“Don’t you ever just want to move out there for good – to wake up every day to...pure beauty? Rather than to this?” Reagan gestures outside the window to a pile of yellowed snow next to a wall of garbage bags.
“Oh sure,” says Mae, not quite lying; she and Ethan do sometimes speak of getting a weekend house upstate, especially if things continue to go well with Golden Oaks. “But my fiancé’s job is downtown, our life is here in Manhattan...”
“I guess it might get boring,” Reagan concedes.
“Actually,” interrupts Mae, “it’s very cultural. Golden Oaks is not far from the Berkshires, where there’s Tanglewood, Pilobolus, galleries galore. There are so many working artists living in the area...”
“Not that I’d go gallery-hopping a lot if I were a Host.”
Mae, noting the “if,” soldiers on. “No, probably not toward the end of the incubation period...But in the first and early second trimester we do sponsor trips to the Berkshires for Hosts who are interested.” Mae is making this up as she goes along. Really, it has never come up – most of her Hosts would have zero interest in avant-garde dance performances and photography exhibits – but why not? Why not hire a car to take the Premium Hosts to nearby towns for a bit of cultural stimulation now and then? Would that breach something contractually?
“Anyway, even if it gets a little boring, it’d be worth it,” Reagan says. She mentions that she is trying to get serious about her photography, but her father isn’t supportive. “He’ll only help with my rent if I’m being practical and working a real job.” Reagan makes a face.
Her words are music to Mae’s ears. Incentivised Hosts are the best Hosts. “Assuming you deliver a healthy baby, which I’m certain you would, your rent worries will be a thing of the past. Along with any other monetary worries you have...”
“I’d also love to know that I’m helping someone,” Reagan adds quickly, as if concerned that she’s come across as overly money-driven. “I mean, that’s what’s most important.”
Reagan was referred to Golden Oaks by the clinic that harvested her eggs in college. She had probably convinced herself then, too, that she was acting out of altruism, that the money was secondary in her decision to donate her eggs. Mae’s never understood why people – privileged people especially, like Reagan and Katie – insist that there’s something shameful in desiring money. No immigrant ever apologised for wanting a nicer life.
She reassures Reagan that both of her motivations are important. “Being a Host will allow you to fulfil your artistic dreams, while also fulfilling the dreams of a woman desperate for a child. It’s the best kind of win-win.”
Reagan frowns. “You mentioned before, though, that some people use surrogates for aesthetic reasons. I—I’d want to carry a baby for someone who otherwise couldn’t have one. I’m not so interested in a Client who’s using a surrogate out of vanity...”
If Reagan had been a run-of-the-mill applicant Mae would have sent her packing then and there. As if Hosts get to choose their Clients! But Premium Hosts are hard to come by, and so Mae reassures rather than reprimands Reagan. “Should we be lucky enough to have you join us at Golden Oaks, I have a Client in mind for you. She’s an older woman, born in abject poverty. She’s done phenomenal things in her career but at the cost of her fertility. She’s too old to carry her own child.”
Reagan’s eyes light up. “Yes. Exactly.”
Mae’s phone buzzes. It’s probably Eve. Madame Deng’s assistant had warned Mae that she might need to move tomorrow’s lunch meeting to breakfast, which would mean Mae needs the car to pick her up at her apartment well before five a.m. This in turn will deter- mine whether Mae attends the gala at the Whitney this evening. She already bought a dress for it, a gorgeous, size-10 Yves Saint Laurent found on a sale rack at Barneys and tailored down to Mae’s size. “I’m sorry, Reagan. I’ve been waiting on a call from Eve.”
Mae picks up her phone. Eve informs her that the Deng meeting has been moved to seven thirty the next morning. Dammit.
“How’s Eve?” asks Reagan.
When Reagan visited Golden Oaks, Mae asked Eve to have a chat with her. Mae had a hunch that pretty Eve, with her troubled backstory – her mother raised three little girls single-handedly in the projects – would appeal to Reagan, who is a lost soul seeking meaning. Understandably so, given her childhood.
“She’s well. Still working toward her degree in the evenings.”
Reagan fingers the sugar packets she has scattered across her placemat. “You know, when I went to Golden Oaks, I wasn’t sure fully how I felt about it. I noticed I’m not the typical Host.”
Mae meets Reagan’s gaze with steadiness. She decides that Reagan is the type that respects forthrightness; bluntness to blunt bluntness. “You worry that the other Hosts at Golden Oaks are mostly women of color. Am I right? You worry that there’s something potentially...exploitative afoot.” She speaks mildly, as if reading aloud from the menu.
Reagan laughs, a nervous laugh. Mae’s directness has put her off-balance. Good.
“Well, I wouldn’t have used the term ‘exploitative’...Although my roommate – if she knew about Golden Oaks – she’d agree with that.” Reagan pauses, then adds, as if it were an explanation in itself: “She’s African American.”
“Did you ever study economics in college?”
“I minored in it, but I hated it. My dad made me. Because it’s practical.”
“It’s not particularly practical if it’s taught badly. Which, unfortunately, it often is.” Mae smiles. “It’s actually quite fascinating. At the macro level, economics is less science than philosophy. One of its core ideas is that free trade – voluntary trade— – is mutually beneficial. The exchange has to be a good deal for both sides, or one party would walk.”
“Yes, but it could be that one party has no other options. I mean, the ‘exchange’ for that one party might not be a ‘good deal,’ but only the best choice among a bunch of choices that are all total...well, crap.” Reagan forms quotation marks in the air with her fingers; her voice has sharpened.
Mae remembers having similar arguments with her father when she was young. Dinner-table debates about Ayn Rand and Wall Street and unions and communism. Her father inevitably played his trump card: the hopelessness he had felt living in communist China; his salvation and rebirth in capitalist America. Even after things soured for him – after his import-export business foundered, after he went to work as a pencil pusher at a no-name company an hour’s drive from home to pay the mortgage on the McMansion her mother insisted on keeping – he extolled America’s virtues. He never blamed his adopted country for his failures, only himself.
“Agreed,” Mae responds calmly. “But the trade, as you just admitted, is still the best option available. And without the trade, without this relatively better option, the one party would be worse off, don’t you think? It isn’t like we force our Hosts to be Hosts. They choose to work for us freely – I’d argue: happily. They’re treated extremely well, and they’re compensated more than adequately for their efforts. We certainly didn’t force Eve to stay on with us after delivering the Client’s baby.”
“That’s exactly what I found so interesting,” Reagan says, shifting tone. She leans forward, speaking quickly. “When Eve told me she’d been a Host, I was shocked. She’s so...professional. She told me working for you is like winning the lottery.”
“Eve’s really special. I’m glad you got a chance to chat with her. But she isn’t an isolated case. A significant number of Hosts decide to carry second and even third babies with us. A few have gone on to work for their Clients after delivery. For someone with drive, Golden Oaks really can be a gateway to a better life.”
Mae omits the fact that, except for Eve, no other Host has transitioned to a white-collar job. They tend to be hired for childcare or household services.
Reagan is nodding. “Just the money has to be life-changing.”
Of course, Reagan’s earning potential is many multiples that of a typical Host, but that’s simply because she brings very special attri- butes to the table. It’s basic supply and demand. The regular Hosts are more or less interchangeable. Not that Reagan needs to know this.
“It certainly is a lot of money to them,” Mae agrees.
“It’s a lot of money to me. And I don’t need it nearly as much,” answers Reagan.
Mae makes a mental note to talk to Research. She knows they track Hosts postdelivery to ensure they are abiding by the non- disclosure agreements; it can’t be that hard to figure out which ones have visibly improved their lives post–Golden Oaks. A list like that would be useful beyond Reagan.
“How can I be of help as you make your decision?” asks Mae.
Reagan bites her lip, staring out the window. An old man buttressed by a stout African American woman, probably his caretaker, hobbles past. “I think I already have...”
“Yes?” Mae asks calmly, although inside she is cartwheeling. “Yes.”
Excerpted with permission from The Farm, Joanne Ramos, Bloomsbury.