Life on Mars

For much of the two-hour bus ride from Downtown to Westwood, Leda stared at a picture of herself on her phone. It was a new decade that month and Leda’s friends were posting pictures of themselves from ten years’ prior, writing little notes of narcissistic gratitude underneath. Leda didn’t post her picture. She rarely used social media anymore.

Leda was twenty-three when the photo was taken. She’d just moved to Los Angeles from Idaho, forsaking her family, vowing to make it big. She wasn’t sure what made her believe in herself enough to really think that was possible. It must’ve mostly had to do with her looks. In the photo she wears a thin white turtleneck with no bra. Her nipples press up against the fabric. She’s on a bed of white sheets that blend in her shirt as the photo is somewhat overexposed. Her ex-boyfriend’s bed. The last serious one. Her skin is tan after a summer on the river behind her parents’ house, her eyes a shade of blue that has since faded to gray. She was beautiful in all the ways women were supposed to be beautiful on film. Her arms were so impossibly skinny.

Leda found Rachel sitting in a wicker chair at Le Pain Quotidian. Rachel wore large sunglasses, but when she slipped them off to greet Leda, Leda could see how stricken she looked, like she hadn’t slept in days. The women hugged. Leda ordered an herbal tea and quinoa-kale salad to keep up appearances. She didn’t mention the donut and coffee she’d had for breakfast.

Rachel asked for the same thing, but when it arrived she could only pick at it.

“Are you sure?” Rachel asked, looking down at her plate, moving the leaves around with her fork. “I’m sorry for asking over and over. I just have to know.”

Leda placed her hand on Rachel’s arm. “Yes,” she said, making eye contact. “I’m sure.”

Rachel’s face blurred in front of Leda. That had been happening ever since she started the Clomid. The doctor had said to contact him if her vision was effected, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to admit anything had gone wrong in case she had to stop taking the medication.

Leda had first met Rachel at an acting class around the same time the photo on the bed had been taken. Rachel walked into the room so uncertain, looking like a scared little rabbit, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. Leda sat down next to her and leaned over to make a joke about the instructor’s chartreuse scarf.

The friendship that followed mostly revolved around Rachel’s insecurities. They both worked as waitresses, but Rachel wasn’t very good at it. She forgot to put orders in or entered the wrong items. She cried to Leda when she was fired from job after job. Leda knew Rachel came from money, she knew her parents lived in Pacific Palisades, but she offered to buy their drinks again and again, trying to make Rachel feel better. Of course, they didn’t know how to continue their friendship when Rachel got the film deal and no longer needed anyone’s comfort.

Then, seven years after they stopped talking, the message popped up in Leda’s inbox.“Are you still in the city? Can we meet?”

Over wine, Rachel explained everything: the cancer she’d never made public, the hysterectomy, the eggs they’d removed that turned out to be non-viable. Rachel looked scared again, there in the bar. She was still so fragile. Leda wondered if it was the fragility that had been what propelled her toward success. She always assumed it would be Rachel’s ruin, but maybe it was just the opposite. Leda hadn’t made it because she was stronger. After years of bitterness Leda felt sorry for Rachel again. Rachel’s big blue eyes watered. Her chin trembled the same way it did on the screen.

“Aren’t surrogates usually supposed to already have children?” Leda asked.

“I don’t want to go through an agency,” Rachel said. “I want someone I know will take care of herself. Who will be discreet. Who I can trust. And who can keep all the money herself.”

“Why me?” Leda said.

Rachel paused, looked down into her wine glass. “It’s maybe awkward,” she said. “But I’ve always thought we looked somewhat alike. Remember how everyone used to think we were sisters when we went out? It would just be easier, I think, for the child, to look as much like me as possible.”

She must’ve known too, that Leda was still poor. She must not have known many people who needed the money, not anymore.

Leda would be paid eighty-thousand dollars. It hadn’t taken her long to agree. It was only after signing the paperwork that she actually sat down and thought about the numbers. Of the eighty, she would need to save around seventeen-thousand for taxes. Thirty-thousand would pay off her student loan debt and fifteen-thousand, her credit card bill. She kept doing the math over and over in her head, hoping somehow she’d made a mistake, that there might be more of it left that she initially figured, after she paid off her debts. The rest, nineteen-thousand dollars—the figure was always the same—she’d use to buy a new car. It seemed crazy that that huge sum of money could be eaten up so quickly, but there it was. That was all of it.

The two women had spent a lot of time together in doctor’s offices by now. It was odd, sitting next to Rachel again all these years later. Leda remembered things about her: the square shape of her nails, the habit she has of twirling her hair when she was nervous.

Leda asked questions about her husband, a tall handsome man she’d met only once so far, at the lawyer’s office. “How did he propose?”

Rachel laughed, the anxiety never leaving her eyes. “I was sick,” she said. “I mean, not the cancer, not yet. It was the stomach flu and I’d been puking for ten hours. He showed me the ring because I was in so much pain I was crying. He was trying to make me feel better, but I tease him about it now. I say he had to catch me when I wasn’t in my right mind.”

Leda smiled. She enjoyed hearing the story. Leda had an image of Rachel she needed to believe in: her life marred by illness; everything always circling back to the bad luck of her body.

Leda’s body was fine, despite having had terrible health insurance for all of her adult life. Now that she was covered by Rachel’s, they’d had everything tested. She’d been low in Vitamin D, a problem a gummy supplement could solve, but otherwise everything was in range. Her egg count was excellent for a woman in her thirties, a fact which she’d relayed to Rachel, expecting joy. “Oh, good,” Rachel had said, tears springing to her eyes, overflowing, “Oh, really, I’m sorry. It’s good.”

Today Leda’s body was ready for insemination. Rachel’s husband’s semen had been washed to prevent any chance of inflammation and to increase potency. It was odd and unnatural to treat the substance with such clinical reverence. It felt completely detached from the man who had manufactured it, and even more detached from anything sexual. Leda didn’t feel much of anything, though she supposed she should. It was almost pleasant to sit in that lemon-scented waiting room. There was an aquarium against one wall and a window where she could see to the 405 on the other.

The neighborhood there—full of UCLA students, doctors, and professors—was so different from her own. Leda lived Downtown because she’d found a good deal on rent. Shortly after she moved in she’d seen a homeless man inside her building. He was curled up inside a sleeping bag in the lobby, the whole space ripe with his rancid smell. She didn’t know what to do. “You can’t sleep here,” she said.

He poked his head out from his cocoon, hacked and spat onto the floor and said, “Fucking cunt bitch. What makes you think you’re better than me?”

Since then, she made wagers in her head with the door. An electronic fob opened it. After the door slammed shut again there was an eight second delay before the lock clicked over. Leda told herself if no one came in behind her—whether homeless or neighbor—she would be granted whatever she wished for as she walked toward the stairwell. I will get out of debt, she’d said to herself with each step for years. Her friends called this manifesting, but she knew another word for it too: desperation.

Rachel wanted to come inside for the procedure. In a shaking voice she asked if she could hold Leda’s hand. Leda reached out her arm and when Rachel grasped it Leda nearly jumped. Rachel’s palms were smooth, but cold and slick with sweat. It was more like touching a metal railing after a rain.

Leda struggled to stay very still as the doctor inserted the semen past Leda’s cervix. There wasn’t much pain. Just a quick pinch and the uncomfortable pressure of the speculum. Rachel’s hand squeezed Leda’s but Leda didn’t dare face her. She knew that her face would look the same as it had at those bars where they’d gone to drink after Rachel was fired. She knew there would be tears and worry and some strange guilt that would overwhelm Leda despite everything—despite the trust fund and the beautiful husband, the Spanish colonial with ocean views in Manhattan Beach. It was vanity, what they were doing, making this child instead of adopting, just so it would look somewhat like her husband. But it also seemed miraculous to Leda that she might have a child—a biological child—that would be raised in Los Angeles, on the Westside, by this other better version of her.

Leda thought about this when they told her to stay still, resting for the next half hour. The doctor lowered the lights in the room for her and convinced Rachel to take a walk. Leda laid there on the crinkly paper and pictured the baby in a floppy sunhat, belly browning in the sun. She thought, she really thought, for those thirty-minutes she might be happy about everything.

Outside the office, with Rachel again, Leda began vomiting. She crouched down, head between her knees. She thought about the homeless man in her lobby. “It’s the Clomid,” she said, not wanting to alarm Rachel. “The doctor said it’s normal.”

Rachel held her hair back, like she used to all those years before for other reasons. “Of course,” she said. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” some kind of incantation that would save them both.

Rachel ordered Leda a car home. She gave her a desperate hug on the curb. Leda could feel the ridges of her ribs through her thin blouse.

The cab smelled like artificial strawberries, like the cheap perfume she’d worn in middle school, hoping to attract boys with the scent of candy. It gave her a headache now. Her reflection in the window showed dark shadows under her eyes, a thin line of a mouth. Her face looked as foreign as it had in the photo from ten years before.

“How are you?” The driver asked. He was middle-aged, on the heavy side, in a red polo shirt that matched the outside of his car like some kind of joke.

“Fine,” she said. She arranged her purse in her lap then laid her head back and closed her eyes, hoping he wouldn’t try to talk to her the whole ride.

The on-ramp to the freeway showed an endless line of cars in both directions, like strands of red and white Christmas lights, as far as she could see. They inched forward. “You do this commute everyday?” the driver asked.

“Yes,” she said, not wanting to get into what was really happening. “I’m normally driving, but the car is in the shop.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “This is bad.”

“Thank you,” she said, unsure if it was the appropriate response.

“This is bad,” he repeated.

“It’s always like this,” she said.

“They need charter jets from one side of the city to the other,” the man said.

She could see his eyes looking at her through the rearview mirror. Even though they were traveling under five miles an hour, she wished he would look back at the road.

“But the gas,” Leda said. “The air would be so much worse.”

“You can’t expect anyone to care about climate change here,” he said. “This place has too many problems of its own. The traffic, the rent, no health insurance. So many people without homes. People are just living in their cars. I picked up a woman the other day with one arm. Had to go somewhere the bus couldn’t take her. Said she needs medicine, but can’t afford the medicine and food, so every week she has to decide which is more important.”

Leda didn’t know what to say. She knew she was expected to react with sympathy, but she was all used up. She didn’t have anything left to feel for this other woman.

“I didn’t charge her for the ride,” the driver said. “I couldn’t.”

“That’s nice,” Leda said. She feels bad for this driver. He seemed to want so much more out of this conversation that she was capable of giving.

“I have a friend who used to work at NASA,” he said. “He says they’re already sending people up to Mars. He says they’ve got it all figured out, been doing it for a long time. They’ve got water. They can grow stuff in the soil. They just don’t know how to change the atmosphere. They only know how to create pockets of artificial atmosphere but they’re working on changing the whole planet. It’s perfect, so secret. No way for any of us to argue. No way to protest.”

“Do you believe it?” Leda asked.

“You know,” the man said. “They can do whatever they want. They could fix all these problems but they won’t. I could see them—the rich—just moving on and leaving us all here to rot. Yep, I could for sure see that.”

Leda could see that too. She put a hand self-consciously to her stomach. She imagined Rachel and her husband disappearing, leaving her alone with this baby. Her mind flooded with irrational thoughts. What if the baby came out wrong somehow? What if her eggs weren’t any good after all? What if they didn’t really want it? She felt like throwing up again.

They were downtown now, nearly to her building. Outside her car window two homeless men were yelling at each other. A third was bent over the sidewalk, using the LED light on the end of a keychain to peer into the cracks on the sidewalk. She searched in her pocket for her keys so she wouldn’t have to stand outside her apartment’s door for a moment longer than necessary.

As they pulled up to curb the drivers said, “Nice talking to you.” And then he added, as an afterthought, “Good luck.”

Once inside, she pulled the building’s door shut behind her. She waited for the reassuring click as she walked, not daring to look back. If no one came in behind her it wouldn’t be true. Her footsteps echoed on the hard tile of the little lobby. Mars was a cold dead planet. One step, two steps, three, four, five, six, seven. The door clicked.

She breathed out.

She didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe it.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked