In this topsy-turvy era in which normal life feels like a Twilight Zone episode, there’s refuge to be found in stories of everyday people going about their lives. Through three novels—2012’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, 2014’s The Vacationers, and 2016’s Modern Lovers—Emma Straub has become adept at finding amusement in the mundane, and her newest, All Adults Here, might just be her best yet. It follows three generations of the Strick family, a Hudson Valley-bound clan holding just as many secrets from themselves as from one another.
One of those sparkling personalities is Porter, a pushing-forty goat farmer who has self-inseminated and is eager—though not too eager—to tell her mother, Astrid, that she’ll have a new granddaughter. In this exclusive excerpt from the book, we see how Porter arrived at the decision to get pregnant via sperm bank.
Porter’s bathroom smelled like goats because Porter smelled like goats. She couldn’t always smell it herself, certainly not when she was with the animals, but once she came home and got into the shower, the steam opened up her pores and the whole room bloomed into a barnyard. It was worse when she smelled like cheese, mostly because other people tended to be more likely to attribute the cheese smell to her own body, whereas when she smelled like the goats, the animals were clearly to blame.
After graduating from Hampshire College, Porter had moved back to Clapham fast, like a rubber band pinged across a room. Her father had been dead for two and a half years, and being at school in Massachusetts had felt so absolutely dumb, but her mother had insisted she stay. What was the point? her mother had asked. What would she do in Clapham but sit around and mope? Porter thought that if she was going to find her father anywhere, in whatever form, it would be at home. And so she came back, reverting quickly to her teenage habits, but with part of her family cleaved off, as if her father had been a dream. It had been like learning to walk with a limp—tough at first, but then she got so used to it that she couldn’t remember what life had felt like on two solid feet.
She’d worked as a substitute teacher at the high school, then at the Clay Depot, a high-end pottery store on Main Street. When she was nearing thirty, Porter’s childhood friend Harriet converted her parents’ land into an organic farm, and then they bought some goats and read some books on fermentation, and now, almost eight years later, Clap Happy Goat Cheese was available in shops in New York City and at every restaurant in Clapham and at specialty cheese shops around the country. Harriet had sold Porter the land and her share of the goats (there were two dozen altogether) and moved to Oregon with her husband, and so now the dairy was Porter’s alone.
It was maybe because of the goats that the idea of getting pregnant on her own didn’t seem all that scary. She was used to assisting reproduction, to having a hand in creating life, even if it was goats. Sperm banks were stud farms, and she’d grown up around enough farmers to know how biology worked. Really, it was mainstream, heteronormative couples who were doing the crazy thing, picking a partner based on what, a sense of humor? Where they went to college? What they did with their tongue when they kissed? And then having a baby. Why didn’t everyone pick one person to marry and then pick the sperm they wanted separately? Also, fathers died, anyone could die, didn’t people understand that? You couldn’t ask one person to be your everything, because that person could be taken away. Would be taken away, eventually. Obviously it would be ideal to have a partner to help with the child once he or she was born—she wasn’t a fool, she knew she had only two hands—but she didn’t want to wait until she was forty. Maybe if she lived in a bigger place, where the dating pool was larger, she wouldn’t have felt in such a rush. But Porter knew everyone in Clapham who she could possibly have sex with, and there were no golden tickets on that list.
There were romantic partners Porter could have had babies with: Jeremy, her high school boyfriend and first love, who had wanted to marry her at eighteen and now lived across town with his perky wife and their two school-age kids; Jonah, her college boyfriend, who smoked weed more often than he ate food, and who had moved to Vermont and seemed to be a professional Bernie Bro Facebook ranter; Hiro—the boy she’d slept with once during the relationship with the pot smoker—a Japanese student who had no social media and an ungoogleable name, so she’d lost track of him. The sex hadn’t been good, but what was good sex? He could have been a good husband, a good father, who knew? And he probably was, with someone else.
Then there were the guys Porter had slept with after college: Chad, the lawyer, whom she’d found both sexy and boring, like a human baseball game; Matthew, the underemployed waiter she’d dated for a few months, who had another girlfriend but sometimes still texted late at night, little empty speech bubbles forever appearing and disappearing after Hey, thinking about you; Billy, the guy she’d met on vacation in Puerto Rico, who was on his own vacation from Wisconsin, and whom Porter was fairly sure had a wedding ring tan line; and then Ryan, her most recent boyfriend, the only one since college whom she’d actually introduced to her family, who probably didn’t love her, and most definitely didn’t want kids. Accidents happened, but Porter had been on the pill since she was a junior in high school, and since then they hadn’t happened to her. All the while, her friends had endless engagement parties, weddings, baby showers, births, like so many rocket ships zooming away from her. Both of her brothers had children, and at least one of them, her niece, Cecelia, was the greatest child to ever be born. Porter was ready to zoom, too, and so she stopped waiting for a pilot to appear.
Choosing sperm was the ultimate online dating—you had all the information you needed on paper. Porter also wasn’t sure she trusted what were essentially résumés—everyone stretched the truth on résumés— and so she focused on the facts. Porter was tall herself and didn’t need tall genes; she wasn’t Jewish and therefore it was fine if the donor was, in terms of Tay?Sachs and other diseases on the “Jewish panel,” so said her reproductive endocrinologist. Porter wanted to make up for things she lacked—physical coordination, the ability to carry a tune. It was best not to think about these men masturbating into a cup. It was hard to decide which was more off-putting: a man donating sperm just to make some cash or a man donating sperm because he liked the idea of having lots of children borne by strange women. Porter put it out of her mind. The sperm was an ingredient, and this way, she got to choose what kind of cake she wanted to make. The child would be hers alone, and that cupful of swimmers was a means to that end. And now she was pregnant with a girl. Science worked, and miracles happened. The two were not mutually exclusive.
Porter turned off the showerhead and watched the soapy water pool around her feet. Her breasts had always been modest and small, even when the rest of her body had widened with age. Now they were full and hard, more than a palmful of stretching tissue. Her hips and tummy kept the secret with their soft width, a professional hazard. Porter didn’t trust anyone skinny who worked in cheese. You met them from time to time, mostly on the retail side, and Porter always kept her distance. Enjoying the product was important. Thank god her cheese was pasteurized.
Now that she was halfway and starting to show in earnest, Porter knew she was going to have to start telling people. And before she told people, she would have to tell her brothers. And before she told her brothers, she would have to tell her mother. She knew that it would be unimaginable to most women not to tell their mothers that they were embarking on such an experience—she’d seen scores of adult women clutching their mothers’ hands in the waiting room at her reproductive endocrinologist’s office. But Astrid Strick wasn’t like that. She knew how to get stains out of white shirts. She could name all the plants in her garden and identify trees and birds. She could bake everything from scratch. But she did not invite intimacy the way that Porter had observed in other mothers, the kind who would let their children sleep in their bed after a bad dream or get their hair wet in a swimming pool. Astrid had always existed—both before and after her husband died—in an orderly way. She had rules, and the proper clothing for any weather, unlike Porter, who had neither. That was part of it, of course. Porter was going to let her daughter sleep in her bed every night if she wanted to. She’d chew her food and spit it into her mouth, if that was what the baby wanted. Porter was going to be as warm as an oven. That’s what she was going to tell her mother.
Russell Strick had loved The Twilight Zone, and Porter thought that that was how she might have told her father—she would have asked him to imagine an episode where a baby was made in a lab and put into her body. It wasn’t fair, the way most people just got to keep both their parents, and have grandparents for their children, and cutesy nicknames. Porter was used to that unfairness—her college graduation, her brothers’ weddings, her mother’s fiftieth birthday, sixtieth birthday, all the big fucking days—but somehow that part didn’t get easier. He was still gone, and he would miss her big days, too, in addition to her brothers’. He would have been happy that she was having a baby, maybe (in some weird way, a way that they wouldn’t ever talk about out loud) even a little bit happy that he would be the primary male figure, apart from her brothers, that he, Grampa, would loom large. Gramps. Gamps. Pops. Popsy. Porter didn’t know which he would have been, which silly nickname he would have been granted by Cecelia and then called by all his grandchildren in turn. Porter had had a dream that somehow her father was also the father of her baby, through some mix of time travel and magic but with none of the troubling connotations that such a thing would have in real life—in her dream, it was like her father was somehow her grandfather and her father and her child’s father all at once, an ageless ghost, and the women in the family did all the work. It was like a Brad Pitt movie that would make you cry even though it got terrible reviews.
Porter stepped over the lip of the bathtub and wrapped herself in a towel. She wiped at the mirror with her hand, clearing a space large enough to see her reflection.
“You’re a grown-up,” she said to herself. “You’re a grown-ass woman, with a growing-ass baby inside her. You are an adult. It’s your life.” Porter turned to the side and cupped her hand beneath her belly. “Hey, you. I’m your mom, and I swear to god, everything is going to be okay. I am ninety-five percent sure that everything is going to be okay. At least seventy percent. I swear. Fuck.”
She would tell her mother today. Or tomorrow. At the very latest, she would tell her mother tomorrow.
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