Authors: Tommy Wieringa
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000
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Socio-psychological research at the University of Nijmegen showed that the chance of a male being unfaithful during his wife's pregnancy was twenty-seven times greater than at any other point in a marriage. A man contained himself as well as he could during his wife's periods of illness and recovery â and, more generally, during the slow but certain process of the loss of beauty and vitality â but during her pregnancy he went all-out. The periodic sexual obsession of his bloated wife frightened him, her protruding labia and excessively slimy cunt made him a bit nauseous. In addition, he experienced the clear and generally quite correct premonition that after the child was born his life would be more or less over â all the reason one needed to commit adultery.
After a departmental sightseeing tour by boat of Amsterdam's canals and the River IJ, followed by drinks at Hoppe's on the Spui, Edward decided not to take the night train back to Utrecht, but to go by taxi. Beside him in the back seat was Marjolein van Unen. As they kissed, she opened his zipper and jerked him off until he almost came. He had enough self-control to push her hand away in time. They had the cabby drop them at the central station and found a public toilet. Fishing a one-euro coin from his pocket, he thought: a euro to take a piss is fairly steep, but a euro for a fuck is a real bargain. He locked the door behind them and pulled off her trousers and panties. She sat down on the toilet bowl and leaned back, her hands resting on the lid; he unbuckled his trousers and knelt between her legs. That was how he fucked Marjolein van Unen for the first time, beneath the glow of purplish fluorescent tubes and amid the odour of stale piss. He came as though it was the very first time, and in a sense it was. She leaned against the back wall with a saintly smile. So this was it, he thought, this is what it was all about, this border-crossing from which there was no return â the cunt of Marjolein van Unen, the centre of the universe.
Ruth's pregnancy went serenely, dreamily; she was bothered almost not at all by the discomforts her girlfriends talked about, the chronic nausea and inexplicable pains. She felt a bit distracted, but in a way that pleased her, as though she was barely in contact with the physical world. She converted her study into a nursery, and went in there every day for a while to rearrange the little rompers, socks, and caps, her movements charged with a glow of expectation for which she had no words. She told no one that it was going to be a boy, and that his name would be Morris. Even before the child was born, Edward already knew what it was to be part of the little conspiracy against the outside world that a family is. Not only Ruth was pregnant, but the whole house was â it radiated out into the park and far beyond. Their principal conversations were reduced to friendly chitchat about who their son would be and which traits they hoped to recognise in him and which not. Life compacted to a cocoon with room only for them. In the morning she remained behind in it, and he left for the institute, where there awaited the encounter with Marjolein van Unen. She proved a discreet mistress, but still he had the daily sensation of being transported light years away from the padded little world he had just left. He had locked himself out, and struggled against the thought that this was irreversible.
She was twenty-eight, the age Ruth had been when he'd met her. She had a two-room flat in the Kanaaleiland district; he asked her to put away the scented candles, for Ruth's pregnancy had whetted her sense of smell.
âThe things I do for you,' she said.
âI'm your boss.'
âCome on then, boss.'
She was small and slim and limber, and possessed the hunger of thin women. She knew how to move her pelvis independently of the rest of her body, and was what the Emperor Tiberius had termed a âsphincter artist' in the sense that, straddling him and seemingly immobile, she could make him come by means of powerful internal contractions. She did her best â she had taken courses in Tantra, and applied the techniques she'd learned with a barely perceptible smile. He didn't know exactly what she wanted from him. âWhat does your boyfriend think of all this?' he asked once. She raised a finger to her lips. âSssh. Everything you say out loud comes back to you.'
Her cunt was well proportioned and hairless, and she knew no shame. Sometimes, on her hands and knees in front of him, she would shake her hair out of her eyes, and it took a while before he understood what he was seeing.
She acts as though there's a camera running
â¦ the vain endowment of pornography.
âHave you got anything to drink?' he asked, and a few moments later she came into the room with a bottle of Metaxa she'd brought home from Greece. They lay back on the pillows; he held the glass in one hand and put the other between her legs, where it was open and wet. âI already knew everything,' he said. âThe way you taste, how you feel, smell, I knew it all already.'
âHow boring then,' she said.
âOn the contrary.'
âDid you get a hard-on when you thought about me?'
âA thousand times over,' he said.
She was from Veghel; her father had died when she was seven. A month later, there was a new man in the house. âMy mother couldn't stand being alone. She still can't.'
When she was twelve, the man had assaulted her; she kept silent, but left home when she was only fifteen. She said those were âdifficult times', but meanwhile she had finished high school on her own and was admitted to the lab technicians' school in Leeuwarden, as far as possible from her parental home.
âWhat year were you born in?' she asked.
âFifty-eight,' he said.
Without a hint of surprise, she said: âJust like my mother. Which month?'
âThat's funny. Then you're older than she is â¦ A Taurus, I bet.'
The hard light of a late afternoon at the end of summer. The merciless hour. Moroccan boys raced up and down the street on mopeds. With a tender gesture, she smoothed back a few of the long hairs protruding from his eyebrows.
He saw framed photographs of her with a well-built young man. In one of them, he was wearing a wetsuit; in the other, which showed them embracing in some departure hall, a Dutch Marine Corps uniform. âHe's stationed in Afghanistan,' she said. âWe Skype almost every day.'
âWhen he comes back,' Edward said, âhe'll be a veteran. Thirty-something, and already â'
His name was Michel; he had taken care of her when she was in a bad way. âWithout him, I wouldn't be here. Not like this.'
Hanging across from the toilet was a poster with the text: âIf nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.' When she massaged his feet, he began to weep. No one had ever touched his neglected feet like this.
âA lot of meridians come together in your feet,' she said. And: âIf you ask me, you're a lot more sensitive than you think.'
When he came home, he didn't know whether he was Zhuangzi dreaming that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi. But at night in Wilhelmina Park across the way there crept a man with an automatic rifle, and camouflage stripes on his face, who forced his way into the house and opened fire on the double bed and the crib beside it.
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He dreams about it for the first time during her pregnancy: how she leaves him and takes their child with her. He won't get them back. He can go on living in Utrecht or move to Amsterdam, and there is also a variation in which he returns to his childhood village. It makes no difference; he has been cut loose from everything. He can turn left or right, there is nothing to keep him from going in any direction whatsoever â only the way back, that has been cut off. Somewhere in the whitened world, he stands, frozen, catatonic. He tries to pick up his life the way it was before he met her, but he has truly become too old for that. He will remain alone and, disappointed and filled with loathing, occasionally meet someone through a dating site, and sometimes he will burst into tears at his memories. This is what he's made of his life, a barrens stretching out on all sides. Of all the feelings he's ever had, only fear and confusion remain. Register this man as childless, a man who has known no happiness all his days â¦
The dream contained elements that were outspokenly practical, he felt, and did not seem to belong in the dead, empty space in which he moved. Whatever the case, he awoke each time in the bed he shared with Ruth with such an overwhelming sense of relief that he swore right then and there to better his ways. With a shiver of loneliness he crept up against her pregnant, sleeping body. He had made a mess of it, but things could still be set aright, it wasn't too late. She never needed to know about it and, if he only stopped doing all the things that were dragging him down, if he tied the loose ends together, he would forget about it, too, in time. It would have never happened, or it would become like the memory of a book you'd read as a child, where you could still summon up the general mood, but where the events themselves had dissolved into thin air.
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One early morning in January, Ruth woke him and said calmly: âI think the contractions have started.' At six-thirty they left the house, the bag he carried containing baby clothes and diapers and her nightgown. The road was quiet. His hand rested on her thigh. The sky was cloudless, heralding a clear, cold day. Frost glistened on the grass along the shoulder. âI thought it was just a stomach-ache,' she said, âbut when I started counting, it was so regular â¦'
Only two of the rooms in the delivery ward were occupied. They rubbed gel on her belly and strapped on a heart-rate monitor. The obstetrician briefed her again about the lumbar puncture, which she could ask for at any time. Ruth grimaced under the force of a contraction. âTry to relax,' the woman said.
Edward had gone along a few times to the haptonomist; he had learned how to reassure her and how they could breathe together, but, now that the time had come, he knew that the only thing required of him was his unobtrusive presence.
âWill you stay with me?' she asked.
He ran his hand over her sweaty forehead. âI'm right here. Don't worry.'
Half an hour later, she was on all fours on the bed and bellowing; the pain had thrown her back into an animal state. Vaguely embarrassed, he thought of the shrieks of the pigs she had heard as a young girl.
Don't. Put. Your. Hand. There!
' she moaned between two contractions. He quickly pulled it away from the small of her back.
âIt's going wonderfully, sweetheart,' the female obstetrician said. âYou're doing a great job.'
On occasion, the woman would leave the room and not come back for half an hour. Edward stood a little distance from the bed and looked at his wife. It was something that had to be borne alone, the pain itself remained hidden. He saw only the outward manifestations of it â the screaming, the undulating melodies of suffering.
Empathy was the key to the pain of others, Ruth had said once. Troubled, he plumbed his inner self. There was his wife. She was suffering. The pain, they said, was like that of an amputation with no anaesthetic. The distortion in her voice made him shiver. He would have comforted her if she could have stood his touch, but he couldn't get through to her suffering. There she was and here he was, powerless and useless. He couldn't cross the line. Almost everyone in her world seemed able to do that â she and her friends were fundamentally united with the world's suffering, as divided into subsections like the repression of women, political prisoners, animals used for food, vivisection, and Tibetans. Their suffering impacted them directly, emotionally; their nervous systems were intertwined with those of others. The other person's pain was a precondition for a meaningful life.
A second obstetrician had come into the room now. The number of manoeuvres and the nervous urgency increased. âSpinal puncture!' Ruth said. âI want it!'
The obstetrician soothed her. âIt won't take long now. You're almost at complete dilation.'
âYou can start pressing in just a little bit â hang in there.'
The screaming faded into a quiet moaning. A life-and-death struggle. When an Aztec woman died during childbirth, she was buried with military honours.
âSweetheart,' Edward said insistently, âhe's almost there. Can you hold out a little?'
She lashed out at him when he came too close to the foot of the bed â she didn't want him to see what was happening there. From between her legs, the obstetrician looked up at him and nodded. âAnd â¦ push!' she said. âPush!'
When the child came out, it was as though the obstetrician was trying to catch a wet bar of soap. In a single movement, she laid the child on Ruth's stomach. âMy little man,' Ruth said, laughing and weeping at the same time, âthere you are, finally.'
Edward kissed her fevered forehead and leaned down over his son, a bluish little creature covered in blood and mucus. He smelled strongly of iron. So this was it, he thought, this triumph. He was grinning from ear to ear. The obstetrician handed him a pair of scissors, and he cut the tough, rubbery umbilical. Morris was bathed and weighed, and when they went home hours later with the child in the carrier, they felt as frightened and indomitable as a teenage couple in a stolen car.