The first time something happened to me that I couldn’t find any way to laugh about was a week before I finished graduate school, when a doctor told me that I’d had a miscarriage. After that, I spent the days leading up to graduation binge drinking to such an extent that one night I tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich by putting bread and cheese in a vertical toaster and nearly burned my house down. When I stumbled up to the stage to receive my MFA diploma, hungover and toasterless, I couldn’t have been less proud of what I had achieved in my 31 years. I had worked plenty, but I’d never had a “real” job with insurance. I still wore clothes from Forever 21 that didn’t fit all that well anymore. I had never learned to cook, obviously. I was failing to find an agent for the third novel I had written. And when I’d tried to do something supposedly easy like having a baby, I managed to botch that too.
The friends I told unveiled an entire sorority of other friends, sisters, aunts, and hairdressers who’d also had miscarriages. Their stories always ended with “but it all worked out, because she went on to have two beautiful children!”—as if that would erase the bloody mess I’d found in the toilet one morning. But when my husband and I followed up with the doctor a week after graduation, I learned that the doctor had got it wrong the first time around and had misdiagnosed me: I was not part of the cool 1-in-5 miscarrying-as-a-rite-of-passage club, but the 1-in-10-to-100 club of women cursed with an ectopic pregnancy.
The young doctor, who was kind but made it clear she had seen much worse, told us that a fertilized egg had got stuck in my fallopian tube on the way to the uterus. The first step would be to inject me with a low dose of a chemotherapy drug. After that, I’d need to come in every few days so they could make sure the egg was shrinking instead of growing and threatening to rupture my tube—which could potentially kill me. If the drugs didn’t work, I’d need surgery, which would give me a 50 percent chance of losing that tube, essentially rendering half of the eggs in my body useless. I scared the doctor and an observing medical student by bursting into tears that rivaled the sounds of the baby crying in the next room. Then a woman in a hazmat suit came in to inject both my butt cheeks with a giant needle full of the drug. I was sent away with a vial of extremely potent uppers, which would help me deal with the fact that a woman who had an ectopic pregnancy was 10 times more likely to have a second one, and also that my husband and I would have to wait three months after the baby-orb was extinguished, the whole long summer at best, to try to get pregnant again.
Ectopic is Greek for “out of place,” which seemed fitting that summer. I’d planned to kick off the season by visiting my parents in Jersey and giving a speech at my friends’ commitment ceremony in Brooklyn. Instead my husband and I were stuck in Iowa, where we blasted through a season of Billions while I took my “happy pills” and returned to the hospital every few days to track the progress of the orb, which I still felt throbbing in my right tube. I spent most of my days on forums where women shared their sagas of multiple ectopic pregnancies, lost tubes, years of infertility, failed IVF, stillbirths, and other woes far worse than mine, and repeatedly checked my email to see if any agents were interested in my fairly autobiographical novel, which happened to end with the protagonist’s pregnancy. No one was getting back to me.
I had two unpublished novels under my belt at that point. Eight years earlier, well before anyone cared about Chernobyl, I wrote a novel about a preteen who evacuates Kyiv after the disaster and starts an inappropriate relationship with her best friend’s fascist grandfather—admittedly, a hard sell. I managed to find an agent, who strung me along for two years before giving up on the book. A few years later, I finished my second project, a 700-page comic novel about a Ukrainian immigrant whose life is upended when her agent gives up on her historical novel. My favorite scene in the book was when the girl’s father sends his oversize mobsters to Manhattan to convince the agent to give her a second chance. “I wish there was more I could do,” the agent cried as the mobsters hung her head out her 20th-story window, “but your daughter simply isn’t ready.” The book was not a hit with literary agents.
As I went around Iowa City dodging people with agents and pregnant women like they were the radioactive firefighters from my Chernobyl novel, I told myself that what I saw as the lowest point in my life would be funny, one day. Dear agent, I could write, I want to find the right place for this novel, since I can’t seem to correctly place a fertilized egg in my messed-up body. Or perhaps I would write a tongue-in-cheek story about a Soviet immigrant egg stuck in a tube: “I was told America would be more spacious,” the egg would complain, while slowly suffocating.
A month after my diagnosis, the baby-orb did die. My husband and I didn’t do anything special when I got the news. It was a relief to vanquish the rogue invader of my body—or at least thinking of it as such made it easier to deal with it. Plus, this meant I could drink again.
After that, I began visiting a not particularly joyful therapist named Joy who did not offer me much solace. “Write down your biggest fears on a card and put it in your wallet,” she told me. “Then, if you’re worried about something, you can say, that’s OK, I already wrote it down on the card!” I burst into laughter—I knew well enough that writing something down did not strip it of its power. I also made a pregnancy shrine consisting of a small shelf of Russian literature topped by healing crystals given to me by a friend, and a Japanese statue that protects lost children, and atheist-prayed to it every morning, wondering if I was losing my mind. I taught creative writing to high school students, by far the most soul-rejuvenating thing I had done. Those kids saved me by reminding me how much I loved writing, even if I might have scared them when I wept while reading aloud from the ending of “The Dead.” At last, the summer mercifully ended, and the pulse that had lingered where the baby orb had been was finally quiet.
Things happened quickly after Labor Day. I got pregnant again, and I finally heard back from an agent—he wanted to sell my book, and he did, on the day that I heard my daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. Two years later, my novel was published and I have a healthy 1-year-old, but that doesn’t mean I never look back, or that I’ve found a way to laugh about it. Sometimes, around my period, I still feel pain in the injured tube, and it’s a comfort, in a way. After my rejected Chernobyl narrator evacuated her home, she asked herself, rather melodramatically, “What if the Chernobyl dust was something that got embedded in your pores, clutched onto your skin and hair, and resided under your fingernails—something that marked you for the rest of your life?” The book she was in wasn’t very good, but she was onto something. I won’t forget that endless summer by looking in my daughter’s eyes, and I’m OK with that. It’s just another thing that happened to me. More things will.