Transcript 2001 - 2014

48 Hours

By Maarja Kangro
Translated into English by Susan Wilson
Theme: Estonia
Standard text | Formatted text

For all the women with problems of this ilk
and the good men who help them

I gazed at the suspended ceiling, the glimmering doorway and the pale lamplight next to the monitor. So many had been here, gazing at that ceiling, and it struck me that there should be something painted on it. It would obviously have to be of something wholly unrelated. Or of nothing at all, at least nothing figurative. Jackson Pollock-esque drips and splatters or the like would be out of the question – they would be perceived as mocking, given all the stuff that this place …

“But the thing I want to show you,” said the doctor, turning the ultra-sound monitor towards me, “is an ovum. In the right ovary, it looks very mature. As if it’s just about to be released.”

The dim room gained keener outlines.

“That’s interesting, I did an ovulation test yesterday and it didn’t show anything. My LH level should have gone up already.”

“Well, if it doesn’t happen today then it’ll definitely be tomorrow.”

“OK.”

I was in a bit of a spin. It was definitely what I wanted to hear. I had indeed done an ovulation test the day before; I had expected it to be positive and had felt a bit alarmed when the two stripes didn’t turn pink. Anyhow, I’d split with my latest regular partner a couple of months previously. I had no-one to take home to “do the baby dance” with safely (I’d discovered the expression to do the baby dance on the online forums). What came into my mind now, replacing dance, were metaphors for aggression. Mobilisation, military campaign, hunt. Small wonder. What the doctor was saying boomed out like an order to assume action stations.

“Right,” said the doctor with a happy, falling intonation signifying the end of the consultation, and I got up. The doctor offered me some tissues, I wiped off the ultrasound gel and put my strawberry-patterned knickers on.

I took the piece of paper from the doctor and mechanically looked at what the attractive nurse had tapped into the computer about my case. I remembered the days when my year of birth used to be one of the most recent on the gynaecologist’s list. That was no longer the case.

I looked at my watch. It said 11.35.

I left the clinic and saw a whole crowd of people mingling in the sun. Their trajectories appeared to be astonishingly constant from one day to the next: a murderer would find it easy to intercept any one of them. And yet, the air around us is apparently open in many directions. Sometimes the available directions of movement are a full 360°. If we stand with our backs against a wall then, everything else being equal, they can still be 180°. I could cross the car park, fling myself down under a tree and start calling to people for help. I could procure a visa, buy a ticket and travel to Rio de Janeiro to see an old friend. Get lost there or start a new life. Maybe I could drive to Latvia for a few days and look up friends there, or conversely I could, by way of therapy, endeavour to hide in Latvia for a while behind a fictitious persona and a fictitious history. But I won’t do it right now, and so far I haven’t done it this summer or previously. Chances. Most of them are dying all the time, and most of them probably don’t really exist, do they?

“You’ve had a chance.” You have a chance. I repeated the depressing words to myself a few times.

Lots of people were on the move that Friday morning.

I got into the car, which was as hot as an oven. I didn’t have time to wait for the air-con, I opened the windows and set off. I sorted a couple of things out and even went to a meeting, although it was very difficult to concentrate. I failed to pay enough attention or to give an impression of alertness, and had to ask the same things several times over: “Just a minute, what time was it on Friday? Just a minute, did you say that you’ve already invited him to speak?” I smiled stupidly; much as I would have liked to distinguish myself for my business-like qualities, it couldn’t be helped.

A couple of hours later I drove home to one of the increasingly ghettoised Soviet-era new city districts that appeared particularly distressed on bright summer days. The trees were green, of course, the grass mown and the bushes yellow with flowers. The façades and sides of several board houses had been insulated as if it would make them merrier, young families strolled with their children and dogs. However, my impression of the district in summer was of an airless, virtual environment reminiscent of the old SimCity games.

As I passed the men walking along without a woman. I slowed and eyed them carefully. Two old men with a dog. Old men moved in a laboured way; their breath probably smelled no better. A crowd of boys, 14 or 15 years old at most, in a group, boys protected by the law. A large man, as fat as a seal, who was talking on his mobile and moved as if on flippers. Hey, little seal. You must already have kids somewhere: do they move on flippers like you? Is seal-ness carried in the dominant allele of a particular gene? A nicely shaved man of 30-35 was moving under the poplar trees. Black tracksuit trousers, a black T-shirt, flat, receding forehead, broad chin, self-absorbed expression. I considered his features. In the irresponsibly racist 19th century he might have been a healthy specimen representing a particular type for physiognomists, phrenologists and craniologists. I tried to imagine myself reborn as Cesare Lombroso, meeting this Hunk. Lambroso, the father of criminal anthropology, believed that hereditary criminality was expressed physically in an individual’s atavistic physiology. His own head was now supposedly swimming in formaldehyde in a Turin museum but the thoughts once produced in that head sprung up in other heads again and again. Including in mine. I wanted to consider myself a great liberal but when I saw that hunk I thought, no way, yet still thought it was wholly appropriate to think like that.

When I was at school we were told that this kind of physique could be an indication of an XYY chromosome, with its attendant tendency to criminality. Nowadays the XYY-chromosome brigade have been liberated from suspicion of criminality. But when I was at school, those kinds of theories were still current, for example the idea that humans, who are such complex beings, each had over 100 000 genes. Nowadays we are thought to have maybe around 21 500 genes, slightly fewer than a mouse. Concerning inherited criminality, research has shown that the genetic correlation is apparently in crimes against property than in serious crimes against persons.

The bloke in the tracksuit began staring at me. I looked back at him, waved and filled her up.

I unlocked the door, washed my hands, drank a glass of tomato juice and pepper and did an ovulation test. Oh. You see. I recognised the result that had excited me when I was in more established relationships and now startled me in its definiteness. Both stripes were dark pink. My poor pituitary gland, more precisely my adenohypophysis, had indeed begun producing LH, the luteinising hormone that triggered ovulation and converted the residual follicle into a corpus luteum which produces the progesterone necessary for implantation into the endometrium. “The two most likely days on which to become pregnant begin on the day when the LH level surges” it said on the test packet. I now had around 48 hours, in fact slightly less as the actual surge in LH might have been several hours previously. I had to mobilise right now.

I’d leafed through a collection of Estonian folk songs once and found this one, originating in Vaivara:

“I slept with a hundred men called Madi,

a thousand called Toomas,

several others named Mihkel –

no child did I bear,

there’s no babe at my breast.”

There were a number of variations on this song and they formed a separate section in the collection. To my mind they were, in a manner of speaking, a solidary greeting from the past. Just ignore the fact that the songs tended to end with the unexpected arrival of a sickly child being dandled in a lap; I haven’t managed that bit so far.

I had, of course, taken pains to prevent pregnancy. But shortly before my thirtieth birthday I decided I didn’t want to put it off any longer and I had already attempted to have a child with several men. The doctors assured me that everything was OK, that there was no reason why it shouldn’t happen. But it didn’t. and I was becoming increasingly anxious; relationships with men were becoming increasingly strained and bitter, each new cycle felt like the “last chance”. The chubby babies pictured on the packets of the ovulation tests riled me more and more, I felt like drawing horns, beards and glasses on them.

People like me were rebuked in public and in the media. Stories about population growth did not affect me much, of course; having a child “for the motherland” would have been positively perverse – although I understood the culturally sentimental regard for “things Estonian”: I understood that people might be genuinely saddened by the idea that many a grandmother’s farmhouse, although much loved, might not exist two hundred years hence. Our poor, dear Estonian language, our poor, dear identity. Yet the idea that immigrants might have to earn pensions for our generation did not appear to be an alarming prospect. I was naturally fully supportive of the decision of women who did not plan to have children. Sometimes I thought how easy it would be to be one of them. But I was not.

And I knew plenty who from the outside seemed to be the no-children-for-me-please type, who perhaps even gloated about the fact but who had actually already spent a lot of time trying. My view was that the unsuccessful non-mothers and non-fathers were emotionally entitled to beat up the sociologists and economics researchers whingeing about population growth when they started to play on people’s emotions and reprimand the childless. Should demographers therefore, in the interests of political correctness, be required to include in their fact-based projections an observation to the effect that “we do not wish to cause offence to anyone who has not yet managed to have a child”? This would obviously be regarded as laughable. It was in the nature of things that people would get hurt. But it was just as much in the nature of things – bad luck – that some inconsiderate people harping on about population growth would get beaten up.

When splitting up, I’d pondered donor insemination and in vitro fertilisation, but I was afraid it would be emotionally overwhelming. The thought of being completely alone at the moment of reproduction (OK, with doctors, but do they count?) and of being unable to point out your future child’s biological father seemed very sad.

As for adoption, I believed for some reason that the powers that be wouldn’t give me a foreign child. That was one thing. Another thing was that despite everything, I would, why hide it, feel that “this isn’t the one”. No, how could he or she be the real one? It is thought that we (humans) all share around 99% of our genes, (a while ago the figure was thought to be higher, 99.9%, but it was later established that the number of copies of genes could be larger than one from each parent). A friend of mine said this large overlap of genes meant that all humans are really “one and the same creature”. Nevertheless, what I wanted was my own “creature” who would share the alleles of the different genes with me. I believed I would be more steadfast in my feelings toward the child and would be capable of a genuine attachment to him or her even if he or she betrayed me: this would not, at least in my own eyes, take the attachment to absurdity. I did of course recognise that loving a part of oneself just because it is part of yourself might in certain respects seem extremely absurd (my goodness – what a dreadful nature-based idea, never mind about nurture!). But unfortunately that was exactly how I felt, and I believed that I was not alone in feeling that way. I would not have allowed anyone who had children to raise any objections on the matter.

As a matter of fact the question why people really want their own child was hard to answer without ultimately resorting to bio-essentialism or ego-eugenics or indulging in power games. Perhaps I too wanted to become a powerful ancestor who was able to produce at least one lasting heir before meeting her end. Perhaps I wanted to be a proud link in the chain handed down from the “mitochondrial Eves”, I wanted the potential “little creature” to have my mitochondrial DNA, not another woman’s. Think of the world two hundred years hence in the knowledge that you have children. And then in the knowledge that you don’t. For me the differences in each emotional outlook were stark.

As I thought about the matter at length I came to the view that the question “why have children” was so revealing and had so many deep-seated layers that it would be indiscreet to broach it with another person.

But now I had to mobilise.

First I wondered whether Dario, my ultimately-even-so-weathers-all-storms friend, might be available for the 48 hours. Dario was an introvert, quiet, good looking with attractive, large eyes, a gift for art, great spatial awareness, a kind nature and a social democratic mindset. The idea of following him out to Italy on a plane felt like a panic reaction; but I consulted the Estonian Air website anyway. Yes. When I entered today’s date for flight departures I got the message: “The following error(s) occurred: The date selected for your flight departure is too soon. Valid dates are from 10 hours to 10 months.” I could have flown business class to Milan the next day with Estonian Air on a single ticket for 7334 Estonian kroons. I would have landed at 16.50, or 17.50 Estonian time. By flying via Copenhagen I could have arrived earlier and more cheaply, for 4100 Estonian kroons at 10.50. Bloody hell – really? I sent Dario a text. “How are things? What are you up to at the moment? Fancy a short break maybe?:)”

I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I made some herbal lemon and ginger green tea that I’d bought in the eco-shop.

Before very long I heard the beeping of a text message alert from the other room. Wa-hey. We’ll soon see. What a strange interim phase this was: the good or bad, the yes or no were always preceded by phatic beeps. The pure sound of contact. The sound of someone’s existence.

“I’m with Mum and Pietro in a chalet in Switzerland, at least there’s some air here. Really needed the holiday! Elio concert tomorrow eve in Lugano. What’ve you been up to? XXX!”

OK. Chalet. Mum and Pietro. The chances were just about zero. I could forget the absurd idea of a baby-making flight. I suddenly thought about the poet, the Egyptian living in Finland who I’d had a brief relationship with at a recent festival. He was always very willing and would occasionally send emails saying we could have more fun together. Would I manage to get hold of him this evening? Hook him out of the bosom of his family for an hour or two, coax him into a cheap hotel somewhere? He was 49 and his fourth child had recently been born, so his sperm had to have been good to go only a year ago. But however willing he might be, if I now began to snatch at him in a panic he might well be frightened off for ever. I thought again about my ex living in Berlin who now had a mature girlfriend of forty and a heap of moral principles instead of a hippy liberal outlook. No. Any landing on foreign territory would be unreasonable.

I had a slurp of eco-tea and stuffed a large handful of hazelnuts into my mouth, pulverising them quickly without enjoying the flavour. Then I picked the phone up again.

Contacts. Aare H. Aare P. Aare T. Aigar Remont. Aivar R. Ain K. Aleksei Metall. Alan M. Alar S. Alessandro. Alessandro Corriere. Alessandro Diario. Anders G… I scrolled through the address book and back and noticed my heart beginning to pound as I paused over a certain man’s name. I could almost see his khaki T-shirt pulsating at my back. My poor body had to tolerate the supremacy of emotions and obsession. The poor, innocent numbers behind my friends’ names guessed nothing at all and exposed themselves to me, ready to be converted into signals at my touch. My friends. My friends?

I was suddenly struck how strangely delicate surface friendship is. A foil of conventional ice that is easily broken. I was afraid that by my suggestion I might tread somewhere where the surface of the friendship would wear away, that I might exceed the conditions that bind the cherished state. I was afraid to discover that friendship does not extend beyond a specific boundary line. What about the presumption that I would not ask someone to share his physicality with me, could that be the boundary line? Could friendship ultimately nevertheless presume a measure of comfort? We are friends because we are comfortable together. The image that so many people had of me would have to change with my proposal. It inevitably had to reveal that I was in a crisis. A friend in a crisis will no longer be the person with the qualities that were part of his or her original appeal… Well, what of it. In point of fact I hadn’t yet called anyone or made my proposal, so there were no real data on my friends’ reactions. Experiment is more valuable than speculation! I pressed the keypad with my thumb and scrolled through the list of contacts.

Javier? Two years previously I’d had a month-long affair with Javier. He was doing post-graduate violin studies, and wanted to get his doctorate as a violinist. He wrote combinatorial poems, his chest and back were covered with long, straight black hair, and he hadn’t been anything special in bed. Basically he liked to talk about his own creations and when describing a new creative idea he was apt to pause emphatically in the middle of vital activities, for example half-way through making a curry sauce, opening a bottle of wine or taking his trousers off. Javier had flashing brown eyes, reasonably good looks, good teeth, a very good ear, boundless energy, wolf-black hair and underneath it the hint of a tendency to baldness. I looked at his name and number: on the Elisa network. I put my finger on the green button, and breathed in and out deeply. Nothing to lose, give it a go!

“Hallo, hallo! What a surprise! What a lovely surprise, I mean!”

“Hi.”

“Ciao, T. Lovely to hear from you!”

“Mm, yeah. How’s things?”

“Oh, really good, thanks! I’ve just been to Amsterdam for an alternative art festival, I presented my own songs with violin and voice modulation. Don’t want to boast, but I think you could call it a triumph”

“Wow. Cool.”

“Oh, I’ve got to talk to you, I’ve got several new methods of creating works. One’s the spherical technique.”

“You told me about it once.”

“Oh, did I? Well there’s the triad-hexagon technique and perhaps the most exciting one is the osmosis technique. Yeah, osmosis is definitely the most exciting.”

“Right. Great. Listen, what do you think? Can we go and have a glass of wine and talk about the hexagon and osmosis thing?”

“Absolutely. Look, I’ll have to show you one of the pieces that’s been constructed like Sierpinski’s triangle: the small structures are exactly the same as the large ones! Oh, you’ve really got to see. Or hear, rather, although it ultimately goes beyond vibrations audible to the human ear. A vast, ethereal, head-spinning work! Then there’s the triad-derived hexagon, in certain respects it’s a dialectic figure, the constant, reciprocal transformation of triads …”

“About 6-ish in Noku? What d’you think?”

The only sound from the phone was something like a murmured “mm”, a rustling, silence and then more rustling.

“Hallo? Javier? Hallo-oo? Are you there?”

Rustling.

“Javier?”

Now I heard something like the crackling of a breeze, and through it Javier’s high-pitched voice, blowing cold.

“Yeah, that would be great, a glass of wine anyway. But I’ve got a bit of a problem.”

“Yees?”

“My girlfriend’s here.”

“Ahaa.”

I was speechless. Javier had a girlfriend? Since when? Where had he found someone patient enough to want to hear about his enthusiasm for all that osmosis and spherical stuff? And what was he like in bed with her, had he started focusing more on someone else’s body?

“It’s a problem, yeah. But I must talk to you about my method.”

“Well, perhaps another time.”

“Look, you can do almost everything with the method. I’ve been thinking about combining the techniques, creating a method of hexagonal osmosis.”

“Hmm.”

“By the way, all you have to do is find the elements of reciprocal correlation. Then all the arts can be combined with each other. Oh yeah, I took Bach’s violin concerto in A minor as the starting point and composed poetry for voice from it, you’ve got to hear it!”

“Mhmm. Some time, perhaps. I must let you go and enjoy the rest of the evening and…”

“Doesn’t it sound beautiful? Hexagonal osmotics?”

I looked at the silver second hand of my watch.

“Certainly does. Right, listen, have a good evening!”

“Thank you so, so much for calling! We’ll definitely talk soon. About the spherical technique as well because things have moved on in that area, and …”

“Yeah. Great work!”

“Thanks! Ciao, have a good evening, T.!”

I put the phone down. Perhaps that was the way to go, the osmotics of standing sentry. But at least I’d escaped hearing about his new methods.

I went and made some more tea, watched the water turn a beautiful pale green and picked up the phone again.

Paap. Yes, of course. Why not.

Paap was a married colleague that I’d had a passionate romance with a few years previously. He was good-looking with beautiful large eyes, tone-deaf, good-natured, humorous and generally had good powers of pattern recognition. Vain, but endearingly shy. I could talk to him frankly about the issue, without the constant ceremonial of “shall we go to the cinema”, or “shall we have a glass of wine”.

“Hi, can you talk? It’s something really urgent and private. Speak soon.”

Right. Send. Press the green button! I wondered whether I should delete the “hi”: it somehow leaves too cheerful and carefree an impression, might he think that the matter wasn’t serious? But a degree of familiarity might increase the credibility of the message still further. Yes, che sarà sarà.

I pressed the button. The blue arrow began to flicker in an upward motion on the screen; a second later the words “message sent” appeared.

I sat down for a while and drank my tea. I switched the TV on and watched the BBC news. Barack Obama had to go to Ghana on a trip. Schoolchildren were talking about the President some time before his visit. A journalist came into the classroom and asked, “Who’s coming to visit you?” The small, polite children happily replied, “Barack Obama.” The journalist cupped his ear in his hand like a pop star idiotically trying to whip up the masses, and said: “I can’t hear you!”, forcing the children to yell out the President’s name.

Paap still hadn’t answered. Curious. Perhaps he didn’t have his phone on him.

Then I thought about Meelis. Yes, why not? Meelis was my childhood sweetheart who had been stolen from me by a friend but still appeared on my horizon from time to time. Slight depressive tendency, but a good sense of the absurd. I’d heard that his current wife was in a madhouse.

“Hello, sweetie:) Long time no see. Feel like catching up? Will tell you more when I see you. Cheers.”

Send! No. Send now! My heart was pounding again. What if Paap surfaces in the meantime? He was dearer to me. So don’t send. No. Yes. Send! All the dice must be cast. I pressed the green button and sat for a while, as if paralysed, goggling at the TV. What were they on about? I heard sounds and made out coloured blotches. My self-centredness did not allow the pictures and story to take shape. Oh, shame. People were dying and how. It was Afghanistan, they were talking about the number of British soldiers who had been killed.

(c) JÅri J Dubov _04