Story no. 18.
My husband spends most of his evenings working on the literary magazine for which he is assistant editor.
Leina, one of my friends, asked him about it once: “Doesn’t it bother you – when you care so much about literature – to work as a censor?”
He shrugged. We were eating dinner, and he forked another caramelized root vegetable (he had done the shopping, and I didn’t recognize the plant) into his mouth. “I think of it more like quality control.”
“Really?” Leina sounded like she was being strangled.
“Really.” Hassur took another bite and smiled thinly at her.
“All right,” said Veseyech from the other side of the table. “But have you ever blocked a good piece – a really quality piece – from being published, because its ideas contradicted governmental standards?”
“Certainly.” Hassur switched his attention to the fried bean curd. I had been in charge of that, so I knew more or less what was in it. “Wen, this is really lovely.”
“Thank you.” He smiled at me, and I smiled back.
“You’re selling out on your principles,” Leina told me brusquely the next day, when we met for lunch.
“Yes,” I said, nodding. “I suppose I am.”
“And for what? So you can be more comfortable? So you can have a few more credits every month? How many credits is your integrity worth?”
I thought about Hassur’s body curled around mine, his fingers woven through my hair. “A lot. Or none at all. I’m not sure.”
That night I opened the apartment door to the smell of an omelette cooking.
“Love?” I called. “I thought it was my turn to cook?”
“It was,” he said, emerging from the kitchen. His eyebrows knit themselves together over a tentative smile. “I wanted to talk to you about something, and usually you’re a bit distracted when you cook – “
“This must be serious,” and I was laughing, but he looked yet more anxious and tender.
“Yes,” he said gravely. “It is serious.”
“What happened?” I said, pausing with my scarf half-unwrapped. “Is everything all right? Did someone call?” Please let it not be Mom or Dad, I thought. I had been trying to get another travel permit for the past eight months, but it had not yet received the proper stamps. My father’s heart was not bad – but his father’s heart had not been good –
“Serious but not bad,” Hassur said, and he reached out to take my hand and lead me into the kitchen.
There were two government-issue paperwork tablets lying on the kitchen table, just to one side of the place settings. The one on the right was in Karakanae script. The one on the left had the screen split into two windows, the originally issued document on the left and the translation in Roman letters on the right.
I traced the first few lines with my fingertip. I looked at the Karakanae script, which I still struggled to read. I looked back at the translation.
“This is an application for – for – ‘to assume legal responsibility for the growth, nurture, and education of a child,’” I said finally, looking up at Hassur.
“Yes,” he said, hopeful, still tender.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s the first step,” he said. “If this application is accepted, we will have the choice to apply for a one-year cessation of birth control or to begin adoption procedures.”
“You want to have a baby,” I said, feeling dazed.
He nodded, his lips pressed very hard together.
I sat down on the kitchen table and slowly finished unbuttoning my overcoat, then my undercoat, then my uniform shirt, until I was wearing only my undershirt. My husband (my husband!) slid the omelette onto a third plate and set it in the center of the table.
“It smells lovely,” I said, nodding at the plate. “Thank you.”
He nodded and began serving slices of eggs on each plate. We ate without speaking.
“Hassur,” I said, when I’d eaten two pieces, “I don’t think I would be a very good mother.”
“The question is rather if you want to be a mother,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said, and suddenly I was choking. “What – what about the literature magazine? Will you have time for that anymore?”
“Perhaps we don’t have to jump ahead quite so far yet,” he said quietly. “If all of the applications are successful, and whichever – process – we decide upon is successful, then I would likely take a leave of absence from the magazine.”
Whichever process. “I want to adopt,” I said. My hands were shaking and I sat on them. “If we do anything, I want to adopt.” It had taken me so long to accept being touched, and to give that up to process – I couldn’t look at his face when I said this. “How – how much time do we have, to decide this?”
“Well, you’re twenty-seven. Fertility drops off sharply in the late thirties, I believe. But the application process can take over a year.”
That’s not long enough!
I don’t want a child in my body. I don’t want a child on my breast. I don’t want my emotions and my blood and my tears to be hijacked – by – someone else. Someone else! I don’t want an infant grabbing my face my hair my ears my nose my eyes I don’t want to sell my life to someone who will never never value the way I want I I do do do I do I don’t want I don’t want no I do not want this
Hassur was shaking me gently and slowly when I came back to myself. “Wen. Wen. It’s all right. You’re all right. Take a deep breath.”
The next day I called Leina from the lobby of the firm where I built models and drafted construction documents. “I know it’s not our day to meet for lunch,” I said, trying to keep my voice low. “But I really need to talk to someone. Do you have the time?”
At lunch we sat in the park across from her office. Leina had been trying to make her living as a musician before the takeover – not very successfully, she had bitterly noted more than once – and now she was a secretary for a governmental division responsible for the shipping of goods. We had met in our Community Group, an arts-based instructional seminar. I suspected this particular CG was also geared toward individuals with a specific sort of psychiatric diagnosis, but I had never been brave enough to ask.
We ended up splitting my sandwich, as Leina had not managed to pack a lunch that morning. “What’s this about?” she said through a mouthful of whole-grain bread.
“It isn’t what you think,” I said. “I mean, I don’t think it’s what you think. Leina, do you want kids?”
“Do you want children?”
“Yes. No. Maybe.” She shrugged. “Kind of a moot point now, isn’t it?”
“It might not be moot – you might find – “
“No, I won’t.”
“But before the takeover – before the soldiers – when you were still a musician – did you want to have kids?”
Slowly she nodded her blonde head. “Yeah, I did. I had a boyfriend and we talked about it sometimes.”
“I never wanted kids,” I said, surprised at my own fierceness. “I never wanted to be like my mother. I never wanted to have to give up my whole life for someone who might grow up to be a serial killer or an insurance salesman or a banker. Who might not even like me.”
“Okay. But you don’t have to give up your whole life for them.” She licked crumbs from her fingertips. “My mother didn’t. She was a musician, too.”
“You have to give up big parts of it,” I said. “And I’m so tired most of the time that I don’t know if there’d be any time left to be me.”
“Yeah, well, the baby part sucks, but at least the kid is cute then,” she acknowledged.
“I’m scared that I’d end up hating the baby,” I said very quietly. “And then I’d have ruined my life and someone else’s life.”
“When you get overwhelmed, you ask for help.” Leina shrugged. “It’s not like I have other things to do. I’d come hold your brat for you. And you can hire childcare – wait. Wait. Does Hassur want to have kids?”
“Hassur wants kids. But you don’t.”
I slumped. “I’m not sure.”
“Don’t have kids with him,” Leina hissed. “He’s a fucking fascist.”
When I opened the door into the apartment it was quiet. Hassur was at the kitchen table, a pair of reading glasses perched at the end of his nose, a stylus in his right hand, leaning over a screen. The government paperwork tablets had disappeared.
“Any good stories today?” I asked.
“You’ll like this one,” he said, tapping the screen to make a note. “It’s about a woman who becomes a bear and walks on the moon.”
“Read it out loud to me,” I said, starting to undress. Imperial uniforms have so many layers.
He smiled, and flipped back to the beginning of the story. “Her fur was thick with ice, the pads of her feet leather-heavy . . . “
He read for two hours. The sun set outside the window. I stood on the other side of the table and watched his face.
When he finished, I leaned forward and took both of his hands. He dropped the tablet and looked up at me over the lenses of his glasses.
“Hassur, ask me again about the baby in spring,” I said. “I don’t know the answer right now.”