and went back into the office.
Melissa picked Wanda up in front of the hotel. “I forgot to ask if you were a vegetarian,” Melissa said.
“Oh, no. I eat everything,” Wanda said.
“Good. I think we’ll have tuna.”
“I eat tuna all the time.”
They drove down a hill away from the tall buildings, then took a ramp onto the highway. The city disappeared behind them and the thickly wooded Columbia River Gorge opened ahead. The day before, riding the bus down this same highway, Wanda had wondered about these houses among the trees. Now she was going to have dinner in one of them.
“In the meeting, you didn’t ask about our problems . . . with getting pregnant,” Melissa said.
“Oh. I didn’t want to pry,” Wanda said.
“I figured that was it.” Melissa turned off the highway onto a narrow road that zigzagged up the side of the gorge. “I have cervical incompetence. Charming name, isn’t it? The opening up there is just weak. I would get pregnant no problem, I’d reach the second trimester, and then everything would just fall out. It happened four times. I’d walk around like I had a house of cards inside, and when I miscarried . . . well it was just unbearable. Twice they put sutures in, but they didn’t take, and I suspect they made the problem worse. It nearly did me in. Oh, look! Here’s Randy.”
Ahead of them, dressed in tight black cycling clothes and a helmet, Randy was laboring up the road, his head low over the handlebars, his torso rocking from side to side.
“He bikes to and from work,” said Melissa. She tapped a little greeting on her horn as she passed him, and he nodded breathlessly.
“Aren’t you going to pick him up?” Wanda asked.
“Pick him up?” Melissa laughed. “No, it’s his thing.”
Wanda turned in her seat to watch Randy pumping with all his might. He looked in agony. Then the road turned, and he disappeared behind a wall of pines. Melissa drove a little farther up the slope, then pulled onto a gravel road that led into a hollow. “Here we are,” she said. She parked the car and reached for a bag of groceries in the backseat.
The house—or what Wanda could see of it, as it was hidden behind trees and shrubs—resembled a bunch of tool sheds and greenhouses piled on top of each other and linked with bulging joints. A spiral staircase led from a deck up to a balcony. There were panes of glass in all the roofs. Wanda wondered if it was finished. Melissa walked to the front door, which rattled with the scratching of dogs, and balanced the groceries on a knee while she got out her keys. “All right, already,” she said. She opened the door and out they bounded—four mutts of different sizes and colors, yipping and panting. They jumped on Melissa, who mimicked their whimpers—“Yes, I know, it’s awful, isn’t it?”—then jumped on Wanda, then ran out into the trees to pee. “Come on in,” Melissa said to Wanda. “Make yourself at home.”
Wanda slid onto a stool at a little bar that divided the kitchen from the living room while Melissa put away the groceries and continued the story she had started in the car. “I felt that we should adopt. It seemed like the moral thing to do when there are so many kids who need homes, but Randy was adamant that the child should be connected biologically to at least one of us. He wasn’t raised by his birth parents—he was raised in foster care, and it scarred him in certain ways. So we called the agency. That was in September. It’s been a lot of appointments since then, paperwork, sperm counts. You’re actually the first girl we’ve met.” Then Melissa stopped. “Is everything all right, Wanda?” she said.
Wanda had been unable to focus on what Melissa was saying. The room in which she sat was spacious like the interior of a barn, but a barn where she could stay forever—bright and clean, with a library where the hayloft should have been. The leaves of houseplants dangled from an archway, a hexagonal window revealed a lush bank, and a shaft of light slanted across a glass hallway. Wanda bowed her head. “I’m sorry. I’ve never been in a beautiful house like this before.” She was ashamed, but it was true. The rich people in Eula lived in big, square houses where you were afraid to walk on the carpet. None of them would ever hide their treasure in the woods.
Melissa looked solemn for a moment. “Well, that is the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me,” she said.
Only then did it occur to Wanda that Melissa had made this house.
A shyness overcame the two women and they were quiet until Randy came in the front door, teetering on his cycling shoes. “One hour, seventeen minutes, my love,” he said.
“Not too bad,” Melissa said.
“Not too good either.”
“He’s been trying to get his time back down to where it was before he pulled his groin,” Melissa explained. Randy came into the kitchen, and they bent in to kiss each other lightly on the lips, careful not to otherwise touch each other, as Randy was covered in sweat. Wanda could see that his buttocks were completely flat in his cycling shorts.
Randy turned to her. “Do you have a bike, Wanda?” he asked.
“We might have to fix that.”
“What would I do with a bike?” Wanda asked.
Wanda laughed at the image. “Grown-ups in Eula don’t ride bikes,” she said.
Randy and Melissa laughed hesitantly, and Wanda was aware that she had been rude. She bit her lip.
“All right,” Melissa said to Randy. “Hit the showers. Then fire up the grill. Wanda and I are going to take the dogs out.”
“Aye-aye, captain,” Randy said.
They headed out on a trail into the woods as the dogs trotted happily ahead. The smallest dog had a tail that kinked to the right in a perfect L. When he wagged it vigorously, the tip jabbed him in the side. Wanda pointed this out to Melissa.
“Yes, that’s Simon. Poor thing. I think his tail got slammed in a door when he was a puppy. We got him from a shelter. Go run, Simon,” she said. She threw a stick and Simon ran happily into the brush after it, his L swinging. “I’m not sure if this is a concern of yours,” Melissa said, “but Randy and I are very solid, as a couple. As far as raising a kid, is what I’m getting at. We’ve been together, gosh, since we were barely more than teenagers. I can’t imagine being with anyone else, and I’m sure he can’t either.”
“You’re lucky,” Wanda said.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to brag,” Melissa said. “Damn it, I forgot about Hank . . . the breakup. I’m sorry, Wanda. I just meant to put your mind at rest as far as carrying a child for us—that the child will always have two parents. That came out wrong.”
Wanda couldn’t believe Melissa was being so careful with her. Why would a woman who built a house worry about impressing her? “Melissa, forget about Hank. I can see how happy you and Randy are. It makes me feel very . . . secure.”
“Good,” Melissa said. “It’s not an act we’re putting on for you, just so you know. If we have a child, that child will have a good life.”
The trail narrowed through a thicket, then opened up to an incline littered with boulders. “We’re almost there, Wanda,” said Melissa. “Don’t turn around until I tell you.”
A little out of breath, Wanda buttoned her jacket as she stepped over stones up the clearing.
“All right,” Melissa said, sitting down on a large, flat rock. “Now you can look.”
Wanda turned and witnessed the glowing Columbia bent into an S by the slopes of the gorge, which lay against each other like folds of fabric, each a paler shade of blue, off into the distance. The slopes plateaued into a perfectly flat horizon, and car lights twinkled here and there along the rim. The idea of the time that it took for the river to carve this beautiful groove into the earth was, to Wanda, as awesome as the view.
“It’s gorgeous,” she said.
“No pun intended, right?” Melissa said. “Sit down.”
Wanda squatted next to Melissa, hesitating to put her bottom on the cold rock. The wind stung her ears.
“I was hoping there’d be a sunset,” Melissa said. The sun lost its shape in the haze, and the sky above them glowed amber. “A good sunset, here, in the spring when all the waterfalls are going—you should see it.” After a minute, she said, “Let’s not get caught up in it. It’s time to get dinner on.”
Melissa and Wanda walked back down. The dogs, having spent all their energy, trotted along beside them until the house came into view. Then they ran to the patio and sat obediently waiting to be let in, all except Simon, the crooked-tailed dog, who whimpered and dug at the threshold as if he could tunnel under the door.
“Simon, stop that. What is it?” Melissa said. Then her face changed. “Randy!” she shouted, and she ran into the house.
When Wanda entered the barn-room, she saw a salad bowl and a cutting board on the bar. On the cutting board lay a cucumber. She didn’t see Melissa or Randy.
“Wanda? Could you get these dogs off?” Melissa called.
Wanda came around the bar to see Melissa crouched over Randy and all the dogs crowding around. Melissa pushed the largest one away and said, “Go on!”
“Come, dogs!” Wanda called, clapping her hands. Two followed her and she put them out; the other two she had to drag by their collars. Simon fought her all the way. Then she went back to Melissa.
“Grab me a washcloth,” Melissa said.
“Do you want it wet?” Wanda asked, taking a cloth from beside the sink.
Melissa grabbed the cloth and folded it. She gently pressed on Randy’s chin to open his mouth, and lay the cloth on his tongue. Randy’s head was cradled in her lap. His body was stiff and quaking. Melissa used one hand to firmly draw Randy’s jaw up into an underbite, the other she laid on his chest. She bent over him, sheltering him, and whispered, “Shh-shh-shh.” Now his body rocked back and forth, as if gathering momentum to roll over. “Wanda, could you move this stuff away?”
Wanda picked up a knife off the floor and dragged a chair away. Now Randy seemed to be trying to keep his arms straight. His fingers were curled tightly, and the heels of his hands thrust against the floor tiles. A drawn-out frightened sound came from his throat, like a trapped word struggling to get out.
A nightmare, Wanda thought—he’s caught in a nightmare, the kind where you’re paralyzed and you can’t wake yourself up.
“Hush, sweetheart. It’s okay,” Melissa said.
Randy slackened and twitched. Then he was still. Melissa stroked his face. They stayed like that for several minutes, far longer than the seizure itself had lasted, while Wanda watched from across the room, unsure whether to give them help or privacy. Finally, she put down the knife, walked over to Melissa, and lay her hand on her shoulder.
Melissa looked up, her face surprisingly composed, and said, “Thanks, Wanda.” She set aside the cloth and straightened Randy’s glasses. Wanda knew now why he wore that silly band. Then Melissa said, “Could you help me get him into a chair?”
Wanda knelt and took an elbow, and they assisted Randy as he rose and walked into the seating area beyond the bar.
“Do you want some water, Sweetheart?” Melissa asked.
“Let me,” said Wanda.
They sat with Randy patiently as he took sips of water. Melissa said, “Simon always knows. Did you see him scratching?”
On Randy’s face was an expression of deep sadness. At last he looked at Wanda and said, “Sorry about that.”
Wanda shook her head no.
“Randy’s epileptic,” Melissa said in a confiding tone. “It’s not severe. We haven’t told them at the agency, because it will disqualify us.”
Randy corrected her weakly: “We think it might disqualify us.”
“In any case,” Melissa said, “we definitely planned to tell you—or whoever we ended up being matched with. I understand if this . . . disturbs you.”
Wanda, overwhelmed and frightened of saying the wrong thing, shook her head again.
“Well, I’d like to ask you not to tell Helen. I’ll understand if you feel that you need to tell her. But, as a favor to us, I ask you not to.”
Tears clouded Wanda’s vision—all those lies she had told them in the office!—and she said, “I won’t tell.”
From the book Lake Overturn, by Vestal McIntyre. Copyright© 2009 by Vestal McIntyre. Reprinted by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of Harper-Collins Publishers.
VESTAL McINTYRE, A94, is author of the prize-winning story collection You Are Not the One. His novel Lake Overturn, from which the story in this issue was adapted, was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review and a Best Book of 2009 by the Washington Post, and won the Grub Street National Book Award. He lives in London.