“I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes. You need to gather your thoughts. I realize this isn’t easy.” The university hospital obstetrician, a youngish stout black woman, walked out and shut the door behind her.
Kaitlyn sat still and alert on the plastic and metal chair. She wore only the paper gown the nurse had given her when she first entered the exam room. The gown was open in the back, but she had tucked an edge under her butt. The doc had wiped away the lube she used in the exam, but it still felt cold and wet. At least the doc’s hands were warm. Kaitlyn’s regular obstetrician was an elderly man with hands like clammy claws and teeth that looked like he had eaten corn on the cob for lunch.
Kaitlyn’s blonde hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail. She flexed her toes. Her toenail polish was chipped. Least of her worries. Her doc had established the time of conception. This was now fifty-seven days ago, three days before it was all too late. On that Saturday night the Tide had whupped Notre Dame. How many thousand little guys got their start that night?
Her fiancé, Conner, was in his second year at Jefferson State College, working toward a certificate in construction management. She knew exactly where Conner stood, although he never actually said it outright. He had this aunt in Colorado, he said. Everything was legal and easy there.
Kaitlyn had never been out of Alabama, not that she wasn’t eager to travel. They were supposed to be married last week, only his dad got this huge remodel out in Mountain Brook. Conner would be working weekends for a month. So now the wedding would be after New Years and she would be bulging like some white trash bride in her off-white wedding gown.
Kaitlyn checked her phone. The doc had been gone three minutes; seemed like three hours.
Her father, Billy, was adamant in his distain for medical opinions, and for ideas coming from university experts in general. “You know these elite folks, they tell you one thing and then six months later, they say the opposite. Doctors these days don’t know their ass from their elbow.” This was a stance she might agree with, but it didn’t help one her iota. The university hospital was the only place in town that could perform the procedure, if she went that way.
“Don’t let them bully you into them doing something to you,” he said. The only physician Billy ever listened to was his own doc, who kept him supplied with Oxycontin after what happened at the factory.
Kaitlyn’s mother, Faith, was dead set against Kaitlyn doing anything at all. “God will see us through this,” she had concluded. When the time came, Faith would blame Kaitlyn for it all. Like she blamed her now for getting knocked up. Like she blamed the Democrats for this whole god-forsaken mess.
God had very little to do with this one, Kaitlyn had to admit. It wasn’t God who created the genetically altered mosquitoes as a defense against the Zika virus. It wasn’t God who let these loose across the South, from Virginia to Texas. Kaitlyn was only fourteen when the last case of Zika showed up in Picayune, Mississippi. By then, maybe fifty million folks had been bitten by these Franken-skeeters; that’s what FOX News called them.
Kaitlyn leaned back in the chair. The plastic was cold on her bare back. This decision weighed on her. She had known it was coming. Knew it ever since she got the hives after that omelette. She had already been barfing up her breakfast for a week. Her mom told Kaitlyn she was sick for three months when she was heavy with Kaitlyn’s older brother. But then Kaitlyn’s arms got all red and bumpy and she started to wheeze. Conner took her in to the urgent care doc-in-the-box, where they asked her if she’d eaten any eggs. Only, you know, every day of my life, she told them. They advised her to see her obstetrician right away, which she did the next day.
Kaitlyn closed her eyes. I guess you never do see anything this horrible ever happening to you. The doctor did a blood test that she said would make it certain. Kaitlyn asked what “it” was, and she said they still really didn’t know. That made no sense. How could they be certain she had something they could not even describe?
Kaitlyn had watched enough TV and read plenty on the web. She understood this was a new plague. Something unlike any plague before this, but still very much just like all the terrible ones before it. Millions were at risk. Most of all were the babies. A few allergy shots and Kaitlyn would be eating eggs like before.
They said her baby would be born with these light blue eyes. Like a robin’s egg blue, pale as the surface of the water in the shallow end of a swimming pool in the afternoon sun. And within a year, her precious child would be blind. Blind as if a hood had been drawn over his little head. A congenital condition with no cure. Early last year the government admitted that this was an “unintended consequence” of the measures used against the Zika virus.
Kaitlyn opened her eyes. The overhead fluorescent lights glared at her. The light green walls had certificates with thin, black wooden frames. And there were large colored anatomical drawings of the female anatomy. Uteruses and vaginas displayed like chanterelles sliced lengthwise. And drawings of fetuses at various times over the course of a pregnancy.
Then they found out that this affliction was not universal. This curse was not on everyone. There was a genetic component that limited the effects to a sub-population. This announcement was when Kaitlyn’s momma knew it was the Democrats. You see, only white folks were affected. Trouble was, even with Zika gone and all the genetically modified mosquitoes dead, whatever they carried in their bite lived on. Lately the news were calling it a prion. Whatever that was. They said her baby would be blind before it could walk.
Even before the government fessed up, Kaitlyn already knew actual friends and friends of friends, and of course, lots of others on Facebook, young mothers gave birth to lovely little babies. So precious, each one. And then so tragically struck down. Nurseries were filled with blind babies, their pale eyes fixed on eternity.
The church remained steadfast in its position on abortion. And Kaitlyn had been raised to be obedient in this way. But it was hard. And harder still when they found a treatment. The treatment came with its own impacts. Impacts like nobody’s business.
They had traced the blindness to a defect in the DNA, something to do with melanin. The Internet said that melanin was what made you get a tan in the summer. The genes for this also coded for skin color and for something in the back of the eye, which made no sense at all. Another reason why evolution was just a crazy theory. Why would the eyeball be connected to skin color? The cure meant swapping out new genes for the defective ones in the fetus. In order to work, this treatment had to be done within sixty days of conception.
The doc had been away for ten minutes. Where had she gone to? Kaitlyn hated being here alone. She shivered and whispered a curse. If there had been a window, she might have crawled out, bare ass and all, to run away from this damn decision.
Upon waking in the morning she had imagined a conversation she would have with her young son, when he was five or so. Old enough to ask questions. He could ask away, but she could not even imagine how she could ever tell him that she decided he didn’t need a lifetime of sunsets and flowers and smiles. Tell him it was because she was saving him from something he would never even get to see. His own skin.
Last week Harper Wilkins, a friend in the church just a couple years older than Kaitlyn, had a baby shower for her newborn. Austin had been born with those eyes, so blue. Everyone there pretended like it didn’t matter. After all, Austin’s mom and dad both had blue eyes. Austin got passed around and hugged and cooed at like nothing was amiss. When Kaitlyn took up Austin, she held him close and whispered “Dear God, keep this one whole.” And then she felt a stroke of fear. What if God took her prayer as meaning her own child’s sight would be forfeit in the bargain. She was crying when she handed little Austin back to his momma. “He’s so beautiful,” she said. “I can’t help it.”
Caroline Carson, Kaitlyn’s best friend back in junior high, but not so much recently, although they followed each other on Facebook, had her baby the same day as Harper Wilkins. At little Austin’s shower, Kaitlyn found out Caroline had done the procedure. Harper leaned over and whispered, “Tiny little baby girl was black as anthracite, nothing to look at but the whites of its eyes and the pink in its mouth.” Every baby whose mother did the treatment was born with skin black as obsidian.
Caroline, her husband Preston, and their new baby up and moved away. To where, Kaitlyn didn’t know. Caroline had quit Facebook too. Harper said they likely moved west, maybe all the way to California. Kaitlyn didn’t even get to learn the poor child’s name.
Now Kaitlyn was more than annoyed. It was nearly a quarter hour with no sign of the doc. She hadn’t told Kaitlyn it was OK to get dressed. Kaitlyn kept thinking she would show up any second. At the same time she held on tight to an irrational hope that the doctor might never return.
Kaitlyn wondered if Nana Iris could love a little black-skinned baby, really love him like her other great-grandchildren. When Kaitlyn turned thirteen, Nana Iris had sat her down on the divan in her living room. “Don’t ever let me catch you with one of them Catholics, or even an Episcopalian, which is the same damn thing. Almost as bad as them Latter Day Saint folk.” She didn’t need to mention African-Americans. Her views there were deeply rooted in what she called “heritage.” Asians and others were similarly suspect, particularly the gays.
Kaitlyn’s mom kept apologizing for her mother whenever Iris was out of earshot. At the supermarket or the department store, Faith would look away and roll her eyes when Iris got into one of her rants about the colored shop girls. But somehow Kaitlyn couldn’t picture Faith snuggling up with a little black grandkid either, not with the same clear feeling of unconditional love and hope that any child deserved.
She sunk back in the chair. What gnawed at her was the thought that she might be repulsed by the sight of her own child, that her love would be blunted by this. That she would not be the mother she could be for that.
A tsunami of trepidation followed this thought. It’s likely that her own son would be unwelcome in the places where Kaitlyn spent her life, even in the house where she grew up. Even though she would certainly protest on his behalf, defend him with every breath she had, she could not protect him from those around her whose company she admired and adored, and who might dismiss him without even once thinking. Condescension and scorn; how could she face that as a mother?
Until this moment, she had never consciously accounted for the everyday courtesies she took and gave in turn, the weft of goodwill she shared with her kind. She was suddenly aware that her life was buffered by some invisible right she had acquired though the same “heritage” Iris honored. Could she deny right this to her baby?
Now she had had new thought. Another conversation with her five year old son. This time she had to confess that his life was going to be hard. Harder than, well, than she could tell him, because she never had to face it. She would be firm, “Don’t let anybody say Conner isn’t your daddy. You and us, we don’t look alike because I chose to save you from becoming blind like all those others. At least you can see. It’s a beautiful world, and you can see it all for yourself. Nothing else really matters, now does it?”
The door blew open like a wind had caught it. The doc had returned. She shut the door behind her and stood there in front of Kaitlyn in her white coat over a mauve pant suit.
“I am sorry for the wait. Your father had quite a bit to say to me, and it took some doing to break away.” She leaned back against the examination table and tried a smile on her face. After a moment she spoke. “This procedure is completely up to you. Is there any information you need that you don’t yet have?”
Kaitlyn stood up and crossed her arms over her breasts. They were tender where her forearms pressed against them. She frowned.
“I know what I have to do. And yes, this is my decision, no thanks to you and all the rest. I don’t want your damn information. What I really, really need is to move to a place where there is only one clear choice, and to do anything else would just be insane. I need to find a home there, and a life. Do you know of such a place?”
The doctor’s smile disappeared. She closed her eyes. A long minute passed in silence.
She spoke quietly. “A place like that, well, that’s a space you’ll need to build in your own head first, because you’ll find nothing like that in these parts, I’m afraid, and nowhere near here that I can say. Could be such an actual place exists somewhere a long ways off. Costa Rica? Sri Lanka? Who knows?”
She opened her eyes. Kaitlyn could see they were reddened and rheumy, brown and large, and sharply focused on her own. Weary eyes. How many patients had she guided through this same sorry conversation?
She continued, “Lots of people I know have been longing for this place. Too many others have been born and worked their whole lives to keep such a place far away from here. Maybe you’re really looking for a new time?”
The doc sighed a long out-breath. “When I was young, at school they said this was a new time and we were living in the new South. That planted a hope that sustained me all the way through med school. Only it seems the old South won’t up and die on its own. Who knows, perhaps when a million blind blond children ask enough questions that their parents can no longer answer…”
The doc looked down at her hands, which she held out in front of her as though these were holding a small globe.
“…Or maybe when a million black-skinned children grow up and demand the love and respect that every child should get from their own.” She put her hand on Kaitlyn’s shoulder.
Kaitlyn sat back down on the cold hard chair and bent her head into her palms as her tears began to fall.