There was no avoiding the flash of drug dij` vu. Stand in line at the bank because the source wants more cash than you can get from an ATM; wonder what the teller's thinking as she counts out $600 in small bills; worry about getting robbed en route to the parking lot; drive to meet the connection, praying the stuff is good.
Fifteen years ago, I'd have been meeting the sleazoid would-be producer who paid his rent by selling party-time coke to my friends and me. Now it was a series of strangers, and expeditions that weren't about pleasure but desperation. The deals I made were for ampuls of human menopausal gonadotropin -- brand name Pergonal -- which, injected, would goad my ovaries into making masses of eggs each month, one of them good enough, I hoped, to produce a child.
I grew up on mind-altering street pharmaceuticals, but I reached a new appreciation of the surreal during the year I spent buying black market fertility drugs.
Two forces got me there: generational mass delusion and capitalism. I was one of those women who considered the notion of the biological clock to be patriarchal hogwash. "I -- I can't believe it I forgot to have children!" proclaimed the T-shirt I actually wore proudly at 26. It wasn't until I was just past 40, dazzled with love for my new daughter and motherhood -- when my efforts to conceive another child were going absolutely nowhere -- that I realized what a moron I'd been.
Enter the system: Yes, medical intervention might get me pregnant, but I'd have to pay through the nose for it. Even the relatively low-tech tactic of ovarian stimulation coupled with insemination cost more than $2,000 a try, and it rarely worked the first time. (In vitro fertilization, at 10 grand a pop, wasn't even an option.) More than half the expense was drug related; pharmacy Pergonal ran $60 per amp, and a typical cycle required at least two dozen.
But one day, I noticed that my doctor's bulletin board had ads from women who were ending treatment and recouping costs by selling drugs they hadn't used. Secondhand Pergonal was going for as little as $15 a hit. Trading in prescription medication is illegal, not to mention that you can't be sure what you're getting. But with $1,000 a month at stake, who cared?
I actually recognized the first phone number I wrote down. It was that of the wife of an old friend, who, after four years of effort and maybe a dozen miscarriages, was about to deliver child No. 2. I called, made the deal and two days later exchanged a handful of bills for a white paper bag full of drugs. They'd been purchased in central Mexico by the friend of a friend who had family there, then smuggled across the boarder. (Customs will allow small amounts of medication for "personal use," but she'd been stockpiling and her original order was too big to qualify.)
I was thrilled at how easy this was. I now had a hefty supply of product for only $14 per amp, and the fact that it had come from someone who'd gotten pregnant seemed like a good omen. (Fervent belief in signs and portents is vital when you're infertile; otherwise you have nothing to cling to but the cold, immutable laws of biology.) Two months later, I'd shot it all up, popped over a dozen eggs and been basted in sperm, but it hadn't worked. I was back on the phone.
Suddenly I was immersed in a sea of commerce and pain. I'm a journalist, used to intruding in strangers' lives, but I'd never before learned the state of someone's reproductive organs within five minutes of a meeting. "Here -- I bought them for $60 each, but I'm only asking $20," said my next bulletin board contact, an Indian immigrant in her late 30s, as she handed over the medication in her mid-Los Angeles living room. "My eggs are no good. I am waiting for a donor."
"We had to do IVF," cheerfully confessed a blond, clean-cut and surfer-attractive husband with Pergonal bought in Tijuana, Mexico, to sell. "My wife's 42 and I have, uh, a count problem."
Maybe that part wasn't so strange, since just admitting we were part of this same, awful world made us instantly intimate in a way we couldn't be even with friends. With someone else who'd been there, the mere sentence "Yep, trying for three years now" carried a weight of emotion and imagery -- the needles, stirrups, plastic cups, hope, tears, regret and sweaty, grunting sex giving way to something scheduled and grimly determined. And yet this profundity would be followed by the most banal social chat.
"Like my new patio cover?" asked the low-count man shortly after he gave me drugs and talked obsessively about his wife's successful medication regimen. (They'd hit the jackpot -- she was eight months pregnant with twins.)
"Very much," I said truthfully. "We could use one just like it."
"Home Depot!" he answered immediately, offering aisle directions. The patio and yard, like the rest of the house, were frighteningly immaculate. I wondered if he and his wife knew what two little boys would do to the place.
Two more cycles, 14 more eggs, still no baby. For my next buy, I followed directions to an expensive neighborhood at the top of the Hollywood Hills. Security cameras focused on me as I parked, catching, humiliatingly, my dirty, 15-year-old car. A maid opened the door. Inside, glass walls revealed a huge swimming pool and stunning views.
I walked down a hall, past a Diane Arbus print that looked real, to where my seller, a wan blond, sat in a light-filled bedroom nursing a very tiny girl. The baby had come a month early, the woman told me; sometimes that happened with older mothers.
"I'm 41. How old are you?" she asked. It was the question, in the doctor's waiting room, on the infertility bulletin boards I'd compulsively begun to cruise. I'd answer and sense mental gears spinning: She's even older than me! I've still got a chance!
Was I doing IVF, too? the woman continued in a dreamy voice. Too bad. Was I seeing the charismatic senior partner in the fertility clinic? He was fabulous, brilliant; it had taken several tries, but she couldn't have done this without him, and she was going to do it again, just as soon as she could. She showed me a box full of drugs she'd gotten from Europe -- I had no idea how, but they looked legit. I counted out my money, resentfully this time. The house, the view, the $30,000 baby -- couldn't she just give me the stuff in the name of barren-gal solidarity? Apparently not. She dropped the bills in a desk drawer and the maid saw me to the door.
My upper-class drugs failed, too. As a new cycle began, the doctor scanned my ovaries to make sure they were healthy ($150), and asked if I needed a prescription for drugs. "I have my own," I told her. We'd gone through this before; the one time I mentioned what I was using, she replied, "I can't advise you to do this."
I got the same line from the nurses who had showed me how to take a one-and-one-half-inch needle and stab myself in the butt. It was a joke, considering that I was finding my illicit, used, cut-price foreign goods through this very office, and I wondered sometimes why my doctor and her partners, who operated a very prosperous, big-league clinic, didn't worry about being busted themselves. Instead, it was "Don't ask, don't tell," and I suspect the fiction allowed the doctors to feel they were "helping" patients by enabling them to save money. (Of course, it never occurred to them they also could do this by lowering their own prices.)
Just like the desperate crowds in the doctor's waiting room, the number of notes on the bulletin board never seemed to decrease. "I WILL GIVE SOMEONE THESE LAST FEW AMPS FOR FREE -- THEY WORKED!!!" announced one ad, but when I called, they were already gone. Instead, I bought from a 44-year-old Asian would-be screenwriter who lived near a notoriously violent west L.A. housing project and had just lucked into insurance coverage that would pay for future drugs. The house had bars on the windows and scripts on the floor. "I think sometimes, 'Why did I wait so long to have a baby?'" she said, trying to smile. "But I can't remember."
I bought from an Iranian, in her early 40s, whose face was haggard with stress and who would meet me only away from her home, in a cafe. "I give you these because I am done with it all," she said, handing over a brown paper bag.
"Does your husband help you in your effort to have a child? That's good. Mine did not. Never gave the shots. Never went to the doctors. He comes from a very traditional family; they told him that since I was barren, he should divorce me and marry a woman who was younger. He did not want to at first, but the trying wears you out. You stop making love. You feel like a failure. I gained 30 pounds and became unattractive. So now we are divorced, and he will find someone else. I have no husband and no child; this is not what I thought my life would be, and I am too tired to care."
I murmured my sympathies. "No," she insisted, "it doesn't matter. I really don't care." She reached out suddenly, hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. "I think these will work for you. You will get what you want. Tell me what happens." I left her outside the cafe, lighting a cigarette. When her drugs failed too, I couldn't bear to make the call.
I took some time off from the fertility game after that, and when I returned to the doctor's office, the for-sale notices had been cleared from the board. When I mentioned my intent to buy in nearby Tijuana, a nurse darkly warned against Mexican drugs, some of which, she said, were proving counterfeit.
In a year, I'd grown paranoid enough to listen. Instead, on a Web site, I found out about a Paris pharmacy that shipped product made in Spain. I faxed a prescription and credit card number, and two weeks later received a carton wrapped in brown paper, bearing the customs declaration "Produits de beauti." My youth potion.
Sometimes, when I snap the tips off the glass ampuls and mix the white powder inside with water, I wonder if the defeated Indian ever got her donor baby. Have two toddlers trashed that pristine house, and have their parents learned not to care? Did the screenwriter have a child, did the rich white girl manage another, has the brokenhearted Iranian put together a new life? Their phone numbers are gone, and I'll never know.
Instead, I shoot my new drugs -- from Paris, city of lovers, a good omen, right? -- and when the needle goes in, I get a high unlike any I've felt before. No euphoria or adrenaline rush, but I know that out of sight, my ovaries are charged up, flaring and, like some Fourth of July fireworks finale, sending up everything they've got before the show ends for good, and the sky goes dark.