By Linda Leith
"This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love."
-- Vladimir Nabokov
Kidnapped Motherhood, by Cristina Montescu
“If we do not talk about ourselves, we disappear. Even for ourselves.
Naturally. It’s a self-destructive mechanism. From birth.” — Marc Séguin
I am one of her fishes. Every day I see her eat. She sits down near me on the red vinyl bar stool and smiles awkwardly at me. She still has a child’s eyes, seeing treasures that await on the street corner, but all that from behind bars I don’t know how to open. In the morning, the radio accompanies her in solitude. Voices that she blends into her coffee cup, voices behind her silence with which, ever since I’ve known her, she’s gotten along well.
I arrived in her house on a Tuesday afternoon in a small plastic bag fastened by several elastic bands. At Safari she stopped in front of my bowl and narrowed her eyes so as to find in my body a substitute for something taken from her long ago. I didn’t like the holes I noticed behind her bars and did my best so she wouldn’t choose me. I began to move frantically inside the bowl, my fins tight, carefully closed, hoping to conceal my beauty.
However, I’m a young male who is supposed to survive with the help of his physical qualities. I ended up opening my fins and showed off in front of her. The holes of her eyes contracted a bit. Did that come from the past or did it stem from birth? They looked like pitted green olives, elastic in a way, that can be walked on without crushing them completely.
I found myself inside the clear plastic bag, next to some fake red and pink algae, a sort of prickly lollipop, dark brown gravel and at least two years’ worth of food. Everything in another red bag behind which a concerned voice tried to keep me in the store. “Ma’am, are you sure you want the fish? You’ve already bought three Betta fish here. You know, these fish cannot live in the same aquarium. They will fight until death.”
She didn’t reply and when I saw her again she was sitting on the bench inside the bus shelter. She smiled at me as if I were a treasure she’d just found in the street, which frightened me. Terribly. I never really trust people who can stop on the street and swoon over a red leaf or a dog jumping. There is something so unsettled inside their mind, as if they persisted in throwing breadcrumbs to stuffed ducks.
Freaky. I tried to kill myself once we got to her place. Obviously it didn’t work. She left me on the kitchen counter while she set up the aquarium. Useless to struggle and make the plastic bag move. I only managed to move my liquid aura a few millimetres. Even those few millimetres she quickly adjusted.
That’s how I live in her eyes every day, as I swim constantly in the crevices of her heart that she lies down every morning on the kitchen counter. I confess that more and more often I watch for her to appear on the vinyl chair and more and more I enjoy floating by her side.
Before my car accident, I received a proposal of marriage. It was a lazy afternoon at the beginning of summer and I’d forgotten my head on his shoulder. He was a handsome boy of few words, a pleasant diversion in my life. I liked the way he tasted of sweet earth, the warmth that his body transmitted to me, and how being around him felt like a treat. When people spoke to me of his betrayals, I was not the least bit disturbed. I didn’t want to be the only woman in his life, just the most important one. I wanted him to be there so I could run to him, to discover the strength with which I could run.
That afternoon he looked me straight in the eye and informed me he had thought things over and that we should marry. I didn’t need a university education to be his wife, and on weekends we’d go to the country and work the land. Grow tomatoes, onions, radishes, corn, if need be. The good life. I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing ? showering him with a mass of drops of saliva, splattering his words. I could no longer see his face, only my innumerable drops that I was powerless to stop, the contemptuous spit that fell upon his warm gaze.
Six months together and he didn’t know me. He didn’t even need to learn who I was to decide we would marry. He was twenty–four and all his friends were already married. He had to follow their example, and I was the only one not to have thrown jealous fits. Besides, what could be better for a young woman of eighteen than marriage?
I turned him down, and was the first woman to have ever refused this handsome boy anything. He was completely confused and, to compensate, began loving me intensely, madly, beyond all reason. After the accident, he often came to the hospital to hold my hand and again asked me to marry him when I was an absolute wreck. He still wanted me to become his wife. I who took ten minutes to travel ten meters and who was just a bag of broken bones.
His tenderness toward me pleased and annoyed me in equal measure. I lived inside a shell, in an imprisoned body totally foreign to me. His hand on my hand or on my shoulder allowed me to see the thickness of my new shell. I was broken. Unbeatable. Why didn’t he want to see that? Why did he want to serve me up hope?
He came to visit me when I returned home from the hospital. He politely removed his shoes and left them at the entrance to the apartment. My father got in after him, and observed his shoes attentively. “Big feet, bad family,” he concluded when the door closed behind the man who wanted to marry me.
He was repudiating my potential marriage and I couldn’t find the strength to reply: “Big feet, big heart. It is much to his credit, Father.” I thought it, but I no longer knew if I had the right to think for myself. So I fell silent and watched him leave.
Years later, I met him on the street. He had married and that day his three or four year old child was with him. “Look at him, he could have been our child if you had wanted,” he whispered in my ear. The child tried to hide behind his father, leaving only a bit of a red, irritated cheek exposed. Incomprehensible low moaning rose from his blue clothing. A ball of worry and stifled sobs.
“Because of you, my life is ruined. I don’t love my wife. You were the only woman I ever loved and I still love you. My wife is very jealous, and I cheat on her as much as I can. To take my revenge.”
I didn’t know how to reply. Was he lying? My eyes were glued to what I saw of his child. Only one sentence ran through my mind: “No, I would not like for this child to be mine. Not this snivelling child with the flushed cheeks. Especially not him.”
Years later, I still fill with shame at the memory of my shower of saliva mixed with the memory of his child. Was the life I later obtained (including a university education, salary and lodging) more or less than what I could have had if I’d stayed by his side? Would he have kept me had we been unable to have a child? Would he have wanted to adopt?
On sleepless nights I sometimes even ask myself if my current situation isn’t fair payment for the wrong I did this man who tried to love me. And, on other nights I laughed at my naivety in believing it was really me he loved […]
At eighteen, I had a car accident. A severe head injury, two days in a coma, a long convalescence and the return to a life in shreds. That was when I learned the word “amenorrhea,” absence of menstruation, along with other words designating the after-effects that would be a part of my rebirth.
My parents devoted months of their lives to me, sold a condo, and succeeded in taking me to the best doctors. My mother followed me to all the hospitals where I was admitted and was by my side when I learned to walk again. As for my father, he had gotten into the habit of travelling the 500 kilometres to visit me in the hospital up to three times a week.
Five or six months after the accident, they gave me medication to trigger my period. I took it for over a year and decided to stop. I was hoping for a medical error. A miraculous cure. I refused to understand. Eight month went by in denial.
A female doctor sat across from me to explain the need for treatment. I was nineteen, becoming an adult, and for the first time I saw the spectre of infertility. Before, I hadn’t had time to think about children. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do later on and even less whether I wanted to create a family. It was too early to make irrevocable decisions. And now, a few months later, it was too late.
The die had already been cast and it was not a stroke of good fortune. From then on I was transformed into a container in the image of a woman. Motherhood by the natural route: checkmate. It was lost and inaccessible territory.
I could not even find enough tears to wash away the existential mutilation.
© 2014, Cristina Montescu and Jonathan Kaplansky
Author Cristina Montescu [Photo and illustrations: Catalin N. Ruxandu. All rights reserved.] Translator Jonathan Kaplansky [Photo:Véro Boncompagni] Jonathan Kaplansky works as a literary translator of French in Montreal. He won a French Voices Award to translate Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen (La vie extérieure). His translations include Days of Sand by Hélène Dorion and Wednesday Night at the End of the World by Hélène Rioux, and he contributed translations to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets.