Andi flies to China with her dead son’s skin cells in a test tube packed at the bottom of a Paratek medical travel cooler bag. She unzips the bag every hour or so to stroke the contours of the tiny cylinder. The glass of the tube feels just like her sternum—long and cold and fragile. She has lost an entire day to the International Date Line. The sun is traveling with them; it will never get dark on this flight. No matter; she hasn’t slept for more than forty-five minutes at a time since she found Daniel’s body in his room, his right arm at a 90-degree angle, his head on a pillow, almost innocent. She could have slipped a teddy bear into the crook of his arm. When he was little, Andi and Matt would stand over him, amazed that their uncontrollable Daniel could ever be still. Andi always felt guilty that she loved Daniel best this way: asleep and peaceful. Why couldn’t love be a thing you directed?
Nothing about her relationship with Daniel had ever been peaceful. When it strikes, even her love for him shoots through with the force of an AR-15, leaving her weak, panting. It always had.
When she had found him, his nails were blue. She had screamed the name she’d given him, then the name he gave himself. He responded to neither. She sat on his hips and performed CPR, breathed into his cold mouth, knowing she had long ago missed the window to inspire him.
She’d had the idea before, or pieces of it, anyway. Doesn’t everyone want a do-over at some point?
“It’s because we left him in the incubator that first night. Remember? We went out for dinner with my parents and abandoned him?”
Matt groaned. “Andi. Stop. We’ve been over this. We didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything wrong. Or if we did, how could we have known? What could we have done differently?”
“Stayed in the hospital! So I could have done skin-to-skin with him! Fought them till they gave us a bed!”
“But there was no extra bed. And if we’d fought, some other mom would’ve been separated from her baby. Life just happens.”
Life does not just happen. Life is what you make of it. When she told Matt the clinic needed her to fly to China to study Zhang Li’s new fertility protocol just a month after the funeral, he’d stared at her over the kitchen island. “You’re going to work over this? Jesus, Andi. You’re not even able to sleep through the night yet. Cancel the goddamn trip!”
“I need to see Li,” she had wept, as if Li was her best girlfriend, as if she had a best girlfriend. As if Matt’s pain wasn’t as massive as her own, as if only another woman would understand. She was lying to her husband for the first time in their entire relationship. He had let her go, though a bewildered crease stuck between his eyebrows, as if she had carved it there herself.
Women do get pregnant at forty-eight. If Matt interrogates her, she’ll remind him that her great aunt was fifty when she gave birth to twins, or point to an article she’s found online: Woman Gives Birth with Her Own Egg at 59! If Matt notices the new baby resembles Daniel, she will say, “Some strong genes we have there.” When––if––she comes home pregnant, she will have to remind him about their lovemaking last night, which is now––she checks the view from the airplane, as if the International Date Line were marked in some way–– two nights ago. Would Matt count?
When the plane lands in Beijing, Zhang Li is waiting for Andi at arrivals. Roommates in med school at Edinburgh, Andi has only once visited Li in China. Daniel was five when Andi and Matt made the terrible mistake of thinking a family trip would be a good idea. Andi had just enrolled him at the Chinese immersion school in San Francisco and was learning Mandarin herself. But Daniel’s tantrums punctuated the 14-hour flight from San Francisco to PEK. Jet-lagged and nauseated, Andi spent the first forty-eight hours trying to get Daniel to sleep. The kid was a miracle of wakefulness. But something in the atmosphere of Li’s light, uncluttered apartment had soothed Daniel. He had spent hours playing with a puzzle box, fascinated though unable to put it together. For Daniel, solving a problem wasn’t the point.
Li’s embrace lasts a few beats longer than Andi wants it to. “You look wonderful under the circumstances,” she says, taking Andi’s compact suitcase.
“I’m hopped up on estrogen. It becomes me.”
“I said we could discuss this.” Li’s hair is streaked with silver now, and there are fine lines from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth. “I didn’t say yes. You understand that.”
“You said yes to my coming here.”
In the parking lot, the heat and the odors slap Andi in the face. It had been cool and rainy in Palo Alto when she left. The air smells like old vegetables and mold with occasional notes of sewer. They climb into Li’s car and start the half-hour drive into the city. Andi leans her head back on the seat. They pass high rises near the airport and move into the suburbs. Soon the trees thicken, trees with a whitish bark. They drive by a line of men whose backs are turned, all in bright red jump suits with strips of yellow tape across their backs. Cleaning up litter, perhaps.
“You don’t need to say yes. You just need to grant me access.”
“You’ve never done this before.”
“It’s the same basic procedure as IVF,” Andi says. “If it makes you feel better, you can read the paper I wrote years before Daniel. It’s a fundamental issue of reproductive rights.” Andi holds up the Paratek. “What if I had a blastocyte in the cryo instead of…Daniel? Would you do the implantation then?”
“Why would you have to travel to China to implant a blastocyte?”
“Just theoretically. Ethically.” The sky above the city is a greyish yellow. Andi tries to read the highway signs, but she was never really a reader of the language. She learned phonetically, the way they’d taught Daniel. “I don’t think I can survive this. It’s not like any pain I’ve ever felt. Or imagined.”
Li’s fingers are white as she grips the wheel. “If I say I’ll do it, it’s only because I can’t stand to see you like this.”
“You said I looked well.”
“Under the circumstances. Which must be intolerable.”
“Don’t you want to be the first doctor to do this?”
Li shrugs. “How do you know I’d be the first? We’ve had this technology for decades.”
“Yes, but not for humans.”
Li pauses. “Would you tell people your baby is a clone?”
“No, of course not.”
“Neither would anyone else.”
“I was so devastated by the loss of my dear Samantha, after 14 years together, that I just wanted to keep her with me in some way,” Barbra Streisand had written in The New York Times. “It was easier to let Sammie go if I knew I could keep some part of her alive, something that came from her DNA.” Music had risen from Daniel’s mouth as he lay on his stomach on the kitchen floor with his Matchbox cars or his Legos, humming Handel oratorios in his sweet clear soprano as Andi formed hamburger patties and chopped carrot sticks for her little son. Those moments had overwhelmed her with a muscular, uncompromising love. That DNA.
Streisand’s article included a photo of two white puppies in a stroller parked in front of a tombstone marking the grave of her beloved Sammie. Li had emailed it, and Andi had read it on her phone as she drank her green smoothie––just the day before she found Daniel. Andi had assumed Li was just nostalgic for their heady days at the Roslin Institute, where they were part of the cohort studying cloning, eventually producing Dolly the Sheep. But maybe Li was clairvoyant. This was a sign from the universe. Seeing her blue son, something in her acted, bypassing her own permission structures. Grief-blind, she called 911 as she pushed through air suddenly denser than water to get to her own bathroom. Then, even as she uttered the unfathomable words, scrambling in the vanity drawers, trusting her hands to find an unopened, sterilized contact lens case, the kind they give you free with the purchase of a new bottle of saline. Once collected, she returned to Daniel’s room, knelt beside his body, and carefully scraped the cells from just inside his opened mouth: the tiny blueprint that would, she knew, reverse time.
Daniel’s Suzuki teacher had given her Xeroxed sheets full of check boxes for daily practice, which Andi loved to fill out and hand back at the beginning of each lesson. But after a good start, Daniel lost interest. When she called him to practice, he delayed, complained, broke his bow more than once. He would forget to cut his nails, and then disappear for ten minutes ostensibly looking for a nail clipper. He would argue with Andi about why he had to continue playing a piece after mastering the notes. “Knowing the notes isn’t music,” she would lecture. The road to real musicianship ran through mastering technique, intonation, dynamics, studying other players to see how they achieved their sound and performance ability. For Daniel, the sound came naturally.
“This is stupid!” Daniel would yell, his little body erect with passion, gesticulating with his bow. “There’s no point to this! In real life, no one ever wants to hear ‘Perpetual Motion’! It’s not even a real song! Dr. Suzuki just made it up as an exercise!”
“Daniel, exercises are the building blocks of music. You can’t just start with sonatas and concertos. You’re building muscles, you’re creating new networks in your brain. Just trust the process.”
She tried bribing Daniel, first with M&Ms, later with cold hard cash, but eventually she ran out of bribes that didn’t horrify Matt. You’re giving him what? For a half hour of practicing? At the time he quit, he was still working on “Happy Farmer.”
So she found an eclectic guitar teacher who called himself “Carpenter” and told her, “We’ll find his musical blueprint, and from that we’ll build his curriculum.”
Carpenter introduced him to The Kinks and The White Stripes. Daniel would climb into the car after a lesson, one finger plugging his ear, reading the charts and humming, his left hand forming chords in the air. Andi would pull into their garage, and before she’d even taken off her seatbelt, Daniel had bolted, guitar flapping against his leg, into the house, into his room, door slammed, computer blasting the new tune, stop-start-stop-start, as he tried to figure out the sound corresponding to Carpenter’s markings on the music sheet. At first, Andi felt pleased that he was finally curious about something—she barely cared what it was. But eventually, music became a monster, a Pac-Man gobbling every real opportunity he had, including, ironically, music––because there is no way anyone could seriously call the sounds emanating from his bedroom “music.”
Then came the name change. Daniel started calling himself “Dylan” as soon as Carpenter gave him “Like a Rolling Stone.” The connection with the whiny, nasally, hypocritical folk singer was the least offensive thing about the name, from Andi’s point of view. For her, the name conjured images of another Dylan, another black-cloaked disaffected young man who played too many video games and had a fascination with guns, though she never mentioned Columbine to Daniel, never once. But maybe if she had allowed the re-Christening, he would have stayed. The more she yelled at him, the more he retreated with his one friend Gryphon into their shared world of video games, their ridiculous “band”––Nothing––and the long parade of substances, culminating in fentanyl. Culminating with his bluish arm, bent like that: a stick figure waving goodbye.
Li’s apartment is on Fengbao Road, near World Park. Andi is glad to be out of the car; even though the air is thick, it doesn’t smell so strongly in this part of the city. Li leads Andi through the park, past replicas of famous landmarks: a scaled-down tower of Pisa; a mini Taj Mahal.
“What does Matt think of your insane idea?” Li asks.
Andi snaps, “You said no. Why would I admit to both of you I’m a monster?”
“You’re not a monster. You’re just a grieving woman who’s lost her child. And you have a wildly overblown notion about what science can actually accomplish. And you happen to have the best marriage of any of us.”
“I’m the only one of us who got married,” Andi says. “Anyone on the horizon since Mingyu?
Li shakes her head, eyes navigating. “I’m trying to tell myself I’m self-partnered, as the kids say now.”
“That’s what they’re saying now?”
“The Americans say that. You should know.”
The idea of living alone, living without Matt feels to Andi like the ultimate untethering. Matt is the one thing Andi has done well. “I don’t read anything anymore.”
“You read my emails. You always write back within five hours. Do you ever sleep?”
“Not a good question.”
As if the reminder of her sleeplessness has stopped her, Andi drops abruptly onto a park bench near a small green manicured maze in front of a fountain with a huge stone statue of some kind of demon in the middle of it. A woman is sitting on the edge eating an ice cream cone, which she shares with a girl in pink shorts. Two slightly older boys are tight-roping on the edge of the fountain, teetering, threatening to fall in. They are calling to their mother to get her attention, but she talks to them without looking, her focus on the little girl.
“Maybe it was the Adderall. At first it made him almost manageable. At first. But then it stopped working. Maybe that’s what set him up to seek something outside of himself.”
This time around, she would let him be his wildest, wackiest, loud, whirling Dervish self.
Andi meets Li’s eyes. “I’d do it differently. I’d do everything differently.”
Li sits next to her, shakes her head. “It was addiction. You can’t control addiction.”
Andi says, “No. But I created all the conditions to make him an addict.”
The word for “addiction” in Mandarin is “yin,” which also means “habit” or “hobby.”
Andi made Daniel her hobby in all the wrong ways. She once found an open mic night in the paper for Nothing, but when she suggested to Daniel that he and Gryphon might want to perform, Daniel had blown her off. “We’ll do that someday. For now we’re just recording.” Which meant they played along to YouTube videos on Gryphon’s phone and recorded the results on GarageBand. When senior year came and went, and Daniel refused to apply anywhere, Andi made the decision to let Daniel just wreck his goddamned life. She plunged into her own world, filling it with 5Ks, book club, longer hours at the hospital. Her fantasies about a do-over were abstract, of course. If only I could get pregnant again, she would think as she drove to the fertility clinic, inseminated menopausal women with donor eggs. I would get it right this time.
The mother gets up from the rim of the fountain and calls her boys. They run over, having circled the fountain multiple times without tumbling in. The mother hugs the three children close and says something in a sharp high voice, which––Andi thinks––translates roughly to, “Come! Help me choose dinner for tonight!”
The omnipresent crater above her heart is widening like a wormhole from one of those Marvel movies they watched when Daniel would still watch TV with his parents. Since Daniel’s death, she’s been peering out from inside that spot in her chest, unable to decide whether to emerge or burrow deeper.
She feels Li’s hand gripping her arm, pulling her back. “My new pull-out is dreamy. Tonight, you will sleep.”
“If you help me, if this works, I swear, I’ll be happy if he’s a gardener. Or a grocery clerk. Or a tattoo artist. Did I tell you that’s what he wanted to be?”
Li just shakes her head and leads Andi upstairs, into the flat, straight to the pull-out armchair/sofa placed in a huge convex window overlooking the park and the skyline beyond it. As Li makes the bed, Andi focuses on Li’s giant screen TV, which fills an entire wall, Li’s dining room chairs, with velvety teal seats and backs, a shock against the grey walls. Tasteful. Everything here is well-chosen and soothing. Andi wants to stay here, linger, until the pain in her heart releases, until she feels the heaviness in her breasts again, the sweet sleepy feeling progesterone bestowed upon her in her pregnancy, the single-minded focus she was accorded to do nothing, be a passive receptacle. She wants that feeling so badly she would inject it into her arm if she could.
It is only five o’clock, but it is one a.m. in Palo Alto. Andi doubts sleep is possible—if she falls, even briefly, the images will jolt her awake as they always do. Did he mean to die? In his last months––after Andi had kicked her hobby––Daniel (Dylan) suddenly craved her attention. It was a little like a bad boyfriend turning sweet once you’d broken up with him. Near the end when her contempt for her son was at its thickest, Daniel crawled into bed in between her and Matt. “Mom,” he said—her great, hulking, odorous son, “tell me something you did today. Did you make any babies?”
“You know I can’t tell you about my patients!” she had snapped. But now, she can see the important thing: he had thought of her when she was out of his sight. He had known exactly what she did and why her work mattered.
She adjusts the cheap airplane sleep mask and resists looking at her watch. She rolls over onto her stomach. After she found Daniel, after collecting the blueprint, after the medics had taken his body, she combed through the mess on his bed, his desk, his floor, his guitar case, looking for clues. She didn’t know what she was looking for. Maybe some piece of paper that said, This is my mother’s fault. If she had only loved me for who I was, I would still be alive.
She never found anything other than offensive sketches of guns and girls. But she made her own list. If she had held Daniel. If she had followed his lead in everything. If she’d encouraged him to do sports. If she had only invited Gryphon over for dinner. If she’d just fucking sat with him while he watched TV instead of abandoning him to run on her treadmill.
This litany is familiar. It is like a long prayer necklace, with each regret a bead to count, every night, until she dozes off, only to wake again with a jolt.
Li has left a cylinder of instant coffee on the counter and a note, written in English.
You win. Meet me at the clinic at 1 p.m.
Andi grabs the note, paces around the apartment, her hands unsteady, unconvinced she isn’t still dreaming. What had made Li change her mind? Of course she changed her mind. No one will ever find out, and Li loves her. And it’s the right thing to do. Do no harm. Choose life. Choose life.
But she wants tea, not coffee, never coffee. She searches the cupboard, finds a tin of loose leaf. She turns on the instant kettle and shakes some leaves into the bottom of a mug. She watches it steep, the water turning green and then light brown. This time, she will dive into his music. She will find something, anything, to love about the sounds coming from his bedroom. She will radiate joy when he tells her he wants to be a tattoo artist. She will let him practice on her; she will have him needle a tattoo right below her clavicle: Dylan.
She can’t stop shaking. She wishes she had gotten up in time to talk to Li, to go over everything, to make sure Li really knows what she’s getting herself into. What Andi is getting her into. Her heart goes concave. She is not self-partnered. It’s 2:30 pm in California.
“How are you doing?” she says, squatting down in the corner of the flat, her back to the wall with her mug in hand.
There is a beat of silence on the phone. “How do you think I’m doing? My son just died, and my wife’s in China.”
She drains the tea and looks at the leaves, wishing she knew how to read them.
Matt clears his throat. “How’s the research going?”
“It’s fine. It’s good to be with Li. It’s helping me to forget.”
“Why did you call.” It’s not a question.
“I just miss you.” She leans forward, lets her head hang between her legs, stretching her hamstrings and imagines the lead in her heavy heart liquifying and pouring slowly out of the top of her head.
She can hear Matt’s breathing. She could stay suspended in this position forever just listening to him breathe. But then he says, “You aren’t going to do it, right?”
Andi stands up. She is almost choking, as if the lead is now reversing course and poisoning her body. “Do what?”
Matt hesitates. “I just know Li is still working on experiments with cloning. You’ve talked about it. Honey, I’m seriously worried about you.”
“I just wish I had a second chance. I would do it right this time.”
“I don’t want a second chance,” Matt says, without even a beat of time delay. “Andi, look. What if Daniel was only meant to live for eighteen years? What if his soul was just troubled? Some people burn quick. You’ve got to stop beating yourself up for this, sweetheart.”
Matt doesn’t live with an eternal crater above his heart. He sees Daniel’s death as a wound that will heal, and it’s not a wound that will ever heal for her, and this is one of those irreconcilable differences priests and rabbis warn young couples about before they dive into a chasm they can never wholly escape. She must––she has to––tell Matt what she is doing. They have to come to an agreement about this, or she will lose him, too.
She opens the refrigerator door. The Paratek cooler sits on the top shelf, sagging and dejected, and Andi has a flash of Daniel when he was using. The eyes that wouldn’t meet hers, the hooded eyelids, the smirk. The problem with Daniel was nature, and all the nurture in the world won’t change the architecture of his fate. Why had she assumed she could make it better when she might make it worse? A next-gen Daniel/Dylan could find a different Gryphon, another Nothing on the Dark Web and become a white supremacist terrorist.
“I know,” Andi says, frowning at the Paratek. “You’re right. I’m going to come home. I’ll get the next possible flight. I miss you.”
After she says goodbye to Matt, she crouches on the floor, reaches into her empty tea cup and pulls out the wet leaves, expanded like seaweed. She sucks the caffeine out of them, chewing them between her teeth until they are gone. She opens the refrigerator again and unzips the Paratek. She will say goodbye to Daniel, though she still doesn’t know what to do with these cells.
But the cylinder is gone.
A nurse scans Andi’s uterus with a vaginal ultrasound wand. Andi keeps her gaze on the screen and can see without needing to be told that the estrogen she’s taken has thickened her womb nicely; it’s ready for a blastocyte to nest. Li has extracted the nucleus out of previously frozen eggs and injected Daniel’s DNA into the shells of the discarded germ cells of former fertility patients. It’s been five days, and they know now which blastocytes succeeded in cleaving and turning into embryos. Out of twenty, ten little potential Daniels. Transferring one of the embryos into Andi’s womb is the easy part. But will it stay? Will it really plant itself? If it’s really Daniel, wouldn’t he know better?
When the nurse leaves the room, Andi examines her stomach. Though she is a thin woman, her naked abdomen resembles a square purse, a bit wrinkled in memoriam to its former service. She puts a hand on it, tentatively, feels its surprising warmth.
Please, she whispers to it.
On the red-eye home, Andi has her sleep mask on, her head against the plastic wall of the plane. Sometimes, he wanted to cuddle with Andi on the couch while she was paying the bills on her laptop, butting his head into her lap like a goat, trying to get her to relent and stroke his greasy hair, her heart bent at a 90-degree angle. The kid was using and she had been furious, cold-shouldered him. But the using made him sweeter; he had finally found the right medicine.
This time, she will cuddle with him from the moment he arrives. She will never let him go. She will hold on no matter what. Nothing will get to him through her arms.
“We have to see how many take. If the first attempt fails, you can always fly back here,” Li whispered into her hair as they’d said goodbye.
Andi’s done the research. Sinogene, a Chinese commercial pet-cloning company had to use three surrogate mother cats to achieve one full-term birth. Other studies point to one in twenty. Still, she is piecing together a nursery out of what she has stored in the attic––the Graco stroller, the Baby Bjorn––and what she will need to order on Amazon.
She pulls her sleep mask off, gazes out the window. It’s too dark to see anything. She thinks of the remaining blastocytes incubating at this moment. What if she plows through all of them? She can’t make up that many excuses to visit Li. If this one doesn’t take, when would she be able to get to China to try again? She can’t possibly co-ordinate everything a second time, including making love to Matt.
If she is pregnant, it will wreck Matt. It will wreck what was Matt and Andi. She pictures his face receiving the news. She pictures his face making sense of what she has done to bring their child back to life. He will leave her. He could turn her in. Andi’s license would be revoked, for sure, but what could happen to Li in China? Cloning is no more legal there than here. They will be disgraced and probably prosecuted.
Yet her body isn’t buying this story. Her body is lulled by the plane, the steady drone of its engine, a smooth tube. She falls into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Andi wakes up in Palo Alto a week after the blastocyte transfer. She was just dreaming of Daniel animated, his eyes bright and clear. He is telling her about the GarageBand recording he and Gryphon made for Nothing. “You’ve gotta hear it, Mom, it’s epic!” And he begins to speak in a language she cannot understand. Oh, it’s English; but the words are all technical or teen-slang and have to do with video games and social media. She does what she has always done with Daniel; she puts on a stone face, neither endorsing nor rejecting what he is saying. If she acts enthusiastic, she will just be encouraging him. If she flat-out rejects, she is a bad mother. So she freezes her face, staring at him until his speech slows down, he yawns and, having no traction, slides off the bed. She watches him leave, her finger holding her place in her book group novel. Defeat in Daniel’s shoulders as his back disappears from the door frame.
She tumbles out of bed, the white plush carpet kneading her bare toes, and heads to the bathroom, her bladder so full she is afraid of leaking. The progesterone supplements per protocol have made her breasts swollen and tender––no news there. She hears Matt in the kitchen shaking cereal into his bowl, hears the water running, then turn off, the sound of the drip coffee maker. There’s only a five percent chance she’ll be pregnant, she reminds herself. She begins to pray. She promises she will email Li and tell her to destroy the remaining blastocytes. She will get an abortion about which she will tell no one, not even Li, and once this is over––it’s over now, of course it’s over now––she will never lie to Matt again.
She pulls open the pregnancy test she’s hidden under the vanity and squats and pees onto it. She closes her eyes, her heart still pounding. “Please,” she whispers. “Please,” but she has already forgotten what she’s asking for.
Nerissa Nields is a musician, writer, and founding member of folk/rock band The Nields. A candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Vermont College of Fine Arts, her work has appeared in HuffPost, Performing Songwriter, The Boston Globe and elsewhere. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she runs Writing It Up in the Garden workshops and retreats. She is currently working on two linked novels: The Big Idea and Egg. More at NerissaNields.com