Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sour and Sweet - a short story from Yeoville, 1994

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Serina was woken by a loud long fart from the dressing room. She mumbled something about ‘fart woke me ’ and turned over and went back to sleep. When she woke up again at ten ‘o clock the source of the fart had gone off to work, and she was alone in their large Yeoville flat. She felt terrible. Still feeling terrible she wrapped herself in her fluffy bathrobe and padded blindly to the kitchen. On the way she tripped over a box of literacy comics that Someone had left in the middle of the passage.
Dam him” she cursed, pushing the box violently aside.
Normally Serina began the day with coffee - strong, hot, lots of milk and two sweeteners - but since this had happened she couldn’t stand the things she normally ate and drank. Instead she made herself some orange squash, and headed back to bed, where she lay shivering and moaning. After a while she felt warm enough to sit up and swallow her anti-nausea pill, along with the squash.Then she dialled Bea, a friend who was on holiday and had given her a lot of support. Last night they had gone to the symphony together and Serina had vomited all over a fellow patron’s lap. The woman had been wonderful, not giving a reproachful glance or word to the mortified Serina.
“Hello Serenity”, said Bea, “and how are you this morning”
“Terrible”, said Serina, “ghastly, awful, worse than ever. I can’t stand it.”
“O you poor thing”, gushed Bea.
Bea (for Beatrice) was a tiny doll like woman, who always made other people feel she was extremely interested in them. Her mouth, despite Bea’s best efforts, constantly intimated it was about to burst into tinkling peals of appreciative laughter. Bea was so short that when she drove her beat up old Datsun, anyone driving behind her could not see there was a driver at the wheel. Going through a complicated anullment, she was spending the year `finding herself’. Everybody thought the intense Bea ‘cute’, an adjective which she loathed, and went out of her way to disprove. They talked for 20 minutes and then Bea excused herself. Serina put down the phone and contemplated phoning Someone at work. The desire to be comforted clashed with the knowledge that she probably wouldn’t be. He always made light of her being ill, although he had copious amounts of sympathy for stray cats and people stuck in Taiwanese jails. Someone had got his nickname from his habit of saying ‘someone left a dirty dish on the stove’, or ‘someone didn’t close the fridge door’, or ‘someone left their hairs in the bath.’
Against her better judgement she dialled his number. He answered immediately.
“Hi. Listen to this. The most practical way for an impractical person to function is impractically.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I am ?” barked Serina.
“I was going to, I was just excited by the aphorism. I’m adding it to my collection. What do you think of it ?”
“Not much really”
“You never do. So”, said Someone, as if the question were being forced out of him by Torquemada, “how are you feeling ?”
“Terrible” answered Serina, “you woke me up this morning.”
“Did you take your anti-nausea pills ?”
“Well what time did you take them ?”
“About ten minutes ago.”
“Give them time to work. Everythings will be all right.”
“I don’t want to hear that again”, snapped Serina, “right now everything is not all right. Stop dismissing my pain and listen for two minutes.”
“Its not easy”, began Someone, “I come home after a long day at work, I’m exhausted and frustrated. Then I have to make supper, there’s an enormous pile of dishes in the sink, and the place is a mess. You’re moaning and groaning all the time. Alright. Its understandable given your condition. But then you go for me as soon as I step in the door. How can I be sympathetic to someone who is constantly attacking me ?”
Serina listened. She knew it was all true but she was so angry with herself and sick of everything - the winter, the dirty flat, this unwanted pregnancy - that she could not bare to admit it. Normally the kind of conciliatory honesty that Someone had just employed would end the first phase of their fights, and begin the second phase. All of their fights had three phases:
a) Sulking. Here each would pointedly ignore the other. The rules were no touching, no talking, and no acceptance of any kind of favour or assistance. The more pointed and extravagant these refusals, the better. If the other person seemed to remain blissfully unaware they were in the dog-box, rude acts of non-consideration would then follow. He, for example, would not come to bed until three in the morning. The main point was to show that this time the other had really gone too far, and that you were mortally wounded.
b) Talking it through - this happened when either one of them gave up the desire to punish and instead wanted to directly communicate how they felt. Whoever ‘broke’ first would lower their defences and start talking about what was really bothering them, thus including the other in their world again. This stage could occur after hours, and sometimes even days, of sulking.
c) sex
The order of b) and c) being interchangeable.
But today Serina was in such a bad way that she could not grasp the extended olive branch, and instead launched a vicious and petty counterattack. She mentioned hairs in the bath. Doing someone’s washing for him. Burps. Woken by a fart. His disgusting smelling shoes. No support whatsoever. She felt betrayed. Someone’s pathological need to save money even in the midst of this crisis.
There was an injured silence.
“Maybe you’re with the wrong person”, said Someone coldly.
That was not what Serina wanted to hear.
She burst into tears and put the phone down, without even saying goodbye. Now this was one of their unbreakable rules. Six years ago an editor had slammed the phone down on Someone, and he had been plotting his revenge ever since. Fear at his reaction, and anger at him and herself vied for possession of her sick stomach.
She lay down on the couch and reviewed the events that had brought her to one of the lowest points in her life. It must have been five weeks ago. They had come home from a lecture on The Kabbalah and Hindu Mysticism, and made love in front of the heater.
“Are you sure it’s OK”, Someone had asked, just for the sake of good form. He disliked using condoms anyway.
“It’s fine”, she had answered, also routinely, “its safe.”
When Serina had spilled a drop of urine on the indicator paper and watched it turn bright pink she was sure it was a mistake. She had always suspected her fallopian tubes were blocked. It had never happened in the past, even when she was most fertile and no contraception was used. These do-it-yourself tests were notoriously inaccurate anyway. There had been that article in Personality about a man who tested positive with one of them. But the next day her blood test confirmed that indeed she was pregnant. Someone had been predictably unsupportive, even hostile.
“It’s going to swallow up my next two months salary”, he had said, outraged, “can’t we get your dad’s medical aid to pay for it ?”
“No we can’t ”, said Serina, “I don’t want him to know.”
Since then it had been hell. She felt weak and nauseous all the time. She couldn’t keep anything down. She even brought up the anti-nausea pills she took before ‘meals’ - which were a teaspoon of yoghurt. Someone was moody and evasive, and absolutely no help at all. Five minutes of sweetness completely exhausted his reserves, and then he reverted to being a sullen baby. They went to a counsellor:
“Do you want to have it ?”
“Do you want to have it ?”
“Well then, what are you fighting about ?”
“About the dishes”
“Go on”
“She won’t do the dishes.”
“Nor will he.”
“They make these sinks too dam low for men. I don’t see why I have to get back ache after working hard all day.”
“Maybe” said the therapist, “we should have a look at your feelings around the termination.”
“Well I hardly think that after only two sessions its going to be all that traumatic” said Serina, wanting to pre-empt any wasting of their valuable time.
“I meant the termination of pregnancy, not the termination of therapy” explained the counsellor patiently. How do you feel about it ?
“Impatient to get it over with already” said Serina, and Someone nodded his assent.
“Haven’t you had any doubts”, asked the therapist, hopefully
“None whatsoever. In fact”, said Someone, “its one of the few things we were totally agreed upon during the last six months.”
“Why ?”
“I dunno…we argue a lot….perhaps we really are incompatible.”
“I meant” explained the therapist, “why are you both so certain that an abortion is the right way to go ?”
“Because" declaimed Someone instantaneously, as if he had been waiting for the cue to launch into a prepared speech, “I want to be someone. I think we both do, neither of us wants to become people who didn’t have the courage to fully live their own lives, and then try and live vicariously through their children.”
“And what if you don’t have another opportunity to have children ?”
“What if the Eiffel tower goes into orbit and then lands in the Zoo Lake ? What if I develop cancer of the toenails in three years time ? We’re not going to make decisions based on imaginary fears of what the future may or may not bring.”
The psychologist turned to Serina. "Is that true for you as well?"
Serina had taken a long time to answer.
"I feel" she said eventually, "a baby is too important a thing to have happen by accident."
* * *
When they went to the clinic Someone was so busy checking he had the bank guaranteed cheque in his pocket - the clinic refused to take anything else - that he absent mindedly shut the door and locked all his keys in the flat.
Serina was in a state of what Someone would describe afterwards to friends as ‘a complete abdication from autonomy and responsibility’ She lay like an embryo on the floor of the lift and wept and kicked the walls of the cold metal box. The crisis was resolved by taking a taxi, and arriving at the clinic at eight, half an hour later then the time they had been told, they were informed that there was no rush because the anaesthetist had a problem waking up on Saturday mornings.
Serina got into bed because it was cold. The young Afrikaans woman in the other bed - also booked in for an abortion - played cards with her boyfriend or smooched with him. After at least an hour long wait the door opened to admit a small mousy man.
“What’s your name”, he asked, in a voice lacking all vitality and timbre.
“Karin”, said the other girl
“And yours ?”
“Who are you ?” demanded Serina in return.
“I’m Dr Kaplan’s assistant. I’m going to be helping him this morning.”
“You mean you’re the anaesthetist ?”
Someone admired Serina's pluck. Although she was soon going to be completely dependent on these men, naked, with her legs strapped up in stirrups, she was not about to relinquish her dignity without a struggle.
“Yes”, said the anaesthetist, still not divulging his name, “and who are you ?”
“Serina Moskowitz”, said Serina.
“Are you all right”, asked the nameless anaesthetist, who was no less mousy for being a respectable professional, “you look very sick.”
“Thank you” said Serina.
“She’s normally very pale” said Someone, as if discussing a cadaver.
The anaethetist asked to see her tongue. Serina stuck it out as far as she could, and with difficulty restrained herself from placing her thumbs behind her ears, waving her hands and adding nah nahna na-na.
“Her membranes are fine” said the anaethetist, after rolling back Serina’s eyelids. “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.” he told her, clearly most comfortable with looking after people who had no choice in the matter.
“Bring me a female”, mumbled Serina under her breath, outraged that she had to rely on this creature.
When he went she got out of bed and put on the backless gown. There were also funny little pieces of cloth which looked like serviettes with cords attatched.
“Don't put the G strings on” said the nurse, “they'll just tear them off in theatre.”
They might have no clothing, but several of the women who were being ‘done’ that morning did not forget to wear makeup. You had to look good when they scraped out your womb. Serina had no makeup, but she had shaved that morning before coming to the clinic, because the gynaecologist had commented on her hirsuteness.
“Have you thought of taking Dianne, or Androcur”* he had asked
“What are you doing for that paunch” she replied, resenting the assumed right to comment on her appearance. Kaplan had had the good grace to smile. But she had still shaved in the end. Such are we, thought Serina, principles and what we end up doing, knowledge and the emotions which defy all knowledge.
* * *
When they wheeled her back into the ward, ten minutes after she had came round in post-op, they brought her lunch. She was lying in bed with a pad between her legs while Someone twittered around her like an agitated sparrow. She felt sore and swallowed the painkillers provided. When they took effect she suddenly realised how hungry she was, not having been allowed to eat since the previous night. The bland hospital fare was next to her bed, one of those delightful mass-produced meals whose ingredients bore no trace of ever having existed beyond plastic and tin-foil. Unfortunately, there was no cutlery to eat it with. She pressed the call button, was answered and told to wait. After ten minutes a nurse had still not come, and Someone went in search of cutlery and a blanket, to cover the shivering Serina. It was an expensive privately owned Northern Suburbs clinic, but you might just as well have been lying shot and bleeding in a trench in the Somme, so scant was the attention. Eventually he found the ward sister, and next to her the two doctors discussing their share options in a new clinic which had opened in Bryanston.
“The business of medicine is business”, said Someone, somehow finding the do-or-die attitude which allowed him to speak before his normal conciliatory manner muzzled him. He did not need to remind himself of the sum raked in by the doctors from their abortions for those who could afford it. Six other girls had also had their wombs scraped bare on the same day. Each D &C* took about twenty minutes, so for two hours and twenty minutes of work, the two doctors had netted some R 8 000 each.
Yes, if you were wealthy you could organise anything, could find out where to go, and you didn’t risk your health. You didn’t have to writhe in agony on some backstreet table while another woman inserted a hangar into your body. And you certainly didn’t need to end up with an unwanted child. So what was the lesson in that ? Change things ? Make sure you were wealthy ?
At four o clock Serina felt well enough to walk to the car.
“Now you’re going to feel very depressed” said the nurse reverentially, as if recalling an article of faith.
“I am ?” said Serina.
“Yes, dear, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. You’ll feel terrible for months, even years afterwards, and on the anniversary of the ninth month you’ll feel a little empty, and wonder what the child would have been like.”
“And what if I don't” dared Serina
“Oh but you will dear, you will...”
* Cyproterone acetate, inhibits body hair growth
* D&C - Dilation and Curatage
Someone drove home carefully, as if he she were still pregnant and both her and the foetus had to be protected from unnecessary stress. Serina felt a pang of nostalgia for a future that would never be. When they got back home Someone ( who had to fork out two hundred bucks to a rude and surly locksmith to get the door open) helped her up stairs. Serina got into bed and ordered the unusually attentive Someone to bring her tasty things from the kitchen. The phone rang
“How do you feel”, asked Bea.
“Wonderful”, said Serina, “it’s wonderful not to be nauseous anymore. I'm enjoying my first decent meal in yonks.”
Someone dragged their huge old TV set into the bedroom, connected the video, and then collapsed into bed beside her, completely drained. He felt strange, as if some undefinable flood was rising in him, threatening to sweep away all of the things he usually made sense of his life with….it was perfectly clear that they had made the right decision. There were so many things they still wanted to do, things that a child would prevent. Children could come later, when they had tested their dreams, followed them to the limit…yes, they had done the right thing, the only thing in the circumstances. So why then this sadness, this creeping subversive sadness ? Perhaps, he mused, it wasn't about regret for a life, the life of the foetus, but about reappraising you relationship with all life…... with your own life. For really, the decision to terminate the pregnancy had been a vote of confidence in his own life, had it not ? But it was also a challenge, because if you didn't use the opportunity you had narrowly reclaimed, then who were you fooling ?
They lay there, in their familiar bedroom, eating Maynard’s wine gums and watching a film called `Turtle Diary'. It was one of those understated, melancholy movies which gradually seduce you until it seems to contain all of existence in its closing moments. Someone had to fight back the tears as it ended. Serina had dozed off, as she generally did in films. But when he turned the set off, the silence woke her up, whimpering, confused and sleepy, unsure of where she was. They dragged themselves to the bathroom, half brushed their teeth like soldiers too exhausted to remove their boots, and turned off the light. But now neither of them could sleep.
Serina’s wrist, where they had jabbed the drip in, began to throb. The day came back to her, the rush for the taxi, her panic, the cold, horrible wait in the pre-op room. She hugged her pillow, grateful to be home. It could all have been a lot worse. On the other hand it should never have happened at all. Someone had been nice to her, but then, it was easy for him. He didn’t have to have people poking around inside his womb. She decided to phone her gynae tomorrow, go back on the pill - even though it did odd things to her body - because she could never bare to go through this again.
Someone lay next to her in the dark, thinking about the way both your greatest fears and your greatest hopes, which once lay a week or a month or twenty years ahead, are somehow always suddenly behind you, and you lie in the dark recalling things which you cannot now touch or hold.

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