“Turn left here.”
I glance over my shoulder and note the impenetrable wall of traffic. “Uh, no can do.” I coast into the intersection and look forlornly through my driver’s side window at the road I should be on. A scowl of annoyance folds my cheek and I heave a sigh. “Well, I guess I can swing around at the next light.”
The next light is a No U-Turn intersection. I’ve already committed to the turn lane by the time I realize this, so I take the left anyway and figure I’ll just make another left on the other side of the overpass and come back ’round to my initial destination. Of course there is no left turn possible so I stay in the furthest left lane that I can, hoping soon some light will allow me to reverse direction and get back on track. I am reminded of my dad, whom we’ve occasionally teased with names like “The U-Turn King.” Yes, karma, I see you over there in the corner. Ha ha. Very funny.
“Hey,” Nik remarks, “I think this street is the one you were trying to turn left on originally.” As I breeze past the crosswalk I duck my head and look up at the rapidly passing street sign and, yes, this is the street I originally missed turning onto, obviously it had curved sharply right after the intersection and now ran parallel to the initial road.
“Perfect,” I say.
The next nine minutes involve sixteen left turns, two U-turns and a punched steering wheel (okay two punches were attempted but I’m such a poor executor of my frustration only one of my blows actually lands on the wheel which is half a foot directly in front of me), but at last we’ve found the correct road—and the correct direction, which was a point of consideration I hadn’t thought would play a particularly strong role but proved to be nearly as vexing as locating the proper street. I silently say thanks for my wife’s insistence that we leave the house with time to spare, “just in case.”
I consider what peculiar decisions we’ve taken to arrive at this point in time and space and trace it back to Nik’s central neurosis. It’s like this: We had an ultrasound which confirmed the gender of our baby (a girl) six weeks ago. They took a picture from an unflattering angle off the monitor with an arrow pointing between her legs and typed across the image, “It’s a Girl!” It’s one of the many things that will only fly (with me) for a very brief window of time. Anyone expressing this much fascination with my daughter’s reproductive organs beyond that had better come equipped with an expensive diploma, a stethoscope and a healthy fear of lawsuits, hedge clippers and firearms. But Nik has a sort of casual paranoia: She doesn’t concoct elaborate scenarios in which aliens kidnap her or governmental bogeymen plant tracking devices in her toenails, she prefers to presume that cosmic forces plot against her in an effort to thwart her shopping trips and decor decisions. In this case she’s convinced that we require independent verification of our unborn child’s sex or she will refuse to purchase needed items, register for gifts or accept charity on the (let’s face it) 50/50 shot that the doctors are incorrect.
Which is what has us traveling this twisty maze of unfamiliar streets, looking for the offices of a private ultrasound technician specializing in—ahem—state of the art 4D ultrasounds. The term 4D is something that would probably only get a pass in the logic-adverse world of commercial prenatal products and services. The real fourth dimension is a spatial construct separate from the commonly understood planes of height, width and depth which is described as reasonably as the concept can be in this mind-fracturing article. I think what the marketers mean in this case is that the imagery incorporates the fourth dimension of spacetime which is linear progression via chronology. In other words, the images are arranged in a sequence. Never mind that this is classically defined as, you know, video. I guess it just doesn’t have that same cutting-edge ring to it.
These sorts of establishments offer a variety of services, not unlike studio photographers, only with extra-womb shutterbugs you have to find particularly seedy providers before you encounter the analog to the “genitals only” package. They are intensely specific about this option, including several blocks of disclaimer verbiage in assorted font sizes reminding customers that even an accidental glimpse of the baby’s head, neck, chest or face region is likely to cost upward of $200 additional dollars in service fees. As I settle into the longer stretch of non-highway road on the route I wonder what sort of trickery they plan to employ to prevent us from catching a glimpse of our daughter (?). What if the arbitrarily selected placement of the ultrasound wand happened to be right above her (?) face? They wouldn’t really charge us extra just because the baby was trying to use my wife’s navel as a periscope, would they?
I decide, as is my cynical tendency, they most definitely would. I try to gently prod Nik to get the child to turn around or something. “Where do you think her head is?” I ask casually, breaking the relative silence.
Nik shrugs, she’s still staring at her handwritten instructions. We’re a pretty wired family but we’re notoriously bad about keeping our printer stocked with ink, so we spend a lot of time looking up directions online and copying them by hand onto the backs of envelopes or torn receipts. I let the question linger in the air. She finally looks up. “Huh?”
“Do you think she’s facing toward your front?” I ask, still keeping my voice suave.
“I dunno, I guess so.”
I consider this. “So you think he’ll probably start toward the bottom of your stomach like the OB/GYN? Or do you think he’ll go for a top-down approach?” I’m thinking of the diagrams in a number of books I’ve thumbed through which always depict the infants sort of heads-up until it is time for the labor/delivery process during which they seem to execute a precision half-gainer with a twist. She regards me like a pet owner who just watched their dog run facefirst into the screen door after barely getting the sliding glass door clear.
But before she can chide me she glances out the window and realizes that the scenery has changed and she quickly examines her note. “Whoa, it’s around here somewhere,” she says. I look out the window, searching for a reference address. Rather than noting any street digits, I’m distracted by the black glare of the telltale signs of Bad Neighborhood: Bars line every window, graffiti extends beyond the typical suburban targets like open sound walls, bus stops and public school portables, spilling onto traffic signs, parked cars and unlucky pedestrians. The street lights have dimmed to a dull yellow, the universal color of warning and I begin to process what she just said in the context of what my fight-or-flight reaction is relaying to me now.
“Yeah, well the website says it’s not the nicest location. You know, so they can keep the costs down.”
“They keep costs down by squatting on Skid Row?” I can practically feel her scowling at me.
“Oh!” Her death gaze is cut short by a glimpse of a passing address. “It should be right… around…” her finger points out the window like a divining rod trying to find a lock. “Here!” I slow my approach and make the right hand turn into what must be the smallest parking lot ever designated as such. It contains one ’87 Oldsmobile Cutlass and is already full. There is a razor thin pathway leading toward the back of the building with a sign clearly punctured by multiple drive-by shootings indicating additional parking is available through this alley/ambush bottleneck.
The building itself is a fleabag hotel that has been converted—my guess is illegally—into a business park. The tenants include two bail bond operations, a head shop (hours: M, Th from 11:00 am – 3:45 pm) and the local NA chapter, who are currently holding a meeting. The ultrasound place is on the lower floor, street side in what I’m beginning to think of as the “killzone” for any marauders or other passing brigands. I’m trying to execute a three-point turn at a safe 45 mph while Nik is calmly gesturing toward the canal of death, deeper into the inky blackness of urban nightmares. “Looks like we’ll have to pull around back.”
I can’t bring myself to actually stop the car, so I speak quickly, “This place is a hovel. We are going to die here and our tale will serve as a grim warning to future generations.” This is my protest, but I note with chagrin that I haven’t been able to avoid actually directing the car down the alleyway. At the back side of the building is another parking lot in the loosest sense of the word. It is an enclosed and dimly lit cul-de-sac crowded with stolen cars and derelict RVs whose windows glow with ethereal lights in sickly green hues. The sort of mad street chemistry being conducted behind those filthy panes of shatterproof glass by bearded urban hillbillies frosts me with a deep marrow chill, like filling my bones with Icee™. Crowding the limited space available are looming trees, bristling with sniper’s nests and camouflaging the night’s sinister soldiers.
“There’s a spot,” Nik chirps brightly.
I pull into the stall and begin to hurriedly collect anything that might be of value—anything loose, essentially. I’m glancing out the windows, praying the automatic interior light timer will hurry because as it is we’re a virtual Victim Beacon, broadcasting our location with searchlights and highlighting our lack of defensive weaponry with fiber optic sandwich boards. Nik looks over at me, my arms laden with personal electronics, spent checkbooks, car chargers, pens, anything shiny that might reflect light and draw the villainous eye of a thug on patrol through his favorite hunting grounds. Sweat beading on my brow, she crumples her lip as if she was seeing me for the first time for what I truly am: A five-foot-seven banana slug. “Let’s just go,” she says with a heaving sigh of exasperation. A sound pierces the darkness which I immediately attribute to gunfire but upon further reflection…
“Was that… cannon fire?” I can honestly say I never expected to be dragged by my earlobe through a parking lot by a pregnant woman. Oh the places you’ll go, indeed.
The door to the destination is open, but the lights are off. Also open is the door to the meeting in the next suite which I thought originally was for NA but turns out to be Serial Killers Anonymous, a lesser known organization. The gathering of greasy-haired outcasts thumbing something rigid and slender outlined just beyond the threshold of recognition in their jacket pockets, talking to their curtains of hair with sharp bird-like movements of their heads is peppered with beefy tattooed convicts proudly displaying an impressive array of improvised blade scars across their arms and faces. Their heads turn in unison as we pass, regarding this pasty suburban couple with the same intensity as a pack of starving jackals watching a flat-tired butcher delivery van. Our options are to brave the unknown darkness behind the portal that represents what I can only assume is our final destination or stand out here testing the efficacy of the 12-step program.
“Come in, come in,” a voice creeps from the darkness, “I’ve been expecting you.” I’m having trouble placing the accent, and Nik and I shuffle nervously into the dim room, sort of egging each other on. A form moves toward the back of the suite and my eyes adjust enough to make out a shadow pulling away from the pale glow of a laptop monitor. There are flashes of color and motion just visible via the insubstantial orange light that barely filters through the slits in the closed blinds. It doesn’t seem like the form really moves, it more appears at our side, and the light clicks on.
Our host is an eastern European man, maybe mid-forties. He’s suddenly wearing a hunting-safety orange vest over a set of blood red scrubs, where a moment ago I swore he was wearing some sort of hood or at least a cloak. After another second of consideration I decide I’m not much comforted by the notion of red scrubs and I examine the extremities of them, the wrists and cuffs, to see if perhaps they were once white and only appear to have been intentionally dyed red. He’s swarthy and has a scruff of salt and pepper across his chin and neck, but I notice with some alarm that his eyes are solid black and even under the unforgiving illumination of these florescent bulbs, they reflect no light. “So, what are you here to see?” he asks cordially. I finally recognize the accent: Transylvanian.
Nik explains to him that we want to verify the baby’s gender. “You didn’t get an ultrasound from your doctor?” he asks. Looking a bit embarrassed, Nik shuffles her feet.
“We did,” I say, my voice croaking a bit as I realize my mouth is entirely devoid of saliva. “We just want to be sure.”
“Okay,” the Count Ultrasound says. Only he doesn’t say it in that “yes I understand” sort of way, he says it like, “Ooookay,” in that “hey it’s your money, weirdos” kind of way. I’m a little insulted that a vampire masquerading as a medical professional would be judging us. He continues, to Nik, “Up on the table, please.”
From across the room I’m suddenly acutely aware of several things:
- My wife has a long and particularly luscious neck.
- Count Ultrasound has positioned himself between her and I.
- I left my ghoul-hunting equipment at home.
I look around the room, trying to find any sort of object I could use as an improvised weapon, thinking, “What would MacGuyver do? What would Jason Bourne look for?” The most useful result of this exercise is that I confirm for the record that I am neither MacGuyver or Jason Bourne. Less useful but interesting is the room itself. Aside from the standard issue exam table, there is a high-quality color printer, a pretty state-of-the-art HP laptop which is really a desktop replacement, a massive screen stretched across the far wall, a decent projector mounted on the ceiling and an ultrasound machine that makes the one in Nik’s OB/GYN’s office look like it could have been used to confirm the gender of Caesar Agustus.
In no way am I up on any of the current models in the ultrasound sector, but I know snazzy techno-gizmos when I see them and this thing is pretty smokin’. It has its own flat panel high resolution display and as Count Ultrasound begins, he dims the lights in the room and suddenly the inside of my wife is projected wall-sized in HD on the screen from the projector. The picture quality, compared to the images I felt I was getting pretty good at deciphering, is astounding. Within moments I feel like I can start to make out tiny details I would never have distinguished from the blizzard of static at the OB’s office. I swear I can see a tiny wrinkle in the knuckle of a baby toe when suddenly the Count snaps the light back on and announces, “We’re done. It’s a girl.”
I think he’s joking, but it’s hard to tell from the back of his head. Nik looks like she’s near to tears so I’m guessing maybe he’s serious? The moment lasts too long and Nik and I exchange a few glances before she catches the Count’s look again and seems to soften. He says something I don’t hear and Nik laughs her nervous fake laugh while he replaces the wand on her belly and begins again. Oh, it was a joke. You know that one where you make a pregnant woman almost cry?
The clarity in this ultrasound is remarkable and indeed after a couple of seconds to get my bearings I can clearly identify the parts he’s highlighting with the mouse cursor on the screen: This child is indeed my daughter. He flips the mode over to the dubiously referenced 4D mode which mostly seems to fill in the x-ray style ultrasound with an amber coating to give it some solidity and creates a more photographic effect. Indeed, if you wish to be charged for the privilege, the technique can give you something that approximates the child’s first picture in which you can make out a lot of their features. I’m impressed by how deftly the Count avoids the child’s face so as to avoid granting us any freebies, but I also note that Nik seems to be subtly shifting herself underneath the wand, trying to trick him into rolling over the child’s head area and giving us a peek.
Without thinking I avert my eyes, afraid Nik’s gambit will be successful. Sure, there is the ridiculous reflex based notion which puffs out its tiny chest in the face of logic and suggests that if I somehow don’t see the baby’s face I can’t be charged for it but there is something else driving my actions. It’s subtler and less prone to metaphor. Obviously I’m curious. I’ve waited for months for this child, my offspring, to reveal herself and yet there are still months to go. I have a documented fascination for technology and the wonder of using it to simulate magic.
But something in me feels like there is a magic in itself to that moment so poorly captured in novel and film where a child is drawn crying from its mother and placed into the waiting arms of its parents. It is like meeting a pen pal for the first time and finding the love you hoped and feared you might have for them is in fact real and consumes like a fire. It’s like opening the Christmas present you’ve pretty much got figured out and finding your hopes confirmed but being even more grateful for it than you thought you’d be. It’s the surprise that isn’t a surprise, something so marvelous that it can’t be cheated, it must be experienced. And at this moment I’m feeling like I risk ruining it before I’ve had the chance to know what it’s like.
Listen, the truth is, I chicken out.
But honestly it doesn’t matter because the Count is crafty and he shifts the wand with Nik like a bemused dancer dealing with an overly confident upstart. I guess he’s played this little game before and I realize he’s got the upper hand regardless: Even if Nik is successful he can always just charge us for it and emerge the victor one way or the other. I try to telepathically relay to Nik that the deck is stacked. Whether she receives the signal or comes to the conclusion on her own, she gives up.
We spend a few more minutes checking toes and seeing the baby kick, which gives a peculiar reference to the little bumps we’ve felt for weeks now. After a bit the Count stands up and snaps on the light (again), provides Nik with a towel so she can clean the goop from her stomach and fusses with his high tech equipment for a bit before dangling a parcel containing a CD-ROM and a couple of high-res printouts in front of me but just out of reach like an older brother. He’s expecting payment and suddenly I realize we haven’t discussed methods. Does he accept cash only? Checks? Discover card? Plasma by the pint?
Our exit is awkward, we’re reluctant to turn our back on him but similarly hesitant to return to the mean streets, especially carrying an unmarked package which could entice a particularly curious brand of mugger. My voice wavers as I speak intentionally loudly about our recently acquired baby pictures, clarifying that we aren’t transporting rare electronic devices or precious stones or anything else appealing to any hooligans who may be lurking just out of site, in wait. We reach the car out of breath although neither of us recalls running or even walking fast. I leave a sixteen foot streak of black rubber on the asphalt in my haste to depart and I glance into the rearview mirror one last time, confirming we don’t have a tail. A quick look to my right finds Nik, pale faced and clutching the package of images of our unborn daughter’s genitalia, an approving grimace on her lips.
“So,” I ask, trying to regain my cool exterior, “Want to try the best ice cream in the world?”