Her foot taps a sharp, nervous cadence against the floor. The carpet, thin and worn though it is, muffles the sound enough that no one objects. Her eyes are bloodshot and bruised with shadows; she jumps at small sounds. She hasn’t slept in over a week.
Her husband puts a hand on her knee. An admonishment, though a gentle one, and she tries not to resent him for it. She tried so many times to explain, and he nodded in all the right places and made the appropriate noises of sympathy and outrage.
“It’s absurd,” he said. “Shameful.”
But he doesn’t understand; he doesn’t feel that clench of violation deep in his gut…
The air stills in her chest as a nurse appears, clipboard in hand. A name is called, but not hers. She breathes again.
With my signature, I accept responsibility for the full cost of this operation, which by law includes Phenotype Standardization. The words repeat in her mind, strung together end-to-end in a continuous loop. The words themselves have long since ceased to hold any meaning, but their echo has left the crux of the matter imprinted on her heart.
She meets the eyes of a little boy who stares at her unabashedly. The boy’s eyes are blue, like those of the woman who clutches his hand. Like those of most everyone in the waiting room, though there are a few pairs of green or gray. One daring soul—rather, one with daring or perhaps simply unlucky parents—sports hazel.
Her eyes are brown, like her father’s. He never could catch a break, and when he died he left behind a newly-pregnant wife and a mountain of debt. Her mother couldn’t afford gene therapy, and so the child was born “muddy.”
She spent her childhood studiously avoiding eye contact; adults might have been too polite to comment, but children had no such qualms. Never mind that her hair and skin are as fair as anyone’s, or that brown eyes are commonplace in pretty much every country in the world but this one. They were too young to know that. They only knew that she was different, and they wanted to hurt her.
She shifts in her seat, leaning into her husband’s warmth. Why couldn’t her grandparents have remained overseas, where scientific research wasn’t crippled by fear and red tape, where medicine had advanced far beyond the barbaric and antiquated practice of in-vitro fertilization?
How ironic, she reflects, that her government prohibits potentially life-saving medical research but mandates “Phenotype Standardization” as a part of all artificial fertilization procedures. How could such a law have been passed? She’d never heard a thing about it until the time came to sign the paperwork. But now she knows more than she did before; she’s spent nearly two months reading and researching and taking notes, and now she can’t sleep. She is afraid for her child. She’s found too many clauses, too many long strings of indecipherable text that could tighten like a noose around the wrong person’s neck.
She wonders if there should even be a child. Despite countless years longing for a baby and many long, circular conversations with her husband regarding this latest obstacle, she still isn’t convinced that she should capitulate to the unfair and patently ridiculous demands of some panel—comprised solely of men—in a faraway city.
“Your daughter’s eyes don’t have to be blue,” the doctor explained, very patiently. “You can pick any shade of blue or green or gray you like. It’s in the best interest of the child, you understand. You should know that better than anyone. Don’t you want to spare your baby the…unpleasantness you yourself have endured? Don’t you want to protect her?”
She didn’t have any answers. Of course she doesn’t want her child to suffer. Yet this small—so small, they insist—insignificant stipulation has chased away her sleep and cracked open her chest so that the air escapes almost as soon as it arrives in her lungs. She feels the words like shackles around her wrists or an invisible weight around her neck, forcing her to bow her head.
The nurse appears again and calls her name. She stands, leaning heavily on her husband for support. If the transfer of embryos is successful, she’ll be one step closer to motherhood. A wish granted, a dream fulfilled. She should be happy. She should smile, but she finds that she can’t. She stops just short of the door. Beyond lies a hallway lit by harsh fluorescent bulbs.
She can still say no. She can turn around and walk out of here. This terrible thought has occurred to her before, and each time it opened the crack in her chest a little wider. To make that choice would split not just one heart but two. Which can she live with? A bowed head or a broken heart—and a broken marriage?
“A moment,” her husband says to the waiting doctor. His hand is warm on her back. “Sweetheart?”
She shakes her head and presses a clammy palm to her forehead. The doctor draws near and addresses her husband:
“You’re doing the right thing. The aberrant gene is dominant; even if you somehow conceived naturally, the child would likely share the mother’s abnormality. No one wants a muddy baby.”
Her eyes snap up to meet her husband’s, and the cloudy blue suddenly seems sharper, as if something inside has crystallized. He turns back to the doctor.
“Or a muddy wife, is that it?” he asks softly.
The doctor flushes. “I misspoke. I only meant—if you had a choice—”
“We do have a choice.” Her husband raises her hand to his lips. “And it’s hers to make.”
An almost imperceptible sneer flickers across the doctor’s face. “So what will it be?”
She looks the doctor in the eye and smiles, standing fully upright for perhaps the first time in her life.