Authors: Tommy Wieringa
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000
Her voice was friendly and calm; she said it in a very
way. He walked out of the room without replying, angry and abashed, banished from his own bed by wife and son. Downstairs in the living room he watched TV and drank red wine, and only climbed the stairs to the loft after midnight. He dreamed of a space where people and things fell from the air, very slowly, like objects in an emulsion. When they touched the earth's surface, they sank into the ground without leaving a crack or a mark. In the midst of that slow rain of lawnmowers, upended trees, desk chairs, and people he didn't know, there stood he.
By the time he came downstairs, Ruth had already left with Morris for the day-care centre. He ate a slice of bread and drank straight out of a package of fruit juice. On the table was a note.
Message from Friso. Could you bring him a dishpan and brush too? (Don't be angry.) Love.
The dawning day made it feel as though he had never exited his dream. Something seemed to have started, he thought, that could no longer be reversed. It had been traipsing along with him the whole time, behind him, like a shadow â but now that the sun had changed position, it was catching up with him, dark and heavy; the final alignment would be fatal.
He was waiting for the phone to ring, for a message to come in; he had a feeling of doom. But it remained still. The day passed. Nothing happened.
When he called her from the car, Ruth didn't answer. He left a message saying that he was going to buy a dishpan and brush, drop it off, and then come home. Would they have dinner together?
He sounded like a supplicant, he thought after he'd hung up. She would hear the entreaty in his voice, and despise him for it.
The campground manager had ordered Friso to clean up the mess around the chalet; someone had booked one of the other houses. âOh man,' Friso said, âI sure hope it'll be a couple of sweet Eastern European babes.'
It must have been an interesting confrontation, Edward thought as he was driving home, between the Teutonic orderliness of the campground manager and Friso's fundamental indifference. Secretly, he admired him for that. Friso let himself fall over backwards, and didn't seem to care whether or not anyone caught him. Someone always did. He was the youngest child, the last of the litter, and he counted on other people to repair his mistakes for him. His character defects were never held too much against him; even Ruth still consistently came to his defence.
Edward's admiration was indistinguishable from envy. No one would ever catch
if he fell.
He came into the house lugging a bag full of Friso and Hunter's dirty laundry. Ruth had assumed wordlessly that he would be the house steward. She was sitting on the patio, her legs tucked up beneath her, the baby intercom on the table in front of her. âHey there,' she said. Motherhood had lent her something full and radiant that was not depleted by her fatigue. He leaned down. Her kiss was like the movement of one head pushing away the other.
He didn't know where to start, afraid of things he didn't want to hear. Truth was the privilege of the strong.
Ruth talked about Morris's day at the crÃ¨che; the subject served as a divider strip for them both. The garden was coming into blossom; he had planted some new clematis, with potshards piled up around their sensitive roots. The flowers they gave were purple and pink.
Ruth looked at him. âYou know, Edward, we've tried so many things â¦'
He forced himself to look at her.
âNothing helps,' she said, ânot really. I'm right about that, aren't I? I stopped giving him that garbage â the Infacol and Zantac, Dophilus, all that stuff â a few weeks ago.' She shook her head. âYou never even noticed the difference.'
His face clouded over.
âI thought you wouldn't approve,' she said. âThat's why I didn't tell you. Because you â'
âYou didn't ask the doctor about it, about whether you could do that, just stop with everything?' he asked.
âYou know what?' she said. âI've discovered something. Something else. I'm sure you'll think it's completely unscientific, but â¦ sometimes a mother knows more than all the clinical studies put together.'
A sprinkler spun in the neighbours' garden, ticking as it went, every so often the water drumming against the top of a parasol.
âIt's mostly in the evenings when he cries, Edward â the evenings and weekends â when he's wide awake, restless, crying. When I'm alone with him during the day, he's much calmer. The girls at the day-care say so, too.' She pulled her legs up under her again. âDuring the day he does just fine, or at least a lot better. It's only in the evening. And during the weekend. I've kept track of it; it's not a coincidence. You know what it is, Edward â¦ I'm really sorry to have to say it â¦ but it's you.'
He waited until the rain stopped beating on the parasol, and then said: âWhat's me?'
She sank back in her chair. âThe reason for his crying,' she said.
Twice he started to say something, but the words remained stuck. Ships sank in the silence between them.
âAh-ha,' he said after a bit, as though to see whether his voice still worked.
âWhen you're around, he cries. It's too much of a coincidence.'
âIt's insane,' he said slowly.
âI see what I see.'
âA face in the clouds, that's what you see. You can't think that way; you take him off his medicines, and then you think you can see the cause of his complaints. A chance observation with a worthless conclusion, that's what it is. And besides,
can't he stand having me around?'
âI don't know,' she said.
âCome on, you've thought about it, you must have.'
She looked at him, motionless as a fish. âIf you really want to know,' she said then.
They waited. Hissing, the water went round and round. Seven seconds, that's how long it took. She said: âI think he senses that you didn't want him.'
There were some words that could not be undone. After they had sounded and dissolved into air, everything had changed; you looked back in amazement at how it used to be.
His chin dropped to his chest, as though his head had grown too heavy and broken free of his spine. He remained sitting there like that for a while. Then he straightened up and said: âI was hoping it would turn out better than I expected, I really hoped so. But it's not. It's actually worse. I don't even know what to say. Once you get back to â¦
, you'll realise how insane this all is.'
âI'm sorry,' she said. âI understand your anger.'
He got up, leaning on the armrest. âNot that
shit, please.' He started to walk away, but turned back. âDon't try to tell me that my son is allergic to me â¦ That I'm the one who caused his reflux. That I'm the reason why he cries. That's â¦ you're completely out of your goddamn mind, you know that. Being pregnant affected your brain. The hormones have destroyed your mind. Fucking bitch.'
It was as though a dragon flew up from his breast. It felt fantastic. Never before had he let himself go like this towards her, and now it didn't matter anymore. He had lost, and there was no longer any difference between the wasteland of the dreams and the reality that lay before him.
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The strange thing, he realised later, was that after that, everything had just gone on. She put the vacuum stopper back on the wine bottle and the dishes in the machine, the plates with the plates and the glasses with the glasses, and he knelt in the pantry and sorted out Friso and Hunter's laundry. He called out, asking whether she had anything for the wash. She went upstairs and came back down, adding their clothing to the mix in the tub. He had never been able to keep his eyes off the inside of underwear: Ruth's clotted foam, his brother-in-law's brown stripes, and the imprint of his anus stamped firmly onto the textile. Now he was repulsed by the thought that Friso's molecules were sloshing about in the same water as their clothes, and took out everything that belonged to the three of them. This was, he realised, intolerance at the cellular level.
When he went into the bedroom to get his alarm clock, Morris started crying. Ruth snapped on the light and lifted him from his cot. She put him to the breast. Edward closed the door quietly behind him.
In the middle of the night, he pissed in the upstairs sink. In the darkness, he asked himself whether there was still some way out, a little crack in their new circumstances that would allow him return to his former life. So he lay there fretting, that night and in the nights which followed, in the silvery white light that fell through the skylight, its vague glow encompassing the rowing machine and the outlines of the movers' boxes. Sometimes he clearly heard her voice saying âI don't know what got into me, I'm so sorry', after which, in his thoughts, he reclaimed his place in their bed and in their life â and with these fantasies he fell asleep.
In the days that followed, he noticed that Ruth had attuned herself to a functional kind of friendliness, rather like a receptionist or travel hostess. He responded with a neutrality that left him wondering how long he could keep this up before setting the house on fire and fleeing to the eastern shores of the Black Sea, to become a palm reader in the streets of Tbilisi and eat mandarin oranges by the river.
He lived like a pariah in his own home, but told himself that he was doing so only to give her time to come back to her senses and see the idiocy of her ways.
One evening, he fixed risotto, which she loved, albeit in little servings. He watched contentedly as she ate, and noted that, in any case, things
the way they always had been.
âDear Ruth,' he said a little later, as though reading a letter aloud, âplease listen to me. Try to listen with your old ears, the ears you had back before we had Morris. Why don't we go to a doctor and ask what he thinks? Whether he's ever encountered a situation in which a father made his child sick? A father whose mere
made his child cry? If that exists, that kind of allergy, then there must be other cases of it, too. Let's look for a doctor, one we've never seen before, who can help us with this, because things can't go on like this any longer.'
But she shook her head and said: âI can't take another doctor. Things are just getting a bit better with him; I see no reason at all to go to another doctor.'
âBut what about this for a reason?' he said, louder than he'd intended. âI'm sleeping in the attic, you're treating me like a pariah, I'm a stranger in my own home!'
âWell, then, that's the way it is for now,' she said. âMorris's health comes first. Once he starts feeling better, we'll see.'
The woman with whom he had lived for seven years had carried this woman inside her, a woman he didn't know and whom he had never before caught a glimpse of â a rigid, dogmatic creature, capable of no mercy, sticking to the straight and the narrow.
She kept Morris away from him as much as possible, and his periodic outbursts of rage at this only steeled her in her decision. He was their child's malady, and it was wise to keep children away from maladies.
, he thought,
how quickly you became used to another person's madness
. In the rare moments when he was allowed to hold Morris and play with him, he did his utmost to show that his son felt at ease with him. That was how he tried to refute her conviction, by adapting to it. His assimilation went so far that he now moved around the house only on stockinged feet and always spoke quietly: anything to rule himself out as the cause. He lived like a phantom, and he winced when the steps creaked beneath his weight. He adapted quickly to his life as an illness. But his assimilation, he thought, was actually just one huge admission of his guilt. That was how she must perceive it, as a loud
Yes, I am Morris's sickness
At night, through the floor, he could hear him crying. Had he not wanted him, the way she said? He tried to get through to his thoughts and feelings from back then. When she'd said she was going to stop taking the Pill, he had agreed right away. He had been opposed to the fertility test, that was true, but did that mean he actually didn't want a child? Or did she regard even his half-mordant seed as
The ultimate consequence of her thinking, he thought, as sleep went on eluding him, was that the sickness had to leave the house. She had not gone so far as to say it, but that could happen any moment.
In fact, he thought a while later, they
had the feeling that he should leave the house. She, so that their child could be healed; he, so that he could prove that his doing so had no effect on the baby's health. He would demonstrate his innocence. That would be his strategy, so that one day he could leave his life as illness behind him and become a father and husband once again. Yes, it would be better for everyone if he dropped out of sight for a while.
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What a mistake to think that the world belongs to you as soon as you pull the front door closed behind you, toss your sleeping bag and carryall into the back of the car, and drive down the street. For Edward Landauer, the world actually grew smaller than ever. He now spent almost all his time at the institute, in his office. His backlog of work vanished quickly, his final lectures for that trimester were ready to go, and he just sat there, cruising the Internet. The listless surfing from here to there left him beside himself with disgust and boredom, but there was nothing else to do. At the end of the day, he left the building with the others, but returned after having dinner at The Wall of China. He took a doggy bag with him, in case he got hungry at night.