Pins and Needles - Janet Buttenwieser

Before the trip to the fertility clinic, the sperm sample given, the anesthesia
administered, the eggs retrieved with a twelve-inch flexible needle, eggs and sperm
mixed together in the lab to form several high-quality embryos, there is the cat fight.
The Husband runs out the back door, no time to retrieve the spray bottle set
aside for such occasions, to break up the fight. There are shouts and yowls. The
battle ranges over uneven territory: across the muddy side yard, through the gate, 
ending in the front garden. The Husband returns to the living room with The Cat, 
both of them bitten and bloody. The Wife tends to The Cat while The Husband goes
into the bathroom to clean his hand. 

Years from now, they will remodel their bathroom, use a bottle of liquid
impregnator to seal the river rock floor. Guess we should’ve tried that first The Wife
will say. Saved ourselves some trouble. The Husband cups one hand under the other, 
careful not to spatter blood on the floor. He rinses his wound under the faucet, 
punctures showing between his thumb and forefinger as the pink water spirals
towards the drain. It’s his right hand, the important one for his performance in the
clinic room with the lock on the door and the porn magazines. When they return
home from the procedure, The Wife will doze on the couch while The Husband takes
The Cat to the vet to get a shot.

The Husband and The Wife know about shots. The previous month they brought
a large box home, special-ordered from the pharmacy. Inside, dozens of needles and
bottles of medicine. Two hundred individually wrapped alcohol wipes. A sharps
container. Most needles go in The Wife’s thigh. Another shot, one of thick oil, gets
injected into her butt muscle. In the morning, The Husband warms the oil by
tucking it into the waistband of his boxers while he shaves. 

The Wife learns to do the shots in the thigh herself: sitting on the edge of their
bed at home, in the bathroom stall at an author reception in a Chicago hotel. It
becomes normal, this shot-giving, the trips to the lab for blood draws, the phone
conversations with the nurse about hormone levels and dosage adjustments. 
Mornings before work, she performs the routine: validate the parking garage
ticket at the front desk. Enter the dimly-lit ultrasound room. Clothes off, gown on, 
open in the back. Jelly on the wand, the wand inserted by the kind or peppy or
indifferent nurse. The Wife’s reproductive system displayed on the screen, the
doctor measuring follicles, pleased with her progress.

She’s willing to become a pincushion, a science experiment, for the sake of the
children. She trades caffeine and exercise for acupuncture, meditation, Yoga for
Fertility. Western and Eastern medical treatments mix together in her body, 
whether in conflict or harmony she cannot tell. They charge it all on their credit
card, earning one mile for every vial of hormones injected. They dream of a free
flight to San Diego, to take the kids to the zoo. Instead, they drive to the rainforest
when the treatments don’t work, hike under cloud-swollen skies.

The day of the cat fight, The Wife puts fresh food and water into bowls she places
on the kitchen floor. She settles The Cat in the armchair, a worn blanket tucked into
the cushion underneath his body. She knocks on the bathroom door. It’s time to go. 
The Husband finds a band-aid in the cabinet; The Wife smoothes it over his hand. 
She wants to say something to comfort The Husband, something to capture the
absurdity of the whole experience – the hormones, the clinic visits, the time and
energy and money poured into this event. The Husband’s wound won’t scar; the cat
fight will seem funny in hindsight. But not yet. She looks at The Husband, and The
Husband looks at her.

“Just what I needed to put me in the mood,” he says. She laughs, and he does too. 
Tiny laughs of solidarity, of endurance. They will laugh this way often in the coming
months, in the house, in the pharmacy, in the car on trips to the clinic. Sometimes, 
though, they’ll drive in silence, the stereo on, wishing they were on their way
somewhere, anywhere, else."



The creation of this piece came while I was writing a book-length memoir. I decided to write a short essay on a different topic in order to give myself a break. In thinking about when in the long timeline of doing fertility treatments to set the piece, the cat fight came immediately to mind. The entire process was stressful, and at times all of the contortions we went through felt like they bordered on the ridiculous. The moment of the cat fight embodied the tension and absurdity of the whole experience. The 3rd person point of view felt like a good way to universalize the experience and ended up being a fun element of crafting the piece.

Something I love about the short form is how you can get to the heart of an experience in such a small amount of time and space. I am still working on that book-length memoir, and I still interrupt that project to write short pieces – palate cleansers between courses that feel very satisfying to create.




Janet Buttenwieser’s nonfiction work has appeared or is forthcoming in several places, including Under the Sun, Potomac Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest. She has an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Visit her at