Empty Cup

An essay by Elaine Greensmith Jordan

When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces . . . Peter Pan


 “A cow? You bought a cow?” I’m not really surprised. My sister left California civilization for the simple life on a Michigan farm.

“She’s got that gloomy look—has a white triangle on her face,” Connie says. “I do the milking every morning.”

“I can’t imagine it.” My California kitchen looks shiny, suburban.

We talk for a while, catching up on our lives. By the time I hang up the phone, I feel I’ve been milking that cow myself. Talking with Connie discourages me. Her voice intensifies my grief.

Connie not only has a cow; she has four children. The fact is absurd. She’s two years younger than I and has given birth four times while I’ve been teaching at the high school. Four babies! She raises her brood on a farm, of all things. With her husband and family she’s gone back to the earth like so many others during the Sixties. That too is absurd. We grew up in California, in the suburbs. Absurd or not, I want my sister’s role, mother to adorable children.

My sister wore toy guns in holsters and played cowboy. She liked to climb on to the roof of our house to frighten us. While Mother shouted for her to get down, Connie would wave to us from way up there, a sprite framed in blue sky. Now I imagine her a rural mother who ignores drooling toddlers and crying from the playpen, preferring her cow. I played with dolls when we were young. I should be the one with children. I could do a better job. I’d rush to wipe faces and offer pats. We wouldn’t live on a farm. We’d live near a library and a park, and I’d read to my children every evening.

My husband, Carl, in bell-bottomed trousers, a silky shirt, and long sideburns, comes into the kitchen, and we stand together preparing our breakfast, two tall figures—a flamboyant man smoking a cigarette and a prim schoolteacher holding her porcelain tea cup, a wedding gift. I gaze outside at the backyard, the view as suburban as my kitchen: green lawn with tree. Mattie, our black cat, tiptoes through the dewy grass shaking the droplets off her feet before each step, a dark shadow in a green world.

“Connie’s bought a cow.”

“Oh.” Carl takes a drag on his cigarette. He looks distracted, but I’m not sure how he feels. I can’t talk with him about anything, including my desperation. Our marriage isn’t like that. We’re too politically involved in civil rights (him), too busy reading important books (me). Before we married I rejected the boring men I dated and chose Carl, a man of high ideals. That’s what you do when you’re twenty-one. You choose high ideals. A boring man would look pretty good in this kitchen, I think. Sighing a dramatic sigh, I take a sip of tea from the pretty cup.

While I butter two pieces of toast I imagine Connie’s cow, barns, livestock, the smell of soil. “Want one?” I say. Carl shakes his head and I turn away facing the window again. The cat has disappeared.

We’ve been married for ten years and haven’t had enjoyable sex as we try to create a child. Each effort is mechanical, prompted by a doctor’s program for successful intercourse, whatever that is. I worry that I’m not a good lover, whatever that is. Carl lights another cigarette and snaps the lid of his Zippo lighter. The sound has the crack of the last word, a steely pop. Case closed. Then the screen door slams as he leaves with his coffee mug, headed for work. “Take it easy.” Maybe he’ll be home for dinner or maybe not. I don’t know where he spends time.

It doesn’t occur to me to leave this marriage. In my Sixties universe, women don’t divorce unless they’ve been attacked or find their husbands locked in the arms of a floozy. (We said floozy a lot then.) My options do include a cozier solution, a child who’ll bring warmth and love into our marriage. I’ve been having fertility treatments for months.

Emptiness haunts the spaces at home. I look forward to every teaching day, but when I return to our vacant house in the late afternoon, I suffer a headache. A friend tells me the pain might have something to do with my marriage. She thinks her insight is funny. I prefer to think my miseries are brought on by infertility, a condition easier to understand.

After school I’ll see a gynecologist again. Every healthy woman should be able to get pregnant, and I’m going to an expensive medical specialist who’s been trying to cure me. I trust that Dr. Brighton can find what’s wrong even though he’s started me on pills that leave me weepy. He’s tried painful procedures too—that he’s never explained—like injections into the vagina with a long needle and cauterizing the cervix (an unpleasant procedure with attendant smells) and some others I’ve chosen to forget.  

I rinse my tea cup and make my way along the path through the grass to the car-port. No black cat. No glance from her yellow eyes. When I open the door of the car and raise my foot to get in, I’m startled to see my blue terry slippers instead of the high heels I wore in those days. Slippers keep me in a soft retreat from fertility doctors and Carl’s neglect but will not do for the classroom, so I retrace my steps to the house, regretting having to return to a lonely place.

Driving to the doctor’s office after the close of school, I cry at the sight of my dreary face in the rear-view mirror. Thinking of my sister suckling a baby—or milking a cow, for God’s sake—makes me cry too. When I look back at those times, I see myself weeping in every setting: our empty house, in bed, fixing meals and the privacy of a car.

The brick medical offices are set back on grounds landscaped with red and pink camellia bushes. Only trained gardeners can grow camellias, Mother likes to say, so I choose to believe that the doctors in this blooming complex are trustworthy, though I’m not comfortable with Dr. Brighton. He seems to look through me, as if he’s heard my story many times and it bores him.

In the windowless waiting room, with its trailing spider-plant on a stand, I join a phalanx of silent barren women. (The word barren, used commonly in those days, described women who weren’t fully human, hadn’t fulfilled their role assigned by God.) The whisper of turning magazine pages breaks the quiet until giggles come from the staff behind the office petition. I know they’re laughing at us. Though I’d not become heavy with child I was nursing an oversized paranoia. I wish now I’d spoken to the other women, said some silly thing.

Dr. Brighton sits at his desk in front of an expanse of plate-glass. Why the waiting room had been denied windows and a huge one is reserved for this office strikes me as odd—not demeaning, just odd. An afternoon glare behind the powerful man puts his body in shadow. He doesn’t get up or welcome me but sits tilted back in his chair, nearly touching the glass, his arms behind his head. Even though I can’t see his face because of the gleam of sunlight, I sense an annoying cheeriness in him.

“How’s it going?” he asks.

“I’ve been crying a lot. I’m not pregnant.” I try to breathe. “What’s in these pills? Why does it make me so tired?” The tears come and I look away. “Some odd hair is growing on my—”   

With a squeak of his chair the doctor’s body comes forward out of the shadow. “Your clitoris should have enlarged. Wasn’t that a bonus?”

I hate Doctor Brighton. That my medical professional, a healer for God’s sake, could reduce the pain of being unable to conceive a child to the size of a clitoris feels wounding, as if I’ve been gored by knives. He’s Vlad the Impaler, a torturer. He doesn’t care or understand. Stunned as if smacked into awareness, I sit straight, awakened to new visions in the room. Shadow Man looks like a leering Jack Nicholson, and I turn from Cringing Child to Wolf-Woman. I’ll use my fangs and rip out his throat. The good doctor will fall back through the window leaving a mutilated corpse for his giggly secretary to find in the morning.

But mayhem doesn’t suit. Lady schoolteachers don’t murder people.

Saying nothing, I exit the office, slip past the secretary’s desk and rush to my car, wishing I’d been able to castrate the creep in the chair. Furious with my helplessness, I sit in the car unable to drive, sobbing. I’ll never submit again to an arrogant doctor. I’ll never have another infertility treatment. I’ll never get pregnant.

The drive away from the office is lost in memories of that day. There must have been California sunlight, camellias, houses and black cats, but I doubt if there were pastures or cows. Case closed.

Except the case hasn’t closed for me. I wish for another ending—that I’d had the courage to fight for myself and my wounded spirit hurt by insult. Since then, my fury has burned away grief, and I’ve turned that anger on narrow values of that time and the prevailing stupidities that I bought into. I was so influenced by popular thinking that I let myself be trapped by middle-class values—family values—imposed by the church and the media. “Ozzie and Harriet” was a television show I liked to make fun of, but I bought the whole package, the view of women as valuable only as mothersHarr. I couldn’t consider divorce? I wanted a baby to save my empty marriage? I was not the free thinker I thought I was.

We who are infertile are no longer thought of as inferior to fertile women, but the case is not closed. I wish it were.

***Note:  The Doctor’s name has been changed for his protection.

After a career in teaching and ministry, Elaine Greensmith Jordan now lives in Prescott, Arizona, writing personal essays to sort out the chaos. Her awards include the Nonfiction Prize from the Preservation Foundation and the Florida State Writing Competition. Her essays have appeared in South Loop Review, Alligator Juniper, Passages, The Georgetown Review, and other journals and anthologies. One has been nominated for a Pushcart by Arizona Authors. Excerpts from her unpublished memoir, Mrs. Ogg played the Harp: A Clergywoman’s Desert Odyssey, have won awards from the San Francisco branch of American PEN Women, Bayou Magazine, and the California Writers Club.

Check out Elaine Jordan’s interview with Jessica Powers, “Elaine Jordan on Infertility, Marriage, and Becoming a Clergywoman.”

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