Catherine Sharpe wrote for live performance in the 1990's before hunkering down to earn money in promotional
marketing until she was unable to breathe on the bus to work one day. She very deliberately got pregnant and had
a baby. Somewhat later, she was "divorced" without adequate warning and, for consolation, got her MFA in Writing.
She almost won a prize once when nominated as a finalist in the Penelope Niven 2009 Nonfiction Award. Look for her
short fiction and nonfiction in Opium 9, Offsprung, and Errant Parent. Her first book, "Ambition Towards Love" is yet to
It was my turn to pick the sperm.
Which sounds fun. But not after all the donor profiles that Missy and I had labored over, after the turkey-baster
methodology, the intrauterine inseminations, the diagnostic laparoscopy, the endometriosis excisions, the clomid, the
injectables, acupressure, the fucking prayer circles — not after all that failure. Two years of wooing my ovaries, devolving to
ever more peevish, desultory, mechanical demands. Each failure ratcheted up the science involved.
Dr. Fujimoto made the suggestion. We sat in his office at the UCSF Fertility Clinic for the initial consult, Missy in one of the
two client chairs. We were probably holding hands, inseparable in our goal.
Dr. Fujimoto was small, buzzing with energy, a hand-talker. His office was untidy, as if he'd just moved in and hadn't settled
into the chrome glass leather sleekness of it all. He slapped the folder in front of him.
"It looks like you've already tried most fertility tactics at our disposal. You're thirty-nine?" He pointed at me.
"Yes," Missy answered for me.
"How old are you?" he asked Missy.
"Thirty-eight," I said.
Missy had zero interest in having babies. With her own body, I mean. Fastidious, she mumbled about Rosemary's Baby, and
Alien — she thought labor was too much messy work. And maternity leave would be dicey — she'd just started a new job.
But she definitely wanted to construct a family.
We all come equipped with the hope that the family we make would be the family we never had.
Dr. Fujimoto pointed at Missy. "We can fertilize your eggs, and put them in," Dr. Fujimoto glanced down at my chart.
"Catherine. If we can get a good harvest." He studied Missy. Could he tell just by looking? He grinned. He couldn't repress
his excitement, his Science Boy glee, his liberal, democratic ideology — families for everyone! Even the lesbians!
"Well, I of course, well, that would be great, for me," Missy said. "But what is that like for you?" She pointed at me.
I sat on my hands. I heard a new kind of excitement in Missy's voice — her progeny populating the future while mine
dissipated, floating like ghosts, floating up and away like the smoke from the barrel of a pistol.
In vitro fertilization was the way to go. I had a womb; Missy had some eggs; we had a vision.
I could compromise. I wanted nothing less than the experience of growing and delivering a new human to this earth. This was
now possible. Forget the papier mâché volcanos, the detailed drawings of the Drosophila life cycle, the homemade rocket fuel.
This was My Science Experiment. If not exactly willingly, if not exactly as planned, I would exert genetic representation by
Donor Profile: 2517 Interview Notes
Donor 2517 is a charming man who comes across as intelligent and thoughtful. A self-described “art monk,” 2517 has spent
the two years since graduating college reading literature, studying film, and creating children’s books (he graduated from an
alternative college where he wrote and illustrated a children’s book as his art thesis). Every time I met with him throughout
his screening, he was reading a literary “great work” — for example, Thomas Pynchon’s V or James Joyce’s Ulysses. In
appearance, donor 2517 is boyishly handsome. He has a slim build, clear green eyes, well-proportioned features, and a
strong chin. He has deep dimples in his cheeks. Although serious in demeanor, he is quick to smile and seems quite playful.
“This is definitely the one I want.” I stated this with authority, confidence, finality, and then handed Missy the full profile of
2517 for approval.
Missy swallowed a final bite of pizza and took the thick stack of papers from me.
At some point after Phoebe was born, I started to call 2517 "Will." My Will. Dear Will. It seemed more personal, more friendly.
I must have been lonely, but I didn't know why. You are never too old for an imaginary friend, even an anonymous one.
Weight: 140 pounds
Hair color: light brown
Hair type: straight, fine
Eye color: hazel
Complexion: Fair, rosy
Body type: medium
Ethnic origin: English, Lithuanian, French Canadian
Religion: born into Roman Catholicism, presently atheist, “my practicing religion is art”
Blood group/Rh: A positive
I sat cross-legged on the carpeting, wriggling while Missy slowly read the interview notes and medical history. She was always
so thorough, and steady, and predictable. I loved all this balance for my erratic, volatile, unsteady charm.
I tidied the stacks of profiles on the coffee table, arrayed by my own system â€” No Way, After a Few Drinks, and Supreme
Unleaded. I listened to the pulsing swoosh of the dishwasher in the kitchen. I picked a few crumbs out of the carpet and
tossed them into my half of the pizza box. I played with the little plastic pizza thingy, a doll-house sized table, picturing it
with tiny folded napkins, a bottle of Chianti, and a vase of flowers. Imagining a tiny bit of romance.
Missy looked up.
“So, do you like him?” I tried to sound all casual.
Of all the banks that I researched across this great nation, The Sperm Bank of California was my favorite. I particularly
appreciated the name. It resonated with authority; basically the entire state backed this sperm bank, it had gravitas, it had
spunk, it had all the personality, by association, of this western Mecca of gold-digging, suntans, Hollywood, and goddamn
liberals. And, perhaps more importantly, California was the most populous state, implying a kind of inherent fecundity. The
initials “SBC” could be used to coyly avoid the more graphic terms “sperm” and “bank,” but even the initials rhymed with FDIC,
holding for me that sense of governmental, even-if-you-fuck-up, regulatory, emotional buttressing effect. I liked the security.
And there wouldn't be a shipping and handling fee because the bank was local.
A few short blocks away, blooming like yeast under a microscope, the agitated inhabitants of dorm rooms and frat houses
frothed on the UC Berkeley campus.
Describe your personality:
Before I begin, I believe there is something you should know. My family and friends have commented to me on how
different I am in person compared to my writing style. I am much more serious on paper than I am in person. To be
completely honest with you I can be quite silly or downright bizarre in person. Joking around and laughing is my favorite
pastime. As often as I can, in whatever circumstances, I always try to enjoy myself.
“You think someone else is better,” I said.
“No. He looks good. Heart disease, grandmother, but who knows the real cause, right?” Missy flipped to an earlier page of
2517’s profile. “On the father’s side. Otherwise in good health at 86.”
“But what do you really think?” I pressed.
“It’s just, well…”
“You don’t want him. Really, tell me.” I took the profile back, holding it in my lap.
“No, no! He seems good. He’s just not… very tall…”
“He’s taller than me!” I said.
“I like the dimples. And I like how honest he is…”
This seemed to do it. Missy tossed her paper napkin, all balled up, into the pizza box.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
Q: Why do you want to be a sperm donor?
A: My main reason for becoming a sperm donor is that I need the money. I am broke. I may be an art monk and I may
dislike materialism, but my idealism is tested daily and it does have its limits. A monk cannot live by art alone.
I was born into a family of scientists, with the notable exception of my mother, whose job it was to have all the feelings, cook
and care for six, and whimsically rearrange the furniture after an afternoon beer or two.
On a rare visit home as an adult, before Phoebe was born, I lied to my father about the donor. I lied and I really enjoyed lying,
which doesn't make me a terrific person.
Missy kept her mouth shut, neither adding nor subtracting from the fiction, but not because lying was a moral dilemma for
her. She just didn't want to attract attention and suffer another onslaught of lawyer jokes. When my father was not showing
his love through detailed criticism, he showed it through humor. He taught me everything I know.
Because I did not care to defend my quirky choice of Donor Number 2517 (an art monk, for chrissake), I told him that the
sperm bank specialized in genius donors - scientists, mathematicians, physicists, MENSA members, etc. His face flipped like a
chart on an easel through a series of expressions - a tiny shadow of suspicion, then consideration, then delight, and finally
joy. Until now, he had never trusted my judgment.
“Of course, only the best for my baby!” I said. He chuckled, still studying me, not resisting the desire to see a genius born
into his kingdom, embracing the sheer science of it all. We shared that.
Dear Will. I imagined him handsome in an irresponsible, boyish way. I had an excellent imagination. His hair might be thinning
a little bit on his crown, so he wore ball caps. He was one of those shortish, boyish, softly muscled men paused on the lip of
doing something important, anything important. He talked slow - people always hurried to finish his sentences for him. His
sometimes girlfriend (never mentioned at the sperm bank) was two inches taller, so she wore ballet flats, the kind that cup the
foot like a tea cozy. She parted her hair in the middle, combing it straight down - no volume, no additional dimension to her
head. She thought she was smarter than he was. He thought she was smarter than he was. She was always on a diet; he
was good willed, good natured, refrained from carbohydrates, and shared dessert when they dined together.
I can imagine an entire relationship out of nothing more than a few interview notes. I've seen marriages based on less
Sperm was rarely in my thoughts before my mid-thirties. When it did come up, it was a visual hallucination, the result of
standing up too quickly after a whole day on cigarettes and Diet Coke. I called the little floaters in my peripheral vision "eye
sperm", as if my eyeballs were a slide under high magnification.
I had nothing against sperm. As a child, I liked tadpoles. It was just that, until Missy and I wanted to start our own family, I
had no use for it. I admired sperm as another example of biological ingenuity, second only to the round brilliance of an egg.
Germ cells were germ cells but parthenogenesis was not yet an option. A donation was needed.
We considered the experiences of friends who had either been adopted or abandoned, and the almost uniform truth that, at
some point, kids want to know all the players, make sense of what started the whole messy process of life and love and family.
So we chose a donor who was willing to accept contact from adult offspring, after we had ushered our miracle safely into his
or her majority. We paid extra.
At our baby shower, the champagne was served in test tubes.
Dear Will: Sometimes love just takes you by the throat, chokes the life right out of you, and there you have it. I desperately
wanted this to turn out like a romance novel. Well, a very modern one, where the girl gets the girl and a girl-child. And a nice
house. Forever, etc..
My anonymous Will. I wonder if I will ever actually meet you, if Phoebe will want to meet you. Probably! Likely! Your donor
status — Identity Release — a term so beautifully evocative of fish-like things: catch and release, swimming, small fry. Willing
Will. Mister This Is Just the Beginning. Mister The Least I Can Do. Mister Sperm.
You so selfless. Me so selfless. What is not to love? Nobody's perfect, right?
You so selfless. Me so selfless. What is not to love? Nobody's perfect, right?
Donor 2517 took Prozac for situational depression about two years ago: he no longer takes any medication, and his
depression is resolved.
So much of me was exposed when Phoebe was born. Phoebe's big head interfered with her traditional passage into this world.
Her need to be free preempted my selfish desire to keep her contained for as long as possible. That is simply the way of it,
sometimes. A mismatch of anatomy.
Even though I was stitched back up, neatly at the bikini line, something inside was missing, never to be seen again. I think it
was my autonomy - I lost the comfort that my acts, small or large, could be inconsequential.
Post-partum buried me like a sudden avalanche. One minute I was weeping quietly about my failure to breast-feed, the next
minute I was collapsed on the floor, wailing that with Enfamil and a baby bottle, nobody needed me. Including Missy.
I'm not sure if I was predicting the future, or manifesting it simply by voicing my profound insecurity. Some things you should
keep to yourself.
For what seemed the longest time after Phoebe was born, she was unable to pick her own head up. It was that heavy, that
big. Although everything was fine, this worried me, that she was somehow outsized for what was required of her. This worried
Missy, too, I'm sure, but we never talked about it.
Dearest Will: Sometimes, I can't tell why Phoebe is crying. Hungry? Tired? Gassy?
I look at Phoebe and can't believe that I'm not looking at some of my own chromosomes. That uncanny resemblance - to me!-
around the nose and mouth. I kid you not. Even my mother and father are perplexed, having dug out baby pictures of me.
If I haven’t said it before, thanks much for the sperm. I really got a lot out of it. The sperm, the egg, the embryo, the Diaper
Genie™, the 529 Plan, the riptide of family life, the monotony of responsible behavior, the numb quiet in the middle of the
night. The whole nine yards.
Why was Missy so mad? I told her, if she wanted more spontaneity, she should plan for it on Wednesday nights. What is her
I am so tired. And bored. And boring, apparently. I am thinking seriously of reading Ulysses. What's the plot anyway?
It was my idea, after Phoebe was born, to document each day of her development. Perhaps this idea emerged as a natural
consequence of my own repressed scientific ambitions. Missy intelligently ratcheted it down to a weekly event.
The concept? To arrange each shot of Phoebe in situ with objects that depicted the week. Week eight featured Phoebe with
one of those black and white Magic 8 Balls, which reveals a random (although predictably enigmatic) response to any question
Phoebe was sleeping in her crib, wearing just a diaper, at some point during her 23rd week, the perfect opportunity to
strategically prop a picture of her 23 chromosome pairs against the crib rails, the reassuring black and white result of
Some weeks, the idea for the photo came effortlessly. Some weeks, Missy and I, sleep-deprived, bitterly disagreed on the
creative vision. Sometimes, scientific accuracy was abused when two photos were staged within the same week.
Although I considered it a privilege to document Phoebe's life, and never a burden, one week when Missy was out of town on
business, all I could do was spell "thirty-two" with Cheerios. I made an effort.
In retrospect, I wish I'd paid closer attention to the Magic 8 Ball. Instead of treating it like a toy, I could have observed the
devolution of my relationship with Missy.
Yes. It is certain. Most Likely. Signs Point to Yes. Maybe. Reply Hazy. Try Again. Very Doubtful. Don't Count on It.
Whoa, Will. Now we really have an alternative family. These are some alternatives that never occurred to me. Now I've really
gone and done it.
What possessed me to log onto Missy’s work email? To be honest, it was probably because, when I checked the search
history on her browser, I saw some unusual URLs for lesbian bars in Denver. Country Western bars. Bars for Two Stepping
and line dancing.
What a coincidence. Her next business trip was to Denver. She had to complete the training of her newest hire, “a great
addition to the legal team,” as Missy described her.
Maybe I should have kept my hands to myself. And off Missy's laptop. But I didn't. I snooped through her email and found
their exchanges; each was in deep pain from their longing. For each other.
I did violate Missy's privacy. And her trust. That was wicked of me.
But you, Will, know about self-control. You were perfectly qualified for your little job because you were willing to refrain from
other sexual activity. You were expected to discharge a full round of buckshot. That was the deal.
How are things with you? Have you told your girlfriend yet about your generosity to me and others like me? Ha ha! You don’t
want to lie by emission! xo, me. P.S. — just as soon as Phoebe starts pre-school, I’m going to try that Pilates thing or
something. Really get back in shape.
My parents are still married to each other. I don't understand it but I admire it.
I called them a few days after I kicked Missy out of the house in order to make her sorry for cheating on me. This did not have
the desired effect. Missy did not come back. Still, my parents were supportive, in their own way.
"You can't be a nag. And don't be boring! Were you boring?" my father asked.
When my father got off the phone and returned to his workshop, my mother stayed on the line.
"Do you want me to call Missy? Do you want me to talk to her? She can't leave! We made her a Sharpe!" my inimitable mother
said. We Sharpes are very clannish.
Then she mentioned that my Dad may have "worked late" and "traveled a lot" when he was forty-two, maybe forty-three. She
simply declined to notice. I think she rearranged a lot of furniture.
"I could put two and two together," she said. "Even though your father thinks I can't do math. I can. I'm just terrible with
How would you describe your enjoyment of and skills in the following areas:
Math: I really have not used my math skills since high school. I do not use math skills. I use calculators. It is not that I
dislike math... I like the idea and the philosophy of mathematics over the crunching of numbers, equations, and formulas.
Athletic: I avoided participating in sports at school... I was, and am, turned off by the machismo and posturing that
invariably goes with team sports. There are, however, some aspects of sports that do attract me... competing with myself.
I have a picture of Phoebe at the eight-cell stage, alongside two other embryos that never successfully implanted. The fertility
specialists routinely photograph the best looking embryos, just prior to the blastocyst phase and implantation in the uterus.
The remaining less-than-perfect embryos, those that cannot be considered top quality, are evaluated, and graded based on
cell number, fragmentation, membrane definition, symmetry, and other strictly visual attributes, much like cheerleaders. Some
get implanted, some frozen, some discarded.
Musical, Artistic, Creative: These are my true and (dare I say it?) only passions in life... my practicing religion is art... It
has taken a while and much confusion and struggle, but I have realized that what has given my life the most meaning is
beauty and my main purpose in life is the creation of beauty for others to enjoy...
Phoebe has wispy hair that is light brown and light weight. Her blue eyes are very big, even nestled as they are into fat,
creamy cheeks. Her upper back is covered in almost invisible fur, seen only when she is turned sideways to the sunlight. Even
when you cannot see the tiny hairs, you can prove them to yourself by ever so lightly skating your fingertips across her back.
The nails of her great and second toe are flawed - like Missy's - they grow inward and are dangerous. They must be rigorously
and meticulously maintained with miniature nail clippers.
I never mind this intimate responsibility - it is a privilege to attend to another human's flaws. Phoebe must be asked to sit
perfectly still, like a princess, while I minister. I do this for our daughter; Missy is too afraid that she will hurt Phoebe, cut her
by accident. I am steadier.
I think Phoebe will grow into a great beauty. I often suggest that she is likely to be a physicist supermodel. One of the shorter
Will, I feel used. I think you might be the one person I can really trust. Will. I love you more than I love myself. Anyway, just
letting you know that Missy took half the furniture - there are a few blank spots and one completely empty room. It actually
echoes, even when I just whisper “Missy missing. Missy missing. Missy missing.”
Maybe I need a roommate.
I am having a hard time with Ulysses. Can you explain it to me, Will? You cannot leave me, I am nothing without my
imagination. You're like family that way. Will?
March, 2006 - Donor #2517 has reached the ten family limit and is no longer available. A limited supply has been reserved for
families adding same-donor siblings, available on a first come, first served basis.
Two years passed. Our family divided like so much protoplasm, each eventually whole again.
Missy and I sat in hard plastic chairs in exam room C, while Phoebe touched everything she could. We were there together —
Missy, Phoebe and I — for Phoebe’s annual check-up, booster shots, and necessary documentation before Kindergarten.
Every now and then we try to do fun things like this together. As a family.
I was quietly blowing up a latex glove while Missy finished filling in her parts of the form — insurer, name of insured, home
address. Because I got started on the paperwork first, I’d filled in my information under the "mother" section. She had to
cross out "father" and write in "parent." It’s the petty things that give me my playful charm.
Pushed under my chair was a clear plastic bin — a disconsolate jumble of toys or toy parts. A three-limbed Spiderman, an
earless Mr. Potato Head with a stethoscope, a few mismatched train parts — a shabby Thomas the Tank Engine caboose, a
plastic cargo hauler, a passenger train sized for those irksome Weebles that Won’t Fall Down no matter what you do.
With a foot, I eased the bin a little further under the chair. I could well imagine the dangerous, germy appeal for Phoebe. She
was, however, busy climbing onto and off the exam table, crinkling the paper, testing out the precarious possibilities of the
A nurse knocked on the door and breezed in to handle preliminaries. She was square and bosomy and cheerful; she
measured, clucked, hummed, pumped, and listened.
“Phoebe! Are you five? Wow! What a big girl! What’s your favorite food?” she asked, chart and pen in hand. This was a test.
Phoebe looked at Missy, then she looked at me. Nobody said anything for a few beats.
“Well, Phoebe, can you answer the nurse? What did we have for dinner last night? Remember? You said it’s your favorite…”
Missy adopted an irritating sing-song.
“Mashed potatoes.” Phoebe looked at me. The nurse looked at me. Missy looked at me.
“She LOVES broccoli. And fennel. At my house. Don’t you?” I was ahead, two green vegetables to one starch.
“Okay! Do you drink milk, juice, soda? How much per day?” the nurse asked.
“No soda,” we all said, in perfect unison. “About six ounces of apple juice a day,” I said. “I always dilute it with water. Your
house?” I bounced this back to Missy.
“Me, too. We only have steak once a week. I make sure she has milk every day.” Missy reported this to the nurse as if she
milked the cow.
“Phoebe! Do you looooove sushi?” I adopted an irritating sing-song.
“Yes!” she answered as the nurse finished her notes. “But really, my favorite food is breath mints. Mommy gives them to me
every time I get in my car seat.”
Will, it’s a brave new world of family. The invitations for the Annual Sperm Bank of California Family Picnic still come to my
Meet and enjoy the company of other TSBC families, families built like yours!
What a crazy kind of family reunion — all those half-brothers or half-sisters — perhaps the youngest as small as an embryo,
the oldest a boy of ten or twelve years. A mob of a family, a Greek chorus.
We are none of us without family. It is so much more complicated than I ever conceived. A failure of my imagination, I
suppose. Dear Will.
Dr. Bob came in just as we were swinging Phoebe up and down — I had the armpits, Missy had her by the ankles. Phoebe was
laughing, but we quickly swung her back up to the exam table. We sat down and tried to act like responsible parents.
“Any questions, worries, concerns?” Dr. Bob asked, as he studied Phoebe’s data.
“Nope,” I said.
“Nail-biting,” Missy said. “Phoebe told me it was okay to bite your nails because her favorite cousin Courtney bites her nails.”
She said this, looking at me, only half-smiling. Me and my family, setting bad examples.
“Oh, I'm sure that's genetics,” I said.
“A friend at work suggested that nail polish that tastes bad? Do you have any recommendations?” Missy asked Dr. Bob.
“I personally never liked that polish," I said. "It tasted bad the whole time I sucked my thumb.”
Dr. Bob agreed that there wasn’t an easy solution, jotted some notes.
“Phoebe, you seem like a healthy, strong little person. Are you excited about Kindergarten?” Dr. Bob asked.
“Yes,” Phoebe, Missy, and I answered.
Dr. Bob finished graphing Phoebe’s height and weight. “Based on Phoebe’s growth, I can probably give you a pretty good
estimate of how tall she’s going to be as an adult. About five-foot-four.”
“Perfect!” I said.
“But she has a really big head,” Missy said. We walked together to the parking lot, studying the completed immunization
forms. "I guess I thought she'd grow into it more…"
“We're still going out for ice-cream,” I said.
“Quickly. Then I’ve got to get back to the office. Hey, bug. I’m so proud of you — all those shots.” Missy squatted down for a
hug from Phoebe while I unlocked my car doors.
“Thank you,” I said. “It was good to do that together.”
Phoebe climbed into her booster seat, and Missy buckled her in. I rolled down my window and grabbed the tin of breath mints.
“Want one?” I held out the tin to Missy.
“Sure,” Missy said. She took one, stepped away, and then I handed the tin to Phoebe.
What are your goals and ambitions in life? I feel that I may have already answered this one elsewhere.