One morning when the smell of fish, barbecue sauce, rotten eggs, and old milk was too strong to bear -- even from the safety and seclusion of my room -- I threw the covers off my naked legs and gathered all the trash I could find in the house, stuffing it inside several thick trash sacks and one mysterious cardboard box that had been sitting outside my roommate’s bedroom door for a week.
There was pink goop all over the flaps on the cardboard box and I got some on my beautiful, delicate fingers as I tidied up. I wiped my hands on a clean spot on the carpet. I put on a smoking jacket and rubbed raspberry-scented oil into my hands and my chiseled face. Then I knocked on my roommate’s door, furious.
“Open up!” I shouted. “We need to talk about the filth of our lives!”
I heard him stir, but he didn’t respond, and I knew he was trying to ignore me.
I tried the door handle, but it was locked.
“We are disgusting people and we will come to a bad end!” I shouted, banging on his door with both fists and kicking at the frame.
The door opened up a crack and I stepped backwards. I pointed to the cardboard box as he stared at me through the sliver of light.
“What?” he said. “I paid rent, right?”
“What was in this box?” I asked. “What are you doing in there?”
Benjamin made his money like I did: we were both thieves. I would have gladly lived with some other roommate, someone more genteel and more refined like myself, but I needed to live with somebody who wouldn’t mind the apartment being stuffed with crates of pilfered turtlenecks every third quarter or so. We weren’t GOOD thieves: good thieves didn’t need roommates, because good thieves could afford their own place because they stole money and not opportunistic flotsam from the docks. My problem was that I wasn’t brave enough to steal anything big and had to subsist on stolen shoes, clothes, exotic cheeses, cut-rate jewelry, and fine art: things I liked but which didn’t bring much of a payday. Benjamin’s problem was worse: he was just lazy. Lazy, sensitive, and lonely. Really, he was an emotional wreck most of the time, which is why I stayed out of his way.
In fact, I hadn’t seen talked with him in months.
“What is “EmbroGene Labs?” I asked, pointing to the label on the sticky cardboard box. “Medical tech?”
“Yeah,” said Benjamin. “I got six boxes of this stuff. Big score. I’m set for months.”
“You’ll spend it,” I said, trying to peer into his room. “What was it? Some kind of biological weapon?”
“Goddamit,” said Benjamin. “You know I am a pacifist. I hate the army.”
“Yeah but,” I said. “Medical tech is hard to unload unless it’s military.”
“Not this stuff,” said Benjamin, sheepishly. “This stuff don’t need a sales seminar.”
Benjamin was a toadish lump. He was gruff and stupid and fat and ugly and Southern and I never saw him go out or come in. He was always in his room, shuffling, squatting, lounging, and sleeping for fifteen hours a day. But he always paid rent on time, and sometimes he had a hot tip that he didn’t mind sharing. There had been a girlfriend once a long time ago, but then again, maybe she had been his sister. I’d never been clear on that.
“I got some goop on me from this box,” I said. “It won’t kill me, will it?”
“Naw,” said Benjamin. “I don’t think so.”
“How’d you get it?” I asked.
“Been visiting this lab for some tests,” said Benjamin. “They didn’t want to help me out with this procedure I want. So I busted in, fucked the place up, and stole whatever I could.”
“Not professional,” I said.
“Naw, it was personal,” said Benjamin. “But I made five digits selling the shit to gourmet restaurants and make-up supply companies. And I got the procedure done, in the end.”
“What sort of procedure?” I asked.
Benjamin looked at the ground, biting his lip.
“What kind of cosmetic supply companies buy shady medical tech?” I asked. “And restaurants? Really?”
“Sometimes the most expensive restaurants have secret menus,” said Benjamin. “Secret menus for secret meals. People got no morals about what they eat these days.”
“What are you doing in there?” I asked, trying to look over his shoulder. “Why does it smell so bad?”
He shut the door and locked it. I decided not to bother him anymore. That’s the way to keep harmony. Live and let live.
Three days later, I hadn’t sold anything of value, so I decided it wouldn’t be a problem if I ate some of my roommate’s food. He had filled up the refrigerator with his Tupperware, and I knew it must be from some nice restaurants, since he’d made such a big score, and since that’s where he said he’d been fencing it.
Maybe he’d have some truffles. Fine cheese. Gruyere and pan-seared sirloin with a mushroom-and-pine-nut-tapenade. Maybe something Italian: some kind of delicate dessert soaked in liquor that had revolted from his coarse, unproved palate and that he hadn’t been able to finish. A cannoli, even. Some mousse, for god’s sake.
I opened up one of his take-out boxes. It was Chinese. It was a week old. It was stir-fry from the place down the street.
“You lazy pig,” I said curling my lip.
I opened another box. It was empty except for a little soy-sauce-stained-rice crusted to the bottom.
“Damn you,” I said.
I peeled off the lid of one of his Tupperware containers, bending my fingers back to pop the seal without spilling any sauce.
It wasn’t Chinese.
Inside the Tupperware container was a fetus.
“Oh god,” I said.
The dead blue eyes of the fetus were as empty as the glassy spheres of a fresh shrimp or a moose-head on a wall. The little hands were twisted into insect angles, and the fetus had black veins stretching from its crotch to its forehead as if it were caught in a fishnet stocking.
I ripped open another Tupperware container. Another fetus. I ran to the sink to throw up.
Shredded inside the steel wool dish scrubber were more bits of fetus. I could see toes. Someone had been pushing fetuses down the garbage disposal.
Benjamin knocked on the wall behind me and stepped into the kitchen with a sheepish grin.
“We need to talk,” said Benjamin.
“The apartment is full of fetuses!” I screamed. “I almost ate a fetus just now while going through your leftovers!”
“You were going through my leftovers?” asked Benjamin.
“Fetus!” I screamed, beating on the refrigerator.
“They are embryos, actually,” said Benjamin. “Calm down. And you should thank me: people pay thousands of dollars to eat fresh flash-fried embryos. They eat embryos sautéed in wasabi and dill in the basements of top dollar gourmet restaurants. They are a delicacy.”
“I am concerned about this,” I said, trying to remain calm and to maintain roommate harmony. Live and let live.
“We really need to talk,” said Benjamin. “I just got back from seeing a priest. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. You are my best friend, and I want your opinion about something very important.”
This was so sad that I had to move into the living room and sit down on the couch, even though he was clearly some kind of serial-killing cannibal.
I was his best friend?
“You will explain the fetuses,” I said.
Benjamin cracked a beer from the fridge and sat down across from me in a recliner.
“Embryos,” he corrected. “Yes, I’ll explain all about that. Look, I need your help. I need your opinion. I’m gonna lay it all out there, and I want you to keep an open mind. Here it goes.”
He stared into his beer can, sighed, and then looked me in the eyes.
“I’m pregnant, and I don’t know if I should keep the baby.”
Benjamin cradled his fat gut lovingly in one of his hairy paws and I looked closer at him, searching for a protein glow, trying to figure out if his gut was any bigger than usual. I shook my head to clear this absurdity away.
I waited for him to make a joke, or to explain the joke that he’d already made.
“I’ve been going to this laboratory – EmbroGene -- for a long time and helping them out,” he continued slowly. “I do security for them, and I do lab work, and I pick up orders for them, and I keep the protesters away. They do embryo implants for infertile couples. And they pay bills by doing black-market gene smuggling. I was volunteering so that I could learn the science and know what was possible. I was going there because I have always wanted to have a baby.”
“You have always wanted to adopt a baby,” I corrected.
“No,” he said. “HAVE. Build, carry, birth. It’s my dream. And EmbroGene said they wouldn’t do it. After all I did for them. Even though they told me it was possible and even showed me how. There’s really nothing to it, they said. Men don’t have most of the organs you need, but they’ve built all kinds of organic replacements for women who don’t have the right parts either. I don’t need a birth canal. They could cut the baby out when the time came. But then they said they wouldn’t do it because I’m a man. Can you believe that? So I got mad. I messed the place up, stole a bunch of embryos, and tried to implant them myself. But my hands shook every time I tried to make a cut, so I blackmailed one of the doctors into doing the procedure. The doctor was a pushover: she liked amyls and little boys and I had videotape from the security camera.”
“A doctor put a baby in you,” I said.
“Yesterday, I took the test, and it’s for sure: the embryo took and now I’m pregnant.”
“You have always wanted to have a baby,” I said.
“Since I was a kid,” said Benjamin, slurping on his beer. “I know I shouldn’t be drinking, but I need it right now. I have always wanted to feel something grow inside of me and to make life. I have always wanted to hold my own child in my hands. I want to contribute to the world. I want something to love that feels like a part of me. I want to replace what I have taken from the universe. I want to give birth.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But now, I don’t know,” he finished. “I don’t think I can go through with it.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“The priest told me it was an abomination,” said Benjamin. “He looked me right in my face and told me I had sinned against my creator by conceiving a child in an unnatural, scientific way. He just sat there and sputtered his jowls and sprayed me with holy water from his aspergillum. I don’t think he believed me, even though I showed him the pregnancy test stick. I kept asking him what to do, and at first he told me to get mental help, and then he told me to get out of his church: that I was perverted, filthy, and ironic.”
“Who’s the father?” I asked.
“Me,” said Benjamin. “The egg is anonymous. I don’t want to know. I’ll tell my son that his mother died in a plane crash.”
“A bold lie,” I said.
“I don’t want the kids at school to make fun of him for not having a mother,” said Benjamin. “By the time he learns the truth, he’ll be old enough to deal with it.”
“This hypothetical son,” I said.
“I know!” said Benjamin, crushing the beer can and putting his head in his hands. He began to weep. I reached over and touched his knee and then I took my hand away and put it in my pocket.
“I’m so pathetic,” said Benjamin. “I thought this was what I wanted, but now I don’t even know what I want anymore. It doesn’t feel like the right time. It feels like I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. Look at this place! Can I really bring a baby into our lives? Is that fair to my son? Is that fair to you?”
He gestured at our TV and stereo system, like they were symptoms of a disease. I didn’t see anything wrong with them.
“Benjamin,” I said. He looked up at me. His eyes were still streaming with tears.
“If what you are telling me is true,” I said. “And you have managed to impregnate yourself in secret using stolen embryos from some gene lab, then why don’t you just unimpregnate yourself and be done with it?”
“What?” said Benjamin.
“You know, bail out,” I said, throwing my hands in the air. “Abort!”
“You think I should get an abortion?” said Benjamin, shocked. “Will I go to hell?”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said. I went to my closet and pulled out a woman’s plus-size conservative dress with ruffles at the shoulders. “Put that on,” I said. “I know this girl Sherry who deals wigs.”
“We’re together,” I told the nurse, holding Benjamin’s hand. Benjamin looked at the floor.
Outside, we could hear protesters screaming so loud that the glass jars of cotton balls and tongue depressors rattled on the shelves. They spit on us and swung their signs in our faces as soon as we got out of the cab, and I had to pinch Benjamin’s elbow hard and call him a “pussy” over and over again to keep him from turning around.
As soon as we got inside the steel-reinforced, bomb-proof doors of the abortion clinic, Benjamin started sobbing and I was afraid that his make-up was going to run and ruin everything.
“The doctor is going to know,” said Benjamin. “What then? What then?”
“Shut up,” I said. “Of course he’ll know. But he’ll help you.”
“I should have just done this at home,” said Benjamin. “I could have taken care of it myself without any of this misery.”
“How?” I asked. “Are you going to stick an exhaust pipe up your ass? This is safe, clean, sane, and legal. You are doing the right thing. Anybody out there protesting would tell you the same thing if they knew the whole story.”
“You are just saying that because I’m a MAN,” he wailed.
“Will you shut the fuck up?” I said, looking nervously at the door to the private room.
“You know,” said Benjamin. “I think I might be the first one. The first pregnant man. The doctor at EmbroGene didn’t know of any other cases. Surely she’d know if there had been others.”
“Alright, well you are about to have the first pregnant-man-abortion if you will only shut up about it,” I pleaded.
There was a knock on the door and then the doctor came in. He had grey at his temples and a warm, loose smile that made him seem like the sort of guy who got arrested in stroke parlors for trying to touch the performers.
“You aren’t a woman,” said the doctor immediately after looking Benjamin over. “You are wearing a bad wig. Tell me why you are here. If you are here to shoot me, I can assure you that you will not make it out of this room before you are arrested. Everything is on video camera.”
Benjamin took the wig off his head and threw it to the ground. He started to cry again.
“I’m not a woman,” said Benjamin. “But I’m still pregnant, and I still want an abortion.”
Through a calliope of tears and hiccups, Benjamin told the doctor what he had done, leaving out names and details, but allowing the doctor to run tests and to hook up the ultrasound, which did – indeed – show a growing fetus in Benjamin’s abdomen that seemed to be alert and receiving nourishment from Benjamin’s bloodstream. After hours of poking, prodding, and medical history, the doctor excused himself and stepped outside into the hall to “consult with a specialist,” he said.
Benjamin begged and pleaded to keep this a secret and to get it over with quickly, but the doctor insisted that he was not equipped to deal with the procedure that Benjamin would need.
An hour later, the doctor returned and said that it couldn’t be done. That medical science demanded that Benjamin go through with the pregnancy. That he was a hero, a breakthrough, and that he would be indemnified, protected, and sheltered. The doctor explained that what had happened was a miracle, and that he couldn’t in good conscience be the one to end a miracle.
Benjamin began sobbing again. “But I’m not ready!” he shouted. “I made a mistake! If you won’t do it, I’ll do it myself!”
He put his wig back on and ran out of the room, shrieking. We chased after him, begging him to stop and listen. I gave the doctor a dirty look. The doctor shouted for security.
Outside, on the steps of the clinic, Benjamin screamed for silence from the mob of protesters and raised his fists over his head.
“Everybody listen!” he shouted.
The mob quieted to an expectant murmur. They stopped chanting slogans.
“They wouldn’t let me have an abortion in there!” Benjamin shouted, hooking his thumb.
The protestors cheered and somebody in the back called him a slut.
“No, you don’t understand,” said Benjamin.
“Shut up!” I said, trying to get my arm around Benjamin’s neck.
“They wouldn’t let me have an abortion because I’m a MAN,” Benjamin shouted before I could get my hand over his mouth. He pulled off his wig and rubbed the pancake make-up off his cheeks, exposing his stubble. He pointed to his Adam’s apple.
The protesters stood there in silence.
“He’s impregnated himself with science!” said the doctor. “And science demands that he carry the baby to term so that we can see what happens! He has no right!”
“What about freedom!” screamed somebody in back.
“Did you just say he’s a pregnant dude,” screamed someone else. “What the fuck.”
“Who’s the father,” screamed another protestor.
“I’m the father,” said Benjamin.
I slunk away, heading for the street. While the protesters were stunned and confused, I tried to hail a taxi.
“Men shouldn’t be pregnant,” said one protester, an elderly woman with lips so tight that her words came out as ironed and stiff as starched shirts. “It’s against God.”
“Yeah, but if they do get pregnant, then they ought to keep the baby,” said a young man wearing a tank-top.
“I think it’s a grey area,” said one middle-aged man.
“No, no, it’s crystal clear,” said the elderly woman. “Men that get pregnant ought to be locked up in prison.”
“But what about the baby?” said the middle-aged man.
“That baby is the devil!” said the old woman. “Consign it to the flames! Pregnant men are an abomination, and so are their demon-spawn! Scrape it out!”
A mob formed behind her and began to nod and jeer and agree.
“Don’t hurt my baby!” shouted Benjamin.
“You were going to abort it!” shouted the doctor, frustrated. Two security guards got between Benjamin and the protesters and held up cans of pepper spray. A cab stopped for me and I opened the back door.
Camps started to form among the protesters. Some of them wanted to kill Benjamin, some of them wanted to kill his baby, and others wanted him to have the baby, but to lock him up for life afterwards. Only the doctor wanted him to have the baby and live free. But NO ONE was going to let him have an abortion and walk away from it. You could see the shock on Benjamin’s face as he realized that the security guards on either side of him weren’t listening to his pleas.
“Benjamin!” I shouted. “Are you coming? You can still get away! We’ll go to Europe!”
Benjamin stared at me and I knew he wasn’t equipped for this. He hadn’t thought this through. Maybe he couldn’t. The protesters turned to look at me, and I realized that now they thought that I was the father they were looking for.
Fuck him. His problem. I got in the cab. As it drove away, I began drafting the advertisement in my head that I would later put online: an advertisement for a new roommate who wouldn’t care that I was a thief, but who wouldn’t go around leaving embryos in the refrigerator either, and then getting himself pregnant by science, like some irresponsible, thoughtless lab ape.