by Kris Bigalk
Shelly was waiting by the door of the dive bar, leaned up against the brick wall, smoking a cigarette, and wearing a red bandana across her forehead. I raised an eyebrow.
She laughed, and her hand shook a little. “Oh, you’ve never seen me smoke. I just needed one tonight.” She lifted the cigarette towards me, offering me a drag.
I waved her off. “I never learned to inhale.” We both giggled a little. I considered my outfit—jeans and a V-neck Eddie Bauer T-shirt. I looked like the thirty-nine-year-old mom that I was, no doubt. Shelly looked like a cool thirty-something music fan. She was always the cool one, but I wondered if we would stick out to the point where he would notice us and wonder why we were there.
Shelly finished her cigarette and we walked inside. There were only ten or fifteen people at various tables, and a couple sitting at the bar. We ordered tap beers and found a booth with a good view of the stage.
The drummer had just finished setting up, and the bass player was fiddling with the amp. The guitar player moved the microphones into place.
Shelly leaned over the table. “It’s him,” she hissed, jerking her head towards a table right by the stage. A man and a woman sat there, turned away from us. The woman had long, dark hair and black lipstick.
“That’s his girlfriend?” I asked. “How do you know?”
“I saw her pictures on his MySpace page.” Shelly took a long drink.
He stood and went to the stage, testing the microphone. I stole glances at him, afraid to look too long. There weren’t that many people around, and he was bound to notice us. We were the oldest women there by at least ten years.
“Is it weird for me to think he might worry about people like us stalking him?” I asked. “Do you think he looks over his shoulder all the time, wondering if those older ladies are going to ambush him with a bunch of questions?”
“It isn’t weird,” Shelly said. “I thought about it and decided our paranoia is to be expected.”
He stopped checking his microphone and scanned the crowd. I froze, and moved my stare to the bass player, who wasn’t looking at us.
“Have you listened to any of his music?” I noticed that half of my beer was gone already.
“It kind of sucks.” Shelly laughed. “But we aren’t here for the music, right?”
“Look at the shape of his head.”
“I know. Just like Jack’s. And look at his cowlicks!”
“Just like Richy’s . . . and the hair color, too. But his cheeks are fuller.”
He stepped up to the microphone, and we both held our breath.
“Hi, and welcome to the show tonight.” The bass player started playing a riff. “This is our bass player, Mark.” The guitarist fiddled around on top of the bass riff. “This is Tim.” The drummer joined in, picking up the pace a little. “That’s Randy, and I’m Jason!”
The volume increased exponentially. I’m a musician, but mostly a classical and church musician. Even as a young person, I hated noisy bars and over-amped music. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and insert my earplugs. On my way back, I picked up two more beers. The music had become comfortably muffled, but I couldn’t hear Shelly when she tried to talk to me, so I yelled over the music that I had my earplugs in. She rolled her eyes.
After the quite lengthy intro, Jason began to sing. It was excruciating. He couldn’t match pitch. He was horribly flat. He dragged behind the beat. It went beyond the “punk making a statement” level of bad. It was just so, so bad.
I thought back to the profile he had written six years before. He had called himself a musician. It’s one of the reasons I chose him—because our family was musical, and I wanted my child to love music. I wonder what else he had not known about himself or deluded himself about. I wanted so badly to know him—the good parts, the bad parts, the in-between parts—and the only other person who truly understood that was Shelly. That’s why we were here. Six years before, we both had sons about nine months apart, and we had never met our sons’ father, an anonymous sperm donor.
Back then, we signed pieces of paper promising never to seek out or speak to him, but we had both found him (quite easily) using the non-identifying information in his profile. We were sure we had the right guy because we had used different clues and both ended up finding the same man: Jason Anderson. Twelve years my junior, in a terrible punk rock band, working on his graduate degree—and at the top of his class, if his social media posts were to be believed. Dating girls who wear black lipstick. He was at that crossroads between letting go of youth and moving into his real adulthood. He reminded me of the college students I taught. It seemed so foreign to me that his DNA and mine were intermeshed, yet he seemed familiar; the slight crook in his smile, so much like my son’s.
Shelly and I had met the year before, on a website called the Donor Sibling Registry, where we both had posted messages under the Donor 6883 topic. We emailed back and forth and found we lived very near each other. Through a weird coincidence, my brother and her husband had been friends in college, and from the first time we met, we were fast friends. We started meeting with our sons at parks, about once a month. They were four years old, and never asked how we knew each other. They just had fun crawling through tubes at the park, swinging, playing tag. They didn’t look a lot alike, but they had physical similarities, some of the same gestures, the same intensity of personality.
It was at one of these get-togethers that I spilled the beans—I had found out what Donor 6883’s name was. “Wait, wait!” Shelly said. “I did some research, too, so let’s say his name at the same time and if it’s the same then we will know we’re right. Three, two, one . . .”
“JASON ANDERSON!” We screamed like little girls, and then laughed so hard the boys stopped playing and rolled their eyes.
I was pretty good at cyber-stalking, but all I really wanted was photos of Jason and his family—things I could save and show Richy when he was older. Richy never signed a piece of paper promising never to find his biological father, and I suspected when he was eighteen he might want to do so. When I did find pictures of the donor on his social media pages, I was stricken by how much he and I resembled each other—we had the same hair and skin color, even some of the same facial features. In every photo I saw traces of my son. The shy pride on his face as he held up a big walleye he’s caught. The intense stare in the photo where, as a toddler, he’s been interrupted playing in the sandbox. Other photos documented milestones—a family wedding, graduation, sports. His eyes looked kind, and he seemed to really enjoy his family, things I took some comfort in. He seemed pretty normal.
Shelly’s internet skills blew me out of the water. She was the one who found out about Jason’s band, and who convinced me to go see their show. She forwarded me photos of Jason and his band, looking sullen and broody. I laughed out loud.
“It might be the only time we will have an excuse to get close to him and check him out,” she said.
“We have photos,” I said. “And I object to the phrase check him out.”
Shelly rolled her eyes. “I didn’t mean it that way. Eew.” She shrugged. “Seeing someone in real life is different than looking at a photo,” she said. “We should go see him.”
I agreed. It seemed odd to me that it could be possible to have a kid with someone and never, ever even be in the same room as that person. It would be different to share space with this person, even if I stayed twenty feet away from him. But it also felt weirdly dishonest and forbidden.
As the evening went on, the crowd got bigger, and then dwindled back, so Shelly and I were some of the only people left in the entire bar. I was worried he was one of those gregarious musicians trying to build a fan base, who would come over and try to talk to us. I wasn’t sure I could keep it together and look normal. Shelly blended better than I did, with a practiced nonchalance. But afterwards, instead of mingling, he kept up the punk persona. He sat with his girlfriend and drank a beer, his shoulders slumping a little. Maybe he had expected a bigger turnout.
“It’s great he has a girlfriend, but I hope he doesn’t marry her,” I said. “He could do better. She’s creepy looking.”
Shelly nodded. “She definitely doesn’t look like wife material.”
One of Jason’s band mates brought a round of beers to his table, and they all perked up a bit, laughing and clinking their glasses. Maybe they weren’t disappointed after all.
I caught Shelly’s eye and pointed towards the door, thinking it was a great opportunity to slip out without being noticed. We walked out into the night, and she lit up another cigarette. “That was interesting,” she said, exhaling.
I nodded. “Yeah. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t bad, right?”
Shelly shook her head. “Nah.” She took another deep drag.
“Did you tell your husband what we were doing tonight?”
Shelly shook her head. “Did you?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Did he think it was weird?”
“A little. It is kind of weird. But just think how cool the other guys in the band would have thought he was if they knew that Jason had two baby-mamas in the crowd tonight, and that they actually liked to hang out together.”
“That’s great!” Shelly laughed. “And if all the moms showed up, he would have had a full house.”
We had recently found out that there were at least twenty other kids, probably more, in and around the United States. We had been emailing back and forth, and some of them with younger kids were getting together for summer trips. There was a Facebook group we had formed to share photos, medical info, and updates.
“We aren’t going to tell the other moms about this, are we?” I asked.
“No way,” she said. “No way.”
“I wish we could, but what if one of them really did stalk him? On the other hand, I wish all the kids could end up knowing who he is in case they want to find him when they’re older.”
“Those ladies are just as smart as we are,” Shelly said. “If they want to find him, they can use their own mad skills.”
I laughed. “I suppose.”
“And can you imagine how he would react if all twenty of them came at him all at once? He might just shut down and not want to see them.”
“He might do that anyway.” I leaned against the wall. “Sometimes I wonder how I’m going to help Richy handle those questions when he gets older. How will I get him through it if he wants to meet Jason and Jason says no?”
“I think about that, too,” Shelly said. “We’ll know when we get there, I guess.”
I cleared my throat. “Hey, I don’t want to do this again.”
Shelly looked me in the eye. “No fucking way we are doing this again.”
We both burst out laughing. I don’t know if either of us knew why. We hugged.
She unwrapped the bandana from her forehead and rubbed her temples. “I’m too old for this shit.”
As I drove home, I thought about how important—or unimportant—it was that I had gone to see Jason in person. Many people conceive children with someone they met one time, but only those of us who use donors conceive children with someone we have never met. Many children grow up and never know much, if anything, about their biological fathers, and my friends who have grown up that way all talk about how much they wished they had been able to know their fathers, even if it was just through memories of their relatives or friends. For the first time, I felt guilt about how I had chosen to bring my son into the world—creating, perhaps, an automatic hole in his life. When he was older and I told him his biological father’s name, told him this story about Shelly and my reconnaissance mission to see him, how would he react? Would he go seek out Jason himself? Would he think I had done the right thing? The wrong thing?
I pulled into the driveway and turned off the car, just sitting there for a minute before I went inside. I knew the questions would never go away, and neither would the anxiety about whether I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing. But I also knew that this now not so anonymous sperm donor had given me—actually, given the world—this beautiful, vibrant, intense little boy who had lit up my life from the moment he arrived. And I was, and continue to be, so grateful for that.
Kris Bigalk is the author of the poetry collections Repeat the Flesh in Numbers and Enough; her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and elsewhere. She directs the creative writing program at Normandale Community College and serves as executive director of Trio House Press in Minneapolis. Names and identifying information have been changed in her essay “Groupies.”