The Harvest of Bodies by Reema Zaman

aerial view of Columbus Circle, a traffic circle with grass and monument in middle

New York, 2013

I am 29. Cheerful light pours in through the panoramic windows overlooking Columbus Circle at Central Park. An early spring breeze flirts with the trees as Asian and European tourists hop into the horse-drawn carriages so famous in Central Park. From the waiting room of the fertility clinic, I peer down at the milling bodies, far enough for their facial features to blend, close enough to discern different shades of skin.

The waiting room is bathed in peach, aquamarine, and blue pastels. The floors are covered in luxurious, thick ivory carpeting, accented by plush couches and large tanks holding tropical fish. Glass within glass. Every color and detail has been chosen for their hopeful calming effect although, depending on your personality, their impact could be the frank opposite. Stare at these walls long enough and you’re bound to feel dizzy, suffocated, and enclosed.

I turn back to the forms I’m meant to fill out. As a potential egg donor, the application is lengthier than the ones I needed for college. The list of tests to decide my worthiness will be even longer. My stomach growls. It’s 2 p.m. and my body desires something besides the black coffee and banana that anorexia, my reigning deity, has allowed me to have today.

I dutifully check my identifying boxes (Asian, permanent resident) and answer questions inquiring my history with miscarriages, ovarian cysts, abortions, sexual assault, and cancer (yes, yes, no, yes, no). These forms are getting to know more details than all my family, friends, and exes combined. Once the application is complete, I read a pamphlet, given to me by the nurse, that holds a short list of frequently asked questions and their answers. It tells me that saying Yes to this procedure would make my eggs “a sacred gift to countless families”. It tells me that an egg donor is paid $8,000 for their first batch of harvested eggs and $10,000 for every donation thereafter. I wonder the reason behind the $2,000 difference.

To fan the feeling of forced calm, soft new-age music wafts through the air. The composer has gone full-tilt spiritual by combining Native American wooden flutes, Indian sitars, African drums, and Tibetan gongs because clearly, nothing evokes tranquility better than the conjured image of brown folk dancing and sitting lotus-positioned.

My phone buzzes with a text from the woman whose son I babysit, a beautiful little boy with flaxen hair and eyes as blue as the Pacific Ocean. His mama has become a close friend. I love her dearly, my love enhanced by my distance from my own mother, whom I miss with a steady drip-feed of longing. I’m here in this room because this surrogate mama asked me to help her have another baby by giving her what we hope my body can.

“I love you like a sister or a daughter,” she told me. “It would mean the world to have a child that was part you.”

I said I’d try. Of course I did. It feels warm and wonderful to feel needed. To feel I could be of value.

“How’s it going?” the mama asks now.

“All well. Should be done in an hour or two. I have an audition, then I’ll head to you for his dinner, bath, and bedtime.”

“Great! Thanks so much. Yes, excited to see you, and excited for date-night! xo” she replies.

“Yay! xo” I text.

The elevator dings. Opening into the waiting room, inside stand two types of women, sardined limb to limb. Affluent, middle-aged, white women and young, brown, presumably fertile women, presumably in need of money. My feminist mind with her Women’s Studies degree knows it’s a sin to assume and categorize. However, sometimes, truth and circumstances commit the crime for us; the brain merely puts words to reality.

Suddenly, as it tends to do, my mind takes the emotions, voices, and tones from the environment, adds sharp and flat notes, and escalates the volume so that a high-pitched cacophony erupts swirling through my head like a gale of wind, shrieking, pushing against my temples and ears. It howls for a few seconds, I blink hard, clench my jaw, swallow, and the ghoul vanishes. I breathe. This resident scream was born when I was three. Back then it reacted in response to my parents and their war, I, their ever-loyal first lieutenant and confidante. Now, for nearly thirty years, this scream will burst and writhe in my mind to anything or anyone it finds painful, sad, untrue, or inauthentic. I wonder when, if, the noise will ever leave.

The women in the elevator file out in a crowd then separate into two smaller clusters. The older, white women come towards the reception desk and pastel couches while the other group turns and ducks into a hallway. Above the hallway’s dark mouth is a sign: Donors’ Waiting Room.

I’m in the wrong area.

The realization blooms hot through my torso and into my face, flushing my cheeks and ears. I grab my purse and in my haste, my book falls onto the floor. My weathered, much-loved copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s one of the half-dozen books that I return to every few years like a devotee on pilgrimage to Mecca. I tuck the book into my bag and rush over to the nurse at the desk with an apology for my misbehavior perched on my lips. She looks up, smiling.

“Ready for your first test?” she has a sweet Southern lilt.

“Yes,” I stammer. “Thank you.” I hand her my filled forms and she motions for me to follow her. Her tag reads, “Kate”.

“You can change into your gown here.” Kate gestures into a small room. I walk in and she closes the door behind me. I take off my short, black dress, slip into the thin, billowing gown and I’m about to step out of the room when my phone vibrates with a new text.

Hello, ex-husband.

“Just started dating someone,” he writes. “Real sweet, 23. Wanted you to know before you saw it on Facebook.”

How nice of him. I do the math: she is sixteen years younger than him, six younger than me. What am I to expect though. Once you’ve lost luster, it is tradition that your ex-husband dates next a woman younger than yourself. After 29, 23 seems fitting. I step out of the room.

“This way,” says Kate. She starts to walk then places her hand on my arm with the intimacy of close girlfriends.

“I have to say,” she whispers, “With all the women I see in those awful gowns, you pull it off! You are so pretty!”

“Thank you.”

“You should be a model!”

“I’m an actress, actually.”

“Makes sense!” Kate giggles.

“And, um, yeah, I do commercials and photo-shoots sometimes, but I’m not tall enough for runway.”

“How fun,” Kate chirps. “Well, any baby with half your genes would be gorgeous. We’ll have mamas and papas linin’ up for your eggs!” She laughs, pleased with herself. By strange biological instinct, my hands move to shield the spot where I imagine my ovaries reside. As I’ve been trained to behave gratefully whenever someone calls attention to my physicality, I thank Kate.

I follow Kate to a large room holding eight enormous metal and plastic cushioned chairs, the kind that recline upon pressing the right button. I sit on the one I’m told is mine and Kate gets busy with our first round of tests. She checks my pulse, blood pressure, eyesight, reflexes, height and weight (“5’4”, 100 lbs, you’re just a tiny little thing, aren’t ya?”). She inserts a needle to draw a substantial vial of my blood. She chatters to soften the silence.

“So, how’s the acting going? Would I know you from anything?”

“I don’t think so. It’s going well enough. I supplement my income through babysitting and commercials, when I can get them.”

“Aww, so you like kids?”

“I love them. I’ve been taking care of kids since I was 19. Their families become family. Most of them live in Soho, so it’s like peeking into another world.”

“Yeah,” says Kate. “I’m from a small town in Tennessee. So I sorta know what you mean. In New York, you’re either rich or you do somethin’ for the rich. And where are you from?”

“Bangladesh.”

“Like, India?”

“No, it’s a separate country, next door to India.”

“Wow! So exotic!”

“I guess. Exoticism is subjective. I’m exotic to you but not to myself.”

“You’re funny,” Kate laughs. “So like, your parents moved here from there? Lie back, feet here. You know what to do.” Kate tilts back the chair and positions my feet on cold stirrups. She gestures for me to lift my gown. “Were you born in New York?”

“No. I was born in Bangladesh. I moved here when I was 18. For college.”

“Oh!” Kate blinks rapidly. “You don’t have an accent at all! Good for you!”

Once again, I’m supposed to say ‘Thank you’ so I do.

“Whatchu go to college for?”

“Theater and Women’s Studies.” Kate raises her eyebrows in apparent interest so I continue. “Growing up in the culture I did, from an early age I became aware of the abhorrent lack of agency, rights, and expression for women. I promised myself that I would grow up to be a voice for those who have been silenced. So, becoming an actress felt fitting.”

“Wow. Smarty pants!” Kate digests my words, continuing to blink, her blue eyes trying to reconcile the seemingly incongruous pieces of me. I’m used to this response. This flurry of blinking alarm is something I receive from most women and men, regardless of age, race, or vocation. They find my combination of brown skin, immigrant status, femaleness, attractiveness, and intelligence shocking. My make-up doesn’t fit what they’ve learned is “normal.” Thus, whenever I open my mouth and speak, it takes a few long seconds, minutes, and sometimes years for others to make peace with my apparent abnormality.

Kate is now rubber-gloved and wrist-deep inside me. Her eyes gaze into the space above my head while she feels around for any abnormality, this time internal.

“Do you ever think about….” she hesitates. “Do you want kids of your own?”

“Absolutely.”

“Not ready yet?” She smiles. Her hands feel like large, ungainly salmon trying to swim upstream.

“I can’t afford it.”

“Yeah.” She nods. “Kids are expensive.”

I stare. She doesn’t meet my eyes.

“Feels great!” she announces, slipping out. “You can get back into your clothes and the lab will have some of the results ready for us in just a bit.”

We return to the smaller room. I change out of the gown and into my dress, and I’m headed towards the sunlit room with the exotic fish and ethnic music overlooking Columbus Circle when Kate stops me.

“No, honey. Your room is down this way.”

“Right. Sorry. I forgot.”

She leads me to the small, square room holding the other hopeful and already-chosen donors. The fluorescent lights glint off the cold, bare linoleum floors freckled with black spots. The sour sterility of this holding chamber feels obtuse to the larger mission of a fertility clinic. Six silent young girls raise their eyes to meet mine, their skin ranging from caramel to cappuccino to molasses to dark coffee. They hunch in hard plastic chairs flanking the walls.

Corralled, obedient, poised for plucking. I sit down in the one open chair, barely breathing, my chest tight as a fist clenched with anger. Here we sit, we “sacred gifts.” Our eggs and music are reaped and sold, but we are not to be seen. Do the women in the other room know?

Would they care?

I try to read. My phone buzzes with a text from a man I went on two dates with. He writes: “Hey girl, wanna come over tonight?” He wants but one thing; I don’t reply.

So much noise.

After an hour, Kate returns for me.

“Great news!” she says once we’re back in the large room. I use my arms to lift myself back onto one of the huge medical chairs, my legs swinging in the air like a small child’s.

“So far, all the tests show that you’re young, healthy, and fertile!”

“Lucky me.”

“Seriously, like, really fertile!” Kate is so excited I instinctively brace myself for a hug. No hug, thankfully, but she does lean over to squeeze both my arms. (Like a charming dog or attractive child, I get hugged and squeezed, petted and caressed, by strangers and friends, men and women, uninvited and often. When you are beautiful, you’re treated as public property.)

“Are you surprised?” Kate cocks her head, curious at my lack of enthusiasm over my fertility.

“No, not really. I just…I’m 29 and in my country that’s considered pretty old for a woman. So I guess I’m,” I pause, the word “relieved” feeling inaccurate. “I’m… glad. That the tests came out well.”

“Oh honey,” she coos. “Tests don’t lie and you’re in the United States. Here, you’re young.” She strokes my hair, tucks a lock behind my left ear, benevolent, smiling. My ex-husband’s grin flashes before me.

“So I’ll give you this.” She hands me a heavy manual, at minimum 50 pages deep. “These are all the legalities and information on the medical process. There’s two phases. The first is ovarian hyperstimulation. Usually, your ovaries take turns producing one egg, or sometimes two, per month. So, in order to harvest a big batch, you’ll be given high doses of hormonal drugs to stimulate your ovaries into producing anywhere from eight to twenty eggs.”

She pauses for effect, beaming. I nod. She continues.

“Then comes the second phase, retrieval. We go in and get those little miracles through a procedure called transvaginal ultrasound aspiration.”

I nod.

“There is a part also on the possible side-effects of the procedure.”

“Side effects?”

“A small percentage of women who do donate their eggs then find that because of scar tissue from the procedure, or the effects of the hormonal drugs and their dosage, they can’t have their own children down the road.”

Hence the $2,000 difference between the first and consequent donations. Every cycle, every batch means a greater toll and risk on the body. The gale in my mind has started to circle.

“What about the eggs from before? The healthy ones that have been… given to someone else?”

“Well, honey, once you sell your eggs to someone else, it’s not like you can ask for them back!”

Silly me. Of course. The kind of transaction that due to the nature of the object or action sold, there is no return or refund. Like prostitution. Cremation. Amputation. The room spins.

“But the percentage is tiny. Teeny! So look over everything and once you’ve signed the release papers, give us a call and we can schedule your next appointment.”

“Release papers?”

“Yes, hun. To release your eggs.”

“Right.”

“Oka-y?” she lifts the tail of the word as if speaking to a child. My mind shrieks.

I nod. “May I go now, please? I have an audition.”

“Oh, yes, go ahead.” She jumps to her feet. “You know the way out? Great. Break a leg!” With one last giggle, Kate exits.

***

I catch the 1 train at Columbus Circle, take it down to 23rd Street, emerge from the subway station, dodge pedestrians, dog feces, and cat-calls, and walk two blocks north to the production studio holding today’s audition. On the ride up, alone in the elevator, I switch from ballet flats to four-inch heels, apply a fresh coat of red lipstick, and plump my small, demure breasts so that they perch higher and forward in my dress.

I’m here for a luxury vodka commercial. Luxury vodka promises sex. Those auditioning are required to behave accordingly. As a babysitter for New Yorkers, I make $20/hr. But, as with selling my eggs, if booked, this one commercial job could pay my rent for an entire year, perhaps even two. I check my reflection in the elevator mirror. I look like a thing to be devoured.

The elevator opens into the large production studio, taking up the entire floor of the building. Smaller audition rooms, their doors tightly shut, line the perimeter of the floor and a large space in the middle acts as the waiting room. The space teems with lithe, young bodies, male and female. They are so beautiful they seem to gleam. These coveted specimens of aesthetic allure stand alone, huddled in pairs, or sit lazing on the few pleather couches smattering the concrete floor, their limbs stretched and draped like strands of jewels. Although forcibly hushed, lest we disturb the cameras filming auditions behind closed doors, the air in the studio is that of a cramped bar. The musk of competition is pungent, virile.

I check the board on the wall adjacent to the elevators that holds today’s scheduled auditions. All commercials and photo-shoots, nothing for theater or film. Hence the hundreds of us packed wall to wall. The number of girls and boys called in for commercial auditions is far higher than the number called in for theater or film. The volume proves that while true talent is precious, pretty faces are commonplace.

I find the room for the audition I’m here for. I write my name on its respective clipboard, return it to the music stand next to the door. The casting director will call us in the order we arrive.

I secure a bare spot along the wall to lean against. The girl next to me is hardly 16, 17 at most. She too is dressed like prey but must be here for another commercial; to be in an alcohol commercial you have to be at least 25. But to sell cars you can be teenager, as long as you whet the market’s appetite. I look over her head. Yup; next door, luxury car. She brushes against me.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, jumping like a frightened fawn.

“It’s all right.” I smile. She viscerally relaxes. In New York, a sincere smile is as rare as we young things are common.

I take out my book, trying to read while I wait. But my mind can’t help it; it reaches off the page towards the girls and boys around me. I fell into modeling the way one falls into love with someone cruel. I know better, I didn’t plan, expect, or want to, yet here I am.

I’m here partly because of money and partly because of anorexia. In a world that continually belittles and devalues its women, anorexia is but a side-effect for being raised as a girl on this planet. Anorexia is rooted in the feeling of being unloved, unworthy, and unwanted, so, through auditioning, modeling, being hired and being photographed, feeling attractive and desired alleviates the pain, however momentarily. That being said, I’m anorexic partly because of modeling and its money; so often, the very things we do to soften the shadow only feeds it. What came first, the egg or the donor?

I look around. Did each one of these girls and boys choose their way here from genuine desire, did they succumb from financial desperation, or are they here because feeling beautiful and wanted gives a person a sense of value, however false and fleeting? Did they too begin with the intention to do something meaningful, only to find themselves stripped of meaning?

I watch their faces, each one younger, more scared, and more seductive than the next. By sheer genetic luck, they have been identified as having unique currency. Unique yet fleeting. If beauty marks you valuable, time will rob your value. The very act of being alive will depreciate you. Hence the fear. We all know our time to sell is now.

“You’re next.” The casting director prods my arm, motioning, and I follow. I peel myself from the assembly line to walk towards the waiting panel of judges. Four agency executives, their two assistants, and one casting assistant look up from their cellphones to glance me over, head to toe.

“Hi, I’m Ree —”

“Oh my God. Is that your real hair?” interrupts one of the execs.

“It is.”

“It is so long! And thick.” She stares, enraptured, while the others murmur their approval. Not one person has made eye-contact with me. I’m pinched by the urge to notify them that yes, according to science and confirmed by America, I am young, healthy, and fertile.

“Love it! I could’ve sworn they were extensions!” laughs the exec. “I just got mine.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I just got these extensions,” she runs her fingers through her tresses, proudly. “It’s real hair, from like, India or Nepal or something. It feels amazing.”

She laughs. The others laugh.

A pause.

“Shall I — ?”

“Yes! Go ahead.”

They film me reading the copy once, twice, thrice.

“Thanks so much for coming in.”

“Thanks for having me.”

I gather my bag, leave, and head towards the elevator. While waiting, something bites the back of my neck. I reach, tug, rip the tag off my dress. It reads, “Made in Bangladesh.”

It’s a testament to the human imagination that there are so many ways to exploit a body. It’s like the French and their savvy ability to butcher, cure, dry, brine, grind, sausage, and smoke a single pig into innumerable kinds of meat. I step into the elevator clutching my little tag, both birth certificate and obituary. I turn to look once more at the dozens of girls and boys waiting patiently. Daily, we allow our blood to be bottled, our truth to be tested, our desperation capitalized, filmed, marketed, and sold.

I am done. I know there is life beyond this. I need to walk toward it.

My phone buzzes with a text. My beloved friend, hopeful mama, wondering when I’ll arrive.

I dial her number. She answers.

Reema Zaman is a writer, speaker, and trauma coach from Bangladesh, living in Oregon. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir I Am Yours (April 2019, Amberjack). Winner of the prestigious Oregon Literary Award 2018, “The Harvest of Bodies” is the first two scenes of her larger, winning piece, and part of her second memoir, I Am My Own. Her other writing has been published in B*tch, SHAPE, The Rumpus, NAILED, YourTango, The Huffington Post, Full Grown People, and more. She travels widely speaking on healing and rising from sexual assault, and the power and principles of owning one’s voice. She is known for her talk “Me Too, Now What: The Art of Turning Tragedy into Triumph”. For writing, videos of talks, press, and more, please visit www.reemazaman.com.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/sookie

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