2017 Man Booker International nominee Samanta Schweblin’s arresting short story sees a couple take unusual measures to address an unwanted pregnancy.
A week, a month go by and we’re getting used to the idea that Teresita will get the jump on our plans. I’m going to have to give up the fellowship because in a few months it’s not going to be easy to continue. Maybe not because of Teresita, but out of sheer anguish, because I can’t stop eating and I’m starting to get fat. Manuel hands me food on the sofa, in bed, in the yard. Everything organized on the tray, clean in the kitchen, stocked in the pantry, as if guilt, or I don’t know what, forces him to live up to what I expect from him. But he’s wasting his time and doesn’t seem very happy: he comes home late, he doesn’t keep me company, it annoys him to talk about the subject.
Another month goes by. Mamá also resigns herself, she buys us some gifts and gives them to us—I know her well—with some sadness. She says:
“This is a washable diaper changing table with a Velcro strap . . . These are booties made of pure cotton . . . This is a towel with a piqué hood . . .”
Papá looks at the things that they’re giving us and nods.
“Ay, I don’t know . . .” I say, and I don’t know whether I’m referring to the gift or to Teresita. “The truth is that I don’t know . . .” I say to my mother-in-law later when she drops by with a set of little colored sheets, “I don’t know,” I say, now without knowing what to say, and I hug the sheets and start crying.
The third month I feel even sadder. Each time I get up I look in the mirror and remain like that a while. My face, my arms, my whole body, and above all my belly, they’re more swollen all the time. Sometimes I call Manuel and ask him to stand next to me. In contrast, he looks thinner to me. Besides, he talks to me less and less. He comes home from work and sits down to watch television with his head in his hands. It’s not that he doesn’t love me anymore, or that he loves me less. I know that Manuel adores me and I know that, like me, he’s got nothing against our Teresita, how could he. It’s just that there was so much to do before her arrival.
Sometimes Mamá asks to stroke my belly. I sit on the sofa and with her gentle and loving voice she says things to Teresita. Manuel’s mom, in contrast, is given to calling all the time to find out how I am, where I am, what I’m eating, how I feel, and anything she can think of to ask me.
I have insomnia. I spend the nights awake, in bed. I look at the ceiling with my hands over little Teresita. I can’t think about anything else. I can’t understand how in a world in which there occur things that still seem wondrous to me—like renting a car in one country and returning it in another, defrosting from the freezer a fresh fish that died thirty days before, or paying bills without leaving home—a matter so trivial as a small change in the organization of facts can’t be solved. I simply can’t resign myself to that.
Then I abandon the social services directory and I search out other alternatives. I talk with obstetricians, with healers, and even with a shaman. Someone gives me the number of a midwife and I talk with her on the phone. But each one in his way offers conformist or perverse solutions that have nothing to do with what I’m looking for. It’s difficult to accept the idea of receiving Teresita so soon, but I don’t want to hurt her, either. And then I run across Dr. Weisman.
His office is on the last floor of an old building downtown. He doesn’t have a secretary or a waiting room. Just a small entry hall, and two rooms. Weisman is very friendly, he ushers us in and offers us coffee. During the conversation he becomes especially interested in what type of family we are, in our parents, in our marriage, in the particular relationships among every one of us. We answer everything he asks about. Weisman intertwines his fingers and rests his hands on his desk, he seems pleased by our profile. He tells us some things about his background, the success of his research and what he can offer us, but he understands that he doesn’t need to convince us, and he moves on to explain the treatment. Every so often I look at Manuel: he listens attentively, nods, seems enthusiastic. The plan includes changes in diet, in sleep, breathing exercises, medicine. He’s going to have to talk with Mamá and Papá, and with Manuel’s mom; their role is also important. I note everything down in my notebook, point by point.
“And what guarantee do we have with this treatment?” I ask.
“We’ve got what we need for everything to turn out fine,” says Weisman.
The next day Manuel stays home. We sit at the living room table, surrounded by schedules and papers, and we begin to work. We note down as accurately as possible how things have been going from the moment we suspected that Teresita had jumped the gun. We sit our parents down and we’re clear with them: the issue is settled, the treatment’s begun, and there’s nothing to discuss. Papá is about to ask something but Manuel interrupts him:
“You have to do what we tell you,” he says—I understand how he feels: we take this seriously and we expect the same from the others—“when we tell you.”
They’re worried and I think that they simply can’t understand what’s going on, but they commit to following our instructions and each one returns home with a list.
When the first ten days conclude things are going a bit more smoothly. I take my three daily pills on schedule and observe each session of “conscious breathing.” Conscious breathing is a fundamental part of the treatment. It’s an innovative method of relaxation and concentration, discovered and taught by Weisman himself. In the yard, on the grass, I concentrate on contact with “the earth’s moist womb.” I begin inhaling once and exhaling twice. I prolong the time until I inhale for five seconds and exhale for eight. After several days of exercise I inhale for ten and exhale for fifteen, and then I move to the second level of conscious breathing and I begin to feel the direction of my energies. Weisman says that that’s going to take me a bit longer, but he insists that the exercise is within my reach, that I have to keep working. There comes a moment when it’s possible to visualize the speed at which the energy circulates in the body. One feels a sort of gentle tickling, which generally begins in the lips, the hands and the feet. Then one begins to control it: one must lessen the rhythm, slowly. The goal is to stop it completely in order to, little by little, reverse the direction of the circulation.
Manuel can’t be very affectionate with me yet. He has to be faithful to the lists we made and therefore, until a month and a half from now, he has to stay away from me, talk only when necessary and come home late some nights. He scrupulously fulfills his part but I know him, I know that, secretly, he’s already better, and he’s dying to hug me and tell me how much he misses me. But that’s how things have to be done for now; we can’t risk deviating from the script for one second.
After a month I continue to progress with the conscious breathing. Now I almost feel that I can manage to stop the energy. Weisman says that it won’t be long, that all it takes is a bit more effort. He increases the dosage of the pills. I begin to notice that my anxiety diminishes and I eat a little less. Following the first item on his list, Manuel’s mother makes her best effort and tries, gradually—this last point is important and we repeatedly stress it to her—gradually, I was saying, to make fewer calls to our house and reduce her anxiousness to talk about Teresita all the time.
The second is, perhaps, the month of changes. My body is no longer so swollen, and to the surprise and happiness of both of us, my belly begins to diminish. This change, so notable, alerts our parents a bit. Perhaps it’s now that they understand, or intuit, what the treatment is about. Manuel’s mother, in particular, appears to fear the worst and, although she makes an effort to stay on the sidelines and follow her list, I feel her fear and her doubts and I’m afraid that this is affecting the treatment.
I sleep better at night, and now I don’t feel so depressed. I tell Weisman about my progress with the conscious breathing. He is enthusiastic, it seems that I’m about to achieve my energy inversion: close, so close that only a hair separates me from the objective.
The third month, the second to last, begins. It’s the month that our parents are going to have the biggest role; we’re anxious to see that they keep their word and that everything turns out perfect, and they do it, they do it well, and we’re grateful. Manuel’s mother comes to the house one afternoon and asks to take back the colored sheets that she had brought for Teresita. Maybe because she had thought about this detail for so long, she asks me for a bag to wrap up the package. I brought it like that, she says, in a bag, so that’s how I should take it back, and she winks at us. Then it’s my parents’ turn. They also come for their gifts, they ask for them one by one: first the towel with the piqué hood, then the booties of pure cotton, and last the washable diaper changing table with the Velcro strap. I wrap them up. Mamá asks to stroke my belly for the last time. I sit on the sofa, she sits down next to me, and talks in a gentle and loving voice. She strokes my belly and says, this is my Teresita, how I’m going to miss my Teresita, and I don’t say anything, but I know that, if she could have, if she hadn’t had to stick to the list, she would’ve cried.
The days of the last month pass quickly. Manuel can now get closer and the truth is that his company does me good. We stand in front of the mirror and laugh. The feeling is completely the opposite of what one feels upon undertaking a trip. It’s not the joy of leaving, but that of staying. It’s as if to the best year of your life you added another one, under the same conditions. It’s the chance to continue without a break.
I’m much less swollen. This makes it easier to be active and raises my spirits. I make my last visit to Weisman.
“The time is coming,” he says, and pushes the preserving bottle across the table toward me. It’s frozen, and it has to stay that way, that’s why I brought the cooler, as Weisman recommended. I have to keep it in the freezer when I get home. I pick it up: the liquid inside is transparent but thick, like a bottle of colorless syrup.
One morning, during a session of conscious breathing, I manage to make it to the last level: I breathe slowly, my body feels the earth’s moistness and the energy that envelopes it. I breathe once, again, again, and then everything stops. Energy appears to materialize around me and I can distinguish the exact moment in which, little by little, it begins to circulate in the opposite direction. It’s a purifying, rejuvenating sensation, as if water or air returned of their own accord to the place in which they were once contained.
When the day arrives. It’s marked on the calendar on the refrigerator; Manuel circled it in red when we returned from Weisman’s office the first time. I don’t know when it will happen, I’m worried. Manuel is home. I’m lying on the bed. I hear him walking up and down, restless. He touches my belly. It’s a normal belly, a belly like that of any other woman, I mean, it’s not like the belly of a pregnant woman. On the contrary, Weisman says that the treatment was very intense: I’m a little anemic, and much thinner than before this business with Teresita began.
I wait all morning and all afternoon locked in my room. I don’t want to eat, or go out, or talk. Manuel pops his head in every so often and asks how I am. I imagine that Mamá must be climbing the walls, but they know that they can’t call or come by to see me.
Now it’s been a while that I’ve been feeling nauseous. My stomach burns and throbs harder all the time, as if it were going to explode. I have to tell Manuel, but I try to get up and I can’t, I hadn’t realized how dizzy I was. I have to tell Manuel so that he can call Weisman. I manage to get up, I feel dizzy. I let myself sink to the ground and I wait a second on my knees. I think about conscious breathing but my head is now somewhere else. I’m scared. I fear that something could turn out bad and we’ll hurt Teresita. Maybe she knows what’s happening, maybe all this is really bad. Manuel enters the room and runs to me.
“I just want to leave it for later . . .” I tell him, “I don’t want . . .”
I want to tell him to leave me here lying on the floor, that it doesn’t matter, that he run and speak with Weisman, that everything turned out bad. But I can’t speak. My body trembles, I don’t have control over it. Manuel kneels next to me, he takes my hands, he speaks to me but I don’t listen to what he says. I feel that I’m going to vomit. I cover my mouth. He seems to react, he leaves me alone and runs toward the kitchen. He isn’t gone more than a few seconds: he returns with the disinfected glass and the plastic container that says “Dr. Weisman.” He breaks the safety seal on the container, pours the translucent contents into the glass. Once again I feel like vomiting, but I can’t, I don’t want to: not yet. I heave, again, and again, each heave more violent than the last, they begin to leave me breathless. For the first time I think about the possibility of death. I think about that for an instant and now I can’t breathe. Manuel looks at me, he doesn’t know what to do. The heaves are interrupted and something clogs my throat. I close my mouth and take Manuel by the wrist. Then I feel something small, the size of an almond. I settle it on my tongue, it’s fragile. I know what I have to do but I can’t do it. It’s an unmistakable sensation that I will retain until needed in a few years. I look at Manuel, who appears to let me take the time I need. She’ll wait for us, I think. She’ll be all right: until the right moment. Then Manuel brings the preserving glass near, and finally, gently, I spit her out.
Translation of “Conservas.” From Pajaros en la Boca. Copyright 2009 by Samanta Schweblin. By arrangement with Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells. Translation copyright 2010 by Joel Streicker. All rights reserved.