Early morning, the last day (maybe) that we won’t know whether Cell Ball is a boy or a girl. I try to enjoy this not-knowing time, when Cell Ball is as undefined as he or she will ever be. I’m on my second breakfast and third coffee of the day, because my wife is nothing if not chronically early. In the waiting room I catch up on gossip mags, all of which have giant Kim Kardashians on their covers these days. All the magazines are amazed, or scandalized or something, by Kim Kardashian. “She’s a big fat whale!” “Kanye dumped her!” I spend several minutes talking myself first into and then out of feeling sorry for Kim Kardashian. (I’ve wavered several times since, also.)
The waiting area is filling up with pregnant ladies, most of them with men I assume are dads-to-be. One guy is relentlessly cheerful, smiling and cracky goofy jokes while his wife makes a follow-up appointment. Another guy trails his tired-looking wife like a Sherpa, seating her carefully before retrieving the sign-in clipboard from the front desk. Watching them, I resolve to be more cheerfully helpful, helpfully cheerful. The woman with Mr. Sherpa doesn’t look very pregnant, aside from the circles under her eyes and the cautious, unsteady expression of a person with morning sickness or a really bad hangover. She’s the least pregnant-looking woman in the room (not counting me, I guess). Sir Mixalot is second least pregnant-looking.
The sonographer is not American, but I can’t place her accent.
“You conceived naturally?”she asks Sir Mix.
We both hesitate. “How do you define ‘natural’?” I ask. It occurs to me for the first time that the term ‘artificial insemination’ is incredibly loaded (no pun intended).
“We used frozen sperm at home,” Sir Mix offers.
The sonographer looks over her glasses at us for a few seconds, and I brace myself for some sort of really awkward or inappropriate comment, but then she nods and goes back to her chart, apparently satisfied.
There’s a corkboard on the wall covered in 3D sonograms from other people’s pregnancies. The pictures are supposed to make the fetus look human, I think, but in a lot of cases it looks more humanoid. Because the image is constructed from sound waves, it’s not perfect, and the babies all look kind of dented. The ones that look most like actual infants also look really uncomfortable. Faces squashed, tongues sticking out, arms smashed up against faces. A couple of them have their mouths open, which gives me the faintest sensation of drowning.
“Is it, like, is this what they look like?” I ask. What I’m trying to say is, Are they actually this lumpy in the womb?
“It’s the baby, it’s a picture of the baby,” the sonographer says, busily flipping switches and clacking on her keyboard.
A monitor is mounted in the corner of the room, and the sonographer turns it on and begins rolling her sound-shooting wand over Sir Mix’s belly. The screen reminds me of a JumboTron at a football game — a MiniTron, capturing every heart-pounding moment of uterine action.
And then, there’s Cell Ball! Now complete with a discernible belly and limbs! The sonographer does some cursory exploring, silently.
“How does it look?” I ask after a minute or so.
“Fine,” she says. I wait for her to expound, but she doesn’t.
Cell Ball’s brain, cranium, spine, hands, feet pop up on screen and then drift away again as we watch.
Eventually the sonographer flips on the 3D-ifier, rendering our baby in a kind of peachy bronze, as though it spent the past several weeks sunbathing in Maui. Its head is gigantic and there’s a clear V-shaped ridge in the top where the skull hasn’t fully formed yet. I wonder briefly if the imaging software includes a color palette or if every fetus is rendered in the color of a white person just back from summering in the Hamptons.
Thinking about this, I realize how annoyed I am by the idea of technology designed to make a nonviable fetus look like a newborn. A thing like this could be used for so much anti-abortion evil in Texas, say, or North Dakota. Still, I’m overwhelmed by what I see on screen — Cell Ball! Moving around! With arms and legs and a head!
The sonographer doesn’t say anything unless prompted, so we sit and stare silently at the monitor for minutes at a time. Then, out of nowhere, she asks, “How old are you?” Sir Mix tells her, and my heartbeat spikes to roughly 1 million times its usual rate. Something must be wrong: why else would she ask that, right now? Nothing was said to invite it, nothing changed that I could see.
“Is everything OK?” I ask.
“It’s fine,” she says. She tells Sir Mix to cough, to get the baby to turn around.
I ask which direction the baby is facing.
“Facing, there is no facing,” she snaps. “Is just there.”
I begin to have nasty thoughts about her. Does she think everyone stands in a dark room looking at ultrasounds all day?
Then comes the money shot. “Oh, there,” the sonographer says.
“Yes. It’s a boy.”
“How can you tell?” I ask.
“There,” she says again. “Three dots.”
I see them, but she could have told me they were three nostrils, three eyes, three fingers, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. “So how can you tell it’s a boy?” I ask again.
“Because it’s obvious,” she says, and for a moment I dislike her more than anyone I have ever disliked.
“My sister said that when it’s a girl it looks like three lines,” Sir Mix finally says, helpfully. I think that the three dots on screen could easily pass for three thick lines, but I keep it to myself.
The exam goes on and on. I try to relax and take in this new piece of information: a boy! A son! We are having a son! Meanwhile on the MiniTron, Cell Ball’s spine zippers through the field of focus. The sonographer pauses over his left leg, and it’s shockingly leg-like, just sitting there plain as day. My eyes well up; I realize that I’m clenching the arm of my chair. My neck is stiff from craning to look at the screen. My brain is clanging. A boy! What the hell do I know about boys? Then again, what the hell do I know about girls? What the hell do I know about humans?
The technician clears her throat. “OK,” she says. She’s winding down, wrapping up. “He has now five arms.”
I freeze, look at Sir Mix.
“Five?” she asks.
“It’s totally normal for 16 weeks,” the sonographer says.
Sir Mix nods. I’m not sure panic is the right word for what I’m feeling. Extreme confusion, pre-panic, maybe. Five arms? Where? Will he be born with five arms? Did that guy at the deli put acid in my third coffee? Is this how the cats feel when the vacuum comes on? FIVE ARMS??
“Did you say it’s normal?” I finally manage.
The sonographer glares at me. “Yes.”
“Wow, five ounces, that’s still pretty small,” Sir Mix says.
Oh. “OH.” I sit back, begin to laugh. “I thought you said he had five arms!” The sonographer purses her lips, and I know I’m being rude, but I can’t help feeling pleased by this reversal of roles. She may be an expert sonographer, but I have her whipped at English, ha! Ha ha!
Then she leaves and we’re sitting there. Well, Sir Mix is actually still awkwardly reclining on the exam table such that she can’t really turn to look at me, so we keep looking at the screen even though it’s off now. I’m feeling stunned. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were lettuce falling out of my mouth. A boy!