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from the March 2022 issue

Boulder

In this excerpt from Eva Baltasar's novel, the narrator unwillingly goes along with her partner's plans for assisted reproduction.


And it happens. The thing that has no bearing on my life or on the kilometers-long perimeter of life that was meant to protect me from those permanent, timeless laws, the kind that defy all probability. It comes to the house like a Jonah. Unexpected and unfortunate. A sickness that had only ever affected other people. I want a baby, Samsa says, our baby. Your baby. She says this and I feel nothing, like I’d drunk arsenic. All I know is I’ve gone cold. It’s six in the morning. The alarm clock went off half an hour ago so we’d have time to make love. Her idea, her words. She says she never sees me during the day and that we’re too tired at night. When she makes sweeping statements like this one, she tends to be talking about herself: when I come home at night, she’s asleep and I’m turned on. The goal of having the alarm go off once or twice a week at an ungodly hour is to awaken love. I get up, brush my teeth, and grab the strap-on because it’s faster that way. I fuck her and she lets herself be fucked, it looks like she’s not even moving. She welcomes in a desire that I’m not giving her and that roams the corridors of her body like a ghost. She holds my chin and makes me look at her while I thrust over and over. I don’t enjoy it, I apply myself. She kisses me, as if a kiss could fill the silence that separates two faraway bodies the moment they surrender to each other. She kisses me and calls me Boulder. When she comes, she cries like she’s breaking to pieces, she cries just like a rock.

Refusing would mean leaving her, so I ask for more time. I’ll be forty soon, I don’t have time, she says. Fucking milestones.

All I want is one goddamn week. The fact that I hadn’t said yes the minute she asked seems to have exposed the tragic nature of our attachment, of that crushing thing people refer to as the couple. I come up with arguments and lay them on the table. A royal flush. We don’t have time to look after a kid. The pregnancy would be high risk. We’d be geriatric mothers, and by the time the kid went to high school, people would think we were the grandparents. The apartment’s too small. Having a kid is the same as enrolling in a lifetime plan of suffering. Ridiculous arguments that never stood a chance against the urge they’re trying to shoot down. We talk about it every day. She can’t find it in herself to give me a week. She waits up for me and we drink coffee on the sofa. She looks at me with those blue eyes that fade to gray in the warm apartment light, and I have the feeling she has everything, that she is one and whole, like a god. That, somehow, her desire for a child spoils her. I listen with all five senses, I listen to her with my entire body, with everything but my heart, which feels like it wants to thrash the hell out of me. This wasn’t a part of our plan. The truth is we’d never made any plans, we’d just taken huge bites out of life. I light a cigarette; I’m so despicable all I can think is that if she gets pregnant, I’ll have to smoke outside the fucking building. She rests her head on my shoulders and closes her eyes. She takes shallow breaths, as if wanting to sigh but finding it too painful to draw in the oxygen contaminated by our conversation. She’s nervous, receptive, she needs to hold in her belly the child she’s found in her mind. Mostly, she’s exhausted. I realize I’m part of her exhaustion, which is still better than not being part of her at all. I put my arm around her shoulders and my hand on her chest. She quietens down and curls into me. I kiss her hair out of inertia. Kisses that are tender and ready to sign a treaty. I am hooked on the smell of her, on the mix of shampoo and moisturizer that clings to her pajamas and skin, on the scent of every night in a decade spent folded around her sleeping body, of her success and her calm, even of our sad, awful morning sex. I tamp down the truth and say all right, let’s do it. I don’t tell her that what I want is to not be a mother.

The first person who had the idea of building a pyramid must have been insane. What about the guy who thought it made sense to stick someone in a rocket and shoot them at the stars? Samsa is crazier than the two of them put together. Having a kid is an enormous undertaking. It kicks into gear right away, without any warning. It comes out of nowhere with such extraordinary force that it razes everything to the ground, like an earthquake. You’d have to be an animal with a tiny brain and impeccable survival instincts to see it coming. I bet if we’d had a dog, it would’ve known long before any of us and cleared right out of the house. It seems unbelievable that a single decision, a fucking intangible thought, could so violently upset the flesh-and-bone scaffolding of daily life, the steady rhythm of the hours, the predictable, material color of the landscapes that give us nourishment and company. The decision precedes a living being that already exists and takes over everything. Its presence has dimension; it occupies the house with concrete tentacles, sinks into the skulls of the people who live there, and clings to the fine membrane that sheathes their gray matter. I can’t get away, it follows me wherever I go like a sinner harassing another sinner, stoning him and hissing all of his fears into his ear. The decision hinges so much on me that it only sleeps when I do. Samsa, on the other hand, is radiant. She seems to generate a light whose source is the same active, powerful nucleus that glows inside a squid. When I look at her, she becomes younger and I have the feeling she’s using my eyes as changing rooms in which to cast off the excess years and accomplish a purpose that will soon be expiring. Her lips have fleshed out the way they do on a person who’s just done a lot of fucking, and she has the velvety gaze of a full-grown lioness that knows she is the backbone of the pride, the key to transcendence. I find it hard to believe a single idea could change her so much. When I bring her coffee in the morning, her hair shimmers over the pillow as if she were already pregnant.

Ragnar insists we have to celebrate. Here I was thinking we were friends. I tell him all I have to celebrate is the fact that I’ve reached new heights of stupidity, that I can’t bring myself to hurt or leave Samsa, to understand the magnitude of her desire and say no. He tells me he felt the same when he had his first kid but that everything changes after the second or the third; they come out of their moms and grow up all on their own, all you have to do is feed them. He makes some dig that I can’t remember about the food truck and slaps my back so hard I choke. I plan to pass the time smoking in a corner. Thankfully, he’s a man of few words. Thankfully, too, he’s the master of the bottles and shares them liberally. As we sit there surrounded by all those people getting drunk and having a great time, I feel as if we’d just won a battle and even though I’d lost an eye and one of my legs would have to be amputated, at least my heart was at peace and my courage intact.

I go with her to the clinic. It’s a hideous building surrounded by other hideous buildings. They loom over the bay like gleaming icebergs that hold hostage ideas, ambitions, bodies. We can only see the tip: the law firms, the tech and IT companies, the corporations. The rest, most of which remains hidden, navigates the underseas of the third world. The fertility clinic is on the second floor of one of these glass-walled monsters. Samsa walks in resolute. She didn’t have to ask, we both just assumed that wherever she went, I would go with her. A depressing prospect, but it is what it is. They show us into a waiting room. When she sits down, in her ironed blazer, with her perfect hair and made-up eyes, it’s like she’s taken possession of this new land and proclaimed herself Queen. It’s always like this with her, I realize. The power she exudes is subtle, almost tender, beautiful and supple yet resilient, like the silk of a spider’s web. She entices as much as she ensnares, lets you step back but never abandon her. She holds my hand and I light three cigarettes with my mind. I don’t smoke, I fire them up and take a single long drag, burning through them without breathing. The chairs are comfortable. The magazines new. The floor pale and slick. The plants are so well tended they look fake. It’s the perfect setting for her, and she fits in like it’s her natural-born right. Another couple pushing forty sits across from us. Their clothes are clean, newly unfolded, and their hands held in accordance with some customary protocol. They’re leafing through a magazine that claims to teach people how to be good mothers and fathers. The picture on the cover, a man and a woman with the vacant expressions of cult followers and a newborn baby in their arms, makes me feel sicker than the thought of Samsa being knocked up with a syringe and a sperm donation. We’re going to have a massive problem if she ever brings home one of those how-to manuals. The kind you can pulp to death but still won’t strain through the mesh of our love.

We get home with a list of chores and a hole in our checking account. I have the sense I am buying her a kid and that the approach I’ve taken is deceitful. I am frustrated, and it drains every last bit of my strength and talent. It’s my biological impotence that coerces me, encourages me to do it. I feel like an elderly mafioso, like Samsa belongs to me not out of the love we have for one another but out of a new, shared responsibility, because I am in a position to accommodate an improbable, difficult whim. We run through the list that evening, curled up on the sofa. It’s strange, we’ve never spent this much time on the sofa before. We’d bought it so her guests would have somewhere to sit, though we’d always made do with the bed. Lately, we end up here all the time. The sofa is a place for sitting and talking, a sensible piece of furniture designed to promote verticality and position the head as the sovereign supreme of all the subordinate organs, including the heart. I’ve developed an aversion toward it, I can’t stand this heap of junk—not the sofa or the person I become whenever Samsa invites me to sit my ass down. I can’t handle the square, navy-blue cushions crowded with other smaller cushions that are soft and garish and which she uses to buttress herself until she has the comfort she needs to control everything: her life, her feelings, the words she’s already composing, even me. If every now and then she’d hug me the way she hugs those cushions, it might just melt the cold, rigid thing I carry inside and that bucks against me—because it couldn’t care less about what I say or the promises I make. A barometer of circumstances, it makes me who I am: it can be shaped, but it won’t be won over or driven away.

The chemical warfare begins. Samsa is the site of the conflict. Not only does she have her blood drawn several times, she also has to pop pills every morning: calcium, iron, folic acid, vitamins, iodine, estrogen. She reminds me of an abandoned warehouse suddenly beset by trucks come to unload their freight. Bricks, mortar, cement, beams, insulation, slabs. The impression I get is that she’s eating the baby in chunks, little by little, and that once she’s swallowed the last piece, the only thing left to do at the clinic will be to get their rubber stamp and press a button. We also have to fill a prescription at the pharmacy for a bunch of little bottles that are as precious as radium and just as hard to get hold of. A month later they arrive in a package that looks like a box of chocolates, the kind you don’t want to throw away once it’s empty. The glass vials are as tiny, slim, and adorable as perfume samples. Though they look like they hold water, they’re actually full of hormones, the ferments that will activate life and deploy it when the time is right. After dinner, she’s supposed to drain one with a very fine syringe, then inject it into the fat around her stomach. Every day for two weeks. She asks me if I'll do it; she can’t, even though she’s tried. She says that jabbing a ten-centimeter-long needle in her belly is as good as committing hara-kiri. The flesh she’s pinching becomes taut and the hand holding the weapon refuses to obey; she is shielded by a biological mandate that makes her freeze up and stops the act of aggression. I’ve never done it before, but how hard can it be? I have her sit on the toilet. I sanitize her skin with a piece of gauze soaked in ethanol and tell her to focus on this baby she’s been dreaming about so she can take the injection with dignity. She tells me to go to hell and I stick her with the needle, plunging the contents of the syringe into her body. It takes a second, all told. She says nothing and stares at me as if I’d just stabbed her. I’m dying to leave her there on her own. Instead I stay, kiss her forehead, kneel beside her, rest my head on her thighs, and apologize. A sense of calm falls over us like a shadowy canopy, making us feel lighter and closer together. It’s cold, she complains as she touches the skin around the perforation. I want to remind her that the sperm she wants and needs so badly is preserved in liquid nitrogen, in the freezer. But I keep this thought to myself.

She eats all day. She has me bring home some empanadas, heads down to the grocery store and comes back loaded with cookies, cheese, and jars and jars of peanuts. The fact that the kitchen is too small for our needs seems to excite her. At night she pours herself a bowl of milk, crumbles a cinnamon stick into it. She devours it at the table, as absorbed by each spoonful as a tiger by a fresh carcass. The hormones are doing their job, they season and marinate her body, manipulating it to cater to the baby’s taste and satisfaction. We visit the clinic every three days. They do an ultrasound and check the maturity of her eggs. I’ve learned that the sole purpose of these injections is to speed things up. The gynecologists’ strategy is to reap Samsa’s ovaries for all they’re worth. If all goes according to plan, a week from now there will be eight to ten mature eggs where there’d usually be one. In other words, the ovary as overcrowded tenement. Then, just as soon as a batch of extraordinary possibilities has settled inside her, comes insemination. As they communicate this to us, she smiles. She’s not even blinking, it’s like she’s been hypnotized. I can’t believe she isn’t changing her mind. Is she really going to let them pop her with an athletic twenty-year-old’s forty to sixty thousand sperm? When there are eight mature eggs inside her? I voice my concerns with as much civility and composure as I can muster. I don’t want to end up splashed across the front page of a newspaper with half a dozen babies crammed into a custom-made stroller looking pink and wrinkly as rats, while a woman with dark circles under her eyes stands beside me, wrecked on the inside and out. The gynecologist looks at Samsa and gestures in a way that conveys total understanding. Some forms of communication are both subtle and despotic, and have the power to isolate you from the conversation. Our great campaign has just become a precious, unfathomable thing hovering between the two of them. There’s no room for me anymore. I’m the unwanted partner, a thing to be tolerated. Samsa makes her own feeble gesture. She’s weak with embarrassment and can’t come up with an excuse for my behavior. It’s like my rationale is so crude it is an insult not only to her but to science, to the experimental approach, to the high priests of the holy church of insemination, who are ever so wise and down-to-earth, who are ever so pure.


 

Originally published as Boulder by Club Editor in 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Eva Baltasar and Club Editor. First edition in English published 2022 by And Other Stories. Translation copyright © 2022 by Julia Sanches. By arrangement with And Other Stories. All rights reserved.


 

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