It was March of my senior year in college, a clear, chilly afternoon, when I felt what was, by then, the familiar weight of a man’s gaze, while I sat by myself in the food court. I looked up from my dinner, and there he was, at the end of the line for the salad place, looking at me the way he had for the past three weeks.
I sighed. The mall was one of my favorite places, and I didn’t want to give it up because of some creep.
I’d found the mall my freshman year. If you walked off campus, across Nassau Street and into a kiosk in the center of town, you could buy a discounted ticket with your student ID, and the bus would take you to a fancy shopping center with a fancy name, the Princeton MarketFair. There were all of the chains: a Pottery Barn and a Restoration Hardware, and Gaps, both Baby and full-grown, a Victoria’s Secret where you could buy your panties and a LensCrafters where you could pick up a pair of sunglasses, all of them in a sprawling, sterile building with marble floors and flattering, pink-tinted lights. At one end of the mall was a big, airy bookstore, with leather armchairs where you could curl up and read. At the other end was a movie theater that showed four-dollar matinees on Mondays. Between them was the food court.
Shortly after my discovery, I’d learned that only losers used public transportation. I’d found this out when I heard two of my classmates scornfully discussing a date that a girl we all knew had been on. “He took her to the movies. On the bus.” Giggle, giggle ... and then a quick look sideways to me, for my approval, because, tall and blond and with two juniors on the varsity crew team vying for my affection, I couldn’t possibly fall into the busgirl’s category.
The truth was I liked the bus, and I liked the mall. It felt real, and Princeton’s campus, with its perfect green lawns and its ivy-clad, gargoyle-ornamented, stained-glass-windowed buildings, and its students, none of whom seemed to suffer from acne or obesity or even bad-hair days, felt like a film set, too wonderful to exist. On campus, everyone walked around as if they’d never had a second of doubt, an instant of feeling like they didn’t belong, carrying their expensive laptops and textbooks, dressed just right. People at the mall did not look as if they’d just stepped out of catalogs. Their clothes were sometimes stained or too tight. They walked past the shop windows yearning after things they didn’t need and couldn’t afford: end-of-their-rope mothers snapping at their kids, boyfriends sighing and shifting their weight from foot to foot as they lingered outside the dressing rooms at Anthropologie, teenagers texting each other from a distance of less than three feet away across the table; the fat people, the old people, the ones with walkers or oxygen tanks or wheelchairs—all of them reminded me of home. Besides, I could practically be guaranteed to never see anyone from school there—not on the bus, for sure; not at the movie theater, at least in the daytime; definitely not scarfing kung pao chicken from China Express. Maybe my classmates came here to buy things, but they never stayed long, which made the mall my secret, a place where I could be myself.
Most Mondays, when my classes ended at 2:00, I’d take the bus and I’d browse in the stores, maybe trying on shoes or a pair of jeans, and I’d see a matinee of whatever movie looked interesting, then have dinner in the food court, or at the sit-down seafood restaurant if I’d managed to pick up some extra hours at my work-study job in the admissions office. For less than twenty dollars, I could make a whole afternoon and early evening pleasantly disappear.
I looked up from my plate again. The man was holding his briefcase, standing in profile, looking like he was trying to decide what to do next. It could, I knew, go one of two ways: he’d keep staring, or he’d work up the nerve to cross the tiled floor and say something.
When I was thirteen, my father sat me down and gave me a little speech. “There’s something you should know,” he’d said. We were in the family room, half a flight down from the front door, a room with pine-paneled walls and mauve-colored carpet and a glass-topped coffee table on which there were a decade’s worth of yearbooks, one for every year my father had been the yearbook advisor at McKinley Junior High.
“What’s that?” This was in the fall; I’d been wearing my soccer uniform; shorts and shin guards and a sweatshirt I’d pulled on for the bike ride home. My dad was in his worn black recliner, a glass of ice cubes and whiskey in his hand, still dressed in the coat and tie he wore to school. My mom was in the kitchen making baked chicken—she’d dip each piece in a mixture of buttermilk and mustard, then roll it in cornflake crumbs. That chicken, along with Rice-A-Roni and a cut-up head of iceberg lettuce doused in bottled ranch dressing, was my favorite meal, and all I wanted was to take a hot shower, pull on my sweatpants and a too-big T-shirt, eat my dinner, and get to my homework. For the first time, math was actually hard for me, and I knew I’d need at least half an hour to get through the problem set we’d been assigned.
My dad ducked his head, sipped his drink, and said into the knot of his tie, “Men are going to look at you.”
This wasn’t news to me, and hadn’t been for a while. “It’s not your fault, Julia,” said my father, pulling off his glasses as he spoke. “It’s what men do. It’s how we’re wired, maybe, men and women. We’re programmed to notice each other.”
I’d flicked my ponytail over my shoulder. I was already five foot four inches of the eventual five foot nine I’d reach. My hair was thick and butterscotch blond, and that fall I’d graduated from a training bra to an actual B-cup, and started junior high. These events combined made me feel as if my body wasn’t really me anymore, but something I lived inside; a borrowed blouse I’d snuck out of my mother’s closet, something I needed to treat carefully and could, if I was lucky, one day return.
Men will look, my dad had said, watching me with a mixture of love and regret. Sometimes, he’d quote a line of Yeats, about how “only God, my dear / could love you for yourself / And not your golden hair.” It made me feel strange, a little proud, a little ashamed, especially because the truth, which maybe he’d guessed, was that men were already doing more than looking: they’d hoot, they’d whistle, they’d make sucking, smooching sounds when I was alone, walking home from school, and they were in their cars. One of my classmates, Tim Sather, seemed to have decided that his mission in life was to snap my bra strap as often as he could, and Mr. Traub, the gym teacher, would wrap his arms around me, letting his jogging-suited torso press, briefly but firmly, against my back as he helped me with my volleyball serve. That summer I’d been wearing my swimsuit, a dark-blue one-piece, and running through the sprinkler with the Lurie kids, whom I’d been babysitting at the time, and I’d looked up to find Mr. Santos, who lived next door to the Luries, staring at me over the top of his fence with his mouth hanging open. A few weeks later, my older brother, Greg, had gotten in a fight at the town park’s swimming pool. When my mother had fussed over his black eye and swollen cheek, demanding to know who’d started it, Greg had muttered that the boys had been saying stuff about me. My mother hadn’t asked him anything else, and I’d been embarrassed, unsure of how to behave. Did I thank Greg? Did I ask him what the boys had said, if I’d done anything to provoke it? Finally, I decided to say nothing, to pretend the whole thing had never happened. That seemed like the smartest thing to do.
The worst part wasn’t the boys; it was the girls, the ones who had once been my friends. She thinks she’s sooo pretty, I’d heard Missy Henried sneer to Beth Brock one day at lunch after Matt Blum, staring at me across the cafeteria, had almost walked into a table. Like I’d asked for him to stare. I had a mirror, and I’d seen enough magazines and TV shows to know that I was what was considered good-looking, maybe even beautiful. But the beautiful girls on TV or in those glossy pages all seemed happy. They never looked lonely, like their faces, their hair, their bodies were traps keeping them apart from everyone else. I couldn’t figure out why I felt guilty when boys stared, like I was lying, or offering them something I didn’t really have. All I knew was that Missy and Beth and I had been Brownies together; we’d trick-or-treated every October, giggling in the costumes that had turned us into cheerleaders or witches or Pink Ladies from Grease, posing on Missy’s front porch while her father struggled with his video camera. Now I was their enemy. Now they were on one side of a wall, and I was on the other.
“So what am I supposed to do about it?” I asked my dad. Back then, I thought he knew all the answers. Our house was full of books he’d read, biographies of presidents and scientists, thick hardcover novels with approving quotes from The New Yorker on their backs, different from my mother’s mysteries, which were bright paperbacks with actual people on the covers and titles spelled out in foil.
He’d patted my shoulder. “Just be aware.” Almost ten years later, whenever I felt a man’s eyes passing over me—sometimes lightly, like water, sometimes like the high whining of a mosquito in my ear—I’d remember my father, mumbling into his tie, my father, when he was still all right. Love you, sweetheart, he’d said, and hugged me, the way he hardly ever did since my breasts had gotten bigger than bug bites on my chest.
In the food court, I speared a maraschino cherry on my chopstick. The man in the suit made up his mind, walking away from the salad stand, heading straight toward me. I thought he was in his late thirties, maybe his forties, with dark, curly hair and a handsome, coddled face.
I bent over my dinner, hoping he’d just keep walking, and began the time-consuming process of separating the chilies from the chunks of chicken and pineapple, wondering whether he’d work up the nerve to say something or if he was just cruising by for a closer look. When I looked up again he was standing right in front of my table for two, with nothing to eat.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you go to Princeton?”
I nodded, unimpressed. I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that said Princeton right across the chest. No makeup, except a little lip gloss and the mascara and eyeliner I never left the dorm without, because my lashes are so sparse and fine that they’re basically invisible without a swipe or two of Lash Out, and my eyes are such a pale blue-gray noncolor that they tend to blend into my forehead without liner, giving my face the look of an underbaked pie.
“You like it there?” he asked. I nodded again.
He lifted his briefcase and moved as if he was going to sit down across from me. I edged my metal-legged chair backward, preparing to tell him, politely, that I needed to finish my dinner and get going because my friends were waiting, when he asked, “Do you play any sports?”
This was a surprise. I’d been betting an either What’s your major or Where are you from ... either that or he’d ask me for help, the most common ploy. At the mall, guys would ask which movie I’d seen and if I’d liked it, or if I could help them pick out a necklace or a sweater for their sister or their mom. At the gym, guys would point at the controls for the StairMaster, feigning confusion. Hey, do you know how to work this? In the grocery store, they’d need my assistance picking out pasta or plums. At the gas station, they would require directions; in class, they’d want to know if I’d read the assignment, if I had plans for the weekend, if I’d read this book or heard that band. I know this makes me sound as if my life was a nonstop parade of men who were dying to talk to me, but it’s just the truth. When you look a certain way—blond and tall, with D-cup boobs, with wide-set eyes and a straight nose, and full lips that are dark pink even without lipstick—men want to talk to you. Usually they ask you out, and twice in my life, once in this very mall, I’d been asked if I was a model.
“Field hockey and lacrosse,” I said. I’d played both in high school, but not since.
The man sat down, uninvited. “Are you twenty-one?”
I narrowed my eyes, one hand on the strap of my backpack, wondering whether he was going to propose something illegal or seamy, like phone sex or stripping. Up close, he was older than I’d thought, older than he should have been if he was hitting on a girl my age, maybe forty-five, with a plain gold wedding band on his left hand, and I didn’t want to have dinner with him, or give him my number or my e-mail address or tell him where I lived or let him buy me a drink or a frozen yogurt; I just wanted to finish my food and go back to my dorm room, avoid my boyfriend, curl up with a book, and count the days until graduation. That was when he smiled.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m getting ahead of myself. Jared Baker,” he said, and stuck his hand across the table.
I shook it quickly. The skin of his palms felt as soft as I imagined the skin on his face would. I got to my feet, never mind that half my dinner was still sitting there. “Excuse me, but my friends are probably waiting for me.” I had my tray in one hand and my backpack in the other when Jared Baker said, “How would you like to make twenty thousand dollars?”
I paused. My skin was tingling. Illegal, I thought. It has to be. “Doing what? Smuggling drugs out of Mexico?”
His smile widened so that I could see his teeth. “Egg donation.”
I set my tray back on the table. “Sit,” said Jared Baker, coming around the table to pull my chair out for me. He looped my backpack’s straps over the chair and did everything but spread a paper napkin in my lap. It was a funny performance, like a parody of a man tending to a wife who was fragile as an egg. Or who was carrying fragile eggs. “Eat your dinner.” He frowned at the plate. “Skip the spring roll, though. Saturated fats.”
Looking him right in the eye, I dragged the roll through the slurry of Chinese mustard and duck sauce I’d made, and took a giant bite. His grin widened. “Moxie,” he said. “That’s nice. People like a girl with a sense of humor.”
“Are you serious?” I asked once I’d swallowed. “Twenty thousand dollars for an egg?” I’d seen ads, of course, in the school paper, online, and on fliers posted in the student union and the library. Families seeking egg donors. All expenses paid. Please help make our dreams come true. But I’d never noticed the fee for the egg itself, and I’d never guessed it would be so high.
Jared Baker was friendly, but not smarmy, serious and calm as he asked me more questions: Where had I grown up? What were my SAT scores? Had I ever had an IQ test? Had anyone in my family had cancer or diabetes or mental illness? I gave him the numbers and said no to the illnesses. He pulled a notebook out of his briefcase and asked if I had siblings, how old my mother had been when I was born, and how much I’d weighed as a baby. I was careful with my answers, thinking about what he’d want to hear, what story would go best with the girl he was seeing, a tall, blond, jockish girl in a Princeton sweatshirt who was eating by herself only because her friends had finished first and were waiting for her in the bookstore.
“Ever been pregnant?” he asked, the same way he’d asked if I was a vegetarian or if heart disease ran in my family. I shook my head, ponytail swishing. I’d only had sex with three different boys, an embarrassingly low tally at my age. I was starting to think that I was one of those people who didn’t like sex very much. Maybe it made me lucky. I wouldn’t spend my whole life getting my heart broken, chasing after this guy or that one.
“And are you single?”
I nodded, trying not to look too excited, to give the appearance that men stopped by the food court to offer me piles of cash every Monday I went to the mall, but my mind was racing, imagining what I could do with twenty thousand dollars, a sum I hadn’t imagined possessing unless I won the lottery or married very, very well. Even with the investment-banking job I was going to take after I graduated, I’d have to manage rent in New York City and start paying back my loans, so the idea of having five figures’ worth of discretionary income was new to me, extraordinary, and alluring.
Jared Baker handed me a business card, a rectangle of heavy ivory paper with embossed letters on top that said PRINCETON FERTILITY CLINIC, INC. His name was underneath, with telephone numbers and an e-mail address. “Be in touch,” he said. “I think you’d be an excellent candidate.”
“Twenty thousand dollars,” I said again.
“Minimum,” he repeated. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind telling me your name?”
“Julia Strauss,” I said. “My friends call me Jules.”
“Jules,” he said, giving me another appraising look and shaking my hand again.
So that was how it started: in the Princeton MarketFair, over a Styrofoam plate of sweet and sour chicken and a spring roll that I never got to finish. It seemed so simple. I thought that selling an egg would be like giving blood, like checking the Organ Donation box on your driver’s license, like giving away something you’d never wanted or even noticed much to begin with. And yes, at first, I was just in it for the money. It wasn’t about altruism, or feminism, or any other ism. It was about the cash. But I wasn’t going to blow it on clothes or a car or a graduation bash, on Ecstasy or a trip to Vail, or Europe, or one of the hundred frivolous things my classmates might have chosen. I was going to take that money and I was going to try to save my father ... or, more accurately, I was going to give him one last chance to save himself.